Ronald W. Adams
Lying there in that hospital bed, the old man looked pathetic. Eddie stood over him, full of scorn. Not so tough now, are you? Some big friggin’ deal you turned out to be. He could feel his loathing turn to rage, but managed to keep it in check. The old bastard was just lying there with this stupid-assed look on his face. Monitor lights blipped in silent rhythm overhead, while an intravenous bag dripped a kaleidoscope of fluids into his lifeless arm. The guy in the next bed didn’t look any better, but nobody looks too swift in intensive care. The old man had bandages on his left shoulder, the side of his neck, and more on the front of his chest. He was a shell of his former self, and that was the thing Eddie hated most.
In his day, the guy was fearless, ruthless, and the most sadistic son of a bitch in the old neighborhood. You cross him, and if you’re lucky you’ll get your thumb broken, maybe your kneecaps busted. The old man would think nothin’ of takin’ out the trash. That’s what he called it. He’d tell his boys it was like any other chore around the house. Enough trash in the can and ya gotta dump it. Lucky for him and his boys there was a little jetty off Tift Street he could dump the trash whenever he needed to.
Eddie closed his eyes, and remembered the day the old man married his wife. The morning of the wedding, the old man had one of his boys drag a guy out to the nature preserve. The body was found later, almost a year to the day. The bullet holes in both kneecaps and one in the middle of his forehead told the cops - who found the body while they were out looking for another one - the poor bastard screwed with the wrong man. As far as anyone would say, Eddie was getting married and had nothing to do with it. In the Old First Ward, everyone knew. He knew the old man liked to take care of his business.
Not long after his son was born, the guy walked into Callahan’s Pub, passing out cigars and buying whiskey for the bar. When it came time to settle the bill, he grabbed the bartender and dragged him over the bar. Glasses and bottles shattered as the poor man landed through the nearest table. His forehead was split wide open, and the blood poured down his face and soaked his previously snow white shirt. The red liquid pooled around the man’s knees as he struggled to get back up.
“Just who the hell do you think you’re talkin’ to?” the guy shouted at the broken barkeep. “You forgettin’ who owns this part of town? I should be chargin’ you to stay open. This is my God-damned neighborhood, and don’t none of you ever forget it!”
Eddie closed his eyes, rubbing them. That guy was one mean nasty son-of-a-bitch, no doubt about it. He stood and stretched, walking gingerly around the room. He stepped over to the window to a gray, dreary sky. The heavy clouds formed a ceiling over the city, and large snowflakes began to flutter past, reminding him of the coming season. He leaned forward to look down to the street, to the cars and the people moving back and forth. The sound from the street was muffled, as were the sounds coming from the hallway outside the door. He stepped through the doorway, looking up and down the long antiseptic hallway. There were muffled voices, and something that sounded like chirping birds. He heard the padded footfalls of people walking on the hard linoleum floor. It all sounded like his head was wrapped in one of those thick towels his wife loved. Ex-wife, that is.
She just took off one night. Ten years of marriage and she just left. He probably said something or did something, but who can tell with broads, ya know? He got over it, even had a little fun once he got past the anger. But people don’t just go missing without somebody wondering where they are. He called the cops, and they came and checked her stuff out, even checked Eddie out, for a while, but, she never came back, and the cops figured he didn’t have anything to do with her taking off. Eddie hadn’t thought about her in years. Funny he would think about her now. She never liked the old bastard in the bed beside him, and here he was, with a guy they both hated, thinking of her.
The sound of a long steady tone coming from the old man’s room brought him out of his daydream. He stepped back into the room to look at the monitor over the bed, a long, flat, green line streaking across the bottom. He watched it, hoping to see it bounce up, a blip, something. He had seen enough friends and enemies die to know this wasn’t good. He felt the nurses and a couple of doctors breeze past him to the old man dying in his bed. Instead of doing anything, they were standing there, watching the man draw his last breath.
What is wrong with these people? A man is dying and they’re just standing there? He walked up behind the nurse, looking over her shoulder at the clipboard she was carrying. He saw the words ‘Advance Directive’ in bold type, with the words Do Not Resuscitate underneath. He knew what that meant. The doctors figured whatever was wrong with the old man, he wasn’t worth saving if things went sour. They were probably right. Judging from the way they shut the monitors off and filed out the door, the old man must have thought so, too.
One nurse stayed behind, the one with the clipboard. She put it down, face up on the bedside table, and went about the grim task of disconnecting the old man from the tangle of wires and IV lines. Eddie walked over to the table, looked down and started reading the form the nurse consulted. He read the document all the way down to the signature line. In a panic, he read the signature again, and then flashed to the top of the form, where the patient’s name was printed. This had to be a mistake.
“Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me, lady?” he shouted at the nurse. “Is this some kind of twisted joke?”
The nurse kept up her final act of caring for her patient, oblivious to Eddie’s rants. The more he screamed, the less she seemed to pay attention. What the hell was going on here?
“Who put my name on that fucking piece of paper?” he demanded. Another nurse, Nancy according to her name tag came in the room, handing the first another sheet of paper just as she drew the sheet up over the old man’s head.
“You’re the last one to sign, Kim, then Gannon will be here to pick him up,” said Nancy.
Kim signed the form and passed it right in front of Eddie to Nancy. Looking down, Eddie saw his own name on the certificate of death. He backed out of the room, shaking his head, screaming “Why won’t you people tell me what the hell is going on?!”
“They can’t hear you, Eddie,” said a soft voice from his left. Eddie spun briskly to see his ex-wife, smiling weakly at him. She looked exactly the same as she did when she left.
He nodded. “When did you get back?”
“Something’s wrong here, Maggie, something’s really wrong. I don’t understand…”
She shook her head at him.
“What? Where have you been?”
“You really don’t get it, do you? I haven’t been gone, Eddie, not at all. I’ve been with you all this time. Deep inside, you’ve always known where I was.”
“C’mon Maggs, I’m in no mood for goddamn riddles here.” Eddie started pacing in front of his wife.
“What do you remember about the last time you saw me, Eddie?”
He thought for a moment. “We were fightin’ about somethin’ stupid, I guess, but we fought sometimes. All couples fight.”
“How did our fight end, Eddie?”
His mind suddenly cleared. He remembered hitting her with his fist, the force of the blow driving her backwards off her feet and down the staircase, landing halfway down the stairs on the back of her head and neck. The sound of her pretty neck snapping was sickening, the position of her lifeless body at the foot of the stairs grotesque. There was no real blood, just a lifeless corpse of his wife to be cleaned up. He called his number two man to come to the house, her body already wrapped in a blanket and tarp. The two of them took the body to cornfields of Eden, burying her and saying the words of some old psalm as he shoveled the earth over her. His eyes grew wider than ever as he stared into the lifeless eyes of the woman he had murdered.
“That’s right, Eddie.”
“And I’m dead.”
“Yes,” she said.
Eddie stood still, life moving all around him, past him, through him. He looked over at Maggie, her slender frame blurred slightly, but looking for all the world the same as she did that night.
“Why are you here, Maggie?”
“I’ve come for you, Eddie. It’s time to move on.”
Tears filled his eyes. A sense of guilt and remorse filled his being, a feeling he was unprepared for. A soul-searing pain held him in it’s grip, and his eyes pleaded with Maggie for release.
“Come with me,” she said, holding her hand out to Eddie. She led him down the corridor of the hospital, past the patient rooms, past the nurse’s station. Maggie turned to the right, down a short hallway and
through a door and was enveloped in a golden white light. She held on to Eddie’s hand, and he could feel the gentle warmth and love coursing through her to him. And then, as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone. In her place was a feeling of loss, of despair, of utter hopelessness. He knew he could not follow her.
Behind him, not far down the other side of the hall, was his exit. With a feeling of dread, he approached the door, glowing all around in a searing red-orange light. As he drew closer, Eddie could smell the faint odor of sulfur, and heard the plaintive wailing of a million tortured souls. He understood, and accepted it. It was what he deserved. He exhaled, closed his eyes tight, and opened the door.