Before

This story was written for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge round 1; I was set the genre romance and needed to feature a nurse. 

Before
By Lauren McMenemy
Written in March 2013; 2500 words

When he slept, he looked so peaceful. He was no longer in pain – at least not visibly. Underneath that exterior, the angelic blonde curls and the too-pale skin, something was eating away at him from the inside.

Something unknown yet vicious. Terminal, they said.

Still, it was these times she most looked forward to. Times when he truly slept; none of this fitful coma-like “rest” that usually enveloped him. It was in those times of real sleep that she could pretend it was all like it used to be. Before.

At all other times, her world is consumed with wet cloths for his brow, tiny sips of water, attempts at small meals in those few waking moments, changing his sweat-soaked clothes every hour. Monitoring. Watching. Waiting.

That she was waiting for him to die she did not want to admit. She still had hope.

Still…

Still, it wasn’t an unfamiliar scenario. In his dull, unfocused eyes, in those moments that were rapidly taking over from his lucid ones, she could see their past. She could see all the way back to then, when the tables were turned. When the world was a more simple place, yet on the verge of the irrevocable change brought by the war.

Not all change was bad, mind. She had found him, and that changed her completely. So long ago…

“Darling,” she says, “remember for me. Remember when we met? You were so handsome then; such a vision. You still are, my love.”

Silent tears stroke her cheek as she strokes his matted hair, lost in her reverie of days before.

Before.

“Darling.” Her voice echoes in the room, bouncing off the old wooden floorboards, around the dusty bookcase, reflecting off the murky window of this attic room. A forgotten room, once, but now the only place to find her; by his side, as he withers in their old bed.

He stirs a little, and her voice catches in her throat. Every movement, every twitch, for her they come with the promise of what might be. Will this be the stirring that brings him back to her?

The hope, as always, fades as he does, back into his sleep.

“Darling, remember when we met? They didn’t think I would make it, do you remember? Mr Peters certainly didn’t think I would – I think he could see lawyers in my daddy’s eyes! Remember, my darling? He knocked me off my bike. Well, you wouldn’t remember that bit; we had not yet met. But we would, soon. You would save my life. And you would change my life, for good. Do you remember, my darling?”

In her mind, it was as if it were yesterday. She could still feel the jolt as the big car hit her side. She was only minutes from her childhood home, that ancient place with the orchard out the back, on her way home from the market. She was 17 when it happened; when her life changed. She remembered lying on the ground. The strange warmth of the blood on her forehead. The numbness in her legs. Twisted, broken on the ground, her bicycle beside her; that evening’s dinner strewn across the road having fallen from the basket. She saw the crowd that gathered, and then closed her eyes.

“I remember, my darling,” she says, her voice soft in volume yet heavy with emotion. “The next time I opened my eyes, you were looking over me, clipboard in hand, checking my vital signs. My very own angel in a nurse’s uniform. I knew it right then – if this wasn’t heaven and I hadn’t died, then you were my very own angel sent to watch over me.”

She reaches for the bowl of water to rinse the cloth; wrings it out; places it on his sweaty brow. The air in the room is heavy; she dare not open the window in case he gets too cold. She hasn’t felt the sun on her skin in weeks, but there is nowhere else she needs to be right now. Nowhere else she ever needs to be.

“Only with you, my love.”

Again, a twitch. His hand. She reaches for it, grasps it in hers.

“Remember, my darling? Do you remember the first time I was allowed out of the hospital? So many months had passed. I was still in the chair, then. Not yet strong enough. But you wheeled me through the gardens of the hospital – oh, they were beautiful! – and told me about the different trees and flowers. I can still remember every little detail: that carpet of blue bells; the majestic weeping willow by the creek. We sat under its branches and you held my hand, just like this – do you remember? You laughed as I relished in the late summer sun, welcomed it on my skin for the first time in a long time. You called me your own personal sun; told me how I had cast light on your life. That was the most perfect day.”

There had been a gentle breeze, she remembers. It blew her hair around her face. He had to tuck her hair behind her ear before he leaned in to kiss her for the first time. If she hadn’t already realised it, she knew then that she was in love with this strong, handsome nurse, the man who was bringing her slowly back to health. Giving her life in more ways than the obvious.

“How long was I in that hospital for, my darling? Do you remember? I never can. Time seemed to slow, and yet it also went so fast whenever you were around. We would sit for hours, just talking, or staring into each other’s eyes. It never felt uncomfortable. I told you about the plans I had before the accident, how I had wanted to travel, to have a family, to grow old with someone like you. You told me how all you had ever wanted to do was help people; about the laughs you got when you said you were a nurse. People just couldn’t understand a male nurse back then, could they?  But you had never wanted to be a doctor, just to care for people. My lovely lifesaver.

“I never could get enough time with you, my darling. I don’t think I ever will.

“I was in that hospital for a long time, that’s for sure. My friends all went off to college after that summer and I remained behind, in my bed in that old hospital, with you by my side. There was nowhere I would rather be at that time – or at any time, my love. My only place is by your side, forever.”

In her mind, she plays through their life together. All those years, always by each other’s side. She got out of the hospital, of course; broken bones healed, he had helped her learn to walk again, his arm protectively around her waist as he coached her. It wasn’t the only time her strength was tested over the years, but he was always there beside her, caring for her, helping her regain her life. Her heartbeat; the breath in her lungs.

“I had worried so much about what would happen when I left that hospital, my angel. I have never told you this. I worried that you were only doing your job; that the attention you were giving me was the same you gave all your patients. I was more than a little jealous of them! But I did worry. At the back of my mind, I was telling myself that, when you had helped me recover, and when I was well enough to walk out of there, that you wouldn’t want me anymore.”

His eyes flutter at this; they open, and stare at her. She swears she can see hurt in there.

“My darling! Hello, angel. Are you coming back to me?”

His brow looks pained, scrunched up as he moves his arm slowly, with great care. It looks like it weighs a tonne. She strokes his cheek; takes the hand he’s offering. She gasps, but he’s gone again. Back into sleep. His fitful sleep.

She cries out; there’s nobody around to hear it. The doctors had wanted to let him pass in the hospital, but she brought him home for comfort’s sake. Let her love and their home nurse him back to health. So, no need for silence on her part. They are alone in this big old house, the ancient house of her childhood. The orchard outside fell into disrepair long ago; overgrown grass and unkempt trees are all she could see from the window if she actually dared to look outside it.

She has barely moved from this spot since. By his side, always.

“Oh, my lovely, lovely man. I wish you could come back to me. There is so much I want to know. Can you hear me? I think you can hear me. I’ve sat here, day after day, ever since this horrible mess took you over. They said it’s not you anymore; that you’re long gone. Those doctors who worked side by side with you all your life, they’ve told me there’s no point. That I should just let you go. But I can’t. I just – I can’t do it. I know you’ll come back to me. That as long as you have your sun watching over you, that you will not fade or grow cold. Please, my darling, tell me I’m right. Please tell me I’m not prolonging your pain. That would just kill me.”

She watches his face carefully, but sees no reflection there. Not that long ago, when they first retreated to the attic, when the sickness finally took over his entire body, back then she could see the effect she was having. She could see that sitting by his side, talking about their life together, remembering, that it was keeping him alive. She could see it. He would flutter his eyes; he would take her hand. Occasionally, he would whisper a little, always the same: “my sun.” And she would smile, because he knew she was with him, helping him, nursing him as he had nursed her.

“I owe it to you, my darling. You looked after me so well. You brought me back from near-death with your love and care. I only wish I could do the same, but maybe I don’t have the strength now that you did then. We are so much older, after all.”

When they first retreated up here, she would talk to him about happy things, like their travels. He had survived the war but seen the world in the process, and he wanted to share it with her. He showed her Paris, and they took a boat ride along the Seine, and he got down on one knee as they passed under the Pont Neuf. They married in the church of her childhood, and had a party with all of their friends and family beside the orchard.

“My darling, do you remember that day when the doctors said we could not have a family of our own? I felt like I died inside, but you were remarkable. So strong. Do you remember what you said to me? You said that it didn’t matter, because we would always have each other. The two of us, together, for eternity. You said that was enough for you. Do you remember?”

Her shoulders fall and her breath intake is sharp: “What am I going to do without you, darling? How am I going to survive? I’m not sure I can. You give me life.”

In the attic room, the light is fading as another day closes. Another day of his suffering; another day with her by his side. His breath is ragged; her tears are no longer silent.

“My darling, I don’t know how much longer we have left, and I don’t know how much fight you have left in you. I cannot lose you. Not after all we have been through together. You are my strength.”

She collapses on top of him, her sobs wracking her body. It’s not until she feels a hand stroking her hair that she sits back up with a jolt.

“My angel?”

He smiles at her; it seems to pain him. His eyes – those piercing blue eyes that always did see right through her – are troubled. She searches his face, looking for her love.

“My darling, are you coming back to me?”

She climbs into the bed beside him, careful not to hurt him. It seems wherever she touches him causes him to wince. Gently, she rests her head on his chest; takes his hand in hers.

“My love, please come back to me. I can’t survive without you. I can’t stand seeing you in so much pain. Everyone else has abandoned us, but I will never abandon you. You are my life. You are all I have to live for. Please come back to me.”

His breath is slowing; each intake seems to cause him pain. She sits back up to ease the pressure on his chest, and notices his lips moving.

“My darling, my strong and handsome angel. Talk to me. Tell me what’s on your mind.”

She looks into his eyes and sees their life. Sees his pain.

She leans in to hear his whisper better, encouraging him. What he says is short, simple. Comforting and troubling: “My sun. My light. I will always love you. I would not change a thing about our life together. Look for me wherever you go; I will be there with you.”

She cries out: “My darling, my love. Don’t leave me. Please, don’t leave me. I need you.”

His eyes smile once more, and then he grins at her. “Always here, my love,” he says. It’s his last breath. He is gone.

Her cry pierces the silence.

“No! No, you cannot leave. My love, you must stay! Come back to me. Please, come back to me.”

Her arms are around him, clinging to him. Her tears soak his t-shirt. She kisses his face, his chest, his hand. She cries out for him. She kneads his hair, slaps his face. She tries everything she can to revive him.

But he is gone. He looks so peaceful. He is no longer in pain. The angelic blonde curls and the too-pale skin; her big, strong nurse. Something has eaten away at him from the inside.

His words come back to her: “Always here, my love.”

She smiles, and she knows it’s true. She stops trying to revive him; he is at peace, and so is she. It’s over. She lays beside him, rests her head on his chest. Takes his hand in hers. Closes her eyes.

Let them find me like this, she thinks. Find us. Together, forever, like before. But now, at rest. Silent.

The light is out.

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