The sun had yet to make an appearance as Josh strolled along casually with Buddy at his heel.
It had become routine to enjoy the emptiness of the streets before Josh would spend long hours in a stuffy office. This morning however the road was thunderous with cars, ‘Probably travelling for the holidays’ Josh thought to himself. Josh felt a growing warmth at the idea of Buddy and himself by the fire or playing with a frisbee for the next few days, ‘much better than having a holiday alone somewhere tropical’. Josh was so lost in his fantasy that he failed to notice a tabby cat skulking around on the far side of the road. But Buddy noticed…
Seconds were all it took. Buddy growled and lunged on to the road, oblivious of traffic. There was a set of headlights, collision grumbles and a weak whine. Josh turned.
“Buddy!” he cried. He sprinted on the tar seal to Buddy’s aid. Josh bent down to crouch, but his balance was thrown as his eyes caught the fresh wounds. He ignored the stinging in his knees as he gathered Buddy into his arms. Tears slithered down his soft features as his lips quivered and hair fell across his eyes. The slamming of doors was a distant rumble in his ears and the approaching figures needn’t have existed for all Josh knew.
“Are you alright, Sir?” a silky feminine voice inquired. But the lack of whining or breath was dominating Josh’s hearing. He bowed his head so Buddy’s fur would tickle his left cheek as it caught the breeze of vehicles on the other side of the road. He tried to say his best friend’s name but found throaty sobs were all he could produce.
Beeping and honking screamed at Josh from many vehicles back. More and more figures were closing in, anger rising in their voices.
“Out of the way asshole!” one man yelled
“It’s just a dog, get another one!”
“Get off the road!”
“I have a plane to catch!”
“Sir, you’re holding up traffic”, the same feminine voice whispered. Josh stood slowly, he looked blindly at the scene before bending to hold the Border Collie and bring him to his chest. Josh shuffled off the road to cries of:
“Good riddance”, “finally” and the squealing of tyres making up for lost time. Josh supposed he should feel bad for holding everyone up but couldn’t feel guilty, but he was just lost. As his feet carried him home habitually, his mind rewound the events and rolled through a scroll of ‘what ifs’.
Josh placed Buddy in his outdoor bed and unlocked the house. The fire was quickly reignited and Buddy’s limp body placed upon a blanket before it. As the fire flickered, it illuminated Josh’s sallow complexion. His features usually lively appeared gaunt in the fluctuating glow of the flame, his eyes like a panda’s.
“What now? Who’s left? This is not christmas”. Josh’s eyes were fixed on the fire but they were seeing memories.
The further the sun crept into the sky, the lower the flames burned until all that remained was a few glowing embers and ash. Josh blinked repeatedly stirring from his daydreams. He forced himself from the squishy, fur-covered armchair and collected the necessary tools for his next pursuit.
He rammed the head of the shovel through the thin layer of snow that had accumulated beneath the apple tree and into the firm soil. Again and again and again he thrust it in until a hole four-feet deep and three feet squared remained. Josh returned to Buddy’s side to wrap him in the blanket he was rested upon, ‘Like a present’ Josh thought almost chuckling at the irony. Josh hauled Buddy into the earth’s new cavity and began filling it in. He relocated a rose from the front yard and watered them with a few stray tears that fell from his cheeks.
“Goodbye Buddy” Josh whispered. He replaced everything in its designated area, relocked his residence and embarked on a specific course.
* * *
He was a day earlier than was routine but as the sliding doors eased open, familiar smiles and greetings entertained his ears. Josh was grateful for these people but he couldn’t help but wish he’d never met them, at least not the way he did. He pushed open the last door to find the same scene as every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. White walls bare excepting the array of buttons and cords powering various machines. A periwinkle and pearl checkered curtain hung from rails surrounding a bleak bed. She was laid very still save for the feeble rising and falling beneath a layer of firm blankets. Tubes of of various calibre protruded from her arm, mouth and chest; some held fluids whereas others held wires but all with the purpose of keeping her alive.
A nurse followed Josh into the room and retrieved a clipboard from the foot of the bed.
“How is she?” The nurse’s brown eyes darted across the charts and notes before becoming concerned then softening.
“I must fetch the doctor, I’ll be back in a moment Mr Henry”. True to her word, she returned minutes later with the doctor in tow.
“What’s the news?” Josh asked again.
“I’m very sorry to inform you but we’re going to have to take your wife off Life Support.”
“On Christmas!? Are you for real!?”
“I know this must be upsetting Mr Henry but it’s necessary — ”
“Necessary!? Her dog died this morning. Doc, I have no family left, I’ll be damned if I lose the love of my life as well, especially today!” Josh argued
“We are truly sorry to hear that Mr Henry but Mrs Henry has been on life support for eighteen months and there has been no change in her condition. These holidays have been tough, we can’t get supplies in for days due to weather in other places, and the number of critical patients from road accidents and such is on the rise.Sir, the machine is required elsewhere,” the doctor explained in a patient manner.
“It’s not my wife’s fault idiots are on the roads in this city!”
“We understand your frustration but that doesn’t chan-”
“NO! You don’t understand. You are not the one whose wife’s going to die because of some stupid doctors.”
“People have been known to survive after being taken off life support and in a few cases people can even make a full recovery” The doctor stated.
“How likely is that though doctor?”
“In your wife’s case there is a 20 percent chance she survives more than a week without the technology and a 3 percent chance she makes a full recovery which considering that statistic is only at 5 percent now isn’t bad at all.”
“No! You can’t do this.” Josh was in tears again “You can’t do this. There must be some law you’re breaking”. The doctor assured Josh of the legality of the situation even going so far as to quote the paragraph and terms. The doctor concluded by telling Mr Henry life support would be shut off at six that evening.
Josh’s face fell, his heart sank. He knew it, he knew Buddy’s passing was an omen: ‘That’s what she would’ve said anyway’ he thought. He grasped his wife’s hand tighter and kissed the frail knuckles tenderly. His mind raced with memories that danced before his eyes as though it was his life on the line: in a way, it was.
A particular scene hovered especially long.
He gazed into her hazel eyes as a smile stole his features. She spoke two words that sounded like the song of an angel in his ears. Attention turned to him and he repeated:
“I do,” before he could process what the words meant, the sweetest pair of lips he’d ever known were upon his and arms were wrapped firmly around his neck while friends and family applauded from everywhere…
It faded and more silvery tears cascaded on to the pale hand Josh held. A voice, the same angelic voice from his memories seduced his ears again
“I love you, Alever and Forways”
“Alever and Forways?”
“Like Forever and Always...But it’s ours”
“Then I love you you too my Angel, Alever and Forways”
Josh held the hand against his lips again but instead of pressing a kiss to the soft skin he whispered against it,
“Alever and Forways Angel, Alever and Forways”.
Hours passed and Josh was awoken by a gentle hand on his shoulder. The nurse informed him there was ten minutes before it was to be done and that he’d be best to say anything he needed to, sooner rather than later. Josh had planned a speech in his head and run over it a million times but now the time was here . . . his voice was not.
Doctors flooded the room and began working. None of them dared disturb Josh but instead just got on with their tasks, removing cords or taking notes on the clipboard. One of the doctors told the others:
“Removing oxygen mask.” These words seemed to wake Josh and shivered down his spine like a bucket of ice water.
“You can’t!” he yelled.
“Nurse, restrain him please.” A male nurse held Josh’s hands behind his back and heaved him away from the bed. The mask was lifted and final measures were taken. All but the restraining nurse filed from the room dragging or rolling machines with them. A female nurse who’d handled Mrs Henry the entire time she’d been unconscious brought in a needle and administered it carefully to Josh. He felt a wave of calm lapping at his conscious. The male nurse sat him back beside his wife and left the room while the woman offered Josh a drink. A long loud beep interrupted the intermittent ones Josh had become accustomed to, and the nurse quickly paged the doctor before beginning to administer a hand oxygen pump to Mrs Henry. The doctor rushed back in but after seeing the nurse’s efforts and trialing some of his own techniques with no difference to the patient’s condition, he shook his head and reached for the clipboard.
“Time of death,” He reported as he wrote “6:14pm, 25th December 2004”.
Josh, still under the influence, just watched the tranquility upon his wife’s face for her final minutes. He felt tears forming and falling but did nothing to stop them.
The nurse offered a hug, which he took gratefully as he closed his eyes and felt tears like waterfalls across his skin. His body crumpled and the nurse began supporting him rather than hugging him. For the second time in a day, Josh found himself struggling to keep emotions in check, for the second time in a day, Josh found his eyes leaking uncontrollably, for the second time in a day, Josh gave up. But this was a little different. This would take more than a quick burial, a long walk and seeing someone special to get over. Josh felt he may never get over it.
The cruel ringing of the flatline echoed around the small room. Josh could taste the bile rising in his throat though his mouth was as dry as the Sahara desert. He began to feel a numbness take hold. Tears continued to fall but he couldn’t taste their bitterness on his tongue anymore. He couldn’t feel anything more than the burning in his lungs. His eyes closed tighter trying to hold on to the image of her beautiful eyes and the smile that seemed to make her glow. Then it happened. It was surprising Josh heard it through his sobs but it was there. A silent pause. Then a beep. And another. There was a gasping for air and the sheets rustled as someone rolled over and coughed. Josh was back by her side in seconds, tears miraculously gone. The doctor ceased filling out the forms and investigated just as quickly. Eyelids were thrown open. Hazel eyes revealed. Panic. Fear. Confusion was flashing through them until they fell on Josh.
“I’m here Angel,” Josh assured barely in whisper “Alever and Forways”.