Hospitals are always cold and often bustling outside the confines of each whitewashed room. The rooms are barely soundproof, and one can hear nurses rushing around in the hallways and maybe some conversations next door. It gets quiet at night, the silence occasionally broken by footsteps in the hallway or a spouse’s hysteria if a patient dies in the night. Glee ends at the doorways and laughter is few and far between, even among the staff. Good news is as rare as a comfortable chair for spouses to sleep in.
Charlie hadn’t had the luxury of sleeping in his own bed in three weeks, and the hospital’s distinct smell and gloominess was beginning to feel like home to him. He would sometimes enjoy a walk to the snack cart in the lobby or to the parking lot for a smoke break or a phone call, although the latter became rarer as Ethel’s hospital stay became longer (after all, he didn’t want to end up like her one day). He mostly sat in a chair next to his wife and stroked her hand, watching her slowly wither away with each passing second. He sometimes had to hold his nose or step out into the hallway, for the reek of death was beginning to invade the hospital room’s familiar smell of sterility.
On a Tuesday morning when the air conditioning had become a little bit crisper, Charlie sat beside his sleeping wife and laid a blanket over himself. A rerun of The Price is Right was on television, the volume low enough for him to barely hear it, and he sat in silence, stroking Ethel’s hand as he guessed the prices in his head. It was the first time in three weeks that he stayed seated when the doctor entered the room; the blanket covered his legs, and a weak smile formed across his face.
“Good morning, Mr. Bing,” greeted Dr. Roopa Patel. Charlie and Ethel had only known Dr. Patel for the few days since Ethel had been put on palliative care, and the sorrow in her voice was sharper than before. She looked at him with sad eyes and spoke a tad softer, though not at par with the television, but smiling nonetheless. “How are you doing today?”
“I’m alright,” said Charlie, “but I’m getting too used to sleeping in this damn recliner.”
Charlie watched as Dr. Patel walked across the room and carried a chair to where he was sitting. She stared into his eyes, and he could feel her grazing his soul as a tear formed in the corner of his eye. He leaned forward, a faint breath escaping his nose, ready to listen to the doctor.
“Charlie,” Ethel said, her weak whisper barely competing with the television. He snapped his head toward his wife and squeezed her hand a little tighter. “Charlie, turn down your show. Too loud.”
Charlie grabbed the remote and turned the television off, his faint reflection in the blank screen replacing Drew Carey and the colorful and happening set of The Price is Right. He looked again at Ethel, her eyes barely open and adjusting to the light, and his lips curled into a gentle smile.
“Wake up,” he said. “The doctor’s here.”
“No, Ethel, it’s Dr. Patel today.”
“Good morning, Ethel,” Dr. Patel greeted, glancing at Ethel. Slowly rising from her slumber and her eyes still barely open, Ethel slightly lifted her hand and waved at the doctor. “Dr. Richmond is out for the morning, but if you’d like, I can send him here when he arrives.”
“Please do.” Ethel closed her eyes again and returned to her slumber, her mouth slightly ajar as she let out a faint snore.
Dr. Patel folded her hands in her lap and let out a breath, fixing her gaze at Charlie once again. “She’s going on three weeks in the hospital, Mr. Bing.”
Charlie nodded. “You all said she’d get better.”
“I know.” Dr. Patel grabbed his hands and watched a tear run down his cheek.
“She was going to get better, right?”
Dr. Patel nodded. “Do you have any children, Mr. Bing?”
“None that are still alive. Our only surviving family is a brother of hers who lives in Florida. The plan was to get him here this weekend to say goodbye.”
“Can you get him here tomorrow?”
Charlie shook his head. “Don’t say that,” he said, his voice quavering as he spoke.
“It could be a matter of hours, Mr. Bing. The best-case scenario is two or three days.”
“You said she has three months left.”
“Her condition has worsened at a much faster rate than we anticipated.”
Charlie looked over at his sleeping wife. “Is it too late to revoke the do-not-resuscitate order?”
“No, but it won’t do her any good.”
Charlie nodded and pushed himself up from the chair, his legs shaking as he rose as though an earthquake was striking the building. The blanket fell to the floor as he stood up and bent over to plant a light kiss on Ethel’s forehead, and he stepped on it as he walked past Dr. Patel. Charlie looked back at Ethel and the doctor with red and watery eyes.
“I need to go for a walk,” he declared, and he turned around and stepped into the hallway, stopping only to close the door behind him.
When Charlie returned a few hours later, Ethel was alone in the hospital room. She stared at the ceiling and broke her gaze to look at her husband, who smiled when she looked into his eyes. Charlie sat on the edge of her bed and held both of her hands in his. Her eyes, once blue as the water and clear as the sky, were cloudy and unrecognizable, her former self unable to break through the shadow of death. Yet she flashed a faint smile when her husband of six decades sat beside her and held her hands, her conscience rejoicing.
“Where did you go, dear?” she whispered, her voice breaking as she spoke.
“I went to a park nearby and sat on a bench for a little bit.” His voice slightly trembled as he spoke, and tears fogged his vision. “It’s a beautiful day out, Ethel. I wish you could experience it.”
Ethel tilted her head downward, her eyes still locked on her husband. “Do you remember the night we got married?”
Charlie chuckled as he pictured the quaint wedding chapel in Reno they stumbled into all those years ago. “I do.”
“We were drunk and oh so stupid.”
Ethel’s smile grew only slightly, her eyes glimmering like the sun glimmers on water. “I’m a very lucky woman, Charlie. I love you so much.”
“I love you too.”
Charlie leaned in and kissed Ethel. Her lips were chapped, and his nose cringed as he leaned in and smelled the reek of death. As he leaned away and looked at her face again, he felt the room emptying and the air becoming a little warmer. Her hands became colder, and he let go of them and rested them in her lap. Tears ran down his cheeks when he closed her eyes with his fingers and stood up. He whispered goodbye and walked out of the room; when he got to the hallway, he pulled aside the first nurse he saw and told her in a trembling voice that the patient in Room 307 had passed away and that she was not to be resuscitated.
The porch light was off when Charlie pulled into his driveway that night. His lawn was more grown out than he usually kept it, and the trash bins were still full and on the side of the house. He walked up to his front door and found the key underneath the welcome mat, and when he stepped foot into his home and kicked off his shoes for the first time in three weeks, he began to cry. The air still smelled like her, and all of her photos and decorations still hung on the walls and sat on the tables. He closed the front door and laid his keys on the table next to where his neighbor—who had been watching over his house—piled all the mail they had received since they left for the hospital. On top was a letter addressed to Ethel from her brother in Florida, and he picked it up, staining the envelope with a tear.
Charlie put the letter down, separating it from the rest of the mail, and walked into his bedroom. He laid down on his bed and threw the blankets on top of himself, still wearing the same clothes he wore when Ethel passed away. It was colder than usual in the bedroom, and the blankets were almost as cold as the air around them. Not even his bubble of body heat could protect him from the cool air. A strange and overwhelming sadness came over him—or perhaps it was the thought of him being a widower that he had always found inconceivable—and not before long was his pillow was soaked with tears. And there Charlie laid, staring up toward his ceiling in the night’s near-total darkness, thinking of a reason to get out of bed the following morning. Sweat soon began to dampen the blankets covering him, and his heart was pounding, and in the corner of his eye, the tiniest bead of a teardrop freed itself. The other side of the bed, for the first time in 62 years, was cold and empty, and even in his bubble of body heat, he could feel hell freezing over beneath the surface.
Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction has appeared in The Dillydoun Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Literary Yard, Button Eye Review, The Chamber Magazine, and Potato Soup Journal. Outside of school and work, he is involved in local politics and often finds himself surfing the Internet in the middle of the night. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.