Phoenix (A Story in 888 Words)

Mary sat at her writing desk, one particularly suited to her eclectic style. Every exposed inch was initially covered with ornate, floral wallpaper based on black and gold, followed by hundreds of notes and reminders. The few tears she managed to cry earlier were long dried, salty patches that slightly itched. She hadn’t bothered to wipe them away. By a certain age, you learn that another set will inevitably follow. There were times she expected to see a series of wrinkles on her face forming a dry riverbed.

For fifteen years, she passed countless hours at her desk, her fingers flying furiously and fluently across the remote keyboard in her lap. Though her life was mundane, an unseen muse inside her continuously provided her with an onslaught of romance and flowery language. Those words fueled the fantasy lives of people she’d never meet. They also came from a place she couldn’t quite define. Her words paid the bills, though the skill was accidental. Her muse was her humanity, and she’d never found her own well to be empty.

Until four interminable days ago.

*

The officious hospital administrator relented and allowed her to go to the hospital’s fifth floor to accompany her best friend, Ashley. Her husband of twenty years was dying, dwindling more each day. Ashley managed to keep her wits for a couple of weeks. The idea of her husband dying made her immobile. “I’ll go with you,” Mary blurted out to Ashley. Ashley grabbed her and hugged her until her arms grew tired.

As they entered the room, Mary’s eyes scrutinized the alien medical monitors, tubes, and devices crowded around the bed. Ashley’s husband Mark seemed like a doll in the sheets. Mary found herself being led to the bed by Ashley, who gripped her right hand fiercely. As Mary neared the bed, she was surprised to note that it smelled like plastic in the sun or a recently-opened shower curtain.

Mark was immobile, having spoken his last known word four days ago. As Ashley leaned over him, he said, “Phoenix.” The nurse standing by the head of the bed on the opposite side raised an eyebrow, asking without really asking. Ashley smiled at her, though tears were clouding her face. “It’s where we promised to go to spend our last few years together. We’ve never been.” The nurse nodded. There was no right or wrong response, but her mouth wouldn’t open. Even the most seasoned and hardened heart sometimes couldn’t pierce the silence, lest they risk losing control of the mass of emotion lying behind the wall they created to protect themselves.

Mary stood next to Ashley for several minutes, her arm across the small of her demure back. Ashley leaned in precariously to touch the exposed cheek of Mark’s face. Her glasses slid from her face and fell to the bed. As she bent, a few minor beeps began to ping and buzz. Anyone there could discern a crescendo building in their warning. In moments, a nurse strode into the room.

Mary watched the nurse’s face as she inspected the monitors. The nurse looked across the bed. Ashley’s eyes were riveted on her husband’s face. As the nurse’s eyes locked with Mary’s, Mary saw the fleeting sorrow that passed across her face.

The nurse pressed a small disk at her neck and said, “It’s time. Room 5234.” She stood by the bed, waiting. Moments later, another woman entered the room and stood next to the nurse. Mary whispered, “Ashley, they need to talk to you.”

Ashley raised her head.

“As we discussed, Ashley. Do you want to do it, or do you want one of us to?” The doctor waited patiently.

Mary stood frozen, realizing that she was there to bear witness to Mark’s passing for Ashley.

“You,” Ashley said, surprisingly confident.

The nurse and doctor busily began to press buttons, move sliders, and close off fluid and oxygen flow.

It didn’t happen as it does on television. No monitor marked the decline of functions taking place. The doctor and nurse stood by the bed for another few moments. Finally, the nurse said, “We’ll be outside when you’re ready.”

It was Mary who sobbed when she heard the words, not Ashley.

Ashley reached and found Mark’s right hand and gripped it. She kissed her hand and then pressed it to his face, quickly and lightly. “Okay,” she whispered.

Ashley stood up and hugged Mary. She stepped away and walked toward the door.

“Where are you going, Ashley?” Mary asked, her voice hollow and lifeless.

“Phoenix, for both of us.” She smiled as she said it.
*

Four days later, Mary still sat at her silent desk, the words not flowing, the imagined love-filled lives she effortlessly created all stopped.

In a flash, the image of Ashley’s face as she left the room flooded her mind. She was smiling. In all that pain, she knew she had to find a way forward or crawl into the bed with Mark and die with him.

Mary turned slightly in her chair, placed her nimble fingers on the keyboard, and began to write a new love story, one grounded in an appreciation for a love monumental enough to fuel optimism in life. Her inability to create a life with words was already behind her and forgotten.
.

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