“There's a baby in her belly, Kostas. It won't be long before they're both dead, you know? This disease doesn't discriminate,”
“Tell that to all the fags and junkies.”
“What's the point in protesting now, Kostas? You're going to die, too. Do you think Mama really believes you had a blood transfusion? I doubt it.”
Kostas peeked through a partially drawn curtain at the gaunt and lesioned shell of a woman. Even her swollen belly, the plumpest part of her, seemed sallow. A healthy expecting mother glows, but this woman sucked all the brightness from the room like a black hole. The once placid blue of her eyes had faded and her milky-white hair clung unevenly to her scalp in wispy patches. Tod offered a cheerless smile as she contorted—a surge of pain bolted through her body.
“She never sleeps,” Kostas choked. “She's constantly in pain and she will be until she dies.”
“You're scared," Tod breathed in his ear. "There's no denying it—this is what awaits you. Are you ready for it?”
“Am I ready to die?”
“No. Death's not so bad. Dying's the hard part. Of course, you could just end it all now. No one would blame you.”
“I—I can't do that. I'm not finished here.”
“Well, then who am I to you? Why am I here if not to make leaving okay?”
“Where are my friends? My family? I know where they're not. It's too depressing for them—I get that.”
“But that's not the real reason, is it?”
Fear washed over Kostas' face. He conjured a moment when he contracted his illness, because he couldn't remember the real one—life before hospice was a blur, perhaps suppressed. A needle-prick in a crack house, sex with a stranger in an alley—every time it was different. For all the things it could have been, however, he was certain it wasn't any blood transfusion.
He looked at the pregnant woman again as she languished, her little eggshell teeth clenching on cracked nails. She tried to call for help but spat up black mucus. Her clouded eyes fell on the bleak features of Kostas. He diverted his own eyes. Through coughs she cried:
“My-my baby! Help her! Help my baby!”
“That baby is a goner, Kostas,” Tod mused, running his fingers through the woman's brittle hair. “But you know that.”
“I hate that I know,” Kostas bawled.
“I don't want her to die not knowing that someone cares.”
“Who cares? Do you? Tell her. It won't change anything. She's still going to die. And so will her baby. And, ultimately, so will you.”
“I know, goddamn it!”
“But you've not come to terms with any of it. What does that say about you?”
“Just—just let me do what I need to!”
“Certainly. I'm just a humble observer,” Tod grinned.
Kostas pulled back the curtain shrouding him and his friend in the woman's sweeping dimness. Each of her breaths was more taxing than the last—each heartbeat more erratic. More black spit welled up in her mouth as she reached for Kostas' fragile hands. He caught hers and squeezed firmly. Every pulsation in her palm reminded him that the same poison flowing though her veins was also flowing through his.
“I have love for you and your baby,” Kostas wept. “Even though I don't know you, I have love for you. You're not alone anymore.”
Tod laid his head on Kostas' shoulder, admiring the show. “What are you going to do now?”
“It's okay if you can't hold on—it's okay.”
“My baby!” she screamed.
“Lie to her?” Tod pondered, “That's an interesting tactic.”
“Shut up.” Kostas' voice cracked as he chastised the green imp. All his shame hid behind his eyes as the woman mouthed incomprehensible words. “Imagine you're at the most beautiful place on Earth. Are you there?”
“She's in a hospice ward.”
“Shut up!” he repeated.
Her eyes flickered for a moment. She audibly inhaled; an aura of sublime vacancy washed over her face. Kostas tried to fathom what she was seeing: A mountaintop hanging over a rolling pasture of clouds and endless peaks—each crevice brimming with ice and snow, and each crag casting a long shadow. A glacier with blue serac-veins slipped from its head and, with a rumble, coasted majestically down the mountain's face, sending up a fog of powder snow.
Her grip on his hand loosened; the heart monitor pealed.
“And so it ends. How about that?”
Kostas dreaded placing the weekly unanswered phone calls to his mother. She had answered once but the content of the exchange was much less pleasant than Kostas would have liked. Not that she didn't try to be cordial to her son—she did love him—but the conversation had turned sour a few words in. Given her habit, it was merely a matter of time before she expressed her great disappointment in his lifestyle. She had cried, opining that she and Papa should have never left the Old Country. In some respect, Kostas agreed, though he would never tell her this.
Kostas did not expect her to answer—even hoped she wouldn't. Tod thumbed through Kostas' vinyl collection as he prepared to make the call.
“What do you say? Philip Glass' soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi? Eh, too minimalistic. Something cheerier—or, what's the word? Flamboyant! Cocteau Twins? Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark?”
“I don't care.”
“Of course you do,” Tod retorted. “Those phone calls are as much about keeping up appearances as they are rekindling old relations,” he paused. “Hmm, Joy Division, then? Or Laurie Anderson's Big Science?”
“I love my mother.”
“Oh, I know, but she won't answer. Why suffer through these phone calls when all you're going to get is an answering machine?”
Kostas bounced the handset on the receiver. “This is what I'm supposed to do.”
“So? When have you ever done what you're supposed to? If you did, do you think you'd be dying from some monkey disease now?”
“No, you're right,” he lamented. “I've never done what I'm supposed to. I screwed around, I—I did all the drugs. And what the hell do I have to show for it?”
“Some fantastic scars.”
Kostas glanced at the imp. “I'm calling because I don't think I'll get another chance.”
“I'm your only friend. I'm the only one that stuck around. Why do you want to give her the satisfaction of a goodbye?”
“Because she's real.”
“Oh, that's hurtful.” he smirked.
“I'm the realest friend you've ever had, pal,” Tod said, his speech deceptively composed. “Dial Mama. When she doesn't answer, I'll still be here, even if it's only in your head.”
Tod turned back to the record collection, deciding on Kate Bush. He placed the stylus on the record as Kostas dialed his mother. Each tone was punctuated by static and then by the opening bars of Running Up That Hill. The seconds passed slowly as Kostas waited. They always did. He thought, 'Please don't answer, please don't answer..." His heart fluttered as the first lyrics were sung: If I only could, I'd be running up that hill. He closed his eyes—fleetingly, he saw his mother hanging clean linen on the line. As quick as the memory had appeared, it left with only the final tones to ring in his ear.
“Hello,” a heavily accented voice echoed from the handset, “you have reached the residence of Callidora Arrostos. I am away from the phone right now. Leave your name and number after the tone and I'll get back to you.”
“Mama it's me, Konstantinos. Thursday again,” his voice tightened. “Looks like I missed you. It's been too long since we last spoke. I don't want to hurt you anymore, Mama mou. S'agapo—I love and miss you. Mama, I'm so scared. I don't want to die. I really, really don't.”
His body shook as he ended the call.
“I'm still here. I've been here through it all. I was there when they told you were going to die. And I'm here now."
"Where's that mother of yours?”
Kostas threw the record player across the room with a bellow. “Why won't you leave me alone?!”
A pleased smirk overtook Tod's impish features.
Kostas peered from an insubstantial window onto the forested hills of his hospital's campus. Moonlight shone through sheer curtains, illuminating him and Tod as they pondered in silence.
He was not yet accustomed to the fact that he was bound to a wheelchair. It felt foreign to him—alien, in some respects. A ward nurse had provided him with the flimsy chair a few weeks ago so that he wouldn't be confined to his room. He made sure that he wasn't, spending many of his afternoons outside.
Little by little, time robbed him of his vitality. His last strands of hair, fragile as spun sugar, crumbled from his head the night before, and the stench of vomit and shit hung around him like a cloud of flies on spoiled muscle. He didn't avert his eyes anymore—in the preceding weeks, he decided that shame was a luxury meant only for the able-bodied.
Tod tapped a long, manicured nail on the windowsill, listening to the air as it smashed on a glass pane where his and Kostas' reflections merged.
“Ye—Yes?” He looked at Kostas in bewilderment .
“Have a stroll with me.”
“It's late. Are you sure?”
“I cannot recall a time when I was more sure.”
“Alright, then. Where to?”
“Wherever it is we end up will be fine.”
A wide grin adorned Tod's face. “I enjoy you more and more the closer you are to death.”
Kostas wheeled down a barren corridor with Tod close behind. A draft caught one of the sleeves on his johnny gown as they stepped over the threshold. Into the night, he trundled down a ramp to a pathway meandering through tall softwoods.
“Will you lead me?”
Tod stepped from a stoop onto the trail as Kostas looked on. “Why do you fear this? You're ready to follow me. I see it in your eyes.”
“Tell me what death is like,” he cried.
“It's like nothing you've ever known. It's utterly terrifying and at the same time, beautiful. It's a certain state of mind, Kostas.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everything from here on is different. This world isn't yours anymore. Come and see.”
The dark of the forest swallowed them whole. Kostas listened to the wildlife sing their morningtide songs as he never had before. The sweet aroma of Grand Fir tickled his nostrils as they neared the road. At the other side, dark turned to light.
“When does it happen?”
“Soon, now. You remember the last thing you told the pregnant woman?”
“Yes, but you said—”
“Don't worry about it. Come with me onto the road.” Tod assisted Kostas, pushing his chair into position. “Now take off your gown.”
“I don't understand.”
“Everything is different, remember? You're not going to understand just yet. Now, take it off.”
As Kostas struggled untying the knots at the back of his gown, Tod removed his own clothing.
“Who are you, really?”
“I am your death,” he whispered.
The cool air stung Kostas' naked skin. He understood, now. Tod knelt at his groin and drank the life from inside him.
“I see it!” he moaned as flashes of the avalanching glacier popped into his head. “I see it. I see nature.”
Tod raised his head as lights came around the bend in the road. “Goodbye, Kostas,” he said, his voice melding with the sound of screeching tires and crashing metal.
A telephone in an empty hospice ward rang.