by § Roseille ♥
One day to live. A whole lifetime to make up for.
EYES OF A CHILD
Tuesday, 03:00 hours
How long had I been there, on the floor like this? How had I gotten used to the smell of my own blood?
Grime shifted beneath me when I moved. The smell was almost unbearable sometimes, but it didn't matter. It was warm when my body felt so cold.
I shook, but I couldn't do anything about it, couldn't even move. The light in the small room was hazy at best, moonlight specked with flickering, faraway streetlights, obscured with dust, so I could hardly even see my surroundings.
Footsteps echoed on the slick, filthy concrete ground I lay on, and my muscles clenched in anticipation of my captors' return.
"Sean! Can you hear me?"
The voice was familiar, but my mind took a moment to process it. "A...Avery?"
"Sshh." A warm hand pressed into my neck. Avery said, "Pulse is steady but very slow. There are some lacerations... Sean, stay with me, okay? We've got you, we found you."
"Ho--how?" My mouth wouldn't listen to my brain, and I was conscious enough to hate how weak I sounded. God, not in front of Avery.
"Your tracker. Man, I told you that thing would do some good when you got all pissed about it going in your wrist." I felt him pull my sleeve up, and then he hissed a breath in. "You have some needle tracks here."
Well, I knew that. "They...gave some stuff to me."
Avery whispered, "Okay. Hold on then, you're going to be just fine."
Tuesday, 14:20 hours
Sometimes, when I sat on the porch at my old house, when little Skylar would play dolls on the emerald grass in the backyard, I would think.
I'd think about how my life had gone thus far, and I'd hope that one day, I could turn my back on the job that stole the time I should have spent with my wife and child. I had once thought about how I'd wake up in my bed someday at eight in the morning and not care that I should be out at work.
One day I'd stop looking behind me, because I wouldn't be scared for my life. Maybe I'd even stop carrying my gun. So many times I had sat here, thinking about what I might make happen one day. I'd tricked myself into believing that everything would straighten itself out.
Sometimes I'd dream of being there for one of Skylar's birthdays instead of showing up late with a present and an apology. But I didn't dream about any of that anymore. Michele had left me three years ago to this day, and Skylar's fourteenth birthday was tomorrow. I wouldn't be there for that one, either.
I sat on the porch of the house I had shared with the two most important people in the world. The chair was old, but the cushion was so soft; my back dipped into the soft pillow of the chair, eyes fixed on the spot where Skylar had always played. But the grass was long and twisted from the neglect of lost years. The grass that had once been so green was rotting with the coming of fall.
Tomorrow I'd miss another of Skylar's birthdays, because at this time tomorrow, I'd be dead.
I got up from the chair, aching to leave the memories here far behind, wanting to go somewhere but not sure where. I reached into my jacket pocket and took out my keys.
Tuesday, 07:30 hours
"I'm sorry, Sean. I'm...I really am. Man, I didn't mean for it to turn out this way!"
Ave and I had known each other since we were little, all the way until he changed from Ave to Dr. Avery Chance, M.D.
I'd been friends with him since he'd made me lay down on my mom's kitchen table with a sheet over it, and put his toy stethoscope over my chest. I had known him all through medical school, when he'd come and visit when he wasn't busy at the hospital.
I'd known him until the same obscure agency that employed me grabbed him up for his medical talent.
All through those years I'd come to love his acidic honesty. He could give it straight to patients without breaking up. I had seen him plainly tell a hot woman how shallow she was. Sometimes it was comic. I even wished he'd be a bit less open sometimes. But now I needed his honesty.
"What is it, Avery? What's wrong with me?"
"Sean..." Avery's voice was small even in the little room. The calm violet of the walls clashed with the emotions that I saw on his face.
"I'm dying, aren't I?" I knew...I knew that those men I'd been investigating made bio-weapons. I'd known when I'd taken the job that being captured and infected was a big possibility.
Avery turned suddenly toward me, and the professionalism he was respected so much for fought against the emotions that shone through clearly in his eyes. "Yes," he finally whispered.
I nodded. "And...how long do I have?"
His blue eyes, the color of a glinting knife and just as piercing, met with mine. "Not long. I'm sorry."
"A year?" Please, no.
Avery's head dropped and the pain I saw in his eyes before he looked away wore into me, heightening my fear. It burned through my veins and made my stomach feel hot and empty. But maybe that was whatever I'd been injected with. Either way, it wasn't good.
I hoped he would say no. A month would not even bring me to my next birthday.
He still didn't answer. He dragged in a breath, but even that shook.
"What, man--Avery? A week? Tell me how long I have."
"Not a week," Avery said. He let the breath out. "Around twenty-four hours. Maybe a bit more, maybe less. The bacteria that they injected you with is extremely fast-acting. It is attacking your body with unbelievable speed. Your whole body will shut down in less than a day. The good news is that the disease is not communicable. It seems like they just wanted something rather quick and effective to put you down. The disease...it uses your own body to attack itself. It seems to have taken a particular interest in your lungs. The damage there is already measurable." His voice strengthened as familiar automatic words momentarily covered the fact that one of his friends was dying. He finished speaking after a moment, and he looked at me once more. "I kinda wanted to be the one to tell you, but, you know...not. I'm really sorry."
Tuesday, 15:40 hours
The autumn wind was brisk, constantly changing directions, blowing fallen leaves all over the road I drove. It was actually pretty, considering I'd never liked fall before. The trees that bowed over the street were colored with amazing orange and red leaves. The ground was a bed of the dead and fallen ones.
I noticed so much more than I ever had, and the familiar road seemed new to me. I'd never noticed the smell of the breeze where the lake got close. It was soft and refreshing, tinged with the faintest smell of new life. Life that I would see die but would never see regrow. That's what had always depressed me about this season. The leaves that I have admired all year long inevitably die and are crushed and buried beneath relentless snow that traps them there for months as they slowly disintegrate.
Autumn had always symbolized death and sadness for me. So many things had happened then. I'd lost my family then, for one. Now I was going to lose my life.
The road wound on and I stopped seeing anything. My drive ended at a small house. Michele's new house. I hadn't been here often, just a couple of times, and both of them, I was unwelcome. Sometimes I parked far away and watched, wishing I had the courage to walk to the front door. I sat in the soft leather front seat, hand over my face, which was sweating inexplicably in the cool breeze from my window.
Pain sliced through my stomach and chest, and I couldn't breathe at all. The pain was like an exploding grenade, and I could feel each strained beat of my heart. It hurt. Each palpable thump in my chest reminded me of the time that was ticking away. I'd always hesitated, always thought there would be another day.
A beautiful face passed by the front window of the house. So familiar...so happy. Skylar. She didn't even see me; her eyes looked at something beyond the window. The car's engine idled.
I shifted into drive and began moving very slowly out of my spot on the street. Skylar spotted my car and confusion flashed over her face.
I glanced at her as she stood there. Her mouth moved but I could not hear the words she spoke. She disappeared from the window.
I continued to drive.
"Dad! Dad, stop!" Skylar raced across the lawn, and stumbled over the drop to the road. She ran down the rough asphalt of the street and rapped at my window. My breath had just returned but it left me when I saw her. I couldn't believe how beautiful she had become. The fixed determination on her face was so mature. I stopped the car, and when she backed out of the road, I drove back into the space I had occupied before. Dizziness made me lurch, and the wheel jerked. The car scraped the curb. Skylar backed up and gasped. She ran over to my door and pulled it open. "Daddy? Why're you here?"
"I...I wanted to say hello."
She nodded, suddenly a child again. "I...um, I haven't seen you in a long time. Why are you here? Why now, Dad?" Her glossy lower lip was stuck out like she'd always done when she was four, when I'd disappointed her.
"I was around here, and just thought I'd drop by, Skylar."
"Uh..." Did she speak that or did I imagine? My hearing echoed with a thousand voices. "What?"
"Dad, are you okay? Are you drunk?" Her mother's disapproval tinged her voice, and her thin arms went to her hips, thumbs hooked in between the belt loops of her low-cut jeans. I had never been drunk. I'd never even liked the taste of alcohol. I wondered what Michele told her about me.
"Nah, just...not feeling all that great."
Sky stood back appraisingly. "Are you going to get out or will you leave me again?"
Ah, teenage drama. "I'm getting out."
The door opened and Michele stood in the doorway, hip-hugging skirt swaying over her feet. "Sky, get in here! Sean, what the Hell are you doing at my house? You're not supposed to be here."
I sighed and looked at Skylar, whose eyes bored into mine, suddenly hostile with the appearance of her mother. I stepped out of the car, but my vision wavered wildly. I had to wait a moment before I could walk right. I stepped toward Skylar and she stood aside, as if physical distance would distance her from me emotionally. She looked away. I took the step up to get on the grass, and suddenly my vision went blank, kind of like a crashing computer. No pain, no warning...nothing. Just blackness, frighteningly thick and complete.
The next thing I heard was a condescending, "God, what tactics! Sean, you waking up? Get up, Sean, you can stop pretending now. Get up!"
I felt her arms reach over my shoulder and she coaxed me to my feet. I tried to help her as she walked me into her house, but I couldn't help much. I dropped hard onto the couch. Michele stood over me, and though I was not looking at her, her presence was a tangible thing in the air. She'd always had that ability.
My lungs felt heavy and it hurt to breathe in. My lungs choked on my attempt at a breath, and I coughed painfully as I surfaced into consciousness. I turned as something warm rushed up my throat, eyes opening to my own blood spraying from my lips onto the floor.
Skylar screamed. Michele cried, "Dear God! Sean..."
I wondered if she thought I was pretending anymore. I clutched one hand to my stomach and wiped blood from my mouth. "I'm...sorry about the floor," I muttered.
Skylar was crying. "Daddy?"
I felt like a complete idiot. I knew I shouldn't have come here. Poor Skylar...
Michele whispered, "Sky, it's time to do your homework. Go to your room."
Skylar looked as if she wanted to run, but she didn't move from her place.
"Skylar, now!" Michele said. It was the kind of no-nonsense voice that would be dangerous to disobey.
As soon as Skylar had left, Michele dropped to her knees. I felt her small hands...they seemed so cold on my face that felt like fire. Her auburn hair, flashing amber-fire in the light, brushed over my face as she leaned over me. She lifted my face and whispered, "What's happening? Sean...if this is some kind of crazy trick, I'm going to kill you!"
"Don't need to," I said. I attempted a smile but I have the feeling it didn't work out quite right.
Michele's hands went on her hips, just like I'd seen Skylar do so many times. "Oh, yeah? Sean, stop being ambiguous! What do you mean?"
I sat up straight. My vision had finally begun to clear. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Dispense with the clich's. Tell me and I'll decide if I want to believe it."
"Okay." I smiled. I got up, lifting myself by my hand. I wavered a bit, but otherwise I was fine. "I'm dying. There. Do you believe that?"
Michele couldn't speak a word. She stood next to me, in front of me, shock obscuring all conscious thought. "Cancer?" she finally whispered.
"If I should only be so lucky." I walked close to her and put my hands on her shaking shoulders. She glared up at me, but for the first time, she didn't flinch or move away. "It's some kind of poison. Really fast-acting."
"Oh God!" Michele tore away from me, long soft hair swinging over her face. "You're lying. You're a liar, get out of my house!" Her arms shot out and she pushed me back, turning her head as if not seeing me would make this terrible situation disappear. I grabbed at her hands to stay up but I stumbled anyway. I hadn't been steady in the first place, and my legs gave out on me all the way this time. Where I'd always been able to catch myself through the morning, this time I couldn't, and it was Michele's arms that held me upright. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry." She finally seemed to believe me, and she pulled me into her arms. She was crying. Her tears rolled down her cheeks and wet mine, and her body shook in convulsive sobs. "I'm sorry...I didn't mean...It can't be true."
She shook her head and I returned her weak embrace with a strength I didn't think I still possessed. The light around me was dim, warm and flickering. It played with the spectrum of golds and reds of Michele's hair, and she looked so beautiful even in her weakness. "I'm the one who should be sorry, Mich. I never should have come. I...hate to put you through this." I stumbled in her arms and she still held on, lowering me to the couch and sitting beside me.
I hadn't noticed that more blood had accumulated around my mouth, but she wiped it away with her sleeve. "Don't worry," she whispered. She wiped her tears away and said in the professional voice she'd learned long ago, "How fast acting? How much longer do I have you for? There have to be treatments."
I saw in her eyes that she was hoping for a long time, just as I had. "I have...a day, about. There aren't any treatments. Ave gave me some Morphine for the pain, but I don't want to take that. It isn't too bad yet. I want to be coherent."
"Should we...should we tell Sky?"
Not Sky. She shouldn't have to deal with something like this on the eve of her birthday. I shook my head.
"We have to, Sean."
"No!" I traced my finger over her lips, and whispered a softer reply, "No...not right yet. Let me take you two to dinner, please?" I let out a laugh. "You know, a dying man's request."
"Sean, I'm sorry..."
"For everything. I'm sorry I wasn't...there."
"It was rather boring; you didn't miss anything. Avery just broke the news to me. I've been at the house all day thinking about you guys. My job has gone without a hitch. I'm a legend there. But my job killed me, and I know that you two are the most important thing in my life. I was the worst father and a distant and absent husband. I should have been there for you, but I wasn't. I'd like to be here for you now...until I can't anymore."
Michele was crying again and I wished to God that I could stop it. It hurt me more than any poison to see the way that I caused her pain.
"Mich? Is that okay?"
She nodded. "I'll go get Sky, tell her what's going on. I've said some...mean things about you. She's really impressionable." Michele rushed up the stairs, and I heard the hollow echo of wood. "Sky, baby? Honey, open up the door now. We're going to head out with your father for the day."
"Is he okay?" was the tentative reply.
"Oh...Hon, yeah. He's okay now."
Her sweet reply echoed through the door and down the stairs. "Are you mad at him?"
"No. Get dressed nice, okay? Meet me downstairs in about ten minutes." Michele rushed down to me again, and she looked at her sleeve where my blood was still smeared. There was more already. I wiped it away awkwardly, trying to hide it from her.
"I need to clean you up." Michele took off her own shirt. All she was wearing beneath was her bra. She ran off to her room and took a clean cerulean blouse out, sliding it over her body. The shirt I was wearing was a bit dirty. I hadn't really considered that.
Michele did. She came out with one of my old shirts under her arm. It was really casual; red sleeves and a white center; not the best color for blood. "I took this when you left," she admitted, handing it to me. She ushered me to the bathroom, where she took a rag and wet it with cold water. She wrung it out with her thin hands, squeezing the last drops of water into the sink. The rag was like refreshing ice when it touched my face. Michele dabbed drops of blood away from my mouth and nose after she cleaned my face. "You're so pale..."
She helped me into the shirt even though I didn't really need her help. When Michele was in her maternal mood no one could stop her. And she wasn't crying. I didn't want her to be sad.
She grabbed my face when she was done and looked into my eyes. I don't know what she saw there, but she kissed me on the lips softly, like a mother would kiss a baby child...just a feathery whisper. "You know...people say a lot of things they don't mean when they're mad, Sean."
I nodded and smiled. We walked out to find Sky in the kitchen, pacing back and forth in stonewashed light blue flare pants and a cottony, yellow-white lambswool sweater that set off her tan perfectly. The jeans just barely hugged her hips, so the shirt revealed just a bit of her belly, which Michele apparently didn't like. A lip ring that I didn't know Skylar had shone in her lower lip. A filthy leather pack was slung over her shoulder. "Ready?" She appraised me and frowned. "Why are we going out with Dad? I'm hanging with Todd tonight."
A date? Where had little Skylar gone? The last time I had a long conversation with her she was sure that boys were a plague.
"Honey, you don't spend time with your father often. You need to get to know him."
"Oh, yeah," Sky murmured. "Like you care. Sheesh." She rolled on some gloss and smacked her lips.
Tuesday, 19:25 hours
Dinner went well, but I knew that Skylar sensed something was wrong. She glared at me a lot, but she finally finished eating and we left. Now we sat at the park we'd gone to when she was little. Sky was on the bench, looking out into nowhere. Michele had excused herself to use the restroom and wispy air bridged the huge gap between Sky and I.
It was seven at night now. I was found at around two this morning. A day, or less...
I had about seven hours left to my life and I didn't know what to do with it. I just wanted Sky to look at me without anger in her eyes. I wanted her to see past her sadness at her parents' divorce, past the things that Michele had ingrained into her head...and remember what we used to do. She remembered when I wasn't there when she lost her first tooth, but she didn't remember how I held her hand for six hours when she was scared and sick with pneumonia.
"You used to push me on those swings," she observed, pointing.
My head snapped up. I saw the familiar set, decorated with wild blue and yellow stripes. "Yeah. You...fell off once. I was so scared when you couldn't talk but it ended up you just lost your breath."
"You were way too overprotective, dad," she said.
"It's what dads do, sadly. Us parents look at our kids while they're swinging and wonder how hard they'd hit if they fell swinging up that high, and we still smile. It's one thing after another."
Sky crossed her arms and began to take her headset out. She didn't want to hear my words.
"Sky," I said as she shoved the earbuds in. "Do you remember the walks we'd take down that trail?"
She stopped and let the earbuds fall out. "Yeah, so?"
I laughed, but it hurt a lot. I tried to hide it by lowering my head, but I think that she saw it. I still hadn't told her what was going on. I couldn't. "Well, I thought it was fun."
Silence took control, and only the wind spoke for a while, a little whisper.
"I thought it was, too," Sky finally said. I almost couldn't hear her.
"You want to take a walk?"
Sky looked up at me, and the child part of her fought against the woman. "But what about mom?"
I shrugged, hoping that the fragile link between us wouldn't snap. "She'll find us."
"Okay then. I...I'd like that."
The wind picked up as I got to my feet. Sky got up and walked close beside me, and we made our way to the trail. The sky was already darkening. The sunset was a beautiful mix of all the colors. Purple blended into a pastel blue and indigos and violets were splashed across maroon streaks that glowed like fire. Yellow sunlight made lines on the clouds, like gold veins. Shades of orange and red blazed on the horizon. The colors all reflected on the ground, and with Sky beside me, smiling thoughtfully, I couldn't think of a more perfect moment.
We walked into the trail and the road wound down, covered with rainbow leaves tinted with the dusk glow. Sky's height of five foot four seemed miniscule up to my six. She glanced at me. "Dad?"
I took a while to answer. "Yeah, Angel?" I'd always called Skylar "Angel" when she was little.
Sky stopped on the trail and looked back at me, uncertainty clear in her eyes. "I...Dad..."
"It's okay, Honey."
God, hearing those words was something I had only dreamed of.
Skylar continued, looking somewhere far off into the trees. "You know, I've been a real bit--I mean, you know, I haven't been all that great to you."
"I haven't been all that great to you, either. Remember no matter what that I have always loved you, even though I was too stupid to realize how much you mattered. Sky, you're my world. You're what makes me wake up in the morning, you and your mom, and you're what lulls me to sleep at night."
Sky laughed, inhibitions suddenly gone. "Stop it! You're making me think of my English teacher, and I hate him! Come catch me!"
She started running and I raced to catch her. The light played over her beautiful blonde hair, the same color as my own, and when I met her blue-green eyes--my eyes, the color of shallow, sunlit seawater--they glinted with happiness. "Daddy, run faster!"
I caught up with her and touched the soft cotton that hugged her shoulder. She laughed again.
I felt my lungs constrict like someone had grabbed them, and I coughed instinctively. A wave of weakness followed the gentle breeze, bringing me to my knees. Sky ran on for a moment, oblivious.
I couldn't stop coughing. It was as if my lungs were trying to rid themselves of...themselves. I shook my head and tried to stop, tried to hold it back like I had so many times in the restaurant. But it wouldn't happen. Breath refused to enter into my body. I felt my own blood on my hands, and I heard Sky's scream, all the while wishing that she didn't have to see...any of this.
I gasped in air that my body wouldn't accept, and I felt the coppery taste of my life blood as it bubbled in my mouth. The colors of the sunset faded into darkness, just like everything else.
Sky's voice intruded on advancing unconsciousness. "Dad? Dad, what's happening? Stop, wake up--someone, Help! I need help. Mom!"
Her hands gripped mine and let them go, and then she was gone with everything else.
Wednesday, 00:12 hours
Voices...all around me.
"He's waking up!"
"Sean, baby, open your eyes! It's okay."
Another voice. "Man, you better wake up, I said you had more time than this."
I opened my eyes and saw Avery and Michele standing beside a bed I was on. Sky was beside them. She gripped my hand tight in her own as her tears dripped down onto it. Once my skin was as dark as hers but it seemed like ice beneath her bronze skin. "Daddy." The room was white and clean, and blankets covered me. I felt no pain; apparently Ave had given me something.
Avery smiled, but it was hopeless.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"It's...it's only midnight. The strain on your already weak body was..." My friend's eyes met mine, but he looked away. "It was too much."
"Then it's time."
Sky buried her face in the hand that held mine, and she tried not to cry. I think she was trying to be strong. But she didn't have to be. I had everything I wanted, right here.
I felt the light leaving me for a final time, except this time it was different. The darkness that came was darker...more imminent and more permanent. This was death. This was it. I wondered why I didn't feel bad about it. Sky was a great girl and Michele was a wonderful woman. They were both mine for the short time I realized how much I needed them. I was ... strangely ... happy.
"Daddy, don't leave, please."
The darkness that was death closed in on my eyes, on my mind and my heart. I fell into a memory of a young Sky sitting on my lap beside Michele and Ave. The grass was a flawless green and the summer wind smelled of new life. That memory began to carry me into the darkness. Then I remembered.
"Happy birthday, Angel," I whispered. Happy birthday. The first one I had attended in six years.
Sky kissed my hand that was wet with her tears. "Thanks, Dad."
The darkness took me into the same thoughts I always thought, back onto the porch watching little Sky play. Except, this time, Avery and Michele were there. And there was a magnificent sunset. It was perfect.
Word count: 4878 This is a contest entry. I have chosen to disable reviews. While feedback is amazing and always appreciated, I recognize the many flaws in these and am keeping them as an archive of my early work rather than a piece I am actively trying to rewrite and improve.