When my wife Jen received her diagnosis, Summer was in full swing. It was the weekend before the fourth of July and we’d been planning a party. We’d been carefree, so breezy and loving and lost in the soft arc of our third year together. We’d just closed on our house, thoughts of children on the horizon, and not even a speck of a worry in our minds.
Then, we invited a third into our bed, a lover in the form of a personal plague. The sickness began brewing in the sweltering heat, turning Jen’s body into a carnival of twisted sideshow contortions of pain. She’d wake screaming in the middle of the night, frantically trying to cast off invisible devils perched on her chest, screaming that she felt like she was bathing in a lake of fire.
It took doctors four visits to discover the tumor that’d been growing inside of her chest. It took them a few more to fully diagnose her. It only took one word to completely bring our world crashing down around our feet: Cancer.
Incurable, but treatable. We could fight this. We were strong; she was strong. This didn’t have to mean the end. But then she got sicker, and she kept getting sicker, far faster than was normal.
Despite both of us being lovers of all things organic, we decided to try the chemotherapy route.
Admitted to the hospital, we had high hopes. She seemed to be accepting the treatment well. Weeks in, she was feeling stronger, better. She hadn’t lost any of her hair, and she was actually eating and sleeping easier than she had in a while.
Then, in the middle of the night, after one of her best days, her body just started shutting down.
No amount of tests they ran or drugs they pumped into her helped. On the contrary, anything meant to help just seemed to massively hurt. So, we stopped trying.
I spent what I believed to be my last days with her; I would sit by her hospital bed and hold her in her frailty, watching the life suck from her eyes like the dying glow of a candle. I would wonder where everything took a turn for the worse, and though we didn’t believe in any higher powers, I would still question in the early hours of morning how this could ever happen to her – to us.
At the end of a long day, during which she’d barely opened her eyes and hadn’t eaten a thing, I was sitting crumpled and defeated, slumped into an uncomfortable plastic chair next to her bed; the last week had been rough. I leaned back in the chair, pressing the butt of my palms into my eyes, trying to rub the worry away. Then, with a whisper that set a block of ice between each notch in my spine, a voice crawled out of the darkness from somewhere behind me.
“What would you do?”
I jumped with a start, glancing around the room; nothing but darkness, the faint light from the moon outside spilling softly to balance it out.
Great, hearing voices, I thought. Just what I needed.
I stood up to take a walk and get a coffee, and I heard the voice again; stronger, louder, it came from in front of me this time: “What would you give up?”
Sucking in a breath of air, I tasted ash in the back of my throat.
Staring at the spot where the voice had come from, I noticed the darkness shift, as though compensating for something. Just as my eyes adjusted completely, the shadows seemed to rush forward, enveloping me. In the blink of an eye, I was standing in a living, breathing shroud; still in the same room, but it felt like I was under a layer of smoke. Everything around me wavered in the hushed stillness of the air; every slight movement I made felt like it was performed in the sucking, miniscule vacuum of space.
A weight pressed down on my shoulder and the voice filled my head, crawling dead over the prickled back of my neck and coming to life between my ears, “Would you give yourself? Would you sacrifice yourself to save her, giving up flesh and home to be with her?”
My eyes closed of their own accord; the smell of ash, of burning, was overwhelming. I basked in it for a moment before answering, “Yes.”
“Yes, I would give my life, whatever that’s worth.” I thought for a moment in silence before continuing, “I would give everything.”
The weight lifted from my shoulder, the presence sliding away from me entirely, and I opened my eyes. Bathed in a sweet, cottony pink, the room had taken on a new life. With the next words, it pulsed, the walls breathing in deep, throbbing succession.
“She will heal. She will return to you. You are bound together, to this earth, for the rest of your days,” the soft glow light flickered, as if pondering its words, “But before you can regain anything, you must lose everything.”
I nodded unwittingly, the motion forced from me by exhaustion and a deep wanting, only half understanding.
The colors began to fade with a light noise like air going through a chainlink fence; hazily, I turned to face Jen’s bed. Next to her stood a humanlike form. Its visible features were exaggerated. It felt like viewing a stranger in a crowd through the prism of a memory or a dream.
It waved a hand over her sleeping body and she began to seize, her chest rising up to meet it in rapid, hitched movements, and her body folded in half backwards.
A moment later, she flatlined.
The funeral was surreal. It felt like I was almost watching a film of someone else’s life. I watched Jen’s body get lowered into the ground, surrounded by our friends and family. Everyone was crying, tears marking somber paths down their cheeks as eyes trailed her into a human-sized hole.
I allowed grief to carry my features in harmony with everyone else’s, knowing deep within me that she would be back. The experience in her hospital room hadn’t been a hallucination; it’d been entirely real, and though my world had come crashing down twice in a short span of time, it would be lifted back up once more.
When Jen came back a few weeks later, she was different.
Drifting between the planes of wakefulness and sleep, I half-dreamt of a world of red trees, palms of gentle fire rubbing against a crystallized cerulean sky. In my clear cover, I saw a portal open up with a ripple, pushing outward in concentric circles. The portal, a vision, became a sound; a slight tapping permeating my dreamworld.
As the tapping grew louder and louder, the dream faltered and I groggily raised my head from my pillow. The tapping was in my room, coming from the door at the foot of my bed. I swung my legs over the side and padded over to it. Pressing my ear against the door, I listened. Silence. Exhausted, I was about to return to bed when the tapping came again in three sharp knocks.
I swung the door open to find Jen standing there, staring at me – no, through me. She looked exactly the same as the day she was buried; white cotton dress, black shoes, her hair spilled wide around her pale shoulders in a honeysuckle curtain. Glimmering with an iridescent sheen, her skin seemed to have taken on the essence of filtered mercury.
Shaking, I held my hand up to touch her; she followed my movements like a delayed mirror, trailing just a tick behind. Her skin was cold, and shivered beneath my touch. I realized after a moment that I was holding my breath. I let it out, and her entire form quivered.
Not knowing what else to do, I moved away from the door; with a jagged display of acknowledgement, her chin clicked harshly to the side in a queer mimic of a nod. She shuffled forward, each movement seeming to be torn from the base brain, somewhere blessed from deep in her memory instead of present instinct.
Shuffling over to the bed, she went to her side, dropped onto it backwards, and fell into a rigor somewhat resembling dead sleep.
I stood in the doorway for a while, slumped against the frame with my eyes closed. My ears roved the room behind me trying to pick up any sign of life; there was nothing, just the natural sounds of the night. After what felt like ages, I sighed deeply and turned around; she was still lying on the bed, stock still. I moved over to the bed and sat down. Besides her eyes, which were open and locked on some unknown point in the ceiling, there was no discernible sign of life. But every time I moved closer to her, her body would start convulsing just the slightest, as though it were waiting for the point of contact.
I spent the rest of that night watching her. In the morning, I called in to work; my excuse wasn’t entirely a lie; during the night, a feeling of sickness had washed over me. It felt like the rapid, destructive kind of cold I used to get as a kid. Shivering in the pale light of day even though my body was burning hot, I sat in silence and waited. At exactly 8 AM, she sat up and moved over to the corner of the room. I watched in silence as she pressed her palms into the window, a gentle keening sound brewing somewhere deep in her body.
The longer I watched her, the more I noticed. The way her back rippled under her dress like a faint breeze, the faint glow of light coming from all around her. I felt locked on her, my eyes somehow attempting to take in more than the scene had to offer.
As the sun began to sparkle in the sky beyond the window, she turned; first her head, then her shoulders, then the rest of her. A deep creaking like a redwood shifting in a sea of trees permeated the room. For some reason, I wanted to shout at her, to ask her what was going on, but I couldn’t. All I could do was bask in the warmth of her, the sweet bosom of her presence overriding any sense of preservation I had left.
Then, she moved. One moment, she was at the window, her hitching form backlit by the morning sun. The next, she was on top of me, writhing, a nightmare mimic of passionate embrace. Deep choking noises pulsed from her chest like coughs and there was a loving fury in her eyes that didn’t look human. She stroked my cheek, her finger leaving a burning divot wherever it touched.
I opened my mouth to say something and she filled it, her tongue roving the deepest parts; behind my teeth, across my gums, licking and sucking away at every ounce of saliva she could find as though it were lifewater. Her hips pressed into mine like pistons, grinding into me, and I closed my eyes, welcoming the sweet, shallow intrusion. Spindly fingers snaked through my hair, tearing it away in little clumps, and a crow of ecstasy slipped past my lips as she vomited black bile deep into the back of my throat.
As she lifted her face from mine, I opened my eyes to take her in. She was beautiful as ever, her skin a shining, steaming layer of viscera melting into the air of the room like mist rising off a mountaintop. Her eyes bulged out of her skin like hardboiled eggs, glazed over with a foamy layer of fresh membrane, and her lips were caked with flaking crust, the marriage of our two bodies having succumbed to the heat flowing between us.
Like throbbing needles, her fingers pricked away at my scalp, and I felt the skin flay, wearing down to tender spots speckling the wasted landscape of my flesh. She moved down, nuzzling her cheek into mine like she always used to when she’d wake from a bad dream, suffering in the twilight moan of night giving way to early morn, and I nuzzled back, feeling the muscle bubble beneath our joined touch and reform to allow her passage.
Probing gently, her tongue played over my teeth like a sweet piano’s song, tinkling across the keys from the inside of her own mouth. I closed my eyes, remembering her smell, conjuring it up past the melted flesh and burning ash suffocating the room.
I placed a hand on the side of her neck, running my thumb in small circles, and with each pass, my movements slowed as the digit slowly fused into her.
We rocked gently with each other for hours, delivering our forms into each other with an exquisite passion I’d never before experienced even in our best moments.
By noon, we were finished, our passion whimpering like a kicked dog in a puddle of sweat between the tousled sheets. I stretched, and she stretched with me; all sense of physical autonomy had been shed like an unwanted husk. I rose from the bed, my movements now planned by two minds, carried by two strengths, pushed forth by two wills, and strode proudly to the mirror slung across the back of the bedroom door; reflected back at me, I could see the best of each of us. One of Jen’s icy blue eyes jutted from the side of my forehead, blinking in a two-second delay behind my own. Her perfect smile, a striking white in the soft glow of the sun shining through the window, glittered like incandescent pearls in a row across my collarbone. All across my body – our body – were the reminders of a life well-lived; a life lived together once again.
Narrated by Lillie C. Nation