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Elevators Rush for No One - A Short Story
They told me I could talk to you. That you may be asleep. You may hear me, you may not. I figure, it's worth a shot.
We’ve known each other for what seems like forever, but truthfully it’s only been a little over a year. I remember when we first met--in class. We became friends so quickly. I can’t really explain it. You just made sitting through class a lot more bearable.
I feel achy, the way I feel when I’m feverish. But I’m not feverish. I can tell.
We’ve been taking classes together every semester. The third semester you were gone on vacation when sign-ups started, but we still managed to get into two of the same courses. Remember? I don’t think it would feel like college if we weren’t taking something together. Hell, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.
I missed way too many classes before we started hanging out. But you were never the type. “Absent” didn’t seem to be in your vocabulary. You got me back on track.
That’s why from the very first day you missed class I started to worry. I had tried calling you the night before to go over some homework, but you didn’t answer. When you were absent for two more consecutive class periods, and you still weren’t answering your phone, that’s when I panicked. I started asking around, but nobody really knew anything. Samn, faithful roommate that she is, said she thought you went to visit your mom. She at least gave me a place to start. And she wasn’t completely wrong either. After the fourth absence and still no word, I had to have answers, so even though I’d only met your mother once, I made the two hour trip to her house.
I remember standing on the weathered welcome mat waiting after ringing the doorbell. My hands were shaking so I stuck them in my pockets.
Don’t get me wrong. I love your mom’s house. It’s beautiful. But that day it looked so gloomy. Someone had pulled all the blinds down over the upstairs windows. It made it look like the house was sleeping. The door opened, gasping, as if to admit tragic news.
Don’t cry. She doesn’t need you to cry. She needs you to smile. So smile!
I asked your mom, “Mrs. Connolly, is Nora home?” hoping she’d remember me. Something told me she wouldn’t. She looked older than she did when I’d first met her, even though it was only last semester. The skin under her eyes looked puffy and her hair was beginning to lose its color.
She said, “I’m sorry, no.” She rubbed her hands together. She was nervous. She went on, “Perhaps you should come in for a minute.”
I followed her through the house. It hadn’t changed as much as she had. The pictures of you dressed in flowing blue robes and a scholar’s cap still hung in an obscure pattern across the living room wall. Another picture stood on an end-table trimmed in a classy gray frame; in this one you stood against a tree, smiling in your best Sunday-casual clothes. It made me think of the times you had invited me to church. All I could ever think to say was, “I don’t believe in God.” Maybe that’s why you asked so much.
She offered me a seat. I sat down, and hunched forward with my hands between my knees. I started sweating, and waited nervously to hear what was obviously going to be bad news.
Your mother sat down on the other side of a coffee table. I stared at my hands because I was afraid to look up.
“Alan, isn’t it?” She remembered my name.
I nodded my head.
“You and Nora have become pretty close, haven’t you?”
Once again, I nodded. A meek, “yes ma’am,” slipped from between my lips.
She said, “I suppose I could say the two of you are even becoming serious.”
“I don’t know about that,” I told her, getting all bashful. I looked at the floor. “We’ve just been friends for so long, I’m not sure we know how to be much else.”
And she said, “I think you do. Some of the best loves are born of a healthy friendship.” I started to protest, but your mother said, “She talks about you all the time. Good things.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of you having late night conversations with your mother about the man in your life. About me. I’ve never wanted to admit it before, but I fell hard for you. You’re much more special to me than I ever realized. And much more special than I was ever ready to admit. When I looked back at your mother, her lips were quivering.
She told me she had some bad news. Her eyelids were welling up quickly. I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty and out of place.
The sweat on my body suddenly felt cold. My hands stopped rubbing together. They just held each other tight. I thought terrible thoughts. ‘Could she be dead? Was she in a car accident? What’s going on?’ I repeatedly told myself that I was giving my imagination too much slack. With futile effort, I reassured myself that I was overreacting again and again as I sat waiting to hear news that I was nowhere near ready to take.
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Later that evening
Just imagine, despite my attention constantly edging towards your empty seat, my notes were perfect today. Whatever Dr. Gilluss said went on my paper.
I kept repeating in my head, ‘I’m going to see Nora as soon as class is over. I’ll give her copies of all my notes. She wouldn’t want to get behind.’
Despite my efforts to focus on class, I kept thinking about you. Class seemed to last forever. I know when you want time to go by quicker, you should occupy yourself and ignore the clock. But my eyes watched it instinctively. The second hand looked so heavy. I just needed to see you.
At first I was scared of coming here. I was afraid of how fragile you may be. I was afraid you’d be gone.
Well, it’s a 20-minute drive from campus. I made it in eight.
I'll quit bothering you now and let you sleep. Talk to you in the morning.
The next day, after a restless night's sleep in an uncomfortable chair.
How long had we known each other before we finally admitted that we could possibly be more than friends? Not verbally. Hell no! I think we were both too scared for that. You remember? It was late September, just a couple months ago. Truthfully, it scared me a little. But I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
I’ll always remember. Every detail. You were sitting on top of the wide brick banister overlooking the small courtyard behind the English building. You were wearing a green tank-top and khaki capris. The bottom of the shirt was very billowy. It gracefully caught the breeze. You looked amazing! Your skin looked like satin, radiant beneath the sun. I remember thinking how harsh the coarse bricks must have been against your soft skin when you leaned back against one of the pillars.
The evening had started out no different than any other we ever spent together. We sat in the shade of the thick brick pillars, studying, talking, and having Smoothies from the Campus Café. We had just put our books away after discussing Freudian concepts in A Rose for Emily. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what you see in William Faulkner!
I remember, you asked me what I wanted to do that evening. And of course, I had to give you a hard time and tease you before finally giving you a straight answer.
I told you, “As little as I absolutely have to.” And I let out a lazy yawn and smile.
“Oh come on, you have to do something! It’s Friday!” You nudged my leg playfully with your bare foot.
I said, “Wouldn’t you rather just relax?”
The thought of being so casual with you such a short time ago hurts. I wouldn’t dare be so careless with my words now. And in a way, I regret having been so difficult then, even if it was only kidding around.
And you said, “Don’t give me that shit!"
And I told you, “You know, that’s what I like about you." I picked up the cross that was hanging around your neck. You’re still wearing it, I see. I continued on with my playfulness: “You believe what you believe, in God and all, but you still have enough sense to know that ‘shit’ and ‘crap’ mean essentially the same thing. I hate it when people will say ‘crap’ but they won’t say ‘shit.’ It just makes me angry. Like, why is ‘crap’ such a better word?” And on and on I went.
You smiled and looked down at me. You used to love it when I would be so playful and tease you about things. I reached up and touched your face, then your lips. Like this. I sat up next to you and held your hand. We had held hands before, but that time felt different. There was no laughing involved, no joking or kidding around; both of our palms were so sweaty. I looked into your eyes. They looked like diamonds! Your smile faded into a look of seriousness as our faces drew closer together. Strangely, I wasn’t nervous at all.
The wind blew your hair across both of our faces as we kissed.
It's getting dark outside.
I made an important discovery this afternoon: elevators rush for no one, not even in a hospital. I waited, my English notebook in one hand, lunch from the hospital cafe in the other, as it slowly descended from the floors above. It arrived with an unsettling “ding!” and two men stepped out. The older of the two was wearing a classy gray suit; the younger was wearing a decorated Army uniform: camouflage sprinkled with cords and flags, something to state his importance.
I remember you poking fun at my course of study, English, even though it was your course of study too. We were both well aware that getting a job would be tough. But it didn’t matter. You’d go on and on teasing me, and of course I’d tease back. You’d ask me “Hey Hemingway, when are you finally going to give up on literature and join the military?”
All I could think to say was, “I don’t believe in the military.”
My mouth was dry and it was hard to swallow when I boarded the elevator. I pushed the button for the 7th floor. I wondered if you were expecting me.
The elevator was nice, decorative: lush red carpet with hardwood trim and wooden hand rails. Designed for comfort. But it didn’t make me feel any better.
I watched the lights change from one all the way up to seven. The elevator buzzed this shrill, obnoxious sound before the doors opened. It actually made me jump a little. When the doors slid open I nearly passed out from the smell of disinfectant. Knowing you were so close, the thought of seeing you made me wish the elevator had stopped halfway up. Then I could have blamed my reluctance on something other than fear. I was just so scared to see you like this. I’m still scared.
The hallway looked deserted. Each of my footsteps echoed all around this place as I looked for your room: 725.
“It’s always been there," your mother told me. “But now, it’s bad. It’s gotten worse.”
I won’t bother myself with why you didn’t tell me. Whatever your reason is, I’m sure I’ll respect it. Besides, you have enough trouble at the moment without having to explain yourself to anyone.
I suddenly felt bad for everyone in this place. As I walked the hallways, I looked into each open door without thinking much about it. Each room looked the same: lifeless. I came into your room and it looked no different. It scared me to death. It felt like a bad dream. I could hardly breathe and had to force my legs to carry me past the door frame.
You looked like you were sleeping.
I don’t mean to exhale so forcefully, but remembering what it was like to approach the bedside is more than I can take; the air comes out mixed with a whimper.
But then I noticed you were awake.
I slide off the bed and kneel beside you. I take your hand in mine. Your complexion has faded until it nearly matches the chalky sheets on your bed. I squeeze gently and feel you trying to do the same. I cry. I can’t hold it in any longer! I look into your eyes that are barely open--peering out, they look like specs of shining coal--and all I can think to say is:
I don’t believe in cancer.
© 2008 Kenneth Harris