Liz heard a howl from upstairs. Startled, she dropped her coffee mug. She thought of sweeping the ceramic pieces from the tile floor.
But then she heard another scream.
She hurried out of the kitchen and bounded up the stairs, pausing just outside the guest room to recover her breath. After the hospital released him, she’d moved Tom from the master bedroom to the guestroom. Too thin for the king-sized bed, he slept in a hospital bed whose steel rails prevented him from falling.
Gingerly, she stepped in, trying not to gag from the stench of excrement. She looked down at his gaunt body, his once-firm arm muscles but a pale sack of flesh.
“Honey,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically sweet. “The pain is killing me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I gave you two Oxys this morning. The doctor said you’re to take two every six hours. Each is 10 mg. So taken together, that’s a pretty powerful dose.”
“But I need more,” he protested. “Now!”
Rarely did she challenge him, but suddenly emboldened, she set her hands on her hips. “You read the newspapers,” she said. “Millions are dying from opiate overdoses. It’s an epidemic.”
“Among the white trash in Appalachia, maybe,” he said. “But not someone of my stature.”
“The addiction transcends social classes,” she said, shifting on her feet. “Remember your partner’s daughter, Susie? Her mother found her on the bathroom floor, dead from an overdose of Oxy.”
“Get my meds already!” Tom roared.
Liz stepped back instinctively, fearing as always, that he’d strike her. But he couldn’t. Cancer had robbed him of his strength.
“No,” she said, shocked at the defiance in her voice. ‘You, too, might overdose.” Her lips hurt as she eked out a smile. “Now how about we clean you up?”
Reddening, Tom turned away as she reached beneath the filthy sheets and detached the plastic bag from his abdomen. Pinching it with her forefingers she stepped into the bathroom, stuffed the old bag into a gallon-size Ziplock, reached into the cabinet for a new bag and carefully re-attached it.
“Can you make it to the chair?” she asked.
Shoulders hunched, he ripped off his sheets, hobbled to the wicker chair, eased down on it, stretching out his white hairless legs. Watching him, Liz wished she hadn’t quit her job as a fifth-grade teacher at a nearby private school. She hadn’t wanted to; she loved her job. But Tom had insisted that the cost of a paid caregiver far exceeded her meager salary.
“Now let’s take off your jammies,” she said.
He pulled them off leg by leg, arm by arm. “This is so demeaning,” he groused, his pajamas a smelly heap on the floor.
Back in the bathroom, Liz opened the cabinet, pulled out a clean yellow sponge and filled a pail with soapy water. She returned to the guestroom, sponged Tom’s anus, his limbs, his underarms. In the bathroom, she spilled the dark water into the toilet. Returning to the guestroom, she handed him a clean pair of pajamas, white with blue stripes.
“We should think about adult diapers,” she said. “That way you won’t have to be cleaned all the time.”
“I’m not a baby,” he shot back. “I won’t wear diapers. But to ease your burdens, why don’t you just leave my meds here?” He tapped the wood table beside his bed.
“So you can kill yourself?”
“That,” he said, “would never happen. I’ve made up my mind to live to ninety.”
Ninety? She shuddered. Could he really survive another thirty years?
Crouching over, he limped back to his bed and slid beneath the clean sheets.
“Now, try to get some sleep,” she said, picking up the wicker laundry basket.
She closed the door behind her, climbed down the stairs to the finished basement, stuffed the laundry in the washing machine, poured in liquid detergent and sat down on the leather pull-out sofa. She leaned back against the sofa and, momentarily soothed by the hum of the washing machine, thought back on their courtship and marriage.
At a country-club party thirty years ago, a kind, athletic man invited her to dance. Their bodies pressed against each other, she could feel his erection, see the attraction in his eyes. When the music stopped, he suggested they get a drink at the bar. He promptly delivered her Chardonnay along with what looked like vodka— or gin— and tonic, a slice of lime wedged in the rim of the frothy glass. Between sips, he told her he was a lawyer, specializing in corporate mergers.
“I’m not exactly saving the world,” he said, cracking a smile. “But I do make good money and I enjoy the work.” He took another sip, the ice cubes clicking. “So what do you do, Liz?”
Her voice but a squeak, she told him she was in graduate school at Columbia, studying art history. “I don’t know what I’ll do with that degree,” she added with a casual laugh.
He took her number and, in the weeks that followed, wooed her with bouquets of fragrant roses, fine restaurants, front-row opera seats. Within a year, they married at the Plaza Hotel, honeymooned in Paris.
But two years into their marriage that man disappeared. She had only herself to blame. She’d put on fifty pounds during her pregnancy, shed only twenty when she gave birth to Katie, their one and only child. Disgusted with her body, Tom refused to touch her. Most nights he didn’t get home until past midnight. She’d feign sleep as he slid into the bed beside her, smelling of raw sex.
The green light flashed on the washing machine. She gathered the wet clothes and stuffed them in the dryer, lugged her weary body up the basement stairs, stepped into the sun-drenched living room, dropped down on the brown leather lounge they’d bought at Sotheby’s.
A week after Katie left for college, Liz consulted a divorce lawyer. Now that she no longer had a child to care for, no more would she endure Tom’s blows or cover her bruises with large sunglasses and long-sleeved shirts. The divorce papers had been drawn up, signed, notarized, but had not yet been served on that Wednesday in June when she’d rushed Tom to the hospital.
Stretching her legs, Liz thought back on the last three months. Tom never missed his weekly tennis game, but one night, doubled over in pain, he had no choice but to cancel. In the days that followed, he ate but a forkful of meat before racing to the bathroom, his head poised over the toilet as he barfed up the half-chewed beef. Liz begged him to call the doctor, but Tom, citing his perfect health, refused. Then one night, unable to breathe, he allowed her to drive him to the emergency room.
At St., Mary’s Hospital, the ER doctor checked Tom’s vitals, pressed a rubber-gloved hand against Tom’s stomach, then shouted at the orderlies. “Rush him upstairs for emergency surgery.”
Liz paced the hospital’s third-floor lounge for hours, sipping cold black coffee from a Styrofoam cup.
Finally, the surgeon emerged from the operating room, his face half-covered by a blue mask. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s cancer. We removed his entire colon. He’s in his room now, recuperating. You can visit if you like.”
Tiptoeing into room 323, Liz gasped when she saw the IV’s attached to Tom’s arm, a plastic bag of urine dangling from the side of his bed.
Awakening, he fluttered his eyes, patted his body, felt the bandages, pressed his hand against his colonoscopy bag. “Why the fuck did you let them do this to me?” he shouted.
Before she could answer, a young man burst in, dressed in a white surgical jacket.
“I’m Dr. Chase,” he said, glancing at his digital watch. “The oncologist on call.” His stethoscope swinging, he approached Tom’s bed. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said, his voice flat. “You’ve got colon cancer, stage three.”
Tom managed to raise his head. “Impossible,” he retorted. “I’ve never been sick a day in my life. I eat healthy, play tennis and work out at the gym most every day.”
The doctor shrugged. “Cancer preys on the healthy, too.”
Liz shuddered as Tom, his face contorted, cross-examined the oncologist. “How long do I have?” Tom demanded. “Months? Years?”
Dr. Chase stole a glance at his watch. “We don’t know,” he said, turning to leave. “Every patient’s different.”
Two weeks later, Tom’s incision having healed, the hospital released him. The following day, Liz delivered him to the hospital’s oncology department for what would be his weekly chemotherapy infusion. She crouched on a small bench beside his leather lounge chair as the nurse stabbed his arm, inserted a rubber tube in the hole and attached it to a pump.
“I’m going to beat the fuck of this cancer,” Tom announced when, six hours later, the nurse yanked out the rubber tube.
He always got his way, at his law firm, in the courtroom, in their home. Would cancer also yield to his iron will?
When Liz heard the dryer buzzing, she returned to the basement, scooped up the warm clothes, crammed them into the laundry basket, but didn’t bother to lug it upstairs.
Weary, she climbed back up the staircase into the two-story living room. The sun poured through the skylight, illuminating the mirror that hung on the wall above a glass and chrome table. Breathing deeply, she studied her reflection, fiddling with her shoulder-length blonde hair. She looked older than fifty-five, lines etched around her eyes and lips and forehead, her neck saggy and wrinkled.
If only he’d die already.
Her hand shot to her lips. The thought had just slipped out. She hadn’t meant it. Really, she hadn’t.
She stepped into the kitchen, filled her mug with tepid coffee, drank it standing up. Outside the window, spring beckoned, a soft breeze brushing the freshly green trees. Straining her ears, she heard no sound from upstairs. Dare she take a walk? She stepped into her Nike sneakers, tied them up. Should she take her cell phone? No, she decided. If Tom needed his meds, too bad. Let him feel the pain. Lord knows, she had.
The front yard smelled of Lilac and freshly mowed grass. Liz ambled along the sidewalk past red-brick McMansions with three-car garages. When she reached the end of the cul-de-sac, she turned around and headed home.
Her mailbox was stuffed with catalogues and bills. And an envelope from Allied Life Insurance, marked “past due.”
She’d better pay the premium: Tom was worth more dead than alive.
Tucking the mail beneath her arm, she spotted Richie, their next-door neighbor, muscles bulging beneath his short-sleeved tee shirt. Studying his own mail, at first he didn’t see her.
“Hey!” she called out.
Looking up, he flashed her a white-tooth grin and stepped toward her. Beneath his Yankee hat, his auburn hair was gray at the temples. Not only had he the body of a quarterback, but he also possessed fine character, serving as president of a non-profit that fed kids in Africa.
“I haven’t seen you and Angie for quite a while,” Liz said, referring to his blonde, pretty wife. The seemingly perfect couple had three high-achieving children, all on honor roll, their behavior always respectful.
“We’re doing well,” he said, tossing a furniture catalogue into the blue recycling bin. “How’s Tom?” he asked. “We ought to invite you to our barbeque next month, the first one of the season.”
“He’s not well,” she muttered.
Richie looked back at her inquisitively. “May I be so bold as to ask what’s wrong with him?”
“Colon cancer,” she said.
Richie stepped closer. He smelled of Irish Spring soap. “Dear God,” he said. “Poor Tom.” Sympathy beaming from his eyes, Richie asked. “How are you doing? I know how hard it was for my sister when my brother-in-law was dying of lung cancer.”
Liz sighed, attempting levity. “No sooner did Katie go off to college than I inherited another baby.”
Richie touched her hand. “Sorry,” he said. “For both of you.”
“Shit happens to all of us,” Liz said.
But not to Richie and his family.
Despite her resentment at their good fortune, she felt her nipples harden and her groin ache. She’d been celibate for years, a deprivation she didn’t deserve. Had she felt better about herself, she’d might have found another man, someone who’d appreciate her.
“Thanks for your concern,” she said. “But I’d best check on him.”
As she stepped into the house, anger rose within her like steam from a kettle. After years of mistreating her, how dare Tom continue to abuse her?
Liz closed her eyes. There was only one way out.
She stepped quietly up the stairway, stood by the door to the guestroom, heard Tom’s cough.
Stepping in, she asked, “How’s the pain?”
He raised his head. “Even worse.”
“Sorry,” she said. “But maybe you were right this morning. A few more Oxys won’t kill you.”
He flashed her a rare smile.
She stepped into the bathroom, collected the plastic vials of pain meds, set them on the table beside Tom’s bed.
A graduate of Columbia University's schools of Law and Journalism, I'm an award-winning journalist and former reporter at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. I turned to writing fiction—my true passion—several years ago when the newspaper industry collapsed. I've published one short story and am completing a novel. I'm an alum of the Yale Writing Program. I live in Pittsburgh with my husband.