It was Wednesday. Just prior to Alba Troth III’s physical that he kept putting off because of all the manuscripts piled on his calendar. Wednesday when she appeared. At first he thought her a hummingbird, green blur he could hardly make out, enticing red throat, wings beating hurry, hurry, hurry.
He didn’t hurry. He was tired to the bone of hurrying. Through his smoker’s EcoZoneTent that sucked up his exhales and the smoke that curled off his cigarette, he simply stared. Caught. By beauty. By the existential meaning of caring. By hurry, hurry, hurry. As if. As if it applied to him. As if anyone cared.
A smile curled his lips.
Cigarette smoke brought clarity to his mind, like the fresh air after a lightning strike. The toke heated, mellow. Almost like a swallow of gin. Almost like marigolds.
The hummingbird bumped at his tent and bumped and bumped and places on him felt licked. Light spots appeared before his eyes.
He remembered … almost. And when he looked up, it was spring, cherry blossoms falling from grass so green it juiced in his mouth and the sky so blue it lifted him towards clouds.
Alba lifted his hand for the next hit, but hurry must have rubbed off because he stubbed out the cigarette and when he unzipped his cloister, she had vanished.
He made it to the appointment. And he waited patiently to endure the proceedings, arms bitten and smashed by a robot that proceeded to beep. At the end when the doctor tapped his chest with the electrostethoscan and said inhale and hold for ten, Alba fell into a coughing fit, something stuck in his chest, something he had to get out.
When he quit hacking into a handkerchief and all the heat tightening his skin rushed back to normal, he wasn’t surprised by the doctor’s news.
“You have lung cancer. I recommend immediate removal of the tumor. Your blood tests returned a cancer positive, which means it could have spread through all your lymph nodes. I am hoping for a better prognosis after the surgery and chemotherapy. But we will see. I want you to start on these pills right away.” He handed over a prescription.
Alba nodded. But the room had turned to lines. All edges in black, walls white, room hollow.
The doctor bip-bipped at his handheld until all the arrangements were made, surgery two weeks later on black Friday, could Alba make it by then?
Of course, said Alba and wondered why he had lied.
His partner Jered took the news like someone lit on fire.
Along with his feverish impatience, Jered brought a civil judge and vows that read from Paul “If I had the gift of prophecy and knew all about what would happen in the future, knew everything about everything, but didn’t love others, what good would it do? ” and “Love is very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty or selfish or rude” and “If you love someone you will be loyal to him no matter the cost. You will always believe in him, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him.” Behind the papers, and the statements read out and he and his partner’s repetition, were eyes … eyes that watched … her eyes. Whose eyes?
Afterward, Alba sat perched on a wooden chair feeling caged like a bird while old friends trooped through their home, brought hugs and … his first awareness of vampires. Little bites sucking into him like doubts that pulled the energy from his limbs.
Days later, all his cigarettes disappeared, replaced by nicotine patches he dutifully wore.
A sickly sweet chloroform smell began to coat his breath and soon filled every room. It seemed too much southern mimosa and gardenia and hospital all mixed together. A pill every four hours like clockwork with Jered’s deep eyes examining him felt like Alba would choke and the only thing worse was when one of the little vampire bats would cross Jered’s face then wing away.
Then the sweats would overtake Alba, dripping into his eyes and all the patches in the world would do little to ease his need.
Soon the windows were all shut. The carpets all removed. New allergenic linens replaced their bedding. The filters replaced. Around him Alba’s cage grew polished and shone. No new particulate would reach his tender, betraying lungs.
He tried to write, but no words would fall from his hands, no keyboard letter pressed and only occasionally did a thought other than death cross his mind.
The hospital staff talked Alba all the way to the bed with warm covers, wearing a warmed gown and the IV in his arm and talked while wheeling him into the surgery and the monitors on his toe and thumb. Kind eyes above a blue face mask counted 5 … 4 … 3 but Alba’s mind flattened before 2 much less 1.
But after awhile, Alba found he sat along with the medical students in the theater above the surgery, watching his body down below get cut and sectioned.
A collected hush emerged from the group as the first vampire was removed. An old one and the largest. A twisted and black one with mottled vessels of seeping gold, as if someone plunged a huge spike through its chest and it screamed out all the agony. Alba immediately felt better. See, evil had infested him and now was gone. He would survive.
“What is it?” one student asked.
“Bottom lobe of his lung, stupid,” someone muttered.
Alba felt like he’d been punched in the chest. He looked down and saw the same twisting gold on his hands and fingernails and tried to thrust his fists into his pockets but only found the side less drapery of the hospital gown.
“What do they look like healthy?”
“Like a bloody tampon. Blood is good, the lung is a filter.”
“Eww. He smoked? How arcane.”
Alba shifted nervously, but then someone held his hand, warmth spreading through him and he relaxed until the surgeons brought the needles out.
Alba stood up, he didn’t like needles. He started to leave the surgery theater, but the hand held him still, the lights out so he couldn’t make out who insisted he stay.
The surgeon raised one long ten inch needle and slowly lowered it onto his chest. Alba caught his breath, hands holding his gaping mouth. The needle plunged deep.
When Alba realized there was no associated pain, he sat. Slowly, from around the needle a black smoke grew, coalesced and became another vampire. It flew straight toward Alba and when Alba met the vampire’s eyes, he remembered.
His first lover in high school, Chuckles the clown. A smile touched Alba’s lips. Chuckles was so witty. What ever had happened to Chuckles? He met Chuckles eyes and inside there was only pain and hunger and with disquiet, Alba remembered how Chuckles committed suicide the night his first book received a nasty review. Alba stepped back, unsure he wanted Chuckles any nearer.
Avoiding his former lover’s eyes, Alba saw the next needle plunge into his chest on the surgery table. Another vampire, Gustave. Alba clucked his tongue as always when he thought of the man. His best student who poured liquid thoughts out so beautiful one could cry and then proceeded to slash them out, replacing them with guttural oomphs and uffs suitable for a plastic punching hero. Alba shook his head, once more feeling guilt at the stash of the man’s first drafts he’d hidden in his folder. Mid list that one, never did much of anything.
Even before Gustave reached Alba’s side with black loathing eyes fixated at Alba’s throat, another needle released another vampire. Suxie, the neophant, queen of vocabulary, blonde, nymphoid and so very slow. She always got so angry when he liked her ideas enough to use them in his own. When she came at him from below, her fingernails were long and curved and ready to slash. The surgeon seemed to work faster because before long all of the people Alba had ever loved clustered around like a storm cloud of hunger and his chest was covered with long needles into which the surgeon ran syringes full of blood. And he wondered if he should be guilty that he loved, had taste, still lived and on and on like a betrayal list of woes between all parties that some judge needed to adjudicate.
Again Alba tried to leave but the hand kept him where he stood.
Another student asked, “What are they doing?”
“Microdroplets of cancer fighting blood cells they extracted from the patient and re-engineered. Studies have found that when the new cells are introduced in the tight folds of the lung where the carcinogens collect they can restore the lungs health.”
“They’re going all out.”
“Yep. A well loved man, wealthy, famous.”
Alb smiled at these words. Perhaps, he thought. But not who he’d be. And who was that, asked some inner demon.
The woman whose eyes Alba kept seeing held him in her arms when he woke feeling like alabaster. Cold and stiff. Like he felt in his mother’s arms when younger. Had his mother an awareness of his difference back then? He sighed and tried to relax.
When he looked down to pull her hands away, he saw only the bones. He tugged away but his chest burned enough to turn his vision black and when he could see, the gaping eyes and nasal cavity of pure skull nestled next to his face.
He lay there, stiff and cold and unresponsive for hours and he stared out the window into the blue shelf of sky and saw nothingness and hollow and too many words used to describe it. Day was followed by cold achy night. Slowly a thought came to him, was he freed of vampires?
He heard the doctor’s muttering over his chart, the whispers of the nurses, and somehow answered his visitors.
He had no needs.
He had no hurts.
No tears. Only emptiness.
Until one day Alba woke and found the hand always holding his had taken flesh again.
She was how he remembered her. His wife. His first and only wife. Ketira.
Almost like she read his mind, she answered, “In sickness and in health.”
She smiled. “Why what? You may be freed, if you choose. I woke you, do you remember?’
He moved the bed frame up with the control so he could sit. “I remember. Why are you showing yourself now?”
A laugh trickled out, her chirpy laugh was one of her more endearing features. “I am always visible, silly. But never mind that for now. I am here to tell you what you must do. You seem disinclined. Everyone is worried.”
And before he could voice his thought that he didn’t move because then he wouldn’t hurt, she interrupted. “No pain, no gain. You must sit one day. And cough. Each day a little longer. Walk to the bathroom. Walk down the hallway. Then twice each day and more and more. Move until you hurt enough to cry then rest. I will be back. And if you want to live, find your words.”
Then Ketira was gone.
Alba agonized through all of Ketira’s commands. He made himself walk too far and had to sit on the muck covered log in the park because it was the only seating available. He cried sometimes when he collapsed on the bed after climbing the stairs. The pain in his chest refused to release. He was weak, couldn’t hold a phone, a stylus, a handheld.
She never came back.
The doctor’s refused to tell him their prognosis. Do I have 5 years? 3 years? The chemo kept the cancer at bay, but not gone.
Why had Ketira not come back?
He retired from work. It held no meaning.
His partner and he continued to be companionable. No juice, just contentment. No worries assailed him.
But he didn’t find his words.
Until one day he went to the bookstore and when he went to the cashier, he found Ketira’s latest book by the stand and he picked it up and bought it. And as he took up his armload, he walked into Ketira.
Her dark hair curled to her shoulders and she laughed and held the hand of a lover and her eyes were on fire, and her touch … it sparked between them and she saw Alba there waiting for a word with her. She kissed the stranger and sent him to another floor and nodded to a chair in the middle where they could sit.
Tears swelled in Alba’s eyes. He started to say, “Why didn’t you come back” but instead told her his problem. “I can not find my words. Do I need vampires to feed and be fed, in order to write?”
Ketira’s face grew serious. “No.”
Lifting his hand into her own, Ketira asked. “Why what?”
“Why vampires, why death, why you, why empty, why no words, why, why, why? Who am I meant to be?”
Ketira nodded. “We will walk.” She grabbed his hand and tugged.
As they started down the road, stores on one side of the street, restaurants spewing garlic scents and kids peering closely at windows, the world was normal. But they soon left reality into dream time or such and the place they walked was like night and around them gold fell like star dust. Under their feet was no road only time.
“Can you see?” Ketira asked.
What Alba saw was awe. “Yes,” he whispered.
“I was told you didn’t know right from wrong or yesterday from tomorrow or hope from devastation. I was told your words were precise but untouched by life. I am here to show you your mistake and if able, your resurrection.”
Droplets of stardust began to collect on his chest and penetrate and if he could find a word to sum it all, the answer would not be anything he’d dreamed it would be, not eternity, or infinity or God, only hope and awe.
Alba was alone. He was at a crossroads, he guessed. And sat.
How would he get home? A path formed near his feet and he saw it led all the way back to his youth.
How would he find Ketira? Another path formed beneath his feet and it led to a blaze of light. He swallowed. Would that be death?
How would he find Jered? Jered appeared beside him, then flickered away. Oh. He was always beside me, Alba thought. That is love.
How would he find his words?
All the roads disappeared. That left him scratching his head.
Why death, Alba thought? Why had he come near to it? Would he die? Was Ketira dead? Who had he failed? What must he do? Would he ever be loved enough?
A bright beam of light formed through him, and no matter which way he turned, it turned with him. And it felt like love.
“I can answer, now”, Ketira said,”now that you know the question and the answer.” She held his hand again. “You stood against the path of love. That is death.” And when Ketira kissed his cheek, he saw all the love in her eyes that he had ever felt for her. “I forgive you,” she said, smiled back and then was gone.
Alba found himself home the next morning when he woke up and knew the reason was because he had no further answers to find and no further needs but to become the person who he’d be.
And when he sat at his desk, he found he had found his words and began to write with all the love he had inside him.