Worth – A Short Story
I sit on my bed, shirtless and sweating and trying to ignore the pain that floods my legs. Grey smoke curls from my cigarette as I inhale its contents. It burns to ash and scorches my throat. The orange glow that pervades with each inward breath pierces the darkest folds of the night. I’m wide awake and I shouldn’t be, but the constant hurt demands I be conscious: I am a slave to my condition, the whims of its mercy.
I fumble for where my cane leans against the small desk, on top of which a digital clock reads 3 AM. I snuff out the last of the cigarette into the blue ashtray next to the clock, and I attempt to stand. The effort compounds the tightness that grips my back, threatening to pull or tear a muscle. A groan escapes my lips. The cane supports my left knee, which offers the most trouble. It gives way often, as if it can no longer bear the weight of my being. Slowly, I make my way toward the bedroom door. A darkness so blinding it seems like the world suddenly emptied and I am alone in a void designed specifically for me to exist, and yet not.
My throat dry, I limp toward the kitchen using memory as my guide. I flick the lights on. The sudden brightness causes me to squint. It reveals marble counters, swirling grey and black, the sink, the gas stove, the maple wood cupboards. All immaculate. I grunt, trying my best to ignore the ever-present pain, and grab a glass from the cupboard, filling it with ice cold water just to guzzle it down like a man returned from the desert after several days of nothing but heat and exhaustion. Gasping when I finish, almost as if I drowned.
I hang my cane on the counter and turn to find someone staring at me. Her face is pale, her hair a fiery red, curls flowing down and around her shoulders. Her eyes are myrtle green. She dons an evening gown, white satin and gold trim at the hem. But I can see through her. The black table behind her is still very much visible even with her standing so close to me.
“Who are you?” I ask.
She tilts her head. Smiles. Stretches out a hand to try and cup my face. There is a warmth that exudes from her touch, though she is not touching me, like a flame that trembles just beneath the palm of her hand. And then she speaks, softly. “Cad, I want to show you something.”
I blink. “Show me what?”
Her smile disappears, and in its place a more somber expression. “Your life as it is meant to be.”
I must appear confused because then she elaborates. “Your future, Cad.”
She does not answer. Instead, she kisses me gently on the lips, and the background shifts as if it slipped into a black hole. She steps away from me and stands at my side. Nothingness inhabits the space between us and around us, and I feel myself growing cold, colder, freezing. My teeth chatter. My breath forms clouds that disperse like a fog in the wind. A shiver crawls along my skin; the hairs stand on end. And then a scene is set before me.
Sitting at my table is an older man, hair grey and reduced by time to mere wisps that encircle the scalp. I can tell, though his back faces me, that he wears glasses. He is stooped, writing something with a shaky hand, and every breath for him is a struggle. He wears a tattered red sweater and khaki pants.
“Who is that?” I ask, keeping my voice low so as to not disturb him.
The ghost replies, “This is you.”
I blanch. I take a step back but the counter stops my progress. It’s all a dream. A fabrication created by my mind. An imagination gone awry. But something pushes me forward, forces me to give in to the nagging curiosity. I gimp next to the elderly man and give him an honest look. Tears well up in my eyes. The man before me is trapped in a blur.
I see my face, not as it is now but as it will be in the years to come, as the pain whittles me in the later stages of life. Every stroke of the pencil brings with it a wince or a sigh. My handwriting is no better than it is today. Hardly more than chicken scratch, illegible even to the keenest eye. A single tear swims down the man’s cheek, his bottom lip shudders, and the pencil falls from his grasp. He cries. His grief rips out of his throat in guttural sounds reserved for the suffering. I sympathize, want to hold him–to hold me–and say that it will be alright. Yet I know, somewhere deep in my gut, that would be a lie. It never gets better. Is this what she wants me to see? That I am doomed?
I glare at the ghost. “What the hell is this?”
She gazes back at me. Her face reveals nothing as if it were made of stone. “Look at what he’s writing.”
“What?” I turn to the man and attempt to read the tiny scribbles he jotted down. A letter addressed to Ann.
“My wife? What… what is this?”
I do as she says.
Dear Ann, my darling,
My condition worsens. I cannot move, and I cannot breathe without the pain. Daily life has become a chore. It is asking too much now to get out of bed, let alone go about my day as usual. This is not a life I would wish upon my worst enemies. My knees lost their strength long ago. My hands are merely placeholders of what they once were; arthritis storms through them. The attacks can be excruciating. So I offer a compromise: let me go. Let me leave this world with a choice. A choice that was not given to me when I entered it. To go out as I see fit. I see the sadness in your eyes each day and the pity that stirs beneath. I have lived long, have loved and been loved by both you and the children. That is what I will carry with me. I promise I won’t feel a thing. Something for which I am not accustomed.
Tears do not stop, flowing and flowing and stinging my cheeks. I am a blubbering mess, exposed like a vein pressed to a knife. One cut is all it will take for me to bleed. Then I notice the needle next to the letter. I see him reach for it.
The scene is chased away, scatters like parting vapor, and the man fades just as he sticks the needle into his arm. I am a statue. Unmoving. Unblinking. An inanimate thing unnecessarily occupying space. The ghost appears in front of me. This time she caresses my face with both hands.
“Why did you show me this?” My throat feels as if it’s blocked. I can’t swallow. My mouth is dry again.
“Because the pain means you’re alive, and life is worth living if only you find the value within yourself.”
“And what…” I take a deep breath. “What value do I hold?”
“That is for you to decide.”
Then she leaves, vanishing like mist. Morning light trickles in from the kitchen window above the sink. I hear the front door open. The voice of my daughter calls out, “Daddy, we’re back!”
And finally, I understand.