Luke had been in the room with his aunt, forced himself to feign comfort to her by touching her bare, withered arms, the veins strained under the paper thinness of her skin. Shifting into the final phases of life, the body seems to pull the blood from the face and extremities to supply the heart with a few last pulses. The skin stretches across the sockets and lips, smoothing the face into an unrecognizable mask. But she was still in there. A once healthy 50-year-old woman, as optimistic as she was broken. The slivers of two failed marriages and abuse calked the pieces of her heart together as it pumped, cheery as a caged lovebird, the promise of one day finding her grand love.
Luke had camped out in her living room for five days along with his cousins, and her first ex-husband. Choosing to die at home meant confronting the realities of the eroding body without the sterile calmness of a hospital. IV bags had a particular, measured smell in her bedroom with no air filter, plastic mixing with blood and sweat and fear.
Keeping her comfortable became the main focus of the group. They would roll her on her side until the red marks would soften from the sores on her back. They would change her clothes, wipe her mouth, and rub cucumber melon lotion into her skin. When her pain became too much, they medicated her with morphine, themselves with whiskey.
Her ex-husband had killed a man once during a bar fight two decades ago. He threw the man through a window, where he landed skull first on the curb, dying instantly from head trauma. From that day on he never touched another drink, until now. As he twisted the cork off the bottle, Luke didn’t feel the need to lecture, as they were all attempting to function in this vicious world of death and decay.
As a young woman, his aunt was breathtakingly beautiful. That was the curse of the women in his family; they were born with beautiful faces and bodies, but died before they could grow old. They were forever immortalized not as cancer victims, but as the sirens that could pick locks and sneak into garages, flanked by the men who surrendered their hearts to them. Luke remembered these women as the ones who showed him how to dance, to match his socks to his tie, and how to compliment a woman without sounding trite. As he watched his aunt breathe slowly under the bed sheet, he remembered her kindness and her affinity for gift giving.
Unable to find peace in love, she had settled for the man who sat beside her now, polishing off a bottle of rye like water. He gave her a son when she was just 17, another at 19, then ran off when they were small. Lee, her second husband, had married, divorced, and remarried her several times over ten years. She was a good candidate to manipulate; desperate for attention and willing to cleave red flags into halves like Moses. His only constant was his deceit. He slithered through their days together, slowly suffocating her love with all the strength he could muster. Once he had gorged himself on her adoration, he would slink away into the shadows, not to be seen until he was hungry again.
After her family took over her care, Lee disappeared. He never once came to see her in the hospital, nor did he stop by the house or call to check in. Whether it was despair over losing her, or the inability to process dying, no one knew. In turn, he was not there on the day she pulled her last breath, when the room seemed to close on itself. The air seemed to whip through the house, raising goose bumps on the family and lifting the ears of the dogs. As her heart stopped, so did the shift in pressure. For a moment, no one moved. The rush of finality had deafened everyone.
Three days later, Lee blew his brains out in his living room.
Jessica Clem is a writer, marathon runner, and beer snob born and raised in Nebraska, but currently based in Minneapolis, MN. She holds a B.A. in English and a M.S. in Urban Studies, and works as a content strategist for a marketing agency. In her free time, she can be found hogging all the good books at the library, running on the local trails, and adding new spirits to her home bar collection. She has been published in Ms. Magazine, and various local publications in Omaha.