a short story
Gary Baker, July 2016
The news was too much. Nick thought he could handle it, but he couldn’t. Not this. Not now.
He ran out of the room, backside bare to the world and the tails of the ties moving as though in a rough breeze. Outside was a shock. The late night had turned sour, the sweltering heat still emanating from the pavement while the desert grasses and dunes seemed on the verge of a serious chill. Melissa Strauss came running out behind him with an intense worry plastered over her that he could see even without looking.
This wasn't happening. It couldn't be.
The moment was going on for far too long as she gave chase, having gone passed the end of the lot and into the island of desert brush that kept the sign company within mere heartbeats it seemed like. He took the only route he knew and bolted west along the highway, still wearing nothing but the plastic garment the doctors had given him.
"Mr. Valiant!" The woman screamed, swearing with each leap in her stride as she fought to catch up with the escaping patient. "Nick stop!"
But he couldn't. Not yet. He needed to get there... to that place he had in mind but could never seem to find. He still needed to find her. Glancing ahead told him that no cars were coming for miles, negating any means for taking this into the next town, so with the woman hot on his heels he took a sudden turn into across the highway and out into the unending desert night.
He leapt over fallen logs that once stood as telephone poles back before they'd been replaced by their aluminum successors, and slipped around thick arms of cacti that had grown in a forest-like density in this area. He felt the needles scraping him, tearing his skin raw and gaping wide for blood to emanate from. The pain was intense, but he kept going anyway. He had to get away. His feet had started throbbing only moments before but it was only as he vaulted over a low thicket of grass only to land right onto an unseen ball of wicked angry needles and torment that he came to recognize the implications of his flight. The lack of thinking ahead had been what had gotten him in this mess in the first place, and now here he was losing his ability to walk, losing his ability to keep on his quest.
He was losing his fight to seek her out while he still had time.
He fell hard, his foot torn wide and the blood suddenly washing over his leg when he screams of agony seemed to summon Melissa out of nowhere. She was kneeling at his side, pinning him with one hand while checking the damage with the other. He tried to roll away, tried to crawl back to his mangled feet, but her strength was greater than his by far. When he caught a glance of her face, she barely even looked winded even after all that running.
It took only a short moment for her to get him to lay still as she wrapped her white coat around his foot and cinched it tight with her belt. Once done, she glared hard under the vast starlit sky. "What the hell is wrong with you?" She began, her tirade bursting forth with the clarity of a broken damn. "I know the situation falls rightly in your favor, but what the fuck did you plan to do? Go running into some coyote den and end it on your own terms instead?"
He only wept in response. It was all he could do. The years came crashing down on him suddenly, so very suddenly, and he started to regret more than he ever thought he might have. How many near-misses had he come to in the decades, in the few short fragments of a century he'd been allotted? How many of those whom he'd had connections with might have remained with him had he only asked? How many could have become the companion he needed, the essence of life which he so dearly sought?
How many might have been the one?
He caught himself mumbling about love and never finding something, and shut himself up the instant that he realized. His eyes then drifted away, out into the surroundings where even in the most hellish of places life managed to survive and almost flourish. How dearly he needed that which he couldn't even put a name to just then, as the world moved on without him, as the world kept turning on it’s axis even while his own fell to shambles.
"Jesus, Mr. Valiant, this... this isn't just about the diagnosis, is it?" Her eyes glimmered in the corner of his vision, while the tears in his own reflected light from the hospital. Her voice softened too much, her touch suddenly too cautious. In a split second she had gone from enraged nurse to concerned companion without even thinking twice. "Nick... what's gotten into you all of a sudden?"
But how could he explain it? How could he describe his anguish? It wasn't exactly something he could just come out and say with the nonchalance of a man talking about the weather.
He let out a long sigh and watched the celestial mists of the Milky Way passing slowly overhead. "I..." he hesitated, looking for the words. Finally he settled on speaking the notions as he thought of them, perhaps maybe that way she might make sense of that which he could not. "There's no time, anymore. I-"
"No time? You've got over six months-"
"-just can't get passed that." Nick reached out with an absent hand and let a handful of fine sand and desert soil slowly crumble through to the ground again. "All I know is that all this time I've been searching-"
"Searching for what?"
"-for... I dont know, I guess."
An eyebrow raised in bewildered frustration. "You don't know what you're searching for and yet you continue to look for it? Is this some sort of philosophical crisis you're trying to explain to me?" She shook her head slowly. "Nick I want to help you, but I'm no good with psychology. It's why I became a nurse in the first place. Give me needle and a vial and I'll get your blood drawn like that... but ask me to help you through a breakdown...?" She held up her hands in defeat. "I'm sorry."
But he'd heard none of what she'd said. His momentum had been found and there was no turning back now. For all he knew he wasn't even talking to anyone but himself. "All I can think of is that I have been longing for something real all this time, for a life worth living, for a love worth devoting my whole life to." He pushed his hands back and rest his head on the sand as he lay down to look at the stars again. "She's out there still, you know... the woman I have always needed, the woman I have always known deep down that I would find and suddenly be free of all this chaos of depression and anxiety and all because I would have then found someone to take my attention off the small things and always keep me focused on her."
He sighed, suddenly self-conscious. "It's stupid, I know, but all this time I have felt so severely lonely and the only way that I could imagine my life being anything worthwhile would be to do so with the love of my life at my side...." He trailed off and let himself focus on the torment that was his bleeding leg, letting the pain bring him back to reality just enough. "But the worst part is that I don't think I've even met her yet, and now I know for sure that I don't even have enough time to actually find her anymore." Finally Nick looked Melissa right in the eye, the sorrow and humbling reality coming to a crescendo at last in that one look he gave her. "I no longer have anything to live for, coincidentally on the precipice of learning that I am bound to die lonely and alone... within this very year."
There were no words that she could bring herself to speak aloud, his anguish more resonatingly painful than anything she'd ever felt before. This was the main reason she'd never gone into psychology, she told herself, for she was far too much an empath to actually succeed in anything involving other people's emotions. Chemicals and elements, numbers and physics, all of that kept her solidly grounded, but emotions were where she too fell apart.
When she wiped the tears from her eyes she found that Nick had gone silent again, his vacant eyes traversing the galaxies far away from his terminal diagnosis. She only wished that there was something she could say to soothe his ache. She longed for something to ease his chaos. When no words came, she instead found herself reaching out to tenderly hold his hand. Maybe that would be enough. Maybe that would suffice for now.
But Nick's eyes never left the ripples of the stars. Had it not been for his fingers closing around hers with the tenderness of a man whose hopes had all gone, Melissa would have sworn he hadn’t even noticed her attempt to soothe him. Maybe that would suffice for now.