John opened his eyes and saw that he wasn't alone in the room anymore. He caught the thought and ripped through it, scattering the pieces to the corners of his mind. He had never been alone in this room.
He blinked again, his eyes registering the problem like a cashier’s scanner on the second try. His glasses had slipped off his face and were folded up in his armpit. There was dried drool in the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away, put his glasses on, and saw that the person across from him was, thankfully, asleep. He wasn’t equipped to talk yet.
The woman was curled up, edges smoothed away. Her overweight softness contributed to an overall roundness. The image of a panel of judges deciding to award her the Best Impression of a Planet Award rose to John’s mind. He kicked it away.
He was doing that a lot lately. Abusing innocent little thoughts.
Stretching, he looked up at the beeping machine. It had driven him halfway out of his mind during the first week. During the second, it had become a grating background noise, the itch between his shoulder blades. Now, two days and fourteen hours into the third week, he was barely aware of the high-pitched tones keeping track of each heartbeat pumping through the body lying on the bed.
The boy-man was staring at her. He'd probably noticed she was fat. Everyone notices fat people. They’re less invisible than people like to pretend. Then he must have begun to wonder who the hell she was and what she was doing here. She knew all about him. He knew zilch, nada, zippo.
Through the slivers of almost-shut eyelids she saw him shiftily wiping the sleep from his mouth. He'd dismissed her that quickly. Could it be that he did know? Maybe there had been a moment of lucidity during which he'd been informed, been made to understand, comforted and consoled. Could he have been prepared for her arrival? Coached, even?
Vicky decided to open her eyes.
"Hey, uh, hey," the boy-man said.
He still wasn’t asking who she was. She shouldn’t be here. Nobody should be here except for him. Unless, and this was a scary thought, there were others she didn’t know about. New ones arriving every day to pay their respects. Maybe he was immune to the whole experience already.
Vicky told herself to calm down. There's no one but you. There wouldn't have been time. And Dad may have been a semi-scumbag, but he wasn't a Time Lord, traveling through dimensions and eras, impregnating women left and right. She started to cry. Dad had introduced her to Doctor Who when she was just a kid. He’d given her the first sci-fi novels she'd ever read. Taught her how to play chess, badly. Made her swear, over and over again, that she wouldn't tell. You won't, will you, baby? Those were the words that he'd probably said to her more than any others. In another life, the words would have been ominous. But in hers they were pathetically innocent. All he'd wanted was to keep his lives separate. He'd begged her, pretty much on bended knee, to stay secret.
"You okay?" John got up. His arm had been pressed awkwardly between his body and the chair and was now imprinted with the pattern of the fabric's crosshatched stitching. "You need anything from the cafeteria or something?" It was necessary, John knew, to offer. To be polite, even to a complete stranger, one whose face was an inconvenient presence.
"No. And yeah." The woman’s very voice was intrusive. Not loud, but full of unabashed mucus.
"Wait, what?" John dug his hands into his pockets. He’d been doing that thing where he held them away from his body so that his armpits could breathe. He'd been told this looked stupid so he tried to remember to avoid it. John had always been disgusted by the whole idea of fluid leaking out of his pores, but that didn’t stop it from happening. It wasn’t his fault that he had a sweaty disposition and was perfectly capable of coming home in late January with the underarms of his blue button-down soaked.
"I'm not okay, obviously, I’m crying, which you’ve noticed. And sure, I'd love something from the cafeteria," the planet said.
When he got ideas of what things looked like without his glasses, they tended to stick. Another thing that wasn’t his fault was this terrible eyesight. So many dubious and unwanted gifts.
"I'm sorry. What's wrong with him?" John jutted his chin forward, because pointing was rude, to indicate the bed behind the planet’s chair. She turned to the man lying there. He had long, fluffy white hair spread out on the purple-and-yellow flower patterned pillow, like an ancient wizard who'd lost his powers. Even wizards get sick.
"Oh. Well." The planet shrugged and made a circular motion with her finger, taking in the room, the ward, the entire floor. "Is there anyone here who doesn't have cancer?"
"I don't," John said. There was no way to kick himself in the shin, so he didn’t. He was at least fair-minded enough to blame his inappropriate humor on his mother.
"No, me either." The planet smiled, and John thought that she was okay-pretty once you got used to her pudginess. "Reese's Pieces?" she asked.
"Sure, if they have them. Be back soon."
Vicky heard the boy-man hurry out of the room. She knew his name. John. She knew he was twenty-six, although his gangly, uncomfortable frame, his awkwardness, and the acne across his forehead screamed teenager. She knew he was an oddball but brilliant. Dad was to be trusted on matters of description. When she was old enough, he'd explained everything to her. It was only now, in her early twenties, that she really appreciated how important it was that he had told her the truth, not trying to make his actions heroic or noble.
Leaning back in the reclining plastic-wrapped armchair—standard hospital issue, proof against leaky bladders—she shot one leg out into the air and stretched it. Repeated the exercise with the other. Checking that no one was watching, she sent both legs up and pointed her toes. She looked stupid, she knew, with her stomach bursting out of the seam between her pants and shirt. But it felt good to move after being curled up for an hour, waiting for the boy-man to wake up.
For John to wake up. John John John. His mother must have picked that. Dad wouldn't have chosen anything so boring. He hadn’t liked the name Victoria either, but he knew he didn’t have a leg to stand on as far as naming preference went. He was comforted by it being a long name. They'd spent an afternoon together once trying to find heroine-worthy anagrams. Arivitoc. Crivotia. Taircivo. Voriatic. Acitvoir. Vicky liked the last one best, the way it made her sound French—Acitvoir. In her teens she'd gone through a long period when she watched nothing but French movies.
Much of what she'd enjoyed about them had probably been the sex. It was nice to be twenty-two and not obsessed with sex anymore. As she thought about not thinking about sex, images of heaving contorted bodies wrapped around one another filled her brain. But she didn’t need to masturbate three or four times a day, as she once had, in order to prove to herself that she was just like any other girl. That she was capable of desire, if not desirable.
Letting her legs down, she slumped low in the ugly green chair. Why had John thought she was with the room's second occupant? What kind of person sits with their back to the person they come to visit? Maybe he wasn’t as smart as all that.
It was the dinner rush, and the line in the cafeteria was long. John found it bizarre that people in hospitals ate so much and so regularly. He was eating mostly for the sake of doing something. A bag of potato chips could occupy him for an entire hour. All he had to do was take tiny bites and chew extremely slowly, savoring the taste, rolling the disintegrating food-dust around until he'd extracted every ounce of flavor from it, and only then swallow.
He picked up a selection of both sweet and salty snacks—he had a feeling that the planet would eat more than just the one pack of Reese's Pieces—and stood behind a pair of women.
"So then Fiona called me back into the office, and I told her that Ryan had been spreading those filthy rumors—"
"Wait, so it was Ryan? I totally thought it was Brad!"
"Nope, no freaking way, Brad is too scared of me spilling everything I know, you know?"
The women giggled. One slapped her hand on her thigh. John kept his eyes trained between their shoulders, appalled. Women in their thirties shouldn't talk like high school girls. How did they expect to be taken seriously?
Shut up, John. Asshole.
He thought of his father’s underlings. Frumpy female secretaries and paralegals. The old man fired anyone who couldn't have an adult conversation. John hadn't visited the offices since he was little, when he'd been paraded around before being deposited in a corner with his spaceship coloring book. The women had bent down to talk to him, trying to prevent him from looking up their skirts, revealing gravity-prone cleavage instead.
His cellphone chirped. It was an ancient model, with a limited number of shrill ringtones. His girlfriend had decided which was least annoying for him. John disagreed but was too lazy to change it. He picked up.
"How are you, baby?"
"Standing in line. At the cafeteria. Getting snacks."
"You sound exhausted."
"Just woke up from a nap." His mind felt like a television with a snowy screen. "How are you?"
"I'm okay. I got groceries after work. I was thinking maybe you could come home tonight for a while. I can make us a nice dinner. A late dinner, if you're having snacks now."
"But what if he wakes up?"
"If he wakes up, then he wakes up, baby. But you know he probably won't. I really think..."
"We've talked about this, and I don't want to fight again. It's none of my business."
"You think I should pull the plug."
John hung up. His girlfriend called right back.
"You hung up on me."
"But you answered when I called again?"
"Okay. Are you mad at me?"
"No. But I felt that I should hang up on you anyway."
"Can I ask why?"
"I'm supposed to be upset by what you said."
"But you're not?"
"I don't know. It's been two and a half weeks. Almost."
John rubbed his face with his free hand, a gesture he’d inherited along with the overactive sweat glands. He had a method. First he rubbed his temples, one with his thumb and the other with his middle finger. Then he pushed his glasses up and pressed down on his eyes. Next he pinched the bridge of his nose. Finally, he ran his palm across each cheek. He couldn’t remember when he'd last shaved, but he knew from the quality of his stubble that it couldn't be longer than two days ago. His father didn't look stubbly, although their facial hair growth rate had been eerily similar over the past ten years. He'd gotten used to seeing the old man unshaven and disheveled. Until the chemo started. He'd hated the tired, lazy version of his father who emerged then, rereading George R. R. Martin books in an armchair, but he was better than the silent foreigner in the room upstairs.
"I'm almost at the register."
"Will you come home for dinner later? And we can talk?"
"I'll try. Maybe. Let's see, okay?"
"Okay. I'll call you in a couple hours. I love you."
"Love you too."
Vicky decided to turn the chair around. She could pretend to do what John thought she was, visiting the old bearded man. If legit visitors showed up, she’d be screwed, which she almost hoped for. She couldn’t work up the guts to break her word to Dad without outside impetus. She'd promised him so many times.
Her anger burst like a balloon full of nails, sharp points pricking her heart, her throat, her lungs, the tips of her fingers. The resulting energy resembled real physical pain, the adrenaline rush she got after one of her sessions with a pair of scissors and a locked bathroom door.
She got up and went to the window, pushing aside the thick white blinds. They were stained and thickly coated in dust. Her fingers looked inky. Maybe the cleaning staff assumed that no one would want to look out when their loved one was dying right behind them. The room overlooked an alleyway full of industrial-sized garbage containers. Beyond, palm trees waved lazily around the edges of the parking lot. The sky was blue, there was a nice breeze, and somewhere not too far off people were lying on a beach, showing off bikini bodies. She wouldn’t join in even if she could.
It wasn't fair that she hadn’t been able to see Dad before. He had told her something was happening, but he'd said it was all under control, that he was getting treatment, that it was curable. He would be fine and dandy, he’d said, months ago. Then yesterday she learned that he'd been completely out of it for the last couple of weeks.
Pacing the room wasn't enough. She wanted to run and keep running until she collapsed in the middle of some highway and got run over. But that was stupid. She hated running.
For the nth time she cursed her mother for her lame excuse. I didn’t want to disturb you, honey! Bullshit. Vicky threw herself back in the chair and glared at the stranger she was supposedly visiting. Bull-fucking-shit. Yes, she'd been in Europe. Yes, it had been her dream trip, the one she'd saved up for for years so that she and her best friend could go. Yes, yes, yes, all that was true, but even so—even so she should have been told.
“And what would you have done?” Her mother had asked yesterday, her big round eyes barely blinking, bruising in their candor.
“Come home!” Vicky had shouted.
“What good would that have done? Nobody, especially not him, knew that he was going to decline so fast. He was joking with me on the phone just before his surgery that he wanted to have another affair with me.”
“Ew, Mom, TMI.”
“I'm trying to make a point, Victoria. He wouldn't have wanted you to cut your trip short. He thought you were the bravest person he’d ever met.” Her mother's tone turned soft, as it always did when she spoke of him. Vicky never understood how her mother was able to be so complacent. She herself couldn't stand waiting around for things to work themselves out.
“Well, whatever, now I'll never see him again.”
“But his stupid son will be there!”
“So? He doesn't need to know. Besides, he might not be. They’ve never been close. And let me remind you, before you start blaming yourself next, that Dad told you to go abroad and he knew he was sick. Remember that.”
"Whatever, Mom." Vicky said to herself, aloud, from the depths of the green chair, clenching her teeth. One of her wisdom teeth panged horribly.
The planet had turned her chair around while he was gone. Her eyes were still red. She took the box of Reese's Pieces from him without saying anything.
He stood beside his father, gripping the bed’s metal railing. He couldn't decide whether the bars reminded him more of a cage or a crib. Either his father was nothing more than an animal in a laboratory, a victim of science, or else he was reduced to infancy, enclosed for his own good, in case he awoke from his heavy sleep and wanted to climb out of bed like a naughty toddler.
John himself had been one of those. He remembered clearly waking up in the middle of the night and climbing out of his crib, toddling to his parents’ bedroom. He would pull himself up onto their mattress, right between his parents’ feet. His father slept with a child-sized niche in the bend of his knees, and it was there that John would curl up.
A scraping noise accompanied the planet turning back to him and his father. She held the candy in one hand. With the other she reached forward and took his father's limp hand.
John stared. He wasn't sure what to say. He found it almost impossible to touch his father. The man wasn't as old as he looked in his present state, with his hair gone and his skin full of patchy purple and yellow bruises. The stink of cancer and medication rose from him. He was, quite frankly, disgusting. His urine and feces were in bags! They were in bags on her side of the bed! What on earth would compel her to touch someone whose excretions she could watch flow out in real time?
Vicky wouldn’t kid herself into feeling a stirring in the hand she held. Dad had never been a big hand holder. They'd so rarely walked together. She'd never had the chance to feel how large his hand was. It looked shriveled up now, but the bones were unmistakably long and wide. Maybe that was why he’d been drawn to fat science fiction and fantasy books, she thought. Maybe they felt better in his hand than the puny mystery novels Mom read.
John was staring at her with his lips parted. He hadn't even asked her to pay him back for the candy.
"What?" she finally asked. "Why are you staring at me?" It was a stupid question but she asked it anyway. As if she had every right to sit there and hold Dad's hand.
John coughed, embarrassed. Maybe she was a Candy Striper, if such people existed outside of old comic books, or maybe she was part of the hospice team. She wasn't wearing a uniform, but maybe they weren't required these days.
"Nothing," he said.
"You're wondering why I'm holding this man's hand."
"Well, yeah. I thought you were with that man.” The planet shook her head, her earlobes shivering. Noticing her earlobes concretized her for John. She was real. She was a person. He couldn't keep thinking of her as an inanimate object hurtling through space. He wanted to ask, “Who are you?” but it seemed rude. If there was one thing he could thank his father for it was manners. His mother was one of the most impolite people he knew. Besides being lax about her pleases and thank yous, she lacked general tact as well. Putting on his best job-interview voice, John said, “Sorry, I don't think I caught your name.”
"Victoria. You're John."
"Yeah, how did you know that?"
"I know all about you."
"Um. Okay." He looked at the bed between them and was grateful to see that the nurse call button was only a foot away from his hand. He'd be able to get someone here quickly, someone who could get security. Victoria—how strange that she should be named that—was shorter than him, but she was so much bigger that she could probably win in a fight. The image of them going at it, jumping around and over his father's prone figure like rival cats, began to loop around his mind.
"How do you know all about me?" he asked.
"He told me about you." She nodded towards his father.
"Because he told me a lot of things about his life and you were part of it."
"Should I know you?" he asked.
"I don't know if he talked about me."
"Well," John said, allowing himself to smile. "He told me about a Victoria, but I doubt that it's you." He sat back down. He felt more comfortable now. His father must have known this woman through work or something else that he did. Not that he actually did much else. Work then. She must be someone from work.
Vicky swallowed the horse pill of peanut butter and chocolate that she’d been holding in her mouth. "What Victoria did he tell you about?"
"Oh, just this silly little game we used to play when I was a kid. So did you work with him?"
"What silly little game?"
He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, though they hadn't been sliding down.
"I really wanted a brother when I was little and my father told me that he would compromise with me, that he'd give me a sister. I think that's actually how I learned the word 'compromise.' Anyway, he would tell me all about this pretend sister I had, and he told me her name was Victoria, and that she was a princess on a spaceship that was in danger, you know, like Leia in Star Wars, and then I would have to go and rescue her so that I could bring her back to live with us."
John lapsed into silence, watching the ceiling as if everything he was describing were being screened up there. When he came back from wherever he’d been—a memory, a fantasy—Vicky noticed his eyes were shiny.
"So," he said, shaking it off. "How do you know him again?"
On a spaceship. You saved me. But— "Work," she said mechanically. "I was a secretary at his firm for a while and he was nice to me. I dropped out of college and I was totally confused and he helped me figure things out. He convinced me to go backpacking across Europe. It's been my dream since I was really young. My dad told me how beautiful it was over there."
"Yeah, that sounds like him,” John said. “You know, when he was my age—twenty six—he went to Europe with some ridiculously small amount of money, just flew to Paris and, and figured things out from there. I can’t really picture him doing it, you know? He was such a lawyer for most of my life. Did you like working for him?"
John donned a polite smile. It was nice to have someone else in the hospital room with him for once. His mother wouldn't come within a hundred yards of the place. She hated his father so deeply that John couldn’t even take her seriously anymore. It was uncomfortable, this disliking of both his parents. Since getting his master’s degree and moving back to the city, John saw her often, but as she tried creating a new closeness between them, he couldn't help pulling back, revolted by the difference that distance and time had wrought on his outlook and opinion of her. His father, on the other hand, hadn't changed in his eyes at all. He was still hard to reach, buried inside a gruffness that seemed almost affected, as if he thought it was how fathers were supposed to be but wasn't sure he was doing it correctly.
The day his father had received news of his prognosis, he had cried, actually cried, wracking sobs that had embarrassed both him and John. They'd never spoken of it after, but they began to see more of each other. John had learned how easy it was to talk to the old man about the right topics. Old BBC mini-series, poker, how hard it was to find a job these days—these allowed for lengthy discussions, real conversations unlike any they’d had before. There were taboo subjects—relationships, foreign policy, football—but as long as John steered clear of those, they got along. There had been nobody else for his father to talk to. John slowly understood that if his father had ever had friends, he didn’t anymore. But here, sitting across from him, was one person who remembered the old man well enough to visit him.
“Huh?” John’s eyes had been drawn to his father’s face. It never got less eerie: the expressionless mask.
“Yeah, I liked working for him. You asked if I liked working for him.”
“Right, right. Good,” John said. He was happy he’d been right about his father never employing women who didn't know how to string two words together without a “like” shoved in between.
“Was he a good dad?”
Had he been good to her out of guilt, or because he truly loved her? Other kids she knew had always fought for the right of being the best beloved, which made no sense to her. What was her father's good opinion worth if he didn't love both his children equally, unconditionally?
John looked at her, his eyebrows scrunched.
“More or less, yeah, overall. It's hard to tell. He and my mother fought just about since the day I was born. But he did all the dad things with me, you know? He taught me how to ride a bike and swing a bat and stuff. He wasn't very good at any of it, but he tried. I think the best thing was that he trusted me to like what I wanted when I was a kid. He didn't push his hobbies on me like some parents do. My mother—she tried to get me into golf and chess and marching band, all this nerdy stuff that I probably would have done if she hadn’t tried to force me to. But he never did. I didn't really get into sci-fi, which was, you know, sort of the only thing he liked other than his job.”
John checked Vicky’s face to see if she was bored. She was still holding his father’s hand, her head bowed. It snapped up when he paused, indicating he should keep talking. “He really supported what I wanted to do, you know? He was a good guy, on the whole. He kind of fell apart after he retired, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“He just got grumpy. But it's weird. He only started having real grown-up conversations with me then. It's like he left work, and realized that his only child was all grown up, with a job and a girlfriend and a life.”
A comfortable silence fell between them and then was broken by a wail from down the hall. Vicky flinched. John watched his father's face, not reacting to the sound. The wailing repeated, longer each time.
“What is that?” she asked.
“Someone must have died.”
“That's keening?” She didn't notice she was whispering until John echoed her hushed tone.
“That's a good word for it. Yeah. There’ve been at least four screamers in the past couple of weeks I've been here.”
So Dad had instilled something in this boy-man: devotion. "How long has he been like this?"
"Two weeks and two days. Two and a half days by now, I guess." Sometimes John felt as if he'd stepped into this room for the first time yesterday.
"Do the doctors think he'll come out of it? Is there a chance?"
"He's on life-support but there's always a chance. It's small, but it's a chance."
Victoria said something so softly that John didn't hear it. She got up from her chair and kissed his father on the forehead, tenderly, like they do in the movies.
"Sorry? I didn't hear you," said John.
"You should let him go," she said. "Nice meeting you."
She walked out of the room. John listened to her heels clicking down the hallway, a sound soon lost amidst the general hum of the hospital's constant activity.
His fingers found the nurse call button and pressed. A petite woman came in with scrubs too big for her. The shoulder seams hung halfway down her arm and she had a t-shirt underneath the too-low V-neck. Her face was angular, but still managed to wear a sympathetic expression. She was used to John sitting silently by his father's bedside as she and the other nurses treated the just-alive body to baths and bag changes.
"Need something, hon?"
"Yeah. I—it's time. I think."
“No. Yes. Yes, I’m sure.”
“You want to think about it a while longer?”
“No, really. It’s time.”
"All right. I'll get the doctor."
John stood up. He wished he'd taken Victoria's phone number so that he could let her know about the funeral. He glanced into the hall. She was gone.
Back in the room, he pressed the nurse’s button again.