“What’ll we do, when we leave?” she asked him. Her voice was tender and sensuous.
“I don’t know. I think we can do anything really. ‘There’s plenty of opportunity, at least that’s what my cousin says.” He inhaled a bit more with smoky uncertainty.
“And will we be married there?” she asked curiously. She didn’t really want to be married, but she didn’t hate the idea of it. Kento was decent, ambitious, and kind. He took care of her, but what was most important was that he loved her. She didn’t entirely know herself if she felt the same, but every now and then she felt a small butterfly in her chest fluttering about, trying to escape.
“Well of course we will. You’re my partner aren’t you.”
“Yes. Yes, I guess I am.” she smiled.
“Then we’ll be married. It’s as simple as that. Besides how else will we both get our visas?” he held her close and kissed her on the forehead. He too was excited about their new adventure.
“Will there be cake and rice like in the magazines?.”
“Cake and rice? Yes, there’ll be more cake than you can imagine.” he laughed.
“I’d love that. But I will miss our friends.”
“We’ll make new ones. I’m telling you it’s much better where we are going. This place will only hold us back.” Lin smiled she loved when he spoke so hopefully. They both were dreamers, like daffodils, floating along the currents of the wind, waiting for something new to change their direction.
It had been a long time since that day. He was no longer young or ambitious with cherub lips and long black hair. He was simple and jaded by life’s circumstance, bald and wrinkled by the stress of transition. Kento sat quietly reading a newspaper in a small cafe just a few blocks from a hospital. A little Chinese girl stared at the obtrusive mole on his face. It had grown considerably in the last three years and was still on his agenda to get checked for melanoma. It rested just above his left nostril as a hideous reminder of his age. People stared at it often, especially children, but he was fond of them. They had a peculiar charisma and innocence that he enjoyed and rarely received. Their curiosity intrigued him and through random interactions with them, he could imagine the life he might have had.
Lin couldn’t have any children. Something about a cyst in her uterus, apparently, her body wasn’t fit for life. He remembered the day when they were informed of her condition, it was the last day that she ever truly smiled. Their conversations suffered, thereafter, and she began to loathe his ambition and his hopefulness. Only business about their dry cleaning service, warranted discussions, and even then they were short and static. For a long time it had been that way, then one Thursday afternoon she collapsed on the floor and her voice was silenced for good. He missed her laugh. Now, their conversations were one-sided because her brain was no longer sending messages to her vocal chords. A tumor had taken root and spread like an unwanted weed, choking all that she was.
The coffee shop too was unusually quiet, but he enjoyed the mindless chatter and whispered discussions about the election and celebrity gossip. It proved that the world was not as lonely as he. When he spoke with his wife it was as if his echo had become his friend. So to avoid his awful feelings he found himself walking more.
“The fresh air and the exercise would do you some good,” said the doctor, he was young and knew very little about life or struggle. Even so, he wasn’t entirely wrong about his advice. He did feel better from his walks, if only slightly.
Still, he had his own remedy. An old habit that lingered, an old “friend” that stood by and consoled him in his time of need. He had given it a name even, Joe.
It made a twenty thousand dollar suggestion, and told him to bet it all on the one- the one that was a sure thing; the one meant to take it all. It was rarely ever wrong, and even when it was, it meant no harm. That is until he nearly had to put up his dry cleaning business for sale, in order to satisfy an outstanding loan. Even then, it was only a minor setback. So, again he invested his savings on fast brown legs and a long beautiful snout. Lin’s medical bills had increased considerably and he had begun to receive mail about past due payments and threats of ending treatment. It was time to believe in his friend again, for what choice did he have?
He was warmed by the hot coffee and was unusually confident. Nothing could go wrong because his luck couldn’t possibly get any worse. He unfolded the newspaper and scanned for the winners of yesterday’s races. Britches was his name; a peculiar name for a beautiful horse. He had a shiny chestnut coat and short black hair. He was known for his uncanny speed but there was a rumor that he’d been summoned for an inquiry.
He ran his fingers down the page, smudging black ink onto his fingerprint until he reached the final scores.
There must have been a mistake.
His heart plummeted into an abysmal pit, in a place where his stomach might have been. There had been an obvious betrayal and an imminent conclusion to his life if he was found. His mouth began to parch and his attention sharpened. Anyone could be them, but fortunately, he hadn’t been discovered yet. Discreetly he pushed in his chair and walked towards the door.
Paranoia sabotaged his lungs as the crowded street filled with possible debt collectors. No one knew of his impending fate, not yet anyway. The world around him was masked in a silent veil as his thoughts and fears raged on noisily in his head. Early commuters had filled the streets and although their conversations must have been loud, they felt muted. Quickly he walked to his car. His hands shook so much that he could barely open the door.
The key was stuck. He had been meaning to fix it. But It was an old model, a happy investment from his winnings six years ago, turned tragic obstacle. He panicked just enough to pry it open and checked the backseat for any surprises, a severed head, a sliced finger, but he was alone and the seat was as he left it. Still, he felt eyes watching him. The parking lot was full but absent of pedestrians. His lender could be lurking in any one of the cars nearest him. He turned the ignition praying that it would start. Instead, it turned and grunted. Sweat collected between the creases of his neck as he became more frustrated. If only he could die there. If his heart could stop right there in the car, it would mean a much better fate than what awaited him.
There was only one place he could go. One place where no one would expect indecency, the hospital.
It wasn’t far. Just a few blocks down the road. He filled his lungs with the summer air and turned over the car one last time, praying through his teeth. Finally, life. He skidded out quickly and drove down the busy boulevard flustered and claustrophobic.
Joe had abandoned him and left him to the sharks. It had infected his mind and led him to death. For years he had succumbed to its whims. All the while Joe had grown in strength and severity just as quickly as Lin’s tumor did.
When his “services were no longer required,” and refunds were being demanded he knew that it had gone too far. He had become consumed by it and hadn’t noticed his wife’s ghostly complexion or her frailty.
Once they were lucky, once they were young and life had some invincible allure. Fortune no longer smiled upon them, however. Instead, it scowled at them and told them that they were deserving of their fate. In the end, he couldn’t help but let the chips fall in all the wrong places. He had relinquished control over his life long ago just for listening to Joe's whispers.
The shine of a red car gave him a shiver of paranoia. His lenders, the Kronovsky brothers, owned something similar and they cared little about a frail old man and his dying wife. No, they were in the business of taking money or taking limbs. The bright red coupe turned left. Kento breathed a sigh of relief. He was two minutes from the hospital. Soon he would find sanctuary.
Finding parking was a chore, but the seventh floor was empty. It had a horrid stench of cat urine warmed by the humid air, but it would have to do. At least he would know if he were being followed.
The elevator had a distinct smell as well, like rubber gloves and hand sanitizer. It was very unpleasant and made him nauseous. He stopped on the fourth floor and walked past rooms of hospice patients. Flowers sat on the window sills while granddaughters and grandsons perched themselves in cushy green chairs and tapped on their devices. He despised their lack of attention. But he despised himself more because he was no different. He could apologize a million times and it would never be enough.
He admired Lin’s strength for even in her condition she somehow remained beautifully strong. The tumor had stolen her voice, the cyst had stolen her pride, but left a silent beauty.
He bought her flowers. It was appropriate and even if she couldn’t use her mouth, she had eyes to speak and a nose to smell. They were a colorful bunch of lilies and roses and chrysanthemums. The fragrance of them all filled the room and masked the deathly fog that had surrounded her. She grunted and garbled some incoherent noise. I love you, he suspected. If she could smile she would have. Her eyes couldn’t follow him, but he knew that she was aware of his presence. He set the flowers on the nightstand and checked the hallway for any suspicious passersby. The clipboard hung from the door. He scanned the doctor’s erratic handwriting and could gather only one conclusion.
Fumbling inside his bag he searched for her favorite pair of socks. They were long, warm and rainbow colored. He rubbed her cold feet, they were hard and scaly at the heels. Then carefully he pulled the socks over her toes and up her calf. Her legs were like dead wood in the winter cold. He rubbed them more hoping she could feel the warmth of his hands. She was going to leave soon. He could feel something inside her slipping away in some misty unknown as if her soul was being indecisive. Occasionally, it returned in the middle of the night and whispered romantic hymns in his ears as he cooed and turned in his chair. It was only in the morning that he realized that still there was no change and that she was still sick.
Sometimes she would blink, but it had been a long time since then. He hoped that while he was still alive, while he could still see and think and hear, she might give him some reassurance. That she might tell him that she had found peace in the cold void of death. His erratic heart and panic was calmed by her presence and reminded him of why he wanted to see her. He pulled out a small yellow envelope from his canvas bag.
“I wrote you a letter.” He started. “I thought I might read it to you.” He held back tears that either came from fear or loneliness, he couldn’t decide which, perhaps because they were the same. He unfolded the yellow legal paper as a few drops landed on it, smudging the ink.
“My Dearest Lin,
I loved your innocence, your breath of fresh air, and your dedication to me. You inspired me to love, to feel, to indulge in my fantasies. You encouraged my heart, my mind, and all that was me.
If I ever were to find another woman, she would never compare to the love that I shared with you. Everything after you would be a lackluster apparition of what you are. And even now as you lie in this bed, silent and unresponsive. I can feel your heart, I can feel the soul that was once intertwined with mine, and it slipping away from me.
You have been more than a partner, more than a beautiful expression of life. You are my wife. A damsel that I fought for. A woman who made me wonder if I really could climb that mountain, or swim in that shark infested water. And I only could do it, because I knew you were beside me all of the time. And if I should never see you again. I want you to know that you were my beginning and my end. I love you my darling forever and ever.
He wiped the tears from his eyes and set the letter gently beside her pillow. He put on his windbreaker jacket as if to brace himself for what was to come, then kissed her on her stitched forehead. He left refreshed, but as he entered the cafeteria, his nerves tingled and festered with anticipation.
The place was buzzing with doctors and nurses smiling and drinking coffee. He didn’t like to see the doctors happy because it meant they weren’t doing their job properly. Either way, he was exhausted by his tears and needed something to sooth him. A cup of hot cocoa was exactly what he needed. The smell of the melted chocolate and the fake marshmallows bobbing around the rim was a comforting delight, a small satisfaction that he so desperately needed. Just as he was about to pour the hot water into the cup he smelled an awful stench, a combination of marijuana and blood.
His stilted moment of happiness suffocated quickly when he saw the Kronovsky brothers sitting in two putrid green chairs across from him.
He hadn’t even noticed the unusual pair. They were peculiar in every way, noticeable by anyone with eyes to see. They had taken a liking to an urban fashion that contrasted their blue eyes and blonde hair, neatly formed cornrows, a golden smile, and elaborate black and white patterned clothes. They weren’t the type that would ordinarily gain his respect, not because of their fashion, but because of their blatant disregard for the elderly and for hardworking people. They had earned their respect through bats and metal fists, and to them, mistakes were punished indiscriminately.
“Did you need something, gentlemen,” he asked quietly while trying to calm his trembling.
“Well, of course. Why else would we be here?” said the eldest, Milosh, in a thick, heavy Eastern European accent.
“I don’t have it at the moment. As you can see, my wife is dying and I’d actually like to spend some time with her. So, if you don’t mind let’s settle things tomorrow. After that, do what you want with me.” He was only half lying, he hoped to take his own life before tomorrow. At least it’d be a civilized death. It’d be unlucky if Lin lived through the night, but it was unlikely. Still, he prayed for human decency, he prayed that he might see a better ending.
“Let’s take a walk.” smiled the youngest, Reno. He too had an unsightly grin and his breath was no better. The other brother, Jordan, grabbed the other side of his shoulder with a firm grip. He stunk of something, a kind of spoiled cheese and sausages.
Lin’s nurse was walking past and stopped them. She was a plump, dark woman, with round cheeks and a sassy character.
“Are you alright, mister Nobuyoshi?” she asked.
“Yes I’m fine,” said Kento, but the shaking in his hands said otherwise.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes he’s sure.” smiled the Jordan condescendingly.
“You let me know if you need anything. Don’t hesitate to call me,” she said as she eyed down the two men. They smiled at her. “Boo,” said Reno, as if his intimidation were ubiquitous with all “lesser mortals”. But the nurse ignored him and reassured Kento with a pat on the shoulder.
“You come back soon, okay. I have to speak with you about your wife.”
He was glad to hear it, but he already knew what she was going to say. Still, she had given the Kronovsky brother’s a reason to bring him back unharmed.
The three of them walked down the long corridor. The white tile echoed on the pale walls as they passed the occupied rooms. Kento’s heart thumped heavily against his chest. He had the discomforting sensation that he’d be in one of the rooms very soon.
The three of them were silent in the elevator. He unbuttoned the top of his collar, everything felt as if it were choking him.
“Are you nervous?” asked Milosh.
“Don’t be nervous,” said Reno. “If you have the money it’ll be quick and harmless, yeah?”
“But if you don’t have the money expect a very special package to be sent to your wife.” smiled the eldest.
They entered the bright red car. They were far too flashy to be criminals. Milosh was quick to gag Kento’s mouth. He enjoyed the forceful preparation before a sadistic masquerade of torture. He finished it off by draping a black bag over his head and throwing him in the trunk, breaking his clavicle. Kento’s screams were muffled by the slamming of the door on his pinky finger. They were sloppy in their capture.
Just as the Kronovsky twins entered the car two guards emerged from the elevator. They yelled out to them, but it was too late they had begun their descent down the seven floors, leaving behind a piece of his pinky on the garage floor.
“That bitch, ratted us out!” said Reno. “Hurry up before they catch us! The boss won’t be happy if we get caught.”
The two spiraled down to the first floor. Any attempt to stop them was futile. They crashed through the barrier and sped off down the street leaving behind black tread marks and a trail of smoke.
Sirens rang just a few miles from them, but they were a confident pair, well versed in the city roadways and gangster cinema. Kento moaned in the trunk, suffocating under his own pain, while Joe whispered in his blood filled ears. "Do you think this is my fault? Well, it isn't. You should've learned the first time that I only needed you for the experience. To have a life beyond the imaginations of men. I pity your fate. It was such a good ride after all."
He prayed to everyone and every deity, but none would answer for he had been faithless since childhood. "So now you pray, and what good will that do? You're still going to die," said Joe.
The sudden turns and jerks of the car only exacerbated nausea and the pain in his finger. They made a sharp right and he hit his head again on something sharp. A thick liquid ran down the back of his neck, he knew it was fatal.
"You see, they have lost faith in you, just as you lost faith in them. I am your God now, why not pray to me? Perhaps I can save you, for a price of course."
He was tempted, but the muted sounds and darkness had already begun to cloak him as he fought to remain conscious. What use was Joe? He'd only trick him in the end. He didn't want to pray to him, he had had enough.
"No," he murmured. He could taste blood now.
"Are you sure? It'd be worth it. All you'd have to do is let me hold on to you for a little while longer."
"No," he said gritting his teeth baring the pain.
In the midst of the deep darkness, a glimmer of light called to him, a familiar face.
It was bright and youthful and her skin glowed like golden olive oil.
It was Lin, in the days when she was most beautiful and most vibrant.
She smiled. “I'll take care of it.”
Her voice was clean and strong enough to evaporate the other voice that taunted him. Away it went like ash blowing in the wind.
The glow grew and reminded him of something, a memory from years ago. A hot day in a decrepit apartment. They were eating ice cream on the bed enjoying the sweet cool sensation of a shared fan. He was jobless and she was part- time making thirty dollars a week at a coffee shop just a few miles west. It was a chic little establishment, with trendy people and “creative” sandwiches.
“I’ll take care of you,” she smiled. He remembered the sun being so bright so alive as the rain streamed down the window.
Suddenly, the car sped up and he was thrown back into reality. With ears barely able to listen, he heard the faint echo of sirens chasing after them. That sweet melody of salvation was only moments away, but the car jerked and slammed into something causing Kento to hit his head once again. He felt a sharp pain across the front of his head, worse than before, worse than any pain he’d ever felt and space had somehow gotten smaller.
Finally, the car stopped with him in the trunk surrounded by contorted metal piercing through parts of his body that had lost all feeling. Loud pops fired overhead and a brother screamed. He wasn’t sure which but he hoped it was the violent one.
All the noise, the sirens, the loudspeaker, and the brother’s voice had begun to fade as a calming silence rolled in and wrapped itself around Kento. He couldn’t escape it or even dare to survive the pain.
Kento grinned as the apparition of his wife returned to him, clearer than before. With barely open eyes, bloodied and bruised. He listened to her voice. It was no longer a part of the world he knew, in fact, it was the echo from another. He embraced it and asked for salvation. The warm light blanketed him as the silence opened up into a resounding awe, a sound not for human ears.
Forensics would find him, days later when the smell got bad and the complaints started to come in. If they never found him that too was fine. He didn’t want his wife to hear such news. He didn’t want her to see the tragic ending to his story. He closed his eyes and shut out the world. On the dark moldy carpet, he breathed slowly until the pain subsided until the warmth consumed him.
His last memory being the bright red sun and ice cream melting on his arms. He held Lin closer.
“This is it Kento. This is happiness,” she smiled.