It’s been awhile since I’ve posted an original short story. This was published on the Bewildering Stories website in issue #635 (http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue635/last_chance.html) It does contain a bit of adult language.
One Last Chance
Jake had been in nicer hospitals than this. His mother had passed away in a new facility, big and airy with wide corridors, large windows, and modern art on the walls. This looked like, well, a hospital. The walls were antiseptic green, the corridors devoid of any decoration. It was all business, and a grim business at that.
He stopped to study the scrap of paper in his right hand. “Lesee,” he mumbled to himself, “Room 321 should be right down here.” He hesitated, then moved down the corridor, checking the number of each room as he went. At 321 he stopped, carefully tucked the paper away, smoothed his hair, raised the small bouquet of flowers in his left hand to shoulder level, took a deep breath, affected a big smile, and cautiously walked in.
A small, thin woman was lying in bed, head and shoulders raised to half vertical. Her hair was coal black with streaks of gray, and her face displayed the wrinkles of a troubled life. An IV snaked from a bag suspended from a corner of the bed to the left forearm, a tube ran from the nose to an oxygen machine, and a heart monitor on a table against the wall perpetually traced a thin red line.
Jake stopped about five feet from the bed and surveyed the scene. The eyes were closed. No one else was in the room. He took another deep breath, then tentatively, softly spoke. “Brandy?”
There was no response. “Hello, Brandy?” he called a bit louder.
The eyelids fluttered, then opened. Large violet eyes searched, then focused. “Jake?” The weak voice sounded astonished.
Jake forced his smile wider. “I heard you were sick and I just had to visit you.” He paused for a reaction. There was none beyond astonishment. “Look, I brought you some flowers. I heard your favorite color is violet, right?” There was an awkward pause.
“You came all the way from New York just to see me today?”
Jake shuffled his feet. “Uh, no, not just today. I found a little motel about three blocks away.” Jake paused again. “I can even see the Hollywood sign from there.”
“And your job? You just took off work and came?”
“Well, I had a lot of vacation time saved up. I’ve never had a reason to take off before.”
Brandy lowered her eyes. “That’s very sweet of you, Jake. Thank you for coming. But…I really am tired and they tell me I shouldn’t have any excitement.”
Jake couldn’t help but chuckle. “You know, it’s been a long time since anyone told me I was exciting.”
Brandy sighed. “You know what I mean. It’s just that I’m exhausted and drugged, and… and sick of everything in general.”
Jake smiled sympathetically. “Sounds like you’ve been having a rough time.”
“Something like that, yea.” She closed her eyes and laid back on the pillow.
“So what can I do for you?” Jake tried to sound as cheerful as possible.
Brandy’s gratitude began to turn into exasperation. “You don’t need to do anything. I’m being well cared for. The flowers are very nice and are really all I need. You can put them on the table. Thanks again.”
“Nothing I can do for you?” Jake mumbled feebly.
“No,” Brandy said firmly. “It’s a nice gesture, but I thought I told you some time ago that we could never be more than friends. That I was doing fine and was happy just the way things were. And I sure don’t need any emotional complications right now.”
Jake lowered his voice and stared at the floor. “I know. I do remember something about that. But I… I just had to come see you when I heard you were sick.”
“And now you have. I really do appreciate it. And thank you again for the flowers. Now please, I need to get some rest.”
Jake hesitated, then did as he was told. With the flowers in place, he stood back, looking around. His mouth opened, but there was no sound. Then he turned and quietly walked out as Brandy stared at the ceiling.
“Excuse me, nurse?”
The young lady in the faded blue scrubs looked up impassively from the desk. “Yes?”
“The patient in 321, Brandy Smith? How is she doing?”
“Are you family?”
“Uh, no, actually I’m just a friend. A long-time friend.”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t give out personal information,” she said matter-of-factly. Then she went back to her paperwork.
Jake paused, then asked. “Could you please just tell me if it’s cancer? A mutual friend said it was.”
The nurse looked up again, stared as if measuring his soul, then half smiled sympathetically. “Yes, her chart says cancer of the uterus. Not good. And that’s probably more than I should say.” Her eyes went back to the desk.
“Thank you, I really appreciate it…And has she had any other visitors?”
“None that I know of.” This time the nurse didn’t even look up.
“Not even family?”
“None that I know of,” she repeated as she shuffled some papers.
Jake’s shoulders sagged. “Thank you,” he muttered softly, then slipped away.
“Well, Jake, what do you think of your first convention so far?”
Jake smiled awkwardly. “It’s certainly been interesting, Mr. Johnson. Thanks for bringing me.”
“It’s all part of the business. You’ve got enough time in the company, we need to start broadening your horizons. I hope you’re meeting a lot of people. Networking is so important, you know.”
“Yes, I’m sure trying to.” Jake raised his glass to his lips, then abruptly stopped. “Now that you mention it, do you know anything about that petite brunette over there?”
“Oh, that’s Brandy Smith. She’s plant manager at Pasadena Tool and Die and has been coming to these things for several years now. We do some business with them.” He took a sip of his drink. “Have for a long time now, because they do exceptionally good work.”
“I see. So you know Brandy?”
“I talk to her occasionally.” Mr. Johnson lifted an eyebrow. “May I ask why you’re interested?”
“There’s just something about her that fascinates me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, I just can’t seem to take my eyes off her.”
“Well, go over and introduce yourself. Buy her a drink!”
“ I tried that. She was polite, just very… cold. She didn’t seem to want any company.”
“That’s interesting. Come to think of it, I know nothing about her personal life. She’s always been very businesslike with me.” Mr. Johnson took another sip. “Guess that’s why I like doing business with them.”
Jake sighed. “I’m sorry to hear you know so little about her.”
Mr. Johnson chuckled. “Got a thing for brunettes, huh?”
Jake simply stared across the room. “Yeah, I guess so.”
Brandy felt the warmth of the sun on her face. Her first thought was “Another day.” Her second was “I must still be alive.” Then she opened her eyes and gasped.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came yesterday to visit you, remember?” Jake leaned forward from his chair to be within arm’s length of her hand.
“Yes, and yesterday I thanked you for coming. So why did you come back today?”
An impish smile crossed Jake’s face. “There is only one logical explanation.”
Brandy snorted derisively. “I am not a witch,” she muttered.
Jake’s smile grew wider. “And you know, I really want to believe that.”
Brandy looked away and shook her head. Then she turned back and studied Jake. “What’s the book?”
Jake held it up from his lap. “Tales of O. Henry. Some of my favorite short stories. I thought maybe you’d like to hear a story. Ever heard of ‘The Gift of the Magi’?”
“I guess I am now,” she said resignedly.
“The wife sells her long hair to buy her husband a nice fob chain for his valuable pocket watch as a suitable Christmas present. Except he sold the watch to buy her the expensive set of combs that she had coveted for her hair.”
Brandy thought a moment. “So they each sold their most prized possession to buy a present for the other?”
Jake leaned forward and smiled. “Exactly. Can you imagine loving someone that much?”
Brandy’s lower lip suddenly began to quiver. “Yes…yes, I can.” Tears began streaming down her face. “Please, Jake, not now. Just not now.” She closed her eyes and turned away.
Jake sat stunned. That was definitely not what he expected… or wanted. He’d best retreat. Tomorrow was another day.
“Hi, Brandy! Remember me, I hope?”
Brandy turned and gave a polite smile. “You’re Jake from Syracuse Manufacturing, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. Say, I see you’re on the program! I’m really looking forward to hearing you speak.”
“Oh, well, it was a good opportunity.” Brandy looked away and toyed with the glass in her hand.
There was an uncomfortable pause. “Can I ask the same question I ask every year?”
Brandy raised an eyebrow and waited.
“Dinner? With me? Sometime this week?” Jake had the expression of a little kid on Christmas Eve.
“Oh, you are so sweet! But I’m always so busy, I’m afraid I just don’t have the time.” She looked at her watch. “In fact, I’m supposed to be meeting someone just about now. Sorry, I have to go.” And she was gone.
Jake could only watch helplessly. “Yes. I’m sorry… too.”
Jake entered Room 321 with a hopeful smile and another bouquet. “Good morning. I thought you’d need fresh flowers today.” He stood at the doorway expectantly. “May… I come in?”
“You may as well, I guess.”
Jake put the fresh flowers on the table, then took his now-familiar seat by the bed. The was a long silence. “Look, I’m sorry if I upset you yesterday.”
There was no response, so he continued. “I’m very sorry. That was the last thing I wanted to do.”
Brandy simply stared at him. She had the eyes of a cornered animal desperately looking for an escape path. Then she suddenly blurted “He was KILLED.”
Jake recoiled. “Who?”
“You didn’t know him.” Tears filled her eyes.
Jake eyed her warily. “Do…you want… to talk about it?”
“I never have before. Why should I start now?”
Jake instinctively reached out and took her hand, being careful not to disturb the IV. Then he looked into her eyes encouragingly and waited… waited…
Brandy took a deep breath. “He was my fiancé. We’d know each other since third grade. We’d done everything together all through high school. My family adored him. We planned the wedding for six months. We invited everybody we could think of. Then one week before, one LOUSY WEEK, he was killed by a goddamn DRUNK DRIVER. A GODDAMN…” For a full minute she turned the air blue with such volume the flowers quivered. Then her entire body dissolved into sobs, sobbing so hard the bed shook.
First Jake squeezed her hand, then he scrambled to grab the box of tissues. Finally he watched helplessly, tears welling up in his own eyes.
The storm didn’t pass for ten full minutes. The sobs eventually became sighs and Brandy laid her head back with her eyes closed.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea,” Jake whispered softly.
“Nobody did.” Brandy’s voice sounded so tired. “Nobody understood. Certainly not my family. Wasn’t a month later they were trying to fix me up with someone else. ‘You need to get out’ they said. I couldn’t take it. That’s why I’m on the West Coast and they’re not around.”
Jake let her words sink in. Suddenly it all made sense. Forget the dinner invitations, business phone calls, Christmas cards. They never had a chance to impress if the emotion was turned off. But then, what else could he have done? More importantly, what will work now?
It was like Brandy was reading his thoughts. “So don’t get all touchy-feely with me now, okay? I’ve been analyzed enough. I just want to be left alone, to do what’s best for me.”
“Even if it means being alone at the most difficult time of your life?”
The look got even sterner. “ESPECIALLY if it means being alone. Look, I went through a lot, enough to last me at least one lifetime. Case closed.” She paused and took a deep breath. “Now you really want to help, huh?”
Jake brightened. “Of course. Anything I can do.”
“Good. Please leave. I need my rest now.”
Jake suppressed a sigh, then did as he was told.
But just as he got to the door, he heard Brandy mutter “Why do you keep coming back anyway?”
He half turned and looked back at her. “Are you familiar with the legend of Pandora’s Box?”
“No, what about it?”
“Pandora was given this box and was told not to open it. But her curiosity got the best of her and she forced it open, and all the ills of the world escaped. Only one thing was left.”
“Okay, I’ll bite, what was left?”
Jake simply smiled enigmatically and slipped out the door.
Jake heard the voice in the corridor and turned in mid-stride. It was the same nurse he’d talked to before. “Yes?”
“You really do care about 321.” It was definitely not a question.
Jake gave her a sad smile. “Yes, I really do.”
“Then pray for her.” The nurse looked at her clipboard. “Pray hard.”
Another day in the hospital. More sunlight streaming through the window. Jake sitting next to your bed. But it didn’t matter. In a little while nothing would matter.
Jake smiled. “Morning, Brandy! How are you feeling?”
Brandy’s expression showed she considered that a dumb question. “As well as can be expected, thanks.”
“I see. Well, I’ve thought over what you said yesterday, and I’ve come to say goodbye.”
It was Brandy’s turn to be surprised. “Oh?”
“Yes. I don’t want to upset you anymore. But before I go, there’s something I want to tell you. You do remember how we met?”
“Of course, the annual trade convention four years ago.”
“Five.” Jake reached over and took her hand. “I hated that convention. Just a waste of time for me. But every year from then on I went back.” He smiled warmly. “Do you know why?”
Brandy didn’t answer, but her eyes widened.
Jake nodded. “I was hoping to see you. Even if it was just for a few moments. And I wasn’t disappointed… until this year.” He looked past her to the flower bouquet. His voice became barely audible, as if he were talking to himself. “I simply can’t explain it. There is something about you I just can’t get out of my head. Strange, isn’t it? I really don’t know you, yet I’ve always been infatuated with you.”
Jake shifted his gaze directly into her eyes. “So when I ask how you are feeling, it’s not a rhetorical question.”
Brandy squeezed his hand. “And I always thought you were a nice guy. I did enjoy talking to you, however briefly. But beyond that, I just… I couldn’t….” Her head sunk into the pillow and she closed her eyes. “It doesn’t matter now anyway.”
“It does, too!” Jake blurted. “Look, you are still too young to give up on life!”
Brandy opened one eye. “Fifty-five is NOT young. Lots of people don’t even make it this far.” The eye closed again. “Lots.”
Jake slumped in his chair. Then he leaned forward, about two feet from her face. “Remember the year you made the presentation? This is not the woman I saw then. Not even close! You ran that company for at least a decade, and you didn’t get that far by ever giving up.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Brandy dear, I love you. I’m sure of it. Now I know you’ve been through a lot. We can’t change your past. But you can still have a future. And I think I can give you a lot to live for.”
“Jake, you’re just torturing yourself.” The eyes remained closed, but for the first time, there was a note of sympathy in her voice.
“Am I? Okay, maybe I am, but I don’t know what else to do. You have to admit, this is my last chance.”
One eye opened again. “You really are serious.”
“Yes, I am. And I’m quickly running out of ideas.”
Jake sat in quiet contemplation as Brandy seemed asleep. Finally he spoke, softly, carefully.
“This is my final word, and then I’ll get out of your life if you really want me to. I’m going to ask you for a favor. Just one.” He silently waited.
“A favor?” Both eyes opened and she looked at him, half puzzled, half expectantly.
“Don’t you dare quit.” Jake stressed ‘quit’. “This is not for you, not for your family, it’s for me. Please, keep going for me.” He took her hand in both of his and looked hopefully into her eyes. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know it’s much easier to face your problems when you have someone with you. And I want to be here with you, so I can give you all the love I possibly can.”
She studied his face, letting his words sink in. Then, staring at the ceiling, she spoke in a soft, little-girl voice. “Could you stay another day?”
Jake grinned. “Yes! In fact, I’ll stay as many days as you want me to.” He bent down and kissed her forehead.
Brandy closed her eyes and, for the first time since she entered the hospital, she smiled.