“Do you remember when we used watch Peter Pan?”
“I couldn’t forget if I tried. Your mother pulled us out of school to see it the first time. You were so excited that you forgot to act sick in front of the teacher. She almost didn’t let us leave.”
“That’s right, I’d forgotten about that. Mom took us to see it at the old Maudlin Theater. They didn’t even have the projectors that fit the color reels, so we saw it in black and white. I was just a kid then, so I didn’t realize how poor we were. The Maudlin was all we could afford,” Dante reflected. He paused to itch his hand where the IV was running into his deeply bruised veins. The rough spun gauze was blocking him from getting at the source of his irritation but it felt good to try. He looked across the small, ammonia saturated room at his only visitor. “She probably had to scrimp for a month just to get that.”
“Not that it mattered. It was all in color to my eyes. A child’s imagination is a powerful thing. When we got home I played Peter and you were my trusty Shadow. Do you remember that?”
“Of course I do, you jumped off the roof.”
Dante’s laugh turned into a coughing fit. He reached for the plastic cup on his bedside table and took a small sip of water before continuing. Something about it tasted vaguely chemical. “I was trying to fly. Don’t play innocent, you were encouraging me.”
“I was not. I was waiting to catch you in case you actually did it.”
“But you didn’t! I broke my collarbone, my wrist and two of my fingers. I was in a sling for over a month. It’s lucky that bush was there or I might have broken my neck!”
“I would have caught you.”
“Could be. I suppose I can’t blame you for my being an idiot. That actually reminds me of something, Charlotte.”
“The one with the teeth?”
Dante looked incredulous. “No, Charlotte Burk, the artist, the beautiful one, long brown hair, amber eyes like honey?”
“Yeah, she had crooked teeth. You have the memory of a goldfish.”
“Keep that lip and we’ll see whose teeth are crooked.” The friends smiled at each other. “Do you remember when we took that road trip to Crater Lake?”
“And you rode Jose Martinez’ dirt bike off the dock? Yeah, I think I remember that. You went under with the bike and then came back up with the big bloody gash on your head. I swam out to get you but Jose got there first. Good thing too, he knew CPR.”
“I was trying to impress a girl,” Dante shrugged.
“I’m sure she was swooning. At least you ended up kissing somebody. If you ruined my bike like that I’d have let you drown.”
Dante laughed and took another sip of water. The tubes and monitors made the ritual difficult but the drugs made his mouth so dry that he couldn’t go long without a sip.
“I suppose it’s all for the best,” he said. “If I hadn’t so thoroughly embarrassed myself in front of Charlotte, I still might have been chasing her instead of getting together with Cindy.”
“You never told me how you to met.”
“No? That’s a hell of a story. How’ve you never heard it?”
“Easy, you never told me.”
“All right, all right,” Dante said rubbing his hands together. “Where to begin? Well I’d just moved to Eugene for school. I didn’t know my way around yet so I was looking at a map when I rear-ended this Chevy Impala. I was sweating, believe you me. I kept picturing some giant strolling out with steel knuckles. I thought about driving away but I was frozen to the seat. Instead this little redhead comes strolling out.
“If I was relieved, it didn’t last long. She stomps up to my window and starts smacking that massive gaudy ring of hers on the glass, telling me to get out of the car. Traffic piled up behind us while she was letting me know how she felt about my driving, but no one got out and said anything. All the other drivers sat patiently in cars until she was done. In the end she snatch my information out of my hand and left me standing shame faced in front of a half-mile of bystanders.”
“Hell of a first impression.”
“It’s easy to forget she has that in her. When I found out she had older brothers, I assumed she got it from them but Jack and Terry were just as scarred of her as I was,” Dante laughed. “Anyway, I nearly turned around and went straight home but my car started smoking and I was worried it wouldn’t make the trip.
“So I went back to my dorm instead and spent the night worrying what my dad would say when he found out about the car. Then the phone rang. It was Cindy. She told me my insurance didn’t check out and she wanted me to meet her at a bar to get it sorted. Of course, I was still nursing ring shaped bruises but I was more scarred of what she’d do if I didn’t go. She had my information after all.
“When I got there she was wearing this violet dress with a neckline that went, well, below the neck. She bought me a beer and apologized for shouting at me. I told her I was new in town and she offered to show me around. By the time I realized she never asked about my insurance, I was in her bed.”
“That is a good story.”
“Christ, how long have we been sitting here?” Dante said, as much to himself as to his friend. “I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time reminiscing.”
“They say you know that you’re old when you start spending more time thinking about the past than the future.”
“I knew I was old before you came around to point it out.”
“Well you don’t look it.”
“Liar,” Dante snorted. “You know what they don’t tell you about chemo? You don’t just lose the hair on your head. My legs are balder than your wife’s.”
“That’s not as impressive a statement as you might think.”
Dante cocked an eyebrow. “Really? My Cindy always kept hers smooth as silk. I remember when she went into labor with Ian. I was running around the house in a panic, trying to get all the stuff I should have already packed. She goes and draws herself a bath and starts shaving her legs! Can you believe that? She said we’d be watching the video for years and she didn’t want to have gorilla legs. I said no one was gonna be looking at her legs when she was shoving out a person.”
“I bet she loved that.”
“Gave me the silent treatment right up until the screaming started. I swear, I’ve never been so terrified in my life. The doctors made me wait outside while my wife was screaming her lungs out in an operating room.”
“I remember.”
“What do you mean you remember?” Dante asked, “You weren’t there.”
“Yes I was.”
“You most certainly were not. I’ve never felt so alone in my entire life as I did sitting in that disease soaked chair.”
“Memory of a goldfish,” his friend chided gently. “I was sitting right there next to you the whole time. I brought the cigars, remember?”
“Oh yeah,” a slow grin spread across Dante’s sore spotted face. “That nurse looked like she was ready to throttle the life out of us. I dropped mine right in my lap and burned a hole through my jeans. Ended up being checked in right next to Cindy.”
They both laughed for a full minute. Even after Dante started coughing, he kept on laughing until his chest burned and his throat went raw. It felt good to laugh even though it hurt. Everything hurt now so there was no point in avoiding it.
His friend was still chuckling when Dante’s expression went sour. He heaved a deep and sobering breath down into his stomach as he relived what happened next.
“And you were there when Ian died.”
The room went quiet.
“You were there when the doctors took him from Cindy’s arms and put him in that incubator, when they told us he could still make it and then didn’t.”
His friend opened his mouth to speak but Dante raised his hand, holding the silence in memory of his lost boy. His tear ducts were empty and so his eyes simply grew redder as he shook with the memory.
“He’d be nineteen by now,” Dante continued. “He’d be driving, maybe off at college or maybe back at home crying with his mother about his dying dad. Wouldn’t that be something? Maybe he’d have a girl, or a boy, or even a pet dog to help him get through the nights when I’m gone. He’d move on and build a life but he’d remember me and know that I loved him. I would have liked that.”
The silence came back slowly, the way pressure builds in your ears with altitude. The only sounds were the robotic beeping of the heart monitor and the metal hinges on the adjustable bed that groaned under the weight of Dante’s tremors.
“Do you want me to go?”
“Don’t you dare. You keep your ass planted right where it is,” Dante replied. His voice was steadier than it had a right to be. “Oh yes, you were there for everything, I remember that now. You were there when Ian died. You were there when Cindy left. You were there when I had the barrel in my mouth, when the cold iron was between my teeth and I was ready to say goodbye. You were there when I wanted nothing more than to go see my son and you said no.”
“That’s right, I did,” his friend responded.
Dante lurched forward in his bed, the needle in his hand tearing free from tissue-thin skin. The monitor’s rhythm picked up to a gallop.
“Why?” Dante challenged.
“You weren’t ready.”
“But I am now?”
Dante watched his friend shrug his shoulders. He stared back into eyes he suddenly felt he didn’t recognize. He wanted to hit him. He wanted to get out of bed, take three swift steps across the room and nail him right in the teeth. It would kill him to do it but oh, it would feel good.
Then a smile spread across Dante’s face as it dawned on him what his friend meant.
“Cindy.” Dante said the name softly. “Did you send her?”
“I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” his friend replied, the picture of innocence but for the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Did Cindy come to see you? It’s about time. You’re not getting any younger.”
“She came by during visiting hours this afternoon. She told me it wasn’t my fault.”
“Did you believe her?”
“You know what? I did.”
Dante’s friend got out of his chair and walked over to the side of the bed. The shadow slipped away and Dante could see him clearly. He was smiling.
“So now you’re ready,” he said. “Which is good, because we’re leaving.”
He slid his arms under Dante’s shriveled body and lifted him out of the sheets. Dante was amazed to find that the process was painless. His friend had finally caught him, the way he’d always promised and all the pain slipped away.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Second star to the right and straight on till morning,” his friend answered.