Flash Fiction Challenge – Christmas in a Strange Place

Here’s another Flash Fiction Challenge…saw it when I went to terribleminds to post my last entry. Couldn’t help myself!

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The place is a ghost town, the hallways nearly silent. The only sounds are soft, coming from the few that can’t leave. Like me. Not that I make any sounds, but next to my bed the low beep of the heart monitor reassures me. A similar beep echoes from the next room, and a pen scratches paper at the desk around the corner.

Usually the rooms are full of things to watch, to overhear, sometimes to feel. Visitors, students, doctors. The occasional researcher interested in my condition, my prognosis, my psychology.

But in the evening things slow down. Researchers retreat to their offices. Doctors hand us off to the night shift, which usually means one doc and a handful of residents. Nurses tiptoe to allow us to sleep. Visitors go home, to the rest of their families.

The nights are long for me, lonely. I try to understand – my family has to keep living, after all – but at night it’s hard. Impossible really. I will stare at the ceiling, trying to get excited about counting the ridges or looking for faces in the texture, after a thousand nights of the same. I will try to find music in the rhythm of my heartbeat and my neighbors’. The neighbors I’ve never seen, so maybe I’ll try to put a face, a gender, even an illness to those unknown beeps.

But the mind is a strange place to be sometimes, and tonight is worse than ever. Quieter, lonelier, emptier.

I picture my kids, passing through the living room in fuzzy pajamas, dawdling, gazing longingly at the presents my wife has carefully wrapped.  I can see the packages now, every crease perfect, every corner smooth, every edge flat. The ribbon crossing over the wrapping just so. I picture my wife, shooing the boys out of the room and to their beds, for surely it’s past their bedtime now. “Just one more night, can’t you wait?” I hear her scold gently. “Go to sleep or Santa won’t come!” she’ll warn.  Are they leaving me behind, even now?

I feel something wet and warm leak onto my cheek. Damn it!  All I want is to be home.

No, to be honest, at this moment all I want, with everything in my being, is to reach up and wipe the tear away.  The desire burns in my belly. I feel my hand resting motionless on the blanket, but all I can do is blink. The slow, controlled blink that is now my entire life. Blink, blink, blink.

I should be grateful to have that much, they tell me. “You could be a vegetable,” they say, “you’re lucky.” Right now it’s damned hard to feel grateful about anything. Or lucky. And how much difference is there between me and a vegetable anyway?

“You have proprioception, and feeling too, those are things to be grateful for.” At the thought, I feel the roughness of the sheets. They’re not really rough, but they feel so to me. I feel the indentation of my heels in the mattress, my elbows. The slightly too-cold air on my arms. My buttocks going to sleep under my weight. How one foot lists outward while the other behaves.

Yeah, right, if only they knew. My legs start to burn. Restless Leg Syndrome. I’ve heard them talk about it on informercials. RLS, a made up illness is what I think, but then again, my legs want to move, aren’t comfortable at all in their position, drive me crazy with the need to move.

I’d laugh if I could – funny what a difference a single letter can make! Replace the R with an A. ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

ALS, RLS, RLS, ALS. One letter. Kin of a sort. And like siblings they don’t get along…the ALS has locked me in, and the RLS wants to let me out. Part of me want to laugh. Just a small part, but I guess that’s something.

A sound distracts from my torment. “Jingle Bells” plays quietly on someone’s crappy computer speaker. A nurse is trying to be kind by keeping the volume down; I want to yell “turn it up!” but as always the shout echoes only inside my head. Instead, I strain to hear. I tune out the other sounds – for one thing, my hearing has gotten better – and listen.  My eyes close as the music shifts.

I catch my breath – make that, it’d catch if it could – as the weak speakers do their best to broadcast “Little Drummer Boy.” My favorite. Suddenly I forget my RLS and let myself be carried away by the music, floating from one song to another. Carol of the Bells, another favorite. Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Nat King Cole. Burl Ives. On and on.  Time moves faster than any night I can remember.

A touch on my hand startles me – usually I hear people approach long before they even see me, even when they try to catch me by surprise. My eyes pop open and I see my wife, my lovely wife, leaning over me. A scraping sound I can’t identify, and a piney scent fills the room. Then the rustling of paper, but all this is below the foot of my bed and I can’t see any of it from my prone position. She leans down and kisses my dry lips, gently, lingeringly, lips catching my day-old stubble.

That I can feel.

She reaches then for the bed control, and slowly I rise up.  Another tear finds freedom as a baby tree comes into view, decorated with our family ornaments and a garland, with perfectly wrapped packages being placed – less than gently – underneath by my two boys, their little arms helped by their sister.

“It’s midnight, baby,” she whispers in my ear, “and Santa just got here.” My daughter takes my hand as the boys scramble into the bed. I feel each of their bony knees and elbows as they snuggle against me, and am grateful.

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