DJ Skippy Says Life Goes On

   Friday the thirteenth began like any other day, albeit with a bit of superstition. While black cats continued to prance the streets, arching their backs at wary travelers, and while those travelers cast salt over their shoulders come their morning meal, everyone went about their day as though nothing would happen.
   Content with their beliefs, they didn’t bother to draw their curtains when the sun rose above the city and blinded them with its harsh rays.
   For many, they simply didn’t care.
   Friday the thirteenth was just another day to them.
   For others, the number itself spoke an ill that would not be soon forgotten.
   Rising from a strangled fit of sleep in a mix of swears and obscenities, Bart Newclerry tore his way through his New York apartment like a madman bent on destroying the world. With head hung low and grisly arms outstretched, he tore the blinds across the windows without a care in the world, not bothering to double-check whether or not he had damaged the expensive fabric or if he’d pulled drawstrings free from their reigns. Nothing mattered at that particular moment except the light—the cruel, jagged light. With its harsh ways and its cruel, foreboding stare, it burned itself into his head and threatened to sallow him whole.
   Head ablaze, Bart set out on his mission.
   In all, it took him no more than ten minutes to draw the curtains across each and every window in the apartment.
   By the time he finished, a migraine began to set in.
   It would only contribute to the savage hell the day would become.
   Damn these headaches, he thought, forcing his way into the kitchen. Damn these motherfucking headaches and those cocksucking doctors.
   In one swift motion, Bart pulled a cupboard open, swiped a bottle of pills from the second shelf up, and made his way to the sink.
   Had he cared, he would have bothered to read the instructions on the prescription. Since he didn’t, he simply squeezed, twisted, and pulled the child safety cap off, downing the pill in a single swallow.
   With only six months to live, he could care less about overdosing on prescription medication.
   Cocksuckers.
   A smirk crossing his lips, Bart made his way into the living room and settled down in his recliner, ready to face the day, but unsure how to do so.
   Bowing his head, he took a brief moment to consider going to work.
   Shortly after, he realized the date and made a decision.
   Bart Newclerry would be staying home today.
   Fuck his boss—he didn’t have a brain tumor.

   It seemed to have happened simply enough. A series of reoccurring migraine headaches, lack of concentration, comprehension, and the inability to focus on backlit objects for more than a few minutes of a time—all played into a series of small concussions that eventually landed him into the back of an ambulance after he collapsed in his home for no reason at all. Minorities always seem to start out as minorities. Majorities always seem to start out as minorities. They start out small, work their way to the top, then explode in a manner of time that seems incomprehensible to anyone that hasn’t been watching. One might say that something can’t come out from behind a curtain for no reason at all, but others would beg to question the process of how that something came to be in the first place before actually questioning the event itself.
   Bart begged to question that very specific thing the first time a doctor told him he had a growth on his brain.
   A what? he’d asked.
   A growth, the doctor had replied.
   Medical terminology doesn’t leave anything in the way for question. A hypothesis is perceived, a diagnosis is given, then a prognosis is explained, all in a unemotional manner that often shocks most people. You might say a doctor is heartless because he doesn’t falter when he tells you you have brain cancer, and you might scream, kick and cry while calling him the worst things you can possibly imagine after he tells you your daughter has died after having been run over by a car, but you can’t deny the flicker of emotion that always passes behind his eyes. You can’t deny that somewhere, somehow, deep inside him, he is secretly crying, regardless of what his exterior demeanor may say.
   In the end, he’s only there to do his job.
   He can’t cry for each and every person he tells they’re going to die.
   Following his diagnosis, Bart went home, pulled his curtains shut, and laid in bed for three days, all the while trying as hard as he could not to cry.
   He broke after the third day of silence, when his brother called to ask what had happened.
   This is it, Bart had said.
   This is what? his brother had asked.
   I have brain cancer, he replied. I only have six months to live.
   Five days after his diagnosis, when Bart crawled out of bed and contemplated going to work, he looked at a calendar and realized the date—not only for its worth, but for its reason.
   Why go to work on a Friday, much less on the thirteenth?
   “I’m not going to work,” Bart mumbled, tipping his head to view the television set.
   Though nothing shone from its dull, blank surface, Bart imagined what he’d see should he decide to turn it on. It would be like any other day, most likely. Marha Minyon would be sitting at her desk, giving the citizens of New York their morning news, while Bill Mackerton would recite the weather, given accord by a screen that showed him what should be there but really wasn’t.
   Men never have, nor ever will be, magical. They’ve never been able to cast spells, bring the dead back to life, or recite the weather to the precise T at which it should be read.
   If magic existed, they probably would have found it by now.
   Shaking his head, Bart pushed himself off the couch and made his way to the bathroom. There, he turned the light on, immediately regretting it soonafter. Eyes bloodshot, stubble awry and face as pale as a sheet, he looked as dead as he would be in six months.
   Given his current state of affairs, that only gave him one-hundred-and-seventy-five days to live. He’d be lucky if he were still around for Christmas.
   Who fucking gives a shit about Christmas? he thought, stepping out of his clothes and into the shower. I won’t be around for it anyway.
   Still—the thought of a holiday he would never see sure gave him a lot to think about.
   No. Not now.
   Cold water hit his face.
   It did nothing to dull the heat rising in his chest.

   Anger ate at him like a lion encaged in a zoo. Wanting, hoping, needing to get out alive, it tore through his ribcage as though nothing existed between it and the outside world. Teeth sank into the fleshy pulp of his diaphragm, while claws barreled down on his lungs in a desperate attempt to gain leverage. Several times, the lion slipped, only to sink itself into a different part of his internal vessel. The kidneys, the liver, the gallbladder and the intestines—everywhere the lion fell, its presence went, casting Bart’s body in a mixture of pain, confusion and hurt.
   In the dead of night, cars bathed the city streets in ghostly glows.
   In the apartments above, men listened to the sound of heartbeats inside their heads.
   A lion roared.
   A monkey cried out.
   A man squeezed his eyes shut and begged for it to all go away.
   He didn’t need a menagerie inside his head. Wasn’t it bad enough to have a tumor, much less a cancerous one?
   Guess not.
   Deterred in his quest for sleep, Bart threw his legs over the side of the bed and planted his feet on the ground. There, he rubbed his eyes, took a deep breath, then prepared to rise, but not before casting a glance out the window.
   How many times would he see the grand, almost-utopian world of New York City before it all ended?
   Bart didn’t bother to count.
   He rose and made his way for the door.

   In his living room, Bart watched the curtained-off windows with a sort of animosity. Deep down, something inside him hated seeing nothing but white slats of plastic, while another grew to favor it like certain parasites do their hosts. Once, when he thought he saw a flicker of light pass across one of the windows, he jumped backward and nearly fell onto his glass coffee table. His saving grace was the nearby recliner, which he grabbed onto just before he could tumble back.
   A single fall to a glass coffee table would seal his fate in an instant.
   Not like anything else won’t, he thought, expelling a held-in breath.
   The back of his knee hurt where he’d stumbled into the table. Though not a deep pain, the slight stab he felt whenever he moved drew the lion in his chest from sleep. It let out a low growl, but didn’t rise from its place of rest. Instead, it merely opened one eye, bared its teeth slightly, then settled its head back onto its forelegs, making sure to expose its claws for a brief moment before retracting them into the safety of their pads.
   Slow, deep breaths. One… two… three…
   Settling down into his overused recliner, Bart leaned back and allowed the chair to carry him to his destination. At a one-hundred-and-thirty-five-degree angle, it allowed him to view the ceiling with the utmost of ease. Dark, cradled in tension and cracked by age, the paint above looked as though it would begin to fall off at any moment.
   “Knowing my luck, it probably will.”
   A low chuckle broke the silence of the apartment, though not in the pleasant manner that Bart expected. The sound seemed rough, harsh in contrast to his normal voice. It did little to comfort him, especially at this hour.
   Is this how it’s going to be? he thought, drawing a quilt across his chest. Is this how I’m going to live the rest of my life?
   To think that his last six months would be spent in awkward silence was troubling enough, but to know that the sound of his own laugh frightened him? What did it mean when a man started looking over his shoulder at his own shadow, or jumping at the sight of himself in the mirror? What did it mean when he sneezed and cringed at the sound, or spoke and sighed at its tone?
   Honestly, truthfully, and without any doubt in the world, what could it mean when the sound of his own laugh made him uncomfortable?
   He didn’t know.
   Part of him didn’t care.
   All he wanted to do was sleep.

   The alarm clock came on in Bart’s bedroom and a stranger projected his voice through the apartment. Awkwardly-loud in a room that should have been quiet, he announced himself as DJ Skippy and began to relay the tracks that he would be playing this morning. Modern pop shit—the stuff Bart hated—would play on this channel the entire day, from six o’clock in the morning until six o’clock at night. Reruns would sound during the six-oh-one PM to the five-fifty-nine AM that Skippy and his coworkers weren’t on. Then, once six o’clock AM came rolling around, Skippy would proudly announce that you were on the air with DJ Skippy, the master of the tracks and the king of the bling. It was this way every morning—had been since Queen Starla had resigned last year—and would be until one-too-many people got tired of Skippy’s coked-up personality. The normality of it usually secured Bart in his life, especially when teenage girls started singing about parties in the USA and women who said you couldn’t read their poker faces.
   For the most part, Bart could care less. He was too old to party. He hadn’t tried to read a poker face in years.
   Rising from the recliner, Bart pushed his way into the blackened apartment and into his bedroom. There, he stared at the clock, listened to Skippy’s preppy-boy voice, then made a decision that would forever free him from any timely limitations.
   He pulled the cord from the outlet in the wall and watched as the LCD numbers faded from view.
   If only it were that easy in real life.

   Breakfast came and went in a manner of speaking. Though usually filled with pleasures small yet fruitful, the dawn of the day could always offer something new, regardless of how the yesterday or year went.
   Normally, after rising from bed and taking a five-minute shower, Bart would have sat down at the table to read his morning paper and wait for a piece of bread to toast. As his hair would begin to dry, slicked with droplets of morning dew, he would listen to the sound of traffic echoing up from the city below and flip one of New York’s many newspapers open. Front-page headlines of terrorism and school shootings would gloss his mind, though they would do little to impact his overall day. Like moisturizer to a pair of fine lips, the morning news meant little more to the average person than it did to someone thousands of miles away. On the moon, beneath the sea, or slowly-but-surely on the breeze, it was meant to inform and nothing more. Besides—who really cared about what was going on in the world anyway? Who cared what was going on in Chile, Haiti, Iraq or Afghanistan? Who cared about China’s republic, Korea’s stance on nuclear weapons, or Russia’s war with Georgia? Who cared about the AIDs crisis in Africa, the forests of South America or the extinctions in the Amazon? Who really, truly cared?
   In the end, the sad but simple truth could be answered in a few simple words.
   No one.
   No one cared who died or suffered, who lost their wife or who ate their baby. No one cared who was maimed from war, cheated by government or imprisoned by people. No one cared who drank Typhoid, ate Malaria or consumed AIDs. No one did. It was always that way and would always be that way.
   Suffering from cancer, dying from the inside out, who would pity him, if not himself?
   Breakfast would no longer be a memorable occasion. He would have to get used to that.
   Standing beneath the doorframe that connected the living room to his bedroom, watching the kitchen with a sense of dread he had never before felt, he heard a knock at the door and looked up just in time to see the morning paper slip between the slots.
   He walked into the bathroom without looking back.
   At ten o’clock, after the first clerk arrived at the front desk, he would cancel his newspaper subscription for the rest of his life, however long that may be.

   The telephone rang for the next several days. Each time the answering machine clicked on, the person calling hung up, almost as if their decision in calling seemed haste or rash, or they’d dialed the wrong number. From Sunday to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then finally Thursday, the phone rang at least twice every day, usually anywhere from eight in the morning until twelve in the afternoon.
   Finally, on the sixth and final day, the caller left a message.
   They began simply and securely.
   “Hey, Bart,” George McCaughlgrun said, the buzz of activity in one of New York’s finest offices evident in the form of white noise. “I’m just calling to see how everything’s going. You haven’t called in sick. I’m getting worried. Anyway, if you get this message, call me back, tell me what’s up. I know you went to the doctor. I want to hear the news you…”
   The answering machine clicked off.
   Silenced by the gods of man, McCaughlgrun’s voice disappeared in but the span of a second.
   Bart rolled over in bed.
   Am I imagining things?
   The phone rang again.
   It quickly went to voicemail.
   “Sorry about that,” the man laughed, the thick German in his accent confirming that he was, in fact, George McCaughlgrun. “I forgot how short your voicemail is. Anyhow, like I said, I want to hear the news you got. Call me back when you can, Bart.”
   With his peace said, the answering machine clicked off, this time without interruption.
   Closing his eyes, Bart set an arm over his forehead and tried to drown out the sound of the world.
   For George McCaughlgrun, a simple checkup meant nothing.
   Silence was golden.
   Tomorrow morning, the owner of one of the greatest real estate companies in New York City would check his employee roster, find Bart missing, then drop his employee’s final check in the mail.
   McCaughlgrun would never call again.

   Hunger eventually forced Bart from his bed and into the kitchen. Ravenous, like a hunter starved over a long, cold winter, he tore through the fridge as though he’d never seen food in his life. No matter the subject, no matter its condition, he ate. Week-old pizza, nearly-frozen potatoes, soggy bread, watery tomatoes, chocolate bars, milk, soda and vodka—all went into his mouth and down his throat as though nothing could stop it. Be it the finer, inner mechanics of the human construction or the more complex machinery of the brilliant mind, little existed other than the need for food.
   Men used to eat like this in the dark ages.
   How he managed this, he did not know.
   After what seemed like an eternity of gnawing, tearing, chewing and swallowing, Bart stumbled back and collapsed in a chair, chest heaving and stomach groaning.
   What happened? he thought.
   He started crying a moment later.
   Scattered across the floor, bathed in a glory fit only for the lowest denizens of the earth, the remaining contents of his fridge winked and smiled through a haze of meat, bones, blood and chocolate.
   His mouth burned.
   His lips bled.
   His gums flapped like ribbons.
   Rising from his place at the table, Bart walked to the sink, washed his face and hands, and grabbed a dishtowel from a nearby drawer.
   Pain wouldn’t keep him at bay.
   The kitchen required attention.
   The house needed to be clean.

   Cleaning became his obsession. From sunup to sundown, from the moment he grabbed a dishtowel to the moment he set the tenth down, he cleaned anything and everything he could. The kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, the sink, the living room, the countertops, the dishes, toilet and sheets—not a thing amiss under the doubtful, all-seeing eye that Bart Newclerry had come to possess.
   Though some might think his obsession meaningless, the distraction it offered meant everything in the world.
   There’s nothing to it, he thought, dragging a sterilized, soap-coated sponge across the inside of the stainless-steel sink. Nothing to worry about, nothing to think about, nothing to care about. What more can someone ask for?
   Arm halfway inside the immense depths of the kitchen sink, Bart looked up just in time to hear the telephone ring.
   His heart nearly stopped at the sound.
   George McCaulghrun couldn’t be calling, not after six days in a row.
   No… he wouldn’t, not after…
   What? Six days without response.
   Bart cursed himself for his stupidity.
   You know, the voice continued, oblivious to the disgust on Bart’s face. Sometimes, when a boss gets worried about an employee, they’ll call to make sure everything’s all right. Sometimes they’ll leave a message, thinking you’ll get back to them, and sometimes they won’t. Sometimes, they really don’t care at all, but just want to do it out of some twisted godforsaken place in their heart. To them, it doesn’t really matter if you’re missing for a few days—you’re one less person on their payroll. Eventually, though, they’ll start to get nervous. When that happens, they’ll get spooked, thinking that something’s wrong, then they’ll call the police and ask them to make a welfare check. It’s not hard to do, especially for bosses worried about employees with perfect attendance who go missing for extended periods of time for no reason at all. Tell me something, Bart—is someone calling to make a welfare check on you?
   “No. No one cares about me.”
   You’re wrong, Bart. Someone does care about you. That person’s on the phone right now, waiting for you to answer.
   “But who…”
   Stop. Don’t say anything. Just pick up the phone and see who it is.
   “You can’t make me.”
   It’s not me you have to worry about.
   Swallowing a lump in his throat, Bart dropped the sponge and peeled the gloves off his hands, careful to avoid the harsh chemicals that soaked their surfaces. Once sure that nothing would come from the quick rinse and remove job, he wiped his hands on his jeans and made his way toward the phone, dreading each and every step he took.
   Who would be calling, if not his boss? He had no external affairs—no wife, no girlfriend, no significant other to speak of or any friends close enough to give a damn. The majority of his family lived back west and didn’t know anything about his diagnosis. If someone was calling, it had to be…
   Bart picked up the phone.
   “Hello,” he breathed.
   “Bart?” a man asked.
   “Who is this?”
   “It’s me, Bart—your brother, Rob.”
   Adrenaline shot into his heart before he could even begin to comprehend what the man on the phone said.
   “Wha-What?” he asked, sweat lacing his face. “Huh-Who did you say you…”
   “My God. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
   “Who is this?” Bart asked again, bracing himself against the kitchen wall. “Just tell me who the fuck it is!”
   “Bart. It’s me, your brother. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
   “Oh God, Rob,” Bart sobbed. “Is that really you? Please, tell me it’s you.”
   “Bart, what’s going…”
   “JUST TELL ME IF IT’S FUCKING YOU!” he screamed. “JUST TELL ME IF IT’S YOU!”
   “Yes! It’s me! Calm down, Bart—tell me what’s wrong.”
   “I can’t take it anymore,” he said, his breath coming in short, quick bursts. “I can’t take it anymore, Robby! I go to bed and wake up days later, I tear through the fridge like a madman and eat anything I can find, I clean everything in the house even though my mouth’s torn up from all the bones and shit in my mouth. I just…. just… cah-can’t…”
   “Bart,” Rob said. “Please, listen to me.”
   Bart took a deep breath. He nodded and kept his silence.
   “I don’t know what’s going on, but it doesn’t sound good. Listen to me, ok? Don’t say anything for a minute or so. I want to tell you something. We clear?”
   “Yuh-Yeah.”
   “I’ve been planning to come out and see you since you got the news. I was supposed to leave next week, but hearing you like this… Are you there alone?”
   “Yeah.”
   “What happened to Cindy?”
   “Who?”
   “Cynthia. That girl you were seeing.”
   Who the hell is Cynthia? he thought, cold arms brushing up against his side. What else am I forgetting?
   “I… I don’t know, Rob. I just don’t know.”
   “It’s ok, Bart. Take a few deep breaths. There… that’s it. Yeah. There you go.”
   “Yuh-You’re cuh-coming out here?” Bart managed to ask.
   “I’m leaving tonight. I should be there in the morning.”
   “You can’t…”
   “You shouldn’t be there alone, especially right now.” Rob paused. Something rustled in the background. “Give me your room and the address of the apartment you live in.”
   “Rob…”
   “I already booked my ticket Bart—either you give me your address or I scramble around the house looking for it. I don’t care either way.”
   “But what about…”
   “Megan?” Rob laughed. “She’s been telling me to go out there since the day I called. She’ll understand.”
   “All right,” he sighed. “I can’t stop you now.”
   “No,” Rob said. “You can’t.”

   Night passed like a cloud briefly drifting over the city. When dawn broke the surface of the New York Skyline, lighting the world in various shades of red, orange and blue, Bart woke to the stifling scream of the alarm clock in the other room.
   It can’t be, he thought. I thought I…
   Its shrill cry echoing through the house, Bart pushed himself out of the recliner and nearly fell over when he felt the room move. Subject to vertigo under choice circumstances, he took a moment to gain his composure, then balled a fist. He stared at it for the next minute-and-a-half, focusing his attention on his doorknob-sized appendage until the room stopped spinning.
   Hey hey hey! Skippy shouted from the other room. It’s six o’click AM and you’re listening to DJ Skippy, the master of the tracks and the king of bling! Welcome to another Monday morning ladies and gentlemen. Hope you didn’t drink too much beer over the weekend—I know I sure did—because in approximately an hour-and-a-half, you’ll be leaving for work. Better swallow that Aspirin, ladies, and better down that shot everyone knows you take before you get in that car, guys—it’s the only way you’re going to make it until lunch.
   “You annoying dipshit,” Bart murmured, pushing himself toward the bedroom. “When I get in there, I’m gonna…”
   But let’s not worry about that though! Skippy giggled, hollering an unintelligible sound before his voice returned to its normal pitch. We all know life gets hard and that sometimes, shit happens that brings you down a notch, but I’m here to tell you that life goes on, everyone. Sure—you may be down in the dumps because your gramma died yesterday, or because your best friend has AIDs, but does that mean you have to stop living your life to its full potential? No! It doesn’t! And you know why? Because when life gives you lemons, by God, you’re supposed to…
   A pounding came at the door, knocking Bart from his reverie and Skippy from his mind.
   “Bart!” someone called. “You there?”
   “Yeah!” he shouted. “Give me a second! The fucking radio’s goin’!”
   I mean, it’s ok when life gives you lemons, Skippy continued, but you know what would be really nice? If life—God, Jesus, whoever the hell is making us go through all this shit—gave us melons. Yeeeaaahhhh, you heard me right, ladies. Life would be so much better if we guys walked out the door every day and we were handed a pair of nice, double-D titties. You know why? Because sometimes, after a long, hard night of partying, all a guy needs is a nice, juicy pair of…
   The cord flew out of its socket.
   Satisfied with himself, Bart took the portable alarm clock in hand and wrapped the cord around its base, taking extra care not to trip over it as he made his way out of the bedroom.
   “Bart!” Rob called.
   Glancing at the alarm clock, Bart shrugged and tossed it on the counter, the resounding clink more magical then he could have ever imagined.
   “What took you so long?” Rob asked, pushing his way into the apartment.
   “The alarm clock went off,” Bart mumbled. “I didn’t think you would…”
   “Be here so early? I know—I was surprised too.”
   “What time did you leave?”
   “Around midnight. Thank God we only stopped two or three times. I don’t think I could take much more of that.”
   “You never were one for planes, Rob.”
   “Yeah. No kidding.” Rob set his suitcase on the floor. One glance at the kitchen was enough to raise his eyebrows. “What’s going on, Bart?”
   “I don’t know,” he sighed.
   “You should know. You’re the one living here.”
   “It’s just,” he started, then paused. “Ok, it’s like this—I went to lay down a few days ago and never got out of bed. I woke up a few times, sure, but it was only to go to the bathroom. I wasn’t sure if I was asleep for that whole time or if I was awake, which was what scared me so much. The first time I really ‘woke up’ was when the phone kept ringing.”
   “Why didn’t you answer it?”
   “Because I thought I was imagining things.”
   “Did they leave a message?”
   “Yeah.”
   “Who was it?”
   “My boss,” Bart sighed. “Shortly afterward, I must’ve fallen asleep, because I didn’t wake up until the next morning. Even then, the only reason I got out of bed was to eat.”
   “That was when you tore your gums,” Rob nodded. “Open your mouth, Bart.”
   He did as asked.
   Even the simple motion of moving his jaw sent flares of pain throughout his mouth.
   “Damn, Bart. What got into you?”
   “Like I said, I don’t know.”
   “Either way, you should probably go to the doctor and get your mouth sewn up.”
   “What’s a doctor going to do?” Bart laughed. “That’s a dentist’s job.”
   “Either way, you don’t want your gums getting infected.”
   “What the hell do I say?”
   “You don’t have to say anything. Just say you tore your gums open and you need to have them stitched.”

   Under general anesthesia, it only took the dentist an hour to sew Bart’s mouth up.
   When asked how he managed to tear his gums apart so badly, Bart could barely reply. Pain medicine his only saving grace, he slurred something about eating too fast before Rob pulled him out of the dentistry office and pushed him into the rental van.
   Once home, Bart spread out along the couch and fell asleep.
   When he woke three hours later, he found his brother sitting in the recliner, smoking a cigarette and drinking a glass of whiskey.
   “You’re not supposed to smoke in here,” Bart mumbled through the agony of his mouth.
   “The window’s open,” Rob shrugged, placing the smoke to his lips.
   With light streaming through his apartment for the first time in weeks, Bart couldn’t help but place the time in the sky. In his forty-three years, he’d come to possess an ability uncanny to most untrained city men, especially for someone who’d only lived in the same area for ten years. The sun—a grand, flaming diamond in the sky—could tell many things, if only you looked at it the correct way. The time, the strength of the ozone layer, the fires in the distance or the weather to arrive—you didn’t need a clock, watch, or a weatherman to tell you what was to come. The sun could do it for you.
   Closing his eyes, Bart lowered his head to the cushion that framed the couch.
   “You want something to eat?” Rob asked, rising from his place in the recliner.
   “What am I supposed to eat?”
   “Soup, salad, ice cream.”
   “Ice cream?” Bart laughed.
   “Yeah,” Rob smiled. “I picked some up on the way home.”
   “Where was I?”
   “Passed out in the passenger seat.”
   “Oh,” he frowned.
   That would explain things.
   “I’ll be ok, Rob—don’t worry.”
   “The whole reason I’m out here is because I’m worried.”
   “I know. Just… don’t worry about me. Get me my pill.”
   “You going back to sleep?”
   “Nothing else better to do. No point in staying awake through this.”
   No point in anything, really, he thought, closing his eyes. Not anymore.

   Later that night—after a long, dreamless bought of sleep—Bart woke to a silent apartment. Save for the glow coming from the nearby TV, darkness shrouded his home, trapping him in a sense of solitude he’d come to know, love and embrace over the past few weeks. Like a lifelong friend willing to take you in their arms and offer you everything you’d need, it wrapped itself around his world and made no attempts to conceal itself for what it really was.
   Beautiful, lonely, chaotic—what else could a man ask for to silence an imperfect world?
   It’s so… peaceful, he thought, wanting to close his eyes, but unwilling to lose the euphoria. It’s like it could swallow me whole and never let go.
   “Bart?”
   He blinked.
   Rob stood no more than three feet away, watching him from behind the horned rims of his glasses.
   “Yeah?” Bart asked, blinking to clear his vision.
   “You awake?”
   “I’m awake,” he said, pushing himself up. “What time is it?”
   “Ten-thirty. Why?”
   “Just wondering.” He yawned, pushing his arms over his head and arching his back. “What’re you doing up? I figured you’d have already gone to bed.”
   “I’ve been watching you,” Rob said, pushing his glasses up his nose.
   “Why?”
   “Because I’m supposed to.”
   “You’re not supposed to do anything,” Bart laughed, pushing himself off the couch. He lost balance and almost fell over, but Rob managed to catch him just before he landed on the glass coffee table. “Shit.”
   “Shit is right.”
   “That’s the second time I’ve done that in the past two weeks,” he chuckled, pushing himself out of his brother’s arms and back onto the couch. “Thanks Rob.”
   “What do you need, Bart?”
   “Huh?”
   “Why were you getting up?”
   “I wanted to stretch my legs.”
   “No point in stretching your legs if you’re going to fall and hurt yourself,” Rob sighed, sitting down at the end of the couch. “You want something to eat?”
   “You got any of that ice cream out?”
   “I can get some, yeah.”
   “Ok, sure—what flavor?”
   “Vanilla’s your favorite.”
   “You bet it is.”
   Smiling, Bart leaned back and watched his brother disappear into the depths of the kitchen. The whole while Rob stood at the fridge—unshelving a pack of ice cream, opening the box, grabbing a bowl and fishing for a spoon—he couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if it were the other way around, if it were Rob in his position and he in Rob’s.
   Alone, single, without children to care about—it took enough mental willpower to worry about oneself, but to worry about a family?
   How would it feel to have the ever-creeping presence of death with your loved ones so close by, or to know that you would eventually be leaving them, but sooner than you could have ever imagined? What was it like to fear for the woman you loved, to worry how she would pay the bills and raise the kids, and what was it like to worry about the daughter you loved so much, whom you called angel and said would one day fly? How did it feel to know that, one day, your wife would sit alone on your thirtieth anniversary, and how did it feel to question what your daughter would do the day she graduated, how she would see, think and feel. Would she look to the crowd to find her father, then cry when she only saw her mother, or would time have healed those wounds? Would the minutes, moments, hours, days, weeks and years have removed that pain, or would it still exist, a wound meant never to be closed, but always opened?
   With this in mind, Bart took a moment to comprehend the reality of the situation. As a single, wifeless man without children, pets, or extraneous family, his fate in death seemed meaningless compared to what it would be if he were Rob.
   Megan, Chloe, Bob the Dog and Chiggle the Cat—all needed the man they called their own, all needed the trust and faith in life.
   “Hey, Bart,” Rob said.
   “What?” he asked.
   “I want you to go to the doctor tomorrow.”
   “Why?”
   “I want you to have your blood pressure checked. Lord knows what something like this can do to you.”
   Lord knows? Bart thought.
   God knew nothing.
   Only he knew.

   The clean white walls echoed pain across the brevity of the waiting room. Around them, patients sat in groups of twos and threes, idly waiting for their turn to be called back for their examination. Occasionally, a fourth would be present, but only when it seemed their presence would be necessary. In those cases, families would sit together in small clusters near corners, while friends would coagulate near the middle of the wall, most standing or kneeling for the loved one they all wished well. Those without illness who chose to sit did so for the comfort of the friend, whose hand they held without a momentary thought or otherwise-unfaithful care in the world.
   An atmosphere of love, a sense of hope, a belief in trust and an ultimate, giving must, most people walked into the hospital without the fear of ever being alone.
   In some instances, that proved to be the exact opposite.
   Sitting directly across from Bart and Rob in a lonely, unoccupied row of chairs, a boy with bandages over both his eyes listened to a nurse who stood nearby. Nodding, though without any other trace of emotion, he bowed his head, though out of shame or dignity could be anyone’s guess. Bruises highlighted the zygomatic regions of his cheekbones while crimson freely bled into the hollows of his face, creating a sickly, morbid image in the shape of a human skull. Given the breadth of the coloring and the complexity of the patterns, an artist would have found it difficult to paint the human portrait that made up his face.
   Give this to your mom, the nurse said, sliding a leaflet into his hand. She’ll be here in a few minutes.
   I can’t see, the boy replied.
   It’s all right. We won’t let anything happen to you.
   No more than a second later, the nurse turned and strode away.
   The boy tightened his grip on the leaflet.
   The pages crinkled.
   His nostrils flared.
   A quick intake of breath followed.
   “Look at his face,” Bart whispered.
   “Shh, Bart.”
   “You shh. I’m not being that loud.”
   “Still, if someone heard…”
   “They just left him there, alone. He can’t even fuckin’ see.”
   “Bart…”
   An elderly woman in the corner looked up from her paper.
   “I’m going to sit by him,” Bart said, pushing himself out of his chair. “It’s bullshit, leaving him there by himself.”
   “But what if someone…”
   Bart pushed his brother’s words aside.
   Crossing the room in a few short steps, he made sure to make his presence known before he sat down by the boy.
   “Hey,” Bart said, setting a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You ok, buddy?”
   “I’m fine,” the teenager said, keeping his head down. “Are you a nurse?”
   “I’m not.”
   “Then what’re you doing?”
   “Keeping an eye on you,” Bart said, then grimaced. “Sorry.”
   “It’s all right. I’m glad someone’s doing it for me. I can’t see a thing.”
   “You gonna be ok?”
   “Yeah. I’ll be fine. It’s just retinal surgery. I should be able to see in a week or so.”
   “How far’s your mom coming from?”
   “Downtown. Her boss wouldn’t let her take work off today. She would’ve lost her job.”
   “Your dad?”
   “He’s long gone,” the boy sighed.
   “I’m sorry, kid. I shouldn’t be asking these things.”
   “It’s… it’s fine, sir. At least I know I’m not alone if someone’s asking questions.”
   “Charles?” a woman asked.
   Bart looked up. A finely-dressed woman in a grey suit stood under the archway, watching him with wary eyes.
   “Mom?” the boy asked.
   “Who’s this with you?”
   “A friend,” Charles said, looking up at Bart. “Mister…”
   “Newclerry,” Bart said.
   The woman smiled.
   “Thank you for looking after my son, Mr. Newclerry. If you’d excuse us…”
   Charles reached out, took hold of his mother’s hand, and allowed her to take the brunt of his weight until he stood on his own two feet. Once there, she accepted the leaflet her son offered and began to lead him out of the waiting room.
   Before they could leave, Charles took one look back.
   Something about the way he smiled stirred something inside Bart’s heart.
   That boy can’t see, Bart thought. He shouldn’t know where I…
   “Everything ok?” Rob asked, settling down in the chair beside him.
   “Yeah,” Bart sighed. “Everything’s fine.”
   “Mr. Newclerry?” a nurse asked.
   Bart looked up.
   “The doctor’s ready to see you.”

   “Mr. Newclerry,” Doctor Richard Brown said, lifting the clipboard and briefly scanning its contents before returning it to the counter. “What brings you here today?”
   “My brother,” Bart said. “He suggested I come in for a checkup.”
   “Ah,” the man said. “You were due for one in the next few days, so it’s great to see you here now. I assume this gentleman here is your brother?”
   “Yes sir,” Rob said, offering his hand. “Robert Newclerry at your service.”
   “He’s visiting,” Bart added.
   “It’s great to see that you’re not toughing this out all alone,” Brown nodded, once again lifting the clipboard and scanning through its contents. “Tell me, Bart… you’re here about your blood pressure, correct?”
   “Yeah. Rob said I should come in and have it checked.”
   “It runs in our family,” Rob said, settling down beside his brother. “I didn’t want to let it slide.”
   “It’s definitely something you don’t want to leave unchecked, especially given your situation, Bart.” Brown paused. He looked up from the clipboard to meet Bart’s eyes, only to sigh a moment later. “It’s tough, going through something like this. Don’t feel like you’re alone.”
   “I don’t,” Bart said. “I try not to.”
   “I’ll tell you something, guys—my son was diagnosed with leukemia a little while back. I try not to talk about it with my regular patients, but I think it helps to let people know that there’s always another person suffering from the same disease they are, regardless of whether or not it’s the exact same type.”
   “Is he ok?”
   “He’ll be fine, Bart—you don’t have to worry about a thing. My point is, there’s resources out there if you need them. I’m just glad to hear that your brother’s staying with you.”
   “I would’ve come out sooner if I knew he was like this,” Rob said, closing his eyes. “It hurts to know that I let him sit there for a week without anyone there with him.”
   “You didn’t know,” Bart sighed.
   “Know what?” Brown frowned. “Can I ask what’s going on, guys? I mean, if it’s not too personal?”
   “It’s nothing, Rich. You don’t need to…”
   “I thought his girlfriend would be there,” Rob said.
   “Rob,” Bart growled.
   “Girlfriend?” Brown asked. “I don’t see what the problem is. Did you two break up?”
   “That’s the thing,” Bart laughed. “I don’t remember having a girlfriend.”
   Richard didn’t immediately reply. Instead, he reached up and ran a hand across his forehead, fingers idly tracing a scar he hadn’t bothered to talk about since Bart had started seeing him.
   You dumbass, Bart thought, shooting Rob a glare. This is exactly why I didn’t plan on telling him.
   “You’re telling me you’ve had memory loss,” the doctor finally said.
   “I’m supposed to know if I had memory loss?” Bart asked. He couldn’t help but chuckle. “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?”
   “What worries me is that you don’t remember having a girlfriend, but your brother does.”
   “My brother lives in California.”
   “Robert,” Richard said, leaning forward in his seat. “Did Bart ever tell you about having a girlfriend?”
   “Yes.”
   “When?”
   “About a month ago.”
   “Do you remember her name?”
   “Cynthia. How could I not remember it? Bart was up in arms about it.”
   “Do you remember her, Bart?”
   “No. I don’t. That’s what scares me.”
   “And what scared me,” Rob said, pushing himself out of his seat. “Excuse me, sir—I have to stand.”
   “That’s fine.”
   “Anyway,” Robert continued, making his way toward the window. “I called a few days ago to see how everything was going. I hadn’t talked to Bart since the diagnosis, so I was getting worried, especially since he lives alone. I called once and didn’t get an answer, so I figured he might’ve been out getting groceries or something to eat. Then I called a second time. I didn’t get an answer. So… I quit for the night. Then I called the next morning. Again, didn’t get an answer. When I finally got a hold of Bart, he was in hysterics. He didn’t recognize my voice, so when I tried to tell him who I was, he panicked. He didn’t think I was really his brother.”
   “Is this true?” Richard asked.
   Unable to deny it, Bart nodded. He hung his head shortly afterward.
   “Anyway,” Rob said, “when I finally got him to acknowledge that it really was me calling him, I asked if he was alone, then asked about Cynthia when he said yes. He had no idea who I was talking about.”
   “I still don’t,” Bart murmured.
   “It’s not unnatural to have memory loss when you’re going through so much stress,” Richard said. “I’m glad you guys came in, especially about the blood pressure. I hate to say it, Bart, but you’re at a high risk for a heart attack.”
   “Shit,” Rob whispered.
   “Given what’s going on in your life, I can’t say that a simple diet and exercise change would really do any good, especially since your blood pressure has likely raised as a result of stress.”
   “What do you suggest?” Bart frowned.
   “Well, first of all, diet and exercise—that’s a given in any situation. I’d also suggest anti-anxiety medication, if that’s all right.”
   “What would that do?”
   “Help regulate your serotonin levels. I can’t guarantee it will work immediately, but I can assure you the medication will help with the problems you’re having, especially with the panic and anxiety attacks you may have.”
   “Is everything going to be ok?” Rob asked. “I mean, he’s not going to… you know…”
   “Have a heart attack?” Brown sighed. “No. Not if we nip this in the bud before it gets any worse.”

   “Why the hell did you tell them that?” Bart cried, throwing his arms in the air as they walked into the apartment. “Talk about a bullheaded move!”
   “You can’t expect to walk into a doctor’s office and not tell them what’s going on, Bart.”
   “Says who?”
   “Says me, the guy who came all the way out from California to make sure you were all right.”
   Growling, Bart started for his bedroom, but stopped when his brother stepped out in front of him.
   “Move.”
   “Bart…”
   “I said move.”
   “Come on. Talk to me for a second.”
   “You did more than enough talking back at Doctor Brown’s office.”
   “I’m worried about you for God’s sake! Can’t you understand that?”
   “Oh, yeah—I understand. I understand that you like to run your big mouth if it means it’s going to make you look like a better person.”
   “I don’t care about being a better person!” Rob cried, hardly resisting when Bart pushed him out of his way. “I care about you!”
   Bart stopped in his place.
   Your telephone rang nonstop for seven days, the voice inside his head said, prickling the hairs on his neck with one long, bony finger. Not all of those calls were from McCaughlgrun.
   “Bart…”
   “I’m sorry,” he whispered, setting a hand on his forehead. “I’m sorry, Rob.”
   “What?”
   “I said I’m sorry,” Bart repeated, tipping his head up to look at his brother. “I’m sorry about yelling at you, about having you come all the way out from California, about making you leave your family—I’m sorry about everything.”
   “You don’t…”
   “I don’t have to say anything, I know. You’re out here because I’m sick, I’m yelling at you because I’m upset—I get it, Rob, but that doesn’t make it any different. I’m still treating you like an asshole. You’re a saint compared to me.”
   “No I’m not.”
   “Yeah you are. You never swear, you go to church, you have a wife, a kid. Fuck, Rob—you’ve got a dog. Even I don’t have a motherfuckin’ dog.”
   “That doesn’t matter.”
   “Yes it does.”
   “No, it…”
   “It matters because it makes you a better person than me. And you know what? I don’t care. I’m fine with that, because I know you’re a better person than me.”
   “Bart, please, stop…”
   “When I think about it, Rob, it makes me so much happier to know that I got cancer instead of you.”
   “Don’t even say that, you asshole,” Rob said, balling a hand into a fist. “It’s never better when one person gets cancer over the other.”
   “Yeah it is. You know why?” Bart asked, desperately fighting through tears that threatened to break over the veil of his eyes. “You’ve got a family. You’ve got so many people that you need you. Your wife, your daughter… your brother and sisters-in-law. It… it won’t even matter when I’m gone. Who’s going to remember me?”
   Bart closed his eyes.
   A few choice tears sowed the seeds that agony had come so far to root.
   Bowing his head, he let out a long, low wail and allowed everything to come out.
   It didn’t matter anymore.
   If cancer didn’t kill him, a heart attack would.
   No matter how hard he tried, no matter how desperately he wanted to listen, he could not hear the words coming out of his brother’s mouth.
   One thought continued to echo through his head.
   Who’ll care when I’m gone?

   “Bart?”
   “Yeah?”
   “You awake?”
   He opened his eyes.
   Rob stood in the doorway, jeans and undershirt undermining the professional attire he usually wore.
   “What is it?” Bart asked, rolling over on his back.
   “I have to go get your pills. Will you be all right here by yourself?”
   “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.”
   Rob chuckled. A moment later, he brushed his arms and entered the room. He waited for Bart’s approval before he seated himself on the bed.
   “If I didn’t worry,” the older man said, “would I have come all the way out from California?”
   “No.”
   “There.”
   Bart frowned. He waited for Rob to say something more. When he finally didn’t, he pushed himself up on one elbow and looked his brother straight in the eye.
   “What?”
   “There,” Rob nodded, setting a hand on Bart’s shoulder. “Do you get it now?”
   “Get what?”
   “Thank about it. What were we just talking about?”
   “You coming out from California.”
   “Yeah.”
   “So?”
   “Are you really that dense, Bart?”
   “No, I…”
   “Then tell me why I came out here.”
   “I know why you came out here.”
   “Then tell me.”
   “Why…”
   “Because if you never admit that you need help, you might as well just let me lock you in here until the day you die.”
   “Rob, what’re you…”
   “You don’t get it,” Rob laughed, standing. “You really don’t get it, do you, Rob?”
   “If you would just come out and…”
   “You need help,” Rob said, exhaling a pent-up breath between pursed lips. “You don’t want help, but you need it. You just don’t want to admit it. That’s the whole reason why you got mad at me after we got home from the doctor’s office. You didn’t want to admit a flaw you had because you don’t want anyone to think you’ve got a weakness. You’ve always been like that, Bart, and you always will be if you don’t get that through your thick skull.”
   Sighing, Rob stepped forward and set a hand on Bart’s shoulder. He offered a reassuring squeeze before turning and heading for the doorway.
   “You need anything while I’m gone?” Rob asked.
   “No,” Bart said. “Thanks anyway.”
   “Think about what I said, Bart. Let me help you. There’s no point in me being here if you don’t.”
   With one last look at Bart, Rob turned and left the room.
   A moment later, a pair of keys jingled and the front door shut.
   Content to be alone for the next ten, possibly fifteen minutes, Bart spread out along the bed and closed his eyes.
   No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t help but hear the beat of his heart.

   Lying between states of consciousness, unsure whether or not the events taking place around him were actually real, Bart watched nature bloom within the very room he now rested in. Above him, butterflies twisted and danced as they would in the mid-afternoon sun; at his side, a flower bloomed, revealing its virgin surface to a stray hummingbird that flew through the gap in his open window; around his neck, a snake the color of coral in the Pacific ocean coiled around his neck, then flicked the stubble on his chin with a long, forked tongue. The white-tiled ceiling cracked as vines broke through its surface. Windowpanes rusted, exploding outward as seeds expanded, then grew into trees. Carpet surrendered to mold and light fixtures became the homes of spiders, who laughed with bitter humor as they spun their prey in webs.
   Within this bizarre, surrealistic evolution only possible in his mind, Bart could do little other than watch as his world caved in around him. The organic destroyed the manmade, the wild consumed the tamed and the light turned to darkness, offering solace only in the surface of a pair of eyes resting near where the clothes closet would have once been. Occasionally, this light would go dead, then reopen as though blinking into existence. Black holes within their confines designated them as pupils, but from what, Bart couldn’t possibly imagine.
   Swallowing a lump in his throat, he took a deep breath and pushed himself up against the bed’s massive headrest. He recoiled almost immediately. Slime slicked its surface, drooling on the tattered remains of the T-shirt that used to cover his back.
   A deep, throaty growl sounded from the far side of the room.
   The eyes rose, shook side-to-side three times, then paced forward.
   Somewhere inside the apartment, a door clicked shut and something jingled.
   Bart opened his eyes.
   Oblivious to everything except the normality of his home, he breathed a sigh of relief and set his arm over his eyes.
   Thank God.
   “Bart,” Rob said, raising his voice over the roar of the air conditioner. “You awake?”
   “I am now!” he called, lifting his arm from his head.
   “Is everything all right?”
   “Yeah. Had a bad dream, that’s all.”
   “About what?”
   You don’t want to know, he thought, rolling over and pushing himself out of bed. Even I wish I didn’t.
   After taking one last, careful glance to make sure nothing was out of the ordinary, Bart ran a hand over his face and made his way out of the room. Upon his arrival, Rob looked up from his place at the kitchen, momentarily halting his work at unpacking the groceries to give him an unsure look.
   “You sure you’re ok, Bart?”
   “I’m sure,” he said, settling down at the kitchen table. “You want some help?”
   “No. Don’t worry about it.”
   “I’m really not.”
   Chuckling, he ran a hand through his greasy hair and cocked his head at his brother. A lone, paper bag with a single sheet of paper stapled to it sat amidst a menagerie of plastic, its presence so bold and obvious that it immediately caught his attention. For a short moment, he wondered what it could possibly be, then sighed when the realization came to mind.
   “Bart?”
   “Yeah.”
   “What’s wrong?”
   “I just saw the medicine.”
   “Well… yeah. That’s the whole reason I left—to get your medicine.”
   “I forgot.”
   Though I wish I hadn’t.
   How many people could honestly say they’ve woken up from one nightmare only to fall into another?
   Not many.
   “Hey, Bart.”
   “Yeah?” he asked, blinking to clear the fog over his eyes.
   “The pharmacist said to take these with food,” Rob said, shaking the bottle of pills in his hand. “I’ll make dinner after I unpack everything. That all right?”
   “Yeah.”
   “Or we could order something.”
   “Whatever you want,” Bart shrugged, turning his gaze toward his bedroom. “I don’t care.”
   For a brief moment, Bart thought he saw a lion lingering in his bedroom doorway.
   A moment later, he brushed it off as an illusion and tried to push it from his mind.

   Dinner came quick and easy in the form of hamburger helper and French fries. Seated in the kitchen with a pair of sodas at their sides, Rob gingerly picked at his food with practiced but dignified table manners, while Bart could care less about how he held his fork or whether or not his elbows touched the table. It was the first time in days that he could eat semi-solid food. He’d either enjoy it or go without.
   Brushing a bit of cheese sauce off of his chin, Bart reached for his soda, but not without taking a glance at the bottle of pills.
   “Might as well take one now,” Rob said, dabbing his face with a napkin. “You’re halfway done anyway.”
   “What difference will it make if I take it nor or wait until I’m finished?”
   “I don’t know. It might be easier on your stomach if you let some food settle on top of it.”
   “I guess.”
   Though I doubt it will make any difference, he thought, bowing his head to hide the smirk on his face.
   Taking the bottle in hand, Bart unscrewed the plastic top and dumped a pill into his palm. Its shiny, plastic surface caught the light from the overhead bulb and reflected it into his face, intensifying its color into a more sickly shade of red. Had someone spotted one on the street, they probably would have figured that someone dropped a piece of candy and thought nothing more of it. It seemed innocent enough—with its smooth surface and its small, almost-unreadable strain of numbers—but it didn’t take a genius to discern that the power inside was most likely not sugar, pop rocks or any other powdery sweet.
   If a child picked this up and ate it, he would most likely be dead within the hour.
   “Something wrong?” Rob frowned.
   “Nothing,” Bart said, popping the pill in his mouth.
   He took a swig of soda and closed his eyes.
   Hopefully, this would solve most, if not all of his problems.

   Over the next half-hour, an increasing sense of tension began to build within Bart’s head. At first, it started with the slight, irritated feeling of having to listen to something that his brother was watching on TV, but it soon began to build. Laughter bothered him in ways pleasant things normally shouldn’t. The rise and fall of sound on the TV stabbed needles into his eardrums. Warmth curdled in his chest, spreading into his muscles and heating at an alarming rate. Soon enough, life began to seem hopeless. He imagined the cancer spreading across his brain and taking hold of every concept of his reality, then envisioned the blood in his veins exploding out of his wrists, coating his brother’s face and destroying the sense of dignity he had somehow managed to obtain.
   Shortly thereafter, he started crying.
   Somehow, he managed to keep the tears hidden from Rob, even when he turned to comment on something that had just happened in the program.
   What the hell’s going on? he thought, standing, making his way out into the kitchen. Why the hell do I feel like this?
   Halfway toward his destination, Bart stopped.
   He took a breath, then expelled it.
   Something slammed into his chest.
   Any trace of air inside his lungs left in one single, mighty exhale.
   “Bart?” Rob asked. “Is everything all right?”
   I, he started, but couldn’t speak.
   He took a deep breath.
   What felt like a needle stabbed into his heart.
   “Ah…. I,” he managed.
   “Bart?”
   “Cah-Can’t…. bru-breathe…”
   Rob threw himself from his place in the recliner. He caught Bart just before he could collapse.
   “Bart!” Rob cried, struggling to bear his brother’s substantial weight. “What’s wrong? Bart! What’s…”
   “Huh-Heart. Cah-Cahn’t… need… ah-ahm-beuh-lance.”
   “It’s ok, Bart,” Rob said, dragging him into the bedroom and pushing him onto the bed. “Everything’s going to be fine. Don’t worry.”
   “Guh-Go…”
   Rob needed no further encouragement.
   He was out of the room before Bart could even begin to finish.
   Fighting to regain control of his body but unable to control his breathing in the process, Bart began to panic. What little breath he managed to gain was exhaled a moment later, pushed away in order to make room for new oxygen.
   His breathing rampant, his lungs gasping for oxygen, Bart’s fingers began to curl.
   His feet went numb a moment later.
   “Ruh-Rob,” he gasped, desperate to raise his voice over the roar inside his head.
   The sound of Rob’s voice floated into the room. No more than a whisper, Bart could only make out parts of the conversation.
    Apartment… room thirty-seven… brother… heart attack… cancer…
   A convulsion seized Bart’s body.
   His head came up, then slammed onto the corner of the nightstand.
   Blood trickled into his ear.
   A flicker of shadow crossed his vision.
   In the center of the ceiling, a light appeared, then began to expand.
   As though pushing the ceiling apart in order to make room for its presence, the sky came into view in less than a minute.
   Clouds parted.
   One fine ray of light shot from the sky and lit the surface of his face. Around it, darkness began to cloud his world.
   Is this it? Bart thought. Is it the end?
   A figure of light appeared above him.
   Everything’s going to be fine, the voice said, taking hold of his face. Don’t worry, Bart. I’ll take care of you.
   “Take… care… of me,” he whispered, closing his eyes.
   A part of him shifted.
   Though his eyes were closed, the world brightened.
   All his worries were gone.
   He was free.

   “This is DJ Skippy at twelve o’clock Friday morning. Who’s calling?”
   “Charles.”
   “Hello, Charles. Or can I call you Charley?”
   “Charley’s fine.”
   “All right. What may I play for you today, sir?”
   “Actually… I wanted to talk about something, if that’s ok.”
   “Got nothin’ better to do. What’s on your mind?”
   “I… Well… I… Sorry.”
   “Something on your mind, kid?”
   “I just found out a friend of mine died.”
   “Oh. Damn, Charley—I’m sorry bro.”
   “It’s ok. Thanks.”
   “Was this a good friend of yours?”
   “I hardly knew him, but… yeah. I guess you could say he was a good friend.”
   “What was his name?”
   “Bart.”
   “Ah. Bart. Good name.”
   “He sat with me in the hospital after I had my eye surgery, when I couldn’t see anything.”
   “Sounds like a good friend.”
   “Yeah… he was. Skippy? Can I ask you something?”
   “Go for it.”
   “I’m scared.”
   “Of what?”
   “Of what happens after someone dies.”
   “I’m not sure what to tell you, Charley, but I can tell you this—you’ve heard me say it before, and you’ll hear me say it for as long as I live: life goes on.”
   “How does it go on after you die?”
   “We all live on in some way, Charley. You know how?”
   “No.”
   “As long as you’re alive, and as long as you remember what Bart did for you while you were in the hospital, he’ll never die. Sure—a memory may not be the real thing, but it’s as close as you can get, right?”
   “I… I guess.”
   “You gonna be ok, Charley?”
   “Yeah—I’ll… I’ll be fine. Thanks, Skippy.”
   “No need to thank me, kid. Just remember what I said. Life goes on.”

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