Ray Andrews noticed someone had left the water running at five-forty-five in the morning, when he woke from a fitful sleep to go to the bathroom. At first, he ignored it, thinking that his wife would soon rise and begin to water her flowers. Then he realized—with utter annoyance and a tinge of malice—that she would, most likely, blame him for it.
Fuck, he thought, tangling a hand through his hair. I don’t want to go out there, not at this godforsaken hour of the morning.
Nauseated—both from a stomach ache and insomnia—he preferred to return to bed than go outside and turn the water off. But, as he already knew, that would not be the case. He would be leaving the house, and he would be turning the water off, whether he liked it or not.
Flushing the toilet, Ray turned and made his way back into the bedroom, where he pulled his jeans up his legs and a flannel over his shoulders.
It’ll only take a minute, he thought, pulling the blankets up over his wife’s shoulders, then pushing his way out into the hall.
Once in the kitchen, he stopped to make sure he’d unlocked the door before he stepped outside. At nearly six in the morning, all he needed was to be locked out of the house. People slept in on Saturday and didn’t take kindly to being woken up by arrogant neighbors.
Outside—in the cool, crisp morning air—Ray shivered and drew his flannel tighter around his body, both regretting and bathing in the action. One part of him hated the chill, while the other adored it. Two sides to one half, his father—or, more preferably, his wife—would have said. At that moment, both of his halves would rather be in bed, sleeping off an ache that ate at his stomach like raw, uncooked hamburger meat.
Only one minute, Ray. Don’t worry—it’s right out back.
Turning, he crested the lilacs, the bleeding hearts and the daisies, making his way around the side of the house and between the hedges that framed it. His wife always liked the look of hedges flanking the house, but she’d never stopped to consider how much work it would be to trim them. She had no reason to care—she wasn’t the one that trimmed them every other week.
“Just shut the fuck up already,” he groaned, setting a hand on his forehead.
Satisfied that his incessant, nagging wife had left his conscience, Ray squeezed through the last bush and came out the other side, annoyed but otherwise pleased with himself. This time, he would go through the back door, aided by the key they kept on top of the nearby light.
“All right,” he said, quickly locating the source of the flow.
At the west end of his house—where what should have been a backyard sat situated amidst a series of rocks, small shrubs and a fishpond—the pumps that fed water into the hoses protruded just above a flowerbed, where insistent and determined vines climbed the walls like snakes in a rainforest. It seemed like every time he came back here, he had to fight off some kind of plant, whether it be a wayward flower or a tangle of vines. The vines he could get away with; the flowers… not so much.
Well, there aren’t any flowers to accidentally break in half today, so there’s nothing to worry about.
Crouching, Ray reached forward and turned both knobs until the flow of water ceased to spout from their iron pipes, pleased with what he had accomplished. If the wife woke, he could simply say that he’d stepped out back for a minute to admire the fishpond and all the hard work they’d put into it.
I put into it, he thought, shaking his head.
Ray started to rise, but stopped as a flicker of movement caught his eye. Immediately, he pushed himself against the wall, knowing—but not thinking—of how stupid his action had been.
Dumbass. Good way to get yourself chomped by the neighbor’s dog from hell.
When he opened his eyes, Ray didn’t see a dog, nor did he see a silhouette in the sky or a passing shadow from a shifting tree.
What he saw he would not ever begin to forget.
Standing near the fishpond with its head bowed, a deer-like creature made entirely out of the finest, bluest glass drank from the pond, clear tongue lapping at the water before it. Its eyes—also clear, but with a tint of green—caught sight of him, but did nothing more than blink with lids the color of its skin.
At first, Ray didn’t know what to do, so he simply stood there and watched the impossible creature with a sense of both awe and fright. After a moment, it soon became apparent that what stood before him did, in fact, exist, and it drank from his pond just like any other large animal that happened across his backyard. Beneath the nearly-still surface, koi the size of Ray’s fist swam back and forth, startled by the anomaly’s presence. Ray found himself feeling like the fish at that moment. He wanted to run back into the house—to scream for Pam to get the gun and to call animal control—but knew that would not be an option.
God had a reason for putting this thing in his backyard.
Whatever that reason was, Ray would not doubt it.
“Heh-Hello,” he managed.
The doe turned its head up, watching him with a bemused expression. The light from the rising sun caught the surface of its skin and reflected it in all directions, nearly blinding him with a kaleidoscope of color. Ray raised his hand—if only to shield his eyes from the early-morning spectacle—and found himself staring at something he hadn’t seen until that moment.
Inside the doe’s blue, glass body, a red heart beat, giving life to a thing that should not exist.
Just as he began to comprehend the doe’s meaning, it turned, jumped over the fence, and disappeared into the woods.
Ray’s heart stopped beating for a moment.
Then he thought of Pam and everything she had gone through in the past six months.
A heart attack, they said—caused by cholesterol, stress, and lack of proper nutrition. What a surprise it had been to find out that his seemingly-healthy wife actually existed in a way that could kill her. The cholesterol had come from genetics—her mother, who’d died the previous year from heart failure. The stress—fickle and apparent as may have seemed—came from a stillborn they’d had earlier that year. A baby boy, the doctors had said, just as they pronounced Ray and Pamela’s unborn child a stillborn. And the nutrition… well, who could say that a person would want to actually eat anything after their newborn son had died? Ray himself had lost twenty pounds over the span of a month. Pam hadn’t stopped losing it.
The heart attack had occurred on an Easter Sunday, when Jesus was supposed to have been resurrected from his untimely death. Pam had wandered the kitchen that morning, making breakfast and tidying things that didn’t need to be tidied. Ray witnessed her fall just as he’d stepped out of the living room to get himself a glass of milk.
The scream—fresh and always lingering in the back of his mind—continued to haunt him daily, just as it had when he threw himself to his knees and pressed a hand to her face. He knew something was wrong, so wrong that, in fact, he’d picked up the phone, dialed 9-1-1, and screamed into the mouthpiece, MY WIFE IS HAVING A HEART ATTACK!
The ambulance pulled into the driveway no more than three minutes after he’d called, and the paramedics rushed into the house no more than a minute after that. One had fallen to Pam’s side and forced an oxygen mask over her mouth, while two others raced in with a stretcher. By the time they’d strapped Pam to the stretcher and rushed it into the ambulance, only seven minutes had passed from time of call to time of rescue.
A simple diagnosis had been given—heart attack. And that simple diagnosis had been enough to force Pam to realize that time meant more than just existing day to day, destroying one’s soul piece by piece over a child they had never known.
Ray took on a second shift, while Pam stayed home and took care of herself. She took vitamins to supplement her nutrition and stopped eating hundred-calorie snack cakes in favor of an apple or an orange. Fruit, they said, and vegetables, would keep Pam strong.
Six months later, everything seemed back to normal.
That is, until just ten minutes ago.
Settling in a chair at the kitchen table, Ray framed his face with his hands and stared at the crumbs from last night’s garlic bread, unable to process what had just transpired. He knew that a doe had graced his backyard no more than a moment ago, but a glass doe? Could such a thing exist—an animal made out of manmade material?
In his mind—and in the minds of every other normal, sane human being on the face of the earth—there was no such thing as an animal made of glass. Not even a fantastical creature born from the mind of the greatest imagination could begin to exist, not in their universe.
“Slow, deep breaths,” he whispered, coaxing himself through the motions. “One… two… three.”
Rich oxygen filled his chest and expanded his lungs, filling the rungs and cavities which occupied their surfaces. Each breath felt wonderful, like a miracle on Earth or a tequila at sunrise. He desperately wanted a drink, or at least a cigarette, but he’d quit after Pam’s heart attack for fear of his own health.
The pleasures of the body aren’t meant to be taken lightly.
“No, they’re not.”
Her voice alone ceased the storm within his mind.
Pam stood in the threshold, short, blonde hair messed as his most likely was.
“Are you ok?” she frowned, stepping into the kitchen.
“I’m ok,” he smiled, forcing a laugh. “Dog scared me.”
“You mean the neighbor’s dog? Demon?”
“That dog shouldn’t be running loose in this neighborhood,” she said, heading toward the phone. “I’m going to give them a call right now and—”
“No!” he cried, jumping to his feet. Pam frowned, started to say something, but stopped, pursing her lips. “Sorry, hon. I mean… no, don’t worry about it. It ran back home.”
“All right,” she shrugged. “If you say so.”
She crossed the room, reached into the fridge, and pulled out a small creamer. She pulled the freshly-made coffee from its automated machine and poured them each a cup. Hers she drank with the slightest amount of sugar, which she measured and poured with a tiny spoon.
“You sure you’re ok?” Pam frowned, setting his coffee before him.
“Yeah,” he smiled. “Just a little shooken up, that’s all.”
He stood in front of the pond, watching the koi swim under the water with innocence only a fish could have. Occasionally, they’d bob to the surface and watch him with bulging eyes, quickly splashing back into the depths whenever something moved. The slightest bit of wind, a falling leaf, his shadow shifting unconsciously—any and all movement scared them back into the darkness he’d built for them to disappear into.
If only he could disappear.
Sighing, Ray slid his thumbs into his pockets and continued to stare at the water, willing the fish to return to ease the absence of company. Despite the fact that his wife stood in the kitchen—more than willing to offer him company in his darkest, most surreal hour—he found he couldn’t go. For some reason, just the thought of touching his wife after seeing something out of this world frightened him.
What was it?
He didn’t need an answer—one was already present.
He’d seen a doe this morning, a doe with shining glass skin and a red, beating heart.
Wind tracing his back, he turned to face the house, but stopped as he saw the water running.
I turned that off…
Then again, who could blame him if he somehow hadn’t managed to shut it off? Anyone would be spooked after seeing something that wasn’t supposed to exist.
Trudging forward, Ray bent down, grasped the handle, and turned the spigot until it would turn no more.
One final shiver crossed his back.
He didn’t need to turn around to know that something had returned.
“Ray?” Pam frowned. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he mumbled. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, dear—I’m sure.”
Stoic as ever, Pam pressed forward, asking the same question again and again. When Ray finally looked up and gave her a dirty look, she shut up and returned to making breakfast.
Look at you, his conscience taunted. Big, bad bully, being mean to your wife.
I’m not being mean to her.
Then what are you doing, Ray?
Sure you are…
Growling, Ray stood, walked up behind Pam, and slid his arms around her waist. She jumped upon the initial contact, but soon settled down and melted against him.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, kissing the nape of her neck. “I wasn’t feeling good this morning. I’m still not.”
“Maybe you should go to the doctor, Ray. Your stomach’s been bothering you for the past—”
“It runs in the family, Pammy.”
“Still… it might be best to get it checked out.”
Even though he wouldn’t, the words would reassure his wife that everything was going to be fine.
Kissing her neck one last time, Ray relinquished his hold on his wife’s waist and took a few steps back. With his back to the counter, he crossed his arms over his chest and looked out the window, breathing in the cool, spring air that wafted through the partially-cracked window.
“We shouldn’t leave the windows open at night,” he mumbled.
“It wasn’t open overnight.”
“No. I opened it when you went outside.”
“Are you sure you’re all right, Ray?”
“Yeah. I’m sure.”
“Go get dressed. By the time you’re done, I’ll have breakfast made.”
“All right,” he said, turning toward the threshold.
Before he could step into the living room, he turned, looked at his wife, and whispered, “I love you.”
After that, Ray made his way to the bedroom.
Thoughts of glass animals wrecked his conscience as he made his way to work. Seated in a sixty-nine Ford with scratched leather seats and a slowly-dying engine, he did his best to calm his nerves, not wanting to walk into a jewelry store with shaky fingers. Sometimes, given the right circumstance, nervous people would break things—expensive glass vases, bowls, display rings that boasted zirconium and their key to the jewelry world. No one would steal the rings, of course, since he’d installed leather cable that connected them to their display rack, but the right individual could lose hold and send it sailing into the counter.
Real diamonds didn’t break. Fake ones did.
Pulling into the parking lot of the jewelry store, Ray pushed himself out of the truck and mentally prepared himself for the day. Smoothing out his suit sleeves, reaching up to make sure he’d shaved and popping his knuckles, he took a deep breath and made his way into the building.
“Ray!” a coworker, Michael, called. “About time!”
“What?” he frowned.
“You’re nearly a half-hour late.”
“Shit. You’re kidding?”
“I’m not.” Michael lifted a nearby pocket watch. The time clearly showed nine-thirty.
“Sorry, Mike. I had a rough morning.”
“Yeah. I didn’t want to get out of bed.”
“Maybe you should go to the doctor.”
“Pam’s been telling me the same thing.”
“Well… why don’t you?”
“Because I hate going.”
“So do I, but it’s not going to help your wife any if you wake up and start throwing your guts up.”
No kidding, Einstein.
Ray made his way up to the counter and slid his way behind the front desk. There, he reached under the counter and pulled out a password-coded case.
“So, what’s on the agenda today, Ray?”
“Not a whole lot,” he grunted, sliding the case open. “Just fixing this ring here.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The owner wants me to add his children’s birth stones in it.”
“Yeah. February, July and October.”
“Whatever floats their boats, right?” Michael laughed, slapping his back.
Nodding, Ray forced a smile and slid the ring out. He was just about to turn and make his way into the jeweler’s office before something caught his eye.
A small, blue-colored glass doe sat on the corner of the counter, green-colored eyes winking at him.
“Wha-When did that come in?” he stammered.
“That?” Michael frowned. “Some lady custom-ordered it.”
“Something wrong, buddy?”
“No,” Ray said, encircling the ring in his palm. “Nothing’s wrong, Michael.”
“All right,” Michael shrugged. “You sure you’re ok, Ray?”
“Yeah,” he managed. “I am.”
If only he knew, Ray thought, making his way toward the office. If only he knew.
That night, he slept with his arm around his wife’s waist. Though the closeness comforted him, it did nothing to chase away the vision of a glass animal drinking out of his fishpond. With its long, graceful snout, its gleaming green eyes and its beating red heart, it seemed that, at any moment, it could spring out of his dreams and into his bedroom. It could gawk at his wife with its emerald eyes, puff its crystal snout at the air, then sniff the ground with its whitened nose. It could do any and everything it wanted to, all because some higher power allowed it to exist.
What is it? he thought, drawing closer to his wife. Why is it here?
Even though it didn’t necessarily matter, its presence left an imprint—not only on his property, but his life. Men didn’t just see glass animals in their backyards, and Gods didn’t make them only to let them frolic in the land of mortals.
The doe had a reason for appearing.
What reason that was, Ray didn’t know.
He hoped he wouldn’t come to find it.
It returned the following morning.
Standing in his front yard as though not a person or a passing car would care, it padded through the arrangement of flowers and sniffed the fresh dew on the ground. Occasionally, its ears would flicker, once again proving its existence beyond the inanimate.
“What are you doing?” he whispered. “Why are you here?”
The doe raised its head.
Clear, translucent lids blinked.
“You’re not real,” he continued, reaching forward to grip the counter in front of him. “You can’t be.”
If it wasn’t real, what was it doing in his front yard, frolicking amongst his wife’s flowers and licking dew from fallen leaves?
You’re just imagining things.
True—he could be imagining things, but he didn’t think that was the case.
Unsure what to do, Ray made his way out of the kitchen and back to the bedroom.
Hopefully, nothing but sweet dreams would follow.
“Ray?” Pam frowned. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” he yawned. “Why?”
“You slept in.”
Looking up, Ray sought out the nearest clock, sighing when he realized that he would, once again, be late if he didn’t hurry.
“I’m all right, Pam—don’t worry.”
“You’ve either been sleeping in or shaken up these past two mornings. Are you sure nothing’s wrong?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. Don’t worry, Pam; I’m fine.”
Pam said nothing.
Sighing, Ray settled down at the kitchen table and cupped his face into his hands, trying as hard as he could to take slow, even breaths. Anything more than the even one-breath-in, one-breath-out approach would set Pam’s red flags off.
After everything that had happened in the past six months, she didn’t need anything else to worry about.
Especially not something I’m going through.
Toast, eggs, sausage and muffins—all part of Pam’s normal, routine breakfast.
“Thank you,” he said, spearing a piece of sausage on his fork.
“Would you go to the doctor for me if I asked me to?”
“Is it your stomach, honey? Is that’s what’s been wrong these past two mornings?”
If only you knew, he thought, shaking his head. If only you knew, Pam.
“No. My stomach’s been fine.”
“Then what’s wrong? Is it work, friends, me—”
“Don’t ever think you’re the cause for any of my problems, Pam.”
“Worried, I know.” He set his fork down and took a deep breath, somehow managing to force a smile in the process. “I’m ok, babe—you’ve got nothing to worry about with me. If anything, you should be worried about yourself.”
“I am, but I’m worried about you too. You’re my husband.”
“Just like you’re my wife,” he said. “Just like I worry about you.”
Reaching forward, Ray set a hand over his wife’s and smiled.
Pam smiled back.
Ray wouldn’t know what to do if something took that smile away.
She fell ill a day later.
Stricken with a fever of one-hundred-and-three degrees, Ray was forced to take the day off in order to care for his ailing wife. At first, nothing but pure and utter fear struck his heart, plaguing him with doubts and worries. But after a quick call to the doctor, and after a reassuring conversation that said she would, most likely, be fine unless her temperature increased, he calmed down enough to sit down and think things through.
Ok, he thought, tangling his fingers through his hair and bowing his head between his knees. The doctor said she might go through this in the months after the heart attack.
Frailty, weakness and anxiety weren’t uncommon after a heart attack, nor were fevers and bouts of depression. So far, Pam had managed to elude them, but no one could expect her luck to last forever.
Like a rose with its petals and a clam with its pearl, all things lost eventually. Grand kings fell, high mountains crumbled, and flowing rivers stopped running.
All it took was a matter of time for everything to stop.
Eventually, Pam would too, whether he liked it or not.
In a fit of frustration, Ray threw himself from his chair and into the middle of the living room. This couldn’t be happening. Not to him, not to his wife. People’s hearts didn’t stop beating, people’s minds didn’t stop thinking, and people’s arms didn’t stop rowing, because in the end, everyone had a light to guide them through the darkness.
Life wasn’t supposed to be this hard.
Life wasn’t supposed to be this complicated.
Life wasn’t supposed to be this painful.
“No!” he sobbed, tugging at his mess of black hair until it hurt. “This isn’t supposed to happen to her! Not her! Not my wife!”
A flicker of movement caught his eye.
Standing at the window, nearly hidden in the dense shrubbery of his wife’s tropical plants, the glass doe pushed its snout at the window until both eyes appeared from behind the leaves.
It couldn’t have.
In the back of his head, something made him start to reconsider the doe’s true purpose for being here.
“Pam,” Ray whispered, bending down beside the bed. “Are you all right?”
“Hmm?” she mumbled. “Ray?”
“Yeah, hon—it’s me.”
“What time is it?”
“Almost noon. Don’t worry, I’m doing the chores.”
“Why aren’t you at work?”
“I wasn’t going to leave you at home, especially not after—”
Not after your heart attack.
“After what?” she frowned. Eyes cracking to thin slits, she looked around the room until she found him at eye-level. “Ray?”
“After you told me you had a fever.”
“Oh,” she paused. “Ok.”
“Do you need anything? Some soup, something to drink?”
“I’m all right,” she whispered, closing her eyes. “Ray?”
“I love you.”
“I love you too,” he whispered, brushing her hair out of her eyes.
By the time he leaned forward and kissed her forehead, she had already drifted off to sleep.
After three hours passed with nothing more than the sound of his own footsteps, Ray walked into his bedroom to find that his wife had stopped breathing.
“Pam?” he frowned. “Honey?”
The initial, blunt shock held him in place. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t think—he couldn’t do anything. His minutes blurred to seconds, then his seconds blurred to nothing.
At one point in time—as a child, or maybe during a harsh, epileptic fit—time had seemed impossible, a thing measured not by numbers, but by the color of the sky, or the green or yellow of the grass. When the trees died, when the dog got old, when the pet gerbil turned over and aimed its feet at the sky—all were told in events, not numbers. So when Pam stopped breathing—when she truly, utterly stopped breathing—Ray’s natural instinct threw his body at the phone and dialed three simple numbers.
“9-1-1,” an androgynous voice said. “What’s your emergency?”
“My wife’s not breathing.”
“Have you started CPR?”
“How long has she—”
An hourglass turned in his head.
Red liquid spilled forth.
Not sand, not water, not cherry-flavored slush—blood.
In but a fraction of a minute, his wife could be dead, if she wasn’t already.
After the phone fell from his grasp and dangled from the window-side counter, Ray’s hands slammed one over the other, thumb over thumb, and began pumping life into Pam. One two three, four five six, seven eight nine, ten eleven twelve; one breath here, one breath there, one over that way and another over this way—each and every action supplemented the life-giving act of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
“BREATHE!” he screamed. “BREATHE, PAM—BREATHE!”
A sharp inhale broke the horrible silence of a heart attack.
The front door shattered inward.
It only took three minutes and thirty seconds for the EMTs to get to the house.
By the time they pushed their way through the bedroom door, Ray’s legs gave out and his world went black.
“Mr. Andrews… Mr. Andrews. Wake up, Mr. Andrews… Mr. Andrews?”
Ray shot upright so fast he nearly hit the nurse standing beside the bed.
“Where is she?” he breathed, lashing for the nurse’s arms, crying out when an IV cord tugged at his skin. “Where’s my wife?”
“She’s fine, sir. She’s resting.”
“What happened? Why wasn’t she breathing? What’s wrong with her?”
“Slow down, Mr. Andrews.”
“Tell me what happened to my wife right now or I’ll—”
“Sir, please—calm down. Your wife’s just fine.”
“What happened to her? Goddamn it, tell me or I’ll—”
“Your wife had a heart attack. We estimate she stopped breathing for three minutes before you began CPR.”
Words escaped him. Breath didn’t.
“What?” he asked. “No. That’s not possible. She couldn’t have had a heart attack.”
“Why not, Mr. Andrews?”
“Because she’s been doing so good these past few months. Her exercises, her medicine, her diet—she—”
“Just because someone exercises, eats healthy and takes their medicine doesn’t guarantee that they won’t have a heart attack, sir. It’s quite common for first-time sufferers to have multiple heart attacks, especially when they’re having fevers.”
“I was told that she’d be all right, god damn it! The doctor said—”
“The doctor most likely assumed that the fever would go down. Mr. Andrews, you have to understand something—we’re not able to monitor our patient’s health unless they’re present at the time of their illness.”
“Get me out of here,” he growled. “I want to see my wife.”
“If you don’t let me out of here, I’ll rip the goddamn IV out myself.”
The nurse needed no further encouragement.
Stepping forward, he slid the plastic sealant off Ray’s hand and gently pulled the needle out.
Before the nurse could turn to grab a bandage and a piece of cotton, Ray was already out of bed and making his way toward the front desk.
He’d never seen anything more fragile than a newborn kitten until he saw his wife in a hospital bed. Like some alien, mechanical structure, tubes ran into her arms, mouth and nose. Her hair—grand, sophisticated, cut like tomboy queens—lay strewn behind her head like snakes. It seemed that at any moment, any part of her could simply come alive. The tubes could shoot from her arms, oxygen could pour from her mouth, and venom could fly from her hair, all because of a tragic event of the human body.
Fragile, Ray thought, like a newborn animal or child.
The thought forced a tear from his eye.
Pam endured this once before—why again? Why now of all times, when things seemed to be going so well? Why now, when he nearly managed the store; why now, after Pam had just started getting back to health?
“Why?” he asked. “Why?”
With tears in his eyes, Ray stepped forward and fell to his wife’s side.
“Everything’s going to be all right, Mr. Andrews,” the male nurse said. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”
If only Ray could believe that…
If only he could.
Startled awake by the presence of his unconscious wife, Ray opened his eyes to find the room dark and empty. Save for the glow of the Holter monitor and the occasional flicker of a passing nurse, nothing and no one existed beyond the two of them. A barely-awake man, an unconscious woman, a beating heart monitor and a closed window—they and only they could be heard, living, breathing and beeping.
She’s ok, he thought, watching the Holter rise and fall with each breath. You did it, Ray—you kept your wife alive.
What would have happened if he’d been a moment later? Would she have lived, returned home a normal woman, and breathed, ate and slept like everyone else, or would she have died—in mind, body and soul?
The thought—so disturbing and unreal—forced sweat from the back of his neck. It trailed the curve of his spine, then slid under his jeans, tracing his tailbone before it soaked into the denim. Even the moisture didn’t seem real, like someone had dangled a wet finger over his collar and let a drop of water fall into his shirt.
There’s no one here, he thought, closing his eyes. There’s no one here, Ray.
Not a doctor, not a nurse, not even a lonely fruit fly stood in the darkness, watching him in his most intimate of moments.
No one except he and Pam lay in the room, shrouded in darkness and bathed in the glow of machines.
No one watched them.
For the first time in the past three days, Ray was able to close his eyes.
All was well, if only for the time being.
“Ray?” Pam whispered.
How so much could ride on two words, Ray didn’t know. He stopped pondering on such hidden meanings a long time ago, after his unborn child died and after a glass deer appeared in his backyard to drink out of his fishpond. Why the sky was blue, why the glass was green, why bluebirds sang—what was the point in trying to decipher life’s each and every hidden meaning when it got you nowhere?
There isn’t one, he thought, because there doesn’t have to be one.
Again, his thoughts wandered to how a heart beat inside a woman’s chest; how, inside her body, atria and ventricle contract and relax in order to create a rhythmic pattern. Without the heart, there would be no blood, and without the blood, there would be no oxygen supplying the brain, giving life to something that couldn’t exist on its own.
Glass animals danced in the yard behind his house. Deer, elephants, donkeys, zebra—like a wild, glass menagerie, they twisted and twirled around trees and shrubs, touching any and everything they could. Grass turned blue, water turned green, and hearts that weren’t supposed to exist beat inside their chests, giving life to fantastical, imaginary things sprung forth out of a children’s storybook.”
“What?” he asked, startled.
“What happened to me?”
“You…” He paused. Tears broke the surface of his eyes. “No one’s been in here yet?”
“No. No one’s been in here since I woke up a few minutes ago.”
“I had a heart attack, didn’t I?”
Instead of his wife’s calm, brown eyes, he saw glass, emeralds protruding from the face of a four-legged mammal made of ocean-blue crystal. The image startled him so much that he nearly overturned a chair when he jumped back in surprise.
“What’s wrong, Ray? Why won’t you talk to me?”
“You had a heart attack,” he nodded, clutching the armrest in a death grip. “Oh God, Pam. I’m so sorry.”
“What are you—”
“You weren’t breathing for three whole minutes. If I wouldn’t have come in when I did, you would’ve… you would’ve…”
He couldn’t say the word.
Four letters was just too much.
Bowing his head, he broke down in tears.
He loved his wife too much to say she could’ve died.
They went home a few days later.
Blanketed in the serenity of a friendly environment, Pam immediately went to the couch, intent on catching up on past soaps and other TV shows, while Ray wandered down the hall and into the bedroom. There, he collapsed on the bed and stared at the ceiling, taking slow, deep breaths.
It’s all right, he thought. You’re home now.
With Pam on newer, stronger medication, the doctors had told him such a scare would most likely never happen again. Along with a vitamin regimen—consisting of the basics, along with the essentials—they’d said her heart would heal.
Maybe she would beat heart disease.
Maybe—just maybe—it would fade with age, like roses in a glass vase.
Or, he thought, Pam will fade.
“Like a rose in a glass vase.”
Closing his eyes, Ray began to count backward from ten, hoping that the routine would work and that all his troubles would go away.
Something in the back of his head told him it wouldn’t.
He stopped counting at seven.
What’s the point? You know it won’t help, so why do you do it?
“Because that’s what you do,” he whispered. “That’s what you do.”
When you want to go to la-la land.
No. He definitely didn’t want to go there, not when things that weren’t supposed to exist were already appearing in his backyard, drinking his water and scaring his fish.
They haven’t been fed for a week, he sighed. Hopefully they’re still alive.
Sitting up, he threw his feet off the bed and stood.
At the door, he grabbed the tube of fish food and took a deep breath.
He didn’t need a pond of dead fish.
Things didn’t need to get any worse.
To Ray’s surprise, his collection of koi had managed to survive on their own for a week. The pond—though mostly free of moss, algae, and other water debris—looked the same. Even the occasional leaf that was usually present was nowhere to be seen.
“At least you’re alive,” he smiled, squatting down to watch them feed. “Thanks for not dying on me, guys.”
You don’t know how much it means to me.
One Koi in particular—Ray’s favorite, which he had named Shadow—swam forward and tipped its head out of the surface. Its sleek, black surface could barely be seen in the gloom of late afternoon. At times, Ray would come out with only a flashlight at night and catch the koi’s eyes in its beam. They would gleam and sparkle, bobbing along the surface for a brief moment before retreating under the water.
“Hey, Shad. Miss me?”
The fish slid under the water, eyes watching Ray from the safety of darkness.
“I know,” he sighed, running a hand over his forehead. “Pam’s not doing so good. She had to go to the hospital, but you probably already know that. They had to break the door in, after all.”
Laughing, Ray stood, stretched his arms out, and let out a breath of air, silently thanking his neighbor for coming and replacing the door. Good will always did a person good, especially when life usually paid them back.
Which it always does.
What bitter humor a man could have.
Beautiful agony laced through the veins of every man at least once in his life, regardless of his age, ethnicity or occupation. One moment he could be happy, then the next he could be sad, an emotional rollercoaster controlled by vertigo-afflicted plastic horses on a merry-go-round. It didn’t matter who you were, what you were or what you ate—once in your life, a part of you would die, then slowly be reborn.
Ray died once when his child died in the womb.
He died a second time when Pam’s heart failed.
He died for the third time when Pam stopped breathing.
Pushing his way not only into the house, but away from good emotions, Ray slipped his shoes off at the back door and made his way into the living room. There, he found Pam lying lengthwise across the couch, feet propped up on a pillow and head resting against the armrest. She smiled when she saw him.
“Hey,” she said. “You ok?”
“I’m fine,” he said, forcing a smile.
“I wasn’t sure where you went.”
“Oh. That.” This time, his smile came without force. “I went out to check on the fish.”
“Are they ok?”
“Yeah—they’re fine. I was sure at least a few of them would have been dead, but Bill must’ve fed them for me while we were gone.”
“Bill’s a good guy.”
“He sure is.”
Ray settled down on the floor beside his wife and took her hand, stroking the length of her long, bony fingers.
She’s so bony.
“What do you want for dinner tonight?” he asked. “Anything you want, I’ll make.”
“You don’t have to do that, Ray.”
“I know I don’t have to—I want to, Pam.”
“Still nothing.” Ray stood. “What’s the one thing you’ve wanted for a long time? Anything you want, I’ll make. If we don’t have it, I’ll get it.”
Though no immediate response came, Ray could see the thought in Pam’s eyes. From the way they rolled to the ceiling to the way they blinked every few seconds, contemplation stained their surfaces like blood on a coffee table.
Finally, after a moment of thought, Pam smiled and turned to look at Ray.
“Chicken salad,” she said, “with artichokes and garlic bread.”
He spent the next hour-and-a-half in the kitchen, preparing the chicken, cutting up the vegetables, and splashing them with the appropriate sauce. Pam preferred Italian, while Ray himself preferred raspberry, but would eat either depending on the situation.
It doesn’t matter what I like, he thought, lining the edge of the plate with tomatoes. Tonight’s about Pam.
Having scraped the artichokes into dip and arranged the extra on the plate opposite the tomatoes, he stepped back to view his progress. All looked well, but he could do more—he knew that.
“All right,” he mumbled, turning toward the fridge. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
Teas, bottled waters, sodas, wine—all could be drunk, but what would be best? Wine might not be the best choice so soon after a heart attack, and soda wasn’t an option. That left tea and water, neither of which would pique Pam’s interest.
Lemonade. I’ll make lemonade.
Would that go good with a salad though?
Pam sure wouldn’t, and Ray didn’t care about what he drank. As long as he had something cold, he could deal with most anything.
Except whiskey, he chuckled. I don’t need any of that.
He’d had a bad-enough drinking problem as a teenager—he didn’t need to start back up again.
Especially after seeing what Pam’s gone through.
Even if fate didn’t lead him directly down the path of heart disease, he didn’t need anything to help him along.
Filling a pitcher with water, he grabbed the lemon at his side, then reached for the squeezer, intent on reaping the fruit for all it was worth.
A flicker of light drew his eyes toward the window.
Nothing but the shadow of a falling leaf greeted him.
Sighing, he gripped the handle with one hand and began to squeeze.
If anything, he could take his aggression on a senseless piece of fruit.
“Ray,” Pam breathed. “It’s… it’s…”
“Dinner,” he smiled, sitting the plate before them.
“Why did you make so much, Ray? Lemonade, tomatoes, extra artichokes and sauce? This is too much.”
“Nothing is too much when it’s for someone as special as you, Pam.”
“Shh. Don’t talk—just eat. I didn’t make all this food for myself, you know?”
Laughing, Ray winked and settled down beside his wife, lifting his fork and spearing a piece of chicken.
In the nearby window, a low, blue light began to pulse. It winked to life like a flashlight bursting to light, then faded almost as quickly.
“Is someone here?” Pam asked.
Her head had been turned. She hadn’t seen a single thing.
She thought it was someone coming up the road, he thought, heart hammering in his chest.
“No,” he whispered, bowing his head into his salad. “There isn’t.”
He knew better though. He knew what was outside the window.
This had to end.
Tonight, after Pam fell asleep, Ray would walk to his closet, get his gun, and go outside.
He had a feeling the doe would be waiting for him.
Never in a million years would a man have experienced such a sight were it not for the abstract concept of nature. Twins could be born conjoined, creatures could die young, and entire ecosystems could collapse into themselves all because of human interaction, but nothing could compare to the unimaginable dream that stood in the clearing, watching Ray with eyes that glowed with the intensity of ten-thousand aurora borealises in the Northern hemisphere. Like a lost child in a supermarket aisle looking for her parent, the doe remained still, legs spread and ears arched in confusion.
Does it know? Ray thought. Does it really, really know?
Could dreams know that they would one day exist? Could they really, truly know that one person could say, ‘I have a dream’ and then one day achieve it? If so, did they understand that they could be destroyed? Did they really, truly understand that one person could end them with just a pull of the trigger? Did they understand that, one day, they might be worshipped—that, one day, they might be revered, martyrs that sacrificed themselves for the better of mankind?
Regardless of what dreams thought they could or would accomplish, some dreams weren’t meant to exist.
His child, Pam’s health… glass animals…
Raising his rifle, Ray peered into the scope and took aim.
Hidden within its blue, misty depths, a red heart beat.
Once upon a time, he’d had a dream.
That dream had died when the doe appeared in his backyard.
Nature deemed fit that survival was meant for the fittest.
Only one of them could win.
Reaching forward, Ray tightened his grip on the stock and set his finger on the trigger.
Life could change in an instant.
In exactly three seconds, Ray’s life would be changed for the better.
All it takes is one, his father had said. That’s all it takes, Ray—just one.
“Just one,” he whispered. “Just one, Dad.”
“Ray?” Pam breathed.
His finger slipped.
The trigger snarled.
The doe exploded.
In the times of kings, queens and golden seams, men used to dream of rain so grand and succulent it would bring them fortune. Like that rain that farmers dreamed would fall from the heavens and shower them with the greatest of crops, fragments of what once used to be a beautiful, impossible creature cascaded through the air and into the surrounding area, gleaming in the fading light of death.
A scream rang in the air.
Ray turned, startled.
Clutching her chest with a single, gnarled hand, Pam went down.
At first, Ray was unable to believe what he had just seen. It was as though the last fragment of his life had just slipped from his hand and into the sea to be forever lost to the depths. Half of him knew that he could do nothing, while the other half yearned for him to do something—anything.
The other half caved in.
Throwing himself at his wife’s side, he took her face in his hands and began to cry.
“Baby?” he whispered, stroking the hair from her face. “Pam? Pam!”
His wife didn’t move.
She didn’t breathe, she didn’t speak, she didn’t blink.
Nothing Ray could do or say would bring her back.
Pam was gone the moment she hit the ground.
“NO!” he screamed. “NO!”
It took one minute for him to start CPR.
It took two minutes to start crying.
By the sixth and final minute, he stopped trying to bring her back to life.
Slinging himself back, Ray leaned against the wall and closed his eyes.
Nearby, a fragment of the doe continued to glow.
The final piece of its red heart continued to beat.
Then, slowly, it too died.
At that moment, Ray began to realize that some dreams were meant to come true.