Date Published: June 2019
Publisher: Riverpoint Press
Laura Beckman’s comfortable suburban life would be perfect but for her daughter. Four years earlier, Brooke abandoned her husband and her own young daughter to run off with a musician. Now back home with her tail between her legs, Brooke’s self-loathing boils over in the face of her mother’s unrelenting condemnation.
Laura’s world is turned upside down after witnessing the long, painful death of her husband. In the search for a better version of herself, she creates the Chocolate Shop which grants terminally ill patients one last wish (e.g returning to the Rockette stage, having sex one last time, even skydiving). Laura then lovingly helps her clients slip away to a peaceful death. Laura must dodge the police who suspect she's committing second-degree murder, and an ex-wife of a client consumed with collecting on an insurance policy. Her relationship with her daughter flips as Brooke becomes the one doing the condemning: “I may have made many mistakes in my life but there’s one thing I can say. I never murdered anybody.”
As Laura comes to grips with the ethical, moral, and legal dimensions of what she's doing, she worries that her strained relationship with her daughter will never be repaired and wonders whether she can ever find love again. She meets Arlo Massey--brash, flamboyant, someone who couldn't care less about what other people think--the complete opposite of the always appropriate Laura Beckman. Arlo disrupts Laura's already tumultuous life. She finds him despicable.
And yet . . .
Laura wanted Mickey to die.
She had it all planned. They’d relax on the sofa in front of a roaring fire, watching the flames dance and crackle, snuggling together under her grandmother’s time-softened green and white patch quilt. The red wine stain on the quilt from New Years Eve when they’d made love on the same sofa had faded away and almost disappeared.
And now her husband was about to fade away and disappear.
She would take his hand, mercilessly scabbed by needles searching for a vein, and entwine her fingers through his. Their interlocked hands would act as one and empty the medicine vial of tiny white pills into the glass of Chivas, his favorite. They’d enjoy their last hour together, her head nestling into the hollow space where his neck met his shoulder. She always considered that spot her private property. She would breath in his scent, and if she remained still she’d be able to feel his heartbeat tickling her cheek.
Then a final toast. He would drink the whiskey from his favorite cocktail glass, the one with the etched Orioles logo. They’d reminisce using the shorthand developed by every husband and wife over decades of marriage.
Remember when . . .?
He’d become sleepy. She would gently rub his neck right behind his ear . . .
Then a lingering last kiss.
Goodbye my darl—
Laura’s eyes sprang open. Had she dozed off? She glanced at Mickey asleep in the narrow hospital bed squeezed next to her chair. With so many twisting tubes and wires connected to his shriveled body he more resembled a monster from an old black and white horror flick than her husband.
“You were mumbling in your sleep,” Brooke said. “Something about white pills and the Orioles.” Without looking up from her phone she rotated her hips in an unsuccessful attempt
to find comfort in the battered gunmetal chair.
What was her daughter talking about?
“Maybe you should go home and get some sleep,” Gracie said. “I can stay with him for a while.”
“Sleep’s overrated.” She yawned, and her eyes caught the old Baltimore Orioles baseball pennant hanging over the hospital bed. Orioles logo . . . whiskey glass . . . white pills . . . Her dream flashed before her eyes.
“You okay?” Gracie asked.
White pills . . . She gasped. Oh my God. She could not, she would not permit her mind to visit that awful place ever again.
Gracie pressed. “Laura?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine.”
Her aunt responded with a skeptical expression, then hoisted a pink tote bag to her lap. Short and wiry in stature, Gracie colored her hair red and wore it below her shoulders in a wavy style more suited to a young starlet from the forties than a woman of seventy. A Kurt Vonnegut quote in green script decorated the side of her bag: “Tis better to have loved and lust, than to let our apparatus rust.” Laura shook her head and took a deep breath. The thick, stifling hospital air smelled of must, of decay. Of death.
For the millionth time she wondered why God would spare the evil people of the world—serial killers and terrorists and child molesters—while the good man lying next to her faced certain death?
Mickey moaned again. Eight months earlier he’d been diagnosed with “distant” esophageal cancer, meaning the cancer had spread away from the tumor to his lymph nodes and organs. The cancer had been hiding there for some time, undetected, slowly eating away, bite by tiny bite.
At first it had been hard to think the words—my husband’s dying— much less say them. Now, after witnessing him wither away for the past many months, the vocabulary of death came easily. Hope arrived early but departed long ago leaving her with the heartbreak of seeing the man she loved suffer the quiet torture of a lingering death.
Mickey’s treatment plan combined palliative care along with active treatment, but the pain medication never seemed to be enough. When she begged for more, the doctors furrowed their brows and explained how they were limited by dosage protocols. What BS. She’d considered transferring Mickey out of Annapolis General to a hospice facility, but Delaware offered the closest available bed, and in-home hospice care couldn’t provide the constant attention he required.
For the last few weeks Mickey had been begging her to end his life. She, of
course, wouldn’t hear of such a thing. Lately, however, the dreams had come. The Chivas Regal and the white pills in the Orioles glass. She loved him so much, and it broke her heart to see him suffer. But she wouldn’t do it. Laura Beckman followed the rules, and the rules were pretty clear that a wife should not murder her husband.
Brooke pulled a hip flask from her back pocket.
Laura lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. “What do you think you’re doing? This is a hospital, and your father’s lying here barely alive.”
Brooke ignored her, took a drink, then passed the flask to Gracie. After raising it
toward Mickey in a silent toast, Gracie helped herself to a healthy swallow.
Laura closed her eyes and tried to control her emotions. She didn’t need this stress, not now. She heard a gurgle from the bed. Mickey’s eyes fluttered. She stood quickly. “I’m right here.”
He tried to talk, but with the breathing tube obstructing his airway the sound blurred to a ragged rasp. Mickey attempted a weak smile, then his eyes found Laura. He lifted a corner of the blanket and made dabbing motions in the air.
“What’s he doing?” Brooke asked.
Laura smiled to herself, and her mind drifted back almost thirty years . . .
At the beginning of the second semester, Laura, like almost all of the students at Bollen except for maybe the nerdy engineering majors, tried to schedule her classes so Friday afternoons were clear. An early December snow dump left no uncertainty about how that afternoon would be spent. She, her best friend, Megan, and three other girls strapped their skis and snowboards on top of Megan’s old blue Ford Explorer, and they drove north to Massanutten for a few hours of night skiing.
On the first run down Rebel Yell Laura caught an edge and twisted her ankle. Despite Laura’s strong opposition, Megan decided to remain with her at the lodge bar while the others skied. The crowded bar made maneuvering between tables difficult. Laura had taped an ice bag around her ankle and propped it up on a chair while she and Megan enjoyed their hot-buttered rums.
A good-looking guy with thick, curly black hair and soft brown eyes attempted to squeeze by. Someone bumped him from behind, and he spilled beer down the front of Laura’s sweater.
“Sorry.” He grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser and attempted to blot the beer from her sweater. A moment later, he realized he was dabbing her breasts and froze. “Sorry. I’ll be happy to pay for the cleaning.” Their eyes locked, and the attraction was instant. “How about you let me buy you ladies another round?”
Laura smiled. “Only if you promise to keep your hands to yourself.”
He offered a goofy grin, and held up his pinky finger. “Pinky swear.” After letting him twist in the wind for a few moments, she laughed and hooked her pinky finger into his. At that very moment he was bumped again, and this time spilled beer down the front of his ski jacket. Laura pulled more napkins from the dispenser and dabbed the beer from his jacket.
Megan laughed. “You two are the Dabbers.”
Laura rode back to college with him, and they became inseparable. From then
on, throughout their dating and married life, before going to sleep each night they’d hook pinkies and say, “Love you, Dabber.” One of those private little moments in a marriage that only has meaning to the husband and wife, something anyone else would consider plain silly . . .
Laura reached over and stroked her husband’s hand. Almost all of the flesh had been replaced by scabs from the IVs. She hooked pinkies with him, then peered deeply into his eyes, and whispered so only he could hear. “Love you, Dabber.” He nodded and slipped back into a restless sleep.
Brooke headed for the door. “I need a cigarette.”
“Great idea, your lungs will love it.”
Brooke ignored her and walked out.
Laura sighed and settled back down. Truth be told, she felt relieved without Brooke in the room. Her daughter created tension, and that was the last thing Laura needed now. Her life had been defined by stress since Mickey’s diagnosis. Seemed like years ago, not months. Second opinions and third opinions and tests and treatments and, in the end, the inevitability. She lightly rubbed her husband’s arm and wondered where all the time had gone. They’d married young, both still in college, and their life together had been good. Not great she supposed, but good. More than good. The few bumps along the way had mostly been caused by their rebellious eldest daughter.
“If I say up, she says down. If I say, black, she says, white,” Laura mumbled. “Why does Brooke have to be so damn headstrong?”
“Sounds like her mother,” Gracie said. Before Laura could respond, Gracie stood and announced, “I’m going for a walk around down the hall, check out the scenery. There’s nothing more sexy than a man in white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. You take the ugliest man in the world and put him in a white coat, and I’m telling you—”
“Go. And don’t be surprised if those men in white coats take you away in a tight white jacket.”
In a moment she was out the door.
Mickey’s eyes opened again and found Laura. He made a writing motion with his hand. Laura grabbed the note pad and pen from the table and set the pad in front of him. She flipped through the pages where he’d already written until she found a clean page. She placed the cheap Bic pen in his right hand and wrapped his fingers around it. The ridges made it easier for him to grip with the IV stuck into the back of his hand. He wrote the word, “please,” in half cursive, half print. The handwriting of a young child.
Mickey locked eyes with his wife, then jerked his head toward the wall next to the bed. Laura’s eyes followed his gesture to the control panel for the ventilator equipment barely keeping him alive.
Laura studied the panel as she’d done countless times. Several switches, including the one controlling power to the machines. The Magic Switch. One flick of that . . .
“You know I can’t, sweetie.” She stroked his head. The baldness still felt strange. Over the past weeks and months she’d watched his hair fall out and his skin change from a healthy tan to a pale, almost translucent parchment.
Mickey’s hand struggled to form an image on the paper pad, a crude heart that more resembled a lima bean.
“It’s lovely, Honey.”
The thick plastic tubes turned his attempted smile into a snarl. He convulsed and emitted a ragged cry that ripped across Laura’s heart. Mickey’s eyes pleaded with her. He flipped the tablet back and forth in frustration. Laura didn’t need to be reminded what had been written all over the previous pages—the single word, “please.”
Desperate, Laura’s gaze returned to the ventilator’s control panel and noticed the
manufacturer’s identification plate. RxTron, Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Eden Prairie.
Sounded so peaceful. Flip the Magic Switch, and you’ll float away to Eden.
Mickey’s beseeching eyes locked with hers.
She gasped and bit her lip to stem the tears.
She couldn’t do it.
About the author:
J. J. Spring is a pseudonym for a successful author who writes in another genre. J. J. lives in Florida with a spouse and a rambunctious poodle named Handsome Jack.