Death hung above Karen’s head like a dark shadow, ready to quicken, ready to smother her and snuff out her life. She remembered being put to sleep in the hospital for surgery a few weeks back. It felt like that now, no pain, only a bone deep weariness. The sole difference was that this time, when she fell asleep, there would be no waking.
She tried to summon every scrap of her remaining strength, as if combined, these fragments might somehow compose a spark that could jump start her failing body. But there was no fuel left for her body to burn, only the ashes of so many spent years, ready to be cast to the wind and forgotten.
Don’t let me die!
The words ran over and over again through her mind, a mad litany rattled off to an unknown god.
She could no longer open her eyes, and the darkness behind them was beginning to merge with a deeper darkness, one that whispered of oblivion.
Startled, she wanted to ask who’d spoken—she thought she’d been alone—but she couldn’t open her mouth to speak.
“Karen,” said that voice again, cool, sterile, like windswept leaves.
Was she hallucinating? She’d read once that people on their deathbeds imagined all sorts of things, one last supernova of the senses before the brain shut down for good.
“I’m real, Karen.”
Yes, she believed it, though she had no particular reason to.
“Let me help you, Karen. Let me give you back your life.”
How can you do that when I’m so close to death, she wanted to ask.
“I can do all things,” said the voice as if it had read her mind. “All you have to do is ask.”
A convulsive chill surged through her spine like a high voltage current.
I want to live, she thought. No matter the cost, I want to live. Nothing can be worse than death.
Sleep, if it had weighed on her before, was now an avalanche, pelting her on the head, driving her down into endless dark.
I imagined it after all, she thought, a mad sort of clarity coming over her at last.
If you’re real, speak. Prove to me you’re not a delusion.
Exhausted, Karen’s mind collapsed into darkness.
* * *
She opened her eyes the next morning, alert, wide eyed, reeling. When the doctors came in, surprised by her sudden turnaround, she asked with bugged eyes if anyone had been with her during the night.
She’d been alone, they assured her, she must have been dreaming. They released her and sent her home.
She still had the old aches and pains, the same brittle bones that were prone to breaking if she wasn’t careful how she walked, the same chronic cough. But she was grateful to be alive, to discover there were years left for her body to burn after all.
Then, one by one, everyone she loved began to die. First her sons and daughters, then her grandchildren, then her great grandchildren.
These last looked upon her in their final days with the kind of uneasy reverence one might show to some terrible, unspeakable god. Deep down, they knew her long life wasn’t natural, but like terrified children they were unable to articulate their fears, and instead they kept their distance from her until death had its way with them and delivered them from her sight.
She lives in a convalescent home now, far away in both place and time from where she’d once settled in another life. She sits on a rocking chair in a dark, shadowy corner, rocking, rocking, waiting for an end that will never come.
Only in that terrible half-life is she at last able to count the cost of her gift, not in fact a gift at all but a curse. Everlasting life, she thought, mad with despair.
Death would have been better.