In His Place
– Fiction by Sana Mufti –
The man lying on the hospital bed knows that he is dying.
Beside him, the heart monitor stutters, falters, returns to a steady pace once more, each time the rhythm slower. The man inhales and the room echoes with the sounds of a distant, wheedling baby rattle.
The man wishes the process would hasten in its tread; he is ready to collapse in the welcoming arms of cool slumber. The man’s joints convulse softly in an agonizing, dull arthritic pain like the slow thud of the pendulum of a grandfather clock. He lifts his hand slowly towards his chest, fighting exhaustedly against the thick strands of fatigue that hold his body down. Upon his skeletal wrists, resting delicately on a protruding thick blue vein, a wristband crinkles with his movement. At a closer glance, his name emerges into focus: Luke Evans.
The room is empty, and Luke can feel its undulating presence in his chest; it craters his heart, forms cavities in his deteriorating body. Luke’s head lolls towards the left from fatigue. The empty chair beside his bed sags with sorrow from the weight of an absence, of a person who should be there but isn’t.
The nurse walks into the room. It takes Luke a heavily viscous moment to recognize him. The nurse walks over to Luke, checks his pulse. He cannot meet Luke’s eyes.
“Did she call back?” Luke asks in a dusty voice. The words roll off of his tongue slowly, as if reluctant to reach the atmospheric air outside of his lips.
The nurse knows who he is referring to. The question still takes him aback, he was hoping that Luke may have forgotten. The nurse rests a warm hand over his bony arm as if in sympathy. Luke jerks his head away from the nurse and back towards the empty chair.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Evans.” The nurse responds.
Luke remains silent. His breathing is heavy, it echoes in the room. The nurse tries to catch his glance, “But maybe she will come, there’s still time.”
A sudden and irrational anger towards the nurse’s sympathizing words surges through Luke’s veins. Luke closes his eyes so that he doesn’t have to see the depressing gray walls coffin him. So that he doesn’t have to face the accusatory glare of the fading sunlight.
The nurse sighs and doesn’t say a word as he finishes his checkup. Luke keeps his eyes closed. He doesn’t even notice when the nurse leaves.
Outside, the sun goes down and soon Luke is blanketed in darkness. Still, the door remains only slightly ajar so that Luke can see the secretary hide behind her desk. Still, the chair remains empty.
Luke does not know how much time has passed, but he feels it has been a few hours. A light grows from behind his lids. Luke squints, but the light only becomes brighter until it is overwhelming his very senses. He opens his eyes, and Luke cannot see anything other than the dominating light, prismed with colours yet simultaneously colourless. Luke is not afraid.
“It is time, isn’t it?” Luke speaks up to the light, but he does not move his lips.
Almost. The light responds, the voice seems to be coming from inside of his head.
“I thought it would be more painful.” He muses, staring directly into the eyes of the light.
It can be. It whispers softly. Luke tries to recognize the sound, but the voice is anonymous; familiar but strange.
When it is time.
“Will… will mine hurt?”
That decision ultimately rests in your hands. The voice says. Perhaps it is his own.
The light flashes off with a quiet snap and Luke is shoved into the depths of his mind with a loud gasp.
Luke sees a flash of his mother’s smile. Hears his father’s rumbling laughter. Playground pool with echoes of children laughing and screaming; his elementary school friend waving two muddy hands in his face; his first girlfriend; his first kiss; his mother’s warm embrace; his last girlfriend covering her face with two hands as he bent down to propose; his midnight wedding kiss marking his lips like a satin secret; his wife screaming in ecstasy as the pregnancy test turns red; his first child opening her two bright eyes like the unfurling of rose petals under the dawn light; his last child smiling so wide, so wide; the morning squeals of excited children lunging onto the bed; movie nights and pajama days; his daughters’ voices, laughter; “I love you” spoken in whispers, mid-giggles, silently in bright warm gazes—
“Wait—” Luke tries to speak, but his lips refuse to move.
Suddenly, Luke is sitting on his living room sofa. Beside him, his wife wraps a delicate arm around his shoulders. He can feel her warmth against his skin, her perfume calms his heart. He tries to look at her but finds that he cannot move his head. He is smiling and he knows that she is smiling, too. His eldest daughter curls onto his lap and rests her head on his chest. His other daughter clings to his wife’s arm. He cannot see any of them. He can feel his daughter’s curls brush against his chin. The rosy scent of her skin, just like her name. He can hear her laughing.
“Daddy,” she giggles, “it’s tickly! The sweater is tickly!”
“It’s fine, Rosa. Just smile at the camera, sweetheart. We are almost done.” He feels himself respond.
“Summer!” He hears his wife exclaim. She laughs and his heart swells. He tries to turn around to look at her, but his head refuses to move. Instead, his eyes move down so that he can see the top of Rosa’s head.
Look up, sweetheart. He tries to say, but his lips refuse to move.
“Summer! Sit still! We are almost done, baby! Look! The camera! Smile!” His wife pleads with their daughter. Summer simply whines and fusses. Luke feels his head turn. For a moment, his heart leaps in excitement. He wants to see their faces. His eyes move towards Summer quickly, skimming over his wife so that she remains a blur of red lipstick in his vision. Summer isn’t looking at him, either. He grabs her wrist, Summer looks up.
Her round, beautiful face makes his world halt. She has his wife’s eyes; big, brown irises that reflect the sun’s rays. Summer smiles and his heart simply stops. Rosa turns around and places a gentle palm on his cheek.
“Look Daddy!” She squeals. “Smile!”
And, he does. Somewhere in the distant the camera light flashes, but Luke doesn’t even notice it.
“Wait—” Luke feels himself being snapped back into another memory. The gravity pulls him in harsh angles, so he feels his organs being jostled. His heart rests on his tongue. He swallows.
Suddenly Luke is in his old living room. There is a sofa seated behind him, but Luke remains upright.
“Choose.” A voice commands. “Choose, Luke.”
The voice moves and his wife appears in the midst of her youth. She is radiant, Luke feels his breath catch. She does not smile.
Luke simply stares, taken away by her beauty. He watches a stray brown curl fall out of her clip and spring over her right shoulder. He resists the urge to move it back behind her ear, to rest his hand on the smooth surface of her cheek, to wrap his arms around her waist so that the shimmering golden fabric of her favourite sweater would slide against his skin.
“Choose!” She says emphatically, aggressively. Luke knows that this is not a memory for he does not remember this.
“Choose what?” Luke is confused, if not disoriented. He tries to move forward towards her but finds that his feet are unable to move.
“Choose, Luke. Please.” The words are familiar. It resonates through Luke’s body like an electric jolt. Choose me. She doesn’t say it, but Luke remembers this.
The gravity returns and Luke feels the atoms collect in his torso, ready to push him even further down.
“No, wait—” He tries to reach out for her, but she disappears like a light switched off.
Luke is in his backyard, and his children are laughing in his arms. He feels himself laughing, too. So hard that the image of the backyard shakes with his own movements.
“Daddy,” Summer giggles as she looks up at him. She has grown years older; Luke can see a growing maturity around the edges of her face, “is it my turn?”
Luke chuckles and brings her closer to himself.
“Oh, yes! Are you ready?” He asks as he slowly stands up again. Summer stands too, and Luke realizes that they are playing badminton. Somewhere behind him, Rosa cheers Summer on.
“How do you do it again? I’m scared.” Summer whispers as they near the net. She grabs Luke’s hand as they walk, and the warmth settles the chaos in his core.
“Don’t worry, it is easy.” Luke comforts her. “I’m right here.”
He helps Summer grab the racket and gives her tips on how to throw the birdie.
“Come on, baby! You can do this!” He hears his wife from across the net.
Summer and Luke work as a team to throw the birdie over. It hits the net on the first try. The second one falls short. Rosa is laughing and Summer is turning red.
“Take a deep breath, you’re doing fine.” Luke tells Summer. “Just relax and focus on the birdie. Ignore everything else.”
The birdie flies over the net. Everyone is cheering.
“That’s it! You got it! You got it!” Luke is yelling ecstatically.
“Okay! Let’s split into teams! Dad? Mom? Let’s split into teams!” Rosa is yelling excitedly.
“Okay, yes let’s do that!” His wife agrees.
“Who’s on whose team?” Rosa asks as she runs over towards the family. She looks at Luke. “You guys are the captains; you get to choose.”
“Who do you choose, Dad?” Summer asks him. Luke stares back.
“Choose me, Dad. Choose me!” Rosa smiles overexcitedly. Luke feels his lips moving—
Outside, the day is overcast but not rainy. Luke feels as heavy as the clouds above him. He is looking outside, but he feels his girls around him.
It is quiet, nobody is speaking. Luke wants to break the tension but cannot even form any words to begin to do that. Beside him he feels his wife holding back her tears.
They are all strapped inside the car, Luke realizes. They are parked on their driveway. Luke remembers that they had just returned from the doctor’s office.
“Summer, Rosa, go inside. Daddy and I are right behind you.” His wife says. Her voice is hard like the pavement below them. Luke clenches at the leather of his seat so that his nails leave deep imprints in the fabric.
The car feels denser after the girls leave. Luke is finding it difficult to breathe.
“At least it isn’t life threatening.” His wife finally breaks the silence.
“It’s still serious.” Luke counters.
“She won’t be the same.”
“She’ll be okay, Luke. She is strong. She’ll adapt.”
“Will she? She… won’t be the same.”
“At least she’ll be alive.” His wife says quietly. Tearfully.
“How will she cope? She’s so young.”
“She will. She’s strong.”
“She’s my baby.”
“She is strong. She’ll get through this.
“She doesn’t deserve this.”
“I know, Luke. I know.”
“She’s just a kid. She doesn’t deserve this.”
“Stop it. You have to get yourself together. For her.”
“I know. I know.”
Luke falls yet another time and this time he falls into a kitchen chair.
Rosa walks in smiling. She motions something at Luke. He squints, trying to understand but failing. The smile falters for a moment but it comes back as she motions again.
“What, sweetheart? Can you do it slower?” Luke asks. Rosa shakes her head, getting a little irritated.
She motions again, this time slower, but the gestures do not make sense to him.
The smile fades, her lips set in a determined pout. She makes the motion of her hands again; this time she exaggerates her movements. Luke catches a word.
“Oh! ‘Dad’” He calls out. Rosa reads his lips, the expression on his face and nods. The smile returns slightly. She tries again.
He catches another word.
“Dad… tomorrow…” He says aloud, trying to piece the blanks in himself. He feels frustrated, too. “I’m sorry, Rosa. I honestly don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Rosa’s cheeks are burning red. She cannot keep her gaze on him long enough to read his lips. He motions with his hands to get his attention.
“Here.” He says, pulling out a notepad and pen. “Just write it down.”
Rosa stands still for a shocked moment. Luke waves the notepad at her, points for her to come and write it. After a while, Rosa reluctantly walks over. She takes the notepad and pen. Her hands begin writing with suppressed anger, and each motion feels deliberate and steadfast in its intent.
Luke knows that the message has changed now. She writes for much longer than what she had been signing before. She hands Luke the paper and leaves the room before Luke has a chance to call her back.
Luke does not remember what the note had said. He remembers the pain. He remembers the humiliation.
“No. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want—” Luke screams and he is jolted into another memory.
“She had a beautiful voice, didn’t she?” Luke hears himself speaking and he hates the sound of his voice.
“I don’t remember it.” Summer replies.
Luke and Summer are sitting in the family room. His wife walks in as he answers.
“She did. It was lovely.”
“Luke.” His wife says in a simple warning.
“What did you girls want to do tonight?” Luke quickly changes the subject. Summer shrugs as Rosa saunters in.
Rosa glances at Summer, signs a question in her direction. She doesn’t even glance at Luke. Luke watches the two of them sign. Summer was a natural at it, she caught on to the language almost as quickly as Rosa did. They spoke with gestures so fast that Luke felt his vision blur.
“Movies.” Summer translates to Luke. Luke glances at Rosa. She refuses to look at him.
“Okay, which one?” Luke asks, pulling out his phone. “Obviously it has to have subtitles…”
The conversation occurs again, this time with his wife signing too. Luke cannot remember which film they settled on. He remembers his hurt. His embarrassment.
Luke finds himself slowly opening the front door. His head hurts and he is tired, but the day has not ended yet. He walks inside quietly.
“Daddy!” Summer calls out from the kitchen and he follows her voice, trying to hide his fatigue behind a tight smile.
“Hi, Sweetheart.” The girls are sitting at the kitchen table with steaming bowls of pasta. Rosa is glancing moodily at her food. His wife is staring at him.
Luke sighs and stands behind the chair next to Rosa. A dark weight forms in his stomach, Luke knows what comes next.
A bright white light starts forming around the edges of Luke’s vision. No, no, no… not yet, oh God, please not yet. Luke thinks. He tries to remember another memory, but his mind cannot recall anything else. Dread fills his form. He is still standing.
“Hey, sweetie.” He says softly, waving a hand tentatively in front of Rosa’s face to get her attention.
Rosa ignores him, signs something to Summer. Summer signs back, and soon his wife joins in on the conversation. Luke feels an irrational anger brim in his veins. He feels a significant choice settle on both his shoulders.
No, no, no, no… please not here. Not now. Not now. The light spreads and deepens in its blinding hue.
Luke remains standing.
“How was your day?” Luke asks, referring to Summer almost in desperation. Summer looks up as if surprised by the sound of his voice.
“It was good. Normal.” She says. She signs something to Rosa. Luke’s irritation fires up again.
“Sit down, love.” His wife interjects into the tension. Her voice sounds slightly higher than normal, more tense. Luke looks over at her. Sit down, goddammit. Sit down! Luke screams at himself.
No, no, no, no… please not here. Not now. Not now. The light grows so that Luke can barely see his girls.
“How was school today. Rosa?” Luke continues, tapping on her shoulder to get her attention. Rosa looks up with a cold, unfamiliar anger in her eyes. Luke repeats his words slowly so that she can read them better. He hands her a notepad and pen.
“Luke.” His wife’s warning tone settles in his bones. This moment feels significant, this choice impending and momentous. “Sit down.”
“What?” Snaps Luke.
“You’re hurting her feelings.”
“I am not hurting her. I am her father. I love her.”
“Just sit down and eat dinner with us.”
No, no, no, no… please not here.
“I will. Just let me talk with my daughter.”
Luke taps the notepad encouragingly, repeats his question even more slowly this time so that she understands what he is saying.
With a yell, she flings the notepad across the kitchen. The pen flies in the air, scrapes against his face. Luke stares at his daughter, outraged.
There is a moment of strained silence. Luke is staring at his daughter as if he doesn’t recognize her. Rosa stares back, her eyes splintering into tears. She signs something to him. Luke is counting back his breaths.
“Luke!” His wife calls out. Luke can barely hear her. Rosa is sobbing.
“Just listen to her, Luke! Just listen to her!” His wife says.
Luke leaves. His wife follows him, screaming. Summer runs into her bedroom.
Then, Rosa is alone in the room. The chair next to her is empty, heavy with the weight of someone that should be there but isn’t.
Not now. Not now. The light devours Luke. The moment repeats.
Outside, the heart monitor peaks and drops suddenly to a stagnant flat line. Out in the hallway, a phone rings and dies, unanswered.
About the Author – Sana Mufti
Sana Mufti is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto currently working her way towards an English and Psychology degree. She has published a few poems in various magazines and presented at the Emerging Writers Series in Toronto. Sana strives to explore themes of identity and the philosophy of time and motion. She comments on the personal struggle of defining the self and finding stability in a constantly moving world. Sana’s writing is a form of expression to unite these ever so conflicting thoughts and emotions and seeks to find refuge amidst a world ravaged with faults.
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