One of my rare non supernatural stories, which in a lot of ways I think makes it more horrific. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions… Enjoy the trip!
By Ben Pienaar
It was good to be home after so many hospital stays, but Toby Morrow’s relief was short lived. In the days following his last visit, his parents been increasingly depressed, and when they thought he was asleep they’d argue in hushed voices downstairs. He’d caught both of them wiping tears away at the last minute and then denying it when he asked. As if they were guilty.
‘Your father and I need to talk to you,’ his mother said after breakfast the following Sunday. Janine Morrow had never not looked tired and depressed in her whole life – even her kindergarten pictures were of pudgy, sad eyed little girl – but today she looked worn down solid. His father was the same, only for him it was a little more uncharacteristic – he was usually just expressionless.
Victor Morrow was waiting for them in the study, and when they entered he didn’t turn around from the window. He had one hand on the chair and stared out at the rainy day, as if deep in thought. Toby might have been only thirteen, but he knew his father better than to think that was the case.
‘Your test results came back last night, Toby,’ he said. His voice was choked, and Toby realised with a stab of worry that it was genuine. ‘It… Wasn’t what we hoped.’
‘Oh.’ Toby wiped his perpetually runny nose and sat down on one of the soft chairs. He’d been feeling tired a lot lately – it was one of the reasons they’d taken him to the hospital in the first place. Janine went to stand behind him and rested an ice cold hand on his shoulder.
His father finally turned around and Toby saw tears brimming in the corners of his eyes. The worry deepened and turned to fright, but it was nothing compared to what he felt at the next words. ‘They say you’re dying, Toby.’
There was a long silence. Toby’s mother squeezed his shoulder and let out a choked sob, also genuine.
‘It’s not a hundred per cent but, well… Ninety nine is the same thing, isn’t it? They’re all sure of it. We’re sure of it. We think, deep down, you’re sure of it, too.’ His bottom lip trembled. ‘There’s a surgery that might delay the onset of it, but not for very long. And it would cost a lot of money – more than we have.’
‘How long then?’
‘I… what do you mean?’ he was taken aback at Toby’s abruptness, but Tony hadn’t even begun to comprehend the truth of it all. For now there was only the electrifying terror and speed of thought that came with it.
‘In the movies the doctors usually tell people how long they have,’ he said. ‘So I want to know. Usually it’s six months.’
‘I…’ He looked up at Janine, and she squeezed his shoulder again.
‘We’re not completely sure, dear,’ she said in a shaking voice. ‘The doctor did tell us, though, that for boys around your age, with this particular condition… it’s usually between about two and six mon… two and six mon…’ she let out an especially hard sob.
Toby was speechless. The thought that he’d be dead, gone, zippo – in as little as two months was just too much. How could it be possible? He felt fine! Well, not really, he felt terrible, but definitely not that! Definitely not dying. It was impossible. He was shaking his head.
‘I don’t want to,’ he said eventually. ‘I won’t do it.’
‘I’m sorry, son,’ his father said. ‘It’s just the way it is. You’ll see, in time. Janine and I thought that maybe – ‘
‘We’d go on holiday!’ she cut him off sharply and he looked up, surprised. Toby spun around to look at her but whatever look she’d shot him was off her face and she was smiling down at him. ‘We decided we’d go to… to Hawaii. I was going to book the plane tickets tonight, in fact.’
‘I don’t feel like a holiday,’ Toby said. He stared down at his thin hands in his lap and wondered what they would look like in two months. Would they turn yellow first or would they look completely fine, right up until the end?’
‘Don’t worry, it’ll be brilliant,’ she babbled on. ‘We’ll go swimming and eat all the delicious American food and do whatever you want.’ Toby nodded almost imperceptibly, and both of his parents moved in to drown him in watery hugs, which he accepted, his mind a whirlwind of doubt and horror and morbid curiosity.
When he fell asleep that night, he wondered if he’d ever wake up.
While he was around, both of Toby’s parents made an effort to be happy. They took him snorkelling and hiking (though he felt so tired and sick they had to stop early and turn around), and all the while they wore smiles so stretched he thought it was that and not the hot summer sun that was making them sweat so much.
In their luxurious hotel suite the rooms were closer together and Toby could hear them argue more clearly, though he could only make out a few of the words. For some reason, several of their arguments were about the youth in Asia, and he couldn’t figure out why until he realised it was probably they who were researching the cure for his condition. He hoped they worked quickly; the daily expeditions only seemed to be making him weaker – soon he’d be too sick to leave the hotel.
He seemed to sleep a little longer each day, or at least he wanted to, but more often than not his parents would wake him up so they could take him to some exotic place or do something ever more (they hoped) uplifting: scuba diving, fishing, parasailing, whatever crossed their minds. There was one night in particular, about a week after their arrival in Honolulu, that cured Toby of his habit of sleeping in – and almost entirely of sleeping.
It was past midnight, and though the sickness made him muggy and drowsy at all hours, this night was especially humid and Toby was only half asleep, tossing and turning every twenty minutes to get a cool breeze on his leg, then snatching it back when it was too cold. The images he remembered later came to him as if in a dream, and that was what he thought they were at the time – a draft on his face, a door creaking open and closed; a presence in the room.
A mosquito landed on his arm and tried to sting him but he rolled over and it went away. He drifted between consciousness and dreaming and when it stung again he slapped it away irritably and sat up, and that was when he saw his mother on her knees at his bedside, crying.
‘What’s going on?’ He said, rubbing his eyes.
‘Nothing honey, nothing. I’m sorry I woke you. I was… I was just praying.’
‘Praying?’ He’d never seen either of his parents praying in his life before.
‘Yes. I’ll go back to sleep now, you need your rest, okay? I’ll wait here until you sleep.’
He lay back on his bed and closed his eyes, but not all the way. After ten minutes or so, he slowed his breathing and made it sound like he was fast asleep. For a while, his mother did nothing but rock in place and cry silently, but every now and again she would look at something in her lap and shake her head. After a long time, she got up and walked to the door, and in the few moments her form was silhouetted by the hallway light he caught a glimpse of something in her right hand: a long syringe. Mosquito bites? He thought, as the door clicked closed behind her. Poison? A hysterical voice asked in his mind. Medicine, he answered, and then remembered the way she kept looking down at the needle and shaking her head.
The next morning he told them he needed some time alone, and wanted some money to explore the city. They exchanged significant glances. ‘Why, what’s going to happen?’ he said. ‘Someone gonna kill me?’
His father shook his head. ‘Son, there are worse things that could happen to you than that, you know. It’s not that simple.’
‘It’s ten in the morning,’ he said, and looked up at them with his most helpless, pleading look. They gave him three hours and a hundred dollars. ‘Don’t go too far!’ they called after him.
He ate an enormous lunch at the Hard Rock, if for no other reason than he was worried he wouldn’t be able to stomach much food in future, the way he was going these days. Feeling queasy, he went to the internet café and surfed the net, but after a few minutes he typed the inevitable phrase into the Google search bar: ‘Youth in Asia.’ The first link was clearly irrelevant, but the second got his attention. A Wikipedia article about something called ‘Euthanasia’. It didn’t take him long to read it.
They were trying to kill him. It was mostly mentioned in relation to old people, but that didn’t fool him – it was about dying people. They were trying to kill him… why? So he wouldn’t have to die? It didn’t make sense, but the more he thought about it, the more he thought about their arguments and the needle in the night, he knew it was true.
He stayed out far longer than the agreed three hours, walking along Waikiki beach, wondering if it was possible to swim to America. He didn’t think so. Maybe you should just let them do it. The thought came unbidden and for a moment he found himself wanting it. An end to the constant terror, to the waiting. He was going to die anyway, wasn’t he? Maybe you will. Probably. It would be so easy. He wouldn’t even have to say anything. Just go to sleep and never wake up.
‘There! That’s him!’ He spun away from the sunset and saw his parents running towards him, an overweight and somewhat relieved policeman trotting in their wake. He didn’t run to them, but watched the sun and let the fresh air cool. He hoped it would be a cooler night.
For a while, he couldn’t get himself to sleep because he was so terrified of death, but eventually he convinced himself it had all been a false alarm anyway and he drifted off just after midnight.
And woke up. They hadn’t come for him after all. There had been no repercussions for his excursion the day before, and most of the meaningful looks and hissed words had been between his parents. He had a feeling he’d find out what was going on today, one way or another.
He made an orange juice and stepped out onto their little balcony to watch the surfers catch the morning waves. There weren’t many, but they looked like they were having fun all the same, floating in the water. He found he was enjoying himself, and when he took a long sip of juice and felt the first of the sun’s heat on his arm he decided he wanted to live. He wouldn’t let his parents kill him, and he wouldn’t let the disease kill him, either. What had the doctor said? He still had a small chance. He didn’t feel too good today, though. He’d woken up with a fever and the world rocked around him with each step. It wasn’t pleasant. Still worth living for, though, even if it lasts forever.
His parents waited until after lunch to have another talk, and this time it was his father who sat beside him on the couch and his mother who stood by the scenic view with a broken expression and explained it all.
‘We should have talked to you about it first,’ she began. ‘And I’m – we’re sorry we didn’t. But we did it in your best interest. We thought maybe if you didn’t know… It would be easier on you.’
‘Didn’t know what?’
‘What we were doing. Or trying to do – to help you, see? It’s just.’ She put a hand on her forehead and looked down, shaking her head.
‘I think the best way to put it is to remember Wellington,’ Victor began, but she put a hand up and he stopped.
‘Wellington?’ Toby said, dimly remembering a big fluffy husky from his childhood.
‘Your father means, I mean never mind about that,’ Janine said, casting her husband a look. ‘It’s just. Your condition is… It gets a lot worse, before you, you know.’ She paused to sob for a few minutes and Toby waited quietly. He had been feeling worse.
‘How much worse?’ he asked.
She shook her head and fluttered a hand in front of her face, unable to speak.
‘Horrible, son,’ his father said. ‘It gets worse than you can imagine. The doctor said it’s not uncommon for people to try to kill themselves because of the pain.’
Toby’s heart, which had been sitting in the back of his throat for the past few weeks, fell into the pit of his stomach and rolled over. He gulped. He didn’t think he could imagine that kind of pain.
Finally, his mother regained herself. ‘So we just thought, before it got too bad, we might hurry up the process a bit.’ She finished.
‘So you didn’t have to feel too much pain.’ His father added.
Holy shit. All of a sudden, another memory, partially forgotten, flashed bright in his mind: His father three nights ago, trying to persuade him to drink a foul smelling cocktail which he called a nightcap; his adamant refusal because of his nausea; his mother’s tears moments later.
He stood up, knocking his father’s hand away. ‘NO!’ he said. ‘What’s wrong with you? You were trying to kill me!’
He was half expecting shocked faces and stern denials, but he saw only sympathetic, sad eyes. He felt sick. ‘I might live, still – I might!’ His parents exchanged a look with each other that seemed to say: the poor child, he doesn’t know what he’s saying. ‘I don’t feel that bad yet – just wait till I feel worse!’
His father stood up, tears spilling down his face. ‘Toby, please, you don’t understand. You don’t realise how bad it gets, how… horrific. And by then, you’ll be trapped in the hospital – even if you want it to end there’ll be no way for us to help you. I’m sorry but we agreed to talk to you.’
‘We don’t want you to feel like you don’t have a say, dear,’ his mother said. ‘We’ll do it just how you want, and when you want, okay? You can go in your sleep, or – or lying down in a hot bath eating pizza. Whatever you want.’ She smiled, but the expression was offset by her thickly running mascara and shaking hands.
‘Okay,’ he said. It felt as though every thought had to be pushed through swirling lakes before it could surface with any clarity in his mind. He hated being sick. ‘I choose three days then. And I want to be asleep.’
They exchanged another look, and this one was mostly grief, sure, but there was no shortage of relief there, either. They didn’t want to force me, he thought. If I’d refused, they would have forced me, somehow – killed me. ‘We’re so glad you accept it,’ Janine said, maintaining that painful smile. ‘And it is such a nice, calm way to go. Isn’t it, Victor?’
‘Yes it is. Very sensible. There’s no need for you to suffer anymore, Toby. And until that time, you can have absolutely anything you want, you name it! Okay?’
‘Okay,’ he said.
‘Good. Now there’s no need for us to talk about this again, is there?’ his mother said. She spread her arms. ‘Hug?’
He went to bed early, but although he was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open, he didn’t sleep. Instead, he waited until his mother came to check on him and pretended to be asleep, and as soon as she was gone he crawled over to the door and pressed his ear against it.
It took almost half an hour of listening to the droning television, and he almost fell asleep for real, but at last it flicked off and he heard his father say: ‘You think he’s asleep yet?’
‘He was when I checked on him.’
‘Poor kid, must be exhausted.’
‘Yes. Oh, Victor, it’s so sad.’
‘I know. The worst thing of all must be the dread of it. Just knowing it’s coming…’
Toby shivered and the feeling of nausea rose again. He was sweating, but the air felt bitterly cold around him. It was true, he thought: the dread was the worst.
‘I just wish there was some way to take that away from him – the fear.’
‘Me too, honey. Maybe there is, only…’
‘Ah, I don’t know. Never mind.’
They fell silent after that, and a few minutes later the television clicked on. Toby stayed by the door until his eyes were drifting closed of their own accord, and then he managed to crawl half into the bed before he passed out from exhaustion. His last thoughts were of wild plans to run away or hide somewhere until he was sure he’d survived, but in the end they came to nothing but fantasy.
Lately he’d been moving a lot in his sleep, but this night he practically went into a coma. It was only when a fresh draft chilled him that he tried to get under the blankets and found he couldn’t. His arms and legs were stretched out on either side of him, tied down with what felt like thin sheets. He couldn’t move an inch.
One of his eyes half opened but he was still so sunk in his previous dream in which he’d floated on his back in the ocean that he didn’t register what he saw: his father standing over him with the same long syringe he’d seen his mother holding.
He tried to sit up and couldn’t, and then he felt a weight on his legs and saw his mother sitting on the end of the bed, looking at him with a mixture of sadness and warmth. Then it came to him. No, no, they said three days they said three days. His father put a hand on his forehead, not too hard, but there was weight behind it. He glanced over at Janine and shook his head. ‘His forehead’s so hot,’ he whispered.
‘No, stop. I’b awage.’ He said groggily through a sinus full of phlegm. ‘I’b awage please.’ He felt so weak. He tried to sit up but it was impossible.
‘Ssssh, honey,’ his mother said in a soothing voice. ‘Go back to sleep now.’
His father lowered the needle to his neck and panic fell over him like a blanket. He struggled madly with every ounce of strength in his body, wrenching at the ties on his wrists and shaking his head back and forth to get away from the cold prick of the needle.
Victor Morrow was a man driven by love, and no amount of struggling could convince him that he wasn’t doing the right thing: his grip was steady as iron. It was only a few moments before he had a hand pressed over Toby’s mouth and turned his head to one side to expose his neck. ‘Ssssh,’ he said, struggling not to burst into tears, ‘ssssh now son, it’ll just put you to sleep, that’s all. Just something to help you sleep easier.’
Toby felt the sting as the needle entered his neck. He tried to fix pleading eyes on his mother but she was standing just out of his line of sight, sobbing. There was another clear thought that struck him with its absurdity: the last thing I’ll ever see is a lamp.
There was a pressure, and he felt it, actually felt the poison entering his veins, pumping in as if through an external heart, circling his whole body and settling in his heart and brain. He sucked in a breath and the world shrank. He let it out and it shrank again, to a pinhead now, and all the black around the edges held nothing but terror. He took his last breath.
And the phone rang.
Victor paused with his thumb on the plunger and turned to look at his wife. Two more rings went by. She shrugged and shook her head. ‘I don’t know… it’s after midnight!’
There was a horribly long pause and then Victor said, ‘better check just in case, honey.’
She went over to the little stand in the corner of the room and picked up the receiver, and in the silence Victor clearly heard the voice on the other end. It was familiar, but he didn’t place it until the caller introduced himself.
‘Hello? Is this Mrs. Morrow?’ He sounded out of breath, rushed, panicked even.
‘Yes, who is this?’
‘It’s Doctor Truman. You remember me?’
Victor certainly did: he was the doctor who’d done all of his tests. His mother only nodded dumbly and the doctor continued as if she’d spoken. ‘I don’t know how… I’m so sorry about this, I don’t even know where to begin. This is going to cost me my job and god knows what you’ve been going through. I would have… I’ve been trying to get hold of you but they said you’d left the country and no one seemed to know where you’d gone.’
‘Doctor Truman, please get to the point.’
‘God, yes, I’m sorry. I… screw it, I’ll just come out and say it. I mixed your son’s diagnosis up with another patient. I’m sorry. It happens, and yes it was all my fault. My first call was to the other guy who’s been walking around for two weeks thinking he just had a fever. Ah, Jesus.’
There was a long silence. Janine Morrow’s voice shook badly when she next spoke. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’
Doctor Truman uttered a loud, weary sigh. ‘Mrs. Morrow. Toby isn’t dying. In fact, if you just give him a week or two of good rest and plenty of fluids he should be perfectly fine. I… again I’m so sorry I can’t even begin…’ she took the receiver from her ear and lowered it into the cradle, the doctors voice babbling on the other end until it clicked home.
As one, they turned their heads to the small boy laid out on the bed. He seemed relaxed in the way only the dead can, and cliché or not, he looked peaceful. There was no pain where he was, none at all.
In the silence broken now only by two heartbeats, Mrs. Morrow began to cry.