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It was just a small dark spot on my forearm, nothing to worry about according to the free-clinic doctor, Cynthia Dale, who first saw and then ignored it. I’d had them before, but this felt different from the get-go. It itched. She said it wasn’t a problem, which was doctor-speak for: I’m donating four hours a week here. What-do-ya-want from me?
Pity she ignored it -- it killed her -- but incredibly, it didn’t kill me. Why? I have no idea; I’m not God, although some assign me another apocryphal title: Mister Death -- as in “Dale-Lesion plague strikes Pittsburgh, Mister Death moving west!” At least that’s what a recent paper proclaimed. Wearing gloves and such doesn’t help to contain the virus (or whatever it is). People still exhibit the telltale lesions within days of being in my presence. For them, it’s over within a week.
If only people hadn’t always treated me as though I didn’t exist, I might have turned myself in. I know that’s a poor excuse, but I’ve always been a loner, living on the edges of polite society -- invisible but necessary. You’ve seen me: I’m the one who swept offices, picked up garbage, washed dishes, and such -- the one forgotten five seconds later. I have an Associate’s degree, but somehow I never fit into a permanent position; therefore, I took menial jobs, whenever I could find one. Go figure.
In retrospect, perhaps God gave me this affliction as a way to make people remember to “Treat the least of you....” You know the story. Or not. One thing I do know: This mess is their problem -- not mine.
So, I travel on, from city to city, breathing on people and touching things like doorknobs, toilet seats, grocery carts, etc. I can’t help it; I have to live, and I have to keep moving. If I don’t, they’ll find me, and while I’m sorry for the suffering I’ve caused, I’ve grown accustomed to my place in the scheme of things.
She wasn’t much to look at, being so skinny and all, but there was something special about her, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed.
It was a late afternoon in the park when I first spotted her as I walked along the path by the duck pond. She sat in the soft, green grass a few feet away from the water, thin arms locked around her knees, staring out over the surface. I noticed people looking her way as they passed by, and it made me curious. She wasn’t calling attention to herself. She was just watching mallards cruising by the shoreline. It bothered me...how one person could command so much attention, while others (like me) could be so easily dismissed, forgotten.
I decided to find out why.
As I approached, she turned her head and locked her eyes on mine. I was lost. They were deep, deep brown, haunting beyond belief. A moment later, she resumed staring at the water without saying anything, but I felt her measuring me, so I sat my lanky bones down on the grass a safe distance away. I could scarcely breathe; I’d never been so aware of another person.
“The pond is beautiful, isn’t it?” she suddenly asked, looking my way.
“Yes it is,” I responded.
She cocked her head slightly, “Been traveling long?”
“How do you know I’ve been traveling?”
“I escaped this afternoon myself,” she replied. “Besides, your clothes are wrinkled, like they’ve been in a suitcase, and the eastern accent gives you away, Boston maybe?”
I nodded. She was good.
“What else do you know?” I asked, hoping the conversation wasn’t over.
She hesitated, running a tongue across dry lips. “Your hair kind of goes wherever it wants, which tells me you don’t much care what people think about you, and your eyes are gray but not just because of their color. They look...sad.” She threw a melancholy smile my way. “I think you might be trying to run away from something, but you can’t. You know that don’t you?”
It was time to change the subject. “So, where did you ‘escape’ from?” I asked.
She turned away without answering, her eyes fixed once again on the water.
I didn’t know what else to say, so we sat quietly, not speaking. Instead, we watched the ducks paddle close, occasionally poking their heads beneath the algae-encrusted surface to do whatever ducks do down there. The half-buried sun shimmered golden orange on the quiet water before she spoke again.
“This is a special place,” she said, her voice honey-soft. “My dad used to bring me here when I was a little girl. In fact, we came the day before he died.” The words caught in her throat, but she went on. “He said a person’s soul could truly be at peace here.”
I nodded. Peace and I had never been on good terms with each other, but the sentiment sounded right...at least for others.
“It’ll get cold tonight,” she said, scooting closer. I flinched, knowing I’d infect her, but I was as rooted to the spot as the trees surrounding the pond. “It’s okay,” she said, noticing my discomfort. “I know we don’t really know each other, but you seem nice enough, and if you don’t mind, I need to be close to someone right now.”
“I don’t mind,” I said.
How long does it take to love someone? Not long I think. I reached to brush a lock of blonde hair from her face. She withdrew, hung her head, and folded her hands in her lap.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean....” What was I thinking?
She shrugged -- her cotton dress with yellow flowers hardly moved. I’d bet she didn’t weigh more than ninety pounds, "dripping wet" as they say. “It’s not you. It’s just that -- I’m dying. Cancer.” She looked up and gave me a twisted little grin as she twirled a bony finger through her hair. “This isn’t even mine.”
I said, “We all die.”
As soon as I said it, I realized it was insensitive, but I certainly knew about death; it was my own constant companion, even if in truth, I was more like its brother than its victim.
“Not the same way though,” she said, ignoring my brusqueness. “Even the terrible plague doesn’t make people wait on death’s door; their misery is over in a few days.” A tear crept out of a sunken eye. “It’s the waiting that’s so hard. You try everything you can to prolong your life -- I’m only twenty-six -- but you can’t, not really, no matter what the doctors do.”
“Everyone suffers,” I offered, hopefully sounding more sympathetic this time. “Sometimes you don’t have a choice, you just learn to accept it and move on.”
That, certainly had been my mantra ever since I became infected.
“There are always choices,” she replied, turning her eyes toward the pond once more. At first, her words seemed innocent enough, but then, I understood what she was really saying. She wanted to end her life and in a place that meant so much to her.
“Why would you do that?” I asked.
She knew exactly what I meant. “Because, it’s not fair. My sisters are run ragged caring for me, the look in my mother’s eyes is too sad to bear, and my grandparents just took out a second mortgage to help with medical expenses.” Her voice railed against the injustice. “I’m hurting everyone who loves me. It...it would just be better for everyone if I wasn’t here.”
For all the misery I’d caused in my travels, the idea of voluntarily stepping into the abyss to stop it never crossed my mind. But then, no one had ever cared about me the way her family did her.
She sighed. “I just hope I have the strength go through with it.”
We sat quietly again as the sun sank below the horizon -- long shadows growing into night. Most people had left the park, and the evening pond residents had emerged: frogs croaked in the gathering darkness, fireflies signaled in the dusk, and crickets strummed their mating songs. In the beauty of that evening orchestration, the truth of what she said struck me: Sometimes absence is a blessing.
“Would it help if I went with you?” I asked.
“Seriously?” she replied.
“There’s nothing here for me either. I think you know that.”
A tear slipped down her hollow cheek. “I do.”
Putting her hand in mine, I pulled her off the rapidly damping grass. Together we walked into the shallows and then on into the depths. We didn’t speak; we didn’t waver; we just held hands. I realized, as I felt the cool water closing over my head, I didn’t know her name or she mine, but, it didn’t matter. It only mattered that someone had shared a part of their life with me.
A beautiful part.
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