The night before the first appointment, Darcy had walked down to the beach dressed in a J Crew one-piece bathing suit. A foolish decision for a freezing February afternoon in northern Maine, made more foolish on account of the terrible fatigue that arrived within seconds after wading in. Barely five minutes later she’d staggered back to land, shuddering and defeated, her skin white with cold.
For hours she had sat beneath the darkening sky wrapped in a big fluffy towel, feeling an inexplicable urge to walk back into the waves, this time with a few handfuls of rocks in her swimsuit. She had read before about dogs and cats and even hamsters that could sense the onset of terminal illness. Only now she realized what she had already, on some level, known. Only now, as she lay in a room miles away, staring at the mathematical rendition of her heartbeat.
Only now did those warning signs seem obvious.
“Can you hear me?”
Yes, she could hear him. The voice of a man twenty-three years younger than she. A boy who refused the word ‘death’, employing idioms and disparate absurdites like ‘challenge’ and ‘beat some butt’ instead of ‘cancer’ and ‘rot away’. A boy who also, quite incredibly, happened to be the best oncologist money could buy. Then again, she supposed, the dead didn’t write testimonials.
“Can I borrow you a minute?” the boy wanted to know.
Ignoring him, Darcy licked her dry lips, gazing back up at the heart-line. Not at the present pulse but what was on the endlessly regurgitating scroll below it. An end. The heartbeats passed in moments too brief and fleeting to matter. In them she saw the sea and the happiness it was like her heartbeat’s blips on paper, the bygone happiness never to return.
“I brought something, Darcy.”
She grunted irritably.
“Here.” Dr. Evanston placed it on the bed, then stepped away, seemingly sensing her mood. “Whenever you want to take a look.”
“What is it?”
He shifted. His eyes wandering. Pretty boy eyes. “The other day, you remember?”
She closed her eyes. “No.”
“About your palliative care.”
The eyes opened at once. "Huh?"
The doctor picked up the brochure, shrugging. “We can talk about it later. If you want.”
“Wait.” She tried to sit herself up. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Evanston glanced to the blind spot. She saw him mouthing something. “Who’s there?” Darcy barked. The brochure moved and Darcy saw the front and a title that said ‘Dignity’ with lilies and some smiling granny person. Hideous, she thought, worse than cancer.
“Charles! Get your ass in here!”
“Shut up and get in here.”
The door clicked. Into view came his flat, middle-aged gaze, tired and faintly browbeaten and perpetually forlorn like so many middle-aged men’s.
It too was hideous. It too was worse than cancer.
“What’s this creep talking about?”
Charles sat nervously, as though she wasn’t the woman he had married but some rabid animal, which she supposed she was. He gave the Doc a parental smile. “It’s OK.”
“Hey!” She snapped her fingers, like an Italian in a bad restaurant. “Have you two weasels been talking behind my back?”
“Darcy…” The loose thread of voice writhed like a tuneless saxophone powered by an expired breath. He took Dignity, fingering the glossy cover. “I think it’s a good idea.”
“What is, exactly?” He didn’t look crazy, but she was willing to accept she might have driven him so. “Your wife in a damn hospice? That’s a good idea?”
“More like a resort,” Evanston’s face was briefly sunny. He took the brochure back from Charles and opened it with near-excitement. “Look, like this one - pretty huh?”
The bastard was smiling.
“It has a spa.”
She let out a short laugh. “So I can get a bikini wax for my funeral, Doc?”
“What? You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Charles?” She grinned. “You always wanted me to shave it, remember?”
“Enough! My god, have you lost your damn mind?”
“Maybe. God I hope so.”
“There’ll be less pain, Darcy,” Evanston mumbled, face red. “More comfortable. That’s all your husband wants.”
“I love you.” Charles put his hand on her thigh, tender enough that for a moment Darcy felt a prickle of tears. “C’mon Darce.”
She swallowed. There was so little of that bright-eyed boy she had married left. What was there clung on, seeming to vanish by the second as she tried to feel what she knew she was supposed to but couldn’t. “What if I don’t want…to feel comfortable?”
The two men glanced at each other. Glances she recognized, the universal disdain of a nasty old woman. A bitch.
“How do you mean exactly?” Evanston asked.
“What if I wanted something different?”
“Darcy,” Charles said, pleading, “come on, enough.”
“You already signed me up, didn’t you?”
“To this place. I’m not stupid, Charles.” She opened her mouth wide, as though about to bite his face. She considered doing just that, but instead looked to Evanston and immediately thought about biting his pretty-boy nose off. “Why wasn’t I consulted?”
Evanston shrugged. “Your husband has power of attorney.”
“I thought that was a formality?”
“It’s a little more than that.”
Darcy looked at Charles. Charles said nothing. At that moment the last vestiges of the bright-eyed young lover seemed to go. Just like that.
“Think about it, okay?” he said.
With that, they left her.
Three days later, around the same a transporter arrived to transport Patient 44395563A to the Good Life Hospice in Portland, Darcy Peters was back on the beach.
A different beach. Near Kingsbridge, Maine. The sun rose late. By then her skin was a pearl white, her hair stiffened with salt and seaweed, her green hospital gown hiked up around her belly as she lay sprawled on the shingle. Later that day, the fisherman who discovered her there told the junior reporter from 'The Kingsbridge American' how her head was turned back to the water with a mighty smile scrawled across the face. Such a big grin, the fisherman said. So big it almost looked though the gal was laughin’ as she drowned.