February 4th, 2010

Door County, WI

Richard Storm’s right hand clutched at his chest just under his generous left breast – which he’d been self-conscious of his whole life. His digital atomic clock that was wrong twice a year, when it changed two-weeks prematurely for daylight savings time said “3:05 A” in large red block letters. He would have felt his heart pounding, two inches away, on the other side of his rib-cage, had he been awake. Instead, he dreamt that he could feel his heart pounding away on the other side of his rib cage, and then, just before he died, he awoke with a start, his shoulders and back lifting off sweat-dampened flannel sheets.

He sat up, against the half micro foam/half polyester pillow that he slept on, foam side up, and although awake, his racing heart, rapid shallow breaths and clammy skin seemed to him too reminiscent of the nightmare of his death. Richard’s breathing slowed. He turned his head to check the time, as he always did upon awakening. He was in time to see the last digit dissolve from a five into a six. The luminescence of the large red block letter cast such a significant light that the flat face of the clock was set at an angle, slightly outwards, away from the bed. In order to see it, Richard had to slightly tilt his head forward to overcome the awkward angle. He remembered from the directions that there was a way to decrease the brightness, but one morning of fumbling a year ago had reset the brighter display and rather than trying to figure it out from the folded sheet of directions tucked away somewhere in the night-stand, he merely had tilted the clock face away from his side of the bed, where it had remained ever since.

The significance of the time slowly dawned on Richard. A full moon hung low in the western sky, ten degrees above the horizon. It filled the outside with a silvery light, magnified by the glassy reflection of partially melted, then re-frozen snow, the kind that forms a crust strong enough to support the weight of a small animal, but nothing more.

“2:57 A.”

I have eight minutes left to live, thought Richard. It was only a dream, that’s impossible, he reassured himself, yet, the tightness in his chest remained, of course, the anxiety from a too realistic dream. He looked over at his wife, turned away, towards the moonlight shining through the sliding glass door, away from the sonorous ebb and flow of Richard’s CPAP machine. Most nights were windy and this night was no exception. During the summer, through the open door, the leaves, swaying to and fro in the wind, sounded to Richard like the surf-which caused him to smile because he felt it was like living on the shore, without the expense, but during the winter, with the glass door shut, there was only the muted sound of stiff, bare branches clacking together, rustling outside the wall of glass that was the western view.

“2:58 A.”

Should I wake Sarah? I’m scared. What if it wasn’t a dream? But it was! He just dreamt it. So it was only a dream, but what about the time? What if I wasn’t dreaming, but only thought I was dreaming and actually had a foreshadowing of my death?

Suddenly, Richard wasn’t convinced that he’d been sleeping. He had to get up at least twice a night to pee and more than that if he drank anything more than an ounce five hours before bedtime. Maybe he had just returned to bed, laid his head down, and thought that he was sleeping. He slid his hand over onto his wife’s pillow and touched her hair, not wanting to wake her because he knew that she hadn’t been feeling well the past few days, and was tired from long hours at the office. But now, her face was relaxed and smooth in the light of the moon.

I should let her sleep.

Richard watched her breath, the pleasing scent of the lotion she applied at night, before bed was still with her. He dropped his hand lower onto her shoulder, underneath the covers, wanting to touch her life, wanting desperately to feel her skin, yet, afraid to wake her for something so ridiculously impossible.

“3:04 A.”

Richard had lost track of the time. He hadn’t seen the numbers turn. He didn’t know if he was forty seconds into his last minute of life or five seconds. He could feel his heart again, like in his dream.

“I love you,” he whispered. Sarah slept on.

“I love you,” he whispered again. Sarah slept on.

“I love you,” he said. Sarah stirred, turning her head up, the moonlight casting a moon shadow of her profile on Richards’s chest. He loved her more.

Richard was watching the clock now, his breath rapid and shallow, his heart slamming against the inside of his chest, whispering quietly, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord be with thee, blessed art though amongst women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus . . .

He saw the four dissolve into a five.

“3:05 A.” I knew it, just a dream.

Richard exhaled forcefully and breathed deep, holding his breath, daring to feel a first flush of relief. Then he realized that he still didn’t know if he was forty seconds before 3:06, or five seconds. An immense weight on his sternum pushed him down to the mattress. He couldn’t speak because there was not enough air left in his lungs. His arms were heavy. All he could do was weakly caress his wife’s shoulder with the back of his left hand. The moon, behind black branches o beautiful, so silvery bright that it turned night to luminescent day. Surreal, like a monochrome negative robbed of color, it filled the room with its ghostly pale.

Richard’s right hand clutched his chest under his generous left breast. His heart shuddered with a final paroxysm of pain as the malignant dysrythmia terminated in asystole, and just like that, Richard was gone.

The five dissolved into a six. “3:06 A.”

Sarah slept on.

“Episode” is a short section from a work in progress.