Afterlife

Victor Shelley paced back and forth near the back door of the coroner’s lab. Anxiety rattled his nerves as he waited for the coroner to meet him. They’d been friends since undergrad, had spent much of their time in medical school together, and moved to the same city to start their careers. Their families knew each other well. Their wives had gone on girls’ nights out frequently back when life was normal. Their kids grew up together before they moved on with their own lives. None of their kids were ever as close as the fathers were. Some bonds could not be replicated. Or broken.

While Mark Radtke had become a coroner, Vic had become a neurologist. Both had become famous for different reasons. Both were very good at their professions, but none of that mattered now. Too much had happened. The tragedy of life had taken hold and made surreptitious actions necessary. Vic held onto hope with a tinge of regret. He never wanted to endanger his good friend’s career. He never wanted to ask something of someone that he wouldn’t do himself, but he kept telling himself that he’d do this for Mark. Of course, he would.

Behind the gray, steel double doors that opened outward into the smelly alley, Vic heard the faint click of leather on linoleum. The click grew louder as the footsteps marched to the door. Vic took a deep breath and inhaled the stench of the dumpster near him. Last night’s rain had failed to erase the stench of garbage and urine that permeated the gritty back street. He grimaced and quickly pushed the air from his nostrils. He turned to face the door just as the metal handle clanked and Mark pushed his way outside. Mark leaned his back against the door on the right and kept half of his body obscured against the other door that remained closed.

Mark wore his scrubs with fresh blood adorning the front of the pale blue cloth. Vic winced because he knew the blood belonged to his wife. He sucked in his emotions and maintained the demeanor of a just-the-facts scientist.

A surgical mask dangled in front of Mark’s neck. He looked concerned and worried when he saw his friend.

“Are you okay?” Mark asked.

“As good as can be expected.”

Mark tried to smile but failed. It looked more like an expression of pain rather than the happiness of seeing his friend.

“Thank you for doing this,” Vic said. He trained his gaze beyond Mark to the brick wall behind him.

A frown came over Mark’s face. He hesitated to move, but then, he bent down and grabbed something behind the closed door but held it close to his right leg, which was still obscured by the door.

“I know this is hard, and I’m not going to pretend to understand how you feel right now, but Sheila’s gone, Vic. Why can’t you let her rest in peace?”

“You’re right. You don’t understand. I don’t expect you to understand. This is between me and her. This is what she wanted.”

“What she wanted or what you want?”

“Mark, just give it to me. I’m forever grateful for what you’re doing. I don’t want to argue with you.”

“I could lose my license over this.”

“Why’d you do it then?”

“Technically, I haven’t done anything yet.” He looked down at the object in his right hand. Vic still couldn’t see it. “You can walk away and I’ll pretend this never happened. We can donate her organs to scientific research. She’d be pleased to know that she contributed to the progress of medical science. I know Sheila. She’d be thrilled.”

“No.” Vic shook his head emphatically and extended his hand. “Please give me the cooler.”

Mark sighed. A look of sympathy trickled down his face. He looked down at his right hand and hesitated a bit before he lifted it up and out toward Vic. He maintained a firm grip on the handle as Vic put his hands on the cooler.

“May God forgive us,” Mark said.

“There is no God, Mark. No fucking god would have allowed Sheila to suffer like she did.”

“Vic, I know you’re grieving -”

“You don’t know! Cynthia is at home right now. You have your wife. I don’t have Sheila.”

“Vic-”

“I have to go. I don’t have much time. Thank you.”

Before Mark could utter another word, Vic turned away and hurried up the alley to the plain white van idling for him. Dr. Chen waited for him patiently in the back ready to start work immediately.

Vic’s heart thumped in his chest as he stomped through the errant puddles in the the narrow alley. A sudden wave of emotion came over him and his eyes teared up. Just a few hours ago, he had held Sheila’s hand as she struggled to breathe.

“It’s almost time,” she said. Her words were slowed by her gasps for breath.

“I know,” Vic replied. He tried to be strong for her, but the fear of loss threatened to overwhelm him. He took one ragged breath to suppress a sob. He blinked to hold back the tears.

Sheila sighed heavily. “It’s okay if it doesn’t work,” she said after a pause. Another few breaths followed. “I know you’ve done your best.”

“It will work. It has to. I can’t lose you. Not now. We’re supposed to grow old together.”

Sheila smiled faintly, but the pain broke through and shattered the beauty of what had once been the most wonderful smile Vic had ever seen. She pulled her hand from his and raised her shaky arm to touch his chest near his heart.

“I’ll always be here.” She pressed on his chest lightly before her arm fell back to the bed. She tried to smile again, but the pain overwhelmed her. Vic took her hand again and squeezed it to his lips.

“I love you,” he said. The tears spilled over, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t hold them back any longer. He couldn’t pretend to be strong in the face of his wife’s imminent death.

“I love you,” she replied.

Vic reached the back of the van. Dr. Chen had already opened the doors and stepped just beyond the bumper to grab the cooler from him.

“Let’s get her hooked up,” Vic ordered. His confident, almost arrogant, demeanor returned.

“Yes, sir.”

“How much time do we have?”

“About 30 minutes.”

“Let’s hope traffic cooperates.”

Vic shut the back doors on Chen as he began working diligently among the myriad machines that lined the back wall of the van. He hurried around the driver’s side and hopped into the seat. He could see Chen through the sliding glass window peering into the back of the van, but he said nothing. Instead, he concentrated on merging into the flow of traffic on the street perpendicular to the alley.

Whatever happened from that moment forward would either validate his life’s work or end his career and possibly land him in prison, but to him there was no other choice.

Four Minutes

The plucky freshman toed the line in his lane next to the older boys. Bobby, tall and slender, looked undersized in his relatively bulky singlet that hung from his frame like a sheet billowing on a clothesline. He had the shirt tucked into his shorts, which were pulled up high. It looked ridiculous, but he preferred it that way. It made him feel intact, impenetrable. He shook his legs out and hopped up and down on the rubbery track tensing his calf muscles each time he sprung up into the air.

The other boys ignored him despite the fact that he had greeted them openly when he walked onto the track. Each of them had their own routines as they flexed muscles, stretched legs, twisted their arms back behind their heads, and jogged a few feet ahead and back all in the name of preparing themselves for the race. A physical and mental tension permeated the space around them like a fog engulfs a lone bridge in a valley.

Bobby could feel the sweat forming on his back. He could smell the odors of boys preparing to run. Some had over done it on the deodorant, while others had done without, producing a distinct mix of clean and musky scents that would otherwise be distasteful, but to Bobby, these were the smells of competition. A pit in his stomach ached, but a fire stoked there as well. It burned rapidly, fueling his desire to dig his toe into the track and propel himself forward, pumping his arms and legs like pistons in a fiery engine.

Finally, all of the boys settled into their positions. On the blocks, muscles tensed and legs shook ever so slightly in anticipation. One boy on the outer lane twitched as if he were starting the race, but his feet barely budged from the blocks. Nervousness and unsettled stomachs reigned over the runners.

Bobby held still like he was frozen in place by an irascible fairytale witch. He focused all of his energy on hearing the crack of the starting gun. His field of vision narrowed and all sound drained from his ears. He could see nothing but the lane before him and the bend to the left that awaited him. The rubbery track gave ever so slightly at the push of his toes. He could feel the compressed springs in his legs ready to uncoil the moment the gun fired.

CRACK!

The sound of the gun unleashed a fury of motion in him. He still couldn’t see the other boys next to him. He could only feel the pulsing muscles in his legs as he propelled himself forward on the track. He ran into the tunnel pumping his arms and legs in an efficient and furious motion. His breathing ratcheted higher and higher, but he contained it as if he were doling out precious oxygen in small allotments to the needy muscles in his legs. He didn’t want to overfeed the beast. It was like a hungry dog that would devour whatever he put in front of it. His heart thrummed loudly like the pistons in a race car.

Four turns later, Bobby blew through the starting point again. His arms and legs still pumped in a fluid motion that was a sight to behold. He floated. His eyes were narrowed and focused on the track ahead of him. He sucked in air and forced it out with each pounding step. Together, all of this motion moved in a beautiful orchestration of human strength and endurance.

The cheers of the crowd around the track fell on deaf ears. Bobby heard nothing but the pounding of his own heart and the hissing of his own breath. The rest of the world was a blur of silence. He ran in this trance for four laps unaware of where he was in relation to his competitors. He didn’t really care. He loved losing himself in the run. He loved the feeling of his legs burning, his heart thumping, and his lungs pumping. Like an airplane, he needed to get to a certain speed to take off, but when he did, it transported him to a different world, one of a strange euphoria that coddled him like an addict tripping on his drug of choice except his drug was the thrill of the race.

The moment he broke through the finish line, he came back down to earth. The tunnel faded and the crowd came back into view. He heard a roar that deafened him momentarily and he looked out of sorts like someone who had just woken up from a dream and struggled to discern the difference between the dream and reality. He put his hands on his head and sucked in air as he walked further down the track to catch his breath. He looked back and several runners were still crossing the finish line. His coach and teammates flogged him with congratulatory yelps and slaps on the back. The race clock read 4:03. He had come perilously close to a four-minute mile.