Damned if you do

by Natalie J E Potts

Declan was still unconscious. His chest fought against the thin blue sheet as it rose to draw another breath. Every time the nurses came in to check on him they spared Carol a look that said it wouldn’t be much longer; a sad mix of sympathy and relief.

The quiet beep of Declan’s too-young-to-die heart started to speed up. Carol leaned in, wondering if this was it. She blinked back tears as she searched the face she had only met a year ago, but now loved more than she thought possible. His eyelids flickered and suddenly he was staring at her, fully conscious and a little surprised to see Carol’s face so close.

“Hey baby, how you going?” she asked, hoping her smile hid the grief she had been about to give in to.

“Great,” he said with a heavy dose of sarcasm. His eyes darted to the window at the far end of the room. “How long was I out?”

“Just a couple of hours.” As if that meant it was nothing serious.

Despite the pain he was obviously feeling he still managed to call up a smile just for her. “You have been so good to me,” he whispered. “What did I do to deserve you?” Declan had been in the first stages of his illness when they met and Carol had stood by him through it all.

“I love you,” Carol said. “I will always love you.” She didn’t need to explain that she didn’t mind the sacrifices she had made, they had gone over that too many times in the past and she didn’t want to sully these last moments with any feelings of guilt.

“If only we had more time together…” Declan looked away, probably unable to face the pain Carol couldn’t hide. She knew how much it hurt him to see her like this.

“Baby, you will always be with me.” She turned his face back to hers.

“You have given me so much. You have made me so happy.”

“I wish I could have given you more…” Declan twitched, his body only made sudden movements now when in pain. They had removed the limits on his medication at the same time they attached the ‘do not resuscitate’ instructions to his chart. What they hadn’t done was allow him to self-administer the morphine. They gave Carol a million reasons why, none of which were the truth; they wanted God to choose Declan’s time of passing, not Declan.

“Should I get a nurse?” Carol asked. Declan nodded, as he winced again. Past experience told her that Saturday night was a bad time to press the call button. They would be left waiting for anything up to an hour, and Carol wasn’t convinced they had that long.

It killed her to do it, but she stood up and walked out of the room, only breaking into a run when she was sure that Declan couldn’t hear her footsteps. She knew he would know why she was running, and as stupid as the idea was, she didn’t want him to know how close to death he really was.

“Excuse me,” Carol said to the back of a long-haired male nurse who was reading the notice board. He wore the muted green outfit of an orderly but looked entirely too scruffy and far too relaxed to actually be on the clock. Carol considered looking for someone else, but at that time of night she wasn’t sure how many nurses would be on the ward.

“Can I help you?” the man said in a thick voice that wrapped around Carol like a blanket. Despite his ragged appearance she felt her body relax.

“My boyfriend needs more painkillers, room 2H.”

“Your boyfriend is about to die,” the man said in the same heavy voice.
Carol paused, convinced she must have misheard. “Pardon?” Her anger rose, despite the man’s slick tone.

“Your boyfriend is going to die, but he doesn’t have to.” He turned and ambled toward Declan’s room, his rubber-soled shoes not drawing the slightest squeak as he walked.

“What are you talking about?” Carol ran to catch up. “No-one’s said anything to me.”

The nurse stopped and faced her, the intense look on his face making his features look more pointed than they had before. “No-one has told you because no-one else can see how much you love him. You would do anything for him wouldn’t you?”

“Of course I would!”

“Would you give your life if it meant saving his?”

Carol went cold. “Declan and I want to live a long life together. He would be as torn apart by my loss as I will be by his.”

The nurse smiled with a vicious twist in his lips. “So I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then.” He kept walking.

“I would do whatever I could to save Declan. Even if it meant giving up my life for his!”

“You wouldn’t have to give up all of it,” the nurse said, stopping again to face Carol. “Just the end bits. For every moment Declan lives beyond his natural time of death, he would take a moment of life from the end of yours. A simple one for one exchange.” His brows went up in two high arcs.

Carol wondered how sleep deprived she really was to still be standing there. “So what… I would live for less time and we would die together?”

“Within the same micro-second,” the nurse assured her. “Neither of you would have to live a moment in this world without the other. Assuming you die of natural causes.”

“I would agree to that in a heartbeat,” Carol said.

“Only one other proviso,” the man said as if they really were negotiating. “You would be signing your soul over to me.”

Carol looked at the man’s nametag for the first time and got a flash of insight into the life he must have lived. Anyone whose parents had been cruel enough to name their child Satan would have to have developed a strong personality or a good sense of humour. If he was going for the latter on this occasion Carol didn’t appreciate it. Her thoughts went back to Declan and his pain waiting for her back in the room.

“It would be a small price to pay for such happiness,” Carol said, eager to get the nurse moving again. “Could you please hurry with the morphine, I need to get back to him now.”

“Your wish is my command,” the nurse said. He strode off toward the
lock-up room that held the cures to everything and nothing. Carol raced back to Declan, only to find he had slipped back into unconsciousness.

* * * *

When Declan ‘crashed’ the nurses responded so fast that Carol wondered if she should have pulled off his wires earlier to get them into the room instead of waiting on the call button. Tears slid down her cheeks as she realised she had wasted Declan’s last conscious moments of life talking to a sicko in the hallway instead of being here where she belonged.

The nurses were all aware of the ‘no resuscitation’ clause, and despite Carol’s pleading they did little more than turn off the machines that were loudly boasting of the end of a loved man’s life. The doctor who came in was not interested in performing any miracles, he simply picked up the chart, theatrically looked at the clock in the corner of the room, and documented Declan’s time of death.

He was still scratching something on the chart when Declan took a giant breath, like a man surfacing from a free dive.

Carol felt a shimmer of butterfly wings over her entire body. The sensation built to an electric buzz that penetrated to her core as Declan pulled life-sustaining air back into his lungs. Fading as quickly as it had overtaken her Carol dismissed the feeling and stood up.

“Get back,” the doctor yelled, pushing Carol out of his way as he none too gently forced Declan back onto the pillow. Declan’s breaths were now shallow and desperate, but they were there. “Don’t fight it son,” the doctor guided him. “Relax and let go.”

“Baby, no, come back to me!” Carol called over the top, trying to push her way to the bed.

“Get her out of here!” The doctor commanded, pointedly looking at one of the larger male nurses who responded without question. Despite Carol’s attempts to hold onto the end of the bed, she soon found herself forced out the door into the cold, green hall. The thick wooden door of the hospital room shut her out of the drama unfolding inside.

Carol stopped banging on the door after a few minutes. She hadn’t even known the door could be locked. Maybe the burly nurse was simply leaning up against it while the medico did his best to coach Declan into the next world. Carol leaned on the easy-to-clean green wall and slid down onto the easy-to-mop green floor. No skirting board dug into her, it was just a smooth transition from wall to floor to limit the number of places that spilled human juices could hide. It smelled of disinfectant.

A short time later a whoosh of air heralded the opening of the door. The first one out was the doctor who did not even acknowledge Carol, despite needing to step around her to get out of the room.

“What happened?” Carol demanded, as she stood up. “What did you do?”

“You’d better go in there,” the nurse who had removed her from the room said. “He’s asking for you.”

Carol felt her chest strain with hope as she pushed past the retreating nurses back into the room. There, sitting up in a way he could not have managed a week earlier, Declan looked as bright as a man waking up on a Saturday morning after a harrowing week in the office; tired but ready to go out and make the most of his weekend.

* * * *

“I thought you might like to go out for a walk in the park?” Carol couldn’t believe she was actually able to ask the question. It was a just ten days since she had been told to prepare herself for Declan’s death, and now they were already talking of his check-out date from the hospital.

“Babe,” Declan said, “the people from In the City Tonight are coming in for the interview later. I wanted to get ready for it.” So far Declan had been interviewed by two women’s magazines and the local paper, but this was the first TV show. Carol suspected it was his nervousness about being on television which accounted for his distant mood.

“What time will they be here?”

“Should be some time around four, so you can have a few hours off if you like? It might be good for you to go home and have a shower, make yourself look a little more human?”

Carol tried not to show her hurt. She hadn’t realised her appearance was tending toward alien, or worse, primate. “Don’t you want me here?” She didn’t add that she was expecting that In the City Tonight would want to interview her too.

“Nah, you’ll just get bored. These TV things take hours just to get a few minutes footage. And Toby Sigler himself is going to do the interview, they say he’s quite a perfectionist.” Declan was glowing, Carol knew she should let him have his moment of glory, goodness only knew he had enjoyed so few glorious moments in the past twelve months. “They must think it is a pretty big story if Sigler is coming out to talk to me,” Declan added, preening in front of a mirror as he spoke. Carol wondered if he was even talking to her any more.

She wouldn’t let it get to her. He’d be back home soon, and then things would go back to normal. Well not entirely. She couldn’t hold back the smile. Now she and Declan could actually build that future they had so dreamily talked about over the past few months. When the test results for his final scan came in today they would know if he was cured.

“Okay baby,” Carol said, picking up her overnight bag from behind the door. “I’ll take off, but I might come back soon after four.” Declan turned to face her, as if he was about to protest again. “I want to see my boy being a big star,” she gushed, the appeal to his ego having the desired effect. He swallowed his protest and gave her a smile.

“Great, so I’ll see you later.” He didn’t step over to give her the kiss goodbye he had diligently given her the past few days. Instead he turned back to mould the perfectly coiffed hair into a more perfect coif. Carol stepped in and kissed him on the cheek. He immediately reached up to wipe it off.

Carol couldn’t hold back her gasp of shock.

“Lipstick,” Declan said weakly. “I don’t want lipstick on my cheek for the shoot.”

“I only ever wear gloss.” She could feel irrational tears pricking her eyes. After so much emotion over the past few weeks, she found she had lost the ability to turn it off. “You’ve been with me for a year, I thought you might have noticed by now.”

Declan rolled his eyes. “Don’t do this to me, on this day especially.” Back to the hair primping. “Lip-gloss, lipstick, whatever. I’m a boy, I don’t know what you call it. I just didn’t want it on my cheek when the cameras are on.” He looked at her in the mirror, not deigning to turn his head to actually face her. “I thought you’d be happy for me.”

“I am,” Carol touched his shoulder, but he shrugged her off. “Sorry, I think you are right. I’m just a bit tired and emotional. I’ll get a quick snooze as well as a shower.” She blew him an air kiss. “I’ll see you later.”

“Uh,” he grunted. Carol paused for long enough to see if she was going to get any actual words, but not quite long enough for Declan to guess there was something wrong. He didn’t turn around, now it was time for her to either leave or confront him. For the first time in twelve months Carol didn’t know what his reaction would be and didn’t want to risk it. She slipped out the door, the dampener softly closing it behind her.

* * * *

Carol was back just before four, and was surprised to see the small hospital room filled with more lights and people than she ever would have guessed necessary to shoot a TV news story. The door had been propped open by a large light on a tripod, making it easy for Carol to slip in quietly. She barely got a glimpse of Toby Sigler, trademark smile in place, before she was hurried back out the room by a man in a dark suit.

“Carol?” the man asked, after shunting her far enough away that their voices wouldn’t carry into the room.

“Yes, and you might be?”

“Angus Stevenson, I’m Declan’s agent.”

“His agent? Declan doesn’t…” Carol stopped, for some reason she didn’t want this man to know that Declan hadn’t told her about him.

“I think it would be best if you went down for a cup of coffee or something, they should be finished in the next half hour or so.”

“But didn’t they only just get here?”

“No, we thought they would be done by four. They got here at two.” Angus put his arm on her shoulder and guided her a little further away from the room. Had she raised her voice? “Declan knows he has to get used to bending with the wind if he wants to ride the media wave when the swell is up, so if they want to stay until six that’s just fine.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Carol had to consciously focus to keep her voice calm. Angus paused, probably starting to get concerned about the interview that was going on without him.

“Look, you and Declan need to have a chat. I can’t share what our plan is. Privacy laws, confidentiality and all that.” He was already taking a few backwards steps, getting closer to the hospital-room-cum-studio but ready to tackle Carol if she got it into her head to make her way back in there.

Carol looked around, they had attracted the attention of two of the nurses who made a big show of pretending they weren’t listening to the conversation.

“Okay, I’ll be back in half an hour,” Carol said.

Angus lifted his finger to his lips and pointed at the room, then whisper-yelled back to her; “better make it an hour, just to be on the safe side.”

* * * *

“Honey, we need to have a talk.”

Carol stopped cutting the carrots. They had been home for nearly three weeks and she was surprised it had taken this long for those words to be spoken. She didn’t want to turn around, she didn’t want to have the conversation. She heard Declan’s uncomfortable shuffle in the kitchen doorway and knew she couldn’t keep her back to him.

The knife Carol was using had only recently been sharpened, with one well-aimed slip she could take off a thumb or the top of a finger and stop the talk before it could start. Even Declan would have to see that getting her to hospital was a priority. Then again, maybe this new Declan would just have the talk on the drive in and she would have to face two unbearable hurts at once.

She placed the knife across the cutting board and turned to face him. He had changed clothes. He was wearing a new black shirt and tailored pants, he looked ready to go out.

“I don’t think this is working,” he said. He didn’t even waste time with a preamble. Carol would have done a build up, lay down the argument before she dished out the decision, but Declan didn’t have time for that. “I’m a different person now, and you’re a completely different person.”

“What do you mean I’m different?” Carol wondered if it was too late to pull the knife trick, but now it would probably just end the conversation and rob her of her rebuttal.

“You’re so moody, so suspicious, questioning everything I do. I just can’t live like this anymore.”

“The only reason why I’m suspicious of you is because you have started doing so many suspicious things! Why do you need two mobile phones? Why can’t I use your computer anymore? Why have you updated your status on Facebook to single?”

“We’ve been over this, Carol. I have fans now! Fans don’t like the subject of their affection to have a girlfriend.” Declan stopped, he didn’t want to be drawn in. “Besides, now it’s true. I don’t want to be with you anymore. I want to be single. Through some amazing miracle I have another shot at life, and this time I’m going to do it better. I know you want to get married and have babies and get a mortgage and play happy families, but that’s not me. It has never been me. When we met I knew I was dying, so I made no promises to you. Now… now I’m living and I am not going to make you any promises that I don’t intend on keeping. I have to be true to myself, and I have to be honest with you.”

“So you are doing me a favour?” Carol was surprised by the lack of emotion in her voice. She didn’t even have tears in her eyes, but she suspected they were all spent a month ago when the centre of her universe was being stolen from her by cancer. Now that he was actively choosing to get up and walk away the well was empty.

“To stay would be a lie.” Declan didn’t wait for Carol’s response, he just walked away and a moment later Carol heard the front door close.
She looked back at the knife and thought back to the nurse she had struck the deal with in the hospital. If she ended her life would Declan’s end too? Was that how it worked? Or would he get all the unused years that she would otherwise have lived? She turned back to the chopping board, picked up the knife and finished cutting the carrots. Declan would be back, he loved her, and she loved him. He would get this out of his system and then he would be back.

* * * *

When Declan got a guest role on the same soap opera he had ridiculed endlessly in his previous life, Carol knew it would extend his madness for a while. She didn’t want to, but she watched the first few episodes, recording them so she could watch them over and over until she realised she was twice wasting her life; once to let Declan live it and then again for her to watch him doing so. Once the acting roll was over he would fade into nothing and then he’d be back, she knew it.
But then his guest starring character turned into a regular, followed by a Logie nomination. Carol finally realised he was never coming back.

She would have to go to him.

Having been very careful not to be the crazy ex-girlfriend when he had walked out, they had parted on reasonably good terms. Declan even felt comfortable enough to give Carol his new address so that she could drop off some of his furniture and a few personal items that he had left in the flat.

Now, back in his new house, she noticed that none of the furniture he had requested was present. He had obviously decided on a whole new start, and his new career afforded him the luxury of doing exactly that.
From the moment he let her in the door he made a point of looking at his watch every chance he could.

“You’ve done alright for yourself,” Carol said, trying to sound friendly rather than spiteful.

“I’m in a bit of a rush, Carol, did you have something you needed?”

“I just want to know you’re okay. I haven’t heard from you for a while, and I just wanted to know if that new girlfriend of yours is taking care of you, that blonde girl, what’s her name?”

“Megan?”

Carol hoped the pain didn’t show on her face. Last time she had looked into it he was dating a children’s presenter called Sophie. “Yeah, Megan, is she treating you well?”

“We broke up a couple of days ago,” Declan said. As if wanting to quell any hope before it welled up he hastily added; “I’m seeing someone else now. And I promise you, she’s looking after me just fine.”

The smile on his lips made the bile rise in Carol’s throat. “You know, Declan, I made a lot of sacrifices for you.”

He rolled his eyes. “Is this about money? How much do you want?” He stood up and lifted his wallet from the kitchen counter. Did he think she would be bought off so cheaply, or was he carrying that much more cash these days?

“This isn’t about money Declan. It’s about happiness, and promises and what you said before you got better.”

“Carol, I needed someone to help me out, and you were there. I was going to say whatever you wanted to hear. Yeah, I’m a bastard, but look out there and you’ll see everyone is a bastard. Life is not fair, and if you haven’t learned that by now then you are even more gullible and stupid than I thought.”

Carol refused to react. “Is she here now?”

“Who? No, nobody is here. I’m not introducing you to my new girlfriend, Carol.”

“Do you love me Declan? Did you love me?”

“Just get out of my house. Sell your story to some pissy little paper if you can find anyone interested enough in printing it. No, I don’t love you, I never loved you. I…”

Declan never finished his sentence.

In many ways Carol was glad he had gone out like that. If he had said something nice, she might have regretted shooting him and that would have played on her conscience.

Carol had already seen Declan’s blood more times than a lover ever should, though usually it was encased in tubes or syringes or being transported somewhere and back again. It hurt to know that the blood she was seeing now had probably all been created since they had split.

Declan took a long time to die. He stopped moving seconds after he hit the ground, he had been shot square in the chest after all. It was the best way she could think of to shut him up without blowing away his pretty face. A face shot was a crime of passion. It would point to someone who had loved him, but even that, it seemed, was quite a long list these days. Still, it was safer to go for the simple drop shot to look like a robbery. Thank goodness for TV crime shows.

She expected to see something the moment he passed away, but it was the strange tingling over her skin that finally heralded his departure. Whatever days he had staked a claim on were now returned. Her life was hers fully, no sacrifices now. She could suffer the six months loss at the end of her years, but only a fool would let him take more. And with eternal damnation waiting for her, she wanted her life to be as long a life as possible.

A clapping sound behind her made Carol jump to her feet. Declan had said they were alone in the house. She looked to where the sound was coming from and saw the strange nurse materialise from the far wall. He applauded her as he came closer, his spectre becoming more solid and real with every step.

“You took much longer to work it out than I thought you would,” Satan said, looking down on Declan’s body with ghoulish delight. “Or did you work it out earlier but you just couldn’t bring yourself to do it? You hoped he would change his mind did you? Women are good at that.”

“Are you going to turn me in to the police?” Carol had not worn gloves to take the gunshot residue, she hadn’t considered that she would be a suspect until well down the track, long after showers and life had worn her guilt away. She even had her alibi worked out, but a witness would finish that, and this witness wasn’t as easily dispatched as her ex-boyfriend.

“I wouldn’t dream of turning you in Carol. You might have a long and splendid life now. I’m just here to remind you that after this life is over you are spending eternity with me.” Satan smiled; his whole face cracked open and the skin on his face ripped, disgorging an ooze of rancid puss. His head and neck swelled before tearing open, the flesh pulling apart with red strings of gore. His whole body bloated and split as it grew bigger and more hideous. His eyes turned black and the skin that remained on his face began to blister. Globby chunks of bloody skin fell off his ever-expanding frame as he grew to twice his human size. The unhinged jaw moved, allowing the monster to talk, the smell of sulphur riding on his breath. It sounded like he was laughing.

“I did not have the power to take your soul, Carol. I needed you to give it to me.” He pointed at the body on the floor. “And now you have!” The pieces of clothing that were still clinging to his monstrous body caught alight. “You swapped a few pointless years on earth for an eternity with me.” He leaned down as if to kiss her, the heat from his skin raising blisters on Carol’s cheeks. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

The roar of his combustion filled her ears, the flames wrapped around her, burning her deeply, melting her skin. Her hair singed down to her scalp and her eyes popped in two gelatinous sprays.

And then she was on the floor, face to face with Declan’s cooling corpse; her clothes untouched, her skin still smooth.

Carol shivered, too frightened to move. What had she done? She looked at Declan’s body and felt nothing but hatred for the selfish bastard. If she could kill him again she would. She breathed deeply, the smell of sulphur was still thick in the air. Would the police be able to pick that up? That thought broke her out of her spell. She had no idea how many years she might have left, but she was damned if she was going to spend them in a prison cell. She froze at the thought. She was damned anyway.

Rolling into a crouch, she checked the floor for any hairs that might have come away during her fall. Satisfied she had left nothing behind, she retreated to the back door and, using a tea-towel, she turned the handle to let herself out.

Carol stepped onto the quiet street behind Declan’s house, unseen. She considered his earlier tease about selling her story. His revolving door policy on women over the past year had left Carol as his most recent long-term girlfriend, and her story had certainly increased in value over the last half hour. She even knew an agent who could secure her a good price for her tale. She smiled; perhaps now that she was damned she would finally truly live.

The End