AJ expected to be stopped on his way through the hospital, even though he’d become somewhat of a regular lately. Surely, someone would recognize the look in his eyes, the determined set of his jaw, and step into his path, hand upraised. But no one said a word.
This was his duty. His gift. If he could just be brave.
He tightened his grip on the guitar neck and quickened his pace, steeling himself for the task ahead.
When he reached room 313 he paused, one hand on the door, and glanced back one last time before entering.
The woman in the bed didn’t move, though the monitors still beeped.
For a moment, AJ feared he’d failed her, that he hadn’t been here the one time she really needed him. Then she drew a ragged breath.
AJ stepped closer and stroked an arm whose sure embrace had once made him feel safe, shriveled now to sticks and paper. “Mom?”
The angular jut of her body now reminded him of Corderoy, the stray-turned-lovebug that had shadowed his heels for most of his adolescence. She had lost a lot of her fur toward the end, and hissed to be touched.
“She’s hurting,” his mother had said, looking him deep in the eyes to make sure he understood. “She needs us to be brave now. Can you be brave?”
Miriam’s eyes fought open, as if there was a long road between consciousness and where she’d been. In her better days, his mother’s eyes had been a deep blue-grey, like the undersides of pregnant rain clouds, the sort she would have been sure to bank her Cessna away from. These days, they were baby blue, suffocated behind cataracts. “AJ, baby.” She craned her neck to look around. “Is this a hospital?”
He cleared his throat. “Yeah, Ma. County General.” Where you’ve been for months. He brushed her cobweb hair smooth against her skull. There was so little left. “Are they treating you all right?”
She dropped her head back onto the pillow. “Who, dear?”
“The staff. Has everyone been nice to you?”
She inspected one of the tubes in her arm. “Well sure, I guess so.” Her gaze drifted down to the guitar. “Have you come to play for me?”
AJ bit his lip and glanced at the floor. “Yeah, I did. I thought some music might help take your mind off things.”
She licked pale, dry lips. “What things, honey?” Then she groaned and placed an unsteady hand on her distended belly. “Maybe you can play me a tune after lunch. My stomach’s howling.”
AJ turned away to wipe a hand down his face. Maybe it was a blessing that she didn’t remember what grew inside her. Let her think it was just hunger pains. That it would all go away after a good meal.
He crossed the room to open the window. “I think you’ll like this song, Ma. It’s one you haven’t heard before.” AJ pulled the room’s only chair to her bedside and looped the guitar strap around his shoulders.
“I found it in this old book, way in the back of the library…” He had to pause and clear his throat before continuing. “It’s uh, an ancient song. For when-” his throat seized up. “For when it’s time to go.”
Miriam’s eyelids drifted closed. “Sounds lovely,” she murmured. “You always were my little scholar.”
AJ began a careful, delicate melody. “The first part goes like this,” he said, and plucked a tune like rain breaking the surface of a pond. Every now and then, he glanced up to see her sliding deeper and deeper into sleep.
“Then comes the chorus, to help you dream.”
The tempo changed, and he picked out an arrangement that tickled the heart like a field full of rabbits.
Miriam’s weary face melted into a somnolent smile.
“And last,” AJ paused to wipe his eyes, “last is the best part of all.”
He took a deep breath before starting the final segment, steadying the pick between his fingers because he knew that once begun, the final chorus had to be completed. He bent his head and played the low, slow chords that fell like snow from the heads of crocus as they broke free of winter’s hold. His fingers faltered, but he pressed on to play the notes he hoped never to regret. The notes that burned cold as starlight.
Miriam had gone very still, but her loose skin began to twitch.
AJ kept playing the song to say goodbye as her flesh peeled up in great strips that flapped away from the bone, sprouting dark feathers.
The monitors screamed as their sensors fell away from the empty gown.
AJ stood and held the final, resonating note as a murmuration of starlings circled him before banking and wheeling away through the open window.
“See you around, Ma,” he whispered as the nurses rushed in. “Fly free.”
Shenoa Carroll-Bradd lives in Southern California and loves writing horror and fantasy stories. Short stories were her first love, but she’s currently working on several novels, screenplays, and a graphic novel series.
Her writing idols are Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Tamora Pierce, Terry Pratchett, and George R. R. Martin.
You can find more of Shenoa’s work on Amazon, or connect with her via her website or facebook in the links below.