.,xrtItrx,.

Cholera, stigmata, I am your loss

Hanging upside down from a reversed cross

Dice on the table, the player who always wins

Try to drag me down with the weight of your sins

Thanks, I've got plenty on my own

...,xrtItrx,...

"Was it supposed to be like this?"

I now ask this question to an empty house, to silence. As you can imagine, I am getting no reply. Silence has a very rude habit of not answering questions.

David, however, was always polite. When I asked him this same question over luncheon that day, he looked up, blinking in slight surprise. "Like what?" he asked, nearly clueless; almost, but not quite oblivious to what I was talking about.

I shrugged, wishing that he wouldn't pretend, wishing that he wouldn't give me the task of having to spell it out in actual words. Stirring my wine pointlessly in its glass with my index finger, I looked off in a place beyond his right shoulder; then my gaze flicked back down to my glass. It started to hum, filling the void between us that, in another reality, would have been replaced by my calm, confident words, explaining the matter to him with assured rationality.

A large, weathered hand reached across the table, covering my small one and stopping the hum. I looked up with wide doe eyes, as if surprised that he had halted my progression; David gazed back at me with a sort of paternal affection in his brown eyes; it was the first look I ever saw him wear, and was the same look I fell in love with.

But, at the moment I was wary of it, not sure if I could trust what his eyes were telling me or not. He seemed to sense my apprehension, and squeezed my hand slightly.

"What, Jen?" he asked.

Unable to bear looking into his eyes, I fixed my gaze on our hands, reached out across the white tablecloth, our fingers entangled. They're so very different, contrasting in the most obvious ways: his are rough, while mine are smooth and opalescent, just like my face; his hands are large and strong, and mine are like the hands of a skeleton in comparison. The only thing that remains similar about them are the two simple, golden bands we each wear on our fourth fingers.

Letting out a sigh, I allowed my fingers to begin a dance on the platform of his palm. I knew he was staring at me intently, awaiting an answer, but I feigned ignorance and absorbed myself in the complicated step my fingers were performing.

I heard David's quiet voice float over to me. "Jennifer. . . ."

My fingers stopped abruptly. I recoiled, turning my hands upon their owner; I embraced myself, as though cold, even though the summer air was warm with its own sweet honey, devoid of any kind of chill. Thickly, I said, "They're dropping like flies."

"What?"

Sighing with forced frustration, I ticked the names off on my fingers. "Shirley, Alex, Nigel, Peter. They're all gone; they didn't even leave behind their bodies."

David sat back, folding his arms over his chest. It was suddenly dawning on him that this was going to be another one of those "conversations". Whether this one would end with me sleeping with my back to him was yet undecided, but now he knew that, whatever he said, he'd have to be careful.

I glanced at him briefly, then proceeded to trace the assorted gold-gilded china with my eyes. I would save him the trouble of coming up with a reply.

"It seems like the more time that goes by, the more I lose. It all keeps on slipping from me, as though I were still a teenager struggling to figure everything out. It feels like I can't hold on to anything anymore. Nigel—" I paused. Did I want to go there? Yes. "Nigel used to say that time is selfish like that; it just keeps on taking until you're left with little to nothing."

David was silent for a moment. He shifted in his seat, and I knew without looking that he was crossing his legs and threading his fingers together in his lap. Old habits and all.

"Well," he said, his tone reaching for soft comic relief, "Nigel also used to eat strawberry shortcake with orange juice at three o'clock every Saturday morning."

When I didn't laugh, he thought for a moment and continued in a more sober manner:—

"Jen, I won't pretend to understand life, or why this is happening. Hell, I'm a doctor and I still can't figure out why people are meant to die." He scratched his scalp, running a hand through his hair, a few fine grey strands mixing in with a sea of chocolate brown. Seeing him do this, I had a sudden desire to replace his hand with mine. I stayed put though, interested in what he had to say.

"Granted, it's a pretty twisted world we live in; and, yeah, life's fickle," he admitted, "but I don't think it's out to get you, Jen. It isn't about how well you fair; it's how you look at it, how you celebrate what you do have. I see it everyday, Jen: death, poverty, drugs, abuse, rape. Lots of the people that come into my clinic are in way over their heads. Sometimes they remind me of how you used to be."

Maybe this was my cue to look up at him, a new enlightenment gleaming in my eyes. I kept my head down, my fingers itching to play on the rim of my glass again. David's a good man. I know that, and I don't have to be reminded. He's a shoe-in for heaven, making his living by helping and treating other people. But sometimes I had to wonder: What about me? Was I good enough for a man like that? When we were kids, Nigel, Shirley, Alex, and I used to imagine what we would be like when we grew up: what kind of jobs we'd have, who we were going to marry. Nigel always said he wanted to be an author and marry some rich lady so he didn't have to work; he was always saying clever things like that. Shirley wanted to become a model or a movie star and marry her prince charming, just like any other young girl. Alex was more conventional, saying that he'd become a construction worker and marry a lady with lots of kids. When Pete joined the crew in the sixth grade, he said he'd become a comedian and have lots of girlfriends but no wives.

When it was my turn, I could rarely ever think of anything. I didn't know what I wanted to be, didn't have high expectations for myself. And as for who I was going to marry . . . I always said that I'd take whoever would have me.

Nigel would lightly punch me on the arm and say that I was modest. Peter and Alex just smiled. Movie-star Shirley would rush over, hug me and say, "Don't you dare say that, Jennifer Ann. You deserve so much better."

I never believed them. Now that they're dead, I almost regret it.

". . . I am consoled by the knowledge that I'm helping them," he was saying, "that I'm giving them hope— that there is hope to be given. And I remind myself of that whenever I think that life's picking on me, or when I feel powerless. I'm not going to pretend that I know what it's like to lose so many friends to the same epidemic and in such a short time." He leaned in closer, the intensity of his gaze drilling a hole through my brain so that I'm forced to look at him in his glistening earnestness. "But, like I said, you have to take comfort in the things that you do still have."

I looked at him in the eye, unwilling to see sense in his words. "And then what?" I asked, the note of a challenge creeping into my voice. "When what I still had I gone too, what am I to be thankful for? When I am robbed of everything, what kind of thoughts will console me— and don't give me any of that spiritual crap," I warned him, my voice cracking slightly. Nigel had always maintained that all religion was a lie.

"Not true," Alex replied, shaking his head in concern, "Not true. Religion's a safety-net, like a teddy bear or your family."

Nigel thought for a moment; then nodded. "Yep," he would suddenly agree, "like a night-light: just some stupid reassurance to help you sleep at night."

David could not help but sigh in slight frustration at my refusal of what he found comforting, my refusal to be comforted. He sat back, and the air whooshed past his parted lips, forcing himself to think up another way to console me. Suddenly, even in the sweet light of summer noon, his face changed; thin but tired lines appeared, his eyes grew heavy. Everything about him aged ten years in a split second.

"Even now, it seems as though everything is getting greyer," I said, transfixed. I wanted to reach out and touch him, touch his face with the lightness of a feather, but I dared not. "Everything is leaving me. . . ." I trailed off.

It was as though someone had jerked the cord on reality, jostling it back into place. The next moment, David's face was as bright as ever, the before oppressive nature of his age suddenly becoming as charming as it always had been. His features contorted into one of gentle surprise and concern. The next thing I new, he was kneeling beside my chair, taking my hands up from my lap and warming them in his. His devotion never ceases to amaze me, not even now.

When I was a kid, a teenager even, it was hard to imagine anyone loving me; who could love Jennifer Ann Collier, strange and fragile as glass, translucent as spring water? But now I saw more clearly. The fact that he loved me made it all the more ironic that he would be the last to ever do so.

"All is not lost, Jen," he told me, his words holding so much promise, so much hope that I nearly burst into tears. "Grief is just another part of life. Besides," he smiled, reaching up to tuck a strand of loose hair behind my ear, an old, familiar gesture. "You still have me."

I blinked.

"Do I?"

...,xrtItrx,...

That was only a month ago, only a moment. But life is an epidemic, a fatal disease. It spreads like a virus and there is no treatment. We're all born with terminal cancer, we all have the same destiny.

Having said that, I suppose I don't have to tell you that he's gone. He's joined Peter, Shirley, Nigel, Alex, and all the others I don't know or can't name off hand. All those claimed by the same despotic fate, whether it be by plague or by freak accident, or by natural occurrence. They've left me here, abandoned me to puzzle the why's and wherefor's and how's and whatever else I'm supposed to ask now that I've gone off the deep end. I am alone, with my thoughts, with my damnable marble mind.

Was it supposed to be like this?

The house smiles at me emptily, the soft, powdered hand of an icy queen. The summer is long gone, replaced by a featureless winter. There is no more light; all the bulbs are black and broken. They crunch under my feet as I wander through the halls, picturing my own memories reflected in the mirrors. They left me, they all left me.

And now . . . well, now I'm just waiting for my chance to join them.