For Round 6 of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction where one of the characters tells a joke and one of the characters cries.
It was 2 p.m., and she was running. She hated running. Loathed it, really. She felt like it was something only masochists would truly enjoy. That's what made it so appropriate. Today she was punishing herself.
Each foot slapped gracelessly down on the treadmill, the rhythm of her feet echoing the repetitive questions in her mind. Every thump of her foot turned into Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? As in, "Why him? Why cancer? Why now?"
Occasionally, the why's would turn into how's. How? How? How? How? How? Except there was no variation to this question. It was always, "How can I continue?"
The only other refrain was a simpler one. Idiot, idiot, idiot, idiot. It had too many syllables for just one footfall, though, so instead it was slower, more measured. Id-i-ot. Id-i-ot. Id-i-ot.
That last day, he tried to comfort her. She hated to see him like that, pale and wasted. The face looking at her, the skeleton holding her hand, was not the man she married five years ago. He saw her dismay, her fear. He knew that no matter what she said to his face, she was three steps short of panic. He had gotten sick too quickly, they had caught it too late. Three months was not long enough to adjust.
"Hey," he said.
"A priest, a rabbi and a minister walked into a bar..."
She rolled her eyes. "And?"
"And the bartender said, what is this, a joke?"
She snorted. "Just because you're dying doesn't mean you get a pity laugh, you know."
"Not even a snicker?" he asked.
"You know what I could really go for?"
"A million bucks and another 50 years of life?"
"Very nice, Madam Morbid. No, I could really go for some of those beef noodles from Shanghai Charlie's. You know, the ones that are so tasty — how did you describe them? Something about pores."
"Every noodley pore is impregnated with tasty teriyaki deliciousness."
His snort of laughter turned into a painful cough. "Yeah, that's it. You have talent."
"Being able to spout a ridiculous tagline for a menu item doesn't mean I have talent," she replied.
She didn't want to leave him, but he was insistent that he wanted to eat. He hadn't had an appetite in so long, she finally relented.
When she got back to the hospital, it was too late. A nurse cleaned the food off the floor, where the teriyaki seeped across the tile in a scene of noodle carnage. She held his hand, dry-eyed. She kissed him good-bye, dry-eyed. She signed where they told her to sign. She called family. She packed up his things. Dry-eyed.
It was hot outside. Muggy. Stifling. Humid. The cicadas shrieked. She climbed in the car, put her head on the steering wheel, and sobbed for half an hour. Finally she stopped because her hiccups were so bad she couldn't breathe. Who was she without him? She had always followed him across the country and across the world. Who was she now? What was she? Where was home? What was she supposed to do?
A new word was pounding through her head now, in rhythm with her feet. Re-mem-ber, re-mem-ber, re-mem-ber.
His last words caught at her as she was nearly out the door to grab his noodley teriyaki deliciousness.
"Hey," he said. "Remember — remember that all the best moments in life rarely happen when you're alone. Don't be alone, Madam Morbid."
She was gasping now, pounding the treadmill hard, gracelessly, awkwardly. Two steps from falling right off the back.
Re-mem-ber, re-mem-ber, re-mem-ber.