COPYRIGHT Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder. All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
I knew what it was even before I got there, of course, but I still drove like a lunatic. Every red light, every left-turning vehicle, every twenty-miles-an-hour-while-school-is-in-session sign—everything was conspiring to delay me, keep me from getting to the hospital to see Dad before he died.
I parked illegally because I couldn't take the time to cruise the hospital parking garage for a space, and I ran into the emergency room entrance, banging the doors open the way the EMTs did when they were pushing a gurney, and rushed up to the triage desk. The sullen attendant was on the phone, talking and laughing, obviously a personal call.
"Frank Cassidy?" I said.
She gave me a look and kept chattering.
"Francis Cassidy!" I shouted. "Where is he?"
Resentfully she put down the phone and glanced at her computer screen. "Room three."
I raced through the waiting area, pulled open the heavy double doors into the ward, and saw Antwoine sitting on a chair next to a green curtain. When he saw me he just looked blank, didn't say anything, and I could see that his eyes were bloodshot. Then he shook his head slowly as I approached and said, "I'm sorry, Adam."
I yanked the curtain open and there was my dad sitting up in the bed, his eyes open, and I thought, You see, you're wrong, Antwoine, he's still with us, the bastard, until it sank in that the skin of his face was the wrong color, with sort of a yellow waxy tinge to it, and his mouth was open, that was the horrible thing. For some reason that was what I fixated on; his mouth was open in a way it never is when you're alive, frozen in an agonized gasp, a last desperate breath, furious, almost a snarl.
"Oh, no," I moaned.
Antwoine was standing behind me with his hand on my shoulder. "They pronounced him ten minutes ago."
I touched Dad's face, his waxy cheek, and it was cool. Not cold, not warm. A few degrees cooler than it should be, a temperature you never feel in the living. The skin felt like modeling clay, inanimate.
My breath left me. I couldn't breathe; I felt like I was in a vacuum. The lights seemed to flicker. Suddenly I cried out, "Dad. No."
I stared at Dad through blurry tear-filled eyes, touched his forehead, his cheek, the coarse red skin of his nose with little black hairs coming out of the pores, and I leaned over and kissed his angry face. For years I'd kissed Dad's forehead, or the side of his face, and he'd barely respond, but I was always sure I could see a tiny glint of secret pleasure in his eyes. Now he really wasn't responding, of course, and it turned me numb.