Death is a Many-Splendored Thing

An Excerpt


Fourteen Short Stories About Our Final Exit

Time Drains Away

Peter sat on the floor, propped up against a kitchen cabinet. He stared across the room, through the door, and into the hallway. It was quiet. The burglar had left.
The man had left him to his fate. Peter could have phoned for help. It wouldn’t have mattered, but the intruder had been afraid. As he lay there, Peter had tried to understand why the man would be scared, but the question seemed immaterial now. The pool of blood was not growing as fast as it had been, but it was inching across the kitchen tiles. How much time do I have? How much blood can the human body lose before loss of consciousness and death?
This was an unexpected turn of events. Peter had hoped to spend a quiet evening. He had taken out a spy novel from the library this past weekend, and from the beginning, the story had captured his imagination. The action-filled adventures of a globe-trotting spy were nothing like his quiet, uneventful life. What a surprise, then, to have that action show up when he’d come home from work to find an armed intruder in his home. What an unfortunate surprise to have the intruder panic and shoot Peter in the abdomen.
He looked down at the blood. It was a dark shade of red. Isn’t blood supposed to be bright red? How am I going to clean this mess up? Peter held his right hand over his belly. Is this an instinctive gesture—to press on an injury to stop the bleeding? It didn’t work well: fresh blood soaked the lower part of his shirt. The stain extended down his pants, adding to the small pool of red liquid spreading from his body.
Even though he had been shot and there was all this blood, Peter didn’t feel pain. He felt discomfort, yes, but no real pain. Am I in shock? What is ‘shock’? What a curious predicament. As this had never happened to him, he had no idea of what to do. So, this is what being shot is like—how odd.
Was the man gone? Had it been a man? The intruder seemed young, a teenager. He had been shocked to see someone standing in the kitchen. Whoever he was, he couldn’t have been a professional thief. Would a professional have been so surprised? Would a professional have fired? A professional would have done a better job of planning the robbery, avoiding any confrontation with a homeowner, and therefore going from theft to manslaughter.
Peter thought again he should call for help. Now he was alone and didn’t have to worry about the robber coming back to finish the job. But can I move? He felt weak and light-headed. It seemed odd he didn’t feel pain so much as discomfort. From television shows, he gathered anyone would be in agony.
He put his unbloodied hand on the floor to brace himself and moved his legs. A stabbing pain shot through his abdomen. He let out a gasp and froze, eyes squeezed shut. He wasn’t going anywhere. That was more than discomfort. He relaxed back against the cabinet. Whatever that bullet had done to his insides, moving made matters worse.
Peter replayed earlier events. He’d come home after work and picked up the mail. He walked across the living room to the kitchen, flipping through the various bills and flyers. When he set the mail on the counter, a young man came through the door on the opposite side, carrying a gun. Their eyes locked, and Peter saw the man’s eyes widen in surprise. There was a bang, followed by a sharp pain. Peter grabbed his stomach and looked down. Blood oozed from the wound. He felt faint and had to sit down.
Still holding onto his stomach, Peter slumped to the floor. He sat on the tiles, back against a cabinet. His energy drained out of him, and he held up his blood-soaked hand. This is weird. I’ve been shot.
Peter looked at the man and saw he wore a look of surprise. Had he meant to shoot me? Was it an accident? It didn’t matter now. The results were the same.
“Help,” Peter whispered.
The man did nothing. He remained frozen.
“Help.”
The man looked around the room, his gaze landing on a wall-mounted telephone beside the kitchen table. He unplugged the handset and tucked it under his arm. He headed back across the kitchen but paused at the door, glancing back at Peter before he disappeared. There was the sound of steps, followed by the back door being opened and closed. Then all was silent.
How long had Peter been sitting there? Five minutes? Ten? He couldn’t say. Time had slipped away. He felt confused but realized he had to do something. He wasn’t sure what, but he knew he couldn’t stay sitting on the floor. It seemed he wouldn’t stop bleeding, so he needed help.
He looked up at the telephone on the wall, the cord hanging from the main unit. The thief hadn’t wanted Peter to phone the police. Did he realize that also meant not phoning for help?
There was an extension in the den. Can I crawl that far? Can I walk? It had been painful attempting to get up before, but he had to try. Then a thought struck him: If the robber had taken the handset in the kitchen, how did Peter know he hadn’t done the same to the phone in the den? Maybe he didn’t think Peter could move.
It occurred to Peter no one would find him for days. Years ago, the household had been a bustling social center filled with children, friends of children, and neighborhood parents. There never seemed to be a time when the house was empty. Now, with the children gone, now that Peter was a widower, the house was more than quiet: It was empty. Previously, he would have been found in hours, if not minutes. Now he would be lucky if he were seen within a week. He had to get to the den.
Peter took a deep breath, finding he didn’t feel lightheaded as much as dizzy. Focus, Peter, focus. He rolled to one side and attempted to get up on all fours. It was painful, but he had to put up with it. Peter crawled forward and looked down. His bloodied hand had left a big print on the kitchen tiles. No matter. He could clean it up later. His head had started to swim. Am I going to pass out?
He inched into the hall, wincing with every movement. Blood dripped onto the floor, but Peter ignored it and focused on his goal. He shook his head; the dizziness got worse. Am I going to make it? He shook his head again.
Peter collapsed on the floor. A pervasive silence filled the house as his breathing slowed and became shallow. Somewhere in the den, a souvenir clock from Disney World chimed the hour.


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