When We Danced
By Nisha Addleman
Synopsis: Confined to a bed and faced with mortality, what is it like to die?
Content Warnings: Discussions of illness and death
He pulled the covers over my chest and smoothed down my hair. He was delicate, and he looked at me like he had known me my whole life. But his face. I didn't recognize it.
Had I forgotten who he was? Was I so sick that I'd lost all recollection of one of my caretakers?
“Who are you?” I pulled my hand from beneath the covers and touched his iridescent skin. He was so pale and cold, like all the life had drained from him, but so luminous I could see him well despite my room being cast in the shadow of night.
He smiled and sat in a chair beside me. “Do you want me to read to you?”
I nodded, assuming I had asked him who he was a thousand times over, and he'd given up answering. I knew I was becoming forgetful, but enough to forget a face like that? A face that could be carved from marble by the gods themselves. I truly was dying.
He picked up a book from my bedside table and began to read. His voice was sweet and soft. It echoed off the walls and gave me the same tingle as having my mother run her fingers through my hair.
I turned my head to watch him. To study the contours of his face. To memorize him when I couldn’t recognize him.
He seemed lost in the story, his voice rising and falling with it, as if he had written it himself. I wanted to ask if he had and tried to memorize the name on the cover, but forgot as I was lulled to sleep.
But I remembered his face.
I was woken up by a coughing fit. Luckily I had slept through the night, but my chest was aching like I was being stoned to death.
The fire beside me crackled, freshly stoked. Someone must have done so while I was asleep. It didn’t seem to chase away the cold in my room like it used to, despite the flames licking the top of the fireplace and the embers glowing almost white.
I had complained about being cold so much, someone was always keeping the fire raging.
A shiver ran through me just as my mother rushed into my room. She must have heard my fit. A bead of sweat traced her brow as she walked in. The fire was too hot for everyone else, but it was nothing to me.
“How are you?” She sank down beside me and stroked my hair.
Her brown locks were piled atop her head in a neat little bun and her eyes were beginning to wrinkle and lose their spark. She used to put more effort into how she looked, but when I got sick…she gave up.
Perhaps not gave up. She just didn’t have the time nor energy. My father was working as hard as he could to afford the best doctors, and as much as my sister wanted to help, she was in university now. She didn’t have the time. All of this left my mother as my sole caretaker.
I touched my mother’s cheek. “You look beautiful.”
Tears welled in her eyes. She must have thought I was going mad or I was losing my vision. It was true though. She was beautiful, and when I finally died she could move on with her life. I wanted her to be vibrant again.
I dropped my gaze to the chair beside me, then looked over at the book on my nightstand. “Did we have a guest last night?”
“No, dear. No one.” She bit her lip.
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to recall my father’s face. “What does father look like?”
Her voice cracked as she replied, “He’s tall. He has light hair and light eyes.”
“What about Henry?” My sister’s fiancé. Perhaps they didn’t consider him a guest anymore.
My mother squeezed my hand. “He’s well built, he always wears a hat. Brown hair…” Unable to choke back her sadness, her voice drifted off.
“Not him either,” I mumbled under my breath. “He had black hair.”
Her weight lifted off the bed. “Let me get you some breakfast.” I knew she had left because she couldn’t stand my questions. Every day, I had a new set of questions to barrage her with. And every day, she could sit through it less and less.
She didn’t seem to know who that man was, but he had tucked me in the night before, so he must have been real. I wondered if he was a servant or maybe my doctor. He looked educated and well off, a doctor, probably.
My mother brought me a hearty breakfast of toast with eggs and thick slabs of bacon. On the side was a bowl of porridge. Soggy, wet porridge was the only thing I could eat anymore. It slithered down my throat without the need to chew, it didn’t make me sicker, but it didn’t make me better either. Despite that, the more I withered away, the harder she tried to get me to eat. Meals always looked and smelled delicious, but they seemed like dust to my mouth.
I managed a single bite of bacon. It was cooked perfectly. Crisp without being burned, but still too tough for me to chew with ease.
As I ate, she set a family photo on my bedside table. In it, she and my father sat on a couch with my sister, Henry, and I behind them. I was already a skeleton of myself when that photo was taken, sunken in eyes and hollow cheeks. No life in my skin. But I was grinning ear to ear like it was a passing cold.
I choked down a few spoonfuls of porridge as I studied the family photo. It wasn’t nearly enough to fill me properly; eating only made me nauseous now. I had been covered in my own vomit enough times to know it was better to stop while I was still hungry.
“Thank you.” I reached out to her hand and smiled at her. I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to watch her own child wither away, but somehow she did it. Perhaps because she had to. “I’m going to rest.”
She kissed my forehead and set the tray on a table beside me, hopeful I would eat some more. Hopeful I had the strength to lift the bowl myself.
I was tired, and my eyelids grew heavy, but the sound of footsteps made me raise my head.
He was back and walking around my bed toward me.
“I remember you from yesterday.” I watched him making his way over to my side of the bed. A warm waft followed behind him and shrouded me in a comfort I thought was long gone. It eased my joints and soothed my hunger.
“Good.” He smiled at me. Not the pitying smile most people gave me, but a genuine one. “Would you like to sit up?”
I nodded, and he wrapped one arm around me to fix my pillow so I could sit propped up. He felt warm this time, a sensation I had forgotten. Perhaps it was the cold of his skin fighting back my fever and bringing my skin to life once more.
“Do you like music?” He meandered over to a gramophone in the corner of my room. When I could still muster the energy to stand, my sister used to play music and dance with me. She did it until I was too weak to carry my own weight, and too heavy for her to carry. After that, she would come by just to play music and talk to me. Then she stopped coming altogether.
I couldn’t blame her. I wouldn’t have wanted to see me either.
I don’t know how he heard me from the other side of the room, my voice had disappeared into a whisper, yet he gave me a small nod as he fiddled with the gramophone. Music began to play, crackling at first, then smoothing out and filling the air.
He began to waltz around the room, his arms held out like he had a partner. “Do you dance?”
I nodded to him and watched him whisk his imaginary lover about.
“When you can, we should dance together.”
A weak smile traced my lips. “Yes. Of course.”
My answer seemed to please him and he pretended to twirl his partner around.
“You’re not a doctor.” I only made the guess since he wasn’t checking up on me and had no medical bag.
“No.” He glanced at me.
“What’s your name?”
He stopped dancing and dropped his arms, still smiling at me. “Christoph.”
“Christoph?” I closed my eyes and tried to remember all of my friends and family. Everyone I had ever met. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember anyone name Christoph.”
He grinned at me and sat on the edge of the bed. “That’s because we’ve only just met.”
I let out a sigh and sank into my pillows. “Thank goodness. I’ve forgotten so much.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “It will all come back to you soon enough.” He picked up the photo of my family and ran his fingers over the glass. "You've been sick a while."
I nodded to him, my head beginning to spin from the sudden movement. "From just before we moved here."
He let out a hum and set the picture back down. "I'm sorry."
I shrugged and looked out the window. I didn't remember what it felt like to be healthy anyway.
My mother was amazed to find me sitting up and smiling. She must have believed I had taken a turn for the better. She sat in bed beside me and chatted like she used to. Like when I first got sick and they all thought I’d get better.
She told me what her friends were saying. That someone had gotten married. The normal things people talk about.
My sister’s wedding planning was going well. She used to never talk to me about the wedding planning. I think it hurt her too much knowing I wouldn’t be there.
“Do you know Christoph?” I stared at the empty space where he had been dancing earlier.
She shook her head. “I don’t know anyone named Christoph.”
“He has black hair.”
Her mouth dropped into a frown. “Is that the man you were asking about before?”
I nodded and knotted my fingers together. No one seemed to know Christoph.
“Who is he?” She leaned in, curious to know more.
I shrugged and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to conjure up the image of him dancing again. “He’s a friend, I guess. Sometimes he visits, but he says we’ve only just met.” I slid down in bed as I felt my fever coming back. “He’s very nice. Handsome even.”
Her voice began to crack again, and I knew she thought I was hallucinating. “I don’t know him, dear. But I’ll ask your father.” She slid out of my bed and left the room, covering her mouth to hide a sob I still heard.
I wasn’t hallucinating. He was real. I knew he was real.
My mother called the doctor over. He asked me a series of intrusive questions about myself and Christoph. They infuriated me.
“What does he do?” “Who is he?” “How did you meet?”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t answer most of those questions about anyone anymore. I’d forgotten too much. I didn’t even remember when I’d first gotten sick. I didn’t remember…anything.
I could only remember Christoph.
My sister came to visit me after the doctor left. She brushed back the stray hairs plastered to my forehead and smiled at me.
Her eyes were bright red, her face was pale. She smiled at me and stroked my hair. “I love you.”
I smiled back at her and prayed I could give her some comfort. “I love you too.” I could see my reflection in her eyes though. I was skin and bone and dying.
“I’m sorry I’ve been busy.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t stand it. She didn’t need to apologize for chasing her future. “No, it’s fine.”
She rose from the bed and walked over to the gramophone. “Music?”
My breath rattled in my chest as I nodded to her.
She didn’t dance. I wished she would. I wished I could watch her whisk around the room. I hoped Christoph would show up and dance with her. She was a lovely dancer.
I raised a hand and beckoned her over to the bed.
She sat beside me and leaned in close.
“Promise me you’ll dance at your wedding. Have fun. Be happy and…” I let out a wheeze. “And laugh.”
She squeezed my hand and ran her fingers through my hair. “Of course.”
“Really. I’ll haunt you if you don’t.”
She gave my cheek a soft slap. “Don’t you dare.”
“Haunt you or die?” I mustered up a cheeky sort of smile. It’s how I wanted her to remember me.
I woke up to a coughing fit in the middle of the night. My chest was tight and burning, like someone had stuffed hot coals inside me.
I clenched the front of my shirt and begged for it to be over. Even just coughing wore me out now.
I coughed so hard the world went black and my stomach began to ache.
It subsided and left me sweaty and tired. My room was dark and quiet, but when I looked over to the window, Christoph was standing there and looking out.
He was just a silhouette, but I knew it was him.
"Christoph…" I mumbled for him and reached a hand out.
He meandered over and dropped into a chair beside me.
"Why are you here?" The room was spinning so much, I thought I might vomit, but I swallowed and closed my eyes for a moment.
He ran his fingers across my forehead, sending a shiver through my body. His hands were so cold. He traced my face and held my cheek in his palm. It was just what I needed to cool down and gain my composure.
"Do you not want me here?" He leaned in to whisper.
"No, nothing like that." I pressed my hand over his and opened my eyes. "Why would you want to spend time with someone so sick?"
The room had stopped spinning, though I was still nauseous.
"Because I know how it feels to be sick and alone."
"No one wanted to see a sick person."
"No one wants to see you sick."
It may have been my delirium, but I found myself looking over his face. "I wish I looked like you. Instead I am death itself."
He chuckled and shook his head. "I looked worse. I coughed up so much blood my lips were stained red."
It was hard to imagine him sick. He didn't look like he could even get sick, but if it was true, there was a time he was withering away too.
"You look much better now."
A faint blush crept up his cheeks. "I feel much better now too."
I pulled his hand from my cheek, ready to let him be free, but he held my hand instead and leaned in to smile at me with his elbows on his knees.
I rolled onto my side and smiled back. "Thank you."
I didn't want him to say anything else, and he seemed to know that. Having him beside me holding my hand, I felt a little pathetic. But it was all I needed to fall asleep happy.
My eyes fluttered open and I looked up at Christoph. A waltz was lilting though the air from the gramophone.
“Dance with me.”
I propped myself up on my elbows and squinted at him. “What?”
He held his hands out to me and grinned.
I took his hands as I shifted around and climbed out of bed. It felt nice to have the wooden floor beneath my bare feet again. It had been far too long since I’d last stood up.
I stumbled a few steps, but he steadied me and lead me to the center of my room. My legs began to loosen, and I found I was walking as normal again by the time he pulled me in and began to waltz around with me.
He had lost his luster, and I dared to graze his cheek with my fingers. His skin was soft and warm. I reached up to my own face, expecting to feel only bones beneath my skin, but my cheeks were plump. I looked at my arms and they were no longer twigs, but strong like they had been before.
I sucked in a breath, threw my head back, and laughed as he twirled me around. A strong hearty laugh, not the dry wheeze I would have struggled with earlier.
We danced into the night. We danced until the gramophone stopped and he had to hum tunes to dance to. We danced until my mother came to check on me early in the morning then disappeared again.
She ran back into my room followed by the doctor. Then came my father and sister, and lastly Henry burst in. They didn't seem to notice us though. In all fairness, we didn’t care. We talked and laughed and cried.
And we danced.
Alan, for always being proud of me, even it it's only 2921 (or so) words.
An extra huge shout out to Kevin Lynn for the art and deep conversation about Christoph. To see more of Kevin's art check out his Instagram @unsleepinghorror. For his poetry go to @kevinlynn_words_things. Or drop a hello on Twitter @KevinLynnII.
Kaya (@KETomash), your input and edits really help me look at things deeper and you catch things I never would have thought of.
Peter (@petahhhm), I'm sorry I made you cry. A lot. But your input was invaluable.