Stealing Valium from my father used to be easy. After school, before he came home from work to drowse in front of the TV, I rattled the orange vial and dropped a few in the toilet. I hoped his doctor would notice how quickly the tablets were used and stop the prescription.
Dad started the pills the day after Mom’s accident. Those closest to us were called to the hospital where we held off fears in familiar arms. But my father shrugged off hugs, wanting only to sit in a far-off chair and hold the blood-specked purse he had given his wife as a gift.
Surgeons finished later that day, snapping off bright overheads, satisfied with rewired ribs and a plug for the unwanted lung hole. For now, nothing could be done for her spine.
Valium came home the next day. The bottle clanked with permanence in the metal medicine cabinet next to his never-changing brand of shave cream.
For two weeks I biked straight from school to hospital to watch my mother adjust from sleep to pain to tolerance. With each day’s gain, fewer neighbors and acquaintances would visit. And though the hospital was near his office, my father first drove home before joining me bedside. I would see him in the hall, shadowing the frosted window until the pills blanded worry from his face.
He would eventually enter, touch her sheet to let his presence be known, then warm his hands in pockets. As their eyes met, Dad would raise his cheeks with half a smile, but the muscles couldn’t move the dullness from his gaze.
When I was pedaling home again, the thing to stare at in the living room wasn’t television but a rented hospital bed. Conversation came only from the periodic nurse whose face and name kept changing. Then a new TV appeared in the master bedroom, next to the bathroom where he caught me flushing pills.
Mother smiled when she heard my confession. Then asked for another blanket against the early winter chill. I didn’t think it was that cold.
It seemed I was always first to arrive, wherever my mother’s bed resided: the spare bedroom, another hospital, a nursing home, or funeral parlor. It was only at the final visit did someone else arrive, well before the acquaintances.
I recognized him from the rattle in his pocket.
DL Shirey writes fiction, by and large, unless it’s small. He lives in Portland, Oregon and has been caught flashing at Café Aphra, 365 Tomorrows, ZeroFlash, Fewer Than 500 and others listed at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.