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by Sharon Bippus

       We don’t sleep together anymore. I suppose that’s common with older people. Your parents had twin beds. I never asked why. But we’re in separate rooms. It’s the dogs hogging the bed. Your acid reflux. Your sleep apnea. Your struggle to get any sleep at all. My cranking the window open at night. Your shitty attitude when the dog paws at the bed to go out at 3 a.m. My holding the tension your cussing creates.

       Twenty-five years brings a mutual intolerance.

       I wake as I choose. First, there is coffee. Then scrolling on the phone, more coffee, a few word games, some journal writing, followed by more coffee. I plan my day, return my cup to the sink. It is then that I check on you. I enter your room and look for a mass that is you, hidden under the mess of blankets and pillows that you and at least one dog create. I step closer and watch for the rise and fall that signals breathing. Sometimes I can see your face, and I stand quietly, wondering if you will sense my presence and open your eyes. But you rarely do.

Some mornings I find you on the couch, a blanket around you, sometimes a pillow covering your head. Always a dog next to you. The couch means that sleep once again has eluded you.

       Always, when I find you, still, in bed or on the couch, you are breathing, but someday, I know, it will be different.

       I remember the morning you weren’t in your room or on the couch. I assumed you were at your desk. Sometimes you wake early. Sometimes you even bring coffee to my bed. I drank a second and then a third cup of coffee that morning. Listened to the news. And then I saw the small yellow post-it note you had left on the kitchen counter. A note saying you had driven to the hospital, that I should let your secretary know to not come in that day. I remember my panic, my tight breath, as I imagined you alone and in need. I called the hospital. Oh yes, you were there, you had been admitted. You were waiting for me to wake.

       What will happen that morning when I go to check on you, and your chest does not rise? I have thought about that. I will pull the covers back, slide next to you, feel the last warmth of your body, the dampness of your t-shirt, the softness of your flannel-clad pant leg. I will rest there in the quiet, until something stirs me, the intrusion of a phone, the sound of the mail truck outside, maybe even a delivery at the door. I will leave your room and then what? I will drink more coffee, cook something deliberate like steel cut oats or maybe pancakes. I’ll chop some fruit, maybe put a dollop of whip cream on my plate. I’ll eat at the table and not taste the food.

       And then I will stand and look at the plate of comfort and scrape it all into the garbage.

       I’ll wash the dishes, clean the counters, tidy the house, I’ll cry tiny, weepy tears. I’ll go back into your bedroom, just to really see that you are still there, not breathing. And then I’ll swear at you. Tell you to fuck off, tell you that you are a royal shithead. I’ll pound your chest and damn you. And then I’ll ugly cry, big sobs with snot coming out my nose. My own chest will heave, and a sourness will rise to my throat. I’ll find some sort of solace, bent over the toilet until drained of anything I can’t hold back. Finally my cheek will find rest on the cold bathroom floor.

       A minute, an hour will pass before I return to you and pull the blankets around us, but you will no longer offer warmth. I will lie on my back and look at the ceiling, try to still my breath, and watch how the light and shadow change the white paint to gray and brown. The dogs will stay away, confused by my turmoil and your stillness.

       It is then that I will resolve to get up, to reach for the phone. Who will I call? A neighbor? Your sister? I’ll ask them to come over, say that I need help with something, and that is all.

       And then I will wait.

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Sharon's short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Bear River Review, The Jellyfish Review, The Pinch, The MacGuffin, the 3288 Review, the Lullwater Review and elsewhere. She is a former special education teacher, now devoting her creative energies to writing. She lives in rural Michigan, where she can regularly watch deer, turkeys, squirrels, and even swans from out her window.

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