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Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Monday, 31 January 2011 18:45

Shelf Life

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The only thing worse than a doctor telling you that you’re dying is paying him to say it.  They didn’t know what was wrong with Dolores.  Only that, if she was lucky, she had seven days to live.  On the x-rays, her heart had some kind of cloud on it.  Like a bruise.  They didn’t know what it was.

Dolores was in the grocery store, on her way home from the doctor, shopping for produce to make soup and thinking of the bruise on her heart when the pain returned and she fell for the fourth time that day.

When she opened her eyes, the blackest face Dolores had ever seen was staring down at her.  He was tapping the pads of his fingers against her chest.  Leaning forward, he pressed his ear to her sternum.  She sat up when he tried to squeeze her breasts.

“Excuse me!” she said.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“There’s something wrong with your heart,” he said.  He worked at the store.  He spoke with an accent.  His nametag said Rain and he’d been shelving cantaloupes when Dolores collapsed.

“I’m aware of that,” Dolores replied.  “I’ve seen four doctors in the last week.”

“I was a doctor, before I fled my country.”

“What, a witch doctor?”


Dolores blushed.  “Sorry.”

“That’s OK,” he smiled.  It was the kind of smile which appeared effortless, as though it would require the use of more muscles to stop smiling than to continue.  “But I’m sorry to say your heart is going bad.”

“What do you mean, like cancer?”

“Like fruit.”

“Oh really,” Dolores said, rolling her eyes in a I can’t believe I’m having this conversation kind of way she’d picked up, unconsciously, from the middle schoolers she’d taught for the last thirty-five years.  “And what do you suggest I do about it?”

“What do you do with an apple that is about to go bad?”

Dolores stared at the man.

“Don’t let it go to waste,” he said, still smiling.

“You’re saying I should donate it?  It’s a bad heart.  It’d kill whoever got it after I—”

Use it,” said Rain.  “A heart, like the sweet grape, if not used, shall wither on the vine.  Or the vein, as it were.”

“And what do you suggest I use it for?” she could not help but ask, for no other reason than he appeared to have more answers (albeit odds ones) than the entire medical staff at Keiser Permanente.

What do you use a heart for?” Rain said.


“For love, of course!  Have you never been in love?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“The most important kind.”

Dolores looked at the dark man.  “No,” she said after a moment’s pause.  “I’ve never been in love.”

“Of course you haven’t,” said Rain, returning to his cantaloupes.  “You don’t even love yourself.  How can you love another?”

Dolores didn’t tell her husband about the conversation at the grocery store.  Or the one at the doctor’s office.  Brushing her teeth, she stared at herself in the mirror.

Did she love herself?  She supposed it was one of those If you have to ask kind of questions.

How do you love yourself, she wondered.

She was still thinking about it, in a casual sort of way, the way someone might approach a humorous brainteaser, when she got into bed and Harold unceremoniously rolled on top of her.

Three and a half minutes later, when he rolled back to his side of the bed with a grunt of “Happy Valentine’s Day” she still had no answer.

The answer didn’t come when she went to work the next morning, subbing for an Algebra teacher with laryngitis.

The answer didn’t come when she taught Sunday school two days later, as she made paper airplanes with prayers to God written on them with a group of eight-year-olds.

The answer didn’t come until the following Monday afternoon, four days after her last doctor’s appointment.  She had three days to live, if the specialists were to be believed, and she believed them.  The pains in her chest were worse.  She often lost her balance.  Yet none of it bothered her so much as the question: How do you love yourself? She’d thought of little else since her encounter with Rain, the breast squeezing cantaloupe handler.  The idea of DEATH was so big and unwieldy, her mind couldn’t really grasp it, not yet, perhaps not ever.  But this other question, this smaller, more manageable question—if she could get her head around that, she thought she might be able to grapple with that other more. . .formidable one.

The answer came as she was running errands downtown and nearly collapsed in front of a beauty salon.  Dolores stopped to catch her breath, and looked in through the window.  Women filled the salon, getting manicures and pedicures, having their hair cut or made longer, getting dark hair lightened and grey hair darkened.  Pampering themselves.  Loving themselves.  This is it, Dolores thought.  Of course.  The answer was right here in front of her.

Reflected in the salon’s front window.

The neon sign across the street said Good Vibrations.  Inside, the woman behind the counter had more metal in her face than pores.  But she was very nice.  She answered all of Dolores’s questions, and together they found exactly what she was looking for.  It was big.  It was barbed.  It looked cruel and medieval and it only came in pink.

“Looks like love at first sight,” the clerk said.

Dolores died three days later.  Of exhaustion.

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Nik Houser

Nik Houser's work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Best American Fantasy, and his mom's refrigerator.  He also writes and draws a weekly web comic at www.gentlemancaveman.com

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