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by Andrew Stancek

The hospice in Lamac, a Bratislava suburb, has seen better times. The carnations on Vlasta’s side table drooped and the hall reeked of cheap institutional disinfectant which in spite of the ammonia could not fully mask the urine and decay emanating from the walls. The Berlin Wall might have finally fallen in November, and we rejoiced, but nine months later if you needed care for your dying loved one, you’d better provide it yourself or else take her to Vienna. The only light bulb in the room was a 40-watter. After sitting next to her for a week in stifling heat, I smelled no better than the walls.

Vlasta, down to ninety pounds but still the strong one, half-sat up, patted my hand and said, “You know what makes my blood boil? Crematoriums.” Her laughter brought on a coughing fit and a silver-haired volunteer limped in, certain of crisis. Vlasta nodded at him and said, “I know you’ll say lovely things about me at the funeral. I’m just sorry I’ll miss it by a few days.” Her saliva sprayed him.

Two days later, as she was laid out in the casket, ridiculous rosary entwined through her fingers on her mother’s insistence, I knew Vlasta and I weren’t done. Every day for thirty years we told each other fresh jokes, and just because she died, we’d stop? Ridiculous, the very idea.

“Your tie needs a wider knot,” she said, “and I wish you’d worn the blue Picasso one anyway, the one we bought together at the Manderlak. This dark grey one is only suitable for a funeral.” Her eyes remained shut, the line of her mouth straight and her face sickly-powdered, but her chest heaved in laughter.

“You look cold, Vlasta,” I told her. “Should I snuggle up next to you, warm you up? The mourners won’t mind.” She laughed again. A few would be startled, but it’s our party. I stumbled climbing in, my hands shake these days, and in my crash her hair got mussed, but she wiggled over and it turned out there was plenty of room for us side by side, no narrower than the bed we shared for so many years. I put my hand over hers, shared my warmth, and she sighed contentedly.

“Look at the bright side,” she said, “at least I’m stable.” We laughed together as I held onto her hand and closed my eyes, breathing in that familiar Obsession perfume. Nothing would separate us, not even a technicality like death.

Andrew Stancek entertains Muses in southwestern Ontario. His work has appeared in Tin House Online, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Vestal Press, Necessary Fiction, Every Day Fiction, fwriction, Pure Slush and Camroc Press Review, among others. He’s been a winner in the Flash Fiction Chronicles and Gemini Fiction Magazine contests and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.