Lil Bobby

Lil Bobby 1920 1440 Barlow Adams

The first tumor was smaller than a pencil eraser, sliced from Robert’s shoulder with an argon laser in a procedure so quick that the lingering, acrid smell of his burning hair lasted longer than the surgery itself. It barely hurt, and Robert was almost disappointed. He’d made the cancerous knob into such a terrifying adversary, and here it was, defeated with no more pain than a pinprick. The bandage he got was little more than an overgrown Bandaid.

After holding the tiny nub of flesh up to the harsh fluorescent light of the examining room the doctor jokingly asked Robert if he’d like to keep it, and both of them were surprised when Robert said yes.

It was a little thing to conjure so much fear in him, Robert thought as he held the source of his dismay between his thumb and forefinger, rolling it about like a child might play with a booger. The cancer was called granuloma fungoides because the tumors looked like mushrooms, but this blob of skin looked nothing like a fungus. It had the appearance and feel of a miniature brain, rubbery and pimpled like a horse apple.

Robert knew then he would name it, that he would keep the little tumor always, a trophy from his victory over death, over cancer. He didn’t tell his wife Karen–who had sat with him through the abrupt procedure, hands clasped between her knees, face a set mask of positivity and support–until they were driving home, the fleshy souvenir stowed away in a test tube in his pants pocket.

“Why would you want to name it? I don’t understand why you even kept that gross little…whatever it is?” she asked.

“It’s my nemesis, dear. All good villains deserve a name.” Robert gestured emphatically as he spoke. He felt alive, more alive than he could remember.

“It’s not a villain. It’s a genetic mutation.”

“So was Magneto!” he said as if she had just proved his point.

“This isn’t a comic book. And I don’t think this is funny. I was honestly scared, babe.”

Robert laughed and couldn’t explain why. “Oh, me too. Positively terrified. I was sure I was going to die.” He giggled with the exhilaration of it all.

“Don’t be an ass.”

“I’m serious!”

“You sound it,” she deadpanned.

Robert did his best to chase the grin from his face and dull the strange elation in his voice. “I mean it, Kare. I know I didn’t say it, but I was really scared.” He dug in his pocket and fished out the test tube and held it between them in the car. “Of this! Of this…tiny…little…shit!” He laughed again before he could stop himself.

He could see the leery way she was looking at him, so he held it closer to her face, leaning across the front seat. “I mean….look at it. Looks like a tiny bloody tennis ball!”

Karen looked at it. Really looked. It did look a little like one. She giggled too. Just a momentary staccato burst, before she smothered it once more with seriousness.

“Yes! See! It’s a booger, a stupid, disgusting little sack of nothing! Hysterical, isn’t it? I went to church because of this thing! Me! To church!”

She laughed again, louder this time, and her laugh too had a maniacal edge to it. Soon they were both laughing, laughing so hard they were crying.

Leaning over toward the passenger seat with tears in his eyes, Robert didn’t see the break-lights of the SUV in front of him and slammed right into it when it stopped for the light.

****

The driver of the SUV wasn’t much more than a kid, seventeen at most. He’d just gotten his license. It was his first accident and he was driving his father’s car. He looked ready to faint, fearing there had been some irreparable injury, when Karen and Robert stepped from their sedan, tears wet on their faces.

Robert was quick to take the blame, though, and the kid visibly relaxed.

The three waited outside their vehicles, leaning against the metal of their automobiles as their caution lights blinked up at the afternoon sun. A stream of grumpy-looking commuters swerved around them, off on lunch breaks or midday runs, losing precious minutes to the congestion, and letting those at fault know all about it with the shrill notes of their car horns.

The teen asked if he could play some music to calm his nerves, and when Karen and Robert didn’t object, he entered his car once more and soon the bass-heavy sound of hip-hop music was reverberating inside the interior of the SUV, travelling along the metal of Robert’s car and into his chest to drum next to his heartbeat.

Normally he despised this kind of music, but still high from two near-death experiences, he was tapping his toes to the beat and bobbing his head in a manner that Karen let him know was unbecoming of a man his age. When the teen asked if he should turn it up even louder, Robert said, “Hell yeah! This shit is dope.”Karen covered her face in embarrassment, but Robert could tell she was laughing behind her fingers.

The SUV hadn’t been damaged apart from a dented bumper, but Robert’s car–an aged 2007 Chevy Malibu–hadn’t fared as well. It now featured a busted headlight, and the grill and part of the front left panel had been caved in. Robert suspected it would be totaled.

“You needed a new car anyway,” Karen said, shouting over the music, but still displaying the same dauntless cheer she had shown at the doctor’s office.

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“Besides, they have all this new technology now. Anti-collision stuff. Cars that will park for you, steer for you. Maybe you wouldn’t have gotten into this wreck in a new car.”

Robert wasn’t thinking about that, however. “What about Norbert?”

“Norbert?” Karen looked at him blankly.

Robert grinned. “For my nemesis.”

“You’re impossible,” Karen said, but she smiled too. “Even now you’re still talking about that, that….fucking lump! We could have been killed.” She folded her arms, leaned back against the car and pretended to ignore him.

But Robert was fairly certain that nothing could kill him. Not today. He tapped his finger to his chin. “Tommy Tumor.”

Karen shot him a disgusted look, then giggled again as a mini-van full of kids crept around them, each of the kids staring out of the widows at her and the crumpled vehicle like she were a space alien standing next to some odd extraterrestrial craft. “Cysta Christian,” she said finally.

“Oooooh! That’s good.” The bass of the hip-hop song thumped through the two vehicles, causing the bits of loose glass to rattle along with the beat inside the broken headlight. “How about…Tumara?”

“I can’t even think with this music. Who sings this song anyway?” Karen asked the teen.

“He isn’t singing,” Robert said. “He’s rapping.”

Karen fought the urge to punch him in his bandaged shoulder.

“Lil Wayne,” said the teen, like he couldn’t believe they didn’t know.

Robert grinned as soon as the kid said it, but he let Karen do the honors.

“Lil Bobby.”

 

****

 

As Robert feared, the Malibu was totaled. It was sad that a vehicle could depreciate to the point where a black eye was grounds for euthanasia, but he couldn’t argue with the Blue Book.

Karen thought he was crazy, but her husband demanded they accompany the Chevy to the junkyard when it was towed. They picked dandelions from the nearby field and laid them across the hood of the vehicle. At Robert’s insistence they took turns taking selfies next to the Malibu, faces pulled into exaggerated caricatures of grief, and talking in poetic terms about memories they had of the car. Some of the junkyard workers even gathered around to listen during a smoke break. Robert’s off-the-cuff poem about the cranberry juice stain in the backseat was widely considered to be the highlight of the service by those who attended.

The endorphins still hadn’t worn off when the two were forced to call a taxi to get home, and, after some aggressive flirting from Robert, the couple made-out like high schoolers in the back for most of the ride. And would have done more if a few disapproving rear-view glances hadn’t ignited Karen’s middle-aged decency.

Robert, barely deterred by his wife’s modesty, promised to ravage her when the two arrived home. But Karen was hungry after paying the driver for the ride (and a bit extra for the misbehavior), and set about making her version of a Waldorf salad–which had neither apples nor grapes nor celery. Robert, who had found a bottle of unoaked Chardonnay that Karen had been saving to cook with, declare it wasn’t a damn Waldorf salad at all, and proceeded to attack his wine. By the time she finished eating the salad, he was three fourths through the bottle. Taken on an empty stomach, the wine left him unable to do much ravishing, but particularly adept at handing out sloppy alcohol-laced kisses, which she swatted away as she propped him up on the way to the bedroom.

Even after he was put to bed, however, his mind was still on his souvenir. He asked several times if Karen had taken the vial from his pants. He told her repeatedly to make sure she didn’t throw away “Lil Bobby.”

Once he was asleep, she stared at the test tube with its sickening occupant, and thought of doing just that. She was sure Robert wouldn’t remember much of the previous conversation, and believed she could convince him that he had lost it in his stupor or that it had fallen out during the cab ride home. After finishing the final glass of wine, however, and rolling the tube around so that the light caught the blob of flesh in every conceivable way, she noticed that the knob had a single hair sticking from it, the exact same shade of copper Robert’s had been before the gray took over. She decided to let him keep it, laid it on his nightstand where he’d be sure to find it first thing in the morning.

 

****

 

Robert began looking for a car the next day. Because he was a loyalist at heart, he took the rental car his insurance man drove over to the Chevy dealership from whom he’d bought his last three vehicles. He knew a salesman there named Ross whom he trusted about as much as one could trust such a person.

With little fanfare, Ross–a middle-aged gym-rat with a spray-on tan who slapped Robert on the back too frequently but had always given him a fair deal–showed him around a brand new Chevy Malibu, a handsome, updated version of the same family sedan he had owned before.

It had a more aggressive-looking front end, and the seats were nicer, but it was virtually identical in every other way. The horsepower was the same, enough to provide his daily commute with a bit of pep, but not much more. More importantly, it came with the Collision Alert technology his wife had advised him to get in light of their recent accident. She’d made her point clear before she left the house for work: with a new lease on life, he should do everything possible to protect it.

When he told Ross about the wreck, the salesman whistled and held his palms just a few inches apart and said, “This close, buddy.”

“You have no idea,” Robert said, then fished the test tube containing Lil Bobby from his pocket. The tumor had dried out some in the night and already looked a little crusty, but Robert presented it proudly, as if the little vial contained the carcass of a great predator, a white shark or grizzly bear that he had killed with his own hands.

Ross initially responded with revulsion, but his expression softened once Robert explained what the tiny fleck was.

“The big C,” Ross nodded knowingly. “I had my own scare with that beast two years ago.”

Ross lifted his shirt right there in the parking lot and showed Robert a scar on the right side of his chest where half of his pectoral muscle was gone. Robert gave him a questioning look.

“Breast cancer,” said Ross.

“I didn’t know men could get that.”

“Neither did I. Thought it was an ingrown hair or something. Didn’t go to the doctor until I was bleeding out of my goddamn nipple. By that time, shit was grown into the walls of the muscle. Had to take half of my fucking chest.”

“I didn’t know, man. I’m sorry.” Robert felt a tad embarrassed about the unimpressive size of Lil Bobby in light of Ross’ ordeal.

“It’s cool, bro. I can still bench 210.” Ross flexed a bicep and gave a wink.

“Yeah,” said Robert, who could not bench 210, even with both pectoral muscles.

“What do you say we get you in one of these babies, yeah?” Ross slapped him on the back.

“Sounds good.”

Ross stepped back and looked over the car, which was just a slightly darker shade of blue than Robert’s last car. “Malibu, huh? You’ve got a calmer soul than I, my friend.”

“How so?”

“When I got my scare…I went crazy. I just wanted to live, you know? Taste the ozone. I went skydiving, river rafting, bought a fast car. But look at you. Cucumber cool, man. Death hasn’t shook you one bit.” Ross slapped Robert on the back again. “I wish I was more like you. Just…content, you know. At peace.”

Robert squeezed the vial that held Lil Bobby a little too tightly. “What kind of car did you get?”

“You wanna see?”

Robert nodded.

Ross led him over to an orange sporty-looking car with red leather seats and two black stripes down the middle. “Camaro SS. 6.2-liter LT1 V-8. Makes 455 horsepower and 455 pounds of torque. Big naturally aspirated sonofabitch. Except mine’s silver and black. This baby flies. The Grim Reaper himself couldn’t catch you in this thing. ”

“Yeah? Why don’t you go get the keys.”

“You serious?”

“I’m serious.”

When Ross came back with the keys so they could give it a test drive, Robert asked a question he was sure he already knew the answer to. “Does this have the same anti-collision hardware as the Malibu?”

“Afraid not, bud. But with Brembo performance 4-wheel disc brakes and an engine that can get you to sixty in under 4, you can run away from any wreck in this.”

 

*

 

Karen got over it. Eventually. Took her a couple weeks. For the first few days she couldn’t even look at it, sitting like a super-charged orange in their driveway. She called it a kid’s car, accused Robert of blowing his allowance on a fancy do-nothing toy.

But it made Robert happy, and so it was hard to hate it outright. He washed it every other day, applied Turtle Wax with the same care Michelangelo must have shown while painting the Sistine Chapel, and parked it at the very back of the supermarket lot so it couldn’t be damaged by door dings from lesser cars or scratched by a carelessly placed shopping cart.

Two days shy of a month after he bought it, he finally got her to ride in it. She pouted through the first half of the drive, sulking even when he got it up to a hundred on the highway, and rolling her eyes when he attacked a series of country roads with its low, prowling frame. It was only when he parked it by a lake and leaned the seats back, which curled around their bodies like baseball gloves, that she relented from her disapproval.

They kissed and joked and she told him that he was an idiot on four separate occasions before she crawled over to his seat, hiking her dress. The two made a furtive kind of love that hadn’t taken place since they first began dating, taking breaks to look for other cars, sweat-streaked leather squealing under their exposed skin.

It was cramped and uncomfortable, but the Camaro’s rigid suspension worked like a new mattress, springing them up and spurring them on. So much so they were going to go a second time until a park ranger drove by and flashed his headlights, telling them it was time to move on.

On the drive home Karen admitted the car was okay, if you were into that sort of thing.

Robert laughed, stray strands of hair still glued to his forehead by perspiration, one hand in his pocket, absently fingering the test tube, tumbling Lil Bobby to and fro. He asked the question that had been in the back of his mind since the moment of his surgery, but that had crept closer and closer as the days passed, no matter how fast he drove. “You ever think maybe they didn’t get it all? The cancer, I mean. What if it comes back?”

“The doctor said that’s unlikely, dear.” She patted his hand through his jeans. “I’m afraid Lil Bobby will be your only souvenir from your brief time as a cancer patient.”

Her smile said she believed it, and Robert smiled back, but he didn’t remove his hand from his pocket or his foot off the gas until they were sitting in their driveway.

 

****

 

They found the first of the new tumors two days later. Karen noticed it while they were showering, thought it was a mole at first until she recognized the way it felt. Like a booger, just like her husband had said.

Robert tried not to panic, but called in sick to work anyway. Called it a mental health day. He made an appointment with the doctor that afternoon but they couldn’t get him in earlier than next Friday.

By that time he had two more.

They were cut out just as easily as the first, and Robert kept these too, adding them to the bit of crust in the test tube. Little stacks of cancer, like crumbled pieces of sausage piled on top of each other. The doctor said that they should really be disposed of. But Robert wouldn’t hear it. They were his. More than that. They were him. He had a right to them.

There was no strange, infectious laughter on the succeeding drives home, just the growl of the naturally aspirated V8 and a worried silence that hung between them. Karen held her optimism in front of her like a shield, but was afraid to give it voice for fear that it would seem she was appropriating Robert’s struggle.

“The procedures are pretty quick,” she said in the rare moments when Robert would talk about it. “They’re almost like skin-tags. My brother has those. Has to get them sliced off every couple years. They’re more of an inconvenience than anything.”

“It’s like Whack-A-Mole,” Robert offered weakly.

“Right!, Karen said a bit too enthusiastically. “They keep popping up and we’ll keep knocking them down.”

 

****

 

But soon there were patches to go along with the tumors, long curled strips of scalloped skin that criss-crossed Robert’s arms and legs like little pink highways. These couldn’t be lasered off, and so they started the chemo and light treatments.

They gave him Interferon, which was supposed to help, but made him feel like he had the flu. He lost twenty pounds in two weeks. To it they added Bexarotene gel and nitrogen mustard, creams and lotions so toxic that Robert had to wear two sets of gloves to apply them. He and Karen had to take counseling classes on the dangers of becoming pregnant while being exposed to the drugs. Soon there were informational pamphlets on Robert’s nightstand that warned of babies being born so deformed they seemed barely human. Karen bought condoms, the safest she could find, thick as trash bags and coated with the most potent spermicides. They used one, but Robert couldn’t finish and the spermicide made Karen’s lips go numb. They left the rest of the box, untouched, next to the pamphlets.

Three times a week the couple drove to special clinics where Robert sat in high-tech tanning booths and had concentrated UV light directed at the tumors and plaques that marred his skin.

Even artificial sun is poisonous in large quantities, and Robert took doses of it that scorched his flesh and left him with nausea that kept him in the bathroom for hours after treatment, wracked with chills, skin ablaze, vomiting until he worried he would see his lungs floating in the toilet.

And each week, they cut more of him away. The tumors were larger now, more like the mushrooms they were supposed to resemble. Each excision left him a new crescent scar, so that his body soon looked like a topographical map of raw red roads, small tumorous hills, scalpel-made ravines, and laser-cut gorges, sunken valleys to the rising bones his weight loss revealed.

He saved the scraps when they let him, which was more often than not. It was hard to deny a dying man any request, even a revolting one.

His collection outgrew the test tube, and Robert began keeping Lil Bobby, who was decidedly less little, in a mason jar in the fridge.

Karen wasn’t pleased.

“You should throw it away.”

“No. When this is over I’m going to show them. I’m going to show everyone what I went through. What I defeated.” He held up the jar and shook its mushy contents, which now looked like apple butter and stuck to the side of the jar much the same. “This won’t beat me.”

“Can’t we keep it somewhere else? I mean…the fridge? Where we see it every day?”

Robert was so absorbed with his own struggle that he didn’t even notice his wife was crying. “Keep your friends close, Karen,” he said. “And your enemies closer.”

 

****

 

Soon, Robert couldn’t work. The cancerous roadways had driven up his neck and onto his face, and the tumors had migrated to the middle of his back, necessitating that Karen don the double set of gloves and apply the caustic gels and creams that left their bedroom smelling like a science lab.

Worse, the cancer had moved inward as well. Abnormal lymphocyte proliferations showed up in Robert’s blood. A cluster of egg-sized tumors sprouted in his colon. His spleen grew as big as a ripe melon. These too they cut from him. He begged the nurses to let him take them home. When they refused, Robert grew angry, kicking and screaming with all the rage his feeble body could generate. He slammed the aluminum bedpan against the wall and yelled until the doctor agreed to let him have two of the smaller tumors.

Karen tried to stop on the way home and throw them away–she drove the Camaro when the pain meds wouldn’t allow Robert to do so, even though she hated how wild it felt beneath her foot–and Robert raised his hand as if he were going to strike her.

Then he told her maybe it would be better if he just died.

They both cried for a long time after. Karen hoped maybe it would be a breakthrough, that he might snap back into some semblance of who he had been.

They held hands all the way home, but once Robert was through the door he carried his little bag of tumors downstairs and didn’t come up again for hours.

Lil Bobby had outgrown the mason jar, so Robert emptied out the couples’ forty-gallon fish tank, dumping the angel fish that had previously occupied it in the garbage, put the pieces of cancer in there and then placed the tank inside the freezer chest in their basement.

After that he spent most of his time down there.

Sometimes Karen would wake up in the middle of the night and find Robert out of bed. She’d creep to the top of the basement stairs and open the door and there he’d been, sitting in front of the freezer with the top open. Sometimes just before she’d open the basement door, she’d swear she heard Robert talking to himself.

Even more concerning were the nights when Robert would disappear from bed and take the car. To where, he’d never say. Only that he’d been driving.

He’d come in later, eyes red and cheeks puffy, riddled with that rash and sporting odd lumps, looking nothing like the man she married. He’d collapse against her in a hug. “I can’t get away,” he’d say through tears. “It’s me. It’s all I have left of myself.”

 

****

 

They were having dinner–a dish Robert jokingly referred to as baby food that consisted of applesauce and pulled pork, blended down to a mush, one of the few meals he could still stomach–when he told her again it would be better if he died.

She was the only one who cried this time. Robert pushed his pork mush around with a spoon while she sobbed.

His hair was gone and his skin was now a coat of erythroderma–red leather stretched over ribs so sharp she worried they might cut through. Scars dotted his face, and she tried so very hard not to think about how much his bald, lumpy head resembled the first little tennis ball tumor they had cut from him.

She told him he was wrong, that she needed him, that if he killed himself she’d never forgive him.

Robert, who had been so angry before, sat quietly while Karen got up from the table and flung her own plate of pork mush against the wall, shattering it and leaving a trail of applesauce that slowly crawled down toward the floor as she stood there in front of him, tears streaking her still beautiful face.

“I love you,” she said.

Robert gave her a sad smile. “Honey, there’s barely anything left to love.”

“Well, I still love that bit, okay? It’s all I have left of you.”

“You’ll find someone else.” He had the audacity to smile again.

“You stupid…selfish…fucker.” Karen said the word a dozen more times. She called him a coward, a weakling. “Who are you to give up, huh? Like this is your decision. I’ve been here the whole time, Robert. You don’t just get to call it when you’ve had enough. This is our fight. Ours!”

He apologized. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“I know I’m right, you prick. Now eat your goddamn baby food!”

Robert did just that for a while. But three bites in he started to laugh and couldn’t stop.

“What is so goddamn funny?” Karen asked, her face still red, her voice hoarse from crying.

Robert looked at her, giggling madly. “Feed it to me.”

“Go fuck yourself, Robert!”

He kept laughing. “Come on, do it! It’ll be fun.”

“You can’t be serious.” She could see now that tears had gathered at the corners of his eyes, but she couldn’t tell if they were from laughing or something else.

“Kare…feed me.” His voice nearly broke.

After wiping her eyes with her shirt, she got up, sauntered over to him, pushed his plate slightly to the side, and sat on the table, picking up his spoon. “Honestly, Robert–”

“Ahhhhh,” he hushed her by opening his mouth as wide as a baby robin’s.

She gathered a spoonful of pork mush and brought it to his mouth. He clamped his down on it like a trap closing. He chuckled as he swallowed it, and opened his mouth up again as soon as he was able, dabs of applesauce still clinging to the corner of his lips.

Karen shook her head. “I’m not doing this, Robert. This is insa–”

“Ahhhhh!” He almost screamed it between giggles.

She gave him another spoonful and this time she laughed too. “You really are a baby, you know?”

“More mush! More mush!” He pounded his fists on the table like a baby throwing a tantrum.

This time she moved the spoon like an airplane and made the accompanying BZZZZ noise before sticking it in his mouth.

Both of them lost it: him howling with laughter, tears still sticking in his eyes, her cackling between sobs.

By the time the food was gone both of them were chanting “Mush! Mush! Mush! Mush!” and neither spoke about what Robert had said about wanting to die.

They made love that night for the first time in months. It was touch and go, but mostly go. Everywhere Karen put her hands seemed to elicit a cry from her husband, but she learned to look for the few smooth patches that remained. Robert’s lips were dry and cracked against hers, and once he left a piece of dead skin in her mouth when he pulled away from a kiss. She managed to turn and spit it out without him knowing when he moved down to her neck.

They attempted intercourse, but Robert couldn’t maintain an erection. Unsurprising given all the drugs. Still, Karen moaned and convulsed as if he were really giving it to her, calling his name and faking an orgasm with such fervor that for a moment she thought she might actually have one. His own climax took much, much longer, and it was only after she ministered to him for over a half an hour that he finally finished in a sputter that seemed as much pain as it was pleasure.

Afterward, he finally cried, a noiseless wracking sob that made her think, at first, that he was having another orgasm. When she realized what was happening, she stroked the rough skin of his face and cooed gently in his ear, “It’s alright. It’s alright.”

It was the first peaceful moment Karen had felt in ages. She slipped off to sleep, feeling that–for once–she had actually helped, actually made a difference.

She was so exhausted that she never felt Robert scoot from the bed and get dressed in the dark. She didn’t hear the front door when he left. It wasn’t until she woke up at four in the morning with a need to urinate that she realized Robert was gone.

Karen told herself he was probably just out for a drive. Karen’s optimism was so persistent, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that she almost had herself convinced until she opened the basement door and saw the freezer wide open and empty.

This time he’d taken Lil Bobby.

 

****

 

As soon as Robert got where he was going, he put the hammer down. Rear wheels wriggling behind him like a living thing, he sped down the narrow road that led to the lake where he and Karen had fucked like kids, back at the beginning of this, back a million years ago when he was still himself and not…whatever he was now. He couldn’t bear to look any longer. He took one last glance in the rear view mirror, letting the glass soak up his ragged reflection, then he tore the mirror off and tossed it out the window, watched his likeness shatter on the road behind him.

The engine was so loud he couldn’t hear the radio. Which was a shame. He’d have liked to play a song. Something meaningful. Some dirge for Robert: beloved husband and late blooming car enthusiast. But even the Camaro didn’t make him happy. Not really. Not anymore. The rumble of the V8, which had thrilled him at first, was flat in his ears. Artificial. Disingenuous.

No matter how he opened it up, the roar couldn’t drown out the sound of Bobby’s voice.

She’s right, Robert. You’re a coward.

Robert couldn’t remember exactly when it had started talking. After he’d put it in the freezer. He was sure of that. But it seemed that one night, no different than any other, he had come down to drink, back when he could still drink, and there it had been–Lil Bobby. No longer little at all. Now just Bobby. Some new, awful growing him.

“Fuck you, Bobby. It’s over. You won’t win. You don’t get to win.”

You keep saying that. It doesn’t have to be this way. It can be peaceful. Pleasant even. You’re tired, Robert. Just go to sleep. You’re so tired. But, Robert, I’m wide awake.

Robert looked over at the form curled up in his passenger seat. Bobby was too big for the fish tank now and so heavy that Robert had nearly collapsed carrying him to the car. Bobby smiled up at him and gave him a wink. Robert hated to admit it, but Bobby looked more like the man Robert had once been than he did now.

 “Not for long. We’re both going to take a snooze, pal. Me and you. I know how to beat you. I’ve always known. I was just too scared.”

You’d leave Karen just to earn your little victory? You don’t deserve her. If I had a woman like that, I’d never let her go.

“She’ll find someone else. She’ll be happy. And we’ll both be gone.” The Camaro was at top speed now. It was all Robert could do to keep it on the road. He could see the lake.

You’ve tried to poison me, burn me away, even freeze me to death. You think a little water will do the trick?

“I do. Because you’re not real, Bobby. You’re just a bit of cancer that’s made it up to my brain. I know that now. You need me! Once I’m gone, you will be too. And I’ll have beaten you. Finally. They’ll write it on my grave.”

Bobby said something else, but Robert never heard. They were off the road,sailing through the air and into the lake. Without so much as a seat belt to hold him back, Robert went through the windshield and into the water, shredded by the glass, as mangled and unrecognizable as Lil Bobby had once been in his mason jar.

 

****

 

Karen got the call just after sunrise and rushed to the lake. It was hours before the police pulled the wreckage from the water, before the mangled remnants of the Camaro were sent to the junkyard, along with the shattered remains of a fish tank that held nothing at all, that still sat in the passenger seat. There was none of the pomp or fanfare that accompanied Robert’s old Malibu into the afterlife. No mock funeral.

As for Robert himself, the police told her that he was the luckiest man they’d ever met. He stood shivering against a tree, wrapped in a blanket, naked but alive. Even still, he looked better than he had in some time. In the morning light, Karen could even see a bit of hair poking up off his head, the same copper red that she remembered.

When she hugged him, he hugged her back more vigorously, kissed her, despite her protests, there in front of the officers, picking her up off her feet and swinging her around.

The gesture did not cool Karen’s anger, which had been rising since she found out Robert was still alive, and she slapped him when they got in her car. Told him that if he ever scared her like that again she’d kill him herself. Cancer wouldn’t get the chance.

He promised he wouldn’t. Said he was sorry. He’d been blind not to see the value of this new chance he’d been given. More than anything, he wanted to live, wanted a life with her. He’d need a new car now. Something safe. Maybe with an anti-collision system.

“Oh, Robert,” she said. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but it’s about time. I love you so much.”

“I love you, too.”

They drove toward home, keeping it under the speed limit the entire way.

Header photograph © Andrew Hall.

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    Scott Christopher Beebe 03/29/2019 at 12:53 am

    Such a wonderful, delicate, heartfelt piece from an underutilized author of infectious, grandiose prose in flash fiction. What’s here are lines of fluid, frail fractures that all but define cancer.

    I can’t say enough good about this tale of enduring love, and one man’s ongoing battle with himself as the “self” of which he knows now only lives in shadows, jars and basements of sorts. Invokes tears and cheers at the story’s crescendo when Robert faces head-on what plagues him.

    Thank you for publishing and sharing.

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