Short Story

What You Dread You Become by Michael C. Keith

                                                For as our diff’rent ages move,

                                               ‘Tis so ordained, would Fate but mend it,

                                                That  I shall be past making love,

                                                When she begins to comprehend it. 

                                                      –– Matthew Prior

It was when Kyle’s fiancé, Jill, rose from bed naked on one of their sleepy weekend mornings that he first realized how thin she had become. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? Her shoulder blades were so pronounced they reminded him of the living skeletons in the Nazi concentration camps. He said nothing at first, but later in the day when he saw her gaunt figure bent over in the garden, he spoke up. He instantly regretted the tactlessness of his remark.

“My God, Jill, you look anorexic. Like Karen Carpenter.”

“Gee . . . thanks for the compliment,” she replied, continuing to claw at the soil.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean that. It just came out. But, Jesus, honey, you’re so skinny . . . too skinny.

“I haven’t felt good the last few weeks.”

“Few weeks? Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because, I figured it wasn’t anything. Maybe a low grade virus.”

“What are your symptoms?”

“A little nauseous. Stomach aches and my back hurts sometimes.”

“So you’ve decided bending over like that will help?”

“It feels okay today.”

“Well, you should make a . . .”

“Doctor’s appointment? I already have. Tomorrow afternoon. Can you take me?”
* * *

The results of a battery of tests brought Jill and Kyle back to her doctor two weeks later. The news was devastating. Jill had one of the most lethal of all cancers . . . pancreatic.

“You’re not late stage, Jill. We can treat it. Look, I’m not going to be coy about this. The mortality rate is high, but 20 percent of people survive, and we can help you to be one of them.”

Jill sat speechless, clutching Kyle’s hand. An awkward silence was finally broken by a question from Kyle to the doctor.

“When can she start treatment, and what is it?”

“Radiation and chemo is the best course of action. Let’s see, it’s Thursday. We can get it underway Monday . . . if that works for you. No sense delaying it. The sooner we get at it, the better.

The word ‘it’ reminded Jill of the movie Alien. The wormy creature that had leaped from the ribcage of the astronaut was called an ‘it.” The thought activated Jill’s vomit reflex, but she was able to quell the nearly overpowering urge to gush forth.

“Good, doc, where do we go?” asked Kyle.

“Brighton General downtown is where you’ll be treated. I’ve conferred with Doctor Carlyle, the oncologist. He’ll be handling your treatment. He’s outstanding. One of the best in the field.”

Jill gave out a whimper and then took a deep breath. “Okay . . . okay, I can do this.”

“Of course you can. And I’m optimistic about the outcome. We all need to hold on to a positive frame of mind during this challenging time. You’re young and can have a good long life, but some things require you fight.”

Fight of her life, thought Kyle, his strong sense of fatalism kicking in. She probably won’t make it. God almighty . . . I surely won’t make it if she doesn’t.

On the trip home, Kyle suggested they get married right away.

“No, it would be more of an act of desperation than a celebration. Let’s wait until we know we have a future,” replied Jill.

* * *

The next three months were a nightmare. Jill spent most of the time in bed or on the living room couch, too weak to do much else. Kyle tended to her every need, and did so with great patience and compassion. She was the love of his life and, although he was not particularly religious, he prayed with great passion for her survival.

Focusing so steadfastly on Jill’s situation resulted in Kyle losing considerable weight himself, and his friends took notice.

“You better pay some attention to yourself, or you’re going to need someone to take care of you, Kyle,” advised his business partner, Sid Haley.

Haley and Kyle had launched a startup company two years earlier and had been having modest success. Now Kyle was concerned that he couldn’t give the initiative the necessary energy it required.

“Don’t worry, man. Things are going pretty well. The guys at the office got your back, and I sure as hell do, partner,” Sid assured him.

Despite, Haley’s words, Kyle felt he was letting the nascent enterprise down, but while he could deal with its potential failure, he felt certain the loss of Jill would be his total undoing. I think she’s turning the corner, Kyle reminded himself, trying hard to be hopeful. Just that morning, Jill’s face had shown more color than it had since she’d fallen ill. Furthermore, she had eaten most of her breakfast, a singular accomplishment, considering her morning repast typically consisted of a piece of toast.

“Good for you, babe. Eating like a construction worker.”

“I haven’t felt this hungry forever,” responded Jill, with a smile.

“You’re rebounding big time. You look real good. Maybe we can get you out for a walk,” suggested Kyle.

“You know, I think I’d like that.”

It had been months since the young couple had roamed through their neighborhood, and it filled Kyle with excitement.

“Just like it used to be. I know you’re going to be fine. One of the 20-percenters, the doc said. Never doubted that.”

“Oh yeah, like you never doubted I’d get better, Mister ‘life sucks and then you die.’”

“Well, I don’t doubt it now. It’s obvious you’re better. You’re going to be cured, sweetie, and things will be back on track.”

“Hey, bring it down a notch or two, Kyle. Just because I’m feeling a little better doesn’t mean I beat the damn cancer. We’ll see how things are next week when I get checked at the hospital.”

* * *

“I told you,” shouted Kyle gleefully, when Jill was told her cancer was in complete remission.

“We’ll do another check in three months, Jill, but I think we have reason to be very happy,” said the oncologist, rising to signal that the appointment was over. “Continue to take your meds and follow my instructions about your diet. Otherwise, enjoy life,” said Dr. Carlyle, giving Jill an extended hug.

While Kyle felt tremendous relief, he was hounded by the possibility that Jill’s cancer might still return. That’s what cancer does. His ever present doubt about their future resulted in his doing something he would never have imagined doing. He had noticed a sign in the window above the local convenience store proclaiming, “Tarot Card Readings.” Kyle had always found the idea of fortunetellers and soothsayers ridiculous, but now in his current state-of-mind, he cast aside that skepticism and ventured up the stairs.

Jesus, it’s just like in those creepy movies, thought Kyle, as he pushed through the beaded curtain that led into a parlor adorned with astrological charts and posters of centaurs and unicorns.

“Please come in. I was expecting you,” said an elderly woman sitting behind a table covered in red velvet.

No crystal ball? mused Kyle, tempted to challenge the woman’s statement about expecting him but thinking it better to play along with her. What the hell? You’re here. When in Rome . . .

“Sit down, young man. There are things you want to know. Let the cards tell you what you seek to learn.”

Looking like she was from central casting, the fortuneteller spread a deck of cards before her and stared at them intently.

I can’t believe you’re doing this, Kyle. Give her a few bucks and get the hell out of here.

“Your lover has been through a great crisis. Perhaps something life-threatening?”

Kyle was amused by what he figured was just a very good guess. “Yes, my girlfriend had cancer but she’s okay now.”

The old woman turned over another card and grimaced.

“You love her deeply, but there is betrayal in the future. She will give her heart to another.”

Kyle stood up suddenly. This is just a totally stupid idea!

“Please stay seated,” said the woman. “There is more.”

“No thank you. I don’t believe in this mumbo jumbo,” blurted Kyle, tossing what cash he had in his pocket on the table.

“Please, sir, let me continue,” pleaded the psychic. “There are other things I must tell you . . .”

“Goodbye,” said Kyle, exiting. “I won’t be back.”

Betrayal? Bullshit! Not Jill. Never! reflected Kyle, returning home.

* * *

Jill continued to regain her former health in the months that followed, and Kyle was thankful and pleased to see her thriving again.

“Dr. Carlyle saved me. I love him. He’s so special,” gushed Jill. “I wouldn’t be here without him . . . or you, honey.”

She loves him. Patients fall in love with their doctors all the time, mulled Kyle, immediately recognizing the absurdity of the idea that Jill would hook up with the medico. She doesn’t mean it that way, you idiot.

But the fortuneteller’s dark prophecy came to dominate his thoughts, and he found himself withholding more and more affection from her. She will give her heart to another. In time, it became difficult for Kyle to even touch her. Although his love for her remained strong, the thought that she could cheat on him left him emotionally paralyzed.

“What’s wrong, Kyle? You seem like you’re somewhere else. Not with me. Very distant and removed,” complained Jill, adding, “I love you, you know.”

“I love you, too,” replied Kyle, coolly, the ominous prediction of the seer echoing in his head.

“I hope so. You’ll tell me if something’s wrong, right?”

“Of course I will,” answered Kyle, but he did not––nor did he bring up the subject of marriage again.

Months passed in much the same manner, and as the New Year came and went, Jill arrived at the conviction that Kyle had fallen out of love with her. Although this was far from the truth, his ability to demonstrate his real feelings for her was fatally inhibited by his fear that she would leave him for another.

After intense soul-searching, Jill finally reached a decision about the relationship.

“I can’t take it any longer, Kyle. You’ve frozen me out. I don’t know why you’ve changed. You aren’t who you were, so there’s no reason for us to stay together.”

“You’re in love with someone else. I knew that was coming,” replied Kyle.

“Are you crazy? I’m not leaving you for someone else. I’m leaving you because you’ve become another person. The person I was in love with died with my cancer. Ever since I’ve been better, you’ve been another person. I have to get out of here before I’m devoured by your malignancy.”

“No . . . no, I know that you’ve given your heart to another. It was in the cards.”


Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes fiction.



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