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Time in a Bottle

The glass and bowl slid precariously along the tray as Terrance backed through the bedroom door. He stopped to straighten his arms before turning to approach the bed.

"Are you awake?"

He set the tray down on the bedside table, and crossed to the window.

"Rise and shine, my princess!"

He pulled back the curtains. The sun had just risen; warm, orange sunlight poured into the room.

Abigail's eyes were closed. Terrance sat on her bed and leaned over. He stroked her silver hair, and gently traced his finger down the folds of her cheek.

"I was having a nice dream," Abigail said, smiling, turning her head toward him. "I was in heaven, with Mama and Papa and Corrine. We were having coffee together at the beach. You know that café we used to go to? The one up the hill with all the tables and chairs outside, and you could sit and gaze out at the ocean, and watch the seagulls float on the breeze without a care. I was wearing my white hat, the one with the large brim. And Corrine was laughing at something Papa said, just like she does. Did. It was so nice."

Abigail sighed. She turned her head slightly and opened her eyes. Terrance was gazing down at her.

"I want to go," Abigail said.

"Where, my sweet?" Terrance's voice was tender. "Where do you want to go?"

"You know," Abigail said, turning her face toward the window. "There."

Terrance considered feigning ignorance a little longer, but he knew exactly what she meant. Exactly where she wanted to go.

"Here, let's sit you up so you can have your breakfast."

He helped Abigail into a sitting position, then adjusted her pillows so she could lean back against them. She didn't fight him, but she lost her smile.

"I took a run, you know."

"You—?"

"—took a run. On that beach. In my dream. Felt the breeze in my face, the soft gritty sand between my toes." Abigail continued to stare out the window.

"Here, have some orange juice." Terrance carefully lifted the glass from the tray and presented it to her. Abigail glanced at it, but didn't move.

"I'm not hungry."

"But you need your breakfast. Get your strength up."

"You need it as much as I do," she smirked.

"Please?"

Abigail looked at Terrance from the corner of her eyes. She took the glass. Terrance smiled.

"That's my girl."

"I'll spit it in your face."

Terrance kissed her forehead. "I have some oatmeal for you, too."

Abigail drank slowly from the glass, and handed it back to Terrance.

"Maybe later."

"It'll be cold!"

"It doesn't matter."

It used to take hours for the dark mood to set in. Lately she had been waking up this way, and never coming around. Terrance remembered how much he loved the carefree girl she used to be, back when they were dating. How she literally jumped and clapped her hands like a Disney princess when he proposed to her, and how she grinned from ear to ear all through their wedding, even as tears threatened to smudge her eyeliner.

Abigail slumped back in the pillows, her eyes still following the birds outside as they flew from branch to branch, twittering and chirping their morning songs.

"How about a nice walk? Perhaps after breakfast?" Terrance tried. Abigail glared at the wheelchair parked in the corner of the room.

"Walk?"

"Well, the fresh air… it'll do you good. And the exercise will be good for me too." Terrance raised hopeful eyebrows at his wife, but her face was resolute. "You have to get up, sweetheart."

"Why? Why must I get up? What for?"

"Well, you can't just lie there not eating. You'll—"

"Go on, Terry. Go on, say it."

Terrance bit his lip. The word wouldn't come. Abigail's smile was tinged with malice.

"You won't say it because you know it's not true."

A heavy silence hung. Terrance watched the remaining orange juice in the glass as he slowly swished it around.

"What do you want, then?" he said after a few minutes.

Abigail gave him a firm look. "The bottle."

"No." Terrance gripped the glass with both hands. "No. I can't. No."

"Look at me, Terry. What kind of existence is this?"

"You're here with me."

"Just open the bottle, Terry." Abigail's voice softened. "Please. Do I need to beg you?"

"No! I won't do it."

"I'm never going to walk again. I can barely eat a meal, let alone enjoy it. The only joy I have left is in my dreams."

Terrance winced.

"Oh, stop that," Abigail said, her face cracking half a smile. "You know I love you, but I can't believe you want this for me."

Terrance stared at his wife's face. Her eyes were the same eyes that enchanted him so many years ago, dulled by time, jaded by terminal illness, but still the same Abigail.

"While there's breath, there's hope," he said.

"For who? You? No, this isn't right. Maybe forty years ago. Not now. Don't you understand, I've had enough. Please, give me my dreams."

Silence fell as the two of them looked at each other, the argument moving beyond words, because words were no longer adequate. Love so powerful, rooted so deeply, could only achieve an impasse. Terrance returned the glass to the tray and took his wife's hand.

She squeezed.

The attic stairs were harder to climb than the last time Terrance had tried them. That was Christmas, ten years ago, when he went up to get the decorations. As soon as Christmas was over, he took the decorations down and put them in the hallway closet to save having to make the attic trip again. And there they stayed. He hadn't planned on venturing back up that ladder; whatever was left in the attic could stay in the attic. It wasn't like there was anything there they needed.

From the top step he reached for the string attached to the light switch. A bare bulb screwed on to one of the rafters lit up the dusty space, revealing open and half-open boxes full of sixty years' accumulated junk. The lamp Abigail found in a Goodwill store forty years ago, nestled among some torn blankets. She used it in her office for three weeks before she decided it was ugly, but couldn't convince herself to throw it away in case she changed her mind one day. A stack of framed watercolors they bought for their first house, but never got around to putting up. Terrance's old 8-track player he couldn't bear to part with, even after he bought those same albums on cassette tape. The cartridges may still be in one of the boxes, even though his tape collection gave way to CDs years ago.

In a far corner was a safe that used to be black, but was now mostly grey thanks to the thick dust deposit. With some effort, Terrance made the final step from the ladder to the attic floor, and carefully shuffled his way across to the safe. He ran a finger across the top, watching the dust pile up to reveal its shiny black surface. It was as good as new. It should be. It was new when he brought it up to the attic.

Terrance pulled on the safe handle. It was locked. Of course. Although he never expected to open it again, he could never forget the combination: 12-24-60. The numbers floated to the top of his mind. He tried them. The door swung open. Terrance smiled. Christmas Eve, 1960—their wedding day. Followed immediately by a honeymoon in South America, to escape the frigid New England winter. He reached in and pulled out a yellow and green towel. Terrance placed the towel gently in one hand while unfolding it with the other. Beneath the layers lay a blue bottle, about the size of a Coke bottle, with a cork sealing the top. A souvenir from Brazil. But much more than a simple keepsake…

It was a bustling street somewhere in Rio. He didn't remember signs, he was too busy holding his new bride close, afraid she would be swept away by the shoppers and sightseers, and trying to take in the colorful awnings and old, towering stone buildings. Almost by accident they found themselves in some kind of antique shop, buffeted by people pushing past. The door creaked on its hinges as they stumbled in, the smell of perfumes, sweat, and traffic replaced with a mix of must and spice. They might have walked out again, except they were greeted with a wave, and a cheerful "Olá meus amigos" from a man behind a counter facing the door. "Como posso ajudá-lo?" Terrance's attention was drawn to the figurines on the counter, intricately carved somewhat humanoid forms.

"Sorry—English?" said Abigail, eyebrows raised apologetically.

"Ah, Americanos!" said the man, his grin widening, stretching his thick black moustache across his face. "Please, you look around, and you need help, you let me know, yes?"

"Si, uh, yes, thank you," Abigail replied, squeezing Terrance's hand.

"Yes, thank you," he said, nodding at the man. "Just… looking."

It didn't take long to disabuse themselves of the idea that it was an antique shop. There were shelves of the strangest looking ornaments, even stranger than the carved statuettes on the counter. Masks hung from the wall that were, by anyone's estimation, ugly, so much they had to be intentionally grotesque. A glass-topped table displayed rows of beaded necklaces and talismans, and a bookcase next to it contained more ornaments, and volumes in Portuguese that neither could understand, except for a few key words: morte, Magia, espírito.

"This place is giving me the creeps, Terry," Abigail whispered. "Let's go."

They were crossing to the door when the man called out, "Amigos!" Terrance and Abigail turned to him.

"You are new married, yes?"

"Uh, yes," said Abigail, glancing up at Terrance.

"Just a few days, I see. On your honeymoon." The man pronounced the word slowly, as if he had just learned it. Terrance was about to confirm when the man disappeared behind his counter, and came back up holding a blue bottle. The man smiled again as he walked toward them. He was wearing a robe with decorative trim that covered his ankles, tied around the waist with a matching sash.

"For you," he said, offering them the bottle with both hands. "You are much in love. This bottle special." Terrance frowned at his wife, but Abigail reached for the gift. "No, wait, please miss," the man said, pulling the bottle back. He then closed his eyes and began chanting words that were neither Portuguese, or any other language either had heard before. Suddenly, Abigail's legs gave way; if Terrance hadn't been close enough to catch her, she would have collapsed onto the floor.

"It's okay, I'm okay," she said, recovering, blinking. "Probably just the heat." Terrance turned back to the man who was still chanting, seemingly oblivious to what had just happened.

"This is mad," he said. "Let's go." He took Abigail's elbow and was about to turn when the man opened his eyes, grinning his moustache-stretching grin. He jammed a cork into the top of the bottle and presented it to Abigail.

"Here," he said. "My gift to you."

"Thank you," Abigail said, forcing a smile.

"You don't understand. I see it in your mind. That bottle is special. The most special bottle you have." Abigail had the bottle, but he was looking at Terrance.

"H-how so?" Terrance said, glancing down at the plain blue bottle in his wife's hand.

"So long you not open the bottle, your wife she live always."

Terrance frowned, but nodded, trying not to appear rude. He was about to turn when he noticed the man was no longer smiling.

"You not believe me. But trust me. In that bottle, the last second of your wife's life. If that bottle is selada… um…" The man mimicked corking the bottle. "She not die. Her last second he is trapped in the bottle. Yes?"

"Thank you," Terrance said, and this time he took Abigail's elbow and they made it to the door.

"Take care the bottle, sir!" the man called.

Terrance was thoroughly convinced the man was a charlatan, and the whole voodoo vibe of the shop was for tourists and Mardi Gras. Nevertheless, he took the bottle from Abigail, and held it tightly all the way back to the hotel.

For the next five years, the blue bottle stood on the mantle, an odd souvenir from their honeymoon to go along with the other odd souvenirs they brought back: a miniature "Christ the Redeemer" ornament, and an afoxé—an instrument that looked like a wooden squash on a stick, clothed in a bead net.

Then Abigail became violently ill. No-one was sure exactly how it happened, whether an allergic reaction to something, or a bug bite, but she languished in a hospital bed for three weeks before a doctor took Terrance to one side and broke the news to him. She was fading fast, perhaps only days left to live. Terrance tried to put on a brave face, for Abigail's sake, but the mask faltered too easily. They managed to plan her funeral and make out her will there in the hospital, though Terrance often had to stop and walk away, to shed the tears he needed to cry. She was too weak to travel, so they made up a bed for Terrance so he could be with her to the end. A week later, she was still holding on, sick, but stable. The doctors were perplexed. Terrance didn't care, grateful for every moment he was given. After two weeks they began running tests. She was still as sick as ever, but for some reason the disease would not—could not—claim her. Abigail's miracle came after three weeks, and a chance discovery in the lab. A certain enzyme mixed with a certain antibody created just the right environment to destroy the virus. Two days after receiving the shot, Abigail was on her feet again. As she was getting ready to leave, her doctor commented that if she hadn't lasted those extra weeks, she would be dead.

But by now, Terrance and Abigail had realized the truth. Of course she survived an extra three weeks. And she would have survived many more.

It was on the way home from the hospital that Terrance bought a safe, and a small towel. When they got home, he wrapped the bottle in the towel, placed it in the safe, and put the safe in the attic, vowing never to open it.

Now here he was, about to break that vow.

A neighbor called it in. Within ten minutes the street was illuminated with strobing red lights, and police and EMT vehicles. People in dark blue with flash lights. People in white with metal medical cases.

The ones in blue broke the door without too much difficulty. The house was quiet. More than quiet. Silent. Dark. Flash lights clicked on, and the beams split off into various parts of the downstairs. Nothing in the living room. Nothing in the hall bathroom. One observant officer noticed no-one had marked out the days on the kitchen calendar since Thursday. Three days ago. That corresponded to when the neighbor said she last saw either of the occupants.

A little deeper into the house, and the scent of lavender air freshener began to die as a sour smell took over, growing stronger toward the bedroom. With trepidation the lead officer gripped the bedroom door handle, and slowly opened it.

An elderly woman lay propped up on the bed, her head back against pillows. Still. Her mouth slightly open. Her eyes sightlessly staring at the ceiling.

On the chair beside her was an elderly man, slumped over, one arm stretched out onto the bed, holding the hand of the woman. His other arm hung by his side, the hand covered in dry blood, a large scarlet pool below it, soaked into the carpet.

Scattered around the chair, shards of blue glass.

About the Author
Colin D. Smith is a writer of short stories, flash fiction, novels, blog articles, and sometimes-humorous tweets, living and working in Eastern North Carolina. You can find him online at www.colindsmith.com/blog or on Twitter @colin_d_smith.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link