The death rattle, that's what a nurse called it, forgetting he could still hear.
Cold phlegm gurgled in his throat. He coughed hard, but the stupid thing wouldn't budge. He kept coughing until his face felt like it would fracture from the inside out. He gasped for air between each sputtering cough.
A gray woman stood behind his wife, his Margaret.
He'd been seeing them for weeks now. The others that Margaret and the kids and the nurses couldn't see. They weren't his family-- his parents, his older brother, his baby sister-- like he'd always imagined in his head. Just strangers, familiar looking, but strangers. They looked pale and cold, the gray of a winter sky. They seemed kind enough. They'd look at him and smile.
He'd smile back, out of habit. Dying is no time to stop being nice.
Another coughing fit broke his concentration and the gray lady was gone.
The time between his breaths, the good deep ones, was growing longer. He had started counting the seconds between them, but stopped once he realized it didn't matter.
He'd rather look at her.
The most beautiful. The kindest. His love. His everything.
His mouth moved to say the words he longed to, but couldn't-- the last stroke had seen to that.
Just five words.
He'd tried to say them a hundred times since the doctor came and wagged her head in highly trained sympathy. But each attempt left him more exhausted. And more heartbroken.
That doctor probably went home to have dinner with her family. But he didn't.
He didn't eat anymore, not in the real sense of the word, not like when he was young and not afraid.
There it was.
That's what he hated most about this, this-- what did the nurse call it? Process.
It wasn't the fear of the unknown, but the fear of having left undone some thing that should have been done. Not regret, but the feeling you have when you're half way from home, that you've left the burner on. That gnawing fear that coils and slithers in your mind and won't let go. Magnified.
Should he have gone to his son's Little League game instead of that useless work trip? That game would have been, what, '78?
Ever see a gravestone with "Beloved Employee" on it?
They would put "Beloved Father" on his. People are always nicer than you deserve once you're dead. Especially family.
He strained for a deep breath, but couldn't manage even a shallow one.
His head lolled to one side.
Beautiful. Beautiful. Margaret.
Gray people filled the room. Packed shoulder to shoulder.
And then the light.
Bright and warm.
From it, the sound of children playing in the street.
It wafted, more like a smell than a sound.
The sound of giddy laughter, like there was a joke waiting for him if he'd just, reach out for it.
And so, he did.
Daniel Earl is a speculative fiction writer. He blogs about speculative fiction and writing. Go figure.