They say war is hell, but I’d gladly take that hell over the one I am currently living. To be back on those dusty windswept roads half a world away, racked with IEDs and hostile forces intent on beheading me seems almost a serene getaway now.

    One by one the lights dinged and the silent whir of the elevator droned onward. The sounds of cliché ambient polka music filled the room but did little to numb the cold clammy environment. I shuddered, a combination of the elongated work day finally ending with the anticipation of what was to come.                 

          Here I stand alone as always, rubbing the cold beads of sweat from my aching head. I need a shower. A nervous trembling sensation emanates from my gut. I would’ve thought that with the amount of times I’ve visited this place, I would’ve somewhat grown accustomed to it by now. The notion of course is ridiculous. No one could ever become accustomed to this.

      My watch reads 9:32 PM. Surprisingly early, considering the drawn out shifts of late. A long yawn escapes my lips, one of dozens throughout the last little while. My legs throb like undulating saplings and back creaks as if an elephant had been sitting on it all day. No not an elephant, a jackass. Work has been brutal as of late, mainly due to poor management planning and a budget stretched thinner than yoga pants on a buffalo. It’s nothing new though. Over the years, I’ve come to expect incompetence, especially from those entrusted with regulating it.  

         I’m getting too old for this, but on the bright side, I’ve only got another thirty years or so until retirement. My company has been on a strict schedule to complete the new renovations and as such all employees have been forced to bear the brunt of it. 10 hours… 12 hours… 14, 16, it doesn’t matter to them, all that matters is maintaining the schedule and the quotas. Funny how none of the manager’s or foremen ever seem to stay late though.

       I try to be thankful for the good hours, but you can only do that for so long before the feeling wears off. My hands, all cracked and scarred, covered in concrete dust and God knows what else. I suppose I should really count my blessings, after all I don’t get many these days. And every time I come to this place, that fact once again becomes blatantly obvious. At least I can still see her.

    Ding. The elevator finally ceases its ascension at the familiar spot, the 8th floor. The doors slowly creep open and again I’m greeted with that most disheartening of messages. 8th floor: Cancer Ward. A cold wave of dread washes through me like a frozen tundra, as the reality of my situation once again rears its ugly head. Despite the dozens of times I’ve journeyed through these cold hostile hallways, I could never become accustomed to them. The faux posters of smiling children draped upon the walls, the cold artificial atmosphere accompanied by mechanical whirring and beeping. The walls painted in bright cheery pinks and greens, but it can’t hide the reality. Its all a charade. A serene landscape portrait draped in front of a leaking nuclear reactor. I try to not let the cynicism take over, but it gets harder every day.

             I stroll through the halls, hearing the echo of every footstep from my steel toe boots. At the front desk sits a middle-aged woman with curly red hair and menagerie of freckles on her cheeks. She twirls a single lock of it with the tips of her fingers, head buried in a Cosmopolitan magazine. She glances up and gives a half-hearted smile when she sees me. I did my best to return the gesture, but both our eyes are lying. I wanted to say something to her, just a casual greeting of sorts. But before I could my body had already stridden past her and down the hall. Only a simple mutual nod between us. Moments later and there it is, Room 8C. The room which has now been seared into my memories.

          Slowly I crack the door open, never entirely prepared to witness what I know I will see there. The outline of a young girl sits on the bed in a standard hospital gown with a bright pink beanie. She stares intently into her book, not even noticing as I enter. I step through the door and make my way over to the bedside. She finally breaks her intent focus on her book, and looks to me with wide curious eyes. A frail smile formed on her petite face.

               “Hi daddy.” She says, voice weak from lack of use.

       “Hi babygirl.” I say stooping at the side of the bed. She leans in towards me, and I reach out and wrap my arms around her, holding her gently but snug. I cradle her close in my arms, while the tears beg to be released from my eyes. I stifle them back, but cannot help but break internally for her. I place a kiss on her head, and desperately try to maintain a hopeful attitude. We held one another close for a moment before slowly breaking apart. I didn’t want to let go, I never want those moments to end.

       I extend a hand and gently caress her face. Her cheeks appear emaciated, worn out from long battles with her treatments and the insidious curse which has now all but devoured her little body. Her once beautiful plump ebony cheeks have slowly been drained of color and volume, while the few strands of her once full head of curly hair she had left protruded from her pink beanie at random intervals and mismatched lengths.

              “How are you feeling honey?” I ask, sitting down carefully beside her in the chair.

       “I feel okay. I got sick earlier, but I felt better after the ice cream.” I smile at her, and she smiles back.

              “Ice cream makes everything better huh?” I ask.

       “Mmmhmm.” Ella nods while tightly clutching her book, no doubt eager to delve back in.

      “What are you reading today?” Ella looks down again at her book, suddenly excited.

         “It’s Called ‘Aminal Farm’, nurse Sarah gave it to me.” I smile at her adorable mispronunciation of the word “Animal”, finding it indeed quite cute.

   “Oh, did she? That was nice of her. What’s it about?” I do in fact know the book, and it kind’ve surprises me that she actually likes it to be honest. Guess it’s never too early to start teaching kids about the dangers of subtle political tyranny.

       “It’s got funny aminals that have a city in the farm. The pigs are the rulers, but they don’t treat the other aminals very nicely.” Ella extends both hands with the book towards me. A “matter of fact” look upon her face. I smile and accept the gift.

        “That’s really neat.” I say beginning to glance through the book. Ella has always loved to read, learning very early at the meager age of four. Can you believe that? 4 years old. I certainly couldn’t. She seemed to take to it like an eagle to the skies, like she was born for it. I was always kind’ve astounded by it. She’s never even really asked for Barbie dolls or dress clothes for her birthdays or Christmas. Instead she just wants books by Mark Twain, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. Its all that seems to occupy her inquisitive little mind, and I am more than happy to oblige. Don’t know where she gets it from, as neither me nor her mother have ever really been much in the way of reading.

    “I made something for you daddy.” Ella quickly turned to her side table, doing her best to not disrupt the various IV’s and medical devices which intertwined like spider webs into her small body. She slowly pulled a large piece of paper onto her bed. Upon it was a detailed portrait of a man, a woman and a girl at the beach. It was scrawled with water color paints, and held surprising detail.

            “That’s beautiful honey, did you paint this today?” I ask, admiring the picture as well as the few spackles of fresh paint on her hands which incriminate her.

       “Yeah, it’s from when we went to the beach with mommy and grandpa, do you remember?” My mind was suddenly flooded with a plethora of memories from the vacation we had taken at the end of last summer. The beautiful coast of Daytona beach is never far from my mind. The white sandy beaches, cooling ocean breeze and beaming rays of revitalizing sun. The carefree environment was always a recipe for bliss, plus the complimentary drinks from the local hotel doesn’t hurt either. And I guess seeing the rest of the family is nice to. It was a simpler time with simpler pleasures. Before the harsh realities of life had gained a stranglehold, and before Ella’s diagnosis.

            “That was the best vacation ever.” I responded. I glanced back over at her, but she had already buried her nose back into her book.

       “This is really good honey. I think we need to get you in the art show. We may have the next Picasso on our hands.” I quipped to her with a smirk. Ella suddenly jolted up from her book.

        “No daddy!” She protested with vigorous shakes of her head. I sat there a moment, slightly surprised by her sudden outburst.

          “Picasso painted scary pictures….” Ella said while crossing her little arms and looking slightly ashamed that she had to admit it. I chuckled slightly. I mean, he kind’ve did after all.

          “So, who do you want to paint like then?” I asked her. Ella seemed to ponder the question a moment.

       “I want to paint like me…”She finally responded. Oh Ella, always the iron willed one with a surprisingly well-developed sense of purpose. She definitely takes after her mother that way.

           “Well ok then, what are we gonna call you? Ella van Gogh?” I joked, but she was not impressed.

           “No daddy I want my real name on the pictures, otherwise they won’t know it’s me!” Ella said in a suddenly animated tone while extending her little arms upwards to emphasize her point.

            “Yeah I guess we can’t have that.” I said with another slight chuckle. I reached over to her, caressing her worn cheek with my hand.

    “Have you heard from mommy?” Ella suddenly asked, her disposition changing to one of inquisition. The question caught me a bit off guard. I silently cursed myself for not anticipating the question. I sighed and rubbed my neck, knowing that Ella would not be able to fully understand the complexity of the situation.

    “Honey…Mommy is… very sick right now. She wants to be here but she can’t.” I hated how the words tasted as they left my mouth. It wasn’t the truth, not the full truth at least, but for Ella’s sake I hoped she would accept it. She didn’t deserve to wonder why her mother hadn’t come to see her in months. She had enough things to deal with as it was. Ella nodded in a very grown up manner, doing her best to convey the feeling of understanding. But there was no hiding the shimmer of disappointment in her caramel eyes.

          “Well if mommy is sick then shouldn’t she be in the hospital too?”     

         Ella asked curiously. I thought for a moment, despising the fact that I had to lie to cover my former wife’s tracks.

          “Yes, she should be.” He responded while caressing her head. I spoke the words, but truth be told I haven’t the faintest idea where her mother is. It’s been weeks since I’ve last heard from her, and to be honest, I’m not exactly holding my breath. Sure, I once had loved her, would’ve done anything for her, but a person can only take so much.

                 What does infuriate me though, is the apathy of my ex-wife which manifested as a disappointed look on Ella’s face. I reached out and clutched her little hand, trying to comfort her. The look of sorrow in her eyes is enough to shatter what remains of my heart. Ella sat back in her bed, fumbling the book in her hands.

               I wish so bad to be able to comfort her. To hold her close and tell her everything is going to be okay. To hold her close and forget the world for a while, it’s all I want now. But that’s not how these things go. We sat and talked for a while longer. Ella talked about the dreams she had, and her desire to one day have her paintings in a museum. I listened intently to every word she was willing to share, just so happy to spend whatever time I am able with her.

    After a while of listening I again checked my watch, noticing it was now well past 11. I still have a half an hour drive back home, and I do unfortunately have to sleep at some point. I looked to Ella, a somber grimace on my face. She seemed to know what it meant before I even spoke.

                “You have to go?” Ella asked with a slight quiver in her voice. I slowly nodded, wishing the words were not true. Unfortunately for us both, the bills have long since been piling up. I won’t lie, my financial situation sort of teeters on the brink right now. Twenty thousand a month in hospital bills will do that to a person. The money is nothing obviously, I would give it all a thousand times over if I could spend even one more second with her. But some part of me has to also think about my own future.

          “Do you have to work tomorrow?” She looked down beginning to flip through the various books which had been piling up on her bed.

            “Yeah…” I said rubbing my brow.

                   “Lucky…” Ella stated with a hint of jealousy in her tone.

         “You want to go to work now do ya?” I asked with a chuckle.

                  “Yes! Anything beats being here! It’s so boring and I’m tired of it. When can we go home?” The question hurts more every time she asks it. It was a question I know is always just around the corner, but I still haven’t been able to come up with a good response. I don’t have the heart to tell her of the severity of her situation.

           “Soon baby, very soon. We just have to let you get better first.” I answered in a mellow tone, knowing the amount of times I’ve had to repeat the answer had begun to wear the response thin. Ella had begun to grow less and less satisfied with each successive answer.

         “That’s what you said last time… I feel better now I really do.” Ella puffed out her lips and stared longingly with puppy dog eyes, a look that would make any father weak. I put my hand up to Ella’s emaciated cheek, gently caressing it as I looked at her and feigned a gentle smile.

        “I promise it will be soon honey, just be strong for me ok?” Ella looked down, unimpressed with the answer but spoke in a hushed and defeated tone.

       “Ok, will you come back tomorrow?” She asked.

          “Of course, honey, you are my favorite little artist after all. No one I would rather be with.” I gave her a genuine smile as big as I could muster, a gesture which Ella returned. She instantly dove her small balding head into my chest and I wrapped my arms around her. We hugged for a long while, before I kissed her forehead and got up to leave. All the while trying my best to hide the tears which had begun to drip from my eyes. I turned back to get one last look at my daughter before saying farewell for the night. Ella smiled as best she could, and raised her hand to blow a kiss.

                      The walk back down the hallway was even more harrowing than the walk in. I traced my footsteps back out, taking note of a new nurse who now occupied the front desk. The woman sat silently, nose in her book, with her circle cut glasses placed firmly against the bridge of her nose. Her name is Sarah, and she is truly a ray of sunlight in that otherwise grim place. How she can manage to put on a smile day in and day out is beyond me. The mental stress of dealing with children with horrendous diseases, and the relentless hours must be tough. But the worst of It had to be knowing that many of the adorable little faces who entered there, would never leave. It was a prospect entirely too painful for me to even comprehend.  

            “Hey Sarah.” I said listlessly. She perked up with a slight jump, but laughed it off and turned in my direction. A warm and affectionate smile forming quickly on her face.

             “Oh Dante, my goodness you scared the wits outta me.” She said with a good hearty laugh. I smiled feeling slightly embarrassed for accidently sneaking up.

    “Sorry…” I responded embarrassed.

         “Oh no no, I should’ve been on high alert, but I didn’t expect anyone else to be here this late. How are you doing?” She asked in a tone which conveyed the upmost sympathy. I shrugged and took a deep breath.

                “Ahh I’m alright, how’s the family?” I asked.

          “Oh they’re doing just fine. Cassie’s in soccer and Dale is away on a conference. You been holding up okay?” She asked with a hint of concern in her hazel eyes.

           “Yeah, we’re hanging in there, just taking it one day at a time you know.” I responded. Sarah smiled and her eyes wrinkled, but it was not a smile of happiness. Rather one which held back a sadness which she had grown all too accustomed to. Of course, she was all too aware of Ella’s situation as well. I’m truly thankful for her, and the strength she continues to display.

     “Well, I do hope so. Ella is so lucky to have such a wonderful father as you.” Her words made me choke up slightly, but I quickly regained my composure and brushed it off.

         “Yeah, she’s my little trooper.” My lower lip curled slightly inward, despite my attempts to prevent it.

               “Well, I just want you to know I’m always praying for you both. And if there’s ever anything I can do to help, whatever it is you need you ask me. Okay?” Sarah smiled again, this time a glowing smile which exuded the warmth as only a compassionate loving soul could display. I did my best to mirror it, but know I came nowhere close.

             “Thank you Sarah, you have been amazing. I don’t know how to thank you.” I said.

        “Oh, don’t you worry about that. Just stay strong okay?” With a final farewell nod and promises to stay in close contact, I left the lobby and once again approached the elevator. Before entering however, I noticed something. A single solitary man sat at the end of the hallway, inattentive and with his head buried in his newspaper. He was a white man with greyish white hair which protruded from the sides underneath his fedora. I thought it was odd that a man was sitting all alone that late at night by himself, but thought little of it as the elevator opened.

          Soon the hospital was but a distant shape in the rearview mirror and the loneliness again began to set in. Out of the city and into the backroads which led back home I drove. Mile upon mile of nothing but barren fields were all to comfort me on the way. The oppressive darkness which loomed all around was never a welcome sight, but a grim reminder of the reality of my home life. The once vibrant house filled with the sounds of laughter and the smells of freshly prepared delicacies were nothing but a forlorn memory to me now. Another time from another life.

            I pulled into the secluded drive at about a quarter to midnight. The neighborhood lay shrouded by night without a single indication of another waking denizen. I turned off the truck and proceeded to the front door.

      “Gutter’s need to be cleaned out.” I thought to myself while inspecting the old house. Truth be told, a lot of the house was in need of some upkeep, but of course it had gone on neglected for quite some time. After all, who has time to do the dishes when a tornado is on the horizon?

       Before I had even reached the front door, the distinct and familiar repetitive pitter-patter of excited feet echoed from within the house. I couldn’t help but smile knowing the warm welcome that awaited inside.

            I opened the door to be met with the sight of a pair of brown eyes and a furiously wagging tail.

         “Hi Alva.” I said while kneeling down to embrace my loyal canine friend. Alva whined excitedly and lovingly accosted my face with a barrage of tongue swipes. I laughed and pet her soft fluffy mane while hugging her tightly. Moments later another furry friend came into view. The second and older of the two German Sheppard’s slowly trotted up. The years had worn on him, and the greying of his shaggy coat was evidence of that. But he never failed to show up and comfort after a tough day.

             “Abraham…come here buddy.” I said as old Abe slowly sauntered up. Abe rubbed up against me and I reached an arm around him as well to hold both dogs in a hug. After a couple seconds of well needed cuddle therapy I arose and moved towards the kitchen.

                  Pots, pans and dishes lay scattered about the kitchen, with open cereal boxes and fast food bags scattered about as well. The family house which had stood tall for decades now serves now only to remind me how alone I truly am. Where once my family had spread their roots, now stood only as a monument to the good times gone. The old oak floors that creaked with every step and seem to echo much louder now, adding to the flurry of lonesome thoughts. My only comfort now, my two faithful hairy friends and a good glass of brandy, which seems to disappear a lot quicker nowadays. I pulled the bottle of Korbel from the cupboard and poured myself a drink. I let both dogs out for a quick pee, and sipped the bitter brandy from the glass. For a moment a fleeting thought of a speedy clean up crossed my mind, but it was quickly banished in favor of a much-needed and more-desired relaxation.

        Drink in hand, me and my loyal companions headed to the stairs and retired up to the bedroom. The old stairs creaked and groaned with every step, but their cries went unnoticed. I know I am way behind on home maintenance. The paint has started to chip on the outside, the guest room plumbing has been out for months and the back deck needs heavy repairs. If only those were the only worries I could focus on again. I long for the days when such simple tasks were the only things precluding my mind. Everything has gone by so fast, and what were once monumental issues now appeared only as drops in a vast unsympathetic ocean. The pipes are old and rusted like ancient aqueducts, and I’m pretty sure there is a leak in the attic. I can smell the foul mildew scent each time I pass the attic door, and yet I could not care less at this moment.

                   I flung open the door to my bedroom and stepped inside, removing the dusty work coat and splintering boots. Alva immediately approached the foot of the bed and lay in her usual spot, on a small nest built with pillows and an old blanket or two. Abraham was more hesitant though, eyeing me with empathetic brown eyes. I sauntered towards the closet, giving Abe a quick scratch on the head as I passed.

                I reached the top shelf of the closet and soon found the object I was looking for. Its something that always brings me comfort. I retracted my arm slowly, taking care not to damage the item. It was an old photo album with pictures and memories saved from years past. I plopped down on the bed and opened it. I spent a few minutes flipping through the old leather archive as I often do, all the while sipping the sour drink. A flood of nostalgia came rushing back to me in that moment.

     My old wedding photos, of me and Janelle were first. Despite the souring of our relationship, I still look fondly upon the memories I once shared with the woman I used to know. The pictures of us on our honeymoon trip to Kauai, and the annual trips to California to see Ella’s grandparents. Some part of me still holds out hope for her, but I know it is likely nothing but a pipedream.

     Then there were the pictures of Ella graduating from kindergarten. She stood with a beaming smile upon her face, clad in her blue hat and little blue robe. I remember the day fondly. We had invited all her little classmates back to our house for a celebration. The kids played their games and ate cake, and Ella really seemed to love it all. Yes, one kid named Devon accidently broke a lamp with the football, but all in all it was a wonderful day for all of them. Tears began to gently drift from my eyes, as I continued to flip through the pages. Where once I had everything, I was now alone. My perfect little family torn asunder by the cruel hands of fate.

             It had been almost two years since Ella’s diagnosis had been first caught. The cancer: which doctors identified as neuroblastoma, had infected her little body and begun wreaking havoc upon her central nervous system. Half a dozen surgeries and an ongoing chemotherapy regiment had unfortunately done very little to halt her suffering. Doctors still hold out hope, as do we all, but the disease seems highly resistant. I’m always reminded of that old Nirvana song: the one where he sings about eating your cancer. I understand it now. I would do anything to take this wretched disease from her, but life rarely gives us those options.

                  I placed the photo album back upon the shelf and felt around the area for another old treasure. My hand fumbled for a moment, until it brushed against the cold steel of an unseen object above. I withdrew it, and cradled the small black snub nosed 38 special in my hands. What a beautiful little device it is.

       I polished the pistol with my sleeve and spun the chamber several times. It’s been years since I have last gone shooting, or even really thought about it. But that pistol’s purpose is entirely different. It is my saving grace. If ever things became too much, I always have a way out. My last line of defense from an apathetic world which I may soon have no reason to remain in anymore. I find myself reasserting the promise in my mind yet again. My daughter, my only child, I refuse to let her face the howling dark alone. And so, I promise myself once more.

    “If Ella goes, I follow.”