Dragon House - By John Shors


The Dreams of Another

The hospital room looked as ill as the patient it housed. Though everything was the color of fresh snow, the room’s walls, ceiling, floor, and linens seemed tainted—as if the stains of misery and death had been scrubbed from them too many times. The room smelled not of life, but of chemicals and atrophy. Several bouquets of once-proud flowers leaned limply. Balloons that no longer tugged against their moorings hung in the stale air.

A man who looked older than his sixty-one years lay atop the room’s only bed. He had been a large man, but now only the length of his frame hinted of the shadow he’d once cast. Clear tubes darted into his nose, the back of his hands. A razor hadn’t slid over his face in more than a week, and a gray-and-white beard obscured the blemishes of time that dotted his skin.

His daughter sat beside his bed. She was taller than an average-size man, though her shoulders and waist were slender. Her eyes were as dark as walnuts. Her hair, a comparable color, was unkempt and rife with wide curls. Her face was thin like the rest of her. After thirty-one years of wear, the contours of her forehead and cheeks had been infiltrated by faint wrinkles. At first glance she might have appeared awkward, but when she leaned forward to adjust his blankets, her movements were graceful.

“Are you still cold?” she asked, looking at a bag of clear fluid that hung from a steel post beside him. Her gaze followed a tube that ran from the bag into his flesh. “I could ask for another blanket,” she added, wishing that he weren’t so emaciated, that cancer hadn’t already claimed so much of him.

He tried with little success to shake his head. His forefinger rose and her hand found his. “Do you remember,” he asked faintly, “why I . . . why we chose your name?”

Iris had heard the story and nodded. “But tell me again.”

“I wanted a reminder of the good in the world.”

“Was I?”

“You are . . . the good in the world.”

She smiled, wiping a tear from her cheek with her free hand. “Can I get you anything? Anything at all?”

He closed his eyes, appearing to fall asleep. He soon began to mumble and groan. He continued conversing with someone, though she wasn’t sure whom. She sensed him fading away from her, falling into a distant world, and she leaned closer to him, squeezing his hand. Her grip seemed to bring him back. He opened his eyes. He studied her, recognizing her once again. “I’m sorry. . . . I failed you. Sorry I didn’t . . . give you what I wanted to.”

“Don’t be—”

“My baby girl. My sweet baby girl. I made . . . such a mess of things.”

She brought his hand to her lips, kissing it. “I don’t want you to be sorry. You did your best. That’s what matters.”

“I thought . . . I could leave the war. Be good to your mother. To you. And I tried so hard . . . to leave it.” His eyes glistened. His lips quivered.

She leaned over him, kissing his brow. “I love you.”

He moaned faintly. She’d been told that the painkillers had numbed him to suffering, but still, she worried.

“We had some good times . . . didn’t we?” he asked, his voice no stronger than the rustle of wind passing through leafless limbs.

“Of course we did.”

He nodded.

She realized that he needed to hear about such times, needed to be reminded of what he’d done right. “I remember sitting on your shoulders,” she said, “and walking to Cubs games. Listening to the crowd. Looking at all that grass. I loved those games. Do you know how special I felt? How lucky? I never wanted those afternoons to end.”

A smile, feeble yet poignant, lit his face. “What else?”

She adjusted his pillow, stroked his hair to one side. “I loved it when you picked me up from school. When you took my hand and we walked to the ice-cream store. And you taught me how to ride a bike, and how to put a worm on a hook.” She recalled a photo of the two of them holding a basket of bass, and her eyes began to tear again.

“Don’t cry, my sweet Iris.”

“I don’t want you to go. I’m just not ready for that.”

“I’m so proud of you. Proud that you escaped . . . the world I made for you. Proud