At The Orange Light
A short story
“Red or Green?”
The room was a gentle white. The floor smooth. The lights off. Two chairs against the window. The traffic light outside across the street flashed red. No words followed.
Valerie sat in one chair. She didn’t like the quiet. She watched the traffic light turn green. She waited for him to sit down, but he only lingered. He was getting weaker, and she knew what that meant. But he had to hold on. “Red or Green,” she asked again.
“Val,” he said. “I don’t want to play anymore. We’ve talked for weeks. Nothing’s changed.” She heard the sadness in his voice. “There is nothing left to say,” he added.
“Everything’s changed, Ben.” Valerie stared out the window, struggling to hold the tears back. “Everyone’s changed.”
“Then, why talk about the past?” He finally sat in the chair. “Why talk about yesterday?”
“Because there’s no today.” Valerie wiped her tears aside. She forced a smile, touching his hand. “Come on. In the beginning, we didn’t say a word to each other, but we were here. Then, we noticed the traffic light outside. You always liked green, so on the green, you would talk about your life. On the red, I would talk about mine.”
“I’m tired, Val.” He patted her hand. “I’m very tired.” He pulled his hand away, but Valerie grabbed hold of it. “I think it’s time, Val.”
“So, what, that’s it? You’re going to leave me here all alone.” Valerie’s grip tightened over his hand. “What about your wife?”
“I don’t even know if she is alive.”
“I pray that they and my grandchildren are safe. I hope that they are not fools like the ones on the news that I hear about out in the hall. I can only pray that they are safe and well.”
“Don’t you want to see them again, Ben?”
“Do you think that I don’t?” Anger. That was good. He looked more alive. “My granddaughter is turning three tomorrow. She is not going to remember me. The only thing that she’ll have to know that I existed are pictures and stories. That kills me.” He flinched at his last words. “No one was ready for this.”
“None of us were.” Valerie finally let go of his hand. She looked at the traffic light. Red. “I’m not even forty yet, and the GYN last year told me that I couldn’t have kids.” She noted the look of surprise on Ben’s face. “That hurt me more than I thought it did.”
“Did you want kids,” Ben asked.
“Not at first. Then, I thought about it. Then, I decided that it was for the best. My life was… is, not the most stable kind. What kind of mother would I be? Now? Now, I wish I had at least one child, but look at the world today. How could I do that to her?”
“I would have liked a daughter.”
“If it was a boy?”
“I guess it wouldn’t matter, but it doesn’t matter.”
“What about the guy that you were living with?”
Valerie watched the traffic light turn green. “Your turn.”
“I don’t dream anymore.” Ben stood up from his chair. “They say that when you have the virus, you have vivid dreams. I did in the beginning, but since this week, nothing. I feel nothing.” He looked weak again. “I feel numb.” He looked past her, away from the window. “My mind is quiet, so is my heart.”
Valerie brushed a tear aside. Red. “I lived with Mason for two years. He never wanted kids. He always asked, if I took precautions. Precautions like sex was a fucking disease. The more I think about Mason, the more I realize he was an ass. He controlled me, and I didn’t realize it. I hope he gets sick, and I hope he dies.”
“Valerie.” She flinched at Ben’s tone. “Don’t say that.”
“He never loved me, Ben. All the guys that I’ve been with? None of them loved me. I don’t know what love is. Maybe, if I could have had a kid, that would change, but I’m sick. We’re sick, and we’ve been stuck in this damn room for too long.” Valerie cried. “Maybe, we’re not going to get out.”
Ben embraced her. He felt so cold like he was already gone. His arms tightened around her. She hugged him back, and she cried against his chest. Maybe, her cries would touch his heart, bring him back. Please, God, let him stay with her.
“I love you,” Ben whispered into her ear, making her smile.
“You don’t even know me.” Valerie laughed.
“I know you.” Ben sat down beside her. “If not for our conversations, playing Red or Green, I would have been lost. I would have already been gone.” He moved back into his seat, and a look passed over his face. A look that she did not like. “You can’t hold onto me, Val, and I can’t hold on. Everything feels like it is slipping away.”
“Try!” Valerie grabbed hold of his arm. “Please. For me. Try,” she said.
“I was amazed that I awoke this morning. I didn’t think I would. I thought last night was it. I’m sorry.” He looked at her, and his stare cut through her heart. “You’ve heard the news. The death toll. So many of us are gone, and for what? Why? Why did this have to happen to us?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry that I kept saying things were quiet when this horrible thing was beginning.”
“It’s not your fault, Val.”
“Yes, it is. I should never have said that things were quiet. You just jinx yourself.”
“Okay. It’s your fault.” He saw the surprise on her face and laughed. She laughed with him. “Life happens, and that’s it. We deal with it, and we hope to survive.”
“Until it breaks us down again.”
“That’s life.” Ben patted her hand. “Green.” He looked over his shoulder at the traffic light. “I need you to do me a favor.”
“Please, Val. I need you to find my wife. Tell her that my last thoughts were of her.”
“Ben, please. Please, don’t ask that of me.”
“Find her, Val. Tell her that I know that she couldn’t visit me here. They wouldn’t let her in, but I never blamed her for that. I never stopped loving her or my children or my grandchildren.” He watched the tears fall down Valerie’s face. “Thank you, Val. Thank you for being my friend.”
“I’ll tell her.” Valerie wiped her tears away, but they kept coming. “Thank you for being my friend, Ben. I would have gone crazy here, if not for you.”
“I’m sure that you will return home soon.” Ben watched the traffic light change, but he was done talking. He had nothing left to say. He closed his eyes, and a song filled his head. “Two drifters, off to see the world. There’s such a lot of world to see. We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waitin round…”
Valerie stared at the empty chair. She wiped her tears away. She focused on the traffic light outside across the street. She listened to the footsteps hurry into the room. She flinched at the voice that shrieked, “Someone, call the doctor!”
Valerie drew in a breath, trying to steady herself. Her tears stopped. She watched the light turn from red to green and green to red. She would have to get used to being alone now, but she wouldn’t forget him. She would not forget Ben, and she would find his wife. She would tell his wife how much Ben loved her. If only someone had loved her that much.
“He’s alive!” Those words sent an icy chill through Valerie. “We need to get him off the ventilator.”
“What about the other one?” Valerie closed her eyes. “How is she doing?” A tear slipped down Valerie’s face.
“Red or Green,” Valerie asked herself. “Red,” and the sound of a flatline filled the room.