Counter

He hocked up a ball of phlegm and blood and spat it into the bathroom sink. The tinny, salty taste lingered even after mouthwash. His cheeks ached from a night of crying and his eyes were bloodshot, but he forced a smile at the reflection in his mold-spotted mirror. It held for a few beats, quivered at the sides, and drooped like old elastic.

He shuffled his way back to bed. His feet were so numb on the freezing wooden floorboards that he barely noticed the empty Jack Daniels bottle he sent spinning across the room. Crawling back beneath the heavy covers, he tucked the edges under his body.

The room smelt of dirty laundry despite two sticks of cinnamon incense burning on the mantelpiece. Behind the walls the water boiler ticked and banged as it tried to heat up.

The internal fan of his laptop whirred to life. The screen flashed on, revealing a low battery warning and the website he had last been browsing: the comments page of his blog, Never Treat Others. His latest entry – a post about his illness – had three new responses.

‘This is so sad. Feel free to message me anytime.’ – maryjaneND

‘I really admire how honest your able to be about what your going through.’ – tomdawson

‘u dont no me but ive been following ur blog for a while i live in ann arbor too. ur post made me cry . my uncle went thru the same thing. if u ever want to talk or something send me a pm. amy xoxo.’ – wordsonapage

He clicked on the last one and went straight to her photos. The profile picture showed her lying on her front. There was a sepia filter over it. A swell of euphoria rose and fell in him. It reminded him of Leila’s self-portraits. The futures he used to dream about with her, and entertained with someone new like this, were now impossible. The six months Dr. Carter had given him had long since past.

He didn’t know the people behind the usernames and they didn’t know him. He told them about the symptoms and the pain. Those were real. But the ongoing medical treatment, the ever-present family and friends – those weren’t.

Leila died last year. Without her, he had little else to hold him up.

He withdrew from treatment less than a month later.

The backlight of his laptop dimmed. Its power was getting low. He glanced across the room at the coiled up charger on his mustard corduroy pants. An old cereal bowl festered with mold beside it. The single-pane windows above were covered in snow.

The laptop powered down.