by N. Anne McDonough

"One of the greatest diseases is to be nobody to anybody." -Mother Theresa

The old man wakes, his ancient heart quakes, and his frail hands shake but he knows he's not ready tonight.

He rolls his sagging body over to check the campy 1970s alarm clock, it tells him 7:30. "Shit," he mutters to himself, "another 3 AM wake-up call from hell." As the old man gets out of bed, the cracking of his brittle bones and the creaking of his moth-eaten mattress are harmonious. Sweat drips off his decrepit body and seeps into the box-spring to blend with that of previous insomniacs. A violent quiver starts down his arm until the man taps the clock three times. Relief fills him but he knows he can't hold on much longer. His father, self-diagnosed with the same lifelong disease of desire, taught him to always use the same medicine but never the same pharmacy.

The man, at the cruel old age of 89, stands at a fragile 6'9" but a lifetime filled with brutality has hunched him at a meager 5'8". He has an asymmetrical pair of cold, faded blue eyes that are sagging into his tired, creased face. His voice is kind but insincere- his words filled with a fire that has long since been burning. He is all alone

He walks across the faded floorboards; they were once vibrant but after years of constant abuse, have faded and sagged. As a boy, he had imagined his grandfather's handmade hammer beating down on the nails to keep the house together just as the old man's father had beat down on him. At the memory, a silent tear rolls down the old man's face, swimming through the wrinkles and resting on his cracked mouth.

He grabs the door knob three times and enters the hallway. He is tempted to skip the cycle of his isolationist lifestyle and start over. But he knows better, giving in to temptation would not give him new life, it would just end hers a little more quickly. And so he paces the long, empty hallway three times, grabs the door handle three times, and enters the room dedicated to the triumphs of his disease. The old man starts to writhe and twitch, his eyes gloss over and he begins to squeeze his hands, pulsing them open, close, open, close, open, and close. He opens his eyes and runs toward the only piece of furniture in the large room, a dark, wooden chest. He unlocks the chest and touches every bracelet, necklace, and lock of hair he can get his furrowed fingers on. Deep inside his tainted brain, he hoped this would delay his next bout of illness but there is no hope. He needs to be medicated and soon.

The next morning comes far too quickly. The old man awakes with a jump. He doesn't need to look at the broken clock, he knows it's the third insomnia attack, it's 3 AM. He scrambles across across the room, over the floorboard, touches the doorknob- one! two! three!- and races down the winding stairs. A second wind for this 83-year-old hermit comes every third Tuesday of the month. As he drives through town trying to find a new pharmacy, a broad smile crosses his face. Buried lines erupt placing much needed parentheses on his shriveled face. He almost looks presentable, happy, like he has admiring grandchildren and warm cookies to go home to. He isn't. He doesn't.

He finds a horrible parking spot, covered in shadows and thorny bushes, in the worst part of the city. He walks slowly in front of the nearest rundown church, there are plenty here, and grins wildly. The old man is going to make sure He sees this time. His eyes scan the nightwalkers, eliminating the hookers and drug dealers. His eyes fall upon a small young woman walking his way. 5' 2'', maybe. Perfectly round, bright blue eyes and golden, long hair. "The perfect medicine," he mutters.

"What?" she asks.

"Excuse me, miss." he tries his best to seem sincere, "Could you help me up these stairs?"

She's tempted to explain that the church has been closed for quite sometime but she pities him. He feels her pity and resents it. She lightly holds his bony back with her right hand and her left hand holds his frail elbow. Her tiny frame is open, she is distracted. He reaches his right hand into his shallow, cotton pockets. He feels the three-inch steel blade, passes it between his fingers. They make it up the stairs after a few minutes of mild struggling. She leans forward to open the door, he makes his move. He plunges the knife into her stomach. She lets out a low grunt and he feels the familiar warmth of medicine pour all over his fingers. She falls to the ground and he plunges the knife into her stomach for a second time.

He is struck with flashbacks of his first dose, he had become so attached to his mother in the first meaningless six years of his life but that feeling soon ended. He took the knife out of his own father's hand and felt the great wave of blood pour onto his young skin. He could never recreate this first taste of medicine.

He waited until the life had flown out of the motionless young woman's body and onto his hands. Relief seeps in through his pores but he knows this quick fix can't mask his growing appetite.

The old man wipes the sick grin from his face and begins to walk back to his car. On his way, he returns to the familiar frail man. His youthfulness has gone, he is now the sad, average, elderly man. There is a new crease in his forehead, another layer of distance over his eyes, and a blatant insincerity to his carefully chosen words. Limping past the old church, he falls to his knees. The old man wakes, his ancient heart quakes, and his frail hands shake and he knows he will have to do it again.

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