This story was written for the Looking for Strange challenge “Heart“. It was submitted on January 7th 2010, and this is what I consider my first attempt at writing a more stripped down speculative fiction.
“Till death do us part,” Ivana said, to Gregor, from her hospital bed.
“I know. I know. But there is no money left.”
“In sickness and in health,” Ivana said.
Gregor looked away from his now frail wife lying in the bed in front of him. He did love her. Deep down in his heart he didn’t want her to die. But the money in their joint insurance fund had ran out. Gregor was already working double hours at the office to pay the debts that were starting to grow.
“I don’t want to die,” she said. “Sometimes I think that you have lost faith. Have you given up hope in my recovery dear Gregor?”
“No. I pray everyday,” Gregor lied.
It was her heart that was the problem. A virus had attacked it and the doctors removed her original heart to save the her life. Now Ivana, aged sixty, was being kept alive by an artificial heart, a clinical compressed air powered pump, that the doctors had implanted into her chest. Her only hope was a heart transplant. Either of a freshly grown heart which they couldn’t afford or the heart of someone who had recently died.
“What time is it?” asked Ivana.
“They’ll be doing the final rounds soon Gregor. A doctor and his students will come and study me. After they will move to the next sick person. I hate it here.”
“I know you do. But there’s nothing else we can do, is there? All we can do is wait for a heart to become available. We cannot afford to have one grown.”
“If you died, would you give me your heart?”
“Of course I would.”
“Do you think our daughter, Zora, would?”
“I have no doubt that if she could then she would.”
Gregor made an excuse. He had to leave. He needed to go outside for some fresh air and time alone. He was finding it harder to visit his wife. Emotionally Ivana had changed. She was depressed, and she was grasping for any opportunity that would save her life.
Outside Ivana’s room, in the corridor, Gregor smelled the industrial bleach they used to clean the building. He walked towards the hospital’s entrance and bought himself a coffee from a kiosk. In the smoking shelter outside the hospital he sat thinking.
If the money in the insurance fund ran out Ivana would be forced to rely on the state’s medical plan. No heart transplant then. Only a few months attached to the artificial heart would be likely. And any available organs would only be given to those healthier, younger and more likely to survive the implantation procedure.
For the money to remain in the insurance fund that would mean Gregor would be working double hours to pay the bills. If he got sick or had to stop working for any reason Ivana then would be moved over to the state provided coverage.
Except he couldn’t work all the time. He knew that. It was folly to assume that was possible. Gregor knew that he would get sick eventually. What if he had a heart attack?
A loan could be taken out to pay for Ivana’s treatment. Gregor considered this always. But the size of loan required would either bankrupt him or leave the debt on his daughter Zoya when he died.
He finished his coffee and walked back inside into the warm hospital. He had come to the conclusion that he always came to at the end of these breaks. All hope was lost and the soon Ivana was going to die. If she caught an infection she wouldn’t be able to fight it in her present state.
As he reached Ivana’s room her doctor was leaving. “Could I talk to you Doctor? I’m Gregor. Ivana’s husband. I have some questions.”
“Of course. Shall we just go into that room there? It should be unoccupied,” he said, pointing towards the room opposite Ivana’s.
Ivana’s doctor was young, and they had been told by their first consultant that was he was brilliant. He was also foreign and had a neat beard. Ivana complained about this sometimes. Gregor didn’t. He was grateful.
“Sit. Sit,” said the doctor, when he had closed the door to the room.
Gregor sat on the bed. The doctor sat in the chair near the window. “What is on your mind Gregor?”
“It’s about Ivana. Of course it is. What else would it be about? Doctor, what are her chances? I don’t see her getting a new heart in time. She does not have long does she?” Gregor said.
“Not good. She will never leave this hospital alive. All we can do is keep her as comfortable as possible and wait. There are are not enough hearts to go around. If you can’t afford to grow a replacement then I am sorry. I am sure that is not what you wanted to hear.”
“No, that is exactly what I needed to hear. It’s what I have been thinking for sometime now. Since she had the device installed to tell the truth. I should start making funeral plans shouldn’t I?”
“That would be wise,” the doctor said. “I have to go see other patients now.”
He left the room and Gregor returned to Ivana’s room. The room with its rhythmic click of a compressor powering her heart.
“You were gone a while. Is everything alright?”
“I’m sorry. I was just talking to your doctor.”
“What did he say?”
“That there is still hope. The weather is getting colder. He said that there are more accidents this time of year. More hearts.”
“That’s a good thing isn’t it? Even if it does mean someone else has to die and someone else’s family has to suffer.”
Gregor said nothing.
“Why hasn’t Zora come to visit?”
“She’s been working abroad. In England, doing a photo shoot, for a fashion magazine. She had to leave quickly and more work turned up,” Gregor lied again. It was a plausible lie since their daughter was a fashion photographer; but Zora was still in the city. She could not bring herself to visit her mother. Gregor had tried to reason with her. For the sake of her mother he’d argued. Zora had been brought to tears by the thought of seeing her mother in her current state and Gregor hadn’t wanted to press the issue.
“I understand. When you next speak to her tell her that I love her.”
A nurse knocked on the door and let herself in. “Mr Fischer, I’m afraid visiting hours are ending. Ivana needs as much rest as possible.”
“Can’t he stay a while longer?” Ivana asked.
“I’m afraid I’ve got to go dear. Work again tomorrow,” Gregor said. He kissed his hand and then put it to his wife’s face. “I’ll see you tomorrow. After work. Promise.”
He took the bus home and went to bed without supper. Early in the morning he received a phone call from the hospital. Ivana had died. Not a sudden infection and not a mechanical failure of the artificial heart. A stroke.
Gregor did not go into work that day or the next. He phoned Zora and she came to visit Gregor; they both mourned. He went to the hospital and went through the formalities of identifying his wife’s body and organising her death certificate. A funeral was arranged for the following week.