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Ten minutes to midnight

I can hear him rustling around in the next room, where we've put his bed now that stairs are no longer navigable. All the lights are out but for a night light in the kitchen and a reading lamp here in the living room, so it takes me a moment to focus on him. He stands unsteadily in the hallway.

"Do you need anything?" I ask. He nods, mutters that some water would be nice, forgetting that he has a full squeeze bottle on his bedside table. I grab the bottle, empty and rinse it, then refill it from the tap. "Ice?" I ask, pointing at the open freezer door. He can't hear me, with his hearing aid lying inert on the side table, but my request seems obvious enough. He steadies himself against the kitchen cupboards, looking into the darkened living room, suddenly unsure of himself, unsure of his purpose. His gaze has been beginning to wander a lot these last few days, arcing over whomever he's talking to, his head tilted back as though he's addressing the ceiling. I add an ice cube anyway, close the freezer, thread the cap back on the plastic bottle with millileter markings laddered up the side, and lead him back to bed, setting the bottle down on the bedside table.

He reaches for it, looks up at me. "Is this the water you just fixed me?" I just nod.

"It's some crazy situation," he says, or maybe something like "some fix we're in." That would be more his kind of phrase.

"It's hard to believe this is happening right now," he continues, and I think he means "right now" to mean "in real time," and I imagine him somewhere far above it all, outside of time itself, maybe gifted with the perspective of having already died, on some other level, and watching it all roll out in unreal time; blessed with the novelist's vision of knowing how and when it all ends, unlike the rest of us mortal suckers sweating it out to the ticking of the clock and the tearing of the calendar.

"I get the sense that they're just counting the days," he says, "waiting until it falls, until it has to come down."

Is he talking about dying? I start to nod, but then I hold back – no doctors have come to parcel out his days; no one is counting down. No one dares. I suddenly have no idea what he's talking about. It's like last night's question to me – or maybe it was the day before; my hours bleed together almost as much as his must – about the article he thought I was writing about plants and counting, to which I had to nod my head blankly. We aren't like this often, but now and then we find ourselves in these curious little cul-de-sacs, feedback loops of nonsequiturs.

"The painting," he says, and as he says it I can see his eyes cloud over. He's clearly confused by the dream shadow himself, losing the thread. "But it's probably a lot easier for you to read the article," he says, almost apologetic. And then, without warning, he's clear: "Did you and Mom watch a couple of movies tonight?"

I nod, sit there caressing his hand. "Are you going home tomorrow?" No, I tell him, not even bothering to remind him that tomorrow is Christmas day, the ostensible reason I'm here in the first place, or at least the reason I should have been here, any normal year. "I'm not going anywhere any time soon," I say, and I realize that it's true. Mexico is out, the gig I'm supposed to play is out; I'm here for the duration. I'm starting to hate words like "duration."

It's all confused. He's confused; I'm almost as lost, never quite knowing what he wants. He checks his watch, swallows his water. Swallowing is hard. "I'm burping a lot," he sort of croaks, looking confused at that too. "Maybe it was the ginger ale earlier," I almost sort of mutter, lamely, wondering how long a body takes to break down.

"You get some sleep," I half speak, half pantomime, and he agrees, but then sits up in bed. "I can't come over there to embrace you, so…" He sort of wavers there. I lean over his bed, hug him, kiss his cheek. He seems surprised that it was that easy; estimating space has become more difficult at times than actually navigating it. He lies back, fumbling with the quilt, and with the light off I pull it up around him and let him be. From the next room I can hear him struggling to breathe, clearing his throat. I hope that sleep comes soon, sleep that doesn't blur the border to waking, sleep without the dreams that confuse. I'm afraid to hope beyond that. Tonight, sleep is enough to ask for. Anything more is unthinkable, even though the unthinkable is getting more familiar with every passing day.