Diego – Short Story
In today’s post I am going a bit darker. This is a short story I wrote few years ago when a number of troubling things were happening at the same time. The final catalyst was the sudden death of a beloved dog. Why that led to this story I cannot tell you. Who of us truly understands how the writer’s mind works? I certainly do not. In any case, from tragedy, Diego was born.
The movies romanticize death. They lead us to believe that death is this beautiful, if not magical, event. We want to believe that there is some sort of otherworldly transformation when one reaches the end of his life. We imagine that death is a sacred and ceremonial event. The truth is, death is nothing. In a second, life becomes death with no fan fair or revelations or transformations. I know this because I was there the day my best friend died.
It did not happen suddenly. I was in doubt at first as I sat with him, occasionally reaching out to stroke his hand. My mind told me for several minutes that his chest was still slowly moving up and down, even though it had long stopped. I could still see it. The fact was, he was gone. His lungs had stopped taking in air. His heart had stopped beating. Beside me on the sofa was the shell of the man who once meant everything to me.
In all honesty, it is ironic that I was there with him on that day. Diego and I had long since grown apart, and in the last few years I had seen him but rarely. Yet there I was, the only one in the damp cabin, watching as he finally ended his crazy journey.
Reaching out, I touched his hand one last time. His skin already felt different. The body before me was no longer the friend I craved to be in my life. Diego was really gone, and he was not coming back this time.
I am not sure where to start this story. There was no momentous beginning. There was no intense middle. The end was very quiet, me sitting alone beside him in his quiet cabin waiting silently until he was gone.
I met Diego at a party at a mutual friend’s house about twenty years earlier. It was an unremarkable event, but that meeting in time led to so much more. Walking over to grab another beer, we absently bumped into each other. Our host immediately saw to it that we were properly introduced. We tried to say polite hellos over the blaring music but quickly gave up on conversation and retreated our separate ways.
It was three months before I saw Diego again. Once more it was entirely by chance. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was exhausted and frustrated after another long week of butting heads with my cantankerous boss. I stopped at the grocery store to pick up toothpaste and toilet paper and something easy and fast to eat for dinner. I was walking out of the store when I ran into him.
“Ryan, right?” He extended a hand to me. Instantly I was drawn to his infectious smile, with his overly white teeth and well-pointed incisors. Both seemed slightly out of place and yet perfectly at home in his strong jawed, Latin face.
“Diego,” I shook his hand. “It’s nice to see you again.” I was intent to politely keep walking and get on with my evening of muttering and complaining.
“Hey,” he stopped me. “Um, I really hate to ask this, but my car won’t start. Would you mind giving me a ride?”
In retrospect, I wish I had run right then. That simple and relatively small request was to set the tone for our entire friendship. Diego was always going to need something. I was always going to be the one to see to his needs. Those details are a story best told at another time.
In recent months, I was determined to continue ghosting him and kept ignoring his numerous attempts to contact me. The tone in the pleading of his last voicemail struck a heart string, as he frequently did, and the following Saturday I found myself driving out to his cabin, cussing myself the entire way. During the drive I pondered on how and if I was ever going to be free of him.
He met me at the door and immediately went into a monologue about the latest adventure he had experienced. My mind stopped being engaged a few words in, but politely I smiled and nodded from time to time.
A wall in the center of the cabin was a floor to ceiling book case that went all the way up to the loft above the open lower level. It was mostly full of books, that he likely had never opened, and souvenirs from his many adventures.
“Anyway,” he was saying as he started scaling the book case, “while I was there I got to thinking about this trinket box that I’d picked up the last time I was in Italy. I could not remember if I’d ever let you see it.”
“Don’t you think you’re a little old to be climbing the furniture?” I mostly mumbled, rolling my eyes toward the rolling ladder that was only a few feet away. He was nearing the top of the bookcase.
“Ah, life comes at you fast. You need to learn to take charge. Take that over there,” he went to gesture to a human skull on the mantle, a prized possession of his for reasons I never understood.
Everything changed in an instant. With his hand outstretched and his body twisted he missed his next step up his climb. His remaining hand lost its grip and he fell, spinning slightly, crashing into the glass end table nearby.
I was not unaccustomed to Diego falling, for despite his many charms and confidences, he was one of the clumsiest people of my acquaintance. Numerous things had been broken in my home over the years from his carelessness. So it was that I did not rush over to him but gave him a moment to regain his bearings and brush himself off and laugh or cuss and move on as he always did.
Several minutes passed, and it became clear that something was different this time. I walked over and touched him lightly with my foot, fully expecting him to be pranking me yet again. Diego never moved. I nudged him again and nothing. I squatted beside him and picked up his right hand, which was closest to me, and let it drop loudly to the floor. There was no change. Ever the prankster, Diego had never been able to keep from laughing for very long.
“Crap,” I muttered to myself, knowing that he had just become my responsibility to care for again. I rolled him slightly to his side to get my arms under him and picked him up and carried him to the nearby sofa. It took a moment before I realized that my right hand was warm and wet. As I eased him onto the sofa and pulled my hand away I nearly collapsed at the abundance of blood covering it.
“Diego!” I gasped. Without thinking, I shook him hard.
“Oh, God!” He gulped for air but seemed to find none. Examining his shirt, I saw at least two large holes. Pulling the fabric back, I saw a large glass shard sticking out from between two of his ribs and another protruding from his side. It appeared to be where most of the blood was coming from.
Diego opened his eyes and stared at me in complete terror.
“Oh my God,” I gasped to myself, the enormity of the situation starting to settle upon me. “Oh, God, Diego,” I grabbed his hand.
“Help me,” he pleaded.
“It’s going to be okay,” I promised him. With my other hand I reached into my pocket and grabbed my cell phone and started dialing 911. Diego clenched his eyes closed as subsequent waves of pain flushed through him.
In that moment, something awful, something deep and dark and sinister, swept through me. Looking at Diego lying there, helpless and frightened and needing me to rescue him once again, I saw the pain in his face and the growing red stain on his shirt and sofa. An unexpected calm settled over me. I held the phone up to my ear, never having hit Send.
“Yes,” I spoke into my silent phone, “I need an ambulance. My friend has fallen and cut himself and is bleeding quite a bit.” Standing beside him, still holding his hand, I looked serenely down at Diego, reassuringly nodding my head when he was able to wrench his eyes open to look at me. I squeezed his hand a little tighter, comforting him, making him believe that, like every other time, I was there to save him.
“Yes, that’s the address,” I said to no one. “Please hurry.”
I turned my phone off and silently slipped it back into my pocket. Gently I laid his hand across his chest and reached over and pulled up an ottoman to sit upon.
“Diego,” I almost whispered. “Diego, I want you to listen.” My voice grew softer with each word.
“Diego, you need to try and relax. Everything is going to be okay.” Part of me wondered why I cared about reassuring him at all. He had never cared about comforting me. Another part of me began to revel in the hope that his long hold over me was finally going to be severed.
“Diego,” I started. There were no more words. There was nothing else I wanted to say to him. The realization that I would soon be free of him was intoxicating.
He looked at me again pleading, his face already becoming paler. “Bleeding,” was all he was able to get out.
“Yes,” I smiled at him. “You are bleeding. Quite a bit.”
Amidst all the panic and pain, something in my tone registered and a new fear worked its way across his face.
“Yes, Diego,” I told him. “It is time to say goodbye.”
He only tried to get up once, but by then he was already too weak to offer much resistance. Moments later he closed his eyes for the last time, and the pain that creased his face slowly subsided. A few jagged breaths later he was gone.
His blood on my hand was already drying. Any other time the sight of blood would have set me heaving. This time I just sat there quietly, fascinated by how quiet death is and how quickly blood dries.
I was finally free of Diego. Someone else’s laugh escaped from my throat, and for a second I flushed with embarrassment. Still, I was finally free. The relief that years of agony were now over made me feel weightless.
I sat with Diego a while longer, making sure there was no chance he could be saved. Later, I meandered out to the lake behind the cabin and washed my hands in the cold water. I lingered by the lake and watched the sun set.
Well after the sky was completely dark, I found my way back into the cabin. I looked at the body that once was the friend my heart ached for. A tear almost escaped from my eye, but there were no tears left for him. I pulled my phone back from my pocket and turned it back on, finally calling for help.
“Yes,” I started when a woman answered. “I just arrived at my friend’s cabin,” I lied to her. “I think he might be dead.”