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christmas fiction

Detail of illustration for print version of this storyKim Rosen for The Globe And Mail

You'd think there'd be plenty of reasons for us to get along in here.

It's Christmas, for one thing. Christmas on the palliative care ward of Toronto General Hospital, so sure, not exactly Who-ville (no carols in the fluorescent-lit waiting lounge that smells of tomato soup and Febreze, no gift exchange by the silver tree propped against the wall). But we share our status as bedside loved ones. The vigil holders. Purgatory dwellers. All of us grieving in advance.

Ed doesn't see it that way though. Ed hates us.

He's here for his wife. Cancer. Nobody knows what kind, not that it matters at this point. Not if she's here.

For me, it's my father. A coma following a stroke I've been advised he will not come out of. I told Ed this the day before yesterday when I first met him (it's what you do in the lounge, you share the facts, hoping for a lightening of the load) and he looked at me and said, "But he's old, right?"

Ed is my age, somewhere in the middle years of softening flesh and hardened ideas, and he's so pissed off about the whole deal his hands are clenched fists that hang at his sides like clubs. He comes into the lounge after sitting with his wife – does he hold her hand over those hours? are his fists capable of opening? – and gives the rest of us go-to-hell looks as we eat our egg salad sandwiches and try to catch forty winks in the torturous chairs.

But he saves his most furious glare for one in particular. Me.

It started out with simple rudeness, ignoring me the first couple "Good morning"s and "How's it going?"s I offered, then raising the game to outright insults.

"We're not friends, okay?" he said yesterday after I asked if I could get him anything at the Starbucks across the street.

"Hey man. I'm just seeing if you wanted a coffee," I said.

"Yeah? That's sweet. But I don't want a five-dollar cup of pity. Thank you."

What's your problem?

This is what I'd ask anywhere else, of any other randomly aggressive dickhead. But I know what Ed's problem is. His wife is dying. His wife is having her pain "managed," she's almost gone, just like the other husbands and sisters and fathers here almost are. Just like my dad is.

Still, knowing this didn't make Ed any more sympathetic or likeable. We were all in the same situation, after all. All of us on The Ward (as we called it, as though there were no other hallways like this one in the entire hospital, or any hospital, anywhere) have stories of arbitrary misfortune and unfairness we could choose to repeat. We're all angry. Yet we tried our best not to be.

Ed doesn't care. Or, as Ed liked to put it, to anyone who dared articulate an objection to his behaviour, "You've mistaken me for someone who gives a shit." It was his line. It was also true. Ed acted as though he was the only one here going through the worst kind of God-blaming crap of our lives, and the rest of us were just pretenders, grief tourists. And none worse than me.

* * *

Why me?

This is the most popular query on The Ward, voiced by those who stood by its beds as often as those who lay in them. It's something I've been asking too, though not of whatever Higher Authority has decided this is my father's time. I've been asking the question of Ed. Why hate me more than any other suffering survivor or gossiping nurse or indifferent doctor?

I suppose it's as simple a matter as shared vintage. Both of us men bearing the slouch of vague disappointment, the dark crescents atop our cheeks signalling the realization that our adventures aren't turning out to be as exciting as we'd always willed them to be.

That, and it's his wife who's in here.

A woman who, based on my glimpses as I've walked past her open door, is more lovely and brave than Ed ever deserved and he knows it. He's losing her, his one piece of good luck. He's losing her early, whole decades of comfort and pride in her standing by him denied. And it makes him look at me, a guy in leather loafers with a wedding band on his finger losing a parent at the time when parents are meant to go, and want to drive his callused knuckles through my face.

I'll be honest: I don't like Ed. I'll be even more honest: There have been moments when I've fantasized about doing something terrible to Ed. Sneaking down to the supply room to grab a bed pan, then hiding next to the vending machine and leaping at the sour bastard to whack the back of his head the next time he entered the lounge. A wake-up call. That's how viciousness is justified these days, and let's face it, Ed is a nasty sleepwalker who could do with some serious waking up.

But of course this is just Ward Thinking. Underslept, over-caffeinated, our very blood prickly with loss. Here on The Ward, the loved ones think secret, magical thoughts all the time – not all of them, it must be said, wishes of the most generous kind.

* * *

It's late and I'm alone in the lounge when Ed walks in. I can tell right away that his wife has died. Some on The Ward say "passed," but Ed and I are of the "died" school. Other than this, we remain men with nothing in common. No grounds for respect between us, for conversation, for a way in.

Yet in this moment we are brothers. Warring, rivalrous, exhausted brothers.

Ed finds me standing by the condiment table, adding cream to my coffee, and seems to take a measure of who I am. He in his plaid work shirt and oil-stained jeans, me in a collared shirt and khakis – uniforms that marked the distance between us. Still, we could pluck out our eyes and screw them into the other's sockets and look no different for making the trade. The same permanently tear-jellied eyes, mapped with blood.

He makes an unspoken decision and comes at me.

There is enough time to weigh between a set of options. Go at him to meet his attack with one of my own. Grab a weapon – the sugar shaker, a spoon – and wield it in front of me to establish an advantage. Try to deke around him and run.

These and a half dozen other tactics are considered and dismissed. The idea of taking action strikes me as too complicated, too difficult, too late, and I just stand there, ready for the awakening pain he is about to deliver.

But Ed stops in front of me and does something else. He makes a sound like a cough that isn't a cough, a brief rattle that comes up from the very core of himself. Then he steps forward and puts his arms loosely around me.

I couldn't honestly guess how long we stay this way. Probably nothing more than a few seconds, though it feels longer. A student in detention along with the boy who'd clobbered me in the schoolyard, the two of us watching the minute hand nudge toward freedom.

He is a near-stranger, embracing me. It is neither welcome nor unwelcome. It is a necessity. His frame against me a weight that requires holding up, a moment of assistance in order to survive this unthinkable frame of his life and begin the unthinkable next.

"Merry Christmas," he says when he finally pulls away from me. No Ed-like irony in it, no sarcasm. As true a wish for my happiness as I've ever heard.

"You too, Ed," I say, and he nods in a way that says Thanks, but that's all over for me now. That's all done.

He walks out of the lounge and I watch him scuff his work boots down the hall to the elevators. The doors open instantly after pressing the button, and he enters without looking back. He'll go down to the lobby and from there he'll pick up his car from the extortionate parking garage, or slip down into the subway, or head for the nearest bar. Perhaps he will let himself drift through the streets until dawn, Christmas a hushed whisper of the past all around him, a quiet that might pass for peace.

Andrew Pyper's new novel, The Demonologist, will be published in March. He is the author of five previous novels, including Lost Girls and The Guardians.