It’s an adjective, your wife says. Starts with “i”, ends with “e”. She can’t bring herself to say the word, and she won’t look at you, so she stares out of the window, through the slanting rain, as you drive away from the city. Words pop into your head, none of them good. Irreparable, irrevocable, inevitable. But no, you can’t imagine the consultant saying any of those, not in the circumstances.
Ten letters, she says. She says that’s all you’re getting, she’s not going to spell it out for you. You grip the wheel, your hands clammy, and check the rearview mirror. The Mini that has been following you since you left the hospital is nowhere to be seen. You’re driving too fast, the traffic thinning out as the red and yellow city lights blur in the distance. You wish you could just keep on driving, north, in a straight line, as far away as possible.
You think: adjective, ten letters, i and e.
You think: fuck.
You think: incurable.
You think: the worst of all words.
But no: it’s a letter shy. Nine, not ten.
Okay, she says, still not looking at you. Five vowels and five consonants. You still don’t get it. Christ, she says, for someone who’s supposed to be good with words you’re not very good with words.
Then it hits you.
That which can’t be operated on.
You say the word to yourself, feel the weight of it on your tongue, all those syllables. You try to say it out loud, but you can’t.
Gary Duncan’s stories have appeared in Unbroken Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, 100 Word Story, and New Flash Fiction Review, among others. His flash fiction collection, You’re Not Supposed to Cry, is available from Vagabond Voices.