The first time was when Holly was sixteen. The family doctor had discovered the heart defect when she was five, but the operation had to wait until she was old enough and big enough to receive a pig valve transplant. Her first conscious impression as the anaesthesia wore off was of a huge shadow lurking by the doorway. Somehow it nagged at her. She kept waking up in the night, expecting to see him — the shadow was very definitely a him — there again, but there was only ever the night nurse, the equipment, and the long tubes which ended somewhere beneath her skin.
She recovered well within the expected time limits. When she mentioned him to the nurse who was helping with the discharge, the nurse just shrugged and smiled. People had all sorts of hallucinations when they were in between anaesthesia and full wakefulness, the nurse told her.
Her mother was there to take her home, and teased that it was probably a secret admirer. Holly nodded and smiled and decided to drop the subject.
Two years later the family home burned to the ground when a repairman accidentally caused a spark over a leaking gas pipe in the basement. He ran out the stairs, ignited air rushing behind him as if to catch up and escape too. Holly was upstairs and almost didn't make it out. Both of her feet were burned badly enough that the doctors chose to use grafts of artificial skin.
This time, the anaesthetic wore off quickly, and Holly was sure she was awake when the shadow appeared at her door. It was after visiting hours, the lights were out in all the wards, but she quite clearly saw the silhouette of a large man wearing a boxy, old-fashioned suit. He startled when she turned her head to get a better look at him, and disappeared into the corridor. She could hear his long but surprisingly quiet stride fading away from her.
This time she had glimpsed his hand on the doorframe as he turned and made his escape. While the hand was well-formed it was an odd shade, pale and rather greyish.
Holly's parents both said that initial heart defect had doomed her to a sickly life. She was perfectly healthy most of the time, but every couple of years would need to get an operation for something or other. A tonsillectomy when she was nineteen. An appendectomy when she was twenty-two. A freak accident led to a broken wrist when she was twenty-five, and the doctors had used bone tissue from a cadaver to reinforce her own, too fragile and shattered to heal well by itself.
The shadow-man appeared the evening of every post-op period except once. The anaesthesia hadn't worn off well that time, and a nurse stayed in the room with her the entire night. Holly always wondered if the nurse's presence had scared him off.
Holly had only got a fleeting glimpse of his face, once, the night after the tonsillectomy. She couldn't sleep because her throat felt like she had swallowed a box of needles, so she just lay in bed, clutching at the sheets, trying not to gasp and trying especially not to swallow. He inched into the doorway, checking both her room and the corridor behind him. Two steps into the room he froze, and Holly realised he was staring at her wakened, pained face. She pointed to her throat and mimed a scalpel cutting into it.
She thought he might say something, but he just took another half-step towards her, slowly extending one long grey hand. The light from the corridor caught one side of his face, and Holly saw a wide cheekbone crested by a large, pointed nose, and a big grey eye that looked cloudy. The rest of his face was hidden by shadow and lank, black hair.
The footsteps of someone wearing hard-soled shoes clacked in the corridor. Once more he was gone.
Her manager hassled her about her frequent short-term disability leaves. She went to HR with a sheaf of medical records and a letter from her lawyer. She was transferred to another department.
Holly's thirty-second birthday fell on a holiday weekend. She spent the Friday afternoon getting a bone graft on her lower left jaw, to repair damage from a less-than-perfect tooth extraction that had been performed when she was a child.
"I hope it doesn't bother you we're using cadaver bone tissue today," the dentist said just before he administered the anaesthetic.
"Already have some in me," said Holly, holding up the forearm to show off her incision scar.
She stopped by a pharmacy afterwards to obtain the painkillers her dentist prescribed, and to get some nutritional shakes to live on until she could eat solid food again. She washed a pill down with a shake as soon as she got home, then went to bed to sleep off the initial discomfort, her cheek resting on an ice pack.
He was there when she woke up. He'd carried one of her dining room chairs to the bedroom, and was sitting in it, watching her as she slept.
She'd never seen him in daylight before. His shoulders were broader than she'd thought. A part of her was shrieking that a strange man in one's apartment was supposed to be a cause for panic, but she'd seen him so many times by this point that it seemed absurd. It felt far more like the arrival of an old and comfortable friend. Someone of her kind had come to take care of her.
He let her stare at him for a few seconds. A smile spread over his face like the slow rendering of a new dawn, and he reached out to stroke her hair away from her face.
"Hate life. Love death," he whispered, and bent down to kiss her.