M.K.Harlan

Storyteller

Reality is relative. What I call blue, you call purple.

What is up to me,

is

d

o

w

n

to you.

There is no way to know which is really true. These words you are reading now aren’t even really what you see – nothing is.

You can’t even trust your own eyes to tell the truth – or can you?

What do you see?

What are you reading right this moment?

Is it a poem?

A story?

Are these words on a page?

Are they my thoughts?

Are they your thoughts?

Whose thoughts am I transcribing on this page – if it’s a page at all?

How does one compose a piece on reality when one does not know reality from fantasy?

It’s easier now than it was before.

Easier to guess at reality – or what I think is reality.

Sometimes – I still get lost. Lost in my own mind. A small piece of me is aware, I know that it isn’t real. I know, but I can not resist the tidal pull of what I know is not.

I feel the ebb and flow of air through my lungs even as I know beyond a doubt that I am not alive and all air has ceased to turn my blood deepest red.

Irrational.

I know.

But I believe it more than anything.

 

Mariposa has lived her entire life in the park. She was born here, in the fennel patch. Since then she has never lacked for food. She eats the fennel plants, never ceasing, always consuming, growing. She believes she will live forever in this manner. Or she would if she ever stopped to think about beliefs and what she might believe in. All she thinks about, if you can call it thinking, is food. The next bite of fennel.

Mariposa has never known her parents. Her mother was not there for her birth. She has never had anyone explain what happens to her. By now she knows the pain she feels, the tightness in her skin, is nothing to fear. But now, for the first time in her life, Mariposa stops her constant feeding. Something is different this time. She goes in search of a safe place. She does not know what this place will be, only that she needs to find it.

#

January 1970

Clara, like all women, was a little girl once. Like most little girls, she dreamed of her wedding day. And still, like many others, she had even put on the pillowcase veil and her doll had officiated a pretend wedding between herself and Mr. Stuffy, her teddy. But that was a long time ago.

Clara, like other women her age, eagerly awaits news of the war and rebels against the cloud of doom that blankets the country by dancing in clubs and wearing skirts too short for her parents’ liking. But they do not know about this part of her.

Clara will marry Jack, her fiancé of three years, tomorrow. From then on she will not be able to do these things. He is a doctor and he wants a housewife. It no longer matters that she has feelings or that she has a degree. It does not matter how many words a minute she can type or that she can earn money to help support a family. They will have all the money they need from his salary alone.

Jack wants a quiet wife who will cook and clean and bear children. Perhaps he will hire a maid or a nanny once they have a child. That was the way he was raised and he sees nothing wrong with it. Clara will need to wear dresses and skirts, pearls and heels, make-up that makes her look as though she comes directly from a sears catalogue. She will become a regular June Cleaver.

She will do it for Jack because she loves him.

As far as Clara knows, Jack does not know about her go-go boots and miniskirt. He doesn’t know about her hoop earrings either. He never will as far as she is concerned. Tonight is the last night she will be able to wear them. Tonight is her last night to be free.

She reminds herself a thousand times over that she loves Jack as she dances to the music playing on the club that her parents do not know she is at. It is one of the first of its kind and polite young ladies should never be found here. But as she dances she does not feel in her heart that she loves Jack. It is a lie, though she refuses to admit it to herself. There is a part of herself that rebels against the idea of marrying Jack. The part of her that wears go-go boots and miniskirts and allows a strange man to take her hand on the dance floor and guide her through a song, bodies closer than they should be.

As they dance she does not notice as Jack slips from her thoughts. She lets the stranger buy her a drink and they talk a little. Clara learns he has just been drafted. He will leave the next day for training and from there they will send him to Vietnam. She does not learn his name, though he learns hers.

She welcomes his advances, letting him kiss her as Jack never does and never will. She shoves her fiancé out of her mind every time he resurges. She refuses to think of the coming day.

Later, as she lies beside the stranger in his one bedroom apartment, tangled in sweat soaked sheets and each other, her go-go boots and mini skirt somewhere in the living room, Jack is no longer in her mind. She keeps a hand on his chest, feeling the beat of his heart, the rise and fall of his breath and for a time her mind is full of a vast nothing. He strokes her hair. She has never done this before, not with Jack, not with anyone.

The stranger tells her his name, Jim, and that he thinks he is in love with her.

She tells him about Jack, about her impending marriage later that day. She has only known him for a few hours, but she tells him that she thinks she loves him too. That she has never loved Jack.

Jim asks if he can write to Clara while he is away. If she will leave Jack to marry him. If he comes back from the war.

Only with Jim does Clara feel completely human.

#

Mariposa has found her safe place. She waits for the pain to stop, the tightness in her skin to go away so she can leave this part of herself behind like the others. She does not see the rest of the world, but she had never taken notice of it beyond the fennel plants. Now, she could not notice it if she wanted to.

There is nothing now but the tightness, the constraint of her own skin. She allows herself to fall, but she clings to her perch with her back feet, secured around her middle by a single thread she wove and attached to the branch. She tucks her head in as shudders wrack her body. She no longer knows what she does. She only feels the changes that happen to her now.

#

August 2014

Sean doesn’t know why he keeps doing this job. He graduated second in his class at Johns Hopkins and he chose to work for a charity hospice agency at a fraction of the pay he could be making at any hospital in the country.

His patients never live.

The man he cares for now is only seventy years old. He was a doctor before. But even doctors are not immune to cancer. A smoker since the sixties, it is a miracle he’s still alive for Sean to take care of.

It bothers Sean that the old man’s wife and son never visit him. He just sits by himself and stares out of a window lifelessly. What bothers Sean even more is that the old man seems both angry and contented that they never visit. The one time that Sean brings it up he nearly has his head ripped off.

That is why, when the old man begins to speak now, Sean nearly leaps from his own skin.

“She never loved me, did she?” He seems to choke on those words.

When Sean asks who he is talking about the old man doesn’t reply. Sean decides to prod. “Who never loved you?”

The old man suddenly seems to remember that Sean is there. Their eyes meet past the oxygen mask that keeps him from suffocating on the normal air, he seems to almost crumple in on himself.

Just before Sean was employed by the doctor’s wife, she left him. She had been his primary caretaker, his only companion since his son had not come to see him in over a decade. when the doctors had told her that the old man was dying she was unable to keep her secrets from him any longer, she had told him everything and he had sent her away. He expected her to fight, to stay, but she had just left him.

His son, his only child, belonged to another man. A man he never knew. The anger that emanates from the old man upon this revelation makes Sean uncomfortable and he breaks eye contact. The old man tells him to get out.

But Sean does not leave, even when the old man yells at him, if it can be called yelling in his condition. He knows the doctor will only tire himself out, perhaps even bring himself that much closer to death. Sean will be there to make sure that he is comfortable as he goes. It is who he is and what he does. He remembers his own mother’s death and how he had not been there, how no one had been there as she slowly withered away in the pain and grief of her brother’s death by herself. It had taken her thirteen years and Sean had not been aware of her grief until she finally gave in after he left for college, leaving her alone in their empty house.

He will not allow another person to die that way, scared, alone, and in pain. He will never again ignore the signs of death. That is why he surrounds himself with it now.

The old man ceases his yelling. “She only stayed because he didn’t come back for them.”

Sean kneels beside the old man and takes his hand as tears well in the doctor’s eyes. Old men do not like to be comforted in this way. They prefer silence and stony hearts. But Sean, wise for his years, knows that the old doctor needs a friend, now more than ever. “But she stayed with you.” he whispers.

#

Mariposa no longer feels the pain. She no longer feels anything. She is shielded from the wind and rain, the entirety of the world. She floats and is no longer aware of her body. It has melted away, all but a few parts. She feels none of it. She remembers little of what came before. It is as though she has always been and will always be this way, though she will remember little, if any, of this experience. Of this non-being.

#

July 1989

As Michael puts his bags in his car he ignores his mother’s pleading not to go. He ignores her tears. The anger he feels right now is not something he can let go of at the drop of a hat. he does not stop to think about what his actions can do when he gets into the car, angry and unfocused. All that Michael thinks about is the betrayal and hurt that he feels. He is not who he thought he was. He no longer feels as though he knows his own body, his own mind. For Michael there is little but the confusion and anger now. He sees his mother’s tears and on any other day he might have stopped to comfort her. As he did when he was a child and found her crying into a box of old letters. As he did the day he told her that he will go to college and that he will be a doctor like his father.

His father, that is the root of all of this. That is the root of her tears, then and now. The man he has called father for the last nineteen years stands on their porch with his arms crossed. He too is angry, but at Michael and not Michael’s mother. Though he should be. Michael knows that this man loves him, that this man is his father. But he can no longer bring himself to acknowledge that. He will not tell the man he calls father that he is not his son. He will not tell anyone they know because his mother asked him not to. It may be that his father is not the man he thought, but she is still his mother.

She is a part of himself that he will never let go of. Even on his own he will make the soup she made for him as a child when he is sick. He will have the same melodies and lullabies stuck in his head before he goes to sleep that she sings to him even now he is a grown man. He will still be the person that she taught him to be, but his father. He will learn who his father was. He will seek him out if he can. He does not know why it is so important that he learn about this man. A man that his mother hardly knew, but he knows that if he does not learn, he will never know who he is.

He watches now, as his parents shrink beyond sight in his rearview mirror. He does not stop driving until he is 50 miles outside of the city. He fills his car with gas and sets off again almost immediately, lingering only to use the restroom and to purchase a coke from the convenience store.

He flips on the radio in the car and is fiddling with the dial as he goes too fast around a corner. A little boy is playing on the side of the road. Michael does not see the ball that rolls out in the street as he changes the radio station. The boy steps out a little too far into the road. Michael looks up too late. He tries to swerve but his right side hits the boy and he feels the sickening lurch of wheels on flesh and bone. He stops and scrambles out and around the car to where the child lies.

#

Mariposa can feel the changes again now. It no longer feels as though she floats. The changes do not hurt. They excite her. She is being born again and somewhere in the back of her mind she knows it to be truth. She does not know what she becomes, what she will be. Mariposa knows only the change, if it can be called knowing.

#

March 1970

Jim wipes the sweat from his brow. The unit is stopped, if only for a short while, but it is the first time in three days that they have stopped before dark. He hasn’t had enough sleep, but that is nothing he was not prepared for when they sent him over here. Not enough sleep was better than a permanent sleep.

He thinks of Clara, of their shared night together. He thinks of her waiting for him. The others call him an idiot. She’s married to another man now, a doctor. Why would she leave that for him? When he returns he will have nothing to offer her. He will be lucky to get his job back as a mechanic in a small town outside the city. He should have chosen someone else to write to, they all told him.

But it is Clara’s letters, one every week so far, that he lived for. He has only been in the country for a month, his training cut a few weeks short to fill a unit quickly. He must learn on the job. He doesn’t mind except that it is hot and muggy here. If your feet get too wet they could rot right off you before you managed to crawl out of the damned swamp. That isn’t even the worst part. If you don’t watch where you step you’re liable to lose both your feet faster than the rot will ever take them.

He pulls Clara’s last letter from his pocket along with two pictures that she sent him. The first is what she calls an ultrasound. She had circled a faint blob in the center and if he squints he can almost see a human form. She is pregnant according to her letter and with her husband being a doctor she has access to things that other women do not, like this new technology that allows for pictures of unborn children within the womb. This is one of the first ever. Clara’s child.

Jim’s child, she was convinced.

Jim has not shown any of the men in his unit and hides the picture to look at the image of Clara he keeps next to his heart. He does not know how she has kept their correspondence a secret from her husband, but she has. These thoughts almost make him forget the reality that surrounds him.

The only other person in this god-forsaken swamp who knows about the pregnancy is Jim’s Lieutenant. He promises to end the war in Nam before the baby is born, or at least give Jim his month of R&R at the right time so he can go home and claim the child. But Jim isn’t as sure the child is his as Clara’s letter seems to be.

He puts the letter away as they are told to get moving again, their bellies satisfied at least a little. He must focus on the bigger picture now. He can’t think about how he will raise a child, if it is his. He can’t think about how he will take Clara away from her husband only to leave her in the states with no real income while he fights a war over here that no one back home wants to fight anyway. He can’t think of any of that.

He thinks about it anyway, refusing to join in on the usual banter of his unit as they wade through the swamp and rice patties, mud, and once in a while hike over hard ground. He stares into the jungle, but instead of watching for the Viet Cong he watches for Clara, almost expecting her to come around a tree.

Then he hears a click from the direction of the man on his right flank.

#

It is almost time for Mariposa to be reborn. She grows restless in her shell. It grows tight around her as she changes. It is safe in here, but she does not know how much longer she can stay. Soon it will grow too tight and like the skins she no longer remembers she will shed this shell and be something else.

#

September 2001

Sophie sits on her living room floor, playing with her five-year-old son. The phone rings. It is her husband. He tells her to turn on the T.V., he will be home as soon as he can be, and hangs up. He sounds stressed and Sophie does not know what to do. She turns on the T.V.

The screen fills with smoke and sky and it takes her a minute to see what she is supposed to understand about the images. The words at the bottom of the screen tell her what she fails to grasp. She feels tears slide down her face, unbidden.

Her son asks her, “Mommy, what’s wrong?” and she finds that she cannot answer. He asks her why the towers on the video are on fire, too young to think that the T.V. could give him answers, believing his mother to be the only source of information that he needs, as children are wont to do.

Sophie’s nephew was supposed to be on a field trip to those very same towers today. But this morning he had woken with a case of the flu and her sister had not sent him. If he hadn’t been sick.

When Michael comes home he will find her on the couch, holding their son and still crying. The boy will be asking questions and he will take him to his room and tell him to play while he talks with mommy about things and they will tell him everything later. She will wait until he returns to finally break down and sob like she wants to.

Tears will don her husband’s face and that will be wrong. Her husband never cries. Her big, strong husband who lost his parents when he was nineteen, worked two jobs to put himself through school, and the dropped out to work a third and even fourth job when she told him she was pregnant. The man who loves her more than anything, protects her and works harder than he ever should to keep them in a good home, a good neighborhood with a good school. He will cry and that will make Sophie cry all the harder as she comes to realize that her life has changed again.

Later that night she will attempt to keep up the semblance of normalcy for as long as she can. But her husband will tell her he plans to enlist the next day. He cannot sleep is he doesn’t do something. What kind of a father will he be if he doesn’t do everything he can to protect his family?

Something in him will break and Sophie will know when he tells her it is what his father would have wanted. She will nod and continue to make dinner, a haze clouding her mind. She will no longer be aware of herself, her actions. She will be a ghost in her own mind as she continues the motions and patterns that she goes through each and every day.

There has always been a haunted quality to her husband, a desperation that she sees when he looks at their son, and when he makes love to her. It is as if he is trying to atone for something, and to cling to life in a way that she cannot understand. Tonight there will be something more. Tonight she will know that he is at war. Not with the terrorists, nor anyone outside their home at all. Tonight he will be at war with himself. She will know that her life will be changed forever by this day. The life of her son will not be the life that she intended for him.

#

The tightness is too much for Mariposa. She struggles, pushing against the constraints of her shell. It breaks and for the first time in days she feels the air. But the struggle is not over. All she desires, if you can call it desire, all she thinks, if you can call it thinking, is “OUT!” She pushes and wriggles and struggles to free herself from her shell for what feels like an eternity, and for her it is indeed the entirety of her new life so far.

She finally manages to break free of her shell, to feel the warmth of the sun on her body. She takes her time now, stretching her new legs, tasting the air and taking in this new world.

For the first time since her original birth she sees the sky. Endless blue spotted with white clouds. So empty and yet so full of possibility.

#

April 2017

Daniel has slept in the park for several years now. He doesn’t always, but after the woman he married died he cannot hold a job. He cannot keep himself away from the drinking.

Daniel has been an alcoholic since Vietnam. Kate was the only thing that kept him from drinking for as long as he had been sober. When she’d been killed by another drunk he swore never to drive again, never to risk that tragedy for someone else. Now, he roams the streets of this city with an old grocery cart he appropriated on some drunken walk-about in his earliest days as one of the city’s homeless.

He drinks to drown the voices in his head. Not voices that tell him to do bad things, or even good things. It is typical to think that, being a veteran of a brutal war like Vietnam, he hears the screams of those he killed or at least those he saw die. No, the voices he hears are different. He hears the voices of the survivors, one of which is himself. He hears the voices of the ones who came to help. The ones that had to save him. They tell him it wasn’t his fault, that there was nothing he could have done. But it was his fault, he is sure that there was something he could have done. He knows it.

A young woman moves to the other side of the path on her run, avoiding the bench where he sits, afraid he will try to harm her as many women would be of a strange looking man in these early hours of the morning. She doesn’t know that Daniel won’t harm anyone but himself anymore. He contemplates suicide from time to time. Lots of guys who made it out did that. If he killed himself here in the states, where everything was supposed to be better, the deaths of the others would not matter anymore. It would waste their memories, especially now that it has been so long.

When he finally gets himself off the bench, able to stand without falling over, he walks away. He pushes his cart and does not think, not really. He pays no attention to where he goes, allowing his muscles to guide him on his familiar path. He tries to get away from the voices.

Sometimes he feels like this is only a half-life. As such, it does not do their memories any good no matter the state of his body. That is how he justifies the drinking. It dishonors them, but he can’t get the voices out of his head unless he drowns them. He does not wish to dishonor his brothers, but he wants to live as much as he wants to die so he chooses to live with their memories as they are and he hopes that no one recognizes him for who he was, who he is. The life he left behind.

#

Mariposa flaps her wings, strong and dry now. She feels the wind as it tries to lift her from her place on the branch. She flaps her wings once, twice. She lets go, she flies.

#

July 2017

Michael will return today from his third four-year tour with the army. He was stationed in Libya this time. Every day he woke, made his bed to military standards, ate breakfast with his brothers, and went out on patrol for several hours before being relieved of duty. Occasionally his unit was sent on special missions out into the countryside or to the cities. The cities were the ones he hated. But he enjoyed the work. He enjoyed the repetitiveness of it, the simplicity. Every day, the same thing. Sometimes, it made him nervous, he felt vulnerable, but in the end, he was one of the lucky ones.

He had learned of the death of the man he called father in a letter three years ago, just before he was sent to Libya. He had reconnected with his mother then. But there was something missing from their relationship. He felt it, but his life in the military made it easier to not think about it. But nothing, no sense of monotony, could ever take Sophie from his mind. Not even the empty space at the end of his leg now.

Sophie waits at the airport for Michael, their son is 21 now and he sits beside her, dressed similar to the way she knows his father will be dressed. Michael does not know that his son has been in Officer Candidate School for the last three years. He does not know that his son follows in his footsteps; it’s supposed to be a surprise. Sophie has baked a cake and it sits on the counter at home. She has dinner ready to be placed in the oven when she walks in the door and is ready for Michael to be home. Something has been missing from her life without him. She goes through the routines of life, cooking and cleaning, and making home repairs, calling Jake to help her when she can’t get it all done. She does not know where Michael’s mother is. Something has been bothering her for days and she knows that Clara will not miss her son’s homecoming.

Sean visits his brother’s grave today, right next to his mother’s. He has visited this place every year, first with his mother and then on his own, since his brother’s death. He was only five when his brother died. He’d stepped into the street, in front of a car that was going too fast for their suburban neighborhood. He clears the debris of nature away from the headstones and says nothing. Sean does not believe that the dead can hear the living. And if they could, he feels they would not want to.

Clara walks the park quietly, thinking to herself. She has been alone for three years now. It did not take Jack long to pass after she left. She had thought that after forty-four years she would have felt something more than what she did, at least a twinge of guilt or sorrow, but what she felt instead was relief. She felt free. She still feels free. But there is something missing.

That is why she hired the detective. Michael had spoken with a man while he was on a tour, an older gentleman who had served with Jim in Vietnam who was just about to retire. He had showed the older soldier a picture of his father and unit one night. The old man had recognized Jim. She had always thought he died in Vietnam. In her mind that was the only reason that he would not have come back, returned to rescue her, meet his son.

The detective had been able to find Jim. After forty-four years, he had traced Jim’s footsteps. Jim had been married, an alcoholic, and many things in between. Now, he is living here, in the park. His pension check all he has to survive on. She looks for him in the face of every man she sees. She is missing Michael’s homecoming to look for him, but she could not think of a better thing to miss it for. She has to find him. Michael gave up on finding his father a long time ago, but she never stopped thinking about Jim. It affected her marriage and her life, but now that she is free she can find him. She will find him.

She has almost given up. She looks at the men with clean shaven faces like Jim’s was so long ago. She looks at the men who are well dressed and handsome, young. She does not see his face, but on a bench, a bottle of whiskey in hand, she sees an old man. His face is covered by a beard but he wears an old hat, beat up. With Jim’s battalion number on it. VIETNAM VETERAN scrawled across the hat in worn and fraying embroidery.

“Jim?” she asks, not sure it’s him. Afraid that it is him.

Daniel hears a woman’s voice asking his name. Not the name he uses now. She does not ask for Daniel. She asks for Jim. The voice is familiar. It is older than he remembers it, but that does not matter. He would know that voice anywhere. He looks up, afraid it is another of the voices in his head. Afraid it is just another drunken dream.  But he sees a woman standing before him. She looks old, worn. As though life has beaten her down. But her eyes are bright as they ever were, the curve of her face can not be masked by the wrinkles of time. “Clara?” He chokes on the name. He knows that he smells, that the whiskey on his breath is not what she wants to see. He stands and moves away from her as quickly as his old bones can take him. He hides his face, trying to run away, but he stumbles and falls. His wooden leg unable to keep up with the sudden movement.

Clara moves to his side and pulls a handkerchief from her pocket to wipe away the dirt on his face, the tears. “It is you.” She does not pay attention to the smell of whiskey or the stench of homelessness that is on him. She does not care. She takes his hand and pulls him to his feet.

They do not match, she in her well pressed clothing, clean and warm, and he is torn and stained clothes that have not been washed in a long time, but she kisses him as she did the night they met. The night he fell in love with her. When she pulls away, a butterfly comes up from the fennel patch and flies between them, narrowly missing them both. It’s not every day that you learn to forgive yourself. It’s not every day you fall in love all over again.

Rainstorms are reassuring. Especially on Monday.

While I still work in the garden center it’s even better because I know that there won’t be too many people looking for plants. If there are any I’ll be shocked. they probably won’t be looking for power equipment either. That means I will have some down time, quiet time, to gather my thoughts and make the department look less like a war zone and more like a store.

But, this week it just doesn’t feel the same. Some things are happening at work that I won’t go into detail about but I’m less and less enthusiastic with this day job as events continue to unfold.

Its getting harder and harder to talk myself into going in and keeping it up. I’ve thought about just filling up the gas tank and driving until I run out of gas, money, or both, but I’m more of a planner than that.

It’s time I get this career thing moving. I’ve started applying to jobs more in my line of expertise. I’m also trying to develop more skills that I can use to become what I want to be.

Yesterday I sat down for a while – while I should have been working on my resume if my aunt had anything to say about it – and I wrote. Not a blog post, no complaining. I worked on my current passion project. The Disappearance of Clara Summers. I have no idea where this story is going. I have done no plotting whatsoever and as a result it’s kind of rambling.

Kind of like my life.

But, as I work on Clara Summers’ story I get to know these characters, their likes and dislikes, who they are as people, their backstories, their wants and desires, all of it.

I wish it was this easy to understand real people, and the real events that are happening in my life right now.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

I’m trying to think of stories I can tell you here on this blog, but I got nothing right now. I’m so wrapped up in the crappy things that are happening that even though this isn’t what I intended to sit down and write about, it’s all I’ve got…

It’s all that’s in my head. Heck, even my aunt and grandfather have been having trouble sleeping thinking about what’s going on with me at work.

I know I can work it out… but I don’t necessarily see how.

The advertisements flashed in front of my eyes with the latest upgrade, promising faster connections and a smoother interface than before. It was supposed to fix all the bugs, but that’s what they always said. Every upgrade fixed the bugs in the last one and brought with it a few more of its own.

The people around me were absorbed with it, those that didn’t have it were waiting in line to buy it. I looked for the few bits I had left from the last upgrade I bought. I didn’t have enough, not if I wanted to feed the baby. I don’t know when I will be able to afford the upgrade or any upgrade.

I will have to be content with the older model.

At work, I am the only one who does not have the upgrade. Already, everyone is using the new features to better interface with the computers here. They work quickly, not even moving. They don’t have to anymore.

The wireless signals between computer and upgrade are so seamless now that I don’t even see the telltale eye flicks that accompanied last month’s model.

I’m falling behind in my work already. I haven’t been here more than a few minutes and I am not so productive as the others. I try to concentrate on my work, pressing the necessary buttons when they light up on the panel and looking for the connections that need to be made to maintain the integrity of the systems. The computer terminal is plugged into the port I still have in my side. My terminal is the only one with a wired interface.

I’m too basic for the other terminals. I look for the things that used to give me pleasure within my systems, but I can no longer keep up with my work like I used to. My heart races and I shut off all but my work programming. The others have the pleasure interfaces up while they work, but I can’t afford that luxury. My unit does not multitask as well as theirs.

I am the only one that does not look fully human, the only one with my unit showing. I feel ashamed, but I can’t afford the upgrade if I want to feed the baby.

They come for me before lunch. Rather, they send a message for me and I do not notice it until then. I don’t know how long it’s been there. There is too much for me to process already. I unplug from my interface. It’s not that I would take a lunch, the only way to keep up anymore is to never take a break.

As I enter the offices I am greeted by the receptionist. “They’ve been waiting all morning. Have a seat.”

I sit quietly outside the doors, feeling like a child. I can’t work while I’m here, not without an interface to plug into. If I had a newer unit I could continue with my work while I sit here. I would be useful, productive.

The door opens and the receptionist waves me in, her interface connects her to everything in the building. As I step into the offices, she closes the door behind me without any of the tell-tale signs that come with older building interface units.

The overseers sit at a larger terminal than we have out on the floor. Their interfaces run seamlessly in the background as they focus most of their attention on me.

“It has come to our attention that you are no longer able to keep up with your workload. Is there something wrong with your terminal?”

“No, ma’am.” I answer, the images coming into view from my unit are of the latest upgrade. The ads are almost non-stop. They have been getting in the way of my work all morning. “It’s the ads. I can’t get them out of my way.”

The overseers’ gazes fix on me. “Do you have a problem with them? They are designed to help you make informed decisions. Without the ads you would not know when it was time to upgrade.” The woman’s head cocks to the side like a dog. “When was your last upgrade?”

I can not bring myself to meet her harrowing gaze. I have not had an upgrade for almost eight months now. Not since the baby was born. I am not ashamed of my older unit, I tell myself. I have to feed the baby, I can not afford to get the newest upgrade.

Her brow furrows and I can almost see her processing this information independently of her unit. She frowns even more and I know already that I have missed something. A message she sent. “How many months behind is your unit?”

I have all but shut off my unit to focus on what she tells me. The silence in front of my eyes, the sounds that I do not hear when it is like this, the colors and the quietness of turning fans distract me almost more than the ads ever can. “Eight months,” I answer, not meeting her eyes and a fly buzzes in the corner above a potted plant, long dead and dry. No one has remembered that it exists.

The overseer’s eyes narrow as she contemplates this answer, and then her gaze turns blank. “Eight months. You had a baby eight months ago.”

The dull sound of the advertisements is pushed very far back now. I can’t take it, it is worse than the silence I hear now. I turn off my unit. I can feel my heart begin to race and my breathing turn shallow, it is as though I cannot find air. My head hurts and the lights in the room are suddenly too bright. I can feel myself shrinking into something less than a person. I turn the unit back on and immediately I begin to feel the pains subside, even if the distraction of the advertisements is still there.

I nod to the overseer. “We had a baby eight months ago.”

Her lips purse. “Has the child been upgraded?”

I shake my head. “We can’t afford an upgrade, not even for the baby.”

“And you, yourself have not been upgraded. Where does your money go?

“Babies must eat. I have to feed the baby.”

“You must be upgraded.”

“You don’t pay me enough to upgrade.”

I watch as she seems to contemplate something. “You do not do enough work for us to pay you more. If you were to upgrade your unit we might be able to consider a raise in pay. Until such a time, however, we suggest you install your child with an upgrade at the least. Any older and the upgrade may be rejected. Chances of survival decrease and the population can not afford to lose anymore, there are too few viable adults.”

I shake my head again. “I can not upgrade the baby. I can’t afford it.”

The male overseer, silent until now, speaks, he does not move or look at me, there is no emotion in his voice. “You are incapable of caring for the child properly. I will contact government services. They will take the child and give it the proper upgrades. It will be well cared for. Then you may use your earnings to buy a proper upgrade. Once you have upgraded sufficiently you will be given a raise. Perhaps then, when you can afford it, you may try for another child.”

I can feel my knees begin to weaken. The advertisements come to the front again. “Please, don’t.”

The female overseer speaks again. “It for your own good. If you can not afford the upgrade for yourself or the child, how can you expect to function properly in society? How can you expect the child to grow properly?” She smiled like she was doing me a favor.

“Please, I’ll upgrade, don’t take the baby.”

“You said you cannot afford the upgrade.”

“I’ll take out a credit, whatever I have to do. Just don’t take the baby.”

The male overseer’s eyebrows rise. “What of the child? Will it be upgraded soon?”

I nodded quickly. “Please, don’t take him.”

The overseers do not blink, they do not look at each other and they only seem to look through me as they converse with one another via their units.

“One month,” the woman says. “At the end of the month you and the child will have been upgraded. If not, you will be terminated and the child will be reported to the government. We don’t want to lose you, but there are others with better upgrades.”

I nod and when they speak no more I exit the offices, grateful. The advertisements increase for the upgrades. By now, the work day is over. I have lost several hours pay for this little chat.

As I make my way home and pass the lines of people waiting for their upgrade I can hardly concentrate for the advertisements. I stop only to buy formula for the baby. I have to feed the baby. I cannot afford the upgrade today.

It is something that I have not told anyone, but I do not want to upgrade the baby. I like him the way he is. Even if he cries and screams and defecates in his diaper. I do not want him to grow up dependent on a unit as I have. I want him to grow old and think for himself while he does it. I want him to learn on his own, rather than have the information fed to him. it was that way when I was younger.

When I get home my wife is in the living room,  she upgraded last week, her job required it more than mine at the time. She is absorbed. The baby is crying on the floor. I pick him up, trying to shove the advertisements to the back of my thoughts. He needs changed.

It isn’t an easy job, but I change him and I feed him. The advertisements for not only my own upgrade, but one for him flood my vision.

As I watch him I cannot bear the thought of subjecting him to this. It was so new and intriguing when they first came out. I had never thought it would lead to this. Not in my wildest dreams. I can not do it. I can not let them take him.

I pack a bag for myself and for him. My wife is to engrossed in her upgrade. She will likely spend all of her credits again on things the unit tells her she needs, even if she does not need them.

I take the baby and as we exit the house I can not take the advertisements anymore as I stumble, almost dropping him. I breathe deeply and turn off the connection. It is only a matter of time now before they notice and come looking for us. I have to get out. I have to run. Or they will take us both.

The lights come on and my body feels weak as they stand over me. I do not know how long I have been here, strapped to the cold metal table. I think about the baby, the baby I never had.

“It didn’t work.” It is the voice of the male overseer.

“I don’t understand why. He should have been rushing to buy the new unit.” The female overseer comes into focus now as she shines a light in my eyes and checks my pulse. I am too tired, too weak to fight her. “There must be something wrong with the advertisement algorithms.”

“Perhaps, not everyone can be persuaded.” The man stands over me, looking down with curiosity. “The company will be disappointed, but it is a problem that can be dealt with. Eventually there will be no resistance to the units.”

The woman looks at him in almost the same way that he looks at me. “Should I terminate this one?”

The man looks away, his eyes shifting and I can tell that he is consulting his unit. “No, continue your experiments. Independence is such a tragedy. No one should have to suffer without the guidance of the company.”

He licked his lips and walked the chip across his knuckles. Three years. In three years, he hadn’t been to church. He hadn’t had communion. He hadn’t seen his wife, he hadn’t spoken a word to his children. He hadn’t been allowed.

Beside him, his wife knelt in solemn prayer. He knew that for the first time in a long time it wasn’t him she prayed for, or if she did it wasn’t in the same way as before. She didn’t feel she had to. He was better now, recovered, cured. She’d picked him up that morning, the children in the back seat and they’d all come to mass together.

He continued to walk the chip across his knuckles and stared silently at the only thing that bothered him in this church. The Christ stared down at him, his lifeless wooden eyes seemed to cut to his very soul. The crown of thorns on his brow dripped crimson painted rivulets of blood into the corner of one eye.

The blood. That was the part he’d never liked, too real.

The coin danced across his fingers, so quick that he almost lost control of it. People began to form a line to receive the elements He watched as they received their blessing and bread. The body of Christ. He’d never understood the idea of symbolic cannibalism. But he knew he needed it.

His wife rose and stepped to the back of the line. She saw that he didn’t follow and pursed her lips as she glanced back at him. He knew he needed it, but for her it was the final test, to know he was serious about this. That he was a changed man. To her, this would mean he was better, that there was no chance of his turning back.

“God, please. Don’t make me do this.” He whispered the prayer so quietly he almost didn’t hear it himself. He clasped the chip within his closed fist and stood, hands shaking just a little. His wife saw this as the final test of his new commitment to life, but for him it was different.

He needed this, he didn’t doubt it. Communion was important, but for the first time in his life he wished that he didn’t need it. Any of it. There was a part of him that needed it for reasons other than the one that was intended by Christ so long ago.

He took his place beside his wife and she seemed to hold her head a little higher as she looked forward, arms crossed and hands on her shoulders to receive the body. The priest placed the bread gently into her mouth and she swallowed it almost without chewing. He took the bread in his hands, preferring to do it himself. He nodded to the priest and proceeded on with his wife. The chip in his other hand seemed to grow warm as he walked beside her. She took the cup from the alter boy and sipped the blood of Christ, or the wine that represented it.

He could deny it, he could walk by the cup, wave it off and continue back to his seat with his wife. But wasn’t this the most important part? More important than even the body which he had already taken? The alter boy wiped the lip of the cup where her lips had touched and she looked at him expectantly. Was he supposed to take it or was he supposed to walk by? He swallowed hard and rubbed the chip against his palm.

He took the cup.

It was far from the same yet, as the wine touched his lips, memories flooded in. Memories of a lover’s kiss.

A lingering sting on his skin, and a hazy fog. A burning sensation down his throat and warming his belly, but no matter how many kisses he received there was still an emptiness in him. The liquid kiss of the bottle could not, would not fill him.

The glass on the table stood empty. It had been for a while now. He did not want to fill it. He’d made a promise to never fill that glass again. But the glass taunted him. Why should he have kept it if he never meant to fill it again? Perhaps it was not the glass that taunted him.

Maybe it was the bottle he pressed to his lips. Or the now almost imperceptible burning sensation in his throat. It talked from inside him as it went down; crying for another swallow. He did not understand why he continually pressed the bottle’s mouth to his as though it were a lover and he a dying man. Perhaps he was a dying man.

He turned away from the glass. There was a paper on the pillow next to his, faded and folded a thousand times over. He knew its content by heart. A letter asking him to choose between one lover and another. He had chosen long ago after a fashion. He had never stopped seeing the lover that was with him now. He did not use the glass… that bed of whose he could not reenter… But he had found other ways… other methods of rendezvous with her. Her mouth pressed to his again, begging him to forget the letter and the one who wrote it. But he could not forget the letter which lay upon his bed. The language was so beautifully crafted it was meant to be dark and angry. And was made unintentionally beautiful with the stroke of pen and cadence of words. Language come alive in texture and voice… demanding that a choice be made.

Again, his lover’s lips met his and his stomach slowly burned.

He unfolded the paper, caressing it as though it were the one who had written it rather than a mere ghost of what she had been. As if to admonish him for such a thought his lover’s lips pressed to his again. He could not read the words through his haze… through his lover’s fingers laced over his eyes.

All that mattered were the words “this affair must end” But how could he end it? How could he tell the lover that he did not want her any more when yet again her lips pressed to his? He felt the dull burn in his stomach and her weight on his chest as she whispered love and tenderness in his ear, begging for one more kiss. One more chance to make his stomach burn and flutter in his throat.

He stood to leave the bed, he needed to walk, to think, to clear his head. But he stumbled, as she pulled him back. Kissed him again, passionate and fierce.

He shook his head. The alter boy stared at him. He had taken too long, though he barely swallowed any of the wine. His wife frowned as he handed back the cup and followed his wife. The letter had been hers. He’d answered it by clinging to his lover for three years. For three years he had clung to the lover. Now he held this chip in his hand, clung to it as he had once the lover.

The benediction was given, but he did not hear it. He did not see as the recession was made. As they walked out the door he paused, they were the last to leave, but he didn’t linger long. He walked the chip across his knuckles one last time and dropped it in the offering box. He looked back to his wife, but she was already on her way out. Her retreating form did not look back at him, but he knew she was crying. He knew that the lover had come between them again.

He turned back to the cross hanging above their heads. The red rivulets of blood stood out more than ever. “I want you, not her,” he prayed.

But all he saw was the lover, beckoning him closer.

I eat dinner with the man across the aisle, though he doesn’t know it. We each take bite after bite, never speaking. I made a mistake with him, years ago. He does not recognize me now, but I recognize him. He needed to make a choice. He refused and now I must clean up his mess. My mess. Tonight, I must fix it and tonight I must provide that choice again to another who will take it.

I chose wrong with the man across the aisle.

It is not my place to make choices. This is something I have had to learn.

It is rare that I witness the birth of any man. Life is not my business. It is not my place. But this man was born like any other.

I remember the woman’s eyes as she pushed, struggled to birth the man across the aisle. Her fourth child. She was ill, sickly all her life. When she’d discovered she was pregnant she had been so proud. By the time I met her, though, she was afraid. Her three children, no fathers, waiting outside the room. A boy of fourteen years, another only ten, and the littlest girl at three. They could hear their mother’s screams and they huddled together when I walked into the room.

“Are you a doctor?” the little girl asked me, with eyes wide. “Are you going to help my mama?”

I stopped, unaware they coul

 

d see me. This was my first day on the job. This was the first choice I was to provide, to guard.

“Yes,” I had answered, gazing into her tear stained eyes. And I had believed it. But in the birthing room there had been a different plan. She needed to die, the mother of those children. The mother of that little girl. I looked her in the eye as she gave one final push, as the man across the aisle came into this world, screaming and crying. I watched as the light began to fade from his mother’s eyes. I took her hand, but I did not take her. I made her promise to do everything in her power to make sure that her boy became a doctor. And become a doctor he did, but not the doctor he needed to be.

His tailored suit and handmade shoes are out of place here.

Red seats line the chrome bar and the black and white tiles of the floor haven’t changed since the sixties. A waitress appears with the check and I dig in my pockets for my last bills. I have enough for the meal and a dollar tip, crumpled, worn, and covered in dirt.

I get up to leave. They don’t want me here. They don’t know who I am, but they have their suspicions. Everyone always does and everyone is always wrong. No one sees me the same way as another person might. The man across the aisle does not see me at all. This is not as it should have been. He missed his choice. He never stared into the darkness and it never stared back. His mother lived.

I made a choice, and I robbed him of his. I do not get to make choices. I only protect them.

I exit the diner onto the cold city streets, ambling along, biding my time. I have nowhere to go for now. Later I have a job to do, but for now I have time.

I walk with the woman as she finds her way home. This is a new city to her. She doesn’t know that I walk with her, but we are both alone and she looks more than a little lost. I make sure that she reaches her destination. Her shiny black shoes, pristine hair and designer clothes, and fresh manicure undisturbed. She will make a choice soon. I have kept it safe. It is because of me that she chose this city, this place.

She notices me as she walks into her apartment. She stares for a moment. She meets my eyes. Something inside her knows and she looks away as quick as she can. It won’t be long before I meet her again.

I walk down into the subway tunnel. The whistle of the trains and the smell of the sewer do not bother me.

 

I stop and pat the stray cat huddled in the corner where she has given birth to her first litter not more than an hour ago. She purrs and allows my touch. She knows that I am not for her this night, not for her babies.

I step onto the train and sit with the young boy on his way home from baseball practice. It’s his first time by himself on the subway and he glances at the other passengers . The lights flicker and he sees me sitting across from him. I smile and he looks at his shoes, wringing his hands together. There are holes in their sides, the solid areas coated in dirt and grass stains. He’s had them for a long time and they are small enough to be uncomfortable now. It makes his feet hurt to play in them, but he knows he’s good enough to make it out if he keeps trying. So he continues, and he saves his money until he can get a new pair – one that won’t hurt his feet.

He will grow to be a great man. Because of him no child will ever have to wear a pair of shoes that’s too small for them. Because of him the world will become a better place. Because of this I will not take him today. I am not for him. He has already made his choice. I am not the one to make it for him, no. I am not required for a choice like his, though I had a hand in it. It is because of me that he suffers, but it is because of his suffering that others will thrive.

The old woman at the end of the car watches me with curiosity. She knows. She recognizes me, but she says nothing. She knows that her time will come and she knows that I will not come for her. She will affect little. My job is choices. I am there, always, always there. The important choices, life and death. I can see the tapestry of life. I can see where it is worn and frayed. I can see the threads and I can see where they end and where they begin. The fates may spin and measure, and cut the threads, but I am there to see that they are woven. I am there to see that choices are made and that the weaving is strong. Because of the choice of the man in the diner, the tapestry is weak. The one I am for tonight – he will make it strong again.

The train comes to a halt and I step off. I reach into a pocket and I drop the last coins I have into the open guitar case, the blind man playing for change. His music takes a somber turn as he hears my coins drop into the case. He feels that I am there, standing, listening to him play. He begins to play with a beauty that few are able to master, and people gather, but none stand close to me. They don’t want to be caught in my net, not tonight.

I leave him to his music. He will eat another night and he will live for a while longer.

I walk on, looking up at the sky, waiting for the clouds to release the rain that they have withheld for so long. A few drops fall and land on my upturned face. Water is neither dead nor alive. It is both cooling, soothing, and terrifying to many.

I do not enjoy the work I must do, but that is no matter. Someone must do it, and that is me. It has always been me. But tonight – tonight there is something different. Tonight, is important.

The hospital lights do not hurt my eyes as I move inside. The children’s ward. I walk to the foot of a bed, surrounded by a family. “I’m waiting for Uncle Jim,” the child says. “Then everyone will be here.”

Her mother looks to me, hope in her eyes. “Don’t let my daughter die.”

The door to the ward opens and Uncle Jim walks in. He hurries to the child’s bedside, a teddy bear in hand. He smiles at the child, but he sees me and his face falls. He knows me as only one who is about to make a choice can know me.

“I’m not the doctor you’re looking for,” I whisper. I move to the child’s side and take one hand as Uncle Jim takes the other, his eyes leaving mine only to smile at his niece.

“I waited for you, Uncle Jim. I wanted to say good-bye. I love you.”

She takes a few short breaths before the monitor lets out a continuous, droning beep. I close my eyes and turn away, letting her hand fall to the bed. They do not see me anymore. It’s better that way. They call for a doctor. They call for several.

Uncle Jim still sees me. As I leave, he leaves too. He takes me by the shoulder. “It’s my fault. I wasn’t there. I should have been with her.”

I smile at him. I know the choice he will have to make, even if he does not. This death will either change his life or end it. I took the life of this girl so that he could make a choice. “Another day, James. Perhaps tomorrow.”

I leave the hospital, exhausted, and still my work is not finished. So much to do.  I continue on, though I can feel the anger that comes with a night like this, it rises in my heart. Someone has to do it, but that does not mean that I enjoy it.

people-1550501_1920I sit with the homeless man in the park, waiting, biding my time for an hour or so, postponing the inevitable. He does not know that I sit with him. He does not notice me. but I am as homeless as he. I have nowhere to go. Nowhere that I rest my head. I do not rest. I can never rest. This is only a reprieve as I look up at the stars. Now that the rain has stopped, everything smells alive. The crickets sing and the stars are out in force tonight.

They look down at me and at my work. They do not care what I do, they are so far away, so many of them, I took them long ago. Some are still there, but many I have already spoken to. They do not fear me. They know what comes next. They know what happens when they move on. They know that there is a chance, however slight, they will become something more. They understand their potential. Humans are the only ones that fear me. They do not understand, and they fear what they do not understand.

I continue on.

As I walk a young boy stops to stare at me. “Are you a doctor?” He asks as I draw near. I stop a few feet from him. This is the question I have been waiting for.

“I am,” I reply. And it is the truth. This is my purpose tonight.

He looks around. “My Papa, he’s sick. We can’t afford to have a doctor come look at him. We don’t even have a car to take him to the hospital. Besides, last time we tried they said we didn’t have enough money to get him the surgery he needs.”

I watch his eyes as he works up the courage to ask me for what he wants.

“Will you come home with me? Will you look at him?”

I smile a little, trying to give him even the smallest glimmer of hope. And it is a lie.

“We can’t pay you. But he needs a doctor soon.”

I smile again, trying to ignore the knowledge of what I must do. The exhaustion is overwhelming, but I cannot stop now. “Take me to him,” I offer my hand.

The boy takes it. He is only eight years old. His Papa promised to take him to a football game when he turns nine next month. I let him lead me by the hand to his home.

It is small, in need of repair. He leads me inside where his mother sits with a stack of bills at the table. “Where have you been? I told you not to go out after midnight.” She stops. “Who is this?” She sees me holding her son’s hand.

“He’s a doctor, Mama. He said he would help.”

“We can’t pay him,” she chides the boy. “I am sorry sir. He should not have made you come all this way.”

“Where is your husband?”

She frowns but the light of hope sparkles in her eyes. If her husband can only see a doctor. He might live. But this too is a lie. I am meant for him.

I follow her to the room that it appears they all share. Two little girls share a small mattress in one corner while the father lies on a mattress in the other. His breathing is slow, strong for a moment, and then he struggles for another breath. I walk over to him and kneel on the ground. The mother stands in the door, holding her breath. But the boy comes to my side.

“I want to be a doctor too,” he whispers.

I look into his eyes. He will be a great doctor one day. Because of him the world will be a better place. Because of him, no one will die like his father again He has only to make a choice, a choice I must provide. “You will be,” I whisper to him even as I take his father’s hand in mine. I close my eyes as I feel his pulse slow to a stop. “He is not in any pain. Not anymore.”

The mother rushes to her husband’s side. The boy stares at me with sadness on his face. “You didn’t do anything. I thought you were a doctor.”

From behind the boy his father stares at me. He stands tall, stronger than he’s ever been. But the boy cannot see him. “I am a doctor.” The father nods at me. He knows what will happen now. He knows why he had to die. They all do, always. “I am a doctor for the dying.”

“He wasn’t supposed to die,” he whispers.

“Everyone dies.” I look away as the wife begins to cry and cough. I watch blood come out of her mouth. It will not be long before I return here. A choice must occur and it cannot do so without a catalyst.

I am that catalyst.

I continue my journey. It does not end here. It will never end as I step out onto the street with the rising sun. There are more choices for me to protect and provide.

winter-260817_1920

A vague smile crosses my face as the first snow falls.

I turn away from the lies reflected in the window pane. The snow in the field behind the hospital is unmarred, I won’t be the one to take that away. I slowly walk to the chair beside my wife’s bed. The white linoleum looks gray in the dim light. Dirty. The cards at the foot of her bed are years old now. There is only one bouquet of flowers on the tray which I replace every week. No one else sends them anymore. My phone sits next to the flowers, dead for days now. I drape a mottled afghan over her feet.

April’s eyes are closed, peaceful. I take her left hand, the right is full of tubes and needles. There are bruises under her eyes. She hasn’t had enough sleep. Three years isn’t enough.

“Jack?” The doctor stands in the doorway. “We need to talk,” He says while the door closes behind him.

I don’t take my eyes off of April and the oxygen tube covering half of her beautiful face. I cling to the constant beep of the heart monitor, grounding myself in the unreality of my life. I start to pick on a thread in the blanket and then lay my hand on her leg. The IV drip marks the silent passage of time.

Thirty drops in every minute. One thousand and eight hundred in an hour. Forty-three thousand and two hundred a day. Forty-eight million, eight hundred and eighty thousand, eight hundred drops since the day she arrived.

I see her chest moving up and down with the ventilator. I don’t dare hope that her eyes will open. How long has it been since I last saw her violet eyes?

The doctor places his hand on my shoulder. I don’t bother to shrug it off.

“Jack, it’s been three years.” He hesitates and I hope he won’t say it. “Her brain activity – for weeks now – it’s minimal, barely keeping her body going. She’s not suffering, but she’s not living.”

I hold April’s hand a little bit tighter. “No.”

“Jack-”

I shake my head furiously and jerk away. “She has to wake up.” I press her hand to my lips and wonder if she can feel the hot tears that fall down my cheeks.

“Life support is all that’s keeping her here. Haven’t you mourned long enough?”

This isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation. I get to my feet, gently placing April’s hand by her side again. At the window, I stare at the unmarred snow, remembering a different time, a different place.

I’m a kid again, forcing my feet into boots a year too small, not bothering to change out of my pajamas. The sun isn’t out yet. I snatch a pair of mismatched gloves from the box by the door. Scooby-Doo peeks out of my unzipped coat.

I slam to a halt on the edge of the old wooden porch, my toes less than an inch from the untouched snow. Apple trees line one edge of the yard. The leaves fell weeks ago, the apples used to make all sorts of sweet things. Our antique mailbox stands out at the end of our driveway, illuminated by a single street lamp. Snow is piled on top of it at least six inches high. Starlight reveals the untouched snow where the morning commuters have yet to mar its innocence.

I glance back through the door into the dark interior of our house. Mom will kill me for this. I turn back to the yard. The porch lamp lights a wide swath of the pristine snow, not quite reaching the circle of light.

The snow calls me forward, begging me to come and play.

“I need to go for a walk.” I don’t grab my coat, but I leave the hospital anyway. As I walk I let my mind wander. How many times had I thought she wouldn’t make it, only to beg God for just one more day, one more smile, one last glimpse of her eyes? I laugh. “Once more will never be enough,” I mutter to myself.

My puffy coat and snow pants make it hard to climb the hill. I have on so many layers I can barely put my arms down at my sides. My hands grasp my blue plastic sled as tight as they can through thick mittens. “Just one more time!” I call to my mother.

I can almost hear her eyes rolling. “Fine, but only one!”

Now, walking these city streets I stare at the still dark sky. The wind hits me like a slap in the face. How long has it been since I was last outside? Two or three days at least. They let me shower in my wife’s bathroom; she doesn’t use it. I’m a writer; I do my work by her bedside.

Three days ago it was sunny, warm, an Indian Summer. My shirt and jeans are just a bit too thin for this new weather. I don’t stop to admire the unmarred snow; there is no ceremony to which I take my first steps onto each new swath.

I look up and among the high rises and see a small building, only three stories, thin and narrow between the larger buildings. Phoenix, I read. It has an old tavern style sign displaying a logo of a cup of coffee with what I guess is supposed to be the mythical bird itself rising from the steam. It’s a strange name for a coffee shop, I think. I pause for a moment to consider. The cold gets the better of me and I step inside.

The fresh smell of espresso wafts into my lungs. More than that, I can smell eggs and bacon cooking. It’s warm and cozy in here. The tables are everywhere, close together, but still far enough apart that I can isolate myself. This is the kind of shop I used to do my writing in. Now I do all of my writing in the hospital, waiting for my wife to wake up.

There is a small window flanked by an espresso machine on one side and a pastry case on the other. There is a second counter behind the main one with all the barista’s supplies.

As I venture in I note down little things about the place, perhaps I will use it in a story. Black counter tops. Tables with cast iron legs. It feels like Mom’s kitchen back home. The barista has violet eyes. I pause, staring at the girl behind the counter. She smiles. “What can I get for you?”

Her voice sounds like a high school cheerleader, bubbly, full of optimism and life. I blink as I realize that her eyes are brown, not violet. April’s eyes are violet. “Uhm… can you do coffee? Black? Preferably a dark roast?”

“No problem! What size?” She smiles wider and doesn’t look at me like I’m crazy for wanting real coffee. I appreciate that.

“Do you have real sizes or should I find a Latin dictionary?”

She laughs. “Small, medium, or large?”

“Large,” I say. I hand over my debit card.

She swipes the card and then hands me a cup of coffee. She smiles at me. “Have a nice day.”

I walk over to a table and sit, slowly sipping the hot liquid. The barista is cleaning her workspace. The only other person here is an old man, eating a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. He catches me looking in his direction and waves me over. I just stare at him for a moment. He is maybe my father’s age with graying hair and sun-tanned skin. He would be about my height if he was standing. He waves again.

I stand and walk over to him, sitting opposite in the indicated chair.

“Bit nippy to be without a coat,” He says.

His eyes are the color of hot chocolate.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Jack.”

“Tony.” He looks me up and down. “I don’t mean to be rude. You look like hell, kid.”

“Long night,” I say quietly, taking a sip of my coffee.

“Wife got you sleeping on the couch?” He looks pointedly at my wedding ring and then at my wrinkled clothes.

“A chair actually.” I’m surprised by the bitterness in my own voice.

Tony ignores it. “Breakfast? How do you like your eggs?”

“Scrambled,” I say before I can stop myself.

The old man smiles widely. “A man after my own heart.” He waves his hand at the barista. “Mae! Get me another plate of eggs and toast for my friend please.”

“No, I couldn’t,” I try to protest but he waves me off.

“On the house. It’s rare that we see anyone in here before the sun comes up.”

I stare at him for a minute, trying to decide if I should take up his offer. Before I can make up my mind the barista, Mae, sets a plate of scrambled eggs and toast in front of me. “Thank you,” I say out of reflex. She smiles at me again.

“Been married long?” Tony asks, continuing his breakfast.

“Five years, last month.” I take a bite of my own eggs, appraising the old man, trying to understand his questioning.

“Any kids?”

I hesitate for a split second. “No,” I answer a little too sharply.

“Why not?”

“Never the right time.” I glance at my right hand, what’s left of it. I lost my thumb and first two fingers in the accident three years ago.

“Do you want kids?”

I shovel another fork full of eggs into my mouth, stalling. “I thought I did,” I answer carefully.

“What changed your mind.”

I do not answer. Instead, I get up to leave. “I don’t have to answer your questions.”

“Stop. Sit.” He says with authority.

I sit back down, feeling a bit like a dog.

“Eat.” He says this last word kindly. “You look like you need it.”

I pick up the fork with my left hand. I don’t take my eyes off of Tony. Mechanically I shovel eggs into my mouth. He motions for Mae to refill my coffee.

I stare at Tony for what feels like an eternity, “What happened?”

I sit back, my heart sinking at the memory. “There was snow…”

I can barely see past the hood of the car. My right hand is behind me, holding April’s as she screams with the pain of labor. “It’ll be alright. We’re almost there,” I say over and over again. I’m no longer certain if I’m speaking to her or to myself. I can just barely see the green of the light.

I meet her wide violet eyes in the rearview mirror. “It’ll be okay,” I whisper.

“Let’s try an easier question,” Tony says and I realize that I haven’t said a word. “How did you meet your wife?”

I don’t know why I’m telling him these things, but I answer anyway. “It was when we were kids, the last run of the day. My mom wouldn’t let me stay out any longer. I was going downhill so fast. Out of nowhere, this girl appeared. She was hauling a pink sled up the hill behind her.”

I slam into her, knocking her off her feet. I hear something crack and our mothers screaming. We’re already sitting up when they arrive. They look us over frantically and the girl’s mom yells at mine. “Teach him to watch where he’s going!”

Mom carries me to our car, still clutching my blue sled. As Mom is about to snap the buckle on my seat I shout. “No! Wait!” I jump from the car, sled in tow and run to the little girl getting into her mom’s car. “Here!” I thrust out my sled with one hand. I hold it at arm’s length, afraid she won’t take it.

I feel the sled leave my fingers. When I look at her she smiles at me. Her eyes were purple; I’ve never seen purple eyes before.

“My name’s April.”

“Jack,” I say stupidly.

“April! Get in the car!” her mother shouts.

Tony’s voice brings me back to reality and I realize that I’ve trailed off again. “Sounds like you were meant to be.”

“There was an accident a few years ago.” The memory floods into view.

“I remember looking from the rearview mirror and my wife’s eyes to the road. But it was too late. The semi was going too fast and his brakes didn’t work. I hit mine, but the ABS didn’t kick in. We sped forward and when the semi hit us we went backward. I heard April scream. I don’t know if it was pain from the labor, the accident, or both. She tried to brace herself against the back of the passenger seat. When I woke up…” I whisper this to Tony, afraid that if I speak too loudly something inside me might break. “She’s still sleeping.”

“The baby?” Tony asks.

Mae replaces my paper cup with a mug. She smiles at me and I know that she’s been listening. Her brown eyes turn violet for a moment in my mind. The baby is so small. He opens his eyes, violet like his mother’s. But that’s all that I really see of him. His bones are broken and his organs bruised and ruptured. He’s alive and that’s a miracle in and of itself. That he can open his eyes this once is an act of divine power. He smiles at me, just a little, holds my little finger in his hand. The tubes covering his face mask him from me. That first and last time he will ever open his eyes.

“He died from complications thirty-seven days after the accident,” I say quietly, deciding it best to keep that memory to myself.

Tony raises an eyebrow at my specificity. “Your wife is still in a coma?”

“I work at the hospital so I can stay with her.”

“What do you do?” Tony asks politely. I think he senses my pain.

“I’m a writer, but I do some editing on the side.” I shrug as I take a gulp of coffee, then cough and nearly spit it out. It’s hotter than I anticipate.

“Must be good at it, no side job.” He ignores my miscalculation with the coffee.

“It’s enough.” I decide to ask my own question. “What about you? Not many men your age own coffee shops.”

He laughs and his eyes twinkle like Santa Clause in the old movies. “It wasn’t always a coffee shop. Place used to be a bar. My dad owned it. He drank too much when I was a kid. It was the whiskey and women that killed him.” He paused, thoughtfully. “Killed my mother too. I decided I wouldn’t let this place be the cause of any more families falling apart. So I remade it, instead of making people forget, it’s here to wake them up. From the ashes, they shall rise.” He chuckles. “I thought it was clever.”

I nod, not sure what to say for a moment. But there is a question burning in the back of my mind, one that I need to ask. “How did you do it?”

“Do what?” He sits back in his seat, finished with his food.

“Move on.” I bite my lip.

“I didn’t, not really. At first, I wanted to get rid of this place, but that wasn’t going to work. Sometimes we don’t move on. Sometimes the only thing we can do is change.”

“There’s nothing for me to change.” I look down and the sight of my disfigured right hand sickens me, a constant reminder of the accident. I can’t get away from it.

“We’re sorry, Mr. Borden. But your hand was badly crushed. The fingers were unable to be reattached We had no choice but to remove what was left of them. You might regain some use of the remaining fingers, but the outlook isn’t all that bright.”

I stare blankly at my hand and then at the doctor. “My wife? I was holding her hand.”

“She’s in a coma. There’s still brain activity for now.” He pauses. “We were able to deliver the baby. If you wish to see him, now is the best time.”

“I have a son?”

“There’s always something in life that needs a little change.” Tony smiles thinly.

I stare at my empty plate. I think about the doctor and what he’d told me only a little while ago. I stand to leave. “Thank you,” I don’t know if I’m thanking him for breakfast or something else.

“Somewhere to be?” The old man watches as I walk to the door.

I turn back. “Something I should have done a long time ago.”

I leave the coffee shop, but I don’t turn back to the hospital. Instead, I wander the city streets, occasionally walking into a small shop or a department store to look at the shelves. At every store, I leave intending to turn back and go to the hospital, but I don’t. I just keep wandering. I pay for a bus fare and ride for a few hours, watching the people get on and off. The children seem excited about the snow, the parents frustrated and distracted. People rush about, tapping their feet impatiently as though it will make the bus move faster. Their lives and jobs are so important that they don’t spare even a moment to look up from their phones. I skip lunch and dinner. As the sun starts to fade I return to the hospital, a long and winding route.

As I cross the street the world looks new somehow, despite the end of the day. I pause, there are children playing in the field. There are several half-made snowmen and countless angels. They’re currently engaged in a snowball war with forts and everything. I smile a little. I had forgotten the magic of a first snow. I’d forgotten the magic of life itself.

I set one foot in the snow and smile at the crunch it makes. There is still so much that remains untouched, so much of the world left. I turn back to the hospital, going no farther than that first step.

I walk up the stairs to my wife’s room. Six floors. The doctor is taking notes from the machines. He looks up at me. I take April’s hand in mine and kiss her forehead. My words come out in a whisper. “I have to let her go, don’t I?”

“I can only give you the options.”

“I can’t keep her like this.”

“Are you sure?” The doctor places his hand on my shoulder again. “We have people you can talk to.” But he knows that I’ve already been through all the counseling I can stand.

I hold April’s hand to my cheek, letting my tears moisten her palm. “I’m sure.”

He squeezes my shoulder. “I’ll get the paperwork.”

I nod. He leaves me to sit beside April. I sweep her hair back from her face and continue to hold her hand. “I love you.” I bow my head in acceptance, letting the tears fall. “I’m ready.”

The doctor returns. Before he can hand me the paperwork April’s heart monitor stops beeping, becoming one droning note. I stare up at the single green line. They push me away as nurses come in. “Let her go,” I say quietly. But I know they have to try.

I don’t keep track of how long they work.

A nurse calls it. “Time of death:  8:37 pm. December 18th.”

But she’s already been dead for three years and thirty-seven days.

I close my eyes and a violet eyed girl smiles at me behind my eyelids, holding a beat up blue plastic sled in one hand. Holding her other hand is a little boy, three years old. His eyes are the same color as hers. He smiles at me too. There is a vast expanse of new snow before us. I look at the hill as she turns to it and see three sets of footprints that brought the sled up. Two large and one small. April holds the sled out at arm’s length, smiling. I take it. One more run. I look to her again, hoping she’ll come with me.

She shakes her head and I understand.

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