“Boogeyman” from Rowena’s World: Poems and Stories, 2nd Edition
The old woman sat on her porch, violently rocking in her chair. After a summer of drought where the sun hung high like a hangman’s noose, the cold, damp October hung on the old woman’s bones like a blood chigger.
The old woman’s name was Nellie Beth Sims. The house was her granddaddy’s, built by him before the blood brick buildings of Dallas were replaced by slick mirror skyscrapers. If anybody were to ask her, Mrs. Sims would speak with that old pride that her family had been in Dallas, Texas, even before the names Carpenter and Braniff and Jonsson were thought of. She knew all of the old street names before Martin Luther King and Malcolm X took over, and she even knew where Bonnie and Clyde buried their cat during their fun around Irving and Oak Cliff. Like the house outliving the old storefronts in Dallas, Mrs. Sims outlived her parents, her husband, and most of her children. Her remaining child, a bland man named Michael, moved up north in Chicago. He sometimes sent her chocolates on her birthdays, cheap chocolate that turned ashen and waxy in the mail. Other than the chocolate, which she didn’t trust and always threw away, she heard nothing from him, which was how she liked it.
Her porch was dark so that the bugs wouldn’t get into her hair, which was short like coils of barb wire and smelled of permanent. Even with the light out, she saw the dark man stroll up her walkway with his satchel. Up close she saw that he was a young man in a cheap blue suit two sizes too big for him. He wore a hat that once was good-looking, but now the shape was all gone from it with the brim pulled down low, making it look fierce. Mrs. Sims rose with one hand grabbing the broomstick she always left on the porch when she sat out. With the other hand, she reached around the doorway and turned on the porch light, which shone weakly through a cataract of old bug bodies.
“If you’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, I ain’t buying,” Mrs. Sims said into the darkness.
The man stepped into the muddy yellow light. He had a face that reminded her of Michael’s, bland and stupid. But he didn’t squint, and his eyes shone like two owl’s eyes. “S’pose I ain’t. S’pose I’m just being neighborly.”
“What’s you selling, then?” Mrs. Sims didn’t take to small talk. She liked the high lonesome part of her neighborhood and hated any human interruption.
Instead of answering, the man set down his satchel. His satchel was splotched leather with one heavy, tarnished buckle keeping the whole thing together. Then he took off his hat. His hair rose up in high, rat-colored tufts. He slicked down the cowlicks and looked around. “A good lady like you shouldn’t be sitting out in the dark. The world ain’t like it used to be. It’s filled with rottenness and bile, black as tar. You’re a good Christian woman, ain’t you?”
Mrs. Sims sucked in air between the fake teeth of her upper plate. She hadn’t been in a church since her husband’s funeral a decade ago. If she hadn’t been a lady, she would’ve yelled, “Hallelujah!” to his grave because her man was one of those quiet, suffering men that infuriated her. She came from a good, old family, and she married a man who didn’t take stock to a good name and one’s pedigree. It didn’t make sense, and she felt that his funeral, which lauded his accomplishments as a good Christian man, didn’t make sense either. What was good in a spineless worm, an ignorant, a man with no initiative? If it weren’t for Mrs. Sims’ own family money and history, she was sure Mr. Sims would’ve led her and their five children right to the poor house. “Where you from? Nobody around here speaks preacher talk except in Sunday church.”
He stuck the battered hat back on his head and tugged low on the brim. “I’m from ’round New Boston, not in New Boston, but ’round there. It’s east of here, in the Piney Woods.”
My God, he’s even pointing the directions out!, thought Mrs. Sims. A true, country man, just like her granddaddy. But that was a long time ago. “Son, why’re you so far from home?”
“’Cause I wanted to go where the sinners are, ma’am,” the man replied. At that, he picked up his satchel. “I can’t do what I do if there’s no sinners.”
“And what do you do?”
The young man answered so softly that Mrs. Sims had to let go of her broomstick and lean a little closer to him. “What?”
The young man swung his satchel, down and up, making a nice, solid connection with Mrs. Sims’ neck, which was weak and thin with age. Looking at Mrs. Sims’ body on the porch, he stepped over her and turned off the porch light. “I bring sinners to God, ma’am.” He continued into the house and, without any trouble at all, found the money that all old people kept, stashed in their beds or behind old pictures of dead relatives. As he left, he glanced up over the ragged tree line to the glaring ball that rose into the sky. It winked at him like the all-seeing insect-eye of God. He winked back.
“Wishes” from Rowena’s World: Poems and Stories, 2nd Edition
He entered the café, and, apropos of nothing, sat down at one of the bistro tables before the host could seat him. Without a menu, he ordered sparkling water and lemon, three hard-fried eggs, two slices of buttered toast, and two slices of crunchy bacon. Even though it was 8pm, and the café didn’t normally serve breakfast fare even in the mornings, the waiter took his order with a smile and asked him how his day was.
“Good so far,” he replied, and flashed that winning smile that got him by over many years.
Many many years.
Today was the first day of his vacation, and he was relishing every moment of it. He stretched his long legs, feeling his skin rub against the lambs’ wool trousers, and placed his hands behind his neck for a long, vertical, cat-like stretch. He wiggled his toes in his soft leather shoes. The cotton shirt underneath his argyle sweater moved along the long arch of his back, and that felt good, too.
Damn, it felt good to wear real, comfortable clothes for a change.
He looked at his skin, a little pale under the weakening October sun. He felt some of the filtered warmth through the café window hit his face and hands. In the summer, he’d be able to turn a slight shade of toasty tan, something he’d never been able to do when he was working. 24/7 on call. And when he wasn’t on, he was in hurry-up-and-wait mode: waiting waiting waiting for the next project, the next call.
Personally, he hated waiting, but it was part of his job. And, truth be told, he DID like his job. But not when he hadn’t had a break since… since…
Good God, he couldn’t remember when he wasn’t on the clock. And even with his impatience at times, complaining was just not done. But taking a vacation was also not usually done, either, and so he was surprised when, out of nowhere, the Big Boss said to him, “You know what? You need a vacation. Take some time off. Whatever time you need. The last thing We need is burnout.”
“Your order, sir.”
The eggs, toast, and everything else were exactly how he liked them. Even the sparkling water with lemon had two slices of lemon and no ice in a standard pub pint glass – exactly how he liked it. He wasn’t surprised, although the waiter had a slightly confused look, as if to say, “Where did we find the pub glass?”
He tucked into his food, relishing the taste and texture of everything in his order. Real food for a change. None of the weird, fancy stuff that he’d had in the past or, as events usually would turn out, doing without.
Not that he could actually STARVE, that is. But eating good, simple food was an enjoyable thing, kind of like a wine connoisseur’s relishing a particularly fine vintage. And wearing comfortable clothes – that was another of those simple pleasures.
And seeing people enjoying life, for a change.
Over his pint glass, his eyes traveled around the bistro, staying briefly with one person until his whimsy took his eyes to another destination. A woman with cobalt-blue eyes and summer wheat skin was writing in her journal, nibbling on her pen cap. She was thinking of a better transition from one part of her rant to the other, and she wrinkled her nose in concentration. Her freckles stood out on her nose, as she thought hard.
She was very pretty.
Two elderly gentlemen were in heated discussion, their hands moving animatedly, nearly mirroring each other. Both men were white-haired, with snowy eyebrows and deep, brown lines along their cheeks. The thinner of the two would roll his eyes while the fatter one would bring his left hand down, just barely hitting the little bistro table in staccato, karate-chop motions. Old friends now, but they met on opposite sides, in a bombed-out building. One a German, the other a Russian. They should’ve killed each other that cold, late October day in Kursk, but they didn’t.
To this day, they still didn’t know why they didn’t.
A young couple sat facing each other, their elbows on the table as they leaned across it for a solitary, and fleeting, kiss. They knew eyes were on them. They didn’t care. It had been months since they were like this, since the baby, since the weight of parenthood sidetracked them from each other, when they used to be silly and goofy. So a date, a date on Halloween, when they could pretend they weren’t married, could pretend that the baby wasn’t at Mother’s, could pretend that they weren’t responsible spouses and parents and adults.
After the kiss, they leaned back into their chairs, like images in a mirror, and stared at each other, slightly awed.
He knew all of this, knew everything about the people his eyes alighted upon, like a butterfly sipping nectar from flowers. And he was thoroughly enjoying himself because, for once, he was with people who didn’t, deep in their desperate, aching souls, secretly wish for him.
He looked up, and smiled. “And a cherry cobbler with vanilla ice cream, please.”
Knowing happy people and eating good, simple food and wearing simple, comfortable clothes and having skin looking the right color for a change… aaahhhh…
He blinked away his reverie and saw the host, but then he REALLY saw the host. “Hey, there. When did you get here?”
“I’ve been here all along. You just blew past me, that’s all. Vacation good so far?”
“Checkin’ up on me?”
“What? Oh, no.” The host/not-host smiled a winning smile, something that he would have to get used to for many many years to come. “The Big Guy pulled me from messenger duty to fill in for you until you get back. I thought you’d like to know who your temp is.”
“Ah.” He looked him over. “How come you don’t have your own body yet?”
“It’s in the works. But, really, does it HAVE to be blue-green?”
“’Fraid so. Too many pop cultural references.”
“And those flow-y leg things and being bare-chested and those slipper things…”
“’Fraid so. Part of the costume.”
His temp sighed.
“Hey, think of it as performance art, or a comedy routine. That’s what I do. And NO COMPLAINING. You know that isn’t kosher.”
“You think I don’t know that?” The host/non-host rubbed his nose and squinted a little. “Well, except for the costume, it’s not a bad assignment, is it?”
“Nope. But don’t get disappointed when you hear complaints. Folks often say they want one thing, when they really mean another, and instead of blaming themselves, they’ll blame you. Don’t take it personally. Remember it’ll all come back to them in the end.”
“Yes. Still… isn’t there a less embarrassing way to test human vice and virtue?”
“Yup – plenty. But this way, it’s more FUN.”
“Your dessert, sir.”
The host/non-host’s face looked confused for a moment, and the host wandered away from the table as the waiter brought in the cherry cobbler and ice-cream, flambéed.
Just the way he liked it. It was lovely, to have one’s wishes granted without any additional words, just like that – to have his wishes granted for a change, and not the other way around.
And the angel, who was on vacation from genie-duty, started in on his dessert.
“Walk the Wall” from Rowena’s World: Poems and Stories, 2nd Edition
He wakes up with a start before the first signal sounds. Blindly, eyes gummy with sleep, he slides off his bunk. His bare feet slaps the floor, shift position once, and arch as he kneels underneath his bunk to grab his gear.
Water being a premium, he urinates and cleans his teeth in the shower, first the cold water soak, then the soap spray, then final hot water rinse. “Just like a car wash,” his great-grandad used to say, talking about cleaning service bays for Terran-world vehicles, privately owned, no less. The vehicles as well as the service bays. The idea is unimaginable to him. He steps out of the stall, which is barely large enough to fit one body so that it can turn around but not bend down. He grabs the body chamois cloth (11×11, drab grey), wipes dry, and drops the sodden cloth into the recercer, which will dry out the cloth, collect the water and, along with the other recercer under the shower stall, pipe the waste water into a centralized scrubbing unit to remove the impurities and then pipe back the clean water for further reuse. The impurities – mostly waste products and other organic materials – become dry and condensed to be used in the agri-units.
But there is a level of privacy, a privilege which he is always aware of as he walks from the fresher into his sleeping space, the follicles of his skin rising in goosebumps even as he begins to pull on the first of many layers of his gear. First the skinsuit, light, soft, which wicks the sweat so that he doesn’t get hot and then marrow-deep cold. Next is the polymerized oversuit, which his great-grandad said looked like a slicker version of the one-piece uniforms old-style mechanics used to wear. Then the slightly metallic-looking inner armor, which slows and diffuses blunt-force blows like rubberized gel absorbing a hard slap while serving as communications heads-up display and life-support matrix. All of these layers cover him from head to toe with only an oval opening that exposes his face. He makes sure he has his chit to claim his outer gear and leaves his private quarters.
Privacy ends as he heads down the long, narrow tunnel to the mess hall, but it is still early, and others like him are few at that first watch. None speak to him, and he speaks to none as he settles before his breakfast of mush, formulated to provide the exact amount of water, fats, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, trace plant sterols, and other chemicals that will fuel him until his watch is over. He laps up the mush like a dog and licks his bowl clean.
“Jeez, it can’t be THAT good,” another comments from the other long table. Her voice echoes as it bounces against the bare walls. The various layers of her gear are pulled back from her head so that the layers lay against the back of her neck like a small hood. She is wincing a little as she feeds spoonfuls of the mush into her small mouth.
“Food is food,” he replies, licking the corners of his mouth and pulling at his lips, getting the last of the mush.
She pauses in her feeding and regards him over her spoon. “It is always like this?”
He waits for her to go on, but she doesn’t follow through. The question hangs in the air and then settles down on him like a fly. He decides not to swat it. “You’re new,” he says instead.
“Transferred yesterday from Serenity base,” she replies, this time regarding the mush in her spoon as she realizes that she has been staring at him.
“What do you think of Utopia so far?” he asks, rising from his table and walking towards her.
“It’s… it’s not like Serenity.”
He notices that she tenses her muscles slightly as he moves toward her and then relaxes as he continues past her. “Yes, the name is ironic.” He places his bowl into the galley recercer slot and walks out.
He is not surprised that the only person who has spoken to him is new, so new that she is still stunned by the difference between the bustle and urbanity of Luna and the spare and martial quality of Mars. Besides, the Lunar Station at the Sea of Serenity is a training station, a teaching station, populated with as many civilians as military personnel, while the Martian Station at the Plain of Utopia is more a guard post, a fort in the frontier that is Mars.
With frontiers come explorers and settlers. Some come with idealistic dreams of starting anew, of making it on the new frontier while others come in order to flee what was back at home, whether it be Terra, Luna, or the two space stations that serve as orbiting islands of humanity in the great empty between Terra and Mars.
It doesn’t matter to him why they are here. The fact is that they are here, and that is why he is here.
“If only they’d behave,” he mutters as he places his chit in the release slot and his outer gear unlocks from the wall. With quick movements, he pulls on the outer gear – the outer body suit, the boots, the gloves, the helmet, and his PK. He is not alone but he may as well be alone. Then down a short series of tunnels and then up a long series of stairs, and he is at his post, as first watch, on his part on the wall.
“If only they’d behave,” he mutters again, and it is the closest thing to a prayer he ever says. He doesn’t follow politics. It’s all the same, really. “Toilers and warriors and the bosses of both of ’em,” his great-grandad used to say. “And, m’boy, we’re not smart enough and mean enough to be the bosses.” He mentally leans into his various layers that keep his very human body from the very Martian climate that can very well get him killed.
Mars, even after the settlers, even after the civil war and the martial law, even after all of that, is still beautiful in its barrenness. The fine-grained dusty plain strewn with reddish rocks and boulders as far as the eye can see, the sky moving from grayish red to yellowish pink and back again – it is the same as those long ago photos from Viking 2. When he was just a boy, spending late autumns at his great-grandad’s house, he’d look at Mars with that ancient telescope – an honest-to-God Cassegrain – and dream of going there someday. Now that he is there —
“Now what do you think you’re doing?” he mutters, seeing a camouflaged reddish form move from spare boulder to spare boulder. It’s only a lone figure – he checks his heads up to make sure – not important enough to call this in. He watches from the ramparts of the wall, flicks the safety off his PK just in case, and watches. “Don’t do it, don’t,” he mutters as he realizes that this is a suicide-by-soldier headcase who was on the losing side of the war and couldn’t make it freelancing on the other side of the wall. It’s happened so often nowadays in other posts that nobody thinks of it except as a nuisance. But this is his first watch, he isn’t even quite awake yet, dammit –
“Dammit!” In time he switches the PK to the lowest setting, quickly gains a bead and fires before the fool hurtles into the pulse shield that surrounds the wall like an electrified fence. Even though his layers surround, he can see the eyes of this person — wide, nearly all white, expecting death with that look of “wait, no, hold on… ” In a previous time, on a different wall, there would have been death. On this wall, there has been death.
But not today.
He calls in the reclaimers to clear the person, and he slowly, tiredly, walks the wall and waits.
“Leda” from Rowena’s World: Poems and Stories, 2nd Edition
I suppose I can’t blame Leda for her revenge. It was misguided – the object of her vengeance, the husband who gave her the last name of Swann and thus turned her name into some homage to William Butler Yeats, was dead. She killed him in a battered-wife trance-like state, which I have read about in psychology journals. This skeleton in her closet was not new. You may have heard about this on the local news a few years back: “Local woman found not guilty of brutal knife murder by reason of insanity.” This verdict caused a stir in those TV tabloids – right-wing white men in pitched battle with left-wing white women over whether justice had been served or not. Leda, meanwhile, faded into the woodwork. I suppose she was in therapy for all that time, coming to grips with what she had done and who she was now. When she re-emerged, the world had forgotten this tired woman. New stories about human suffering came to feed the media machine and perhaps only I seemed to care who Leda Swann was before.
Excuse me. Allow me to introduce myself. I am a student of psychology, in my final year of undergraduate work. Perhaps because I am a student of the human psyche, I found Leda so fascinating. Was it therapy that made Leda decide to return to school after so many years, some therapist that convinced her that being with young people, using her brain, would do her good? Be that as it may, she stood out among the crowd, and not because she was a middle-aged freshman surrounded by opinionated eighteen-year olds. She stood out because she tried to fade in, disappear into a corner in the farthest row of desks in the classroom. I was convinced that she was anorexic because she wore layers and layers of loose-fitting clothing, a puff-pastry shell of personal space. Then, on a particularly warm day, I saw her unwrap one layer after another on the steps of the student center until she revealed her true form – small but not painfully thin, with arms as white as goose down. It was then that I decided to make her the subject of my final paper, a study of the interaction between memory and dreams. Perhaps a more conservative scientist would have used more subjects, more case studies; but I was certain that Leda would prove to be a fruitful subject.
I must admit that it took some convincing on my part. “No,” Leda replied to my request. But out of some need to catch up to students closer to her age, Leda had enrolled not only in first-year classes but also in some upper-level classes, a few of which I was her classmate. Short of skipping those classes, Leda could not avoid me. After a month of persistence, she relented. “Oh, all right!” Leda finally replied with exasperation. “But you’ll have a lousy paper.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I don’t dream.”
“Impossible. Everybody dreams. But not everybody remembers them.”
“I do not dream.”
It was perfect. As any student can attest, the most difficult part of writing is narrowing your subject enough that you can begin to write instead of being paralyzed by the infinite permutations of the thesis. My paper now took on the goal to explain why Leda believed she did not dream, what those dreams were, and why she always forgot them. My hypothesis involved Leda’s past troubles, which seemed the most likely root of her belief that she did not dream.
If the topic was perfect, Leda as a test subject was not. Psychoanalysis isn’t called “the talking cure” for nothing, and Leda refused to talk. She allowed me to follow her along on campus, but her movements were quiet and, I must admit, boring. She fit the profile of the diligent, older commuter student who saw college work as a full-time job and as a result she neither socialized nor napped. After a full eight-hour day of studying, reading, and writing, she climbed into her 1970’s vintage Caprice Classic – I am convinced that this was her first car – and drove away.
I almost considered dropping Leda and finding a new test subject. But then I would revisit those old newspapers in the library, read the lurid details of that murder and trial a year before I was born, and renewed my determination somehow to crack Leda’s shell.
The big break came mundanely enough. She had a flat tire. I saw her in front of campus as I returned from grocery shopping, and I pulled my Ford Festiva lunchbox over.
“Do you need to have your tire changed?”
“I know how to change a tire,” she replied coldly. “I don’t have a spare.” She looked up and saw the hovering thunderclouds of spring.
I glanced up and felt the first heavy drop hit my eye. “It’s going to rain. Let me give you a ride home, okay?” An innocuous request, but it was not without designs. I had never seen Leda’s home, and I hoped that her residence and the things in it would give me details that Leda herself would not give me.
Leda, perhaps well-versed in the thinking of psychology students from her past experiences with therapy, knew of these underlying designs – I could tell by her steady gaze as she looked at me. And yet, she shouldered her backpack and climbed into my car.
She lived in an apartment complex that had very little vacancies. The complex was one of those older ones with twenty apartments at best, and the landlord probably lived on the premises. It was a complex that reminded me of assisted living and Social Security, and it did not fit with what I had pictured Leda to live in. I knew from past reports that Leda and her husband had a house, a very expensive and large one, as I recall. Perhaps it would have been idiotic for Leda to live in the house where she had killed her husband and yet my curiosity wanted to see the place where Swann died. This thought unsettled me, that my thoughts easily delved into the muck of the tabloids instead of on the crystalline objectivity of academic study.
If I had hoped to gain some insight to Leda’s mind by the things in her apartment, I was sorely disappointed. She lived in a small, utilitarian one-bedroom apartment. Her living room had two chairs and a coffee table. No television set, no stereo, no computer, not even pictures on the wall. Her kitchenette was spare with not even an electric can opener or coffee maker. I can only imagine her bedroom to be just as spare.
“Thank you,” Leda said, “and now –”
The storm that gathered all day broke open in a cataclysm of lightning and water. The lone lamp hanging from the living room ceiling blinked out. Disoriented by the darkness, I stumbled into one of the chairs and suddenly I saw several candles lit with a nimble match held by long, goose-down fingers.
“How – ” I began to ask, wondering where those candles came from, but then I saw Leda’s face, illuminated below by one of those candles as she sat in the other chair.
“I had hoped after all these years that nobody knew of my past.” Leda’s voice was low, controlled. The flame barely flickered with her breath. “But obviously you do. And I believe I know why you know of my past, why you are drawn to me, drawn to where I live.”
My mind became muddled with the heady scent of those candles. Were they ordinary candles?
“I said that I did not dream. That is true. But the last time I dreamed was the year after he, my husband, died. He came to me in dreams. He told me that he would return, he would reveal my past, he would again control me. That would be his revenge.” Leda gazed at me. “You are he.”
My voice did not come to me, lulled by the smoke and voice of Leda, a mad woman. But her eyes were not that of the insane but of the clinical gaze of a scientist, looking at a rat.
“You were born, what, a year after you died. After that message, I no longer dreamt because I no longer slept. Do you know how it feels not to sleep for twenty-two years? I was waiting. At first I wasn’t sure who you were. But I do now. And my revenge is that you cannot have me, my dear husband. You cannot control me because I have been waiting so that you can see me for one last time.”
What fear I felt was muffled by the urge to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream. Wasn’t that a Shakespeare line, in Hamlet? About death, as I recall. My mind, my clinical mind – I can feel you shut down. Oh no.
And then the wind flew open the door and the candles went out.
I awoke, sodden with rain that flew through the open door. I staggered up, my head pounding, and knew that Leda was gone. Leaving her apartment, I went to my car and saw that my valise with all of my papers and notes – all of my research material for my final paper about Leda – was gone. Numbed, I headed back to campus, noticing distractedly the broken tree limbs and power lines that were a testament to last night’s storm. I switched on the radio.
“—- identified as the body of Leda Swann, the 1976 murderer of Reginald Swann, her husband. Authorities have declared it an accidental drowning, one of many victims of last night’s flash floods.”
I no longer listened to the news report. I stared ahead, my knuckles growing white on the steering wheel. Damn her! Now who’s going to be my test subject now?
“I’m Fine”: A Selection from Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones
Zoey’s supervisor, dressed in the same button-up black polo shirt, khaki pants, black sneakers, and blue work apron, tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Zoey, you have a phone call in the back.”
She looked up, harried, seeing the long line of customers returning merchandise. After Christmas was always horrible, as disgruntled people flocked back to the store with gifts either defective or unwanted. “Joe, I’m kinda busy here.”
Joe exhaled deeply, debating whether to speak in front of that long line of disgruntled customers, and then replied, “Zoey, it’s Parkland. Something’s happened to your mom.”
Zoey didn’t hear the sound of her scanning gun drop as she abandoned the cash register, leaving Joe to deal with duties that didn’t matter anymore.
“Hello?” she asked, trying not to yell at the phone.
“Is this Zoey Fitzpatrick?” a tired but professional-sounding voice responded.
“Okay, this is Lisa Murphy, the charge nurse on your mom’s floor. Your mom and I work together.”
“Zoey, there’s been an incident.”
“There’s – oh, honey. Come to Parkland now. Your mom’s had a stroke, and it’s bad. ICU, room 42. Hurry.”
“Okay.” Zoey heard the buzzy sound of a dial tone as Nurse Murphy hung up. “Okay,” she whispered. She looked around, suddenly unsure of where she was, but then hit her head with the palm of her hand. “Gotta get a ride.”
She ran to her little storage locker, grabbed her bag, and rushed back to the returns counter. “Joe, I gotta go.”
“I know – you’re good here, just go.”
“But – I don’t have a car. My mom drops me off here on the way to work, then picks me up when she gets off. I don’t have a car, Joe!”
Joe, a middle-aged man with kids of his own, looked at the desperate, watering blue eyes of the eighteen year old girl in front of him. He fished out a small ring of keys from a khaki front pocket. “Take my truck.”
“Oh – Joe –”
“It’s the little white Ford Ranger, parked in front of Yard and Gardens. Blue rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror, you can’t miss it.”
She took the keys, still warm from his pocket, and hugged him tightly.
“Vaya con Dios, mija,” he whispered.
Zoey tore away, running as fast as she could to Joe’s truck. Not caring whether she would be caught speeding or not, she raced to Parkland, normally a familiar place of her mom’s job, but now suddenly unfamiliar and frightening.
In ICU, room 42, she saw her mother’s little body, hooked up to machines that were breathing for her. She could tell, even at age eighteen, that her mother was already brain dead from a massive stroke. Next to the sterile hospital bed, Zoey held her mother’s listless hand. Mom… Mom… She looked up at the machines, at the lifeless body with wires and tubing connected to those machines. She bowed down, her forehead touching that well-worn, caring hand for the last time. Good-bye, Mom.
Jamie’s caregivers at his hospital didn’t want to let him go to the funeral service, but she stood her ground. “It’s our mother’s funeral, goddammit,” she said over and over again to their bureaucratic protests, until they eventually gave in, discharging him for that day only, hopped up on antipsychotics. Holding his hand as if he were a little boy instead of the tall, sixteen-year old teen he was, she silently guided him along the small pathway to the church gravesite, where a priest gave his blessing to the cremated remains of Amanda Hernandez Fitzpatrick before the small, silent audience consisting of Zoey, Jamie, her mother’s co-workers, and Joe.
Once the last bit of dirt covered the urn containing their mother’s ashes, Zoey, who did not want a reception for the sake of her brother, endured well-meaning tears and hugs and watched the others walk away.
Jamie, still staring at their mother’s new grave, asked in a quiet voice, “What happens now?”
“Now? I take care of you.” Also staring at their mother’s grave, she felt the weight of her new responsibility – being the legal guardian of her little brother, as her mother had wished in her will.
After a long silence, Jamie softly declared, “Dad should be here.”
That old anger sparked up. “Jamie –”
“He should, Zoey.”
Trying not to clench her hands, Zoey replied, “Jamie, Dad’s been gone for six years. Why the hell would he even care?” Her eyes burned. “He doesn’t deserve to be here.”
Jamie, whose hand was still in Zoey’s, gave a small squeeze. “Zoey – don’t.”
She shook her head, never understanding why Jamie still believed that their father would ever come back — in spite of their parents’ divorce, in spite of his broken promises to keep in touch, in spite of his obvious abandonment. “I’m sorry, Jamie.” Zoey, dry-eyed throughout the funeral, suddenly found herself crying, the tears silently spilling down and dropping onto the fresh-churned earth. With the palm of her free hand, she furiously wiped her face dry. “Let’s go home.”
After much fighting with the hospital bureaucracy, Zoey was able to secure Jamie’s discharge to her care as an outpatient in treatment since his condition was stable and he gave no outbursts that entire day of the funeral.
“But a caseworker will have to check on him since he is still a minor, Miss Fitzpatrick.”
“He’s completed his GED, so he’s done with formal schooling. Do you have any plans for Jamie continuing his education?”
“Why are you asking me? He’s right here. He’s not stupid, by the way.”
Jamie coughed and then asked quietly, “Can we go now?”
His counselor squinted at Zoey and Jamie, leaned back in his chair, and answered, “Yes.”
In the parking lot, Zoey murmured, “Jesus, Jamie.”
“It’s all right, Zoey,” her brother said. “Let’s just go home.”
For Jamie, it was a return to his childhood room, in the same two-story townhome apartment that they all lived when they moved to Texas when he was ten. At first, Jamie was just happy to be home. While staying at home, he would see Zoey go to work at the big box store that had been her job since graduating from high school. Luckily, she didn’t have to work as many hours as she had done before, as their practical mother had made sure her death benefits and a small insurance policy took care of their financial needs for the time being.
Yet, Zoey had forgotten that Jamie could pick up on her worry – of how intrusive the caseworker would be in their lives, how long she could pay for his continuing treatment, how long she could pay for all of those expensive pills, which Jamie would need to take for the rest of his life. While she would always say, “It’s no problem, Jamie,” she had always been a terrible liar. Even if his ability to see her color was blunted by the powerful antipsychotics that kept him moored to the world around him, even as those drugs sedated him and made him feel like a lazy slug, she could see Jamie being bothered by his inability to take care of himself or even to help her out.
“It’s not fair,” seventeen-year old Jamie once said in one of his more lucid, active moments. “It’s not fair, you being stuck with a crazy, jobless brother.”
“Hush, Jamie,” she had replied then. “You’re my little brother. It’s my job to take care of you.”
But even Zoey could see that her reassurance only made him feel worse.
Then one day, a year after their mother’s death, Zoey came home from work, only to find her brother outside, screaming at an unknown man as a young woman, whom Zoey recognized as one of her apartment complex neighbors, cowered behind him. The man, obviously aware that Jamie was some kind of crazy person, only held up his hands, saying, “I don’t know you, man – I want no trouble.”
“Jamie!” Zoey yelled from her car, distracting Jamie enough for the man and woman to flee into the woman’s apartment.
Once she got her brother, who obviously was off his meds, back inside their apartment, she hissed, “Jamie – you could’ve gotten beat up or – Jesus – what if they’re calling the cops on you right now?”
“They won’t,” Jamie said, angrily, pacing the kitchen floor.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because he’s a black-oozing criminal, that’s how,” Jamie said, wringing his hands and clutching the hair on his head. “God, if that woman doesn’t leave him, she’ll either be beaten up or dead, I can see it!”
Zoey sat down, feeling the weight of her responsibilities on her head. “Jamie, why didn’t you take your meds?” she asked calmly.
“Because I got fucking tired of being a lazy fucking zombie, that’s why!”
“This isn’t working, Zoey.”
“Jamie, please –”
“There’s no place for me in this world, Zoey. I see that now.”
“What are you saying?”
Jamie stared into the ceiling, looking for an answer. “Never mind.” He angrily opened the kitchen cabinet, pulled out his five pill bottles, and shook out a capsule or tablet from each. With five little pills in his hand, he stuffed them in his mouth and choked them down dry.
He only shook his head. “I’m sorry for scaring you, Zoey. That was stupid. I promise – I won’t do that again.”
Zoey reached up, and her brother walked over and kneeled down, and they hugged in silence for what seemed like a very long time.
The very next day, after work, Zoey had come home to an empty apartment, with only a note in Jamie’s manic scrawl, left on the kitchen table: I’m sorry. Good-bye.
First her father, then her mother, and now her brother. Her fingernails dug hard into her palms, drawing little half-moon arcs of blood, as she tried not to scream or cry so as not to bother the neighbors.
A year after that note, her neighbor’s face and the face of her boyfriend showed up on the ten o’clock evening news, a local story of love gone bad, ending in the woman’s murder and the man’s suicide.
Zoey could only turn away from the TV in the break room, forcing herself not to scream or cry, because she was still at work.
“Are you okay?” asked Rania, her new supervisor, when Zoey walked out of the break room to return to her duties. Joe was long gone, promoted to a different store with better hours and more money.
“I’m fine,” Zoey lied. “Just tired.”