Table of Contents
Between the rain and the dark, I almost miss the silver diner.
It looks abandoned, deserted, except for the flickering OPEN sign hanging crooked in the window. I’m tempted to contin- ue driving, make it all the way to my parents’ house without a single stop, but this storm is only getting worse. My car is swaying from the strong winds, the pitter-patter of rain falling onto the metal is making it increasingly difficult to hear my own thoughts, and although the windshield wipers try their best to clear my vision, the rain is relentless. I can barely see the white and yellow lines in front of me.
Reluctantly, I swerve into the lot and park the car, inward- ly cursing the gods for forcing me to delay my already treacherous journey. I can hear my mother now, “My god, Joanne, had you left earlier like I told you, you probably wouldn’t have needed to stop.” Yeah, yeah, mom. You’re right. As usual.
Despite my annoyance toward needing to stop, Seth would be proud of me for it. His cool voice echoes in my head, a pleasant comparison to my mother’s harsh one. A clever person knows how to solve a problem. A wise one avoids it. He loved to use that line whenever I was doing something he thought was impulsive or irrational. I never thought I’d miss it. I never thought I would have to.
Shoving on my hat and grabbing my purse, I hop out of the car and into the rain. Water splashes around my feet as I run through puddle after puddle before rushing into the diner. The familiar smell of banana bread wafts around me. My dad’s favorite. Mom and I made it almost every weekend. She only ever gave me the simple jobs, like stirring batter or setting out ingredients; but nevertheless, I was always there to help. Even better—she would let me.
The place is quiet, except for the jukebox playing Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart.” No hostess comes to greet me, so I take it upon myself to claim a spot at the bar. The place looks vintage, with worn, red-cushioned stools, old-fashioned ketchup and mustard bottles, and red-and-white checkerboard placemats.
“Wicked storm, isn’t it?” says a man a couple stools from where I’m sitting. He appears young, maybe late 20s, but has a slightly gaunt look to him, and is wearing a suit and tie. I assume he’s been here a while, considering, unlike me, he’s completely dry. Removing my hat and coat, I nod. “I’m surprised I made it out alive.”
“It’s a good thing you stopped,” the man says, squeezing some mayo onto the cheeseburger in front of him. “It’s looking pretty nasty out there. Not smart to be driving.”
“True,” I say, side-glancing him. “But my mother can be a real pain when I don’t visit.”
My mother is my biggest critic. She fights me on every- thing and has a knack for always finding something about me to disapprove of. Dad says it’s tough love, her way of making sure I never settle for any less than I deserve. But there is only so much I can take. When she found out I wanted to study culinary arts, she used her infamous line: “I’m not judging you, Joanne. I just think you could do better.” And that’s practically a compliment from her. “You could’ve chosen a better college to go to. You could’ve cho- sen a better major to study. You could’ve chosen a more suitable boyfriend.” Lucky for her, that last one ended up in her favor.
The businessman nods understandingly and tosses a bun on top of his cheeseburger. “Mothers. They’re almost as difficult as bosses.”
“Speaking from personal experiences?” I ask him. “Oh, yeah,” he replies after taking a big bite of his cheese burger. “Where is it that you work?” I ask. Call me nosy, but his suit looks expensive. “Hell,” he says with complete seriousness. Accepting that this guy doesn’t want to get personal, I check my phone for a signal. Nothing. “Sounds like the kind of job you should quit.”
“Trust me kid, I would if I could, but it’s not that sim- ple,” he mumbles, his mouth full. “It’s not the kind of business you can just up and leave.”
Even though I try holding it in, a chuckle escapes my lips. “What are you, some kind of hitman?”
The man grins, mayo on the corner of his mouth. “You have no idea how much that fits the job description.” With a sigh, he continues, “I knew the difficulties when I signed up for the job, so there’s no one to blame but me. A clever person knows how to solve a problem. A wise one avoids it, am I right?”
I snap my head toward him. Before any more words can be exchanged, the door leading to the kitchen whips open. A waitress comes out, apologizes for the wait, and immediately pours me a cup of coffee. She’s older, with short, gray hair. The name tag pinned to her flour-covered apron says Ruby.
“Could I have a piece of your banana bread?” I ask her. The woman shakes her head at me. “We don’t have ba- nana bread here.”
“Oh,” I say, puzzled. The smell is still as strong as it was when I first walked in. “Are you sure?”
“Honey, I’ve worked here for longer than you’ve been alive,” she retorts, looking at me like I’m a child. She tosses me a menu. “I think I know what we serve.”
“I just thought…” I mutter. Someone needs a smoke break, I think to myself, eyeing the waitress, who is eyeing me back.
“They’ve got the best cheeseburgers around though,” the businessman says. He holds up his half-eaten, greasy burger. An ear-piercing clap of thunder sparks the sky then, causing me to jump out of my skin.
“Someone must be angry upstairs,” Ruby mutters as I scan the menu. Chili fries, milkshakes of all flavors, apple pie, fish fillet sandwich, and cheeseburgers. There’s a whole page dedicated to their different types of cheeseburgers. My eyes skim down the list, and stop at the bottom.
Cheeseburger with extra pickles—for Joanne My fingers slip from the menu and it falls all the way off my lap and to the checkerboard-tiled floor. Neither the business- man nor Ruby seem to notice. Hastily, I lean down to retrieve the menu. Taking a deep breath, I reopen it and peak inside. My name is gone, along with the way I always took my order at Seth’s diner. I swallow hard.
Beside me, the businessman scoffs. “The worst is yet to come. Wait until my boss finds out I missed an appointment this morning. Now, that will be a storm.”
Ruby shoves the coffee pot back into the machine and says something to the businessman, something I don’t hear. Laying the closed menu in front of me, I try to stay calm. I can’t get what I saw out of my head. Not only because my name was printed on that menu, but because I’ve seen it there before.
When I was a freshman in college, I found myself in a quaint 1950’s diner up the road from campus. There I met Seth Hanson, the boy who loved quantum physics and said my emer- ald eyes could play tricks on him from the way they caught the light. He worked behind the grill for little pay and claimed to love his job. Even though he was in the kitchen almost the whole day, customers came in specifically for his easy-going attitude.
After a couple weeks of returning to the diner, I was considered a regular. I sat at the bar and did my school work, letting Seth assist me with my physics assignments. He always knew what I would want to eat, and even took the measures of making sure everyone else did too. A couple weeks before things went south between us, he somehow got his manager to agree to dedicating my favorite lunch to me in the menu.
“Check it out, Joanne!” I remember him saying. I sat at the bar, homework scattered in from of me. Seth held the menu up in front of my face, and when I told him I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, he pointed to the bottom of the page.
Cheeseburger with extra pickles—for Joanne Snatching it from him, I surveyed the new addition to the diner’s menu. “How did you do that?”
With a smug smile, he said, “I asked the manager for a little favor.”
It was a small act, but it warmed my heart and made me laugh. Once Christmas arrived, I thought—foolishly—that Seth would be able to pass my mother’s test.
“He’s not ambitious enough, Joanne. You need some- one who can carry a family. Not someone who works at a silly, little diner,” she had said to me in private. I ignored her as best I could because by then, I was used to her constant fault-finding. Somehow, Seth had overheard the exchange and couldn’t ignore my mother as well as me. He let her words dig into him like a bullet and after several weeks, the relationship dwindled in the most depressing way; neither of us thought we deserved the other.
He was the kindest person I’ve ever known, but by the time I realized that, it was too late. Kindness doesn’t matter to a robber with a gun.
“Hon, do you want anything to eat or not? I’m very busy,” Ruby snaps.
“Uh…no. No thanks.” Something in her tone reminds me of my mother, and I can’t stop myself from digging my fingernails into the palm of my hand. Ruby rushes off, and even though the diner is completely empty other than me and the businessman, there are loud cooking noises coming from the kitchen.
“What kind of business did you say you’re involved in?” I ask the businessman, giving him a skeptical look.
“I didn’t.” Putting his half-eaten burger down, the man reaches deep into his breast pocket. From there, he retrieves a small, black business card with white text on it. The corner is greasy from his fingers. I take it.
Reaper of Souls. A business of international travel. “Seems like a pretty demanding job,” is all I can think to say as I stare hard at the card.
“Oh, it is,” the man continues, taking the last bite of his burger. “And there are no vacations. My boss always has a new list of appointments for me. A construction worker in Ontario, a house fire started by a curling iron in New Hampshire, a pile-up in Tokyo. And that was only this morning!”
I watch the guy out of the corner of my eye as he wipes his hands on his napkin. Between glancing at the card in my hand and back at the man, I’m having irrational thoughts— thoughts my mother would have a field day with. I can practically hear her snickering at my foolishness and voicing her questions on how I ever got into college with that kind of ludicrous think- ing. “Wake up, Joanne. This guy is screwing with you,” she’d say. Wake the hell up…
“And Ohio?” I ask, talking over my mother’s bickering. She’s always hated that. “What’s brought you here?” This part worries me, because for some reason dread has begun to cover my body like a cold sweat. The man looks over for what I realize to be the first time in the whole night. His dark eyes narrow as he studies me, and I shrink away.
“What do you regret?” “Excuse me?” I demand, taken aback by his question. “Regrets. You must have a lot.” He begins searching through the different packets of sugar for his coffee. “Or else you wouldn’t be here.”
Glancing around the empty diner, I ask, “Here? What do you mean here?”
“You could call it…a pit stop,” he answers, his tone light, like he’s telling a joke. Something clicks in my mind, something unsettling. It’s as if subconsciously I’m aware of where I am, of what’s going on. I just need someone to remind me.
He clears his throat when I don’t crack a smile. “So, regrets?”
“I have regrets,” I announce, as he rips open a yellow sugar packet and pours it into his coffee. Seth immediately comes to mind, but even more so, my mother and how I always let her get her way. “Everyone does. Don’t you?”
“When you’ve lived as long as I have, kid, you’re bound to have regrets.” He pauses to think. “Like that time I was supposed to get onto flight 185 where there was a terrorist on board.”
As the businessman talks, the song on the jukebox changes. “Unfortunately, I mixed up the departure times and got on the wrong plane.” He stirs his coffee as he recalls the memory. “Yeah, my boss made me work overtime for that one.”
The familiar acoustic intro, accompanied by a bass line and cymbals, catches my attention. The man’s story gets drowned out by the song now playing. I look over my shoulder. The red and blue jukebox sits by the door, spinning the record shamelessly…
Mama told me, when I was young… The song reminds me of the smell of freshly cut grass and my plain, black dress, the one I only wear to funerals.
Come sit beside me, my only son… It was his favorite, that’s why they played it while he was being lowered into the soil. That was the last time I heard the song. I always change the station when it comes on in the car. I leave the bar when the band begins to play it. A loud crack of thunder ignites the sky outside, as if to remind me that I can’t run away this time.
“Anyway, this visit isn’t about me,” the businessman continues. “It’s about you.”
The last time I spoke to Seth, he was telling me how he worried that my mother was right about what she said about him, that he wasn’t good enough for me. I told him he was ridiculous, that my mother was wrong, completely wrong. He struggled to get it out of his head though, and I couldn’t convince him. I didn’t know about the robbery that took place at the diner until the day after it happened. It was in the college newspaper, Crossroads. At first, I thought it was a joke. Who would rob a diner? The guy who did it was desperate. He brought a gun, but told the cops after he was caught that he’d never planned to use it. That it was an accident. When I read that someone was killed, I had a sinking feeling I knew who it was.
He tried to be the hero. I’m sure of it. Seth risked his life and got it taken away from him.
Haphazardly shrugging my coat on and snatching my bag from the counter, I jump off the stool. “You know what, I think the storm is lightening up. I should probably get back on the road. It was nice meeting you,” I say while racing for the door. The businessman watches casually. He doesn’t try to stop me.
I practically slam myself against the diners’ front doors, des- perate to get out. Fully prepared for the impact of sheets of rain, my body is shocked when it doesn’t come. Because somehow, I’ve walked right back into the diner. The businessman is still in his seat, watching me.
I rush out the doors again and again and again and again, los- ing count after ten. My heart is hammering in my chest, causing my ribs to ache from the repeated impact. The businessman is laughing. Make it stop make it stop make it—
Ruby shoots out the kitchen door with a greasy spatula in her hand. “What, do you think heat is free? Leave the doors closed!” And then she’s gone again.
“Is this happening?” I ask no one and anyone at the same time. “How is this happening? This can’t be happening.”
“It’s happening, kid,” the man says, spinning back around in his seat.
“Alright,” I start, conjuring some courage to sit back down by the businessman. He takes a sip of his coffee and cringes. “How does this work?”
He looks at me with a puzzled expression. “How does what work?”
How can he not know what I’m talking about? “I’m dead, right? Don’t you have to take me to the afterlife or whatever?”
“Is that your choice?” he asks, raising an eyebrow. “I get a choice?” “Of course you get a choice,” he announces, as if I’m clueless. “Why would you be here if you didn’t?”
“Well, I don’t know!” I snap, baffled that he expects me to understand all of this. “Sorry that I’ve never done this before, that this is my first time dying.”
“Wow, are you always this sarcastic?” He asks, giving me a look.
“What?” This situation just keeps getting stranger and stranger. “Just do what you have to do.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and wait to be struck by lightning or sucked into the Earth or set on fire. Seconds pass and nothing comes. When I reopen my eyes, the businessman is looking at me the way mom did the first time I attempted to make spaghetti sauce and forgot to use wine.
“Don’t do that,” the man orders. “Don’t do what? Accept death? Leave my life willingly? Make your job easy?” I retort, annoyance taking over my fear.
“Easy?” He rolls his empty eyes. “Easy is when I don’t have to have these conversations. I swear, spirits are getting snippi- er and snippier after every revolution. You know, there was a time when the spirits didn’t get to choose. Then the Roman Church was like ‘Hey, why don’t we start handing out indulgences?’ so now my job has turned into a combo of therapy and guidance sessions in which I find myself drinking bitter coffee and being asked to explain myself thousands of times a day.”
The diner is silent. I watch the man dump three more sugar packets into his coffee. I let what he said sink into my brain, pre- tending to understand most of it. Roman Church… indulgences… thousands of times a day… spirits?
“So…” I timidly start. “I’m…a spirit?” Shrug. “Of sorts.” Great answer. “And…everyone gets to choose?” “Do you always ask so many questions?” he retorts.
“Oh, I’m sorry. The last time I was in this situation I forgot to get all my questions answered,” I snap sarcastically.
“Fine,” he says, setting his coffee cup down. “Here’s the rub. There was a buck crossing the road, you were in a car accident, and now you’re on the brink of death. But since you carry many regrets throughout your life, you get to choose. Do you live, or do you die?”
You get to choose. It doesn’t seem fair. People die every day. Why should I get this advantage? I don’t feel like I deserve it.
“Makes it a little more difficult, doesn’t it?” He adds, stirring a spoon around in his coffee. I look down at mine, ice-cold and untouched. I forgot it was there. Ruby continues to clang dishes around in the back and the storm screams louder than ever. I think of my mother, her dedication for perfection and the tight grip she holds on my life, my father and his endearing encouragement. I think of Seth, his benevolent manner and how I should never have let him let me go.
“To me,” the man continues, “the choice has always seemed simultaneously blindingly simple and fiendishly counter- intuitive. You see, the only people who end up here are the ones who carry too much regret. So, you’d think the choice for those people would be extremely simple. Go back and fix what they broke. Right?” He continues before I can muster a response. “Wrong. Almost everyone who makes this pit stop has a prize,” —he gestures between the kitchen door and the front door— “on either side of the door.”
I stare at him, intensely and for a long time. He can’t be saying what I think he’s saying. He just can’t be. I can’t bring myself to believe it, and yet…
“What’s going on back there?” I ask, staring at the door Ruby disappeared behind so long ago. Loud cooking noises—slam- ming pots and pans, sizzling grease, and running water—continue to emerge from it. All noises that remind me of being back at school, the one doing the cooking. Even though I’m months away from graduation and becoming a professional chef, my mother won’t let me step foot in her kitchen. “I’m the mother. Let me cook,” is her excuse. She claims my food lacks the feeling of a home-cooked meal.
The man shrugs. “Beats me. You could go find out.” I look at him. He’s staring expectantly at me, waiting for my reply. “If that’s your choice, of course.”
I smell my mother’s wonderful banana bread and imag- ine the warmth of it, the softness of it. It wouldn’t be back there though. Ruby already told me that. And that is one recipe I have never been able to perfect. I’ve tried over and over, desperate to re- member the ingredients I set out a dozen times, but it’s no use. Mine always comes out short of something.
“I’m only 23,” I blurt to no one in particular, but the busi- nessman answers anyway.
“True,” he considers. “They say your 20s are the best years of your life. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.”
“What would you choose?” I ask abruptly. “Me?” He exclaims before erupting into a roar of deep, echoing laughter. “I did have to choose. And isn’t it obvious what I picked?”
“Right,” I mutter, even though it’s not very obvious at all. The sharp corner of the menu digs into my arm, and I think of Seth. Of our last conversation, his cheerful face falling slack when our relationship began to wither. How I never got the chance to make things right.
“It’s not particularly welcoming, is it?” I say to the man as we stare out the front doors. Blinding lightning followed by furious thunder, overwhelming rain, and roaring winds. The world really can be a scary place.
“The real world rarely is,” he replies, and then with a shrug, “But people really seem to enjoy it.”
The man is watching me, anticipating my decision. I can hear Seth’s laugh in my ears, a sound I never thought I’d hear again, so tempting, so welcoming. It’s mixed with the delicious smell of my mother’s homemade banana bread, the recipe I have never been able to perfect.
“Tick tock, on the clock…” the businessman teases. “There’s a deadline? What if I don’t choose in time?” I exclaim.
“Someone else will for you,” he replies, sending shards of ice down my spine. “Look, if it’s any consolation, my biggest regret remains to be not having the courage to go back and fix mine.”
The world outside is gray and drowning, with mere moments of clarity when lightning strikes. Would it be wise to take advice from a guy who claims to be the Reaper? I suppose there are worse choices to make…
It’s still dark when I return.
The ground is cold and wet. My body is numb. My fingers dig into the earth. There is rumbling above me, and rain is falling. I soak it up like a plant in the spring. I can feel my senses awakening, my bones hardening, and my blood thickening. The stars shimmer and watch me carefully. Several feet away from me, there’s a large animal lying motionless on its side. It’s a buck. Memories of screeching tires, aching fear, and a vigorously spinning steering wheel flood my mind. There is a rough, almost painful thumping in my chest, reminding me that I am, in fact, alive. I can hear sirens in the distance. It’s the eve of coming home, and I’m almost there.
Everyone Here But Me
They’ve got me strapped to the bed again and I’m supposed to be watching Judge Judy. Judge Judy gives me bedsores, which I explained a dozen times to every nurse in the wing. This time, it’s Nurse Hello Kitty setting me up with the food-slurpee straw right into my stomach—clearly revenge for the nasty cat scratch I gave her while she dragged me out of the operating room. I remind her again about the bedsores and how Jell-O gives me red bumps. She says nothing and puts Jell-O on my overbed tray, where my strapped hands can’t reach it whether I want to throw it in her face or eat it after all. When she leaves, Judge Judy smacks her gavel, and I gnaw through my feeding tube.
I’m more pissed every time they wrangle me into the wrist restraints. It’s like the healthcare equivalent of death by electric chair. It started as a way to babysit me when they were understaffed, but now it’s some routine pacification, like their solution to all my needs. He’s dropping weight? Strap him in and give him a direct flight to fatty, bedsore, Jell-O bump nightmare! He’s disrupting a surgery? Tie him down for two days and make him piss through a catheter.
It’s not my fault that they can’t recognize talent. They hate Doctor Brady Angel, so they won’t issue him a hospital ID. Easy fix, though—this morning, I swiped the lanyard from a hungover fourth-floor nurse while she slept at her station, her head lolling like roadkill. Armed with security clearance, I readied myself for a 10 a.m. operation.
When I burst into the room, the blue-blob docs seethed with jealousy. Everyone knows Doctor Brady Angel; he does the best cosmetic surgery in all of California.
“Doctor Brady’s here! Can’t start without Doctor Brady Angel!” I snatched a wad of latex gloves from the wall like a fistful of maggots from a dumpster.
“What a charity case we have here! For God’s sake, the poor girl’s not even knocked out yet. Snooze her, and let’s get the beak off this bird.” It would’ve been a simple rhinoplasty: scrape off the girl’s dorsal hump and lift the tip of the nose; a life-chang- ing sweet-sixteen birthday present healed in time for homecoming. Perfect, like Mom’s.
I bitched and bitched while they escorted me out of the room. Hello Kitty was the queen of Tourette’s, slinging slurs at me like darts.
So I’m strapped in bed, with Judge Judy and the Jell-O.
The hospital’s got a fat influx of whiny, teat-suckling, sniffling hypochondriacs now that Christmas is around the corner. Same as last year. Since all these lonely, lost attention hogs are max-ing out the bed space, I’ve got to share my room with a geezer who snores hard enough to suck flies right out of the air.
Last Christmas, I was a treacherous piglet, too—fresh meat to burden the staff of St. Jesus God is King Mega-Church Medical Shitshow Emporium. Oh, but the scrubs all started out so kind and doting with their pity and their mercy and their prescrip- tion pill abuse. Mom fit right in: at my terminal ward drop-off, she put her hand on my cheek and a lipstick kiss on my forehead like it was summer camp, and voila!, she glowed with a holy corona. That’s all it takes to be saintly I learned.
She returned two days later with a professional photog- rapher who set up his tripod at the foot of my living casket. Mom wore a violently red dress like she was off to prom. I was in boxer briefs. The photographer combed my sweat-heavy hair off of my forehead and swaddled me in pallid bedsheets like Jesus on the cross. With a little airbrush retouching and some photoshopped snowflakes, the photo became her Christmas card that year. The gold script sentiment read: Pray for a Christmas miracle!
I haven’t seen Mom in a week. Last time she came around, I woke up to find her reading Cosmo in the chair by the window that overlooks a Taco Bell and a juvenile detention center. She asked me if I’d made any friends. I couldn’t answer before Doc Lumpy
Neck pulled her aside to introduce her to Doctor Brady Angel and Homeless Howard, whom he described as “products of the agitation and delirium associated with the spread of his cancerous mass.” She asked him if I was stable enough to come home for the holidays. Lumpy Neck is like a yes-man on opposite day. What a dickhead. I’m thinking, Doctor Brady Angel is the only MD who isn’t a fraud.
The doc ran off to stroke his dick in a supply closet and Mom looked at me like she’d opened the liquor cabinet to find that I’d looted all her vodka or flushed her postpartum antide- pressants down the toilet. Like it was my fault that the aggressive cancer hadn’t been cured. They’d taken the mirror out of my room to hide me from my hideousness, but I could see my sickly bird bones reflected in her plastic face. I hate you, her eyes were telling me. I resent you. You are my greatest disappointment.
I wasn’t petty like that. Just petulant. “Cancerous mass! Cancerous mass!” I yelled. “Brat with the cancerous mass misses Christmas mass! Is Mommy mad? Poor Mommy! Poor thing! Should’ve had your tubes tied! Should’ve had—”
She took her purse and her Cosmo and left.
Doctor Brady Angel got his inspiration from his mother’s all-star, reconstructive plastic handyman who’s based in swamp-haven Miami. The God of Florida had given Mom the best upturned nose, the sweetest Angelina Jolie lips, the most brilliant veneers, and so on. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world. Doctor Brady’s her spitting image, with his slinky eyes and charming grin. I love being Doctor Brady Angel—he does good work. He’d make Mom proud.
The Thanksgiving before my big boo-hoo diagnosis, we had this grandiose family dinner. Mom was beaming with trophy-wife pride, as it was the first holiday spread she’d cooked herself rather than booking a caterer. My dad was kind of bitchy about the turkey, but I ate my way through everything thinking it was a godsend. That was the last time I remember being hungry.
I could stuff that memory full of Christian bullshit, saying it was the Last Supper. Maybe it was the last of its kind, but it wouldn’t have been a Da Vinci masterpiece; none of us in that house were holy. My dad split within two weeks of his turkey-bitching, and Mom started to smash wine bottles on the kitchen floor. It wasn’t the best time for my brain-rot to steal the spotlight but, like I said, the worst of the worst check into a hospital around Christmas. I know Mom spent a full week asking around if anyone knew my dad’s new address so she could send him one of those awful Christmas cards with my sticky chemo face pressed up next to her post-breakup boob job. Or divorcée boob job, or abandoned-wife boob job. She left one of the cards in the drawer next to my hospital bed, just in case he swung by to visit me. It’s still there.
I’ve never been a great actor, but ever since my brain got me stuck in palliative care/solitary confinement, I’m like a rat rooting through trash just for something to do. I took on Doctor Brady Angel as a skin to wear after a couple months in the same room, re- fusing the same Jell-O, looking out the same window over the same Taco Bell and kid prison. Sometimes I’d be Homeless Howard and score pills off of emergency room waiting area chumps, or I’d steal dollar-store lipstick from Nurse Hello Kitty’s blindingly bedazzled Hello Kitty purse and assume my drag persona, Kitty Licker. Out of the many characters, Doctor Brady Angel is my favorite. I’m closer to him than anyone else, but that doesn’t really make him a companion. So Mom asking if I’d made friends was like a letter opener to my jugular—my answer would’ve been “No.” No, I have not made friends. If the doc had let me, I would’ve said, “Honestly, Mom, everyone I’ve met here is either dead or dying.” That includes the staff. And myself.
The only med worker I like is Laura. I see her on Tues- days. She’s got an office in the west wing, which is painted all pink like the maternity ward. Laura’s a social worker, so she listens to me whine about what a black hole my shrinking life has become. After this morning’s bed restraint, I know Lumpy Neck asked her to work me through Doctor Brady Angel.
She starts our session by asking me if I wish I could be Doctor Brady full-time.
“No. I mean, docs are shit. Even if he’s the best, I wouldn’t want to be him forever.”
“But didn’t you say that you applied to medical school? Before you were admitted?”
Committed, I’m thinking. Restrained. Put on death row. Held.
“Yeah.” She looks at me, waiting. “He does plastic surgery. I don’t fuck with that, you know? Making people into what they’re not. But I wouldn’t go to med school anymore, even if I could. Sick people are either faking or on track to die.”
I’m being blunt and dramatic, but this is true. Even if I were miraculously cured by the divine strike of a suddenly merciful god, I wouldn’t be able to go to college. Mom just spent my savings fund on a facelift. So the money for my dream has ended up in the grabby hands of a Doctor Brady-type while I wait around to die.
As I’m leaving Laura’s office, I tell her from the door- way, “I am not Doctor Brady Angel.”
They took me off chemo six months into my stay. Doc Lumpy Neck asked Mom if she’d allow them to test some new sci-fi research drugs on me to slow the growth and assess the results for use on future patients. Mom agreed, and asked if my hair would grow back post-chemo because she wanted a nice, recent picture of me. Recent, or last. To everyone’s disappointment, being a crash test dummy has turned out to be a painful and mostly bald existence.
I’m back from seeing Laura, and Judge Judy is still on. I’m balling up my blankets and positioning them underneath me to take pressure off of a bed rash when Mom comes in. Tossing her bag next to my feet, she glares at the TV.
“Why do they make you watch this crap?” She shuts it off and Judge Judy disappears. Mom confiscates the Jell-O from my tray and eats a spoonful while she settles into the chair beside me. I see the fresh scar under her ear glint while she swallows. Behind her, snow falls past the window for the first time this winter.
Mom reaches her hand to my scalp and fusses with the few patchy clumps of hair that have resurfaced since switching treatments. “Not much better, is it?” she says. Not really a ques- tion.
We’re quiet, which is nothing new. Sometimes pain is exhaustion, and speech is a marathon. Sometimes we just have nothing good to say.
“Your doctor caught me in the hall and asked if I want- ed to put you on antipsychotics because of the Doctor Angel thing. I said no because you don’t need that shit, do you?”
I shake my head, and I’m looking at her with the snow in the background like I’ve never seen her before. She’s cussing like she stopped going to church, or maybe she’s drunk.
“Right, good. I told him you weren’t insane. I mean, you cause trouble, but you always caused trouble. It’s nothing new.” Mom finishes the Jell-O and tosses the cup in the trash. “Sometimes I think these doctors are completely full of shit. Es- pecially that fat one with the lumps. He always hits on me, too.”
I want to tell her, yes, exactly, you’re getting it, but I’m in mind-numbing pain. I consider buzzing for a nurse to hook me up to some painkillers, while Mom checks her lipstick in a com- pact. Taking low, careful breaths, I watch the snow fill my room with light.
She sees the twist in my face and puts the compact away. “Listen—I know you wanted to be a doctor and I didn’t ever want to spit in the face of your dream. But after this last year, I swear they’re doing you wrong. And God is, too. Isn’t it just so unfair?”
I smile. Yes. She’s looking at me, and she smiles, too—a full, real smile. It’s got life to it, so much life that I can see through her modifications and her choices. And she’s seeing me, weaker than I’ve ever been, but she’s seeing the life. The not-psy- chotic life, the not-dead-yet life.
Mom’s running her thumb over my eyebrow, where the hair hasn’t grown back. I’m breathing slow and shallow through the pain. I’m tired, but I’m not dead. I’m thinking: quiet is a new peace. Silence is a new face. She gets up to leave.
“I’ll be back tomorrow, Marcus.” She’s quick out the door, and I chant my name in my head like I’ve forgotten it. Tomorrow is Christmas. Doctors are not saviors. God is unfair. I am not alone. Snow makes every- thing look new. Dying is not dead.
Marcus. Marcus. Marcus.
The Congressman’s Appointment
“I won’t do it,” said Congressman Stephens, sitting on my examination chair with legs open a little too wide for his hospital gown, arms akimbo. There’d be no small talk. The Congressman was here on a mission. I put on my examination gloves. “I’m never shoving anything… up there,” he continued. “You’ve gotta give me something else.” His square, Mr. Middle America face still had a bulldoggish look to it, even if it was a little softer these days. His eyes were hard without being unfriendly, his jaw set in an assured smile. This was a man who was used to getting what he wanted. When he gave people that look, things happened.
Things like getting booked with one of the nation’s top gynecologists for a basic consultation, with no referral, all because he couldn’t tolerate tampons. He demanded a cure for menstruation, and he wasn’t waiting around.
I remembered, vaguely, bloodstained ballet tights. A middle school bathroom stall with peeling paint. And a cardboard applicator. All that stage makeup running down my cheeks. It never occurred to me to do anything but hide, and endure. They say one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. If only Simone de Bouvoir had lived to see the the Annandale virus, she would have had known how truly right she was.
Any doctor could’ve examined the Congressman. All gynecologists are trained for Annandale Syndrome these days. I would probably prescribe a hormonal birth control with no placebo pills to slowly suppress his cycles, same as any other doctor. But no, it had to be me, and it had to be right now. Thus, I had a full slate of rescheduled patients and the beginnings of a tension headache. I wondered what kind of donation check the University of Michigan was cashing off of this. My department hardly needed the money; ever since the Annandale outbreak the ob/gyn department of the university hospital had been getting grant after grant approved. There was a whole new ob-gyn facility being built on campus.
“Let’s get your exam done first,” I told him. “Then I can make some recommendations.” He grimaced as I adjusted the chair and unfolded the stirrups, but complied with a soldierly air. His vulva was healthy, with the telltale abnormalities we’d come to understand as normal for victims of the Annandale virus. Still, not a bad looking vulva considering that, just over ten years ago, there had been a penis and scrotum here. The clitoris was still noticeably enlarged, a reminder of its previous life.
Though he’d been infected in the initial outbreak ten years ago, the Congressman had only recently begun having periods. Just in time for menopause, I thought. He’d be back pounding on my door the second he had a hot flash.
Some Annandale victims never started cycling. The effects of the virus tended to vary a little from man to man. The virus only produced full Annandale Syndrome in around forty percent of men; ten years in, we were still learning its pathology, with a cool two billion infected to study. Sweet, sweet vindication for whoever wrote those worst-case-scenario pandemic warnings at the CDC.
“Are you sexually active, Mr. Stephens?” I asked. He snorted, one unshaven thigh twitching. “I’m not here for a full workup. I just need something for the—”
“—we don’t have a full history on you,” I interrupted as gently as I could. I’d seen the Congressman on C-SPAN, and I didn’t put it past him to try and give me the Lyndon Johnson treatment, paper gown and exposed genitals or not. “According to the records transferred to us, you haven’t had a gynecological exam in six years. We need to get a history before we can decide on any treatment options.”
Should’ve made sure a PA had this part done already, I thought regretfully.
The Congressman nodded, eyes fixed somewhere on the ceiling as I myself often did when it was my turn in the chair. Finally, he seemed to come to an agreement with himself.
“I am sexually active with my wife,” he said.
“Only your wife?”
“Only my wife.”
“And how long have you been monogamous?”
“We’ve been married thirteen years.”
“And how long have you been monogamous?” The Congressman looked innocently surprised.
“One of the leading causes of complications from An- nandale is comorbidity with an STI,” I reminded him. “Men who were infected with an STI before contracting Annandale are at a high risk for pelvic inflammatory disease, and other problems.” The Congressman grimaced.
“I’ve had a few partners,” he said, and then quickly add- ed, “before I got Annandale. All women. I used protection.”
I noted that in his chart, and then got out fresh gloves and swabs, and the speculum.
“What we’re going to do next is called a speculum exam,” I told him.
Truly, he didn’t know how pampered he was. The speculum was one of the new designs. It was gentle and silicone, and it opened without the dreaded ratcheting noise that had caused generations of women to shrink back in terror, never to return to the ob/gyn office. These new, humane speculums had actually been around for decades. Problem was, nobody had ever funded the scrappy little women’s health startups that manufactured them. None ever got to mass production. Until Annandale. Now, you couldn’t find a practice without them.
Congressman Stephens looked at the device, carefully designed for women’s comfort, with naked disgust for a second before he caught himself and smoothed his face back out.
“I saw the construction on my way over,” he said, possibly to distract himself from what was to come. “It’s good to see our legislation in action. You know, I’m damn proud of that bill. They said the Freedom Caucus would never go for it, but I brought them over, despite the extremists trying to play football with millions of American’s lives. With my life.”
Can’t imagine what that would be like, I thought. This chatter was a little less smooth, trying too hard for a masculine edge as I carried out a most unmasculine examination. But he was doing better than a lot of Annandale victims do for their first few exams. I’d had dozens of runners. They panic and break for freedom, gown and all, the second the speculum came out. I had to admire the toughness of this guy; with resilience like this, it’s no wonder he became such a political star. Who else would have the balls (too soon?) to spike VA funding measures because he didn’t get one of his riders attached? Oh yes, I’d been watching the news long before Annandale. His donors were some lucky people indeed.
Congressman Stephens wasn’t a fan of the Pap smear.
“Tax dollars at work!” he grunted, flashing me a wry smile. I smiled back. Tax dollars indeed. I wondered what the Congressman remembered of those pre-Annandale days. I wondered if he thought about how he’d been redirecting and funneling those tax dollars back then. A Freedom Caucus superstar. I sure remember. I was there.
My dissertation was on the reproductive care of poor women. I spent my PhD years in crowded, run-down waiting rooms, where too few doctors would try and keep women and their babies healthy. Those little buildings had been full of suffo- cating pressure, weighing on the staff and the patients. There was a feeling like being slowly strangled; one measure after another signed into law, sucking funding away, chipping away at those clinics bit by bit. The women could feel it. They were afraid, like refugees huddled in the middle of the holy war the government was waging against abortion.
Funny how the pro-life groups had shared the fate of the Congressman’s gonads after the Annandale outbreak: shriv- eled, withdrawn, transformed.
He listened with annoyance as I explained the bimanual part of the exam.
“You know what the secret was, to getting the bill passed?” He asked me as I put on fresh gloves.
“What was that?” I asked, because it was better to keep the patient relaxed before this part.
“The name,” he told me. “Nobody remembers what it used to be called, when the first draft was brought before the House. It was the Emergency Appropriation for Women’s Health Infrastructure in Response to Annandale Syndrome. No wonder it got tanked five times in the House. No, the new name was what made it.”
I smiled appreciatively. Sometimes, at home, I had to shut C-SPAN off. The things I’d hear just made me too angry.
Congressman Stephens continued. “All the good things we’ve accomplished since that bill became law. Teen pregnancy is down, cancer screenings are up, infant mortality is down, maternal mortality is down—did you know we used to have the highest rate of maternal mortality in the developed world? Can you believe that? Barbaric. It all came down to the name.” I nodded and mhmmed. “When I renamed the bill, I knew that my colleagues in the House just needed to be reminded of what was at stake. Those of us who contracted Annandale didn’t choose to suffer this. Victims shouldn’t be punished by a chance of biology. These are human beings we’re talking about!” He paused. Keeping me hanging onto every word, I guessed. I could see him giving this speech next year during the midterms race.
“And so,” the Congressman concluded, “I was able to bring together a divided House by renaming it the SOS Act.” As if I didn’t know the name of the law that had transformed my field. That had changed everything, more so than the virus itself.
“It is much catchier,” I agreed lightly.
“And it unified Congress at last,” the Congressman said, grinning. “Just by reminding them that the purpose of this great law was Saving Our Sons.”
Poor in Indiana
“Thwack!” slams the old screen door. It clings to its rusty hinges more for show than for effectiveness, as the mosquitos fly in through the welcoming holes that permeate the mesh. Little bare feet slap against the concrete floor of the breezeway and hurry up the wooden stairs, careful to hop over the third stair that splintered and collapsed two weeks ago.
“I’ll fix it on a rainy day,” Grandpa rumbles from his lawn chair in the shade of the garage where he makes camp each day with his ration of cigarettes and Diet Pepsi at his feet. “S’too nice to fix it today.”
It’s June in Indiana. The rain doesn’t come. The little feet are muffled by the threadbare carpet of the first floor, but the rotting floorboards underneath release a cacophony of creaks and groans that remedies the quiet.
“Grandma!” calls a little voice that belongs to the little boy with the little feet. “I found momma!”
“Huh,” says Grandma from her easy chair. It’s not a question, but the boy in his red Spiderman pajama top and too big basketball shorts answers anyway. “I said I found momma!”
“Huh.” Grandma says, with all the same concern as the time the boy announced that he found treasure down by the riv- er. What he called the river was a drainage ditch, and the treasure was the chipped remains of a glass insulator from the old power line. Grandma’s eyes never left the grainy television.
To the little boy, his grandma and the worn brown La- Z-Boy she sat in were one and the same; it seemed her pudgy, round arms were too heavy to lift from the fraying armrests, and her thick, veiny calves glued to the floor at the base of the chair. Bulging out from beneath the faded fabric of her long blue dress, those legs frightened the boy for they were so unlike the toned, smooth legs of his mother who never seemed to stop moving.
“Sit down, Brianne,” Grandma used to say to her. “You’re wearing a hole in the carpet pacing like that.”
But Brianne didn’t stop. Her legs kept pacing, moving, run- ning. In high school she ran track: the 400 meters, the 200 meters, the 4×100 relay. She ran the five miles of muddy dirt road that separated her from the squat brick building that was Loomington High. She ran at practice each day on the black, cinder track that surrounded the mud pit that was the football field, and she ran home from practice each night as the sun was setting on the cornfields that seemed to line every road in town.
When she was eighteen, Brianne ran to Colorado to go to school on an athletic scholarship. She made friends who had parents who took her out to dinner to places that did not serve their food in paper sacks. When her coach’s wife accused Brianne of seducing her husband and chased her down the hall of the student center, Brianne was asked to leave. So she went back to Indiana.
When Brianne was twenty she fled to California to become a singer. She stayed with a friend she’d met in Colorado and performed in bars and cafés for applause and little else. When Brianne punched a producer for telling her she’d sing better topless and was charged with assault, she decided it wasn’t the career for her. So she went back to Indiana.
When Brianne was twenty-one she escaped to Florida to be a bartender where she ran into her coach from her brief stint in university. He went back to Colorado with his wife. She went back to Indiana with a baby.
“Once poor in Indiana, always poor in Indiana,” her daddy said. When Brianne’s Greyhound from Florida pulled into the station in Loomington, and she saw her daddy’s rusted red Chevy waiting in the parking lot, she cried.
She named her son Jesse, and he made her happy for a time. “You keep my feet on the ground,” she told her baby boy with a smile on his first birthday. After six long years of waitressing at the local diner and enduring the false pleasantries of her peers from high school who married and had families, she found it difficult to see it as a positive anymore.
Three days ago when the little boy told his Grandpa he’d walked home from school alone because his mama wasn’t there to meet him, the old man lit another cigarette from the half-empty pack on the ground. Grandpa showed just as much interest the day Jesse came home from school and told him he’d found a real dinosaur bone. The scratched rib Jesse produced looked identical to that of the deer that had decayed on the side of the road near their house after having been hit by a car.
“She’ll be back,” Grandpa said in his raspy voice, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “S’too nice a day to go worrying about where Bri- anne’s got to now.”
The boy stared at Grandpa, his backwoods Buddha whose tobacco zen couldn’t be interrupted by a pack of wild dogs. Bunching up his baggy shorts in his little fists, the little boy wandered out of the garage, kicking at the cracked concrete with his bare feet. Grandpa just stared down the vacant dirt road.
The corn in the field next door shriveled up and died. The rain did not come.
Two nights ago when Jesse asked Grandma where his mom- ma was, she said “hmph,” and kept watching the TV just as she had months ago when he had asked her where his cat, Whiskers, had gone. Jesse had called for Whiskers out his bedroom window every night for two weeks, but she did not return.
The little boy watched the veins in his grandma’s leg bob sluggishly as she shifted her position in her chair, and then he ran out the door into the suffocating heat of the Indiana summer.
The little boy looked for his mother among the shelves in the library where she had read him Love You Forever, and she cried and clutched his hand. The little boy looked at the post office where they had gone to send a picture of the little boy to Momma’s special friend in Colorado. He looked for her at the playground with the purple and green jungle gym where they played hide and seek the day she had received the same unopened letter back from her special friend.
Finally, he looked for her on the tallest ledge of the quarry where they watched the sunset over the man-made lake bordered by walls of jagged gray limestone decorated with green and yellow graffiti that proclaimed “God is dead.” As the sky turned red, Brianne held her son to her chest. “One day we’ll leave Indiana,” she told him. There was a rumble of thunder from far off and the air smelled of rain. “One day.”
“She always comes back,” Grandpa said to Grandma one night after a long day of smoking in the garage a week after Brianne had disappeared. “And she never asks for money. That’s something.”
“Pfft,” snorted Grandma. “She doesn’t ask for nothin’ but she sure left us somethin’,” she said gesturing at the little boy with her can of Diet Pepsi.
“She’ll be back,” Grandpa rasped. But Brianne didn’t come back. The next day passed, and it felt like an eternity to the little boy. Grandma sat in her La-Z-Boy. Grandpa sat in the garage. The little boy searched.
“I really found her!” Jesse says again to his grandpa while the old man folds up his chair and tucks it against the wall next to the dusty bocce balls and the cobweb covered lawn mower. “It’s bedtime, kid,” Grandpa says without looking at his grandson.
The little boy feels his throat begin to tighten and his eyes burn with impending tears. He hangs his head as he turns and steps over the cracked wooden transom, the slam of the screen door sending a spray of mosquitoes swirling into the tense evening air. The boy drags his feet up the wooden stairs, barely remembering to skip the third, collapsed step as uneven breaths shake his chest. In the squeaky bathroom with its ancient knobs and faucets, he brushes his teeth lethargically with a large glob of Crest, splattering his Spiderman shirt with white flecks of toothpaste. He shuffles across the hall to the baby blue room that was his momma’s when she was a girl and both of theirs when she came back from Florida. He drags his Spiderman pajama bottoms out of the lowest drawer of the wooden dresser as the first tears begin to well over the edges of his eyes. Kicking his loose shorts into the wicker hamper, the boy pulls on his pilling PJ pants and then pulls his knees up to his chest.
On top of the dresser sit the cracked insulator, the deer bone, and a number of other bits and pieces, treasures in no one’s eyes but Jesse’s.
All at once, Jesse’s longing and frustration overwhelm him. The sniffles he’d been holding back overflow, and he begins to shake and heave in earnest as tears carve raw lines down his ruddy cheeks. His uneven breaths are now punctuated with involuntary moans and gasps that fill the stuffy air of the little white house. A light flicks on in another room, and the boy tries to suffocate his sobs as heavy feet creak down the hallway.
Jesse does not turn as the door to the room opens, and he does not respond when his grandma calls his name. He hears her step closer, feels the shifting of the warped floorboards beneath them. When she asks what’s wrong, he does not respond. She reaches for him, and he scrambles away, putting his back to the wall like a cornered mouse. She demands to know what’s wrong, and he relents, explaining as best he can between his shuddering breaths and uncontrollable whimpers. When she puts a meaty hand on his shoulder, in that room that belonged to him and his delicate, light-footed mother, Jesse jerks back again, pushing himself tightly against the wall and then up to a standing position. Shoving past his startled grandma, Jesse runs out of the room and then out of the house, leaving the screen door banging behind him.
He runs, runs through the cornfield next door, up the power line, and down to the base of the old quarry. He stumbles along the thin, rocky trail to the small lake in the center of the pit. When he reaches the looming shadow of the highest point of the quarry, he pauses and looks out over the water with its little islands and idle ducks all tinted red in the fading sun. The air is heavy and a strong breeze whips around him, and then up out of the quarry and across the fields to the little white house where Jesse’s grandma is quickly dialing the phone.
Then the little boy turns to face the ground at the base of the cliff where a pretty blonde woman lays with her arms spread wide and her left leg bent at an odd angle beneath her tattered, white dress. Her eyes and mouth both hang partially open. Lady- bugs and flies speckle her face and cluster at her sticky hairline. Resting on a large, smooth stone, her head is encircled in a rust-col- ored halo. Sirens begin to wail not far off.
Jesse lets out another rattling breath and steps over to his mother. Ignoring the splotchy bruises on her skin and the unfamiliar bloating of her limbs, he sits next to her and curls up in the space between her arm and her body. The little boy rests his head on his mother’s shoulder and waits for the rain to come.
The first time I saw her was on a dark night in mid- April. I had set out on a walk in search of beer but ended up on the beach. The Atlantic ocean spit its bitter cold salt at me as if it, too, were questioning what my intentions were. To its credit, I would also be suspicious of any twenty-some-odd man wandering aimlessly on my shores. I glanced around to see if anyone was nearby to share in the ocean’s wariness. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of her.
She stood tall and sea-worn, each brick bent slightly to the position the harsh waves demanded of them. The green hue of neon light illuminated the fog around her skirt and made the tower appear to be much more formidable than what it really was––an old lighthouse at the edge of town, only remembered by those who depend on her for guidance.
I drew closer, curiosity behind every step. The green light was emanating from a sign blinking into the darkness, broad- casting OPEN to all souls who may find themselves awake at this terrible hour.
Upon further inspection, I saw the open sign belonged to a bar that had taken up residence in the bottom nook of the lighthouse on this rock-fortified peninsula.
I noticed that the glass door was cold against the palm of my hand; I pushed it open with some force. A rusted bell alerted all four of the bar’s inhabitants to my presence. The floor- boards let out a loud creak, and the smell of spilled scotch, leather boots that would never be completely dry, and damp driftwood hit me.
The bartender briefly took his attention off the glass he was cleaning to glance at me. His eyes didn’t quite fit him, the edges of them too hardened by time to still have that vibrant spark of youth inside them. Something about him rang with familiarity, yet also fear. He turned back to the glass and addressed me without looking up again.
“First time in,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah, yeah.” I shrugged off my coat and tossed it onto the bowing wooden stand by the door. Bits of residual sea spray and rain rolled off the coat’s grimy black sleeves and fell to the floor. My boots tracked in more water as I made my way to the comfortable looking bar stool.
Without saying anything the bartender placed a shot glass in front of me and began to fill it. The bottle, smaller than the rest on the shelf, was covered with a thin layer of dust. From where I sat I could see that it was hardly full at all and the label had been torn off, save for a small scrap with a red letter I could hardly make out. I swore the bottle could have contained part of the sun, judging from the bright orange floss that flowed from it. The floss turned to liquid in the glass and when the man stopped pouring, the drink began to shimmer and swirl.
“What is that?” The bartender looked me directly in my eyes and it hit me how much I had missed at first glance. The creases around his eyes and on his forehead weren’t what made him look so old, nor was it the silvery gray shadow of a beard. It was his hands that aged him so drastically. The skin by his nails was peeling back, liver spots stained the fragile, cracking skin, and it looked like his fingers were permanently bent forward as if he had never really stopped scratching at something.
“Hope,” he said, “Not much of it around these parts any more, so drink up.”
“But I didn’t ask for this,” I said as he made his way over to the other end of the bar to carefully put the bottle back on the top shelf.
“Well, yeah,” he grunted, his shoulders still facing away from me.
The bell above the door solemnly announced the arrival of another patron; the sliver of the bartender’s attention I held shifted to the newcomer.
“Frank,” the bartender said as he nodded to the man walking into the bar. From the tone of his voice I could gather that these men had known each other a while, yet the sweeping note of hostility that the one word carried filled the room with palpable tension.
Frank made his way to the bar and chose the stool three seats from mine, leaving me well within earshot.
“Thought you wouldn’t be back for a while,” the bartender grunted.
“Believe me,” said Frank, “neither did I.” I watched as the bartender let his hand hover in front of the array of bottles that lined the set of shelves in front of a dingy mirror. He didn’t move. I was beginning to think time had stopped when finally he moved. It wasn’t a large motion, just barely enough to disrupt the still air around him. In fact, it almost looked as though the bottle ap- peared in his hand.
He placed a champagne flute in front of Frank and coaxed the cork out of the neck of a glass bottle that shone a brilliant blue in the light. The color held my eye. I watched as the bartender began to pour––instead of the effervescent pale blue liquid I was expecting, a dark gray sludge speckled with bits of what looked like mold and moss oozed out of the bottle and landed in the flute. The sound and smell of it reminded me of every Thursday night in college spent regretting every sip of lukewarm alcohol that had passed through my lips only hours before.
“What is that?” I retched. With hardly any regard to me, the bartender turned the bottle toward me so I could read the label: A TASTE OF ONE’S OWN MEDICINE.
The ink was bright and bold, and shimmered as he placed the bottle down. He turned the label so that Frank could read it too, and then watched as Frank picked the flute up and held it under his nose as if it contained a dark red wine. He took one sip and winced.
“You know the drill,” the bartender said ominously.
Frank simply nodded.
I began to feel out of place. Every gaze up from the bar, and away from the drink, seemed to bring the walls in closer. The air suddenly felt thicker; each inhale coated my lungs like coal smoke and lingered until the exhale. I could only tell time was passing because each second was counted off by a beat of my anxious heart.
“Can’t leave ‘till the glass is empty,” Frank said, glancing at me with a look that was hard to place. It bordered on sympathy but with pangs of jealousy in his irises. He looked, begrudgingly, at the bartender and lifted the flute from the stained oak bar. He brought it to his mouth and paused before touching it to his lips.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“No one is really sure,” Frank said, the drink clinging like plaque to his teeth. “It’s a sort of otherworldly space––some think it’s an isle that Odysseus once visited, others say it’s like the lost city of Atlantis, and some say it’s a twisted version of Fate.”
The bartender ignored him. “It’s called Pharos,” he said.
That was all the explanation he gave.
I looked to Frank for more but he was busy trying––and failing––to chug the liquid that was now coming out of the glass like tar.
Curiosity drove the words out of my mouth before I had time to think them through, “What did you do to deserve that?”
Frank eyed me from his seat. “Nosy, ain’t ya?”
I held my hands up in defeat, but something about the old man’s eyes softened and a moment later he began to tell me of his sins.
“Everyone in town knows––there’s no use trying to hide it anymore. It was me who bought the paper mill.”
The paper mill employed more than half of the town. It was powered by the river that cut through the east side of town, and emptied into the ocean about a mile back from the part of the beach I had been walking. The mill was the symbol of Penobscot; its brightly colored roof had become a sort of emblem. Those that worked there took pride in that fact; they carried themselves differently from the people who were employed elsewhere. That pride had evaporated last week when we learned that soon we would all be people who were employed elsewhere, or nowhere. The mill was shutting down. Worse, it was being torn down.
The old owners, the Lyins, had fallen on hard times recently––we all had. The downturn of the economy had left the mill in trouble, and ultimately up for sale. This meant one of two things, depending on the buyer: a significant injection of capital, with which the management whispered the old mill might well turn a profit again, or a quick buck for some out-of-town scrap dealer. With one mind, a whole town hoped for the first option, but feared and, on some level, expected the second. When we walked up to the mill’s great oak doors to find them locked from the inside with no explanation but a scrap of paper that read CLOSED, we knew the worst had happened.
Abruptly, I was hyperaware of every strand of hair on the
back of my neck, because they all were standing straight up. I could hear the blood pumping through my heart and rushing into my veins. Every part of my body was begging me to find a way out, or hit someone, hit Frank. I couldn’t move. I felt like I was made of lead. Now I could sympathize with the dead flies in my mom’s kitchen. This is how they must have felt when they hit the bright yellow fly paper––calm at first and then suddenly excruciatingly stuck.
The bartender eyed me, “Do you not listen, boy? You can’t leave without finishing your drink. Fighting will only make you tired.”
I eyed the glass in front of me. Beads of condensation had started to form and fall down the sides. I took it in my hands. It felt surprisingly light for how full it was. I held it briefly under my nose and inhaled deeply. It smelled like sour candies and vanilla.
“Might as well just get it over with,” Frank said, now halfway through his own glass. He gulped the rest down. He left soon after, making eye contact only with the floor.
I figured I should do the same; maybe I could catch him on his way to the car. Give him more than just a bad tasting drink. I braced myself, then drank it.
Strawberries exploded in my mouth. Fresh, picked right at the beginning of summer, just before they got too ripe. Only it wasn’t strawberries. It was as if I was drinking the sunlight that was stuck inside the berries when they were harvested. Their lifeblood.
The next sip gave me a similar sensation, only this time I was sucking the sun out of a mint leaf. Then an orange. Ginger. Then a mango. At the very bottom of the glass was a ring of sugar. I stuck my finger into it and hastily scooped the sugary paste into my mouth, as much as I could.
“Enough,” the bartender said yanking the glass back across the bar.
“But––but––I!” My hands shot out after it.
“Stop.” The warning in his voice gave me pause. “It’s addic- tive, that’s why there is so little. Too much hope is a dangerous thing.”
The bartender turned towards me for the last time, his gaze heavy. “I’ve seen men turn to beast for a fifth of what you just had. Commit unspeakable acts––murder, treason––for one small sip.”
“Then why did you give me so much?”
He held my gaze for a beat, then went back to cleaning the glass he had been holding when I first came in.
I blinked, and then I was outside on the cold sand. In the distance the morning sun was rising over the hills, illuminating the spot where the tower had stood. Now it was just a pile of rocks being beaten by the sea.