Monday, October 24, 2011

Last Wish

"I don't want to die alone."
     Jack slid into the chair, phone cradled loosely against his ear. No point in standing for this one.
     "I'm sick, Jackie—" Her voice broke.
     "Chelsea, it's just a bug. You're not going to die."
     God, she could be melodramatic when she'd had a few. He shifted the phone to his other ear. "I'm here."
     "It's not a bug. I just got back from the hospital. It's cancer."
     Jack blinked. He'd misunderstood. For the two short years of their marriage she'd been a hypochondriac; the lasting cry throughout the separation and divorce had been, You never took care of me when I was sick. And she was always sick. But now…he'd misunderstood, plain and simple.
     He swallowed. "What did you say?"
     "You heard me."
     Fuck. "I…Chelsea, are they sure?"
     She sucked back a shuddery sob. "Yeah. They're so sure they didn't want me to leave."
     "Then why did you?"
     "Come over, Jack, please?"
     "Chels, you should be at the hospital. I'll come pick you up and take you back."
     "No. Please. Just come be with me. I don't wanna die alone."

* * *

     "I made myself some tea. Would you like a cup?"
     Jack nodded, watched her as she lifted the kettle and poured the boiling water into a China cup, part of a set they'd received as a wedding gift. She didn't look sick, and that alone was enough to make Jack believe. When in the throes of some imagined infirmity she looked drawn, frail, barely able to take the next breath. Contrived, carefully calculated illness. Now she simply seemed resigned.
     She placed the cup in front of him, matching saucer, delicate silver spoon. "Give it a minute, it's hot." She sipped at the cup in front of her, then tossed it back and added more water from the kettle.
     "I'm sorry, Chels. I…I'm so sorry."
     Their divorce had been brutal; ugly, prolonged and vicious. Now all he could do was watch her quiet elegance in the face of the ultimate fear.
     She shrugged. "It's done. They say the cancer has metastasized beyond…" She smiled softly. "Well, suffice to say I'm done. I could stay in the hospital, but to what good? Drugs to dull my mind so that I forget I'm dying for an hour or two? No. If I'm going to die, I'm going to die at home, my way, on my terms."
     "How long did they say?"
     She shook her head. "Doesn't matter."
     "It does, baby. We can look at alternative cures or something. Or at least make the most of whatever time you have left." She suddenly looked tired, about to fall asleep, but with a quizzical grin flittering on her lips. Jack frowned. "What?"
     "You called me baby." Her voice was soft, the words slightly slurred like she'd had a little too much to drink.
     "Did I?" Jack blew on his tea, took a small sip to test the temperature, then, though it was still too hot, drained the rest to have something to do while he tried to remember if he'd actually said the word. That word that had been his favorite endearment before things went south.
     She nodded. "Yes, you did. And…" Her eyes fluttered and her lips twitched in a crooked grin. "And it wuzzlovely." She seemed to be drifting away.
     He placed his hand on hers. "Chels? Baby, are you okay?"
     Her eyes cleared slightly. "Thank you for coming, Jackie. I wanted you to be here. I really didn't want to die alone." She smiled again, then frowned as a sudden spasm shuddered through her. She gestured with her teacup. "It hurts some, but at least it will be short-lived, won't it, sweetie?"
     Jack watched her trembling hand attempt to lift the teacup. Just come be with me. I don't wanna die alone. Her head slumped forward.
     "Oh, baby, what did you do?" He watched her go. She hadn't wanted to be alone, and she wasn't. She stiffened, her body spasming again, clenching and releasing, clenching and releasing. Finally the muscles relaxed completely and he smelled her bowels let go as rigid fingers uncurled from the handle of the cup. Her breath slowed, paused, and it was over.
     He should call someone, someone that could take care of her now that she was gone, take care of her like he never had. But he couldn't think who to call, or what to say if he did call. And he wanted to hold her hand resting so lightly next to her teacup. His hand stretched toward hers but seemed to take forever to reach across the table. He knocked over his own cup, watched the dregs stain the tablecloth, watched the cup roll off the table and heard no sound as it floated away into the darkness under the table. From far away inside himself he felt a contraction, a tightening sensation as something rebelled against whatever he'd ingested, then icy hands began to slowly squeeze his lungs. His fingers finally reached Chelsea's, so soft and still. He was glad to be sitting across from her and glad he'd been here because…
     "Baby," he whispered."
…she didn't want to die alone.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Little Girl Lost

Little Girl Lost

     “Daddy, I’m lost.” She sounded embarrassed.
     Michael twisted the car’s radio volume down and smiled into the cell phone, willing the I-told-you-so tone out of his voice. “Where are you, baby?”
     “Dad, if I knew that I wouldn’t be lost.” Definitely embarrassed, and silently begging him not to bust her chops about it.
     Beth’s sense of direction was non-existent. He’d been so certain she’d lose her way he brought a Thomas Guide street directory to work so he could steer her back on track when she called. Being prepared for things like this was Dad Stuff, just one scenario on a long list of scenarios he’d imagined from the day they’d first learned Deb was pregnant and their childless days were limited.
     A glance at the dashboard clock showed thirteen minutes before six pm. Rush hour traffic had congealed in the late-autumn night, bogging down to speeds nearly in the single digits. The street directory lay useless on the floorboard, unreachable and—with his reading glasses stowed in the trunk with his briefcase—unreadable.
     “Beth, I’ve got to pull off the freeway so I can get to the map. What street are you on?”
     “Dad.” Frustrated. “These stupid streets don’t have names.”
     Michael jockeyed one lane to the right. If the idiots paid attention to his blinker he’d make the off ramp at Madison Avenue; otherwise it would be Greenback Lane, another crawling mile east.
     “Sweetie, they have to have names.”
     “I know that, but it’s dark and I can’t see the street signs.”
     That couldn’t be right. True, it was dark out, but the intersections were brightly lit, large green and white signs stretching across the lanes. “Beth, pull over at the next intersection and tell me what you see.”
     “Okay.” There was a tremor in her voice that reminded him she was just sixteen.
     My God, wasn’t it just yesterday that Deb went into labor? How did she get to be sixteen already?
     A flash of high beams from behind and he had the gap he needed. He punched the accelerator, shot through to the emergency lane and sped along the stationary line of cars to the Madison Avenue off ramp, praying the Highway Patrol had better things to do.
     His mind told him this was no big deal, Beth was fine, she was just turned around and all he had to do was point her back in the right direction—but something didn’t feel right. Beth had been visiting her boyfriend’s grandmother who lived just off La Riviera Drive, a couple blocks west of Watt Avenue. Not a great neighborhood, but it was well lit. Watt Avenue was one of the larger thoroughfares in Sacramento, at several places six lanes wide.
     “I’m here, baby. I’m almost off the freeway.”
     “I just passed an intersection but I didn’t want to stop. I couldn’t see what the sign said.”
     “Baby, I can’t help you if I don’t know where you are.”
     “It was dark and there were these guys just kind of sitting there in their truck. There wasn’t really anywhere to pull off anyway, just kind of a ditch along the side of the road.”
     What the hell? Where was she?
     “Wait, I see a sign coming up at the next intersection…it’s…something ridge.”
     “Slow down and try to read it.” He managed to keep his voice level as he turned onto Madison and into the right lane behind a solid wall of cars. A Chevron gas station gleamed less than twenty yards ahead on the right, but it might as well have been a mirage for all the good it served.
     “Okay, I see it,” she said. “It says Oakridge. I’m passing through and I’m on…what does that say? Geez, you’d think they could make bigger signs.”
     God, please let her be mistaken.
     The signal up ahead turned green, releasing the tension of cars so that he was eventually able to jump the curb into the gas station parking lot.
     “Par…ane…” Static. Digital garble.
     “Sweetie, you’re breaking up. Say it again.” Please, God.
     “I just passed through the intersection at Oakridge. I’m on Parlane.”
     Oh, baby, how did you get so far south?
     “Beth, you just need to turn around as soon as you can.” Keep it steady, she’s scared because she’s lost. She doesn’t need to hear it in your voice.
     “I see a lighted intersection up ahead, finally. I’m going to pull over there.”
     “No, Beth. Don’t pull over, just make a u-turn and go back the other way. Don’t stop.” God, protect my baby.
     “Daddy, there’s a gas station and I’m getting kind of low—”
     “Do not stop. I’ll talk you back to someplace where you can get gas. Just turn around. I’m going to grab my glasses and check the map.” He popped the trunk and got out of the car.
     “Daddy, you’re scaring me.”
     Baby, I’m terrified.
     “It’s fine, sweetie, I just don’t want you to stop in that area. Keep driving. Hold on a sec.”
     He opened his briefcase and dug out his glasses. Back in the car, he flipped to the back of the street guide and found the coordinates for Oakridge and Parlane.
     “I’m here, baby.”
     “Okay, I’m going the other way now.”
     “Good, you’re doing fine. I’m looking at the map now.”
     The dome light showed two full pages of open county land bisected by two lane roads. He had an all too clear memory of the last time he’d driven through the area. He remembered thinking he wouldn’t want to drive through there at night. How had she gotten so far off track? Playing with her stereo more than likely. Fiddling with the radio, oblivious that she was driving into Sacramento’s version of South Central LA. Except that in South Central, there were people around; the south end of Sacramento County was largely uninhabited—except that it really wasn’t.
     “Damn it!” she said.
     His stomach tightened. “What happened?”
     “There’s some jerk behind me driving with his high beams on. He’s like totally riding my bumper.”
     “Just let him pass.”
     “I tried. I pulled almost onto the shoulder so he could get by and he just stayed there. Should I pull off and stop?”
     “No! Listen, just keep going. You should be back into town before long.”
     The map was no help at all. He knew exactly where she was, he just didn’t know how to tell her to get out without making it worse. Stay on Parlane? Or turn right on Oakridge and head over to Fallon? If memory served, Parlane was a bigger street but went through a worse section of town. If she could get over to Fallon—
     “Oh my God! He’s so close I can’t even see his lights any more!”
     “Beth, do not slow down. You should be coming back up to Oakridge. Turn right. When you get to Fallon, turn left. At that point you’ll be—” He yanked the phone from his ear.
     “Daddy, he just hit me!” Her voice was trembling. “Oh, God, he rammed into me and I almost lost it.”
     A sickening throb began at his temple. “Are you okay?”
     “Yeah. No. I mean I guess. He backed off a little and I’m turning onto Oakridge. Oh, shit, he’s coming up fast again! Daddy, what do I do?”

     His voice stalled. This wasn’t happening to his baby. He had no idea what to do. Or what to tell her to do. “Just keep driving, baby.”
     Why can’t I think of what to do? I was so prepared, so ready to be a dad.
     The crunch was deafening this time. “Beth!”
     “Daddy—” sobbing now “—Oh Jesus, I’m so scared.”
     God, help me think what to do. Call 911? No, he’d have to hang up. “Just keep driving, baby, I’m getting help.”
     He stumbled out of the car and ran to the phone booth. No handset, just a busted cable, wires dangling, somehow looking like a torn umbilical cord. Come on, God, don’t fucking do this to me.
     He stared at that torn cord too long, finally backed away in a daze and got back into the car. He started the engine. “Talk to me, baby.”
     Open line. And Beth—my little girl—unable to speak as she gasped through the fear.
     “Keep talking to me, Beth.” He pulled onto Madison with absolutely no idea where he was headed, and was immediately stuck in traffic. No danger here. Just a lot of cars, people anxious to get home. And every one of them keeping him from his baby. He should pull back into the station and have someone inside call 911. Why didn’t I think of that? Why I am messing this up so badly?
     A sharp, static intake of breath in his ear. “Daddy…”
     And then he jerked the phone way from his ear again at the horrible crash of impact. And Beth screaming, or maybe that was the shriek of the tires, and the thin, quick sound of tearing metal and shattering glass and yes, that is Beth screaming like a terrified newborn and he couldn’t be hearing that sound coming through the cell phone, because this wasn’t the way things were supposed to go.
     He sat in a surreal nightmare of hardening-cement traffic as Beth shrieked in his ear from a place of terror beyond the world, screaming No! No! Please, don’t! over and over, the awful cries becoming distant but somehow more intense when the cell phone was dropped—ripped?—from her hand. And the other voice that was not Beth’s—nice tits, bitch—and so Michael’s mind tried to force it all into a muted garble, unwilling to accept that he was hearing his baby girl being raped.
     But the screams were still there—fight, baby—long and persistent, howling at a pain that is outside anything he can imagine—push harder—and the screaming has become a harsh panting and the voice is not Beth, it is Deb, crying his name…
     The traffic begins to spin around him, becoming a blur of white light—white walls, white tile—and there is a smell of antiseptic, the beep of monitors, and a hand on his arm, rough but gentle—
     “You back with us, partner?”
     Michael blinks in the sudden glare of hospital fluorescents. “Dr. Burney?”
     “He’s back,” the doctor says with a soft clap of the hands. “Let’s get this done.”
     Michael feels Deb’s hand grip his own as she leans forward and begins to push again, her body clenching as doctor and nurse urge her on.
     A glance from Doctor Burney. “Help her out, son, you know the drill.”
     And Michael does know the drill—push-push-push-breathe—but he is still trying to get his mind back from the place where Beth is still…Beth? At his side, Deb hunches over the distended abdomen that holds their first child, unborn and struggling to remain so.
     Another drawn-out hissing scream, this time from Deb—of course from Deb, only Deb—and seconds later from a much tinier set of lungs, and yes, that’s exactly what she will sound like.
     Doctor Burney holds the tiny vision high, as high as the umbilical cord—busted phone cable—will allow.
     Deb’s voice at his ear, whispered wonder: “Oh, Michael…Michael we have a baby girl.”
     I know, and we decided on Elizabeth for a girl, Beth for short.
     “Isn’t she beautiful?”
     Nice tits, bitch.
     “Yes, honey, she’s beautiful.”
     Deb’s fingers find his, interlacing and locking together, the way they’ve been doing since they were teenagers. “Our world just changed forever, Michael. You’re a daddy now.”
     Deb’s voice dreamy, determined. “She is our focus now. I never want to let her out of my sight.”
     …I’m lost.