(The following story won second place in the 2014 California Writers Club – Sacramento Branch – Short, Short Story Contest)
A Long Day
Clear, little balloons squeeze past a metal stem and plunge into the chamber, each taking a turn, falling like liquid seconds. I lie here and watch them.
Shadows sidle from one end of my room to the other like sick people pushing IV poles, and I watch them, too. I imagine a fleeting eye cast my way, but mostly they ignore me as they move along the walls from the windows to the door, their cadence called out by the ticking of the round clock watching over me.
The day moves in pieces and faces appear when heavy eye lids draw open. I don’t know how long they’ve been there. The owners are always so happy, but mostly busy. Their fingers dance and perform, always adjusting and rearranging. They, too, are attracted to the little balloons that drip. I like their smiles; they’re honest. My family and friends carry smiles for me too, but glassy eyes and disjointed words always betray them; it’s not their fault.
My poor husband has aged much and I worry for him. His eyes seem trapped in a face that hurts to smile and the flesh under those eyes resembles desiccated fruit left on a table for too long. Yet, I still see the eyes of that happy groom from twenty-five years ago this week. That’s what makes me feel warm inside, those groom-eyes, looking at his bride. From a vault of memories I see the video of our wedding, the two of us sitting together at our table, smiling, happy, and living in the moment.
The bride’s beauty is no more. My chest has been carved and mutilated. My belly is riddled with tubes and holes that don’t know what to do with all the ugliness that once was my stomach. My scalp under the scarf looks like the remnants of a hillside ravaged by fire. That’s okay; it’s all just window dressing. In my sleep I know I’m beautiful; my God has told me so.
He has great plans for me; He has whispered so in my dreams. We are getting to be very close, He and I. We struck a bond long ago in that old, beautiful, white church in Tomales, the one with the steeple pointing to heaven. I’ll miss that church, the hills, the green, and the ocean.
He’s aware of my secrets, but He’s not worried.
He knows I came here with a baby in one arm and a diaper bag in the other, a diaper bag filled with nothing more than hopes and dreams. He knows I gave my all for a land that did not want me here. He overlooked the technicalities and filled my humble trailer with well-to-do friends, artists, writers, teachers, nurses, all sorts of guests––legal and not. And He knows I won’t need to show any documents where I’m going next.
My other secret, the one hardest to hide, is my fear. Not for me, but for my three children. What will my daughter do without a mother to mother her? What will the boys do with all those hopes and dreams I packed? And grandchildren? Oh, I’ll see them soon enough and bless them each before they’re sent on their way.
The shadows have reached the other side of the room now and they’re tired. Another bag marked “chemo” is up and releasing more little balloons of hope. My husband and children file in one by one from work and school and ask about my day. I tell them the staff came in and sang “Happy Birthday” to me.
I dig deep for strength and walk the hallway. My husband holds one hand, the IV pole holds the other, and my children surround the both of us as we count steps.
I’m back in bed, the nursing station is busy in a comforting din, and it’s getting late. I see the turmoil in my family’s faces as they wish to stay, but yearn to leave.
I let them go, releasing them with a smile and a hug.
I lie awake still, but now I listen for footsteps in the hallway. My leaden eyes labor to stay focused but my ears are ever vigilant. I pray that for one more night all the footsteps belong to the nurses. And I pray I will be here to welcome the shadows in the morning as they start again their march with the clock.
It’s been a long day.