by Christina Carson
An unexpected kindness eases two broken hearts
The day started like any other except no alarm startled Jan awake. Her eyes opened slowly, squinting and scanning the room. She felt groggy and blinked several times to clear the sleep out of her eyes. She patted the spot next to her in the bed. It was empty. Her husband was already up. Pulling the covers up higher, she relaxed back on her pillow to organize her day like she did every day before planting her feet on the floor, but some thought, irksome as it hovered just out of mental reach, caught enough of her attention to stop that daily drill. It even hijacked her focus off a mounting headache she’d just noticed. Was she hung over? Her mouth was dry. A pile of used Kleenex sat clustered on her night stand within reach, but no empty wine glass. Thwarted, her habit took over, and she began her list again, but the effort required concentration far beyond what she normally employed to line up the few tasks she slated each day. Too much of her attention was drawn toward a sense of forgetting something “What is it?” she whispered. Her head began to ache with her effort to recall, when suddenly the hair on her scalp and the back of her neck prickled. She shivered, and with a rush, it came upon her; a sense of dread so visceral, so organic her stomach lurched and her breath clogged in her throat. Whatever instinct had been protecting her, holding this horror at bay, it lost its grip. The sound, that horrifying sound, blasted into every corner of her mind. She screamed and sat bolt upright. The impact pushed her past tears and held her inert, while it forced her to visualize the image that sound conjured. It wasn’t the weekend. It wasn’t a holiday. It was the day after… and it would be the day after for the rest of her life.
As if the bed had suddenly become a place of great danger, she jumped out of it and stood steadying herself as she grabbed the bedstead. There was an almost imperceptible sway to her stance as she gulped air in small, frantic gasps. That was the only sound she made. She didn’t hear the squeak of the floorboards behind her. She didn’t see her husband standing in the doorway, his fingers whitened by the force of his grip on the doorjamb.
His eyes moved slowly sideways as he stared at her, watched her inch her way toward the dresser. When she got close to it, she dropped her nightie to the floor and stepped out of it. She opened her lingerie drawer and stared into it as if she were making the most profound decision of her life. Ten seconds passed as she stood naked, looking. Finally, with a shake of her head, she pushed the drawer shut and turned toward the closet. Only then did she notice her husband. The two looked at each other with the semi-conscious focus of old drunks, only they were both more sober than they had been in years. They instinctively sensed even alcohol couldn’t kill the agony that lived in them now. Jan turned back to the closet and pulled at a pair of jeans until they gave way from whatever was holding them. She acquired a denim shirt in the same fashion only it took an extra tug. Without bothering with underwear, she put them on. Her attention felt like it was on a 5 second loop which caused her to walk then pause as if she kept forgetting what she meant to do next.
As she passed through the bedroom doorway, her husband reached for her arm. They were both unsteady, but the small amount of balance they each had acted additively, and they moved down the hall just above a shuffle and then began the descent down the stairs. Talking was out of the question. It took too much energy. So at the bottom of the stairs, she exerted a slight pressure to turn them toward the kitchen. It wasn’t the best of choices. They both saw at the same moment all the left over cakes and casseroles neighbors, friends and relatives had brought throughout the day when the tragic news had worked its way through their personal grapevine. The last thing either of them was was hungry. Jan walked across the kitchen to the percolator. She loaded the water and coffee slowly with great deliberation as if it were an honored ritual. At this moment, the only constant they had in a life where everything else was now different, was the aroma of the strong, black French Roast as it started to perk. She leaned against the counter and stared out the window. Sam sat at the table. They waited.
When the pot finished its enthusiastic churning, Jan brought it and two cups to the table, filled one for each of them and sat down. She wanted to stop thinking. She wanted oblivion. She was terrified that yesterday would begin playing out like an old rerun which she’d be helpless to stop it, and with good cause. No sooner had she seated herself, when yesterday began all over in her mind.
“Morning, Sam.” That’s what she had called from the top of the basement stairs. She had said it cheerily. She was so happy to have Billie home. Then she added, “Billie down there with you?” When no one answered, she recalled thinking; I bet they’re making me a surprise, just like times past. No wonder they call the basement Middle Earth. Billie’s favorite childhood fantasy place, she mused. Then she remembered asking aloud, “How come no one is answering?” She stopped making breakfast and went to the head of the stairs.
Sam had gotten up earlier, made a cup of coffee and waited for Billie to rise. He got tired of waiting and headed toward the basement to finish working on the project they’d started the day before. Up until yesterday, Sam’s combat days had owned his darkness. The scene that met him in the basement installed a far greater horror. He remembered biting hard on his tongue so he wouldn’t cry out. A muted wail anchored in his throat, as his mouth opened soundlessly. His beloved boy. His frantic attempt to get him down. His panic as he heard Jan step onto the top stair. His anguish at having to drop the body and then listen to it twist on the spike as he turned to run full out up the stairs to save the one person he could, Jan. Holding her writhing body with strength he didn’t know he possessed, he maneuvered her to the table and gently sat her down. Her eyes, deep brown and pleading searched his like a child’s, helpless, lost. He knew what she was asking. He just couldn’t answer. He prayed she’d not heard the sound—that slow rhythmic creaking of the rope on the spike that held it. At least the scene would not become part of her memory. He could scarcely cope now that it was part of his. No one wants to see their son dangling from the ceiling at the end of a piece of white cotton clothesline. No one.
He then moved off from her a bit, picked up his cell phone and called for an ambulance. He didn’t want to say the words as she sat there, but they must have insisted on knowing. After several attempts to dodge their only question, with her but a half-room away, he capitulated, but just above a whisper when he said, “There’s been a death in the family.”
When they finished their first cup of coffee, Jan filled their cups again. They didn’t know what to do. Sam stared at the tabletop; Jan at the wall.
“When I woke up this morning,” Jan began, “it was as if it had never happened. I just did what I usually do each morning; make my plan for the day. How?” Her voice quavered. “How… could…I…have…forgotten?” In those five words her voice crescendoed to a high-pitched squeak. She started to tremble. Sam jumped up and ran around to her chair and wrapped his arms around her.
He didn’t know if he could stay strong if she collapsed. He was so scared. He held her tight and whispered, “Oh baby, oh baby, we’ll get through this. We’ll survive.” His soothing brought her back to quiet sobbing against his belly as he stood there, holding her head tight to him.
He wasn’t sure how long they stayed that way, but when the phone rang, it startled them both. Still holding her hard against him, he reached one hand into his pocket to get his phone. Jan heard Sam say, “Yes, yes that…that would be good. Now? Yes.” He wanted to say, “Help us. Please help us.” But instead he stayed as calm as possible and silently blessed this stranger for calling.
“That was the paramedic,” he said to her questioning stare. “Said he would like to stop by; he would like to talk with us. We need someone to help, Baby. We …need…help.”
She raised her head again and looked into his eyes. With the tiniest nod, she agreed. “Why him?” she asked confused. “Why a stranger?”
“I think he’s been in this place where we are.”
Galvanized by something familiar, a guest arriving, Jan got up and took the cups and pot to the sink to wash them and make a fresh pot. Then she realized she had no bra on, so she went upstairs to find some underwear and shoes. Sam quickly shaved and found a clean shirt. All of these simple, routine acts of everyday life became life-savers rescuing them in small but significant ways. When the doorbell rang, they felt more grounded then they imagined possible under the circumstances.
Jan ushered Pete into the kitchen. She always preferred talking over coffee in the kitchen. It was just homier. She had set some slices from the various cakes as well as cookies and squares on the table along with the coffeepot and cups. Sam came in just as Pete was sitting down. Pete rose to shake hands, and as their eyes met, it was clear they shared the memory of that moment in the basement like a war story. Together, they’d lowered Billie’s body; a brotherhood of two. Sam sighed and relaxed for the first time in 24 hours.
A tangled mix of emotions filled the first several minutes, too knotted to describe. “Mind if I smoke?” Pete asked breaking through the unease. Jan, staring at him like she wasn’t sure he was real, quickly nodded her head. She popped up and brought him a saucer to use as an ashtray. She hated any smoking in her house. But she wasn’t even sure who she was in this moment. What the rules were now? Besides, she wasn’t about to interfere with whatever might make it possible to believe they could survive this.
“How long you been a paramedic?” Sam asked wanting to reduce his angst.
Pete, a man about their same age, looked at Sam and smiled.
“Fifteen years now.”
“Bet you’ve seen a lot in that length of time.” All Sam’s years of corporate committees and projects came into play as he schmoozed the meeting into something easy and comfortable.
Pete picked up Sam’s lead and related some of the funny situations he’d found himself in and the wins he’d known. They actually heard themselves laugh. Not robustly or even loudly, but like those still able to catch a funny edge and appreciate its power to relieve.
The reminiscences and stories of all their lives eased the morning into mid-afternoon. The long shadows of a lowering sun shot fingers of soft light through the kitchen windows. They had stopped a while back for some lunch to go with all those desserts. They had gotten up and gone to the bathroom. Pete went out to make a call. Jan made pot after pot of coffee. They had shared this awkward, difficult time like old friends.
Finally, Jan got up nerve enough to ask. In a small, hesitant voice she said, “What about the tragic parts? What do you do with those?”
Pete sat quietly, sucking deeply on this his fifth cigarette. All the while, he looked directly at Jan as if he were mind reading, his gaze was so fixed. He broke his focus by inhaling deeply and letting his breath slide out slowly, calmly. “There was this one day.” His head nodded agreement. He looked down at the table, his eyes lowered, a shy, apologetic smile on his face. He stole a quick glance first in her direction, then Sam’s, then shrugged. Anyone could have grasped the words he was trying to say but couldn’t—“You know.” He returned to staring at the tabletop. “On that day everything changed. The world became unrecognizable. I think I just stumbled on for a while. I don’t remember exactly. Nor can I say how much later it was before I could navigate it. But there came a moment. Maybe I was drunk, maybe just so hurting, I quit trying…to hang on; just quit. It wasn’t a voice. It wasn’t some grand philosophical truth that exploded in my brain. I just forgave them; all of them; the doers and the done to; turned it loose. A strange sensation followed that simple act. I sort of melted into a feeling of kindness.” He looked up shifting his eyes from Jan to Sam. “I really needed some kindness. It felt so good.” His voice dropped to a whisper.
He had to stop. Jan saw him cast about for the coffee pot she had pushed out of the way. She snatched it and filled his cup.
Pete drank a sip and then pulled himself up in his chair, gathering himself to finish what he’d come to share. “The other half of that yin-yang equation was resolve. Was I going to get on with it or not? I found that kindness was stronger than being brave, and more honest. Resolve pushed me to remember that on the endless days after.”
The room was now deep in the dusk of evening. The table was littered with crumbs, coffee stains, cups with splashes of cold coffee left in them, crumpled napkins and dirty plates. For an instant, it felt like a home again. They would in time learn to notice and appreciate each such moment.
Check under Short Stories in the right column
to enjoy other short stories by Christina Carson.