Copyright 2010 by Lizzy Ford
Cover design copyright 2010 by Matt Edmondson
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My left eye didn't open this morning, a sure sign of my body's accelerating demise. Sometimes, if my nurse Maria positioned me right, I could see the long silver braid of my hair resting over my shoulder. Maria dealt with me like she did any other pieces of furniture in the room, but she at least always braided my hair, the most beautiful part of me. It was all I could take pride in since my body was taken in a car accident that left me a thinking vegetable … with beautiful hair.
According to some strange MTV Halloween special, scaring myself to death was possible, if the doctors would allow mirrors in my room. I once convinced myself the true reason the doctors didn't allow me to see myself was because they were slowly removing pieces of my body, one by one, year after year, and I was nothing but a floating head with a beautiful silver braid. This, too, happened once in a cartoon on MTV, except that the head was encased in its own little helmet and buzzed around the room. If I could, I would probably hide under the bed where it's dark and pretend I was dead.
As much as I hated MTV – the only channel Maria watched – I was lonely when the TV was off.
I retreated to my only refuge, the Mind Café, shortly after realizing my left eye wasn't working and sat in one of the four fluffy, red leather booths before a plain table. The Café was brightly lit and consisted of two windows through which I could watch Maria or the TV, a door in the corner for visitors, and an eerie white wall to my right, through which the already-dead came to visit. Sometimes the Café was freezing or too hot or the lights were off or it smelled funny. These days, I remembered that the Mind Café wasn't truly mine but was some sort of purgatorial halfway house run by a moody guardian angel that took too many smoke breaks.
There was nothing on the table again today, not the notebooks the moody angel had made disappear weeks ago or my favorite chocolate cake or the café mocha I craved. He'd been negligent for over a month. I tapped my fingers and waited for any visitors. In the Café, I had the body I lost when I was 24 down to my favorite shoes and shirt. All was as it should have been, with the exception of the long silver braid over my shoulder. I willed my fingernail polish to change from blue to pink and watched the transformation.
The door in the corner jingled as it opened. One of my best friends, Joey - a barrel-chested man with scrawny legs, hawkish features, and bright blue eyes – entered with a smile. He visited regularly to tell me about his wife and grandkids, his projects around the house, his job.
"Hey Rosie!" he said, sliding into the booth across from me. "I finished my dresser this weekend."
"The new one?"
"Pink?" he replied, eyes on my nails. "I told you your skin is too fair for that shade of pink."
"Yes, the dresser is a cherry color. It took three quarters of a gallon of paint. Can you imagine? Sheila said it would take more, but it's just a standard dresser with drawers measuring 20 by 30 by 8 inches. There's no need for more than a gallon."
"I guess it depends on how many coats it takes."
"Yeah, probably. I think I'll sand it and just put two coats. It's a cheapy anyway. I paid 40 for the unfinished dresser and $4.35 the paint. It's in a dark corner where no one can see it."
I smiled and leaned my head against the booth. Joey was an engineer obsessed with numbers in any form. He knew the price of a can of chicken soup in every major grocery store within fifteen miles of his home and told time down to the second.
"You writing another book?" he asked.
"I was, but my notebooks haven't appeared in a few days," I said and glanced back towards the glowing wall.
I suspected everything I wanted in life was behind that wall, including my notebooks. It bothered me when my things appeared one day and disappeared the next. Sometimes I had coffee and notebooks, and sometimes I went days with nothing, even visitors.
"They haven't had carrot cake in thirteen days," Joey complained. "Bastards."
"Take it up with … " I waved towards the back wall. "If I had any control here, I'd have my notebooks, and you'd have carrot cake. I almost finished my second novel, too."
"The second of the trilogy I stared BDA."
BDA stood for Before the Damn Accident. There was another, ADA, After the Damn Accident. I used to call these times BFA and AFA before deciding I would win no favor with the Greater Being by using too much profanity.
"Didn't Lily finish it for you?"
"I like my version better. Lily inherited the technology genes, and I got the creative genes. I love my sis, but she couldn't write to save her life."
"But she did get your first book published and then published her version of the second book, right?"
God, how I loved my sister, Lily! She truly believed seeing my book in print would heal me. I still remembered the anguished look in her eyes when she realized it wouldn't.
"She had it published by a vanity publisher," I replied, mood souring.
"It's not a real publisher. She paid someone to print it."
"But it's a still a book in print. I bought twenty of them."
"Whatever," I muttered. Those not in the publishing industry never understood a writer's yearning to have publishing conglomerates drooling over the rights to a writer's book. I saw vanity publishing as the act of a desperate writer, and yet I loved my sister even more for what she did: shelled out her own money to make my dream come true.
"I wrote a book about our discussions over dinner in college," Joey continued.
"They were never boring conversations!"
"Nope," he agreed. "You remember the one where we plotted to take over Egypt?"
"Yeah! That lasted almost two weeks, and we had a great plan!"
"I put that in there. I took Egypt out and made up a country, though. I didn't want the feds to think I'm up to something."
"You're too old by now to take that kind of action anyway."
"Hell yeah. I'll be 60 in three months, two days, and five hours, give or take a few. I'm officially a dirty old man. You know how cool that is?"
I shook my head.
"It's one of the stages of life. Dirty old manhood is what every man secretly waits for," he said with a lopsided smile.
The windows were blocked for a moment, throwing the Café into darkness. We both looked to see Maria pass with a vacuum.
"Did I tell you she's from Guatemala?" I asked.
"Half the doctors at Sheila's school were from some five-week medical program in Guatemala. The only English words they knew were 'motrin' and 'time's up.'"
"I remember that!"
He cocked his head to the side, listening to the silent call that took my visitors away. I never understood what drew my visitors away, or even what possessed them to visit.
"Time's up," he said with a grin. "I'll come by in a few days."
I frowned and watched him go. He crossed to the door with a wave. I waved back and saw that my nails were blue again. The door jingled, and he was gone.
I sighed and rested my hands in my lap. I was dressed in my favorite blue jeans and red v-neck t-shirt. My clunky clogs were off and my legs folded beneath me in the booth. I played with my long, silver braid for a moment before glancing out the window and seeing an MTV beach party on the television. It was not something I cared to watch, so I stretched out in the comfortable red booth and gazed at the mirrored ceiling.
From a distance, and frozen at the age of 24, I was pretty. My hair was silver and my eyes big and blue. People always looked different at a distance, though. One of my psychologists was handsome from a distance but up close, his features were heavy and lopsided. I assumed that the reason he didn't want me looking in a mirror was because he himself wasn't comfortable with one. He came once every other week for the past ten years. He brought interns and even his secretary once, claiming I was the best adjusted vegetable he had ever met.
"Rose?" Lily's soft voice started me out of my doze.
"I'm sorry, sis. I didn't hear the bell," I told her and sat. My nails turned sunny yellow.
"I came in the back way," Lily said with a smile.
Her large, almond-shape eyes were the most beautiful pale green I'd ever seen. Her hair was blonde and shoulder length, her slender shape toned. I stared at her, startled to see her as she appeared when she was 24 rather than her age of nearly 58.
The back way. If my heart could break again, it would have. It was already in too many pieces to shatter further, though it did sink from my chest to my toes. I glanced at the eerily glowing back wall.
"I wondered why you hadn't been in," I whispered.
My throat tightened, and I hung my head to stare at my black nails. Death was a release to me, an escape from hell, yet the death of my soul mate, best friend, sister, was nothing but another reason to yearn for death to take me faster. Her pain had been far greater than any I could feel. I felt nothing of the doctors or their surgeries; she felt twenty years of chemotherapy, experimental surgery, and what it was like to die one body function at a time. If I could trade her the last twenty years and know she wouldn't suffer despite the inability to move, I would.
"I'm better now," she said, sensing my despair.
I nodded, plagued by sorrow, understanding, and most of all - jealousy. She was joining our mother, grandfather, and every other person I had ever loved. I was alone at last.
"The funeral was nice," she told me. "I had yellow roses."
"That's what I want, too. Where did they bury you?"
"They didn't," she hesitated. "Mama and I made the decision before she died. I wanted to tell you in person, but I … well, it didn't work that way. We decided to be cremated, like you told us you wanted to be. My husband has Mama's – and now my - ashes. When you die, he's going to take yours, too, and – "
"- we'll all be together again."
"Just like we always planned."
Lily smiled, but I stared at the table. The three of us long dreamed of one day sitting together as shriveled old women in rocking chairs on the wide porch of an old Georgia farm house, sipping Earl Grey while we ruminated over lost loves and the storms we lived through. I planned to leave and make it in the world then come back for them. I never made it. Mama died five years ago, and though Lily lived on in person, I always felt she died with her and lost her will to fight the cancer eating her own body.
"You're sure your Bobby won't just leave the three of us sitting on his mantle for all time?" I asked, trying to rally my spirits, which were curled deep within me sobbing.
"No. He's going to scramble us up and toss us over that cornfield behind mama's old house!"
"Wonder if the corn will turn out or end up tasting ashy," I said then laughed. "How's your husband?"
She looked down, as she always did when she spoke of him. I never knew why she reacted so strangely. She never brought him up in conversation. It had taken a year of asking for her finally to reveal his name to me. Bobby. They were married for twenty years, and yet she never showed me pictures or talked about him unless I asked.
"He's well. I left you more money in your home fund."
"You left a will? I didn't think you believed in that stuff."
"I don't. He'll do it," she responded.
"You trust a man that much with your money?"
"You've trusted a man that much before!"
"But your man isn't mine! Guess it doesn't matter – I never heard from mine ADA."
Lily looked surprised and flushed. I sensed she was about to change the subject again.
"You never did bring him to meet me," I reminded her. "I languished away waiting for you."
"He's funny looking anyway."
I laughed, doubting he was any funnier looking than my Picasso face.
"Oh, Lily. I almost forgot. The 'd' and 'n' aren't working on my virtual keyboard. Does Bobby know how to fix it?"
Lily's money came from her many inventions, only one of which I ever understood. Shortly after my accident, she invented a communication system using a virtual keyboard and a chip into my eye that translated a combination of my eye position and blinks into letters on a screen for visitors to read. It was my only method of communicating with outsiders.
"The chip must be bad," she said with a frown. "I'm sorry, Rose. I should have come to see you before things got so bad."
"That would've been a pitiful sight. They'd wheel you in so we could stare at each other," I said before I could stop the words.
At her sad smile and the awkward silence that followed, I tried to push away my growing sense of despair. My best friend and sister would soon walk through the back wall again, never to reappear. Mama, grandma, and grandpa had all done the same. I wouldn't see them again until I, too, took that journey.
"Have you seen mama yet?"
"Yes. She's beautiful and happy, like she was when we were young," Lily said, brightening. "We sit around and drink tea and listen to country songs."
"Oh, ouch," I said, rolling my eyes. "We'll have to change the music when I get there. I kinda wonder … she's never come to see me here since she died. I've kinda been waiting, but she …"
To my embarrassment, my voice broke, and I clamped up.
"Oh, Rosie! I'm so sorry. She can't. Not yet but soon. She would stay with you here if she could, Rosie. She loves you so much!"
"I miss her, Lily."
Lily's head cocked to the side, listening to the silent call that drew all my visitors away.
"I'll tell her you say hello," she offered and stood. "I have to go now, Rosie."
I wanted to beg her to stay, even one minute more, but the words stuck in my throat. She waited for a response. I could only nod. Lily walked towards the glowing wall, turned back to wave, and disappeared. I stared after her before lowering my head to my hands and crying.
The TV was off when I awoke in my chair. The drapes were closed, the room dark, and I listened for Maria. Muffled singing emanated from the bathroom. Irritated that the TV and window were closed, I blinked twice rapidly to activate the virtual keyboard and tried to create the words open the window.
Opewiow appeared on the screen near the TV. I waited for Maria to emerge. She babbled at me in Spanish and disappeared once again into the bathroom without understanding my butchered English. I stared at the blank TV while listening to her off key singing and wished my ears had gone as numb as the rest of my body. More irritating was the idea that my left eye worked today, but there was nothing to look at.
In agitation, I activated the keyboard again and typed letters at random, sending indecipherable messages. Maria poked her head out once more to snap something in Spanish before retreating to the bathroom. I never knew why she spent so much time in the bathroom, and any other day – when I had something to stare at – I probably wouldn't care.
Things would have been easier had I died. Of all my theories and ponderings, I could never answer one question: why wasn't I dead? If life had a purpose, then what was the purpose of a human vegetable like me? I could not positively affect anyone. In fact, I was a financial and emotional drain on all those around me.
Ironically, the weakest member of my family was now the only one standing. I drove my family into ruin and death. If I had died, my family may be alive. Once, maybe twenty years ago, this thought would have sent me in to a depression.
Not that my body didn't try to kill me. I gave myself that much credit – my body knew what misery awaited me if I became a vegetable. The doctors saved me from the half a dozen strokes, heart attacks, and the shut down of my nervous system. Yet somehow, I survived to watch MTV and think.
Maria began to sing again, and I began sending my nonsensical messages to the screen.
"You still have a lot of spunk."
The words were accompanied by a jingle. I blinked and was taken to the Mind Café, where I sat across from a large man with a mustache and frizzy, untrimmed hair. His eyes were small and nearly hidden behind bushy, graying eyebrows. The Café was lit by the glowing wall rather than the windows.
This was the only stranger who every wandered into my café. I knew his face from the back of his books, which I read as part of a mandatory psychology course I took in college, BDA. I didn't remember his name.
"My apologies for not visiting for awhile," he said in a warm, soothing voice befitting the kiddie counselor he was. "I see she has your windows closed today."
"She probably has a damn hangover."
"I brought your notebooks."
"Where did you find them?" I demanded, happy to see my stack of notes. I placed them on the seat beside me and rested one hand on them, determined not to let them escape me again.
"They were right outside the door. Thought you might like for me to bring them in."
"Thanks. You come to counsel me?"
"I don't counsel, Rose. I allow you to talk, if you'd like," he reminded me.
He smiled a smile so small, it had taken me a few visits to notice it. His voice was monotonous. His features rarely displayed emotions. I often wondered if he was like this in real life, or only because I knew nothing more about him than what was revealed by the picture from the back of a book.
"I thought you might like to talk today," he prodded.
"You only come when you expect me to be upset," I murmured. "How is that?"
"Maybe you create me when you need help."
"I don't need help!"
One of those small smiles crossed his face.
"I don't want to talk about it," I told him.
"We can talk about whatever you want. I don't think your guardian angel lets me leave 'til you've said your piece, though."
"That bastard. Fine," I said and pulled my feet beneath me comfortably.
"Lily died. She came to see me yesterday, but she didn't use the door. Did you know she passed?"
"Rosie, I don't even know who you are."
"Strange, huh. Anyway, she's died and is with mama now. I'm ok with that, mostly. She was in a lot of pain."
"She had cancer, right?"
"Yes. She was told she had six months to live about twenty years ago, but she fought it up until mama died. Sometimes I think she shouldn't have fought it. She's died so slowly. I read about that once, where the body loses its functions one by one until you just rot from the inside out.
"At least she's ok, now," I added quietly. "They get to be together and I'm stuck with Maria."
"Lily is at peace."
"You know, doc, BDA, I used to think death was a horrible, horrible thing. It didn't make sense to me," I continued. "Now I realize it's actually a blessing. I mean, no one dies peacefully anymore. Everyone dies from something, and they all spend the last few years of their lives in misery. My friend Jay used to smoke two packs a day, drink six days a week, and live on fried food. He was determined to shave off the last few years of his life, because they're miserable anyway. I'm not sure that's quite the way to go about it, though he did die happy."
"How old was Jay when he died?"
"Thirty two. He was hit by a drunk driver. He didn't have to deal with this garbage and he got to eat and drink all he wanted. Lucky bastard."
"Death is natural, whether a blessing or an unfortunate accident," the doc said stoically. "Sometimes it's best not to try to justify it. Just a stage of life."
"For Lily, I think it was good. For me, I think I missed the death train I should have been on. If you don't believe death is justifiable, then do you believe life is justifiable? Does it have a purpose, or is it another set of stages?"
"All things have a purpose, no matter how trivial. Life and death are a cycle, which is a purpose within itself. They are balanced. There must be death if there is life."
"What is the purpose of a life like mine?"
"You're a part of a different balance. Somewhere out there, someone is cursed to live as the happiest person in the world while you live as the most miserable," he responded with another small smile.
"You're supposed to be helping me!"
"Rose, you're the strongest person I've ever met – or in this case, dreamed of. I don't know what you were like before your accident, but you're an amazing person now. I don't know what to tell you. I don't know why these things happened to you."
"I was smarter before the accident when I could read books and not quite as bitter."
"From my brief meetings with you, I've noticed you display signs of depression and anxiety, but you're surprisingly stable despite your condition," he told me. "You have a unique logic and rationale, and you seem not to fear anything, even your own death."
"You should hear some of my thoughts. You'd take all that back. You always make me feel better, even if you don't really help me solve any of my issues."
"You've got the mind to do that on your own. I'm not even sure why I keep dreaming of you."
"I'm real, doc! You're the dream!"
"Someday you should tell me where you are, and I'll really visit," he offered. "I'd be honored to meet you in person."
"Georgia," I said. "But I'd rather you stick to these … dreams, as you call them. I'm hideous in real life."
I never knew – even now – whether the people who visited me were figments of my mind or real. I would never see Joey's dresser or Lily's obituary. I felt she had died, but not one of my doctors had even ventured to tell me mama died five years ago. I knew when she came to visit me in the Mind Café and looked as beautiful as Lily described her.
The counselor rose.
"One day, Norman Petrovic will visit you," he said.
"I'd be happy to meet you, Norman Petrovic," I replied.
A door in my room closed, and I blinked to bring myself out of the Café and back to my prison. I recognized Maria's voice and the soft southern slur of Dr. Nick. A moment later, he appeared before me dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a pressed white shirt.
"Hello there, Rosie," he said. He bent to look in my eyes with a small flashlight. "How are you today?"
I activated the digital keyboard and typed the word okay. Dr. Nick straightened and moved to the TV and picked up the small screen, angling it to read in the dimly lit room.
He was the most handsome man I ever met. He was tall with large, dark eyes. I liked his visits. He was one of the few who asked questions and pretended that I was a real person instead of another inanimate object.
"You could use some light," he said in a voice that was always warm. He crossed to the drapes and threw them open. Maria mumbled and went back into the bathroom.
"Are you tired today?"
I tried to type the word no, but it came out 'o.'
"I think that's a no. Good," he said again. "We had some irregular results from one of your tests. I'm afraid you can't have visitors for awhile. I'm concerned that you're not resting enough."
Resting was all I ever did. I didn't even know what kind of tests they performed anymore. Maria drew blood fairly often, but I didn't trust that graduate of a five week Guatemalan medical school that refused to speak to me in English.
I typed restborig into the monitor he held. Dr. Nick smiled.
"I know," he said. "I also told Maria no MTV today. Does the priest come today or tomorrow?"
"Will you insist on him reading the book of Job again this week, or can he choose?"
Job. It was my favorite story. The priest had read the Bible read cover-to-cover before I insisted on hearing the book of Job whenever he came. He was kind enough to humor me, and I had heard Job's pitiful plight every week for the past few years. Rather than feel bad for Job, I found his tale hilarious. His misery at the hands of a god and a devil that may as well have placed a bet over who would win him over was my one good laugh every week. He was the one poor soul whose life was worse than mine.
"Very well," Dr. Nick answered. "I'll check on you tomorrow morning."
"Bless your heart, Rosie," he said with a note of sadness in his deep voice.
He replaced the screen, disappearing from my vision. I heard him exchange a few words with Maria before the door closed. Dr. Nick had visited every day lately. I didn't know why, but I enjoyed seeing him. Aside from the priest, he was also the only real man left in my life, since the man I wanted most to see never came.
Robert Charles Kiefer, the man I loved once in my life and now only in my dreams. I had not seen him since BDA. He wrote letters weekly that Lily used to read to me until her visits waned. On occasion, the shrink or Dr. Nick or the priest read me his letters. I never stopped loving him, and I wanted to believe his letters were proof he never stopped loving me. And yet, he never visited. The conflicting emotions - love and resentment -preoccupied me for many years. The end determination was no less frustrating than the internal battle itself: I loved him more for not seeing what I had become. In this, he could remember me as I was. Of course, this did nothing for me.
He'd never even dropped by the Mind Café like everyone else I loved. I hadn't received a letter from him in about a year. I knew he was alive as I knew Lily was not.
I stared out the open windows. I missed being outside. I missed seeing the green of life, the brush of air against my skin, the hum of locusts in summer and the quiet fall of snow in winter, the earth's musky scent after a thunderstorm.
Grumbling in Spanish, Maria crossed my vision and closed one side of the drapes. I pondered returning to the Café, my waiting room for death. Instead, I fell asleep in the late afternoon sun, whose warmth I couldn't feel. I dreamt the only dream I'd had since mama's death: of the three of us sitting on a wide wooden porch in the Georgia sun on rocking chairs, laughing and talking.
Soon, I told them as I drifted into slumber. I'll be with you soon.