The Last Image

And now for something completely different, from this week’s 2-Minutes-Go. Maybe one week you’ll come write with us. Or just read a bunch of amazing writers.


The Last Image

“He’s still there.”

“What? Who?”

Her husband’s footsteps come up behind her at the window, his steady hand lighting on her bare shoulder. The surface of her coffee ripples. She’s afraid she’ll drop it, and holds it tighter.

“Blue SUV, across the street.”

The derisive snort is one she’s come to expect.

“You think I’m crazy.”

The pause is another number in his repertoire, one that started irritating her about ten years ago. Friends told her this happened after decades of marriage, but she’d always thought it would happen to other people, not them. That they’d be the couple toasting their anniversaries with champagne and witty banter—the conversation, while not Algonquin Round Table scintillating, would at least be there, no long, awkward silences where they would start wondering if this was all life had to offer. Start looking over each other’s shoulders for something better. It had been a comforting thought, at first.

“No,” he says finally, his voice a degree of calm that makes her want to jab her elbow backward. “You’re not crazy. You just…maybe think too much. You think every blue SUV is someone out to get us. You think every man with sunglasses is his secret police gathering intel. Maybe you’re watching too much Netflix.”

“I think we should leave.”

“Okay. Now I think you’re crazy. Why would you want to leave because some random guy in a random SUV is parked in our neighborhood? Maybe…maybe he’s watching someone else. Maybe he’s stalking his ex. We have no idea.”

She sets her coffee down so hard it sloshes onto the brickface of the mantel. “I’m going to ask him.”

“Honey.”

It’s another tone she hates, but she sucks in a slow breath, lets it out slower, tells herself she is in command of her own reactions.

“It’s not against the law to ask, is it? Or is that something else he changed while everyone else was distracted?”

“Probably not, but it still could be dangerous.”

She turns toward him, her lips parting. “Why? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

In the silence, her life slow-pans across the screen of her mind. The last image, their beautiful boy.

“Just go upstairs.” His voice is soft, but deliberate, which makes the hairs on the backs of her arms stand up.

“I will not—”

But he already has his hand on the knob. He stops. His eyebrows dip, face contrite. It’s a look she’d seen on their son’s face when he’d been naughty. “I’m on his enemies list.”

“You…” Damn him. She knew it. He hadn’t stopped. She’d told him the first time he got arrested to stop writing those letters, stop posting in that group. Stop stirring up trouble. He’d promised.

“This has to end now,” she says. “You know what happens to those people, you know what he does, we saw with our own eyes…” The words turn into hard knots in her throat.

“Which is why I’m going to tell him to leave us alone. You’re right. It ends now. In the name of the Constitution and the First Amendment. It ends now.”

This is what he cares about most? Some useless bits of history, and not their lives? How could she have believed that he had stopped? The good wife in her head, the good wife putting that champagne on to chill, the good wife making his supper every night, wants to say something like “I’m coming with you” or “We’re in this together,” but she doesn’t want to be together with him in this folly anymore. He’s already cost them too much. The legal fees being the least of it.

She lifts her hands. She walks away. Up the stairs. To the empty bedroom at the end of the hall.

The front door slams. She curls up on the small, narrow bed with the Star Wars sheets and closes her eyes. Imagining the handcuffs. The Miranda rights. And then the blue SUV driving away.

When she comes downstairs again, all is quiet. She looks out the window at the empty street. Then hits the number she’d been instructed to call. When the calm voice answers, she says, “Help me get to Canada. Please.”

Thunder

A storm was coming, and Hannah knew it was a bad idea to be hiking on the mountain, but Josh insisted, and in all the years of their friendship, he’d hardly ever insisted on anything. When the storm swept in, they scuttled for the shelter of a cave they’d hidden in before. He spread out his sleeping bag and built a small fire, boy scout style. By the dim light she could barely see the lurid bruise beneath his right eye and the swelling of his lower lip, leaving her the illusion of his face as its usual cute, undamaged whole. She didn’t say much; he said less. The patter of the rain and the crackle of the flames and the thunder, now a gentle roll in the distance, made her drowsy.

The next thing she knew, the storm had passed. They could have resumed their hike at any time, but it was nice in there, with the fire and the metallic smell of damp rocks and his regular breathing. Josh was still asleep, and she felt comfortable lying next to him, the rhythm of his chest rising and falling a kind of meditation. She ached to touch his lip, his black eye, to soothe away the pain. To erase the memory of his seeing her kiss Ben Thompson, the humiliation of losing the fight and getting punched not just once but twice. She didn’t mean for it to happen. The kiss, or having Josh see it, or Ben being such a jerk. Maybe she’d been nervous about what would happen to her and Josh at the end of the summer. They’d been friends since grade school, but aside from the occasional family trip, they’d never really been apart. Even when she had her appendix out, he’d come to visit her at the hospital, and they’d played card games and shared her Jell-O. Could they still be friends in colleges at opposite ends of the country? When the subject even brushed the edges of their conversation, they flinched, changing the topic. She was tired of flinching.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

His eyes flickered, and he turned his head to face her. “Why? You didn’t make it rain.”

But the silence filling the cave after his last word made it clear he knew what she was apologizing for.

“I’m sorry because it was supposed to be you. It was always supposed to be you.”

His mouth opened slightly, making the puffy lower lip look even more painful. “You could have told me that before I made a total ass of myself.”

The fire hissed and crackled, dancing shadows along the rock.

“It would have changed everything,” she said.

He appeared to think a moment, nodded, then, with what she hoped wasn’t too painful a smile, said, “Change isn’t always bad.”

“Try saying that again when we’re living three thousand miles apart.”

He rolled toward her, touching her cheek as if she were exotic and breakable and, possibly, imaginary. “We have now. We have the rest of the summer. We can figure the rest out later.”

He was right, and wrong, and the rain started up again. When thunder shook the ground, she flinched, and he pulled her tight against him.

Old Catchers Never Die

Happy Saturday! I wrote this for Friday’s #2MinutesGo. Loads of great writing going on over at JD Mader’s place. Maybe one week you’ll join us. Or just read.

—–

His hands are ruined, but that came with the job. Catching blazing pitchers, winging balls to second, getting knocked around by foul tips and bats on the rebound and runners plowing into him trying to reach holy mother home plate. These hands will never win any beauty contests, but each blown knuckle and callus and broken nail tells a story. He can point to one and talk about the day he threw out a Hall of Fame base-stealing legend—twice. He can point out another, always with a smile, because those rough-and-tumble days of bus rides and crap motels have become romantic over time, and talk about the beating he took from catching his first knuckleballer.

If he could still talk.

The nurses comment on his hands each time they come to check his vitals; one in particular, a young girl, visibly pregnant, pets his good hand like it’s an abused dog, sometimes cooing a few words in Spanish. They are beautiful words, and her hands are soft and soothing, and he says the words over and over to himself, embedding them in what’s left of his memory. She’s the type of girl he might have cottoned to in the bar after the game, the quiet and motherly girls, like his Gina, God rest her soul.

Today the older one comes, with her world-wise eyes and the limp she won’t talk about. “Morning, Pete.” Flo is the only nurse who calls him by his first name, which he prefers, because that mister business makes him feel every inch of his years. She’s the only nurse who picks up his hand and laughs and says “that’s one damn ugly paw,” and he likes that too. He can take that, from a woman like her, and if he could talk, he’d give it right back to her, and the smile in those weary eyes tells her she knows that. She checks his reflexes, his various bags of fluids, his numbers. With a grim attempt at a smile—only one side is working—he remembers the days when his stats were the numbers that mattered. Batting average, home runs, percentage of runners he’d thrown out. Now it’s blood pressure, oxygen level, heartbeats. Each heartbeat chattering across a digital screen. He’d rather be back there, jamming another finger trying to scoop a low, mean pitch out of the dirt, than in this damn bed, watching the measure of what’s left of his life.

It’s late when she returns; he can see that with his one good eye, the way the light is dimmer through his half-open shades. Maybe Flo sees the way he’s looking because she says, “Yeah. Lucinda called in sick, something with the baby.”

He feels surprise and worry do something to the side of his face that works, and god knows what’s happening to the other side. “Nah, she’s fine.” Flo checks his IV. “And aren’t you the lucky duck to get me pokin’ at you twice in one day.”

He wants to tell her that he doesn’t mind at all. Flo reminds him of another girl he knew when. She came right up to him at the bar after a game, nothing shy about her at all, and both of them knew what they wanted. He liked her honesty. It made things easier for him. He’d gotten good at reading signals and calling pitches, but it was frankly a relief to leave that on the field at the end of the day.

“Yeah,” Flo mutters, giving him a wink, “I know you love me. But we don’t want to make the other nurses jealous.”

He laughs at that, or at least tries to, and it comes out like a bit of a wheeze. Still, it gives him hope. When they first brought him here after the stroke, damn near nothing worked. The doctors told him he had an excellent chance of recovering most of what he’d lost.

Flo makes a few notations on his chart. “Not bad, Pete. They’ll be getting you into rehab pretty soon.” Her face softens. “You want, I’ll come visit. I know you got some good stories in you, especially about what happened to these ugly paws. And I want to hear every one.”

She wraps one strong, no-nonsense hand around his. The one on his bad side. Where he hasn’t been able to feel a thing. But her hand is warm, the pressure firm but not so much it hurts.

His heart monitor beeps and beeps and beeps.

The Sacrifice

Happy Friday! I’ve been thinking about this character for a while, so I let her tell me what to write for 2-Minutes-Go. Maybe you’ll want to drop by and play sometime.

—–

Svetlana searches for a way out of her predicament. Her opponent has boxed her up good. How he’d managed to hold the center of the board and push her powerful pieces to the outside is a mystery. Is she slipping? Staring so long at the squares she can no longer grasp the big picture, the end game? Grime blurs the seams between black and white squares, between good and evil, between past and future.

“You’re a tricky one, Anatoly.” She imagines a corner of his mustache lifting while she keeps her laser focus on the game and considers what to do next. Move this one and he takes the pawn… She can live with that. Move that one and he captures the bishop and she’ll take his knight… It will be a good trade; it will give her more freedom. But then… The headache is starting again, the burning pain behind her eyes, the tension up the back of her neck.

Too much chess. Since she was small her father had been teaching her; he claimed it helped young and wayward minds learn focus and problem solving. She credits him for that. She knows how to focus. Perhaps too well, at times. Well enough that she can concentrate on a game for hours and not notice the time until her stomach cries for food, until the muscles in her shoulders ache from stillness. Problem solving? That hasn’t always worked out so well. But at least she knows she has the power to work through all of her available options.

She squeezes her eyes shut to block out the old voices, the old memories, as Papa taught her, and in that space of moments, a fly has landed on king’s bishop five. It’s the first thing she sees when she again opens herself to the world. Bottle green and wings buzzing, it turns a complete circle as if evaluating her position and his. Easy to do with his complex eyes. “Tell me, friend,” she says to the uninvited guest. “What would you do?”

Anatoly doesn’t answer. After all these years he knows Svetlana, how she reasons things out to herself, usually aloud, sometimes for minutes or even longer.

Finally, with a gasp of triumph, she slides her bishop across the board and takes his rook. How could he have been so careless to leave it undefended? And worse, how could she have been staring at the eight-by-eight grid and not have seen something so blatant?

Perhaps they are both slipping. “Ha,” she says, clapping her hands together. “Now how are you going to answer that?”

“Well, I don’t know,” says the voice. Startled by the intrusion, Svetlana looks up. The woman is back again, the new one, her mouth an angry slash as she sticks a long, crooked finger through the bars. “But I know how I’m gonna answer. I’m gonna ask you to shut the hell up, ’cause you’re keeping everybody awake playin’ your damn invisible chess again.”

Svetlana lets out a long breath as the spell breaks, as the chessboard melds back into the black and white tiles of her cell floor. The game will keep. She remembers where they’d left all the pieces. And Anatoly will always be waiting.

Noise Hurts

“The doctor stopped asking questions. When he visited, and the mothers lined their children up for inspection, he took Rima’s temperature and measured her height and shone a light in her eyes and made her stick her tongue out. But he didn’t ask about the pain.”

“Noise hurts,” Rima said. But the doctor who came to the refugee camp didn’t believe her. His eyebrows went up and his mouth curled down; then he glanced at her mother as if to say, “Kids. What imaginations they have!”

But she knew it to be true. When the soldiers shot their guns, when the planes dropped their bombs too close, her whole body hurt, and she wanted to curl up into a ball and weep. The doctor asked again, “You mean that the noise was so loud it hurt your ears, or it gave you a headache?”

Rima shook her head. Her head hurt, that was true, but it often hurt. A pounding at the base of her skull, a tightness in the tiny muscles connecting her collarbones to her shoulders, and then the pain would shoot up the muscles of her throat into her jaw, all the way up the left side of her face into her temple. It was the only reason she could come up with to explain the toothaches, because her mother also took her to the dentist who visited the camp, and he said her teeth looked fine to him.

From the dentist’s eyes, soft and pathetic, Rima knew that he believed it was all in her mind. That she’d made up this fantasy like she would have pleaded a stomachache to get out of a test at school.

She missed school.

She and her family had been in the camp since her last birthday, and whenever she asked if there would be school again someday, her mother said they were lucky just to have food and water and a place to sleep, and to stop talking about foolish things. They were lucky to be alive.

Nobody believed Rima about the pain so eventually she stopped talking about it, but she still hurt and it was hard to get out of bed in the morning. “You are a lazy, ungrateful girl,” her mother said, her angry face glaring down from above Rima’s cot, her finger scolding. “You are an embarrassment to all of us.” Then, even though it hurt and getting up too fast made her dizzy, even though her feet shuffled across the dirt floor, not falling right as she put one in front of the other, even though she often dropped pans and glasses and sometimes even food—that earned a very harsh scolding—she got up and she helped.

The doctor stopped asking questions. When he visited, and the mothers lined their children up for inspection, he took Rima’s temperature and measured her height and shone a light in her eyes and made her stick her tongue out. But he didn’t ask about the pain.

More than having to leave her home, more than not being able to go to school, more than even the pain sometimes, Rima hated that nobody believed her. She didn’t have a name for the tightening noose in her stomach, the frozen tears stinging the backs of her eyes, the way her hands often balled into fists, so hard sometimes her fingernails cut her palms. Maybe it was anger. Maybe worse.

One morning her brother Armin came to fetch her. “Mama says get up, lazy bones.”

“Go away.” She turned toward the wall.

“She said now. She said ‘go get your crazy sister out of bed.’”

He grabbed her shoulder, but the knot of the noose slammed home. “I’m not crazy!”

“Lazy bones, crazy bones,” he sang. “Crazy bones, lazy bones, crazy bones, lazy bones…”

“I’m not crazy! Shut up. Shut up!” She turned so fast, pushed him so hard he stumbled backward and fell against the table with such a loud screech and clatter that Rima clutched her head and howled.

When the sharp pain grew quiet, she opened her eyes, and saw the pool of blood soaking into the dirt. “I’m not crazy,” she told his still, silent body. “Shut up.”

First Show

They came for the wine and cheese; they came because she’d begged them. Since the first day Caitlin had picked up a paintbrush, she’d anticipated this day: her first solo show, the opening reception a splash of bright, elegant people gesturing grandly with their plastic wine glasses and claiming the pieces they simply could not live without. Claiming them with red adhesive dots: sold. But as the last of her so-called friends trickled out, the only red she saw was the state of her finances. How much she’d laid out for this show—the framing, the refreshments, even the damn red dots—most of it borrowed, and how much she’d never get back. She might as well have some wine, since she’d already paid for it; nothing worked as well to drown out the voices in her head and the pity in his eyes, if he were still around to have seen this. As she filled a glass to the brim, she thought about Daniel, and wondered if this was why he’d been so adamant about never exhibiting his own work. It was one thing to be paid to paint something, and quite another to bleed your soul onto a canvas, stand by and watch as people pass with barely a nod. You are entertainment. An amusement to fill the awkward space before the dinner reservations, before curtain time. Like window-shopping for shoes.

The gallery manager drifted over, manicured fingers tapping slowly on the white tablecloth, and gave her a condescending little smile. It was an I-told-you-so smile. If her mother had not raised her to be polite and grateful, she might have thrown her wine in his face, but she only tightened her fingers around the plastic stem.

He could have just said nothing. Saying nothing would have gone down better than the excuses he did offer—that maybe she’d priced herself too high for a new artist, and we’re going through a soft market, and it’s a Friday night when so many other, more well-attended events were already scheduled.

Politely she cut him off, mumbling “Thank you for the chance.” She really should be grateful. He didn’t have to make room for her. There were a lot of artists in the city. He’d only done it on the strength of Daniel’s reputation. A student of his must be worthy of a solo show.

Or not.

She returned to the apartment in upper Manhattan she shared with four other women. Still a little woozy from the wine and the shame, she plopped down on the edge of her bed and stared at her most prized possession: the painting he’d left her. It might have been the wine talking, or the humiliation, or the bone-deep fatigue, but idly she wondered what it might be worth.

The voice in her head felt as real as a slap to the face: No. You can’t. You can’t ever. Aside from the memories, it was all she had of him, the only physical, tangible proof that he’d ever existed. She believed in things like life after death, like ghosts, like guardian angels. That he still lived in the brushstrokes, in the nerve endings of her face where he’d almost, almost touched her.

There had to be another way. She called the gallery owner and told his voice mail that it was okay to lower her prices, to whatever he thought they were worth. She could almost see Daniel smiling at her, saying that’s what he’d do. “Besides,” he’d say, “You can always paint more.”

Schadenfreude

I’m going a little dark this week. Sometimes you just have to get these things out of your head. The bunnies and sparkles will return at some point…maybe.

——-

After the doctor asks her question—they only give him female doctors now because of what he did to the male ones—she lets silence seep into the room. He pretends the silence is poison gas. It’s only spreading across the floor now, licking the soles of his laceless shoes, and the young man plays with the silent death like a game. There are so few other amusements here. The cloud can only rise so far before he answers. It snakes up his cuffed ankles and winds around his calves. To his waist and he closes his eyes, imagining the smell of it, the vaporous feathers that rise off the top of the cloud reaching his nose. When it gets to his collarbones, his throat tightens as if two hands are choking him. An oddly exciting sensation. Then he sees the images, the blood.

“Yes,” he says, his voice hoarse and broken. “I’m having the nightmares again. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

The corners of her mouth turn down; she taps her pen against her notepad and makes the usual inquiries—if he’s taking his medication. If he’s taking it on time. If he’s taking the right dosage.

“Yes, to all of it, all right? What do you want from me? These pills. All these pills. All these treatments. All these pointless queries about whether I am doing my self-care and writing in my journal and letting the negative thoughts float by like clouds on a summer afternoon…it’s bullshit. It does nothing. I keep seeing it. Over and over and over.”

Her lips compress. The corners of her eyes pinch. He is making her fearful of him, afraid of what he might do, and he’s enjoying that as well. Back when he was allowed to live at home, Mama explained that long German word to him, said it meant enjoying other people’s pain, and she told him that he mustn’t have those feelings. But how do you control a feeling? If they are, as the doctors keep telling him, these floating, ephemeral things, how can you let it drift from your mind if there is no breeze and it stalls over your head, building and turning gray and swollen?

After a moment, she says, “Is there anything different about the nightmares?”

“No. I still see it. The head. His head. The blood. Like a trophy.”

She leans forward. The expression on her face changes again, to that of someone who cares. He doesn’t know if he can trust it. “Which one?” she says. “The one that was supposed to be a joke?”

“No.” The word is so small he barely recognizes it as his own breath leaving his body. “The other one. The real one. The one the police said I was holding when they found me.”