by Drema Deòraich
I open my eyes to confusion and burning discomfort. Carpet stretches from my nose to the shelving unit, fuzzy without my glasses. All my furniture slants at an unexpected ninety-degree angle. What in the…
A silvertone bar juts into the edge of my view. Oh. That. My aluminum walker. The one that sticks when it should slide and slides when it should stick. Lina warned me to get one with wheels and hand brakes. I’ll never hear the end of it when she finds me.
Maybe it’ll be Beck who comes first. She doesn’t judge. Or Nik. He—
Recall pumps fresh grief through me, even after all this time. Not Nik. Not anymore. Not since ‘Nam. My throat tightens, hitching my breath. It’s a hard thing to bury your own child. Harder when there’s no body.
I close my eyes. Ignore the pangs for a moment. Try to remember. I was going…
Where was I going?
Warm wetness seeps into my awareness from beneath. Oh yes. The bathroom. A Depends only holds so much before it gets soggy, and I don’t move as quickly as I used to.
Darned leg. I don’t like to admit it, but Lina’s right. It’s getting worse. I don’t know what I expected, really. Docs won’t guarantee that kind of reconstructive surgery past twenty years or so. I suppose I thought I could beat the odds. I’ve always felt ten feet tall and bulletproof.
Except I don’t feel that way so much these days. Not for a while now, if I’m honest. I feel my lip quivering, my eyes watering. I hate this weakness. Despise it.
I open my eyes. Look around. No furniture nearby. If I roll over, I can try to get up but the minute I move, bolts of pain shoot up my back and across my belly and down my bad leg, the one on the bottom. The one I landed on. I bite back the yell that claws its way up my throat, chased by gagging nausea and a grey blur that inundates everything and drags me gasping into its depths.
She exits the boutique, arms festooned with decorative bags, and ignores the ache in her knees as she walks toward her black Lexus, already thinking about the evening ahead. They’ll go to that new restaurant downtown, the one in The Main. Not the seafood one. The Italian one. Daddy loves pasta. What was the name of that place?
She clicks the car open, tosses in her bags and drops into the driver’s seat, one arthritic finger scrolling through her phone for the restaurant’s name.
There. Varia. She touches the number to dial and starts the car, steering with one hand to back up and make her way out of the parking lot. Holiday traffic snarls the lanes, slows her down.
“Hello,” she says into the phone. “This is Lina Potter. Yes, that Lina Potter. I’d like to reserve a table for three, please. Yes. Tonight.” She honks at a pedestrian to move out of the damn way. The response on the other end of the call pulls her lips into a thin line. A frown edges her grey eyebrows together, sharpens the gleam in her green eyes. “I know it’s last minute, but this is a special occasion.”
She listens. “To whom am I speaking, please?” After a moment, she smiles. “Oh, I remember you and your siblings. You were in my courtroom a few times.” She listens, nods. “Well, thank you, but it isn’t ‘Your Honor’ these days, Tony. I’ve been retired a while now. How do you like working at Varia? You made manager? Congratulations! How are your sisters? I seem to recall the littlest one wanted to be a ballerina.” Lina creeps forward in the lot. “Good for her. I’m glad I could help you all stay together.”
Her Lexus eases into traffic on the main road, inching along in the bumper-to-bumper last-minute shopping mayhem. “Listen, I’d really appreciate it if you could squeeze us in. I don’t care if you stick us in a corner. Charge me extra for your trouble if it will help.” She nods. “Fine. That will do. 6:30 it is. Thank you, Tony. You should come by our table and say hello. It would be nice to see you again. Don’t worry. We’ll be on time.”
She disconnects the call and drops the phone into her console with a smile. Daddy’s going to be expecting his old standby, Olive Garden. Won’t he be surprised! She hums “Joy to the World” while she works her way to her next appointment.
“This is your fault,” Ana hisses. “You and your damned war stories—”
“Ana, language! Think of the girls.”
She’s right, though. The draft passed him by, but Nik signed up anyway. He wanted to do his part. He and I walked together so often when he was a boy, roaming the woods around Island Pond out past Brighton Forest, talking about right and wrong. Honor and duty. A man’s place in the world. I thought I was doing right by him, teaching my son how to be a good human being.
If he’s gone, that’s probably what killed him, that sense of honor for all life. He hesitated. The Viet Cong soldier didn’t. At least, that’s how I imagine it. “…missing, presumed dead…” leaves a lot of room for questions. Doubts. Rampant nightmares.
The letter in my hand is damp with our tears. We haven’t told Lina and Beck yet. I can’t bring myself to believe he’s not coming back. If there’s no body, maybe—
Dull pain in my hip rouses me. My breath comes short and I look for a distraction, like the sound of carolers singing outside. Christmas Eve. I’d almost forgotten. You’re such a geezer, Jon, I tell myself, forgetting your own birthday. That’s why it’s Lina who’ll find me. She’s taking me to dinner. I look forward to eating at Olive Garden. It’s familiar. Comfortable. I get out so seldom these days, but I love to meet new people, hear their stories. When Lina will let them talk to me, anyway. Wherever we go, she just takes over with her commanding attitude. That’s her nature, I suppose. It got her in trouble with Ana so many times, but it also served Lina well, first as a lawyer, then as a judge. Her mother and I were so proud! Forty years on the bench. Made quite the name for herself. She’s downright fearless, that one. I admire that about my eldest, but sometimes I wish she’d treat me more like a father and less like an irresponsible child. She’s always scolding me for something or other, nagging me about things I know already. I suppose it’s an inevitable turnabout. I changed her diapers once. Soon, she’ll have to change mine.
My heartbeat thuds in my skull, the side against the floor. Not pain, exactly, just pulses that somehow feel more intense now than they did a few minutes ago. Chimes sound somewhere behind me. Bong, bong… I count four. Four in the afternoon, if that clock is right. It could be, I don’t know. Ana loved her clocks. There are fifteen in this room alone, their hands all at different positions. Lina scolded me last week—was it just last week?—about that. Why are they all different? she’d asked. How will you know what time it really is? I shrugged. Does it matter? I asked. I’m 97. What’s an hour more or less now?
Light coming in through the balcony door slants along the floor, casting shadows that tell better time than any of Ana’s clocks. It must be closer to five. Lina should be here any minute. I hope so, anyway. I’m not feeling so good.
I close my eyes. Just for a minute.
Philip rubs her head with the towel, catching drips before they can slip beneath her collar. Satisfied, he lays the linen around her shoulders. “ I’m going to grab a cape and I’ll meet you back at my station. Okay?” He pivots on the ball of his foot and disappears behind the swinging door at the back of the salon.
Lina walks back, one hand absently drying her ear. She likes this salon. It’s out of her way in an up-and-coming new section of the Bayside area. Occasional chrome and brass abstract sculptures stand in regular niches around the salon’s interior; their metallic gleams a sharp contrast against flat black paint. Splashes of bright primary pigments pop at random intervals along every wall and in all the stations to great effect. A few well-placed streaks of black glitter paint catch the lights in a way that makes the whole space feel so glamorous. At 73 years old, she appreciates anything that makes her feel beautiful.
She glances at her watch—plenty of time—and settles into Philip’s chair as her stylist returns and flings a cape around her, pressing the Velcro closure together at the back of her neck. Lina watches him in the mirror. Tallish, willowy, royal blue hair with pitch black roots, stubble short on one side of his scalp and all the rest of that mop flung to the other side in a sassy do. She shakes her head. Last time she was here, his hair had been down to his slender shoulders and dyed a vivid green, which set off his hazel eyes.
Her focus drops to her own reflection as he sets to work. Small nose. Dimples. Salt and pepper hair shifting by the day to mostly salt. More thick-set than she wants to admit, but what’s a woman to do? Ignore good food? Lina accepted long ago that her best feature is her wide, bright smile, so rarely revealed from behind her bench in court. She shares it as much as possible these days to make up for lost time.
Philip lays one hand on each of her shoulders while he raises her chair and throws her a wink. “So are you ready to go with some purple, honey?”
“Not today,” she laughs. “It’s Daddy’s birthday. Let’s not stir the pot.”
Ana was two, her brother Alexei seven like me, the first time I met them at a community picnic. Island Pond folk would die before being rude to someone in public, but the Russian newcomers didn’t quite fit in. Not until the flood of ’27. The whole Sokolov family worked as hard as anyone rowing their small boat back and forth to rescue trapped townsfolk and pets from swamped houses and, later, clearing away the foul-smelling mud and helping to salvage what belongings they could. Mr. Sokolov joined the men in rebuilding the railways and bridges in the aftermath and his missus helped cook meals for the repair teams every day. That family earned its place in Island Pond fair and square.
But Ana’s not two any longer. I lie in bed at Putnam Memorial, one soldier among many others, all recuperating from wounds, and watch her tend patients across the ward. I never knew she wanted to be a nurse. Putnam is a long way from home, but she must have done well in school to land in this hospital’s legendary program. She’s so striking, that blond braid knotted in a ball at the back of her head, grey student dress with a white apron nipped in at her tiny waist, skirt brushing the back of her calves. Even in those thick black shoes, her legs make my heart beat faster.
I look back to her face, find her staring at me with that same challenging green gaze she’s had since we were kids. I can tell she’s amused. Her dimples give her away. I wink.
She crosses the ward. “Something I can do for you, Lieutenant Potter?”
I feel the grin cross my face, a slow burn with roots that creep down past my chest and into my gut. “Nurse Sokolov. You’re taller than I remember.”
One blond eyebrow rises on her perfect face. Her dimples deepen, but she does not crack a smile. “You might find many things changed since you joined, Lieutenant.”
“Maybe we can talk about that over a soda sometime.”
A trace of curl lifts the corners of her mouth. “Maybe. After you’re healed. You’ll need your strength.”
Carpet again. A dark room. I shift my eyes toward the balcony. Sun’s gone. Lina’s late. Not like her. Of course, she thinks my nurse is still here. But gosh darn it, sometimes a man needs a little time alone. I sent Alice home early so I could just putter in my own apartment without someone breathing down my neck. I thought it would be our little secret. Now Lina will know. She’s not going to like that any more than seeing I left my beeper necklace on the dresser. I hate that leash, only wear it when Lina’s here.
I wish I’d worn it today, though.
The ache in my hip winds up to a slicing pang, snatches my breath for a few seconds, retreats again to a dull throb. Probably more than a bruise.
I bring one hand to my face, rub my eyes, look around to distract myself. Even without my glasses I know every inch of this room. Full as it is, I remember the story of every clock, every nic nac, every book, every treasure, every sketch or painting, most by my hand, but it’s been a long while since I put brush to canvas. Ana thought I had talent. Lina thinks I make a mess.
I squint, peer at the canvas closest to my spot on the floor. It’s sideways, like everything else, but I know it stroke for stroke. My masterpiece, I always called it. A view of an open field from inside the tree line outside Island Pond proper. That’s where Pop taught me to hunt and forage. Never take more than you need, he said. Don’t kill for sport. Honor the land, and the animals you eat. Pop never did go to church, but he was more spiritual than anyone else I ever met in my life.
I tried to pass that on to my girls, to Nik. I think they got it.
I hope they did.
I feel a tickle at the corner of my eye and blink away a tear.
Danged rheumy eyes.
“Beck, come on. You knew I was planning a dinner.” Lina steers through the traffic, heavier now than it was an hour ago. “No, we can’t just eat at Daddy’s apartment. Not on his 98th birthday, for crying out loud.”
The car in front of her stops suddenly. Lina stands on the brakes, stops inches from its bumper, lays on the horn.
“I’m fine. It’s just traffic.” She mutters obscenities at the cars around her. “6:30 at Varia. Meet us there. I picked up some of his favorite cupcakes. He’s going to love them.”
The light turns green. Lina slaps on her blinker, maneuvers into the turn lane and makes a left onto Granby Street. “Listen, I’m almost at Daddy’s. Once I get Alice out the door and get Daddy ready, we’ll be on our way. Don’t be late.”
She listens a moment, nodding to the road ahead as if Beck can see her. “I know how old you are. You still need reminders, little sister.” Lina forces a lighthearted laugh. “See you soon.”
She clicks the phone off and drops it into the console, shaking her head. This family would fall apart if it wasn’t for her.
The monitor’s steady beeping matches my pulse. Our hearts always did beat together, Ana’s and mine, though I’ll be solo before the week is out. I don’t how her body has held up this long. I get to my feet and search for her hand, so thin it gets lost in the rumpled covers. Her fingers are cold. I clasp them to my belly, where it’s warm.
Her chest rises and falls in the hush, its even pace a testament to modern medicine. “We had quite the ride, didn’t we?” I whisper.
“Too exciting for you, Lieutenant Potter?” Her quavering voice rises just over the machines’ hum to tickle my ears. It catches me off-guard and I feel my private Ana grin split the lower half of my face.
I squeeze her hand. “Hey there, Sleepyhead.”
She opens her eyes to regard me in that way she has, the one that always makes me feel pinned to the spot. “You look like hell.”
“Ana, language.” I shush her, glance at the closed door as if passersby will hear, look back at her face, fall into those eyes. I raise her hand to my lips. “You’re just as beautiful as you ever were.”
Her lips curl up at the corners, caving dimples into her lined cheeks. “You never could tell a convincing lie.”
Some sound, random and disconnected, brings me back. I blink. Where am I? Blurred shapes emerge from the shadows. Steady pain and rising nausea remind me. My breath rasps in and out, like there’s a tight band around my chest.
A key rattles in the lock. Lina, finally.
Her voice spears the darkness. “Daddy?”
I try to answer, but my throat won’t comply. All that comes out is a croak.
“Daddy?” I hear the alarm in her call, and I try again.
“In here.” The smallness of my voice surprises me. Sudden light floods the room. Up close to my nose, I see dirt in the carpet. Maybe Ana should run the vacuum.
Not Ana. Alice. I meant Alice.
“Daddy!” Lina lurches into view and squats in front of me. “Oh god, are you okay?”
I peer up at her. “I was talking to your mother.”
A shadow passes over her face and is replaced by her usual disciplined visage. “Where the hell is Alice?”
I open my mouth to scold her, but change my mind. Judge Potter made frequent use of colorful vocabulary all her life. She’s not about to start listening to me now. “I gave her the afternoon off.”
“The whole afternoon? Jesus, Daddy, how long have you been lying here like this?” Lina lays a hand on my arm. “Here, let me help you up.”
I try to shake my head. “No. Just let me lay here a bit.”
“What?” she shrills. “Why?” An edge of panic jars her calm demeanor. Denial slams it back in place. “No, you have to get up. We have dinner reservations.”
Typical Lina. Unshakable confidence that all is well. That you can fix whatever isn’t if you just buck up and try harder. It never occurs to her that some things can’t be bullied into subservience. How ironic that a woman who spent forty years seeking truth in matters of law can ignore a harsh reality when it smacks her in the face.
When I don’t move, she frowns, grips my arm, and creaks to her feet. “Come on, now. Roll over on your back and I’ll help you.”
“Lina,” I wheeze. “I can’t get up. You might want to call someone.”
She stops, a deer in headlights, then steps over me and scrabbles for that suitcase she calls a purse. I hear her dump the contents on the floor, root around. Beeps of pressed numbers. She reappears in front of me and eases herself down to the floor, one hand braced for support.
“This is Lina Potter in apartment 1204. I need some help up here. My father has fallen.”
She peers into my face while I watch hers. She has her mother’s green eyes, those same lines around her face, same dimples. Her sharp cheekbones and narrow chin are all mine.
“Yes. Please hurry.”
She ends her call and lays the phone by her knee, shoots a resigned glance at the offending walker, then back at me. “If you’d been wearing your buzzer, you could’ve gotten help hours ago.”
“Don’t fuss. I’m embarrassed enough.”
“Daddy,” she sighs, “you take too many chances. I want to keep you around a while longer.”
I laugh, but it hurts so I stop. “You would’ve made a great mom.”
That shadow crosses her face again. “I am a good mom. Don’t you remember Adelle?”
The name rings a bell. I blink, roll it around in my head. A vague notion of a young child in pigtails clomping around in her mother’s high-heeled shoes rises from the confusion.
“Of course. Where is she now?”
Lina frowns, unconvinced. “Paris. Her father saw her last month when he was there.”
Paris … I walk along the Seine, listen to the voice of the city, watch a steamboat trawl past bathers on the quay. The aroma of cheese from the market entwines with coal smoke to whet my hunger for excitement in this new place. My platoon arrived two weeks ago, but I couldn’t get leave until today. I plan to spend it exploring the City of Light.
Lina’s shake slices me with agony. I squeeze my eyes, grind my teeth. A groan escapes.
A knock at the door. Lina goes, comes back with strangers. Except that one. I recognize him. What’s his name?
“Mr. Potter, can you hear me?”
I grunt. Nod.
“Are you hurt, sir?”
“Think so.” Grey mist threatens, and I look at Lina. She hovers, squatting, behind the attendants. Her mother stands behind them all. “Don’t go,” I whisper.
Lina shakes her head, smiles past a dawning glimmer of acceptance. “I’m not going anywhere.”
But I am, I think. Soon. I reach for Ana, but Lina takes my hand. “I’m here, Daddy.”
“I know, baby girl.”
I close my eyes. Just for a minute.
Drema likes writing in a variety of genres ranging from literary and creative non-fiction to speculative fiction. Currently, she has two long works in progress, along with a handful of flash fiction and other stories. Her short works have previously appeared in Silver Blade, Aphotic Realm, Entropy Magazine, and Across the Margin, where her essay “Dancing Man” was included in the “Best of 2018.” Her short story “Upshot” won an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future 3rd Quarter 2018 contest. Classes, seminars, and writers conferences help her hone her craft as a writer, as does membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Hampton Roads writers’ group. Drema blogs on a semi-regular basis about the writer’s life and the journey toward publication on her website, where you’ll also see book reviews and links for other writers. Find her at: www.dremadeoraich.com.