During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE.
by Erika Fitzpatrick
I actually have the pleasure of knowing this author, as we were classmates in the WOU Honors Program together. Fitzpatrick's story immerses you in the mind of a dying woman overcome with memories of her past. The weight of grief and sorrow is palpable, proof of Fitzpatrick's skill in drawing a reader into a character's story. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor
She gazed about her surroundings from the curtains, to the machines, and the wall paint all blending into one monochromatic blur as her eyes swept from one end of the room to the other. The window revealed the white gray sky—no change in color or scenery. A typical hospital room, never filled with silence as she would have liked, but constantly whirring with some device devised to monitor a part of her body. She had visited the hospital only four times in her life, once for the birth of her child, two of those instances too painful to recall. She’d refused for so long to relive those agonizing memories. Not that her current situation was painless. Her head ached. She pictured little boys bouncing off the walls of her skull with giant drums vibrating her old squishy brain. Not that it was unexpected, now that she understood the source. She had been battling severe headaches for months now, and only this morning, after she had been admitted the night before due to a life threatening seizure, had she finally gotten her diagnosis. She replayed it over and over: the doctor solemnly informing her of a malignant brain tumor, how aggressive it was, how she only had weeks, perhaps days to live. There was that irritating nurse that came every few hours to offer her a new cup of water, as if water could fill the empty voids that resided inside her. Irene, however, shied away from it.
“If you have any family, I’d contact them,” the doctor had said gently.
But there was no one. She was responsible for that.
Irene gazed up at the ceiling, searching for some sort of strength. So she was going to die, just like her husband, just like her parents, just like—but she stopped herself from traveling down that path.
I’ll be seeing you soon, she thought almost gladly. There was nothing her for to live for. All she had loved had left her long ago, and all she was marooned with were memories that she hadn’t visited in many years. Now that her life was about to go beyond, she allowed the memories to leak from her sealed chest of love and joy. She lost herself for the first time in what felt a lifetime in a memory with her husband and the first of many loving surprises he had given her during their marriage.
She recalled the vast expanse of the field, patched with shadows from overhanging clouds, beckoning to them in their vitality and youth. The fresh diamond sparkled on her left hand as the sun peeked out from behind a cloud and Irene smiled up at her husband.
“I think this is the perfect place,” he said with a sigh, hugging her shoulder tightly against him.
“If only our pocketbooks felt the same,” she replied gloomily. She felt this was one of those too-good-to-be-true moments.
He smiled down at her, humor in the twinkle of his lush meadow eyes. “Money will always come and always go, but how we feel now—that’s all that matters.”
“We can’t afford this,” she said abruptly. “It doesn’t matter how we feel. It can’t be ours. We might as well not get attached.”
He grabbed her hand and led her through the long blades of grass that tickled her legs in the breeze. Up ahead was a sign—a for sale sign—that had a stamp slapped across it: SOLD. Her steely eyes swiveled wide to gaze at him with astonishment.
“But,… how could you afford—?”
“That doesn’t matter, now, does it? All that matters is that it’s ours.” He squeezed her hand in a comforting way. That hand squeeze would come to mean everything to Irene.
“So now what? We build a house?” she asked, facing him.
His eyes twinkled lovingly as the sun peeked out once more. “No, my dear. We build a home.”
For two years they labored their lives away, held only a cent to their name, and crafted a home that would house them through every joyous celebration and every storm, every season, every trial that they would come to face. Irene began to remember the day she had realized she was pregnant, a memory that she hadn’t allowed into the forefront of her mind in almost half a century. Her husband had returned from his long day at work, covered in grime and sawdust, his eyes weary and drooping with exhaustion. She had hesitantly approached him, trying to conceal the smile that was fighting to escape. He had kissed her forehead and wandered into the kitchen, searching for whatever dinner she had concocted, but coming up empty handed, turning to look at her with a perplexed stare.
“No dinner?” he had asked.
She could feel the floor rumble from his infuriated stomach.
“I didn’t see the need to make more,” she said, struggling to hold in the smile.
“More?” he asked, confused.
“Yeah… because there’s already something in the oven,” she whispered, placing both hands on her stomach.
His dark, tired eyes suddenly bloomed, shining like emeralds in the shaded kitchen. “We’re having a baby?” he asked quietly, stepping closer.
“We’re having a baby,” she repeated, the smile breaking free.
With a hand on either side of her face, he had lovingly kissed her and chuckled. “We’re having a baby,” he had whispered with joy.
Their son was born nine months later in the very hospital she resided in now. They had spent the prior months preparing the farm house for the arrival their baby. Irene decorated the nursery, and her husband cleaned and patched pieces of the house that had been forgone when building it. And then the time was upon them and they were bringing little Christopher home.
The first six years of his life were wrapped with contentment, punctured by minor trails of finances and discipline. Each month, when they sat down to work out bill payments, her husband was beside her, squeezing her hand whenever she buried her face in her arms with despair.
“Money will always come and always go, but I’m right here,” he always reassured her. He somehow managed to pay each bill with the entire amount on time, every time. He would sacrifice family time to work extra hours at the site, or else lease a few acres of their farm for a year to help bring in a spare few dollars. He never let them worry for longer than a day. He was the master of distraction and gaiety—his remedy for a bad day was always a trip outdoors.
Irene struggled with herself as a memory fought, clawed, its way to the surface. She had meant to keep it buried for all eternity, but it oozed out of her against her will and she was forced to relive the experience.
In spurts, images flashed across her mind—the river behind their property, the reflected sun piercing their eyes off the water, smiles and splashing, bliss then fear. Red. Horror. Scream. Water. Pain. Tears.
It had lasted only seconds, but long enough to carve a wound so deep there was no recovery.
Hours later, her husband held her in a cocoon as she wept into his chest. The same hospital was a blur around them, like flakes in a snow-globe as Irene and her husband stood motionless in sorrow. A nurse attempted to console them. She offered them a private room, she offered them food, she offered them water, but it was the water that Irene shrank from in horror. The doctor appeared and delivered the news, his own eyes shining: Christopher was gone.
The funeral came and passed. Irene refused to eat any more than she needed to survive. Her husband begged her to drink something. He forced a cup of water into her hands, willing her to hydrate, to live.
In anguish, she hurled the cup at him. “You don’t understand!” she screamed. Tears welled up in her stormy eyes. “He’s gone! And it’s my fault!” She struggled to breathe, the weight of the guilt crushing her lungs.
He grabbed her hand, met her gleaming eyes with his own obscured green ones, and squeezed it. “Irene, my dear, it wasn’t your fault. It was an accident.”
She turned away from him, her eyes closing tight, the tears spilling. She tried to pull away, but he held tight to her hand. She’d heard it all before, she didn’t want to hear it again.
“You can’t blame yourself for an accident. It could have happened at any point, to anyone. It could have been me. Or You.”
“But it was Christopher,” she whispered, choking on his name. “He wasn’t even seven yet. He barely got to live.”
“But he did. He lived six spectacular years with you and me. Irene, please. Try to let go of the guilt. We can’t bring him back. We can only move forward.” His own eyes released the tears and they cascaded down his cheeks.
She wiped one of his away with her cool thumb. “I don’t know how.”
“One day at a time,” he said sadly. He stood and offered her a jacket. “Shall we go for a walk?”
Years passed. She remembered how to enjoy food and accepted the adventures he dragged her along on. They traveled across the country, visiting as many national parks as they could afford. She dealt with the pain by burying it. He dealt by distraction. Happiness came and went, staying a little longer each time.
It took the better part of 20 years for happiness to occupy the majority of their time once more. Only Christopher’s birthdays were reminders of the grief, pain, and guilt Irene managed to ignore the rest of the year. The two of them lit a candle on his birthday, the single photo album they had of him propped behind the guttering light.
“Happy 33rd birthday, my son,” she said through shuddering breaths. Her husband squeezed her hand.
It had become their custom to dawn jackets and drive a few miles down the road to visit his weathered grave every birthday. The blood orange sun was fading behind the hills that divided the sky from the earth. “Pretty, isn’t it?” he asked.
She only nodded.
They stood before the headstone, hand in hand, tear for tear, pain to pain. Irene would never admit it to her husband, but her pain was magnified, multiplied by the guilt she harbored alongside her sorrow.
“We wish we could have seen our grandchildren,” he whispered, the smallest of smiles curving his light wrinkles.
“We wish we could see you,” she added. Her hand trembled in his until he squeezed it tight enough to restrict any movement. He kissed the side of her head and said softly, “Let’s go flip through the album. We can see his smiling face.”
Her let her drive back home, hoping that the task of driving would distract her some. But a greater distraction billowed into the sky as they approached their home. They pulled up to find their house aflame. Irene cried out in sorrow. “Our home! Our pictures of Chris!”
“Hang on.” He thrust the car door open and spilled onto the drive.
She screamed in protest, fumbling with her buckle.
“You want those pictures, I’m going to go get them!” he yelled as he ran up the steps.
“You’re going to get yourself killed!” she screamed, stumbling after him, crying in anger and terror as he disappeared into the door and cloud of smoke. She gripped the edges of the door frame and screamed his name into the dense smoke. To her knees she fell, desperately calling his name, sobbing with fear.
She was unaware of time passing, until suddenly she was surrounded. One of her neighbors pulled her up from where she’d collapsed at the door. The fire department had arrived as did an ambulance. They’d found her husband passed out by the dining room table, the photo album charred, but clutched to his chest. Both had been driven to the hospital, her husband admitted and given a death sentence. His weakened lungs were damaged beyond repair, burned from the thick smoke that had consumed the house.
She had remained by his side alone brushing back his once sandy hair now streaked with white, holding his wrinkled, worn hand. He had squeezed hers with what little strength he had left. They talked briefly, spending more time staring at each other, memorizing every wrinkle and blemish, each representing a different memory of the life they had built together.
“You can’t be taken from me,” she had whispered, holding his one hand with both of hers.
“I’m only going on a trip,” he had replied, squeezing her hand once more, refusing to loosen his grip.
“We go on trips together.”
His dim eyes drooped as he registered the sadness in her features. “You’ll join me soon enough.”
“What will I do without you?” her words almost inaudible.
The slightest of smiles disrupted his sooty, lined face. “You’ll live.”
Those were the last words he said to her and she to him. The rest of the hour passed in mostly silence, the whir and beeping of machines filling the empty spaces much as they did now. The scorched photo album lay on its side on the table beside her dying husband. She dared not look at it, yet another reminder that all was her fault. Christopher, her husband, both dead and dying on account of her. She felt the guilt well up inside, threatening to take over. Only on his eyes could she fixate and force herself to remember that this was her last moment with him.
It wasn’t the flat lining of the monitor that informed her of his death, but the release of the hand squeeze.
No one would be there to squeeze her hand when her monitor flat lined.
Her eyes now fell on the solitary window, which was bright with the afternoon sky, but wet with the winter drizzle. It was a typical winter rain, not heavy but constant and light, a reminder that without it, no living thing would thrive. Irene had grown to love the rain--it soothed her, reminded her of home, but no water could save her now. Her time had come. How silly that phrase was: time had come. Come from where? Had it ever left? Was she ever destined to die another way, another day? Such philosophical questions had not come to her the last few times she had been in the same room as death. Instead she had blamed herself. Blamed herself for the death of the two people she’d loved the most. Guilt had ravaged her for the years to come.
Her neighbors had so kindly helped rebuild the damaged portions of her home. It took a few months, but Irene wished it had taken longer. After the house was repaired, she was left alone, with nothing to do, nothing to love, no one to talk to, prepare food for, find happiness with. Alone with her guilt, she gave up baking and travel. She left the house for groceries and basic supplies, but otherwise sat alone. Crocheting was all she had been able to manage for the last few years, sitting in front of the old television or the back window, tuning out the imagined reality of the television set and allowing her hands to create mindlessly. Distraction had never worked for her the way it had for him. She could only bury it, lock it away, keep it out of her conscious mind. The last 15 years weren’t enough for Irene to overcome the grief and guilt. Instead, she let it consume her. She found herself drowning in it, unable to resist the weight of such soul crushing emotion.
She recalled the night of the seizure, routinely situating herself before the back window to see it set once more. Only the sunset would call her soul somewhat back to the surface, the warmth of the fading rays bringing color to her translucent cheeks. Her eyes gazed and shifted almost imperceptibly, tracking the progress of the sun, whose light still pervaded the dense clouds, as it gradually fell from the sky to seemingly hide forever behind the hills. If she didn’t watch it sink, how could she know that another day had passed—another moment in time she had survived, had ended—if she didn’t see it, feel it, with her own still grief ridden body. Only the sun setting indicated the passing of time and the passing of another day, another month, another year.
That was the last thing remembered before she awoke in the hospital. According to the nurse, one her good old neighbors passing the drive had noticed her lights on at an unreasonable hour and had decided to check on her, finding her passed out beneath the window.
Hooked to her tubes, she awkwardly reached for the glass of water from the nurse and took a sip that soothed her dry, withered throat. With nothing to do keep her busy, Irene’s head leaned back, sinking into the pillow propped behind her. Maybe if she slept long enough, the tumor would simply snatch her in her sleep, end her life without pain and without her knowing. She could slip away and not worry about waking up to fight the pain. Fall asleep and stay asleep….
Irene awoke when the door opened and the nurse entered to refill her water cup, the cool liquid spilling, cascading into the small plastic cup. She feigned sleep unit the nurse departed, the panic inside of her building. She had avoided water most of her life, drinking only what she had to in order to survive. Every time she saw it flowing, she fought against the images that threatened to escape her sealed chest. That chest was open now, and the one memory she had refused to relive in all her life, was released from its prison and her vision grew blurred as that day played out, scene by scene.
Irene, her husband, and her son had decided to spend the afternoon down at the little river that ran against the back of their property. The sun was just warm enough to demand that they attempt to cool themselves off. Christopher had a toy truck that he wheeled to the bank of the river, swerving and twisting with screeching sounds emanating from his puckered lips. He paused at the edge of the water, unsure whether or not to make contact with it.
“Go ahead, Christopher. It’s just water,” Irene encouraged. She ran up behind him, scooped him into her arms and splashed into the cool water as Christopher squealed with shock and delight. Her husband sat on the bank, his feet dipping into the water, a smile stretching his young, thin face, the warm breeze ruffling his sandy hair.
Irene placed her son into the river, kissing his cheek as she took a step back. Her husband kicked water up at her face with a devious grin. Droplets slipped off her flattening curls as she splashed him back. Following his father’s example, Christopher splashed his mother, flinging his hands in the air and laughing as she became soaked.
“You think that’s funny?” she teased. She splashed back. They were thrust into a war, water flying through the air, taking turns shielding themselves and then attacking.
Irene threw a huge splash at her son, who squealed and shut his eyes, taking a step back.
All at once, he lost his footing, slipped backward and vanished from sight.
“Christopher?!” Both Irene and her husband ran over to him. The water was swirling red.
“Christopher!” she screeched. Her husband reached down for him and brought him above the surface. A large gouge was bleeding profusely at the base of his head. Irene was crying, stumbling after her husband who was running back towards the house, his son’s body bobbing in his arms.
It was an accident. It could happen to anyone. It wasn’t your fault. Her husband’s voice siphoned through the fading memories and her eyes welled up. It was her fault. She’d splashed him, made him step backward and slip. It could have been you, or me. Only an accident. You have to let go of the guilt.
“I can’t,” she croaked. “I don’t know how. I told you that. And then it was my fault that you died,” she sobbed.
The sun was just setting behind the distant hills, visible from behind a final cloud that had drizzled rain hours ago.
“I can’t, I can’t…” Her eyes released the dammed water.
It was only an accident. An accident.
“Christopher, I’m so sorry,” she whispered in the empty hospital room.
The fire was an accident. An accident.
“I’m so sorry, my dear,” she sighed. Her eyes closed and the waterfall descended faster.
Alone in the bed, acceptance began to shower upon her. He had slipped. Slipped and hit his head on a rock. It could have happened while she and her husband sat on the shore. Her husband had chosen to chase after the album. Chosen to be engulfed in heavy black smoke that ravaged his lungs. She had tried to stop him. She’d tried. Tried and tried to relinquish the guilt that had pervaded the majority of her life. Only now, as she faced her own demise, did she see the truth, the light of realization: it hadn’t been her fault. They were accidents—calamities she’d had no true control over. Chance events that had just happened to take place around her, taken dear ones from her. But she had not caused them.
Irene’s steely eyes fixed on the beautiful spectacle that was assembling outside her window, allowing herself to feel the warmth of life one final time before it sank out of sight. The room slipped into a cool, heavy darkness. She felt the weight of it bearing down on her wizened body. In the unyielding night, she felt Clarence’s warm hand squeeze hers.
Erika Fitzpatrick is a budding young author who lives in Salem, Oregon. Her most recent work includes her novel, Saving All That Remains, and a poem, The Lizard or Octopus, which was published in an anthology for emerging Oregon poets. She particularly enjoys writing fantasy and science fiction but dapples in other genres as well, including creative nonfiction. She is always working on something new and enthralling for ravenous readers to devour.