A hospital, I think. The adjustable bed. The linen coarse like construction paper. The florescent light reflecting off linoleum in the hallway. The over burnished sheen of an old floor that gets the chemicals every night, chemicals that release memory. Floors smeared with memory. Memory of my Ellen.
Concussion, I think. From a collision, or a fall? Everything looks splotched, especially the backs of my hands. My body feels ramshackle but far away. It seems I am a yellow balloon, string connected at my navel, and I hover while I can as helium seeps through the stretched latex. I will settle back into myself and I will feel stiff and weak, but I’ll mend and Ellen’ll push me outside in a chair with one humiliating squeaky wheel, and I will touch the breeze again.
I don’t see anyone though I hear busyness: footsteps and work chatter — aware of itself, shielded and sterile. But nobody passes my open door. The bed next to mine is empty, the dividing curtain folded at the wall like ribbon candy, rings on the ceiling track. How long have I been here? Where’s Ellen?
My adjustable bed creaks like a cot and I’m thirteen at camp. I can’t remember the name, something Indian. The woods surround the sapphire lake whose waves sound like rice poured from a sack. The forest obscures my cabin; it’s sunset, and the forest swallows this, too. I hear crickets and peepers. They speak in urgent, desperate voices. And fireflies hover like marionettes. I lift the cigarette to my lips, and I feel my bunkmates watching me for nuance. The ember glows hotter with each puff. The tobacco and pine scent mix like chemicals, but richer.
I bet if I lit up they’d come in and notice me. But my cigarettes aren’t on the bedside table. No get well cards, either. Just a T.V. remote and vase with some kind of flower. I feel anxious, like I’m late for work. Our son Dylan has college payments so why am I lying in bed?
The empty bed terrifies me. The detergent smell hides something. What if the sheets slowly fold back and the bed springs creak as the mattress depresses, then the sheets pull up over a lump that writhes all night in silent agony and bleeds out through the linen? I see it dripping on the floor, and I see them mopping. Everyone in the hospital, mopping, mopping the floors. I hear the buckets wheeling, the ringers purging, the wet sucking splat of the mop on the linoleum, and I smell the chemicals.
The chlorine burns my eyes. The pool’s too cold at seven a.m. I don’t have the body fat — hypothermia lessons. The sky and pool are blue. The cut grass beyond the chain link fence is clumped like cow pats because it was too dewy to mow. Water rolls in my ears. My suit and towel hang wadded in a plastic grocery bag at my side as Mom pulls up in the car. The sunny concrete heats my white, gravel-flecked soles. Dylan’s a better swimmer. They pulled him up to varsity. He could get a scholarship.
The janitor’s mop swishes in the hall. As his bucket rumbles away, I fade with its sound. “Visit me!” I want to shout. But my lungs are weak. I am a crystalline balloon in the upper atmosphere.
Someone’s coming. A man, I guess by the sound of his thick heel: an important shoe, a doctor shoe. His slow steps fall like wood blocks. His steps are determined; he’s coming all the way down the hall. He stands in the doorway under the strip light. He’s not wearing a white coat. He doesn’t check my chart. He sees me watching him, but he raps his knuckles on the open door anyway. He pulls a chair to my bedside and sits. He’s a colleague, maybe. I don’t always remember them, though I should, when I meet them on accident at restaurants or airports. He’s family, he says, and he holds my hand, which is upsetting. He looks toward the empty bed. There’s something familiar in his profile.
“Where’s Ellen? Where’s my wife?”
“She’ll be along.”
He shows me wallet-sized pictures of his kids. They’re blurry and I push them away. “I have a son, Dylan,” I say. The stranger stands, walks to the window. I can’t see his face. “Where’s Ellen?” I say.
I recall every detail of the watercolor print in the waiting room. I studied it for hours. Dreamy purple sky flecked with pale stars above a blue mesa. Pale red spire rocks in the foreground. They laid shadows across a plain where a shepherd pushed sheep toward the viewer, but there the paint bled into blank canvas. The doctor came in. “It’s a boy,” he said. Ellen glowed. Despite the bloody bed, I only saw her face. She handed me my son, warm life screaming in triumph.
The stranger turns from the window. He’s crying. “Mom died. Years ago,” he says. He switches on the T.V. Now he’s going to leave, I think. But he goes back to his chair.
The helicopter lands in the rice paddy and I jump out keeping my head low. When the helicopter’s gone I hear my boots sucking in the muck. I keep Ellen’s letters close to my heart, inside my uniform. “I’ll wait for you,” she wrote.
C.R. Beideman writes and teaches writing in Bozeman, MT. His fiction publishers include: Baobab Press (in conjunction with the University of Nevada), Stonecoast Review and Yellow Medicine Review. When he’s not looking out the window at mountains, he’s on those mountains. He can be found on Twitter as @CRBeideman.