by Lucy McKee
Narrated by Bob Eccles
An alarm clock is ringing, the high-pitched wail so loud I feel it between my eyes. I groan softly. It’s the only thing I can manage at this time of day.
David must be awake already. He has a ghastly love of mornings. Lucky for me, he was always the one who rose early to wake JT and send him off to school. I used to lie in bed and listen to them sing Beatles songs in the bathroom while they brushed their teeth. What a mess they made.
But today there’s no smell of coffee brewing. The air instead smells sour, musty.
David’s hazy form appears at the foot of bed, his face transformed by the early Mississippi sunlight. He looks older, somehow balder, his shirt and slacks rumpled like he’s been sleeping in them.
“Good morning, James,” he says. I squint at him through beams of light sprinkled by dust particles. “How do you feel this morning?”
I mumble incoherently and David chuckles, unfazed by the continuous squeal of the alarm. Why won’t he just turn the thing off? He could be so stubborn sometimes.
A mound of blankets weighs so heavily on my legs I can’t free them. I try to sit up, but my right arm lies by my side, twisted and sleeping. An icy grip wraps around my chest.
David walks to the clock and turns a dial, the shrill of the alarm cutting off so suddenly I’m left with a residual ringing in my ears. There’s a nearly empty bag of clear fluid hanging from a hook. He squeezes it and shakes his head.
“Almost empty.” He shrugs and looks away, grumbling. “What good is all this doing anyway?”
“Wh-what?” The words are thick and slurred. He jiggles a cord that trails from the clock to a large bandage beneath my night shirt. The alarm clock is plugged into . . . me?
I fight against the suffocating blankets. David’s face goes blurry as my head falls back on the pillow.
“Don’t you remember where you are?” The lines around his brown eyes soften and he nods toward the window. “You’re at the hospice in Lula. Have you seen the magnolia garden outside? It’s quite beautiful.”
“David?” The word is statement and question in one. A hiss of frustrated air rushes from his lungs. He pulls a chart from the slot on the door and sits heavily in the chair by the bed.
My heart thuds against my ribs as I look around at the sterile walls that have never been privy to my life with David. They’re a mirage, a false shelter. I should be at home with him, where the magnolias grow wild and tangles of honeysuckle sweeten the air. Home, where I could lay in my own bed for however long it takes.
“Home.” I reach for him with a bony hand.
“No, James. You can’t go home.” David shifts side to side and pushes his glasses up the bridge of his slanted nose. He was always doing that; I used to tell him I was going to superglue them on one night when he was asleep.
My hand fumbles for him but he’s just out of reach. I grunt and roll onto my side, but when he doesn’t look up, I scream.
Shameless tears fall down my cheeks. I can’t understand why he won’t help. I don’t understand him anymore.
Only when I resort to pulling at the IV in my chest does David take notice. He moves quickly, the chart snaps shut. He leans over to restrain my hand, the sour aroma of coffee and unwashed cotton filling my nose.
“Stop that! You’re going to hurt yourself.” He tightens his grip. His jaw is clenched, eyes sagging with heavy circles. “Do you understand that you’re very sick? Do you remember that you’re at a hospice?” David shakes his head, releases his grip on my wrist. “You’ve had a stroke. And—”
“N-n-n-n . . .” The world spins as my head shakes back and forth on the pillow. Tears overtake the beads of sweat on my face and I cry so hard I can’t swallow. Saliva bubbles from my mouth.
Through a fog of panic, images of a hollowed face and marked skin fill the void of my memory. I kick a leg free of the blankets and it knocks the railing down. David rushes from the room, calling for a nurse.
I see him standing in the hall, motioning wildly in my direction. Two large-framed women in white uniforms dash into the room.
I close my eyes tight as gloved hands squeeze the loose skin on my thigh. There’s a sharp pinch and the sound of my wails fade in the distance as numbness clouds my mind. The nurses’ faces blur into obscurity and my eyes close to a blissfully dreamless sleep.
I wake to a dull ache in the center of my head – a medicinal hangover. Someone’s rough hands grasp my arm, the light touch of calloused fingertips brush my cheek. A man calls my name, urges me to wake. He stands above me, his wide shoulders dark against the fading sunlight from the window.
His touch makes me burn, tingles and pinpricks bubble on my skin and I jerk away. He is full of poison. I dodge his hand when he reaches for me again. An amorphous scream echoes against the blank walls. I swing wildly at him, panting for air.
“I ain’t gonna hurt you,” the man says. But he is hurting me. They all are, why don’t they understand that?
My hand stings as it connects with his jaw. His lips press into a thin line and he grasps my wrist.
“Uncle James, please. It’s me.” The man leans across the bed, stares at me with familiar emerald-green eyes. My heart thumps. It’s JT.
Why do the shadows play such wicked tricks here?
He loosens his grip and rests his hand on my head. “You got a hell of a left hook, Uncle Jamie.” JT smiles, his voice ripe with the red dirt Mississippi town where he was born. He fixes the oxygen tubing that’s slipped off my face. His hands are gentle, like David’s. “Are you okay?”
From behind JT, a tiny hand creeps along the bed, nails painted pink. A girl’s face appears, skin like honey and hair wild as the branches of a holly bush. She stares at me from the safety of JT’s orbit.
“Why did Uncle James hit you, JT?” She frowns, her tiny brows furrowing.
“He was just scared, sweetheart. You know how sometimes you get scared when you wake up from a bad dream?”
Her head bobs up and down slowly. “I had a bad dream about the wolves.”
JT runs his fingers through the little girl’s hair. “Sophie brought something for you. Show him, honey.” JT nudges her and she takes a rolled up piece of red construction paper from his hand. He picks her up and sits her on the bed. Kayla, JT’s girlfriend, round and full with another child, pats my leg under the covers and smiles. She shares her daughter’s uninhibited beauty.
Sophie lays the paper down on my lap and unrolls it like she’s unveiling a treasure map.
“See? It’s me and JT and Mommy and we’re washing the dog!” She giggles. The stick figures on the paper reveal the patchwork home JT has built for himself. Just like David and I did for him.
All I can muster is a grunt as she looks eagerly for praise. The wrong word, a harsh look, would crush her.
“Uncle Jamie loves it, sweetie.” Kayla tugs at a lock of Sophie’s hair.
I nod and point a bony finger toward the bathroom door, where her other masterpieces hang. Her eyes follow my trembling hand, red and scaly, fascinated by its age and fragility. How frightened she must be of me.
“We brought you ice cream, too.” Her tongue flicks to the corner of her mouth.
“Yeah, Sophie wanted a Frosty on the way over and had to bring one to you too. What do you think, Uncle Jamie?”
Sophie darts off the bed and takes two red and yellow cups from the counter by the sink with her mother’s help. JT slides his arm under my shoulders and pulls me up like a ragdoll.
“We got you vanilla.” He drapes a towel across my chest and lifts a spoonful of ice cream to my mouth. Kayla and Sophie take a seat in the recliner by the bed.
Sophie laughs as she watches us, her Frosty balanced delicately on the top of her mother’s round belly. “Mommy says I can feed the baby. I’m going to have a baby brother and I’ll feed him just like that!” She nods with certainty.
JT’s face flushes. Had I been able to speak, I would have asked him to stop. Instead, he wipes my chin and raises the spoon again.
“We’ve been paintin’ that room in back for the baby,” JT says. “Kayla wants it yellow, just in case.”
“In case what?” Sophie bounces her foot against the chair, her mouth full.
“In case your baby brother is really a baby sister.” Kayla steadies the cup on her stomach as Sophie digs in for another bite.
“You know, next week’s Thanksgiving. We was gonna go to Kayla’s mama’s, but . . .” JT trails off and gazes back at his girlfriend. “We thought we might just stay here. Kayla’s gonna fix a ham and a couple of vegetables. Maybe we could bring something over, have lunch together. Would you like that?”
My stomach cramps as I force down a bite of ice cream. JT has another spoonful at the ready, but I turn my head away.
“You done? All right.” He sighs, puts his hands between his knees.
Sophie’s still working on hers, though she’s slowed down some. A child will never admit defeat with ice cream. When he was a little boy, JT would sit at our kitchen table and eat Breyer’s by the pint.
My eyelids droop but I fight to keep them open. Kayla and Sophie morph together into a blur on the chair.
“So we’ll come over on Thursday.” JT stares at his hands. He’s a big man, finally outgrown his awkward features. “It’s a holiday, you know. You should be with your family on the holidays.” His words are terse and his Adam’s apple bobs from a hard swallow.
His face is tight with pain. How did he end up in the middle of all this? He’s grown, a father himself. I wonder again what it is that’s made David so afraid. Have I done something to hurt him? Why can’t he see that all I want is to be home?
I take hold of JT’s arm. “Um . . . D-d-d- . . .” I grunt, shaking my head in frustration.
“David?” JT asks, his hand massaging circles at his temples. “What about David, Uncle James?”
“Ask. P-please.” I hear my voice break. “Ask D-David.”
“To what? Come to dinner?” My nephew rubs his eyes. “Uncle James . . .”
“Sophie’s gotta use the potty,” Kayla interrupts. She stands quickly, the cup almost tumbling to the floor. The girl’s mouth opens in protest, but she’s silenced by another scoop of Frosty. “We’ll be right back.”
JT nods. A furrow of worry sits on his brow as he watches them scurry out the door.
“How have you been feelin’? Are you having a lot of pain?”
I tug at the oxygen tubing that tickles my nose but JT pushes my hand away. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply. His skin is freckled and lightly tanned, only the subtle cracks of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes hint at his age. When he opens them, they’re glazed over.
“The nurses told me you had a bad night.” His voice wavers. He takes the hand rendered useless by the stroke and holds it. The muscles spasm at his touch. “I wonder if they couldn’t give you something to help you sleep.”
The heater kicks on and a musty odor fills the room. JT remains quiet on the bed and rubs my quivering arm, his eyes fixed on the contorted limb and knotty fingers.
“Uncle Jamie . . .” He cocks his head but doesn’t meet my gaze. His face crumples, he breathes heavily through his nose.
I reach up and touch his face. My fingers brush away a tear on his golden skin. He puts his head on the pillow next to mine and cries softly into the starched white fabric while I pat his back. His curly sun-kissed hair falls into my face.
I try to speak, but the words are gone.
Our house was a little shotgun, thrown together back in the 1930s for TVA workers building the first bridge across the river. It was painted in a wash of blue, with creaky water pipes and buckled hard wood floors. In the fall, the trees that lined the backyard blazed in colors of fire. In winter, scarred branches twisted across the grey southern skies.
I stood at the kitchen sink, deveining shrimp for dinner while David sat in the living room, his newspaper rustling. A spark from the fireplace jumped onto the rug beneath his feet. I ran from the kitchen and stomped it out with my bare foot, leaving a spot of black soot but no pain. David looked up from his paper, his shoes tapping in rhythm to Paul Simon’s Graceland, oblivious to the commotion.
“David,” I said, my voice on the edge of a nag, “didn’t you notice the house was about to burn down?”
“Honey, it was nothing. You worry too much.” He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and buried it back in the newspaper.
I hefted a sigh worthy of Joan Crawford. “I’ve become a neglected wife.”
David folded the newspaper neatly into quarters and placed it on the maple end table.
“Darling James, what have I done that’s got you so upset?” He crossed his legs and peered at me with playful eyes.
My shoulders arched. “Nothing. It’s just that we’ve got some time alone together tonight and we’re finally over that flu and JT’s away at a friend’s . . . It’d be nice if you could pay a little less attention to the news and more to . . . well, me.”
“Are you jealous of the newspaper, dear?” His index finger tapped at his temple.
“No! Well, maybe.” I sat down on the armrest. David’s hand slipped up my ribcage and I fell into his lap. We laughed together and I pressed my lips to the hollow of his neck up along his jaw.
He kissed me back and for a moment it was quiet, just David and me and the flickering fire, our arms tangled and the heat of his body pressed against mine. Frost clouded the windows in the living room. I could see where JT had written his name with his finger in the ice.
When I drew back, my lips tasted of salt. I ran my fingers along his damp hairline. “David, you’re sweating. Do you want me put out the fire?”
He shook his head and the glasses slipped down his nose again. “No, Jamie. I’m actually a little chilly.” He pulled the collar of his shirt up to his neck and shivered.
“You’re hot. You have a fever.”
“Maybe. Probably still have a little touch of that flu bug.”
“Yeah. You look a little pale.”
He kissed me again, the soft brush of his cheek against mine sending an electric current through my body. As I reached my hand under his sweater, he laid his head on my shoulder and sighed.
“Do you just wanna go to bed, honey?” I asked, my voice muffled in scratchy wool.
“Is that okay? You went to so much trouble for dinner . . .”
I shrugged, straightened the collar of his shirt. “It’s okay. I’m sure JT’ll eat it when he comes home.”
I pulled David up from the recliner but he faltered and tried to hide it by leaning over and retrieving his newspaper. He lumbered slowly to the stairs.
He was still standing in the living room when I returned, the paper tucked away between the slats of the stair railing. A reflection of moonlight from the fresh white snow cast a bluish shadow on the floor.
“Are you okay, David?” My stomach knotted.
His eyes lit up. “You love this song, don’t you? Didn’t . . . didn’t we hear this the first night we met?” He raised his index finger, ear turned toward the radio as if the lyrics themselves would have lent him their memory.
My mind filled too quickly with the sudden flood of worry; I didn’t recognize the song.
“Sam Cooke. Remember? I brought you home and you pulled out this record . . .”
“Bring It On Home to Me.” Yes, we danced that night. He fractured my little toe.
David took my hand and spun me around. An arm encircled my waist; the other held my hand. I felt his rhythmic breathing on my neck and smelled the detergent I washed his clothes in. The moment was perfect.
I rested my head on his shoulder, swaying to the music and trying to keep my toes out of his orbit. David’s head nuzzled against mine.
“I’ll probably get you sick now,” he said.
“That’s okay. I’ll probably get it anyway. I always do.”
The house creaked from the cold wind blowing outside. We were warm and tucked away in our home and I wanted the moment to last forever.
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
David’s weight grew heavier on my shoulder and I held him up as we danced, embracing each other even after Sam Cooke’s voice faded into the blue moonlight.
David is sitting in the recliner by the bed, watching me silently. His hand lightly strokes my hair, my face. His touch is warm and gentle, not like that of the people here, who only care to fill me with poison and pain. Faint traces of blue pool under the hollow of his eyes, surrounded by crepey skin folded in wrinkles. His brown hair is grayed and thin.
“You’re moaning in your sleep again,” he says. “You have a terrible fever. Do you feel achy?” I grab his hand as he pulls it away. He holds me for a moment before letting go.
I struggle against the mountain of blankets and sweat pours down my face, dampening my nightshirt. David brushes droplets of perspiration and tears from my cheeks. “Shhh. You’ll wear yourself out, Jamie.”
I’m subdued for a moment by the tenderness of his touch. “H-home,” I say.
David’s haunting brown eyes cast downward. “You’re not ready to go home.”
But I do want to go home. Even the word has come to mean so much more. Why can’t he see that?
I slam my balled up fist into the mattress, my head shaking back and forth. “Home!” I scream, punching the bed again. “Y-you, David!”
His bushy brows furrow deeper as he holds back tears. “Please don’t get angry. I just don’t know what to do anymore . . .” His voice is near a whisper.
A stabbing pain rips into my chest and I’m convinced my heart is tearing in two. My fist pummels the bed one more time and I feel the slickness of blood between my fingers. I lay my head back on the pillow.
My paralyzed arm dangles over the side of the bed. David picks it up as if it were made of glass, leaving it nestled across my chest. He smoothes the covers over my shoulders and sits next to me.
“It’s moving fast now.” David stares out the window, where the Seven Sisters beam down on the velvety magnolia blossoms below us. “It’s like a train headed for a burned out bridge. And the brakes have been cut.”
David’s eyes glass over and my heart begins to race. I don’t understand what he’s talking about.
“JT’s going to be a father soon, you know.” He sighs, almost wistfully, and strokes my hair. “Kayla’s got maybe another three months. I guess that means we’ll be grandfathers.” He chuckles, but it’s a gesture made from sorrow. There’s no lightness in his eyes.
I lift my hand to touch his face, but he’s just out of reach.
“James, he wants so badly for you to live long enough to see the baby. But, I don’t know.” David’s eyes squeeze shut. “I don’t know if you can do it.” He inhales deeply. “It’s not fair to ask you to hold on, is it?”
My chest heaves with sobs. What choice is it of mine anyway?
“I guess . . . I want you to hold on, because you’re the only family he has left.” David rubs his eyes. “He’s so afraid to be alone.”
The IV alarms and David reaches over to silence it. He turns a dial, but the buzzing continues screeching into the sullen night. He slaps the box with his open palm and lets out a quiet grunt.
“You. JT.” My stomach knots and I moan with frustration. “Family.”
David shakes his head and stands.
“P-please. Home.” I don’t want him to leave again. I’m afraid he won’t come back.
He kisses my forehead lightly, the brush of his lips like the tickle of a feather.
I wail as he disappears into the dark hallway.
The volunteers have come this morning. They mill in the hall, tossing up strands of glittering garland and handmade cards. The voices of schoolchildren lilt into my room, singing off-tune carols. A grey-haired woman wearing a Christmas tree sweater finds her way into my room and drops off a breakfast tray, informing me that my son will be here soon to help me eat.
I call to her as she leaves, nothing but a shapeless moan, but she walks out silently, a fear-born smile plastered on her face. My throat is raw, each swallow like my saliva is made of acid. My tongue, thick and dry, flicks across swollen and blistered lips.
I reach up to scratch my nose, but my functioning arm is strapped to the railing. The other lies quietly by my side.
A chorus of giggles comes from the hallway as a flurry of little girls dart past the door, arms filled with candy canes. My nephew appears, his tired eyes following them. He holds a spiraled candy in one hand, a grocery sack in the other.
JT kisses me on the cheek. He lays a hand on the cuff of the restraint, checks its tightness and wraps his fingers around my thin forearm.
“How you feelin’ this morning, Uncle James?”
I grunt. Why does he ask? He knows.
At the sound of hurried footsteps, JT turns toward the door. A dark-haired man enters, his shoulders slumped. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and smiles at JT. My heart jumps in my chest.
My arm stretches out past JT, toward David’s hovering frame. The strap pulls tight as I fight against it; the railing shakes but doesn’t give.
“D-d-d-d-! A-ah . . .” I moan as the hand drops to the bed. My breath comes in quick bursts.
JT looks back to David, his brows creased. “Uncle James, this is the doctor. He called me this mornin’, asked me to come over.”
My heart flutters wildly. JT’s wrong, it’s David. My David, with the carelessly worn clothes, the tilt of his head, the ill-fitting glasses.
“N-no, David!” My hoarse voice fills with such desperation it scares even me. I want it to be you, David. Where are you?
“James, please calm down.” David places a cool hand on my chest. “I asked JT to come over so we could discuss your recent behavior here.”
“N-n-no.” Salty tears leak down my cheeks, sting the cracked corners of my mouth.
“They said you had another rough night.” JT gently blots the tears from my face with a tissue. His hands are shaking.
There was nothing especially rough about last night. I wonder sometimes what they’re all trying to say, as if they’re inventing a new language meant to protect me.
“They had to restrain you. You were angry and fightin’ everybody. Pulled out another IV. Don’t you remember none of that?” JT sighs and rests his hands on his soft waist. The subtle bulge of a belly betrays the last of his youth.
“Mmmm.” I shake my head, my jaw tensed and aching. Why do they make up such lies? It’s no wonder David doesn’t want me at home.
“James, I’m afraid this behavior has to stop. We don’t feel that it’s safe for you to be here if it continues. There’s a facility in Helena that can take you, but your nephew has said he would prefer you be here.” David stands by JT, his arms crossed and face stern.
“You!” I scream at him. The rail crashes down and my arm jerks along with it. “H-h-home . . . w-with . . . y-you . . . David!”
The coppery taste of blood tickles the back of my throat. JT lets out a wobbly sigh and turns to face David.
“Can you give us just a minute? Please?”
My heart drops. The door closes quietly behind David.
JT sits, the bed creaking under his weight. He brings both hands to his face and stares at me. His mouth twitches, but he’s quiet. Finally, he looks at me with his lopsided smile – the way he did when he’d been caught in a lie as a little boy.
“Look at this picture I found.” JT rustles in the Kroger sack, pulls out a 3 x 5 snapshot and holds it up close enough so I can see.
It’s a photo of me and JT wading in the river. He was just a boy then, eight or nine, his arms wrapped around my neck, palms up in the air to catch a sudden rainstorm. My heart skips a beat.
“That’s an old one, huh?” JT’s smiling easier now. “Mama’d probably just died then. I guess Uncle David was takin’ the picture.”
Yes, it was David. He’d screamed at us to come in from the water when the rain started, afraid we’d both be struck by lightning.
“You know, Kayla and Sophie’s been workin’ on something for you. I wasn’t sure how to show you, but . . . I think you’ll like it.” JT’s green eyes fill with tears.
He pulls a square of fabric out of the grocery bag and places it on my lap. It resembles a document: a name, dates from times long past. David Rosen, 1940 – 1984, a Star of David in the center. A quilt panel, one of thousands made in memorial.
JT wipes his tears with the sleeve of his flannel shirt. “It was something we never got around to, I guess . . .”
My heart freezes, every working muscle in my body quivers. David’s gone. We buried him on a warm sunny day in June, at the top of a hill overlooking the river. JT wasn’t even out of high school.
I shake my head, hot tears falling freely. How could I forget David’s dying wails, the ones that shook the very foundation of our little blue house by the creek? The memory of me dressing him one last time before the police hauled his body away in a hazardous materials van haunted my dreams for years.
“We thought . . . well,” JT chokes. His face contorts in a grimace of pain. “I thought maybe for yours we could use this picture. I’d like that. What do you think?”
My sweet nephew’s eyes glisten and I lay my spotted hand on his. The squeal of laughing children continues beyond the door and outside, a man strings lights on a spindly pine tree beside the entrance.
I run my fingers over the panel’s fine stitching. JT’s speaking again, the lilt of his slow drawl now heavy and mournful. But I’m a million miles away, back on the banks of the Mississippi in the midst of a boy’s embrace and the love of a man behind a camera.
One evening in late May a few weeks before he died, David and I were sitting out on the porch while JT practiced his swing in the back yard. He was growing fast, nearly sixteen and already taller than either of us. His strong arms had lifted David’s wasted body out of bed that morning and set him down in the rocking chair with heartbreaking gentleness.
The weather had turned hot already, but David still shivered, wrapped in a cocoon of blankets. His hair had fallen out, his cheeks deep hollows. His thin hand restlessly stroked a patch of green velvet on the quilt around his shoulders.
“David?” I asked. “How are you feeling?”
He groaned so softly it could have been a kitten mewing. His mind came alive now only in random bursts of lucidity.
From the yard, the hum of an aluminum bat broke the air. JT’s swings were hurried and angry, his face streaked with tears.
“James?” David’s voice crackled.
“What is it? Are you okay?” I took his hand and stroked the translucent skin lined with fragile rivers of blue.
“I think I’m ready to go home now.”
“You are home, David.” My heart wrenched in its vice.
“Oh. Okay.” His brown eyes grew vacant, fluttered before closing.
A crack sounded from JT’s bat as it connected with a ball. It went far into the air, disappearing in the white low-lying clouds before landing in the arms of a birch tree. Half a dozen doves scattered into the air, glided above our heads and flew toward the wild abandon of the river.
BIO: Lucy McKee is a full-time Registered Nurse and part-time writer living on the coast of southwest Florida with her Border Collie. She’s a graduate of the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas.