The Day After: A Christina Carson Short Story
August 7, 2016
THE DAY STARTED OFF like any other except no alarm startled Jan awake. Her eyes opened slowly, squinting and scanning the room. She felt groggy and blinked several more times to clear the sleep out of her eyes. She patted the spot next to her in the bed. Her husband was already up. Pulling the covers up higher, she relaxed back to organize her day like she did every day before planting her feet on the floor, but some cloying thought just out of reach caught enough of her attention to stop that daily drill. It even hijacked her focus off a pounding headache she’d just noticed.
Was she hung over? Her mouth was dry. A pile of used Kleenex sat clustered on her night stand within reach, but no empty wine glass. Habit took over, and she began her list again, but the effort required concentration far beyond what she normally employed to line up the few tasks she slated each day. Something deep in the back of her mind gnawed at her. She could feel the tension it was causing. She furrowed her forehead against the pain it created. Nothing made sense. It was like there was something she needed to pay attention to but one part of her mind kept erasing the words as fast as the darker, deeper part kept writing them into awareness.
A feeling began to ooze out from under her mental banter, a slow creeping sensation which caused the hair on her scalp and the back of her neck to prickle. She shivered. Then in a rush it came upon her; a searing sense of dread so visceral, so primal her stomach lurched and her breath clogged in her throat. Whatever instinct had been protecting her, caging up that something she was unable to face, it lost its grip. The sound, that horrifying sound, blasted into every corner of her mind. She screamed and sat bolt upright. The impact pushed her past tears and held her inert, while it forced her to visualize the image that sound conjured. It wasn’t the weekend. It wasn’t a holiday. It was the day after… and it would be the day after for the rest of her life.
As if the bed had suddenly become a place of great danger, she jumped out of it and stood steadying herself as she grabbed the bedstead. There was an almost imperceptible sway to her stance as she gulped air in small, frantic gasps. That was the only sound she made. She didn’t hear the squeak of the floorboards behind her. She didn’t see her husband standing in the doorway, one hand holding tight to the jamb. His eyes moved slowly sideways as he stared at her, watched her inch her way toward the dresser. When she got close, she dropped her nightie to the floor and stepped over it.
She opened her lingerie drawer and stared into it as if she were making the most profound decision of her life. Thirty seconds passed as she stood naked, looking. Finally, with a shake of her head, she pushed the drawer shut and turned toward the closet. Only then did her eyes take in her husband. They looked at each other with the semi-conscious focus of old drunks, only they were both more sober than they had been in years. They instinctively sensed even alcohol couldn’t kill the agony that lived in them now. Jan turned back to the closet and pulled at a pair of jeans until they gave way from whatever was holding them.
She acquired a denim shirt in the same fashion only it took an extra tug. Without bothering with underwear, she put them on. Her attention felt like it was on a ten second loop which caused her to walk then pause as if she kept forgetting what she meant to do next.
As she passed through the bedroom doorway, her husband reached for her arm. They were both unsteady, but the small amount of balance they each had acted additively, and they moved down the hall just above a shuffle and then began the descent down the stairs. Talking was out of the question. It took too much energy. So at the bottom of the stairs, she exerted a slight pressure to turn them toward the kitchen.
It wasn’t the best of choices. They both saw at the same moment all the left over cakes and casseroles neighbors, friends and relatives had brought throughout the day when the tragic news had worked its way through their personal grapevine. They last thing either of them was, was hungry. Jan walked across the kitchen to the percolator. She loaded the water and coffee slowly with great deliberation as if it were an honored ritual.
At this moment, the only constant they had in a life where everything else was now different, was the aroma of the strong, black French Roast as it started to perk. She leaned against the counter and stared out the window. Sam sat at the table. They waited.
When the pot finished its enthusiastic churning, Jan brought it and two cups to the table, filled one for each of them and sat down. She wanted to stop thinking. She wanted oblivion. She was terrified that yesterday would begin playing out like an old rerun, and she’d be helpless to stop it.
Sam had it worse. He found him. When she tried to push past him and get down the basement stairs, Sam had held her with a force she didn’t know he possessed. But she still heard it, that sound, the slow, rhythmic squeaking of the rope against the spike that held it. He had hauled her to the kitchen table and gently sat her down. Her eyes, deep brown and pleading searched his like a child’s, helpless, lost. He didn’t answer what he knew she was asking. He couldn’t. Instead, he moved off a bit, picked up his cell phone and called for an ambulance. He didn’t want to say the words as she sat there, but they must have insisted on knowing. Finally, as quietly as he could with her but a half room away, he said, “There’s been a death in the family.”
Now a day later sitting at the same table, she was lost in recalling. She had stood at the top of the stairs and called down cheerily, “Morning Sam.” He hadn’t had time to get the boy down before he heard her ask innocently, “Billie down there with ya?” When neither answered, she stopped moving about the kitchen and went to the head of the stairs thinking the two of them were in the basement starting a new project. They loved making things together. They called the basement Middle Earth, Billie’s favorite fantasy place since a small child.
When Sam heard her feet on the stairs, he had to let the body drop and ran up to the top to stop her. He heard the twisting of the rope against the spike that held it. He prayed she hadn’t. He would not let that sight, however, become part of her memory. He could hardly manage to cope now that it was part of his. No one wants to see their son dangling from the ceiling at the end of a piece of white clothesline. No one. Most boys come home on the weekend for a good meal or clean laundry. Billie came home to kill himself.
When they finished their first cup of coffee, Jan filled their cups again. They didn’t know what to do. Sam stared at the tabletop; Jan at the wall.
“When I woke up this morning, it was as if it had never happened. I just did what I usually do each morning; make my plan for the day. How? Her voice quavered. How… could…I…have…forgotten?” In those four words her voice crescendoed up to a high-pitched squeak. She started to quiver. Sam jumped up and ran around to her chair and wrapped his arms around her. He didn’t know if he could stay strong if she collapsed. He was so scared. He held her tight and whispered, “Oh baby, oh baby, we’ll get through this. We’ll survive.” His soothing brought her back to quiet sobbing against his belly as he stood there, holding her head tight to him.
He wasn’t sure how long they stayed that way, but when the phone rang, it startled them both. Still holding her against him, he reached one hand into his pocket to get his phone. Jan heard Sam say, “Yes, yes that…that would be good. Now? Yes.” He wanted to say, “Help us. Please help us.” But instead he stayed as calm as possible and silently blessed this stranger for calling.
“That was the paramedic,” he said to her questioning stare. “Said he would like to stop by; he would like to talk with us. We need someone to help, Baby. We need…help.”
She raised her head again and looked into his eyes. With the tiniest nod, she agreed. “Why him?” she asked confused. “Why a stranger?”
“I think he’s been in this place where we are.”
Galvanized by something familiar, a guest arriving, Jan got up and took the cups and pot to the sink to wash them and make a fresh pot. Then she realized she had no bra on so she went upstairs to find some underwear. Sam quickly shaved and found a clean shirt. All of these little, routine acts of everyday life became life-savers rescuing them in small but significant ways. When the doorbell rang, they felt more grounded then they imagined possible under the circumstances.
Jan ushered Pete into the kitchen. She always preferred talking over coffee in the kitchen. It was just homier. She had set some slices from the various cakes as well as cookies and squares on the table along with the coffeepot and cups. Sam came in just as Pete was sitting down. He rose to shake hands and as their eyes met, it was clear they shared the memory of that moment in the basement as they together lowered Billie’s body. It was as if they would always be bound through that act. Sam sighed and relaxed for the first time in 24 hours.
The first few moments together were filled with a mix of emotions too tangled to describe. “Mind if I smoke?” Pete asked. Jan, staring at him like she wasn’t sure he was real, quickly nodded her head. She popped up and brought him a saucer to use as an ashtray. She hated any smoking in her house. But she wasn’t even sure who she was at this moment. What the rules were now? Besides, she wasn’t about to interfere with whatever might make it possible to believe they could survive this.
“How long you been a paramedic?” Sam asked wanting to reduce his angst.
Pete, a man about their same age, looked at Sam and smiled. “Fifteen years now.”
“Bet you’ve seen a lot in that length of time.” All Sam’s years of corporate committees and projects came into play as he schmoozed the meeting into something easy and comfortable.
Pete picked up Sam’s lead and related some of the funny situations he’d found himself in and the wins he’d known. They actually heard themselves laugh. Not robustly or even loudly, but like those still able to catch a funny edge and appreciate its power to relieve.
The reminiscences and stories of all their lives continued. The long shadows of afternoon shot fingers of soft light through the kitchen windows. They had stopped a while back for some lunch to go with all those desserts. They had gotten up and gone to the bathroom. Pete went out to make a call. They had shared this awkward, difficult time like old friends.
Finally, Jan got up nerve enough to ask. In a small, hesitant voice she said, “What about the tragic parts. What do you do with those?”
Pete sat quietly, sucking deeply on this his fourth cigarette. All the while, he looked directly at Jan as if he were mind reading, his gaze was so fixed. He took a big breath, and let it slide out slowly, calmly. “There was this one day.” He looked down at the table. His eyes lowered, a shy, apologetic smile on his face. He stole a quick glance first in her direction, then Sam’s, then shrugged. Anyone could have heard the words he was trying to say but couldn’t, “You know.” He returned to staring at the tabletop. “On that day everything changed. The world became unrecognizable. I think I just stumbled on for a while. I don’t remember exactly. Nor can I say how much later it was before I could navigate it. But there came a moment. Maybe I was drunk, maybe just so hurting, I quit trying…to hang on. It wasn’t a voice. It wasn’t some grand philosophical truth that exploded in my brain. I just forgave them; turned it loose. Then a strange sensation followed that simple act. I sort of melted into a feeling of kindness.” He looked up shifting his eyes from Jan to Sam. “I really needed some kindness. It felt so good,” he whispered.
He had to stop. Jan saw him cast about for the coffee pot she had pushed out of the way. She reached for it and filled his cup.
Pete drank a sip and then pulled himself up in his chair, gathering himself to finish what he’d come to share. “The other half of that yin-yang equation was resolve. Was I going to get on with it or not? I found that kindness was stronger than being brave, and more honest. Resolve helped me remember that on the endless days after.”
The room was now deep in the dusk of evening. The table was littered with crumbs, coffee stains, crumpled napkins and dirty plates. For an instant, it felt like a home again. They would in time learn to notice and appreciate each such moment.
Christina Carson is the author of Suffer the Little Children.