Finding Out About That Diamond by Amanda Cholodewitch

Tor was listening to Hailee belt out the tune playing on the store’s radio as she folded some shirts on a merchandise table that had gone astray during the lunch rush. It was early afternoon, and as usual for this time of day, there wasn’t a customer in sight. Hailee, who moonlighted as a Jazz singer, was accustomed to practicing during this time of the day while she updated some inventory issues on the register. Her smile lit up her rosy cheeks as she sang along with the current love song, no doubt thinking about her recent engagement to Jonathan Cullard.

Shaking her head at the girl, Tor hollered, “Sing it!” and laughed with her.

When the song finally ended, Hailee chuckled and shook her brunette bob. “Miss Torie, don’t you go making no fun of me!”

“Shuga’, you are laughing too!” With the store straightened up, Tor walked back over to the cash wrap, the top of her teased blonde hair bouncing lightly with each step. “Just you wait until the honeymoon’s over and you got two babies crying all night. Enjoy that smile for now, because one day it’s gonna seem like you don’t even know how to smile. It’ll get better after that, but there’ll be a definite lull where you’ll miss this giddiness.” She propped her elbows on the counter, and her belt buckle hit the glass on the front of the counter making a soft clink.

“Well, you sure know how to put a bee in my bonnet!” Hailee teased her.

A bark of laughter erupted from Tor. “Seriously? Who even says that anymore?”

Hailee, well known for her unusual communication, pouted and diverted her attention to her ring again. She thought of all the effort John must’ve put into choosing it and working to pay it off. The white gold ring held a whole carat of sparkle.

Just then, the door chimed and in walked a customer. She looked to be about Hailee and Tor’s age, as most customers were, and full of curves. The girls greeted her with cheerful chorus of , “Hi. How are you?” She offered the generic response, “Just fine. And you?” Tor’s shoulders slumped a little as she watched this solo customer walk right over to the merchandise table that she had just finished reorganizing the shirts on. Glancing over the clothes there, she rested her hand on the edge of the table, but didn’t see anything she liked well enough to redisturb the piles.

Exchanging smiles- Tor’s being from relief and Hailee’s from the humor at the everyday battle of recovery in the store- Tor stepped away from the cash wrap. “What can I help you with today?”

Glare from the track lighting bounced off the girl’s strawberry blonde hair. “My boss is having a cookout tonight and I just thought I might come look for a new outfit. Something for going out, but still somewhat casual, you know.”  An aqua, one shouldered top on the two-way next to the table caught her eye. “This is cute! I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for tonight but…”

“Well,” Tor started, “what’s the occasion?

“Just a get together with everyone from the shop and our families and friends… Does it matter if I say it’s on Crestview Drive?”

Lifting her eyebrows, Tor nodded. “Yeah, that makes a difference.” The street ran right along the ocean front and was often associated with the wealthiest part of the docks and beaches in town. “Where do you work?”

“Oh, just Ringwald Interiors.”

Tor nodded again, conjuring up images of the display rooms in “the shop.” It had a relatively steady traffic flow, enough to keep it in business for the last forty years as one of the most popular businesses in a town of just under 50,000 people. “I’d say the top is probably appropriate enough. Did you want to do a skirt with it or shorts or capris? Because, we actually have this super cute flowing, white, maxi skirt over here that would go great with it.”

Upon seeing the skirt Tor was now holding out to her, the customer’s eyes grew large. “That is absolutely perfect! Ooh! What about with these sandals?” She picked up the bejeweled brown gladiator sandals from the wall display. “I am sold. All done.”

“Well, that was easy!” Tor chuckled and lead the young lady over to the register to hand Hailee her items.

“Yeah, just trying to keep it simple.”

Hailee put aside what she was doing and picked up the customer’s things to take off the security tags and ring ‘em up. “Yeah, that’s always. Less is supposed to be more, right?”

Watching Hailee, the girl’s eyes grew wide. “Whoa! Less like that diamond of yours?” She exclaimed eyeing Hailee’s ring. “Nice! That is so vintage. What a man! Can I see that?”

Laughter bubbled out of Hailee in glee. “Sure! Can you believe he’s even planning our honeymoon trip to Europe?!”” She reached over and let the girl examine it like everyone else who dared to mention it. Something caused the girl to frown though and cock her head to the side. She drew her face a little closer to Hailee’s hand before tossing it back and standing up straighter.

“Wow, that looks a lot like a ring from my ex.” Again, she cocked her head to the side with a smile and seemed to drift off, seeing something Tor and Hailee couldn’t. A quiet chuckle escaped her as a memory came to her. “He was my first love, and we hadn’t even told anybody that we were engaged yet when we went to a family reunion of his. It happened that there were a lot of familiar faces there- I hadn’t really met much of his family before that though. Found out we were cousins- distant ones, but it still creeped me out too much. Gave him back the ring that night. His name was Cullard. Jonathan Cullard. Boy, I haven’t heard from him in years.”

The poor girl was so lost in her memories that she didn’t see the twitch that started in Hailee’s right eye, from behind her glasses. Tor saw it, though. “You kept the ring, right? Or pawned it?”

“Huh?” The girl looked up again. “Oh, no. I couldn’t stand to think about keeping it after all the money he had to spend on it. It was a whole carat after all, and I know how much care he had to take in picking it out. I couldn’t carry that with me.”

Hailee’s face was frozen in a forced smile as she handed the girl the receipt and bag. “Have a nice day,” Tor chimed.

“Thanks! You too!” The girl replied and left unknowing how she had just altered the lives of the other girls. The moment the door shut Hailee glared at Tor who was slightly concerned for her friend’s sanity.

“Oh, Hail’!”

“Girl! We are closing this boutique! Grab your Louisville Slugger!” Hailee demanded as she threw open the cash drawer and began counting the cash and checks.

Tor threw her hands over Hailee’s which stilled them for a few moments. “Let’s be calm about this. No need to go crazy.” Although she was pretty sure her friend had already cracked. Hailee stared back wide-eyed and red in the face, even her hair seemed to be getting frizzled. Who could Tor call?

“No need to go crazy?! He regifted an engagement ring! Who does that?” Hailee’s voice cracked. “Rings are a symbol of a relationship that never ends with the person you pick it out for!” She ripped the ring off her finger and shoved it in Tor’s face. “He wasn’t thinking about me when he picked this out!”

Tor grabbed the ring. “Take a deep breath. This is unfortunate. People make mistakes. It’s best to think calmly and rationally before making any decisions.”

“Tor,” Hailee grabbed the ring back and leveled her gaze. “You can go with me or keep the store open.” She turned back to counting the money drawer. “Tor,” she paused, “do you have any rope in your truck?”

“Oh, no!” Tor exclaimed, “I’m not aiding a criminal act! Don’t pull me into your craziness.”

Shrugging, Hailee simply commented, “Suit yourself.” She shut the drawer and filled out the paper work. “Have you locked the door yet?”

Standing her ground, Tor mulled over the unfolding events. Should she just let the girl go crazy by herself or keep an eye on her? Walking towards the door, she made up her mind, and if cops ended up in the mix, hopefully she’d be caught trying to stop Hailee from doing anything regrettable. Once the girls loaded themselves into Hailee’s 1968 Mustang, they were off to the bank. After safely dropping the store’s deposit off, Hailee floored it through town.

“Tell me, Suga’, what are you thinking?” Tor demanded watching the town fly by her window- Millie’s bakery, which had the best peach pie in the world, along with Anita’s Bridal Shop, Jack’s Frame and Collison, and the Caston’s Drug Mart all passed by in a blur.

Hailee was silent for a few moments while she still seemed to be coming up with a plan. “Did you bring your rope?”

Tor glared at her. “Of course not.”

A few more seconds passed by. “Lousiville Slugger?”

“Nope…. I’m telling you, you really don’t want to do anything that’s going to hold you back in the long run.”

Throwing up her hands, Hailee exclaimed, “Then what do you suggest?” before having to swerve back into the correct lane.

Glancing at passing billboard somethings popped into Tor’s head. “Turn this puppy around, let’s go to Lowe’s.”

After a trip to the home improvement store, the girls were in John’s front yard, hunched over a piece of plywood and a few two-by-fours. Sweat ran down their backs and faces beneath the sun. With the passing of a couple hours now, Hailee had calmed down and quieted. What worried Tor now was letting the girl mull over too many endless scenarios of her and John’s happy memories while she tried to pinpoint any falsehood in her fiancée. Tor found herself mulling over her own memories of dependable John, a history buff, hardworking, always reliable for a laugh, and worked at the local university. Everybody has a past, Tor supposed.

“Well.” Hailee sat back on her heals after putting the first coat of paint done.

“That’s a deep subject,” Tor responded and was delighted to hear Hailee laugh.

Shaking the spray can, Hailee looked at her best friend. “What should we write?”

“Well, he’s going to need to pay for that trip to Europe somehow and all the money he’s put down. How about ‘Used Diamond Salesman’?”

With a smile Hailee nodded and went to work spraying the sign until she paused. “He might need to just sell that trip too.”

“What are you going to do when he gets home and sees this?” Tor gestured at the sign and looked up at the brown two-story house.

“Not answer the phone,” Hailee replied dryly.

“Come on seriously.

Sitting back on her heals again, she scrunched up her faced. “I don’t know. This is our first real big fight in like three years. What if he’s hiding more things?”

“The trust factor is a big deal.”

“What if there’s a good explanation? She did say they found out they were cousins. Maybe he didn’t want to look like a moron. And she said it was before they even told anyone. Maybe they were only engaged for a few hours? How long can a girl go without telling anyone?”

Laughter erupted out of Tor which pulled some giggles out of Hailee also. “Ain’t that the truth? Girl, you weren’t engaged for 30 minutes before you were blowing up my phone with pictures of that ring and you two.”

A few moments passed by as Hailee calmed back down from laughing. There was still a smile on her face as she leaned forward and finished the sign. “Yeah. I’ll answer my phone when he calls. He’s going to have a lot of explaining to do.”

“You’re going to forgive him?”

“We have three great years of memories, and until now he’s been a real winner.”

“What if you’re related to him too?”

More laughter bubbled out of Hailee, “Well, it’d make for a good story at least.”

Standing up, they stepped back to survey their handiwork on John’s front lawn, the girls both sighed and giggled. The sign finally read, “Used Diamond Salesman and Traveling Agent. Contact John Cullard.”

It was something, but still innocent. After riding an ocean of emotions, relief registered in Tor’s heart that Hailee was able to laugh while they’d been carrying this shenanigan out. They should be going. It was getting to be supper time and John would be home soon.

“Call me after you talk to him,” Tor urged her friend as they walked back to Hailee’s car and climbed in.

“For sure.”  Cranking up the radio, Hailee put the car into drive and sped out onto the road. Her voice mixed with the Judd’s song playing as Tor listened again. Once she finally got home, supper made, stalls cleaned, and the two toddlers around, she was still listening. Listening to hear her phone ring with Hailee’s update on the whole fiasco.

After hours of waiting, and nearly giving up and just going to bed, there was a little chime signaling a text message. Tor unlocked her screen to see a picture message from Hailee. It was in black and white and showed a close up of a young couple from the turn of the previous century. Scrolling below the picture, Tor found the short message: “You know why this ring looks vintage? Because it is. It’s from his grandparents- saw the proof of purchase even-“

The phone chimed again and the rest of the text came through, “-Thought I’d let you know- you beat me to being an old married woman and I didn’t want to keep you up too late waiting to hear from me. Talk in the AM!”

Tor gawked at her phone. “But what does this mean?!?!?!” She fervently typed and sent the message off ignoring her friend’s teasing. At least she was joking around.

Ten minutes later a reply came back. “It’s all tentative. That cousin? Happened at the end of high school- I saw the photo from that reunion even!”

Tor almost asked if Hailee was going to bring all the evidence to work in the morning, but she decided to trust the girl to know she was going to dispel all information anyways. After all, she wasn’t the girl’s mother. She was only a friend, and after the whirl wind of the day, Tor realized Hailee could handle herself.

Death Bears New Life by Amanda Poe

In loving memory of my Mammaw: a truly inspiring, spunky, and supportive grandmother

            December 142009: the day that has and will forever transform my life.  The past months had been filled with tears and hope; my Mammaw had been diagnosed with colon cancer. I failed to acknowledge this fact and chose to deny that I could ever lose her. However, on December 14 2009, reality made a rude awakening: cancer had won this battle. The death of my Mammaw transformed my life; the grief that once brewed in my heart grew into new opportunities and passion has filled in the holes of regret and planted a new sense of life.

That night, I experienced the most dramatic grief in my life. As my Mammaw laid in Hospice, breathing heavy and hunched over, I stayed strong for my mom and sisters. I sat quietly holding my Mammaw’s hand and trying to comfort those around me.  I was in denial. I thought by staying strong for everyone else, I would forget that my Mammaw had just died. The reality struck hard that night, despite my denial. I was inconsolable; the tears rolled as a clam, yet rushing river would. I could not even sleep alone that night, because new fears began to rise. I began to fear death, not only my own, but of the ones even closer to me. However, the fear is not what bothered me the most; regret began to stew in my heart. I regretted my Mammaw being in a nursing home for one night out of her entire eighth month battle. I regretted the last words I had said to her while she was conscious. Most of all, I regretted not knowing if she heard the words, “I love you,” as she took her last breath. It was not until the funeral process that I began to recover from my grief and regret.

The transformation began as my mom and I dressed my Mammaw for the funeral. We applied her make up and curled her hair; we were not just facing death, we were triumphing over it. It brought peace to our family that her wishes were completed even though the body we dressed was just a corpse and her spirit looked down from heaven. This bout with grief, regret, and the funeral made me stronger. I began to realize that death is not to be feared, but yet embraced. It gave me peace to know that when my day comes, there is a brighter future ahead.

After returning to life without my Mammaw, my family found strength in new opportunities. There as been a history in my family of babies being born shortly before or after a death has occurred in the family. I was born five months after the death of my grandfather on my mother’s side, and strangely enough, my oldest sister gave birth to her son Jase three months prior to my Mammaws’ death. I have found that death bears new life and opportunities. That November of 2009, I started dating my first serious boyfriend. This new “opportunity” is what helped me cope and embrace the death of my Mammaw, and it puts a smile on my face to know that she met and was pleased with him before she passed. I believe God placed him in my life for a purpose, and we have endured many more hardships over the years that have only made us stronger as a couple.

Another opportunity that derived from her death, was an organization called Nellie’s club. This organization raises money and awareness for pediatric cancer. I had spent a lot of time grieving over the death of my Mammaw, but in reality she had the opportunity to live a long life of happiness. This is not the case when childhood cancer attacks. There have been numerous reporting’s of children being diagnosed with cancer the day after their birth. The fact that these kids were suffering and not even having the opportunity to play outside is one that again transformed the grief I had from the death of my Mammaw into passion for these young kids. I got involved in Nellie’s club my junior and senior year of high school. I quickly learned that these kids were some of the most happy, cheerful, and optimistic kids I have ever had the opportunity to meet. Even though they had chemo treatments and surgeries, and spent the majority of their time in hospitals they had more hope and positivity then I had in my life. Their stories changed my way of thinking. I have learned to be more positive and to take nothing for granted in my life. If five and six year olds can find happiness even when their hair is falling out, and they are told they only have days or weeks to live, I can surely stop feeling sorry for myself.

The death of my Mammaw planted new seeds of life. She inspired me to live each day to the fullest, and to take the opportunities that knock at my door. Her death taught me to get rid of my personal fear of death. I am not afraid of dying anymore, because of the peace I found in God after her death.  I realized that Earth is nothing compared to Heaven; I had been holding onto a life full of heartache and refusing to accept that one day I will die and begin a new, better life with God.  Due to my Mammaw’s death, I helped children with their battles with cancer. This was something I never thought I would do, but it was an experience that changed my life. And now, I try my best to embrace everyday like it was my last, and am now more focused on the words that come from my mouth. If I can give any advice in life, it would be to think before you speak, and let go of the small stuff because you never know when you or the person you are talking with will pass away. My boyfriend and I made the promise to never go to bed angry, and this is a promise that is applied in my family also. Life is too short to live with regret, anger, or grudges.

My family could have chosen to let my Mammaws’ death bury us too, but we chose to come together and create a new sense of life. Last year, on our annual two-week vacation to Orlando, Florida we made t-shirts for every member of our family, and below the Mickey head, it read: in memory of our Mammaw. We decided to live through her, so that when she looks down on us, she can be happy that we did not let death defeat us, instead we manipulated death into bearing new life.  Death only has the power to take a physical corpse; the way you deal with death has the power to transform a life, and even plant a new sense of the life you once knew.

Faustina Hospital by Brent Schroeder

The small, white-tiled waiting room held only two people: Dr. Judith McDowell and Dr. Winston’s assistant. There were only two doors in the room, one to Dr. Winston’s office and one back down to the main wing of the hospital. Light shined through the window on the wall opposite Judith; the clock ticked impatiently second after second, filling the empty silence of the room with its persistent noise. Judith sat in a wooden armchair by the window, ink bleeding onto the pages of her journal as she wrote. Judith felt Dr. Winston’s assistant peering over her shoulder to see what she was writing as she finished her last sentence, which read, “I let another one go.”

Judith clicked the top of her pen, shut her journal, and gave out a disgusted sigh. Without seeing the assistant she asked, “What do you want?”

“Dr. Winston will see you now.”

Judith put her journal in her bag and crossed the waiting room to Dr. Winston’s office. The assistant waited for Judith to enter Dr. Winston’s office before making his way down the corridor to the main wing of the hospital for his break.

Dr. Winston’s office felt small and cold; the black walls held no pictures. Piles of half-finished patient reports, books, and stray cough drop wrappers lay strewn across his desk. Dr. Winston’s eyes were buried in Vernon Goldberg’s report when Judith entered the room. He motioned for her to sit in a small oak armchair with red upholstery and then turned his gaze back to Goldberg’s report. “I’ll be with you in a moment, Judith.”

Judith sat down and waited in silence until Dr. Winston had finished reading the report. He closed the manila file and tossed it on his desk with a sigh. “Why does this report say his cause of death is unknown? Judith, he died because someone pulled the plug on his ventilator.”

“I filed it as such because we do not know how or why the ventilator was unplugged. Should I have filed that his life support was terminated even though we have no clue as to how or why?”

Dr. Winston studied Judith, who remained confident in the midst of an office designed to intimidate. Leaning back in his chair, he scratched his temple and sat up straight. “This looks bad, Judith. He didn’t have any advanced directives signed. We’re talking major malpractice lawsuits. No one is going to believe that the cause of death was unknown, but nothing else is plausible.” Dr. Winston paused and folded his hands in his lap. “You were his attending physician, Judith. You terminated his life support.”

“I di-”

Dr. Winston interrupted, “Stop. We’re going to file the report as physician-determined termination of life support. It is likely that his son will file a malpractice suit against you. I’m sorry, but it must be done.”

“I understand your bullshit hospital politics, but at least let me have a chance to speak.”

Dr. Winston settled back in his chair, squirming back and forth to find a comfortable angle. He eyed the clock, which read 11:02AM, and looked back at Judith, “I have a meeting at 11:30. You have twenty minutes. Be thorough.”

Batteries

                Dr. Judith McDowell has a reputation for being relentless, intense, and unforgiving in the ICU, especially during the night shift. Rumors circulated a year ago that she ran an intern out of the hospital for placing a catheter five minutes later than she needed it. Another version of the story said it was because the intern was too slow to find a vein in a patient’s arm to draw blood. More versions of the rumor circulated, but they all shared one theme: Judith didn’t tolerate anything short of perfection.

The night nurse extended a manila file to Dr. Judith McDowell, “Vernon Goldberg’s file.” Judith snatched the file out of her hand and rifled through it. She muttered to herself, “Paraplegic on a ventilator.” She shut the file and made her way to the Intensive Care Unit. Once she arrived, she noticed that Vernon’s breathing and feeding tubes had already been placed. As a rule, Judith never trusted anyone else’s work when it came to intubation. She examined both the feeding tube and the ventilator, approving of the job done by whoever placed them. Judith then turned to the ventilator to examine Vernon’s oxygen levels. They were stable, but she knew that his condition could take a turn for the worse at any moment. Judith turned to leave, but stopped as something caught her eye along the wall behind the ventilator. It took Judith a moment to realize that the battery charger for the ventilator was unplugged from the outlet. Judith plugged it into the outlet and stormed out of the room.

Judith approached the night nurses’ station in a fury. The night nurse’s name was Rose Franklin. Young and skinny, it was Rose’s first night as the nurse-on-duty during the hospital’s graveyard shift. Judith slammed Vernon’s file on the desk, “Who performed the intubation on Vernon Goldberg?”

“I’ll check. One moment please.” Rose began shuffling through the time log from earlier that day. Judith grew impatient with Rose, sighing deeply every time Rose hesitated.

“You take so long to do your damn job. It’s a wonder anything ever gets done in here.”

Rose stuttered, “L-Lucia Valesquez.” Lucia was a highly recommended physician – “a hell of a doctor” according to the chief of medicine – and graduated first in her class in the University of New Mexico’s medical program. But with Judith McDowell working in the ICU, this was the wrong night for a mistake. Judith knew Lucia was in the physician sleeping quarters; Lucia liked to sleep there in between long shifts.

Physicians often noted how the sleeping quarters felt cramped and smelled arid. Moonlight spilled through the picture window on the east side of the room, illuminating the four sets of bunk beds pushed along the walls. Judith burst into the room and found Lucia in the bottom bunk of the bed closest to the door. The heavy metal door slammed into her bedframe, startling Lucia who sat up quickly and asked, “What is it?”

Judith asked, “Did you perform the intubation procedure on Vernon Goldberg?” Lucia nodded. Judith continued, “Were you the only one?”

“Well, Katie was the nurse assisting me.” Katherine Candace was the head nurse in the ICU earlier that day.

“Did you feel satisfied with your procedure?”

Lucia’s expression shifted to one of confusion, “Yes, I thought so.”

Judith lived up to her reputation, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but part of the procedure includes making sure the batteries are charged for the ventilator. Am I wrong about that?” Lucia shook her head. “Then why was the battery charger unplugged?”

Lucia hung her head for a moment. “We must have missed it.”

“You must have.”

“Is everything alright?”

“Yes. Everything’s fine now.” Judith paused. “We can’t afford that type of intern bullshit around here, Lucia. You know better than that. Don’t get lazy with your job.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too. You’re the last ass I’d expect to have to wipe.”

Lucia went on the defensive, “It was an honest mistake.”

Judith turned to leave and said, “Honest mistakes get people killed in hospitals, Lucia.”

“Just like Manhattan?”

This comment caught Judith off guard. She turned to Lucia, “What?

“I know about your little ‘incident’ in Manhattan, Judith. I know you make mistakes, too,” she said. Judith folded her arms and Lucia pressed, “Or maybe you thought I was the only one to ever botch an intubation. Is that what you thought?

Judith paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. Then she unfolded her arms and said, “I can’t choose to go back and unfuck a situation I’ve already fucked up. But I can choose not to do it again. That’s what I’m choosing.” Judith turned again to leave, “And you should too. Don’t make that mistake again, Lucia.” Judith slammed the door shut behind her as she left.

The hospital’s graveyard shift custodian had a habit of swearing at broken equipment, “Damn this light. It’s always flickering.” He climbed down from the stepladder he had placed beside the nurses’ station, bulb in hand. He handed the bulb to Rose and asked, “Is it alright if I leave this bulb out for a little while? I’m going to need to take a look at the wiring up in the ceiling.”

Rose took the bulb and threw it in the trashcan, “That’s fine. As long as it’s fixed by the time the morning shift rolls in then it should be fine.”

“Sure thing.”

The janitor left as Rose turned back to organizing the stack of files piled high on the nurses’ station desk. Judith came to the desk a few moments later and gave Rose the file on Vernon Goldberg. She said, “Rose, everything’s stable right now. I’ll check back with him in a few hours. Just keep in mind that his condition can worsen at any time, so I want you to check on him every hour. Got that?” Rose nodded and kept the file separate from the others. Judith grabbed a stack of files and continued, “I’m going to the break room to read over a few of the new admissions. I’ll be back in an hour or so. Page me if there’s an emergency, but leave me alone otherwise.”

“I will, Dr. McDowell.”

Rose listened intently to Judith’s sneakers tap the tiled floor on her way down to the physician’s break room. She heard the heavy stainless steel door crash into its frame, confirming that Judith was safely out of earshot. Faustina Hospital was quieter than death at night and Rose hated it. She crouched down and pulled out a portable radio from her purse, set it on the desk, and began to surf channels. Her favorite station was a local jazz station that played live shows late at night, but it was all static now. Rose tried putting the radio in different spots on the desk, but she had no luck. Then she heard a man’s voice behind her – “Excuse me, darling?”

Rose stiffened her back and placed the radio on the desk. She turned and saw the shadowy outline of a tall, large-framed man standing in the darkness beneath the recently removed light bulb. His shoulders looked strong and intimidating. He could probably snap me in half, Rose thought. Rose’s right hand began to quiver, but she tried her best to choke away her fear and said, “Sir, could you please come around to the other side of the desk? I can’t see you.”

“Oh! Of course my darling.” The shadow moved slowly from darkness to light, appearing to float across the floor with little effort. Rose’s fears were not alleviated when the man entered the light. He was dressed in a black full-body trench coat and wearing a black fedora. He clutched a red shoebox under his left arm. Rose guessed his height to be six feet and seven inches, but his large frame misled her to believe that he was muscular. In fact, he appeared quite sickly with pale, wrinkled skin sagging on his weathered face. He smiled wryly at Rose as he spoke, “I should know better than to sneak up on a pretty little thing like you.”

Rose gulped and said, “This is the nurses’ station. How did you get back here? Why are you here?”

“I talked to a doctor down the hall and she sent me back this way. I’ve come to visit my father. You see, he’s very sick and I don’t know how much longer he has to live.”

This guy must be sixty years old. There’s no way his father is still alive, Rose thought. She asked, “Which doctor sent you down here?”

The man rubbed his forehead, “Well, let me think a minute. You see, I’m not good with names. I think it began with an M.”

“McDowell?”

The man snapped his fingers and pointed at Rose, “That’s it, darling! McDowell sent me back here.” He lifted the shoebox onto the desk, “She said that I just needed to show you my proof of kinship and you’d let me go see him.” He shook the box. “It’s all in here.”

“Which patient is your father?”

“Vernon Goldberg.”

Rose found Vernon’s file and opened it. She noted that there was no next of kin. “The hospital’s file says there is no next of kin.”

The man was calm, “Oh? That’s not surprising, I suppose. My mother left him when she discovered that she was pregnant. He never knew he’d fathered a child. In fact, I’ve never even spoken to my father. I recently tracked him down with help of a lawyer. Then I saw a newspaper clipping about his car accident. Truly awful, but at least he is still alive. Perhaps now I can pay my final – or perhaps my only – respects.”

It wasn’t until he finished speaking that Rose realized she’d been nodding intently with his story. She paused a moment to collect herself before continuing, “And your name is?”

“Gregory Robert Ian Malcolm. I recently had the Ian added to my name after I discovered my father’s middle name is also Ian.” Rose glanced back to the file to verify his claim; he was right. “If you remain skeptical,” he continued. “You can see my proof of kinship here.” He tapped the top of the shoebox with his index finger.

Rose slid the box closer to her and lifted the lid slowly. Inside were two documents. The first was analysis from a DNA test. Rose’s eyes were drawn immediately to a sentence that read “This study has proven that Gregory Robert Malcolm is the biological son of Vernon Ian Goldberg and Allison Lynn Miller.” The second was a letter from a lawyer – Howard Grant Jr. – that verified that Gregory’s search for his father was not in violation of any privacy laws. Rose put the papers back in the box, “Why doesn’t this have your second middle name on it?”

“It took me a month to track down my father after I changed my name. My legal name is now Gregory Robert Ian Malcolm, but it was only Gregory Robert Malcolm when the study was completed.” He laughed, “You can understand why I wanted verification before changing my name to his.”

Rose nodded and placed the lid back on the shoebox. She glanced back down the hall nervously, hoping to see Judith come out of the break room. No luck. She turned back to Gregory, whose smile widened, and said, “I’ll show you where he is.”

Judith sat in silence while watching the city breathe through the picture window in the break room. Occasionally, she would sip from the glass of scotch she poured from the bottle she kept hidden in her employee locker. She propped her feet on the coffee table in front of the old, beat-up recliner she loved to sit in. Her journal rested atop the unopened stack of files for new admissions at the foot of her chair. Judith preferred the day shift in the ICU because there were more things to distract her. There were more people to interact with and there were more patients coming and going throughout the day. The night shift was never noisy or distracting. She always had to face her demons.

Javon Taylor was only sixteen years old when Judith killed him in the ICU. Three years ago, Judith was in her third month of being an attending physician in Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. Javon was admitted to the hospital at 3:34PM, receiving immediate care in the emergency room to remove two bullets that a kid put in him after school that day. One bullet broke three of his ribs and grazed his pulmonary vein; the other went into his stomach. Surgery was successful, but he remained in critical condition. At 9:58pm, Javon went into cardiac arrest and required resuscitation with defibrillators. Judith performed this procedure, but the sudden jerking of his body caused both of his lungs to collapse. She then had to insert a breathing tube to open his chest cavity. Judith’s hurry to insert the breathing tube proved to be a fatal mistake. Javon recoiled at the speed of the insertion, causing the tube to break his windpipe. Javon died at 10:03pm.

Judith picked up her journal and wrote, “Graveyard at the ICU reminds me of Javon. All I hear is people gasping for air and then the silence of their death.” Judith closed her journal and threw it back on the stack of new admission files. She got up, walked to the window, and watched the city breathing softly. Streetlights changed their colors slowly and buses crept calmly from stop to stop. Judith saw a woman holding the hand of a five-or-six-year-old girl and leading her to one of the bus stops. The scene was peaceful until the girl began to fuss. The woman with her began to slap the girl and pull on her arm.  Judith shook her head and turned away from the window.  She picked her journal back up, opened it to her latest entry, and wrote, “There’s always something going wrong underneath it all.” Judith heard a muffled sound coming from the hallway as she finished the last word. She focused her attention more on the sound and realized that music was playing. She closed her journal quickly, threw it back on the stack of files, and left the break room.

Judith returned to the nurses’ station. Instead of finding Rose, she found Rose’s portable radio lying face up on the desk, blasting jazz music. Judith turned the radio off and called out, “Rose? Where are you?” Moments passed before Rose returned.  Judith asked her again where she was.

“Sorry, I was just down at Vernon’s room,” Rose replied.

“How is he?”

“Everything was normal.”

“Good,” Judith replied. She picked up the radio, “Rose, I found this on when I came back. Have you been playing the radio when I’m not around?”

Rose grabbed the radio from her hand, “What, it was on? That’s crazy. I just have it in my purse for my ride to and from work.” Judith crossed her arms. “Okay, sometimes I listen to it during the really late hours. I have it real quiet though.”

“It was pretty loud when I got here. You know this can be distracting, right?”

Rose’s eyes dropped and she said, “Yes. I’m sorry Dr. McDowell. It’ll never happen again.”

Judith held up the radio, “I know it won’t. I’m taking it for the rest of the night.” She slid the radio into the large pocket on the right side of her coat. Then, Judith eyed the clock and noted that only forty-five minutes had passed since she left for the break room. She said, “It’s only been forty-five minutes. I told you to check on him every hour.”

“Oh yeah, well I figured I’d just check everything while I was down there.”

“Right,” Judith said. Then she realized, “Wait, while you were down there? Why were you down there?”

Confused by the question, Rose said, “I showed Gregory to Vernon Goldberg’s room.”

Judith wrinkled her brow, “Who?”

“Gregory Malcolm. You know, the man you told to come down here?”

“What are you talking about?”

Rose crossed her arms and shifted her weight to her left foot, “What do you mean? How can you not remember sending him down here?”

Judith stiffened her back, “Rose, I want you to tell me what this man looks like.”

“Um, he’s tall, wearing a lot of dark clothes, and has a really creepy smile. He’s really sweet though.”

“Why do you think that I sent him down here?”

Rose’s face twisted into a confused smile, “Because he said you did.”

Judith’s eyes widened and she said, “Rose, I didn’t tell anyone to come down here. Who is Gregory Malcolm?”

Rose answered, “He’s Vernon’s son.”

Judith tore through the files strewn about the nurses’ station desk, found Vernon’s file, and opened it. She threw it down on the desk and said, “Rose, he doesn’t have a—” Judith’s voice trailed off. Then she whispered, “That’s so strange.”

Rose stared at Judith for a moment and eventually her eyes drifted down to Vernon’s file. Her jaw dropped as she read,

NEXT OF KIN: GREGORY ROBERT IAN MALCOLM, SON

Judith’s disbelief colored every word she spoke, “I could have sworn he did not have any next of kin.”

Rose shook her head, “He didn’t.”

Judith looked at Rose, “Then why does it say he does?”

“I don’t know. It didn’t say that earlier.”

“What do you mean?”

Rose replied, “When he came in, I double checked his file. It said there was no next of kin. This guy had a shoebox with a DNA test that said Gregory was Vernon’s son and a letter from his attorney saying Gregory’s search for his father was legitimate.”

“Then why does it say that this guy is his next of kin?”

Rose’s gaze met Judith’s as she said, “I don’t know.”

Gregory pulled a chair beside Vernon’s bed and sat down. He watched the man before him struggle to stay alive. He drew closer to the bed and stretched out his arms, placing one hand on Vernon’s mouth and another on his stomach. He muttered, “Sanabitur enim momenta magis.” Then, Gregory stood and gripped the ventilator, pulling it out slowly. Vernon’s eyes shot open and he gasped for a few moments before his breath steadied. Smiling, Gregory threw the ventilator on the floor and said, “Hello, Vernon.”

Vernon’s eyes darted around the room in a panic, “Where am I?”

Gregory sat back down and said, “Faustina Hospital; in the Intensive Care Unit, to be more precise. You’re in room 6A, if you want to be extremely specific.”

Vernon’s gaze met Gregory’s and he said, “Are you a doctor?”

“No, I am an old friend. We’ve not been formally introduced, but I trust you’ve always known I would visit.”

Vernon noticed the ventilator on the floor. “Did you pull that out of me?”

“Yes.”

“Then how am I not dead?”

Gregory replied sarcastically, “Do you believe in the healing power of prayer?”

Vernon grunted with disgust, “No.”

“Then why do you think you’re still alive?”

Vernon raised his eyebrow and curled his lip. He turned his gaze back to the ventilator and then back to the man before him. His eyes widened with clarity, “You’re Death.”

Gregory smiled, “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Vernon chuckled, “It’s about damn time, you know?”

“It’s not quite time yet, Vernon.”

Vernon rolled his eyes, “Will it ever be?”

“Yes, very soon. But, I want to talk with you first.”

“Okay, let’s talk. What do you want to talk about?”

“Have you led a happy life, Vernon?”

Vernon replied, “I suppose so, yeah.”

“What did you do that you were especially proud of?”

Vernon thought for a moment, “Well, I built a successful business in New York City.”

Gregory smirked, “That you did. What else?”

“Well, I donated to charity a lot.”

“What else?”

“My parents loved me.” Vernon paused, “Until you came to visit them, that is.”

Gregory replied, “I visit everyone eventually.”

Vernon nodded. Then, he looked at Gregory, “Why the hell do you want to know about all this?”

Gregory folded his hands in his lap, “It’s an insufferable condition that I am in. I am indifferent to your pain because I have no sense of what pain is. But I know it’s not a moment of joy for many of you. You people fear me. You run from me as much as you can.”

“No one escapes,” Vernon said.

“I have no feeling of what it must be like to feel accepted, or to have children, or to create a piece of art,” Gregory continued. “You and I are similar in that regard.”

Vernon’s tone turned defensive, “What are you talking about? My family loved me. They accepted me. How the hell would you know anyway?”

Gregory smirked, “Because they told me as much when I visited them.”

Vernon frowned. “So what? You want to know what it’s like to be human?”

“No, but I am curious as to how humans live their lives,” Gregory said. “I assume that my interest is not unlike the interest scientists have for studying the lives of insects.”

“And so you’ve kept me alive long enough for you to get your fill of what it’s like to talk to people on their deathbed?” Gregory nodded. Vernon sighed, “Then I think I’m done talking to you. Can we just get this over with?”

Gregory nodded, “You’ve been a good enough sport about this, so I’ll give you the choice. Is there any way you would prefer to die?”

Vernon looked at all of the tubes connected to his body: his feeding tube, intravenous fluids, a catheter, and so forth. He looked at Gregory and said, “Give me a lethal dose of painkillers and unhook me from this shit.”

Gregory stood up, “As you wish.”

Judith panicked and hurried down the hallway, “I’m going to Vernon’s room. Call security.” Rose called security from the phone at the nurses’ station and listened to the sound of Judith’s shoes tapping against the ground on her way to the ICU.

Judith arrived in the ICU and noticed nothing was out of the ordinary, hearing only the buzzing of ventilators and beeping of heart monitors. She crept to Vernon’s room and peeked through the curtains. She saw the ventilator tossed on the floor, but there was only Vernon. She rushed into the room and checked Vernon’s vitals. It was too late; he had been dead for minutes. Judith screamed in frustration and pounded her fists on Vernon’s chest. She knew she’d let another patient slip away.

The night guard arrived ten minutes later and found Judith cleaning the room. She had moved the ventilator into the corner, pushed all of the chairs out of the room, and took all of the tubes off Vernon’s bed, etc. She called his time of death at 1:00AM exactly. The guard entered the room and asked, “Is there anything I can do, doctor?”

Judith replied, “No, I think I’ve got this. Have you gotten a chance to review security tapes?”

“Not yet, m’am, but I haven’t seen anyone enter the building all night. I will double check for sure though.”

Judith coiled up the power cord to the ventilator and said, “Let me know what you find out.”

“Will do, m’am,” he said and left the room.

Dr. Winston stroked his chin as he leaned back in his leather chair. He thought for a moment, staring at the beautifully sunny view of Central Park the window in his office afforded him. The moment passed and he looked back at Judith, “Is that all?”

“That’s all.”

Dr. Winston stood up and walked around the desk, “Not quite, Judith. I know something you don’t. We weren’t going to tell you, but I’m quite certain that you need to know.” He sat down on the desk in front of Judith, “We watched the security tapes.”

“And?”

“And we don’t know how to respond. First, no one entered the hospital last night fitting that description. Second, Rose Franklin never talked to anyone. We have her on tape carrying on a beautiful conversation with herself, however. The last bit is the strangest of all, though,” Dr. Winston said as he grabbed his laptop out of his bag on the floor. “I think you need to watch for yourself.”

Dr. Winston opened a file of the security tape for Vernon Goldberg from 12:55AM to 1:05AM from the previous night. Everything was normal for the first few seconds, but then a chair moved across the room and stopped beside Vernon’s bed. Then, the ventilator seemed to remove itself and Vernon began carrying on a conversation by himself. The tapes did not have sound, but Judith could clearly read his lips as he said, “You’re Death.” After about three or four minutes of talking, Vernon died. Judith shook her head, “So what does this mean?”

“This means,” Dr. Winston said as he put the laptop back on the desk. “…nothing. This means nothing at all. This never happened, Judith. He had no next of kin and no one came to visit him. We’re not interested in the supernatural at this hospital. So as far as we’re concerned, he died of natural causes.”

“What about Rose?”

“We’ll tell her the same. It’s best that this hospital not get involved in supernatural speculation. It’ll get in the way of our quality medical care.”

Judith’s eyes dropped and she thought for a few moments. Then, she said, “So that’s it then? He died of natural causes at 1:00AM?”

“That’s correct.”

Judith sat in silence for a few moments before getting up to leave. She opened the door, paused, and turned back to Dr. Winston, “So what should I believe?”

Dr. Winston said, “As far as I’m concerned, Dr. McDowell, you are entitled to believe whatever the hell you want. So as long as you don’t share your beliefs with anyone, then I’ll be perfectly happy.” Judith nodded and left.

Judith walked to the main entrance of the hospital, paused, and pulled out her journal. She clicked her pen and finished her latest entry. She read the words to herself under her breath.

“Maybe I didn’t do anything wrong. The Reaper comes for everyone eventually.” She put her journal in her bag and walked outside, smiling as the warmth of the sun embraced her.

The First Peach by Jesse Roth

Summer means peaches. Real ones, not those half-mush balls or too-sweet slices you buy at the grocery. Fresh, perfect peaches. Those fuzzy, soft, mouth-watering fruits would sit just out of my 5-year-old arm’s reach, taunting me in the backyard of Grandpa’s farm for months. He told us that hard work and patience is what made the peaches taste so good. We couldn’t have them right away, it took almost all summer until they were ripe, but Grandpa was right, the waiting made them taste even better. This year was special, he told us. New peach trees were going to bloom and the first of thousands of peaches would fill up the tall branches for millions of years to come. This year, he said, my brother and I could be the ones to eat those very first peaches. That’s why I was extra impatient on this particular afternoon. The peaches, Grandpa said, were ripe and ready to be picked.

We spent the whole summer on that farm and each day held promise of hard work, adventure, and time with Grandpa. He spent every minute he could outside, and every day I followed him around, learning how to drive a post, to break a horse, to plant and weed a garden, to trim trees and bushes, and to appreciate the little things. And the best way to learn to appreciate something was to work for it.  I hated the work, but only because I was too young to realize its true importance, too small to see what Grandpa was trying to teach me. I got so frustrated at myself, because my little arms weren’t strong enough to hold a post-driver by myself, and I couldn’t hoe the garden as fast as Grandpa could. I’ve always been one to get frustrated if things weren’t working right. And just when I wanted to quit, he knelt down on one knee, offering his leg as a seat and told a goofy joke to lighten the mood.

Today was no different. Mid-August, and I was grumpy. “Now Jesse,” he started, “you know what is so great about beans?” I shook my head as he smiled mischievously, his gold tooth gleaming in the summer sun, his mirth infectious. “Well gee whiz! Beans, Beans! The musical fruit! The more you eat, the more you toot! The more you toot, the better you feel! Let’s have beans for every meal!” We doubled over giggling, laughing because it felt good to be silly. “Let’s take a break,” he said, “I’m old and fat and sweaty and I need a Coke.” I replied, “Me too.” He put his hands on his hips and asked, “You’re old and fat and sweaty, too?” More giggles filled the yard as we walked up to the house and he asked, “Want to swing for a while?”

He led me up to the front porch swing, plopped down and said, “Sit your hooscow right here next to mine.” I climbed up beside him and sipped my Coke, my feet dangling over the swing, still too short yet to reach the ground, wondering why he called my butt a “hooscow”. Just then, my droopy-eyed 3-year-old little brother wobbled out the screen door, little tufts of blonde hair sticking up every which way.  Jack clamored up onto Grandpa’s lap, yawning hugely after his daily nap and saying, “Ooo eee gedda eatah spehshol pea chiz how?” Confused, we waited for Jack to finish his yawn before asking him to reiterate. Fixing on his trademark grumpy face, Jack scowled and his tongue poked out of the side of his mouth as he tried to remember how you were supposed to cross your arms when someone wasn’t listening to you correctly. His breath coming out in a little huff of exasperation, he repeated, “I said, do we get to eat the special peaches now?” With a small wink, Grandpa nodded his head in affirmation. Suddenly, no longer tired, Jack bounded off the swing and ran full-tilt to the backyard, as if getting there first would mean he got something better than me, which seemed to be his motive for doing just about everything lately. I walked with Grandpa and Maud, knowing that Grandpa was intentionally moving at a glacial pace to teach Jack the same lesson about patience that he had previously taught me. We stopped between the two, small peach trees that held dozens of yellow-red fruits that were ripe for the picking. Maud sauntered up to my left side and stuck her chocolate-colored muzzle underneath my hand, her tail wagging lazily in the sweltering heat.

We sat down in a straight line, Maud, Jack, and I, and looked up expectantly at Grandpa, who stood just in front of us; his glasses flecked with dust, his pot belly peeking out of the bottom of his white V-neck, his calloused hands reaching into his back pocket to pull out that old blue handkerchief to wipe the sweat off his balding dome.  He began the backyard ceremony by saying, “These peaches we are about to eat were hard work, you hear? Everything you get to enjoy on this earth is worth the hard work you put in to get it. And we have to appreciate it, because the harder you work, the more you get. You kids have worked for me all summer, and now we get to enjoy the fruits of our work,” he paused momentarily to chuckle at his own pun, which I wouldn’t understand until a Social Studies teacher explained it to me some years later. “Jack, this tree,” he gestured to the one on his left, “is now your tree. You eat the first fruit from it, and we name it after you.” Jack’s eyes got big and his lips curved up into an ear-splitting grin. Grandpa then directed me to the tree on his right and said, “Here’s your tree, Jess.” I walked under the low-hanging, heavy-laden tree, and began my search for the perfect, first peach.

Jack, the impatient one, found the peach nearest to him and yanked it off the tree. I took more time, combing through the leaves, comparing the size and shade of each peach I saw, until I located one, about the size of my tiny hand, and carefully plucked it from amongst its peers. I turned towards Jack and Grandpa, noticing that Jack was no longer interested in waiting for me and was carelessly tossing his peach into the air. Oh well, I thought. I took my special peach and sank my teeth into the soft, fuzzy skin, giggling when the juices ran down my chin, wetting my shirt.  Suddenly, Jack tossed his special peach too high and lost sight of it in the bright glare of the sun. At that exact moment, Maud gathered her haunches and leapt up, snatching Jack’s peach right out of the air. Seeing his special peach being shredded by the dog, Jack started crying. This was his first lesson about patience, and I couldn’t help but laugh. It was just so Jack. He wiped his tears on his shirt and said quietly, “It’s okay, Maud deserves the peach. I took a nap when you guys worked. I’ll have the second peach from the tree.” There may not be a difference to anyone else between that first peach and the second, but I know that my peach was sweeter.

Gray Days Are Still Good Ones by Jesse Roth

“What’s your favorite color?” This is an innocent enough question, right? It’s not difficult, there’s no wrong answer, and you don’t have to worry about offending anyone. They’re just colors, they saturate everything, and are seemingly unimportant; unless they’re flashy or clashy, then we notice them. At least, that’s what I hear.

Crap, I’m going to be late.

As I brush my teeth, my thoughts drift. I’m eleven again, and my eye doctor is babbling quickly about how it’s “really cool” that I’m colorblind. Reds and greens, can’t see them. The rest of the spectrum is a sea of gray, unless it’s a huge block of one color, which is easier to distinguish. It is crazy rare to find a girl that not only carries the gene, but is actually affected by it. Translation: your body is as weird as you are. Whatever, at least there’s something unique about me. When you’re eleven, colors don’t mean anything. I rinse and spit, abruptly squashing the memory back into my mental vault.

Breakfast time. There’s a reason why girls shouldn’t be colorblind. I mean, yeah, it still sucks for a colorblind guy, but at least no one cares if he doesn’t match. And high school is all about picking people apart. Maybe not all of the time, but it comes up pretty frequently. That dress does NOT go with those shoes. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that outfit. She looks terrible, wearing a pink shirt and red jacket. Let’s go to the mall, I need a new shirt for my date. Babe, I need you to tell me which tie matches your dress for prom. Suddenly, colors are important. Well, damn.

“HURRY UP, JACKWAGON!” I yell. “If we’re late, it’s your fault!” I want to leave his pokey butt here, but I’m Jack’s chauffer until next month, when he will finally, hopefully, get his license. I run downstairs, my eyes scanning the house. Crap, mom already left. I was going to have her check my outfit, I think it matches. Light-wash Vigoss jeans, navy blue shirt with gray writing and paint splatters, and my gray shoes with blue accents. My favorite, I’ve had them for about 4 years, and they fit my long, skinny feet perfectly. This is a rarity for me, finding shoes that fit my size-nine left foot and size-eight right foot simultaneously. Oh, shoes. I just love them. Another thing I can’t buy without help. I mean, my matching skills aren’t the worst, which I think is pretty funny. But sometimes my guess-and-check method doesn’t always work.

I start my birthday present, a gray Ford Mustang. That’s funny too, my parents buying their colorblind daughter a gray car. If they’d gotten any other color, it still would’ve been gray to me. Jack slides in and I press the gas, heading down the familiar roads to school. I brake at the only stoplight in town, it’s a Top-light, so I wait. Bottom-light flashes and holds, I ease forward and turn right, then pull into my spot and park swiftly. I run into the school, narrowly avoiding being late, and the first half of my day gone just as quickly.

I go through the lunch line with my friends. I look at my milk. White milk again, ugh. I guess I wasn’t paying attention and picked up the blue carton of white milk instead of the brown chocolate milk carton. Amy and I were talking, so I grabbed the wrong milk. She had been asking about guess-and-check, my method of figuring out what colors are in front of me. “What color is my shirt?” is a question I get asked a lot, so I just started comparing the inquirer’s shirt color to things that I knew the relative grayness (color?) of. For example, stop sign gray is similar, but not identical to, Ohio State gray (which I’m told is called “scarlet”). The comparisons help to assuage their curiosity, ending the game before I’ve had to incorrectly guess 40 people’s shirt colors. This conversation always ends with an exclamation like “Wow that’s amazing that you figured out the color of my shirt!” To which I usually reply, “I’m colorblind, not disabled.”

As I sit in sixth period after lunch, waiting for class to start, my mind returns to last weekend’s Presidential Scholarship Competition. I hope I win; Bluffton University is my favorite college. I didn’t know there would be a presentation before the essay though. And it was all charts and graphs, conveniently color-coded for everyone’s easy understanding. Well, almost. Personally, I spent that hour clinging to every word the orator said, knowing that the graph squiggles and pie charts were of no help to me.

The last bell of the day rings, and I race off. I’m at the stop light again; it’s a Middle-light. I accelerate and make it through. I pull into the parking lot of the town’s lone fast food joint, Subway. I’ve been working here for about 5 months and I love it. My boss says hi as I walk in, asks me if I noticed which one of his eight Mustangs he drove today. I guess the silver 2007. I’m wrong, of course. It’s his 2005 Windveil Blue Ford Mustang, a light blue car with the same body style as the ’07. At least I was close this time.

I take my place in the make-line. I’m on veggies and sauces today, my least favorite; mostly because I have to memorize the order of all of it. The veggies aren’t awful, the shapes are different. But the sauces are color-coded on top, and I can’t use that system, so I either memorize every sauce’s place or I deal with grumpy customers who wonder why I have to read every single sauce label before I find their Light Mayonnaise.

The hours whisk by and then it’s closing time. I change out of my grubby work uniform and back into my earlier outfit. I shut off the lights and lock up. Four miles later, I pull into the driveway of our farm and let out a sigh of relief. My long day is finally over. Smiling, I swing the front door open and look down at my dog, Lilly. She’s wagging her tail, waiting for me to give her some love. I’m rubbing her ears up and down when Mom walks into the living room, surveys my outfit, and says, “Ummm, Jess? You do know those shoes are brown, right?”

Kidnapped by Caitlin Nearhood

For once in my life, I didn’t feel safe with my father.

As I sat in an uncomfortable, musty-smelling apartment that appeared to be half booby-trapped, I wondered why this happened. All I could think about was how soon Mom would find out about this. It wouldn’t be long, that’s for sure. At that moment, my dreams of going to UCLA and become an optometrist were already in jeopardy. I didn’t know what he would do to me! Dad has changed since the divorce, in quite drastic ways that could harm me. I was sure he couldn’t be trusted anymore.

Only a few hours earlier, everything was normal. I carefully studied my calculus notes in my favorite chair in the living room in front of the enormous picture window. Mom usually worked an hour over her normal shift at the office, so I had the house to myself. Ever since Mom and Dad split up five years ago, Mom has worked extra hours that turn into more money for rent and my college education. I never see her sometimes! Suddenly, the silence broke as I heard pounding on the door, and I found myself crouched behind the chair. After a half a minute of silence, the door handle jingled repeatedly. Whoever it was, he or she was trying to get in and had a key. Only one person came to mind: Dad. It was the first time I’d seen him since he was released from jail for burglary charges. How did he still have a key to the house?

It didn’t take him long to find my distraught self. “You’re coming with me, Michelle!” He growled as he forced me outside into the moist atmosphere and into his truck. Without a chance to grab any important personal items, including my cell phone, I obeyed his orders and buckled up for a high speed trip into an unknown future.

What would he do to me? It certainly was not my fault he didn’t pay child support for three years, and I knew that he wouldn’t  pay a dime into my college fund. Before the divorce and their scary arguments, he helped me practice for basketball encouraged me to practice enough to receive a basketball scholarship. My work ethic definitely improved because of  him. We had daddy-daughter dates that included playing mini golf and going out for movies and ice cream. Simple things like that. We were close. Once the split was settled, it was as if he forgot everything we did together.  I don’t know what happened, but I know I shouldn’t expect anything from a deadbeat. I honestly didn’t know what made him choose this lifestyle, other than the divorce treated him horribly.

“Go ahead, sit down,” he ordered after a long, quiet car ride.  His living room smelled like weed and other suspicious substances, and the chair felt like it wouldn’t hold me for much longer.  Half of the blinds that were meant to for the front window were missing, and empty beer cans trashed the floor in random areas of the apartment. I’m pretty sure the plastic bags in the living room were filled with illegal substances, too. Gross! Clearly, I needed to escape. The only option that ran through my mind was to jump out the bathroom window and locate for the nearest subway station until the stop for Union City and flag down a taxi  until it arrived at my house. I twisted my blonde curly hair around my index finger and tried to think about my plan more in depth.

“Want some hot chocolate?” he kindly asked as if all of this never happened. I’ve never seen a grin on his face as huge as his. His kindness confused me. Maybe he was really trying to be nice.

“S…Sure.” How do I know he hasn’t poisoned it?  A small, boiling hot coffee mug is handed to me and I thank him nervously. I thought I would wait until it cooled for a taste, or maybe I wouldn’t drink it at all.

“How’s my little girl?” he asked innocently. I sensed that a shallow conversation shall ensue. The grin was still glued to his face, as if nothing out of the ordinary has just happened. His beard was the longest I’ve ever seen it, and his hair wasn’t too far behind. It was as if he tried to become a homeless person—on purpose. He dressed himself  in sweatpants, a stained over-sized t-shirt and holey sneakers. Is that all he wears nowadays? His green eyes looked lost, and his salt and pepper hair had no order. The more I stayed, the more I found it hard to believe that the man in front of me was indeed my father.

“…I’m fine, I guess,” I replied with hesitation. I had a feeling that Dad was scheming something.

“Fine? You don’t sound like you’re fine.”

Apparently, he couldn’t distinguish my tone of voice .

“Dad, what happened to you? Why did you let yourself go like this? This isn’t the real you.”

He didn’t reply. He just stared at me, as if he were in a trance. I don’t think he wanted to talk about that. Unfortunately for him, “quality time” with his daughter was going to be cut short. Five minutes of pause passed before I excused myself to the restroom.

With the door locked behind me, I analyzed the environment. The view from outside the window, at first, made the apartment seem higher off the ground, but a closer look confirmed that in reality, the distance from the bathroom window to the ground reached about four and a half feet. I could jump. Perhaps the grassy landing spot wouldn’t be as cushioned as I would have liked it, but it was definitely worth a try. I sat on the window ledge and made sure that I really wanted to try this. I wasn’t sure my small frame could handle this.

Knock. Knock. knock. All three sounded similar to the “knocking” at Mom’s house before I was taken. Dad must’ve had separation anxiety or perhaps he was just high. Before he had a chance to say anything or break down the door, I took a deep breath and jumped, hoping to land on both feet safely.

Amazingly, I landed as if I were a cat. I ran toward the lights that came from behind his apartment. Luckily, no fences blocked my path. Now I knew how it felt to run a one-hundred meter race out of shape! Hurriedly, I found a street, followed  it to its intersection, and found myself in the heart of San Francisco. For not knowing San Francisco very well, I managed to discover various paths that could aid me in my escape as I wandered around the city for a half an hour or so.  I discovered an entrance to the subway station. I could finally get away!

Soon enough, I realized that I may not have enough money to escape. My pockets felt empty, but with a second check, I collected eight dollars in George Washingtons. With just my luck, Union City was one of the stops on the route. I boarded the train with no regrets. It was crowded, but I managed to squeeze in somehow. As the train took off, I swayed and lost my balance and accidently stepped on a few toes that belonged to annoyed faces as we went as fast as the speed of light. When I managed to look around, I saw rather exhausted expressions as everyone was ready get off the dirty subway train and to go home after a long day. At last, I am free.

“Upcoming stops ahead include Noe Valley, Bernal Heights, and Union City”, the train conductor announced over a mediocre speaker system.

Briefly, I felt someone’s eyes staring at me from behind. I looked, but saw no culprit. Surely, I was probably still paranoid after seeing Dad in his depressed and mischievous state. Minutes later, I had the same sensation, and turn to see that someone was truly staring at me now. Another homeless figure refrained from looking away as we exchanged gazes for only a few seconds. The train stopped, and I stepped off with several others hurriedly. I didn’t understand as to why he decided to follow me.

I realized that I missed my stop as I headed up the stairs to the world above. Crap. The world that awaited me was much worse than the downtown area. I couldn’t help but walk slowly and hope that gun shots don’t ring out somewhere close. For three blocks I walked in the suspicious neighborhood in the early morning, until I have the same eerie feeling that I had on the subway train. All around, it seemed like someone would pop out from behind a corner and kidnap me again, because that’s just what I needed. Slowly, I turned, to see that the same homeless guy was following me just a block behind. I ran, trying not to look back. I had never been this scared in my life. In a few blocks, the environment looked more welcoming, and I continued to run despite my coughing spell from the cold air taking over my lungs.

Fortunately, I saw taxis sitting alongside the street ahead. The homeless guy’s footsteps behind me sounded  louder than before, and I sprinted to find a taxi that could take me home. Desperately, I jumped  into one, to find a Chinese driver asleep at the wheel.

I shook him furiously. “Wake up!” I couldn’t wait any longer. I thought I lost the homeless guy.

He awoke  slowly. “Where to?”

“Union City.”

The taxi begins to take off. I prayed that he would know how to get to Union City. I would have to convince Mom to move to a different suburb to prevent another occurrence like this. But to where? I was pretty sure Dad knew my neighborhood and the area too well, even when he’s high. I don’t know. I further directed the driver when familiar landscape came into sight, like the park I used to play in, my high school, and other memorable places along the way.

The image of Dad couldn’t leave my mind. And it probably wouldn’t leave. I did have some hope that Dad and I would reconcile some, but that never happened. I remembered the good times we had, and I mourned as if Dad had died. In reality, a part of him did.

After fifteen minutes of travel, the taxi driver arrived at my residence. Mom happened to be home, too. She seemed like she had been awake for awhile, to see if I would come home soon or not. I could only imagine how she felt.

I leaped out of the taxi to greet her at the door with an embrace. The taxi didn’t move, but I knew why.

“Thank God you came back!” she exclaimed. Her sobs grew louder and louder as she held me longer. “I thought you wouldn’t come back! I called you, but-”

“I didn’t run away, if that’s what you thought, “I explained. “It’s a long story, really.” Let’s be honest, where would I begin? Even though it was quite the adventure, I learned that I could take care of myself, and that Dad couldn’t be trusted any longer.

“I’ll tell you in a little bit, but can you  pay the taxi driver first?”