by Austin Eichelberger
Allen stood in the bright morning light spilling through the narrow doorway of their bedroom, looking at the patched blanket across the bed where he and Elaine slept, the skin of his bicep molding around the corner of the door frame. His arms were folded and he stood in silence, one leg relaxed and behind him – as if it was dark out and he was pausing sleepily as he came back from the kitchen with a glass of water or a Tums. The bed – that same wooden, four-post frame where his grandfather had been conceived; the sheets Elaine usually smoothed after he had left for the auto shop; the quilt her grandmother had made when Elaine was still in diapers – sat empty, seeming very flat and far too large, as if a body should be resting there, as if a body should always be there. Even the sunlight that fell across the quilt was gray, Allen thought, as his eyelid twitched; all the blues and reds and oranges looked muted.
Across town – in another bed, with a white sheet pulled up to her chest and clear tubes making graceful turns out of her nostrils – Elaine laid awake, nestled between the dull whistles and murmurs of hospital machines. She had been home a few days before while Allen was still at work – after teaching her three piano lessons for the day – when she collapsed from a rare sort of seizure pattern that can pop up in mid-life without warning, a tangled string of syllables that the doctors said quickly and without relief in their voices. Allen had told Elaine that he’d be home at five-thirty, which turned out to be just a half-hour or so after she stopped walking and began falling down the stairs – laid there with her forehead daintily on the bottom step, her dark blonde hair fanned out around her – but Allen had forgotten she was making chicken parmesan and renting a movie – honestly – and went out for a beer with Dave after work.
Allen had not arrived home until six-forty, a full hour and fifty minutes after Elaine’s thigh jerked and her eyes rolled back, and by the time he found her – so still and beautiful, her face relaxed and eyes closed, like she had decided to nap in the strangest of places – her face was slightly puffy and a string of dried saliva ran out of her mouth, up her cheek, past her eye, and onto the carpeted floor. The saliva was specked red, like the glass pendant he had bought her for their last anniversary, and her tongue sat limp against her teeth, pushing slightly against her open lips. Allen had called 911 and rushed around the house, turning off the oven and fanning smoke from the alarm, trying to pin down how long ago it had happened, if he could’ve been home to catch her, how far she had fallen and if it caused any extra injuries, if lying upside down on the stairs like that for long enough could cause brain damage or encourage blood clots. She had been in the hospital ever since on doctor’s orders, despite Allen’s arguments, despite his adamant claims that monitoring Elaine was his job.
Allen blinked against the suddenly harsh light of their bedroom, turned his head from the dust motes settling on Elaine’s quilt, and coughed roughly as he straightened up. He didn’t know how long he’d been standing in the doorway, staring at the bed as if waiting for movement, for Elaine to pop out from under the impossibly flat sheets, smile at him with her twisted grin and apologize for taking the joke so far. Allen scratched the side of his head and decided to go out for a smoke, thinking of what Elaine had said on Monday as she laid between those pale hospital sheets: ‘We can’t blame ourselves, Al. Some things just happen.’ She had smiled at him after she’d said it, rubbed the back of his hand with her soft palm. He’d told her he had to go, had errands to run and a few things to do around the house. ‘Okay, baby,’ she’d said, reaching out for a hug. ‘Be safe.’
Now, on their front porch, Allen snorted out smoke and crushed his cigarette on the wooden railing, leaving a tiny smoldering pile of black tobacco on the clean white surface. He walked back into the house, past her coats hanging by the front door, the slippers she left in the living room the week before, the pan in the sink filled with crispy, blackened chicken and burnt cheese, before stopping by the answering machine and its blinking red light. He lifted the old cordless phone from the kitchen wall and scrolled through the missed calls – four over the past two days from the auto shop’s main number and three missed today straight from his boss’ private line. Allen reached out and held down the delete button before setting the phone back in its cradle, listening absently to the shrill pealing tone even after all the unheard messages had gone, and then padded back down the hall toward their bedroom doorway.
– Austin Eichelberger is happily still teaching English and writing. His fiction has appeared in Cease, Cows, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Gone Lawn, Extract(s), Eclectic Flash, First Stop Fiction, and others. You can find more of his writing at austineichelberger.wordpress.com.