She stood on the railroad tracks listening for the train when another sound started in the distance, soft at first then growing louder, closer. She recognized the sound, knew in a moment that the siren was coming closer, coming for her father. As she bolted down the dirt path toward home, a window opened in her mind’s eye and she knew what had happened. Time is like that when the world is twisting in on itself and turning upside down. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe it was the old man across the street they were looking for this time. He was old and surely his time was near.
She stopped at the edge of the yard. Her brother paced back and forth, his hands pressed tight against his ears, his steps quick against the worn path. Her father lay sprawled in the front yard with her mother bent over him. The ambulance driver cut the siren, turned into the driveway, and stopped just behind the Buick.
“Girl! Where have you been?” Her mother’s question twisted in the air like a bat caught inside a barn.
Her father’s face was paler than his sweat-stained t-shirt. His legs were strewn carelessly as though they might not still be joined, foot to ankle, leg to hip. Everything about him was damp and clingy. He smelled of rancid sweat.
Her mother wiped his face with a cold towel, looked into his eyes and said, “Don’t you leave me. Don’t you dare.”
The girl watched as the attendants brought the stretcher out and moved him into the ambulance. Her mother climbed into the back alongside the stretcher, gathered the skirt of her yellow housedress, tucked it under her thigh, and crouched down beside him. She said, “Don’t you step one toe outside this yard before I get back. Keep your eye on your brother and don’t let that dog chase us.”
“Is he going to be alright?” the girl asked.
“God’s will,” her mother said.
A vision of God’s will formed in the girl mind: ancient letters printed on a scroll of parchment wrapped around ornate gold handles and carried on a cloud so that it should never touch the earth. There was no way to know God’s will. She stared into the back of the ambulance, at the stretcher, the blinking machines, the soles of her father’s socks. She gripped her brother’s fidgeting hand tighter, curled her fingers around the dog’s collar and said, “Stay.”
The driver slammed the rear double doors shut and said, “Don’t worry, kid. We’ll take good care of your pop.” A red hot ball of panic broiled inside her ribcage. Tires crunched over gravel and the ambulance sped away.
Her brother craned his neck, watching until it was out of sight. When it turned off their street, the siren sounded again. It screamed for a moment then faded in the distance. He looked at the corner where the ambulance had disappeared and chewed a fingernail.
She stared at the three small maple trees that her father had planted next to the driveway the year before. He’d planted one for each of them, his wife, son, and daughter. He hadn’t planted one for himself and it was something she had pestered him over. They were a foursome and she considered the planting incomplete.
“Come on,” she said and pulled her brother toward the backyard. Everything was in its place: the bass boat, the tool shed, the rusted oil drum pushed against the house, the mulberry tree. Being left in charge of her brother calmed her down. She swiped her nose with her sleeve and headed toward the tree.
As she sat against the tree trunk, her thoughts turned gray like a cloud pooling darkness into itself and deepening. Maybe she’d given her heart to Jesus too late. Maybe her sins were more severe than she knew and the devil already had his fingers wrapped around her soul.
A daddy longlegs climbed onto her hand from the trunk of the tree and she was glad for the company. It crawled from one hand to the other on stick legs that tickled her skin. She held her hand flat against the tree and it climbed back onto the trunk.
There is no god, a voice inside her head said. She knew god existed, she’d been taught to believe in God her whole life and besides there was proof everywhere. There is no god, it said again. This thought was enough to undo everything, all her pleas, the deals she’d made to keep her father alive. It was the worst thought she’d ever had. But it wasn’t like she was saying it. The voice inside her head came from somewhere else, she didn’t know just where.
Of course there’s a god she told herself. She would exercise self-control, she wouldn’t think it again. She closed her eyes to see if that would bring on sleep. But the voice persisted until she was sure that all her prayers had been outweighed.
The next day they went to see him. The veteran’s hospital sat at the north end of the bay on a backwater shore lined with cattails and live oak trees, the biggest that she had ever seen, with branches draped in Spanish moss, thick and gray like old men’s beards. A splintered fishing dock leaned over the water. Unshaved men in gray pajamas walked on dirt paths, smoking cigarettes and playing checkers. Some of them talked to themselves out loud. Some of them shook their fists and swore at the vacant sky. There is no god, the voice said.
The small beach was the same beach where her mother and father had met some umpteen years ago. She knew they’d stood right there, on that beach, their pant legs rolled up, their toes covered with sand, mooning over each other with shining eyes.
Children were not allowed inside the sick wards, so she went to the canteen, a metal building with a rounded roof and a slatted wood porch. The man behind the counter was used to kids being dumped on his front porch and told her about the fat raccoons, some bigger than her, that skulked in the palmetto bushes and crept beneath the porch. Bandits, he called them because of their markings and because they prowled around in the dark and stole things out of the dumpster. “They’d steal your last breath,” he said.
She bought a package of peanut butter crackers and gave half of it to her brother. He pressed his radio to his ear and paced the dirt path that ran along the outside of the building.
Her mother brought her father outside in a wheelchair that was so wide it nearly swallowed him. “He can’t sit up long,” she said.
They’d wrapped a wool blanket around his shoulders despite the warm afternoon air. His socks were too big and fell around his ankles. There is no god, the voice said.
“The doctors are taking good care of me,” her father said. His voice rattled with the sound of the soul loosening from the flesh. He touched her hair.
The girl stared at his gray pajamas then off into the woods where the raccoons waited. The doctors, the preacher, the prayers, nothing had worked.
Her mother sat nearby on a concrete bench, her legs crossed at the ankles, her hands clutching a damp handkerchief, her eyes hidden behind her sunglasses. Old men and their nurses gathered at the water’s edge, like they did every night, to watch the falling sun layer the sky in shades of cinnamon. Somewhere nearby, she couldn’t tell just where, a cricket began its night noise.
Her father shivered. He raised his arm and waved as though he’d seen an old friend. “I’m going over there,” he said.
Maybe it was the pain that made him talk like that. Maybe it was the buckets of medicine they’d pumped into his body. Maybe sickness had granted him some kind of vision.
“What’s over there?” She looked at the sunset, half expecting heaven’s chariot to swing low, right out of the orange sky, to carry her father home. She imagined the hand of Moses reaching down through the clouds.
He smiled, shut his eyes, and lifted his chin to the light.
The sound of the crickets and the melting sky seared the image into her brain. The last bit of orange melted like a drop of wax and vanished into the water. Aloof to the darkness it left behind, the sun carried on with its journey to create a new day somewhere else, somewhere across the globe. A flock of pelicans flew past in single-line formation, skimming the water with their wing tips, and the crowd of old men applauded the sunset. Her mother wheeled her father back inside.
A vacuum of emptiness started at the top of her throat and descended to her belly. She felt it in her arms and legs like a burning weakness.
There is no god, the voice inside said, but she knew better. She’d seen a godlike shimmer in the air around her father, thought she saw it deepening his eyes. She heard it in the cricket noise; saw it in the sweeping sky. She accepted all this as evidence and felt the voice shrink at the knowledge. But a hard stone of truth settled somewhere in the back of her mind, an uncertainty that she could not yet name.
Gale Massey is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. Florida. Her short stories have been published in several publications, including the St. Petersburg Times, Seven Hills Review, Blue Crow, and Stories for Sendai. She has studied fiction writing with Jane Hamilton (Eckerd College Writers in Paradise) and Connie May Fowler (Writing Below Sea Level). Her booklet, Grief: reminders for healing, and its companion video are widely used by hospices across the U.S.
© 2011, Gale Massey