fiction, poetry & more

Honorable Mention
$25 Award


by S.J. Cahill

The writing had once been loose and easy, a fluid rush of words, but Elise hadn’t written for the longest time and was afraid she’d lost her voice. Afraid her characters would lie flat and lifeless on the page unable to speak. Or use dialogue that had no subtext. With Garrett only gone a year she was sorry she’d come tonight, because even now the instructor was asking them to begin . . . .

“. . . a writing exercise to loosen up. Describe a past event through the present lens. Then and now—close the circle—bring a moment of clarity and revelation to the page. And write without stopping or editing. The hand in motion stays in motion.”

Elise bent over her notebook, letting her mind go drifty, and waited for an image. The one that came took her breath away, but she began to write:

‘The hand came out of nowhere, surprising me the way it always did. I had done nothing, nothing, but there came the sudden swing and stinging slap, and another, and then again, and again. Garrett’s hand in motion. His face was flushed and contorted, and he kept coming.’

My God, she was seeing it, so vivid she was there. Watching him slap her again as she backed away, hearing the harsh rasp of his breathing. Her arms were up to protect her face but not resisting—she knew not to do that—instead taking the worst of it on her own hands and arms. They’d be numb and swollen for days. She let her head swing loose to absorb the violence and tried to roll away from it as she begged him to stop: ‘Please don’t! Please no!’ Her words were mixed with muffled screams. Garrett liked to know he was hurting her. She knew to keep moving and let his rage run down, circling away until he tired so she could back against a wall, slump onto the floor and crawl away. He’d stop then, flushed and panting, asking why she insisted on getting him started, but she’d learned it was better not to answer. And he wouldn’t kick her while she was down. At least there was that.

This night his version of ‘Let this be a lesson’ was only half-finished when he stopped mid-swing with a stricken look on his face. He gasped, ‘Oh, Jesus,’ and crumpled to the floor. He went down hard, pale and sweating and clutching at his chest. Heart attack. He knew it too, and she saw the panic in his face. The offending hand trembled now, pointing at the phone.

Elise had called 911, wishing for the courage not to, but he watched her, listening until she finished and knelt beside him. “They’re coming,” she said. “An ambulance from Pegasus will be here soon.” She loosened his tie, telling him to stay calm, and listened to his careful breathing.

“See what you’ve done.” His words were slow and measured.

“They said not to talk.” And she didn’t want to hear it.

“It hurts inside,” he said. “You’ll pay for this.”

“I know,” she said. “I know it does.”

He was quiet then, staring at her, his eyes dark pools of anger that even now were still watching as she wrote:

‘His hands were helpless now, trembling and needy, but this time they’d drawn blood. His words, “Let this be a lesson,” were on my own lips but the taste of fear prevented me from speaking them aloud. Saying anything at all would be reason for the next lesson and the ones that were sure to come. I sat beside him while we waited, forcing myself to hold the cold and fleshy weight of his lethal hands and praying for some way to make the lessons stop.’

Two EMTs had come with the ambulance. One of them was a woman—her name tag said Aura Lee—with quick, green eyes taking in the scene: Garrett sprawled on the floor, white-faced and wild-eyed; Elise’s blotched and swollen face with blood leaking from her nose; a broken chair and dishes on the floor, the Yukon Jack and Lime Juice on the counter—Garrett’s Snake Bite remedy—the mixture of ingredients that always led to this. Elise had watched Aura Lee making an assessment and knew the woman had seen snake bite before.

The other EMT looked like a college boy, young but confident. They acted like TV doctors in their scrubs, professional and efficient with the young one already kneeling beside Garrett and holding a stethoscope to his chest. Aura Lee gave him a medical kit and told him to get the monitors on but she turned to Elise and was helping her to her feet.

“Does he have a history?” she asked. “Are these attacks frequent?”

“No.” Elise glanced at Garrett. “This is the first time.”

Aura Lee touched Elise’s face, checking for broken bones. “But not the first time for this.” Her hands were gentle on the swollen places. “Does he do it often?”

Elise felt something coming loose inside and began to cry, letting go for the first time. Aura Lee waited, watching her for a long moment before speaking to her partner. “Let’s get an IV started before we transport him.”

“His vitals are good, Aura Lee, we won’t be—”

“—in case we need a med push.”

“He’s a little anxious, but he’s stable now, so why don’t—”

“—why don’t we get a line in. Just in case.”

The man listened again and lifted the stethoscope. “I’ll get one started,” he said. “Then I’ll bring in the gurney.”

Elise couldn’t stop crying now, the dam had broken. Aura Lee took time to put a compress on her face before she started asking questions. Her voice was soft and sympathetic and she waited patiently for the answers.

“Does he have medications?” Her eyes went to the Yukon Jack bottle. It was almost empty. “What about medical papers or directives?”

Elise answered the ones she could, but Garrett had always kept her in the dark. She stood by feeling helpless while they collapsed the gurney and eased him onto it, working together in a practiced way, both of them so strong and sure, and rolled him outside. She followed, looking at the winged horse painted on the ambulance as she passed. The name Pegasus curved above the emblem; Emergency Medical Services formed a half circle underneath. Watching them load Garrett was surreal, as if a flying horse from a fantasy was taking Garrett away.

“I’ll have to go with you,” Elise said. “Ride with him in the ambulance.”

The young EMT disappeared into the cab and Aura Lee was closing the large rear doors. “You’ll need to follow us,” she said. “Best to have someone drive you. Meet us at the hospital.”

“But he’ll be . . . . What if he needs me to—”

“I’ll be right with him,” she said, and stepped up into the ambulance. “Everything will be taken care of.”

When the ambulance was out of sight, Elise went inside and looked in the mirror. Her nose began to bleed again when she washed her face, but Aura Lee said it wasn’t broken and the cold pack had kept the swelling down. Her jaw ached, her lower lip was split, and both eyes would be black by morning. Her neighbors were accustomed to seeing sun glasses with a floppy hat shadowing her face, but she wasn’t about to ask any of them for a ride. Certainly not Gladys from next door who’d been a nuisance after Garrett built the fence. Gladys, who’d said, ‘I’m not one to interfere . . .’ lowering her voice and adding, ‘. . . but if there’s something I can do. . .’ in her trailing-off voice as if there were some whispered thing that could be done. But by then, Elise couldn’t imagine a thing that anyone could have done.

Everyone always looked, furtive glances, a pitying gaze, before turning their eyes away. Better not to see, easier to be superior because they’d chosen better. No one she’d ever known—even before Garrett—envied her life or wanted to live it.

Between the broken times, she’d often wondered what she could do, what she should have done. Certainly not report him—restraining-order wives always died—and certainly not run. Because where could she go, how would she live?

She packed her nose with tissue and changed her clothes. Taxis were too complicated, but she found Garrett’s spare keys and decided to drive herself. She drove slowly with the window down to cool her stinging face. Driving felt strange. How long had it had been? Six years. Garrett sold her car after they were married. ‘Two vehicles aren’t necessary now.’ Smiling, he’d held her close and made it sound reasonable and romantic. ‘Think of me as your personal chauffeur.’ But of course his work had kept him busy, and she’d learned early on to fit her schedule into his so not to upset him with silly requests.

The hospital was out on Memorial Drive, and she passed Hastings Community College where she worked as a secretary and once had taken night courses, learning to write and loving it. Until she met and married Garrett, a midlevel administrator, Garrett Lambert, who’d moved her up to the Financial Aid office—‘I love having you right next door.’—saying she wouldn’t need writing workshops anymore, they’d have better things to do at night. ‘Writers are forever writing about themselves and the details of their lives. Our lives are special now, private and personal, with details that can’t be shared.’

The early details of their marriage made her blush. Even at twenty-six, her once dormant hormones had her letting go and feeling reckless. She’d even liked the way he held her down when they made love. The way his definitive and absolute decisions made her feel so taken care of that she stopped taking classes and started taking care of him.

She couldn’t remember how it started with his hands, didn’t want to, but feeling saved and protected had turned to captured and possessed—with details that gave her nightmares—so she hadn’t written a thing for years. Those details were all tucked away and locked inside.

The lights were on in the classroom windows as she passed. The teacher had called her, saying, “You do have a gift you know, and we miss your work. There’s a writing workshop every semester, and there’s always room for you.” Thinking about it now, she remembered how it felt to write. That feeling of release when she opened up her mind and let her thoughts take flight. Watching them rise and soar, like raptors riding thermals for an avian migration. And seeing the light change when they flew across the sky.

Someday, she thought, someday she’d try writing again, but there was nothing she could say right now. Besides, Garrett would need even more attention when she brought him home, and she already knew that was going to be complicated. Elise never understood why he was so unhappy, but he always made it clear that his unhappiness was her fault. She found herself hoping now they’d keep him overnight, for observation. Hoping she’d get some sleep.

Elise parked near the Emergency entrance and checked her face in the mirror. It was red and swollen and tomorrow she’d be a mess. Thank God he didn’t punch. The ambulance Garrett came in was parked beneath the portico, and the winged horse on the side seemed to move as she went by. Garrett would be in the hospital, probably giving orders by now, pointing and gesturing and working himself into a mood. He would not be happy about her driving his car down here. She’d hear about that all the way home.

Aura Lee was standing outside, waiting by the Emergency Room door. The glowing sign gave her a halo that added red highlights to her hair. “Why don’t we sit down for a minute,” she said. “Take time to gather ourselves before going inside.”

“I really should go right in,” Elise said. “He doesn’t like to wait.”

Aura Lee reached out and took her hand. “He’s gone, Elise. We weren’t able to save him. He died before we got here. I’m so sorry.”

The words repeated in Elise’s mind, like an echo replayed in slow motion. In that forever moment, she was struck by a wave of dizziness. She felt her body going numb and couldn’t breathe. Aura Lee took her arm and guided her to a bench. Elise faltered, trying to catch her breath and find her voice, but it sounded hollow and far away.

“But I brought his car,” she said. “To take him home.”

“I’m sorry. There were complications. He was gone before we arrived.”

“But he was so strong.” She was glad to sit and stop the world from spinning. “And earlier, before it happened, he was—”

“Yes, I know.” Aura Lee sat beside her and squeezed her hand. “He was very strong, but there was a weakness in his heart and he didn’t make it.”

“I should have been there, riding with him . . .” Elise gripped the arm of the bench, willing the dizziness to pass. “. . . so he wouldn’t be alone.”

“He felt your presence, and I held his hand. He knew someone was with him, and his passing was very peaceful.”

“They have machines.” Elise looked at the Emergency sign. “Respirators.”

“Everything was done, but he couldn’t be resuscitated.” Aura Lee released Elise’s hand and touched the bruises on her face. Her hands were soft and very gentle. “He just slipped away. There was no pain.” Her voice was gentle too. “And the suffering is done.”

Elise slowed, feeling the weight of the last year, but kept her hand moving:

‘The words are coming back, even the tone of voice, and as I write these words “The suffering is done,” I hear her saying them again and hope it’s finally true. Garrett didn’t suffer then—Aura Lee promised that—and maybe mine had ended, but it became a roller-coaster year for me. Going from sad inside, glacier-cold and barely moving, to singing happy songs for no reason, freedom songs. Grief became a confusing blend of sadness and relief; crying for my loss at unexpected times, then crying because with Garrett gone I would be able to write again. And now the chemistry of time has brought me here tonight.’

The writing instructor cleared her throat. “Take a few more minutes, but begin looking for the end. The past is like visiting a foreign country, but writing the journey home will bring a revelation.”

‘More words are gathering now, circling like flocks of birds that I pull from the air and arrange in rows. Like sparrows lined up on a telephone wire waiting until one flies and then all the rest follow.

There is a feathery rush of wings as they take flight and Garrett’s hands are gone. But the mind does tricks with time, takings me back to that night outside the hospital and I’m sitting on that bench with Aura Lee again, feeling the comfort of her hands and the strength of her presence. She waited for me to stop crying and pull myself together before she stood up and drew me to my feet.

“We’ll need to go inside,” she said. “But I’ll stay with you. There’ll be questions I can help you with.”’

There had been, a lot of them, questions about medical forms and insurance, but Aura Lee was familiar with the process and knew the people in Social Services. And she was a godsend dealing with the doctor. The doctor seemed to be very busy but was taking time to be sympathetic and sorry for her loss. A tragedy, happening so suddenly, and he hated to trouble her now, but he did have one document requiring her signature if she didn’t mind, unless she needed to consult with family.

“I really have no family,” she said. “Garrett has a step brother that lives in Ohio, but he won’t . . . . Consult for what?”

“She asked me to help,” Aura Lee said. “With details and arrangements.”

“I see.” The doctor opened a folder and took out a document. “This is the consent form—we’ll be doing a post mortem—but in the interim you can select a funeral parlor and begin scheduling services.”

Elise felt her hand shaking when she reached for the form. She hadn’t eaten since lunch. Aura Lee took the document and studied it. “I was with the ambulance team,” she said. “Mr. Lambert had experienced at least one myocardial infarction before we picked him up. There were subsequent episodes that escalated and the coronary occlusion occurred during transport.”

“Of course.” A pager buzzed in the doctor’s pocket. He shut it off and said, “I saw your report, but her husband was young and healthy with no cardiac history. A total occlusion seemed unusual so we’ll look for contributing causes and secondary factors.” He checked the pager and headed for the door. “I do have to take this call, but I’ll be back momentarily to answer any questions.”

Aura Lee put the document on the desk when he left, and Elise reached for a pen. “That’s not required,” Aura Lee said. “Are you sure you want it?”

“But the doctor wants it. Don’t I have to—?”

“Have a postmortem exam?” Aura Lee took the pen out her hand. “Why would you want an autopsy?”

“He said it was unusual and they’d look for—”

“There were precipitating events. A high-stress family situation including strenuous activity.” Aura Lee’s eyes were on her now, soft and sympathetic. “There was alcohol and you did say there was unusual exertion?”

Elise felt the heat in her face and wondered if the doctor knew.

“Just before,” she said. “Garrett was . . . yes. He was doing a lot.”

“Autopsies are invasive,” Aura Lee said. “And Garrett is gone.”

The one uneasy moment came when the doctor returned and Aura Lee told him that Elise felt better not having the post mortem.

“It’s Mrs. Lambert’s decision,” the doctor said. “Why don’t we let—”

“I’ve decided.” Elise took a deep breath. “Decided not to have one, not to sign.”

There were more decisions, hard ones too, but Aura Lee took time to guide her through the blurred reality of those next few days. Elise was nearly overwhelmed by mortuaries and funeral homes with flyers and brochures, catalogues of expensive services and choices, coffins and vaults, headstones and engravings, cemetery lots with maintenance costs and endowments for perpetual care, but Aura Lee explained the advantages of cremation. “It’s really the best way,” she said. “It’s the most simple and efficient, more cost effective, and it provides the relief of making everything final.”

Garrett’s brother would have chosen differently, Elise knew at the time, but Garrett belonged to her now. And having him consumed by fire seemed fitting; it would release them both so she could begin reclaiming her life.

The funeral was held in the small college chapel, a simple ceremony with an opening prayer, readings from The Book of Psalms, and a short eulogy by the Dean. Following an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace” by the college chorus, there was a time for sharing with stories from friends and colleagues about Garret’s work ethic. How hard he worked and how he always finished a project. Then came a final prayer and it was over.

Elise held it together for the service, but had teared up and nearly broken down when she saw Aura Lee there. My God, the woman had done so much and probably taken time off to attend. Elise felt a strange and sudden thrill. The first inkling of an impossible suspicion, but gone as suddenly as it came. She wondered how often EMTs attended services, wondered if Aura Lee went to the funerals of all her . . . what? . . . patients?

Aura Lee gave her a final embrace before leaving. “You have come through a devastating event. Finding peace will take time.” Pausing then, she squeezed Elise’s hands and looked back at the urn: “Will you be keeping the ashes until you’ve decided on a final resting place?”

“They’re being shipped to his brother in Ohio. He’s planning a memorial ceremony in the fall before having Garrett buried in the family plot. I dread going through another day like this.”

“Today’s service felt like closure.” Aura Lee’s eyes were quiet turquoise, her grip firm and reassuring. “This may be all you need.”

This was the last time Elise saw Aura Lee. The reconstruction of her life took time, more time than she imagined. There were setbacks and therapy and even now, a year later, nagging questions occasionally surfaced: Why was an IV put in and was it used? And for what? The sound of a siren still made her wonder why she couldn’t ride with Garrett in the ambulance and why they hadn’t used the siren when they took him away. Sometimes she wondered what an autopsy would have found.

But the instructor was saying to finish up, one final sentence, and Elise hurried to write a final paragraph:

‘Tonight I realize that I’ve known the answers all along. None that can be officially expressed in medical language or terminology. There are no documents or testimony that would survive in a court of law. But the answers are real and true and more than intuition. They come with a certainty and belief so deep and profound that my heart pounds and my hand shakes as I write these words: Had it not been for the hands of Aura Lee, the ashes in that urn would be mine. She saved my life and Garrett’s hands are finally gone. And I’m finally at peace, even knowing that Aura Lee’ s hands are still in motion.’


S.J. Cahill was the Gemini Magazine Flash Fiction Contest winner for 2010. He is a Pushcart Prize and Dzanc Book Award nominee with fiction appearing in Vermont Magazine, The Arlington Literary Journal, and seven short story collections. Best of Gival Press Short Stories won the 2015 Indiefab Book-of-the-Year Silver Award for anthologies. Cahill’s novel-in-stories featuring a paramedic serial-killer protagonist is nearing completion.

August 2018