Sons and Mothers
by Sergio Hartshorne
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Wrassian was at once dismayed and elated when he found out where the pair were taking him. They had taken him to a soup kitchen which was next door to a police station. Another building. The Three Sisters of Mercy, rose ten stories high, casting such a long shadow that the buildings immediately to the east of it were in perpetual shadow by a half-hour after noon. Administering to 10,000 patients at once, it had a reputation as the best but most expensive hospital in New Jackson. After the Second War of Cleansing, people had migrated here in droves and turned what had been a relatively small town into a bustling metropolis.
Wrassian and his benefactors stood in this shadow, mere minutes away from the doors that could take him to his dying mother’s bedside on the third floor. They got in line outside the soup kitchen. Maybe I could use some food and coffee first, Wrassian thought. He knew his mother wouldn’t pass until later that night at the earliest, and his wristwatch — kept from when he had been twenty years younger, so as not to attract prying eyes with a snazzy item from the future — said it was only three p.m.
The line advanced and advanced again. Wrassian saw a burly police officer inside. The police officer looked at Wrassian and scowled, then talked into his shoulder mike for a few seconds and motioned for Wrassian to come to him.
Wrassian blanched. Was this what Mel and Fred had meant by helping him? He turned and tried to push past Fred and get to the door. Fred grabbed his arm. “Relax, he’s just here to make sure no one tries to cut in line.”
They got to within earshot of the police officer. Mel and Fred exchanged pleasantries.
“Got yourselves a new face there, guys?”
Mel nodded. “Yeah, but he don’t speak English.”
The officer turned to Wrassian. “That true, sir?”
“Of course I speak English! You just can’t understand me! You’re the ones who can’t speak English.”
The officer shook his head. “Funny. I thought he almost sounded normal for a second there. Said something like ‘I speak English just like you!’ But the rest sounded like Swahili, you know, like they talk in some foreign movies?”
It was Wrassian’s turn to get soup. The red-faced server ladled him his portion of potato and cheese stew. She smiled at him, causing twin eruptions of deep lines to either side of her mouth.
Wrassian waited for Mel and Fred. They found a table together, along with a man with a thick mane of silver hair and nut-brown skin. “What’s shakin’, Bob?” Fred asked
“Nothing much.” He looked at Wrassian. “How’s it going, new guy?”
Wrassian didn’t respond.
“Que pasa? Parlez-vous français?”
Wrassian still said nothing.
“Guess he don’t talk much?” Bob said.
“Nah,” Mel said. “Seems to know what I’m saying though. Which is weird.”
Bob gestured expansively at Wrassian with his spoon. “I’ll have you know I taught languages and astrophysics both in my day! Not just the left brain classes but the right brain, as well!”
Mel gave Fred a long-suffering look. “Mm-hm. But what does that mean for our friend here?”
“What it means is that you have someone who doesn’t speak English, French or Spanish. In the modern world, that’s very rare. Even people from Africa or Taiwan know at least one of these. But because he seems to understand you, I’d say there’s only one scenario that makes sense: you have someone who is a victim of temporal displacement.
“What we have here is a bonafide time-traveler. He can understand you perfectly. His brain though, is suffering from a very particular type of trauma which has made him forget how to form his words as he speaks. He can think what he wants to say, but when he opens his mouth, the words come out all garbled and mixed up.”
Wrassian nodded enthusiastically, with exaggerated motions. “Give him two, maybe three hours and he’ll be right as rain. Right now, though, you should find him some paper.”
“Why didn’t you think of that, old man?” Fred said to Mel.
“Oh, I thought of it. But where are two homeless people going to get a notepad and a pen? Huh? Besides, what if Bob here is just off his rocker?”
“Yeah, man!” said Fred. “I think Bob is straight-up bonkers! Why shouldn’t we just take the guy with a speech impediment to the funny farm?”
Mel glared daggers at Fred. “I’ll tell you this: I’ve seen some crazy stuff in the army. This guy’s situation is actually pretty tame. You leave, if you want. I’m staying to help.”
Fred sighed. “Aww, man! Relax, just thought someone had to say it. I’ll stay.”
Wrassian held up his hand. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet and extracted a five-dollar bill.
Bob barked a single note of laughter. “Guess that settles it,” he said. “Good luck and Godspeed to you all.”
* * *
Mel and Fred had taken Wrassian to an office supplies store. Wrassian wandered the aisles until he found a legal pad and some cheap ballpoint pens. He took them to the check-out counter.
“Find everything okay?” the female clerk asked. Wrassian said nothing. The clerk blew a strand of hair out of her left eye. “What’s the matter, can’t you talk?” Wrassian made a croaking nose in his throat and motioned at his loot.
“Sure,” the clerk said. “But if you open it you have to buy it.”
Wrassian opened the bag of pens and wrote in letters three inches high on the pad: LARYNGITIS.
The clerk smiled. “Oh my God! I’m so sorry! I remember the one time my cousin got that. She couldn’t speak for, like, a week!”
Outside, Wrassian found Mel and Fred. He wrote what he had tried to tell them out loud.
“The hospital?” Mel said. “No way, man! You can’t go there if you can’t talk right. They’ll either throw you out in a flash and break your neck or else bundle you off to the nearest Behavioral Health Institute and start you on a regimen of mind-numbing drugs. It happened to a friend of mine who’s deaf. They don’t care if it’s breaking the law unless you’re dying or you can tell them you want to see someone who is, in plain, correct English. They don’t want you there, and the Governor backs them up!”
“But, she could die first!” Wrassian said.
“I doubt she could fly at all, much less first.” They all froze. A second passed. Two. Three.
“Damn! I almost got all of that! Let’s go to a coffee shop. We’ll wait there until you’re back to normal, and then we’ll go to the hospital.” Mel turned away. Over his shoulder he said: “I must be crazy!”
Wrassian and the others sat at an out-of-the-way table with a view of the street. He had offered to buy coffee for all of them. Mel and Fred had said no, and Wrassian felt like it would be rude to order a drink without them, so instead he enviously watched people buy frappucinos with whipped cream and double shots of caramel, white chocolate mochas and espressos in small paper cups. People kept giving them odd looks, some sneering at the pair of homeless. Though the barista pointedly ignored them, they weren’t asked to leave.
Outside the cafe the street silently seethed with activity. The barista called out orders periodically. People were gathering in groups, waiting under metal awnings for air taxis. The taxis came at intervals of about ten minutes. They each landed with a flash of steam which came from the baking of the condensation flash-fried underneath the iridium ion engines. Once full, they rose quickly with just the tiniest fraction of a second of inertia.
After half an hour, Wrassian said in a low, quavering voice: “How do I sound now?”
Mel and Fred exchanged a look. “Normal,” Mel said.
“Yeah, man,” Fred said. “You’re cool.”
* * *
The waiting room was ice cold. On the ground floor, Wrassian finished a form called “visitation liability” which asserted formally that if he were injured accidentally, contracted an infectious disease or developed a chronic condition from being unintentionally exposed to harmful radiation, he would not hold the hospital responsible and forfeited his right to sue.
He took the form to a harassed-looking nurse behind a counter. She looked them over, humming to herself and tapping her teeth with a pink-lacquered nail. At last, she looked up and gave Wrassian a piercing glare. “All in order. 3rd floor. Room B23. Visitation hours end at 8:00 p.m.”
Wrassian went down the hall and got into an elevator. It was deserted. Hands shaking, he punched the button for the 3rd floor and waited. There was a muted hum from above his head. The lighted display above the floor buttons told him he’d reached his destination.
The doors slid open soundlessly. He was looking at a long, dimly lighted hallway. On one side were rooms marked with the letter “A” followed by numbers beginning with one. One the other side were rooms marked with the letter “B” also followed by numbers beginning with one.
Wrassian got out of the elevator and began walking. His shoes squeaked loudly on the waxed linoleum floor. He expected to be stopped at any moment for making too much noise, but no one came. He passed B14 and heard a soft whooshing, punctuated by a rhythmic wheeze. He glanced in briefly and saw a teenage girl with a shaved head hooked up to a ventilator machine. She had an I.V. hooked up to her left arm. She was ghostly pale. Her eyes were closed. She was twitching visibly and her brow was soaked with sweat.
Wrassian walked on. He got to room B22. He could see room B23. The light was on. He could see a shadow cast on the opposite wall of a woman sitting up holding a book. He stopped, his heart hammering in his ears. What if his mom was delirious? What if the pain medications they had her on had her in a fugue state and she didn’t even recognize him? He stood there for five long seconds, and then he walked to the doorway.
Persephone Wilse had once been a striking beauty. Wrassian’s earliest memory had been of her and his father kissing passionately after a separation, her shoulder-length black hair falling over his father’s nose, olive skin glowing in the bright July sun. She had a heart-shaped face, which more often than not was creased by a smile.
When Wrassian’s and Renata’s father had died in a car crash, she’d cried every waking moment for three weeks, so that when she’d held her children in a three-way hug, they’d all ended up weeping. Wrassian had been seven, Renata four.
Wrassian stood in the doorway, shocked at how thin she looked, unnerved by her almost translucent skin, shaken by the way her veins stood out, blue-black and swollen. She seemed as though a strong breeze could blow her all the way to the moon.
She looked up from her book and smiled wanly. “Wrassian. Come here, honey.”
Wrassian walked over, tears welling in the corners of his eyes. When he got to her bedside, she took his hands in hers. He saw that the book she was reading was a copy of the Bible. “I had a dream,” she said. “I was with God. He told me to hold on a little longer and he would send you to me. I feel bad because I didn’t believe him. ‘No,’ I said, ‘don’t promise me something you can’t deliver.’
“He just smiled, and I could see that his eyes were not any one color; they had little sparkling bits. There were all the colors of the rainbow and then some that I didn’t have words for; I don’t imagine anybody would. He seemed at once ancient and newborn. There was an aura about him and it was the color of water. Then I felt at peace. Until I woke up and the lymphoblastic leukemia was there waiting for me.”
“Are you hurting?” Wrassian asked. “I mean more than usual? Is there something I can get you?”
“No. Renata came by yesterday. She said she was seeing someone. Name of Doug. He seems like a nice guy. I’m sure you’ll like him.”
“But, Mom! Don’t talk like that. I’m sure you’ll meet him yourself.”
“No, sweetheart. Doug’s abroad now. Won’t be back till next week. Doc says I’ve got about three days. The cancer’s metastasized. It’s in my kidneys and lungs, and heart.”
Wrassian squeezed her hand and wiped away some tears. “Do you remember that day at the beach, Mom? Renata got bitten by a mosquito, and she thought it was a jellyfish sting. I remember her crying, but I can’t for the life of me recall what you said to her.”
“I said: ‘Wrassian, don’t make fun of your sister!’” She sighed and closed her eyes. “Then I said, Renata, sweetie, you wouldn’t be able to stand if it had been a real jellyfish. I want you two to look after each other when I’m gone. I want you to know that even when I’m not here anymore, you’ll always have each other.’ ”
Wrassian smiled, settled in the plastic chair by the side of the bed, scooting it closer until he could reach out and touch her.
His mother pulled him into a hug. “I love you too. You look just like your father. I’m sure you’ll be all right, honey. Don’t forget, I’ll always be with you. In your heart.”
Wrassian squeezed gently. She closed her eyes, exhaled one last time and seemed to wilt back into the mattress. The EKG monitor beeped once, long and loud, the pulse flat-lining.
Wrassian stood up. Then he turned around and walked out, seeing three nurses hurrying into the room. He knew from the phone call he’d gotten after she died that resuscitation had been unsuccessful.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Sergio Hartshorne