[I’d vacillated among subjects for a tirade much of the morning, when I realized that I’ve been drained of the verve required for the pursuit. So instead, have a short story from F. J. Dagg. It first appeared at Liberty’s Torch V1.0 in November of 2020.
James’s imagination seems to admit to no limits. The following brief tale is one of the hardest-hitting stories I’ve ever encountered. It should be read far and wide. — FWP]
Keys clattered onto the kitchen counter in the dark room. “Home…sweet…,” as the old song goes. He tapped the light switch. Twenty-two years, five months and thirteen days in the cubicle…”sweet home.”
Twenty-two years, five months and thirteen days, eight hours a day, composing the likes of, “Congratulations on choosing the MegaPro Office Maximizer! To get started, click the ‘File’ menu…”
Some, Kathy, for one, called it a life misspent. But now, home.
A frozen dinner, a glass of wine, not the cheapest, far from the best. He reflected, not for the first time, that he missed the fireplace in the home in which he’d grown up back in the Midwest.
Later, a familiar voice awakened him from a light doze. “You’re needed.”
The voice was low and sweet, yet full of import.
“So soon again?” His eyes remained closed.
Silence lengthened. At last he drew a breath, let it out.
“They’re in Michigan…very poor. He hasn’t worked in years. She makes little.”
He nodded, eyes still closed. “Have they any others?”
“One. Aged five. A ‘special’ child.”
He sighed. “All right.”
He opened his eyes, rose, went to the window and in the waning light, rested his gaze on the sliver of ocean a mile away. Its uninviting gray merged, horizonless, with the November sky. Thanksgiving next week. Christmas, he thought. He lingered, staring as the ocean faded into the dusk. No point in putting it off.
“Has it happened?”
“Just this moment,’ the voice replied.
He stepped from the window to the couch and lay down. He closed his eyes and began the mental exercise that would take him–his awareness, his being–to Michigan, and to the thing he dreaded yet must face, being, as he was, a bearer.
When he was new to it, the drill had been colorful, exhilarating, despite the gravity of the situations that awaited. Now, it was routine, efficient, quickly executed, and in a moment he was on a shabby street in a rust belt town at the back of an agitated and growing knot of people in the deep November evening chill.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God…,” a woman’s voice keened.
“Looked like a Toyota…” said an excited young man.
“Nah, it was a Chevy,” growled an older one. “They all look the same anymore…”
“Didja hear them shots?” asked a youth.
“Yeah…a dozen, anyway…no fuckin’ nine millimeter, neither,” replied a man as he scanned the shattered windows and bullet-pocked siding at the back of the house’s sagging porch. A siren wailed in the distance, growing nearer. “Hadda be AK’s,” he said. “Thought I was back in fuckin’ Fallujah.”
The girl lay half in the street, her back bent over the old, high square curb, her head at an impossible angle. The left half of her chest was crushed—the left side of her face the same. Most of her left arm lay three or four yards down the block.
While a young man tried to fashion a tourniquet, a middle-aged woman cradled the girl’s head, rocked her and crooned, “Hang on, baby, you’ll be OK, baby, just hang on, help’s on the way, darlin’…”
The bearer saw that the girl had been pretty, as her eye began to dilate and dim. No one in the crowd but he saw the light begin to leave her body and he reached to touch, to comfort. But the other kind of bearer were waiting, as they always were, and they left with the light without acknowledging him, as they always did.
The crowd grew silent but for the woman’s crooning–softer, slower and without conviction, and now nearly drowned by the sirens.
The first responders arrived in a nightmare of red and blue strobe light, shrieking brakes, and diesel fumes. The sirens instantly died, the crooning ceased and the only sound was the hum and clatter of idling motors.
Arcane laws of attraction were at work this night and the bearer found himself in a small, threadbare house a half dozen blocks from the scene. Before the yammering TV sat a heavy man and a thin woman with dark pouches beneath her eyes. A five-year old boy on the floor ran a plastic fire truck endlessly in a square. The woman appeared to be in her mid-forties though in fact she was thirty-one, and despite the perpetual fatigue that hung on her, she fidgeted.
“Chrissakes, you’re nervous as a whore in church,” said the man. “What’s got into you?”
She shook her head and bit a fingernail. “Something’s wrong.”
The man looked at her with rough sympathy. “Take it easy, huh? Could’n’a been ten minutes ago she called, headin’ home,” he said. “She’s a good kid,” he added. He laid an awkward hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Now, take a deep breath, baby.”
“I hate them damn sirens,” she said.
She turned to him. “You sure those were backfires?”
“Yep,” he lied.
Later, the woman started and gasped at the loud knock on the door.
The bearer reeled, and the woman died as her intuition anticipated the uniformed stranger’s words that blasted into their home in a bitter gale.
“…parents of a Heather M____?”
“Yeah,” said the man as the woman began to hyperventilate.
“…accident…at the scene…transported…
Whoa, Andre, catch her! Watch her head…”
A continent away, the bearer’s eyes snapped open. At a great distance from the storm that engulfed the cruelly diminished family, which went unnoticed in the larger world, his work was beginning.
Oppression, as he rose the next morning, bearing a portion as the funeral director explained to the mother the impossibility of an open-casket viewing.
Horror, as the mother insisted she would see her girl before they put her in the ground.
Home ill that day, he googled, “Heather M____, Flint Journal.”
“Burton Girl Dies as Drug Deal Goes Bad”
“How the fuck does a drug deal go ‘good’?” he muttered, as close to anger as he could be after the numbing years as an office worker, and the crushing ones as a bearer.
“…Heather M___, 13, of Burton died at Hurley Medical Center Thursday evening…struck by vehicle…gunfire at what was said to be a ‘drug house’…police ask community’s help…survived by mother, Debra, stepfather Jason, brother Danny…”
Some days after the funeral the searing pain that had surrounded his heart became a leaden weight and he settled into to the familiar routine. Children, they were, in his years as a bearer, nearly always.
Though they are many, each bearer carries out his role in isolation, never in life aware of the madness, or suicide, or death by broken heart averted through his bearing a portion of the unbearable.
He was ill again on Christmas, but, divorced and without family of his own, it was of no consequence. The New Year began and if the weight lessened, he couldn’t tell.
February was hard. On the 14th, Heather’s birthday, his boss called him to her office.
“You’re distracted. Is everything all right?” Her face, to him, a winter sky.
The only instance of her smile he knew of was in the photograph on her desk with her partner–Barbara, as he recalled. He watched the thin lips move.
“…more errors and I’ll have to escalate. You have vacation time. Maybe you should take some.”
He took a week.
With summer came some relief. Heather’s mother no longer wished to die every waking moment—time was doing its work. But there was a day when she went to the beach and a vision of a tree-rimmed lake–it had to be in Michigan–appeared to the bearer with such clarity as to transport him—and again, his heart for her and for her grief found yet a new color, a new mood.
She’s testing herself, he thought—knowing from long experience how these things are—she is visiting a favorite place of Heather’s, instead of the grave, just to see. Too soon.
The year advanced. As shadows grew longer, darker, in the world, so, too, in the bearer’s heart, as the mother watched children return to school, and grieved again, with him. He wondered how it would have been to see his own go to school, too, but Kathy’s master’s degree had taken precedence, then her career, and then she was gone.
November, and the anniversary. The hardest part was over—they say—yet still, there was Christmas just ahead. Oftentimes, the second is harder than the first, without the shock and the disbelief to obscure the horror and the emptiness, to overshadow the subtler, unnamed shades of grief that humiliate the experts, and grow and grow in unexpected directions, with the sudden, startling tears that take one so by surprise. But all of this was part of his work—the bearing, the endless bearing.
On a gray Wednesday in the week after Thanksgiving, he came home from the office, had a frozen dinner, a half glass of wine, and the third breathless dizzy spell in as many days. He lay down on the couch and closed his eyes. He may have slept.
When he returned to himself he was not alone, and his visitor seemed somehow familiar.
“You’ve done well,” said the young woman, in the low, sweet voice he recognized from long acquaintance.
He knew, then, that she, too, was a bearer—of that other kind. She held out her hand. Her smile, sunlight.
He let her lead him.
They walked in warm sunshine beside a lake like the one he had seen in a vision the summer before, in Michigan. A distance ahead, a dozen children chased and splashed and laughed at the water’s edge, their voices a kind of music.
As he and the young woman drew near, one girl left the crowd and ran to them and he recognized her, straight and whole now, her pretty face healed and glowing.
She threw her arms around him and nearly squeezed the breath out of him.
“Thank you… Oh, thank you… Mama couldn’t have borne the last year, but for you.”
Copyright © 2011-2016 F. J. Dagg