Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Short Story: If Something Happens to Him

Because I write often about the upcoming book, I'm give you a little taste of my writing in a short story. My writing style and tone are a little different from the book, of course, since it's for adults and not for teens, but it still sounds like me. I appreciate all comments, even the negative ones. I've developed a pretty thick skin by now!

If Something Happens to Him

When her husband’s gurney disappeared behind the swinging double doors of the emergency room, Martha Wiley blinked away the flutter of antiseptic air.  She still stood there when one of the paramedics pushed back through the same doors, nodded to her as he spoke into a radio, and trotted out to his ambulance. In the foyer behind her, the drone and sway of an industrial floor polisher was enough to cause motion sickness, so Martha put one foot in front of the other, as she always did, and looked for the waiting room.

The chain of black vinyl seats overflowed, so she found space to stand next to a soda machine in one corner. Twenty minutes passed to the hiss of muffled conversations punctuated by the occasional shriek or nervous giggle. A man with tears in his eyes forced a smile for three small boys on the floor as he distracted them with a game of cards. One of them, the youngest she thought, needed a diaper change, but the father seemed oblivious, his glance darting repeatedly to the pair of doors.

When a nurse in bright yellow scrubs stepped into the doorway, every head turned in her direction. “Redfield?” she said, prompting a thirty-something blonde woman to pop up and haul her two children to their feet. “You can see your husband now.” The nurse turned to lead them back down the hall. The little girl, about three, startled by the sudden yank, made a high-pitched keening sound. Her mother drew the toddler into her arms and pulled her son along so quickly his feet dragged across the floor behind him.

Martha took one of the vacated chairs and settled her body gratefully. The day had been long already, and now anxiety gnawed at her. She closed her eyes and pictured herself at the kitchen sink peeling apples when Frank came through the back door after his golf game. She couldn’t remember if she’d looked at him then. She could recall her husband of forty-seven years asking what she made for dinner, and her own hesitation to answer.

“Well, can you talk or not?” he’d said.

She cleared her throat. “Oven-fried chicken, you know, the recipe with the Cornflakes you liked? Broccoli and fried apples.”

His response stung, just as she’d dreaded. “Again the chicken. How stupid are you anyway? We had chicken yesterday, didn’t we? And I despise broccoli.”

“The doctor said…”

“I don’t give a damn what he said. Throw that crap in the trash and make me a steak.”

“I just thought...” Martha stopped when she realized her mistake.

Frank took a step toward her and grabbed the skin under her arm, pinching. “You know better than to think. I believe your face and your brain are drying up at the same rate.” When she tugged her arm, he twisted. “Stand – right - there.” He articulated each word individually. She winced but went still, knowing the bruise he left would hurt less than the punch she would take if she moved.

“I’m don’t feel so great anyway,” he said. “I’m going to take a nap before dinner.” He released her arm and knocked the plate of breaded chicken off the counter on his way out.

Martha stood still until his footsteps retreated down the hall, then bent to clean up the ruined food and shattered platter. She’d long ago ceased crying over things like this. Her arm throbbed, but she didn’t look at it; this mark would look exactly like all the others: angry and inflamed. Like Frank’s personality, she though with a little smile.

Half an hour later, with the steaks sizzling on the grill, Martha reached for the “start” button on the microwave when she heard Frank’s voice.

Anxious not to upset him again, she hurried down the hall to check and found him in the bedroom, flopping his body around in an odd undulating motion. He heard her approach and turned his head slightly toward her. Then one of his arms flailed at her awkwardly, and she caught his hand and laid it back on the bed. Fear laced the gray eyes in a way she’d never seen when his mouth drooped around a sort of guttural whine.

“It’s okay, Frank. I’m calling an ambulance.” She grabbed the phone on the nightstand.

Martha felt someone slide into the seat next to her and looked up, her replay of the afternoon over for now. A glance at the new arrival revealed the blotchy face of a woman about her own age biting her lip. Martha nodded and checked her watch. Nearly an hour since they’d taken Frank away.

The other woman wept quietly for a couple of minutes, then managed to regain control. She turned to Martha. “I’m sorry to bother you, but do you have any tissues? I seem to be going through them like a faucet.”

“I believe so.” Martha fumbled in her bag and produced a small pack, which she handed to the woman. “Are you okay?”

The woman sighed, her eyes glued to the doors to the treatment area. “I am, I guess. For now. It depends, doesn’t it? On what happens in there. I think my husband had a heart attack.” She wiped her nose. “You?”

Martha said, “My husband too. I mean, not a heart attack, at least I don’t think so. I’m guessing a stroke.”

“Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.” She took Martha’s hand in her own. “My name is Betty van Roden, by the way.” A new stream of tears began, and she dabbed at them with a fresh tissue. “My poor George. What would I do if something happened to him?” She looked at Martha. “My whole world would be changed.”

Martha squeezed Betty’s hand, then released it as the other woman’s words brought her own situation into focus. What would I do if something happened to him? She tried to envision going home without Frank, and immediately shamed herself for the sense of relief washing through her. She uncrossed and re-crossed her legs, pushing the thoughts from her mind. Then, finding she couldn’t ignore the possibility, she carefully approached the idea again. Alone. Without Frank? Yes, the thought definitely produced a loosening of the ever-present tension in her shoulders. She’d never been on her own, but living alone didn’t scare her. In fact, when she considered the fear she’d lived with since the age of eighteen, a house free of menace seemed like peace beyond her imagining.

A tear escaped the corner of her eye, surprising her. Betty patted her shoulder, and Martha felt too guilty to respond. She covered her mouth with her hand, as if to prevent herself from speaking the obscenity. The tear fell not for Frank, but for the sweet possibility of a future without him.

“Mom?” Her son’s voice brought her head up. “Oh, Mom,” he said, when he saw the tear gliding down her cheek. He stooped in front of her.

“I’m okay.” She looked around and saw open space in the corner. “Let’s move over there, David.” She wished Betty good luck and moved to the other side of the room.

“I’m so glad you came,” she said.

David’s gaze was fierce. “For you, Mom. Not for him.”

She felt as if she were choking on the tension between them, the silence heavy with his unspoken criticism. David pleaded with her over and over to leave. Divorcing Frank might be the only important thing she’d ever refused her son. Martha’s eyes begged David not to start the argument again. His, gray like his father’s, insisted she admit her stupidity. “This is not the time, David. Not here. Not now.”

He relented. “Have they told you anything?”


David left her there and approached the admissions desk. “Wiley,” he said. “Franklin Wiley. Can you find out his condition?”

While he waited, she tried to answer the question David had asked her so many times: why did she stay with Frank? The easy answer did not exist, at least not a single explanation. Instead, she had a whole host of reasons, each one binding her to Frank as the years passed. First, she’d been raised to believe the man should be the head of the family, so she accepted his dominance as her duty. Second, at the time they had married, good people did not get divorces; marriage was a vow to God. Of course, Frank’s threats, which she’d never discussed with David, intimidated her. Initially, Frank promised to kill her if she left, and Martha had believed him. Anyone who took the beatings she had would believe him too. The day he threatened to harm their son, she stopped loving Frank. Letting go of the love had been, in a way, a blessing, because his insults no longer hurt her much.

When David grew up and Martha contemplated escape, she just plain quaked at the thought. After all, she’d been forty years old, had never worked, never rented an apartment, never bought a car, never had her own bank account, never even traveled on her own outside her hometown. The idea of doing all that by herself paralyzed her. Frank did his work well. She felt incapable of doing anything without him.

David rejoined her and explained Frank had suffered a rather severe stroke. The staff was trying to get him a little more stable. “They say he has a fifty-fifty shot.”

She turned to him. “At what? Living?”

“Yeah, and apparently if he makes it, he will most likely have problems walking, speaking, even eating. There’s rehabilitation, I guess, but they don’t really know yet how extensive the damage is.”

Martha’s eyebrows lifted. “Disabled?” A new possibility, and a difficult one. Frank would so despise being unable to do whatever he wanted. Most of all, how would he be him? How would he torment her?

“You’d put him in a nursing home, Mom. You’d have to.”

She started to disagree, but paused to think about the options. To bring him home and give him the kind of attention he might need would be a full-time job. Taking care of him would be the right thing to do, but could she bring herself to do see to his needs, to his comfort? Home health care would be some support. Nurses and assistants could do a lot of the physical stuff, but she would be alone with him most of the time.

I would be the strong one, she thought. Martha swallowed hard and closed her eyes, searching within for the mercy in herself she always wanted from Frank. Not finding the compassion within her, she panicked, and turned to her son.

“David, I, uh, I don’t know if I could be kind to him.” David nearly grinned, and she gripped his shoulders. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “No, don’t do that. I’m talking about me, about who I am. I don’t know if I have enough compassion after everything. What if I’m not a good enough person to take care of my husband?”

“Mama, of course you’re a good person. I don’t know anyone who…”

“Then I would have to do tend him. To prove to myself I wouldn’t hurt him.” She brought her fist to her mouth. “I’d have to look after him.” She began to sob. “But I don’t know if I could.”

“Maybe,” said David softly in her ear, “maybe he won’t make it at all.”

Her eyes went wide. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say anything, a male voice boomed through the room. “Wiley?”

Martha’s heart raced as she swung her gaze around to the tall, dark-skinned doctor with his hands clasped in front of him. He looked as if he were holding a crystal ball to his chest as she crossed the room to him.

And then, he opened his hands and told her future.


Julie said...

Heh, great story. I totally hope the bastard doesn't make it... but I'm a horrible person.

Love the ending. Cleanly written, engaging :)

At first I'm all... this is going to be a tear jerker, but it wasn't :)

Julie/J.A. Campbell

Sue Wentz said...

Oh, what an incredibly good story! You hit the setting with pinpoint accuracy and the revelation of her relationship with Frank after that lovely set-up just knocked the breath right out of me. Masterfully written! I will totally be following you from here on out, Connie!


Angie Eaton said...

If I were to have my blood pressure taken right now they'd say it was way too high! I felt so many emotions as I read the story! I even felt as though I knew these people and have heard all the reasons they all gave for how they behaved and thought. So much of our society is trapped in the cycle of these actions, reactions and attitudes. At first I wanted Frank to just die, but even better would be to help Martha find and exercise her strength to stand up for herself and stop his abuse. Accountability and exposure are something men like Frank are afraid of. Martha doesn't yet know that. She has let fear and tradition control her. Frank doesn't respect her or himself. Accountability is a must in these situations. I believe Martha has options that have a wide variety of cause and effect on many levels ion her life. She also has a son who needs to heal. IT is not the easy road but it is a possible road. By the way, my heart is STILL pounding! Great job! The content is very relevant in so many lives!