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I was kissing her again, and when I opened my eyes her eyes were wide open. She looked beautiful and frail: the hollows of her cheekbones, those enormous eyes which, in my memory, would gaze back at me like the eyes of a religious icon or a Keane picture. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“The mono,” I said.
“It’s okay,” she said. “We both have it now.”
“I don’t feel well. I think I need water or something.” I turned away from her confusion, her disappointment. She must have felt something was wrong with her, something other than mono. I would never know any of this, what she really thought.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” I lied. “I promise.”
Climbing the stairs I heard Bridgit’s voice drift from the sofa: “You shouldn’t go up there, you know.” When I turned back to look, she’d enveloped herself in a blanket.
The house trembled and the blood throbbed in my head. Beyond that leaden pulse I could hear TV music drifting from the den: a woman singing. I tiptoed to the fridge and cracked the door. It was bright and loud and crammed with food. My eyes feasted on the things I might have: bagels and cream cheese, sliced turkey, hummus. Red peppers like tongues nestled in a jar of liquid. I picked up the jar and turned it in the light, watching the translucent seeds lift off the bottom, twirl and subside as in a snow globe.
It slipped from my fingers and smashed on the tile. I froze, listening, watching the liquid pool around my feet.
The damage was appalling. A pungent smell expanded in the room like a fart. The song from the den sounded closer now. It was an old melody, like a lullaby.
“Amparo?” called a woman’s voice. “Amparo, is that you?”
I stood still, and could feel time passing. I heard a soft metallic whir—and a motorized wheelchair, bearing a female, rolled into the kitchen.
Her ghoulish girl’s face emerged from the dimness: eyes set in grayish hollows, a wide pale forehead tapering down to a thin mouth and sharp chin. Her lap was covered with a plaid blanket in the manner of an invalid. The drink in her right hand was balanced on the chair arm; she worked the control with her left.
She maneuvered closer and stared up at me. I saw the hardness of her fine-boned face, the dull pallor of her skin. She was a woman in her forties. I realized this was Heather’s mother. Mrs. Snoozy. I had thought of her as someone who was dead. But she was a living person, in a wheelchair, in this improbable mansion, which must have come from an insurance settlement. It made sense. All of this was about that plane crash.
When she leaned forward to peer down at the broken mess, I saw the white scalp line in her hair.
“Ah,” she said stoically, as if she’d expected this. “Amparo!” she called. Then, turning to me: “What do you need?”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“You’re going to be sorry, boy-o.”
Her eyes ran down then up my body. She wore a low-cut shirt of netlike material embroidered with black flowers. Below the hem of the lap blanket her shins were sheathed in tights, and her feet, strapped into shoes of red patent leather, rested on the footpad.
“Amparo! Here, I’ll do it myself,” she said, reversing the chair and turning.
Just then a stout woman in a green blouse bustled into the kitchen, muttering and softly chiding the woman in the wheelchair, and began to address the broken jar. I stepped clear and watched from the other side of the kitchen island as Amparo swept the mess into a dustpan.
“You’re hungry,” the woman in the wheelchair told me. “How’s a sandwich? I’ll get you a sandwich—”
Amparo intervened: “What you like. Turkey, PB and J . . .”
“No thank you,” I said, “I’m okay.”
“He don’t want it,” said Amparo.
“He wants it,” said the woman. “PB and J. He wants something sweet.”
When Amparo had prepared the sandwich, the woman in the wheelchair took the plate from her and balanced it in her lap. She motored around the kitchen island and handed me the plate.
“See. That wasn’t so hard. It’s just a sandwich.”
Excerpt from Are You Here For What I’m Here For?. Copyright © 2016 by Brian Booker. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
About The Book
Within these pages, the everyday meets the uncanny as two high school friends go out for one unforgettable night. A boy, haunted by dreams of a catastrophic flood, becomes swept up in an encephalitis epidemic. A hypochondriac awaits her diagnosis at a Caribbean health resort. A disease researcher meets his nemesis on a train. A father searches for his missing son in a remote mountain lodge where nothing is quite as it seems. An elderly pharmacist protects his adopted nephew, who found a mermaid in a bottle, from a coastal village gripped by hysteria. A teenager is sent to a “therapeutic” boarding school with disturbing methods and is reunited with a staff member years later.
Article originally Published in the February/March 2020 Issue “Short Stories”