Searching in Row

12/04/2022

     Lawrence went alone. For the first time, he wasn’t accompanied by a chaplain or cleric; they all refused this notification. Against policy, the lieutenant sent Lawrence anyway. There are too many, he said. He had a warm spot for Lawrence.

     Once out of his car, Lawrence straightened his uniform and ran over his script. It wasn’t emotional – they never were – but the lost at sea notices felt the most impersonal. They had their own term, separate from the rest of the military. The airmen, soldiers, and marines were missing in action, absent while fighting for their country, like heroes. But the sailors were lost at sea, gone or dead while floating, like buoys, in water. It sounded comical. Grim. Lost made wives scream. It made mothers say, “You lost him?” as if Lawrence had been on their ship. Missing gave hope; dead gave certainty; but lost gave despair.

     The Arthurs weren’t unlike his usual families. They lived in a flaking double-wide in a town without grass, and they volunteered three times a week for the war efforts in Cranberry. It was only Charlotte Arthur and her daughter, Harriet. Charlotte’s husband had died, and now her son had disappeared. Not unlike every family around.

     Lawrence knocked on the door twice, quickly. When nobody answered, he knocked twice again, just as quickly. He was trained to leave after two tries and return the next day… and as a man of habit – an obsessive man, his lieutenant once suggested – Lawrence had always left. But he didn’t. He couldn’t have explained it, but something about this case made him itch. So he knocked again. And again. And when again, nobody answered, Lawrence pulled his sleeve over his hand, opened the door, and walked in. Doors were never locked anymore.

     The house was clean, but dusty, and sparse. He walked along the floorboard lines, arms tight, and looked for something out-of-place. It was a Thursday, so the Arthurs were neither volunteering nor buying their rations. The living room was plain, and Lawrence found nothing; the bathrooms, the same; the beds were made in the bedrooms, and he wondered if he should check their drawers but of course, didn’t; and the kitchen, also plain, smelled like mildew. Resigned to return the next day, Lawrence turned back towards the door – and in a glimpse, he saw something under the dining table. He slid his shoe under the table and pulled it towards him. It was an envelope – empty – addressed to Charlotte. It had no stamp or return address. On the back, beneath the fold, was written, Petty Officer Howard.

     Immediately, Lawrence knew:

     The Arthurs knew. But where did they go?

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

     “He has amnesia.”

     “What?”

     “He has amnesia,” Charlotte said, “or he’s on a different ship.”

     Harriet considered this, taking her feet off the dash.

     “Or he’s a P.O.W.,” she said.

     Charlotte turned to look at her: “Or he’s a P.O.W.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

     Lawrence drove back to base and reported to his lieutenant. 

     “Lieutenant Moreno, Sir,” he said.

     “Law.”

     “The Arthurs weren’t home, sir.”

     “Then you’ll go back tomorrow.”

     “There was an envelope, sir. It was signed by Petty Officer Howard.”

     “What should that mean to me?”

     “I think P.O. Howard told Charlotte about Rowan.”

     Lieutenant Moreno narrowed his eyes. “What leads you to believe that?”

     “A hunch, sir.”

     “A hunch, huh. Do you have the envelope?”

     “Yes, sir.” Lawrence took the envelope out of his bag and handed it to Moreno.

     Moreno read the front of the envelope, turned it over, and said, “That’s definitely Petty Officer Howard’s handwriting.”

     “Yes, sir.”

     He looked up and sighed. “Law, why are you showing me this?”

     “It suggests that P.O. Howard privately informed a next-of-kin.”

     “You want to file a complaint.”

     “I hoped you would, sir, as a senior officer.”

     “I will not file a complaint against P.O. Howard. And frankly, I recommend you don’t, either.”

     “He breached protocol, sir.”

     Moreno stood up from his chair. “Law, we are at war. You can file a formal complaint – I will not stop you. But I will not support you. This is not the time.” He handed Lawrence the envelope.

     Lawrence looked down at it in his hands. “Where is Petty Officer Howard now?”

     “He’s on the USS Pierce.”

     “When –”

     “He won’t be back for 11 months, Law.”

     Lawrence nodded curtly, and Moreno dismissed him.

     The following morning, Moreno found a paper on his desk. It said:

Lieutenant Moreno,

     I will not be on base tomorrow. In the last year, I have accrued 120 hours of leave. I will return within three weeks, before I have exceeded my 120 hours. We are at war. This is the time.

Lawrence Law

     Moreno nearly laughed.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

     Their car screeched into the hospital parking lot. Charlotte didn’t own a car until her husband died; and since then, she’d fiercely ignored it.      She’d wanted it to rot and for the grass to grow through its tires and pull it into the earth. She had never been much for cars or driving before, but after now, it was appalling.

     Charlotte jerked the car in park and immediately stepped out of the car. Behind her, Harriet strained to keep up. By the time they approached the front desk, her drudge had turned to a stumbling jog, and she let her arms fall over the desk.

     The hospital secretary glanced at Harriet before turning to Charlotte. She had no expression, which Harriet thought was appropriate.

     “Hi, Miss… Jackson. I’m Charlotte Arthur, and I’m looking for my son, Rowan Arthur. Was he a patient here?”

     Miss Jackson said, “No,” and began typing on her computer.

     “He might also go by ‘Row.’”

     No reply.

     “He’s a Navy sailor.”

     Again, no reply.

     “Are you checking?”

     “No.”

     “How can you know if you haven’t checked?”

     Still typing, Miss Jackson said, “I have checked. The hospital up in Croy called me two hours ago.”

     “Oh,” Charlotte said. “And he hasn’t been through here?”

     “No.”

     “And you’re sure.”

     “Yes, I’m sure.”

     “Right,” Charlotte breathed. “Thank you.”

     She walked back out and sat in the car. She did not move or sag. She sat rod-straight and waited.

     Watching Miss Jackson, Harriet stood up from the desk and sighed.

     “You couldn’t call every hospital on the coast, could you?”

     She shook her head. “Not today.”

     Harriet stopped outside the front doors and looked out at the parking lot. It was nearly empty, as big as it was, and the white lines were cracking into black. The sunset moved from blue to navy to black down the sky. Everything was dissolving. An orange dot fell down the sky towards the dark.

     Harriet stepped back in the car.

     “Mom?”

     “We’re going to one more, Harriet. Then we can sleep.”

     “Okay.” She was barely listening. All she could think about was the orange dot in the wash of blue.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

     Lawrence pulled into Rowan’s base. Rowan’s fleet had only been back from their deployment for a week, so he knew they would all be around. He went directly to the captain’s office.

     Lawrence saluted Captain Baines.

     “At ease, sailor,” Baines said.

     Lawrence relaxed. “My name is Lawrence Law, sir, from the Navy base in Carlsburg.”

     “And what do you need, Law?”

     “I’m looking into the loss of Sailor Rowan Arthur, sir.”

     Baines’ eyebrows fell. “Are you here on official business?”

     “No, sir. I’m on personal time, sir.”

     “You know Arthur was declared lost at sea.”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “What more do you need to know?”

     “I came to ask about the circumstances of his disappearance, sir.”

     “Then ask.”

     “Could you disclose the day and time, ship’s coordinates, and ship’s climate when Arthur went missing, sir?”

     Baines pulled a file, reading Lawrence the ship’s coordinates, evening time, and the rocky but not excessively rough climate.

     Lawrence exhaled. “Thank you, sir.”

     “Is there anything else, Law?”

     “Yes, sir. May I speak with your squadron? To ask them their whereabouts and what they may remember, sir?”

     “Do you mean to interrogate my sailors?”

     “No, sir. I only mean to resolve my own unrest, sir.”

     “Go, Law. They’re in the mess hall. But you will not imply any fault to my men. Got it?”

     “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

     Lawrence saluted Baines again, then left for the cafeteria.

     After speaking with 20 sailors, Lawrence returned to his car and rested. Later that evening, he spoke with another 50 sailors; and the next morning, a final 40.

     Naturally, he thought, nobody had seen Rowan since his late-afternoon post. Most assumed he had retired to his room, although nobody could verify. Allen Long, Rowan’s bunkmate, reported him missing when he wasn’t in bed the next morning. He didn’t see any signs of foul play, suicide, or anything out of the ordinary. It was a regular day. Evening. Naturally.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

     “Mom,” Harriet said, “he might not be in a hospital.”

     “He’s either in a hospital or on a ship,” Charlotte said flatly.

     “Or another country.”

     “Well, Harriet, I can’t check another damn country, can I?”

     Harriet sighed. “How much longer can we do this?”

     “We will do this until we’ve checked every hospital near every coastal base.”

     Harriet turned to look out the window. The world was so quiet. So barren on the roads and shiftless in the trees. She rolled down her window and crossed her arms on the frame, watching the green blur.

     “Maybe,” she said, “he’s lost out there. Waiting for us to find him.”

     Charlotte closed her eyes for a second. She imagined her son wandering around a coastal town, dirty and confused. She imagined herself having driven just past him hours ago, leaving him, losing him.

     She said, “I hope not, Harriet.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

     “Sir, I would like to join your next deployment.”

     Captain Baines leaned back in his chair. “Why, Law?”

     “Your next deployment passes through the same coordinates where Arthur went missing. I would like to be there, sir.”

     “That’s the sorriest reason I’ve ever heard.”

     “The team will also have the same sailors from Arthur’s last voyage, sir. If you let me deploy with you, sir, I will do anything.”

     “Law, do you realize that training starts in four days and lasts five weeks?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     “And that our deployment will last 13 months?”
     “Yes, sir.”

     “So you want to spend five weeks training, and 13 months at sea during wartime, just so you can stand in the place Arthur fell off ship?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     Baines was stunned. He said, “Come back tomorrow.”

     That evening, Captain Baines read Lawrence’s service file. According to his file, he had only been deployed once, back before the war, for an eight-month voyage. He had not fared well at sea, his captain had noted, and had often been tense, obsessive, and on one occasion, hysterical. After his return to base, Lawrence had been temporarily assigned to next-of-kin notifications and flourished. Since the war began, next-of-kin notifications increased exponentially, and Lawrence’s aptitude became invaluable. He hadn’t moved in four years.

     Lawrence returned the next morning.

     “Captain Baines, sir.”

     “I will not add you to my roster, Law.”

     Lawrence didn’t move or reply.

     “You are an unfit candidate and would be unreliable at sea. My men deserve only the best sailors at their sides.”

     “I would be invaluable, sir.”

     Baines waved his cheek, too interested in the answer: “Why is that?”

     “I will do every humble job, unwanted post, and extra assignment without complaint, sir. And, sir, I am very precise and reliable.”

     “Come back tomorrow.”

     The next morning, Captain Baines allowed Lawrence into his fleet. He couldn’t say entirely why.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

     Nobody was at the front desk. Charlotte could hear people talking – from the second floor, maybe, or offices rooms away – but there was nobody around. She rang the bell.

     It had been over a week, and this was the 16th hospital Charlotte had visited. They all said the same thing: No Rowan. Again, she rang the bell.

     Charlotte glanced at Harriet on the bench behind her, reading the posters on the walls. The letter from Joe had said, We can’t find Rowan. She rang the bell a third time.

     The ring echoed against the walls, making the voices louder, making the bell louder, making her thoughts louder. He couldn’t just be gone. He couldn’t be lost. He existed. He was alive. He was out there. She knew it.

     This time when Charlotte reached for the bell, she was shaking. She pressed it again and again rapidly, like a nervous tick. She began saying, “Hello hello hello,” each word in tandem with a ring, gradually getting louder.

     Harriet stood up and stopped. Finally, a man emerged from a room at the end of the hall, speed-walking to the front desk.

     “Ma’am!” he said. “Ma’am, are you okay?”

     Charlotte stopped ringing the bell and blinked at him. He had thin glasses and looked like a cartoon head-shrinker. Harriet suddenly ran up beside her mother and took her hand.

     Charlotte said, “Have you seen my son?”

     The man hesitated.

     “Have you seen my son? I can’t find him. Nobody can find him.”

     He said, “What does he look like? Do you have a picture?”

     “Yes,” she said, “I do!” Charlotte pulled her wallet out of her purse and held up her son’s initial Navy photograph.

     The man furrowed. “Um, your son’s an… adult?”

     She nodded, shaking, still looking at the picture. “They lost him. And we can’t – we can’t find him. Have you seen him?”

     “No, I, um, haven’t seen him. I’m sorry.”

     Harriet jumped in: “Can you check your records to see if he’s been through here? His name is Rowan Arthur.”

     Suddenly, he understood and leapt to the computer. “Yes, yes, of course. Just one moment.”

     Charlotte swayed against her daughter, clutching her wallet to her chest.

     “I’m so sorry. He hasn’t been here.”

     “He hasn’t been here,” Charlotte repeated. “You haven’t seen him, and he hasn’t been here. Of course he hasn’t been here! He hasn’t been anywhere! Because that’s where you go when you’re lost, when nobody can find you: you go nowhere! You go where nobody can find you, where the Navy can’t find you, where I can’t find you, where your sister can’t find you, where you’ll stay lost forever – at sea – at land – at nowhere. At nowhere!”

     As she spoke, Charlotte cried, her nose running into her mouth and gurgling her words. She threw her arms around, looking up and then down and up again, and on her last word, she threw herself at the front desk, slamming her hand down with a loud slap.

     Harriet, who’d also began to cry, dragged her out soon thereafter. Sitting in the car, silent, they dried themselves and slumped against the seats.

     “Jacksonville next,” Harriet said.

     Charlotte straightened her back. “Jacksonville next.”

     “Does Nana still live there?”

     “As far as I know.”

     Harriet sighed. “We should stay with her for a little bit. I think we need it.”

     “Harriet, we can’t stop looking for your brother. He’s out there.”

     “I know. I know he is. But Jacksonville was his favorite base. If he went anywhere, it’s there.”

     Charlotte considered this. Her mother-in-law was a miserable woman. But Jacksonville meant sleep, non-filtered air, and the chance of Rowan.

     “Maybe,” she said, and revved the car in reverse.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

     Lawrence trained on land for one week, then on ship for two weeks, and was on the cusp of his second consecutive week on base. It was just as he remembered it: fine-tuned and reliable. Being there reminded him why he joined the Navy in the first place. Order. He thrived in conditioning.

     He thought back to Rowan’s file. Before every notification, he read the sailor’s file to feel closer to the family. Not that it ever worked – files didn’t offer much personality.

     Rowan, he remembered, was listed as the fourth-worst in basic training. But unlike the worst three and the five just above him, Rowan didn’t fail out. The file didn’t offer an explanation, and Lawrence didn’t inspect it too closely. But now, he wondered what that meant.

     Lawrence had been the fifth-best in basic training. But he never had to wonder why he wasn’t any higher – although he perfected every workout, he was finicky and never went above, let alone beyond, the call of duty. Until now.

 

     Charlotte and Harriet had been in Jacksonville for weeks and had settled into a nice rhythm. Nice, at least, in its routine.

     Louisa lived in a small home within a community of similar small homes. There were golf carts and courses, a small on-property church, and everybody wore white. Louisa thought their white clothes and white hair were tacky put together. In fact, she thought a lot about her neighbors – about everybody, really. Charlotte especially.

     “You’re going out again, Charlotte?”

     Charlotte sighed and stopped, turning to her mother-in-law. “Yes, Louisa.”

     Louisa crossed her legs. “It’s in poor taste to go out every day, you know. It tells men that you’re open for business.”

     “Well, I am not open for business. I’m looking for my son.”

     Louisa waved her off. “You may as well open your legs for all of Jacksonville.”

     “Goodbye, Louisa.”

     Louisa nodded.

     Harriet woke up an hour later, shaking off her dream. Since they heard about Rowan, she dreamed every night. But never of him. Never of the sea or drowning, and never nightmares. She wished she had nightmares – she knew her mother did – but instead, her dreams were sweet and filmy. Pleasant. Mocking her.

     “Good morning, Pretty Harry,” Louisa said.

     “Good morning, Nana,” Harriet said, walking into the kitchen.

     Since they were little, Rowan called her Dirty Harry. So her grandmother, in a show of support, started calling her Pretty Harry. Harriet had loved it. But now, without Rowan, there was no balance.

     Harriet grabbed a banana and sat beside her grandmother in front of the television. They watched the weather and traffic reports in silence. When the news came back, Harriet left. She spent the day outside, by the pool and on the clubhouse balcony. Occasionally, she took a golf cart to the beach, but today wasn’t one of those days. Occasionally, too, her grandmother joined her, but today wasn’t one of those days either. She only watched, listened, and got browner in the Florida sun.

     Charlotte sat on the beach near the base. She stared out at the water, knowing Rowan wouldn’t walk out of it but wishing. When a person walked by, she would stand up and hold out a picture of him – enlarged from her wallet copy – and ask if they’d seen him. Most glanced before saying no, some ignored her completely, and a rare few held up the picture, really looked at it, and considered; but they never said they’d seen him. Those hurt the worst.

     After her morning at the beach, Charlotte would spend her day in a different small section of town, asking clerks in stores and passersby to look at her picture. But nothing. Nobody was out much, anyway. They were home or far away.

     Early evening, she stopped by the base. They wouldn’t let her inside, but they spoke to her briefly at the entrance to say that no, they still hadn’t seen him. 

     At the end of the day, Charlotte met Harriet and Louisa for dinner in the community cafeteria.

     And when they left dinner, Harriet said, “Mom, I think it’s time.”

     “I think you’re right.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

     Captain Baines told the fleet to report to the ship within 12 hours of their departure time, midnight. Lawrence’s bunkmate left at 1:00 that afternoon. Outside his window, Lawrence heard men trickling out, more and more as it got later, clomping off in their combat boots. He listened to them and breathed.

     Looking around his room, Lawrence soaked in the emptiness. Everything was stripped bare, his duffel bag waiting by the door, his bed made tightly beneath him. He was the only thing in the room that wasn’t ready for him to leave.

     The last time he was deployed, he broke into hysterics. He had a breakdown, or an attack, or something – he didn’t know what – something frenzied. Something that told him he wasn’t cut out for life at sea. And since then, Lawrence had stayed inland.

     But he needed to know what happened to Rowan. He was convinced this was the only way.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

     They were running out of money. Charlotte knew it, and she suspected Harriet knew it, too. They used the last of their ration books during their first week in Jacksonville, and they didn’t have a ready-available microwave, so they survived mostly off fruits, vegetables, breads, and plastic-packaged snack-foods. But even those, without money, wouldn’t be manageable soon.

     It was evening, and Charlotte and Harriet were lying in the car to sleep. Harriet was curled along the backseat, and Charlotte was in the driver’s seat, the back reclined near Harriet’s feet. Neither of them moved or spoke. They felt they could hear each other’s hearts beating in the dark.

     During their months away from home, they had visited 36 hospitals and half as many cities. They had driven thousands of miles around the country, and they had never wavered. But lying in their beaten-down, torn-apart, rust-raw car, with nothing to show for it all, they felt adrift.

     They finally fell asleep when the Washington rain started to fall.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

3 mos:

     They stopped at two ports, each stay long and hectic, but Lawrence made a point of keeping himself out of the general business. He had been to both ports before – on his last deployment – and had no interest in the war (except that they won). So he stayed on the ship and kept to his routine work. He was only there for Rowan.

     Between ports – at sea – Lawrence’s favorite post was his daily watch. Most sailors didn’t like the watch – it bored them – but Lawrence found it soothing. He could stare for hours, in peace, at the waves on the horizon. He could think, which he did a lot of but not often in quiet, and focus his mind on something like an eye. It was, he thought, the best time for theories:

     None of Rowan’s shipmates claimed to have seen him, which suggested that he jumped or fell from the ship. But had somebody pushed him, they certainly would not have confessed.

     The sea was rocky, as it always was, but Rowan would have anticipated that as a trained sailor. Unless he was inebriated or otherwise unwell, he shouldn’t have fallen. But then again, Rowan was the fourth-worst recruit in basic training, so perhaps he wasn’t the best sailor at the outset.

     It still plagued Lawrence that Rowan had passed training when, in fact, he shouldn’t have. He wondered if the numbers were wrong, or if hands were greased. But he kept it at the back of his mind, since he figured it had no connection with Rowan’s disappearance.

     More importantly, he wondered where Rowan went. If he was rescued, and by whom; if he was a prisoner on an enemy ship; if he actually fell overboard at all; if he was even alive.

     Lawrence let his head roll back. His shift-partner placed his hand on Lawrence’s shoulder.

     “Only one more hour, Law.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

     Charlotte and Harriet had been home for over two months, and things kept on as they had before. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, they volunteered in Cranberry; on Tuesdays and Fridays, they helped a local farm gather, can, and sell produce; and on Thursdays and Sundays, they rested. Their lives hadn’t been fashionable before or during the war, but after they returned from their excursion, everything drudged.

     Charlotte didn’t acknowledge that Rowan was missing. She didn’t acknowledge him at all. She moved through each day like a plow, looking ever-forward. Her nightmares persisted, but she 

     Harriet’s dreams disappeared altogether. Occasionally, she brought up Rowan or a funny memory from their trip, and her mother would laugh or nod or reply something affirming but little more. She sat in the car some days and remembered what it felt like to look for him.

     It was a Sunday when a friend called. The friend told Charlotte that a Navy ship had been sunk by torpedoes overnight, killing 40% of the sailors on board, an additional 20% captured and 40% rescued. Charlotte hung up the phone.

     Harriet said, “What was that about?”

     Charlotte held her hand to her mouth and closed her eyes.

     “Mom? What’s wrong?”

     She didn’t move.

     “Oh my God,” Harriet said, “did they find him?”

     Charlotte shook her head and moved her hand, opening her eyes. “What if he’s gone, Harriet?”

     Harriet opened her mouth and let it gape there, her eyes starting to water. “I – Mom, he can’t be.”

     Charlotte sunk onto the floor. “He could be.” And she started to bawl.

     Harriet moved onto the floor, too, and cried.

     They cried together, occasionally bursting out he can’t be! or not rowan! or come back! Harriet crawled to her mother, heaving with each movement forward. She fell into Charlotte’s lap like a little girl, and Charlotte screamed. When she stopped, Harriet screamed. And then, their tears spotting their shirts, they screamed together. And cried more.

     A while later, still curled together, exhausted and sad, Harriet said, “Mom, where is he?”

     Charlotte bent forward so her forehead hit Harriet’s knees. “He’s lost, baby.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

     They were there. Lawrence checked their coordinates, and they were there. Passing through where Rowan had gone missing. He stood on the side of the ship and leaned forward. He breathed in the salty black air.

     He knew then Rowan didn’t fall. He jumped, or he was thrown. There was nothing passive about this place, this air, this water. But he needed to know. Lawrence looked down at the sea.

     Maybe he was obsessive, he thought, remembering what his lieutenant had once said. Because in that moment, he tied on a life jacket, threw a tethered lifebuoy into the water, and slid down the rope into the ocean. It burned his hands all the way down. But the slide – the slide, for Lawrence, was magnificent.

     When he finally hit the water, he sank. It was like the water grabbed his ankles and pulled him further in, feeling how his body filled it. It held him there. Lawrence scrambled up out of the water and breached the surface a minute later, gasping and grabbing for the lifebuoy.

     It was cold – much colder than he’d expected. It pricked him again and again in his legs and back and arms. This, he thought, is what Rowan felt. This want of the water.

     Lawrence spun around, looking up at the moon, the stars, the endless blue-black sea around him. He had never felt so small. It was all-consuming.

     He heard voices from way above that sounded like whispers in the dark. Craning his neck far back, Lawrence saw a line of men at the edge of the ship, whispering to him, with one man – presumably the captain – at the center, waving his arms wildly, angrily, saying softly, You’re done, Law! You’re done!

     Lawrence heard a cranking from the ship that he knew must be the lifebuoy. They were pulling him up. He turned to face the water and sky, and he thought again about Rowan.

     As his feet lifted out of the water, he knew Rowan wasn’t down there.

     He didn’t care what happened after that. He’d felt the water, and he’d known.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

     The streets of Jacksonville, once bustling with tourists and shoppers, were quiet. There were a few women out, prowling from store to store. They walked in and out of the boutiques, designers, and passed the palm trees that stood between. They passed the benches that sat outside. And without knowing, they passed a lost man.

     Except he wasn’t lost at all. He sat on a bench, his left ankle propped on his right leg, and smoked a vape. He wondered when cigarettes were taken off the market. He watched the women shopping. How frivolous, he thought.

     He pulled a phone out of his pocket and removed its sheer packaging. He dialed a number and waited. It picked up.

     “Joe,” he said.

     “Row?”

     “I’m here.”

[Untitled Project A]

05/05/2021

A Beginning Chapter

     They want me to know what day it is. They’re insisting it’s Wednesday, it’s Wednesday, Trudy, say it back, and I say, “which one,” and they say Wednesday, Trudy, today is Wednesday, like I’m five, and I’m trying to ask the date, “which day,” but they’re not listening, they’re getting agitated with me, not knowing that I don’t care if it’s Wednesday, it could be Sunday, I just care if it’s April or May.

     Actually, I don’t. But now I know it’s Wednesday.

     Wednesday means meatloaf.

     Meatloaf means brown puke by the plant by the window. It’ll probably look like dirt spilled over, or like a nurse dropped her coffee, or like the plant shit itself. I wonder what plant shit would smell like. Maybe it would smell bad, like regular shit… or would it smell earthy, like truffles? Truffle pigs sound cute. Georgie should’ve gotten a truffle pig. The farm.

     I haven’t been here long. I came in at night, on a weekday, sometime recent. Maybe last Wednesday (since today’s Wednesday). It was dark.

But then I woke up the next morning and there wasn’t any dark for miles. It was like stepping into a bulb. And then stepping into the bulb again and it hurting your eyes a little less. People wear all kinds of clothes here, but nobody wears black--nobody wears anything darker than the brown of a tree--and my eyes are still adjusting. No trees here. No trees, no black, no truffles, and no days except Wednesday. Today.

     I’m sitting with girls today. There aren’t enough tables for an island, so I sit with girls. One of them throws up after dinners, one talks like a radio, one hears angels, and the others sit. Today, Casey Kasem is talking about her time on the road. She probably listened to a lot of the radio. She probably cranked it so high the angels in the other girl’s head could hear it. The angels probably didn’t like that.

     “So there I am, in nothing but a turtleneck and the guy’s briefs, holding both my thumbs up like a retard. You know, it’s a wonder--”

     “Shut up, Jean. Nobody’s listening to you.”

     “I’m listening.”

     “But to who?”

     “The angels,” Jean pipes in.

     Everyone laughs then. I stare at my meatloaf and wonder where the flavor went.

     My dad would say it walked off in protest.

     He protested once.

     Someone should protest the meatloaf.

     “What were you like before all this?”

     “Shit, I rode horses and pretended--”

     “Shut up, Jean. I meant Rose.”

     “I was a criminal justice major… I ate, slept, and breathed it, too… I wore sweet dresses that were almost too short, but never were, and I ate lots of fruit… And my mom was so proud of me, every day.”

     “And then shit hit the fan.”

     “Can you stop with the ‘shit’ already?”

     “I had a boyfriend.”

     Everyone turns to me.

     “I had a boyfriend and a job and the world.”

     There’s a beat where the girls just watch me watching the window.

     “And then shit hit the fan.”

     “Jean.”

     I echo, “It hit the fan.”

          ~~~               ~~~               ~~~               ~~~               ~~~

     It doesn’t look like dirt, coffee, or shit- it looks like puke. And a little like Rocky Road ice cream, but mostly just puke.

     We’re in our after-dinner slump now, everyone on the ward packed in the den like sardines. I’m on the floor. There aren’t enough couches and there aren’t enough chairs and I sit on the floor. Far away from the puke by the window.

     The TVs are on and something’s playing. There are some men, some women, and everything moves fast. Fast and fake and fictional. And so far away. I can’t watch. My head spins.

          ~~~               ~~~               ~~~               ~~~               ~~~

     Trudy, do you know what day today is?

     My favorite day used to be Sunday. Everyone in town was at church, but not me. I was too busy and important to go to church. I had things to do, people to see, places to be. And I did, I saw, I was.

     Trudy, are you listening?

     I’m listening to the wolf cry to the blue corn moon.

     Trudy.

     “Can you paint with all the colors of the wind…”

     Is that the song from Pocahontas?

     Oh.

     It’s Thursday. I don’t know why he needs to hear me say it, but “it’s Thursday.”

     Thank you, Trudy. That’s right.

     Why can’t anything be black?

          ~~~               ~~~               ~~~               ~~~               ~~~

     We’re sitting in a circle, eight women and three men and one lady, and we’re the lasso of truth. It’s Saturday, and it’s Group Talk day. We’re Group B. We talk.

     The lady says, Today, we’re going to talk about Why.

     “Z!” shouts the man with the beard, raising his arm.

     “I wanna talk about Z too. I’m sick of Y,” Jean says.

     Another girl pipes up, barely above a whisper, “Y can go fuck itself.”

     That’s enough, ladies. We’re talking about Why, as in W-H-Y, not the letter Y. Do you understand, Patrick?

     “Yes. Yes. Whyyyy.” He drags out the last word like a whine.

     The lady nods. Now, by Why, I mean Why are you here. What brought you here today? What brought you to this place at this moment in time? Please, anyone, feel free to share.

     Everyone goes quiet. I can’t tell if they don’t have an answer or if they just don’t want to say it. I don’t and I don’t. I mean, I do. We all do. But we don’t. Do. Don’t. Do don’t do don’t do don’t. It sounds like a heartbeat.

     Rose whips her head around to look at the door. Beard Man turns to see what’s there and hums approvingly.  A couple others glance back. I don’t bother looking.

     Anybody?

     All the lookers readjust back in their seats.

     Nope. Nobody. Nope-body.

     The lady, unperturbed, just sits up straighter. Then we’re going to pass Simon around. Can someone explain what happens when we bring out Simon?

     Simon is a white stuffed dog with one black eye. It’s his left eye.

     “I’ll do it,” says Throw-Up Girl. “When we have Simon, we pass him around the circle. Whoever is holding Simon can either answer the question or pass. But if you pass, you have to say why you’re passing.”

     That’s exactly right, Melody. We’ll start with Amanda, then go to Jordan, and so on.

     She hands Simon to Amanda, who holds him silently and strokes his head. He doesn’t look soft. He looks matted, like he was in too many wet t-shirt contests. Amanda starts to cry. She pulls Simon into her neck and lets her tears mat his matted head. Maybe she’s the wet t-shirt contest. She could win a wet t-shirt contest if she tried.

     Amanda, why are you crying?

     Amanda closes her eyes and shoves her face in Simon’s belly, sucking the stickiness back up her nose. A minute passes. Someone starts tapping their foot and Amanda pulls Simon into her lap. “I’m sad.”

     Why--

     “Z!”

     Why are you sad, Amanda?

     She starts tearing up again. “I don’t,” she says, shaking her head, “I don’t wanna answer the question.”

     Why not?

     “It makes me sad.”

     Well, yes, but why?

     “She said why. Let her be,” Jean says. “Just give Snot Simon to Jordan.”

     The lady sighs, but not in an upset way- in a soft, defeated kind of way. She tells Amanda to give Simon back, and then she pulls out a blue dog. He’s blue, has two black eyes, and is clean as a daisy, but is otherwise the same as Simon. For those of you who don’t know, she says, this is Sal. We use him when Simon gets too dirty. She hands him off to Jordan and gestures to continue.

     Jordan blames her dad. She says he left her and her sister. Her sister has some disability. I hope it isn’t the one that makes you look like the Elephant Man. Her mom had to work all the time. Or be with the sister. Who may or may not be the elephant girl. She was always alone.

     “So then--surprise!--I’m diagnosed with Bi-Ped.”

     She means BPD.

     She tells us more, but all I can see is tall, skinny Jordan standing next to a short, stocky girl with a face that looks like a shoe. A partially-melted shoe. A partially-melted, partially-shredded shoe. Like the shoe from Jumanji.

     We’ll talk more tomorrow, Jordan. Thank you for sharing.

     Sal moves through the group, past one middle-aged man who points at each of us and passes because “it’s none of their fucking business;” past Melody, who shrugs and says very simply, “because I hate myself;” past the young guy talking rapid-fast and tripping over his words; past Beard Guy, who tells us he’s here because he can’t control himself; past Jean, who says, “what happened to Z?” and then, “well, I’m here because I took a wrong turn on the freeway;” past a pear-shaped woman who both looks and sounds like a pear, saying she likes pears too much or something; and to me.

     Sal is soft. He’s much softer than matty old Simon. But then, Simon has lived. Has Sal?

     Trudy.

     “I don’t know.”

     Think about it. You’re here for a reason. What is it?

     I think. The reason is that I woke up one day with a different head screwed on my neck. I don’t know why. How can I answer when I don’t have an answer.

     “I can’t pour tea from an empty cup.”

     The lady hesitates, thinking of what to say next. But before she can, Jean jumps in: “Preach, sister!”

     “Brother!” shouts the bearded man.

     Rose stands up and turns to the window.

     Sit down, Rose. There’s nobody there.

     “But why,” Rose says to herself.

     “Z!”

     “A,” says Jean.

     “B!”

     That’s enough. Rose, sit down. Jean, stop entertaining Patrick. Patrick, please remember your practices.

     They don’t listen. We end up back in our rooms until dinner.

     I still don’t know my Why. I don’t think I ever will.

     But maybe I’ll know my Z one day.

A Middle (Partial) Chapter

     It’s him. He’s across the hallway, standing where my parents should be, looking anywhere but here. At anything but me. 

     I’m nine again, hiding behind a fencepost, watching him in the field. He’s ten, and knows I’m here, but doesn’t mind being watched. His family moved into a farm near town, and within days I stole one of their goats, back before I even knew who they were. Now, I know. I see him, with his cows in their field, round and warm-looking and calmer than I’ve ever seen a person. He never lets on that he sees me, never says a word or moves any faster than an old dog, and I know that he’s it. Everything I’m not, everything I’m missing, the string to my kite.

     But now, looking at him, I know he saw me that day. And I wish, like then, I could think myself invisible- it’d be easier to see him if I didn’t know he sees me back.

     I’m at the table I’m at every Friday, where I wait for my parents to visit, and he’s there, where I last expected him to be, walking down the hall towards me. 

     I’m lying at the edge of their property, flat to the grass, listening to him wrangle the cows. It’s the stillest I’ve ever been, every time I’m here it is, and it’s a stealth mission; I’m investigating the boy’s technique, ready to report any mishandling; I’m all in black and a ninja; I’m with the FBI, the CIA, NSA, the president; I’m watching and I’m listening. That is, I am until I open my eyes and see him lying, flat to the grass, on the other side of the pasture. In the exact position I’m in. Looking right back at me.

     I wish there was grass beneath me now. I wish I could sink into it, grow roots and age with the dirt. But I can’t. It’s too late. He’s standing behind the chair across from me. Looking right back at me.

     I sit there. He stands there. We stay there, neither one of us moving… until the nurses begin to get agitated. They shuffle, eyeing him and eyeing me and waiting for something to happen. Whispering to each other.

     Eventually, I tell him, “sit down.”

     He nods and sits. The nurses calm. I’d forgotten the way he moves. Like water on silk.

     “I didn’t know it’d feel like this.”

     His voice is just as smooth and tangy as it ever was, swallowing like sweetarts after a long day. I blink at him, forcing the words to come: “Feel like what?”

     We’re a year in, and by now I’ve settled onto their fencepost, sitting or tightrope-walking the line of it, playing Keep Away with the Hurren boy. I’ve yet to talk to him, and he’s yet to talk to me, but I’m ten now and I refuse to be the one to break first. If he wants to hear my voice, he’ll have to ask kindly for it. Elsewise, I’m not saying a word.

     He doesn’t. I break first. He slips in the cows’ manure and I laugh. I find myself trying to say things between the laughs, but can’t figure what they are. And it’s the first time I’ve seen him stumble, let alone fall… and he doesn’t react at all… so I’m in tears. The boy stands from the ground and brushes off his pants, then looks up to me. “That suits you,” he says.

     I pause for a minute, calming my laughter, “What does?”

     He smiles. I know what.

     “Like coming home.”

     I close my eyes. I know.

     I know because the minute I saw him, I felt it too- this feeling, that’d been balled and ripped and scattered in my stomach, suddenly settled.

The Final Chapter

     Should we be running? No, it’d be too conspicuous to run. This is right. Walking, waddling, paddling.

     Since my room is the closest to the door and Jean’s is the farthest, she’s leading and I’m tailing. Meaning: if something goes wrong, she and I are the first to go down. Maybe that should scare me more.

     I hardly remember what air feels like when it’s still crisp, before it starts to brown and sag from cheap conditioning. I remember loving it. I remember feeling the difference when I first got here. I’ll get to feel crisp air again tonight.

     We left all our clothes behind, partly as symbolism and partly because they were itchy as hell. Now, we’re just five women in our underwear shuffling through a dark ward. Thrilled to be free.

     It’s 11:00 and the day nurses are packing up. They head to the back around now to discuss the day (and presumably us), comforted after doing their rounds that everyone’s eased in bed, and the evening nurses step in around 12:00. We have one hour.

     Our first stop is Canderwal’s office. Jean swiped a bobby pin from Lady earlier in the day, so she pulls it out now and jiggles the door open. We all shuffle in and I close the door behind us. Knowing we’ll be waiting for a minute, we all take a seat- Rose and Melody in the chairs, Jean with her back on the floor and legs against the wall, and me cross-legged with my back to his desk. Canderwal was my therapist too. Rose, Melody, and Jean all had Washington, but Jordan and I had Canderwal. I’ll miss the guy. I wasn’t extremely fond of him, but so it goes. I wasn’t fond of cereal either, until I was locked on an eggs-and-toast-only floor. Now all I want is Fruit Loops.

     Jordan offered to shred my papers too, and she’s offering again now, but both times I pass. I don’t care if he keeps them. And like before, she presses: “Why should one small man have a copy of your life in his desk?” I say, “Why shouldn’t he?”

     “Because it’s your fucking life, Trudy.”

     Jordan can’t see me shrug from behind his desk, so I raise my hands up, palms open.

     I can’t see her either, but I’m willing to bet she’s rolling her eyes. “Whatever. He doesn’t deserve to have my life, that’s all I know.”

     Jean tilts her head back, so it’s facing me upside-down, and sticks out her tongue, mocking Jordan. I laugh. Rose looks where I’m looking and laughs too. Melody just smiles and shakes her head at us.

     Jordan finds her file--”aHA”--and wiggles over to the shredder. “Drumroll, please.”

     I start rolling my hands on the floor, Jean joins in with her feet against the wall, Rose with her feet on the floor, and finally, with some teasing, Melody joins with her hands on the chair arm. Jordan lets go. We stop our noise to listen to the papers shred, one by one, hearing as this section of her life dies. When she’s done, there’s a silence.

     “Stick it to the man,” says Jean.

     “The man’s been stuck,” says Melody, “let’s go.”

     We all stand up and head out the door, back in our orderly little line. Jordan, right in front of me, is looser than she was before. She already looks free. I close the door behind us. Bye, Dr. Canderwal.

     Jean passes the bobby pin to Melody, who passes it down to Rose. We stop at the corner, look, and round it. There it is: the infamous padded cell. Jean opens the door, which is kept unlocked, and stops. I’ve never been in the cell until now, nor has Melody, but neither of us squirms the way the others do. We don’t know how it feels to be alone in here. Everyone walks in, slow and cautious, and finally, I shut the door. Melody and I back against the right wall, and Jean and Jordan follow. Rose stands in the middle of the room, facing the opposite wall, steadier than I’ve ever seen her.

     “This cell,” she says, stepping forward, “is cruel” she drags the bobby pin along the top of the left wall, slicing through the padding, “and unusual punishment.” Rose turns the bobby pin to go down the right side of the wall, “it’s solitary confinement,” she cuts along the bottom crease, “and it’s unnecessary, and it’s degrading,” she curves up through the left side, “and it’s inexcusable.” Rose finishes and rips out a fat square of padding. She opens the door and tosses it outside the room.

     She moves to the next wall, still talking, and I wish we could record her. If there was a God, if there was any justice or fairness in the world, Rose would’ve never been here. She would’ve never heard angels, never left college, never ended up in this padded cell with a bobby pin in her fist. She would’ve been a criminal defense lawyer and “she would’ve kicked ass out there.” I look at Melody, who said it, almost reading my mind, and she looks back at me. I smile a watery smile, proud but sad, and she nods. We all watch Rose, and listen, and envy the person she could’ve been.

     Finally, she finishes with the walls and the ceiling, and we step out to let her carve out the padded floor. When she’s done, she throws it at us and we lift it above our heads like warriors, opening our mouths in silent screams of victory.

     Leaving the padding in the hall, we line back up and Rose hands the bobby pin to Jean, who kisses her hand and mouths something. I close the cell door and we round the corner. Two down, three to go.

     We’re in the group room. It’s in the heart of the floor, only partially contained, so I keep near the outer walls. Everyone follows me but Jean. This is hers.

     Jordan watches Jean scramble around the room, while the rest of us stare out the window. The windows here are much bigger than they are in other buildings. In other floors, even. I’ve gone back and forth, debated whether it was a cruel thing or a kind one- looking out windows only mocks you with beautiful things you can’t have; but at the same time, it reminds you what you’re fighting for. Freedom. Space. Life. I still can’t decide which fits this place. Maybe both.

     “I hate those things. I don’t get why she wants them,” Jordan says.

     “I don’t want them,” Jean says. “Just Simon.”

     The rest of us turn, likely all ready to help, but just as we do, Jean finds him. He was under blankets in the chest-table. She picks Simon up, gives him a wink, and shoves him under her arm.

     “Alright, my shit’s done. Melody, your turn.”

     I look at Simon from the other end of our line and wonder, too, why she wants him. He’s not all that white anymore, and his fur is matted all over… and she has him squashed underneath her arm like a rag. What’s the draw?

     But even if I wanted to say something, I can’t now- we’re in the living room, at the front of the ward. The only walls are the one against the outside and the one between the group room and this one. The nurses’ station is right there. The doors to the nurses’ lounge are right there. And the clock, saying we’re running out of time, is right there.

     All of us freeze. Melody takes a deep breath and goes. She heads straight for the plant, the one by the window, the one she always pukes beside. None of us knew her errand, only that it was in the living room, so I think everyone’s as confused as I am.

     Jean raises an eyebrow and Rose shrugs in reply.

     That answers that.

     Melody picks up the plant, pot and all, and carries it to the inner wall, placing it on the mantle. After placing it, turning it properly, and letting her arms fall, she looks at it for a minute and then steps away.

     Everyone holds themselves until we make it to the last hallway. Then,

     “What the fuck, Melody?”

     “We could’ve gotten caught!”

     “I thought my errand was batshit.”

     “Look,” she says. “It’s just something I had to do.”

     “Are you--”

     “It’s just something I had to do.”

     The way she says it, the firmness in her voice, shuts us all up. We get it. Intimately, in a way most people never could, we understand. It’s just something she had to do. For whatever reason. It just is.

     So we deflate and look at the clock. Five minutes until the next shift.

     “Okay,” Melody says. “Who has the key again?”

     The girls turn to me. I swallow. The next five minutes move like molasses.

     I pull the key from my shirt pocket, pushing past the lint, and let it lie in my palm. I show them. They nod. It’s cold in my hand, the key, and      I can’t remember the last time I felt cold metal. Maybe it was the last time I drove, or maybe at my last trip to Georgie’s farm, or maybe I never felt cold metal at all. Maybe this is a first. It feels nice in my hand. Heavy.

     I hand the key to Jordan, who hands it to Rose, to Melody, and finally to Jean. She closes her fingers around it and digs both her fists in her hair. Sighs. I wonder if the key’s warm now. I wonder if it’s warm outside.

     “Fuck,” Jean says.

     “Preach, sister,” Rose says, smiling.

     “Brother,” Melody says, smiling too.

     Jordan snorts.

     Jean eases her hands to her sides and turns around, facing the door.

     Three minutes. Molasses.

     She presses the key into the lock and I can feel how the lock feels, being pressed into and spun. There’s a click. And then Jean pushes the door open to the stairwell.

     We run down the stairs, bouncing under our bras and underwear and slapping our feet against the concrete steps and not giving a damn.

I give a damn.

     The cold concrete against my feet is cold, like the key, and heavy all the same.

     We reach the bottom and stop, heaving from excitement and adrenaline and six sets of stairs. The sign is there, the sign we’ve been picturing for months at our feet: the exit sign.

     One minute.

     Jean leans all her weight against the door and it opens. She lets it go and runs out. Melody walks out behind her, then Rose, then Jordan. But it’s not warm outside. It’s cold, and it’s a parking lot. 

     Asphalt, not grass. Cold, not warm. Cars, not trees.

     It’s ugly. It’s darker than I remember. It’s worse.

     They’re jumping up and down and Jordan’s gone and Rose is holding out her hand to me and Jean is whooping and Melody is staring at the sky and I’m horrified.

     I don’t know that place.

     I close the door and hold it shut. There’s pulling from the other side for a minute, but it quickly stops. Time is up.

     They find me there, sitting with my back to the door, five hours later.

     Is today Wednesday?