The Hope of Strawberries

It wasn’t that it was sunset – though the golden hues that decorated the plain horizon reminded her of the quiet changing of autumn leaves – as it was the end of her day. She sat with her knees bundled beneath folds of blankets. Fresh strawberries sat on a porcelain plate on the boundary between night and day, a line that was slowly creeping forward like the advancing lines of a contemptuous foe. She’d brought the plate from home. It wasn’t particularly special, though, it had to be said, she didn’t give any credence to the taste of strawberries either. But each of them, the plate and the strawberries, felt necessary somehow. Like she had no choice. She had to bring them with her. Here. To the very limit of her own territory.

An owl watched her curiously. He had been eyeing up a harvest mouse a moment or so ago but the little thing had scurried away at the sound of his wings flapping. Now, hungry and irritated, the owl watched the woman watch the world and wondered what the human word was for Oostaphan.

She wrapped a third blanket around her shoulders and buried her nose in its smell. Laundry detergent, cigarette smoke and something else all mixed together into a lacy concoction that made her head swim. She felt that now was an appropriate time to cry. She didn’t. But she felt like, had she wanted to, now would be an excellent time to let go of a few tears – if only to stop the aching behind her nose. But no, she wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t. So, she plucked a strawberry from the little plate and bit into it instead. Stray juice ran down her lips and galloped for her chin. Wild and free the juice ran hard and fast, knowing that if it could just reach horizon it could be free. But the woman’s hand was too quick. With a gentle whoosh stirring the growing night air, she smoothed the juice from her face and threw the strawberry head down onto the grass.

The harvest mouse listened to its heart thrum in its ears, a furious angel song that whispered blessings and reprimands in equal measure. He knew he shouldn’t have strewn so far from the bracken. He’d known it. Every fibre of his being had begged the very sinew of his ligaments to stay hidden beneath the thorns. But that smell. Oh! That delicious smell! The harvest mouse was many things: a loyal borrower of straw, a heavy user of the snaking river, a viciously funny addition to any gathering of mice, and a gregarious singer in the correct company, but strong-willed against aromas as potently delicious as this one? No siree bob. He was not that. And still, even now, as the acid in his muscles was only beginning to slacken its grip, his nose was twitching, debating whether or not to make another dash for it.

She reached for the green stained bottle and relished the cool smooth curves of its body. The label was rough where the glass was smooth but she forgave it all the same. For, was she not right that it would taste as fabulous, regardless of label or glass or…fuck. Fuck, she swore beneath her bald dome, which pooled the moonlight in an untouchable pond of lunar white. Fuck, she clucked her tongue, stinging one of the sores in her gums. “Fuck,” she whispered white wisps of breath that drifted high above the advancing lines beneath. She’d forgotten to bring a glass.

The owl left its branch like a bolt of snowy lightening as it spied the pink feet of the hungry harvest mouse. The woman jumped, little white pills falling from her hand like hailstones, as the dying caw of the mouse zipped through the air – gunshot! – before returning it to silence. She didn’t understand the word, but the owl did. Curious, it thought to itself, that a harvest mouse would care so deeply as to lose its life in the hope of a strawberry.

Her Day in School

 

“Do you know the saying, ‘a mother becomes a mum the day she finds out she’s pregnant; a father the day he holds his child’, doctor?”

“I’ve heard it, yes,” the doctor said as she busied her eyes with the numbers and figures on the chart before her. That was Lucile’s life, the only parts, at least, that meant anything to the doctor, scribbled on a chart.

“Does that piece of paper tell you the choice I had to make when I found out I was pregnant?”

“No,” the doctor replied as she turned towards a nurse and muttered a few, low words of instruction.

“It was me or the baby. I had cancer. Breast cancer,” she added as if that would make her doctor look at her and actually see her, a living, breathing woman and not just a patient on a clipboard. “They said that I could ‘evacuate the fetus’ – as if it was that easy – and take chemo. Or I could have my baby but I’d die before she went to school. That was my choice, doctor, did you know that?”

Something in the woman’s voice, desperation maybe, made Doctor Leren look at Lucille McConlai. Her old instinct wasn’t so easily bested by a cheap trick, however.

“I do now, Mrs McConlai,” she smiled a porcelain smile.

“Miss. He left me,” the words were brutal. Gun shots cracking down the bustling hallways of the hospital. “Not when I had cancer, oh lord know,” she laughed for the first time in a lifetime. “No, my husband was an honourable man. He just couldn’t take the strain, I guess, in the end. Left for Ireland. Still lives there, I think.”

“Another woman?”

“You really don’t listen do you? Not at all. Not to a word I say. He’s an honourable man is Jack. Too honourable to leave me for some silly girl in a low cut top. No. He just grew tired and in the end it was better for us both. He used to still see Lara, of course, he just can’t look at me.”

“I’ll have you sent down for an MRI in the morning, Mrs…Miss McConlai,” Doctor Leren smiled like a school boy that thought he’d just been caught cheating on his math test.

“He couldn’t forgive me. Not for what I did. You see, he couldn’t understand, could he?” Lucille reached out and grabbed the doctor’s wrist as if it were her last thread to the real world and not the horrorscape inside her head. “I chose her, Lara, over him. Over us. Me. I chose her.”

“You’re hurting me, Miss McConlai.”

“Am I? Perhaps I am. But I hurt us more that night than I could ever hurt you now. I broke our union. He couldn’t understand. To him she was just a pile of cells, no soul added, not yet anyway. He couldn’t see why I’d choose that over him. Over myself. He just couldn’t see that, to me, she was already a person. But, ha,” Lucille laughed again, “what did I know, right? Nothing,” she was as morose as she had been manic, instantly switching between one and the other. “Are you religious, Doctor Leren?”

“No,” she careful extricated herself from her patient’s grasp. She rubbed the skin on her wrist, the patient’s sweat still clinging to her like it could infect her. Infect her with the disease of empathy.

“Neither was I. But I felt then, as I was choosing between my life and hers, that God had forsaken me. That he wanted me to choose for…well, I still don’t know the answer to that question.”

“If you excuse me, I have other patients to attend.”

“I spoke to the Devil,” Lucille admitted. Her eyes were round and innocent, shocked as if it was the first time they’d ever heard that sentence before. It probably was. It wasn’t a sentence often said aloud. Her lips covered into a shocked little ‘o’ and tears fell down her cheeks. “That night. When the doctor, like you are now, asked me to make a choice. I spoke to the devil and begged him to let my little girl live. He answered. He’s always listening. Always available. Unlike God. He granted my wish. She was born and she was happy and fat and healthy. And then, like some kind miracle, I survived too. My cancer shrunk away against the chemo and I’ve been in remission for seven years. Seven whole years. They told me I wouldn’t see my daughter go to school. And I did. It was the best day. The best day of my life. I watched her climb those steps, her yellow backpack bouncing like a buttercup amongst the throng of greys and blues. She went to school and came back and told me her teacher’s name was Miss Rose. Isn’t that a fabulous name for a primary teacher? Miss Rose? Like something from a story book.”

Doctor Leren didn’t know why this woman was telling her all this. Her pager was buzzing wildly at her side, its shrill calls for attention muted to violent vibrations on her hip bone. She knew she had to leave, she wanted too as well. But instead she was stuck here, bound to the floor as a desperate woman told her story.

“I cried all day. All day until I had her back. Then I cried when she’d gone to bed. I’d done it. I was out the danger zone. I’d beaten the odds. But that’s just it, isn’t it? The house always wins. I spoke to the devil that night, and the devil doesn’t deal in miracles. He deals in tricks. And pain. And abject, all engulfing, heart destroying misery,” Lucille wept openly as her hands began to shake, vibrating almost as fast as Leren’s pager. “She died two days later. Hit by a car. A car, indeed. A car. That was all it took. Some silly girl, too silly to really blame, playing with Snapchat or whatever on her phone. And Lara was gone. And do you know how I know it was the devil that night, Dr Leren? Because when that car swerved just a fraction to the right and hooked itself around my daughter’s backpack, it wasn’t just evacuating a fetus, killing a ball of cells. It was taking away my Lara. A girl who loved buttercups. She loved them so god-damned much that she couldn’t pass one without picking it from the dirt and resting it beneath my chin as she laughed wildly and said, ‘Mummy, you like butter!’. A girl whose favourite book was Green Eggs and Ham. A girl who made me read the speaking parts in a funny voice – even one week when I had the flu – or she’d pout her adorable little pout and not talk to me as I finished the story. That car took, not the potential of a human, but a little girl, my little girl, that wanted to be an archaeologist, like Indie, and discover a tomb beneath the sand.

“I buried her with her backpack. The yellow one I told you about. A new one, of course, there was too much…” she steeled herself, her eyes closed and desperate, to say the word, “…blood on her old one. And I gave her her favourite book. I recorded my voice saying the silly words and put it on a little microphone, you know those old ones that they use in the movies? Private investigators and the like? I had to record it eight times because I kept crying. And that’s how I knew it was the devil. He didn’t save my girl, he gave me her just long enough for me to know that I was losing the most talented, clever and beautiful little girl in the world. All so I could live. Can live.”

Leren said nothing. She was too shocked. She raised her hand to her face and recoiled at the glittering shine on her fingertips. She hadn’t cried since Christmas, and even that was because of the litre bottle of vodka she’d drunk by herself. It had been Dr Macie’s turn to work Christmas last year.

“I became a mother when I found out I was pregnant, he became a father when he held her and all was forgiven between us. He felt then what I’d felt for months before. She was glorious, she was precious and she was ours. Ours to protect from all the world would throw at her. We were supposed to protect her.  But what am I now?” she turned those primal eyes on Leren again, the sheer agony and desperation within them was too much for her to bare. “Now that she’s gone? What am I now?”

Doctor Leren had no answer for her patient. So she did all she knew how to do and walked away, leaving Miss McConlai to await her MRI in the morning.

“It wasn’t the saying goodbye part, you know,” Lucille called after her doctor. Nurses, interns and patients alike flocked away from the charging woman, whose face was so blinded by tears that one orderly thought that she must be very sick indeed to let her mask slip like that. “I’d said goodbye a hundred times. It was…it was knowing,” she felt as she had when she’d recorded one last story for her little girl, the Lord’s new angel, “…it was knowing I’d never get to say hello to her again after her day in school.”

Cage the Beast?

The air in the hospital was cold, but his heart was colder.

A woman lay on a bed beyond a glass window, the door it sat within bolted and secured tight. She was wriggling and writhing; her great mass straining against the rough leather binds that held her so forcefully to a bed she hadn’t chose to lay down in. Her anger was palpable. It filled the tiny room she was in, so completely, that it spilled out onto the hall a man and a doctor stood side by side in silently.

“Will she always be like this?” the man asked.

The doctor looked at him as if he were about to accuse the man of something but he thought better of it and sighed in that way only doctors can.

“It’s hard to say. Our analysis has been conclusive, a homely environ-“

“No,” was all the man said, interrupting what would have been a o doubt rational, if slightly visceral, argument. “She stays here.”

The doctor bit his tongue.

Another man and a red haired woman walked along the hallway. Their feet were three sizes apart, one covered in faux leather and the other in trainers that squeaked like the rickety wheel of a passing gurney; yet both their steps, the left and the right, were perfectly in sync. It made the man by the window taste copper.

“Ciaran,” the man with the red haired girl said curtly.

“David,” Ciaran replied.

“How can you stand there,” their sister was on the verge of tears. “Just stand there and watch her after what you’ve done…what you’re putting her through. Have you no shame? No soul?”

Ciaran said nothing.

“How is she, doctor?” David asked.

“Worse, if anything. The confines of the room seem to be exacerbating the underlying illness. She’s…” the doctor looked at Ciaran warily as if he were about to turn on his heel and smack him for saying anything that belied his resolute stance that she was better off here. “Deteriorating.”

The doctor had the good sense to briskly walk away from the family reunion just as the red haired girl began to weep openly.

“You’re killing her,” she said. “If you keep her here, you’re killing her.”

Ciaran said nothing still.

“We’ve hired a lawyer, you know,” David’s chest puffed like a kookaburra standing down a mate, at the proclamation.

“I knew you would,” Ciaran said passively, as if his brother had just told him he’d got them both tickets to another football game down south. Not that he would anymore, not now. Those days were long gone.

“We will fight you. Just ‘cos you’re the eldest doesn’t mean you get final say,” his face blustered red as his he realized the futility of his threats.

“Yes it does,” Ciaran said simply.

“Please, Ciaran. Please don’t do this. You won’t ever have to see her again. Just let her out, stop this folly and be the bigger person,” the red haired girl wailed.

“I don’t want to be the bigger person,” Ciaran said.

“You’re a monster,” she wept.

“What do you want then?” David demanded, his voice so loud that the nurse stuck her head over the ledge of her station to peer at the noise.

Ciaran stayed silent.

“She doesn’t need to be here,” David insisted.

“She tried to kill herself,” Ciaran shut his eyes tight, the memory vibrant in his mind. It was the first chink in his armour he’d shown since he’d commited her here three days before.

David nearly said it then, the words gripped and tore at his lips, begging to be set free, let loose so that he could inflict the same hurt on Ciaran as he was on their family. Were he a younger man he may have, his impulse could have overpowered his reason but he wasn’t that man anymore and, as much as it pained him, the quickest way to resolve this wasn’t in the courts but by getting Ciaran to change his mind.

“She needs us.”

“She needs love.”

Ciaran said nothing.

“You’ll kill her leaving her here,” one of them said, Ciaran was passed caring enough to listen. He felt the soft fleshy ridges on his arm, self-inflicted, of course, but no less poignant for it. He’d suffered too – yet they all seemed to forget that. Everyone did with her.

He turned away, not bothering to say goodbye, and strode off down the hospital corridor without a second glance at the woman writhing on the bed beyond the glass window.

“She’s your mother, Ciaran, nothing will ever change that,” David shouted after him.

“I know,” Ciaran whispered to himself as the nurse poked her head over the ledge of her station so she could peer at the freak show family the hospital couldn’t stop gossiping about. “I know.”

Woman before First Lady

“Privyet.”

“Ahh, you learned Russian since we last spoke?” his voice was as familiar to her as if she heard it everyday. Cream and earth combined in ways that sent shivers down her spine and made her feel safe all at once.

“A few words,” she grinned coyly, her smile touching her eyes for the first time that evening despite being plastered across her face since she’d stepped from the car.

“A few words uttered in your tongue are a tome shouted in another’s. Tell me, how does an all American girl like you decide to bother with such a dirty,” the way he said the word implied more than it meant. This was dangerous. Too many powerful people could easily overhear but she found it hard to care. The continual tinkle of glasses and polite laughs were just the rustle of the wind, winding their way between the trees of the lonely grove that only she and him were standing in. She could practically feel his skin stinging her through the soft satin of her designer gown. “Sorry, I forgot what I was saying, I got lost in your eyes for a moment. Dirty language?”

“I find it rather cathartic. I like the way it sounds… in my mouth.”

“Russian tastes better than most. Agree?”

“Hello, President Bedehnski,” her husband’s voice straightened her back and curbed her smile. The grove was gone in just a few syllables. They were once again in the stately palace in France. “Pleasure seeing you again.”

The two men locked hands and clenched tightly. The pale beauty of her husband’s fair skin was a marked contrast against the tanned roughness of the Russian President’s.

“Yes. Good to see you,” Bedehnski let go first.

“How is Moscow?” her husband’s dazzling smile was as fake as he was, as practiced as every move he’d made since he was eighteen.

“It is surprisingly warm. Perhaps you should visit more often?” President Bedehnski relished in his taunt. The soft stubble on his face spattered with only the faintest white, reminded Sophia of a winter she spent in Wyoming when she was just a girl.

“Maybe cut back the amount of oil you sell, less pollution,” her husband laughed.

“Maybe just encourage tree growth in Washington, filter out the shit your politician’s breathe,” Bedehnski didn’t laugh, his face grew serious, turning her husband’s smile into a hard line.

“Mr President,” a man with a clear cable trailing from his ear appeared from behind the leader of the free world and guided him away from his wife and main opponent on the international stage, leaving them alone once again.

“He’s always this pleasant?” Demetri smiled like a man with a secret. Sophia felt her legs weaken at the lust in his eyes; she clutched the pearls, a gift from her husband, around her neck as Demetri placed his hand on her elbow. “You’re feeling faint?”

“No, no. No, thank you,” Sophia didn’t care enough to give the room even a cursory glance to make sure they weren’t being watched. The fire in his touch was more potent than anything she’d ever felt before. She felt like a woman, not just a trophy. She felt alive. “How’ve you been?” she managed to choke out in between the quivers released from her… well, you know.

“A loaded question if ever there was one. I’ve been at a loss, Madame First Lady.”

“A loss?”

“Yes. I met a beautiful woman a year ago, almost to the day,” jealousy pulsed through her with hot, wanton abandon at his words. “But she is forbidden.”

“You think that is a safe thing to say to the First Lady of the United States?” realization dawned on her and relief had made her playful.

President Bedehnski’s features darkened with anger, his eyebrows furrowing like wild dogs as he stepped closer to the smell of her perfume.

“You think that is a safe thing to wear in front of the President of the Russian Federation?” she stepped back from him, his voice was guttural and raw, filled with passion and intent. It scared her. “I told you my favourite colour was lilac,” he nodded down the length of her purple gown, lingering for a just a second too long at her most intimate area, “and now you tease me so?”

“I was raised never to tease,” she caught him on the back foot and his eyebrows shot up at the implications. She was enjoying this far too much.

“And I was taught never to give myself to a woman that had already promised herself to another,” Demetri smiled sadly, all bravado swept away as Sophia realized she’d played too close to reality and shattered the mood. “Goodbye, First Lady of the United States.”

His shoes squeaked on the floor as his security detail flanked him on either side, his back disappearing into the maze of black suits and diamond earrings. Emptiness hollowed her out as he stole with him all the warmth in the room, leaving her shivering by herself.

An unassuming delegate from some country Sophia couldn’t remember began talking to her about trade rights along the Silk Road as frustration and regret settled into their usual places that had been usurped by flights of fanciful flirtation for only a moment. She had a job to do. And a husband to serve.

But she allowed herself one last indulgence. If she looked up from the Minister of the Interior or whatever stupid title this half-wit had attained and he was looking at her; she’d leave her husband right now and throw herself into his arms. She knew, didn’t she? That this wasn’t just sexual, it was something deeper. Woman’s intuition or divine intervention she didn’t know, all she was sure of was that she’d enevr felt this way before and she wouldn’t find this with anyone else, certainly not her husband. You couldn’t grow or buy or induce feelings like this. They were there or they weren’t. All she needed now was to know he felt the same. Superstition was all she had left to ask.

Steadying her breath, her old Texan father screaming bloody murder about what was proper and what was not in her ear, her eyes quickly found him. Despite the hundred or so other guests all dressed in their dazzling finery and suckling on the crystal glasses of power while mingling with other dickheads all raised to achieve the same goal – he was the first thing she saw. He stood a foot taller than anyone else, that was true, but that wasn’t why she found him so quickly. No. Her eyes were drawn to the irresistible look he was giving her.

She thrust her undrunk champagne into the hand of the woman before her and let her body do the rest. ‘This is going to be a fucking shit show,’ she thought calmly to herself. All thoughts of what was expected of her melting away under the onslaught of emotion that rumbled through her as Demetri stepped forward.

But a hand caught her elbow before she could reach out to him and turned it to ice where Demetri had set it ablaze. The furious face of her husband broke the façade he’d worn every time they’d been in public and let his hatred glare menacingly out at her as her dreams of finally being happy shattered in her heart.