It takes a minute, maybe two, before the weight of the headline hits her. But when it does, it comes with a crushing blow that seems to steal away the light of the morning sun, leaving her in a world of murky gray. Doris takes in a deep breath, then another, hoping to find a balance lost in the words she’s just read. But there isn’t enough air in the room, and she begins to shiver, almost as though the icy tentacles of winter have slithered in under the door and wrapped themselves tightly around her. The cold cuts deep, loosening her grip on the iPad, and she watches though teary eyes as it slips from her shaking hands, dropping onto the kitchen counter.
There may have been a thud when it landed. Maybe not. She can’t be sure, as her mind is in a swirl. The “local youth” is not just any kid, rather, he’s little Tommy Jenkins, one of the more than sixty kids she’d fostered over the course of – what she thought to be – a wonderful twenty-two years.
“This is for you,” he would say, holding a daylily or daffodil he’d yanked from her back garden. He’d be standing there with muddy hands and a good swath of that same mud streaked across his cheek, not a clue or care that she’d planted those the previous weekend, much less that she’d paid a good price for them at the nursery. Especially on her budget.
But it was okay, his heart always made her smile.
Oh sure, Tommy was a handful at times – he might have been a little rough with the other kids now and again, especially the girls, and, yeah, he “borrowed” things from classmates at school – but Doris had always hoped that with her love and guidance…
She stops herself before she can finish the thought. Well, that sure worked out, eh?
Her stomach churns as a wave of nausea threatens to overwhelm, and she lays her head down on the fallen iPad, burying her face into her arms. But no matter how deep she digs herself down, no matter how tight she pulls in her embrace, she can’t close out the dark shadows of loneliness that have been slowly slipping in through the cracks these last two and a half years since she had to retire. And now they seem to have now taken over her house.
“Oh…Tommy…” she cries, her voice but a whisper. She wants to call out again, this time in a shout so loud she’ll drive her sorrows away. But she knows deep inside this is not about him. After all, this headline, this horrid breach of the wall she’s been building for the last six months, is not the first bit of news to sink its claws into her soul. Rather, little Tommy is strike three. An exclamation point driving home the futility of her efforts at trying to have a positive impact on the kids that made her house a home for all of those years.
She buries her face deeper into her arms, hoping to hide from the memories that eat at her day and night, relentless in their determination to steal away all that once seemed worthwhile.
But her efforts are in vain. That first call – it came six months ago from Director Limas at the County Child Services group, almost two years to the day from when Doris retired – was the beginning to what now seems the end. “Doris…so sorry to tell you this, but Marie Connors – you remember her – has been arrested again.” Again. The first two times were bad enough. Doris had even gone to the trials, pleaded for compassion.
And the judges had listened.
What was she ever thinking?
“Drugs again?” she had asked the director.
“Yes. Heroin. Only this time she was trying to sell it to high school students.”
And that was all that Doris heard. The phone dropped, like her heart, and her world began to spin.
But the spinning wasn’t over yet. In fact, it would only worsen. Limas, a good-hearted soul, couldn’t take it any longer and had retired as well. So when the phone rang again, just three weeks back, it was the new director, Samantha Martinez. Soft spoken, but by the book, Doris teasingly had called her the County Child Services drill sergeant.
There would be no teasing on that day. Only tears.
“Doris…” the director said between gasps, “… Andre Lambert committed suicide.”
For Doris, every one of Andre’s missing-tooth smiles had been a Kodak moment.
And now Tommy.
Finding no solace in her iPad pillow, she straightens once again, though it takes considerable effort. It’s then her gaze falls upon the nook just off the kitchen, as if drawn by a callout from the past. A framed picture of her late husband, Mike – God rest his soul – adorns an otherwise barren beige wall that once was covered in a collage of art projects and school homework, all of which had been encircled in stickers, crayon and Sharpie markings, and messy handprints, of course.
But they’re gone now. All of them. She ripped them from their sacred places when the call came about Andre, then crammed the entire lot into boxes, stashing what was once thought to be enchanted treasures in the far corner of the attic.
Trying to brush away the memories, make it all go away, she waves her hand dismissingly, or maybe more so in frustration, and lets it fall loosely to her side. But as she does so, her hand catches her coffee cup, and she can only watch as it falls in slow motion to the floor, exploding into what seems to be a million pieces.
Not unlike her life at the moment.
As the tears again begin to flow, only one thing seems to ring true through all of this: She was a horrible foster mom.
Yet, she doesn’t understand. She can’t make any sense of it. She’d always been so sure she’d been meant to be a mother. A good one, at that. It seemed to be embedded deep into the magical potions that made up her DNA. So when she and her husband Mike had both settled in at their jobs, and finally bought a home, they thought they were ready to begin trying for a baby.
But a truck crossing the center divider changed everything. Mike’s car was hit head on.
The vivid memory has her yet again gasping for breath, but the room still has no air to give. Her home and heart had become empty with that call – almost as much as they seem today – life having been ripped away from her in a single heartbeat.
It took her almost fifteen lonely years after her husband’s tragic death to find herself. Figure out what she wanted to do.
Foster. She wanted to be a foster mom. It just seemed right.
But at this very moment, with the deafening sound of silence filling the house rather than children’s laughter as they played tag or chase, or a million other games, nothing seems right.
From the depths of her lungs, and maybe her despair, she cries out the scream of a torn heart. Of a lost and lonely soul. Escape. She has to escape. Sobbing, she pushes herself away from the counter, then hops off the bar stool and spins toward the door, heading to who knows where. But her first step lands on a large shard of the shattered coffee cup lying in wait on the slick tile floor, and her foot skids out in front of her, sending her tumbling backwards. This time, at least for a second or two, she hears the thud as her head smacks against the counter, and then her world slips into darkness.
“Hello Doris. Good to see you awake!”
Doris makes a valiant effort at springing up, but the freight train roaring through her head will have no part of it, and she drops back down onto her pillow with a plop.
And an “ouch.”
“Where am I?”
“Mercy Hospital. I’m Amy, your nurse. Dr. Balakrishnan should be in later to check on you. In case you don’t remember, you had a nasty spill early yesterday and found the kitchen counter with your head.”
Giving her mouth a funny little twist, she takes in a deep breath. “Well, there you go. I knew that silly counter had to be in there somewhere. Just like me to always have to do things the hard way.”
Amy beams a smile. “Well, it’s a good thing that head of yours is just as hard. You’ve got a nasty bump, maybe a little bit of a concussion, but nothing that a good rest won’t take care of.”
Squinting her eyes and gritting her teeth, Doris slowly eases herself up into a sitting position. “For some reason, Amy, you look familiar. Have we met?”
Amy’s smile widens. “Yes, indeed we have. I was that bratty out of control twelve-year-old that you took on about fourteen years ago. I don’t know how you put up with me, but whatever it was you did, it worked. I went back to school, got my degree, and here I am. I’m even getting married next month.”
Doris’ mouth opens, but she can’t find any words. For some reason she finds a need to blink her eyes, and when she does, tears begin to wander down her cheek.
“That’s me.” The nurse moves over to the side of Doris’ bed. “I was actually going to send you an invitation this morning, but since you’re here, I guess I get to give it to you in person.”
“I don’t know what to say, other than I am sooo very proud of you.”
“You don’t have to say anything, other than you’ll come!”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the—“
Before she can finish, the door opens and a policeman, young and fresh-faced, makes his way into the room.
“Oh, my, so sorry. I hope I didn’t interrupt. Just wanted to see how our patient is doing.”
“She’s coming right along.”
“Fantastic! So will she be ready for—“
Amy holds up a hand, then turns to Doris. “Doris, this is Officer Mark Santos. He was the first responder to your house when your neighbor called.” Amy smiles. “You might remember him as ‘Marky’.”
Doris’ eyes widen as she stares at the young man. “Mischievous Marky? Always up for a good prank? Always slipping into the kitchen when I wasn’t looking and sneaking a cookie. Or two or three?”
“Si, Señora. Guilty as charged,” Officer Santos replies, a smile breaking across his face.
“When I heard your name on the call, I rushed right over.”
Doris searches for the right words, hoping for something witty or fun – after all, what are the odds? – but a slight rap on the door interrupts her thoughts and she turns in that direction. When it opens, a tall, slender man wearing the standard fare white coat along with a broad smile steps in. His wire-rimmed glasses sit well down on his nose, and the slight sprinkle of gray in his dark hair provides a nice accent against the glow of his bronze/brown skin.
He stops just past the entry, his eyes popping wide. “Marvelous! Our patient has awakened.” It only takes two strides for his long legs to move him to the side of Doris’ bed. “Hello, Ms. Langley,” he says, extending a gloved hand, “I am Dr. Balakrishnan. And how are we feeling this morning?”
Doris smiles and shakes his hand, then gives her temple a good rub. “Well, other than a bit embarrassed, and my head ringing like a church bell, I guess I can’t complain.”
The doctor lets a little chuckle escape. “Both of those symptoms will go away soon enough. I’m guessing the bump long before the embarrassment,” he says with a wink. “Let’s just do a couple of tests, shall we?” He takes a quick peek at the beeping monitor just above her head, then reaches over to a box-like dispenser, exchanging his gloves for a fresh pair. “Can you lean forward a wee more?”
With a nod she straightens and lets her chin drop. Dr. Balakrishnan shifts for a better angle, then gently begins to feel the swollen knot on her crown using just the tip of two fingers.
“Good, good. Though I’m sure you’re not in agreement at the moment. Can you open up your eyes nice and wide?”
As she stretches her eyelids, the doctor pulls a tiny silver light from his pocket, flicking its beam first into her right pupil, and then her left. Tucking the little penlight back in its hideaway, he next holds up his index finger and asks her to follow it with only her eyes. She does her best, though the residual glare of the harsh flashes has left her vision a bit fuzzy.
“Very good,” he says at last. “I would say that other than that good-sized bump on your noggin and some lingering discomfort – something you can take care of with a little aspirin or Tylenol or even Ibuprofen, whichever you may feel most comfortable with – you’ll be fine.”
“Do you think she’s ready for her therapy?” asks Amy.
The doctor places a hand to his chin as if in great thought, and then, after a long moment, finally nods and winks at the nurse. “I think that would indeed be most helpful in her recovery.”
“Perfect. Let me grab a wheelchair.”
Doris watches Amy slip out of the room, then turns to the doctor. “Therapy? I didn’t hit my head THAT hard, did I?”
“One can never be too careful. Besides, this is a specialized therapy we find most helpful to patients in your given situation.” He turns for the door. “I’ll be in to check on you later this afternoon for a last look before we send you home.”
“I get to go home today?”
“This therapy is very intense.”
With another wink, the doctor is gone as fast as he came. But before Doris can gather her thoughts, the door opens once again, this time with Nurse Amy pushing in the wheelchair.
“Let’s get you in this hot rod, eh?”
“Do you need any help?” offers Officer Santos.
“I think she’ll be able to slip right in.”
With a gentle hand from the nurse, Doris lands herself in the chair, and the three of them are quickly on their way. Rolling down the long corridor and just past the nurses’ station, they arrive at a bank of elevators. Amy taps the “UP” button and the last door on their right pops open.
“T-T-Therapy?” Doris says, her voice an octave higher than normal.
“Don’t worry, this will be fun. And good for you.” Amy scoots her into the elevator and then selects the eighth floor. “Going UP,” she calls as the door slides closed.
The elevator announces its arrival with a “ding” and a whoosh of the door rolling open, the ride a little too fast for Doris. She’s already starting to feel a trickle of sweat down her back, and her pulse is definitely quickening.
Hospitals are not for the faint of heart.
They’re about halfway down the long empty hall – Amy still rattling on with encouragement from behind, while Doris can only think: therapy…really? – when she notices Amy, whose pace now seems more jog than walk, has pointed the chair toward a set of open doors on the left. Doris’ face begins to warm, and she tastes the bile creeping up her throat, as scenarios of a secret nook hidden in the attic, its walls lined with rows of pseudo-torture therapy machines designed to stretch her body in ways the good Lord had never intended, float through her head.
But as they whirl through the opening, she instead sees a cavernous chamber, seemingly more suited to be a conference or meeting room than the physical therapy environment (or torture chamber) she was expecting. Adding to that impression, tall stacks of cushioned chairs are lined up against both of the side walls and several tables – ones that might be used by a catering group to serve hot and cold food – are positioned near a door to the back.
In fact, the only suggestion of physical therapy of any sort is a single set of chrome parallel bars – the type recovering stroke victims use to help them relearn to walk – that sits atop a black rubber mat situated in the middle of the room.
Self-consciously she begins to wiggle her legs, bending them at the knees and putting weight to carpeted floor. They still work, don’t they?
But before she can answer her own question, a noise from behind, really, more of a mumbling, gives her cause to spin her wheelchair around. There, centered on the wall, a giant flat screen TV – most certainly the largest she’s ever seen – faces out toward the room. The display is filled with a razor-sharp image of young man with long stringy hair and a sleeveless t-shirt that allows her to see the massive array of tattoos snaking up his arms. He sits contently behind an expansive drum set humming some unknown tune and fingering his phone.
She stares at him for a moment, wondering what if anything this has to do with her “therapy,” before noticing a large familiar-looking cartoon rabbit painted on the front of the oversized bass drum. She has to dig back into her past, but finally remembers it to be the one from the children’s classic, Bambi.
“Uh-hummmm,” Amy says, clearing her throat and staring at the drummer.
Startled, he looks up, obviously seeing Amy, and, of course, Doris. A giant smile, one quite appropriate for the size of the screen, breaks out upon his face.
“Well, well. Our guest of honor has arrived!” He winks at Amy and tucks his phone away. “Hello, Doris.” He stands and leans over the drums, pointing a drumstick at the rabbit. “I’m Thumper. Yeah, not my real name, but they call me that because of the way that I pound these skins.” He drops back onto his stool and with a flash of his hands, runs through a quick (and loud) drumroll, followed by a perfectly timed splash on a massive cymbal. “Probably, if I had a few less tatts, and maybe a bit shorter hair, and was sitting in your kitchen beating on the pots and pans with those old wooden spoons of yours, you might recognize me as Rex. Rex McCallahan.”
“T-Rex,” Amy whispers into Doris’ ear.
“T-Rex. Oh…” Once again, as it had in her kitchen the day before – why does it feel like it’s been so much longer than that? – the air around her seems to evaporate, and she can’t catch her breath. From somewhere she hears a gasp, realizing only when the tears begin to flow that it came from her. After a moment, she gives her eyes a rub and a goofy smile breaks across her face. ”Thumper, hey? But you know, now that I think about it, that name seems to suit you even more so than ‘T-Rex’.” Still shaking her head, mostly in disbelief at this point, she makes a gun with her fingers and “fires” at Rex. “I see you’ve gone with something a little more permanent to color all over yourself rather than those ink pens and crayons at my house. Oh, and those darned old Sharpies.”
After a playful duck and wince, as if she’d just missed with her “shot”, Thumper straightens and twists his arm, exposing a green and red tatt. She smiles as she recognizes it as a well-known short-armed, sharp-toothed dinosaur.
“For you,” he says with a wink.
Though tears still cascade down her cheeks, she breaks into a hearty laugh. “Oh, Thumper, it’s just so good to see you.”
“Same here, Doris. I’d be there in person, but I’m in a metal band called Snakeskin – you’ve probably never heard of us – and we’re on tour in Germany right now. But Amy somehow got this video link all set up, and now I guess I’m going to be the Master of Ceremonies.” He gives the high-hat a quick tap, then stretches out his open arms. “Ta-dah!”
Bewildered, Doris’ eyes take on the narrowed squint of “Huh?,” leaving her forehead to scrunch into several rows of furrows. “Master of Ceremonies?” The words come out in more of a mumble than a whisper, leaving her to sit there staring at the screen, lost in the hope that Thumper might add something, anything in the way of an explanation.
But he doesn’t. Instead, he simply leans back and flashes the proverbial Cheshire cat smile.
But she doesn’t get a chance to finish, as Marky slips up beside her and places a hand on her shoulder, causing her to nearly jump out of her chair.
“Oops, sorry…didn’t mean to give you a fright,” he says with a wink, “but that is my cue to skidoo.” He gives her shoulder a squeeze, then turns to head for the main door.
“Wait…where are you going?”
“Don’t worry…see you in a bit.”
“Now I’m really lost,” she says, more so to herself than anyone else.
She watches him casually walk to the far side of the entrance, his stride as if he has all day. Once he’s there, he take a position next to the opened door, stands erect, and peers out the opening. Barely a moment goes by before he looks back her way, gives yet another wink, and then gestures to someone unseen in the outlying corridor. It’s obviously another “cue,” as with his signal a steady stream of people begin to flow through the doorway, each exchanging a few words with the officer as they arrive, then getting a shake of hands or a pat on the back as if they were old friends, before continuing along.
The little parade stretches its way across the room, finally coming to an end where the chairs are stacked against the far wall. Once there, the folks – individuals, couples, and even families with small children happily marching behind – take their needed number of chairs, and move out to the open floor to settle in. But each, as they pass back Doris’ way, slow when they see her, making sure to wave, wink, or smile, warming her heart and giving her face a glow she can feel to her core.
But as they do, Doris notices for the first time that the parallel bars are gone, and in fact, a couple of workmen are carrying the disassembled parts, nicely wrapped in the mat they were sitting on, toward the rear of the room. And back there, adding yet another dimension to her confusion, several men and women, all dressed in bright white uniforms, complete with the white chef’s hat, are busily setting up the tables with food and drinks.
“Well, I guess this is where the Master of Ceremonies is supposed to start talking,” says Thumper.
Doris and Amy spin back to the TV.
Thumper lays his sticks on the snare drum, then pulls the mic up close. “Just to let you know, Doris, we were originally planning to have a great big shindig of a retirement party for you a couple of years back. But along came Covid, then Covid 2 and 3 and 10, heck, who’s keeping track? Anyway, as you know, we lost those years as it really wasn’t safe to travel, gather in a group, and any number of other things. And, with people’s jobs and adjustments, a lot of folks’ lives were changed. And most not for the better. But we didn’t give up and when things began to ease, we – I say we, but Amy here is the superhero – started planning again. Especially after we heard about Andre. We knew you’d take that hard. And I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to put two and two together here, but I’m going to make a wild guess and assume that what happened to him, and now, maybe even more so with what happened with Tommy, has a lot to do with your visit to the hospital.” He takes a deep breath, looks away for a moment, then looks back, his gaze right into Doris’ eyes. Doris can see that his have become a bit moist, and she knows hers probably are as well.
“Anyway, enough of that. The past is definitely behind us. On to good things. There’ll be about 41 of us here tonight, Doris. Some have even brought their lovely families. That’s 41 of the 63 that you helped along the way. Some of the others who couldn’t make it – too far away, too short of notice, jobs and families, you know how life is – took a moment to make a little video for you, and we’ll play all of those later. So with that, 57 of us in all, Doris, are either here in person, or in spirit, because you made such a difference in our lives. You gave us a life.” Thumper stands and looks out amongst the crowd. “My, my, looks like everyone’s pretty much ready. We’re going to start off your delayed-too-long retirement party with a little song, a song that speaks so much better about how we feel about you, and how you were there for us when we needed someone the most, than we ever could.”
The camera pans back, and two other young men, both with thick long hair, dark sunglasses, and random patches of tattoos on their arms, shoulders, and even necks, come into view. They stand before mics, with one holding a well-worn bass guitar, the other a bright green lightning bolt shaped electric guitar.
Thumper claps his hands to gain the room’s attention. “Alrighty then. Say, all of you folks out there, feel free to join us. I’m sure you know the words. Because, to quote Roger Ridley, this song says that no matter who you are, sometime, somewhere, you’re going to need someone to stand by you. And thanks, Ben E. King.”
With the bass and the guitar leading the way, Thumper – Rex – begins to sing, his voice heavy metal raspy, but, yet, at the same time, ever so soft. And oh so heartfelt.
When the night has come And the land is dark And the moon is the only light we’ll see…
Doris leans back in her chair, her eyes and heart filled, and begins to sing along. She knows the words. She’s listened to this song a million times. And despite the streams running down her cheeks, she won’t cry, no she won’t cry, no she won’t shed a tear. Because they’ve all come, each and every one, to stand by her.
So Darlin’, Darlin’, stand by me, oh, stand by me…
Sometimes one moment is enough to forget a lifetime, but other times a lifetime is not enough to forget a moment.
– Jim Morrison (The Doors)
After a long career of tinkering in telecommunications, Jim Bartlett switched to tinkering with words, both, of course, requiring a stretch of the imagination. He has since been fortunate to have a number of stories, ranging from flash to novella, featured in Fiction on the Web, CrimeSpree Magazine, Short-Story.me, Ontologica, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Fairlight Books and a number of other wonderful publications. Most recently one of his stories was featured in the print anthology, The Best of Fiction on the Web, 1996 – 2017. While mentally he strolls along a warm California beach with his wife and golden retriever (shhh, she doesn’t know she’s a dog), physically they reside on a special little island in the Pacific Northwest.