(People is a collection of flash-fiction, usually 500-1000 words. Click here to find others as they are posted)
Hanna Verhoef, 84. Suddenly awake in the still dark room, astonished by the lingering dream: Vienna during the war, warm milk, the small schoolroom. A boy whose name she didn’t remember, but one she recognized, and one whose face makes her shudder in bed: round and dirty, cap shoved over a mess of black hair. In the dream she had felt like an old woman, but everyone there treated her as a little girl, and indeed when the boy came over and kissed her lips, he had been the same height as her, taller. Maybe she had been a little girl for just a moment, that’s what dreams do.
The moment she woke she could still smell the apricots on his lips, some sweets that would have been rare during those years, impossible. His lips had been smooth, hers not wrinkled, her lips and her hands and even her eyes knowing nothing of love or lips or other bodies, or even of wanting them. He had never kissed her in real life, though she may have thought about it at the time. There were other boys she liked more then, but it was this one, a little squat, his father a mechanic (his father probably dead by then), it was this one that came to her mind.
It had been ten years since her husband’s death. The policeman who came to her, who had been unusually frank, had said, “Hanna, you’re like television static, sitting there.” He meant she was unresponsive, but all of a sudden would sit up and burst into full color and clarity and sound. How are you supposed to act when your husband is found dead in the woods beyond the backyard? Her childhood and then her middle age had seen violent deaths, mysterious deaths, and now this other one near the end. They never did solve it.
But now a strange new life, this dream. The boy’s name suddenly came back to her, and she smiled, surprised, rolling the letters off of her lips as if she’d spent years digging them up, as if the syllables were magic—but then she was cautious, as if uttering them would bring war again. She thought she remembered standing with him looking out a high window, as the Germans entered Vienna, two children in awe and likely waving flags they’d been handed. But that was impossible, it was probably a photo she’d seen. Why had her mind held onto him, his name?
As she continues to think of him, she hopes she hasn’t made any noise, and tries to remain still on her back, lifeless, so the nurses or other women in the room won’t wake, won’t stir, won’t disturb this reverie of some lost boy and his lips tasting of fruit. In the hour before sunrise, before the hospital wakes, she moves not an inch but swims back to that time, before emigration, before marriage, before burying two boys and finally a husband, just a little girl
Nelly Tomazic, 58. Dreaming of the springtime, of no snow underfoot, no ice or salt on the sidewalk, no cold smoke, no featureless and colorless streets sunk in white. Instead: the farmer’s market downtown, setting up early morning Thursdays starting in May, an almost cold mid-fifties warming in the afternoon to somewhere in the seventies. Guys in trucks, unshaven, flicking cigarettes onto the cobblestones and always walking with an attitude like someone’s said something about their mother, hats backward and old t-shirts and grimed boots, setting up stakes and booths and tents and tables and stands, an hour or two later the entirety filled up and laid out with the color of every vegetable, or the inescapable clinging scent from the pierogi stall, cheese and potatoes and sausage a heavy cloud everywhere.
But before then, still the morning, while they were setting up, she liked to go to the breakfast place off the square, you could smell the syrup and eggs coming around the corner, and no scent of traffic or perfume or roadwork, no scent of steaming blacktop or damp sidewalk could erase it. Behind the counter there had always been the owner, Lenny, and for as long as she’s worked downtown, he was there to talk to. They’d always gotten along, both married but both sensing a kind of friendship that could have been, though the furthest anything went was a glance or a story or to, in between exchanging a few bills and a bag of food.
After her husband died, Nelly started going there more, not just on Thursdays, although not with any intent of seducing a married man, or pretending that she could. But it was meaningful to have a male voice to chat to, a voice she associated with the happy decades with her husband. It didn’t hurt that Lenny still seemed vaguely interested, and he’d been awfully sweet in his condolences. But then Lenny had died too, only recently towards the end of summer. She’d gone to the viewing, if only to see him, but was astonished by the crowd of family and friends that were there. He had always talked about his children, and always knew everybody by name, but this was beyond anything she could have expected, and she was embarrassed to be there, knowing none of them and feeling silly to imagine her friendship with him was anything compared to this crowd.
She heard later that Lenny had been sick for years, and was much older than she’d thought. The last time she’d gone into his restaurant after he died she’d heard the worst story, whether it was true or not didn’t matter, because the ones telling it were slightly chuckling, laughing maybe in that manner among men that passes for affection, but Nelly didn’t like it. She didn’t like to think of this person she respected and maybe even loved, calling a plumber once and two and three times because of a leak around his toilet, and how he had been too sick or stubborn or ashamed to admit it was his own urine, he had no control anymore. That made Nelly cry more than his actual dying, since at least dead he was done with shame.
So now that she thought about it, Nelly wasn’t sure she wanted it to be spring; or that when it was, she didn’t think she would come down to the market after all. Her husband had been prone to depression all his life, and one thing he had taught her was to take the winter you hate. Unless they were going to move south, there would always be winter and always the gloom following, there was nothing to do about it but barrel through. But with him gone, and Lenny too, and her estrangement from her children, winter was getting longer and longer every year.
At her stop, with the plow not on the roads yet, the bus had to let her off away from the curb, and too near a snow-covered car. Hesitant to step into slush over her shoes, or snow past her ankles, she began to put her gloves on when an older man, healthy, a great red face and not even a hat on, appeared from the corner. He leapt through the snow like someone half his age, and held his hand out to her, smiling. She smiled at his greeting and his kindness, and (since she decided against her gloves) greeted the warmth of his hand, the strength, and she tried to sense from his grip if he wore a wedding band. It was only ten or so feet to the curb, but it would be nice to not let go.
Marie Briggs, 32. She had left work early again. Everyone still gave her looks that said they understood, but behind their concern was the slightly lowered eye, or the intake of breath that waited for her departure, the exhale emerging with words like, I feel terrible for her, but this can’t continue.
It was even worse since Sonia had quit because of what happened, and it had taken until June to find a decent replacement for her, and since last Christmas Marie had barely been anything beyond a presence at her desk. More often she was in tears again in the bathroom, or she never made it there, and the smallest thing reminded her of Charlie. She worked at the university so sometimes simply seeing students did it, even though he had only been eleven; other times it was just a pencil or a marker, since he’d like to draw; or it could be the front of the newspaper, the quarterback or first basemen he idolized, whose contract had been renewed.
Had he lived another few days he would have turned twelve, he was in the middle of the eighth grade. She and her husband had finally, after long discussions, decided that even though the expense was great, they would send him to a Catholic high school, rather than the public school that was much closer to their house. Charlie had long since started to become his own person, and when they’d asked him if he wanted to keep playing sports in high school, he would reply with a seriousness that was becoming characteristic, “I’m not sure yet, but I’ve been writing about it.” What little she’d seen of her son’s diaries since his death haunted her more than anything: the half-formed thoughts, the spelling mistakes, and the mind assuredly but slowly forming. Somehow the destruction of this process, the development of his heart and of who he would really become, bothered her even more than how his body’s growth had also been arrested.
She had been dreading the onset of Charlie’s adolescence, all the change, even something as innocuous as his one day telling them he wanted to be known as Charles from now on. “As long as he doesn’t prefer Chuck,” she had laughed to her husband after. He’d seemed at the start of a growth spurt that summer and fall and winter, the vague chubbiness of his tenth and eleventh years slowly fading into a lanky body and a stern face, especially with the flat top haircut he still preferred, and he’d already been getting attention from girls. When Marie had cleaned out his room she’d found folded up notes covered in huge round cursive letters, written with a faded ballpoint pen, and she had wept at the thought that this girl (she hadn’t dared read her name, she didn’t want to know who she was) would grow up with the memory of Charlie as one of her first loves, one of the first boys she had found a way to articulate herself to, one of the first boys she filled herself with, brimming with these new and strange feelings that her son had been doing his best to reciprocate.
But the backseat had been dirty. Or not even that: she’d been wrapping presents last-minute as always, and the craft store only had bows and gifts bags that shed glitter like a dust storm, and two days after all the Christmas visits the backseat had been covered in it. Neither she or her husband had had the time to vacuum it up, and then the Friday before New Year’s, Sonia had needed a ride home. Charlie had surprised her at work, they’d gone out to lunch together and he’d met her boss, and she knew how important this made her son feel, to meet people “in charge,” or for his mother to show him off not like some cute toy but as a small man she was proud of, and who could hold his own in adult company. Marie marveled at the worries she saw in him, the self-consciousness, the small person he didn’t even realize he was becoming.
But, the backseat was covered in glitter, and she didn’t want Sonia sitting there. She apologized and said something like, I’m not washing your clothes, but I can wash Charlie’s, and so he should sit in the backseat, with Sonia up front. On the way home, though, Marie had lost control of the car, and as it began to slide clockwise, an truck had smashed into the rear door, nearly shearing the car in half. Immediately regretting it, the police officer who showed up alongside the ambulance had said her spin was “perfectly” timed, since had it been slower or more quick, the truck would have come head on. As it was, and despite the sound and the violence of it, she and Sonia had never been in danger. Her son was found under a tree beside the road, looking as if he’d been dragged from a fire, blood and ashes.
Sonia blamed herself, blamed her daughter for needing her car that day, blamed the late phonecall that had kept them at the office a few minutes over; but rather than continue this, she had almost immediately found another job. And though it was clear that he fought this reflex and tried to deny it, Marie’s husband blamed her, and hated himself for doing so. They hardly spoke at all anymore, and only found each other again the rare times they made love, and they could only do so if he wore a condom, something he hadn’t done for years, the two of them happy with Charlie and willing to allow a second if that’s how it worked out. Now, rather than the condom seeming like an act of fear, it instead reminded them of their first youthful love together, that string of small apartments, that early reliance on Goodwills and dollar stores, that time prior to a grief they had hardly known was possible.
As she drove she tried to drum it into her head, not to hate winter, not to hate snow, not to hate certain roads or times of day, not to hate Christmas or gifts or glitter, not to hate trucks. But it was the Christmas station she had on the radio, and she was surprised to realize she didn’t hate any of these things. The insurance had replaced the car with something close to an SUV, she had found buying gifts for this Christmas a great distraction, and there was simply no practical way home from the university than the same way she’d driven with Charlie that day. She didn’t hate anything, she just missed her boy.
Someone with good intentions had put a cross up on the side of the road, in front of the tree where she’d found him, but one day, not even telling her husband, she had gone and taken it down. It was nothing for other people to mourn, to drive by and sigh at, and she didn’t want that to be the marker for her son anymore than his gravestone. Everything he had done or planned to do hadn’t been erased or superseded by the anecdotal fact that he had died, died unexpectedly, and died young. His death wasn’t all he was, and pretending otherwise was something, finally, that Charlie would have never wanted. He loved to go driving with her, and it had seemed for years that he favored Marie over her husband, and she was sure that what he mourned most was a growth into manhood that would have brought the two of them closer, finally. Marie had had that closeness, and she treasured it, and nowadays she drove for him and somehow with him, and had begun to imagine driving across the country, or just to some park in the state, since she felt that’s what Charlie would have done, had he gotten to grow a little older, and set off.
It hurt her to smile, she felt guilty doing it, but she couldn’t help it, passing a place which looked like where he had landed. He had loved the outdoors, had loved the extremes and every small detail of the seasons, and sometimes it seemed appropriate to her, that her son had first lain dead in a bed of snow, beneath a tree but enfolded by its spread of roots, as if in some story he had been found in that same spot, born of the ground and crying out for a mother to pass, and take him into her arms.