Brendan could no longer avoid telling his wife; tonight was the night. He swallowed a sip of beer, placed the half-filled Pilsner glass on the rear porch's top step. Swells of green billowed along the horizon; the tree-topped silhouettes of the Adirondack Mountains brushed the sky, reached toward the twilight chased sun, its hint of neon to come.
A creak and swoosh snatched him from his reverie. Caitlyn leaned half-way out the screen door. She was ten years younger than he, almost a foot shorter, and much trimmer than most mothers with two children. Whenever Brendan and she strolled together, onlookers at a distance often mistook her for a teenaged daughter.
She stepped onto the porch. "Uh, huh. How'd I know you'd be here? I called you a dozen times, you know."
Nothing was gained arguing her exaggeration; he clenched his glass, and straightened up from the step. "Sorry, about that--didn't hear you." He joined her, kissed her favorite spot on her cheek, next to her nose.
"I'm not complaining, hon," she said, "only asking for some help. Lately--look, it's nice to have you home for dinner--to have you home at all before the kids are tucked away for bed."
He embraced her, gazed into her eyes. "The sunset will be gorgeous tonight. We can catch it later, listen to the crickets, watch the stars come out. Okay? Can't wait too long or we'll miss the best part."
"Fine, but we have to get through dinner first. Please give me a hand, so " Brendan raised his hands, including the beer; his poker face failed him. "And don't you dare clap." Caitlyn's mock glare hid a grin. "Not if you want a warm meal."
All innocence, he thrust his free hand into a pocket, glanced about the porch, and whistled his tunelessly.
"Good boy." She stood on tiptoes to kiss him. "Now, please, please listen. Go round up the kids. Okay? I've been calling them, too. No response, like father, like kids." She glanced at the porch's ceiling as if pleading for the gift of patience from the wooden planks, and without another word ducked back into the house. The spring slammed the screen door shut behind her. He gulped the last of his beer and followed.
Their daughter Molly, the youngest, was the easiest to fetch. A second grader, she brought her latest drawing to the kitchen. Caitlyn paused from the food preparation to scotch tape the new artwork to the side of the refrigerator. Other masterpieces overlapped one another, a rainbow dazzle of paper shingles affixed from top to bottom.
Corralling Brendan, Jr. proved more of a challenge. Brendan Sr. glared at his son who still needed to wipe out only five-hundred more brain munching zombies to reach Level Four. The threat of unplugging the game console convinced Junior the zombies could wait. His son was at the cusp of teen-hood; Angst had already moved in, open for business. Its fellow countrymen, Sturm and Drang, awaited employment immediately around the corner.
The family settled in place about the circular table of the eat-in kitchen. They held hands to say grace, a habit Caitlyn introduced after their son's birth, along with attendance at weekly Mass. Brendan found it surprising that a year after their move, she remained uninvolved with the local Church's clubs and functions. In the city, she was the main go to parishioner to organize events and solve associated problems.
Their heads bowed, the Staceys prayed as one voice, "Bless us, oh Lord, for these Your gifts, which we are about to receive from Your bountiful hands, through Christ our Lord. Amen."
Brendan added in silence, "And if You have the time, Lord, please, keep Cat calm after I break the news tonight."
Momentarily dumbfounded, Caitlyn gaped at him. The window curtains billowed behind her, in mid-change for bed; wings of sheer white brushed against her bare shoulder and side. Her cotton tee shirt lay on the chenille bedspread next to a pair of panties.
He feared a loud quarrel, felt grateful for the second floor location of their bedroom, and their decision to locate the children's rooms on the third story of the old Victorian. Molly would be sound asleep. In all likelihood his son, headphones on head, still secretly battled creatures of the netherworld.
A king-size bed separated Brendan and his wife. Fully dressed, he stood next to his tall bureau drawers. Disbelief claimed Caitlyn, her hands clasped high, near her collar bone. Her mouth opened again; no sound emerged. She blinked several times before the words found an escape route.
"California. And you said--you said 'yes' Dear God Above--California. Without discussing it with me, you said 'yes.' These last few weeks, not a word about it, not a hint from you, not--"
"Cat, the CEO flew in at the last minute. You know what a macho bastard he is--I had no idea. No warning--none. I was their second choice. Robins bailed out; had another offer. They wanted an answer, right then and there. I..."
She shook her her head "no," back and forth, her gaze drifting off into the distance, his words sailing right past her. Brendan's sense of caution wrestled with his heart whether to remain bolted in place or to approach Caitlyn, if at all possible, soothe her distress.
Her thousand yard stare disappeared. "Can't you--" She abandoned the thought, sat on the edge of the bed, her hands cupped over her eyes. She inhaled and exhaled to calm herself.
Brendan sensed an opportunity to approach, and unfroze, went to her side. He knelt on one knee, caressed her shoulder. She tightened her arms, flattening and squeezing her breasts together like a boxer protecting himself against the blows from an opponent. Her chin rested atop her hands, the fist of one clenched within the palm of the other. She refused to meet his eyes.
"Babe, listen, please listen. The VP position--it's, it's a godsend. We can place the kids in the best schools. We'll hire all the help you need. We'll travel, we'll..."
The pace of her breathing grew more rapid. She scowled at him. "Don't!" Brendan's hand stopped in mid-caress, began a cautious retreat. "Don't try to placate me, don't..." A puzzled expression replaced her scowl. "Why can't you see? Just for once, please, open your eyes."
He straightened from his knees to scrutinize her from a better defensive position. His gut tightened in anticipation, though he really did not know what to expect.
She glanced upward at him. "I don't need a hired anything--the kids don't need the best schools. Where we lived, the city schools--they were just fine, better than here. I..."
The pro-city argument was familiar territory to Him. He backed away; his gaze, veiled and defensive, drifted to the far corner of the room. She bounded from the bed to follow, caught up to him. She grasped both his hands in hers.
"Look, I don't need this." Brendan's voice edged toward a shout, his gaze not meeting hers. "I don't. You know damn well, the kind of job stresses--hell, with all the shit in the city, my blood pressure was through the roof. I didn't need any more, not then, not now--not ever. Moving out here was the best decision we ever made. Why can't you see that? Why can't you?"
Her body tensed. "We?" She released his hands, twisted away, returning to the bed to grab her garments. She yanked the tee-shirt over her head, pulled on the panties. "So, you think the city was shit, huh? Shit? Oh--oh, yes, I know all about shit."
A distant headache marched steadily in Brendan's direction, the last thing he needed or wanted. He closed his eyes.
Caitlyn's words rolled by him, boxcars coupled in an unending line, non-stop, riders unwelcome. "I deal with lots shit, lots of it, when I'm left..." Shaking her head, she paused, looked toward the ceiling. Tears of anger glazed her eyes. "When I'm left here, alone, my family over a hundred miles away, in the city, your shit--they can't just pop over to help when I need them. They were still a real part of my life there, an active part--every week, every single week, I saw them. And you, you're gone, what? Two weeks a month, now, if I'm lucky--if the kids are lucky. Don't you think they notice, that they care, that they want you here?"
His wife's cross-examination was only just begun. Brendan's jaw clenched; the urge to flee clawed at him, anything to avoid venturing into the places he dreaded, the places she wanted to explore. If he fled, she would not follow him outside, not in her bed clothes--the reason he had remained dressed.
"They'll be grown up and gone," said Caitlyn, "sooner than you imagine. Do you really, really think a VP's job will give you more time with me, with them? That some move to California will bring me closer to my family in the city? Bring us all closer together. Do you?" Caitlyn examined his blank expression. "Oh, no, don't you disappear on me, just answer me, that's all I ask. Damn it. Say something--anything. Look at me. Oh, damn it. Damn it!"
He raised his standard reply, his shield a non-answer to fend her off. "Everything, every sacrifice I've made in this job, everything's been for you, for the kids, for our family. I don't need this, I really don't, I..."
Throughout the argument, Brendan had worked his way closer and closer to the bedroom door. He opened the door mid-reply, before his wife could interrupt or react, and fled. His better judgment, concern for his children, prevailed over his anger, and stopped him from slamming the solid oak door. Caitlyn's outburst of tears carried through the door's heavy panels. Her sobbing pursued him along the hallway, down the staircase and out the front door to follow him into the car.
He drove off, still heard her tears from a mile distant, heard them all the while he drove in random patterns for miles throughout the farm land and the hills beyond the town. No amount of distance brought him solace or relief, brought true escape. Tired and resigned, his passion spent, he u-turned on a moonlit country road and returned to his wife, his home and children.
Turning onto his driveway, he cut the headlights and the engine, coasted to a stop. A quiet click of the lock whispered as he carefully closed the car door. The windows of the master bedroom were dark, their curtains drawn back, allowing the night breeze easier access, a hopeful sign Caitlyn slept.
His spirits lightened at the sound of the crickets in full chorus. Unwilling to face his wife possibly awake, he headed through the house to sit on the rear porch. He lost himself in the insects' chirping hail to the moon's veil of stars. All the trials of his life faded for a time like the embers at day's end that he and Caitlyn earlier enjoyed.
The headache he thought had marched off, returned full force, high-jacked his tranquil interlude. His neglected blood pressure medication was little help in the bathroom of the master bedroom. He searched the kitchen and swallowed three aspirin from the bottle he discovered.
Creaks followed his every step up the old staircase, and along the floor boards in the hallway. He paused in front of the closed door of the bedroom and strained to listen. Nothing, no sound of breathing or agitated movement. He turned the knob and entered.
A moonbeam streamed through the room's window. The gossamer light bathed Caitlyn's body, transformed her into a ghostly Sidhe of Celtic legend, a fully awake Sidhe, who sat with her knees tucked against her breasts, back pressed to the headboard of their bed.
"Are you listening, damn it?" said Caitlyn. "Are you?"
Half asleep, curled half a bed away, Brendan eluded his wife. Her words, intended as roadblocks to hinder his sleep, instead spiraled, indistinct and meaningless down the corridors of his mind and shape-shifted into the spaces reserved for the making of dreams.
He had inched to the edge of the bed; his arm dangled mid-air beyond the mattress, one leg half-draped down its side. A swell of vertigo lightly roused him, carried him up, down, then passed beneath to expend itself toward some distant, unconscious shoreline.
Caitlyn grew more insistent. "Will you answer me? God, I'm tired of this, I'm so damned tired."
Past experience taught him her distress would not soon diminish. He mumbled something. The response slipped across the boundary of his awareness and scrambled over the heap of her words pinning him to the bed. He longed to convince Caitlyn he was awake but whatever his response, the deluge of her words would continue to cascade over him. Rather than resist the current, like a spent swimmer he attempted to outlast the flood and clung to a boulder in the mid-stream of their quarrel.
Allies aided him in his struggle as they had on the back porch. The crickets in the surrounding fields sang through the open bedroom window; his wife's words melded into their songs. The chorus embraced and guided him, freed him to drift across the threshold of sleep.
In his dream, he sat on the porch. The insects sang; the moon floated above the distant hills but something was amiss; an imperfection, a slow but steady cadence, pump like, played counter to the chirping and rippled across the otherwise smooth surface of his dream.
Another wave of vertigo, the strongest yet, awakened him. Whoa, dear God! I'm over the edge of the bed. Adrenalin surged. He braced himself for the worst, his limbs flailed outward. The worst never came; not what he anticipated. Brendan never hit the floor; he floated flat on his back in mid-air.
His mind floundered, overwhelmed at the impossibility. He refused to concede to his senses; surrender meant madness--or worse. Reality transmuted into an incomprehensible blur, leapt past him, leapt far beyond his experiences, beyond any logic and the beast of chaos swallowed him, like Jonah deep within its belly. He shut down to cope and regroup the remnants of his sanity.
Some interval passed, incessant, immeasurable, before the dark blur lightened. Bit by bit the numbness faded. His surroundings returned; reality refocused and the wall of his denial crumbled, one brick at a time. He still floated in mid-air, his back toward the floor but the darkness in the bedroom no longer hindered his view.
Caitlyn's voice re-emerged. "Your damned career." She stifled a yawn. "That's all you think--our marriage won't survive, can't--can't, too much. I'm exhausted, just too much of..."
He stared over his shoulder at his wife, her knees tucked beneath the cotton tee-shirt. The sight of her entranced him, despite the streaks of evaporated tears and the half-moon swellings beneath her eyes. Too many months had passed since her unhappiness trumped the tone and intention of her words. Her voice stumbled, faded; she lay on her side, drifting off to sleep.
He attempted a roll in mid-air. No amount of twisting, tucking, or flailing gained him any purchase or changed his position near the ceiling. "Cat! Caitlyn! Hey--Cat, do you hear me? I'm up here--look up here. Come on, babe--please. Please, look up!"
Once asleep, somehow Caitlyn's sadness took form. Tendril-like wisps rose in slow swirls through her dark, short cropped hair, from her back, shoulders and legs. The strands flattened at the ceiling and merged into eddies, pushed along by unseen air currents. Brendan drifted along with them. He panicked when he realized their destination, an open window; its screen proved no barrier to the wisps. The room emptied of all the sadness, along with Brendan, who he passed feet first through the screen. Before his head, the last of him, slipped through the fine mesh strands, he glanced back at his wife. The wisps no longer rose from her body.
Outside, he rose with the tendrils to the height of the treetops in the front yard. Stronger air currents scattered the swirls beyond the highest of the leaves. To his relief, he proved much less ephemeral, though his continued upward journey dismayed him. He groped without success at the leaves just out of reach beneath him.
The Universe expanded into infinity, unperturbed and indifferent to his or humanity's circumstances. A three quarter moon, his brightest companion in the night sky, orbited at near zenith. The reflected light from her surface bathed the Earth below, and above a myriad of stars, the moon's crystal and serene courtesans, glimmered down at him.
Somewhere, a switch flipped and the beacons in the heavens abruptly winked out of existence. Pitch black descended. Other than with touch, the hand Brendan held in front of his eyes was undetectable. The whispers of the pulse in his ear, the rush of air through his lungs, and the faint beating of his heart became his only reality. He counted thousands of heartbeats, prayed for a resolution, anything and waited, and waited as the breath of Eternity flowed inward, outward, and dissolved the boundaries between moments. Brendan slipped into some inner place where Space, Time and Self no longer intruded.
Like a pebble dropped in a pond, a wave rippled through the void, a pattern coalesced. He awoke, recognized sound; the sensual familiarity warmed his soul stoked the embers of his self awareness. Memories returned to him--Caitlyn's whispered words of love, the laughter of his children. Relieved, he smiled and strained to absorb more of the resonance, the beat, mechanical and rhythmic. A pump. His relief chilled. Something else accompanied the cadence. He stretched his senses to their limit. Someone, a woman, wept; voices spoke. His heart raced. My God, please--God, please, help them find me!
"Will he--." Caitlyn drew a deep breath. "You're certain, completely certain, that my husband, that he's no longer there, inside--"
"Please," said the doctor, "believe me, I..."
The sound of a ventilator wove under and over the threads of their conversation. The labor of the pump and its fellow machines, an orchestra of mindless musicians, sustained Brendan's physical existence with a symphony of beeps and chirps, clicks and wheezes.
The bed with Brendan's body separated Caitlyn and the physician. "Every diagnostic instrument we have at our disposal indicates brain death. If I thought there was the slightest possibility, the slightest--"
Caitlyn pounced. "Indicates? Your don't sound certain… "
"Mrs. Stacey, your husband's no longer here. His body may be, but he's gone, the damage from the stroke was just too massive. The--his body can no longer sustain itself, not independently, not without all this..." He waved in the direction of the machines, and played his ace. "There's a living will, I believe. Mr. Stacey wanted..."
"Yes, yes, he did not want extraordinary measures if…"
The doctor pressed his advantage. "If brain death was indicated…" He winced. "I mean determined--if brain death was determined. Mrs. Stacey, the machines can't lie. What they have--determined--is brain death. When someone descends into this state, nothing can reverse the outcome. Your husband is..."
"Yes! Fine, I understand. My husband is--effectively dead. You've made that point--several times, over the last few weeks. I know it's what Brendan wanted, I know. We..." She paused to gather strength.
"If, you would like--" said the doctor.
"Please, let me finish. I need to finish." The doctor held his silence. "I just needed the time to be certain, absolutely certain all hope was gone, and..." She struggled to complete the sentence. "And it is." Her voice dropped to a near whisper, "It is. I understand. I do. You can turn off the machines. Brendan is gone--he..." She turned away from the bed and walked to the room's sole window. Her sobbing lasted a minute before she regained enough composure to return to Brendan's bedside. The doctor had begun the process of shutting down the machines.
Brendan shouted for Caitlyn's attention, his shouts unable to mask the moment when the final note of the mechanical symphony ceased playing. He gasped for breath; an obstruction blocked his throat. Panic gripped him; the fist of his right hand tightened, held something, someone not himself, another hand in his.
A universe of light burst through the void engulfing him, the brilliance as unintelligible as the former darkness. Tears filled his eyes, blurred his vision. Unable to speak, he squeezed the hand again. His squeeze was returned.
Caitlyn stroked the side of his face, spoke to him. "Brendan? Is that--are--Brendan?"
He hoped her voice would never, stop speaking to him ever again. Her fingers brushed the tears from the corners of his eyes. He marshaled every ounce of strength to squeeze his wife's hand again.
Caitlyn called to the doctor, to the nurse who had entered to assist him. "Oh, dear God, my God. Brendan? Dear God! Doctor! Do you see--he's awake. He's…"
A sensation of falling gripped Brendan--a brief dizziness, not the rush of chaos that had clouded his mind the previous time, eons ago. His vision cleared. He gazed down at the occupants of the room. The furnishings, everything within it were transformed, the images much more distinct, as if an obscuring veil was removed. The living beings brightened his senses--the flowers on the nightstand, the spider spinning a snare hidden in the corner. He peered into their forms, past the colors and textures, observed the life behind the life.
His body lay unmoving on the bed. Unlike the others in the room, it appeared normal, dull; a dreariness spread slowly across it. The sight surprised him, saddened him. An old friend was passing. He watched the doctor lean over the body and press a stethoscope to the chest, and speak to the nurse next to a machine, now at rest. The young man placed a flexible tube onto the bed's surface and jogged off.
Caitlyn kept herself apart from them, her hands clasped like a child in prayer, the fingertips of the steeple pressed against both her lips. A tear journeyed down her cheek, and clung above the corner of her mouth. He swept down, brushed the liquid jewel. She stared straight through him, her eyes never wavering from the image of his body trapped on the bed. She caressed the place Brendan touched.
At her favorite spot, where her nose and right cheek blended, just beneath Caitlyn's eye, Brendan kissed her goodbye, and was gone.
Silver furred and long of tooth, R. A. KEENAN, a survivor of the Age of Aquarius, can be found wandering and grumbling in the forests and hills along New York State's majestic Hudson River Valley. Look for him brandishing his shillelagh among the cliffs of the Shawangunks and bemoaning to the moon the current state of affairs. He has published here and there, nothing really worth mentioning, save for the exception of TAR, and that due mostly to the Herculean efforts of the journal's talented staff. Keen refuses to embarrass his Alma Mater with the mention of its name but the basketball team is to die for. His loving wife of many years has the patience of a Saint. Sláinte.