PodCastle 679: Pull
Rated PG-13 with a content warning for end of life care.
by Leah Ning
I could already feel her mind tugging at mine from upstairs, a warm, familiar pull that threatened to separate me from my body. Are you there? the pull seemed to ask. Are you coming back?
I took her bowl of oatmeal from the microwave and tested it with a finger. It had to be a little cooler than she liked now. She couldn’t blow on it herself anymore.
That tidal pull came again, stronger this time, and I had to close my eyes for a moment to fight it. She was harder to resist now than she ever was. For one thing, she never used to pull this hard. For another, her pull had become the only way she would talk. Words escaped her more often than not now.
When the pull abated, I shuffled up the stairs, dirty white slippers whispering on linoleum that hadn’t been swept in…I couldn’t remember how long.
“I’m here, Amy, I’m coming,” I said when I felt her latch on again. She didn’t let go, but the feeling of building strength faded.
She looked at me from against her mound of pillows, her grey eyes watery. Thin lips nestled in a cacophony of wrinkles I’d watched the hand of time etch across her face.
I sat on the edge of the bed. “Oatmeal.”
She made a face.
“Well, I snuck some maple syrup in there this time. How’s that?”
This delighted her as it did every morning. She let me spoon the oatmeal into her mouth and I chatted idly while she worked it across her tongue and swallowed it. My mouth poured sweetness into her ears while my spoon poured sweetness into her mouth.
When the food was gone, she closed her eyes, smiling.
I didn’t notice her strength gathering again until it was too late. I scrambled for a handhold in my mind. The warmth of her pull cradled me, loosening my hold on myself with gentle mental fingers until I gave in and let go.
She brought me to a red-and-white checked tablecloth spread amid tall, yellowing grasses bathed in sunshine. She sat with her legs outstretched beside a picnic basket lined with a dish towel that matched the tablecloth. The real ones had never matched. The dish towel, I remembered, had been robin’s-egg blue. The tablecloth had been white.
She leaned back on her elbows and lifted her face to the sun. Her yellow dress lay flat against her body. The sunset blazed in her hair. I’d held her hand when we were younger, watching that sun set, talking deep into the night. Now I could only watch her.
It was dark when we woke. Amy’s hand was in mine. The empty oatmeal bowl lay shattered on the floor.
“If you’re going to keep doing that, I’m going to have to start using plastic bowls,” I said.
Her mouth stretched into a slow, sunny grin.
Something buzzed in another room and she looked up at me, grin fading.
“It’s just the phone,” I said, kissing her temple. “I’ll be right back.”
She turned to watch anxiously as I shuffled down the stairs to the kitchen.
“Martha” glowed white on the phone screen when I got to it. I sighed and tapped the screen, lifted the phone to my ear.
A panicked voice shouted through the little speaker. “John! I’ve been trying to reach you for hours, where were you?”
“Didn’t have the phone on me. We’re fine.” It wasn’t really a lie.
A pause. Then, “You were off in her head again, weren’t you?”
I grimaced. “Never said that.”
“I know you were,” Martha said. “You’ve got to stop letting her do that! It just confuses her more. The doctors said–”
“If it calms her, I’m going to let her do it. What did you need?”
“John, the doctors–”
“What did you need?”
An exasperated sigh. “I just wanted to check up. How is she?”
“She’s just fine,” I said, leaning on the counter. Thinking that if I could convince her, I could convince myself too. “Same as she was when you called yesterday. I’d tell you if she wasn’t.”
“I’m just worried about her is all.”
“Not much to worry about. But you’re welcome to come on down and visit any time.”
“Well, you know.” I could hear staticky noises on the other end of the phone as she shifted it. Hopefully uncomfortably. “I don’t want to disturb her routine, I know that can make things worse.”
I smiled pleasantly as if she was standing right in front of me. “Yeah-huh. I hear you. You let us know if you get out from under your parents’ thumbs for long enough to get down here. Hopefully it’ll be while she still remembers you.”
“John, it’s not that simple.” Her voice sounded thick, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.
“Uh huh, of course. You need anything else?”
She paused again. Her voice was quiet when she finally spoke. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“Well, you have a good night, Martha,” I said, and hung up before she could say goodbye.
Amy was tugging at my mind again before I could put down the phone. Must’ve forgotten where I went. I stared up the stairs for a few seconds before I started up them again. God, I was tired.
“Just the phone, hon,” I said as I walked back into the bedroom. “Your sister. She wanted to check up on you. You know how she worries.”
I felt that pull again, heard an echo of a memory:
“How many years has it been?”
“I know,” I said. “Doesn’t sound like she’s any closer to getting up here than she was then, either.”
Amy turned her head away. Upset? Embarrassed? I knelt to pick up the glass on the floor and give her her privacy. She had little enough of that as it was.
I dreamed of the meadow that night. The cloth in the basket was checkered. Amy sat beside it, legs out straight, staring dreamily into the sky.
“Excuse me,” she said, turning her head to face me. The cloth wobbled a little, started to turn blue, then settled back to its red check. “I can’t seem to find my husband. Do you know where he is?”
The bed next to me was empty when my eyes flicked open, Amy’s side of the covers thrown back. Alarm bells clanged in my head. I dragged myself over to the other side to see the floor. Not there. She hadn’t fallen. But she couldn’t walk anymore, either.
“Amy?” I called.
I sat up and saw an orange glow from the bottom of the stairs. Muttered curses floated up to me.
I plopped my feet into my slippers and went downstairs as fast as my joints, still aching with sleep, would allow.
“Amy?” I called again, louder.
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit.” Her voice was muttery, soft.
“Amy, hon, where are you? Are you okay?”
She was flapping a towel at a growing fire on the stove when I walked in. It was taller than she was, sending orange tongues of flame toward the ceiling.
“Shit!” I echoed.
“John, would you get some water?” she asked. So calm. How was she so calm?
I didn’t get water. I grabbed the lid she’d discarded on the opposite counter and slammed it onto the pan, suffocating heat puffing into my face, then turned the burner off.
“Jesus, Amy, are you okay?”
She was standing frozen, clutching the towel–a blue one–and staring at the snuffed fire.
She looked at me. “I just wanted to make some breakfast,” she said.
I went to her and took the towel. She let it slide from her fingers without protest. “It’s still only three in the morning. Let’s go back to bed and I’ll take care of this when we get up.”
“Three?” She blinked, looked around. Saw the dark window. “God, it is, isn’t it? What am I doing up at three?”
I opened my mouth, ready to tell her that this was what the doctors told us to expect, but what came out was: “Everyone does it at least once in their lives, getting up and going to work and then realizing it’s too early or it’s Saturday. You’re all right. Come on back to bed.”
We made our way back upstairs, my hand on the small of her back as we climbed. She rolled over to face away from me when we got into bed.
Then, quietly: “People who accidentally go to work on a Saturday don’t forget they’re cooking and start grease fires.”
I lifted a hand to put on her shoulder. Put it back down.
“I’m sure they do sometimes. You’re all right,” I repeated.
She made a little humming noise that could’ve meant anything.
“When did you start talking again?”
“You haven’t spoken in two months.”
She rolled over to look at me, eyes wide. “What?”
I stopped, thought for a minute. “This is a memory.”
“What do you mean, John?” she asked.
“Are we in your head?”
She opened her mouth. Tears gathered in her eyes, reflecting the pale moonlight.
“I didn’t know,” she whispered.
We were still in bed when I woke, and it was still dark, and there were still tears in her eyes. But when I pulled her into my arms, she didn’t speak anymore. Not even in a whisper.
“I want to come up.”
“Congratulations.” I shifted the phone to my shoulder so I could continue feeding Amy. She was having a hazy morning, barely acknowledging the spoon as it passed between her lips.
“I can’t win with you,” Martha complained in my ear. “You’re mad when I’m not coming and mad when I am. What do you want?”
“It’s not about what I want,” I said. “It’s about what you should do for your sister. Come or don’t come, we’ll be here.”
“John, I’m trying. You know how Mom and Dad are.”
“Sure do. How old are you again?”
“That isn’t fair.”
“Four years younger than Amy, aren’t you? So that makes you…fifty-eight?”
“That isn’t fair. You’re not being fair.” Martha sounded close to tears again. “You know how they feel. They’ll disown me, John.”
Amy’s eyes were somewhere I couldn’t reach. I hoped it was somewhere sunny. “You think you aren’t already losing Amy?”
Martha’s sigh crackled down the line. Amy didn’t even blink.
“I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?” Martha said.
This time she hung up before I did. Amy’s eyes stayed fixed across the room somewhere.
“Your sister again,” I said, lifting another spoonful of oatmeal to her lips. It took her a moment, but she eventually let the spoon in.
“She says she wants to come up. I’ll believe that when I see it, though.”
Still no reaction. Real hazy morning, then. So I chattered aimlessly as I fed her the rest of breakfast, then kissed her on the forehead and went downstairs to clean up.
I dumped the dishes in the sink and turned on the water. The image of Amy’s blank stare rushed into my head all at once, her mouth opening mechanically to accept food I wasn’t sure she tasted, and I had to hunch over the counter to push it away. For once it wasn’t her reaching into my mind. I wasn’t sure if that made it harder to resist or not.
In a savage sort of way, I hoped Martha would come. I wanted someone else to be here, to understand the vitality that my sweet, quick-witted wife was losing before it was gone. And I wanted it to be Martha so that all of it would hit her at once, so that she could see the last dregs of Amy before she drained away.
Today, the temptation was our favorite vacation spot. Her eyes were closed as she reached out to pull me in with no thought for the bowl of soup in my hands. The tang of ocean salt teased at my nose.
I smiled and blew on a spoonful of soup with some effort. “After lunch, or this’ll be the second bowl you break this week.”
A faint smile twitched the corners of Amy’s mouth. A seagull cried in the distance and my vision started to flicker. God, she was strong. She’d never tried to force me before. She never would have forced me before. And, really, had that smile been in response to my words or the memory she was lost in?
Hands shaking, I set the bowl on the nightstand. “Amy,” I said. “I don’t want–”
She grabbed hold with both mental hands and yanked. I braced myself against the bed.
And I was no longer in a chair next to the bed, I was in a chair at a white card table on a gray-and-white checked linoleum floor that wasn’t ours. It felt as though the inside of my head had been scraped raw and stuffed with cotton balls. The house was silent save for the muffled calls of seagulls and the dull, rolling roar of the ocean outside.
No answer. I got to my feet with a soft groan and pressed a hand to my forehead. She must be out on the beach.
I made my way carefully to the door and opened it. She was standing on the beach in white shorts and a green tank top, waving a french fry in the air for the seagulls to take.
I almost stepped into a deep black rectangle that sat where the welcome mat should have been.
“Jesus!” I shouted. It looked like a hole in the world, so black it was almost flat. I decided it didn’t really look hungry. But it looked so deep.
“John, come on!” Amy waved to me from her spot on the sand, laughing, french fry in hand. A seagull swooped down in a graceful arc and plucked it from her fingers.
The deck beyond the welcome mat looked solid enough. I jumped over the hole and hurried down the sand, forcing myself not to look back, wondering if the hole would grow.
“What’s wrong with the welcome mat?” I asked when I reached her.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like you totally left it out. There’s a hole there.”
“Left it out?” She laughed again. “I know it’s been a while since we’ve been on vacation, but we’re really here.”
My heart skipped a beat. “No, we’re not. I was about to give you lunch. You pulled me out of my head. I couldn’t stop you.”
Amy’s brow creased with hurt. “I wouldn’t do that. Why would you say that?”
“Amy, please. Just come see the welcome mat. We’re not really here.”
“I think I’d know if we were in my head.”
“Please,” I said again. “Please trust me. You know I wouldn’t lie.”
“And you know I wouldn’t just pull you out of your head if you said no,” she said, but the stubborn look on her face was melting away.
“Come on. Just come look at the mat, and if it’s there, we can come back down here and feed the seagulls all day if that’s what you want.”
I took her cold hand and she followed me back up to the deck, up to the edge of the hole.
“What is that?” she said softly, her other hand coming up to hold my arm.
I squeezed her hand. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“I don’t like it.” Even softer. Scared. “I don’t want to look at it anymore.”
“I know. Let’s go back.”
She closed her eyes. I waited.
“I can’t find me.” Her eyes opened again, panicked. “John, I can’t find me. Are you sure we’re in my head? I can’t find me.”
I suppressed the shaking that wanted to spill through my limbs. I had to stay calm for her.
“I’m sure. I remember getting pulled in.” I put my hands on her shoulders. Her eyes fluttered closed. “You’re in our bed at home right now. I’m sitting in the chair next to you. There’s a bowl of chicken noodle soup on the nightstand that’s probably cold by now. You’re there. I’m there.”
Amy let out a careful breath. Thin rivulets of white appeared at the roots of her hair and slid down like raindrops on a window. I felt my skin sag as if it could no longer stand gravity’s pull.
“I feel it,” she whispered, and I let her take me back into the darkness.
I woke with my cheek pressed to the bed, arms dangling, the rest of me still sitting in the chair. The headache from the memory scraped at my skull. Sunlight still spilled across the comforter, but at the wrong angle and with a little too much gold.
When I pushed myself back onto the chair, Amy was staring, wide-eyed, at the ceiling.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She didn’t look at me.
I reached out to touch her face. She turned away. Some part of me wanted to cry at that. Instead, I squeezed her shoulder and left to get something for my headache.
After I dry-swallowed the pill, I let myself sit on the floor and shiver. Just for a moment.
The phone burred my answer to six missed calls and two voicemails as I stood in the kitchen. Sure, I’d seen the notifications last night, but I hadn’t had the energy to talk to anyone. And I definitely hadn’t had the energy to have the conversation I needed to have. If I couldn’t stop Amy from taking me anymore, neither could anyone else.
“Hello?” Martha’s voice, almost as familiar to me now as my own.
“Sorry I missed your calls yesterday.”
“Were you off in her head again?”
I scratched the back of my head. “Well, sort of. Not really.”
“Stop making excuses, John. Either you were or you weren’t,” Martha said.
“It’s not that simple anymore. And while we’re on the subject, I don’t think you should come up.”
“You didn’t think I was coming up in the first place. What do you mean, it’s not that simple?”
I decided to tell her only most of the truth.
“I don’t think she can help it anymore.”
“She can’t help it anymore?” The phone crackled as she shifted it. “What does that mean?”
“She pulled me in without asking yesterday. And when I got there, she didn’t know we weren’t really there.”
“Well…” More crackling. “Isn’t that…I don’t know…sort of what happens? With this?”
“Sure. But most Alzheimer’s patients can’t yank the people around them into their memories.”
“So you think if I come up, she’ll pull me in too.”
“Yes. I think it’s safer if you don’t come.”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about the hole. Telling someone else meant it wasn’t a fluke, and I still didn’t really know what it was or whether it was worrisome.
“What about you?” she said. “Is it safe for you, constantly getting pulled out of your body?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I know how to get back.”
“All right. But keep in touch, okay? I’m worried. For both of you.”
“I’ll be fine,” I repeated. “I have to go. Breakfast time.”
I hung up with some relief. Martha was right, I hadn’t thought she was coming up, but better safe than sorry. I didn’t want anyone walking into this house right now.
Amy’s pull came from upstairs again, sharp and insistent. I gritted my teeth against a scream of frustration.
The German Shepherd’s sides heaved and steamed its breath out through its teeth. Another bead of red dropped from its chin and joined the growing pool on the tar. Amy’s crying mostly drowned out the ticking of the car’s radiator.
I put an arm around her shoulders. “Amy, let’s go. We have to go home.”
She looked around at me, shocked. “We can’t just leave him here!”
“We didn’t. This isn’t happening. We’re in one of your memories.”
“Why would you say something like that?” She pulled away, then turned back to the dog when it let out a soft whine. “We’ve got to put him out of his misery, John. We can’t leave him like this. It’s not right.”
“We did,” I said. “We wrapped him up in a blanket and brought him to a vet, and they euthanized him. Twenty years ago.”
“Do I look twenty years younger to you?” she said, plucking at a clump of white hair. “Fine. If you won’t acknowledge that this is real, I will.”
“What do you mean?”
But she was walking toward the woodline, hunting along the ground. The dog whined again and I scrubbed an automatic comforting hand between its ears before standing.
Amy was already coming back from the woodline. She carried a big, jagged rock in both trembling hands.
“Hon, what is that?” I asked.
Her expression was cold. “If you won’t put it out of its misery, then I will.”
My heart seized. “Put the rock down, Amy. This isn’t real. This isn’t what happened.”
“If that’s supposed to comfort me, it isn’t.”
Her voice was thick with tears and anger. The rock shuddered in and out of existence.
“Get out of the way, John.”
She lowered her shoulder into my chest and I stumbled back, tripping over the dog’s snout and landing on the ground. Another low, urgent whine smoked from dripping, red-rimmed nostrils. A dry sob ripped from Amy’s chest.
She held the rock over the dog’s head, scrunched her eyes shut, and let go.
The wet crunch I expected didn’t come. Instead, there was a noise like two boulders smashing together, then screaming as a hole three times the size of the rock she’d dropped opened up in the road where the dog’s head had been. I scrambled back to avoid the crumbling tar beneath me.
Amy’s hands clutched at her face. “Oh, God, you were right. I’m so sorry, you were right.”
“Take us back!” I shouted, panicking, watching larger and larger chunks of road snap off and whoosh into the darkness. “It’s not real, take us home, please take us home!”
The entire road collapsed under me. I flailed and grabbed at an edge that crumbled in my hand. My stomach dropped as I fell.
The tug clamped around my whole body and I flew up, out of the hole–
–and into my body, back in the chair by the bed, my face pressed once more into the comforter, bowl shattered on the floor. My phone buzzed in the other room, then fell silent. How long had it been?
Amy reached for my hand, tears already overflowing onto her cheeks, making soft taps as they fell on the pillow. Our hands shook together.
The phone buzzed again. She looked up.
“Just the phone,” I said automatically. “Probably your sister again.”
She squeezed my hand, then let go. I didn’t want to leave, but she was right. I should answer.
When I got to the phone, “Martha” glowed up at me from its screen.
“John! I’ve been trying to reach you for hours, where were you?”
“Didn’t have the phone on me. We’re fine.” Only half a lie.
“You were off in her head again, weren’t you?” she said.
I sighed. “That’s not fair. You know I told you I can’t stop her anymore.”
“What?” Martha’s voice was suddenly staticky, garbled. “You never–” she dissolved into mushy gibberish.
“Martha? Are you there?”
I checked the screen, but it had gone black. Too black. I dropped it and it punched another hole in the floor.
“Amy!” I screamed, starting to run back to the bedroom. I didn’t look back to see if the hole here was widening too. “Amy, we’re not back!”
She didn’t say anything back, but I felt her pull again and gave in to it with mingled fear and relief.
This time, my face was smashed into wood when I woke. Sharp edges dug into my ribs, my thighs. My nose felt clogged, and it throbbed when I lifted my head. I groaned and sat up.
I had fallen on the stairs. When? The bowl I’d dropped–plastic–had been full of soup. Lunch? Dinner? I patted my pockets, felt the smooth rectangle of my phone, pulled it out. 2:37pm. Twelve missed calls.
“Amy?” I called. “Are you all right?”
I got my feet up under me and made my way up the stairs with the help of the railing. My head thumped at every step. No pull, but I could hear Amy sniffling as I got closer to the top. I made myself move a little faster.
When I reached the doorway, she looked at me, then covered her mouth with her hands, eyes wide and watery.
“John,” she croaked. Her voice was cracked with disuse. I shushed her gently and brushed the hair from her forehead.
“It’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to talk.”
She shook her head. Reached to my face with a touch like feathers.
“Your…” She trailed off, squeezed her eyes shut to think, then tapped her nose. “I’m sorry.”
My fingers found my nose. Hardened crust crumbled beneath my fingertips. Blood.
“Shit. You’re okay? Let me wash up.”
I shuffled to the bathroom and studied the dried maroon crust under my swollen nose. Probably broken, but it would heal. I couldn’t leave Amy alone to go to a doctor, and I couldn’t bring her with me without risking her pulling in everyone in the vicinity.
God, I was exhausted.
The phone vibrated in my hand.
Amy had started speaking again. She had lost more words, but she refused to use the pull to communicate anymore. My safety, she’d managed to say, was more important than her dignity. It didn’t make me feel any better. The danger came when she didn’t know she was doing it, not when she did.
The times when I didn’t know she’d done it made it worse. I was losing my sense of time and place right along with her. Every unusual event–Amy saying a word she’d forgotten, Martha calling at a different time of day–set me on edge, wondering if I was now or then.
It wasn’t unusual, then, that my heart leapt into my throat when the doorbell rang.
“Who?” Amy asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe the mailman. I’ll be right back.”
But the woman I saw when I opened the door was mousy-haired, bespectacled, and wearing jeans with a faded brown sweater.
“Martha,” I said.
“Well, I’m here,” she said, shifting from one foot to the other. “Finally. Can I come in?”
I didn’t move aside. “No.”
“Excuse me?” she said. “I want to see my sister. You know, before she forgets me? As you keep reminding me?”
“Yes, well, you’re–” I started, then looked back at the stairs, where strength was beginning to gather again. Amy had probably already forgotten where I’d gone. I didn’t have long. I moved to the stoop and pulled the door shut behind me.
“You’re too damn late,” I finished. “It’s too dangerous. She may not know you anymore. And she may…”
The first pull came. I gritted my teeth and fought it with every ounce of strength I had. I couldn’t collapse out here. Not now.
When I looked up, Martha was hunched over, palms pressed to her forehead. So it wasn’t just me. Amy was grabbing anyone she could find in her confusion.
“Jesus!” Martha gasped when the pull passed. “That’s her?”
“Who else would it be?”
“That’s not the point! She’s not asking anymore, she’s forcing! This isn’t safe!”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you. You can’t be here. It’s okay for me, she knows me, but she may not know you.”
She scoffed. “How does her knowing you make it any better? Did you get those black eyes walking into a wall?”
“Sure, I suppose,” I said.
“John, you’re enabling her. What happens if one day she yanks you out of your head and you fall over and die?”
“Well, you’ll know something’s wrong if you ever hit fifty missed calls in a row.”
The second pull came, harder than the first. I had to lock my knees to keep them from buckling. Martha wasn’t quick enough, and she dropped down to sit on the stoop, squeezing her head in her palms. I knelt and put a hand on her sweatered shoulder.
“Focus on my voice,” I said. “My voice is here and now. It isn’t wherever she’s trying to take you. Stay focused on what I’m saying.”
Slowly, with measured breaths, Martha raised her head. Irritation had turned to naked fear. I knew where it came from: a place where you scrabbled with hands, fingernails, and toes to remain in your own mind, unsure if you would ever return.
“Go,” I said gently. “Get in your car and go, and call me tomorrow. We’ll be okay.”
She shook her head, the motion spilling a tear from one eye. “I can’t. I finally got brave enough to come see her. I can’t just turn around.”
“It’s been harder for her to find her way back lately. If you get pulled in, you might never come back.”
Her face hardened. “I’m coming inside, John. We better go before she grabs us again.”
She was right. We only just made it inside before we both dropped to the floor, a small cry escaping my lips as Amy tore me from my body.
The meadow again. Of course it was. This was her comfort memory when she went hazy, a guarantee that she wouldn’t be alone. I was there. I would always be there.
She wasn’t the right age anymore. Not her current age, not even the age she’d been when this memory took place. She looked like a teenager, maybe even as young as a tween, wearing the same yellow dress. The tablecloth on the ground was purple now. Or was it bright red? It was hard to tell in the blinding light of a sun that was far too close, like the sun in the corner of a child’s drawing.
“Who are you?” Amy called from next to the picnic basket.
My breath caught in my throat. No. Not this. Not now, not ever. Please.
“It’s me,” I said. “It’s John.”
“John?” She squinted at me, then clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, John! I’ve been looking for you! Come and sit. There’s peanut butter and jelly and lemonade and strawberries!”
I gave her a nervous smile and sat beside her. The whole memory had a fragile, shivery quality I didn’t like, as if it would explode if you looked at it too hard.
“Who’s that behind you?” she asked.
I turned with her. “It’s Martha. Your sister. She came to see you.”
Martha stood a ways off, wearing a tentative smile. “Hey, Amy. Missed you.”
“No,” Amy whispered. Her face contorted with anguish. The sun shuddered overhead like a leaf in a sudden wind. “I didn’t mean to do it again, I’m sorry, I’m sorry–”
Martha stepped toward us, hands outstretched to comfort. Rumbling began behind us and I turned to see another hole punched in the horizon, sweeping toward us like a wave.
Amy looked ahead of us with wide, unseeing eyes.
“Would you like a sandwich?” she asked.
The ground dropped out from under us.
I opened my eyes and immediately had to close them against the brightness. I put my hands over my face and squinted through slitted fingers at the sterile, stark white of a small room. The floor beneath my back was hard and cold. The regular whirr-THUMP of broken machinery and a child’s sobs reached my ears as I waited for my eyes to adjust.
“Hello?” I called. “Are you okay?”
The child let out a harsh gasp. “Who’s there?”
I widened the slits between my fingers. “I’m John. What’s your name?” As if I didn’t know the answer.
“Do you remember me, Amy?”
“Noooo…?” she said in a sliding, questioning voice.
I let my hands fall. Amy sat in a corner, knees to her chest, surrounded by thousands of wires ending in plugs and mostly empty outlets set into the walls. The wires each had tags, labeled with things like “Mouth Filter” (still plugged in) and “Thirst Indicator” (left unplugged on the ground). She might have been five or six, still wearing the same yellow dress in miniature.
“It’s okay,” I said, getting slowly to my feet. “It doesn’t matter. I’m…a friend. Does that sound nice?”
Amy sniffled and cast me a suspicious look. “Maybe.”
“Can I come sit next to you?” I asked.
I shuffled my old man’s body toward the child that was–had been? would be?–my wife and sat against the wall with her. That steady whirr-THUMP thudded through my back and worked its way into my chest. It upset me in a deep way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
I took hold of one of the wires but couldn’t lift it. It was as if it had turned to stone.
Amy’s mouth wobbled. “I think those are important, but I can’t plug them back in.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t think they’ll have to be like this for much longer.”
The lump in my throat wouldn’t go away anymore. My chest hitched. I bit down on my palm to stop myself before she saw, but she was as perceptive as she’d always been. The girl crawled over to me and wrapped her arms around my elbow.
“It’s okay, John,” she said, and gave me a watery smile. “I’ll be your friend.”
We looked up to find Martha picking her way through the wires, her legs as shaky as a newborn colt’s.
“What is this place?” she asked, sitting on Amy’s other side.
“Central control, maybe,” I said.
Amy’s gray eyes were suddenly sharp again. “You’re not supposed to be here, are you? Either of you.”
Martha took her other hand. “No, honey, we’re not. Do you think you can get us out?”
“Sure, I can boost you. But…I don’t think I can get out anymore.”
I exchanged a look with Martha as my chest grew impossibly tight.
“You boost Martha out. I won’t leave you alone.”
“John, no! Then I’m staying too.”
I shook my head. “No, you don’t. You’ve still got a life out there: a job, a husband, your parents. But what am I supposed to do when she’s gone? Live with myself knowing I left her trapped here by herself?”
“You might not get out. When she…” Martha trailed off.
“Yeah, probably I won’t. Tell you the truth, I don’t really want to.”
Amy watched me closely. I let the silence sit for a few moments, letting Martha think.
“Amy, honey, boost your sister out.”
Amy looked between us before she answered. “You ready, Marty?”
Martha nodded, her eyes a little too shiny. She didn’t fade or dissolve. She was simply gone.
“Are you sure you should stay, John? You’re not supposed to be here either,” Amy said.
Probably true. But there wasn’t anywhere else I could be. Out there, I would be just another stranger to a woman who was already alone and afraid. In here, I was a friend.
I tightened my arm around her shoulders. “Don’t you worry. I think this is right where I should be.”
Amy laid her head on my chest, smiling, and we sat among the tangled wires together as the lights flickered off one by one.
In the dark, the unseen machinery gave another THUMP.
About the Author
Leah lives in northern Virginia with her husband and their five pets: two cats, a dog, and two sugar gliders—all of whom are exactly as cute as they sound. She spends her non-writing time drawing, playing video games, and learning to make delicious new foods. Her short fiction also appears in Writers of the Future Volume 36, Apocalyptic (Zombies Need Brains), and Cossmass Infinities. You can find her @LeahNing on Twitter and on her website, leahning.com.
About the Narrator
Graeme has been involved with Escape Artists for many years, producing audio, hosting shows, narrating stories and keeping the websites going. He was born in Australia, although people have identified him as English, American and South African, amongst other nationalities. He loves the spoken word. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and beautiful boy dog, Jake.