Tag Archives: Julia Grunes

Julia Grunes

Secondhand

I. Somewhat Nadia

I am Nadia today. Well, mostly Nadia. She is beginning to wear off. The smell of her citrus perfume is already fading, and I breathe it in while I still can. I wish that I could always be Nadia. Nadia doesn’t hesitate when someone asks her a question; Nadia laughs so so easily, and smiles at people she doesn’t even know. Nadia is a faded name written in black pen on the tag inside a colorblocked denim jacket. The jacket is pink, white, and gray, and there’s a red stain on the inside against the white that I think must be wine. Maybe that’s why she got rid of it. If it was blood, she probably would have thrown it away.

But Nadia is beginning to wear off. I wore her for picture day and everyone noticed me. They said that I should wear her more often. They like who I am when I’m Nadia. I like who I am when I’m Nadia, too. I’m wearing her today while I’m at work. I work at Pale Moon Vintage on the weekends, and that’s how I got the jacket. Nadia dropped it off, alone. She’s come in before, but it had always been with one or two of her friends. College friends. She’s a college student.

The bell on the door rings and I straighten up. Mrs. L. doesn’t like when her employees have bad posture while customers are in the store, so I always make sure to pull my shoulders back when the bell rings. I’m behind the register, so whoever walks in will see me immediately. The girl who walks in smiles at me, as she comes through the doorway. I smile back. I begin to idly sketch the outline of a face on a rejected receipt. It isn’t a drawing of her. This girl is the type of person that you forget as soon as you look away from her; her brown hair is straight and somewhat greasy, and her clothes envelop her with their slouching hugeness.

She’s probably a college student. Most people who come in here are. Mrs. L. always says  the only reason she’s still in business is because of the students. Her shop is fifteen minutes away from the liberal arts college and when they’re on break, barely anyone comes to the store.

“Hi, welcome to Pale Moon! Is there anything that I can help you with?”

“No thanks, I’m—I guess I’m just looking,” the girl says, giving me a small smile before quickly walking over to the cluttered racks of clothes to the left of me. She’s definitely a college student. From what I’ve seen, liberal arts students always seem to be “just looking” for something. Or at least they want me to think that. And this girl is no different. She has that same faraway look in her eyes that they all have; it looks as if she’s thinking about something that she thinks is important like the weight of existence or the possibility that life is a simulation, or maybe just her GPA.

I would never wear anything that used to be hers. I tried a few times with people like her when I first started working at Pale Moon, but when I put on their clothes they were far too heavy and spiraling and desperate. After that I became more careful about who I wore. I never want to be them.

Nadia is a college student too, but she’s different from the other ones who come in here. Everything is easy for her: her laugh, her movements, her voice. She isn’t trapped in her own mind. I’d hoped for ages that she would sell something instead of just buying. Every time she came in, she bought something—some piece of clothing that she would caress, her fingers examining the fabric for imperfections. Even if it wasn’t in perfect condition, she would usually still get it. I do the same thing.

If it wasn’t clothes, she would still look through the assorted sunglasses, rusted necklaces, and other worthless trinkets that Mrs. L. has amassed. When Nadia sold us her jacket, she bought a tiny bronze heart that opens and closes with a matching tiny key for three dollars and ninety-five cents.

I saw it happen. She was in a hurry, I think. But something about the bronze heart caught her eye and she stopped and picked it up, smiling slightly as she opened and closed it a couple of times. She grinned when she noticed me watching, then laughed quietly, and placed the heart on the counter. I don’t think that even she knew quite why she wanted it. Maybe its smallness attracted her to it; maybe it was the fact that it had been lying, dejected, next to a somewhat cross-eyed plastic bust of a woman with ivory skin, cropped black hair, and red lips, topped off with blue sunglasses shaped like triangles. Maybe Nadia couldn’t bear to see it left there all by itself.

“Excuse me?”

I look up and a forgettable face is floating directly in front of me. I need to stop getting distracted. Mrs. L. has already caught me twice, and she doesn’t like having to catch people.

“I just wanted to buy this,” she says, shyly sliding a nondescript blue sweater onto the counter. The sweater looks almost exactly like the one she is wearing. I wonder if her closet is just a dark mass of fabric, each item congealing to the next so that you can’t tell where one ends and another begins. I smile at her, taking the sweater in one hand and shoving the receipt I was drawing on into my jacket pocket with the other.

“That’ll be $11.95.” She pays with cash. “Also, if you’re interested, we have a raffle for a $25 gift card.” I gesture toward the mason jar with raffle tickets next to the register and drop her change into her hand.

“Oh, uh…yeah! I guess I’ll do that.”

I give her a raffle ticket, showing her where to write her address and phone number. Her handwriting is small and neat. Nadia entered the raffle too. She seemed so excited about it and about the little bronze heart, even though she was in a hurry. I could still smell the bright lemon of her perfume for a few moments after she left.

I wish I knew why that heart caught Nadia’s eye. Even now, when I am her, I don’t know what she was thinking at that exact moment. If I knew that, maybe I could be completely Nadia and not just somewhat Nadia or almost Nadia. I wouldn’t need her clothes or her perfume to make me her. She wouldn’t wear off in a week or so. I don’t want her to wear off. But for now, I am mostly Nadia, and for now that is mostly enough. The smell of her citrus perfume is fading, but I breathe it in while I still can.

II. Real Nadia

Real Nadia is running down the stairs. She is going to be late for something; she can’t find her perfume, and she is sure that her housemate Kaylie was using it the day before. Kaylie says that she wasn’t though, and now Nadia will have to leave without it. She hates doing that, because I don’t think she really feels like herself when she doesn’t have it on. But she’s leaving anyway, deciding not to push it any further with Kaylie. There’s a very small possibility that she’ll make it on time if she leaves now.

She has gathered all of her things and is rushing out the door, pausing only to yell a quick goodbye. I don’t know how long it will be until Kaylie and Zoe–Nadia’s other housemate–will be gone too. Kaylie is still in pajamas in the living room. I can’t see Zoe, but I assume that she’s still sleeping. Nadia is starting her car now, and she backs out of the driveway, her tires bouncing slightly as she runs over the curb in her hurry to leave the white and red paint-chipped house behind.

The walls of the red and white house are thin, and I wonder if it stays warm in the winter. But that doesn’t matter so much now; today it’s hot so they have all their windows cracked open. Hopefully Kaylie and Zoe have somewhere to be soon. I have work at 2:00 p.m. and even though it’s only 9:24 a.m., I’d rather not be sitting here all day. There’s also the possibility that they don’t have anywhere to be and that would mean waiting here again all for nothing.

I move slightly in my seat, gripping more tightly onto the branch in front of me. The sun is beating down on my skin through the foliage, and I’m suddenly glad that my mom forced me to put sunscreen on this morning. I told her that I was hanging out with Lily today; she was happy since I haven’t hung out with Lily for a really long time. To be fair, I haven’t hung out with anyone for a really long time.

I told her that I was meeting Lily at the strip mall that has Pale Moon and a few other stores. It’s only a fifteen minute walk from my house and I always walk there for work, so my mom wasn’t nervous about me getting there. Nadia’s house is a thirty minute walk, so it isn’t that much further. My mom won’t ask any questions or check up on me because she’s just so glad that I’m supposedly talking to Lily again.

Lily was my best friend in elementary school and she stayed my best friend until eighth grade. I don’t think that she purposely stopped talking to me, but it just seemed like she was busy all the time. I asked her to hang out a couple of times in the beginning of eighth grade, but she was always either at tennis practice or had a lot of work to do. And she never asked me to do anything, so I stopped asking. Lily wouldn’t have stopped being friends with Nadia. No one would ever want to stop being friends with Nadia.

Now, Lily and I smile at each other in the hallway, but that’s about the extent of it. And my mom doesn’t understand that just because we were best friends it doesn’t mean that we even talk in high school. Things have changed, obviously. It isn’t like before when Lily and I were united against everyone else and made fun of the girls who dyed their hair blond and wore clothes from Hollister. We had always talked about working at Pale Moon together, but by the time we were both old enough, only I applied.

I applied in the summer before ninth grade, and I’ve been working there for a little over a year now. A few other employees have quit while I’ve been there, since they say that Mrs. L. is hard to work with. She does expect a lot, but I think that she just wants people to care about the clothes that she sells. She always says that I understand the clothes just like she does; she’s the one who told me about how clothing retains a part of the person who once wore it, that it holds onto a piece of their soul.

Other people say that Mrs. L. is crazy and old, that she never stops talking. I think that I’m the only one who listens. Mrs. L. likes when clothes become hers when they used to be someone else’s. I never want the clothes to become mine. So, I don’t really feel the exact same way about that. And I think—

I jolt forward as I hear a quick rustling, and then a white and gray bird lands on a branch directly next to me. I slowly turn my head toward it, and its beady eyes fix on mine, unmoving. Its eyes are black with a ring of yellow around them. I take a shaky breath and try my best not to move. If I shoo it away, someone might see a sudden movement from this tree and check if there’s anything strange in it. I take another breath. The bird is small, but up close, its beak looks sharp, and I hope that it isn’t thinking of poking my eyes out. Is that a thing that birds do? It opens its mouth and my heart almost beats out of my chest, but it just lets out a strange, grating cry and then becomes silent again.

It turns its head away from mine and just continues to sit, shifting its feet every so often. Looking at it again, the bird’s body is all soft lines and feathers, completely opposite to its beak, but I avoid thinking about that. I almost wish that I had brought my sketchbook, or even just a piece of paper. I reach into my pocket where I still have the receipt half-filled with the featureless face, but I don’t have a pencil. I tear my eyes away from the bird and realize that the two cars in front aren’t there anymore. Kaylie and Zoe must have left while I was distracted. I start to let go of the branch in front of me, but the bird cries out again as soon as I do. It sounds kind of familiar now that I hear it again.

I look at it and it gazes back at me for the second time; I have the distinct feeling that I am being reproved. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care about  what a bird thinks of me. I begin again with the process of carefully climbing down the tree, and as I swing my leg to the side, the bird unfurls its wings. After some more quick rustling, it’s gone. Good. I make it to the bottom of the tree safely, but not without cutting my left hand on the trunk. My hand is all scraped up now and there’s blood, but I was careful not to make any noise.

I got blood on the sleeve of Nadia’s jacket and I hope that it’ll wash out. It doesn’t matter so much to me now though. The jacket is barely her anymore, and I’ll have something new of hers soon. Then I’ll be able to figure her out. I won’t need her clothes anymore to stop her from wearing off. It’ll probably be some old shirt that she won’t even miss. I open the gate at the side of the house, making sure that no one is around.

It is 10:47 a.m. on a Saturday morning and the streets are empty. The only place where that makes sense is a college town. There is a window on the side of the house which has a busted screen. They need to get it replaced; bugs must keep getting in. Since the window is open, it’s easy to pull away the screen and to push myself through, head first.

I’m in the house again. I cringe slightly at the smell of vanilla air fresheners and beer that hits me as soon as I walk in. I doubt that Nadia chose vanilla. It seems far too heavy for her. I walk up the stairs, and the smell grows a bit more bearable as I get closer to Nadia’s room. I stop in front of her door. She has her name written in colorful, bouncing letters on a white sheet of paper that is held up with scotch tape. I smile at the simple loudness of it.

I open the door.

III. Two Nadias

On her desk, there is a framed picture of Nadia in the jacket with a few other friends. In it, she is laughing at something, and her curly brown hair is falling over half of her face. The jacket  complements her olive skin perfectly. It will never look as good on me as it did on her. I look down at my own ghost white skin and frown. Maybe that’s part of the problem. My skin will never look like hers, just a pale imitation. And my hair looks so washed out and dead; I tried to curl it, but after an hour it just fell back into its usual dull straightness.

The walls in her room are covered with pictures strung up with fairy lights and her blanket is blue and white tie dye. One of her pillows is on the floor. She didn’t have time to make the bed this morning. I consider making it for her, but I think she would probably notice that. I walk over to the nightstand next to her bed and sitting on it is a silver domed alarm clock, pink heart sunglasses, tangled bracelets, a little bronze heart with a key, and a tiny silver ring with a glossy green serpent on it. I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have something other than clothing too.

I pick up the ring with my unhurt hand and hold it closer to my face, examining the way that the silver meshes with the snake, trapping it in a pretty cage. Its mouth is open and I’m not able to tell if it is screaming for help or merely showing off its formidable fangs and tongue. It doesn’t look helpless though; it looks as if it’s incapable of fear. I wonder how the serpent came to be caught in the silver. It almost looks as if it has–

“Umm…hello?”

My heart drops into my stomach, and I shove the hand with Nadia’s ring into my pocket. There’s a crinkling noise as my fingers make contact with the crumpled receipt. I can feel my heart crawling up my throat as I slowly turn around, already knowing who must be behind me. Nadia. Her eyebrows are stitched upwards in a look of confusion, and she is holding three textbooks. She doesn’t seem angry that I’m here.

“Did Kaylie or Zoe let you in? This is my room, not one of theirs. Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” She smiles at me and walks into the room, dropping the three textbooks onto her bed. I look down. The book on the top of the pile is blue and green and says Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures. I know that I should say yes, but instead I just look back up at her, my hands beginning to shake. She is wearing black bike shorts with an oversized orange and yellow T-shirt that has a bleary-eyed sun on it. Her smile begins to fade.

“I”– My mind is blank and I have forgotten her question and my left hand is really starting to hurt.

“Are you…did they let you in?” This time her voice is less sure and she backs away from me slightly. “Wait, that’s my jacket! Well, not my jacket anymore, I guess, I sold it to”– She looks intently at my face and her eyes narrow in suspicion. “Wait, you–you’re that girl who works at–what are you doing here? How do you know I live here?” I open my mouth but no words come out. “What are you doing here?” she repeats, slowing her voice down as if she thinks that I don’t understand what she’s saying.

“I just”–My voice cracks, and I pause as I hear how weak I sound. I squeeze her ring and then desperately hope that she doesn’t notice.

“Just what? Did you follow me home one day or something?”

The words are slow-acting venom. My whole body begins to shake. “No, I didn’t follow you,” I say. “You wrote your address down for–for the Pale Moon raffle.”

“What? Like that’s so much be–why are you here?” Her voice shakes on her final word.

“I just want to be y–like you. And, if I have your clothes”–

“You want my clothes?”

“Yes!” I almost shout it. She understands.

“You’re trying to steal my stuff?”

“No! Well, I just need”–

“You know, you could have just asked me where I got something from. I would’ve happily told you. But you can’t just steal” —

“No, please, you don’t understand. I need your–I have your jacket but–but it’s wearing off, and if I could have one more thing I would”–

“What?”

What can I say to help her understand? “I thought that I could change my skin but I know”–

“Your skin? What–what’s wrong with you? Are you high?”

“No, I–”

“You need help,” she says, shaking her head slightly. “Get out of my house.”

I curl my fingers even more tightly around Nadia’s ring, my bleeding hand beginning to drip onto her floor. Her mouth is open, and she stares at the blood on the ground, her eyes wide. I don’t think that she noticed my hand before.

“Nadia, I”–

“If you don’t leave right now, I’m going to–I’m going to call the police.”

“Okay, I’ll leave. I’m sorry. I’ll leave.” I can feel my throat tighten and I look down. I want so badly for her to understand, but I can’t get arrested. My parents would kill me. I look back up at Nadia. She doesn’t look angry. Not that she looks happy, either. Her eyebrows are furrowed, her jaw tense. I try to make eye contact with her but she avoids it, turning her head away. I can’t tell what she’s thinking. I turn my head away too. I walk out of the room as she gestures toward the door. She follows behind me as I walk down the stairs, keeping at least a five feet between us. I reach the front door of the house, and I hear her footsteps stop.

“Don’t come back,” she says. The finality in her voice makes me wince. “Or I will get the police involved.”

I turn around, my heart trailing at my feet, and look back at her. She averts her eyes again. For a second, I think that maybe she feels guilty. But as I wrap my bleeding hand around the cuff of her jacket, I think I understand. Nadia’s eyes aren’t guilty. They aren’t apologetic. They aren’t beginning to understand. Nadia just pities me.

“You should fix the screens on the windows,” I say.

“What?” I can tell that she heard me.

“That’s how I got in,” I explain. The jacket feels rough and itchy now, and I have a sudden urge to rip it off, to throw it to the ground. As I put my hand on the doorknob and open the door, the serpent ring falls out of my hand and hits the ground with a tinny scream. I don’t look back at the red and white house. I don’t look back at her. A squeaky gate mimics a gray and white bird. I leave.

IV. Not Nadia

I’m lying on the floor in my room, the sun streaming from the window onto my ghost skin. My dad calls from downstairs that dinner is ready. I don’t answer. I burrow myself deeper into her jacket. My jacket. My dad calls again, louder this time, “Sophie, dinner’s ready!” I don’t answer. I’m repulsed by my very being, by that look on her face, by bronze hearts, by birdsong. I’m not at all Nadia anymore. I sprayed her citrus perfume all over my body but it sits, heavy, on my skin as if it knows that it doesn’t belong there. I can’t be her. I can never be her. I will go to work tomorrow and maybe someone else will come into the store and they will be even better than her. Maybe they won’t wear off. No. I won’t let them wear off.

 


Julia Grunes  is a sophomore at SUNY Geneseo, studying English (creative writing) and psychology. When she isn’t writing, she’s likely enjoying the fresh air, singing with friends, or falling off her longboard!

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Julia Grunes

Sunny Days

Edgar had become accustomed to the idea that he would be miserable here. In fact, he had assured himself of his own misery as soon as he walked (or more appropriately shuffled) through the glass doors of the blue-walled building. It was too bright in here, and the nurses always smiled for a little bit too long, and the halls had an overpowering smell of ammonia. One of the overly chipper nurses had checked him in; he didn’t remember which one. They all had the same cooing voices, the same style of colored scrubs, and the same highlighted hair that was cut right above the shoulder.

Part of him understood why he was here. He had to admit that he wasn’t walking as well as he used to. But another part of him thought that even if he had to lean on every object and person that he walked past, he was still walking, right? And fine, maybe his driving skills weren’t as good as they had been, but the accidents weren’t so bad. He wouldn’t even really categorize them as accidents. No one was dead; everything had worked out fine in the end. No problem.

His family, however, disagreed. First, they came for his keys, and the process of wrestling them out of his grip had taken over a year. It had involved the smiling eyes of his grandchildren, the desperate mouths of his children, the flaring nose of his wife, and some help from the growing confusion of his mind. Then, a doctor had mandated the use of a wheelchair. Edgar had refused, but whenever they went anywhere after that, the wheelchair was brought, and he ended up in it halfway through the excursion. He told himself that it was just to placate them, but he knew somewhere inside him (likely in his shaking knees) that he needed it.

Then, his car accidents had turned into just plain accidents; his legs were the consistency of unkneaded dough from lack of use, and his diet consisted solely of chocolate milkshakes and spaghetti. His wife was forced to turn into his caretaker, a job that she endured gracelessly. It certainly wasn’t what she signed up for, and Edgar didn’t make it any easier due to his unassailable hatred of being looked after. Edgar had noticed his family having countless hushed conversations while he watched TV, but he didn’t think much of it. Everything had seemed hushed to him lately because he had been refusing to put in his hearing aids. When they finally told Edgar what they had been talking about, Edgar felt that he had been sent away to die.

This is a thought that was quite frequent in his mind during the first few weeks: I have been sent here to die. As he watched people being wheeled around, he couldn’t comprehend the idea that he was one of them. The other residents talked or they didn’t talk; they sang or they didn’t sing; they sat and they watched the TV in the Big Room after dinner until they fell asleep or yelled for one of the nurses to take them out.

It was in the Big Room that he had met Helen for the first time. Their wheelchairs had been set up next to each other after dinner while the TV was playing, and Helen had noticed him looking at one of the nurses in confusion. He had forgotten her name again. He still couldn’t figure out how to distinguish any one of them from the other.

“Her name is Blue Scrubs,” Helen had said with a knowing grin. “But only for today. Tomorrow she’ll be named something new.” Then, she had nodded wisely and turned away, seemingly entranced with the program on TV, a soapy kind of drama that Edgar could sometimes bring himself to enjoy. He had merely given a grunt in response, but from then on, he always thought of them as Green Scrubs or Flower Scrubs or Pink Scrubs, and it was somehow easier. The days began to pass in a sort of haze after that, punctuated only by calls from his family and the occasional Fun Activity. Edgar felt certain that the person who had created that name had never been forced to experience one of them.

Today’s Fun Activity came in the form of a tiny, smiling woman with an uncontrollable mane of faded brown hair and skin so grotesquely tanned that it looked as if her freckles were tiny scars running up and down her arms. Edgar didn’t pay much attention as one of the nurses explained what she was there to do. Instead, he thought of the newspaper in his room wistfully, squinting his eyes as he attempted to remember how it had said the Mets were doing. But he supposed that it didn’t really matter. For a long time now, no matter the season, the one constant was their abysmal performance. He sighed and turned his head towards the tiny woman who was now gesticulating wildly in the front of the room, her hair bouncing up and down as she spoke.

“This is some bullshit, isn’t it?”

Edgar started and turned toward the low, nasally voice that had just spoken right next to him. “Are you talking to me?” he asked, his eyes resting on the overly rouged woman sitting next to him. Helen.

“Well, I’m not talking to Paul,” she said with a quiet laugh, giving a nod at the man sitting across from them who was staring blankly through Edgar as though he wasn’t even there. “He’s not really…here anymore. And, I would know. I can get anyone to talk, and he won’t even say one word to me. But yeah, I’m talking to you.”

“Oh, I–”

“And I was saying that this is some bullshit, isn’t it? The amount of money I saved for this place, and this is what they bring in? I mean, look at what she’s doing now!” Edgar focused his attention back on the tiny woman who was now slowly moving her hands close to another resident’s head, her brow furrowed in concentration.

“What–”

“It’s some hippie crap about channeling energy. Ree-kee? I don’t know. Just bullshit.”

“Yeah,” Edgar echoed, “Bullshit.”

“I bet Maureen isn’t going to be standing for it much longer though,” Helen said with a wry grin, pointing surreptitiously at the resident who had the tiny woman’s hands an inch away from her face. And she was right. A second later, Maureen began to shudder so violently that she seemed about to jump out of her own skin. She began to move her mouth, saying something that Edgar couldn’t hear from across the room. Green Scrubs cheerfully guided the Reiki practitioner to another table while she apologized profusely, and two other nurses began the process of removing Maureen from the room.

This proved to be a difficult task as Maureen had begun to wail, and her hands were now flailing wildly in all directions. Some of the other residents looked up briefly at the commotion, but seeing that it was Maureen, they returned to what they were doing before with little more than a second glance. Pink Scrubs, the nurse who was standing next to them, ran over to help, and then Helen turned her body back to Edgar, her wheelchair rattling with the rapidity of her movement.

“So, this seems as good a time to talk as any, doesn’t it?”

“Sure,” Edgar said. He attempted to shift himself farther away from her.

“You’ve been here for a few weeks now, haven’t you? And, to be honest, it really doesn’t get much better than this,” she said, gesturing at the three nurses who were still trying to subdue Maureen without much success. “But I’ve got something that’s a helluva lot more interesting, if you’re…interested.” She batted her eyes, and Edgar again attempted to shift himself as far away from her as possible.

“Wha–I’m not interested in–”

“What? Honey, no!” Helen gave a cackling laugh that pierced through Maureen’s sobs. “You haven’t heard about me from anyone else yet? Huh, that’s surprising. I thought I told them to–well, nevermind.”

“What do you mean, then?” Edgar said gruffly, feeling his ears turn a bright red. He looked down at the table, feigning interest in the napkin that had been left there. A small smiling sun was printed in the corner of it, along with the words SUNNY DAYS SENIOR LIVING, which were half covered in some brown substance that Edgar was not eager to find out the source of.

“Well, I supply this–this pill to people here. I call it,” and here she paused for dramatic effect, “Reminall. It really gives you something to look forward to. This place gets bland real quickly. Don’t you think?” Edgar agreed, but he didn’t want to give Helen the idea that she knew anything about him, so he merely gave a shrug in response. Helen, however, took that as a sign that he was still interested and powered on, her mouth gaping wide open with each word she spoke. “Ask anyone! They’ll all vouch for me! Well, not Paul. But, ya know, he can’t vouch for anyone.”

“I’ve even got a couple of different choices,” she said, opening her mouth even wider as she continued her pitch. Edgar noticed that half her red lipstick was on her teeth. He wondered absently if she put it on herself every morning or if one of the Scrubs had to do it for her. “Package Number One is cheaper, and you get the same sort of, well, the same incredible experience! However,” she paused here, her eyes wide, “when those Scrubs are looking at you, they’re gonna be just seeing a pure vegetative state, you know? And some of them do get concerned about that, especially for you since you’ve been so talkative here.”

“I don’t talk that much,” muttered Edgar, still distracted by the lipstick mixing with the yellow of her teeth. He could imagine his wife and her friends laughing about it over their sewing needles and unread books. Edgar suddenly felt a rush of pity for Helen, but not enough to fully listen to what she was saying.

“You talk enough. So, that’s why I got Package Number Two. More expensive, but they see you talkin’ and there’s even a bit of singing thrown in, huh? So they have no idea that anything’s different and they don’t go getting anybody worried, you know? And I got the delivery service down pat so you wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. You know what? I’ll even give you the first one for free, just so you can try it out.”

“I don’t want–”

“But you think about it all and let me know. We can’t be talking about this when she gets back.” She gestured at Pink Scrubs, who was coming towards them with an enormous smile on her face and a broken fingernail. Helen smiled back, her eyes still on Edgar. “So, Edgar, what’s your necklace about?”

“Huh?” Helen pointed at the golden חי on his chest, widening her eyes and tilting her head towards Pink Scrubs. “Oh! Oh, it means–well, it means ‘life’ in Hebrew. It was my father’s.”

“Well, the more you know.” She laughed quietly, and then turned to Pink Scrubs, holding her stomach. “You think you can take me back to my room, hun? I’m not feeling so great.”

“Of course! Nothing too horrible, I hope? And, oh, isn’t it nice that you’re making friends, Edgar!” Pink Scrubs trilled, her eyebrows disappearing into her uneven bangs. Edgar gave a small nod and turned his head to face Paul, still watching Helen out of the corner of his eye. She gave him a painful blink that he assumed was some sort of attempt at a wink, and then began jabbering to the nurse about nothing as she was wheeled out of sight. Edgar wondered how she was able to get out of a Fun Activity so easily; if he had said that he wasn’t feeling well, they would probably give him a cheery suggestion about doing some arm stretches and tell him that it would be his turn with the Reiki woman soon. Well, at least Paul wouldn’t bother him.

He hummed quietly to himself, thinking again of the newspaper sitting in his room. He had barely had the chance to read it before he had been dragged out of bed. Maybe next time he could bring it, and then he wouldn’t have to be bothered by Helen or whatever horrible idea of an activity that this place came up with. What had she even been talking about? Some sort of pill. And he couldn’t seem to remember what she said it did. Whatever it was, he reasoned with himself, it didn’t matter. He was fundamentally opposed to the idea of it, both because of his sixty-year avoidance of drugs based on one unfortunate instance with a brownie in college, and his immense dislike of Helen and her lipstick-stained teeth.

When he finally returned to his room, he certainly did not feel as if he had been imbued with any sort of healing energy. In fact, the activity had only reminded him that he was miserable, and he would continue to be miserable until the day that he died. Pink Scrubs had helped him out of his wheelchair and into his bed, and he reached for the newspaper that he had left on his nightstand. But it wasn’t there. He scanned the small room with confusion, looking for any other place where he could’ve left it.

Then he spotted the newspaper on the chair that was sitting next to his TV, a mere five feet away. But Edgar was already in bed, and the sheer impossibility of getting out of it suddenly dawned on him. He could have called one of the Scrubs to help him, but the idea of talking to one of their too-bright faces right then filled him with a dread that he couldn’t quite explain. He would just be watching TV tonight. Maybe the game was on.

He grabbed the remote from his nightstand and pressed the on button, sighing as he stared at the newspaper that seemed to be mocking him with its closeness. He looked back up at the TV and realized that it hadn’t turned on. He was sure that he had pressed the on button…he pressed it again, and again, and again, shaking the remote as if it would signal to some electronic god the aching need he felt for it to work. For something to work. But it didn’t. And then, Edgar realized that the remote was making a sort of clacking sound. Was it broken? His remote had never broken at home, but, of course, this place would ruin it.

He held it up to his ear and shook it once more; again, he heard that same noise. He opened up the part of the remote where the batteries were and immediately realized the problem. In place of any batteries, there was one small, nondescript white pill. Edgar picked it up and stared at it for a moment, struggling to understand how this atrocity had occurred. And then it clicked: Helen. Of course. Because of her, he now had one pill and no TV. He was sure that she was somehow the reason why his newspaper was now sitting in a chair. He looked at the nurse call button and sighed, his frustration building. This button, unlike the ones on the remote, worked almost too well. Only a few minutes after he pressed it, Purple Scrubs appeared in the doorway with a smile as big as Edgar had feared it would be.

“Is everything alright?”

Edgar grimaced at the cheery voice. “The TV won’t turn on, and the remote it’s…ah…well, Helen…” He couldn’t find the right words to describe his current situation, and Purple Scrubs’ widening grin certainly wasn’t helping. It was moments like these that made him think it would be easier if he was just dead. He smiled wryly as he thought of how his daughter would react if she knew that he was thinking that. She would probably yell at him. Edgar wondered if she would visit soon.

“Yes, you were talking to Helen today, weren’t you? I’m so glad that you made a new friend here! Oh, why did you put your batteries here?” Purple Scrubs asked kindly, gesturing towards the nightstand and carefully pulling the remote out of his hand. Edgar turned his head. The two batteries were sitting next to his watch on the nightstand between his necklace and a cup of water. Had they been there the whole time?

“No, I–” But maybe they had been. He couldn’t seem to remember. Purple Scrubs just smiled again and placed the batteries back into the remote.

“There, it should work now!” She turned on the TV with a flourish. An infomercial for Wearable Towels began to blast throughout the tiny room. “Perfect!”

“Thanks.” Edgar knew he could’ve done that if he had seen the batteries, so he didn’t feel the need to say anything else.

“And what do you have there?” Purple Scrubs asked as she continued to smile. Edgar looked down and unfurled his fingers. He had almost forgotten; resting in his palm was the white pill that had been in the remote.

“Oh, you. You know you have to take everything we give you to make you feel strong! That’s your Donepezil from dinner, isn’t it? You really are a tricky one!” She laughed and then narrowed her eyes at Edgar as if he was a child who was trying to get out of eating his vegetables.

“No, I’m not. I–”

“Don’t worry about it, honey. I’m just teasing you. Here’s some water.” She picked up the cup that was sitting on the nightstand. Edgar bristled, but he still took the cup from her. He was pretty sure that he had taken all of his pills with dinner. But Purple Scrubs was still standing there watching. Waiting. She raised her eyebrows at him, and he gave her an unhappy smile as he placed the pill in his mouth, taking a sip of water to swallow it. She took the cup out of his hand, and Edgar closed his eyes. He could still hear the woman on TV raving about the Wearable Towel, but it sounded fainter. Maybe Purple Scrubs had turned down the volume.

But when he opened his eyes again, he was blinded by light and had to shield his face with his hand. He could feel sweat on his forehead, and all over him. But his muscles weren’t aching, and he could feel the balls of his feet and all the way up his leg. And he was standing! Edgar was standing without any sort of support or struggle, as casually as he had when he was young. He looked down at his arms and almost screamed. The arms he saw were tan and muscled and strong. They were young arms, ones that had deteriorated a long time ago into the pale ribbony ones he now possessed. Could this be a dream? He’d never had a dream like this.

His mind felt awake, pulsing with thoughts and half-washed away feelings that were becoming clearer the longer he stood there in the baking sun. He had just asked Penny to prom. She had said yes. He’d never thought that she would say yes to him. Everyone had said that she was still in love with Jack, but maybe she wasn’t really because she had said yes. Jack was an asshole anyways, and he didn’t deserve her. But some of Edgar’s friends had said that she had only said yes to make Jack jealous. He tried to ignore the idea. It couldn’t be. She wouldn’t have said yes if she wasn’t into him, right?

He looked down at his watch and realized that he had just been standing in the middle of the sidewalk for five minutes. Damn it, why did he stop? He was supposed to be practicing every day, and he couldn’t afford to lose a second of time if he wanted to beat Jack in the next meet. He began to run again, his feet hitting the pavement hard, each step bringing him closer to Penny, to the irrational hope that she would love him if only he could get three seconds faster for the 800. That’s all he needed. Three measly seconds. He couldn’t get distracted, couldn’t just stop in the middle of his workout.

He kept thinking of her. Of Penny. How he had smudged her red lipstick and how she had rubbed it off his face, laughing. How her eyes had lingered and how she had smiled at him before she walked back to her friends. Maybe at prom they could get somewhere far away from everyone else and they could–No. He couldn’t get distracted now. He had already wasted too much time. Stay focused stay focused stay focused stay focused…he could feel the sweat pouring down his face, and he blinked it out of his eyes. As he did, the light began to change and refract around him, becoming somehow artificial, cooler. The heat felt like it was sliding off his body, melting into nothing.

When Edgar opened his eyes again, he felt the weight of his body sag back into his bones, his mind slowing from the breakneck speed that it had been going a second before. He blinked again and found himself sitting in the Big Room with the other residents, facing the TV. He looked down at his arms, at his hands, and they were almost translucent again, the blue veins looking almost as if they were above the skin rather than beneath it.

“You tried it, didn’t you?” Helen was next to him again, and her wide eyes and stretched out smile made her face look like that of a bullfrog. “I knew you would. You said you didn’t want it, but I knew you would in the end. And you enjoyed it, didn’t you? Huh?”

“Yes,” Edgar whispered, his hands shaking. “Yes.” He didn’t care anymore about her lipstick and odd comments, how she pretended to know everything. He had been young again. If only for a short while, he had been young again. And the aching of his body and the slowness of his mind had never felt more prominent to him than in that very instant.

“We can talk about prices for more soon,” Helen whispered. Edgar had to strain to hear her. “I think Maureen’s gonna lose it in a few, and then we can talk.” Edgar nodded, trying to stop himself from shaking. He hadn’t thought about Penny in years. And he kept going over in his head–the sure beating of his heart, and the way his legs had worked like machines, pumping in succession with his arms as he ran. He laughed under his breath and felt tears coming to his eyes. He had been young again. He looked back at Helen, but her smile was gone, replaced with a somewhat glazed look.

Then Maureen began to moan, and Helen shook her head, her eyes clearing. She straightened in her chair, becoming a businesswoman again. “I gave you Package Number Two for your first experience, and none of the Scrubs knew anything was up. You’ll be wanting that again, I assume?”

Edgar nodded more vigorously than he intended to. “I don’t have money in here with me. I don’t know how I would pay.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I don’t have anyone pay with money. It’s more of a bart–”

“Get away from me!” Maureen screamed, drowning out Helen’s words. “I want my babies! Helen gave me my babies and then she took them away.” She began to sob, her frail body bending as she hugged herself tightly with her arms. Helen watched the spectacle as if it was nothing more than a program on the TV, and then continued to speak when Maureen had decreased to an acceptable volume.

“As I was saying, it’s more of a barter system. I get what I want, and you get what you want. Much easier than money. Money’s exhausting; when I worked in sales all I got was money, and all that got me was this.” She gestured mindlessly at their surroundings. “I’m sick of it.”

“So, what do you want?”

Helen smiled again, and for the first time since Edgar had met her, she looked almost bashful. “I want your necklace,” she said, pointing a wizened finger at his chest. Edgar looked down at the gold חי and his stomach began to churn.

“My–”

“Yes.” Her eyes were clear, calculating. Edgar dropped his gaze to his legs, to his unmoving feet. If he had one of those pills, he would be able to walk again. He would have control. But he couldn’t give her his necklace. It meant–well, really, what did it even mean to him anymore? His wife would be angry if she found out that it was gone, but she hadn’t visited once since he got here. She probably wouldn’t even notice. And he had been planning on giving it to his son, but he seemed wholly disinterested in anything Jewish or anything related to Edgar, so there wasn’t really any point in that.

He couldn’t seem to find any reason in his mind for keeping it; all he could think about was breathing fresh air through his lungs and walking on his own two legs and kissing Penny in his car, fucking Penny in his car. It had been that old green Chevy that had stopped working after a year. He grinned. And why had they broken up? Maybe she had gotten back together with Jack. He couldn’t remember.

“Are you gonna give me an answer? Come on. I’ll make it–I’ll make it two pills for the necklace. You’re killing me here.”

Edgar nodded. He lifted the necklace over his head and dropped it into Helen’s outstretched hand. Her claws quickly retracted, and the tiny חי, along with its chain, disappeared from view.

“I’ll switch one of your pills at dinner with Reminall for the next two days,” she whispered, and then turned her head back to the TV, smiling about her latest acquisition.

The thought of the Reminall waiting for him made the always-smiling Scrubs and their enthusiasm easier to bear, and he even managed to give a respectful nod at Maureen while she was wheeled by. He made it through the rest of the day in a sort of daze, muttering to himself about Penny and sweat and lipstick and running faster, faster, faster. When Blue Scrubs finally handed him his usual seven pills, Helen nodded at him from across the room, and he gave her a short nod back. Almost mechanically, he reached for the water and quickly swallowed everything that was given to him. The room began to blur around him, and he could feel his heart beating faster and faster with every second.

He blinked his eyes rapidly and was then immediately attuned to the fact that this was quite different from last time. He was sitting alone in a classroom, his classroom from when he taught ninth-grade math at Lindham High School, his back aching slightly from the rigid chair that he was sitting in. Edgar felt a pulse of disappointment when he realized that this memory would not have Penny in it. This quickly faded, however, when he looked at his familiar cluttered desk covered with ungraded papers and the lopsided wooden π that his students had given to him the year before with all their names signed clumsily on it, and the picture of his family that rested on top of three textbooks. He, his wife, and his daughter were all grinning from ear to ear. His son’s face, however, was distorted and red, and he looked as if he was attempting to squirm out of his mother’s arms. Edgar smiled softly.

He didn’t even mind the heat of the stifling classroom. Anything was better than the unbearable chill of SUNNY DAYS SENIOR LIVING. He looked down, and in front of him sat the lesson plan for the day and multiple unfinished seating charts. He was switching up the seating again as some of the students had grown too comfortable with each other, and it had become impossible for them to focus in his class.

“Mr. Applebaum?”

Edgar looked up and saw one of the boys from his fifth-period class standing, timid, in the doorway. “Aaron! How can I help you?”

Aaron inched into the room and looked at Mr. Applebaum while tapping his fingers anxiously against his leg.”I–umm–well, I was just–I got really confused on the homework, and I know that you said that it’s really important for the Regents, but I didn’t really understand it in class and then I got really confused at home and now I don’t have it done and I don’t want to not know how to do it for next unit because you said that we would need to know this to do well with that and I really don’t want to fail the Regents and Iwaswonderingifmaybeyoucouldhelpme.” By the time that Aaron had reached the end of this statement, he was quite out of breath and his entire body was shaking.

Edgar gave him a reassuring smile and covered the seating charts with a textbook that was lying next to him. “I’d be happy to help. And as long as you study and keep doing what you’re doing, you should do fine on the Regents. I know you’re a hard worker, and this unit is really difficult. We’re going to be going over it in class, but come sit here. You’ll know it as well as I do by the end of this.”

Aaron gave him a disbelieving look but nodded, walking up to the chair next to Edgar’s desk with less trepidation than he had had originally.

Edgar smiled at him again and began to take out the worksheet that had been assigned for last night’s homework. “Alright. Let’s get to it.” Edgar began to sketch out a parabola to explain the first problem, and Aaron’s hurried questions started to become more relaxed as he understood the concept. After five minutes, he had stopped shaking, and by the time they had been working for twenty, he was almost smiling. Edgar picked up his pen to write one more note on his paper, but as soon as his pen touched something solid, he saw Aaron’s body begin to melt into the desk, the blue of his shirt and the pink of his skin slowly solidifying into the wood. Edgar grabbed at him desperately and cried out, but when his arm touched Aaron it began dissolving into the wood and he closed his eyes in horror.

When he opened them again, he was seated at the table the next day for dinner, and his breath was coming out in quick, shuddering gasps. Helen grabbed his arm and whispered, “Calm down! It was just a bit of a reaction. You’re fine. You’re fine!” Edgar nodded and looked down at his hands. He grasped for his necklace before remembering that it wasn’t his anymore. “Quick, relax! Or a Scrub will notice. What did you see?”

Edgar didn’t answer for a few seconds, smiling slightly despite himself, despite the horror of the memory’s final moments. His voice had been so sure, so confident, so capable. He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt certain of anything. “I was–I was a teacher again.”

“Alright, you’re good. You’re good,” Helen said, relaxing, her face breaking out into a smile again.

“Where are my pills?” Edgar said in an urgent whisper. “I want to take it now. I need to–I can’t be here.” He hated the desperation in his voice, but he was too shaken to have the ability to mask it.

“Just–just wait a few minutes, okay? Catch your breath again.” Edgar nodded, and started to take deeper breaths. He looked at the food on his plate and saw that it was half eaten. Strange. He took a sip of water and then reached up his hand to call someone over to get his usual–

“Edgar! Edgar, honey, you have a phone call!” Pink Scrubs came rushing over to his table, a cellphone in hand.

“Who is it?”

“It’s your daughter! Isn’t that nice?” she cooed.

“Yes, it’s very nice,” Edgar said. He took the phone. “Hello?”

“Hey, Dad!”

“Hey, kid. What’s going on?”

“ I–I just wanted to see how you were doing. I just–I was setting up my classroom today and I was thinking about you.” In that moment, Edgar hated her. He hated his daughter more than he had ever hated anyone. He hated her for being able to live memories rather than merely reliving them and dangling that knowledge in front of him as he sat here, useless. “And–I don’t know why, but I was thinking about that time when you took me sledding the first time it snowed that winter when I was like seven because I wanted to go so badly. Remember how pissed Mom was? She was yelling at you about how you could still see the grass on the ground, so there was no way that we could go sledding. But you took me anyway.”

“Yeah, I think I remember.” And then Edgar felt so guilty for his hatred that he couldn’t stand it.

“When we got to that big hill close to the house, we really couldn’t sled because there was only the thinnest coating of snow and the grass was still poking through.” She laughed, and Edgar laughed too, a quiet laugh, but a laugh all the same. “And you said that it didn’t matter, that we could still have a good time. And we stuck out our tongues and caught the falling snow on them and–I don’t know why I was thinking of it but–” and then her voice broke, and Edgar could hear her trying to stifle a sob. “I miss you, Dad.”

“I miss you too.”

“I’m gonna come and visit you really soon, ok? And we can all go out to dinner. But–shit, look, I–I’ve gotta go. I’ve got to make dinner for the kids. But I love you so much, and–”

“I love you too, kid. Talk to you soon.” Edgar handed the phone back to Pink Scrubs and stared straight ahead, his face blank. The nurse handed him his pills with a smile. Edgar took them from her and stared at them for a moment, his hands shaking as he held them up over his half-eaten meal of dry chicken and spaghetti. He wondered vaguely when his daughter would visit. And then he placed one of his pills in his mouth, wincing slightly at the bitter taste as he let it sit for a few seconds, and then swallowed it. And he did the same with the next one and the next one and the next.

“What are you doing?” Helen whispered, her eyes wide. But Edgar didn’t answer. When he finished, Edgar closed his eyes, leaving a certain white pill to dissolve, slowly, on his tongue. When he opened his eyes, he could almost see his daughter standing next to him, her face red with cold, the two of them catching snowflakes with smiles and frozen tongues.

 


Julia Grunes is a sophomore at SUNY Geneseo. She is majoring in psychology and English (creative writing). When she isn’t writing or doing schoolwork, she’s likely doing something music-related.

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