A short story exploring the depths and the shallows that make us human.
Em seemed different since the procedure. She hadn't spoken since she awoke from surgery and was reserved in her movements, only muted head nods or shakes to indicate her opinion. The doctor had said that it was normal for her to be slightly delirious for a few days. "Think of it like a sort of aftershock from the anesthesia. She's undergone a real transformation with this procedure, and it's not uncommon for it to take a little while for the dust to settle, as they say. She'll be back to her chatty self before you know it. Just be patient.”
But they had been home two weeks now and still no change.
She spent her days sitting in her favorite green velvet chair looking out the window toward the wooded area at the end of the street. She'd occasionally gesture meekly to the bookshelf or the cat playing on the floor, but she mostly just stared. She looked to be lost deep in thought, and though Elliott could still see life in her eyes, it didn't feel like her somehow.
Elliott had called the doctor but was given the same assurances. She was eating and drinking well, so there was no cause for concern. "These things take time."
Elliott thought it had been enough time, and he didn't recall there being discussions emphasizing time when they had the initial consultation. The procedure was supposed to fix Em, or rather, fix the parts that Em thought were broken. For weeks before the surgery, it was all she could talk about. She was so excited for her new life post-op, and she spent hours poring over before and after pictures of celebrities and asking Elliott what he thought. But what did Elliott know about any of it? He couldn’t tell the difference between this nose or that nose, and he was surprised when she came home without any bandages or wraps or soaked dressings that needed constant changing, but he wasn’t the expert, and he did find himself comforted by the doctor's words, at least temporarily.
On the fifteenth day, those reassurances from the doctor flitted away, as if spoken in some foreign language, and Elliott called the office again. After their very unusual morning at the house, he felt a call was more than warranted, so he prepared a script of sorts to recite to the receptionist and then to the "on-call physician," and then finally, once he was routed to Em's doctor, the real meat of the discussion.
He took a few deep breaths before hitting send on his phone and closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger so tightly it began to burn and all the color drained. He readied his calmest voice as he waited for the dial tone, but nothing came. He moved the phone away from his cheek to check that he had started the call, but the line clicked off. Redial. The same thing happened again.
He went to the kitchen for his wallet, pulled out the business card, and called the other number--no dial tone. Click. Call ended.
As panic started to rise in his chest, he searched online for the office, finding one other number to call.
"The number you have dialed is no longer in service. Good-bye."
Elliott, alarmed as he was, straightened himself out as he walked into their bedroom to find Em sitting peacefully in her chair surveying the falling snow. The stillness and silence of that room was the opposite of what he felt inside him, and for a moment, he let the peace overcome him. He inhaled the dry air and sank into the silence, forgetting the chaos that consumed the house earlier that morning.
They awoke at the usual time. Em had gotten out of bed and put on her slippers. It had been warm the night before, but there was a fierce drop in temperature overnight, and a bitter chill swallowed the room. She rummaged through her dresser drawer for her favorite sweatshirt and pulled it carelessly over her head, mussing the already tangled mane on the top of her head. Elliott had offered to brush out her hair every day since she came home, but she always shook her head determinedly and pushed his hand away.
Elliott watched her through blurry eyes and thought she seemed more like herself this morning. Less absent-minded and more deliberate. Picking her favorite sweatshirt seemed intentional, and he was comforted.
The cat slowly meandered into the room and hopped up onto the bed next to Em. She ran her fingers over its arching back, slowly at first and gently, but her movements grew harsh, and she began to dig her fingers into the cat’s back as she clawed at him faster and faster until he hissed and jumped off the bed, running out the door. Elliott started from under the covers and out of bed.
"Em! What the hell was that? What is with you?" His voice cracked as he spoke. He grabbed Em's shoulders while she sat unmoved and unbothered.
She looked up at him with careless eyes, raised her eyebrows, and let out a small laugh.
"That's funny to you?" Elliott stammered. "Clawing at the cat, like you're some kind of..." he struggled to find the words. "Some kind of..."
The look in her eyes further derailed him until, after a near eternity, he found the word.
Em's chuckle turned into a full-blown laugh, and the sound of her voice after these long weeks felt like a direct punch to the heart. He heard the soft lilt in her voice that he had fallen in love with, but there was also something else there. Something unfamiliar and menacing. Something cold.
Elliott let his internal monologue spill out quietly, "I don't know what's going on with you, Em. I can't...What do I...?" He trailed off, not knowing what to ask and not really wanting answers.
She stopped laughing and looked into his eyes, quiet for a moment, until she started laughing again.
Down in the kitchen, he found the cat under the table in his bed. He started making coffee when he heard Em clunking down the stairs. She came up behind him and wrapped her arms around his chest, digging her chin into his back, pushing her entire body into his. He smiled and dropped his shoulders, weeks of tension leaving his body. He hadn’t realized how lonely he had been until this moment. He pivoted his body to see her face, and she looked up at him. That felt like his wife.
As he was leaning down to kiss her forehead, they heard the cat screech below them, lunging for a small dot scurrying across the floor.
Em squatted down on all fours and gracefully began to bat at the hole the tiny creature had scurried into. Then, after the little creature didn’t come out, she made her way under the table and scrunched up into a little ball in the cat’s bed.
Back in their room after his unsuccessful attempts to reach the doctor, Elliott suggested maybe Em needed some rest. She nodded her head as he offered to accompany her to the bed. Em slipped out of her slippers and nestled under the covers. Elliott leaned in to kiss her forehead, but she turned away.
He let out a sigh. "Rest, my love. I will be just downstairs if you need me."
She rolled onto her side away from him and pulled the blanket over her head. Elliott turned toward the door, somehow feeling even more defeated than before and skulked out the door to try the doctor again.
He slumped into a kitchen chair and pulled his phone out of his pocket, lazily scrolling through search results for Em's doctor. Page three, page four--there were no direct matches. Where was this guy? As he tried different combinations of "Dr. Micah," "Doctor M, Kansas City," Dr. Micah Moloch," he heard the front door open.
He stood to look out the window to see Em skipping down the front steps across the driveway toward the forest down the street. He started for the door to follow after her, but he stopped, closed the front door and returned to the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of coffee, continuing his search for Dr. Moloch in vain.
Outside, the air was cold and stiff. It had stopped snowing, but the ground was covered in a thin, sparkling film of ice. Em’s bare feet stuck to the ground every other step, but she didn't mind. She felt free and refreshed in the cold air.
Em continued skipping until she met the edge of the woods. She used to love going for walks here. She'd bring her camera and take pictures of all the birds who made their home amongst the towering branches. And when she got into sketching, she'd bring her sketchbook and sketch the wildflowers. Or when she got into journaling, she brought her red leather journal and the gel pen set in the cute little pencil bag and sat under a tree and jotted down her musings. “What if I have already peaked? What if all my best days are behind me?” The journaling days hadn’t lasted long.
She and Elliott would often go for walks together in the forest, and she'd find varying ways to occupy herself, while Elliott would recite the same facts from his birdwatcher's companion book. The information somehow always sounded new, even though he had recited the same facts ad nauseum during every excursion, the only variety found in the birds they saw. She enjoyed listening to his bird facts even though she knew anyone else would be bored of them.
She'd once loved the sound of crunching leaves beneath her feet in the fall, the smell of wet growth in the spring, and the many shades of green in the summer that enveloped the whole forest made her feel like a kid in a giant, beautiful fort. The seasons shaped the forest and the path they took.
At the forest entrance under a towering tree, they'd see the nest of the owl, and more often than not, they'd be greeted directly by the owl's distinct call. The forest had been a haven, an escape from the everyday and a place for Em to feel free. She had always struggled to feel the deepest parts of herself, but she somehow felt whole when she was here. With no phone service or mirrors or pressures, she could just be.
But today felt different. Em was anxious and tense. She became overcome with the feeling that she was being followed—a feeling that she was not alone. She surveyed all around her but saw no one and continued over the threshold of the forest.
She looked up to the owl's nest and saw it perched, its mysterious face staring down at her through the bare branches. The owl moved its head from side to side as if it were trying to hide, but with no meaningful cover, it was left naked. The owl opened its wings from its chest and swooped down to her. She watched as the owl glided silently toward her, its eyes focused, black and unmoving. She felt herself dig her cracked heels into the ground as she stared the owl down. It screeched a fierce battle cry as its talons stretched, growing as they drew closer to her face.
As the owl continued its majestic descent, Em lifted her arms. She grabbed the owl’s talons as they wrapped around her fingers, as she tried to dodge his advances. The owl dug its claws into her hands, and blood dripped onto the icy leaves below as she tried to pull herself away. The owl screeched, wringing its little body to try to free itself as Em did the same, but the two became entangled in a mess of feathers, blood, and skin. Em let out a ferocious cry of her own, and the owl let go flying back to its perch where it sat once again on its branch, staring down at Em from between the branches.
Em smiled up at the owl and nodded to it. She looked ahead at the forest seeing how the earlier snowfall had once again shaped the forest anew. The days were getting shorter and shorter, and it was already beginning to become dark outside. She could see the gentle outline of the moon above her, and she felt the hair across her body standing erect. Then, without a glance at who she was leaving behind, she started forward into a run, her hands touching the ground as she quickened to a sprint. She felt her back contort and arch as she edged deeper into the woods, not once looking back.
"Do you believe in souls?" Em had asked Elliott one morning as they walked through the woods. The question startled him; even though Em usually had a way of making these abrupt conversational transitions somehow feel natural and meaningful, this was jarring. They had just been talking about some tabloid headline that she'd read earlier that day, so this was quite the segue. She didn't bring a camera, a sketchbook or anything else with her on this walk, so Elliott guessed she must have been taking an interest in philosophy or religion. He paused in his steps and looked at her, repeating her question.
She brightened at his engagement. "Yeah. You know, souls. Like, do you have a soul? Do I have a soul? Do these birds--Mr. Owl up there, does he have a soul? What makes us different than him?"
Elliott furrowed his brow, and giving real consideration to the question, he replied, "Well, yes. Of course, I believe in souls. Don't you?"
"Well, I mean, sure.” She stopped abruptly but interjected quickly before Elliott was able to add anything else. “But I guess, I mean, what makes a soul? What connects my soul to my body? Why is it? I mean, why do we have a soul? Is there a way to prove that we have one? And what does our body have to do with it? If souls exist, how did it get into my body, and what keeps it there? I mean, I don’t know…”
She took a breath before continuing her thought. “And does the soul…” She hesitated. “Does it…end? Our bodies end. Our lives are finite, so our souls must be, too, right?
Elliott choked back a small chuckle and reached for her hand. He found this version of Em to be delightfully charming. He had never heard Em talk like this. She was usually keener to speak on shallower subjects, a trait which he also found charming.
“My love, I don’t really have any answers. What I know is that you have a light inside of you—a singular light—that makes you, you. I think that is a soul—your light.”
Em looked at him curiously, nodded, and after a few moments of consideration, said, “Well, if that is the case, let’s hope the light is sticky enough to stay with me.”
About the Creator
Writing for fun and as an escape from the everyday. After all, what is life for if not to create?
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