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Recovering Beth

by Paula Shablo 2 months ago in Sci Fi

What Happened Next (A Sequel to S23HF50)

The book that started it all, Paperback cover

My short story, Recovering Beth: Previously published June 30, 2020 Writers Unite! Anthology Dimensions of Science Fiction. I retain all publishing rights. The original novellette, S23HF50 is available at Amazon.

Recovering Beth

It's been months, but I still don't sleep well. The fear of waking up there again—it consumes me. All that brilliant white light. That perfectly nice, serviceable apartment. Free groceries. Free delivery! Movies, music. Ask, and it shows up, from God alone knows where.

Let's not forget the television/stereo system, lamps and appliances with no electrical cords or batteries. Let's not forget the running water with no evidence of pipes.

I had everything I could possibly want or need with no effort on my part demanded, and I was more miserable and frightened than I have ever been in my life.

Human beings were not designed to stay inside all day and night and never see the sunshine or the stars.

The place had no exterior doors. Windows looked out at nothing but unending bright white. There were no ceilings; the walls just went up, up, up into that endless bright light. It wasn’t until near the end of my “stay” that they somehow understood I needed some periods of darkness to sleep well.

I was completely alone, and not once did my captors make an effort to communicate with me, other than delivering food and other items. Not that I ever saw anyone—or anything—make the delivery; items would appear intermittently while I slept.

Human beings were not designed to be alone.

I have a family here. Children; grandchildren. I'm blessed with healthy parents who remain a part of my life even though I'm post-menopausal and therefore not a youngster anymore.

I didn't do well there.

They brought me home. I'm grateful for that. So very grateful.

But...

Here's the thing: I don't trust it. I haven't trusted it since the first morning I woke up in my own bed. After all those weeks, I was scrawny to the point that my family had me in a doctor's office the day after setting eyes on me. I say "all those weeks", but as far as they were concerned, they'd seen me less than a week before, and so I had dropped in excess of thirty pounds in just a matter of days.

Certainly, that was frightening for them. I can see that. And the reality is, I did lose the weight rapidly. Once I decided to stop eating, it fell off quickly. I suppose it scared my captors, too—after all, they brought me back. But it took me quite a while to reach the point where I stopped eating.

Free food, remember? And it was food I liked. It wasn't weird. For a while there, I ate well.

But loneliness makes food taste like cardboard. This is truth. Soon you don't care if you eat, drink or do anything else. Sit and stare. Sit and stare. Sit and stare and wait to die.

So, I have been to medical doctors who say I'm perfectly healthy. No explanation for rapid and dramatic weight loss. No explanation for why I haven't gained it back. I eat. Sometimes a lot!

I'm not worried about it. I was ready to die then. God, it was all I wanted! There was no living in that place; it was just marking time while continuing to exist, and who needs that? So what, if I haven't regained any of the weight I lost? It's not like I was ever skinny!

No, I don't want to die now. I told you, I eat. I visit with my family almost every day. I go outside and water my lawn, pull a few weeds. I enjoy the sunshine and when it gets dark, I go out and look at the stars and take note of the cycles of the moon.

But I don't trust it! Sleep comes, but only after I'm so exhausted, I can't fight it off anymore.

They took me while I slept. Remember that: they took me while I slept!

I know, I know, they also brought me back while I slept—and maybe that should make it okay.

It doesn't.

They should have talked to me. They should have told me what they were doing, what they wanted, why I was there. They should have told me what to expect after I got back home.

Are they going to come for me again?

Are they?

***

I sit with my parents on the deck at their house. "He doesn't believe a word I say," I tell them.

Mom says, "You're there to talk it out, Beth. Whether he believes you or not, you need to say the things you're thinking and feeling to someone, and since you won't talk to us..." Her voice trails off, but I don't rise to the bait.

I'm not telling.

I pay a Shrink to listen to me once a week, knowing he can't break his Hippocratic oath and tell my parents and children what I'm saying, because I am not a danger to myself or others. I pose no threat. And he doesn't believe I've been anywhere but in my own house, town, state, country and planet.

I don't know where I was, but it most certainly was not any of the places he believes it was.

I say, "This lemonade is delicious, Mom. How do you get it right every single time?"

Mom is one of the last people in America to squeeze her own, I think. I don't even try; mine always turns out to be a pucker-fest, no matter what I do.

"She's got that special touch," Dad says, and smiles at her.

I love how he smiles at her, and she at him. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy. I hope when my kids are old, they still smile at their spouses like that.

I have no one to smile at me. I've decided I'm okay with that. I don't think I would be a good partner anymore. Too much baggage. I don’t know how to talk about any of this, and I don’t know if I could have discussed it, even with Tom.

"Beth," Mom says, "you know you can talk to us about anything."

"Sure, Mom," I agree. "I'm thinking it might be time to call the tree people and have that crabapple tree removed."

"Beth—"

"Honey," Dad warns. "Let it be."

For a wonder, she does. We talk about the tree.

***

This morning I sat on my own deck and watched the tree service people take down the crabapple tree we planted the year we bought this house. Tom, dirt on his nose, grinning when the job was complete—God, we were so young then! Young, and dumb.

The tree was so pretty back then

We never used the apples. We were simply enamored of the Spring blossoms—that's why we planted the tree. For years we allowed the neighborhood kids to come and take all the apples each Fall. There were women in the neighborhood who made apple butter and jelly. Now those kids are grown, and the women are gone, but I still have jars of apple butter and jelly in my pantry, because they always shared.

I should take those to the food pantry. I'll never use them.

The tree didn't age well. I'd say over half of it was dead. The root system was starting to rot. I tried to keep it going, but when death is knocking at the door, you can't persuade it to move on to the next town. If you could, Tom would be here with me now.

So, I called the tree service, and they came this morning to fell the tree. This process is in no way what I envisioned: chop, chop, "Timber!" and the tree falls down.

There's a rope and pulley system involved, and several men on hand to take it down piece by piece until it's all safely down. No need to worry about power lines or the neighbor's roof. It's quite the procedure. As each section comes down, they feed it into a wood chipper and turn it into mulch.

It was my tree, so they offered me the mulch to use in the flower beds and paths.

It was Tom's tree, so I accepted.

Now I'm going to have to use the mulch and woodchips they left bagged in my back yard!

I leaked the whole time, you know. I could see us planting that damned thing. I could see the blossoms; smell them, even. I could see the years pass, as it grew taller, see the kids playing ring-around-the-rosy around the trunk until it—and they—got too big for such things. We all sat under that tree, reading books, eating sandwiches, laughing.

We were a family, and that tree was part of us.

Damn it, I'm sad.

I feel like that tree, you know. Something in me is dead, and my root system is weak. I don't feel stable in my soil. I'm constantly on the look-out for the tree service coming to cut me down completely.

I want it to help when I'm reminded that I have a loving family to support me. It should help; it's true. But I can't bring myself to share this.

I don't know who they are. I don't know where they came from. I don't know what they wanted.

Worse, I don't know if they'll be back.

They broke me.

We both know it's true; we both know that's why I'm here; I am broken.

But you don't believe me, and that's not very helpful. I pay you—you could at least pretend to believe me.

Oh, shut up with the, "I believe that you believe" bullshit. I'm sure my family would say the same, and what I will say is just what I said before: not helpful.

Is my hour up? Good. See ya.

***

I really lost it a few weeks after I got home.

"Got home". That sounds like a weird way to put it. It's more like I was "put" home. Just like I was "put" in the white-light place.

I thought it was heaven, maybe, or some sort of after-life place. Purgatory, maybe. But that made no sense then and makes no sense now. Heaven, Hell, Purgatory—whichever. None of them would be empty. Would they? I mean, people die every day. Hundreds, every single day. Even if we somehow go to little apartments in a big white space, there should be thousands and thousands of people.

Well, I guess it could have been Hell. It certainly felt like condemnation. Punishment for what, I don't know; but it was awful.

I was so scared and angry and lonesome that I was ready to die. Then I was back in my own bed, in my own house, and it seemed...unreal.

Was it a trick? Some sort of mind game? Maybe they could see into me enough to know what I wanted, and they made it real for me in my mind.

Maybe I'm not really here at all.

That thought consumed me. I was afraid to go to sleep, afraid to wake up. I still didn't want to eat, unless someone was with me.

But I didn't reach out, didn't ask the kids to stay over, didn't ask to stay with any of my family. I just went through each day like it was fine, and at night—

I'll miss this view of the stars

Stars are wonderful, aren't they? If you've never been taught any different, all you know is they are lovely lights in the night sky and could be anything at all. Diamonds. Candles. Whatever you might imagine.

I still find them beautiful. But I also find them dreadful. You know, as in they fill me with dread. Because, they're out there somewhere. Is that a ship? A star? A planet? A spaceport?

That's been my basic impression: aliens. But maybe I've just seen too many movies. Maybe it was some experiment done by some entity right here on Earth. This is a strange world already, without any aliens to muck it up. Governments—I don't care who or what—I think any one of them might do something like this if they could figure out how.

The alien thing—they read my freaking mind! That's what makes it plausible to me.

Me. Plausible to me.

I know you think I'm bonkers.

Do you know of any government experiments that employ mind-readers? Do you know of any science that developed refrigerators that didn't have to be plugged in to work?

They brought me clothes, food—hell, a freaking clothes hamper! But there was no door! So, how did they get in there?

I'll give them this much credit—they tried. I wanted a hamper, I got one. I wanted a garbage can—even though the garbage miraculously disappeared overnight—and I got one of those. They brought me candy, cookies. Coffee.

Why wouldn't they put me back in my own world—but just in my mind?

You try sleeping with all that going through your head!

So, sleep deprivation, probably a little malnutrition, and I fell asleep and started screaming. The neighbors called the police; they thought I was being murdered.

Hospital time.

Whee!

Am I nuts? Am I?

So, there I was, in a psych ward. Holy shit, who'd a thunk it? I have been the most steady, stable—let's face it, boring—person all my life! And suddenly, I'm just nuts.

It's all well and good for you to sit there smiling your condescending little smile, taking notes and nodding your head when you think the timing is appropriate. You can suggest that I was still processing my grief over losing Tom so suddenly, that I was lonely and depressed, and things just got too hard. What did you call it? A "break with reality"?

How do I know that this moment right here isn't the break, and I'm really just sitting there in that manufactured apartment surrounded by white light, starving to death and hallucinating?

My mother always said if you doubted the reality—if you thought you were dreaming—just pinch yourself. But, that's not really true. You could certainly pinch yourself and dream that the pinch hurt, now, couldn't you?

Do you ever laugh?

No, no, I know where I am. I know who you are. I know you're just trying to help me. But you know what? You're never going to be able to help me, because you don't believe me.

And shut up with the "I believe that you believe." Damn it. Get a new line!

I know you're real, okay? I write a check to you every week, and thank God Tom made great investments and kept us well-insured. Not that insurance helps much with this!

You know what makes it so real to me? Writing the stupid check. If I was imagining the whole thing, don't you think I'd make your services free?

Yeah, yeah, value... an hour a week, a fat check, and a condescending smile. You're valuable all right.

I'm sorry. That was rude. If it's all in my head, it doesn't matter to either of us, but just in case it's not, I apologize.

***

I sit on my back deck and watch the children play.

The tree stump has been treated somehow, so it won't—I don't know, sprout?

You know, if a little tree started growing up through that old stump, I don't think I'd mind. It would sort of be a reminder, you know, that life goes on.

But the tree people did some sort of treatment. So, I suppose that's not ever going to happen.

I sip my lemonade—bottled, from the local grocery store—and watch the kids. They're "helping" Misha turn the stump into the base for a picnic table.

I'm a little amused by this plan. Over the years, that old tree pushed up the ground around its roots, and it's not very even. The stump leans at an odd angle, and I don't know how Misha plans to level things out enough to make a serviceable table.

I'm not worried about it, though. If anyone can make this plan work, he can.

I think about telling him what happened to me. I have thought about telling them all, but I just can't seem to make myself go through with it. It's bad enough that they saw me go through being hospitalized for what we've all labeled a nervous breakdown.

They're walking on eggshells around me, still. Afraid of pushing. Afraid of setting me off.

On the upside, they all visit more often.

I don't really care why, you know. I'm always happy to see them. I'm happy right now, watching my grandchildren. Sasha chatters on and on about some television show she's currently enamored of, something with vampires.

"I missed it when it first aired," she says. "But there are so many ways to stream old shows now, so I just watch and watch until my eyes are crossing. Do you stream any shows, Mom?"

"I'm an old lady," I say, giggling. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Streaming to me could be having a satisfying pee."

"Mom!" Sasha giggles.

I grin at her.

She pulls out her phone and shows me the apps she has downloaded and all the shows she can watch.

"Of course," she says, "unless you want to use up a lot of space on your phone, it's best to stream when you have a good internet connection."

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"If I tried to download and save all these shows, I'd use up all my space," Sasha tells me. "Internet is always best, unless you delete the download as soon as you watch."

"Whatever that means," I say. Then I frown, thinking about all the DVDs in the apartment. "I guess they don't have internet," I muse out loud.

"What?" Sasha demands sharply. "Who?"

I recognize that she's realized I said something significant, but I meet her suspicious eyes without flinching. "Lots of people," I say.

She continues to study me, then gives it up. She knows me; I am not slipping up again. "Get real, Mom," she remarks lightly. "Even you have the internet—you, old lady, you."

"Someday," I retort, "I may even figure out how to use it."

We laugh.

Whew! That was close!

***

I thought about our last meeting, and I do feel I should apologize again.

I just really want you to believe me. Not believe that I believe—do you really think I want to believe this? I would rather forget it all, put it down to a bad dream.

It was a nightmare, you know. And—what?

Yes, I did lose a great deal of weight. I told you, I stopped eating. I just didn't want to go on, and nothing appealed to me anymore.

Oh. You did? Oh!

Well, well! I wasn’t expecting that!

***

I can't believe this! I'm sitting here in my own dining room, a cup of cold coffee in front of me, and I just can't stop thinking about the last session with my psychiatrist.

He's admitted that my story is—get this!—plausible.

He's reviewed my medical records, both from the hospital and from my own physician, who Daddy made me see when I first got home.

According to my family, I had seen at least one member within five days before my return home.

According to my medical records, I had seen my doctor about ten days before my return home. I was there for a wellness visit. I don't remember that—not in terms of the timing, at least. But I trust the records. I was there. I returned when my father insisted that I go about the weight loss.

So, according to my doctor, I returned to see him ten days later and had lost over thirty pounds.

Ten days!

I swear, it was a lot longer than that between visits, but I can’t prove anything to anyone. It’s so frustrating!

My blood tests that day came back with some strange results, as well. I don't understand much of what the old Shrinky-dink told me; but suffice to say my potassium levels and other things were much better than would have been expected in a person who had dropped thirty pounds in ten days.

There were also traces of unknown elements. No known drugs, according to my doctor, but odd. Metals; chemical compounds that couldn’t be identified.

I’m a medical mystery. Funny, huh?

Ugh! What happened?

My hair had gone entirely white during those ten days, which indicated some sort of shock.

It was also odd that the outfit I was wearing when I awoke in my own bed actually fit—nothing else in my closet does! I mentioned that to psych-guy the first time I opened up about my experience, and I guess it left an impression of sorts, since he’s the one who brought that up today.

I can't tell you how I feel, having heard that condescending old coot say to me, "Beth, in light of all this medical evidence, your story seems more and more plausible. I don't know if I'd go so far as to believe in aliens, but something strange has clearly happened to you."

Yeah, doc, you could say that.

I’ve got to add that my doctor, and later the doctors in the hospital, checked for evidence of any type of surgery, down to liposuction or other augmentation, and found nothing. How else would one lose thirty pounds so quickly? I must be lying. I did something. What was it?

They found no evidence of any type of surgical aide.

Let me tell you, if I went off somewhere for plastic surgery or something, I sure wouldn't have come home looking like this! I look awful! My hair is white, my skin is sagging, my breasts look like deflated balloons.

Augmentation, my flat fanny.

Yeah. My ass is flat. Like a blown-out tire. If I went somewhere for cosmetic surgery, I'd get pumped up, not sucked out, I'll tell you! I look old. So old.

***

Look, I never saw a soul, alien or otherwise, in the white-light place. My sense is that it was aliens, but I really, really can't put anything past some government secret experiment, either.

I think what saved me was the damn typewriter. It just showed up one morning, after I’d been thinking that I wanted to write down what was happening and how I was feeling. I don’t doubt for a minute that if it hadn’t shown up when it did, I would have stopped eating sooner. Or I might have tried something even more drastic.

Writing saved me!

Yes, I have everything I wrote in my safe at home.

I’ll think about letting you read it. I—yes, I will think about it.

Did I tell you about my daughter, Sasha? She showed me how to stream old television shows on my computer. I decided to watch "X-Files", since I never got to watch back when it was on TV. I was working, you know, and busy with Tom and the kids.

Twenty years ago, I would have enjoyed that show, and probably would have laughed at it, too.

Doc, it's not funny. It's scary. And it's not just the alien shit that's scary, it's the government shit. It all feels too real.

You think so, too? Wow! We finally agree about something. Writing the check will be easier today.

Was that a smile?

Wonders never cease!

Okay, look, the real problem is, I'm still scared. I still don't totally trust that I'm really back. Or, if I am, that I'm really back to stay.

I can't do it again. I swear to you by all that's holy, I can't.

But I also don't seem able to move on. I still haven't regained any weight. My appetite isn't great. I eat well when I'm with my family, but other than that, I kind of... forget. Yeah, I just don't think about it much when I'm alone.

I'll tell you this, though—every time I look in the mirror, it pisses me off that I look like my butt just sort of slid right off. I mean, I can make the old boobies look passably fine in a good push-up bra, but what the hell can I do about a flat ass?

Finally, the man lets out a little laugh. I mean, it's not funny! But it is funny, too.

Wait—what is that? Oh, no! You didn't! You did! You got me hair dye? What color?

Oh, God, it feels pretty good to laugh, doesn't it? Yes, I would be a feisty redhead. Yes, I am going straight home to use it. And I thank you very much.

What? No, sir, you better not even think of adding it to my bill!

***

It’s “Lucille Ball Red”. That’s not the color name on the dye, but it should be. It was a present from my shrink, and it really has made me feel better tonight.

When I first got home—

That still feels odd—to say, “got home”. It sounds like I did it myself, that I had a choice in the matter.

Anyway, that first look in the mirror, when I realized that my hair had gone white, was more shocking to me than the weight loss. It got less attention from my family, too. It was almost as if they expected me to have white hair, but they didn’t expect me to be thin.

I suppose they may have thought I’d been dying my hair all along. I wonder if I should be insulted?

I’m over fifty. I should have had grey hair, I guess, but I never did. Even after losing Tom, my hair was still the same light brown it had always been. But women are vain, and many of them start coloring their hair at the first sign of a white strand. My mother did. She’s almost eighty now, and she still hits the beauty shop once a month.

I’ll forego feeling insulted, I suppose.

Now my hair is “Lucille Ball Red”, and it’s going to be quite a hoot to debut it at the barbeque tomorrow.

Before coloring it, I did hit the salon at Wally World and had it cut into a cute bob. It looked pretty good; even white, it’s a nice cut. Red, though? Va-va-voom! Ha ha!

If I could get my butt un-flattened, I’d be looking downright chic.

The apple tree picnic table turned out pretty good. It’s level. Misha did a great job. Tomorrow we’ll barbeque and eat for the first time at that table. We’ll drink a toast to the crab apple tree.

Tonight, I’m looking at the stars. They are beautiful. I don’t know what else is out there—a lot, I’m sure—but for now, I refuse to worry about it.

There’s a part of me that is sure now that the reason they chose me is because I’m alone. If Tom was still here, I think they would have passed me by. But if they hadn’t—could I ever talk to Tom about what happened?

I just don’t know.

Not knowing has made it easier to accept that Tom is no longer here. I still miss him so much, and love him with all my heart, but not knowing if I could bring myself to talk to him about something so important has really messed with my head. Until this, I always believed I could tell him anything.

I thought that about my parents and children as well, and I still haven’t told them a thing. I don’t know that I ever will.

The old coot Shrinky-dink will have to do.

By the way, he’s not an old coot. I’m pretty sure I’m the oldest one in the room when we meet.

So, there’s that.

***

You like it? I’m loving the hair; thank you so much. Redheads are just naturally more perky, I guess.

I saw the doctor today. I gained a pound and a half. It probably went to my chin, instead of my butt.

You know, I like you when you laugh.

I am feeling better.

Into the printer you go!

I’ve brought you a copy of the things I wrote. I’m just going to tell you, for now, that most of this—well, the original, not this copy—was typed up on an old Royal manual typewriter, something I would have used back when I was a teenager. The last part—the after I was home again part—that was done on my computer and printed out.

You get the scanned copy for now. It was very hard for me to drag the original out for even long enough to scan it, and it’s back in the safe. Maybe forever.

Yes, I know you’d like to see it. I just…I can’t look at it again. Not yet. And even in the copy, you can see the difference in the print. You can tell it wasn’t done on a computer or a word processor. Can’t you? Yes. I knew you could.

I guess I’ll never get to know or understand what really happened to me. Neither will you, but I suppose we can get together once a week and knock around the ideas. We’ll be conspiracy theorists extraordinaire. It’ll be fun.

I’m not going so far as to say I’ve recovered. But I am recovering.

Just call me “Recovering Beth”.

The End

Author's Note: I have been writing for years, but until my son gave a rather aggressive push, I didn't do anything with my stories but let them sit on my desk or on a computer file.

I self-published S23HF50 in 2015 and I haven't looked back since making the first sale.

Nope, I am not on any best seller lists. Nope, I am not rich. Still, it has been deeply satisfying to know that someone out there has purchased and read something I wrote. You know, dream come true satisfying.

You can find my book here:

The sequel, to which I retain all rights, was published in a short story anthology last year, and can be found here:

Sci Fi

Paula Shablo

Daughter. Mother. Grandma. Author. Artist. Caregiver.

(Order fluxuates.)

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