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“Best-Case Scenario” by Vincent Rupp

Best-Case Scenario

by Vincent Rupp

 

“I don’t ever want to get old and weak!”

Two runners had joined the path at the end of the park, four blocks away. They were at the playground now, close enough for words to drift to Richard’s patio on the insistent wind that was showering the first leaves out of the trees. The speaker was a young man who was now doing pull-ups; a young woman was waiting for him impatiently.

The path continued around the park and exited by his house. When the young man ran by, he’d see Richard on the patio and their eyes would meet. Richard would smile and give him a nod. Embarrassed, the young man would look away quickly and keep his eyes fixed ahead with false casualness.

The phone rang inside. It’d be his daughter, calling after church with the usual disappointment that he hadn’t found religion this week. If he hurried, he could get it before the machine. This week though, he felt tired. He turned his head, waiting for the message. His gaze fell on the extension cord he’d forgotten to put away the day before. He used to trim the bushes by hand, but nowadays the electric trimmer was easier.

“Today’s sermon was really great. It was about forgiveness, and I just know you would have liked it.” Susan and her husband had been at it for over a decade. Lately they were trying the soft sell. Maybe if they’d started with that.

The cord was easy to overlook now, but when new it had been bright orange. The pigments giving it color were large organic molecules, embedded in the rubber. They were stable, designed to last, but every now and then, a tiny photon on a nuclear-powered journey from the sun hit just right and the carefully-manufactured orange faded just a hair.

“Anyway, we’re thinking about bringing the kids to the park later, maybe we could have a barbeque on your deck? One last summer celebration!”

She worried about him, body and soul. In the morning, the kids would go back to school, but for the first time in fifty years, he wouldn’t. He wondered where he’d be instead.

He looked at the playground again. The young man was trying to manage sit-ups on the slide, and the young woman was still on the path, now with her arms crossed. “Can we go?” she asked. How young were they? Maybe if he were their age he could tell from this distance.

Pretty young though, for him to say something like that. He wouldn’t say that if he was old enough to notice the occasional knee ache was part of a trend, to finally spot the shift in a hairline, or to need the handrail on a staircase. Yeah, they were young. Probably not even thirty.

Thirty. The number seemed important. What year was it? He took a deep breath; this winter would be thirty years.

Everyone told him it wasn’t fair, like he didn’t already know. Looking back now though, he figured he shouldn’t complain. Even though her brother had implanted wrong, rendering her perpetually an only child, Susan had always been healthy. And they had fifteen years with her before Carol found what else had been growing inside her.

Still, some days seemed less fair than others, like those when they found they hadn’t beaten the odds. The leaves were falling then too when the doctor finished flipping through the folder and gave them a serious look. Richard took Carol’s hand, held in the space between their chairs. “The good news is the surgery went very well.” They waited, breathless, for the bottom line. Did he think the good news would relax them? “But it has spread. If we start chemo right away, there’s a good chance…”

Richard squeezed her hand, as he would at every subsequent glimmer and maybe. She looked over at him, wanting the reassurance of their connection. He focused on the doctor, listening carefully to every word. If he looked at her, she’d see the fear he’d been fighting down; he couldn’t risk seeing the same in her.

At the playground, the young man started running again. Maybe feeling petulant, the young woman was now stretching on the grass by the chain-link fence. Her body would be firm and healthy, full of life. She was probably too young to appreciate that. The young man stopped and turned around. “Are you coming?” Richard imagined she said she had waited for him. Tit for tat, the hallmark of a good relationship.

Before the cancer, he and Carol always had a good relationship. They could talk things over and laugh the little things off. But there he was, just two days after she was admitted, walking in near seven o’clock. He opened the door to see her laughing with Susan.

“Hi, dad!”

“Hi, sweetie. You been here long?” He knew the answer; she’d come right after school the previous day too.

“Hi Richard, good to see you.”

He was sure she saw his hesitation, just a fraction of a second, before he said “Good to see you too.” Processes that began forty years ago brought Carol into adult- and mother-hood, made her muscles strong and kept her skin supple. Forty years of beauty, dissolved in under two months, like a sugar cube in cold water. “Sorry it’s so late. It’s been hectic at school this year, and I probably told you I’m covering chemistry part-time too.”

At the sight of her now, he squinted away the tears and looked around the room. She didn’t need that from him; she needed him to be there for her, to support her and make sure she knew she was loved. But nothing he tried could get past the sight of her so thin and sick, and he just ended up crying, making a mess of everything. He fixed his gaze on the TV, but Susan had already turned it off.

“That’s okay. Are those for me?” Carol’s manner invited him in, asked him to share his pain as they’d done all these years. She’d hold him and tell him it was okay, but it wasn’t. She was the sick one, and Susan was still a child. He was the head of the family; he was supposed to take care of them.

“Yeah. Your favorite.” He moved Susan’s textbooks out of the way and sat down on the bed. He kissed her sharp cheekbone and took her hand in both of his. He’d stopped at three florists on the way. Even from the road, the first two had appeared closed, but visiting hours went until eight, so he’d checked anyway. Ashamed, he muttered to the bedspread “I’m glad you’re studying.”

The young couple was bickering now. Richard cocked his head, listening. The branches of dry leaves rustled with the wind and brought the young man saying “You always do this!” Her reply started with “That’s because you never”, and the breeze kept the rest. Always and never: their problems were serious. He closed his eyes and imagined their angry words and recriminations, rising and falling with their breathing, still hard from the exertion of running

Every year, Richard had his students measure their lung volume and then estimate how many molecules of oxygen they inhaled with every breath. It’s an incomprehensible number. He diagramed how it entered their blood, deformed the hemoglobin that picked it up, and spread to an unfathomable number of cells. There were so many tiny things, all conspiring together so exactly every second simply so they could take another breath.

He’d never wasted such perfection arguing in the park. Well, not this park. The one at the school though, near the end of that term. Richard shouted that he didn’t need to take time off; what he needed was to keep working, needed something to occupy his mind. He panicked at the thought that if he wasn’t at work, there was only one place he could be.

He’d forced himself to calm down. Then he apologized and promised to be more attentive. It’s only two weeks left, Richard pleaded. The superintendent looked around; the students were all gone, no one had seen. In the end, Richard had pulled it together; the night before that had just been hard.

The mood had been different at the hospital. Carol told him what she’d decided. She hadn’t used him to talk it over first. He’d really looked at her then, searching her face, trying to understand without asking. “How long would you be there?” He didn’t really know, or want to know, what hospice care meant.

She reached toward him, her smile sad, becoming a grimace from the effort. “Probably not very long.” Richard shook his head and pulled her close, anything to keep from looking at this wilted parody of the woman he loved, to keep himself from shuddering with the uselessness she didn’t need to see. But being pressed so closely, he felt his hands over her bony ribs over her struggle to breathe and sobbed into her, unable to either hold it back or pull away.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I love you forever. No matter what.” She said she knew and she loved him too. She tapped her wedding ring on his back. Without counting, he knew it’d be eighteen times. From how loose it was, he knew there’d never come a nineteenth.

The young couple’s fight seemed to be ending, but without apology or affection. Richard wished one of them would stop, realize how inconsequential this episode was, and say how much they cared. Then they’d share a hug and a laugh, thereby excising the anger from their hearts. Instead, they’d added to it, spreading more hurt through their history so it could keep growing. Unchecked, their relationship would be terminal.

He and Carol had just that one moment of communion; this young couple would disappear from each other’s lives without even that.

Inside the house, the phone rang again. Four long rings, then the machine. “Hey, it’s me again. Scott seems to think last time we were there you were low on propane. We can bring our spare tank if so, just let me know.”

This call was about propane, but it could have been about anything. Some calls though, the kind you get deep in the night, you know what those are about and still can’t prepare for them.

He had trouble waking up, couldn’t find his keys, didn’t know what to wear. He dressed himself in his suit, the one she always said he looked so nice in. But what to do about Susan? She shouldn’t be there for this. She’d be angry if he didn’t tell her. If he told her, he couldn’t stop her from going. He was about to knock on her door but then changed his mind and went to the car. He sat there for a few minutes with the key in the ignition, then went back inside to wake her.

“Just park in the handicapped spot!” she commanded. It’s probably too late, he thought. She rushed inside with him following closely, to Carol’s private room with the soothing green walls. In this place, there was no hum or whirr of machines, just a single tube to her arm. She was propped up, eyes closed but breathing. She’d waited for them. Could she sense he wished she hadn’t? He tried to smile through the tragedy of all she was losing and cursed himself that she’d probably thought she lost him too.

Susan, really still Susie back then, went to her, overwhelmed with grief but somehow still functioning. She took her mom’s hands and calmly, though through tears, told her she was beautiful. Richard kissed her forehead, stroked her cheek, and felt like an intruder when he joined his hands with theirs. He said he was sorry it took them so long, and choked out that he loved her.

Her sunken eyes – he’d once told her by the side of the Seine that they out-sparkled the river – moved with difficulty between them, then focused on Susan. They both leaned closer, but there were no last words. Carol smiled, closed her eyes, exhaled, and with that, for Richard, it was the premature extinguishing of the sun. All the warmth suddenly vanished; the world went dark.

He collapsed in a chair, his head in his hands, shaking for the loss of his wife and the infinite regret of having abandoned her when she needed him most.

The young couple resumed their run, toward the house. The young man made a comment about the leaves crunching under their feet, trying to reestablish normalcy over the feelings beneath. Overnight, it would rain, dulling the burnt orange leaves, turning them to mush. By next spring they’d be gone, rejoined with the dirt. It happens to everything, someday. The lucky ones were those who saw more of it.

As the couple neared the house, Richard sighed. The young man heard him and turned with surprise. Embarrassed that his argument had been seen, the young man looked away quickly, but not before they shared a look. In that moment, Richard thought, the young man realized there are worse things than getting old, and worse ways to be weak.

© 2014 Vincent Rupp

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“Crows at the Farm” by Vincent Rupp

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Crows at the Farm

By Vincent Rupp

“You taking the truck out?”

“Yeah, saw a couple crows yesterday. Gonna make sure there isn’t a roost in the woods.”

Billy gasped and looked at Rose. Quietly, she whispered “The Crow Man!”

Margaret turned the dough in the pot and looked briefly over her shoulder to ask “Who’s the Crow Man?”

Rose spoke quickly, with excitement. “He’s made of crows and can disappear and then come back anywhere.”

“He’s not MADE of them.” Billy, exasperated, corrected. “He’s a man who BECAME a crow and he flies with them and keeps them safe.”

Margaret understood: The long bus ride, the endless speculation, a story embellished across decades of children. George was lacing his boots, shaking his head. She set the rings on the towels, blotting the extra oil. “Hush, children, the doughnuts will be ready in a few minutes.”

“Why didn’t we just buy them at the store? A dozen was only four dollars.”

“We don’t have money to waste on something your mother can make herself.”

Margaret agreed, but she’d have been less harsh. The other children had newer clothes and their parents’ truck tires weren’t bald.

She listened to the engine noise dwindle while she put on the glaze and let it set. Hours to make the treats, and they’d be gone in minutes. It reminded her of their new existence here; so much work, and it could be gone so quickly.

“Momma is that a crow?” Rose pointed out the window at the yard. Margaret wiped her hands and came to look. A jet-black bird poked its beak around in their waste heap with quick motions.

“Yes it is, sweetie.”

The crow looked up, unmoving. Billy pointed “Look, there’s two more.” Margaret saw them, further from the house, close to the field. The sweet sprouts of corn had just appeared the previous morning. The bright green dots in the rows had brought her immense relief, but now a low dread crept back in.

There was a rush of feathers and flapping against the glass; they all drew back, startled. A large crow had landed on the windowsill, black toes and black claws gripping the ledge. It took a few steps and cocked its head.

Billy peered closely at the crow’s black eye. “Is it looking at us?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s just a bird.”

The crow took another step and jammed its beak at a spider web, coming away with a large brown spider.

“Ewww crow don’t eat that!”

“Look there’s even more now!”

Another three birds landed on the grass, looking around in the dirt.

“We’ll tell your father later. For now, go scare them off.”

They ran for the door, four arms flailing. He charged the birds, cawing and flapping his arms. Rose shrieked and laughed as the crows scattered to the wind.

——

“Damn birds are everywhere. Woods are crawling with them for miles.” He scrubbed his hands in the sink. “Another section of fence came down too. Never should have hired that kid.”

Margaret rubbed his shoulders. They knew the first years would be difficult, but they’d work hard. They’d pay down the debt, find good help, and buy more land.

“We’ll make it work. We’re doing better than most new folks.” He nodded; weather, illness, pests: stories of ruin were everywhere. He rinsed the dirt out of the sink.

“Mommy the crows are back.”

“What?” George rushed angrily to the window. Two crows had landed on the apple tree; its branches were still bare from winter. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d seen them?”

“George, it’s okay. The owls are keeping them out of the fields.” The old-timers swore by real owls, expertly stuffed, mounted on five-foot stakes, and repositioned every morning. These owls eat crows, they said. George had fumed at the cost, but protecting the fields wasn’t optional.

He wouldn’t wait and hope. He grabbed his gun from above the door, a Winchester 1873 carbine, handed down from his father before the infection took him. “George, stop!” She pulled on his arm, but he jerked it away.

“They’re gonna get bolder if we don’t scare them off.” The seeds had gone in late; there wasn’t enough growing season left to replant.

The crows didn’t react when George banged the door open and stormed down the steps. When he fired a shot into the air, they stopped and looked at him, sideways, one black eye each.

He pulled the action and leveled the gun. Both birds stepped off their branches and took to the air. He lined up carefully, and fired at the closer bird. The crow jerked hard, but didn’t drop. He’d hit its wing, near the body.

For minutes, it tried to fly. A species never known for graceful soaring, this specimen beat its mangled wing against the air, climbing at first but then losing altitude as it lost blood. Its light lifeless body struck the ground nearly soundlessly.

Crows nearby peered at the corpse, saw it motionless, began to caw and croak. Others picked up the call, flew to investigate, and within minutes the crow funeral was underway.

Billy saw the flocks first. They came quickly from the woods past the horizon, and then from all directions. There were scores of flocks, hundreds of birds to a flock, a million ink-black feathers moving and so many voices cawing incessantly. The sound filled the fields as the shadows raced over them.

Rose held Margaret’s leg tightly. “Mommy, are they mad?” She pressed her head into Margaret’s dress.

Margaret held Rose’s head with an almost steady hand. “I don’t know, sweetie.”

An hour later, the crows still called from the distance, but the family had gone back inside. Out of sight of the house, a solitary figure approached the fallen bird. His ragged black clothes fluttered behind him, his black hair shook in the breeze. The ten thousand mourners quieted as one. He kneeled near the bird, took it gently in his hands, and spoke very softly, under his breath.

He rose slowly, his gaze fixed on the distance, in the direction the crow had come.

——

George woke early, even before the pre-dawn light. He’d not had enough food or enough sleep, but it’d be better in a few hundred days, if he put in his time. He went first out back to feed the chickens, then into the barn to tend to the horses and milk the cows.

Sometimes he woke up Maggie to help, but he liked to watch her sleep; she’d gather the eggs and have biscuits ready before he went back inside anyway.

It was barely light when he left the barn. That’s when he saw them, filling the fields, standing a dozen per yard along the length of every row of barely-sprouted corn. He froze, stuck between rage and terror, but slowly he calmed; the corn shoots were still there, still green, as far as he could see in the indigo light.

The crows all shook their wings. Dozens alit into the air, flapping furiously before diving onto the owls, thrusting beaks through the feathers and tearing off bits of carefully preserved skin.

If he’d had his gun, maybe he’d have tried to shoot them. Instead, he watched, helpless and awed, as a large portion of his inheritance was destroyed by the blades of tiny mouths. In under a minute, as a mass, the thousand crows took to the air and dispersed in a hundred directions.

George went to the nearest owl; he took it in his hands and knew the loss was total. Looking up, choked with powerless rage, he saw a black figure far on the horizon. He shouted and ran, heedless of damage to the crop he was so desperate to protect. He ran hard for minutes, stumbling across the soft ground. But the figure turned and walked away and disappeared in the darkness.

Margaret noticed the owls and found George loading the truck. He’d siphoned five gallons from the tank and was hefting the canister into the bed. He didn’t wait for her to ask. “He did this. I saw him.”

“They didn’t touch the corn. Just leave it alone.”

He shook his head adamantly and got in, slamming the door. “We gotta protect what’s ours, Maggie. No matter what.” He wrenched the truck into gear and sped off, leaving her helplessly watching his trail of dust.

When the road ended, he drove into the trees until the brush was too thick. He pushed the canister off the bed and rolled it deeper into the trees. All around him, every bare branch was covered with dense black feathers and inquisitive little eyes.

“Come out!” he yelled. He uncapped the canister and pushed it over. Gasoline spilled out with a slow glug-glug. He took out the matches. Louder, he shouted “You better come out!” The trees fluttered darkly, casting deep shadows on a figure dressed in black tatters a hundred yards away.

“You leave my fields alone!” Crows leapt from the trees and took to the air, circling overhead and through the branches behind him. They began cawing at once, tens of thousands of overlapping threats.

He shook the matches. “You think I can’t kill them all?” The noise drowned out his words, and he knew he couldn’t. He put the matches away and pulled his rifle from the truck. He braced it against his shoulder and pointed at the still figure in the wood’s depths. The birds changed course; they flew densely between the men.

“Damnit!” He threw the gun into the truck. Whether he tried to kill the birds, their habitat, or their master, he would lose. “What do you want?!” he screamed above the shrieking of the crows. At his words, they fell silent, stopped their insistent flapping, sat gently down, and all was still.

George looked around, surprised. “That’s it? That’s all you want?” A single caw pierced the silence and hung in the air. “And you’ll leave my fields alone?” From a different direction, another caw sounded.

The early sun glinted on a million shining black feathers as George loaded the half-full canister back into the truck.

——

It’s a cold winter morning, with frost on the panes. A black bird brings a stick to a garbage can, pries the metal top open, and nudges the lid onto the ground. The clatter attracts a girl to the window. Excitedly, she says “Mommy a crow opened our trash!”

The mother knows the land’s generations; she doesn’t look over, just simply says “Better leave it alone, sweetie.”

© 2013 Vincent Rupp