2022 Short Story Contest Winner
The Kennebunk Correction
by Aaron Tillman
When my head hammered the hard plastic tail of the cat’s ass magnet on the side of our stainless-steel refrigerator, I temporarily lost consciousness. I tripped over one of the smoky blue massage balls that had been roaming around the house since my sister Ruby bought them.
According to Ruby, in the 15-20 second span before losing consciousness, I rattled off a litany of disappointments, a pitiful account of the lower-level injustices I’d experienced: from being rejected at my junior high school dance to being cut from the cross country team (something I was assured was not possible) to playing countless inanimate objects in school plays—my turn as the giant rock in an adaptation of William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble as close as I ever came to a lead role—to the very condition that kept me cooped up with my sister more often than not, before I dropped and my sister, quite predictably, giggled rather than gasped.
Even when I regained consciousness, Ruby was still laughing. How do I know she was laughing when I was knocked out? I know my sister. And I know myself. That’s how we handle such things. It wasn’t cruelty—though it is often interpreted as some form of callous insensitivity—just a juvenile and possibly biological inability to address any form of discomfort head on. A trait we share. Our parents’ funeral was a fiasco.
Our discomfort often manifests in beet-faced snickers. It ruined Ruby’s teaching “career.” When a child musters the courage to admit that he doesn’t understand the lesson, and the teacher bursts out laughing, that’s pretty much the end of it. At the very least, it’s a featured item in the annual assessment.
Although our deficiencies always snicker to the surface eventually, over time we have become fairly skilled at hiding them or holding them in, pretending the reaction was something else—not really laughter at all. Sometimes that effort is successful, and we can effectively divert our focus and project a more complex emotional reaction. My sister is better at that than me. But other times, we simply burst—uncontrollable, teary-eyed guffaws and snorts and even spontaneous hand slaps.
So, the image of me lying on the kitchen floor unconscious hardly scratched the surface. No need to even try to stop the flood. And no outward blood to frighten or to clean. The damage and defects were all internal.
The only problem was that getting knocked out was still serious. I had to go to the hospital, and my sister had to get me there. Taking action was neither of our strong suits. Even when that action was obvious burbling right in front of her eyes.
Not surprisingly, my sister opted for a ride service. The surprise was that she accompanied me to the hospital. Perhaps my groggy state made her genuinely nervous, despite the giggles that caused the driver to suggest we were drunk, winking with a smile and a nod as if my sister and I were injury-prone lovers. Ruby just nodded back, which was always easier than attempting to explain.
By the time we arrived, I was still light-headed and woozy, but able to walk on my own. My sister led me through the plexiglass turnstile, wide enough and slow enough for us to shuffle into the hospital together, her fist clutching and stretching-out my shirtsleeve. The process was absurd enough that her giggling didn’t draw much attention.
But the shock of florescent lighting nearly knocked the laughter from her throat. She followed a flash of silence with a lip-sputtering series of exhalations. I knew she was concerned about me because for the first time in recent memory, she was laughing alone.
Perhaps too shocked or overwhelmed with sensory overload, I couldn’t muster a sound. I was consumed by the citrusy chemical smell, the gleam from the recently mopped floor, the air that tasted as I imagined church wafers might taste: disgusting and divine, disinfected and contaminated at the same time. The whir of the revolving door blended in with the hush of the escalator that ascended and descended just beyond the front desk. I heard the squeak and click and clock of sneakers and shoes and clogs. Everything was either metallic or white, casting piercing, suspicious glares across every surface.
There was a white table beneath the slant of the escalator that read Information. An older woman in soft blue scrubs had her face inches from a computer screen. My sister pulled me toward the table and waited for the woman to lift her eyes, Ruby’s barely restrained snickers more effective at getting attention than an “Excuse me” would have been.
“How can I help you?” the woman asked in a tone that was simultaneously upbeat, exhausted, and annoyed.
“My brother,” Ruby managed before breaking into convulsions that might have given the impression we were on the verge of some practical joke. But my sister persisted. “He hit his head.” I saw her trying to swallow back the laughter. “And lost consciousness.” Then she turned toward me, and I could see the spasms consuming her face. “But he’s awake again now,” she barely uttered, the effort to restrain her laughter made it seem, under the circumstances, like she was overcome with fear and sadness, struggling to keep herself from crying.
The woman looked into my dazed, glassy eyes and stood with some urgency. “Do you need someone to help?” she asked, summoning an attendant from the other side of the hallway. With her head still turned away from the woman, my sister squeaked out, “Yes, please.”
When the large, olive-skinned man eased me into a wheelchair to usher me safely to whatever room they had for contusions of the head, my urge to laugh started to return. I was still lightheaded, feeling as if the energy had been sucked out of me by some cerebral vacuum, but the circumstances and the awkwardness of being wheeled around seemed almost, as my sister liked to say, “objectively funny.” Fortunately, the attendant was as serious and stone-faced as a soldier in the Queen’s Guard, his mind apparently on the immediate task of getting me safely to a hospital room and continuing his evening’s work.
When we got to the room, he said I could stay in the wheelchair until the nurse arrived, but if I wanted to sit on the bed, he could adjust the back and lift me onto the mattress. That’s when the force of my sister’s laughter triggered my own receptors, and I was tearing up before I even made a sound. And the sound I made came out like a cackle from a drunk in a raunchy comedy show. To this man’s credit, he didn’t crack. Just nodded and said, “Leave you in the chair, then,” and left.
“I think…” my sister began, fighting back the forces of mirth, “I might want to marry that man.”
Although she was attempting to be funny, this man was consistent with a certain type for Ruby. Sure, she dated a few goofballs who eagerly laughed along with her, but these boys and men didn’t offer any balance. Too much like dating a stoned version of herself. She tended to lean toward humorless men. Not the serious and high-minded type who obsessed over the injustices in the world and sought to lecture anyone in earshot, but the stoic and dull type, apparently immune to her snickers and snorts, and grateful for her interest and affection—men most in their element when slumped in the center of a sagging couch. But these men didn’t offer much balance either. So, her longest relationship was with me. Platonic and largely monogamous.
Our condition made it hard to hold down friendships, which is why we spent so much time together, but Ruby attracted interest. She was tall like our father and had mom’s soft face and stern nose. She and I had the same nose and the same brown hair and eyes, but Ruby could be beautiful when she wanted to be. Where Ruby looked slender and strong, I was mousey and anemic; when Ruby donned her dark framed glasses, she could pull off what mom used to call her “sexy severe” look; although I didn’t wear glasses, I still looked irrepressibly geeky. But neither of us had too many social aspirations or abilities.
If I was a type, it was the giggling virgin who struck nearly everyone as intolerably awkward and immature. After my parents died—five weeks before my high school graduation—people reached out. Mostly school administrators and members of the student council doing their benevolent duty. They encouraged me to come to the graduation ceremony. But I was barely in a condition to attend graduation before any profound personal tragedy. I certainly wasn’t going after. And even college wasn’t really in the cards. I was enrolled in the university where my dad had taught since before I was born. Following my sister’s footsteps. But it was easy to defer that first year. And the three years after that, especially since the school assured me that they would honor my education no matter when I decided to go. My sister managed to finish her college degree, but she did it as a day student. She was a socialite compared to me, and she barely left the house. Unless she had to escort her brother to the hospital for a cat’s ass contusion.
My sister and I waited in snickering silence for nearly an hour before a nurse came in to speak with us. I guess the perception of fitness that our giggling must have suggested lessened the urgency for treatment.
The nurse was a tall, slender man who wore no undershirt beneath his scrubs, revealing the hairy boniness of his chest. My sister turned away almost instantly, but I held my eyes on his, managing, at least for the moment, to maintain a straight face. He held up a clipboard and nodded.
“My name is Jeffrey,” he said. “I understand you hit your head and lost consciousness. Can you describe what happened?”
As well as I could, I described the circumstances, my sister chiming in to add details about my sorrowful rant of disappointments, as if that were relevant and would add some incentive to care for such a pathetic patient.
“Dr. Posner would like you to have a CT scan. I believe she will stop in beforehand.”
My sister and I snort-snickered at the same time, causing Jeffrey to squint at both of us, but to his credit he didn’t respond, just left the room.
My sister looked at me. She was still holding back her laugh, but there was something almost embarrassed in her eyes. “Was it the rhyme?” she asked. “‘Scan-beforehand’ that made you laugh? Or the fact that the nurse is a man, and the doctor is a woman?”
“The rhyme,” I shot back, defensive, and disappointed that she had caught the exact things that had triggered the unfortunate response, compelling me to add, “There are more women doctors than men these days.”
My sister only nodded, willing to let me be the feminist or the liar or both.
The CT scan was more of a process than it should have been, largely because they let my sister accompany me to radiology. Predictably, she couldn’t contain the urge to laugh—her startling, high-pitched chortle—always right before the image was taken, causing me to convulse and release my breath, preventing a clear image from being captured: in many ways, a metaphor for our entire lives. The woman responsible for positioning me and taking the scan was enormously patient.
“We sometimes have to sedate someone before an MRI but never had to do it for a CT Scan,” she said, not exactly thrilled by the novelty. And then looking directly at my sister whose face scrunched in a snigger of discomfort, “And never thought I’d consider sedating someone who’s not even the patient. Guess that means I’d better ask you to leave, ma’am. But we’ll take good care of your husband.”
Both of us belly-snorted at the same time, but it was my sister who managed to respond: “He’s my brother, ma’am. Not my…” and it was impossible but fortunately unnecessary for her to finish the response.
Although the urge to laugh remained, I was able to hold still long enough for a passable scan to be taken. The woman helped me down from the table and insisted that I return to the chair so she could wheel me back to the room. I was eager to exaggerate a description of the process to my sister, but when we got back, Ruby was not there. Being alone in the cold, sterile room was unnerving. When I heard Ruby’s voice, talking more steadily than usual, it was doubly unnerving. Not sure if my anxiety eased or spiked when I recognized the voice speaking in return. A friend of my parents. Dr. Fred we used to call him. But most in the hospital probably knew him as Dr. Levy.
Of all the people to be at the hospital, Dr. Fred Levy was at an uncertain extreme—either the best or worst person to see at this time. Few people in the world knew us as well as he did. Few people knew our parents as well, even though he was nearly two decades younger than they were. And few people were able to ease and nearly eradicate our urge for spontaneous laughter, but for complex and contrasting reasons: no one had ever excited my sister as much as he did, and no one seemed as excited by my sister as him. That affected both of us. Although I’ve dropped hints about Dr. Fred giving me the creeps, Ruby always put a stop to it, saying some version of the same thing: “With all the shitty things that have happened to us, I simply can’t trash the one man who’s kind.” Since I can’t argue without eliciting torrents of unproductive laughter, I have yet to offer a true rebuttal. But now his raspy, masculine-light voice was in the air. And wafting toward the room.
"Thomas,” he said as he entered, his carefully combed head holding an angle meant to project sympathy, empathy, and concern—a clichéd look that would normally make me laugh but did quite the opposite now.
“Hello, Dr. Fred,” I said, before correcting myself, “Dr. Levy.”
“Dr. Fred is fine. Please. How are you feeling, Thomas?” he asked, lowering himself onto the cushioned stool so he was eye-level with me.
“Guess I’ve been better,” eliciting a slow-blinking smile and inhalation.
“Indeed, Thomas,” he followed, reminding me of his tendency to say my name with every sentence—another thing that made me uneasy.
“I know Dr. Posner ordered a CT Scan,” he sigh-spoke, sending a warm wave of stale coffee fumes into my face. “I’m sure those will be read soon. Until then, are you feeling nauseated or in any way disoriented, Thomas?”
Looking at Dr. Fred’s waxy cheeks was always disorienting for me, especially since he was about 40 years old but could pass for 20 were it not for gray-flecked sideburns. The fact that his question didn’t spark a fit of laughter was also disorienting. Fortunately, my sister returned to form with a sputtering snort that she covered with her hand when the doctor turned around, but her laughter had a grounding and contagious effect on me. As if she yanked the starter rope on a lawn mower, laughter just roared out. I closed my eyes and reanimated all that had been paralyzed, releasing my own rolling, boyish giggle without inhibition, letting the fit go on until Dr. Fred rose from his stool and assured me, “Thomas,” that he would be back.
My parents said the same thing the last time Ruby and I saw them. That they’d be back. They were leaving together for a weekend in Maine. Some Bed and Breakfast in Kennebunk.
“Some of the highways have 75 mph speed limits,” my dad had said.
“As if that’s the draw of Maine,” my mother replied. “Vacationland simply a veiled reference to New England’s version of the Autobahn.”
“The draw hasn’t even arrived yet,” my dad followed, bobbing his spidery eyebrows in the most nauseating sexual insinuation, eliciting a slap on the arm from my mother and an exaggerated retching noise from my sister.
“It’s the beaches and the crafts that I am excited for,” my mom assured us.
“I’m sure your mother will describe it all in flowery detail.”
“Yes, I will,” she agreed, “but not for my column. Just for our family.”
“Might be hard to return home,” my dad smiled, picking up his and my mother’s bags.
“We’ll be back,” my mother said.
“Yes,” my dad confirmed, “We’ll be back.”
My sister and I knew they couldn’t stay away too long since they were both so work-obsessed. My dad was a psycholinguist. A professor with a joint appointment in linguistics and psychology, known in academic circles for his research on what he called “nonsense speak,” or the filler words, phrases, expressions, and conversations we use to adhere to social norms. Dr. Fred had taken one of dad’s classes as an undergraduate and likes to credit him for his interest in psychiatry, specifically in the insights and implications of language use. Now Dr. Fred teaches a class every year at the college and has an office in dad’s old building.
Although my dad was willing to talk about his work, he had little patience for conversations outside of a professional or structured setting. Our mom once said, “He’ll play the game with his colleagues or at the bank, but when he’s working, he requires a certain solitude, and your father is always working. He likes to keep the gears gurgling.” For the longest time, I wasn’t sure what game my mom was talking about. All I knew was that he was always a little distracted and could never sit still. But I remember when part of it clicked for me. Soon after I heard him on the radio.
It was a live segment on a Saturday morning show. Dad was in his office, and we were all in the kitchen. I can still hear his slow, patient voice misting out of our kitchen speakers, calming the airwaves as he rarely did when he was in the room, explaining to the host that a great percentage of speech was comprised of nonsense words and sentences and even entire conversations. “In fact,” I remember him saying, “not only is our speech filled with nonsense, but it’s an essential part of our speech. We are constantly making corrections into or out of nonsense. And if someone doesn’t adhere to the expectations, if someone breaks with those patterns, then they stand out. As unfair as it sounds, they are often considered freakish. This is why I am compelled to speak about this with you and your listeners.” What he didn’t share was that he had labeled my words as nonsense countless times and never hinted that it was in any way acceptable or expected. This is what was on my mind as they wrapped up the interview and the host asked if he was planning “a serious Saturday studying nonsense.” They shared some forced, friendly laughter before my dad replied, “You’re more likely to find me napping on the couch with a newspaper over my chest,” prompting another series of chuckles, some mutual expressions of gratitude, and an end to the interview. Minutes later, dad walked through the kitchen in his exercise clothes and shot out the door. That’s when I started to laugh. That was nonsense, I realized. My dad had perpetuated and played along as much as anyone.
Although my sister might disagree, I think the inability to stop myself from laughing began then for me. I kept imagining what it would be like if we didn’t play the nonsense game. If someone asked how we were doing, and we told them the truth. In detail. Like a pin in the balloon of hot air, we just deflated the nonsense and floated to the ground with the articulated weight of our anxieties and isolation. Who wouldn’t laugh at that?
Along with our reaction to discomfort, Ruby and I also laughed when things were funny, and no one made us more uncomfortable or feel more like laughing than my mother.
In a job she was made for—or was made for her—mom wrote the “Critics Corner” column for our local newspaper, covering mostly art, music, theater, and film, but also food and festivals and anything else she wanted to write about for the Sunday Arts & Ideas section. As our local paper’s only critic, she had full control over her weekly column and countless devoted readers. Although her byline only appeared once a week, her criticisms never took a day off, and her favorite subjects—to praise and to criticize—were her children.
For me, the more compliant and nervous child, her comments were mostly surface-level corrections about grammar or posture or etiquette, but for Ruby, they were more emasculating and ambiguous, often brought on by Ruby herself. Not only more whimsical, but Ruby was prone to make provocative statements when things got dull around the dinner table: “I think oral should be legal at 13” and “Does Thomas know how much you drank when he was in utero?” were two of the more indelible. She was trying to get a rise out of mom and testing to see if dad was even listening, but they were most shocking to me. Ruby always kept a straight face, and in real time, I was blind to the tell. Mom’s replies always came after I had calmed down and my sister returned to giggling at my gullibility. “Ruby dear,” mom always began, “If you continue to dig your polished nails in the dirt, then you shan’t be surprised when the excrement starts to rise” or “Ruby dear, if you always tiptoe away from the advancing tide, you’ll never know when the sea lily starts to glow—there are times when you must be willing to dive in.” My sister mostly laughed, but I suspect they bothered and baffled her as much as they did me.
But mom was not some cryptic or clichéd detractor. She was funny. And no one made us laugh like she did—sometimes on purpose and other times by the manic weight of her expressions and convictions.
“You know what’s behind American gluttony?” she asked once. “Soup! That’s what! The minute they turned a meal into an appetizer, Americans didn’t know when to quit. But I tell you, soup is a meal. The Vietnamese understand this, but Americans can’t wrap their sentient stomachs around it and just eat and eat and eat and eat until they can’t amble without overturning. And they don’t just ingurgitate soup and then cast about for the main course, they have to plunk croutons and crumbled cheese into the broth and dip their herb crackers and bread sticks in the bowl and jockey back and forth between the plated sides before they put their spoons down and say, ‘Now what’s for dinner?’ Doesn’t take much to see where the gluttony comes from. And to be clear, I don’t find any of this funny. The only reason the two of you are not grossly obese, is because your father and I know how to control the soup!”
I don’t know whether my parents would be impressed or disappointed with the directions we’ve taken, but my sister and I have managed to find some passable employment and haven’t simply curled into the blanket of their insurance policy. I was able to convert a summer job into something more lasting. Almost careerish. In my case, as a transcriptionist for a company that works with corporate clients. Not the most exciting job, but that’s exactly why I’ve been able to last as long as I have. Along with straight transcriptions, we also do corrections of automated scripts, tracking the computer-generated document while listening to the recording. General transcriptionists make mistakes, but the automated programs get more wrong than right. And I can admit to a certain satisfaction at the skill I’ve developed over the years, deciphering dull exchanges without needing to concentrate too much or fight the urge to laugh. When I’ve submitted my original or corrected transcript and minutes later can barely remember what the meeting or training or seminar was about, I truly feel like I’ve controlled the soup.
I also manage to get outside and keep my “gears gurgling.” Specifically, I search for anecdotes to entertain my sister. Something to exaggerate that might make her laugh—something she could claim to be “objectively funny.”
When I leave the house, I usually walk in the opposite direction of the college toward a local park where I can count on seeing someone or something strange: a toddler catching her dog’s poop in her bare hands (while mother holds the leash and speaks with another parent), a father on the phone tumbling over a teeter totter, teenagers smoking and drinking and having sex. And I make sure to describe the setting: the smell of the air, the sway of the trees, the orchestral sound of the playground, the granular feel of the benches, the sweet taste of the fog. Ruby has urged me to write the stories down, but the thrill for me is seeing my sister’s reaction. Watching her get quiet and lean in. Hearing her gasp or shriek or laugh like our mother used to make us laugh.
Ruby also has her stories. Many are comical failures. Her forays into the classroom as a doomed teacher’s assistant, her occasional dates with friends-of-acquaintances or people she met online. And more recently, since she joined the staff at our local library, she talks about her colleagues who are either comically dull—the same lunches and clothes and bathroom breaks and anecdotes about television characters—or live incredible lives outside of work: librarian by day and cardsharp or clog dancer or gothic strip poet by night. Ruby admitted that she exaggerates or imagines some of the extracurriculars, but the stories are still fun to hear, and the routine provides some semblance of normalcy.
When we returned from the hospital, things weren’t normal for long. Sure, we laughed at the spectacle of the incident, relived my teeter-plunge-head-gouge-and-drop; split our sides over the cat’s ass contusion, and settled into a different, sputtering laugh when the conversation turned to our encounter with Dr. Fred. In some ways, that laugh of discomfort was the most familiar, the closest to normal, but it was also the one that made me most unsettled, and the one that became an avenue out of the house for Ruby.
In was the Saturday after my hospital visit when Ruby performed an awkwardly self-conscious walk to the front door. She paused beside the coat rack, her long fingers wrapped around the gumwood railing, clearly aware that my eyes were on her. She lifted her black wool coat and as casually as possible, without looking my way, said she was “going out,” pausing to let me process the obvious aberration: not just leaving for milk, which would have itself been an unlikely scenario since we had been having groceries delivered for years, but going out, suggesting an indeterminate end to the evening with unknown interactions and experiences and outcomes. Going out. So, I raised the most obvious point in the most obvious way.
“Going out?” I nearly shouted.
“Going out,” she repeated, as she fastened the large black buttons on her coat, no irony or intentional provocation that I could detect.
“What are you like a regular socialite now?” I asked, taking this development as more of an affront than was warranted. I’ve never handled surprises very well. “Just on your evening tootle out to the parties and clubs and parlors or wherever you socialites go?”
“Did you just say ‘tootle’?” she asked with a smile but not a laugh. “That’s such a mom word.”
I sighed, aware of the mom-words that exited my mouth on occasion, but my mind was still fixed on the inexplicability of the moment. When the normal was isolation and sibling introversion, my sister couldn’t just drop the 411 that she’s circling into the social sphere. The few weekend outings that had taken place in the past had all been talked through and agonized over and given up on and picked back up again and committed to and regretted and occasionally canceled and just as occasionally reignited before an anxious and agitated departure. Spontaneity wasn’t something we did. Or only in visceral and veiled expressions of mirth.
“Where are you going? With who?”
“I’m just walking to campus,” she said. “Meeting Dr. Fred.”
“Dr. Fred? On a Saturday night? Is it for counseling?”
Ruby snort laughed. “It’s only 5:00,” she reminded me. “Not exactly ‘Saturday night.’ And no, it’s not for…” another sputter of laughter, “‘counseling.’ Or not in any official capacity.”
“So, it’s a social thing?” I asked, my voice remaining steady. “You’re socializing with Dr. Fred? You know he’s married!”
Ruby rolled her eyes and turned, reacting to my unreasonably heated tone or the fact that Dr. Fred was married, I couldn’t be sure. “He’s on campus for some program that ends at 5:00,” she said. “He asked if I wanted to meet and walk or whatever when it was over. He said he was cooped up all day and needed to stretch his legs.”
“You talk to him about being cooped up and stretching his legs?” This ostensibly normal scenario seemed nearly impossible for my brain to process. “What are you like…” I began, unable to contain my own sputtering snickers, “friends or something?”
“Yes,” she confirmed. And when she didn’t laugh, I knew something was funny.
Ruby started “going out” more and more often. At first, it was to walk with Dr. Fred. Then it was to spend time with Dr. Fred. And before I knew it, it was just going to see Fred, as if no indiscretion could be perceived. Since they always met on campus, maybe it was appropriate, but it was hard to tell. According to Ruby, when they weren’t walking together, they were spending time in his office. “He makes me... not laugh,” she had said, but I knew it had turned into something more serious.
Not only was Dr. Fred twelve years older and married, but his wife Tessa was a minor celebrity. As a brilliant woman in the sciences, her presence was sought by everyone, it seemed. She was pulled out of town and out of state and out of the country far more often than Dr. Fred was. According to Ruby, Tessa was the primary reason they didn’t and probably never would have children. They could better serve the public if they devoted themselves to their work. But Dr. Fred admitted there were times when he wished he had kids. And wished he could be honest with Tessa about that. Ruby shared these details with a certain glee. And as much as I savored the insider’s gossip, I couldn’t shake the burning ache to see Dr. Fred suffer some unspeakable tragedy. And this was the person who cared about us more than anyone.
“Fred thinks we should go to Maine,” Ruby said after one of their outings, settling down on the heather gray couch where I had been working. She stretched her long legs on the coffee table and crossed them at the ankles.
“He thinks we need a vacation?” I asked.
“He thinks we need to…” she let a few snickers slide out, “confront the place where mom and dad were killed.”
I looked up from my laptop and tried to gauge how serious Ruby might have been. “How do you confront a place?”
Ruby tried to sigh, but I saw a giggle flicker in the corners of her mouth. “He thinks we haven’t completely grappled with the loss. Even after four years, we haven’t fully allowed ourselves to…” she swallowed repeatedly until the compulsion to laugh had passed, “to grieve.”
I responded with a staccato series of snorts but managed to tame them fairly quickly. “That’s quite a diagnosis from someone who only pitched back into our lives in the last few weeks.”
Ruby let a wide smile take over her face, clearly aware that another one of my mom’s expressions had pitched into my speech. “I’ve shared things with him.”
“About both of us. And,” she added with a quick inhalation, “he’s shared things with me too,” taking an almost sensuously deep breath. “It’s his professional and his personal opinion.”
“The double whammy. Aren’t we lucky.”
“He,” she began, straining to stop a smile from taking over her face, “cares about us. And I care about him.”
I should have been able to read more into her declaration. Had I mined a little deeper, I might have been better prepared for the more personal and inexplicable plan she was about to share. Instead, I just rolled my eyes and returned to my laptop screen, but my mind was consumed with the suggestion that we drive to Maine and confront the road where our parents were killed.
Ruby and I both let the silence stretch, but the longer I sat, the more my resentment festered. I had read the reports about the accident. I could imagine the bend in the road where they were struck by a car racing around the blind turn in the opposite direction, killing my father instantly and launching the car into the brush and over an embankment where it rolled over the rocks and onto the beach. According to a woman who exited The Sea Bend restaurant at the time of the crash, the noise was so forceful it knocked her down. Although our mother died before getting to the hospital, she was still alive when the ambulance arrived. That’s the one that stops me. That’s the one that triggers bubbles of bile that sputter up in acidic, sickening gasps, careening like a car out of control before launching into the air in a halting, fatal laugh.
“I’m going to see Fred again tomorrow,” Ruby said, finally breaking the silence.
“Great,” I answered, without laughing or lifting my eyes from my laptop, not that I had been looking at anything. “Have fun with that.”
I heard Ruby working to steady her breath. “I’m going to make a proposal,” she finally said, causing me to squint up from the screen.
“What are you talking about? What kind of proposal? What does that even mean?”
“It means I’m going to tell him exactly what I want,” she smiled, brown eyes wide.
“And what do you want, exactly?” I asked, not sufficiently prepared for the answer.
“I want…” she said, seeming to process the language, but not allowing herself to laugh, “to have a baby,” she said. “I want to have his baby,” a declaration that was probably intended to provoke a reaction—she had a history, after all—but I had not sufficiently steeled myself for that. I could never really prepare for Ruby. So, her statement could only have been more shocking if she said she wanted to have my baby. Maybe not even then.
“You mean like… with sex? Or something that involves a laboratory?”
She cackled but cut the laugh short. “Not in a laboratory and not just sex. It’s more than that,” she said, clearly willing to pursue the conversation. “Fred sees things in me that I don’t always see in myself. Not at first.”
“Like what? What is there to see?”
She pulled her head back and narrowed her eyes. “What a shitty question,” she said. “You know there’s a reason he mentioned the whole thing about kids.”
“Yeah,” I said, a little shaken that I might have offended her, “because it was on his mind, and he was having a conversation with another human.”
Ruby shook her head. “It’s more than that,” she repeated.
“So, what, you’re just going to waltz into his office and say ‘Hey, Dr. Fred, I want to have your baby’? Like, ‘Take me,’ or something?”
Both of us released arid laughs that died out as quickly as they came. “That sounds like an interesting approach, but I don’t think I’m going to do it like that, exactly. I just think it’s time for me to dive in the water. Finally catch the sea lily glow.”
I stared at my sister. Her face didn’t flinch. “I don’t think that’s what mom meant.”
“How would you know?” she said and stood from the couch, clearly done with me. “I’m going to bed.”
“Sweet dreams,” I said. “But not, you know, that sweet.”
I’m not sure how Ruby slept that night, but I did not sleep well. I was fighting with my blankets and flipping my pillow and sweeping my leg in and out of the covers until the sun started to rise and I finally let myself relax. When I opened my eyes, it was 11:30 and there was a light rain tapping against the window. When I went downstairs, I wasn’t thinking about the conversation I had with Ruby until I saw her note on the kitchen table. Going to campus to meet Fred. xo -R
The blood rushed to my face. I pulled on some clothes, and walked outside, not sure what I planned to do. The ground was wet, and the air was heavy and gray, but the rain seemed to have stopped. I did not feel like walking to campus. I didn’t know what I felt like doing. I walked back inside and started pacing the kitchen, stopping when I saw the car keys dangling from the mushroom-stem hook beside the cabinet.
Ruby and I rarely drove, but we had a car, which was already paid off, and we kept inspected and insured. During her brief stint as a teacher, Ruby used to drive to the school, but now she walked to the library, and I only drove when I absolutely needed something. I didn’t know exactly what I needed now, but there was definitely something.
I grabbed my navy raincoat from the closet, the keys from the kitchen, and left the house.
I pulled up in front of the brick buildings in the center of campus. Just past the sloping grassy hill, in the shadow of a towering oak tree, I saw my dad’s old building. The white-washed brick, wide cylindrical columns, and peeling window frames. It was the first time I had seen it since he died, and I felt it in my throat and chest. I decided to keep driving, circling the streets that surrounded the campus, my eyes darting onto the grounds at regular intervals. I knew I was looking for my sister and Dr. Fred, but I wasn’t sure what I planned to do if I saw them. Would I confront them in some fashion or just try and watch them somehow? After several laps around campus, I realized that the possibility of seeing them was remote at best. It wasn’t a huge campus, but they could be anywhere. Given the low clouds, they were almost certainly inside.
Then as if I had willed it, or another force had gone against my will, I saw them. Ruby was clutching onto Dr. Fred’s elbow. They were laughing. How long had she been with him? Was she following through with her plans to seduce him or were they already post-coital, blissfully soaking in their secret subversive tryst?
I felt a wave of panic rise in my chest, and I stepped on the gas, grateful that no one was crossing the street. Not that there was much doubt, but that answered the fight or flight question for me. I didn’t hesitate to flee. Only now I didn’t know where I was going. Other than away from campus. Driving faster than usual.
I’m not sure how long I drove, but it had started raining again and the wipers were slapping the window bed. The blood didn’t return to my face until I merged onto the highway. That’s when things started to take shape for me. I was going northbound. On an interstate that would take me to Maine. To confront the road where my parents were killed.
After Ruby had brought up Kennebunk, I plugged the location into the GPS on my phone to see how far away it was. Now while I drove, I mounted my phone and hit the stored address, the veins of fate pulsing out of the map.
I drove in a silent daze for nearly two hours before I crossed into Maine. The fall was in full bloom, the colors punching through the cold rain and fog. I saw a 70mph speed limit sign, and I heard the car accelerate, as if my dad were at the wheel. But it wasn’t 75, as he had claimed, and my dad wasn’t behind the wheel. I could barely drive 65 without a sense of panic. So, I slowed to 60, fighting to maintain the speed. The battle persisted until I saw signs for Kennebunk and an icy wind tunnel opened up in my chest.
I was having trouble catching my breath. Blinking more consciously and deliberately than usual. In time with the windshield wipers. Frantically trying to clear my line of vision. I thought I might have a breakdown, but a sign for a service area gave me a short-term goal. Just make it to the service area. Compose yourself. Maybe there’s a sanity station inside? Somewhere near the Popeye’s Chicken?
When I entered the building, there was an unmistakable, industrial hum and the air was strangely clammy, humid, and cold from the rain. I unzipped my raincoat and pulled off my hood. The smells of cleaning solutions and fatty foods assaulted my nostrils. Wet sneakers squealed against the tile floor, and the groan and whine of tables and chairs reverberated around the room. The din of voices was persistently pierced by scolding parents, cackling teenagers, and crying children.
I went to the bathroom and swallowed back the nauseating smell of piss and disinfectant. I didn’t realize how badly I had to go. I tried to convince myself that this was why I was so anxious.
Once I left the bathroom, I was better prepared to survey the short row of restaurants. I hadn’t eaten all day, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of service area fast food. Still, I needed something. More time. Maybe a soda before I could face the highway and head closer to the exit, to the fatal bend in the road. The rain did not make the prospect any easier. I could see it out the glass doors, angling onto the pavement. I turned away from the food court and placed the state of my sanity on the calming potential of the Z-Market.
The buzz of the concession court was dulled a little when I stepped inside the store, but the florescent glare was amplified, causing me to squint. Since there was nothing in particular that I wanted, I skulked through the narrow aisles, brushing against stacks of candy and bumping into rotisserie shelves of chips, as if the market goods were reaching out for help, desperate for attention and extraction. I grabbed a bag of honey barbeque potato chips, Ruby’s favorite flavor, and cradled the airy belly of the bag as I walked to the front. I dropped it onto the counter, but the lone bag made me self-conscious. I grabbed a neat, rigid container of peppermint gum and placed the deep blue package next to the bag, an odd pair that made me inexplicably emotional. I never did grab that soda.
The woman behind the counter was in her late fifties. She had a wide, jowly face, blond hair that was silver and brown at the roots, and pale bronze makeup that seemed caked onto her skin. I held out a $20 bill.
“How are you today honey?” she asked in the raspy voice of a smoker, taking my $20 and plugging the price of the chips and gum into the register, prompting the drawer to ring open. The voice, the ring, the store itself were all things that might have triggered a laughing fit at almost any other time in my adult life, but now I felt the weight of the question.
How am I today?
“I’m overwhelmed,” I answered, surprised at the way my voice came out without a sputter or a snort. “With sadness and confusion.” I heard myself exhale, as if I had been holding my breath since I walked inside. Maybe since my parents had died. “My parents were killed in a car accident nearly four years ago. Not far from this place. And the man who’s reached out the most, who’s been the most concerned, a doctor and a family friend, is with my sister. I think they’re going to have sex. Or maybe they already have. She said she wants to have his baby. He might want that too, even though he’s twelve years older than her and already married.” I looked into her moist green eyes and saw her nod.
“Want a receipt with that?”
“Okay,” I said, and waited for her to bag my goods.
As I walked outside, the cold rain a shock to my head, my phone buzzed. I flipped up my hood but didn’t check my phone until I got to the car and closed myself inside.
It was a text. From my sister. Where are you?
Where am I? From a state-of-mind standpoint, that was a question I really couldn’t answer. But I knew that’s not what she was asking. That’s not something we ever really asked. With a straight face at least.
At a rest area in Maine. Not far from Kennebunk, I typed. I started the engine. Getting back on the road. Can’t text anymore. Hope your day was
I wasn’t sure how to end the sentence. I hoped her day was. Incomplete? In the past?
I snapped my phone into the car mount, hit send on my text, and turned the screen back to the GPS.
Destination: death. Only a few more miles. Spirits will be on your right.
I had just gotten back on the interstate when my phone rang. I knew it was Ruby—Who else could it be? —but I also knew I couldn’t answer. Unfortunately, my thumb missed the memo, receiving the call from the steering wheel, in direct defiance of my governing stem.
At least my mouth was compliant. I didn’t speak. It was the only move I had. I didn’t want to trigger the onslaught of laughter that I knew was waiting. After a static-filled stretch, that’s exactly what burst through: an avalanche of laughter. Cruel. Mocking. Deeper and more driving than I had heard from my sister in ages. I’m sure she was dying to say how good the sex was with Dr. Fred—whether it really happened or not—or how absurd I was for driving away. When was the last time you drove the car? When was the last time you left the state? I’m sure she’d proclaim this was objectively funny.
I was about to hang up when something caught my ear. An elevation in pitch that didn’t trigger the reciprocal urge to laugh, but something closer to rage. I needed to respond.
“RUBY!” I yelled loudly enough to break through her cacophony of cackles, grateful I had mustered the strength to speak her name, and loudly enough to be heard.
But her fit only changed; it didn’t cease. It began to sputter, and I heard her laughing gasp, heaving for more oxygen to fuel her mockery.
Then she gasped again. And again. And again, before I realized she wasn’t actually laughing. But crying. Wailing, even.
I didn’t remember the last time I heard Ruby cry—not even after our parents died—and it was startling to hear it now. Far too raw and real, causing something in my head to strain and flush, as if my brain was blushing from fear or embarrassment.
She kept gasping. Fighting to breathe. My hands had gone from cold and clammy to bloated and hot, sweat-suctioned onto the wheel. My eyes were wide with terror. If I wasn’t driving, straining to remain on the rainy interstate, I would have broken down with her. That’s the primal emotion I was fighting. That and the urge to hear what happened. But I was afraid to talk and afraid to stop the car, especially with the exit approaching. So, I listened as her sobbing began to sputter, and I seized a space to speak: “Are you okay? What happened? Did he hurt you? Was it sex? Are you crying because of sex?”
“No!” she screamed. “Yes!” she followed. And then the crying kicked back up again, but my GPS peeped into the periphery to remind me that my exit was a half-mile ahead.
“Ruby,” I said as loudly and calmly as I could. “My exit is coming up. Mom and dad’s exit is coming up.”
The mention of my parents seemed to stifle her crying enough for me to talk in a softer voice. “I’m going to get off the exit and pull over, so we can talk. I think the spot is… a couple miles down the road.”
I heard a few more gasps, but no actual words as I pulled off the exit, down and around to a single-lane road. I drove a few hundred yards and pulled onto the shoulder. My hands were shaking.
“Did Dr. Fred… rape you?” I heard myself ask, the brutal sound of the question sending a surge of sickness into my stomach.
“What?” she asked, as clear as anything she had uttered since she called. I’m certain she would have started laughing if this were any other circumstance and she hadn’t been wailing in sadness just a few moments before. “He didn’t touch me. He’s never even kissed me!”
“But I thought…” I didn’t know what I thought. “I thought you said this had something to do with… sex.”
“I didn’t say that. Even though it does.”
“What are we talking about, Ruby? Did you have sex with him or not? Were you just saying that to… get a rise out of me?”
“No. I told you; we didn’t have sex.” She gasped again. “He wouldn’t.”
“He wouldn’t? So, you tried?”
“I didn’t have to try. He already did.”
“What does that mean? What does any of this mean? Are you saying with one of his students? Or his patients?”
“With his wife!” she shouted. “Tessa’s pregnant. They’re having a baby!” And she started wailing all over again.
Apparently, Ruby and Fred had been a little giddy when I saw them. That wasn’t an illusion. They walked around campus and had lunch, riding some elated high. Dr. Fred had promised a surprise for Ruby in his office, and Ruby thought she had a surprise for him too. Or rather, she thought they had an understanding of what it would be. When they got back, he closed the door and opened his desk drawer. He pulled out an image. From an ultrasound. “You’re going to be an aunt!” he said, the lack of blood relation not factoring into his statement. Or the fact that Ruby was hoping more for mother. “Auntie Ruby! How does that sound?”
According to Ruby, it took her a humiliatingly long time to comprehend what Dr. Fred was saying. It wasn’t until she reminded him of what he had said about his wife’s reluctance and even opposition to having a baby, that Fred apologized for over-sharing, saying he let his guard down because he always thought of himself as an older brother or an uncle of sorts, claiming he felt the same about me. It wasn’t until he admitted that he had never been happier in his life that Ruby ran out of the office. She paced the campus in shock before heading home. She was dreading the prospect of seeing me, she said, but when I wasn’t home, she began to unravel. That’s when she texted. And when she got my reply, she lost it.
“I can’t believe you drove to Maine,” she said, her voice still sputtering, but she was no longer crying. “How did you know where to go?”
“From the paper,” I told her, assuming she meant the location of the crash. “The Sea Bend restaurant. Where that person said she saw it happen.” I remember the reporter described how there was not a cliff or even a steep embankment as there was in other coastal stretches in Maine, but a lot of brush and rocks that separated the road and the beach. The car had hit them almost head on. “I just put the restaurant in the GPS. It’s like a mile or so from where I am now.”
“Can I come with you?” she asked without a quiver in her voice. “Can we stay on the phone? And maybe you can describe it for me?”
The prospect of describing the scene sent a shiver from my neck through the bones of my throat. “Maybe we can do a video chat or something?” I suggested. “I can show you that way?”
“I don’t…” she began. “I don’t think I can. Not today. But would you just… describe it for me?”
“It’s really raining,” I reminded her, hearing her unleash something like a whimper. “But I guess I can try.”
The sun was starting to set as I approached The Sea Bend. Rain tap-danced over the hood of the car, slide stepping down the windshield. The restaurant was off to the right, set in the elbow of the sharp bend in the road. I described it this way as I pulled into the parking lot, circling around so I was facing the road, the restaurant in my rear-view mirror.
“Like the bone of the elbow?” Ruby asked, and I wondered whether she might have been laughing on instinct.
“Kind of like the whole thing,” I answered, stopping by the edge of the road. As I put the car in park, a blue jay shot up in a line, pulling my eyes to the golden red leaves in a monstrous tree where the blue tail feathers of the dark jay disappeared.
“What do you mean the whole thing?” Ruby asked.
I pulled my eyes from the tree and looked around the nearly empty lot. “The parking lot sort of sets it back from the road a little,” I said. “So maybe the restaurant’s the bone of the elbow and the parking lot’s the fleshy part or something.”
All Ruby had to do was repeat, “fleshy part,” and we both started laughing. Uncontrollably. My foot kept pounding the brake, making a hollow, gasping drum.
When we settled down enough, I told Ruby about the blue jay. How it shot up into the red leaves when I pulled into the parking lot.
“Do you think it’s them?” she asked, with a slight snort.
“Mom and dad? Wouldn’t there have to be two birds then?”
“I guess so,” she answered, and I heard her sigh.
“What does the road look like?” she asked.
The rain and fading light made everything dark, but I could see enough. “Like a road,” I answered, at least semi-conscious that I sounded like a smart ass.
“That’s helpful. Are there any of those yellow, arrowy signs? To warn people about the sharp turn?”
“Yeah,” I said, looking ahead at the forearm of the road where I could see at least three of those signs. “The background’s yellow, but the pointy part is actually black. Looks like there’s a bunch of them.”
“And what about where…” Even though Ruby didn’t finish her sentence, I knew what she was asking.
“I think they went through the brush. Just north of the parking lot,” I said. “The car was coming from the other direction, on the opposite side of the road from the restaurant, but as it turned the corner, I guess it was more in the lane that I came in on. Mom and dad must have just passed the restaurant, and when they turned the corner…”
“Do you want to get out of the car?” Ruby asked. “Maybe see if you can see anything?”
I have no doubt that in any other circumstance, ‘see if you can see’ would have set us off, but my mind was too busy sorting through the options, deciding whether I wanted to get out of the car in the rain and try to physically step into the place where my parents were killed. “Is that what Dr. Fred said to do?” After I asked the question, I realized how snarky and insensitive it might sound. “I don’t mean to be… I mean, I really want to know.”
“I know,” she said, and the lack of laughter helped me believe her. “But I don’t know.”
I shut off the engine, pulled on my hood, took the phone off the car mount, and tucked it against my ear as I opened the door.
Although the accident was four years ago, and I didn’t expect to see any obvious signs of the crash, there did seem to be an impression in the undergrowth, and I could see a tattered path to the beach. I stepped into the brush and turned back toward the road, feeling a sense of vertigo, as if I was leaning against a window that was stories above the ground.
“I may be standing in the spot,” I told my sister. “Like a wide scar in the bushes.”
“Does it feel like anything?” she whispered.
“A little dizzying,” I said. Then I turned around and could see the ocean in the distance. “You want to walk down to the beach?” I asked, as if Ruby were there with me.
“Okay,” she said, without a hint of laughter.
I pushed my way through the brambles and leaves, the roots and weeds grabbing at my legs like the fingers of the undead. But the stones prevented my feet from sliding too much as I descended the small slope to the wet, gravelly sand.
“I hear the rain,” my sister said, as I walked onto the beach.
“It’s tapping on my hood,” I said, grateful for the sound that seemed so confident and true to me. When I got about halfway to the water, I stopped. “I think I’m going to sit.”
“Okay,” Ruby replied. “Me too.”
I felt the cold, damp ground soak into my pants. I looked out at the water. Despite the rain and clouds, the setting sun seemed determined to establish itself, casting a bloody glare across the slate black surface. I told my sister about the light on the waves. “It’s like it’s fighting to be seen.” I felt myself start to shiver. “Kind of beautiful.”
“How would mom describe it?” Her voice sounded hoarse.
“Distorted,” I answered. “But real. Like seeing the world through tears.”
Ruby didn’t respond at first, but then I heard her whisper, “That’s so cheesy.”
We both burst at the same time, laughing until our tears had turned, and the salt ran into the sand.
Copyright © 2022 by Aaron Tillman.
About the Author
Aaron Tillman lives in Boston and teaches writing at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His short story collection, Consolation Miracles, was published by Gateway Literary Press in January 2022; his book of critical nonfiction, Magical American Jew, was published by Lexington Books in 2018, and his short story collection, Every Single Bone in My Brain, was published by Braddock Avenue Books in 2017. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appeared in a variety of journals, including Mississippi Review, Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, Harpur Palate, upstreet, Sou’wester, Solstice Literary Magazine, The Madison Review, and great weather for MEDIA. He has recorded stories for radio broadcast, and his essays have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Studies in American Humor, Symbolism, The CEA Critic, and The Intersection of Fantasy and Native America. Visit his website: aarontillmanfiction.com