STORY OF THE YEAR 2010
by Gilbert Richard Emery
“Lady?” His tired voice intrudes on the early morning quiet of a tree-lined easement. Where has she gotten to? The old man calls again for his little friend, a black and white spaniel mix. Most times, his voice is enough to bring the little dog scampering back. Then she sits at his feet looking for all the world like a child caught with a hand in the cookie jar. Is today somehow different? He remembers hearing reports of a bear in the area. Has she confronted it? Lady was no match for the slashing claws of a cornered animal.
Fear puts purpose into his steps. Wheezing with the effort, he pushes his weathered limbs into an unnatural rickety gait. Up ahead the path opens onto a lush meadow. A copse of trees stands off to his right sheltering a dilapidated barn whose paint chipped doors squeak on rusty hinges in a light breeze. Somewhere, in the distance, a whistle sounds, frightening the few crows sitting on the power lines that border the easement.
Something blocks his way. Lady is barking at him from the other side of a translucent wall. It stretches across the path like an enormous sheet of cellophane, shimmering like a transparent sail of an invisible ship. Bisecting the center, as if cut by a surgeon’s scalpel, is an opening. It seems to pulsate with a funereal thrumming like the beat of an arrhythmic heart. The old man stops running, overcome by the effort. His vision blurs as he bends over trying to catch his breath. He no longer hears the strident barks of his dog. Somehow, he’s been drawn through the opening into a vortex. Pinpoints of light like thousands of paparazzi bulbs flash in rapid succession. Within the swirling mass images appear; a long forgotten Christmas; a birthday complete with a cake and presents; a funeral and a coffin being lowered into the eternal ground. His life seems to be flickering by like an old kinescope of a long ago TV show.
One bulb grows brighter than the others. It begins to focus. A blond image of blue eyes and soft skin, memories of long summer nights filled with love and promises mixed with the scent of her perfume. He remembers their last night with a mixture of pain and regret. She had come to him with tear filled eyes and he had turned away, leaving her to solve her own life’s calculus. Like a film stuck in a projector’s sprocket, the scene dissolves and burns.
The flashes seem to be slowing down but increasing in intensity as he spirals down the abyss. Another flash and the crack of a bullet as it rockets past his helmeted head. The Chosun Reservoir and the foxhole; the acrid stench of gunpowder mixed with fear. Like thousands of angry ants the enemy advances up the hill towards his position, their bugles adding to the cacophony of battle. The shock of an exploding howitzer shell throws him against the opposite wall of the trench. A young soldier lies next to him; the blast from the shell has almost ripped him in two. He can smell the coppery odor of blood as it oozes from the gaping wound. He tries to hold him together but the boy keeps slips through his blood drenched fingers. A popping sound and the scene disintegrates like all the others. Am I dying, watching my life stream by like scenes from a B movie? He reaches for a bulb with hands that, are now, only constructs of his mind.
A single naked bulb lights the gloom. A hospital room, its walls oppressive, claustrophobic, pressing inward on a scene of decay. He smells, again, the odor of rotting flesh mixed with disinfectant. She is lying on a rubber mattress on a steel bed, its bared sides like a cage keeping death inside. Tubes are everywhere like tapeworms sucking out life. The haunted eyes in deep sockets plead for release. The tortured face, once beautiful, grimaces in agony as a new wave of pain ravages her body.
“Please,” she whispers and then rattles as her last breath shudders from her.
The tunnel is long gone. He watches as an amorphous mass congeals into stars. Then stars become galaxies and galaxies a universe. It is birth and death on a cosmic scale. Some in the glory of birth others in the throes of death. Massive systems begin to contract in upon themselves in soundless implosions becoming giant black holes. Streams of matter, incalculably long, eject multi-light year jet streams into the void. It all contracts into a single pin-point, a singularity, drawing him in. Will I know if I cease to exist?
“Mommy, Mommy,” a little boy pulls at his Mother’s skirt.
“Shhh Andrew,” she pushes the child away continuing her phone call.
Like all children he is persistent. “But Mommy,” he stammers, “Mr. Kelly fell down.”
She quickly ends her phone call responding to the fear in the child’s eyes. The Mother lets the little four year-old lead her outside and up the path to the prostrate body. The old man is lying on his back, his dog is by his side with her head resting on his chest.
With eyes wide as saucers the child pleads, “Momma…is he dead?”
In answer she opens her cell phone and dials for help. The boy looks down at the small dog and squats bedside her petting her head. There is a moment that passes between them, a kind of understanding.
“Momma, can we take her home?”