Elise reaches out to still her mother’s hand. For the past five minutes, her mother has repeatedly scrubbed her fingers under her nose. Every time she does this, she manages to dislodge her oxygen tubes, sending of a titter of anxious beeps through the machines.
As soon as Elise releases her thin fingers, they slide under the plastic once more and scrape against the pink, flaking skin beneath her nostrils.
“It itches,” her mother says.
Elise frowns. “I’m sure it does, but you’re rubbing your nose raw.”
“The tube is rubbing my nose raw.”
“I’ll ask the nurse if they can do anything to help it,” Elise offers.
Her mother laughs. “Save your breath. They’ve got more to worry about than that.” She reaches for a plastic cup of ice water sitting on her bedside table. “Little Bobbi,” her mother begins, “my roommate.” She waits for a nod of recognition from Elise.
“She took a bad turn the other night. She has a brain tumor, you know.” She shakes the cup. “Or rather, had a brain tumor. A male nurse used one of his saves on her. She was able to walk out of here the next day. Full remission.”
Elise stares at her hands, but she can feel her mother’s eyes on the side of her face. “Must’ve been a new nurse.”
Her mother holds the cup to her lips, takes a ginger mouthful and swallows. Her lips are so cracked that she stains the rim with a tiny smear of blood.
“He was young,” she says. “I don’t think he’d been here a week before it happened.”
Elise digs in her purse until she finds an unopened chapstick. “Here.” She hands it to her mother.
Her mother dabs at the drop of blood still seeping from her cracked lip and then seals the divide with a thick layer of waxy balm. It takes her two tries to get the cap back on. She stares at Elise as she hands the tube back. “I’m dying,” she says. “You know that right?”
“The doctor says—”
“The doctor,” her mother snaps, “didn’t save Bobbi. The nurse did.”
Elise unzips her purse and drops the chapstick inside. She thinks better of it and takes it out again, setting it next to her mother’s ice water. “You know what you’re asking me,” she finally says.
Her mother pulls the sheet up to her chin and presses her mouth against it.
“Nothing you haven’t asked of me.”
“I never asked,” Elise begins.
“You didn’t have to,” her mother says. “I did it anyway.”
It takes Elise 45 minutes longer than usual to make it home from work. She can smell food cooking—something Italian—before she reaches the door. Thomas works 12 hour days and wants food as soon as he’s home. If Elise isn’t home in time for them to cook together, he always starts the meal. He likes to tell her that he makes a better housewife than she ever could, but she knows he relishes this fact rather than begrudges it. When Elise walks into the kitchen, she finds him standing over a pot of bubbling Bolognese sauce, dabbing at the front of his shirt with a damp paper towel. He starts to smile when he sees her, but it snags on one side of his mouth and hangs there without ever making it to the other side.
“You’re late,” he says. “Traffic?”
Elise slides her purse onto the counter. “Yeah, it was pretty slow.”
The smile levels out across his lips, easy again. “Bummer,” he says. “How is she?”
Elise pulls up a stool. “Alright. Or not well. I don’t really know.” She hovers her pinky over the sauce, feeling a thin layer of condensation pooling on her skin from the steam. It’s hot enough to burn a little. She jabs her finger quickly into the pot, submerging it to its base and bringing it to her mouth. Thomas watches her, waiting for a reaction. It’s good. Really good. The best he’s ever made before—not too sweet, not too salty. But her mouth dries as soon as she’s swallowed, and she finds herself mumbling an apology about not feeling well, and seeking out the couch in the living room.
Sammy is stretched across two couch cushions, his front paws extended in front of his body and the pink pads of his back paws facing the ceiling. He thumps his tail listlessly and yawns, letting drool slide down his pink tongue onto Elise’s preferred pillow before she shoos him off the couch. He jumps onto the coffee table, and the pile of mail and old magazines shifts beneath him, threatening to spill off the edges. Between a yellow electric bill and an old copy of O Magazine, Elise can see the face of a cherubic infant laughing toothlessly from a prenatal pamphlet. She knows Thomas must have picked it up the last time they were at the hospital together visiting her mom. Elise pushes the pamphlet under Sammy’s paw until most of the infant’s face is obscured by white fur. She thinks about going back into the kitchen, telling Thomas that leaving these goddamn things all over the house isn’t going to make her want to try any sooner. The thought of emptying her lungs, shouting and shouting until the tension in her shoulders snaps and the rawness of her throat gives her the option of silence, propels her back towards the kitchen. At the doorway, she pauses. Thomas is standing with his back to the door, carefully ladling sauce onto two plates of steaming white noodles. The plate on the right holds a small ramekin full of sauce so Elise can control her noodle to sauce ratio. It’s something he loves to tease her about, but never fails to accommodate. Her anger shrivels, curling into guilt. She presses the palm of her hand flat against the small of his back and reaches for her plate. She can make herself eat two bites. He’ll be happy even with that.
On her drive into work the next morning Elise allows herself to get lost in running numbers, creating budgets, finding solid, numerical solutions to the problems her firm throws at her. It always feels like she’s solving one of those word problems from a standardized test. The ones that nearly everyone in her class had always hated so much, but that Elise had always loved. To get Lawyer A to Baltimore it will take a plane ticket of x, a rental car of y, (plus gas, g), and food for three days at z per meal and three meals per day.
Elise tries to think of her life as a word problem: Elise has one save. She once had three. Save One she used on her father and that was the right choice. Save Two she used on her ex-boyfriend Charles when he overdosed the first time on heroin, and that was the wrong choice. (Not because Charles deserved to die, but because it wasn’t really her place.) Thomas has zero saves. Elise plus Thomas equals one save. If Elise has one sick mother, one young husband, and one (potential) family, how should she use her final save? Please show your work.
Seven years ago, when Elise was in her last year of college, her mother used her third and final save on Elise’s father. He’d been driving home from Sampo’s Bar on a Friday night when the neighbor’s dog, an elderly black lab named Cookie, had dashed across the highway in pursuit of what was most likely a rabbit. Elise’s dad had swerved to avoid it and rolled their old jeep end over end into a ditch. The accident had occurred only a few miles from the house. When the police had called Elise’s mother, it wasn’t ten minutes before the two of them were sliding into the gravel behind the red and blue swirls of emergency vehicles. Her mother, flinging open the car door, had stepped into the cutting air in nothing but an oversized Winnie the Pooh nightshirt and a pair of her husband’s work boots, shaking and shaking, but seemingly unconscious of the cold. Broken ribs, a punctured lung, a ruptured spleen—maybe he could have made it on his own. Maybe he could have pulled through. But the moment Elise’s mother saw her husband’s limp body being heaved through a shattered car window, she decided to give up her last save if it meant she could drive him home that night, tuck him into bed, and know for certain that she’d wake up to his easy laugh and lined face the next morning.
Elise’s father did come home that night; Elise remembered leaning against the console from the backseat of the pickup truck and clutching his hand tightly, while her other hand squeezed the thin shoulder of her mother, who drove them silent and white-lipped back to the house. Almost more terrifying than the near death of her father, was the idea that her mother had nothing left. Not a single save for herself. One for Elise. Two for Elise’s father.
Three months later, Elise’s father would be dead: killed instantly in a work-related accident and Elise’s mother would be left wondering if the three months had been worth her last save. If maybe she shouldn’t have held on to it for the future. But no. Time is precious. Surely she would have made the same choice even if she could have done it over. Time is precious.
Tonight, about halfway through sex, Elise looks down at Thomas and finds herself wondering what it would be like if the intent behind her lovemaking were different. For a moment, she allows herself to imagine coming together with the intent of creating something new, something good, instead of with a desire take away everything she doesn’t want to think or feel or be. She wonders if maybe she is ready, has been ready. If maybe waiting, out of guilt, out of fear, out of the crushing weight of “what if” isn’t really saving anyone. Not her mother. Not her unborn baby. She presses her face into Thomas’s slick neck and lets even this thought wash away.
The first save Elise ever used was on her father. She remembers the ripping, breathless feeling that accompanied it—as if something were being wrenched from an essence inside of her that she had no name for. She didn’t begrudge him. There were risks associated with a job like her father’s, and while accidents didn’t happen often, the idea of welding under the weight of meters and meters of water never became something Elise could make herself comfortable with. One weekend when Elise’s mother was out of town helping Aunt Rhonda through a divorce—it could have been husband number two or husband number three—Elise’s father came home after work complaining of lower back pain. He’d taken some ibuprofen and settled into his recliner to watch reruns of Ren and Stimpy. An hour later, Elise would walk into the living room after getting no response to her repeated question of “chocolate or vanilla?” and find him slumped in his chair, nearly insensible. An hour later, and he would be checked into the ICU for severe decompression illness, and then, three hours after his initial complaint of “man, my back aches like a sonuvabitch today,” Elise would give up her first save freely and almost unthinkingly, terrified by her first glimpse of mortality.
Even though it was several months before she stopped feeling like some phantom limb of her psyche, her soul, her—she didn’t really know what—was operating inside her, Elise didn’t regret what she’d done. It had bought her more time with him. And for a man who had used all of his saves before the age of 16, time was everything. Elise’s save bought them another six years with him. Another six years until the crash.
“Your Mom is going to be fine,” Thomas says. It has been a silent morning as he and Elise have orbited around one another, two planets just barely grazing as they swap places showering, brushing teeth, getting dressed. They’ve finally collided, hovering around the coffee maker as it drips slowly, forcing them to wait. “Dr. Kal thinks there’s a good chance of recovery,” he adds. “I really think she’s going to be fine.”
Elise grunts in response. She wants to ask him where that confidence was when he used his saves on his sister, his first wife, himself. He steps closer to Elise, bowing his head, trying to get her to make eye contact with him.
“She can’t ask you to do this,” he says. “This isn’t your responsibility.”
Elise watches black drop after black drop plunk into little over an inch of coffee that’s pooling at the bottom of the carafe. Maybe Thomas is right. This probably isn’t something a mother should ask of her daughter. But Thomas wasn’t there when Elise got sick in seventh grade. He didn’t see her mother, eyes swallowed by grey bags, stealing silently into her room, anxiously slipping a thermometer into her ear every couple of hours. He didn’t see her methodically running a cool rag over Elise’s feverish forehead, her stiff and swollen neck—curled in the twin bed next to her for three days before she couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t think of ever wanting anything more than to feel her baby girl’s forehead cool beneath her fingers again.
Thomas touches her elbows, gently, reassuringly. “It makes sense to wait,” he says.
Elise leans into him for a second, gives him a small smile, and pulls away.
“Not when it’s cancer.”
Elise is in the middle of a meeting when her phone shakes the conference table. She’s about to shove the phone in her purse, thinking it’s a text from Thomas, when she sees “Mom” flash across her screen. “Excuse me,” she murmurs. She grabs her phone and gets up, sneaking out the door. She hesitates for a moment, finger poised above the screen, before she swipes to the right. “Can you bring me my fleece blanket? thx”
Elise lets out a breath. Good. She’s alright. She squints, looks at the message again. Hadn’t she brought her that blanket a week ago? Elise feels her stomach contract. She walks back to the conference room and sticks her head through the door. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I have to go. My mom wants me.” John looks at her in concern. He’s always been the kinder partner. Not like Bennett. Bennett is an asshole. John gives her a thumbs up. “That’s fine,” he mouths. Bennett doesn’t look at her at all.
Elise swings by Target on the way to the hospital to buy a blanket. She knows this isn’t what this is really about, but it makes her feel better to buy it anyway, almost like the act of buying it will prevent this visit from being anything other than a quick drop-off. She picks a blue one. It’s soft and similar to the one she’s already brought her mother. She drives with the bag sitting on her lap, the fingers of her right hand swaddled within the plush folds.
Her mother is sleeping when she walks in. She looks thin, dwarfed by the size of her bed, but she also looks peaceful. The blanket Elise brought her last week is tucked around her feet. Elise notices that the skin under her mother’s nose is still raw, but that her lip seems to have healed. She walks closer, lets her fingers nearly, just nearly brush the surface of her mother’s face and graze the thin fuzz covering the top of her head. Her mother opens her eyes, flinching in surprise at Elise’s nearness. It takes her a moment to fully orient herself, and then she stares at the bag on Elise’s arm. Something seems to pass over her face—something hard and yet unsurprised. Elise attempts to remove the blanket from the bag, but her hands are shaking so much she nearly drops it. A second attempt. She manages to drape it over the bed’s handrail.
Her mother looks at her. “You’ve decided.”
Elise wills her to say “I understand.” To tell her “I’d do the same” or “I love you” or even “You’re a disappointment and I never want to see you again.” Instead she just nods, pulling the sheet up to her mouth. The scab on her lip has started to split again, but she doesn’t seem to notice it. “I thought so,” she says.
Elise fingers the blanket. “I love you.”
Her mother looks at her. “I know.” She reaches for the chapstick Elise had left her the other day and forces it into Elise’s hands. “Here,” she says. “Here.”
Danielle Gillespie is a recent University of Evansville graduate, and an MFA candidate for the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She currently lives in the Midwest where she is amassing shelter animals at an alarming rate. Her work has been published in Quaint Magazine and Agave Magazine.