Short Story of the Week (I): Heliotrope


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If you decided, in a half-light head-space, to slip out the back door shoe-less into the cold grass, across the morning ground that breathes with a rise and fall below your cold feet, and make your way to what you deem to be the center of things...and stop, would you look up or look down? Would you tilt your face to the east?

Would you feel an itching impulse to sink your toes in the wet dark dirt, wriggle them like worms, then lay yourself down with a cheek to the earth, attempt to reconcile particle with particle? Will you bury yourself as a new seed in the soil, wait for the rain so your shoots may surface, and your yellow buds slowly slowly begin to try to reach the sun?

Or, will your eyes trampoline to the still dim sky, bouncing, unpredictably, from star to star. An untraceable zig-zag, two fire-flies escaped from the jar. Would you find the moon, bowing on her way out but still holding on to the glow and beg her to take you with her. When she shivers silently, whistling no, and the sky begins to lighten anyway do you feel left behind, abandoned to the day? 

Will you write me, when you discover which way you face? When the light of the risen sun first touches your skin,you will find that you either turn away or lean in. I have been made to solar track, and I'll follow the lovelight until it leaves me. Then, I'll turn my face to the east once again, and wait for the next rise. 


In the morning-rush the road is cruel and glaring. I merge, too fast, onto the highway and butt up close to the Toyota ahead of me. When you are running behind, hell bent on your destination, it seems like every other vehicle on the road is in your way, a pest you want to squish. The sun is bright and hot, purple spots dance between lanes in my vision. I've forgotten my sunglasses. One hand digs in the middle compartment, ahospice for random forgotten items and halfheartedly discarded trash, while the other holds the wheel straight. I identify by touch broken charger chords, crumpled napkins, receipts, old empty CD cases, mostly ink-less pens, a pack of the gross cinnamon gum my brother likes, but not sunglasses. No, never the thing one needs. 

I narrow my eyes against the glare and try to stop thinking about how much I do not want to get where I am going. Which is probably not a nice thought, considering.  No one asked me to go. I volunteered. I want to be the one who shows up. I like being the one who is there. When she phoned, I didn't have words for her. Every possible selection felt like forcing the triangle shape into the circle slot.             


"I got your message..."                                 

"Yeah. Well, fuck right?"                               

"Yeah, fuck", followed by shameful nervous laughter to hide my inadequacy, then an attempt. "But love, you're---"

A huge tired sigh seeped through the receiver. And I knew I had fucked up already, picked the wrong words before I even completed a sentence and I was determined not to do it again.I chewed the inside of my lip and waited.               

"So strong, right? I'm soooo strong. Well, I guess we'll find out. I wouldn't bet on me though. Wouldn't hold out to see my face up there in those fucking t.v commercials for research donations, the one's with the fighters,thesurvivors.They don’t call it terminal for no reason do they? Terminal. Train’s leaving the station for good." And then a bark of a laugh, broken and rough.

I couldn't say anything. In the opposite of what that call was supposed to be, the proper pattern, my silence forced her to dig up her own words,to dangle all those meaningless offerings of hope as if I were the one who needed them. As if I were the one who had just been told I was sick, that my body had declared war. I could hear her breathing on the other end, the way she used to when she had to calm herself before a big exam or cool down after she finished sprinting around the block for no reason other than she wanted an excuse not to be in her house, waiting to be somewhere. Breathing deeply and largely through her nose. 1 2 3 4, in. 1 2 3 4, out.                

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to-- . I'm just, yeah, shaken I guess. But it's okay, I'll try to, um, keep the faith. Or whatever."She was almost whispering.

 “I’ll come up tomorrow okay? I’ll leave first thing and I’ll be there before 4.” Because I may really not know how to find the right words but what I do know how to do is drive. And I know how to hold a person who is scared.


I drive east and watch the sun climb higher in the sky as I switch freeways. I put the radio on scan, letting it jump from frequency to frequency, cutting off sports talk shows for country, stuttering from jazz to a pop show.I notice a nice welcoming gap in the lane to my left,andI'm about to flick my signal and slip over when I see the car in front has their hazard lights flashing. And the one in front of that is a shiny dark hearse. Then I look in the rearview: A winding line of cars with lights flashing, tailing each other faithfully. I remember that this is what people do when they travel from a funeral to a burial. This is how they stay together, how they don’t lose Aunt Joan and Uncle Luis in the Pilot who can never remember directions. It’s how they send a message too I suppose. We are processing, we are grieving, but we are a grieving horde. Please note that today someone loved by twelve cars of people is being put into the ground.

I get a little bit nervous, thinking how I almost cut off the funeral procession. I was almost that asshole, too focused on beating the traffic than respecting the somber parade. The oblivious interrupting car, no hazard lights, no solidarity, just a break in the chain. Then, I’m tempted to do it anyway. I want to get to the left lane. I also want to follow someone somewhere; I want to have an interaction as simple to navigate and understand as being the attendee of a funeral. I think I’d know my lines better.

I signal left and join the procession. I don’t know why. But once in the connected row of vehicles, I feel better. Joined. My car has a meaning, a purpose. My lights are communicating. But I am only impersonating. I am ushering a spirit onward whom I have never met before. Meanwhile, a still living one waits for me to come and tell her it was all a dream. Promise I will never tailgate a hearse that houses her body.



Two and a half hours in and I’m sweating, my arm starting to burn and bake, elbow perched on rolled down window, fingers catching air. I have to blink hard to keep my stinging eyes from failing me. They are itching like mad, and I think it must be the pollen. I left the funeral procession behind me a while ago. I kept thinking they would get off an exit all at once, a school of fish, and leave me floating in the middle lane, revealed. But they kept on. I thought it was weird they took the highway, thought these things usually stick to quieter streets, easier and less abrasive routes. That person’s last resting place must be a ways away and I wondered if the imaginary Cousin Bernice in Car 9 was also asking herself if they were almost there yet.

I tell myself I need a second off the road to try and see with un-pained eyes again. I pull off at the service area to use the restroom. But after, I end up standing in the small convenience store inside and staring too long at things I know I don’t want. Nothing seems right and the more things I find that I don’t want, the more frustrated I get. Why can’t there be something? Why have I wasted stopping ten minutes here? I pick up a packet of sour candy I know I won’t buy and search for an expiration date for fun; I know that I am procrastinating getting there, just stalling. So, I drop the bag, which did in fact expire in March two years ago, back in its place with more aggravation than is warranted and I march back through the doors and away from the air conditioning. How many people before me also picked up that bag, empty of desire, and then left it back on the shelf, having convinced themselves to get back in the car? I climb in and steer back onto the highway, back into the sun’s domain.



When I was younger I couldn’t look sunflowers in the eye. They seemed so human, the way they open up like that, the way they look at you, a big hopeful vulnerable face with one eye, taking all of you in. It was terrifying, in the same way dolls are terrifying, I suppose. The fact that they move themselves, that they rotate their faces to catch the sun as it moves in its arc over us, made them even more fascinatingly creepy to me. I would imagine that, left alone with a sunflower, its big bud of a head would slowly turn to me, mesmerized I would lean closer and then the fuzzy black center would open up and swallow me hole.



When I pull off the exit, it is almost 4:30. I wonder if she’s waiting. I wonder if she’s made tea. We’d always have tea at 4:15 precisely when she was living in my room as kids. It was one of the first things we qualified as being “adult”. My mom taught us the proper way to boil the kettle. We’d putter about together, exaggerating our waiting, turning circles on the kitchen floor until the thing popped its top and started to sing. We’d both jump and stand a moment, watching it steam and shriek before someone came in to turn off the burner. Next, pour the hot water into the white round pot, having placed the tea bags inside. Let steep. Two painted tea cups are positioned carefully on a tray. Then, lots of honey and too much milk.

I reach her street and realize that not once on this drive have I even allowed myself to think the thought. The if she goes thought. And now the damn breaks and the thought won’t stop. Numb silence to panicked cacophony up there in a fraction of a second. The actual idea of there being a space she used to occupy, a space that is only defined by its lacking of her, and that space being her home that I’m about to enter, that is what I can’t make feel real. Will I be the one to clean it out? To pack things in boxes and go through clothes as if I could ever wear something that belonged to her, walking around in a world that she no longer belongs to. I am not one for the practice of dressing myself in ghosts. But she’s still here, I think. Stop, I command. There is still time, I chant, She won’t go not her, I beg.

I park on the opposite curb and get out. I don’t take anything, nothing is needed. The outer door is open and unlocked. I knock lightly, call her name, step in. She’s in the kitchen, sitting at the table, shorts cotton shirt and socks. Her hands are placed in front of her, formed around the shape of a mug or a candle or some warm thing but they are empty, catching air. She looks out the window, vague eyes, the kind of looking that doesn’t see. Her eyes seem as if they’ve just blinked open from a week long slumber and they don’t yet know how to receive light. She blinks after I enter, her hands rub together, she turns her face to me and starts to rise, trying to snap into normalcy.

“Hi, you’re here”

“I’m here. Have you been waiting?”

“No, no its fine. I’ve just been watching, watching things dim.” Because it is that time of evening, the last few hours before sunset when the light is slowly softening, the air cools and people arrive home to their families. My mom used to call it the dim hour. But to her the dimming was beautiful, her favorite. And in this moment the dimming seems different to us, a curdled term. I look at her and she looks at me and I know we both would like the dim hour to stop diving towards darkness for once.

A thought: If someone sits in a place, hands clasped, eyes searching and expectant, but no one is or ever was coming, can they still be said to be waiting. Or are they just sitting.

“How was the drive?”



“Do you command the heat of the sun now?”

“No, so not sorry.”


I ask her if she’s eaten. She says she hasn’t so I start moving, still terrified of words and their failings. I flick the lights on in the kitchen, driving away the curious shadows, and gather my supplies. I make the tea, I build her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When the kettle starts to scream, I trip to turn it off as fast as possible. I can feel her watching my movements. Perhaps, envying the purpose my bones have found.

I set everything down on the table and make her put her feet in my lap. I clutch a too hot mug, relieved as she takes bite after bite until nothing remains but a drop of cherry jam on her chin.

Those hours I was there we simply existed together. The time was slow and suspended like the light. We did not pretend things were different. But we didn’t need to talk about it either. Instead I trailed behind her down the hall to her room and we laid on her bed. Head touching head, feet dangling off the sides. We listened to an old audio book that neither of us can remember how we found. Enjoying the deep voice of the reader, the silly sound effects. At one point, out of the stillness we created, she spoke.

“What am I going to do?”

We held our breath. I turned on my stomach to look at her. There it was again that dazed, unfocused look. I could now identify it as the don't leave melook. But it wasn't me it was meant for. It was herself. The acute desperation of pleading with your own body. Don't. Fall. A part. 

I knew I couldn’t refuse her words anymore. I knew she needed someone to answer her.

“Eat, Sleep, Wake, Live, Repeat; as always.”

“Your mom would have told me “trust, trust the turning of things.””. She would have. We can’t stop it, and so this can’t stop you. It did stop her though. But I knew that was not what needed to be said right then. I knew it was what we were both thinking, how we’ve been through this one too many times before and now it’s like the diagnosis equivalent of a fucked prank call.

“So do it. Listen to her.” I could hear how she’d whisper it to me for the thousandth time when visiting her in hospital. Trust the sun, it always comes back around.

Part of me knows that those words are just band-aids. But maybe they are true enough to work too. Besides, that’s what you do right? When there is a wound, when there is damage you patch it, hold tight, and wait to heal.



  When it is time to leave, the dim hour has been kindled into flame. The sky to the west is burning, purple and orange and the hot blue of a gaslight. She tells me her father is coming to take her to the hospital tomorrow to start treatment. She says, he ran away from her needing him before but now he wants to be there. I think, well it’s about fucking time. She laughs and says, now or never, right? I don’t answer I just kiss her under both eyes and hug her whole.

“Next week!” I call from the car. I pull away and point back west again, to the center of the burn.



The last stretch, a drive alone on a dark road. Black pitch behind me, headlights from the other side of the freeway, temporarily blinding as they flash off my windshield. Dizzying, an affront. It works against my focus, confuses tired eyes. I try not to see them, I focus on the always receding red beams ahead, polite in their brightness, drawing me on, tempting me over peaks and around bends. I find comfort in the night trucks trimmed in crimson, many little dots creating an outline, like a house decked for Christmas time. Steady on, despite the weavers, the tail-gaiters, the dalliers, and the goddamn speed racers. 

It's a hot night. The wind is loud with both windows cracked. Mom’skeys, crowded with many chain tokens and plastic coupon tags, hang from the ignition, brush and bounce against my bare right knee. I’ve just gotten back on the road after finally finding a rest top that would give me coffee when my phone rings. I answer; then, a soft voice.

“Hi. You’re driving, but I have something for you. Stay awake.”

I was admittedly getting tired before the call and before the coffee. Both act as just the right remedy. I drive, one hand light on the wheel, the other holding a giant plastic cup containing largely more ice than caffeine, resting the cool touch of it on my leg; and he plays. The piano comes through the car speaker system, a little fuzzy, a little distant and broken, like an old radio carelessly tuned, but clear and true. My player plays on, the tune lifting, falling, stopping, starting, notes plucking along---sent live through the phone, my personal road accompaniment. The music is played free, I can hear the fingers hovering over the keys, a change of direction, a thought, in the silences that fall momentarily in between. The car fills, a lullaby buzz. I speed on, eyes relaxed now on the road, senses both occupied and at ease. A soft smile now, liking the tune, the breeze, even the too sweet coffee, even the meandering. The turning of things.



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