By Kayleigh Merritt
On the day her sister went into the hospital, Josie drove out to the Willows. The weather was cool, a light dip into spring, with mist that clung to her hair but not to her skin. The boardwalk was almost empty, only a handful of people walked past her—other locals who came before the weather warmed, before the tourists found their way. From the arcade, she heard coins dancing together to the music of retro video games. The smell of salt, wet wood, and metal mixed with fried dough, Chinese food, and butter. Josie bought a bag of sweet popcorn from E.W. Hobbs and chucked it at the seagulls, kernel by kernel.
I hope it kills you, she had said to her sister.
Bored with the desperation of the birds, Josie found a flat rock, still damp from the morning rain, and sat overlooking the Salem-Beverly Bridge. She poured what was left of her popcorn into the water, smiling as the kernels lost their form and became what seemed to be bits of yellow mucus drifting and rising with the current. Her cell phone buzzed from the pocket of her jeans and sang “Whole Wide World.” Josie thought about throwing the phone in, too, imagined the plop and splash when it broke the surface and was sucked under, the shocked, bug-eyed faces of the small fish it would surely disturb on its way to the rocky New England seafloor. She thought of the phone flipping open and her mother’s water-warped voice telling the seaweed, “Your sister’s okay. Josie, can you hear me? She’s okay.”
Josie kicked her feet to the strumming of the bass until her phone stopped vibrating and the song stopped playing. She took the phone out, disappointed to find that the call she’d casually missed had been her boyfriend, not her mother or brother-in-law calling with an update. There was a voicemail, but Josie didn’t listen to it. They all said the same thing, more or less: “Where are you? I love you. Call me back.” She thought she might this time.
When it started to rain, Josie drove home. She turned off the kitchen light, leaving her apartment almost dark but for the light coming from the television, left on from that morning. Josie found a marathon of Friends reruns on TBS and curled up on the couch and laughed. When it was black outside, she checked her silent phone.
Maybe it will kill me, her sister had said, and then where would you be?
Somewhere else, Josie had said.
Without her sister, Josie thought she would be far away, living in another country, speaking another language, eating Brie and drinking wine. Or at the very least she would be working for a law firm in Chicago or New York instead of flying through part-time temp positions that kept her close to home. She wouldn’t be sitting for hours in the parking lot of Top Specialists, reading worn out romance novels while she waited for more blood to be drawn, more urine to be collected, more options to be explained. She wouldn’t be making peanut butter and Fluff sandwiches for her three-year-old niece because her brother-in-law couldn’t take any more days off from work.
Josie was still on the couch when her boyfriend knocked at 7:00 a.m. He had his own key, but he knocked anyway, no matter how often Josie insisted that he didn’t have to. She called for him to come in, heard the key turn, the rustle of the Dunkin’ Donuts bag that contained at least one glazed stick for him and a strawberry frosted for her. She could smell his coffee, too, and all the extra sugar he had put into it. He came in and stood in front of the couch, fresh, dressed for work, looking at her with his head tilted to the right. Josie yawned and pulled her legs up so he could sit down.
“You’re not at your job,” he said, no rise in his voice at the end, no question. “Josie, you need to let them know. You’ll get fired.”
“I’m just temporary anyway,” Josie said. There were enough legal aides to shuffle paperwork around without her.
They ate their doughnuts, and before he left for work her boyfriend cleaned up the plate in the kitchen and kissed the top of her head. Josie saw him look at her phone, turned face-down against the coffee table. “You should call them,” he said, and locked the door behind him.
Josie didn’t call. She went into work the next day, and when her manager asked her where she had been she said that her sister had gone into the hospital for surgery, and didn’t he remember her telling him so? He apologized and asked how her sister was doing, and when Josie said, “I don’t know,” he left her alone for the rest of the morning.
At lunch she went out with her coworkers to a little Polish café off Lappin Park. She ordered mushroom pierogi and a water. One of her coworkers said, “I heard your sister was in the hospital. I hope she’s okay.” She clasped her hand over Josie’s.
“She’s great,” Josie said, sucking water through her straw. “Boob job.”
Her coworker removed her hand and stabbed a piece of kielbasa on the edge of her plate.
“I’m just kidding,” Josie said.
The next day, Josie did not go out with her coworkers for lunch. She stopped for soup and strolled along Pickering Wharf, looking through storefront windows. In one of the shops there were necklaces with clear glass pendants filled with silver mainsprings and balance wheels and petite brass gears, all suspended within their square and heart-shaped cases. She picked up a long, rectangular necklace and held the chain against her collar-bone. The piece fell low on her chest, the different metals clashing with her skin.
Why aren’t you doing anything with yourself? her sister had asked, when Josie signed on with the temp agency.
I’m doing this, Josie had said.
Josie held the pendant in front of her, fingering the soft corners of the box. One of the gears glinted in the sunlight streaming through the store’s wall of windows.
“My wife makes them,” the man behind the counter said. “That one suits you.”
“It does,” Josie said, leaving without the necklace.
She walked past her office building and bought herself tiramisu-flavored gelato and ate it on a bench across from a church. When her manager called to ask why she hadn’t come back from lunch, Josie told him that she had to go to the hospital, she was sorry, but she wouldn’t be back that afternoon.
“Perhaps you should take a few days,” he said. “Perhaps you need some time to be with your family. We’ll still be here on Monday.”
“Thank you. I’ll be in on Monday,” Josie said. She finished her gelato and went home.
On Saturday her boyfriend phoned and she talked to him. He asked if her family had called yet, and couldn’t believe it when she said no.
“After all you’ve done?” he asked. He listed off a number of things Josie had done for her sister, as if she didn’t know, as if his argument was with her. Josie put the phone in her lap and listened to the soft rise and fall of his jabbering. When he finally stopped talking she brought the phone back to her ear and said they might all be busy, she was sure they would call her soon. Just before Josie hung up, he said softly, “Maybe something went wrong.”
On Sunday, Josie gave in and called her mother.
“She’s fine, Josie honey,” her mother said. “She has a long recovery ahead of her, but she came through just fine. I’m flying back to Raleigh next Thursday. We should go out to dinner, catch up, just you and me.”
On Monday, Josie went back to work.
After Josie’s job went from part-time temp to full-time permanent, after her boyfriend said that they should get married, after she said yes but let’s wait a little longer, after she started to consider law school again, the cancer came back.
“I need you to take me to see Dr. Scheinman,” her sister said. “Pick me up tomorrow at 2:30.”
They drove and sat in a waiting room and her sister repeated back to her the same words they had both heard before, just in a different order. Cancer. Surgery. Radiation. “The second tumor is smaller,” the doctor later explained. “It was probably there during the first surgery, but we missed it because it was on the other side.”
Josie’s boyfriend took her away for the weekend. They hiked trails canopied in the burnt orange of autumn, drank hot chocolate and then wine, had sex. Her boyfriend said they should do this more often. She told him she felt overwhelmed at her job, and he said she should look for a new one. She told him she wasn’t sure anymore about law school. They visited Table Rock, and a stranger took a picture of them standing on the edge, holding onto each other. In Tilton, Josie made him stop at the outlets, and they ended up not getting home until dark.
I’m scared, her sister had said the first time. You have to come with me, she had said the morning of her biopsy.
It’s probably nothing, Josie had said.
At work they were inundated with case files. A minor discrepancy in one drug case had gone public and led to thousands of old cases coming under review. Even clients whose drug testing had not been processed by the lab in question called daily to discuss filing appeals. “You never know,” they said.
“I need you to pull this file for me,” one of the attorneys said.
“Can you find this document for me?” another said. “You’ll need the hard copy, it’s in the basement.”
Her boyfriend called to ask if she could meet him for lunch, and she said no. Her brother-in-law left a voicemail asking if she could pick up her niece.
“Hold my calls and set up this conference,” the office manager said. “Oh, and I need you to serve this subpoena. It’s fine, I OK’d it with Mitchell.”
Josie pulled files and found documents. She made phone calls and arranged meetings. She skipped her break. She stacked boxes and drank coffee. She waited at the police department for half an hour to serve her first subpoena. At 2:30 p.m. she set aside the files on her desk and left a message for her brother-in-law that she would be able to pick up her niece.
Josie parked across the street from the preschool. She watched parents holding hands with their children, children Josie thought too young to be at school. She watched how they opened the gate and closed it softly behind them, the careful ones knowing to jiggle the latch to make sure it had locked securely. Taylor was somewhere inside, probably already in her red coat, holding her Mystery Van backpack. Did children today even know who Scooby Doo was?
She went in, signed Taylor out, and took her by the hand.
“Can we go to the park?” Taylor asked.
“Not today,” Josie said. “I have to get back to work.”
“Please? Mommy and Daddy never take me,” Taylor said.
“Just for a little while,” Josie said. She opened and closed the gate, shook it.
On their way back to the car, one of the fathers smiled at Josie. “She looks just like you,” he said. Josie didn’t see the caramel-colored ribbon curls or the freckles. She saw the green eyes. She looks just like her mother, and her mother looks just like me, Josie wanted to say. She only smiled at the man and buckled Taylor into her seat.
When they got to the park, Josie left her cell phone in the car. She pushed Taylor on the swings and caught her niece at the bottom of the big slide and wrapped her up in a hug. Then Josie sat on a bench while Taylor see-sawed and climbed the monkey bars. Five o’clock came and went.
When another little girl pushed Taylor over to get to the tire swing first, Josie told her that there were people who waited in shadows to eat little girls like her.
“Can we go down the slide again?” Taylor said. It was getting dark and the wind had picked up. Other children were led away to their homes, to warmth, to dinner.
“Time to go home now,” Josie said.
“Just one more time?” Taylor pleaded.
At dinner her boyfriend told her he had gotten a promotion. He was thinking of moving into a bigger place. He ordered a bottle of white. Under the table he let his hand rest on her knee and brought up marriage again.
“I can’t think about that right now,” Josie said.
“Why not?” he said.
“There’s too much going on,” Josie said. “I can’t worry about doctors and scans and plan a wedding at the same time. I can’t think about moving.”
Her boyfriend took his hand from her knee.
“She needs me,” Josie said.
“I need you too.”
At work Josie made up excuses for missing meetings. She told her manager she would need to return to a part-time schedule until her sister was well again. He told her he understood family commitments, but hoped she could focus at work. “We could really use every hand we’ve got in riding out this shit show,” he said.
“Yes, I’m sorry,” Josie said.
She shifted her schedule to accommodate appointments, pick-ups, and play dates. The case files piled up on her desk.
“I need you to run this to the D.A.’s office,” her manager said. “Just leave it with the guy at the front desk and come back. I need this stuff cleared up by five.” He gestured to the files he had left for her two days prior.
Josie took her time. She grabbed a large coffee and drank half of it before she returned to the office. When she arrived at her desk, one of the new temps had taken most of the files.
When it started to snow, Josie’s manager asked her into his office. She picked up a legal pad and readied her pen.
“We need to let you go,” her manager said. “I understand that you have a lot going on personally, but we have a lot going on, too.”
“I understand,” Josie said.
“We really need someone who can be here and be focused,” he said.
Josie said goodbye to the attorneys that she liked, and thanked one of them for the information he had given her about law school.
“It’s a time-suck,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
“You can’t be so distracted,” he said.
She organized the case files she had on her desk in order of importance, and stuck detailed post-it notes on each case. She packed up her coffee mug and the bottle of aspirin she kept in her desk drawer.
When she got home, her cell phone rang.
“Taylor is starting her dance lessons tomorrow afternoon,” her sister said.
“Oh,” Josie said. “That’s nice.”
“Can you drive her?”
“I have to work,” Josie lied.
“It would take you half an hour, max,” her sister said. “You don’t even have to pick her up afterwards.”
“I’ve taken too many half hours,” Josie said.
Josie’s sister hung up the phone. A few minutes later it rang again. Josie turned it off and went to bed.
In the morning Josie listened to two voicemails, one from her sister apologizing for hanging up on her, and another from her boyfriend. “We need to talk,” he said. “I love you. Call me back.”
Josie stopped answering her phone, stopped returning calls. She only checked her voicemails and deleted them. It became part of her bedtime routine. Shower. Apply face cream. Brush teeth. Pee. Wash hands. Listen to the parade of voices she had trapped in her pocket.
“You need to help your sister with this,” her mother said. “She can’t do it on her own.”
“Josie, I have to go in for another surgery,” her sister said. “Please call me back.”
“Can you pick Taylor up from preschool?” her brother-in-law said.
“Your sister is in the hospital again,” her mother said. “You could at least check in to see how she’s doing.”
“Where are you?” her boyfriend said. “I never see you anymore.”
What’s wrong with you? her sister had said once. It’s not like you’re the one with a terminal illness. It’s not like you’re the one who’s dying.
After about a week of collecting voicemails, Josie had had enough and let her phone battery run out. It became a useless, dark shell of plastic on her countertop. She perused law school websites and requested information. She read articles online that urged her to reconsider a legal career. “Jobs in law are quickly disappearing,” they said. “Reconsider your application.” Josie called her former manager and asked him to reconsider the loss of her position.
“I let myself become sidetracked,” she said. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
“We’ve already hired a temp,” her former manager said.
“I know the job. I liked it,” Josie said. “It’s what I want to do.”
“Maybe if the new hire doesn’t work out,” he said. “Maybe then we’ll give you a call.”
“Thank you,” Josie said.
Josie applied to other jobs through the temp agency. While she waited, she walked. She returned to the Wharf. The skies were heavy with winter, and grey. Chips of ice burned into her face and hands. The rectangular necklace was gone, but there was another she liked—smaller and square. She traced the outline of one of the gears with her fingernail and smudged the glass. She rubbed it with the bottom of her shirt.
The man behind the counter said, “My wife makes them.” He said, “That one suits you.”
“Does it?” Josie asked. She paid the man forty-eight dollars and he helped her put on the necklace.
Josie walked home. She made tea and focused on a crossword puzzle. When it got dark she turned on a lamp and read about becoming a legal assistant. A couple of hours later, she heard a tap-tap-tap on her apartment door. “Josie, it’s me,” her boyfriend said. Josie closed her laptop. She left her boyfriend knocking. Tap-tap-tap.
Josie went into the bedroom. She pulled the comforter from her bed and wrapped it around her shoulders. The blanket trailed behind her like a robe as she made her way back to the couch in the dark.
The television was off, but she watched it as though there was something waiting for her in the glossy, empty curve of the screen. Something that she should be paying attention to.
Kayleigh Merritt received her MFA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire. She teaches professional and advanced writing courses at Salem State University in Massachusetts and supports herself as a freelance editor. Her work will also be appearing in Circa: A Journal of Historical Fiction. More information at www.KayleighMerritt.com.