Emily and Foster have been on the road to New Mexico for hours. No one cries. The cab smells of yellow roses. Through the window the landscape becomes desert, tremendous sky, almost home. The air swirling through holds that tin can scent of rain that must be falling somewhere in the distance, somewhere they can’t see, over that next mountain. Fixtures of cacti, yucca, and mesquite bushes blur into images of lassoing cowboys shaking bangs from their eyes. She watches for real movement, for coyotes, rabbits, or higher, hawks circling in the sky where the clouds could be anything.
In Mississippi where they have been, she could not smell that scent of coming rain. There are long drizzling days, thunderstorms, so often that people take the rain for granted. When she lived there, when she grew up there they would make up stories to go with every sound. She especially loved the lazy days of being locked inside with her sister, Vivian, the devil out there beating his wife while the trees creaked and scratched against the house. Even fear, then, delighted them. They would spin and spin in circles listening to the drumming of rain and the banging of the wind. They would fall down and close their eyes imagining that the dizziness meant they were being carried away on some easy tornado.
In Mississippi there has been Vivian, older now but still too young for this cancer to be taking her away, saying from her hospital bed, “I don’t want to sleep forever.”
Emily knows, for a little while, the morphine will awaken her sister to every vibration in the room.
“Tell me something,” Vivian says, “I love hearing your voice.”
Emily fills with dreams. She sits in that sterile room and imagines a couch, framed photos and books, a poster from London. Vivian’s living room filled with souvenirs from both their lives, the trip to London taken by Emily, alone.
“Talk about Albuquerque?” Vivian asks. Emily wants Vivian to look in her eyes but Vivian is watching Foster at the window. He cannot sit still and they cannot do anything about it. They cannot help him.
Emily thinks now she could tell them she guessed about their long ago affair. She has believed that one day she would confess what she knows, what she guessed in careless clues, wine glasses and candles left beside the bed, a forgotten bracelet in the wrong bathroom, an earring caught on a pillowcase. Once it mattered so much. She knew one day they would all have to face it. Emily could have left her husband but not her sister. There never would have been a choice. It mattered for a while and now it’s tumbled down to nothing.
Emily says, “Albuquerque was beautiful but you always wanted your Mississippi.’”
Vivian does not look at Emily. She keeps watching Foster who peers down into the parking lot below. She nods, understanding. She says, “Albuquerque was yours. I always wanted just to visit.”
“I was so scared in the city. I couldn’t drive. You were never afraid of anything.”
Vivian sighs. “Of course I was.”
“I know it. I just don’t remember a time.” Emily adjusts Vivian’s sock and pulls the sheet back over it. The flowers on the rolling tables, through the doorway, on the counter on the bathroom sink, she can smell so many of them. She has this feeling inside, a fight deep in her shoulder bone, coursing through her blood.
Foster steps from the window to the bedside. Emily can smell his sweat. He always smells like soap, but not now, not in this humid place, not with all this standing and watching and pacing. He asks, “Are the pillows fixed all right? Do you want to move?” Emily watches his hands. He touches the sheets beside his sister-in-law’s elbow.
“It’s all right,” Emily imagines saying. “Just touch her.”
“No.” Vivian purses her face. “Not yet. Talk to me. I don’t want to sleep.” He looks so helpless, his hands open at his sides. Emily stares at the calluses, at his tender, scared fingers, all those years of working.
She watches Vivian smile. There are secrets in that smile. The cancer has drawn her skin taut. How can something called a pancreas be so crucial, so impossible to save. There is a hint of rosiness to her cheeks.
“You’re such a pretty woman,” Foster says. There is so much of this. It makes Emily tired. All these same thoughts in everyone’s head at once. Everyone else but Vivian, everyone else, saying the wrong things.
Vivian shakes her head. She even smiles. Sunlight pours in through the window and Emily thinks of how they never stopped talking in terms of messages from birds, rain that shone through sunlight. Messages from the earth that were so important growing up on that Mississippi farm. Messages that Vivian kept with her in Jackson, in her scrubbed house, that house she finally had built, with all the scents from the garden wafting in from the great backdoors. Those crazy storms coming round and round again.
“It’s not regret that matters,” says Emily. She realizes she is wincing, rubbing her aching shoulder. She realizes Vivian is watching her.
“I found so much on the Web,” says Vivian. “If I could get to a computer now, I’d research your condition.”
Emily’s shoulder aches. Her chest aches. Her absent breast. Her mastectomy was fourteen years ago. She’s never stopped counting the time and now even seconds mean nothing and everything.
“I wish you could research your own,” Emily says. “That you could prescribe the miracle treatment.”
“I tried,” Vivian says, peering into Emily’s eyes, then toward the open door behind her. There are footsteps. Emily turns expecting to find Vivian’s husband, Jonathon, or the preacher who keeps coming by, but the hallway is empty, the floors shiny and scuffed. A janitor pushes a buffer, the circling brushes waxing the floor beneath. When Emily turns Foster is back guarding the window. Vivian sleeps.
Emily, Foster, and Jonathon alternate the bedside watch. Sometimes they are all there at once. The days bleed one into the other. The hours. The light seeps behind the building outside. The fluorescent lights are off. Emily waits for Vivian’s eyes to open. She follows where they look, at the little lamp on the bedside table, paintings on the wall, flowers on the counters. When she is awake she notices everything until it makes her tired. She even twists to look behind, at fluids circling in a tube. She frowns and Emily begins to say, “No, don’t do that.”
“Jonathon?” Vivian calls. “Everything is streaming right out of me.”
“It’s all right,” he says.
Jonathon’s crisp clothes are pressed. What will he do when the closet empties and he has to wash? Has he washed? Does he know how to iron? He is wearing sneakers as if he forgot to finish without Vivian being there to inspect him before he went out.
Emily thinks of the way he’d raise a newspaper and ignore Vivian complaining about something he had or had not done. Then drop it down and say, “Okay, Vivian. Okay.” His smile used to be charming to Emily. She had admired his skill in handling the family temper. He seems muted now.
“What did you let them do?” Vivian asks.
“Go on,” Emily whispers because she sees how he might crumble and Vivian is not paying attention to him any longer but watching those precious fluids circling in the tube. “Go on and get some rest.”
When he opens the door there are all those women again, those old crones from church, waiting, offering empty messages for Vivian which he has finally learned not to pass on. “I don’t know those silly women,” Vivian has said. “I don’t want them coming in here and staring at me.”
The preacher arrives. Emily has noticed he always arrives with the women. She finds this insulting to her sister. She does not respect him but her sister does, so she is silent. He sits there and rubs Vivian’s leg. Emily wants to grab his hand, say stop touching my sister, stop telling her that things will be fine no matter what. In the hallway the women circle Jonathon. All their clothes seem too tight or too short to Emily, the heels ridiculously high. She tries to remember if this is the way in Mississippi, to dress up for hospital visits. She’s grown accustomed to the casual dress of New Mexico. Foster is wearing jeans. She thinks of something she saw this morning, two things, cars speeding up when an ambulance tried to pass, rushing even to beat red lights. Then in just a moment, on a different street, a funeral procession and all the cars pulling over. A black man got out of his gold Cadillac and took off his hat. He held it to his chest and bowed his naked head.
When the preacher leaves, Emily closes the door. Vivian says in a voice that makes Emily feel they are enclosed in thin glass, “I know things will be fine one way or another but I asked that one thing. I asked Jonathon to not let them operate again.”
Emily takes her hand. All the veins look bruised as does the skin beneath her eyes. In Vivian’s palm is the morphine pump. She says, “Emily, is the ceiling spiraling away from us?”
The words make Emily’s heart race with all they might mean but she does not look up. She says, “Squeeze,” and Vivian does.
They wait for some feeling to come. Something tumbling from the wide opening in that glass above their heads, down to the little space that contains them, something like stillness in the air.
Vivian closes her eyes. The heart monitor sounds softly, turned down low. Vivian whispers, “Emily? Is that you making that noise?” Emily listens but she forgets to watch. She wants to hear some fragments of a beautiful dream, hear names being called out of people waiting with open arms. Vivian says more loudly, “Emily? Is that you making that noise?”
“Are you supposed to be telling me something?”
Emily studies the painting where Vivian’s gaze wanders, mud flung on a blue background.
“Say something. Let me hear your voice,” Vivian says.
“I’m trying,” says Emily.
“What is that light from the door?” Emily turns toward the hallway where Vivian looks. No light comes through. The door is closed. There is no one there. She faces all the flowers, her sister’s closed eyes, breathing deepening into sleep.
She listens to all the monitors, the fluids like alarms going off so long past exhaustion.
Everything keeps darkening and fading, shrinking. Vivian’s face. Her body. Emily hates that ridiculous painting and even that feeling shrinks down into something like comfort. It becomes familiar. She fears she will never forget it. Vivian talks to ghosts. Emily will not pretend to see them. The lie would make Vivian angry. Vivian’s eyes, Vivian’s smart beautiful eyes, start to look mean and then she is not asking anything. Emily’s body fills with pain but it feels outside the way her mind is working. She cannot lift her arm. She sends Foster away to make sure Jonathon is eating, make sure he sleeps for at least three hours in the hotel at night.
She keeps thinking of that time when she knew her sister and husband had been lovers, how Vivian came over and sat in a rocking chair and cried in silence. How she said she just needed to be there. She just needed to cry. Emily never told her what she guessed. She gave her Kleenex. She hugged her and rocked her a little at the door and said goodbye. “You will be all right.”
She feels almost cruel thinking of it now in that hospital. She does not know why. She and Foster keep watch. Jonathon keeps watch. One evening they leave him alone with her sister and when they come back Vivian is gone. Jonathon’s arms and face are raked with deep claw marks.
“She was so strong,” he says, crumpling even as he stands. “She fought for hours.” They are all, Emily and Foster and Jonathon, all in each other’s arms. They are all so glad to leave. Outside in the parking lot the rain tugs at their clothes.
Just up from the grave horses prance in circles in a field. It’s the spot Vivian picked, as if she might look up and watch the pretty horses with those swishing tails. She picked even the dress she is wearing hidden in that casket, the same dress she wore to waltz in her son’s wedding forty years ago. Emily cannot imagine picking her own gravesite or clothes to be buried in, being that brave or wasting something someone else might need or even preserving a dress for so long. She will be cremated. She will tell her children, “Scatter me wherever you want, or keep my ashes. It doesn’t matter. Maybe do a little of both. Whatever makes you feel better.”
On the road, the sky grows darker and darker, the heavy clouds covering the sun, so weighted gray and black they look as though they’ll fall and break the world below that cracks from need of water.
Then they do, in fat drops, then rivers and rivers that butt against the vehicle. Lightning jags across the sky.
The clouds thicken and coil down onto the highway. The gray drops right down in front of the truck and what else can Foster do but drive into them? Emily feels the road slip from beneath as their truck lifts higher. She smells the tin-can rain, the dust. The highway disappears from view and it is as if they float on a Lazy Susan. A surrounding wall of water holds the vehicle in place. A semi rises up like some fragile toy, comes toward their windshield, spinning around and around. It misses them and disappears. Foster shouts, “Hang on.” He shouts, “I’m going to drive through.” He guns the engine. She can hear it roar as they fly through the sky. They remain inside that swirling wall of water. “There’s traction,” he hollers.
Just like that they come out the other side, turned in the wrong direction, with the evening sun at their backs, but square down on the highway.
“Where did the semi go?” Emily asks.
Foster drives one direction and then the other, searching to see if they might help the truck driver. Finally, he shakes his head. Rain beats the dusty ground for seconds and is gone.
They U‑turn. When she starts Foster catches her laughter. A yellow Do Not Pass sign bends at an odd angle. Heading home feels like the wrong direction, like a dead end even though they keep going. “Oh,” Emily says, clapping her hands. “Let’s do it again!” All the way through New Mexico she searches for funnel clouds. All the way she keeps hoping.
Darlin’ Neal is the author of the story collections Rattlesnakes & the Moon and Elegant Punk. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in dozens of publications including The Mississippi Review, The Southern Review, Puerto del Sol, and Best of the Web. A recipient of the DH Lawrence, Frank Waters, and Mississippi Arts Commission Fiction Fellowships and a Henfield Transatlantic Review Award, she is Associate Professor in the MFA and undergraduate Creative Writing programs at the University of Central Florida.