The Bone or Tissue
Melissa O. Howley
MIKE HAD given me a necklace, a locket, and he’d dubbed it my lucky charm, but the very first time I wore it, I ended up in the hospital with broken ribs.
“This’ll keep you safe, since I can’t be with you as often as I’d like,” he’d said, while I held it loosely around the edges like a glossy photo. It was silver and heart-shaped with a big A engraved on the front of it.
He shrugged. “I wasn’t sure how you spelled your name.”
“You don’t know how to spell Abbey?”
He’d parked too close to the curb, and getting out was an unladylike exhibition in the skirt I had chosen to wear, an am-I-getting-too-old-for-this? skirt.
He drummed his finger on the middle of the steering wheel. “Did I tell you I once had a dog named Abbey?”
In the hospital, I recited my mother’s number to a nurse, and she showed up in a reliable period of time, like most mothers would. She clutched the handles of her black handbag and asked me questions about car and medical insurance. Like a curator, my mother loved to exhume buried, forgotten bills. And for this quality, as with most of her other qualities, I felt a mixture of gratitude and annoyance.
“The good thing is you didn’t hurt another person.” She thumped her right palm against her chest. I could feel that she wanted me to turn and look at her, but I gazed down at the big white tiles on the floor.
If I closed my eyes—or even if I didn’t—I could see the deer dart out of the trees all over again. It made me quake inside, and that made the pain worse. But these were the souvenirs of accidents: individual fractions of seconds enclosed in corked bottles to study again and again. The squeal of the tires, the shatter of glass, and the boom of the ambulance siren slipped into my head and bumped the pane like big, noisy houseflies.
With her back to my mom and me, the nurse said, “Rutting season.” Her tone was as if we’d made some kind of wrong guess. Was it supposed to make me feel better to know that the deer and I were in season, like fashion?
Did an accident seem less like an accident if it was predictable?
A skinny, tired doctor with a white goatee told me it would take six weeks to heal my broken ribs, and I would receive pain pills; no brace, cast, or bandages. No outward symbol or indication of agony. Just time, he said, was what I needed to heal.
“Are we still talking about my ribs?” I asked, because it was strangely like the language reserved for handling the broken-hearted.
The inside of my house looked foreign when I remembered I wasn’t supposed to be there. The air was static with luminous dust, like stars suspended in milky light. My mother helped me sit down on the couch, and then went into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. I told her she didn’t have to stay long.
“I have nowhere else to be,” she said, with more self-pitying tenors than she intended.
Despite the pain pills, it was hard to breathe. The doctor had warned me not to suppress deep breathing or coughing because lung infections and pneumonia could take hold. I inhaled in staggered huffs to see what I could muster, like a toddler’s measured steps, because waiting there in my chest was the sharp stab of going too far.
“Is the air stale in here?” I asked, not loud enough. “Is it as heavy as it seems? To me?”
There was no answer; instead, the sound of my mother opening every kitchen cupboard, looking for coffee filters.
Once, while speeding down the highway, Mike and I had seen coffee filters scattered all over the road, nested on top of grass spears in the median strip. We guessed at how they could have gotten there. Mike said they looked like the giant snowflakes he’d played in as a little boy growing up in Montana; I said they reminded me of the dead, washed-up moon jellies I had seen once at the beach.
“That’s morbid,” Mike said. “I like mine better.”
And I did too, honestly, staring at his profile—his stub little nose.
I turned on the TV to the nature channel, to the kind of show that highlighted exotic, horrifying creatures, and I attempted proper breath taking while a man on TV talked about Amazonian catfish that bore holes like bullets into the bodies of whatever was unlucky enough to fall in the water.
That was the lesson, as far as I could tell: Don’t fall in.
Those bloated, punctured human bodies on stainless steel slabs began their day with a simple fishing trip. I began my day not heading to work, though everyone had assumed that was where I was heading when I had the accident, and I didn’t tell them any different. To demonstrate the catfish’s deadliness, the man on TV dipped a fat fish carcass into the water, with his thumb hooked into its mouth above the surface. There was a soundless hubbub in the water for a few seconds, and then he pulled out nothing but the bones.
“Isn’t that something? Mmm mmm mmm.” My mother sighed. And though I was not unaccustomed to her deep sighs, they reminded me of the respiratory dexterity I no longer possessed.
“Mike said bucks get careless during the rut, and behave like lovesick teenagers,” I said.
I pretended not hear her, pointing the remote control toward the TV to turn down the volume.
“And I thought you said it was a doe? Right? A doe that you hit?”
I tossed the remote on the coffee table and it made a loud whack. Will I ever remember how good my mother is with the details? Probably not—because I’m not.
“It was a doe,” I said with a meek, breathy voice, although I honestly couldn’t have been sure what it was. “But I think she was trying to run away from them.”
Mike didn’t call to check on me, but he didn’t know. How could he?
The cheerful, blonde woman that had answered his door in the morning didn’t know who I was; I didn’t leave my name. But because I couldn’t say nothing, I told her I was just one of his customers.
I’d heard him mutter this to her once into his cell phone, “I’m busy with a customer.” Then he’d turned to me, grinning, and stuck his tongue out.
And she’d bought that, so maybe, in a way, we were all Mike’s customers.
“Well, he had to fly off on short notice to their southern region’s branch office, or however that goes.” Her face was sunny and cute, everything proportioned and petite. If things had been different, I might have wanted to be her friend. The smell of warm fabric softener wafted from the house, and a fluffy golden retriever walked up, thumping its tail against the door jamb, and poking its wet nose into my palms. The woman bent down and wrapped her arms around the dog’s neck. “Abbey, leave her alone!” she said sternly, but with love.
On the way back from Mike’s house, a slow, familiar song had filled the speakers. I blubbered and sang along with a croaky voice, and caught a glimpse of my distorted, wet face in the mirror. Who is that creature? And then my eyes slipped down; through the windshield I saw the doe leap from the trees.
“That’s a beautiful locket,” the nurse had said, after my mom wandered out to the waiting area. The nurse’s eyes weren’t even looking at me. Her hands were busy. The pant legs on her scrubs swished together while she bounced around the tiny examination room.
“You want it?”
The nurse chuckled and slipped out of the door.
And then I waited. I almost forgot how long I’d waited. Trapped in that little sterilized room, I heard doors open and slam around me. I heard low, muffled voices come and go like apparitions. I’d stared at the same instructional posters on the wall; I read them over and over, until the colorful diagram of a healthy pancreas was burned into my psyche.
I’d waited so long for the doctor that when he finally burst through the door, it scared me, and I didn’t want to see him anymore.
He had his back to me, washing his hands in the sink. “You know, if you wouldn’t have swerved to miss that deer, you would have avoided all of this, missy.”
“I guess I could have hit her.” I stared at my hands on my lap. “And then I suppose I could have dragged her home, and gutted and skinned her for the meat.”
The doctor turned to look at me over his shoulder, his white caterpillar eyebrows bowed in the middle. “Actually, you need a permit for that,” he said. “Believe it or not.”
Something in my brain had warned me not to set out for Mike’s house this morning. But I did it anyway. If I had stayed home or gone to work, would this have been a better day? It certainly would have been a different day. I wasn’t sure of anything anymore. Lately, I’d lost the taste for correcting the easily misconstrued.
Like sleep talking. And name spellings. And too many of these: “sweetie,” “honey,” “baby.”
Like how I had once told Mike, “You’re a pain. But you’re a cute pain.”
“Oh, I’m acute pain, am I?” He’d laughed, and tugged on my chin. “As opposed to, what? Chronic pain?”
And like how my mother had returned to the examination room, holding a cup of coffee, and she’d interrupted the doctor, who was just finishing up with me. “So is it the bones, doctor? Or just the tissue in between?”
A wonderful question, really; comprehensive and applicable to so many things in my life. And I noticed she had phrased it in such a way that, whichever he answered, it would sound as if she’d predicted correctly.
That was not unlike me, wondering if maybe this accident was due to happen sooner or later. And how for a minute, dopey with too much adrenaline, I thought I might have broken my own ribs, crying into the trees for the long-gone deer, “Come back! Please, come back!”
Melissa O. Howley currently lives and writes in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.
Her short fiction has appeared in DOGZPLOT.