“The world is your oyster! Try your luck! Buy an oyster, we’ll shuck it for a buck! Will you pick a pearl?” barked the oysterman.
Could it be the world was her oyster? Hayes doubted it. But how bizarre would it be to find out on a summer Sunday in her local farmer’s market? She stepped up and felt oddly hopeful as she peered into the tub of oysters. She willed her intuition to guide her.
A tiny pool of water in a shell crevice glistened in the sunlight like a twinkling north star. Hayes felt the oyster thump in her chest, sensed its muscle throb at her gaze and envisioned the pulse of its gills as it filtered seawater within the solid, clamped shell.
Her finger trembled a little as she pointed, “I’ll take this one please.”
The bearded oysterman stepped forward. His worn, yellow bib and brace trousers were wet and muddy. Despite being rolled up above his elbows, the sleeves of his red and blue plaid shirt were damp.
His deep, gravelly voice replied, “Sure thing, ma’am,” then he bent to grab her choice. “Here we go. Let’s see if you’re a winner, shall we?”
With expert quickness, his large, weathered hand, dirty from oyster grime, snatched her chosen shell, then tossed it into the air, caught it and flung it on his make-shift shucking counter. He grabbed his knife from his trouser pocket and inserted it at the hinge. The veins in his hand popped and tendons stretched as he jerked and twisted the knife until, like the snap of firewood in a campfire, a loud crack sounded. A few more twists of the knife to release the muscle and voilà—a shucked oyster.
The seaman cupped the top shell with his hand, placed it in front of Hayes’s eyes, then inched it open. She slapped her hands on her warm cheeks and squeezed her eyes shut. Hayes couldn’t bear to look. Her five year anniversary was tomorrow and she was in desperate need of a good omen.
Briny deposits and tiny shell fragments crackled and joined the salty scent of an ocean breeze. The black movie screen on the back of her eyelids flickered to a sea wave crashing on dark, jagged rocks. Seagulls perused the stones and pecked at emerald-green algae and brown bits of seaweed. She was a child, innocent and carefree on a family beach vacation in the Florida Keys. The cloudless sky was vivid blue and wide open. Her hands sifted through sand for sand dollars, seashells and shark’s teeth. Grit scratched between her toes. Hayes wiggled them deeper until a cold pool of sea water enveloped her ankles. Her toes came upon something hard. She reached into the soupy sand and pulled out a palm sized mollusk. As Hayes raised the shell to the sun, tiny tentacles slipped into its black hole. Wow! A real live creature!
She took off with her treasure toward her parents. The dry, hot sand turned cold and wet as her feet sunk and propelled her forward. She giggled and extended her hand in front of her body, as if to beg the future to get to the present faster.
“Look, Daddy, I found something! Look!”
Hayes tripped a few steps later. Her arms flung forward. Her grip loosened on the shell and she lobbed into the air. Hayes’s body hit the ground. Her neck snapped forward and face rammed into the sand. Her creature landed right in front of her eyes. She cupped it in her tiny hands and peered into the black hole. She saw a glimpse of movement and let out a sigh of relief. It was still alive.
Hayes looked up past the shell. Her parents came into view. Daddy’s face was red. His arms flailed and his mouth spewed spit as he yelled at Mommy. She looked on as one aggressive movement summoned another until he hurled his dark brown beer bottle. Hayes jumped back, then cowered, as glass exploded on Mommy’s shoulder. Jagged shards mixed with blood scattered over their checkered picnic blanket.
“Mother of pearl! You got one!”
Hayes shook her head. Her eyes flashed open and widened as they greeted a smooth, shiny, opaque pearl of perfection. She saw her reflection in the pearl. It was her in the present, but her feet still felt stuck in the sand. Hayes smiled, then thanked and paid the oysterman. She placed the pearl in her bag and hurried to the stall with beard oil for a last minute gift.
The following morning, Hayes awoke dizzy. Sleep had been intermittent at best. The buzzing bee in her brain was joined by a flapping monarch in her mid-section. The burnt orange and inky-black veined wings fluttered and blurred as it landed and took off again. Hayes rolled from her side of the bed, tip-toed toward the shower, and forced herself to get ready for work.
An hour later, she was welcomed by the blinding sheen of fluorescent lights and the sickening smell of rotting flesh and urine mixed with iron and bleach. Her key ring was looped around her middle finger, which caused her keys to clink against her coffee mug. She walked past the nurses’ station. Maybe he will be good tonight. It is a special occasion after all...
Cindy, a night nurse, spotted Hayes. Her lanyard, laden with pins for years of good service, jingled as she jumped up, “Hey Hayes, room 13’s wife wants to talk to you about taking him home.”
Hayes halted. Hot coffee splashed and scalded her thumb. Fuck. A red welt began to form but she pretended not to notice. In truth, the pain did not feel out of place.
“She said she left you a voicemail. I told her our social worker was very busy but would get back to her soon. Between us, I don’t think anyone’s told her how bad he is…”
Hayes shook her head, “Probably not. Thanks Cindy, I’ll talk with her.”
Cindy yawned and replied with a carefree wave, “No problem, have a good one,” as Hayes walked away.
Nine steps later, Hayes’ feet thrummed with electricity. She felt heat, smelled smoke and imagined orange and red flames lap the pads of her toes, encompass her heels then climb up her ankles.
Cindy called after her, “Hey girl, I forgot to ask—does Chris still work on motorcycles? My brother is thinking of getting a Harley, but isn’t sure if it’s worth the money?”
Hayes recoiled at the sound of his name. A blast of cold air from the air vent struck her face and sent sparks of ice down her limbs. The flames burning her ankles turned black and blue.
“Oh, um, yeah he does. I’ll ask him what he thinks and let you know.”
Hayes entered her office, tossed her purse on the ground and sat at her desk. She tried to shake off dishevelment by taking a few deep breaths. Her mind was a landfill for dented one-use coffee pods, bird bones and dislocated shoulder joints.
Room 13. Focus.
Hayes brushed back a strand of hair from her face, then closed her eyes. She sucked in a deep breath, held still for a count of six then released it through clenched teeth. Hayes snatched her phone. She secured the receiver between her ear and shoulder, then dialed for voicemail and started typing.
Samuel Johnson, age 47, presented to the hospital with heart attack. Subsequent pulmonary edema and stroke; required ventilation…
A crackle in her ear made her jump.
A shaky feminine voice sounded in the receiver, “Hi, I’m calling for the social worker, this is Kelly Johnson. My husband is in room 13. I want to take him home and was told you can arrange that for us. Please call me back.”
Hayes jotted down the phone number, already dreading the return call. Her thumb throbbed. A small blister, opaque, round and shiny, had formed where her coffee spilt. With the sharp nail of her index finger, she pressed down and dented it. She ignited the surrounding nerves until she couldn’t stand the sting.
What are you doing?! Stop!
Hayes let go. She watched as the blister bounced back, then felt a wave of nausea. She cringed, then stood and walked out of her office.
Hayes’s clogs click-clacked onto lacquered tiles until she came upon the door to room 13. It was thick and heavy with a smooth, cold metal handle. She knocked softly, then pushed the silver lever, until the latch released, and poked her head inside. The lumpy shape of a sleeping patient loomed large in the small room. Monitor screens flashed, IV pumps hummed and saline and tube feeding bags hung around him. Blue-ribbed snakes billowed from the ventilator to the patient’s tracheotomy. Hayes had always wondered if trach’s made patient’s feel like they were choking. She noticed the patient’s beard stubble looked like a miniature fur-forest with a dimpled-chin ravine. As if she were a scuba diver at sea, the sound of one pressurized, artificial breath, followed by two steady heartbeats, echoed in her ears. Sssss. Thump. Thump. Sssss. Thump. Thump.
Slight movement in the corner of the room broke her trance. A visitor’s chair glowed warmly in the spotlight from a bedside lamp. The arm of a black leather motorcycle jacket was suspended in death-like stillness off the chair’s seat. That’s what had caught her eye—no one else was in the room. The aviator collar was flipped onto the arm like a broken blackbird wing. She assumed it belonged to the patient. Here, let me help you.
Hayes clasped the wing to readjust the coat. Wafts of exhaust fumes, oak, and stale cigarettes waved over her as she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the black, shiny leather. Instead of off-white speckled wallpaper and polished tile of the patient’s room, she found herself in the open air of the west coast, balanced on the edge of knotty, wooden deck planks. Her arms crossed over her stomach. The bottom of her left long-sleeve pajama top was scrunched in a tight fist. She felt bee stings in her palm, as her nails stabbed it through the fabric. Hayes’ other hand held a white enamel mug with pine trees and ‘Adventure Awaits’ etched into it.
Two years together. How did I let this happen?
As she sipped her morning coffee, Hayes squinted past the swirls of steam that joined the morning mist. Distant birds swooped and soared as they made the rugged black rocks of the coast of Southern California their playground. She peered into the dark denim blue of the Pacific ocean. It felt just a step away, even though she was atop an adjacent cliff. Hayes forced herself to look away. Frantic flutters of tiny glistening wings caught her eye as a butterfly rode the beams of the sunrise into a shaded forest nearby.
Behind her was a round, taupe yurt, built with steam-bent wooden ribs, latticework and animal hides which smelled of tannins, earth, oak and birch. Promises pricked her mind and left a dull pain that emphasized her throbbing occipital bone. The rustic wooden door creaked open, then closed softly. Leather boots groaned on wooden planks with a hesitant approach from behind. Hayes did not turn around, but soon felt a warm hand with splayed fingers grasp her left shoulder, then slide down her stiffened arm and cup her clenched fist. He rested his chin on her shoulder as his arms enveloped her. His beard felt scratchy on her neck. She saw his warm breath exhale into the crisp morning air. This relaxed gesture invigorated her. She released the tentative breath she didn’t know she had been holding, then unclenched her fist and allowed their fingers to intertwine.
Hayes felt at ease now and smiled sedately. She started to turn her hips, then felt pressure against her back. In one violent motion, her body lurched forward and into mid-air. The mug flung and sprayed coffee as her arms spread out to brace her fall. Hayes focused on the depth of the sapphire blue water as she plummeted headfirst into the ice-cold ocean.
She didn’t splash. Instead, her body pounded on hard, rocky earth. Her shoulder cracked and popped as the joint dislocated from its socket. Hayes yelped in pain, then rolled onto her back. She must have hit her head, because the clear sky filled with ominous and thundery clouds. A vulture, backlit by a bolt of lightning, hovered and flapped its wings. It surveyed Hayes’s motionless body from above, then nosedived. The coal-black body stopped inches from her face. It unhinged its pointed black beak, exposed its pink, wormy tongue, then let out an ear-piercing squawk. The squawk turned into a siren.
“CODE RED ROOM 13. CODE RED.”
Hayes dropped the black leather jacket to the ground. The electrocardiogram machine blared like an unremittent car horn. Mr. Johnson’s body was still as stone. The whites of his eyes were tiny slits that looked like slivered almonds. The nurses and doctors rushed in the room and shoved Hayes to the hallway. She stood outside and watched the staff attempt to revive the patient with sweat, muscle and electric paddles. Minutes ticked away. Nothing could be done, he was gone. Hayes was shocked to find herself thinking Mrs. Johnson would probably be relieved. If only I could stomp on my own brain….
Eight hours later, she stood motionless outside of her house. It was storming. Her body waned and welcomed the stings of slanting rain drops. Trees swayed. Wind gusts flapped her clothes and jolted her hair in every direction. After what seemed like hours, Hayes entered her house. She walked straight to the kitchen, plopped her purse on the table and made herself a cup of coffee. Her stomach dropped as she poured the hot liquid. She had forgotten to call him at lunch. SHIT. Hayes tried not to panic and reassured herself he would understand. It was a bad day, it was an accident—she was thinking of him, but couldn’t get away to call. Today of all days...
Her heart began to vibrate as she was on the back of a motorcycle. A cylinder misfired, or did the front door slam? Hayes dove to the ground and threw her arms over her head. The kitchen became a frozen tundra. Her teeth chattered, her ears ached and body shook as it flattened on the icy floor. Hayes could see her breath. Frozen sparks shivered up her spine. Her fingertips prickled, then turned waxy and vivid blue. Sharp icicles suspended from the ceiling and fell one by one. Fragments scattered all over the room. Pain spread in her chest. Gulps of air turned to glass shards in her lungs, then rattled like ice cubes in liquor.
Hayes choked on doom. She jerked her hands up to her throat and pushed desperately into her neck to loosen the ice cubes.
She gasped, “Can’t. Breathe. Please.”
Her fingers strained and palms slapped and slid from the bones of her collar and up to her chin. Tears trickled into her ears, then pooled and swished in the canals, like the distant roll of ocean waves. Hayes knew the ice in her throat wasn’t real, but she still couldn’t breathe. She scoured the room and noticed steam rise and fall from her off-white coffee mug. Oh, thank god.
Hayes stumbled to her feet and placed her hands on the counter. She focused on her floating reflection as she reached for the handle, then froze. Behind her, in the polished black pool of hot liquid cratered by brown-tinged bubbly foam, a looming shadow waved. She blacked out.
When she woke she was under the table, flat on the kitchen floor. Her arms grasped the wooden legs of a chair like a life raft. Hayes’s head throbbed. She blinked and surveyed the room. Silence. He was gone. No tundra, no danger. I can breathe. I’m okay.
Hayes let go of the chair. It banged into the table, which caused her purse to fall. Contents scattered above her head. She heard a marble rolling. A shiny, round, opaque pearl dropped to the ground. It bounced, then landed between Hayes’s eyes which brightened. You. Once more, Hayes caught her reflection, child-like and innocent. A slight smile greeted her lips. She reached out for the pearl, but stopped when a familiar scent of oak met her nose. I know that smell.
A bouquet of flowers, wrapped in plastic film, slapped the kitchen counter. Pink rose petals floated to the ground. A second later, a leather boot rose above her head and hovered. Hayes looked up. The ridges on the bottom resembled wooden planks. How have I not noticed that before? The planks plummeted toward her face. She flinched as they stopped just short of her skull. He stepped to the right and, like a hydraulic press, crushed her treasure. It crunched and cracked. Hayes watched her cheeks stretch, her eyes splinter and her mouth disfigure, until her hope scattered across the checkered kitchen tile. She saw his boot raise once more over her head.
'Please, don't do it.'