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Slight Courage

Alex Sobel is a psychiatric nurse living in Toledo, OH. His writing has appeared in publications such as Electric Literature, The Saturday Evening Post Online, Dark Matter Magazine, and Hippocampus Magazine.

I slip back
to my ten-year-old self, the hospital. A shallow inquiry to Mom, as if to say something palpable, to be retained: Why do you have to leave me? Why now? Her lips move, a gentle separation, but hold a wordless tenure.
I slip forward
to my own child, no longer a child herself. She looks like my mother, like me, the me of another time.
I slip back.
to a bird, dead, drowned in its own blight. Gathered, a group of boys of course, and laid to rest in a wheelbarrow for... what? adoration? derision? The bird is still whole, looks untouched to my eyes. I have to be told the flesh no longer carries meaning, a message from the smell rising from the bane, almost visible, like a soul relieved of the burden of gravity.
I slip forward
to Mom's final affected breath, a recoil, a dismissal of an old habit. I ask myself: was she brave? What does bravery look like? She allowed me to detect no fight, such slight courage. Only the resignation to a tide. Only the removal of ballast.
I slip forward
to adulthood, to not letting go. Of mom, that moment, the past in general. My dreams, my former self, all that I thought I could be and I'm not. To let it go, it's a forfeiture that holds itself. It's the cavern it's in. And when it echoes it's like I lose it again in my memory, over and over and--
I slip back
to the aftermath as it blends and pleats, the hospital, the church, a home stripped of context.
I slip forward
to a phone call, words tightening around my lips, a lawless vice: stay, please, I love you. In waiting, the silence on the other end demanding I acknowledge that it was over long before, that this isn't love, but comfort. Shallow. Welcoming. Permeating.
I slip back
to Dad realizing I've seen Mom die, the only witness. And in my younger body, I can see his face, the recognition that these things aggregate, that they rust and ruin, but never leave, just cycling, pumped through us like blood.
I slip forward
to Dad again, his eyes glossy, but tearless. He shepherds me out of the hospital, pushed along by his worker's palms, like gentle granite, like patient islands. Eyes, impressions. I want to ask the nurses: How do you see me? Do you see courage? Does my flesh have meaning?
I slip forward
to the funeral, alone in the crowd. I find stormless reprieve in the pressure of my fingernails into my palms, the knowledge that there are two dotted calluses in waiting, obscured in a fist, a secret for later, like a confession to a ripened self.
I slip forward
to a girlfriend. Where do you go? she asks. I tell her, try to explain: the slipping, my mother, such a singular moment, the gravity of it. I move back and forth, but I can't change anything, I hold no power. I think of oil and water, shaken, dancing around each other, never touching. Never allowed.
I slip forward
to that girl often, sometimes see a marriage, sometimes a divorce. I weigh options, if the journey justifies the end, but I know that another me will choose.
I slip back
to a shopping mall, Mom's guiding hand. I want to let go, want to be lost. Because I want to be found, discovered. I imagine a future, pushing forward in waves, living a new life in the distance between them. But it's all past now, a tract to follow. It's all past, I say again, trying to remember. All past, all passed, all--
I slip back
to Dad, the funeral over, leaving the church. Ready? he asks, a smile, the expression usurped, hard-fought.
I slip forward
to my fingernails pressed harshly into my palm, the imprint canonized, believing familiarity can hold.
I slip forward
to now, and with that Dad leads me away.
I slip forward
to then, because the service is over.
I slip forward
to what's to come, because we've used our time.
I slip forward
because we can't stay in this place.
I slip forward
because we can't stay a moment longer than allowed.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 24th, 2022

Author Comments

Memory as a type of time travel isn't exactly unique, but it's an idea that haunts me and finds its way into my fiction often because of this question: If you keep returning to your worst moments of loss, how do you escape them? How do you move on when your mind, at the most inopportune moments, time travels over and over, taking you back to moments of pain with vivid detail? I still don't have the answer. I doubt anyone does.

- Alex Sobel
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