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You Ask Me to Tell You a Story

J.R. Dawson is a science fiction writer, playwright, poet, and teacher. She holds a BFA in Playwriting from DePaul University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast. Her stories have been seen in F&SF, Rich Horton's Year's Best, Daily Science Fiction, and other fun places. She was an original contributor for The MFA Years and writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Before stepping into fiction, her plays were performed in Los Angeles and Chicago, and she returned to playwriting this past year with "The Things We Saved from the Rot" at Otherworld Theater Company. She currently lives in Omaha as a teaching artist with the Nebraska Writers Collective. You can follow her on twitter @j_r_dawson or check her out at jrdawson.org.
You ask me to tell you a story.
So I sit on the floor next to your bed, and I tell you the same story I told you last night and the night before.
It's the story of a boy who was lost when the buildings collapsed under the weight of fires. This happened back when we lived above ground with windows, although you have forgotten that time after all the days we've spent down here in the catacombs.
But even though the boy died, I don't tell you the story about the boy being crushed. I tell you about how the boy enjoyed exploring abandoned malls with his puppy. I tell you about the boy's favorite food: pumpkin pie. It wasn't real pumpkin; it was squash in a can. But it was delicious, and it made him happy.
You fall asleep, and then I fall asleep. And that's all there is in our small apartment: just us two.
You ask if you can come with me to work. Sometimes I let you, although I ask you to not talk to me so I can focus on my work. They can't catch me talking to you, not again. I'm worried they'll fire me. Sometimes, you think that's boring and you stay at home and look after yourself until it's time for me to come home and cook dinner.
Today, you come with me. You hold my hand, and I loosely let you. I watch the eyes of the other women who go past me, wondering if they can see us holding hands and if they know I'm leading you to work. I used to carry you. They don't say anything. To me, at least. To each other, they say things. It's not right to bring you with me.
My job is to sort produce into the canvas bags for the week. You sit beside me and sing songs while the workers from the labs come in with their boxes and set the oranges and bananas and squash on the conveyor belts. They aren't actually oranges and bananas and squash. I'm not sure what they are; I just sort them.
You ask me if I want to hear a story. I say yes, under my breath while I try to shove one extra banana into Susan's bag. Her youngest is sick.
You tell me a story about the boy's puppy dog. How after the boy died, the puppy went looking for the boy and instead found a puppy wife. I like this ending.
We don't have dogs down here.
Susan offers to have me over for dinner when she finds the extra banana. I decline, but she shows up later at our apartment after I've eaten and you've been put to bed.
She is a thin little thing, but she's not dolled up like all those girls in the films we watch. She's just a woman whose hips have grooves from where she's held her children.
She asks me if I've been feeling better. I watch you sleeping in the bed.
I lie and say yes, because that's what we all say. If I said I wasn't feeling any better, then all the pity would go to me when none of us have any room for pity. We all carry two things with us: a sadness and the need to keep moving.
She says she is not doing well. She says she is doing poorly. Her daughter is going to die, banana be damned. She thanks me for my help, but she says even with the medicine in the hospital down the hall, there's just no hope.
There's always hope, I remind her.
She laughs.
She asks me a question that slips out before she can stop it. I wish she could have stopped it, but it furls so quick down her tongue and through her lips there's nothing either of us can do.
She asks me how I survived losing you.
I watch you sleeping in your bed. She does not.
I didn't, I tell her. I told her the truth because she asked an honest question. I broke along with you.
She asks how I keep living then.
And I have nothing to offer her. I just watch your little sleeping body in the empty bed. Your chest raises up and down, because you haven't discovered that you don't need to breathe. You haven't discovered you don't have a chest, you don't have a bed. And the bed does not have a boy.
She looks to your bed, and she also says nothing. Because she sees nothing.
She apologizes for her questions, and she leaves in a hurry.
I don't follow.
I shut the door. And your eyes flutter open. You ask me who it was and what they wanted.
I tell you it was Susan, to thank me for the produce.
That seems to be enough of an answer for you. You curl up into yourself, like you did when you were a baby. Your eyes close, and you ask me to tell you a story.
So I tell you about the trees and the sky and what it is like to ride a roller coaster seventy feet up in the air.
I turn off the lights as you fall back to sleep. And if I close my eyes, I can feel your little fingers entwining with mine. I won't let go. I told you that as I reached under the rubble to hold your hand.
"Good night," I whisper. "I'll see you in the morning."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 17th, 2019
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