Midway Mark (Flash Fiction)

I remember the last time we thought she was dying.

We had gathered there in the small, curtained hospital room, a place devoid of both privacy and hope. We’d taken turns kissing her cheeks for good luck, a small mercy suggested by one of the nurses. We’d said goodbye without speaking the words because the pending loss was still too awful to accept. And then they’d wheeled her away, presumably forever.

My grandmother had seemed unaware of any of us at the time. As they took her, her eyes had been filled with a wild, rolling panic, like an animal whose only thoughts are to flee the fear and the pain and the death it knew was stalking it. Gone was the elder matriarch who’d held sway over us all, replaced instead by this being whose sole purpose was to survive.

It had seemed unlikely at the time, but we should have known better. Our family doesn’t die that way.

As I approach the back of the little farmhouse, it’s the wild-eyed animal I see instead of the grandmother I once knew. I have not been here in more than a decade, but I know the door will still be unlocked, just as it always has been, and I know the rest of the family will be in the front parlor, having already paid their respects. The only thing left to them is waiting.

It won’t be long now. The carnival is in its third night. Then it will be moving on.

I let myself in the back door and find my grandmother’s room just off the kitchen. If the rest of my family has heard me enter, they at least have the courtesy to pretend I’m a phantom. We haven’t spoken for many years now, and neither side is ready for detente.

My grandmother’s room has the stifling warmth that seems to be synonymous with the dying. She has been bedridden these past several months, and when I see her, she is lying on her back, her head resting on a pillow, her hands clasped on the top of an ancient crocheted throw.

She looks like someone who has already passed on but who has been carefully arranged for a procession of mourners. The only thing that gives her away is the soft whistle of her breath. And the sight of the carnival outside her window.

I can see the midway from where I stand. At night it is a gleaming and glorious sight. Its lights hint at secret promises that have always sent an excited flutter through my stomach. A carnival at night is magic made real, but in the light of day, it is a sad and terrible sight.

The midway is empty now, littered with trash and signs of neglect. The paint on the once-vibrant signs is faded and cracked, and the illustrations of wonder seem pandering and pathetic in the cruel afternoon sun.

My grandmother’s eyes open when I fully enter the room and close the door behind me. She has been waiting, presumably for this moment, and as she gazes at me, I can see the steely glint of resolve in her eyes. This is a woman who makes no apologies and sees no reason to change that now.

As luck would have it, I haven’t come looking for one. This is a selfish visit, meant to unburden my own soul.

I ease myself into the chair beside her bed, and the two of us watch each other for a time. We are old adversaries, comfortable in the knowledge of what this personal war has cost each of us.

It is no great victory, but she is the first to speak.

“Last night of the carnival,” she says. Her voice is scratchy and cracked, like she could use a drink of water, but she never asks and I don’t offer.

I nod to acknowledge her words.

“If you’ve got something to say, now’s the time,” she says.

I glance out at the abandoned midway once more and then return to looking at her. “I’m not here to forgive you,” I say. “You made your choices, and they’re yours to live with.”

“Then you came a long way for nothing new,” she says.

I continue as if she’d never spoken. “But I still love you,” I say.

Her lips tighten as her mouth becomes a single, severe line cutting across her face, and I feel I can almost see her tightening the screws on whatever emotions she’d long since tamped down.

It’s a long time before she finally speaks. “And your mother?” she asks.

I don’t answer. I don’t have one to give. Instead I rise and walk to the door. As I turn the knob, I hear the last words she ever says to me.

“Her carnival will be here sooner than you think,” she says.

I think it’s that way for all of us.

Larry Jenkins is an aspiring Word Pimp. Has laptop, will travel. Let's make this happen, people.

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