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The Bars of Orion

By Caren Gussoff Sumption

 

Session One

In this universe, they called it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In this universe, the treatment was drugs, or prolonged exposure, or cognitive therapy, or eye movement reprocessing.

In his universe, they called it Consequent Distress Condition. Blankenship didn’t know how it was treated; in his universe, he didn’t have it.

The therapist called him in from the waiting room. “Mr. Blankenship?” she asked, and when he stood, she said, “I’m Dr. Reed.”

(Illustration by Marie Ginga from and original image by 👀 Mabel Amber, who will one day from Pixabay)

One would think in a city the size of Seattle — this one or the other — Blankenship wouldn’t keep running into people he knew. In his Seattle, her name was Meridian. In this universe, couples took on one or the other’s family name. In his universe, you made a whole new name. Like Blankenship.

Here, the other Blankenship was named Ferguson.

And his wife, Zhorah Blankenship, was still alive and married to someone else. She was called Zhorah Graham.

Blankenship followed this Dr. Reed into her office. She motioned for him to pick a seat from the ring of chairs, and then sat directly opposite him.

Blankenship knew he couldn’t stay in this Seattle much longer. But it made Tibbi comfortable because it was familiar. So, they stayed. Blankenship would do anything for his daughter. Including combing his hair differently, as differently as he could, and meeting people he already knew.

He’d do anything for Tibbi. His beautiful, brilliant, funny Tibbi. And, if other universes were more like this one than their old one, she was truly one of a kind.

“Forgive me, Mr. Blankenship. You look so much like an acquaintance of mine,” Dr. Reed said. “You have a brother?”

Blankenship shook his head. “Only child. But they say everyone has a twin. They say that, right?”

“Right.” Dr. Reed sat back in her chair. It was a signal he should also relax. “Today, we’re just going to talk. Get to know one another.” She looked down at the notes on her lap. “So, you live with your daughter?”

“She’s thirteen,” he said.

“A wonderful, tough age.”

“She’s everything.” Blankenship ached as he said that.

Dr. Reed glanced again at her notes. “You live in a motel. How long have you been there?”

“Since…it happened.” Blankenship ached again, but in a different place, in his stomach. He swallowed it down. This treatment was supposed to help this go away, not rise. It rose just fine on its own. “It’s an extended stay motel,” he said.

“Do you want to talk about it a little?” Dr. Reed blinked. “The incident, I mean. Not the motel. But, of course, we can talk about anything you want.” She leaned closer. “But the incident, your target, as we call it, is why we’re here. Right?”

Blankenship closed his eyes. He didn’t want to look at Reed or Meridian or anyone when he said it. “My universe exploded.” He opened his eyes. Nothing had changed. “The motel is comfortable. Just like a little apartment.”

Their first house was small, a white wood cottage. Zhorah said inside reminded her of a boat. A cozy little boat. That was why they adopted “Blankenship.”

He suddenly felt exposed. “You aren’t allowed to tell anyone what we talk about here?” Blankenship asked. In his universe, medical professionals swore some sort of oath of silence.

“No,” Dr. Reed said. The question didn’t surprise her. “Doctor-patient confidentiality. I will never disclose anything that goes on here, unless I believe you are an immediate danger to yourself or to others.”

“I’m not,” Blankenship said. He was pretty sure of that.

“Now, tell me again, in different words if you can, about your target.”

Blankenship say forward. He decided to try again, eyes open. “My universe…” Different words. Exploded. Blew up. Disappeared. “…was destroyed.” He really wanted to make her understand. “My whole universe is gone.” He made a move with his hands, but he didn’t know an appropriate gesture. “Gone.”

 

Session Two

The first session left Blankenship exhausted in a way he’d not experienced before. In his universe, he’d have called a car to take him home, and he would have slept straight through dinnertime. In his world, he’d never had to do that. And now, in this world, he couldn’t afford the indulgence.

He had the motel to pay for, and food, and the therapy sessions. And things for Tibbi; thirteen year old girls required a lot of supplies just for basic maintenance: lotions, lip gloss, colorful socks. Outfits. Not just clothes. Outfits.

And he was trying to save up enough to buy both of them new identities. As safe as this Seattle made Tibbi, they couldn’t stay — and Blankenship couldn’t use Ferguson’s ID numbers for too much longer without a day of reckoning.

He also wanted to pay Ferguson back for the cash they stole from him in the beginning. That wasn’t as important, since Blankenship was Ferguson; he knew he’d ultimately understand about the whole thing.

He was an understanding guy.

“That’s what you like most about yourself?” Dr. Reed asked. “That you are understanding?”

“Is that OK?” he asked.

“Of course,” she answered. “I just wanted to make sure that was what you wanted me to put down as your starting ‘positive belief’. That’s going to be really important as we move forward with therapy.”

“I’m an understanding, forgiving guy.”

Dr. Reed wrote that on the worksheet. He was supposed to take home this sheet after the session and practice whatever was on it.

“We’re going to find your ‘safe place’ now,” she said. “A time and place when you felt completely safe, completely happy. Or as close as possible. Could be anytime, anywhere, from earliest childhood onward.” Dr. Reed wrote “SAFE PLACE” on the sheet. “I want you to picture it. Sights, sounds, smells. Keep your eyes open. Take your time. Let me know when you are there.”

Blankenship immediately knew his safe place. They’d built an addition on the tiny white boat cottage for the baby — half glass walls and a glass ceiling, almost like a greenhouse for their flower.

Zhorah sat in a rocking chair, next to the crib, Tibbi swaddled in a light green plaid blanket. Zhorah rocked. Tibbi slept, her fat pink cheek pressed against Zhorah’s breasts.

Blankenship sat on the ground right next to his women. His arm fell asleep from reaching up for so long to hold Zhorah’s hand underneath Tibbi’s bottom, but he ignored that as long as he could to just sit there.

Fat raindrops tapped the glass roof like fingers. Not to be let inside, but just to let them know they were there, they were everywhere, watching out for the three of them.

“I see it,” he said.

“Clearly?”

Blankenship leaned his head against Zhorah’s leg. He didn’t know if he actually did that at the time, but he could feel her and Tibbi’s warmth.

“Yes,” he said.

“We’re going to make a kind of shortcut to it. Tap your left knee,” Dr. Reed said.

He tapped.

“Whenever you tap your knee there, you will call up that safe place. You will be there,” Dr. Reed said. “Now, be here. Look at me.”

“OK,” he said. He immediately wanted to tap his knee again.

“Tell me about something else. Tell me about your work.”

“I used to be a film critic,” he said. “Now, I’m a bookkeeper.” Money in this universe was made of paper and metal coins, but math was the same.

“What’s your favorite movie?” she asked.

He didn’t know what to say. All the films in this universe were different. Then, he realized it didn’t matter. Like in his universe, there were so many films he could just say anything – it wouldn’t be unusual if Dr. Reed had never heard of it. “The Berry.” In his universe, that was a well-known and award-winning documentary.

“Good,” she said. She paused, and then said, “Tap your knee.”

He tapped. He heard Tibbi take a breath, the kind that signaled she was about to cry. He squeezed his wife’s hand, and then lowered down his tingling arm.

“Are you there”? Dr. Reed asked.

“I am.”

“Good,” she said. “Excellent. Let’s move on.”

 

Session Three

Dr. Reed wore a scarf with a distracting print. The way he had to hold his head, so his neck wouldn’t shoot pains, kept him staring right at it.

Dr. Reed asked him about himself, and then about some other things. The scarf bothered Blankenship. He couldn’t focus until he heard his daughter’s name.

“What?” he asked.

“How is Tibbi coping with everything?” Dr. Reed repeated.

When he got home from work the evening before, Tibbi had been flopped on her stomach, sideways across her bed. She liked the queen size mattress much more than her tiny little cot back at home.

The cot was a small bed. For a small girl in a small room in a small white house.

She rolled over as Blankenship locked the door behind him.

“Hello, precious,” he said. “How was school?”

“Hi, Baba,” she said. “When are we going to find a real apartment?”

She answered herself at the same time he did: “Soon.” Then she sighed and rolled back over onto her stomach.

“Are you feeling all right?” Blankenship asked.

“I’m not sure, Baba,” Tibbi answered. It was the most forthright she’d been in days.  “I think so.”

Blankenship sat next to his daughter. She felt warm to him. Maybe she’d caught something. He gave her some Naproxen, after studying the label for warnings longer than he needed to, and let her watch whatever she wanted to on the TV.

“She’s all right, I guess,” Blankenship answered Dr. Reed. “She alternates between pretending she finds the whole mess quite boring and having stomach issues.”

“That sounds like a teenager.” Dr. Reed put her hand to her throat. “Do you want me to take this off? You keep focusing on it.”

“No,” he said. “Yes.” Something about the colors, the blown-out paisley print, kept him from being able to think straight.

She untied it and then hid it beneath a leg. “Did you practice your positive belief? And going to your safe place?”

Blankenship nodded. It helped when the panicked ache rose up. But, he’d also had to force himself from not tapping his knee all the time: on the bus, in traffic; at work, staring at a screen of spreadsheets until they smeared; sitting up in his queen sized bed, listening to his daughter’s tiny, little snore.

“We’re going to do some unpleasant work for a few minutes,” Dr. Reed said. “If you feel up for it.”

“Sure.”

“We’re going to identify a ‘negative cognition’. Think of it as the opposite of your positive belief. It’s something about you that you are uncomfortable with, that causes you distress. This can be related to your target. How you reacted, for instance. Or, why you think you are so deeply affected. ” Dr. Reed touched her neck again, seeming surprised the scarf was not there to play with. Then she went on. “Some examples could be: ‘I can’t deal with being alone.’ Or ‘I can’t protect my daughter’.”

“Neither of those.” He had been alone since his Zhorah died, and he did protect his daughter. They were in this universe, after all, instead of being pulverized, or atomized, or whatever happened to everyone and everything in their world. He knew the right answer. “I can’t find my place in this world.”

Dr. Reed nodded. She wrote that down in her notes. “We will work on that,” she said.

“Thank you,” Blankenship said. “I hope so.”

Because, in this universe, he was a ghost. It was best if he didn’t take up much space and left only the most fleeting of impressions.

And like a ghost, he haunted. People and places.

He left work today right after lunch, extra early, so he’d have time to make a stop before his appointment. It took two busses. The house was, as they called in this universe, a “craftsman,” typical for this Seattle. It set into a hillside in a neighborhood that didn’t exist in his universe. There, it was some government buildings, although he wasn’t sure which.

It was light blue, with darker blue trim and a shiny, red door. The deep porch was held up by square pillars, and a wind chime of cut metal butterflies rang like a bell in the breeze. The curtains were pretty diaphanous, and Blankenship could see right into the sitting room, a sofa, throw pillows, the exposed beams framing the bookshelf.

She wouldn’t be home. She taught a full day of classes that day, according to the university course catalog. In this university, Zhorah was a professor. Literature. It made sense. In his universe, Zhorah was a poet.

Blankenship didn’t know what this Zhorah’s husband did. He was also obviously not home. Blankenship looked at photos of him on the Internet — Maxwell Graham — but only enough to know he was not someone Blankenship knew.

Blankenship cricked his neck trying to see past the front room. He couldn’t see himself there. This was not his stuff. None of it. He also couldn’t see any evidence of children.

On the two bus rides back and to the appointment, he looked down at his feet on the floor, ashamed. He felt like he’d done something — not criminal, but dirty, somehow. He wouldn’t meet anyone’s eyes.  And he wouldn’t allow himself the relief of rubbing the side of his neck.

“That’s why we’re here,” Dr. Reed said.

Blankenship dug his knuckles into the sore lump. It throbbed with a life of its own.

 

Session Four

The ring of chairs of gone, replaced with two wide-armed wingbacks. Blankenship was glad. These were more comfortable, and the circle always made him half expect a group to show up around him.

“Would you say you’re practiced at going to your safe place?” Dr. Reed asked. “I’d like to move onto your target today, if we can.”

“I am,” he said. “Let’s try.”

Dr. Reed pulled a thin wand out and held it up. She pushed a small button on one end, and a blue LED light creeped across the wand, back and forth. “Are these lights too bright to focus on?” she asked.

“They’re OK.” The color reminded him of holiday lights.

“As you talk and think about and picture your target, I want you to follow the light back and forth. Blink whenever you need to.”

“Are you hypnotizing me?” Blankenship felt nervous again, like he had on the first day. He was here to process what happened, sure, but he didn’t need to go blurting out how he stole money, even if it was from himself, or how he went to his wife, not-wife’s house.

“No. Not at all.” She explained something about changing the way he stored memories, affecting his neural pathways.

“Imagine the event, if you can. Place yourself there.” Dr. Reed said.

Blankenship watched the lights. He was impressed at Dr. Reed’s arm strength, how she could hold that out already for so long without shaking.

“If it gets too much, just tap your knee and go to your safe place,” she said. “But imagine the target now. Call it up in your mind.”

Blankenship didn’t think of the explosion. Instead, he remembered appearing in this universe.  Tattered, bloody. Onlookers thought he was attacking Tibbi, and it wasn’t until they pulled him off that they realized he was shielding her.

Someone called emergency services.

Tibbi didn’t understand what had happened, and Blankenship couldn’t say it yet, so the paramedics and police filled in the blanks.

The social worker couldn’t find him under Blankenship, but found a Seth Ferguson. His face matched the license photo. They found no records at all for Tibbi, but that didn’t concern them since she was only thirteen. “She won’t actually need her social until she gets her first job,” the social worker told him. “But it isn’t a bad idea to get it soon.”

He’d nodded. Doctors treated them, and an off-duty fireman dropped them off at Ferguson’s house.

This universe offered them one immediate kindness: Ferguson was not home.

“What’s come up?” Dr. Reed asked. “How do you feel?”

“I feel horrible,” Blankenship whispered.

“On a scale of zero being fine, and ten being the worst you have ever felt?”

“A six,” he said.

He fit in Ferguson’s clothes. Tibbi helped her father fold some clothes into a suitcase from the back of the hall closet. Ferguson, like Blankenship, had an emergency fund stuffed inside a hollowed out book — just took three shelves before Blankenship found it. Neither of them knew how much a stack of paper that size was worth.

Turns out it was enough for a nice motel. And food. And a few outfits for Tibbi until he found a job.

“Talk to me, Blankenship,” Dr. Reed said.

“I used to be a film critic,” he said. “But in this universe, I haven’t seen any of the films. I lied to become a bookkeeper, because math, math is the same.” The lights seemed to move faster and faster, but he knew it was his imagination. “There’s another me here, and my wife is married to someone else.”

“Good, good.”

Then he touched his knee.

 

Session Five

The receptionist explained that Dr. Reed was running a few minutes behind, and did he mind sitting and waiting?

He didn’t mind. He signed in and sat down.

The receptionist was new. She had the ombre hair stylish in his universe, shaded dark at the roots down to light blonde at the tips. Tibbi had begged to dye her hair like that. “Your hair is pretty,” Blankenship told the receptionist. “My daughter wants her hair just like it.”

The receptionist pulled up a few strands and frowned at it. “This? Ugh. It’s a bad bleach job growing out.” Then she smiled at Blankenship. “Thanks, anyway.”

Blankenship sat. He had no interest in the magazines, so he bobbed his leg in time to the background music.

The song had twangy, stuttering guitars. A simple melody, moving up and down the scales. Consequent notes, it was called, in his universe. Consequent. Like the disease: Consequent Distress Condition. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The receptionist sang along. “You said I love you like the stars above…” she sang. “La-la-la-la-la…movie song….”

“What song is this?” Blankenship asked, after a line about how love songs were supposed to be.

She seemed embarrassed to realize he’d been listening. “This guy I started seeing made me a mix. It has a lot of old stuff on it.” She held up her phone, and stroked the little screen. “Let me see. Oh, yeah. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire Straits.”

“I like it,” he said. “It’s really sad.”

“And romantic,” the receptionist said. “Just like Romeo and Juliet.”

“Who were they?” Blankenship asked.

The receptionist laughed, and then shut up, as if she first thought he was kidding. She tucked her shaded hair behind one year, eyes wide. “You never had to read ‘Romeo and Juliet’?”

Blankenship shook his head. Now, he was embarrassed. It was, apparently, basic to know in this universe.

“You’re the first person I’ve met you wasn’t forced to read any Shakespeare,” she said. “It’s about two lovers. Very sad and romantic.”

He wanted to hear the song again, but the receptionist already thought he was strange. And she didn’t turn on any more music. He wished he had a pen and paper to write some notes. Romeo and Juliet. Dire Straits. Shakespeare. He repeated them to himself. Dire Straits, Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. After a few minutes of that, Blankenship stood up.

“You know,” he said. “I should get back to work. Tell Dr. Reed I’ll call to reschedule.”

“Are you sure?” I’m sure she’ll be here any minute.”

“Just let her know I’ll reschedule.” Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Dire Straits. He held up his hand, and tried not to run out of the waiting room.

The medical complex was one of many in the Pill Hill area, and on the edge of a hip, young neighborhood in this Seattle, Capitol Hill. After quizzing a few kids that looked no more than Tibbi’s age — but in scrubs and stethoscopes, holding coffees – one pointed Blankenship towards a music store.

The store clerk’s face was littered with acne and disorganized facial hairs.  But it wasn’t unkind. “I’m looking for a song,” Blankenship told him.

“Which?”

“’Rominey and Julius’,” he said. “By Dire Straitspeare.” It didn’t sound right.

But the clerk nodded. “In Classics,” he said. Then, after Blankenship didn’t move, led him there, rifled through some skinny plastic cases, and handed him one. It had a blank red cover. But Blankenship didn’t question it. He let the kid lead him back to the register, take his paper money, hand him back a few coins, and then thank him.

Inside the skinny plastic box was a silver disk. In the sunlight, it reflected the light like a prism. It was beautiful. Only then did Blankenship realize he had no idea how to make the disk play the song.

But the lady at the motel’s front desk clerk offered to send him up a stereo when he showed the disk to her. “I’m sure we have a boom box somewhere,” she said. “With a CD player.”

It took some experimenting to see how to plug the grey box into the outlet, and where to place the disk and what button to push to make the music play. Blankenship even found a knob hat made the sound louder or softer.

Blankenship sat on his bed and listened to “Romeo and Juliet” seven or eight times straight through. He listened a little to other songs on the disk, but he kept going back to the one song. He liked the part about kissing though the bars of Orion, even though he had no idea what the bars of Orion were. The next line was about stars, so he figured it had something to do with the sky.

He’d never looked at the night sky in this universe; he’d never thought to. He’d been looking down, not up.

Maybe he should. Maybe after dinner tonight, Tibbi would come with him somewhere to look at the stars. Maybe a park. There were so many streetlights, though. They might not see anything.

So many streetlights. In the song, Romeo steps out from behind a streetlight and sings to Juliet. Blankenship imagines there’s a streetlight in front of Zhorah’s blue house.  He steps out from behind it. He sings to her.

He started the song over again from the beginning. He sat back a little. He tapped his left knee.

 

Session Six

Blankenship saw the blue car in the driveway of the blue house before he saw Zhorah squatting in front of the porch. She was planting or weeding or something, in a soft line of soil bordering the front of the house.

It was new. Last time Blankenship was here, there had only been slightly unkempt grass.

Later, Blankenship would try to sort out whether it was surprise, or terror, or a subconscious desire to be discovered that kept him standing there and staring at Zhorah until she looked up and turned around.

“Seth?” she called.

The sounds of his name made Blankenship almost crumple at the knees. “Yes,” he said.

She was in front of him. She called his name again, “Seth,” sounding pleased. “I wasn’t expecting you,” she said, and she was close enough for Blankenship to see her eyes, her strange, wonderful eyes — just like their daughter’s – blue with a ring of caramel brown. Then she hugged him.

He felt a layer of unfamiliar fat around her middle. She smelled like dirt and salt and vaguely like cigarettes. He wanted to throw her down onto the grass right that second. Rip off her plaid shirt, kiss her shoulders, push his face in this new chubby belly. Instead, he pushed her gently away.

You haven’t been at book group and not answering emails. I figured you took off on one of your trips.”

“Nope,” he said. Ferguson took trips. He could understand that. He was looking for something. Or trying to get away. Either one made sense.

“What are you doing here?” Zhorah asked. She led him across the lawn towards the porch stairs. “Come inside. Tell me everything.”

He wanted to. He wanted to tell her everything. But he couldn’t tell her anything. “No,” he said. “I can’t. I felt bad I hadn’t seen you, and wound up nearby, so…” he trailed off. Let her fill in the blanks. “But I have an appointment.”

“OK, Seth,” she said. She sounded genuinely disappointed. “I’m glad you showed your face at least.”

“I miss your face,” he blurted. Stupid.

But Zhorah just made a happy sound and poked him playfully. “Thanks.”

Blankenship backed away.

“See you soon,” Zhorah said.

Dr. Reed was not happy with him. He’d never rescheduled his appointment, and made him sit through a lecture about how important continuity and commitment were in any treatment. He half listened. He looked past the light stick.  He was trying to keep the image of Zhorah’s face steady and clear.

“I miss my wife’s face,” he said.

“Tell me about her. Tell me about the last time you saw her.”

“Her funeral,” he said. It was half a lie, since the Zhorah he saw today had never been his wife. Then, he suddenly put something together. “Your scarf,” he said.

“The one you didn’t like?” Dr. Reed asked.

“It’s not that I didn’t like it…” he started. It was, he realized, just like Zhorah’s veil.

In the coffin, her face was covered, as dictated by tradition, with the painted silk veil. Most people had loved ones paint a veil for them after they die, but Zhorah had wanted them to paint their own. She’d painted hers’ in bright colors, with a pattern like a tadpole, a symbol, in his universe, of life and new beginnings. It was garish.

“By the time this drapes me,” Zhorah had said, “the colors will have muted down.”

But they hadn’t. Zhorah’s veil was as distracting at Dr. Reed’s scarf.

“That’s a beautiful tradition,” Dr. Reed said. “Are you there, right now? At the funeral?”

“Yes,” he said. He felt Tibbi next to him. She had just had a growth spurt, but was not tall enough to see into the coffin. Blankenship reached out to his wife — something he hadn’t actually done that day – and pulled off her veil. He looked at her face.

He couldn’t tell if it was his Zhorah, or the Zhorah he saw today. The ache rose, and almost choked him. His Zhorah died, and now didn’t exist. “My wife is gone from us forever,” he said to the light stick.

Dr. Reed lowered the light. “It’s fine to be sad,” she said. “You should be sad about that.”

He hadn’t told Tibbi yet that there was a Zhorah in this universe. He never wanted to tell her. “Maybe we just need to forget,” he said. “Start over somewhere else.”

“You haven’t been able to even look at what happened to you yet,” Dr. Reed said. She leaned forward, ready to tap his knee. “Do you need your safe place?”

“No,” he said. “I think I’m all right.”

“That’s wonderful, Mr. Blankenship,” Dr. Reed said. “I think we made some progress today.”

 

Session Seven

Tibbi stayed home from school, so he stayed home from work. But she wouldn’t let him miss his therapy appointment. “I’ll be OK, Baba,” she said, from her bed.

“Are you eating junk?”

“No,” she said. “I’m eating OK. I’m eating what you eat.”

“It’s stress then,” he said. He sat down next to his daughter and stroked her hair. She laid her head in his lap like she did when she was little. “Maybe staying here isn’t a good idea.” He knew it wasn’t, but he wanted to introduce the idea gently to her. She’d weathered so much already. “We could start over. Anyplace you want.”

Tibbi opened her blue and brown eyes and blinked at him. “None of them are home, though.”

“I know,” he said.

Tibbi let him pet her hair a few more times. Then she rolled over onto her stomach and stuck out her long, birdy legs. She had Zhorah’s eyes and Zhorah’s body. “It’s OK, Baba. We’re lucky. We could have ended up in a place with no gravity. Or sunlight. There are an infinite number of multiverses.” She looked up at him. “We could have ended up nowhere at all.”

“Where did you hear about all that?” he asked. “Multiverses?”

“I read about them at school,” she said. “I looked it up in the library.” She turned her face into the pillow. Her hair, just like his hair, reddish-brownish like the bark of a tree, spread on the pillow. She was muffled, but Blankenship could still hear. “We’re awful lucky.”

Blankenship resigned to patting his daughter on the shoulder. “We sure are, precious,” he said. “We sure are. Sip your soda.” He’d brought her a few cans of soda and was letting them go warm and flat. “I’ll be back in a few hours.” He stood up. “Bring me those multiverse books when you get a chance. I’d like to see them.”

“OK, Baba,” Tibbi said into the pillow.

A slim box lay on his chair when he got to the appointment. He sat down and turned it over in his hands.

“It’s for you,” she said.

He was afraid of it for some reason, and said so.

“I help people pick open their lives,” she explained. “I have seen how powerful meaningful coincidences are.”

Inside, wrapped in a sheet of tissue paper, was Dr. Reed’s distracting scarf. Zhorah’s death veil.  He pulled it out and held it open.

“You said you and your daughter had nothing from your old life,” Dr. Reed said.

“Thank you,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say, so he didn’t say anything else. He balled the scarf into a hand, and then stuffed the hand in his pocket. He squeezed it. He felt better and worse.

“Tell me what you’re feeling,” Dr. Reed said.

“I feel happy,” he said. “And sadder than ever. I feel confused. And lost.” The silk of the scarf was cool and slippery. “More lost that ever.”

“Like you still don’t know your place?”

He nodded. He longed, suddenly, for the light stick. Something to focus on besides Dr. Reed’s face. He was seeing her now as Evelyn Meridian, the psychiatric researcher that lived next door to their little, white cottage. In his universe, her wife’s name was Rita. Rita was a painter. She and Zhorah had been good friends. They’d collaborated on a few illustrated poems before Zhorah’s car accident. Evelyn and Rita had been over the house for dinner so many times. They watched Tibbi so he and Zhorah could have nights out.

He closed his eyes.

“What do you think will help you find your place?” Evelyn Meridian/Reed asked.

 

Session Eight

Dr. Reed gave him more homework. Not a worksheet, though, and not to practice going to his safe place in his mind. She wanted him to visit places, real places, which meant something to him.

No place in this universe really did.

He didn’t remember which corner he and Tibbi appeared on, and wasn’t sure he wanted to remember. He passed the hospital where they were treated on his way to therapy, and they still lived at the motel. The metalworkers’ union hall where he worked didn’t feel particularly special, except that he spent 30 hours a week there. And Tibbi rarely wanted to eat at the same restaurant twice, but, instead try everything in this Seattle.

That left Ferguson’s.

Ferguson just came home when Blankenship walked up. His car, a black sporty-looking deal — Blankenship approved — was in the driveway with the trunk open. And Ferguson was ferrying packages back and forth into his kitchen.

Blankenship watched him for awhile. Like he expected, Ferguson ignored him. Then, Blankenship took the long way to his appointment.

“I didn’t know what to say to him,” Blankenship told Dr. Reed.

“To yourself,” she said. She still thought this was all a metaphor.

“To this myself,” he said.

Dr. Reed just started up the light stick when the receptionist with the ombre hair knocked firmly on the office door, then stuck her head all the way in to the neck. “I’m sorry to disturb your session, Dr. Reed.,” she said. “But there’s a phone call for Mr. Blankenship. It’s his daughter’s school.”

Blankenship’s field of vision narrowed to a tube. The phone at the front desk was warm, the mouthpiece a little damp. He made a hello sound.

“Mr. Blankenship? This is Annie Tompkins. I’m the nurse at Seward Middle School. Your daughter was having severe abdominal pain, so we’ve called an ambulance. Do you have a hospital preference?”

He said the name of the hospital where they’d been first treated. It was the only one he knew by name, and it was just around the corner. He was surprised he didn’t scream. “I will meet you there,” he said. Then, he hung up.

Dr. Reed took one look at his face. “Mary,” she said to the receptionist. “Cancel my afternoon appointments.” She stepped forward and took Blankenship firmly by the arm. It was something Evelyn Meridian would do. “I’m going with you.”

The hospital was a blur. Emergency directed them to Pediatrics, and Pediatrics had them sit in the waiting room. The walls were painted with colorful animals, ostensibly to cheer up the children in the ward. But the artist hadn’t paid much attention to the animals’ eyes. Some were wall- or cross-eyed. Others seemed to be starting off into a distance at nothing at all.

Blankenship didn’t know how long they sat there, until a physician came out, clipboard and white coat and all, and called Blankenship’s name. He took them into a small office. One wall was lined with stuffed animals in improbable colors: raccoons, bears, cats, even an armadillo. They all watched Blankenship with shiny, sharp glass eyes.

He didn’t know which was worse. The mural animals or these.

“Tibbi has Autosomal Dominant Polycystic Kidney Disease.” the doctor said. “It’s genetic. Have you or your wife ever been diagnosed?”

Blankenship shook his head.

“It only takes one gene. Sometimes, there are no symptoms at all.”

“Is she OK?” he asked.

The doctor nodded. “She’ll need treatment. I have forms for you to sign. We’d like to give her dialysis today.”

“But she’ll be OK?” he asked.

“She’ll need to eat a special diet. Drink more water than she has. Regular dialysis. And she’ll need to be monitored.” The doctor held out a paper with numbers on it. “Her GFR is high.”

“GFR?”

“Measures renal function,” the doctor explained.

“Is there a cure?” Dr. Reed said.

“No, the doctor said. “There’s no cure. But we’d like to start testing today to see if either of you are a donor match.” The doctor leaned in. “I know it’s a lot to take in. But we should have everything set up in case she needs a new kidney, and living donors are preferable to cadavers.”

“I’m her father,” Blankenship said. “Why wouldn’t I be a match?”

“Some relatives aren’t,” the doctor said. “Tissue, blood type, immune function. Can be tricky. But one of you should be a good candidate.”

He thought Dr. Reed was Zhorah. “She isn’t her mother,” Blankenship said.

“But I’d like to be tested, anyway,” Dr. Reed said. “I’m a friend of the family.”

“Can I see her?” Blankenship asked. He wanted to see his daughter immediately. He wanted to see her eyes — Zhorah’s eyes — and get away from all these blank animals.

“Of course,” the doctor said. He led them down a hallway. Dr. Reed stood outside as Blankenship went in.

Tibbi looked so small, lost on the hospital bed. Tubes led from her arms and nose to the wall. Blankenship moved the tubes aside to hold his daughter.

“Baba,” she sobbed.

“It’s OK, precious,” he said. “Baba will fix it. Baba will get you everything you need.” He sang into her hair, about streetlights, and talk on the TV, and the bars of Orion.

They hadn’t noticed Dr. Reed had come in and sat down.

“What are the bars of Orion?” Tibbi asked. She wiped her eyes on a corner of the sheet.

“Orion’s a constellation,” Dr. Reed said.

Tibbi looked at Dr. Reed. “Evelyn?” she asked. Her mouth fell open.

Dr. Reed raised her eyebrows at being called Evelyn. “Hello, Tibbi,” she said. “I have heard a lot about you too.”

 

Session Nine

He wasn’t a good match. Neither was Dr. Reed. Tibbi would be placed on a transplant list once her GFR hit about 25 milliliters per minute.

“We can just sit and talk today,” Dr. Reed said.

“No,” he said. “I need to face this target stuff.” He had to face it so he could face whatever came next. He’d prepared a little. Tibbi’s teacher brought her books to the motel so Tibbi could catch up on homework, and had included the book on Introductory M-Verse Theory.

“All right,” Dr. Reed said. She held out the light stick. “Watch the light. Imagine the target event. Be there. Talk to me about what you feel.”

It’d been a regular day. Blankenship always imaged that the end of the world — the end of the universe — would have some sort of sign, a warning at least. But the sky was clear and Tibbi was late for school, as usual. He had a deadline that afternoon, for a review on a movie he couldn’t even remember the plot of right after watching, much less now. So, he had the time to walk Tibbi to school, which she wasn’t crazy about but allowed him to do, as long as he peeled off a block from the edge of the ball field.

They walked, and talked about something, then something else, and he offered to help Tibbi hold her enormous schoolbag at least once. But then, he got a chill, and she must have too, because she didn’t shake off his hand.

The sky turned black in an instant. Not black like night, but black like wrong. The sidewalk rolled beneath them, like a wave of water. He thought it was an earthquake, or the long dormant volcano they called Mount Bydell had come to life. He jumped on his daughter. He knocked her onto the ground, and he folded himself around her. He covered as much of her as he could. She screamed into his chest, and he held onto the top of her head. Wind whipped dust, the gravel, then straight up debris which bounded and scraped his back. It carried away her school bag.

He looked up only once. He looked up to see all the houses on the street, the yards, sidewalks, streetlights, everything, break and fold and then disappear, leaving only grey smoke. He looked up to see everything swallowed, and he turned his face into his daughter’s hair and waited for them to be taken too.

But they weren’t.

The wind turned way down to a breeze, and the crashing turned to car horns, a distant drilling, and the swishing of legs around them. He stayed over his daughter until they were shouted at, and then pulled apart. Someone called emergency services. They filled in the blanks. Father and daughter attacked, beaten, mugged, and left on a street corner. He and Tibbi were placed into an ambulance.

Blankenship held out the book to Dr. Reed. “’Everything that exists and can exist in some possible universe,’” he quoted from the first chapter. “Our universe was destroyed and we wound up in this one.”

She turned off the light stick and took the book from him.

“I don’t know why,” he said.

“You don’t know your place,” she said. She seemed to understand now what he’d meant.

“Exactly,” he said. “I don’t know what I am supposed to do.”

Evelyn Reed placed the light stick on top of the book. “Your place is with your daughter,” she said. “You’re supposed to be here for her. To do whatever it takes.”

Blankenship felt inside his pocket for the scarf. He’d carried it with him everywhere since the day Dr. Reed gave it to him.

He wasn’t a match. But her mother might be. He thought of the blue house and the blue car, the loose dirt and the unfamiliar ring of fat. He thought of how she called him Seth and the flutter in his stomach when she said it.

He thought of her eyes, his daughter’s eyes. Blue and brown.

But he tried not to plan what he would say. He’d hold up the scarf like some sort of proof.

He paid the cab driver. The speed was worth the indulgence. He stood in front of the red door.

He reached out, then pulled back. He’d do anything for Tibbi. Whether he had a future in this universe mattered less than if she did. He balled the scarf in his fist.

And then he knocked.

 

This story first appeared in Interzone Magazine #253.
Edited by Marie Ginga.

Caren Gussoff Sumption's work has been published by Seal Press, Serpents Tail, Aqueduct Press, Abbadon, and Pink Narcissus, among others, and her short work's been in magazines like Interzone, Abyss & Apex, and Black Static. She occupies space south of Seattle, but spreads out on the Internet at spitkitten dot com.