This story is by Cathy Ryan and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Evan Markel seems determined to be dead. His mother, Bonnie, hovers over him and he – propped up in the hospital bed she had installed just three days ago in her front bedroom, the one with the full bath attached – he slides his gaze to the right, away from her. His lips press closed against the spoon, refusing to eat.
“Does everything have to be a contest between us?” Bonnie says.
He closes his eyes.
“Apparently so.” She sets the spoon aside, wipes his face and combs his hair. “You need a shave.”
It’s his first full day home since their argument. She supposes he’s still angry with her.
She glances at her watch, then kisses Evan’s cheek. “I’m going to the store. Kalie’s here if you need anything.” Evan can call out to his sister if he wants to. Or he could get out of bed. He can learn to walk again; his doctor told her so. He still has choices. Infinite choices. Bonnie has always believed that about him, about his older sister, about herself, about every person. Nothing has changed. He can do and be anything he chooses. Almost. Instead, he seems to prefer to lie here and waste away. That, she will not allow.
She glances at her watch again. If she leaves now, she can be at the grocery store as they open. Fewer people that way. Quick in, quick out. She presses a key on Evan’s laptop to restart his play list (a vile mix of rap and hip/hop) and closes the bedroom door behind her.
On the road, a misty rain hisses under the tires of early morning traffic. A light changes and she stops. Evan’s accident was at an intersection like this one, four lanes crossing four lanes. An SUV ran a red light and t-boned his car, slamming the driver’s seat onto the passenger’s side with Evan belted in. Maybe if he hadn’t had his music on, he might have heard the SUV coming. Maybe if he hadn’t been so angry with her… .
When her light turns green, Bonnie waits to see if the moving car on her left stops before she pulls into the intersection. The car behind her honks but she waits. If Evan’s accident taught her anything it’s that every situation is full of possibilities. She keeps the windows cracked open when she drives now and the radio off. The car behind her whips into the next lane and rockets ahead. That driver has choices, too. Maybe his will be lucky. She pulls ahead.
Evan still wants to become a firefighter. Bonnie expected he would give up childish ambition as he matured. When he finished high school and went away to the university, she thought he was studying for a medical degree. Apparently not.
Schools had closed mid-semester due to Covid. He was barely unpacked when he handed her a certificate. “What’s this?” she asked.
““It’s official,” he said. “I’m an EMT.” Pride radiated from him. “I can go to Fire Academy, now. I don’t have to go back.”
She knew he’d taken an EMT course and volunteered with the Rescue Squad while he was away, but this? “Don’t be foolish.” She handed the certificate back.
He looked like she’d slapped him. “Why, congratulations, Evan,” he mocked her. “I’m so proud of you.” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Be serious, Evan. Choose a real profession, like your father’s.” A safe profession where people don’t lose their lives on the job. She didn’t say that out loud.
They shouted angry words until he stormed from the house.
After the accident, Evan was transported to the hospital. Because of Covid, even his mother was not allowed to visit. Bonnie wondered, Does he think no one cares? She parked outside the hospital for days, praying that he lived. A month after the accident, his doctor recommended a residential nursing home for rehabilitation. Again, she would not be allowed inside. Bonnie had cared for her two children by herself ever since their father’s sudden heartattack took his life. She had made every important decision alone. She was used to that. Evan was still her child. She brought him home.
Bonnie turns into the grocery store lot, parks, and hurries to the door. She pulls a mask on and her glasses fog. Inside, she hustles through the aisles grabbing cleaning supplies – limit one (who knew she would need so much?), incontinence pads, gloves, and finally, balloons. These are what she has come for. She chooses ten in bright colors plus one with the birthday number on it. That’s tradition. She has them inflated and checks out. The balloons bump together on the way to the car and all the way home. She smiles at that sound, anticipating the joy birthday balloons always bring.
At home, she leaves them in the car and hurries the few bags to the door. Kalie meets her with one arm around her pregnant belly. “Ma, you didn’t go inside?”
“I did,” Bonnie says.
“Evan’s in quarantine; not me. Besides, the store was empty.”
Kalie peers out at the car. “Are those balloons? You went into the store for balloons?”
Bonnie hands one of the bags to three-year-old Mason. “Help Grammy, sweetheart. Take that to the kitchen.” She turns to Kalie again. “Of course. We’re celebrating.” She pats Kalie’s tummy. It’s wonderful how many choices that new baby will have. “Go to work, dear. Thank you for coming early.”
Bonnie keeps three-year-old Mason whenever Kalie has to work and Todd, her firefighter husband, is on duty. Three is a wonderful age, potty-trained and eager to help. Together, they make birthday cakes, chocolate and yellow layers for checkerboard cakes, his favorite. After cake-making they play cars until lunch. Then Mason goes down for a nap.
Bonnie enters Evan’s room. She tries to feed him, but again, he refuses. “Must you fight me?” His eyes are closed. Does he even hear her?
Finally, she gives up, makes him tidy then goes into the bathroom to wash her hands. “He’s only been home a day,” she says. She scrubs and scrubs her hands until they are red.
In the kitchen, she assembles and frosts the cooled cakes. They are ready just as Kalie arrives to pick up Mason.
Kalie asks, “Did he eat?”
Bonnie waves her hand toward the cakes. “What do you think?”
“Ma, did Evan eat?”
“Your brother was always stubborn.”
“Did you schedule physical therapy?”
“He has a stomach port. I’ll use that if I need to.”
“Ma, look at me. Evan needs physical therapy.”
“I will do what is best for him.”
“You know what he wants, more than food!”
They are yelling at each other and Mason starts crying. “Now see,” Bonnie says and cuts a slice for him out of one of the cakes. “Here, ruin your appetite.”
“He can’t eat that in the car.”
“At home, then.” She walks out with them, carrying the uncut cake, pretending everything is fine. “We’ll see you later, on Zoom.”
She brings the balloons in from her car and untangles their strings at the kitchen table. She reaches the numbered balloon and holds it, staring at the number. Twenty-one. Evan is officially an adult today, full grown, permitted by law to make all manner of choices, even ones that risk his life. To Evan, only one choice matters. For that one, he needs her help. With a vicious backhand, she strikes the cake and sweeps it off the table.
Later, Bonnie sets up the laptop so Evan can see it if he chooses to. The balloons are tied to his headboard. She salvaged a slice of cake from the mess on the kitchen floor.
She clicks on the Zoom link. Kalie will connect when they are ready.
She studies Evan’s face. This, her child, is too soon a man with freedom to choose how he will live his life. Would she take even one choice away? “Evan, I’m sorry” She clears the lump from her throat. “I’ve been stubborn and … .” Tears course down her cheeks. I can’t do this. She drives the quiver from her voice. “I’ve arranged for you to begin physical therapy tomorrow. They will help you get in shape for Fire Academy if you still want that.” His eyes remain closed. Does he hear? Part of her hopes he doesn’t.
The computer screen comes live and there is Kalie holding Mason on her hip. They are at the firehouse standing in front of the hook and ladder truck where Todd works, where Evan volunteered during high school. A small table is set in front of the pumper truck. It holds the remains of a birthday cake. Each of the firefighters has a big slice. “Hi, Evan!” they shout and then begin to sing. “Happy Birthday to you.”
Evan opens his eyes and turns toward the screen. He takes his mother’s hand.