Title: Hope for Spring
Author: S.E. Smyth
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: 04/04/2023
Heat Level: 2 – Fade to Black Sex
Genre: Historical, Coming-of-age, Coming out, Criminals, Dark, Friends-to-lovers, Homelessness, Hurt/comfort, Illness/disease, Mental illness, #ownvoices, Road trip, Soulmates, Tear-jerker
Alex struggles with purpose and loneliness. In an act of desperation, betting on fate, she goes out into the streets of California looking for her friend Bob and to get lost in the world herself.
Her journey gives insight into the emotional underbelly of transient life and the unforgiving pulse of mental illness. Both things are daunting, but they are especially lethal when combined.
Hope for Spring
S.E. Smyth © 2023
All Rights Reserved
I wish I had left last night. I rummaged for memories, buried screaming feelings, and collapsed sleepless with anger. I hadn’t yet said thank you enough. All I can think about is how I’m so late, and I’m such a horrible person for not leaving last night. I lay awake blank, lifeless. I could’ve alleviated my frustrations by getting up and out early. It’s six thirty in the morning, and I slam the door and drop the storm door, loose in its frame, on top of the hardwood slab. I am unaware of time owing to a lack of sleep. That dicey balance surfaces. I’m somewhere between tolerable, excused unawareness and anxiety ridden fear—someone will ask me if something is wrong. Up at five forty-five, I shake myself with anger.
Last night I went to bed perplexed, unsure how to explain what Uncle Mack means to me and what he signifies. Someone needed me, someone I should have paid back. I can feel death creeping over him miles away, and I am scared to touch him while he slips into darkness. He won’t know the sincerity. I’m afraid he won’t feel my emotion. It is everything I can do to rush to get to the hospital.
Uncle Mack, a close family friend, saved my life when I barely even knew him. His short, wiry hair is a dull pile of disorder. His head is finally fully gray. Close friends would often tease him; he had a few more gray hairs than the last time they saw him. Mostly, they were referring to his past, the days of drinking and addiction that led to his downfall. Years before I met him again, before he saved my life, Mack had problems. Problems that likely caused the predicament, his hospital stay.
Maybe, I shouldn’t go right away. Maybe, this scene, this event, this wake, isn’t for me. I would decide on the way. I grasp for Sue’s exact words, and I feel for my own pulse. I listen waiting for the words to resurface. All I remember is she beckoned me to come.
It’s a long three-hour drive drawn out by slow gazes at scenery and reflective observations that take eyes off the road. The distractions pull me irritatingly off purpose. I’m trying to avoid rush hour, but traffic piles up just as it crashes into Friday night dinner plans. I mutter to myself, Traffic sucks all the time, anywhere, severely. The congestion pauses me and exhaust from the car in front of me circles. Anger rises and dwells on itself. My thoughts stick, tacky, to those feelings. My mind goes nowhere else. Traffic does this to me. The madness assaults and breaks me.
My 2004 Subaru chugs along, but ten times over, I am ready to get one off the lot. The color is Silver Stone Metallic. That’s what the internet says when I look up the practically antique model online. I bought the car used, but that doesn’t mean the hunk of junk isn’t beautiful. This car, more than a mode of transportation, retains some inherent character I get to embellish. I’m not sure the thing is worth more than five hundred dollars. The car has power windows and a leather capped shifter but only one good visor and missing back seat headrests.
The beast is the first car I bought on my own, paid for with dimes I found on the ground, hard earned paychecks, and a few dollars Mack once gave me over twenty years ago so I would get out of the house. I kept the money for several years. I feel comfortable in the car and smooth the arm rest with my hand. I realize I can’t remember a time in this car when I felt worse. My headache will not lift.
I tap my fingers on the steering wheel to a beat, even though the music isn’t on. I can’t place a copyrighted song that might fit. The radio is off because I demand concentration. For once, I’m not having an attack of consuming reflections about life with layers of loaded regret. I’m not making concrete conclusions, so I don’t remember these feelings forever. They shouldn’t appear unexpected when I’m brushing my teeth or answering the phone. That’s fine with me.
I breathe in, and there is still the issue, the reason I don’t appear alright. Uncle Mack is dying, and I don’t know how to say thank you. I need some words. TV captures death wrapped in poignancy. That’s what we come to know in absence of experience. Even though I realize this, I still want my fleeting time to be indelible. I want to capture the “in sum,” as much as the memories.
I survey coping mechanisms. I think about the wisdom of Hallmark cards, and I have nowhere to write them down. I recall traumatic death scenes like in The Hours when Richard throws himself out of the window. In my head, I search for what he might say and what I should say. Left without a perfect sentiment, I settle on revisiting our collective memories and our similar experiences. Remembering before I went to stay with him is too much. I won’t broach that time. I’m not sure how much time I’ll have with him. He’s asking for me that’s all that matters.
We had a conversation after the neighbor’s shed burned down. His “in sum,” was no one would help me be better at being a person. “You have to want to be a person among others and find fulfillment that gives you passion,” he said, as I remembered the words. “Your mind can work itself into the darkest corners, and only you can change its direction,” I heard him say. I felt like, “I’m here to talk when you need me. I’ll give you my opinion on anything and help you out, but you need to find patience in yourself to accept those things and drive yourself to be more than this.”
His collapsed face didn’t always move as expressively as mine. His skin worn by the sun and elements blushed with memories of winter sports and whipping winds. An outsider’s pain, fear, and sadness confused in equally confounding ways. The confusion grew in the skin that bent on my face. My mouth moved as I hoped for some bit of inflection to gauge his feeling.
Some pathways don’t close off. There were so many ways to lose oneself in the nooks and crannies of the mind. Those hidden spaces were familiar to me and the thoughts that occupied them festered. My rough nail ripped the scab off whole so the wound oozed and bled pooling where a band aid would not stick.
I decided that day, a long time ago, there were no more winding ways to see. There were better things for me, and I wanted those things. Alone in Uncle Mack’s spare bedroom, I waited for things to get better, and they did. True, I stared at the wall for about two hours, but I got up only to see the filtered light from the window screen dance on the pavement outside. I moved toward it and the outside.
I accepted the bipolar disorder, Type 1 diagnosis later when I heard words that made sense. They described how I felt. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t grasp to complain or explain the feelings correctly or walk the funk off. I declared myself unwell with broad boundaries. Naming the state supplied relief. Even though I’m stronger, recollection is like a poisoned apple. I jump through the mirror into unshakable relivable moments. I’m lucky the events, the incidents, are not every day.
My pace quickens as I move through the parking lot, leaving the specific bits and pieces of the past behind but holding imperative my timeliness. With intent, I step over white parking space lines, my stride stuttering or lengthening. The cold chill of the morning is appearing, pushing aside the bitter.
I poke the button on the elevator and send warm thoughts at a mother and child, holding a balloon. The inflatable bubble says, “Get Well Soon.” The kid laughs and asks for his book, with crumpling gimme-gimme fingers. With this, I know his father or the family’s friend likely lay in a hospital bed because of a broken leg or gallbladder surgery on the third floor. She fiddles with the bag, the young reader book, and the overaged child on her hip. She grins and nods acknowledgment; I am a witness. She’s happy for me to see the glowing child.
I get off, and they stay on. The woman pushes the close door button several times, realizing I’m a stranger, potentially untrustworthy, that she is behind schedule, or she wants to close the conversation of glances. It is one of these things, and I’ll never entirely know which. The giggly child turns a page in a book, waves bye-bye, and I glance harder to confirm I don’t know them from some farfetched incident.
Walking briskly, I skip checking in and ask a nurse what room he is in. “Straight down the hall on the left, room three sixteen,” she says. Nurses in this recently sanitized zone are all business. I pull in deep wafts of bleach and disinfectant looking for the line where the recent clean stopped. I imagine the nurses have no time to break the sad news or scold doctors for risky bedside manners in this close to death section of the hospital. They, doubtless, don’t let anyone in emotionally or express sympathy at feelings, so they don’t have to hold the damage for visitors while they are there. The nurses don’t want to take the frustrations with them when they go home to their own families. I thought of her like the rest, broken working on this floor, all behind cute cartoon scrubs.
Jason, an old friend from childhood, stands right by the door, a sentry. His hands are folded in front of him, and he bows his head. I hadn’t called him in over a year. It’s so sad that Uncle Mack’s death brought us together. Jason is my root, and I will never forget that.
“Hi, Alex,” Sue says. Dropping my coat on the door hook, I move in screeching my rubber soles as I slow myself down. Holding onto the door hook, I place my jacket on the U-shaped silver and steady my hands. There’s only one set of two hooks. Everyone else crosses their coats across their laps or sits on them in odd chairs temporarily assigned to this room. “He’s just sitting up. He’s taking meds for the pain. He will get distracted easily, but he knows everyone.”
Sue and Mack got married about six years ago, and they are the perfect couple as far as I know. They get along like milk and cake. Their lives seem absent of bickering, and they stare lingering into eyes, heads tilting up, when they are irritated. They duck away to whatever alcove or cubby if they disagree so as not to upset anyone, and this amazes me. I go over to him and perch on the raised vent. The big metal rectangular box collects air before entering the room. The breeze sticks in the corner of my eyes as I look at Mack. Whoever painted the box did a sloppy job, or the paint didn’t adhere smoothly to the particular surface. It’s hard to tell which. The air breathes at my back and pushes my shirt against and away from my skin.
I’m letting breaths out with him, inhaling deep with long exhales out. The air is a medication I am lucky enough to share. I see myself old with short gray hair, which is tight against my head. The style is short not because I’m old and don’t want to take care of my hair, but because I have grown into the appearance. With all the years cut off, I can finally be bound to one day. My skin gaps and gathers with splintering lines forming in all directions. The folds wrinkle at the kinks and work toward leather just as his. Family and friends are around me, as they’re around Uncle Mack, and I see so many friends care. I sigh in response to seeing myself old, somehow, in the rounded silver arch bedframe above his hospital bed, a casket, and I know it’s true. I will be old.
A small cat crosses the room, an orange tiger. Everyone is looking at the tiny creature and me with tight corner curling smiles. I don’t see the full extent of the humor right at this moment. Sue says the nurses let them bring their cat. Death is near. Mack grows a baby grin, and that is all anyone needs.
“Ah, hi.” I say, “Sue said you’re refusing treatment.” I’m glad I arrived soon enough; all the worrying made this moment so much more important. I don’t know what else to say. I gather his hand and hold it while bending at the waist, reaching in from my window seat. His skin is frail. I am afraid to rub. His hand doesn’t respond to my weight, and I am terrified to squeeze. If I leave the limp appendage there, the whole hand will inevitably fall off him and onto the floor, cold. Here I am, trying to push the emotions I always have into him, so he remembers the feeling of me. I want to embed the summary of it all like a tattoo. My mind plays a trick on me as a younger Uncle Mack appeared next to his favorite oversized chair, the gray in his hair and beard not quite as rampant as it is now. His face is still plump and full, unlike the sallow and shrunken visage that lay in his bed. That was where he was comfortable and was where he would be if he had a say in the matter. I try to give feeling to him, as I imagine his body in his favorite chair.
“Aww. You know. If I go home, I’ll be back the next day. And, if I have to come in here one more day to sit for five hours, I’m gonna shoot myself in the temple. I’m glad you came. I just wanted to see you…” he says. He gazes off and thinks. He has a weak smirk and weeps with the corner of his eyes, but there are no tears. “One other thing though. I’d ask Sue to do it, but I think the words are better coming from you. Sue will give you her address. I want you to go see my daughter. Just tell her I love her.”
Uncle Mack’s daughter left when he fell off the wagon, thirty feet straight down. I think it is unforgivable what happened, but I don’t pry much. He’s been sober over twenty years now. She isn’t here though, and I feel the room. The white walls are as cold, as sterile, and everyone is crying behind smiles. I’m stealing all the heat. I can explain how he’s been there for me or how he’s been there for so many friends. She needs to know he is one of the most generous and caring men I know. Yes, I’ll say that.
Uncle Mack is the person who helped me stand the way others do, overcompensating for a crooked spine, pacing in comfortable shoes. Every solitary being has a person, although I didn’t believe the quip at the time. There was a presence in his life who did the same for him. I know his daughter must also have a friend when she needs someone to talk to, picket fence, and the essential dependent family unit.
“Mack, if she knew you. If she even knew half of the matter. She’d be here. She’d be so proud of you. I’m so proud of you. I know what you’ve done for so many people,” I say. I didn’t need to give him a passionate farewell, only I would remember. I begged a mere response. I want to make his daughter feel guilty for abandoning him, but also share his love.
Uncle Mack is the person you would say must be the best parent ever. That fact his daughter was estranged was inconsequent. His daughter did a military turn and marched away. She did not return. She is so confident in her stubbornness I don’t know if they even called her to come to the hospital. That was the first selfish thing, and it was what his close loved ones did for him.
Meet the Author
S.E. Smyth is a versatile author putting words into the world. The stories she tells are never exactly how they happened. Elusive as she proclaims she is, you can usually find her nose buried in primary sources plotting a story. Despite persisting historical references, she wholeheartedly believes she lives in the present.
She resides in a smaller sort of town in Pennsylvania, carries heavy things for her wife, rubs cat bellies, and can often be seen taking brisk walks. The household is certain there is something odd going on. She and her wife travel when the air is right looking for antique stores, bike trails, and the perfect beach. S.E. rises unnecessarily early and usually falls asleep by 9 p.m.
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