“What’s duh?” Esme asked, not looking up from her literature textbook. It was Esme’s night off from her job at the convalescent home, and she and her best friend were studying on her queen-sized bed, the door closed, her parents caught in a fishbowl of stupid television and post dinner coma. Esme’s room was warm, the small window cracked an inch, the walls a sunrise yellow. Both of them were sunken in the down comforter, surrounded by Esme's pillows and stuffed animals, Araceli half hidden by Panda’s large, wobbly, ancient head.
But even with her eyes on the small, tight textbook print, Esme could see her friend’s long dark hair, her big brown eyes etched in eyeliner, the lids streaked with a slash of aqua. Without breathing, Esme could smell the sweet crackle of Araceli’s jellybean bubble gum. Since they met a year ago in a psychology class their first semester at Contra Loma Community College, they’d been hanging out on nights they didn’t work. Or have dates, which wasn’t that often lately, or ever, really, especially for Esme.
Every so often, Araceli would text: Biz-eee tonight! J
On those nights, Esme would study for a bit and then slip into the family room and sit in between her parents and watch Real Housewives or Dancing with the Stars.
Araceli jostled herself into position, leaning on her elbows, her body stretched out behind her as she clicked on her laptop. She was supposed to be studying for a pre-calculus test, but she hadn’t cracked her book. Esme wasn’t sure how Araceli would ever transfer to a four-year college.
“This is great. Listen. So would you like ever answer an email from someone named Margaret Fink?”
“Who’s Margaret Fink?”
“No one,” Araceli said. “That’s the point. Total spam. Margaret writes to like tell me they received a message for me. Just me! Can you believe that? And it’s so important I should click here!”
Araceli raised her finger and pretended to click on her keyboard. “And of course the link goes to some web site where I’d just have to buy whatever it was. Margaret Fink. What a name. As if.”
“You think that’s weird. There’s a guy in my English class named Marc Turnipseed.”
Esme hasn’t told anyone else about this, savoring the guy’s name, loving each time their instructor Ms. Jensen read through the roster, calling out, “Marc Turnipseed?” the teacher’s face just barely not smiling. Now that the semester was three weeks old, Esme feared the coming class when Ms. Jensen stopped calling roll, finally knowing able to recognize who they were.
“Seriously?” Araceli said. “Isn’t that like a bad joke or something?”
Esme wasn’t sure about turnip seeds, but she didn’t know much about vegetables in general. Or roots. Or whatever. She had a feeling that roots didn’t need seeds, but she could be wrong about that. Her mother Marta made carrots and potatoes and lumpy squashes for dinner, but they were always covered in a rich, spicy sauce and cooked to mush. Sometimes, Marta shook her head and said, “Beans are a vegetable, too,” though Esme knew this wasn’t true.
Legumes, she thought, feeling a bowl of unwashed pinto beans under her fingertips.
“There was a guy named Bing Bing Bong in one of my classes for about a minute. At least until he got kicked out into a lower math class. The teacher was all, ‘Bong, Bing Bing.’ Everyone laughed like crazy.”
Araceli laughed at the remembered laughter, spun onto her back, pulling her laptop with her. Outside Esme’s room in the house, someone flushed a toilet. Outside in the world outside the house, someone started a car.
“He’s cute,” Esme said, feeling the heat in her throat as she said the words.
“Doesn’t look like a turnip?”
Esme shook her head. No, Marc Turnipseed didn’t look like a turnip or what Esme thought a turnip looked like—round and white and dirty with a beardy tail and maybe a green stalk? Was it sort of purple too? Or was that the other one, the thing that started with an R. Not radish. Rutabaga. Anyway, no. Marc was medium height, blonde haired, blue eyes, strong hands. Hands that could catch things. Footballs, baseballs, babies. Nicely cut fingernails. She knew this because she often sat across from him and stared at his hands as he wrote to Ms. Jensen’s writing prompts.
“So?” Araceli said.
“He’s not round and white,” Esme said, and Araceli laughed again.
“Thanks to god, as your mom would say. If he were some nasty, non-Catholic white guy, you’re mom would be after him with her comal. Running faster than life. Pow, cast iron to the head.”
Esme flushed. So far, her mother hadn’t had to kill anyone with her comal, the pan she used only for heating tortillas on the range. And if things kept going this way, her mother would be too old and weak to pick up the pan by the time Esme ever found a guy. By then Mrs. Marta Hernandez would be witch-like, shrunken, blind and deaf. And the guy could be from Russia or Sweden or some other forgotten, frozen white place and no one would ever know.
But that wasn’t going to be true for Araceli, who was destined for someone. Esme, however, was short and round and dark (what vegetable was she? A beet? She probably wasn’t even a vegetable; her cousin Ricky once called her a “rectangle with hair”) Esme couldn’t even fill out her own real name, Esmeralda, regal and royal and flush and darkly green.
The total opposite of Esme, Araceli was tall, tiny in the right tiny places, full in the right full places. Her hair was smooth, her light brown eyes wide. Her finger and toenails were perfectly shaped and painted pink. Her knees were smooth, her skin tone even, her eyebrows perfectly shaped. And she had boobs, too, that overflowed her tight t-shirts that hugged her from chest to waist. When she and Esme walked through the quad on their way to the cafeteria, guys always watched Araceli. As she and Araceli scurried toward the double doors, Esme felt like one of those police shields, the hard, truly rectangle shaped ones that deflected protestor’s rocks.
It was only a matter of time before some guy in some class asked Araceli out and the date lasted forever or some guy came into her job at Forever 21 to buy some skimpy shirt present for his supposed girlfriend and swooped up Araceli. Then Esme would be here on the bed, alone, again as usual.
“So what are you going to do?” Araceli asked.
“About what?” Esme asked, looking up at Araceli who radiated something dark and sparkly pink.
“You know! Marc Turnipseed?”
Esme shrugged, flushed, shivered in her shins.
“God,” Araceli said. “Just talk to him.”
“Just like that? Just start talking? I mean, go up--” Esme started.
But Araceli was laughing, her laptop listing on her lap. “Oh, my god. I have a spam for size triple D breast enhancement! With no surgery!”
Trapped in the bubble of Araceli’s laughter, Esme looked down, holding tight to Marc. Just walk up, she thought. Just talk.
“Come on, It’s hilarious,” Araceli said, shifting, her own ample chest plump and ripe. Esme shrugged, the bubble and Marc disappearing. “Once I got a spam called ‘Penis Growth Sample.”
“Gross,” Araceli said, sitting up and leaning against the wall, straightening her shirt. “What is a penis growth sample?”
“I have no clue,” Esme said, not knowing one thing about penises, at least beyond biology textbooks and her cousins’ chatter and bragging and some bad movies, quick flashes of dangling dicks. There was her high school junior prom date Bobby Lento and his hard on as he pressed up against her while they danced, but it turned out he was so drunk, she had to drive them both home. No one had asked her to Senior Ball, and that night, she’d sat with her parents, as usual, on the couch, trying not to imagine her classmates’ activities: 6 pm limo. 7 pm dinner. 8 pm dancing, drinking, laughing. 12 am limo. 1 am everywhere but home and probably penises for everyone.
She’d hoped college would be different, a whole new crowd, guys from all over the state, none who knew her yet. Esme imagined that she’d find a studious, kind, sort-of hot guy who liked to read. But since junior year and sweaty Bobby, a whole spell of nothing. The idea of going from where she was now to “penis growth” seemed impossible, a distance she couldn’t cross, not even with a shield. Life would be so much easier if she didn’t have to move at all.
She sat up crossed legged and leaned against the wall next to her friend. “And I don’t want to know anything about it.”
Araceli shrugged, clicked through her email. Esme shimmered and tried to study.
“Marc?” Ms. Jensen asked, looking immediately to Marc, not even bothering to say his last name. It was over now, Esme thought. Ms. Jensen will never say Turnipseed again. Soon, she won’t even say Marc. There would be no excuse for Esme to even look at him, except if Ms. Jensen put them into groups, which she had only done once so far.
Ms. Jensen finished reading the roster and put down her roll book. As with every first couple weeks of a semester, the class was full, the air conditioner trying to chill the small stuffy room. Esme could smell things she didn’t want to, body heat and hair gel and the fake floral scents of dryer sheets. They were all sitting way too close to each other, and she could almost feel the rough newness of the jeans the boy in front of her was wearing.
As Ms. Jensen opened her textbook, she wondered what Marc Turnipseed smelled like. Maybe grass and earth and spring rain. She vowed to look at the turnips when she went to the market with her mother this weekend.
Ms. Jensen went on and on about plot, something that Esme remembered from senior English. Up on the board went a triangle and then conflict and crisis, the triangle tipping into resolution and then nothing. Esme scratched the known shape onto her notepad. Unlike this triangle, Esme knew she lived in narrative, the dreaded thing Ms. Jensen said no true story was.
“Life is a narrative,” she said last class. “A story is something better.”
Wake up, shower, drive to school, sit in hot rooms with people she’d never know, go find Araceli after class, go to her job at the nursing home, go home, study, watch television with her parents.
Esme was no hero, never bolting through thresholds or overcoming dark nights of the soul. Where was her conflict? Where was her crisis? Where was her elixir, the magic potion Ms. Jensen talked about? All her life there’d only been beginning and resolution, both of which ended in bed, and bed that included nothing but her stuffed animals and sleeping. All the way from this community college classroom, she could hear her father’s snores from down the hall.
Her life was one long narrative after another.
“What if, like, the hero doesn’t want to go on the journey?” someone had asked last class.
“No story,” Ms. Jensen said. “The erstwhile hero has to start all over again.”
“Or do nothing,” another student said.
“Or give up,” someone else said, and the class laughed, but to Esme, it wasn’t funny.
“Okay, people,” Ms. Jensen said now. “Get into groups of four. Try to find people you didn’t work with last class.”
Last class, Esme worked with the tall lanky boy with scarecrow arms and long hair, the girl with hair dyed grayish purple, the boy named Nin Nguyen—he said it Nin When—and Taylor, the blond girl who looked the way Esme had always imagined for herself. If Esme was a rectangle with hair, Taylor was a shimmering hour glass with smooth, tanned arms and legs, a gold necklace that glittered at her throat, and a plain, boring, beautiful face. She smelled like the beach on a perfect day.
Esme pulled herself out of her desk and looked around, trying not to find Marc Turnipseed but finding him anyway. He sat with no one she worked with last week, and as if Araceli possessed her, Esme walked over to the group and sat down in a desk, dropping her notepad as she did. As she bent down to pick it up, she saw Marc wore Converse high-tops, the soles worn to almost flapping.
“Okay, people!” Ms. Jensen was almost yelling. “I want you to plot out a story that all your group knows. It could be a story from the book or from a movie or TV show. All of you do it together but make sure each of you have your own triangle. Don’t forget to chart the developing conflict.”
Esme remembered to breathe, trying not to look at Marc. So she turned to the girl next to her.
“Hi, I’m Esme,” Esme said.
The girl nodded. “Kaitlyn.”
Kaitlyn was slim and pale, her dark hair long and straight, her face small like an elf’s. Her brown eyes were so deeply brown, Esme couldn’t see her pupils.
“I’m Marc,” Marc said, turning to the African-American kid who sat low in his chair.
“Anthony,” he said. “You’re that turnip dude.”
Marc nodded, and Anthony shrugged a little, slipping lower in his chair, sliding on his over-sized, baggy pants.
“So what’s with this chart?” Anthony asked.
Esme wasn’t sure her heart was beating or her lungs pulling in air, but when she thought this, she blushed, so she knew she was alive. But barely. Always, she’d been barely alive, just sort of there, a rectangle with hair. She hated her cousin for saying those words because she knew they were true.
“It’s about finding the story arc,” Marc was saying. “Just think of your favorite show.”
“I don’t watch much TV,” Kaitlyn said. “What about a movie?”
All Esme had was TV, really. The housewives and the dancers, the tension of plot about who hated who and who would win the dancing contest.
“300,” said Anthony. “Scarface.”
Kaitlyn rolled her eyes. “What if I’d said something like The Devil Wears Prada?”
They all were silent, Esme casting about in her mind for a movie that the four of them—different sexes, different cultures, different basic tribes—would know. But the only movies that came to mind were the ones her mother let her watch over and over again when she was little: Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.
“What about Titanic?” Marc said. “Everyone’s seen that.”
Yes, thought Esme.
They all nodded. Marc pulled out a piece of paper and a pen and looked up. She stared at a mole over his smooth left eyebrow, the way his hair lifted over his forehead, curled around his ear.
“So the development is all that research stuff, the old lady on the ship who turns out to be Kate Winslet. Her flashback to her former life, the rich girl on the rich part of the ship. Then there’s Leonardo—“
“Jack,” Esme blurted, interrupting Marc, having carried around a torch for Jack since she and Araceli Netflixed the movie a year ago.
“Right,” Marc said, turning to her.
“How he wins at cards to get on the ship,” Esme said, her mouth ahead of her personality. “He wins the tickets. Then he’s stuck on the lower decks. He saves Rose from jumping, befriends all the rich people.”
“And then there’s that dancing in the lower decks scene,” Kaitlyn said. “They fall in love.”
Esme remembered it all. “The drawing. Her—her . . .”
Kaitlyn nodded, as did Marc, his smile tight, and Esme imagined he was thinking about the scene the way Esme was right now, too, the way the charcoal lingered on Rose’s breasts, Rose’s gaze at Jack, Jack’s focus on his work.
“Is the climax when the ship hits the iceberg?” Anthony asked. “Or when she lets him fall off that piece of wood.”
“She so did not let him fall off,” Esme said. “He let go. He had to. He sacrificed himself. He’s a hero.”
“She did,” Anthony said. “Selfish.”
“The dark night of the soul,” Kaitlyn said.
“Her fault,” Anthony said.
“Anyway,” Marc said as he drew the triangle.
“What about when she throws the necklace into the water? That’s what they’d all been looking for all along,” Esme said. “That could be the climax. Because the movie isn’t really about the sinking of the ship. We know that story. It’s determined. It’s about the romance. About Jack and Rose.”
They all stopped, turned, started at Esme.
“That’s right,” Kaitlyn said. The sinking part is really part of the setting. It’s the environment, like Ms. Jensen said.”
“Okay,” Marc said, holding out his triangle, little lines marking the plot points the group had come up with, the top point just what Esme said, the necklace being flung.
“I’m not sure,” Anthony said. “I still think it’s the iceberg. Or Rose killing Jack.”
Kaitlyn rolled her eyes. Marc Turnipseed turned to Esme, his eyes on her, the charcoal of his gaze unblinking.
After class, as the students pushed out of the room and fanned into the quad, Esme felt slightly high, filled with light, awash in the grace of Marc’s triangle. He’d picked her climax. He’d written what she said on top of his pointy drawing. Ms. Jensen had loved their triangle, using it the entire discussion to prove her idea about conflict and how it builds, agreeing with Esme about the necklace toss, even when Anthony raised his hand to argue. And Marc? He smiled the entire time, beaming at Esme as if she’d directed the movie herself.
She swallowed, trying to find exultant breath, looking for Araceli who usually waited for her on a bench in the quad. Finally, Esme had something to tell her friend, something good and juicy and real. Where was she? As she scanned the small area, she stopped, jolted, her body still and clear and cold as the water old Rose Dawson threw the necklace into.
Marc Turnipseed was walking down the hallway, talking to Kaitlyn, both of them laughing at something, Kaitlyn leaning close, Marc almost facing her as he walked. He was animated, and Esme imagined she heard the words “ship,” and “ice,” and “sink.”
Then Kaitlyn did the terrible thing, lifting her hand and putting it on Marc’s arm.
“What up, dog?” Araceli said, grabbing Esme by the shoulders.
“Stop it,” Esme said, pulling away.
“Saw-ree,” Araceli said, her hand on her hip, her mouth in the “Don’t give me that shit” expression.
Esme stared at her friend, trying not to notice the guys looking at Araceli as they walked by. But how could they not? If she’d been in the class just now, Marc would have been gazing at her. Everyone would. It wouldn’t matter that Esme’s triangle was so good.
Behind her, someone played a ukulele, signing a stupid little song, others joining in. Ms. Jensen walked by, a string of students following her. Esme stared at Araceli, her tiny t-shirt, her slim, curvy body, her concern. No one in this whole quad was like Esme. No one was such a total idiot. A true loser. A person who couldn’t even do something right and make it stick. Make it count.
Esme wanted to explode, but she didn’t know how to and she wasn’t sure what for. She didn’t know how to crash into the ice and ruin everything, everything being absolutely nothing. Because there really wasn’t anything to ruin. Nothing but flat clear narrative water all around her.
Esme sighed, shook her head, adjusted her bag on her shoulder and tried to smile.
“Bad class?” Araceli asked as they started to walk toward the parking lot.
“The worst,” Esme said, feeling the tears go back to the enormous reservoir they’d been collecting in since she realized that she wasn’t remarkable or interesting or pretty or useful in any single way. “Ever.”
At work, Esme didn’t have to touch the patients, even though Araceli teased her about wiping old people’s asses. In fact, Esme wasn’t supposed to really get near them. She was to sit behind the desk and answer questions from family members or staff. She was to answer the phones, reply to general email questions, and clean the staff room and make the coffee there in the gigantic coffee maker.
She was allowed—if things were calm and her tasks completed—to read her textbooks, but not romances or other paperbacks that would give the wrong impression to the families of prospective “guests,” as her boss Mrs. Ryan called them. Mrs. Ryan was the assistant to the executive director of Apple Valley Rehabilitation and Convalescent Facility, but Esme had never met Mr. Lun, the director, not once in the eight months she’d worked there, seeing only his name on the parking plaque outside in the lot. His office was in the front building on the second floor, and everything he said came to the staff in the Joy Building via Mrs. Ryan. And Mrs. Ryan was busy. She clacked away, up and down the halls, attending to every crisis until she left for the day, Esme, the social worker Veronica, and the LVNs taking care of the evenings and night shifts.
Esme was working the 4 to 9 pm shift, Mrs. Ryan bustling by only a few times before she leaned over the desk, peering down at Esme, the woman’s bosoms—because that’s what they were, two rounded pillows, puffy and hidden under some damn ugly flowered blouse—smashed against the laminate counter.
“All looks calm. Do keep your ear out for Mrs. Wiseman. She’s been really bothering the nurses all day. But we’re shorthanded until 8. Just Jimelle and Stephanie until Ashley comes in.”
“What about Veronica?” Esme asked, knowing that the social worker had magic words that always worked to calm the old ones during their fragile rages.
“She’s in the Harmony Building tonight. On call here only. You know how to ping her if there’s a problem?”
Esme nodded, worry in her throat. There were 18 old people in this people building. Old old people, the kind with spotted skin, humped backs, and bleary eyes. The kind thick coke bottle glasses didn’t even work they were so blind. The kind that pooped in their pants and shuffled around in their heavy-ass diapers. The kind that smelled bad, like wilted lettuce and stale bread kept in a broken down refrigerator. They had no hair or sprouted white wisps; they weren’t fat or thin but just hanging onto their bones for dear life.
Anything could happen to people who could break so easily. One slip, and they were goners. One day, their bodies would just turn off, and someone would have to find them, just like Esme had found her abuela Rosa.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Her abuela had moved up from Ensenada to die, Esme’s mother parking her in the back guest room. All night long, in and out of one bad dream and then another, Abuelita cried out, “Ay. Ayúdame. Ay. Ayúdame. Dios mio.”
Esme would slink past the guest room door, pretending she didn’t hear her grandmother’s soft, sad laments. She’d grab her sweater, her backpack, and head toward the garage door and her car, just right there, waiting for her, but her mother forced her to go back and sit next to her grandmother’s bed. There Esme would be, holding Rosa’s paper thin hand every morning until the very last minute before she had to leave for school.
“Feo,” her abuela would whisper, and Esme didn’t know if her Rosa was calling Esme or her life here in this room ugly.
Probably, it was Esme. Before her abuela had gotten old and sick, she had been sharp and dark and mean, her cut glance like a thrown knife. When Esme and her parents visited during summer vacations, Rosa handed them a lists of chores to the minute they finished breakfast.
That’s where Esme learned about legumes, her fingers picking though piles of pinto beans that her abuela’s cook would later soak and boil.
“Find all the dried, shriveled ones,” Rosa had said. “Find the rocks. Don’t miss one.”
Esme never really understood why her parents went along with this, until she realized that her mother was scared of her own mother, and her father was scared of his wife.
But the woman who had been set up on the pillows in the guest room? She wasn’t the same woman who’d fired a maid for being fifteen minutes late to work. That strict, proud woman was gone, leaving behind a visible shadow, so light and thin, Esme thought maybe instead of dying, her abuela would turn to dust.
But she was strong enough to still scare everyone.
Esme sat with her abuela every single day until the morning they all woke up to find her dead in her room, Esme the first to find her, her abuela’s mouth slightly parted, her eyes wide open. Maybe she’d been surprised at the end, Esme thought. But probably she’d just been angry that whatever had taken her hadn’t been just right.
After Abuelita was taken away and her things cleared up, it was the hospice worker who recommended Esme for this job.
“Mi’ja,” her mother said, clasping Esme’s hands, crying. “What an honor! The woman said you were a saint to your abuela. And now, your abuela is looking over you! She loved you so much! Her spirit is giving you this opportunity.”
“But,” Esme had started, but her mother had bent over the kitchen table, crying, telling Esme that they’d all still be connected to Abueltia if she would just take this job. Besides, they needed the money to pay for all those college classes she was taking.
Now Esme was stuck with all sorts of old dying people all day and, sometimes, evening long.
“Ayúdame,” she whispered.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and because Mrs. Ryan had already left, Esme knew she could look at it.
Carefully, she slipped it out of her purse, glancing at the screen.
Hot date, yo! See u at school.
Esme sighed and thought about Araceli out with the guy she’d told Esme about today, the dark -eyed dude in her sociology class who smelled like caramel or something sweet and brown. In her mind, she saw Araceli walking down the hallway at school not with Esme but with this guy, the hot dark brown sweet guy that would take her away forever.
The clock ticked. The nurses called to each other. The old people moaned. Esme answered the phones, showed visitors to rooms, sat behind the high desk, feeling like something round and immobile. Her heart beat in her eyes, her palms sweated. She could barely swallow.
Just after seven, dinner service was cleared away, the cafeteria workers clattering their carts out of the hall, the big doors closing behind them. Esme picked up her book, sighing, but then Jimelle rushed the desk, her eyes wide. She clutched her pink cell phone, which matched her working scrubs.
“I’ve got to go home. My kid called.”
Esme stared at her, her mouth open.
“I know,” Jimelle said, wiping a slight sheen of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. “But I have to. It’s a total emergency. Just don’t tell Mrs. Ryan, ‘kay? Ashley will be here in 40 minutes. The patients are watching TV, ‘cept Mrs. Wiseman who’s in her room. Just keep your ears peeled. Stephanie’s in the common room, ‘kay?”
But before Esme could say anything, Jimelle dashed out, the doors banging behind her, too.
Esme turned to listen into the hallway, down into the space that separated her from Mrs. Wiseman, the most immobile but angry person Esme had ever met, nothing right with any second of her life. Esme hoped that when she got that old she’d either just die or appreciate the seconds that were left. But she’d never seen any of the old people here stop to think about that. No, most weren’t as bad as Mrs. Wiseman or her own abuelita. But they wanted what they wanted when they wanted and a lot of television, too.
The hallway was still and glowing white against the darkening world outside the windows, the slight whine and jingle of the common room television the only sound other than the florescent buzz of the overhead lights. Esme sat back in her chair and looked at the clock. Stephanie would be here in 35 minutes. Esme’s own replacement Chad would be here then, too. And finally, she could go home and go to sleep and hope to forget about the day.
For a few minutes, Esme read a little, but she was daydreaming too much, thinking about Marc Turnipseed and Kaitlyn. She shoved the book away and stood up, leaning over the counter, staring at the black flecked linoleum as she pressed her belly flat against the hardness. How had Marc and Kaitlyn gotten together just like that? Over one triangle? There was no conflict or development. Poof! They walked out of a class and down the hallway, leaving Esme behind when she’d been the one to come up with the idea. She was the one that had pulled the whole group tighter, even roping in Anthony. Ms. Jensen had thought Esme’s necklace idea was awesome, but none of that mattered. Nothing changed nothing. And now Araceli was gone, too, all of them walking away from her.
Esme knew she was in the part of the hero story Ms. Jensen called the tests. And Esme was tired of them. Better, she thought, to be the hero whose journey never started, who went home instead to watch TV.
“Nurse!” Mrs. Wiseman called, her voice loud but thin, scratchy with age and dry mouth. “Nurse, god dammit!”
Esme stopped breathing, waiting for more. There was rustling, and then, “God dammit, you flighty bitch. Get in here! Help me!”
Esme craned her neck to look down the hall into the dark cave of Mrs. Wiseman’s room. She looked down farther still, hoping to see Stephanie clomp down the hall in her orange clogs and head toward Mrs. Wiseman’s room, taking care of whatever was going wrong in there. Esme knew whatever trouble it was it smelled of pee or shit or old lady mouth, air as rancid as the inside of used tin cans.
“Nurse!” Mrs. Wiseman called out, and then there was a crash, a toppling of something metal and glass, a waterfall of shatter.
Esme’s mouth opened, but she didn’t cry out. She turned and saw Mrs. Wiseman’s room’s flashing yellow button, knew that there was a yellow flashing light in the common room, too. But Stephanie didn’t emerge, running, her stethoscope in one hand.
Slowly, Esme sidled around the counter and walked toward Mrs. Wiseman’s room, breathing low and shallow. There were no more sounds, no rustling, no metal objects clanging against the linoleum floor. The television whined, the lights buzzed, but all was quiet in a place where quiet is bad.
“Ayúdame,” Esme heard her abuelita cry out now, even from the grave. “O, dios mio!”
Esme stopped at the door, seeing the fragile lump of Mrs. Wiseman on the floor, the old woman’s body like a vegetable, still and inert and dry. There was no juice there, no life, nothing left. Esme flicked on the light, blinking against the brightness. Mrs. Wiseman was twisted into a tight knot of wrong, nothing natural about her rounded shape. Her mouth was gaping open, her eyes shut. Even from where she stood at the door, Esme could see the veiny transparency of Mrs. Wiseman’s eyelids.
All her life, Esme had done what she’d been told, and what good had it done? She was nothing but nothing, just like Mrs. Wiseman. Like all these old people were. There was nothing and then you ended like nothing, no triangle of story coming to save you, no one really there who could prevent any of this.
Or if the triangle came, it wasn’t the one you wanted.
Esme flicked off Mrs. Wiseman’s light and backed away down the hall, walking behind the counter, and sitting down in her chair, the yellow light flashing behind her. She looked at the clock. Twenty minutes until Ashley and Chad showed up and found everything. Esme waited for a feeling, imagining that something inside her would burst, killing her with a flash of fire. But the only thing in her was the feeling of something already exploded, nothing left but the slight residue of gunpowder and the memory of smoke.
She breathed, one, two, three. And then she grabbed what came, pulled it all around her. Esme shrugged on her emptiness, looked down at the desk, and started reading.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve traditionally published novels, including “Her Daughter’s Eyes” and “When You Believe.” Her novel “Becca’s Best” is forthcoming from Ghostwoods Books. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. You can read more at www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com.
Bay Laurel / Volume 3, Issue 1 / Spring 2014