by J. Ryan
Molly’s oxygen tank hisses in the passenger seat, her skin milky in the glow of dawn. She’s finally asleep after getting sick alongside the road for the past fifty miles. Wet leaves and dirt cling to the bottom of the floral nightgown draped over her bones.
My crooked fingers ache as I reach over and tug up the collar on the old duster coat I wrapped around her before rolling her from the hospice and into the Caravan. The front desk attendant wasn’t even at his post.
Wicker baskets wobble in the backseat. Found them in the root cellar of our old house, the only place untouched by the new tenants. I busted off the lock Robbie had clamped there before renting his childhood home to strangers.
Molly coughs. Her glassy eyes flutter open.
“We’re almost there, Mol,” I say. I pat her thigh, narrow as a trowel. “Morels big as my fist.”
The headlights beam off the reflected green of a “Leaving California” sign. Mist speckles the windshield. I tilt my head to see around the cataracts, and I slow as we near the border guardhouse. A man with a hat wrapped in plastic stands by an orange cone.
“We’re almost there, Mol. Almost there.”
Molly gasps and chokes. Robbie insisted on keeping her going with feeding tubes. As though that could be called life. But I knew better. She told me she never wanted to end up a vegetable.
I brake too hard. A jolt of pain sparks around my hip and knifes down my leg. I shift to park and pull the oxygen mask from her face. She gets sick on the widow glass, and some on her lap.
The guard knocks on my window. I straighten and feel like I might have one of my spells. Everything spins and I can hear my heartbeat flutter. But I’m able to roll down the window.
“Any fruits or vegetables on board?” he asks.
“No vegetables here.”
“Everything all right in there, sir?” The guard peers in at Molly, who’s lost in the cloth, eyes sunk back in dark pits.
“About as right as it’ll ever be,” I say. We’re stopped a good hundred feet in front of the guardhouse.
“Do you need medical assistance?” The border guard reaches for the walkie-talkie clipped to his shoulder.
“Unless you’ve got yourself a fountain of youth, I don’t think you so.”
The guard glances back at the row of cars lined behind me.
“Got some napkins in the station,” he says, looking at Molly’s mess. “Pull over there. Ingrid will give you a hand.”
Mist drifts on the breeze and coats my skin as I ease out of the van and shuffle to the window. The lady guard rolls back the glass divider. The radio on her desk crackles, but with my tinnitus I can’t hear what’s said. She walks out with a roll of paper towel. My arms go hollow, and I can’t get the door open, but she helps me. I dab Molly’s chin and nightgown. I wipe the window clean and reach as much of the floor mat as my spine will allow.
Molly slumps against the headrest, her mouth slacked open, eyes grey. I squeeze the bones in her hand, and the skin purples.
The lady guard steps back into the guardhouse and talks on her radio.
“Sir, wait right here. An ambulance is on its way. Sir?”
I heave myself up behind the wheel and slam the door. I hit the gas and flatten an orange cone. Tires hum as we cross over the border into Oregon.
Evergreens blanket the mountains. The changes in altitude make my head swim. I’m driving a good twenty miles under. Red streaks zoom past on both sides.
I miss the exit. We double back. Winding around back roads, my vision blurs. I rumble over a brown blob, my foot never leaving the gas. On memory alone, I find the parking lot, tucked behind a wall of evergreen.
My titanium knees strain as I unfold the hospice’s wheelchair from the backseat. I manage to lower Molly and set a wicker basket in her lap.
“Almost there, Mol. Biggest morels you’ve ever seen.”
I wheel her down the woodchip path. She rasps and quakes. I stop at the downhill. With all the strength I have left, I lift her. The basket drops. She’s light as paper, but I still feel my legs crumbling in the rain, pulled back toward the soil. We trudge through wet leaves and over fallen limbs. Chanterelles dapple rotten logs and oyster mushrooms cling to trunks.
I stumble, drop to a knee. My spine seizes. I lower Molly to the earth. Her eyes are half open. I touch her cheek and the corner of her mouth twists into what can almost be called a smile.
“We made it,” I say. Kneeling beside her, I pull the duster closed. I ball my own jacket under her head. Molly’s throat rattles and her chest sinks. A long breath curls out in a fog and she lies still, becoming one with the forest floor.
I lie next to her, shivering and wanting to join her where she’s gone. For what feels like forever, we again hunt morels in this valley together. Picnic in the shade. Her voice like birds. She’s rosy with child and I’m straight-backed and strong.
I jerk awake. The rain’s stopped and a streak of sunlight warms the spot where we lie. I take my jacket from under Molly’s head and drape it over her peaceful face.
Back in the van, I peel wet flannel from my skin and drive shirtless back to the freeway. I don’t see the border guardhouse until I’m right on it. For a brief moment, I let my hands off the wheel as the guardhouse grows closer. I can envision the impact. The screech of rubber and flash of metal. Keeping me from crossing back. Keeping me here with my Molly.
J. Ryan rocks his own socks off. He also sells socks for a living, so if you need socks he can get you socks.