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Memento Spirare

The apparitions staying at Caritas House never remembered who they were, where they came from, or how they arrived. At least, not at first — and after they did, they vanished. Many had been guests so long they denied having been anywhere else and locked themselves in their rooms. Those were the souls, Jane 808 realized, who had stopped seeing angels.

Opening the lobby door led each phantom to a different landscape. Jane 316 stepped out into a room filled with sweet smelling gas, where each day she watched as a woman in a long white lab coat collapsed onto the floor. Beakers and flasks shattered against silver tiles. The angel always hovered closely beside her, smiling kindly, but 316 ran back to the house as soon as the men in gas masks carried the woman’s body away. Jane 650 had only visited a few days, but she used to see a woman tripping backward off a rocky ledge. The angel at the foot of the cliff moved closer each day, glaring at the woman and 650, arms and claws outstretched.  On the third day, 650 disappeared.

Jane 808 found herself in a place she swore she could remember from whatever came before her stay at Caritas. Stranded in an abandoned field ten miles from the nearest railway, the boxcar was a disheveled amalgam of wood and metal that had once, perhaps, been red. One door was missing, the others swung open in a fickle breeze. No one seemed to know how it got here. Jane 808 imagined some clumsy tornado must have dropped it, like an old lady carrying one too many bags of groceries as she raced to shelter from a storm. There were still a few battered crates inside, stained with mildew and christened with cobwebs. They leaned against each other at odd angles, threatening to collapse. The ghost spiders scuttled from box to box, oblivious.

She sat where the missing door should have been, dangling her legs over the edge. Leaning her hands against the splintered floorboards, she looked up at the sky, legs swinging above the dying grass. The clouds half-heartedly announced the rain that would come, maybe in an hour or two. The sun seemed empty and she stared unblinkingly into its grayness.

From her perch beside a box of molding…something…she could see the road and the stone angel that guarded the hickory stump. If she squinted, she could imagine ethereal branches still clawing against the clouds, scraping trails of sunlight through the air, as if a buried giant had punched through the ground. She had watched a car destroy itself against that hickory tree every day for the last seven years, though unlike 316 and 650, she watched from a distance. Each day, a storm passed through. She listened to the rain against the roof until she heard a crash that was not thunder. A dark burst of smoke rose in the haze of rain. The splashes of lightning showed her the cars stopping, the panic of headlights and rush of voices. Medics untangled a body from a car, hurriedly extracting feet and arms from a beaten steel skeleton. The tree seemed to bleed in a chorus of red and blue light. She had crouched behind the crates and watched the next flare of lightning set the last of the leaves on fire.

Her angel advanced slowly, sometimes even retreated into the dark edges of the field. Its arm outstretched toward her in – welcome? warning? – it was hard to tell. She could never make out its face. She was not sure she wanted to know whether it watched her kindly or with bared teeth.

Still, the persistent nagging of a buried memory pressed on her thoughts stronger than ever before. She closed her eyes and focused. In this memory, there was music playing and the air stank of French fries. She shivered involuntarily at the sound of rusting windshield wipers and, all at once, she could see. Her car sped along an interminable road as the rain crashed down and the thunder roared. The dust bowl’s flat expanse, blurred in the darkness, stretched out around her in a suffocating embrace. Her fifth day on the road, she clenched the steering wheel and prayed. She hadn’t seen a tree since Kansas. If lightning struck here in the middle of nowhere, it would find her car, the wheezing ’82 station wagon she salvaged from the scrap heap. The thunder boomed louder. Bursts of light flashed in her crooked rearview mirror. She remembered her grandfather’s funeral when she was eight and the priest chanting in Latin. Magic, she thought, to keep her grandfather safe. Too late. She prayed harder, slipping in whatever she could recall from childhood masses, movies and books until her pleas dissolved into frantic nonsense. Our Father who art in Heaven…Holy Mary…Kyrie elision…Memento mori…Sodalitas quaerito…E plurubus – no, no, just – Please let me live through this, please.

The explosion of light enveloping the car pierced her eyelids and she screamed with the breath she had been holding. Her body seized and she swerved to the right. Her eyes opened just long enough to see a thick tree trunk illuminated in her headlights before the universe went dark.

She remembered it both ways now. She opened her eyes when she heard the crash. For the thousandth time she watched her station wagon lurch into the ghostly hickory tree while the angel drifted farther into the distance.

*

She had been running away, she told 316. Why should she spend sixty hours a week bussing tables if she would probably die young, just like her parents and grandparents had? She wanted to live while she had the time. Packing all her belongings into her trunk, she raced off to lose herself on the road before Huntington’s disease could take adventures away from her. 808 sighed and 316 patted her shoulder.

“You’ll be leaving soon,” 316 said. “You might want to prepare for wherever you’ll go next.”

*

Jane 808 left Caritas House and headed to her field the next morning to say goodbye. The night before, the inhabitants of the house who still believed in escape had thrown her a party. Afterward, they fought about the proper disposal of plastic silverware and whether they could reuse the candles just one more time – not that they hoped she would come back – while she climbed up to her sparsely-furnished room and packed.

Again she sat in her usual spot and nervously waited for the storm. The clouds were closer now. Her nose tingled with the ozone that wove through the weeds and raced up the vines surrounding the boxcar. She sighed and closed her eyes. The rain tapped hesitantly on the roof. In her mind, she saw a dozen young birds attempting to fly and she remembered the canary her young grandmother accidently cooked with an electric blanket. She only wanted it to stay warm one winter night in the drafty New York apartment. She had awoken to perfect golden feathers and a permanently open beak. The lightning nudged the thunder into wakefulness and it grumbled to itself. The rain dove down with answering ferocity. She took a deep breath. She had read that, in high doses, ozone was poisonous. In all the storms she had watched, she had never choked. She anticipated the crash, but it never came. Instead, a bolt of lightning arced through the boxcar and surged over her skin. Giddiness seized her when she realized she was still breathing, that she had not burst into flames or become Frankenstein’s monster. Still, she was alive.

When the storm trundled away, she slid down from the boxcar and smiled fondly at the field that had been her home for seven years. She noticed that the grass had begun to redeem the hickory stump during this strange autumn that masqueraded as spring.

A sputtering car waited for her where Caritas should have stood, the driver’s door propped open. She gingerly climbed behind the wheel, hesitating before putting the car in gear. As she left the driveway and rolled down the road, the sun emerged from the clouds and glinted over her face. She squinted against the sudden blinding light and waited for it to pass. When the brightness reached a comfortable sterile whiteness, across town in the hospital, Jane Doe opened her eyes.

One Response to “Memento Spirare”

  1. What a fabulous revision, Shannon. You’ve made so many complex and interesting additions to this story. Excellent work.