Finalist: Terrain.org 9th Annual Contest in Fiction
Midmorning we came across a family of Ngoma herders making camp in a grove of mopane trees. They’d corralled goats and cattle in a narrow box canyon, and they sat beneath a canopy of V-shaped leaves that trembled in the wind like butterfly wings.
“No time, my dear,” Victory said. We’d woken that morning in the Zebra Mountains, the metallic redolence of rain on the wind. Though no cloud was visible, the season of the little rains had come, Victory said, and would turn these mountain trails impassable.
“The children, at least.” I nodded to where they sat folded upon one another, arms and legs intertwined, heads resting on laps and bellies. Victory pursed his lips, engaged the parking brake.
The boys’ heads were roughly shaven, the girls’ hair plaited forward into twin braids. They approached with their eyes on my hiking boots, the cuffs of my capri pants, my gloved hands, everywhere except my face—how Ngoma children show respect, Victory explained weeks ago.
Victory translated. I administered. Davis, the intern, pressed fingers into an inkwell. If another team encountered this family, their purple fingertips would tell the tale: thumb, IPV; index, MMR; middle, TDaP; ring, Typhoid; pinky, Hep A & B.
When I gestured for the adults to come forward, Victory turned away in frustration. He stood tapping his knuckles against the door. I ignored him. We’d been sent into these mountains to eradicate polio. We couldn’t just drive past a family.
Finally, as rainclouds crested the jagged peaks and tendrils of mist hung like a horse’s tail, Victory edged the Land Cruiser onto a road no better than a boulder field. Soon wind rocked the trailer. Rain drummed upon the hood. We waited out the worst of it in a clearing, hail pinging off the windshield, collecting in eddies along the wipers. Then we drove on until the road plunged into a river swollen with silt and debris.
“You see,” Victory said, “the rains have come.” Tongue against his teeth, he tsked. With both hands he gestured to a river that was desert-dry hours ago. “We’re stuck, my dear.”
A ball of guilt rose, and I turned away from Victory. We were like a family on vacation who’d spent too much time in the car. Victory, husband to a woman in the capital, father to three boys, navigated, drove, and grew sullener by the day. Davis, son to parents in Virginia, pre-med at Johns Hopkins, either quietly snored or pined for Wi-Fi from the backseat. And, me, Caroline, neither wife nor mother, sat shotgun, chewing my lip, feeling the flesh pinch and pop.
“Americans have come to Shakati for all manner of reasons,” Victory had said when I arrived in southern Africa. He was 28 years old, a slight, short Shakatian man from the capital, so named because he was born in the year of his country’s independence. He wore skinny jeans and a white-button down that, in the field, he hand washed and pressed with an iron that plugged into the cigarette lighter.
“To prop up the apartheid regime during the Cold War,” he continued. “For business, hunting, safari. To find something, save someone. You are here to save the world, yes, one vaccine at a time?” He laughed. A narrow gap separated his front teeth.
He was feeling me out, I knew. A white, middle-aged woman, relinquishing career and the American dream… for rural Shakati? He wanted to know if I was a baby. That’s what the Shakatian staff called us. Because, in the field, we were precocious toddlers, helplessly bumbling, stepping in it figuratively and literally. We didn’t know the language, the customs, where to shit. Like children, whimsical and quixotic, we believed ourselves immune to consequence, that, simplistically, we were here to dogood.
On paper, I was a do-gooder, come to save the world. Colleagues in Baltimore praised my selflessness, while assuming I’d burned out from pediatric trauma. I’d watched hundreds of nurses move on, after they’d married, had babies, begun seeing their babies’ faces on our patients’. Erin, my sister, pressed the palms of her hands to her eyes when I told her, whispered that I was being selfish, that I was only punishing myself. She was younger than me, taller, thinner, longer-legged, with higher cheekbones, a mother. I was what our mother called “robust,” pleasant looking sure, even pretty, but not like her.
So, selflessly and selfishly, I landed in Shakati. The country had been polio-free since independence, until a year ago when five cases surfaced in the capital. Genetic sequencing of the virus revealed the outbreak stemmed from a vaccine. Extraordinarily rare, the Global Health Initiative maintained, but possible when using ingestible, live-virus vaccines: if the weakened virus mutated in the intestines of a recently vaccinated person, and if food or drink contaminated with that person’s fecal matter was ingested by an unvaccinated person. Only possible in nations like Shakati, where the immunized co-existed with the non-immunized. In the remote Zebra Mountains, where the Ngoma had lived relatively untouched by colonialism and ungoverned since, less than 20 percent were immunized. Fearing pandemic, GHI developed an injectable vaccine of dead virus, and flooded Shakati with health professionals.
“Here, the problem is accessibility,” Victory said on our first drive north. We bounced along a two-track path with a strip of desiccated grass between the ruts. “In the rural areas we lack available healthcare. Solvable, yes. But your country, my dear: measles free not long ago, and, now, there are cases in 21 states.”
“Outbreaks,” I said. “That’s why we’re here.”
“My dear, the vaccines are available in your country, but there is this personal beliefs exemption, all this misinformation. Too many say ‘no thank you.’ That is a problem not so easily solved.”
My mind slid to that memory of Erin chastising me. We stood in her kitchen in Los Angeles. Through the sliding glass door, I watched two-year-old Gracie, Erin’s daughter, on the rope swing above the bird of paradise plants. She leaned back as she swung forward, eyes as big as the lemons on the branches around her, yoghurt-encrusted mouth open to the world.
Victory laughed again. “Perhaps there is need for a fixer like me to aid the USA’s vaccination efforts?” A dimpled chickenpox scar above his eyebrow held the light.
I pointed to the photograph he’d taped to the dashboard. His sons in pastel polo shirts, the six-month-old in the four-year-old’s arms, the two-year-old looking off camera. “Have you vaccinated them?”
“My dear. Of course.”
A gentle rapping on my window. The flooded road. A red handprint on the glass. Two Ngoma women stood beside the Land Cruiser.
Head to foot their bodies were smeared with ochre. Made from earth, ash, and animal fat, it was a status symbol, Victory had said, insect repellant, sunblock, moisturizer. Indeed, their skin was hale, blemish-less, ageless. Their hair was wound into thick dreadlocks that fell to their shoulders. They wore animal-skin skirts, leather sandals, bracelets whittled from cow bones. Their breasts were small and round and I wondered if they were mothers, if they were sisters.
Victory lowered the window, spoke in Ngoma. The women responded with soft vowels and consonants. Then Victory whistled through the gap in his teeth. He explained the women had crossed this riverbed when it was dry to gather spinach. “Now, they ask me to drive them across.”
“Let’s do it,” Davis said, suddenly awake in the backseat. A faint cleft lip repair scar marked his upper lip, and patches of blond fuzz littered his cheeks.
Victory smiled thinly. He wouldn’t risk getting stuck in the crossing. Besides, GHI policy allowed only staff inside the vehicle. But the women’s fingertips were red, not purple.
“They need vaccines,” I said.
Victory shook his head no. “We are due for resupply. We need fuel, food, rest. We are already delayed and now we must wait for this flood to pass.”
I turned to protest, but I heard the click of the door latch. Davis stood on the bank before the shorter of the two women, gesturing to the river, lifting his feet as if he were walking. She was five-feet tall, 80 pounds. Her companion smirked. Then Davis turned his back and the woman placed her hands on his shoulders. He shrugged her up, her legs on his hips, her arms around his neck. Ochre smeared his T-shirt like melted crayon.
“What are you doing?” I said.
Davis stepped to the water’s edge. “We’re here to help, right?”
“Don’t be foolish,” Victory said, fumbling for the door handle, but Davis was already ankle deep in red water.
The river was 150 feet across, four feet deep. There would be no swift water rescue here, no med-evac. The mobile clinic was only 30 miles away, but on these roads, it was more like a thousand, beyond this river. If Davis went down, I knew what to expect. I’d seen the bluish, bloated bodies of drowned children before.
“You’re making a choice for her, too,” I called.
For the first time since I’d left Baltimore, I felt rooted in the familiar rush of adrenaline. A pediatric trauma nurse, I was conditioned to act, to save. No time to feel or think. Not fight or flight exactly, but do and do. So, what to do… We could fashion a life-preserver from towropes and an empty jerrycan, throw it to them. But they were already too far, I knew, the water to Davis’s waist. All there was, was to wait: for Davis to go down or for them to make it across.
Waiting killed me. Erin had once said that I had anxiety, or depression, even PTSD from the job. I told her I just needed to work.
The farther Davis trudged, the slower he moved. Water to his chest, he tripped on something invisible through the silt, staggered, stopped. Within a yard of his body the current absorbed the eddy his waist created. The woman rocked on his back, called to her companion.
“What did she say?” Davis shouted, his voice hoarse.
Victory called through cupped hands: “She said you’re like a donkey, although she used another word.”
“Keep moving,” I said.
He pushed on, pausing after every step. Then he was past halfway, the water again to his waist. He moved faster, the water to his thighs, his knees. The woman slipped from his back, splashed to the shore.
Davis knelt there, red water roiling around him. “That was awesome,” he wheezed. I looked to Victory, imagined him telling this story to his friends at the clinic: the white American risking his life and another’s for… nothing. Babies, they’d say.
The water receded by late afternoon, as Victory predicted. I asked if we could forget policy for once. We had a colleague to retrieve, then we’d have to drive the women to their camp because of the danger our colleague had put them in. A camp where, I hoped, we’d find a family desiring vaccines. Begrudgingly Victory lined the backseat with tarps, beckoned the remaining woman into the Land Cruiser. Then, careful that the tires not spin, he crept across the muddy riverbed in first gear, pausing for Davis and his passenger to climb aboard. The women pointed out the stones they’d placed in the nooks of trees as signposts, and Victory drove into the bush. When we approached the family’s bivouac, men stood up from the fire, children crowded the vehicle.
Victory reached for a logbook. “What, 30 people? Do we have enough vax?”
“Of course,” I said.
“We must make camp here. We will be two days late.”
I gestured to the family. Reason enough, I thought.
“My dear, we are near empty.”
In the remaining daylight we administered vaccines, and long past sunset we sat with the family around wooden dishes, dipping balls of cornmeal porridge into a goat and spinach soup spiced with peri-peri chili. From the youngest child to the patriarch, the Ngoma licked the oil from their fingers and held their hands aloft, to study their purple fingertips, just as I studied the ochre smears on my hands. A memory slid forward: how when I inserted needles into the children’s arms, they whispered, “Ombili,” Ngoma for peace, also sorry. There was something there I wished Erin could see, hear. I brought the ochre smears to my nose, held the redolence of earth and water in my lungs.
The rains paused for a dry winter. A cold wind blew dawn to dusk. Nighttime temperatures dropped to the 40s. We pushed farther into the range, driving for days until we stumbled upon a family. Then, after three hours of administering vaccines, we drove on. Sunset at 5:30. Bored, I was soon in the pop tent. Along the nylon corners memories blossomed like fruit. Nothing to do save pick them.
I saw the numbers on my digital watch, remembered the red digits on the hallway clock at the hospital. 3:32 a.m. My iPhone displayed Erin’s name. She was 34 weeks pregnant. She’d just been to the ER, she said, with mild preeclampsia and gestational diabetes and hypertension. By noon I was on a flight to L.A., to nurse Erin to term. I massaged bloated legs, checked urine for proteins, monitored blood sugar, injected insulin.
I scaled back Erin’s wish for a natural childbirth at home. She had enough to worry about. “You should see what parents do to their kids,” I said, telling her about a 911 call during an ice storm: parents put their seven-month-old to bed in flannels, turned on a space heater, and cooked methamphetamine for 16 hours without checking on the baby. The heater’s thermostat was broken, so it never shut off.
“You saw that?” she said.
In truth, I could still see the boy’s face, waxy and pale blue. I still felt the soupy humidity of the room, smelled the shit smell of a soiled diaper. I turned off the heater. I smoothed the boy’s matted hair. I covered his face.
“Just trust me,” I said, “please.”
When Grace Evelyn slid into the world the color of a bruised peach—Erin made it to 38 weeks—I presented James with scissors to cut the umbilical cord, placed Gracie beneath a heat lamp, injected her with vitamin K, layered antibiotic ointment in her eyes, listened to her chest to ensure no amniotic fluid remained, swaddled her, placed her in Erin’s arms, snapped their first family photo.
And a week after the birth, Erin’s hand was on mine. “Thank you so much. Without you…” Her words hung. But James, a producer, was between shoots. They needed their bonding time. I understood. Of course, I had to understand.
Through word of mouth Victory pieced together the location of a pan where a dozen families wintered. It was a long drive over blustery passes so treacherous he made us follow on foot. Two days later, we pulled onto the hard-packed clay of a pan the size of three football fields, surrounded by lumpy hills of dry grass. Cattle and men stood at the far end, knee deep in brown water.
Normally, families rushed to greet us, to help unload and setup. These barely registered our appearance. Davis shook a bag of jellybeans at a group of children shaping figurines from clay. They didn’t move.
“They’re not dogs,” Victory said.
“I don’t think they know what candy is.”
They answered Victory’s greeting with a monotonous Ee-e. Each reached into Davis’s bag, left hand cupping their right elbows, a gesture of deference, to extract a single jellybean.
I felt uneasy without the attention we normally received. Half-heartedly Davis and I set up the shade tent and kit while Victory set off to gather the elders.
When Victory returned, he said, “They are refusing.”
I laughed, then saw the severe look on his face. I looked to where the elders sat in a circle, animal skin blankets over their shoulders. This wasn’t a joke.
“Why?” I asked.
He shrugged, said, “They did not say.”
“Did you ask?”
“To ask is not proper.”
“Hey,” Davis broke in. “What’s up?”
“They refuse,” Victory said.
Davis raised his eyebrows in bewilderment. I turned, took a step away, breathed. This could be fixed. This could be saved. I could do this. I turned back. “This is what we’ll do.”
We gathered the Ngoma before the permanent huts they’d erected at the pan’s edge. Dozens stood before us, curious but unconcerned. Victory translated as I inoculated Davis, he me, both of us Victory. “Safe,” I said, “you can trust me.” Then, in Ngoma, “Iileni,” come. No one did.
Trust me, I said to Erin when she phoned at 2:00 a.m., 18-month-old Gracie’s cough in the background, as sharp as a bark. “It’s croup.”
They were visiting mom and dad. I hadn’t in years. In my early 30s I’d taken men there, but the relationships never lasted. I was deemed either pushy or aloof, and I wondered how I could be both. At 40 I was tired of mom’s barbed comments, about how much I worked, the gray in my hair. One time she asked if anyone “woke to my beautiful face.” I’d snorted, said, “People are lucky to wake up to me all the time. From comas.”
I texted the on-call pediatrician, met Erin at the hospital. The pediatrician confirmed my diagnosis, offered to lend me a pulse oximeter and nebulizer so I could monitor Gracie at home. Eyes on the chart, she said, “Gracie’s up to date on her shots.” It was a box to be ticked.
“Kind of,” Erin said, bouncing Gracie on her hip to sooth her.
“What’s she missing,” I asked, thinking we were lucky Gracie didn’t have whooping cough.
Erin pressed her lips to the crown of Gracie’s head. “Everything.”
That evening Victory opened the laptop, connected to a satellite. We sat in the glow of an LED lantern, with untouched bowls of rehydrated rice and vegetables. He cued GHI’s topographical map. Green pins marked the sites of successful inoculations, yellow where families were believed to be, blue the locations of other teams. He placed a solitary red pin, typed, Approx.150 individuals. Target population declines. Then he read a GHI communique outlining the threat of a failed campaign. We were instructed to “standfast.”
“I thought the problem was accessibility,” I said, angry, trying to pick a fight.
Victory could’ve countered by naming the U.S.’s anti-vaccination movement. I hadn’t mentioned Erin or Gracie to him, but he could’ve guessed. Perhaps sensing my desperation, he only said, “Me, also, I am surprised.”
“What reasons did the elders give?”
“What about the mothers? Will you speak with them?”
“They will say the same.”
“Will you ask?”
“I still don’t get it,” Davis said. “Why would they refuse?”
Victory clapped his hands, spoke pensively. “Even here news travels. Perhaps because of the outbreak, that it was from a vaccine, they believe them all tainted.”
“We can explain the difference,” I said.
“Yes, we can. Perhaps, however, they do not like outsiders telling them what is best for their children.”
“You’re no outsider,” Davis said.
Victory whistled. “Please, my friend. Not all Shakatians are the same. We speak a similar language, but my people… You see my clothes? My parents lived in the colonial era. Me, I grew up watching Arsenal football.” He closed the laptop and stood. “Tomorrow we shall try again, by all means.” He picked up the satellite phone, stepped out of the lamplight to call his wife and sing lullabies to his sons, as he did each evening.
Overhead was the Southern Cross, Scorpius, Orion on its side to my northern hemisphere eyes, the only constellations I knew. I focused on my breathing, but the air was so dry, so thin. There was no density to it. Nothing to hold in my lungs, nothing to hold on to, to do save retreat into the tent.
All those shots before her body develops, Erin had said, it’s not right. She wasn’t anti-vaccine, she claimed; she and James were looking into “alternative schedules.” Schools in California still had to honor medical exemptions; her doctor would grant one. I was as angry as I was when I tended a child after a vehicular collision, when the parents had installed the car seat improperly, or improperly buckled the child in, when trauma was avoidable.
I forwarded Erin studies that debunked the anti-vaccine movement. She sent “studies” of her own, like the mother who blamed her son’s febrile seizures and subsequent brain damage on the vaccines he’d just received. Coincidence, I replied. Erin claimed that most diseases were preventable without vaccines. I explained how herd immunity gave the appearance that diseases were preventable, but that Gracie needed to be vaccinated to provide herd immunity for children who lived with cancer or autoimmune disorders. I emailed Erin accounts of people whose parents had never vaccinated them, people who caught everything, missed years of school, lived with the resulting chronic asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. I sent photos of children with flaccid paralysis from polio infection.
You certainly have science, she responded. I have maternal instinct. I scoffed, hit reply, typed, Dear Mommy. I wanted to write with the pep of a jocular, academic debate, but I was hurt, bitter. I wrote in toddler-ese, a sentimental argument from Gracie begging Erin to vaccinate her. I signed it Love, your daughter.
Early the next morning the Ngoma whistled their cattle awake and led them into the hills. Soon, Victory again sat with the elders. Too soon, he returned.
I walked the hoof prints along the pan’s edge. In the divots, when the big rains came and the temperature rose, mosquito larvae would proliferate in an oily sheen. I was on an antimalarial, but the Ngoma weren’t. Across the pan boys herded goats into the water. There the goats drank, and peed, and defecated. One boy cupped his hands, brought water to his lips.
Malaria, giardia, cholera, polio, on and on. All preventable. How could I convince these families if I couldn’t my own sister? How could I convince Erin if I failed here?
Simmering with frustration, I looked away, and had I not, I wouldn’t have seen the boy. He was six or seven, head shaven save for a rounded tuft, body glossy with ochre. He was hurrying off to a circle of women, where they thrust long staffs into a hole, pounding wild corn into flour.
The boy propelled himself forward with the help of his own staff. His left leg swung limply behind him, three inches shorter than the right, half the girth. Flaccid paralysis. Polio.
“Caroline,” Victory said, but already I’d grabbed a vial of vaccine and strode out onto the broad dais of the pan.
“Mati,” I called, boy. Then, “Thikama,” stop.
He pumped harder.
“Mati,” I repeated, now at a half jog. I reached for his arm. I wanted to stop him, to explain his affliction and how the vaccine could’ve prevented it. But when I touched his shoulder he shrieked and his leg gave out and he went down so quickly that I fell on him, driving his face into the clay. This could be funny, I thought, if he weren’t screaming.
“What are you doing?” Victory hissed, suddenly beside me, with Davis. Victory scooped the shrieking boy up, turned to the women with this writhing offering. They’d stopped pounding. One unwound a blanket that secured an infant to her body. She passed the baby off, approached us slowly, impervious to the boy’s wails. She took him, placed him on the ground, lightly smacked his head. His dormant leg dangled. Victory retrieved his staff.
The woman was taller than me, with high cheekbones and a round, pleasant face creased with confusion. His mother. She met my eyes with a cool, bemused look. No deference, but no anger.
“Hello,” I said.
“Ha-low,” she attempted.
I felt the electricity of hope. This was my chance. I could do this. I knelt, gestured to her son’s leg, held out the vial. “This is medicine.”
Then, I frowned. I didn’t want her to think I could heal her son. Although his paralysis couldn’t be reversed, I could prevent more infections. I could vaccinate her infant. “Tell her, Victory.”
He sighed. “Te-ti, anuwa...” They spoke for a long time. Victory’s white button-down was red with ochre. No hand washing would clean it. Finally, he cleared his throat. “She is saying… She is saying ‘no.’”
He turned to find my eyes. I focused on the woman.
“Tell her she can choose. Tell her it’s not the elders’ choice. It’s hers.”
“My dear, this is her choice.”
“Well, it wasn’t her son’s.” The boy was calm now, balancing on one leg behind his mother. “This is solvable, Victory. He’d rather have been vaccinated. Ask him.”
“I will not.”
“Tell him he’s lucky. If the paralysis had settled into his chest—”
“He’d be dead, Victory.”
“Caroline,” he begged with hands out, palms up, like Ngoma do for startled calves. A child watching his parents fight, Davis placed his hands on his head.
The mother turned away, and the boy pivoted on his staff. Beyond them the circle of women resumed pounding grain.
I balled my hands but saw the ochre on my fingers from where I’d touched the boy’s shoulder. I pictured Victory telling this story to friends at resupply, to his wife on the satellite phone. Babies, he’d say. I ran, locked myself in the Land Cruiser, hugged my legs to my chest, pressed my eyes to my knees.
Late afternoon Victory steered us away from the pan. While he and Davis packed the gear, I’d chewed my lip in the passenger seat, embarrassed, furious. Forgetting policy, Victory drove into the night, pausing only to pee, the three of us marching in different directions, wordlessly returning.
We’d failed. Such was the history of the polio eradication effort. Sure, this outbreak would run its course, and in ten years there’d be another “final push,” but these children—here, now—would bear the paralysis and worse.
I sat shotgun in the Land Cruiser, but I also stood in Erin’s kitchen. Gracie buried her face in Erin’s yoga pants. I’d taken two days off from trauma, flown to L.A. unannounced. One more chance to convince Erin.
“She’s just surprised you’re here,” Erin said. “We all are.”
James took Gracie into the backyard while Erin rooted in the office for a stack of printed documents. “I have everything you’ve sent,” she called. “All the emails, studies.” She’d printed them to read in depth, until she realized the enormity. “It’s more than a ream, Caroline.” She placed the stack on the breakfast table. “I don’t know. It’s like there’s a switch that’s flipped in your head. You’re not thinking rationally.”
“I’m the rational one.”
Gracie came forward on the rope swing. This was the memory I’d hold, head tilted back, yoghurt-mouth open to the world. One day her fingers would hold cigarettes, shot glasses, even heroin needles; perhaps she’d ritually jam fingers down her throat, drive drunk, cut herself… But in that moment, she was free, innocent.
“This is not rational. That email, the one from Gracie. What was that?”
“That was a mistake. I see that now.”
Erin placed her palm on the sliding glass door. “You know, I think you might be right. Really.”
“Let’s go to a clinic.”
“No. I can’t think clearly with all this. I don’t think you can either.”
The fragility of sisterly decorum broke. I mocked her affluence, saying she’d only refused because she and James were wealthy enough to. I told her about GHI’s posting in Shakati. “I have to do something,” I blurted. Erin called me selfish, said I was only punishing myself.
I was in Erin’s kitchen. I was on the pan, my fingers on that boy’s arm. Then him falling, his staff falling, his face wrinkled in fear, his scream. I grabbed him. I pushed his face into the clay. I failed him.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Yes. Well.” Victory’s voice, not the boy’s or his mother’s, or even Gracie’s or Erin’s. Blue dashboard lights illuminated his profile. Davis slept against his hoodie. Wipers squelched. Rain pattered on the hood. The big rains had come, and the headlights revealed a flooded river. We were stuck on the wrong side, again. Victory switched off the engine, extinguished the headlights.
In the darkness, I said, “My sister won’t vaccinate my niece.”
Victory sighed. “So, you have come all this way to vaccinate her. And, like her, the people say ‘no thank you.’”
When I could speak again, I said, “What do we do now?”
“Nothing. We wait for the flood to ebb.”
“I meant about that boy, his mother.”
“You must always have something to do, no?” Victory laughed. “We regroup and return to the field. We wait to hear ‘yes, please,’ and if we don’t… Ask that woman her name. Apologize. Pound grain with her. Talk about everything except vaccines. We must be proximate.” Then, Victory said, “But, my dear, you will not find your niece in these mountains.”
We sat for a long time with the white noise of the river. Weeks ago, we’d found two women on a bank like this. Now, at 2:30 a.m., no one would knock on our window.
So, what to do? In L.A., it was 11:30. Gracie would soon wake from a nap. Erin was preparing snacks or play dates or library visits.
I slid the satellite phone from its charger, stepped out onto the sandy riverbank. Flat raindrops hit me like cold coins. The phone was warm in my hand. I took a deep breath, held the redolence of earth and water.
Alan Barstow teaches English and creative writing in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two sons. Alan’s father contracted polio as a child and has lived for 60-plus years with the resulting effects, from flaccid paralysis to post-polio syndrome. Some of Alan’s earliest memories include assisting his father with the activities he had to do without a leg brace: step to the edge of pools, to the surf at the beach, and into the shower. This was one of the landscapes that informed “Vax.” Alan holds an MFA from the University of Wyoming and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia. His fiction and essays have appeared in The Sun, Witness, The Common, and elsewhere.
Header photo by Erlo Brown, courtesy Shutterstock.