Stage Left

by Tracy L. Thompson

Amy opened the locker with the small orange key she’d been handed at check-in and grabbed her clothes and purse. She drew the curtain on the dressing room and dropped onto the hard, cold bench to pull on her tights and boots. Digging in her purse, she found the travel size deodorant she’d brought along, then slipped into her skirt and turtleneck. She was glad there were no mirrors.

The only way out was back through the waiting room. Amy dropped her discarded gown in the hamper, and braced herself to face the world. A few new women had joined the small group, and Amy noticed for the first time how diverse they were. Two of the patients were over 60, maybe even 65; one of them was black. There was a Muslim woman, wearing her head scarf even with a hospital gown. Amy envied that comfort. An obviously pregnant woman in her 40s was leafing through a People magazine perched on her lap, holding a coffee in one hand. A much-too-young-to-be-here woman with a hair color that doesn’t exist in nature sat knitting. As Amy passed through the room, a few of them glanced up and smiled, not knowing they were looking at a dead woman.

In the elevator, Amy marveled at the hum and buzz of people engaged in living, realizing she had never fully appreciated the futility. She slogged across the lobby, stepped into the revolving door, and was spit out into the melee on the other side. In that moment, she loved the melee. It propelled her the four blocks to the park, where Nicky was waiting.

She spotted him immediately as she neared the playground. He sat on a bench on the far side, watching her daughter play. His left arm was propped on his briefcase. “Mommy!” Piper launched herself into Amy’s knees, wrapping her legs in a bear hug. They’d had breakfast together just two hours earlier, but the gusto of Piper’s greeting might have led onlookers to believe the two were being reunited after a long deployment. But Piper simply loved her fiercely, and Amy shared the delight of their bond. As she leaned down to pull her onto her hip, Amy knew she owed her only child an unspoiled memory of this day. She drew on all her reserves as she turned her smile to Piper.

“What have you and Uncle Nicky been doing this morning?” she asked, her face reflecting only the love she felt for this extraordinary human being she had created. As Piper relayed the breathless details of swinging, finding autumn leaves, and playing in the sand, Amy absorbed the sun warmth of her hair and inhaled the sweet and sweaty perfume of her. “That sounds like so much fun!” Amy said as she settled Piper back on the ground. “You can play a little longer while I go and talk with Uncle Nicky, okay?” Piper flashed her newly acquired thumbs up signal and dashed back to the slide.

Amy crossed the playground to sit with Nick, who had seen the truth the moment she had appeared. A child might be fooled, but he knew his sister, and this was the outcome they had both dreaded. He covered her hand on the bench with his own, and they sat in terrible silence for a moment, breathing deeply and gazing in opposite directions, knowing that eye contact would destroy them. “Oh, Am,” Nick finally whispered. “I know. . . . Fuck!” She replied. Amy squeezed his hand and finally looked at him. “Did you bring it?”

His eyes filled now, and he angrily wiped away the tears. He knew this would be the last time he saw her, and he wanted to see her clearly. “You know I did. I promised I would. But are you sure? What about trials? What about those experimental drugs in Europe?”

“No, Nick. You know this is what I want. I’m not going to suffer like Mom and Sarah did. I don’t want Piper to remember me that way.”

Nick couldn’t argue. They had been hostile witnesses to the tortured deaths of their mother and sister. But selfishly, he wasn’t ready to give Amy up.

“The lawyer has everything. Just go and see him on Thursday. He knows you’ll be Piper’s guardian in the event anything happens to me. All of his contact info is in the file on my nightstand.” She reached into her purse and pulled out an envelope with Piper’s name on the front. “Give this to her on her 10th birthday. I think it will help her understand things.”

Nick took it from her and opened his briefcase. He pulled out a small velvet bag with a drawstring closure and handed it to her. It looked like a precious gift, and Amy loved him even more for that as she tucked it into her purse.

“Thanks, Nicko. I can’t . . . .”

“Don’t. I know.”

“Call the police tomorrow at 10:00. I don’t want the housekeeping staff to find me. I’ll be at the Waldorf, in room 240.”

At that, they both smiled. “Why not?” Nick said, “Why the hell not?”

Amy leaned over and hugged him tight. “Thank you.” She whispered once more. She stood and headed out of the park. She couldn’t possibly look back.

Through the Branches
Photograph by Molly Berard