On Top of Everything
by Jason Powell
Part 1 appears in this issue.
John came up beside her. The door hadn’t opened for him, either.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” she said aloud. But he disagreed. He told her she did know. He told her that she would still get to see Junior grow up. He told her all she needed to do was take the whole prescription at once, and then it would be as simple as going to sleep. That’s easy, right? Going to sleep? Then she would wake up with him and, together, they could watch over Junior.
He walked forward to the end of the line at the prescription counter, and she followed him. There were three people on line in front of her. When she joined them, everyone turned around and gave her a friendly smile or a nod and then faced forward again. Hanna’s heart began to race. She didn’t know why, but that incident at the door had shaken her resolve. The boy’s smile. The woman’s touch and words: “Thank God you were here.”
John was beside her again. He started to speak to her, but she was distracted by the older woman on line in front of her. The woman was talking on the phone to her son who, from what Hanna could gather, had just flown in for the holidays.
“Okay, honey,” she was saying, “if you’re sure. But you know your dad won’t mind coming to get you guys.” She listened to his reply then said, “Okay, honey. Okay. Call me if the cab driver gets lost, and tell him to drive safe, okay? It’s raining pretty bad outside.” The older woman looked over the rim of her glasses at her phone and found the button she was looking for. She looked forward at the counter then back at Hanna and met her eyes and smiled. Hanna smiled back.
The worker behind the counter finished with the first customer and moved on to the next. The older woman would be after that, and then Hanna. Hanna rubbed her palms on the sides of her pants and took long, slow breaths. The older woman in front of her had managed to find the buttons required to call someone else, and Hanna could hear the faint sounds of the ring on the other end. Then she heard a voice pick up.
The woman said: “Hi. Okay, I just spoke to Earl Jr.... Huh? Yes. Yes, they just landed a few minutes ago. He said there’s a line of cabs waiting for them so they’ll be okay. I told him you would’ve picked him up, but he said it’s okay, ’cause there’re cabs there right outside of the um, what do you call it, the uh, uh baggage area. Huh? Yes, the baggage claim. Yeah, so he’s on his way now. Huh? Yeah, okay. I’m next in line, then I’ll be home. Okay? Okay, bye.”
The older woman looked over the rim of her glasses again and found the button that ended the call. She had a flip phone and, when she’d successfully ended the call, she closed it and stared for a second at the exterior screen. Then she looked up again and smiled at Hanna.
“Sweetie,” she said facing Hanna and holding out her phone, “do you know how to pull up messages on this thing?” She pointed to the screen, and Hanna saw the symbol of an envelope. “This means I have text messages, right?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hanna smiled and took the phone from her.
“Oh you’re a lifesaver,” the older woman said and touched Hanna’s arm, and Hanna felt something tug in her chest. She opened the phone and navigated her way to the messages. “Junior sent you a message,” she said. The older woman leaned in to see the screen.
“That’s my son, Earl Jr.,” she said staring at the screen. “He just flew in to visit us for the holidays.”
Hanna smiled. “If you press ‘OK’, it’ll show you what the message is, and then all you have to do is type a reply.”
The older woman pressed OK while the phone was still in Hanna’s hand, and Hanna leaned back a little to offer privacy.
“I’ll call you when we’re in the car,” the older woman read aloud. She smiled again, took the phone back, and then frowned over the rim of her glasses, again looking for buttons. Hanna liked her. She started to offer to help, but the worker behind the counter wished the second customer a good day and asked for the next in line. The older woman looked over to the counter and waved her hand then smiled and touched Hanna’s arm again and said, “Thank you, sweetie.” Then she hurried to the counter.
Hanna didn’t move. Her head hurt again, and she was conscious of her heart rate. She stood a few feet from the counter and watched the older woman put her phone and bag down and start telling the associate that she was picking up medication for her husband. But she wasn’t really paying attention to what the older woman was saying now. It was what she had said earlier that stuck with her. She had called Hanna a lifesaver. And the mother out front had said, “Thank God you were here.” But they didn’t know why she was there or what she planned to do. Was she doing the right thing?
Her head hurt worse. She closed her eyes and massaged her temples and felt John at her side again. Her heart began to race, and she sensed tears forming beneath her lids. She opened her eyes and looked at him, and neither of them knew what to say. She thought of the way Junior giggled when she kissed his forehead. She thought of the way that little boy at the door smiled at her. She thought of how, a moment earlier, the older woman at the counter seemed flustered with happiness that her son was visiting. She thought about how, if she did this, if she really did this, she would miss all that.
“Sweetie, are you okay?”
The older woman was standing in front of Hanna with a look of concern on her face. Her purse was draped over her shoulder, and a white paper bag which probably held her husband’s prescription was in her hands. Behind her, the associate waited with a patient smile, and his hands folded on the counter.
“Yes, ma’am,” Hanna said. She looked over for John, but he was gone.
“Okay, sweetie,” the woman said, smiling but looking concerned. “Okay. Get home safe now? Okay?”
“I will. You, too.”
The woman tucked the white bag under her arm and pulled the hood up on her coat. She fished in her bag and came out with keys and then after a quick smile and wave, she hurried off toward the door.
Hanna walked up to the counter. She could feel the thumping of her heartbeat in her chest, head, and ears. The guy behind the counter smiled at her.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. How are you today?”
“What can I help you with?”
“I’m here for my prescription.”
“Pick up or drop off, ma’am?”
“Under your name, is it?
“Of course. If I can just see your ID?”
Hanna pulled out her debit card and ID and handed them over. The guy behind the counter used the tips of his fingers to grab the edge of the ID and pulled it from her hand, leaving her debit card. He then turned to his register and started typing.
John stood behind him. She looked at John, and he looked sad. He started to speak, but she didn’t let him. While the guy behind the counter typed in her information, she put both hands on the counter for support. What was she going to do?
The guy behind the counter, whose name tag said Joshua, handed back her ID then stepped away to a wall of drawers and pulled one out. There were a bunch of small white paper bags with an RX on the front and a printed label containing names and addresses. He started looking through them, and she found herself hoping he wouldn’t find hers. She couldn’t do this.
Despite what John said, it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel selfless, it felt wrong, like she’d be giving Junior a reason to keep crying. She felt she’d be telling Serenity, “Thanks for helping, but it wasn’t enough.” And it felt like pain. Like a cramp in her chest right by her heart. She was terrified of continuing to live the way she had been, but she was even more afraid of not living at all.
Joshua came back with the bag and told her the price. She handed over her debit card and took the white bag from him and placed it on the counter in front of her. What was she going to do? She didn’t want to think about it, but she had to. She had to decide. John had always been right before. Things had always turned out okay after he made a decision. Well, not always. He’d still be around if he had always made the right decision. He was usually right, though. But this didn’t feel like one of those times. This felt wrong. The counter started to shake beneath her hands. Startled, she looked at the bag. The bag was vibrating.
She looked up at Joshua, and he was smiling.
He looked at her and lifted his eyebrows. “Junior needs you,” he whispered.
Hanna’s jaw dropped, and she stepped back away from the bag. Her head was spinning. She felt a knot it her throat, and her vision began to blur from the tears, but she didn’t cry. She was confused. Was this real? Did he really just say that?
“Wha-what did you say?”
Joshua looked both worried and confused. “I said Junior needs you,” he said pointing to the right side of the counter. “Your phone.”
Hanna followed his finger to the countertop. On the left side of a stand of brochures advertising flu shots was a black flip phone. Just then the sound of the rain outside increased, and Hanna turned around to see the glass doors slide open. The older woman from earlier shuffled in and rubbed her feet repeatedly on the rug inside the doorway. She pulled her hood off and hurried to the counter.
“Excuse me... Did I... Oh! There it is!” She leaned past Hanna and grabbed the phone. She smiled and said, “Thanks!” Then she hurried out again.
Hanna watched her leave then looked at Joshua. He met her eyes, his own filled with concern. She struggled to breathe, and when she finally did, she began to cry.
She walked slowly through the rain and crossed the street, and John walked beside her. She was headed home, back to John Junior and Serenity, but she needed to make a stop first. She went to the bench in front of the park where she and John had first kissed. The rain beat down like a waterfall on the bench, but she wasn’t there to sit. She turned her back to the bench and faced the tree.
The bow at the foot of the tree sagged under the torrent of rain, and the candle was half-buried in a puddle of muddy water. She thought back to last month, when she had put the candle there and tied the bow. Serenity and her friend Candace were with her at the time but said nothing. They were all still in the black dresses they had worn to the funeral.
The bench behind her was where she and John shared so many great memories. It seemed only right to her that this tree was where she should say goodbye to him. When she lit the candle that day, it wasn’t raining. It was a cloudless sky. She lit the candle, cried, and said: “Goodbye, John. I love you.”
And now she stood, in the middle of this storm, looking down on that broken candle but still seeing its light. And she cried.
“Goodbye, John,” she said. “I love you.”
And he was gone.
She blinked through the rain and crossed the street to her apartment building. The white paper bag was soaked in her hand. It would go straight to the medicine cabinet and come out only once a day, as prescribed. John was gone, but she wasn’t, and she wasn’t going anywhere. Junior needed her.
Copyright © 2019 by Jason Powell