Posted by: Matt Y | 06/19/2017

Shouting into the void

 

Just putting up a short story

Penny for your thoughts

Carl stood before the door and hesitated.

On the other side of the door his wife was dying. More than a month prior her oncologist explained to the two of them that the battle against the cancer spreading through her system was one that she could not win. That the cancer wasn’t responding to treatment and that what was left was to try and improve the quality of life for the remaining time she had left. He knew that when he walked through the door there would be a little less of the woman he loved than the day before, and that he would put on a smile and try and be cheerful to assure her that everything was okay.

He hesitated because everything was not okay and it hurt to see her like this and know there was nothing that he could do about it.  A selfish part of him wanted to avoid that pain.  It was a small voice in the back of his head that he was ashamed of, and so he hesitated for only a moment, to silence that voice and to work up the courage to face the reality beyond the door.  Carl exhaled and pushed the handle down and walked inside.

The room within was brightly lit, windows that opened up to a view of a yard that disappeared into a thicket of trees.  Colorful paintings hung on the wall and there was a comfortable looking couch in the corner.  The hospice tried hard to give a personal touch to the rooms even though a nice quilt didn’t cover the fact that it was on top of a hospital bed, and the flowers on the nightstand didn’t cover the sterile hospital smell of the air.  Like the smile Carl put on his face it was an attempt to be cheerful in the face of the tragic.

Lucy was sitting up in bed reading a book and it was good to see her awake.  Much of the past week she had slept while he watch, only occasionally waking up for brief moments.

She glanced up, smiled and said. “Hi babe.”

The look and her smile made him feel torn apart on the inside by both love and grief which he tried to keep from showing on his face as he said, “Hi. How are you feeling, can I get you something?”

“No, but come look at what I found.”

Curious he came over to the bed and she stretched out her too thin arm with her hand cupped and holding something.  He looked down into her palm.

“I found a lucky penny, it was on my nightstand when I woke up.”

For a second a flush of irrational anger washed over him, he wanted to knock the penny out of her hand. She always was picking up pennies off of the ground, saying that they gave her luck. Seeing her in lying in the hospital bed made luck and fairness feel like lies. The second passed though and he managed to say, “Wow! I wonder where it came from?”

“I don’t know I thought that maybe you put it there.”

“Wasn’t me. Maybe one of the staff did it.”

“Well I’m glad I found it. I need all the luck I can get. Will you bring it home and put it with the others?” She asked.

“Of course.” He said, taking the penny and then sat in the chair next to her bed to enjoy the time he had with her while she was still awake.

 

Carl jogged forward and was able to catch the bag of groceries that was falling out of the woman’s arms.

“Woah, I got it.” He said.

“Oh my god, thank you so much.” The woman said, her dark brown hair falling over her face as she shifted the other bags she was carrying to take the one he was holding back. He noticed that she was pretty and felt shy as he handed the bag to her. “I didn’t think I had enough to need to take the cart with me, I guess I had more stuff than I thought. Thank you!”

“No problem.” Carl said and started walking again towards the grocery store, wishing he was the kind of guy who could think of something more suave to say than ‘no problem’ while trying to remember if he needed to get milk or not.

He heard a noise that sounded like a paper bag being set down and turned around thinking maybe she dropped the bag after all. When he looked back the woman had set the bags on the ground and was picking up an object off of the ground near the bumper of a minivan.

Carl walked over and said. “Everything okay?”

Still kneeling on the ground, she looked up at him, brushed her hair out of her face and smiled. “Oh yeah, I just saw a penny lying here.”

“You put all your stuff down for a penny?”

She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “Well of course. They’re lucky, you can’t just walk away from luck.”

Carl let out a laugh and offered her a hand to help her up and said. “Yes I guess you’re right. You need help with your bags?”

Using his hand as leverage she stood and brushed off her legs then said, “I’d appreciate that. And you see the luck is working already.”

“Well I can’t argue that. I’m Carl.”

“Lucy. I’m parked just over there.”

He picked up a bag and followed her joking about the penny. The joke turned into a conversation and they ended up at her car talking in the parking lot for a while. By the time she left he had her phone number and had plans for the next day.

He still couldn’t remember if he needed milk or not.

 

Carl was a nervous wreck on the inside and was trying desperately not to show it.

For the past few weeks Lucy had been nauseous in the mornings. On top of that her appetite had changed and she was tired more often no matter how much sleep she had. Before they married they had a long conversation about having children and when she told him she did not plan to have children it was a relief to Carl. He loved children, just couldn’t imagine being a father, whatever instinct was meant to be there was absent. However if Lucy had said she wanted to have kids he would have done so, as he couldn’t imagine a life without her in it and he could get over his concerns if it meant her happiness.

When her symptoms started Carl worried she might have some new type of flu. Then she said her period was late. That opened up the worry floodgates as he realized this might not be a flu she would get over, but potentially a life altering event that could change everything. She tried a pregnancy test that was negative, only that was not enough to make either of them comfortable. Who knew how often those things were wrong.

Which was why Carl was now sitting in the lobby of Lucy’s gynecologist waiting to find out the news. Part of him was panicking, they had been so safe, they were now in their late thirties and wasn’t there more complications for pregnancy then? Maybe he should have had the vasectomy they talked about. What if their place was too small? What if, what if, what if kept echoing against the insides of his skull.

Another part of him also felt a little giddy at the idea. What if it was a boy? What if it was a girl? He might be a father and that both terrified him and yet filled with a strange excitement at the idea.

On the way into the medical office his wife had doubled back through the front door leaving Carl wondering confused and picked something off of a waist high wall and showed it to Carl. “Look a penny! What a weird place for someone to leave one. Maybe it’s a good sign.”

The entire time they were in the waiting room filling out paperwork she held the penny in a tight fist and Carl realized that the tempest of emotions he was feeling was likely a spring shower compared to the storm going on inside of her. He had rubbed her back briefly and she sighed and leaned against him, though her grip on the penny never loosened.

That had been hours ago and every moment that passed Carl grew even more nervous. Surely a pregnancy test and exam didn’t take hours. The more time he spent in the waiting room was more time for him to envision all sorts of scenarios, each one ramping up his anxiety a little bit more. The book he had brought with him sat ignored in the chair beside him, his mind racing too much to be able to focus on the fiction within.

Then the door to the back opened and she stepped through. Carl stood full of questions that were fighting each other to be asked first. Then he really saw her and notice how she appeared pale and shrunk into herself, one hand limp and the other still curled into a tight fist and he assumed still had the penny within, her eyes red either from crying or with the threat of tears to come. Then all of the questions he had disappeared except for one.

“Are you okay?” He asked putting his arms around her.

Her voice came choked out and muffled from her face against his shoulder. “I need to see an oncologist. They think it might be cancer.”

 

Carl looked up from the book he was reading as Lucy entered their apartment.

“Hey honey.” He said.

There were the sounds of her setting her purse and keys down, and then she was walking into the living area shedding her jacket and work ID and tossing them onto a chair as she made her way over to him. She flopped onto the couch next to him and he automatically moved his arm so she could put her head on his shoulder. Which she did, leaning into him and sighing.

“Hey.” She said.

The sigh and her tone made him set the book aside before asking. “Rough day at work?”

“Just a crap day all around. A couple people started fighting on the train in the morning, which delayed it and made me late. Julie, the sales rep I told you about, started giving me a lecture about not eating food with other people’s names on it in the fridge, as if I would ever do that. When I said I wouldn’t she just tried to play it off like she was telling that to everyone but she wasn’t. New boss is kind of a creep.”

“Only kind of a creep?”

She paused. “It’s probably nothing, he just stands really really close, if you back up he just sort of moves with you as though he doesn’t get it.”

“Ugh I hate that. Next time he get close sneeze on him. See if he maintains his distance then or if he’ll just wear a sneeze guard after that. Either way might be a win.”

He felt her chuckle and she through an arm over his chest and gave him a brief squeeze.

“Love you.”

“Love you too.” He said and wondered if maybe he should pop the question right now, while they were feeling relaxed and having a good moment. They had been dating for a couple of years and he knew he didn’t want to be with anyone else. How to ask was eluding him along with the worry that she might say no. They were still in their early twenties and maybe she wasn’t ready to make that kind of decision.

He thought about asking her to wait right there and then going to get the ring he had hidden, then thought maybe there would be a better moment. Maybe he should make a plan, or hide the ring somewhere where she might find it and see what she thought. So he relaxed feeling her warmth against him and content that he had plenty of time to think of a good way to propose.

“Nothing good happen?” He asked.

“Oh I found two pennies today, both in the elevator. One on the way into work and one on the way out, what are the odds of that?”

Carl thought about saying that it was probably very likely since hundreds of people likely rode that elevator every day but kept his mouth shut. If it wasn’t for her stopping to pick up pennies they might have never had talked further they day they had met. Plus it was kind of cute, even if he rolled his eyes at her when she picked them up, and if it was a slightly compulsive quirk it at least did no harm.

“Cool, you’ll have to add them to the collection” was all he said.

 

Carl drove around with a bright pink piggy bank in his passenger seat.

It had been two months since Lucy’s funeral and he still felt like a man trapped in a mental fog. Whenever he rolled over in the morning he expected her to be there. There was an void in his afternoons that he recognized was him waiting for her to return home from work, even though with the hospitalizations and treatments it had been some time since she had last worked. Family came over and helped him sort out what to do with things she left behind and when they did Carl found the piggy bank.

The smiling pink face of the thing made him angry. It was filled with all of the pennies that his had picked up over the years. She had called them her lucky pennies though in the end that luck had not amounted to much in his opinion. Though he knew it was ridiculous to be angry at currency he put the pig in his car a few weeks prior with the intent to drive over to the bank and exchange those pennies, get rid of every last unlucky one of them until the piggy bank was as empty as he felt.

That had been the plan. Only every time he tried he found himself just driving around instead before winding up back at home. No matter how unreasonable his anger at the pennies were, they were also one of the few things he had left of his wife. Each one collected by her with a joy he did not understand and would also never see again.

Today he swore would be the last day he drove around with a piggy bank in his passenger seat. Carl drove to the strip mall where the bank was located and pulled into the parking lot. He sat in the car looking at the squat brick bank building and sat there willing himself to just get it over with. As he sat there he noticed a store sign in his rearview mirror that pulled his attention.

TIME TRAVEL it read.

Carl turned around and looked through his back window to make sure he was reading the store name right. The sign remained the same. He shook his head and realized it was likely just a travel agency run by someone who thought it would be cute to name it that. Still he couldn’t help it, was there a store for time travel? He knew he had been distracted for much of the last year and the country could be in the middle of a war and he would not have seen the headlines.

He stepped out of the car and headed towards the store, knowing as he did so he was finding yet another way to procrastinate not exchanging the pennies.

The inside of the store was strange. There were chairs arranged in a little waiting area like a hair salon with a counter facing them. Behind the counter was a teenage boy poking at a phone not bothering to look up from whatever he was looking at, and behind the boy wires dangled everywhere like a synthetic spiderweb. The wires went to and from different boxes that glowed with lights and LED screens and the web of cords that all met together into a slightly raised platform.

Carl stood there for a moment and then coughed. The boy looked up and said. “One second.” Then he jabbed at his phone a few more times before looking up and asking. “How can I help you?”

“It says Time Travel on the outside?”

“Yep. That’s what we do here.”

“Wait, real time travel?”

“Yeah man. There’s no such thing as fake time travel.”

Carl restrained the urge to yell at the teen. “Pretend I don’t know what you’re talking about. When did Time Travel become a thing?”

The teen sighed as though it was a huge burden to have to explain to someone older the details of the store he worked in. “I think it was about a year ago that it was discovered? Different companies spent a lot of money making it work. Problem is it doesn’t.”

“So there is no time travel.”

“No there is, it’s just like, you know, sort of pointless. It costs a lot, and there were all sort of problems. You can go back, but only along your own timeline, only to the past, and you can’t change anything. Everything that happened already is going to happen. You can’t interact with yourself, if you try you just get booted right back to the present. So they spent all this time and money and slapped each other on the back for making it work. Only no one can think of what the purpose of it is and they spent all their money for something that doesn’t help them make money so all the stocks of those companies tanked.

“When those companies blew up, a firm came in and bought all the technology for cheap thinking that they could market it as a commercial business. Like maybe people would go to the mall, get their nails done, and then go see what they were up to when they were twelve for something. Apparently people don’t want to spend a lot of money just to see what they looked like when they were younger as this place is dead man. I was looking up how to pierce ears as this will probably be a Claire’s in a couple of months.”

Carl stood stunned for a few minutes just absorbing what this teenager was telling him. Time travel was possible, sort of.

“You okay man?” The boy asked.

“Can you bring anything back with you?” Carl asked.

The teen shrugged. “I guess. I can’t guarantee it will be safe. You’ll have to sign a waiver.”

“One more question, do you take Visa?”

 

One the first trip Carl chose a random date to go back in time, just to make sure it was real.  In his right hand he held the pink piggy bank. He chose a time when he knew Lucy was going to be almost home from work and went into the elevator of their apartment building, took out a penny and dropped it into a corner.

A few seconds later he was back in the store standing on the platform.

“It worked, it was real. I was back in my old apartment building and they always had a ton of advertisements for things taped on the walls on the inside. They were the ones I remember from way back then.”

The boy snorted. “I know it was real, I work here don’t I?”

“Why was I in my old apartment building?”

“Something to do with needing to be near where you physically were. Ask a scientist.”

Carl ignored the boy’s sarcasm. “How many more times can I go?”

The teen looked over to a computer screen. “With your credit? You can go for a full hour or break that up into smaller trips.”

Carl shook the piggy bank and smiled wide. “As many short trips as I can make. Thank you.”

“No man, thank you, I’m going to make my sales quota for the first time this month.”

 

The second trip he chose the same day, only this time he arrived before he knew Lucy left for work and left a penny in the elevator.

 

The third trip he put a penny on a sidewalk Carl knew she would be walking along and waited long enough to see the look of joy on her face when she saw it but was gone again before she could pick it up.

 

After that he repeated the same sequence, leaving pennies out just to see the look on her face.  Many trips later he thought about it and realized he was wasting his trips. She could find pennies at any time, what he needed to do was leave them not just where she’d find them, but when she needed to find one the most.

 

Every one of those trips ripped open scars he thought we behind him. Still when he saw her pick up one of the pennies and clutch it fiercely Carl knew it was the right thing to do. Once he came back and the store employee saw tears on his cheeks and fidgeted uncomfortably before asking if he was okay.

“I’m fine, let’s go again.” He replied.

 

“You’re almost out of what I can charge you for.” The teenager warned him when he returned a few trips later.

“That’s okay, I just need one more.”

 

Carl realized he judged the timing of it wrong, he could see himself jogging forward to help the woman losing control of her grocery bags. He had to hurry before he turned around and saw himself. Taking a penny he underhand tossed it towards a minivan and hoped for the best.

 

“And that’s the last one.” The time travel employee said. “I wish I could give you more time, it seems like it was important to you, only I’d get fired, you know?”

Carl nodded and said. “No, it is ok. It was just enough time. Thank you again.” Then he was so overcome with emotion he gave the boy a brief hug, laughed at the confused expression on the teen’s face and left the store. Instead of taking the pink pig to the bank he went back to his car and tossed it into the passenger seat. He now knew where he had to bring it.

 

Carl knelt in front of Lucy’s grave.

“You know I don’t think I ever understood why you picked up pennies.” Carl said to his wife. “I thought it was just a cute obsessive compulsive thing. I was even embarrassed sometimes when you’d do it when we were with friends. I watched you picked them up but I never really saw.

“Today I really was able to see why. Your face when you picked them up, it wasn’t just the joy of discovery was it? Every penny was just another little bit of hope and strength, a reminder that there was something good out there. I was never able to see that before. I didn’t need lucky pennies to give me hope and strength. I had you. You were my hope and my strength. I couldn’t see that until I no longer had you.

“I don’t know if you found all the pennies I left, there wasn’t enough time to check. There’s never enough time is there? I only hope I was able to repay the hope and strength you gave me by leaving some behind for you. There was some pennies still left, and I don’t know if you can hear me but if you still need some hope or strength wherever you are I’m going to set this here in case you need it.”

Carl set the piggy bank in front of her headstone then laid a hand over her name. “I love you.”

As he left he had one hand in his pocket, clutched tightly around a penny.

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