A Rusted Balcony • Haley Stevens

Leslie sat by the girl’s side, anxiety caressing her face as she gripped her daughter’s hand in hers, holding it hostage, knuckles white.  Light, fading curly brown hair surrounded the child’s young, pale face as the morphine dripped slowly through the tubes, entering her wrist at a steady rhythm.  Her daughter’s eyes twitched behind their closed lids, and the mother smiled sadly at the prospect of her daughter’s dream.

She wished to the God she barely knew to grant her the pleasure of accompanying her daughter on the voyage: the everglades of her dream, breaking down castle walls, fighting a dragon, or flying with a magic wand through the fiery air of a world never seen or heard of before.  That was the kind of child her daughter was. And Leslie loved her for it.

“Are you breathing underwater, Dana?” she guessed before laughing at her absurd question.  “Of course you are,” she giggled, a single tear escaping her eye. Leslie shook her head, hoping to melt the image from her mind, attacking her tear with her free hand. She mustn’t cry.  She must never cry.  Not in front of her daughter.

“Maybe you’re playing piano for a snow goblin?”  The question hung in the air like a rope, suspended from a lonely tree in a forest of ghouls, none of whom answered.

When was the last time you shared a dream with me?  Leslie wondered.  She couldn’t remember.   Oh, Dana, why did you have to grow up?

The smell of coffee hit her nose before his voice, and she turned her head in anticipation to meet his gaze.  His mouth was slightly open, as if his thoughts were encased in a fog that was slowly drowning him in a pool of raindrops.

“I-I brought you coffee,” he finally muttered, holding out a second cup as he breathed in sharply, his bushy eyebrows furrowed in concern when Leslie didn’t raise her hand to take the cup from him.

“No, thank you, David.  I’m fine.”

“I wasn’t offering.  You–you haven’t eaten anything today,” he stuttered.

“I know.”

“You need to eat something,” he said sternly, summoning courage.  The weight of his gaze on her caused the small hairs on the back of her neck to rise.  Sighing, she reached forward to push a stray curl from her daughter’s face behind her ears, noticing the little star-like birthmark she had at the corner of her jaw, feeling conscious of the fact that her husband wouldn’t understand the conversation she was having with her daughter.

Leslie shut her eyes, and from the deepest corner of her mind, drew the memory closer until the images were dancing on the back of her darkened eyelids.

“Why do you share your dreams?” He would ask.  “It’s a little stupid, isn’t it? No one can actually remember their dreams.”

And she always replied, “At least I do dream.”

“Yeah! Only smart people dream, Daddy!” Dana, five years old at the time, shouted at the top of her lungs before proceeding to enter a chasing match with her father.  It was only when she was hanging upside down by her feet, her dad’s strong arms holding her steady that he would respond to the insult.

“At least she looks like me,” he’d say, eyes defiant and teasing, looking straight at Leslie, daring her to argue before putting Dana down, giving her a kiss on her forehead, and smiling tenderly.

Leslie shivered at the memory, opening her eyes and reaching up to touch her own white-blond hair, flowing straight from her scalp like a waterfall of sharp razor blades, before looking down at her daughter and her brown tangles.  No, they looked nothing alike.

“Look, Les.” His voice invaded her ears again and Leslie shuddered with the effort of keeping her hands from shaking.  She wanted him to leave.   “I love you.  You know I do—and I worry about you too,” he paused, gathering his thoughts. “I just want you to know that it’s okay.”  She could hear his feet tapping nervously against the tile floor of the hospital room. “That you’re not donating, I mean—it’s okay.  They aren’t even sure if it was her kidneys that caused the coma,” he paused.  “So we have time to figure this out.”

The air whistled in her nose when she inhaled.  “It makes sense though, with her sleeping all the time in school.  It’s a symptom.”

“They’re still running tests.  They just want to know every option in case there is a problem.  Donating is one solution.” His voice dissipated like an echo losing its will to replicate sound before picking up again at the last second.  “And you know I won’t be able to donate.” A small laugh escaped his lips.  “I guess I didn’t think two were necessary. Stupid motorcycle.” The sarcasm dripped from his lips like oil.

Leslie turned her head slightly to glance at her husband from the corner of her eye—his dark brown hair stuck to his forehead from perspiration, the plaid, button down shirt he wore was askew, half tucked in, half out, and his glasses were smudged with fingerprints and small pieces of dirt.  It was a small quirk of his to play with his glasses when he was trying hard to comprehend a new piece of information.  What was he working on earlier that his glasses would get so dirty?  She almost smiled despite the look he was giving her, eyebrows furrowed and hazel eyes clouded with a substance that could only be suppressed tears.  He wanted to be strong for her, she knew.

“You can sit, you know.” Her voice was dry and cracked, stranded, but he obliged her.  David pulled out the chair to Leslie’s left and held out the cup of coffee again.  Reluctantly, she took it from him, letting the aroma clear her mind, closing her eyes in the process and allowing the darkness to consume her when she spoke.

“I want to, David.  Donate I mean.” She sighed, leaning back into her chair, the backboard biting into her back with a quiet pain she welcomed.  “But I can’t.”  She could hear him breathing slowly, quickening slightly as she spoke.  Her eyes stung as a thousand needles pierced her eyelids.  “I am her mother, and I can’t help her.”  Images swarmed behind her eyes of a cold, greying, tiny body tucked in her arms within a soft, pink blanket, and the screams of another, alive, in the next room over, whose mother’s snores could be heard through the thin, paper walls of the same hospital, eleven years prior.  It had been so easy, she thought, to switch the bodies.  And now she had two deaths on her hands…

She brought the coffee cup to her mouth and drank deeply, allowing the bitterness to burn her tongue, another forbidden tear escaping from her eye.