On Top of Everything (published 2019)
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
With a pile of dirty clothes on her right and a half empty box of diapers on her left, Hanna sat in the middle of the sofa with her eyes closed and felt the tears escape. The bottom half of her jaw trembled against her will and a knot was forming in her throat. The rim of Junior’s pacifier cut into the inside of her knuckles as her hands formed a fist around it, but the pain in her hand was nothing compared to the pain in her head. She knew she couldn’t take much more of this.
She was conscious that the way she was rocking Junior’s crib was becoming more aggressive than soothing but she couldn’t control her frustration. Things didn’t seem so hard when John was here. John took her mind off everything that wasn’t fun. But John was taken from her and now nothing was fun. Now her life, like her apartment, was a mess. Now she wasn’t working; she wasn’t even writing on her own. Now no one was there to support her and Junior. Junior, who did nothing but cry lately.
When the doorbell rang, Hanna let out a long slow breath and placed the pacifier on the pile of clothes beside her. When she flexed her fingers she was more aware of the pain in her hand because the pain in her head had gone away. She stood up and adjusted her clothing then picked Junior up from the crib and held him to her chest. On her way to the door she caught a glimpse of herself in the hallway mirror. She really was a mess. She shifted the weight of Junior’s body to one hip and wiped the tears from her face with her free hand. She ran her fingers through her hair, combed it behind her ears, and opened the door.
Her friend Serenity smiled at her from the doorway then shuffled inside, hugged her, and closed the door. The cold air from Serenity’s coat was a shock to Hanna because her apartment was uncomfortably hot. That’s the way things went in public housing. Once the calendar says it’s autumn, the housing authority runs the boilers at full blast and leaves it up to the tenants to find a comfort zone. The only way to combat the heat is by opening the windows, which during a rainy season like this one, becomes more of a problem than a solution.
Hanna led the way back to the living room while Serenity shed her coat and scarf.
“Sorry it took me so long to get here,” Serenity said going into the bathroom to wash her hands. “My mom heard I was off today and naturally assumed that meant I was free to help her. We spent the whole morning – the whole morning – shopping for Thanksgiving dinner; going from store to store looking for the best prices, and,” Serenity added now taking the crying baby from Hanna and placing his head on her own shoulder, “sometimes we went back to one store to return something ‘cause another store had it cheaper, and, we still haven’t gotten everything. Ugh! Move those clothes so I can sit with you. What’s wrong handsome man?”
Serenity bounced Junior and rubbed his back. “What’s wrong,” she asked again. “Are you hungry? Are you hungry my handsome man?”
Hanna sat down on the couch, pulled the pile of clothes onto her lap and watched as Serenity took Junior to the fridge and grabbed his bottle. She put it in the microwave and set a time then lifted his waist to her nose and inhaled.
“Mmm. Powder fresh,” Serenity said and kissed his stomach. Junior stopped crying. “Powder fresh, powder fresh,” Serenity said, her face pressed up against his torso as Junior giggled and squirmed. The microwave beeped three quick tones to indicate it was done and Serenity juggled Junior into the crook of her arm and took out the bottle.
“Hungry?” she asked. She walked over to the couch and used her legs and hips to push the crib out of the way so she could sit. She held the bottle with the hand of the same arm that held Junior and used her free hand to grab a towel hanging off the side of the crib. After draping the towel over her shoulder, she positioned Junior and gave him the bottle. His hands grasped the bottle and his eyes focused on hers.
Hanna watched as Junior feverishly sucked the nipple of the bottle as if he was starving. And maybe he was. Why hadn’t she, Hanna, figured that he might be hungry? She tried giving him the pacifier, she tried rocking him to sleep. How did Serenity, who wasn’t even a mother, instinctively know to feed him and the thought never even cross Hanna’s own mind? On top of everything else, Hanna had to deal with the fact that she wasn’t fit for this. She had no idea what she was doing.
“So,” Serenity said sitting back and making herself comfortable. “What’s the plan for today? Chick flicks?”
Hanna said, “Whatever you want” and looked around. Mess didn’t began to describe the state her house was in. How did it get like this? How did her life get like this?
“Actually,” she said standing up suddenly and turning from Serenity. “I’m gonna go for a quick walk. Do you mind?”
“’Course not. You ok?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s just that it’s so hot in here.”
“Well, there’s nothing you can do about that with all this sexiness in here,” Serenity mumbled with her face buried in Juniors’ neck as he giggled and squirmed some more.
Hanna put some sweats over her shorts and a long coat over that. She tied a scarf around her neck and grabbed her keys.
“Did you get to pick up your prescription yesterday?” Serenity asked from the couch.
“No,” Hanna said and sighed. She had spent all of last night trying to forget the dread she had felt yesterday at her doctor’s appointment. On top of everything else… “I’ll pick it up now.”
She went into her room and took her debit card and ID from her wallet and put them in her pocket. She said goodbye to Serenity and kissed Junior’s head; he giggled again. Then she left.
Outside, the weather was terrible. It was early afternoon but it was already dark. The air felt wet and the heavy grey clouds looked as if they would break open any second. The pharmacy which held her prescription was across the street to the west. Across the street to the north of her was the park and the bench where John and she first kissed. She walked to the curb and waited for the light, then crossed the street to the park and sat down on the bench. The wood was chipped and cold and damp.
Hanna sighed and her breath rolled in a thin cloud from her nose into nothingness. She tucked her hands into the pocket of her coat and closed her eyes. John sat down beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. He told her to talk to him and the sound of his voice sent warmth through her entire body.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “It’s not even about me now. I’m becoming a burden to everyone around me. I can’t take care of Junior—Serenity is taking care of him more than I am. And now, she can’t even spend time with her own family ‘cause she has to take care of mine! I gotta start taking this medication every day ‘cause…” She ran her fingers through her hair. “I don’t even have money to pay for it; they don’t want me to come back to work at the paper. The house’s a mess. There’s nothing in the fridge. I don’t have anyone to help me. I can’t live like this.”
John asked her what she wanted to do.
“What can I do?” she argued. He told her that he understood how she felt. He told her that the things she was dealing with were more than anyone could handle. And, on top of everything else, things will just get worse during the holiday season when expenses increase. He said that the fact that she recognized it makes her a good mother and a good friend. She was right to feel the way she did, he said, and that they both knew what she had to do. He understood her reluctance but he felt she was thinking about it the wrong way. She wasn’t being selfish, he explained, she was being selfless. She was looking out for the ones she cared about, not herself. And, there was an additional benefit: he would be there to support her from now on. There were many ways it could be done. Painless ways.
Hanna opened her eyes and looked across towards the pharmacy. She wiped her face and took a deep breath then let it out slowly. She stared at the tree in front of her. A broken candle and a dirty bow lay at the foot of it. She felt her eyes began to tingle again but she stopped herself. The time for tears was over. She stood up and crossed the two streets to the pharmacy. There was no traffic.
The pharmacy’s door was activated by a pressure plate. Stepping on the black mat in front of the store made the left side of the glass door slide to the right to let you in. As Hanna reached the mat, lightning lit the sky and for a second, the day was as it should be at that hour. Hanna stepped on the mat and nothing happened. The door stayed closed. The clouds finally broke loose and the thunder that accompanied the lightning grumbled. Hanna shook her head. On top of everything else she couldn’t even activate an automatic door. As if she wasn’t even there, she thought. As if she were already dead.
A woman about her age with a boy around two years old activated the door from the inside on their way out. The little boy started to run into the rain but the woman grabbed him back. She knelt in front of him and placed her bags down to free up her hands. She zipped up his coat and as she did the boy looked up at Hanna and smiled. She smiled back.
When the woman was done she turned to grab her bags and the little boy once again took off into the rain. His foot caught on the black rubber of the threshold and he fell forward. Hanna dropped to one knee and caught him before he hit the ground and a second later the woman was beside them.
“Lord Jesus,” the woman sighed as she pulled the boy toward her. Then to Hanna she said, “I’m so sorry.”
Hanna stood up straight and the woman followed. “Thank God you were here,” she said and touched Hanna’s arm. The sky lit up again.
The pharmacy was empty save for the people waiting at the prescription counter. The weather wasn’t as bad as it was going to be later on, but it was bad enough to keep people in their homes unless they absolutely had to go out. Hanna stood just inside the automatic doors and held her arm where the woman touched her. She stood there and didn’t know what to do. Just a moment ago when she had spoken to John she knew what she should be doing. She knew it was right, not just for herself but for her son. But now she had doubts. Would Junior understand when he grew to be that little boys age? Would he miss her?
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. “Thank God you were here.”
John was beside her again. He started to speak to her but she was distracted by the older woman in front of her. The woman was talking on the phone to her son who, from what Hanna could gather, had just flown in to town.
“Ok 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, “Ok, honey. Ok. Call me if the cab driver gets lost and tell him to drive safe, ok? 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. Ok, 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 ok. I told him you would’ve picked him up but he said it’s ok ‘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 ok. I’m next online then I’ll be home. Ok? Ok, 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 starred 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 beat. 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 said earlier that stuck with her. She called Hanna a lifesaver. And the mother by the door 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 never suffered from migraines but imagined that this must be what they felt like. 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 ok?”
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 had gone.
“Ok, sweetie,” the woman said smiling but still looking concerned. “Ok. Get home safe now. Ok?”
“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?”
“What’s the name?”
“Um…” 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 the debit card. He smiled at her again 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. As 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. It felt like she’d be telling Serenity “thanks for helping but it wasn’t enough.” But more importantly, on top of everything else, 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 always turned out ok after he made a decision. Well, not always. He’d still be around if he 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. It 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 in 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 breath and when she finally took a breath she began to cry.
Back outside, she walked slowly through the rain and across 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 put the candle there and tied the bow. Serenity and their friend Candace was 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, as she stood in the middle of this storm looking down on that broken candle but still seeing it’s light, 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 only come out the amount of times it was prescribed. John was gone but she wasn’t, and she wasn’t going anywhere. It may be hard but she still had her life. It may be a mess but she still had a place to live. She still had Serenity and Candace and people who loved her. She may have lost her job at the paper but she still had writing. And, on top of everything else, Junior needed her.
Original Publshed on Bewilderingstories.com