At night, Josie paced the hallway and called for Kev. She went downstairs to look in the pantry and hall closet and then back upstairs to search under his bed and in the bathtub – his favorite hiding places when he was little. But she couldn't find him. She cried and moaned his name while her husband Andy led her down the hall and put her back in bed. Sleepwalking had become an every night occurrence.

One night Andy found her removing the working parts of their grandfather clock, renovating it as a shrine. She had assorted some of Kev's personal things, plus gifts from him: drawings and valentines, his 9th grade "Student of the Year" plaque, school pictures, his beloved guitar and a glossy of The Synaptic Nerves, his band. She was polishing the frame's glass and beamed when Andy came downstairs to retrieve her. "They're gonna be big someday, just you wait and see," she said.

When awake, Josie looked through her other two children as though they were steam, as foggy mirages, even though she could see Kev clearly, darting around corners, sometimes playing the air guitar. Afraid to be tricked into thinking the little ones were real, she avoided and ignored them altogether. Josie always joked she had a youngest, an oldest and an only child. Susan and Jerry were six and eight, but Kevin had just turned eighteen when he left them – she wouldn't ever call it accidental or suicide because that inferred purpose and she'd have none of that.

After a month of these endless nights and catatonic days, Andy came home from work one day and discovered Josie dressed like a punk rocker. Her hair was cut with a razor and frizzed, dyed a peculiar orange, and she wore red boots with black fishnets, setting off a form-fitting psychedelic-colored zipper dress. "It's Kev honey, he has to see the Flying Pumpkins. I don't want him going alone."

"Isn't it Squashed Pumpkins?" Andy asked.

"I don't know – Smashed, Sauteed, Scattered and Smothered…whatever they are, they're in Atlanta, and we've got flight reservations. Just an hour." She pointed to their bags – hers and Kevin's. "Grab our suitcases, honey, would you?"

Andy hesitated, looking at the grin on her face, the outrageous outfit, and noted under his breath that the deceased didn't need reservations on planes or even at concerts. As he picked up the overstuffed luggage, he added that they didn't need clothing either. Rather than driving to the airport, they went to the hospital.

"To get the backstage passes," was his excuse.

~~

On the sixth floor, Josie made friends with a schizophrenic boy named Billy, a dark teen, like Kev, who possessed a frenetic fresh-from-bed look. Josie and Billy were the only two long-term patients. A host of others came and went within a day or two – addicts and alcoholics detoxing, obsessive compulsives and manic depressives adjusting meds. The two were semi-permanent and always took the table in front of the TV. Billy needed desperately to watch certain shows. Kenneth and Gloria Copeland were his particular favorites. Them and the Three Stooges.

One morning, Josie slept in, and a hefty guy had commandeered the remote. She awoke to Billy's scream, a screech akin to a donkey's bray, and assuming the role of the mother she'd once been, she leapt from bed and ran to the dayroom. "How dare you!" She hustled to the sofa in the common area and grabbed the remote from the man's hand.

The man sulked while Billy giggled to the antics - "boink…nyuk-nyuk-nyuk" - and she finished a nap on the dayroom lounger.

~~

After a month on floor six, Josie began thinking of her abandoned experiments as she wondered about Kev. Until his disappearance, she'd worked in a biochemical research lab and found she missed the intricacies of science, the care required even in washing cuvettes, taking care to rid of residuals which would yield false signals or produce background signatures.

Her group was investigating the inherent spectral characteristics of proteins in phytoplankton, where the secretions changed in quantity and character in relation to growth stages - including death as a stage too. Patterns elicited, altering in height and intensity from one light excitation to the next. She wondered about people and how they too must possess variance, of intensity and wavelength, absorbance and fluorescence. A range of colors unique to their phases too.

~~

Everyday, Josie and Billy ate hard-boiled eggs at morning snack-time and popcorn in the evening. They alternated orange and grape juice throughout the day, and at meals she always ordered extra toast or biscuits for Billy; he loved his starches. 

In the afternoons, Josie talked to Kevin, who didn't hide from her at the hospital. She'd scoot two seats into the corner every day and ask, "How was your day at school?" And then she listened to every silence the chair had to tell her.

Billy liked to draw and masturbate. He was convinced that preoccupation with sexual release drove him into the depths of pure hell. He drew beautiful depictions of sweet country life, a small circle of a crying stick boy in the middle, emblazoned by fire and fangs.

"Me in my backyard," he'd say.

Josie admired the drawings and they played scrabble, only without use of vowels because Billy insisted they were demon portals – "When you write things, you have to keep the doors closed, the Word is powerful, no matter where it comes from - and vowels are round."

Once, Josie told Billy that as much as he loved God, the demons couldn't really have his soul, there was no way unless he allowed it to be so. Pursing his lips into a thin bold line, he stared at her hairline and replied, "Your son's in heaven, not in that chair, not disappeared - he is risen."

For once, Josie lost composure, clutched at the seat and punched at the air, screaming and cursing. "Liar!" She hugged the walls. The nurses gave her a quick jab of Seroquel® and when Josie woke up, she couldn't find Kev anymore.

"Where did you hide him? What floor is he on now?!!" And although the episode was her first clue, she wouldn't talk to Billy for an entire day.

On the sixth floor, that was a very long time.

When she finally did, they curled on the sofa, watching "Knightrider" reruns, and Billy leaned his head on Josie's shoulder. "How did it happen?"

"I don't know." She bit her tongue. "Wish I did."

"Let's pray," said Billy, and kneeling, he grabbed Josie's hands and mumbled in words only he knew, all without vowels.

~~

They had an art class two mornings a week. Josie and Billy settled at their table right after breakfast, boiled eggs and juice ready. One day it was origami, another it was papier mache. They made things from clothespins, pipe cleaners, yarn, beads and tin cans. It was Josie's favorite time; Kev had loved both art and music. Near the end of her sixth floor visit, as she had started calling it, they tried their hand at pysanky; on Wednesday they blew the insides out of the eggs and decorated them on Saturday.

The instructor was an Ukranian woman named Olena, and she punctured the eggs for them with a straight pin. Josie and Billy and a couple of other patients were each given an egg; they all sat hunched with delicate diligence, blowing thick yolk and opalescent whites out of the tiny holes. Too much pressure and the shells would crack – not enough and the contents wouldn't empty. Billy broke two eggs in the process and cried, but Josie encouraged him. "It's going to be fine. Try again. We can do this."  

The goo oozed from the frail white oval in Josie's hand and dripped into a bowl. Fascinated, she studied the albumin and yolk, imagining, remembering the spectral patterns – she had used bovine albumin as a standard in her experiments. She stuck her finger in the sticky thick thread dripping from the shell's tip, smashed her fingers together and pulled them apart.

Josie remembered a day when she'd taken Kev to the lab with her on a snow day; the little ones were too young and Andy took them sledding instead.

~~

"So you put that glass thing in there and wait?" Kev asked.

Josie dispensed her sample into a cuvette and loaded it into the spectrophotometer. It took seconds for a single sample and three hours for a full scan.

"How boring." Kev sat and started playing his Ninja Turtles game.

"Yeah, but look Kev, look at the pictures it makes." She held out one of the standard matrices from her notebook, the bovine serum albumin.

"See, this shows the excitation wavelength, and this is the emission peak when that light hits the substance." Her fingers traced the lines in the graph, and they looked at the computer screen to see each one of the scans displayed together, an amazing collection of colors and shapes, broad smooth peaks and tiny sharp blips.

When he finally smiled that day, it was to say: "It is kinda cool. Could put those together with music and make some far-out kinda trippy video."

~~

Olena wiggled a pin in the hole to help break up the mass. After Josie and Billy each drained an egg, Olena got one of the nurses to let her keep the shells in a locked cabinet until they could paint them on the weekend; on Thursday and Friday, Josie convinced a duty nurse to let her see them, touch them, to make sure that both of them were still there.

Saturday came, and they drew wax designs on the hollow eggs. Billy's was a crucifix, and Josie patterned hers after The Synaptic Nerves' logo, an oval burst with sprawling dendrons.    

Because time was limited, Josie and Billy were allowed to choose only one color paint. He picked red which he used to outline the cross and Josie chose a bright yellow which she used to fill in the nerves and outline the oval.

Billy gave both his pysanky and his boiled egg to Josie on the Monday morning when she was released from the ward, and as she walked down the long corrider, he threw himself on the sofa and prayed. "Billy, you're okay." She tried to console, but it seemed worthless and Andy put his arms around Josie to lead her away.

~~

"The kids are so anxious to see you," Andy said on the way home.

Josie said, "Smashing." She peeled Billy's boiled egg, the shell chips clicking against the painted pysanky eggs as she dropped them into the plastic grocery bag.

"It is," He agreed. "Definitely smashing to have you back." He patted her knee.

"No, the Pumpkins, the group he loved. He wanted to open for. Smashing Pumpkins."

"Oh." Andy held his breath; his hands gripped the wheel and his knuckles turned white.

Josie smiled and said, "Don't worry, I'm not buying a ticket. But they were in Atlanta." She wiped traces of the egg from her lips and she tried a smile. "Needed some salt."

At home, her younger children came running out of the house. "Daddy, daddy, can she see us now?"

Josie looked at their petrified, confused little faces, astonished and freaky like surrealist paintings and reached down for hugs. They bowled her over onto the grass and giggled. They still appeared to her as opaque misty-colored holograms but with well-defined outlines, and Josie lied: "Of course I can. Mommy's not so broken now."

She saw their small faces looking at a woman they hadn't seen for some time, trying to find out who she was. And that woman looked into their bright eyes and tried very hard to find colors reflected back, colors of different hues: colors she needed to see.

"Listen, how 'bout you go set us up in the kitchen. We have some juice?" Both of them nodded. "Okay, then shoo!" She looked at Andy waiting with her luggage, ready to escort her inside. Going on intuition, she gave a quick nod and motioned him inside.

When they were all out of sight, Josie ran to the car, pulled her purse out of the car and jangled the plastic bag. Patters and crackling. She heard a familiar laugh which echoed into a nearly imperceptible trace. Nearly - as memory's imprints have sounds and senses of their own.  

The afternoon sky flamed in yellow and white fringes while bright light spread like spattered paint, like eggs plopped in a hot skillet. Jumping nerves. Like synapses.

Kicking off her sandals, Josie began to cry. She danced and crushed the contents of the plastic bag, smashing the shells into tiny fragments of red, yellow and white chips. She rustled and shook it, delighted in the scrunching sounds, took a handful and tossed flecks into the air. She knew it wasn't her fault.

The fragments flittered and she continued to fling the bits, running through them as though playing under a summer sprinkler. She grabbed at a red chip as it fell, put it in her mouth, licked her lips and waved her arms in huge concentric circles. Her family was at the window now, gaining three dimensional solid forms while the fractured prisms drifted around her. And finally, the last of the colorful flecks hid and settled itself there in the front yard with noticeable quietness at her feet. Something had smashed, and she could only put it back together in a way they could all see it.

She yanked her purse from the ground, fished car keys from the bottom and bolted for the sedan. They needed more eggs, of that she was sure; one of the Pumpkins albums, and she'd need some sort of synthesizer, too. Those two small ones in the window, they'd need connection of their own.

And in the rearview mirror, Josie saw the sun's last rays spread over the house, dripping with rhythmic, trippy, color.


Shelly Rae Rich: Shelly Rae Rich make things up and mixes them with truth. Various work is found or forthcoming in publications including Apalachee Review, Locus Novus, Moon Drenched Fables, LITnIMAGE, Scapegoat Review, elimae, Ghoti, Juked, Ducts, Eyeshot – and has been translated into two languages. Shelly co-edits the micro fiction ezine, Tuesday Shorts and lives in NYC, working on that elusive novel. More is at http://blog.shellyraerich.com


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