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by Kim Suhr

Isabelle turns the business card over and over.

Blank. Blank.

The card is glossy, the words superimposed over a sepia photograph of praying hands.

Blank. Blank. Blank.

Like a sign flipper at the Liberty Tax place. No liberty for her new husband staring ahead, his head hooked up to electrodes that remind her of those pictures of women getting a perm in the old days. His hair has been shorn to optimize contact with the electrodes.

The door opens and the nurse, Ashley, walks in rubbing sanitizer into her hands. Her smile adds a glimmer of illumination to the dim room. “They told me you stayed overnight,” she says to Isabelle. “I don’t know how you do it.”

The other nurses always go straight for the computer before talking to either Isabelle or Blake, but not Ashley. She takes hold of Blake’s right ankle, bends down so her eyes are level with his, raises her voice slightly. “How are you feeling today, Blake?” Even though he has not answered this question—or any others—since he came in, she waits as if a response is on its way.

She grasps his feet and asks him to push against her hands. Isabelle can see there is obviously no pushing on Blake’s part, but Ashley responds as if there was. “Great! Let’s try that with your hands.”

Isabelle doesn’t know how much more of this she can take. The uncertainty. The possibility of his needing ongoing care.

No. She can’t go there yet.

Blank. Blank. Blank.

Ashley finishes taking Blake’s vitals, hanging his IV, emptying his urine bag. Isabelle can’t imagine doing any of these tasks. That’s why she got a job as far from taking care of people as possible. Computers. Logical machines that do only what you tell them to, nothing more. She doesn’t have to put on a happy face to write code, no cheery small talk or holding someone’s hand.

“Can I get you anything?” Ashley asks Isabelle. “I can order you some breakfast at least.”

“Thanks,” Isabelle forces a smile. “Maybe later.”

“Okay.” She holds her hands under the sanitizer dispenser again. “I’ll be back. Let’s get you better, Blake, so you can finish your honeymoon.” Out she goes.

Blank. Blank. Blank.

Eventually, Isabelle allows herself quick trips to the vending machines at the end of the hall for scalding, weak coffee and cellophane-wrapped danishes. The physical therapist insists she get herself something that’ll “stick to her ribs” in the cafeteria but she can bear only soup and a few crackers. In between, she half-watches back to back episodes of Friends, until she finds herself awash in tears when Rachel tells Ross she’s pregnant. She surfs through home makeover and cooking shows and finally lands on a home shopping channel that doesn’t make her want to weep. Each day a repeat of the one before.

When it becomes clear that Isabelle has no intention of leaving the hospital until Blake does, Ashley brings in a package of underwear, another of socks. “You’ll be amazed how much better you’ll feel.” She lets Isabelle use Blake’s shower even though a sign says the bathroom is for patients only. “It’s not like he’ll be using it today anyway.” Ashley emphasizes the word “today,” making it seem almost possible that he’ll get up tomorrow and walk right into that shower.

Through all of this, Blake stares straight ahead. He blinks regularly. He sleeps. He doesn’t respond one way or the other when the aides change his sheets. Was it really just a week ago they were drinking margaritas on the beach? Seven days since he strapped on the parasailing gear and floated up, up, up as the old Blake?

Blank. Blank. Blank.

Prayers: Ha! Isabelle rejected the idea of God years ago when her minister-father first found out Blake was not a Christian—not an anything really. “An atheist.” Her father spat the word as if it was a bitter root. At the time, Isabelle didn’t have the heart to confess that she had her own doubts about God and his healing powers. Sure, there was talk of a healer up near Antigo who had cured a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s. What could explain such a thing besides God’s intervention? Isabelle did agree that there was mystery. She just had a hard time attributing it to God.

The day her father dismissed Blake out of hand—Blake who was so good, good to her, good to his parents when his sister lost her battle with Cystic Fibrosis, good to the kids at the center where he volunteered—that was the day Isabelle gave up any notion of God once and for all.

Blank. Blank. Blank.

Where did the card come from? Did someone hand it to her in the ER waiting room? It doesn’t matter. Maybe this is some kind of sign. She saw enough of them when she was a kid like whenMrs. Albright came into an inheritance just when the church needed a new boiler. “A sign from God,” her father said. “Praise be!”

Or when little Jesse Draper got his foot stuck in the train track with the Hiawatha bearing down on its way to Milwaukee. Isabelle was there, a huge panic rushing through her as his cloddy tennis shoe became lodged ever more solidly between the top of the track and the ground.

“God, help me!” Jesse screamed just before the horn blast drowned out his cries. The children joined Jesse’s prayer at the top of their lungs, gave one last tug, and Jesse’s foot slid out of the shoe. They all fell backwards in a heap.

It didn’t occur to Isabelle until much later that night, as she tried in vain to fall asleep, that God could have just planted in one of their little brains to remove the shoe long before it became a life or death situation. Or, better yet, prevented the shoe from getting stuck at all. Maybe that was the moment the seeds of doubt had taken root.

Still, God could have been behind Jesse’s rescue. She had no proof He wasn’t, and that was the crux of the whole thing.

Now she sits with Blake, the only other person who has ever really understood her, who recognizes and respects her love of computer code, its elegance—divinity even. Blake knows how to reach across the chasm that separates her from others. He knows her.

Or rather, knew.

She pulls a hand across her cheek and kisses his forehead. “I’ll be right back.”

Down the hall, she finds the family waiting room and slides into a chair, turns on her phone. Text after text pops up, and, from their tone, she realizes she has neglected to convey the severity of Blake’s condition. Her mother-in-law: “Hoping Blake has turned the corner and you’re back on the beach!” Her sister, Angel: “Speedy recovery to Blake!” The neighbor: “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take care of Kipper. You just get Blake better and get home safe!”

Maybe she has minimized the situation to avoid people’s “thoughts and prayers.” Ever since she parted ways with her father, she has balked at the idea of people interceding with God on her behalf—at times, telling them so in no uncertain terms.

But what of this? Blank. Blank. Maybe God has put Blake into this mysterious condition to bring her back to Him. Stories like this abounded in her father’s homilies. It wouldn’t be the first time He had tested one of His children. Right? Once she has opened that door, the language returns easily to mind. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall open. Ask and it shall be given.

What does she have to lose?

She takes a deep breath and prepares to turn back her years of disbelief. She’ll go to the website and put in a request for the prayer chain. An intercession on Blake’s behalf. When he is better, she’ll convince him of God’s healing power. She readies herself to make amends with her father. Anything to get Blake back. She opens the browser on her phone and types

Internet service here is ridiculously slow. She watches the palm trees sway outside the window and imagines this nightmare over, re-starting her honeymoon with her husband—her husband!—Thanks be to God!

The search is nearly over.

Her screen blinks once, twice. She checks the charge on the battery. Twelve percent. The blinking stops. She can taste the margarita, feel the warm sea air on her face, Blake’s warm breath on her neck. A surge of cold washes through her as she sees, once again, his limp body’s return to the turquoise water, the boat driver’s assistant struggling to pull him over the side. What in the hell happened up there?

A mostly white screen stares back at her. Where she expected to see a graphic of praying hands or a button for a prayer request, she finds fluorescent green text and a cartoon drawing of an astronaut: “Oops! It seems aliens have stolen content from this page. But you can create your own website and fill it with the best content on Earth!”

“Some sign.” Isabelle powers down her phone, tosses the card in the trash, and heads back to Blake’s room.

Kim Suhr is author of the story collection Nothing to Lose (Cornerstone Press, 2018), Maybe I’ll Learn: Snapshots of a Novice Mom (2012) and co-author of the as-told-to memoir, Ramon: An Immigrant’s Journey. She holds an MFA in fiction from the Solstice Program where she was the Dennis Lehane Fellow. Her writing has appeared in various publications. Kim is Director of Red Oak Writing where she leads Writers’ Roundtable critique groups, provides manuscript critiques and coaching, and leads the summer Creative Writing Camps for youth. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys gardening, time outdoors with her family and being a fan-girl for her grown children in their various pursuits.


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