the light at the end of the tunnel
Claire leaned forward to peer out the kitchen window, the coolness of the granite countertop pressing through her cotton robe. Martin was still out there, standing stock still in the rain, staring up at the neat rows of twinkling holiday lights he’d fixed to the roofline. It had taken him the entirety of yesterday to get them just right. But yesterday was years ago.
Claire clicked her fingernails against the countertop, a habit Martin detested, but she couldn’t help it. The sound awoke a prickle that started at the base of her spine, traveling upwards, until it turned into a shudder that took over her entire body.
The night before, Martin’s wing-tip golf shoes had clicked down the corridor of the hospital ward, mixed with the deeper tones of his grumbling.
“Damn shoes,” he’d muttered. “Why on earth did you grab these?”
“They said on the phone we should hurry,” Claire said. “So, I hurried. Didn’t turn on the light. Just grabbed.” She clung tightly to his arm, her house slippers making her slip and slide with every step down the sleek corridor. “At least you have real shoes.”
Martin let out one last half-grunt and then slid his arm around Claire’s shoulders to steady her.
The closer they got to their daughter’s room, the more difficult it became for Claire to draw a breath. Something she’d heard in the nurse’s tone on the phone…something…
“Why’s the light on in her room?” Martin said, his stride quickening. “It’s one o’clock in the morning. Why’s the door wide open?”
Two young men in blue scrubs exited Sophie’s room, passing them in the hallway. Silent. Eyes averted. Claire’s heart beat in time with Martin’s shoes.
Dr. Landau appeared in the doorway. Waiting. His usual easy smile, absent.
The doctor studied them for a moment, his eyes flicking back and forth between them as he drew a long breath; those kind eyes they’d come to know so well, now red and brimming. Claire concentrated on a single droplet that had escaped the corner of his left eye, following its journey along the hills and valleys of his face as he whispered those awful words.
The empty hallway echoed as Claire’s kneecaps struck the sanitized linoleum.
They’d returned home just before dawn. Martin kicked off his golf shoes, shoved his feet into rainboots, and stomped outside.
That was it. Sophie was gone.
Claire padded through the darkened house to the kitchen. Ignoring the light switch, she felt her way along the cool countertop using only moonlight to guide her; past the spot where Sophie would perch when she was young, watching Claire cook, kicking her little feet against the cabinets even though she knew she shouldn’t; past the spot near the utility drawer where she’d set Sophie down to bandage each scraped knee or elbow. Claire could almost feel the tissue in her hand as she wiped away Sophie’s tears, could almost smell the disinfectant, and could almost hear the songs they’d sung so horribly out of tune just so they could laugh and distract themselves from each wound.
Claire returned to the window to check on Martin. He was still standing there, peering up at the twinkling lights. A moment later, he reached out a finger to touch the dangling end of a light string, batting at it, watching it swing left and right, left and right, alternately throwing either shadows or rainbows of light against the siding of the house for what seemed like ages.
Suddenly, he grabbed the end of the string with both hands and yanked, ripping out several feet. He took a step back, adjusted his grip, and pulled harder until the entire string was free, ignoring the U-shaped nails that spat out of the wood, shooting up into the dark sky like metallic stars, and then clicking and clattering down onto the damp pavement in a wide arc around him.
Claire watched Martin through the glass for a few moments more, until he had torn down every string of light. She watched his chest heave, from effort or emotion, or both, she didn’t know. She watched him until he’d dropped to his knees, as well, his tears mixing in with the raindrops. Indistinguishable.
Claire turned away from the window, sliding her hands back along the countertop in the half-light until she found the kettle and turned it on. There was no need to switch on the lights. It would be morning soon enough.
© Laurie Theurer
Laurie’s writing adventure began in 2012. Her stories draw on childhood in California, the Peace Corps in Thailand, and 20+ years in Switzerland. She’s written everything from picture books to novels and is addicted to flash fiction, poetry, and the invariably surprising moment where mere words flow and meld into something magical.