Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Shalom, Mary" by Kathleen Techler

This is the first letter from "Shalom, Mary: Letters the Blessed Virgin Might Have Written" by Kathleen Techler, available at

Dear Rebekah,

I have just received the most wondrous blessing possible, and now I am sitting here trying to comprehend it.

Today I was alone in the house weaving a new cloak for Father. The day was dreary and dark, so that even with the light from the doorway it was difficult to see my work.

Suddenly a brilliant light shone on the wool, as though the sun had come from behind a cloud. Startled, I looked up—into the eyes of an angel! Really, Rebekah! He was standing beside the loom. His face was so bright that he was hard to look upon. He wore a white robe with a golden sash, and long silvery hair curled around his shoulders.

He smiled. “Rejoice, oh highly favored daughter,” he said. “Blessed are you among women.”

My heart was beating fast, and my mouth was so dry I could not speak. Deeply troubled, I stared up at him, wondering why he had come.

“Do not fear, Mary,” he said gently. “You have found favor with God. You shall conceive and bear a son and give him the name Jesus. Great will be his dignity, and he will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his reign will be without end.”

I knew this must be a messenger from God, so I believed him, but I was very puzzled. “How can this be, since I do not know man?” I asked. And I immediately thought of Joseph, my betrothed.

The angel explained that the Holy Spirit would come upon me, and the power of the Most High overshadow me. So my baby would be called Son of God. And then the angel told me that my cousin Elizabeth is in her sixth month! She is very old and has always believed she was sterile, but she is going to have a child. As the angel said, “Nothing is impossible with God.”

I looked into the angel’s kind face as he waited for my answer. God was asking me for a favor, and of course I would obey! Bowing my head, I said, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you say.”

At that, the angel disappeared! One minute he was there, and the next minute he was gone. The room was shadowy again, and I blinked my eyes to accustom them to the dimness. Stunned, I sat on my stool and fingered the soft wool on the loom while my heart slowed to normal and an incredible peace came over me. Whatever the future brings, I want only to do God’s will.

My son, the Son of God! How can I tell my parents? Will they understand and believe me? Or will they think I was dreaming? And what of Joseph? I am fourteen and old enough for marriage now. How could he possibly accept this news as the truth? I pray that he will not be angry! What if he publicly denounces me? I do not believe I could bear it!

Maybe I should wait a few weeks before telling anyone. But then Mother would say, “Why have you kept this secret from us?” No, I must tell her today, and I am sure God will help me.

When Rabbi Eleazar taught us to read and write and told us about the coming Messiah, remember how we wondered what it would be like to be His mother? How little I knew then what was in store for me!

I wish you had not moved away, Rebekah, so we could talk. But fortunately, Father’s friend gave me this papyrus, so I am sure you will receive many letters from me. I am sending this with Azor, the merchant, who will be traveling to Damascus next week.
I hope your father’s new dyeing business is doing well. Greet your parents for me. I miss you very much! Please try to answer soon.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Stars Within the Glass" by Karl Bjorn Erickson, Part Seven

She turned and looked in his direction. Her disheveled blond hair hid her features for only an instant. Then, David saw him again. The mask utterly concealed her features. His leering face of ageless madness and hate stared hauntingly back at him. For a moment, David thought that he, or it, glimpsed him standing there. It glared mockingly at him, displaying only the smallest hint of surprise...and something else. Was it fear?

David began to shake and silently cry, as he watched Laura tilt her head back and choke down the pills. It was not her face that turned to gaze directly at him with a look of triumphant hate. A smell like rotten meat made him turn away. Buzzing flies sounded in his ears. David opened his eyes, and a tear slid down his cheek. Metanoya was there again.

“Purifying fire and the gate to another land is the purpose of this place. Strive to
remember that hope through prayer is justified.” The stranger paused a moment before
continuing. “Now, the time has come. You don’t belong here, and you must return.”
“I want to go back more than anything, but I don’t know how. I’m lost.”
“Yes, you are lost. David, take your finger and place it in the soil. Make a cross there in the earth, and you will find yourself where you need to be. We will talk again someday.”

He was going to ask why Laura had done it, but something told him to do simply do
what he had been told. David knelt down and hesitantly extended a finger into the warm and moist ground. Like a breeze whispering through a stand of poplars, the words “John 14:14” gently filled his mind as the iridescent blue of the soil slowly changed to a milky red. Taking a last glance up at the tall figure above, David obeyed. While making the cross he mouthed the words, although he had never before considered himself religious.

The moment it was finished and the word “Spirit” had escaped his lips, he was instantly gone. He blinked and found himself sitting on a bench along the ship canal—just a block north of the science building. A police boat was just passing, swinging its spotlight lazily back and forth along the shoreline, and the lights of the Freemont Bridge sparkled in the distance. Besides the usual traffic noise in the background, the familiar rumblings of the demolition work from the neighboring shipyards made him sigh in relief; he was indeed back in Seattle. A light mist began to fall as if to confirm this.

The thought that it had just been a dream passed through his mind, but he glanced at
his hand. A glowing bluish green substance was caught under one fingernail—the nail
with which he had drawn the cross. Bringing his hand to his forehead in stunned
disbelief, he caught the feel of something long and hard caught in his hair. He removed it and was only somewhat startled at seeing a red fluorescent feather in his hand. The November mist was turning to rain as David rose from the bench and started to walk back towards the university campus. It was good to be in familiar territory again, and somehow he didn’t feel quite so alone anymore either. He had hope that he would be reunited with Laura some day in a place where every tear will be wiped away and where death itself would finally be destroyed forever.

The End

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Friday, April 17, 2009

"Stars Within the Glass" by Karl Bjorn Erickson, Part Six

“What?” David stammered.

“What’s wrong?” the stranger inquired a second time.

“I lost my best friend,” David confessed. “She killed herself. Are you happy? On top of that, I don’t have any damn idea where I am.” David paused a moment, “how did you
know that something was wrong, and who the hell are you?”

“Hell has nothing to do with this place. My name is Metanoya. Why don’t you close
your eyes and see the truth of why you are here?”

Before David even had given it any thought, he was shutting his eyes. There was only
a darkness at first, but he seemed to be in a familiar place. The darkness lightened and shapes took form. In a terrifying instant, he realized that he was looking at Laura alone in her dormitory room. It was as if he was there in the room with her. Distant city lights twinkled outside her window. Except for the lamp on her desk, the room was dark and quiet. David wondered if he was in a nightmare. He tried to yell out to her, but he couldn’t make a sound. She looked disheveled and her eyes were puffy, like she had been crying. David suddenly caught a change in her face as she reached down and picked up a bottle of prescription pills. Her distraught features seemed to disappear altogether as they were replaced for an instant by the face of a strange man. David could make out the man’s smile for only an instant. There was no mistaking that it was an unfriendly smile, a look of absolute hatred and malevolence.

David wanted to scream, to do anything to stop what was happening, what had
happened, but he could not say a word to his friend. She put the pills back down, and
David hoped with every fiber of his being that something would change. She would be
back in his arms again, and everything would be the way it was supposed to be. Laura
stared out the window for a time, watching the city lights and listening to the sounds of the night. With a sudden determination that shocked and horrified David, she picked the prescription bottle up again and hurriedly opened it with shaking fingers. David tried to scream, to slam his fists into the wall--anything--but he couldn’t move or make a sound.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Stars Within the Glass" by Karl Bjorn Erickson, Part Five

His consciousness seemed to drain away like blood flowing from a deep wound. He
slipped into another place and somehow joined with all of the colors and shapes
surrounding him. The brilliant colors and geometric patterns, like a sheen of oil atop a puddle, grew more intense as he slipped beneath their spell. Mental images of the world shot through his brain. He moved his fingers, and he felt the cold stillness of the sky. Bewildering alien landscapes passed in and out of view. Then, he recognized what the landscapes were: insane fractals. It was a world somehow constructed or rooted upon the fractal form. As he gazed through his mind’s eye, there was movement far off. The images changed to pictures of people—more like silhouettes at dusk than clear people, but he felt with certainty that they had been like him once. There was a mysterious quality of waiting about them, but he didn’t understand what precisely held their attention. David watched as they milled about and then disappeared into a bright mist. He could just catch the sound of a licking fire and questioning voices, but only a single word came to mind: purifying; none of it made any sense. Then, there was a gentle yet stern voice that simply said, “No!” The sound of that single voice echoed in his thoughts.

As if caught up in a surging current, David felt himself pushed upwards towards the
surface, and the disturbing images and sounds faded away. Once his eyes opened again,
he could not contain his own panic. Flailing wildly, he tumbled over the edge of the alien peak. The shooting speed of his fall downward was incredible. Wind whistled in his ears as the swirling landscape below drew nearer and nearer. He screamed up into the darkness. An explosion of thunder suddenly reverberated all around him, making his ears ring and his head ache violently. His arms throbbed in pain. Without thinking, he drew them close to his sides. The speed of his fall should have increased, but, to his astonishment, his rate of descent slowed significantly. He tried bringing his legs tightly together next, and, again, the sensation of falling became much reduced. The fall began to resemble a dream that he recalled having as a child, or perhaps it was a dream of a dream. Something struck his face hard, then disappeared. He spit out a red fluorescent feather that tasted something like cinnamon and honey and tried to right himself in a position that was perpendicular to the ground below. He could make out figures on the surface now, their heads turned up to gaze at this peculiar shooting star. David brought his legs together again and pointed his toes downward—as if he were trying a new high diving technique. The fall slowed to a crawl, and he alighted gently on the glassy blue
surface. As his tattered shoes pressed into the ground, the blue became darker around the outline of his feet. It reminded him of walking in a shallow pond, or pressing a finger too hard on a liquid crystal display.

Looking up, he gazed at the star-shaped mountains towering up into the mist above.
Intricate fractal patterns played out over the mountain walls, and all around him the
landscape extended out in impossible directions and swirling shapes of blue and red. It was more than his brain could accept, and he fell to his knees on the spongy ground. He refused to be afraid. Shaking his head, David slowly rose to his feet and continued on. With each step, he felt a growing assurance that he was simply experiencing some kind of altered mental state--perhaps even food poisoning. He walked along a gently sloping spiral of a green and ocean blue fractal, lost in his own thoughts. His eyes were downcast as the slope began to level. David’s mind focused on the loss of Laura, and his anger began to grow as he nurtured it. What made her do it? What right did she have? Faint singing and the scent of pine and roses wafted to him from somewhere, but they only distracted him for a moment. David quickened his pace as the path leveled, but he was startled out of his thoughts by a questioning voice. A tall man faced him, and there was a distinct quality about the stranger that made David recognize instantly that this was no ordinary man. This also was clearly not a figment of David’s imagination. It would be more likely that David himself did not exist. The man simply stared at him expectantly, awaiting a reply. The light around his face was brighter. He stood at least several feet
above David’s height.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Stars Within the Glass" by Karl Bjorn Erickson, Part Four

For a terrifying second, David thought he recognized a familiar face staring blankly
from out of the darkness. The eyes were empty sockets. It looked like a mockery of
Laura, a lifeless mask barely resembling her face; the spirit gone or hidden. For the
second time, he screamed into the darkness. His light abruptly wavered, and it began to tip and fall over, like running water, as it raced downward, a waterfall of light. The width of the light stream grew narrower and narrower as the falling continued. Soon, it was a thin trickle of light rushing down like a shooting star. David felt pressure building and pushing him in from all sides. His mind began to go entirely blank. He almost welcomed it. Before he lost consciousness entirely, new and disturbing noises entered his mind. The last thought that slipped through his wavering mind was that ‘This place is called Fear.’ He continued to fall through the endless night.

He jerked awake to find himself lying on his back on something soft and staring up at
an empty sky, a void without visible stars, moon, or sun. He didn’t even notice the
contents of his pockets strewn around him. As he turned on his side, knocking a tattered matchbook onto the ground, he gasped. The landscape about him resembled nothing like he had ever seen before. He lay on a spongy surface that reminded him of grass, but it was violet with swirling patterns of iridescent blue. In the distance, he saw towering monstrosities of outlandish colors—shaped like five-pointed stars. Whatever they were, the colors appeared the most vivid towards their tops and faded away as he gazed downwards. At least, that’s what David thought—until he stared harder. A chill went down his spine as he began to grasp his altitude. He carefully inched his way to the side of his bewildering mountaintop and peered over its precipitous edge. Even without anything on which to clearly gauge the height of his perch, the sense was that he was impossibly high. He could only barely make out a patchwork quilt of reds, greens, and blues far, far below. Then, David caught sight of movement atop one of the neighboring shapes. In frustration, he waved his arms in the air and let out an anguished scream. The shadow cruelly mimicked his movements. Somehow, the distant figure was his own reflection, or worse. He buried his face in the violet surface, and it took him.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

"Stars Within the Glass" by Karl Bjorn Erickson, Part Three

As he watched, the bottle was suddenly full to the brim of a pulsing fluorescent red
liquid. Points of light, like stars, shone with a fierce brightness throughout, gliding this way and that within the confines of the glass. Bewildering lights and shadows played over the walls of the room. Strangely, the reddish light seemed to pass clean through some objects in the lab, but not others. David extended a shaking hand directly in front of one of the lights on the wall, but there was neither any shadow of a hand showing on the wall nor any faint light caught in his palm—only a sense of coldness. David was too mesmerized by the lights to even notice the strange scent of roses and pine emanating from the lit bottle. He stared transfixed at a single point of light while taking a tentative step towards where he thought the clipboard should be.

He failed to notice the backpack left carelessly on the floor. He found himself falling straight towards the glass bottle. He stuck out his arm to brace himself, then realized that he was extending one hand towards the bottle and another into the blackness. Something was terribly wrong. In a flash of realization, David understood he was no longer in the lab at all. The familiar walls were replaced with an inky blackness, deeper than the darkest night he could imagine. There was a feeling of movement or falling, although it was hard to define the exact sensation at first. David stretched his arms out again, hoping to feel the walls or floor of the lab, but there was absolutely nothing there. He reached down in the dark to grope beneath his feet, but the floor was gone. The sensation of falling continued, but there was still nothing that could be seen. He tried scream, but no sound reached his ears. The sense of noiselessly rushing downward through the endless night continued. Nothing made any sense.

With a start, David remembered his key chain. If he could find his keys, there was a
small flashlight attached to the ring. As he brought his arms in towards his body, the speed of his plummeting fall seemed to increase slightly, and this feeling was combined with the sense of spinning as he shot downwards. He tried to ignore it as he began fumbling through his pockets with trembling hands. His groping fingers felt it, but the key ring was caught on a thread. He yanked it free, spilling change, a matchbook, and other pocket contents into the dark void around him. Where was the switch? The sense of rocketing downward was nearly overwhelming his senses as his fingers tried to activate the light. Then, with a noiseless click, the light was on, forcing the darkness to retreat a step. For a moment, it seemed to create a warm ball of comforting light around him. But the sense of warmth was lost when he caught sight of the swirling black wall through which he was falling. As the wall raced upwards on either side while he continued to spiral downwards, he glimpsed shapes and forms moving within the wall, or barrier. It reminded him of different shades of swirling smoke, except there was a sense within him that something very old and malevolent resided there, and that an unfathomable hatred existed just beyond the black veil.

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"Stars Within the Glass" by Karl Bjorn Erickson, Part Two

“No, please don’t do that. I’ll be fine--really. Could I just borrow your keycard, and I’ll return it tomorrow in class? I already know the access code from the lab project.”
Dr. Jenkins glanced uneasily at his watch before making a reply. “My wife wants to take
the kids to a movie tonight, and I have to make it Mercer Island in half an hour. Make
sure you lock up and arm the system before you leave. There may be one other faculty
member still working.”

“No problem,” David said. “And thank you.”
“That’s fine. You might want the nurse to take a look at that gash on your forehead. It’s still bleeding. You may need stitches, you know.”
With the front doors locked, he entered the welcoming darkness of the hallway. Under
the green light of an exit sign above, he dropped to his knees on the carpet and buried his face in his cut hands. The sobs that racked his body had very little to do with his cuts and scrapes, but the pain began to dull slightly after crying there on the floor for some minutes. The clicking sound of a door closing somewhere caught his attention, and he leapt to his feet. He didn’t want anyone to catch him in this condition. It was bad enough that his roommate had an inkling of what was going on; no one else needed to know. He quietly climbed the stairs to the deserted second floor of the science building. As far as the exact reason for his visit, David wasn’t even sure himself. He often felt more at ease with math and science than he did with questioning people. It just seemed like the right place to be, a place where he could lose himself in the research and leave the people behind for a while. It was a retreat from reality, or depending upon your perspective, a return to reality.

The current experiment was based upon the Bose-Einstein condensate, but David’s
English major roommate just referred to it as the Absolute Zero Project. This inaccurate description somewhat annoyed David, but he admitted that it did sound a little better. It was sometimes a little unnerving to be working around some of the coldest particles in the galaxy, but it was exciting to be involved in cutting edge research all the same. From what David understood the last time he was in class, some elements of the experiment weren’t going quite as planned, but he was just intending a cursory examination as a lab assistant. He didn’t feel like doing anything more involved. It was comforting returning to a place where he could shut things out for a while. He didn’t even need to switch on any lights as he retraced familiar steps towards the lab. Withdrawing the keycard from his pocket, the door to lab 3A buzzed open.

The main box-like apparatus containing the laser and the rest of the equipment was
situated in the center of the reinforced table. An odd hissing noise immediately caught his attention, but the pipes running up from the table seemed to be in good condition. He noticed a nearly empty glass soda bottle sitting precariously on the table’s edge. It was an odd thing for someone to leave behind in this particular lab. As he studied it, the contents seemed to glow slightly. He rubbed his eyes and looked a second time, but the glowing was definitely there, and it was growing stronger. As his eyes adjusted to the low light of the lab, he noticed an area of blackness extending out like a pool from the machine towards the bottle. While David, an underclassman, didn’t understand precisely how everything worked with regards to the Absolute Zero Project, something was clearly going wrong.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

"Stars Within the Glass" by Karl Bjorn Erickson, Part One

Shadows deepened as the fluorescent lights began to flicker on around the university
campus, and the warmer lights shown down from the dormitory windows above. A soft
November rain began to fall as students and visitors headed indoors. A lone campus
security guard walked briskly down the sidewalk, jingling keys and a heavy flashlight
hanging from his belt and a radio gripped in his hand. Suddenly, a young man raced by, nearly knocking the guard off his feet. The runner barely paused, then bolted towards the eastern edge of the university campus. Before the guard could make pursuit, he tripped over a hidden sprinkler head. The young man was already fading into the dusk. The radio lay shattered and quiet along the path.

David Lightholler ran like he had never run before. She was his first love, and now
she was utterly gone. He put out a burst of speed, but slid on some moss and nearly lost his balance. Her blond locks of hair on porcelain skin were like a raging fire in his mind that refused to be extinguished. He raced across Nickerson, almost hoping to be struck and killed by a speeding truck. Unfortunately, traffic was light. Only one Honda’s brakes squealed, and he barely noticed the blaring horn and the driver’s gestures. The math and science building lay just ahead.

Why did Laura do it? Why did she take those pills, and why did it take all day for her parents to call him—like his feelings didn’t matter? He would never stroke her hair or kiss those warm lips again, and he could barely remember the scent of the sweet perfume she had worn on their last date to Golden Gardens. Her laugh, oh, how he ached for the sound of her laugh! David’s legs lost it, and he hit the pavement, nose striking the sidewalk. A rivulet of blood streamed out and mixed with a tear, as he stifled a sob. His head ached almost as badly as his heart. Someone was locking the doors to the science building up ahead. It was Dr. Jenkins, his astronomy professor. David fished a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his bleeding nose as raced towards the double doors.

“Dr. Jenkins!” David called, running towards the professor.
“David!” Dr. Jenkins exclaimed. “You look awful, son. What happened to you?”
“I had a bike accident by the canal,” David lied. “I just need to use the restroom and wash up, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll call Campus Security for you,” the professor offered as he withdrew his cell phone from his jacket pocket. “They’ll be here in no time.”

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"The Ward" by Roger Thomas, Part Ten

The next morning she did some more wandering about, still pondering the options she was considering. As the sessions with the doctors receded into the past, the sense of urgency was fading as well. Both had thought she needed treatment, though they differed as to the urgency and nature. But she was feeling well these days, and had been tempted to think that the whole matter had been a tempest in a teapot until she'd joined the session the day before. All the members there had taken the stern doctor's prognosis very seriously and had pressed upon her the gravity of her situation. In light of that, she wandered and thought. When she returned to her bed after lunch, she got a shock that brought the whole matter abruptly back to the forefront of her mind.

Dee was gone.

As long as Jillian had lived in the Ward, Dee had occupied the next bed over. Since Dee was so much older than Jillian, they weren't exactly friends, but they were cordial acquaintances and always asked after each other. Dee seemed to suffer from more than the usual number of ailments, but there had been no indication that she was doing worse than usual over the past few days – in fact, Jillian had passed a few words with her just that morning.

But now Dee's bed was empty and all effects were cleared away. There was no sign that anyone had ever occupied that bed, and there were no nurses or staff to ask. That was considered rude anyway – people just left the Ward, usually in the night, without notice or fanfare. There would be whispered speculation as to the patient's fate, but nobody knew whether the patient had been discharged Outside or simply died. Out of courtesy everybody presumed it was a discharge, but everybody recognized that death happened, too – in fact, Jillian remembered with a shiver, that was exactly what the stern doctor had warned her that she was in danger of. She stood at the foot of her bed, gazing at the empty space where Dee had been just that morning.

"Ah, another one gone", a voice said at her elbow, causing her to jump. She turned to see that the nice doctor had come quietly up beside her and was gazing at the empty bed as well.

"Yes – she was just there this morning", Jillian said in a quavery voice. "Doctor, do you know what happened? Was she under your treatment? Was she discharged, or did she just –"

"Now, dear, you know I can't go discussing the treatment of any other patients with you, no more than I can discuss your treatment with anyone else", the doctor squinted at her. "And speaking of which, how has it been going? Have you been finding the results – satisfactory?" He seemed to be looking about for the pill bottle.

"I keep it here – in the drawer", Jillian said, stepping over and pulling the bottle out. She didn't want him to go fishing for it himself and find it sitting next to the paper from the stern doctor.

"Ah, but have you been taking them? Morning and evening, like my instructions said?"

"Well – I took one in the morning", Jillian replied.

"Good, good", the doctor replied, though he still looked at her suspiciously.

"Every morning, now, and every evening, right?"

"That's what your instructions said", Jillian assured him.

"Very good, very good", the doctor smiled. "Well, I must be off. I'll be checking back."

As he bustled away, Jillian sat down on the bed and pulled the stern doctor's paper from the drawer. She looked at the bottle of pills, then at the paper, then back at the bottle of pills. Then she lifted her eyes and looked at Dee's empty bed.

The End.

"The Ward" is a short story by Roger Thomas, author of The Last Ugly Person: And Other Stories

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"The Ward" by Roger Thomas, Part Nine

"Does this mean I can't stay to watch? I'm considering undertaking this treatment myself. The doctor was quite emphatic about the necessity, but I'd like to know a little more about what I'm getting into."

"Oh, you're perfectly welcome to stay as long as you like, dear", Angela reassured her. "We'll be happy to answer any questions. I was just trying to explain that there's only so much you can understand until you enter into the treatment."

Jillian stayed through the session, which entailed some exercises, some talks from older patients, and a meal together to which Jillian was invited, though she didn't eat much. Everyone was welcoming, and though most seemed shy about speaking much to this stranger, the most common encouragement she received was to sign her paper and start the treatment as soon as she could.

In talking to the patients, Jillian noticed something interesting about their attitudes toward the Ward. It was clear that they regarded the Ward as somewhere they were passing through on their way to Outside. Jillian would have thought this would have made them impatient and dissatisfied, but the opposite appeared to be true. Since they had low expectations for the Ward, it was not a disappointment that the Ward fell short of an ideal place to live. Their treatment was rigorous, but it served to remind them that little could be expected of their life here – in fact, they were even encouraged to use the difficulties of Ward life to toughen themselves. Their focus was beyond, on the Outside that they were aiming for.
Yet this did not make them cavalier about their lives in the Ward. They pitied those whose lives reached no further than the walls, and wanted to help as many as they could to join them Outside. Jillian would have asked them what they thought of the nice doctor's recommended treatment, but having felt the effect of the pill herself, she could guess what their response would be. These were not people who wanted to be numbed to the difficulties of life in the Ward. When Jillian bid them farewell, she left with much to think about.

"The Ward" is a short story by Roger Thomas, author of The Last Ugly Person: And Other Stories

Monday, April 6, 2009

"The Ward" by Roger Thomas, Part Eight

The next day Jillian found herself subject to her usual melancholy, but she sat on the temptation to reach for the pill to regain the glowing feeling. Instead she did something she'd never done before: wander about and observe people. Venturing out of her home wing, she sought other areas of the Ward, areas where she wasn't known. She wanted to see if she could find patients of both doctors, and talk to both groups about their experiences. This mission was complicated by the fact that it was considered rude in the Ward to flat-out ask someone about why they were there, and what treatment they were under. Those were private matters that could be offered by someone if they chose, but could not be asked – especially by a stranger – without risking deep offense.

So Jillian went far away from her usual haunts to try speaking to strangers. Having had one day of the nice doctor's treatment, she could more easily spot those who were taking the pills. They were genial and easy to talk to, though their attention seemed to wander and there was something fragile about their geniality. As long as circumstances were good, they were able to remain in the glow of the pills. But if anything went wrong, they could be quite disturbed. And "anything" meant even the most trivial things, such as the temperature of the soup or the responsiveness of the nurses. She wondered if the pills wore off sooner the longer you took them.
One thing that interested Jillian to see was the effect the nice doctor's treatment had on his patient's outlook. Given that these people were supposedly taking a simple treatment that would inevitably get them released Outside, she would have thought that they'd be much less concerned with matters in the Ward and more tolerant of minor inconveniences as they bided their time until their promised release. In fact, she found the opposite to be true. It seemed that, since these people assumed that Outside was theirs at such small cost, they were aggrieved that their current circumstances were not as good as they deserved. She found them eager participants in many improvement schemes, everything from trying to get an oversight board appointed to supervise the cafeterias to trying to implement a governance scheme to manage the television stations watched in the lounges. Given the momentous issues that still hung over Jillian's head, she was amazed to see people devote such effort so such trivial matters, but they dove into them wholeheartedly in the name of "making the Ward a better place."

Jillian was fortunate on her second day to stumble across a group of patients under the treatment of the stern doctor. They were assisting each other in their regimen in one of the small gyms. She'd heard whispers of such meetings, sometimes with the implications of strange or perverse doings, but the social constraint against discussing such things openly had prevented her from learning more. But when she wandered into the gym, nobody seemed surprised or ashamed at their activities or her presence. A few shied away from the stranger in their midst, but a couple of the older patients were glad to sit down to talk to her, even after they'd learned she hadn't yet signed up for the treatment.

"Does the doctor directly supervise your treatment?" Jillian asked the man, whose name was Steven.

"Occasionally, but mostly we help each other out. The instructions are simple, and we older patients can help the newer ones", Steven explained.

"Do you find the treatment – excessively, ah –" Jillian stumbled for words.

"Rigorous?" suggested Angela, the woman. When Jillian nodded, she gave a slight smile. "It can be at times, but far less than you'd think. You get accustomed to the discipline, and even come to enjoy the order it brings to your life."

Jillian looked skeptically at the exercises that the patients were doing with one another out on the gym floor, some of which looked far beyond her ability. Angela followed her glance and then laid a hand on her arm. "My dear, you'll never understand it by watching. I thought I could when I was – oh, younger than you are now. It made no sense to me just by looking at it from the outside. The regimen is something you have to experience to understand. You have to be inside it."

"The Ward" is a short story by Roger Thomas, author of The Last Ugly Person: And Other Stories

Sunday, April 5, 2009

"The Ward" by Roger Thomas, Part Seven

Jillian was again alone with her indecision, and lights were going out around the wing. She put the paper on the bedstand with a surge of irritation – who was the doctor to be sending messengers to nag her? She'd told him she'd let him know, hadn't she? She looked at the bottle of pills – one in the morning and evening, it had said, and it was evening. Should she? She couldn't shake the notion that once she embarked on one of the treatments, she was irrevocably committed. She wasn't ready for that yet, so she put the pills on the bedstand unopened and crawled into bed. Sleep was long in coming.

The next morning the two items reminded Jillian of the decision that still lay before her, but she felt like some of the pressure had lifted. So she had two options before her – what was wrong with giving one a try? She could see how she liked it, and if it didn't work, she could try the other. She opened the bottle and swallowed one of the pills before she headed off for breakfast.

The only effect Jillian could detect throughout the day was a moderate restoration of the glowing feeling of well-being that she'd experienced following the nice doctor's visit the day before. Nothing seemed to worry her much – everything would work out. The prospect of having a minor and easily treatable condition seemed much easier to believe. Being released to Outside was an inevitability. As for the shadow of death, or the necessity of signing up for long, difficult treatment – well, it seemed impossible to get worried about all that. It was a trifle, a bagatelle. What had she been so worried about? She felt like she was floating along the hallways that just yesterday she had been plodding down.

As dinnertime approached, Jillian could feel the effect of the pill wearing off, which made her cranky and irritable. Dinner was tasteless, the conversation inane, and she once again felt as if everyone was staring at her and talking about her. She felt ready to burst into tears, and when Kim asked her if she was all right, she about bit Kim's head off. Fleeing the dining hall, she rushed back to her bedside to get another pill. But as she was fumbling with the cap, her eyes fell on the stern doctor's paper still lying unsigned on her bedstand. She looked at it, and then back at the pill bottle. It was clear that at least part of the nice doctor's regimen involved numbing her to certain things. With such vital matters in the balance, was that what she wanted? Resisting her body's urge to gobble another one of those pills, she put the bottle down and walked to the other side of the bed, out of reach of both items. Both doctors were right – she couldn't mix treatments. By nature, taking one meant turning from the other. From the craving she was feeling after just one pill, she guessed that taking a second would make it much more difficult to turn away from a third.

No. Jillian wanted to make her own decision about which treatment she'd select, not have the decision made by the treatment itself. She stuffed both the paper and the bottle into the bottom drawer of the bedstand and went off to refill her water bottle. She was very thirsty, but she wouldn't take any more pills until she'd made her decision.

"The Ward" is a short story by Roger Thomas, author of The Last Ugly Person: And Other Stories

Saturday, April 4, 2009

"The Ward" by Roger Thomas, Part Six

The evening passed in a blur. Jillian remembered wandering halls and sitting in near-empty rooms – anywhere that people weren't. The conflicting prognoses she'd been given, and the choices they required of her, tumbled around in her mind like twigs trapped beneath a waterfall. What was she? Gravely ill or barely sick at all? What she facing death, or a short and simple treatment before being released to Outside? Should she undertake the more difficult treatment just in case? Did she have the stamina to see it through?

Eventually she found herself back at her bed. The paper and envelope that the stern doctor had given her lay on her bedstand, but on top of it was a small bottle of pills with a scrawled note that said simply "Take one every morning and evening." She sad down on the bed with the pills in her left hand and the paper in her right, looking back and forth between them.

"Miss Howard?"

Startled, Jillian turned to see a young man standing near, just outside curtain sweep as was customary here in the Ward. His face was familiar – he was a newer young man with whom she had a nodding acquaintance. She smiled to see that not everyone was shying away from her.

"Yes – Jason, isn't it?"

"Yes, ma'am – Jase more usually. The doctor sent me."

"The doctor?" That was an ambiguous term to Jillian at present, but Jase cleared it up.

"Yes'm. He was wondering if you'd signed the paper yet." Jase gestured to the form in her hand. "'Cause if you had, I could take it to him for you."
"Yes – well, ah", Jillian fumbled, "actually, I was still considering it. Does he need it right now?"

"No'm", Jase replied, "though he'd like it soon, if it's convenient."

Something rose inside Jillian at this. He wanted it soon, did he? He'd get it when she was good and ready, if that time ever came. She started to make a tart reply to Jase, but then backed down. "I understand. Please tell the doctor that I will give the matter full attention until I make a decision. I will let him know as soon as I know." She could not keep the cold edge out of the response, but Jase didn't seem to notice.

"Very well, ma'am", Jase responded with a slight nod and turned to go. Loneliness and desperation welled up inside Jillian.

"Ah – Jase?" she called.

"Yes'm?" he turned back.

"Are you under – that is, do you participate in the doctor's course of treatment?"

"Yes", Jase responded without hesitation. "Yes'm, I do."

"Do you find it – that is, it looks quite rigorous", Jillian said.

"It can be, ma'am. But it's not impossible. It gets easier the more you do it."
"But the doctor", Jillian probed. "He's rather – stern, isn't he?"

"Yes'm, he is", Jase responded. "Stern is a good way of putting it. But he's very good, and he takes care of us."

"Do you –", Jillian began, but cut herself short. Clearly the lad thought the treatment would cure him, or he wouldn't be taking it. That might be right for him, but was it right for her? How much weight did she want to be giving the opinion of a mere boy at a time like this?

"Do I what, ma'am?" Jase asked, reminding Jillian that she'd left the question half-constructed and hanging.

"Never mind, never mind", Jillian waved him off. "I'll – I'll ask the doctor myself. Thank you for your time." She gave him a small smile which he answered with the slightest of nods.

"At your service, ma'am. G'night."

"The Ward" is a short story by Roger Thomas, author of The Last Ugly Person: And Other Stories

Friday, April 3, 2009

"The Ward" by Roger Thomas, Part Five

Agnes didn't. She had plenty to say, of course. She heard Jillian's account of both doctor's visits, and then was quite free with her opinion of medical practitioners, life in the Ward, her immediate neighbors, and her own situation. She made clear that she didn't think much of the stern doctor and his dark predictions.

"That's why I try not to be around when he might come by", Agnes confided in a conspiratorial whisper. "If I see him about the wing, I head for the dining hall or the crafts hall or pretty much anywhere but here. I've seen him talk to people, people I'd considered my friends and – they've never been the same. And those eyes of his!"

Jillian agreed that his eyes were disturbing, but that was the most definitive statement she could get out of Agnes. Despite her distaste for the stern doctor, Agnes would not give a firm opinion as to the reliability of the nice doctor. Neither would she reveal which doctor was treating her, or if she was under treatment at all – in fact, she began to get testy when Jillian hinted that she'd like to know. The conversation didn't last long after that, as Jillian began to see that Agnes was getting nettled by her presence.

Jillian took her leave and wandered aimlessly down to the rec hall, not certain if she would be glad or sorry to see anyone she knew. She needn't have worried – most people in the hall were clustered around the big screen television, on which was playing a gaudy, noisy game show. The few that weren't watching were either dozing in their chairs or absorbed in books or needlework. She dawdled about the room, paging through tattered old magazines but unable to concentrate, distracted by the noise of the television and her own internal turmoil. Her thoughts kept returning to the paper and envelope on her bedstand, and what they implied.

The chime rang for dinner, and she trudged down to the cafeteria. Dinner was the usual nondescript stuff, and she sat alone with her thoughts, barely comprehending what she was eating. She was dimly aware of people glancing at her then turning away quickly to engage in subdued conversations. She could guess what the topic was. She'd taken part in those conversations herself. Though doctor visits were supposed to be confidential, everyone seemed to know when someone in the Ward had been visited – and she'd been visited by two doctors in the same day! There would be the whispered comments, the guesses as to the prognosis, the opinions regarding which treatment the patient would undertake. A person who'd received a visit was set apart, isolated. Even as she'd been chatting with Agnes, when Jillian had mentioned that she'd seen both doctors that day, Agnes' demeanor had chilled just a little. Now everyone was doing it. Leaving half her dinner unfinished, Jillian stood, dropped her dishes off at the window, and left the dining hall.

"The Ward" is a short story by Roger Thomas, author of The Last Ugly Person: And Other Stories

Thursday, April 2, 2009

"The Ward" by Roger Thomas, Part Four

Jillian almost jumped at the frank use of the term. Almost nobody ever used it here in the Ward. A variety of euphemisms were employed, but few people said "die". It was almost considered rude, and some people got offended when they heard it.
Jillian clutched her robe about her and tried to gather her thoughts. "Thank – thank you, doctor. I appreciate your concern, and I'll take your advice under consideration."

"We need to begin the treatment soon, Jillian", the doctor warned, his tone grave.

"Why? Do I – is there that little time?" Panic surged within her again.
"I don't know", he replied, glancing at his clipboard. "In your condition – it could be any time. We have no time to waste. Shall I send someone to start you on the treatment?"

"I – thank you, doctor –", Jill fluttered. "This is all rather startling, especially after – that is, I was hardly expecting this. I'd like a little time to think, if I may. Do I have a day to think it over? Just a day?"

"I'll be honest, Jillian: I don't know how much time you have. My recommendation is to begin treatment – my treatment – without delay. But I understand that this is rather a shock, and that you'd like some time. I'll leave this here with you", he handed her a piece of paper and a manila envelope. "It provides the basic details about the treatment and what it requires of the patient. When you want to begin, just sign it and someone will pick it up. Once you undertake the treatment, helpers will be sent to assist you. My strongest recommendation is not to delay. A decision by tomorrow, or even tonight, would be wisest."

"I understand, doctor", Jillian meekly replied, staring numbly at the papers in her hand. "I'll – I'll let you know as soon as I make a decision."

"Soon, Jillian", the doctor admonished gently, "please make your decision soon."

Jillian didn't even hear the stern doctor part the curtains and leave. She sat silently on the bed, stunned. Grave condition. Dangerous shape. She stared at the paper in her hand, making no sense of what was written there. She was confused. She didn't know who to believe. Not twenty minutes ago she had been giddy with the promise of freedom, having been told by one doctor that she could be cured with a simple treatment and be released to Outside. Then another one tells her that she's in serious trouble and must undertake a difficult treatment of indeterminate length or she'll die. Which was right? Part of her wanted to dismiss the stern doctor's prognosis as doom and gloom. Grave condition? She didn't feel like she was in grave condition – oh, sure, she had her days, but – death? On the other hand, the nice doctor had been vague, and when he'd delivered his prognosis, the thought had flitted though her head: too good to be true. Was it too good to be true? Both claimed that only their treatment could help her. What should she do? Finally she stood – she'd still go visit Agnes, she'd just have more to talk about. She pulled the curtains back headed for Agnes' bed. Maybe Agnes would have some ideas.

"The Ward" is a short story by Roger Thomas, author of The Last Ugly Person: And Other Stories

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"The Ward" by Roger Thomas, Part Three

But here he was, by Jillian's bed, holding his clipboard and looking at her gravely. Jillian swallowed hard and tried to look back, but found her eyes kept dropping.

"Jillian", came the doctor's calm voice. "I've been trying to find you for days now, but you're always off somewhere."

"I'm – I'm sorry, doctor", Jillian stammered. "I've been doing a lot of visiting – that is, I've been with friends. I've been feeling better, so I get around when I can."

"I see", the stern doctor replied. "No matter, I've found you in time."

In time? Jillian didn't like the sound of that. In time for what?

"I've been running some tests and looking at your case history", he glanced at his clipboard. "Your symptoms and numbers are distressingly familiar. I'm afraid," he looked up at her with those eyes of his, "you're in serious shape, Jillian. Dangerous shape. Your condition is far more grave than you think, and only serious remedies have a chance of helping you."

Jillian's breath caught in her throat, and she felt like time was slowing down. Dangerous shape! Grave condition! This didn't sound at all like what she'd just heard minutes ago. Her pink cloud of happiness had evaporated like mist in the harsh morning light. She clutched at her robe and stammered.

"Grave condition? But, doctor, that isn't – I mean, is it quite that bad? You make it sound quite hopeless."

"I didn't say hopeless, Jillian", he responded, dropping to his knee so he could look her in the face. "But I did say grave. I've seen a lot of cases like yours and know how to treat them. But the treatment is lengthy, difficult, and takes commitment and full cooperation from you. There are no shortcuts, and it must be the treatment I prescribe solely – no other treatment can be used at the same time."
Again Jillian had the disturbing feeling she'd known before when dealing with the stern doctor – that he was able to read her mind. She'd just been thinking about possibly undertaking the nice doctor's course of treatment while incorporating parts of the stern doctor's regimen. She dropped her eyes from his penetrating gaze.
"I – thank you, doctor, I believe I understand. But you say there is hope? That I could be cured and released to – to Outside?"

"There is certainly hope", the doctor replied in a kind tone. "There is always hope. And the goal of the treatment is to make you well enough to be released to Outside. The question is not the efficacy of the treatment – it always works – but whether the patient has the will to persevere with it."

"How long does it take?" she asked.

"It depends", the doctor shrugged. "For some, a very brief while. Others spend long periods here in the Ward before being released. But those who stay with the regimen of treatment are released. Those who refuse the treatment, or undertake it then stop – simply die."

"The Ward" is a short story by Roger Thomas, author of The Last Ugly Person: And Other Stories