When the phone call came, she was sitting in the line at Pinecrest Elementary, waiting for Mariana to come bounding to their white Honda Accord and interrupt the relative peace that she cultivated between drop off and pick up times. She was scrolling through infinite images on her social media feed while listening to a public radio program about women in politics when the phone began to buzz. Surprised, she dropped the phone and it fell into her lap before sliding down beneath the pedals. She reached blindly for it, her fingers scratched against the fuzz of the floor mat, sand and debris pushed under her nails.
On the screen: Memorial Hospital.
She closed her eyes to answer it.
Hello, is this Ellen Fairchild?
This is Angela Staples from Memorial Hospital. Are you in a place where you can talk right now?
Well, Ms. Fairchild, I am calling about your brother Simon. He was brought into the emergency room by ambulance about an hour ago. If possible, we’d like you to come here as soon as you can.
No, ma’am. This is Memorial Hospital in Bakersfield.
Simon was supposed to be in Hawaii. What is he doing in Bakersfield?
That I cannot tell you, ma’am. Will you be able to come here soon?
Um, yes, yes, of course. I just, I am stuck in this school pickup line.
Ellen started the engine and looked at the through traffic lane that was, as always, jammed full of parents who were less respectful of the school rules.
Ma’am, calm down. Your brother is badly hurt but he is stablized, for now. When do you think you can get here?
I don’t know. I don’t live in Bakersfield anymore. I am in Boise.
Okay. Is there anyone in Bakersfield who can come down to the hospital? What about your parents?
Nancy and Paul Flanagan? Your brother has them listed under “rents” on his phone.
Well, they are not dead but, well, it is complicated. Simon and I are estranged from them.
I see. Well, you are the only official emergency contact listed in his records and unless there is any other next of kin..?
No, though, he has a girlfriend. He was going to propose to her. In Hawaii. But I guess that does not count.
No, unfortunately it does not. But you are welcome to call her and tell her what is going on. She can come to the hospital but she cannot see him without consent.
I see. Okay, well, I will try to be down there tonight.
That would be good. We’ll make a note of it for the night staff.
Oh, and I am his twin. Maybe I could help in some way, if he needs something?
That is good to know but right now, I really cannot tell you anything.
Ellen had hardly said goodbye when the passenger door flew open. She had forgotten about Mariana.
Okay, let’s go. I am sick of the place.
Did something happen?
Ellen did not look at her daughter while she asked this question, focusing everything on easing out into the exiting line of SUVs and minivans, despite her shaking hands. Mariana did not reply, having dug out her phone from the glove box where she had stored it in the morning. Usually Ellen would protest, remind Mariana of the no-screens-before-homework rule, but right now, she appreciated the silence.
When they arrived home, Ellen had to double back to get Mariana out of the car. Just barely eleven, Mariana rolled her eyes like a bona fide adolescent. How could it be that we are here in the sun-dappled driveway, Ellen wondered, having a non-verbal tiff over something so petty like a phone while Simon is merely stabilized in a hospital in Bakersfield?
Simon was supposed to be in Hawaii, proposing to Julia. It was a big deal, all arranged with their friends. Julia was supposed to be on a girls’ weekend with her best friends from high school, Amy and Erika, and Simon was going to happen upon them on the beach. They had synchronized their Google maps and calendars. Ellen had gone to the store with Simon to give her blessing on the ring. It was a big deal. And now he was lying in the hospital in Bakersfield.
Inside the house, Mariana sat down at the kitchen table, face still tilted towards the glowing glass in her hand. As she did every day, Ellen put a plate of cut apples and carrots in front of her daughter with a bowl of tahini dip just to the side. Mariana was prone to hypoglycemia and would turn murderous unless she ate something every few hours. She was also a very picky vegetarian, preferring to eat the same meal for days in a row rather than try something unknown. Her father was the same way, or at least he had been when he still lived with them. It had driven Ellen crazy but she was more patient with Mariana.
She would have to tell Rob. She would have to tell him because he would have to take Mariana while she went to Bakersfield. No way that Mariana would ever step foot there. Not even for her beloved uncle. He would not want that, he hated the place more than Ellen. Or at least she had thought that he did. Now she was unsure.
He was supposed to be in Hawaii, on the beach with Julia who was twelve years younger but had lit a fire in him and Ellen had to respect that she was his choice, even if Julia and her girlfriends posted too many selfies and left nothing but emojis in the comment section under Ellen’s pictures, somber images unworthy of their balloons and praise hands. Julia, who was so keen to be sisters with Simon’s twin, so keen to take Mariana to IceWorld and all those other Idaho frozen tundra activities that Californians like Ellen and Simon knew nothing about. And yet Mariana was not from California. She loved skiing and ice skating and wearing the wool beret that Julia brought back for her from a shopping trip to New York. So Ellen had to accept her brother’s choice and nod when he showed her the slender gold band with the barest glint of a diamond embedded in the center. She had to drive over to his house and collect his wilting fern and tattered peace lily and promise to take care of them until he returned.
From Hawaii. Not Bakersfield.
She had to call Rob and she had to say what she did not want to say. That Simon was in the hospital and she needed to be there in case he needed an organ or company or become power of attorney. She had to call Rob and tell him that though it was not his weekend, that Mariana was coming over in an hour with a big duffel bag and staying for an indefinite amount of time. And yes, she knew this meant he would have to drive through the morning traffic every day, which he hated, and then he would have to collect her in the evening after work. That she would have to go to the after school camp down the block from her school, a place she hated to go since it was noisy and all they got for snack were cheese crackers.
With any luck, she would not have to remind him that he was late on his child support. Or that he had missed two months in a row when he went on that Canadian expedition with his newest girlfriend. She did not want to remind him that he was still friends with Simon, that they had met because of Simon, that Simon had lent him money to pay his child support because the state was going to start docking his pay. You know, that Simon, she would be forced to say, the good guy. He’s the one in the hospital.
And they would both know she was thinking, why isn’t it you?
At the ticket counter, she had to explain why she did not have any bags to check. At security, she was scanned with the wand and all the woman said was, Traveling light today, I see. Ellen nodded and bit her lip, hoping that would be sufficient. She was waved through and collected her shoulder bag from the tray, hurriedly tossing her phone and charger back inside as she heard that the flight to Phoenix was now boarding. She would be stuck for an hour in Arizona before her connecting flight to Bakersfield arrived. She was due to arrive at midnight.
Only when she was buckling her seat belt did she think about calling Julia.
There was no one at the airport to meet her for there was no one in Bakersfield she wanted to meet anymore. She had scheduled an Uber when she was in Phoenix and there it was, a silver Volkswagen hatchback. It was only a fifteen minute ride and she was grateful that the only question the driver asked was if she needed any help with her luggage. Her answer satisfied him and they drove to the hospital listening to his choice of music, something he called trance music, adding that it helped him to stay awake. Ellen only nodded and looked out the window.
The view at midnight was exactly the same as high noon. There was nothing to see except a bleak flatness that stretched out in all directions. During the night it was black, during the day it was brown.
When they passed through her old neighborhood, she realized that she was gripping the vinyl door handle with both hands. She let go and just stared at her hands, lying her lap as if they were two dying birds. Then they were there, pulling into the hospital parking lot. She had been there only once before, when her grandmother was admitted after the snake bit her. She had been bitten before but that time it sunk its fangs into her neck, like a vampire. Within five minutes, it was noticeably swollen and she called for a prayer session in order to sneak out the back while everyone had their eyes closed, arms raised up to the heavens.
It had changed quite a bit since then. Ellen did not know where to go.
Well, I’ll just drop you off at the Emergency Entrance. It’s where everyone one else goes.
Ellen thanked him and tapped the app to pay and rate him. Upon seeing the five stars and his tip, he said that he hoped whatever brought her to the hospital in the middle of the night turned out for the best. Ellen nodded and stepped out the car. She watched him drive away through the mostly empty parking lot, then watched as an ambulance arrived, lights flashing. The paramedics opened the rear doors slowly and were laughing at something the man strapped to the gurney said as they wheeled him inside. She watched a couple carry their swaddled baby through the automatic glass doors, the worry sweep over their faces when the baby started coughing. There was an old man with a wooden cane smoking on a metal slatted bench just under a large no smoking sign. A fine rain began to fall and it looked as if the building was suddenly enveloped in a thick fog.
Ellen stood motionless on the sidewalk.
Simon was supposed to be in Hawaii. She was supposed to be in Boise.
A security guard approached her. Ma’am, do you need some help?
No. I’m going inside. They called to tell me my brother is here.
I see. Well, these sort of matters are best dealt with head-on, in my experience. Do you know where your brother is?
Okay then, just go up to that desk there and the nurse will help you.
Thank you. Sorry to have bothered you.
It’s no bother at all. I understand.
Ellen looked at the security guard and wondered about the experiences that had afforded him such understanding. He was at least seventy: his remaining hair wrapped around the back of his head like a row of silver hedges, his gait was labored with a distinct one-two one-two rhythm. Ellen wondered what had led him there, working the graveyard shift at the hospital when he should be at home, enjoying the spoils of retirement.
At the desk, the nurse took a look at Ellen’s driver’s license, looked again at her computer screen, then gave her a tattered visitor’s badge on a fraying yellow lanyard and told her to follow the green line to the intensive care unit.
The green line led her to another building then into the elevator and up to the eighth floor.
At another desk, Ellen showed her driver’s license again and a second nurse was summoned. The second nurse’s name was Lucia, a name Ellen had considered for Mariana. She wanted to tell her this, as they walked through the fluorescent lit corridor, wanted to say something, but every cell of her body was filled with dread, preventing her vocal cords from operating.
They turned a corner and Ellen was surprised by the sudden blueness that filled the hallway, as well as the thin lines of light that pulsated across the linoleum floor and white walls. In the other hallway, Ellen had only heard on the insistent beeping of the heart monitors keeping rhythm with the long whoosh of the breathing machines; this hallway echoed with gurgling water. Bubbles. Lucia turned and looked at her.
Just a bit further.
She stopped in front of an enormous aquarium. Ellen stood beside her to admire what must have been a very expensive acquisition. It was the same size as one of the patient rooms and contained a tangled mass of coral at the center. There were small schools of silver sardines darting back and forth as if pursued by some invisible predator. A pair of stingrays rolled across the sandy floor, stirring up clouds of silt in their wake. There were angelfish and clownfish lingering near the coral, teams of sea horses rocking along near the back wall. In the rocks, Ellen saw eels with gaping mouths and on the rocks, red anemones waving back and forth. In the sand, so still she thought at first it was another rock, a grouper with a sapphire tail and fins rested, waited.
Floating above the tranquil albeit contrived seascape was an enormous squid. Ellen noticed its long, splayed shadow gliding over everything before she saw the creature itself. It was not swimming exactly: its fins were barely moving and the arms looked as if they were twitching. One tentacle hung limp underneath the poor beast; it was mangled with large chunks missing, looking more like a long stalk of kelp adrift than a body part. Ellen looked at the scene below which seemed almost fake compared to the decay that was circling at the surface.
It must be hard for you to see him like this.
Lucia put a hand on Ellen’s shoulder. Ellen looked at the hand, the smooth dark skin that ran down Lucia’s long fingers made her neatly trimmed nails glow pink. Then she looked at her face and saw that Lucia’s expression was one of sympathy, concern.
To see who like this?
Well, your brother, Simon. I mean, we still are not sure what happened but Dr. Nagalin believes maybe it was a shark. Or an orca. They are migrating right now so that seems like a reasonable assumption. But like I said, we’ll know more after we do some more testing and hopefully, get Simon feeling up to talking. He’s been completely silent since he was brought in.
Ellen stared up at the squid. What was she supposed to say?
Lucia patted her back.
I will give you a moment. It’s a lot to take in.
Just then her phone rang. She had forgotten to call Julia. Without looking away from the squid, she answered the call.
Hi Julia. How are you?
Ellen, Ellen, hey, um, I know it is like the middle of the night there and everything but um, do you know where Simon is? Because he was supposed to be here, Amy and Erika said they had it all planned, he was supposed to be here in Hawaii to surprise me and they, um, walked us to the meet-up spot and then we waited, and waited and then they texted him and called him and he didn’t answer and so, now I am a little worried about him. I just hope nothing happened to him, you know.
Yeah, um, Julia, I am at a hospital in Bakersfield right now.
Oh my god! I knew something bad happened, I could just feel it, you know? Oh my god! Oh my god! What, I mean, I just don’t… Hold on a second.
Julia put her hand over the mouthpiece and told Erika and Amy what Ellen had just said. They also repeated Oh my god! several times.
Julia? Julia? Julia!
I am sorry. Yeah, I am here. Oh my god.
Julia, why don’t we Facetime so you can see what is going on here? I don’t actually know what is happening.
Julia agreed and hung up and then Ellen opened the app and tapped on Julia’s number. Her face appeared, puffy and blotchy. She was in a hotel room with gold and maroon striped wallpaper. Erika and Amy sat on either side of Julia, patting her back and hugging her to them.
I don’t know if I can look.
Sometimes it is best to face such matters head-on, Ellen said, borrowing the security guard’s words because she could not manage to think of her own.
She turned the phone so the screen was up against the glass.
I don’t see anything, Ellen. Just some fish.
Wait, sorry, let me move it a little higher.
Ellen took a metal folding chair and stood on it, holding the phone up as high as she could.
There is that better?
Maybe? Wait, what is that?
Ellen sighed, relieved. She was just stuck in a nightmare.
But then Julia continued.
Oh my god! No, that can’t be! Oh my god, Simon! No, baby, no. Oh my god! What happened? Oh my god, my poor boy! Look, Ellen, I will be on the next flight there. I just need to pack this junk up and we’ll be in a taxi for the airport within five minutes. I’ll call you when I get to Bakersfield and you can tell me how to get to you.
Ellen could see the young women running around the room with armfuls of clothes that they were throwing into open suitcases on the bed. It looked like a comedic scene from a vaudeville play but Ellen knew she could not laugh.
They all had tears running down their faces and waved good-bye with their fingers, the way children do.
Lucia returned with a man in blue scrubs.
Ellen, this is Doctor Jeffers. He was on call when Simon was brought in.
Doctor Jeffers extended a hand but when Ellen shook it, she had to force herself not to recoil: the hand was damp and cold. He laughed and wiped his hand on his pant leg, leaving a dark streak across his thigh.
Sorry about that. I just came out of a five-hour session.
Ellen took that to mean surgery but she was not certain and did not feel like asking.
So, Ellen, as the nurses probably have told you, your brother is stabilized but we are not sure for how long. He was pretty banged up when he arrived and it seems that he is having a type of cardiac episode.
A cardiac episode? Like a heart attack?
Yes, like a heart attack. It appears to be just affecting the one heart but unfortunately it is the systematic heart, rather than one of the bronchial hearts.
Ellen looked back up at the squid.
What should can be done for it then?
Well, as his twin, it is possible that you might be compatible. Not that you would have to sacrifice anything but perhaps if we could do a 3D mapping of your heart, then we could compare it to Simon’s and see where to go from there. It is completely non-invasive.
That is not exactly my concern right now.
What is your concern right now?
I want to know how to wake up from this bizarre dream.
The doctor removed his glasses and put them in his pocket then ran his hand across his shaved head.
I am really sorry, Mrs. Fairchild. I know this is a lot to take in. I will give you a moment to think but I will go ahead and schedule the mapping since the room will get backed up once morning gets going.
Ellen nodded and looked again at the squid swimming in listless circles. Even if it was a dream, she thought, she was still here, standing in front of a large tank in the ICU ward, staring at a creature they called Simon Flanagan. Everything had seemed so real up until that point that Ellen did not know which was harder to grasp, that all that came before this moment was also a dream or the new reality that her brother was a squid. She started to question how much of what came before was a dream. Was the divorce a dream, she wondered, and all that led up to it, the fights, the jealousy, the lies, the love, or does it go back even further to when her parents disowned her for refusing to listen to the church elders, even when she had told them that the deacon, her grandmother’s second husband, was not as holy as he claimed to be. All of that had also seemed like a dream at the time and now she just accepted it as part of her history. Would this day also become memory?
She wanted to talk to Mariana but when she looked at her phone, she saw it was only four-thirty. How was it that so little time had elapsed since she had gotten the phone call from the hospital? Twelve hours? Thirteen?
Ellen wandered down the hall to the family lounge and sat down in a black vinyl chair. The vinyl was worn and cracking, and a few of the jagged edges pressed uncomfortably against her bare arms but she was too exhausted to care. She leaned back and closed her eyes and immediately fell to sleep.
In her dream, she was swimming with Simon in the ocean, as they had during almost every summer vacation, Simon in board shorts and a tank top, Ellen in a knee-length sundress. The dress was fuller than usual and kept billowing up around her, making it difficult to move. She was following Simon but he was faster than she was and could hold his breath for minutes instead of seconds like Ellen. Bobbing on the whitecaps, she looked around for the shore but could not see it. The sun was bearing down on her head and shoulders and her vision darkened in the brightness. Just then, she felt a hand wrap around her ankle and pull her downward. She took a deep breath and went under. Simon let go of her leg and motioned with his arm for her to follow. They kept going deeper and deeper and Ellen managed to slip out of her dress. This was how she discovered that she had gills where her rib cage used to be and she stopped holding her breath. She hurried to catch up with her brother. There was something shadowy underneath him, something she could not quite make out. When she got about a hundred meters lower, she saw it was a pod of sperm whales. Three adults and one baby. Their mouths were gaping open and she watched with horror as Simon slipped inside the mouth of the largest whale. Immediately, the whale closed its mouth and started swimming away. Ellen swam up to the baby whale but hesitated for a moment when she remembered her own child, waiting at home for her with a father who never wanted her. Then suddenly it was pitch dark and Ellen realized that she had been eaten and was surprised by how violent it was to be swallowed. It took a while for her to realize that the jostling was coming from a nurse who was gently shaking her awake.
Mrs. Fairchild, we were able to squeeze you in for the cardiac mapping session this morning. You’ll need to take this form with you to the MRI center which is over in the east building on the fourth floor. Here’s a bottle of water. Try to drink it all before you start. And remove anything metal, including wedding rings.
Ellen involuntarily ran her thumb over the place where her ring used to be and took the water bottle and form. She thanked the nurse and headed off in the direction she was pointed toward. It was later now and the corridors were bustling with people in pastel scrubs, orderlies pushing carts of foods and fluids, the occasional visitor with a gift bag in tow. A man with an IV drip shuffled past her, bumping into her with his pointy elbow, causing her to stumble into the wall.
After the scan was over, she was allowed to see her heart on the screen, black and grey,