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In the Midst of Life
The pebbles emerged at different times of day - on the hour that marked a person’s birth. Daniel got his around noon; Anna in the morning; Tom always at night, before they were delivered to a new dawn. The process was always the same - even if the duration differed: nausea as the seconds and minutes and hours churned in the gut, the pebble taking a rough and unrefined shape; discomfort as it rolled up the esophagus, the spasms and contractions sanding and smoothing its edges; relief when it came to rest on the tongue, ready to be placed in a jar alongside the other days that sat as testaments to their lives.
Most people accepted the process as a matter of course, according it no more thought than they did any other bodily function. They went about their days and nights freely, barely concerned with the sensations, the discomfort. They didn’t think of it as a physical reminder of time passing, as a mechanism taking them that much closer to death. Most people didn’t care about the jars either, the jars that held all that pebbled time - as if the expelling of the stones wasn’t reminder enough.
But Tom wasn’t most people.
The persistent knocking woke them all. One by one. Each in their own way.
Daniel came awake slowly, laboriously, like a patient just out of surgery. Blinking and squinting against the sunlight while the knocking carried on. No way it was for him. No way. He flipped over to his stomach and covered his head with a pillow.
Anna was faster to wake and put up less of a fight. She stretched and yawned. Her movements long and languid, she tossed one bent knee over the other and twisted to face the opposite direction, holding the pose for several beats, just like the instructor had taught her. Whoever was at the door could wait. There was time still for little meditations.
The knocking grew more persistent.
Tom awoke at once—bolt upright, at attention—at the first knock. No yawning for him, no stretching either. He was attuned and wired to any knocks that landed on the door of the house they shared. Whether packages arrived in the morning, during the afternoon, or anytime in between, Tom was fully aware of it. And his reaction was always the same. Perfect attention, minimal movement, drumming heart taking over his senses. Logically he knew that rushing to the door would lessen the pain, but he was never able to spring out of bed the way his mind demanded; and he was left to suffer these little agonies of inaction each and every time a knock sounded.
When the paralysis passed, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and ran for the door. Now he was all action, all movement, and he could not fly down the stairs or through the house fast enough.
He pulled the door open so hard it rebounded off the wall and smacked into him, the edge landing squarely against his funny bone and sending a jolt of electricity up his arm. He let out a yelp of pain and cradled his elbow in hand as his eyes fell on the doorstep.
It was a large, yellow package. The fourth ones were always wrapped in yellow paper, and a bubble of joy came up Tom’s throat. He picked it up, heartbeat slowing, as his mouth quirked into a smile. Holding the package close, he turned it over and read the label pasted to the bottom. The air shot out of his lungs, like a deflating balloon, and he bit out a gruff curse.
“What is it?”
He turned as Anna glided off the last step in that effortless way of hers. Like she didn’t move through matter that pushed back against her. Like she wasn’t subject to the physical laws everyone else labored under. Like it was all far, far too easy for her. And then she was at his side, more specter than reality, peering at the box in his hands.
“This came for you,” he replied, pushing it into her arms. Now that he knew who it was meant for, he suddenly could not hold it for one more moment. It was a cruelty he was finding very difficult to accept.
“Oh,” she said, pale eyes cloaked in sympathy. But Tom chose to see it as pity and turned away from her, shutting the front door and heading for the kitchen.
She followed him. She made no noise—her feet were too delicate for that—but Tom knew she followed. Her concern trailed after him like vapor seeking a vent. It had a scent, distinct and sharp, that found him at the onset of one of his episodes and clung to him long after.
“Maybe it isn’t—”
“Don’t do that,” he interrupted, frowning at her while turning on the coffeemaker. “It’s yellow. Just open it.”
She perched on a stool at the counter, the box nestled in her lap. “Later.”
“No,” he countered, getting out three mugs and the sugar. “Now.”
Anna watched him. Lines of worry appeared like rills around her eyes, eroding the smooth skin, marking it with tiny v’s. He turned away from her, acting uninterested, unaffected, like it was just an ordinary day. Pulling milk from the fridge, he heard her begin to open the package. He heard the paper tear. He heard the tape stretch and rip where she had no patience for it. And worst of all, worst of all, he heard what could only be the glass jar roll back and forth as she handled the box. Each time it tapped the side, Tom’s insides clenched a little tighter.
She finally managed to open it. Silence descended between them like a wall, and he was almost too afraid to face this new reality. Her breathing shifted, imperceptible perhaps to anyone but him. But he heard it, a tiny, effervescent sigh of relief.
He turned around. Anna held the jar, bigger than the last, up to her eyeline, turning it this way and that like she was admiring a trophy. It was clearer also, clearer than any he’d yet seen, but he chose not to ruminate on that. Her eyes left the jar, found him watching, and she quickly tucked it back into the box.
“Yours will come,” she said. “Any day now.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, unwilling to regurgitate old arguments. “Want some coffee?”
She let him off with a smile. “I’m gonna shower first.”
He nodded, waving her away as he poured himself a cup. The brew smelled too strong, his elbow ached, his heart sat slumped in his belly, and he was not okay.
Anna climbed the stairs to her room, now able to release her joy and let it bloom and unfold across her face. Benevolence had been shown to her, of that there could be no doubt. Her present jar still had a good deal of space left.
In her room she went straight for the shelf stretching the length of the northern wall. Her jars sat there: the little translucent, powder blue one from her infancy; the opaque, fire-engine red one from childhood; the softer, clearer peach one she received the day of her first menses. And now this beautiful upside down bell of a jar - even clearer, and pale green. She placed it lovingly by the others as she felt the day forming in her gut.
She backed from the shelf, taking deep, slow breaths as time, with its hours and minutes and seconds, churned within her. The strains of Ave Maria thrummed to life in her mind as her body worked on processing the day that had been. Her days ended early, the pebble coming up like clockwork, every morning at this time.
She welcomed the slight nausea that accompanied this summing up of the day just gone by, with all its little joys, bemusement, and sorrows. She felt the pebble take shape, sharp and jagged in her belly, sanded as it rolled up her throat, smooth and velvety when it was finally deposited on her tongue.
She released it into her palm, wiping at the smooth, marbled stone. She moved closer to the window, holding the pebble between thumb and forefinger. It was bright blue, like water trapped in early morning light. Yesterday had been a good day. She was glad.
Moving back to the shelf, Anna dipped her hand into the slender neck of the peach jar and gingerly placed the pebble atop the multicolored pile of stones. She replaced the clear lid she’d removed all those years ago and watched as the silver seal latched and locked around the jar. That was it. Another chapter of her life closed, for good. She looked at the new green jar and ran a finger down the cool, clear glass.
It was empty, gleaming, full of promise.
“You got a new one?”
Anna turned to the door, smile still wide. Daniel stepped into the room, leaning forward slightly to see the new vessel. She moved out of the way so that he could admire it more easily.
“It just came.”
“Rather early it seems,” he replied, looking to the peach jar and the space that remained at the top.
“You know how it is.”
He chuckled. “Yeah. My childhood one seemed never-ending.”
“Hardly surprising,” Anna said with an indulgent look.
Daniel’s eyes moved from one jar to the next, traveling down the line of her history. He shook his head. “Poor Tom must be losing his mind.”
Anna adjusted the new jar, shifting it this way and that, seeing if there was a nicer angle to display it by. Her heart broke for Tom. He, more than anyone she’d ever known, was so shackled by time, by the jars and pebbles they were each allotted. He lived in constant fear that he would never receive another vessel, that every pebble he expelled would be the last.
“He’ll get one,” she said as they turned to leave the room, “any day now.”
Daniel tapped on the hinge of Tom’s door and nodded to the high shelf with its evenly-spaced jars. “I don’t know. It’s getting pretty full.”
And so it was. Anna glanced into the room as they passed. Tom’s present jar was a dark, dismal gray, so that you could hardly see the pebbles inside. But they were there, packed tight against one another, all the way to the top, so that only a sliver of space—for three, maybe four more—remained. The jar held a curious ombre’ effect, with the light cream and beige pebbles at the bottom giving way to taupe, then to brown, then to coal. Okay days, so-so days, awful days. It seemed each pebble he spat out was darker than the last. Anna had tried, in various ways, to detach him from his obsession - convinced it was his obsession with the time he might or might not have left that caused his pebbles to darken and mottle. If he could forget, for just a moment, if he could adopt Daniel’s laissez-faire attitude, or her own outlook, then perhaps the days would be gentler on him.
Tom heard Anna and Daniel coming down the stairs, talking in voices too low for him to decipher. He affected great interest in the instant oatmeal he was stirring to life. The steam still billowed, hot and wet, from the kettle, the faint whistle just beginning to die out.
“Hey,” Daniel said, heading for the coffeepot.
Tom replied in kind, but cast a wary glance at Anna as he blew on the lump of oatmeal at the end of his spoon. It didn’t look as though she was about to start in on him with platitudes and reassurances, but he could almost catch a whiff of concern off her, as though it had gathered around her like a storm on her way up the stairs only to dissipate into a slight electric scent on her way back down.
She said nothing though, taking her seat at the table and accepting a mug of coffee from Daniel with a soft word of thanks. They began to discuss options for breakfast: ‘pancakes or eggs,’ ‘French toast or oatmeal.’ ‘Was there any of that English porridge left?’ ‘What do you mean porridge is anti-American? Fine, make pancakes then.’ ‘Can you make that cinnamon maple syrup?’ ‘Yeah, if we have any cinnamon.’
It was insulting. Could they not see the hell he was in? Days, he had nothing but mere days remaining in this wretched world and they wanted to discuss the imperialistic undertones of porridge? Maybe he had made a martyr of himself, but so what? It was his jar that was filling up, not theirs. They had years left. Anna with her brand new glossy jar, and Daniel whose jar always seemed more vacant, like he was swallowing back the days.
Tom must have made a noise. He looked up from his oatmeal to find Anna peering at him. Daniel was whisking something around a big plastic bowl, unconcerned—as usual—with things that did not immediately affect him. But Anna, Anna watched him with some bizarre mix of care and resolve.
“Nothing,” he replied with a shrug. “You seal up the other jar?”
She shifted in her seat, eyes and hands returning to the cinnamon concoction before her. “Yeah.”
Tom nodded, scraping the spoon round and round the bowl. “What would you say that is, nine thousand or so pebbles?”
“Give or take.”
He nodded again. He didn’t need to do the math. “So you’re around twenty-four, twenty-five?”
“You suppose,” he repeated with a mirthless laugh.
Daniel looked over from the stove. “We don’t keep count, dude.”
“Right,” he said. “I keep count. That’s my thing.” Tom’s stomach flipped and flopped, and he pushed the bowl away. He raked his fingers through his hair. The pebble was already there, a tiny nugget of sharpness sitting low in his stomach. He hated how early it started. Other people were free to live their days without this constant reminder of time passing. They would live the hours and minutes, only processing and digesting them in that small window before expelling the pebble. But not Tom. No, through some freak of nature—and wasn’t that just what he was?—he felt the seed of time in his gut, growing, ripening, sharpening throughout the day. Growing larger and larger until finally night would fall, and his body would spit it out - only to begin again by breakfast.
“Perhaps if you didn’t—”
“Don’t start with me, Anna,” he interrupted. He could feel the panic coming on, knees jiggling, extremities going numb.
She must have seen it too. She abandoned the cinnamon and butter, came around, and wrapped her arms around him, cheek pressed between his shoulder blades. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes her arms would come around him, and it would feel like salvation, like a short reprieve from this daily trial. Sometimes, if she wasn’t there to cut the panic off at the start, she would find him balled up, fetal-like, and she’d climb into bed and spoon up against him until the palpitations stopped. Sometimes it would keep the panic at bay for days or even weeks.
“Anna,” he said, sounding like a wounded animal.
“I know.” She shushed him like a child, her thin arms rocking him slowly. Forwards and back, forwards and back. “Do you want to go upstairs?”
He nodded. The faculty of speech came and went during these panics, like a sparrow flitting through the neighborhood, dropping its sound maybe here, maybe there. She took him by the hand. She mumbled something to Daniel, but Tom was no longer listening. Perhaps that faculty had fled as well.
She led him up the stairs and down the hall to his room. He fell, useless and sullen, onto his bed, curling into a ball, head turned away from the shelf that mocked him with its full jars. Anna climbed in as well, arms and legs wrapping around him like an animal protecting its young.
“This has to stop,” she murmured against his back.
“If I don’t get one tomorrow, I’m done for.”
Time passed. The pebble somersaulted - angry and hot. Nausea came and went, sanity along with it. He saw all the stones, all the days, his body had ever expelled cascade before his eyes like a waterfall, falling then swirling round and round in a maelstrom. He wished for something else; he wished time could be a clear line, drawn by a cosmic ruler - linear and easily marked. He could submit to it if it were perhaps a loop, a series of loops, even if it meant he would be destined to live out his life in repetitions that never evolved. He wished for something even more abstract, a realm where time was perhaps a skein of geese throwing shapes in the sky, or where you only knew what day it was by the berries on display at the local market.
It was no use pondering an escape. Pebbles and pebbles he’d spent wondering how to rid himself of this obsession, how to be more like Daniel, carefree and joyful, or like Anna, calm and resigned. It was no use. This was his lot in life, this constant torment, this bafflement, this why-me-ness.
Tom opened his eyes. The pebble sat, defiant, in his throat, refusing all efforts to be swallowed back down. It was a useless attempt, as useless as willing the earth to spin the other way.
He choked and sat up. It would be a few more minutes still. The light outside was gone, and the house was still. He stared out the window, thinking the moon and stars and black, black night to be a hallucination. Tom had no recollection of the day’s passing, nothing beyond the time lodged in his throat. He worried at it, hand massaging upwards to coax it out. Instinct overruled desire. The stone had to be expelled.
He stood up, sucking in air through his nose. Anna stirred, but did not awaken. The pebble came up to the back of his mouth while he watched her sleep. He felt guilty then, guilty that her day should be wasted away on his neurosis. He wondered what color her pebble would be tomorrow. He wondered if he’d see it.
He walked to the shelf, to the gray jar, and spat the stone out into his hand. It was blue, bright blue, like the stones of his childhood. Bright blue like a cloudless sky on an early autumn day.
He dropped the pebble into the jar with a sigh.
Anna awoke, and he went to her.
Layla AlAmmar is a writer who was born in Texas and raised in Kuwait. She has been reading and writing from a very young age. Her flash fiction and articles have appeared in local youth magazines in Kuwait. Her favorite writer is Edgar Allan Poe. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.