Emma Smith-Stevens

My friend and I sat in a tree's shade at the town pool, where we'd taken her seven-year-old son. She was so high, couldn't keep her eyes open. When was the last time she ate? Her emaciation was a suitcase that I dragged around in silence. I was afraid that if I complained, she'd say: I'm so sorry, let me take that, I've got to go—I'm already late.

She talked on and on. "This dose doesn't do shit, my doctor won't listen." Bone pain, muscle pain, joint pain, hands quit working—flat broke, too. I rubbed her back. Scapula like wings. "I gotta tell you something," she said. "It's really bad. You can't tell anybody." I thought: don't fly away.

Around us, people clustered in the shade, mostly dads. The other women were near the pool, supervising their children. My friend told me everything, her voice flat and exhausted and so loud. "Old guys, married guys. My boss. I can't get out." I felt the dads around us imagining what they would do with her, given the chance. She shut her eyes—a blink that might never unblink, mouth falling open.

Her son ran the length of the diving board, soared, splashed. He pulled himself out of the pool, ran up to us. "Mom!" Her eyes fluttered open. "Did you see my cannonball?" In unison, she said "No" and I said "Yes." He ran back to the diving board. "Mom!" He was a sensitive kid, carried around a sketchbook. Drew birds, leaves, clouds. "Watch him," I said. When he jumped, she was rummaging through her oversized purse with her eyes closed. "Awesome!" I shouted when he surfaced. He got out of the pool, bounded over, saw his mom withdraw her hand from her bag, cradling three tiny, white pills. He ran back to the diving board and tried again.

Emma Smith-Stevens has stories in or coming from Subtropics, Conjunctions, Day One and others. Her most recent Wigleaf story, "An August in the Early 2000s," received a Special Mention in the 2016 volume of the Pushcart Prize.

Read more of ESS's work in the archive.

Illustration on main page by Levin Garson and Scott Garson.

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