Empty Nests, by Leah Browning

In college, after too many shots, Jackie and a few of her friends dragged a mattress downstairs and into the bed of a pickup truck they had parked underneath the window of her apartment.  She was the first one to jump.

Her parents drove all night to get to the hospital.  She’d broken both legs.  Jackie expected them to be angry, but once they got past their initial concern, they seemed more bewildered than anything else.

Why had she done it?  She didn’t know how to answer.  It had seemed like a funny idea at the time.

They went to the hospital gift shop and bought her gum and copies of People magazine.  She missed a week of school.  Then, after they took her home, another week—until finally she had to drop her classes.

At home, she lay in bed, propped up on pillows, and watched birds at the feeder in the back yard.  Her mother brought her tray after tray of soup, as if she were recovering from some other type of illness or injury.  No one came to visit.  Her friends were all off at college, participating in their own drunken antics, she assumed.

The chickadees and goldfinches flew out of the trees and shrubs, paused to gather birdseed, and returned to their hiding places.

One night, Jackie dreamed of vultures: she was lying on her back on a deserted highway as the birds circled overhead.  They could smell the odor of her legs under the casts, she realized, as she cracked open the casts and exposed the carrion underneath, the chunks of rotting flesh between her thighs and ankles.

Her father appeared, saying reproachfully, “Don’t carry on like that.”  He crouched next to her and gestured toward the birds.  Not to wave them away, as she had initially thought, but to gather them, to line them up around her.  She could hear the sound of their wings rustling as they fell into position.  (They were a captive audience, she thought.  Or she was the captive, in front of an audience.)

Jackie woke up.  As she walked from one room to the next, she noticed that the time was different on every clock in the house.  It gave her a panicked feeling, seeing the hands pointing in such different directions.

She woke up.

At last, Jackie recovered.  She’d lost a semester of school because of the accident.  She took extra classes over the summer and graduated on time.

Thirty years later, Jackie was at work when she got a phone call from the dean of students at her daughter’s college.  The number was unfamiliar, so she didn’t pick up; too late, she recognized the out-of-state area code.  She started to shake when she heard him introduce himself in the voicemail message.

Immediately, she was thinking of all the possible catastrophes—the attacks and accidents, the murders and disappearances.  Her mind had filed away the details of every newspaper article and sordid episode of Dateline she’d seen in at least the past year.

This was her youngest, her only daughter.  The boys had been tiny, both still in diapers, when she turned up pregnant again.  The girl was the most, the loudest, the wildest of the bunch.

Jackie could have crushed her pelvis all those years ago, or she could have been brain damaged.  She was fortunate, someone had told her the night of the accident, that she hadn’t broken her neck.

She was alone in her cubicle, and she laid her head on her desk.  She was in agony.  But then she was calmed, suddenly, by the thought of the man’s tone in the message.  Some lack of urgency in his voice.

Yes.

Call me back when you have a few minutes. 

She could feel herself relax a little.

Jackie sat up.  She was an adult woman.  She was a mother.  She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Still, as she called the dean back, she hesitated before she pressed the last button.  She thought of her parents driving all night to get to the hospital, and the sight of the streetlights cutting through the darkness as she stood wavering on the window ledge of her apartment.  She held her finger over the last button, and then she closed her eyes, and jumped.

***

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Leah Browning is the author of three short nonfiction books for teens and pre-teens and five chapbooks.  Her most recent chapbook is Orchard City, a collection of short fiction published by Hyacinth Girl Press in 2017.  Browning’s fiction and poetry have recently appeared in Valparaiso Fiction Review, Watershed Review, Random Sample Review, Superstition Review, Newfound, The Homestead Review, Chagrin River Review, Freshwater Literary Journal, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing, Clementine Unbound, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, and in Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence, an anthology from White Pine Press. In addition to writing, she serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review.  Her website is located at www.leahbrowning.com.

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