“Lighter Than Air” by Beverly Akerman


Sandra caught the light at the intersection of Monkland and Decarie, rounding the
corner only to have the minivan plunge into gridlock.  “Shit,” she exclaimed. “Well
congratulations, Dan. You’ve managed to turn procrastination into an art form.  Fifteen
minutes last week. We’re definitely going to beat that today.”

“I just hate going,” Dan groused.  “He’s always asking ‘tell me how you feel.’ Every
appointment feels like one more hour lost from my life.”

It was April, two solid months of Dan resisting the counselling sessions.

“You’re twenty-two years old, you keep vampire hours, won’t go to school or find a job.
You’re either depressed or an asshole and at a hundred and twenty bucks an hour, this
guy’s going to figure out which,” Sandra retorted, aware that talking to him this way
disqualified her as mother-of-the-year.

The things she said to him: she regretted them as soon as they flew out of her mouth
but she just couldn’t seem to help herself.

“Honest to god Dan, some day we’ll both need therapy just for these trips to the
shrink’s,” she said.

He’d been a crier. Nights when he was a baby, she’d nursed him for hours, slipping her
fingers through his blond curls. And now . . . she lifted her eyes from the road and took
in the grotty t-shirt beneath the beige windbreaker, the grey stubble and lavender
smudges beneath bleary eyes. She reached a hand toward the lank brown hair hanging
over his face. Dan recoiled before she could touch him.

“When was the last time you washed your hair anyway, or took a shower?” She wrinkled
her nose. “I’m guessing it’s been awhile.”

“Love you too, Ma,” Dan said. A white ear bud lay on his shoulder like a giant flake of
dandruff, the other one anchoring him to his MP3 player. Sandra heard the annoying
crash of cymbals. These kids, living lives accompanied by their own personal

“You waste your life on that sofa, channel surfing.” Sandra blasted the horn as a red
sports car cut in front of her.

“Selfish bastard,” she growled. “I just don’t want you to end up like your cousin Rhona.

She was hospitalized twice last year, doesn’t even remember the first time. Imagine.
She’s been getting electric shock therapy every month for a couple of years now. Must
be lots she doesn’t remember.”

“What for?”

“Eh?” Sandra pressed again on the horn.

“The shock therapy. What’s it for?”

“Oh, you know. ‘Bad thoughts,’ she calls them. About killing herself.”

“You don’t think so?”

“I think she’s just looking to punish her parents for something they don’t even know
they’ve done.”

“I can’t imagine anything shock therapy could make better,” Dan said.

The red light had them pinned beside a new big box mall. Sandra craned her neck to
look up at a series of inflatables, the bright colours and patterns of hot air balloons.
They swayed overhead, straining against invisible tethers. The light went green. As the
traffic began to move, Sandra found she had to struggle to remain focused on her
driving. She felt something akin to panic–her heart thumping, her throat suddenly
constricted, and a sweaty sheen blooming on her face.

“Well, if holding a knife to your wrist for a couple of seconds once in a while means she
needs to be hospitalized, you can bet most of us do,” Sandra said.

“Anyway, does it matter what you think?”

Sandra banged on the steering wheel and turned to glare at her son.

“They say these things run in families, did you know that, Dan? See any parallels here?”

Really, part of her wondered, how far would she go? Damn, damn, damn. She hated
herself for this, verbal diarrhea.

“Maybe. I just haven’t tried to kill myself yet,” he said.

“Well thank god for small miracles. Just quit fucking up your life like this.”

“Ever occur to you that it’s my life and if I fuck it up, that’s my choice? My choice, Ma.
Nothing to do with you, okay? Nothing at all.”

“If you ever have a child, you’ll know why I’ll never accept that.”

She imagined Dan and the psychologist together, silent, gazing out the window at those
bobbling balloons. She was relieved he was about to be someone else’s problem for a
while. They jolted to the curb in front of an unadorned beige office building. “Maybe
next week you’ll take the bus, eh? I can’t take these rides anymore. The traffic kills
me,” she said.

Dan had the door open before the van was stopped completely. Jumping out, he spat
“see ya, Ma,” at her before the door crashed back into its frame. The minivan jumped
back into the traffic, tires squealing. Sandra shook her head. She couldn’t blame Dan for
slamming the door, not a bit.

“Middle age,” Sandra said to Jillian. “I look back and see, if not failure exactly, just a
notable lack of success.”

They were on the terrasse of a crowded bistro, everyone hungry for the sun in the
early days of Montreal’s short, sharp spring. Sandra dug round her purse for sunglasses,
came up empty-handed and sighed. Jillian poured more wine in their glasses from a
bottle sweating on the table.

“Don’t be thinking so hard all the time, okay?” Jillian said. “One day you’re going to hurt

“Hunh. Your life’s so uncomplicated. Divorced, no kids. You do what you want, when
you want.”

“Right. And if I died tomorrow, it might be a week before anyone noticed. Even after
they did, most of them’d hardly pay me more than an occasional thought. But do I really
give a shit? This is who I am, take it or shove it.” Jillian pulled a crushed box of cherry
flavoured cigarillos from her bag. A man in his twenties at the next table offered her a
light with a Gallic flourish.

“A son who’s failed to launch, a husband spending all his time on the other side of the
world, a research job going down the drain. Cry me a river. As lives go, yours isn’t really
that tragic. Isn’t there anything you’ve ever dreamt of doing? This is the time, dammit.
We’re not going to get many more chances.”

Sandra moved an orphan cherry tomato in the dregs of the balsamic dressing.

“All I ever wanted was to do research, have my own lab. I thought I’d be saving the
world, you know?”

After she her Master’s, Sandra had been thrilled to find work creating a mouse model of
diabetes. But looking back, it all seemed pretty thin. She was so sure then they would
find a cure, that all her hard work would be building something worthwhile. Instead, all
she’d done was prove the disease settled in layers she would excavate, like an

“And to think I killed thousands of mice just for that . . .” Sometimes Sandra thought of
her career as little more than a murine holocaust. She’d had disturbing dreams lately,
herself a Pied Piper trailed by hordes of pirouetting headless white mice.

Their waiter arrived and placed steaming plates of pasta before them. Sandra watched
Jillian and the waiter make the grinding of pepper and the grating of Parmesan sexually
suggestive. Jillian’s cigarillo lay in an ashtray; smoke rose in a slow spiral.

When the waiter left, Sandra said, “how do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Forget it.” She sighed. Sandra sipped her wine, twirled noodles round her fork, then put
it down. “I just never thought things would turn out this way. I had so many plans.”

“You got pregnant and gave up on having your own lab.”

“You make it sound like I did it on purpose.”

“You said, I didn’t.”

“Shit happens. I made the responsible choice. Isn’t that what being an adult’s all about?”

“Honey, we’re each of us a work in progress. Stop being so hard on yourself.” Jillian
caught the eye of the man with the lighter and smiled.

Sandra made a little moue and took a pull from her wineglass, wishing it contained
something stronger than Chardonnay. “There is this new guy at the institute, works in

Jillian raised an eyebrow. “Go on,” she said.

“He gave a lecture on the genetic predisposition to suicide. Hemingway’s the classic
example: his father killed himself and so did two of his siblings, one of his kids, even his
granddaughter Margaux. He’s asked me to work with him.”

“It is an important subject.”

“It means starting over again.”

“But you’ve got the technical smarts he needs, right?”

“Yeah,” Sandra conceded. “He’s got a collection of brain tissue samples from suicide
victims. He wants to do expression studies, says I could even do a PhD with him if I

“Sounds perfect. He needs you, you need a job.”

Sandra busied herself with her fettuccine for a moment. “It’s just . . . starting over like
this, makes me feel I’ve wasted my time the last twenty years.”

“What a load of crap, Sandra. Shit happens; sometimes you just have to roll with it.”

Sandra sighed again and tapped her fingernails on the marble tabletop. “All right, that’s
enough about me. Tell me what you’ve been up to lately.”

“Did I tell you I met this guy online a few weeks ago?”

“No. And? Have you slept with him yet?”

Jillian laughed and stabbed the half-smoked cigarillo into the remains of her pasta. “Not
quite, but I’m thinkin’ he’s definitely sponge-worthy.”

By mid-May, Sandra was trying to absorb some fifty scientific articles about suicide:
genetic and protein variants of tryptophan hydroxylase, serotonin transport proteins,
the psychology of suicidal ideation, and theories on impulsiveness, loss and resilience.

Many nights she sat alone in her living room with a glass of Bordeaux, ploughing through
reviews clogged with pedigrees, surprised to discover suicide rivalled breast cancer as a
cause of death, that nearly ten times as many Canadians killed themselves as died from
murder or AIDS. It astounded her to discover an epidemic of such scope and discretion.
Sandra learned the jargon, the difference between ‘attempters,’ ‘completers,’ and
‘survivors,’ the mourners left behind a ‘successful’ suicide.

In late May, Liam returned home for a couple of weeks and kept harping on all the
details he’d left hanging in Tianjin. He was gambling everything on this venture–their
savings, the equity in their home, money borrowed from her parents–all to set up a
plastics factory to make desks modelled after the hoods of famous Formula One cars.

It was after midnight. The two of them moved between the bathroom and the bedroom.
Water ran in short bursts. Around them the house held its breath.

“Wal-Mart’s sniffing around. If they bite, we could make a real killing,” Liam said.

“Mm-hmm,” said Sandra. She’d heard all this before.

“Come with me this time, Sandra,” he said, as he had before every trip for the past
eighteen months. And Sandra responded the way she always did, too. Their
conversation had gone past scripted to approach the ritualistic, the sighs, pauses and
harsh words appearing right on cue.

“We’ve been through this. I can’t. I’m wrapping things up in the old lab, trying to get up
to speed with the new stuff. And Dan’s so messed up right now.”

“He’s not a kid anymore, Sandra. He’s twenty-one-”

“Twenty-two,” she corrected.

“-old enough to stay on his own. Maybe it would do him good to have you out of his
business for a while, ever think of that?”

“Dan needs me,” she said.

“What if I need you? Your lab’s closing anyway. Isn’t this the perfect time to take a

For a moment, there was silence. “You can be a real bastard sometimes,” she finally
said. “It’s trivial to you, my lab shutting down. But for me it’s the end of something

“Come with me this time, Sandy. Please. It’d be good for us.”  Maybe if he’d said this
while holding her, Sandra might have recognized his plea for what it was. Instead, Liam
was slipping his shirt over his head, unzipping and stepping out of his khakis and boxer
shorts. She still found him attractive: his middle had thickened but his pecs were well
defined, he’d managed to hold onto most of his hair, and she’d always relished the
strength in his thighs. She watched him slide into bed and prop himself up on the
pillows. His clothes remained puddled where they hit the floor.

“Good for you, you mean,” Sandra said, putting his shirt and underwear in the white
wicker basket, shaking his pants into their creases and hanging them in the closet.

“You’ll be busy with the thousand and one things only you can handle. And there I’ll be,
completely isolated, unable even to speak to anyone, in a place that couldn’t possibly
be more foreign.”

“If anyone imagines there’s a thousand and one things only they can manage, it’s you
babe.” Liam picked up The Economist from the night table, perched his reading
half-glasses on his nose, and peered over the top of them. “Is it so terrible to want you
in my bed all the time?”

Another of Sandra’s sore points: Liam arrived home after weeks away expecting a
Stepford wife, expecting a virtual fuck-a-thon. She felt something snap inside her. “You
want me in bed, you know where I am, dammit,” she said. What about all those nights
he was away when she wanted sex? “You’re the one chasing some goddam fantasy.
And even when you are here, you’re not really with us. You’re really still back there,
dreaming.” Sandra had put on an old pair of flannel pyjamas and a white tank top. She
picked up a jar of aloe cream from the night table, opened it, and rubbed the cream
hard into her skin. A green scent filled the air.

“I’m just trying to build something there. For all of us.”

“Thanks but no thanks, okay? My life is here. I can’t just blow it off because you
nurture some pathetic pipe dream.”

Silence arrived so suddenly, it made her ears ring. Sandra noisily closed the white jar,
returned it to the night table. She turned out the light and got into bed. Oh shit, oh
shit, she thought.

There was the sound of Liam’s glasses on the bedside table. His voice floated to her
through the darkness: “I won’t mention it again if that’s the way you feel.”

It wasn’t, not completely. But try as she would, all Sandra could say was, “so I hope
that’s settled, then.” What the fuck’s the matter with me, she thought. What makes me
say these terrible things?

They turned away from one another then, rustled the bedding, drifting further and
further apart.

For the rest of his two weeks in Montreal, Liam and Sandra were overly polite though
they hardly spoke to each other. Even Dan noticed. And though Sandra drove Liam to
the airport, in itself an unusual event, she saw the hurt had settled in the soft brown
depths of his eyes. When he left her to enter the security checkpoint, Sandra felt the
prickling of tears. Why can’t I just say I’m sorry, she asked herself. Why can’t I just call
him back?

The month that Liam was away, their emails and occasional phone calls had a
perfunctory quality that left Sandra rattled. He was due back the last week in June, for
their anniversary. Sandra decided to book a table at an Italian restaurant in Old
Montreal they’d gone to on special occasions, ever since she proposed to him there.
She had herself waxed in anticipation. The esthetician had been pushing ‘the Brazilian’
on her for months, and Sandra finally gave in, thinking maybe this would be a good
thing, a little variety. As the wax was ripped from her body Sandra cursed, almost
crying and yet somehow happy for the pain. She hated herself for having made them
both so unhappy.

She offered an awkward apology when she met Liam at the airport: “I’ve been so
short-tempered,” she said, “what with the lab situation, Dan’s shtick, you gone so

“Forget it,” he told her, “I know it’s been hard.” But in bed they didn’t touch each other,
as though sex was some language they no longer shared.

Their anniversary fell on a Thursday, June 29th, a few days after the Fête Nationale.
The night was perfect, warm, too early in the season to be humid, with a cool breeze
coming up from the river. Throngs of people, Montreal natives and tourists alike, took
calèche rides or strolled narrow cobblestone streets, stopping to watch the fire eaters
in the Place Jacques Cartier, to goggle at the gold-lamé Elvis who stood like a statue,
the mimes handing out balloons to the children, the musicians who alternated the love
songs of Daniel Bélanger with The Beatles. On the ruelle des artistes, the occasional
artist could be picked out among the charlatans who painted posters with water colors
and tried to sell them for seventy-five dollars a pop.

When Liam and Sandra entered the restaurant, it was already filled with smiling couples
and perfumed with garlic, rosemary, and candle wax. They were seated at a table
covered with white linen and silver plate. Sandra was content, thinking she had
stage-managed this well. Liam ordered their favourite wine for special occasions, a
robust Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia.

An hour later, he poured the last of it in their glasses. Conversation had been
agreeably low-key: Liam’s progress in China, Jillian’s new boyfriend, Sandra’s pleasure
in discovering that Dan had taken up jogging. They discussed the possibility of her
pursuing a PhD and whose parents they were due to visit at Christmas. She took
another sip of wine, rolling it in her mouth, savouring its earthy bursts of chocolate and

Liam put his glass down and lowered his eyes. “I have to tell you Sandy . . . it wouldn’t
be fair not to. I’ve met someone, over there.” He looked up at her as she choked on
the wine and coughed. He handed his napkin to her then went on in a rush, “Dan’s
older now. We are too. Maybe we’ve changed, you know? Maybe we’re just not on the
same page anymore. These things happen.”

Sandra was still spluttering; she dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. She couldn’t
speak. She coughed till there were tears in her eyes.

“We can be adult about this, though, can’t we?” Liam went on. “Let’s just take it from
here and deal with whatever comes.”

Sandra could only nod and look away. She felt for a moment as though she was
hovering above her chair, as though she was about to float right up to the ceiling, as
though gravity had ceased to be a force of nature. She brought the napkin up to the
corner of each eye. She had done this, she knew. She had pushed him away, just as
she’d done to Dan. The stupid, vile things she would say and never take back. How
could she blame him, really? How could she understand the harm she was doing and
still be completely unable to stop herself? Now at last she was speechless.

A young couple sat at the next table, leaning toward each other, the candlelight
revealing a vital expectancy in their faces. They could have been Liam and herself, a
lifetime ago. She felt suddenly there was something she must tell them, something
urgent, but she wasn’t quite sure what it was. But from that moment on, and for the
rest of Liam’s visit, Sandra felt she was auditioning for the lead role in her own life.

In mid-July, Dan offered to make his own way to the psychologist’s. Sandra took this
as evidence he had finally engaged with the therapist and regained a sense of
responsibility. It wasn’t until she came home a couple of weeks later and took her
messages from the answering machine that she realized something else might be going
on. Dr. Lala’s secretary had called to ask if Dan intended to keep his regular weekly
booking. He had missed three consecutive appointments. “Please let us know as soon
as possible, as Dr. Lala has a number of patients on a waiting list who would be
pleased to take it if you don’t.”  Mulling it over, Sandra realized Dan had been out of
the house a lot lately, too.

She confronted him the next time their paths crossed. He was in the kitchen, making
himself a strawberry and banana smoothie.

“Dr. Lala’s office called earlier today,” she said, looking him over. He was clean shaven
for a change, his hair and clothes neat and cared-for, if you could forgive the oversize
jeans threatening to drop to the floor any moment. He’d lost some weight. The jogging
had firmed him up; his features were better defined, less like the Pillsbury doughboy’s.

“I’ve been meaning to give you your cheques back,” Dan said, intent on pouring the
drink from the blender. From a voluminous pocket he pulled out three envelopes
containing cheques she’d given him for the psychologist. She took them and slowly
unfolded them, then looked up at her son.

“I wanted to tell you,” he said, his voice trailing off. He took a slug of his drink and
wouldn’t quite look her in the eye.

“Tell me what?”

“I stopped going. I met someone. A girl,” he said, blushing.

“Really,” she said.

“Yeah. And, well, she’s fantastic.”

“You met a girl and she’s fantastic.”

“Yeah. I met her in the waiting room, actually. She was there to talk to one of the
psychologists. Not as a patient. She wants to study counselling after her bachelor’s
and her mom knew him and, well, she was there when I came in and I met her.
Manon.” He looked at his mother and smiled. “I don’t think I’m going to the psychologist
any more.”

“‘Call me but love and I’ll be new-baptiz’d,'” Sandra said.

“Shakespeare, right? Manon loves Shakespeare. She’s going to London in August to see
a couple of his plays at the Globe Theatre. It’s new, but they’ve tried as much as
possible to make it like the original. It sounds wicked sweet.” Sandra doubted he had
spoken this many pleasant words to her in a year.

“You thinking of tagging along?”

“I’d like to,” he said, looking away for a moment and then back at her. “I haven’t asked
her yet. I’m afraid she’ll say no.”

“That’s wonderful, Dan,” she said, and stepped forward to put her arms around him. He
felt so much larger than she remembered. She said, “welcome to the adult world.”

That August, Sandra rattled around the empty old house, living on her own for the first
time in her life. Liam had left her and she was exploring the dimensions of loneliness. It
wasn’t just Liam’s abandonment that got to her, although that was a major part of it.
Jillian was away, on a Mediterranean cruise for the entire month of August, with that
new man she had taken up with. It was as though all her attachments to the planet
were dissolving, her family, her work.

She started waking at regularly at three-thirty or four in the morning. She’d lie there,
going over it all, wondering what was wrong with her, why she had behaved so badly
to her husband and her son, what was it that made her always say too much or not
enough. Sometimes, lying there, she had the curious sense she could levitate.

On the bright side, Dan was doing well. This girl Manon was ambitious, knew what she
wanted and pursued it full-bore. He would meet her in Europe for the last month of the
summer. Liam had pulled some strings, but Dan would join Manon in Halifax that fall; he
was going to start university.

She went to see her doctor. He gave her a prescription for sleeping pills, told her she’d
had a shock and was in mourning for the loss of her marriage, that it might take some
time to get over it. He added for good measure that it might also be menopause
coming on and asked her to come back to see him in a month. He offered her
antidepressants and the name of a therapist. She thanked him but refused.

Sandra tried to get involved in the new lab but found it a hard slog; she wondered if
maybe she truly was too old to start over. Many of the people who worked at the
institute had taken August off and she discovered she couldn’t schedule her
experiments without technical help. Passing her old lab every day weighed on her, too.

Sandra began to feel a strange sort of disconnection, like she was going through the
motions, a caricature of researcher, someone who didn’t really care about the
outcomes of her experiments one way or the other. Outside, the sky looked the wrong
color blue, the sun, the wrong shade of yellow. At home, she discovered how much
she hated to eat alone, and food gradually lost its appeal. She dropped fifteen pounds
and became slow moving, sluggish, as though the air had become some more viscous
fluid she moved through with difficulty. She spoke so little her voice began to feel
rusty. By mid-August, her diabetes lab was finally history. She’d received a gold Seiko
watch from the lab director at his retirement party. She never wore it. It sat in its box
in a drawer, counting down the seconds.

She began to have the same dream over and over again, that she gradually became
transparent until she finally floated away. She had to wonder: if she really did
disappear, would it make any difference?

The late-August day was stifling, the midday sky almost white with heat. Through the
windshield, the asphalt shimmered. Sandra concentrated on the road, aware she was
hardly at her best. After ten days with almost no sleep, even walking a straight line
would have been quite a challenge. She was certain she would fail just about every
sobriety test except maybe the breathalyser. She negotiated the empty streets
without incident; most people were probably still away on vacation.

Sandra parked the van in the lot of a familiar sculpture garden beside a lakeside bicycle
path. She saw a man working to get a multicoloured kite aloft, running, switching back
repeatedly, trying to scare up some wind. Must be too hot, Sandra thought. After a
while he gave up, offered the kite to his little dark-haired girl and flopped onto a red
gingham spread where a woman sat amid the ruins of lunch. The toddler wandered,
dragging the kite behind her as though she had sprung a tail.

Sandra pulled things from an old tote bag. As the air conditioning dissipated, the sides
of the van seemed to press in on her. There was no note: she wasn’t sure what to
say, or to whom to address it. Why was she doing this? She had run out of steam.
Liam had his own life. Dan too. He wasn’t completely grown, true, but he didn’t need
her anymore, she had to face it. And for her? Her old life had vanished and she just
couldn’t imagine herself into a new one. Sandra hoped neither of them would blame
themselves but frankly felt was tired to care, too tired to keep it all going, this
pretence of a life, a life that had morphed somehow into a sentence to be served. She
was tired, that was all. And she could no longer see that it mattered whether she was
actually there or not.

On the upholstery beside her sat the vial of insulin she’d taken from her old lab and
stored in her fridge the past few weeks, the syringes and needles in their shrouds of
paper and plastic, a pill bottle with eight orange sleeping pills knocking around inside,
just to take the edge off-she’d decided on insulin for the main event. It had a certain
symmetry she admired.

The new wallet she left in the tote bag. She bought it only for the small card that read
‘CONTACT IN CASE OF EMERGENCY.’ Sandra had written her new boss’s name and
phone number on it. As someone who thought about suicide all the time, she figured he
was the person least likely to be upset by the call, capable of identifying her and
conveying the news. After all, how distressed could he be?  He hardly knew her. The
practicality of this decision satisfied her: at least she could still organize this. The
wallet was small and black, not even real leather. Everything of value she’d left at
home. She didn’t want anyone taking her credit cards. She didn’t want any more

Just knock back the pills–she fished a bottle of water from the bag–slurp up some of
the insulin, attach the 25-gauge needle to the syringe and away we go, she thought.
Not much to it, really. She popped open the pill bottle, and threw them into her mouth
in several bursts, washing them down with tepid water. Overwhelmed suddenly by her
own heartbeat and the closeness of the van–like a coffin she thought,
uneasy–Sandra got out for a moment to calm herself.

She leaned her back against the van door, breathing deeply, face to the sun, eyes
closed. In a bid to soothe her own agitation, she focused on the world around her.
There was a small breeze after all, she found; the air steamed with humidity. She
smelled the water in unpleasant, foul whiffs. She heard the gulls fighting over
leftovers. Gradually she became aware of voices calling. They grew louder, then so
insistent she reluctantly opened her eyes. It was the man and the woman from the
picnic blanket. She watched as they tried to catch up to the little girl, still trailing the
bedraggled red kite. The child skipped along the bike path, zigzagging, oblivious,
dancing to some music only three-year-olds can hear. Then Sandra saw it, a
fast-moving cyclist, an approaching blur in royal blue. The rest seemed to happen in
slow motion. The cyclist swerved as if to avoid the child. The parents streamed toward
their daughter, waving their arms, shouting, too far away to attract her attention. The
child bopped along erratically, dragging her kite, until the bike finally smashed headlong
into her, and then both she and the cyclist were briefly airborne and moving in
opposite directions.

Sandra ran the short distance and dropped to her knees by the little girl who lay
crumpled and unmoving, like a rag doll on an emerald rug. Carmine blood oozed from her
ear. The parents arrived an instant later, looking as though they’d aged ten years.
They appeared much too old to be responsible for such a young child. From their
expressions, Sandra could tell they felt the same way. The mother stood wailing,
hands on her cheeks. The father scooped the girl to him as Sandra tried her best to
dissuade him, warning him her spine might be injured, some old first aid training
returned to her in a wave.

Other people rushed over, cell phones plastered to their heads. Sandra felt herself
elbowed to the periphery as the group buzzed like a disturbed beehive. She looked
away and spotted the cyclist, alone, splayed on his back on a grassy incline, and made
her way over to him. His head moved from side to side. He moaned. Bloodied bone
poked through the flesh of his right leg. His heel pointed skyward; Sandra was afraid to
look at it too closely. She knelt on the grass beside him and asked if she could help.

“The girl,” he said, finding her eyes with his. He looked sixteen or so, to Sandra’s eyes
impossibly young. “The little girl. I really hit her? She okay?”

“She’s okay. Don’t worry, she’s fine, her parents are with her.” Sandra’s words all ran
together as she prayed she was telling the truth. “Relax now, you must lie still.
Someone is calling for help.”

“I’m so cold,” he choked out. He sobbed then and started to shake.

Sandra reached forward to unfasten his helmet, liberating a cascade of blonde curls.

She stared at him for a moment, then reached forward to push the hair away from his
eyes. “It’s shock,” she said. “You’ve hurt your leg and you’re going into shock.” Sandra
felt drained and abruptly exhausted. She sat down heavily on the grass and then down
on her back beside the young man, on his uninjured side. She took him in her arms.

“Shh,” she soothed, “it will be all right.” He continued to cry and shake. Sandra felt the
weight of the young man’s body hold her firmly against the Earth. She gazed up into
the hazy blue sky. High above them the gulls floated freely.

He’s just a boy, Sandra thought. Someone will have to take care of him. Someone will
have to tell him it wasn’t his fault.


Beverly Akerman commenced her creative writing career after more than two decades of
bacterial molecular genetics research. Her short stories have appeared in carte blanche, The Nashwaak Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Rio Grande Review, Fog City Review, and Descant. Her nonfiction and academic work has appeared in major Canadian newspapers and magazines, on CBC Radio One’s Sunday Edition (Canada ’s equivalent to NPR), as well as in many other lay publications and learned journals.

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