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The Risk of Death by Suffocation

by Bailey Bridgewater

Kingston wasn’t sure where his tan running shoes had gone. He paced, then stood wiggling his toes in the long hair of the shag carpet. He liked the skinned gorilla feel of it. His feet stood out stark white against the deep blue. He was sure they’d been next to the bed. It was where they always were, the toes pointing towards his side, the pair perfectly parallel, perpendicular to he and his wife when they’d lain, parallel, his arm over her waist. Before she died.

He roamed the apartment aimlessly and thought about moving away from this place. Somewhere his nurse couldn’t find him. She, with her forced feedings and medications and sterile smile. She who looked so vaguely similar to his wife that looking at her face caused his heart to constrict. He knew her aims – she wanted to lock him away somewhere cold and white. Somewhere Matty’s ghost wouldn’t find him. He imagined his wife haunting the kitchen and spoke to her apparition. “Where, Matty?” As usual, she didn’t answer. Where could an old widower blend in? He thought about Seattle and the grey rain. He thought about voting for Democrats and coffee with milk. Seattle. He’d arrange it all tomorrow, on the sly. Maybe the military would help him out. After all, they owed him for the cracked skull.

Hovering in the doorway to the bathroom, he gazed upon his domain. He would miss the seashell prints on the walls, the seaweed ring inside the sink. He’d miss the dirt and sand that came off his body when he bathed. Matty had loved the sea. It made her feel calm, she said. He’d hated the scream of the gulls, the smell of the brackish salt at low tide. But he’d loved her. He fingered the peeling wallpaper. This place had always been the same for them. Always. He turned too abruptly and his knee rewarded him with a cacophony of crackles. He wondered where his young man’s legs had run away to. Perhaps they made off with his tan running shoes. There was a clean space in the mirror where he could see his face, one eye at a time. He viewed the area around his mouth. Somebody had dug trenches there. He swayed in the central air hurricane and thrust out a hand to catch the sink. It knocked something off, and it floated above the vent like a whisper from beyond graves before flitting to the ground. He bent carefully, slowly, to retrieve it.

A plastic bag. Open. But with more plastic pieces in it, those inside with elastic around them. He’d seen Matty put them on her head when she covered over her silvery hair. He’d always told her leave it be – he liked her luminescent halo. But she’d cover it in liquid and put plastic over it, and then she’d be a younger woman and he would feel guilty for being so old. Here was that plastic again, and here was this bag. It had a message, and he held it close to his milky eyes.

“Warn children of the risk of suffocation.”

“Who’s there?” But clearly it had been his wife’s voice.

“Warn children…. The risk of suffocation.”

Kingston’s head swam, an image flashing over and over. A girl. A Korean girl suffocating during the war. How had Matty’s plastic bag known? Matty herself had never even known. He was so afraid of what she would think of him for not saving the child. But she knew now. Perhaps in death she knew everything.

“Warn children of the risk.”

“Matty? Where are you?” Guilt poured over him. He wanted to explain why he hadn’t tried to save the girl. He peered skeptically in the vent on the floor. He slowly pulled back the shower curtain, hopeful and afraid of being disappointed. He found nothing, yet he heard her again.

“Warn children of the risk.” She must be using a series of complex tubes to speak to him.

“The risk of suffocation.”

“Matty! How did…I can’t find you. Can you hear me?” He pleaded with the cheap drop ceiling. With pain and splintering he dropped to his knees to search under the bath mat.

“Matty please. You have to tell me where… I can’t find you.” What if she couldn’t hear him? Of course she couldn’t. She was gone.

“The risk of death by suffocation.”

Silence. Kingston drew himself together and waited without breathing.

“Matty?”

He was alone. His eyes imitated the leaky faucet. He closed them and lay down on the cold floor. Through the blur of his wet vision he swore he could see her next to him, but she played a trick and removed all the substance from his hands when he went to touch her. He stared into the white popcorn ceiling.

“Warn children….” Her voice sounded distant now. He moved as quickly as he could, rising to his feet.

“Ok Matty. I’ll do it. I’ll warn them. Don’t go!”

From what felt like centuries away “…the risk…”

“Of course! It’s my duty to warn them of the risk. You always know what’s best. I’ll warn them. I’ll warn them Matty! You won’t be disappointed.”

He fumbled around in search of his tan running shoes, but now was not the time for that. Now was the time to be decisive. “Forget the tan running shoes!” he yelled hoarsely. His slippers would be fine. He had a job to do. He pulled his bomber jacket over his pajamas and slammed the door behind him, headed out into the city he so rarely visited now since his nurse insisted on bringing him everything.

The sunlight was like shell shock. It temporary blinded him as it reflected off the white of the buildings. He pushed forward anyway, a line of cars carrying families in swimsuits with far too many belongings for a simple beach trip honking at him as he shuffled in front of the green lights. A father in a baseball cap stuck his head out the driver’s window of his silver Hyundai. “Watch it old man!” Kingston stopped and turned toward him. He wanted to chide his arrogance, but he saw that there were children in the back seat.

“Warn children of the risk of death by suffocation!” He had promised Matty he would deliver the plastic bag’s message. This man would not stand in his way. None of them would. The silver Elantra waited for him to cross, then sped through the yellow.

Kingston thought about the boardwalk. It would be off to his right, the waves crashing beneath it, carrying the squeals of teenage couples hidden below the dark wood planks. He pictured Matty in front of him, seated on the red cruiser with the wicker basket on the front as they returned from their favorite fudge shop with a bag of fresh caramel popcorn. She rode so gracefully, effortlessly turning to smile at him as they headed home while he struggled to maintain his balance, having not learned to ride a bike until she taught him after their marriage. He longed to walk out onto the pier, past the screaming children on the permanent carnival rides, to let the foam shoot up into his eyebrows. He even longed for the screech of the seagulls, for the way the water turned purple and green and aqua as the light changed. But he couldn’t do that right now. She was counting on him.

He turned left towards the square, to where he hoped the paper supply shop still was. It was where Matty had always gone to buy the most beautiful wrapping paper for gifts. She would spend half an hour choosing just the right print for their daughter while he perused the leather bound journals, often buying one for her and sneaking it under the back of his shirt before she noticed and playfully chided him for wasting money on her.

The shop keepers watched him carefully as he shuffled past, looks of vague concern and curiosity on their faces. The store was still there, and as he pushed his weight into the wooden door, bells tingled above his head. He didn’t recognize the young woman far away behind the counter. She didn’t greet him, just eyed him suspiciously and turned her gaze back to a customer who was perusing fancy pens. He scanned the room for the markers and selected the thickest red one he could find. Then he went for the posterboard. There was one almost as tall as he now was. He laid it down on the floor of the shop and slowly crouched above it, balancing tentatively on his aching hand. He gripped the red marker so tightly it looked as if the words bled out of his hands instead of from the instrument. In letters as large as he could make them, he spelled out:

“Warn children of the risk of suffocation!”

As he wrote the last word, the image of the young girl crashed into his brain again, her Korean eyes wide and her mouth opening and closing like a fish as she attempted to breath in air that simply wasn’t there. Even as his friends had told him to run, he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. He covered his nose with the arm of his uniform against the gas that no one told him would be there, eyes still fixed on her pleading eyes. A younger soldier had grabbed the fabric of his uniform just as the girl dropped to the ground, the poison overtaking her as her face turned a light shade of indigo.

His eyes welled up, water dropping into the fresh marker and causing it to run down the glossy white board. He let the marker fall to the floor as he rose to his feet and crashed through the tingling bells again. He blinked against the light on the street, dragging the posterboard behind him as he headed towards the courthouse. He had to use one hand to clutch the concrete as he pulled his aching legs up the stairs. Finally he was at the top, whole heads above the people going about their days. He hoisted the board above himself, struggling to keep it and him upright. He could hear Matty again, prompting him on.

“Warn children…”

He shouted it as loud as his lungs would allow. “Warn children!”

“the risk…”

“Of the risk!”

“death by….”

“Of death by!”

“….suffocation.”

“Suffocation!”

A few families stopped to look at him. When he looked out, the girl from the stationary store was there too, her look somehow one of both condescension and confusion. They waited for him to speak again, but his message was simple and so he repeated it.

“Warn children of the risk of death by suffocation!”

Several more people stopped. He heard the courthouse door behind him.

“Warn children!”

A small crowd started to form below him, made up of bikini-clad women cutting through from their hotels to the beach, people in suits heading to the banks, and children with snowcones and sticky red faces. Among those faces, an Asian girl caught his eye and in his mind, her face, orange from her frozen treat, turned a pale shade of indigo. His eyes grew wide as he involuntarily lurched towards her in anticipation of her fall, but it was he who fell as the stairs gave way beneath him. He clutched the sign even as he toppled down the stairs. His eyes never left the girl and Matty never left his head. “Warn children!”

“Warn children!” His voice bounced as he did. A hand reached out and grasped him. He gazed up into a face, confused.

“Warn children?”

“It’s alright Kingston. I’ve gotcha.” He didn’t recognize the speaker, but the man seemed to know who he was. “You alright?”

Kingston just stared. The man pulled out a phone and dialed. He turned his head away from the old man while keeping a hand on his shoulder, now sitting on the step.

“Yeah. Can you come down to the courthouse? Yeah. Yeah. Ok. See you soon.” He hung up and turned again towards Kingston.

“Just hang tight for a minute here, ok? I’ll sit with you.”

And he dropped his suit-clad behind next to Kingston’s. The two sat in silence for what felt like eternity. Kingston’s hip was beginning to throb. He would forget the man was there, only to look up into his face, confused.

A young woman dressed in a pencil skirt and blouse approached. Her, Kingston recognized. She was the woman who came to his house and forced medicine down his throat. She was the one who told him when and what to eat, who told him it was time for a nap. Surely she was the one who had moved his tan running shoes. When she saw him she sighed. The young man let go of his shoulder and smiled at her weakly. She shook her head at Kingston before addressing the suit.

“He ok?”

“I think so. He took quite a fall though.”

Kingston felt the need to speak up for himself in front of these people. “I don’t need a nurse!” A flash of pain crossed the woman’s face as if she’d be slapped, and he went quiet, ashamed. He knew he had hurt her and that he shouldn’t, but he couldn’t remember why.

“What was he doing?” she asked the younger man as her eyes covered the posterboard.

“I’m not sure. He was yelling something about children and suffocation.”

She put her hands over her face, suddenly aware of the small crowd watching her. She apologized, but he couldn’t tell who it was meant for. “That hasn’t happened in a while.” The young man reached out and touched her face.

“Hey it’s no problem. I get it. If they don’t” he nodded towards the gawkers “then fuck ‘em.”

“Thanks.” She turned towards Kingston, pulling him up gently and sliding a shoulder under him for support.

“Come on dad. Let’s go home.” He blinked at her and her softer version of his wife’s face.

And they set off down the street, Matty suddenly absent and tears in his eyes.