That spring before, the crows on their farm were Don Corleone, leaving the heads of baby rabbits on their patio. The oversized infant teeth were bloody shards over soft pink tongues. Alec had told Libby he’d researched it. Crows were actually more intelligent than dolphins. They could call animal control, box the murderers up for exile somewhere in the Blue Ridge behind their property. Her father had taught her how to shoot. She could take a pellet gun out into the field and scare the shit out of them—a crack in the clear air sending up a cloud of bat flaps and avian cacophony.
But the birds would return. Like Libby had. The farm was her grandmother’s, and her mother’s before her, and her mother’s before her. Their family name was burrowed like the cicadas in every inch of earth she walked across in the mornings, feet iced with dew, the fog cuddling her like a blanket.
Alec had also researched the softest blanket available online. It was robin’s egg blue, just a shade darker than her eyes (though those had faded as of late). No one would have thought that a thirty-five-dollar piece of felt would become her prized possession. Cancer was full of surprises.
“Can you get that in tartar control?” Alec said, nodding towards the red bag on the pole. He was funny. That was always the aphrodisiac for Libby. Her Achilles. He’d gotten her into bed those years ago with that, not that she remembered that person, that body. She herself was a chocolate bunny, parts of her chewed away, placed in a plastic bag, and left in the back of the pantry drawer. Still, he tried so hard.
“You know,” she attempted a joke in rebuttal. “I’d say sitting with me through round three of this shit makes up for all those times you pressed the ‘no’ button when the credit card machine asked you if you wanted to donate a dollar for cancer research.” Alec winced.
“Your back bothering you again?” Libby asked.
“I’m fine. I brought your Goldfish.”
Ellen, the infusion nurse, was beside her already with a Styrofoam cup of ginger ale and an extra pillow. She handed the drink to Libby and placed a waste basket with a trash bag around it by her chair. This was the routine. At this point, the nausea began before she even cleaned out the veins with the solution that made her entire body taste like mint. Libby hated peppermint. When she and Alec first married, he had made fun of the fact that she used Powerpuff Girls bubblegum toothpaste.
Veins flushed, look at the bag, recite your name, date of birth, puke, repeat.
“I’m good with the Goldfish for now. Try me in an hour.”
At least these were the shorter days—less antihistamine so she didn’t feel so drunk. Though sleeping killed the time. And three tries in, there was no easy delivery. No time for a mainline. So it went straight into the arm, and this shit burned.
They might have pissed the birds off at some point. Alec always had a project, and he never let a soul get in the way. Maybe the crows had disrupted the planting or eaten some seed, and he might have gone out and yelled at them—walked out to the birch in the middle of the field and clapped his hands or set off a cherry bomb just to fuck with them. Wasn’t that what everyone did when they were young? Sex with too many people, the wrong people, unsafe people? Driving too fast? Drinking too much?
The red dripped from Libby’s bag. Occasionally, the beeping started either on her machine or one of the other three in the room. Ellen calmly trod from one to the other, checking numbers, checking bags on the poles. She looked a little like Julianna Margulies from that show, ER, but Libby had never told her that. Alec wasn’t a fan of Ellen; he found her directness rude. But Libby liked her. She brought her chocolates every other treatment, and they understood each other. Ellen always had the ginger ale ready for her before they entered the office waiting room.
“Do you want your headphones?” Alec asked, looking up from his phone. He sat in the chair beside her.
“Nah. Not feeling moody jazz today. But you can hand me my book. It’s in the backpack.”
A Good Man is Hard to Find. Libby had rediscovered Flannery O’Connor during treatment. Maybe she appreciated her humor as she did Alec’s. Maybe she admired what Flannery created on crutches and in pain.
Right after Libby was diagnosed, for the third time, one of the crows had left a rabbit a little less dead than the others. She had been on a walk right as the sun rose and found the baby not a hundred yards from the house.
The baby rabbit was still breathing. Her eyes weren’t closed. They were dull pink marbles. Libby had run the silk ears, just a few inches long, between her fingers. Then she’d clenched her fist just under the chin and squeezed. The baby’s chest ceased its slow movement up and down, and the silken stomach, matted with muck and clay, went stiff in her hands.
For Libby, this time in the infusion room was different than tasting someone brushing her veins like teeth from the inside. These were shards of fire under pink skin singeing her from the blood to the air. And no matter what they did—even if they used bullets instead of BBs—the crows would return. Every time. They were that fucking smart. And they never forgot a face.
“Do you want the goldfish now?” Alec asked, looking up from his phone again.
“No, I’m good.”
“Anything else you need?” Libby looked into his marble eyes and felt her hands around his throat.
“Nah. You can take my book, though. I think I’ll try to sleep.”
Sally Toner is a High School English teacher who has lived in the Washington, D.C. area for over 20 years. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in Northern Virginia Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, The Delmarva Review, Watershed Review, and other publications. She lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband and two daughters. Her first chapbook, Anansi and Friends, from Finishing Line Press, is a mixed genre work focusing on the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from breast cancer.
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