Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Liam's Bridge

by Mary Brunini McArdle



In May of that year, when the weather warmed and the long, unusually cold winter ended, Ellen's sixteen-year-old cat began to decline. She was a tortoise-shell named April and had been adopted as a companion to another called Amber who had died two years before. Amber had been large, ferocious, and homely -- the fact that she had broken her nose didn't help her appearance at all. April, on the other hand, was small and soft and sweet, and since Ellen's only son had died suddenly at work in March, she was especially vulnerable. To make the decision to put April down was difficult. Ellen kept putting it off until April's condition went from bad to untenable.

"Mom, stop fretting and take her to the vet," Ellen's elder daughter Julia said.

Julia phoned her sister, whose name was really Patricia, but who had always been called "Sweet" because their father had insisted she was his "Sweet P."

"Hey, Sweet, can you talk to Mom a minute? I can't do anything with her -- you know, about that cat -- what? The twins are crawling in the dishwasher? Well, isn't Ross there? It's dinnertime. Oh. He's late. Okay, bye."

Julia slammed down the phone and turned back to Ellen. "She screamed at me. I think she's misnamed."

"What did she say?"

"'Didn't you hear me say the twins -- and you prattle on about where Ross is?'"

Ellen hid a little smile. But the next day she took April to the vet. Then came home and cried all through dinner while Julia tried to comfort her, finally gave up, and went home to her condo.

####

Loneliness. Even with Julia only three miles away, Ellen had been lonely ever since Liam's death. He had been barely forty. And now, here was April deciding she was going to die too.

This was even worse when Ellen's husband had been killed in a car accident when Sweet was seven. Ellen was too busy with three children to raise to live under a black cloud. But Liam --

Why did he have to push himself so hard? Ellen wondered for the hundredth time. Everybody said it was such a bad flu. He was an emergency room doctor, for heaven's sake. He should have known better.

A kitten? Ellen mused. Maybe even a pair? I'd better decide now, while it's May and still kitten season, so I can have a choice.

But every day Ellen put things off and then it would be evening and she would be so tired. Like she could hardly get herself ready for bed. Like she could scarcely finish brushing her teeth or turn down the bed.

Which seemed so empty without April there.

####

When Sweet was nearly eight, she sat thirteen-year-old Liam down on the sofa to tell him the story of the "Rainbow Bridge."

"I already know this is going to be really stupid." Liam made a move as if to get up off the sofa.

"Liam, sit back down. You need to listen. Everybody likes the "Rainbow Bridge."

"Everybody under First Grade."

"Shut up, Liam. Mom! Mom! Make Liam listen!"

"Won't hurt you to give your little sister a few minutes, Liam."

"Oh, all right."

"When dogs and cats and ponies die, and go to Heaven, they play out in the sun all day and under the stars at night on the Rainbow Bridge."

"What about parakeets?"

"Liam!"

"Okay, Sweet, I'm listening."

"So they are happy and healthy and sparkly, but every now and then one stops and looks far off to the side. It's when their owner dies, and the pets know they are coming. So the dog or kitty leaves the Rainbow Bridge and runs to their master or mistress and stays with them forever."

"That's nice, Sweet."

"Isn't it ever so lovely, Liam?"

"Uh, huh."

Fourteen-year-old Julia went behind the sofa and pulled his hair. He got up and swatted her one and that was the end of the quiet, peaceful evening. But at least Sweet had gotten her story told.

####

Liam sat on a grassy knoll, chewing on a twig and thinking. The air around him was soft and warm, and had a fresh scent, like lilac or camelias.

How did I get here? he wondered. And where is "here"? It's familiar and yet -- there's a "disconnect" somehow.

He could hear the sound of running water nearby, and far off in the distance there was the misty outline of a small stone bridge.

Little shapes were moving around, on and beside it. They were too far away to make out any details.

I think I remember being sick, Liam thought. With the flu. Shouldn't have been a big deal; I'm young and strong. But why can't I remember how I got here? And where in the name of God is here?

####

"Would someone please find me an attending?"

Brenda Swift, Head Nurse, was yelling over the noisy crowd in the emergency room of the town's major hospital. "Trauma patients are coming in the door right now."

"Dr. Carleston's the attending on call," an aide said.

"What?"

"Dr. Carleston -- here he comes now."

"He shouldn't be back at work yet; he's going to relapse."

A young, weary doctor appeared in the hallway, pushing his reddish hair out of his eyes. "Brenda? Did you call for me?"

"Yes -- trauma patients coming in."

Dr. Liam Carleston sighed. "All right -- how many?"

"Six."

"Send the worst to Trauma One and the rest to Two. I'll be right there."

He put out a hand to steady himself; the hallway was spinning. He took a deep breath and began making his way to Trauma One. But before he got there, his legs collapsed beneath him. The last thing he heard was Brenda screaming.

He lived two more days in the ICU until his heart gave out.

####

Julia, who had never married, made a good living as an executive secretary for a group of realtors. She put a lot of effort into visiting her mother as much as possible, often eating dinner with her. Sweet lived with her husband and five children in another part of the state, and with Liam gone, Julia felt even more obligated. It looked as though Sweet's brood would be Ellen's only grandchildren.

One night Julia arrived about six with groceries, announcing that she would cook that evening. While she was at the stove, the phone rang. Ellen answered it in the family room.

"Yes? Oh, yes, Dr. Evans. What can I do for you?"

"Oh, it's more what you can do for me? Okay, let's hear it."

"They do sound adorable. But I don't know if I'm ready for -- I will be when I see them?

I've just been so awfully tired lately, Dr. Evans. Well, all right. I'll come by tomorrow."

"Who was that, Mom?" Julia called from the kitchen.

"The vet."

"Why would he be calling you?"

"He wants me to see a new acquisition."

"An acquisition?"

"Well, a 'dump' actually."

"Oh, Lord." Julia put down a big red spoon and said, "Dinner's ready."

Ellen got up and went to the table, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. She was crying again.

"Mom?"

"It's okay, Julia. Let's eat."

Salty tears dripped steadily into the stew. Ellen apologized twice; Julia kept saying it was all right, she didn't mind. "A little extra flavor, Mom. Here, have a roll."

"Fine."

####

A breeze picked up a lock of Liam's hair, which had inexplicably gotten thicker.

Impatient, he brushed it away and stood up. Though curious about the little stone bridge, he was even more curious about the source of the running water, and began to walk uphill, leaving the knoll quickly behind. Ahead he saw a rocky formation. Water bubbled from it and down, turning into a narrow stream. Wonder if it ends up at that bridge? he thought. He was distracted by a clump of marigolds. "Mom's favorite," he murmured. He had a flash of a -- memory? An enormous wreath of yellow roses next to a coffin. He blinked, and the memory, if that's what it was, went away.

Another flash -- but this time it was of his elder sister Julia in her first prom dress. Unlike Liam, Julia's hair was a medium brown, her eyes hazel. "Yellow is definitely her color," he said aloud. "But Sweet -- Sweet's hair is lighter, and she has blue eyes. She looks her best in pink and blue."

He arrived back at the knoll, and sat down again. Why am I thinking about colors? he thought. This meadow or whatever is so fresh and green, and it smells good. Maybe that's why.

Mom! Mom always smells good.

He let out a little moan. "Mom! Oh, my God! Mom. Where are you?"

####

Ellen put on navy slacks and a deep yellow sweater. Recently she had had highlights put in her smooth brown hair; she was thrilled with her new look. Amazing how a trip to the hairdresser can lift your spirits, she thought. She drove the couple of miles to the animal clinic she had always used and parked.

"Mrs. Carleton, I have a room ready for you," the receptionist said. "Dr. Mills will be right in."

She heard the soft mewing before the vet even opened the door. He came in, holding a black and white kitten in each hand. They were short-haired, about nine or ten weeks, and almost identical, except one had an oddly shaped black mark on one ear.

"Oh," she murmured. "How precious. Don't tell me somebody left them at your back door at the crack of dawn!"

"Two weeks ago. We wanted to be certain they were very healthy. And they are. They've had their first shots -- on the house, if you want these babies. They're both little girls."

"Can you keep them a couple of hours while I get supplies? And whatever food you recommend."

"They've been doing well on this." He held out a bag of dry kitten food. "I'll be happy to hold them for you."

She bought two small litter boxes, litter liners, kitten food, litter, two carriers, and two little fleecy beds, one yellow, one pale green. She hadn't enjoyed herself this much since Liam's death.

When she returned to the animal hospital, she had already picked out names.

"The one with the odd marking on her ear -- 'Eyelet.' And the other -- 'Pique.'

Thanks so much -- you'll let me know when they need more shots?"

"Certainly, Mrs. Carleton. I'm sure you'll enjoy these little twins."

####

Liam stretched out his legs and laid his head back. He thought he observed one of the little shapes near the bridge coming toward him and getting larger, but his eyelids drooped and he began to doze. A little later and something tickled his bare forearm. When he opened his eyes he saw a small tortoise-shell cat nuzzling him. She was soft and had a pointed face with the two-toned eyes of the typical tortoise-shell.

"April?" Liam murmured. "Is that you?"

She purred loudly. He gathered her up in his arms and stood, seeing for the first time an off-white building in the distance. He strode toward it. It had a wide, circular driveway, lined with wisteria. Somehow it seemed familiar -- there was a faint picture in his mind of a tricycle parked under one of the wisteria bushes. He entered the wide double door. The front room had soft brown carpeting and a couple of bay windows. Sitting in one of them was another cat -- a larger tortoise-shell with a crooked nose. "By damn! It's Amber!"

The room was furnished pleasantly with warm colors and a vase of yellow roses on the coffee table. Liam sat down on the sofa and Amber came over and curled up beside him. She put one paw on his leg, while April snuggled under his arm. Puzzled, Liam sat and petted them for a while -- until he heard a knock coming from the back of the house. He got up and went to the kitchen door. He opened it cautiously and said, amazed, "Dad! Could it really--"

The man outside smiled and said, "Yes, it's me. I have some instruction for you."

Liam felt tears forming in his eyes. "Let's hear it. God, this is unreal!"

"You have been chosen to be the Guardian."

"The 'Guardian'?"

"Of the bridge. To live here in this house until Julia comes. She'll be here before your mother. Then Julia will take over as Guardian."

"Here? Is this where I think it is? But -- but -- how can Mom lose another child? It will kill her."

"Your mother is an extremely strong woman. She will move, along with Eyelet and Pique, to be near Sweet who is expecting another set of twins. Everyone will be so consumed with them and their resemblance to you and Julia that the grief that is natural will be diluted."

A sound from the living room distracted Liam. Looking around, he saw Amber and April sauntering to the front door.

"Where are they going?"

"Back to the bridge. To wait for your mother."

"I suppose that makes sense. Especially taking Sweet's story at face value. And after Julia comes? What am I supposed to do after?"

"More, Liam. Even more."

Liam stepped forward and embraced the father he hadn't seen for years, then waved at him as he retreated into the upwelling twilight at the back of the house.

THE END


© 2010 Mary Brunini McArdle

Bio: Mary Brunini McArdle publishes mainly online and favors fantasy, the paranormal, and science fiction, although she occasionally writes mainstream fiction. She publishes poetry extensively. Her work has appeared in various online and print publications, including many poems and stories in Bewildering Stories and several appearances in Aphelion (most recently Parallel Lives, June, 2008).

E-mail: Mary Brunini McArdle

Website: Mary Brunini McArdle

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