The Seventeen Seconds of Odette
Hidden in Sight
Resentment as a Kind of Relief
Over the Kanawha
Culled from the Flock
The Beauty in Fracturing
Edgar Wilson awoke around four in the morning on the first Monday of May with his face pressed against a pillow and an arm underneath his head. His mind felt groggy and his mouth was dry: he was neither tired nor rested after a night of intermittent sleep. He checked the alarm on his nightstand and saw that it was set to ring in the next half hour. He pressed a button to turn it off and stood up, steadied himself against the furniture with one hand and rubbed his eyes with the other. He looked down at his wife, Suzanne, who was still sleeping. Her chest rose and fell steadily, her breathing even and light. Edgar walked to the bathroom where he trimmed his beard and splashed his face with cold water. Suzanne was still asleep when he returned. A few strands of pale blonde hair curled around the edges of her eyes. He sat on the bed next to her and squeezed her hand.
“Rise and shine. There’s only an hour and a half until sunrise.”
She groaned and rolled to face him.
“Edgar, that’s plenty of time.” Her voice was whispery, tinged with exhaustion.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
She mumbled her response and stretched herself out in the bed. Her hands met his, and he smiled at her, shaking his head.
“You’re not going to make me hike to the top alone, are you?”
Suzanne pushed the comforter off of her waist and sat up. She wrapped her arms around the small of Edgar’s back and kissed him.
“I’ll go put on some tea.”
The two of them went to the kitchen, and Suzanne put a kettle on the stove. When it was ready, she poured its contents into a cup and joined Edgar at the table. They stared out the kitchen window together, looking over the edge of the hill that their house rested on and onto the campus of Overbrook College. The dawn blurred all but the buildings’ starkest features, and the walkways stood empty, suggesting nothing of the commotion that would come later.
They could see the lights from the academic buildings reflecting onto the grounds at the top of the windowpane. These buildings surrounded a pond in the middle of the campus. One could walk out of any of these buildings’ front doors and reach the pond by use of one of the several winding footpaths, which converged at its edges. Toward the bottom of the pane, they could see the brick walkways that ran in between the dormitories. Edgar and Suzanne had begun their hiking tradition more than twenty years ago after they met in one of those dorms during the April of their senior year. Their house had been constructed around the same time as the dormitories, laid with the same bricks. Now that they were both professors—he of English, she of neurobiology—they often joked that the place they called home was really just another building on campus, an annex to the college that had anchored their lives for years.
Edgar glanced back at Suzanne just as she was finishing her tea. She smiled over the cup’s rim and drank the rest of it. She stood up and took the cup back to the sink. She washed it out and motioned over to Edgar.
“I’m going to go get dressed.”
Edgar looked at her, confused. “We still have about half an hour before we need to leave.”
“I know, but I think that it would be good to take our time. We’ll reenter the world of the living a little early today.” She laughed. “I’ll bring you down your shorts.”
Edgar grinned and told her that she should hurry up then. She smiled as she went to the stairs; she walked up them and disappeared into their room. He watched her leave and turned his head back to the window. Outside, a gray hue was starting to develop. He thought it was a wonderful time of day—those hours before dawn where everything is half a dream—though it was one that he rarely experienced. If he was up this early in the morning, it was usually because he hadn’t gone to bed yet, opting instead to fill the faintest hours of the night with work and with writing. Edgar had been getting by on little sleep since his days as a student, but teaching had eaten away at the time that he could have used for writing. For this reason, most of his evenings were spent sequestered on the screened-in porch behind their house, which served as his study. He had made the slow transition away from his office to the porch in the years following his appointment to the faculty. He couldn’t avoid his classes, but he could make sure that he invested his time away from them in what was truly important.
Edgar was still staring out the window nearly ten minutes later when he realized that the world had gotten lighter. He blinked hard and checked the clock on the wall. Suzanne hadn’t come back yet.
“Sweetheart?” he called.
He waited for an answer, but he received no reply. He then climbed to the top of the stairs and peered around the corner. The bedroom door was open at the end of the hallway.
“Suzanne, our shorts are behind some of my papers,” he said, as he walked down toward the door. “Top shelf of the closet.” He stepped into the room.
Their athletic shorts and shirts were neatly folded on the bed where Suzanne was lying on her stomach. Her nose was pressed against the pillow in much the same way that Edgar’s had been earlier. One arm dangled off the side of the bed. She had fallen asleep again.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, Suzanne.”
Edgar lifted a strand of hair from her ear. He ran two fingers along her neck and stroked the hand hanging over the side. He cupped her right shoulder and shook it. Her skin was cold and pale. He shook her shoulder harder, rolled her over and pressed his hands to her chest. She didn’t move.
He was still by her side nearly 30 minutes later when the sun rose above the hill.
It is the end of the month now. Exams are winding down, and the campus is alive with activity. Students dot the green at all hours of the day—laying blankets out on the grass, working on their laptops, conversing over slow games of catch. Voices saturate the air. This noise is merely a faint hum, however, to those seated by the pond in the center of all of it, insulated by tall reeds and hedges. The day is nearing dusk, and there is a faint glow in the sky that casts itself across the water. Edgar sits on Suzanne’s favorite bench, a few feet away from the bank. His shoulders are slumped and his eyes are heavy: he hasn’t been this tired in a long time.
He has been sitting on the bench for the entire afternoon—his last lecture let out several hours ago. He is waiting for something, but he doesn’t know what it is. He knows that it’s foolish to waste his time searching for some trace of her, but he can’t bring himself to leave just yet. The bench, the home, it makes no difference: she will never return to either of them. Edgar sits at the bench for the rest of the evening, until the energy dies from the air and the only thing that is left are the ripples in the pond. Dusk brings with it solemnity. Edgar heads home.
Later that evening, he finds himself seated at his desk on the back porch, his computer open to a new document. The feeling he had at the pond hasn’t gone away. He hasn’t considered writing since her death, but that feeling is tugging at him, making its presence known. He has no idea how to articulate it, though: it’s only a vague notion of something that is more profound. He peers at the white page on his screen, but he just as soon moves off of it to stare at the wall in front of him. The paint is a solid color; he’s examining nothing at all.
Nothing at all. Twenty five years ago, if Edgar could have lived alone, he would have packed up his books and fled from his dorm room. That was when he was a junior, the year when he finally started to understand what his favorite writers meant when they asserted that they needed to write. He started trading idle conversation for long stretches of time on the top floor of the library. He left his roommates and his friends to themselves, checking in on them only when he realized that he had been gone for weeks on end. He needed silence and isolation, and, at the right times, those wooden carrels between the bookshelves provided both.
But this commitment had its consequences. His friends’ voices took on a new edge whenever he did spend time with them. He couldn’t make them understand that writing was his only relief from an ache that he couldn’t describe. How could he? He barely understood it himself. He felt disconnected from the rest of the world, even when he was with those who knew him best—there were certain ideas and emotions that he was incapable of expressing. Writing was different, though: it was the most perfect freedom he knew. It stayed that way for more than a year; he isolated himself from the world and devoted himself to his craft. Then he met Suzanne.
Edgar breathes a long sigh and leans back in his chair. If he was right about it when he was in college, then he should be just as right about it now: if solitude is a kind of freedom, then he should have written something already.
We’ ll reenter the world of the living a little early.
He looks back down at the screen and shakes his head softly. He can still hear her in his head. It had always been this way—she was the only person who could ever reach him. But guilt lay on the edges of his grief, and it was beginning to show itself. Because even when she was alive, he continued to have doubts about whether their marriage was worth it. If being with anyone was worth it, no matter how happy they made him. He could never tell whether he was sacrificing his writing for his own joy, and a large part of him thought that he was. He stayed, though, because she was able to silence those doubts and fears. He didn’t know if he could survive without her, much less write if she was gone.
He knows now, doesn’t he.
He continues to shift his focus between the computer and the wall for the next half an hour. Nothing comes out of it. He then gets up and drags himself to the kitchen. The chairs at the table are pushed in. The countertops, once crowded with Suzanne’s personal effects, her legal pads and neuroscience journals, are bare and wiped clean. The rest of the room is empty. It could be the kitchen of a house up for sale; he hadn’t spent much time there since her passing.
Edgar opens the freezer and finds what had been their last bottle of vodka. A part of him smiles. The first time they met, he had been drinking vodka. He shuts the freezer door and stands in front of it for a moment, holding the bottle by its base. It is half empty, but it will soon be gone. She had asked him if he ever drank anything that wasn’t clear.
Back on the porch, he throws back his first drink and thinks more about her. The concern had always been the solitude. When he was younger, it was Edgar’s rationale for never dating: it was important to be happy, but it was more important to write. Suzanne was the only one who changed his mind. She made him believe that there was something important in being with someone, that there were things that he couldn’t realize by being alone. But even with this understanding, he could never be the person that she needed. She never asked him to spend less time writing—she never wanted that—but her face always fell whenever he explained that, yes, he had to stay out on the porch all night; that he was just starting to hit his stride; that he would fix himself something if he got hungry. Each morning after, she would have a little less to say. The question was always whether the solitude was worth the tradeoff. Because being with her even half of the time was better than nothing, but he was never sure whether that was something she could live with.
He closes his eyes and tells himself to focus on a moment—a single experience that captures what he feels. It isn’t as though he’s bereft of options. After more than twenty years, it’s merely a matter of making sure to remember everything. He just needs to focus. He knows that the longer he waits, the duller the memory will be. If he waits too long, he’ll only be left with fiction.
Edgar, by definition, all memories are fiction.
There, he thinks: that is the opening line. He types it out and rewards himself with another shot of vodka. He then stares at the screen. After several more minutes, he takes another shot. What would come next, logically? He vividly remembers her saying it to him, right down to her inflection. But he can’t remember anything beyond that. Perhaps the line would be better saved for later, or maybe it should be scrapped altogether. By the time he deletes it, he has drank his fourth shot. He falls asleep with his head on the keyboard.
Nearly twelve hours later, Edgar awakens to an intense, stabbing pain in his skull. He has no memory of the previous night. He opens his eyes hesitantly to find that he can only squint, but he’s able to make out the computer across the table from him: its screen displays a document filled with text. Edgar jerks his head up from the keyboard and quickly begins to read what he had written. But it’s nothing—a string of random letters and numbers from the agitated movements of his head as he had slept.
He hears a knock from the main hallway. He shuts his eyes hard and then stands up and walks to the front of the house. He opens the door. One of his colleagues from the English department, Donovan Olwell, stands outside on the front step.
“I didn’t wake you up, did I?” Donovan asks. He’s dressed in the burgundy suit and wirerimmed glasses that he often wears to his lectures. He was only hired on as full-faculty a few years ago, but he already carries himself like an academic. “Maybe I should have called,” he says. “I just wanted to stop by and deliver this.” He holds up a bottle wrapped in silver paper and tied with a ribbon at the neck. “Celia’s finest white,” he attests. He pauses and then says, “Well, my finest, too, I suppose.”
Edgar forces a smile. “Thank you. This wasn’t necessary.”
“Like hell. Come on, let’s have a drink. This is one of our best bottles. Italian Reserve.”
“Don, it’s barely noon. I have an awful headache, I barely slept last night. I appreciate the offer, but I was kind of hoping for some peace and quiet this afternoon.”
“Give me fifteen minutes, Ed. It’s been ages since we’ve just talked.” Donovan steps onto the rug inside the doorway. “You started without me, didn't you? You smell like Capote without the oranges.”
Edgar wrings his hands together. “I told you that I didn’t sleep well last night. I drank too much. I managed to hold out for as long as I could.” He gathers himself and then continues. “I’m always letting someone down, I suppose.”
Donovan presses his lips together. “Ed, I just want to make sure that you’re doing all right. Or at least as well as you can be.”
“Well, thank you.” Edgar pauses. Donovan looks at him expectantly. “Oh, come in, will you?” says Edgar. “We can talk in the kitchen.”
Donovan smiles and places an arm around Edgar’s shoulder. They walk together to the back of the house.
Edgar sits down at the kitchen table and motions for Donovan to sit down. “I wish I had something to offer you.”
“Not to worry,” Donovan responds. “I had an early lunch. I’m just going to stick this in the fridge, if you don’t mind.” He opens the refrigerator door with one hand, bottle in the other. Inside, he only finds condiments, an almost-empty bottle of cranberry juice and a sandwich wrapped in tin foil.
“My God, you weren’t kidding,” he says, frowning. “Ed, you know that you can’t keep living like this.” Edgar doesn’t say anything. Donovan walks back over and sits down across from him, looks at him concernedly. After a time, Edgar says, “I’ve been trying to write about her. That’s what I was doing last night. “ His voice cracks. “But I never know how to say any of it. None of it feels true. There’s always something missing.”
Donovan looks at the floor and then back at Edgar. “Is that really the best way to make things easier for yourself?”
“It isn’t about easy, Don. It isn’t easy to live here alone. It isn’t easy to live without her anymore. Those are all things I have to do, right? But this is more important than any of that.”
“Because if I can’t do this, what the hell am I good for, Don? I mean, honestly. It doesn’t matter what I’ve written or what I’ve said or what I’ve done if I can’t write about the one person who was there to support me through everything. The one person who made it all possible. I mean, my God, you can’t even imagine what I was like before I met her.”
Donovan stares down at the floor again. “You’re right, Ed—I don’t. And Cekia is still with me, and I can’t imagine what it would be like without her. But you’ve accomplished more in the literary world than any of us have, Ed. And from what it sounds like, Suzanne had a lot to do with that. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think you succeeded because she was the one forcing you to do it. I think it was because she supported you.”
Edgar looks at Donovan’s face as he continues to speak.
“I mean, this may just be me, but it seems like you’re putting pressure on yourself that she never would have wanted you to have in the first place. I can’t tell you how to grieve, Ed—nobody can. But what I do know is that it doesn’t make any sense to treat yourself differently than she would have. You’re alone, but you’re not, you know? She’s still here. The fact that you’re trying to write about her is proof of that.”
Edgar looks away sharply at this last statement and drops his own head. “But what if I can’t do it, Don? What if I’m never able to put into words everything that I’m feeling right now? What if she’s lost to me?”
Donovan puts his hands on the arms of the chair. “She isn’t a literary character, Ed. You won’t lose her. You may never get to her, but you have to try. Putting pressure on yourself won’t solve it, and the world needs to know how you feel. There are other people grieving too: you can give them a voice.” Donovan stands up and buttons his suit jacket. He looks back at Edgar.
“Keep the wine, Ed. And let me know if there is anything I can do.” With that, Don - ovan gets up and walks out the front door, closing it behind him. Edgar waits until he hears Donovan leave before bringing his head back up again. His eyes move to the trees outside the kitchen window. Beyond them there is only the cloudless sky—a shimmering, bottomless blue.
That night, he roasts a chicken and bakes a potato. He takes his time eating and reads a novel that he loves, one that he hasn’t touched in months. Afterward, he cleans his plate and washes the dishes, returning them to their proper drawers. He climbs the stairs and then showers; he changes into a nightshirt and shorts. With his notebook in hand, he walks back downstairs and onto the porch.
The night is warm and still—only crickets accent the silence. Edgar sits down and closes his eyes for a moment. A thought flickers through his mind, tells him to go back inside for his laptop, but he doesn’t. Instead, he opens his notebook to a blank page and begins to write, making sure that every word is carefully placed.
I’ve just returned from the world of the living, and here’s what I have to report:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Casey Burke is a junior at the University of Virginia, where he majors in English, with a concentration in prose writing, and cognitive science, with a concentration in linguistics. He is an avid distance runner, and he enjoys writing about and playing music. He has been passionate about writing fiction from a young age.