On the day Clive returns, four months after his last turbulent visit, Olive opens the door and can smell him, a thick mixture of burned sage and fermentation. This scent is not good, but better than the dead-body stench coming from the vent in her hatchback parked out front, the one she just drove home with the windows open despite the February weather. Clive is in her bed, face down, green underweared butt sticking up like a toddler, snoring. A scarlet patch of dark skin covers his tattoos, his shoulders, his upper arms. His face is the purple of strangulation.
She thinks – in the time it takes to shake him – that this time he’s done it. When she asks what medications he’s taken, he responds with a blurry list, using that baffled yet honest tone a person uses when they know they’ve blown it and have nothing to lose, Vicodin, migraine medicine, Vodka, Advil, other stuff. The purple-red mottled appearance of his skin seems to be already darker and spreading as if it is taking over his body. I’m good, he slurs with eyes closed, headache gone.
She takes a picture of his skin and tries to show the camera to his squinty eyes. I’m calling the VA or the Clinic or someone.
The President, he mumbles.
The nurse, a woman with merely a modicum of enthusiasm in her voice, needs to talk to him directly, privacy and all that. Olive hands him the phone, thinking he’ll hang up. Instead, with eyes closed and a loud voice, he tells her how fine he is and how Olive is paranoid. From across the bed Olive can hear the tinny voice of the nurse state she may be paranoid but our physician says you need to be seen in the Emergency Room.
Noooo, he says like a child who has been told to get off the swing set much too early, noooo! I’m fine here.
As instructed, Olive calls 911 and waits outside for the ambulance. While she’s gazing down the dirt road, the medic on the phone asks if Clive took this combination of pills on purpose. I don’t know, she says, even though she’s thinking, of course he did.
They arrive quickly but park far down toward the creek. Olive waves them up, thinking it is obvious where the call is from, but they don’t move.
In a moment two Sheriff cars also arrive, sirens off, parking in the middle of the road, like officers can. She pictures herself at an interview for the police academy, why do I want to join law enforcement? So I can park in the middle of the road.
The deputy, John Shribble, one of those tall, bullet-proof, semi-burly type who have an aura of confidence a valley-wide sashays into the yard, right up to Olive as if she’s caused trouble, points to the ambulance, What’s going on with Clive? He needs medical attention but doesn’t want it?
She explains, invites him in, and John Shribble squarely stands at the foot of the bed looking as out of place as a skyscraper in the middle of a small town. Clive, what did you do? He says this as if he’s talking to a hard-of-hearing frail elderly person, not an over-dosing well-muscled potentially-armed man.
As paramedics and other uniformed guests enter, Clive’s butt remains in the air and for a moment she hopes that he passes gas just to make this scene more whimsical than it is. Their serious presences, hands on guns, walkie-talkie chortles, and grim faces make the farmhouse seem small, weak, disorganized.
After one of the kittens runs up an officer’s leg, clinging with needle-sharp nails on his pants, she shoos them into the bathroom and shuts the door, loving how the animals aren’t taking any of this emergency business seriously. When she returns to the scene of Clive, the older one-eyed cat has settled on his back, giving herself a bath, as if this is an average day, having seven people stand around the small bedroom while the warm body beneath languishes in a drugged stupor and a peculiar woman wraps a pulse-taker around his arm.
Clive, the deputy tries again in a flat tone, Clive, can you hear me.
Grunts, moans and an adjustment to his side. His hair is long enough now to cover up most of the scars on the back of his head, although a patch or two of whiteish skin is visible if you try to find one. The woman with the cuff says this is good that he’s on his side in case he needs to throw up.
Don’t you dare throw up Clivey, this is a new mattress Olive says, as one of those ha-ha crisis-jokes. It comes out sounding uncaring and superficial as no one laughs.
Can you try to jostle him a bit to wake him up? The deputy asks and she realizes Shribble doesn’t want to touch him.
Clive, she says, visitors! The deputy is here, John Shribble, you know him, wake up.
A slow flicker of eyelids and Clive turns his purple head toward the deputy, Shrib! What are you doing here? Clive says this in a how-wonderful-fancy-meeting-you-here type of voice that makes Olive giggle from the absurdity of it. I was sleeping and here you are!
What did you take Clive? We got a call from the doctor that you wouldn’t come in to the Emergency. It is clearer than clear; the deputies enforce the medical care of the belligerent.
Nothing, he says, medicine for my headache. I need air. He maneuvers his almost-nude grotesquely half-purple body out of the bed and staggers to the door, falling forward through the living room and catching the next door just before he collapses.
Olive lets go of her frozen state and helps John help Clive outside to the picnic table where Clive howls and studies the sky. Who are all these people? Where is my nap? Why are they inside my beautiful nap?
She gets the feeling that the professionals want to talk to the patient alone, and so she calls in the dogs who sniff the guests with friendliness; one dog tries fearlessly to thrust a ball into the leg of an armed deputy who ignores him. The two geese however side-eye the strangers, refusing any sort of rounding up or waving away.
Clive disregards the attention of the officers and the paramedics as they ask questions. His only response is to sing with his eyes closed in a bad Irish-pub accent, I’m Irish, Cherokee and I shouldn’t drink!
John tells him not to take all these medications without doctor’s orders, as if this is a genius idea Clive must have never considered. Next time you have one of those headaches Clive, don’t mix these. Okay? This plea seems about as convincing as telling a horse to go ahead and now be a cow.
When Clive finally focuses on them, he declines to go to the emergency room — actually his skin does look better, almost normal now that he’s outside and awake — and they hand him forms declaring he is rejecting treatment. He signs them with a flourish, singing, I’m refusing treatment, I refuse! I refuse! I object! As he slumps back into a crumpled pile of himself with his chin on his chest, he mutters, everyone should sing with me.
The vomiting begins shortly after their parade of colorful vehicles leave, and she is grateful he is puking in the yard, rather than in the house. He is one of those loud melodramatic thrower-uppers: on his knees, alternately heaving and moaning, stop, stop.
From the steps she watches him until he says quit, go away. She thinks about when the other deputy asked what her relationship with Clive was and she responded, friends. Friends since we were kids. She didn’t tell him they used to be step-brother and step-sister. She left out details, mounds of details.
That night she is in her own bed, he is on the other side and it is a wide king, they are not lovers, but they’re on the same mattress. He has just given out a load of garbled nonsense about how dumb it was to call the cops on him.
You are a Grade‑A idiot. She tells him as the kittens wrestle on his chest. I didn’t call the cops. The clinic did.
He is breathing heavy, yet shallowly and falling in and out of sleep. My soul is sitting next to me. I think I’m going to die tonight.
As they lay there in the dark while the wind whips along the windows and the shadowy smell of storm flows in, she has a vision.
She’s not expecting one and hasn’t had one in a long time. A man, in jeans and a gray t‑shirt sits where she can see his profile. He has long shiny black hair and she comprehends that this man is gravely concerned about Clive and maybe disappointed, but that part could be her own interpretation. He sits between two paths, to the left is green grass and mountains, clear streams, the right is a trembling and decomposing city, with harsh pollution. The city is dead. The man taps with his left hand, a long white feather waiting for Clive to get it. Perhaps the man is impatient, but that might be Olive’s impatience.
You need to get the white feather, she tells Clive.
He agrees before she even has a chance to tell him about the vision. I do! I need the white feather before I die. I might die tonight if I don’t sleep.
She gets up and finds her green and red unakite stone, used for grounding. Hold this, she says, and you’ll fall asleep. He does and his snoring shakes the bed.
When she gets out of the shower in the morning, she finds him sitting up in bed, with the phone book, the phone, the computer, a notebook spread around him. He is on the phone, saying, I need the white feather or I’m going to die. Do you have a white feather? How can you have an American Indian Store when you’re British? You’re a Limey! Can’t you get the white feather?
He makes many phone calls looking to various organizations, churches, stores, for the white feather while I make breakfast. I can hear him say, Let me talk to the pro-pro-priator. Are you the boss? I need the boss. Tell him I’m going to die.
As she eats and he ignores his eggs she explains that she had a vision and she thinks the man in the vision is a symbol, you’re not supposed to just buy a feather, you need to go on a journey and earn it.
The white feather means bravery. I looked it up. I’m not brave.
She studies him, scarred, disoriented, ungrounded, cracked and thinks he is the bravest person she knows when the phone rings and it is someone returning his call, they have a white turkey feather.
No! An eagle feather. I AM NOT A TURKEY. He shouts as if he’s explained this a thousand times and no one is listening. After tossing the phone, he leans back on the pillow, looking exhausted, wretched. I don’t want to earn it.
After an hour’s climb in the drizzle, she is halfway up the mountain at her rock. Here is where she always stops to either have a snack or a moment. Every time she’s here, even in the winter, she thinks a rattlesnake might be under the rock and to make sure she doesn’t offer herself as bait, she crosses her legs to keep them from dangling. Okay, so maybe she is paranoid, but when this latest bout is over, Clive will be making her a steak with mushrooms and vowing never to behave like that again.
While she rests the vision returns. This time, the man, who is stern and unhumored has a piece of his skull cut in a circle at the top of his head. A silver river rushes out of the top of his head, projectile-vomit like. The silver has chunks of black. He is vomiting out from the top of his head everything that builds up, thoughts, memories, realities, particulars, everything that makes a migraine.
When she returns home, waters and feeds all the foster animals, drops a load into the washer, cleans the litter boxes and pens, bottle-feeds the two baby squirrels, she saves looking in on Clive for last.
He is still in the bed, smallish, sallow. He asks to check in with that vision, tell me please, he begs, what do I need to do to get the white feather?
What should she say to a man who has been offered a thousand versions of help and ignored most of them?
Chief Whitefeather, she laughs, you need to keep watch for guides. The words sound humorous, yet right. You’ll have many guides along the way. Who could argue with having many guides along the way of life?
He hides his head under a pillow while the kittens try to paw their way to him.
On the next squirrel feeding she asks him to help. They scramble over that bottle and if I had another set of hands it would be easier.
He showers and makes himself ready for feeding even though she tells him he’ll get messy and might as well wait until after. He says that the wildlife people called while she was out to ask if she’d take in a red-tailed hawk with an eye injury.
She nods, I’ll take as many as I can and then I can’t take any more.
The squirrels are sleeping when she opens the cage, hidden in the corner under pillowcases, but she soon hears small grunts. When she puts her hand in, they peek out with sharp black eyes and gray whiskery faces to climb up an arm, looking for the bottle. She has forgotten to put her hair up and one of them quickly nests itself above her neck. She shows Clive how to hold the bottle and hands him the squirrel on her leg while she carefully un-nests the other. The little rodent face stares up at him while sucking on the bottle, like a baby with a father. He seems relatively clear-eyed this morning and sings to the squirrel a song about growing up to escape the cage, the page, the knees and go climb trees.
He marvels, they don’t bite me.
After they feed, they always want to sit quietly on a shoulder, often pooping or peeing, but Olive remembered her squirrel shirt. One of them sits on Clive’s shoulder, still, the statue-like way squirrels do. Clive removes him gently and presses the squirrel’s cheek to his own. He’s crying and Olive lets him without interruption.
In the morning Clive is almost back to himself which is a contradiction because how many shades of Clive are there and which one is normal? He is out of bed on the couch and in that I’m‑sorry-Its-never-going-happen-again mood, as soon as I’m better, I’ll dig in that engine and find your dead mouse.
Don’t waste words on me, she tells him pinching her fingers in the air. Every word is a precious gem. Plus, she is in no hurry to have her car torn apart in the driveway with Clive cussing and throwing wrenches across the yard.
He looks at the photos of his purplish skin and admits she was correct in calling the VA. I know I was right, she says, pleased that he understands. In comparison, now he looks pale, bloated, scared. There was a time he found a doctor for Olive when she didn’t want one and they both know that.
She hears him in The Wild-Room as he calls it, the nursery, singing and talking to the squirrels, telling them how they will be released in the woods soon, after they eat as much avocado and broccoli as their tummies can handle. You’re going to love these sweet potatoes, he says. You’re going to love the forest.
Chief Whitefeather, she says when he comes out, pointing at a few brown rice-size poops on his shirt, take a walk?
I should have got things in order he says. I needed to work, not to be stupid.
She doesn’t want to hear remorse. Walk? She says insistently, irritably.
They hike into the woods where he searches for the perfect tree to release the squirrels, one where their squirrel box can be placed with a view of the river. We’ll release them early in the morning he says, right at sunrise.
She notes that he is talking about the future, as if he’ll be alive in four weeks. You’re not dying then between then and now?
He’s trudges in untied boots. I want to see them run along that tree, their first freedom.
Four weeks from now they’ll be ready. Can you make it? What she means is, can you keep focused, keep on it, keep yourself together? Chief?
He doesn’t look confident whatsoever. Hoping.
I’m not saying thank you, he shouts while taking off his shoes and pants to wade in the cold wintry river, because you really didn’t save my life this time. Halfway across, he ducks soundlessly beneath the surface.
I merely made you breakfast, she says to the shimmering water, while he is under, down deep longer than you’d would think a man like Clive could hold his breath.
Stefanie Freele's published and forthcoming work can be found in Five Points, Witness, Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review, Wigleaf, Western Humanities Review, Sou'wester, Chattahoochee Review, The Florida Review, Quarterly West, and American Literary Review. Stefanie is the author of two short story collections, Feeding Strays, with Lost Horse Press and Surrounded by Water, with Press 53. www.stefaniefreele.com