Saving a Life

by Aki Schilz

Every year, Peirene Press runs a short story competition. The conditions are:

  • The story must be exactly 900 words long (excluding title/synopsis etc.)
  • The story must be inspired by the given theme.

This year’s theme was turning point. I’ve included here the image prompt given on the Peirene website. Here is my written response, ‘Saving a Life’:

He is sitting across from her. She is his third patient of the day. The first, a young girl, newly out of an abusive relationship. The usual stuff: acute anxiety, low self esteem, nails bitten down almost to the half-moons sailing out of her ragged cuticles. The second, a man in his forties. Smart grey suit, polished shoes. A doctor. They talked about his marriage, his children (Jean, 3; Lukas, 8), and eventually, about his relationship with his mother, who used to lock him in a cupboard when he was naughty, where he found comfort in slipping his little feet into her high heels. Now he does the same with his wife’s. She is the third. She talks about her dreams.

She begins:

‘In my dream the sky is heavy with coloured glass. The glass tessellates in a mirrored pattern. When I look more closely, I can see that the diamond-shaped panes are actually the translucent, glittering bodies of kites, hundreds of kites. The whole sky is a stained glass tableau of kites, luminous, extending to my left and right. Just below, there is a break, and lines of ribbons stud the sky, the kind of ribbons that you used to see tied to the threads that hold kites in place. Only, I can’t see any threads. There aren’t any. And I’m trying to look around me, to see if there is anyone holding them here on the ground, but my neck is stuck.’

‘And this makes you feel…?’

‘Helpless.’ This with conviction. She has shifted, her eyes are bright with remembering. She is older than he had initially thought. Than she said she was in their first session. Which is unusual, because his patients are normally keen to divulge all the most painful truths about themselves, after the first couple of sessions. But not Kitty. She doesn’t like to talk about what has happened, only what is happening now. Her dreams.

‘I become aware of a shape in the corner of my vision. It is something pale and small, and, I don’t know how to explain how that makes me feel. I suppose… I suppose it is vaguely threatening.’

He makes a noise in the back of his throat to suggest that he thinks this is interesting, that he is making a note in his book about this.

‘There is an underwater feeling to this dream, but not like the one before, where I was submerged in water, trapped in the air pocket of that boat. And then, then there is…not a sound exactly but something else, something that comes to me as blinding as a thought crystallising with a sonic, shattering clarity.’

He wonders if she is a writer. She speaks as if she were writing, or as if she was reciting something she had written. Her language strains awkwardly against itself. Her hands are folded tightly in her lap. They look detached from the rest of her body, which is hidden under that unflattering grey jumper dress.

‘So now, I look up. And I see that all the kites have been cut loose, and are blowing away in all directions. There is no sound. I feel unsettled. And the ribbons – I’ve just remembered – the ribbons have suddenly scattered and now are moving like magnets towards one another, and I am trying to open my mouth but before I can cry out they smash together and there is a noise, I can hear it, there is an awful, shattering sound, like glass breaking. The fragments of ribbon and the kites start to fall. As they fall I can see that they are made of glass. Sharp fingers of glass are raining toward the earth. I look beside me and I suddenly realise what the shape is. It is a child’s hand.’

He knew the child would appear at some point. He always did. He checks the clock. Twelve minutes till the end of the session.

‘A child’s hand, I can see a child’s hand reaching into the sky. Glass is raining from the sky and there is a child, a child here beside me. And there it is: my turning point. My volta. I know suddenly why I’m here, the reason I’m having this dream: I must protect the child. But as I reach my hands out, I know that I won’t reach him in time. I didn’t reach him last time and I can’t reach him now.’

Tears are tracking their way down her cheeks, but her body remains very still and she continues to talk, as if she is in a hurry to tell the dream, to vocalise it, in a bid to… what? To save the child? She never does. She didn’t save him last time from the rising water, or from the fire in the house, or from the earthquake that ripped up her grandfather’s apartment, the apartment which surfaced years after she’d last seen it, as places often do in dreams. He should start planning what to say when she has finished talking. He already knows how this will end. He will say something soothing, something thoughtful but benign. You know what this is really about, don’t you Kitty? Something like that. And he will listen, and nod, and make reassuring sounds. Just enough so they can think they aren’t mad. But not so much to destroy the illusion that they are special.