At the time I was sure I was dying. My heart was erratic, my knees locked regularly, and my brain burned. This immediately following my first night home after crashing out of law school. I’d taken an ill-advised (cleansing, I thought!) night swim in the hot algae muck of our local watering hole. Naturally, I caught the brain worms.
I know they aren’t actually worms. They’re brain-eating amoeba. But in the stew of my brain, they wriggled like worms.
I spent the following days slung on the spare futon in my father’s duplex. I refused to research my worms ever after I learned the survival rate (a fat zero, last check). Instead, I flipped the slick pages of my father’s photo albums. I breezed through volumes, scanning and cycling back, enjoying the quick glimpse of this boy who was me, who had more years ahead than behind. Eventually, one image did stop me: a six-year-old shepherd hanging off a low stage with Lucy LaMont on the night of the nativity play at First Baptist Kinder-Academy. Lucy had been the angel of the Lord, and her wings had real feathers. Her pipe-cleaner halo never drooped. In the play, I had received her good news, and she stayed with me after.
The next morning I called my shepherds, Chuck and Franklin, who had never left town and were once quite tolerant of me.
Franklin had his own house now. He said he would host a get-together sometime this week. This was a lucky break after Pastor Bradlee informed me that First Baptist could not (would not) allow me to take stage space or, at any time, prowl about his preschool.
So before our meet, I hopped Franklin’s fence and began to set a stage of our own with the slightly soggy pallets that Franklin had stacked behind his garage. I could fashion a tripod with a waterlogged stool and two bricks, but before I could set my phone to record, I called the boys again, and in retrospect, I may have given Franklin a surprise.
Chuck was a sport. He ran right over and asked if we were helping Franklin install a pool. Maybe the pallets confused him. I certainly don’t know a thing about above-ground pools, myself.
“He broke in,” Franklin told Chuck. He was always a poor stage whisperer, even as a shepherd. “I dunno what he’s doing.”
“Right,” Chuck said, nodding to us both in turn.
“I’m restaging our best moment before I die,” I explained.
“Best moment?” Franklin asked. I thought it ought to hurt him to twist his face like that.
“First Baptist Nativity, December 12th of 1998.”
“That play was a disaster,” Franklin said.
“I don’t remember it,” Chuck said.
“We were spot-on,” I said. “Don’t get caught up on the rogue lamb, Frank. They were toddlers. I’m talking about the minutes that made the show! I’m talking Luke 2:8, Luke 2:9. Come on, you’ve got to remember.”
“What are you dying from?” Chuck asked.
“Hell, he’s freaking about Lucy,” Franklin said.
“You did say you’re dying?”
I assured them that this was not about Lucy, and that I was, indeed, dying. I did not mention the brain worms.
When Franklin approached me, I couldn’t read him. His face could shift sometimes like dough over a livewire. Anger, confusion, pity, it all might flush in the pulse of those pitted cheeks. But he was oddly blank. He set his hand on my shoulder hard enough to buckle me. Then he hefted me upright, and I went with the pull, thinking of my body and how frail it was and how soon it would be all of me, collapsed in a hole somewhere.
“Alrighty, so you weren’t here for Lucy’s passing. But, bud, that was a year ago. You were at State.”
“I was at a private university,” I said. My dad called me weeping about Lucy a few weeks after I started school. Leukemia. It hit hard and fast, sweeping her out like a riptide. He was wrecked over it, but he’d never known her. He hadn’t even seen the play.
“We all grew up,” Franklin said. “Outside of preschool, we didn’t really know her.”
“You didn’t really know her,” I said.
“That’s what he’s saying,” Chuck said. He seemed pleased at the resolution.
Franklin released me. He stood back, and in that moment I felt like a bug under his gaze. I could be squashed. I wanted to be ground down to nothing so I didn’t have to fret anymore about the coming bootheel.
Franklin stepped back. He retreated into his house.
Chuck and I stood silently together, waiting, as if Franklin might return. I began to doubt the possibility of my stage revival. Sure we were missing the key player. I always knew that. But if I could just recreate the moment before the angel arrived, if I could burrow in that moment one last time, I could live my last days inside a blessing.
I wondered if Lucy welcomed the riptide when it came or if she fought the current.
“I don’t think you got the Leukemia,” Chuck said. “Can you just confirm that you don’t got the Leukemia?”
“I confirm,” I said. I dug the heels of my hands deep into my eyes. Deep. “I don’t, and I’m right here. I don’t. Right here.”
The screen door banged open, and I raised my head to see Franklin emerge amidst the motes that popped and sparkled in my eyes. He wore a white plush robe and gripped in each fist the ends of a white sheet that he’d flung over his shoulder. He flapped like a bat, proclaiming “Behold! Behold!”
He’d forgotten the lines. So had I. Still, I fell to my knees. Chuck, and the pallets, and the past vanished in my half-blind daze. I kneeled before my lost friend, this angel, and I tasted, finally, a fear as sweet as life.