The Last Word

The Last Word

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Margaret Yang

 

Gone. It was all gone. The hospital had her mole now, and it didn’t matter that its original owner wanted it returned. Julia Coburn sagged in her chair. How could she make Mr. Lutley understand? She took a deep breath. The dozen ivy plants on the windowsill of administrator Lutley’s office did nothing to filter the air. It smelled like the rest of the hospital: the dusty, plastic smell of fresh band-aids.

“I must confess, Ms. Coburn, that our hospital has never seen a request such as yours.” Lutley’s jowly face oozed pleasant sympathy. “It was a routine operation. Your surgeon reported nothing unusual. And you’re healing wonderfully.” A half-smile appeared beneath his mustache. “Your face looks beautiful.”

Julia reflexively brought her fingers to her temple. “That’s not the point.”

“In any case,” Lutley went on, “we are no longer in possession of the nevus.”

“What? But you said—”

Lutley put up a forestalling hand. “All we have is a slide. A slice less than a millimeter thick. If this weren’t a teaching hospital, we wouldn’t have saved even that much.”

Julia flashed a pleading look at her lawyer. Lily Kang sat up straight in the next chair, elbows on the armrests and fingers steepled over her heart. “Mr. Lutley,” Ms. Kang said smoothly. “My client wants you to return any part of the tissue that you still have.”

“But she asked to have it removed, didn’t she?” Lutley fished around on his desk, finally finding the piece of paper he wanted. It was a standard hospital form, one of a half-dozen that had passed through Julia’s hands on the day of the operation. This one bore her damning signature, in her precise penmanship. Press hard, the top of the sheet demanded. You are making multiple copies. “Here is a copy of the waiver. If she didn’t want the mole removed, why have plastic surgery?”

Ms. Kang remained undisturbed. “Removed from her body, yes, but not from her possession.”

Lutley’s heavy eyebrows joined together as one when he frowned. “Well, of course, but we assumed—”

“It’s a part of me!” Julia insisted. “It’s mine! Can’t you understand that?”

Lutley tidied papers on his desk. “Yes, I suppose I can. We’ve had patients take gallstones home in old babyfood jars. If you’d told us at the time that you wanted it, your surgeon would have given you the entire thing. But now…” He spread his hands helplessly.

Julia blinked wetly at her lawyer. Bringing Ms. Kang along was a huge mistake. It only showed Lutley how badly she wanted the mole back. What was once simply part of a scientific database was now seen as desirable, and therefore valuable.

From her bulging briefcase, Ms. Kang produced a document of her own. “We have a statement from Ms. Coburn’s sister. She states that Ms. Coburn has been depressed since the removal of the nevus.”

Lutley took the single, typed sheet and scanned it. “Her sister? Who made her sister an authority?”

“You did, Mr. Lutley.” Ms. Kang lifted one corner of her mouth. “She’s a psychiatrist on your staff.”

Lutley let the paper fall onto his desk. “I can’t believe there can be any post-operative trauma from removing a mole.”

“Do you know that for certain, Mr. Lutley? What if you are ignoring a legitimate post-operative condition? Can you imagine how bad it would look for U. of M.?”

“We can—and should—return any part of the nevus we still have.” Lutley turned on his PDA and made a note. “I’ll get it from the research department. I’ll contact you… say, by the end of the week?”

“But it’s only Monday,” Julia practically whined.

“It’s just a mole, my dear.” Lutley lifted his bushy eyebrows, widening his eyes. “And you do look so much nicer without it.”

Julia buried her face in her hands and began to sob.

* * * * *

She should have stopped it as soon as the needle went in. She should have known then. As soon as the area was numbed, things started to change. The anesthetic was amazingly precise, affecting no more than a quarter-sized area of her left temple. She could feel the rest of her face, draped in sterile cloths, just fine. Why didn’t she stop it? She was distracted, thinking about her classes, thinking about how nice it would be not to have this ugly mole staring at her students when they looked at her. Vanity. Her own vanity got her into this. So, when the needle went in, numbing the area in preparation for surgery, she didn’t notice the memories slipping away.

* * * * *

None of Julia’s living relatives shared her abilities. Her mother certainly didn’t. Mom never said anything about it—perhaps didn’t even suspect—until a week after Julia’s sixth birthday.

Aunt Susan had come over with a new Barbie doll for Julia, a late birthday present. It was one of the new ones, that could bend her knees. Julia thought that surely she had never seen a more beautiful doll. More thrilling even than the Barbie or her pink chiffon gown were the impossibly tiny high-heels that came with her. Julia could never keep track of Barbie shoes. Only the go-go boots stuck around, as they were big enough not to get vacuumed up or lost in the grass.

Her sister got out her own Barbies, and the two of them sat on the floor having a fashion show. Julia tried on every Barbie outfit she owned, and then all of Natalie’s, seeing how everything looked with the new shoes. Adult voices floated over her head as comforting background noise until a sharp bark of laughter from Aunt Susan made her look up from the plaid miniskirt she was snugging over Barbie’s hips.

“A complete overreaction,” Aunt Susan said.

“I know!” Mom crowed. “I was ten minutes late.”

“The way Mother carried on, you would have thought you were out all night.”

“Tell me about it,” Mom answered. “He was just a friend. It’s not like we could get in any trouble on a rowboat.”

Aunt Susan sipped her iced tea. “Mother never did like boats.”

“Hmm.” Mom shook her head and reached for her glass.

Julia peered at the grown-ups over the coffee table. “Grandma was just scared.”

Mom and Aunt Susan both stared at her. “What did you say?”

Julia shrugged. “Scared of what could happen on a boat.”

Natalie tapped her arm under the table. “Shut up!” she hissed.

Mom drew her eyebrows together. “Julia, honey, we’re talking about something that happened before you were born.”

“I know.” Julia put her Barbie down. “Grandma was thinking about Ronnie, how he drowned, and that’s why she was scared.”

Aunt Susan stared at her as if Julia had just eaten the neighbor’s puppy. Mom just glared. “Who told you about your Uncle Ronnie?”

Julia shrugged again.

Mom looked from Julia to Aunt Susan and back. “You know,” she said carefully. “I think it’s time you girls go play outside.”

“But, Mom—”

“It’s a beautiful day. Go get some fresh air. You can take your toys with you.” Mother stood up and swept them out of the room so fast that Julia barely managed to gather up her doll and a few clothes. It wasn’t until she and Natalie were in the back yard that she realized that she only had one of Barbie’s new shoes.

She stayed outside for the rest of the afternoon, coming in only when called for supper. Nobody mentioned Uncle Ronnie at the supper table. Or ever again.

Julia never did find the other Barbie shoe.

* * * * *

Her sister knew. Her husband did not. Robert thought that Julia’s family told its own oral history, the way families will, reveling in their legends. The time Great-Grandpa won the pie-eating contest with nine blueberry pies. The time Aunt Abigail got lost at the zoo. The time the family bought a new house one block away. and the children moved all their own toys in the little red wagon. It was disloyal to keep the truth from Robert. It was necessary. She was afraid that her husband would start sending her out to play while the adults talked. He understood too much already, even claimed to understand her reasons for putting off child-bearing. Robert thought she didn’t want to lose her chance at tenure. He didn’t know that she had nightmares sometimes, of a daughter born with too-wise eyes, huge brown spot marking her face like a curse.

* * * * *

Julia stared out the window of her office in University Towers, wishing she could open it and fling out the stack of student essays on her desk. If she had to read one more composition on the simple life and healthy economy of the 1950s, she was going to puke. She looked enviously at the empty desk of her office-mate. Maybe she should start giving multiple-choice tests like Professor McCarthy. She doubted he even changed the questions from year to year.

Julia sighed and turned back to the pile in front of her. She’d just picked up her red pen when the phone rang.

“Hi, Natalie.”

“How’d you know?”

“Caller ID.”

“Oh.” A pause. “Have you heard anything from the hospital?”

“Not yet.” Julia realized she’d been stroking the scar and pulled her hand away from her temple.

“Hmmm. Maybe you should tell the hospital what the mole meant to you.”

“Yeah, right.”

“No, really! Maybe you can make them see… Past life regression is legit now. Shirley MacLaine makes money off of hers.”

“For pete’s sake, Natalie! I didn’t live these lives!”

“I don’t know why you had it removed anyway,” Natalie said. “You’re beautiful, with or without it.”

“I just… It’s all I saw when I looked in the mirror.”

“Do you think Cindy Crawford even notices her mole? She wouldn’t look like herself without it.”

“Thanks, Natalie, like I’m not depressed enough already.” Julia caressed the tiny scar with her fingertips. Even that was receding day by day. How could she have known what taking the mole off would do to her? “It just isn’t the same,” she said.

“Do you remember what you had for dinner last night?” Natalie asked.

“Of course!”

“And what you did last weekend?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Your third-grade teacher?”

“Yep.”

“Then you’re doing better than fifty percent of my patients.”

* * * * *

Everyone assumed that Julia’s great-aunt Emma was psychic. She wasn’t. She simply knew things, about life’s circle and the endless cycle of all events. Neighbor women would sneak into Emma’s kitchen through the back door, not wanting anyone to know that they had a problem worthy of the old woman’s advice.

A sepia-toned photograph sat on Julia’s piano, a picture of Emma with a hat pulled low on her forehead, over her left temple. Julia didn’t need to see under the hat. She knew what was there.

* * * * *

Julia was absurdly grateful when her office phone rang the next morning. She practically threw herself onto the desk to grab the receiver without even looking at the caller ID. “Hello?”

“Hey, baby. It’s me.”

“Hi, Robert.” Julia swiveled her office chair to turn her back on the computer. Not that she was turning her back on much. Two hours had netted her less than half a page. She held the phone in her left hand while flipping through notes with her right. Somewhere in this mess was the statistic she needed for her new textbook on World War II. She was supposed to be writing about food rationing, but kept butting her head against dry facts. Who cared exactly how much flour and sugar was allotted to each family in 1943? What she really wanted to document was her grandmother’s recipe for one-egg cake.

“Want to meet me for lunch?” Robert asked.

“Can’t.”

“Still not going well?”

“It’s going lousy. I’ve been sitting here all morning and I’ve written two paragraphs. At this rate I’ll finish this chapter… oh, when I’m dead, I guess.” Julia rubbed her forehead. A headache that had been forming all morning thundered just behind her eyes.

“Sounds like you need a break. We can hit the buffet at Raja Rani.”

“You don’t understand.” Julia stared out the window at the students streaming past on Forest Avenue, some still in coats and sweaters, but most of them in their shirtsleeves. How was she supposed to finish three chapters by the end of the semester if she couldn’t even write one? “I don’t know if I can finish it,” she said in a small voice.

“Oh, sweetie, that’s just writer’s block. You’ll get past it.”

“I have never had writer’s block in my life. This is serious.”

Robert sighed into the phone. “I’ll bring you some takeout, then. Tandoori chicken? Bhindi masala?”

Julia resisted the urge to throw the phone through the window. “You are not listening to me.”

“Yes, I hear you,” Robert said. “You’re stressed. But you still have to eat.”

“Arrrhhh!”

“What?”

“This is more than stress, Robert.” Julia kicked at her desk drawer with the heel of her shoe. How could she make him understand? She loved her job. Nobody else taught history the way she did—or used to, anyway. “I just don’t know…” She took a deep breath, tried again. “I don’t think I can do this any more.” She exhaled loudly into the silence at the other end of the line.

“What are you saying?” Robert asked at last. “You want to quit your job?”

Julia could hear the unspoken pleading in his voice. She shook her head. This was no time to restart the stay-home-and-have-children discussion.

There was a knock on the frame of the open office door. Julia turned to see Heather Gedres standing in the doorway. “I’m not saying anything, Robert. I have to go. I have a student here.”

Julia hung up the phone and welcomed Heather into her office, assuring her that no, this was not a bad time and yes, she’d be happy to look over the rough draft of Heather’s term paper.

Julia would have sent any other student away, but she had a soft spot for Heather Gedres. Heather usually showed up for Julia’s 9:00 class unshowered, her hair in a greasy ponytail, clutching an extra-large Starbucks. But show up she did, for every single class. You had to love a kid who found learning more important than sleep.

Julia took the typed sheets and bounced her eyes down the paragraphs, pursing her lips to hide a smile. She’d read countless student papers on WWII, but none quite like Heather’s.

“This is the part I wanted to ask you about,” Heather said, pointing to the second page. “I know that rationing was supposed to be a hardship, right? But people were eating less meat, and less sugar, and less butter. They were growing vegetables at home. Weren’t they really eating a healthier diet?”

“Yes, but at the time, people thought that meat was the healthiest food of all. They felt quite deprived going without it.”

Heather leaned over her paper and pulled at her lower lip. “But meat consumption almost doubled after the war. Didn’t people notice that they didn’t feel as good eating all that meat? That their new diet made them feel worse?”

Julia rubbed her temple with her fingertips. Revisionist history was nothing new, of course, but this was the first time she’d ever encountered vegetarian revisionist history. “That’s an interesting point, Heather, I suppose you could ask someone who lived through the war, but her memory might be… her memories of the time…” Julia closed her eyes and pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead. If only this headache would go away. “If you weren’t there…”

“Dr. Coburn? Are you okay?”

“I’m all right.” She inhaled sharply through her nose, blew the air out. “Um… can we discuss this after class tomorrow?”

“Sure.” Heather jammed her paper back in her book bag and stood. “Sorry if I came at a bad time.”

“No. I apologize. I’m not feeling well.” Julia dug through her desk drawer for an aspirin.

She didn’t cry at all until Heather left.

* * * * *

When Natalie turned thirty, Julia was still in graduate school and completely broke. With no money for a present, she gave Natalie the only thing she could. Julia wrote down everything their mother remembered about Natalie’s first five years: where she got her first hair cut, the name of her nursery school teacher, the adorable way she called a washcloth a “ratwash.” All the things that Mom never had time to write in her baby book.

She couldn’t take it beyond that, since Julia was born when Natalie was five, but hopefully Natalie could remember her own life from that point on. And the matrilineal line stretched back and back—Julia got flashes of things from the Middle Ages sometimes, although the more recent memories were clearer.

And now? Who knew? Perhaps Natalie would have children some day. Perhaps Julia could teach them not to squander their talents.

Whatever those talents might be.

* * * * *

Robert was just hanging up the phone when Julia walked in the door from the garage. She put down her briefcase, kicked off her shoes, and headed straight for the freezer. Yes, one pint of chocolate and one of fudge ripple. Julia grabbed the chocolate ice cream and a spoon.

“Bad day?” Robert asked.

“The worst.” Julia held up the ice cream. “Do you think I could just mainline this stuff? It would go faster.”

Robert smiled. “I take it you’re eating the other pint, too?”

“If I don’t keel over from this headache, first.”

Robert poured her a glass of water and shook two Tylenol into her waiting palm. She swallowed the pills, then folded herself against Robert’s body, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her cheek to his chest. She sighed an exhausted sigh, forgetting about ice cream in the safe harbor of Robert’s embrace.

“I was nasty on the phone. I’m sorry.”

“Forgiven,” Robert said, his chin bouncing on top of her head. “Babe? We just got this cryptic message from Lily Kang’s office. Why is our lawyer calling us?”

Julia pulled out of his arms. “What did the message say, Robert?”

“It said she’s got your mole back.” Robert shrugged. “Whatever that means.”

“Really? She got it back already?”

“Apparently.”

Julia danced around the kitchen, kicking her feet forward, then to the side. She picked up her ice cream spoon and used it as a microphone. “I’m getting it back,” she sang. “I’m getting it back, I’m getting it back, I’m getting it back.” She threw herself into Robert’s arms and kissed him.

Robert leaned against the kitchen counter, eyebrows together and mouth half-open. “But I thought you wanted it removed.”

* * * * *

“Here it is.” Julia triumphantly placed the slide on Natalie’s kitchen table. They both stared at the glass rectangle as if it were a precious jewel. Finally, Natalie picked it up in her thick fingers and held it to the light.

“Not much left.”

“Is it enough?” Julia asked.

Natalie’s brow furrowed. “Enough for what?”

“For you to grow it back, of course.”

“What? Julia! I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a miniscule slice, and it’s preserved. It’s impossible.” Natalie set the slide back on the table.

Julia sat motionless, feeling her carefully built plan wobble at the foundation. “This is a part of me, right?”

“Yes…”

“The DNA is all there, right?”

“Theoretically.”

Julia sighed, resisting the urge to yell at Natalie for being so dense. It wasn’t Natalie’s fault. No, her own ignorance and vanity had gotten her into this, and only cleverness and humility would get her out. She looked Natalie in the eye. “I’ve got to find a way to make it part of me again.”

Natalie scratched her ear and looked out the window. “Let me get this straight. You want this—” She gestured to the slide. “Whatever is left on that slide, you want it in you.”

“Right.”

“How?”

Julia tossed empty air as she threw her hands wide. “That’s what I’m asking you, Natalie.”

Natalie stood and paced in the small kitchen, back and forth from the table to the sink. “Can I consult some people at the hospital?”

“Sure.”

“Okay.” Natalie placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “The University of Michigan employs some of the finest minds in science. If there’s a way to reintegrate a mole, they’ll find it.”

* * * * *

“Are you insane?” Dr. Gold tossed the slide onto the lab table.

“But, Ron—”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Wait,” Natalie pleaded. “I haven’t even told you—”

“Forget it,” Gold interrupted. “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”

Julia stood silent in the corner of the lab, watching grad students tiptoe around their boss while he shrieked at Natalie. Why Natalie had decided to consult Dr. Gold was beyond her. She said he was an expert in genetics, but obviously his expertise did not extend to colleague relations.

“All I’m asking is for some help with—”

“This isn’t a game,” Gold snarled. “I can not believe you’re wasting my time with this.”

Natalie held up a forestalling hand. “Ron? Do you think you can let me finish just one sentence? Please?”

Gold glared at Natalie, blinking rapidly. He folded his arms across his chest. “Go ahead.”

“All I asked you for were the mechanics. How to dissolve the slide, what the medium should be, the dimensions of the syringe. I didn’t ask for your approval and I certainly didn’t ask for your permission.”

“No!” Gold repeated. “You’re messing around with things you do not understand.”

Julia sucked in an angry breath. Understand? It was Gold who didn’t understand. Julia realized she’d been caressing her left temple again, and snatched her hand away. The headache was starting again, right behind her eyes. She moved forward to stand in front of the lab table that Gold was using as a barrier between them. “Excuse me? Dr. God?”

“That’s Gold,” he growled.

Julia slapped her hand over her mouth. Oops. “Sorry. Dr. Gold.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t know why you’re being so hostile. My sister asked for your advice. I’m sorry that you can’t help us. We’ll leave now.” She picked up the slide and cradled it in her palm.

Gold sighed. “I’m being ‘hostile’ because there are dangers. Dangers which you are completely ignoring. Moles are benign tumors. What if you are risking a malignancy?”

“Oh, come on,” Natalie scoffed.

“Are you willing to take that risk?” Gold asked.

“It’s my mole,” Julia answered. “It’s my risk to take.”

Gold stared at Julia for a long moment. She wondered what he saw: could he see beyond her dark eye-circles and pasty skin, beyond her misbuttoned shirt and uncombed hair? Julia stood tall and lifted her head, looking him in the eye. Could he see that she was nearly crazed with desperation?

The silence stretched to the breaking point and Gold looked down at his table. “You’re going to do this. No matter what I say.”

Julia nodded. “I don’t have a choice.”

“Conrad!” Gold barked to one of his grad students. “Get me pen and paper. Now.” The student scurried off to comply. When he returned, Gold snatched the pen out of the kid’s hands and scrawled a series of names on it. He handed the paper to Natalie. “This will neutralize the preservative,” he said, pointing. “You should be able to dissolve it to injectable form with this.”

Gold moved to the far wall of the lab, elbowed a few students out of the way, and rummaged through a drawer. He returned with a surprisingly small syringe. “If you’re determined to do this, at least inject it under the skin, like a vaccination. Don’t go into a vein.”

“How long before her body metabolizes it?” Natalie asked.

Gold gave Julia a measuring look. “If it doesn’t metastasize? I’d say it will break down in thirty-six hours. Max.”

Julia brushed her hand over her forehead. Thirty-six hours? Was that all? Would it be time enough?

It would have to be.

* * * * *

Julia and Natalie sat in the kitchen of Natalie’s apartment, staring at the syringe full of amber liquid on the table between them. “Are you ready for this?” Natalie asked.

Julia bit her lower lip. “Yes.” She looked from the needle to her sister. “No. Wait. Couldn’t we inject a little at a time? You know, just try it out?”

Natalie shook her head. “I doubt it. This isn’t a drug, Julia. Either it’s in your system or it’s not. We don’t even know if this is going to work.”

“Okay, okay. Yes, you’re right.” Julia pressed her lips together. This had to work. Her lost memories came with an obligation—one she had yet to repay. Julia gave Natalie’s forearm a quick squeeze. “Ready,” she whispered.

Natalie’s hands quivered as she swabbed Julia’s arm with alcohol. She raised the needle and Julia closed her eyes, felt the tiny prick that was her last hope.

She waited. At first there was nothing.

And then, everything.

Julia kept her eyes closed, reveling in the rush of completeness. At last, she was once again whole.

Natalie gasped. “Julia! Are you all right?”

Julia cocked her head to the side. “Of course I’m all right. Why?”

“You’re smiling! I haven’t seen you smile since—”

Julia opened her eyes, leapt to her feet and grabbed her car keys. “I gotta go.”

“Wait, Julia, are you sure—”

Julia flew through the front door. “Call Robert and tell him to cancel my classes,” she called over her shoulder. “Oh, and thank you, Natalie. Thank you!”

“Julia!”

“I’m fine, Natalie! More than fine! I’m perfect!”

* * * * *

Julia jerked awake, her neck stiff from sleeping in her chair. How long had she slept? She fumbled for the little clock she kept on the corner of her desk in her home office. Four o’clock!

She’d missed nearly three hours. The injection might not last much longer. She had to get back to writing.

She turned to the computer, intending to start where she’d left off. But where was that? She scrolled upward through twenty hours of narrative. Fifteen pages back, she found an entry about her grandmother. She’d been writing about Josephine’s secretarial job at Wilson and Company, to which she wore pleated short skirts and long coats, made with Butterick patterns copied out of Delineator magazine. Josephine was often called “fastidious” by the other secretaries—considered a compliment—because she washed her hair every day and wore Odorono deodorant. Little did they know that she completely scandalized her mother by spending her first paycheck on pink bed sheets and pillowcases. Even if they were Pequot.

Julia stared at the computer monitor, remembering suddenly why Josephine had gotten the secretarial job in the first place. She was trying to help out her father, whose silent movie house was nearly put out of business by talking pictures.

Julia reached for the keyboard to capture the story, but when she tried to type, every muscle in her wrists and forearms cramped tight with a stabbing agony. There would be no more typing today. With a sob of frustration, Julia dug into her desk for paper. She seized the nearest pen and held it gingerly between her fingers. If she didn’t move her arm too much, she could probably stand to write.

Four hours later, after filling more than eight legal pads, her right arm was wrapped in a cast of pain. She’d had to pee for the last two hours, holding it in, terrified to let anything leave her body. Finally she couldn’t wait another second. Panting, she ran down the hall.

Through the bathroom door, she could hear Robert in the bedroom, talking on the phone. “Yes, I know that, but—” and then, “I know her book is under deadline, but she’s not even working on that. She’s writing some sort of—”

Julia ran cold water into the sink and plunged her right arm in. What she really needed was ice, but there was no time for that. On the other side of the door, Robert sounded even more dubious.

“Sure, sure. You’re right, Natalie, but… No, I don’t think so.” A pause. “I’m taking care of her the best I can, but she hardly eats and she doesn’t sleep.” A longer pause. “Okay… I’ll try… I’ll call you back later.” Julia could hear him walk to the kitchen and start fussing with dishes.

Julia drained the sink water and marched into the kitchen. “Do you still have that little tape recorder I gave you last Christmas?”

“What?”

“That tape recorder! Hurry!”

Robert folded his arms across his chest. “I’ll find it on one condition.”

“What?”

“Eat.”

Julia picked up the half-eaten remains of her lunch. She stuffed a huge bite of cheese sandwich in her mouth and bugged her eyes out at him. “I need tapes, too,” she said with her mouth full.

When Robert returned, Julia was seated at her desk, feebly gripping a pencil with her left hand, making painstaking letters on a fresh legal pad. She was trying to document some of her great-grandmother’s little quirks. How she insisted on brushing her teeth with baking soda, even after the rest of the family had switched to Colgate. How she made one box of Chipso flakes do for both laundry and dish soap. How she boiled a pot of Postum each morning, insisting to her husband that it was healthier than coffee. Julia looked up as Robert approached. “Oh, thank god,” she said, and grabbed for the recorder. “It’s almost gone.”

Robert spilled a stack of blank cassettes on her desk and backed slowly out of the room.

* * * * *

As she slotted in a fresh cassette, Julia wondered which would go first: her memory or her voice? Her throat was on fire from six hours of non-stop talking, but she didn’t dare shut up. Who knew if her next word would be her last? She was rambling now, probably incoherent, but still she poured everything she could think of into the recorder. Slower, now. It was getting harder and harder to remember details.

Julia cleared her throat and pushed the “record” button. She’d been trying to explain about Kathryn Lancaster, five generations ago. Kathryn’s mother was Anne… no. Jane? Julia wiped a tear from her cheek. How could she not know? She was born knowing this. Julia took a deep breath, tried again. “Kathryn’s mother was Jane. She married a man named something like Portman… or Pitman? But he wasn’t her first husband.” Julia’s voice gave out completely on the last syllable. “Anyway, they never…” she croaked. “They never did…” Julia sobbed into the microphone.

Gone. It was all gone. There was nothing left. Worse, there was no one left. No one to tell her story, or Natalie’s. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, not sure if she was apologizing to ancestors past or descendants to come. “I am so sorry,” she whispered as the tape rolled on, recording the last word.

 

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