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A quarterly international literary journal

The Prophet Rhonda

/ Fiction /

“The medicine will be there tomorrow,” the woman from the specialty pharmacy assured Oscar on the phone. “When it comes, take it out of the cooler and put it in the fridge.”

“What if we’re out when it gets here?” he asked, as if there were no pandemic. As if they weren’t home pretty much all day, every fucking day.

​ “Don’t worry about that. It’s packed very well. It can sit outside for hours if need be.”

​ “To be honest,” Oscar said, “giving him the shot doesn’t seem that complicated. But this is the first time. What if he has a bad reaction?”

​ He had asked the same question yesterday and the doctor had told him a reaction would be extremely unusual. The pharmacist confirmed this. “But if it happens, call 911. They know what to do.”

Oscar exhaled loudly.

​ “You can do this,” the woman said. “It gets easier.”

​ “Helpful?” Sandra asked when he hung up the phone.

​ Sandra had a brave heart but she didn’t truck with needles. She had sat at the table with Oscar during the call, to show support.

​ “She was nice,” Oscar said. “It’s a specialty pharmacy.”

​ “Does that reassure you?”

​ “The opposite, actually. We need a specialty pharmacy?”

​ “Glad we have access,” Sandra said. Having a sick child didn’t entitle them to act like victims, in her view. Not when other families couldn’t even get the care their children needed.

​ “Anyway, she told me it gets easier.”

​ Sandra reached over and touched his hand. “I’m sure it does.”

​ “Isn’t that what people told us about parenting?”

​ Oscar and Sandra had been parents now for twenty years. They weren’t wiping shit off of anybody’s ass these days. They weren’t hauling any chunky three-year-olds up multiple flights of stairs. But had it gotten easier? Last night Oscar had woken up twice to check for the latest tweets from a fire chief three thousand miles away. For the past two days he’d been compulsively reloading the website of the Marin County Independent Journal for updates on the Woodward Fire on Point Reyes, which threatened to torch the small coastal community where their older son was visiting his girlfriend. Neil had been traveling around the country all summer, avoiding the safe boredom of home, being his own man. The girlfriend was from college. Oscar and Sandra hadn’t met her yet. They had no clue about her family. Were these sensible people, smart enough to grab their go-bags and hit the road before the evacuation traffic congealed on the two-lane highway that was—Oscar had mapped it—the only viable route off of Point Reyes?

​ Oscar’s phone buzzed.

​ Wyatt, his younger son. Upstairs, ill, forsaken for most of the summer by his older brother.

Can I have brek, the text read.

​ Oscar’s life had contracted to the point that making this boy breakfast was the event that anchored the first half of his day. The illness was gastrointestinal, which heightened the stakes of every meal.

​ Breakfast today was scrambled eggs with sautéed vegetables, shredded cheddar, and pan toast on the side. The pan toast was carved from a loaf of the bread Oscar now baked twice a week. Avocado oil, he’d learned, was a clean and healthy fat with a very high smoke point. He used it to grease the skillet.

​ To drink, he poured out a smoothie he’d made earlier this morning with banana, raspberries, milk and yogurt. He’d sweetened it lightly with maple syrup.

​ Wyatt’s phone played music as he traveled from room to room up on the second floor. Oscar used the music to track the boy’s status. If he was rapping along, it meant he felt very well. He was quiet this morning. But he was moving, a good sign.

Oscar couldn’t name the artist who was playing right now but he recognized the man’s voice—high pitched, weary, vulnerable.

As Wyatt descended the stairs the lyrics clarified:

I been tryna be more serene I been tryna let go of the beans Every day I'm pourin lean

When Wyatt sat down at the kitchen bar he switched off the music, propped his phone against the pepper mill, and cued up one of the videos he liked. The video guys were mostly frat-boy types who sat around shooting the shit and seemed to make a living doing it. Occasionally Oscar tried to follow the thread of their conversation but he found the YouTubers much less interesting than the rappers. While the shirtless boy watched the video Oscar stood at the stove on the opposite side of the bar, watching him.

Wyatt was sixteen. Slight to begin with, he had shed twenty pounds over the past six months. It pained Oscar to look at that wispy torso.

​ Wyatt shoveled eggs onto toast and lifted the toast to his mouth, working his way methodically through the food on his plate. To see his son eat brought Oscar relief. Also sadness. On days when Wyatt could eat, he mostly approached it with a kind of joyless gravity. He was an athlete, alive to his body. Fighting its diminishment was grim work.

​ The video ended and Wyatt looked across at Oscar.

​ “Are beans pills?” Oscar said. “’Tryna let go of the beans’.”

​ Wyatt smiled, lowering his eyes to the phone.

​ “And lean? ‘Every day I’m pourin lean’.”

​ “Codeine, I think.”

​ “When did the rappers get so into prescription drugs?”

​ “So,” Wyatt said, still looking at his phone, “am I ever gonna start that medicine?”

​ “Tomorrow.”

​ His eyes lifted. “Actually?”

​ “It’s being shipped. Arriving around midday, supposedly.”

​ The boy’s face curdled into a suspicious glare. “Supposedly?”

​ Wyatt had been campaigning to start on this medicine for several months. Each week of delay deepened his distrust of his parents and the doctors they consulted. The GI doctor, who had predicted in an early meeting that Wyatt would end up on this drug, insisted on absolute diagnostic certainty before actually prescribing it. Wyatt was convinced the drug would give him back his life. He had studied it online, clasping tightly to the promised benefits while skimming past the list of serious potential side effects that Oscar had read through once and been haunted by ever since.

The GI doctor was young, friendly, sympathetic to Wyatt’s pain. “Standards of care,” he explained apologetically during one telehealth session as Wyatt fought back tears. All summer, as his baseball team played tournaments in other states, as his friends gathered in back yards to drink beer, Wyatt had stayed home, shackled down by his traitorous body. He had submitted to a battery of blood tests, stool tests, imagings and scopings, each test followed by a slow week of awaiting results, a telehealth meeting to interpret findings and discuss next steps.

​ Heavy artillery was the GI doctor’s metaphor for the medicine Wyatt wanted to start taking. Lighter weapons were in the arsenal and standards of care dictated trying these first. None of the lighter weapons cleared up the inflammation in Wyatt’s gut. Two of them were steroidal and made his emotions operatic. Oscar and Sandra’s house had traditionally been a peaceful place, the quiet broken by occasional horseplay, minor quarrels, laughter. In recent times slamming doors and struck walls had played like percussion during occasional arias of rage.

Oscar didn’t blame Wyatt for being pissed off. Or for being skeptical.

​ “The meds will be here tomorrow,” he said, reaching across the bar for his son’s empty plate. “For sure.”

* * *

Concerned about fire. Evacuation plan?

​ Oscar sent the text at eleven, which was eight o’clock in the California morning. He figured Neil would see it when he woke up.

​ But Neil was already awake. Discussing that now. Not looking good here. You reach out to Ruth and Brad?

About to call them.

Ok. Isabel’s mom looking into a couple options closer to here.

Isabel, the girlfriend, had three younger siblings. Her father worked overseas and was scheduled to fly in from Manila in a few days.

What options?

There’s a cabin somewhere else on Point Reyes.

​ Oscar pictured an isolated wooden hovel surrounded by brush and trees.

Where is cabin? Exact location please.

​ A few minutes passed before Neil texted the name of the road that gave access to the cabin. Oscar mapped it on his laptop, seeing that the road the cabin was on dead-ended. If the wind shifted the fire could come up and block the outlet. They’d be toast.

Cabin bad idea.

​ Isabel had gone to high school in Manila and didn’t have her driver’s license. Neil had mentioned to Oscar that the mother didn’t like to drive. She’d tossed Neil the keys to the family minivan when he had arrived at SFO, and he’d been piloting it in the days since.

Isabel’s mother, Oscar texted. Should I call her?

Maybe later.

How you holding up? What is mood there?

Sky was clear before but today is all smoky. Can hear scooper plane getting water from bay. Grandma safe?

​ For the time being.

​ Oscar’s mother was 82. She lived an hour’s drive inland from where Neil was, in Sonoma County where the Walbridge Fire was currently rampaging. If the flames jumped to her town’s side of the 101, she would have to flee. Her husband, a dour 95-year-old, had already announced that if they were evacuated he and Flora wouldn’t leave. Flora was their yellow Lab.

Waste of a good dog, Oscar had texted yesterday to Alice, his younger sister, in an exchange about their mother’s situation.

Alice lived in the town of Napa, another hour inland from where their mother was. She was hunkered inside with her kids and pets to avoid the smoke from the massive LNU Lightning Complex.

​ Alice made herbal body care products and sold them at farmers markets. Her son had a pair of pet rabbits who’d been moved into the house on account of the heat and smoke. In the photo Alice had shared, the rabbit cage dominated their small living room.

The current fire was burning homes Alice’s friends and customers had rebuilt after they’d been consumed in the massive Wine Country Fires three years before.

More grieving, she wrote to Oscar.

Is California over? he wrote back.

Hmmm? Hmm.

Ruth, Oscar’s older sister, lived even farther inland, in the Central Valley town where Oscar and his sisters were raised. When he called, Ruth put him on speaker so Brad could join. The smoky air was perilous to breathe, they reported. It was obscenely hot outside, but the town was safe from flames. They sounded oddly cheerful for people who’d been stuck inside for a week. Ruth and Brad had two married daughters and they now doted on four small dogs. Oscar heard a couple of these creatures yapping in the background.

Brad had of course been monitoring the situation and was fully informed about the status of every Northern California fire. Ruth waited quietly as the two men talked through the map of conflagrations, moving from west to east. When the roundup concluded Oscar returned to the Woodward Fire, which was relatively minor but important to him.

Before Oscar could fully explain Neil’s predicament Ruth and Brad volunteered to house Neil and the other Point Reyes refugees. Oscar loved the idea of Neil safely ensconced in their house. Oscar was very attached to the place. He’d always liked that his sister lived in their home town, that he and Sandra and the boys could visit in the summers, could spend hot afternoons playing ping pong on the deck and swimming in the pool—an air-brushed version of his own valley childhood.

But there was something important to be aware of, Brad pointed out. The biggest fire, the LNU Lightning Complex, might force closure of Interstate 80, which connected the coast to the valley.

In Oscar’s mind the minivan Neil had been hauling the girlfriend and her family around in was a burgundy color. He imagined twenty-year-old Neil white-knuckling the wheel of this vehicle on I-80, Isabel riding shotgun, the mother and three siblings in the back, flames pouring down the brown hills as smoke engulfed the road.

​ “Fuck,” he said. “That’s quite a caveat.”

​ They agreed to keep communicating.

​ Ruth said, “Osk, before you go, tell us how Wyatt is.”

​ “Feeling decent today. Excited to start on the heavy artillery.”

​ “Oh, the doctor approved it?”

​ “What’s the rush?” Brad said. “Why not wait till he loses ten more pounds?”

​ “Wyatt is right there with you, B. He was ready three months ago,” Oscar said. “Anyway tomorrow, around now, I’ll be giving him the first shot.”

​ “How you feeling about that?” Ruth asked. She knew her brother.

​ “I’m channeling the Prophet Rhonda,” Oscar said.

Rhonda was a neighborhood friend of theirs twenty years before, when Oscar and Sandra had bought their house. The place was a total dump. It would need a great deal of work and they weren’t handy people.

“Rhonda was already a homeowner,” Oscar said. “She and her husband had bought their house like ten years before. First she congratulated us on the purchase. And then she voiced her prophecy, which never stops coming true.

​ “Her prophecy?”

​ “You’ll be surprised, Rhonda told us, by what you can learn to do.”

* * *

Avocado oil was Amanda Stoner’s suggestion. She was a nutritionist. Six weeks before, the GI doctor had arranged for Oscar and Sandra and Wyatt to meet with Amanda, who counseled them on a dietary plan. It was a telehealth visit and the face on the laptop screen looked like a nutritionist’s face—pleasant, plain, thirty-something. Her patter featured plenty of the abstract, technical lingo you have to learn if you want a Masters degree. Numbers of calories, milligrams of added sugar, smoke points of various oils.

​ Oscar had a Masters degree. He was a rational man who respected science and expertise. He dutifully wrote down the numbers and terms the nutritionist dictated and had followed her guidelines since. But in his imagination, and at the core of his truest fatherly being, what was going on inside Wyatt went deeper than biology and chemistry. As he conceived it, a monster had invaded his son’s body, lurking among the twists and folds of his intestines, a small and ferocious creature that, should he ever be asked to draw it, Oscar would render with the fangs, claws, and pointed ears of a gargoyle.

In olden times gargoyles’ fiendish looks were believed to scare off evil spirits. The gargoyle in Wyatt’s gut lacked such noble purpose. When active, it rampaged fiercely, subjecting Wyatt to twelve-hour bouts of vomiting and sharp, debilitating cramps that were terrible to endure directly and crushing for a helpless parent to witness. At first the attacks were spaced about a month apart, the gargoyle striking fiercely then going dormant for weeks, lulling the family into a sense of returning normalcy, letting them relax, only to irrupt from its lair and blow up Wyatt’s life again. The attacks had evolved over the months, growing more frequent and varied as the malady progressed, as Wyatt’s weight dropped, as his morale cratered, as they consulted with specialists who tried out medicines and explored the boy’s insides with a dizzying arsenal of instruments.

For patients like Wyatt, Amanda Stoner said, dietary changes could mitigate symptoms or even—in some cases—bring about remission. Processed foods, smoked meats, red meat, and added sugars must be avoided. Meals should be simple, ideally with five ingredients or fewer on the plate. The guidelines applied generally, yet each person’s gut was unique. There might be specific foods that triggered Wyatt’s symptoms and they should be on the lookout for these.

Thankfully the gargoyle was quiet the day of their consultation. After the nutritionist signed off, Wyatt seemed somber but also grudgingly open, willing to try about anything that might fend off future attacks.

“Well, fuck,” he said. “Goodbye pepperoni.”

​ “Dad and I are great cooks,” Sandra assured him. “We can make you all kinds of delicious food without breaking the rules.”

​ “One burger a month,” Wyatt continued. “Isn’t that what she said? No soda, no juice, no milkshakes.” The boy fell silent. Oscar and Sandra watched his face as he carried out a silent recitation of childhood treats, the old oral comforts he would have to surrender. Oscar could feel him slipping toward darkness.

He reached over and patted Wyatt’s knee. “You catch her name,

the nutritionist?”

“Dude,” Wyatt said, returning. “Stoner?”

​ Oscar nodded. “Does she ever get the munchies?”

* * *

In Oscar’s mind two classes of foods now existed—those that fueled the gargoyle and those that did not. The objective was to feed Wyatt meals of such purity and simplicity that the gargoyle couldn’t convert them into energy. Oscar and Sandra had been following the protocols for six weeks, long enough to know that diet changes alone were not going to bring Wyatt total relief. Drugs would be needed to drive the gargoyle deep into its lair and pin it there permanently. In the meantime Oscar was intent on starving the little fucker, weakening it in advance to ensure a swift rout.

Cooking for Wyatt gave Oscar purpose. Shopping, too, galvanized him. At the market he stood in the aisles studying ingredient lists with silent intensity, glasses fogging above his mask.

​ It was a small market, part of a local chain, an easy ten-minute bike ride from home. No junk was sold there, just a carefully curated selection of clean, honest foods.

​ It was hot and humid this afternoon and he pedaled up a sweat on the way to the market. He welcomed the waft of cool air as the front doors parted. The daily shopping had become a pillar of his pandemic routine. Today’s list was modest: bananas, limes, tomatoes, flour, pita, eggs. Business was slow, the aisles mostly clear. On the stereo, one of Handel’s wind sonatas—taut, shapely, soothing. As he passed the supplement section, the honking laugh of the tall blond guy who worked back there. The Snow Goose, Oscar called him.

The limes were for margaritas. A couple of hours after he returned with the groceries, the promise of a cold, tart, slightly salty beverage propelled Oscar as he and Sandra, their sneakers laced tight, walked up and over the shoulders of the neighborhood hills. These late-day walks were about exercise and Oscar approached them with alacrity, leaning into the slope, breath rapid, arms a-chug, hustling along a few yards ahead of his wife. Sandra would have preferred a more sociable companion, but Oscar’s keen pace added value to her workout so she had mostly come to accept it.

In the kitchen, cooling down after the walk, Oscar squeezed limes, crushed ice, ground salt crystals, measured out portions of El Jimador and Harlequin. Sandra mashed avocados and diced chilis and onion, grilling triangles of pita to dip into the bowl of guacamole she was building. She asked Oscar for an update on the California fire and he told her the authorities had issued a Red Flag Warning for the following day.

“Sounds ominous,” she said.

“It’s going to be dry and windy. Good conditions for new fires to start and existing fires to spread.”


“Time to clear the fuck off of Point Reyes.”

The evening light was going soft and golden as they crunched across the patio’s pea gravel and settled back into their Adirondacks, resting snack plates and cold glasses on the wide arms of the chairs. The patio was an extension of their house, its outdoor wing. It lent their lives a feeling of options, of amplitude, that had never seemed more necessary than it did this summer.

Mosquitos were active at this hour—active enough, in a normal August, to keep them from having cocktails outside.

“If you ask me,” Sandra said, spraying bug juice on her calves, “Neil should get out of California completely.”

​ “And go where?” Oscar said.

​ “Home. We may be boring, but we’re fire-free.”

“You know that’s not happening.”

“Why not?”​

“He won’t bail on his girl.”

“She could come with him.”

“How about we focus on the actual situation?” Oscar said.

“I am.”

The actual situation, in Sandra’s mind, was that her first-born was breaking away from them. She didn’t like how he was handling it.

“What I mean,” Oscar said, “is where are they going when they get evacuated. Neil texted me earlier. Apparently an uncle of Isabel’s has a condo in Sausalito. They might go there.”

“Where is that, Sausalito?”

“A lot closer to Point Reyes than Ruth and Brad’s house is.”

Twenty years back, when they’d moved in, this back yard was a patch of weedy grass. The river birch they sat under this evening had stood six feet high when Oscar planted it. Now it was taller than the house.

Oscar had a green thumb. Sandra, an artist, had an excellent eye. Over the years Oscar had picked out shrubs and trees at the nursery and Sandra had advised him on their placement, setting up groupings based on complimentary colors, sizes and habits.

They’d arrived at the point of the evening when they fell quiet for a bit, savoring the diluted dregs at the bottoms of their glasses, feeling their booze, enjoying how the late-summer light played upon their plantings as it slowly withdrew from the yard.

Amid the stillness their hands stayed active, scratching at a week’s worth of bites.

* * *

Around nine, after Oscar and Sandra had cleaned up from dinner, Neil texted to confirm that the Point Reyes crew would go to the Sausalito condo if they had to evacuate. Oscar pointed out that the Red Flag Warning was set to start at five the next morning. Meaning, he surmised, that the fire-friendly winds would start whipping at the crack of dawn.

We’re aware, Neil texted.

Everyone will sleep better if you head over to Sausalito tonight.

Meaning you pop?

Wyatt had gone out for the evening to chill by the river with a friend. When he returned, Sandra went to check in with him while Oscar, in bed, watched the Marin County fire chief’s evening briefing on his laptop. It was a long and detailed presentation, summarizing deployments of assets, affirming the unprecedented stresses on the system statewide, calling out the crews and equipment that had come to assist from other states. The chief’s stilted lexicon made the whole thing sound far away and impersonal, like a battle from a former war. Oscar drifted, but found new focus the moment he heard the chief name the neighborhood next to the one where Neil was staying and say that due to shifting conditions on the ground, and out of an abundance of caution, he was issuing a brand new evacuation order.

Not a warning. An order.

​ Oscar grabbed his phone and discovered that Neil had already texted him.

Yes pop we watched the briefing. Isabel’s mom just went to ask neighbors what they’re gonna do.

You guys will be next. Why wait around?

Will keep you posted.

Oscar briefed Sandra on the California situation when she joined him in bed.

​ “How does he seem?” she asked. “Neil.”

​ “Stressed about the fire. A bit irritated with my input.”

“Mister Independent,” she said. “Excuse us for being concerned.”

​ “How’s Wyatt?” he asked.

​ “Excited to start on the meds tomorrow. Also a little sad.”


“He was just out with James, who’s been his friend since kindergarten. I asked if he and James talked about his health, what he’s been going through. He said no, none of them ever ask.”

“Does that surprise you?”

“If he wants his friends’ support, he could open up to them about what’s going on. But he doesn’t.”

​ “Dudes,” Oscar said.

​ “Tell me about it. I’m surrounded by them.”

They read side by side for a while. Before Sandra turned off her light, she reached over and put her hand on Oscar’s. “How are you holding up?”

“I’ll be better when Neil is off Point Reyes.”

“Sounds like they’re getting it figured out. But you won’t relax till you know they’ve landed in Sausalito, will you?”

“I won’t.”

“And then? What’s next on your list?”

“And then I want the medicine to arrive like it’s supposed to tomorrow.”

“Of course you do.” “But also…” He sighed.


​ “I kind of don’t want the medicine to arrive.”

“Sweetheart,” Sandra said. “They told us someone could come and give him the first shot, show you how to do it.”

“It’s not just giving the shot,” Oscar said. “It’s what the shot means.”

​ “It means our son has a chronic illness. Fortunately there’s medicine to control it. And we have access.”

“So I should feel lucky?”

“I do,” she said. “I also feel tired.”

​ “Tired of dealing with dudes?”

​ They had a little laugh.

​ He promised that he would wake her if he heard any concerning news from California, and they kissed. He went back to his magazine, tracking the changes in her breathing as his eyes traveled down the columns of the page. The breaths deepened, their cadence intensified and then gradually settled. She was completely out by the time Neil texted.

Gonna eat dinner then head over to Sausalito.

​ Like the sound of that.

​ Thought you would.

​ Do me a favor. Text when you arrive Sausalito. Leaving phone on.

It was midnight when Oscar put his magazine on the night table and switched off the light. He lay on his back, hands folded on his chest, and felt his eyes get heavy. Ninety minutes later, when his phone buzzed, he was in this very position. His mouth had fallen open and it was parched.

Hi pop. Arrived.

Thank you. How long did it take?

Hour or so. No traffic.

​ How is everyone?

​ Relieved to be out. Concerned about their house.

Thank goodness you’re all safe.

​ Love you. Night.

Ah night.

​ Going to sleep had never been hard for Oscar. Staying asleep was a different story. And the degree of difficulty had increased in recent months.

The gargoyle was mostly nocturnal. Wyatt was a sound sleeper, so he never stirred unless he was under attack. Which meant that noises coming from his room in the middle of the night almost always spelled trouble.

There was never a shortage of noises for sleepless Oscar to track. The house was nearly a hundred years old and its acoustic vocabulary was vast. He had gathered in, sifted through, considered and categorized the house’s noises through two decades of avid night listening. He knew the sonic repertoire intimately, as well or better than the familiar tics, clenches and flutters inside his own aging body.

What Oscar was on alert for, when he lay listening, tonight and every night since the gargoyle first struck, were sounds signaling that Wyatt was awake. Footfalls. The bathroom door clicking shut. A charger skidding across the bedroom floor. The thought of his son suffering, alone, was intolerable to Oscar. But he couldn’t just spring to action. There was a protocol. Once he confirmed Wyatt was awake, he waited. He mustn’t reach out first, but he must be ready should Wyatt reach out to him. Wyatt was stoic, also proud. He didn’t summon Oscar unless his condition was dire.

He would text: If awake could you read to me

Fishing stories worked best. Oscar and Wyatt had always had fun fishing together. Now, hearing stories about fishing helped lure Wyatt’s mind away from the riot in his gut. Oscar kept a cache of articles from outdoor magazines open on his phone. Largemouth bass in Florida, Columbia River salmon, tarpon in the shallows off the Bahamas, cutthroat trout in Montana. He would read while Wyatt writhed in bed, the occasional groan escaping his mouth. Wyatt tuned in, drifted, returned. On very bad nights Oscar would bring a big mixing bowl up from the kitchen and they’d pause from reading when Wyatt had to puke. Then, because the gargoyle typically quieted for a while after forcing Wyatt to retch, Oscar would go back to reading and the boy might be blessed with a bit of sleep. Oscar would read right through the spells of sleep, as if his voice, the tissue of words it wove, wrapped Wyatt in a protective covering. Oscar sat on the desk chair, the room dark except for his phone’s glow, the conditions dreamlike, the usual tethers to time and space gone slack. Wyatt, a little boy again, could be lulled and comforted by his father’s reading voice. And Oscar too could cast back to that splendid age, when the gear he carried with him was sufficient to protect and pacify his son.

* * *

The package arrived at nine in the morning, a couple of hours before Oscar expected it. The box was large and contained two smaller boxes. In one of these was a Styrofoam cooler. Inside it, the medicine was packed among sacks of frozen gel. In the second box was the red plastic waste container for the spent injection pens.

There were also lots of papers in the box, most of them bearing stark warnings in bold print about the conditions—various infections, certain cancers—Wyatt would be more vulnerable to once this medicine had entered his system.

​ Right now it helped that Wyatt was in an upbeat mood. Oscar heard him rapping along with his shower music before he came down for breakfast. When he appeared, Oscar told him the package had arrived and Wyatt agreed that they should do the shots (the first dose was a double) after he’d eaten breakfast. Oscar served Wyatt his plate at the bar, then took the injection pens out of the fridge so the serum could warm up to room temperature. Over on the table, he laid a paper towel flat and set out the pens with alcohol swabs and cotton balls.

​ Once Wyatt was finished eating, Oscar and Sandra joined him at the bar and cued up the instructional video from the drug company’s website. They wanted Wyatt to see what was about to go down. The video featured various parent-child duos who looked like real people, not actors. They talked through their approach to doing the weekly injections. One father said that he tried to make it a special moment between him and his daughter, and they would always celebrate after with a fist bump. Here Wyatt reached out to pause the video.

​ “No fist bumps, okay?”

​ Sandra laughed.

There was a festive feeling in the air and though Oscar did his best not to complicate it, he turned a little solemn as the three of them sat down at the table. “This is the beginning of a new chapter, isn’t it?”

​ “A good one, I hope,” Wyatt said.

​ Oscar said, “You’ve been patient, Wyatt.”

​ “Not really.”

​ “Well, pretty patient, considering. And brave.”

​ “Thank you,” Sandra said.

​ Wyatt nodded. “Thank you guys for helping me.”

​ “Well then,” Oscar said.

​ Wyatt put his phone on the table and his music started playing, the same rapper as yesterday, tryna be more serene. Amen to that, Oscar thought.

Oscar figured Sandra would benefit from a distracting job so he had asked her to be the timer. She sat nearby, phone in hand. Wyatt pulled his shorts up so his thighs were exposed. Oscar wiped the tops of both thighs with alcohol swabs. He lifted the first injection pen and removed the caps from both ends. With his left hand he grabbed a pinch of skin on the top of Wyatt’s right thigh. With his right hand he placed the business end of the pen on the squeezed up skin, and steadied his thumb over the trigger button at the top.

He thought of the gargoyle, of the potion he was about to project into Wyatt’s system. It was noxious to the monster and would, if it worked properly, drive the little demon so deeply into hiding that it could do no further damage. There was power in this feeling. And desperation.

​ The spring-loaded pen, when he pressed the trigger, issued a sharp thunk like a small weapon discharging or like the jaws of a tiny trap snapping shut. Sandra watched the timer on her phone. Oscar and Wyatt watched the little window in the pen, where the yellow indicator dropped steadily and came to rest when the dose had been delivered.

​ The shot left a target stamped on Wyatt’s thigh—a small circle with a needle point bullseye in the middle. Oscar pressed a cotton ball to it.

​ “What did you feel?” Sandra asked.

​ “Not much, actually,” Wyatt said.

​ They waited a few minutes and then did the left leg. Oscar asked Wyatt to stay downstairs for a bit so they could be sure he was tolerating the shots okay. Wyatt went over to the closet to get the football. Their house, built in 1927, was a rectangular building that had been a dying corner store before they bought it. When they remodeled they had left the ground floor store space as one long open room that now included their kitchen, living room, and family table. Their plan had included new flooring for this space, but when the workers pulled up the old vinyl tiles, and the plywood sheets the tiles had been glued to, they discovered the store’s original maple floor. The tawny wood was weathered, scarred, rotted in spots—and, to Oscar and Sandra, so evocative it was worth the trouble of restoring. The ceilings in here were twelve feet high and windows ran along two walls. Sandra—with her canny choices of colors, of furniture and art and objects—had transformed this open area into a room that felt better to be in than any other living space Oscar had ever known. Though there were breakable things in the room Oscar and his boys had always played catch down the length of it, with Sandra’s anxious blessing.

​ Wyatt and Oscar tossed the football back and forth for ten minutes or so. Then Wyatt announced that he felt fine and was going upstairs.

​ Oscar went back to the table and sat next to Sandra.

​ “Well, it’s done,” she said. “How do you feel?”

​ “Yesterday, Ruth asked how I was feeling about giving Wyatt the shot and I told her and Brad about the Prophet Rhonda. Remember?”

​ “Of course I remember Rhonda.”

​ “You’ll be surprised by what you can learn to do, she told us when we bought this place.”

​ “She was right.” Sandra put her hand on Oscar’s knee. “But that wasn’t the whole thing.”

​ “I know,” Oscar said. “I didn’t say the other part yesterday.”

​ “Why not?”

​ “I think because of Ruth and Brad, all the fires—what’s happening to where we grew up. Where they still live.”

​ “Is that why?”

​ “I don’t know. I wasn’t ready to say that part.”

​ “And now?”

​ “Actually,” Oscar said, and sat up a little straighter, looking Sandra in the eye. “You’ll be surprised by what you can learn to do, said the Prophet Rhonda. And you’ll be amazed by what you can learn to live with.”


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