Art by Scarlett Rouge
They drove separately into the Hahamonga watershed basin. It was an arroyo, a deep gully formed by fast-flowing water, and now, in the spring, it was experiencing a severe drought. The earth was desiccated and the air had a sharp sting of aridity. The rain would eventually return, but never as deeply as before.
In the parking lot Jessica poured Sauvignon blanc into an empty water bottle. The wine was cheap. She’d grabbed it from the basement at the last minute. She was always rushing, so many things to do for her daughter Hope before she could attend to anything else. She hadn’t wanted to schlep a backpack, so she’d neglected to bring a second bottle for water.
Katie was there too, with her Australian sheepdog Otis. She was parked a few cars down. Katie’s youngest daughter Riley was only three. She was born with kidney failure and was on dialysis every night. Each week she went to Children’s Hospital for the dialysis clinic and labs. Jessica’s daughter Hope was five. She’d been born with an obscure blood disease which necessitated a weekly infusion of human plasma at Children’s Hospital. That’s where Jessica and Katie met, in line for lattes at the hospital Starbucks.
When Jessica finished pouring the wine, she walked toward them. Otis jumped up and pawed her affectionately. Jessica was ten years older than Katie, forty-five to Katie’s thirty-five, and if circumstances hadn’t brought them together, she often thought they wouldn’t have been friends. Jessica admired Katie’s deep practicality, and Katie loved Jessica’s sense of humor. The fact was though, Jessica thought with some guilt, that Hope wasn’t quite as sick as Riley. Without a transplant in the next year, Riley would die. She’d been on dialysis too long and they were running out of options. Another person had to die for Riley to live, and that fact weighed heavily on Katie’s mind while she waited for the call from the hospital. Katie and her husband Arthur had to keep their phones on all the time so they wouldn’t miss it.
It had been months since Jessica had seen Katie in person. She hugged Katie longer than was necessary, wanting to hold her forever if just to acknowledge that Katie was the only other person in her world who understood what it was like to care for a terminally ill child.
Finally, she let go. “I’m sorry it’s taken so long to do this,” Katie said. Katie was the one who’d suggested the hike.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not like we could have known in advance Hope would be in the hospital so long,” Jessica said. Last fall Hope picked up a virus, probably from kindergarten, and it spiraled into RSV, then pneumonia. After that, Hope couldn’t seem to get well for longer than a week or two. The fever would come back, and off to Children’s they went.
Katie’s gaze was kind, but the affection in her eyes made it worse. Jessica was afraid of tearing up and didn’t want to start the hike this way, so she looked off in the distance, toward the trailhead. “Is that where we go?”
Katie nodded, and they began walking, Jessica, older, taller, with tight curly brown hair, Katie younger, shorter, with a blonde bob. Under their feet clouds of dust rose around their tennis shoes.
Jessica unscrewed the cap on the water bottle, took a sip and passed it. “Here, I brought some wine,” she said.
“Thank god,” Katie said. They both laughed, but not that hard. Katie took a sip of wine. The air temperature was in the nineties, even in the shadow of the granite rockface bordering the trail. They journeyed into the valley of the yawning canyon side by side. Otis, full of excitement at being out of the car and out of the house, leapt ahead sniffing every flower, bush, and rock at nose height.
Jessica and her husband Bryan weren’t much into hiking. In fact, this would be the first hike she’d taken in years, since before Hope was born. “It’s still early in the year, there might be a waterfall, if we make it that far,” Katie said. Jessica did not respond. Katie sensed she was just concentrating on the walk, but Jessica was struggling with the heat. She worried she wouldn’t be able to keep up. Katie walked this trail often, as it was one of the few natural places she and Arthur took their kids to play in Los Angeles. She wanted to share it with Jessica.
In the silence Katie wondered if Jessica would appreciate the beauty of the natural world. It didn’t seem the kind of thing she’d be moved by. Jessica was always preoccupied with details. Katie rarely saw her look up or take notice of her surroundings. She barely spoke of anything other than Hope.
Katie passed back the wine and Jessica took a sip. “I’m so mad at my parents,” Jessica said. “We’ve been at the hospital six times in the last six months, and they haven’t visited once. Las Vegas isn’t that far to drive. There are tons of cheap flights. They’re retired, and I don’t know what they do all day. But they can’t be bothered.” Jessica handed Katie the wine.
“Tell me more,” Katie said.
“I’m furious with Bryan.” Jessica was pounding her shoes into the loose sand as they walked farther down the trail. Katie thought of other times she’d been in the arroyo with her family: how after a morning rain, their footfalls were softer than anything, soundless even, and the smell of the desert sage and wild rosemary trailing from the rocks accosting the nose. Katie loved those times, when it was just the four of them and Otis, under the cover of oak trees, surrounded by chaparral shrubs.
They often walked the trail early in the morning because they had to keep Riley away from germs. Sick people could make her much sicker. It was lonely living this way, and she knew Jessica understood. The whole time Hope was in the hospital she couldn’t have visitors. Katie couldn’t imagine how isolating it must have been for Jessica, all by herself, worried about her daughter and trying to keep up a brave face.
“What’s up with Bryan?” Katie said, even though she already knew. Jessica reached for the wine and took a swig as if steeling herself for what she had to say.
“I hate apologizing for him all the time. He’s falling apart. He—did he say anything to you?” Jessica bent over, pretending to catch her breath, but really trying to stop the onslaught of tears and clear the knot of mucus in the back of her throat.
“No, nothing,” Katie lied. But the truth was Bryan cornered her in the hallway in her house and propositioned her. He’d had too much to drink. She wasn’t afraid even though he pressed his larger body against her, pinning her against the wall. She gently told him it was time to say good night and scooted out from underneath him to go find Jessica and help her get Hope ready for the drive home. Katie thought of all the days and nights Bryan was alone in the house while his daughter and wife were at the hospital without him, how awful it must have been. Now it occurred to her perhaps both Bryan and Jessica were drinking too much.
“He’s depressed,” Jessica said. “When we got back from the hospital last week, I hired that babysitter you recommended so we could go out to dinner. The restaurant was busy and they didn’t have any tables available. Bryan screamed at me for not making a reservation, and then he punched a hole in the wall. The waiter threatened to call the police.” Jessica hung her head. “I told the staff what we’d been going through with Hope, and they let it go.”
“You guys are under so much pressure,” Katie said. “It’s so hard.”
“Not as hard as waiting for a kidney transplant,” Jessica said. She imagined the semitruck pulling up to the curb outside Katie’s house, unloading hand trucks full of boxes. Dialysis required so many supplies, Katie couldn’t see out her kitchen window.
“Beside them a stream appeared, faint at first. The farther they walked, the more water it would contain. The whole canyon was full of trails. You could walk for days, years even. You could enter the Angeles National Forest and never come out.”
Before, Katie had been a librarian. Her favorite part of the job was story hour when the babies and toddlers came all tired out from their busy mornings and needed to hear something comforting. She loved how large their eyes grew as she read, how they oohed and ahhed, how they loved to giggle, how easily they were surprised and scared.
“I can’t imagine how you and Arthur get through dialysis with Riley every single night. Compared to what you guys do what we’ve been through is a cakewalk.”
“I can’t imagine what you’ve been through with Hope these last few months. It’s so scary not knowing what’s wrong or how to fix it. For us, soon as Riley gets a transplant, our lives are going to change. She’s going to be fine.” What Katie didn’t say was that Hope was stuck with an incurable blood disease for the rest of her life, and the unsaid fact hung ominously between them. The wine was half gone. Jessica wished she’d brought water. She was parched. Her mascara was running, and her usually stiff curly hair was frizzed, making a furry halo around her head. The desert sand had left a thin scrim of brown dust on their hands, ankles, and faces. Their wrinkles showed as white cracks when they spoke or moved.
“We look like zombies in a horror film,” Jessica said. Katie tipped her head back and laughed, glad her friend still had her sense of humor. They came to a section of trail ringed with towering oak trees.
“I love this part,” Katie said.
“It’s pretty,” Jessica said. Katie looked up, trying to memorize how the golden afternoon light created a backdrop through the oak trees’ inky branches. She always felt as though her blood pressure lowered when she was outside, in nature, and she could breathe again.
Beside them a stream appeared, faint at first. The farther they walked, the more water it would contain. The whole canyon was full of trails. You could walk for days, years even. You could enter the Angeles National Forest and never come out.
Otis the dog had been energetically drifting from side to side at the beginning of their walk, sniffing both sides of the trail, but the longer they walked the calmer he became, and now he paced a step or two ahead of Katie, his leash slack. When they stopped to look at the stream, he sat on his haunches and panted. Katie bent to pet him and gave him a treat from her pocket.
Jessica was winded and needed a break. She gave the water bottle a slight shake. There was still some wine, but no water.
“I brought snacks,” Katie said. “And water.”
“Should we stop here and sit for a minute?” Jessica said. Katie agreed it was a good idea, and Jessica seemed relieved. Jessica looked tired. Maybe they should turn back soon.
Katie led the way down a small path, Otis winding his body around rocks and her feet. There were dry shrubby brambles lining the sides of the narrow trail, and they all caught dry foxtails on their bodies.
“This side looks better,” Katie said. She pointed to a bigger clearing a few feet further up. Jessica followed her and Otis and they sat down on the ground, facing the stream. Neither had thought to bring a picnic blanket.
“I’m sorry about your parents,” Katie said.
Katie was rooting around in her backpack and taking out snacks. “I went to Trader Joe’s,” she said.
Jessica felt her eyes widen with anticipation. She was moved her friend took the time to go shopping for this hike, especially given how busy she was with Riley and Riley’s older sister, Annie, who was six.
“There’s fancy cheese and a baguette in here somewhere. That sweet and salty popcorn you like.”
Jessica felt bad, as all she’d done was grab a cheap bottle of wine as an afterthought. And she had one less child. What did she do with all her free time anyway?
Katie spread burrata on a piece of bread. She handed it to Jessica. “Try it with pesto, it’s the best.” Jessica shoved the bread into her mouth in one bite. Watching her eat, the apparent pleasure she took in it, Katie felt she understood. Over the last six months Jessica hadn’t had time to go to the gym, the grocery store, or even get a haircut. She hadn’t been able to do anything for herself at all. She’d been trapped in the hospital, taking care of Hope.
“What do the doctors say about the transplant list?” Jessica said.
“They said Riley is at the top of the list, because of her age, and how long she’s been on dialysis.” Katie said the words effortfully, as though she would have preferred to keep them inside of herself.
Jessica let out a deep sigh. She felt the air inside her lungs could have filled up the entire canyon. Above and below them, the stream’s water, clear as rain, ran over granite boulders, rounded by the rubbing.
“I like the sound it makes,” Jessica said. “I could sit here all day.” Being here was a stark contrast to being on the isolation floor at the hospital. Here there was nothing to control. At the hospital and at home she was so panicked about every little thing. As if by controlling each variable she could keep Hope healthy.
“It’s nice to take the kids here, to watch them play. Someday we should take them all here to play together.” Suddenly she felt she was going to cry. She scrunched up her eyes, trying not to. Jessica had it much worse, and here she was, composed as a statue. Katie secretly hoped that once Hope stabilized, Jessica would leave Bryan. Jessica deserved to be happy. Everyone did, but no one was.
Katie drank another sip of wine and passed it to Jessica who drank the last of it. She’d already had more than two glasses—one more sip wouldn’t kill her. Katie looked over at Jessica. “Is that blood?” Katie said.
“Where?” Jessica felt a slip of liquid sliding down her upper lip. “Oh, it’s nothing, I get them all the time. It’s the dry air,” Despite her pretension of being unperturbed, she started fishing around in her pockets with some urgency for a Kleenex.
“Here, use my bandana,” Katie said.
“Are you sure? It’s going to get gory.”
“Don’t worry about it, I’ve got tons at home.”
Jessica rolled the bandana’s end into a little snake and shoved it up her nose. She tilted her head up to the sky. There was a red-tailed hawk circling.
“Look, a hawk,” she said. She was starting to feel a little lightheaded. Even though the sky was darkening it still hurt to look up at the bright. She squinted, a few dark spots clouding her vision. It occurred to her that the half bottle of wine wouldn’t help with the nosebleed. She’d watched a TV episode once about a doctor who’d died of a nosebleed. Apparently the artery in the nose was hard to stop once it started. You could bleed out quickly if you weren’t careful. She held the bandana against her nostril more firmly, hoping it would clot.
“My dad used to get them all the time,” she said.
“Have you talked to your doctor?”
“No, it’s probably just stress. I don’t have time to see the doctor for myself, although we’re at the hospital so much, I should have my own parking space by now.”
Katie chuckled, even though she was worried.
Jessica took the bandana out of her nose, but it was still scarlet and wet, and the blood kept coming so she put it back in.
“Promise me you’ll call your doctor when you get home.”
Jessica just stared out at the eucalyptus and pines hemming them in. It was dusk now. There was no birdsong. The butterflies must have flitted off somewhere. In the stream Jessica thought to look for fish or tadpoles, but she had to keep her head up to staunch the bleeding. The light was failing anyway.
Otis sat at Katie’s side, munching the beef bone she’d brought for him. Jessica asked Katie for some of her water and Katie handed it to her. It had been a feat to get the time away, even to come here, to meet a friend. Both the husbands had to be convinced to watch the kids for an hour. In fact, it had been longer than an hour. Jessica didn’t take out her phone though. She knew there was no service this far into the canyon. She had a mild panic at the thought of Katie missing the call from the hospital about a transplant, and then remembered Arthur had his phone on at home. If anything happened, they’d be out of the canyon in an hour or so and Katie could meet them at the hospital.
But Bryan would be mad when she got home. Fuming. She’d been gone longer than expected, and he didn’t like it when she was late or didn’t stick to what she’d promised. But here she was, finally, with her friend, and her friend was suffering and there was so little she could do.
That was why she’d done it, hit her head on the side of the bathtub. It was late at night, after Bryan punched the hole in the wall at the restaurant. Hope’s fever had gone down and they’d been sent home with the strongest antibiotic, Vancomycin, and they had to monitor her for seizures, and for the fever coming back, or any other worrying symptoms such as diarrhea or vomiting. While in the hospital the last time, Hope had sepsis and they didn’t think she would make it. Jessica had prayed for a miracle, even though she hadn’t believed in God since she was a little girl herself, before she’d learned about death, and suffering, and the unfairness of it all.
Then Hope survived and she’d been grateful, but not to God. It had made her feel wretched and faithless and that’s why she wanted to hurt herself. She wanted an outward sign that showed the hurt she was feeling on the inside. It had felt like nothing at all, just a dull sensation, smacking her skull into the cast iron lip of the tub. The next day she had a dark purple egg-shaped bruise on her forehead and Bryan asked what happened. She told him she slipped getting out of the bath.
“I read an article about how dialysis machines were invented,” Jessica said. Her face was still tilted to the heavens. “Have you heard of the God Committee?”
Katie shook her head.
“It was really screwed up. They had only a few dialysis machines and they were all at the hospital. You had to go before the God Committee to get one. But this doctor, one of his patients was a little girl and for some reason they’d become friends. The girl went in front of the God Committee, and they didn’t approve her. The doctor went to the team of engineers who’d created the dialysis machines and asked if they could make a portable one for her to use at home.” Jessica was talking and alternating her gaze from the sky and Katie’s face, which showed surprise. She couldn’t believe Katie didn’t know about this, the history of the machine that she used every night on Riley. But that’s how knowledge was: sometimes you knew the important things and sometimes you didn’t even know what was important.
“The engineers made a portable dialysis machine. The doctor taught the girl’s mother how to use it. She had to stay up all night, because it had alerts that would go off all the time, and it would malfunction, and she’d have to monitor it very closely. And it was painful. That was the worst part, that she had to hurt her child to make her better.”
“It’s called hemodialysis,” Katie said. “Eventually the veins scar and close up.”
Jessica glanced at Katie’s eyes. They were loose and unfocused, as if they couldn’t absorb the seriousness of what she was saying.
Katie looked off downstream, where the water was rushing—in fact it made a small waterfall—so she wouldn’t cry. She was thinking about how in a few months Riley’s port wouldn’t work anymore, and they’d have to do hemodialysis too. The body has a limit to what it will withstand, and for how long. “Make-A-Wish called me this week.” Katie was now weeping softly. Jessica stole another peek at Katie’s eyes, which were miniature frowns, shut tight.
“That’s great! Finally. What are you going to choose?” Jessica tried to sound upbeat and accept the abrupt change of subject. She wanted to help her friend look on the bright side. But Katie didn’t seem joyful.
“Probably Disney World, like everyone else.”
“Oh,” Jessica said. Stupidly Jessica couldn’t think of anything else to choose either. It was so dumb, how little there was, and how little you got.
“I have to come to grips with having a terminal child,” Katie said. “If we don’t get the transplant, we might only have a few more years.”
“The girl did dialysis at home for four years,” Jessica said. “She was able to complete high school.” Her voice became very soft. “She died in the hospital. Her mom left to go home and get some rest. For the rest of her life, the mom devoted herself to teaching other parents how to use the machine.” Jessica expected Katie to sob, but she didn’t.
“We knew there was something wrong when I was pregnant,” Katie said. “They did amnio twice but couldn’t see what was wrong. If they’d known, there’s a surgery they could have done and she’d be fine. But we went ahead anyway, knowing it could be bad.”
“Hope’s latest bloodwork showed that her levels are decreasing. It happens sometimes, apparently. When they get older, their system can’t handle the infusions anymore and it starts shutting down. They think in a year, maybe…” A short silence existed between them.
“When I was in college a woman in my class was killed. An intruder broke in to rob her apartment. She was raped and murdered savagely,” Katie said. Jessica sucked in a sharp breath. The blood had stopped flowing and she took out the bandana.
“A dean I was close with wrote me an email about it. She said perhaps the woman was better off. To die young and innocent. Untouched in a way. Not having to live through the rest of it,” Katie said.
Jessica felt she had to say something to fill the emptiness, to share. “We didn’t know about Hope until she was born. I used to think it would have been better to know, and to do something about it. So she wouldn’t have to suffer. It’s such a short time, and to be in so much pain for almost all of it. But now, I think differently. I wouldn’t trade the experience of loving her for anything.” You couldn’t choose the kind of child you got.
“Riley came home from preschool and told me a story her teacher told them,” Katie said. “She said, ‘There was a parrot who was born with no feathers. He was ugly and couldn’t fly. He fell out of the nest and his family didn’t look for him. But then a family of humans found him and brought him home.’ There’s something about the language she used, in her three-year-old vernacular. She said, ‘They petted him anyway.’ ”
Katie let Otis off the leash and he forded the stream. “His paws will be so wet and muddy in the car,” Katie said. It was a long walk back to their cars in the dark. Jessica was starting to think that maybe she should be more worried about the nosebleed. Had she injured an artery when she’d hit her head on purpose in the bath? It was a stupid thing to do. She was a grown adult, not a child. Maybe she shouldn’t drink so much, that might help.
Jessica gave the bandana back to Katie and she put it in her backpack. “I’m sorry it’s covered in blood,” she said.
“It’s no problem, I’ll throw it in the wash when I get home,” Katie said.
“Do you think you’ll go back to the library, after Riley gets the transplant?”
“I’d like to,” Katie said. “We should get the kids together to play this week,” she said, but Jessica knew they wouldn’t. It would be too much trouble to seal off Riley’s dialysis port, Hope was still so weak, and she still wasn’t supposed to be around other children.
Katie asked Jessica how church was going. Jessica said it was fine, she and Bryan traded off staying home with Hope to attend on Sundays. She said they could come if they wanted, but Jessica knew it was an empty invitation. Katie’s family didn’t believe in God. Katie put Otis back on the leash and packed up the food. They walked back in the dark.
Two years later, at Hope’s funeral, Katie’s family came, but by then it was too late. Riley and Annie didn’t remember ever playing with Hope, no matter how often their mother spoke her name.
Fall / Winter 2023
Mina Manchester is a Scandinavian-American writer chasing the sun in Los Angeles. A graduate of the Sewanee School of Letters, her writing is featured in Electric Literature, HuffPost, Columbia Journal, The Normal School, and Inscape. Her work was chosen as a Finalist for The Pinch Literary Award, Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Rick DeMarinis Short Story Award and nominated for the UCLA James Kirkwood Prize.
Scarlett Rouge received her BFA from CalArts and splits her time between Los Angeles, Paris, and Torino. Her interdisciplinary work echoes her nomadic life. In all her work, Rouge remains driven by an intuitive need to reconnect Spirit to Matter, and views the artist’s function as a form of a modern day shaman. Rouge’s performance career began at the age of four as a member of the pop-punk band The Visiting Kids produced by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. Currently she performs with LAVASCAR, alongside her mother Michele Lamy and artist Nico Vascellari. Her solo exhibitions include The Lodge, Antebellum Gallery (both in LA); Ghost Space, Casa Del Pingone (both in Torino); and Lamyland’s Bargenale, 2015 Venice Biennale. Recent group exhibitions include Carpenter’s Workshop, LA; Youn Galerie, Montreal; Fresh Winds Biennale, Iceland; and Giardini della Reggia di Venaria Reale, Torino.