The Best Medicine

By Kayla Aldrich

            There’s a joke and it goes like this:

            A woman called Astrid takes a visit to her doctor and says that she’s depressed. She explains that life seems to be one hundred and ten percent harsher than it does on the typical Tuesday. It’s been a year, she says, but does not admit it’s been a year since I lost someone.

            The doctor smiles, buffing his hands together. Something like pity stirs the harsh lines of his face.

            “Oftentimes, when I feel sad, I laugh at the clown Pagliacci. She’s this quiet creature that lives alone with her dog, works in a field she loathes, and is generally the saddest sack of a person I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

            Though Astrid was too tired to be properly offended, she still says: “Doctor, don’t you know that I’m Pagliacci?”

            And the doctor replies: “Did I stutter?”

*

            It was hotter than hell, and it couldn’t even be the dry type of heat, either. Astrid was caught in a vice by a wet, oppressive band of humidity that made every breath labored; it caused her to think of the cigarette smoke that corroded Pops’ lungs and how it had warped his laugh into a rasp.

            The cigarettes hadn’t killed him. The heat made her think of that, too.

            Still, Astrid would let herself be broiled alive if it meant getting away from the dull interior of her office, her nosy coworkers, and her boss that always stood a little too close despite every cell in Astrid’s body blatantly protesting his presence. Why no one had stopped her from becoming a business major, she couldn’t say, and the fact she had a steady job at a risk assessment firm still boggled her. It was a fairly low-level position, the pay was good as were the benefits. All the perks in the world didn’t make it any less mind-numbing. Being free to sit up shop at a flea market and idly count out the crumpled bills she’d collected in the last few hours was the highlight of her week; it was a testament to Astrid’s living standard that she didn’t wish to examine too closely.

            “How’re we doing, buddy?”

            Lenus, her stubborn-willed Australian Shepherd, harrumphed from where she’d raised her car’s back hatch. He perched in the shade, the silver of his fur catching the afternoon light.

            “I know,” she murmured, rubbing a hand down his back. The nub of Lenus’s tail wobbled briefly before he settled and sighed, as if aware Astrid had strategically arranged him to draw in potential customers.

            It worked relatively well, this light dose of exploitation.

            The majority of the items she’d arranged on a folding table had been snatched up already. The rest, if they weren't sold, would end up back at home. Astrid didn’t entertain the thought of dropping anything off at GoodWill and was adamant nothing would see the inside of a Salvation Army. There was a certain intimacy of seeing the face of whoever gave Pops’ things a new home. She could scarcely stomach imagining strangers walking through fluorescent-lit aisles and roughly handling objects that once mattered to Pops in some capacity.

            One man, who looked to be in his mid-forties, bought the majority of the fishing lures Pops had purchased and cluttered the garage with, never opening them. She’d been incapable of disturbing the multitude of tackle boxes— something Astrid equated to desecrating a gravesite—  for fear of nosediving further into a pool of debilitating numbness.

            It was her professional opinion that straightening up was practical. Necessary. It was like weeding a garden to usher in brighter, thicker foliage. She’d repeated this mantra more than once for the sake of her sanity.

            “They’re two for five or five for ten dollars, sir,” Astrid had explained to Man Number One, upending another water bottle into Lenus’s bowl. He lapped gratefully and she was glad to have laid out a towel to keep Lenus’s sloppy slurping from ruining her upholstery.

            “Oh!” Man Number One said, flashing a crooked grin. “What a steal!”

            He scooped up a few lures into the wide breadth of his palm and jogged off a dozen steps as if robbing Astrid. Man Number One was quick to hurry back when her expression didn’t change, when it became clear no smile was going to tip her mouth upright.

            Another guy walked by her table and hummed. “You’ve got a whole lot of baits and not a rod in sight. You sell out already?”

            This man had a bit of a pot-belly and his words were lopsided from the cigarette hanging out his thin mouth. If his legs were skinnier and his hair were more flaxen, Astrid might’ve found an echo of Pops in him.

            “No, sir,” she said. “I wasn’t selling any rods today.”

            “A right shame,” he sighed. Man Number Two flicked his cigarette a safe distance from her table and she watched the ash flutter free like the head of a dandelion caught in a breeze. “A damn shame, if you ‘scuse my language, miss.”

            Again, no smile, but she nodded amiably enough, and said: “I’ll allow it.”

            And just because Pops had been gone a year didn’t mean it was time for her to gut their house. Astrid had scarcely made a dent in Pops’ plethora of possessions. That, she reasoned, was probably why it didn’t sting, was likely why Astrid didn’t feel like she was going to vomit when she’d loaded up the car, grabbed Lenus, and drove to the flea market thirty minutes outside the city that morning.

            Just like those tackle boxes, she’d given away or sold the bare minimum. Astrid had taken nothing from Pops’ room, his boat remained covered by a tarp in the driveway, and she hadn’t dared to touch any of his DVDs that dominated a corner of the living room. His arrowhead displays still hung on the left wall of the entryway, his classic truck calendar stuck on the month of May even though it was no longer the same May. She had interspersed a few of his well-worn flannels into her wardrobe, but only the ones already scattered on the backs of chairs or draped haphazardly on the coat rack by the front door. Pops’ favorite mug was still sitting beside the coffee machine as if he was simply late in coming downstairs for breakfast; their house was practically untouched from the last time he’d been inside it.

            Practical. It was all very practical. Her boss would be pleased with her thinking so.

            A third man of note ambled by right when she was packing up.

            “You alright?” he asked, catching her in the midst of an impressive thousand yard stare.  “Come on, honey, would a smile kill you?”

            “Probably,” Astrid said, waspish, giving the collapsed table a shove into the middle row of seats. Lenus waited for her up front, leaving nose prints on the windshield as he tracked a bumblebee. “How ‘bout you smile for me, huh?”

            Man Number Three blinked.

            “Yeah,” she said. Her face folded further into a grimace. “That’s what I thought.”

*

            Astrid wasn’t sure when she stopped laughing. Or smiling. Or feeling much of anything.

 

            It might’ve come when she turned on her phone and the device vibrated out her hand with an influx of notifications. Surely it was when a neighbor called on a too-bright Monday to break the news that Pops was gone.

 

            “All for a stupid rod,” Sandra From Two Houses Down had wept, and Astrid, even in her state of shock, didn’t have to strain to hear the trumpeting notes of a nose being blown. She would learn Pops thought he’d left a rod at the pond he’d fished earlier in the day. He hadn’t clarified which rod, wouldn’t have thought to when he had too many to specify. “I said I’d drive him over to look in the morning, but he… he wouldn’t wait. He just wouldn’t wait. I’m so, so sorry, Astrid.”

 

            Maybe it was in the stifling silence of her half-packed dorm room, where Astrid struggled to compute this new development and her eyes went glassy when they skimmed over the graduation regalia hanging on the back of her door. Could it have been somewhere on the drive from campus to home, once she’d had a breakdown in no less than four separate McDonald’s parking lots. Or was it before the trip to the medical examiner given she was listed as Pops’ next of kin. It may have been after, when the sight of Pops’ body had brought forth the crippling observation that he looks like wax.

 

            Maybe it was when Sandra had come out on the front steps to greet Astrid and had Lenus trailing after her, and Lenus had peered up at Astrid with those eyes— one and a half brown, the rest a sliver of ice-blue—  and she’d seen something like disappointment in him. She wondered if it was when Lenus, who Pops had found the same week Astrid first went off to school, seemed to realize that Pops wasn’t coming home and Astrid would be the one taking care of him. Or when Lenus spent a week lying in front of Pops’ room, barking or whining or both, until Astrid climbed out of bed to let the damn dog see that Pops wasn’t inside.

 

            Maybe it was when she’d gone online and searched how to give a eulogy, and Astrid read that eulogies weren’t supposed to be sad. According to the internet, they ought to be uplifting, usually consisting of some kind of story that would elicit chuckles rather than cries. Possibly, it was the funeral, itself, and being obligated to hold the emerald urn with blocky meander around the rim that impossibly contained all of Pops. She couldn’t count on both hands how many people said something like he would hate to see you so upset, but Astrid’s face was dry and she’d been all cried out by then, and Pops wasn’t even there to see her in such a state, anyway.

 

            From where he was buckled in the passenger seat, Lenus whined.

            Astrid reached out blindly, her hand landing on the soft dome of his skull. He was warm and quick to lean into her palm. She hushed him when he let out another pathetic sound.

            “We’re almost there,” Astrid said, nodding to the glass and steel buildings huddled like sardines on either side of the street. Her blinker clicked to preface their upcoming left turn. “Another couple of miles, buddy.”

*

            It’s possible there’s no joke at all. It could be a bit of mistranslated text with the potential to carry an air of mirth if Astrid wasn’t so goddamn sad. If her guilt hadn’t sank into her joints with the bite of meathooks. If such a comedic anecdote existed, it would go like this:

 

            “Bartender,” the poor drunk would slur. “My Pops died. He died and I was far away, and I had promised that I’d give him a call the night it happened, but I didn’t. I’d been studying for an exam I ended up failing and it just… slipped my mind. For three hundred and sixty-five days, I’ve wondered if I’d only remembered— if I’d only remembered to call, would he still be alive?”

 

            The faceless bartender would nod, wrist rolling in methodical motions as he swiped a rag around the belly of a beer glass. “Is that why you’ve got such a long face?”

 

            “No, asshole,” the drunk would snarl. “That’s because I’m a horse.”

*

            The park had entrances marked by gates in the cardinal directions, all of which were bracketed by maps, vending machines, and water fountains. It was a popular spot for families, for spreading out a blanket and reading on a sunny afternoon. She and Pops once killed an entire summer coming to fish the river that cut a jagged scar through the landscape. And how times had changed, because Astrid couldn’t stomach any body of water larger than her shower stall, not after it was presumed Pops thought he’d seen his missing rod floating on the surface of that damnable pond. He thought he saw it, and he leaned in, squinting, trying to make sense of the shape in the dark, only to fall.

 

            A blessed cloud cover dumped a pack of slow-moving cotton balls across the sky and helped in dulling the sun’s glare. Astrid entered through the western gate which put her furthest from the hissing current, her hand tightening reflexively on Lenus’s leash.

 

            The park was within walking distance of their neighborhood and thanks to such close proximity, Pops had dedicated an hour a day to taking Lenus on the numerous dirt trails at the public’s disposal. Astrid had been so glad he had a companion, that Pops wouldn’t be alone while she was working toward her degree.

 

            Lenus had become her closest friend over the past year, and sure she’d liked him well enough when Pops was still alive, but she’d grown to love Lenus as if he was her four-legged sibling. Some days he felt more like her child. Astrid appreciated that she didn’t have to make an effort to carry a conversation if there were long, awkward silences between them. There was no need for any kind of extended performance with a dog and even when she wasn’t alright, Lenus’s schedule kept her moving, kept her mental health from deteriorating more than it already had. It was another facet of her life she didn’t care to stare in the face, though it was something she was confronted with once or twice a week when the various gossips in her department wanted to shoulder their way into the details of Astrid’s nonexistent private life.

 

            “I know what you’re trying to do,” she muttered, distaste soaking every letter that left her mouth. Astrid gave Lenus a pointed tug when he stilled at the sight of a squirrel across the grass. “Don’t try it.”

 

            The bit of blue in one of his eyes gave Lenus the ability to look at her with the canine approximation of being unimpressed. If Lenus could speak, he’d probably say something like: “Well maybe if you let me get closer to that chew toy, woman, I wouldn’t have to give you the eyes.”

 

            “Don’t try it,” Astrid repeated, increasing the speed of her stride. “Your tricks don’t work on me.”

 

            Lenus huffed and she couldn’t pretend there wasn’t a dismissal behind the noise.

The wail of an ambulance sent a dozen birds fleeing their perches in the trees and Lenus’s ears twitched like a pair of grey satellites. She wondered if it was from the three car pile-up they’d passed on their way over or if someone had been hurt, elsewhere.

            Could be a heart attack, her mind piped up unhelpfully. That was what was listed on Pop’s death certificate, but it only narrowed the lens of truth down to a pinhole. And her mind fuzzled out at the thought, at the weight of a year pressing down on the line of her shoulders like she was some hollowed echo of Atlas. Pops had told her, once, that the stars above were holes poked in the lid of a jar; that everyone on earth was very small on the grand scale of things, that each living thing was just wriggling underneath the microscope of the universe. Her parents were out of the picture, and her Nan had died when she was seven, and it took losing Pops for Astrid to realize how tiny her world was without him in it.

            What she wouldn’t give for a phone with an extension to the afterlife. For thirty seconds of extra time to say, I’m sorry. I love you, and I’m trying my best. I’m so exhausted and all I want to do is make you proud, Pops, and I’m sorry, I’m—          

            Astrid hadn’t realized how long their excursion had lapsed until she glanced to her right and found her feet had carried them to the steep hill leading down to the river of her youth. She spotted the second bundle of nut-brown right when Lenus pulled.

            The leash burned as it ripped through her fingers. Such abrupt momentum sent Astrid thudding face-first into the grass and her head snapped up, spitting out the mouthful of earth that met her teeth in time for the squirrel to zip down the incline. And her dog, Pops’ bullheaded little asshole of a dog, was right on its heels.     

            “Lenus!” she screamed, lurching up onto her hands and knees. “Lenus, stop!”

            The squirrel never lost speed, even when Lenus slipped and skidded, snapping at the speedy creature and ultimately failed at latching his teeth around anything but open air. She couldn’t move. She was caught in a vice, because Astrid knew the river was deceptively deep, just as it was at the pond where Pops was lost.

            At the last moment, the squirrel turned, bolting away from the snarling water.

            Lenus’s momentum was too great, and— and he just— Pops’ foot had caught on a gnarled root. No one was around to help him, to see his struggle, to hear him when he went still among the lily pads and cattails. Lenus disappeared with an erratic jerk of limbs, the initial sound lost over the crash of the current, over the pounding of Astrid’s heartbeat trying to hammer through the base of her ears.

            With a biting clarity, she was back in that coroner’s office. The world blurred and Astrid was looking down at Pops where a snapping turtle or some particularly flesh-hungry fish had claimed a chunk of his ear. He was entirely drained of color, was too-still. He held absolutely no resemblance to a being that had ever been alive and Lenus wouldn’t look like that. He’d be like one of those poor, stuffed creatures in a natural history museum. Her boy would be lifeless, stiff, sad-faced—   

            Astrid took a running start down the incline, scrambling, trying to keep from falling and breaking the skin of her shins, and plunged into the water without an ounce of grace. She was submerged instantly. It could’ve been seconds or years since Lenus vanished from sight, and she had no idea such brutal, liquified force was possible. Had the water been so unkind when she was a child?

            “L-Lenus!” Astrid gasped, clawing her way to the surface. Her hair obscured half her vision and the rest blurred from whatever runoff tainted the river. “Lenus!”

            She wasn’t quick enough to dodge the thick-bellied log that broke the skin of her cheek and if she bled, any rush of heat was lost on her. Lenus had never cared for the water, had been prone to lounging by the shore if he accompanied Pops on his fishing trips. But Australian Shepherds were water dogs, weren’t they? Could they be? If she was struggling, fighting tooth and nail to remain buoyant, then how was— no. She didn’t let the train of thought leave the station, because Astrid could not lose him. Not Lenus. And she willed her brain to keep up, to think of a plan, to keep it minimal. Find, grab, go, and promptly find another place to take him for—

            There.

            Astrid spotted a trashing form in the water just out of arm’s reach and she felt Lenus scrape out her throat. A raw, pleading thing. She was near enough to hear whining and even a bit of panting, and she refused to lose him, this last precious piece of Pops that made the rest of the world seem a little less cruel.

            She cursed her body and her aching limbs, willing her muscles to stretch farther, to propel her the needed distance as Astrid got a hand in Lenus’s fur. If he yelped at her white-knuckled grip, she didn’t hear it over the all-encompassing roar of the river, and Astrid sucked in a harsh breath in case her head was forced below the surface again. Her free arm flapped erratically about, making to remain afloat, blinking hard to try and find a shape that vaguely resembled the shore.

            Astrid willed  any kind of cosmic scale to tip in her favor. So much had been claimed by the water, and if something else had to be taken, she hoped it was her. She willed Lenus to make it out even if she ended up washing into the ocean; if she sank and was never recovered, it would be alright so long as Lenus lived. Astrid never stilled. Never let herself rest even as her sight was going and three-quarters of her exhales were wet, stinging splutters.

            One particularly vicious kick of her legs sent Astrid’s sneakers scraping the bottom of the riverbed. She could’ve wept at her toes finding purchase, could’ve wailed when she lost that divot and had to fight for another. Lenus hadn’t stopped kicking, either, and when her foot made firm contact with loam, Astrid dug in her heels and jerked him toward the blurry streak of beige and black pebbles.

            The river never stopped working against them, not even when she successfully heaved Lenus onto the grit. Astrid flopped down beside him, spent and beaten, and no matter how sharp her relief, rage cut through her bloodstream no better than a comet burning across the vacuum of space.

            “Fuck you,” Astrid wheezed, fisting his collar with a trembling hand. Lenus shook himself, his tags clinking like the notes on the upper end of a piano scale. She would have to beat at her chest to knock the water from her lungs if she wished to breathe properly in the near-future. “If you’d just listened to—”

            He licked a stripe up the side of her face, letting Astrid bundle him close. She kissed his soaked head once, twice, thrice. It was a testament to how shaken Lenus was that he made no move to wriggle out of her grasp. Astrid’s hand flattened over his ribs and his heart, capable of producing a mere single thought with any iota of clarity:

            At least I saved one of them.

            “Hey!” came a call from up the hill. “Hey, are you okay?”

            It was a jogger still running in place even as he peered concernedly down the incline at her and Lenus. She couldn’t be sure if it was being intimately aware of how close her life had come to ending or if the sight of such a towering man in absurdly tiny shorts was enough to break her, but the dam she’d painstakingly constructed splintered and brought forth a great flood. Astrid was overcome with laughter, the face-splitting, chest-heaving sort that was loaded with rust; that made her cheeks sting, that made her cough and hiccup and wheeze until any and all snorting dissolved into sobs.

            After everything, there was no punchline.

©2020 by Variant Literature Inc.