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Fiction: 24 Hour

We reached the grave, and I got down on my knees to hold my tiny daughter, mud and wet seeping through my wool suit pants. I kissed her on her forehead with the lips that had killed her mother only three days before.

Fiction by Philip Golden
Illustration by Jeremy Waltman

August.8th.2003

I stopped for a moment and looked behind us -- twenty or so of my family and friends walked behind us, all in dark colors with heavy coats. Some carried umbrellas in case the storms returned. We resumed walking, Jody hadn't slackened her grip.

The casket had already been put in the plot, one of her parents' side-by-side graves that they had bought as a young couple to be near my mother in law's parents and grandparents. Jamie had told me that she wanted to be cremated, but her parents insisted. They were perhaps even more devastated by this unthinkable loss than I.

We reached the grave, and I got down on my knees to hold my tiny daughter, mud and wet seeping through my wool suit pants. I kissed her on her forehead with the lips that had killed her mother only three days before.

I'd been doing pretty well in my fifth year with the firm. The tech market was still flying high on the fragile wings of inflated expectations, and we were in the thick of it in Downtown San Francisco. I had been told in confidence that I could be expecting my first really sizable bonus -- my clients had done well all year with my guidance. The old school philosophy was that you couldn't time the market, but we proved them wrong all year, buying low, getting in on the hot IPOs, and getting out ahead of the pack with the help of my friends in the industry around town. Not strictly legal, but we weren't hurting anyone.

In any case, it looked like Jamie and I had finally gotten past the lean years. We spent a few more bucks than we really could afford ("Borrowing against my bonus," I had told her) and bought into a time share with a few of the guys from the firm. It was a three-bedroom cabin about an hour east of Yosemite in a nowhere town. Snow, frozen lakes, bears, the works. Most of the rest of the guys were heading out there with packs of their friends and throwing big, raucous parties -- the kind you can't have in the city without the cops showing up -- but Jamie and I just wanted a little quiet away from the urban insanity we faced every day, and Jody had never seen the snow.

We packed up the Jeep, bought a set of snow chains second hand from a Shell station, and headed out Friday afternoon, right after the Market closed.

I had made some big kills that day. Got one of my wealthier clients in and out of a wireless play with a 27 percent gain. He loved me. I was still riding that high way out on the highway. We had beat all the traffic out of town, and the road was ours. Jody had just started talking a few months earlier, and she was singing nonsense rhymes to the car stereo for hours. We listened to the same Cat Stevens record (the same one that had been my favorite when I was kid) three times in a row, and she never let up, just kept belting out new words each time.

That first night was quick. We heated up some Chinese food we bought on 15th Avenue on the way out of town, turned on the TV, and were all passed out by 10:00. Saturday morning was magic. New snow had fallen, and Jody woke us up babbling about it and a blue jay she had seen until we had her bundled up and stomping tracks in the snow. She was still pretty wobbly on her feet, and really cracked us up falling down like that fat guy with the Hitler moustache in the old black and white films -- BLAM! Right on her well-padded behind.

We drank cocoa and took naps. Everything was perfect until I woke up with the most hideous nausea I can remember ever having. I had that awful watery feeling in my mouth, and had to half dash/half stagger down the long hall past Jody's room to the toilet, where I spent the better part of Saturday night puking up nothing but yellow, swirling bile fifteen times until some time Sunday morning. In between bouts of vomiting, I could do nothing but lay fetal on the lumpy cabin couch, groaning with pain. It felt like I had been beaten up -- every muscle ached and my head throbbed rhythmically in waves of pain. At least by staying in the living room, I avoided waking up the girls on every trip to the toilet.

Jeanie felt helpless. I waved away her every attempt to help me out. My perfect vacation was trickling away. All that snow to play in with my daughter, and I couldn't move.

When I was a kid, my mother was obsessed with my sister and I never missing school. In 8th Grade, to my adolescent humiliation, I was called up in front of my class in the gym at the end of the year to accept the Perfect Attendance Award along with Aaron Finklestein and Su Li Chan, two notorious no-life "brains" who were heaving with pride. I hadn't even realized that I never missed a day that year. I tried to hide in the lining of my jacket, but my friends, punching my arms and mercilessly ribbing me, forced me to me feet and toward the podium in front, where Mr. Zuckerman, the Principal, lay in wait for me with a broad smile on his face. The mean old bastard knew he was killing me.
If either my sister or I were ever truly sick enough that my mother, the lunatic, couldn't deny our inability to get dressed and to the bus stop, she invariably announced that we had the "24 Hour Flu," signaling that one day was her absolute limit.

The hydra, medusa, the 24-hour bug. I never experienced this mythological virus sprung from my mother's head until my vacation. I slept soundly all Sunday morning, exhausted with illness, and then awoke around 5 pm feeling perhaps a little off, but ready to live again. It had been, perhaps, 29 hours, but close enough. My vacation weekend had been stolen by that dastardly bug, and I was determined to have it back. I plugged in the laptop (which I had hidden away in the back of the Jeep, as Jeanie and I had agreed to leave all work behind) and fired off a round of emails to my secretary and co-workers to the effect that I had been snowed in and wouldn't be able to make it in until Tuesday, at the earliest. How would they know?

Monday was perfect again, conjured from the storybook mind of the writers of Christmas TV movies. Far away were any thoughts of interest rates, the bond market, or Nasdaq. I laid in the snow with my daughter and made angels, rode an inner tube down a treacherously-icy hill, drank hot cocoa with marshmallows. We found tracks in the snow behind the cabin and followed them until the disappeared. Perfect.

Tired with play, my small family went indoors around 3:00 to dry off and watch videos. Jeanie sat on the couch, and I watched her rapidly collapse into illness. By 6:00, she was throwing up. By 8:00, she was curled up in front of the fireplace, wrapped in a blanket.

"Mommy is sick now too?"

"Yes. Mommy caught it too."

"Am I going to get sick too?"

"I think you will be okay. Go to sleep now. Mommy will be fine soon."

Jamie stayed there all night, refusing to come to bed. "I don't want to keep you up again," she told me in between dry heaves. I couldn't sleep anyway. Well past 3:00 am, I was startled by her footsteps, and then lay awake staring into the dark and listening to her moan, trying to quiet my thoughts. I don't know how long I lay there prisoner to the ceaseless chatter in my head, but eventually, I must have fallen asleep.

In the morning, she still wasn't by my side in the bed. I walked quietly past Jody's room down the hall, expecting to find her on the couch, but there were only blankets.

I tiptoed to the bathroom and knocked. Nothing. I opened the door and knew instantly. I never had to check for breathing or a pulse. She was gone, her eyes bulging as she lay on her back, covered in vomit and blue, asphyxiated. I collapsed and stifled my cries; my first thoughts weren't of Jeanie's death, but that I didn't know how I would tell Jody.

I sat by her, despair engulfing me, and remembered how she had leaned over me the day before, cooing, "Poor baby," and kissing me on the lips.




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