by Christine Rice
Flint, Michigan, 1918
Vida Hitchcock and her parents stood on the train platform in the December drizzle, waiting impatiently for the train that would bring her twin brother home. Everett’s and six other boys’ return had been delayed by injuries suffered just days before Emperor Wilhelm abdicated the German Throne and the war wheezed to an end. They’d missed last month’s jubilant victory parade down Saginaw Street, with its cheering throngs, children wearing Red Cross headdresses, flags waving madly.
Bad timing, he’d written. Popped out of the trench to greet a piece of shrapnel. My face (they say…won’t let me near a mirror when they change bandages) all busted up – like so many other boys. Prepare yourself.
The old Everett would have never admitted to being like other boys. He wore his physical strength and swiftness like a medal, cocky about his superiority, his athletic scholarship, constantly letting everyone know he could run faster, jump higher, throw farther than anyone, anywhere.
And how, Vida asked herself, does one prepare for something like this? Had Everett lost his nose? His cheek? His chin? Was that even possible? He hadn’t given details. And although she tried to block it out, she kept asking the same question: had her sparkling twin, her other half, become a monster? A freak?
She willed herself to erase the thought from her mind. Monster. Freak. As children, it was what they’d whispered to each other when the circus came to town. Monster. A woman with green scales covering her legs. Freak. A man with a monkey tail. Monster. Everett without a nose. Freak. Everett with his chin blown off. An image of their neighbor’s droopy-jowled coonhound ambushed her with Everett’s face replacing the dog’s, its black and tan mouth wet with drool.
Vi hated the fact that, while Everett was off fighting for his life, she’d been Stateside, safe and sound in Divinity school at University of Michigan, unable to function without her vitamins. That’s what she called the tincture she took but, if she was being honest (which was rare), she would call it by what it was: laudanum. Heroin. Opium. She took it to ease the pain in her lung from a bad case of pneumonia. During her recovery, shortly after Everett left, Dr. Stephy had prescribed it for the intense pain but, after a year, had refused to continue her prescription, telling her – quite sternly – that she should now be able to manage without it. When her cravings became too much, she’d gone to drugstores to cobble together enough laudanum to get her through the day. Eventually, she found a medical supply company out of Hammond, Indiana, to whom she could send $2.90 via the United States Postal Service and, within two weeks, the good people at Frank S. Betz Medical Supply would send her a fluid extract to make her own tincture.
What would her parents do if they knew? She’d convinced herself that she was different than the images of sleepy-eyed Chinese opium-den smokers. But was she? Of course, she was! Just look at me, she’d reason. Look at my pressed blouse, tailored skirt, my broach pinned just so, my statuesque frame, smooth skin, heart-shaped face, deep brown eyes.
Her neat, trim appearance helped keep her secret. And what’s more, it was just a little laudanum to get her through this difficult time. She could stop whenever she wanted.
READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN OUR MAY 2018 MAGAZINE!
Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux
Christine Rice’s novel Swarm Theory was awarded the 2016 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award (Honorable Mention, Traditional Fiction), an Independent Publisher Book Award or ‘IPPY’ (Silver for Best First Book), and a National Indie Excellence Award – Winner (Regional Fiction – Midwest). Swarm Theory also made PANK’s Best Books of 2016, was included in Powell’s Books Midyear Roundup, the Best Books of 2016 So Far, and was called “a gripping work of Midwest Gothic” by Michigan Public Radio’s Desiree Cooper. Most recently, Christine’s short stories have been published in BELT’s Rust Belt Anthology, The Literary Review, Roanoke Review American University of Beirut’s Rusted Radishes, F Magazine and Bird’s Thumb, among others. Her essays, interviews, and long-form journalism have appeared in The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Big Smoke, The Millions, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit’s Metro Times, among other publications, and her radio essays have been produced by WBEZ Chicago. She is currently the managing editor of Hypertext Magazine and Executive Director of the social justice storytelling nonprofit organization Hypertext Magazine & Studio (HMS). Before creating HMS, Christine taught in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department for over 20 years.