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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2018 - Vol. 15, Issue 1


written by

Barlow Adams

Voicemail is a method of time travel. It can take you back, bring the future to you, even stop time.


I'm fond of voicemails. If you ever leave me one, I will use it as I like.

I make no apologies for this. After you walk away from it, that moment is mine. I own it.


I have one from a girl who loves me. Her voice is all air and affection.

She's talking about dinner plans and going out. You can almost hear the wine glasses clinking as she speaks, the zip of a hand racing across a clean sheet soon to be dirty.


I have another one from a girl who doesn't. They speak with the same voice.

The timestamp is later. She talks to me in a business-like tone about having my copy of "Finding Nemo". She wants to know if I want it back. Her voice is hollow and far away and all the wine in the world couldn't fill that emptiness.


I used to listen to them back-to-back. To try to make them fit. I'd reverse the order, interchange the words. In the beginning, the newer one seemed out-of-place, a stranger who had sneaked into my phone. Now the older recording seems the odd one. Did I know this person? What did she smell like?


There is one from my father. A month before they found an eraser-sized spot on his lung. I've re-saved it every thirty days for seven years. He's asking me to go fishing. We didn't end up going. It rained. We will never end up going. Every month, however, I get the invitation. I always say yes.


I'd go in a hurricane at this point.


My newest is from last night. I carried it around like a pipe bomb in my pocket all night. It waited for me through the morning, staring up at me like a carrier pigeon as I ate my breakfast. It's another frozen moment, a pin stuck through my heart affixing it to a timeline.


It’s a woman. I don't know the voice, but I know her last name.  It’s the same as a friend of mine’s, an old friend. He had a surgery yesterday, a minor one. I didn't even know. It didn't go well. Brain damage. I can't understand the message for a good ten seconds. It's garbled by crying. She manages to say that they will be taking him off life support in the morning, and would I like to come see him. She tells me to call back. It's the afternoon when her tears from Cleveland puddle with mine in Cincinnati.


The recording sends a flurry of scenes dancing through my mind, a scramble of memories rushing over each other, like film in a broken projector. The movie it plays is about my friend and I sitting on the front steps of our college dorm. I have bandages on my arm from where they put the dialysis needles and I’m skinnier than most would believe possible. There’s a strong breeze, and I look like I could blow away. We're both afraid that is exactly what might happen. He doesn't know what to say, how to keep me tethered. We're both twenty. He has no war stories to match mine. He wants to relate. He wants me to not feel alone.


He tells me a story about how he went to summer camp when he was a teen and swung into a tree, rupturing a testicle. He only has one now. It's the most embarrassing and intimate thing he can offer me.


It's more than enough. It was more than enough before he told me. I love him, the big, dumb idiot, and I would tell him if I wasn’t twenty and too young and stupid to know it’s okay to say that to another guy. To break the tension, I jokingly tell him that I always knew he was half-nuts and he punches me in the arm. I’m grateful that he believes me strong enough for the playful attack. My tricep stings, we smile, and I feel more alive than I have in weeks. Neither of us mention how scared we are that my spot on the steps might soon be empty, and we sure as hell don’t hug.  There isn’t a single instant in which we imagine that he will die before I do. It’s inconceivable.


After listening to the voicemail, I can still feel that night on my skin. I can remember the words. I know them. But I can't hear them. No matter how hard I try, I can't hear them. I have lost his voice to that strong autumn wind.


I want desperately to listen to the voicemail of that old conversation, to trade it for this new one. I would give anything to make that trade, even the other voicemails that I have hidden away in my portable time machine.

Barlow Adams is a former journalist and a freelance writer in the Cincinnati area, who has lymphoma and a kidney transplant.

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