In Case of Emergency, Good Luck 

First Place

“Isn’t that what we’re all so afraid about? That after we die we just disappear, leave nothing behind?”

Illustration by Chelsea Raflo

“Isn’t that what we’re all so afraid about? That after we die we just disappear, leave nothing behind?”

CL Atlanta Fiction Contest: 2011, 2012, 2013 - First Edition

I insisted the book ride shotgun while I sat in back. "After all," I said to my husband as he steered out of Providence, "who's worth more in this equation? Dollar value, I mean, not any sentimental crap. Me? Or the book?"

The book, it should be noted, was bound in human skin. Anthropodermic bibliopegy, Nathan had explained on an early date. This is the kind of thing I learn from him: Since the 17th century, kings and doctors have rebound books in human skin. If the magistrate in your dukedom convicted a murderer, why not use the hanged man's love handles to cover the court records? You have to watch out: Some have faked it with calf and sheep. But this book was honest Abraham, the skin as human as it comes. "Why don't you go with me?" Nathan had said the night before he drove the book two hours down 95 to the country's most esteemed conservator. "That book has always been your favorite thing about my job."

Nathan's eyes widened in the rearview, as if he were an animated heroine. "Will you please come sit up front?" Be gentle with me, he pleaded, in every slightest movement that he made, for I am gentle with the world.

I leaned forward between the two front seats and palmed the locked box that held the book. If this were a courtroom, I'd be perjuring myself on a volume called Dance of Death. I often asked to see it when I picked Nathan up from work. On each page, woodcuts by some famous engraver depict a hooded scythe-carrying Death positioned nonchalantly in daily scenes: Death as shepherd, Death goes to market, Death sits through Wednesday Mass.

Nathan held his palm against the vent, then fiddled at the AC. "It just doesn't seem cool enough." He pulled a thermometer from the breast pocket of his pale-green collared shirt and squinted at the tiny numbers. "It has to be cool like the library."

Brake lights loomed up the interstate. "Watch the road!" I said.

He grabbed at the wheel and the thermometer sailed from his grasp. It slapped against the gearshift and rolled below the pedals, out of reach.

"Do you think it was a choice you could make?" I said as we passed the first signs for Foxwoods Casino. "Like organ donation?"

"The skin is an organ."

"It could be cool, no? I'd consider it." I rubbed my palm over Nathan's cheek. "Just imagine. Your face in the hands of kings. Conserved forever. Isn't that what we're all so afraid about? That after we die we just disappear, leave nothing behind?"

"Bess," he said. "Please."

We'd spent the last year, year two of our marriage, trying for a baby. In any case, that's what Nathan thought we were doing. He wanted a baby. Look at how he burped my sister Alice's number three and number four over his broad shoulders. "Twins," he'd say, beaming. "You might have the right stuff for twins!" Alice would corner me by her dwarf ficus. "What is wrong with you? I saw pills in your purse, does he even know?" I didn't know what he knew, because he never said anything to me, not outright. I sometimes hinted at barrenness and Nathan — sweet man — passed no judgment on that ultimate of lady sorrows. Maybe he'd resigned himself to whatever I provided, like he resigned himself to drive with the dead man's skin up in front.

I was still taking pills, which surprised me as much as anyone. I always thought I'd be right there with Alice, pushing strollers through the park. Nathan would be a good father, and I'm no heart surgeon or rescue pilot or war reporter, no one so wild or important she couldn't stop to help some kid get through his day. I'd never said this to my sister, but I was beginning to think about pregnancy as a kind of invasion. I must have skipped class, some sunny day in high school, when they gathered us girls together and explained our part in the meaning of life. Love Nathan? Sure I did, but was love the same as some spawn of him floating and turning and flapping its gills inside me?

I reached for the cup holder, pinching the small silver key between my fingers.

"Bess, what is wrong with you? Please leave the book in its box."

"You have no idea what's wrong with me." I lifted the box into the back seat. Nathan shook his head in quick, nervous jerks, switching between the road ahead and me.

"What are you going to do about it?" I said.

He raised his palms from the steering wheel and then set them down again three times. He dragged his sleeve across his high, round forehead to wick away the sweat. "It's already too hot in here. Please leave it in the box."


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