The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 19, No. 2

Last Seen

by Jennifer S. Davis

When the neighborhood boy goes missing, Becca is at work. It's not her dream job, the job she imagined as a small girl when kindly strangers asked her what she wanted to be: a ballerina, a clown, a doctor, a chef, a swallower of flaming swords, but most of all, a poet. Hers was a stolid, work–your–fingers–to–the–bone kind of family, realistically pessimistic about the economic possibilities of their circumstances and, in equal measure, the limits of human decency and compassion. Eventually she learned well enough; here she is now: unmarried, childless, well past thirty, a whiz at medical coding, employed in a general practitioner's office in the tiny Southern town in which she was born, her life as a poet confined to a basket of text fragments on office notepads she hides under her bed like pornography.
     "You're not hauling water from a crap–fouled river five miles each way to make breakfast, so consider yourself standing in high cotton," her father would have said if he were still alive, kneading the butt of a lit cigarette, an affect he liked to pair with what he considered his "real world" advice, which had included this indictment of poetry when she'd foolishly shared with him her Emily Dickinson emulation—"While waiting on the Bus"—her freshman year of high school: "Nobody makes a living writing that shit."
     And of course he was right then, and he'd be right now. But this is not what she's chanting to herself, partially in medical coding, while trying to rally from the midday malaise—786.05, 786.05, 786.05, breathe, breathe, breathe—as if her organs might atrophy and forget this rudimentary function. Given her occupation, Becca has seen things most people don't think possible—cells cannibalizing cells, lungs disintegrating like wet paper, nipples spewing green puss, toes and fingers decomposing on live bone—each affliction sufficiently common to require its own designated code. Our bodies have the capacity to betray us in thousands of different ways, and it's her job to categorize every one: any sickness or injury, however unspeakable, easily translatable into a few efficient digits.
     The repetition of numbers is so hypnotic, she almost doesn't notice when the talk show on the waiting room TV is interrupted by the local news. A picture of a little boy—freckled nose and squinty smile, milk teeth square and perfectly spaced—blooms on the screen, followed by a limp–eyed mother in a pink velour tracksuit stamped with juicy across her breasts who cries, "I only looked away for a few minutes," before her neck snaps like a stem and her head plummets into her cupped hands with alarming force.
     "Jesus, what is that lady wearing?" Reagan, the receptionist, asks in her usual lilt, which is so lovely and lyrical that most patients initially mistake her for pleasant.
     "I doubt she knew she'd be on the news today," Becca replies, but Reagan is right—the tracksuit is unfortunate, and overall the mother has that hard look of poor so many from around here acquire, like a uniform, by their mid-twenties.
     "Her kid is cute, I'll give her that," Reagan says when Caleb's image blinks back onto the screen. He's wearing a bright orange T–shirt with a tyrannosaur chomping air; bite me floats above the dinosaur's mouth in all capped letters. Caleb has a dimple in his cheek so deep Becca momentarily wonders if someone might have scooped it out with a melon baller.
     "I know that boy," she says. The legitimacy of the statement surprises her.
      Reagan tents her razor-thin eyebrows. "You do?" She clasps a hand against her chest, her cleavage, fully exposed in her low-cut chemise, jiggling from the impact. A tube–shaped mole, most likely a 458.1, perches atop her left breast, which mars the entire fleshy landscape, but Dr. Lanier and the male patients don't seem to mind. Becca has learned that men will forgive most anything when youthful breasts are involved. Like the majority of hard–won truths, it is one she recognized only when it no longer applied to her.

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