One Good Thing


I’m in hospice at 45 years old, and I’m waiting for a kid I’ve never met. He’s the only person to visit me in the last month, and he’s late.

The hospice is inside an old victorian mansion. I share a large, wood paneled room with an old woman with dementia. There’s a fireplace that nobody ever touches. The baby blue woolen blanket they’ve tucked around me swells over my bloated belly.

I take a swig, and tuck the flask back under my pillow. The everclear bites at my raw throat, kicking off another coughing fit. The old woman looks at me with sad, confused eyes as I hack bloody brown chunks into a paper vomit bowl. “It’s the orange’s birthday,” she says.

The door opens as I’m dripping the last of my bloody spittle into the bowl.

He looks bored as his mother herds him over to my bedside. “Hey there, Damon,” I croak, “How’s it going?”

“Fine.” He doesn’t make eye contact.

“Damon,” says Joleen, his adoptive mother. “This man saved your life. Show some respect.” She is sagging with exhaustion and age.

“I didn’t ask him to,” says Damon, staring at the fireplace.

“It’s fine,” I say. “I just wanted to talk a little. Do you know the story of how I found you?”

“Not really.”

“Put that down!” says my roommate, apropos of nothing. Joleen and Damon look at her, startled.

“Don’t mind her,” I say, “She’s lost her mind.”

Damon smiles at that. Joleen furrows slightly.

“Do you want to hear the story?” I ask.

“I guess.”

It was the hottest summer I’d ever seen in Jackson. I’d just lost a job repossessing cars. Fired for smacking a lady in the head, never mind that she was rushing me with a crowbar. I didn’t feel like dealing with my landlord or my mother, so I shoved two bottles of whiskey into my camping pack and headed out into the mountains.

I’d brought a trail map, but I didn’t really look at it for the first few days. I just pushed the mountains under me. My sweat completely soaked my clothes, even made my pack straps soggy. Whenever I crested a ridge, I would sit down, take a swig, and write a poem about the view. The Tetons are big mountains, sharp and stony, with smooth saddle passes between them that fill with color in the early summer, pinks and blues and deep greens, cut by cold streams of glacial runoff. The poems were garbage.

On the third day, I crested one of the bigger ridges I’d come across, and there was yet another view. I sat down against a rock, pulled out the whiskey and my notebook and got to polishing off the bottle while writing a poem about a bird flying over this scene and not understanding its beauty. There was a noise behind me.

On the other side of the rock, in among the long grass, there was a baby. It couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old, with that bright red newborn skin that they get. It was wrapped in a black cloth, and had a note resting on its forehead that said, “Feed me.” It was asleep.

I looked around for people nearby, but there was nobody for as far as I could see, which was quite a long way.

The note had a point. This was a newborn baby, it couldn’t survive very long without food. I didn’t have anything to give it but water. We were three days hike out from my car, and I didn’t have a good idea of where I was.

I sat down with the map and looked around. If that mountain was that one, and this one was there… and in a few minutes I had an idea of where I was. If I hiked west at a good pace for about a day, I could make it to a road, and from there it would only be a few hours to civilization.

The baby woke and started crying.

I looked to the west. It was hard terrain, but there was a trail that ran across the small meadow below me and in the right direction. I’d just have to get down there, cutting across the steep downward slope of the saddle ridge.

I dripped some water into the baby’s mouth. It kept crying. It was starting to hurt my ears.

I wasn’t sure I could carry both the baby and my pack at the pace that I’d need to be going. But if I was going to get to civilization in a day, I didn’t need most of my gear. I improvised a little pack that could hold the baby, a few granola bars, water, and the remaining bottle of whiskey. I slung it on my front and tied it in the back. The baby kept wailing on my chest. I tried bouncing it and humming tunelessly, and after a few minutes it nodded off.

The sky was darkening with clouds in the east. I needed to get moving.

I started to pick my way down the two hundred foot slope, careful of my footing. It was very steep, but the hardy summer vegetation held the slope face together well. A hawk circled overhead, and the air cooled as the clouds in the east came closer. I could smell the coming rain.

I started to move faster down the green and pink and blue waterfall of foliage, and I lost a foothold. I curled my body around the baby as I fell, rolling sideways faster and faster down the steep slope, getting so dizzy I thought I might vomit, until I bounced off a mound that stuck out a bit and hung in the air for what I assume was at least half an hour. I landed with a crack and kept rolling for another fifty feet until the slope levelled out and I tumbled to a stop.

The baby was still asleep.

I tried to reach out and push myself up, but my right arm flopped uselessly to the ground, broken right below the shoulder. I screamed. That woke the baby, who screamed right along with me.

I got up with the help of my left arm and tried to rock the baby, but the bouncing made my arm light up like a fireworks display. I could feel the bone grinding against itself. I settled for humming again, and the baby’s squinting face relaxed. It looked up at me and stuck its hand up my nose.

I found the trail I had seen running through the meadow and started hiking west. Every step sent a little spark of pain through my arm. The mountains stood to either side of me and didn’t do a thing to help. The baby occasionally woke up and wailed, which hurt my arm even more.

The clouds made it over us and started to pour just as the trail started to get steeper. Within minutes, the well-trod dirt path had turned into mud that was six inches deep in places, and I had to walk alongside it in the long grass in order to avoid my boots being sucked off. I swigged liberally from the whiskey bottle to keep warm. I couldn’t get the cap back on with one hand, so I kept it open.

I don’t know how long I spent hiking that. We crossed the treeline and hiked through the woods for a while. In the woods there was no escaping the mud, I nearly lost my right boot twice, and struggled to get it back on with only my left arm. Every so often I would scream from the pain, just to remind the world that it hurt, but that made it hurt worse. At some point I noticed that the baby had stopped crying.

I slogged into the night, not even sure I actually knew where I was, nearly out of whiskey. It got to be so dark that I couldn’t see where I was stepping, so I got to my knees and did a stumbling three-limbed crawl through the slop for a few hours, until I realized that this position meant that the whiskey had drained entirely from the bottle. I curled up around the unresponsive baby under the lowest tree I could find and passed out.

I awoke to a goat wearing a backpack. It was chewing a large leaf and staring at me with its horizontal box pupils. I tried to sit up and my arm screamed at me. I screamed. The goat screamed. The baby did not.

I managed to sit up as the goat’s handler ran over to us, pulling hard on its leash. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t see you there, I… oh my god, are you alright?”

“No,” I said. “I am not. You need to get this baby to a hospital. And also me.” I vomited.

It turned out that I was about a hundred yards from the trailhead parking lot. We got to the hospital just fine. I can still tell when storms are coming with my right arm.

“That’s what I know,” I say.

“That’s an incredible story,” says Joleen. “Damon, thank this man for saving your life.”

“I didn’t ask you to save me. I don’t owe you anything.”

“Damon!” says Joleen. Then, through her teeth, as though she’s trying to whisper but isn’t very good at it, “He’s dying. Be polite.”

“No, it’s alright,” I say. “Damon, I actually wanted to thank you.”

“What, you fell in love with the goat lady or something? Do not care.”

“No, nothing like that. See when you’re dying, like I am, you think about your life, what impact you had, that kind of stuff. And I was thinking back and… I’ve lived kind of a crap life. I haven’t really done anyone any good. Anybody who ever cared about me ended up regretting it. But you… you gave me the chance to do one good thing. The only really good thing I ever did. I… I just wanted to thank you for that.”

He turns slowly and solemnly to his mother. “Could we have a minute alone please?”

“Of course,” she says. She steps out of the room.

“Ohhhhh,” moans my roommate, clearly upset about something.

The light seems to change a little bit, starts to waver against the dark wood paneling.

Damon leans over me. “I’m going to kill ten innocent people just for you.”

I frown. “What?”

He grins. “Just to make up for your one good thing. To make sure you have a worthless life. I’m going to kill ten innocent people.”

I start to cough. I reach for the stack of vomit bowls, but it falls away from me and I spatter brown coagulated blood onto the baby blue wool.

“Mom, I’m ready to go,” he says as I gasp for breath. Joleen comes in smiling, carrying his coat. “There’s one thing I still wonder, though,” he turns to ask on the way out. “Who left me there, up in the mountains?” He winks, and shuts the door.

My roommate has pulled her blanket up over her face up to her eyes. “It’s him,” she says. I follow her gaze to the fireplace, where a single log sits burning.