The Patch Project
by Brittni Brinn
Copyright © 2018 by Brittni Brinn
CHAPTER 1: Candles
May was leaning against the kitchen sink, staring through the broken glass window. Her hands, still wrapped in strips of cloth, held a chipped porcelain mug to her chin as a faint whisper of mint wound its way around her face. As far as she could figure, they had enough tea to last a month, maybe two if they re-steeped the used tea bags. After that, they could mix the herbs into rice, use the filters for fuel. They had to keep everything now.
Isak stole in behind her, his arms warm around her midsection, his chin digging pleasantly into her shoulder. He saw what she did: a dull copper plain under a slate sky with nothing else for miles.
"Hey," he said, rubbing her pale cheek with his dusky one. "Know what today is?"
"The end," she replied, leaning away to sip at the weak tea. It loosened her throat, and she cleared it with a tense cough. Isak remained silent. She returned her attention to the dreary panorama that had once featured a fenced-off soccer field ringed with houses.
"Happy Christmas." He slipped something into the pocket of her cardigan as his arms vaporized into air. A couple seconds later she heard him appear in the living room with a gasp as his body settled into the back of the couch.
"I didn’t think it mattered anymore," she said loudly enough, but he didn’t reply. Placing the mug down on the counter, she reached up a bandaged hand to trace the hole in the glass. Through it, the sky was solid cloud, as if bolt after bolt of gauze had been draped over them; there had been no other sky, not for months. Not since that day.
The bleak silence of the outside crumpled her. She pulled her hand back to her tea, listening to a hum on the wind that wasn’t there.
May and Isak lived in a house on what used to be Holly Street. There used to be many houses on the street, tall ones with white siding and red trim. Just like there used to be people, walking, on bicycles, pushing baby carriages, red, green, yellow, blue dabs of acrylic paint on the picture of suburbia. There was a red postbox on the corner covered in posters for music teachers and house cleaners. A fountain splashed brightly in the park at the center of the cul-de-sac, next to a purple and gold play structure with tire shards scattered around it, all recycled. Mr. and Mr. Otteron lived on their right, elderly Ms. Carol on the left. They had moved in last out of everyone, and were welcomed with cakes, bouquets, and house calls, the gifts of the already established. It had been a nice community, the closest thing you could get to country neighbors in the city. Young May and Isak, managing a mortgage and waiting for the kids to come, spending their slow evenings in the apple-tinged air—
May broke away from the window, sharply turning toward the stopped clock over the plastic dining table. Slightly off center, a half-used candle melted into a porcelain saucer edged in gold. She began fidgeting with the linen tablecloth, tugging it to the left, pulling the candle to line up with the downward pointing hands.
"Isak, how many candles do we have left?"
"About three," he answered. She heard him shift on the cracked leather couch. Doubtless his legs were giving him trouble again. Not only were the candles running low, but so were the matches, the tea bags, the cans of soup, the sheets she had been ripping up to use as bandages. The blood seeping from the gouges in Isak’s legs had scabbed over before breaking open again in a steady excrement of blood-tinged pus. It was impossible to wash the sick yellow stains out of the material, especially since she was running low on vinegar.
She felt the heat of his arms in a band around her, but it was only a memory. He had put something in her pocket. May pulled out a chair from the kitchen table, taking out a small velvet box. Wiping a hand over her face, she slowly set herself in the cool plastic seat and rubbed the soft lid with her thumb. She sat and wondered, thinking of Isak’s earthy eyes and the wounds in his legs.
The hinge on the box was tight and snapped the lid shut against her tired, one-handed attempt to push it open. She tried again, prying until lid and base sat at ninety degrees in front of her. The item inside shone against the deep blue cloth; it could’ve been a star if stars were cube shaped.
"Isak," she breathed, smiling at the tiny block of sugar.
"Like it?" he asked from the living room. "I had it ordered special."
May poured half of what was left of her tea into another mug, augmenting the volume of each with what was left from the kettle. She took the sugar cube, scratching off the tiniest amount into the steaming hot water. It smelled wonderful. Taking down a brightly painted tray from on top of the empty refrigerator, May glanced over toward the window. The day was dimming, the land becoming one with the empty sky. The tone of the kitchen was graying too, and May balked, hurrying, taking the unlit candle and closing the sliding wooden door behind her.
Colors in the living room were still distinguishable, the Impressionist-style painting hanging corner to the bay window quietly singing of light. She came around to the front of the couch, setting the tray on the floor and fishing in her pocket for a match.
"I knew we were running out," Isak said about the sugar, reaching out and guiding her down beside him. "We don’t need to light it now."
May handed Isak a mug. "Thanks. Really sweet of you."
They both smiled. "I thought you’d notice one was missing, but you never said anything."
She had kept the sugar bowl behind the toaster, so as not to tempt them with the last jigsaw of refined sweetness left in the house. But like all things, that too had ended. The bowl, now set under the kitchen clock, held one lone cube with a corner rubbed off.
May sensed Isak’s body stiffen. He was singing an old carol, his eyes fixed on their ghost-like reflections in the dim bay window. "The holly and the ivy when they are both full grown, of all the trees that are in the woods…"
May rubbed Isak’s thigh soothingly. Isak squinted his eyes and continued singing, gripping the arm of the couch and turning his face toward her. She opened her mouth to join him, singing in her small, wavering voice: "O, the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer…"
"Embrace me?" he pleaded, and she leaned in toward him, smelling tea on his ragged breath and feeling his heart pounding the inside of his chest. "I’m not going anywhere… Don’t worry, May… I want to… I want to stay here with you." He gasped, moaning, "It hurts…"
"I’ll get some water."
"Don’t… If you leave, I’ll skip ahead to when you’re with me again…"
She would be quick. She would get the basin and the water out of the kitchen, tuck the newly folded cloths under her arm, and talk the whole way. Engage him.
"Guess what my favorite Christmas carol is?" she queried, winking.
A weak grin appeared on Isak’s strained face. "‘O Holy Night?’"
"Nope. Guess again," she said, pushing herself off the couch and opening the door into the kitchen. "Come on Isak, you know me, and this one’s easy."
His voice was steadier. "‘Joy to the World?’"
A scoffing laugh escaped her as she poured water from an ice cream pail in the sink into a silver bowl. A cloth bag with a green recycling symbol on the side hung from a hook by the door, leading into what used to be their backyard. May snatched it down and hitched it over her shoulder.
"‘Once in Royal David’s City.’"
"I’ve never even heard of that one." She had everything she needed. Steadily, as to not splash the water over her bandaged hands, May re-entered the living room. "Do you want a hint?"
Isak’s face was calm again, though he winced as she started to unwrap the soiled strips from around his left leg. "All right."
"It’s in a minor key." Yellow-edged gashes glared up at her. His leg was festering and swollen and damp. Readied supplies from the reusable bag were poured out onto the floor. She squeezed a quick stream of anti-bacterial hand soap into the water, swirling it with a dish towel.
"Oh, that narrows it down considerably." Isak squinted. "‘We Three Kings?’"
May pulled on a thick pair of blue rubber gloves and proceeded to wring out the cloth, the torrent of excess water creating a lovely distraction.
"I know what it is." He grinned. She spread the towel over his leg.
"Oh, do you really?"
May rubbed the red tip of a match against a piece of sandpaper. "Sing it for me." She held the flame to the wick, leaving the spent match on the gold-edged plate.
"It’s just like a candlelight service," Isak said.
May looked up expectantly, but he had forgotten about the song. His face was touched by candlelight and shadow, dark eyes glossy and at peace. She worked a needle as long as her finger out of its cardboard envelope and held it in the flame. "Okay…" she sighed. "Don’t skip out on me, all right?" She lifted the towel and punctured one of the puss-filled bubbles as Isak gripped his forearms and started to sing.