Sliding Past Vertical

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Authors: Laurie Boris
was grateful for the company—but if he had to listen to Captain & Tennille’s
“Muskrat Love” one more time, he would have ripped the cassette deck out of the
dashboard. He closed his eyes and consoled himself with the fact that when it
was his turn to drive, it would also be his turn to pick the music.
    A favorite Police song drifted into
his head, one he and Sarah both liked, and he couldn’t help thinking of her. He
hated that she was alone. He almost wished she had gone to Jay’s, only until
Emerson arrived, of course.
    The two years since he’d seen her
felt like twenty. They talked every week or two by phone, less when she was
content, more during periods of crisis, which had been the case more frequently
of late. He wondered if she was still a girl in a woman’s body, if he could be
in the same room with her without thinking things he shouldn’t, if she’d
changed at all. He wondered if she would notice any changes in him. If she did,
would she tell him?
    Rashid turned down the volume. “We
are coming very close to something,” he said.
    Emerson’s eyes snapped open. Gone
were his thwarted Sarah fantasies. He searched the night for deer or an
oncoming semi. Then realized Rashid had been talking about his research.
    “My professor is on the verge of
something that may prolong a patient’s life.”
    “So they can suffer longer,”
Emerson said.
    Nearly a decade in a nursing home had taught him about
suffering. Before working there he hadn’t thought much about death. Or hadn’t
wanted to. Now he saw it every day—the lingering, the slow decay, the
indignity. Doctors played God in the name of prolonging life and their precious
funding; Rashid had his drug trials. When Emerson’s time was up, he prayed that
he would go instantly. In his sleep. Hit by a bus. Or a car, like Thomas: a ton
of misnavigated metal against a five-year-old boy on his first bicycle.
    It had been clean and quick.
For Thomas, maybe, but not for those he had left behind.  
    “Having My Baby” ended and
Emerson knew what came next. He didn’t want to have to break Rashid’s cassette
deck. “Maybe we can listen to the radio for a while.”
    Rashid popped out the tape
and fiddled with the dials. He found his favorite FM station (remarkably, and
just to annoy Emerson, it seemed, still in perfect reception two hours outside
of Syracuse), which was playing nothing but the Carpenters.
    “This you are agreeable to?”
    Emerson sighed. He couldn’t
find it in himself to truly hate the music, because Karen Carpenter had died so
tragically and so young.

    * * * * *

    At 12:15 a car slowed in
front of Sarah’s house. Her stomach did a little flip, and she grabbed her
T-square. She reached the window in time to see a dark sedan with New York
plates before it rolled away. She was relieved to see the orange SU parking
sticker in the window. They must have taken Rashid’s car—surely Emerson
couldn’t afford anything that new. Apparently, they were lost. She slipped on
her shoes, preparing to run downstairs, catch them, and show them where to
    Then she smiled, as pieces of
Emerson began to emerge from the fluttering camouflage of one of the maple
trees that lined her street: a long back in a red T-shirt, a knapsack, and a
hay-colored head.
    Rashid, apparently, had left
him behind.
    Emerson lingered a moment,
partially obstructed by the tree, facing the departing car. For a second Sarah felt
sad for him. He seemed so disoriented, abandoned in a strange city in the
middle of the night. She wanted to scoop him up and take him inside.
    Then he turned toward her
house. The spell broke and he was just plain Emerson again, come to rescue her.
He ambled up her front walk, the knapsack slung over his shoulder. His hair was
rumpled. His glasses slipped down his nose; he pushed them back. As he did this,
his gaze tilted up to the window, searching for her, apparently, but not
finding her.
    When she let him in at the
bottom of the

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