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  • Leah Browning

"5150" and "Encyclopedia Britannica"



This time, I get to ride next to her

in the back of the ambulance.

It’s a short distance

to the hospital

but the only things they trust now

are the numbers on the form.

They wheel the gurney through

the back hallways of the ER

to finish paperwork and unbuckle

the straps that are holding her down

and set her free.

We are still standing around when

a young man walks into the room

and removes a piece of equipment,

then another man and another item,

until we are surrounded by young men

in scrubs, systematically stripping the room

of every curtain and cord,

and because it’s not really necessary

I’m slow to understand what’s happening.

She is sitting up on the bed, and when

she looks around and says

that the room is full of blackbirds,

it takes a second to realize

that she’s making a joke;

she has emerged from the fog

and is herself again—smart, funny—

making light of the fact that she’s now

on a suicide watch and the ER techs

can’t leave anything behind;

they pick and pull until nothing is left

but her bed and my chair.

We all laugh but it’s uneasy

until everyone else leaves

and it’s just the two of us again

(and the security guard, sitting

on a chair in the hallway, just outside the door

that we’re not allowed to close).

My husband has gone home

to put the children to bed.

All of us are waiting for the test results

to prove that this isn’t a bad trip

or a fever, and then the phone call

that will send her

wherever they can find a bed.

There was a time, during an earlier

hospital stay, when I saw a woman

sitting on a bus bench talking to herself

and I thought, that could be her


I almost couldn’t take

the pain I felt then.

Now, curiously, I don’t feel anything,

just tired. It makes me think of a long labor:

the hours of waiting, the exhaustion,

the medical tests, the night dragging on so long

that you forget, briefly, and then remember,

all over again, why you are even here.

She was at the clinic early this afternoon,

but it feels like another lifetime.

In the middle of the night, a new guard

brings me a heated blanket.

For months, that moment slips back

into my mind: the feeling of waking up

in the dark, slumped over on a chair inside

the emergency room, and a young man,

a stranger, placing a warm blanket over me.

He said quietly, you seemed cold,

and it’s true—I was shivering—

and every time I thought that I might die

of grief I thought of him bringing that blanket

as she lay in the hospital bed

next to me, asleep, with a band on her wrist,

and that was the moment I clung to

in the hours until daybreak.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Time was a languorous thing once—

a long summer day spent lying on your

side eating a chocolate chip ice cream cone

and pushing the porch swing idly with one foot,

listening to the hum of cicadas in the trees

or the similarly dreamlike sound of ocean water

lapping at the shore. We used to spend

hours lying on the couch in the basement

taking off each other’s clothes, the scent

of his neck the sweetest thing I could imagine,

and this is sometimes what I thought of

at night as I was falling asleep under the open window

and this is also what I am thinking of

when one of the kids pulls a cellphone

out of a pocket and asks me what in the world

we ever did without them.


Leah Browning is the author of Two Good Ears and Loud Snow, mini-books of flash fiction published by Silent Station Press, as well as three short nonfiction books and six chapbooks of poetry and fiction. Her writing has appeared in Harpur Palate, Flock, Four Way Review, The Broadkill Review, Oyster River Pages, Coldnoon, Tipton Poetry Journal, Watershed Review, The Petigru Review, Necessary Fiction, Newfound, Belletrist Magazine, Poetry South, The Stillwater Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Browning’s work has also appeared on materials from Broadsided Press and Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, with audio and video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse, and in anthologies including The Doll Collection from Terrapin Books and Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence from White Pine Press.

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