I broke my right collarbone falling off a horse. Bucked, rather. She bucked me off. An act of violent defiance, after knowing me a whole thirty minutes. Clearly, a decision was made between two porcelain white ears. The landing was what got me; it was like coming home and throwing your bags on the floor.
I arrive with a thud and a snap.
They call it a butterfly fracture and my sister, Sarah, meets my eyes in the ER.
“Which one?” she whispers as the radiologist leaves the room. Her one good hand worries the white sheet of the hospital bed. “Danaus plexippus? Eurytides marcellus?”
The cash for the horse is still in my pocket and for that I’m glad but then a nurse jabs me with fentanyl and my patience plummets to baseline. The injection burns more than I am prepared for. “Fuck.”
Sarah gives me a reproachful look. My sister the good one, the smart one, the cripple, the virgin. The saint. With her trophy rack of hyperbolic synonyms, it’s implied we’re opposites. I shift on the bed and the two shards of my clavicle kiss just under the skin.
By middle age, an American woman’s past is a stone lodged in her throat. If swallowed, it’s gone. If coughed up and chewed, something inevitably cracks. I prefer to hold my stone underneath my tongue but sometimes I still taste it.
“Tiger swallowtail? Monarch? Red admiral?” As a distraction to the discomfort and the waiting Sarah doggedly quizzes me on native butterfly species. My Latin and Greek answers grow thick and chewy between my opioid-laced lips.
I appreciate that she only looks at my eyes, not at the swollen red knot between my neck and shoulder. Everyone looks at her maimed arm; she’s aware of a gaze’s daggers and like a martyr will only use that weapon as a statement of finality. Rarely does it come to this.
After a while the orthopedist enters the room, zinging the white curtain closed behind him. Tall, broad shouldered, all business and my god, what a jaw, he’s gentle with my arm but stern with dark eyes and perfunctory with words. Surgery. A plate to hold the bones together. Out of action for three months. Procedure scheduled tomorrow. There will be a scar and a lump of bony callus. Any questions?
Then he’s gone.
“Your pupils are dilated,” Sarah says, grabbing my good arm with her good arm. Together we make a single functional unit. “Are you in pain?”
Three months. A hole in my chest opens up and out comes my heart. It took me three months to lose my job, to break promises, to ruin commitments. To destroy friendships, to feel numb, to stop eating. To push everyone away but chase after strangers, to be confused, to hurt, to break out, to get lost, to stay lost. It took me three months to leave my husband for no real reason. To figure out what bored was. To decide if I had settled. To lose the callus where my wedding ring sat.
To crawl out of the muck to my sister in hopes of an answer because she always has an answer. Just like when we were kids. Like when her accident was my fault.
I can’t answer Sarah’s question because I’m overcome with numbed hate, the kind borne from smoldering self-pity. Ignited, I loathe the thin sheets, the spongy bed, the x-ray, my skeleton, myself. I hate my sister, the nurses, the radiologist, the beeping in neighboring rooms, the whisk of wheels on tile. Only the horse, a mere vehicle of this downward trajectory, escapes my wrath. Come to think of it, the men escape, too, for the very same reason.
“What’s the opposite of metamorphosis?” I ask.
Sarah frowns. “You mean regression?”
I shake my head. The brace they’ve put me in pulls my shoulders back and pops the bones back in place temporarily, enforcing good posture. I feel stiff like a ventriloquist’s dummy. “Like changing into something bad instead of good.”
Sarah sighs and unselfconsciously scratches her own scars. After all these years, they still itch but she has never complained. “Rot, I guess?” Her eyes finally rest on my fracture, just for a second. “Come on, let’s go. You can sleep in my bed. I’ll take the couch.”
Leaving the ER, I spy the orthopedic surgeon down the hall, walking with purpose, jaw clenched. He sees us at the last minute and gives a courteous wave. “Gorgeous specimen,” I say to no one, really.
My sister is admiring a large Luna moth feverishly attacking the light just outside the sliding doors and nods.
The stone slides from underneath my tongue. I may have to bite, either the stone or my own flesh. I am on a precipice. Something else is bound to break.
Anna O’Brien is a writer and veterinarian in Maryland. She has had fiction most recently published in The Ginger Collect, Bewildering Stories, and Cold Creek Review and upcoming in Cloaked Press’ Fall Into Fantasy 2018 anthology. Her non-fiction has appeared in various magazines, including Dog Fancy, Just Labs, Modern Farmer, Cats USA, and Women’s Running and she is a contributing editor for Horse Illustrated. She loves, in no particular order, dinosaurs, dogs, hiking, biking, cacti, and coffee.