Yellow

“Mama?”

I closed the book and set it on the floor, adding to the thin layer of dirty clothes and stuffed animals.

“What is it, baby?”

“Will you still love me when I’m gone?”

She was cuddled underneath a mass of blankets, thick and warm. Her tiny frame sunk into the cushions, squishing the pillows like a stone breaking the surface of water. I had expected her to ask another question about deer migratory patterns, or what kind of food they ate, or some impossible question that I would have to google, but never this.

“Of course, why would you ever think I wouldn’t?”

“Kya says her mama doesn’t love her daddy anymore, because he’s gone and now Kya’s mama drinks juice and cries all day long. How come I don’t get to drink juice all the time?”

Oh boy. I wasn’t planning on having a talk like this quite yet. 

“Well-,” I started, impossibly trying to stitch together the mushy words .

“Kya’s mama is going through a difficult time right now, and Kya probably is too. My guess is they could both use some extra kindness from you in the coming weeks.”

She nodded solemnly.

“Ok. I will give her my twinkie tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to do all that, but I’m proud of you for being a good friend. What if I just pack you an extra one tomorrow?”

“REALLY? I GET TWO TWINKIES?”

“One for you and one for Kya.”

“What if I get two twinkies and Kya gets two twinkies? Cuz then we both get two twinkies, ok?”

“Good suggestion, but let’s keep it at two. I love you very much, but it’s bedtime now.”

I stood up and crossed to the light switch when Yellow sat back up.

“Wait! I gotta show you something!”

“It’s bedtime now, will you show me in the morning?”

“No, I want to show you it now!”

I sighed and put on a tired smile.

“What is it, baby?”

“Ok, you gottsa come here.”

I trudged back over to the bed while she giggled at a joke she hadn’t told yet .

“You need to look really really close at my nose, ok?”

I obliged.

“No no, look closer. Even closer.” 

Pppfffffttt! She stuck out her tongue and blew it in my face, splattering spit into my eyes and mouth.

“YELL-” I caught myself shouting again. I stopped and forced myself to take a deep breath.

“Yellowstone,” I said, still trying not to raise my voice. “We don’t spit in people’s faces. I don’t like it when you do that. It hurts my feelings and makes me feel disrespected. At school, did you like it when your friend spit in your face?” She huffed and crossed her arms.

 “Yeah, cuz it was funny!”

“Did you like it even before your friend told you it was funny?”

She whined and dove under the covers. The bright, school-bus-colored ‘Deer X-ing” sign hanging above her headboard rattled softly. Her muffled voice came out,

“I’m a mole now.”

“You’re not in trouble, we’re just…both still learning. Do you want to use this to practice your apologies?”

Her face popped out of the blankets with a big smile, and any guilt was trampled by excitement.

“YES! I’ve been prac-tic-acing all day!”

This was true. She had run into a wall and apologized to it, apologized to her toy dinosaur when it was cast as the villain of the story for the third time this week, and apologized to  the amazon driver for no apparent reason. She inhaled big and began,

“Mama, I’m really, really, REALLY sorry that I spit in your face, and I promise that I will try not to do it again and I love you and…um …”

She stopped and tugged on my sleeve.

“What comes next?”

“That sounds good! You can end it there if you like.”

“And also, the end.”

She beamed at me, clearly expecting some kind of applause.

“That was wonderful! Thank you, and I accept your apology.”

Her smile turned into a yawn.

“Do you know what time it is?” I asked.

She sat up, eager for another game. 

“What?”

“I think it’s bedtime for little girls!”

I tickled her and she squealed with delight. She collapsed into giggling and almost laughed herself off the bed until I flopped her back onto her pillow. I tucked the thick blankets under her legs, swept the little blonde hairs out of her eyes to kiss her forehead, and plugged in her night light. I had almost shut the door when I heard her squeak from beneath the covers.

“Wait, mama! Come back, you have to snuggle me!”

“We already snuggled, remember? Mama has to go sleep in her own bed now.”

“…then, um, maybe just wait by the door until I fall asleep, ok?”

She clutched the edge of the blanket with both hands. Only her soft, round eyes peeked out. I thought about when we first got the news. I had thanked the doctor, then sat down in the parking lot and burst into tears. There was nothing else left to do; She was too far gone for chemo. Yellow had turned around in her beat-up car seat and smiled at me.

“I think,” she had said, “you need an ice cream cone.”

I still have the photo of us at Baskin Robbins, Yellow proudly licking her strawberry as I tried to hide my swollen face behind a scoop of lemon. Mealtimes became much harder after that. She would   throw fits in the grocery store aisles, crying and flopping around on the floor like a turtle on it’s back.

She would scream, “My mouth doesn’t like veggies, they have to get chewed and chewed and chewed!”

She would keep screaming until she cried herself to sleep. She fell asleep so easily these days. She would fall asleep in the middle of breakfast, her hand still in her bowl of cheerios, or with her head in my lap while I sewed. Part of me wanted to give in. It didn’t really matter what she ate anyways, and having her practice apologies that no one would ever hear seemed cruel. That night, she snuggled up to me, and I spent the night silently watching her chest rise and fall.

 

Deer

The uneven dirt road clunked and grinded under the tires of my Subaru. I hadn’t planned on working so late, so I called David to let him know I would be there a couple hours later than we had planned. 

“Don’t let her stay up for me this time, she needs sleep.”

I had bought Yellowstone some sweet bean buns from the corner store, but now that would have  to wait. The sun was setting quickly, and the best I could do was watch her while she slept and be there for five minutes when she woke up.

 Heavy piles of litter lay on the side of the road. A half-rusted hubcap, a discarded mustard bottle, a gnarled jumper cable, torn butterscotch wrappers, and a pair of safety scissors. A ripped sandal and several wet cardboard boxes. A cheap, plastic wind-up duckling toy, the color of hazard-sign yellow. 

Tall, dark trees swooped up on either side, tattooed with markings or stapled with construction signs. I recognized a foot path between two trees, leading down to a stream where the neighborhood kids and I used to play. I remember wading up to our calves on hot school days, greedily crunching on hard candies that were meant to be sucked. A family of frogs lived in the deeper part of the stream. During the summer, we would skewer crimson huckleberries on willow tree branches, then dip them into the pool. Within five seconds, one of the frogs would latch onto the berry, we would fling the stick, and the frog would go flying. It would spread its awkward limbs in a dazed attempt at becoming its own parachute, screeching all the way until it landed back in the water with a fat ‘plop’. We never grew tired of that game, and the frogs never got any wiser.

The stream dried up long ago. 

I my attention back to driving. I turned a sharp corner and almost collided with something standing in the middle of the road. My brakes screamed and the backside of the car floated into the air, then came crashing down onto the gravel. I looked up from the wheel.

And there he was.

The setting sun pulsed behind him like an unearthly halo. His antlers stretched up, like little hands reaching for the sky. There he stood, perfectly still. He looked sickly and frail, as if he had been hollowed out and stuffed with bits of scrap metal. His velvet coat was freckled with dirt, matted, gnarled, and missing large chunks. It pressed up against the back of his legs, stretching thinly and sagging over his joints. Snagged on the corner of his black lips was the wrapper of a Twinkie. 

The radio had turned itself on, coughing out a forgotten music station. In between bouts of radio static came, “La Petite Fille de la Mer”; a haunting, bittersweet music box melody that vibrated at the back of my skull. Those deep, unblinking eyes, black like the liquid core of space, seeped into mine. They wrapped their black expanse around my bones, and held me there by the ribcage, desperately trying to tell me something. The deer stared. I couldn’t look away from those eyes. Those eyes who dissolved into cold brew, who   disappeared into alley ways and behind trash bins, who were discarded in an assembly line of perfect doll’s eyes. Those black, black eyes. His stare went deeper and deeper, surgically splitting my soul.

Then, in the quick, awkward way a stranger looks down to avoid making eye contact, his gaze broke from mine, and he clambered back into the forest. 

My lungs quivered with their first breath. In the sudden stop, the bean buns had fallen out of their box and tumbled among the dirt-stained floor. The radio static tickled my eardrums like crusty paintbrush bristles. Freezing sweat plipped onto the white of my knuckles. The blur behind me sharpened as an inpatient driver honked their horn. I turned off the radio, brushed most of the dirt off the buns, and continued driving on the winding road.

 

Hospital

David was waiting for me in a metal folding chair outside of Yellowstone’s room. He held a bright blue balloon, shiny and metallic, with its crinkled edges digging into itself. The balloon had a large, sunshine smiley face decal on the front. I had seen one just like it on the side of the road. He saw me and stood up frantically.

“I swear I tried to get her to sleep, but-”

I laughed, 

“I know, she’ll do that to you. Don’t worry about it, you’ve already done a great job. Seriously, I appreciate it.”

He nervously swept his hands across his stubble and looked down at the floor.

“You know if there’s anything else I can do-”

“That’s sweet, David, but really we’re ok.”

“…I know.”

Yellow’s tired eyes lit up as I opened the door.

“Mama!”

She yanked the covers off. I plopped the bag of bean buns onto a counter and gathered her up into a hug.

“Did you have a good time with David today?” Judging from the books and toys thrown haphazardly around the room, I could already tell the answer .

“Yeah! Did you know that mommy deers  will hide the fawns in veggie-tation while she looks for food and that’s why baby fawns have spots? And that’s not like regular animals cuz other animals like hypo-pottimusses just follow their mama’s around.”

Before I even knew what I was saying, my mind wandered back to the black eyes.

 “I saw a deer on my way here.”

She gasped and blurted out, “I want to see a deer!”

“I’m sorry baby, I should have taken a picture for you.”

“No, I’ve already seen pictures. Pictures aren’t, um,”

She stretched out her hand like she was feeling for the word in the dark, then collapsed back in the metal frame of the hospital bed, frustrated. 

“…pictures aren’t feely.”

She squirmed under the covers, itching at her IV drip.

“Do you mean you wanted to pet the deer?” I offered.

“Yeah, but that’s not the kind of feely I’m thinking of. It’s like…

She scrunched up her face and made her silly, high pitched, “thinking” noise.

“It’s like eating and seeing and smelling and hearing and touching and being outside at the same time. Like movies, but gooder! What is that word?”

“I think you just made your own! That’s a very special talent, you know. Not anybody can create a whole new word.”

“The new word will be named feely, and I will love him .”

“That sounds like a wonderful name.”

I split the hot, damp bun with my hands, put it in her eager hands, then licked up the sauce running down my wrist. 

 

Time

Six months passed. Longer than anyone really expected, although no one said it out loud. The loose ends were tied up; Kindergartners had been sated with a nice “vacation” lie, the funeral was planned and paid for, and cheap, pre-planned condolence flowers arrived at our doorstep. I wondered if they thought she was already dead.

The florescent lights of the hospital made a constant, robotic hum, waiting just under the skin of other sounds. I leaned against David while the nurses got her comfortable. We waited in silence for a long while.

“I regret so much.” I whispered. 

David hesitated, then gingerly placed his hand on my back. The left hand, the hand he had used to hold the huckleberry while he skewered it.

“Regret what? Nothing you could have done would have helped. You could have worked every moment of every day, and it still wouldn’t have helped. All you had was an apron, a tip jar…”

The hum of the hospital’s florescent lights became louder, and sharper.

“No…” 

“You could have been a billionaire, you could have been a leading neuroscientist, a nurse…”

The persistent, never-ending hum, hum, humming vibrated my skull.

“No, no!”

“You could have been the most powerful woman in the world and that still wouldn’t have done anything for Yellow. You did all you could do.”

Hum, hum, HUM, HUMMING.

“Damn it, David, I didn’t love her!”

The florescent lights went silent, drowned by the shame pouring out of my ears and mouth.

“I was 18.” 

Hot, burning tears squeezed out of me.

“My parents were forcing me to keep the baby, and I hated them for it. And I started hating the baby too. I was just thinking about so many other… things. I wasn’t- I… I didn’t-”

Hearing my own pathetic justifications out loud was like breathing underwater. My head fell into my hands.

“Of course I love her. I loved her the first time I saw her, the first time I held her in my arms. But never before that. I didn’t love her, this tiny person that loved me before she even met me. And I’ll never forgive myself for that.”

The blurry outline of a nurse came out of the room and told me that it was time.

The inside of Yellowstone’s room was quiet and smelled of Lysol. The sunflowers on her bedside table had wilted almost completely, laying over the side of their glass mason jar. A thin, skin-like blanket has been draped over her, pulled tight under the mattress. The hospital was already warm, and sleep wouldn’t do Yellow any good now. The blanket was there for me-so I wouldn’t have to see her skeleton. But it wasn’t working. Her tiny head made no indent in the pillow. If not for the tucked blanket, she may drift away at any moment. My toes curled up in my sneakers, and my throat tripped.

 It was almost time. It is almost time.

“Hi baby,” I sit down on her bed, making wrinkles in the smooth surface.

Her eyes are only half open, and she lets out a hoarse, confused whimper.

“It’s mama, I’m here. You’re ok, baby, mama’s here.”

Her breathing slows. The nurse has laid out Yellow’s book on the table for me. My fingers brush over its smooth cover. The pages flip open, gently, like in a dream. Yellow slips her hand into mine. I begin to read out loud, tilting the pictures towards her closed eyes, as if they could restore something inside her. I read and read and read until I realize I have read the entire book three times, and the pages have grown wet. Everything grows very, very quiet. Yellow shifts ever so slightly toward my hip and croaks out,

“Will you still love me when I’m gone?”

“Baby, I will love you even more.”

Author’s Note I want to make it clear that I in no way intended for the lesson of this short story to be “The earth has terminal cancer; it’s dying anyways so we should all be sad and give up, if only we had listened to the Lorax, blah, blah, blah”. I find that a lot of social justice writing can get a bit heavy handed and inefficient in their messages. This story was meant to be quite the opposite.  In July of 2022, my family and I visited Yellowstone National Park while crossing into Idaho. It had always been a dream of mine to see a national park, and I jumped at the thought of seeing a piece of the earth, albeit small, that was untouched by mankind. At least I did until I saw the walk-boards, ugly metal picnic tables, crowds, and heaps of litter scattered across the forest floor. I spent the day angrily snatching up bits of trash until I spiraled into a full-blown anxiety attack, and our trip was cut short. Needless to say, it was not a good day. I, like so many others in my generation, was crippled by guilt and overwhelming duty, feeling like even though I personally hadn’t invoked the entirety of climate change, I was still somewhat responsible. I felt like the world was beyond saving, and even areas that were supposed to be perfect, protected, havens of nature had been spoiled by humanity. Eventually, I learned that what we had seen was only a fraction of the park, and there was a restricted area of land that was specifically reserved for the actual protected park, but I was still paralyzed by the weight of the situation and my inability to really do anything about it.  So, in this story, I wanted to focus more on these individualistic feelings on climate change. Although guilt can be a starting point for massive change, too much is neither productive, nor healthy for anyone’s mental well-being. You don’t have to become vegan or switch to solar panels to start making a difference. This story is not meant to be about giving in to that guilt, but rather accepting and loving ourselves for the little things that we CAN do, including something as simple as wanting to care. I urge you, the reader, to empower yourself by recognizing the little things you do to fight for our home, and continue to try your best, knowing that your best is all you can do.