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From Trondheim, which was published last month by Bellevue Literary Press.

On the day their son was going to die, Lil had given herself the task of carrying forty-plus sacks of rubble from their fourth-floor apartment down to the street below.

The rubble came from the closets and partition walls she had knocked out between the kitchen, hall, and sitting room to open up a bigger living space for the family—now a long wide tunnel with bright windows at each end.

“It’s physically impossible,” Alba told her. She meant the number of sacks, the total weight, and all the stairs up and down. After twenty-five years together, she ought to have known that such a statement was the opposite of discouraging to Lil.

Lil had already used the bathroom scales for dosage, knowing that too much weight per sack would soon exhaust her, but too little would mean more trips than were absolutely necessary, down the five flights of stairs to ground level, then all the way up again.

“You know I can’t help you,” Alba said.

“I’m not expecting you to,” Lil said.

The main difficulty, at first, was loading up, because at forty-five years old Lil could no longer clean heft that kind of weight onto her shoulder, as she might have ten years earlier. Instead, gripping the sack’s topknot, she used a two-hand kettlebell swing to get it onto the kitchen counter, then squatted down, as deep as she dared, and toppled the thing toward her. She wanted all the work for her quads and glutes, and as little as possible for her back. With the sack on her shoulder, she lifted her chin, clenched her abs, and drove herself upward, straight through the weight.

Alba followed her through the slit sheet of plastic draped over the front door to keep the dust in, and on the landing leaned over the balustrade to watch her descent.

Ten minutes later, Lil stepped through the front door slit with a box of tiles in her arms.

“It’s not hard enough as it is?” Alba said. She was sitting at the kitchen table with her mug of coffee.

By bringing supplies up from the cellar, Lil had decided, she was saving not just one trip but two: an empty-handed trip (now) back upstairs, and an empty-handed trip back down (later), if she were to move rubble and renovation material on two different days.

“Are you punishing yourself for something, or punishing me?”

Lil was already hefting another sack onto the counter. To have paused and actually engaged Alba’s jibe would have been a first concession. With a sick groan, she stood up. She had used their seven-year-old daughter, María, as a yardstick of how much to put in each sack. María was now nineteen kilos, a weight Lil still carried with relative ease, piggyback or fireman. A game Alba had given up a long time ago because of her back, but which Lil never wanted to end. She had carried each of their two sons even longer. It was just one of the many reasons she kept working out, and always insisted on doing any donkey work available, rivaling everything her younger self had ever done. That was why she was so surprised, today, at how hard the work with the sacks got, and how soon.

She split the forty-plus bags into sets of six. Six was a good number, small enough to be always achievable, like overloaded reps in the gym. Then, she promised herself, she would stop for water and rest.

“You’re just going to leave your mess there?” Alba said when Lil set her next box of tiles against the wall.

My mess?”

“The mess.”

“Our mess.”

Lil started down again. Within an hour she was failing, physically and mentally. She recognized the signs, from all her failures in the past. But today was worse: she felt herself not only tiring and weakening, but aging. And not only trip by trip but flight by flight, almost step by step, a lifetime’s incremental changes made flesh, time-lapsed. How much older—how many years or months per flight—she could not have said, but by noon she felt and moved the way she imagined an old woman must.

On the living room wall was a sun-faded square where a calendar and a clock hung side by side. An overturned bucket stood beneath. That was where Lil sat for long minutes after every trip now, head bowed, sweat furrowing down her gray forearms, dripping from her fingertips onto the gray floor. She should have felt encouraged by all the boxes of tile and bags of cement set along the weight-bearing walls, where only that morning sacks of rubble had been. Just as she should have felt a surge of satisfaction with each sack dropped onto the footpath down below. But fatigue debunks even the useful lie: the growing heap of sacks only meant more work, to get them to the dump, and the supplies upstairs only showed how much renovation remained to be done on the apartment. She sat on the bucket staring into space. The living room walls were scored with long scars where she’d pulled out the old silk-wrapped wires in stuttering lengths like varicose veins. Like her forearms and face, the windowpanes were blurred with dust. Every waiting sack was another dead weight for muscles now melting with fatigue. Everything said age, failing powers, endless work. She was spent.

As surprising as her body’s capacity for fatigue was its ability to revive: a few minutes later, with a new sack, Lil waddled to the front door, through its slit, and started down again. On the third-floor landing, she heard a distant phone that might have been her own. Then Alba’s voice, far above, calling her name: “Lil!” It sounded strident, almost panicked—exactly the kind of coercion Lil couldn’t stand. She didn’t answer and didn’t stop. Somewhere below, robot hands were playing piano scales.

She dropped her load on the footpath by the building’s front door, went to the basement for another, began the long climb back up. By now it was like climbing to a higher altitude, where she had to work so much harder to milk the life she needed from its thinner air. The weight in her arms—a sack of grout this time—increased steadily as she mounted the stairs.

As in the final reps of a final gym set, each additional effort now brought her closer to the limits of her physical strength, and by the time she was halfway up, her legs were trembling. She paused to rest and looked up. Alba would be sulking, of course, because her call a few minutes before had not been answered obediently.

With a conclusive thud, she dropped her bag of grout onto the living room floor, then straightened herself as best she could. Alba was sitting at the kitchen table with a stupid look on her face.

“What?” Lil said.

“Pierre is in the hospital,” explained a sick voice. “In Trondheim. They said his heart stopped. They said he had a heart attack. They said he died.”

Our Pierre?” Lil said, absolutely baffled, because their Pierre was only twenty years old and in perfect health.

“They said his heart stopped, but they revived him and now he’s in the hospital on life support.” With ferocious anxiety, Alba was waiting for the love of her life—the woman always so sure about everything, especially her own ability to endure or overcome—to contradict all this.

“You keep saying they,” Lil said as patiently as she could, though there was already a taint of panic in her voice too.

“The hospital,” Alba said blankly. “They called your phone. I answered it. They just hung up.” Her mind was grabbing at solid facts.

As gently as she could, Lil pried her phone from Alba’s hand, brought up the last incoming call, hit the number. It was a 47, which meant Norway, where Pierre was spending his Erasmus year. Waiting for Norway to answer, she poured a glass of water and put it in Alba’s hand, where her phone had been.

“I’m Pierre Casals’s mother,” she told the phone. “I’m calling from France. You just called us, yes? . . . No, that wasn’t me, it doesn’t matter, just tell me from the start, please, step by step, what the fuck is going on.”

Their son Pierre had been found dead in the street, a woman’s voice said. In Trondheim, yes. In Norway, yes. Lil heard the words, but her mind refused to travel so far north because the woman was speaking French. “Your son, Pierre Patrick Martí Casals,” the voice said deliberately, like someone explaining something unpleasant to a child. “Your son Pierre suffered cardiac arrest at a bus stop. The bus driver who found him performed CPR,” she said, “and succeeded in restarting his heart, and now he is in a coma, on life support, in the ICU of St. Olav’s Hospital, in Trondheim. Whether or not he will come out of that coma, they cannot say. Whether or not there has been any brain damage, they cannot say either.”

“Who’s they?” Lil asked, already angry in every available direction. “Why don’t you say me, I? Isn’t that what you mean?”

“I have nothing to do with your son’s case,” this woman said calmly. “The hospital asked me to liaise with you. They thought you might like to hear the news in French.”

This too made no sense. Lil was Irish. Alba was Catalan. French was neither’s mother tongue.

“I myself work here as a proctologist,” the voice continued.

It was another outrageous fact, from perhaps an endless fund. A shit doctor, given charge of their dying son.

Lil had to ask the woman to repeat what she had said four or five times, as though the line were bad and she was not sure of having heard correctly.

She put the phone on speaker and set it on the table so that afterward Alba could corroborate what she’d heard. In the meantime, she kept spitting out every question she could think of. This was not confusion, nor was it curiosity. It was cold calculation. Keep the woman talking was Lil’s play, because if kept talking long enough, she might say something that showed this was all a misunderstanding, or something far less serious.

Patiently and calmly, the phone explained once more that their son had been found lying on the ground, at a bus stop, on the street. His heart had stopped. The woman who found him had somehow gotten the heart going again. Now he was in a coma in intensive care. This had all happened that afternoon, just after lunch.

“We’re on our way,” Lil said.

“Call me,” the woman said, “for anything at all, day or night.”

“We will,” Lil said, but it sounded like a concession just to get the other end off the phone.

And then the call was over, and Lil and Alba sat staring at the handset on the table, like a freshly used weapon they were afraid to touch.

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