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The Knapsack

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Frigid air and clumping snow choke the atmosphere as the wind whistles the murmur of a lost child. I stumble through the slush-slicked sidewalks, hands shoved deep into my coat pockets. Forcing myself not to bend beneath the knapsack on my shoulders, I pause to consider the swirling breeze, and it guides me through the blinding whiteness.

Is that a child’s trembling voice enveloping me in a haunting chant? The wonderful thought unfurls a flag of hope. A small smile jerks at my lips and then disappears into the shadows of my sunken face. My heart throbs as I struggle to breathe through the numbness. Each step is harder to take than the last, and the knapsack digs into my shoulder blades.

The roads and sidewalks are deserted. My only company is a full moon peeping through the sky as though a watchful god. I trudge forward, breathing hard. It seems like hours, but it has been minutes. The buildings and trees are mysterious and peculiar, their silhouettes cruel and angular.

At the main street, I catch a glimpse of my destination. The soaring grey tower is a ghostly finger pointing to the heavens. I’m tempted to pull away from the building and travel back to the home that’s no longer home. I fall against the side of the structure, my nerves shattered. Running bony hands through tangled wisps of hair, I reign myself under control: You can do this. He’s your son. I coax myself until the tears ebb and my fingers stop twitching. When I’m able to stand, I adjust the knapsack and swallow the ball of fear down my throat.

When I step inside, a wave of nausea rolls over me as the smell of antiseptics fills my nostrils. I’m stranded in the doorway as past and present thoughts coalesce.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” a brusque voice calls.

The sound snaps me from the bedlam of my thoughts, and I tumble into the room.

“Yes, I think so,” I say, a tremor rippling along my spine. A gruff, middle-aged woman types at a computer at the far side of the room. Her hair is cut short and her eyes are large blue orbs. She signals with a hand that she’ll be with me in a moment. The interior of the building is unchanged, except for a single adorned tree. Red and green present ornaments dangle from branches. A gold garland twists around the tree like a ribbon of joy. Curls of warmth twirl through my body.

“Is that new?” I ask. The woman glares at me from under block-shaped glasses. She checks the time on her watch, sighs, and follows my gaze.

“Oh, yes,” she grins, and her agitation is extinguished in a moment. “The children begged for a tree this year.”

“The children,” I repeat. Memories spear me.

“Are you here to see someone?”


“You realize it’s quite late?”

“There’s a boy here – he’s in room 207 and, well, I promised that I’d come.”

“Are you his mother?”

“No, I’m a friend.”

“You know that I can’t – ”

“He’s dying,” I blurt and my face crumples. Tears gush down my cheeks and I rub at them with my hands.

“You’ll have to come back another time. There isn’t anything I can do.”

“But I have to see him!” I urge.

The woman bites her lower lip as her eyes waver with indecision. Then, all of a sudden, she’s tapping her fingers on the keyboard of the computer again.

“Ah, here he is. His twin had the same disease. It’s why the poor thing’s parents stopped visiting. They couldn’t handle watching it all over.” I feel my gut wrench at the woman’s words. “It’s selfish and stupid, I think. He’s so lonesome.” The woman shakes her head, and then glances at me from under her glasses with trusting eyes.

“This will be our secret. It is Christmas Eve, and I don’t work late for nothing.” She gives me a wink.

“Oh, thank-you, thank-you . . .”

“Hush now, dear.”

Without further questions, she leads me down a series of hallways until we come to a dead end. She stops abruptly and turns to knock on a door to our left. Déjà vu. This exact room held my own son not a month ago.

She eases the door open and whispers, “Sweetie, there’s someone here to see you.” She waves me in with a smile.

I edge inside the room to find a small and pale boy cocooned within a pile of blankets. Surrounding him are several monitors and wires. Images pummel my mind with memories I’ve repressed. I startle and the floor sounds beneath my weight with a groan. The boy faces me with azure eyes.

“Who are you?” he whispers, his voice groggy.

I grope for the door handle, sadness and fear threatening to claw their way out. How could I have thought I’d be brave enough to return to this place?

“No, please don’t go!” the boy interjects from his bed as I find purchase on the metal door handle. “I don’t ever have visitors.”

I stop at the sound of his strained voice and dare another glance. He looks so much like my son that I gulp and shudder. Recollections spill over and douse me with their cold reality: the polished head, pastel skin, and small figure. The boy wears a child’s face, though he’s a man at heart. This lamb is being swallowed by the tiger.

“Please stay. It’s Christmas Eve.” The boy faces me with pleading eyes, and, because of those few words, I can’t imagine turning my back on the stranger I’d wanted to find. It was my son, moments before his passing, who asked me to help this boy. The two had become friends, though I had not yet been acquainted with the boy. I can still hear my son’s words: I heard the nurses say that this room will be his. He doesn’t have anyone, Mum. Don’t let him face cancer alone.

“All right,” I whisper as I step forward and ease myself onto a plastic chair at the foot of the boy’s bed. I pull off my red cotton knapsack, settle it into my lap, and take a deep breath.

“Thanks,” the boy utters. His eyes trail over me with fascination as we gaze at each other in silence.

“How old are you?” he finally asks.

I laugh at the boy’s question, and I cover my mouth in surprise. My laughter is foreign and strange. The boy raises his eyebrows at me as he waits for an answer. “Thirty-four, if you must know,” I say with a grin.

“Really?” The boy looks at me teasingly.

“Do I look older?”

“What’s in the knapsack?”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

“Can I see?”

I glance down at the knapsack and smile through my sadness. “This is a special knapsack,” I whisper as my tears threaten. I’m tempted to hitch the knapsack over my shoulders once again, and bolt through the door, but I know I can’t keep this burden forever. My son would want me to be brave. If he could battle cancer for years, I could do the one thing he asked of me. So, I lift the knapsack by its straps and settle it in front of the mysterious boy. I feel as though I’ve handed over my son’s limp body. I shudder at the thought and begin to weep in the darkness. With concern, the boy’s eyes find mine. It takes all of my willpower to stop crying. I nudge the knapsack closer to him.

“Are you sure?” the boy asks. I nod before I can change my mind. He grasps the red fabric of the knapsack and then pauses. “Who does it belong to?”

“It belonged to someone a lot like you.” I can’t bear to speak my son’s name aloud.

The boy smiles and then chews his lip. “Will I like what’s inside?”

I shrug, unsure of what to expect. I almost don’t want him to open the knapsack. In fact, some appalling part of me wants to tear it from his arms and keep what I gave him. Yet, I want to give this boy what I gave my own son every year.

“Open the side pocket first,” I urge with a nod.

The boy drags down the velvet zipper and digs in the pocket until his fingers retrieve a small silver quarter, at which he stares in confusion.

“It’s part of a game,” I explain, a spark of excitement filling my voice as memories flood my mind.

“You can open the rest of the pouches if you win. You see, it’s a lucky quarter. Heads you win, tails I lose.”

The boy pauses and ponders before he gives the coin a toss with a flick of his hand. “Tails,” he calls. He snaps the quarter down against the back of his other hand and laughs. “Tails,” he repeats.

“See, isn’t it lucky?” I inquire. “Keep the quarter under your pillow each night and you will often have good luck.”


“Now open the furthest zipper.”

He loses his restraint and drags down the zipper with an urgency his frail body didn’t know it possessed. He reaches inside to pull out a large object and a silk pouch.

“A microscope and slides?”

“So you can see the world up close even when you’re inside. You can look at leaves –”

“I can look at cancer through this?” the boy interrupts. I don’t say a word. “Will scientists find a way to make the tumor go away?”

Taken aback, I shake my head. “I don’t know.” My son never asked such a haunting question. The boy’s hands tremble. Have I spoiled our chances for happiness?

He slumps against his pillow and sighs heavily. “I wish it would disappear.”

“Nothing lasts forever,” I whisper. “It’s Christmas Eve, and tomorrow is Christmas. Things come and go.”

“I don’t want to wait.”

“Try to think of something else, if even for a few minutes.” I lean forward and pull back the final zipper. “Go ahead.”

The boy reaches once more into the depths to pull out a stuffed tiger. He clutches the animal to his chest and trails his fingers through its soft tangerine coat. On impulse, I reach forward to wrench the animal from the boy. He startles and stares at our hands, which are matted in the fur. With a quick decision, I lace my fingers through the boy’s emaciated ones and hold them instead, the tiger seated in his lap. I struggle to withhold my tears. My son had been the last to hold the animal. I hadn’t opened the knapsack since.

“You can survive. It doesn’t have to be the same.”

“You’re his mother, aren’t you?” the boy asks out of the blue.


“He had this room.”

“Yes,” I admit and my voice cracks.

“He loved you.”

“I know.”

“When I see him –”

“Not tonight.” I withdraw my hands from his and press a finger to his lips. Grasping the tiger, I wrap his weak arms around the toy. His hands scarcely cover the animal’s stomach.

“Not tonight,” he repeats, and he buries his face against the tiger. His fingers grip mine and, for a moment, it’s as though I hold my son again.

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