The line was interminable. He was fifteenth in line. Each person ahead of him was most likely going to hit a snag and cause a further delay. He was going to have a stroke. His head was spinning already with anxiety and he was thinking, yes he did take his high blood pressure pills that morning. He remembered distinctly leaning over the bathroom sink while he let the cold water run and prayed, “Dear God, if you just let him live please God I will be the holiest man alive from now on. I will go to Africa, The Middle East. I will trade my life for his. Let him live just let him reach manhood. This is worse than unfair.”

The line moved one person and he looked at the woman at the first window. She was leaning into the cage where the non-committal worker moved like a robot. He could tell this would be a big delay. The woman would have a huge problem that would take fifteen minutes for the two of them to solve. The customer was skinny like a model and she was dressed in the latest fashion, very trendy and neat. He didn’t have time to think about Mindy, and still his mind flashed back to that time during lunch when she first flirted with him. Why did he let that happen? Why didn’t he tell her right off, “I’m married with a kid?” His lips began to move, “Dear God if you spare my son this once I will never ask for anything again. Never. I will dedicate the rest of my life to your service. I know I have been a bad person but all that will change drastically. I am begging. I am promising.” The line moved again as another of the eight windows opened up and a man who looked homeless in torn jeans and long beard moved out of the line to begin talking loudly to himself. He was shouting now and a guard moved slowly to meet him at the window. The confrontation was easy-going and the weirdness stopped and the bearded man quieted down and looked at the clerk behind the bars with a strange humility.

He wondered what his wife was doing now at the hospital by his boy’s bedside. He pictured the nurse with the doctor in the room. The doctor was telling his wife perhaps that the tests showed positive and there was no more danger. He saw his boy lying pale and thin in the white shroud and pictured the grief-stained face of his wife. It had been a struggle and he wondered why she had stayed with him. Why when she had so many other options and had the means to survive on her own. He thought of the times she had threatened to go but the boy kept them together. They had struggled together like two dogs over a bone, and there was no way either would give up daily life with their son. When he was diagnosed everything changed. Their lives became not about them or their long contention over his unfaithfulness. Now they were nailed to a cross of attention and could only pray and cry together late into the night in the bed they used as a plank in mid-ocean, a life raft they clung to, “Please God let him live. Don’t do this to us. I will change. I will concentrate on you from now on. I will be a model citizen. A regular person. A churchgoer. Holy. Good. True. Please don’t let this happen to me. I will change now.”

The bearded wreck at the window moved away and began to shout again as he sauntered out the swinging door. The line moved one person and he counted the people ahead of him once more.

Two windows opened simultaneously and he closed his eyes to concentrate better on his prayers: “God I am sorry for my whole fucking life;” he whispered this, and the woman in front turned abruptly and glared at him. He ignored the look. He ignored the whole world as his prayers moved up through his chest to his lips. He was susurrating. The sound coming out was like scolding with lots of hissing. It was not that he wanted to swear. Far from it. His heart and soul were on the line now and desperation surged in his throat as prayer. Tears began to slide down his face.
The guard moved to him in line, “Sir, can I help you? Do you just want stamps?”

He shook a bit as he nodded. I’m going to pass out he thought as he said softly, “I’m fine. No problems here.” He did not want to lose his place. He needed to mail the letter to his mother. She needed to know what was happening to her grandson. He had it all in writing in a long detailed history of the illness and how it had attacked his little world in the far away town he had moved to when he married. So he hadn’t kept in touch. But he had always been so busy trying to make a living, to survive and life had taken a turn far from the city where he had grown up with his mom and little sister who both grew to hate him when he began to change, when he no longer needed the turmoil of addiction and control from the two women he should have loved. This letter would heal the anger.

This kind of tragedy would shut everyone involved up, drive everyone into deep silence. He was sent to mail this letter. He would be patient. He kept praying. He counted the line again: “God I will be good. I will be first in line at communion every day. Daily mass. Close to the church. Dedicated to you, God. Every single day. I will never shirk my life. I will never be forgetful of your mercy. Please God. Please.” The line moved and now he was eighth. He tried to concentrate on his prayers but couldn’t help counting those ahead of him over and over to make sure he had it right. Eighth. He looked at each person in front, looked at their clothes, their shoes, and their hair. He noticed a woman in line third down who had a bad bleach job. The dark line on top of her head was a streak in the blonde hair like a stripe on her skull. She was so ugly and he wondered why he cared for that moment about anyone who didn’t matter now, “Oh God, don’t let me stop praying. I will not be distracted. I will pray all day from now on. I will pray for the rest of my life.” He remembered catechism when he was so holy that he had promised the sister he would be like Saint Lawrence and pray always even in math class. When the teachers asked him to answer questions about the homework he would answer politely but he would be saying a Hail Mary. He was a holy kid, an altar boy, a good kid except he hated his mom and sister. This couldn’t be about punishment. God didn’t work that way. God was love. Jesus was his best friend. His brother, father, savior, “Save my kid, he whispered. Save my kid. I’ll never ask for anything ever again.”

His cell vibrated in his pocket. He felt his heart shift in his chest. The line moved closer, one more down and five to go. He took out his phone and counted the people in front of him again and again four more and then he would be at the window and then he could get the stamp and then he could race to his car and be at the hospital in twenty minutes. He read the text message. Only two words, “He’s gone.”

Joan Eyles Johnson is an author, playwright, and poet, graduate of San Jose State University, with writing in Ambit, Confluence, Diabolique, Mediterranean Review, and several other literary journals, plays off-Broadway and on NPR. She is the recent winner of the Ernest Hemingway Short Story Prize (Fiction Southeast). She lives in a cabin above LA in the San Bernardino National Forest.