The One and Only Natalie Burns

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
Image of Short Story


The number of seconds that pass in a minute, the number of minutes required to claim an hour, the interior angles of an equilateral triangle, the number of carbon atoms in a Buckyball, and the number of Buddha's disciples sent around the world.


And as of today, sixty is the number of trips Natalie has taken around the sun, almost the number of months since her husband died, and exactly the number of weeks since her diagnosis.


The number of days until she leaves this life because Natalie has decided the disease has had enough control -- thankyouverymuch; it's had enough time to drive her life in any direction it sees fit and she'll be damned if it would drive her death as well.

In sixty days it will be the anniversary of her husband's death and at sixty-years-old, Natalie thinks that 's a fine time to call it quits, herself -- before the disease leaves her a wasted, empty husk full of nothing but pain and despair.
Natalie Burns had spent her whole life being the dutiful daughter, the faithful wife, and admired employee. Now she has no desire to be any of those things for this damned disease.

It is her time now to make the rules, and it starts with dropping the head wrap and embracing one of the harshest realities.

Just a few months ago that would have been impossible -- with her identity, her ego, still tightly tied to her physical visage and her long, thick, grey-streaked hair that reflected her stifled wild internal nature. The one she had just begun -- finally -- to embrace as the hair began to thin forcing her to cut it short, crop it closer and eventually just shave it off completely.

But now, standing in front of the mirror, her friends waiting at the corner café to celebrate her six decades on this earth with lattes and pastries, she realizes she has been proffered a new opportunity to claim that wildness. That truth. And with a breath, the scarf lands in the trash basket in the corner.

That wasn't that hard, she thinks. In truth, it seems ridiculously obvious that the scarves and the wigs are as much (if not more) for other people, so they can avoid being confronted with the harshest of truths: we all die.

Some of us just do it sooner.

She pulls out makeup she hasn't bothered with since the disease grabbed hold and told her nothing was worth bothering with anymore, and she tints her cheeks rose, stains her lips coral, lines her eyes in smoky gray. She defies every voice that ever spoke discouraging, admonishing words and she paints her face for war. For peace. For festivals and prayer and rebellion.

And beauty.

Emboldened, she raids a bin in the back of her closet where she stashed things the world deemed inappropriate, odd, strange, 'not fitting a woman of her stature': well-worn Converse high-top sneakers, her Wonder Woman t-shirt, and she paired them both with a cropped jacket and cuffed jeans.

Again before the mirror, she contemplates this new reflection, caught in the gaze of her own eyes. Yes, the skin has lost some of the fullness and tension of its youth and she is no longer mistaken for a woman in her thirties, her head -- egg-shaped and bare as the day she was born -- impossible to ignore and a beacon of the illness she has fought against, and lost, but there is so much more as well. So much revealed by the tinted cheeks and tarnished sneakers. By adorning her outside she has reversed herself and revealed her insides, as though someone had turned her inside out and found that woman that was meant to be on this earth all along.

She shed her skin and found herself anew.

For the first time in almost a year, Natalie stands tall, the specter always at her back a little fainter, or at least, easier to ignore.

And she laughs; a rich, deep rumble spilling up from depths she didn't know she possessed and rolling out in great heaving breaths.

For the first time in her life, Natalie Burns sees herself in her reflection.

The irony is not lost and forces up more laughter.

Breathless laughter.

Breath-stealing laughter.

It took a partnership with death to release her truth in life.

But there is no bitterness, for along with all of it, she can finally breathe. Fully. Deeply. Only now does she realize she's been holding her breath for nearly sixty years. From the first moment a voice told her to mind her manners, or sit still, she had held her breath for fear of doing it wrong.

But there is no wrong. There is only her.

Her life.

Her death.

Her way.

With a renewed sense of self, Natalie grabs her bag and steps out of her brownstone to the sidewalk, the city sounds fresh, unfamiliar, in spite of her years living in the very same place.

Life is a series of little deaths: old selves, old dreams, old friends; every turn and choice the death of one life in favor of another.

Life is a serious of little deaths all leading up to the only one that really matters.

But for the next sixty days until Natalie makes her next choice before it is made for her, she will walk in sunshine, smile freely, laugh without shame; she will eat too much, drink good wine, be with friends, be alone, and spend however many groups of sixty seconds, sixty minutes and sixty hours she has left being the Natalie she always knew she was but couldn't be.

And when her time comes she wants to drive toward a sunset like the world on fire, chasing it down until the twilight behind her catches up and the skies grow dark and speckled with a million dead suns, and then she will stop. She will end. Not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with peace.

And herself. Natalie Burns.

The one. The only. The true.