The hospital cafeteria was closed; I figured I’d wait on the street. The surgery was supposed to take a few hours. My ten-year-old had a small brain and they needed to put most of it back inside.
It was 6-A.M.-cold and my fingers still tingled from the car crash. My head was hot; I had banged it against the bathroom’s hand dryer. It kept me warm.
It was going to be fine. All of it, everything. I talked to myself like this.
The hospital stood beside a patch of woodland, tall trees filled with green and birds that shrieked. In front of me, a lumberjack, wearing a red shirt and jeans, was working his way through one of the trees with an axe.
He had a stern face. The sound his axe made was persistent and precise.
The tree’s top fell down, leaves green and lush and a stub was all that was left. The lumberjack looked at the stub’s smooth surface before it began to crack. It broke upwards and a man’s head came out, popping above the broken wood. The head was bald and pale and crowned with splinters.
“What happened to you?” the lumberjack asked.
“I could ask you the same question,” the stub man said.
The stub man stared in confusion at the axe and the lumberjack laid it down.
The lumberjack sat with his back to the stub. He put his face in his hands, wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“Isn’t it a little too early for beheading?” the stub man asked.
“I’m just trying to do my job.”
“Where is the rest of you?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. He gazed, confused, at his stub. “It’s all quiet inside,” he said.
I turned to the lumberjack. “Where,” I said, “where is the rest of him?”
“It’s the way this works,” he said.
“Can you grow back?” I asked the stub man. “After what was taken from inside you?”
“Grow where? I’m trapped.”
The lumberjack looked at a stream of birds above us. They flew under the cloud-blotched sky, contracted and expanded against it like a slow-beating heart. Their wings made this sound.
The lumberjack stood and looked at the stub man.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “for your loss.”
He patted the head but only drove splinters further into the skull. The stub man winced.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the ER nurse from earlier coming up to the glass front doors, holding a chart. She looked around, searching for someone, then came out and walked to me.
“Your son,” she said.
HAMDY ELGAMMAL is a software engineer based in Berkeley, CA and a hobbyist writer. In the evenings he studies writing at the UC Berkeley Extension and adjusts a nonexistent beret while discussing writing and art in local writing groups.