Splinter by Doaa Elhassan




J.D. Eames

Abby’s mad at me, but there isn’t anything to do about it. Between our homes we share a fence. It needs serious repair. Before her contractor begins the work, she needs my okay.

I watch her during her sunrise run as she counts the descansos along her path. This morning she stops to examine a new one: a large cross in bright reds, blues, and yellows, with embedded photos of a young mother, Sophia, who was killed in a head-on collision as she drove home from her nightly bakery shift.

Abby jumps over some rotting fence boards that have fallen across the sidewalk.

“Damn you, Marco,” she curses.

She’s thinking of me, though we’ve never met.

She must have gotten my name from her realtor. I doubt it was a neighbor. She moved in next door at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She encountered her new neighbors, waving from across the street.

She’s come to my house to find me several times—first, with a plate of cookies she left on the table on my porch. Normally I’d be the one to bring a plate to her as a welcome.

She must think I’m out of town, stuck, unable to travel home because of all the pandemic restrictions. Or else she believes I’m simply refusing to answer my front door, a recluse against the world, waiting out the virus.

The birds pecked through the clear wrapping around the plate to eat the cookies. They made quite a mess, birds and cookies. A day later, Abby noticed the plate still sitting on my table. She came by, cleaned up the mess, and took her plate home. She left a note. I don’t know what it said. The wind took her note away down the street.

I know she counts the descansos on her morning runs because she said so once, in her backyard on the phone to a friend. I’m glad she has a friend out there. She must be lonely.

Like Abby, I love New Mexico’s descansos, their permanence along our roads. In other places, memorials of car fatalities feel more temporary. Fragile wooden crosses, flowers, paper notes—all compost or blow away over time. Rocks piled to mark a spot shift, fall, or get reused elsewhere. Descansos are monuments of folk art.

One time in St. Louis I saw the ghost bikes honoring fallen bicyclists, skeletons of bikes painted white. A few years ago, ghost bikes began showing up in New Mexico. Our laws forbid removing descansos from public roadsides. Ghost bikes here have the same protection.

Descansos belong, not to death, but to lives loved, missed, and honored, to families, friends, and communities. Descansos are meant to last through time, storms, the heat of the sun. They’re decorated on birthdays, on holidays, not only on the anniversaries of deaths.

Abby spoke to her phone friend about an AIDS quilt she’d once made for her best friend. She was sad that the full quilt was not on display; it was so large it was shown only in segments.

She spoke of loved ones lost to AIDS and various cancers, of drifting apart from the less-interesting survivors. She felt as temporary as a makeshift cross.

She came to New Mexico eager to make new friends, thinking we were a welcoming people, and she was right. But because of COVID-19 she’s found only isolation.

Sometimes she stands at our mutual, ailing fence, looking at my backyard. So neat, so free of weeds, so cared for.

I want to tell her she isn’t alone, why I don’t answer the door.

This morning Abby gets caught in a monsoon. She runs towards home. The slogging sound of her shoes, heavy with water, is muffled by loud, continuous claps of thunder, and hard rain drilling the pavement.

The traffic lights begin to blink as the power grid flickers. Abby runs through the intersection. A car races through, too, without slowing down. She raises a finger at the driver. Is she thankful there will be no new descanso at that crossroad?

The rain stops. The clouds continue on, leaving behind bright blue patches of sky. Steam rises up from the sidewalk. Abby tries and fails to wipe away the water dripping down her face.

House lights come on as power is restored. Abby breathes in the scent of juniper. She waves to a neighbor rushing along with her Labrador. Abby takes a breath to say something, but the neighbor is already gone.

Abby notices my garage door is open a foot or so. Whenever the power fluctuates, my garage door opens, sometimes closing again, most times not—a problem someone will have to fix.

She rings my doorbell, waits, rings, and waits. She presses her face to the stained glass, looking through the green, purple, and orange into my neat, sparsely furnished living room. She gives up on me and leaves her wet footprints behind.

She bends down at the garage door opening and squeezes through it. Her wet clothes leave a blotch on the concrete floor where her t-shirt and shorts come together. Then her knees, hands, and feet create small, wet spots as she lifts herself off the floor.

I sense a good-neighborly plan to reset the garage door. After pressing the button to open it, Abby will hit the button again and race out before the door closes.

The garage is dark until she hits the right button and the door opens. The light brings her attention to a curiosity leaning against the wall. She picks up a laminated card and reads it.

“Who would do such a thing for me?” Abby asks aloud.

Someone, I hope.

She now knows.

My house and yard, so well cared for, attended to, loved. The laminated card attached to a ghost bike awaiting the pandemic to ease so that it can join the other descansos along the route Abby runs.

She understands now.

My whole quiet house, a descanso for me. For Marco.




Playwright turned novelist, J.D. Eames lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her wife and the world’s best dog. She’s on Twitter and Instagram as @PeaceableWriter.