By Chella Courington

Lying in darkness next to my snoring husband, I begin to feel my breasts—a practice I usually reserve for daylight. But I suffer from travel fatigue after driving twelve hundred miles to spend July 4 in Worcester, Massachusetts, near Boston. Tomorrow fireworks on the Esplanade along the Charles. Tonight my left fingers flare over my right breast, each pressing softly into the flesh then circling the areola until all tissue is cleared. Now the left breast. The right hand performs fearlessly until something resists pressure. Stops the index finger that moves quickly away and orbits again. Returning to the unyielding mass.

Only Cal and I are awake. His nails click, click, clicking against the hall’s oak floor. A Border Collie, he better understands the dark, delineating shades that I can’t see. It seems appropriate. I panic in pitch black. Need light to lead me. Right now I want to wake Ted so he can feel this hard place, this new obstacle to sleep. Cal comforts. Sits by the bed so I can rub his head, scratch his ears. If I pause, his tongue slides across the top of my hand. His human, Mike, is our best friend who recently moved into this apartment—the downstairs of a Victorian home with high ceilings and a long hall.

No air conditioning. Just the low hum of a ceiling fan—blades whirring against time. Usually, such steady sound lulls me. Not tonight.

I teach English at a small liberal arts college in Montgomery, Alabama, with three other colleagues in the Language Arts Department—two men and a woman. She’s forty-four, ten years younger than I, and dying of invasive breast cancer. (Toxic cells break from the milk duct and occupy surrounding tissue. The younger the host, the faster the invasion.) Chemo and a bone marrow transplant aren’t strong enough to kill for her. She pulls out fists of hair and drops them in the trash while talking about Chaucer. According to the American Cancer Society, one of eight women will develop breast cancer. Not two of two. What are those odds? My sleeping economist can tell me later. Tonight I don’t want to know.

Cal licks my arm and I soothe his fur when reaching for my breast. Is this what a lump feels like? Flinty. About the width of a rock good for skipping across water.

I close my eyes and open them on a shore of smoothed pebbles, searching for one the size of a half-dollar to bounce the way Dad taught me. Hold the slick stone between your right thumb and forefinger. Swing your arm back and horizontal to your thigh. The angle of toss is important. The trailing stone skims the lake, jumps up then leaps across the surface. Slowing down with each bounce. Can I remove this rock and send it skipping across the River Styx while I watch on the bank? Cerberus at my side. His hot breath on my hand. His rough tongue on my skin.

authorNominated for the 2009 Best of the Net Anthology (Sundress Publications) and the 2009 Best New Poets (University of Virginia), Chella Courington received her Ph.D. in literature from the University of South Carolina and her MFA in poetry from New England College. She currently teaches literature and writing at Santa Barbara City College in California. She was previously a professor of English at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, lo-ball magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, Opium Magazine, and Pirene’s Fountain. “Diana loved anything orange” was runner-up in The Collagist’s 2009 Flash Fiction Contest. Her first chapbook was Southern Girl Gone Wrong (Foothills Publishing, 2004) and her second chapbook of prose poetry, Girls & Women, was released by Burning River (March 2011).