Marsh Creek Grievers

by April DeOliveira

(publishing December 11th)
“Squirrel Daycare”
(publishing December 12th)
“Driving with the Sun in my Eyes”
(publishing December 13th)
“After Automata”
(publishing December 14th)


Carefully, yet with ease, I slid the tiny astronaut helmet, about the size of small bouncy ball, onto the head of Asher the Astronaut, my newest automaton.

He now stood before me with his chest puffed out and his hands placed confidently on his hips, fully outfitted in an aluminum spacesuit and ready to shoot to the moon. I looked at my 28-year-old brother, Gregory. Two years my senior, he sat across from me building his own automaton as he screwed the limbs onto an electrician. I grinned at him and threw my hands into the air emphatically. “Voila!”

Gregory laughed, observing my astronaut. “He looks great, Christina,” he said. His eyes scanned the room. “Where should we put him?”

I craned my neck, checking to see if there was any free space on the end table by the window. The end table, like the rest of the hard surfaces in the living room (and every room in our apartment, really), hosted multiple automata—mechanical, humanlike figurines—knee high and miniature. “Hmmm,” I said. “I don’t know. We’re starting to run out of free space. Before long, we’ll have to upgrade to a larger apartment.” Gregory completed his final step and fastened a blue jumpsuit onto the four-inch figure. “Your electrician is fantastic. He looks like he’s ready to check the wiring of this entire building.”

Gregory beamed and stared at his creation. “He does.”

I couldn’t help but smile at the way Gregory took such joy in his work.

“Well,” he said, “Asher the Astronaut and Emmerson the Electrician will just have to hang tight together for a bit. Maybe we can go to the thrift store today and find another end table.”

I nodded, leaning back on my hands, studying my brother’s automaton.

I grabbed Emmerson the Electrician and stood him next to Asher the Astronaut. I admired them for a long moment, appreciating how they too appeared as best friend-siblings.


Over the next several months, I noticed Gregory progressively breaking down. Sleeping in past 10 a.m., though he was always an early riser. Taking hours-long naps, though he’d always hated naps. Showering infrequently, though he’d always begun his morning routines with a shower. Wearing only sweatpants and T-shirts, though he’d always dressed in jeans and button-up shirts. Slowly, a sadness of some sort seemed to fuel him like motor oil. I had never seen such behavior from him before, and it scared me.

But it all came to a head one day when I arrived home from the grocery store and found Gregory lying belly-down on the floor, crying next to the small, limp body that was Gadget, his autodog.

I was about to ask him what was wrong, but I was cut off by a yellow spark that flashed from within the joint of one of Gadget’s steel legs. A screw loosened from his joint and bounced onto the hardwood floor, rolling toward my feet. Gadget let out a dysfunctional eerr zz zz er and jerked his leg, his heavy silver paw clanking onto the ground, causing yet another screw to come loose and fall.

Gadget was dying. My brother never let his automata die.

Gregory erupted into a fresh round of sobs. His cheek rested on the cold floor, his face inches away from Gadget’s. He placed his shaking hand on Gadget’s head, rubbing his thumb along the smooth surface, whispering, “I’m sorry, boy.”

            Tools were strewn across the hardwood floor. The automata that surrounded us persisted in their various tasks as if there wasn’t a threatening, dreadful ambience in the room. Gadget twitched violently as he released his final breath, his cold body producing a high-pitched deflating noise. Then he was still.

Squirrel Daycare

The thing about working in a squirrel daycare is the squirrels refuse to lay down for naptime.

Well, technically that’s not true. I don’t work here. I’m a volunteer—or participant, really—at Grief Recovery Squirrel Daycare for the Gifted. Yes, I know that’s a mouthful. Yes, I know the name doesn’t make sense. And to be clear, it’s not the grieving who are gifted. It’s the squirrels. And to be even clearer, it’s not the gifted squirrels who are grieving. It’s the residents of Marsh Creek.

When, a few weeks ago, my mom came to me and nearly begged I apply to Grief Recovery Squirrel Daycare for the Gifted, I laughed. Are you serious, I said as a statement rather than a question. I had driven past that place so many times on my way into town. And so many times I had looked at it with suspicion and thought, surely that doesn’t help people, not really. Like those church Celebrate Recovery or Grief Support programs. Just another one of those quick fix, put a bandage over a gaping wound kind of programs.

Please, just give it a try, she said through tears. I want my son back.

I’m right here, I growled. I hate it when people say stuff like that. As if what my grief has done to me is actually me trying to hurt them.

You know what I mean. You’re not yourself. You haven’t been for a long time.

Though I was angry, I knew she wasn’t wrong. It had been two years since my wife and daughter died. Two years later, I still couldn’t move on in my life, not even after those first six months of grief had caused me to lose my house and move in with my mom. I still couldn’t return to work. I still couldn’t get out of bed until 2 p.m. I still couldn’t brush the coffee off my teeth or wash the days-worth of grease and sweat and dust off my body. I still couldn’t bike or woodwork or read. All I could do was sleep and watch Megamind over and over.

No, Mom, I said, beginning to cry, which I do all the time now. I can’t. Everything is too overwhelming already. Everyday life is too much.

I know, honey. I know. That’s why I think this would be good for you. You need help. And I’ve heard really good things about this program from others in the community. People who have experienced the absolute worst things in their lives and are now doing better as a result. I just really think this could help you too.

I sighed and studied my mom’s tear-filled brown eyes. The dark circles. The crinkles that formed paths around and between her eyes. Signs of a life spent loving and worrying and lamenting.

Will you at least meet with a representative and see what they do? You don’t have to agree to it. Just talk with someone about it.

I reached for my face, rubbing at the stubble along my chin and left cheek. I sighed again. Sure, Mom. I’ll do it.

Now, I curse my empathetic mother under my breath as I place Photographic Memory Squirrel onto his nap cot, tucking the miniature blanket under him knowing full well he’ll sit up the moment I’m done and take off running through the Play Area and the Art Station. I let go and sure enough he runs away like I just clipped the tip of his tail with the craft scissors.

I don’t know why she thought this was a good idea.

Photographic Memory Squirrel comes to a halt in the Art Station and looks in my direction. Staring me down, he blinks once before printing a picture from his mouth. He drops a four by six on the floor and starts running again, this time to the Music Lab. I huff as I walk to the Art Station in the middle of the room and pick up the picture.

I run my thumb along the smooth, white edges of the Polaroid-like picture as the image comes into focus.

Shivers ripple down my spine. I don’t recognize myself. The sullen face, prematurely aged and worn. The dull eyes with droopy lids. The unkempt hair and frail, neglected body. I don’t know who this man is.

You’ll feel better in time, Telepathic Squirrel says inside my head. I hate it when he does that. I rotate toward the Sleep Place to glare at him. He’s sitting up on his nap cot, his blankets a heap on the floor, except for the one he’s wearing as a poofy, oversized scarf. It looks like tires stacked around his neck. Will you get out of my head? I think-shout at him.

Don’t shoot the Messenger, he says. You’ll know yourself again.  

Driving with the Sun in my Eyes

The highway pavement blends into a luminous blob of asphalt and sky and floating dark spots through my squinted eyes. I squint harder and adjust my visor, to no avail. The luminous blob remains the luminous blob as the traffic slows and quickens, slows and quickens.

I’m on my way home during that time of day when the Sun is starting to set, when it melts into the horizon with ferocity and pierces the eyes of every driver on the road—before it dips low enough for curses and exasperated sighs to transform into exaltations of nature’s miraculous beauty.

The other day, an 80-year-old man was all over local news because he crashed his car into the back of a woman and child biking—the woman on the bike and the child in one of those attached buggies.

It was that time of day, when the Sun is starting to set, when it melts into the horizon with ferocity and pierces the eyes of every driver on the road—before it dips low enough for curses and exasperated sighs to transform into exaltations of nature’s miraculous beauty.

The man was approaching a hill when it happened. He claimed he couldn’t see the bike and buggy, due to the inclination of the hill and the brightness of the Sun, until he was right on top of them.

Two people. 36 and 7. A mother and her girl on their way to surprise their husband and father at work. A woman with a book buried in her soul and a calmness that could put the most hardhearted at ease. A child with a mouth full of baby teeth, trees to climb, and feet dirty from play.

Traffic slows again, coming to a coast, as I and other dazed drivers enter Marsh Creek. I’m relieved to make it home.

After Automata

The early Michigan fall began to roll over summer, displacing the warm, humid air and deep green trees with its crisp chill and colorful leaves, some trees already bearing sparse branches.

Change shrouded me as I lay in bed—as I had every day for the past three months—listening. Listening to the world outside my window, to the people routinely entering and exiting the building, to the people talking and laughing as they walked in pairs down the street to and from Marsh Creek’s waterfront, to the people driving their cars and going about their lives. Listening to the emptiness of my apartment, an emptiness that would not be filled by the ticking of my and Gregory’s beloved mechanical figurines—the automata we had spent much of our lives building.

When he’d moved out this summer, Gregory had left his automata behind, abandoning not only me but his creations.

I tucked my hand beneath the hem of my T-shirt and traced my hip bone. It protruded like never before.

I swung my rusty legs over the side of the bed and stood. I brushed my overgrown, knotted hair off my neck and straightened my shirt and sweatpants. Rigidly, I walked out of my bedroom and into the hallway. Until now, the only time I’d left my room was to use the bathroom and occasionally get food. Not to wander. Otherwise, I’d spent most of my time in bed, even as I worked seven to three every day with my laptop on my stomach.

I paused, staring across the hallway into what had once been Gregory’s room, where the automata geared on in their operations as if Gregory were coming right back.

I knew he wasn’t.

I forced my legs to motor me down the hallway and into the living room, then the dining room, then the kitchen, then back down the hallway and into Gregory’s room.

The emptiness followed me.

Something else needed to change.

I had an idea.


I put the finishing touches on my first-ever life-size automata—Gregory and Christina 2.0—and then booted them up. Apart from this project, I’d given up on all other automata-related pursuits. Something in me had shifted.

Once Gregory and Christina 2.0 were fully conscious, I introduced myself and informed them I was leaving.

“I’m going to need you to man the fort,” I said to Christina 2.0, whose webby, hardwired eyes watched me analytically. “I’m sorry to leave so soon upon meeting, but I have to go. I’ve left you with a friend, though,” I gestured toward Gregory 2.0., who looked at Christina 2.0 like he’d known and loved her for years. I grabbed my suitcase and scanned the place for the last time, admiring the automata Gregory and I had communally built.

“Will you be back?” Gregory 2.0 asked.

“No.” I headed toward the door. As I grabbed the knob and readied myself to abandon everything I’d built and step into a new world—one I didn’t know like clockwork—I turned again to my counterparts. “Look after the automata.”

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4 Responses to “Marsh Creek Grievers”

  1. Kim DeOliveira Says:

    Some of these micro-stories are told in light-hearted manner. But the sense of loss and grief that underlies each story is intriguing. It gets at how each person needs to learn how to navigate grief or how grief affects those we love. Very well done. I would love to see more of this writing.

  2. Gale Kragt Says:

    I love the way April tells her stories. She is very descriptive and holds your attention. And leaves you with a sense of a wonderment and wanting more. Amazing stories that will stay with you.

  3. Gale Kragt Says:

    I love the way April writes. She is very descriptive and holds your attention. She leaves you with wanting to know more and read more of her writing. When she writes, I can picture what she’s writing about.

  4. Cullin Morgan Says:

    So haunting, in the best way. The repetition in this third arch really got me, and the way it’s used to show both joy and grief wrapped into the same image. Love it! Can’t wait to read more of your stories.

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