Backyards: Alex

Words by Elyce Phillips

Pictures by Erin Michelle

Published on February 5, 2014

Last month, my cousin stopped moving. My aunt Josie called me, out of the blue, and told me this.
I said, ‘What are you calling me for? You ought to be calling an ambulance!’
She said that it wasn’t the sort of thing to call an ambulance about. That Alex wasn’t ‘sick’. He was just refusing to move. She wanted me to come over. Try to talk some sense into him. I said I’d be there straight away, but I had no idea what I could do to help. I hadn’t seen Alex in years.

My aunt ran to meet me as I parked in the driveway. Her face was red from crying and worry. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the house, to the living room, where Alex was standing. He was completely still. You could barely see his chest rise and fall with his breathing. It was as though he had been replaced with a wax figure.
I circled him. I shook him by the shoulders. Josie and I took turns yelling, trying anything to rouse Alex out of his comatose state.
I suggested we call a doctor, and my aunt gave me the number of their local GP.

The check up took a little over an hour. The doctor couldn’t figure out how Alex was doing what he was doing, but said that everything was stable. There was no stroke, no paralysis, nothing medically wrong with Alex, so unless something changed for the worse, the only advice he could give was to wait it out.
I took my aunt into the kitchen, sat her down, and made her a cup of tea. After many long minutes of silence, she fished out an envelope from within her pocket and handed it over to me. Alex had written her a letter. It was short and to the point. Apparently he was doing this so he could ‘figure things out’. There were no details as to what these ‘things’ were. Josie had no idea that Alex had been having any problems–certainly nothing as that might lead him to take this course of action.

I did what I could to console her. I suggested that once Alex had sorted through his issues, he would simply snap out of it. I tried to speed things along. I sat with him and told him that there were better ways of dealing with ‘things’. That you could learn more from talking with others than by staging debates within your own comatose mind. He did not respond.
I came back the next weekend and the next, trying different versions of this argument. Eventually, I stopped, and would just talk about times we had spent together. We used to be close, growing up. Alex would be dropped at our house on school holidays and we would play in the backyard with our combined arsenals of stuffed animals. We’d pretend it was the Olympics, or that we ran a perfume store, or that two bears were getting married and needed to buy their first home.
Eventually, Alex stopped coming over.

After a few weeks, everything slipped into a strange sense of routine. Alex was immobile and that didn’t seem like it was going to change anytime soon. I continued to visit every weekend, but now my time was spent helping my aunt around the house.
There was a day where my aunt had invited some people over for tea. She asked if I’d tidy up the living room and dust Alex. A significant amount of dust had accumulated over him through the months. I brushed the feather duster over his skin but he did not flinch. His limbs were warm, yet they felt stiff. There were parts of his body that required more attention. The hollow of his clavicle was matted with grey, and the dust clung terribly to the creases in his black t-shirt. His shoes were a problem; the dust near impossible to remove from the laces.

Eventually my aunt decided to cover Alex with a plastic sheet, much like the ones she used to protect the couches, and poured potpourri in his pockets. It made more sense than having me dust him every other weekend, and it saved Alex’s brother from changing Alex’s clothes as often–a job my aunt and I were loathe to do, for modesty’s sake. We shifted him into the corner of the living room, out of the way, next to the recliner.
I still visit once or twice a month to help Josie move Alex into the backyard so he can air out for an afternoon. She washes his plastic sheet and changes over the potpourri while I sit in a lawn chair beside Alex and talk about nothing in particular.

Elyce Phillips is a Melbourne-based writer and purveyor of nonsense. Her work has previously appeared in AntiThesis. You can find more of her stories at She is always up for a chat over on Twitter @ElycePhillips.

Erin Michelle draws pictures and writes words. Follow at