The Fall (Part 6)

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***

My father insisted on having the picture blown up and framed. He hung it in our small living room, above the television. Every time people came over, he’d tell them to check out the masterpiece, that it was published in a fancy magazine, taken by none other than his brilliant daughter. I’d blush and wait for him to finish singing my praises before slipping back into my bedroom. I leaned the picture against the front of the sofa and took a few steps back. There was a glare from the lamp light, but the picture was still crisp, clear.  I could feel myself standing on that mountain looking out at the water as I prepared to take the shot. My legs shook. My hands were sweaty. But there was nothing better than getting lost in the process—studying the scene, analyzing the light, imagining in great depth what I might capture as I looked through that lens.

“Wow,” I whispered. I wanted to be back there, back inside that world of photography free to create, to capture nature’s wonders.

I moved to the hall closet and started pulling out plastic bins. I dug through each one looking for old pictures, the plastic-wrapped magazines my pictures were published. There were postcards from Tiffany when she studied abroad in Paris, my father’s ceramic turtles, beaded necklaces given to me by a girl I babysat senior year, sewing thread and needles I used to sew missing buttons on second-hand shirts and blazers when I was in law school, and yards of fabric folded into neat squares but no pictures.

Upstairs in my bedroom closet were more bins. There I found eight photo albums and ten to fifteen loose sleeves. I laughed at the handwritten labels, organized by month and year. In a small soapbox I found memory cards. A sealed box housed my cameras, each one more expensive and sophisticated than the previous one. I held each one up in its clear plastic bag and smiled. Then I moved on to the photo albums, retracing my growth as a budding photographer. I laughed and cried, memories swarming like bees in my mind. I ignored hunger pangs, time’s long and short hands, and the low hum of panic. The pictures came alive like fractured moments on a reel, streaming excitement I hadn’t known in years. When I finished going through the last album, I turned to the magazines. Each one had pink tabs marking the pages with my pictures. My eyes welled with pride. In the last magazine, between the thick, glossy pages was a water-stained envelope. I pulled out the folded letter and began reading.

To my sweet girl:

How surprised was I when I saw your picture in Light magazine? I know it’s been a long time, but I want you to know that I love you and think about you all the time. I’m sure you have a lot of questions. My number is below. I’d love to hear from you.

Love,

Mommy

And just like that, the happiness I felt waned, opening the door to a wave of suffocating disappointment.  I put the letter back into the envelope and went downstairs to the kitchen. After making myself a cup of coffee and a slice of toast, I moved out to the patio to sit and soak up the early afternoon sun, hoping the caffeine would force thoughts about my mother back into their dark hole.

I was hungry for a mother, the woman who, the day after giving birth, left the hospital and sent my father divorce papers a month later. Her letter came a few months after The Fall appeared in the magazine. The long, white envelope arrived without a return address, my name and address written in fancy lettering.

“Do you remember her?” Tiffany asked when I showed her the letter.

“I never met her…she left when I was born.”

“Wow…” Tiffany sat on my bed with her mouth open and her eyes wide. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know…part of me wants to call,” I sat down across from Tiffany. “I want to know why she left us…left me.”

The woman on the other end of the phone spoke fast in a detached, customer service kind of way. I twirled the phone cord, waiting for my turn to speak, which never came. It was decided that I would meet her after school the following day at her office. Tiffany agreed to join me. She told her parents she was staying after school, and I told my dad the same.

We took the 22 bus to the downtown area and then walked the rest of the way, twelve blocks—half restored Victorians, half high-rise buildings.

“What are you going to say?” Tiffany asked.

“I don’t know,” I kept walking, my backpack straps digging into my shoulders.

On 66thth Avenue we eyed both sides of the street looking for a building with the numbers 1111. It was tucked between two taller buildings, its small, north and south windows facing steel walls, its east and west windows facing one-way streets filled with angry commuters. Straus & Meyers Legal Services was stained on the glass doors. Tiffany and I walked into the meticulous entryway where we were greeted by a man in a gray suit.

“How can I help you ladies?” He asked, half chuckling to appeal to our youth.

“We’re here to see Sophia Smith,” I looked over at Tiffany.

“Oh,” he stepped back. “I see. I will call up and let her know.”

Tiffany and I paced until the elevator opened and out stepped a woman who looked to be an older version of me.

“Sabina,” she squealed and rushed towards me with her arms open, her high heels scraping against the shiny, marble floor.  “Look at you…Scott, look,” she pointed at me. “Mini me,” she laughed. Scott nodded, feigning interest.

“Hi,” I whispered. “This is my friend…”

“Yeah, yeah. I see you brought a friend…let me look at you,” she motioned for me to spin around. “I see you get some things from your father,” she laughed.

I was started to think the visit was a bad idea, but when she invited us up to her office I agreed. On the way to her office she gave us a tour, noting all the contributions she had made to the company, bragging that without her they’d be nothing. Once inside her office, Tiffany and I sat across from her while she talked to us like were interviewing for a position and this was the part where she sold us on why her firm was the best. She went on and on until our blank stares and disinterest unnerved her.

“So, have you ever thought about being a lawyer?” She leaned back in her swivel chair.

“No,” Tiffany and I said in unison.

“Let me guess,” my mother crossed her arms. “You want to be a photographer?”

“Yes…”

“Don’t they go crazy and kill themselves?” Sophia smirked.

“I think you’re talking about painters…like Vincent van Gogh,” Tiffany defended.

“Do they make a lot of money?” Sophia ignored Tiffany. “Do they help people?”

“They can…”

“How?” Sophia put her elbows on the table and leaned in, her face in her hands, expressionless.

The longer she stared the smaller I felt.

“You should think about becoming a lawyer,” she broke the silence. “I think you’d be good at it.”

She talked more about what her position entailed, more about her accomplishments, some of which were displayed on the wall through framed pictures and awards.

“Oh,” she broke from talking about herself. “How’s your dad?”

“He’s fine,” I lied.

“Really?” she teased. “I thought for sure the heart failure…”

“Um, we have to go now,” Tiffany interrupted. She grabbed my hand and I followed her to the door.

“Oh, okay…well, it was nice to finally meet you baby girl. Let’s do this again,” she stayed seated but let her chair swivel back and forth.  “Just the two of us…”

“Okay,” I said, ashamed that even a tiny part of me wanted to see her again.

It was the absence of her that made longing feel like an incurable disease I had contracted at birth. We met in secret not as mother and daughter, but more like mentor and mentee. She made sure I had enough reading material – law school brochures and legal magazines and journals. I grew to accept the pop quizzes and the jabs to my ego. As I sat on my patio now the manipulation was clear, but I wasn’t sure I could have convinced my younger self.

“So, you’re giving up on photography completely?” my father asked.

“Yep,” I packed everything away in boxes and bins.

“Why not do both?”

“Because,” I said, flustered by his persistence.

The real reason was much more sinister.

“Do you want me in your life or not?” Sophia had asked over lunch one day.

“I do…” I said, fearing she might disappear again.

“Then put the camera down and get serious about your future.”

So, I did. I studied, did what she said, and she praised me for being her model student.

Our visits continued through law school. She was my cheerleader, or at least that’s how I interpreted the nagging and insults. She just wants the best for me, I thought. I didn’t see anything wrong with the woman who had given birth to me pushing me to follow in her footsteps. In the process I hoped she might say she loved me, tell me she wished she had never left me. Instead the more like her I became, the more frequent the verbal lashings occurred. She needed me to be like her, but she hated herself so I took the brunt of her self-contempt, always willing to shrug it off in hopes that if I just proved to her how much I loved her and needed her she would accept me.

“I’m so glad we’re both going to lawyers,” she said to me in a phone call a day before my graduation. “Tell your father that I won,” she laughed. “He said you would never turn out like me, guess he was wrong.”

“What?”

“Yeah, that old dad of yours, during the child support hearing, said he wouldn’t let you turn out like me. He wanted you to be a loser like him,” she laughed again, the fake fluctuations noticeable.

“He did the best he could,” I said, knowing this was a trigger for her.

“Oh really…is that why when we met you had no goals?”

“I had goals.”

“You call taking pictures a goal? Anybody can take pictures. I can take pictures…and better. You think that magazine printed your picture because you’re good?” she paused as if she expected me to answer but then kept talking. “Wrong! They did it because they pitied the teenage, motherless girl being raised by a father who never amounted to anything and was on his way to an early grave. That’s why.” She paused again, something in her background grabbing her attention. “I saved you, remember that.”

“Why are you so angry? I’m going to be a lawyer…” I tried to diffuse the situation.

“I have to go…my daughter needs me.”

“What?” Her words were like steel beams crashing down on me.

“I need to focus on my daughter,” her tone was matter of fact.

“I’m your daughter too…” I heard her clear her throat and then hang up the phone.

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The Fall (Part 5)

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***

I sat in the parking lot for hours, slumped over the steering wheel. I remember Tiffany and Lenny arriving, their mumbled voices piercing the glass, their faces frantic because I was the stable one. Cool air blew through the vents sharp like knives against my skin, a painful shiver traveling all the way to my bones. The tips of trees and a fading sun were the movie playing against my eyes. It all felt like a dream and when I was back inside my condo tucked between the covers, running through a foggy forest it was. I stared up at the wild branches of hundred-year-old elm as the sun faded into the horizon. The longer I walked the denser the forest became. Low-hanging branches and twigs left deep scratches on my face, arms, and ankles. Wet soil swallowed my shoes with each step until I was again on a cliff overlooking bright blue water and an empty road. This time instead of hearing my father’s voice, I heard my own. “Jump…Jump.” I felt my body lean forward to take the plunge. It was a weightless spiral that was slow at first then fast, daunting as I careened towards the rippling water.

“No,” I screamed as I awoke; my legs were twisted in the sheets, the shadow of darkness lingering.

I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and let out a long sigh. My phone was on the nightstand flashing with notifications. There was a call and an email from Trinity Legal. They asked if I was okay, if something had happened to cause me to miss the interview, if I was interested in rescheduling. I lay back, anxiety rising in my chest as I berated myself for getting stuck on a question so simple. Why? Because I was a beacon for justice, serving to protect those who needed protecting, albeit through the creation of airtight policies. The words rolled off my tongue. I turned over, planting my face into my pillow. I lay like this until I needed air and then sat up, pushing the sheets down to my feet.

Light lifted the darkness, exposing the outline of baby willow trees. Birds near my window chirped. Their erratic song soothing, the reassurance nature provided even when disaster was at its peak. I took a deep breath determined to release yesterday’s embarrassment and reclaim my confidence. I stood up, stretched my arms towards the ceiling, letting out a loud wail. My robe hung on the back of the door about five feet away. I steadied myself and took a step towards the door, my foot landing on the tooth-like hanger on the back of a picture I had stored under the bed when I moved in. The pain was sharp, surprising. I winced and leaned back against the bed. There was no blood, just the indentation of the sawtooth hanger on the sole of my foot. I pulled the picture from under my bed, unsure how it had worked its way to the edge. The wood frame was caked in dust. My fingers pressed through the gray particles and soon I was holding up a picture I had taken when I was fifteen. It was a Birdseye view of what my father called “the most beautiful place.” The bluest water nestled between dome-shaped mountains, the place my father risked his health for me to see. I stared into the water.

I had forgotten about that trip. My father drove the four-hundred miles to this majestic beauty the day after his doctor told him that he was in congestive heart failure.

“I want to show you something,” he said over the truck’s roaring engine. “You will love it…you brought your camera, right?”

“Yes,” I held up my camera and smiled.

That camera cost more than the truck he drove. “You’ve got something,” he told me when he bought it. The camera came with classes at the university the previous summer where, alongside 29 other teens, I absorbed as much as I could from Professor Dillinger. It was in that class I met Tiffany. We were fast friends, quick to find our own spot on campus to take pictures. By the end of the eight weeks we each had a portfolio and were best friends with standing invitations to the other’s house. Three of my pictures were displayed at the Young Artist’s Convention that Fall, while her pictures were treasured by her parents, keepsakes to mark this year of her life.

I looked over at my father. His face rested in a smile. He drove with one hand on the steering wheel, the other on his knee. His battered skin reminded me of all the years he worked at the steel plant, the sacrifices he had made for his motherless daughter. I sat back and watched the landscape change from city to agriculture to wetland to coast to mountains, maybe not in that exact order since I fell asleep twice.

When we arrived, I joined a tour group while my father waited behind.

“Come with me…” I grabbed my father’s arm, but I knew the walk would be too much for him.

“I’m going to be right here,” he said, walking over to a bench. With each step he leaned into his cane so hard I thought he might fall over. “Take pictures,” his breath was strained.

“It’s a tour,” I shook my head.

“For…” he started and paused to catch his breath.

I looked around at the participants, each with a camera around their necks, in their hands, or in a special case they’d retrieve once we were well into the tour.

“I can’t believe you did this for me,” I gave him a quick hug. “Do you need anything before I go?”

“Go…” he shooed me. “Have fun.”

I smiled and walked towards the group. Before we rounded a bushy corner, I looked back at my father. He sat on the bench still trying to catch his breath.

Downstairs I found an oil-based wood cleaner and wiped the wood frame. I sprayed the glass with a little Windex and cleared years of dust. This was my father’s favorite picture from that trip.

“This is the one, kiddo,” he patted my shoulder. “You have to send it out.”

I called Professor Dillinger. He helped me find homes for ten of my pictures in four different magazines and a display wall at the university.

“What do you want to call this one?” he held up my father’s favorite.

“The Fall.”

“May I ask why?”

“As I climbed that big mountain and stared down at the water, I remembered that in this moment, though beautiful and breathtaking, my father was below falling into death’s hands.”

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Remembering

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There is an enchanting melody playing in my head: a symphony of sounds dancing on my eardrums. A composition: rhythmic, melodic. Wooden sticks knocking. Soft harmony, weaving in and out, tying notes in knots. Wind instruments shouting with squeaks and honks, strangling me with their song, their defiant breaks. Diving saxophone, rich and raspy, plunging towards infinity. Flute trills: twirls of desire, fading only to return vibrant and new. The deep hum of the bass clarinet, the tender strum of guitar strings. Tuba and trombone paired in a staccato chant. This raging rhapsody:  A compilation of memory, dream, wisdom, and want. I hear my mother’s voice, dry, crackling, singing me a lullaby; an unbalanced, off-key serenade. Then the music stops, and I hear her voice climbing a ladder of octaves, louder now, rippling through my blood. And I shiver as I imagine her sitting next to me bodiless, free.

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The Fall (Part 4)

***

My alarm sounded at the usual time, 5:30am. I lay in the darkness, my heart racing as my mind wrestled with the contents of the dream.

“You gotta love life, kiddo,” I exhaled and sat up,

Downstairs I started a pot of coffee and opened the blinds to let dawn’s dim light crawl into the room. I leaned against the counter in my pink, silk pajamas and flipped through a magazine as the room filled with the thick aroma of dark roast. My phone dinged with notifications, but I ignored them paying attention instead to pages and pages of summer professional wear and the slow drip of coffee.

I poured the hot brew into a Cannon & Montgomery mug and moved to the patio to watch the sun brighten the gray sky. The bitter coffee warmed my insides and chased the dull headache until it disappeared; the cool air blew through bed hair I tried to run my fingers through but couldn’t. Soon the quiet was replaced with a soft echo of cabinets and doors closing, the low hum of people talking as they stirred from sleep and began the day. The smell of breakfast meats filled the air. Those on early morning laundry duty filled dryers with wet clothes, a trail of freshness pouring through air ducts. I watched as tenants rushed to their cars with their briefcases and backpacks before heading back inside to rustle up some breakfast.

A bowl of cereal with the last of the almond milk and a ripe banana was the best I could find in a kitchen that hadn’t been restocked in over two weeks. I watched the morning news as I ate. For the next week and a half we’d have to endure an unexpected heatwave. The body of a missing woman had been found. The stock market was down. And it was Teacher Appreciation week, a time to honor the hardworking men and women who spent countless hours in the classroom tending to the educational needs of our youth but were grossly underpaid.

I headed upstairs to shower, opting to put on a pair of leggings and a black Cannon & Montgomery t-shirt from our last fundraiser, all proceeds going the local domestic violence shelters. I combed my hair, put it into a ponytail, and slipped on a pair of slip-on sneakers. Just as I was headed out the door my phone rang.

“Hello?”

“May I speak with Sabina Jones?”

“This is Sabina…”

“Hi…I’m so glad I reached you. Uh, this is Stacey Duncan at Trinity Legal…I was looking over your CV and thought, I’ve got to call her,” she spoke in a high pitch.

“I’m so glad you called,” I said, still standing in my doorway.

“I know it’s late notice, but would you be able to come in today? Say around 2pm?”

“I’m available then,” I tried not to sound too eager.

“Great, I’m going to send you an email with directions and details about the interview…”

“Sounds good…see you at 2pm.”

I hung up the phone and closed the door. I paused for a moment, paralyzed by excitement and fear. It was just after 8:30am, plenty of time prepare. My laptop grumbled when I turned it on. The screen changed from black to blue. I tapped my fingers on the table as I waited for it to boot up, anxiety building until I couldn’t take anymore.  

“Not today…” I screamed, worried the five-year old laptop may not start.

I returned my focus to the blue screen before running back upstairs to pick out an interview outfit–a black blazer and skirt with a white, collared shirt and a pair of black heels. Back downstairs I poured myself another cup of coffee and chuckled as I reviewed Trinity Legal documents and sipped from a Cannon & Montgomery mug, while wearing a Cannon & Montgomery t-shirt.

At first my hair resisted, but after several tries, I was able to pull the frizzy hairs into a smooth, neat bun. I put on a pair of small pearl earrings and the matching necklace, slipped into my skirt, buttoned the white shirt, and grabbed the blazer to put on when I arrived at the interview.  

It had been years since I had interviewed, but I was confident; I knew how to answer questions, how to present myself. My time at Cannon & Montgomery had taught me that just being a hard worker wasn’t enough, not for me; I had to also look like I knew what I was doing. I had to modify my mannerisms, my voice so everyone else was comfortable in my presence. I knew how to do that. I was an expert at fitting in, ready to get back to the routine—early mornings and long evenings, repeat. This was, after all, who I was now, any desire for something else was reckless, immature. Being a lawyer made me happy.

The drive took forty-two minutes, which left me with twenty-five minutes to spare. My plan was to use the time to replay talking points and calm any jittery nerves. I sat in the driver’s seat recounting my successes, prepared to discuss my failures, how they helped me be a better lawyer. I thought about the people I had helped, recalled their praises. I remembered all the times I had led our team in court, saved us from career suicide. Then I got stuck. I couldn’t remember my why.

I stared out at the parking lot, searching my mind’s layers to find it.

I’m here because I love what I do…because I like helping people…because I don’t know what else to do…”

Sweat beads slid down my temples. My head was pounding, and my breaths were short, labored. My vision was blurred, salty tears filling my eyes to the brim. I reached for my why again.

“…because…because…” my voice quivered and disappeared.

In the silence I felt small, unsure, lost.

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The Fall (Part 3)

***

Tiffany’s husband, Lenny, and his cousin, Joe, came to pick her up just before midnight. We were sitting on the patio laughing and dancing to our memory of songs we hadn’t heard since our youth. Wine slurred our words and altered the lyrics. Like schoolgirls, we found the task hilarious. We rocked out, slow danced with our heads on the other’s shoulder, surprised when the music took us deep inside emotion.

“I love this song,” we repeated throughout the evening as we twirled and shimmied.

When we were covered in sweat and our muscles ached, we collapsed on the hard, iron bench. I traced the winding pattern on the backrest as Tiffany rested her head on my knee. The music played on, a soundtrack to our crashing high.

“I miss the old days,” I looked out at the quarter moon.

“Me too,” Tiffany mumbled. “What’s tomorrow? I think I have to go to work,” she laughed.

“I don’t,” I joked, but the heaviness of my words plunged from my mouth to my feet, like a crane on a construction site.

“I bought this CD the day after I met Lenny,” Tiffany changed the subject. “I listened to it every day, and now…”

“Now what?”

“I don’t know…we’re going through something.” She gulped the last of her wine. “I better get going.”

“Uh…not like this. Let me call you a ride.” I looked around the patio for my phone. “Or…should I call Lenny?” I hesitated.

Lenny pounded his angry fist against the door three times. First, he refused to enter, wanting instead to retrieve his wife from the doorway until he poked his head in and saw her struggling to put on her shoes.

“I’ll be right there,” Tiffany mumbled, her blurred eyesight making it difficult to figure out how to loosen the laces on her shoes.

“Oh, for god’s sake” Lenny crossed the room. “Where’s your purse?”

He found her purse on the counter, searched through all its pockets until he found her keys.

“You good?” Joe asked, standing near the counter with his hands in his pockets.

“Yeah man, thanks for giving me a ride.” He ran his fingers through what was left of his hair. “I’ll see tomorrow…”

“Yawl have a good night then,” Joe gave a quick wave and left.

I watched Tiffany’s sporty sedan weave out of the parking lot, leaving behind the two-story, box-shaped condos. The brake lights were bright against the night and then faded. I put our dishes in the sink, threw the wine bottles in the recycle can, and climbed the stairs to my bedroom. A pile of clothes and books littered the left side of my bed, so I climbed in on the right, rolling the covers down enough to slip under them and find sleep there waiting for me.

I was back at Cannon & Montgomery in the conference room with Ellis, Chad, Mary, and Gladys. They sat on one side of the table, I sat on the other with a file of paperwork from the Cooper case in front of me. At first, they talked amongst themselves, whispers and gestures back and forth before they all turned in unison to face me.

“We’ve decided to fire you for the mishandling of the Cooper case,” Ellis started, his arms folded at his chest.

“What were you thinking?” Gladys asked, her eyes squinted, head cocked.

“I changed two words…” I defended.

“Were you told to change those TWO words?” Chad sassed.

“I was looking out for the client and the customers.” I traced the edges of the file with my fingers. “The client could have been sued if…”

“No, you did what you thought was right, not what was right for the company,” Gladys scolded.

“What can I do to rectify this?”

“What can you do?” Ellis scoffed. “Do you have a time machine?”

“Can we put this to rest now?” Mary asked, standing with a white envelope in her hands.

The others consented with a nod.

“This is your final paycheck,” Mary started. “This includes vacation pay…your benefits will continue until the end of this month,” she paused to clear her throat. “We’ll need your badge and keys.”

 “Right now?”

“Yes…”

“What about the Murphy case and…?”

“I’m taking over the Murphy case, “Gladys assured. “All your cases have been reassigned.”

As I unclipped the Cannon & Montgomery badge from my lapel and pulled the keys from my purse, two security officers entered and stood on either side of me.

“You can have fifteen minutes to grab the most important things from your office…” Ellis said. “We’ll mail the rest.”

This time, as I neared the door, the security officers disappeared like pixels on a screen. The door opened to a dense wooded area. I turned to go back inside only to find the building was now dilapidated, its windows broken, a howling wind pouring through them. I clutched my box to my chest and started out on the narrow path. Tall, leafy Beech trees blocked what was left of the day’s light. The path came alive, tree roots emerging from the ground, trees swaying and bending, wild animals pausing with curiosity.  I was in a dark musical where all my bad decisions had been put to music, enacted by nature. “You gotta love life, kiddo,” my father’s words, the chorus that played on a loop. The faces of my colleagues appeared as holograms, their features warped, their words binding, manipulating so that right was wrong and wrong was right. Items in my box began flying away, like loose papers on a windy day. I reached for them, gave chase to them, markers of a past I wasn’t willing to let go. The harder I ran, the higher the items floated until they were sucked into the sky by a sudden windstorm. I watched as everything disappeared, as the holograms shrunk, their voices like chipmunks, the tree trunks straighten, the wild animals scurry back to their homes. The path had ended, and I was standing on the edge of a cliff. Below was an empty road, endless, on either side interlocking tree branches and the bluest water I’d ever seen.

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The Fall (Part 2)

***

Two large boxes from Cannon & Montgomery arrived by UPS two weeks after my dismissal. A brawny, young man delivered the packages to my door. I watched through the peephole as he stood with a handheld computer.

“Good morning,” he said as I opened the door.

“Morning,” I said, eyeing the big Cannon & Montgomery labels on the sides of the boxes.

“Sign here, please.” He took a step back as I signed my name, one swift scribble on the dark screen.

“Thanks,” I said, wondering if he had noticed I was still in my robe.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he turned and walked back to his truck.

I closed the door and pulled the boxes into the living room. The white and light grey space I had spent weeks shaping into one of peace and relaxation now reeked of take-out and dirty laundry. Daylight shone through the sheer white curtains, illuminating the chaos. A white shelf decorated with gold-colored candle holders and plates stood in the corner of the back wall next to a white, brick fireplace, on its mantel a gold-framed picture of a white horse. In front of the grey accent wall was a white chair with gold trim stacked with loose papers inching their way down the slippery fabric to the floor. Two white sofas faced an off-white center table now littered with soiled paper plates, pizza boxes, empty soda bottles. An ottoman stuffed with magazines had been tipped over and spilled onto the dark wood planks. I pushed the boxes to the edge of the rug and went to the kitchen to find scissors. They were inside a drawer filled with Knickknacks, the orange handles poking through the instructions manual for a George Foreman rotisserie.

Just under the lid was a copy of my termination letter. I ripped it up and threw the shredded paper in the air. Careful hands had packed my things, layered them in a pattern, wrapped them in bubble wrap. Everything from my office walls were first—awards, pictures—followed by the items from my desk— a gold stapler, an inspiration calendar, my court schedule, a contact wheel, and stress balls. In a smaller box was a pack of granola bars, chocolate, decorative rocks, and a picture of my father I kept in the top drawer, and a backrest. Under this box was my gym bag still stuffed with a sweatshirt, leggings, a towel, two water bottles, my gym ID, and a yoga mat.

The second box contained three plants, each in its own plastic bag. I rescued them from the suffocating enclosure and found each a new home on the patio. After watering them, I went back inside and got dressed. It was noon, time for my stroll to the organic coffee shop on E street. I grabbed my laptop and purse and left.

A cold breeze tickled my skin, but the sun was bright and warm. I took my time, relished the freedom this part of my routine brought each day. Mornings were lazy, slowed by memory’s parade of my best and worst moments. Evenings were flooded with phone calls and visits from friends and family, all singing their encouragement and support of my return to a world of rigor and purpose, a pendulum few could escape. Afternoons were restorative. I sat outside the café sipping organic chai from a large, yellow cup and ate an apple muffin sweetened with honey. I savored each bite, each sip. I forgot that I had been fired for being unwilling to manipulate language so that a policy could be presented as protection for the client and a trap for the public. But when I was done, I opened my laptop and began another job search or followed up with leads from the day before.

Today was different. I sat down across from the tiered fountain, sipped my chai tea and nibbled on a banana muffin. My laptop dinged, a notification of an email from a Meredith Rogers of Smith & Rogers Family Law. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for rejection.

“Thank you for taking the time to interview with us…your work in policy is impressive…I appreciate your concern for the community…however, it has come to our attention that your dismissal from Cannon & Montgomery is more complicated than you indicated in the interview, and, at this time, we’re not prepared to take on the risk…”

I closed my laptop and sat with her words. Everything good had been erased with a misstep in allegiance, an error that proved I was a risk, a threat to the values on which we based every decision, every action, every thought. I remembered my very first interview: “If you want this, you have to become it,” the interviewer said. “Right now, I see a confused girl out of her element, who thinks that by showing up she’s doing something. You have the degree, the paper with a stamp, but do you know what it means to sacrifice who you are for the greater good?”

What did that even mean? Had I not sacrificed myself?

Later that evening my friend Tiffany stopped by. She helped me clean the living room and the kitchen, promising to return the next day to tackle the bedroom. Then we plopped on the sofas. The television blasted primetime drama. Tiffany insisted that the right position would come along. I offered a new conversation.

“What if I’m meant to do something else?”

“You worked so hard… don’t give up.”

“I’m not giving up…I’m reconsidering…”

“No, being a lawyer is who you are. Don’t let this one event change that.” Tiffany looked at me. “You deserve this, Sabina.”

I let her words dissipate. Maybe she was right, but I was numb. I was sinking inside something unfamiliar. Life had upended, revealing raw dissatisfaction. I was going through the motions, trying to return to that place where I was driven by the desire to succeed, a fleeting state I found myself chasing over and over again. But in its absence I felt lighter, freer, like I had stumbled upon a utopia that existed only in the nothingness of each day. Instead of fighting, I was surrendering, and I knew that this meant my life’s script was being rewritten. Some values, things, and people would remain. Some would be written out, replaced.

“I know what we need,” Tiffany got up and went into the kitchen. “Where’s your wine, girl?” she called out. “Never mind…found it.”

She returned with two glasses of Merlot.

“To the future,” she held her glass up.

“To the future.”

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The Old Farmhouse

Blog Pictures

I walked to the end of the property and waited. My backpack on one shoulder, a small carryon next to my feet. I looked back at the old farmhouse, a two-story, twice-restored home to three generations of Malcolms, once thriving with livestock and farmhands, a healthy amount of life and chaos; it now rests quiet and weathered, showing signs of deterioration, signs of transformation, the dangerous kind. A wooden fence, four planks wide with connecting posts, line the two acres. Leaning and rotted, it struggles to remain upright but persists, a testament to my grandfather’s craftsmanship.   A long, curved and rocky path, tire grooves mark the earth; weeds grow in short clusters but with intricate and pervasive root systems. The path leads to five concrete steps, a long, once-screened, porch still with two rocking chairs side by side, one for my grandmother, one for my grandfather. I can still hear their rocking, wooden legs knocking against wood flooring in unison, love’s heartbeat. When I wasn’t running around the yard with my twin sister and cousins, I sat next to them, comforted by what felt so permanent, so peaceful.

Inside the double doors is a beautiful foyer decorated with two matching blue-grey upholstered benches, a hanging light with crystal draping, two tall bamboo plants in dark brown, clay stoneware. To the left is the kitchen and an adjacent formal dining room that seats ten, still elegant with its long, wooden dinning table, chairs with plush cushions and arms; a china cabinet carefully arranged with expensive floral dinnerware, shiny silverware and cutlery, and contrasting cups and serving dishes. To the right a living room—three sofas, four armchairs, end tables, a piano, and religious decorations just the way my grandmother placed them—down the hall a library, the walls still lined with my grandparents’ books and a long desk facing the window with a lamp and a bible opened to Collosians 3:5-6, the last scripture my grandfather read. The next morning Elsa Jamison knocked on the door, grandfather shot himself in the barn, graduation was a week away, and Lauren called to say she was getting married.

Up the carpeted staircase are six small, cozy bedrooms, brought to life with long, light-colored silk curtains, a four-post bed, each topped with one of my grandmother’s handmade quilts; my old bedroom—the one I shared with my twin sister, Lauren, the corner one facing east now boarded up from the inside–and four bathrooms with white tiles, one stained-glass window, detached shelves, and a functional shower and tub.

From the outside, its once massive stature now seems small, sunken. I imagine that if the house were human she’d be a little old lady, shrunken by time—married fifty years to an adoring man with whom she raised ten children and shared twenty-five grandchildren, twelve great-grandchildren she knew only through a fragmented mind that succumbed to forgetfulness and longed more and more to be set free.

A yellow taxi rolled slowly down the road, its frame yielding to the bumps and dips, a trail of dust following behind. The driver, a tall, dark-haired man, mid-thirties, stepped out and opened the back door.

“Bus station? In Harrison?” he asked.

“Yes,” I nodded, reaching for my carryon.

“Let me…” he picked up the carryon and popped the trunk. “Backpack?”

“Oh…sure.” I handed him my backpack, and he put both in the trunk.

Aside from the noise of the door closing and the soft hum of the engine, we rode in silence. I looked back, the outlying trees engulfing the property in its thick forest. The sun hung just above the horizon, ready to trade light for darkness. I leaned my head against the headrest and watched as the dirt road disappeared and a two-lane highway appeared, the river’s companion that stretched thirty miles to the nearest town, Harrison, home of the Harrison Honeycombs, a baseball team known most for its losses, Percy’s Ice Cream parlor known for having the biggest cones, and the bus depot, a small building that stayed empty since people rarely left, and even fewer found their way to the city of frogs.

Now I was leaving. Leaving to see my nieces in the hospital, my twin sister Lauren’s daughters. The driver walked me into the station, set my backpack and carryon next to a seat, collected his pay, and was off to his next trip. I sat in the first seat in a row of eight, all conjoined, bolted to the floor. The bus was scheduled to arrive in thirty minutes. I opened my backpack and pulled from it a photo album, turning to the first page: There my grandmother and grandfather stared back, sitting in their rocking chairs—my grandmother holding Lauren, my grandfather holding me, his hands worn from years of labor, dirt and grime permanent in the layers of his skin. Our mother and father stood behind us, big grins on their faces. We were just a few weeks old in that picture, swaddled in identical pink blankets, with identical pink onesies, our fine, dark brown hair brushed the same to cover the same bald spot. I skipped ahead a bit to a picture of me and Lauren. We sat on the front steps, Lauren leaning in, her hands cupped, whispering a secret in my ear. My face is bright with laughter, arms wild in the air. In another picture we stood in matching yellow dresses, hands clasped, front and center in our Kindergarten class photo. Another at the county fair, the two us sitting on a bale of hay with our backs together, both wearing matching jeans, white I Love Henderson County Fair t-shirts, and boots a size too big. Our faces still the same, but our insides were changing. Neither of us knew the ease of our bond would soon weaken and in its place an unreconcilable divide, an injury that would shatter one and live on in the other like an incurable infection.

At sixteen Lauren left us and came back at seventeen with twin daughters, Tabitha and Tillia.

“I’m so sorry,” she begged our grandfather for mercy. “I don’t have anywhere else to go…” He didn’t forgive her, but he gave her two days to make other arrangements for her and her “bastard children.”

My grandmother, mother, and I took turns with the babies. My father tended to my grandfather, kept his blood from boiling over as sin entered his house and claimed his family. And soon we all stood, except for my grandfather, on the porch waving as Lauren left the way she came, in a silver Dodge station wagon, with two babies in the back, in search of sympathy.

 

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Bus 11279 pulled into the bus lane, its doors screeching open. I put the photo album back into my bag, picked up the carryon, and headed towards the bus.

“You’re welcome to come on in, but we’ll have to wait a few minutes…Mrs. Clark will be here soon…to go see her daughter-in-law who’s in St. Joseph’s Hospital. She’s got a tumor the size of a grapefruit.”

“Yes, sir,” I said and walked towards the back of the bus, taking the fourth to last row on the right. The same seat Lauren last sat when she came to visit before her wedding. Mother helped grandmother make the funeral arrangements, and I drove grandfather’s truck to Harrison, relearning how to drive a stick as I drove.

Lauren was a stranger but with my face, skinny, withdrawn.

“Where are the girls?” I asked her.

“With my fiancé…” she followed me to the truck. “I’m not getting in his truck,” she stopped.

“This was the only way to get to you…and he’s dead now.” I tried to calm her down. “…it won’t take long.”

She took out a cigarette from her purse and smoked in silence, her head shaking with resistance as she mumbled to herself. And when the cigarette was short enough to burn her fingers, she tossed it, yanked open the door and hopped in.

I didn’t see much of her that week, mostly her back as she walked out of the kitchen when I entered, out of the bathroom when I knocked to see if she was okay, down the porch steps every time she left to “find herself.” Grandmother, mother and aunt Bertha, her twin sister, Uncle Steve, and Uncle Joe, didn’t even know she was there, often repeating the question, “Did you go and pick up Lauren?” Each time I responded with “she’s here…somewhere.” Their faces would wrinkle with confusion for a moment, and then they’d go back to planning, mourning, and denying that life had revealed an awful plot twist.

There wasn’t just one moment, one shift that sent us crumbling; there were many: lies–a buried ex-wife, sealed court records, forged financial documents, a home built with bloody hands. Indiscretions—Mrs. Hensley’s son, Richard, born with Malcolm DNA; Avery Peabody, the girl who lived in the woods, her cries a nightly song, also a Malcolm; and Janet Riley, the slow-witted girl my mother went to high school with, a Malcolm twice. There were compromised beliefs—a tug of war between man and God that ended with a knock on the door, a gunshot to the head, and the exposure of an adulterer, a thief, a coward; it could only be described as a natural disaster, so fast, so powerful, so encompassing we were left holding our guts, watching them dangle, wither; everything we believed in—love, family, joy, God—now the center of our sorrow, our angst.

The night before the funeral, I knocked on Lauren’s door, our old room. She let me in and told me to sit on the bed.

“Look at you…a high school graduate, getting ready to go off to college,” she pulled me in for a sloppy hug. “I’m proud of you…I want you to know that.”

“I know,” I agreed and then hesitated. “Why don’t you come around more? Why don’t you call me…or write me back?” I held on to her though she squirmed and pulled away. “I just want to know…because I miss you…really miss you. You’re my best friend.”

“One day you’ll know all the details; I wish it didn’t have to be this way.” She stood up and climbed on the bed behind me. “Let me brush your hair, for old times’ sake.”

I let her. At first I thought about what she said, my mind racing with questions, searching for clues. Then I relaxed, lost in the feel of the bristles climbing up and down my scalp, her soft fingers on my ears, the sides of my face, as she collected the hairs and pulled them back again and again.

When I left her room that night she hugged me hard, tight. “Stay with me tomorrow,” she whispered.

“But the funeral…”

“Stay with me instead…think about it, at least.” She let go of me and closed the door.

 

Phone Pictures 197

 

The bus driver aided Mrs. Clark up the steps, her cane hitting the side as she climbed. At the top of the steps she looked at the empty seats and found me huddled against the window.

“Full house, huh?” she laughed and winked at me, taking the first seat behind the driver’s.

Soon we were inching down the road, the bus clanking and moaning until we got to the highway when it settled into a strong, steady roar. I closed my eyes. The sound and the soft vibration filled me. But I could still hear the urgency in the babysitter’s voice, asking me to get to her, to the twins.

“This is Helen…Helen Schafer,” she yelled into the phone. “I have the girls and…please come,” she wept.  “They’re in the hospital.”

“What happened? Where’s Lauren’s fiancé?”

“Uh…Lauren doesn’t have a fiancé…Lauren was admitted to Lynfield Psychiatric Hospital last week because…um…she um…tried to kill herself. I’ve been taking care of the girls and now…” she broke down again.

 

Over 300 mourners attended my grandfather’s funeral. I sat with my grandmother, mother, and father. My aunts and uncles sat in the rows behind us, with their spouses and children. Before leaving that morning, I had knocked on Lauren’s door, told her I was going to the funeral, but that I’d be back soon.

“I should be there, for moral support.”

“There’s nothing moral about this.”

“I don’t know what else to do…will you be here when we get back?”

She didn’t answer.

“I’ll bring you back something…a strawberry malt? Your favorite? Right?”

The funeral was long. So many wanted to express their condolences, shower us with compassion, and honor a man they believed to be kind, upstanding, faithful. We sat there and listened, too afraid to face the truth, too afraid to unravel the lies, too afraid to let go and see what was on the other side of the illusion.

Back at the house mourners poured into the living room and the kitchen. I raced upstairs, a melting strawberry malt in my hand.

“Lauren?” I knocked on the door. “I brought you a strawberry malt…can I come in?” I waited for a minute and then cracked the door. “Lauren…it’s me.”

 

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Outside it was dark now. Just the small, orange lights on the bus floor, and a quarter moon hanging low in the sky. I was on my way to St. Joseph’s Hospital to see my nieces, Tabitha and Tilliah, who were suffering from a blood disorder. I had lost my sister three times: when she was sixteen and ran away, at seventeen when she returned unwed with twin baby girls, and at eighteen on the morning of our grandfather’s funeral when she hung herself in the closet. In her letter she asked me to forgive her and begged me not to blame myself. She understood my allegiance and didn’t regret shielding me from the dangers that lurked in the old farmhouse. It was her responsibility she said, being three minutes older.

“I trust that you will look after my baby girls. The sickness of sin pours through their blood.”

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The Fall (Part 1)

Two security officers escorted me off the premises like I was a stray dog on a short leash. They stood, one on either side, as I carried a white Cannon & Montgomery Law Firm box filled with ten years’ worth of things, as many as I could fit anyway.

“We’ll mail the rest,” Ellis Montgomery, himself, barked as I packed.

The long strap of my handbag slipped from my shoulder and nestled in the crook of my arm, swinging back and forth as we walked from my office to the westside elevator, our steps loud and in unison. I took one last look at the décor–Mayan paintings and artifacts resting inside glass cases. They came to life under the long row of accent lighting. I smiled and laughed a little. I knew they were replicas, though Chad Cannon had sworn they were real.

Mary Anderson, a senior associate, was in her office with a client. She looked up as we passed and flashed a sympathy smile before looking away, reserving a real smile for the man in a dark blue suit sitting across from her. Willie Bearden, who had just made partner, was in the corner office across from Mary’s, typing a report, the steady clicking of keys a familiar sound. He didn’t look up, perhaps pretending not to see me; perhaps he didn’t see me.

We waited for the doors to open and take us to the first floor. I looked down at the box. On top was a framed picture of me and my dad at my law school graduation. He was sick then. I promised him, in my hooded gown and tassel, that I would make it to partner one day as he had. Now, instead, after making it to senior associate, I was starting over, back on the market in search of another firm, another professional family.

The doors opened and we entered. My former mentor, Gladys Peters, joined us when the elevator stopped on the third floor. She ignored us, deciding instead to read through a brief with a surgeon’s focus. When I had arrived at Cannon & Montgomery, they were impressed with the policy work I had done, so that’s where they put me to work. I shined. Gladys was at my side guiding me, lining up opportunities no other junior associate had. And soon Ellis let me try my hand at training the newer junior associates. I knew then that I was on my way to senior associate. After five years of long hours, no social life, and embarrassing wages, I made it. It was Gladys who had shown me my office and helped me decorate it. Willie, who had been promoted to senior associate six months before, joined in too. As they had for other senior associates who became partner, they filled the conference room with trays and trays of catered foods and celebratory beverages. Ellis and Chad both delivered warm welcome messages and presented me with a plaque.

Gladys exited the elevator on the second floor, and the security officers and I continued to the first. They led me down the long hallway. There were more paintings, décor, rooms with glass walls. I stared into each room at the people, each dressed in suits, slacks and collared shirts, dresses, or skirts. The firm had already absorbed the job I had done for so many years. Their eyes avoided mine as we neared the door. Gabby, the receptionist, was on the phone, her head down, almost out of sight behind the high counter. The young woman I had brought lunch to many busy afternoons and chatted with about her classes, her dreams, said nothing now.

To my surprise, the security officers walked me all the way to my car, waited for me to place the box in the trunk, get in, and drive away. There was no time to sit and process the last seventy-two hours. There was no time to release the anger building in my gut, no time to panic about the future. I drove away, not home, not anywhere. I just drove. This was a beginning and an ending I feared and mourned. For ten years of my life I had spent my days working through one mental maze after another, assured this was the path for me. But that path was muddy now, and my desire for it was waning. I kept driving, even as the tears welled in my eyes and my body shook with sadness.

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The Lucid Hours (Part 15)

***

I turned on the television and there on the Anderson Morning News was a picture of me, a younger picture from when I worked as a manager in a retail store and a mugshot of Casper (Mark Jennings) and Jessie Burnes, both wearing scowls. These two were said to be armed and dangerous. I, on the other hand, was a person of interest. My face was flat, my hair pulled back in a bun, the collar of my black blazer showing.

I grabbed the Wal-Mart bag and went into the bathroom and stared at my reflection: a long, bony face with sunken cheeks; puffy, red eyes; deep frown lines around my mouth; a permanent expression of worry deep in my brow. I pulled the burgundy hair color from the bag and began parting my hair into four parts. The gloves were large and loose on my hands. A dark-colored substance dripped from the bottle, and soon I was sitting on the countertop with my back to the mirror, waiting for my hair to change from light brown to burgundy, or something close.

Rain was stirring on the other side of the door. I could hear the channels changing until she found one she liked. Sing-songy characters filled the room with their positivity, their life lessons.

“I’m just a person of interest,” my mind reeled. “I could leave this all behind.”

***

In the end, my hair wasn’t exactly burgundy, but only to the discerning eye did I look like the woman in the picture now. I put everything back into the Wal-Mart bag, including the towel that had The Castle Inn stitched on it. When I walked out of the bathroom, Rain was engrossed in her cartoon.

“I’ll be right back. I’m going to take this stuff to the garbage,” I grabbed my hat, the phone and key card, and slipped out of the room.

The hotel garbage bin was located behind the hotel. I threw the bag into the green bin and turned to go back inside, but then stopped, turning in the opposite direction. I saw Ernie’s Café and went in.

“Good morning, table for one?”

“I want to put in an order for takeout” I said, averting my eyes.

“Sure thing. I’ll get you a menu. One sec,” She walked towards the back and paused along the wall, grabbing a tattered breakfast menu.

I picked two pancake breakfasts, paid, and went back outside to wait. The smell of bacon and coffee wafted through the door as customers made their way inside. Some sat with their heads buried in the day’s newspaper. Others chatted with their spouse, friend, or the strangers sitting next to them.

The pancake breakfasts came packaged in cellophane containers stacked in a paper, Ernie’s Cafe bag.

“Enjoy,” the hostess said.

I nodded and left. She hadn’t noticed me. No one noticed me. Anderson’s early morning Senior diners had been so preoccupied with their own hunger and conversation. I headed back to the Inn, but again decided against it. Instead I walked past Ernie’s to a park where morning joggers ran their laps around the pond. I sat on the bench and listened to the birds, the ducks, and the soft tap of each runner’s shoes. No one noticed me.

Past the park was a shopping center with a donut shop, a shoe repair shop, a dress alterations shop, and a barber shop. I walked into the donut shop where I was welcomed by a white-haired man.

“What can I do you for?” he asked.

“I’ll take two old fashioned and two jelly.” This time I looked him in the eyes. My heart fluttered, but nothing happened. He didn’t notice.

As I walked away, I thought, “I can leave right now.” On the corner a man and woman in a pickup stopped.

“Where ya headed?” the woman asked.

“Can you get me to the border?”

“I can get you close,” the man yelled from the driver’s seat.

I hopped in the truck cab and got comfortable.

“What’s over the border?” the woman asked.

“Home. I missed my ride,” I lied.

“Well, I knew you weren’t from around here,” the man laughed. We rode through town catching each red light. I closed the window between us and took out my phone to call Millie to let her know that I had fled and that Rain was still at the Inn. She answered on the second ring.

“Georgina?”

“Millie, I’m on my way to the border.”

“What?” she yelled like a disapproving parent. “I thought you were going to turn yourself in and stop this charade.”

I can’t…what if?”

“I don’t know what you’ve done…if you’ve done anything, but I know that if you don’t turn yourself in this situation will only get worse,” she paused. “Are you going to run forever?”

“You don’t understand…I lost my Lily and I…”

“What do you mean you lost Lily”

“She passed away last year…and I started going out for drives at night near the downtown center…and that’s when I saw this girl, Rain, run away from a man; they were on his boat. She asked me to help her, so I did,” my voice was shaky. “I didn’t know who she was or what was happening. I just put her in my car and drove away.”

“I’m so sorry Georgina…Why didn’t you take the girl to the police station?”

“I called Delaney; she works with John…John’s missing.”

“I don’t know what to say…I’m so sorry.”

“I can’t go home…”

“What about the girl?”

“Rain…they’ll take her back to her family.”

“She’s probably scared in the room by herself…she’s somebody’s Lily.”

My body shook with pain.

“You have to go back,” Millie pleaded.

“I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. You didn’t save Rain only to abandon her. She needs you the most now.”

“Okay.” I hung up and asked the man to drop me off at the Castle Inn. “I forgot something,” I told him.

***

Inside the room was a frightened Rain.

“I thought you left me here,” she clung to me.

“No, sweetie,” I kissed her forehead. “I wouldn’t do that.”

We ate our pancake breakfast, played I-Spy, jumped on the bed, did each other’s hair, and stared out the window before the afterschool lineup of preteen programs came on. I knew I had to make the call, turn myself in, but I still couldn’t. I ordered dinner from Ernie’s, and a kind young man delivered it still wearing his uniform and apron. Primetime television brought us laughter and drama and lulled us into dreams filled with danger and destruction. At 3:22am I awoke from a dream about a serial killer. I moved to the chair, leaning back with my arms crossed. This was our last night. Checkout was at 9:00am, the time I planned to turn myself in. I watched the crescent moon and the twinkling stars surrounding it. At 4:22am I dialed John’s number. The call was sent to voicemail, so I left a message.

“Hi John, it’s GO.” I cleared my throat. “I haven’t seen you in a while now…and Sheila came by looking for you. She told me she’s pregnant. I wish you had told me, prepared me for it all. But now, I guess none of that matters. I don’t know if you’ll ever be found…I don’t know if that was you in the cooler or you in the trunk with Delaney. I can’t let my mind believe that it was. In a few hours I will be turning myself in..I still don’t know everything, but I know a lot, and I will not spare any details. I wish you hadn’t ever gotten involved with these people. I wish Lily never had cancer. I wish I hadn’t let loss rob us of our marriage.” I paused. “I hope my decision brings release from an evil I knew was real only because I had heard about it, not experienced it. After all of this, I won’t be the GO you once knew. I’m forever changed. You will see when we meet again.”

At 5:22am I called Sheila. She picked up on the third ring.

“Sheila…it’s Georgina,”

“Georgina? Where are you? The police are looking for you,” her voice was raspy with sleep.

“I know…listen,” I interrupted. “John is not coming home…I can’t say why. But I wanted you to know, in case he didn’t tell you, that he had the same kind of cancer Lily had.”

“What?” I hear Sheila get chocked up.

“I’m not telling you to scare you…I just want you to know so that you can tell your doctor.”

She sniffled on the other end.

“Where’s John?”

“I don’t know, Sheila. I just know a lot of bad things have happened…the fact that we are still alive is a miracle.”

***

I hung up with Sheila and hopped in the shower. At 8:30am Rain and I ate donuts. At 8:45am I called the Anderson police station and told them where they could find us.

“You’re going home now,” I told Rain. Her smile was wide as we waited. I saw the patrol cars from the window. Four officers entered after the manager opened the door. One officer grabbed Rain. Two grabbed me and cuffed me. I didn’t resist.

Rain’s cries took her breath away. They were like knives against my skin as I sat in the back of the police car waiting to be taken away. I didn’t know what would happen next, but I had already lost everything. I inhaled and let the air out like I was blowing bubbles with Lily in the park. I heard her laughing as they fell against her skin and popped, leaving a soapy residue.

“It’s okay. You’re going home,” I cried out with joy.

My Lily was home. My Rain was on her way home. No matter what happened next, my life had been renewed. This was freedom.

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Still

Still

I’m still here though worry and loss echoes throughout the world.

I’m still here though absence of predictability is daunting.

I’m still here though words of hate and fear are deafening.

I’m still here though anger, sadness, and passion disrupt our days.

***

I’m still here though I didn’t accomplish much today.

I’m still here though my thoughts center on chaos and gloom.

I’m still here though I give myself a hard time for not being enough.

I’m still here though stagnation feels tumultuous.

***

I’m still here somber and cautious, heavy with doubt.

I’m still here riding the waves of uncertainty.

I’m still here inside hope and hopelessness, passengers on the same train.

I’m still here witnessing the scars forming in our minds.

***

I’m still here though I struggle to put into words such complex and confusing times.

I’m still here though each day brings more social disarray.

I’m still here though I want to reach out and grab onto the people I love, invite strangers to join.

I’m still here though my heart breaks.

***

I’m still here filled with compassion for humanity.

I’m still here to observe and experience joy.

I’m still here to feel love, strong and thriving.

I’m still here, safe inside the moment where peace grows and shines bright.

***

I’m still here resolved in knowing that it is our collective voices that will bring healing.

I’m still here inside the belief that after destruction there is calm.

I’m still here.

I am still.

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The Lucid Hours (Part 14)

***

Rain lay on the bed with her left arm across her face. I sat up and moved towards the window. The thick, beige curtains split down the center, a peephole I stared out to see four black SUVs in the parking lot of Andy’s Auto. Three men, poised in descending height, dressed in dark suits, stood around the body of a man sprawled on the ground. The man’s boots and jeans were visible, but his torso was shielded. Two men, in the same style suit, exited the second SUV, a shackled woman between them with what looked like a potato sack over her head. They led her to the three men where the tallest man ripped off the potato sack, exposing her wild, brown hair.

“Delaney,”  my knees trembled, the weight of my body now crushing, unbearable.

The shortest man stepped forward as the tallest retreated. Written all over Delaney’s body were the pleas of a woman who knew time was up. The short man didn’t sway. He signaled for the light-haired man behind her to follow through on a ruthless plan I knew didn’t exclude me.

It was quick, one shot to the back of her head and she was gone, but it felt like my life was slipping away. Memory was a parade marching through my mind, blurry and brief. Lily. John. Sheila. Unborn baby. Home.

They stuffed both bodies in the trunk and lit the car on fire before driving away in procession. I sat back on the bed, heavy with shock, bound by a collapsing moral compass. I had two options: Leave and be killed. Or turn myself in and be arrested for kidnapping, murder, and human trafficking. Either choice meant losing everything.

I balled my fists and pounded the hard mattress. Rain stirred, letting out a long breath as she stretched and fell back to sleep. She was the only innocent one. The only one who hadn’t been corrupted with the sharp end of apathy. Tears spilled down the sides of my face. They were tears for Lily, tears for Rain, tears for the life I couldn’t get back.

I longed to be inside that room surrounded by stuff, stuff that symbolized love, stuff that protected me from the harsh hands of time that threatened to steal Lily’s essence. All of that was gone. I curled up and listened to the sirens in the distance. When I opened my eyes, their lights were dancing on the wall, urgent, ominous. Through the slit in the curtains, I watched firefighters tend to the car, and police officers collect evidence. I wondered how long it would take before they realized two bodies were in the trunk, the bodies of two people who had families and would be missed, a double wound: Loss and truth.

I couldn’t force myself to look again, but I couldn’t stay inside my own head, swirling and screaming. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flashing red light. It was the new phone: One missed call. Millie’s number lit up. She had called when I thought she wanted nothing more than to be rid of me.

After the third ring, I thought 6:00am might be too early to call. The Millie I had known was always first to rise, ready to begin a routine of meditation and exercise. Then her voice came on the other end, soft but judgmental.

“I saw that you called,” I cleared my throat. “I fell asleep.”

“I just wanted to make sure you got…you know.”

“The police are across the street now…there were men in black SUVs that came through and killed two people and set the car on fire.”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about, and I can’t handle all the details right now,” Millie pulled back, drew a thicker line between us. “What’s the plan? There’s literally nothing else you can do at this point.”

“I know.”

“So, turn yourself in. Get this over with.”

“Do you remember that Halloween party, the year I met John?”

“Of course, I introduced you two.”

“Yeah. I never thanked you for that.”

“Sure, you did. I was in your wedding,” she pulled back again. “People lose touch with each other Georgina. It happens…I don’t know what else to say.”

“I just wanted to say it now. I was wrong and I’m sorry.”

It took her a long time to respond.

“I will always treasure our friendship, Georgina, the good times,” she said sweetly. “But if you don’t turn yourself in, I will.”

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The Lucid Hours (Part 13)

***

The tow truck slowed, let out a burst of air, its amber lights a warning to passing cars. The driver parked, and a moment later, he stepped out and walked towards us.  

“How you folks doing?” He yelled. “I’m Mike.”

“Well…” I closed the trunk and extended my hand. “Not so good.”

“What seems to be the problem?”

“It won’t start,” I shrugged.

“Have you called somebody?”

“No…not yet…I can’t get a signal,” I held up the cell phone and then shoved it in my back pocket.

“Well, I can tow you to the nearest shop,” he leaned on the car. “I’m out here clearing this area for the night crew coming in.”

“That would be fine,” I wanted to jump in his truck and go right then, worried that Delaney would return, worried that the voice on the phone would appear.

Rain and I waited as Mike loaded the car onto the truck bed. Then we climbed in. The truck inched along, moving from one gear to the next before it was cruising side-by-side with the other vehicles. I looked back once just to see if Delaney was there, approaching the area. She wasn’t.

For seven and a half miles I gripped the door handle fluctuating between glee and fear. We weren’t free, we weren’t safe, but we had options now. I could do something. Country music played on the radio; Mike sang along, and I let myself crawl inside the songs. My husband had left me. My baby was gone. And love had turned my world upside down, but, in what felt like frayed memories, there were sweet moments whispering their goodness in my ears.

Mike steered the truck into Andy’s Auto and parked.

“Looks like they’re closed…” he jumped out.

I unbuckled our seatbelts and climbed out, Rain right behind me.

“That’s okay,” I followed. “I’ll call someone from here.”

“You sure?” Mike stopped and shot me a concerned glance. “It’s getting dark…and this isn’t the best area.”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay, then,” Mike headed back to his truck.

I wanted to get far away from that car, far away from the voice on the other end of the phone whose promise I knew was real.

“Check and make sure your phone has service,” Mike turned to look at me as the truck lift tilted back and the car rolled towards the ground.

I pulled the phone from my back pocket and stared at the three bars.

“No, I still don’t.”

“Here…use mine,” Mike took off his gloves, pulled his phone from his pocket, and typed in a four-digit password.

“Thank you so much.”

My hands shook as I dialed the last number I remembered for Millie Brockmeyer, a good friend I had abandoned for what I thought was magical, fated. One long ring turned into the next, each a sledgehammer to what was left of my ego. I thought about Millie how excited she had been when John and I married, how eager she was to share this part of my life with me.

“Hey Georgina, this is Mills…I was calling about Lily’s christening. Uh…what day and time is it again? Um…call me back…you know me; I’m trying to get my calendar together, so let me know. I can’t wait to see you guys. I miss you.”

I never returned her call. I let our lives fill with other people and other things until tragedy consumed us, and I couldn’t figure out how to turn back.

“Hello?” I heard her voice on the other end, familiar, safe.

“Millie?”

“Who is this?”

“Millie…it’s Georgina.”

She was quiet, but I heard her breaths as she composed herself.

“What is going on?”

“I don’t know exactly…I didn’t have anyone else to call.”

“So, you know you’re wanted, as a person of interest…by the FBI…they think you might be involved, or you may have been abducted by a woman named Del…something.”

“Wait…what?” Mike turned to look at me but then walked back to the front of his truck.

“You’re wanted…it’s all over the news…something about human trafficking…where are you?”

“A small town, not too far from the border…some really bad people will be here soon. I need your help,” I pleaded, though I felt the deep hesitation in her words. “We just need a place to hide for a while.”

“Who’s we? Never mind, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know,” Millie huffed. “Why not go to the police?”

“The police are involved…”

“Yeah…I saw the news…John was involved? I can’t believe it…”

“There’s a Wal-Mart up the road…can you wire me money?”

“I can’t wire you money…what are you talking about?”

“I have an ID…Stacey McCormick.”

“If I send you money that means I’m involved…”

Instead of waiting in silence, I looked up the address for the Wal-Mart Shopping Center and sent it to her. Mike stood waiting.

“I’ll be at that address,” I told her.

We waited until Mike’s truck was out of sight before we made the trek to the shopping center, which was much longer than I thought. With our heads down, we marched through crosswalks, yielded to hurried drivers, passed Anderson natives without alerting them of our otherness. Inside the store, we strolled from one aisle to the next. I had $27 in my bra and the hope that Millie’s kindness outweighed my own. Delaney was out there, one exit a way, and she had on her side knowledge of an intricate web of players, lies, and plans I didn’t.

I was wanted. How long had I been wanted? I thought about the agent in front of our house who had told me about Jessie Burnes. I thought about John and the department’s aid in the release of Casper, the man they spent years capturing. I thought about the head in the cooler, its long, scar above the eyebrow. I thought about Lily, my sweet girl, how days before I had thought about joining her in the bliss of afterlife. And I thought about Rain who stood next to me, her hand in mine, a comfort I never imagined. I knew I may never get home, but I wanted so much for her to get back to the people who loved her and needed her to be okay, even if one was a horrible man.

At the service center, I inquired about a wire transfer made to a Stacey McCormick. The attendant went behind her desk and tapped the computer keys, sent items to the printer, and returned with a couple pages to sign. I signed and accepted the five-hundred-dollar payment. We left the Anderson Wal-Mart with two bottles of water, two baseball hats, a disposable phone, hair dye, and gauze for Rain’s wound.

Down the street from the auto shop was an inn, The Castle Inn, a quaint, majestic castle-like structure that had been restored to modernize its features, without erasing its historical legacy. We cut through the parking lot and entered the long foyer, at the end a smiling woman in a black, Pouf dress.

“Welcome to The Castle Inn! How can I help you?”

“I’d like a room,” I kept my head low. “A basic room…”

“Yes, ma’am…we have a third-floor room that’s quite nice, and also basic,” she smiled. “How long will you be staying? One night, two?”

“Let’s stay two nights,” Rain gripped the counter and stood on her tiptoes.

“Two it is,” I agreed.

From the window the car was still visible, still sitting there where Mike had towed it, still with the 44 Magnum and the head that had thawed and would soon start to smell. Rain turned on the tv and plopped on the bed. I searched for a news station, one replaying the details of the search but found nothing on the small-town line up.

“You didn’t get the cable,” Rain clarified.

“That’s okay, sweetie. You can watch what you want.”

I fell asleep to the rhythmic laugh track of prime-time comedy and awoke to the sound of gunshots.

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The Lucid Hours (Part 12)

***

Darkness was all around us with soft rays of light pouring in through the undercarriage. I waited until her footsteps were out of earshot, no longer a hard pulse in my mind, no longer the backdrop to tires slapping across the pavement. Then I waited some more. There was no way of knowing how far she was, how close she was, and panic had set in as I lay inhaling gas fumes, as the heat drained my body of all its moisture. Rain grabbed my hand and squeezed.

“I want to go home,” her voice quivered.

“Me too,” I tried to slow my breathing. I was weightless, empty, beaten. No amount of wit could save me. There were too many missing pieces. Everything I knew was fragmented and cryptic.

And then I remembered that Delaney had not locked the car. I could get the gun…and then what? I had never used a gun. I hated when John left his out where I could see it. So, I thought about John, pleading with memory to take me back to that last day: What did he look like? What did he sound like?  What did he know?

Instead, Delaney appeared, an unexpected, and likely unnoticeable blip in my mind’s eye had it not been for the for the fact that she wore Birkenstocks and sweats, something she’d never do in public, at least. I stood in the living room staring out the window, watching the afternoon turn to evening. I thought about Lily. I had conversations with death and waited for the end of grief. It never came, but Delaney did. I watched as she got out of her car with two grocery bags. She winded the walkway and set the bags by the door and headed back to her car. I didn’t see what she retrieved before activating her alarm. But this time she walked over to my car, spending maybe two minutes hidden from view before returning to the walkway, and I watched through the peephole as she grew closer. It was Delaney, but I didn’t know this version.

“Hey,” I opened the door.

“I brought you some groceries,” she stepped past me.

“John usually does that,” I admitted.

“Oh…well, I just thought because I hadn’t seen you in a while…”

“I appreciate it.”

She emptied the bags and began putting the items away.

“Where do you keep your pasta?”

“Up there,” I pointed to the second shelf in the pantry.

“What about your paper towels?”

“We still have a bunch in the garage…”

“I didn’t know what you needed…”

“It’s fine,” I grabbed the paper towels.

She put canned items in the pantry and set ground coffee beans on the counter. The way her hair framed her face made her look gentle, not like the no-nonsense investigator I had heard so much about.

“How are you?” she paused.

“I’m here…”

“Sorry I haven’t been…”

“Are you kidding me? Don’t be sorry…how’s work?”

“It’s good.”

“Were you off today?”

“No,” she pulled her hair away from her face. “I got home early, and I thought about you.”

“John tells me you guys are pretty busy.”

“Yeah.”

“How are things here?” Her eyes darted across the room, and the blood drained from her face when she heard herself. “I mean…”

“I’m here…that’s all I can be right now.”

Delaney nodded and fiddled again with her hair.

“We’re here for you…”

“Hey, was there something in the driveway? I saw you go…”

“I was looking at your wheel,” she cleared her throat. “I thought I saw something, but it was nothing.”

“What did you think you saw?”

“Your rear tire looked low…ever since I had that blowout on the freeway, I’ve been cautious…”

“John usually checks my car.”

“I was trying to help…John told me you take drives at night.”

“I know Del,” I feigned compassion, but I was angry. I was angry at the world. I was angry because loss had robbed me of everything I loved. “Thanks for looking out for me.”

“I’m here for you…I am,” Delaney said. Her words now felt false, insincere.

I thought about that tire.

“I’m going to check something,” I told Rain, as I scooted towards the rear of the car. “You stand watch for Delaney.”

I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but I searched every opening in the rear passenger wheel, then the rear driver’s side until I found a small black box. Rain was behind me staring at the device.

“It’s a tracker,” she said, touching her finger to the dirty surface.

I popped the trunk and shoveled through the bags, the box.

“Here’s a phone,” Rain picked up the second phone Greg gave us.

Curiosity got the best of me and I went straight for the box, the cold, leaky box. I ripped open the top and inside was an insulated cooler, one that had been cut. It was stuffed with blue ice cooler packs and what was probably once actual ice that now leaked through the ripped seams and onto the trunk carpet. I removed the first cooler pack, then the second, and the third. A red, spongey mass was exposed. Skull fragments. Hair.

“Gross,” Rain shrieked.

I jumped back. I swatted myself as invisible bugs crawled along my skin.

“Maybe we can call somebody.” Rain held the phone up to me. “I could call my dad.”

My mind raced. I didn’t know who to call. I didn’t know who wasn’t involved, who I could trust.

“Millie Brockmeyer?” who I had deserted when John and I settled into married life. “Did I still know her number?”

I turned the phone on and waited for the signal. I dialed the area code first and what I believed were the next three numbers when a man’s voice came onto the phone.

“You disobeyed me.”

“Hello?” I looked at the phone.

“You disobeyed me, made me look weak in front of my men. Why you don’t take me seriously?”

“Who is this?” I asked.

“Who is this?” he yelled back in my ear. “I own you,” he continued. “I will take your life and send your head to your family.” My heart thumped, like the bass in a nightclub. My breath was shallow. And in the distance was a tow truck, its lights flashing our way.

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The Lucid Hours (Part 11)

***

“I know a great place we can eat,” Delaney drove back onto the main street towards the eatery.

“Where are we?”

“Anderson…my grandparents lived a few miles from here. Every summer my brother and I visited. They had about twenty acres, and we would just…just play for hours.”

She was overcome with silence. Her words had uncovered the burial ground of an old childhood wound. I accepted the quiet, watching her navigate Anderson’s small-town roads. It was a rodeo-themed restaurant, with long wooden tables and high-backed chairs, thick cushions. Gold-framed photos on the walls of horses and their riders spread throughout the dining areas. We were seated along the wall. The waitress brought out silverware and three, clear, pebbled plastic cups filled with iced water.

“I can get her a kid’s cup and menu, if you’d like,” she handed Delaney and I a menu and held onto the third one until Rain spoke up.

“I don’t need a kid’s menu,” Rain protested and held her hand out to collect the adult menu.

“You sure about that?” Delaney teased.

We had Rodeo-burgers, fries, and strawberry milkshakes.

“I like this place,” Rain offered, but neither Delaney nor I returned the sentiment.

Delaney was still quiet, and I knew this meant something. We were getting close to the border, and the tension was high. I still didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what was waiting for us after we crossed, but I knew John had been shot. I knew this was likely my fate also.

***

I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen John, not precisely. All the times he had stopped by blurred together. Each time he poked his head inside Lily’s room, never entering. He brought groceries, took out the garbage, opened mail.

“Are you still seeing the therapist?” he might ask, depending on his mood. “I’ll make some coffee.”

We might drink a cup together and eat a pastry if he brought some. We might talk about Lily, recall a funny memory, treading past pain like one would a landmine. We might argue. Sometimes John left without telling me. Some days he leaned in for a long hug before leaving, and we got lost inside loss. I remembered all of that. But I couldn’t remember that last day. What had been our last conversation? Had he said something about leaving? Did he leave with Rome? Was he taken? Was he murdered? Did I already know the answers?

I thought about the package Greg had put into the trunk. John had come home one day with his own blank package. When I asked about it, he told me it was filled with supplies for work.

“Why is it here?”

“I’m going to drop it off in the morning,” he pushed it against the wall in the foyer.

I didn’t question it. The box was gone by morning, leaving condensation on the tile that I sopped up with a towel. This was a detail I had dismissed as unimportant. How many more were there?

***

Before we got back into the car, Delaney’s phone rang. She rounded the corner for privacy. I held back, pretending to chat with Rain, in hopes of hearing something revealing.

“Go ahead and get in the car,” Delaney shooed us.  

As I helped Rain into her seat, I realized that this was my chance to check the box in the trunk. I walked around and opened my door and then paused, waiting to see if Delaney noticed. I crouched down, making my way to the back of the car. My breath was short. My hands trembled against the trunk-release button. I stood up to see if Delaney was still on the phone, her back to us. She was. The box was too heavy to move, so I slid my fingers around the edge, and there was condensation, ice cold droplets I wiped on the front of my pants. After another quick glance in Delaney’s direction, I started examining the rest of the trunk. And then came a thought so malevolent I shivered: I could take the gun and bullets out of their case and hide them under my seat. Or I could take the gun and the bullets and run. 

“What are you looking for?” Delaney was behind me, inching closer and closer until her body pressed into mine.

“I’m…I’m…”

“Get in,” her stare was deep, cold.

Rain touched my neck through the slit in the headrest. I turned around to see her worried expression.

“Why don’t you draw me something?” I distracted her.

Delaney was fuming, but her anger oozed like fear, unpredictable, uncontained. I didn’t know what was coming next. The border was less than two hours away, it was getting dark, and I couldn’t see how fate could be thwarted now.

Small town changed again to city. Bright lights sparkled through the windows of multi-level buildings. Car lots slept, but their bright-colored flags still blew their welcoming wave. Drive-thru restaurants seated hungry teens and served long lines of cars through narrow windows. The smell of food and diesel exhaust filled the car.

We had been in the car for maybe an hour when I felt a flutter. It seemed to emanate from the front of the car. Then we heard a rattling.

“What was that?” Delaney stared down at the dashboard as it flashed red.

She pulled over, a little more than a mile from the last exit and more than five or six miles to the next. The traffic whizzed along as we sat unsure of what to do next. We couldn’t call a tow truck, and the longer we sat there the more attention we’d attract.

Delaney stepped out to make another phone call but found the noise level outside too loud. She stared at me as she engaged in a cryptic conversation.

“We’ll just get out,” I suggested, signaling for Rain to slide over so that we both exited on the right side of the car. My mind was reeling. This was my chance.

The brush was thick behind us, a wall of nature we wouldn’t be able to penetrate safely. We didn’t have enough time to walk, or even run, back to the exit. Rain couldn’t run, and I was out of shape.  I could hear Delaney on the phone, her voice raised. Rain sat on the curb, and I followed. Then she looked up at me and pointed to the car.  Before I could decipher what she meant, Rain was sliding under the car. I looked up at Delaney. She was still talking, so I too made my way to the rear of the car and slid underneath. I grabbed Rain’s hand and we lay there frozen, inhaling the smell of oil, dirt, and steel. Had Delaney seen us? No. She finished her phone call, and, I’m guessing, looked out to wave us back into the car. Only we weren’t there. The car shook as she exited. Her footsteps were frantic.

“No…no…no,” she screamed and ran back towards the exit.

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The Lucid Hours (Part 10)

***

Delaney drove. I wrestled with memory, searching its fabric for holes, for misplaced fragments that if woven together painted a different pattern. I traveled back inside John’s visits with Rome.

Lily had been home for a few days. She mostly slept, always awakening just before her next dose of pain medicine. I was careful to follow all dosing instructions to keep her comfortable.

“Rome is coming for dinner,” John stuck his head into the room.

“Are you serious?” I complained.

“You don’t have to do anything…” he walked away.

The meetings were increasing, the usual Sunday dinner and several drop-by visits during the week. And a few hours later, after John had baked a ready-made lasagna, Rome arrived with what seemed like his usual antics. I stayed with Lily while they talked. Two hours into their visit, I headed for the kitchen to get Lily some water and make myself a cup of coffee because I knew Lily would be up throughout the night, and I’d be right there with her, not wanting to miss a moment with her. My bare feet were silent against the wood floor. At the end of the hall, just before I turned left into the kitchen, I heard Rome’s thick, raspy voice doing its best impression of a whisper.

“We got a doctor, and we got ourselves a nurse…it’s a go,” he assured.

“So when will we know…” John started.

“It’s all taken care of…you’ll get a call,” Rome cleared his throat. “…and you just bring her to the hospital.”

“We can trust these people?” John leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head.

“You trust me, right?”

“And the donor was returned home?” John reached for assurance.

“It’s all being taken care of,” Rome gulped the last of his beer. “You just make sure you take that precious little angel in there to…”

“What’s going on?” I interrupted. My heart was pounding, my sleepless mind struggling to focus.

“Go, what are you doing?” John stood up and moved toward me.

“What is he talking about?” I yelled.

“Nothing…we’re just talking about a case,” John put his hand around my shoulder, pushing me back down he hall. “How much sleep have you gotten today?”

“What’s going on?””

“We’re just talking about cases…”

“He was talking about Lily…I know what I heard.”

“He’s drunk,” John defended.

He walked me back inside Lily’s room and a few minutes later returned with water, an iced coffee, and a slice of lasagna.

“I know you’re tired,” he ran his fingers through his hair. “There’s a lot of work stuff going on, and Rome…you know,” he glossed over details he thought I would fill in for him.

“Is this something we’ll regret?” I challenged.

Go, there’s nothing going on…nothing to worry about.” He stared into my eyes. “You’re doing such a good job of taking care of our little Lily…Rome brought prickly pears. You think maybe Lily will eat some?”

***

I now think about that evening, the details I had forgotten, about the doctor who had entered Lily’s room, the silent nurse the day after who wore surgical scrubs and a mask over her face. She examined Lily with the kind of medical authority I didn’t question. We were more than a year away from that day. No donor ever came. Who had Rain been a donor for?

City turned again to wide open land. Mountains hung in the distance, nature’s color scheme a reel playing its endless movie. Delaney kept her eyes on the road. Rain made one masterpiece after another in the backseat. I wondered where she came from, who she belonged to.

***

No donor ever came through, but a few weeks later Rome returned, this time around 11:30 one night. He called John’s phone, but when he didn’t get an answer, Rome rang the doorbell.  I lay next to Lily but heard John stumble out of bed and stomp down the hall to the front door. Moments later, the door opened and a loud, rambunctious Rome rushed inside. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, at first, but the rhythm of his words made me uneasy. I cracked open the door and listened.

“Those imbeciles…” he kept saying.

“What happens now?” John tried to stay calm and steer the conversation forward.

“They come and gut us…they come and take out every person we know…they cut out our tongues…”

“I get it,” John interrupted.

“Unless we come for them first,” Rome continued, this time his voice calmer, sinister.”

“And how do you suppose we do that? I can’t believe this…”

“Aspin…” I thought I heard Rome say. “Our ghostly friend.”

***

“Casper…” I said under my breath without noticing.

“What did you say?” Delaney asked.

“Aspin,” I panicked. “John and I used to always talk about going.”

“Really? That doesn’t seem like something John would want to do.”

It wasn’t. I stared out the window as we passed a truck carrying tomatoes. Small, rickety houses with rotted porches faced the now two-lane highway. As the traffic slowed, houses were replaced with red-roofed buildings, serving as the town’s shopping center. And restaurants with outdoor seating were filling with the first wave of dinner patrons. Delaney settled for the far-left lane and waited for the cars in front of us to move.

***

No more than three months later Lily was gone, and a driver in a dark car was parked in front of the house. I spent most days sleeping. John visited, not to offer comfort but rather to make sure I too hadn’t died.

“There’s a car parked out front,” he said, waking me up from a dark dream. “Just ignore it.”

Later that evening, I walked out to my car ready to escape pain’s spiral. A man in a blue suit waved me down.

“Ma’am…excuse me…”

“Yes?”

“Do you have a few minutes?”

“For what?”

“I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“Okay…”

“Great…What do you know about your ex-husband’s relationship with Jessie Burns?”

“I don’t know who that is…”

“Are you sure he never mentioned…”

“I’m sure…he’s my ex-husband for a reason,” I turned to walk to my car. “Who is Jessie Burnes?”

“He’s not a good man, ma’am.”

***

Delaney pulled off to get gas in the next city. On cue Rain and I visited the ladies’ room.

“I drew a picture for you,” she said. “I will give it to you when we get back in the car.”

It was a picture of huge house, grey mountains behind it, blue water in front.

“You are an amazing artist,” I said. “You should put your name on it so that when you’re famous I can tell everyone that you drew a picture for me.”

I waited for her to write her name and pass the drawing back up to me.

Rain Burnes. I rolled the picture and put it between my seat and the door.

“We’re making good time,” Delaney said as she got back in the car. “Who’s hungry?”

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The Lucid Hours (Part 9)

***

“Am I going to die, mommy?” Lily asked, her eyes meeting mine through the rails of her hospital bed.

“You’re awake,” I said as I stood up and walked to her side. “Look at you…how are you feeling?” I adjusted her blanket and pillow, careful not to put tension on the many tubes traveling from her body to the machines nearby.

Aimee, Lily’s nurse, a short, bubbly woman came in.

“How’s my little angel?” she sang, stopping at the foot of the bed to smile and wave. “Is it okay if I take your temperature, sweetie?”

Lily shook her head yes.

I watched and waited for Aimee to reveal any significant changes in Lily’s vitals, a sign that good health was around the corner.

“Looks good…” the nurse said. “Dr. McKinney will be in shortly.”

“Who’s that?” I asked. My muscles tightened.

“He’s a nephrologist,” she smiled. “It’s good news.” she patted my shoulder as she left.

***

“They’ll kill you, Georgina,” she repeated, this time her voice calm, matter of fact.

“Who?” I probed, the hair on my arms raised, my heart slowing to a hard, steady thump in my chest.

Delaney ignored me.

“Just…” she huffed and then slipped into an angry silence.

I tried to imagine the depths of her involvement, how she had ever agreed to participate in something so dangerous, so immoral. Had she gone along willingly or was she coerced? Who was she? Who was I? I looked back at Rain still drawing. I wasn’t sure I had done the right thing, but I knew I couldn’t let the wrong thing happen. I swallowed and leaned back in my seat. I could hear Sheila’s cries, Lily’s laughter, John’s lies.

I stared out at the mountainous landscape. Thick green hills reached for white clouds. In the distance, goats in a crowded pen chomped on grass. Long stretches of land, home to wildlife, smelled of earth, lavender, and other blossoms yet to forge through the tangled creeping fig with vibrant blue, orange, and yellow bulbs.  

Delaney drove until we thought our bladders would burst.  

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Rain whined.

“We’ll pull off at the next exit…when I see a gas station.”

The freeway widened to four lanes. Large bridges and overpasses mirrored modern architecture. Tall buildings, restaurants, and housing developments filled the space now. Delaney exited and followed the cars turning right onto River Blvd.

“This street takes us right to the river,” Delaney announced. “Unfortunately, we don’t have time to go to the river though.

She pulled into a gas station with a spinning sign, got out and went inside, but not before looking over at me, a warning to stick to the plan—get gas, go to the bathroom, and get back on the road.

Delaney walked ahead to pay for the gas and get the bathroom key. Delaney entered the bathroom on the left and then passed me the key. Rain grabbed my hand and we made our way into the bathroom on the right.

I turned my back as she unzipped her pants.

“Use a seat cover,” I warned.

“I know.”

“Well, I know you know,” I joked.

“Georgina,” she began. “I heard something…Greg told Delaney to take the girl in first…that’s me. And that McKinney would take care of the rest.” Her eyes were big.

“When did he say this?”

“They talked when you were helping Helen.”

“Did they say anything else?”

“He said there will be bodies, that they owe it to the family…he also said something about Casper…is that a ghost?”

I ran my fingers through my hair and paced the tiny room. John’s voice was loud in my ear.

“Everything will be fine…the FBI will be watching his every move,” he promised.

“How did one of the most dangerous men escape from prison in the first place?”

“I don’t know,” he pulled me close but not before I saw his jaws tighten.

“Casper “Mark” Jennings,” I whispered.

“Don’t say his name.”

“Yeah, he’s a ghost,” I lied. “Let’s keep this to ourselves okay?”

Rain shook her head.

I splashed water on my face, and we made our way back to the car. Delaney was in the car already. I kept my eyes on Rain, feigning ignorance.

“Shall we eat?” Delaney asked as we got into the car. “Helen made all this wonderful food.

“Sounds good to me,” I said. “What about you, Rain?”

“I’m starving!”

Delaney drove to a park a couple blocks away, and we found a picnic table and each ate a turkey sandwich, a baked potato, and a slice of pie.

“So where are we going, exactly?” my voice nonchalant.

“First we get passed the border.”

“And then?”

“Let’s get passed the border first,” she laughed.

I played a game of I-Spy with Rain while I waited for Delaney to finish eating. I thought spacing my questions would be less suspicious.

“You’re not hungry?” Delaney interrupted.

“I think I will save the rest for later…” I smiled.

“You’ve always had a small stomach.” We both laughed.

“Even when I was pregnant with Lily,” I clenched my fists under the table. “I never had a big appetite.

“I remember…everyone tried to get you to eat.” She got up and started clearing the table. “How are you doing with…everything?”

“I’m…you know,” I let emotion take over. “There’s something I never understood,” I sobbed.

“What’s that?” Delaney sympathized.

“I can’t wrap my mind around…what was his name?” I tapped my hand on my leg. “Dr. McKinney! He was certain he could help Lily.”

“You have to stop going over things like this.”

“We never saw him again. It was like none of it ever happened.”

“He still works at the hospital, Georgina,” she scoffed. “Why would you need to see him again if the procedure he had in mind wasn’t going to work for her?”

“I thought…”

“He was working the other night…when I told you to take Rain in,” Delaney caught herself and began fiddling with her fingers.

“Oh…I was just wondering,” I ended the conversation. “We better get back on the road then,” I grabbed Rain’s hand to hide the tremor traveling through my body, to hide the fact that I knew that Delaney’s mask was slipping, that truth was not far away.

Taking Rain that night had ignited a series of events I couldn’t undo. Our fate rested on the other side of the border, and the only thing I could do was unravel memory and decode it as Delaney careened towards what might be our final destination.

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The Lucid Hours (Part 8)

***

Rain ate a turkey sandwich, mashed potatoes, and a slice of cherry pie. Helen gathered Delaney and I in the kitchen, a surprisingly modern layout with large windows overlooking rows of crops.

“It looks like somebody took one of her kidneys,” Helen said as she put water in a floral teapot.

“Human trafficking?” I asked.

“You all can sleep here tonight,” she exhaled. “I know Greg has stuff for you to get you back on the road.”

“We really appreciate it,” Delaney offered.

“The people you’re dealing with,” Helen put teabags in three white teacups. “Be careful. That’s all I can say.”

“We will,” Delaney looked at me.

“Well, I hope so,” Helen pulled three spoons from a drawer and set them on the table, and then put the teacups on matching saucers.

We drank black tea and ate Biscotti. Helen chattered on about her years as a nurse while Greg tended to his chores outside. I watched him go back and forth from the field to the barn, his body strong but worn.

***

Delaney slept while the girl and I picked Dandelions and blew their seeds into the air.

She pointed when she saw one, holding her side.

“I’ll get it,” I walked ahead. “Make a wish,” I handed her the white, puffy weed.

First her breath was light. Then she blew harder, faster.

“What did you wish?”

She dropped the stem and pointed at the next one. We continued in this way until I had found every Dandelion in the area, the intermittent sounds of our breath a tiny release of the pain neither of us knew how to speak.

When we were done, we sat on the blanket next to Delaney and waited for her to wake up. The girl stared out at the freeway, watching the uninterrupted procession of cars. I thought about the first time I had met Delaney.

When John made detective, Rome threw him a party at the Redstone Hotel & Casino. The banquet hall was bursting with people. I stood next to John, as close as I could anyway. Rome’s frequent congratulatory hugs and high fives meant I was often pushed behind John or a few feet away. I nursed a cola and nibbled on veggie sticks and a large slice of deep-dish pizza.

“Can you believe it?” a tall, dark-haired woman leaned in.

“What?”

“Can you believe it?” she repeated. “You’re John’s wife, right?”

“Yes, I am…and I can’t believe it. Everything is happening so fast,” I said.

“He’s great…we really enjoy having him on the team,” she continued.

“What’s your name?”

“Delaney…Delaney Armstrong,” she sipped her drink. “I transferred from…”

“Hey, there she is,” Rome interrupted. “I didn’t think you were going to come.”

“Thanks for throwing John a party…”

“Anything for John, anything,” he lauded before dragging John through the crowd.

“I hope you’re ready to stay for a while,” Delaney joked.

The party moved upstairs to the casino, but Delaney and I opted for the hotel lobby, a quiet, pristine, marble paradise. We talked for hours, laughing and sharing the parts of our lives only best friends of many years share. That night we became sisters, inseparable until the lines in my marriage disappeared and we got swept into a whirlwind of love and loss.

Now back on the road, I wasn’t sure who was sitting next to me.

***

Helen swapped our clothes for clothes she thought better matched our new identities. I wore a pair of dark blue jeans, a flannel, button-up shirt with a straight collar, and a tan pair of suede loafers. Delaney wore similar jeans with a floral blouse and clogs. Rain wore blue jeans with pink stripes and a pink shirt. Helen cut her hair, giving her bangs and two ponytails.

“They may have questions at the border,” Greg said, putting our ID’s in separate duffle bags. “Everything you need is in these bags…stick to the story and you should be fine.”

“And take this too,” Helen handed me a paper bag stuffed with foil-covered food. “It’s turkey, bread, some baked potatoes…I put a little cake and pie in there too…just a little something.”

“Thank you so much, Helen,” I leaned in and gave her a hug.

“Absolutely, I hope they find John…”

“Helen!” Greg snapped.

Greg led us outside to a black, four-door sedan: its roof dented, side panels missing, and a fair amount of stains on the seats and floor mats. Helen and I helped Rain into the back seat.

“I put extra bandages in Rain’s bag,” Helen said.

Delaney and Greg were at the back of the car, their voices mumbled. I closed the door and slipped passed Helen. Delaney looked over at me, and Greg stopped talking. He tapped his fingers against a sealed box and shut the trunk. Delaney had just enough time to pull her hands back.

“You better get on the road,” Greg said, scratching his head. “You’ve got one heck of a trek ahead of ya,” he looked across his property. “It’s not the prettiest, but this car will get you to where you’re going. Lyle is expecting you so no dilly dallying,” he laughed.

“Yes, sir,” Delaney said as she got into the driver’s seat. We waved and made our way to the road. My mind burned with questions, but I waited. Part of me feared the answers I might get about John. Another part feared what I might learn about my own fate. Three hours into our drive, Delaney stopped at a Quick Mart for gas. When she went in to pay, I popped the trunk and stepped out. I examined the sealed box, looking for a name, an address, but it was blank. Behind it, hidden in the blackness was a gun holder with a 44 Magnum. As I reached for it, Delaney returned and was behind me.

“Get back in the car,” she said through clenched teeth.

“What is going on?” I protested.

Delaney stared at me. Her eyes wide and loaded with an intensity that made me nervous.

I got back in the car and waited for her to pump the gas.

She was slow to put her seatbelt on. It wasn’t until after she had started the car and pulled out of the station that she let out a long, angry breath.

“I know Greg …” she started, gripping the steering wheel. “He works for Rome,” she screamed.

“He knows Rome is dead,” I felt my body start to shake. “I told him John’s boss was dead.”

“No…he doesn’t know Rome, per se.”

“What?”

“He works for the charity…” Delaney looked at me. “It isn’t real, Georgina.”

“What is it then?” I asked, though I now knew through hints of truth that the world we’d entered was dark, inhumane.

“I’m not going to spell it out for you,” Delaney looked into the rearview mirror at Rain who was busy with a notepad and a box of colored pencils.

“Then tell me what happened to John…how was he shot…where is he?” I pushed.

Delaney swerved. She couldn’t find her words.

“I asked you when we were at the rest stop…before you fell asleep,” I reminded her. “You told me John had been shot.”

“I can’t tell you…not yet.”

“Why?”

“Because they’ll kill you,” Delaney shouted, keeping her eyes on the long, narrow, empty road.

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The Lucid Hours (Part 7)

***

Surgical staples lined the incision traveling from about the middle of her lower stomach to her right side.

“Rain, sweetie…when did you have surgery?” Helen stood up and tossed the blood-stained bandage in the garbage can.

“A few days ago, I think,” Rain shrugged. “A lady came and picked me up from Residential…”

“That incision does not look happy,” Helen said to herself. “I’ll be right back.”

“What’s Residential?” Delaney asked after Helen left the room.

“It’s a place for kids with no parents…my mother died last year, and my father couldn’t take care of me,” Rain’s voice trailed as she looked down at her wound. “I was there for a few months before a lady came to get me.”

“Where did the lady take you?” Delaney bent down so that her face was level with Rain’s.

“I don’t know,” Rain glided her finger along the exposed scar. “It was cold, and there were a lot of other people there…kind of like a hospital, but not.”

“Hold on there,” Helen came back into the room. “Let’s clean that so it doesn’t get infected. She organized her supplies and put on a fresh pair of gloves. “How about some lunch? What’s your favorite lunch?” she distracted Rain.

***

Delaney sat in the backseat. I started the car, still trying to wrap my mind around her confession. The man I had talked to earlier in the week was dead, John was still missing, and I had kidnapped a girl who, though she had stopped crying, stayed silent, refusing to answer our questions.

“Just drive,” Delaney said.

I drove back down the same sleepy streets while the girl drifted in and out of sleep and Delaney spoke with someone named Mooch who agreed to meet us at the 24-hour donut shop on Newcastle.

“We can’t leave her in the car,” I said as Delaney jumped out and headed for the door. “And I can’t take her in like this.”

“Do you have anything in your trunk? Pop it,” she walked to the back of the car.

She pulled out a purple, Dora tracksuit from a Donate bag I had never gotten around to dropping off at the women’s shelter.

“Let’s try this,” she walked around to the front passenger door. My body screamed as the girl put one leg into the pants and then the other; one arm into the jacket and then the other. Delaney pulled the girl’s wild hair into a ponytail and twirled it into a loose bun. “You look gorgeous,” she said, but still the girl was silent.

Inside the shop it was warm, the smell of donuts thick, sweet. A young woman came from the back room wearing an apron and a half smile.

“How can I help you?” she mumbled.

“I’ll take four glazed, four sprinkled, four old fashioned, four chocolate, and four maple,” Delaney puled cash from her purse.

“Why so many?” I asked as we made our way to a round table in the corner.

“I don’t know,” Delaney sat down and put her hands over her face.

“What now?” I pulled one of the sprinkled donuts from the box, put it on a napkin, and slid it in front of the girl. She looked up at me before grabbing it with both hands and biting into it.

“We wait,” Delaney looked out the window.

I took a glazed donut and nibbled on it until a white van with bright headlights pulled into the parking lot. A tall, burly man stepped out. He took long strides to the door, long dark hair swaying against his black suit jacket.

“Hey,” Delaney said, meeting him at the door. “You came dressed for the occasion,” she eyed his jacket, jeans, and cowboy boots.

“Let’s sit…” he pulled up a chair and scarfed down two donuts. “Give me your apartment key. I’ll put it in the green flowerpot when I’m done.

“What are you going…”

“The less you know the better,” I’ll call you with a location.” He stood up, grabbed another donut, and left.

Delaney bought coffee and we waited while Mooch wrapped Rome’s body in a tarp and put it in the back of his van.

We met him an hour and a half later at Rudy’s Bar and Grill.

“Drive the van up past Lake Christopher…bury the body in Black Bear Forest,” he ushered us into the van as a young woman exited the restaurant, locking the doors behind her. “I take it you still remember how to dig a hole?” he teased Delaney. “Everything you need is in the back, enough for the both of you,” he looked at me and then back at Delaney.

“And after we bury the body?” Delaney asked.

“He’s a pretty important man,” Mooch laughed. “People will be looking for him,” he scratched his head as the young woman walked up behind him and put her arms him.

“I know someone,” I offered. “I can get in touch with him…”

“You may have to…I’ll have the cleaning crew take care of your apartment just in case we missed something,” he kissed the young woman’s forehead. “Take the drive to Black Bear,” he rustled the young woman’s hair. “and we’ll go from there,” he handed Delaney the van keys and held his hand out for my key.

“I’ll take care of your car,” he said.

“Okay,” I handed him my key, not really knowing what he meant by take care of.

Delaney drove well into the afternoon before stopping at a rest stop off exit 225. She parked the van between two RVs, and we got out. The girl grabbed my hand on our way to the bathroom.

“Do you need help?” I asked her.

She didn’t answer, but she didn’t let go of my hand either, pulling me into the stall behind her.

We ran into Delaney outside the bathroom.

“I found this,” she held up a blanket and some waters. “Let’s go down to the grass area and take a rest.”

She spread the blanket under a leafy oak tree with long branches. The girl and I stared out at the cars whizzing by on the freeway below. Delaney folded her jacket under her head and her body inched towards sleep.

“What was it that you wanted to tell me?” I asked her.

“Huh?”

“About John…”

“He was shot. They were coming back from a case and they were run off the road by a car full of masked men and…”

“Is he alive?” I nudged.

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The Lucid Hours (Part 6)

***

It was 3pm. I heard her small fist banging against the front door. I sat up, surrounded by stuff—a pink Hello Kitty blanket; a pillow with a dirty, yellow pillowcase; Lily’s doll, Tabitha, dressed in a lavender dress, her hair matted and sticky; a jar in the shape of a bear filled with Lily’s barrettes; a stack of books and papers on childhood cancers; a candle set and holder still in its packaging; a size 10 shoebox with John’s boots he never returned; a case of water and a box of granola bars Delaney had dropped off; a box of keepsakes belonging to John’s mother; the broken lamp I threw across the room when John brought home divorce papers; an open bottle of wine, Sauvignon Blanc, I had drank before falling asleep.

When I answered the door, Sheila was crying, shaking.

“Is John here?” she managed.

“No…I haven’t seen him,” I wiped my eyes with my sleeve. “He’s not at work?”

“Rome said he’s on a case.”

“Then he’s on a case,” I offered, stepping back to close the door.

“He would have told me,” she whimpered.

I shrugged, but I knew she was right. John would have let her know. John would have let me know. I let Sheila in and made us some coffee. She sat slumped on a bar stool, her elbows on the counter.

“I’m pregnant,” she revealed. “12 weeks…you can’t really tell though,” she touched her stomach.

I watched her eyes light up, her body calm for a moment.

“That’s good,” I turned my back to her, pretending to organize the clutter around the coffee pot.

“I didn’t know if John had told you yet…or not.”

“Um, no he hadn’t,” I glanced back at her and then continued clearing the space. “Congratulations.”

***

I was alone when I took the pregnancy test. I stood in our empty bathroom, the sound of the wrapper opening and the stick hitting the counter echoed. We had just gotten the keys to the house. We were home. I waited for the two lines to appear and stuck everything back in my purse before finding John on the second-floor balcony.

“Home sweet home,” John said, pulling me into his arms.

“I can hear the pitter patter of little feet on the stairs,” I looked up at his face, his beard scraggly with specs of gray.

“I can’t,” he pulled away. “Not right now…”

***

He approached the pregnancy in a rather methodical way, each day organizing my life with checklists to ensure I took proper precautions. He was soothed by the fact that he could chart the baby’s development but also stave off full responsibility and emotional commitment for another day.

“What time will you be home?” I called almost every night.

“I’ll be home when I can…just get some rest,” he tried to rush me off the phone.

“That’s all I do, John.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to come home.”

“I want you to take care of the baby,”

“Our baby, John…our baby.”

***

I poured coffee into two yellow mugs.

“Do you want cream and sugar?”

“Sure,” Sheila adjusted herself on the stool. “John doesn’t want me to drink coffee…he’s really nervous after…” she caught herself.

“Did he want the baby?”

“Yes,” she said. “He said he wanted to name the baby after Lily,” but doubt soon spread across her face. “He’s being weird though…and now he just disappeared.”

I stirred my coffee and took a sip.

***

“If it’s a boy, I want to name him Lyle…if it’s a girl, I want to name her Lily,” John said as we left our eight-month appointment at Dr. Greene’s office.

“Hmmm,” I held his hand as we walked to the car. “Those names are interesting…”

He opened the car door for me and waited until I was settled before closing the door and walking around to the driver’s side.

“I was thinking we could name the baby after my brother,” he started the car.

“Brother?”

John took a long, deep breath and then let it out. When he spoke again, his voice was laden with emotion, a side of him I had never seen.

“He died…” he cleared his throat. “When he was almost seven years old.”

“What happened?” I grabbed his hand and squeezed it.

“He had cancer,” he blurted before succumbing to sadness. “I’m afraid this baby will…”

“No, no that’s not going to happen,” I soothed. “Why would that happen?” my mind started to race.”

“I had it, GO…I’m sorry,” this time the endearing name, an abbreviation of my first and last name, Georgina Overstreet, didn’t feel endearing.

***

I watched Sheila sip her coffee, wondering if her fate would be the same. Wondering if on her child’s seventh birthday she’d sing happy birthday at a whisper, watching her child’s chest rise and fall, a sign that she still clung to life. Knowing that all the gifts were presented in the hope of a future, a day when all cancer cells had been destroyed. A day when her child’s shiny, bald head would fill again with hair, when the tiny veins in her face were covered with healthy skin, when her bones and muscles rejuvenated, when her laughter, the irreplaceable sound of love and joy, returned.

“Have you called Rome?”

“I called. He just keeps saying that John is on a case and not to worry…”

“He once told me to ‘Have Mercy’ on John when I called looking for him.”

“Have mercy?” Sheila laughed in confusion. “What does that mean?”

“Who knows with Rome.” I poured myself more coffee. “You want more?”

“No, I better not,” Sheila waved. “What do you think I should do?”

I yawned and put my hands over my face thinking back to the first time I met Sheila. She stood in the hallway, her eyes avoiding mine, but still she had enough nerve to stake her claim in a married man. And now she needed my help. She needed me, through my sleeplessness, to make sense of John’s disappearance. To do that I’d have to clear the fog in my mind, let clarity in, let it sweep away layers of sadness and welcome a resolve: Lily deserved more from life; it had robbed her of her goodness, stranded her inside a dying body, but it was selfish of me to ask her to live and selfish of me now to not live.

“I’ll call Rome…” I went back into the extra bedroom and found my phone.

As I waited through three rings, I contemplated putting him on speaker but decided against it, knowing all too well just how unpredictable Rome could be.

“Well, look who decided to call me today? I must be doing something right in life. How are you? He took a breath. “Are you doing okay? Still seeing that therapist…what’s her face?” He made his loud thinking noises. “Oh, uh, um, ahhh…”

“I’m okay…I’m still seeing Dr. Jennings,” I lied.

“She’s a good one…stay with it. After Crystal left me that’s who I turned to…made me feel so much better, like a brand-new man.”

“I’m actually calling about John,” I interrupted.

“John…my best detective. Did you know that? Gosh, I tell him every day.”

“I haven’t heard from him all week…”

“Georgina…” he condescended. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying I haven’t seen him all week.”

“Are you sure…John’s told me about how much sleeping you’re doing these days. Are you sure you’re seeing…”

“He always stops by, at least once a week, to drop off groceries and stuff.”

“Didn’t he drop off the bag of mandarins and pears I sent?”

I went into the dinning room. A bag with fruit flies circling the top sat on the table.

“Yes…it’s here,” I stuttered. “I don’t remember John coming in.”

“Well, perhaps you were sleeping,” Rome cleared his throat.

“Something doesn’t feel right,” I looked at Sheila. “Where is he now?”

“He’s on a case, GO.” I paused. Only John had ever called me that.

“He usually tells me when…”

“Is this really your territory, GO?” I imagined him leaning back in his chair. “He is remarried now…you can’t expect to be told everything,” he teased.

“I know that.”

“Just keep seeing that doctor. Things will get better,” he cheered. “By this time next year, I’ll be going to your wedding,” his words a reminder that I had been excluded from John’s new life.

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” my throat welled.

“I know so,” he continued. “You’re an amazing woman. You’re beautiful. You’re smart. You’re a family woman…”

“Rome, when do you think John will be back?” I couldn’t imagine him agreeing to do a case that would keep him from home long, knowing Sheila was pregnant.

“I can send him a message, if you’d like,” he huffed. “He’s busy though, and I think you just need some sleep, GO.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“What?”

“GO. Don’t call me GO.”

“Well, I don’t mean to upset you,” he raised his voice a few octaves. “I care about you…you know that.”

I clenched my teeth, thinking about how much of an intrusion Rome had been in our marriage.

“I’m not upset, Rome. I’m looking for John.”

“And like I told you, he’s working on a case,” he cleared his throat. “The charity is doing really well. He’s been a big help with this thing. I don’t know what I’d do without him…you know John,” he laughed. “He doesn’t have an off button. He just works, works, works; he goes and goes, and goes…I tell you, when he found out that all the work we had done to get Lily a kidney was all for nothing…”

“What?”

“Little Lilly…I just love her so much.”

“What did you say about finding a kidney?”

“My charity…didn’t John tell you? he coughed. “We help donors find their match.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works. What in the hell did you get John involved with?”

“GO,”

“Don’t call me that,” I yelled into the phone. Sheila put her hand on my shoulder.

“Okay…I’m going to let you go now.”

“Where is John? Why isn’t he answering his phone? What’s this kidney business?” I demanded.

“You misunderstood me. Are you sure you’re getting enough sleep?”

“Answer me, Rome.”

“I did answer you, GO.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Okay, I see that you’re angry,” his voice was low.

“I’m not angry…”

“John told me about your anger. Keep working with the doctor,” he paused. “You know John’s new wife is a yoga instructor…and she meditates. He says she’s much calmer than you were…but I understand there was a lot of stress…with Lily.”

“Go to hell, Rome.”

“Keep seeing the doctor, GO. I’ll talk to you later.” He hung up before I could respond.

***

I kept calling Delaney, but she didn’t answer. I waited in the car, the engine still running. Her lights were on.

Maybe she fell asleep. Maybe she isn’t next to her phone. Maybe she forgot. No, I just talked to her twenty minutes ago. Maybe… I thought.

I looked over at the gray Cadillac with tinted windows parked over the line.  I couldn’t let my mind go there, but somehow I already knew that something was amiss.

The girl stared out the window as I did, our eyes darting towards every sound we heard: the clanking doors of the dumpster enclosure. The laughter of two friends coming home after a night out. The tenant in a brown robe and house shoes stepping outside to get his charger out of the car.  And then what felt like an unbreakable silence until Delaney opened her front door, closing it behind her. She worked for a good thirty seconds to get the key in its hole, her hands too shaky to cooperate. I opened my door and waved. She motioned for me to stay where I was. I watched as she approached. Her body swayed; she stumbled a few times.

“Are you okay?” I got out of my car and rushed to her side.

“I did something…” she admitted. Her face was flushed.

“It’s okay,” I offered. “Let’s get in the car.

“Wait,” she stopped. “I did something…”

“It’s okay. What did you do?” I moved her hair out of her face.

“I killed him.”

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The Lucid Hours (Part 5)

***

Delaney steered the van along the winding road, green and gold trees on either side, the ocean in the distance blue and shimmering. We relaxed a little, inhaled the crisp air. True safety and resolve were a long way off, but the tension in our bodies disappeared, fear waned, and we moved on to the next step: meet Greg. I glanced over at Delaney. Her eyes were planted on the road. She was gone.

Sleep was in the back of my mind calling my name until I succumbed to the dark, endless space. At the end of the three-hour drive, I awoke as Delaney pulled onto a dirt road. The van swayed and dipped, moving closer to the iron gate at the end. Then the gate opened, and Greg stepped out with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, wearing a grease stained, short-sleeved button shirt, and ripped blue jeans with the same dark grease stains, years’ worth of deep smudges that had become part of the fabric. He ushered us onto the twelve-acre property.

“Follow the path all the way to the back,” he directed without removing his cigarette. Delaney nodded. I stared into the lines on his face, lines that revealed years of hard work and sacrifice.  He hopped into his truck and followed behind.

We passed rows of old, rusted muscle cars, weeds growing between the flattened tires, car parts and other junk coated with layers of dirt; a dilapidated house with a sunken roof and bulging windows, a big, red shed with a white door, farm equipment, baby goats, chickens, and row after row of wheat and workers. Tucked away at the back of the property was a ranch-style home with a long porch and walkway. Standing just outside the door was Helen, Greg’s ex-wife. She approached the van with a friendly wave.

 “How are you all doing? Where’s the girl you told Greg about?” she reached for the sliding door just as Delaney unlocked it.

“She slept the whole way,” Delaney said, shutting off the engine.

I looked back at Rain, still wrapped snug in the blanket.

Helen hopped into the back and peeled the blanket away.

“She’s burning up…” Helen ran her hands across Rain’s face and arms. “Hi there…I’m Helen. I’m a nurse. I’m going to take good care of you,” she said to the half-awake girl. “Come with me,” Helen led Rain into the house, to a guest bedroom, the second room down a clean, but cluttered hallway.

***

Once I had passed through the downtown district, I slowed my car, “checking to make sure I wasn’t being followed.

“What am I doing?” I hit my hands against the steering wheel. “Are you okay?” I asked the girl.

She looked at me wide-eyed, her arms wrapped around her sides. She said nothing.

“Where do you live? Why were you on the wharf? Are you sick?”

Still she said nothing.

“Do you want me to take you to the hospital? To the police station?”

Nothing.

I called Delaney for her advice.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“I found a girl…maybe ten years old. She was at the wharf. A man chased after us…”

“Are you sure you didn’t kidnap this girl?” Delaney asked. “How much sleep are you getting, Georgina?”

“I got some sleep earlier…”

“Are you sure there’s a girl in the car?” Delaney sympathized. “Could it be that you are imagining Lily?”

“No…at first I imagined Liliana, but this girl isn’t Liliana.”

“Who is she?”

“I don’t know. She’s not saying anything. She ran to me…there was a man.”

 “Meet me at the hospital,” Delaney said after a long, heavy sigh. “I’ll call Rome.”

I headed towards the hospital. The streetlights were dull and far apart. The street was empty except for the occasional driver and stray cat. I saw the Emergency entrance and froze.

“No!” I pulled over. “No, no, no.” I called Delaney.

“Are you at the hospital? She asked.

“No…don’t call Rome…it was him. I saw him at the wharf. I saw him…I heard him,”

“He’s not in town, Georgina. He’s receiving an award for his charity work,” Delaney countered. “There’s no way you saw him…”

The Gift of Mercy, that’s the name of his charity, right?”

“Yeah…”

I turned on the headlamp and looked over at the girl. Her face was pale, tear tracks from her eyes to her chin. Her shirt, what I thought was a gown when I first saw her, read The Gift of Mercy in black letters.

“I saw him…he was on the boat.”

“No way…” Delaney paused. “I can’t…I can’t…” I could hear her throwing stuff in her apartment. “There’s something else,” Delaney admitted. “I didn’t want to tell you…with everything else going on…”

“What is it?”

“I overheard Rome talking about John…about what happened to him.”

“What happened?”

“We should meet…come to my house.”

I turned the car around and headed south. The same dull streetlights illuminated the road. I sunk inside the sound of my tires gripping the road, a low, steady whirring rising and falling with the speed of the car. I passed the 24hour Donut shop, its sign bright, the dry cleaner’s, its windows dark; a grocery store that wouldn’t be open for another few hours, a coffee shop with it’s drive thru; Pizza Papa, Darcy’s Dance Studio, Nails-Nails-Nails. When I arrived at Delaney’s apartment complex, she buzzed me through the gate. I turned left and followed the path around to the tennis court and the gym. I slowed and waited for my eyes to single out her apartment which now looked identical to her neighbors’. A light grey Cadillac was parked in front. I called Delaney and waited for her to pick up, but she didn’t. I called again. Again. Nothing.

***

Rain lay on the bed as Helen, now with gloves and all her medical supplies on the table next to her, took her time cutting through the thick bandage around Rain’s stomach.

“Who put this bandage on like this?”

Helen uncovered a long, inflamed surgical scar.

“Mr. Rome,” Rain whispered.

“Who’s that?”

“The man buried in the forest.”

Thanks for reading!

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The Lucid Hours (Part 4)

***

We sat on the ground with our hands cuffed behind us, while the officers searched the van. Sargent Tilly took our ID and went back to her car.

 “Why are you all out this early?”

“Looking for Gruffalo,” the girl said.

“Who’s that?” the officer’s voice sweetened.

“From the story,” the girl said, expecting the officer to know the story of the little mouse and the creature he conjures.

“Did you find him?” the officer played along.

“No…”

The officer looked at us. Up then down, checking out our shoes, our hands.

“I hear he’s hard to find,” she said. “What’s your name, sweetie?”

“Rain,” her voice cracked.

“I love that name,” Sargent Tilly slid her hand across the girl’s face. “Where are you folks headed now?”

“We’re headed west…” Delaney said. I was still processing the fact that the girl could speak.

“To my brother’s house…we just stopped off for a bit,” I said.

“Where’s that?” the officer probed.

“Langley,” I said.

 “No luggage?” an officer behind Sergeant Tilly asked. “Just a bunch of work gear in the back.”

“Our bags are already there,” the girl said.

I looked at her, surprised at her quickness, her ability to deceive. I had so many questions for Rain who couldn’t have been more than ten-years old. She wore Liliana’s purple track suit, a picture of Dora on the back. It made her look younger, innocent.

“We spent the night there,” Rain continued. “I slept in my cousin’s room…I tried to wake her up to come with us, but she told me to leave her alone.”

“Whose work gear?” Sargent Tilly probed.

“It’s my husband’s,” Delaney chimed. “I thought he had taken everything out of the van before we left.”

Delaney and I smiled, hoping that the officers believed the tale and let us go. But inside disaster was brewing. The flashing lights ripped through the air.

An officer unlocked our handcuffs, and Sargent Tilly returned our ID.

In the distance, a truck was approaching. Sargent Tilly waved us on and they waited for the truck driver to stop in the same fashion we had.

When we were on the highway and Rain was snuggled up in a blanket, Delaney shot me a concerned look.

“We have a problem…”

“How did they know to look here?” I interrupted. At the same time Delaney and I shouted, “the phone!”

“You think they followed the signal?” I asked.

“They must have…and then lost it when we went into the forest.”

“Well, it’s six feet under now…”

 “They know who we are,” her words were a whisper.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…they can link us to Rome.”

***

A picture of John and Rome sat on the fireplace mantel until the day John moved out. He didn’t take the picture with him; I tossed it in the garbage, along with other work pictures. That picture, in particular, was taken at John’s Welcome party. They were both dressed in black suits with patterned ties. Rome had his hand around John’s neck, symbolic of the relationship that would be forged. I was at the party but somehow excluded from all the photos, something I brought up later, but John dismissed. Rome was a part of our lives; he made his way into every event, molding us to his desires.

“Why don’t you set some boundaries with him,” I asked John.

“Stop being so sensitive. He’s a widow…and all he’s trying to do is help me…help us,” John complained. “He got me on as detective…I owe him.”

The house was a disaster after John left. Every room, except Liliana’s, was filled with clutter, piles and piles of stuff, each item loaded with memories I couldn’t afford to lose. So most days I sat in the mess and lost myself inside the feelings of happier days, until sleep swooped in and carried me away. But at night I paced the halls. My thoughts were loud. Anxiety was like a sledgehammer in my chest; with each swing my lungs tightened until my breath was shallow and I was crawling on the floor reaching for air. I had to get out of the house, so first I sat in my car parked in the driveway, inhaling the cold, night air.

I don’t remember how I decided my route, but it became a nightly ritual: I drove around town past the hospital Liliana was born, the hospital she died; I drove past her school and stared at the playground where she had played with Alice and Francine, two neighborhood kids I hadn’t seen in months; I drove past John’s parents’ home, imagining them sitting in their matching recliners in front of the television; I drove past the police department, found John’s car, and then left; I drove past the cemetery where Liliana was buried, sometimes dropping off the best store-bought flowers I could find; I drove past the library where I had done as much research on Neuroblastoma as I could before Liliana died; and I drove to BB’s Bakery to get a scone and black coffee then headed to the wharf. I did this every night in hopes of quieting the sadness, the rage, the voices that promised an end to all misery.

On the night before the first-year anniversary of Liliana’s death, I sat in my car at the wharf, nibbling on a chocolate scone, sipping bitter, black coffee, resolved to make this night my last. Lights from surrounding buildings lit the wharf. Docked boats swayed. I contemplated death, wondered if it had as many layers as life, if it was as complicated.  Then I thought about Liliana and there she was at the end of the wharf running towards me, short curls bouncing against her shoulders. Her feet slapped against the wooden planks. Her winded cries pierced the air.

“I’m here, baby,” I yelled as I got out of the car. “I’m right here.”

The closer she got to me, the more I needed her.

“Don’t ever leave me again,” I said as I pulled her into my arms. She was mine again. Life made sense, or at least I wanted it to make sense. I wanted the obscure to be illuminated, the dark hours of my life to become lucid. I wanted the kind of restoration only time could offer.

I held on to her long after I knew she wasn’t Liliana. But I kept holding on, hoping somehow I was wrong. When I did let go, I looked down at the girl. What I thought were short curls were long, oily strands of hair, her face more mature. She wore a sheer, white gown, a thick bandage wrapped around her midsection.

“What happened?” I asked her. She opened her mouth to speak but no words came out.

At the other end of the wharf a man exited his boat, first looking to his right and then to his left, in our direction.

“Hey!” he yelled and sprinted towards us.

The girl moaned. Her eyes were big, watery. I grabbed her hand and we ran to my car. She climbed in through the driver’s seat, and I sped off, leaving the man screaming out in frustration.

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The Lucid Hours (Part 3)

***

Delaney let the van roll towards the police barricade, flashes of red and blue a visual disharmony that induced terror and idealized our primal responses. We raged and whimpered, flirted with death as officers waited with their guns drawn.

“Stop the vehicle,” an officer yelled into her megaphone.

Delaney stopped, put the van in park.

“Put your hands where we can see them.”

We did.

Officers ran towards the van, their plan strategic, their poses defensive.

I inhaled a long, slow breath. The sun, now to our backs, poured its orange hue through the windows, and fresh morning air wafted through the vents. Peace and pandemonium were again side by side, a continuum on which my life existed.

***

John and I met through a once mutual friend, Millie Brockmeyer. She invited us both to her yearly Halloween party. Her two-acre property was filled with festivities complete with the most competitive costume contest I’d ever seen, first prize winners spending as much money as it took to ensure their costume was the best. That year John dressed up as Gomez, and I was Morticia from the Adam’s Family. Millie sat us together on the hayride. I fell hard for his charm, his smarts, his career prospects. Right away we talked about a future, created it from scratch. In a white Mermaid style dress, I walked down the aisle and promised to love, honor, and cherish him for as long as I shall live. Millie, my maid of honor, and my bridesmaids, John’s sisters, stood poised in their lavender dresses, their smiles approval for this union. We honeymooned in Hawaii, came home and a few months later we were homeowners and John was promoted to detective. His boss, Romulus Mariani, whom we called Rome, entered our lives as Millie exited. Rome was a widow with three adult children who hadn’t spoken to him in years. He spent Sunday evenings with us, retelling fishing stories and boasting about the cases he’d solved, no thanks to his former team. He went on and on about how much he appreciated John, how he was glad someone with John’s skills was on his team. But the admiration soon waned. No matter how many hours John worked, Rome found reasons to demand even more. It was an obligation that strained our marriage.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you…I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

***

I awoke to sharp pains in my sides. It felt like I was being squeezed from the inside. I sat up, let my feet hang over the side of the bed, and stared at the red numbers blinking on the clock.

“It can’t be time…” I muttered, noticing John still wasn’t home from work.

The minutes passed. The pain dug deeper. I hadn’t felt the baby move in a few hours, and I was starting to worry because now the contractions were five minutes apart.

“It’s time,” I called John.

“What?” he asked. “We have another two weeks…”

“I need you to come home now.”

There was a long silence and then a loud commotion.

“If you go, you’re worthless to me,” I heard Rome say.

Pain climbed heights I had never known. It was too late to get an epidural. Between breathing my way through contractions, I sucked on ice chips and walked the halls. And when it was time to push, I did. But before I could hold our baby girl, the nurses whisked her away. John’s eyes were filled with questions. I lay back and felt my excitement turn to fear. Joy to hope, the frantic kind laced with desperate prayers and pleas.

I slouched in a hospital chair listening to the machines beep, watching my daughter’s body twitch inside the incubator. The nurses urged me to go back to my room. They’d call me if anything changed. I ignored them. John didn’t.

He left and I always stayed, watching day after day, year after year, doctors and nurses outsmart death to give her life. We were divided yet bonded in uncertainty. Each hospital visit brought new drugs, a prediction of life expectancy, flowers and stuffed animals. Cards of sympathy. Love poured in through hugs, home-cooked meals, shoulders to collect salty tears.

For eight years Liliana, my sweet Lily, was sick and often occupied a room at Sacred Heart Hospital until that Wednesday morning at 3:45am when a code blue rang through the halls, a dangerous dance between professionals and patient. I waited outside the room for news, for a pulse.

“She’s gone, John,” I heard Rome in the background.

He sent his condolences and gave John time off to mourn. I didn’t ask John why he hadn’t demanded time off before, why he hadn’t made us his priority because in his eyes he had. I didn’t try to understand. I mourned with him and loved harder. My heart stretched because my mind couldn’t.

***

Six months later, I watched John pack his things. His then girlfriend, Sheila, stood in the foyer with her hands clasped in front of her. She was shy, reserved; her eyes never met mine. He carried box after box to the truck, and then they hopped in and drove away, off to build their life together, leaving me behind inside memory’s battleground.

“…just give yourself time to pick up the pieces,” Millie said in her most supportive voice. But I knew all attempts to restore life meant I’d someday have to let go of Liliana, something I couldn’t imagine ever being ready to accept. So, I left the disaster. Stayed inside the nightmare and let it replay until dream and reality became one.

When the Harvest Festival came around, I walked along Pine street, eyeing each vendor’s table without stopping. Paintings and ceramic pieces each with its own price tag decorated long tables. Clothing, new and used, hung on garment racks. Rocks, crystals, and handmade jewelry lay in clear cases. Baskets made of wood and wicker beckoned, but I kept moving through the crowd, my steps light, my movements fluid, part of a larger sequence, a narrative I was both participant and observer. At first, she didn’t see me, but when she did her face drooped into a frown, and then her eyes widened with anger.

“I hate you,” she shouted. “I hate you…I hate you…I hate you,” her voice strained, the veins in her neck enlarged. I could feel her spit landing on my face.

Strangers paused and stared at me, confident in their dismissal.

“I’m sorry, my sweet girl…I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t want to die…” she cried, her voice fading as she was absorbed back into the crowd.

“Liliana!” I fell to my knees. “Don’t leave me.”

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The Lucid Hours (Part 2)

***

The smell of death stayed with me, a reminder of the pact I had made with myself on a dark ledge one year earlier as I contemplated love’s limitations and teetered between will and weakness, resisting the lull of the world’s darkest chambers.

Rain started to fall in cold drops. The splatter against the van’s roof landed hard like a runner’s pulse. Delaney kept shoveling. I sat down and rested, following her advice to ‘think about something nice.’

As the rain pelted my scalp and then slid down my face and neck, I thought about Liliana, my sweet little girl. I imagined her running, a wide smile on her face, short curls bouncing on her shoulders, her laugh soft, childish. I bent down and extended my arms.

“Mommy,” she called, her little arms flapping.

But the faster she ran, the farther away she got until she grew pale and collapsed.  An unshakable shiver ripped through me, weakening my muscles.

Then John arrived and he took my hand, squeezed it, but the shaking couldn’t be soothed. He couldn’t make the world stop spinning either. He couldn’t make the priest’s words less final. We watched as the light pink casket was lowered into the ground. Bodies dressed in black mumbled around us: the certainty of peace whispered in our ears, while gestured condolences laced silence with misery.

“Lily,” I whispered, letting the rain carry my tears away and bring me back inside the moment.

Delaney worked with precision to restore the scene as we had found it, as close as she could, that is. Her detective mind was on overload as she plotted in her the weeks ahead, making moves to protect our identities, our freedom. She wiped the shovel blades and wrapped them in a tarp. She replaced twigs, mushrooms, and the lush green vegetation that now looked wilted, hoping that somehow the damaged ecosystem would come alive again.

“Take off your coveralls,” Delaney said. “We have to be careful that we don’t lift too much soil into the van,” her words were hard, breathy. “If they find us…and if they do a soil match…we just have to dump the van as soon as possible and get some dry ice…the dry ice will break down the blood particles and…that should do it…unless…” she made mental notes but couldn’t fully remove an underlying doubt that we’d ever find ourselves on the other side of this thing.

She packed our hairnets into a black duffle bag and semi-folded the dirty coveralls.

“Take off your boots, and then take off your gloves…don’t touch the outside,” she modeled. “They will be looking for DNA.”

I untied the black work boots and slipped them off; the plastic foot covers clung to my socks.

“Keep those on,” she directed as she lugged the shovels to the van. “We have to get out of here.

When she returned, she worried about the van’s tire tracks, the imprints they’d leave and whether this could be traced or not.

“They will know we were here…” she thought aloud.

I dropped my wet, muddy boots into the garbage bag she had brought back from the van.

“You may be overthinking it,” I interrupted. “At this rate, we’ll be lucky to get back to the mainland.”

“Get in the van,” she looked back, satisfied with her work.

***

Once inside, Delaney navigated the winding, dirt road, the decline steep at times, narrow and overgrown in parts. About 30 minutes into the drive, we panicked, unsure how far we still had to go, unsure if we were even headed to the edge of the wilderness. I watched the compass, recited the coordinates, but the darkness was thick, imposing like memory. Lily’s cries echoed. John packed his things and moved out of our home, smashing the ceramic Welcome sign. And when we had to decide to turn left or right, I screamed, waking the girl in the third-row seat.

“Mama…Mama,” she called, climbing out of the blankets we had wrapped her in.

“It’s okay,” Delaney promised. “It’s okay.”

I moved to the third row and pulled the girl close, her cries mirroring mine. I wasn’t her mother, but I was a mother. And I’d always be that.

***

As the sun’s orange glow peaked through the horizon, Delaney found her way back to the entrance. She got out of the van, removed the broken lock, and swung open the gate. I slid into the driver’s seat and drove through the gate. In the rearview mirror I watched the ‘No Unauthorized Vehicles’ sign wobble as Delaney closed the gate and placed the broken lock and chain around post. She hopped back into the driver’s seat and we celebrated with a high five. We exhaled and let relief in.

“All we have to do is get to Greg’s…” I said. “He will help us get rid of the van and get some new ID cards…one for the girl.”

“What about phones?” Delaney asked.

“He’ll get us a couple non-traceable phones too. Right now, we need to get far from this place.”

“And the dry ice?” Delaney asked as she turned onto the main road and headed east. The sunrise was our reward for surviving darkness. Flashing red and blue lights our worst nightmare.

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The Lucid Hours (Part 1)

From inside the hole, the trees and the sky appeared as one, a single frame dark, menacing.  Black and starry, it stared down at us, spying on our misdeeds, disapproving the act. I wiped sweat from my face and kept digging. Delaney looked on trapped in the rhythm: the shovel hitting the ground, dirt piling onto the steel blade, and the loose soil raining down on the ground above, over and over again until the hard, clay-like earth grew softer, almost parting itself, and blisters started forming underneath my skin. The tips of tall Evergreen swayed in the summer night wind then faded against the mountain’s peak. I dug. Harder. Sleep still a vigilant enemy who taunted me with lapses in time, with a mental fuzziness that fragmented the events of the last 48 hours. All I knew now was that sunrise was a few hours away, and I had one purpose: stay alive long enough to protect a girl I didn’t know from an evil I couldn’t predict. My plan was slippery, changing by the second as logic evaded my exhausted mind.

 “I think that’s good…” Delaney said, her voice quiet and cracking. “The hole is about 6 feet now.” The van’s headlights illuminated her features, but they were small against the monstrous forest behind her.

“What?” I asked, her words settling at the bottom of my mind in heavy chunks.

“I think we can…you know…push the body in,” she eyed the long, log-shaped tarp, its polyester exterior blotted with deep crimson stains coded with the DNA of a man who misjudged the determination of two “little ladies” and their drive for justice.

Delaney leaned over the edge of the hole, steadying me as I clawed my way out. We didn’t speak; instead, our movements were intuitive. We rolled the body until it hit the bottom of the hole and then began covering it with dirt.

Fury and fear arrived hand in hand like lit explosives ready to detonate inside my chest. The smell of death hung in the air, and with each swing of the shovel, gastric acid climbed my esophagus until vomit spewed.

“Try not to think about it,” Delaney said, avoiding my eyes. “Think about something nice…we don’t have much time.”

Soon a dull orange hue would peek from behind the horizon and the landscape would again be a magical forest, and we’d be back in the van as the sun rose in awe of the coastal beauty, rich with blue-green waters calm in some places, rapturous in others, and mountains standing guard while explorers searched for meaning in nature’s endless puzzle. We’d be back there again racing against evil.

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The Search (Part 4)

***

I don’t know how long I lay there. Frozen. Bloody. Entangled in the tethers of justice. Darkness cradled my mind, guiding me through its silent maze as my body began to awaken. Water trickled past me, a whispered love song that broke through the darkness and stirred my senses. “Where is she?” a voice called. I inhaled the earthy air and opened my eyes to a blood-stained rock. My body was stiff, my dress wet and gritty. I steadied myself on an adjacent rock and fought memory for clues to why my head ached, why the pounding beat inside my skull like the bass drum in the high school marching band that practiced early in the morning. On shaky legs I hobbled back to the entrance, crossing each rock with careful, calculated steps. My backpack bounced up and down, the nylon material wet but the contents still safe. My teeth chattered; wet, blue, oblong shapes printed on cotton fabric stuck to my skin. I squeezed the ends and let the water drip next to the leaning wooden Rocky Cove sign. A lady in pink shorts and a white sweater paused to watch before asking me if I was okay.

“I fell.”

“Be careful,” she said, as she started to walk away. “Take care of that cut,” she pointed at my head.

“I’m looking for someone, a little girl. She was crying,” I said. “Did you see her?”

“No…is she your daughter?” The woman gave a concerned glance. “Check the front office…”

“She’s not my daughter.”

“Um…okay then,” she turned and walked away.

At Fern Valley I retraced my steps, listened for Selah. Nothing. I walked to the wood bridge, and I thought I saw Selah. I saw her. She was dancing and singing, her movements fragmented, like pixels frozen intermittently on a screen. I moved to touch her, but she screamed, a high-pitched assault on my eardrums that brought me to my knees. My body rocked back and forth to its own rhythm. “Where is she?” I heard the voice again.  I ran to the Crape Myrtle walkway, the interlocking branches cracking under the weight of playful squirrels. Tree debris hung in the air, fine particles I swatted with wild, flailing arms as I scampered through the archway. At the Garden Show, I slowed my pace deciding to pick a rose for Selah. It had to be perfect, with perfect red petals, perfect prickly thorns, a perfect stem, a perfect symmetrical shape. The sun shone on my back, its warmth pouring through my wet clothes, lifting the bone-deep chill. I could hear Selah crying again. Her cathartic whimper harmony to the fountain’s burbling waterfall. I snapped a rose from its stalk and headed towards the fountain. Jack was there with his hands in his pockets. He stood in the shadows reading the sign, waiting for me.

I tried to sneak past him unnoticed, but he did notice me. He lunged towards me, grabbing my arm, swinging me around so that my back was snug against his chest.

“Where is she?” he yelled into my ear.

“Let me go,” I squirmed. He tightened his grip and laughed.

“Tell me where she is!” he yelled again.

“Selah,” I worried, recalling her small body tucked behind the thick ivory wall, between the tower and the trail, down the lily pad- shaped stones, into a sunken shed whose roof, covered with leaves and vines looked to be a simple incline, its front decorated with white, puffy dandelions Selah plucked before she entered. I couldn’t see the seeds, but I felt them tickle my face as she blew each one. “I’m sleepy,” she cried after the last of the dandelion seeds flew through the air. “You can’t go to sleep,” I told her. But she did go to sleep. Snug in her fluffy skirt, she slept, her mouth gaped, her limbs limp.  I watched her sleep.

***

“Are you feeling better, Lauren?” Detective Riley asked as he opened the door and turned on the light.

“I am not feeling better,” I said, covering my eyes. “I want to go home.”

Detective Riley sat in the chair across from me and adjusted his tie. “It’s getting dark outside. I bet Selah is scared.” He rubbed his hands together.

“She’s sleeping in the shed,” I said. “I tried to wake her up.” I pushed a pile of bread crust to the corner of the table.

“What shed, Lauren?” Detective Riley’s body perked.

“It’s between the tower and trail, hidden behind the ivory wall.”

“Okay…is that near the entrance of the arboretum…or somewhere in the middle?” Detective Riley scrunched his brow.

“It’s 45 steps from the tower, 27 steps left, off the trail, 13 steps through the leaves and dirt. And then you have to crawl into the shed because it’s partially underground.”

“I’ll be right back,” Detective Riley rushed out of the room.

***

Jack’s grip was so tight I thought my arm my pop out of socket. We walked this way to the tower, up the stairs all the way to the top.

“Is everything okay here?” a lady in a plaid shawl asked.

“We’re fine her,” Jacked barked. “Mind your own business.”

The lady scoffed before leaving. She muttered obscenities and disappeared down the stairs.

“Where is she?” Jack tightened his grip. “If you don’t tell me, I will toss you over the edge of this tower.”

“I already called 911,” I said. “I saw what you did,” I said through the pain. “I saw what you did to Selah.”

Jack let go of my arm and grabbed a chunk of my hair, attempting to smash my head into the side of the railing. And then he stopped, halted by memory.

“I took your phone,” he reminded me. “Don’t you remember? I know you have a little memory problem,” he laughed.

“I called before…when I saw you in the shadows.”

“What?” he pulled my phone from his pocket and searched the call log. There were two calls. One call to my mother that lasted 2 minutes and 37 seconds. The other to 911 that lasted 3 minutes and 44 seconds, much of which was spent with the operator asking if I had taken something, if there was someone else who could explain the emergency.

“I’ll tell them it was you,” he said.

Jack threw the phone as far as he could into the brush. And I ran down the stairs, skipping one, sometimes two at a time until I reached the bottom.

***

“Would you mind explaining where Selah is again for my deputy,” Detective Riley returned with a uniformed officer.

I did and then he left.

“So…was it Selah’s idea to go into the shed?” Detective Riley asked.

“No, it was my idea.”

“Were you playing a game?”

“We were hiding.”

“Who were you hiding from?”

“Jack,” I said, a cold shiver climbing up my spine.

“Why were you hiding from Jack?

“Selah was bleeding.”

***

I found Selah huddled against the ivory wall, her face puffy and bloody. I grabbed her hand and led her to the sunken shed. I heard Jack’s footsteps. He was getting closer, but it was dark, and I told Selah to get down on her knees and follow me.

“Daddy hit me,” she said, as she blew Dandelion seeds into the air. “He pushed my head down on the rocks. My head hurts. I’m sleepy,” she said.

 “You’re not supposed to go to sleep after a head injury,” I told her.

“I know that,” she said and then took off her shoes.

As she slept, I cleaned her bloody face with my shirt. Then I moved her head into what I thought would be a more comfortable position, and there was more blood in her hair, collecting against her scalp.

***

Two officers stopped me. Jack wasn’t far behind screaming, “She took my daughter…I can’t find her.”

“She was crying,” I defended.

“Where is she now?” the officer with brown her asked, the silver clip in her hair sparkled in the light.

“She’s sleeping.”

“Sleeping where?” she asked, now with a more demanding tone.

“Behind the Ivory Wall.”

“Where is that?”

“It’s between the tower and the trail.”

She stared at me, frustrated and, like most, unsure what to think of me. I looked down at the dried blood under my fingernails, on the front of my company t-shirt.

“She’s lying…she doesn’t make any sense,” Jack shouted. “If you hurt my baby girl,” he paced.

***

Detective Riley stood up and answered the door; the same lady who had brought the sandwiches appeared.

“Thank you, Grace,” Detective Riley closed the door and returned to his seat.

He leaned back, exhaled, and clasped his hands on top of his head.

“They found Selah.” He paused. “There are still some things we have to figure out, but I think you can go home for now…I may have more questions later though.”

I nodded and closed my eyes. The sound of Selah’s gurgled sobs were indistinguishable from my own. We were one now. Deep inside memory’s shadowy world where truth was slippery.

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The Search (Part 3)

***

“What do you mean Jack was there?” Detective Riley asked.

“Can you turn off that light? It’s bothering my eyes.”

“What do you mean, Lauren?” Detective Riley repeated, his voice softer, but firm, serious.

“I mean…Jack was there,” I took a bite of the sandwich, and then spit it out as the cold ham hit my tongue. “I don’t like this,” I pushed the sandwich to the side.

“What was Jack doing on the bench?”

“I’m hungry,” I stood up and tried to grab my backpack. “I have to go now. I have to call my mother…she doesn’t know I’m here, and she likes to know where I am.”

“Sit down, Lauren…Your mother is here,” Detective Riley, assured, pulling my backpack to the edge of the table. “I will get you something else to eat,” he opened the door and stepped out. “Grace, will you bring me a turkey and a tuna sandwich, please.” He closed the door.

“What kind of bread is it? I don’t like the tuna to touch the bread for too long,” I sat down. “Wait…my mother is here? Can I see her?” I stood up again.

“Uh…I’m not sure what kind of bread it is. We’ll see what Grace brings.”

“Can I see my mother?”

“Not right now, Lauren.” Detective Riley pulled his chair next to mine and leaned in. “We really need to find out what happened to Selah. Can you tell me what happened?” he stared into my eyes. “Tell me what Jack was doing.”

“I don’t want to answer any more questions. I want to go home.” I felt my blood pressure rising, a pulsing sensation behind my eyes.

“But what about Selah?” Detective Riley leaned in closer. “We need your help.”

“I don’t know,” I threw my hands up in the air. “I don’t know. It’s too bright in here,” I squinted. “And I’m hungry…I’m hungry…and it’s too bright in here.” I pointed up at the incandescent light. “I have to get out of here. I have to talk to my mother. I was supposed to be home already. My mother made cookies, and I’m supposed to be home…and I don’t know what happened to Selah…I tried to wake her up. I tried,” I yelled through tears and exhaustion, which to Detective Riley must have sounded like anger because he sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, his jawbone clenched. He stayed like this until Grace knocked on the door.

“One turkey and one tuna,” she said as she handed the sandwiches to Detective Riley. “Anything else?”

“Can you ask Ms. Lawson to come in, please?”

“Sure.”

I didn’t say anything. I just waited for the door to open and my mother to walk through.

***

My mother was wearing the same yellow apron, but her hair had fallen out of its bun and now rested on her shoulders. Her face was fraught with worry, not the usual cheerful gaze.

“Lauren,” she hugged me tight. “Are you okay?” She kissed my cheek and brushed my hair back away from my forehead. “What is this?” she examined the laceration above my temple. The blood had already started to dry, but the wound was open, a tiny ravine filled now with dirt, hair, and blood.

“I need stitches,” I said.

“What happened to you?” She examined the rest of my head, my hands, my arms. “Tell me…” her hands shook against mine as she imagined the worst and prayed for the best.

“Ms. Lawson,” Detective Riley interrupted. “Hi…I’m working very hard with Lauren to figure out what happened,” he asserted. “I brought you in because Lauren is getting a bit overwhelmed, so I will give her time to eat and rest before we continue.”

“Can I take her home?” My mother’s eyes were big with hope. “Someone needs to look at that cut…did you know about this?”

“Not right now,” Detective Riley said, his words heavy, final. “I’ll get someone to take a look at it, but for now…”

My mother didn’t bother fighting, knowing the circumstances were more powerful and the outcome still unknown.

“I’ll be right outside, Lauren.” My mother whispered so I didn’t hear that her voice had deserted her. “Tell the detective what you know…it’s okay.”

“I want to go home,” I pleaded.

“I know, sweetie,” she said as Detective Riley turned off the light and escorted her out of the room. “Do I need to call a lawyer?” I heard her say as he closed the door.

***

I put my hand to my head, now aware of the throbbing. My eyes adjusted to the gloominess of dusk, and it was then that I could see the emergent tower nestled between the arm-like branches of about 5 oak trees. I climbed to the top and looked out at the arboretum: a majestic blanket of greens, reds, and browns with sprinkles of yellow and orange; an enchanting view I got lost in each time. I almost didn’t notice when Selah reached the top of the 120-foot structure. And I wasn’t sure if she saw me. She twirled. She jumped, wanting to see over the edge of the tower. That’s when she came to me and pulled on my dress. I picked her up so that she could see what I saw, and I put her down when she started to squirm. Then she was gone, walking hand in hand with the shadowy figure in my peripheral.

A while later I saw her on the arboretum trail. Pink and white blossoms littered the path with their flowers and scented the air. Selah skipped along, her small body radiating pure joy.

And I saw her sitting on the bench in front of the fountain. Jack stood in the shadows about 20 feet away reading an informational sign, his hands in his pockets.

I saw them at the garden show where she picked flowers even though she wasn’t supposed to.

I saw them at the Crape Myrtle walkway. She awed at the cinnamon-colored, interlocking branches that formed a perfect archway, balancing shade and sun.

I saw her again on the wood bridge dancing along the moss-covered planks, I began wondering if they were following me. She called out to the frogs in the pond below. I thought she saw me, but she passed right by without seeming to notice me. Jack waited on the other side of the bridge, his body dark and looming, his patience wearing thin as he gestured for Selah to catch up to him.

When I got to Fern Valley, I heard Selah’s cries echoing from another part of the arboretum. I imagined her slipping into frustration, pushed to the frayed ends of language. Still listening to her cries—the timbre, the tempo–I walked up the dark, rustic steps onto a small dirt path where I observed the medley of Fern. There along the edge of the path, stuck between two Ostrich Fern, was Selah’s pink notebook. I picked it up, put it in my backpack, and followed her cries to Rocky Cove.

At the entrance of Rocky Cove, I saw Jack, but I didn’t see Selah. And Jack didn’t see me. The sound of Selah’s cries was still in my ears, but I couldn’t tell if it was real. I entered the rocky stream, charting my path from flat rocks to large rocks, smooth and jagged rocks. My movements were slow and careful, but I still found myself slipping, losing my balance. I was about halfway to the cove, a giant rock structure, when my body started shaking. I could still hear Selah’s cries. I wanted to turn around and leave, but I didn’t want to leave if Selah was in the cove, upset because she had lost her notebook. The steady trickle of water soothed my concerns away; I took some deep breaths and I kept moving, getting closer to the cove one rock at a time.  

***

I felt his presence before I heard his voice.

“Oh, Lauren…I see you,” Jack taunted.

I turned around, and before I could focus my eyes long enough to see his face, I felt myself crashing into the water. Pain seized my body. And again, in my cries I heard Selah’s. I lay face down against a rock, my blood traveling up stream. The sweet voice of death comforted me as it slowly lulled me into a stillness I’d never known.

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The Search (Part 2)

***

“Lauren, I need you to talk to me,” Detective Riley said after a few minutes. “How did Selah get to the arboretum?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you see Selah at the arboretum?”

“Yes, we played hide and seek,” I took a sip of water. “We looked at the flowers, all the ones she wanted to see.”

“What else did you do?”

“I showed her the ones I like, and I showed her my drawings…she showed me her drawings…they were messy, little kid drawings.”

“How old do you think Selah is?”

“I think she’s 6 ½ because she told me she was 6 ½.”

“And how old are you, Lauren?”

“I am 22 years old. My birthday is December 13th. I’m a Sagittarius. That’s why I like being outside.”

“Okay…” Detective Riley smirked. “So Selah is much younger…”

“And smaller too. She couldn’t keep up with me when we were playing tag, so I went slower.”

“That was nice of you,” Detective Riley paced, his steps precise, metered.

“I also gave her my apple,” I said as he walked behind me.

“That’s all very nice, Lauren.” Detective Riley paused. “But we have a problem.”

“Yes…”

“Lauren,” Detective Riley turned on the light. “What happened to Selah?”

“No light,” I screamed.

“We have to have the light on, Lauren.” Detective Riley insisted. “What happened to Selah?”

I closed my eyes and rested my head on the table. In my own cries I heard Selah’s.

“It’s okay, It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay,” I whispered.

“What happened to Selah?” Detective Riley repeated, his voice echoing.

Sweat beads slid down my spine.  A sharp shiver ripped through me. I imagined the Antarctic swells rising from the depths of the ocean then crashing into the coral reef.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled. “I don’t understand.”

I needed to start over, to retrace my steps in a way that made sense to me.

***

I decided to wear a sleeveless, Bohemian style summer dress, blue with oblong, netted shapes scattered in an alternating pattern. It was my third choice. The first two didn’t meet the requirements, according to my friend, Kate, the expert on appropriate company picnic attire. I told her I couldn’t hang out on Saturday and discuss the botanical beauty, Blood Red Heath, at our usual coffee shop on River Drive from 1 to 3.

“I’ll send you the pictures I saved on my computer, so be sure to check your email in about 8 minutes,” I hung up the phone and pulled my laptop from my backpack. While it turned on, I put two slices of 9-grain bread into a sandwich bag. Then I put some leftover tuna in a small to-go container and grabbed an apple, the shiniest one, from the fruit bowl on the counter and put it all in a brown, paper lunch bag. I sent the pictures as a zip file to Kate and closed my laptop. It took exactly 8 minutes.

I decided to leave my laptop behind in my hiding spot, inside my folded zebra blanket, third in a pile of 5 in my hall closet. I grabbed my lunch and slipped it in my backpack, checking to make sure my notebook and pens were there. Next to the door on the small table were my keys and earbuds. With earbuds in and a triple check of the lock, I headed to the front house to tell my mother that I was leaving.

“You got everything, kiddo?” she said, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Yes…what are you making?” I peered into the white bowl.”

“I’m making cookies, for later,” she winked. “You may want this,” she moved to the kitchen table and picked up a blue, wool blanket.

“Okay…” I put the blanket under my arm. “I’m going to the picnic now.” I turned to leave.

“And you’ll be back at…”?

“The picnic is over at 4, but I’m going to leave at 2 and I will be home by 2:30 if the bus is on time. 2:40 if the bus is a little late…and if it’s going to be later than that I will call you.”

“How about you call me when you leave the picnic?”

“That’s a good idea,” I agreed.

Okay then…have fun,” I heard her say as I shut the door.

***

Bus 44 arrived on time, making a loud hissing sound as hot, compressed air escaped. I boarded and made my way to my second favorite seat, the window seat in the 4th row from the back, since a man with a dark beard was sitting in my first choice. As I passed, I resisted telling him that I preferred the seat he was sitting in, remembering what my mother had told me; “some things are better kept to ourselves.” The bus jerked forward, and I leaned my face against the window. Cold air seeped through, tickling my nose hairs.

We passed the church with the steeple where the Mormons worship; the park with the pond and early morning flag football games; the supermarket whose parking lot was littered with carts; too many gas stations to count, each equally equipped with regular and high octane fuel; multi-level city buildings, their purpose I’d never know; the car lot with an amazing selection and deals for miles; and the empty high school school waiting for Monday morning when moody teenagers would return.

We stopped for three young men, who hopped on mid-conversation, showed their passes, and found seats in the middle of the bus; a short, round lady with a wire basket on wheels, contents unknown, who took two minutes to board and then sat in the accessible seating area, her breath labored; a man in a dark blue suit who preferred to stand for his 5 mile trip; and a man and a woman with matching joggers and bottled water who seemed to float onto the bus, uplifted by positive thoughts, clean eating, exercise, recycling, and smiles.

“Babe, that was a great workout,” the woman said to her husband as they sat in the seats across from mine. “I feel great! I’m so grateful to be alive…really, really grateful,” the woman’s voiced trailed.

“Me too, babe,” her husband put his arm around her and squeezed.

***

By the time we got to Marshall Station, I had 45 minutes to walk the 6 blocks to Big Lake Park, the park with no lake, or any body of water for that matter. I steadied my pace, not too fast, not too slow, focusing just on my steps, nothing else:  my right shoe slapping the ground then the left, fallen arches to blame. “Heel, toe, heel, toe,” I could hear my mother nagging.

I was afraid I wouldn’t know where to go, but Mary told me to look for the big, yellow welcome sign. So, I did and I found it. Two women I didn’t know were setting up the check-in booth while a catering team set up tables of cold and hot food. I waited under the welcome sign.

“I’m ready to sign in,” I said at 11:30am.

The woman with red, frizzy hair nodded and continued organizing the table with name tags, a sign in sheet on a clear clipboard, shirts ranging from small to 4x, and a goodie bowl filled with pens and whiteboard markers, magnets for the refrigerator, key chains, small tape dispensers and staplers, and hand sanitizer. The other woman with brown hair hid boxes under the table, making the area look neat.

“Find your name on this list,” the red-headed woman handed me the clipboard. “It’s organized by department.”

“I work in the mailroom,” I offered.

“Okay…then you will find your name under Mailroom.”

***

I picked a medium t-shirt and wrote my name on a name tag, putting them both on in front of the two women. They smiled as I walked away, and I smiled back at them, not a full smile with teeth, a small smile. First, I moseyed along the serving tables, mingling with the early birds and the serving staff. Then I decided to walk through the park and wait for other people to arrive, people I knew. Just beyond the picnic area, over a small, grassy hill was a long path lined with benches and flowers: Red Amaranthus with erect plumes; orange Canna Lilies poking through thick green leaves; pink Garden Cosmos, flowers with gold centers, standing high; bright yellow Creeping Zinnias, low to the ground, their vines hidden; and Marigolds fluffy and bright, a call to summer. I sat on the middle bench and took out my notebook, carefully drawing a perfect Marigold flower, just one, right in the center of the page.

***

“I thought you said you went to find Mary and Isaac after you checked in,” Detective Riley said.

“At first they weren’t there. I had to wait,” I explained.  “I didn’t see anyone I knew.”

“I want you to tell me exactly what happened,”

“I am.”

***

At 12:20pm I walked back to the picnic area. It was a completely different scene. People were everywhere. I saw Isaac first then Mary. I found a spot near them and spread out my blanket.

“Hi Mary. Hi Isaac.”

“What’s up?” Isaac asked.

“Hey girl,” Mary said. “It’s getting warm. Isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I said, sitting on my blanket. I took my notebook out again, this time crossing out Go to the picnic on my schedule and circling Go to the arboretum at 1pm.

“Are you going to play any of the games,” Mary asked. “That three-legged race looks fun,” she laughed.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.

“You want to go get some lemonade while you think about it?” Mary asked as she stood up.

“Okay, sure.” I followed Mary to the beverage area. “This park has nice flowers,” I tried to start a conversation.

“It does.”

Mary poured me a cup of lemonade, one for Isaac, and then one for herself before we went back to my blanket, where I sat with my legs crisscrossed, my dress stretched over my knees.

“Let’s go do the three-legged race,” Isaac stood up when he finished his lemonade.

“I’m down,” Mary gulped the rest of her drink. “Do you want to go, Lauren?” she asked.

Before I could give my answer, Isaac had whisked her away. I watched them run to the other side of the picnic.

***

“That’s when I saw her,” I heard my voice drop.

“Selah?” Detective Rile asked.

“Yes.”

***

She was the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. Full of personality. And articulate. I saw her before I saw her mother. With a pink notebook under her arm and a purple purse on her shoulder, she approached the park’s entrance and waited. She swayed from side to side in her fluffy, lavender skirt, looking around at the celebration before her: The company’s picnic complete with fire-lit BBQ grills all lined with chicken, ribs, and hotdogs; two volleyball games starting, each with it’s own lively audience; long tables covered with side dishes stuffed in large bowls and containers atop ice; a row of ice chests filled with water—mountain, spring, sparkling–a variety of carbonated beverages–high in sugar, low in sugar, no sugar, caffeinated, decaffeinated—and coffees, bottled and canned. Across from the playground Steve from accounting and his partner Dave put on a clown show while Bea and Ryan, both analysts, sat at a table transforming small faces into tigers, dragons, bumblebees, ladybugs, and pirates. Loud cheers and squeals satisfied parents standing nearby, half engrossed in their own conversation and half smiles and celebration as their children pleaded, “look at me, look at me!”

A woman dressed in a white sundress and sandals pushing a baby stroller was just behind the child, motioning her to continue on the path. I watched. The child skipped lightly ahead. Her white sandals scraped against the ground on the downbeat. She admired the going-ons, pointing to the clowns and face painting station.

“Mommy, that looks fun.”

“It does look fun…let’s find Daddy.”

Jack, from management, saw them first. “Selah,” he called. The little girl’s eyes lit up, and she crossed the wide patch of leafy grass, running into his arms.

“Hey princess!” he picked her up and nestled his beard against her face. She squealed, dropping her notebook.

“Daddy!” she squirmed. “I dropped my notebook.

“Oh no…” he said sweetly, bending down to retrieve the thin, pink notebook. “What ya got in here?”

“I got grandma Joan’s recipe for pound cake…I got 5 math problems…I got a letter to mommy…I got a letter to Jack jr.,” she leaned against her dad and turned each page, pausing for him to nod in approval. “I also have a picture of Mister…see, I even made his whiskers. And Daddy,” she pulled his attention back to her. “I made pictures of flowers like the ones in the arboretum…can we go see them?”

“Yeah sure…in a little bit,” he said, half listening, and then kissed her forehead and stood up to embrace his wife. “Hey sweetie,” he held her close. “Thank you for coming,” he kissed her again and then peaked in on Jack Jr., his four-month-old butterball who’d be ready to eat in minutes. “I want you to meet some people.” He grabbed the stroller handle, his wife wrapped her arm around his waist, and Selah walked ahead. They stopped at the sign-in booth to pick up t-shirts, pens, and a tote bag. Selah stuffed her t-shirt and tote bag at the bottom of the stroller and put her pens in her purse.

I watched to see where they were going to sit, and then I picked up my blanket and my backpack and moved as close as I could to them.

***

“So you moved closer to Selah?”

“Yes.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I wanted to see her.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you do know, Lauren.” Detective Riley probed. “Think about it. Why did you want to get closer to Selah?”

I thought about it.

***

Jack stared at me as I spread my blanket between his and Scott’s, the assistant manager.

“Hey Lauren,” he said. “Having fun?”

“Yes, I’m having fun.”

While Jack’s wife took Jack Jr. out of the stroller, Selah sat down and drew in her notebook.

“Selah, honey, let’s go get your face painted?” Jack reached down for Selah’s hand.

“No,” she yelled, lining her pens up next to her.

“You said it looked fun,” Jack’s wife said, cradling Jack Jr. “You don’t want to get a bunny face?” she asked.

“No.”

“Come one sweetie,” Jack bent to pick her up.

“No,” Selah screamed and threw a tantrum.

***

“She was inconsolable,” I told Detective Riley. “She kicked. She hit. She screamed.” I mimicked the guttural, heartbreaking sounds.

“But that’s not why you moved closer.”

“I moved closer to Selah because I wanted to see if she was like me.”

“Was she?”

“Yes.”

***

Jack’s wife was embarrassed. “Why do you act like this?” she said under her breath. Jack picked Selah up and tried to shake her into submission but couldn’t control her flailing limbs so he put her down and stepped over her. He ran his fingers through his hair and exhaled. I scooted once. I scooted twice. I scooted again and I was on their blanket, right next to Selah.

I leaned in and took her balled fist in mine. She kept screaming. She kept flailing. I opened her fist one finger at a time, and in her palm I made a big circle with my finger, and then a smaller circle, an even smaller circle, smaller, and smaller until my finger rested in the center. It was then that the wildness in her was subdued. She lay silent for a few minutes before she sat up and resumed her drawing. I moved back to my blanket and watched.

***

“What did Jack and his wife say?” Detective Riley asked.

“His wife said thank you. Jack didn’t say anything to me. He walked away.”

“When did Selah start ‘touching your stuff’?”

“After she finished her drawing, she crawled to my blanket and started going through my stuff.”

“Did she say anything?”

“No.”

“And you didn’t say anything to her?”

“No. I didn’t say anything. At 1pm I put all my stuff in my backpack and left.”

“You went straight to the arboretum?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think it’s possible that Selah followed you?”

“Yes, I think it’s possible that Selah followed me, but I didn’t see her following me.” I explained.

“What did you do when you saw her?”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Do you think you should have done something?”

I replayed in my mind a list of things my mother had warned me to do: Be friendly. Be on time. Beware of thieves and scoundrels. Bring extra to share. Breathe when you feel anxious. Brush your teeth in the morning and at night. Call 911 if a situation gets scary. Do laundry on Sundays. Do not mix whites and colors. Do not walk If the Do Not Walk sign is on. Dry your hands after washing them. Eat dinner before 7pm. Iron clothes made of synthetic blends and cotton. Keep bus pass and other personal items safe. Love the earth, animals, and people. Let people know if you need to take a break. Listen to your boss when he tells you to do something. Live your own life and don’t worry about what other people are doing. Never get in cars with strangers. Never go off with strange men even if they ask nicely. Offer to help people carry things. Open doors for people. Put things away where they belong. Ride bicycles with the flow of traffic. Say thank you and please. Stay calm when meeting new people. Take an umbrella if the sky is cloudy. Tip waiters and waitresses. Try to do something before asking for help. Wash your hair every other day. Watch tv for one hour, no more. Wear socks with shoes.

“Do you think it was appropriate for Selah to be alone?”

“She wasn’t alone.”

“Who was with her?” Detective Riley’s eyes widened.

“Jack was there,” I said, removing the ham sandwich from its wrapper. “Can we turn off the lights now?”

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The Search (Part 1)

Detective Riley gave me a cold bottle of water and sat down in the chair across from me. The room was dim, at my request, and empty except for the table and chairs. I sniffled and my body shook, the aftermath of a hard cry. I gulped the water, with each swallow my head pounding. I closed my eyes; they were puffy, tired.

“You’re not in trouble, Lauren,” he leaned forward in his chair. “I just want you to tell me what happened.”

“I want my backpack,” I said, tears forming again.

“What’s so important about this backpack, Lauren? Why do you need it?” Detective Riley’s voice was firm.

“It has my things in it, and I like things to be a certain way because it helps me remember what to do each day, and now my whole schedule is messed up because I’m here, and I didn’t get to fix dinner or put my clothes out for tomorrow…and I didn’t get to call my mother to tell her about the picnic… she wanted me to call her, but she called me when I was already on the phone with the 911 operator, and I didn’t know what to do.”

“Give me a second,” Detective Riley left the room.

I drank more water and then put the bottle on the table. The dirt from my hand mixed with the condensation marking the bottle brown. I slid my hands under my legs and rocked back and forth. “It’s okay…it’s okay…it’s okay…it’s okay,” I whispered.

Detective Riley returned with a vending machine ham sandwich and my backpack. I started to stand when he motioned for me to stay seated. He put the sandwich in front of me and the backpack at the end of the table.

“I just want my bag,” I said, pushing the sandwich to the side.

“Tell me what’s inside your bag.” Detective Riley sat down and adjusted his tie.

“My notebook…the cover is a picture of garden flowers…I had it personalized.”

“You like flowers?”

“I like flowers, plants, trees, some shrubs. My friend Kate and I meet every Saturday to discuss a new plant species…except this Saturday.”

“I see…what do you write in your notebook?”

“I write my schedule every day. I write about the flowers I see at work on my lunch break. I like to take a walk around the complex. They plant new flowers all the time. Sometimes I draw them.”

“What else is in the pack?”

“My pens. I have a pack of pens, the only pens I use in my notebook. There should be 5,” I looked at my backpack, wondering if there were still 5 pens there.

“What else?”

“Two slices of bread in a sandwich bag, a small container with tuna fish, an apple, and…I think that’s all.”

That’s all?”

“In the front pocket is a small pack with tampons and pads. I check it two days before my period starts to make sure it’s full.”

Detective Riley cleared his throat and rubbed his hands together. “Anything else?”

I looked at my backpack, imagining its contents. “Open it,” I said.

He took out the notebook, 5 pens still in their plastic holder, two slices of bread in a sandwich bag, and the tuna. He unzipped the front pocket and pulled out a floral printed pouch.

“Look familiar?”

“Yes…minus the plastic, evidence bag you’ve got them in.” I felt my shoulders relax. “Do you think the tuna is still good?”

“Uh…no,” Detective Riley said, reaching into the bag again. “What is this?” he held up a small, pink journal.

“That’s Selah’s,” my heart was racing again.

“And this?” he held up a small pair of white sandals, a reddish-brown smudge on top of the left one.

“They’re Selah’s, minus the plastic, evidence bags.”

“How did Selah’s things get into your backpack?” Detective Riley squinted and then crossed his arms, stretching the seams of his blue, cotton suit.

“I don’t know.” I slid my hands back under my legs. “Where is Selah?”

“You don’t know how Selah’s things got in your backpack?”

“No.”

“Why don’t you walk me through your day…when did you get to the picnic?”

 “I got to the picnic at 12pm, when it started. I was first in line to check in and get my t-shirt.”

“And that’s the one you’re wearing on top of your dress, correct?”

“Yes,” I looked down at my shirt. It was dirty, with the same reddish-brown stains as Selah’s sandal.

“What did you do next?”

“I found Mary and Isaac.”

“Who are they?”

“They are my coworkers…in the mailroom.”

“What did you do when you found them?”

“I found a spot for my blanket close to where they were sitting.”

“And then?”

“I sat on my blanket and pulled out my notebook.”

“What did you write in your notebook?”

“With my red pen, I crossed off Go to the picnic in my schedule. And with my blue pen I circled Go to the Arboretum at 1pm.”

“And then?”

“I closed my notebook and put it back into my backpack. Mary asked if I wanted to go and get something to drink.”

“What did you say?”

“I said yes, and we went to get ice cold lemonade. She sat on my blanket, and we drank our lemonade.”

“What did you talk about with Mary?”

“We didn’t talk.”

“What happened after you finished your lemonade?”

“Mary left, and I sat by myself.”

“What happened next?”

“I just sat there and watched everybody…that’s when I saw Selah. She was waiting for her mom at the entrance.”

“Where was her mom?”

“Not too far behind. She was pushing Selah’s baby brother in the stroller.”

“What did you do then?”

“Just watched…”

“What did you see?”

“Selah had a pink journal under her arm, the kind with a place for the pen right there on the side,” I demonstrated with my hands. “I have that kind at home.”

“What did you do next?”

“I saw Jack, my boss; he was waving at them. Selah saw him and ran towards him.”

“People said they saw Selah come and sit on your blanket…is this true?”

“Yes, she came and sat down and started touching my stuff.”

“What did you do?”

“I watched her, and then I grabbed my stuff and left because it was 1pm.”

“Where did you go?”

“I went to the arboretum.”

“Lauren, how did Selah get to the arboretum…with you?” Detective Riley stood up and put his hands on the back of his chair.

“I don’t know.”

Darkness entered the room, its weight massive, like rocks crashing down from the sky.

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A Bush Among Trees

No one came to the door and made an announcement. There were no signs that said it was a fact. I just knew: Everything would be okay.

Feeling a little like a bush among trees today… strong, distinct, resilient.

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Re-Discovering

The fog was thick when I left. I piled as much as I could into my RV, Myrtle, and headed West to Sycamore Ranch, for what I imagined would be an extended stay this time. John was still sleeping, his body spread wild across the bed. He looked innocent in sleep, like the kind of man who rescued dogs when they entered traffic on the Jefferson Causeway, or who helped a mother of 5 stranded at the gas station with a full tank. That’s how he appeared. The reality was much different than that. A sharp ache in my side where his steel-toed boot landed twice, the bruised skin around my eyes, and the tender flesh around fresh bite marks I had yet to count painted a different picture. Somehow this time was different though. In the middle of the beating, my mind stopped searching for ways to rationalize it and started preparing ways to end the torture for good.

A sharp rock from the garden to the head while he slept. A slow poisoning and burial under the house. Death by fire, flames he’d never see through bloodshot eyes.

No. I’d leave and forgive myself for staying. I’d find my way back to life, back to what I loved.

***

Myrtle started, to my surprise, without provocation. The gentle hum of the motor made the venture real. I buckled up and inched along the path from the side of the house to the front, careful not to clip the gutters. The street was quiet, but I was sure someone was awake, a neighbor or two, who’d be able to give John the time and direction I went.  They wouldn’t, however, be able to tell him much more. Sycamore Ranch was something I never shared. It was mine, the part of me I still recognized.

Maneuvering the RV through the winding neighborhood took focus but brought relief. I got onto the interstate and settled into a rhythm, comforted by the engine’s tug and the slight swaying when I hit uneven pavement. At a steady 60mph, I passed shopping centers with nearly empty parking lots, high rises awake with ambitious employees, and neighborhood clusters. Their identical roofs, floor plans, and alternating earth-colored exteriors were economic markers, proof of success or the lack of. Schools, parks, gyms, and grocery stores awaited the early risers as the sun began to creep from behind the horizon. As I approached the city’s end, I let out a loud cheer. I felt my shoulders relax, the tightness in my stomach lessen. I’m free, I thought. And as quickly as my celebration had begun, waves of fear and regret came crashing in. I imagined John was now awake and looking for me, or worse yet, may have sent the police looking for me, giving them Myrtle’s license plate number, making up some story about me being a threat to myself, to others.

Maybe I had overreacted. Maybe I was insensitive. Maybe I didn’t know a good thing when it was right in front of me. It was, after all, John who had rescued me from my failing floral shop.  And wasn’t it John who bought me out of a condo that was underwater? Didn’t he treat me like a queen, showing me the good things in life? Had he not accepted my past though it was littered with trouble? What would he think now that I had left, abandoned him when he needed me?

First my hands started to shake, and then my breath became shallow. I reached for air, inhaled as deep as I could until a sharp pain reminded me of that late-night fight. My heart thumped hard in my chest and old thoughts returned. If I took the next exit and turned around, I could make it back home before John left for work. I could explain…I could apologize. I turned on my signal and prepared to guide the RV down the off ramp. Just before I exited, I saw myself standing at the top of the Empire State Building waiting for John. “I’ll be back…I’m going to run to the restroom. Enjoy the tour,” he smiled. And I did. I enjoyed myself until his absence became eerie. I checked the bathroom. No John. I asked the tour guide if she had seen him. No. I thought he might be outside waiting. I took the long ride down to the ground floor. He wasn’t there. I called, and called, and called again. No answer and then a disconnection notice. The number I was dialing was no longer in service.

I waited for 3 hours before I decided to go back to the hotel, thinking there had to be an explanation for his disappearance. I hailed a taxi and 35 minutes later I tried to use my credit card to pay the driver only to find that it was declined. After the third attempt, the driver became irritated. “Ma’am, do you have another card?” “I have money on my phone,” I said.

I was left with 70 cents, but I knew John would be able to get to the bottom of the phone situation and now the credit card mishap. I entered the hotel, walking up the white carpeted, imperial staircase, holding the gold rail to steady myself. Halfway up I remembered that John had the key card. I continued to the elevator, thinking he was already in the room somehow, and it all would start make sense. I knocked. I knocked again, louder.

“Did you forget your key,” a woman from housekeeping asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“They can help you downstairs. Just tell them the room number.” She smiled as she entered the room next to ours.

I went back downstairs to the front desk. I explained that my husband, who wasn’t actually, technically my husband yet, had the key cards and I needed access to our room. Her name was Natalie. She informed me that my not yet husband had already checked out. The room spun as reality came crashing in: I had 70 cents and nowhere to stay. “Thank you,” I said as I walked away, my movements zombie like. I found a seat in the waiting area, my mind jumping immediately to our airline tickets home. As suspected, my ticket no longer existed. I put my head in my hands and wept.

***

 Abandoned him? I thought, deciding to continue on to Sycamore Ranch. Was it not John who abandoned me? I was left at the mercy of strangers—the hotel staff who offered me a free night in their hotel, a family of four who gave me money for food, an executive in the city for business who provided me with a cell phone charger, and a teenage girl on a school field trip who gladly handed over her I Love New York t-shirt. My friend, Ally, was able to get me a flight out the next afternoon. “At least you kept your cell phone in your name…” she feigned laughter. “How many times are you…never mind. We’ll talk when you get home…for now, stay safe and get some rest.”

***

A week after I got back from New York, I went home to John.

“Why did you leave me in New York?” I asked him when he popped up at Ally’s house.

“You said you could take care of yourself…”

“What?”

“At dinner with the Stewarts…you said you could take care of yourself and didn’t need me.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“No?” I could see anger building in his body.

“I didn’t mean it,” I conceded.

***

As I crossed the state line, the scenery changed from bustling city to wide open land, flat with luscious greenery on either side of the highway. It was just after midday, so I decided to find a place to eat and fill up. I had about 5 more hours to go, but I wasn’t in a hurry. It was no longer about the destination. Driving proved to be therapeutic: I wrestled with memory, and it wrestled back, refining reality so I saw all its harsh lines.

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During My Afternoon Stroll…

I found beauty…I found peace.

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year (2)

The restaurant was filled with hope and excitement. Close friends and strangers in big parties and small, sat across from each other, celebrating the ending of one year and the start of another: for some a better year, one aligned with purpose, prosperity, and love.

Conversations began and ended, centered on stories of successes and big wins, defeats and try “agains.” But laughter always followed, undiluted, uncontrolled, rising above the clanking of silverware crashing against plates, glasses touching down on wooden tables. With each sip, each bite, their resolve grew stronger: THIS IS MY YEAR!

When bellies were full, overextended with desert and that one last mojito, silence crept in, sneaky like a gas, unravelling hope, dismantling excitement, laying their parts in a heap at the edge of the table. Hazy minds reached for resolutions now slippery with fear and doubt, expectation. THIS IS OUR YEAR! They proclaimed their solidarity in this belief, though lurking between thoughts was the heaviness of uncertainty, the softness of just being.

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