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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Winter’s Song

Before the rain had stopped, the sun was already breaking through a sky full of dark, ominous clouds. The children ran through the house screaming as light permeated thin slits in the blinds and curtains.

“Can we go to the park now? Please!” the children yelled, ready to escape 3 days of cabin fever.

“Okay…go get ready,” I agreed, thinking the trip would be good for all of us. Insomnia had moved in, and I was looking for a way to escape its grip, to journey back into sleep’s mysterious world.

I opened the front door and stepped out into the cool winter air, Ella, Eli, and Ester following behind with puffy jackets and galoshes in hand.

“I don’t see hats…go get your hats,” I sang, as I motioned them back into the house. “I’ll grab us some snacks.

“Can we bring our bikes too?”

“I want to bring my scooter,” Eli said.

“Bring what you want…” I said, preparing to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“Can we bring a ball too?” Ester asked, her eyes big.

“Absolutely! That’s a great idea.” I spread the peanut butter.

“Can we bring Naomi?” Ella asked.

“I don’t know if Naomi can come with us this time.”

“Call her mom,” Ester pulled my phone from my back pocket. “She’s my best friend.”

“She’s my best friend,” Ella said.

“She’s not my best friend…but she can come with us.” Eli chimed, examining the bread. “This one needs more peanut butter, mommy.”

“Okay…” I found Amanda Carson in my contacts and waited for her voice. “Hi Amanda, it’s Ellie. How are you?”

“Ask her if Naomi can come with us.”

“That’s Ella…,” I laughed. “She wants to know if Naomi would like to go with us to the park….we are getting ready right now…” I cupped Ella’s smiling face. “Great! Send her on over…oh, tell her she can bring her bike or scooter. I’ve got snacks for us,” I said, taking out bread for another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “We’ll stay for about an hour or so…yes, the kids have been inside for 3 days and they’re ready to burst…oh, that’s fine, run your errands…yes, I’m up to it…thanks for asking.”

“Is she coming?”

“We’ll start packing up, and I’ll keep my eye out for Naomi. If we get back before you do, she can hang out here…sounds good…great. Talk to you soon.”

Is she coming?”

“She’s coming!” I pulled Ella, Eli, and Ester close, jumping up and down with them in a circle.

 

***

The children squealed as we approached the park, little legs pumping the pedals on their bikes as fast as they could while I jogged behind with Ester.

“Slow down…watch for cars.”

They slowed and followed the path to our usual spot—a table parallel to the neighboring marsh. I lined the bikes up next to the table and listened as they made their plea for why they should be able to play without their jackets and hats.

“We’re hot…I can’t move around as good in my jacket…my jacket itches.”

“Okay, you can leave your jackets here, but you have to keep your hats on…deal?”

“Deal,” they agreed and fought their way out of their jackets.

“I can’t get my arm out.”

I pulled on their sleeves until their arms popped out and one by one they ran, joining the bustling playground.

“Be careful…”

I folded each jacket across their handlebars and sat down like all the other mothers and fathers, waiting at the perimeter as their children ran around endlessly making new friends, reuniting with old friends, and ultimately growing tired of the whole charade as they collapsed and cried until someone came to their rescue.

 

***

For now they were all happy. The sun beamed down on their faces, all signs of winter erased. Ella, Ester, and Naomi inspected the slide, and, finding it was still wet, decided to play tag. Eli found Trevor, a boy from his 2nd grade class, and they played hide-n-seek. I stared out at the marsh. Naked trees stood erect. Once wild overgrowth, spread unevenly along the embankment, now forced into hibernation by nature’s hand. The still murky water at peace with occasional ripples made by turtles who rose to the surface every few minutes and other organisms unseen but steadily tending to their ecosystem. There was serenity, a balancing of life and death, a promise of reflection birthed through love, through loss, through friendship, through aloneness. In my sleepless nights I had thought about this promise as pain tunneled through my heart, a razor-sharp reality I chose only to see through a fractured lens. She was gone. But she was still here.

I could still see her dancing at Amanda’s Halloween party. I could still hear her voice on my voicemail, telling me to call her back immediately because she had urgent news. And upon calling her back I discovered that she didn’t have urgent news, but rather she wanted to know what matched best with her chartreuse blouse, black or dark blue. I could still smell her perfume in my car, where she sat everyday as I drove her to work. “You need to get a car,” I said. “What? And miss out on this…time with my big sis?” Avery said as she got out, her smile wide, her laughter loud. I could still feel her anger when she learned cancer had spread throughout almost all her body, it’s demon troop brutal, unforgiving. I could still taste the cheesecake she made for my birthday, a day the cancer relented long enough for her to enter the kitchen and; on a desk chair, the kind with wheels, she collected the ingredients and pulled them all together so that when I walked through the door the cake was there waiting me. “Happy birthday,” she said. “Sit with me while you stuff your face.” So I did. I sat with her on the edge of her bed, and I ate. But the exchange was uneven because as I was filled, she was depleted. And I knew then that life’s promise had entered, preparing her release and our misery: a duality so jarring, like winter’s song—chilly to the bones, beauty to the soul.

 

 

 

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The Gift

There was just one more gift under the tree, the small square box still wrapped in brown shipping paper, its top covered with silver tinsel and tiny flashing red, blue, and green bulbs.

“Whose is that?” Michael asked.

“It’s for me…it came yesterday,” I said, shrugging. “I don’t know…”

“From who?” his face still lit with excitement.

“I’ll get it, mommy,” Lizzie said, breaking from her new baby doll.

“That’s okay, baby. I’ll open it later, “I said, Lizzie ignoring me as she picked up the package and rushed over to me, her feet trampling mounds of wrapping paper and slippery, protective plastic. “Okay, thank you.”

“Open it, mommy,” Lizzie poked at the top.

“Yeah, open it,” Michael chimed before he took a sip of his coffee and set the mug back on the table.

“Okay,” I smiled and began peeling back the thick brown paper.

Inside was a gold-colored box with a sparkling gold lace bow. I held it up for Lizzie to marvel.

“Oooh, that’s nice,” she reached out to touch the bow, her baby doll dangling under her arm.

I tugged at one of the bow’s tails, and Lizzie and I watched it loosen and slip off the box. She took the thick gold lace and commenced to trying to tie it around her doll’s head. Michael took another sip of his coffee and leaned toward me.

“Open, open, open,” he sang, motioning for Lizzie to join him. Soon her voice was on top of his shouting at a faster tempo.

I lifted the top of the box revealing a smooth, red interior and a small gold bag, with a red drawstring pressed down the middle. Michael grabbed the lid, and I took the bag out of the box, held it in my hands, and took a deep breath. His smile faded to a concerned stare.

“Who is it from?” he asked again, this time just for confirmation.

“It’s from…her.” I looked at Lizzie playing now with five furry farm animals. She lined them up one behind the other.

“Don’t open it,” Michael said, reaching for the gold bag. “You don’t need this right now.” He put the bag back into the box, put the lid on, and carried it away. “How did this get under the tree?” he mumbled.

“I put it there,” I admitted. “After all these years…I just thought…I hoped…” The words wouldn’t come.

I wanted to tell him that something felt different this year, that my mother’s habit of sending unwanted gifts to a daughter she abandoned somehow felt final this time and that this scared me. I imagined her careening towards dementia, death, this gift her final act of apology, her last hope to resolve what had turned into a lifelong burden. Was she asking too much? For so long after my mother left, I dreamed about her, thought that one day I might see her in a crowd, strolling at the other end of the beach, or at our front door with a smile, a readiness to pick up where we left off. Had she been ready this whole time? Had my waiting and wanting not been in vain?

I couldn’t fathom ever leaving my own daughter, but I also wondered if I too would one day commit an injury so deep that I’d have to beg for mercy, sending my sweet Lizzie yearly reminders that I still existed, that I still loved her.

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The Old Farmhouse

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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.

 

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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 Long Way Home

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“Hold the door, please,” I yelled, bumbling down the hall with a white box topped with my things—eight years’ worth of pictures, notepads, pens, hard candy, a light sweater I kept on the back of my chair, a dusty pair of running shoes, pictures of Michael and Grace, loose change, two stress balls, and a few other knickknacks I kept on my desk to get me through the day. “Thank you,” I said, walking through the glass door, headed towards the front of the building. The heels of my shoes rapped against the floor, revealing my disappointment, my panicked mind. I looked up one last time at the high-ceiling decorated with lights and crystals and down at the square, ceramic tiles newly polished and on through the guarded double-doors, where a man opened the door for me, smiled and said, “Have a good evening, ma’am.” The warm evening air hit my face, mingling for a moment with the cold air from inside. I paused, readjusted my purse sliding down my shoulder, tightened my grip on the box, and then started on my usual route home—two blocks south on McHenry Blvd, turn right on Stiletto Way, a left onto Carter Way up three blocks to Kite Street, 5959 Kite Street. I imagined this time would be different, the decision I had made at 1:37pm now heavy, crushing. My legs felt wobbly, my warms weak. McHenry Blvd. appeared long, busy, condemning. I knew I was moving, that my legs were taking steps forward, but the end of the block still felt far away. A warm tear slid down my face. I wiped it with my shoulder, but another one came, and then another.

Dammit,” I said under my breath, stopping to try to compose myself, but I was unraveling, past the point of pretend. I had to face the truth head on, agree to its terms. It was my last day at Klein & Klein—a father and son law office–not by choice, a compromise I made with upper management so that I might one day be employed again in the field.

“The evidence is here,” Bob Klein Sr. said, looking down at a stack of papers. “This is your signature?” he pointed to the bottom of a contract.

“Yes.”

“And this one too?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know what else to say…you could be prosecuted for something like this,” he went on, rubbing the front of his head where only fuzz grew now. “Luckily, Bob Jr. caught this in time,” he swung his arm, waving the papers in my face. “And…I don’t think it was intentional…I just can’t have you working here after something like this,” he let out a long breath. “So what I’m willing to do…if you agree to leave today…is not put this little oversight in your file…that way should you decide to continue to your career, you’re not blacklisted.

I signed a confidentiality form and agreed to its terms, one of which was to not ever speak an ill word about Klein & Klein.

There in ink I promised.

“You can stay until the end of the day…so long as your departure is…”

“Yes, Mr. Klein, I will leave peacefully.” I wanted him out of my office. I wanted time to process what was happening, knowing there would never be enough time, that time would move on without me.

“Okay then,” he left, still shaking the stack of papers, all with my signature, documenting a grave error only people new to the business make.

I got to McHenry and Symphony and stood there at the crosswalk waiting for green. There were people in front of me, behind me, beside me. I felt closed in. The same people I stood next to everyday now felt imposing. We were not the same anymore, walking numbly from our twelfth-floor offices with our briefcases, going home for the evening where our families would get the watered-down version of us since our minds were still in the office strategizing, calculating, worrying about a caseload that never seemed to get smaller, only bigger. I turned around, squeezing through the crowd, my box my armor.

“Excuse me…excuse me,” I said until a path opened.

I walked down Monroe; it mirrored McHenry. On either side of me, people clustered, their steps in uniform. Friends and strangers moved steady, racing away from the office, homebound for a few hours of freedom before they return in herds wearing matching suits and ties, designer dresses and jewelry, hair combed and pressed flat with gel, parted, curled, edged. Poised and manicured, purposeful as the morning air tickles their faces. I felt empty as our shoulders bumped, a foreigner in this small world. I looked like them on the outside, but inside the meaning of life had morphed like an old polaroid. I swallowed building emotion, smiled at women in pencil skirts and running shoes. They smiled back in solidarity and then moved on with wide, intentional steps.

 

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My pace slowed as I walked away from the crowd. I kept walking until there were no crowds, where people walked alone, not in clusters. Until tall buildings became rows of short buildings with flat rooftops and then small houses with small yards, small driveways, small windows. Families were arriving home, pulling into their short driveways in dented minivans, kids jumping out with bright-colored backpacks. The smell of dinner cooking in the oven seeped through their doors. Other children on bicycles rode up and down the street playing made up games they stopped long enough to review the rules and then start again with, if not the same enthusiasm, more. I thought about my Grace at piano practice, the teacher whacking her knuckles when she played the wrong key, forgot a note, or otherwise seemed disinterested in the music, its beauty. “It’s good for her to learn the right way to play,” I had told myself as tears slid down her face, her knuckles red, a little swollen.

An older couple, maybe in their 80’s, sat in their front yard on a wooden swing swinging back and forth hand in hand just watching the day end, glad they still had each other. I tried to imagine Michael and I in the swing. I couldn’t. Instead I knew he’d turned his nose at the patches of crab grass. Our landscaper came once a week at Michael’s request to tame nature so that the yard always looked manicured. He didn’t want the neighbors to think we were slobs, or worse, poor. The sealed bills that arrived each month totaling amounts we might never be able to pay didn’t bother him. I tried to imagine Grace and I in that swing. “I don’t want to get dirty, mommy,” I heard her say. My sweet angel already afraid of life, living and disappointing were synonymous in her mind so she spent each day trying to avoid each, avoid us.

A man in blue overalls with wild hair and dirty hands waved from his doorway as I passed. Next door were six kids, two diapered and shirtless, both trying to get on a red tricycle; two digging holes in the yard with small shovels; and two older girls in cut-off shorts and navy-blue shirts, at least a size too small, jumping rope. Grace had never jumped rope or worn cut offs.

I kept walking until houses became small shops, small shops with their doors wide open, handwritten signs inviting passersby. My arms and fingers ached, the box slipping from my grip with each step. At the corner of 35th Street and Monroe I crossed. I put my box on the grass next to the stop sign, pushed my purse back onto my shoulder, grabbed Michael and Grace and left the rest.  I decided to go inside a small coffee shop called Freedom, its daily specials written in chalk outside the door. It reminded me of Grace, how she loved chalk, how once our driveway was lined with hearts and flowers she’d drawn that I had been too busy to see, to really see.

“Where did you get this chalk?” I had asked her. “I don’t want you playing with this and marking the driveway,” I scolded. “Daddy will get mad.” And with the hose I erased her creations.

I stood in line behind a woman wearing army boots, a pleated yellow skirt, black t-shirt, and green camo jacket. She stood with her feet crossed at the ankle, a multi-colored knitted bag on her right shoulder. Her bright red mohawk reached for the low ceiling, its spikes sharp and stiff.  I inched closer to her, inhaling Rosemary, starch, and hairspray. She ordered a chai tea and a chocolate Freedom muffin and then plopped down on the long couch. She pulled a black notebook from her bag and started writing.

“I’ll take a small coffee,” I said, my usual auto response. “No…make that a green tea, large.” I forced a smile at the barista.

“Large, green tea it is,” he said.

I took a seat in the corner at a small table so that I faced the woman on the couch. She paused from time to time waiting for the right words and then let them fall onto the page. Next to her was a man, his hair thin and white from age. He sipped his coffee and stared out the window at cars passing by, the occasional jogger. At the table next to mine was a young couple drinking mochas and sharing a lemon square. They smiled after each tart bite, let out a giddy laugh, and let their free hands travel up the other’s arm, stopping to offer a tickle, a rub, a pat. Across the room, behind the woman on the couch were two friends sipping iced coffees. They sat with their legs crossed leaning toward each other. Their conversation was cyclical–casual to endearing, serious to silly, back to casual. They erupted with laughter as if on cue, each offering her whole heart, love untethered. I thought about my friend Janice, how close we once were. But now I didn’t even know what state she lived. I had never met her children. And even if I knew her phone number, I wasn’t sure I could reach her.

“Chai tea and a Freedom muffin,” the barista said, handing a white cup and saucer to the woman on the couch. “Enjoy,” he smiled.

“Thank you,” she said, repositioning herself.

The tall barista with the short haircut sauntered over to my table with my green tea.

“Enjoy,” she said, her expression sympathetic.

I nodded and took a gulp. It was bitter but refreshing. I took another drink, then another, and another until the glass was half full. I looked down at the light green liquid and began to laugh: a big hearty, pain-filled, uncontrollable laugh. My eyes welled, tears jumping onto my cheeks, sliding down my chin, my neck. I kept laughing. My body shook, wild convulsions I welcomed.

Conversations stopped as all eyes found their way to my table. Concerned glances and awkward smiles stopped time. One brave soul, the woman on the couch, spoke.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

I shook my head yes and smiled wide, showing my teeth like I was in a pageant.

“Are you sure?” this time her voice serious.

“Well…I got fired today,” I yelled, standing up. I walked towards her but stopped when her expression changed from concerned citizen to fearful patron. “I didn’t even like that job.” I started laughing again until laughing became crying and breath escaped. I fell to the floor, reaching for air, reaching for life.

“That sucks…but I guess it could be a good thing,” the woman’s face softened. She put her notebook down and walked to me. Her steps were hard, intentional. She put her hand on my arm and crouched next to me. “This could turn out to be a really good thing for you…now you’re free to do something else, something you like.”

Joy entered the back of my mind just out of reach, at the helm was Michael, his voice.

“You fucked up.”

 

 

 

 

 

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