Okay, so I have seen people who have posted their "fiction" online, as in not through any kind of online magazine but on their own personal blogs or facebooks or what not. And well, I have scoffed. I have thought that they were self-aggrandizing and self-important and just, well, self everything.
But here's the thing. For the first time since college I have written a short story. I have been out of college for almost (oh my GOD I can't believe this) two years. I have written, on my blog, and on longer thingies that are still in their baby stages, but I haven't written a complete short story. I spent four years of my life learning to write short stories. It's so easy to shrug off my major when people ask me about it. Eh, English major, what are you going to do? I try to be self-deprecating about it because that's what people expect, and half the time it's what I expect.
But I have a cold and I'm watching the Olympics and it's all about yay me and belieing in your dreams and reaching for the stars and wow did I mention I have a cold?
I majored in English with a concentration in Fiction Writing. I worked really, really hard. I spent four years learning a craft, and yes writing is a craft. You have to have talent, but you also have to learn it. You have to be willing to be kicked repeatedly for four years, because let me tell you, if you major in Creative Writing that is what the experience is akin to. Sure that first workshop is all warm fuzzies and everyone telling you what they like about your story. But everything from there is excruciating. You pour your heart into something and then you print out 20 identical copies of that something (at your own expense mind you), hand them out, and a class full of strangers tear it apart.
That's how you start to become a writer. By having your heart stomped on again and again and again. After my last fiction workshop my senior year I went home and cried for 24 hours. A story I thought was just wonderful was shredded to little tiny pieces right in front of my eyes.
That's how you start to become a writer. It's painful and it's hard and you never for a moment are allowed to really feel good about your ability, but it's the absolute only way to get better. And I think I've let myself these last two years move away from that. I've become scared again, scared to show people my work, scared to be open abut what I love. But the thing is, writing is what I love. It's the only thing I've ever been able to picture myself doing. Even when I was little and thought I wanted to be a jockey (I kid you not, I was big into horses) or a movie director I still wanted to be a writer. I just pretended otherwise. I've wanted to be a writer more or less since I was four years old.
I've been so scared I've only submitted one story to any kind of publication, and that rejection hurt so bad that I've been terrified ever since. Scared to even write a short story, a format that I'm still not sure I'm meant to work in, but one that is nevertheless important when you're trying to learn this craft.
So here it is. Here's my story. I'm putting it out there for you internet. And this might make me self-important and self-aggrandizing, but I guess that's part of being a writer too. And I'm going to print this out and put it envelopes and mail it out into the universe, fully aware that all I might get back in return is a bunch of pain.
But if I learned anything in college, it's that pain and rejection are necessary. They make you better. They make you want to be better. And that's what I really want.
(Warning: This story is about a really depressing topic and you might think I'm super morbid for writing about it, but this idea simply lodged its way into my head about six months ago, and I haven't been able to get this woman or her story out of my head since then. Writing about it was the only way to do that. I am actually a pretty happy person when I'm not being neurotic)
As always, comment and critiques are welcome :)
Lost and Found
Meredith stared at the soggy, brown leaves strewn over the pool in the backyard of the open house. Or at least it had been a pool once. In the summertime, under different owners, it would have been filled with blue-green water, clear enough to see straight through to the bottom. There would have been chairs set up for sunbathing, maybe even toys if children had lived there. Now it was merely a large concrete hole in the ground, covered by a thick and dusty olive green tarp. There were small, shallow puddles of water collected at various creases in the tarp’s rubbery fabric.
Sammy’s voice cut across the backyard. Meredith looked up to see her fourteen- year-old son on the opposite side of the pool. He was hunched over, hands stuck in the pockets of a baggy pair of jeans. The cord from a white pair of plastic ear-phones hung loosely down in front of his brown fleece jacket. Meredith opened her mouth to respond, but he didn’t wait for her.
“I’m going to go sit in the car. Dad said it was okay.”
Without another word he turned and walked back into the house, passing an older couple on their way out. Meredith watched him go until he was out of sight. He had been moody all afternoon. Meredith liked to tell herself that he was moody because he was a teenager. It was natural. But at times it was hard to believe that was the only reason.
He used to love their Sunday ritual. Over breakfast at the kitchen table the three of them would pour over the real estate section, examining new listings and open house times. Each of them would pick out one house, usually something absurdly over-priced. And they would spend the rest of the day walking through other people’s hallways and rooms.
It was the only family tradition Meredith felt genuinely enthusiastic about. Everything else was so hard, so exhausting, Christmas most of all, but really all of it, even the day to day, dinner on the table, tooth brushing at night minutia. It had all been so hard for so long, and none of it had ever gotten easier. But this, the open houses, it had always been easy, comfortable even to slip inside the hollowed out spaces where strangers lived their lives.
Meredith turned her focus back to the empty pool. Many of the leaves were wet, flat and plastered to the tarp. From the looks of it the cover had been there for months, maybe even years. It looked stiff, as though it was frozen in place.
The house had been Meredith’s pick. It was an anomaly, a house in the city that listed a swimming pool. Meredith was intrigued. She had driven past the house many times and was always slightly put off by its modern, somewhat harsh architecture. But when she recognized the small thumb-nail picture in the morning’s paper, she couldn’t resist the idea of finding out what the place was like inside.
At the sound of conversation Meredith looked up. Two women stood huddled close together a few yards away. Both had their hands thrust deep into their pockets. It was an unusually cold October day, and neither was dressed warmly enough.
“…wanted to move of course. Who wouldn’t after what happened?” the brunette one said as she moved her hands from her pockets and rubbed them together. She looked away from the other woman toward the pool. Meredith took a few steps in the opposite direction but tried to listen closer.
“Poor Nancy, she’ll have a tough time selling this one. You know, I told her I’d come and give her my input, but with the market, plus the state of this place, on top of what happened this summer, it’s not going to be easy.”
“Did you ever meet them?” the other one asked in a low voice. She glanced toward the house and then quickly back again.
“No, no, I never did. But from the sound of it they were a really beautiful family. Gorgeous parents, gorgeous kids. It’s just the most awful thing, to lose a child like that.”
Meredith couldn’t help herself. She turned and stared at the women. She felt rooted to the spot. They didn’t seem to notice her.
“How old?” the second woman asked, in an even lower voice.
“Oh just a baby, probably not much older than a year. Couldn’t swim of course. There’s no gate, can’t imagine why they wouldn’t have put in a gate, but they probably never thought.” She trailed off. For a few moments both women were quiet. Then the brunette looked up. Her eyes widened when she noticed Meredith. But then she cleared her throat and smiled.
“Enjoying the open house?” she asked brightly.
Meredith nodded. She knew she should look away from the woman or say something, but she couldn’t.
“Well,” the woman continued in a tone of forced cheer. “Have a nice day.”
Meredith watched the two women walk back toward the house. She clenched her hands into fists and then unclenched them. She tried to remember the steps, steps she had gone over again and again in her psychiatrist’s office to deal with her panic attacks. But her mind could only focus on the things she just heard: couldn’t swim of course… to lose a child like that… they probably never thought.
They probably never thought.
Meredith jumped at the feel of a hand on her shoulder. She turned around to see her husband, John. He wore a brown wool sweater, one she picked out for his Christmas present years ago. He had a look on his face that had become familiar, equal parts frustration and concern.
“You okay?” he asked. She looked into his dark brown eyes, flecked with pieces of gold. Sammy didn’t have those eyes. Sammy had her eyes, blue or pale green depending on the light.
Her Alice had John’s eyes.
Meredith squeezed her eyes shut, took a deep breath and started to count. She knew John wouldn’t leave her side. He would understand. He would be patient. He was always patient. She made a mistake, thinking what she did. It was a slip. And she had become so good at not having these slips. It was those women, what they said, how careless to say things like that in public, not knowing who could hear them. They said what they said and Meredith thought what she thought, but she could stop it.
Meredith opened her eyes. John was in the exact same position, only inches away. The only thing that had changed was his grip on her shoulder, firmer now, less of an announcement, more of an anchor. Meredith looked at him and nodded. She didn’t have to explain. Anyone else in the world and she would have had to explain. But not John. She never would have guessed at the beginning of their marriage that the thing she would love most about their relationship one day would be the lack of need for explanations.
Meredith put an arm around John’s waist. Together they walked back across the backyard, past the empty swimming pool, past the leaves and pools of rainwater. For the first time on a Sunday, Meredith wanted nothing more than to go home.
It was the feel of the keys. That’s what did it. A thousand things could have set me off, but what did it was the cool, jagged edge of a house key. We were walking, me and Sammy, down the hallway of the elementary school where his summer league practiced basketball. I held his hand in my right one, and with my left hand I fumbled in my purse for my car keys.
My finger brushed against that cool, jagged edge. Seven years later, and I still don’t understand why that’s what finally made me remember her.
I’ve tried to piece this together so many times. If I could just put it together in some kind of logical order. Then maybe I could understand it.
Here’s what I remember. The cool, jagged edge of a house key. That key, that horrific dividing line between the world I knew and understood and the new, impossible world that opened up before me. But that’s a lie. The moment my hand brushed the key I knew what I forgot. I knew my mistake. But to know that other thing, to know what I know now, I couldn’t have known that until I saw it, until it was right in front of me.
I remember letting go of Sammy. He was talking about something, a new friend or funny, friendly, Coach Bill who he adored. He was sweaty and flushed and his sneakers made squeaking noises against the linoleum floor. I let go of him and ran.
I ran to the double doors which led out to the parking lot. I must have passed other parents, kids, but I don’t remember. I wish I could. I should have paid closer attention. It would be helpful now, to know all of the details.
I know only this. It was August. It was one of those days during the second half of summer where everything is fuzzy from the heat; cars, buildings, people; everything. Squiggly heat lines drifted off the black asphalt. Out of all of the things I have ever known, the one I am most sure I will never forget is that on August 11th, 2002, the high reached ninety-nine degrees. It was past three o’clock in the afternoon. Sammy’s basketball practice ended at three on Mondays and Wednesdays. I know this. I know this is all true.
I got there five minutes early. I always got there five minutes early. The babysitter came on Mondays and Wednesdays in the afternoon. That’s when I ran errands or saw friends or just went to a book store and bought a half dozen gossip magazines to read alone in my car with the music turned up. I was out running errands near the school so that I could get there five minutes early like I always did.
But already I’m neglecting things, leaving things out. The babysitter did not come on August 11th. She had a cold, and I told her not to worry about it.
I told her not to come.
I took Alice with me. I ran one errand that day, and I didn’t get out of the car. I went to the bank to withdraw some cash. And then I went to pick up Sammy.
I walked into the school, waited in the gym. By the time we left, by the time we got to that hallway, it couldn’t have been past 3:10 p.m.
I know it couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes. I am sure of this. I have done the math. I have accounted for all possibilities, and it could not have been more than fifteen minutes, fifteen minutes from the time I stepped out of the car to pick up Sammy to the time I felt the cold, jagged edge of a key.
I don’t remember screaming as I ran through the parking lot, but I found out later that I did. I don’t remember if someone told me that directly, or if I heard it second hand. I can’t imagine someone would have told me directly, but maybe. People grasp for conversation in these situations.
I don’t remember screaming, but I remember getting to the car, to our white Suburban. I didn’t check if there was a window open. I didn’t want to know that then, because it was irrelevant, because all of it would be irrelevant as soon as I opened the door and saw that she was okay, only sleeping, unaware even that I had ever been gone. I remember opening the right side door.
These are the things I remember that are logical, that are in some kind of order, to be taken apart at will and put back together. The rest, the rest is not like that. The rest is not logical or neat or tidy. It is impossible. It has always been impossible.
The cold, jagged edge of a key. The squeaking sound Sammy’s sneakers made on the floor. The squiggly lines rising off the pavement.
Five minutes early. Three in the afternoon. Fifteen minutes.
I go over these things again and again, but there has to be more. There has to be a way to put this all together.
Maybe if I start at the beginning, go slower, go through it all second by second, maybe then.
Meredith watched Sammy walk down the brick path to John’s car. He was bleary eyed and virtually silent in the house. He was never a morning person, but lately it had been worse. He barely looked at her that morning, not even when he passed her at the door. He was angry at her. She missed his basketball game the day before, but she had a migraine. She would have gone if she could have, but it was impossible.
Her thoughts were interrupted by John. He wore a clean suit and kissed her, once, on the cheek, before he walked out the door. He smelled like shaving cream and mouth wash.
Meredith did this every morning, made herself wake up every morning before they did to make breakfast and put together lunches and see them out the door. She had always been proud of her insistence on this, when she fell short on so many other things. The mornings were always easier. She closed the front door as soon as they climbed into the car. The chill of the morning air lingered in the entrance hallway. She tied her robe tighter and walked to the kitchen where her laptop sat.
It had been two weeks since the open house with the pool, and it first it was merely a distraction. Meredith thought about it while she watched TV and only half paid attention to the screen. She thought about it at the grocery store and missed items on her list. The glassy surface of a pool on a warm summer day. The curly head of a baby. The scream that must have torn through the air when they knew. These were the thoughts that fluttered through her mind.
Meredith took a sip of coffee and stared at the computer screen. The last few days, they had been more than just thoughts. If she was honest with herself she would admit that it was now an obsession.
She lay in bed the last few nights, long after John fell asleep, and wondered how it happened. She was equally horrified and curious. How long did it take? Where were they when their child fell into that pool?
How did it happen?
She couldn’t stop asking that last question, couldn’t stop her brain from playing different scenarios over and over. It was sick. Her migraine the day before was probably a result of it. Half the time Meredith knew it was sick and unhealthy. But the other half of the time she simply needed to know, more than she had needed anything in so long.
She had a name. Matthew and Christina Green. That part was easy. With an address you could find anything online nowadays, and she had, the previous night. She wanted to go further, was ready to learn more, but John walked into the darkened kitchen, lit only by the glow from her laptop. He didn’t ask her what she was doing, but he asked her to come to bed, and she did. It wasn’t until she was safely in the warm bed that she realized she was shaking.
But that morning she felt steady, clear, focused. There was no harm in knowing. Anyone would wonder.
She opened up a search engine and typed their name and address into the empty field, along with the word pool. She moved her mouse over the enter button but hesitated. She would never be able to unlearn this. She took her hands off the keyboard and reached for her mug of coffee. It was a clear day, just past 7:30. It was her favorite time of morning, crisp and new and early enough to be quiet. She should go for a run. She should leave the computer, leave the house and go for a run.
But even as she thought it, she couldn’t help but place her hand back on the computer mouse, move the cursor to the search button, and press enter.
A moment of delay and then a list of names, words, dates. Meredith’s eyes traveled over the first result. She took a sharp intake of breath.
“Baby Dies After Falling in Pool-Richmond News Story-WWBT 12”
Before she could think, before she could process anything, she clicked on the link.
Baby Dies After Falling In Pool
Child Found Dead in Central Richmond Home
Richmond, VA. --
A 10-month-old baby was pronounced dead Sunday after being found in the swimming pool of a Richmond home, fire officials said.
Henry Robert Green was discovered in the water of a pool in the 8200 block of Robins Way shortly after 10 a.m., said Capt. Mark Lowes of Richmond Metropolitan Fire District.
The child's uncle, Myer Green, said the boy crawled outside when a door was opened a few inches to let the family's dogs outside. Green's mother jumped in to save her son, but when firefighters arrived, he had no pulse and his lungs were filled with water.
Lowes said rescue workers carried out CPR on the child on the way to a local hospital. Despite their efforts the child was pronounced dead shortly after 11 a.m., at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
"We don't know how long he was under the water, but it only takes seconds for your lungs to fill with water," Lowes said. "Once that happens, your body shuts down."
The child was believed to have been in the water for at least two minutes, Green said.
"The message is, it only takes a second for a child to drown in a pool, pond, tub. It's not worth turning your back, not even for a second," Lowes said.
Meredith read the article twice. There was no picture, nothing else. She exited out of the web page and closed the lid of her computer.
With the mug of coffee still in her hand Meredith walked to the double doors which led out to the backyard. A row of trees separated their house from the neighbor. At the edge of the trees was a small vegetable garden which Meredith tended in warmer months. She grew tomatoes, basil, rosemary, even pumpkins one year.
Meredith thought of the summer they first moved to Richmond from their old house in Charlotte, a year after she picked Sammy up from basketball practice, a year after she touched that house key and everything changed.
They tried to stay, in the old house, in the old neighborhood. For almost a year they tried. They wanted to stay for Sammy, thought it was enough for him to have to go through without a move to a new city on top of it. He had friends in Charlotte, had just started the first grade.
It was John who finally suggested the move that spring. Meredith would never have dared. She couldn’t. She couldn’t be the one to decide anything, especially that first year, when no matter what John said it was clear in his eyes that he didn’t know how to forgive her yet. She couldn’t have Sammy grow up to hate her for one more thing. But when John decided it would be best, when he found a new job in Richmond, when he agreed to be the one to tell Sammy, Meredith was so grateful. She would never have said it out loud, but she hated Charlotte after what happened. She hated the looks she got on the rare times she left the house, half pitying, half angry, sometimes both.
They found a nice house in the south of Richmond, a smaller house than their one in Charlotte, but it was better that way.
Meredith opened the doors and walked into the yard. She took a deep breath. It smelled like leaves burning. She sat down on one of their wicker lawn chairs.
It took Sammy only weeks to fall in love with the new house. He was only seven at the time of the move. Everything was that fast for a seven year old. He cried every night for a month over his baby sister, but that too faded. In the new house it was even easier for him to move on. Meredith used to sit on their porch and watch him play on the swing-set or kick a soccer ball around. There would be whole minutes where things felt okay and normal, where she could almost pretend that it was three years ago, before she was pregnant with Alice, when they were a family of three also, but an intact one, one that wasn’t irrevocably broken.
But those minutes always ended. Meredith always remembered why they were there, why they had to move, the yellow room they left behind with a mural of Winnie the Pooh characters on one wall.
Meredith set her coffee mug on the ground beside her chair. She wondered what Christina Green was doing at that moment.
They decided to move too, in less time than it took Meredith and John. But of course they had that terrible pool taking up so much of the backyard. The Suburban only lasted a few weeks. Meredith couldn’t stand the sight of it, begged John to park it down the street, away from sight. But even that wasn’t enough. They finally sold it for far less than they paid for it only two years before.
Meredith looked at her arms. They were covered in goose bumps. She thought it would help, to know how that child died, but it didn’t, not even a little bit. There were pieces missing in that article.
What made Christina Green remember her baby? What made it finally click? What was the moment where she knew what she had done?
Meredith sat upright in the chair. She needed to stop. She knew this wasn’t right, to think about this. It was morbid. If she told Dr. Minnows, he would tell her it was unhealthy. She knew all of this, but yet.
The article said the child was in the water for more than two minutes. Someone decided that. Someone searched their memories, went over it again and again and again to be able to come up with more than two minutes.
Two minutes. Fifteen minutes. There were concrete things. The concreteness was a comfort to Meredith. The exact details were what she could think about, because they were like puzzle pieces, abstract and only part of the whole. The piece alone wasn’t hard to look at, because it meant nothing more than what it was, a tiny, insignificant fragment.
If she could just talk to her. Out of a million other thoughts, this one suddenly rose to the surface and silenced everything else. Of course.
Meredith had talked to nearly a half dozen different doctors about what happened. She talked to the group counselors when she was hospitalized after overdosing on prescription sleeping pills two years after it happened. She talked to John, of course, and even Sammy to some degree. She talked to her mother, to the firefighters and cops and EMT workers who descended on that parking lot like ants. She talked to more police officers, to friends.
But none of these people could do what she needed. They couldn’t tell her how it happened. They told her not to blame herself, or they told her she should blame herself. They told her to take on hobbies, to go back to work. One particularly idiotic woman told her to put her faith in God’s plan. Oh she wanted to slap that woman. To believe in a God whose plan includes that, who planned for Meredith to walk away from that car that day, who planned for it to be so hot, who planned for the babysitter to get sick.
These are the things people told her. No one would tell her the simple thing, how. But this woman, Christina Green.
A new image now replayed itself again and again inside Meredith’s head. Christina Green inside the house, set off by something, something as insignificant as the cool, jagged feel of a house key, and then running, running and jumping in that pool, a pool now covered in a dirty tarp and dead leaves and puddles of rainwater.
She could find her. She would find her. She would ask her how it happened. It would make things easier. It had to. With a new resolve, Meredith stood up from her chair, brushed off the dirt from her robe, and walked back into the warmth of the house.
I never told John that I stopped to talk to Sammy’s teacher. I couldn’t. The first few times I went through what happened, to try and come up with a timeline, I didn’t even remember. Or maybe I simply didn’t want to.
Here’s the order.
I stepped out of the car on a hot August day. I closed the car door. I walked across the sticky black asphalt of the parking lot, walked up the stairs to the school, walked through the double doors, walked halfway down the main hallway. I wore flip flops and they smacked against the floor. I remember that because it was so quiet, so starkly different from how a school sounded when it was filled with students.
Half way down the hall. I reached the first grade classrooms, glanced in, not expecting to see anyone, and there she was, Sammy’s new teacher. We received a letter a few weeks before which told us that his teacher would be Mrs. Hoffman.
She was alone in the room. She was pasting colorful cut outs above the blackboard. She looked up and saw me. I hadn’t planned to stop, but she saw me.
I walked in and introduced myself. She was short and twice my age and smiled throughout our entire conversation. I remember feeling reassured. I told her my son was named Sam, Sammy we called him, had always called him Sammy since the day he was born. We talked for maybe three minutes. I complimented her choices on room decoration.
Why didn’t I tell her I had another child? Why didn’t she ask? If either of those things happened in those three minutes, I would have known. I would have remembered. It would have been so easy, the words always just beneath the surface, my daughter, Sammy’s sister, my other child.
Would it have been different if I didn’t stop? Would those three minutes have made a difference? I know the statistics. I know how quickly a car can heat up in the hot sun, how quickly a child can suffocate, but still, I wonder if three minutes would have been enough.
I wonder it every single day.
Meredith pulled her car over to the side of the road. She squinted her eyes to read the address on the mailbox a dozen yards away. 1201. She was there. It was easy to find the Greens. Like everything else, it was surprisingly easy. She found it a week ago, late at night, once again hunched over her computer in the dark kitchen. Every day since then she dressed after Sammy and John left, walked to her car, started the ignition, and then sat there.
What stopped her, what kept her from putting the car in drive, was the question of what she would say. She wanted nothing more than to talk to Christina, was obsessed with the idea, to the point where she could barely carry on a conversation. At meal times she would notice that it was silent only to look up and realize that either John or Sammy had asked her a question. She could see the frustration on their faces, and she wanted to feel bad about it, to try and focus on what was right in front of her, but she couldn’t, not until she talked to this woman. But how to go about it? What in the world could she say to explain herself? Meredith was terrified that if she was honest she would have the door slammed in her face. Wouldn’t she do the same if some woman came to her door and wanted to bring up all of these terrible things?
So she tried to come up with elaborate explanations for why she would show up at their door in the middle of the day. She could say she was from some non-profit agency, ask to come in, and then, maybe somehow the topic would come up naturally. Or she could say she was a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness. People like that came to your door all the time.
Meredith wasn’t sure what enabled her to finally leave the house that afternoon. She stayed inside all morning and cleaned every inch of their house, determined that it would take all day. But then, at almost three in the afternoon, when it was almost too late to go anyway, she got into the car with the page of printed off directions and left.
The Greens lived nearly an hour outside of Richmond, in a quiet rural area laced with fields and old country churches. Meredith had hoped they would live in a subdivision, or at least near some kind of main road, somewhere where here presence might not be so conspicuous. But as it turned out they lived on an isolated stretch of a gravel road, miles from the nearest store or gas station.
Meredith stared at their mailbox. It was already starting to get dark. How could she possibly explain herself to these people? She would have to tell the truth, and yet, that was impossible too. She would come off as deranged, psychotic. Maybe she wasn’t even home? She couldn’t see any cars from where she was parked. Maybe they were out of town. Maybe she drove all the way out here for nothing.
Meredith’s phone rang loudly beside her. With a glance toward the Green’s house, she picked it up to hear John’s voice on the other end of the line.
“Hey, just seeing where you were?”
“What do you mean?” Meredith asked. She looked in the rearview window, but the street was completely empty. A handful of golden fall leaves spun in lazy circles to the ground.
There was a long silence.
“We were supposed to meet here, to go to Sammy’s show. Jesus Meredith, don’t tell me you forgot.”
Meredith felt her stomach drop. She wrote it down on the calendar, knew about it for weeks. Sammy was so rarely excited about anything at this stage of his life. But he was visibly excited about this, his band’s first performance at their school’s talent show.
“Shit,” she said, more to herself than to John. “I’m so sorry.”
“Well where are you? Do you want to just meet at the school? It starts in a half hour.”
Meredith wasn’t listening. A woman appeared at the top of the Green’s driveway. She was tall and thin, and she wore loose jeans and a blue sweater. Her hair was in a pony-tail. She bent down to get the mail out of the mailbox. As she straightened back up, she looked in the direction of Meredith’s car.
“Are you there?” John asked, so loudly that Meredith jumped.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sorry. Can I call you back? I’m not, this isn’t a good time.”
“What the hell Meredith? I don’t care if this isn’t a good time. Where are you? What am I supposed to tell…”
She hung up before she realized what she was doing. She knew she would have to think about John and Sammy and her mistake later. She would have to make it up to them, as she had so many times, as she would always have to do. But right now that was all in the background. All of the scenarios she previously envisioned were gone. She only knew that if she didn’t do it now she never would. She turned off the ignition and stepped out of the car.
The woman watched as Meredith shut the car door and started to walk toward her. She raised a hand in greeting, but her face remained expressionless.
“Hi,” she finally said when Meredith was only a couple of yards away. She shielded her eyes from the fading afternoon sun. “Are you lost? A lot of people get turned around out here.”
Meredith stopped walking.
“Actually yes,” she replied. All of her plans for what to say, and this woman came up with the lie for her.
The woman smiled but even from this far away Meredith could tell it didn’t reach her eyes. She had to be Christina. So much in her face was recognizable to Meredith, the obvious things of course, the dark circles and wrinkles and streaks of gray around her temples. But it was more than that. Anyone could have seen that. What Meredith noticed was the hundred tiny ways this woman held herself together.
A silence fell and Meredith realized that the woman had asked her a question. She stared expectantly.
“Where are you trying to go?”the woman repeated after a few more beats of silence.
Meredith hesitated. This was it. This was the time to ask her the question she had to ask. All she had to do was open her mouth and let the words come. She could envision it, exactly how it would go.
I lost my child too, Meredith would say. It was the right thing to say. Meredith used to think it was a ridiculous expression, to say you lost someone when they died, but that was before she could possibly understand how correct it was, how out of every possible way to say it, it was the closest to the truth. Nothing else conjures the excruciating lack of finality, because of course it can’t be final, of course what you lost can be found again. It might take years or decades or lifetimes but there is a way for her to be found again.
I’m sorry, Christina would say. I’m so sorry. And she would mean it, more than anyone else could possibly mean it.
How did this happen to us? Meredith would finally ask, the question that would not go away, that grew to have a life of its own, a question to be asked again and again and again but never answered, not until this moment.
“Are you okay?”
The words cut through Meredith’s thoughts. Her eyes focused and she saw that the woman now stood only a few feet away. Her eyes were brighter now, tinged with concern. Meredith looked past her. For the first time she looked at the house. It sat at the bottom of a long and winding driveway. Behind it was a large plot of land which led all the way to the edge of a dense wooded area. The house was small and simple, but it was white and warm and clean. A pear tree stood between the road and the house, and its branches swayed in the soft breeze.
Meredith looked away from the house and back at the woman who lived there, who must be trying desperately to find even a little bit of peace in the world. She was probably Christina. Meredith could talk to her about what they went through. She could even tell her about Alice, tell her things she didn’t tell anyone, things she guarded fiercely, for fear that if she exposed these memories, even for a second, they would start to deteriorate, like film exposed to the sun. She could tell her that on the morning it happened Alice ate her first banana. She scrunched up her face at first, and looked about ready to spit it out, but then after a moment’s pause, she smiled, a big, sloppy, banana drool smile.
Meredith could tell this woman these things, and she would understand. But it wouldn’t change a thing, not a single thing, for either of them.
“Are you okay?” the woman repeated. She looked anxious now.
Meredith nodded and tried to smile.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m fine. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here.”
“Do I, have we met before?” the woman asked. She looked closely at Meredith.
“No, we haven’t. I’m sorry. I should go.” Meredith turned and walked toward the car. She didn’t look back, not as she started the ignition, not as she turned the car around, not as she drove away.
I sat on the bleachers and watched the last few minutes of Sammy’s practice. It was so cute, all these little five and six year olds running around pretending to be anything other than the babies they were.
I talked to a couple of the parents. No one asked after her. She never came with me to the practices. Why would they ask after her?
Was it too late by then? Would it even have mattered?
We left the practice together. Sammy’s sweaty hand in mine. We walked down the hallway. I reached in my purse.
The cool, jagged, edge of a house key.
The high school gym was dark and full of people when Meredith walked in. She was a half hour late, and the place was packed. People stood in clusters in the back. She glanced at the stage to see two young girls in matching outfits and knee high socks. They sung a pop song Meredith had never heard before.
Almost immediately she found John in the crowd. He stood against the back wall. He would have been late because he came home to meet her first. He was probably furious. She felt a momentary hesitation but then she walked directly toward him.
She stopped by his side.
“Hey,” she whispered. As soon as she spoke, the girls finished their song and the audience burst into applause. John looked at her but didn’t respond.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She had to speak loudly to be heard over the crowd. A woman beside them looked over her shoulder but quickly turned back to face front.
“Where were you?” he asked. He didn’t look at her.
“It’s not important,” she said. She tried to take his hand but he took it away from her. “I’m here now.”
John shook his head and smiled but it was an ugly, pained kind of expression.
“You think it’s that easy?” he said, now looking at her directly. Meredith was shocked by the anger in his eyes. The applause died down and neither spoke for a few moments. A new act appeared on the stage, a young boy with a guitar. He began to sing a sad, slow song that Meredith faintly recognized.
“No,” Meredith whispered finally. “I don’t. I know it’s not that easy. And I am sorry. I’m so sorry. But I am here now. I’m trying, I really am. And I promise I’ll try harder.”
John looked at her.
“I’ve never rushed you. I’ve always given you time. But I won’t forgive you if you keep checking out like this. Neither will he.”
John’s expression softened slightly. Meredith felt a surge of affection. He would forgive her this. She knew that. She didn’t deserve it, but he would. It had taken time, but he proved seven years before that he would forgive her anything. She never understood it, but he simply had.
“He hasn’t played yet.” John said finally.
Meredith nodded and took his hand. This time he let her. Meredith’s mind was blank. For the first time in weeks, she didn’t think of that pool or that house or that child. She thought only of the boy on stage and his sad, slow song.
I now know my mistake. I went about this all wrong. I’ve tried so hard to put it together, but I’ve been insistent on looking at things in order. I’ve started at the beginning and gone through until the end, but it will never make sense that way.
All I need, please God, all I need is ten minutes of my life in reverse. We live hundreds of thousands, millions even, of our minutes forward, from point A to point B. All I ask is for ten, ten tiny, insignificant minutes in the opposite order. Point B to Point A.
I’ve tried to redo things, to fix the pieces, to erase moments. I’ve tried to erase the minutes I spent with Mrs. Hoffman, the moment I told the babysitter not to come, the moment I stood and chatted with parents as Sammy finished his practice. I thought if I could just undo one of these moments I could make it right.
But I don’t believe that anymore. I accept my sin, what I did. I forgot her. I left her. I can’t erase these things, and I don’t want to. I only need to go backward, just for ten minutes. It wouldn’t erase anything, that’s the beauty of it. What’s done is done and can’t be undone. I know that. But what if I can redo what has already been done, only in the opposite direction.
It starts with the cool, jagged edge of a house key. In that moment I know what has happened, what I have done, and no matter how long I live I will never not know it. But instead of letting go of Sammy, instead of running through those doors into the bright sun, I go backwards.
I walk backward through the dark, cool hallway. Sammy’s sweaty hand is in my mind. His face is flushed and he talks and talks about Coach Bill and what they did that day. We walk together to the gym and I let go of his hand. He leaves my side and rejoins his team. I talk with the other parents, meaningless conversation. I watch Sammy out there, still such a baby, six years old with a head full of curls. He is safe and happy and does not know loss and I can leave him there.
I walk back down the hallway. I hear the sound my flip flops make in the silent school. I stop at Mrs. Hoffman’s room. We talk for maybe three minutes.
I leave her room and everything is okay. Everything makes so much more sense this way. Each new minute is not something progressively more horrible but now progressively more logical, leading me to the conclusion that should have been there all along.
I walk out the doors into the bright sun of the parking lot. The air is hot and heavy. I can feel the heat of the black asphalt underneath my shoes. Squiggly lines of heat rise off the ground. I walk to the car, calmly.
I open the back door and she is there, in her car seat, right where I left her. Don’t you see that she has always been there? She is asleep, had no idea even that I was gone. She is my sweet daughter, my beautiful child, and there are blurry, pink indentations on her cheek from where she has been sleeping, just as there have been a hundred other times, a hundred other times where I picked her up and felt the warm heat of her skin on mine, smoothed back sweaty, soft, baby hairs.
I hold her, and now I understand. Now I know that she was never lost, that she has been here waiting, all this time waiting, knowing that I would do this, I would fix this, put it all together, do the only thing that has ever made any sense and find her.