Don’t Look for Me – Wendy Walker

The sky grows dark as I drive. I tell myself to concentrate, to focus on the two narrow lanes of smooth, black asphalt and the double yellow lines that divide them. The road feels like a tunnel, carved between walls of brown cornfields which flank the road on both sides and go on as far as the eye can see. Darkness now hovers above and below, and from side to side. It’s everywhere. I hear the woman on the radio talk of the storm, but she is muted by thoughts that will not relent as the events of this terrible day unravel in my mind. This stretch of Route 7 passes through an endless chain of small New England towns—not the quaint villages farther south, but the old industrial hubs that have been left to decay. Neglected farmland, dilapidated houses, abandoned factories—they stand like tombstones. I wonder where people live. Where they buy groceries. Where they work and go out to dinner. Why they don’t leave. The unease causes my shoulders to rise and my back to straighten. It’s the same every time I pass through. These towns will haunt me well into the night.

There’s a gas station up ahead. The Gas n’ Go. It sits at the intersection of Route 7 and an eerie road that leads to the heart of one of these towns. I have never been down that road, and I don’t ever intend to. Still, this seems to be the spot where outsiders find themselves in need of gas as they journey from southern Connecticut into western Massachusetts. There must be half a dozen boarding schools and small colleges which are accessed from Route 7. Sometimes I recognize cars, even faces, when I have to stop. And I will have to stop today. The gas light has been on for miles now. After the Gas n’ Go, it’s two hours to my home at the southern end of the state.

I have already passed the green welcome sign. Welcome to Connecticut. Home. It will be just after nine. My husband, John, will likely be out. At the gym. At work. Having drinks with a friend. My daughter, Nicole, will also be out somewhere. Anywhere that’s not near me.

She just turned twenty-one so she has options now. Options that keep me up at night, watching the clock. Listening for the door. The dogs will bark and jump on my coat. They’ll only want food. They save their affection for my husband. He was the one who brought them home after Annie died, so they’ve been his dogs more than mine. The house will smell like Fantastik and lavender dryer sheets because it’s Thursday, and on Thursday the cleaners come. I wonder if they’ll remember to clear the ashes from the fireplace in our bedroom. It’s late October and cold enough for a fire.

John likes to sit in bed with the fire burning while he watches television. He had one going last night. He was asleep by the time I made it up the stairs, though now I remember that the fire had a fresh log. Conclusions are quick to follow and one hand now covers my gaping mouth. Am I too sensitive? Am I just being too me, too Molly? I hear these thoughts with John’s voice. Stop being so Molly. He has come to use my name as an adjective that allows him to dismiss me. But, no—I’m not wrong about the log on the fire. He was pretending to be asleep. The day unravels and I can’t stop my thoughts.

My son, Evan, attends one of the boarding schools off this road. He was recruited as a freshman to play football. He’s a junior now, and a starting lineman this season. I make this trip every other Thursday to watch his home games. The season is half over and they are leading the ranks. They may win the entire league this year. The drive is four hours each way. John tells me I’m crazy to make the trip twice a month. He tells me Evan doesn’t care. Nicole has harsher words for me.

She tells me Evan doesn’t want me there. That I embarrass him by going. That he’s not a little boy anymore and he doesn’t need his mommy watching him play. He has changed. She’s right about that. He knows the power he has on the field. I hadn’t seen it before today. It was in his stance, his walk. It was in his eyes. And it was in his cruelty.

I wonder when that began. If it’s new. Or only new that I can see it. I waited for him outside the field house where the team enters the locker room. I picture him now, as the day plays out again, slowly, painfully. How he walked with his friends, the enormous bag hanging over his shoulder, high-tops unlaced, baseball hat turned backward, and a mischievous smile that probably had something to do with talk about a girl. In that moment, before his eyes caught sight of me and his face changed, I felt my heart fill with pride. These thoughts come, and like the log on the fire, they don’t go. My boy, my sweet Evan, the easy middle child, walking like he owned the world. A smile pulled clear across my face as I waited for his eyes to turn and see me at the door.

And they did turn. And they did see. And then they widened and looked away. He grew closer, and still, they did not return to me. He positioned himself between two of his friends and passed through the door, leaving me in awe of his dismissiveness. It is just now, one hundred and eleven miles later, that I feel the bite of it. My vision blurs. I wipe away tears. Christ, I hear John. Stop being so Molly! He’s a teenager.

But the thought won’t leave, this image of his back turned as he walked into the building. I look up at the dark clouds stirring in the sky and see the sign for the Gas n’ Go sitting atop a giant pole. The storm is a hurricane. I am driving right into its path. John said this was another reason I shouldn’t make the trip today. The school could cancel the game if the storm got too close, and even if they didn’t, I would surely run into it on the way home. The storm, Evan not caring. And Annie. He stopped short of saying it, but the words lingered between us. Today is the anniversary of her death.

Five years ago, on this day, we lost our youngest child. She was nine years old. No. I will not think of Annie. I will not go backward. I will go forward. Put one foot in front of the other. I learned this in grief counseling. I used to be a middle school science teacher, where the focus is on learning to analyze problems by breaking them down into pieces and forming hypotheses—so I studied the grief this way. Objectively.

Clinically. We are not wired to witness the death of a child. To endure it. To survive it. But like every other human defect, we have used science to outsmart our own biology. We can take a brain that is shredded ear to ear and we can put it back together with mantras like this one. Mantras that have been tested in clinical trials. Vetted in peer articles and TED Talks and now appear in self-help books. You just put one foot in front of the other, Molly. Every day, just one more step.

Had I not had other children to care for, I would not have been able to take these steps. I would have died. Let myself die. Found a way to die. The pain was not survivable. And yet I survived. Forward. But the day continues to unravel, back now, to the morning. Nicole was just coming in from one of her nights. I don’t know where she slept.

Her skin has gone pale, her hair long and unruly. She’s become lean from running. She runs for miles and miles. She runs until she is numb, head to toe. Inside and out. Then she sleeps all day. Stays out all night. She is a lean, fierce, unruly warrior. And yet the pain still gets inside her. Where have you been all night? I asked.

The usual exchange followed, about how this was none of my business … but it was my business because she’s living in my house and what about her GED class and trying to dig herself out of this hole … but it’s my fault she’s in the hole; she’s in the hole because of Annie and her grief and because not everyone can just get over it … but when is she going to stop using her sister’s death as an excuse for getting expelled from her private school senior year, never going back? She shrugged, looked me straight in the eye. When did she become like this? This soldier, ready to fight off anyone who comes too close? What about you? When are you going back to work? she asked. She likes to remind me that I, too, stopped living—breathing, yes, but not really living. I had no response to my daughter this morning. I had no response to my son this afternoon. I didn’t even see Evan after the game. I waited by the door but he must have gone out a different way. I almost marched straight to his dorm to tell him what I thought of his behavior. To do what a mother does when she knows she’s right and when her child needs to learn a lesson. The sign for the Gas n’ Go grows closer, the clouds darker as these thoughts come.

I didn’t find him. I didn’t do what I now think a mother should have done. A good mother. Suddenly, I know why. The car slows. I step on the gas, but it doesn’t respond. I am not a good mother. I can’t hold them back now, the thoughts of my dead child. Annie. Not that they ever really leave me.

They are always lurking, hiding, wearing disguises so I don’t see them as they sneak up. I steer to the shoulder. The wheel is stiff. The car is dead. When it stops, I try the ignition, but it won’t turn over. I see the message on the dashboard. I have run out of gas. How long has the light been on? I have been preoccupied by this day. By these thoughts. John was right.

I should not have made this trip. Not today. I look down Route 7 and see the entrance for the station. It can’t be more than thirty feet. The wind whips hard, rocking the car. I can see the rain coming on an army of clouds. A blanket closing over the sky. I can’t tell how far away they are. How much time I have. Thoughts exploding.

Heart pounding. What have I done? Now comes the thought about the fire last night. We have four fireplaces in our house, all of them wood burning. I have been making fires and stoking fires since we moved there twelve years ago. I know what a log looks like when it’s just been placed on top of the flames. I have no umbrella, just a flimsy jacket. I put it on anyway. I reach for my purse and tuck it inside. It’s only thirty feet. I open the door, get out, close it behind me.

And I run, clutching the purse. I run into the wind which is more powerful than I imagined. I run and think about that log which had just been put there—last night—on the fire. John wasn’t asleep. John was pretending to be asleep so he wouldn’t have to see me, even just long enough to say good night. It’s not the first time. Flashes of the fight with Nicole break free as my body pushes through the wind. We fight every day now. Open your eyes! The fight had been so fast and furious, I had not processed each word. But I do now.

They are open. I see you clear as day, Nicole. Not to me. To your own husband! I can’t see what’s right in front of me. He never comes home for dinner. He pretends to be asleep when I come into our bedroom. My husband doesn’t love me anymore. My husband loves someone else. This thought feels old, like a jagged stone I’ve been carrying in my coat pocket, trying to rub it smooth. But no matter how much I dig my fingers in, the edges never soften.

And then, the words I had not heard before, but had felt many times. Still, hearing them from my own daughter twisted the knife. I hate you! Tears fall as I run. Annie. Wispy blond hair resting on delicate shoulders. Big, round eyes and long lashes. I can still feel her in my arms. Her life just beginning. Annie. Annie! And now I know why the thoughts have all come.

They have been leading me to this one, last thought. This naked admission. I am not a good mother because I did not drive four hours to watch my son play football so that he would feel loved. I drove four hours so that I could feel loved. The log in that fireplace. My daughter’s words. I hate you. Evan was all that was left. I had to see his face, see him thriving, so I could validate my life. Gasps of breath.

The wind is strong and the air cold. My lungs are on fire. Maybe Evan knew. Maybe he could sense it seeping from my skin. The need I wanted him to fill which must have felt like poison. A mother shouldn’t need things from her child. I caused Nicole’s demise. She is certain of it and it now feels real, though disorienting. I went to my son under false pretenses, caused him pain. Caused him to lash out with cruelty.

My husband pretends to sleep so he won’t have to look at me. Yes, I think as the grief spins violently in my head. I am a bad mother. This is an objective fact. There’s no way around it. I let a child die. I am at the entrance to the Gas n’ Go. I look up and see there are no cars. No lights on inside the store. Orange cones stand in front of the pumps.

The rain comes suddenly. The blanket covering the sky is now a broken dam. It’s dark but I can still see the writing on a cardboard sign. Closed for storm! I stop and let the rain wash over me as I stare at these words. Evan, Nicole, John. I am a burden to them now because they don’t love me. Because they can’t love me. It’s been five years to this very day that they stopped. Five years since Annie died. Five years since she ran into the road.

Five years since I struck her with my car. Since I killed her. Tears, rain, wind. I walk a few paces to the intersection, to the road, Hastings Pass, that leads to the town. There is nothing but pavement and dirt riding over hills, and the dead cornstalks in fields that go on and on. Not another car in sight. The hurricane is a category four. That’s what they said on the radio. I remember the voices now. I remember the name of this town.

Hastings. I have driven into the eye of the storm. I hear the mantra in my head. Don’t give up. I feel the weight of my guilt like a rock I hold above my head. How I fight to keep it from falling. I think now that maybe it’s time. Maybe I can just let it fall. Maybe I can just walk away. These words bring a sudden, jarring euphoria.

Walk away. Just walk away. The road with the brown cornfields, darkened by the angry storm, is now a thing of beauty. An oasis. An escape. My legs begin to move, pulling my body. My mind is in a trance. Sedated by these words and the promises they offer. You can leave all of this behind. You can start again.

You can put down the rock, the burden you carry. I walk along this road until I am part of the storm. Numb to the wet. Numb to the cold. Numb to the truth about the promises. And for the first time since I killed my child I am at peace. Please let me go. Let me walk away. I feel the words in my head like a prayer. Please, they whisper.

Don’t look for me. I don’t know how long I walk, or how far, when I see light coming from behind. I turn to find headlights moving slowly toward me. They’re high and bright. It’s a truck of some kind. Tall but also long. And in spite of the trance I am in and the peace it has brought, I feel both of my arms rise above my head and wave wildly, the purse still clutched in one hand. The truck pulls in front of me and comes to a stop. I walk closer until I am inches beside the passenger window. There are two figures inside.

I make a shield with my hand, just above my eyes to keep the rain from my face. I lean in closer and see the window come down a few inches. “The storm’s coming, you know—you shouldn’t be out here.” It’s a man’s voice. Friendly. But also urgent. “Do you want a ride to town?” Another voice calls from the truck. The window comes down a few more inches. The voice of a little girl. The face of an angel.

“Well? Do you or don’t you?” she asks. I stare at her, at her blond hair and bright eyes, and beyond her to the man. I stare at her, this young girl, and, God help me, for a split second I see my dead child. And then I see this road for what it truly is. A mirage. An illusion. And the words that caused my legs to carry me away from my life—liars. Their promises nothing more than cheap deceptions. The guilt will never leave me. I will never leave my family.

“Yes,” I say. The passenger window of the truck closes and the girl disappears. But now I hear the click of the locks opening. I reach for the handle of the door to the second row, desperate to be out of the storm. Desperate to get back to my family. To forget what I have almost done. This storm might have killed me. The wind and the cold. Then the guilt would be theirs to carry. John, Nicole, Evan.

How could I be that selfish after everything I’ve already done to them? I will never think of it again. I climb inside, close the door. Relief fighting with despair. And before I can clear the rain from my eyes and see what’s really before me, I hear the click again. The doors locking. Locking shut.

.

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