Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
And the moment explodes with Seth's face flashing like a strobe in my head and every muscle tensed and rock hard, the anxiety buzzing, spilling out, overflowing, the way it might feel for a soldier on the ground to watch a dropped bomb fall toward him, starting in slow motion, then moving closer, closer for a long time. And the knowing. The anticipation. Waiting. For the moment when it all combusts.
I've been moving so, so slowly toward this moment. Knowing it could come.
And now, for the first time, I've been caught by someone who knows me.
I lunge for my hoodie as Coffee Haven Guy jerks out from underneath me.
“Wow,” Ty says. I can hear the smile, the amusement in his voice. “This is unexpected.”
I yank on my jeans, flip the hoodie over my head, down over my face as far as I can even though it's too late. I can't hide now.
“Tessa. Wow,” Ty says again, everything sinking in, his eyes blinking, adjusting to the dimness, and I yearn for the blackness again, yearn for the moment when my eyes, when everyone's eyes were wide open but no one could see a thing.
I turn to face Ty. My head still half covered. My hands, my legs, my organs and bones shaking from the impact, from the silence that's crawling like spiders out from behind the cardboard boxes. There is nothing to say. Nothing to explain. I just have to get out now.
“I have to go,” I say. Then take the basement stairs two at a time, push the back door open, plunge into the night.
But nothing seems dark anymore.
Everything is hyperbright, as if the parking lot, the trees, the towns for miles around, as if the whole freaking world is blowing up around me.
Sixteen old people sit in foldout metal seats and wheelchairs. Their gray-haired heads sway as my violin pours out “Blue Moon,” an oldie and, for them, a goodie. One guy, lulled by my playing, snores on the back couch.
I concentrate on the vibration of the instrument against my chin. I dig how it makes my whole skull vibrate, like I'm actually playing music inside my brain. I press the calluses on the forefingers of my left hand against the strings and pull my bow back slowly with my right to stretch the last note out. The applause that follows makes me genuinely happy. The Woodside Manor Assisted Living residents kick ass. Which is why I still carve out time to play for them. Even on days like today when I'm dead tired from working at the car wash this morning, then delivering flowers for the Hallend Flower Shop this afternoon, and then checking in on Mom and getting my homework done before rushing back to Hallend to be tonight's entertainment.
I can't help but respect the Woodside residents. I mean, they say exactly what they mean. It's refreshing. If they don't like the
banana pudding on the menu or the Britney Spears song on the radio, they'll tell you to “Shove it, kid.” No regrets.
It's what we all should do, but most people are way too gutless. Myself included sometimes.
“We'll take a quick break, and then I'll do one more set of songs,” I say, which brings on more applause.
The old folks fidget and start cracking their bodies to standing. My favorite of them, Ben Croeden, heads straight toward me. He moves faster than the others. He was a cyclist up until his kids decided they didn't want to be worried about leaving him alone and stuck him in Woodside. He'd be the first to tell you it was bullshit for them to worry. He could be out of this place and in his own apartment with no problems. Except, now, for very personal reasons, he actually chooses to be here.
He puts a sturdy hand on my shoulder. “Thanks, Jack, for playing my request.” His pale blue eyes flit to Maria Fignorina, still sitting in one of the chairs in the front row. She tips her round face down, gives him a bashful smile. “âBlue Moon' is her favorite song,” Ben whispers.
I offer him a sly expression. “Well, buddy, who am I to get in the way of young love?”
Ben winks. “I bet you know a lot about young love. You're a decent-looking kid, Jack. You got yourself a girl?”
I shrug and think of the loads of girls I've hooked up with at parties who look, dress, and act like anything but “ladies.” Most girls are too easy.
And right on cue, the girl next door materializes in my head. Surprising me. Again. I wonder if that's why I can't stop thinking about her. She didn't swish her hair or bat her eyelashes or giggle in that stupid way flirting girls do.
In her purple scrubs, Nurse Grishelm sweeps into the room. Her dark, kinky curls shake as she hustles toward us. “Sorry, folks, but it's time to break this party up. We've got lights-out soon.”
Several people groan.
“Talk about someone getting in the way of young love,” Ben whispers to me.
“I heard that, Mr. Croeden.” Nurse Grishelm points a finger at Ben. She moves into the middle of the group and helps the seniors struggling to get up and out of their chairs, grabbing their hands for support. “Now, you know I have nothing against a little romance here at Woodside, but it's my job to make sure all you good people are safe in your beds with pills taken, jammies on, and faces washed before the night shift comes in and I head home to my daughter and grandbabies.”
“I was hoping to do a little dancing tonight.” He casts a glance toward Maria.
Gripping the elbows of two more residents to help them up, Nurse Grishelm says, “You'll have to put your tango on hold, Mr. Croeden.” She gives a nod toward Maria. “But since I only have two hands, what do you say you help that beautiful woman to her room.”
Ben busts out in a dentured smile. “With great pleasure.” He gently pulls Maria to her feet. Her plump lips, covered in red lipstick, rise as she stares at Ben with a longing I thought only existed in soap operas and high-budget films.
Nurse Grishelm and I watch as Ben and Maria stride away. “Say good night to Ms. Fignorina at her door, please, Mr. Croeden. I don't want to get a call tonight about any hanky-panky. Hear me?”
“I'll keep my hanky in my panky,” he says, wiggling his gray eyebrows.
I let loose a laugh and hope I'm as awesome as Ben when I'm his age. “We'll dance next time I come to play, Ben,” I tell him.
“Looking forward to it, Jack,” he says before disappearing around the corner.
I slip my violin into its scratched and raggedy case.
“Jack,” Nurse Grishelm says, “that was a heck of a concert, son. You've got some God-given talent.”
. You give these residents something to look forward to. I bet your mama is real proud of what a good person you are. I know I would be.” She pats my back, and I try to ignore how my throat and chest are suddenly way too tight.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
I'm almost to my house when my cell rings.
lights up on the caller ID. I instantly tense. I never know whether it will be a “Can you pick up bread?” call or an “I'm growing scabs all over my arms” call.
“Hey, Mom.” I keep my voice upbeat.
“I saw him fly, Jackie.” Her voice is flat, lifeless. Like it gets sometimes when she's “lost.” I curse in my head. This is obviously an “I'm growing scabs all over my arms” call.
“I know, Mom. He didn't fly. He fell. But Ryan is in a better place now.”
“I think he's cold, Jackie.” I hear scuffling, her moving around. Panic bites at me.
“Mom, where are you?” I try to sound calm. She needs calm.
“The cemetery. I'm sure he's really cold. I think there's a blanket in my car, Jackie. I need to go get it.” Her phone clicks, hanging up.
Shit! The cemetery is twenty minutes away back in Hallend. My tires squeal as I turn my Dart toward our old town and Porter Cemetery. I just hope that by the time I get there, she hasn't dug up Ryan's tiny grave with her bare hands.
Just after Mom fell ass-backward into crazy four years ago and I convinced her to talk to a psychiatrist, Dr. Surrey told me she's probably been schizophrenic since her twenties. She'd just figured out how to manage it. The doc said Mom probably knew which voices in her head were real and which weren't. But the second Ryan slipped off that roof, she stopped trying to control it. The voices instantly grew louder and made her think things that couldn't possibly be true.
Sitting in Dr. Surrey's office while she explained it all, I fucking hated the idea that something could hijack Mom's brilliant mind. And the older I get, the more it pisses me off. Dr. Surrey says coupled with Ryan's death, her illness has got to be pushing her to the emotional, possibly suicidal, edge. If her episodes continue to get worse, the next step will be to put her in a group home. Separate her from me and everything she knows. I hate that idea, too. But the more her schizophrenia takes hold of her, the more tired I get of trying to calm her down and help her see what's real.
My Dart streaks past the dark fields on the stretch of road just outside of Pineville. Up ahead, lights flash from emergency vehicles sitting on the roadside.
“Fuck!” I hit the gas and speed toward whatever happened, hoping Mom didn't leave the cemetery and get into an accident.
When I get close, her small silver Volkswagen Jetta is nowhere among the chaos. Some ancient navy Ford Tempo sits in the mix, shut off and tagged with a bright orange highway “tow” sticker.
Must have broken down. Not sure what the ambulance is for, but I know Mom's not in it, so I slam on the gas and count the seconds until I get to the cemetery.
Ryan's gravestone is the newest in this awesome graveyard. The next newest is from 1831. All of them but Ryan's are crumbling, barely readable, and covered in thick moss.
Ryan and I totally dug it here when he was alive. It was an odd place for kids to hang out, but we lived close by, so we'd walk here when Mom was cramming for a case and Dad was busy with graphic design work. We'd sprawl in the weedy grass and make up stories about who each of these ancient people were. Wilfred B. Buxhotham (1768â1822), Nettie G. Inster (1799â1804), and Edgar John Morester (1784â1829) were way better listeners and much more attentive than our parents.
When Ryan had to be buried somewhere, Mom called some lady at the county administrator's office for whom she'd done divorce work and asked for a license to bury Ryan next to “his friends.” So here he lies.
Ryan Francis Dalton, Born: June 4, 2003, Flew to Heaven: August 12, 2012
Tonight, I can't see his gravestone because it's covered in Mom's fleece blanket with a giant wolf head on it. Mom's still feet poke out one side. I so hope she didn't get so sad and so exhausted with the voices in her head that she decided to join Ryan in the afterlife.
“Hey.” I lift up part of the blanket.
She raises her head. One side of her hair is all matted from lying there. “Hi, Jackie. Say hi to your brother.”
I glance at the stone. “Hey, Ryan.” I push down the heavy sadness twisting inside and crouch beside her. “It's time to go home, Mom.”
She shuts her eyes. “I want to stay a little longer.”
“Can't,” I say. “The cemetery's about to close.”
She glances at me. “This cemetery doesn't keep hours. It's not closing.”
I use the lesson she taught me when I was littleâ
Say something with conviction and everyone will believe you.
“It sure is.”
She gives me a suspicious glare, ready to fight me on it, but then her face softens. She stands, taking the blanket with her. “Let's go.”
She kisses her fingertips and rubs Ryan's gravestone, her fake fingernails scraping lightly. As she heads to the car, she trips one, two, then three times. She's pretty drunk.
“I'm driving,” I tell her, realizing I'm going to have to leave one of our cars here and come back for it later. I head toward mine.
“I need my car, Jackie. I promised a client I'd meet them tomorrow. Sunday's her only day off this week.”
I stifle a curse and head toward her car. I help her get belted in before I crawl into the driver's side. As I pull out, something clanks on the floor of the backseat. An empty vodka bottle sits next to a half-f bottle of grapefruit juice. Disappointment rolls through me, but I work to let it go. I'm just glad she's safe for now.
Mom is quiet until we turn onto our dirt road, and three houses away from ours, she whispers, “Turn the car lights off, Jackie.”
I slow to a stop. “Why?”
“Just do it.” Her hands shake as she holds them near her heart.
I switch the lights off and cruise slowly into our driveway. She looks around, cautious and scared.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Shh!” She looks at me like I'm the insane one, then whispers, “I don't want him to see us.”
“Who?” I whisper back.
“The man watching us. Next door.”
I want to crack her brain open against the sidewalk in front of our run-down house and pick out the bits of loony crawling around in there like worms. Instead, I calmly say, “It's just some guy living his life next door, Mom.”
“Shh!” Her hand swats toward me. “You've seen him.”
I take a deep breath and go around to her side to help her out. When I shut the car door, she jumps, then glances toward Bleacher Girl's house.
With my arms around her shoulders, I push her toward our front door, but when we get inside, the lights won't go on.
“Shit,” I mutter, realizing it was up to me to have the utilities transferred to our name, and with everything else I had to handle, I never did that. Not that we could pay for lights anyway. I crack my knee on a side table as I lead her through the dark living room to her bedroom. “Ow! Shit!”
“Please don't swear.” She somehow turns maternal.
“They turned the lights off.” I use my cell for light, pulling her nightgown from the chair and handing it to her. She doesn't say anything.
I leave her to dress, then go get her an Ativan to calm her, a sleeping pill to knock her out, and a glass of water. When I get back to her, she's in bed. She downs the pills with the water, then winces at the glass, as if the lack of vodka makes it taste disgusting.
“Good night,” I tell her, and walk out.
Just before I close her door behind me, she says, “My client's promised to pay me by the beginning of next week. We can pay bills.”
I don't respond, because my brain can't keep up with her
flipping between nuts and sane, dumb-drunk and intelligent. It's like a Tilt-A-Whirl at one of those pop-up fairsânauseating while you're spinning, but even when you walk away, you're dizzy and sick. Nothing's clear for a good long time.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
Once I click Mom's door shut, I lean my head against it and let myself breathe until the flash of headlights outside pulls me toward the window.
A car is at the side of the road in front of Bleacher Girl's house, running, lights on. Just sitting there. Then the headlights shut off, and Bleacher Girl gets out of the car. The moon casts pale light on the curves of her face. She walks around her car and stops under the massive maple tree whose roots have pushed parts of the sidewalk up into crooked, cracked slabs. She sits on a flat part of the concrete cross-legged. Her finger traces over the ground, in whatever dust and dirt is spread next to her. Like she's drawing or writing.
She's alone. And I should leave her that way. I should let her have whatever moment she's stealing. But I've had a shitty, shitty night. And she's right there. And she's insanely pretty, her blond hair streaming over her shoulders and her lips all plump like a row of cherries.