Form: linked short stories

One Step Closer

One Step Closer

The morning was really good for once – until the phone rang.

She didn’t take it. Not yet. She was not going to answer that damn phone. She had any number of excuses in the back of her mind, vague, dreamily, like nothing else mattered than here and now. And everything else could magically take care of itself. You could say – think – anything to shape your world and it would do as you pleased.

In the end, she took it. Her lips still tasted salty and she allowed herself a second to remember that …

“Carrie – ? Are you there, honey?”

Okay, now there was no way back:

“Mum – what is it? Has something happened?”

She almost wished for it, although her gut told her it was not like that. And her heart that it should not be like that.

But it was something that would make her perfect, salty day all dry up.

Carrie seated herself upright in the bed, with the cell phone pressed hard to her ear. She soon pulled her legs up under herself, pressing her jaw equally hard towards her knees as she listened. It had only taken 10 seconds and now she was curled up like a steel spring.

Jon did not wait long before he rolled out and began looking for his socks and jeans as if nothing had happened. He knew it was now the only thing he could do.

The quiet morning before the suburban beehive woke up was still quiet. But in Carrie’s mind storms were raging.

Why could it never be different with mum, after all these years?

“Please, could you say that again?”

Carrie had to ask because from the moment she had picked up the phone, everything had become more and more unreal.

Her mother was happy to prolong that reality:

“Look, I know it’s hard to wrap your head around, and they have hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates. But this time it is you!” 

“Me … “

“Yes! Marcus will give you 100,000 dollars as part of the Church Universal’s yearly Give Way-Event. The only condition is that you’ll use them to improve, well, anything really. Start that business. Draw … whatever.”

“Uh … I don’t know if,” Carrie tried, but it was really too late.

“Don’t you think that it is awesome, darling?” her mother beat on. “I am really glad Marcus and I kept in contact all those years. And you know, last year there was a widow who lived on welfare in Boston who received the Event Money and she has a small salon today that – “

“Look,” Carrie said, “I’m really not sure that – “

“I mean,” her mother continued undaunted, as always, “with you leaving college like that and never becoming a lawyer and then – “ she hesitated ever so slightly ” – that problem down in Florida, and all the hard work afterward… I think you deserve it, Carrie.”

“I really don’t want to talk about Florida … “

Carrie didn’t know if she was irritated with her mother for using that damn euphemism for Carrie’s short, but nearly fatal, dance with cocaine over 15 years ago. Yeah, it had all started in Florida, but it wasn’t just Florida where the problems had continued. And why couldn’t we call it what it was …

I was a crackhead, mum … 

But her head now was beginning to swim with something that almost made her long for that escape.

“Mum, this really isn’t a good time. It’s morning here and I need to think about this … “

“Well, you have been thinking for 15 years, haven’t you?”

One of the Deborah Sawyer witticisms. You never quite knew if it was designed to make you laugh or cry.

“I have been trying to build a life – caring for my family.”

“And draw. I know you love drawing. And then of course that job …

“What, the cleaning?”

“No, no –  something better.”  Deborah Sawyer sounded like she had found something precious that had been lost for a long time ” – maybe you could use the money to pay for you doing more of that interpretation work for that organisation you help – I can never remember its name – “

“OMAC, mum.”

“OMAC – that’s it. With the migrants, and all.”

“That’s right. Separated migrant families. And other – “

Carrie didn’t say anything now. She seriously needed to stop this. It felt like she had been hit by a brick.

“Mum … it’s Marcus,” she then said.

Pause.

“—What is it about Marcus that you don’t like?”

“Okay, it’s not just about Marcus,” Carrie finally said.

“Then who is it about?”

The old knife’s edge in Deborah’s tone, whenever they talked – it had never completely gone away.

“Look, I am not going to meet him, okay?” Carrie said with finality.

Jon had long stopped getting dressed and was standing there looking at her with a half-puzzled, half-worried expression.

“Do you think it’s funny for me having to work my ex to help you?” her mother said, the knife still getting sharper.

That tone – it was like her mother’s attempt at cutting away at that always smoldering exasperation and frustration that she seemed to carry around, just beneath the surface.

“No, mum, I don’t think so.”

“Well, don’t you think it’s a good offer … ?” Deborah followed up.

And then before Carrie could answer, her mother added:

“If I had had that offer at your age, it would have changed everything.”

“I’m 40, mum. And – “

“That’s my point, dear. It is never too late.”

“It’s certainly never too late to try to fix my life.”

“Well, that’s grateful, dear – real grateful.”

Carrie pulled her legs up tighter and clenched the phone hard now. Sure, she was naked in the bed with only part of the sheet pulled up around her body, but that was not the problem. The way this conversation veered off – the way it always veered off – made her feel it wouldn’t matter how many clothes she put on. Sure, a moment ago she had also been naked – but she had not felt naked. She did now. And in the bad way.

Again …

“Mum … ?”

“Yes, darling.”

You don’t mean that.

“Listen – ” she started, then caught Jon’s eyes.

He eyed her, questioningly. She covered the cell phone with her hand:

“Kids … ” she whispered.

“But – ” he began.

“I’ll be fine.”

“All right.”

He quickly tugged his shirt all the way down into his trousers and tightened his belt. Then he grabbed his shoes and was out the door, to wake up Emma and Michael.

And do all the things that needed to be done, even if the world had stopped a little bit in their bedroom.

“Carrie … ?” Deborah’s voice sounded more distant now.

*

“Want to tell me what this was all about?” Jon asked just when she had felt relieved he probably wouldn’t.

The breakfast table was half empty already, so Carrie was toasting some more bread and searching for the marmalade and moving some dishes around, and looking for more to do, so she did not have to sit too much at the table and talk about Emma’s homework or that Stanton kid Michael was afraid of, and who did seem like a certified bully.

Maybe he has absent parents?

“Can we talk about it … later?” Carrie eyed Emma and Michael.

“Sure,” Jon said quickly.

“Talk about what?” Emma asked.

“About … when we are going to visit Miriam in LA,” Carrie said quickly and looked at Jon.

“Yeah, right,” Jon said.

“Well, when are we?” Emma asked in a tone that was loaded with impatience bordering on … pain.

Carrie breathed deeply: “Maybe next month.”

“‘Maybe’?” Emma had not said much this morning, as usual, but now …

“What about grandma? She lives there now, doesn’t she?” Emma continued, “we could visit both.” But it was obvious from her tone that it was nothing she really wanted as much as visiting her best friend who was no longer there.

“Are we going to visit grandma?” Michael quipped while slurping his cornflakes. A flake had somehow become stuck in his wily blonde hair.

“Yes, dear, but … ” Carrie started and removed the flake as she sat down.

“You forgot the marmalade, mum!” Michael complained, fiddling his toast.

A change of subject. Never had it been so welcome.

“I did.” Carrie got up and took the jar of strawberry marmalade. She had taken it out of the fridge but left it on the table.

Carrie went back and sat down and gave Michael the jar.

“Here, honey.”

Michael turned the jar upside down and since it was open he almost immediately covered her toast and most of his bread in marmalade – and quite a bit of the table.

“No – ” Carrie started. And there they went again.

But it was comforting, after all. It was routine. Even the post-postponement of that LA visit. Carrie wanted so badly for her daughter to be able to visit Miriam, but not alone. On the other hand, it would just make her relation with Deborah worse, if Carrie followed her daughter to LA and did not visit her own mother.

So it was the ritual ruminations that were shut down as quickly as you could find some marmalade to worry about and thank you for that.

It was the ritual chaos in the tiny dining kitchen in a dry white house with a low-angled sun-bleached turquoise roof, doors, garden gates – or what went for a garden.

The garden was there but it was all the things there was never time for, and usually not enough money for, to really do something about. So it just had to be as it was.

It was home. In good times and bad times.

It was the comforting chaos and homely box full of unfinished dreams and decoration plans that she knew as a base, somewhere to shelter.

It was the shelter she had to leave in under 15 minutes.

*

Carrie and Jon finished up without talking more about the call from Deborah. Or LA. All the things that were better talked about … later.

And then Hammond picked up Jon on his way to the station, so for once, Carrie had the car. And the kids were allowed a ride in a real police car, so that also helped matters.

If being alone with your thoughts was helpful.

Carrie knew the city too well after all this time. She could almost follow the roads blindfolded, she thought, as she drove off to work herself. Everything was familiar – in all the ways that were both good and bad but ultimately comforting.

A strange kind of comfort … like sedation.

Today, though, Yuma was covered in the sun that made its city vista mosaic of rust red, and white look a little milder and more inviting than she had ever felt it would be.

Carrie had never wanted to come here, into the desert, close to the edge of this adopted country of hers.

But there had been work for Jon and none for her, so the story had played out as it always had in these situations. They moved here and not anywhere else.

And then she had to find work – any kind of work.

When Carrie reached Meachum’s Nursing Home she stood there for a moment.

Then she measured herself and went in, trying to put on her best ‘I don’t care’-face.

But it wasn’t the uniform or the stench of bleach that bothered her.

It was that damn phone call …

Carrie went through the doors and checked in. It wasn’t that bad.

Some cleaning ladies have to check in way earlier … this isn’t bad. This isn’t bad.

She thought about it and noticed the usual stillness in the air and the dust on top of the picture of Monument Valley in the reception. The dust was never cleaned because there were strict rules (regulated by strict budgets) about what should be cleaned and what should not.

Carrie knew very well what had to be cleaned. After five years she knew every nook and cranny of the 200 rooms, hallways, offices, and toilets of Meachum’s.

It was strange … when you wiped a table somewhere you began to notice cracks or marks and all kinds of atomic details when at home you could barely remember the color of the cushions on the couch.

That’s what cleaning full-time gets you … it makes you a goddamn robot with a photographic memory of things that don’t matter … 

She walked down the hall, nodded a few greetings to personal on morning watch and Mr. Hansen and Mrs. Mckenzie who were always roaming early.

In the little dressing room at the end of hallway 1, Carrie found the one person she always slightly dreaded to see, yet had learned to live with. Like a sore knee …

Clarice’s tiny wiry 50+ body struggling with the uniform and filling no space at all and her voice and attitude filling everything:

“Fucking hell – why can’t they ever get the sizes right for the new ones?!”

“Hey … Clarice … “

Clarice looked up and grinned and Carrie was reminded to be grateful that at least smoking was never a vice she had had.

The coke and the booze were quite enough …

That was a different time, though. A life lived … by somebody else.

“Carrie … ” Clarice seemed she had forgotten why the laundry or purchaser or whoever was a jerk.

“You look just like I feel … !” Clarice then added, as if it was a divine inspiration: “No, scratch that, girl. You look a lot worse.”

Clarice pulled out a packet of cigarettes from her own pocket.

“Clarice – goddammit – “

“What?”

Carrie pointed at the pack, rolling her eyes.

“Fuck it – ” Clarice lit one.

Carrie shook her head. “We’re late,” she added. “And this ‘room’ is too small for that shit.”

“Not for the two wheezes I need.” Clarice blew smoke out her nostrils, then quashed the cigarette quickly. “Now do you know what you need to look a little more spiff when you come here, honey?”

“Nicotine?”

Clarice looked at Carrie as if she was a grape – and Clarice had just bitten into it. Then she blew out smoke:

“It’s that husband of yours,” Clarice said. “I can tell.”

“Yeah, you know all about husbands.”

“I do.”

“You do.”

“And you know all about men, right?” Clarice’s tone became venomous.

Carrie shook her head and started looking for her buckets. She figured she’d just go with the flow and close her ears as usual. And her heart.

She knew Clarice well enough. Despite the slight soft turn at the end of this morning talk, the potshots had only just begun.

*

“I can’t stay here any longer.” Jocelyn gulped down some more coffee. It was her second cup while Carrie had been at OMAC’s office.

One precious hour before kids.

Carrie stared at her coffee then at her own cup, which she hadn’t really touched. “Why?”

But she knew the answer. This was all just going through the motions.

The office at OMAC was lightly air-conditioned as always, even this month. And it was spartan, as always. It was as if Yuma’s Office for Migrants And Counseling was a local NGO so attuned to the people it served that its founders had decided there need not be any spiffy furniture or pictures on the walls, not even a single flower in a vase.

Everything should be dedicated towards counseling those migrants who crossed the border legally or less so, and who needed help.

That was one interpretation.

The other, of course, was that there was never money for anything, especially not new office chairs or some original paintings or even framed photos. Or  someone to buy and water flowers.

But those were all things, and in truth they were not the primary need in the run-down former tarpaulin store and warehouse-building in southern Yuma, a short walk from the Custom’s Service on East 39th Pl and with a naked desert view out of the windows in three of four walls of the building.

Dedication was the primary need, not just because there was never money. But also because the mission here – to guide and counsel migrants, no matter their legality or circumstances – wasn’t exactly something everybody appreciated by default in the United States these days.

Dedication, though, was not an infinite resource.

“Work … ” Jocelyn said, after a long pause.

Carrie nodded. “Been there.”

She thought of Meachum’s Home … of how she had this one hour before she had to go get the kids … of how much … she needed to be … here.

Here instead of there.

Always the case for me, isn’t it?

Jocelyn stared blankly into the desert behind the windows. A few miles beyond the horizon there was Mexico and all the pain and suffering of moving people that had somehow – some days, perversely she felt – turned into meaning for her.

“That bad, huh?” Carrie added.

Jocelyn shrugged as if she didn’t care, but she looked lost.

“I can’t get that break I want as a new lawyer if I work here as well. Nobody cares about this and they still expect you to do 70 hours per week, if you want to get a foot in the door… “

“You heard from Kirkland & Ellis yet?”

“No, they probably even haven’t looked at what I sent them … So for now I’m stuck with Margrave. Half of it paid, the other half … ” She looked even more lost. “It’s what I have.”

“It’s what counts if you want to move up, yeah.”

“As in get a steady job at a firm – somewhere.”

“As in that, yeah.” She shook her head. “But … “

Carrie knew the rest.

” … I want to work here,” Jocelyn said, sounding more resigned than ever. Then she shook her head. “And with you … ” She looked at Carrie but her smile was thin.

“Through thick and thin … that’s us,” Carrie said. “The team supreme. The Anti-Trumpistas … “

“Yeah … ” Jocelyn said softly and poured more coffee.

“You okay?” she then said to Carrie.

“Yeah – yeah … just thinking … about family-stuff.”

“Oh, okay? Everything good back there?”

“Yeah, no – I mean, it’s my daughter – I – “

“Difficult age, huh?”

“Damn right.”

Jocelyn looked thoughtful: “Why can’t anything every be goddamn easy? I just want to stay here and do some work!”

“But you don’t have enough time,” Carrie added.

Jocelyn looked up: “Sorry, you’re the one with two kids … “

“Never mind that.”

Jocelyn stroked her jet black hair, just above her brow. She looked away into the distance, but there was nothing but the wall in front of her – that was where she looked. But her gaze was far away …

“You know, Carrie, I really never made a secret of how much I admire you,” she then said.

“Come on – “

“That cleaning work must be exhausting … “

“It pays the bills. Some of them.”

“Not so much time to interpret legal stuff here for scared migrants, though?” Jocelyn said. “But you come here anyway. You are my best interpreter.”

“And you are … my friend.”

Jocelyn smiled with a bit more light.

“Yeah, yeah I am. But I was just thinking that with you coming here – still – it must be so difficult and – “

“Don’t make this about me,” Carrie interrupted. “I fought to get that hour off earlier so I could get down here on a weekday before the kids … you know, to say goodbye.”

Jocelyn tasted the word: “‘Goodbye’ … “

Then she shifted the topic, and they chit-chatted a bit about everything else but the elephant in the room. Carrie was glad to oblige.

But her mind drifted while they talked. She had expected coffee, yes, and talk about how to help kids out of cages and anything else that could make her feel like she was in the good fight and making a difference – make her feel bigger.

And now she was thinking that she should be sad but that a part of her was also relieved. Jocelyn was 10 years younger and on the threshold of a brilliant career because she was so goddamn smart. She had already worked in many law firms, the only thing holding her back to become a partner was her own desire to be somewhere else, much like Carrie.

She wanted to do the dirty work here on the ground and help the legal department of chronically understaffed and cash-strapped charities like OMAC.

She wanted, in short, to do something for people for whom victory meant to be allowed living a life and not winning a settlement claim of 1 million dollars more.

And that was also what Carrie wanted. And that was also why she loved working with Jocelyn, even though – at times – she had also hated that Jocelyn wanted this kind of work.

Because it was only Jocelyn’s decision to hold back her career for some years that had held it back (that and not having kids, of course). It wasn’t because she had fucked up at life or anything.

In short: Jocelyn was everything Carrie had wanted to be at 30, back when Carrie was only 21 and didn’t yet know that she would never go back to law school after that sojourn to Bolivia.

A part of Carrie hated that no matter how hard she tried to put it down. And another part of Carrie hated herself even stronger for thinking at it like this. It was Jocelyn, goddammit …

I have to fucking pull myself together. I don’t need all of these thoughts … I need them like I need cockroaches in the goddamn kitchen … 

It was, of course, at that very moment that somebody knocked at the door to the meeting room – and half-opened it at the same time.

A curly, redhead woman in her early 50s peeked in:

“There you are – sorry to disturb, but – “

Yeah, always interrupt then say you are sorry, Brenda … 

“What?” Jocelyn said, alert.

Carrie tried to hide behind her coffee cup. It did not work.

“Margarita Morales is back with her son,” Brenda said.

“I thought we had an agreement she’d come back next week?” Jocelyn said. “I gave that case to Tom, so he could take care of it when I’m gone.”

“She might not be here next week,” Brenda said. “They want to deport her tomorrow.”

“Oh shit … “

“I thought the case was all in the clear?” Carrie blurted. “I mean, we talked to officer Dean about it last week and he said – “

“That’s not what she says,” Brenda interrupted, shaking her head. “Or at least not what I gather. In fact, we could use a little help with interpretation, Carrie – Linus went home half an hour ago.”

Carrie felt lost: “I have to fetch my kids in 20 minutes from school.”

“Can’t they take a bus?” Brenda asked in that way that did nothing to de-escalate the situation.

Carrie glared at her, but said nothing. She knew it was exactly the time to say nothing. She gritted her teeth and motioned to get up.

Jocelyn got up before her: “Let me take care of this,” she said to Brenda.

“I think we need someone who speaks better Spanish – ” Brenda said ” – not that – “

She was interrupted when there was noise from the hallway … it sounded like a boy crying. And then – a woman shouting:

“Carlos – venga aqui!”

Carrie got up before Jocelyn could protest.

“I’ll call Emma and ask her to take Michael home on the bus,” she said, making a point out of not looking at Brenda as she said it.

But it was okay. Emma could do this and Michael was a big boy. It was just the bloody traffic she was worried about and Jon was working late – again.

The bus would do, though. And she would do what she could – as always.

*

On her way home Carrie noticed that Em had been trying to call her. But then there was a text saying:

Nothing important, mum. We’re home now.

It wasn’t usual for Emma to be so … clipped, Carrie thought. And yet – it wasn’t unusual, either. When she was mad … at her mother.

Yeah, I had promised to pick you both up and then you would go to Marie’s and not look after your little brother who I don’t want to be all alone in the house because he is only 10 and the neighborhood is not that … and maybe I am overreacting and … 

Well, she could try a different line. Carrie thought about it as she waited in a crossing, just behind a truck that smelled like it had driven all through nine states without getting a wash.

Sorry, honey, but I think you are such a big girl now it was time you stepped up and …

Nah, fuck it.

How would she explain that she went to OMAC when she had said to everybody at the morning table 2 weeks ago that she would definitely not spend time volunteering and therefore get home earlier?

She had promised Jon.

She had promised Em and Michael.

She had promised herself.

Except that the last promise had felt more like a betrayal.

What the fuck is wrong with me … ?!

Why couldn’t she ever just figure out life? Figure out some kind of balance.

Carrie rounded a corner and … a truck raced by from the left and passed her – very close. She could hear the roar in her head and smell the diesel.

It had been just a few seconds after the red light. Or had she been … distracted?

Some other car honked behind her and she realized she was clogging everything up and quickly shifted gear, but too quickly. The car’s gears made a groaning sound and the car stopped as if it had hit something.

The guy behind her was yelling something now – while he was honking. Somebody else was testing their horn, too.

Carrie was very close to exiting and yelling something back, but at the last minute, she cleared her mind and started up and cleared the crossing.

Soon she was on the small roads – into the sundry suburbia of Yuma where home was, and a kind of safety. At least until she had to explain things to Emma.

I can’t explain it, darling. I was there because I felt … I missed it. I missed doing something important. And it is important when I help them translate. They don’t have that many people who know law and who speaks Spanish. They .. .

She rephrased it over and over again in her, but it sounded wrong.

It sounded so wrong that even the fact that there had been a screaming kid and a desperate mother who was going to be deported tomorrow for no good reason – that fact felt more and more unreal, the more she repeated the other facts to herself. The facts that were supposed to convince her daughter it was okay she had let her down again. That she – Emma – had had to look after Michael again. Or do something else than the plan she already had. Plans which meant everything to a teenager. About friends. About being … part of the group. The important groups anyway … it seemed as if Emma had new friends every week and she went out with them and she …

Carrie sighed as she pulled into the driveway. For a long time, she just sat in the car, not bothering to go out. The road was quiet. Not so her head.

Emma – OMAC – that truck – everything …

And then, of course … a hundred thousand dollars.

It’s crazy … I barely know the man, Carrie thought as she finally got out, locked the car, and prepared for the long trek up to the front door.

What’s the catch?

Marcus Chen … she had only met the man twice and he always seemed like someone who could be philanthropic. And a quiet sort of charisma, a determination and direction that she had always lacked.

Perhaps that was why Carrie had liked him and then … somehow – the second time – felt inadequate. It had been at her mother’s 60th birthday and not so terribly long after the whole debacle in Florida.

And her cold turkey.

Sure that was something. Not many people could do that. And even get something like a real family afterwards. A job. A … life.

But as time wore on, it felt more shameful again. And like something that always made her stand out. What could she had done with her life, if she had not snorted coke and fucked around and generally tried to kill herself slowly?

Maybe a business empire like Marcus Chen? Maybe a project in Bolivia for homeless children. Or a hospital for war widows in Rwanda?

So, of course, it had felt like a victory when she discovered that Marcus Chen subscribed to a religion even more warped than her mother’s.

Sure, he said he had changes and all … but … who can really change? For real? Especially when it came to what you believed in?

And that was a good thought. For if Marcus Chen was a nutcase then he could not be better than her, no matter how many homeless children he saved with his new “socially responsible business” and the whole organisation behind it.

Right?

*

Carrie opened the front door carefully.

She could hear the telly from the living room – cartoon channels being zapped fast and furious.

There was the sound of another car behind her, but it passed too quickly on the road to see who it was.

For a moment she hesitated, looked at the white boxes that were neighboring houses, hoping for some other distraction. Then she turned again and went in.

Michael was in the living room, of course. And so were Disney and all the others.

“Hi honey, where is your sister?” Carrie called.

“Uh, hi mom – I think she is in the kitchen.”

He didn’t even look at her, and why not, Carrie thought.

It’s not as if I’ve been that much here, even when I am here … 

But the evenings were always long and Jon always got the lousy shifts, so who could blame her that she was tired.

Yeah, one person in particular, she thought as she opened the kitchen door.

Me … 

“Hi Em.”

Emma was sitting at the kitchen table, typing on her phone.

She did look up: “Hi mum.”

“Mind if I sit here?” Carrie pulled out another chair.

“Uh-no,” Emma answered noncommittally.

“All right … “

When she had sat down, Carrie found that she didn’t know what to say. Apparently the same went for Emma, but at least she had some really interesting texting to focus on.

So both of them were silent for some time.

Carrie looked at her daughter – 12 years old, going on 13.

God, you are beautiful ...

“So how was school?”

“Okay, mum.”

Well, it was a start.

Carrie pulled herself together and said it:

“Look, Em – I’m sorry you had to go home with Michael. But after those kids started going after him, I didn’t want him to go home alone. And, well, he is still only 10.”

“I know, mum.” Emma was staring intently at her phone.

“So … are you mad at me?”

Finally she looked up.

“I’m not mad, mum.”

Not quite the reply Carrie had expected. Especially because she could see Emma was sincere.

So there she was – Emma – the spitting image of Carrie at 12-13-ish: Long blonde hair, blue-grey eyes and a slender but strong body that just kept outgrowing the clothes they bought for her. Or that she bought herself. She could outrun many of the boys in her class. Only difference was that Carrie had never used lenses, or glasses for that matter.

But it was an invisible difference, and not one that mattered.

In fact, what really mattered was how different Emma was from what Carrie remembered she herself had been like.

Unlike Carrie at that age, Emma was self-assertive and outgoing to a degree that made her seem at least a year, maybe two, older than she really was.

Only her body betrayed her – this time it was a betrayal, or so Carrie knew her daughter felt. Emma was caught somewhere between looking like a child still, in so many ways, and behaving much differently.

And then, of course, there was her passion for swimming and windsurfing, neither of which were particularly easy to pursue in a desert city. And stuff Carrie would never have considered even remotely interesting almost 30 years ago.

“You … are not mad?” Carrie replied at length.

“No.”

Carrie sighed and felt a small part of the world lifting from her shoulders.

She really meant it … her wonderful, beautiful daughter.

“Well,” Carrie then said, feeling it was the only real option – to treat Emma like the adult she was quickly becoming ” – I think you should be mad. I was afraid you’d be.”

“Because I had to go home with Michael and not over to my friends?”

“Something like that.”

“You said many times you liked helping those mothers and kids at OMAC, mum. I watch TV, too, you know. I have seen those cages … “

“They are not all in cages. But most of them definitely need help.”

“Yeah … “

“I wish you could go help them, mum. If that is what you really want.”

“It is.” Carrie gazed out the window at the sun-white suburban world. It was all quiet. A life of dreary predictability and steady earnings. But people were willing to risk their lives for less, crossing the Rio Grande.

“Why can’t you get a job there? Interpreting?” Emma asked.

“Like I have said many times before … ” Carrie started.

Emma shrugged: “They don’t have money.”

“You know they don’t.”

“I think they should. They help people.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Well, it should be.”

Carrie thought about Jon who at this moment might be called to help border patrol taking in people. On some days when there were many illegal crossings the highway police helped out. It was routine.

It was something she didn’t feel thinking too much about. She put a mental wall in her head and put the thought of Jon reluctantly escorting some of those women with children in their arms, into detention. That image had to stay behind a wall – for now.

She smiled at the irony. The world was so damn tiring sometimes …

“Do you think Marie is home this weekend?” Carrie asked.

“I dunno  … ” Emma replied, eyeing her mum with uncertainty.

“Ask her.”

“I don’t know if she is home right now. They may have gone somewhere else.”

“Well, ‘they’ brought their phones – didn’t they?” Carrie smiled wearily, but kindly.

“Oh – okay.” Emma turned to her phone again and her fingers danced across the screen.

“I don’t usually pry, honey, but that cartoon chicken profile is pretty hard to miss … “

“Yeah … ” Emma grinned. “That’s Marie, all right.”

“That’s her. What does she say?”

“She asks why.”

“Because I’m going to take you over to Palms and let you loose with a couple of movie tickets.”

“There aren’t any good movies right now, mum.”

“What about Captain Marvel?”

Emma looked at Carrie like she had just been served broccoli.

“I think we’d rather see Pet Sematary … “

“Right … Well, ask her.”

“Okay … it’s cool. She’d like to!”

“Good.”

Emma put down her phone.

“Mum – you don’t have to bribe me or anything. It was really okay about today … I mean, it was annoying but it’s okay. I see Marie all the time.”

Carrie breathed deeply: “I believe you but … ” She put her hand over Emma’s ” – but it’s important to keep agreements. Or make up for broken agreements.”

“Yeah?”

“You know it is.” Carrie allowed herself a tiny but honest smile.

It had been important to say this – to do this – for Emma. And she had.

“So maybe you don’t mind me going to Josh Layton’s party tomorrow evening?” Emma quipped.

Now she had found the doe-eyes, the secret weapons she had at the ready all the time – just in case they were needed.

“I’m not going to make up for that much.” Carrie crossed her arms, but she was still smiling.

“Oh, okay … ” Emma didn’t pursue it. She knew it had been a long shot.

But it was hard to keep a lid on, just the same … :

“Just because he is 15 and Jack had some beer there the other time doesn’t mean … ” she started mumbling.

Carrie looked her daughter straight in the eyes:

“No. It doesn’t. So maybe next time he throws one of those parties. I’ll talk to your dad about it. I promise.”

“Okay.”

Emma put down her phone.

“So if you take those hundred thousand dollars, maybe then we could throw a party?” she asked, dead-serious.

Carrie felt something hit her in the gut:

“What? What … are you talking about?”

“Grandma called – like, at least 3 times before you came home.”

“She should’ve called – she should’ve called me … “

Damn … you have to use my kids, as well, mum.

Carrie gritted her teeth: “Okay, what did she tell you?”

Emma shrugged, and looked distractedly toward the living room and the sounds of cartoon Batman knocking out a joker or two.

“Emma, what did she tell you?”

“She said her old boyfriend – Marcus – wanted to give someone a hundred thousand dollars to … to get something they really wanted. That it was charity.”

“Did she tell you about Marcus’ church?”

“Is he a priest?”

“No, he is a former member of the Church of Scientology, and we’ve talked about them before – when you had that school project, remember?”

“Oh … but now he is not a member?”

“No, he started his own branch. He invented his own version of their religion. It’s pretty big in some parts of California, I hear. Your grandma was into it for a short while.”

“But we could … I mean, mum, it’s a hundred thousand dollars.”

Emma looked at Carrie, then threw a glance at the dilapidated door to the yellow grass back garden. The one with the three short withered pine trees they never had been able to get to look nice. Or had the time for.

Even pine trees …

Carrie stood up. For a brief, terrible moment it all came back to her:

Lin’s death, her sojourn to South America to ‘find herself’ (what a joke … ), ditching her law school never to return, hooking up with Jeremy in Florida, hooking needles into her arm – like Lin, slamming a car door into Jeremy’s face and hope he would be too groggy to fumble for that gun …

… all across America, drifting

… and then finally finding home, and Jon

… a life … a family …

… a job.

Somebody wanted her for a job. Even with her resume. Or lack thereof.

A shitty job, yes, but somebody wanted her for it.

And somebody wanted her for a wife.

And she was somebody’s mother.

Life was … normal.

But no.

It was never normal.

It always came back to this.

That no matter how hard she tried she would never make it as far in life as her peers, women her age.

She had made one crucial mistake – no, several, in fact. She had fucked up. And everybody else had a head start.

No matter how much she pretended that things were normal, they never really were.

Sure, lots of women her age had lousy jobs.

Or no jobs at all.

But they were not stuck. Not like her.

Carrie breathed deeply, then turned to her daughter. She saw the fear in Emma’s eyes and hated herself for using it, but the girl had to be put into her place.

Her mother – Deborah – had used her – Emma – to get to Carrie, and it had to stop. Right now. Right here:

“Emma, what if it had been you Jack Monroe had taken those photos of, without your clothes and shared on Facebook?”

Emma shook her head: “He’d never – I mean, he got expelled – he’d never do that. He could never do that, I mean … “

“But what if he had. Or what if somebody else did?”

“I’d hate that. Sure. I would.”

Emma looked more and more bewildered, but the fastness and rising anger in her mother’s tone held her. She dared hardly move.

“Miriam thought Jack loved her, that he would give her something because she was loved,” Carrie said. “He betrayed her trust. In the worst way.”

“Yes, but – “

“Hear me out, goddammit!”

No. That had not been her intention …

But Carrie found herself short of breath, something old and mean rising in her as well. Some urge to strike.

Strike out at it all …

“Marcus Chen is the CEO of a big company that sells charity campaigns, but his church – his new, improved version of Scientology – is funding most of it. When his company sells a new campaign to collect money for boys in Africa who got their legs shot off in some war – boys who are Michael’s age –  then his new church gets to host charity events where they sell their church. You go to an event and you get a folder about how great his church is, and you meet all the right people from the church who say all the right things about how poor the world is and if only more would do like them and help. Sooner or later you wind up just a little bit tempted to give some more money to some other program the church has. And then the church can go out and say – ‘Look, this or that person gave us money. We are so good. And we are so legit’.”

“I don’t understand, mum.” Emma had tears in her eyes now and Carrie was painfully aware that there were no more sounds of Batman beating anyone up.

Michael could always smell danger a mile off …  I guess I taught him well … 

And now there was only the sound of one person beating someone up …

Carrie tried to compose herself: “It is simple: Jack said he loved Miriam, but in reality he used her. He used her to show his pals – those pals he really wanted to be liked by – what a cool guy he was. He used those photos to pretend in front of his pals that he was really good at fucking an underage girl!”

“Mum – stop it!”

Emma had gotten up now and she was crying, and Carrie was vaguely aware that she herself was shouting. But it didn’t matter now …

Storms had a tendency to live their own life. And they had to blow out, hadn’t they?

There was nothing she could do – was there?

“Marcus Chen only wants to do good – to the kids in Sierra Leone, or to some poor hairdresser in Boston or … to me … because … “

Carrie searched for the words, found it harder and harder to breathe.

” … because he wants to promote his church so they can trick people into becoming members so they can brainwash them and take all their money.”

“How do you know that?!” Emma cried. “You said they were different. When we had the school project, you said they were different. Different from Scientology.”

“Not that different!”

“But how do you know?!”

Emma struck back, with all the force and fury of a soon-to-be teenager who already knew too many of her parents’ weaknesses. And who was hurt enough to exploit them.

“Have you even looked at their website … ?” Emma continued, wiping her eyes. “Well, I have. Maybe you should not always judge things … people … before you look at them, mum.”

“I don’t – “

But Emma continued, and now she was the flood that could not be stopped:

“If you did that then perhaps you wouldn’t be so afraid to change things, and then we could move away … from this!”

She thew her arms out in a gesture that encompassed both the run-down suburban box they lived in, but also much more.

Carrie knew what that ‘more’ was.

She knew how much Emma hated school.

She knew how much Emma longed for another place to live – like all the cities she had imagined would be so much greater than this asshole in the desert …

She knew such a place, in Emma’s fondest dreams, would be Van Nuys in Los Angeles, where Miriam had moved just 3 months ago and left Emma to suck up to Marie to be part of a cool group …

Not alone.

“You can’t trust a website, darling – ” Carrie started, but it was too late. Much too late.

“Don’t tell me what I can trust and not trust,” Emma yelled back. “Don’t tell me about something when you haven’t even looked at it – have you looked?”

Carrie hesitated, then shook her head: “No, but I know Scientology and your grandmother was also – “

“Stop trash-talking grandma!”

Carrie’s face hardened, but she also felt the tears sting now.

“I don’t trash-talk grandma. She has been shopping around in the spiritual supermarket since I was a girl your age. After she and granddad divorced she has always – surprise, surprise – found a new man who was the perfect man and who had the perfect new religion. Until, of course, he was not good anymore.”

“I don’t care,” Emma said, sobbing and picking up her phone. “I don’t care about what grandma did. Or grandpa.”

She looked up through tears:

“I care about what you do.”

“So we can afford to move?” Carrie asked, feeling something tugging at her shoulders.

“No … ” Emma cried ” … so you can come home every day from work and not be angry all the time! I hate it!”

Then Emma turned and ran up the stairs, to her room.

And Carrie knew she had just broken an agreement for which there might be no way to make up.

*

It was darker than usual when Jon came home.

Jon could only see the small light above the stove, when he took his jacket off in the utility room. That and the laptop.

And otherwise shadows.

Jon took a deep breath and walked gently to the kitchen door but he did not turn on the ceiling light.

He went slowly over to the kitchen table, pulling out a chair.

Carrie didn’t look at him, didn’t greet him. She stared into her old laptop. The pale light from the screen combined with the weak light from the stove to paint her face with shadows that looked like their were part of her skin.

He sat down.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s me,” Carrie just said.

“Yeah? How so?”

“I hurt her.”

“Who?”

“Emma.”

“What do you mean?”

She told him.

When she was finished, Jon went to the fridge and got out a beer. Before he sat down again he turned and asked her: “Do you want one?”

“Yes.”

They drank their Budweisers from the can and said nothing for awhile. Then Carrie said:

“Say something, dammit.”

“What do you want me to say, Carrie?”

She looked around the kitchen, like a trapped animal. There were plenty of exits, but no way out.

“How about I’m a bitch and I don’t deserve to be a mother?”

“We’ve been here before. Everybody hurts their kids, even if they don’t want to. You can only try your best. You … did your best.”

“I did not!” Carrie stood up and almost knocked over her chair when she pulled it back. She looked as if she was about to go somewhere but just froze in the middle of the kitchen room. Then she looked back down at Jon, eyes full of pain, and he really began to feel bad now. He had seldom seen her so distraught.

Carrie pulled back her sleeve: The scars were still there. Like they would always be.

“I … beat this,” she said.

“You did. You beat it good.”

She turned the computer at him. The screen was filled with job adverts. She had been searching for something new – again.

“I got one. Even if nobody said I could.”

“Nobody said you couldn’t do it.”

“Enough did, and they were right. I should have died out there – on the road.”

“You made one mistake and it got you into deep – for awhile,” Jon said, his voice steady even though he himself felt like getting up and just getting the hell out of there.

“You got back,” he then added. “You’ve been back for many years.”

“I have,” Carrie said. “But I still hurt my kids … I hurt you.” Tears were in her eyes.

“I do it so often … ” she whispered.

“Not that often … ” Jon said but his voice trailed off.

“Yes, that often,” Carrie said. “Often enough.”

“What are you going to do?”

Carrie sat down again. For a moment she looked out the window into the dark, dilapidated garden and then she looked at Jon:

“There is a baseline, you know.”

“‘Baseline’?”

“For how much anger that’s normal. In families.”

“Oh … “

“You were right,” she said. “All the times you told me. Parents aren’t perfect. Nobody is.”

“Yes.”

“I’m way beyond that baseline, Jon. I have been for … years.”

“What you said to her today,” Jon tried. “It wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t …. “

“Not what I said. But the way I said it …” Carrie’s voice became hard:

“I will not hurt her ever again like that. Not ever.”

Jon waited.

“I’m taking Emma to LA next weekend,” Carrie said. “Then we’re going to see Miriam, my mum – and Marcus Chen.”

“Marcus Chen?”

“His corporate HQ is in downtown LA.”

“The first two parts I agree on,” Jon said, “the last part … “

“I know what you are thinking but she is right – Emma is right!”

“About what?”

“I don’t know the man. I don’t really know if it’s Scientology or … or if he actually left because it was Scientology and tried to create something new, something better.”

“And what if it’s still the same old deal?” Jon looked at his wife squarely “Or worse: What if it is and you don’t notice it?”

“I’ll prepare. There’s a lot of Internet that can be looked through from now and until next Friday.”

He nodded, but then looked at her again, because he knew it was not going to be that easy:

“You can patch up with Emma in other ways that are less … risky. It’ll take time, sure. But right now you are inviting her to give some kind of veto as to whether or not you should take that damn money and become poster-girl for Marcus Chen and his ‘church’.”

“I’m not. I’m taking her with me so she can see Miriam. That is what she cares about. I’m going to see mum, too, so we can have a serious discussion about how she is going to behave with our family in the future – and her grandchildren. But I’m seeing Marcus Chen myself.”

“Okay … “

“And I’m making the decision about whether or not to receive his charity for myself.”

Jon sighed: “Okay,” he repeated, “I still don’t like it much, though. I don’t have much faith – no pun intended – in this man and his organisation.”

“Neither do I,” Carrie said and took Jon’s hand, “but Emma is right: I haven’t really looked at things. I just made a judgement about who he was and then decided beforehand that it was not okay. And that my mum behaved like … she usually does, well, that didn’t help things either.”

“So let’ say he is legit,” Jon said. “You have a hundred grand now. What are you – we – going to do with them? Will you quit your job? Start a business? Draw for a year?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think it will make you happy?”

“I don’t know – and really, I don’t care if it is this or that. But I have to take some kind of risk … to be happier. Otherwise – ” her voice trailed ” – I’m lost.”

Jon put his other hand over hers.

“You could find another job.”

“I should. But you know I don’t feel I … “

“Yeah, I know. But do you deserve that money from this man, then?”

“I don’t know. Maybe – even if he is for real – I will run away at his doorstep. And I will have wasted the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“I don’t think so.”

“But that is the risk. The point, though, is that I have to do something – anything – to change.”

“It’s the only point there is,” Jon said.

*

Last edited 10 May 2020 by Christopher Marcus

Hello And Welcome

Hello And Welcome

I love fantasies.

Except when I try to make them real.

Could be fantasies about anything, but you know what it’s mostly about. Maybe it is different for you. But … I dunno.

Well, anyway, the problem with fantasies is that they get messy and troublesome once you try to realize them, make them real.

The problem is also that fantasies don’t have any soul, if you go into them and never try to make them real. They get distilled, watered down. There is only the bare bones and framework.

That is so attractive. Of course. 

I wish I was better at making fantasies real and enjoying what I have. All at the same time.

And I am rambling, as I clean up the attic. Or my part of the attic anyway.

It’s dusty and forlorn up here, pieces of a life – more lives. I wonder what you could see if you went down the street here and looked into all the attics. I think you’d see pieces of many lives, never lived.

Or just clutter, thrown away.

Why did I go up here? I should try to fix my fantasies. I spent a whole morning with them, because I was bloody alone. And why hasn’t Jon called yet to say when he is coming home with the kids?

Read More Read More

His Last and First Breath

His Last and First Breath

“I should have died.” 

The words were hoarse and rough, like that desert he had breathed for most of a year. Over there …

“Don’t say that. Please, don’t say that.” Carrie held him tighter. “What about us?”

“It’s not that,” Jon said. “But sometimes there is a feeling of certainty … when it is your time. In Iraq, when we were being evacuated after our chopper was shot down, some of the guys from my squad were still … breathing. The medics talked like they could save them. But my pals … they just looked at me like it was all over. Somehow they knew they would not make it.”

“And you?”

“I knew that that time would not be it.”

“Why? How? How did you know?”

He shook his head. “Can’t explain it. At first, you are frightened, sure. And your body acts its best not to get hit. That’s instinct. But a part of you is just … in another place. And you know that this time you will not die.”

“It could be imagination … something your mind does to protect you.” She let him go, gently. She was searching for some kind of conclusion. 

The dishes were still out in the kitchen. The kids were on their way home. Life pushed its way back towards them. 

But Jon shook his head again. Like all of that ‘life’ was one enormous experience you could never be sure of. “Maybe you are right. But the other day – when I was drowning – then I felt for certain I was a goner. In a way that I had never felt in Iraq. And then …”

“Then you saw the boy.”

“Yes.”

2 days earlier … 

There had been rain all night, a defiant remnant of Hurricane Rosa. Jon had driven through it on the first part of his watch, and the morning sky had been like a whipped up ocean. As if the storm had to punish someone before it finally died out. 

It was always an event when they got weather like this in Arizona because everything was dry and seared most of the year. But not that morning. It had been useless driving more until it was all over. So Jon had pulled over for some coffee at his favorite diner in Gila Bend. 

There had been ample time to drink and chat but mostly just sit and watch the colossal shower outside coming down hard on the small desert town.

And wonder if he would do the same thing in 10 years’ time.

When the rain finally receded enough, he got back in the patrol car and headed out Pima towards Interstate 8, ignoring several small lakes now pooling on the road. He sped up and slashed through them with water spraying to all sides. Just like all the other drivers.

It was still overcast, but he had a feeling it would clear any moment.

Jon was about to turn on the radio to hear how bad Phoenix was hit when he crossed Sand Tank Wash. 

Usually a long empty scar in the landscape of gravel and dusty sand, Sand Tank Wash was just that – an invisible creek with no water. It didn’t exist until it rained. 

Now the Wash had emerged from non-existence with a vengeance. Jon could hear the roar of the water before he could see it.

From the road, about a hundred yards before he reached the bridge crossing, he could also see thin trees and bushes alongside the wash quivering, but not because of the wind, which was long dead. The torrent of water came down from the mountains with such force that it pulled out enormous chunks of dirt and gravel from the edges of the creek. 

Something else was too close to an edge.

Jon hit the brakes right in a big pool of water, and it looked like the car temporarily exploded in raindrops. 

Then down with the window. “Hey, lady – get away from there!” 

The bridge over the creek had a ‘railing’ only 3 foot high. And somebody was leaning over it. 

It was a woman who looked like she was throwing up down into the flood below. Or … was she trying to jump down into it and had decided against it at the last minute? 

Jon got out and ran across the road, barely pausing to switch on the patrol car lights. The woman stood upright at the sound of Jon’s voice. She was twenty-something and frantic with fear.

“My son is down there!”

Jon hurried to the railing. “Where? Where?!”

She pointed desperately, and now he saw the boy.

There. To the left of the bridge, but right in the raging flood. 

The boy was only about 5 or 6 and clinging for dear life to some shrubbery that careened dangerously into the water. The spindly piece of vegetation’s roots was already half out of the dirt on the side of the creek, which was collapsing into the flood.

“Do something!” The woman was simultaneously crying and also pulling at Jon’s arm, so he couldn’t do much else than trying to get her to let go.

“Stop it – ma’am.” Jon forced her away and into the arms of a trucker who had come panting over after blocking the road for further traffic with 20 tons of furniture. 

More people came running, but Jon barely registered them. The boy’s head was almost underwater now …

His mind raced. He might get some rope from somewhere. Perhaps the trucker had something useful …

Now the boy’s head disappeared momentarily underwater. But he still clung to the bush.

“Call 911!” Jon shouted at the bystanders.

Then he ran to the end of the bridge where the railing ended.  He rounded the corner and skirted down the sloping side of gravel that led to the terrain below. Here earth and vegetation were still being torn at by the sheer pressure of the water flooding through the creek.

“Hang on!” Jon yelled. Then over his shoulder to the others on the bridge: “If somebody has rope, go -”

He never finished the sentence because he knew he had to act. An absurd act, with a vanishingly slight chance of success. But the shrubbery was there, dipping in the thundering brown currents just below the bridge, and clinging on to it – the boy.

“What’s your name?” Jon called out. 

Another futile gesture by any objective standards. What did it matter? In moments, the boy might be dead, and Jon as well. But it seemed like the only thing to do, aside from the actual rescue attempt itself – or perhaps despite it. Because Jon knew, as soon as he got to the bush, that this would not work.

He desperately threw himself to the ground and clasped both his hands around the stem of the bush, trying to hold it in place. Jon could feel the roots coming loose from the soil, as he tried to get a hold of them. The soil which was also being torn loose around him and devoured by the water.  

“I will not let go!” Jon called again. “Hold on!”

“Sani … “ the boy cried.

“What?” For a moment – confusion. Then understanding. “Sani? I’m Jon. I’m a state trooper. We’re getting help. You will be all right.”

And that’s when the handful of thin branches of the bush which Sani was clinging to were ripped apart and the boy lost his grip. In the next second, he disappeared in the water.

Jon reacted instinctively, although he knew it was playing with death. He threw himself forward onto his stomach and reached out with both hands to catch the boy – hoping against all hopes that Sani would come up again. And that he could stay on the rapidly deteriorating shore.

It was a matter of balance. Only Jon’s arms were in the water. He should be able to stay out of the water since most of his weight was on land.

And that’s when the rest of the shore that held the bush, and Jon, came loose and slid into the flood. 

Several yards away from the bridge other chunks of the ground came off at the same time and splashed into the water as if a fragile cord holding them all in place had finally been cut.

For Jon, the world became one long mad howl of rushing water, which was muted every time he was pulled down in it. He struggled to avoid it, but the current – the pull – was so strong, he felt like a rag doll.

Jon went blank inside. All he could think of was getting air; big wheezing gulps, half-filled with the brown muddy water.

It was like being a fly caught in the water from a firehose. Jon knew there would be concrete slabs under Papago Street – another crossing – a few hundred yards north of the Pima Street crossing. But his ability to orient himself was near non-existent in the howling torrents. So he didn’t even know he was at the bridge until he briefly smashed into one slab, tried to hold on to it, and was then promptly sucked under again and flushed out on the other side.

Further north there were only two or three other crossings. He couldn’t remember. But none of them had bridges. It was just roads crossing the creek which was also used as a North-South throughway whenever it was dry. All of those crossing roads had to be flooded now.

There would be nothing but water until the flood died out.

Somewhere between the gulps and the panic welled up inside him, like another flood, he saw broken pieces. Little shards of his vanishing life that gave way to a sudden sadness so deep and yawning that it was like he had already died, even if the currents still tossed him around and he was faintly aware of it.

It was the sadness of losing your life. There was so much you still had to do. So much you had not done. There was his wife – his daughter – son – brother – everyone he would never see again. And the clarity of that pain was almost worse than the grimy water in his throat and lungs.

Then he felt like he was pulled down for what was the last time, but suddenly there was the sun above, which was odd, like his thoughts. Like he had dropped out of dying and was seeing it all dispassionately, wondering about the sun, the weather, if it was possible to see this or that from 5 feet below a flood … 

And then current flung him upwards again. Suddenly there was sky – air – life. Another few seconds … 

And … 

Someone … 

Outlined against the light from above the water, Jon could see the silhouette of a human.

A small one …

Jon didn’t know how he knew. Or how it could strike him with so much clarity, so he didn’t think of the lack of air. But it was the boy.

Sani!

Jon struggled and somehow kept his head above water for more than a few moments this time. It was like waking up in the middle of traffic. The world over the water was a giant thunderous rush, as waves from the flood drove him forward.

“Mister – here!”

It was the boy. It had to be.

He was on the shore at Jon’s right side. The current suddenly pushed Jon towards that shore and he grasped frantically for something – anything. But there was only more dirt and gravel being sucked down into the water. He couldn’t get a hold on anything.

“Mister! Look!”

The boy held out something for him. A hand? No, a branch? No … not that.

Jon desperately tried to reach for the boy, although it seemed insane. If the boy was reaching for him, the pull of the current would tear them both out into the roaring flood. He could not take the boy’s hand … 

“Get away!” He shouted, mouth half full of the seedy water. “Stay away!”

But the boy persistently followed him on the shore, as the current pulled him further and further alongside it, and soon back into the torrent itself.

“Mister – look!”

Then Jon saw it. The boy was not reaching for him to do some madly desperate and ultimately futile locking of hands that would just pull them both out. No, he was trying to get Jon’s attention. He was pointing … 

There was another tree, bigger, stronger. It was leaning over the water, but not because it was being uprooted. Not yet. It was merely bent that way. And its roots were deeper.

Jon knew that he would not have seen it, because he was busy panicking and coughing water out of his lungs before he swallowed more. 

It was like the tree had come out of nowhere.

*

He didn’t know how he grabbed it, much less held on. He didn’t know for how long. But at last he heard voices.

And felt … rope, hooks, hands. It was all a blur. But he was being pulled.

“You are secure. You can let go.”

Voices again. He let himself be pulled. Not by the waters, but by hands. And at last, he felt the ground again.

All kinds of voices asking questions, checking, handing him something to drink once they made sure there wasn’t more in his lungs that had to go out first. He struggled. 

Jon knew now this wasn’t the end. 

At last he recognized a voice. And there was a friendly face to go. 

Anderson.

How long had it been? There had been a road accident out near Theba …

“Anderson!” he called. 

And the face – mid-30s, curly hair, glasses – became Anderson. One of the floating voices around him was now Anderson. Real. Human. There. And someone he knew. Someone he could talk to. The flood receded.

“Is that you, Reese?” Anderson flashed a slight smile. “We have to stop meeting like this.”

“Sani!” Jon blurted. “What about Sani?”

“Who?” Anderson shook his head. Lights flashed in the background.

“The boy,” Jon said and tried to get to his feet. Anderson supported him.

“The boy … “ Anderson repeated. Understanding flashed in his eyes. “Oh, the boy … “ 

Then his voice faded. “I’m sorry. He didn’t make it.”

“What?”

“He didn’t make it.”

He must have fallen in again, was Jon’s first thought. Even if it was absurd. Sani had been on land. Running. How could he have fallen back in … the flood?

No. There had to be a mistake. Sani had been safe. Unlike Jon.

Jon grabbed Anderson’s arm. “Where is he?”

“They have him down at the bridge. Papago … “

Jon looked confused. “At Papago? But that’s …” He looked south. It was at least a mile back.

Anderson nodded gravely. Another guy who Jon did not recognize excused himself as he brushed past them to put some gear or other back into the truck with the flashing lights, one of the few that Gila Bend had on hand for occasions like this.

“I talked to Cooper on the radio while you were trying to get some freshwater in … “ Anderson tried another smile, but when he saw Jon’s face he let it fade.

“I’m going down there.” Jon took a few steps in the sand alongside the roaring Wash before he felt Anderson’s hand on his shoulder.

“They are already half-way to Phoenix,” Anderson said. “And we should get over to EMS. To get you properly checked out.”

“The hell we should … “ Jon brushed Anderson’s hand away.

“You’re welcome to take that up with your Captain.” Anderson’s voice became firmer. 

“You talked to him?”

“Well, I know Les and I know that people who have almost drowned should – “ Anderson began.

But Jon was already running.

When he reached the crossing at Papago street there was nothing, though. Only some thin iron rods barely visible above the frothing whirls on the north side of the bridge. 

*

Carrie had of course been shocked when Jon finally came home, even though he had prepared her on the phone. But he was all right. 

It had been bad, yeah. But he had had a lot of bad days on the job. This one wasn’t so different.

He had a long day and a long night trying to explain that to Carrie, though. And to the kids.

“There were so many trees,” he had said to Emma and Michael. “I would have caught one of them sooner or later. It was dangerous, but I was going to be all right.”

Michael, 10, had asked a lot of questions. Emma, 13, had said nothing. She had just given him ‘that look’. Then she hurried up to her room.

Carrie asked a lot more questions, especially later on when they were alone. He answered most of them. 

He didn’t talk about seeing Sani on the shore, though.

It was only after a day off and a debriefing with Anderson and the other responders that Jon even realized that, in fact, he had told no one that Sani had been running along the flood, on the shore, trying to make him see that tree.

So the reality that Jon agreed to was that someone had called 911 from the Pima crossing, because Sani’s mother was out of it and both Jon and Sani had gone into the water. The firefighters from Gila were closest, a few miles to the west on Papago Street just north of Pima as fate would have it. 

The firefighters had been about to split up – someone to Pima and someone to follow the flood north and look for Jon and Sani. Then a guy who was there to film it all for his YouTube storm chaser channel came running over. He had seen legs sticking out in the water under the bridge at Papago.

Sani. Right there. He was hanging upside down from a rusty iron rod that had caught him under the small Papago bridge. That’s where he had drowned. 

But they knew from the 911-call that Jon was in the water, too, so Anderson and his teammate had driven further north to see if they could find him. 

When Cooper and his colleague got Sani up back at Papago, they had tried CPR, but it was much too late. Somebody had brought Sani’s mother to the scene, and she was in pieces.  Cooper had then driven Sani’s mother to the hospital in Phoenix with the body of her son, and they had confirmed what everyone already knew. 

Sani had drowned under that bridge and over a mile south from the spot where they had found Jon. 

The geography could not be wrong. The Papago crossed Sand Tank Wash long before Jon had even seen Sani. Even if Sani had somehow made it up from the flood and then fallen back in, he would have been swept further north, not south. That was the direction the firehose was pointing. South to north. Not the other way around.

So Jon figured he had to be wrong. And  said nothing about what he had seen. He only mentioned the tree. 

At the end, when all had done their ‘choir practice’, as they called it, they soon found themselves in a diner nearby. That was the part of the debriefings that everyone always looked the most forward to. 

But Jon had no appetite. He drove home as soon as he could excuse himself.

The next day, Captain Browning had Hoffman do their own report about the incident and he asked Jon a few questions, but Hoffman seemed more than ready to get it over with. Even more than Jon.

Jon thought about trying to contact the mother. But a sinking hollow feeling came over him every time he thought about it. So it was better just to get on the road again as soon as possible.

And so the October flood of Maricopa County was over. And the story about its single casualty was over.

If you doubted it, you could always refer to the reports.

*

Weeks later …

“It’s the same shit as always,” Carrie complained. “I get home weekdays and I’m beat after the kids go to bed. I am home on weekends and I still get beat – because there is so much house-stuff leftover from the weekdays.” 

She held the beer in front of her, watching it thoughtfully, then took a big gulp.

“I know the feeling,” Jon said. “Hmm … I thought you got some drawing done yesterday?”

“I planned to.” Carrie slumped in the chair. “But then Jenna called and ‘could I please help with outfitting her gym?’”

“She’s still doing that?”

“And the children’s rooms, and the bedroom. And the garden. Oh, and the living room will be repainted again next month.” Carrie sighed, but something in the tone of her description wasn’t dismissive.

Jon frowned. “I thought you and Jenna … I thought she was good company?”

“She is …” Carrie sighed again “ … when you are a lot alone or alone with the kids. Then you need company. You even think you need hers. You even feel good about it when you’re there. But she just talks about her sons and herself. And you get home and feel just the same …”

Jon saw what she was getting at. “And you regret you didn’t stay home and got that drawing done?”

“Damn right. What a waste. The only time this month the kids are out on a Saturday and I blew it.” Carrie finished the last of the beer.

You drink like a biker, honey,” Jon made a toast in her direction. 

Carrie went to the fridge and got another beer. “When I’m angry at myself, I do.”

“We all need some things,” Jon said. “Sometimes … we just throw it up against the wall and see what sticks. You couldn’t really lock yourself in another weekend, even if it was to get something on that canvas.”

Carrie sat down again. “What do you need, Jon?”

There was silence for a moment. Carrie’s question caught him off guard. He should have seen this coming. But his mind had been elsewhere. He had really enjoyed that beer … until now.

“I guess …” Jon started “ … I guess I just need to relax a bit.”

“I thought you had.”

After the debriefings, he had been home for three days before going back to work. The Captain had insisted.

“I have … relaxed,” Jon said. 

She wetted her lips. There was little taste of beer left, of anything really. “I’m not saying you should be more home, or with the kids. I know your job pays the bills. Just …”

“Carrie, we don’t have to – you don’t have to say that every time, we -”

“But I want to, because it’s goddamn important.”

There was another awkward silence, which was filled with the echo of a fist that had slammed the kitchen table. It was Carrie’s.

She apparently became conscious of what she had done and got up from the chair. “Never mind … Just bloody never mind.”

Jon got up, too. “Wait. I know I haven’t been home much, but work is … you know.”

Carrie looked straight at him. “It’s not work. I just said that.”

Jon crossed his arms. “Then what is it?”

It was a strange little stand-off now, not unlike a thousand other standoffs. A situation that a thousand other people probably repeated right now. And the silence of the road outside would be as unchanged as ever. Perhaps that was what annoyed Carrie. 

That she had a deep feeling this wouldn’t matter – again. This time more was at stake. She knew that, too.

So she had to try. “Recently, you have been too busy even when you were home.” 

Jon looked at her. “What do you mean?”

“What do I mean …? How about that you are so busy brooding that you forget the rest of us?”

“I’m not ‘brooding’.” He looked down, then back at her.

She crossed her arms.

“Okay – okay!” He waved dismissively at her like he did when he passed a smoker on the street and accidentally got a lungful of nicotine. “I’ll try to get some more days off – even after I get back to work. This takes time. I know.”

If Carrie had noticed that he had reduced her to cigarette-smoke, she didn’t flinch. But her voice was still hard. “Do more than that. Don’t just sit here – when you are at home – with a beer and watch television. Talk to someone.”

“Who?!” Jon got up and paced around. “Who the fuck do you think I should talk to?” 

He stopped, turned towards her. His eyes were like those never-ending, gray skies in the Atlantic that Carrie had grown up with, and for a moment she flinched.

Jon hated smoke. Carrie hated bad memories. 

“You could start by talking to me …” she said.

“I’ve said all there is to say …” Jon looked out into their dilapidated garden as if he was casually inspecting it, but it was as if his breath had stopped half-way in his throat. “I can’t think of anything else to say.”

“I believe what you saw,” Carrie tried. “The problem is that you are shutting yourself down over it. As if it was you who had died …” 

She shook her head. “Sorry, that came out weird …”

“No. It’s okay.” Jon spoke quietly now, but in the tone he reserved for those men who opened the door when the wife had called and said they threatened to kill her. 

“But the problem is what I saw. It is because of that that I …” He trailed off.

She went to him and put her arms around him from behind. She let her chin rest on his shoulder. “You don’t have to. Why do you have to?”

He kept looking at the garden. The tiny pecan tree looked frail and spindly, like some of the bones he had seen in the Iraqi desert.

They had better water it soon.

The breath that was stuck in his throat had turned to a lump now. Something that felt like ash but heavy with the mud-brown water of the Tigris 15 years ago. It had coagulated on the shore like big black drops of blood, while factory buildings on the other side were burning. Or were they houses …?

“Carrie …”

“I’m here.”

He put a hand over one of hers. She was still holding him like she had always been there.

Perhaps she had. Perhaps that was why they had stayed together, despite all the yelling and shouting, especially after Emma was born. They had been together for less than a year. And then later on, when there had been more shouting, but over other things.

Sometimes the shouting died out, though. And they continued. Sometimes they talked about it later on, or sometimes they did not. They just put it to rest and continued. For the children. But also, they both knew, for each other. What else was there to do? If they couldn’t make this work, then what would happen to them?

But right now something tore in Jon. He felt Carrie near, as he always did when things got rough. She had never once tried to run or escape or bullshit him in all the years. She had called him things he’d rather forget. But she’d always been honest, and she had always been there.

But the worst part now was that he felt he … didn’t want her there. He didn’t deserve it.

*

The days passed and Jon was back to work. So for a time there was that normality.

He even inquired about Sani’s mother. Proper channels and all. The Captain didn’t approve, but said he wouldn’t prevent Jon from calling her either.

Jon found the number and got through on the first try. For about 2 minutes. He only remembered that there had been much yelling and crying at the other end, once Sani’s mother realized who he was. 

So she was angry at him. He should have … done something. It was the same with all cops. They all didn’t give a fuck about her and especially her ex. Or something. She was not coherent. She was out of it in a way that made Jon both feel concerned and sick at the same time, so it felt like a relief when she hung up on him.

But then reality settled in. Nothing had been solved by that call, quite the opposite. It had been better if he had not tried.

That’s when Jon understood he could never have the conversation he imagined with Sani’s mother, and he thought a lot about how Sani had talked to her. If at all …

I’m not even sure what the hell I imagined … that I could somehow make her son come back by telling her … 

But he never got to tell her he had seen Sani. And he wondered if he had, would it have made her hate him more? 

He had seen her son when her son was supposed to be dead. How was that supposed to make a mother feel?

*

They were in the garden. Carrie and him. It was Sunday. They were supposed to be fine. But they talked about superficial things.

Jon looked out into the garden and in the direction of the soccer game between Michael and his buddy, Ari.

Carrie frowned and pulled her legs closer to her body. It hurt to do this while sitting on the concrete step from the kitchen door and to the garden. That damn muscle she had strained last Thursday when she was rushing too much to finish all the rooms in time at the nursing home. It still wouldn’t leave her alone. But she couldn’t make herself move away. 

She was sitting beside him, after all.

Jon merely had his elbows on his knees, one hand resting lightly in the other. But she could see his hands were opening and closing, like her husband was holding an invisible object. 

Testing it. Checking. And then checking again.

There had been a shooting in a supermarket just a couple of months ago. The man with the AR15 was dead. Jon’s reflexes had been as sharp as ever. 

That was something to be relieved about, wasn’t it?

Carrie put a hand lightly on Jon’s arm. “You thinking about the supermarket again?”

“No …” He didn’t look at her, and he still didn’t look at the kids either.

“Well,” Carrie continued carefully, “you never saw doctor Maryam about those dreams, and I think you may feel … bad about shooting that man in the supermarket, even if it was the only thing you could do.”

“I don’t have the dreams anymore …” Jon said, but his voice was raw. He looked down.

“But I don’t think it has gone away,” Carrie said gently. “Maybe it … faded. But now that you survived this flood, it has all come up again.”

“Not just that,” Jon added quietly. 

She gripped his hand now and made him look at her. Lines of worry were edged in her face. They should make him react. That he could see how distressed she was. He usually did.

But he just looked away again, down on the concrete.

“We have to do something,” she said. “We should have done something long ago. This can’t go on.”

“For my sake or yours?” There it was again. A sudden flash of anger. He would do that whenever this came up. It had all become one big knot … 

She almost let go of his hand.

*

Another week went by. Then two. Then three.

Then it was Sunday again. But Jon didn’t feel like he could relax. He was usually able to zone out with TV or beer on the weekends. But this was not a usual weekend. They hadn’t been for a long time.

He and Carrie had stopped talking about ‘it’. Or rather, she had given up trying to get him to talk about it. And he had given up trying to explain to her why he could not. Talk. 

Not yet. Not like she wanted. He didn’t even understand what she wanted. Not in this case. What did she want him to say?

So he focused on the kids. On old promises. And he looked for fresh ones to keep. Anything to keep him moving. 

Maybe the creek would soon dry out again …? At least the way he imagined it. The way he always saw it when he closed his eyes now. The rage of the water. Sani’s call.

Hands slipping …

The Arizona sun was not burning this Sunday. But it was ever-present, dominating as always here in the desert. He wiped sweat off his brow, took a sip from the plastic bottle.

“Want some?” Jon held the bottle of water out towards Emma.

She shook her head. They had allowed her to grow her hair longer, and even though she was only 13, it amazed him how much she looked like Carrie already. Carrie no longer had long hair, not like when he had met her. He sometimes missed that.

He missed a lot. But he often thought he missed things that never were. Like peace. Real peace.

“Dad?” Emma looked at him closely.

“I’m coming now.” He got up. “Don’t want to get you late for gym class.”

“You promised to stay and watch.” She ran alongside him. The car was waiting. The tiles from their front door and to the driveway were warm.

“Hmm-mm,” he muttered.

The tiles were warm. Not burning. No, not burning … not yet.

“Daddy?”

“I’m all right. Get in the car.”

She did, hesitantly. Jon got in, too. He took her bag, which she had placed between her legs and flung it onto the backseat. “No baggage on the front seat while we’re driving, young lady.”

Emma nodded but kept looking at him.

“What?” Jon was about to turn the key, but now he felt like breaking it. “What?”

“Dad … why are you angry?” Emma’s eyes widened, she paled. He almost never yelled at her. That was mom’s territory.

He shook  his head. “Nothing, sweetie. Nothing – let’s go.”

He backed out of the driveway. Once they were on their way he asked, disarmingly “ – You sure you want me to see your class today?”

It took her longer to say yes than he liked. But he knew why. There was a cause and effect to everything. 

Except what happened in Gila Bend.

Everything he had found a shelf for, fighting for 15 years to put behind him. He had found all of that again – in that creek at Gila Bend.

And it was all about cause and effect that didn’t add up. That never added up.

Carrie didn’t ask Jon about it when they got home, even though Jon knew Emma had told her mum about all that happened. 

Emma was like that. She didn’t get along well with Carrie lots of times, under normal circumstances. 

But somehow when her world began to crack, the first place she looked for understanding was with her mother. Jon told himself that that was all right, and that there were good reasons why he was not number one on her list, like when she was younger. Especially now. 

But as the days passed, he found himself thinking more and more that it was a problem that had to be solved. Because Emma avoided him. It was obvious.

And there it was again. Cause and effect. 

He argued with Carrie now every evening, sometimes – most times – over paltry things. 

They had done that in periods, sure, especially when the kids were small. But this had come after Gila. And there was a black chasm, he felt, that opened wider and wider between them, even if it was just about who had forgotten to wash the car.

It was this tone in their voices that became more and more distant and at the same time vigilant and tensing up like there was only one way this could go. Like before, they had gone in for the attack, all those years ago. 

Or when they had waited in the dark for someone else to attack, although it often came to nothing. Voices took on a special quality during those times, even when it was just whispers between the soldiers. There was always the tinge of steel, even below reassuring words. 

For every time he actually did try to talk about it, somehow they ended up arguing and arguing about things that had absolutely nothing to do with what was wrong. 

*

The night was black and the road outside devoid of sound. The suburban beehive had gone to sleep. 

But Jon couldn’t. There was something in the silence that kept pulling him back from the brink of sleep. Like something or someone was waiting. 

Like there was an enemy out there.

But there wasn’t. There had not been enemies in the dark for 15 years now. He had to tell himself that.

Still … no sleep.

It was the most disconcerting experience – not being able to sleep – because usually he could sleep the best when there was complete quiet in the house. He had a collection of earplugs to rival that of a pro musician. Now the quiet was the enemy.

And then it was broken. “Honey?”

Carrie …

When he didn’t answer her she turned in their bed so she faced him. He realized he was still lying down on his back, as he had for the last 2 hours, staring into the ceiling. He wanted to move, but didn’t feel like it. But now he had to do something.

Carrie frowned. “You’re not asleep?” 

“So it looks …”

There was more silence, but this time it was the problematic silence of just having taken that tone with her. The tone she hated. The tone that hid all sorts of things. But he didn’t feel like talking about it, and she knew it.

So let her decide what to do … 

“What are you thinking about?”

“What do you think?”

Carrie shrugged, but her shoulders were already tense. “I dunno – sex?”

“Ha!” Jon exclaimed, but only slightly relieved.

“Well, it’s not as if we … you know … too much … “

“Yeah, I know.”

“But you weren’t thinking about that, obviously.”

He sighed. Didn’t answer.

Jon wanted to reach out, but he felt numb. Why the hell couldn’t he just do one simple thing?

Why couldn’t he just say what he felt … because of Gila Bend?

And the boy … ?

But that was the problem.

He could feel it like he had felt that brown water in his lungs … but he couldn’t say what it felt like.

And every time he tried, the knot inside became more and more twisted, until he knew he couldn’t say anything at all.

So they got into their usual argument and she went to sleep on the couch, like she had done 3 nights in a row now. In one week.

Jon didn’t stay in bed. He got up and got some clothes on. Then he went outside and began pacing the quiet street. 

Everything looked so frail in the gossamer light of the street lamps. Every house looked like cardboard. The sidewalk was thin, he felt, like the rock and sand of the desert could come through at any moment and reveal just how much there was down there. How thin this entire city of Yuma was … this way of living.

This could not go on.

Jon went back to get the car. 

*

It was less than two hours’ drive to Gila Bend from Yuma. It was night now, so that made it even less.

The town’s streets were empty at this hour, as he had expected, which suited him fine. So he went to the Pima crossing first. Right where he had seen Sani’s mother that day. 

Below, he could see how the Wash had almost drained of water again. It was reverting to its non-existence. Like a road accident. 

When a truck hit you out of nowhere and then sped away, leaving only death and chaos. But when you finally came to your senses again, all you had was a wrecked car and screams and blood and quiet and kids’ chests that weren’t heaving.

And your mind refused the scenario. This could not happen to you. But there it was. And then your body acted. The body always knew what to do, even if the mind had to catch up.

Just like in war.

Jon stared into the darkness. 

Then it came over him. “Fuck you … “

He waited, almost as if he had to assure himself that there was no one else around. But aside from a few lights from the nearby Palms Inn there was no one. Not even a passing car.

Jon didn’t look. He couldn’t care less if anyone heard him. He just waited because he had to find the right words. Like taking aim.

“Fuck you, you little son of a bitch. Fuck you to hell.”

The words were meaningless, but that’s how he felt. Even though everything in him screamed: No!

You should not feel like that. You survived. You should not be angry. Especially not at that poor kid who drowned.

Instead of you.

There it was.

Instead of you.

Just like in Iraq. It was always someone else. Not him.

Like in L.A. where he had grown up, trying to survive and help his frail little brother survive, when their father had given up on that responsibility and their mother was long gone.

San Pedro, L.A., was sometimes like Iraq. And sometimes it was the kids from such a place they sent over there – to fight. For the US of A.

Jon noticed that he hadn’t breathed for … a long time. But only when his body did it for him. He had held back. Now it was like coming up to the damn surface after almost being pulled under for good. You hurt inside. Your body forced you to  … breathe. But what if there was nothing to breathe?

At least there was now. But for how long … ?

He felt himself sinking down again, staring into the darkness, opening and closing his fists. Then there was a voice.

“You …”

He turned and saw her.

Jon hadn’t really gotten a good look at her that day. But now that she was here he was not in doubt.

Sani’s mother had long hair, black as the night, unkempt. She wore an old leather jacket and tattered jeans. The same clothes, he now remembered, that she had worn that day. Night was in her eyes, too. But also a distant glow reflected from one of the lonely street lamps along Pima.

Jon said nothing. He just nodded. He had closed his fists again.

For long moments they just stared at each other.

Then the mother said: “I come here every night to beg forgiveness. Have you come for that, too, officer?”

Jon looked away, but only briefly. “I don’t know why the hell I have come …”

“I know why I have.” She went over to the low railing, still at least 5 yards from Jon. She looked down into the dying Wash.

“For ‘forgiveness’ … “ Jon repeated quietly. “I’m not even sure what that means … “ 

He looked down over the bridge railing as well. As if Sani would somehow be more alive if they looked at the place where he had last been alive. As if memories could become more real by clinging hard to them. Like tree branches …

Sani’s mother coughed a little. “I … he didn’t like me much.” 

She was still looking out in the darkness on her own. For a moment, Jon felt she was talking more to herself than him.

“He was running away that day,” she continued. “We had some arguments. We had lots of them. I … may have hit him.”

Jon shook his head again. “You don’t have to tell me this.” 

He was still processing the fact that she had come here – at the same time as him. That it wasn’t just a fluke, a crazy unbelievable coincidence.

But the more he dared to look at the shadows on her face, the more he became convinced it wasn’t. She was telling the truth. She did come here every night. Perhaps all night.

She finally turned towards him, realizing the implication of where this was going.

“I never told the police that part. But now I have.” She huffed. “Perhaps I was waiting to be able to do that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jon said. “I’m not going to tell anyone.”

She looked like she wanted to say something again, but he shook his head to stop her. 

“Even if I did,” he said, “it doesn’t matter. You didn’t … kill your son.”

A lone car passed by. For a long time Jon eyed its fading lights. Then he braced himself.

“There is something you should know,” he started.

Now it was her turn to shake her head. “Don’t tell me. That you are here is enough. And I’m not angry with you. I’m sorry about that day … when you called.”

“But this is important,” Jon pressed. “And it’s not about the call. It’s about Sani.”

She began backing away. “I don’t want to hear it … “ 

Jon felt something boil in him, just like before. Why the hell was everything so difficult? Why the hell was the world made up this way? Why didn’t anyone just listen to him? 

He held her back. “You have to hear this.”

She struggled. “I don’t want to.”

“You don’t even know what it is!”

Then he let her go. What could he tell her? That he had seen Sani after he was supposed to have been dead? Jon didn’t even believe in God or anything himself. He didn’t believe it was possible.

What if it had been stress? His mind playing tricks? He was drowning, after all.

But everything had been so clear. He was as sure that Sani had been there as if it had been Emma or Michael.

But what could he tell her? What if he offended her religion by telling her? What if she didn’t have a religion?

And … no matter what he told her, it wouldn’t bring Sani back, would it? It wouldn’t make it all better. It wouldn’t erase the fact that an innocent child had died, and he had lived. 

When it should have been the other way around.

Then he discovered that Sani’s mother had not run away. She stood there, on the pavement, very close now. Her face was streaked with tears.

“You saw him, too, didn’t you?”

Jon swallowed. “How do you – “ 

But she interrupted. “I mean, I dream about him. You dream about him, too, don’t you?”

He took a deep breath. The first real breath, it felt, since he had been pulled from the flood.

“Yes,” he said. “I dream about him, too.”

“What does he do in your dreams?” Her voice was close to a whisper.

“He … “ Jon felt something push in his chest, like a thousand knots. “He …”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m sorry I am like that. I was … I would like to hear it now.”

“He tells me he is okay,” Jon finally said. “Yeah, that’s what he tells me.”

“But you can’t believe it?”

“Not really.” A resigned smile made its way over his lips for the first time. 

“I can’t either,” she said. “But I would like to.”

“Me too.”

She gave him a quick hug, and then she started walking away again. Briskly. As if the hug had been the actual crime.

He stared after her, but didn’t move. 

She stopped and turned slowly. “You can call me again, if you want to. But now I have to go home.”

Jon just nodded and held up his hand. 

Then he pulled out his cell phone. He wasn’t sure why, because he hadn’t called Sani’s mother from that phone. Her number would be at the station – not on his private phone.

Then he remembered why.

And the phone was full of messages. From Carrie. And one from Emma. 

He unmuted the phone and called.

*

Last updated 27 Feb 2021

Sparkles In The Rain

Sparkles In The Rain

“What do we do when we feel time is passing too fast?” she asked.

“Do ye feel that already?” her father asked, looking mildly surprised.

“Never mind,” Carrie said. But they had stopped.

“It’s not what I mind,” her father said. “It’s what ye mind. And maybe we haven’t been that much together in the last 20 years but I know my daughter. What’s wrong?”

Carrie breathed deeply. They were both standing on the side of a hill overlooking the Bay of Portree. It was crisscrossed with small paths that were barely visible but her father knew them all and she had followed him this far, and he had allowed her to set her own pace.

“Megan died,” Carrie then said. “She was my age – a year younger actually. 37 … ”

Her father nodded gravely: “That’s sad.”

“Yeah … ” Carrie shook her head as if she had been hit by sudden nausea. “Yeah, it is. She worked at that organization I told you about. Didn’t know her that well, but … “

“But enough,” her father concluded.

“Yeah.”
They both looked out in the distance. There was mist, as always. In the harbor below small boats darting to and fro and there was a slight hum from the small town around it, giving a faint but reassuring indication of life. And it was a life that – in later years when she got in touch with her father again and more and more often thought of Portree and Skye – had often appeared to her as … uncomplicated. Much more so than the life, she knew in the big cities in the States, where she had lived since she was a teenager.

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Reunion

Reunion

“Let’s not talk about Tim now.” Carrie’s father put the land rover to a firm halt in the small yard with gray and white pebble-stones.

“Sorry, I have a liiitle bit of jetlag, okay?” Carrie muttered under her breath. She hadn’t meant to mention Tim, but as they drove up the final road to her childhood home, her daughter Emma had asked if she was to sleep in Carrie’s old room and if her little brother was to sleep in Tim’s old room, and then Carrie had answered without thinking.

“So this is the house? Wow – do you have sheep, grandpa?” On the backseat Emma was bubbling with excitement.

Carrie cast a quick glance at her father before she answered. “Yes, Emma, that’s where I grew up, with the sheep. And with your uncle.”

“You’re breaking our agreement on purpose, Caroline.” Her father sighed in exactly that tone Carrie hated. She knew it would be coming. Perhaps that’s why she had felt like striking first.

“What agreement?” Emma was there immediately, almost crawling out between the front and passenger seat.

“Nothing,” Carrie said with enough venom in her voice that Emma drew back. “Use the door if you want to get out. That’s what it’s there for.”

There was a slight drizzle, and Carrie remained seated as Emma struggled to open the heavy backdoor. Her grandfather went out from the driver’s seat and around the car to help her, too. Carrie could also hear Jon, her husband, get out of the other land rover behind them, presumably to help Sheila with the luggage (and with Michael).

So Carrie was the last person inside any of the vehicles. Like a piece of forgotten luggage.

She looked out through the rain and the front window and took in the contours of the house. She noted that she didn’t feel anything. Not yet. She noted that was good. She went out to the others.

“No that one!” She could hear Michael cry out, pushing a suitcase back in the trunk of land rover number two. Sheila looked confused. “Take that one instead,” Michael said and pointed to a big grey suitcase – his father’s. Carrie bit her lip but said nothing, since Sheila looked as if she was determined to figure out how to do it right. Jon had stopped and looked unsure how much he should interfere.

The flight from the States had been surprisingly unproblematic for Michael, and then he had freaked out because the suitcases got off the plane in the wrong order. ‘Autism without borders’ Jon had joked, referring to that Doctors Without Borders secretary job she mused about on the way over. Carrie had sent him a withering glance and then they were both busy helping Michael cope with another painful interruption in his world’s order, while Emma withdrew to a bench to see if she could get a signal on her phone.

But at least they were finally here, after another half day of travel from Glasgow and up into the highlands. Carrie and Jon, their children, and the children’s grandfather along with his new wife.

It should have been the moment of relief but Carrie felt tense as a wire.

Emma was already striding towards the small white house, her pink backpack bumping up and down for every step.

“Emma!” Carrie called, “let granddad go first so he can open the door.”

“The garden path is still big enough for two,” Carrie’s father said. “I’ll get the young lady in first and then Jon and I can take the luggage.”

“Just be careful about the order-” Carrie started and carefully glanced in the direction of Sheila and her son.

“We’re fine, mom!” Michael waved and looked as if he had had an epiphany. Their suitcases were now ordered according to a certain sequence of colors that absolutely had to be correct. So all problems were over. Michael’s glasses were slightly foggy due to the drizzle and when he grinned, braces and all, he reminded her of a kid from one of those science fiction cartoons that he reveled in every weekend. Carrie wondered if they could watch them on YouTube and what they would do if they couldn’t. There had been so many things …

And from that point on, the logistics of unloading their baggage and getting everybody in before Scotland’s famous five hundred varieties of rain had soaked them all unfolded with remarkable speed and efficiency. Emma’s enthusiasm even seemed to have a strangely contagious effect on her brother, who was usually quiet and reserved when confronted with new places and situations. It was not long before the kids were roaming around the house, admiring everything with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as if they had been dropped into a toystore.

“If the wee ones weren’t 9 and 11, I’d give them a good drink to calm things down,” Carrie’s father remarked, followed by one of his trademark wry smiles, as he came in with the last suitcase. “And if I still had good drinks in the house.”

Then he stopped, as he saw Carrie standing frozen in the small hallway, looking at the faded drapery with the Lone Shieling verse on it:

From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas
Yet still the blood is strong,
the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides

“Dad, why is Tim’s jacket still here?” she asked.

Her father stopped, suitcase only half over the doorstep. Small droplets of water formed underneath it then disappeared into the mat.

For a long time her father was silent. Then he said, “I don’t know, Caroline. I guess I thought it was wrong to remove it. It’s right under the drapery.”

Carrie crossed her arms. “I can see that. So much for the agreement, eh?”

“I’m really sorry,” he offered, sounding genuinely out of it. “I guess I have a bit o’ permanent jetlag about that one. It’s been hanging there for so long, I … ”

Carrie didn’t hit back this time. Apparently there were some things you could try to agree to tell a certain story about, and then you would discover soon enough that there were other authors working around you.

Inside the living room she could hear Jon trying to calm the kids, while Sheila was rummaging with something on the stove in the kitchen right beside it. But she could only see the jacket. And the drapery.

“Shall I put it away?” her father asked, bracing himself.

Carrie opened her mouth like she was trying to find a breath. “No. No, it’s okay.” She put on her best smile.

“And if Emma asks?” Carrie’s father continued. “She’s an inquisitive lass, I can already see that. What should I tell her?”

“It will probably be Michael,” Carrie said. “He’ll tell you it isn’t your size. Emma may wonder about the Metallica logo on the back, though.”

“Aye, well, I still think I should put it away,” her father said. “I wouldn’t know what to tell them, anyway.”

Carrie breathed deeply. “Tell them the truth. I should have done that already, but I thought it was best to focus on this … reunion.”

“I reckon we both did, Caroline.”

Carrie worked to get her coat off, suddenly feeling how tired she was from the journey. “You know, Michael will tell you that Reunion is a French island in the Indian Ocean. He knows pretty much all the islands in the world. Right now it’s the ones starting with ‘R’ that he is most interested in, though.”

Her father helped her with the coat. “My grandson seems to be good at remembering the right things, then. That’s not a bad start.”

And so they went in, to be together.

The Inside That I Carve

The Inside That I Carve

Carrie was trying to decide whether or not to get divorced, while taking the bus for the work she hated.

They had had sex last night, for the first time in months – sure. That was nice. But it wasn’t as if it mattered.

Jon was too tired after, and she didn’t really feel they connected. More like they just tried to copy something they had done without thinking 10 years ago.

Now they were over-thinking it.

So sex, or lack of sex, was a problem but it wasn’t the problem anyway. It was just a sign.

One of many.

“East 24th” the bus driver droned and Carrie got up without thinking, as she had done so many times before.

A lot things you did in life without thinking, and then … when you got thinking too much: It hurt.

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