Point of View: 3rd person - Emma

This Day’s An Invitation

This Day’s An Invitation

It was summer in Berlin and time for a family to disintegrate. Emma, 16, had refused to even pretend she was with the others because after the way Martin had treated her she wasn’t interested in patching things up, only breaking them down.

She deliberately went five paces ahead of everyone else whenever they dared sortie from the hotel to navigate the bustling metropolis that seemed to have gotten a second lease of life after the pandemic.

If only there had been a second lease for her parents, it might have gone differently, but despite Jon and Carrie walking hand in hand, Emma had no doubt that it was all for show and that the recent arguments about divorce were about to come true. They might as well just get it over with like Martin had when he dumped her – by text message – just before they were to fly out of JFK and head for her second trip to Europe.

Making out the rearguard were grandmother and her new man, Marcus Chen. Well, he wasn’t that new. This was the third time, apparently, they were a couple and Emma could never really figure out what it meant. Were they good friends who had sex? Were they lovers? Were they, well, a real couple? She wanted badly to figure it out because it would give some stability to her world. It would show her that things could be for real and forever and all the things you could read in the books, at least.

She turned left and the ugly slab of concrete that was the Bahnhof Zoo station greeted her, but she went right past it hardly bothering to look at the map on her phone. With a bit of luck, she thought, she might stumble into a jungle part of the actual zoo on the other side and become lost if she kept going without looking. Or lose the others. She almost stumbled into a truck instead, as it pulled out from the parking lot behind the station.

“Wait up, young lady,” her father called. Voice firm as always, even if joy had long since left it.

Emma reluctantly slowed, feeling more caged than the animals in the Zoo they were going to gawk at any moment now. Or so she imagined. 

She suddenly felt all energy leave her. Even her anger at feeling lost and alone for the nth time wasn’t enough to keep her moving. Her heartbeat like a heavy machine and the sound of the traffic around her was like a silent dream. Dust from the park ascended in the heated afternoon, and the whole day felt tired from the lead in the air. Like it was seeping into her pores. She hated Yuma but at least they had clean air in the desert, even if it was always hot as hell to breathe this time of year.

In Berlin, the air was just heavy, and there was no redemption. It was supposed to be a marvelous chance to see an old city in Europe …

“You feeling alright?” Marcus Chen asked as he came up. They had all stopped in the parking lot as if they dared not go any further. As if there had been a crack in the collective agreement to have a conciliatory family trip to the zoo, as the first of many sights. 

“I’m okay.” Emma brushed away Marcus’ hand as she felt it closing in on her shoulder. 

Marcus sighed and looked at Emma’s grandmother. “Well, it’s just over there. But if you feeling like going someplace to sit down first, have a cup of coffee … ?”

“We’re fine,” Carrie said through thin lips before her own mother could answer. “Let’s go.”

“Yeah.” Emma’s father nodded but it was clear the lead had gotten into his pores as well. 

Then Emma’s phone buzzed and, of course, it was from Martin. Messaging her all the way from his safe hideout in some desert suburb on the other side of the world.

Emma held the phone up and looked at it as if it was a cockroach. Then she muted it.

“Who was that?” Her father asked because he needed to ask about something that had nothing to do with the decision they had to make. To go on, into the zoo. To be tourists, normal, find something to smile at.

Her mother had looked like she wanted to ask, too, but instead, she had fallen back on her usual ask-me-no-questions demeanor, as if she was the one everything devolved around. Emma wanted to ask her many things. Like, what was going to happen with her and dad? Emma and Carrie had always been able to talk about anything, but right now that was almost non-existent, like a muted Facebook message.

Emma’s screen kept lighting up with one more message. Then another. Then she realized she was looking at it and hadn’t pushed the button that darkened the screen.

“Perhaps we should go ahead?” her grandmother suggested, smiling her wizened smile, her gray-green eyes not having lost any of their steadiness. “I’m sure Emma can find us. You have those tracking things in your fancy phones, haven’t you?”

“I’ll text you,” Emma said, not sure why she said it. She was definitely not going to forgive Martin. But she wanted to be alone.

“You can’t stay here in this … ” Her father looked around. A steady stream of cars passed them, trying to find space either to park or a way around other cars that wanted to find a way out.

“I’ll sit over there, on the bench,” Emma said and pointed.

“Let’s go,” her grandmother urged, letting her hand rest on Carrie’s shoulders that slumped a bit.

It was a done deal then, and the rest of the family were led away by grandmother, as usual, like driftwood for uncertain destinations. 

Emma said the standard things she needed to say to reassure her father especially and then she was finally free. She looked at the messages: 

<Can we talk?> The last one said.

Emma hesitated, then began typing:

<What is there to talk about?>

She smiled, but it was a sad smile. He had a guilty conscience because she had refused to talk to him after he broke up like that, and it was kind of sweet. Also kind of useless.

But if she refused to talk and at least try to mend some things, what then? School would be so awkward … 

She gazed after the others. They were out of sight, probably standing in line somewhere in the zoo.

There were other things that had to be mended, which she had no control over. But at least she had this.

Emma typed again.

The lead felt as if it was evaporating slightly in the summer air.

The Seven Words Left On Paper

The Seven Words Left On Paper

“Isn’t that the bag dad uses for his guns?” 

“No, it’s an ordinary bag,” Carrie said, “like yours.”

Emma had her own new pink bag with the large Japanese letters slung over her shoulder, so it was obvious that she was going over to Mika, probably to try again to make a positive impression on the new smart girl in class.  

Emma nodded at the bed again. “It looks like dad’s bag.”

Carrie adjusted her ear ring, even though she had already done it. But at least she had somewhere to put her hands. “I’m going shopping. Is there anything special you want for dinner, sweetie?”

“Dinner?” Emma still tripped in the doorway to her parents’ bedroom, staring at the big black bag her mother had on the bed.

“Yes, is there anything you want?”

“Er, for dinner?” Emma repeated as if her mother had asked her about the site of an alien landing.

“Yes, I was thinking about fries and chicken … ” 

“We had that yesterday.”

“Oh, right.” Carrie left the earring alone and pretend she was all clear. “Well, your brother likes it so no harm in having it again.”

Emma smiled briefly. “I think I will eat over at Mika’s … if you don’t mind?”

“The rest of us will certainly miss your excellent company, but we will try to manage.” Carrie was about to say something more, but it was already too late.

“Okay. Bye now!” And away she was. Carrie could hear the stair groaning in protest as Emma flew down to the front door, like a soldier to battle.

Carrie hooked up in the straps of the black bag and felt its weight. It didn’t feel like going off to battle, although perhaps it should. The bag was there, but it did not feel it belonged to her. 

Her summer dress with the knee-length skirt—that belonged to her, even if she’d rather have a newer one. Her sandals that were a little too tight, and which she had to replace soon. A whiff of nail polish, deodorant, lipstick, all familiar. All belonged to her. She had just dressed for shopping, after all.  But she did not feel like it.

She felt like an intruder in her own life. And it wasn’t the first time. She wondered if it would make a difference what was in the bag or that she was going to give it to Jenna, before going anywhere near Costco. In fact, she felt no appetite at all … 

After a moment of hesitation, Carrie heaved the bag up once more, felt the strap bite into her naked shoulder but ignored it. She listened instead. There were the expected sounds. Michael was playing his games. This time it was strategy-something. And he was well into his own autistic world, as usual. He probably wouldn’t notice if she knocked on his door, anyway.

She went out, to do what she had to do.

*

Emma watched her mom walk over to the car, heels click-clacking on the sun-cracked cement that made for a driveway to their small house. 

She was in her usual hide-out behind Mr. Taylor’s fence, which he luckily never got around to replacing. The old planks had long since come apart as rain and sun had done their job, each season, and it was easy to find an opening wide enough to look through, but not wide enough to be seen. Or at least she reckoned so.

Mr. Taylor himself was at the nursing home, looking after his wife, as usual. Or at least she reckoned so.

There were a lot of routines in Emma’s world that she depended on to get by and crazy as it sounded one of the routines was that she knew her mother’s dark moods well enough to be able to predict fairly well, when Carrie would be angry or just distant. Emma also knew when to look out for worse things. Her father had had a long conversation about that one night when Carrie had been at her friend, Jenna’s, with some other of her friends.

That conversation had frightened Emma, and she had felt crushingly alone, and her father as usual had kind of left it there and didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about it again, although she desperately needed to.

Her mother started the car and it pulled out onto the street and then quickly disappeared between the boxes that went for houses in their suburb. She didn’t make the usual turn at the end, so Emma knew she wasn’t going into town. She was heading out of it. The only person in eastern Yuma that Emma knew her mom knew was Jenna Banks. Otherwise there was nothing for her there.

The sun was in the sky, as it was so often here in Arizona, but it felt cold.

Emma pulled her phone from her Japanese bag and called Mika.

“Look, I can’t come over now.”

“What?” Mika sounded both disappointed and a bit like it was what she had expected. “Not again!”

Emma bit her lip. “I’m really sorry. It’s mom. She’s gone over to a friend, I think, but something is wrong.”

“Last time you thought your mom would kill herself, she went to a barbecue party.” Emma could hear Mika chewing gum, and … someone else in the background. Were there other girls from her class? Mika had said that tonight was ‘their night’.

“It’s not her this time. I think she might kill … I don’t know.” Emma stalled. She couldn’t say it. And it was crazy, wasn’t it? The only clue she had was dad’s black bag. But it had looked … heavy.

“You think she’ll go on a shooting spree?” Mika’s voice became serious, all of a sudden. “Is that what you are saying?”

“I don’t know what I am saying … ” Emma felt something in her stomach, like acid. It was eating away at her insides. “I don’t know, I’m just worried. She has had a lot of arguments with Jenna recently.”

“Maybe you should call your dad. Isn’t he a police man?” Mika chewed the gum again. “I want to help. Tell me if I can do anything.”

“I’ll call my dad. It’s probably all right. She hasn’t been doing pills or booze or anything … ” Emma hung up, but the acid was still there and it was spreading.

It was that feeling that she had had more and more often. It was both acrid and ice cold at the same time, and it nailed her to the spot.

She couldn’t move. She felt her heart beat faster and she had trouble breathing. Doctor Maryam had called it anxiety attacks and had given her some pills, too, but the only pills Emma could think of was the ones she knew her mother sometimes had in her drawer. The ones against depression. Had she taken them recently? Were they enough? 

Despite what she had told Mika, she really didn’t know if her mother had been skipping her pills or if she had been drinking again or anything else. It was easier to keep an eye on mom due to COVID 19, of all things, because they had been home so much, but on the other hand, it wasn’t as if Emma could survey the attic or the bedroom 24/7. Emma suspected mom already knew that she was sometimes watching her.

She finally tore herself loose of the cold and started walking down the street, her pink bag bopping at her hip. She was only 15 but it felt like she had already spent whatever life had been allotted to her. She wanted to go over to Mika’s and have fun and watch those series they had talked about, because Mika and her brother had both Netflix and HBO.

But instead she got on her bike and began half-heartedly cycling in east, towards the Foothills where she knew Jenna lived. She wrestled with the question.

Should I call dad?

There could be a million reasons her mother had borrowed that bag. It was one of the biggest they had. Maybe her mother would go to Costco on her way back? Maybe her mother thought it was none of Emma’s business that she was going to Jenna’s first? Maybe she wasn’t going to Jenna’s but somewhere else?

Emma knew it was stupid to continue biking. She had to do something. Stop and call. Decide this was normal and ignore it. Go back to talk to Michael. But as long as she was biking at least she felt she had direction, as crazy as it was.

If only she felt that her own life in general was heading in some kind of direction. A direction that gave you hope. Not one that made you feel like you were driving towards a deep dark tunnel that nobody knew the length of.

Perhaps one that never ended.

Then the thought struck her. 

If mom really wanted to do something crazy, she would have left a note, right? That’s what they always do.

It was pretty absurd, but the thought gave Emma what she needed. Hope and another direction. She went back to the house to search for a sign, some indication. Then she would call her father.

I might be ten thousand times too late … but I have to do this right.

The doctor said she should always think twice. Think about what really could have happened. The possibilities. Not just the worst-case scenario. If only the latter wasn’t so hard.

For a moment, she considered calling mom. It would be the obvious thing to do. Except that her mom would probably lie, as she had done so often before. No, not lie. Lie was a bad word. More like her mom was always hiding, not telling her how she really felt.

Emma went to the bedroom. There was nothing.

Then she went to the locker in the basement where her father kept his guns. It was locked. But her mother knew where the key was. She knocked on the locker. It sounded as if there was something inside. She tried moving it a little bit. It felt heavy, as usual. There was definitely something inside. Yet, her father had many guns … 

She couldn’t stand it any longer. She went upstairs to get a better signal for her cell phone and began punching her dad’s number. She wondered if she should take the extra pills, Dr. Maryam had prescribed for ‘difficult situations’, but she wanted to call first.

Then she saw the note in the hallway.

It had to have fallen out of mom’s purse. No, it looked crumpled, like she had thrown it away. She sometimes did that with the strangest of things in the strangest of places. Once her mom had left an entire Happy Meal on the pavement, because she had decided she wasn’t hungry, and then went home to cook late. It had been one of the bad days, so nobody had said anything about how hungry they were and things had dissolved into workable normalcy the next day.

Emma picked up the note. It said:

Chicken 
Juice
Rice
Chocolate
Milk
Michael
Emma

From The Day You’re Born

From The Day You’re Born

Michael saw it first. The bolt of lightning cracked the sky in the west, and for an instant made the otherwise dusk-hazy silhouette of Snake Range clear and sharp as if it was day.

“Look, Em!” Michael cried. “Did you see that?!”

“It’s just lightning,” his big sister said and tried to suppress a shudder. She was 10 years old and the eldest by two whole years, so there was no question of the indifference in her voice, as she awaited what she knew must follow lightning.

The thunder rolled over the desert and reached them after several long heartbeats.

“Oh – wooow!!” Michael blurted and pulled a shadow-punch with his fist, as if he was cheering the thunderstorm to pull an even bigger punch next time.

The storm obliged. Only minutes after the first rift had been torn in the sky, new ones opened up over the mountains. It was odd, though, Emma thought, that they could be sitting here, under the big truck and there was still no rain out on the parking lot or anywhere near the Border Inn. But she knew it must be pouring over the mountains now, like a flood.

“Thunder is cool,” Michael said, a big grin on his 8-year old face.

“It’s very natural,” Emma said. “There’s el-electricity in the sky. It comes out when the clouds clash together, like sparks.” She tried hard to remember what Ms. Peregrine had said in class and at the same time not to think about how loud the next rumble of thunder would be.

Or when it would reach the Inn.

It was already late and the desert was a carpet of shadows, the occasional bump of a stone or bush no longer visible; it was all slowly being absorbed in the grey, chilly dusk. Emma strained and tried to see more, but she knew it would only be possible when the next bolt of lightning shot through the distant sky, and then only for a little while, near the mountains.

Where they were, everything would soon be shadows.

“I’m hungry,” Michael suddenly said. “Do you still have the Snickers?”

“Yes,” Emma said and fished the chocolate bar from her small rucksack. “There’s only one, so we have to share.”

Normally she would have insisted they eat dinner first, as she knew mom would say. But right now Emma Sawyer Reese felt okay about letting her little brother eat that chocolate bar. Then at least they wouldn’t just sit – and wait for … something.

They would be doing something. She wondered what else they could do, aside from going back into the motel before mom, or maybe dad, would come out after them.

Mom had given strict orders that she was to look out for Michael, and they were not to go near the high way. The occasional truck still rushed by, lights quickly fading into the oncoming night.

Emma didn’t think the lonely road out there looked particularly dangerous. The one near her school had much more traffic, and she didn’t really want to look after Michael now – until they could all have dinner. But she did not want to make mom angry either. Not again.

“One thousand twenty … one thousand twenty one … “

“What are you doing?” she asked him.

“Counting the distance to the lightning,” Michael explained, looking wholly absorbed.

“You always count.”

“I like counting.”

“Yeah, I noticed,” Emma said sourly.

She wondered what took mom and dad so long. Why couldn’t they just go over to the motel’s restaurant and have that dinner now, instead of having to kill time playing on this boring parking lot with almost no cars or people while mom and dad … did something.

Fought with each other, she supposed … it wouldn’t be the first time. Why else would mom had told them to go outside and play at dinner time instead of just going over to the motel’s restaurant? Mom had been tense the whole drive. As had dad. As usual …

Emma was getting really hungry now, despite the chocolate.  It was as if it had just made the whole she felt in her stomach larger somehow … and then, when she thought about the hunger, the wind from the oncoming storm made her shiver visibly now.

“Maybe we should go back to the room?” she suggested to Michael. “Maybe mom is looking for us and can’t find us?”

“Mom would be calling. She is not looking,” Michael said. “Dad, too.”

“Dad ‘too’ what?”

“Isn’t looking.” Michael hated it when she corrected him – or implied she had to. Em wasn’t his teacher, like right?!

“Look,” Emma said. “But either we sit here and wait for her to call, and make her mad if she can’t find us, or … if we’re not supposed to sit here … ” She looked up at the bottom of the huge dark truck.

“Or what?” Michael asked, suspicion in his voice.

“Or we just go in now and avoid a fuss.”

“You mean, they’ll yell at us? But why?”

“Because they couldn’t find us.”

“They haven’t been looking! And we have done nothing wrong!” Michael protested.

“I think we should go in now. Look – the storm will be here soon, with rain and lightning. We will be and wet – and we’ll catch a cold.”

“You’re just afraid of the lightning,” Michael said, and Emma froze.

“Am not!”

“Yes, you are. I heard you say so to dad that night back home when it was all thunder and …”

“Will you shut up, Michael?!”

“I knew it – you’re afraid.”

“And you still wet your bed!”

Michael’s face turned red and dark now, all at the same time.

“You lie! You lie!” He suddenly lashed out and began hitting her and although he had done it before, this time it caught Emma by complete surprise. He had never gotten angry so quickly. She usually could see it coming. She usually knew how much she …

Emma took her hand away from her nose, which was burning and …

“Blood!” she cried. “You gave me nose-blood, stupid! You little stupid stupid bed-wetter!”

Tears stung in her eyes and she felt a rising panic whilst trying to control the blood-flow and breathe at the same time. She had had nose-blood before but somehow never this strong. Emma scrambled to get out from under the truck, while protecting her nose with one hand.

Michael just looked on in shock.

“I didn’t mean … ” he tried to say.

Emma said nothing. It was as it had always been with her little brother. As it had always been in the family. You thought you saw the storm coming and had time then suddenly … it was all there. And you thought you saw it coming. You thought you knew what it was all about. But you didn’t. You were just … caught.

Another whiplash of lightning cracked the darkening sky over the desert.

World Drifts In
Image credit: Ken Beghtel

Last updated: 2 May 2021