*this is a rough excerpt from a WIP I wrote 6 years ago – kind of fun to see what has changed and what has stayed the same*
(Cleaning out my MS drawer for Spring)
Nathan: Chapter One
My story starts before Lily’s. Literally. I’m seven minutes older. And sometimes I do know better, because she’s so caught up in this whole healing thing that she’s forgotten what really matters.
Almost a year ago my life changed forever.
It was a regular Sunday afternoon in February. I was shovelling the driveway when Mom left for the mall.
The day was really cold and sunny. The snow was wet and heavy. Mom honked the horn as she pulled onto the street. She had the window down so she could peek her face out and wave goodbye.
Her normally pale cheeks were pink, flushed with cold. Her emerald green eyes sparkled. People often mistook the sparkle for mischief, but I knew she was just happy. She curled her gloved fingers into her palm in a little wave and called out “bye”. Mom’s breath stayed in the air for a moment, frozen.
As I play that minute back in my mind, her frozen breath looks like a tiny little cloud shaped like a Christmas tree, and then a heart, and then a car, and then nothing. I can still see the misplaced curl of dark hair in her left eye, escaping from her red hat; her matching scarf wrapped neatly around her long neck; her ruby lips that her high school drama teacher had told her were stretched too wide for hearts.
She had opened and closed her hand twice. The gesture was our inside joke. Mom told both Lily and I this story over and over again as we grew up. She said that she was terribly sad when she first went back to work.
She’d been up for nights before the day finally came, upset and almost beside herself at the thought of leaving her two sweet babies with strangers. She told us that she didn’t think it was possible to be a good mom and leave her kids all day while she went to work for something as stupid as money.
At the time, it wasn’t even a job that she liked. It was just there to pay the bills. But Dad thought it would be good for us to socialize with other children. He was worried because we only ever played with each other.
So, she told us, the day finally came. She dressed us both up in our best clothes, bundled us up in our snowsuits and drove across town to the daycare center. She’d tried her best to keep the tears out of her eyes, but she couldn’t do it.
Mom walked us in the center with her chin jutted out a bit too much, just trying to keep those tears from falling down her cheeks, and she took us to the coat racks where she took off our outside clothes
Lily made friends with a little girl our age right away – Amy – and she ran into the playroom without looking back or saying bye.
So there we were, face to face. Mom looked crushed. I know I don’t actually remember this, but I can see her devastated face in my mind. She told us later that she was ready to ball her eyes out. She was horrified that Lily didn’t seem upset to be without Mommy. Of course, as the story goes, Lily did start bawling once she realised Mommy was actually gone, and not even I could comfort her for a good ten minutes.
So there we were, face to face. I was a baby. I felt things, but I didn’t understand what those feelings meant. My Mommy seemed so lost. I’d never seen her like that before and I knew something big was about to happen, but I didn’t know what.
She started to cry. They were big, fat drops rolling right over her cheeks and over her chin, into her mouth.
Her shoulders were shaking, but she wouldn’t look away. Mom told me that I had to be a big boy because she needed to go to work. She would only be gone for a few hours. I’d have so much fun that I wouldn’t even know she was gone. And she told me to take care of Lily.
She kept crying through the whole speech. She didn’t think I believed a word of it. She gave me an earth-shaking hug. Mom picked me up and squeezed me so hard I almost couldn’t breathe. She said she must have squeezed me too hard, because I looked blue when she let go.
“Bye bye, baby boy,” she had said.
Mom said Lily and I were both early walkers, but only Lily was a talker. Up to this point I could only babble.
“Bye,” I said, and waved my chubby little hand by opening and closing the fingers of my left hand.
Ever since then, saying goodbye has been our inside joke.
If Mom was still here, she’d think that last goodbye was just fucking perfect. She’d say something like, bloody wonderful! It was so tragic. It couldn’t have been written more perfectly by the best creators of literature. She would have said that real life was like that. Beautiful.
Who could have guessed that my first and my last word to Mom would have been bye?
We didn’t know at the time that it was our last anything, or it would have been a little more like the first goodbye, I’d like to think. But Mom was always surprising us, so it could very well have been just as short and just as cheerful. She would have wanted me to cry, I guess, but not for too long. She would want me to get it out and get on with my life. But she’d know I could never do that.
So I waved back to her and she pulled onto the street and drove to the mall as planned, and I finished shovelling the driveway and then went inside for a big mug of hot chocolate. We didn’t have any marshmellows, but we had some of that Fluff stuff, so I put that in there, and it was the best drink I had ever had.
I was bragging about it to Lily when Dad came downstairs. He had been sick with the flu. He was wearing his grubby old blue robe. His face wasn’t so much pale as it was devoid of colour. Transparent, I guess. No, more like whitewashed. He has some freckles on his cheeks, and they were quite faded that day.
Lily made him chicken noodle soup in the microwave while he lay on the couch. His favourite James Bond was on. Lily asked him if he wanted a grilled cheese sandwich. No, his stomach was too upset.
It always freaked me out a little to see my dad so sick. It had only happened twice before – he was a solid, well cared for man. But when he got sick, he got sick. He asked Lily to bring the bathroom garbage can out just in case.
“You better not barf in there, Dad!” I yelled. It would make me want to barf, too.
Mom had already been gone for a few hours, but we weren’t even a little worried. She loved the mall.
Sometimes she took a book and sat in the food court reading and spying on people. Well, she called it people watching. She wanted to be a writer. Or a sculptor. Or a ballerina. Or… I can’t even remember all the things she wanted.
So there we were, messing our afternoon away. Poor Dad on the couch, saying he felt worse than he’d ever felt in his entire life. Lily was playing nurse, getting him blankets and heating pads and water. I had our laptop with me at the kitchen table, pretending to do homework. I had a big French test to study for but I thought if I had to go over conjugated verbs one more time, I would be puking next to Dad.
The sun fell behind our house. My day passed without getting more than thirty minutes of fresh air. Dad and Lily didn’t go out at all. Mom still wasn’t home, but Dad was too sick to be worried. I thought of my grumbling stomach before I worried about her. It just wasn’t abnormal for her to go out for the entire day.
Though, when she went out all day, she usually had Lily or me with her. I wasn’t in the mood, and Lily had heard the cool crew was going to be there, and she would have been embarrassed to be there with Mom.
Lily was pre-heating the oven for a frozen lasagne when the door bell rang. It was an odd sound in our house. It seemed hollow to me, because people usually just knocked on our door a few times and then came in. Sometimes the kids down the street rang the bell, but they usually rang it three or four times, excited to get an answer.
That evening, after the sun had fallen behind our house, the doorbell chimed once, echoing off the freshly painted walls of our open concept home. The one we bought after Mom saw an ad in the paper promising the good life, happiness, and fun.
One lonely chime.
I was still on the laptop and Dad was still on the couch, so it was up to Lily to answer the door. As soon as the policemen stepped into our house, the world flipped upside down.
Suddenly a whirlwind had blown in through the door. We were up and anxious and nervous about what might be happening. My stomach sensed a tsunami coming.
The air became thick and a buzzing began in my ears. I couldn’t quite hear what the policemen said. The woman stayed with Lily and I as Dad ran upstairs to get dressed. The man stepped outside, waiting for us to follow.
Dad looked terrified as he walked down the stairs. When he caught me watching him, he straightened his lips and his back. I thought everything might be okay until he gently grabbed me by the shoulders. That was strange for him.
He must have known in his heart that she was dead. As though trying to evoke her spirit, Dad brushed my hair out of my eyes, squeezed my shoulder and said, “We’ll be okay.”
The “we” in his mouth no longer included Mom. It was just Dad, Lily and me. But it took me a while to figure that out.
Lily was already crying. She must have heard what the cops had said. Dad gave her a crushing hug. It made her cry even more. Her downturned lips were ugly. There was snot bubbling under her nose. She started to sob. I helped her with her jacket and put my arm around her shoulders to help her down our walkway toward our second car, the Acura. I had to use all of the strength in my left arm to keep her standing up. She almost collapsed into the back seat.
I found out later that she thought the worst that could have happened to Mom was amputation. For some reason, she was worried about Mom’s legs getting crushed by the metal. Lily was afraid that Mom would never walk again. She never once thought Mom would die. Well, until we were told that she was dead.
But I knew by Dad’s reaction that Mom would never come home. I’m not sure how he knew, because the cops didn’t actually say that she was dead. They just told Dad that she had been in a car crash and she was at the hospital.
So I rode in the front seat with Dad as we followed the cruiser. The cops took us in through the emergency entrance. They brought us straight to a nurse who took us behind the swinging doors right away. She asked us to wait in a private room while she went to get the doctor.
Lily’s sobs had filtered off to small silent bursts of tears now and then. She sat on one side of Dad and I sat on the other. The furniture was swanky. The couch and armchairs were plump and comfy. There was a nice cherrywood-looking coffee table in the room, and some real plants and striped wallpaper. No window. No t.v.
Dad forgot we were there with him. He sat on the couch with his face in his strong, veined hands. The same hands that had tugged on countless wrenches to loosen several bolts; the same hands that had made Mom a bookshelf for the office. His shoulders were slumped.
I haven’t had the guts to ask him what he was thinking in that moment. So, because I have to guess, I’ll guess he was asking questions about why this was happening to us.
Why? We’re a perfectly good family. We are loving, he might have said to himself. She is amazing.
Or maybe he was silently screaming into those hands. No, he might have screamed to himself. Not us! Not us, Goddamnit.
In those moments before we found out, I was absolutely numb. It’s the best feeling I’ve had in almost a year. It felt like I was floating through that thick air – that pre-tsunami feeling. I couldn’t feel the pillowy cushions beneath my butt. I couldn’t feel the lumpy thudding of my adrenaline-shot heart. I still miss the beauty of that right-before thickness that I will never ever get back. My stomach was up in the air while we waited for news. I didn’t exist.
And then the doctor opened the door. She was young for a doctor. I’m really bad at guessing ages, so I have no idea how old she was, but she had no wrinkles around her eyes or mouth. I concentrated on her hazel-brown eyes until I saw a flicker of remorse. It didn’t take long. Then I stared at her mouth. It was a beautifully shaped mouth. A tiny little heart. Full in all the right places. Rich and creamy looking. But dry.
She licked her lips quickly, skittishly, before she opened her mouth. As her tongue started to push the words out of her mouth, I moved my focus to her hair. It was long, straight and golden brown. Strings of honey.
Dad looked up when she walked in. He wiped his tears and grabbed our hands. It was an awkward kind of triangle. Our hands were clammy, slippery. Dad’s hand was clamped onto mine. We didn’t hold hands much. I’m not sure if he was holding on so tight because it was awkward or because he wanted to feel like something still existed in this all-of-the-sudden-momless-world.
Probably the latter, but I didn’t know for sure because I didn’t have the guts to ask.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Quinn.”
The words hung there between us like a jewel thief suspended above a diamond. Nobody spoke for what seemed like forever. I remember thinking, sorry? You didn’t do anything. Or did you? I remember looking up at the woman, searching for clues. Did you kill her somehow? Did you make a mistake?
And then, as soon as the mistake thought had formed in my mind, I started to wonder if this whole thing was a mistake. Maybe she had the wrong family. No, she had said our name. Maybe she had the wrong woman.
And then she was explaining that Mom had been hit by a drunk driver on her way home from the mall that afternoon. The drunk driver had run a red light and t-boned my Mom’s car. She was killed instantly. There was nothing that they could’ve done.
Dad started to sob and shake. I tried to grasp his hand tighter, to let him know that I did exist in that moment, that I was there for him, but he pulled his hand away from mine. He covered his face again and silently wept. I felt in that moment like I had to comfort him. I was still feeling the after-effects of the right-before thickness.
As I came out of it, I felt pretty level-headed and calm, but most of all protective. I tried to put my arm around his shoulder. He shrugged it off and sunk deeper into himself; the weight of the news brought his shoulders closer to his knees.
The doctor put her hand on Dad’s knee. He sulked away from it, but she kept it there strong and steady.
Suddenly the silence broke like a bubble. I heard Lily cry out. I went to her. I held her. I wanted to be there for her as well as Mom would have been. I held her tight, rubbed her back, rocked back and forth a little – more back than forth to keep us from falling off the couch.
I clearly remember how bad I felt in that moment. My shoulder felt bruised by Lily’s skull and her fingers, which were digging into me. I felt completely rejected by Dad. He’d never pushed me way like that before. Instantly I knew in my gut what it would be like without Mom.
She was joy and love. She got my jokes. There would be no more hugs, no more loud but sweet laughter.
She held our family together. Without her we would unravel.
Immediately, I knew what loneliness was. Mom was gone. Forever. She’d never look at me again from across the kitchen table; never sweep my hair out of my eyes or give me a big waist hug; and she’d never tell me anymore stories about my youth or her friends or anything.
She’d be gone for the rest of my life. She’d be missing at my graduation. She’d be a ghost to my children.
That wasn’t the worst feeling I had that evening. The doctor asked Dad if we’d like some time with the body. I didn’t want to go, because I knew that Mom wasn’t with us anymore. A body is just a body. But I was morbidly curious. What does a dead body look like, I wondered. As I got older, I hated my thirteen-year-old-self for thinking about dead bodies in that moment instead of Mom.
Before we could go, Dad yelled out that he had to throw up, and he ran out of the room. We waited there with the doctor, listening to Dad retch in the next room. I started to feel very nervous as I sat there beside Lily. I tried to get her attention, but her eyes were squished shut. I wished I could close my eyes and pretend that none of this was happening. But when I closed my eyes all I could see was Mom peeking out of the window as she drove away.
Jesus. Thinking about this is making me ill. I thought I could do this, but maybe not. Wait… I’ll be right back.
Okay, I’m back and ready to do this. This part is really hard.
Sometimes, when her and Dad were going out on a date or something, Mom would wear her shoulder-length hair up in a swirl like they did back in the twenties. Even then, her curls dominated.
When we walked into the small, cold room, the first thing I noticed was her hair. It was wet and straight and brushed back away from her face. Her lips and eyelids and cheekbones were bare. She looked like Mom, only with a great, creeping purple bruise from her neck to her left temple.
I broke when I saw her. We all did. I don’t know how long I cried. It felt like years. And when we were a bit more calm, we sat with her to say goodbye. I got to hold her hand, and even though it wasn’t moving, it wasn’t stiff, and it was better than not ever holding her hand again. I watched Lily kiss her cheek, and then Dad kiss her forehead, so I kissed her cheek, too. Dad asked the nurse to call Grandma.
We went home with Grandma and Dad stayed with Mom. He didn’t even look up to say bye to us. I thought that was awful, but when I mentioned it to Lily, who usually saw my point of view, she told me to take it easy on him. She told me that Dad had just lost the love of his life. And I was thinking, what? What about us? I couldn’t understand how she could side with Dad when he had literally pushed me away. That wasn’t normal behaviour.
When we got home, Grandma and Lily stayed downstairs to curl up with some hot chocolate and I ran upstairs. I wanted to trash my room or crawl under the bed to weep. I didn’t know what to do, so I turned on my music really, really loud. I was sure they could hear it, but I didn’t care.
I was restless. The buzzing in my ears had come back. The music didn’t drive it out. I flicked between songs, not able to settle on one or another. They all seemed stupid. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry, but I could not. I thought maybe I had cried all of my tears in that little room.
And then I heard her.
You’ve heard of white noise, right? You know it can come through between radio stations. All fuzzy and stuff, right? Well, I guess it comes through when you’re listening to music, too.
I swear, when a Modest Mouse song came on my iPod, I heard my Mom’s voice yelling at me to turn it down. It freaked me out. My heart got another shot of adrenaline. I ran across the room to grab the remote and turned it off. As soon as I did that, her voice was gone.
I sat on the floor, kind of shivering, with my knees drawn up to my chest like a scared little boy.
My courage failed me for about twenty minutes, and then I decided it was time to check. I thought I had gone crazy. I had to see if she was in the house – alive or as a ghost. I walked softly toward Mom and Dad’s room, listened for a second at the door, and then ran right in with my eyes closed and my arms up infront of me to protect me from whatever was there.
There was nothing. I was alone upstairs. G-ma and Lil were downstairs, and Dad was still at the hospital with our dead mom. Was she a ghost? I know this is stupid, but I crept around the room from corner to corner, looking under the bed, in the closet, behind the shower curtain, calling out to her.
There was no response. So, feeling completely crazy, I went back to my room, turned up the music and got ready to scream and tear my room apart. And then I heard her voice again.
Soon I figured out it was white noise within the music. Mom usually called me for dinner from the kitchen, and I was usually listening to music, so I guess, in my mind, some songs had an imprint of her voice. I was so happy! I had my mom back in some little way. There was still a connection that hadn’t been broken.
I put the song on repeat and eventually I fell asleep.