1st Place winner (June 2010 Short Shots Contest).
Imagine you're lying on a soft rubber raft in the middle of the ocean. The day is warm; the sea calm. You close your eyes and dip your fingertips beneath the surface of the water. It feels cool and inviting. You're very relaxed. Your breathing is slow and steady.
I can practically hear Dr. Shoshana Lowenstein's soothing voice calming me, guiding me through one of her imagery sessions as I kneel here beside my "therapy" tree. Shoshana told me to find a place where I feel at peace and to go there whenever the sadness threatens to overwhelm me. I instantly thought of this tree. I planted it when I was seven years old, back when my parents still owned the farm ... before they died and left it to me. We've become friends, Shoshana and I. I think she feels sorry for me. I think she thinks she can fix me, but I'm not so sure I can be fixed. Killing your own child kind of screws you up in the head.
Deep cleansing breath in ... and blow it out slowly. That's good, Mary. Relax. You're safe here. Again, big deep breath.
I keep my eyes closed and concentrate on the breeze, the sound of distant thunder, the earthy aroma of imminent rain. Noah loved the rain. He'd tug on his Kidorable green froggy rubber boots, shrug into his matching raincoat, then go splashing through the puddles behind the house. "Wook, Mommy!" he'd yell, arranging tiny plastic boats around his feet. "I'm a giant in a wake, but da peoples awen't scawed 'cause dey knowed I'm a good giant."
My constant companion, Despair, wraps her cold, clammy arms around me and I have to bite my lip to keep from wailing. What's inside me wants out so badly, but I won't let it. My breath comes in hitches and gasps. My eyes sting from the tears, but I squeeze them shut even tighter. You did this, I think. This is your fault. You deserve this pain.
There are times I swear I can hear Noah's voice in the middle of the night. I used to run through the house in the dark, frantic in my efforts to find him. I'd call his name and demand he tell me where he was hiding. "Noah James, come out this instant!" Jim, my husband, was understanding and supportive at first. He'd hold me while I cried and tell me everything was going to be alright. He didn't know then that everything wasn't going to be alright. He didn't know then that my crying would keep him up night after night, week after week, and that he'd have to migrate to the couch just to get a few hours' sleep. He didn't know he'd eventually migrate out of the house altogether. I don't even know where he is anymore.
We're a statistic.
I'll have to sell the farm. I can't run the place by myself. Mom and Dad would be so disappointed, but it's probably for the best. Everywhere I turn I see something that reminds me of Noah ... like the tire swing out back and the Sit 'n Spin on the front porch and the Baby On Board bumper sticker on my car. No more baby on board. I guess I should take that off. Is that what mothers do when their children die? Remove the Baby On Board bumper stickers from their cars? Women who lose their husbands are called widows. Men who lose their wives are called widowers, but there's not a word in the English language for what I am.
I've replayed that day over and over in my mind. It's the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about before I fall asleep at night. I even dream about it sometimes, but in my dreams Noah doesn't fall off the second floor balcony and his little head doesn't bust open on the sidewalk like a sun-ripened watermelon. In my dreams I'm able to get to him before he tumbles--I'm able to hold him safely in my arms and scold him for going so near the open double doors.
Why did Jim insist on pouring those damn sidewalks? "They'll cut down on the mud," he said. "But what if Noah falls?" I said. "Little boys are accident prone. What if he trips or something?"
Why did I leave the balcony doors open?
It's not your fault.
"Shut up, Shoshana." There's no one near enough to hear me talking to myself like a crazy woman. I already know people think I'm an unfit mother. I've noticed their accusatory glances and overheard their whispered accusations, but being shunned by my hometown has hardened me. I really don't give a shit what people think anymore.
Mary, you can't carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. You can try, but eventually it will crush you. It's not your fault; it's no one's fault. That's why things like this are called accidents.
"You know what, if I want your opinion I'll pay you your one-twenty-five an hour and ask for it from the comfort of your ridiculously pretentious office. Not now, Dr. Lowenstein. Not here."
I remember fighting the urge to throw myself onto Noah's coffin as they shoveled dirt into the hole that would cradle him for the rest of eternity. My mind screamed, Stop! He's afraid of the dark! I could have easily allowed myself to become irrational, hysterical even, but Jim held on tight and wouldn't let me go.
They shouldn't make coffins that small.
Family and friends arrived with balloons, and we all took turns tying little notes and Noah's favorite toys to them before releasing them to drift up, up, up into the clear Wyoming sky. "No two-year-old boy should be without his toys," Pastor Larabee said, giving my shoulders a good squeeze. "Not even the ones who live in heaven."
It's drizzling now. The clouds are looming black and ominous over Lingle, a town just five miles away. The storm will hit here soon enough. It doesn't rain much here--flash floods are even rarer, but they're not unheard of. Channel 7 warned us of the possibility this morning on the news.
First a trickle, then a small steady stream begins to flow down the center of the parched creek bed below me. I guess the meteorologist was right for a change. I wish I'd worn a real coat instead of this damn blazer.
I remember Jim's hands--cracked and weathered from a lifetime of hard work. He had strong hands, but they could be delicate and tender when he wanted them to be. I remember how they trembled that day when he tried to attach the little balsa wood ark he'd carved for Noah to a green balloon (green was Noah's favorite color). I lifted Jim's hands to my lips and kissed the tips of his craggy fingers. "Let me," I said. When the string was good and snug around the boat--it had a long way to travel, after all--we watched the balloon disappear above us, and with it our hopes, our dreams, our hearts, our desire to live for one more moment without him. "Noah's ark," I whispered. "He really loved it you know."
It was the only time I ever saw Jim cry.
That was six weeks ago. It seems like yesterday; it seems like a lifetime. After Noah was born, I was so in love with him that I couldn't imagine life without him. Didn't want to imagine it. I used to wonder how people did it--how they could lose a child and continue living. Where did the parents find the strength to get out of bed in the morning, to cook breakfast, to keep themselves going from one hour, one minute, one second to the next? Why bother going to work every day? What's the point?
I don't have to imagine anymore, and there isn't a point really. You do it because it's what people expect of you. So your kid's dead ... bills still need to be paid, lawns still need to be mowed, laundry still needs to be washed. Life goes on, whether you want it to or not.
It's raining pretty hard now. I'm drenched straight through. It feels good; it reminds me that I'm alive, but Mother Nature is a moody bitch who can't be trusted. I think I should be heading home. My knees pop when I stand and my feet are asleep. It takes a second or two to work out the kinks and get the blood flowing again. I marvel at all the garbage and debris that rushes past in what was just a dry creek bed minutes ago. It's a proper creek now littered with plastic bottles and candy wrappers, cigarette butts and empty beer cans ... God, people are such pigs.
I snatch my blazer closed and turn toward home. A hot bath and a cold glass of wine is just what the doctor ordered. I really should clean this crap up once the storm's over, I think, glancing one last time at the river that's materialized behind my house. There's a child's toy boat. It looks kind of like.... I stop walking and watch the familiar shape float by. It can't be. I close my eyes and count to ten. The boat's still there when I open them, just further away. I stumble forward, take an unsure step or two, then begin to run. I lunge over the bank and into the freezing rain water, but I'm not as agile as I used to be and I fall. The rocks cut into my knees and rip open my hands, but I'm able to maintain my balance long enough to reach out and scoop up the toy for a closer look.
I run my finger over the giraffe's head, poke it through the tiny windows, caress the miniature flag on top ... it's Noah's ark, and I drop to my knees in the mud. All the anger, all the despair, all the loneliness and guilt I've struggled to keep inside comes rushing out in gut-wrenching, breathless sobs. Noah! I'm so sorry, baby. Mommy's so sorry.
Oh God, please forgive me.
Word count minus title (according to Microsoft Word)--1,728
Written for June 2010