by Lee Thomas
An uneplained phenomenon is causing Brandon to absorb his daughters injuries.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
By Lee Thomas
Word Count : 10,381
While Brandon was busy untangling an errant rope on Julie’s sled, she walked absently away, fussing with the dangling end of her scarf. Brandon, ready to pull his daughter up the busy hill once more, turned to where she had stood a moment ago.
“Here you go kiddo…” he started, but she wasn’t there.
Panic gripped him momentarily, speeding his heart as a list of possible scenarios – each more dreadful and unlikely than the last – crowded his imagination. He glanced instinctively toward the busy parking lot, his over-imaginative mind already projecting images of some strange man spiriting Julie away to an idling van. But there was no sign of her there.
He turned to his right, and relief washed over him as he caught sight of her standing about twenty feet away, and trying to stuff her ridiculously long scarf into her pocket. Brandon smiled at her childish futility and the look of adult determination written on her tiny face.
A dark shape slid into the periphery of Brandon’s vision and he turned his head toward the hill. The cacophony of yelling children and sliding toboggans had drowned-out the individual sound of three boys approaching on an inner-tube. But his ears were suddenly and acutely aware of the sound of rubber squealing on hard-packed snow as the missile sped toward the bottom of the hill - and his five year old daughter.
“Julie, watch out,” he cried, knowing he could never reach her in time, but trying all the same. Although the snow was packed and level, his feet seemed to grow heavier with each step.
Julie turned toward the sound and the scarf fell from her open hand. She stood stock-still, apparently frozen with panic while the boys raced toward her.
The boys might have seen Julie in the final moment, because there seemed to be an abrupt change in the tone of their screaming; from that of unbridled joy to one of panic. No control could be had over such a vessel; it bounced and writhed with arms and legs protruding at unlikely angles like some genetic cross of flesh and rubber gone horribly wrong.
The tube took Julie’s legs out from under her and the tiny body cart-wheeled through air. Brandon heard a dull thud as the flat of her back made explosive contact with the hard-packed snow.
He reached her a heartbeat later. “Honey, it‘s okay. Daddy’s got you,” he said, lifting her onto his lap and kneeling in the snow. She was still and her eyes were staring. No sound escaped her lips. “Julie,” he called, but there was no response. “Julie, look at me. Julie!” His heart skipped one beat, and then another.
Abruptly, Julie gasped and sucked in a long, wheezing breath. Her eyes became bright with brimming tears. His body relaxed a little, and he let go of a breath he hadn‘t realized he’d been holding.
“It’s alright sweetheart, you just had the wind knocked out of you. Just relax and take little breaths, the air will come back,” he said, rocking her in his arms.
“We didn’t see her! Is she alright?” a freckled boy of about 13 bent panting over them. The other boys arrived a moment later and huddled in for a look at the carnage.
Julie was breathing almost normally now and letting out little hiccupping sobs. One of the boys noticed her hat lying near his feet and scooped it up. He slapped it against his thigh, freeing it of snow, and then held it out to Brandon like a wounded bird.
“I didn’t even see her, I was facing the back.” he said, looking embarrassed and a little scared.
“She’s ok.” Brandon answered as he probed her for broken bones. “She’s just had the wind knocked out of her. Give her a little room guys, alright?”
The boys backed up a few steps and Brandon noticed the looks that passed between them. It was plain that they wanted to do something to help, but more than that, they probably just wanted to get out of an awkward situation.
“It was just an accident guys. It wasn’t your fault.” Brandon said in an effort to reassure them. It really hadn’t been their fault; he should have been watching her.
“Daddy I want to go h-h-home.” sniffed a little voice. There were tears on her rose-colored cheeks and her nose was running.
“Ok honey. You bet.”
He looked at the boys, who had backed-up even further. “Guys, don’t worry about it, ok? She’s fine.”
He bent and grabbed Julie’s sled and, with her in one arm and hugging tight to his neck, he trudged through the snow toward the Jeep.
Brandon had been in an agitated state since the accident at the hill. His uneasiness had not diminished when, at last, he slipped between the sheets that evening. He and his wife Karen were in the habit of reading a few pages from their current paperbacks before turning the lights out. But tonight Brandon clicked off the lamp on his bedside table, rolled toward the darkness and brooded with a loud and rather obvious sigh.
Brandon heard a click as Karen turned out her light. Her soft, but slightly exasperated voice said, “I don’t understand why you’re so worked up, babe. Kids have spills all the time. It’s practically a rite of childhood.” she had a habit of sensing his mood and guessing his thoughts. After twelve years of marriage, he was still undecided on whether or not it was a good habit.
“I don’t know.” Brandon’s voice was sullen. “I see something like that, and I’m just terrified that I’m going to lose her.” The house creaked as a cold December wind whistled through the trees outside. “Do you remember the time that she slipped in the tub when she was around a year old?”
Karen was quiet for a moment while she seemed to flip back a few chapters in her memory. At last, she said, “Yes, I think so. But she was fine, right? You were right there and she was fine.”
“Yeah, she ended up alright,” he said, as if waving that particular issue aside. “What bothered me about it were her eyes.”
He watched the sky through the window beside the bed. The evening was clear and moonless, and he had never seen so many stars in the sky so close to the city. Karen propped herself up on an elbow and rested her chin on his shoulder.
“What about her eyes? I don’t think that you mentioned that part before.”
“No, I probably didn’t. I had just walked out of the bathroom for a second - I don’t remember why. I had only gotten a few steps into the hall, when I heard the splash. I ran back in and she was under the water, just lying still and staring up at me with her little hands reaching out for help. I pulled her out right away and she cried and coughed a little, but she was fine.”
Brandon was silent for a moment before continuing. “Afterward, I couldn’t get the image of her eyes out of my head. For an instant, when she was under the water with her eyes open, it was like…” he paused again. “You know, it sounds pretty stupid when I try to say it out loud. Just forget about it.” His voice was morose again and he pulled the covers tight around him as if to shut Karen out.
She took hold of the blanket and yanked it down past his shoulder. “Tell me Brandon. What was it like? I really want to know.” Her voice was tender, but firm.
He was quiet for another moment before he spoke. “Well, it was like I was seeing her in a coffin.” He held-up a forestalling hand and continued, “I know it sounds terrible, but it was just a really eerie feeling; her face was totally still and serene, like she was… well, you know.” He chanced a look over his shoulder to gauge her reaction, but her face was unreadable in the dark.
“Today after she landed on the snow, her eyes were just like that; staring and lifeless. It scared me. I just can’t imagine life without her anymore. If anything was going to happen to that kid, I’d trade places with her in a second.”
“Any parent worth their salt would do that, babe. It just means that you love your daughter. You need to come to terms with the fact that your child is going to scrape her knee once in a while.” She lay back on her pillow and yawned.
Brandon continued to gaze out of the window. The stars really were incredible tonight. As he drifted into sleep, a shooting star streaked across the sky. He started to make a wish, but sleep embraced him before he finished.
Julie was excited to go back to school after Christmas vacation. She couldn’t wait to show off her new doll during show and tell. The toy looked so much like a real baby that it had made Brandon’s skin crawl more than a few times as he unsuspectingly came upon it sitting alone on a chair, or behind the bathroom door at three in the morning.
“It pees, daddy! I’m gonna show Mrs. Lanham!” she exclaimed, switching the creepy toy from hand to hand as Karen helped her put on her coat.
“That’s great! I’m sure she’ll love it,” he said with a grin as he rooted in his jacket pockets. He wasn’t sure of that at all, but it was Mrs. Lanham’s problem now. He gave up on the pockets and started systematically opening and closing the kitchen drawers.
Karen tugged Julie’s hat down over her ears and called into the kitchen, “Did you lose something?”
“Have you seen my cell phone?” he asked, walking back into the hallway. “I can’t find the damned thing anywhere.”
“No, I haven’t. Did you look in your Jeep? You know, it baffles me that you still have a job when your brain is so often absent,” she teased, carting Julie on her hip and then shifting her to Brandon.
He crossed his eyes and ran his tongue out at her, giving Julie a fit of the giggles.
“I’ll see you tonight.” She stood on her toes and kissed him on the cheek. “Now get out of here,” she said with a wink, “The milk man will be here any minute.” She leaned down and kissed Julie, smiling at Brandon’s indifferent shrug at her joke.
The tires of Brandon’s Jeep crunched on the snow he turned into his reserved spot at Cranston and Fulton Engineering. An ostentatious SUV rolled to a stop beside him as he turned off his ignition and pocketed the keys. Bill Fulton, the senior partner at the firm, hoisted his bulk from the heated leather seat and slammed the door. Pulling up the collar of his coat against the wind, he flipped Brandon a quick salute.
“How were your holidays, Brandon?” he called over the hood of the Jeep. He fell into step beside Brandon as he walked up the newly salted sidewalk toward the box-like office building. It sat low, ominous and gray, blending into the overcast sky and forecasting another calendar year of daily grinding.
Bill wasn’t a bad guy, but he had an unmistakable attitude of superiority that wore on Brandon’s patience. On the occasions that Bill happened to strike up a random conversation with Brandon, it tended to have the condescending quality of a conversation between a feudal Lord and his Serf.
“Great. No complaints,” Brandon answered. “We just stuck close to home and took it easy. How about you Bill?”
“Oh we flew the kids and their families down to Stowe. We have a timeshare at a chalet down there. The skiing was fantastic. Have you been?”
‘Just like Bill, he thought. ‘He knows what my salary is - Hell, he signs the damned paychecks.’ Brandon forced an amiable smile and shook his head. “No, I haven’t. But it sure sounds like you wrangled yourself the best slot on that time share.” He held the door open as Bill walked past without slowing - as if doors just magically opened before him wherever he went.
“Well, the chalet is actually ours. We hired an agent to parcel it out as a timeshare. Of course, we kept the…”
“Aaaaghhh!” Brandon yelled, cutting Bill off short. He clutched his left wrist and his hand spasmed at the end of it like broken spider.
Bill whirled around at the shout, and with genuine concern asked, “What happened? “
“My hand, there’s something…damn it, feels like it’s broken!” His knees started to buckle and he sat on the floor before he could fall.
He looked back at the door. He had been walking after Bill with the door closing behind him when his hand had exploded in sudden and exquisite pain. The immediate shock of it was so strong that it momentarily deadened all other senses; his vision had dimmed and colors seemed to wash out and turn to black and white. Even his ears had begun to ring.
The door was constructed of sturdy insulated glass, but it wasn’t very heavy. He would sooner have believed that his hand had been crushed under the door of an airplane hangar than pinched in this door. Besides, there were no visible marks on his hand. Looking back at Bill, he shook his head and got shakily to his feet.
“I don’t think it was the door; it’s too far away.” His voice came out in a kind of grunt. The hand felt like it was on fire.
Bill held out his left hand toward Brandon’s injured right. “Let’s have a look at it.”
He gingerly held the hand out in front of him and let Bill inspect it, turning it over, and then back.
“Well, I don’t think it’s broken.” He looked at Brandon with a mildly patronizing expression. “Damn Brandon, with the sound you made, I expected to see it lying on the floor!” he bellowed laughter at his own wit and slapped Brandon on the shoulder.
“No, it doesn’t seem to be.” he replied as he slowly and carefully opened, and then closed his fist. “It hurts like a bastard, but it seems to be moving alright.”
“Are you alright to work?” Typical Bill. It was obvious which response he expected, but he wouldn’t receive it. There was no way that Brandon could type or run the mouse on his computer with his hand like it was. He wasn’t even sure that he could drive.
“I really doubt it. Karen’s a nurse. I think I’m going to give her a call to come and look at it. If I need to, she can drive me to the hospital.”
Bill’s face flushed a few shades darker than his usual light-purple and the lines in his brow gained definition. “You know they’re going to ask you at the hospital if this was a work related incident,” he said; frank and to the point as ever.
“I’m sure it’s nothing Bill. I’ll probably be back this afternoon.” Brandon hoped that his tone was convincing. He was sweating, and could feel his hand swelling like an over-inflated tire - something which it was certainly not doing.
Brandon walked to the empty receptionist’s desk and cradled the phone’s handset between ear and shoulder. It was awkward to dial with his left hand.
“Hello?” Karen’s voice seemed anxious when she answered on the first ring.
“Hi Hon, it’s me.”
“Oh, Brandon,” she said, letting out a breath. “I thought it was the school calling.” Her tone sent a wave of anxiety over him and he clenched his hands, triggering a surge of pain up his right arm like an electric shock.
“Why, what’s wrong?” he asked, clenching his teeth at the pain.
“They called a minute ago, Julie had a little accident at school,” Karen said, and then quickly added, “don’t worry she’s fine. I’m just walking out the door to pick her up.”
“Well what happened?” He was becoming exasperated.
“They didn’t say much on the phone, just that she was trying to get a toy off of a shelf and had a little accident, and that she was fine. I talked to her for a few seconds but I didn’t catch everything she said. She was crying.”
“I thought she wasn’t hurt?”
“No, she sounded scared, not hurt. She calmed down a little by the time I hung up. I told her I’d come right over and get her.”
Brandon thought for a moment, deciding whether or not to skip his trip to the hospital and check on Julie for himself. The school was in the opposite direction, but it was only ten minutes away…
“So, what’s up with you?” Brandon was so deep in his thoughts that Karen’s question confused him for a moment.
“Huh? Oh, it’s my hand,” he said, recalling the reason he had called. “I banged it coming through a door or something. I think I need to get it looked at.” Brandon looked at his hand, expecting to see that it had swollen to half-again its original size – but it continued to look like just a plain, unremarkable hand.
“You banged it coming through the door?” Karen asked. Brandon heard the edge of her dry wit beginning creep into her voice. “You know that you’re supposed to open the door first, right?”
“Droll. Very droll. Look, I’m going to head over to the hospital. Are you going to take Julie in?”
“I’ll find out what happened and have a look at her myself, but it sounds like she’s fine. I’ll probably just take her home. Are you really hurt that bad? I could come by and pick you up.”
“No, I can drive. I just want to get it checked out, that’s all.” He craned his neck to be sure that Bill wasn’t within ear-shot. His hand still hurt like a son of a bitch, but he didn’t want Karen to worry.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to pick you up?”
“No, I’m fine. The roads are still a little slippery from the snow last night. Just get Julie and call me on my cell when you know more.”
“Alright babe. So, where was it anyway?”
“Where was what?” he asked, and waited for the inevitable joke.
“Your cell phone. You found it, right?” Brandon heard her stifle a giggle. Sometimes, he thought, she knew him almost too well.
“Damn it!” He hung up.
The Doctor had not seemed pleased with his examination of Brandon’s hand. He had held an X-ray up to the light and remarked, “This is an X-ray of a healthy hand.”
After Brandon had looked at it closely for a moment, he had asked, “And what does my X-ray look like?”
The Doctor had set down the X-ray and gave him an impatient stare. “This is your X-ray. I can’t find a single thing wrong with you,” he had said, boldly scrutinizing Brandon’s face in as he gave the diagnosis.
It had then become clear what the Doctor had been doing.
Despite what many believe, drug addicts cannot be identified by their clothing, the length of their hair, or lack of gainful employment. Brandon had smiled when he understood that the good Doctor was ascertaining whether or not he was trying to con him out of a prescription for Demerol or Percocet – and then immediately let the smile slide off of his face when the Doctor’s eyes sharpened.
The Doctor had sent him on his way, telling him that if he was still in pain tomorrow, that he should come right back and see a Doctor.
“Yeah, a competent one.” Brandon muttered to himself now, as he drove home on the expressway. The pain in his hand had settled to a dull throb and he was considering various alternative methods of pain relief, when a loud ‘BEEP’ startled him out of his thoughts. It was his phone’s ‘low battery’ alarm.
He glanced around the cab, anticipating the next beep. Thirty seconds later he heard it again. The noise had come from under the passenger’s seat. Awkwardly steadying the wheel with his left knee, he reached under the seat with his left hand and felt the familiar rectangular shape of his phone. The ‘CHARGING’ message began to flash on the screen after he plugged it into the cigarette lighter.
Now that the phone was in reach, he found that he was tempted to use it. There was an ergonomic problem, however. How would he talk on the phone and drive with only one hand? He could use the built-in speaker, but it was too quiet and distorted to make out over the road noise in the Jeep. He considered holding it between his shoulder and neck like a home phone, but it was too tiny. He was pretty sure that was how it ended-up under the seat in the first place.
He thought of Julie and wondered if she was really alright, or if Karen had only been sparing his feelings. That was ridiculous, of course. But his anxiety was mounting again; pushing reason aside like an aggressive old lady at a supermarket with a nearly expired coupon.
He contemplated steering with his knees again. It wouldn’t be very hard on straight stretch of highway. The turns were all gradual, and there were no stop signs or traffic lights to deal with.
Resolved, he snatched the phone off the seat. As he felt for the voice-dial key with his thumb, the phone vibrated in his hand. In his surprise, he dropped it under the seat again and swerved into the next lane. An air horn blasted from so close, it sounded like it was in the Jeep with him. He jerked the Jeep quickly back into his own lane, nearly losing control as the rear tires broke traction with the slick asphalt. Instinctively, his foot came off of the gas pedal and as the Jeep slowed, he regained control. His heart felt like it was trying to hammer its way out of his chest.
The dump truck he had nearly traded paint with was pacing him now. The driver leaned over in his seat to glare at Brandon through the window in the base of the door. He probably wanted to give Brandon a few driving tips - as in ‘driving’ the ‘tip’ of his boot into Brandon’s ass.
Brandon, his face crimson with embarrassment, lifted his hand half-heartedly and yielded an apologetic smile. He repositioned himself in his seat and took a new grip on the wheel with both hands.
A realization dawned on him when he looked down at his hands; specifically the left one. Today, as every day, he had worn the watch that Karen and Julie given him for father’s day a year earlier. A thin crack spider-webbed across the crystal and the second hand had ceased to march in its tireless revolutions. Now that he had noticed the damage, he couldn’t believe that he’d missed it when strapping it on that morning. It hadn’t been an expensive watch, but he loved it as if it were a Rolex. So what could have happened to it? Was he losing his mind?
The clasp unhinged easily as Brandon slid his thumbnail under and popped it open. He slid the broken watch off and placed it in the center console. Next chance he got, he would take it to the mall and see if it could be fixed. As he placed his left hand back on the wheel, a strange thing occurred to him. He let go of the wheel and made a fist, opened it, and then closed it again. The pain was gone.
“What do you mean ‘a book case fell on it’?” Brandon asked Karen as he turned Julie’s tiny hand over, searching for a contusion or perhaps a protruding bone that Karen had missed. He spoke again, before she could answer his question, “You’re sure there’s nothing wrong with it? Maybe we should take her in, just to be safe.”
“I’m positive,” she answered patiently. “I don’t think the book case even touched her, Brandon. I’m sure it was close, but you know how kids get - a loud noise, glass and books everywhere. They were scared and excited.”
“My hand got stucked under the book-thingy. Mrs. Lanham had to get the cleeny-guys to take it off so I could go to the bathroom.” Julie supplied.
Karen’s confident expression turned doubtful as she turned to her daughter. Brandon seized on the comment.
“Did it hurt when the bookshelf hit you, honey?” he asked. He still had her hand in his. The stubby fingers sprouting from chubby little palms hadn’t quite lost the cherubic pudginess of infancy.
“No daddy, it didn’t get hurted, see?” She freed her hand from Brandon’s light grip and held it up in front of his eyes, as if to give him a high-five.
Seven months later, the city of Cleveland was in the midst of a heat wave that had lasted five days and there was no relief in the forecast. Rolling black-outs beset the city as residents cranked-up the air conditioners with hopes of impunity.
There was no such relief at the Hadley home. Brandon and Karen’s air conditioner had been out of commission for three days. Patience in the home was at a premium while they waited for the beleaguered repairmen, who were operating with a “we’ll get there when we damned-well get there - and if you keep calling, we won’t get there at all” philosophy.
Julie had been miserable since the start of summer holidays. She simply couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to go to school and see her friends anymore.
“I’m sure that you’ll see your friends riding their bikes around or maybe at the pool.” Karen said, trying to allay her bad temper. “Besides, summer will be over before you know it.”
“Becky lives a long ways away from our house,” she sulked. “Only Lance and Kimmy live near us and they’re stupid!” She ran into her room and slammed the door.
Brandon looked ruefully at Karen and said, “She must be your kid. I never hated summer holidays.”
“It won’t last long, summer never does,” she sighed.
“It does when you’re a kid.”
Karen sighed again, a little louder this time. “You’re right. Maybe we should take her to the pool.”
“I don’t think so.” Brandon was dubious. “That place is disgusting. Kids pee in it all day long. Have you even seen it this week? There are so many people crammed into that pool, I think there’s only about four or five liters of water left in it. The rest is just bodies. I’d have to bring a crowbar just to…”
“Ok, I get it!” Karen snapped. She was obviously not in the mood for Brandon’s wit. “Do you have any suggestions, smart-ass? I’m at the end of my rope here. If you have a better idea, I’d be more than happy to hear it.” Her brow was shiny with sweat.
The two adults had been showering two or three times a day to achieve a semblance of comfort. Each day they would bake, either under the sun, or in the stagnant oven that their home had become. Each evening they would toss and turn above the covers in the stale, sticky heat and the windows were left open in the vain hope that a breeze might quicken in the night.
Often, just as Brandon was drifting to sleep, he would feel something like the beak of a small bird tapping on his shoulder. A sleepy little voice, miserable with exhaustion would say, “Daddy, it’s too hot in my room. Can I sleep with you and mommy?”
And so Julie would crawl between them, adding her own heat and perpetual motion to the bed.
An idea, obvious in its simplicity, came to Brandon and he smacked his hand down on the kitchen table. “What about the beach?”
Karen brightened at once.
Brandon went on, “It’ll be crowded, but not as bad as the pool. Besides, forty-five minutes in an air-conditioned car wouldn’t be too hard to take.”
“Get the towels and your swimming shorts. Oh, and grab the cooler.” Revitalized by a promise of relief, Karen’s organized mind seemed to fly into action. “We’ll stop and pick up ice and drinks on the way. I’ll get some snacks ready and you get Julie into her bathing suit.”
As the doors of the Jeep closed and the cool air from the vents rushed out, it seemed to Brandon that the tension and exhaustion of the past three days evaporated with the sweat on his forehead. The drive passed quickly and when they reached the lake, they found that they were not the only family to have had this particular epiphany. Heat waves shimmered above the roofs of hundreds of vehicles.
Taking advantage of his Jeep, Brandon hopped the curb and parked on a berm beside a half-dozen of the other four-wheel drives. It was faster and less frustrating than driving up and down rows of cars to find an empty spot in the over-crowded lot.
As they opened the doors, the blistering, stagnant air hit them like a wall. But the heat was sweeter now; the smell of the lake promising that a respite was within reach.
Julie danced impatiently from foot to foot while Brandon rubbed copious amounts of sunscreen onto her pale, freckled skin. Karen laid out towels and set a faded beach-umbrella between them, staking it in the ground like a conqueror’s flag. The sand was blinding with reflected sunlight and scorched the soles of un-shod feet. Brandon sought relief by worming his feet deeper until they reached the cool, damp sand that lay six inches or so below the surface. That feeling of cool feet below and baked ankles above brought a nostalgic pang. He breathed deep and was instantly relaxed.
With an end to the incessant heat laying blue and sparkling before his eyes, he slowed his pace and savored the warmth of the sun on his bare back. His family was content and quiet, just the way he liked it. He dug around in the bottom of the cooler looking for a couple of the colder Cokes.
“Do you guys want a drink before we go swimming?” He asked, closing the lid with his knee.
“None for me thanks. Julie? Do you want a pop, honey?” Karen asked, turning to where Julie had been digging in a bag for her water wings.
The water wings lay un-inflated on the towel with the rest of the contents of the bag, but there was no Julie. Brandon and Karen spun toward the water together. An icicle of cold panic stabbed into Brandon’s chest.
“Julie,” Karen cried. “Julie!”
There was no way to discern her amidst the mass of bathers. Like a high-stakes game of ‘Where’s Waldo’, she could be anywhere. More than a few people turned at her call, then instinctively toward the water, searching for a non-descript girl they knew only as Julie.
Brandon and Karen sprinted toward the water; their heads swiveling to cover every angle as they ran. Instinctively and without cue, they split-up. Brandon headed left up the shoreline, while Karen went right.
He had only run a short distance up the beach when he spotted Julie’s golden hair and pink polka-dot bathing suit, about thirty feet into the water. She seemed to be standing on a sandbar, struggling against the two-foot swells as they rolled past her toward the shore. Her tiny body was revealed to the waist between swells, but when the next one rose around her, she all but disappeared.
She had likely waded out in water that was only up to her shoulders, but the tide was coming in quick. She was trapped on the sandbar and the water between her and the shore grew deeper by the moment.
Very soon, her head would go under for good and she was beginning to panic. Her mouth opened and closed in tiny screams that were lost amid the gleeful shouts of other children.
“Julie hold on! I’m coming!”
He ran, heedless of the people he slammed into. In the periphery of his vision he noticed that Karen was racing back up the beach toward Julie. She must have turned back, and then heard him call out to Julie.
A wave crashed over Julie’s head. He focused on the spot, willing his eyes to not slip from that square-foot of dark-blue amidst a literal sea of dark-blue. His feet pounded on the sand and he watched for her to resurface. But she had been swallowed beneath the ever-changing surface of the water and he could almost believe that she hadn’t been there at all.
Abruptly, iron bands seized his chest, and the breath seemed to vanish from his lungs. The world around him was instantaneously tinted dark blue-grey and a crushing, swirling force propelled him to the ground.
His entire will was bent toward reaching Julie, but his ability to move, or even breathe, was utterly impaired. The slightly alkali taste of lake water filled his mouth, nose and lungs as he writhed and crawled on dry sand. He heard the thumps of feet as people ran past him, but the sounds were dull and undefined; as if he’d stuck his fingers in his ears.
Although his eyes were open wide, his vision only yielded up swirling shadows that rapidly melted into darkness as they drew away from him. He had to reach Julie, but somehow, he was drowning in the open air and unable to move. Thousands of tiny bubbles floated past his eyes, and he thought that he even saw a small fish dart past him before the image was at last broken by the instant appearance of bright, blue sky.
Brandon lay on his back in the sand coughing violently. He flopped on his side and wretched on a beach towel. A crowd began to form around him and an older man with the skin tone and texture of a leather purse stepped forward and laid a hand on his shoulder. “You okay pal?”
He seemed genuinely concerned, and Brandon felt a pang of conscience when he staggered to his feet and pushed the man roughly aside.
Regaining his bearings, he turned to the water and ran, coughing violently and not bothering to concern himself with the sunbathers that he stepped on or knocked to the ground in his haste.
“Julie! Karen!” He called, making his way toward a larger crowd gathered near the water. He pushed through to the front, calling Julie’s name.
Cold fingers of panic seized Brandon anew when he discovered Karen standing alone beside a tall boy and looking toward the lake. But then Karen turned toward the boy and Brandon saw Julie nestled in her arms. She was tightly wrapped in a towel that must have been volunteered by one of the bystanders.
“Julie,” he cried. His mind had rushed with such volition toward the darkest outcome that he could hardly believe that she was safe.
“Daddy!” She held her arms out to him.
He half jogged and half staggered toward them, the adrenaline vanishing from his blood and leaving a coppery taste in his mouth. The gathered crowd parted before him as if he’d held some strange cousin of Moses’ Staff.
“Thank God you’re alright. You scared us to death Sweetie,” Brandon said with palpable relief as the little family enfolded one another in a cocoon of arms.
“This young man saw her going under and swam to her rescue,” Karen said, stepping away and grabbing the hand of the boy who had been standing beside her.
Brandon guessed that he was around seventeen. He was tall and well tanned, and had an athletic build. Smiling, but obviously a little embarrassed, the boy nodded to Brandon.
“I’m just glad I got to her in time. She went down fast under that wave, and the water’s dark; hard to see anything in it,” he said with unmistakable modesty. Brandon stepped forward and clasped the boy’s hand in both of his own.
“Thank you. I really don’t know what to say,” he said, abashed at his own inability to concentrate the depth of his gratefulness into words. “My name is Brandon Hadley and this is my wife Karen.” He released the boy’s hand.
Karen stretched her chin up and kissed the boy on the cheek, producing a blush in spite of his dark tan. “And this is Julie,” she continued, gingerly brushing the dripping blonde locks away from her daughters eyes with a still-trembling hand. “Julie can you say ‘thank you’ to the man?”
Julie promptly buried her face in Brandon’s shoulder and then peeked back at the boy with one blue eye. A shy smile played at the corners of her mouth.
“That’s ok,” he said, nodding at Brandon and Karen. “My little sister is shy around boys too. My name’s Jordan. I’m just glad that I could help.”
The crowd was dispersing now, the excitement over. and an awkward, silent moment passed before Karen spoke up.
“We really can’t thank you enough.” she said. “If there’s anything we can do …”
“No, really, I’m sure that either one of you would do the same if you had been in the same situation.” Jordan replied.
A cloud passed over Karen’s face and she glanced at Brandon. But the expression was there and gone so fast that he was unsure he had seen it at all.
“Well, I‘d better go. You guys take care.” Jordan said. He waved one hand at Julie while walking a few steps backward down the beach. Then he turned and jogged off toward four other kids who watched from a distance.
Brandon set Julie on her feet and kneeled in front of her in the sand. “Are you ok, honey?” The intense fear of a few moments ago had begun to mutate into anger. He worked to keep it from boiling-over into his voice as he spoke to her.
“Yes daddy. I swam under water! I thought I was drownding, but I didn’t’! Then the boy got me and I kicked him and screamed ‘cus that’s what you do when a stranger tries to take you.” Julie was beaming.
Brandon glanced up at Karen and she nodded, her features tightened with mortified affirmation.
Brandon turned back to Julie. “Yes honey, you never let a stranger take you, but it’s ok to let someone save you from drowning and fires and things like that, alright?”
“I know dad, but I wasn’t drownding.”
“Okay. We’re very glad that you didn’t drown, honey.” He said this with the familiar exasperation of those who must, on an hourly basis, explain the tangible world down to its very molecules while dealing with boogie men and imaginary friends along the way. “You also know that it’s not ok to go in the water by yourself, don’t you? You shouldn’t ever leave mommy or daddy without telling us first. Why did you go into the water without us, it’s very dangerous.”
He tried to make his face severe, but she was so intuitive that disciplining her had been more of an art than a convention since she had learned to talk. She had a habit of making her face very serious and then staring him down in a contest of wills. Brandon lost the match as often as he won, and the two of them would crack up with the would-be lesson cast aside in gales of laughter.
“But daddy, I can breathe under water! I’ll show you!” She made a break toward the beach, but he held her firm.
“Sweetie,” Karen said, kneeling beside them “you can’t breathe underwater, only fishies can do that.” She stared frankly into Julie’s eyes now and Brandon was glad that she had taken the helm this time. “You have to be very careful. Promise me that you will never do that again.”
“Promise us, sweetie. This is very important.”
“Ok. I promise that I won’t go in the water without you. Ok?” She sounded incensed.
“Ok.” Karen squeezed her little hand, and as she did so, Brandon winced.
Julie was asleep before Karen had finished buckling her into the car seat. As Brandon maneuvered the Jeep along the busy highway, he became lost in thought and the pair were silent for much of the drive.
He replayed the strange events of the afternoon in his mind and, while having no explanation, remained convinced that he had almost drowned. Spastic urges to cough had beset him for a half an hour after the strange occurrence, and it had taken him longer than that to shake the nausea. But how could he explain that to Karen?
“Thank God that Jordan kid happened to be there today,” she said into the silence. Brandon emerged from his reverie to glance at her, and then turned his attention back to the road.
“Yeah, I know. I don’t want to think about where we might be right now if he hadn’t been.”
“Don’t even talk like that, Brandon,” she snapped. “I couldn’t deal with it if something had happened to her. I could never forgive myself. I don’t understand what happened. She was there one second and the next… she… was…”
Tears glistened on her cheeks in the failing sunlight. Brandon laid his hand on her thigh and squeezed gently.
“Do you remember when she had that tumble on the toboggan hill?”
“Yes,” she sniffed, and then smiled ruefully. “Does every kid get into this much trouble, or are we just bad parents?”
“I guess all kids kind of start out clumsy. It’s like a default setting in the firmware. Maybe all of the bumps and scrapes re-program us to pay attention to where the hell we’re going.” He paused, and then added, “At least they’re supposed to. Do you remember the talk we had that night?”
“Something strange happened to me today at the beach.” He stared at the tail lights of the car ahead of them. His face was an expressionless mask.
“What do you mean?” The leather seat squeaked as she shifted to face him. He didn’t answer, unsure of how to continue.
“Honey, are you okay?” She asked again tentatively. “You’re scaring me a little here.”
Continuing to stare at the road, he decided to let the words roll unfiltered from brain to mouth, “I almost drowned today.”
She stared at him for a moment, not seeming to comprehend. “What do you mean, ‘drowned’? You hardly went in the water at all today.”
“I saw the way you looked at me today, you know - when I was the last person on the scene after Julie nearly drowned.” his voice rose and his brow creased with frustration.
“I just figured that you didn’t see her and ran on. The beach was crowded.”
“You heard me yelling. I saw you look right at me, Karen. I ended up on the ground not 30 feet from where you found Julie. Didn’t you wonder what happened to me?”
“I’m afraid, alright?” Karen’s voice rose now, nearly to a shout. Her face contorted and tears streamed from her eyes.
“Afraid of what?” He was caught off guard by her reply.
“You’ve had some strange episodes lately, Brandon.” She reached across to him and cupped the back of his head in her hand. “I just keep thinking about Chris and Sheryl. The signs they told us about when they first noticed that something was wrong with Chris. I’m just so paranoid that you…”
“Chris? What, you think I’ve got a brain tumor?” He asked. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Well, there was that problem with your hand, back at Christmas. Then today I see you flopping on the ground like a fish, and now you’re telling me that you almost drowned…laying on the sand? It’s just too much to deal with after what happened with Julie today, okay? just can’t handle it Brandon!”
“Honey, I don’t have a brain tumor.” His features softened and he tried a consoling tone, but it ended up sounding like he was trying to hold back a laugh. “My theory is way more unlikely than a brain tumor.” And now he did laugh. It was a low, sardonic chuckle from deep in his throat. “It’s actually going to sound kind of funny, but just hear me out, okay?” Karen said nothing.
“Do you remember when I said that I’d trade places with Julie in a heartbeat if something bad was going to happen to her?”
“Yes, I remember you saying something like that.” Her pained expression slipped into one of confused apprehension.
“Well, I think that it might have actually happened. Twice.”
She just stared at him as if waiting for a punch line.
“I know you think I’m joking, but just think about it for a second.” He took his eyes off the road for a moment to check Karen’s reaction, expecting an argument, but she just waited for him to continue.
“A bookcase dropped on Julie’s hand. The thing must have weighed 200 pounds. They had to lift it up to get her hand out, but she didn’t have a scratch. She’s five years old Karen. Did you know that I talked to the Janitor that pulled the bookcase off of her?
He was outside having a smoke when I dropped Julie off, about a week after the accident, and she pointed him out to me. I stopped to thank him on my way out and. When I asked him about it, he said it was the damndest thing he ever saw.
There was a bookshelf speaker from the classroom stereo that got caught under the bookcase too. He found it when he was cleaning up, and it was smashed to pieces. He said it was made of wood and about so big.” He held his hands over the steering wheel about six inches apart to demonstrate.
“Julie’s hand should have broken before the speaker did. Doesn’t that seem a little bit strange to you?”
Karen chewed her nail thoughtfully, and then she smiled at Brandon with what seemed like sympathy.
“Well that’s it, isn’t it? The speaker broke the bookcase’s fall; it’s probably what saved her hand.” She said it slowly, as if speaking to a child, but Brandon was smiling and shaking his head.
“I mentioned that to him myself. The speaker was on the opposite side of the bookcase. When the bookcase hit the speaker first, the speaker box would have acted like a fulcrum and actually accelerated the side that fell on her hand rather than slow it down.”
Karen looked as if she was going to say something, but thought better of it.
“I also asked him what time it happened at.” he continued. “He said that it had to be 9:00 on the dot. The bell had just rung a moment before he got the call on his radio.”
“What does the time have to do with anything?”
He reached into the center console and fished around for a moment before extracting his ruined watch. He offered it to her without a word. She examined it briefly and then shrugged. “So, what am I looking for?”
Brandon nodded toward the watch. “Look closer.”
She flipped on the vanity light above her head and held the watch up to it, turning it over in her hands. After a moment, she stopped and scrutinized the face. The glass was badly damaged, but she could plainly see the hour hand was pointing at nine, while the minute hand had come to rest exactly on the number twelve.
“Okay, so your watch stopped at nine o’clock,” she said, handing the watch back to him dismissively.
“I found it like this on the day that I hurt my hand, the same day and time that Julie should have hurt her hand. I didn’t notice it at first, not until I left the hospital. Even then, I didn’t think much about it. I figured that it got smashed over the holidays and I hadn’t noticed. It wasn’t until about a month later when I saw it in there, and was going to get it fixed, that I noticed the time it had stopped at.
The bookcase landed on her right wrist. I wear my watch on my right wrist. My hand felt like it had been smashed at the exact same time that a bookcase fell on Julie’s hand? Doesn’t that seem a little strange? And today, Julie went under water for what, 30 seconds? She came out fine, but a moment after her head disappeared under the wave, I collapsed on a dry beach and nearly drowned. Does that make sense? Am I crazy?” He hadn’t realized that he was shouting until he saw the wince on Karen’s face. He glanced in the rear view mirror to find Julie, silently watching him from her car seat. Karen followed his gaze and turned to the back seat.
“Oh honey its ok, go back to sleep. We’ll be home soon.” She reached down and picked up a stuffed yellow duck that had fallen on the floor and laid it in Julie’s lap. She shifted in her seat, snuggling the duck and fell asleep.
Brandon gave Karen an apologetic and slightly defeated smile. “Look,” He said, “I know how crazy all of this sounds. I just don’t know how else to explain it.”
“How long have you had this…theory?”
“Well, like I said; it kind of fell into place when I saw the watch. I didn’t give the idea any credit until today, though.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Karen said. “But the simplest explanation is often the right one,”
“So you think that I have a brain tumor.” There was no irritation in his voice this time, only a species of acquiescence.
“No, I’m not saying that. I just don’t think that it would hurt to get checked out. If you won’t do it for yourself, will you do it for Julie and me?”
As she asked that question - turning a suggestion into an obligation - Brandon realized how tired she looked. Had it really been worrying her that much? He turned his eyes to the mirror again; to the sleeping form of his daughter in the back seat, her head leaning gently to one side. Her lips were closed, except for a tiny ‘O’ in the middle that opened every time she breathed out, making a soft little puffing sound.
He surveyed the perfect curve that journeyed from her forehead, over her brow, and ended at her tiny, button-like nose. Her eyelashes were as fine as the threads of a dandelion’s seed, and her chin was still a tiny ‘U’ between two chubby cheeks.
Within that little face, he could easily see the squalling infant that he had met for the first time five years ago. It fascinated him that you could look at someone’s baby pictures and see the features of the adult that you’d known in the child that you hadn’t, but you could never look at a child and see the adult they would grow to be.
He wondered what she would look like when she grew up. He could see that she would be beautiful, but it would also be a beauty with character. His fear of not seeing her grow into her potential had ironically led him to lose sight of his responsibility.
“I’ll call the Doctor tomorrow,” he said. He found Karen’s hand, squeezed it and didn’t let go until they were home.
Brandon was in the back yard, doing his best to assemble a playhouse kit that he had bought from one of the local “Big Box” stores. Holding up the picture on the instruction booklet, he saw a sprawling masterpiece of richly stained wood, shining metal and bright, pastel colored plastic. But when he lowered the picture, he saw a grizzly disaster of nuts, bolts and miscellaneous pieces that did not seem to be related to any other part.
Disgusted, he threw the instructions aside and added another curse to the stream of profanity that had been flowing over his fence throughout the morning.
David Hadley, Brandon’s father, had been a natural at building and fixing. Whether the roof needed re-shingling, or the bath tub had to be replaced, Dave could not abide paying someone to do work that he could do himself. Brandon had inherited his father’s sense of economy, but not his aptitude for physical work. As it was with his father, it was a matter of pride and therefore, much to Karen’s chagrin, he had to learn the hard way each time he attempted a new undertaking.
So it was that he found himself on a Saturday morning looking at three boards that he had cut way too short. He swore that he heard his father’s voice; as if he was still alive and standing beside him.
“Measure twice, cut once.”
He was always spouting little nuggets of wisdom like that. Or the inverse of the phrase, which was often imparted to the inept: “You cut it twice and it was still too short, eh?”
The words echoed in Brandon’s memory as he examined the boards. He tried switching the short boards with others, but no new combination would complete the puzzle.
“Honey, I’ve got to go to the store and get a few parts. They didn’t include them in that stupid kit.” he called up the stairs, picking his keys off the shelf. “Do you need anything while I’m out?”
“I think I’ll go with you. I want to look at some patio furniture that was in the new catalogue. Can you get Julie in the Jeep? I want to fix my hair a little before we go.”
“Do we need to make a federal case out of this? I just want to grab a few parts and get back to work.” He made no attempt to hide his annoyance, but he was picking up Julie’s shoes as he said it.
“Thanks babe. I just want to look around, not buy. I’ll be out in two minutes.”
Brandon buckled Julie into her seat and closed her door. Turning, he noticed the pair of maple trees on the front lawn. A changing wind had turned the leaves over, giving the trees a silvery appearance, and he saw storm clouds building ominously to the south. “Shit. I’m not going to get anything done today.”
He climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine. “You excited about your playhouse, buddy?” he asked, angling the rear-view mirror toward the back seat.
“It’s a castle, not a playhouse daddy, and I’m a princess.” Her tone was very matter-of-fact. Brandon noted that she had the old campaigner, ‘Mr. Duck’ with her. It had been Julie’s constant companion for the first two years of her life. After that, she had been more interested in dolls and doll houses, and so Mr. Duck made fewer and fewer appearances. However, he still managed to occupy the coveted place beside Julie’s pillow. She would snuggle him as she slept most nights, but hadn’t brought him out of the house in ages. Except for the day at the beach, Brandon recalled. She had taken it along that day, too.
“Is Mr. Duck going to help me load up the lumber today?”
“He’s not big enough, Daddy,” she replied. “He just wanted to go for a trip today. He said that he thought you’d be lonely, and he wanted to keep you company.”
“Oh, well tell him thank you very much from me, okay?”
“You just told him daddy; he’s right here,” Julie told him very slowly, as if explaining something to a three year old. Brandon reflected that she seemed to already have inherited mother’s sarcastic wit.
The passenger door opened, and Karen climbed in. “Did you see those storm clouds? You’re not going to get much done today. Oh, and the Doctor just called. He wants you to come in after work on Monday so he can talk to you about your test results.”
“Did he say anything about them?” Brandon was sure that the scans would only prove that he was completely healthy, but he was a little dismayed to feel a nervous twinge.
“He said that it’s nothing to worry about. He’d just like to discuss them with you in person.” She smiled, but it barely disguised her own nervousness.
He decided to put it out of his mind. It would keep until Monday.
They arrived at the home-improvement store to find the lot packed with cars and people milling about everywhere. A tent was set up with people waiting in line for hamburgers and hot dogs. There were kids with their faces painted and balloons were everywhere. “Great.” Brandon muttered under his breath as he closed his door. “Looks like some kind of ‘Customer Appreciation’ thing. I’m never getting out of here today.”
Karen came around the side of the Jeep carrying Julie on her hip. When Brandon saw the expectant smile on Julie’s face, he dropped all hope of getting his work done; in fact, he no longer cared. “You want to get your face painted, kiddo?”
“Can I?” She asked excitedly. “Can I get a balloon, too?”
“Sure, honey.” Karen said. “I’ll take her over there if you want to get your parts, babe.”
“Okay. I’ll meet you guys at the barbeque tent when I’m done and we’ll grab some lunch.” he started to walk away, but Julie called after him. When he turned back, she was holding Mr. Duck out to him.
“Mr. Duck doesn’t want you to get lonely.”
“Oh, uh thanks honey. That’s really nice of Mr. Duck.” He just could not refuse this kid when she got all cute like that. Karen was holding back a laugh, probably at the thought of a grown man walking around the hardware section with a child’s worn-out, stuffed animal in one hand, lumber and hardware in the other.
Brandon had an associate cut his boards to length for him on the spot, admitting to himself that pride would only take him so far. He picked up a few miscellaneous nuts and bolts, and proceeded to the checkout. As the teenaged cashier rang his purchases through, she gave Mr. Duck a cynical look. “Is that a purchase, or did you bring it with you sir?” Brandon didn’t bother to answer.
The first fat drops of rain were dotting the asphalt here and there as he passed through the automatic doors into the parking lot. He caught sight of Karen kneeling beside Julie on the other side of the drop-off lane. Cars passed between them as people rushed to find a parking space or to get home ahead of the rain. Julie, her face freshly painted with what Brandon guessed was some sort of cartoon character, was waiting impatiently while Karen tied up a loose shoelace.
Brandon smiled with affection for the two of them, and then everything changed very fast.
A strong gust of wind blew through the lot, catching the boards he carried and knocking him off balance. A swirling cloud of dust and debris caused Karen to turn her head aside and cover her face with her arm. A yellow balloon caught in the gust tumbled past Julie, and she reached for it. It blew past her outstretched hand, a pink ribbon trailing behind. It looped and then floated across the lane of traffic toward Brandon.
Time seemed to slow down and he watched everything with perfect clarity. He noted the pickup truck - travelling way too fast in the busy parking lot - rolling toward Julie. She took one step, and then another toward the balloon. Karen was rubbing dirt out of her eyes with one hand while the other passed through space that had been occupied by her daughter a moment before.
Brandon thought he was running, but he seemed to be stuck in mud to his hips. He heard a loud, dull ‘thud’, and Julie disappeared under the truck, and then he watched the pickup buck twice as the front, and then the rear wheels rolled over her. He was sure the next sound was the screech of brakes, but it might have been the sound of Karen screaming.
Brandon raised his hand in terror, as if he could push back reality with brute force. And then, abruptly, he felt an acute pressure building in his abdomen, the way that pressure must build inside a balloon when it is squeezed to the breaking point. Then, an explosive sensation beyond description, as his ribs shattered and his internal organs were pulverized. His back collapsed under his own weight when it broke in five places, and lumber that would never become a playhouse clattered to the sidewalk as the world tilted sideways.
On the cold concrete of the sidewalk, he turned his head stiffly to see people rushing to the little form that lay behind the pickup truck. The offensive odor of burned rubber permeated the air and among the mill of the crowd he saw Karen drop beside Julie and cry out. But It was joy rather than grief that he heard in her cry. A gasp ran through the crowd, followed by murmurs of “She’s okay”, “She’s not hurt”, and “Did it miss her?” Karen stood up, hugging Julie to her.
The rain came harder now, and Brandon felt the texture of something soft and fluffy in his hand. With the dregs of his strength, he slowly lifted Mr. Duck to his face and breathed deeply, filling his lungs with his final breath, and the scent that belonged only to his little girl.