A mom, lost in a shadow of sorrow, must face reality. 2013 Quill Nominee
Autumn wind chased Marcy Donovan from her car right up to the doorway, chilling her neck while she fumbled with the keys. The door gave way and Marcy stumbled over the threshold, clutching her grocery bag. The boot's rubber soles stopped her forward flight but jarred the sack from her hands. A carton of eggs sailed across the room, knocking a picture from the entrance table. Marcy set the remaining groceries on the floor and crept toward the picture. "No, no. Not this one."
Stumbling into the kitchen, she braced her arms against the sink and filled a glass with November's icy water, gulping it to stem the hysterics brooding. Scrounged around in her purse, fingers closing around her cell. Speed-dialed her husband.
"David—"The sobs broke loose.
"What's wrong, my love?"
She forced the words past her clenched throat. "The glass is shattered."
"What glass? Are you cut?"
"Amelia's picture. I stumbled, and a carton of eggs spilled out of the sack." Marcy clutched the ruined frame to her chest. "It's the last one we snapped before—"
"The picture itself is undamaged, right? After work, I'll buy a new frame. Please don't cry."
Marcy drew shuddering breaths. "Okay.
The room shrank and black dots darkened Marcy's vision. After Amelia's death last year, she paid little attention to the younger daughter. "Probably out riding. I'm not really sure."
"Sweetheart,"—David's voice was gentle but urgent—"we agreed not to let Kayla ride unsupervised."
"Think, Marcy. What time did she leave?"
"Did you write it down like I asked? It should be pinned to the 'fridge."
"Of course," Marcy muttered while crossing to the kitchen. "It was just a few minutes ago. Here's the note. 11:30 this morning."
"You need to find Kayla. Check the far meadow."
Marcy's voice deadened. "Amelia's ghost is there."
"Have you been taking your medicine?"
"We'll sort it out when I come home. But you must find Kayla."
Marcy, hunched against the weather, hustled over to her car and let the heat run full blast before backing down the driveway. Amelia will need a warm car. "No, I'm looking for—"The words died in her throat when she saw Dancer limping and Kayla sprawled on the ground. Marcy bolted from the vehicle and raced across the meadow. Cradling her daughter's head, she cried. "Please wake up, Kayla." Tears plopped on the sun-baked boulder, bloodstained a rusted brown.
Thirty minutes passed like thirty hours before the ambulance arrived. Marcy jammed a fist in her mouth and watched the Paramedics work, their mouths set in grim lines.
"Mrs. Donovan? Your daughter suffered severe head trauma, and she's unresponsive. We're taking her to Saint Patrick's Memorial Hospital."
Marcy stood in stunned silence, shoulders slumped, while her daughter was carried off on a stretcher. "No, not again." As the ambulance wove into traffic, Marcy's wails blended with the sirens. "Please don't take Amelia again." Tears blurring her vision, her fingers fumbled over the miniscule buttons on her cell until she pressed the right one.
Her husband answered on the first ring. "Kayla's safe?"
"There's been an accident. Meet me at the Saint Pat's." Marcy dragged herself back to the vehicle. "I'm coming, Amelia. Mommy's coming."
Incessant beeping, an ever-present noise in Kayla's head, jarred her from sleep. She never found an alarm clock, but her heart pulsed in a matching rhythmic pattern. Kayla grabbed her jacket, faded gray suede with furred cuffs and hood, and skipped to the stables.
A vague shape materialized from the darkened stall. Kayla's constant companion spoke in her mind. "Good morning, Kayla." The horse trotted over and nuzzled her shoulder.
Kayla smiled at their similar appearances. Grey and wispy around the edges. "Shadow, I had another vision."
"Who needs rescuing this time?"
"Oh, it's a far-off place. The land is barren and baked. Everything's dying. But I found this on my dresser." Kayla held up a crystal decanter filled with sparkling fluid. "It's magical, you know."
"Enough to quench the parched land and people?"
"Yes, but we must hurry." Kayla hoisted her body over the horse's broad back. "Go!" The girl tightened her thighs and Shadow cantered across the meadow. "Faster. Run faster."
The horse's hooves pummeled the ground.
"Faster," Kayla shouted into the wind.
Shadow gathered strength until his hooves no longer touched the ground. Kayla's feet brushed treetops. "Shadow, thank goodness horses see in the dark. You can find the place from last night's vision? My eyes are open, but there's never light."
"It's always dark. You forget, that's all."
Horse and girl glided to a stop, and the townsfolk ran to greet them.
Kayla held out her decanter and poured water down empty wells and filled dry riverbeds. Still the container was full. As Shadow began the ascent, everyone waved good-bye, cheering and laughing.
"We're going airborne and from aloft, I'll empty the water and save all the land and people. Your gardens will blossom, grass will green, animals—"
Shadow broke into a brisk cantor, preparing for flight. "Kayla? What were you saying?"
"I . . . don't remember. The beeping disturbs me. Fly, my friend, take flight into the skies. Soar until the rushing wind silences the noise in my head."
Girl and horse rose. Shadow brought her to a soft landing, and she slid from his back.
The horse nudged his young's friend's shoulder. "Kayla, before today, what's the last thing you remember?"
"Yesterday, of course. We brought medicine to those sick people."
"In your imagination."
"No, it's real. I sleep lots but still wake up and ride you."
"What else happens when you wake? Do you have friends? Go to school?"
Kayla leaned against the barn and looked heavenward. "I don't know."
"David, Amelia's eyes moved." Marcy took her husband's hand and placed it against a cheek.
David ran his thumb over her lips. "Shh. Amelia died, remember? This is Kayla. Her eyes move sometimes, Marcy. She might never wake up." He lifted her chin and brushed his fingers along a cheek, the sweeping curve of bone prominent in her gaunt face. "Sometimes you forget."
"This is Kayla?"
"Yes." David blinked away tears. "The psychiatrist prescribed anti-depressants, but sometimes it slips your mind, and you travel back to a well-worn path of despair."
"Kayla?" Lime green hospital Jell-O sat congealed on the tray. Shreds of dampened napkins formed a tiny mountain in a far corner. Marcy found a clean one and her fingers began worrying another to bits, mindless of scraps littering her jeans. "I'm not supposed to let her ride without supervision."
David sighed and crossed to the window. "Sometimes you forget."
Shadow snorted and pranced around. "Time to wake, Kayla."
The grey horse lowered his head and stared into the child's eyes. "You had an accident and hit your head. Never woke up. Kayla, the beeping you hear is coming from the machines sustaining your life."
"Don't be silly. I'm not dying. I'm only ten." Kayla frowned at Shadow. "But I should have parents, somewhere."
"They're here now. In the hospital. Heartbroken, waiting for you to come back to them."
"No, Shadow. You and I are heroes who save countless lives."
The horse whinnied and shook his head. "When your dad visits, he reads to you."
"A story about a magical horse named Shadow."
"Kayla, you're lost in the book."
"But I'm alive with you."
"This is the dream. Your parents are losing hope. You must return before—"
Shadow danced a circle around Kayla to rouse her. "Your dad is right next to you."
David clasped Kayla's hand. "Munchkin? I know you're in there. Can you hear me?" He stared at his daughter's closed eyes, willing them to open. "If you can hear me, lift a finger." He rested her porcelain, doll-like hand in his.
"Shadow, I hear a man talking from far away."
"Your dad's asking you to move one finger."
"I'm too tired."
"Try, Kayla. You can do it."
"Okay. Trying again."
David's sapphire-blue eyes widened. For fear of shattering the moment, he whispered, "Marcy, I think—"
Marcy abandoned her rocker and battered book. "David?"
—"she moved a finger," he said, turning when Doctor Brannigan entered the room. "She moved a finger."
"Mr. Donovan. We talked about involuntary muscle twitches. The chances of her waking—"
"Dr. Brannigan, we will never give up." Marcy took Kayla's other hand. "Mommy's here. Show Mommy you can move your finger."
"Shadow, the darkness is brightening."
"Because you want to live. Move your hand."
Marcy gasped. "Doctor, Kayla moved her finger again. Did you see it?"
Kayla's doctor placed a hand on both parents' shoulders. "Your daughter's been unconscious for six months and—"He looked up at the monitor. "How odd. The E.E.G. spiked. Ask her to squeeze your finger."
David, afraid to hope, but petrified to stop, whispered in his daughter's ear. "Show Daddy you're here."
Marcy, stroking the back of Kayla's hand with her thumb, whispered, "Squeeze Mommy's finger."
"Shadow, is that my mommy talking?"
"Good girl. You're remembering. Squeeze her finger."
"My jacket's missing and I'm cold. It's easier to sleep."
"Kayla, you think your jacket's missing because reality is returning and there is no jacket. I'm not strong enough to will you back to life because I've never lived outside the pages. However—"
Something vague shifted in the corner of Kayla's eye. "Who's in the shadows?"
"Me, Kayla. I'm Amelia, your sister."
"Amelia? Mommy never says your name because you died. We're talking, so I must be dead.
"No, sometimes I'm in the book."
"How can you sometimes be in the book?"
"If I told you, the answer would make sense. But once you waken, you'll forget. And that's okay. Shadow found me so I can help you wake up."
"It's easier to sleep."
"Fight, Kayla. Mommy's so sad." Amelia patted Shadow's neck and he trotted away. "Remember how we each held one of Mommy's hands? Imagine squeezing her fingers."
Kayla thought hard. She wanted to please her big sister. "Like this?"
"David?" Marcy touched her husband's shoulder. "Amelia's hand twitched."
David closed his eyes and he kissed the crown of her head. Silenced his despair. "Amelia's gone. You're looking at Kayla."
Eyes bewildered and unfocused, she murmured. "Not Amelia?" A latch in Marcy's mind clicked open. Memories of Amelia's death ghosted in. She braced against the onslaught, but only experienced a blur. Marcy leaned down and caressed her daughter's cool cheek. "Sweetheart?" The word was foreign on her tongue. How could I have forgotten? "Kayla, Mommy needs you."
The mattress sagged under Dr. Brannigan's weight. "If she recovers, brain damage could be extensive." He studied Marcy's desolate eyes and stark collar bones. "Responding to a verbal command might indicate a return to consciousness. But it could be months before she's fully awake." The doctor's voice lowered to a reverent whisper. "But I have witnessed miracles." He cleared his throat. "I have other patients to attend. Keep talking to Kayla."
"Mommy's right here. Squeeze my finger."
Amelia placed a ghosted hand on her sister's shoulder. "Kayla, the doctor told Mommy you might never recover, and she's crying. Wake up."
"But, I want to stay in the book with you and Shadow."
"I can never go home, Kayla, but you can. Choose to live. Take my hand in yours and squeeze Mommy's finger."
Marcy's world narrowed to the sensation of being touched by both daughters. She said not a word. David felt the universe shift. Energy waves realigning. His daughter wakening. His wife's mind serene. No one breathed. The parents waited.
"Amelia? I'm all tingly."
"You're waking up. When you see Mommy and Daddy give them this message."
"She's stirring," David said and wrapped his arms around his wife's shoulders. "I believe in miracles."
Marcy whispered, "I believe in miracles."
Kayla's eyes blinked open. "Mommy, Daddy? I've been dreaming."
"Yes, you have, for a very long time." Marcy bit her lip to control the torrent of tears threatening.
"I saw Amelia. She lives in a book."
Marcy caught her husband's gaze. Brain damage?
David answered his wife's silent question with a half-smile, pulled a book from his supply and held it aloft for Kayla. "This one?"
Kayla smiled at the image of her grey horse on the cover. "I wanted to live in the book, but Amelia sent me back to you with a message."
David underlined the title with his finger. Shadow.
Kayla nodded. It hurt to talk, but her big sister insisted. "Amelia's favorite book. She and Shadow found each other on the pages. Guided me home." Kayla's head dropped back to the pillow. Minutes passed while she rested.
"I know you're tired, Kayla," David said, "but what was Amelia's message?"
Half-asleep, Kayla mumbled, "No more crying. Amelia's happy."
Marcy closed her eyes, saw Amelia, pony tail bobbing, riding away on Shadow, and heard the lost daughter's voice in her mind.
Take good care of Kayla.
Marcy's heart swelled and a wild joy rushed through her body. I won't ever forget her again.
Amelia had one last message. Take good care of the book. You can find me somewhere in between the pages.
October entry for "Rising Stars Shining Brighter"