Authors: Jamie Mason
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How could this be for anyone other than my mother,
It couldn't. I love you.
The future destiny of the child is always the work of the mother.
funny what you remember about terrible things.
The scattered shards were far more beautiful than the crystal lamp they'd been an hour before. The clearest night sky had nothing on the flicker and shine strewn across the black canvas bag that lay at the foot of the stairs. The industrious back-and-forth of the man's shadow tricked the shimmer into life with his every pass.
If I'm ever a ghost, this will be one place they'll see meâthe translucent drenched girl in pajama pants and soggy sweatshirt, hovering and shivering in the foyer. Part of me never left. I can see everything about that night if I care to rewind my memory back that far, but I remember nothing so vividly as the broken glass.
I was never formally introduced to the special ops agent who had come for my mother. Technically, his was a welcome invasion of our home. He was helping her, but from what and into what, I didn't know. I was a child and willfully so. I could easily have been older than my thirteen years, but I wouldn't do it. Not then. Not yet. It gave her too much permission to leave me.
The first time I saw him, earlier in that night, he was only a shadowy blur bustling through the dark of our house, speaking urgently in a low voice to my mother. Then she sent me out into the darkness, dragging my eight-year-old brother, Simon, through the rain on a nonsense errand. I was savvy enough to know that she'd sent us out for our own protection. In fairness, I think even Simon knew.
Now, in the blazing light of every bulb in the house, the man was a bustling blur again, only in living color, gathering up my mother's few things as she packed them. He still droned urgently, but in a louder voice and speaking into the telephone this time, talking about ETAs and protocols and rendezvous points.
I breathed, and what should have been an automatic thing was now a trick of measuring airânot too much, not too little. My head threatened to swoon away each time I got the dose wrong. I listened to them getting things done while I couldn't, anchored in place, useless, staring transfixed into the glass that sparkled in the bursts of light between the eclipses of his shadow. He paced over the floor and back again, past a platter-size hole in the previously unmarred plaster of our foyer wall.
He never stood still long enough for me to get a fix on his face, and since the light show off the wreckage on his duffel bag was one of the few things not flitting around the room, dialing up the anxiety, that's where I pinned my gaze. Otherwise I might have been tempted to watch my mother prying Simon from around her waist, shushing him with tears in her voice, assuring him that everything was fine and that she'd be back soon.
My heart crashed tremors through my body. I squeezed my hands into fists and tucked them under my crossed arms to keep the trembling a private thing. I waited off to one side and out of the way, feeling around the edges of my blank mind for a fingerhold, for some train of thought I could tip over, or any good idea that I could wedge in, force open a gap, and fight my way past this wall in my mind so that I could be there with them. Really be there, with an unclenched throat and an argument made of somethingâanythingâthat couldn't lose.
A sob coiled in the roof of my mouth, pressing against my tongue. If I looked at them, I'd howl. My small familyâa good, stable tripod when we stood together, faltered out of sync now, nerve-strung and scattered, the three of us wide-awake in the middle of a night that had been just like any other night when we'd all gone to bed a few hours earlier.
I was afraid to see on their faces what I heard in their voices. It would surely rattle me right out of the stranglehold I had on my self-control. The glittering kept my eyes busy enough to hold off the tears. They'd still be there, both the tears and the shattered mess on the floor, when this was over. I saved the crying for later. It would go well with the chore of sweeping up the foyer.
I tried to watch my mother in the final minutes before she left, to save a last image of her to hold in my head for when she wouldn't be there. My heartbeat hammered
soon, soon, soon
in my chest and I looked away.
My attention slid off the practiced last steps of her leaving dance, her head bent over the wallet in her hands in a quick accounting of the sheaf of cash that padded the length of it, and the brisk, casual grace in the sweep of her arm as she reached for the keys on the hall table. I pointedly didn't want to see her face or my brother's, or whoever the man was with the ready-when-you-are tone in his voice and his hand on the doorknob.
But we're programmed from birth to find faces everywhere, as if the pattern of the human mask is some sort of touchstone for reality. We seek its layout in wood grain and in clouds, in every indistinct thing. We find eyes looking back at us over noses and mouths in the scorch patterns on toast and in the craggy stacks of mountains. So I couldn't resist the pull of the man's ID tag. It had twisted around on its plastic tether on the glass-covered bag, landing upside down to show me an inverted photo of the efficient young man with the soldier's posture who had woken us out of the sweet summer storm, the man who had for the last hour or so been treading the boards of our home with unearned privilege. Special Agent Brian Menary.
My concentration tunneled a path out of the room, away from the merry twinkling of the broken bits of lamp on the black fabric, away from my mother's departing instructions and the unexplained disarray of our usually tidy front rooms. I stared at the picture on the tag and burrowed my focus into the man's upside-down eyes, as if I could stamp the blank, official expression on this stranger's face over the panic that clogged up my throat.
My mother pulled me away from the study of his identification badge. I couldn't say anything to her at first as she gripped my shoulders, squeezing fear into me when she meant to telegraph strength.
“Dee, Paul's outside. He'll stay until Marie gets here.”
Aunt Marie was my mother's sister. Paul was my mother's boss, but also a fixture in our lives.
“We don't need a babysitter. I can do it,” I said. I'd be going into the eighth grade in just over a month. I could certainly manage the TV's remote control and a few peanut-butter sandwiches for Simon.
“Of course you can. But, Plucky, it's going to be a few days at least.”
“Mama, what happened while we were outside? Why did you send us out there?” I pointed back behind us without taking my eyes off her. I could smell flight in the air. Fight had obviously already happened.
Avoidance sounded the same as reassurances and grocery lists from her. “A chunk got knocked out of the wall. I'll fix it when I get back.”
“Mom.” I rarely called her Mom. She was always Mama. I didn't usually trust any application of hard edges, even in sounds, to my mother. I never tested whether she would break against them or ricochet off. Either way she'd be gone.
“I don't have time to work out how to explain this to you, Plucky. And I won't do a half-baked job of it or do you the disservice of lying about what happened tonight. I'll tell you this, though. You're completely safe. I have to go away for a few days to straighten this out, but I'm safe and you're safe.”
“Mama! No! Whatâ”
Simon was crying again.
“I know, sweetheart.”
Stubborn felt better than wild, so I grabbed for it. “Don't go. You don't have to. Just tell this guy to go away. He doesn't need to be here. Everything is okay. You said that we're safe, so, I believe you. Right? We're fine. Just tell Paul you won't do it. This is crazy. Why won't you tell me what happened?”
“Oh, Dee. There are parts of this motherhood thing I'm just not very good at. Saying the right things that make everything fine is one of them. I'm so sorry. You deserve better, both of you.”
“No, that's not true!” I wailed, wounded in that irrational, bruised yard of soul that's cordoned off for love of the mother who loves you. “You're the best mother ever!”
“If you really think so, then there's not a thing left in this world that scares me. And if I'm not scared, Plucky, I promise youâyou don't need to be either.”
Within ten minutes she was gone and we wouldn't see her for more than seven months.
I would set up my mother's house for her return as soon as the taillights of the SUV swept out of sight in the turn at the end of our street. Before I stretched out on my bed to stare at the ceiling until the first faint light of the morning brightened my bedroom, I'd cleared away the glass and straightened out all that had gone crooked and sideways in the foyer in the night.
I made sure that the entire time she was gone the hole in the wall would be the only flaw left to hint at the night's disruption. My aunt Marie, tucked in under a blanket on the sofa, would be its plus one. I'd been overruled on that. She stayed. We would all wake up after not really sleeping, to Day One of the Long Trip. Breath held. Everything in its place as it should be. Everything but my mother.
Later, and for years after, the thing that twisted me into a restless tangle in my sheets was the certainty that every normal night was on a hair trigger, leaning in at the ready to explode into something else entirely.
In the end, I did everything my mother asked, but as for her telling me the story of what happened that night? She never did.
But a story is a house, a home for something that happened. The truth lives there forever, along with its cousins, the half-truths, and also with everyone's servantsâthe lies. And no house has only one door. There's always another way in.
Friday, but Monday's lie made today what it is. I don't quite recognize myself this afternoon. But no matter what happens today, at least I'll always know it went down on a Friday.
I don't know why I even think of things this way, but I always do. Milestones of varying weight have always been marked in my mind with the day of the week. I broke my wrist when Danny Gardner pulled my chair out from under me on a Tuesday in the second grade. When we were both just twenty-two years old, Patrick proposed to me on a Wednesday, which was weird. I had always thought those kinds of things happened only on Saturdays. My mother left for more than seven months in the middle of one Friday night, just after my thirteenth birthday. She came home on a Friday as well. And years later, she died on a Sunday.
Tabbing events with the day of the week is an utterly useless filing system, but my brain has always done it that way. I can't seem to make it stop.
So even though today is Friday, Monday was the day to mark. On Monday I knew for certain that my marriage wasâat the very leastâover. And at the very most it wasÂ .Â .Â . Well, I'd soon find out.
I'm driving to a place I've never been, to talk to a man I've never met, and all of it to put an end to what I've almost worked out is wrong with my life.
â¢Â Â â¢Â Â â¢
My mother always said never to keep a man for more years than you could count on your fingers. Of course, that was a faster-paced game for her than for most people. She'd lost two of her fingers in completely separate escapades. Her long, abbreviated left hand and the mischief glittering in her eyes made the joke all the richer. Everyone's scars are interesting, but my mother's always hinted at epic.