The crickets started to chirp.
It was her favorite time of day. The last golden ray of the sun slipped under the horizon. Clouds prevented her from seeing the first stars, and the whole world was draped in the gray glow of twilight. The warm air was still, with the occasional whisper of a breeze fluttering the reeds down by the pond not 100 yards from the porch where she was sitting. If today had been the perfect day, this would have been the perfect end to it.
Today had not been the perfect day, and while this twilight was therefore not perfect, perhaps it was… proper. Ellie had always imagined that the last moments of her wedding day would be like this, that the sky would be this color and the air this still, in the moments where the car would pull away from the reception, with “Just Married” taped to the rear window. Her dark eyed, raven haired husband would be behind the wheel, leading them to the lovely cottage by the Gulf where that marriage would be consummated, driving down highways bordered by willows and Spanish moss.
She never had that wedding or marriage. The consummation, however, happened in the backseat of the Toyota parked in the driveway. The boy wasn’t dark eyed or raven haired, but blue and ridiculously bleached blonde. The only place that boy and that foolish mistake led her was to right here, alone on a porch she once loved, with a house she used to think of as home now as a tomb. It was an empty tomb (She is not here! Ellie thought, in a haunting parody of Sunday School), but a tomb nonetheless.
None of that mattered now. Tonight, the bridegroom cometh. She would be ready.
She stood up and looked one more time through the open door behind her, into the living room where a table stood. The only things on that table were a few white petals left over from the lilies that adorned it an hour ago. She was sure the women from the church took those, though she didn’t actually remember, when they took the coffin…
No, she reminded herself yet again, don’t think about that. It doesn’t matter anymore.
She glanced at the bright pink Minnie Mouse watch on her slim wrist. Well, once upon a time it had been slim; now skeletal might be a better description. It was amazing how little food you actually needed to keep you moving. Maintaining your weight needed a bit more, but she hadn’t cared about that for a long time now. She just needed fuel, fuel to get her to this night, and that took very little.
Minnie’s longer arm was just a few ticks above the three on the watch’s face. She needed to get moving. She stepped down the porch’s three steps and onto the gravel driveway. She walked past that Toyota and caught her reflection in the window. A face with sunken cheeks, deeply set eyes, and mousy brown hair tangled around it stared back at her. She never had been able to accept her dull, defiant hair. Her daughter had inherited both the awful color and texture of her hair, and no amount of combing, braiding, brushing, or even hair spraying that Ellie tried made it look any better.
God, she would have sold her soul to have one more morning trying to brush that hair and tie it into ribbons! Those seemed the moments that Annie was most coherent, at least until Ellie would brush too hard, and Annie would shriek loudly enough to wake the dead. Ellie had hated those screams, and that was the ultimate tragedy. She had wished that voice silent a thousand times, and now that it was finally quiet, she wanted nothing more than the noise.
Funny, women always talked about how they forgot the pain after childbirth, but Ellie remembered every contraction and every one of her own screams when she brought Antigone Luella Robertson into this world. After that child’s first breath, they screamed in concert, and then Ellie subsided as Annie took up the cry with a vengeance. They cleaned her up and gave her back to Ellie, with Don standing next to her, with his stupid bleached blonde hair, that even fatherhood didn’t inspire him to change. When Ellie looked at Antigone, she thought she had never seen anything so wonderful and perfect.
“Antigone?” Don had asked. “What does that even mean?”
“She’s a bad ass woman in Greek mythology,” Ellie responded. “She stood up to a king, even though she died for it. I want my daughter to be able stand up to anybody.”
By the next day, joy transformed into life’s one constant reality: pain. Don and Ellie were informed that Annie had severe genetic abnormalities, abnormalities that would hamper both cognitive and physical development. She would be lucky to live 5 years, and would require constant and expensive care.
That was the last time she ever saw Don.
Thus began the years of sideways glances as she crept into church late again after struggling to get Annie ready to leave, the years of constant midnight feedings, first through a bottle and then through a feeding tube, the years of requests for help, humiliating collections at local charities, looks of pity and judgment that she had the gall to get knocked up with a needy child and lose the father. Annie lived much longer than the doctors originally thought, and the years stretched to a decade.
Ellie now saw tears streaming down the face in that reflection, an emaciated face floating above a white dress. How people had glared at her today, with a dress that was made for a wedding rather than a funeral. Even the pastor looked at her askance as he read his sermon. She didn’t care; ignorance had become a survival skill over the past ten years.
Besides, why should she hide who she was, and what a monster she’d become? Wasn’t the first emotion she felt when she found Annie last week, not breathing and her body cold, relief? Before horror, or sadness, she felt relief. Hadn’t the days become a curse to her, having to bear this impossible burden? What did it matter now that her soul screamed for that burden, and ached to feel its weight on her shoulders once again? She had wanted Annie to be gone, and now she had gotten her wish.
She looked at her watch again through eyes bleared by tears. It was time to go. Today was a wedding, and she was off to meet her bridegroom.
As she turned away from the car, she looked through her reflection at the last moment and noticed the broken shoulder belt in the backseat. In the midst of her pain, she couldn’t help but smile. That was one of life’s cruel quirks. Even the worst days had brief moments of joy or humor, moments that enlivened you just enough to feel the pain even more sharply.
She arrived at the edge of the driveway, kicked off her sandals, and stepped into the soft grass. The grass was lush from the rain they had gotten recently, and cool in the twilight. While she had somewhere to be, she didn’t want to rush this. She put one foot delicately in front of the other, letting her toes sink into the soft blades. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, the aroma of honeysuckle and freshly mown grass drifting from the neighbor’s yard. This was the first time she embraced every caress nature offered since the day she had broken that seat belt.
Don had been with her then. He had driven them up to Moonlight Meadow. Well, no one called it that except her, but it was a gorgeous place. There was a small pond in the center with a cypress that hung over it, a cypress with massive roots that burrowed into the wet soil. She called it Moonlight Meadow because, if you waited until just after the moon had risen, the pond caught the moonlight and the tree looked silver under the stars. Don knew she loved this, and so brought her up here whenever he could.
There was a dirt road that led to the meadow, and next to the end of that dirt road were the remnants of a barn long abandoned, nothing more than a foundation with one remaining wall. They parked right next to that wall and got out. While Ellie loved normally coming up here, she had her doubts this time.
“Don, it’s cloudy, and it looks like it’s going to rain. I doubt we’ll even get to catch a glimpse of the moon.”
“Come on, Ellie. It’s supposed to clear up, and we’re here anyway. There’ll be a break in the clouds any moment now. It will be perfect.”
“If by perfect you mean soaking wet clothes and no view to make up for it, then yes, it will be perfect.”
“You know, sarcasm is not one of your attractive traits.”
Ellie punched him in the shoulder, but then took his hand and walked with him anyway.
When they reached the pond, Don laid down the blanket he had been carrying, and they sat down arm in arm, waiting. To Ellie’s surprise, the clouds did break in the east, and the moonlight broke through. It was perfect. The whole meadow shone, and the clouds reflected it, so the scene was full of dark greens and browns and grays silver-tinged. She leaned into Don, feeling his heartbeat through his T-shirt. After what was both eternity and no time at all, he broke the silence with a chuckle.
“I’ve got a dare for you,” he said.
At the age of 17, very few things are more intriguing than a dare. “Oh really? What’s that?”
He paused in a way that could have belonged to a boy of 12, and said all in a rush, “I dare you to go skinny dipping with me.”
She squealed, “Up here? Out in the open? Someone could see us!”
“Oh, come on. You know no one comes up here but us.”
“If you’re so confident, you go first.”
“Okay.” He stood up slowly, and pulled his Superman T-shirt over his head.
She realized that he was really going to do this, and her breath caught. Something about this seemed much more than a child’s prank. She had never seen him naked before. Before she knew it, he had taken the last of his clothes off, and he stood there looking at her.
As she stood up, she looked him over. In her mind’s eye, two images superimposed themselves on one another. One image was a skinny, pale kid with chicken legs, barely keeping himself from shivering. The other was a Greek god, more marble than flesh, brought to life by the moon, the air of high summer, and young love. She drank him in with terror and jubilation, knowing she was going to make the same offering he did.
She remembered every second and every sensation of undressing. The soft hem of her halter-top in her fingers, the cloth sliding over her torso as she pulled it up and over her head. Her skin pebbling as the air from the cool night touched it. The rough waistband of her jeans, which now seemed strangely tight as she unbuttoned it. Mostly she felt Don’s eyes as they greedily devoured every inch of her body. This was not the first time someone looked at her like that, as she had caught more than one boy staring down one of her shirts that was cut low, but this was different. Those times had felt more like the occupational hazards of being a girl. She wanted this.
She stood before him, and he stared hungrily. Then, without warning, he yelled “Race ya!” and the spell was broken. They were kids once again. She laughed and ran after him.
He ran straight into the water, and she followed close behind. It wasn’t until she caught up to him that she noticed the moon had gone behind a cloud. A distant peal of thunder rumbled soon afterward.
“Don, I think we should probably head back to—”
And the heavens opened.
“Our clothes!” Don yelled, but laughing while he did so. She laughed as well. It was hard to care about something as insignificant as wet clothes. They were young and in love.
They quickly ran back and gathered up the sopping blanket, with their clothes wrapped inside, then ran to the car. She got to the car first, and opened up the backdoor to throw the wet things on the backseat. Right as she was about to close the door, she noticed that his shorts had somehow fallen onto the ground. As she bent over to pick them up, she somehow lost her balance. Her hand flailed to grab something for support, but that something ended up being the shoulder belt, which she yanked so hard that it broke.
Don slammed the trunk, which he had opened to see if he could find anything dry, and when he looked around, he found her sitting on the ground, laughing hysterically, holding the broken belt in her hand.
“I’m not sure that’s how you use that,” he said, which made her laugh all the more.
He helped her into the back seat and followed after, shutting the door behind him, both of them still laughing.
They sat in the back, their laughter slowly dying, and when they quieted, Ellie didn’t feel like a kid anymore. The spell which had been broken by their game returned, and she was again aware of every sensation. She felt the breath in her throat, still rough from running to the car and the laughter. She felt Don’s warmth and his hand on her thigh. His face seemed wonderfully and unbearably close all at the same time and took up her entire field of vision. She felt…
Her foot touched the pavement of the road next to her lawn and shook her from her memory. She cursed life’s cruel tricks. That night had been the worst mistake of her life. Because of that night, she made a child doomed to pain and suffering, a child cursed without even the pleasure of a coherent thought. Yet she reveled in that memory, savoring every detail, on the same day that she buried the child she had created and damned that night.
It doesn’t matter anymore, she thought again. That line was her mantra, her refrain, in today’s ceremony.
She ran across the road and through the line of trees on the other side. She heard the whistle of a train, and didn’t have to look at her watch to know that she was running out of time. She wasn’t going to break into a run, but her elegant glide quickened, and she paid less attention to the soft grass against the soles of her feet. She had a date, one last appointment to meet, before time would cease to mean anything.
The grass now changed to gravel. The sound of pebbles sliding around her feet was horrible. The last time she heard that was just over a week ago. She had taken Annie to the park. Annie couldn’t actually play very much, but for some reason, she seemed to love the sandbox. Ellie could take her out of her stroller and place her there, sitting up. Annie would pick up sand and run it between her fingers for hours, which would give Ellie time to sit and read.
Ellie had a great book this time, the latest John Grisham novel, and was completely absorbed. She was so close to the end, just ten pages, when she heard Annie start to whimper a little. She’s fine, Ellie thought. I’ll just finish these ten pages and be done. It’s not like she can get up and walk away. So she flipped to the next page, and as she expected, the quick whimper subsided. After five short minutes, she closed her book and looked up, ready to put Annie back in her stroller and take her home.
Annie was gone.
“No!” she screamed. That was impossible. She would have sensed if someone had come near and picked her up, and Annie couldn’t walk. There was no way she could go anywhere.
Ellie bolted off her bench and ran to the other side of the playground, skidding to a halt in the gravel surrounding the simple swing set and sandbox, the gravel making that awful noise which would be forever seared into her eardrums. Annie lay on her back, her eyes closed, at the base of an ancient, gnarled oak tree.
“No no no no no no no!” Ellie screamed. She rushed over to her and put her ear to Annie’s mouth. She wasn’t breathing.
“Come on Annie! Come on!” she yelled, and gave her CPR. Nothing worked. She called 911 and somehow was coherent enough to tell the dispatcher where they were. She then went back to CPR, and then chest compressions, but she could tell it was no use. Annie’s skin had already taken a bluish tint, and her skin felt cold. Annie was gone.
Ellie sobbed while she lay next to her daughter, studying that perfect, porcelain face that now looked so peaceful. There was a smile on it, a smile that had never appeared while she was alive. Ellie was anything but peaceful, as guilt, despair, and an awful, tiny sense of relief raged through her. She looked up from her daughter’s beautiful face to the leaves of the oak tree, as the morning sun filtered through the green.
The doctors didn’t know specifically what caused Annie’s death, though most likely her overworked lungs just gave out. She lived well past what they had expected, so they weren’t surprised that her time had come. Ellie never asked them how Annie managed to walk for the first time in her life. For one reason, it didn’t matter. Annie was gone, abandoning Ellie as surely as Ellie had abandoned her, letting her take her last gasps alone. Perhaps Annie sensed death coming, and somehow, in her handicapped mind, she knew she wanted to die away from the horrible woman who never loved her, who condemned her to this miserable existence. Perhaps she had wanted to die beneath the warmth and beauty of that oak tree.
The other reason Ellie never asked was that she didn’t want anyone to know that her daughter’s last experience was one of betrayal. Annie had made one last cry for help, had asked for love with one more tiny whimper. Ellie had ignored her daughter for a stupid paperback novel.
The train whistled again. Ellie was still standing on the edge of the gravel which lined the train tracks. She looked down and saw the train for the first time, as opposed to just hearing it. This was it. The bridegroom cometh, and she was ready.
She took the last few steps to stand in the middle of the tracks, the last few steps she would ever take. She stretched out her arms and smiled, her smile looking very like the one her daughter had on her face a week ago, though she didn’t know it. She could feel the vibrations in her feet as the train approached, and heard the whistle being sounded multiple times. These would be the last things she would ever feel or hear. She fought the urge to close her eyes. She wanted to see every detail of the instrument of her death, see the train as it smashed into her. It was less than a hundred feet away now. Then fifty. She could see the conductor, who actually looked a little like Don, with a horrified expression as he kept pulling the whistle.
The impact she then felt was very different from what she expected. Instead of 50,000 pounds of metal obliterating her, a small, warm body collided into her from her right side, and pushed her out of the way of the train just as it whizzed by. She tumbled down the embankment into the mud on the other side of the tracks, and felt a sharp, agonizing pain as her foot slammed into the ground. She thought she had broken it.
The meddling busybody who had ruined her wedding tumbled down with her. They had barely reached the bottom of the ditch, when this person untangled herself from Ellie, shook her dark blonde hair out of her face, and yelled, “What the hell were you doing?!”
Ellie tried to stand up, but her injured foot decided otherwise. She didn’t know what to feel, much less what to think, and certainly had no words to answer the question. She looked up at the interfering pest and was stunned by her bright blue eyes that shone even in the dim light. Ellie could only respond with a query of her own. “Who are you?”
“Hope,” the woman responded.
In spite of everything that happened, in spite of her pain and her misery, Ellie looked at Hope incredulously.
Hope chuckled, a sound so beautiful that Ellie half expected the sun to rise out of the twilight. “I guess that might stretch belief a little too far. Telling you that Hope is my name sounds like something out of a story. And life’s not a story, is it?”