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We need milk. Milk and eggs and bread and cheese. We haven’t been out of the house for a month, except for the viewings and the funeral. We’ve been living on the kindness of friends and strangers who drop casseroles on our front porch or send baskets of fruit and muffins. But they’ve forgotten about us now. They’ve rightly begun to worry about their own things: growing kids and shrinking bank accounts and broken-down cars and piles of laundry. So I write a list on the back of an envelope and grab my keys and ask Todd if he wants to come with me.

 

“I’m pretty tired,” he says. “I think I’ll take a nap.”

 

I’m not surprised. He’s been taking naps since it happened. Sleep is his only escape from the pain of it all. When he’s sleeping, he isn’t remembering, or feeling the stranglehold of guilt.

 

Todd wasn’t there 17 years ago when our son was born – one month and one day early – and he wasn’t there four weeks ago when our son died in our neighbor’s living room. He was at work. Now he won’t go to his office at all. He’s afraid the big things only happen when he’s away, and he’s experienced enough big things. He thinks staying at home will stop them.

 

I know better. I know that I couldn’t stop our son from coming into the world when he wanted to, just like I couldn’t stop the world from taking him back too soon. I have to keep moving or I will forget this.

 

And I must remember. I am the mother.

 

On my way out to the car, I look left, into the jagged, gaping hole in my neighbor’s aluminum siding. At first, the insurance companies – ours and theirs – had promised to work together and repair it quickly, so the neighbors don’t have to live behind sheets of plastic and so we don’t have to be reminded. But their promises have been lost in piles of paperwork.

 

When we bought this house in the hills, on the sharpest edge of a horseshoe curve, we liked the way it sat at an angle to the road, the way the driveway arched across the yard like a crescent moon. It made our home different from our neighbors’ homes, different from the homes we knew as children, and Todd and I liked to believe we were unconventional.

 

Now, I wish we’d been predictable like our parents and purchased a square lot on a perfect suburban grid, with ruler straight roads that only meet at 90-degree angles and stop signs.

 

“He could have died anyway,” my friend Jaime tells me gently when I mention this to her.

 

Logically, I know she’s right, but my mind won’t stop calculating and recalculating the odds.

 

When I reach the parking lot of the grocery store, I realize I can’t remember how I got there. Of course, I’d turned right at the end of our road, driven down the hill and followed the two-lane highway out for three miles, like I had hundreds of times before, but today I couldn’t remember having done it.

 

In the parking lot, I take a breath and forced it out in three distinct puffs. I am preparing for what I know is to come. Once I was invisible, but the newspapers and the local television stations have made me that mother of “that boy.” People stare at me in public like I used to stare at my teachers: like they didn’t have a life outside of their classrooms; like I don’t have a life outside of the pain.

 

I’m biased, of course, but I think death by accident is harder than death by disease or purpose. There’s no time to prepare for the new life it hands you; no one to blame for what’s been done and nothing anyone can say that makes it easier. It’s just emptiness and silence at the end of a long tunnel of questions.

 

In the store I move quickly from aisle to aisle, dropping items into my basket until it is full and I’m forced to wedge a loaf of bread between my stomach and elbow. I count the items to make sure I have 20 or less and can use the fastest register, but before I can step into the line, I buckle.

 

In the express lane, next to a magazine that screams of 70-pound toddlers and celebrity affairs, is my son. He’s leaning against one of those story-high lifeguard chairs at the beach, one eye winking against the sun. His arms are crossed and tanned and faded. Faded from wearing and washing and drying.

 

My heart punches hard against my ribs. It takes me a moment to blink the water out of my eyes before I can stop staring at my son’s face and look up at the boy who is wearing his picture on a T-shirt.

 

I don’t know him.

 

He stole my son and I don’t even know his name. It’s like watching someone take credit for a great piece of art that they haven’t created.

 

The loaf of bread I tucked under my arm slips out and onto the floor. What is this boy in the T-shirt trying to say, to prove, by parading my dead son around town: Look at me. I knew this boy, the one who drove his car too fast to make the turn into his driveway and ended up in his neighbor’s house.

 

I wonder where else my son lives – if he’s stuffed into a bottom drawer or sprawled on a bedroom floor or hung on rack in the thrift shop. I want to run out and find all of him, to bring him home.

 

Instead I throw the basket of groceries I realize I no longer need onto the floor next to the bread and run out before the cashier can protest.

 


I drive home from the store the same way I drove there: Without thinking of the way or remembering having done it.

 

I jump out of my car and avoid looking at the hole as I run for the door, my tennis shoes kicking up gravel, but I can feel the hole calling to me, sneering at me.

 

I find Todd on the couch in the basement. He’s peaceful. He doesn’t know that our son’s face is lurking in town, waiting to leap out at those who loved him. I don’t want to wake Todd, to drag him into this new level of hell and grief that I’ve discovered, so I squeeze myself between him and the cushions, where no one can touch me. Where I am safe.

 

I can feel Todd’s hot, moist breath on my forehead and I think that maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s better to stay in the house, locked away where our son can’t find me when I don’t want him to, and where I don’t have see him when I’m not ready.



April spent nearly a decade writing long-form narrative for newspapers and magazines before joining the faculty at West Virginia University’s P.I. Reed School of Journalism. Her fiction and creative non-fiction have been published in The Mix Tape by Fast Forward Press, Monkey Puzzle #10 and The Newport Review. She has an MFA in creative writing from Carlow University.



When a close friend died in Iraq several years ago, a group had T-shirts emblazed with his photograph. While I appreciated the sentiment, I found the shirts jarring. Fortunately, I lived hours away from home at the time, so I didn’t have to worry about seeing the shirts on the street. But I wondered what it might feel like for his parents, should they run into someone – especially a stranger – “wearing” their son.





 





  


Copyright 2009