*Now that my review period is over, I will include the chapter in its full form.*
I hoist my five year old up onto my hip.
Holding her is the only reason I ever let go of her hands, yours.
She looks nothing like you. She sounds nothing like you. Still, she reminds me of you.
A light breeze blows across the playground, lifting her hair and mine as it goes by us.
Goosebumps rise on my skin.
The wind is chilly, but it is not what causes me to shiver.
Your voice. I hear your voice.
It comes to me across the divide of time.
The air holds you now.
It used to be the other way around. But even as I crave you more than oxygen, I haven’t been able to breathe since that day. Not really.
“Mommy, how come we’re here again?” your child who is nothing like you asks me.
I say nothing as I stare deep into her eyes. Perhaps I am still trying to find you in her.
She pouts. “We come here all the time, but you never let me play, mommy.”
Of course I don’t. How could I?
But she doesn’t know. Will probably never know.
She asks a good question, though.
Why do I come back here? It’s not a yearly thing or even a monthly thing. The only anniversary of that day is every day.
I come here every day.
I’ve been returning to this place for several times longer than you lived. I continued coming here even after I moved far away from it at first chance.
You know that I tried to go to a university an hour north, right? But even that didn’t stop my tradition. I ended up giving up college rather than you.
I guess I couldn’t leave you behind again. No, I know I couldn’t. Knew then too.
I can’t. I won’t.
Not ever again.
Most everyone laughs at me and thinks I’m still the same sleepyhead I was as a child. No one knows that I am here every morning when the sky turns pink no matter what. They don’t know that when I drag myself out of bed midday on my days off or barely make it to work on time that I have already made the roundtrip to the last place you were.
Do you know?
That’s something that bothers me, Janey. Really bothers me. More and more each day. I don’t know if you know. I don’t think you’re here. I don’t want to keep coming here, but I also can’t stop. I am bound to this place as surely as a dog chained up in a junkyard can never leave it.
Or a graveyard.
This is a graveyard, isn’t it?
But it is the worst kind. The kind that’s not haunted.
Your spirit doesn’t flit around this playground like it did in life. Your presence is here, though. I don’t know how that works, but it does.
Or maybe it doesn’t.
Or maybe I don’t.
No. That is not a maybe. I am broken, Janey.
Janey, I’m sorry.
But sometimes I wish I could just turn my back on this place and never look back.
But maybe that day will be the one when you return.
And I won’t be there.
Just like I wasn’t there.
Then you weren’t there.
I get up and run without knowing it.
I’m a totally different person now, Janey. And completely the same. I want to be better for you but also someone you will recognize if you ever return to me.
Remember when you ran away from me after waking me up that day? You wanted me to chase you, so you took off like a rocket.
No. A shooting star.
I remember your bright laughter not only following you but leaving a path through the early-morning fog for me to follow too. You were always the light that could lead me out of the darkness of the world around us.
Every day, I wish I could have followed you to the end.
But I also know that if I had died too that day, then nothing of you would remain in this gray world. Perhaps that’s why I made the little girl who is holding me to this Earth. Do not worry. I will not leave her here alone.
“Mommy?” It’s one of those rare times when the child who bears your name is wide awake in the midst of this daily pilgrimage; she usually slumbers or blinks blearily nestled against me while I stand here shivering until the sky is no longer your color.
I don’t want to bring this child who is not yours, and, yet, nothing but yours, here anymore. I don’t want to tempt fate— that essence that has proven itself so hostile toward you, especially in this place— twice. But I cannot leave her behind either.
She is the only person I’ve ever brought here.
But she is not the only one to join me on this vigil.
Another stays behind me watching over me as often as he can.
He, the only thing we ever fought over.
I married Timothy, Janey.
A brief smile curls my lips.
Our daughter doesn’t notice because she has gotten bored of waiting for the answer she knows will never come. She is watching other children climb the jungle gym that I will never go near again but am also drawn to like a moth to a flame.
Her father is the same.
Yes, I married Timothy. I know you thought he was yours. But now he is mine.
But do not worry. I am still yours. Always have been, always will be. That is how the little girl in my arms is yours.
I guess that makes Timothy still yours too, doesn’t it?
Of course it does. You have held possession over me and everything I ever owned since the moment I met you.
Your smile burns bright in my mind’s eye. It, at least, has never left me.
Your dark eyes light up like little suns before you give me your shy smile. I love your smile so much. Warmth comes back into me, probably from your eyes.
Your smile and your voice do not follow me but live within me.
They do not make me scared or upset but smile. Always smile. It is just a quiet, heartbreaking happiness.
My eyes do not curve into little crescents as yours did. Cannot.
Tears leak out whenever they try.
I do not fight them or try to get rid of them.
My hands are too heavy to reach up and attempt the impossible, my heart too.
My hands that are chains never let go of her, Janey.
My mouth does not move with the words.
People don’t hear my voice anymore. They think I can’t talk. Perhaps I can’t. They think I am crazy. I think I haven’t had much sanity to lose since the bullet that pierced your body rent my soul in two at the same time. Or maybe I never had any sanity in the first place. Like the never-born baby in my mother’s womb who didn’t have a life to live but still died when my father beat them that last time before he went to prison for good.
Mommy didn’t die. Not on the outside, anyway.
Just like me, I guess.
You were my only sister, Janey, and only so because you mixed the blood seeping from your stomach with that I tore from my arm that day. I didn’t deserve another sister after what I did to you. I never deserved you to begin with; maybe that’s why I lost you.
I’m sorry. You don’t like when I think like that. My unworthiness of you was the one truth you could never bear.
“Mommy?” The little girl puts her small hands on my cheek to get my attention, but my eyes are riveted to the place you went down.
It’s almost time, and if I stare hard enough to make my eyes burn, then I might be able to see your outline again, your real outline, not the chalk one, lying there. I’ve seen us both many times– me holding your head on my lap and trying to smile for you while you manage to smile for me even as your life drains away. More than once, a third figure has shown itself kneeling beside us. Your ghost hugs me from behind, refusing to look at the living you and trying to get me to do the same as it wipes my tears.
There is only emptiness today. My eyes, recognizing defeat, release their waters.
“Mommy!” An echo of your ghost, our daughter tries to push the tears back into my eyes and turn my face from the carnage that only I can see. “Please don’t cry, mommy,” she begs me. “What’s wrong?”
I press my forehead to hers, my cascades ceasing at once, and she calms but watches me closely.
Sometimes I try to speak, Janey. Especially to our child. But I just can’t.
Other times, I don’t want to. I don’t want to open my mouth and let you out. Your voice will have replaced mine; I know it. And I don’t want to share you.
I never got the chance to tell you that I hated it whenever anyone else got close to you. I’m sorry, Janey. Your pout at my inability or unwillingness to show everyone that I was just as possessive over you as you were over me was just so cute. I think I was waiting for your birthday to tell you too, until you were six like I was.
The birthday that came so close but never happened.
I think you knew the truth deep down inside.
And now I guard you jealously for all the world to see.
You can see that too, can’t you?
Only you can hear me. You are the only person I ever talk to, did you know? No, perhaps the better question is: do you remember? You were always the only one who heard me when I couldn’t make a sound.
I let my silence drive everyone that it can away to keep you protected inside me.
My heart is closed, locked tight.
I only gave Timothy the key.
But it is a key that I filed down some first. It has all the grooves and will work if forced but is useless more often than not.
You know that Timothy does not like to press people because he does not like to be pressed.
We don’t really speak much, he and I, even to each other. But we do not need to.
He knows most of what I want to say and why I can’t say it.
I scream your name as I watch you fall down, down to the blacktop.
And even though he can never read me as well as you could, Timothy also knows that my heart is not my own to give away.
I gave it to you after hello, and you didn’t give it back before goodbye.
I wouldn’t have asked for it or accepted it if you offered.
Still don’t want it.
The only person alive who can get to my heart whenever she wants to is our child.
Even I cannot do that.
She doesn’t need a key.
Perhaps that is because in my heart is where she lives.
And I will never let her out.
She’s your age now.
Don’t let her get lonely, okay?
Let me in too, if you can.
At least stay with her if you can’t stay with me.
Your invisible smile brightens the world again.
Shots of brilliant colors zap across the sky, dazzling but fleeting lights— pieces of the lucky star that is our sun— bringing warmth and light to everyone they can. Sometimes I wonder if my lucky stars are someone else’s suns. If the things shining beyond our reach yet at the centers of our universes, ever holding us fast to them, are actually already gone— fallen from the sky never to be seen again— but we just don’t know it yet.
Or, we know it but refuse to believe it...
When I squint really hard, I see the yellow ribbon again. I almost throw up. I can see that ribbon even if I close my eyes tight, but I won’t see you ever again even if I open my eyes all the way.
I move our daughter to my front.
She leans forward to hug me at once. This most is where she is yours.
My nose inhales deeply without command.
I wash the girl’s hair with the same strawberry shampoo that you used to love so much.
Her chubby little legs tighten around me, as do her arms.
I can feel the smile on her face by the way her soft cheek moves against my neck.
It feels good to hold you, Janey.
It feels so good to hold you.
Though I never let go.
Except that once.
But I won’t do that again.
I will hold her and keep her safe until the day that I die.
She will never die in my arms like you did.
I will not lose her like I lost you.
“No! Janey, no! Please don’t die! Don’t leave me! Please!”
But you don’t listen to me. You never listen to me.
—Chorus without Lead-In—
I love you, Janey.
“I love you too,” our little girl tells me in your voice at long last.
Your time has ended, but you are still here!
I feel your spirit! I finally feel it! Oh, Janey!
“We’ll come back tomorrow, right?”
I don’t need to nod.
Her grin widens against my skin.
I’ll be here, I hear you say.
Me too, I promise.