A few minutes later I’m sitting in Ms. Green’s tenth grade English class, waiting for her to come in. She’s thirty minutes late. This has never happened before so nobody knows what to do. No one’s about to clue in the administration to her absence, so we all just goof off instead.
When Ms. Green finally walks in, she looks like she just rolled out of bed. Her mascara’s smeared and her eyes are puffy. She’s just barely keeping it together. She doesn’t look at us or explain why she’s late. Instead, she fixates on the floor, her lips pursed tight. Her mouth quivers. She drops her briefcase.
“There was an accident,” she blurts out. Her hands shake. “A fellow student. In the grade below.”
My classmates stop chattering and we all stare at her. The room is silent. Like airplane silent, when you’re flying and all of a sudden there’s that calm eeriness when you realize you‘re suspended in midair and you can’t hear the engines at all and it freaks the living crap out of you.
Ms. Green says something about a freak accident and a steel beam. And a bus. “The bus was from The Ridgefield Development.”
Everything gets foggy. I notice the ugly yellow carpet beneath my desk and try to catch my breath. Thank God I wasn’t on the bus. Thank God Dad had the day off and had driven me instead.
School lets out early, and Mom and Dad both pick me up. Mom is hysterical. Not appropriate hysteria, like when she lost me in the mall when I was six, or when I developed a weird infection that I was hospitalized for at ten. Her eyes are lifeless, missing their mischievous sparkle. They fixate on some random spot in the air. As I buckle up in the back seat she says slowly, “Chloe was not supposed to be on that bus. She was not supposed to be on that bus.” Her head lolls along in slow motion to the rhythm of the words as she repeats them over and over.
Both of my parents try to tell me about what’s happened. I hear the words “Chloe” and “killed on impact,” but I can’t process the information. Maybe this is what my nana with Alzheimer’s feels like. My parents’ voices sound like that teacher from Charlie Brown who talks so garbled you can’t understand what she’s saying. The trees zoom by and my arms and legs tingle.
Next thing I know I’m heaving as, quick as an instant, the words finally sink in. Our fourteen-year old next-door neighbor Chloe was killed on impact while riding the bus to school. She had been leaning against the window when, out of nowhere, a truck carrying a 30-foot steel beam made a left-hand turn and slammed into the window. Just like that, she’s gone. It boggles my mind so bad I get a headache trying to comprehend how one second someone can exist and the next they’re gone. I wasn’t friends with her but she seemed nice enough. We just ran in different circles.
Mom says when your time is up, it’s up. But I don’t believe that. That was my bus. What if I had been on it? I could be dead right now. Or maybe by me taking a few extra seconds to find a seat, we might have avoided the collision with the truck. Maybe the extra weight of my body would have caused the bus to move more slowly.
When we get home my dad cooks lasagna with garlic bread, Mom’s favorite. Dad is cutting the lasagna into perfect little squares, acting as if it’s a typical Wednesday night. It’s only 3 o’clock but he seems to think we need to eat. I reach for Mom’s hand. It lays limp in mine. She’s still gazing off at nothing, not saying a word. Her face is this strange grey color that makes the faded pink lipstick on her mouth seem garish.
I glance at Mom out of the corner of my eye, too scared to look at her directly. Her long, red hair is disheveled. She looks like she’s the one who’s been in an accident. She picks up her fork so slowly I want to reach over and just hand it to her. Her nail polish is chipped. It’s jarring since she usually keeps her fingernails well-manicured. She doesn’t bother to use her knife, just jams her fork into the stretchy pasta, sawing back and forth like a toddler still learning how to eat. She chews the first bite five times and swallows, then picks up her right hand to do the same thing again without moving any other part of her body. Her eyes don’t move. None of us speak. Dad looks exhausted. His eyes are bloodshot. He lets out a long sigh and squeezes my shoulder as he gets off his barstool and leans over to give me five slow kisses on my forehead. He looks at me and he has tears in his eyes. Then he goes upstairs.
Mom looks to make sure Dad is out of sight, then takes a pill bottle from her purse and shakes out a handful of tiny white tablets. She tilts her head back and pops in the meds, swallowing them down effortlessly with a swish of lemonade, like, hey, no big whoop, I’m just going to swallow a bunch of pills while my freaked out daughter watches me.
The next few days are a blur.
Chloe’s older brother Eric won’t leave his room at all. He’s supposed to go to college next year, but who knows what will happen to him now. His parents put him in the hospital because he refuses to eat or drink. When he gets out a few days later, the Shiva starts. Dad and I go next door to pay our respects. Mom stays home, too out of it to come. She’s lost weight and has barely said a word to me since the day of the accident. My mom–the one who played dress up with me even when I was just a little too old for it, took me camping in our backyard and made s’mores, and up until last week wrote silly letters that she left by my shower every morning–has turned into a zombie.
When I knock on Eric’s bedroom door, he opens it slowly and then just looks at me. His mouth opens and his eyebrows raise upwards. But then he freezes. Eric and I have hiked into the forest behind our houses and smoked once in a while. We’ve kissed a few times. He looks awful, but in a sexy way. He’s wearing an unwashed paisley robe. I can’t help but think about the last time we kissed, but I know that it’s creepy weird to do so at a time like this so I push the thought out of my head. Still, my cheeks flush as a memory of us making out in his car crosses my unruly mind.
“I’m sorry, Heidi, I need to be alone.” His face is ashen and drawn; his eyes are blank. I nod and leave Eric in his room, head downstairs feeling embarrassed and hoping he didn’t see me blush.
Several dozen people are gathered in the dining room, trying to pretend they don’t notice the whitefish salad or smoked salmon surrounded by kugel and these huge sugar cookies with bright pink, purple, and yellow sprinkles that are so very out of place for the occasion. I feel guilty just for looking at them.
I go down a long hallway toward the bathroom. Huge black-and-white photos line the walls. Chloe was so beautiful, with big brown eyes and full lips. She had dimples, one on each cheek. There are pictures of her alone, with their dog, Rufus, and several of Chloe and Eric posing on the beach in some nice vacation spot. There are a ton of pictures of what looked like Maine’s ragged coast and Martha’s Vineyard, and I remember suddenly that Chloe loved lighthouses.
Poor Chloe will be in no more pictures. My chest tightens. She will see no more lighthouses. How is this possible? I go into the bathroom and splash water on my face. The bathroom is sparkling clean and I can’t help but wonder who would have the sense of mind to remember to clean it at a time like this. When I look in the mirror over the sink and see myself, I feel unreal. I pinch myself all over, twist the skin on my wrists really hard until they hurt, just to feel that I’m still alive.
When I open the bathroom door, Chloe’s parents are in the study across the hall. Chloe’s mom is shaking her fists at her husband and her pearl bracelet snaps and falls to the floor. I can’t understand what she’s saying because she’s screaming uncontrollably. She punches her husband in the gut. He just stands there muttering, “Keep… punching… me …Elaine. Keep going. I just want to die. Kill me now.” Then he wails, a guttural cry I’ll never forget. He looks up and sees me watching. His face crumples with terror and he reaches out his arms limply as if begging me to save him.
I stand there, stuck, and whimper, “I’m so sorry…this…this is hideous.”
Elaine’s eyes narrow into slits as she stares at me. She stops hitting Chloe’s dad and straightens out her skirt. This seems to calm her for a moment. She looks me up and down very slowly as if I’ve done something wrong. Then she advances toward me, her lips curled into a snarl. “Do you even–”
“Don’t, Elaine,” Chloe’s dad interrupts. He shuts the study door then, blocking my view.
Over the next few days, Mom pops her little white pills more often. I wonder if she has some terrible disease but when I ask her, she says no. Is she upset about Nana? No.
“It’s too complicated honey, I can’t explain it.” Mom’s drugged voice wafts up from under the covers of her bed where she lies all day. I can’t help but wonder if she doesn’t want to be in our family anymore.
“Heidi, the accident broke something inside of you mother,” my worn out father says to my repeated questioning one night while he and I are eating dinner. Mom’s empty chair casts judgment on us, but for what?
“But I’m still here. I’m not the one who died. So why is she so upset?”
Dad unravels his tie slowly, “I’m trying to figure it out myself.” He pauses.
“I’ve never seen your mother like this.” Dad’s left arm starts to tic, which happens when he’s nervous.
“I have no clue what to do to help her. I’m scared too, honey.”
My parents are high school sweethearts. They grew up next door to each other.
Later that night I go into my parents’ room. It has this strange smell, like body odor covered up with perfume. I sit next to Mom and try to tell her about all of the gossip from school. She used to love that stuff. I hope that if I find just the right story to tell maybe she’ll say something silly like, “Oh that kid Brody probably wasn’t laughing at you honey. I bet he farted and then tried to cover it up by laughing.” She used to always say provocative things like that. Things my friends’ moms would never say. Then we’d giggle and do each other’s nails. But now she just rubs my arm and squeezes my hand. Nothing comes out of her mouth except for labored breathing, as if it’s an effort to be alive.
The next night Mom comes into my room and rocks me for an hour in the pale yellow rocking chair I still have in the corner of my room from when I was a baby. I let her, just because I miss her so much. I sort of like it but sort of don’t. What does she think she’s doing? I used to love her hugs but now they make me feel smothered and afraid.
“Why can’t we just rewind time back to when you were my baby?” she whispers. “Then everything would be ok. I’d know you’re always safe.” Her voice is thick and drugged. Her brows are furrowed and there’s drool coming out the left side of her mouth. She feels so stiff, like she wants to cry but is holding it in. She is so fragile. I start to panic. “Mom, I love you but I’ve gotta read for English class tomorrow, ok?”
“Ok, sweetheart. I miss you so much.” She lifts herself out of the rocker, wincing as she takes her arms from around my neck.
“I know I’m the worst mother right now. I’m despicable.”
She pauses and says, “Just give me some time, sweetie, ok? I’ll come back for you, I promise.” She tries to smile but it looks more like a grimace. She creeps out of my bedroom, hunched over. A bald spot is forming on the back of her head.
I go over to my desk and pick up a pen. I’ll come back for you, I write in black ink on the inside of my right hand just a little too hard, hoping that she means it.
Three AM. I can’t sleep. I open my bedroom door to find my mother wandering the halls in her raggedy pink nightgown. Up and back she paces. Part of me is scared she will jump over the balcony onto the white marble tiled foyer. But I can’t make myself move. I stand there and watch her for a few minutes, then get under the covers and shine a small flashlight on the five words imprinted on my right hand. I will myself into believing them.
The next night my parents have a huge argument. I can hear them through their bedroom door. ”Susan, do you want to ruin Heidi too? Do you want her to turn out like you?” I imagine my dad standing over her, pushing his hands though his dark thick hair as she lays nearly lifeless on their satin sheets. I crawl under my warm covers and curl up, try to ignore the shouting coming from my parents’ room. I can’t decide what’s worse, their angry yells or the silence that cloaks our house most of the time now. Today I found out that Chloe was sitting in the seat I normally sat in. I should be the one who’s dead.
I’ve been thinking all day about what I was doing at 7:38 AM, the time of the accident. At the exact moment poor Chloe was killed, I was clueless, jamming out to some Paul Simon tunes in Dad’s red convertible and complaining about my braces.
I haven’t been allowed on the school bus since the accident. Dad picks me up after classes one day and says that Mom had to go into the hospital.
“She took too many of her pills. I found her on the kitchen floor after I took you to school this morning.” His brown eyes well up with tears as he peers sideways at me to see if I understand what he’s saying without coming straight out and telling me she’s tried to kill herself. “It’s not a regular hospital, honey,” he says, his tanned face glum.
“It’s one that helps people get their lives back in order. Hopefully the doctors can give her some medications to make her better.”
“I wasn’t born yesterday, Dad.” I look squarely at him. “I’ve read The Bell Jar.”
He looks shattered and I feel awful for my flippant tone.
The first night my mom is in the hospital Eric texts me at 1 AM in the morning. “What the fuck? Did you have any clue about your mom and my dad?”
“What u mean?” I text back, confused.
“Meet me in my back yard ASAP.”
I’m feeling woozy from the Ambien I stole from my parents’ medicine cabinet earlier. Somehow I stand up, put on lip gloss, pink lace underpants, and then slip downstairs and out the back door.
Eric is pacing so fast my pulse starts racing as I watch him. His eyes dart all over the place, and I can smell alcohol and a barely contained fury rising off of him. He rushes over to me, grabs me hard and shakes my shoulders. “Heidi, did you know and not tell me? Did you–”
“What are you talking about? You’re scaring me!” I try to pull away but he’s holding me tight.
“My parents had a huge fight tonight. I heard my mom screaming that it’s all Dad’s fault that Chloe is dead.” Eric waits a beat, looking hard into my eyes. “He was sleeping with your mom.” His voice breaks, and he starts jumping up and down as if he doesn’t know how to calm himself. Then he stops and just glares at me.
I’m suspended again in a rush of silence that takes my breath away.
“There’s more, Heid.” His eyes can’t focus. “Apparently my dad had planned a romantic day for your mom. I was visiting Vassar with my mom that day, so it was only Chloe and my dad in the house.”
Stop!” I shout at him.
“No. You wanna know why? Because your mom is the reason Chloe is dead. My sister woke up that morning with a low fever and said she felt awful, but your mom convinced my dad to send her to school.” He’s sobbing now. “Your mom. Your selfish mom. How could she do this? Chloe had no clue your mom was hiding in my parents’ room.”
With that, I’m looking at Eric and myself from a distance. The trees behind us look all trippy in the moonlight; they’re swaying back and forth and the leaves are fluorescent blue. I get all tingly and hot and start breathing fast, the feeling of being removed growing stronger by the moment. If I just hold my breath long enough I might fly away.
“They’ve been having an affair for a year.”
This brings me back to earth too fast and too hard.
“You’re lying.” I break out of his grip and run as fast as I can. When I get inside the house I slam the door, only to hear Eric banging on it.
I rush upstairs to my parents’ room. The worst part is, I don’t doubt what Eric has told me. I know it’s the truth. It all makes sense now. My mother, who has been so wonderful all of my life, is in fact a selfish liar and a cheat.
Dad is sitting straight up in the bed. He looks like he’s been crying. I notice he’s grown an unkempt beard.
He doesn’t answer.
“Dad is it true?” I’m shivering now. “Did mom have an affair with Mitch?”
My dad looks down.
“Dad. What the hell?”
He slowly looks up then moves to the foot of the bed, turns sideways, and clutches the ottoman right below the bed to steady himself. He looks like he’s about to fall over. Everyone I love is unraveling.
How. Dare. She.
I run back outside in a frantic frenzy. Eric is sitting under a large maple tree in our front yard. A joint dangles from his right hand. He looks totally spent. I’m still drawn to him. I always felt lucky that he wanted to make out with me from time to time.
I sit down next to him. His head is lowered to the side of his right leg. He flicks his joint and looks up at me.
“Want a hit?”
Why the hell not? I should be dead, after all. If my own seemingly perfect mom can have an affair, I can smoke a damn joint. No big deal. The thought leaves me feeling dangerously untethered.
I take a hit and slowly feel calmer.
Eric looks at me. His blue eyes are so inviting, and I feel so sorry for him too. He leans in for a kiss, and I go for it, comforted by his lips, his arms around me. I need him. He gets what I’m going though. Nobody else does.
The next thing I know we are having sex. It’s my first time and I don’t try to stop him, like I did the last time. It feels good. I tell him to do it harder.
We sneak outside at midnight to have sex in the woods several more times over the next few days before he is off to visit another college. Eric is the only thing keeping me alive right now. He’s the only person I can look forward to all day. I crave him.
When Mom comes home from the hospital I’m waiting at the front door. What if she tries to kill herself again?
Dad tries his best to hold up her bony frame as she walks up the sidewalk in her pink silk raggedy night gown my dad brought for her to wear home, which apparently has become her uniform. Her hair is cropped short and she’s pale. She’s still breathing heavily, which makes me want to turn away.
“Heid, I’m so, so sorry.” She starts bawling the minute she sees me.
I feel like I’m going to throw up.
“I’ve been to hell and back, Heidi, you have no idea. Please, honey, come here and give me a hug.”
“I can’t.” My words sound dead. She seems oblivious to my glare.
“My psychiatrist told me that I need to explain to you why I’ve been so depressed.” She sits down on our beige couch and pats the seat to the right of her, motioning for me to sit too. Dad sits to her left and puts his arm around her. Mom tries to hold my hand but I withdraw mine. She starts to cry, then gasps for air.
“Susan, let’s do this another time. You just got home. Let’s go get in bed and I’ll get you some tea” Dad picks her up like a baby and carries her off to their room. And there she goes; gone again.
Strange things start happening. I have horrific nightmares where I’m on the bus, in the seat. Chloe glares at me from outside the window, her eyes rebuking me, her face all bloody. In another dream I’m the one in the accident and I actually die, which I thought was impossible in dreams.
I haven’t spoken to my mother in a week. She moves through the house like a ghost, avoiding me as much as I avoid her.
One morning after one of my hellish nightmares I barge into her room. There she is, sleeping, looking so innocent when she’s anything but.
“How could you? How. Could. You?” I know she hears me because her left knee jerks under the covers.
A few weeks later I’m staring at the stick I just peed on, waiting for two interminable minutes to pass. It’s the middle of the night. I’m nauseous, already knowing the truth in my gut. Two pink lines slowly come to life right before my eyes. I walk back to my bedroom, turn out the lights and sit in the darkness. I notice the little rectangular boxes of light in the houses across the street, revealing people doing normal things with ease. What are their pasts like? Did that lady dancing so giddily in her living room ever almost die? Was she ever pregnant when she was a teenager? Did she have an abortion and have to live with herself?
I can’t tell my parents. Or maybe I can. It’s all my mother’s fault. She’s the one who caused me to have sex with Eric in the first place. I certainly can’t tell Eric. He’s one second away from completely cracking.
I tell my dad I have the flu. I can’t even look him in the eye.
“Heid, is there something you want to tell me?” he says one time when he comes into my room as I lay on my bed in a catatonic-like state.
He takes my hand and looks at me with his understanding eyes and I want to tell him, but I just can’t. He’s been burned enough.
“No dad, really, I’m alright. I just have the flu-seriously, I swear.”
He walks out of my room with his head hung low.
I stay buried under my covers, rubbing my lower stomach. I haven’t slept for four days straight. Every time I close my eyes I picture a little mini baby with my green eyes, even though I know it looks nothing like that yet. Poor little thing. Tears well up in my eyes but they don’t fall. I’m numb.
I go into the kitchen and grab scissors from the utensils drawer. I stare at myself in the mirror and chop off eight inches of my chestnut brown hair. It’s been long since I was five. Now, it’s beneath my chin. I put my dad’s blue colored contacts in my eyes hoping this will put some life back in me.
Over the next few days I am starting to see inanimate objects move because I’m beyond exhausted. I decide to send myself into oblivion. I’ve never had anything to drink before but I know Eric likes bourbon. So does my dad. I pour myself a glass from the bottle in the living room bar; feel it burn as it slides down my throat. I keep pouring more until I feel calmer. Then I fall asleep. It feels so good to sleep, so I drink again the next night. My dad tries bringing me some tea but I tell him to go away; that I’m too sick to move.
In the shower the next morning the blood starts trickling down my legs. Relief mingles with grief into some awful indescribable feeling. I didn’t have to decide to get rid of it, even though I know eventually I would have.
I rush out of the shower, run naked and wet across the hallway and into my parents’ room where, not surprisingly, Mom is passed out cold. Even when she’s sleeping her eyebrows are furrowed. I wonder what she’s thinking. How much is she beating herself up over this? Her nightmares have got to be awful too. The familiar yearning for my mother rises in me. I push it down and open the top drawer of the dresser next to her bed. I pull out as many pill bottles as I can, pop three Seroquel, a handful of Xanax, and the remaining half a bottle of Ambien all into my mouth and swallow.
I wake up in the hospital to see my parents peering down at me in shock. There is airplane silence again. They are looking at each other before they notice I’m awake. Mom’s eyes look like they are pleading at him. Dad’s eyes are empty. He looks out the window. They’ve been crying. Mom is actually dressed in a pink sweater and has lipstick on. Am I hallucinating? It’s quite possible because I have no clue what medication is coming through the IV in my arm. Mom is patting my hair but stops suddenly when she catches me gazing at her. She tries to talk but it sounds as if she’s croaking. Then she takes a deeper breath and reaches for my hand but I move it away under the crisp white sheet.
My memory is foggy. I remember the pills. I can still taste the bourbon.
Then I remember the blood.
“The baby,” I whimper. “There’s no baby, is there?”
My parents look down and shake their heads. Why didn’t the pills do their job? Mom raises her head and looks me straight in the eyes, more confidently this time. There is life in hers again, just a dim spark, but it’s there. I see the patch of turquoise in her green left eye, the same patch that’s in mine. Those eyes are the ones that watched me during my piano concerts, the ones that shed tears when someone picked on me. Those eyes are the ones that have seen my excitement, embarrassment, and shame. Those eyes are no longer innocent. Maybe they never were. They now hold regret and sorrow. Both of our pairs of eyes have seen too much. As if she knows what I’m thinking, Mom’s trembling hand reaches for mine again. This time I grab hold of it.
About the AuthorAmy M. Neeren, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who has short stories published in Green Hills Literary Lantern and The Write Place at The Write Time. She is currently working on a middle grade book series and a short story collection, entitled “The Ties That Bind."