I’m elbow deep in frozen entrees when Jenny walks into the Food-Mart. As I lean in, the cold air freezes my breath. My employee nametag taps against the glass as I set the last two boxes onto their stack. Jenny is standing at the front. I can see her eyes scanning the aisles, but she hasn’t found me yet. I’ve been trying to get ahold of her for a week, which in best-friend time is at least a month, maybe two. I force my eyes back to the pictures of full plates, mouthwatering dinners. I remember when I first opened one. The pale hue of the meat, unidentifiable chunks buried in the mashed potatoes. I pity the poor customers who impulsively toss a box in their cart. I hear Jenny walk up behind me.
“Thanks for falling off the face of the earth, asshole,” I say.
“Let’s go to the canyon.”
“Nice to see you, too. I can’t tonight, Oliver and I are going out.”
The canyon was our go-to spot in high school, the place we always went when we needed to get away, the few times I could actually drag Jenny out of her textbooks long enough to let loose.
“Not tonight, Immy, now. Let’s go now.”
It’s the summer before senior year of college. I can ditch the minimum wage for a day. “I could use a break anyway,” I say. “Stocking shelves at Food-Mart has become shockingly less glamorous than it used to be.” She laughs at that. Her laugh sounds different. “Just give me a second.”
I round the aisle and find Jimi topping off the cereal section. The man has been stocking shelves at Food-Mart for fifteen years or so, a truth made more impressive by his single arm, long and muscled to match the rest of his frame. Other than the rounded stump that barely pokes out of his red polo, his kids all look just like him. There are three boys and a girl. They come to visit sometimes, tearing through the aisles and jumping into his grasp.
“I have to leave early today.”
“Important business. Top-secret.”
“Fine, just don’t let the bossman see you.”
“Thank you,” I say. I lean forward to plant a quick kiss on his cheek, to which he rolls his eyes. Jenny and I head toward the back exit.
Jenny and John have been together for six months. They met at Jenny’s college, the ritzy stone prison reserved for the wealthy and masochistic. I stayed local, opting to commute from home and save money.
On the surface, the two are a perfect match, both fiercely ambitious, hailing from rich divorced parents who preferred to buy their children’s affection. Deeper though, their love is too much of everything. Too much touching, too much fighting, too much talking, too much sex. They take nothing in moderation. Jenny claims it thrills her. Says I wouldn’t understand because Oliver and I have been together forever. Though she’d never say it, I know she thinks we’re boring. This doesn’t bother me. I sometimes wonder if it should.
I glance into the backseat, noting the usually spotless floor littered with paper receipts and a few empty wine bottles. One lays sideways on the seat, leftover liquid sloshing from side to side. Jenny’s index finger taps the steering wheel like a hummingbird until we pull to the peak of the canyon.
The view is unrivaled. Though we’ve spent our whole lives here, it has only become grander with age. The peaks and plateaus appear as pieces of landscape unaffected by time. As though the deep tunnels and curves once stood tall, but were thwarted by the decades.
Jenny and I walk up to the railing, a long metal pipe covered in chipped white paint. As I stare at her, she stares ahead. Her fingers resume their hummingbird rhythm.
“Nothing matters when you see a view like this, you know? We’re all so small.”
Her eyes flick across the landscape hungrily. The craters of the canyon are reflected in the tired slopes of her face.
“There’s so much out there,” Jenny says.
I touch her shoulder carefully, as though the slightest contact will send her careening over the smooth white railing. She freezes for a moment, breath halted.
“John got me pregnant.”
My stomach clenches, my arm falling limply from her shoulder. I examine the slopes and peaks of the canyon. The jagged edges move into smooth walls, then swerve back up. There’s no pattern, just continuous change for miles, far beyond my field of vision, and none of it makes sense.
“Imogen?” Jenny says.
I grip the railing. “You’ll figure it out.”
“There’s nothing to figure out. Not anymore.”
It’s then that I remember the empty wine bottles in the backseat of her car and the days her phone went straight to voicemail. “Oh,” I say. My voice sounds far away, like an echo. I can’t quite catch my breath. Jenny takes a step back. I can feel her eyes on me, but she doesn’t speak again.
Neither of us move for a long moment. A woman with a round, happy face brushes past me, walks to the edge, her hand clasped tightly around a mousy-haired little girl’s. They point into the abyss, their faces shining mirror images. Before us the land rises and falls, gouged out piece by piece.
Late that night, I think of falling into space. Dropping through constellations, surrounded by pinpoints of light. Falling through the smooth void, not too fast, not too slow. I think of the soundlessness, how smoothly I’m tumbling, like a dance. My arms swoosh through the air, conducting the silence. The emptiness spreads across my skin, soft and tingling, until it encases me completely.
I close my eyes and picture Jenny’s fetus floating around in the darkness of her womb. I picture its pinprick hands grasping at nothing, searching for no one.
“How is Jenny doing?”
Grams and I are sitting on the back patio, bare feet brushing the stained wood. It’s been a few weeks since the canyon and I haven’t been back since. I’ve only seen Jenny a handful of times. Flipping back and forth between divorced parents, my grandmother became a sort of safe haven for Jenny, a constant since we were young.
Grams gives me that look, the one that tells me she already knows. I sigh. “She’s started yoga, says it’s helping. Still working on her med school applications.”
“Good,” Grams says. “She’s a good girl, that Jenny. A good soul.”
The tightness from the canyon returns, constricting my breath. “Why do you always say that?”
Grams looks up, surprised at the weight of my words. I don’t meet her gaze, afraid for what she might see. Afraid for what’s there.
“Imogen.” I blink a few times before surrendering my eyes to her. “Misguidance does not create a bad person, it creates a lost person. Everyone struggles differently.”
“Where do you draw the line?”
She says nothing.
I look away, staring at the thick white clouds that slide between us and the sun. I watch the shadows spread from our faces down our necks to our toes until all that remains is a sliver of gold sunlight on the weathered wood.
Grams has always called me a miracle child. Growing up, I always thought it was because she got a second chance to be a mother in raising me. A miracle that her daughter knew enough to leave me with someone who would love me as her own. I always felt special, like a gift. “My miracle child,” Grams would whisper. “My beautiful miracle.”
My mother left when I was three months old. She came into my room and walked up to the old crib, chipped from years of disuse. She wrapped a blanket around me, deep purple. Kissed my forehead. Stepped back. Shut the door behind her.
Grams never found out where she went or what happened to her. “I never really had her in the first place,” she told me. “So she was never mine to lose. But she was a good soul.”
I was eighteen when Grams told me the full truth about my mother. The whole story. The morning she pushed the bathroom door open and saw tiny pools of red dotted across the plush rug. The bloody hanger on the linoleum floor, where Grams found my mother curled up, pale and shaking. “What have you done, oh god, what have you done” repeated all the way to the hospital, an old beach towel pressed firmly between my mother’s slender legs.
A few hours later, my mother lay on the stark white sheets while the attending nurse spread gel across her belly. “A miracle,” the nurse whispered, seeing my tiny heartbeat still strong inside my mother’s womb. “An absolute miracle.”
Grams cried in relief and squeezed my mother’s hand. My mother looked away.
Oliver and I haven’t talked about what we’ll do after senior year. Future Talk, that’s what we labeled it at the very beginning, and it’s been avoided ever since. Movie date next week. Cousin’s wedding in November. Dinner tonight. That’s the extent of our planning. An unspoken agreement. Until this moment, this split second where I am picking up our dirty dinner dishes and he is sitting on the couch. The TV is on, but I’m not watching it. I set the dishes on the table, feeling the leftover food slide across the porcelain, almost off the side but not quite. I sit down beside him, hands resting in my lap.
“Do you want kids?”
He hesitates. Shifts in his seat. “I guess I haven’t really thought about it.”
The only light comes from the TV, casting a pale glow on his face. I look at him, this boy who is no longer a boy. I can picture him when we first started dating, when his face was rounder, soft, unsure. I see him now, stubble scattered across his jawline, sharp eyes, strong chin. But I cannot see anything beyond this moment and for the first time it scares me.
“What about you?” he says.
“Do you want kids?”
My hand has wandered to rest just below my navel. I slide it off quickly.
Something darts through his eyes but is gone before I can name it.
“Does that bother you?”
“No,” he says. Kisses my forehead. “Too young for that anyway.”
“But later, in the future…”
“You’re enough for me.” He kisses me again. “Always will be.” He gets up and walks into the kitchen, his back fading into the dark.
I think of my mother, swaddling me in purple cloth, pressing her lips to my forehead, shutting the door, and never coming back.
I picture Jenny’s baby crawling out of the womb, escaping in the night without looking back. I picture it growing up into a little girl with long thin hair like Jenny’s and dark blue eyes speckled with green. Then I picture her getting pulled back in, curled up and forced inside. I picture her in a tiny ball, shivering, pushing against the walls to find a way out of the darkness.
Jenny and John broke up. She said he was too much for her. As Jenny applies for med schools, my future remains uncertain. The semester will start up soon, but not much beyond that has come into my mind. We’ll both be seniors, then graduates, waiting for the world to eat us up. When I invite Jenny over, she brings one of her textbooks and we both lounge on the back patio for the afternoon.
“I have something to show you,” Jenny says suddenly, lips curling upward. She reaches into her bag. She fans out a stack of acceptance letters.
“Wow Jen, congrats,” I say. My voice sounds thin compared to hers. I smile. For the next few minutes she excitedly recites the pros and cons of each school. I nod with the occasional “mmhmm.” As she talks, I wonder if she thinks of the emptiness inside her, wishes for her stomach to curve and grow. I brush my fingertips against my own stomach, flat and pale.
Jenny laughs. Her eyes sparkle and I know. I know she doesn’t look back. Everything she wants is unfolding in front of her.
“I’m happy for you,” I say. It sounds hollow, breathless.
Jenny beams, flipping through her textbook once more. Her fingers slide over the pages, her eyes flicking from word to word, moving quickly from one thing to the next. Somehow her empty womb has made her full, and I wonder where that leaves me.
Thin cotton sheets are tangled and damp with the sweat of sex, wrapped haphazardly around Oliver and I. The room is pitch black, laden with silence. The lingering vulnerability as we lay beside each other, hearts calming to a normal rhythm, pushes something into my mind. A surge of openness, a desire to share, confidence unmasked by the darkness.
“I want to tell you something.”
His silence prompts me to continue.
“I’ve never really told you what happened with my mom. Other than her leaving. And it hardly matters now, so much time has passed. But I thought you should know. When I was a baby, before I was born, she didn’t want me. Tried to get rid of me. I was fine and everything, obviously,” I huff out a nervous laugh. “But it happened. Not that I remember it or anything.”
Oliver maintains his silence, still stroking my arm lightly.
“That’s all. Not that it matters, it was a long time ago.”
I swallow, waiting. After a moment, Oliver sighs. “People are hard to understand sometimes. My aunt did the same thing, except she went through with it. It’s a crazy world we live in.”
The air is heavy on my chest. “Yeah,” I say distantly. “Crazy world.”
Part of me wants to roll over, to fall off the side, to keep falling. I don’t. After a few minutes of silence, Oliver whispers into the darkness that he loves me. I close my eyes and pretend to be asleep.
I think of Jenny laying on a cold hospital bed with her legs spread open. The chill that crawls over her skin and burrows itself deep in her stomach. I picture the slick gel congealing on her skin, her fingers hovering above it. Then I think of Jenny’s baby being sucked out through a tube. I think of the sound it makes, the desperate whine of the machine, the squelch of a future disappearing into plastic. It’s like a final cry. A death rattle.
The summer is over. Jenny is heading off to college, then straight to med school at the end of the year, all the way in California. Though no one has said it out loud, I know that I may not see her again for a very long time.
It feels surreal as her car pulls into the driveway. I watch her get out, close the door gently—so unlike all of the times before, when she would slam it shut and sprint to the front door. Grams gives her a hug and whispers something in her ear. Wipes away some stray tears. Walks past me back into the house.
“Hey,” Jenny says. She approaches me cautiously, as though afraid how to begin.
I smile weakly.
“I never thought we’d be here,” Jenny says. She means senior year. As she talks, I look at her and it’s like seeing her for the first time. As though she’s this person I’ve never known, or am just now realizing is in the room. It’s like looking at Oliver on the couch, seeing Grams in the shadow of the clouds, like looking at pictures of my mother, and I don’t remember when my life became so full of strangers. I feel tears in my eyes and can’t connect them with anything, they have no source, nowhere to settle.
“Immy,” she begins. Then stops. She touches my shoulder gently. She pulls me into a hug.
I can’t find the breath to speak, so I nod briskly, sending a few scattered tears down my cheeks.
Jenny says goodbye. I watch her car turn down the street and disappear into the trees. After a few minutes, I climb into my own car. Grams asks where I’m going. I tell her I don’t know.
A breeze carries me to the edge of the canyon, just in time for rainfall. My fingers graze the chipped white railing. I look across the landscape. The peaks, the tunnels. I stare at the vast gouged-out land, the brokenness that people call beautiful.
To my left, there’s a woman and a man with a little boy standing between them. The boy is pointing into the canyon, hair flattened by the rain. His father crouches down, points with the boy, and speaks in a soft whisper. He’s smiling.
“I thought I’d find you here.”
I turn around, startled. Oliver is standing with his hands in his pockets, the hood of his sweatshirt up, eyes locked on me.
“How’d you figure?”
“You always used to come here. Grams said you took off. I was worried.”
He takes a step forward, inches away from me. He starts to speak, then stops.
I turn back toward the canyon. Feel the air through my hair, rain cascading down my face, encasing every inch. I think of my mother in a hospital bed, holding a soft baby in her trembling arms. I wonder if she looked at my peach fuzz hair and brown eyes and saw herself. Pictured my first smile, my first word. Saw me with thick curls and bright eyes. Or just saw her future eroding away. My fingers tighten on the railing. Oliver’s arms slide smoothly around my waist, across my stomach, holding me to him tightly. The rain picks up, the shape of the canyon blurry through the sheets of water. I feel like I’m spinning, falling through space into this emptiness that is and was never mine. Where do you draw the line?
The spinning stops. The rain pounds steadily all around me. I step out of Oliver’s arms, away from the canyon, and slowly become aware that I exist in a place entirely separate from here. Separate from Oliver, from Jenny, Grams, even my mother. The little boy is laughing beside me, being ushered into the warmth of his mother’s arms. The rain soaks me to the bone and for the first time in maybe forever, I can breathe.