The day I have dreaded since the blustery winds of March is here. I squeeze my eyes tightly shut as if it would stop the coming hours. Open them – no good. The clock’s jump-rope-seconds go on. Tick, tick, tick. Whoever’s jumping rope is really good. Too good. Like how I felt on the Day. Suspiciously good.
Footsteps drum somewhere – in my brain or real life I can’t tell. Thump, thump, thump, thump. And then I hear a voice, colorful and chocolaty. Singing. And I know that my memory has tricked me. But I can still hear the song. The sweet, floating melody. The silence that follows it, and then only a distant phone with a white cord, ringing endlessly.Another familiar voice, this one sharp and unforgiving: “Out, out, out!” There is a knock on my fading bedroom door, “Nemy, up and out!” A few chips of dove white paint fall anti-climactically to the floor.
“Five more minutes?” I beg.
My father is silent. For a moment, I don’t understand. My groggy brain works slowly, puffing and creaking along. And then I remember. He doesn’t know I’ve spoken, because to him and the rest of the world, I haven’t. I reach for the door, stretching my giraffe neck arms to wrench the handle open and reveal my father in his blue striped pajamas, a Christmas gift from some distant relative. My grandma used to say we’re related to anyone you could name – taking great pride in the fact that we have some thin strand of relation to Harriet Tubman. I open my hand to “plead the 5,” as Mom would say. My father’s greying hair droops over his now colorless eyes. He has aged since last I saw him. Usually he is at work, and when he is home, I am in my room. His face, freckled with pain, sags.
“No, Nemy.” The sharpness fades to a dull mutter. “Up.”
Even more deflated than usual after this exchange, or whatever you would call it, I slog over to my tiny closet. The light hums. I turn it off. Maneuvering around the heaps of dirty clothes, I manage to pull on my regular outfit since Mom’s death – black sweatpants, black sweatshirt, black socks, black sneakers. The single bit of color is the silver and blue owl pin on my sweater. It was my last gift to my mother, and the only thing the recovery team could find of her in the rubble.
Emerging from my lair for what feels like the first time in a long time – I will occasionally leave to get a meal, but rarely and quickly – I am angry to see that the sun is still shining, like it was on the Day. Everything in my little den of a world has been dark. That is the way it should be.
“Nemy, get something nicer on and smile a little. Come on.” My father approaches warily, pushing my 12-year-old brother into the hall. “Eden, take a shower! Your hair is all over the place!” The door to the master bedroom slams and Eden and I are left slouching in the corridor. We don’t speak – I can’t and would just get angry if he did. I already am.
I slink back into my room and lean forward against the shattered mirror behind the door. It has been my punching bag in the days of hopelessness. My eyes scan my thin chapped lips, my flattened nose, my stringy once-curly black hair, my hollow chestnut brown cheeks. I stare into my reflection’s dull green eyes. Press my nose into the broken glass until I can’t handle the pain anymore, until I pull away with small points of blood welling on the tip. There is a scratching at the door. I hesitantly open it, careful not to show my nose as I peer into the hall. There stands Otto, my mother’s German shepherd, looking up at me with his big brown eyes.
Hey, Ot. I think to him. I kneel down and slap my knees, signaling him to come. He obeys and trots toward me, wagging his big black tail. He sits next to me, sniffs my nose, and proceeds to lick my wounds until the blood has stop flowing. There are small drops of blood on his tongue now, but Otto either doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care, because he simply licks his chops and lays his head on my thigh. I lightly stroke his furry head and grab a tissue from the floor – there are plenty lying around – to wipe the slobber off my nose. I lean over, kiss Otto on the ear, and gently push him off me. Then I cross over to my closet to change once again, throwing the tissue in the trash on the way. As I pull on the same knee length black dress I wore to Mom’s actual funeral, I remember her. I remember her warm nutmeg skin, her bright hazel eyes, and her laughter, loud and contagious. But most of all I remember her singing. Her rich velvety voice, deep but light-hearted, floating throughout the house. When she got mad, that voice was a force to be reckoned with. But she rarely did get mad. We were happy. And everything could have stayed that way. But she did the unselfish thing, like she always would, and went off to war to end terrorism. She was coming home. She was going to the airplane that would bring her home when the car drove past a motion sensor, which activated the bomb. The truck was shattered, and so was she. Her owl pin that I wear now still has a piece of shrapnel stuck in its left eye. It was supposed to protect her. That was in March.
It is September now, and I still live. I live on and on, a boat without a foghorn on a stormy night.
A reminder is shouted up the stairs: “Naomi, five minutes!”
I shake out of my memories. The fact that my father is using my real name already isn’t good. I carefully remove my mother’s pin from my sweatshirt, fasten it onto my dress, and make my feet walk across my room, into the hall, and down the stairs. My father never notices my cuts and bruises, so I don’t try to conceal my nose very much.
Ten minutes later, we are speeding down Chapel Street, my nose still stinging, past Newbury Elementary, past the post office, and into the Newbury Congregational Church, where the family remembrance day for Mom will be held. This is where all the relatives who couldn’t make it to the funeral come to mourn my mother with my remaining family. This is where they give us their empty apologies and their homemade chocolate chip cookies and chicken noodle soup. At least 30 chickens have been slaughtered because of my mother’s death.
Stained glass scenes of Christian faith – the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus, Jesus and his disciples, Jesus on the cross – tint the inside of the church. The smell of sawdust and sweaty people clings to the benches and to the altar at the far end of the hall. Relatives start to arrive; some gripping creased printer paper with meaningless memories of my mother, some looking curiously around and cringing at the smell in the hall, others with their eyes transfixed on their phones. Almost all of them carry baskets smelling of baked goods.
Eden and my father are graciously accepting these pity baskets, but I make no attempt to appear thankful. Around me, I hear whispers and feel glances burning into me. “Mute since Sandy died…” “Psychological trauma…” “Poor girl… and Greg’s at work all day…” “Don’t stare, Ed.” Silent as always, I take baskets and add them to the pile behind me. Grab, turn, drop. Grab, turn, drop.
“Naomi?” a cracked, wispy voice says, breaking me out of autopilot. I look up to see an ancient woman with a thin frame and a few tufts of dirty white hair. Her eyes, too big for her head, swim in sockets filled with a silvery goop. An overdose of shockingly pink lipstick covers her mouth, in contrast with her loose brown skin. I force my own mouth into a smile and gesture: Hello. She smiles back, but her eyes are forlorn. Uncomfortable, I nod curtly and start to walk away. But the old woman reaches out with her seemingly frail hand and pulls me back in front of her with a strong grip. “I am… so, so sorry.” I look around for an escape. And then my father is next to me.
“Florence. I’m sorry for my daughter – she’s still… in transition…” I don’t catch the rest of what he says because I am running, running blindly, out of the hall, out of the foyer, and collapse into the damp grass against the grubby wall of the church. Lean against the bricks and sob. I cannot take much more of this. This life, as empty as the words everyone says. “I’m so sorry about your loss.” “I miss her more than you can imagine.” “We’ll never forget her.” I punch them away, swatting at nothing. What have I done to deserve this? I’ve gone to church every Sunday, worshipped at every holiday, prayed every night for my mother’s safety.
And suddenly I am angry. Angry at my therapist for telling me to move on, angry with my father for working. Angry at God for cursing me with my life, angry with Mom for getting killed and leaving me. But mostly I am angry with myself. For being angry. I have never felt this before. And now I am silent, tears still tracing pathways down my cheeks. But the fresh tears don’t fall immediately. They falter for a moment on the edge of my eyelids, and then slowly drip down.
I look up at the sound of the church door slamming. To my surprise, my father comes out. He looks around. I shrink back against the wall. Apparently, I blend in well. He doesn’t notice me. He walks over to our blue Subaru, and gets into the driver’s seat. I watch in suspicion as the engine sputters to life and the car makes its way through the parking lot, onto Chapel Street, and out of sight.
I wait. Minutes pass, I can’t tell how many. It seems like hours. I hack at the grass, ripping the area around me into an angry weal of dirt. And then the Subaru comes shooting back, across Chapel Street, into the church parking lot, and parks sloppily. My father jumps out with more excitement than I’ve seen since before Mom left for the war and pulls open the back door of the car. Otto jumps down onto the asphalt. Eyes still blurry with tears, I sit up a little, just a little, so maybe he will see me. However, it is my father who sees me first. His face pulls back into a hesitant smile. He leans down to Otto and points over to me. Otto’s ears perk up as he sees me, and his uncertain walk quickens to a lope.
When they reach me, I click my tongue softly at Otto and he licks my face. My father stands awkwardly to the side. Good, I want to think. But I realize I feel sorry for him. I make a small motion for him to come over, small enough to keep my anger stowed away. He shuffles over and pets Otto’s soft head in small strokes, short enough that I have to look carefully to make sure my father isn’t hitting Otto’s head. He isn’t.
The sun still shines but it is less blinding now. I wonder if Mom is watching, and lightly finger her owl pin.
I pat the untouched grass on the other side of my moat of dirt. My father sits and we pick at grass in silence, Otto lying with his head on my knee in between us. Finally, my father speaks.
“How’re those cuts on your nose feeling?”