by Eric Sentell
She stares at the shirtless infant waiting for more baby food. Then she studies the kitchen. Lilac walls, white cabinets, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances.
“Where am I?”
The baby coos and wobbles in its seat. She studies its shapeless features, its bright blue eyes. Her lips quiver slightly. Working hard to form words, her mouth and tongue finally come under her control.
“And who’re you?”
Hours later, a man enters the kitchen asking what’s wrong with Abby, one hand loosening his blue-and-green paisley tie, a leather briefcase dangling from the other. His pleasant smile disappears when he sees a red-faced Abby screaming and shaking in the high-chair and a terrified Jennifer sitting in the floor with her back against the refrigerator and her hands clamped over her ears. He gawks at Jennifer for a moment, and then he drops his briefcase and quickly picks Abby up to his shoulder and begins bouncing her.
“What’s wrong with you? We never let her cry it out.”
“Where am I? Who’re you?” she asks while scrambling to her feet.
“Lisbeth, Abby’s gonna be scarred. We’ll have therapy bills for years.”
“Who are you? Where am I? Where’s Braxton? Jude? Where are they?”
He glares at her. “Who’re Braxton and Jude? What are you talking about, Lis? And what’s with the southern accent?”
“My name’s not Lis … Lisbeth.” She side-steps toward the kitchen’s other exit.
“What’re you talking about?”
“I am not Lisbeth, this is not my house, that is not my child, and I don’t know who you are, so tell me what’s going on, where am I, why am I here, who’re you, what’s fucking happening?”
Her breath spent, she pants while holding a calming hand to her chest. He says nothing and stares as though hypnotized. She notices his round face and large, love-me-please blue eyes, thinks he’s adorable, and then wonders how she could possibly think of such things at a time like this.
The man continues staring and slowly stops bouncing Abby. The unanswered questions hang in the air, refracting the light, distorting her to him. “What happened?” he asks. “What’s this about?”
She removes her hand from her chest and pushes air toward him in rhythm with her words. “I am not Lisbeth. I have never seen you or that baby or this kitchen in my life.” She stops and stares into his eyes, letting her words sink in. Then she hugs herself and scans the floor for nothing in particular as she continues. “The last thing I remember, I was feeding my baby, Braxton, and then I was here, feeding her – Abby. I didn’t want to leave her alone. Are you her father?”
“Yes, and you’re her mother. I don’t know what this is all about, but you’re sick.”
He opens his mouth but doesn’t speak. Realization slowly settles onto his face. Realization that the question was completely genuine, that her accent hasn’t gone away, that something is very wrong.
“Impossible,” she mutters. She creeps to the stainless steel fridge and looks at the small calendar positioned at her eye-level. A painting of the three crosses overwhelms the current month. She frowns.
Her frown deepens at the date. 2012. She searches the fridge for answers and notices pictures of her and the man at a carnival. On a beach. At a wedding reception, her in a bridal dress, him in a tux. A newborn lying on her stomach, legs tucked under, blissfully asleep. A three or four month-old Abby in a white, frilly Easter dress with a yellow flower headband, her and the stranger posed above and against a black backdrop, smiling like a happy family.
She turns and slowly backs away, asking, “What’d you do? Drug me?”
“I’m not Lisbeth!”
“Okay, okay, just calm down.” He studies her. “Listen, just wait, wait right here. I’m not going to hurt you. I’ll be right back.”
He carries Abby past her and down a hallway off the kitchen. She follows and watches as he enters a bedroom and closes the door. Then she retrieves a long, wide knife from the butcher block on the kitchen counter and tip-toes down the hall. When she puts her ear to the door, she hears the man say, “This is Dan Holland. Can I speak to Dr. Stanley immediately? It’s an emergency, it’s Lisbeth.” She listens until he begins describing her behavior.
At the front door, she finds a worn leather wallet and two sets of keys in a small dish on a table. One for a BMW and one for a Lexus. She takes everything.
The Lexus chimes and blinks its lights as she uses the electronic keys to lock it from the outside. She hops in the BMW, a black SUV, backs out of the driveway, and arbitrarily navigates through a suburban labyrinth before finding a major road.
She drives for hours without knowing where she’s going, but things eventually begin to look familiar, in a vague, surely-I’ve-been-here-before sort of way. Street by street, highway by highway, town by town, she regains her orientation and drives more and more purposefully, more and more by muscle memory.
Every so often, a highway patrol car appears in the opposite lane. She slows a little, stares straight ahead, and tries to appear relaxed. They pass each other without incident. She watches her rearview mirror to make sure the officer doesn’t turn around to pursue her. Then she sighs and tilts toward the wheel, both hands gripping it tightly.
Dan Holland sits between his parents on a tan leather couch, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasping his head. His mother gently rubs a circle in the center of his back. Abby wobbles between his father’s hands, happily dancing on his thighs. Steven, his brother, leans forward in the matching recliner, searching for something comforting to say. Everyone but Abby is very quiet and still. No one can fathom what might have happened to Lisbeth or where she might have gone. And the police have refused to consider her a missing person until another forty-four hours have passed.
The phone rings. Dan crosses the room in three quick steps, hoping the caller might be Lisbeth. He deflates when he hears Dr. Stanley’s nasal voice.
“Have you heard from her?” he asks.
The doctor says nothing. Dan squeezes the phone and forces himself to wait patiently.
“Dan, I’ve consulted with multiple colleagues, and we agree that a conclusive diagnosis can’t be reached until we run some tests. Finding Lisbeth is paramount for her immediate safety and whatever treatment she might require.”
He begins quizzing Dan, trying to jumpstart his search. Only then does he realize how little he knows his wife. No known family, no college attended, no friends ever mentioned. No high school or hometown claimed. Just “an awful little school in an awful little town” that Lisbeth said she wanted to forget. Dan hadn’t pushed for details. Whatever she had escaped, he didn’t want to make her relive it. So wherever she went, he can’t follow. He hangs up in the middle of yet another question he can’t answer.
She eases the BMW over a decrepit wooden bridge and drives as fast as the slick gravel road allows, pumping the brakes to navigate curves and avoid deer. Around a blind curve, the tree line breaks on her left. She skids to a stop, backs up, and turns into the opening, following the tire tracks worn in the grass. A distant house appears in her high beams and grows larger as she approaches.
An old Ford Lariat sits in the open next to the house. She grips the wheel tighter, breathes shallower, swallows harder. She parks behind the mud-colored truck and kills her engine. Her lingering lights light up half the house. It needs painting and still lacks gutters and shrubbery. Several shingles look ready to blow away.
Now that she’s here, part of her wants to leave. But she says to herself, Braxton’s inside, Braxton’s inside, Braxton is inside. She grinds her palms into the steering wheel and sighs into the stifling air, listening to the rapid ticking of the cooling engine; it seems to be synched with her heart.
Jude exits the house through a side-door, triggering the motion-detecting light attached above it just as her lights die. He walks around the Lariat and stops ten feet from her door. He wears an unbuttoned plaid shirt with a white cotton tank top underneath. His jeans are nearly worn through at the knees, his old boots scuffed and caked with dirt. He rubs his beard and squints at the tinted windows.
She steps out and shuts the door, quickly, before she can reconsider.
He sees her, blinks hard, and shakes his head as though to clear it.
He stares in disbelief. She stares back, holding his eyes. They appear black in the dim light. Moonlight glints off some gray hair she doesn’t remember. His rust-colored face and neck are a little heavier. Nearby insects and frogs drown out their breathing.
Jude starts to speak but stops. He studies her, glances at the BMW, and then meets her eyes again. “Where’ve you been?”
“I don’t know what happened, but just list—”
“Three years,” he says. “No good-bye, no note. Where the hell you been?”
“I’m trying to tell ya.”
They turn to the open door beyond the Lariat, to the yellow light spilling around the small boy framed in it, and then back to each other. Jude’s chest slowly rises and falls, once, twice.
“I’m coming, Braxton,” he says with false happiness.
She puts her hand to her mouth as Jude hoists him to a hip and walks inside without shutting the door. She hesitates but then takes it as an invitation.
The cracked linoleum still hasn’t been replaced. The old wooden countertops bear the same coffee stains and chipped edges. On the yellowed fridge to her left, a cross-shaped magnet holds some church flyers among a scattering of other magnets holding crude crayon drawings. Jennifer frowns at the cross and flyers, winces at the drawings.
Stains discolor large patches of the orange-yellow carpet in the living room beyond the kitchen. A 1980s television with bunny ears rests on a cheap TV stand in the far corner, next to a cloudy window looking into the backyard. A faded, worn-out couch stretches against the opposite wall. Dirty plates and glasses lay on the weathered table in the dining area to her right.
A leather-bound bible and stack of Journey devotionals lay in front of one chair. She can explain the bible’s existence. It was Jude’s family bible, his grandfather’s originally. But she can’t explain its presence outside of Jude’s nightstand drawer. And the devotionals are obviously new yet well-read, their covers glossy but creased, some corners bent, a few paper bookmarks protruding.
Little has changed since she left, and everything has changed.
Jude rests against the kitchen counter, balancing Braxton on his hip. He speaks softly. “Three years since I came home ‘n you were gone. Three years me thinking God-knows-what-happened, taking care of our son myself. Where ya been, Jen?”
She smiles weakly. “I miss you sayin’ that.”
“Answer the question.”
“I will. But don’t you think it’s too late for Braxton to be up?”
“I been raising him just fine without you.”
“Don’t get upset, stay calm.”
She can tell he doesn’t care for this, but he doesn’t react like she expected. He just raises his eyebrows for a moment and then cocks his head.
Jennifer licks her lips. “I’m not sure where I was. Some suburb near Atlanta, I think. I don’t know what happened, Jude. I woke up this afternoon, only I’d been awake all day, just not awake. I was dressed, I was feeding ….”
She trails off. He waits patiently.
“The last thing I remember … I was feeding Braxton.” Her voice catches, wavers, or breaks as she continues. “Then today I woke up somewhere else … wearing these clothes I’d never seen before. In this kitchen I’d never seen before. I was living somewhere I had no memory of … and now I’m back here.”
Jude nods carefully, thoughtfully. “The sheriff figured I kil–.” He stops himself and glances down at Braxton. The boy appears undisturbed, so he looks up and continues, “He figured I was responsible for you missing. I barely got ‘em to stop interrogatin’ me so they could look good. Even then, they kept looking on our land. Never even thought about your suburb near Atlanta.”
“Then what?” she asks.
Gazing at the floor, he shrugs and answers flatly, “Didn’t find you. Moved on.”
“I hope you haven’t moved on too far.”
Now he glares at her. “So you want to come back? Just like that?”
“Jude, I don’t know what happened to me, but I didn’t leave, I mean, I left, but I didn’t leave. You know?”
“No,” he says, “I don’t know.” His voice strains up a few octaves, more incredulous than angry. “And I can’t fucking believe yo—.”
“Jude!” She cuts him off. “Not in front of Braxton!”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he says matter-of-factly. “Certainly not now.”
She gestures to the bible and devotionals on the table. “I see you’re a church-goer these days,” she says lightly, aiming a smirk at Jude. “Is that how they talk at church? Is that what Jesus would do?”
He surprises her again. He doesn’t yell, doesn’t even reply. He inhales and exhales deeply, slowly. Then quietly, “I kept loving you after you left, but I hated you, too. I wore down, I wore down real bad. One day, something in me … opened up. There happened to be a revival at the church. That was almost two years ago now. It’s been good for me, real good.” His voice lifts in what could be sarcasm or sadness. “Only reason we’re still talking.”
“Go ahead, Jude. I don’t see Jesus here keepin’ ya from it.”
But he just shakes his head at her challenge. And then she feels panic swell deep in her gut and rise through her chest and into her throat. Her breath is harder to draw, her eyes warming and moistening by the second. Then she realizes why she has pushed his patience. If he’d just yell and scream at her, stomp around like an idiot, pull his hair, then she would know love for her still exists somewhere inside him.
Jen’s face softens, then crumples. She covers it with both hands. Jude goes limp and lets Braxton slide to the floor. Her sobs fill the small kitchen along with the droning of the fridge. Braxton studies his mother as she cries with slow, shuddering breaths.
Then Jen feels something touching her legs. She uncovers her face and looks down at Braxton peering up at her, his palms planted on her thighs.
“It’s okay,” he says. “It’s okay. Don’t be sad.”
She laughs softly and looks to Jude.
“It’s something he does when you look upset.” Then he enters the living room and plops down in his recliner.
It’s not much, Jen thinks, but it’s enough for one night’s stay. She picks up Braxton and sits on the faded couch with him in her lap. She hopes, she prays, that their grace lasts.
Category: Short Story