By Julie Young
Kara skipped into our cluttered kitchen with a huge lace bow tied in front of her silky red dress. Her smile created dimples on each side of her porcelain cheeks; her caramel eyes sparkled with pride as her little fingers untied the bow and then dipped lace bunny ears in and out of the rabbit hole, just like my mother had taught her to do the day before. She pulled the ends nice and tight, giggled at the floppy bow that had one side bigger than the other. I clapped over the sound of the ringing wall phone. Swinging her onto my hip, her blond curls tickled my face as I answered it.
“Julie, can you drive us to the Children’s Phoenix Hospital?” Brandy, my 16-year old foster daughter’s breath was shallow, gasping, like a person suffering an asthma attack.
“Why?” Acid erupted in my esophagus.
“Cindy’s 12-year-old brother’s been shot in the head.” Cold hard truth ruptured my mind into a spiral of never-ending questions; my tongue tied into a knot of confusion. I clutched Kara to my chest, felt her warm body squirm in my arms.
“Her mom’s car’s in the shop. She needs a ride to the hospital.”
I didn’t know this child or his mother, but I could tell by the urgency in Brandy’s voice they had no one else to turn to. I glanced through the lakeside window; it was black outside, hard for me to see. Even in the harsh Arizona sun my eyes made me feel lost unless it was a route I knew by heart. At night I was a mole.
Breathing pulsated on both ends of the phone as I convinced myself the four-hour freeway drive from Lake Havasu to Phoenix was an easy path to follow. Straight lines from one point to the other lined with cactus, scorpions and unbearable heat. Brandy could act like my eyes when it came time to read the signs. Again, I looked out the window — saw darkness. Courage swelled in my chest as I said, “I’ll get there as soon as possible”
I hung up the phone, held my baby in my arms as I called my husband and urged him to come home. His gruff tone told me this tragedy was my fault—I allowed Brandy to go on dates with her boyfriend — I allowed her to stay out past eight —- I allowed her…..
I wanted this lovely girl to act like a normal child. Nothing was normal now. I thought I sent her into a world where she could slip painted toes under moist sand as she gazed into cherished eyes. Instead she was clinging to a plastic phone, begging for my help.
Time machines can’t even take one step backwards; there was only one way to go — the Phoenix Children’s Hospital with a desperate mother who needed more than a stranger’s hand to hold. Fighting with my husband would have to wait for a better day. I kissed my girls on the cheek and headed out the door, feeling my husband’s teeth grind to the bone as he watched me leave.
When I pulled up next to the stranger’s sterile middle-class house they were huddled at the curb under a street lamp. The mother, a boxy woman with short blond hair, the kind that looks like a swimming cap, hopped into the front passenger seat of my Corolla. The amber light cast her pasty face in eerie shadows drained, of what little color her German decent placed in her pigmentation. Her red eyes were dry as a desert tortoise’s shell. We exchanged greetings, but I don’t remember her name. She seemed too calm, almost as if she was just hopping a ride to the nearest grocery store, rather than the children’s ICU.
Brandy’s chocolate hair waved in the hot breeze as she scooted into the back seat. Cindy, the boy’s sister, built like a line backer and the same cropped hair as her mother sat in the center. Brandy’s boyfriend’s knees met his teeth as he squeezed in. I didn’t want the teenagers to come with us; their eyes were no longer young; they had seen gray matter spew out of a child’s skull; it was imprinted in their irises—ghost ships gathering souls.
“Brandy, what happened?” I asked after we sat quiet for close to 30 minutes inside the cramped car.
“They were playing with his dad’s gun. They didn’t think it was loaded. It was an accident.” She rattled off the details; a police blotter in full gear. She said their names, but I don’t remember. I only remember imprints on my heart.
“I didn’t think they’d play with it,” the ice in the mother’s voice shocked the occupants into denial. I wanted to ask about the police, the other boy, why the gun was loaded. My chatter-box was ripe with questions but I couldn’t get my tongue to work.
As I drove, the crystal sky was my ebony stallion on a midnight ride. It guided my astigmatic eyes through the darkness. My car became a chariot; a hero on a mission. I never once asked for guidance; it was as if I could see for the first time in my life where I needed to go; it was up to me to get there. I had to remain steady, hold the reins or my steed would bolt.
Once we got to Phoenix, the bright lights cut the twine on my tongue enough to chew stories. I made the teenagers laugh, just a bit. Laughter is good, I thought. It wasn’t their fault the boy was in critical condition. They needed to see diplomas in their future, rather than gravestones shrouded by grass. My questions disappeared until I, like the mother, was shopping for cabbage instead of pulling into the Phoenix Children’s Hospital parking lot.
We crouched in the floral waiting room. I looked into the mother’s lost eyes and said, “I know he’s going to be fine.” She smiled and nodded her head. What else could I say? Could I tell her the truth? That the Grim Reaper whispers to me before hearts stop beating. No, it was better to lie and perhaps share a moment of gaiety — the things they loved about the boy.
But then the grave-faced doctor told us we could see him. I didn’t want to see this dead stranger lying on a hospital coffin. There was no escape. I had to look. I had to see white bandages covering half his skull. I had to know him after dirt was tossed across his sheet-covered tomb. Look before the Reaper wrapped his last breath inside a star.
Time passed. As it did I made everyone laugh, even the mother who clung to hope, strangled by denial as if it was the string of sanity that kept her alive. We all hoped, only I lied. I had no hope. The dead boy was just playing hide and go seek before he crossed into the black night and rode the ebony stallion into the sky.
As the morning sun baked the picture windows, I could see the mother’s blue eyes, not a tear or even a drop of moisture could be seen inside the red lids. I had nothing left to give this woman who did not grieve. I couldn’t hold her in my arms or pat the top of her hands, so I left before the death sentence was announced.
Brandi, her boyfriend and I drove home in silence. There were no more stories, only sadness. I entered my home, hugged my girls and kissed my husband on his coffee-stained lips.
Twenty-five years later, the boy’s moon and the stars shine on me. This boy I did not know, but shall never forget. He kicks his spurs in the comet’s tail, latches his fingers in its mane, and sails across the Milky Way. Rest in peace dear No Named Boy. Your mother will soon ride beside you.
Category: Nonfiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing