She sits at the kitchen table, a cup of cold coffee in front of her. This can’t be happening to her, to her perfect little family. She draws in a shaky breath and then releases it. She’d spent all her tears last night, leaving nothing for today.
But how had this happened? The Day had started out like most days. The kids had gotten up early, watched cartoons while munching on dry cereal. She’d given the baby a bottle. Then she and the kids had gone outside to feed the birds small bits of bread and to check on their garden. When they’d returned, her husband, normally a cheerful morning person, had started the day off arguing with her about how she loads or doesn’t load the dishwasher. She wishes she hadn’t become defensive, that she had promised to try harder, instead of getting sucked into a fight about other domestic chores, about the ways he comes up short.
She’d made him a fresh pot of coffee and wondered at the frown creasing his brow as he’d stared out the kitchen window. She’d gone up behind him and leaned into him, wrapping her arms around him, but he’d remained stiff, tense. She’d released him, turned her attention to the kids and reminded herself not to take it personally. After he’d finished his two cups of coffee, black, but extra sweet, she’d encouraged him to go for a run, knowing that always improved his mood. And when he’d returned to find she and the girls elbow-deep in flour and dough and their son taking his morning nap, he’d kissed her on her forehead and gone to take a shower.
For lunch, they’d packed a picnic, found a shady spot in the grass not far from the river, but near the playground. It had been all six of them, a rarity because of her husband’s hectic work schedule, and it had been a beautiful day. The girls had enjoyed spending time with their father. And with his mood no longer cloudy, he’d been a good sport, going along with their games of Leapfrog, Freeze Tag, and Duck, Duck, Goose. And they’d all laughed as the baby had crawled after them in the grass, trying to keep up with his adoring sisters.
Her favorite part of the afternoon had been when they’d all sat on the dock, their legs dangling over the river. She and her husband had been the bookends, their daughters between them, the baby cradled in her arms, drinking a bottle. She knew her husband felt it, too, the wonder of the moment as the girls giggled and waved to boaters going past.
It was later, dinnertime, the witching hour for small children, when life spiraled out of her control. She’d been cooking, chicken and rice, nothing fancy, but unable to give the baby her full attention and the girls were also busy, working on a project, something to do with fairies, “not suitable for babies, but especially not little brothers,” they’d said. Her husband had offered to take the fussy baby for a walk in the stroller. They’d go for a quick spin around the neighborhood, maybe back to the dock to see if any fishermen were arriving with their catch. “Just us men,” he’d said, picking the baby up from where he sat on the floor crying for his mother’s embrace.
She was just plating dinner when he’d burst in, out of breath, when he’d uttered the words that changed everything.
Her baby boy was lost in the river.
Her husband dropped to his knees, his hands pulling at his hair as tears streamed down his cheeks and a puddle formed on the floor from his wet clothes. “Help me,” he’d begged, but she could only stare at him in disbelief. And then she’d dropped the plate she was holding, chicken and rice crashing to the floor, the plate shattering, shards skidding across the floor.
She’d gone out the door, running. Running, unaware that she was shoeless. Later, she found out she’d been screaming as she ran, causing the neighbors to leave their dinner tables, to rush to their front doors and windows in alarm. And then she was at the river and there was the stroller parked next to the dock and it was empty.
Where was he where was he where was he? She ran up and down the dock, searching for her baby. She was too high; she couldn’t see him. What if he was under the dock? She jumped into the water without hesitation. She could find him. It wasn’t too late. It was summer, which meant there were probably two more hours of daylight left. He could be found; he could be saved. She could save him. Please, God, let her find her son.
Someone had called the police. Someone had pulled her out of the water, wrapped a dry blanket around her. They must’ve asked her questions, but she kept her eyes unblinking, fixated on the river, searching, unable to look away. And then someone had given her a sedative.
When she emerged from her bedroom, friends and neighbors were there, taking care of her girls, cooking food in her kitchen. The chicken and rice were gone. Clean laundry, neatly folded, sat in a basket next to the stairs. Someone had made a fresh pot of coffee. They studied her, cautious. How was she?
Where was he? Had they found him? Where was her husband? She was led to the kitchen table. It was late, past her daughters’ bedtime, but they had needed to see their mother, to know that she was still theirs, that she hadn’t also disappeared. The girls were instructed to kiss her goodnight. She knows they hugged her, remembers they pressed their puckered mouths to her cheek. But she couldn’t feel their thin arms tightly wound around her middle still thick from the baby weight she struggled to lose, couldn’t feel their moist kisses on her dry skin. She remembers her friend guiding her daughters out of the room, murmuring softly to them as they held hands, a chain of dark-haired girls with frightened eyes and trembling bodies. They glanced back at her, their mother, before disappearing down the hall. She heard their footsteps as they climbed the stairs, pictured them entering their bedrooms, two girls to one room and the oldest to her own room, swapping their shorts and shirts for pajamas, brushing their teeth.
And then with the children safely out of earshot, they told her what she’d missed. Told her they’d found him about a mile upstream. Told her that they were holding her husband for questioning, that there might be charges against him. Told her that they’d confiscated their phones, their computers, that she may be needed at the station to answer a few questions about the events leading up to…
Their voices had faded away. They couldn’t say the words and she was relieved. She wasn’t ready to hear them. Not yet. But she knew she’d have to face it. Knew she’d have to face the shrinking of her family in an unimagined instant.
And now she sits, drinking cold coffee. Although she isn’t drinking it. It is only there to create a sense of normalcy. Here she is, a woman sitting and having a cup of coffee. Nothing unusual about that. The neighbors, friends, have all gone back to their own full lives, leaving behind promises to check in, to continue to help her and her girls, just ask. Will she need their help? She does not know. She is waiting for the call that will tell her the future. Will her husband be released or will he be charged? He has always been her rock, always there for her. She doesn’t know who she is without him. She doesn’t know how to be a single mom; she doesn’t know how to be a breadwinner. She doesn’t know how to do this, their life, without him by her side. The future she’d envisioned was of one as a family of six, not a family of five, not a family of four, a house of estrogen. Did he– she clamps her hands over her face. She can’t go there yet. Instead, she will wait for the police to tell her something. She will wait for their account of what happened and then she will either accept it or reject it, but if she allows herself to speculate…well, she has to keep herself together. She must be strong, like steel. For her daughters.
The girls travel as a pack now, no longer independent. A moment ago she was alone in the kitchen and now suddenly, the three of them are in front of her, seeking comfort, attention, nourishment. She gives them animal crackers, agrees to let them watch television although they’ve already watched more than their allotted time. She touches their hair, trying to be their mother, but can’t help but think about the baby’s hair, his dark curls so soft, so fine.
She herds them back to the living room, hoping the snack and juice boxes will satisfy them. They settle on the couch, sitting so close together it is not obvious where one girl ends and another begins. She should stay, cuddle up to them and feel their heartbeats, match her breath to theirs, but she can’t just yet. Not until she knows her future. Their future. So she returns to the silent kitchen, to her cold coffee she will not drink and waits for the phone to ring, twisting her wedding ring around and around on her finger.
This was written for the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, which was given to me by Wendryn: Someone else is in control of a huge decision that will change the course of your life. I gave Barb Black this prompt: Sixteen saltines and a birthday card.
I am also submitting this for Trifecta’s challenge, which is simply to write 333 or more words.