I can’t tell you how I knew the text was from her but I did, and what’s more, I wasn’t even surprised to hear from her, which sounds unlikely, given that she’s been dead for twenty-six years, having selfishly offed herself the night before I gave birth to my son (who, I’d like to point out, she had agreed to godparent), but, in fact, if anything I was pissed that she hadn’t gotten in touch sooner, so when I got that text from “1969-94” that said to meet her at our old spot by the reservoir—at midnight of course, because that must be a ghost-thing—I have to admit that I had a bit of an attitude.
I thought of texting back and saying that midnight was just a little too clichéd, even for her, even for a ghost, but instead I found myself drinking iced coffee at ten-thirty at night so that I could stay awake past my usual bedtime and make the long drive out to the reservoir and finally meet with her and get a chance to ask her what the hell she was thinking thenight she saw fit to feast on a fistful of Valium—followed by, and just for good measure, the ragged slashing of her wrists in the bathtub of her mother’s condo in Myrtle Beach after which she proceeded to fill her lungs with bloodied water and—and this is the part that gets me—never even bother to leave a damn note to explain herself.
If I were to be completely honest, I’ve never liked leaving my house knowing I have to come back to it in the dark, and what with parking at a premium on my street, so—little trick I’ve learned—I made sure to leave lights on and the television mumbling, and a load of laundry sloshing so that it would feel like I was coming back to a peopled place.
I got there five minutes early but she had beat me to it and was waiting for me, curled like a mermaid on the boulder at the water’s edge where we used to smoke our dope as teenagers and practice reciting memorized passages from The Prophet, balanced on the rock with our arms out to our sides like we were Khalil Gibran’s priestesses.
You’re early, she said.
So are you.
I needed to think before I saw you.
I wanted to say she’d had twenty-six years to think, twenty-six years to think about how she had ripped my own life out from under me when she selfishly took hers, twenty-six years that—or so I imagined—she probably didn’t have a whole hell of a lot else on her plate and it would have been nice if she’d gotten back to me a little sooner and offered up something, anything, that could have made the last twenty-six years of crying buckets for what looked to everyone else like no apparent reason and out of the blue, a little more navigable, because twenty-six years of birthdays and holidays and mothers dying in ugly ways (both hers and mine) and children sassing and growing up and leaving and husbands falling away had triggered rage so scalding I could feel my eyeballs burning, despair so thick it sludged through my veins, and I would have appreciated a little gesture, just a small one, long before this, but all I said was that she had done a shitty thing and I was over it.
How long are you here for?
She didn’t answer me, but I watched her get smaller, so that when she picked up the pack of Virginia Slims—menthol, of course—that were set beside her on the boulder, and a little blue Bic Flick, lit herself a smoke and offered me one with a flip of the pack in my direction, her hand was smaller than the pack of cigarettes.
I quit, I told her, when I was pregnant—the first time.
You would think I’d remember that, she said.
You’re still pissed.
Jesus, of course I’m pissed.
Not everything is about you, she said.
I know that, or at least I think I do, and so I didn’t have much to say to it because as much as I knew it, it sure as hell feltlike it was about me, like it was all about the fact that I didn’t know it was coming, had no idea at all because we were all suffering from a degree of unhappiness back then, scrambling to catch up or figure it out or turn around or whatever it was we were supposed to do that we had no clue about even though most people were faking it better than we were, like our third wheel Marilyn Cotter who looked like she got it right when she married Thaddeus Parkton and they moved to the new gated community and hired a nanny and vacationed in Punta Cana every winter and Kelly Miller-Boucher who took up organic farming and using cloth diapers and started quilting when she threw out her television and suddenly had so much time on her hands, so how the hell was I supposed to stop something I never saw coming, that I never thought went any deeper than my own shit?
When I sat down beside her she got even smaller, her head only rising to my shoulder, and there was a heat coming off her that hurt—like when the inside of your wrist accidentally skims an oven coil—that took me by surprise and I couldn’t help saying so.
She only shrugged and drew on her cigarette, which now looked ridiculously long on her baby doll-size face, and even the smoke rings she snapped out were miniature, like something I could slide on my finger, drifting over my lap and onward, over the black obsidian of the reservoir.
I’m not going anywhere.
But by now she was the size of a Barbie doll, Bohemian Barbie with her smock top and her huarache sandals and her feathered earrings that I always coveted but she refused to let me borrow (because she could be a little selfish that way), but that I had—I admit—swiped once from her dresser late at night when she was sound asleep and Tony Barrino had rung me up for a booty call.
I stole those earrings one night, I said to her, flipping one that hung on her ear, the size of a hummingbird feather now so that I barely felt it on my finger, and I noticed that she had cooled to the temperature of something fresh-popped from the toaster.
I looked out over the reservoir and something mammoth, the color of the midnight sky, lifted off with a thick swoosh and skimmed out over the water, lifting, so perfectly matched to the night that I couldn’t actually see it, only track it by the stars it blotted and I was sorry, in a way, that I had taken the time to watch because when I looked back she had shrunk even more and was now sitting cross-legged on the edge of the cigarette pack, her legs dangling over the side.
Help me down, she said, and I cupped her in my hand, lifted her to me and still there was a warmth to her—something like the burnt sulfur tip of a blown-out match.
I couldn’t put her down and told her so, holding her to my chest, afraid to open my hands and find her gone, afraid she’d slip through my fingers, bounce off my lap and dash herself on the rocks.
I’m afraid I’ll lose you, I said.
I felt her walking along the shelves of my cupped fingers, like the lightning bugs we caught as children, kept catching, even when we were too old for such things, though as we got older we learned to let them go rather than stick them in jars by our bedside where they always perished by morning.
I opened my hands carefully and there she was perched in the webbing of my thumb and forefinger, delicate and tiny but with the hefty weight of a coin, seated cross-legged with her hands in her lap, like she’d settled in to meditate, and now there was a warmth to her—like a fevered child.
You’re so small, I said, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the whole of her in miniature, turning my hand carefully this way and that so I could see her from all angles.
Like a mountain, she said, which was an odd thing to say at first because she certainly was no mountain, but then I remembered the long drive we took the summer between our junior and senior years of college, so many miles together in an old woody wagon, headed west through Canada to Banff, Mount Temple rising over a crystalline Lake Louise, the jagged snow-capped whole of the mountain, and as we neared it, talking bravely of hiking it, imagining seeing it up close, exploring it from the bottom to the top, though neither of us had hiking boots or water bottles or any of the other things a serious hiker would have thought to bring along so when we arrived at the Chateau at the edge of the lake we spent the day wandering the perimeter of the oddly teal water and gazing at it from various vantage points, noticing the way the mountain was twinned beneath itself in reflection, and both knowing, I suppose, that the view was better from a distance where you could actually see that—yes—it was a mountain and if we had tried to climb it, we would never, in the green and rocky folds of it, have recognized it as the same mountain we viewed from a distance.
What should I do with you?
The way I see it, you have two choices: you can leave me here or you can take me with you.
I was careful when I slid her into my shirt pocket, let my fingers fall to the cloth and felt gingerly for the tiny pea-size bit of her, felt the small warmth of her on my breast.
Where should we go? she asked as we drove out along the silky edges of the reservoir, headed to where the road unfurled across a dark valley night-dotted with deer and geese, past the Boyle farm where we used to go to field parties and make out with dangerously drunk boys we were too stupid to be afraid of, past the country club with its evergreen lawns and a bartender she had surrendered her virginity to, over the bridge from which we once plunged into the black water back when gravity was our friend and the reputed dangerous currents were only a boogey man’s warning tale, through the town with its new Cheesecake Factory right smack next to PF Chang’s (because for some reason you never saw one without the other, I explained to her now), and the town’s new roundabout that used to be a four-way stop and which no one has managed to get the hang of over the last ten years, down the still too narrow main road and past the lonely library where our parents once believed we spent our Saturday afternoons, and onto I-83 which is still as pot-holed as it’s ever been (and she said some things never change and asked again, piping up from under my chin, where are we going?), and exited at the very end downtown where it comes to an abrupt halt and where—if it were daytime, I explained to her—there would be squeegee kids dipping like dragonflies, and then on, through the lights that flashed like a disco party and down, down, down into the heart of where I now live, a place she’d never been.
Shawn Nocher’s short work has been featured in SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, Moonpark Review and others. Her debut novel, A Hand to Hold in Deep Water, will be released June 2021 from Blackstone Publishing. She earned her MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and resides in Baltimore City with her husband and an assortment of sassy rescue animals and where she writes in a room of her own.