I’ve probably read too much Stephen King lately. I started this story, then left it to fester for a while as I was distracted with life matters. Then I read King’s brilliant On Writing, and I felt motivated to finally let the story take me where it wished rather than forcing myself to plot things out. It didn’t go as I planned. That’s a good thing. So here is the very rough draft so I don’t revise it and decide I hate everything. Needless to say, it’s a bit dark.
Do you remember the way the gulls used to argue among themselves when we were near? Oh Annabelle, I’d say they just wanted to be near you, but you’d just shove me and insist that they could smell dinner on us, the cheap packets of chips or split servings of some absurd ice cream you wanted to try. They refused to give us a moment’s peace, screaming over our thoughts until no words stood between us, no room to vocalize doubts. You always hopped from that picnic table before I did, fleeing down the beach until you’d shaken the stigma. The birds cried out and tried to get away as you stretched out your arms to embrace, or maybe to intimidate. They could not quit you, Annabelle, and know that I cannot either.
Jill considered leaving the car, but the luxury of a heated seat was far too compelling even in March. She would have to settle for cracking her window just an inch in order to let the smoke escape her cigarette. At fifty, she had officially bucked the habit half a lifetime ago, but nobody ever bothered to check her nicotine-free boasts against the sacred domain of her glove compartment. She’d considered other options like the so-called “e-cigarette,” with its laser pointer glow and inoffensive vapor, but she preferred the ritual of masking the scent and getting away with something.
Besides, she felt a distinct comfort in the routine of lighting up. It took her back to a time before she had hair more white than blonde, back when her hands were smooth rather than worried bone and vein. She tried to remember her life before she had become a mother, but she’d visited those thoughts so many times that they became worn like photographs exposed to too many dirty fingers and too much sunlight.
She knew she should have worried for her son sitting out in the cold, a dusting of snow settling on his body as he held vigil on the picnic table. The minutes slipped away, one cigarette lighting another in the inevitable collapse of free will. She just couldn’t make herself care anymore. Perhaps she was a terrible mother, but two and a half decades of experience had taught her that guilt was always the best sort of pain because it was self-inflicted.
She tried to convince herself that she hated these moments of isolation, when she and Aiden were alone together but separated. She just lacked the energy to continue the lies. The minutes she spent delicately applying her perfume were a luxury, and she savored the challenge of being subtle. Part of her wished that someone would accuse her of having an affair so she could laugh and insist that she had done nothing wrong. At least then she might have some company as she sat for an hour every day, waiting for her son to wordlessly shift himself into the backseat to be chauffeured back home.
Usually she had to let the car’s horn wail mournfully for a few minutes before her son would appear, but this time Aiden was early. She’d barely had time to reapply her lipstick and flip open a crossword puzzle–the same one she had been working on for the past five weeks, not that anyone ever took the time to investigate. She turned the key to kick on the engine as he approached, preparing herself for another moody silence. But Aiden was not in his usual mood. She could tell by the way he shook his fist at his side as he walked, as though he were just looking for a target to strike. When the passenger’s side door opened, she had to keep herself from wincing. She didn’t fear her son and knew he would never commit an act of violence against her, but she did not want to be swept up in his tempestuous darkness.
An endless litany of Pink Floyd provided the soundtrack to their trips. Aiden was particular about that. She knew she shouldn’t cater to his whims so much–he was twenty-five years old, for God’s sake–but she preferred to pick her battles. The mellow tunes were easy to filter out, and she could get lost in her thoughts as her son hummed to himself in the back. This time he sharply snapped the volume down on the radio before he even buckled his seat belt. “Where did it go?”
She closed her eyes and set her nerves to their most patient setting. Suddenly two cigarettes just did not seem like enough for where her day was going. “I’m not sure.” She kept her eyes trained on the rear-view mirror to back out of her parking spot. The ride home was only fifteen minutes, and then she could disappear into a long bath. “Maybe if you told me what ‘it’ is, I’d be more helpful.”
“It.” He waved his hand at the windshield like the gesture might provide some sort of clarity. Slouched down in his seat with a pout on his face, he looked more like a teenager than an adult. “You know.”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“The bottle. Our bottle.”
“Oh, that it?” Once a week they had this conversation. She’d mentioned it to his therapist, who had encouraged her not to lie. She did anyway. She knew her son, and she knew it would only upset him further if he knew the truth. It wasn’t time yet. “Maybe someone finally got around to cleaning that place up a bit. It’s not very sanitary, you playing around with that old thing.”
“I’m not playing around with it. How else am I supposed to talk to Annabelle? You won’t even let me see her.”
“We’ve been over this. You remember when we went by her house. She wasn’t there. She’s just out of town.”
“Then why is the bottle missing?” He crossed his arms and glared at his mother, his slate eyes growing icier by the moment. “I think Anna has it. She must be reading my letters. You’re a liar.”
She could hear his voice continuing with heated accusations, but she ignored him. I am a liar, she reminded herself. The guilt lanced her through, but she only felt relief.
“Keep your voice down.”
Phillip opened his mouth at once to argue, but for once he contained his outburst, even if the effort made his face redden. Jill even referred to these moments as his “pink moods,” as though a cute nickname would help him see the truth about himself. Of course he had banned her from ever using the term in the heat of these battles.
“You have to stop lying to him. He’s not a child anymore,” Phillip said. Their son had been home for two months, spending most of that time holed up in his bedroom. He would have locked the door, but the doctors had convinced them that it was important to put his safety above any concerns over privacy. They’d replaced all of the doorknobs in the house just to be sure, but most of the time he was oblivious to them as he remained in bed, staring at the television or scribbling in his notebook. He showed less interest in life than a brooding teenager.
“He is my child. Our child,” Jill reminded him. He really had no idea. Through it all, Phillip had still gone to work. His construction business was successful but only just, and passing responsibility on to anyone else would be to sacrifice profits. There were too many bills for that to happen. Phillip had insisted that the best way he could help Aiden was by continuing to put food on the table and to keep their bank account from overdrafting, but he expected too much. He wanted family dinners at the same table, active conversations about how their days went, Aiden taking an interest in the family business in order to get out of the house.
“You spoil him too much. He’s never going to snap out of it if you just let him do whatever the hell he wants. If he wants to pout up there all the time, maybe we ought to show a bit of discipline around this house.”
“You can’t do that. We don’t know what he went through when he was away. He won’t even talk about it. He must’ve been so scared.”
Phillip’s well-tanned hand curled around his glass, flexing the muscles in his fingers against something so fragile. It felt like the best way that he could relieve his stress. “Well, he should be.”
She had been making pasta. Well, she’d put a pot of water on the stove to boil. Any time she tried to cook something more complicated in order to bring her family together, or to lose herself in the tedium of a recipe, or to just treat herself to something that didn’t come out of a can or a box, she lost her focus. Her husband refused to eat anything burnt, raw, or otherwise improperly prepared, so pasta was one of the easiest options. Also a grand saboteur of her waistline, hence the lure of the secret cigarette. She felt the need for a smoke as soon as he had growled out that simple disagreement. She also felt the need to throw the pot in his face, but she knew that the metal would do more damage than the lukewarm water itself.
She wanted to dare him. Make him say it again. Tell him to expound upon it so he could make it absolutely clear to her exactly why he hated their son so much. It would at least make things a little easier for her, having him admit that he no longer wanted to be part of this family.
But the doctors. They wouldn’t approve. They would take him back to that horrible place, and she may not get her son back this time.
She arranged her supplies on the counter. Penne pasta (whole wheat only), tomato sauce with chunks of what had been graciously labeled “garden vegetables,” grated cheese that was somehow stable at room temperature. She considered browning some meat, decided against it. “Our son is a better man that you will ever be if you can think that about your only child,” she told the materials in front of her. It was easier than seeing the shade of his face again.
Behind her, a chair committed violence against wailing linoleum. “You know what he did to that girl!” Phillip shouted. (Did she, though? She knew the stories.) “Just because you both pretend that everything’s the same doesn’t mean it is! I try to talk to him about it all the goddamn time, and he just stares at me like I’m the crazy one. Me. Which one of us just got out of the funny farm?”
“Don’t say that.”
“Say what? That our son is crazy? That boy is a fucking lunatic, and you let him into our house where he just sits around pining for her. After all that!”
She closed her eyes. This was every day for her. She walked on a wire’s edge between defense and progress, knowing that either chose would leave her bloodied and weak.
“The pasta sauce probably has too much salt. Not good for your heart,” she said, turning off the gas range. “We should just order something in. I’ll go check with Aiden to see what he wants.”
She walked up the stairs but went for the bathroom instead, off to indulge in her hidden vice. Through the thin walls of the house, she could hear her son’s television on the other side. She considered walking in and asking him what had really happened, why he wouldn’t open up to her. Maybe others had been harsh on him, but she was his mother, and no matter what had happened in his life, she would take care of him. Hadn’t she already done enough already? She could make things better for him if he only let her in.
She had the cigarette instead.
Aiden was irritated from the moment she placed her hand over the car stereo. “No music today,” she said. “I have a headache.”
He sat in the back and kicked at her chair, pouting like a teenager. She wanted to apologize to him, but she bit her lower lip instead. Was he worth what her world had become these last few months, with her husband regarding her as an enemy and her son treating her no better than a prison guard? She was ashamed to try to answer the question in her own mind. This was really no life at all.
If he spoke during the trip, she did not notice. She tried to ignore his entire existence until they were parked and he remained in the car as she reached for the glove box. “Well?” she prompted.
“You haven’t told me where Annabelle is. I tried to call her last night, but the number didn’t work.”
She felt a chill spread through her body. She hadn’t thought to hide her telephone. “I don’t think that she wants to talk to you right now. All you can do is try to move on.”
“I called her parents.” His voice was low, even. “I know that number is a landline. Her mom answered. I asked her where my Annabelle was if she was still there. You told me she was out of town, and that doesn’t really make sense. I asked and asked, but she just cried and hung up on me.”
Jill let her had slide down to the handle of her door. She tried to calculate how quickly she could tear off the seatbelt and tumble outside. He’d be faster. He was in better shape and could watch her. All she had was the rearview mirror and a flush of adrenaline.
“Why did you lie to me?” There was no accusation in his tone. Her boy—that darling child whose light hair had always stuck up in erratic curls, whose dark eyes matched her own—was not capable of hate. She had not raised him that way.
Yet she was afraid.
“Annabelle’s gone, sweetheart. I can’t do anything else to try to be in touch with her. You tried. You know.”
“No.” He pulled the sleeves of his hoodie over his hands and raised his arms as though he might strike himself in the head. It had been a problem in the hospital. She’d hated to see him tied to the bed on his worst days. “Annabelle.”
“No, not Annabelle. Never again Annabelle.” She tightened her fingers around the steering wheel. They would not stay in this parking lot. They would not drive to this shore again and would not hold this relentless vigil. He was no longer capable of making choices for himself. She had to take care of them both. “She’s dead, Aiden.”
She struggled not to look at his reflection, but she knew that she had to remain strong. The breath he took sounded broken, as though he were involuntarily swallowing something jagged. The moan he released was wet, plaintive, that of a child confused by his own grief. “That’s not true. That’s not true either.”
“She’s dead.” These were the words she had been denied for so many months. She almost felt giddy to admit it.And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. She wasn’t a religious woman, but she knew that much of her Bible. “She was murdered a year ago. They never found her body, but she had called her parents when it happened. They heard it.”
Aiden reached for his door, but she had already engaged the locks. Childproof. The miracles of modern technology. “You were on one of your picnics. You’d sit on that picnic table and watch her as she went jogging by on the beach. Most of the time she just ignored you, but she must have stopped to say something to you.”
“We were in love,” he protested.
“She barely knew who you were.” She didn’t mean to snap at him, but she was tired of the stories. What was the point in keeping them if they no longer made him happy? “You followed her. I don’t know how you could have lost your temper the way you did. She was tired since she’d already been exercising, and she didn’t have much of a head start. She called her parents because she didn’t know what to do. They told her to hang up and call the police. You caught up with her first.”
His fists clouted his ears, but he couldn’t stop the words. His mother was hurting him, lying to him, and he couldn’t understand why.
“You were lucky that way. Nobody could say what really happened except for you, and you just locked up. Shut down. You told everyone that you’d been on a date, and that was the last thing you remembered. When they brought you into the courtroom, you smiled. You looked so handsome in the papers, but that’s not how a mother should have to see her son. You lost that part of yourself that did…well, whatever you did. It died with her, and I was so glad. I thought that we’d take you home, and we’d get to make things normal again. Your father thinks you’re evil. I don’t want to believe that. You never hurt animals. You never threatened other people or really fought back. I don’t understand how you could do what you did to that girl. I don’t think you could either. That’s why you forgot. Did you choose to, or did it just happen?”
Aiden had moved on to bashing his head against the window. She feared the glass would splinter and give him the release he craved, but it held firm. “I loved her. I loved her. I loved her.” His temple against the glass punctuated every sentence.
“Did you bury her or put her in the ocean? You could at least tell her parents. Give them some closure.” She did not have to say that she needed this more than anyone.
Aiden stopped. She stole a glance at him and saw that radiant boy, the one who smiled with madness in his eyes. “I loved her, and she hated me. I showed her the bottle once, I told her what I did. She didn’t even read the letters. She just threw it in the water. It smashed on a rock, and all the paper just sank. I thought it would float. Maybe it was too heavy. Too many letters. Maybe they were stuck to the glass. I don’t know.”
When his fingers combed through his hair, they were calm. He had stopped shaking. “She used to go swimming. I could watch her. I did. She didn’t like that. She called me a freak. She said that I didn’t have a clue or a chance. She hated me, but she hated herself more. She said she wanted to show me something, so I followed her. Of course I did. I would have followed her anywhere.”
He laughed. The noise seemed to burst from somewhere deep within him, where it had been hidden for the years that had passed. The cushioning layers of fiction had been torn away, and he only felt relief to breathe again. “When I started to follow, she took off. I didn’t understand. I thought it was a game of some sort because she was laughing… Then she stopped. I nearly fell in the sand. It was so sudden. She asked if I wanted to see a trick. We were by the water. She was just standing there, and I took a few steps toward her. She backed up, the water around her ankles. I told her that her shoes were getting wet. She said she didn’t care.
“She kept backing up. She seemed so happy. I realized that I’d never really seen her like before. Usually she was running, so she was just focused on that. She never smiled. When she did, she had these circles that appeared under her eyes. She looked so tired. I asked her what was wrong. I didn’t really mean to. It just kind of came out when I was thinking it. She laughed and said that nothing was. She just needed me to watch her a little while longer. I was good at watching her. She knew I was.
“Her steps were pretty steady when she was moving back, as much as they could be in the water. I didn’t really do anything until she was soaked up to her waist and kept going. I thought about how there must be stuff in her pockets. Her cell phone at least had to be soaked. It’d be ruined. She’d get in trouble. I started to follow her, but she just told me not to get any closer. She was in to her chest, and then she just…. She slipped.”
Aiden turned to stare out the window toward the shore. The joy was gone from his voice. Heavy tears threatened to splash upon his cheeks, but he bit his lower lip to make the most immediate pain physical. “I screamed for her, and she came back up. She was spluttering and choking on the water. She fought. I was scared, but I was relieved at the same time because she was back. She didn’t look beautiful anymore though. I remember thinking that. It was like she’d washed something away, something that I’d always admired but couldn’t name.
“She told me she needed me again. I was in to my knees and would have followed her all the way, but she threw herself back. She was still looking at me, glaring. She didn’t sink immediately. Her arms shot out of the water, and then she was pushing herself under. I saw her kicking. This time she didn’t struggle back up. I just saw the water moving. The bubbles.
“I should have saved her. I could have jumped in all the way. I just stood there, waiting for her to come back out again. I thought it was a joke or some sort of punishment for the way I looked at her. For a minute I just thought that she wanted me to see her all wet, like she’d be giving me something that I’d wanted so I’d just go away. But she didn’t come back up. She never came back up. I just stood there. I took out my notebook, and I wrote her a letter. I thought that would bring her back. I put it in the water. Then I just walked away.”
Jill reached for the temperature controls and cranked up the heat. Somehow she could not make herself warm.