A Short Story by Daniel Verastiqui
The thing I’ll remember most about Heather were her eyes. Her vacant, empty eyes. Staring at me like nothing in the world was wrong, like my questions were devoid of meaning and of answers. Hers was a face of impassivity and betrayal, the kind of face that a mother should never have to see on her daughter.
But this is not about her. This is about her baby sister, Lori.
This is about how I loved her. And lost her.
It was morning on the second day in the new house. I had been sleeping quite peacefully, content in the familiar folds of my transplanted bed. But then, just like that, I realized I wasn’t asleep anymore. Instead, I was staring at the alarm clock on the nightstand, just watching the little red dots blink on and off at a steady pace. The numbers that flanked them were tall and bright from my vantage point and seemed to have lost all their meaning. All that really mattered were those dots. They stood for something, stood for the passage of time, counting out that universal heartbeat as it thumped soundlessly throughout the world.
It was still before six, still dark outside and inside. Even then I knew the day was fast approaching, that before I knew it, it would be noon and all of the coming morning’s events would be lost to routine memories. The place might have been different and the niceties still packed away in boxes, but the tasks were still the same. Whether or not it went smoothly would depend on Lori, whether she would be the quiet baby that her sister Heather had been or the restless terror that she seemed to prefer as time went on. That’s when I realized it wouldn’t go well.
Lori was going to act up. It was inevitable.
By the stillness of the house, I could tell Brandon had already left. He had one of those shrill alarm clocks that never failed to wake me, not when it first went off at four forty-five, not when it went off again every five minutes after that for however long it took him to drag himself out of bed. Usually I could find that lost thread of a dream while he showered, maybe get myself back into the fantasy I had been clinging to all night long, some benign musing about a life that was normal. It didn’t even have to be anything special or far-fetched to be a good dream, just something less stressful than what I would deal with when I woke. I do admit that it had become a daily desire to put off that moment, defer the dreaded wail that would soon come from the baby monitor.
I drifted in the moment, thought back, and tried to separate my waking death with the dream I had been having. Was it here or there that Brandon had sat on the edge of the bed, fixing his tie in the dark, with his head tilted back and staring into the black abyss of our ceiling, with its single star shining a watchful green? And once completed, did he continue to sit there with his hands on his knees, seemingly not breathing, by all accounts not even alive? I was paralyzed then, wondering what he might be thinking, whether every day his concern for me grew or if his thoughts were of the safety of the girls and not of mine. I don’t know what it was, whether sleep or fear or just stubborn determination not to appear weak. I was too consumed with my internal problems to reach out, put a hand on his starched and ironed shirt.
My finger did stir, I think. But by then, Brandon was gone.
The monitor clicked, picked up some static-laden interference from the shoddy wiring in the house. Not yet, I prayed. If there could only be a few more minutes of rest before I turned on the autopilot, a few more precious minutes of peace where I was free to think about anything or nothing. That was where the real joy of life was, thinking about nothing. No kids, no husband, no chores. Just the comforting darkness inside my mind, where no doctors stood around with their clipboards and stethoscopes, shaking their heads and crafting delicate responses to mask the painful implications of their diagnosis, singular, because they all said the same thing. Even in a modern world, some disorders were still as much a mystery as anything else.
It happened automatically, the visualization of the day’s events, that monotonous schedule that might as well have been etched in stone or tattooed on my forearm. First on the list would be to check on Lori, see if she needed to be changed. Heather would be alright in her crib, most likely staring at the airplane mobile with those eyes, watching with subdued fascination as the mechanical birds hung motionless in the air. She would have to wait until her sister was taken care of before she could be let out and placed in front of the television for the next eight or nine hours. After all, it wasn’t as if television would rot her brain.
That made me wince, to think something so callous. I almost wanted to cry, for myself, for Heather. There, in the dark, with nobody watching and nobody listening, I was free to let out the pain that had grown three years’ worth of roots inside me. They ran so deep and so long that I felt every tremble of my lip in the pit of my stomach or as warm ripples in my feet. Before I could stop myself, summon the strength to endure the pain, the pillow beneath my head was damp and my breathing had devolved into quick fits. I tried to hold my lips together, but the gasps kept coming, the sobs following close behind them. I covered my mouth with my hand, then my blanket. I sank into the bed and withdrew from the world with no real destination in mind. Somewhere, I remember wishing, just take me somewhere.
In the end, it was Lori’s scream that pierced my protective coma, pulling at the maternal instincts still buried deep within me, forcing me into action. Without consciously ordering it, I felt myself pull back the sheets and swing into a sitting position. I poked at the ground with my feet until I found my sweat pants and pulled them on. What did Lori want, I wondered. I checked the clock again, saw that there was still enough time to change her, but if she wanted to be fed, it would have to wait until Heather was situated in the living room. Unless I hurried, I told myself, even though I knew I couldn’t.
The nursery was at the back of the house and its window looked out over a neighborhood that descended in a gentle slope so that no other home obscured the view of the horizon. There were dark clouds out in the distance, thick walls of petulant blue in an otherwise clear sky. For a moment, I found myself lost in the billowing folds, my subconscious mind trying to pick out shapes that weren’t there. I could have done it forever, but Lori’s cries were insistent and the grating sound pulled my attention closer to home.
“Good morning, sunshine,” I said, lifting my little girl from her crib. She was only five months old but seemed heavier than Heather had been at that same age. When I got her to my chest, a pungent smell filled the air. “You stink,” I teased, making my way to the changing table. There, I did my best to suffer the aural and biological torment of a stinky and fidgety baby. It had taken weeks of practice, but eventually I had relearned how to change a diaper in less time than I could hold my breath. But even with a clean bottom, Lori did not stop crying.
I picked her up once more and bounced her softly on my shoulder. Wandering over to the window, I looked out over the deserted neighborhood. It was still early and the world was only indirectly lit by the sun. That made me wonder why it never looked the same. Sunrise and sunset, two events so similar in mechanics yet the mornings never brought with it that inspirational oil painting of oranges and purples and blues and whites. Instead, it brought those clouds, those gray precursors of storms that forever threatened on the horizon but never quite made it home.
“Somebody’s grumpy this morning,” I said, rubbing Lori on her back. It was one of the few actions that calmed her, though it was hit or miss a lot of the time. Since standing didn’t seem to agree with her, I sat down in the wicker rocking chair that Brandon’s parents had given us when Heather was born. It creaked under the pressure, an eternal snipe about my weight from Brandon’s mother.
Juggling Lori in one arm, I managed to pull the other one out of my sleeve so that I could feed her, but every attempt to put her mouth near my nipple was met with more screaming. I licked a finger and gently rubbed her lips, trying to stem the ceaseless wailing. It wasn’t the first time that Lori had been difficult, and it wouldn’t be the last, but that didn’t make it any easier to deal with. I had to stop her from crying. It was all becoming too much to bear. And it wasn’t like there was some kind of mystery answer to my problem. Babies only wanted a few things at most.
“What do you want?”
I knew I wouldn’t get an answer, but that didn’t stop me from holding her out at arm’s length and looking for any possible clues. Finding none, I simply cradled her again, paced the room, held her forwards and backwards, but nothing made the slightest dent. Finally, on the verge of tears, I placed her back in her crib and told her to cry it out on her own. I set the music player to a random lullaby and turned to leave. As I did, there was a low rumble in the distance that made my heart sink.
I wiped at my eyes, though I knew Heather wouldn’t know what it meant for mommy to be crying. Something about the thunder made me hurry down the hallway, eager to see whether Heather had heard the noise and if she had buried herself in her blankets. For some reason, she was deathly afraid of storms, especially the thunder and lightning. Every time one blew through, it meant an hour or more of screaming and crying and inconsolable babbling. Calming her down was a task, one not to be attempted until after the storm had passed. It seemed that bad weather just wasn’t a natural part of Heather’s reality.
Fortunately, Heather was quiet, absorbed by the parallel arrangement of the bars on her crib. She was doing that thing where she placed a finger on one bar and traced it downwards and then repeated the action on the next, and then the next. I watched her for a moment, wondering if Heather would ever stop wanting to sleep in a crib. Maybe she found it comforting, a little safer than the bed we had bought her a couple months before.
I forced out a good morning, aware that my voice sounded less than welcoming, less than the sing-song melody that I used to greet Heather with when she was new and wonderful. I got no response, which wasn’t surprising. Kneeling on the floor, I put my face in front of the bars. “Good morning,” I repeated, in a soothing whisper this time.
Heather’s eyes came up to meet mine and the emptiness that pains my soul to this day greeted me until a spark of recognition lit behind her small face. Her eyes said nothing, but it was all there in that peculiar little smile. No matter how many times the doctors tried to tell me that she would never recognize me or Brandon, I always interpreted that smile as a hello Mommy. Maybe she didn’t make the connection in her brain the way other children did, but she recognized my face. She knew—knows—who her mother is, even if she doesn’t understand the concept. But then that was expected, as mother-daughter bonding was instinctual, a product of millions of years of evolution. It wasn’t that Heather was really trying at all; it was just happening by itself.
I had always talked to Heather like she would one day magically answer me. So I asked her if she would like some breakfast and in return, her eyes meandered back to the bars. “Of course you would,” I said to myself. “Come on, I’ll make us some Eggos.”
I lifted Heather from her crib and set her down barefoot on the soft carpet. And much like a windup toy finally set loose, she began her roaming. It was a strange habit that I had learned to tolerate over the last year or so. There were a lot of things that Heather did that I considered odd, like the way she pressed the tips of her fingers together around an invisible ball that she then held close to her chest as she walked. But every morning, without fail, it was as if she were discovering the house for the first time. Even in the old house, the routine had been the same. It didn’t matter how fresh the paint was, a good night’s sleep seemed to erase her memory. If I hadn’t stepped in and taken her downstairs to the living room, she would have probably spent the entire day just exploring the bedrooms.
When we got downstairs, I turned the television on to the twenty-four hour news station and sat Heather down on her pillow in front of it. It didn’t really matter what was showing, so long as it had moving pictures and shifting sounds. She would be quite content to sit there until the station went off the air or, as had happened before, a DVD finished playing and the screen went to black. It was strange to find her standing in front of the TV, her face two inches from the screen, moving her head around, presumably looking for the image. It reminded me of Poltergeist, like there was something I was missing in the dark screen.
I could still hear Lori crying upstairs even with the newscaster’s voice blasting from Brandon’s surround-sound setup. There was always something bad going on in the world, but all I could offer it was detached apathy, the same as any true American would. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. On some level, the deaths of tens of thousands of people due to a hurricane or tidal wave meant something, tugged at some natural empathy for such a tragic human loss. But those were external problems, problems that existed outside my small little triangle. We all had our own crosses to bear, even though I felt foolish for presuming myself a martyr.
In the kitchen, the smell of frozen waffles filled the air. As usual, I prepared my own breakfast first, a single waffle with a small amount of syrup in the center, with a smattering of shredded cheese, which I then folded in half. On another plate, I cut up Heather’s Eggo into bite-sized pieces, carefully arranging them on one side. On the empty half, I made a puddle of syrup about the size of a quarter. A dab more and Heather would have thrown a fit. Any less, same result. Everything was a delicate balancing act, one I was still getting the hang of. Although it was getting easier as Heather got older, those first months and years were pure hell.
“Come eat your Eggo, Heather,” I said, unsure of whether my invitation would break the television’s spell. It was a small miracle that she got up and came to the table. Having already devoured my waffle taco while I prepared Heather’s breakfast, I left her to check on Lori.
Her screaming grew louder as I climbed the stairs, setting every nerve in my body on edge. Something festered at the back of my neck, pleading with me to stop the horrible sound. I blotted it out, found myself scratching at the underside of my breast and wondering whether Lori was ready to be fed or not. She ate so infrequently, yet gained weight quickly. Maybe she was getting her food from somewhere else, sneaking off in the middle of the night to the Pizza Hut off base.
She had rolled onto her stomach and was face-down in a puddle of her own tears and drool. I quickly picked her up and used a soft towel to wipe the wet from her face. Encouraged by the lessening pace of her cries, I once again sat in the rocking chair and this time, another miracle, Lori latched on with painful enthusiasm. I rocked gently back and forth and leaned my head back to stare at the ceiling, thanking the white plaster for small favors. With Lori’s mouth preoccupied, I could hear the television making it all the way up the stairs and into the room.
The weatherman was talking and I looked to the window, listened to numbers that described overnight lows and expected highs. The story seemed the same every morning. No records were ever broken, nothing unexpected ever cropped up overnight. Strangely, there was never any mention of the nearby storms either. It seemed like every morning I saw clouds forming on the horizon, whether there or at the old house.
Yet the rain never came.
I told the weatherman that he didn’t know anything on the assumption that Lori enjoyed the sound of my voice. “They just go on TV and say anything they want. They could put anyone in a suit and tie or low-cut dress and it would be the same show.”
From my vantage point below the windowsill, I could only see a small patch of the sky, which was glowing a radiant blue. The sun had come up fully and it appeared that the high morning clouds had fled before it. That was good, since I didn’t think I could deal with another storm. Crisis averted, I continued to rock and even closed my eyes to steal some more precious minutes. One or two went by, then three or four. The next time I looked down, Lori had spit up on herself.
I stood up and put her over my shoulder and gently patted her back. After two solid burps, I cradled Lori in my arms and was relieved to find a look of contentment on her face. Her eyelids dipped in the post-meal drowsiness, so I put her back in her crib to let her nap. It would be at least an hour before she woke again. And after that, she’d be up for a while, not taking her next nap until sometime around noon when Brandon came home for lunch. That was okay though. Until then, I could spend some time on the couch going in and out of sleep while Heather watched her news or cartoons.
I had a dream that Heather could talk. Nothing advanced, nothing complex, but just simple sounds that would have made any parent’s heart flutter. It took me back to an evening that occurred over a year before, a quiet moment alone with Heather on the floor of the nursery. We were sitting on a black and white rug shaped like a panda’s face and playing with the multicolor blocks that Brandon’s brother had given her on her second birthday. She didn’t like the triangles or the squares, but all the round pieces were like precious gems to her and she collected them in a little pile in front of her.
“What color is this?” I asked her, holding up a block. Heather looked at it briefly but said nothing. “It’s blue. Can you say blue?”
Heather inspected a tan dowel and puzzled whether it should really be included in her round collection. She set it in the space between her pile and the squares and triangles in front of me. After a moment’s pause, she reversed her decision and placed it back among its peers.
“How about this one?” I asked. I really wanted an answer and spent a long time waiting for some kind of response. Then, I’m not sure what happened, but I started babbling to myself. “It’s green, Mommy. You’re right! What about this one? Is it red? It is red! Very good, you’re so smart my little angel. Now, this is a tough one, what color is this? Wet? No, baby, wet is not a color. You mean white. White? Yes! You’re so good at colors. I think you’re going to be a famous artist like Mona Lisa.” That’s when it broke down, when I had to laugh at myself, a deep disconcerting laugh that garnered a strange look from Heather.
From the doorway, Brandon spoke. “Having fun?”
I answered yes without looking back at him. “We’re just doing colors. She’s learned all of her colors now, even white.” Finally, I turned to him and blinked away the tears. “She called it wet. Isn’t that just adorable?”
Brandon knelt beside me and put his arm around my shoulder, but I didn’t feel any better. “I know this is hard,” he said to me, softly like I wouldn’t understand it any other way. “I don’t think anyone ever chooses this.”
I cried then, cried hard into his shoulder.
“But she’s our daughter. Our only job is to make her happy.” He tilted my head back so that I would look into his eyes. “That’s all we have to do. That’s all anyone really has to do.”
“Why couldn’t she…” I began, finding it difficult to say the word. “Why couldn’t she just be normal? What’s wrong with us if we produce kids like this?”
“There’s nothing wrong with us. That’s just the way it works. Blame God or nature or science, but it’s not just her mind and body that we’ve got to think about.” He bit his lip momentarily. “She has a soul, no different from you or me. We have to honor that.”
I retreated again to his shoulder and wept. I knew what he was saying was true, but that didn’t help anything at all. Words like autistic and Down’s Syndrome and mentally challenged looped through my head, but I just couldn’t put any of those labels on my own daughter, not my baby. I closed my eyes against the truth and didn’t open them again until I felt a tiny hand on my back. I looked up, saw that Heather was trying to hug her mommy and daddy.
It was an offer of comfort, but I could do nothing but cry harder.
It was Heather’s crying that woke me from my dream, freed me from the depression that only conscious and willful acceptance could overcome. For a moment, I was between two worlds, vaguely aware of Heather and of some commercial on the television promoting the latest toy to be included with a happy meal. I had to separate reality from dream, internal from external, and when I did, something in my arms suddenly grew heavy. I looked down to find Lori no longer content, her mouth open in breathless rage, a powerful wail building somewhere in the dark.
Although Lori’s crying was the worse of the two, it was Heather that could do the most damage in a frightened state. I stood and walked into the hallway and just as I made it to the top of the stairs, I heard thunder rumbling outside. There was another yelp from Heather, who was probably frozen to her pillow in the living room. I had seen her do it before, staring straight up, looking beyond the ceiling fan and the second floor and the roof, her arms rigid and her hands balled up into little fists. When the thunder sounded again, her scream filled the entire house.
“Heather!” I knew the yelling didn’t help much. A louder sound wasn’t exactly treated with awe in our household. “Come here, Heather. Come to Mommy.” It’s all I could think to say as I walked quickly down the stairs, unwilling to rush with Lori in my arms. I finally saw her, crouched by the sofa, face buried in her hands. At first, she didn’t want to budge, not when I put my hand on her, not when I tugged at her elbow. Finally, I just scooped her up in one arm, surprised that I could carry both of them. Desperate times, I guess.
Back in the nursery, I shut the door to keep Heather from running out when I put her down. Being upstairs was not something she enjoyed during a storm, so she sought out the lowest point in the room, found a corner and planted herself there. I took Lori with me to the window and saw that the once threatening clouds were now making good on their promises. The earlier blue light had been replaced by the dark and menacing, puffy demons towering over the simple woman and her two children trapped in the poorly constructed house below. I almost understood Heather’s fear then. Looking into the face of such power was humbling. At any other time in my life, I would have taken a moment to figure out what that meant, but in the immediate, Lori was crying and my stomach was twisting so badly that I had to do something.
It quickly became a matter of remembering everything that had ever quieted either of them before. From checking diapers to offering food to rocking and bobbing and twirling, I tried it all. None of it seemed to work. Sometimes Lori would respond to music, so I turned on the stereo above the diaper changing station. One of Beethoven’s sonatas filled the room, but the quiet piano barely made a dent in the fast-approaching thunder. At one point, I even got down on the floor and put Lori on my chest while I stared at the ceiling. From the ground, I could see Heather in the corner, fists clutched to the sides of her head, eyes glued to the window and the storm beyond. Through the blinds, I saw flashes of lightning.
“It’s okay, baby,” I said to her, softly. “Mommy’s here. Mommy’s going to take care of you and your sister.” I put my hand on Lori’s back. “Yes, even you, you screaming little angel.” Then I laughed, a strange and foreign sound. “Even though you won’t shut up. Even though you won’t stop that screaming. I’m going to take care of you until one of us is dead.” I’m not sure why I said that, but I did.
A booming thunderclap exploded outside, probably right above our roof. Heather dove for the floor and crawled frantically across the panda rug until she could get her arms around my head. There was no way for me to tell Lori or Heather or even Brandon how I felt about them with words that had not already been said or sung. It was so easy in the movies, either love or hate, but not in reality. It wasn’t even a sliding scale, one that could be tipped with affection or punishment.
The wind picked up, creating a whooshing sound against the window glass. Then a new sonata started, this one’s melancholy theme accompanied by a forlorn violin. I felt my lips move, tried to stop them from letting those words loose, but couldn’t. Maybe they were true, maybe they weren’t, but for some reason I didn’t think I would know for sure until they were said out loud.
“I hate you.” I had to whisper it. “I hate you so much.”
And that was the moment that time stopped, that all of the air went out of the room and I was left to think about what I had just said. All the wasted nights, all the lost sleep, everything I had done for this thing on my chest and all she had ever given me was pain. I knew what was going to happen, knew she would grow up and be just as difficult as her older sister. It was proof that God had it out for me, that I would be twice cursed with the same affliction.
Then it began.
First, something smashed into the side of the house and immediately an inventory of nearby trees popped into my head. Except that it was a new neighborhood and our trees were barely seven feet high and even if they had been ripped from the ground, they were much too skinny to do any damage. I managed to wrestle myself free from Heather’s death grip and made it to the window where I drew up the blinds. Outside, the full scale of the storm became too real. There was only a little rain, so I could see over the entire neighborhood and into the distance where gray wisps ran from left to right, as if they were circling the house. I tried to look up into the sky above the house, but it was too bright. The afterimages of lightning stayed with me even as I looked toward the ground. There, in the backyard, a section of fence had come loose and was flapping noisily in the wind. Individual pikes were breaking off and flying towards the house, creating a long and drawn-out drumbeat on the wood siding.
The girls were crying and screaming, but their voices seemed strangely muted, seemed inconsequential when compared to the roar of the wind outside. I recall being paralyzed with fear as the first funnel cloud came down, then another. And like a courting couple, they walked side by side in a lazy amble, tearing up yards and sending roofs hundreds of feet into the air. They crossed one of the major roads and headlights seemed to dance in the funnel and then blink out of existence. It wasn’t until the twin tornadoes joined into one that I felt power return to my muscles. Something deep inside was urging me to move away from the window.
I muttered a prayer. Protect me. Protect my children.
The window exploded just as I turned around and luckily my body acted like a shield against the flying glass. I picked up Heather in one arm and Lori in the other and ran out of the nursery, with the intruding wind slamming the door shut behind me. Moving quickly down the hallway, I heard the house starting to creak unnaturally, as if some giant hand had reached down and was now twisting off the roof like a plastic bottle cap. More explosions sounded on the perimeter of the house, no doubt the remnants of the fence falling like arrows on the sides of my castle. Near the end of the hallway, just above the stairs, the ceiling seemed to be moving, almost rippling.
I couldn’t quite nail down what I was seeing. It was like a rip in space, a breach of one universe into another. Then suddenly, a cold blast of air ripped through the hallway and in a moment of horror, I realized that it was daylight that I was seeing above my stairs. The roof was coming off. It was the only explanation. For whatever reason, I started praying, frantically, calling on every spiritual deity that I had ever known. Running down the steps, I lost count of where I was, thought there was one more step, and stumbled into the foyer, nearly dropping Lori. The roar intensified and panic took over my body. I couldn’t remember anything, not my name, not my life, and certainly not the layout of the first floor of my own house. I just ran through the rooms at random, chasing and escaping the dangerous sounds circling outside.
During a brief pause in the living room, a foreign tree limb came through the window, tearing down the blinds and curtains into one large and damp mess. A spray of rain invaded the room, coating everything in a fine mist. I spun around in place and ran back towards the front of the house, but before I could get there, I found the hallway door beneath the stairs and ripped it open, plunging my pack of survivors into the oppressive darkness.
Among the winter coats and various boxes, I searched in the dark for the chain that hung from the light bulb in the ceiling.
“Honey, I’m going to have to put you down.” In the dark, I couldn’t see my little girl shake her head. Using my free hand, I groped the ceiling until I found the wire and attached to it, the bulb. Turning it on, I was surprised to see Heather already starting down the steps to the basement. Outside, the storm was causing a weird vibration in the house, such that the walls seemed to hum some impending doom. I hurried down the steps, scooping up Heather along the way.
Exhausted, we collapsed into a heap in front of an old washer and dryer that must have come with the house. I dumped out a laundry basket and fashioned a crib out of it, placing Lori on her back inside it. With one hand on her chest and one holding Heather in my lap, I leaned back and tried to organize my thoughts. Heather had stopped screaming, having moved on to a slight whimper whenever the thunder crashed. In the low light, I could see that Lori was still crying, but her voice didn’t match the fury in her face. She’d screamed herself raw and all I could wonder was how someone so young could be so unhappy.
After a moment of reflection, I found myself apologizing. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean it at all. I love you, both of you.” I looked up, tried to see through the unfinished ceiling of the basement, through the house, through the storm and the universe, to the place that God inhabited, so as to tell him directly. “I didn’t mean it. Don’t take them from me. Please don’t take them.” It was a whisper and a prayer, solemn and quiet. In response, a crack of thunder sounded from above and then the room was plunged into darkness.
I can’t be sure how much time went by, but I remember that Heather had fallen asleep and I had drifted from one nightmare to the next in an unending circle while Lori continued to cry. Somewhere in the din, I heard her, screaming, wailing, playing backup to the roar of the storm. But it all faded out eventually, until there was silence and briefly, rest.
It was the particular growl of Brandon’s SUV that woke me, accentuated by the silence that followed as the engine shut down. By the quiet, I could tell that the storm was over, that we had survived. Slowly, I moved Heather to the pile of shirts on the floor, checked on Lori, and then stood and started up the stairs, a thankful smile beaming on my face.
It didn’t last.
In the foyer, I stopped dead in my tracks, an invisible weight crushing down upon me. Even as the front door started to open, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The living room showed no signs of its previous destruction. The window was solid and glowing with the light of the obscured sun. The television was still on, blaring some Japanese cartoon that starred a blue bunny. Everything was in place as if nothing had ever happened.
The concern in his voice struck a chord in me and I turned to see what was wrong.
“What’s the matter?” He had been smiling, but like mine, it was gone and now he looked worried.
I pointed to the living room, feebly tried to explain. “The storm. The tree. Came through the window.”
“What storm? Are you okay? Where are the girls?” He looked past me into the hallway. “Hey, honey. Where’s your sister?” Then to me again, like I could answer a simple question. “Where’s Lo?”
“In the base…” Even as the words started coming out of my mouth, I knew there was something wrong with them. In the sobering light, certain things started coming back to me. I stopped mid-sentence, saw the look of confusion on Brandon’s face, and then bolted for the hallway door. With my pulse pounding oppressively, I threw the door open and gasped, cried out, made every sound possible that would communicate disbelief and sheer terror. Instead of the staircase I was expecting, I found an ordinary closet lit by a dome light on the ceiling. Off to the right, where the stairs would have carried me down into the basement, there was only a rack of shoes.
“No!” My scream echoed in the small room as I threw myself to the ground and began ripping shoes from the shelf.
Brandon appeared behind me, put his hands on my shoulders to try to calm me down. I resisted, couldn’t give up, needed to find the stairs and find Lori. Finally, he wrapped his arms around my body, squeezed until I submitted, and then pulled me out of the closet.
“Crystal!” I just looked at him, unsure of what he was asking me. “Babe,” he said softly. Then I remembered love and thought of Lori and began to cry. “Honey, where is Lori?”
“In the basement.”
It was all I could think to say. I looked around slowly, unsure of what was real or not. Heather was standing there, one arm on her father’s leg, her eyes looking at me like she understood something I did not. I took a shot, said softly, “You were there, you saw. Tell Daddy we hid in the basement. Tell Daddy it’s all true.” The tears came hard and my chest began to convulse involuntarily.
And it was all there in her vacant eyes. The storm, the basement, and the truth. All she had to do was open her mouth and form a sound, string them together into words and sentences. Instead, her expression waned to impassive, to an involuntary apathy that gutted me completely.
I grabbed her arms, wrenched her towards me, and yelled into her soulless and empty face.