You will come home, Wendy, dry grass and campfire smoke in your hair. Tonight, tomorrow morning -- I don't know when, but I know that you will not leave us. You aren't that selfish or that brave.
You are in the mountains, under a tree somewhere, aren't you? You are cold -- you took nothing with you this time, and I only wish I could find you and put my arms around you, brush the leaves from your sweater and let you cry, tell you that our lives will soon be fine. Are you near water? Yes, you would have found your way to a creek and bathed in its cold October rush. I would bring a thick blanket to wrap around your shoulders. I would drive you home and embrace you in our driveway before we went inside, not caring as the neighbors drew their blinds against two women so very much in love. I would make our daughter whole and sweet; I would make this home a happier place for you. I would do anything, anything Wendy, if only you could be happy here with us.
I found the note. Right where you left it, and that isn't all I found. You knew I would salvage the family, didn't you? That I would fix things. I did, Wendy, but it is now the middle of the night and I am sitting here in our living room with a trembling glass of the good scotch that I hardly ever touch, that I don't even like, listening to Cricket while she rolls her head and makes that eerie noise of hers, waiting and watching for your headlights in the driveway. And as always, I will forgive you when you walk through that door.
What pushed you to this? Did she bite at you again? Slam your jaw with a flailing arm? All that has happened before, Wendy. Her prognosis will never change; profound mental retardation, a behavioral disorder -- these factors color and mold the life we lead with our daughter. You've weathered it well. Why, only now that she is becoming a woman, do you break?
Sometimes I picture you before you and I met, holding tiny Cricket in your arms. You were confused in that early, short-lived marriage -- breathing in the pale softness of her baby skin brought you solace in those precarious times. Unaware of her problems to come, you drew from her the strength to leave that loveless world. She was three when I came into your lives, you were alone and she could not yet crawl. She is now fifteen and can not crawl, she will be twenty, forty, fifty and will never so much as feed herself, though I will love her and love you endlessly. Some would find that remarkably hard to believe. Tonight, especially.
I admit I saw signs. These past two years have brought out a darkness in you, something both resolute and rebellious, like the way you've grown your hair long just as the gray begins to salt it. Pam, you have whispered deep in the night with your cheek against my back, what would it be like if it were just the two of us? I've asked myself the same, of course, but now you say odd things -- you want to get a dog though you know Cricket would pull its fur, you want to work full-time again, you acutely mourn lives taken by distant earthquakes and tornadoes. Why does it happen to good, intelligent people...you muse in the kitchen, a cooking spoon frozen in your hand, alfredo sauce dripping to the floor. I've stayed quiet about these changes but have not ignored them. Cricket is oblivious. It is my function in this family to be the calm watcher, bookish and steady, earthbound while you are airborne and Cricket is wild fire.
Last weekend...did the idea come to you then, Wendy? When you left Saturday on your cycling trip, I daydreamed your every move: parking outside the state park in Vermont, the way you bounce the bike's front tire to check it, the many places you would stop along the high trails to view panoramic drop-offs or the tiniest fern. I should have gone with you, distracted you from desperate thoughts, but while you were gone, life was continuing as usual for Cricket and me.
Sunday morning I fed her orange juice and oatmeal for breakfast. Then I put her in front of the television while I prepared her bath. Hard to say if she really watches. While she was thus occupied I laid out her bath inventory: liquid soap, washcloth, shampoo, two towels, toothbrush, toothpaste, hygienic wipes, Q-tips, comb, fresh diaper, fresh clothing.
I brought Cricket's wheelchair to the bathroom door and she fought me as I leveraged her out. I used the Adult Lifting Technique but she's become so heavy, heavier than you, and my back felt it. I set her down on her changing mat and she thrashed her head, kicked out every which way. Cricket is a nightmare to dress and undress; at changing time, I can sometimes understand the bruising pinches you've given her in your frustration. But I held her down calmly.
While she growled, I wrestled her out of her pajama bottoms, undid her diaper and saw she had begun her period early this month. I cleaned her off, disposed of the diaper and lifted her to the toilet. Part of the daily routine they advocate at the learning center, remember? Five minutes on the toilet each day whether she goes or not. I can't recall the last time you've helped me with this, Wendy. So in case it matters, I held her still by the shoulders, my elbows bent outward to keep clear of her bite. She was very angry, but routine is crucial. I wish you would get comfortable with this, Wendy. It's not easy coming home every evening to a nine-hour diaper.
I transferred Cricket to the bathtub. She has a fascination with her genitals -- I kept her hands busy with tub toys, one after another, while I scrubbed baby shampoo through her close-cropped hair. I made a clucking sound to further distract her; I tilted her head back and brushed her teeth right there in the tub. She likes the toothpaste and has never mastered spitting anyway.
I know you haven't been comfortable seeing her body since she reached puberty. Most parents of teenagers don't need to be -- you do. She is fully reproductive and entirely infantile. There are dangers. All of this, the bathing and diapering, has fallen onto me. What if something happens to me and I can't anymore?
I grasped her under the arms to lift her from the tub. I didn't realized that my wrists were soapy and when she was a few inches up, my hands slipped and I dropped her. Her bottom splashed hard against the tub floor. The accident enraged Cricket and she began to shriek and flail, gnashing at me, knocking my glasses off into the water. It's been worse, believe me. My blouse soaked, I re-diapered and dressed her. Bathing her took two and a half hours.
To the television again -- videos for toddlers. I worked on the last of this year's vegetables in our garden, staying within close earshot of the den window. At 5:15 I heard you car pull into the driveway. We've shared this home for eleven years; its sounds are so ingrained in me. Your tires against the driveway are as familiar as my own breathing. The slam of your car door, the sound of you unhitching your bike from the roof rack. I circled around to the front of the house. I was standing by the open garage door, not seeing you, when I felt your arms pull me tight from behind. Wendy, I could feel you smiling without even looking at you -- that's how well I know you.
"I'll get your things from the car," I said. "You go ahead inside." You kissed me, then rose up on your toes to kiss my forehead. There was a band of sunburn on your cheeks just below where your sunglasses had rested, and you smelled of your own clean, good sweat.
"She's in the den," I said, then wished I hadn't, because the leafy trails of Vermont faded from your eyes and you went inside without another word.
I had spent the entire afternoon preparing the house for your return. There was pesto with our own tomatoes, and cheese bread and green salad. There were yellow candles on the table waiting to be lit, and a pink one in our bedroom. When I hauled your backpack inside, I went to the den and found you on your hands and knees picking Cricket's pretzel crumbs off the carpet beside her wheelchair.
It was the last thing I'd wanted you to come home to.
"Let me do that," I said.
"I've got it," you answered tightly, not looking up. Cricket strained against her wheelchair tray, hands smearing across the grimace that is her smile.
"Uh huh," you said to the carpet as you scratched it too hard, salt grains hopping out like fleas. "Mommy Wendy is home..."
I was watching you, wondering what to say, and I didn't see Cricket's hand fly forward. She's so strong. In a split second she had a fistful of your hair gripped hard at the scalp and was yanking your head back and forth, screeching with joy at this favorite game.
"Get her hand! Shit, help me! What's the matter with you, Pam?!" You didn't realize, but I was already prying her fingers loose one by one. Strands of your hair clung between them as I pulled her hand away. The noise she made at me was like a creaking door hinge. Then you were gone and I heard the bedroom door slam.
This incident couldn't have been what pushed you this far. We both have scars across our wrists and arms from Cricket's tantrums. When we'd finally gotten her settled in bed, our dinner dried out on the stove and both of us silent, we sat on the back porch facing out toward the woods that run behind all the houses on this road. Through her closed bedroom window we could still hear the impossibly high, insect-like keening sound she makes in bed, the source of her nickname. All the real crickets were gone, the locusts gone. Hers was the only sound in the night.
"Let's go to the clearing," you said out of nowhere. Our special spot in the woods. At the time I didn't know what made you think of it. How many afternoons have we spent there on picnics, Cricket gone to the learning center, wondering if we could make love there without being caught? We'd never been there at night, but lovemaking was far from my thoughts after this awful day.
"We can't," I said. "What if she..."
"She's fine," you said rather sharply, but your hand was gentle at my waist. "She can't go anywhere. Just fifteen minutes, then we'll come back."
"No," I said, but you were tugging me to my feet, pulling me toward the edge of our deep yard where the woods begin with saplings and scrub, thickening further in.
The path leading two hundred yards from the wood's edge was overgrown in places. I held your hand and walked behind you in miniature steps, feeling ridiculous and irresponsible. Every few feet I looked back at the house and the kitchen light as it grew smaller. You knew the way well. Once we reached the clearing, the half moon emerged from the trees and lit you, but barely. The clearing seemed much smaller in the dark, shrunken, room-sized. You sat down on a broken tree trunk -- just sat there -- and I stood looking at you, seeing how you blended away into the dark leaf banks around you. You didn't seem to have any reason for bringing us here.
"Sit with me," you said. I did. You turned my face to you, kissed me, glided your open mouth along my neck. I could feel your hand drift up my side, cupping my breast.
"No Wendy," I whispered. "Let's go back now." You stood and walked to the other side of the clearing.
I could faintly hear you from where I sat. "Caitlin Marie," you said to no one. Cricket's real name. I rose to go to you but something in your silhouette stopped me. You rocked back and forth on your heels. I felt awkward there, unnatural, I took my glasses off, put them on again, tugged my jacket tight.
"Would you mind if I stayed here for a while?" you finally asked.
"Please don't stay long," I said. The lights of the house were not visible. I hated the darkness of the path. You didn't wake me when you returned, and in the morning I didn't wake you.
I should have. I left the light off and dressed in the bathroom -- it was Monday and I had the sales conference in New York at ten. Cricket was asleep when I checked her. I took my own car, parked in the airport's overnight lot and watched Hartford vanish under the morning cloud cover. From Laguardia I went straight to the conference, not checking into my hotel until six. I called home right away; my own voice greeting me on the answering machine. No other messages.
I thought you might be busy getting Cricket's dinner. I ordered room service, took a bath, called again at nine-thirty. Maybe you were having trouble getting her to bed. I left the hotel number for you. I tried to read, I got dressed again and went down to the lobby to hunt for some trinket she might like but the gift shop had closed. I called again at eleven and at one-thirty. I called at three-thirty.
I spent the second day of the conference slipping out to the pay phones every chance I got. My own cordial recorded voice over and over until four o'clock when I excused myself to go and wait on stand-by for an earlier flight home. I ended up stuck until my scheduled flight at six, calling again from the airport. I surprised myself by slamming the phone down hard.
That's not like me, Wendy.
When the plane bumped down on the runway in Hartford, I was the first passenger out. I drove through the tail end of rush hour through the city and northeast, deep into the suburbs. It was just after eight and fully dark when I turned onto our road with its absence of street lights, passing the jumping gray glow of televisions through windows. Our house was dark when I pulled into the driveway. Your car was gone.
Wendy, you didn't even lock the damn garage door. When I went inside, the house was pitch black; I tripped over one of Cricket's sneakers groping for the light. Both her jackets were on the coat tree, a basket of her laundry on the stairs.
I went to the answering machine first. All my own messages. Listening and deleting, I hadn't even noticed the folded note beside the machine. It was your handwriting on a piece of my stationary.
Pam, don't worry, I'm going to Vermont, or somewhere. I need to go again, a retreat. Cricket is on retreat, too. I wish you were with me, the two of us in the woods. Nobody else.
Pam, I love you so much -
I looked on the kitchen counter; the utility tray from Cricket's wheelchair was there, crusted with oatmeal. On one corner I could see a small smear of blood. I re-read the note. I know your little system for leaving clues, Wendy. The woods. Jesus.
I found the small flashlight in the kitchen drawer, no batteries. I ran to the basement and grabbed the large one. Still in my skirted suit and dress shoes from the conference, I went out through the back yard, my short heels piercing the soft lawn until I reached the edge where the trees start and the soil becomes harder.
I pushed branches out of my way as I cut up the path to the clearing. The soles of my shoes were new and slippery; I was stupid not to have changed out of them. The branch of a thorny bush caught on my pantyhose and tore through to my skin as I ran slipping, shining the light ahead of me. There was bitter cold dew on the leaves, but I could tell it hadn't rained. If there were tracks on the path, I couldn't see them.
At the mouth of the clearing I stopped. The light caught her chair's wheel first.
I damned you right there, Wendy. Out loud I swore at you and began to cry, afraid to move forward. Cricket's back was to me; her head tilted far to the side, horrible in it's stillness because Cricket is never still. And then her arm lashed out.
A shoe fell off and I left it lying there as I stumbled across the clearing to her. Wendy, if I could burn her ashen, slack face into your mind I would. You deserved to see her this way, eyes immune to the hard flashlight beam in a sightless back and forth rhythm, her tongue thickened. I pulled off my suit jacket and wrapped it over Cricket's damp front. I could tell how full her diaper was, and blood lined the inseam of her jeans. She had vomited at some point, maybe yesterday.
I can't believe that no one heard her. Children from down the road play in these woods, and she would have screamed for hours left alone out here. Or had you done something to prevent that? Given her something? How long ago was it? You were gone by Monday evening, so perhaps you brought her here even earlier. Two days and a night, Wendy! You knew I'd come looking for her -- that I would correct this. No, you didn't know; you trusted. Anything could have happened.
There was dried blood around her mouth -- yours, I'm now certain. Was the bite especially bad this time, then? She was so quiet, rocking slightly just like you did. I shone the flashlight under my own face.
"It's Mommy Pam," I whispered. "Cricket, look at Mommy Pam. I'm here..."
She didn't screech. How could she? The sides of her mouth drew outward; I set the flashlight down and tucked my jacket tighter around her, shivering in my sleeveless blouse. There was a bird dropping on the cuff of her jeans, and another on the handle of her wheelchair. Then I did what was usually impossible -- I kissed Cricket on the forehead, stroking back her damp mash of bangs.
The flashlight was off her face. A sound came then -- a dry, wheezing bleat that she somehow found the strength to make. I wiped her nose with my bare hand. For the shortest moment she looked me dead in the eye. I didn't imagine it; the half moon was bright enough to see her, and to see her crying. I didn't know she could.
The wheelchair was nearly impossible to push down the path. At points I was actually lifting the wheels over half-buried rocks, my back burning. What fury helped you get her there? Maybe I don't want to know.
In the kitchen, I ignored the diaper stench and held water and a straw for her. She emptied the first tall glass and another. She drank and urinated at the same time, a small pool collecting under her chair. I fed her the first thing I could find: cold butternut squash. I brought her a cup of milk. She swallowed twice and then flicked her head away, not her usual struggle, but a simple and strikingly calm refusal. I brought her to the tub and washed her while she sat staring at the shiny faucet. As she was wide awake, I put her in pajamas and brought her to the living room to wait with me. I poured a scotch and sat down.
It is 11:20 PM. Or twelve, I don't know. I'm feeling the scotch slightly.
Cricket is cooing softly into space; I am looking at things in the room: our daughter, the red-black beads of blood along the scratches on my legs, the window where I will see the headlights of your car turn into the driveway. Tonight, tomorrow morning, I don't know.
You are gone. But you won't leave.
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