Now, as I stand on the dock staring out at the lake, holding my camera, I think of the file cabinets in my garage, and the adventures-to-be within their slick gray metal sides.
I should never have let Thom relegate my dreams to the garage. That, I see now, was the beginning of the end. Even yesterday that realization would have made me cry; now I find myself smiling.
I’m dreaming again, for the first time in years, and it feels good.
A sound breaks my thoughts. I turn slowly, scan the place.
Daniel is on the roof, hammering shingles. There’s a lonely sound in the way the nails ring out. I watch him for a long time, almost willing him to look up and see me, but he works like a machine or a man on a mission, without pause.
Finally, I turn away and walk along the shore, kicking rocks, noticing the moss that grows on everything. It’s like being in the land that time forgot. Every leaf is huge, every tree towering, every stone coated with moss. I am about to reach down for an agate when I hear a child’s voice.
“I don’t know,” the voice says, trembling. “Maybe.”
I follow the sound into the woods and find Bobby, kneeling in a clearing. Evergreens ring him, rising high into the swollen sky, blocking out all but a single, golden shaft of light. The ground is a bed of lime-green moss and tiny fiddleback ferns. In front of him is a rustic wooden bench made of twisted and shiny tree limbs.
Bobby looks incredibly small in this spot, surrounded as he is by giant trees. “Not yet,” he says to no one. “Don’t go.”
I can hear the tremor in his voice and it moves me, compels me to take a step closer. “Bobby?”
He stiffens at the sound of my voice, but doesn’t turn to me or answer.
I move closer. Edging past him, I start to sit down on the bench.
“STOP!” he screams, pushing me aside. “You’ll sit on her.”
Something in his voice makes my blood run cold. I stop suddenly. “Bobby?”
He kneels in the dirt and slumps forward. “It’s okay now. She’s gone. You can sit.”
He looks utterly broken, this boy who only yesterday defied his father to let me stay here. He picks up two action figures from the ground beside his knees and makes them battle. It’s Darth Vader and Count Dooku, I think. A woman doesn’t work in a high school without learning about popular culture. I finally sit down on the bench in front of him. “Are you okay, Bobby?”
“You don’t sound fine. Do you want to tell me why?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy, too.”
“Why would I think that?”
He uses Darth to smack Dooku. “They all think I’m wacko.”
“I doubt that.”
He finally looks at me. “They don’t believe I see her.”
It takes him a moment to say, “My mom. She’s dead.”
I feel as if we’ve just swum out too far in cold water. “Is that who you were talking to when I got here?”
He nods. “I’m not crazy, though. I know she’s in Heaven. But I see her sometimes. Dad thinks she’s imaginary, like Mr. Patches.”
“Mr. Patches was an imaginary friend of yours?”
Bobby makes a sound of disgust. “Uh. Yeah. When I was like . . . four.” He goes back to his action figures, makes them fight. “I’m not imagining my mom.”
I find myself thinking of the plane crash, when I “saw” my mom. The vision was so complete and full, I believed it and I’m an adult. A boy this age could hardly be expected to fully comprehend tricks of the mind.
Of the heart.
“I saw my mom just the other day, and she’s been dead for ten years.”
Bobby looks up again. “Really?”
I nod. “I talk to her all the time.”
Bobby seems to consider that, and me. “Does she talk back?”
I think about that. On a few memorable, rare occasions, I’ve felt her presence. “In a way, maybe. Mostly I think I know what she would say.”
Bobby starts cracking the action figures together again. “He’s glad she’s dead.”
I glance out toward the lake and, though I can’t see the lodge, I can hear Daniel hammering.
“Now I’m s’posed to pretend to like him.”
“What do you mean?”
He shrugs. “Him and Mommy got divorced when I was four. I don’t even know him. He’s only here ’cuz she’s dead.”
Four. The same year Mr. Patches arrived. I’ve had enough child development classes to make the obvious connection.
I consider carefully how to respond. We are speaking of serious matters of the heart here, and it’s hardly my place, but we teachers know that timing isn’t always perfect with kids. If they bring up a sensitive subject, you’d best run with it. There is often no second chance. “He’s here, isn’t he?”
“Lucky me.” Bobby wipes his eyes and turns away from me, obviously embarrassed by the display of emotion.
I remember how he feels. When I was eight, my own dad walked out on us. I waited years for him to return. I slide off the bench and kneel in front of Bobby. “It’s okay to cry,” I say softly.
“That’s what grown-ups say, but it’s not true. Arnie Holtzner says only babies cry. And now everyone calls me crybaby at school.”
“Arnie Holtzner is a butthead who won’t have friends for long.”
Bobby looks shocked by that. A tiny, hesitant smile plucks at his mouth. “You called Arnie a bad word.”
“I can think of worse than butthead, believe me.”
Bobby stares at me for a moment, obviously trying not to smile. “You want to watch me play?”
“Sure,” I say, finding it easy to smile. I almost laugh, in fact. Here, in this strange clearing, hundreds of miles from home, I feel both lost and somehow found. I lower my voice. I hunker down, get eye level with the action figures. “Come on, Vader, fight back.”
That night, though I fall asleep easily, I wake up in a cold sweat, unable to draw an even breath. Memories of the crash won’t let go of me. I would swear that the grit in my eyes is ash.
I try to fall back asleep, but it is impossible. My headache has returned, as has the pain in my chest. It’s not real, I know, just the phantom ache of a broken heart. It’s a pain I’ve lived with since the day I came home unexpectedly and found Stacey and Thom together. Throwing back the covers, I get out of bed and go to the window.
The first pink brush stroke of dawn sweeps across the black sky. I grab my camera, get dressed, and leave my room. Halfway to the lobby, I hear a voice: It’s Daniel’s soft, lilting brogue.
I peer around the corner.
He is at the window, staring out at the lake. His black hair is a tangled, untended mess.
Moving quietly, I edge around the corner and I see what he’s looking at.
Bobby is out at the lake, alone, and gesturing wildly. Even from this distance, and through the murky, unreliable dawn light, I can see that no one is near him.
I see her sometimes.
“God help us,” Daniel says in a broken voice.
I know he is praying, asking God for help. Still, the words are given to me. I feel a strange binding to them.
With a curse, he goes outside and walks down the path to the lake.
I move cautiously toward the window, but from here, I won’t be able to hear them. If I’m going to eavesdrop, I should do it correctly. On this specious bit of logic, which I know is really only curiosity, I slip outside and step into the dark shadows cast by a Volkswagen-sized rhododendron.
“What the hell, Bobby? I thought we agreed about this,” Daniel says.
“You can’t stop me from talking to her.”
“Maybe tomorrow we’ll go see Father James. He—”
“Go back to being a stork broker. I don’t want you here,” Bobby says. Pushing past his dad, he runs back into the lodge. He is crying too hard to see me.
Daniel stands there a long time, looking out at the lake. There’s a strange intimacy between us; I’m trapped by his presence. I can’t move from my hiding place without risk.
At last, he turns away from the water and returns to the house, muttering under his breath as he passes me. Once inside, he slams the door shut so hard it bangs back open.
I stand there a long moment, in the darkness, then step out into the dawning light. Behind the black trees and gunmetal gray lake, the sky is awash in layers of color—fuschia, lavender, neon orange.
I bring the camera up and find the perfect shot, but by the time I take it, I’ve lost interest. What I care about right now can’t be put in focus or framed in a neat little viewfinder.
Bobby and Daniel are in trouble. They are obviously drowning in a sea of what they’ve lost.
I know about those dark waters.
Someone needs to throw them a life ring.
B ack in the kitchen, I find a pot of coffee and a plate of muffins. Blueberry, my favorite. I add one cup of coffee and a single muffin to my tab, then go in search of mementos for my trip.
The perfect photograph. I’ll accept nothing less.
Outside, the pink dawn has given way to a gray and yellow day of inconsistent weather: There, by the road, it’s cloudy and rainy; here at the front door, it’s shadowy and moist; down by the lake, it’s sunny.
As I walk down the path, the air is thick with mist. Birdsong bursts forth in Gatling gun spasms with every step I take. I snap several photographs before the swing set catches my eye. This is a magnificent specimen—obviously hand-built and carefully designed. It has a slide, two swings, and a fort.
I used to love swinging; at the house in Calabasas, Stacey and I spent hours in the air, side by side, and pushing each other. I go to the swing set, set my camera gently on a step, and wipe dew from one of the black leather seats. Sitting, I lean back and pump my legs until I’m practically flying. The lemon and charcoal sky fills my vision.
“Grown-ups don’t play on the swings.”
At Bobby’s voice, I stab my feet into the loose dirt and skid to a stop.
He’s standing near the skinned log stanchion. His eyes are bloodshot from crying. Tiny pink sleep lines crisscross his face. His curly hair is stick straight in places.
I feel an almost overwhelming urge to take him in my arms and hold him. Instead, I say: “They don’t, huh? Who says?”
He frowns at me. “I dunno.”
“You want to join me?”
He stares at me for a long time, then eases toward the other swing. There, he takes a seat and leans back.
“This is a great swing set. Someone worked hard on it.”
“My dad made it. A long time ago.”
Together we swing, side by side, up and down. The clouds overhead coalesce and disperse and float away.
“You see that cloud there?” I say, on the upswing. “The pointy one. What does it look like to you?”
Bobby is quiet for a while, then he says, “My mommy. She had puffy hair like that.”
“I think it looks like . . . hmmmm. A Zipperumpa-zoo.”