GILLIAN (Eunice's mother): I felt like I'd been trapped in a lightless bubble since the accident last night. A pair of headlights heading right at my car. Blindingly bright. A flash of pain. Then nothing seen or heard for I don't know how long. When I seemed to regain consciousness, I wasn't in my car or at home or anywhere else familiar or alien to me. There was nothing but darkness around me. No stars above me, nothing solid or wet below and around me. It reminded me of a science article I once read about sensory deprivation. But everything seemed to be working. There was nothing to see or hear or touch. Was I still asleep and just thought I was awake? Was I having a lucid dream?
“Please!” I cried out. “Is there anyone there? Or am I all alone?” I could hear the echoes of my voice.
At first there wasn't any answer. Then someone replied. “Good. You're awake, Gillian. Now we can talk.”
The voice seemed to come from all around me. But I couldn't see who was speaking.
“That sounds like my voice,” I said. “How could anyone -- why would anyone --”
“Because I'm part of you,” the voice said. “Your subconscious, to put it more precisely.”
“But why would I want to talk with myself?” I asked. “I don't remember doing that even when I was a little girl.”
“Maybe if you had,” the voice said, “and on a regular basis, this conversation might not have been so necessary for you.”
“But what if I don't want to talk with myself?” I asked.
“Too late,” the voice said. “You already are. Right now in fact. And there are things we definitely need to discuss. Beginning with the most important one: your relationship with your daughter Eunice.”
“What about it?” I asked. “I've always been honest with her.”
“Even about her baby?” the voice asked. “The one that you forced Eunice to give up for adoption.”
“But I had to!” I protested. “What other choice was there? She isn't old enough to be a mother. She probably knows nothing about how to raise a baby. And, in case you've forgotten, she still needs to go to college. She doesn't need to be hampered by having to raise a baby at the same time.”
“There is daycare,” the voice said. “Granted, it might not be cheap, but she could at least drop her daughter off there each day she has classes.”
“There's no need for that,” I said. “Her baby's already been adopted by an out-of-state couple. Now she's free to concentrate on college without any distractions.”
“You consider raising a baby to be a distraction?” the voice asked. “Seriously?”
I said nothing.
“Maybe you need to give Eunice a chance to prove she's less of a child and more of an adult now.”
“She's only nineteen,” I said.
“This is true,” the voice said. “That means she's old enough to vote. Old enough to go to college. And, if she'd been a man instead of a woman, old enough to sign up for Selective Service.”
I again said nothing.
“Gillian,” the voice said. “How old were you when you were pregnant with Eunice? Twenty? Nineteen?” The voice paused. “Eighteen maybe?”
“For your information, I was twenty,” I said. “Well, almost twenty. A week before my twentieth birthday.”
“Roughly the same age as your daughter,” the voice said.
“But it was different for me,” I protested.
“How different?” the voice asked.
“Because I was married,” I said. “And still planning to go to college.”
“Your parents didn't mind?” the voice asked. “That you were pregnant? What about your husband's parents? No complaints? No criticism from any of them? If so, I find that rather hard to believe.”
“Well,” I said.
“Yes?” the voice prompted.
“They . . . they weren't exactly . . . happy about it,” I said. “My husband and I thought that we'd have children after I graduated from college. But that plan had to be changed when I got pregnant.”
“See?” the voice asked. “And what do you do when it happens to Eunice? Treat her like an ignorant child. It's easily possible that she wants to be her baby's mother more than ever. To prove -- to you, if to no one else -- that she can be responsible, adult, mature, and accountable for her actions (or lack of them). Whether or not you allow her to.”
I wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn't come. My throat felt raw and dry. If only I could hide from this voice that spoke as if it were me, that said things I didn't want to deal with.
Suddenly I heard a baby crying. I quickly looked around. There was still nothing to see but darkness.
“Once a mother, always a mother,” the voice said. “Even if the baby isn't your own.”
“Is that . . .?” I asked and paused.
“Your granddaughter?” the voice asked. “No. I was checking to see if there was any empathy in you. Apparently there is, whether you want to admit to it or not.”
The baby kept crying. I thought I could hear Eunice's voice whispering, “Shh. It's alright, Ariel. Mommy's here. Everything's okay. I'm not going to let anyone or anything hurt you or scare you. I promise.” I could hear Eunice softly singing a lullaby. The sound of crying slowly faded.
“It seemed so real,” I said.
“In the real world, yes, but not here,” the voice said.
“Where is 'here'?” I asked. “Where are we?”
“Inner Space,” the voice said. “A place quite familiar to introverts. Where all sleepers travel to. Where all dreams are true, not just imaginary. Anything you can imagine here will become real. As real as it is possible to be, that is.”
“Am I trapped here?” I asked.
“Only while you're asleep,” the voice said. “There are ways to leave. In fact, one is right behind you. Turn around and see for yourself.”
I did so and there was a door there. Nothing extraordinary. Just an ordinary wooden door with a brass doorknob, lit by some spotlight that must exist somewhere above all this darkness. I reached for the doorknob and hesitated.
“What's wrong?” the voice asked. “Don't you trust yourself, Gillian?”
“What if I try to turn the doorknob and nothing happens?” I asked. “What if the door doesn't open for me?”
“You won't know until you try,” the voice said. “Or are you too afraid to try?”
I bit my lower lip and grabbed the doorknob. It certainly felt real. I turned the doorknob and it turned. The door opened inward.
I found myself inside my parents' home. The one I'd spent most of my childhood in. It was Christmas Eve.
Outside, I thought I could see snow gently falling from a darkening overcast sky.
Looking at the living room, a Christmas tree stood in a corner, already decorated with a white-haired angel at its top. Some ornaments were store-bought, but others were handmade. A small pile of wrapped and ribbon-and-bowed presents lay around the tree-holder at the base of the tree.
Christmas music was playing on the living room's radio. I could hear happy voices in the kitchen. One was my mother and the other sounded like an adolescent girl or young woman. The girl or woman had to be me. Or maybe it was someone else? No. That sounded like me all right. I couldn't remember ever being that happy, though. What year was this? I didn't know.
Where was Daddy? He was probably in the den, watching TV. I could hear what sounded like a football game and Daddy cheering every so often.
I walked through the living room, then the dining room with a long, narrow table already set, ready for dinner, and finally the kitchen.
There in the kitchen was Mother and myself. We were dressed for Christmas, wearing aprons, and preparing the traditional Christmas Eve dinner.
The calendar on the kitchen wall above the crowded kitchen counter said it was December 2001 (a month before I turned twenty).
I suddenly remembered this Christmas. More vividly than any before or since (at least until the current one). Things had begun so well, with so much hope, joy, and love. If only they could've continued that way. But they didn't.
Food was cooked and carried on plates to the dining room table (dessert was a homemade pumpkin pie, already cooked and waiting on the kitchen table). Mother called to Daddy, telling him dinner was about to be served. Daddy called back, saying he was coming. The TV went silent a moment later.
That dinner had been wonderful. Stuffed turkey, turkey gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and green beans. Mother served Daddy and me and then herself. Daddy carved pieces of turkey for each of us and then himself. Since I was almost old enough, Daddy poured wine into Mother's glass, then his own, and then mine.
“Your first glass of wine,” he told me. “I hope you'll enjoy it.”
I didn't tell him that I'd already had some (quite a bit, actually) at my boyfriend's house several months earlier. A night when I was supposed to be studying, but instead was in bed with him. I had never told my parents the truth about that night. I'd lied and somehow they'd believed my lie (after all, I was usually honest with them). I also hadn't told them that my periods had stopped about four months ago and that the baby's due date was in about five months. I wanted to tell them, but I could never get up the courage to tell them. At least, not until that Christmas Eve.
“To our family!” Daddy toasted.
We clinked glasses and sipped the wine. It tasted better than what I'd had at my boyfriend's house all those months ago.
“To our daughter!” Mother toasted.
We clinked glasses again and sipped the wine again.
“Care to make a toast, Eunice?” Mother asked me.
What could I toast to? The new year? That seemed safe enough. But something inside me -- maybe the growing baby in my belly -- made me say something else instead.
“Mother, Daddy,” I said, trying to sounds as calm as possible. “I need to tell you both something. Something I should've said earlier this year.”
“Is it about college?” Daddy asked excitedly, smiling at me. “You've been accepted at one of the best ones? Is that it?”
I shook my head.
“What is it, Eunice?” Mother asked, looking concerned at me.
I took a deep breath, let it out. “Mother, Daddy,” I said. “I'm . . . I'm . . .”
“Yes?” they asked in unison.
“I'm pregnant,” I finally said.
There was silence at the table. A few moments later, Daddy stood up and left the dining room. Mother and I didn't hear the TV being turned on again. We heard the driveway door opening and slamming shut seconds later.
Mother stared at me, as if not quite believing what I'd told them. She looked like she was about to cry. “How . . . how could you?” she asked.
She quickly stood up and went into the kitchen. I could hear her sobbing.
Daddy didn't come back that night. In fact, he didn't come back for several days. When he did, he brought divorce papers and handed them to Mother. She held them, silent, then looked at him. He nodded and handed her a pen. As if sleepwalking, she went to the kitchen table, sat down and signed the divorce papers. She handed them back to Daddy.
The next day he moved out. He didn't say where to. The house felt as empty as a grave. The presents remained unopened under the Christmas tree. Mother went to the upstairs bedroom she and Daddy had shared since I could first remember. She gently shut the door.
I looked at my not-quite-but-almost-twenty-year-old self. Sitting alone at the dining room table. Appetite was gone. I stood up and went to my bedroom, closing the door behind me. I laid on the bed and cried for what felt like hours. Somewhere in those hours I fell asleep.
The next day, there was no Christmas breakfast. No homemade cookies. The pumpkin pie still lay on the kitchen counter, uncut and uneaten.
Mother came into the kitchen, looking as if she hadn't slept even a moment. I watched as she took a cigarette out of a cigarette pack, lit it, put the cigarette in her mouth and puffed on it. My younger self was sitting at the kitchen table, with a bowl of cold cereal partly covered with milk. I had never seen my mother smoke before. I'd always assumed she'd never smoked. But here she was doing it, openly and without shame or guilt.
“I guess we'd better chuck the presents in the trash,” Mother said. “Not much point in opening any of them.”
“I want to keep mine,” my younger self said.
“No one is keeping theirs,” Mother said.
“Why can't I keep mine?” my younger self asked.
“Because you're the one who ruined Christmas this year,” Mother said. “I'm not even sure we'll ever celebrate Christmas again thanks to you. I hope you're proud of yourself.”
Not once did she say my name. As if it were some disease that she didn't want to get too close to, for fear that she might catch it.
Mother chucked the pumpkin pie in the kitchen's trash can. She gathered the food from the dining room table and dumped all of it (except the dishes, pots, and silverware) in the same trash can.
I didn't finish my cereal. Crying, I ran to my bedroom and slammed the door.
I moved out the next day, moved in with my boyfriend, and never went back to what used to be my family's home. I never saw my parents again. When they died a few years later, I wasn't invited to their funerals. At least someone thought I ought to know they were dead. Thank goodness for that much.
For years, I wanted to forget that Christmas. But apparently I never did. It still lay in my memories, ready to be remembered when I wanted or needed to remember it. Growing like a cancer inside of me, eating away at me. Until I finally had to face it.
I stepped back through the door and found myself back in what the voice had called “Inner Space”.
At first, I didn't know what to say. I simply sat down on whatever “ground” lay beneath me.
But the voice wasn't silent. “At least your daughter's pregnancy didn't tear your family apart. It seems that her father still cares a great deal about her. So do his parents. And so does Ariel.”
I felt like I'd been jerked to a standing position, more marionette than human.
“Ariel?” I asked. “Who is Ariel?”
“Your granddaughter,” the voice said. “Didn't you hear Eunice's voice calling her baby 'Ariel'?”
I nodded. “But if she's named her baby, what happened to the baby's adopted parents?”
“They died when their vehicle crashed into yours last night,” the voice said. “Only the baby survived.”
“But how did the baby return to Eunice?” I asked.
“A police officer happened upon the accident, found the baby in its baby seat, crying,” the voice said. “The police officer brought the baby to your house, gave her to your husband and daughter.”
“Oh my God,” I said, covering my mouth with one hand. “I . . . honestly I didn't . . . I didn't know. How did you know? If you're really me, how can you know things I don't know?”
“I'm more than you,” the voice said. “I'm also your guardian angel. There is much that I can do that you can't do. For instance, I was there when the accident occurred. I tried to protect as many people as possible, but could only protect the baby and yourself. I tried to find someone who could find the accident scene, call for an ambulance, and take the baby to her mother and grandfather's home.”
“But why didn't she take the baby to her adopted parents' next-of-kin?” I asked.
“There weren't any,” I said. “I checked. Thoroughly, I might add.”
I couldn't stand any longer. I collapsed. I don't think I fainted because I was still conscious.
When I looked ahead of me, where there had been just the voice and darkness was an angel with wings on their back and halo floating above their head. There wasn't any harp. Maybe some angels didn't need one.
“What do I do?” I asked. “What must I do?”
“You have to answer those questions yourself,” the angel said. “I've done what I can to point you in the right direction. I can't stay here any longer. I have other places to go, other people to help.”
“But I don't know what to do!” I protested.
“Yes, you do, Gillian,” the angel said. “I must go.” And vanished.
I tried to sit up. It wasn't easy. It hurt. It hurt a lot.
But I knew what I had to do and who I needed to speak with. I had to do it as soon as I was really conscious and awake.
It wouldn't be easy, but I could only hope that someday Eunice and Ariel would forgive me for what I'd done and what I hadn't done.