I close my laptop and rub my strained eyes. I've been staring at the screen blankly for almost forty-five minutes, and not a single stream of inspiration has flowed through my mind. The words I've typed are weak, destined for a cruel fate of highlighting and deleting. Prompts and expectations have been staring back at me with impatience and derision. I can just tell, they're ready to yell at me. A fresh, cold drink and a walk may help the avenues in my brain open up again, but it's been getting harder to reset my mind after it muddles. I don't know why.
I get up from the high counter, flip all my textbooks face down (as I always do on breaks; work and relaxation don't interfere with each other in my house) and move around to the fridge. Within it are far fewer groceries than I expected (guess I need to do another run), but the cold-brew coffee is right where I left it. I pour some into a glass, then grab an orange. Cutting it in two, I rescue a thin slice from one half's flat edge before squeezing the remainder of the fruit's tangy juice and pulp into my coffee, as much as my nonathletic hands can produce. The slice goes neatly onto the rim of the glass. It's a simple drink, but it's pleasing to look at, and it puts me at ease, lets me refocus. One sip, and I sigh, letting the good energy flow throughout me.
"Hannah, what are you up to?" I call as I migrate to the living room, picking up a stuffed dinosaur and a tiny board book from the ground on my way.
"Just drawing," comes the answer from upstairs.
"Want to draw down here, show me what you're working on? And then maybe we can take a little walk?"
"Sure." Lots of shuffling follows, then thumping little feet on stairs as my five-year-old daughter rushes to present me with her latest masterpiece.
I ease into my armchair, rest my drink on the nearby side table and reciprocate my child’s loving beam as she bounds right up to me with paper and pencils. "Here, Mommy, look––here you go."
I straighten out the drawing in my hands: a half-coloured globe with impressive detail in the continents' outlines, and plenty of other planets and moons and stars in the ether around it. "Wow, this is really good, sweetie! It's the whole world. Oh, can you find where we live?"
Hannah excitedly grabs back the page and studies it for a second, her eyebrows furrowed, her eyes searching, her finger tracing––
I lurch forward for an instant before regaining control of my head. I blink several times, my brain reeling. My sense of depth perception feels like the needle in a pressure gauge, wobbling to and fro at random, and for several tangible moments my line of vision appears to travel right through my daughter.
"Here?" Hannah points to somewhere in the middle of North America.
“I…” What just happened? My vision is fine again, but I’m feeling slightly nauseous. I can’t explain what that perspective-shifting episode was, or why it set on so randomly. The coffee? Surely not.
Hannah turns to me, expecting my feedback. I manage a smile and say, “That’s right, sweetie. Good job.” I give her a tight hug, partly for her encouragement, partly for my stability.
She pulls herself free early. “Yeah, I still have to colour the rest of it, too. There’s some green and blue that has to go here. And Mars is red, and Jupiter is orange, and Necktune is blue, but it’s a different blue than Earth-blue…”
She goes on, oblivious to my disorientation. I chalk the incident up to tired eyes from staring at my laptop, and think it’s as good a time as any to give myself a break from my screens.
“I love it, sweetie. I can’t wait to see it all finished and pretty. Do you want to go out for a walk? Fresh air and exercise will help your brain work better so you can focus.”
“Sure! Can I bring Poppy, too?”
She races off with her drawing, the world in her hands. My world; she is my world. She’s the one constant, an incandescent beacon of play and innocence. Even if her eyes remind me of him, I wouldn’t trade the world for her. Blue, like the ocean, but just a little green, too.
I stand, take one glance at the coffee on the side table, and leave it. I think I’ve lost my appetite.
Hannah and I step over skittering green-yellow leaves on the wooded trail just south of our house, the earliest signs of autumn re-entering the world. Hannah skips along and kicks twigs and rocks, a plush blue puppy dangling from her tiny grasp. My hands are in my pockets, and I’m focusing on my breathing. I begin to feel the crisp oxygen work its magic on me. I expel my anxieties and stress and headache a little more with each exhale, and I take in the beauty of the outdoors in these last breaths of summer.
“So are you excited for your first day of school next week?” I ask.
Hannah’s spring lessens a little. “Yeah. I think it’ll be fun. But I hope it’s not too hard. It makes you look really shadowy when you do school. Is it gonna be that hard for me?”
I don’t know exactly what to respond with. I guess she’s noticed how stressful my university work has become. All those late nights that leave bags under my eyes (the “shadowy” bit, I guess), assignments that scale in complexity and size and weight day by day, deadlines that creep like cats no matter how prepared I think I am. It really has begun to take a toll on me. I’m a fool for thinking that she wouldn’t notice. I always try to be happy for her. She’s a kid; she deserves to be sheltered from the gruel that the future brings, for a little while longer. I’m doing the best that I can on my own, just the two of us. I tell myself everyday that I can’t buckle. I have to succeed, for her.
I smile kindly at her. “No, sweetie. It won’t be hard. You know why? ‘Cause you’re a little super-girl, and you’ll be way better at school than I am!” I swoop down and hoist her into the air, spinning her in circles above me as she laughs loudly and waves Poppy around.
I ease her to the ground. “You have your amazing drawing skills, you can spell your own name forwards and backwards––” (I poke her belly with that, and she giggles) “––and you have a bubbly personality that will make everyone love you. I might not even need to do my school if you do well enough!”
She beams and hugs me tightly, then runs ahead with bounding steps, manoeuvring her stuffed dog in the air as though directing it through invisible currents.
The trail makes a loop back to where we entered the forest, so we keep walking, steadily making our way home. Hannah amuses herself with various distractions while I remain in quiet thought. We’ve almost reached the exit when I glance around and realize it’s quieter than it should be.
“Hannah?” I turn a full circle. I’m alone in the forest. “Hannah!” Ice is creeping slowly into my blood. Maybe she’s just slacking and she’ll come around the bend any moment. Maybe she’s playing a trick on me, hiding behind a tree waiting to yell, “Boo!” with raised arms when I get close enough. “Hannah!” Mothers have infinitely more fears than most people. Such is what comes from being responsible for precious life in such a uniquely intimate way. “HANNAH!”
I whirl around. Crouched by the side of the trail, where I’d been standing not a few moments ago, my little five-year-old watches in disappointment as a tiny frog leaps into the tall grass, escaping her welcoming cupped hands. She looks at me with a frown. “He got away…”
“Hannah!” I rush forward, only to stop short. “How did you get there?”
“I was here the whole time. I tried to catch him, but he probably doesn’t like people,” she continues. “I had to focus and be quiet. I think you scared him off, but that’s okay, Mommy, you didn’t notice him.”
I stare at her. She most certainly had not been there “the whole time.”
We walk straight home. I don’t let go of her hand the entire way.
I sit quietly in my armchair, a hand resting around my glass of lukewarm coffee. Hannah walks over and plops herself onto the couch adjacent to my seat, and begins to read a little picture book aloud. She sounds everything out as she reads, slowly painting a scene about cats and dogs riding bikes.
I watch her. She continues to read. Eventually, her voice fades out, and she’s reading silently. I continue to watch.
Her image begins to flicker.
I sit up straight. My eyes are glued to my daughter.
I see her eyes, those blue-green windows into my world, so intensely narrowed on the page before her you might think she was trying to ignite her laser vision. Her entire face is one of pure concentration, unnerving to witness in such a young child.
As I watch, her eyes become like glass. Her skin turns the colour of the couch behind her. Her hair is an undefinable mass. Her attention leaves herself utterly, and in that instant, my daughter is completely hidden from sight. Invisible.
I can’t breathe. I don’t believe I’m awake. If I move, does the illusion stop? Should I wait for her to reappear? Will she reappear?
I slowly rise from my chair, bent in a crouch as if walking on ice. I inch towards the spot Hannah had been moments before. The cushion is still indented where her bottom should be.
I reach my hand forward slowly, shakily. I can’t close my eyes, so the heat and the sting come. My fingers feel the air for life, for meaning. If I don’t find anything, what do I do? What does life look like when your world has vanished?
Touch. Softness. Cloth. Warmth. I feel for more. A shoulder. An arm. Bare skin. A tiny wrist. I grip it, my lifeline.
I pull it towards me, gently, slowly, so slowly I fear I’m not moving, but I dare not go faster.
I cross a threshold. My daughter’s hand slips off of her book. Her eyes awaken from a trancelike state, and she looks at me in surprise. She’s all there. She’s all there.
“Mommy?” she asks. “Why are you crying?”
I embrace her. I never let go. I never let go.