If it weren’t for the jostling of the truck’s tires on the rough gravel drive, there wouldn’t be any movement in the silent vehicle at all. In the passenger seat, Stephanie was holding herself perfectly upright, hands folded in her lap, one hand clenched into a fist so tight that a faint scar shone white across her knuckles. Beside her, her mother was equally motionless, if more casually posed, a Barbie doll mimicking nonchalance in an easy slump against her seat. But her hand flung easily over the steering wheel was clasped firmly, and her eyes moved steadily and alertly over the road before them.
When the truck rolled to a stop before a small manufactured home with gray siding, mother and daughter relaxed in a synchronism they both missed. Steph was out of the car before the engine was off, backpack in hand. Danielle slid out and came to stand beside her.
She cleared her throat. “Yeah, so. This is me now.”
Steph just nodded.
“So, I’ll just…” Danielle stepped awkwardly around Steph. “Do you need…?” She reached hesitantly for her bag.
She pulled it back. “Oh, it’s not…no, I got it.”
When the door swung open, Steph had a moment to note the darkness and the smell of wholeness, of memory (bacon grease, Wind Song, a hint of bleach) before a large quivering mass erupted from the doorway into her arms. She gasped and dropped her bag as she tumbled to the dirt.
“Gidget! Oh, hey girl, hey you good girl!” The black pit-bull lab mix squirmed frantically in her lap where she sat, licking and jumping and pawing in a frenzied blur of joyful movement. Steph laughed for the first time since she’d gotten off the train.
Danielle scooped up the backpack from the ground. “I swear she waits for you to get home from school every day. Goes and waits by the mailbox, it’s the damnedest thing.”
Steph climbed to her feet and brushed off her jeans but kept a hand on the dog’s head, scratching her softly between the ears. “I’ve missed her so much.”
Danielle turned in the doorway to face her daughter. “We both missed you. Hasn’t the same without you.”
Stephanie kept her eyes trained on Gidget. “So, show me around.”
Inside, the small living room with its box TV and foldout couch opened to a smaller kitchen, a compact fridge, stove, and tiny sink occupying the far wall of the room. Beside them, a card table was set with two hopeful chairs, a fast-wilting bouquet of wild daisies between them.
“And the bedroom is right through here, got a nice little view of the meadow outside, and…ta da!” Danielle spread an arm with a flourish toward the twin bed tucked neatly in the far corner, made up prettily with an obviously new pillow and red plaid quilt. “You still like red, don’tcha? And I got you a desk, too.” Arm still outstretched, she was beaming, and Steph found herself trying to remember the last time she had seen her mother smile like that, whole face and shoulders too, scrunched up towards her neck in the same way her own did when her happiness felt full and unbridled.
She had smiled like that in October, a year and a half ago, as she headed out the door to go to the homecoming party that her father had forbid. It had only taken five minutes of her parents going back and forth in the kitchen in an argument she had pretended not to hear, only five minutes of her mom shouting (“Aaron, let the kid have some fun, for God’s sake! Bad enough you nag me to death, let the kid live, dammit!”) before her father had stormed out of the kitchen, a dervish of anger and agitation swirling up the stairs spinning out words behind him like a reverse tornado. “Fucking hell, Danielle! Do you even know where she’s going? Be a parent, ya goddamn drunk!” A door slammed in punctuation. Steph slipped into the kitchen. Danielle was in the fridge, but she heard her come in. She waved a hand. “Go on, get outta here, kiddo, hassom fun.” Steph ran up and hugged her mom lightly from behind, who patted her arm in clumsy response. Quick as a cat, Steph grabbed her bag and was out the door.
The party was wilder than she had expected. Tucked in the corner, she held her drink nervously and guardedly and she scanned the writhing crowd again and again for her friends, or any other freshmen at all. An arm dropped unexpectedly around her shoulders and she looked up in panic. A sleepy-eyed boy with brown hair grinned at her lazily. “Little jumpy, aren’t you? That’s okay. Want me to top this off?” He brandished a bottle of vodka and splashed it towards her cup. It missed, soaking her blouse instead. He laughed. “Well, that’s fun too.”
Steph promptly dropped her cup, shoved the boy off of her, and made a beeline for the door.
Outside on the porch, she breathed in cool air and pulled out her phone. The backlight of her home screen glowed brightly in the darkness of the porch with a photo, she and her parents at a pumpkin patch two weekends ago, the only photo she’d managed to herd both of her parents into before her mom came back from the bathroom swaying slightly on her feet and her dad snapped at her and went to wait in the car.
Her finger hovered above Dad (mobile) in her favorites list. She thought about how long that 10-minute car ride was going to feel once her dad started in, the particular way his mouth set before a self-righteous speech. She paused. It was only a 10-minute drive. And it was still early. Without pausing any longer, she brought her finger down and pressed Mom (mobile).
When she woke up in the hospital a week later, the last thing she would remember was the sleepy-eyed stranger boy with the clumsy pour.
Physical therapy had only taken nine months of Monday and Wednesday afternoons of two-hour rehab sessions, nine months of watching the softball team advance to the semi-finals without her. It had taken a full eighteen months of weekly sessions with a therapist in her calm, sunny office before Steph had decided she wanted to see Danielle again. Dad had made the calls, bought the tickets, and hugged her twice before reminding her to call any time, for any reason.
She had gotten off the train prepared for pain, prepared for tears, prepared for recriminations and accusations, but she had not prepared for…hope. She had not steeled herself against cheerfully expectant daisies in a vase, against a sanguine red quilt on a brand-new bed, or against the slight tremble in her mother’s outstretched hand as they stood together in the room that Danielle said was for her.
In the silence that carried, that Steph did not know how to break, Danielle began to droop. “I…I mean, it’s okay if you don’t like red no more. We can get another. We can go together! And, and I looked at the school, it looks real nice, I think you’re gonna love it. They got a great softball team…” Her voice trailed off, and her arm fell, and Steph knew she needed to give something, anything.
She cleared her throat. “It’s great, Dan-. Mom. I love it. Thank you.” Everything she did not say squeezed itself into the space between them and settled in uncomfortably, thickening the air around them.
Danielle picked up the mantle again bravely, her voice soft so as not to disturb the sleeping giant in the room. “I know this is far from your dad, and your friends, but I got a great sponsor, and I didn't wanna have to switch so soon. They said it’s not good for my long-term stability.”
Gentle as her tone was, careful as her words were, the light of hope in her eyes was almost wild, beseeching Steph with a keenness that felt like to slice clean through her. She would choose her next words with care, and they would break two hearts regardless. At her feet, Gidget’s tail thumped hopefully against the floor. Three.
“Mom. I…I love you. And I think…I think I even forgive you? And me. But I’m not. I’m not here…for that. I’m not ready. For that.”
Danielle beamed as if the brightness of her smile could camouflage the sheen in her eyes. “That’s okay! Of course! One day at a time, and all that! Maybe soon! I’m gonna start dinner!” She hurried out of the room.
Alone in the room, Steph stared at the bed and marveled at how nothing she had felt in the ICU had hurt like this.
In the main room, Danielle was buried deep in the tiny fridge. Without turning she called, “You can watch whatever you want on the TV! Dinner’ll be ready in 20!” Steph walked past the TV and its couch companion, straight into the kitchenette where her mother was staring intently into the depths of the fridge, studying a pint of milk. She was shaking. Wordlessly, Steph wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist and rested her head on her back. Her mother covered her hand with her own and they stood there quietly until the room darkened around them and they glowed together, back-lit like angels in the fridge’s light.
When Danielle woke up beneath the red quilt, the sun was setting and her pillow was soaked in tears. She groped blindly for her phone on the little table beside her bed. She hit redial and when he answered, Aaron’s voice was already weary. “Danielle. Please, you have to stop this.” Danielle’s sobs drowned her words, and Aaron waited.
“You know I forgive you, Danielle. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I forgive you. I do. And I know Steph does too. And now you have to forgive yourself. You have to, or you’re always gonna be in that car. If Steph were here, she would want to see you doing well. She loved you so much. And she knew you loved her. Make her proud, Danielle. Make her proud of you.”
Danielle hung up the phone, wiped her eyes, and went to collect Gidget from her post by the mailbox to take her for a walk.