by Nancy L. Davis
Mikey and Rae ran rings around each other through the tall dune grass and blue-grey mist of a languorous summer morning. “I’m T Rex,” Rae boomed, flinging her arms high above her head and roaring. Mikey giggled and screeched, holding his belly in fear and delight; Rae grabbed him by the waist, tickling him mercilessly. “Don’t you know dinosaurs always distract their victims first?” she squealed.
The cicadas had warmed up, sizzling like fritters in a wide pan of generous oil. It was sweltering, one of those seasonal teasers, with autumn just around the bend. Late August offered some of the hottest, most uncomfortable weather all year, and the notion that school was starting for Rae in less than a week put her in an especially sassy mood. She liked school well enough—once the routine was established—pencil eraser and white-paste smells, new best friends replacing old, a teacher pretty enough for Rae and classmates to play fashion patrol with the best of intentions. Still, nothing beat the paradise that was summer in Lake Country, Northwest Indiana.
Rae was about to be a newly minted fifth grader, her baby brother, Mikey, just three, a precocious toddler. Rae credited herself for that; she loved the big-sister moments and took full advantage of them, reading to Mikey all hours of the day, breaking into song with him, teaching him colors, shapes, the alphabet, numbers. He could recite his ABCs at two, count to fifty by three. She would teach him to read very soon, if she had her way, though Mikey was all boy. He squirmed and fussed if she made him sit too long for a book or lesson, loved to jump in her arms for a hug, only to break out of her grasp just as quickly, racing to a tree or puddle or the swing set—whatever pleased him in the moment.
Water was his element: baths, outdoor showers set up to wash the sand off his slippery, eager body, wading pools, rain, sprinklers. Most of all, he loved the lake by which they were fortunate enough to live. Birch Lake was neither the biggest nor deepest in the cluster of lakes giving their region its name. But it was spring-fed, which made it clean and alive, with small estuaries spanning out into eddies emanating from the shoreline. Come May, Mikey and Rae would sit for hours studying the tadpoles and microscopic minnows blooming into larger life.
Mikey was Rae’s half-brother. Her father, Michael, had died when Rae was three, Mikey’s age, in a semi-truck pile-up on the Frank Borman Expressway that took him to and from his welding job in South Chicago every day. He had survived dangerous working conditions and unimaginable construction heights only to lose it all on the road one early December morning. His vehicle was unlucky enough to be in the middle of a lengthy truck caravan, his car an accordion in seconds, his life snuffed out in an instant. Daughter of a coal miner in the southern hills of Indiana, Rae’s mother, Ruthie, had been born and raised in the arms of catastrophic news and learned from her upbringing that the best way to withstand the ordeal and loss was immediate and full indulgence in grief, like the dipping of a water pail deep down an old-fashioned well. After six months, she pulled herself together, enrolled in nursing school, and used her husband’s union pension and life insurance benefits to make a comfortable, if lean, life for herself and Rae. Fortunately, they were able to keep the house. Four years later, Ruthie Bender became Ruthie Willis. Then Mikey was born: all fat and healthy with blue eyes, blond curls, and eyelashes that could make Rae simmer with envy. Her angular, dark looks were definitely those of her late father; Mikey’s cherubic features mimicked her stepfather Raymond’s when he was a child.
Raymond’s sandy-brown hair and steel eyes had a way of balancing Rae when her pre-adolescent self began to fidget and fret. She did not dislike Raymond, the name she called him instead of “Dad.” He was not her father, after all, though the fact that he was Mikey’s allowed her to forgive him for replacing her own. Even she had to admit at quiet moments that she was so young when her father died, her memories of them together came only at unexpected moments and of the most specific nature: his pushing her on the tree swing in the early autumn sun; the tangy-sweet scent of his Canoe cologne on a Sunday when they sat in a church pew fanning themselves with the programs; or the way he reached up with his whole body to place the shiny blue star at the top of the Christmas tree, she and her mother yodeling with joy at the sight. Years later, the fact that stepfather and stepdaughter shared the same name helped to create a bond between them, if strained at times. Out of respect for Rae, Raymond had asked everyone to refer to him by his formal birth name. Rae appreciated that. He had once confessed that he believed they were destined to become family because of their names. It made Rae feel a little uncomfortable to think that losing her real father could somehow end in a positive way, but she knew Raymond’s intentions were good.
So they behaved like a family, a blended one, the school social worker, Mrs. Edmond, called it. Rae wasn’t sure why adults needed labels for everything. It was Rae’s family—period. The idea of blending was distasteful to her as if they were each a measured ingredient poured into a pitcher and pureed to a frothy mixture. They were survivors, is all, and tried with all their hearts to love one another as any family might do. Certainly, they all loved Mikey. He was their angel, their great bright hope, their source of humor and adoration, at times an obsession. He was also a balm for the emptiness that could settle in their home like an unexpected ghost.
Before sunrise on the first day back to school, Rae woke by the light of the super moon. They had all watched it fill the night sky like a giant balloon that evening—Labor Day, their annual cookout. Rae’s Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Stu from her father’s side had come, along with a half-dozen cousins and a number of neighboring families who lived on their inlet of the lake. Mikey was mesmerized by the moon’s size and light, pretending to trace its perimeter with his fingers, as if he could touch it. The kids played tag and badminton, transfixed by the idea that no electric lights were needed to illuminate the yard. When, reluctantly, people began to leave—after all, school was starting, and folks had to return to work after a long and lazy holiday weekend—Mikey and Rae walked with Raymond down to the shoreline, small wavelets lapping the sand. Bullfrogs croaked; crickets thrummed. The rowboat, moored to the dock, rocked sleepily back and forth as if summoning summer to its seasonal end. Mikey grabbed Rae’s hand and squeezed tightly, closed his eyes, and let out a screech. An owl returned his call somewhere up the tall, scraggly pine. Mikey shrieked, gurgled. With characteristic grace and charm, Raymond swooped down and scooped him up, twirling him in a circle high above his head, the two of them cooing like mourning doves. They were so handsome a father and son, Rae thought. She wished she were big enough to embrace them both in a bear hug, imprint herself upon Raymond, whom she suddenly realized, she did love like a father, with his impish smile and lanky frame. Of course, Raymond was where Mikey drew his endless energy and delight. Mikey was the sun illuminating the moon; no matter where he went, he lit up the place and the people. Rae wanted to take these moments, trap them in a jar for an endless source of light and hope.
When she saw it was only 4 a.m., she tugged the sheet closer to her chin and began making finger puppets in the moon’s reflection on the wall, pretending she was entertaining Mikey with her antics and improvisational storyline. She had an impulse to go into Mikey’s room to watch his face in this mesmerizing light, his small chest rise and fall imperceptibly under his own sheet stenciled with toy trucks and bulldozers, steam shovels and construction helmets. A sudden wind stirred up with a swirling sound, tapping the blinds against the window, inching her bedroom door as if by an invisible prankster. Now she was fully awake, and the only antidote was a glass of milk and graham cracker, so, quietly, she left the bed, treading softly on the braided rug and into the hallway. Mikey’s room was next to hers, and she tiptoed in, as any big sister would, to make sure he was covered. But the sheet and blanket were tossed in a snarl, the bed empty. His slippers were gone from their usual spot tucked just under his bed. She twirled around the room to check for obvious hideouts, rushed into the bathroom, a small knot of panic tightening in her gut. When that turned up nothing, she told herself that surely he was either in her mother and Raymond’s room or downstairs. Perhaps he was checking for the fairy people outside the window, as he and Rae had done several times in the middle of the night, flashlight in hand. She slipped into the master bedroom—studied for a moment Raymond’s arm sprawled across her mother’s pillow and arcing above her head; her mother’s hair fanned out and spiraling in loose brown curls around his wrist. They were really in love, Rae had to admit, and jostled herself out of her reverie when she realized Mikey was not with them. For some reason not wanting to wake them just yet, as if doing so would confirm her darkest fears, she left and sprinted quietly down the stairs, tearing apart each room with renewed panic—living room, dining room, den—before entering the kitchen in back. She moved chairs, rummaged through closets and pantry, yanked at curtains. They had no basement. When she ran out of possibilities, she unlocked and opened the front door, hearing its characteristic creak, and began to comb the yard, checking the mailbox out of habit, when, dread reaching her throat, she raced around back to face the very thing she did not want to see: the lake. Her heart bunched up like a fist in her chest, its pulse a series of thuds like foreboding footsteps marching down an empty corridor.
Everything was as they had left it after last night’s festivities: the tables and chairs situated as if the guests still sat in them; the umbrellas snapped shut, as Raymond had seen to; the stainless grill covered and cleaned and gleaming in the light; the barbecue mitts with red Beauty and Beast embroidered on their faces hanging from the cooking countertop hooks. Rae looped around the badminton ropes, made her way to the grass and sandy shore where Mikey’s inflatable dinosaur still lay, lilting slightly in the gentle breeze of the night. When she realized Mikey’s mask and flippers were nowhere to be seen, she wracked her brain trying to recall whether she had put them away and ran to the shed to see if they sat on the shelf. By the light of the still bright moon, she could detect every detail of the inside: luminous spider webs cast high across a back corner; Raymond’s garden trowel and grass clippers hanging on shiny silver nails; a hoe, rake, and shovel pressed into their brackets, precisely, as her stepfather liked things. Rae felt the shelves above, skimmed their dusty surface for Mikey’s things, came up with only a set of plastic toys—orange and yellow shovels, a sand sifter, starfish molds, a pail. Then she spied the mask and flippers hidden behind a boogie board. She left the shed, sighing with momentary relief, scanned the yard and shoreline one last time, wondered if she shouldn’t wake her parents, after all—startling herself a second time that night as she referred to Raymond as her father—and instead moved with slow deliberation to the dock. She could hear the water softly rubbing up against the old tires roped to its sides to cushion the boat that bobbed lightly against them.
Rae noticed the sky breaking across the horizon, the first sign of dawn, midnight-blue horizontal lines fading into a faint pink and gold light. She imagined it might be the most beautiful sunrise she had seen and wished Mikey were with her to share it. She recalled it was the reason her mother had named her Rae because she was born at the first light of dawn. Quickly, she studied the water, her eyes adjusting to the darker liquid light. Nothing yet was perceptible but the grey-blue rippling of the lake, the color of Raymond’s eyes, she thought. Then she saw it: a bright yellow splotch—part liquid, part solid—and shimmering in its wetness. It fanned out like a parachute. She recognized it instantly as Mikey’s slicker. She cupped her mouth with her hand to stifle a gasp. Mikey, she whispered and watched irregularly-shaped fingers like some sea creature reach out as if to grab the yellow of the slicker. Mikey’s hair in wet wisps was entangled with itself. His heart-shaped face floated in blotchy hues of purples and pinks of the still living. His blue lips sealed the story when Rae launched into the water, all screams, and lifted the presumably lifeless and precious weight of her brother in her already aching and goose-bumped arms. She saw the house light up, heard the back door open and slam shut, felt the rush of anger, terror, and hurt explode onto the now visibly green lawn as Raymond pounded the turf and sand and water to intercept his child.
“What in God’s name are you doing, Rae? he howled. What have you done? he demanded. But instead of taking his son from her arms, he threw his own around Mikey’s limp and cold body, shivering in sobs and screaming, “My boy, my boy—oh, what have you done with my boy?” As if waking himself out of his own shock, he commanded, “Get him to shore! Lay him on the ground,” running ahead with robotic motions.
Rae sloshed through the water before setting her brother on a grassy spot, but his body slipped, and he touched the ground with a small tremor. Raymond pushed her aside and began pumping Mikey’s chest: counting, pressing, counting, pressing. “Come on, Mikey, cough up the water. Breathe. Come back to life for papa, for mama—for your sister.”
Now her mother was beside them, her expert hands rubbing Mikey’s arms, as, gently, she ordered Rae to rub with his legs. She was the voice of reason, and Rae imagined the generations of miners in her blood and the gaping black holes of dust and hollow rimming her young life. Ruthie counted the pauses, waited for breath, prayed aloud for rebirth, at once professional and passionate, as no doubt her training had demanded.
All three screamed “Yes!” in unison when Mikey opened his eyes, the soft blue visible. The pupils sparked alive for a moment as if trying to focus. But instead of making contact, his eyes rolled back into his head, leaving a ghastly bluish-white in their wake. His whole body shuddered, then stilled.
“Noooo,” Raymond groaned, pulling the boy’s torso up to him, cupping the back of his son’s head with his hand.
“For mama,” Ruthie coaxed, kissing Mikey’s cheeks and forehead, his chin and ears, his hair, each eye. “For mama and papa and Rae and the moon the sun and all good things alive,” she chanted like a rosary. “Stay with us, sweet, dear Michael. Mikey Willis: I command you not to abandon us!” At this, she collapsed onto her son’s chest.
“I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry,” Rae stuttered, her throat closing up before at last she retched, the bile exploding from some deep dark place she had not known existed.
“How could you, how could you?” Raymond demanded of her. In the early light of day, she noticed a slight scar above his left eye, crescent-shaped. So slight and shallow, it moved up and back with each tilt of his head, as if controlled by some invisible force. Rae was speechless.
Horrified, Ruthie grabbed her husband’s arm, demanded, “What—what did she do, Ray? What could she possibly have done?”
“I found him,” Rae offered, the taste in her mouth all acrid and grainy, as she swiped her forearm across lips and chin to wipe them clean. She looked her stepfather straight in the eyes and accounted for her whereabouts as if talking to a detective. “I woke up and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I went to Mikey’s room to cover him, and he was gone. I searched everywhere. And then I came out here.” At this last, she moved her arm in a wide arc, as if anointing the now sacred land.
“But why? Raymond pleaded. “Why would he come out here all alone? And in his slicker and rain boots?” The protective plastic of Mikey’s red plaid rain boot gleamed in the early morning sun. His bare foot turned inward slightly as if searching for its final resting place. The other boot must have been yanked off in the water. The boots likely doomed him, weighing him down until he had no more fight in him.
Those were the last words Rae heard Raymond speak until the wake and funeral. There, his voice low and barely audible, he reasserted his head-of-household position—such as it was—but to Rae, it was mechanical, empty. Her mother threw herself into Mikey stories, summoning strength from the depths of her maternal love, like the coal seams of a fertile mine. Rae hung with her two best childhood friends, Diana and Heidi. She could not look at or speak directly to any of her family. When she tried, she saw Mikey’s eyes of granite: immutable, perfect, lifeless.
She knew her role in all this, and she knew Raymond knew, for she and Mikey used to climb into the boat when it was docked—it was always docked when they piled into it—to play a game of imaginary sailors. She never took the boat out on the lake with Mikey in it. They would climb on board, arms and legs sprawled out, dismissing any splinters they might catch from tumbling over the dry wood of the sun-baked thwarts. They would take turns pretending to row, sing sailor songs, map navigational routes by the stars’ positions they knew hid behind the day’s bright skies. They traveled hundreds of miles this way, always a safe passage. Not once did Mikey try to climb out on the dock on his own or jump into the water. He would don his sailor cap and hold up his telescope, searching for mermaids and pirates, extinct water creatures, sunken treasures.
That was Mikey, she thought. A sunken treasure suddenly surfaced. Raymond would never forgive her. Her mother would never forgive her husband for blaming her daughter. “Rae brought life into Mikey; she adored her brother,” she would plead. They knew Raymond was aware of all this. In his head, he had to know what was right and good. But his heart was permanently damaged, and it seemed nothing would heal it. So they moved strategically around each other like chess players on an ever-shrinking board. Her mother had no time to sink herself into the grief the way she had for Rae’s father. Raymond did not allow her that luxury. Never again would Rae feel that easy and genuine love between them—she was certain. Counseling, family, friends, Mrs. Edmond: not one could bring solace to Raymond.
One particularly trying day, Ruthie suggested they move someplace new, though clearly, she found comfort in their home. But Raymond adamantly refused, recounting a recurring dream where Mikey suddenly appeared in the kitchen the morning of his fourth birthday, or slipped into his chair at the dinner table on Christmas Eve, sometimes claiming to see his image in the doorway, on the swings. He never directed blame toward his stepdaughter again, but Rae felt it, breathed it in every day of her new and aching life. The closeness she was beginning to feel with Raymond had been snuffed out, like Mikey’s last breath. There were times she hated Raymond; how could he behave this way—so self-indulgent—when she and his wife had suffered two traumas, two irreversible losses? Like an alcoholic or drug abuser, Raymond was addicted to his mourning. And so they treated it like another person in the family, made room for it at mealtimes and holidays—gave it a wide berth, as if it were a living, breathing, slightly hostile and unpredictable being.
To mark the one-year anniversary of their loss, Raymond’s construction company commissioned a sculpture created—if not in Mikey’s likeness—his spirit. It depicted a young boy holding a kite flying high above him, one arm suspended in the air, the other by his side, his entire body in joyous motion, his face lit up like a star as his eyes scanned the sky. Sculpted of silver metal, it reflected the light just as Mikey had and absorbed the warmth as he also had. It was a brilliant tribute, really. The trees and water also were reflected in it, as people were, too, when they approached. Rae could only imagine how it would radiate under a Super Moon. But just yet, she would rather not. They placed the sculpture mid-point between the house and shoreline on the periphery of two worlds—like Mikey. Set on a black granite base, it was secured for always—as Mikey was in their hearts.
Although they did not hold the annual Labor Day picnic, they did host a brief memorial and commemoration. As Raymond’s supervisor spoke, Rae studied her stepfather for signs of relief, change, something to show he could release some of his dark grief. But she saw none. He spoke briefly to thank his co-workers and boss for their kindness and generosity. When he smiled, Rae noticed new creases like small canyons channeling his chin. She honestly did not know how she and her mother could take another year of his presence and had begun to live for the times he stayed late at work or went on fishing or snowmobile trips with his friends, which had become more frequent.
Later that night, Rae did something she could not fully account for, though in some ways she felt she had been preparing for this all year. Her alarm set for four a.m., she was wide awake long before. In fact, she doubted she had slept at all, though dream scraps raced through and formed a gauzy collage in her mind. She rose, following the identical steps she had taken one year ago. While the moon lit her way, it could not compare to last year’s, of course. In some way, this was a relief—as if the stark brilliance of that night finally were fading, and they could all begin to scavenge some peace.
She slipped out the back kitchen door, skipping the drama of the phantom front yard search. The metal sculpture gleamed in the moonlight, summoning her to it. She placed her hands on the smooth surface of the boy’s feet, traced the bare toes playing in the metal slips of grass. Gently, but precisely, she moved fingers up the chubby calves and thighs, over shorts and onto the slight torso, stroking the arms and cropped sleeves of a summer shirt, counted the tags on the kite string—three, total—Mikey’s age when they lost him. The number three was sacred, she knew. A difficult one, too. Where three in her first family had felt natural and right, now it was unnatural, wrong. She studied her own distorted and faint reflection in the kite, thought how appropriate that seemed—off-center, skewed. And yet, she knew enough about symbols to understand the kite reaching to the heavens was a comforting one. She wondered how much of this was Raymond’s doing; had he commissioned the piece, masterminded the idea? She hadn’t asked him but made it a point to at some distant future when things felt safe.
Now she set forth with her plan; leaving Mikey behind, she ventured toward the water, slipped off her nightgown, let the cold liquid envelop her body, and paddled out to the boat. She tried to imagine Mikey’s final actions, his thinking. She knew he would have attempted to pile into the belly of the boat—as they had done innumerable times—swing his legs across the oarlocks and tumble into the bottom, righting himself and taking the front seat. Rae had been the captain, Mikey the scout. He would sit starboard, she at the helm. But when would he have fallen into the water? Or did he fall? He had sustained no bruises, though no autopsy had been performed. Ruthie and Raymond had said an emphatic “No” to that. So he likely did not fall getting into the boat, or he would have banged himself up. Something must have coaxed him into the water, she decided. Something tugging at his imagination: A fish? A bird? Some moonlit reflection he just had to reach?
And then Rae felt it: nothing tangible, but amorphous, magnetic. She pushed out her arms in an expert breaststroke to move just past the dock, watched the effluence of ripples born of her movements, felt the fluidity taking on her shape: release, restore. Without thinking, she rolled over on her back—the fading moon over treetops still mesmerizing, the water balancing her. She could stay this way for a long time; she was an expert floater. She could just as easily release the tension, exhale, succumb to the water’s supple nature. Which should she choose?
Mikey had not mastered floating yet; he could not tread water, either, though he was learning both. No doubt he had thrashed and spit out a hellish amount of water in his fight to live. He might have touched bottom had he been able to get closer to shore, but that wasn’t likely. He probably sank and bobbed back up several times, the fatigue and panic settling in quickly, weakening him. It was the panic she could not erase from her mind—the frenzy that must have beset him, the abject terror under a glorious moon and sky. No mother or father or big sister to rescue him. The reversal of birth: spit out violently, sucked under violently. Was there any comfort in his final fatigue and acquiescence?
She knew the answer: a cold and stolid “No.” Rae floated between multiple worlds: the living and the dead, the liquid and the solid, the loved and the unloved. She saw the faces of her family: Ruthie, Raymond, Mikey. And then, in stark clarity, she saw her father’s smile. It was her smile. Her real father was coaxing her into the boat, brown eyes melting in the sunlight, hands poised to help her securely off the dock and into the vessel: a welcome haven. This had been his creation, she realized, his game to imagine other worlds beyond the real. What was real, she wondered.
The water grew cold, and Rae shivered, convulsing now with knowledge and uncertainty. Mikey’s passage was not easy, but his life had been pure joy. Wasn’t that a gift? Rae had a choice to make. Her life had not been that easy, and much joy had been ripped from her without consent. She studied the sky. The moon was disappearing, nothing special anymore. The sunrise was not magnificent, yet it had appeared, dutifully. She realized she had a duty—to her mother, her father, to Mikey. Yes, perhaps even to Raymond, who had rebuked her in the worst way. And then she said it aloud: What if that night, I had awakened my mother and Raymond? Might one of us have discovered Mikey sooner, saved him? There: it was out.
Re-imagining her father’s confident hands and caring expression, she allowed his gentle smile to guide her back to shore. It was then she realized that she had passed this same love onto Mikey. Realizing this—her father’s and her legacy—she quickened her strokes, at some point able to stand on the pebbled lake bottom to let the water slide off her chilled body in frigid sheets. She grabbed and threw on her nightgown, raced up to the house, and pushed open the mudroom door. There she caught her breath in the sun’s early rays that streamed through the windows as if she were a wild animal newly born.
When she stepped into the kitchen, she was face to face with Raymond, who stood before her, arms outstretched and holding up an oversized beach towel. Without hesitating, she plunged into its thick pile and allowed him to embrace her, wrap her into a cocoon of warmth. They stayed that way for several moments when he began rocking her gently back and forth. “Oh, Rae,” he repeated. “Rae.”
At some point, they broke into loose sobs, gasping in small breaths, their bodies shaking involuntarily, until staccato hiccups of laughter emanated from their tired, travel-worn bodies, in spite of themselves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy L. Davis publishes fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in Cutthroat, 15th Year Anniversary Edition: Best of Philadelphia Stories, an anthology, and Route Nine, to name a few. Awards, among others, include Second Place in The Ledge Fiction Competition, Honorable Mention in the 2018 Lorian Hemingway Short Fiction Contest, Finalist in the ABQ Bosque Fiction Competition, and a Pushcart Prize Poetry Nomination. Her poetry chapbook, Ghosts, was published by Finishing Line Press, 2019.
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