by Taylor Hoyt
For as long as I could remember, I was not real in this life. I slipped in and out with ease and without belonging.
My mother cried when they found me. I scrambled to understand why. I wasn’t bloody or torn. Only purple and blue where panic collided on skin.
I remember my sister was always so funny. Jokes rolled off her tongue and filled the space around them. We made room, scooting back our plates, folding hands over our stomachs. Our laughter carried into every corner. Not even the dust mites could escape. I tried to copy that a power once; but, more interesting tales overturned mine and my words was lost, abandoned, and forgotten along the trail.
I saw him before. In the park, tugging a skinny retriever on a short, red leash. In aisle ten of our Safeway, trying to fix the squeak in the wheel. I offered to bring him a different cart.
My town was a smudge on a map. Pioneers on the way to Oregon lost who lost the will to reach that land of milk and honey. They decided that red dirt was fine enough, and so did their children and their children and theirs. I never saw anyone leave this town. I just saw it weigh on their shoulders. Every one of us was born in Saint Anthony’s hospital and all buried in the cemetery. Ducks in a row.
Time is not a line. Time is not a scale to trace behind. Time is a record where the needle pulls itself wherever it wants along the grooves. There is no start. There is no end.
My father was the deputy. An old Air Force Staff Sergeant who handed every lesson with emphasis on principal. It was not just enough to follow rules. It was imperative to understand their reasons. Everything done, he said, needed intention. The basis of one’s character always began with those bones. He made sure ours were strong.
My father called my mother Moon River. She styled her hair in that Hepburn way- her fringe sweeping across the brow, the ends flipped out no matter how much paste. She spoke french to me, mon lapin, and we imagined what the lilies would smell like down the streets on the Seine.
We blurred so quickly. The line between him and me nearly wiped clean. Soon, no one could hear my name without the conjuring of his face.
He was a man. He was one of us.
I was painfully shy. I never knew how to stand up straight, how to square my shoulders, or how to introduce myself. The only things that spoke to me in turn were my vinyls and cassettes. I drove forty minutes every other week to the record store. I would leave with a box full of migraines for my parents.
I never meant to hold my sister back. She always leapt forward, and I straggled behind on clumsy feet. We learned to swim together. She jumped into the marble pool with a squeal. She struggled to stay afloat, but she insisted on doing it alone. I refused to even put my feet inside. All I could imagine was sinking and sinking and the tile would open beneath me and I’d fall forever.
I was pushed into the water. My feet touched the floor. I didn’t know how to reach the top. I sat motionless, paralyzed, my lungs burning and aching. My mother scooped me up and held me tight as I cried and coughed up chlorine and swore to never get in the water again. She said that was alright.
I don’t know if he planned it. It was swift and sudden, an accidental violence. But the more I linger on it, the more I wonder if the intent was always there. I wonder if a snake coiled itself around his bones in strips of red and yellow and black. I wonder how long that snake waited with its tongue darting in and out.
My sister wanted me to go to a party with her. She opened the window latch and we crept through the yard.
My mother taught me how to crochet. How to get the stitches to pass from loop to loop. We copy patterns and looms. I contemplate this now more than before. I contemplate inevitability.
Was it always meant to be me?
“You’re one of the Johnson’s girls, right?”
I left the party before her. We were supposed to stay together. Always together. That’s what mom said.
“It’s pretty cold out tonight. I could give you a lift if you like. Wouldn’t want you to get sick, right? Who else could bag my groceries like you?”
I could feel the heater outside the window. It smelled like vanilla and iron in there. My house was close. Fifteen minutes on foot, but easily five with a car. He was a little weird. So was I. I was different too. Maybe he just needed friends.
They would later recount this scene. Relive the choice none of them were there for. It was an uncomplicated moment to cherry pick. It was the easiest way to separate themselves from our shared possibility. Small town girls, they’d whisper in condescension.. Small town girls, still I would have known better. Maybe they would. But couldn’t it have been anyone’s daughter walking home that night?
Was it always meant to be me?
There were more roads than I remembered. I hoped I was imagining things. So tired I imagined the drive growing longer and longer. So tired I imagined the car slowing to a stop. He looked at me, calm eyes but sweat along his temple. The heater pumped the car to a stifling degree. I recommended turning it down.
My mother had lessons she feared we would never learn. She feared my sister would always be reckless. She thought one day she would wake to hear that funny girl joined some traveling band or drove the car through our school on a dare. Everyone joked about what a scene it would be to have the deputy arrest his own daughter. For me, my mother feared I would never learn to use my voice. I let people talk over me. I let my words falter if the wind blew too loud.
When his hand lunged toward me, I screamed. My voice pierced the air like the crack of a whip.
They’ll mention that too sometimes. If I was really the first, he may have gotten spooked. He just wanted a taste. Things got out of hand. He panicked. Were we just as scared, then? Were we terrified of what we were spiraling to become? Should I have screamed, mom?
I was upset at first when he threw me in the lake. My feet touched the floor. My arms did not reach to grasp that light from above. I thought about the stars blinking and looking over me. The water was deafening, beside the pull and drift along the shore. I watched the birds dart in and out for drink. I watched the moss collect around my skin. It was cold. It was calm too.
They found me. I do not know how long it took, but they found me.
My father pulled me out.
My funeral was the biggest in the town’s history. There were cameras and reporters and everyone I had ever met. People from two towns over came with gifts and condolences. They talked and talked about how wonderful I was. They loved hearing my jokes. They always wanted me over. I brightened every room.
They quickly lost interest once they saw the closed casket.
Still, they all sang hymns. They cried with my father. They gave my sister flowers. They told my mother how beautiful she looked in her black dress.
He was there. He told her how sorry he was.
He shook her hand.
My room is how it always was. My bed is left ruffled in the corner. My shoes are lined against the door. Proof that I was here.
I see my dad more than I used to. They wouldn’t let him work the case. They called it a conflict of interest.
My sister left. I don’t know where she went, but it was far, far away. I hope she is happy. I am happy for her. My funny sister. My favorite friend.
My mother visits often. Late at night or early morning, she creeps inside my room and tip toes along the floor. She’s always welcome. I watch her stand at the foot of my bed. She puts her hand on the blue comforter and spreads her palm across it, stretching the fabric. She smooths it out again.
She walks to my bookshelf, running her hand along the spines. She brushes off the dust collecting in the corner. It has no business settling there. Her eyes avoid the crate on the bottom shelf. I never thought my music was that bad.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a tune. I beg her to play something, anything. I know they don’t hear me. I wish they could. She turns from me, eyes focused on the door. Remembering gets hard. Memories turn sour too quickly now. I tell her I love her.
She stops halfway and I see the tension in her neck. Her fists close and open and close again. She turns back. I wonder if there’s something she’s forgotten.
Her feet walk toward the shelf. They are loud, even on the carpet. In one swift motion, she pulls out the box. There is a pause. Her fingers move slowly to the first cover’s edge. She feels the flimsy cardboard, pushing back to the next record. There are so many options. I don’t know what she looks for. I don’t care which one she picks. I just pray she plays it.
She flips through cover after cover, searching and searching. Towards the end of the crate, buried behind so many others, she finds it. Her hands reach out and pull it up. She laughs. There is a triumph in her smile. I wonder how she even knew I had it.
She stands quickly, but when she finally meets the turntable, her hands shake. She cannot bring herself to play it.
I walk toward her. I place my hands above her own and feel her still. She lets out the breath I did not know she held in. She puts the needle down. The sound fills my room. It is warm and full and pure. It is everything and everyone I ever loved.
My mother lays on the bed with me. We listen while the notes swirl around us. She presses the cover against her chest. She closes her eyes.
Moon river, wider than a mile–
I’m crossing you in style some day–
I hold her close. At least, I hold her best I can. Her chest rises and falls. I hear her cry, but do not feel the tears hit my head, pressed against her cheek. She whispers to me. A harmonica vibrates across the wall. I track only the beat of my mother’s heart. I close my eyes. I feel tired and warm.
Two drifters, off to see the world–
There’s such a lot of world to see–
We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waitin’ ’round the bend–
My huckleberry friend, moon river, and me.
Taylor Hoyt is an okay-ish person doing her best. She is a junior at the University of North Texas studying English. She hopes this might lead to a job someday (fingers crossed). In her spare time between work and school, she works on her poetry manuscript and short stories like these.