I lay on my bed, wracked with worry. Horrible thoughts floated on my conscience. I buried my face in my pillow, my long hair spread over the silk. I tried pushing the thoughts away, with no luck. It was hard concentrating on anything these days. I had pushed my friends away, and spent less and less time with my mother. I knew she was worried too, but I had to admit I was angry. I play the scene over and over again in my head: why did it have to be my family to suffer?
* * *
A month ago, my life couldn’t have been more perfect. I had sat at the table waiting for Father to come home. Wonderful smells rose from the pot of stew. Cloves of dried garlic and mushrooms hung from the ceiling. The light of the setting sun seeped through the window, casting a warm glow on the kitchen. I watched as the soft figure of Mother stirred in herbs and spices, her long, strawberry-blonde hair flowing down her back. Like Father, I had a head full of flame-red hair and a face swarming with freckles.
Mother was 18 weeks pregnant and her stomach was really starting to swell; I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have a sibling, if Father would love him or her more than me.
Soon, the front door swung open with a creak and the tall figure of Father stood in the doorway. He set his bag down with a heavy thud and hung up his hat and scarf. He walked in, shaking the snow from his hair without speaking. It wasn’t like him. He sat down wearily as if the weight of the world was resting on his shoulders. I ran up and hugged him, clinging to the plush arm of the chair. I looked into his eyes, which seemed more tired than usual. He gave me a small smile and playfully rubbed my hair, though his smile faltered and a grim expression took its place.
“Holly,” he said, turning to Mother. “I have some bad news to share with you and Lily.”
Mother turned around calm as ever, and slowly sat down next to Father. Her presence was reassuring.
I sat quietly and listened, a bad feeling creeping up my gut. But I wasn’t afraid then. Mother had that effect on people.
“It’s my job,” Father said, looking down. “I got laid off today. I’m to collect my last paycheck tomorrow.” He looked up at us. “I’m really sorry. I s-should have tried harder.”
Mother and I, we wrapped our arms around Father, unsure of what to think or of what lay ahead.
I laid in bed staring at my wallpaper: bright colors beamed from my walls, fields of livid flowers, a small cottage bordered in a white picket fence. My eyelids felt heavy. Worried whispers floated through the floorboards.
* * *
That Sunday I woke up to warm smells coming from the kitchen. I walked down the stairs, floorboards squeaking under my feet. Father stood grinning with an apron tied around his waist.
“Morning, sunshine!” he called and placed a bowl of oats in front of me.
“Where’s Mother?” I asked.
“She wasn’t feeling up to it this morning. She’s in her room right now. I think it would be wise to leave her alone for right now.”
That’s not like her, I thought. Mother was a put together, down-to-earth woman, and was always the calm one. I wondered what was upsetting her so much.
“Don’t worry too much, Lily. I was thinking we could go fishing today, just the two of us. We will have to stop by town to get some bait before we head off, though.”
We walked into town. I was dressed in a plain, light blue Sunday dress with a Peter Pan collar. It’s a nice dress, but not my best by far. It was perfect for a day of fishing.
We walked down the cobblestone streets. I walked slightly behind Father. His tall figure perfectly hid me from the crowds. I slouched, keeping my head down, hoping to make myself seem smaller and less noticeable. I’m a shy girl, and talking to strangers was never my thing. Mother always told me how much I was like my father, but in my opinion we couldn’t have been more different. I watched as Father tipped his hat to a gentleman walking by with a polite “How do you do?” I cringed just thinking of a social interactions, and felt more grateful than ever for Father’s protective shadow.
We loaded our little rowboat on a lake with our bait, fishing poles and lunches. Here on the lake, there was a peaceful silence, away from the crowds and people. Away from the vendors and markets. I felt safe here. It was Father’s and my special place here, where we had come so often. I climbed into the gently rocking boat and straightened my posture.
Father rowed the boat off the shore, the paddles breaking the water’s surface, sending ripples out on the emerald lake. Fog spread across the lake, weaving its tendrils over the still waters. The outlines of faraway mountains were barely visible, green with all the lush vegetation. I breathed in the fresh air, smelling hints of pine and the familiar earthy smell. Ancient evergreens and willows stood tall along the shore watching over us like guardians.
Father cast his line, and I followed shortly after. We sat like that in a silence for a while and, after an hour with no catches, he turned to me.
“Lily, you know we have a beautiful big house with a stove and three stories, but anything beautiful costs money.”
I loved our house, decked with its colorful wallpapers, its big windows, and spiral staircases.
“Well,” Father said. “Since I lost my job, it will be hard to keep our house and pay taxes. The bank might evict us if we don’t get payments in soon.”
“Will we have to move?” I asked. “I don’t want to!” That was our home, and for the bank to take it would be so unfair!
“Yeah, I figured you wouldn’t want to,” he said with a chuckle. “I found a new job that will support our family.”
“That’s so great! What kind of job is it?”
“I’m going into the military.”
Anger and Guilt
I sat looking out my window without seeing. Only two months, I thought, then Father will be back. They had stationed him in Russia to fight in the Second World War.
When he left, I began noticing how big of a hole he left in our family. Walking into the master bedroom with only one side of the bed occupied. Hoping for him to magically walk through our door. Suddenly, I began noticing his scent everywhere—on the laundry hung out to dry, on the couches and chairs. My heart ached for his presence, and I knew Mother wasn’t doing much better, but that didn’t stop me from thinking horrible thoughts I know I shouldn’t.
Why couldn’t Mother get a job? Then Father would still be here. Why couldn’t she help out the family more?
But as soon as those thoughts entered my mind, I felt a wave of guilt. It wasn’t her fault. But thoughts are addictive, dangerous, contagious.
Mother knocked at my door. “Supper’s ready, sweetie.”
I didn’t answer. I heard her footsteps descending the stairs. I felt a wave of homesickness even though I was at home. I flopped down on my bed and slowly drifted off to sleep.
When I awoke, the sun had set and moonlight sent shafts of light in my bedroom. I felt a dull pain in my stomach, hunger. I walked downstairs and wondered if Mother was still up, but found the kitchen empty. My bowl of soup was still on the table with a spoon laid neatly beside it. Again I felt the guilt and quickly ate my soup, which had gone cold. I went upstairs hoping to apologize to Mother, only to find her asleep. Not wanting to disturb her, I walked back to my room, footsteps heavy, and fell into a deep slumber.
The Day the Sky Came Crashing Down
The days went by as slow as dripping molasses, one day after the other. We barely ventured out of the house, with the exception of a few trips to the town market. Mother fell into a kind of work phase. She dusted, washed, and polished everything. Not a single insect dared step in our house. Clothes were organized, every nook and cranny was scrubbed, and all kitchen utensils were organized from largest to smallest. When I asked about the cleaning, she had said, “I couldn’t help noticing how dirty everything was recently. Besides, that way your father can come home to a clean house.” But I knew she was worried.
On a Wednesday, we decided to visit the local library. Mother, toting her heavy belly, put on her nice sun hat and a bright yellow maternity dress. Dressed up, Mother looked more like her put-together self. And I, who was so glad to have a reason to get out of the house, wore one of my favorite white dresses with small roses embroidered into the fabric.
As we walked down the streets full of people, I started to slouch and looked at my feet.
“Look up, Lily,” said Mother. “And straighten your posture.”
I did what was asked grudgingly, feeling noticeably more vulnerable. When it was too overwhelming, I slid behind Mother where she couldn’t see me and resumed my crunched up pose.
We walked through the grand entrance of the library, and immediately the noise and commotion of the streets began to die down. The library held tall cedar shelves, full of books in leather covers all with the same gold script. Mother and I each chose a book and headed home.
As we walked, the sky was clear and the birds hummed. Flower vendors had booths overflowing with blooms. I couldn’t help but shake free of my worry and enjoy the scenes, but my moment of bliss soon diminished when I saw a boy on a bike turning into our street. The boy rode around the town every day delivering the bad news to the families of soldiers.
“You don’t think we will get any news, do you?” I asked Mother.
“No, no, I’m sure he is just going through our street to get to the next. Don’t worry,” Mother replied, but her face was pinched with worry, and she quickened her pace.
Cold sweat ran down my back. I could tell the bike boy was nearing our house now.
Mother, sensing my impatience, said, “You can run. I’ll be fine.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, I broke into a sprint. It wasn’t a very ladylike thing to do, but, at that moment, I didn’t care.
I heard the pounding in my ears every time my feet hit the pavement.
My mouth felt dry, and I was having a hard time breathing.
I could see the boy more clearly now, and I was hoping, praying for him to pass our house.
* * *
But my prayers were not answered, and the boy halted just outside our door. I crumpled to the sidewalk, not processing that it was actually happening. I had so much hope, everything was supposed to go as planned. I was supposed to win the game, have a happily-ever-after.
Everything was a blur, nausea swept over me, and I had trouble hearing. Mother came, she talked to the boy. She was crying, she never cried.
I couldn’t move, the boy came and crouched by me, I could feel his hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Miss.”
I fainted right there and then.