My scream pierces the darkness, quickly enveloping me. My chest is heavy with a familiar weight. Iíve been there before, though I canít see anything to know exactly where I am. Waves breaking fill my ears, and currents of water soak my hair on the way over my head. She canít hear me, or she canít answer. Why hasnít she found me? My shoes feel as if they are cement blocks, pulling me down faster and faster. Water rushes my lips, begs me to open them and scream again, but I know what will happen if I do. It will escape into me, the oxygen molecules I need so dearly trapped in the very thing that wants to kill me.
I canít help it. My lungs burn without air, and bright bursts of stars populate my vision. If I donít breathe soon, I wonít last much longer. So I open my mouth, try to trick myself into believing this time will be different. This time I wonít take in the ocean. This time I wonít drown in sorrow, regret, and loose ends. This time I will live. But the water crashes in, the tide coming to shore. It slams against the back of my throat. Struggling to cough it out, I feel more weight on me than I ever have before. It is an endless army of panic that swarms me. They are organized, quick, agonizing seconds before some tiny piece of air reaches my lungs and I wake up sputtering into my pillow.
It wasnít me. My chest feels the pain of survival. A strangled symphony of screams lets loose in my mind, knowing the water had taken everything from me. It wasnít my time. My time is now, they tell me. Smiling faces frozen in memories of Gymnastics meets, Easter, and Christmas. The year I got my first camera is frozen on the walls. Those are the things I can take with me, remember and hold on to for the rest of my days. Iím told it will make me stronger in the long run. Ugh! I slam my fist into the mirror, escaping the image of an orphaned teenage girl. My knees tremble and knock, so I give in to them and collapse onto the floor. From the corner of my eye, I can almost see what is left of my bruised and bloody heart lying in the pile of broken glass surrounding me. And meanwhile, just downstairs in my cramped living room, there are whispers and promises escaping the lips of preachers and friends, all gathered in black to tell me how strong I am. Which is why I am in my room. Escaped and alone.
* * * *
Itís April in Holland, and much like Iíd imagine it is in the real Holland. Tulips peek their green shoots out of the dirt, reaching for pure blue skies of hope. I too turn my face to it and let the chilled breeze of early spring in Michigan blow against me for the last time. I wonít ever return to this place. Everything that made it home is gone and my heart is no longer there. It ran away, or drowned, with themóI canít be sure.
ďAva, hunny, are you sure youíre ready?Ē
Aunt Barbís gentle voice reaches me a moment before her wrinkled hand slides against my back and she wraps her arm around my shoulder. She could be my own blood. We have so many similarities. Itís a shame sheís only my aunt by marriage. Itís a shame her husband reminds me so much of my father. I slowly open my eyes to the cumulous clouds floating across the sky, warmth from the sun shines down on me, and I nod slowly. Yes. Iím ready. I have to be. Aunt Barb understands, I think. She squeezes my shoulder once and then lets go. She heads to the car that will take me to her home. My new home. Iím leaving Holland and heading to some place called Ideal, though, to be honest, there isnít anything ideal about any of what Iím going through.
Her maroon Ford Escort is more like a station wagon filled with what is left of my belongings. The moving truck came yesterday and filled up on the house, leaving only part of my room to ride alongside me. I canít help but wonder if maybe leaving everything there and starting over will help ease the fears and growing loneliness I face. A true fresh start. I turn and look at my childhood home for the last time. My swing set is still in the backyard, though I canít see it from here. Countless times I met the sky, propelled by cheerful pumps of my legs. So much joy and laughter in the small area my mom had landscaped for me. I pray for the child who might adopt my space, hope that when they leave this house it wonít be because they have nowhere else to go.
Then I remember that Iím not praying anymore and I take it back. Itís too easy for people to fall back on God and His plan. ďI won the lottery, thank you, Jesus!Ē ďMy grandson failed fifth grade, but itís part of His plan!Ē None of those sound quite as bitter in my mind as the last one, the one that lingers, the one that stings the back of my eyes and stabs my soul. ďMy parents are dead, so Iím moving away with my aunt and uncle. But hey, itís part of the plan, right?Ē
I donít even realize Iím sitting in the car until I slam the door closed with a little more force than necessary. Aunt Barbís gaze meets mine in the mirror, and I lower my face in shame, ďSorry,Ē I mutter. And I am. I donít know much anymore, but I do know how very, very sorry I am.
The ride is pretty uneventful. Michigan and Wisconsin arenít all completely dissimilar that way. Small towns, highways, cities here and there, cold winters and blistering summers. I see the signs to take the ferry across Lake Michigan, the quickest way from Michigan to Wisconsin, but Uncle Dale passes it. He only lets his gaze linger on the lake for a minute before jerking it away and back to the road. I wish it would stay on the road the whole time. Its wandering makes me want to see what heís looking at until I do and I shiver. Sunlight dances on the ripples in the lake, its current moving to and fro. Never resting. Never settling. No. Only cars manage to settle at the bottom of lakes.
I shake the thought from my mind.
My voice is dry from disuse. ďAunt Barb?Ē
The dreams are bad enough without making it worse. Thereís got to be something I can do to keep it safely on the things around me.
ďDo you remember where the tote with my books and e-reader is? I know itís back here somewhere.Ē Pillows, blankets, and tote bags of my belongings fill the spaces of seat around me.
Aunt Barb is good. It doesnít take her but a second to respond. ďRed bag, driverís side of the seat, probably on the floor so it didnít topple and spill.Ē
I push my lips together in a smile and whisper my thanks. Sheís a thinker, always one step ahead of the game. Her eyes crinkle in a smile, reflected in the rearview mirror. Nothing can take my mind off my current state of depression like Mr. Darcy. The bound collection of Jane Austenís work pushes down on my lap, the ribbon bookmark set to the beginning of Pride and Prejudice. The thick book includes most of Austenís work, and I enjoy all of it, but rarely do I explore the pages surrounding this, my favorite of all her works.
Austenís words come to life in my mind, and I lose myself in her world until the lines blur and the sentences run through my head over and over and over and over and ovóIím asleep. I know because my eyes arenít burning, my head feels clear, and I know Iím in a vehicle, even though what Iím seeing is my swing set. One of them glides gently on the breeze while its partner sits completely still. I think Iím going to walk to it, sit for a moment, and wonder about the invisible child flying so easily on the other. Something must push it, must tell it to swing when there is no wind. Maybe if I get close to it, I will learn, maybe then I can learn to stop sitting still, maybe Iíll be able to move on.
ďAva? Do you want to stop for lunch?Ē
ďWhat?Ē I groggily open my eyes and try to focus. A quick glance to the dashís clock confirms Iíve been asleep for three hours. Itís the first solid sleep Iíve had since the accident, and food doesnít sound half as good as the rest felt, but Iím already a hassle. Already cost them days off work to help me pack up the house, get it on the market, and move me out. As if just taking in a teenager wasnít enough work. ďThatís fine, I donít mind either way.Ē
For the first time almost all day, Uncle Dale answers. Heíd lost a brother. Iíd lost a father. My father hadnít been around very much. We hadnít had a great relationship, and sometimes I think I forget that while he might have been absent from my lifeóhis brother had known him much longer. His pain has to be almost as deep as my regret.
ďLetís get something in your stomach before we get close to home. Okay, kiddo?Ē he asks.
I hate that endearment. One simple word. Kiddo. Still, I nod to him before I turn to stare out the window. So much change, so quickly. Accepting it will make this all easier, and I know it. So I remember it, memorize it, feel it on the tip of my tongue before I swallow the words and hope their truth fills me up. Anyway, I think heís hungry. This is a good ten hours, and we arenít anywhere close to ďhome.Ē I draw a blanket up from my lap and pull its comfort over my shoulders. I can do this. I have to do this. I will do this.