by Jennifer Ryan
A dozen crystal goblets cascaded to the tiled kitchen floor, sending a million bright shards splintering through the air with a cataclysmic ring, and Andrea darted for the back door. She ran, ran, out into the wilderness, delight and whimsy threading through the panic until she was deeply hidden, far in the mossy, overgrown forest.
Little James had come scampering behind her, his bare feet dirty from the mud and dirt. It was even between his toes, all squidgy and gross, and he ran laughing down to the creek. And then Dee appeared out of nowhere, as she always would, wanting to play snakes and bullfrogs. They lay on the tufty grass of the clearing, all mildew and damp, staring up at the gathering gray-bottomed clouds.
“Do you think that’s the silver lining?” Dee murmured into the impending breeze.
“Yes,” Andrea replied as the first fat drops began to fall around them, ejecting little splats as they struck a jagged rock, the bark of a fallen trunk, the dead leaves. “The silver rains down over us, making us whole again.”
They lay flat, lapping up the silver as it covered their faces, their throats, their whole bodies, feeling the purity of existence in all its permutations, all its guises, all its gruesome realities.
How was Andrea to know she was supposed to be watching James?
She sat inside while the police and a band of neighbors searched into the night, the rain drenching their tears. She sat alone playing with her moonbeam fairies, midnight blue and violet and crimson, weaving them all a magic tune with her silver flute. She sat desperately trying to shut out the reality, pretend it wasn’t happening, that James wasn’t missing, that Mom would give them both a bath soon, get the mud out of his little toes, put the nighttime diaper on him. They’d both go to bed, leaving the light on in the hallway just in case. She’d have been fast asleep dreaming of mermaids and marrying a carpenter, or becoming a doctor, just like Mom said.
It was past midnight when the search ended, his diminutive body found in the creek, swollen and lifeless. Andrea’s mother didn’t put her to bed that night, or any night after that. She had a breakdown, started working crazy hours at the attorney’s office. Avoided her daughter.
Andrea never forgave herself for not watching her brother, even though she was only six. She carried the guilt around until she was at college, and then she set it aside, put it in a box, left it alone, and managed to have a memory of her brother as he was, small and funny, and even learned to smile when she remembered how he loved her more than anything else in the world. She didn’t marry a carpenter. In fact, she never married at all. But she did become a doctor. She became a psychiatrist, founding a charity for the bereavement of children. You may have heard of it, and wondered.
It was the September that James began high school, the waning green of the woods behind the house foreshadowing the end of their lazy, sweet-dewed summer. They’d get on the school bus together and part like strangers; he had become such an idiot with his stupid friends, playing hooky and acting crazy. Andrea shrunk into a corner looking out over the treetops to the silver mountain peaks in the distance, letting her brain wind itself around a scapegoat murder or a Paris rendezvous. It was her special time alone, and she would view herself as if from a telescope far, far away, in another land, another, better time.
The rest of her day was spent at school or studying. She was applying for med school. Her mother said that would be a good choice.
That afternoon, after they’d got off the school bus and let themselves into the glossy, ordered house, they saw the cases in the hallway. They lay half-fallen on the lustrous marble floor, beneath the wedding photograph, the coiffured couple smug with status and possession and certitude.
“He’s leaving,” their mother told them, striding into the hall, a steely sneer on her sour lips. “He’s been having an affair with a woman from St. Louis, and he’s leaving.”
“St. Louis?” James said in an idiotically insensitive way. Andrea ignored him, glancing uncertainly at the bags, her mother’s reddened face, the green of the trees just visible through the kitchen window beyond.
She put her arms around her mother, tears slipping out of her eyes, confusion and anxiety mingled with disbelief. A jagged stab of betrayal pierced a frontal lobe: didn’t he love them? Didn’t he love their mother?
“Don’t worry about me,” her mother snapped, moving away, angry and proud. “I’ll be better off without him.”
But she wasn’t.
Her mother’s fury swelled and mutated into a new, hostile creature. She spent her days bossing clients around, her evenings screeching over a bottle of wine with friends or, progressively, on her own. Andrea’s father left the area and kept in vague contact by phone and the occasional uneasy weekend in the mid-west. Andrea and James became sworn enemies, competing for their mother’s attention, what little she had to give.
Five years later, Andrea’s mother met someone new at an alcohol rehabilitation center. Andrea was excluded from the wedding as she’d become vindictive and alienated after she’d dropped out of college. It was a thrill to do prescription drugs at the beginning, but now it had become habitual, and the list of drugs had grown, the thrill more elusive, always just beyond her fingertips.
It took another few years before she realized that no one was going to help her out of this except herself. She found her own rehabilitation center and went back to college, this time to study music, paying the bills with waitressing. She joined a local band, playing keyboard, and started dating the lead guitar, Bernie, who had a past of his own to vanquish. They were married the following year, when she became pregnant with the first of five children. She never finished college and became a music teacher of local repute. She and Bernie still continue to play local venues, her gently silvering hair matching his as they share a quiet smile over every bridge, every cadence.
Andrea was at med school when she met Ryan Carroway. He wasn’t the best looking guy she’d ever met; in fact she hadn’t been attracted to him at all at first. He was a few years ahead of her, in his final year. After a drunken party one Friday night, he had walked her home, told her that she was broken, deep down inside, and she’d taken him to her bed.
He was a philosopher, a maverick, a free thinker, and an extraordinarily capable lover. He knew how to pull away the floor beneath her, expose the contrived structures of her upbringing, drench her body with orgasm and enlightenment. She became addicted to the bold intensity of his discussion, the thrusting open of her brain, the unfailing surges of orgasm.
After graduation he embarked on a trip to Asia before beginning his residency. She found herself alone, half a person, unable to survive without his touch flooding her brain with wave upon wave of pacifying bliss. She cut school, surprising him on a mountain in Nepal, the cold silver peaks jutting into the deep blue sky. He seemed pleased to have her with him, tucking her under his wing as he led them through India, Bhutan, China. It was in Hong Kong that he vanished from her one morning in the chaotic crowds at the ferry terminal. He slipped invisibly into the throng, his belongings carefully removed from their room before she returned after her frantic search, late, alone.
She crumpled inward, bent double in a seizure of torture, her body in some sort of compound chemical withdrawal. She wandered aimlessly around the world for nineteen months, trying out diverse cultures, new ideas, different people in an attempt to get traction, a simple grip on what it is to be a human being.
Finally she returned home, exhausted and confused. She tried to fit in, but her whole makeup had been changed.
“Pull yourself together,” her mother sniped.
“You don’t understand,” she would plead.
“Think of all the people out there with proper problems, no home, no health, no family. You’re just wallowing in self-pity. It’s time for you to snap out of it and move on.”
“I’m trying, really. Trying,” she would reply.
“You need to focus your mind and find someone else. Time is ticking away, you know. Look at all your friends already married. You’ll be thirty before you know it.”
A week later her mother found her on the floor in the bathroom in a pool of blood. She survived two more suicide attempts before finding some kind of solace in a job at a small, odd-looking bookshop.
She can still be found there today, hovering around the philosophy section, smiling in the silver sparkles of dust swirling through the warm, bookish interior. She’ll inquire about your life, eager to see if you have any insights into life, hiding her disappointment if you don’t. If you’re lucky she’ll tell you about her life, the rush, the abandonment, the desolation, the quest. And if you ask her if she’d do it all the same again, she would say yes without hesitation. Her life would be nothing without these experiences: all the pain in the world was worth the silvery awe of this heightened level of existence.
Andrea carefully opened the door into the bookshop. It was the kind of odd little place that might be difficult to leave for some reason: a busybody assistant insisting on a sale, a slave trader looking for a victim, a secret passage into another, better world filled with sorcery and symbols hidden in snowy ruins.
But it was none of these.
It was an old silver-haired lady, watching Andrea from a high stool by the window. After some time, she came and pressed a book into Andrea’s clammy hands, the dust cover all faded and distorted.
“Take it,” she said, a wry smile covering her lips. “It’s yours.” And then again, her sharp dark eyes urgent, “Take it!”
Andrea was on an unbidden break from work, having waited for a gap to snatch her coat and dart outside into the fresh rays of morning. She had to get back, had no time to argue, no time to discuss. She took out her wallet and asked how much it was.
“Nothing,” the lady said in a sing-song way, brushing her fingers through the air with great glee. “It is a gift,” she said with much satisfaction.
“Well, thank you, but I must give you something.” Andrea looked her straight in the eye. She didn’t have time for a weird haggling session with a crazed old lady. She took out a note and put it on the small, cluttered table that housed the small, decrepit till.
The lady looked at the note and then at Andrea, who was backing quickly toward the door. “I shall donate it to the Victims of Good Fortune,” she said with a bright smile.
“That’s fine,” she smiled hastily, opening the door and tumbling back through it into the rich, heavy fall.
It was the day after Henry had proposed to her, in the best restaurant in the city. He’d been hinting at it all year, as had her mother. She dutifully smiled and said yes, although something deep inside quietly shrunk to nothing and died, leaving a shadow of a thought or a gesture or a ghost which faded deep into the black, long night.
Andrea wandered back to the pediatric office, puzzling over the dusty book, wondering why she’d made an outing to the weird little bookshop on the corner today of all days.
She opened the first page.
The silver rain washed everything down,
uncovering the gentle rawness, the fragility of existence.
The words gently passed back and forth across her mind all afternoon. Then she began to dream about a soft, warm armchair soporifically inducing her into the new mesmeric world of the dust-sparkled book, engulfing her with its presence and reality, lighting the path to another, better world.
Her mother took over the wedding plans, excitedly arriving on a Monday evening with an ever-expanding folder, while Andrea read. The first book was finished in a few days, after which she returned to the bookshop where the old lady with silvered hair would carefully study her demeanor and scan the shelves for another volume for her consumption. With each book, she became stronger, sharper, as resilient as a light, bright metal.
“Sometimes I wonder if you want all this,” her mother snapped one evening, slapping another photographer’s portfolio down on the countertop. “The wedding photographs are just as important as the wedding itself.” Her hands reached up as if capturing it on the wall for an enraptured moment, before dropping to her sides. “And you’re not paying the least bit of attention. Sometimes I wonder if you’re really here at all.”
Andrea looked through her and out of the dark window behind, over the treetops, skimming joyfully over the lakes, plunging low into a valley and then up, up, high into the black shimmering heavens, a thousand million stars sprinkling the air with endless suggestion.
Her mother left, angry and perplexed. After all, Andrea had never disobeyed her before.
The next morning at work, Andrea grabbed her coat and disappeared out to lunch early. The heavens had opened and the silvery thick raindrops coated her hair, her face, her throat as she darted to the strange little bookshop. With a final glance behind her, she vanishes in, and is never seen again.
An elegantly framed photograph hung on the wall in the expanse of their hallway, Andrea in the designer wedding gown, Henry on her arm, smiling handsomely. Their photographed image greeted visitors with a sense of affluence, respectability, and certitude. What a beautiful, successful couple.
“You’ll be so admired,” her mother had announced, after getting her to move it a fraction.
That seemed like eternity ago.
Today Andrea ignored the photograph. She fled through the house to work, a tiredness upon her like she’d never known. She’d been this way ever since her mother died in a road collision a few months ago, her childhood home sold, her lifelong support, guide, and mentor gone.
She hadn’t realized how much of her life had been dominated by this hyper-organized woman with such thrusting opinions on every detail of life, from cleaning products and vacation choices to the use of statues and artworks in the home (nothing vulgar). Without her, the world felt weightless, transient, pointless: her mother’s years of striving gone, sold, evaporated into an empty space that felt as awesome, as fearful as the woman herself.
Andrea found herself going through old photographs: her mother at her wedding day, her flustered face matching her stiff red mother-of-the-bride ensemble; her pasted smile at a Halloween party with James aged about seven in a hairy monster outfit; her smug stance with Andrea at med school graduation, her father on the other side, distant, apart.
And then there was a photograph taken of her unawares. They were on vacation at the beach, the sun beats powerfully on the crystal pale sands, and her mother, dressed in a blue bathing suit and a big floppy sun hat, looks askance, over the horizon. There is a strange look on her face, different, unnerving, a mixture of uncertainty and fear, as if struggling with a sudden, uncharacteristic self-doubt. In a twist of fate, it is the best photograph of her mother Andrea has ever come across. Her face is relaxed and there is an inner beauty that she usually couldn’t see, or forgot to look for, or was covered up by grit and steely control.
Andrea tucked the photo in her purse and felt her mother there with her throughout her day. And yet the more she thought about it, the more she began to wonder about her mother’s ruthless drive for perfection, both for herself and, more importantly, for her daughter.
“The world is at your fingertips,” she would always say, spreading her hands out in front of her stocky, upright body, a glimmering magic in her eyes. “You mustn’t let it out of your grasp.” At this point she would curl her fingers up, making tight, rigid fists, ready to punch the daylights out of anyone who disagreed.
Andrea would always remain silent.
It started gradually, with small ventures of rebellion: designing her own Christmas cards, choosing gladioli and not roses or lilies, secretly voting for the enemy. Then she began forgetting things. She missed a hair appointment, and Aunt Mary’s birthday, and then broke with tradition and booked a vacation in Morocco.
Marrakesh was alive, pulsating, in a way she had never experienced. The emerald and ruby throng of the place, the zest of lemons and over-ripe oranges, the cacophony of shouts, crackling music, movement, chatter, laughter seeped into her. And it was here, one afternoon during a magnificent and dense downpour, her and Henry dashed through the crowded streets, swinging around the market stalls, rain soaking their arms, their faces, their bodies.
They darted into a café, already crowded and smoky, and laughed at their saturation.
“You look washed out!” he grinned, stroking a soaked tendril behind her ear.
“No,” she shouted over the din. “Washed clean.”
And at that moment she knew that it was her turn now. It was suddenly clear. She had to step into her mother’s shoes, with her own views, her own choices. They bought coffee, both part of and surrounded by the crush of sodden people, as she expounded on the wonders of her new revelation.
And from that moment on, she relished every hard and fast rule she made, from the change in wardrobe choices, to a complete reassessment of her fundamental philosophy. She remained a pediatrician, but somehow enjoyed it in a different way, put more of herself into it.
The wedding photograph was re-framed in a whimsical antique silver frame found in a curio shop. That is until she suggested to Henry one fresh spring evening that they renew their vows. After a jolly, vibrant affair, surprisingly informal and exuberant, a friend took a few pictures, one of which now sits in the hall. It shows the happy couple on a park bench, an arm around each other, the sweet white petals of cherry blossom falling softly, lightly around them as they laugh, they laugh.
It didn’t matter how many times she went through it all in her head, Andrea was not the one who was supposed to be in hospital with cancer. No one in her family had ever had cancer. She didn’t have it in her genes. It was basic med school stuff. The test was only routine, the type of test every woman has over a certain age. It was supposed to be normal, not serious.
Not a level three.
They told her the surgery would remove the tumor and then the radiation and chemotherapy would wipe out any lingering traces. There was a one-in-three chance of complete recovery, without recurrence, which they said was good.
“That’s a thirty-three percent chance of recurrence,” her mother muttered to the doctor. “That’s not ‘good,’ that’s unacceptable. I want a hundred percent success. I want you to guarantee her a way out of this.”
But the doctor couldn’t. He just pressed Andrea’s hand, knowing that she’d understand. She was a doctor herself after all.
Her sons came in to visit, Steven all professional after grief training at med school, David keeping his chin up and cracking some jokes to cheer her up. She wondered how he would make it through high school if she died. She needed to put things in place, make sure people were around for him. Why had she spent so much of their childhood working, looking after other people’s children, when she should have been with them? While she still had life.
She made it through the surgery and the awful months of chemotherapy, every time a small death: one part of her stronger, one part of her dead. She’d heard that some people wonder whether it was worth living through it all, but she never thought that for a moment. She couldn’t wait to be better and start living her life again. Or rather, re-living it.
To begin with, she made a list of all the things she enjoyed most: hiking in the mountains, eating beautifully prepared food, celebrating life with friends, traveling to fascinating new places, experiencing new things, reading good literature, being with her family. She suddenly felt the need to be with her children, showing them the world around them, helping them to fully realize the short time they have on this planet. She had spent her life worrying that she’d been too busy working to spend time with them, that they needed her more. Yet now she regretted it for her own sake: where had her little toddlers gone? Steven and his fireman outfit, David with his cherubic smile, smelling all honey and vinegar and putting his tiny arms around her leg. Where did they go?
“What’s the list today?” Henry would ask when he picked her up.
“It’s the Panama Canal,” she’d say, handing him a penciled list on a scrap of paper. “Oh, and a Spanish language CD too please.”
He’d gather the previous evenings’ research and head for the library.
After it was over, Henry took a sabbatical and they toured Central America. When they returned, Andrea decided not to go back to the pediatric office—who knew if the next few years might be her last? Together they opened a gourmet delicatessen, a little shop with a silver and green awning specializing in cheeses and breads and hams and olives. It breaks even, but never makes much money.
They had to downsize into a smaller house, and chose one with a pretty veranda strewn with honeysuckle and wisteria and dragonflies dancing in and out of the trellises. They spend many an hour on a warm summer night out there, the cicadas humming low beyond the magical arcs of Chopin floating out from the kitchen, the occasional storm saturating the air with breathtaking humidity.
There isn’t space in the hall for the large photograph from their wedding, and so they put it in the attic, along with a dozen crystal goblets of unknown origin.
It was late and no one was coming. Henry had gone to the office and the boys were in different parts of the country working hard for partnerships, Steven in a medical center in Pittsburg and David in a law firm in DC. She hadn’t seen them for years. She’d been so pleased they were doing well and, even now, when she wanted to see them so desperately, told the nurses who came to look after her that she didn’t mind that they were so busy with their lives. They were important people, after all.
And yet they weren’t there. And neither was Henry, who still refused to retire, even though he was 74. “I’ll carry on until I’m dead,” he boasted. “I know the country relies on the solid, responsible judgment of an upstanding member of the community.”
And that’s what he was. And what Andrea had been: a person of respect and responsibility. She had led an enviable life: a prestigious career, two beautiful, successful boys, a beautiful home with furnishings selected by the best interior designer in the county.
Yes, she was satisfied with the life she had led. Her parents had guided her to make the right choices and she had followed them well. And as she lay there, feeling the life stealing away from her, she could imagine her mother there, as she had been at the wedding, the photographer taking the pictures outside the church, telling her to stand up straight, smile brightly, “like you have the world at your fingertips.”
But did she?
A gentle thrum of raindrops begins at the window. It’s dark outside but a soft white glow of light—a lamp left on in another room, or a distant streetlight, or the moon slipping out between the rainclouds—reflects the silvery shine from each tiny drop as it stalls before racing crookedly down, streaking the window with glittery, uneven trails.
A hesitation keeps her glued to the bed, until a small, long-forgotten voice in the back of her mind begins to be heard. She carefully sits up, turning to let her legs meet the floor, and slides on her slippers. She reaches over for her robe and softly, silently, pads over to the window.
The blackness is overwhelming. Only the crushed drops against the pane shine white and silver. Beyond is inaccessible.
After a moment of sorrow, she finds a solution and begins the slow, daunting journey down the stairs. It has been a few weeks, at least. She shouldn’t be going by herself. She knows Henry would be annoyed, anxious, the nurses horrified.
Slowly, evenly, she takes them at her own measured pace, stopping half way to appreciate the traces of everyday life still going on in her absence: the badly folded paper, a few books stacked on the table, a remote control on the coach, a vase of drooping rosebuds, the half-open petals curling with curtailed disappointment.
Her breath is becoming light, weightless as she reaches the bottom of the stairs and edges silently to the patio door. Her trembling fingers turn the key, pulling up at the last moment to catch the lock, and the door swings away from her.
The night is black. She puts out her hand, her crumpled, iridescent palm facing the black starless sky, and feels the pinprick cold of each full raindrop bursting on her skin.
With a glance behind her, she steps out over the threshold and into the night, putting her arms out and her head back to embrace the soft silvery drops softly and silently replenishing the earth with goodness and purity. As she turns slowly around, a smooth smile lights her upturned face as she remembers a time deep in the forest so many years before, lying on the sodden saturated soil with the silver rain washing over her face, her throat, her body, renewing her for another, better world.
Coming June 2019
by Jennifer Ryan
A gripping, heart-warming thriller
set in the London Blitz,
ideal for book clubs.
By bestselling author, Jennifer Ryan