The Last of The Before
It's always a perfectly ordinary day until it's not. And on this day I was sitting in an armchair with my laptop on my lap, struggling to write my first feature-length piece for the magazine where I was working for the second summer. The cursor taunted me, blinking again and again, but the words simply weren't coming. An eloquent and witty introduction was circling just beyond my grasp. I stared at the page's blankness, hoping my bosses hadn't noticed my sudden spell of incompetence.
It was a day of heavy heat, the kind that slows your thoughts, and lunchtime was approaching quickly, a ritual we encountered every day with surprisingly little pomp seeing how we were— after all—a food magazine. My phone lit up.
It was my sister, Aleisha, Al to me. Wanna workout at the Samo after work? She was talking about the Samoset Resort—the closest thing Mid-Coast Maine has to a luxury hotel—complete with an infinity pool, oceanfront golf course, and oversized ballrooms where folks host their wedding receptions, cutting cake over the same dirty, patterned carpet that the Rotary Club had their lunch meeting on the day before.
Can't tonight, sorry boo, I typed back. I'd already made plans to have dinner at our grandparents' lake cottage, and I wanted to keep them all to myself. I loved those evenings of their undivided attention. They'd talk about the stock market, politics, and history, and for an hour or two I wouldn't feel quite so young.
When I got home that evening I went for a short jog, but it was so muggy I didn't make it far. I showered, hopped in my Impala with its malfunctioning gas gauge and broken window, and headed to Lermond Pond. As I rounded the corner on Route 17, I saw a white convertible headed the other direction. I stuck my hand out the window and waved madly. It was Al.
She returned my flailing wave with a grin. At the next red light I texted her:
"Where are you headed?" Protective older sister instinct.
"Mom's," she wrote back.
"Ok, love you, see you later." I think I sent that message, but perhaps I'm manufacturing it now. Polishing off that final glint of her to see a brighter version of myself reflected back.
When the sunset over the lake turned to night and the loons began to yodel, I headed back to Mom's, read a few pages of my book, and stared at my phone, wondering why the guy I'd been seeing at school hadn't bothered texting all summer. I changed into a sports bra and shorts and cranked my window open. It was still humid, but in Maine we don't do air conditioners. The crickets chirped loudly as I fell asleep, never once questioning the whereabouts of my seventeen-year-old sister.
I'd just dozed off when I thought I heard boots thudding up the stairs. I was sure I must've been hearing things. Even so, my heart raced. “Maine State Police….is anyone home?” a man said with force, hard-edged. I tried to shake off the dream world, but it happened again, louder this time, “Maine State Police…is anyone home?” I opened my eyes widely and stared at the ceiling. Whatever this was, it was not a dream.
“In here. I’m in here." Calling to them went against everything I'd ever been told to do if strangers entered my house. When I was seven and imagined a home invasion, I planned to hide behind the clothes in my walk-in closet. I'd take little Al too, and we'd both hide there, pink-painted toenails peeking out beneath a row of jumpers and turtlenecks, suspending our breath until the strangers went away. But on this night I beckoned them straight to me.
You can plot and plan for something until the cows come home, but the truth is, you don't know what you'll do in that instant. As children, our dad would quiz us all the time. Practicing for those moments.
"If someone comes to pick you up from daycare," he'd say, "what are you supposed to ask them?"
"For the password!" we'd chant. This was a routine we knew well.
"And what's the password?"
"And what if someone asks if you want a ride when you're at the grocery store?"
"We say nothankyou!" (we shouted as though it was one word).
"But what if they grab ahold of you and try to take you anyway? What do you do then?"
"We yell, THIS IS NOT MY MOMMY OR MY DADDY. HELP! HELP!"
"And what else?"
"We kick and bite and scream!"
We were two little girls prepared for any emergency.
On this night my mom was on a business trip in Norway working on a computer-programming project, so I had no choice but to face these heavy-booted strangers alone. No one would come to my rescue.
As my bedroom door creaked open, a flashlight illuminated two silhouettes. Big men with big shoulders. One of them walked to my bed and sat down, nearly landing on my legs.
“This is your dad,” he said, which seemed a peculiar thing to say, an unusual way to phrase it at the least. His voice was unfamiliar. And besides, my dad hadn't been in my mom’s house since he moved out ten years earlier. He wasn't allowed here, especially not in the middle of the night. I tried to speak—I even opened my mouth—but the words were stuck.
He said my name, but again his voice sounded foreign, his intonation unusual. “Who are you?” I finally mustered.
He touched my shoulder, but even the weight of his hand felt awkward. And though he tried to soften his voice, it still had an electric quality, like the power source was jolting in and out.
“It’s your dad, sweetheart. I need you to sit up. I need to talk to you.” He tried to temper his breath, and as I felt my bed quake I realized he was shaking. “There was an accident, honey. Sit up."
Now I understood why my dad would be sitting on my bed in the middle of the night: my mom. It must be my mom, I thought. I pictured her plane heading over the Atlantic, hitting some turbulence, erupting, and plunging into the dark water below.
I reached for to this man, deciding he must actually be my father. But he almost pushed me away. He wasn't finished yet. “Aleisha was in an accident, honey."
I grabbed my glasses on the nightstand and an elastic for my hair. I needed to get ready to go to the hospital to take care of that little blonde girl until she was okay again. I'd sit by her bedside for as many days as it took, sleeping in the little hospital cot with her if she’d let me. I ran through a list of things I'd need to grab from her bedroom on my way out: her phone charger, a book, her makeup, her boyfriend's sweater.
My father gripped my shoulder more tightly. “You don’t need to go so fast, sweetheart,” he said, voice wavering, chin trembling. “She didn’t make it.”