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The little girl was very sad.
You know in the movies when something horrible happens, the actors turn in slow motion, strands of hair blowing about their faces dramatically? Funny, you think. So cheesy. Then you have never had that happen to you. I am turning, turning, but I can go fast enough. At the same time I do not want to see what I know will be under the monkey bars.
He is lying there, stiller than I have ever heard him, on a bed of bark chips. His scrawny chest rises and falls so shallowly, and is that blood from his forehead? His eyes are closed, unconscious. Did it hurt. I wonder. If.
God no. I am there on the ground with him. Time can't move fast enough. Now the mothers waddle up, navigating frozen amber air, hurry, hurry. Yes call 9-1-1, don't you know he's going? No i don't know what happened no i didn't see it no i wasnt watching i wasnt watching iwasntwatching.
What happened? Did a sweaty hand slip on the first bar? The second? Was he pushed? Did he leap and trust the air to make him fly? Did the winged angel fall?
Mothers, stop! Cooing frenzied birds! What a story they'll have to tell their families when they get home. Oh, they'll twitter, I'm so glad it wasn't me. Irresponsible teenager, forgetting about the kid.
It was just a moment, I want to tell them. A fleeting moment. But it was too long. And now his life is seeping out and blessing the bark chips, and there is nothing I can do. He will be a second brother gone.
Like Ryan. Like the toddler Mom rescued from the blankets while I screamed, she still soapy and wet, so her tears mixed with bathwater running down her face. And he was gone too. My fault. My fault. Again. Why couldn't I have learned?
Ambulance, my savior, careering into the park, and the paramedics launching themselves out to surround him, pushing me back and away, when where I want to be is with him, can't they see? One peels off from the group, harsh fast questions that I can't answer because my heart it's dying. Quinn tells them all he knows, somehow has my cell phone and is calling Señora Iglesias. No stop! I beg but he can't hear me. If you don't call them then it's not real.
They wheel him into the ambulance, that yawning final opening. Come they tell us, get in. I don't want--no, get in. You are the primary taker. I'm only--get in, get in. Yes, the boy and the little girl can come too.
It's so bright and spare in there, hard not to trip on the IV lines and the grizzled paramedic hunched by the stretcher. We stumble over the bench fastened to the back wall, take that. Thank goodness there are seat belts, so if Miguel dies I will live. The buckles barely hold us in as the ambulance careers off, shrieking.
The wavelets of panic that had foamed at the edges of my mind now come crashing down, ten-foot breakers bent on tearing me to pieces. The ambulance seems tighter than ever, and I'm struggling to breathe.
Not again. This can't be happening again. What have I done to deserve this? Will it be my guilt for years to come? Will I be able to stand under its weight? Or will I bend and break and crumple to the ground? Again. This time, there will be nobody to lift me back up, because he will be gone.
I cannot look at the stretcher, his bony body. The paramedic hunches grimly beside him, like an avenging angel. Let him be. Let him alone, why don't you? Don't take him, not the boy who rescued me from under my crushing rock of guilt. Not that one, the child who built cities on the foundations of his imagination, who ate government lunch and always smelled like soap and had a crooked gap-toothed smile.
All it took was a minute--and my anger--just one minute. But I couldn't remember, could I? Silly, stupid, useless girl!
How am I going to face Señora Iglesias? Her eyes and maybe a slight tremor of the lips? Gabriela will hid behind her, afraid of me again, and in her doe-eyes there will be a reckoning. I will lose to the scales of justice.
I want to crawl into a hole, curl into a ball, and never come out, no more sympathetic faces, no words of sorrow pinning me to the wall, me and my guilt.
What will I do at Miguel's funeral? Will I be the twelve-year-old who wouldn't wear black, couldn't get out of the car because the bright beautiful sun hurt her eyes?
I can't. I can't. I can't. Ican'tIcan'tIcan'tIcan'tIcan't!
"Let me out of here!" I scream, and my fingers tear at the buckles--why won't they break?--the air is so close in here, why aren't my fingers moving, whose hands are those?
"Let go! I have to go!" I need to leave, to run and never come back, to live in nowhere. Need to forget.
"No you don't." The owner of the hands is so reasonable. I hate him. I have to tear free, but he is too strong.
"Yes--I do--why won't you let me--"
"Something happened, didn't it?" Low-pitched so the paramedic can't hear. "I saw you--you didn't panic--you just went still. And so pale--there's something I should know, isn't there? Something you haven't told me?"
I wish he would stop hold my hands. Makes me feel like a bird with clipped wings. I wrench my fingers out of his unresisting grasp and brush my tears roughly away. "There's nothing. Nothing. Now can I please go?"
I can only see the shadowy planes of his face in the darkness, but they are so focused that it sends me into a frenzied calm.
"What happened? Please tell me. Please." His voice is raw like my soul. It's been so long and the flowers have crumpled and died. Their seed must break the frosty cover. Austen boy I'll tell you.
"Two years ago, I had a baby brother. Three months old. My mom--she was taking a bath--and she told me to watch him." My voice is oddly calm, frozen. "I was reading a suspense novel, and I had twenty pages left. It was so good that I finished it in fifteen minutes, at 3:57 p.m. He had turned over, gotten his head stuck under the pillow and the blankets, and suffocated."
He is quiet.
"Do you hate me now?"
"Why would I? I admire you even more." He has taken my hands again, holding them away from the buckles. Why can't he just leave, let my fly away like Ryan?
"But I killed my brother. It's my fault." The thin icy facade over my well of emotion is beginning to crack, the first time since October 4th, 2008, at 3:58 p.m.
"It wasn't!" He insists. "You know it couldn't been."
"It was." Now the tears are fragmenting the ice, pushing, breaking, shattering out for all the world to see.
"You were in the wrong place at the wrong time and you had the wrong book. Could've happened to even the most responsible kid. It's easy to forget what you're watching."
"Why are you so unemotional?" It comes out in shuddering sobs. I rock back and forth in my seat with Quinn's arm around me. I know I'm scaring Gabriela, but I can't help it.
"Why do you still l-like me? I'm a monster! I can't do anything right! Quinn. I. Killed. My. Brother. And now I just killed Miguel too!"
"Look." His mouth is very close to my ear, insisting low, almost a growl. "Miguel is going to be fine. Classic concussion. Maybe dizzy, maybe a bruise, but fine. And you can live the rest of your life like this if you want, afraid of everything and steered by one event. I won't stop you. Blame it on yourself. Be miserable. But I've seen you, Mariah. After our first three-mile run, how proud you were. Playing with Miguel at daycare. Even sassing our math teacher. That's the real you, and you can't let yourself be dominated by one thing."
"You want me to forget?"
"Not forget. Accept. Yes, it was terrible. I know you feel awful. But please, accept it. Accept yourself. Because I've seen you when you have accepted. And, God. You're beautiful."
"I can't accept. Look at me. Look what I've done. Again."
"Miguel is going to be OK. This is not about him, not about me, not about your brother. About any of us except you. Your life, Mariah. Your choice."
My mind races, chasing its tail, a vicious merry-go-round of images. But they are not of Ryan my brother gone. They are of Miguel, jumping, laughing, balancing in his first handstand that seemed to never ever come back down. Unafraid, he has lived fuller and better in six years than I in fourteen.
Quinn is still holding me reassuringly, just waiting. Quinn who told me I was beautiful. Austen boy the answer sitting quietly. He is waiting. Waiting. Waiting for the lake to flood over the shattered ice and down the mountain in glistening spray.
Mothers. Fathers. Sisters, brothers, cousins, on the playground. They swoop and dive like birds in the shards of ice, urging the lake to come tumbling out of the ground where it has hidden frozen for so long. On the swings a small girl pushes her younger brother. Their eyes are alight, but it's less painful now.
A small twelve-year-old and a thriller novel in a dried spit-up rocking chair in a sky-blue room in a nice two-story brownstone in the universe. Not noticing her brother squirming, quietly dying. Then her scream at 3:57. Mother rushing in and 9-1-1. An ambulance, and the girl, not crying. Just fading. Nobody blames her. Nobody, that is, except herself. Wisping through seventh, eighth, the first month of freshman year. Her life is defined by a mistake. But is mine?
I want to be free. I want to be free.
Then the ice breaks for good, the water is surging out. I am sob-laughing in hysteria, feeling something snap deep inside. I am newborn and seeing the world with bright fresh eyes, and even in the harsh, sterilized atmosphere of the ambulance, it is beautiful.
So am I.
My head rests on Quinn's shoulder, so I can't see his smile, but I feel his chest heaving with relief. All I know is that my heart is swelling beyond belief, wanting to encompass the world. I reach over him to take Gabriela's hand and hold the delicate bones, telling her through my fingers that it will all be fine, because the water is racing down the side of the mountain.
Quinn tilts his head down so he can look at me directly, my Austen boy, with eyes that span the centuries. I realize that my heart is racing and my cheeks are flushed, as are his. My hair is ratty, my face stained with tears, but he must not care because he's holding me like he's never going to let go.
"Everything OK back there?" The paramedic asks suspiciously.
"It's fine," Quinn calls, because I am still stunned by how fresh and sparkling the world is. Then, glancing at me, he asks, "Is Miguel all right?"
"Yeah, the kid's good. Concussion, minor shock, but he's breathing and heart rate's pretty steady. I'd say it's OK."
And even here, in this wailing ambulance that should be chaos, I have found peace. Everything is right. At last.