“Mrs. Hoover! Mrs. Hoover!” Emily sat on the motionless swing, repeating the name in a sing-song voice. When that produced no results, she yelled louder, “Mrs. HOOver!” She could see her teacher across the playground, showing a little boy how to pitch the kickball. Several minutes before, Mrs. Hoover had helped Emily onto the swing, believing her claim that she could do the rest on her own. In truth, Emily had not mastered the art of self-propulsion and the ground looked devastatingly far below her feet.
As an only child, Emily was not accustomed to vying for attention and wasn’t entirely sure how to do it; people usually anticipated and addressed her needs before she could verbalize them. These first few weeks of public school had taught her that she didn’t like being one of many. She considered crying as the sensation of being completely stuck threatened to overwhelm her until she remembered her mother’s mantra that crying doesn’t solve anything. She kicked a little in frustration, succeeding only in creating a scant breeze that disturbed the wisps of golden curls escaping from her ponytail. She wanted her mom. She wanted to go home. She wanted to feel safe. “MRS. HOOVER!”
He turned when he heard the desperation in her voice and instinctively ran to see how he could help, in spite of the fact that the daily kickball game was now without its catcher. “Hi, I’m Saul Benjamin.” He put out his hand in solemn introduction.
“Where have you been?” Her tone was not accusatory, rather genuinely curious about the history of his whereabouts.
“What?” He withdrew his hand and cocked his head to one side, subconsciously wondering if she would make more sense if he looked at her sideways.
“I haven’t seen you before. Where have you been?”
“California,” he said simply. She stared at him intently, eyes wide and serious, having forgotten about her situation on the swing. “What’re you doing?”
“My mom says I should memorize strangers in case I need to know who they are later. So I’m memorizing you.”
“But I’m not a stranger. I just told you my name.”
“Too late. You’re memorized.” Forgetting her recent fear, she jumped down from the swing and started to walk away.
“Wanna play kickball?” he called to the back of her head, mesmerized by the back-and-forth motion of her pony tail, neatly turned in on itself in one long curl and held together with a perfect pink bow.
She stopped and turned, staring again with her deep brown eyes. “Nope,” she said simply.
He wandered back to home plate, slightly dazed from the encounter. From the corner of his eye, he could see her just off the field picking late-season dandelions.
In the days and weeks that followed the air grew cooler as the sun lost its edge to the clouds and wind of fall. Saul remained faithful to his kickball team but continued to secretly observe Emily in her careful culling of the dandelion field. Though her demeanor never changed from a quiet reverie, she seemed like the kind of person who needed looking after.
A year older than Emily, Saul only saw her at recess, from a distance. After their first encounter he never approached her, but watched her from the periphery as she gingerly reached out to other girls in her class, finally finding three who would not overwhelm her. He continued his covert observations every day of every year as she hung lazily from the monkey bars or made footprint patterns in the snow or giggled with her small circle of friends under the slide.
Once in a great while she would catch him watching her, but rather than avert his eyes or move out of his line of sight she simply held his gaze. Those moments made him uneasy. Something about the way she looked back at him, so bold for someone so introverted, was both unsettling and provocative.
They attended Jefferson K-8 together for three years and during that time he wondered as much as he learned about her. When was her birthday? Where did she live? What were her parents like? What did she want to be when she grew up? He could tell that she and her friends were close, but she seemed just as content sitting under the oak tree at the edge of the field with a book as she was talking with them. He could never see the titles she carried to the playground but he was often impressed with the size of the books she pored over when she wanted to be alone. She also spent hours writing in spiral notebooks, filling several each year, but she didn’t immediately tear out the pages like other girls did to fold them into complicated notes to pass during class. Her notebooks were carefully kept, with mysterious tabs that indicated some sort of order or system to the words within.
Saul didn’t look forward to summers the way most kids did. He enjoyed the time away from school and the long lazy days as much as anyone, but he always felt somewhat distracted and uneasy. Though he couldn’t put a name to it, his inability to keep track of Emily and the possibility that something would happen when he couldn’t protect her was nagging at the back of his mind from June to August. He never imagined that she, too, felt like a balloon cut from its tether during those months, floating aimlessly with the wind. In spite of the usual family excursions, camps and other summer adventures, neither of them ever felt quite grounded.
The summer after his freshman year was particularly difficult for Saul. His adjustment to high school had been smooth enough, with success on the soccer field, his job at the hardware store and his expanded circle of friends. Urged by his peers and adolescent curiosities, he even went on several dates with varying degrees of success. But in the end none of them felt right, leaving him unsettled and lost. He developed a new irritability that summer, which his parents chalked up to fully embracing his role as teenager. He wasn’t comfortable being still and when he wasn’t working he spent hours walking, his heart lifting at the sight of a golden curl, and sinking again when its owner was not Emily. Though he told himself she’d be fine until she started ninth grade in the fall, it had been nearly a year since he’d seen her and he couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed someone now, an anchor in the midst of some new chaos.
The stifling heat of summer had settled in and the late July air was so thick it was difficult to breathe and move simultaneously. In spite of the air conditioned comfort, the walls of his house had once again become too confining. “I’m going for a walk,” he yelled to his family as he passed through the dining room where they were enjoying a game of Uno over soda and popcorn.
“Where are you headed?” his father’s tone stopped him before his outstretched hand could reach the doorknob.
“I’m not sure, Dad. Just out and around.” He tried to sound casual, not wanting to betray the urgency he felt.
“It’s awfully hot out there. Besides, you’ve been pretty scarce these days. Why don’t you pull up a chair? We’ll deal you in.”
“I won’t be gone long. I’ll jump in when I get back. Save me a soda or two.” These words were effortless and he felt a strange confidence in them.
“Suit yourself. Be careful out there.”
He heard his family’s raucous laughter fade as he closed the front door behind him and walked silently along the cracking sidewalk. The sun had just dipped below the horizon and he walked by the light of the nearly full moon. The air was so still it seemed as though he and the fireflies were the only moving things in the world. He told himself he had no real destination in mind, but his feet moved with purpose and he knew very well where he’d end up. The gate squealed in protest as he swung it wide, the sound piercing the silence of the evening. The shadow perched on the swing did not look in his direction, but he knew who it was. While her tank top revealed a figure just beginning to curve, her golden curls were still held captive in a single ponytail tied with a pink bow. Though she had long ago learned to swing for herself, it was apparent from her posture and the way the moonlight glinted off her tear-stained cheek that she needed someone.
Emily saw him coming from the corner of her eye, taller and broader but certainly him. She wondered if he somehow knew she was here or if he was just passing through. Either way, she was glad he had come.
He waved as he got closer, suddenly feeling awkward as he wondered how to start the second conversation they’d had in their lives. In his head he said something eloquent and clever, something that sparked the most amazing dialogue two people had ever enjoyed in the history of the world. He took a deep breath and broke the silence.
“Hey.” He was appalled that this was the best that came out when he opened his mouth.
“How’ve you been?” Again he cringed at the banality of his attempts at witty conversation. She only shrugged her thin shoulders in response.
He sat on the swing next to her. “So why are you here all alone at night? Don’t you know that bad things can happen to girls alone at night?”
She shrugged again, tracing circles in the sand with the toe of her plaid tennis shoe. “Bad things can happen any time of day.”
“What’s happened to you?”
She looked into the distance as if deciding which event to disclose. She didn’t look at him when she finally spoke. “My dad’s gone.”
“My dad left two days ago with a suitcase and my mom’s been crying ever since. I came here to get away from it. Aren’t you glad you asked?”
He really wasn’t but didn’t say so. “Don’t you have someplace you can go? A friend’s house or something? It really isn’t safe for you to be wandering around by yourself.”
“I’m not supposed to tell anyone.”
“But you just told me.”
“Yes, I guess I did.” She was still looking at the stars through the hazy evening.
They sat for a while, not swinging so much as drifting back and forth, sometimes passing each other and sometimes in unison. When it was clear there would be no further discussion on the subject, Saul spoke again. “Why don’t you come to my house for a little?”
She turned to him in surprise. “Your parents won’t care?”
He looked at her, perplexed by the idea. “Why should they?” She offered no response and he pressed on with the invitation. “I just live up the street. C’mon.” He offered his hand but she didn’t take it, hopping deftly off the swing by herself. "I guess some things never change." His cringe was interrupted this time by the upturned corner of her mouth and sidelong glance.
They walked in silence slowly, in deference to the heat, side by side. He thought about taking her hand. In fact he'd never wanted anything so badly in his life, but he feared touching her would shatter something sacred about the encounter. He knew it wasn't chance that brought him here and that whatever it was had to be handled with great care.
She wasn't sure if she saw his house first or heard it. It was aglow with lights and laughter and she stopped outside the front gate. “What’s the matter?”
“My house has never sounded like that.” She froze with the sudden thought that maybe even the good times had been nothing more than a mirage.
This time he did touch her, just a hand on her shoulder to guide her towards the door. The warmth of his hand comforted her and she leaned slightly into him. He smiled broadly as he felt something shift in his world, a calm settling about him for the first time since he’d left Jefferson. When they stepped inside, Saul’s parents looked up from their Uno game while his siblings fought over the draw-four rule. Emily glanced nervously around the room as Saul drew her into the house and began the introductions.
“Emily, this is my mom Cynthia, my dad Jack, my sister Rose and my brother Henry.” He paused, looking at Emily with a warm smile that spread to his eyes. “Everyone, this is Emily.”
“Hello, Emily!” Cynthia’s voice was filled with genuine joy at the addition of another person to the table as she pulled over a chair and gave Jack a knowing glance. “Please join our Uno game! Henry, get Emily a soda and some ice. Rose, scooch over to make room.”
“Welcome, Emily,” Jack said in a calm voice that perfectly complemented Cynthia’s high energy.
Emily looked uncertainly at Saul who gestured for her to sit. A smile illuminated Emily’s face in a way Saul had never seen as she sat down and his father dealt her in.
His mother handed her a fresh soda and Saul sat next to her. As they played, Emily was surrounded by a combination of laughter and sibling rivalry and she felt a lightness about her, a sense of being cared for, that she hadn’t felt in a very long time. A clock in the hallway chimed the hour and Emily suddenly realized how long she’d been gone. While she’d only been with Saul’s family for a couple of hours, the sun was still up when she’d left her house. “I have to go. My mom will worry.” In her new version of life, she wasn’t sure if that was true, but it seemed like what she should say in the situation.
“Where do you live, Emily?” Cynthia asked. “Jack, get your keys. We’ll give you a ride.”
“I can walk,” she said, a little too quickly. She took a deep breath and lowered her voice. “I just live on the other side of the school.”
“I’ll walk her home,” Saul chimed in. He winced at the eagerness in his voice. “I mean, if she wants me to.” His sister snickered at his awkward recovery.
His parents looked at each other, making a silent decision. “Okay then, but both of you be careful. You never know—“
“What can happen.” The three siblings chimed in together, mimicking their mother’s customary cautionary phrase. She just smiled and began clearing the table. Emily suddenly felt like she was trapped in a corny sit-com, but she didn't mind as much as she thought she should.
“Thank you for everything. I really had fun.” Emily was suddenly somber again as they stepped out the door. She felt the joy of the evening slip away at the thought of going back to her dark house where her mother was sinking deeper into despair.
They walked in silence through the still air for a few blocks, listening to the crickets. “Where do you think your dad is?”
“Dunno. He just walked out. He could be down the street or in Texas.”
“He hasn’t called or anything?”
“Nope. But he never calls. He travels for a living and when he and my mom talk they’re either yelling or whispering. And my mom’s usually crying. It wasn’t always like that. Just in the last couple years or so I guess.” She suddenly felt self-conscious about being the center of the conversation. As they started to cut through the school yard she switched the focus to Saul. “What about you? What’s it like having a brother and sister and stuff?”
He shrugged. “It’s just normal to me. Some days I like it, some days I’d rather have my own room and my parents to myself. But mostly I like having them around.” They passed by the swings. “Why were you here tonight? I mean, you could have gone anywhere. Why did you come here?”
“This is where I feel safe, like someone’s watching out for me. Why were you here?”
“I guess I was looking for you.” This time he did take her hand and they finished the journey to her house that way, fingers silently intertwined through the still, humid night. He noticed the neighborhood shift, realizing that in all his wandering that summer he’d never found his way to this pocket of houses, many of them losing paint and boasting clotheslines full of laundry that never quite seemed to dry.
When they arrived at the bottom of her driveway, Saul didn’t want to let her go. It looked cold, even in the July heat. He was sure she hadn’t told him everything about life in there and he wanted to take her away from the hurt that was waiting for her inside. “Thanks again,” she said.
“Any time.” He didn’t relinquish her hand.
“See you at school pretty soon, I guess.”
“Or you could come over again tomorrow.”
“I think I’d like that.” She smiled at him and wandered up the driveway and through the front door. He stood for a moment, waiting for a light to go on. When none did, he turned and wandered back home, thinking about the evening and for the first time truly aware of the importance of family.
When she entered the house, Emily expected to see her mother perched in her gaudy floral arm chair pretending to read or do a crossword while waiting for her daughter to return. She braced herself for the admonishment born of worry that was sure to come from being out so late without word of her whereabouts. Instead, she found her mother asleep on the couch, breathing evenly with her hand on a foreign bottle. Emily gingerly reached for it and saw that the fifth of rum was nearly empty. She had never seen her mother drink and the scene made her skin crawl, sensing that something had just ended and another, more sinister thing had begun. She quietly cursed her father as she walked to her room to dream of family.
Emily found herself in the back of the church parking lot as the bells were chiming. She knew it would be here. She recognized several of the cars and the few latecomers straggling in. As she imagined the proceedings taking place inside, her lungs seemed to collapse and she had to take in large gulps of air to breathe. It wasn’t so long ago that she and Saul stood at that very altar. Just five years ago, he'd propped the door open so they could get inside after the building was locked. She remembered how the moon illuminated the stained glass behind the altar, how softly the candles lit the darkness so all she could see was Saul’s face and the cross above them. Neither of them had kept the promises they’d made that night or any that came in the years after. She wondered if he was thinking of that as well. She wondered if he’d keep the promises made today.
Saul paced in his dressing room. “Chloe, Chloe, Chloe,” he repeated.
“You okay bud?”
Saul started at his brother’s unexpected voice. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Thanks. Hey, could you get me some water?”
“Sure thing. You’re gonna be here when I get back, right?” The joke fell flat on Saul, who just looked blankly at Henry. “Never mind. I’ll get that water.”
Saul tried to calm himself. It was too late to do anything but move forward and say, “I do” whenever prompted. When Andrew entered the room, Saul was seated, head cradled in his hands.
“Hey there Champ. Your brother sent me in with this to check on you.”
“Thanks.” Saul took the cup and sipped the cool water, feeling slightly better but still uneasy.
“Talk to me. What’s going on with you?”
“Nerves. Just pre-wedding jitters. Everyone has them, right?”
Andrew saw the desperation in his friend’s eyes, and had to offer the out. “Not me, man. You know that. When I married Jenny it was clear sailing that day. In spite of any tough spots, when I looked at my future I saw her next to me. No one else. Can you say the same thing?”
Saul was silent for a moment. “Andrew, I saw her last night.”
“Who do you think?”
“Saul, you didn’t. What happened?”
“She walked away from me. I told her I was getting married and she walked away.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, man, but that is really screwed up.Think about this. You can walk. Right now. Sure it’ll be bad for a while, but this is your whole life--Chloe’s whole life--right here, right now. If you aren’t sure, don’t add another person to your misery. Chloe’s a nice girl and I know you don’t want to hurt her, but she’ll get over today. Don’t trash both your lives.”
Henry walked in and was stopped by the tension. “Everything okay? They’re about to start. You ready, Saul?”
“Well, Saul? The best man asked a question.” Andrew’s voice was strained, but he would not betray his friend’s confidence.
“We’re good, Henry. Everything’s good. Let’s go.”
At the front of the church, Saul focused on the bells tolling the beginning of the ceremony, the scent of roses overwhelming his senses. The back doors of the sanctuary opened and for a fleeting moment he saw what could have been: Emily standing in a simple yet elegant white dress, fresh daisies in hand and flanked by her three closest friends. The image faded nearly as quickly as it was manifested and in its place was Chloe, beautiful in her sequined dress that filled the doorway as the train followed several feet behind. The music started and all too soon, her father was handing her over to him, a gift ill-gotten and undeserved. His mind was filled with nothing but saying the right name, which he recited flawlessly when prompted and in short order the ceremony was over and they were exiting the sanctuary as husband and wife. He remembered nothing of the homily or the vows, though he knew the gist of both. The receiving line was a blur and he knew that his only hope was to keep smiling and matching the enthusiasm of those around him.
Emily heard the triumphant organ refrain and knew it was over. “It should be me.” The sound of her own voice startled her. She killed the engine and got out of the car. She had to move, to get some fresh air. She peered in a side window and saw the congratulations and the well-wishes. Only Andrew saw her there and he made a vow of his own to keep her presence under wraps. He started towards the door with the desired effect. Emily disappeared from view and when he stepped outside he saw her getting into her car.
“Hey Andrew!” He jumped, spinning around as Saul called to him. “Wow, why so skittish?”
“Sorry, man, I thought I saw some kids lurking out here. This isn’t the best neighborhood anymore, you know.” Andrew’s smile was obviously forced.
“I hope the hubcaps are still on the limo,” Saul said, giving his old friend an odd stare.
“Yeah. You seem to be in better spirits.”
“Spirits is right.” Saul pulled a small flask from the inner pocket of his tuxedo, with the same mischievous smile he had years ago when they were kids stealing bottles from their parents’ liquor cabinets.
“I worry about you, man.” Andrew steered Saul back into the church by the shoulder so they could retrieve the oblivious bride and make their way to the reception.
Emily returned to her car in a panic. “I shouldn’t be here,” she told no one as she started the car. "Enough," she yelled and revved the engine, but tears blurred her vision as she sped away.