Rising to the Surface

When your world is suddenly shattered, how far would you go to put it back together?

A handcuff man stands in front of a judge while his lawyer places her hand on his shoulder

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This story is a runner-up in our 2019 Great American Fiction Contest. See all of the winners

It’s warm for late October, Amy, and there’s a moon, not quite full. The lake is still, no wind, and I can see the Big Dipper. It reminds me of the nights we used to sit out here on the dock and tell stories. Where should I begin tonight? With your mother’s news? No, not yet. I will start with the day you were born because I like to go there and stay there, soaking up the wonder of the first minute I saw you, with a pink stocking cap on your head, lying across your mother’s lap. I could tell she was scared. The itch was there, too, in the finger stroking back and forth across your cheek.

“Mom, I can’t do this,” she said, lifting her head. The too-brightness had returned to her eyes.

But I wasn’t looking at her. All I could see was you. They say all babies look alike, but not you. Your eyes were dark, dark blue. Sometimes you would ask me, “Nana, how did my eyes go from blue to brown?” I would tell you about the Indian Maiden of the Lake who had visited one night and waved a cattail above your crib, turning your eyes into the golden brown everyone who has ever met you remembers.

“You’re a mother now,” I told her. “You have to do it.” She said nothing, and I just kept gazing down at you. I was so angry, angry for you. How, in Lake Shelby, wintertime population 1,500, could a kid get so messed up? Well, your mother did. By the time she was 16, she had been in rehab twice. The only time Poppy and I saw her clean for more than a week was when she got pregnant. At least she gave you that.

My mind always slips past all the good parts of you to the phone call. Nothing else stays in focus anymore. I watch myself screaming until Poppy takes the phone out of my hand to speak to the sheriff. Then, I see him put his green flannel over me and walk me out to the car. He does not speak on the way to the hospital, but I can hear him groaning so deep inside that it isn’t even human. This is the place I normally stop. And rewind.

But, now this is the part I haven’t told you before. All the rest.

I am grateful that when I finally saw you, lying in the hospital bed, hooked up to the machines, you were beautiful. There was no mark. No blood. Nothing. Before they told us that your heart kept stopping, that you would not last even on the machines, they asked me if I would like to donate your organs. I hope you can forgive this now, but I said No. They weren’t going to touch you. Nobody was going to touch you.

The man who hit you as you were riding your bike back from the beach was a weekender whose house was one of the ones you used to point out when we trolled the lake in Poppy’s bass boat. “Look at that one. I love log cabins. Can we build a log cabin one day, Nana?” As it turns out, Daniel Wicker is a doctor. When the Shelby Weekly found that out, there was a big black headline: “Drunk Pediatrician Arrested for Killing Child.”

We finally tracked down your mother, two days later. She was in Brooklyn, sleeping on someone’s couch. When she got off the bus, she ran into Poppy’s arms, clutching at his shirt and sobbing. She looked, finally, over his shoulder at me. “Mom, I’m sorry.” For the first time, Amy, I saw how much she looked like you.

Everyone from the school was at the funeral (I know you know this), everyone from the library, telling me to stay out as long as I needed to, everyone from the Thruway, telling Poppy that he was crazy to come back on Monday, that the road crew didn’t need him anyway, but they knew working was the only way he could survive. And your mother was beautiful. Strong. She was the one who took me by the hand, “Mom, I’m going to take care of you and Pop. I’m going to get better. Promise.”

But, I didn’t feel anything, not even when Father Lutz spoke about Jesus and the little children. I know all this, I felt like screaming at him. That’s not the problem. I know where Amy is. (Of course, I know where you are, how could I not know?) What I did not know was how I was going to get to you with the rock that had settled deep inside of me.

Your mother and Poppy didn’t go to the court, but I did. When the officer brought Wicker in, he turned immediately, scanning the rows of folding chairs, quickly past my face to his wife, who was sitting behind his lawyer. He smiled. Smiled. I stared at the back of his head while the lawyers spoke. His hair is turning gray, and I wondered how old he had been when his son was born. Thirty-five? Forty? His wife had her hair in a blond ponytail, and she wore a black jacket with black slacks. Elegant and remorseful.

The prosecutor described you. He even had a copy of your fourth-grade picture that I had given him. The judge didn’t look at it but asked whether Wicker had a criminal record or a history of drunk driving. No. No, he didn’t. But what was that in the face of such a loss, the lawyer asked. Then, another lawyer read from a list of all the charities Dr. Wicker contributed to. He spoke of all the children with AIDS that Dr. Wicker had treated free of charge, all the money he had raised for the Albany Medical Center. “Responsible member of the community” was repeated seven times — I counted — and “devastated by her death” three times.

But your name was never spoken. Bail was set, and his wife cried into her hands with relief. I left, not waiting to talk to the prosecutor who half-heartedly asked me to come to his table. “The trial will be enough,” Poppy said later. “We’ll have our day in court.” But I could tell by the slight waver of his voice that even he was not sure.

The first trial date was set for August and then moved to September and then moved again to November. After the second postponement, Poppy decided to go to Uncle Bruno’s in Canada. Remember the farm? I have a picture of you with Uncle Bruno on the tractor. You’re waving at me, and a long piece of hair is whipping across your mouth, opened wide with laughter. Poppy loves that picture, and I think it was the reason he decided to go. “I’ll be back in a few weeks,” he said to me and your mother.

Amy, you won’t like this next part — but please listen. I have to tell it.

Your mother was focused on being in school and staying sober, so she didn’t ask me about the extra hours I spent at the library. She was trying to keep her promise, I could see that when she registered for classes at Adirondack Community College, but I didn’t trust her. I still don’t. Not yet.

Yesterday, I put Poppy’s shotgun in the trunk of my car before your mother was up. I wrapped it in a blanket first, taking care, for some reason, not to scratch it. Hunting was the only thing you ever hated Poppy for doing. In early November you started. “Poppy, we don’t need any venison. I love hamburger.” (And, then, when Poppy told you where hamburgers came from, you wouldn’t eat any meat until I convinced you that the cows went right to heaven and didn’t mind.) You never let Poppy hang a deer in the yard, and I would sometimes wonder whether you would outgrow your tenderness, as I had done when I moved up here.

As I drove south, I planned what I would do if Wicker wasn’t at home. I would have to wait. Get a hotel room, tell your mother a story, and wait. I didn’t think I’d have to wait, though. I knew he wasn’t working and that he wasn’t allowed to leave the state. The son was away at college. Cornell. His wife was a teacher at a local high school, so I was counting on the fact that she would keep school hours.

When I was within a mile or so of his house, I called. “May I speak to Francine Wicker?”

“No,” he said, “She’s at work. May I ask who’s calling?”

I hung up. Five minutes later, I pulled into his driveway. They live in a white colonial, not as big as I had imagined. My hands shook as I slung the backpack over my shoulder and picked up the blanket. I had not realized how clumsy this part would be. The blanket kept slipping, and I nearly dropped the gun on the porch. Finally, I decided the best thing to do would be to lean the shotgun up against the house where he couldn’t see it and ring the bell.

“Yes?” He opened the door without hesitation. “May I help you?” He grimaced slightly.

“Aren’t you …?”

Before he could say anything else, I grabbed the gun, pushing him inside with the barrel against his stomach and backing him down the hallway. “No, no, no, please, no …” he began pleading. I could feel the backpack sliding down around the crook of my elbow, but I was careful to keep the gun steady.

His face was distorted, ugly. Was this the way you looked, Amy? In my nightmares, this is what I see, your surprise, your confusion, your terror. Again and again, until I make myself throw up or I convince myself that it was over so quickly that you did not feel it for long. Or, mercifully, that you never turned your head.

We entered a dining room, and he backed into the table. We stopped. His hands dropped a bit. “Aren’t you …?”

“Don’t say my name.” I leveled the barrel against his chest. “You may not say my name, Daniel Wicker, graduate of Maryland Park High School class of 1973, graduate of the University of Maryland class of 1977, Albert Einstein School of Medicine class of 1982. Married to Jennifer Carroll on August 8th of 1982. Divorced in 1984. Married to Sarah Dulles in 1986. Son, Joshua Daniel, born on December 2, 1986, at Albany Medical Center. No, Daniel, you may not say my name!”

He was angry. “How did you …?”

“Sit!” Recovering his fear, he slid onto a chair. “You mean, how could someone who lives in Lake Shelby — actually lives there year-round — how could a small-town rube know enough to do research on the internet?”

He looked up at me, searchingly. “I’m so, so sorry. I couldn’t save her. I tried to save her.”

I said nothing. I felt the rock steady me.

“I tried. I got out of the car and gave her CPR. I tried and tried. That little girl, I held her …” His voice began to break.

“The little girl has a name. Amy Elizabeth. Do you know why? Amy was my mother’s name and Elizabeth was my husband’s mother’s name.” I slung your backpack onto the table. “Recognize the backpack, Daniel?” He shook his head. “You left it on the side of the road … along with my granddaughter.”

He recoiled. “Cerise was her favorite color, not purple, cerise.” I unzipped it and took out the photo albums. I flipped back the cover of the first one. “I want you to learn even more about Amy before I kill you.” He moaned.

“This is Amy in her crib. See how her eyes were dark blue? They later turned brown, I’m sure you didn’t notice that. Here she is sitting in her playpen on the dock. She could swim by the time she was four. Her hair was curly back then and a bit red. People used to ask, ‘Where did Amy get that red hair from?’ But that went away too. There she is on her third birthday. Look at that smile. And the cake is all over her hands. She smashed her hands into that cake until there was nothing left of it.” I saw a tear hit the plastic covering the photographs, but I was solid. Immovable. Strong.

I opened the next album. “Now, here’s Amy on the first day of kindergarten with her mother. You know her mother is a meth addict — she left Amy with us to raise and would stop by in moments of sanity. Ironic, isn’t it? My parents moved north to get out of the city, away from all the crime. Oh, well. Now look at Amy here with the ribbons. She was an artist and won prizes at school for her drawings. She wanted to illustrate picture books when she grew up. When she visited me at the library, even when she was too old to be reading them, she would sit in the little children’s section and look at them. Her favorites were Madeline.”

“Stop, stop!” He screamed so suddenly that I felt the tremor. I almost dropped the gun.

Then, “No more, please.”

But his sobs enraged me. I jumped behind him and shoved the barrel into his back so hard that he fell over, his arms and torso flung out across the table, head to one side. “Had enough? No, not enough, I don’t think so. The pain is bad, isn’t it? And you know what, Daniel? It will never, ever go away.”

He moaned again. I stood there pressing, pressing against his back, hoping, knowing it must hurt. We breathed. Nothing happened. Time passed.

“Go ahead,” his voice was so small that I almost didn’t hear him at first. “Go ahead,” he repeated with more strength.

And, then, Amy, something happened that I didn’t expect. I could feel the rock shift a bit inside of me. The rock that has been keeping me from rising to the surface to find you again. It moved. I felt it, and so I decided not to kill him. At least not that day.

I lowered the gun and started for the door, but he didn’t move. He didn’t seem to understand that I was leaving. “What more? What more?” His question followed me down the hallway and out the front door.

I came home and slept. Slept through dinner. Your mother tried to wake me up, but I said I wasn’t feeling well, and slept until the next day, not dreaming, not seeing you, or anyone. There was only the sweet, sweet darkness. Around noon, she came in and sat on the edge of the bed, shaking me gently awake. “Mom, Mom, wake up.” She was crying, but smiling too. “The prosecutor’s office called. He’s pleading guilty.”

When I first came out on the dock tonight, I remembered a time when you were four and just learning to swim on your own. Poppy was standing in the water, coaxing you to jump from the dock, and I was sitting next to you. “C’mon, Amy, Poppy’ll catch you.” Finally, you took a deep breath and jumped, but somehow missed Poppy’s arms. Before he could reach you, I leaned over, frantically searching in the dark water, until I felt one of your arms and pulled you out. My heart was beating hard, and I held you next to me, thinking you were as frightened as I was.

Instead of crying, you looked at me seriously with those golden eyes that reflected the sun. “Nana,” you said, “I was coming up without you. Next time, let go.”

But Amy, I don’t think I can come up without you. If I stretch my hand out to the sky tonight and cover the North Star with my palm, do you see it? Does God see it? And if I ask, Amy, will you reach over? Are you strong enough to pull me out?

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