Authors: Lori Reisenbichler
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Lori Reisenbichler
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
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Cover design by Kimberly Glyder
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014949399
This novel is dedicated to my son Hugo, who introduced me to John Robberson, and to my husband, Tom, who knows which parts are the truest.
CHAPTER THREE AN ALTERNATE TRUTH
CHAPTER SEVEN BACK TO THE BONEYARD
CHAPTER NINE THE REAL JOHN ROBBERSON
CHAPTER TWELVE DO CAVEMEN GET REINCARNATED?
CHAPTER FOURTEEN UNDER PRESSURE
CHAPTER SIXTEEN YOUR MOMMA WAS A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN THE PISTOL IS A DREAMER
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN WHERE THERE’S FIRE
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE TALKING TO DEAD PEOPLE
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO DEFINE OPEN-MINDED
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE MAD ABOUT THE DOG
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR THE GOOD WIFE
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE SOMETHING IN BETWEEN
CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX INDEPENDENCE DAY
CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN WINDOWS OF THE SOUL
CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON
CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE JUST PLAY ALONG
CHAPTER THIRTY UNFINISHED BUSINESS
CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE HITCHHIKERS
CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO QUIT WITH THAT
CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE COMING SOON
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR NO BIG DEAL
CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE WHAT ABOUT THE DOG?
CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX BE CRAZY WITH HER
CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN CHARMING KAY
CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT I’M RIGHT HERE
CHAPTER FORTY WHO ARE YOU RIGHT NOW?
CHAPTER FORTY-ONE WHAT HAS CHANGED?
CHAPTER FORTY-TWO LEARNING TO LIVE WITH IT—OR NOT
CHAPTER FORTY-THREE PHASE ONE—KAY
CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR HONEY SWEET
CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE PHASE TWO—JOHN
CHAPTER FORTY-SIX ALL TOGETHER NOW
CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN COSMIC RESPONSIBILITY
CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT NEXT OF KIN
ot once did I think something happened to Eric. That’s how denial works, evidently. I think I had to believe he didn’t get my messages. I simply could not entertain the alternative.
So I was alone. Fine. Between the physical pain and the mounting regret at not calling my girlfriends earlier, I became a funnel of righteous indignation that twisted tighter with every contraction. Later, I would have a full range of emotions, but at the time, I was uncontrollably pissed off as I delivered my son at 11:09 p.m., surrounded by my female doctor and two nurses.
Even with all the classes, I wasn’t prepared. I’d read the book but didn’t know what to expect. It hurt more than I’d imagined. It went faster than I’d anticipated. I cried and slobbered and grunted and, most importantly, did not feel beautiful or noble or life giving, as I’d hoped. The pain filled my head with meanness.
, I thought,
I should’ve done it like my mom, where they hand you a highball and roll you into surgery with your makeup on.
But while I missed my mom, I wasn’t like her in many ways, and this was one of them. Eric knew that. But where was he?
Not with me. Not with our son, who was barely a minute old. I gulped the baby up with my eyes, tasting every tiny finger and every perfect toe, searching for Eric in the fresh, tender Toby. I’m not exactly religious, but I can spot an angel. I could see his soul glowing right through his skin.
I was convinced Eric would be there when I woke up, apologizing and regretful, but at Toby’s first feeding, all I got was his voice mail for the fiftieth time.
An unfamiliar physician strode into my room. Dr. Curt Thornton III, with the demeanor of a man tired of his role in this kind of conversation, said Eric was in intensive care on the third floor. Later I recognized what he had told me—and what he had withheld.
He told me the head-on accident had occurred in the afternoon, but he didn’t mention that it was a result of Eric changing lanes on a hill in an attempt to pass a tractor-trailer. He didn’t discuss how long it took the paramedics to cut my husband out of our new Prius.
I held my breath.
Dr. Thornton said it could’ve been a lot worse. He reported the hairline fracture in Eric’s hip socket, pressing his right fist against his cupped left palm as he explained the part with the fracture. The cupped palm, not the fist. Dr. Thornton then told me about the second fracture, in Eric’s femur, and explained that he’d lost consciousness at the accident site. However, the doctor did not describe how this hindered the paramedics’ discovery of the internal bleeding caused by a slow, seeping leak in the artery in his hip.
He made sure I understood that the ER physician had acted quickly and ordered a CAT scan, which is how they found the pooled blood in Eric’s pelvis. He did not mention that prior to that discovery, my husband entered the doughnut-shaped CAT scan talking, but when the tech pulled him out minutes later, saying, “Good job, buddy,” Eric didn’t answer because he had no pulse.
Dr. Thornton didn’t describe what I would later imagine when I read Eric’s medical records. The crack in the tech’s voice as he called a code blue. The frenzy in the frigid room as the cart rolled in. The crinkle of the bag on Eric’s face; the shouts for fluids, for blood, for a pulse as the CPR failed, as the paddles failed, after eight full minutes with four people working. The heroic resolve of the muscular attending physician with a weightlifting hobby who, when asked, wouldn’t call it, didn’t stop, didn’t wait on the chest spreader, but instead, against protocol, reached for a knife and sliced my husband open right under his ribcage and went in, squeezing the life into Eric with his hands, beating him back to fatherhood with his fists.
Eight minutes is too long. Most don’t revive. If they do, they’re never the same. I’m glad I didn’t know that as I lay in the maternity ward.
Dr. Thornton continued, describing the emergency surgery, explaining how he not only repaired the artery, he took care of the ruptured spleen. He had not mentioned the spleen until then. He assured me again that Eric was going to recover and be my husband and Toby’s dad.
I demanded to see Eric. They wouldn’t let me take the baby. I slumped into a wheelchair at the nurse’s insistence and sobbed a low moan all the way to the ICU.
His nurses warned that he’d be unresponsive at worst, loopy from the painkillers at best. As soon as they left the room, I gingerly pushed the tubes aside, put my hands on his shoulders, and shook him. Hard. I had to see his eyes open.
I shook him again, babbling the whole time: I loved him, I wanted him, I needed him. He started to blink. Choking back tears, swallowing panic, I pressed my face to his and whispered, “Our baby is here. You have to see him. You have to.”
I wasn’t sure if he winced or winked at me, but he garbled, “’kay.”
I nodded, reached for his hand, and thought I heard him say something that sounded like “sugar.” I didn’t know what that meant, so I settled for kissing his eyelids as they were closing. I withdrew to my wheelchair, dizzy as if the whole world had wobbled off its axis. I’m not sure how long I sat there in a stupor before this unsolicited realization hardened in my core: the unimaginable could happen.
“Wah-buh-son,” Toby says. He has just turned three, so his r’s and l’s sound like w’s.
This time he nods his head with each syllable and enunciates “Wah. Buh. Son,” which I take as a yes and the last time I’ll be able to get a decent answer before it all becomes a game.
He nods in the backseat, the tips of his curls wet with sweat. He has my dark hair and his daddy’s light eyes.
Shifting out of mom voice, I turn to Eric. “Who is John Robberson?”
“I have no idea,” he says, without taking his eyes off the road, “but he’s been talking about him since we got back from the Boneyard.”
They’ve spent the day at the Boneyard, which is part of the Air Force base near Pa’s house in Tucson. Due to a favorable lack of humidity, about four thousand military airplanes are parked there, anticipating the recall order that might someday return them to active duty. In reality, tourists are the only ones paying them any attention.
Eric pulls into a parking space at the grocery store and hurries around to open my door. I nestle in the crook of his arm, ever grateful I married a tall guy. I’ve been on my share of flat-heels dates. He’s six-four, all legs. We worried that he might lose some height after the accident, but he doesn’t even limp anymore.
When I release the harness, Toby springs out of his car seat and jumps between us, commenting on the gaudy shamrocks—which he thinks are symbols for his mid-March birthday—in the store windows. He insists we swing him as we walk. One, two, three, wheee!
I worry we’re going to pull his arms out of their sockets. One look at his baby-toothed grin, mouth wide open the entire time his feet are in the air, and I tell myself he’s fine. He’s so easy; the kid even laughs in his dreams. The first time it happened, I jolted awake and made my way down the hallway to stand over his crib. Tiny Toby, deeply asleep, laughing out loud with his eyes closed. I returned to bed, satisfied I’d done my job well that day.
We push the cart up and down the aisles. I fight the temptation to overpurchase fresh fruit and vegetables. What I don’t serve tonight will rot in the crisper drawer of Pa’s refrigerator until the next time I come. I suspect he eats a lot of junk food now. We pass the cereal aisle where I once scolded him for buying Cap’n Crunch instead of Grape-Nuts.
“I’m a grown-ass man, baby girl, and if I want Cap’n Crunch, I’ll buy Cap’n Crunch!”
Well, if he’s a grown man, why does he eat like a little kid?
I didn’t say it, but I did stop commenting on his food choices after that.
Toby says, as we pass the coffee aisle, “John Wahbuhson wikes coffee.”
“Let’s get some for Pa, then.” Eric puts a can of decaf in the cart.
I don’t think anything about it until Toby does it again, saying that John Wahbuhson says you should wink when you talk to girls. Toby sits in the grocery cart, blinking at me, and for the third time today, I’m talking about John Robberson.
I do what I always do when I’m trying to get something clear in my head: I recap. I learned this in a management-training seminar, and it’s a job skill that has lasted far longer than my severance package. I lean against Eric’s arm. “So . . . to get it straight in my mind: while you guys were at the Boneyard, Toby met someone named John Robberson, but you didn’t? Was Pa watching him at the time?”
Eric turns the corner with the cart. “Yeah, you know. We were man-watching him.”
This is an old argument for us, dating back to Toby’s first steps. I think we should be able to see him—physical eye contact as often as humanly possible, preferably every waking minute. Eric thinks a general sense of Toby’s proximity constitutes supervision. All he needs to know is which room contains his son. This is what he calls “man-watching,” and it is a distant cousin to babysitting.
He accuses me of overreacting, but I’m not. It’s an early-detection response that gets activated during labor and delivery. I believe a mother’s intuition works like sonar: each kid emits a sound only his mom can hear.
I remember joking about it at a playgroup with my relatively new mom-friends. “And I’m pretty sure a penis scrambles the signal,” I’d said, a tad too loudly, and was rewarded instantly with a sugar rush of laughter that left me hungry later.
They talk like this a lot, adding to a running commentary of mild complaints about their husbands. I used to be able to play along, but now I grow tired of women whose primary source of comedic material is the ineffectual doofuses they married. I’d like to see how they react when that doofus is lying in a hospital bed after technically being dead for eight minutes. It’s hard to be cynical and grateful at the same time.
I’d been too embarrassed to tell Eric about my stupid joke. Ever since I added “mom” to my résumé, I have caught myself saying things like that more often than I’d like to admit. In the few solitary moments I can grasp, these tiny breaches of my own standards compel me to stare in the mirror, to lean in close, to bore past the brown and yellow flecks in my pupils, searching for the Shelly behind the mom.
I know she’s in there.
This is only one of the things nobody tells you. I’ve got a whole list of questions I can’t ask in a Mommy and Me playgroup. Mostly, I wonder if I’ll ever recognize myself again, or if my gut instinct is now permanently tuned to the vigilance channel. I hate that my first assumption is the worst-case scenario. I can tell something has shifted. Slipped. It feels like I’ve left a part of myself behind, the carefree part. Do you ever get that back?
To be fair, not everything about motherhood is disorienting. Some changes have left me feeling more like myself than ever. Once Eric went back to work and I could finally stay home with Toby, I realized I could dress the way I wanted, instead of the way I had to, so now my closet is full of prints and natural fibers. I don’t have dry cleaning anymore. Or makeup. I threw away any shoes that hurt my feet, pierced my nose with a baby diamond, and quit fighting my curly hair. And when I’m with Toby, I feel like someone finally colored in the background on my page.
Here in the grocery store, I know better than to mention the man-watching again, so I ask Eric to walk me through their day. He says they took the Boneyard bus tour and Toby sat by the window, bored. No big deal. Then they went to the flight museum next door.
“I let him run around. Maybe one of the museum guides talked to him.”
I’m trying not to make a big deal out of the word “maybe.”
As we pass the bakery section, Toby tells me another of John Robberson’s preferences: oatmeal cream pies. I figure I’ll play along.
“I don’t think Pa needs an oatmeal cream pie. It might give him a big ole bellyache. Does John Robberson get a bellyache from them?”
Toby gets a puzzled look on his face. “No bellyache.” He touches Eric’s abdomen when he says it. Only Toby says “bewwy ate.”
I whisper to Eric, “Are you sure you didn’t see this guy?”
“No, ma’am.” He shakes his head. “I did not,” he adds, “neglect my duty while a malevolent pervert enticed our son to wink at girls, drink coffee, and partake of the ever-alluring oatmeal cream pie.”
I should let it go. If it makes Toby happy to keep jabbering away about John Robberson, what’s the harm? I’ve almost convinced myself—until I realize Toby’s never seen an oatmeal cream pie.
We usually shop at an organic grocery. There’s nothing close to an oatmeal cream pie available there. So how could he pick it out on the shelf, much less know the right name for it? Even at his preschool, Toby gets snacks like peanut butter and apples, not processed, pre-packaged goo smashed between two cookies with almost no relationship to actual oatmeal.
I’ll check with Pa later. About John Robberson, maybe the oatmeal cream pies—but not the man-watching. He’ll be on Eric’s side about that.
Toby says, “John Wahbuhson says I’se supposed to go see Kay. But I don’t want to.”
Eric swerves toward the checkout. “Let’s take Pa his groceries.”