Authors: Lori Reisenbichler
Eric’s ear is on Toby’s little chest, so the top of his daddy’s head is probably the first thing Toby sees when he opens his eyes. He coughs and sputters, and Eric flips him over in case he throws up. Toby twists to clutch his dad and says, “Kay.”
My heart stops.
Eric laughs, crazy with relief, and says, “Okay, buddy. You’re okay.”
“See? He’s okay!” announces Jenny.
Toby crawls over to my lap. The three of us sit on the dock, dripping wet, while Scott makes sure the crowd disperses and Jenny tells me I should get Toby checked out by a doctor.
I’m checking him for bruises, looking at the pupils of his eyes. I can’t keep my hands from shaking.
I know what I heard.
Eric keeps saying, “Okay. It’s okay, buddy,” until Toby motions for me to come closer. He cups his hands around his mouth, pushes his self-made megaphone to my ear, and whispers, “Momma. Kay.”
I hold his head between my hands and look into his eyes. He returns my gaze without blinking. I tell him with my eyes that I understand. I know exactly what he means.
I nod and put my finger to my mouth, shushing the pounding of my heart in my ears, made worse by the noise of an airplane engine overhead.
I look up. Dottie’s dream comes rushing back to me. I’m paying attention, all right.
Jenny has our bags hoisted on her shoulder like a sturdy mule. “Come on,” she says. “Everybody up. We’re heading out. Let’s get this little man to the ER. Scott, you’re driving. I’ll follow in our car.”
Just like that, we all stand up and do what she says. I envy her superpower.
SOMETHING IN BETWEEN
t the emergency room, under the bright, nervous lights, the nurse tells us first, and then the doctor says the same thing, repeating it until we’re sure: Toby is all right, it’s nothing more than a bump on the head for him and a scare for us. We did the right thing and acted quickly, so the doctor won’t even call it a near drowning. Even when I say it, he smiles tolerantly and says, no, no, nothing like that. Jenny and Scott leave only after the doctor confirms one more time that there’s no concussion, no reason for our son not to get a good night’s sleep.
I don’t object when Toby falls asleep in the car, and I let Eric carry him to his room. We stand at the foot of his bed, neither of us saying a word. I allow myself the tears I’ve held back all day.
When I turn to leave, Eric follows me to the bedroom, breaking the silence. I know he’s trying to make me feel better when he assures me that it was an accident, that it’s not my fault.
I don’t correct him. I can’t find a way to explain how clearly I know that it was no accident. Nothing random about it.
I can’t tell him that as I held Toby’s hand on the way to the hospital, I whispered a promise to our son:
We will go see Kay.
I can’t describe to Eric the validation I felt when Toby immediately calmed down and sat like a little Buddha in his car seat.
I’ve always believed that the slippery, porous boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness, between the physical and spiritual worlds, is most prevalent at times when we transition between states. That not-quite-awake, not-still-asleep feeling. The meditative hum of stillness like a lucid daydream. A here-but-not-here condition that only happens once we surrender the daily chatter in our heads.
How can I make Eric understand that when Toby regained consciousness, it was like returning from that in-between state, and Kay’s presence must have been palatable to him? I can’t tell him this nonaccident—this, too—is about John Robberson. I can’t tell him that John Robberson must have finally figured out that Toby needed to be unconscious to gain full access to him.
Don’t you see?
I want to tell him,
John Robberson got to Toby. I was right there, and John Robberson got to him anyway.
I can’t say any of that. It doesn’t make any sense, I know. I can’t even tell Eric that at some level, I’m relieved. That I was wrong. That maybe the best thing was for John Robberson to finally be able to convince Toby that it’s okay to talk to Kay.
There’s no way to communicate how important it is that Toby has finally agreed to do what John Robberson wants. This is a game-changer.
I go into our bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror, look myself in the eye, bore past the green and yellow flecks in my pupils, and tell myself the truth.
What I really want to say to Eric—to the old Eric, the soul mate who used to listen to me—is that I’m trying not to let it hurt my feelings that the first person Toby asked for wasn’t his own mom.
If I could tell him that, maybe he would understand. I have to get him to see that we have to make room for the possibility that there might be something bigger than us going on here. Something I don’t completely understand. Something in between.
“Shel? Did you hear me?”
“I said, do you need anything?”
“I’m exhausted. Are you coming to bed?”
He takes a step backward and my heart sinks. “In a few. Thanks for . . . you know. Today. And Toby’s going to be fine. Don’t worry.” He looks down at his feet, his hand on the doorknob. “Try to get some sleep,” he says as he pulls the bedroom door shut behind him.
Around three o’clock, I jolt awake from a murky green dream and make my way to Toby’s room, relieved to find his hair dry. He’s breathing air instead of water and doesn’t have a fever, and when I pull back the covers, his belly button is still an outie. When I check on him again a few hours later, I see he’s rotated himself to the foot of the bed as usual, and I smile.
I know what I need to do now.
I settle the jitters in my stomach and make myself smile before I knock on the door of the guest room, as lightly as if the door were made of the eggshells I’m walking on.
Eric cracks open the door. “How’s he doing?”
“He seems fine. Still sleeping.” I nod and try not to show my discouragement that we’re talking through a crack in the door. “Want to join me for breakfast? Before he wakes up?”
“I was going to get a smoothie on the way in. I told Scott I’d meet him early today.”
“Oh.” Recovering, I say, “That’s a good sign, right? That he wants to meet on Sunday?”
“Hope so.” He opens the door, and I see he’s already dressed. Neither of us moves.
“Tell Scott I thought yesterday was fun. Minus the drowning and all.” I smile. “I liked Jenny a lot. Didn’t you?”
“Sorry, but can we talk about this later?”
I don’t move out of his way. “Real quick. I was thinking maybe it would be good for us to do things like that more often. Get away together, you know, take our mind off things. So I thought today, if you’re okay with it, I’d look into finding us a family vacation spot, maybe over the Fourth of July weekend?”
He pauses. I can see the wheels turning in his head. Finally, he makes eye contact.
“I’m trying, Eric. You have to try, too. You said you would. It’s only fair.”
“You’re right. Okay.”
“Good luck with Scott,” I say, stepping out of his way. “Be sure to tell him how much we appreciated the invite.”
But Eric doesn’t even know how much I appreciate it, because without knowing it, Scott bought me the modicum of goodwill I needed with Eric to do what I need to do for Toby.
That night, I present Eric with a few vacation options, careful to steer him where I need to go. First, the too-expensive beach resort in the Caribbean. Then the Disney cruise I know he won’t choose. So when I mention the Ozark Mountains, he’s amenable. It doesn’t take long to agree on a two-bedroom condo with fishing access on Table Rock Lake. I don’t point out the lake’s proximity to Branson, Missouri. For the first time, I’m relieved that Eric showed so little interest in John Robberson that I never got the chance to mention his hometown.
Fourth of July weekend.
We’re going to drive and stop and buy fireworks along the way. We’ll go fishing and hiking and make s’mores in a campfire near the lake. I can tell Eric I have to run an errand. Toby won’t pay attention to the roads. I won’t even have to say anything—I’ll just take Toby and let him say to Kay whatever her husband needs for him to say. I’m not leaving until she makes John Robberson go away, once and for all.
Eric doesn’t have to know why we’re there. Once John Robberson is gone, it won’t matter. I promised him I’d control it, and I will. Truth be told, he doesn’t want to know the details; he just wants the result.
So we’re on the same page, really. If you think about it.
like car trips. I play Slug Bug with Toby, which he likes a lot, mostly because it breaks my usual “no hitting” rule. I go out of my way to sing along to the radio and count the cows we pass. Eric is in a better mood. He tells me he’s optimistic that Scott will approve his budget and he will be able to hire two new guys. We seem to have forged a tentative peace, an unspoken agreement that we’re going to try. We fill any conversational lags by taking turns entertaining Toby. When it’s not my turn, I work out my plan to find Kay.
I’d love it if I could not only find her but also hang out long enough to figure out where she goes on a regular basis. Maybe she eats breakfast every day in a diner. Maybe she leaves work at the same time every day. Maybe Toby and I could “run into” her in a public place. That would be best. But it means a lot of legwork on my part, and I’m not sure I can do it without Eric being suspicious.
All I have right now is a highway and a box number. The address doesn’t register on our GPS. I can’t find it on Google maps. The closest I get is a satellite map that shows a two-lane highway with mailboxes along the sides. I’ll have to figure it out when we get there.
Southern Missouri is unexpectedly beautiful, with verdant hills and crystal-clear streams. Almost simultaneously, Eric and I roll down our windows, a shared unspoken instinct to stick our arms out and make waves in the wind current. When we finally arrive in Branson, the hills are obscured by the town’s attempts to be an entertainment mecca. I can’t help chuckling at the log-cabin font used to advertise everything from souvenir T-shirts to big gospel churches. The cars are packed on the road as tight as a tourist’s bulging belly in a golf shirt.
I pick up a listing of the shows that made Branson famous. Eric wryly observes that he’d have to reach a certain level of intoxication before he’d really appreciate the Baldknobbers Jamboree. Not a viable option with Toby, so we ditch that idea. In the front seat, I point to an ad for Silver Dollar City, the amusement park, and Eric looks at me as if I offered him a chocolate-covered cricket.
Our condo is tucked into the woods, and our unit has a clear view of the lake. My shirt sticks to my back, and my hair frizzes in the humidity. In the back of the building, we discover a rock path that leads all the way down to the water, with a marina right there on the property. We agree on this point: we are not renting a boat.
Eric suggests we buy groceries at the marina store, but when we see it, we both know that’s not happening. There’s no fresh fruit or produce of any kind. I feign disappointment, but I’m relieved. This gives me an excuse to run an errand on my own.
“Toby, do you want to come with me to the store?”
He shakes his head from side to side, twisting his entire body.
“Come on, Shel, don’t make him get in the car again.” Eric grabs Toby and turns him upside down in the air. “We’re going exploring!”
“You guys go ahead. I’ll feel better once I get the food issue settled. Then I’ll join you.”
I pick up a map of the lake and surrounding areas and locate what appears to be the largest grocery store, thinking it will be my best bet. I head in that direction and stop at the first gas station I see. The cashier—a rail-skinny grandma with yellowed fingertips—is happy to show me how to get to Route 76 but adds, “It’s a big-ass road, sugar; I hope you got more than that.”
I tell her the address and she assures me she’s terrible with directions. “I’d lose my fool head if it wasn’t screwed on.”
“Do you have a phone book?”
I find six Robbersons. Carl . . . Fred . . . James . . . No John. No Kay . . . Two Williams . . . Steven. There’s nobody on Route 76.
I thought I’d be able to find Kay in the phone book and set an appointment. I had even rehearsed how that conversation would go. I guess I should be glad there are only six entries. I’m too close to the cashier to rip the page out of the phone book, so I take a picture of the page with my phone, making sure I can read the phone numbers for every Robberson listed. It’s a long shot, I know, but before I traipse all over the Ozarks, I need to rule out that the number I have is a PO Box. So I ask where I can find the post office.
The cashier tells me it’s in downtown Branson, smack dab in the middle of all that traffic. She looks at her watch and says, “It idn’t no use, though; they’re gonna be closed by the time you get there.”
Ten minutes later, I cuss at the Good Samaritan in a Ford F-350 pickup who keeps letting other people enter the line of traffic, which causes me to miss another green light. I want to honk, but he has three shotguns on his gun rack.
By the time I find the post office, it’s been closed for twenty minutes. I make a note of where I am. I decide to give up for the day, navigate my way to the grocery store, and find fruit and yogurt, chicken breasts, ripe tomatoes, and fresh sweet corn. On the way back to the condo, I time myself so I can make another post-office trip tomorrow. I’ll ask them how they deliver to Kay’s address. Mailmen know that kind of thing. I may have to make a dry run to figure out how long I need to be gone before I get Toby (and not Eric) to join me. It starts to dawn on me how difficult that might be.
The next morning, on Independence Day, we wake up early and go fishing as the sun rises. We do pretty well, except when Toby slips near the edge of the water and the mud sucks his shoe right off his foot. He says it felt like it grabbed him and wouldn’t let go, and he cries until I splash knee-deep into the water and wash his shoe off. When we start walking again, his shoe squishes and makes farting noises as he takes each step. There is nothing funnier to a three-year-old boy than a farting shoe.
We find a suitable fishing spot, and before long, we catch a few respectable crappies. We release most of them, but Eric makes a big deal out of catching our lunch, so he sets the biggest one aside and lays out some newspaper so he can gut and clean the fish. Toby is fascinated. I didn’t even know Eric knew how to clean fish, but he seems right at home.
We make our way back to the condo to fry the fish for lunch. Eric shows Toby how to roll the filets in cornmeal first. I slice the reddest tomatoes I’ve seen in a while and serve the corn on the cob, which Toby turns into a kernel mustache. I can’t even watch Eric replicate it, purposely letting the corn stick into his mustache. They think it’s hilarious.
That night, we walk down to the marina and watch the fireworks as patriotic music plays over a fuzzy loudspeaker. I look over at Toby sitting in Eric’s lap, both their faces lit up by the synchronized explosions in the sky, and I feel an inner nudge.
I know, Mom. It’s going to be over soon. For better or worse, at least it will be over.
Eric and I take turns in the shower, which gives me time to think. When he comes out, I tell him he can take the bed tonight, and I turn away before I can see the disappointment on his face. I pretend I’m offering in an effort to be fair. I pretend I don’t realize I may be throwing away the first opportunity to share my bed in weeks.
When he protests out of chivalry, I insist. I tell him I can find a comfortable place in Toby’s room. I tell him I’ll be asleep before my head hits the pillow.
But I’m telling two more little lies. I’m not going to find a comfortable place, because I know I am not going to sleep tonight.
I sit in the beanbag chair in Toby’s darkened room in the rented condo and listen to him breathe. It is a beautiful sound, his little boy sighs permeating my awareness as I work out the details of my plan.
I regret my failure at the post office. I hope what I have is the rural equivalent of a street address, the number of a mailbox in front of a driveway, in front of a house. I don’t even know if I’ll see it from the highway.
I open the closet door about two inches, turn on the light, and move my beanbag closer so I can see the map in the illuminated crack. The light jags across the floor, up the wall, and over the flat bedspread on the foot of Toby’s bed. He’s so small. He only fills the top half of the bed, so the light doesn’t even touch him. My throat closes up, remembering that tiny body lying motionless on the dock.
I study the map until I’m satisfied. I stand up to stretch and bend over Toby’s face, close enough to feel his breath on my cheek. I tiptoe down the hallway to trace my steps in an attempt to get out of the house without waking Eric.
I sneak into the bedroom, where Eric is fast asleep, to dig my list out of the side pocket of the suitcase. Feeling I’ve been away from Toby too long, I return to his room to pack a backpack, tucking granola bars, my wallet, and the rental-car keys inside. The map. I pick it up from the carpet near the closet. A flashlight? Found one in the kitchen. I fasten the backpack, settle into the beanbag, and watch Toby.
I do not sleep.
I ruminate about how the plan will work. I’ll leave before sunrise, to give us enough time to locate Kay’s house. When I’ve exhausted the possibilities and dug a rut in my mind about this, I allow myself to think about what happens
I find her. Not whether I can find her.
All I have to do is introduce Toby to Kay and watch. See if he looks familiar. See what happens when she looks into his eyes. The windows of the soul. I will not interfere with whatever is going to happen between them. With my heart pounding, I wonder, will she see John Robberson in him at first glance?
Even if she doesn’t, I can picture how it will go. We’ll knock on the door. I’ll hold Toby up and see if anything clicks. If not, I’ll introduce him. She’ll invite us in for some coffee and we’ll talk. She’ll know exactly why Toby keeps asking for her. She’ll explain it to me and I will finally understand and maybe we’ll even laugh about it.
John Robberson will finish his business.
John Robberson will go away and leave us alone.
We’ll get back to the condo and bring bagels for Eric, who will forget that he’s mad, and I will be relieved because now he has nothing to be mad about. Even if Toby tells him about it, it will be over, so it will be okay. Maybe we’ll even laugh about it.
We will be free of John Robberson. It really is Independence Day.