by Nelson Vessey
John wiped the road dust from the kitchen window and peered at the translucent image moving amid the heat waves rising from the long gravel access road. The patch of color, which at first was blue, then white, seemed to dance within the thermal river flowing toward the Pine City highway. He checked the outside thermometer installed on the window frame. “Maybe we ought to wait a couple of days before we make that run down to Colville. The temperature outside is over 100°.”
Sam snorted, inadvertently spraying some of his vegetable soup over the remainder of his ham sandwich. He grabbed a napkin and cleaned the wooden tabletop, then wiped off his gray, stubbled chin, and looked up at his brother. “Not in this life, John. I need my Lucky Strikes.”
John walked over to the refrigerator and looked inside. He shook his head and turned around. “We need gas and we’re running low on groceries.”
“I could use a case of Olympia, too,” said Sam. This made him think of John’s struggle with alcoholism and how hard he worked to follow the AA program. “I hope you don’t mind me drinking in front of you.”
“Don’t worry, I need to deal with other peoples’ drinking; you shouldn’t have to change what you do. I’ll buy some Coca-Cola instead.”
“You acted strange after you saw something outside. You want to talk about it?” asked Sam.
John came over and sat down next to Sam. He picked up the aluminum coffee pot and poured its filmy dregs into his cup. “I saw a mirage in the heatwave coming off the road. Just for a moment, then it was gone. It made me feel uneasy, but I couldn’t say why.” John got up poured the rest of the coffee into the kitchen sink. “Do you think it’s too hot to go today? We could run into town tomorrow.”
“It’s not that hot. You worry too much.”
John walked toward the front door, then stopped to look out the kitchen window once more, hoping to get a better look. When he did, what he saw, sent a burst of shivers rolling down his broad back. Floating in the heat-wave river was a little girl, with long, blonde hair, wearing blue pants and a white blouse.
John thought of his daughter, Esther, who bled to death in his arms after he had dragged her from their wrecked Buick; her small heart pumping the last of her onto his chest, sharing her internal warmth as she spoke her last words, “It’s all right Poppa, I can’t feel anything.” He had watched the light fade from her beautiful green eyes in those last moments when she passed, holding onto his big hands until her little fingers fell away.
John began to shake, then felt the world tilt, and he grabbed the countertop for support. A terrible emptiness overtook him as he found himself again knelt on the black highway, staring down at the broken parts of the wrecked cars flecked with Esther’s fresh blood. No, not that again, please. He closed his eyes and steadied himself. When he recovered and looked along the dusty road, the image was gone.
Sam noticed his brother standing motionless, frozen at the window. “You all right, John.”
John clasped both hands over his nose and mouth, then took a slow breath. “I’m fine. I thought I saw something unusual on the access road, that’s all. Nothing more than a mirage within the heat waves. We should go.”
He didn’t look fine. Sam watched his brother for a moment and thought of the long, hard years John had endured before coming to terms with the empty chasm that would persist forever in his heart. How Maggie had blamed Esther’s death on him and how their marriage had dissolved from the sad indifference that had grown between them after their daughter’s demise. Sam didn’t want to see John go back to the tragedy that had nearly destroyed him. Not that, thought Sam, I’m not sure I could save him if he starts drinking again. He tried to push away the feeling of dread suddenly roiling up from within his chest. “We’ll be ok. Long as our luck holds and the AC doesn’t act up like yesterday.”
John turned and stared at Sam. “Don’t curse us. That’d be a bitch. I’ll bet it hits 110 out there.”
Sam scoffed. “Keep your finger crossed.”
They were halfway down the entry road when something exploded beneath the truck hood.
“Dammit,” exclaimed John.
“What was that?” asked Sam.
“I think we blew a rod.”
When John opened the hood, his heart sank. “Sure, as hell. A connecting rod punched a hole in the engine block.”
“Shit for luck,” said Sam. “It’s going to cost a fortune if we need to put in a new engine. Take some time, too.”
John slammed the hood closed and shook his head. “I’ll see if I can get some work down at the Sheppard place. Long enough to get us back to level, anyways.”
Sam motioned for John to be quiet. “Did you hear that?”
John looked around. “No. Hear what?”
Sam pointed to a large round hill on the other side of the pasture. Within the warm, morning wind, barely audible, a child’s voice could be heard.
“It’s coming from up there. Sounds like a little kid!”
Both men stopped moving and listened. There were popping noises emanating from the broken engine, the buzz of dancing grasshoppers and the chirping song of a Bewick’s wren. They waited for a moment, then the voice came rolling down the hill.
“Help! I need someone to help me! My sister is drowning!”
They looked in the direction of the voice and saw a young boy standing on top of the hill.
“He’s pointing down toward Slaughter Pen Bay,” said Sam. He grabbed John’s arm. “You have to run John. With this gimpy leg, you know I can’t. Go, I’ll be right behind you!”
John nodded to his brother and took off running as fast as he could. At the top of the hill, John could see the little boy pointing toward the middle of the bay near the shore. He scanned the surface of the water quickly and saw nothing: then, he looked again, and saw something that looked like a head floating beneath the surface.
“Oh, God,” John said to himself and ran down the hill so fast he fell hard, sliding face first into the dirt. He jumped back up, taking such long strides he feared he might fall again. When he approached the shore, he pulled off his shoes, and jumped into the water in one fluid motion. He swam straight towards where he last saw the body, keeping his head out of the water in order to see as clearly as possible, powering himself forward with a front crawl until he could see the boy’s sister, then dove beneath the surface and put his left arm around her slight body. He side-kicked along the surface of the pond, using his right arm to power him toward the shore, then walked on his knees, carrying the little girl onto the shore, and gently laid her down. Her long, blonde hair tangled about her face, and a layer of mud covered her white blouse and torn, blue pants.
Sam arrived, breathing heavily. “Is she still alive? Doesn’t look like she’s breathing.”
John took her arm and slid his big fingers underneath to feel for a pulse at the surface near her thin wrist. Her skin felt cold and lifeless. He almost recoiled, but continued, ignoring the hopelessness he felt welling up inside him. He thought for a moment that he felt something, so, he waited breathlessly for confirmation, pressing his calloused fingers gently against her pale flesh. There was nothing. She’s dead. It’s no use. Stop it! There is still a chance. He checked both eyes to see if he could notice any sign of life. But her blue eyes looked dull and lifeless. Dammit!
“I’m gonna need your help, Sam. I’m going to try artificial respiration. What I can remember. I need you to walk down to the highway, see if you can flag down a car.”
Sam nodded his head several times, his mind racing, then replied. “I’ll get someone. Somehow. Just save her.” Sam skittered up the hill towards the highway, moving as fast as he could with his bad leg.
John looked down at her pale face and her lifeless body. He thought of Esther, and what she looked like the last time he had seen her. He remembered hearing that sometimes people come back, even after several minutes. He grabbed his shirt and placed it beneath her neck so her little head rocked back. Then, he opened her mouth and felt around to make sure there was no obstruction, and to ensure that her tongue wasn’t stuck back in her throat. He tried to calm himself, then bent down, pinched her nose, and began giving her repeated breaths, careful not to breathe in too much at one time. He was guessing about the repetition frequency, and he feared that he might be harming her in some way.
John did the best he could, pausing intermittently when he got dizzy, continuing doggedly, intent upon breathing life into her fragile body, even if he had to do it until his lips bled. He remembered hearing that sometimes people come back, even after several minutes.
John watched the little girl’s chest move up and down in concert with his efforts. Sweat had formed on his brow and was now dripping into his eyes. The longer his efforts lasted, the harder it was for him to refrain from thinking about Esther, and how different her body had felt the moment she died.
John was tired, and he feared he might be unable to continue. Even so, he couldn’t bring himself to stop because giving up would mean admitting the girl was dead. He pressed on, grimly, refusing to stop. It was clear after twelve minutes; John had lost the battle. He began to sob, his salty tears falling from his weathered cheeks onto her alabaster face. Just a few more minutes. You can’t give up.
Ultimately, John’s strength and resolve diminished. It was when his faith had failed him, that the impossible happened. John felt a spasm in the little girl’s body. He worried that he might miss the faint beat of her puerile heart, undetected due to his calloused fingers. He looked to see if she was breathing. Although the breaths were shallow, they were regular. He put his hands on her shoulders and shook them gently.
“Can you hear me?”
Her green eyes opened. She stared at John for a moment, then up at the cloudless sky.
Green, not blue? John felt disoriented and dizzy, much like he had felt by the kitchen window. Beautiful like Ester’s were, little emeralds. His vision blurred, and he heard a ringing in his ears.
The boy ran up and grabbed John’s shoulder. “Is she gonna be all right?”
John nodded, hoping to reassure the boy. “Yes, son. I believe so. I’ll need your help to get her home.”
John stood up and cradled the little girl in his arms. She stirred and nuzzled against his chest. John touched her forehead, a father’s touch, imparting reassurance.
The little girl looked up.
John held her closer. A beautiful child. Like Esther.
She smiled, her white teeth contrasting with her cracked and bruised lips. She touched his arm with her small hand. “I love you, Poppa. I do.”
John stared down at the young girl, afraid of what he hoped he would see. Her face seemed different, narrow; and her lips were fuller, now pink, and her emerald-green eyes shone bright in the noon sun. Green eyes, like Esther. “How do you feel?” asked John, hoping to bring his senses back to the present.
“I’ve missed you so,” said the girl, a warm smile forming on her face. “Where have you been?”
John touched the side of her face with his hand. “I’m right here. I found you in the bay. In the water. I need to get you home now.”
“Home with you, Poppa?”
John could see the disorientation and confusion. She is not making sense. Poor thing. God help her. “You’ll be fine. I’ll take you home, now. Your parents will want you to see a doctor. What’s your name?”
The girl smiled broadly, as if John was making a joke. “You always make me laugh, Poppa. You know my name because you gave it to me. You wanted to name be after Queen Esther, like in the bible.”
John looked to the boy. “What is your name?”
“Jimmy. And that’s Lucy. We live down the road, toward Saint John.”
“What’s your last name?”
“Anderson. Our house is the one with the barn that’s falling down. We got horses and cows too.”
John knew the Anderson place. Last year, Jacob had been killed in a threshing accident, leaving his wife Linda to raise the children by herself. Everything was a mess. The two sway back horses needed to be shod, the chickens were running all over and the farmhouse needed several coats of paint. He didn’t remember any cows. He had seen Linda in church after Jacob’s funeral and wondered how long she could last before she had to sell the farm.
“Can you go walk me back to your house? You should take your bike with you.”
The little boy looked up at John and said, “Are you going to carry her all the way?”
“I am,” said John.
He looked down at the child in his arms, expecting to see Jimmy’s sister. It was Esther’s face he saw. Her green eyes and long blonde hair. He thought of the image he had seen in the heat waves back at the house. He felt his heart jump, and he held her closer to him.
He blinked several times to convince himself that he was not dreaming. “Esther,” he whispered. “Is it really you?”
The little girl smiled, and it was Esther’s teeth he saw, unmistakable because of the pronounced canine teeth he thought were so unusual. Maggie wanted to correct them, but he had resisted, insisting it was better to be different.
“Don’t you recognize me?” asked Esther.
John almost stumbled on a rock in the road and moved more to the center.
“You ok, mister?” asked Jimmy.
“I’m fine. I’m right behind you.”
John turned his attention back to Esther, expecting the illusion to be gone and to see Lucy instead. But it was Esther’s face he saw. This can’t be. She looks like Esther. As if a cosmic substitution has been made. If it can’t be so, then I’m losing my mind.
“Poppa?” asked Esther. “What’s the matter?”
“I think I’m crazy, little one. Because you can’t be here.
“Because, I held you in my arms as you passed.”
“I remember,” said Esther. “I told you I couldn’t feel anything.”
John stopped, stunned by what he had heard. “No one knows that but me.”
“And me. I was there too.”
“You have come back? My little Esther. How is this possible?”
“Sometimes, you get a second chance.”
“What do you mean?” asked John, as he started walking again.
“Are you coming?” asked Jimmy.
“Don’t slow down. I’ll catch up.”
“I mean that something has changed, and your life will never be the same again. You save a life; you get a life.”
“What can I do? You don’t look like his sister.”
Esther laughed. “I do to him.”
“What do you mean?” asked John.
“Only you can see me this way.”
“But it’s you?”
Esther reached up a touched his rough cheek with her tiny hand. “I will be with you always. But you must find your way.”
“How?” asked John.
Esther winked. “I would suggest that you follow Jimmy home and introduce yourself to Linda Anderson.”
“I do. Your second chance is about to begin.”
John bent down and kissed Esther’s cheek. “Another life. Another life with you.”
“I love you Poppa.”
John drew Esther close, and she nuzzled against his shoulder. I don’t care if this is an illusion, only that it never goes away.