They head out each morning an hour before the bell rings, and walk past the school and park, to the callous and diabolical slew of the river nearby. Always waiting quietly, eerily, with no current to speak of since it’s a dead-end to the river. In his mind it was a heartless slew he could never forgive. Dark green, motionless death. Yet he couldn’t stop himself from coming every day.
Emily was a dainty lil’ thing, only six, and since her Dad works at home, this is their morning routine before school. He doesn’t go out much anymore at all, other than once a month he takes out his wife for dinner and drinks somewhere fancy, her requirement for happiness. She’s so busy with her store, it’s more than enough, plus she has her book club, writers club, Tuesday casino night and hump-day-drinks night with the girls. So once again, he’s the stay-at-home Mom. With Sam it was great, every minute they were together they were having fun, they had been closer than best friends. But with Emily, it seems forced. Well maybe not forced, he does love her, just awkward, like a mother duck raising a kitten.
He loves her, just like he loved Sam, but realizes there is something missing in their relationship. When people stop him and say, “Your granddaughter is so adorable,” he just smiles a half-smile and walks away before she happily informs them that “This is my Dad!” He’s not embarrassed, it’s just getting old, him and the annoying people who assume incorrectly and comment on something they know nothing about.
That’s not what bothers him, it’s just an example of the awkwardness. It’s not the age difference, it’s a connection. He can feel that something is missing from their relationship, he feels it’s deeper down. He’s never been very close mentally to her, not like he was with Sam. He was still alive when Sam was alive. He threw a football to Sam every day for most of his life, taught him how to ride his bike, and mini-bike, and how to ski, snowboard, and Rollerblade. Every step of his childhood from homework to girls, he had been involved. He had been lucky to have a job where he only spent a couple of hours away from home each week if at all, working on IT issues he could sit in his home office each day, only going to the corporate office for meetings and such. He’d coached Sam’s soccer team in junior high and was an assistant coach on the highschool football team, always so involved in Sam’s day-to-day life.
But with Emily, things were different. He couldn’t seem to connect with her or her dolls and teacups and play high heels. She rarely rode her bike; it still had training wheels on it. Her friend Sara taught her how to skate, and he knew he was being silly, she was only 6, but still when he was aware enough to have thoughts, it bothered him.
They held hands, swinging slightly to their strides, and crunched across the gravel on the bridge that spanned the river. He’d been walking this path for 8 years now, every day since that day. The one where his world stopped. The one where life will never be the same again, after a phone call from a friend saying, “Sam’s been in an accident.” That day is etched forever into his brain. It seems to cloud over other memories, not letting new ones form, or even seem real. Some days he doesn’t know if anything is real, it feels like his brain is floating along, like when your asleep, jumping from one real moment to another a week later. Like consciousness is one second, then nothing for three days, then another single moment of consciousness. The time in between spent floating, not slow motion, but floating motion. It’s the spaces in between. He rides them like a kite. Up, down, sideways, just rarely landing.
The spaces bother him, when he remembers there should have been memories there. Like when he runs into the football coach, Tom, that he coached with for three years, the floating stops. Reality starts again while he responds to Tom’s “Hello, how ya doing?” or whatever mundane question pops in his head? He answers, “Just fine,” then time floats away until he has to perform again. And for some reason, when he’s floating, he doesn’t ever think about Emily. Or anything else, for that matter, except Sam. It’s only Sam. What would Sam be doing now, if he had lived through the accident. Is Sam here right now, hanging out as a spirit or something, here at the river where he died? He’s looking right now at the exact spot where his car hit the tree and slammed off to the right and down into the 10 feet of water in the slew of the river below. It was such a pretty spot. He had to come here every day, every single day. It wasn’t something he could stop doing. It was programmed into the Float Aimlessly program his brain had mapped out in 0’s and 1’s.
He couldn’t stop the floating either. His mind just flipped into a different gear, and took over the control of his thoughts. Some days after he arrived back at the house, after safely dropping Emily at the school on the way back, he wouldn’t be able to work all day. He wasn’t even aware he wasn’t working. He just sat down in a chair, leaving the door open, his coat on, and floated until his wife came home with Emily and startled him into a moment or two of reality called loosely, dinner time.
So when his wife turned up amazingly pregnant at her age, it hadn’t even occurred to him that she would decide on her own to have another child. One moment she was slapping him, and telling him loudly, the next they were rushing to the hospital to deliver her. Then boom; there she was. He didn’t even remember having sex. Thank God they had decided to have a Nanny at first, because if they hadn’t Emily would still be sitting in a diaper, the one she came home from the hospital in. It was only in the last few weeks since she started Kindergarten that he was once again responsible for a child. Literally some days smacking himself repeatedly, just to get her ready and out the door. After his wife had smacked him a few times, more than he could count actually, he realized it actually worked. Just a quick pop on the forehead. It would focus his brain long enough to stay in the real world, and take care of his daughter.
Emily tossed a rock at the water, sending out rings, mesmerizing rings. He shook his head. Looked down at her and asked,
“Would you like to learn how to skip a rock?”
She nearly erupted with happiness. Bubbling out like champagne, a string of happy words linked together in a pink flow like,
“Oh can we, will you Dad, will you teach me, Oh yes, I so want to learn Dad, any rock, any kind of rock, you can make it skip? …” he just smiled, floating a second. Then he shook his head again, rattling the thoughts a bit, and took her hand. They walked a few steps as he looked at the ground, stooped over to pick up a couple flat shaped rocks, then they walked to the end of the bridge and down the trail, taking a little side path to the water. Emily was bouncing. It was the only word to describe her joy, she bounced. He had called her Tigger, maybe once or twice, he couldn’t remember, but it should have been her name.
He began to explain it to her, showing her how to hold the rock, how to let it fly, how to bend a bit lower to the ground as you zing it across the water. She had it mastered in three throws, ran back up to the bridge trail and found a couple more rocks, while he floated. His eyes wandering back to that spot again, across from him now, across all that water that had been so unbelievably unforgiving. Silent now, yet so cold and cruel then. Ruining any chances he had of surviving the crash, a strong football lineman, going off to college that next month, trapped inside his Audi and surrounded by the cruel dark green water. Even if he had been conscious, it wouldn’t have cared. Some moments, he hated that river. Hated it with every inch of his being. Just some moments, when he wasn’t floating, but the anger rose instead. Sometimes it took over, stopped the floating completely, and he was alive and aware and angry for a time, stomping around the house, slamming doors, before sitting down to rest again when thankfully the Float Aimlessly program kicked in again.
The tree he was leaning against felt just cold and wet enough it seeped into his skin, bringing him back. Emily had a good arm, he thought, then told her, and she began bouncing again. They needed to go, or she’d be late for class, but she streaked up to the rocks again, picked out a few more, and he waited while she zinged them into the quiet green water, now content for some reason. Only disturbed by the million rings Emily was creating. He took her hand, brushed off the dirt, and helped her along the path back up to the bridge. As they walked across, he looked to the left, at the spot, and tears welled up around his eyes, blurring his vision. He could just make out the huge cross that held his football jersey and his old hiking boots hanging from a nail. He always wondered who had put the boots there, too. His best friend had placed his jersey over the cross, making it a hanger; the school had retired his number, hanging a special jersey in the gymnasium during his funeral services.
He looked down at his little girl, skip-hopping along beside him, glowing with happiness, bubbling out chatter he couldn’t follow even if he had been aware, and wondered why something so simple as skipping rocks had made her day?