The hospital in Annapolis, Maryland is cold. It’s an achy kind of cold, one that gets down into the blood in your bones. Maybe that’s how Maryland is. Maybe the hospital can’t control it. Maybe this is just a cold state, even in August. Maybe I’m just not used to it.
A nurse taps on my arm in the elevator and it’s sudden. I jump and she looks concerned, eyebrows squinting like she’s about to enlighten my dumb, pregnant brain. I try to smile at her, but right now I am made of stiff toothpicks and the muscles in my cheeks hurt. “Ma’am,” she says, “lamaze classes are on the fifth floor.” She points at the panel, where I’ve lit up the fourth floor button. She’s just trying to be nice, I tell myself, quelling the annoyance rising in me.
“I’m not looking for lamaze classes,” I say, hand placed on my five-month swell. I don’t engage her further, closing my ears off to anything but my own body, listening to the patter of my own heart as a developing foot presses into my ribs. The doctor said that’ll probably start hurting soon, especially if he’s a kicker.
The phone call plays in my head. I inhale and I hear the phone ringing from this morning, my naive mind wondering who would call so early on a Friday, but answering with a chipper, “Morning!” I exhale, fast-forwarding through the logistics, the exchanging of information, the moment my stomach started to drop to the floor, the nurse on the other end saying, “Your sister is being held at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, Maryland.” I hold my breath.
The elevator dings! open and I walk off onto the fourth floor without a word, quiet and solemn as I cross the threshold into a colder hallway. There’s a desk area right beside the elevator, where a series of people sit behind computers and do important things. They all look so busy and I feel rude, walking up and putting my hand on the counter.
“Excuse me?” My voice is scratchy, two pieces of sandpaper that I have to cough through and swallow before I can speak again. “I’m looking for my sister? She, uh. The nurse downstairs said she was on this floor.” I start rustling around in my tote bag, pulling at my wallet and my phone and my vitamins and a flashlight I apparently threw in there when I left in a hurry this morning. There’s nothing I need in there, but I can’t keep looking at this nurse who has horn rimmed glasses and smudged lipstick.
“What’s her name, Ma’am?” she asks in a way that’s polite but too professional to matter.
“Rose. Um, Rose Milson. I’m her sister. Veronica Milson-Hibbler. I don’t.” I stop. I try to breathe, but it comes out on stilts. I try to straighten my thoughts up, imagining every word I want to say is a piece of paper in a messy pile I need to just gently tap together. “I don’t know if you need that.”
She gives a professional smile, an attempt at being understanding, but it’s too tight. She’s probably dealt with worse than me, some babbling woman trying to find her sister. I’m just one minute of her day she has to get through.
“She’s in room 413, Mrs. Milson. Hm, looks like she has the room to herself for a little bit. You can go ahead, she’s in there now.” She points ambiguously behind me. I turn, my ankles sore and making me feel clumsy. The nurse gasps, quietly, and I realize my stomach is no longer hidden to her by the counter. She speaks up, a little less polite and a little more friendly, “If you need anything at all ma’am, just let me know.” She’s gentler, because you have to be gentle with pregnant people.
I don’t say anything to her. My steps are heavy, my flip flops slapping the tile in small, quiet strides. The baby pushes his foot harder against my rib cage, demanding some sort of attention.
The phone call plays again, a phantom noise in my ears, the words rattling in my head like lose dice. I can’t stop thinking about that nurse on the phone, wondering who she was, what she was thinking, knowing she must have broken some sort of protocol when she spoke to me. It doesn’t feel like a sentence you’re allowed to say over the phone to a total stranger, one who’s five-months pregnant and home alone. You don’t say, “Your sister attempted to throw herself off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge,” at 6:32 in the morning. You don’t.
The summer of my tenth birthday was the rainiest summer London, Kentucky had ever seen. My cool Slip-N-Slide party had been canceled and, instead, I was taken to a movie theater to watch cartoon ducks save the world. It was easily the worst thing that had ever happened to anyone, ever.
The one benefit of my tenth birthday was a cute pair of blue and green rain boots that I was allowed to wear outside when the thunderstorms had settled into light drizzles a week later. They were brand new, and I was excited to finally dirty them up while splashing around in the muddy puddles in the woods behind our backyard.
“Be back by lunch,” my father had said as I slid the glass door shut with a satisfying thup.
It was the first time I had been outside since the rainstorms had started, and I was eager to stretch my legs and get away from all of the drama my Bratz dolls were having over the roller skating competition coming up.
My new boots had squished and squashed in the mud, the sound making me giggle as I ran past my flooded sandbox and towards the patch of woods that surrounded our backyard. I decided to be one of the ducks from the movie I had seen and that the world was flooding, so I would have to save it. It was the only thing to do.
At some point, between the bad guy attacking and attempting to get a stray squirrel to join my team, I ran across my sister.
I hadn’t seen Rose at all that morning. Rose was thirteen, and a lot of the time she did cool, thirteen-year-old things like bike to her friend Cassie’s house and play there without ever telling me she was leaving. I was confused to find her in the woods, sitting on the sopping ground with her back leaning against an old log that had moss growing all over it. She was hunched over, her blonde ponytail drooping and her blue hoodie darkened by the rain.
“Rose?” I said, confused.
She jumped, startled and scared and brown eyes wide as the moon.
The air between us stiffened like a slap-on bracelet. Her cheeks and eyes were red, and she looked like she had bit her lips too hard. I felt frightened, like I had walked in her room without knocking or taken something without asking her first.
Rose was the one to suddenly exhale, to slope her shoulders and soften her eyes. “Oh, Ronnie, it’s just you.” She sighed, giving a tired smile as she turned her back to me again. She was still sitting in the mud, and while her body had eased, I still felt like I had done something wrong.
“Are you okay?” I asked, watching as she pulled her sleeves over her palms and scrubbed at her face, her ponytail bobbing with her head movements.
“Mhm,” she noised. “Just fine. Thinking. I was just….” She paused, and I watched as she lifted her head up, looking towards the tops of the trees that covered the dull gray sky that we both knew was there. Drops of water slid off the leaves and hit at Rose’s cheeks, her nose, her eyes. She didn’t move to wipe them away or even her stick her tongue out to catch them. My heart was racing, pattering uncontrollably. “Thinking,” she said.
“About what?” I said, watching her carefully.
“About the ocean.” She sighed again, this time almost like a laugh, but a hollow noise all the same. “I think I would like to live at the bottom of the ocean.”
I scrunched my eyebrows closer together, almost getting a headache from how the confusion was holding my face. Rose and I had never been to the ocean, only the community swimming pool from time to time when it was hot and not raining. Rose was a good swimmer, and I was just okay at it. I didn’t want to live in the ocean, though. It sounded wet.
“In the ocean?” I had asked, still trying to understand the puzzle pieces she was letting me see. “Like a mermaid?”
She laughed again, still small and unsure. She almost sounded like she was crying, but it had to be a laugh. It had to be. “No,” she said, quieter. “No, I think I’d just like to live there. As myself. I think I’d be happy there.”
Finally, like someone had wound a key on my back, I worked my courage up to move my legs towards my older sister, worry burrowing in my stomach as I walked over to look at her better. She dropped her head back down to stare at the ground as I approached, and she looked smaller. I forgot, momentarily, that I was the younger sister, that Rose had been alive longer than me, and that she was thirteen to my newly-ten. She looked small and her hands were shaking.
I said, “You’re not happy here?”
She smiled, her mouth like a white hammock shaking in the wind. Not sturdy at all. Her eyes glittered and she turned her head towards me, placing her pointer finger in front of mouth. She was trying to be mischievous, silly in the way she looked at me. But she was shaking.
She winked and said, “It’s a secret.”
Rose has her back turned to the door of her room. Her shoulders are thinner than they were the last time I saw her. Her hair is shorter too, only at her shoulders now, but still blonde like mine. I know it’s her, because the back of her hospital gown is gaping open enough that I can see the seashell tattoo between her shoulder blades. I’ve seen that tattoo a hundred times before. It was a graduation gift she gave herself before leaving high school, a secret she kept from our parents until the day before she left college. It’s faded in the decade since, the bright pink now mushed into the black lines– the colour duller, sadder. But it’s Rose.
I’m still shivering and, all at once, I realize we haven’t seen each other in over a year.
“Rose?” I say, confused.
She jumps, startled and scared and brown eyes as wide as the moon.
The air between us is still, cold like the rest of this damn hospital. Her face is completely pale, lips almost blue. Her face is thin, jawline pronounced. There’s a bandage on the left side of her head, taped onto her temple and into her hair. I feel frightened, like I shouldn’t even be here. Like she didn’t expect me to come.
It’s silent except for the distant beep of a machine in a different room. Hospitals are supposed to be noisy, aren’t they? Never quiet, always a commotion. But right now it feels solid, the quiet that surrounds us. I want to wake up from this, I want this part of my day to be over.
She exhales; a shaky, forced breath that almost sounds like it would hurt. Her eyes drop down from my face, landing on my stomach. We haven’t talked in almost a year.
I put my hand on the top of my bump. It feels bigger than it did in the hallway, more obvious and pronounced under my dress. “Yeah,” I whisper, feeling embarrassed for not telling her. I meant to, but days with forgetting to call turned into weeks, and five months later it was me getting the call instead.
Rose looks horrified, mouth gaping open. I watch her hands, shaking as she grips the blanket around her knees tighter. She looks at me again, almost angry, tears welling up in her eyes. “I didn’t know,” she says.
“I meant to call,” I say. It doesn’t matter right now.
The doctor tells me what happened like it’s a book he read a review for. It’s a synopsis, very play-by-play. A nurse brings over a tissue to where I’m sitting, but I don’t cry. I can’t seem to get myself to even pretend to be weepy. My body is still stiff with toothpicks, like everything happening to me is distant, like the story doesn’t affect me at all.
Rose Milson attempted to jump off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge at 4:30 this morning. From the look of the scene, she had thrown some of her personal belongings (clothes, books, her phone) in the Chesapeake Bay already. Before she was able to jump off the side railing she was standing on, Officer Rodriguez– some new cop on his way to work– pulled her off the rail. In attempting to get her down, he accidentally grabbed her in a way that made her head knock against one of the poles. The hit to her head briefly knocked her unconscious and left her with a slight concussion, a few stitches. But she was alive. She is alive.
My mouth feels like a desert and my lips are starting to chap. Dr. Moore is patient as I try to clear my throat. I cough into the tissue, trying to figure out what to say in response. The baby pushes against my ribs a little more, gentle almost. I can’t look the doctor in the eye, as he’s standing in front of where I’m sitting and is too tall. Plus his eyes are just pitying me, and I can’t handle that. I cough again.
“Um,” I finally say. “Okay… What now?”
I feel dumb, completely lost and looking around this hospital like there will be a map on the wall with a tour guide on how to deal with your sister trying to–.
I exhale, wait for my heart to calm down. It doesn't.
I watch down the hall as a nurse moves someone else to room 413, where Rose is resting but isn’t allowed to sleep. “Well,” Dr. Moore says, “Ms. Milson shouldn’t be left alone for now. It’ll be in her best interest if she stays with you or someone you can trust to watch after her. Unfortunately, second attempts are often more fatal than the first. She’ll need to be under supervision, and it’ll also be beneficial if she starts participating in therapy. Our in-house psychiatrist– who you can talk to later, of course– agrees that she’ll be able to leave tomorrow morning.”
“Shouldn’t–” I stop myself, unsure of what’s appropriate to ask. There’s a thousand questions bubbling on my tongue, but I don’t know if the doctor can even answer any of them. Rose completely shut off from those first few seconds of interaction, refusing to look at me, laying on her side with her bandage facing up and the tattoo on her back still glimpsing through.
“Ms. Milson has refused any sort of psychiatric assistance past what is mandatory,” Dr. Moore says, looking down at the folder in his hand. He scratches his full beard with one hand, examining the folder with more intent than seems necessary. “We can’t make her do anything further. Ms. Milson told us you were the only person to contact. You are her sister, so we can see if there’s a way to try and com–”
“No, no,” I say, shaking my head. I don’t want to know the rest of that sentence. I just want to get out of this freezing hospital. I want to go home and be warm, for this day to be over. I have to remember to tell Kris that I want to reconsider a home birth. This place is just awful. “I’ll take her home with me.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
We leave the next morning at 8 a.m. Dr. Moore gives some half-hearted well-wishes to the both of us, but he focuses more on me and my stomach. It’s weird, and then I awkwardly have to follow a nurse who pushes Rose out of the hospital and to my car in a wheelchair.
Rose sleeps the entire four hour and thirty minute drive to Oyster, Virginia, with her back turned to me and the passenger seat reclined. I don’t wake her up at any point, too scared of how she would react. I stop five times to pee, and every time I shuffle back to the car, I worry if she’s still in there. She is.
Oyster is a nice city right behind the coast. It has a small town feel and a salt smell that clings in the air, the weather is warm and gentle against my skin. Kris and I moved here three years ago, one year after we were married. It was the perfect location for Kris’s job, so she wouldn’t have to drive too far out to make it to her commercial fishing job, but small enough for my taste. It was nice, knowing she was never too far away when she wasn’t out at sea. It was comforting. She wouldn’t be home for another five days though.
When I pull into the driveway, I smile at our little house that sits on the beach, buried in the sand with patches of grass surrounding it. It was a stroke of luck, a house we inherited from one of Kris’s elderly great-aunts who never had kids of her own.
I realize very suddenly how close I live to the water. I look at Rose in a panic, her back facing me. She’s wearing a gray sweater and I can no longer see the seashell tattoo, but I know it’s there, and I can imagine it brighter than I know it is now. It only reminds me of why this is even happening.
Rose is still sleeping, breathing heavy and hard as her shoulder lifts and falls in time. She’s never been to my house or even my state. Kris and I got married in her family’s church in Kentucky, and I never got around to inviting Rose down. We barely spoke for no reason other than forgetfulness. I haven’t seen her in over a year.
I don’t have to wake her up, thankfully, because Rose rouses on her own, her body shifting and slowly pushing itself up into a sitting position. Her back still to me, I watch her look out the passenger window. Her reflection is obscured, but she’s squinting, looking at the little line of houses that follow down the beach. Ms. Winona, my neighbor, is on her porch, rocking in a chair and knitting. Rose watches her for a few beats, and I watch Rose watch Ms. Winona.
“Where are we?” she croaks eventually, turning her head to look out the front window, at my little house that’s painted a warm yellow with a wrap-around porch. Kris has a succulent garden on the left side of the porch, and the right side only has a few chairs and a card table. I’m embarrassed at how sloppy it really looks.
“My house,” I say. “This is my house.”
Rose blinks for a long, long beat. Like she’s trying to take in the image of a little yellow house on the beach that her younger sister lives in with her wife. The baby beats at my ribs again. Then, in an exhale, she says, “I thought you hated the beach.”
I don’t know what I thought she would say, but that isn’t it. I shake my head, staring out at a house I fell in love with the minute Kris showed me pictures of it, still young and looking for somewhere to settle. When I told Kris I wanted a baby, we stood on the sand right behind it, right where the water would come up and brush our feet. I swam almost every day until my stomach started to weigh me down. I had always been a good swimmer. “What? I say. “Why?”
“You,” Rose pauses. She breathes again, preparing herself before she turns her head to look at me. It feels like the first time she’s looked at me since I walked into room 413. Her eyes are brown like mine, hair blonde like mine, but her face is completely different. It’s like staring in a mirror at the fair, one that’s distorted my face to be someone else. “You didn’t want to go. To the beach. When we were little.”
I stare at the five stitches on the side of her temple, holding patches of skin together with little blue lines. It’s small, but it’s louder than the bandage had been.
She continues, “Mom and Dad wanted to go on vacation one year, and we got to choose between Kitty Hawk Beach or camping in the Smokies. You cried about going to the beach and threw this big fit. You didn’t even want to consider it. It was a big deal.”
I remember that, hazily. Crying to my mother about never wanting to go, begging my father to go camping instead. I accidentally peed myself on that camping trip, so I hated camping now. But I don’t think I ever hated the beach.
“Oh,” is all I can say.
Rose was clear right away that she had nowhere in Annapolis to stay. Her apartment’s lease had ended the day before, she didn’t have anyone to stay with, and she had thrown all of her things in the Chesapeake Bay. She had nothing and nowhere to go.
She said all of these things stiffly and efficiently, and when I told her that that meant she had to come stay with me, she said a curt, “Fine.” I can’t tell if she regrets it or plans to run away. She’s 29, so running away isn’t really a term to use, but I still feel the need to watch her as she walks around the house, looking at the pictures hanging on the walls and the fairy lights Kris has put up in every room.
I’m not supposed to leave her alone, anyways. She’s not allowed to wander off or sleep alone or be by herself at all. It sounds intrusive, and I don’t know how it’ll work with just me. Kris is gone for another five days and I feel overwhelmed at the thought, my hand trying to soothe the kicks that have become more frequent since we left the hospital.
Eventually, Rose finds the nursery. It’s mostly done. The walls were painted a month ago, a gentle orange with dark green vines etched randomly down the walls to make it feel like spring. It’s a warm room. Kris and I have focused on making the energy nice and gentle for the baby, with soft carpet on the floor and white curtains hanging on the windows. When Rose steps inside, I almost reach out to stop her. The baby kicks my ribs again.
She doesn’t say anything, running her hand across the white crib and the matching changing table. She has one arm wrapped around her flat abdomen, holding herself. She doesn’t say anything.
“Rose,” I say, finally feeling a dump of sadness into my body, like every emotion of shock and horror from yesterday morning finally broke the dam. Seeing Rose in my future baby’s room makes me picture her standing on the rail of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, looking over the water early in the day, when the sun hadn’t even started to rise yet. I haven’t had morning sickness in the past two months, but the feeling comes over me all of the sudden. I hold it off, looking at Rose with tears springing to my eyes. “What happened?”
She freezes, hand still on the wicker rocking chair in the nook of the room, looking out a window that face the shore. I can’t see her face, I don’t know what she’s thinking. I don’t even know if she’s mad, or about to cry, or maybe even guilty. I have no idea who she is, and I am the small one this time, quivering in the doorway with my hands on my stomach. “Please Rose,” I say. “Just tell me. We can figure this out.”
Her hand falls to her side. She doesn’t look at me, eyes fixed on the ocean. The water pushes in, falls out. Again, again. I think about her smile like a hammock from when we were young, always about to tumble over.
“Nothing happened.” It sounds like a lie. It feels like the truth. She doesn’t look at me.
“Hey babe, sorry to call.”
“That’s okay. Is everything alright?”
There was a point, after the pregnancy test had been two pink lines, that Kris had said, “When are you going to call your sister?” I didn’t know what to tell her then, how it had been months since I had called Rose. How Rose hadn’t called me in months either. How I hadn’t even thought to do it. I don’t remember what I said, but I didn’t call Rose. Kris didn’t bring it up either.
“Everything’s fine. Rose is visiting.”
“Whoa, what? That’s rad! Does she like the house? How is she?”
I don’t know what to tell her.
I start craving tomatoes, a regularity at this point in the pregnancy, and start to make Rose and myself BLTs. She’s been sitting in the living room, flipping through a magazine I had sitting on the table, staring with a voidless gaze at each of the glossy pages. She hasn’t spoken since she walked past me, out of the nursery and into the living room to lay down on the couch. I tried a little harder to prod her into talking, but she turned her back to me, laying down with her stitches facing up.
Once the bacon is done, I set both our plates on the table. Worry sets in as I remember how little I know about my own sister. What if she hates BLTs? Or doesn’t eat meat? I feel like an idiot, calling out, “Lunch is ready, Rose.”
I actually don’t expect her, but when she shuffles in looking annoyed and tired, a sense of relief washes over my body. I try to smile at her, but she doesn’t look at me. She stares at the sandwich on the plate in front of the empty chair in front of her. She’s quiet, staring at her plate and that’s when it hits me.
“Oh, right! Mayonnaise! You,” I stand up suddenly, my stomach hitting the edge of the table and jostling the plates and cups sitting on it. I ignore it. “Right, you like mayonnaise on you BLT. Right, right.” I waddle over to the fridge and I can feel Rose staring at me. I don’t know what made me remember it, but I could just picture a young Rose dipping a butter knife into a jar of mayo and smiling wide, spreading the condiment onto the pieces of her bread for her sandwich. That’s Rose. Rose is a person who likes mayonnaise on her BLTs.
She sits down while I grab a jar from the fridge and a spoon from the drawer. I put them in front of her, feeling rejuvenated from the memory, like I finally know this stranger in my home past a day’s worth of events.
Rose doesn’t seem as thrilled as I am at the simple memory, but she also seems more relaxed. She doesn’t smile wide when she dips the spoon into the jar, but her shoulders aren’t so rigged anymore. Baby steps.
I take a bite of my sandwich, relishing in the cold, slippery feel of the tomato on my tongue, quietly trying to regain some focus on the situation. My sister is hurting, and it’s my job to help her. I can do this. I can help Rose.
I clear my throat after my third bite. I plan to say something, I’m not sure what it is, but Rose beats me to it.
“Did you tell mom or dad?” The question throws me. I realize all at once that I hadn’t even thought about calling them. I don’t speak to our parents anymore, more than I haven’t spoken to Rose. I don’t speak to them with a purpose, whereas Rose is an accident. I should have called her in the past few months, but I guess I should have called them when I got to the hospital. I shake my head.
“No, I haven’t,” I say. “I don’t talk to them anymore, not since the stunt they tried to pull at the wedding. Do you want me to call them?”
Rose shakes her head. “No reason to.”
“Well, I mean,” I say. I stop. Rose doesn’t look at me, but her shoulders go tense again, her movements slow and careful. “Rose,” I say, more quiet, careful. “Is this about them? Like, the divorce, the wedding, everything that happened?”
Rose openly rolls her eyes, a sweeping gesture that stings me. “That was years ago, don’t be dumb. Besides, they’re assholes. I haven’t talked to them since your wedding either, and I really don’t want to.” She huffs, slapping her sandwich back together from so meticulously covering it in mayo. “I just don’t think there’s any point in trying to pull them into– whatever. Okay?”
I finish off my first sandwich and start on the second one I had prepared for myself. It’s not as good as the first, but that’s expected. I think a little harder.
“Was it,” I start, and Rose’s eyes snap up to my face, cold. I barrel through the freeze, still trying. “Was it about work? What happened with that marketing job?”
Rose looks down at her sandwich. “It was fine. I stopped liking it a few months ago and quit. It was nothing. It happens. It has nothing to do with it. Okay?”
My second sandwich is cold, which is probably why it isn’t as good. Rose is much tenser and the baby is kicking at my ribs again.
“Last time we talked,” I start, and now Rose looks bored, still trying to glare but like she can’t manage it anymore, “you were dating a guy named, uh, Evan?”
“We literally broke up a month later. Which means it’s been almost a year since that happened. I’ve dated other people, I’ve been single, all of that. I’ve had a life and so have you.” Her eyes dart down to my stomach, a brief look that sends a chill of guilt over my skin. “It’s nothing, Ronnie. Okay?”
My sandwiches are gone and I try to keep a momentum so she can’t get annoyed when I interrupt the nothing around us. “Kris is out on a fishing job right now,” I tell her. She seems to exhale at that, a little bit of small talk to make her shoulders slope as she takes another bite of her sandwich. She’s almost done and I didn’t even think to ask if she wanted a second sandwich. “She’ll be back Thursday.”
“That’s cool,” Rose says, voice dry as she takes the last bite of her sandwich, the piece a little too big to go down quickly.
“Mhm, yeah, Kris is cool.” I feel the ground between us as Rose chews through the last bite slowly. “You know, when Kris was in college, she was assaulted. You can always–”
“Oh my fucking god,” Rose says, coughing. She stands up, not even looking at me as she grabs her empty plate off the table and storms over to the kitchen. “Christ, Ronnie. I wasn’t fucking raped, if that’s what you’re trying to get at.”
“Well,” I start, trying to stand up again, but my fucking stomach gets in the way and jostles the table again. “I don’t– fuck, I don’t know what you want me to say, Rose! What am I supposed to–” I finally manage to get up, putting my hands on my waist and huffing out a breath, looking at Rose who is actually looking at me. She’s taller than me by a good few inches, and I roll my shoulders back to try and feel a little less small. She is the older one, and as aggravated as she is at me, I finally feel like the younger sister. “I get a phone call that my sister has– has– and you just expect me to– what, Rose?” I stop and there’s tears clogging my throat, and I start to regret that second sandwich.
“Ronnie.” The word is sharp and loud. It makes me feel dumb and tiny, like I’m ten to my sister’s 29. My marriage and pregnancy mean nothing in the short span between us as she puts her hands in front of her, clasping them together, begging me. “Nothing happened. I woke up. I moved my last two boxes out of my apartment. I threw my stuff into the bay. I tried to throw myself off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. I didn’t do it. Now I’m here. That’s all. Nothing happened. Please, please, Ronnie. Just stop.”
She exhales, long and hard. We both ignore tears welling in my eyes. The baby kicks at my ribs.
We barely speak the rest of the night. Rose naps on the couch while I clean and read in the chair next to her. I get her a pair of Kris’s sweatpants and one of my old college jackets to wear. She takes a five minute shower where I stand outside the bathroom and try not to make a noise as I cry. After dinner, Ms. Winona calls to ask if everything is okay, who is with me, why I was gone, when Kris will be back. When I start crying, I have to tell her I have a lot of pregnancy weepies, that it’s nothing, everything is fine.
By nine o’clock, I’m tired and annoyed. Anxious sweat covers my body, clings to my skin. I can’t bring myself to take a bath, unsure of where Rose would go if I left her alone too long. I pull on a nightgown and walk into the living room, back aching and feet swollen.
“I need to go to bed,” I say, trying to sound matter-of-factly. My voice wavers, because of course it does. The baby kicks at my ribs and that’s already starting to get really annoying and painful. I pat my stomach to try and calm down.
Rose looks up at me from where she’s still staring at the same magazine. I don’t ask her about it or point out other books we own. She nods her head. “Okay, that’s cool. Can I get a blanket and pillow for out here?”
I shake my head, already feeling the headache that’s going to come from this conversation. “You’re not allowed to be alone and I can’t sleep on the couch. You’ll have to sleep in my and Kris’s room.”
Rose sits up, glaring. She’s pulled the hood of the jacket up over her head and her brown eyes are sharp on me. “You’re joking.”
“Nope.” I pop the ‘p,’ trying to feel more in charge than I actually am. Rose could very easily storm out, and the most I could do would be to call the cops and ask them to look for her. But then they would ask me questions like where she might go and what she likes to do, and I would have to tell them I have no idea. “You can sleep in the bed. It’s big. We won’t bother each other. Come on.” I nod my head and move my body in a way that implies I’m about to just go ahead and walk to the room so that she’ll have to follow me, but I’m too scared to actually leave.
“Ronnie, I’m not–”
“Rose,” I try to say her name the way she said mine earlier. I try to be particular in my syllables and not feel like I’m about to cry again. I put my hands on my lower back, going for the entirety of the defenseless pregnant woman look. “I am five months pregnant and I have drove more than eight hours in about one day. I slept in a hospital bed last night. My back hurts, my feet are swollen. I don’t want to fight about this. Please, just come on.” I try to widen my eyes and look helpless, but seeing Rose sitting on my couch in mine and my wife’s clothes while reading my magazine in my house has made me more angry than sorry.
She pauses, briefly looking like she’s going to go ahead and fight me on it anyways, but I take one hand and place it on the top of my stomach, holding the pose properly. She deflates, standing up reluctantly and walking towards me like petulant child. I smirk, patting my stomach. The baby kicks me again, just to remind me who’s who in this situation.
On the phone, Kris had asked, “What happened? When was the last time you spoke to her?” and I was ashamed to tell her how long it had really been. Kris knew, deep down, that almost a year had went by since I called Rose to chat.
It was always me though, picking up the phone and dialing Rose’s number. It would have been nice if she had done it once, if she had wanted to talk to me. If my phone had rang and the caller ID said Rose, I would have answered. I would have picked up. But she didn’t, and then I didn’t. I forgot to call.
It was an accident.
The setup was simple. I laid on my side of the bed, the right side, on my back. Kris was convinced sleeping on my back was bad for both of us, the baby and I, but when she was gone I indulged. It felt a little better, like the weight finally evened out.
Rose slept on the left side, her back facing me, the hood of the jacket up, her body curled into itself. She didn’t speak a word. I didn’t either, to be fair.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Rose as a child. I knew Rose when we were young. Rose was shy, but active. She played some sports in middle school and did yearbook committee her junior year of high school. She could never stick to one thing for too long. She had friends she hung out with and saw on some weekends. We use to ride our bikes to the park and play on the swings until dinner. We got along, for the most part. We knew each other, like sisters did.
She was someone else now. A year without talking and she was a back to me, a faded tattoo under a jacket. Geography had distanced us at first, Rose going to college in Ohio to study marketing and rarely coming back home. I stayed in Kentucky until I met Kris. We moved to Virginia after I graduated college. Rose came to our wedding. She fought off our parents when they told her they were going to stand up during the ceremony, divorced and all, and start reading Leviticus. I thought I really knew her, I thought we were, at least a little, close. But then I kept forgetting to call her, and maybe she kept forgetting to call me too. Maybe we had somehow forgotten each other.
“I used to think you were a mermaid,” I whisper. I don’t know if the words get to her, if she’s even awake. I say it though, because the words have been lost in my mouth and I need to breathe.
Rose is still. She doesn’t breathe.
“When we were little,” I continue. “I used to really think you were actually a mermaid. Like, you were older than me, so I thought maybe mom and dad had found you and brought you home, and one day you want to go back and keep being a mermaid.”
Rose is still. She breathes, a quiet, “What?”
“Yup,” I say, tears already pooling in my eyes. “I really thought that.”
“Why?” Her voice is still breathy, the word coming out short. She keeps her back to me.
I let the quiet sit between us, trying to put the memory into real words, trying to remember it enough to express it fully.
“That time we were little in the woods,” I start, and that’s not right. That’s not a good way to tell it. “It was raining, had been raining all summer, and I found you in the woods behind our house. You were sitting on the ground. I guess you had been crying, but I didn’t know it then. I asked you what was wrong, and you said you wanted to live at the bottom of the ocean. That it would make you happy.” I turn my head to her, her back still all I can see. She is still and I am crying. “So I thought, you know, you were actually a mermaid.”
A noise escapes Rose, so sudden and sharp like a bullet from a gun, like maybe she wanted to laugh, but then her shoulders are shaking and it’s so clear that she’s crying too, that she’s sobbing.
“Is that it, Rose?” I ask. “Is that it?”
She sits up on the bed, curling into herself, sobbing into her knees. Her breathing is ragged, hacking pieces as she tries to pull in each breath, sounding so, so tired. I sit up, reach out, but I don’t touch her. I wait.
“I,” she starts to say, but she cries again, shaking. “I can’t do this, Ronnie,” I hear her muffled words pressed into the sweatpants. “This wasn’t the plan.” She’s rocking, back and forth as she shakes and sobs and speaks. “I wasn’t supposed to be here. You weren’t supposed to be pregnant. It was just gonna happen, everything was going to be okay.”
It takes a few minutes, maybe hours. I wait for her, for the sobs to calm down to make room for her words, for the sentences to be less choppy and to make more sense. “I’ve been like this for so long, Ronnie,” she finally says. “I kept putting it off, you know? I always thought I would be dead by now. I thought I would die and I just kept waiting for it. I didn’t plan for anything, for this life I fucking live. It’s been like this for so long.” She scrubs her palms against her face, gripping at the blonde hair under the hood. I finally let my hand rest on her shoulder. She takes one hand and places it on top of mine, gripping my fingers. Shaking.
“I quit my job, I stopped talking to my friends, I stopped paying my bills. Hell, I never even tried to call you.” She swallows, her grip getting tighter. “And it just wasn’t getting better. It was always bad, and the next thing I knew my lease was up and I was out of money. I had been selling my stuff for months, furniture and books. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I felt fucking terrible, and I just realized I never felt good.” She lifts her head up, finally, salt streaks down her cheeks and staring at the ceiling like it’s done all the bad things. “I just thought about it so much when I was little, about living in the ocean, at the bottom. I wanted to just lay there and everything was going to be okay. And that’s what I wanted. To just fucking–Oh my god, Ronnie–” She chokes again, and I feel my heart beating at my entire chest, my throat sore with my own tears.
Finally, she says, “I tried to kill myself.”
I pull at her shoulder, force her into me. It’s hard and weird with my stomach, but I pull her into me and let her cry on my shoulder and hug her close. I let her sob loudly, and I try to cry with her more than for her.
“You’re okay, Rose,” I say. “You’re going to be okay.”
Kris smells like the roughest parts of the water when she gets home on Thursday. I kiss her and ignore the extra added smell of fish guts and sweat that surround her, happy to just have her home. The baby whacks at my ribs again.
“He’s a kicker, that’s for sure,” I tell her, placing her hand right against my ribs. “Hurts like hell. We should sign him up for kickboxing.
“Ha!” Kris is bright eyed, happy green eyes and short brown hair she’s pushed out of her face. She kisses me again as she feels the little kicks to my ribs. “Sounds good. We’ll have a little tough guy, ain’t that right, Sammy?” She looks at me carefully, using the name with a slight smirk to her lips. I roll my eyes and put my hand on top of hers.
“Say it as much as you want, but I still don’t know if he’s a Samuel,” I say, leaning over to kiss her cheek before walking out of the doorway and to the kitchen, where six BLTs wait. Three of them are for me.
“I think it’s a good name!” Kris whines, following me into the kitchen and looking around. “Hey, uh, where’s Rose?”
I turn around and look outside, out at the sand where Rose stands, facing the shore, but far enough back that the water doesn’t even come close to her. She’s wearing her own clothes, a pair of yoga pants and plain blue sweatshirt I bought her on Sunday. She needs more clothes than that, but that’s something we’re going to work on. I look back at Kris.
“She’s out there,” I say. “I’ll go get her.”
Kris gives a small smile and nods, going to sit down and grab a sandwich. I look at her pointedly.
“Three of those are mine, so don’t get the wrong idea.”
Kris laughs as I open and close the glass door with a gentle thup. I walk down the wooden steps of our porch and the few feet it takes to get to Rose. The winds blows past both of us, pushing our hair off our shoulders. Rose stands completely still when I put my hand on her shoulder. She leans into the touch, but doesn’t look at me.
“Kris is home,” I tell her. “And I made us some BLTs for lunch.”
She nods her head. A quiet, “Okay,” but she doesn’t look away from the water, the pulsating tides as they go towards and away from us.
The moment is slightly tense, but I wait. I keep my hand on her shoulder, and give the ocean a few seconds before I ask, “How are you feeling?”
Everything we say has pauses and beats to it, considering words and syllables and being careful with each other.
She says, “Better.” She nods her head and looks at me. Rose still looks tired and thin, but she smiles a little when she looks at me. I smile at her and squeeze her shoulder. “I’m feeling better,” she says.
It’s a mantra, a mindset she’s been trying to get herself into since she started therapy on Tuesday. It’s not untrue, but it’s not ready to be honesty yet. It’s quiet words that comfort us both, even with the water so close. There are parts of Rose that aren’t better, and I don’t know how long it’ll take to fix them. If fix is even the right word.
But I squeeze her shoulder and nod my head. I smile at her and I say, “Good. Now, let’s go eat lunch. We have to go get your stitches out after, but let’s just go eat right now.”
Rose takes one last look at the ocean, the waves and the white foam on the blue water. She lets the tide run away before she turns around, arms still crossed. I watch her as she does, and we walk up the beach to my little yellow house, where Kris is eating a sandwich, where a nursery sits in wait. I reach my hand out and grab Rose’s elbow, just to let her know I’m still there. The baby kicks my ribs.