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episode six - being powerless part four
My room, a night not too long ago, Olivia still sitting on my bed, me still in that bed, still a little dumbfounded by her being there, a little confused as to what she wanted, Olivia hardly looking at me, still looking around my room, and hardly saying anything.
"Why couldn't you just believe him, Trav? Why couldn't you have just believed him? Things would have been better for you."
"It's not that easy," I told her. "I wish it could have been."
My room, a different night, long before, my father standing by my door, on his way out, having just tucked me in, me snug in my bed, weary and sad, ready to fall fast asleep.
"It's for the best, Travis. That place will give your mother the chance to get better. In no time at all, she'll be back here, making you breakfast just like she used to, singing in her garden on Saturday mornings, laughing her beautiful laugh when you tell her about your playdate with Haley Manning. You'll see."
I believed him. I believed my father, when he told me my mother would be back, that Cedar Cliff would not be her home forever. But, he'd been wrong.
I'd believed him cause he was my father. And, even now, after so many years, my mother still at Cedar Cliff, I believe him. Maybe it won't be as soon as he said, but she WILL be back. He said it to me, so it's gotta be true.
But, I had no reason to believe anything Enoch said.
The old church, three years ago, Kyle DeMetz, Haley Manning, Olivia and Jaimie Cross, Josh Doyle, Barbara McMasters, my cousin Charlie Dennis, and me, sitting in the few pews that were still not only there but also intact, Enoch, that stranger who seemed strangely familiar and safe, at the pulpit, speaking, spinning us a yarn.
"Imagine, if you will, a child. A little girl. Her name's Laurie. She's got red hair, fiery red hair just like her mother and her mother's mother. She's got freckles, not just on her nose, but on her cheeks, and even on her shoulders, dozens of em, hundreds of em. She's one of those little girls that's cute as a button. She's six. And, her daddy's dying. He's got the cancer. That's how she always says it. It's not cancer. It's 'the cancer.' She doesn't think of it as a disease. She knows what diseases are, of course, but she doesn't think of this as one. To her, it's like that monster that used to be under her bed, that monster her daddy chased away so many times with that beautiful chant.
"'To the monster under Laurie's bed,' he'd say. 'She does not want you, not under her bed, not in her closet instead, and definitely not inside her head.' Laurie always laughed at that line. She believed the monster was real, believed it with all her heart, believed that only her daddy could chase it away, but still that line always pulled her from serious and scared right up to bright and amused. And, her daddy would smile at her. Sometimes, he'd even wink. I know you love that line, that wink would say. I know you love that line, and I know you love me, and I love you too.
"'To the monster down there on the floor,' he'd say. 'Get out of there, get out the door, don't even think of coming back for more.' Laurie would lean over the side of the bed then, looking to see that horrible monster scuttling away. But, it wouldn't come when she was looking right at it. She knew that. Her daddy told her that every night. Don't look right at the monster, or it will never go away. But, she'd try to see it anyway. Her daddy would sometimes just smile at this, but from time to time he'd shake his head.
"'To the monster down there in the dark,' he'd say. 'My girl doesn't want you, and don't you bark.' Her daddy would pause here, letting the rhyme have its place, before continuing. 'Or complain,' he'd finish, 'cause, you won't get any listeners here.'
"'To the monster under Laurie's bed, she doesn't want you, not under her bed, not in her closet instead, and definitely not inside her head, now get out, get out, or we'll bring a bigger monster to make you dead.' Laurie had made that last line herself. Her daddy hadn't liked it at first, didn't like that she thought that monster was so big and mean and scary that it should be dead, but he'd used the line anyway.
"The few times her mommy takes her to the hospital to see her daddy as he gets worse and worse, when he still seems like he can hear her there, when he still smiles at the sight of her, Laurie says that speech. Mostly, she mutters it under her breath, but often just loud enough that daddy can hear it. And, her ending is different, appropriate to the cancer. 'To the cancer in daddy's head,' she'd say, 'he doesn't want you, not under his bed, not in his closet instead, and definitely not inside his head.' If she isn't crying by then, she starts. While her daddy is still aware of things enough to know she's there and talking, he tries to squeeze her hand if he can, or to smile if he can, or just to give her a look that tells her he loves her, that he'll always be there for her. 'Now get out, get out, or we'll bring a bigger monster to make you dead,' Laurie finishes. She doesn't always say 'bigger monster.' Sometimes, she says 'bigger doctor.'
"But, no bigger monster comes. No bigger doctor. The cancer gets worse. And, Laurie's daddy's still dying. Her mother tries to come up with excuses not to take Laurie to see him. She tries to say she's too busy, that there are other things Laurie ought to be doing. Sometimes, well twice, she just comes right out and tells Laurie that daddy's too sick, that seeing him is too hard, that it makes her too sad. And, Laurie understands that. Oh, how well she understands that.
"Every night, Laurie prays. She prays that daddy will be alright, that daddy will get better, that some bigger monster WILL come and make the cancer dead. And, she prays that mommy won't be so sad in the morning, that she won't have tears in her eyes when she drops Laurie off at school. And, Laurie prays that it won't be so hard anymore, not just for daddy and for mommy, but also for herself.
"But, God doesn't make daddy alright. God doesn't make a bigger monster make the cancer dead. And, mommy's still sad, and mommy still has tears in her eyes. And, it's still hard.
"But, there's an angel that listens to her closely one night. His name's Enoch. He sees this little girl with the freckles and the fiery red hair, crying on her knees by her bed at night, and he knows that as she finishes her sad little prayer that she doesn't want to get up off the floor, that she thinks of that monster that no longer comes around because of her daddy's chant. Enoch knows that Laurie wishes the monster would be back. Surely, daddy would have to get better. He'd get better and he'd come right home to get that monster out from under his little girl's bed. He'd have to. Right?
"Laurie knows that daddy would never let anyone hurt her. Daddy would never let any monster get her, not even the cancer. If she had the cancer in her head, she wouldn't need any doctors or any machines or operations. Her daddy would just make up another chant, with a wink here or a nod there, a smile, maybe a laugh, and the cancer would scuttle away while her back was turned, just like that monster under her bed. She wishes for her daddy's daddy. Surely, he'd have some chant to make the cancer run away.
"But, she never knew her daddy's daddy. That's what she says in her prayer one night that Enoch's listening. 'Daddy's daddy was gone before I was born,' she says. 'But, can't you maybe bring him back, just for a day, just for a minute? Daddy needs him.' She cries. She doesn't finish that prayer. And, Enoch can tell that just makes her feel worse. How can the prayer work, if she doesn't finish it right? How can God even hear it if she doesn't say 'amen?' But, it hurts to keep asking the same thing over and over. It hurts a lot. And, she cries and cries.
"'I can make it stop hurting,' Enoch whispers in her ear. 'I can take daddy's pain away.'
"Laurie looks around. At first, she doesn't see Enoch there beside her. No one ever does. It takes some focusing usually. She's only six, so all it takes is one rubbing of her eyes, a clearing of some tears. And, then she sees him. She doesn't see any wings on him, and he's wearing a suit that looks kinda dirty, but she knows what he is. She's young, she still believes without any doubts. She knows he's an angel. 'You can make daddy better,' she asks.
"Enoch nearly cries himself when she asks that. He knows he can't heal her father. He's not allowed to make such big decisions himself. He can't make the cancer run away. He can't make it dead. He's no bigger monster. He's just an angel. But, there is something he can do. He just hopes this little girl with the fiery read hair can understand that it's all he can do.
"He shakes his head, and Laurie starts to cry again.
"'I can't make it go away,' he tells her. 'I wish that I could.' Laurie cries harder, and Enoch looks toward God, tries to think of some way to convince him this one deserves a miracle, that this little girl deserves her daddy a lot longer. But, it's not that easy. It's never that easy. Too many people sick or injured, too many people dying. They can't all have miracles, or the world would fill up with people in no time. The whole place would just be people squeezed together with people. Nothing would work right. But, Enoch wishes that maybe this could be one of the special ones, that this little girl could have her miracle.
"'Mommy wishes he'd die,' Laurie says, sobbing so hard that most people couldn't understand the words. But, Enoch understands. 'She says all he does is hurt. She says he'd be better off in Heaven.' She stops crying rather abruptly, she looks Enoch in the eye. 'Can you take him to Heaven,' she asks. Enoch smiles. That--he can do.
"The next evening, mommy takes Laurie to see her father in the hospital. Enoch is there waiting. Laurie doesn't even notice that mommy can't see him. She just looks at him herself, smiles, then goes to her daddy, reaches out and holds his hand. 'I got you something better than some bigger monster,' she says to him. 'I got you an angel, daddy, and he's gonna take you to Heaven.'
"It's then that Laurie climbs up onto the chair by her daddy's bed, leans over and kisses her daddy's cheek. Then, she whispers in his ear 'you go be with YOUR daddy now. I'm sure he misses you.'
"Less than a minute later, she watches as her daddy gets up from out of his bed, up from out of his body, and leaves with Enoch. He doesn't look back at her, he doesn't wave goodbye, though Enoch does glance back for just a second. Laurie tries to smile, tries to let him know she's thankful, but it's hard. Her mommy hugs her, crying, shaking. A nurse comes into the room. Then another. Someone tells her that daddy's dead, but Laurie already knows. He's gone to Heaven."
Enoch finished his story and I was sure he was looking right at me. Sometime later, Haley would tell me she was sure he was looking right at her. And, I know Olivia thought he was looking right at her as well. Maybe we all thought that. I don't know. For the most part, no one said anything about Enoch or the story he told or who we thought he was looking at as he spoke or as he stopped. For the most part, we never mentioned him.
So, I thought he was looking at me, and I guess I thought he wanted me to say something, to tell him it was a nice story, to thank him or something. But, when I thought of speaking, no words came to mind. I didn't know what to say. I remember looking at Jaimie sitting next to me, and she was crying, and I wanted to tell her everything was ok, it was just a story. But, none of those words came either.
And then, I thought of her father, her daddy. He wasn't around. Wherever he was, he wasn't around. So, maybe it was more than just a story for her. She didn't just have to imagine losing her father like the others there. In a way, I guess I didn't either, since I had for the most part lost my mother, but that just wasn't the same. I'm not sure exactly when I put my arm around Jaimie, but it was around her by the time I looked to see if Olivia too was crying. She was.
This may have taken seconds or minutes or even hours, and yet Enoch just stood at the pulpit in silence. And, no one else spoke, not Kyle, not Haley, not Josh, not Barbara, not Charlie. And, definitely not Olivia or Jaimie. And, not me. There was no sound at all. Like we'd gone deaf or we were in some strange vacuum, or every little thing that could ever make a sound had suddenly lost the ability to do so. Total silence. Not even the rustling of the trees outside in the wind.
Then, as suddenly as that silence had come when Enoch stopped talking, I could hear Jaimie's sobbing. And, after that, I could hear Olivia. And, I could hear the creaking of wood as Kyle shifted his weight on the pew. And, I could hear a bird calling to another outside somewhere. And, I could hear the rustling of the trees in the wind. All the sounds, back as they were, reality dropped back upon us.
Enoch came down from the pulpit, headed down the aisle, and walked out of the church--the front door propped open though I couldn't remember anyone doing that--without saying another word. We all sat there, no one speaking. After a while, Josh stood, looked around and around, even turned full circle like he knew there was something he needed to see but that just wasn't there, then he headed out himself. Barbara got up and followed right after him. Kyle left next. He laughed a little as he did so. Charlie went next, blowing her hair out of her face, glancing briefly at me, then walking out. Haley was staring at the crucifix. I was behind her, but I could still tell that's where her focus was. She tilted her head a little, trying to solve some strange equation in her head, some great mystery, then looked up at the incomplete roof, sighed, and got up. She turned around, and I saw there were fresh tears in her eyes and on her cheeks. She looked so sad, so sad and so beautiful. She looked at me, smiled, rubbed away those tears, then left the church.
Olivia stood next, but she didn't head to the back door. Instead, she headed toward the pulpit, toward that crucifix, that broken stained glass window. Jaimie wiped tears away and leaned forward a little, watching her older sister, wondering like I was what Olivia was doing.
After what must have been several minutes, I took my arm from around Jaimie, grabbed her hand in mine, and she took that as some sort of cue, stood, and we left like we'd come in. Olivia remained behind. And, even looking back now, that doesn't seem strange. None of it really does. I know it should, but it just refuses to.
Later, in Memorial Park again, swinging on the swings again, Jaimie and I were laughing as she told me some more stories about some of her favorite things, some stuff I had no real interest in, but stories that were fun anyway. I wasn't just humoring her. It was like she was my own sister, like when Danni would tell me some story that didn't quite make sense but that still had something to it. There was a specialness to it. It wasn't a chore to listen and enjoy it. It was easy. It was simple.
Olivia arrived in a lull between tales. I'd told Jaimie about Slipper chasing a squirrel halfway up a tree, and she'd told me about this cat she'd had named Stickers getting stuck on the roof of their old house. Olivia sat down on the third swing, Jaimie between us. Jaimie looked over at her, but didn't slow her swinging, didn't say anything. I slowed a little, but I also said nothing. I waited for Olivia to talk, or for Jaimie to talk. I didn't want to go first. Olivia started swinging, and it was several minutes before she said anything.
"You believe in Heaven," she asked, "in God and all that other stuff?"
I did. Or, I thought I did. I still think I do. But, I wasn't sure, not sure enough anyway. But, when you have to answer out loud, sometimes, things come out differently than you mean. What I said was "I don't know." But, the way I said it, the tone and all, it sounded more like not at all.
"Oh," Olivia said. Then, she was quiet for at least another full minute. "That's too bad."
I stopped swinging and looked over at her. She wasn't swinging too fast or too high. Neither was Jaimie. Everything was slow and relaxed. "I wanted to go to Heaven," Olivia said. She turned and looked at me. "That's why I cut my wrists. Well, maybe that's not why. But, that's why I wasn't so scared when I did it. I thought I'd go to Heaven. I really wanted to go there. I was so sure no one could get hurt there. God's right there. He's gotta be able to see what's going on better than he can see things way down here on Earth. No one could get hurt there. No father would ever be able to hurt his little girl."
I didn't understand that as she said it. I thought she was referencing Enoch's story and getting her wording mixed up. It took me a moment to realize she meant herself, that her father had hurt her. Then, it seemed like something so obvious I should have known it long before then. Things I knew about her family leaving and coming back, things I knew about her and Jaimie, things people said about her and Dalton Phillips--they started making sense. Her father had hurt her, and her mother had taken her and her sister away, to keep them safe, to make life better.
But, that wasn't it, was it? I could tell, it was more than that.
"I really thought he couldn't see me," Olivia said. "Like God's nearsighted or something." She laughed at that, like is was her own private joke about God. "I mean, if he was watching, if he watches everyone all the time, he wouldn't have let my dad hurt me, would he?" Only ten years old, and I knew she didn't actually want me to jump in with an answer to that one. She slowed down more, so she was almost not swinging at all, but she didn't put her feet down to stand, just relaxed in the swing, let it hold her up. She put her head down, looking at the sand beneath her. She stayed like that for a while. Then, she spoke again, a whisper I could barely hear.
"Where was my angel?"
Jaimie stopped swinging altogether and got out of her swing, took the few steps to her sister, and reached out to her, not quite able to hug her as she was on the swing, just reaching out to touch her, to do as much as she could to let her know she was there, that she loved her, that she would be her angel if no one else would. Seeing that, I got out of my own swing. I went over to them both. And, just as Olivia leaned forward to hug her little sister, I put my arms around them both. It was strange even as I did it, a gesture I wasn't used to, an action I was doing even though I didn't quite understand it.
After that, we didn't say much. I walked with the two of them to their house, then to my own alone. When Samantha didn't bother to check on me as I arrived, I was sorta glad. I didn't know how to tell her about my day this time. I went to my room and found something or other to occupy me until time for dinner.