24 Feb Roadside
“Roadside”Written by N.M. Brown Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 15 minutes
You know those people who you tell the time of events to fifteen minutes earlier than they start because you know they’ll be late? The people who would be late to their own funerals, as the saying goes. Well…that’s me. Prepare as I might, I can never seem to get anywhere on time. It’s the most frustrating trait ever, but yet it’s absolutely always my fault. It hasn’t always been this way.
Before I had my daughter Brynn almost nine months ago, I was one of those people who took punctuality very seriously; the kind of guy who looked at the traffic flow on his phone and made sure to get gas the day before. I even set my oven clock 5 minutes fast, so there would always be a five-minute advantage. I was prepared for most obstacles.
However, what I couldn’t prepare for was the unpredictability of Brynn. Her needs and moods varied, like all babies do. There was no rhyme or reason to her play. She did what she wanted when she wanted, no matter if it made sense or not. It’s like she was saying, “No, Dad. I will lay here and eat my foot for exactly one minute and twenty-seven seconds. If you attempt to remove it before this time passes, you will be met with total non-cooperation.” Not to mention the crying and flailing of the limbs.
We had a good enough routine before her mother left us about three months ago. I’m ashamed to admit I threw away the outfit our daughter was wearing the day that she left. Over the preceding weeks, she had been donating a lot of her things to Goodwill. Supposedly it was to make more room in our closet; my wife said she was trying to be less materialistic for the new year. It turns out she’d been moving her things to another house.
Newfound parenthood hadn’t been going well for us. I told her to take a night out with her friends while I spent one on one time with Brynn. When I kissed her goodbye that night, I had no idea she’d never be coming back. Since then, the baby and I have just tried to make the best of our situation and establish new routines, for both Brynn and myself.
* * * * * *
These are the thoughts running through my head as I rush to Brynn’s nine-month doctor check-up. We are early for once, set and out the door. Then, naturally, she pokes the nipple through her bottle and pours it all over herself. So we go back in the house, clean her up and repeat the process. It’s 9:19, and her appointment is at 9:30. It will easily take twenty minutes to get there, and that’s with cooperative traffic. I’m not going to super speed or lane weave just to be on time. We will just have to be a little late…again…as usual.
We’re almost there; there are only about five miles left. I start to allow myself to relax my shoulders a little when Brynn starts wailing. Oh, Christ, not again. Not now, I think to myself, figuring she poked through her bottle again. You can’t take a dirty baby to the doctor ever, but mostly not for a check-up. It just doesn’t look right; it isn’t right.
The pitch and repetition of her screaming are making my head feel like a kettle that’s about to boil. Before it reaches its crescendo of shrill whistling, I pull over. If I knew then what I know now, I would have never stopped or would have pulled into the nearest gas station. Anything other than where I choose to stop at.
I pull over and get out of the car and open the door of the back seat. There she is, snotty and red-faced. Her blonde curls are sticking to her face with the sweat of frustration. My little sweetheart, she looks just like her mother when she cries. It makes me sad, but I can’t think about that now. She knew what she was doing when she left us. No sense in keeping her ghost around, especially in my own head.
We pull over next to a little roadside memorial. A slightly worn but still pretty silver and pink cross is placed there with flowers withered by the hands of time and various other trinkets of memory. The name on the cross reads Emily Semple. It looks to be a child’s; that makes me sadder to think about than when I think about my wife. It’s something at least, I thought. A temporary mental vacation into someone else’s Hell to be able to escape my own.
I look her over, and thankfully she hasn’t spilled her bottle. Maybe we still have a chance of being somewhat on time. I hand her the bottle back, wipe her face and kiss her forehead. Thinking if I show her love, it will help calm her down. As if she could read my mind, she throws her bottle, and it bounces off of my forehead and onto the floor. Great.
I haven’t realized how much of a shameful mess my car has become. Napkins, empty bottles, condiment wrappers, baby toys and maybe even a french fry or two litter the seats and floorboards. In my effort to retrieve the bottle, I knocked some things out of my car onto the roadside. The wind starts to blow some of them into the road. So, not wanting to travel too far away from the car I grab what I can and stuff the items back into the backseat on the floor, to be cleaned or forgotten about at a later date.
We make it to the doctor’s office a whopping 20 minutes late. I sheepishly grin and apologize, hoping they can still see her and I don’t have to make another appointment to come back. The front desk ladies’ voices are understanding, but their eyes certainly had not been. Perhaps they softened when they saw me juggling a baby car seat with a very loud pink diaper bag falling off of my shoulder repeatedly as I tried to continue to calm her down. Yes, she was still wailing away.
A nurse with a worn face but kind eyes comes over to us. “Now, now, little lady, what seems to be the matter? That face is too beautiful to be scrunched up screaming like that. Are you hungry? Do you want Daddy to rock you?” She turns her gaze to me with a smile. “Why don’t you take her out, Daddy, and bounce her in your arms a bit? Some babies just hate to be in their car seats any longer than they have to be.”
I smile, thank her and take her advice. Just as I get her out and sit down with her, the door opens. “Michael Hollander and baby Brynn, we are ready to see you now. Come on back to room 4 with the white and yellow clouds.”
I gather up all of our things and head back to the room. Brynn finally settles down and snuggles into my shoulder. Her thumb’s in her mouth, so I knew all was well in Brynn-ville. That’s one of her happy places. ‘Taking the thumb train to Brynn-ville,’ her mom used to say.
Two vaccinations and a few spoons of ice cream later, we pull back in the driveway, ready to recover from the whole ordeal. As I pull her seat out of the car, I notice a little pink elephant with a yellow star on its side. I pick it up and hand it to her as I take her into the house. She coos appreciatively as she grabs onto it.
Hmmm…I don’t remember buying this for her. It probably came from her grandmother’s house. She always dotes on her. Every time she is out and sees something babyish, she always gets it for her. “It was just too cute, and Mimi couldn’t leave it there when Brynn would love it so much!” she says.
Reena, or ‘Mimi,’ as she proclaims herself, is Brynn’s maternal grandmother. Since my wife left us, she’s gone above and beyond to step up and be there. I think it makes her feel better about the whole situation. As if she somehow feels responsible for her daughter’s selfishness and actions.
My mother is long gone, and Reena is such a beautiful part of Brynn’s life. I would never do anything to take that away from either of them. It’s hard to find people you trust to help you. And it’s become so hard to do on my own. I’m so thankful for every second with my baby, but I definitely wasn’t expecting to raise her on my own. That was never the plan.
My phone rings; speaking of, it’s Reena calling. She had told me to call her after the appointment was over, and I had forgotten. I quickly try to think of a somewhat acceptable excuse while I place Brynn in her crib. Coming up with nothing and mentally exhausted, I answered the phone.
“Hello?” I answer. “Hey, Michael, how did the baby girl’s appointment go today? You know how I worry about our princess,” she asked me.
“A couple of shots and some tears. Nothing a little ice cream couldn’t fix. She’s in the 78th percentile for height and 74th for weight, and Doc says she’s doing beautifully,” I replied proudly.
I can hear a subtle sigh of relief from her end of the phone. “Good. I am glad she is doing okay. Do you both have plans for the day?” There’s a hopeful tone in her voice as she asks this.
“No, not really. I’m just going to get some cleaning done and maybe head out to the store later to fill up the freezer.”
She makes a subtle sound of disapproval. “Mike, you can’t take her out running around all over. She just got shots today, and you don’t know how she will handle them. Why don’t you bring her over here for the day? That way, you can do your shopping and clean the house in peace while we have Mimi and Brynn time.”
After the meltdown and outfit changes earlier, Mimi time does sound like a good idea. I would miss her, but I could get so much more done and maybe even take a nap. She will most likely sleep most of the day anyway, as she always does on shot days. I agree and tell her we will be over in about half an hour. That gives me time to feed her lunch, pack her back up and bring her over.
I start up the car, turn the radio up a little, and head down the road. It’s a beautiful day, and for once, I don’t mind driving. It will all be worth it once I come home from Reena’s. Besides, I get to spend the drive fantasizing about the forbidden daytime nap I get to take later.
I stop at what seems to be the hundredth stoplight (even though it was really only the 3rd). Tom Petty’s velvet voice comes across the radio, so I reach down to turn up the volume even more. The light turns green, and I start to accelerate, humming along and excited to get to her grandmother’s house.
Suddenly, I feel a shock powerful enough to move my whole car. A deafening screech of metal on metal grinds in my ears. It feels as though my teeth are broken and cutting my cheeks from the inside. The car flips once, twice, I feel my head bounce off of the steering wheel. All I can think about is my back seat. The car comes to a stop on its hood. My body is burning with white-hot pain. Warm, thin blood runs into my eyes as I try to survey my surroundings and stay awake.
What I initially think are loose teeth are actually broken glass from my window. It cuts the thin tissue of my chapped lips as I spit it through them. I must have gotten hit, possibly T-boned, I started to fear. My head swims, and my eyes become heavy. The dust inside my car starts to float around me in slow motion, and I feel like a computer shutting down one application at a time. I am trying to use all of my senses to help me.
I hear nothing. There is no crying, no screaming. For the first time ever, I am terrified at the sound of her silence. I manage to look back to the one mirror fastened to the backseat that survived the crash. I see my little angel in the back seat upside down, firmly secured in her car seat, motionless. I could fool myself into thinking she’s sleeping if not for her neck bent at an unnatural angle and the blood that coats her entire car seat.
The last thing I see before I lose consciousness is a little, red-haired girl standing on the smoking road in front of my windshield. Her face is dirty and caked with dried blood. She is wearing what I guess must have been at one time a white dress with yellowed daisies on it. Her broken finger points accusingly at me through my broken windshield. The hatred of her gaze is the last thing my mind registers as I begin to fade away…
My eyes shoot open with a startled breath as the phone rings. I strangely find myself at home in my chair. A mixture of relief, disbelief and surrealism washes over me as I take in my current reality. I jolt to a standing position and run to my mirror, examining my head where it hit the steering wheel. There’s nothing, no pain, no bruises or cuts, nothing. Confused but hopeful, I run to Brynn’s room, thankful to see that she’s sleeping peacefully in her crib.
Either I am losing my mind, or that was the most realistic dream I have ever had. I rush to her, not even caring if I wake her. She wakes up and is smiling at me. Her little hand drops something as I lift her up. I look down to see the little pink elephant with the yellow star. I must have fallen asleep after her appointment today.
The phone rings again and startles me. My heart springs to life, thinking it might be my wife. Maybe her mom is calling to check on her, to say that she misses us. My heart springs to life in hopes that she was calling to tell me that she’d lost her mind and wants to come back.
I look at my phone and sadly realize that it’s Reena. I don’t answer and let it go to voicemail. I am still shaken up from that…experience…and need to pull myself together. There is no way she won’t hear it in my voice and ask questions; I will call her later.
My phone then buzzes with a text message. It’s Reena, not wanting to take silence for an answer, and it says: Hey, Michael, just calling to check on Brynn’s doctor’s appointment today. If you don’t have anything going on, please bring her over. I would love to spend the day with her. Talk to you soon.
Well, I’m definitely not going to be driving anywhere after what happened earlier. It will be a miracle if I don’t see that image every time I close my eyes for the next five years. I’m not about to turn a foreboding dream into a reality. So, I decided that Brynn and I will have a much-needed lazy day. I turn on some Netflix for me and my kiddo. I pop some popcorn for myself and sit down next to her on the couch.
I let her snuggle into me, and we settle in like that for a little while. Halfway through devouring my popcorn bowl, she starts to eye it. She would look from me to the bowl and then back again. I withdraw it from her reach and tell her no softly. She lets out an irritated grunt and furrows her brow; once again looking towards my bowl. Smiling at her spunk and at this point, just thankful to have her breathing and alive, I let her have a piece.
I walk to the bathroom, satisfied that she’s at peace in one spot for once. I’m only in there for one minute…two at most. The living room is silent, and my sweet Brynn is on the floor, looking under the couch with her butt in the air.
I wait back a moment to see what she is doing, figuring she will pull some lost ‘treasure’ out of there and try to eat it. But much to my horror, she doesn’t move. My heart drops as the air around me dissipates. I walk over to her as I call out to her. “You spilled Dada’s popcorn, monkey butt. Did you find something good under there?”
She doesn’t respond, doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe.
My heart drops as I rush to her. I pick her up and roll her over as fast as I can without hurting her. She flops over onto her back like a limp doll, and her face is blue. I look over to the tipped-over popcorn bowl, devastated at how stupid I was. I try everything I’ve ever read about babies and choking. I turn her upside down and hit her back. I try to put my fingers down her throat to remove the obstruction. There is nothing…nothing that I can do. It’s just me, her lifeless body and the pink elephant at her feet. Tears sting my eyes as regret stabs my heart with a barbed blade.
I moan and scream in agony as I struggle with my cell phone to call 911. My head spins as I start to lose my breath. I look out of my window, and again, I see the little girl wearing the dress with daisies. Outside and down the street, staring in the direction of my house. Things tilt sideways as the ground rushes up to meet me. I fade away…
I wake up again to my phone ringing, and once again, I let it go to voicemail. My heart is beating so fast that I can hardly catch my breath. I am very much still in the situation my mind was just put in. No surprise, it’s Reena again. Or…maybe for the first time? I’m not even sure at this point, honestly. I can’t think straight.
I have seen things no parent should ever have to see. The baby that I’ve fought through so much heartache to stay strong for is taken from me again and again. Who is that little girl in the dress? Why is this happening to us?
Once again I rush to Brynn’s room. I’m all too pleased to see that she is there sleeping, holding the pink elephant in her hand. I take it away and set it off to the side. She wakes up, her sleepy eyes sparkling, and smiles at me. I bend down, reaching out to touch her as she reaches her hand up to me, slowly falling back to sleep.
I let the Hell we’ve been stuck in this week to melt away, soaking up her smile. Whatever is going on, whatever Hell I was stuck in right now, we were here. Right now, we are very much alive and okay. Today we won’t do anything. There will be no car trips, no popcorn, no toys in her crib, no anything that can hurt my little girl. It’s my only job in life to protect her, and I’ll die trying.
The same text message appears from Reena as before, and I decide to call her back. I try to sound as calm as I can, mentioning the same details about the doctor’s appointment. This time, however, I decline the offer to come over, deciding not to tell her about the horrifying events of the day. If I doubt my own sanity at this point, why shouldn’t she?
After catching up for a bit, we arrange for me to drop Brynn off the next Sunday, and she asks, “What is Mimi’s baby-girl doing right now?” I reply, “She is asleep in her bed holding onto that elephant. Hey, you have no idea how much she loves that. Where did you find it?”
There is a pause. “Michael, I never got her an elephant toy. I would have remembered.” I make an excuse about Brynn waking up and hang up the phone, feeling dazed.
I go to my sweet Brynn. I’ve decided that I will take her to my room and put her in bed with me all day, where nothing can hurt us. We just have to make it through the day, and this nightmare will be over. I approach my baby’s crib, and she is still there. Only now she lays silent, not moving, not breathing. The silken skin on her arms is cold to the touch. Not again…not again! Although at this point I’ve seen this far too many times than comfortable with, the fear is always embedded in the back of my mind that this may be the last time. Maybe this time, I’ll pass out, wake up, and my little girl will still be gone.
I frantically look around the room for something to hit myself with. Something, anything to make me pass out so we can begin this again. So I can have my Brynn again. I lost her mother, which still haunts me to this day. I cannot and will not lose her too. Where she goes, I go. She is my only light left in this world.
It turns out I don’t have to find anything. I feel my breath slow and the room tilt. The little girl in the dress’s angry eyes follow me all the way to the floor. The more I see her, the more translucent and decomposed her form appears. My worst fear is that by the time there’s nothing left, Brynn’s chances will run out. I can’t let that happen.
The phone rings. I wake up and ignore the call; you know the drill. I run to my daughter and wake her up as gently as I can. Only one thing matters today, the only thing that can fix this. We unintentionally disturbed Emily’s resting place. The only chance that we have is to return this to where it came from. I stumble my way to the car with her and hastily strap her into her car seat.
We take off in the direction of her doctor’s office. I just pray I get there in time, with no red lights and no accidents. I see the pink and silver cross and immediately pull over. The contents of my stomach emptying themselves down the side of my car as I rush out of it. I open the back door and grab the elephant from Brynn’s little hands.
Her eyes get big, and her lip puffs out with the threat of oncoming tears. That doesn’t matter now, though; I have what I need. As it leaves her hands, it starts raining. I look to the sky, torrents of droplets stabbing at my eyes, and scream out, “I’m sorry, Emily! We didn’t mean to steal from you! Please, leave my baby alone! I never meant to take it! She deserves to live!” There are tears falling from my eyes, and spit is flying from my lips. “PLEASE!”
With my free hand raised in surrender, I gently place the elephant next to the cross and back away. It may just be in my head, but I swear the air feels lighter, giving me the refreshment of promise. I hope to God that I did the right thing. Brynn and I just need to make it through one whole day.
Sleep isn’t kind to me as the show 1000 ways to die plays continuously throughout my mind like a movie screen. Only my daughter’s the only cast member and starring role, each and every time.
* * * * * *
A couple of years go by, with Brynn growing into a healthy toddler with little to no signs of danger. Her hair has turned into an amber color over the changing seasons. It pains me more and more to see her grow into a physical carbon copy of her mother, but I’m ever so thankful to have each and every day with her. The events of the last years have taught me never to take her for granted. Every stumble, laugh, toy and smile is a natural gift from God.
Her words are coming more often and with less time in between. However, I’ve been having the hardest time getting her to say her name. She mumbles something each time that I do, and whatever the word is sounds nothing like my daughter’s name. The worst thing is that the word that she’s saying sounds an awful lot like the name…Emily.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableN.M. Brown Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A