“He’s hurt her, she’s bleeding.”
With the phone to her ear, Grace slips away from the soft spill of light coming through the kitchen windows and leans heavily on a refrigerator crowded with family photos. The upturned corners snap back against her spine.
“Grace Adams,” she says into the crackling void, twisting the phone cord in her fingers, “153 Summit Road.”
Grace waits, her fingertips darkening in the twist, a pulse forming inside the small purple blooms. Slim and fragile, she drowns amongst silk waves of carp swimming across a kimono three sizes too big for her. Her round face is as pale as a serving plate and a single strip of white cuts through her straight black hair. Between shallow breaths, she steals glances out the windows, turning this way and that, tangling her feet in the kimono’s hem. She bites hard into her fingernails, shredding one with her small white teeth. A thin line of blood follows a trail of dried cuticle. She presses her thumb to it, trying to stop the flow.
“Yes, on the trails behind my house.” It’s as if she’s being smothered. With every word she gulps for air. “I saw him,” she says, “I saw him do it.”
“Just try to stay calm,” says the voice on the phone. “You’re safe as long as you stay inside your house.”
Grace retreats to the shadows thrown down by a wall separating the kitchen from the hall and gazes into the darkened entryway toward the front door. The security chain isn’t attached.
Grace speaks in a whisper. “I don’t feel safe.”
“It’s important that you remain calm. Help is on the way.”
Straining against the phone cord, Grace upsets a glass shelf of porcelain figurines, and her skittish hands fail to catch them as they fall into a clattering heap. She tries to set them upright but knocks several more over and one drops to the floor. She picks up the small ballerina and stares at it. Its pearly white shoulders are coated in dust.
The voice on the phone asks her a question and Grace peers out the kitchen windows as directed. “I don’t know. I think so. I can’t see him anymore.”
Grace had been up in her bedroom when she saw something move through the trees. She squeezed between her cluttered desk and the window to get a closer look. A woman walked slowly along the trails snaking through the woods behind the house. Grace watched her progress. Even from a distance it was clear she was unwell. She’d almost reached the gate at the end of the garden when the man appeared. Not more than ten feet apart, she greeted him like an old friend. Her unfamiliar face changed though. Words were spoken. Her mouth gaped wide in silent surprise, her eyes pleading. As she backed away, she called out Grace’s name. Unsure what to do, Grace ducked down low so she couldn’t be seen. Her hurried breaths misted over the glass. It wasn’t until she wiped away the fog with the long sleeve of her kimono that she saw the man’s knife. He lunged at the woman and she staggered away, clutching her side. Farther up the slope, they disappeared in the deep bracken and seconds later he stood alone. Never altering his stride, he vanished over the ridgeline, his receding silhouette outlined by pale light. Fingertips pressed to glass, Grace waited but he did not return.
A swell rises up in Grace’s throat and the phone slips through her fingers. It hits the floor and as the cord retracts it skips on the carpet like a flat stone across water, eventually coming to rest under the breakfast bar. Grace hurries to the bathroom, her kimono falling from her white shoulders, revealing the red nightgown underneath. Unable to keep her balance, she grips the toilet with both hands. The pressure in her chest could rip her in two perfect halves. Bile comes up until her throat is scraped raw and her stomach is a hollowed-out bowl. The mirror isn’t kind. Her eyes are nests of broken blood vessels shadowed by a sickly blue. She runs the water until it’s warm and presses a cloth to her face. Sobbing, she sinks to the bathroom floor but from the kitchen the phone calls out her name. Faint at first, it grows in volume as Grace focuses in on the sound.
“Hello? Grace,” it says. “Are you okay?”
Stretching her arms and pulling her body along, she climbs a horizontal wall of carpeting. Her hands shake and the phone jumps from her fingertips. “Please hurry,” she says, hanging tight to the back of the sofa and drawing herself upward to her feet. She sways, emptied out and half crazed. For a few seconds she can’t remember why she called.
“Yes, I’ll stay in the house.” Her white-knuckle grip on the handset is unyielding.
The hilltop community, where she lives with her aunt Elizabeth, is all but abandoned. Long before most of the homes were finished the developers went bust. Concrete foundations are disappearing under creeping vines and wooden frames stand like exposed rib cages. Every winter more roofs cave in under heavy snow and arsonists burn the rest. Sometimes groups of homeless move in but they never stay long. It’s too far from Collier, the nearest town. So out here in her faux Tudor castle, there are no neighbors to call on.
Leaning against a counter crowded with clipped coupons and medical insurance forms, Grace glances out the kitchen windows again. Beyond the locked wrought-iron gate and high garden wall the wooded hillside looks flat under a thickening sky and colorless trees stand like sentinels, leafless and silent on the still winter morning.
On the other side of the garden wall the forest stretches for miles before hitting the boundary between her country and the next. Grace went there once with her uncle Arnold when he was still alive. While walking an isolated trail, he’d stopped quite suddenly, telling Grace to stay where she was. “Go ahead,” he said after turning toward her. “Step over the line.” Fearing it was some sort of trick, she hesitated. But he insisted and she was young and did as she was told, even lifting a leg high when he indicated the exact spot. He grinned and welcomed her to Canada. She wonders what her uncle would do now that she has a new heart and could run all the way to that invisible border if she chose to. It is only a month since the transplant operation and she already feels stronger, but after years of uncertainty she doesn’t trust it will last.
Grace walks to the back doors and presses her forehead against the glass.
The woman in the woods knew her name.
All the while the phone is calling her back to the kitchen and the early winter morning. “Grace, are you still there?”
She says a quiet yes and listens.
“There’s going to be a delay. A truck’s jackknifed on Route 93. They’ll get to you as soon as they can.”
Grace runs her hand across her kimono and pauses when she feels a ring of keys through the thin fabric lining the pocket. Very gently she rests the phone on the kitchen counter. A rush of cold air comes into the house as she opens the French doors. The paving stones on the back porch are like ice against her bare feet. Her eyes go wide from the shock.
Imagining unseen things pinching at her toes, she steps out onto the untended lawn, the long hem of the kimono trailing behind her like a slug. Halfway across she steps on a stone and winces. Bending over to pick it up, she folds her fingers around it. It’s as flat as the palm of her hand.
Grace peers through the gate and takes her time to scan the wooded hillside. Other than her breathing, there is no sound. No wind, no birds. Nothing.
Hand to chest, her fingers tremble, tiny movements that mimic the frantic pounding of her heart. As her fingers increase their pace, she arches her white neck back, revealing a latticework of tendons stretched to the breaking point. Grace recalls the woman’s screams and shrinks back toward the house. As she’s turning to leave she hears something soft and primal coming from the woodland.
Her eyes follow the sound. Upward toward the ridge, the woman is lying somewhere amongst the undergrowth. Grace wants to forget, but in her head she can still hear the muffled echo of the woman’s voice. She has to know why this woman knows her name. She takes the key from her pocket and slides it into the lock in the gate, wincing when the ungreased cylinders roll and grind against one another plaintively. Her heart is already pounding hard when she takes off in a run, but her legs are awkward and buckle beneath her. She has to stop a few feet up the slope and rest her palm against a tree.
Grace listens. She wants to be sure he hasn’t returned.
She starts moving again and the cold air burns her throat. She barely has time to fill her lungs before coming up for air again. Her heart pumps hard. She keeps putting her hand to her chest, a look of surprise on her face. She’s not used to this. The hill rises steeply, but she follows the scent, low branches snapping at her like wolves.
Grace finds the woman in a small clearing. She is twisted on the ground, one of her legs bent behind her unnaturally and the other stretched out and barefoot. Grace focuses on the cast-off shoe and the pine needles that sit thick on the forest floor, looking everywhere the woman is not. But the woman’s hands reach out slippery and dark like eels, grasping at her before sliding away.
“Grace,” the woman says. “Help me.”
Dizziness blurs Grace’s vision. She’s faint from running. She can’t think along straight lines. Looking hard into the woman’s eyes she is trying to find someone she’s seen before. The woman’s hat has fallen away and her gray hair is lying in a tangled web, catching late autumn leaves and pine needles in its strands. She is far too thin. Her skin wraps underlying bones like melted candle wax and her pale lips are framed by deep grooves. Wisps of white hair sprout from her pointed chin. The eyes dance though. They dart around Grace’s face like a hummingbird collecting nectar.
“Please, Grace,” the woman says.
Grace hesitates. She’s not thought to bring anything. She thinks of her kimono and looks up at the sky, knowing it will snow. It’s so cold. Her feet are bare and her small hands are trembling. Her eyes follow the ridgeline searching for the man with the knife. She thinks of dragging the woman back to the house but knows it’s too far. They’d never make it. Grace unknots the kimono’s belt, and a sea of cherry-colored carp slips away. She presses the silk to the woman’s chest and feels the blood seep through the thin fabric. The dark tide swallows the carp in seconds.
The woman’s words are so soft they’re weightless, floating through the air like gray-winged moths. Grace collects them all. The woman shapes her story into something Grace can almost forgive. She tells Grace she’s sorry for having stayed away so long. She drifts off and Grace shakes her awake.
Her startled eyes look up at Grace in surprise. “You’re all grown up.” She touches Grace’s cheek.
Grace presses the kimono harder against the wounds. Her efforts have exhausted her. There are too many ways her mother can bleed.
“Shush, Momma.” Grace turns toward the house and strains her ears for the sounds of sirens, but there’s nothing. “You rest now. Help is on its way.”
Her mother tilts her chin upward toward the darkening sky. “You know why I left. You know why I couldn’t come back.”
“I never understood.”
Something that sounds like laughter escapes her mother’s throat. “I just wanted to see you one last time.”
Grace leans in close and raises her voice. “Tell me who my father is.”
Her mother’s eyes close. “You’ll have to be careful. They’re still looking for the money.”
Grace grabs her mother by the shoulders and speaks as loud as she dares. “I don’t understand.”
Her mother’s voice fades and Grace catches only whispers.
Her mother’s voice sputters and Grace loses hope.
Her mother’s voice goes out and Grace is alone.
The cold settles into Grace’s chest like a stone. She kneels, clasping her mother’s hands together with her own like they’re in common prayer. The woods are closing in, and above her the sky sits heavily, draping the morning in a blue-hued cloak. From their woodland nest Grace watches the first snowflakes drift down, lazy and slow. They melt against her bare skin but all around her the moldering leaves turn white. Grace cradles her mother in her arms, feeling the sharp bones where there were once fulsome curves. The mother she remembers had a red-painted mouth and kohl-rimmed eyes set into a face framed by dark waves of hair. A haze of cigarette smoke. The clink of whiskey on ice. Laughter that continued long after a room fell silent.
Grace’s lips are as cold as her fingertips and her bare limbs taper out like wires from her thin red nightgown but she doesn’t shiver. Aside from her frantic eyes, she lies perfectly still, curling up for warmth where there’s none to be found.
At the base of the hill, the back of her house rests in winter’s palm. Fat snowflakes fall like bits of white plastic in a globe, but beyond her damp lashes she can see right into the kitchen and dining room. All the lights are on. It’s a stage. Her eyes shift upward, and she looks straight across into her bedroom window. From where she lies, Grace can’t escape its outward gaze. The ceiling light blinks at her erratically before going out. She stares hard into the dim interior, struggling to pick out familiar shapes from beneath her sleepy lids. Beside her, her mother gives way to the cold, cold ground. Everything around Grace slows to the same pace of her mother’s failing heart.
An ambulance screams up the last bit of her road and slows to an off-key halt. Its unseen doors slam shut, and behind Grace a startled bird takes flight. The shadow of the crow passes over, solid and black, its wings fluttering faster than her heart. From the highest branches it calls out to others of its kind, the falling snow muffling the sound.
Grace imagines she’s so small she disappears. She’s drifting into this new reality when she finally hears help coming up the hill to claim her. Through her half-closed lids she can see them move through the trees. In her head she’d assembled an army but there’s only two men struggling up the slope. They wade through knee-deep leaves and newly fallen snow. They look small and vulnerable with their heavy cases. She wants to call out to them but her voice sits frozen in her throat. Only their belted radios crackle with life. The sound sends more crows flying up to the barren trees that tower above them like scaffolding.
A dispatcher’s disembodied voice asks if they’ve found anything yet and the two men stop moving. Their eyes sweep a wide arc across the snowy woodland. They see nothing. Grace wants to move but she’s frozen by more than just cold. Fear now sticks to her skin like snow. Her pale throat feels severed. She wants to reach up and touch the invisible wound, but her hand stays where it is. Her silence is killing her. More birds call out. The moody blue light of winter shows off their black silhouettes. Caw, caw, caw echoes between the tall trees. The radio crackles once more and when at last they find Grace and her mother, the men come to a halt. The older paramedic is standing the closest, a few more steps and he would have trod on their bodies.
“Damn,” he says in a low rolling voice that hints at thunder. He moves forward as he speaks. “That ain’t right.”
Behind him, his partner scratches around his belt trying to grab his radio, but he keeps missing because he can’t tear his eyes away from what he’s seeing. When he does find it, his hands shake so much he can hardly push the buttons.
“Where in the hell are the cops?” he yells into his microphone. His eyes dart around the wintry scene. “We’ve got two bodies out here … They’re covered in snow, for God’s sake … No, me and Jared … Where you said, but you’ve got to go through the side yard.”
Jared pulls off his gloves and plucks Grace’s wrist from the tangle of bodies. “Carson, take a second to calm down. I’m going to see if anyone’s still breathing.”
Grace feels her eyelids flutter; her curiosity wants to gaze straight into that voice. She feels the familiar prodding of her wrist. It is limp in his bare hands. His knees creak, and there is a smell of coffee, cigarettes, and booze on his breath.
He slaps her lightly on the cheek and the shock opens her eyes. His face hovers too close to hers. She panics. His lips form words she can’t hear because her mouth is wide from screaming. Her body arches upward and thrashes from side to side, following the will of her new heart, which pumps like a foreign beast in her chest. All that untried blood racing through her veins is more than she can handle. She wants to run again, see her feet move like wings, but he straddles her, grasping both her wiry wrists in one of his hands and holding her head down with the other. She can hear him now.
“I’ve got you,” Jared repeats over and over again, and then finally, “You’re safe.”
Everything that holds Grace together unwinds like a spool and her body goes limp under Jared’s weight.
His partner, Carson, kneels next to her mother. His first-aid case is open, lying askew in the snow with its contents spilling out. He slaps on surgical gloves and rips away the plastic wrapping on a syringe with his teeth.
All Grace can remember is blood. Pressing against the flow was like trying to stop the coming of winter. She speaks in a whisper, her teeth chattering together so hard she can’t keep her face still. “Is she going to be okay?”
Jared sits in the snow beside her, catching his breath, as if fighting ninety-eight pounds of flesh and newly fused bone could ever trouble a man of his size. “We’re doing what we can.” His expression is anxious when he turns to her again.
Grace’s nightgown has slipped away, but when her fingers pull at the lace straps, Jared’s hands are once again on hers, stopping her and her dignity from going any further. His curiosity almost reaches out and runs its fingers across the broken skin, but he pulls his hand back just in time.
Embarrassed, Jared shrugs off his heavy winter coat and wraps it around her. He can no longer look her in the eye. “You need to stay calm now.”
Grace knows what Jared saw, what he almost reached out and touched. The long angry scar cuts a jagged line down her sternum. Like fresh meat, it’s still raw. “I’m so cold,” she says, noticing her bloody hands for the first time. They’re sticky. She holds her splayed fingers out in front of her and stares at them.
His voice is all business again. “We best get you warm then.”
Grace is so tiny his coat goes down to her knees. Opening a case, Jared unrolls a silver blanket. He lifts her up and sits her down a little ways off before wrapping her legs up in foil. As an afterthought, he pulls off his knitted cap and pushes it down around her ears.
He looks her in the eyes. “You’ll be okay. Just try to stay calm. I need to look after your friend.”
Grace sobs, taking big gulps of air but never getting enough. “She’s not my friend. She’s my mother.”
His expression is different when he glances back over his shoulder. He looks confused. He digs his fingers into his dark hair. “Your mother?”
Grace burrows deeper into the coat, averting her eyes. She laughs because she’s nervous. “She’s been gone so long I didn’t know her. I didn’t know my own mother.”
Her wet cheeks are pink with shame. He reaches out, placing his hand on her forehead, perhaps thinking she’s feverish. She leans into it, curving her neck like she’s a kitten.
“We’re going to do all we can,” he promises. “You just stay quiet now.”
From where Grace sits shivering among the frosted bracken, she watches them work. Their voices are frantic, their actions desperate. She sees her kimono, thrown clear and half buried in fresh snow. She concentrates on it. It’s ruined now, reduced to a wad of damp blood and silk. Pressing it to the knife wounds did nothing to stop the bleeding. Farther up the hill, the ridgeline has disappeared beyond a thick veil of snow. She concentrates on the dark trunks of trees and tries to pick out shapes.
More voices. Shouting. There are stretchers and the whir of helicopter blades. It sounds as if the army she’d imagined is finally moving through the trees. She looks at her mother again and knows they’re too late. She curls up, falling asleep too easily and vanishing into dreams once more.
Copyright © 2014 by Karin Salvalaggio Ltd.