It’s All in My Head
I can’t talk.
I open my mouth and nothing comes out.
It happens year-round, typically when I plan to get on some sort of boat, even the clunky kind you pedal around small lakes for fifteen bucks an hour. But now it’s April. The anniversary of my mother’s funeral.
There’s no telling how long it will last. This is Day 2. I’m at Dr. Figg’s with my dad. Dr. Figg’s office is beige and windowless, like it doesn’t have a voice either.
Dad checks us in with the receptionist as I settle into one of the tan plastic chairs. Dr. Figg will look in my mouth. She’ll look up my nose. She’ll stick a thing in my ears. She’ll hmmm and ahhh. She’ll ask me to scribble stuff down. She’ll eventually say to my father (because I’m a kid, and the state of my throat obviously hinders my hearing and ability to understand):
“As you know, I believe it’s psychosomatic, and her voice will return whenever it’s ready, but Alice could try an antihistamine, saline gargling, or even some breathing exercises.” Psychosomatic. A big word for It’s all in your head. I looked it up a long time ago.
When this started, I was six and Dad panicked. Took me to four different pediatricians and three different counselors—child, grief, family—even a local pastor who smelled like old books and oatmeal cookies.
They said kindly, in one fashion or another: “Give it time. It’s her body’s way of dealing with her mother’s tragic and sudden passing.”
Passing. As if Mom just dissolved and went somewhere else. Easily. No unexpected storm. No sailing accident. No empty boat found. No Mom missing.
Dad still worries, still takes me in for a checkup when I go silent. Every time. And every time, Dr. Figg smiles at me like she’s hoping for a light-bulb moment. Besides the routine examination, she usually asks me a bunch of questions and makes me free-write my answers. Free-write my feelings. Mostly about my family. My dad. My younger sister, Clara. My dad’s … girlfriend?
I still don’t know what to call her after three and a half years.
Neesha Hamilton. Neesha.
Occasionally, Dr. Figg asks me to write about Mom, who disappeared-drowned-died-insert-similar-verb-here. Only I believe she’s still out there. But I can’t say that at home. The first time I tried, I was littler. At Mom’s funeral. My dad got upset. So did Clara, who was two and confused about where Mom went. Even now, they freeze up when I mention the possibility.
Early on, Dr. Figg would ask: Why do you think you lose your voice, Alice?
And I would write in angry crayon letters: Mom’s not gone.
Sessions with Dr. Figg don’t really help, but I come anyway because of the sad wrinkle in Dad’s forehead that lasts as long as my silence does. And, strangely, because losing my voice reminds me that, even if no one wants to hear me, I have hope.
“Doc’s a few minutes behind,” Dad says. At nearly six foot three, he fills the seat next to me, and his legs sprawl in front of him. He reaches into the roomy pocket of his khaki pants and pulls out a small book with a leathery, rose-colored cover. Dad’s constantly reading or taking notes for his job as the host of his own radio show, Our Town with Oliver Jones, which airs on our local public station. Though most of his work gets done on his phone, he’s a fan of real books.
To my surprise, he holds the book out to me. “Thought you might like to have this while we wait.”
I shoot him a look that I’ve perfected during voiceless days, basically a combination of Why? and Say more.
“It’s another one of your mom’s journals. I found it in the basement last night when I went to fix the water heater. Stuff fell out of some boxes when I moved them out of the way. Since you’ve become the official caretaker of her library, I thought you’d want it.”
I nod vigorously and mouth the words Thank you, as big as I can make them. Even if I had my voice, I honestly don’t know if I could speak. My heart is skipping. A journal of Mom’s that I’ve never seen or read before.
She was a cultural anthropologist, basically A NORMAL SCIENTIST, BUT WAY COOLER, according to the painted wooden sign that used to hang above her desk. But if anyone asked, she’d say she studied people and how they live. In reality, she studied people and how they could communicate with the dead. Or maybe the not-quite-dead, as she sometimes said.
Before she disappeared, our living room overflowed with her textbooks, notebooks, and binders, not to mention paperbacks by the dozens. After the accident, little by little, I squirreled everything away into my room, which Dad and Clara didn’t seem to mind. At six, I couldn’t read much, and what I could read I didn’t understand, but I wanted to. Clues to where Mom had gone had to be in there. Now, at twelve, I’m not much farther along in connecting the dots between her millions of words. At the same time, they are the only chance I have at finding answers.
I open the journal’s soft cover. Mom titled the first page Special Collections, with a list of books and call numbers underneath in black ink. The next few pages are the same. I hate to even think it, but I’m disappointed. After all, as much as I love seeing Mom’s handwriting, what she wrote is pretty boring.
The lists give way to a page of question marks in dark pencil, like she’d traced them several times. The way I do when I’m thinking hard. Then—
Happy accident! Found a letter someone obviously forgot, stuck to the inside cover of an old Florida atlas. Brittle, water-stained, can’t read the names, but compelling. Aviles Island—can people there send actual messages to and from those who have passed away? Once a year? The writer called them “tidings.” So, news from the beyond? Need to follow the trail.
I reread the paragraph. Aviles Island. That’s where my mom was doing her research when she didn’t come back. Was this the spark that led her there? Did Mom follow the trail and discover she was right somehow? What if she’s out there, wanting to prove she’s not completely … gone? Wanting to send us a message? What if we have to be on that island to get it?
There’s more writing in the margin, slanting vertically in different ink as if Mom wrote it on another day.
Ran into Dr. Ingram in the hallway. We chatted about our work, and I told him about the letter I found. He was surprised since, it turns out, he had a serious relationship in college with someone from Aviles Island. She told him about their tradition of sending messages to family members who died. But they broke up before he got to visit the island. Never spoke to her again, never gave her story much thought. Still skeptical! But too much is adding up. Must talk to someone from Aviles to corroborate.
Dad goes back up to the receptionist’s desk to do something with our insurance. When he returns, I point to the pen in his pocket and flip to a blank page in my mom’s journal.
When he hands me the pen, I scribble: What do you know about Aviles Island? Mom’s research about the tidings?
He blinks at the questions. I can tell he’s choosing his words carefully. They’re being edited deep in his brown eyes. “Not much. Is that what she wrote about in the journal?”
More scribble. We have to go to Aviles Island. To see if what she thought is right.
Dad’s expression softens. “I’ve been to the island, honey. Years ago. To help look for your mom. There’s nothing there.”
Did you ever talk to Mom about how the tidings worked? Did you ever try to send her a message?
“No, I didn’t.” Dad strains to keep his voice even, and I know I’m pushing. But I can’t stop. “Searching for your mother was serious, Alice.”
Mom’s research was serious. What if we need to go back to the island so she can contact us?
Dad sighs, gazing off toward the receptionist’s desk as if willing our names to be called. I’m not surprised by his reaction. He loved my mom, but was never too keen on her work. I remember their low-voice conversations about how she was forever seeking out tiny dots on the map, chasing myths that took her far away from us. After Mom’s disappearance, he gave me some scientific articles to read about death. So I could reason everything out.
“I had people trolling that ocean for nearly a year,” he says finally, his eyes glistening. “No message in a bottle will bring your mom back to us.”
I scrawl. It might.
Dad stands when Dr. Figg calls from the doorway. I can tell he’s relieved to escape my questions and make small talk instead, because there’s nothing small about this. At Mom’s funeral, Dad, Clara, my dad’s family, my mom’s family, my mom’s colleagues from her university, her friends—they all cried and cried. But I couldn’t. It was like I could hear my mom saying, “Well, this isn’t right,” the way she did every time something was going terribly wrong, with a little bit of hope brightening each word. I haven’t cried about anything since. I know Mom has to be in that in-between place.
Dr. Figg huddles with Dad, but motions for me to go back to her office, where there’s more beige. First, she’ll have me write about subjects I like in school—English and social studies. Then about how Clara and I are getting along—on a good day, scale of 1 to 5, we might be at a 2½ to 3. Finally, my future goals. Right now, I have only one: get to Aviles Island and send Mom a message.
So after Dad’s safe in the waiting room again, and Dr. Figg pulls out the chair across from me and hands me a pencil and paper and tells me to jot down how I’m feeling today, I write: If you got the chance to talk to someone you’d lost, would you take it?
One Small Shred
Dad plays news radio on the short drive home, which keeps him from talking. It’s okay, because the whole me-scribbling-an-answer thing when we’re in the car is tricky anyway. Besides, I’m anxious to get home. I have a mountain of my mom’s papers to sort through. It’s a long shot to think I can find something related to the tidings or Aviles Island before dinner, but at least I can start the search.
I’m out of the car the second Dad and I pull in front of the house. Neesha calls a cheery hello from the desk in the corner of the kitchen where she’s doing work on her laptop. I wave, but stay on course. I feel a little rude heading straight to my room, since she routinely makes a point to check in with me, even the times when my “voice” is chicken-scratch penciled across paper.
Neesha and my dad met when he was “not ready to date.” Shaving and showering were pretty much becoming foreign ideas. I was eight and a half and not looking for a new mom, but she was nice and treated Clara and me like kids who didn’t need a new mom. Neesha is as short and curvy as my dad is tall and solid. Neesha lives with us most days, though she has her own apartment an hour away in D.C., where she’s an orthopedist. She persuades Dad to eat salad—the green kind, not just the potato or chicken kind. She encourages Dad to stop wearing the same shirt three days in a row. She packs Dad a lunch, plus makes them for me and Clara, too. And she has us talk at dinner about our days and about the world. Sometimes Neesha prays and goes to church, and I’ve asked her things about God, but she told me everyone should find things out for themselves, find out what they believe. Neesha also knows about Mom and how she disappeared.
As I enter my room and shut the door, I wonder if I should show her Mom’s journal later. Get her thoughts on all this. For now, I’m toeing off my sneakers, setting Mom’s journal on my nightstand, and wedging myself into the impressive mountain range of folders, manila envelopes, binders, and spiral notebooks that make a low wall between my bed and closet. Somewhere in all of it, there has to be one small shred about Aviles Island that will get me closer to finding Mom.
I start sorting, flipping, skimming. Not that one … Not that one … Something, anything?
The rejection pile by my elbow gets bigger and shakier. When I set a blue three-ring binder on top, the whole thing falls Jenga-style, knocking into other towers and sending paper everywhere.
Frustration makes my chest burn and my eyes tingle. I stare at the mass of Mom’s writing, wishing she was more organized, wishing I was more organized, wishing I could blink and find exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve been searching through this stuff for years with no luck.
Curling my knees up against my body, I glance over at the big-face selfie of Toddler Me and Mom taped to the dry-erase board behind my door. Her cheesy smile makes me smile back every time. I can’t let her down. It’ll be worth it when I’m right. When she’s right.
Better keep going.
I start gathering and aligning and restacking. A flimsy white envelope catches on the coil of a spiral notebook, and I shake it loose. It hits the floor, address-side up.
To Anny Jones. From John Mercury, the Lighthouse, Aviles Island.
Aviles Island. I can’t believe this!
Amazed that I found something and nearly bursting with excitement, I open the envelope as carefully as I can and take out the note inside.
Dear Ms. Jones,
You are definitely persistent. But even after what you said in your last letter, I have serious reservations about you visiting the island.
We’re a small community. Although we have incorporated some creature comforts with the times, we have tried to keep our environment relatively unspoiled. There are no real amenities or services to accommodate anything but the occasional tourist.
As the Aviles Island lighthouse keeper for most of my life, born from a line of lighthouse keepers, I don’t want our traditions unearthed and upended. Folks might get false hope, might not understand, or worse yet, might want to put us under a microscope. The tidings are special to us, which is why we only celebrate them for a few days every July, to mark the history of when they first came. Our history.
However, I pride myself on being an excellent judge of character, and your interest and intentions do seem true. Don’t get too excited—I remain reluctant. Yet I have decided to meet with you, if you vow to keep things mum. I don’t want the eastern seaboard following you down here.
If you send me the time of your arrival, I will arrange a boat to pick you up from the mainland, as well as your lodging. See you in a few weeks.
If I could squeal, I totally would. Mom talked to this John Mercury about the tidings before she went to the island. He can help me send a message. This is it!
I pump the air a few times and groove out my happiness. Then reality slams into me. How can I convince Dad we need to go to Aviles Island, especially after our “conversation” at Dr. Figg’s? Plus, Mom must’ve told Dad about John Mercury. After all, he was the reason she was going.
I hear my sister’s voice down the hall, probably talking to Dad or Neesha. I’d ask Clara for help, but she’s eight, and favors from her usually require endless negotiation. Last time I asked her to switch my garbage duty for her dishwashing, she wouldn’t budge until I agreed to play this game called Pop! the Pig for a week straight. Dad tried explaining that Clara only wants to spend time with me, and I secretly like feeding the plastic pig cheeseburgers and watching his tummy grow, but sometimes Clara cheats, which leads to arguments that neither one of us wins.
More to the point, Clara has her own version of mute when I mention Mom or use the word dead.
“Alice?” Neesha calls through my closed door. “Thought you might like some hot chocolate after Dr. Figg’s. Working through feelings definitely warrants some sugar.”
Before I can make my way over, she opens the door cautiously. Her expression is bright but tentative, like she doesn’t want to crash a party she’s been formally invited to.
Neesha. Of course. She’ll help me.
Tucking John Mercury’s letter in the waist of my jeans, I mime for her to make herself comfortable on my bed. Then I grab Mom’s journal from the nightstand and make my way over to the dry-erase board.
I need your help with something, I write in purple marker.
Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Lee