She sings quietly as she slides open the drawer where his pajamas lie folded neatly in piles scented of fresh linen dryer sheets. She let her hands linger on the soft, pilled cotton, selecting a set of Spider Man pajamas the little boy favored. Spider Man, she says quietly, in her soothing mamma voice. Tonight will be a Spider Man night for my own little hero. She talks in the same quiet voice while she unfolds the pajamas and then goes about the work of arranging the bed. Top sheet pulled down slightly over the edge of the comforter, animals arranged around the bottom of the bed, against the wall. All except the tiger. Your tiger, she tells her baby, here he is! Grrr, little tiger is growling at my little tiger. She laughs playfully. Her baby loved his tiger.
She tugs the covers up just so and lies down in the spot next to his, her head resting on the very edge of the pillow. She lifts her head and smoothes her hair away from her face, smiling as she rests her cheek against the cool fabric again. All is quiet for a moment, and she closes her eyes and allows herself to inhale deeply.
There it is, the little boy scent that made pinpricks stab at the backs of her eyelids, the smell that sent her heart floating and twisting within her. What was in that scent? Every night she thought of different ways to remember it. Fresh cut lawns and wet asphalt like a summer rainstorm, or cinnamon and the sweet lingering scent of milk. Tonight it is muskier, she thinks, and allows herself another deep breath. Tonight she smells the heat of a long summer day, wriggling puppies and slimy tadpoles around the edges of a mossy green pond. That and a faint whiff of cotton candy. She smiles at the thought and feels a wetness trace down the side of her face, blotting out its own life in a dark spot on the pillow beneath her.
A story? She asks. A story, she confirms, not really needing an answer. The answer was always yes. An exuberant yes shouted in that toddler garble of consonants that don't really belong. A story, she repeats thoughtfully. Outside the door, she hears her husband sigh and walk away. And so she begins. Tonight she tells the story of the Little Prince, or her remembered version, anyway, in which she makes much of the need to look out the windows when one rides a train. She enjoys passing morals on to her son, things to remember and think about. She wants him to remember to see the things around him, to make each moment count.
When she finishes speaking, the room is silent. The glow from the window has faded to darkness and cold begins to climb her spine. She rises slowly from the bed, pulling the covers up just a bit higher and fluffing the pillow quietly. She cannot quite bring herself to leave the quiet room, so she walks soundlessly across the blank colorless rug to the shelf poised above the dresser on the wall. She wants to look at the pictures set here.
He was so little, she laughs to herself as she holds a square frame surrounding a tiny round face with sparkling blue eyes, ruddy cheeks and a tiny "o" for a mouth. Next, she reaches for one where he is slightly older, remembering the feel of those chubby little arms around her neck, the tiny face close up against hers and his breathy voice. I luh yoo, Mommy, he would say, over and over, the scent of yeast and sugar wafting from his mouth. She shuts her eyes tight and pulls the frame to her chest, wishing she could recapture just one of the moments that she took for granted in the midst of everything else that seemed so important at the time. She shakes her head, knowing that these are the moments we never appreciate enough, the moments we cannot reclaim but will relish and relive forever.
Carefully she replaces the frame, glancing at the family portrait next to it. She stands still a moment more, her eyes drawn now to the darkness turning the white windowsill to a featureless grey. She exhales, and to anyone watching, would appear to deflate. Her back curves, her shoulders fall forward, her head droops slightly. Years ascend her sagging face as a lock of hair comes loose from behind her ear. Slowly, she shuffles towards the door and turns off the light, pausing to ensure that the nightlight is in place and working beside the bed. Finally, she leaves the room, squinting into the glaring light of the hallway.
Her husband waits, sitting on the edge of their bed down the hall. She enters the room and stands before him.
It's enough, he tells her. It's too much now, he says.
Shhh, she tells him. Not too loud.
You don't hear me no matter how loud I speak, he tells her.
She stands still in front of him, staring through him. Her face is vacant, her stance heavy and tired. She is a ghost, he thinks to himself.
I have called your mother, he tells her. She will arrive tomorrow. I will retrieve her from the airport. Perhaps she can help you. I know that I cannot.
She stares at him, empty.
Anger and remorse, fury and even hatred well and burble in his soul, threatening to spill forth and poison his veins, making it impossible for him to speak softly, gently.
He was my son, too, he tells her, his voice climbing sharply. When the car didn't stop in time, he says, when it all happened, it took my son too.
She stares blankly at him, then her face softens. Shh, she tells him again. It's bedtime. She shuffles past him, climbing into bed and pulling the covers about her without undressing or bothering to brush her teeth or hair.
He stands, walks to the side of the bed and lays a hand across her forehead. He swallows hard. Takes a breath. Shh, he tells her. It's okay. Everything will be fine. It's bedtime.
Silently, he turns out the light and leaves the room.