“Hey, sweetie, would you please stop that?”
Liddy’s fingers stilled, embarrassment making her hot and cold at once despite the car's noticeable lack of air conditioning. It was humiliating enough being driven to the park on a Tuesday afternoon like a twelve-year-old, let alone being scolded for peeling the roof interior off her mother’s clunker. Despite her father’s threats to take Old Tony to the scrapper, the Ford Taurus station wagon was still puttering along, disintegrating foam and all.
Liddy sighed, brushing the hair out of her eyes. “Sorry. Bad habit.”
She watched her mom's lips curve with a resigned smile. “It’s OK, honey, everyone does it. Even caught your grandmother red-handed last week when I took her to the doctor.” She made a sharp left onto the lane, almost shaving some shiny black paint off the oncoming Mercedes-Benz.
Putting a hand to her jugular, Liddy tried to still the pulse that sprang to it. Damn you, Bethmobile, she mentally cursed. Her poor, beloved heap was languishing in the shop 100 miles away. As consolation, her dad had very generously picked her up for this mini 'vacation.' It was so generous that she'd totally forgotten about being at the Taurus’, and her mother's, mercy for local trips. But, she supposed, a little bumpiness was a better alternative to shelling out money she didn’t have for a car rental.
Better, that was, if she and her mother survived this five-minute car ride.
“Crazy doctors and lawyers around here drive like they own the place…and I’m more worried that you need to fidget than about the car.”
Deep breaths, Liddy coached, gripping the handle.
“I’m fine, Mom. Seriously.”
They dipped down the hill, the adrenaline of the near-miss with the Mercedes finally dissipating. At another sharp turn, Liddy flicked a warning glance at her mom, hoping the non-verbal hint would curtail a third World War about driving abilities at a certain age. Though the older woman’s hair was still a miraculous chestnut at sixty-four, her eyebrows had a fleck or two of white in them. It was those hairs which caught the light when she arched a knowing eyebrow at her daughter, her gaze still affixed to the road ahead.
“So, sweetheart...how many days are you going to be here? You know you’re welcome, and we have the air mattress.” She coughed, her hands loosening on the wheel. “I’m just sorry we have such a small home now and—”
“You know that’s not your fault. It only makes sense to downsize at your age. And you know I love your little place, now.”
“But not made for long stays,” Liddy's mom replied ruefully as the car jounced again.
A seed of nausea implanted in Liddy's stomach. “I’ll be leaving on Thursday. Just wanted to get away for a few days while Mike’s gone.”
Tension built again in her fingers as the breaks creaked. They were at the stop sign below the mansion. The park was only a few minutes away now, thank Jesus.
“You know Mike’s always been very nice to us, and I appreciate that. I really do…”
Calmly registering her mother's tell-tale nervous chirping, Liddy tried to keep herself from revisiting the inviting foam above. She'd read somewhere, she recalled offhandedly, that frustrated people peel things...
“…but…” she supplied wearily, tapping her nail on the window if only to do something with her restless hands. If they were going to argue, it might as well be now.
”—But you just seem so unhappy.”
Liddy’s dry lips parted, wanting to volley back with something irrefutable. Instead, she slumped back in the seat, draining the last noisy slurp of her water bottle.
It had all started six months before when, without warning, her non-profit shut down and everyone was laid off. At first, Mike had been supportive and she optimistic. She was getting her master’s degree in higher education. They lived in an area with a ton of colleges. The job market was 'robust,' the experts said, and something would pop up in no time.
And then, somehow, it just…hadn’t. After months of fruitless interviews where she’d come close only to be rejected, everything seemed wrong. More specifically, something was wrong with her, and she didn’t know how to fix it.
Since Mike worked long hours and odd days at the radio station, it was easy in hindsight to see how he could be so oblivious to her unraveling. Every afternoon, she would do just enough dishes to keep him unaware of how high they would pile. A thin film of dust blanketed the unopened blinds, the days simultaneously shortening and lengthening. By sunset when she was still not showered and the house was still hours of chores behind, she’d pull it together convincingly enough to dodge his questions at dinner.
Every day, she’d assured him things were fine. They didn’t stop spending as normal because "Everything Would be Fine." Despite the evidence literally mounting before him, Mike never realized how the darkness and debt had closed in on their small apartment.
And then, one day, when the bill collectors had started calling, it was far too late to explain.
It was painful to consider how much she could have done differently. She could have realized that the antidepressants had stopped working, well before everything came crashing down. She could have cobbled together enough part-time jobs to make ends meet. She should have been honest with how despondent she was that the job she loved was taken from her.
Instead, she had kept him in the dark and now, here they were, her still unemployed and thousands more in debt than she’d ever thought she’d owe anyone.
When Mike had told her a few weeks ago that he’d need to go to Tampa for week to produce a broadcast, she almost was glad. From the tired look in his eyes, she’d thought he’d been a little glad at the prospect of a break, too.
No, she couldn’t argue the point that her life didn’t suck. Still, she had to try. Saying things were better than they were made it almost true.
“Mom, he’s been there with me through everything. We’re just...hitting a snag right now.” She drew herself up, the old seatbelt strangling her collarbone. “We’re going to be fine.”
She almost flinched when a hand patted her shoulder.
“Need anything at Boscov’s?”
Tears prickled Liddy’s eyes. The conversation was over, just like she’d wanted.
That’s Mom, for you.
“No—no I don’t need anything. Thanks, though.”
They drove for another minute or two in companionable silence, the afternoon haze lulling away the sourness of the conversation. Just as she was about to doze, the station wagon ground to a tooth-rattling halt.
Ironing out a crick in her neck with her knuckles, Liddy smirked at her mom's guilty expression. "Should I ask how much money you've pumped into it this time?"
"It's still running, isn't it? And as long as I don't tell your father about the transmission, Tony will live forevaaaaah." The older woman reached to the backseat for her purse, which was, as usual, brimming with old receipts.
"Well, enough about this damn car," she added, unzipping her purse and handing Liddy some hand sanitizer. "You're here!"
Despite the cheer in her voice, her thin smile was too wide.
She's worried about me. Just like everybody else, these days.
“I promise I'll be OK. Have fun shopping.”
“Well, I’ll be here at six. You sure it won’t be too dar—”
“Plenty of light left by then.” Liddy made sure she smiled until the corners of her mom's mouth finally perked up in response. She jiggled the handle a few times until the door lurched open.
As though coming out of a trance, Liddy’s mom shook her head. “You’re right, it’s summer.” She waved. “Love you, honey.”
“Love you, too.”
Liddy waved back as the car sputtered to a start and began its slow climb. A strange longing stretched like a thin cord in her chest as she watched the garish paint disappear over the hill. She’d always been a loner, but suddenly she questioned the wisdom of an afternoon to herself—even in the park she loved.
Dismissing the thought, she let the familiar scents of grass and summer waft over her as she trotted down the hill. In autumn, the landscape would billow with orange and red and yellow pom poms bursting out above the creek. For a moment, she tasted crispness rather than the sun-baked aridity of summer.
She took yet another measured breath, trying to ignore the way the field seemed to span for miles. It was the fifth time she’d been out of the house in three weeks. Mike was making her count.
Like everything else now—therapists and medications and spreadsheets—counting and measuring would keep her on the good path.
The walk to the bridge took minutes that felt like hours. Reactivating the rusty fibrils of her calf muscles, she jogged across the graying wood planks. Courtesy of it being a Tuesday, there was no one in sight as she closed her eyes, feeling the coolness of the water tickle the soles of her sneakers and the sun filter onto her hair through the cracks in the covering overhead. Somewhere close by, a gaggle of geese landed, their honks bouncing off the rocks in a lonely yet comforting song.
Dismounting the small step at the end of the bridge, Liddy grinned up through the long shadow in which she stood. Here she was back at Council Rock, the cragged 200-foot high monolith towering above her. As legend had it, the site was a Lenai Lenape meeting ground. Whatever its purpose hundreds of years ago, the pocket of a cave at its base was always fun to explore.
Stepping forward on the dirt path, she peered in, half expecting a troll to pop out. Somehow, it looked a lot brighter and smaller than she'd remembered it being 20 years ago.
Testing her hiking boots, she jogged down the path adjacent to the river, leaving the rock at her back. When she was a good couple of yards away, she clambered up onto a rock. Her muscles were already burning in that good, rejuvenating kind of way.
Whenever she was at the park as a girl, she’d preferred the long way up to the top of the rock. Every time, she would look for the notched roots in the ground that became “steps” winding her heavenward into the 'enchanted' forest. These woods, punctuated with chirps and flutters and all sorts of sounds, had always held a serene yet lively magic, like something out of Fern Gully.
She brushed her foot against the moss covering the first step on the path. It was late in the year and had bloomed from sparse to puffy, but even after all these years she knew each gnarl and knob like the back of her hand.
Brushing away the now sweat-slicked hair that had again escaped her ponytail, she surveyed the incline above. Though it had seemed like a mile as a ten-year-old, at 33, she could tell it was at least 150 feet worth of climbing. It was also nearly vertical.
Her tendons tugged and strained as she started scrabbling up. After only about 35 yards, she looked downward toward the creek, just as quickly clutching the side of a rock. Glittering flakes of mica fluttered from her palm as she pulled it away, her vision blurring.
Whoa, since when did she have vertigo?
Her lips pursed as a breath wheezed out.
If she was this winded at the start, could she make it up at all?
A resonant snap sent panic shooting up her spine. She looked up toward the noise. About fifty feet above, a doe and her fawns were grazing on the dandelions in a small clearing. Adorably Bambiesque as they were, it seemed like a crime to disturb them.
Another excuse, she thought reluctantly, to figure out another way up.
After climbing back down, she made it back to the cave entrance. The sun was starting to angle just so that it shone directly in, brightening the granite to an inviting gray-brown. She squinted at the mica flakes and flickering motes of pollen before pulling her entranced gaze leftward.
The other path up started right here beside the cave, but it was even steeper than her usual trek. She'd only climbed it once, as memory served. A vague itch sparked on her arm as her eyes widened.
Oh right...the poison ivy.
Biting her lip, she examined the cave again. In a few hours, her mom would pick her up. She'd probably wasted a half hour of that already just trying to figure out what to do with herself.
Well, she thought guiltily as she climbed into the mini-cathedral of granite, at least she could say she’d gotten out in nature.
Once inside she gingerly knelt down, readying to sprawl out. Hopefully the rangers were as underpaid as usual and wouldn’t drop by to give her shit for snoozing. Not like she was smoking weed, or something. (Not like she was cool enough to smoke anything even when it was cool to smoke things.)
After putting her backpack on the ground, she unzipped her hoodie, balling it up behind her head. It wasn’t much comfort given the solidness beneath it, but it would do. Just in case, she toggled the alarm on her phone, adjusting the volume down. It was quiet enough that, should the deer or geese or said hapless ranger wander by, they wouldn’t get the bejesus scared out of them.
Finally settling herself, she inhaled and exhaled fully—something her therapist noted she’d not quite yet mastered. The light now filtering in was almost green, bouncing off the moss at the mouth of the cave. As though already dreaming, she lifted her hand. There was a lulling eeriness about this light, the way it got so bright toward the center that it almost made her fingers look like black claws.
Her eyelids fluttered closed as she tried to focus on her breathing, on feeling. For once, she was almost relaxed enough to forget everything else.