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Wild Geese

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I turn the ignition and point the car north to Our Lady of Mercy Hospital under a slate gray sky whose thick blanket of clouds (and the weather forecast) promise snow later. Knowing that the highway has been clogged with construction for the past few weeks, I decide to avoid the probable delay, choosing instead to take a back road. In the seat behind mine, my seven-year-old son peppers me with questions. Most of which I have myself but am trying not to think too much about else I panic.

"Is she going to have brain damage? If she fell off her horse, she might have concussion."

"No, your sister isn't going to have brain damage. She'll probably feel sore for a few days, but then be just fine."

"But Daddy says concussions cause them. That's why football..."

This is what I get for marrying a doctor. My children are equipped with actual scientific evidence to back up their worries and aren't shy about using it.

"Well, yes, but since she was wearing her helmet, we don't have to worry." Right? Isn't this how these things are supposed to work, I think, slowing down at a yellow light. If I believed in God, now would be the ideal time to send up a prayer to Him. Since I'm stuck with my lack of Sunday school attendance when younger instead, I nibble my flaky lower lip, worrying a piece of loose skin, a condition that persists no matter how much lip balm I slather on once the cold starts up again. The light changes, and I accelerate, creeping up on the SUV ahead of me. In the rear view mirror, the driver shoots me the finger. Since I'm with my young, impressionable child, I resist the urge to return it.

My son has been suspiciously quiet, so before he can start another round of questions to set me worrying, I try to head him off. Half the trick to parenting is timing.

"Honey, why don't you make your sister a nice picture? To help her feel better. I'm sure she'd appreciate that."

That seems to do the trick (though it could just be luck), and he flips open his sketchbook, leaving me to my thoughts. Which maybe isn't such a good idea, but it's too late now.

This afternoon, I'd been working in my studio when I'd received a call from my daughter's riding instructor who told me that she had fallen off, and didn't seem to have broken anything, but still she was going to have someone drive her to the ER to check her out, just to be on the safe side. I told her I'd be there as soon as possible. I hung up, grabbed a handful of masks (one perk of being married to a doctor is that we don't have to order them online) to stow in my purse along with my phone and wallet, grabbed my keys and coat, and told my son, who was watching TV in the den, that we had to leave and why. Thankfully, he didn't protest too much. If you're wondering why I wasn't there, it's because it was my daughter's friend's mom's day to do the lesson chauffeuring. She works from home, too, so we alternate Tuesdays and Fridays.

"Do you think school's gonna be canceled tomorrow because of snow?" my son asks, and after a few moments of internal argument, I decide to tell him the truth: that here in Syracuse, they never cancel. Ever. It's kind of like telling your child that Santa isn't real, but I figure in this case, it's best to be honest. We just moved here a few months ago, but the truth is that Mom and Dad grew up here, so they have the authority of experience on their side.

Unfortunately, a school bus pulls out in front of the SUV and begins stopping at what seems like every other house. This does not go unnoticed by my son.

"Mom, why didn't you take the highway? That would have been a lot faster."

I manage not to snap something sarcastic. It's not his fault. it's not anyone's fault, although David, my husband, will undoubtedly think otherwise. A man who runs purely on logic, he's convinced that we can indefinitely keep our kids from harming themselves if we just sit down and rationally weigh the pros and cons of each decision they make to try something new. I try to tell him that people - even kids - are occasionally going to get injured doing whatever it is they are doing. It happens when you least expect it. Sometimes there's a clear cause, and sometimes not, but that's unfortunately life.

"Aren't horses awfully...big?" my husband asked me when my daughter first asked a year or so ago to take lessons. "And unpredictable, too?" I knew what he wasn't saying which was thanking God that so far, our son showed no interest in contact sports. One out of two ain't bad, I guess.

Growing up, I'd never been a horse girl, never decorated the margins of my notebooks with noble steeds, never collected plastic models, and never fantasized about racing a stallion across a deserted beach or field. Never understood what magical spell they cast over a lot of my peers, even though I knew it was real. "I never took lessons, but my friend, Nicole, did, and she loved it. For awhile anyway. Lots of kids do."

He ultimately agreed, and after we moved here, my daughter wanted to resume riding, so we let her. Happily, she made a friend right away at the barn. The same friend whose mom was supposed to be watching her. But that's unfair. Horses are large, unpredictable animals. But at least there's no violence involved in riding.

I turn the car into the drive and start searching for a parking spot. My son asks if we can get takeout later. Pizza. I agree since I am no more of a domestic goddess than my own mother.

There's a line to get in, so we wait, our breath making clouds that precede us. Pulling my jacket tighter around me, I hope the snow will hold off in earnest until we get back home. Suddenly, a honking sound makes me startle.

"Mom, look!" my son says, pointing into the air. "Geese!"

Overhead, a ragged V of wings streams past.

"They're heading south for the winter," I explain.

"But how do they know when to go? And to come back?""

We inch closer to the door. "I don't know exactly. Ask Daddy."

When it's our turn, a man takes our temperatures and quizzes us on our recent health and travel history. Then a nurse escorts us to a narrow cubicle with two seats, hands me a clipboard with a form to fill out, and we settle in for the wait.

I don't tell my son about the time I played hooky freshman year of high school after I hopped a bus and wound up here. I don't tell him about wandering the halls, including the fifth floor where his father currently practices surgery (though he's away at a medical conference today of all days), sampling the cafeteria food (much better than the school's) or the punishment that awaited me when I returned to school. I don't tell him either about what I was trying to escape: the memory of the last summer and the Beast. Neither of my children are old enough yet, although I certainly plan to. When it's the right time.

After an hour which oozes by with molasses slowness, I hear a voice.

"Melinda? Melinda Scordino? Is that really you?"

A woman with dyed blonde hair dressed in pastel blue pants and matching smock approaches. I do a double-take.

"Heather? Heather Perkins? I didn't know you worked here." She's wearing an orange mask with yellow and white balloons and carrying a few extra pounds, but I'd recognize that voice anywhere.

"Sorry about the delay. There was a multi-car accident on the highway. It's been hectic all day. Now your daughter is going to be just fine. The doctor will be with you in a few minutes, but he's going to tell you that she has mild concussion and should take it easy for the next few days."

"Thank you," I say.

"That means no gym class, too; though I don't know if she'll consider that a drawback." Heather laughs and for a moment, I am transported back in time. She transferred, as I remember, sometime in my junior year, but by then we were hardly what you'd call friends.

"I didn't realize you were married to Dr. Petrakis. Anyway, how have you been? Long time, no see, hmmm."

At first I can't decide whether she's being sarcastic, but then remember that kind of thing always went over her head. "I guess. We just moved here a few months ago. We're only staying a year or so while David does a residency.": As we head for my daughter's room, I fumble around for something to say. "How have you been?" Safe enough.

"Oh, it's been an insane year, what with the pandemic and all. But we're all doing okay. The twins are back in school. That reminds me, one got a concussion a few years ago at practice, but he got over it very quickly. Kids heal fast."

She's right.

There's a lot I could boast about, including my current exhibit of paintings at the museum here, but as much as I'd like to, I'm afraid I'll come across sounding insecure and pathetic, overly desperate to impress her. So I don't. Later I will regret not asking more questions, but for now, I'm just happy to finally see my daughter and know that she's okay. After the doctor visits and repeats essentially what Heather said, we head out for the parking lot.

"Mom, did you know that lady?" my daughter asks.

"Kind of," I reply. "We used to go to school together."

"With Daddy?"

"Yes, with Daddy. But we weren't very close. Not like I was with Rachel."

As we emerge into the chilly air, I notice that the sun has emerged and since it's almost time for it to set, it's tinged the remaining clouds gold, lemon and pink, shining through them like a spotlight. Maybe when I get home and have a moment to myself, I'll try to paint it.

"So, Mom, can we get pizza now?" my son asks, and I laugh.

"Sure thing."