Authors: Kathleen McCleary
a simple thing
For my father, Thomas R. McCleary, with love and gratitude
The first escape fantasy Susannah ever had came when she was thirteen, sitting in the backseat of her parents' gray Buick with her younger brother and sister, watching the trees zoom by the windows. The road wound through uplands of pines and aspen and into lowlands thick with swamp grasses and orchids and along the edge of a river whose waters tumbled clear over stones as smooth and clean as bones. A small island stood in the middle of the river and a lone white pine grew on the island, and Susannah looked at it and thought how nice it would be to live there. She envisioned a little house built of branches, with a roof of moss and chairs of twigs and pine. Maybe she'd let Jon and Janie live there, tooâjust the three of them, climbing the laddered branches of the big tree, swimming in the river's cold waters, sleeping next to a fire on beds of balsam fir.
Later that summer, after the accident, they passed the island again on the way home. And this time Susannah looked at it not in idle fancy, but in desperate longing. If only she could live on that island, in the middle of that remote, lonely river. Alone. Forever.
I'm not running away,
Susannah told herself. After all, what she was doing could hardly be called “running away” when she was bringing her kids with herâincluding the child who, to be honest, she'd rather leave behind. She wasn't leaving Matt, even though half the town thought so. This wasn't about Matt, although he could have been a little more involvedâokay,
more involved. She was doing exactly what she had sworn to do from that moment fourteen years ago when the nurse had first placed fierce newborn Katie into her arms: she was protecting her children.
The ferry began to move, and Susannah gripped the green iron railing with both hands and tried to still the fear rising in her chest. The blue-gray water rose in soft swells around the boat, and small whitecaps crowned the waves.
It's going to be okay,
she said to herself. The breeze caught her hair and whipped it around her face, and for a moment she forgot her fear and felt a sudden sense of freedom.
I'm really doing this. I'm leaving all that behind.
She put a hand up to pull her hair behind her ears.
Quinn, her son, stood next to her, his long blond hair blowing back in the wind, gazing at the water moving below them. Yards away the pebbled beach and fir-covered hills of Anacortes basked in the October sun. Giant driftwood logs, the bleached bones of some faraway forest, lay scattered along the uppermost edges of the rocky shore. The ferry chugged forward.
“Is this the ocean?” Quinn said.
“Yes,” Susannah said. She focused on keeping her voice steady and calm, for Quinn. “I guess so. We're in a big bay here, but on the other side of these islands is Vancouver Island, and then the Pacific.”
She had pored over the map their new landlord had sent to her, memorizing the names and shapes of the islands, the straits, the bays. Now she knew the large masses of Orcas and San Juan, tiny little Patos and Sucia, funny H-shaped Henry Island, and, of course, Sounder, their destination, six square miles of deep forests and rugged beaches at the northern tip of the San Juan Islands.
“Look.” Quinn pointed to the sky, where a large bird wheeled in sweeping circles above the boat.
Susannah put up her hand to shade her eyes against the sun and saw a black silhouette against the brightness.
“It's an eagle!” Quinn said. “I've only ever seen one before.”
“How do you know it's an eagle?”
“By the way it flies,” he said. “See how it holds its wings out really flat and straight? That's how you can tell it's an eagle and not a hawk.”
He loved his animals, her boy. He'd left more than six pets behind at home, including two cats, a rabbit, and a salamander. “You can bring
creature along with us,” she'd told him, and he'd chosen his beloved box turtle, Otis, who was in a plastic pet carrier at his feet.
Susannah watched the eagle soar until it flew off behind them, back toward shore. When was the last time she'd had even a minute just to watch the sky? Back home in Tilton, their lives were a full catastrophe of work, school, soccer practice, dive team, flute lessons, drum lessons, basketball, Little League, Ecology Club, and, not to be forgotten, Young Zookeepers Club. There, in their lovely little suburb in the northernmost corner of Virginia, the craziness started in September when the leaves on the cherry trees turned rusty red, and ran right through July when the first tomatoes ripened. With the first day of school the whole family was suddenly hurled into an endless sprint of constant activity, like sinewy greyhounds running after a lure they could never quite catch.
Susannah had to paste little pink sticky notes on the dashboard of her car to remind her where she was supposed to be when. “Quinn Zoo 3:00 bring boots” and “Mr. Mumbles to vet 4:30” and “granola bars juice Adams soccer field 6:00.” Like everyone in Tilton, Susannah spent her afternoons and evenings and weekends driving from one lesson or game or practice to another, the children flicking crumbs from their laps as they ate in the car. “We're so busy,” the parents all said
“The kids never get enough sleep. My family thinks a home-cooked meal is a grilled cheese sandwich.”
But for Susannah, of course, a home-cooked meal
a grilled cheese sandwich: it was homemade pizza and soups simmered for hours and biscuits made from scratch. She'd quit work the year after Quinn was born and devoted herself to giving her kids the childhood she never had, being the role model she never had. So in addition to managing the kids' packed schedules, she also volunteered at the school library twice a week, served on the board of the Tilton Arts Foundation, cooked meals for the Tilton homeless shelter every month, and served as secretary for the PTA. It was exhausting, being that responsible and good all the time.
“Not anymore,” Susannah said.
“Not anymore what?” Quinn said.
“Nothing.” Susannah smiled at him. “I was thinking out loud. Thanks for showing me the eagle. I'm going to check on Katie. Don't lean too far over the railing.” Fear rose again from her stomach into her chest, and she felt slightly sick.
“Mom. I'm eleven, I'm not a baby,” Quinn said, but he smiled at her.
The thought of going to find Katie also made her feel slightly sick. For the past year, thinking about Katie and worrying about Katie and checking up on Katie had crowded every moment of her waking existence, and haunted most of her dreams, too.
“ âYou can only be as happy as your unhappiest child,' ” Matt would quote to her, but Susannah didn't believe that. If anything, she herself was
than Katie, because of Katie. The ferry could not pull them away fast enough from that life.
Susannah took a deep breath and pushed open the wide swinging doors that led to the main cabin. She looked around, past a toddler rolling on the gray linoleum floor, past backpacks and briefcases and people clutching their coffees, until she spotted her daughter slouched in the corner of a booth, her back against the window, feet up on the brown vinyl banquette, her eyes glued to a magazine in her lap.
“Hey,” Susannah said, slipping into the booth next to her.
Katie didn't look up. “My cell phone doesn't work here,” she said.
Susannah ignored her comment. Of course she couldn't expect Katie to be happy about this move. She just hoped Katie understood the
“Quinn just spotted an eagle,” Susannah said. “Do you want to come outside and see what it's like here?”
“I know what it's like,” Katie said, her eyes on the magazine. “Water, island, water, island, water, island. Living with the whales is going to change my life. I'm the Free Willy poster child. Woo-hoo.” She raised one finger in the air and spun it in a circle.
“We're still hours away,” Susannah said. “Give it a chance.”
Katie put the magazine down, slid her long legs underneath the table, and turned away from Susannah. Her thick dark hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and Susannah could see the delicate curve of her ear just above the lobe. She remembered poring over that space when Katie was a baby, her shell-like ear tilted toward Susannah's face as she nursed. She had a sudden impulse to lean over and brush her lips along her daughter's lobe, as she had then, to inhale the wonderful warm scent of her neck.
This is that child
She's still here, somewhere.
And just as she bent forward, almost mesmerized, Katie jumped and said, “God, Mom, how about some personal space?”
“Katieâ,” Susannah began.
” Katie said. “But I don't want to be here, and I'm not going to go out on the deck with you and Quinn and do some happy dance about the trees and the eagles. Can you please just leave me alone for now?”
“Katie! Come on. It's an adventure.”
Katie turned her head and leveled a look at her mother. “Going to live on an island without
is not an adventure. It's crazy.”
“It's different. It's a change. It's a chance to get out of the rut we were in.”
“I was not in a rut.”
Susannah's stomach clenched with a familiar fear.
she told herself.
She's safe now
is a polite word for it,” Susannah said.
“Polite?” Katie said. “Why? Because really it was âa total disaster' or something?”
“No,” Susannah said. “There's no need to be all melodramatic about it.”
“Right!” Katie said. “Because there's
melodramatic about ripping me out of school and taking me to an island. Nope. Completely normal, that.”
Katie did have a point, although Katie was too youngâand too fearlessâto understand the big picture, to know how quickly and easily something fun and simple could turn dark and ominous, slide into a life-altering disaster.
“All right. We're making a very big change, I'll grant you that,” Susannah said. “But that Zachâ” She stopped. “The party that nightâ”
“Oh, my God,” Katie said. “I'm so glad we're here, moving on to our new life, where you can still nag me about everything I've ever done wrong.”
As things had started to unravel this year, Susannah had realized that no matter how many activities she organized and coached, no matter how many parenting books she read and therapists she consulted and problem-solving talks she had with Matt, none of it would change a damn thing. Their crazy schedule, the endless round of activities, was supposed to be the antidote to the insidious influence of something Susannah couldn't even name, but that was seeping into her family anyway.
“It's not just you,” Susannah said to Katie. “Quinn needed a break, too.”
“Quinn's a freak,” Katie said.
Susannah stifled an urge to grab her by both shoulders and shake her. This child, whose every heartbeat Susannah had felt as her own, was now someone she didn't even know. Sometimes, lying awake in bed at night while Matt snored gently next to her, she wondered if she had reached the supposedly boundless limits of mother love, like rocketing into space only to slam into a big black concrete wall, to find there
an end to the universe after all.
Susannah remembered the first few weeks after Katie was born when, crazy with hormones and sleep deprivation, she had sat staring at her baby for hours at a time, weeping with awe and gratitude.
This will be the greatest love of my life forever,
No matter what other children I have, no matter what happens with Matt. This
. And Katie was the kind of child who inspired deep emotion. As an infant she would cling to Susannah, put her gummy mouth on Susannah's chin and suck wildly, as though she wanted to draw the very essence of Susannah's soul into her fierce baby self.
She continued to grow into her fierceness, becoming a little girl who caredâdeeply, too muchâabout everything. In elementary school she organized a protest against the aide who oversaw lunchtime recess. She drew up a letter detailing the aide's transgressions, which ranged from the understandable (no standing on top of the monkey bars) to the outrageous (pinching kids in time-out). More than fifty kids signed Katie's letter, and the aide resigned. The storm of feelings that swirled around Katieâchildren's savior, principal's baneânever settled, like tumbleweeds spinning endlessly across the plains.
But when she started seventh grade, more than a year ago, everything changed. The girl who used to spend hours writing plays for Quinn, casting him as the gentle king or brave prince; who once stayed up all night to help him care for a baby bird he'd found limp in the grass; who used to crawl into Susannah's bed and hug her and whisper, “Don't ever die, Mommy, because I couldn't stand to be without you”âthat girl had become sullen and wild and sometimes downright mean.
She started to tease Quinnâsweet, sensitive Quinn with his skinny legs and wide smileâabout horrible viruses like Ebola and Marburg, until he started wearing a bandanna over his mouth and nose at recess to avoid germs. She told a racy joke on-air during school announcements. She climbed onto the school roof on a dare and took a photo of herself next to the bell tower, hundreds of feet above ground. She was suspended for two days after she distributed two hundred copies of her own version of the school newspaperâcomplete with a scathing story about popular Abby Whittle, who, according to Katie's paper, had plagiarized the essay on good citizenship that had won her a hundred dollars and a byline in the
Then the Troubles with Katie, as Matt called them (as though it were a book or a movie and not something they had to
through every day), gained momentum, a swirl of thick warm clouds gathering strength before a hurricane. There was the day Susannah came home early to find Katie on the couch kissing some boy; the day Katie skipped school and went to the mall with that girl who had been arrested twice for selling pot; the night Katie climbed out her bedroom window and shimmied down the cherry tree and met some friends in the park at midnight. One of the kids had beer, and Katie came home tipsyâat age fourteen. Within a month came the final incident that unraveled everything. Susannah felt sick thinking about itâthe terrifying trip to the emergency room, with Katie pale and cold and limp in her arms while Matt gunned their old Subaru through red lights and asked over and over, “Is she breathing? Is she still breathing?” She remembered counting Katie's slow breathsâten a minute, then eight a minuteâand trying to keep Katie upright so she wouldn't choke if she vomited. She remembered the look the nurse in the emergency room had given her after checking Katie's pulse and reflexesâa look of pity that scared Susannah more than anything that had happened yet that night.