In the Shadow of Satellites
(c) Amanda Dick
I died once. We all did, all three of us. The only difference is I came back.
I didn’t get a choice.
Standing on the damp grass, the sun has yet to send out rays of gold over to the far side of the lake. It’s not dark, but it’s not yet light either. It’s that magical time between night and day that makes even the impossible seem real. I walk that tightrope daily, one foot in the present, one in the past. The future is out of bounds, somewhere over the horizon, beyond the sunset. It’s the one place I can’t – won’t – go.
My first steps into the water are tentative. It’s cold, but not unpleasant. Wading out into the lake until the water is tickling the back of my knees, I set the small, white paper boat on the water, a tea-light candle sitting inside, and I strike a match. It catches first time, and my irrational heart soars. It’s a sign, I convince myself as I lean down to touch the orange flame to the white wick. It takes a moment, but the flame transfers from one to the other, and the candle is lit.
I watch it for a moment as the match drops into the water with a half-hearted hiss. Then I close my eyes, so I can see them more clearly. I imagine them laughing, happy, together. All the things I’m not. I see James throw Kieran up into the air in this very spot, catching him again. My heart sighs, a long, slow exhale that matches my breath.
They’re together. I’m not with them, but at least they’re together. It’s a small comfort, but it’s all I have.
I open my eyes and push the paper boat out onto the lake to greet the sun.
There are bad days, and there are good days. Today is a good day.
Sipping my morning coffee, I stare at the calendar. It’s Friday. Picking up the pen beneath it, I put a black cross through the box, acknowledging its existence. It helps to keep track of the time that passes in case it gets away from me. Days can lose their meaning here, time can be inconsistent. It doesn’t pass at the same speed. Sometimes it gallops; sometimes it meanders along like the ducks that waddle across the lawn each morning.
Friday means Ana’s coming later. She’s the high point of my week, my link with civilisation. She’s my best friend, the one person I don’t need to explain myself to. I love her, even when I hate her. But she won’t be here until later this afternoon and there are a whole lot of hours to kill before then.
Most days I feel like this, like I’m marking time. In my heart, I still cling to the belief that one day I’ll wake up and find that the two human-sized holes in my soul have healed. I’ll know joy again. I’ll know love again. Until that day comes, I go through the motions simply because I don’t know what else to do. I wake with the sun and go to sleep with the moon, but the in-between is what’s killing me. Slowly, steadily, I’m being suffocated, as if each day is one breath shorter. The tightness in my chest is constant, as physical as a pulled muscle or a scraped knee. No matter what I do, it’s always there; a wound that won’t heal, a reminder of what I’ve lost.
I take my coffee out onto the wooden deck that stretches across the front of my grandparents’ modest holiday cottage, and sit on one of the four weathered white wooden chairs that have been here since I was a child. They stand out starkly against the faded black weatherboard exterior of the cottage, reminding me of previous summers, of long hot days and holidays that seemed like they lasted forever. I was a child here, and I brought my child here. There’s a kind of symmetry to that that I find comforting. I belong here, with the memories.
I swam in the lake as a child, lying down on the lawn in the sun to dry out. Nanna called out to me to wear a hat, to put on sunscreen; Grandad watched over me from the deck with his cup of tea or glass of beer (always in a glass, never from the bottle). James and Kieran played together in the water here too, Kieran’s squeals of delight echoing across the surface.
It’s been ten years since Nanna and Grandad passed, within a mere six months of each other. I miss them, now more than ever. They brought me up when, as a four-year-old, I was dumped on them by a daughter they rarely saw. They never even knew I existed before that day.
For over a year the cottage of my childhood has become my sanctuary from the world. Accessible only by boat, there is no internet or mobile phone coverage, just a landline, used so that Ana can keep tabs on me during the week, or so I can call her to ask her to add something to the list of supplies she brings with her on Fridays. I visit the store on the opposite shore of the lake once a week, as a compromise. I only get a few items, but it was one of Ana’s conditions. She wants me to have contact with the outside world, if only for a few minutes, on a regular basis. I think she’s trying to condition me to move in with her but I have no intention of doing any such thing. This is my home now.
I can’t leave. James and Kieran are still here, somewhere. I hear them, sometimes I even see them. I hear Kieran crying, James calls out my name. It’s the lake, it doesn’t allow the dead to lie, it keeps their memories alive somehow, I don’t know how. I just know they’re here, and while they’re here, I’m staying. I have to. Echoes are all I have, and I’ll take them over silence any day.
I sip my coffee from my chair on the deck, looking out over the lake. The air is already warm, and the addition of the sun is beginning to warm the earth. Soon enough, the air will shimmer with heat. The water is so clear I can almost convince myself I can see the trout from here, and the ducks make their way across the lake in the distance. They usually stop by later, coming up onto the lawn and making their way across the grass to the property next door. They’re creatures of habit I’ve found, much like myself.
The hammering has already begun. It’s coming from next door, through the bush, the next cottage over, although it’s hardly a cottage anymore. It was empty for years, so I don’t expect the hammering to stop anytime soon. It started when my new neighbour moved in a couple of months ago, and it seems to continue, off and on, until late afternoon. At first it annoyed me, but now it seems to blend in, like the birdsong and the cicadas. I saw him the other day, the mysterious wielder of the hammer. He was obviously coming back from town, at cruising speed, his boat full to the gunnels with lengths of timber and boxes of God only knows what. Probably nails. He’s bound to be going through them like wildfire, judging by the noise. Like me, he keeps to himself. I like that. I like that he respects the invisible boundary lines between our two properties. We’ve never actually met, but that suits me. We don’t need to be friends to be neighbours.
Finishing my coffee, I head back inside in search of breakfast. I forgot to add cereal to the list on the fridge, so I didn’t get any on my supply run a couple of days ago. I add it to the list now, before I forget again. I forget a lot of things these days. Without lists, notes and routines I’m not sure where I’d be. I could phone Ana and get her to pick some up on her way, but it’s not urgent. I can do without cereal for a few more days. I make toast instead, slathering on blueberry jam and adding a few more things to the shopping list on the fridge, while I remember.
It’s still early, and there are a lot of hours in front of me. I’m grateful to have energy today, so I use it to go for a walk. Before I set off, I pull my long auburn hair into a high ponytail to keep the heat off the back of my neck, because I still find this walk challenging, even on a good day.
The walking track is sheltered from the heat of the sun, and not that well-used, even at this time of the year. I walk around the side of the cottage, along the grass between the cottage and the hillside that rises behind it, until I’m at the start of the track. Slowly but steadily the climb begins, as I make my way over tree roots, up inclines and down roughly-hewn steps made from old railway sleepers.
The heat is beginning to get oppressive by the time I reach the halfway point. I stop at the huge rock that sits half on the track and half-buried on the edge of it, overlooking the hillside below. Leaning back against it, sweat running down the back of my neck, I take a few minutes to catch my breath. I’m surrounded by native bush, tall trees that mostly block out the sun, leafy ferns and even some jagged brambles that occasionally tear at my legs and catch the bare skin on my arms. It’s surreal here, with the light filtering down through the canopy and tinging everything with shades of green and gold. Breathing heavily, I turn to take in the view beyond the moss-covered rock. The lake is sparkling like diamonds far below, a beautiful blue, several shades deeper than the blue of the sky with its fluffy white clouds.
I’m at quite a height at this point on the track, and it makes everything look so different. I can’t see any of the small dwellings or cottages dotted around the lake from this angle. I could almost be alone in the universe.
The whispered thought takes root, settling in my bones and making itself at home there.
It’s tantalising, far too powerful to ignore. My heart races, thumping against the side of my ribcage.
I step forward, one hand on the rock to steady myself, as the whisper becomes a rush of air. The closer to the edge of the track I get, the louder the rush. It’s as if the universe is tilting, as if there are forces at play that I was completely unaware of until now.
But I feel them now. I feel them so deeply, it’s almost as if they are part of me.
The toe of my shoe touches the edge of the earth, the ground falling away steeply beneath it as the hillside tumbles down through the trees to the lake edge, somewhere far below.
I close my eyes and let go of the rock. I could fall here, and no one would find me.
I hold my arms out wide, waiting for gravity to take over, or for James to stop me. Whichever comes first.
I could fall.
Seconds stretch out, time slows down. Suddenly all the energy and the positivity that was bestowed on me today is gone. My heart sinks until it’s resting beside my feet on the mossy soil.
I want to jump, I want to fall, I want to end this. Right now.
“Sian, don’t! Please!”
James’s voice is so clear, it sucks the breath right out of me. It’s as if he’s standing right behind me and I open my eyes and pivot towards his voice in the same movement, grabbing at the rock to keep my balance.
But he’s not here. It’s just me, and the trees, and the ghosts.
I stumble away from the edge, doubling over, falling to my hands and knees on the damp earth, my body tingling with an intense longing. The wet leaves beneath my palms want to swallow me up, and I want to let them.
The walk back to the cottage is slow, one foot striking out in front of the other with dogged determination. It’s not the first time I’ve trusted my life to James. It’s not the first time he’s saved me from losing it, either. I relish the times I can hear his voice. I get the feeling he’s out there, somewhere, beyond the veil, watching over me. I imagine he’s talking to me all the time, only sometimes I can’t hear him. It’s as much comforting as it is heart-breaking.
After my shower, I sit out on the deck in the sunshine with a glass of water and my notebook. I have a pile of notebooks stacked up beneath the window in the kitchen, filled with memories. It started as a form of therapy after the accident, now it’s more than that. I don’t care that I occasionally lose things, only to find them days later, somewhere I don’t remember putting them. I don’t care that sometimes I have no recollection of having had a conversation, or that I sometimes zone out in the middle of one, or that I have to write the most basic of things down on a list on the fridge. I know that my brain injury isn’t going away. This is it. Sometimes it pisses me off, but I deal with it as best I can.
What scares me is that one day, the black hole in my brain will swallow up more than just short-term memories. I’m terrified that one day, my life will disappear in there. Nanna and Grandad, James and I, Kieran – these are the memories I cannot afford to lose. So I write down everything that I can remember, the big things and the small. All of it is important, all of it matters. All of it.
Today’s memory is of Kieran, learning to walk.
He was an early walker, one of the first in his little group of friends to take the leap. He was determined, like his father. James was so proud. I could see Kieran, in my mind’s eye, making his way around the coffee table at ten months old, his chubby little hands co-ordinating with his chubby little legs as he got braver and bolder, letting go from time to time, then grabbing hold again when his balance began to waver. His dark curls and blue eyes are so clear in my memory, it’s as if he’s standing right in front of me.
I wonder what kind of man he would’ve been, had he lived. Would he have been taller than me, like James? Would he have done well at school? What career might he have chosen?
The ringing phone cuts through the silence, and I get up to go and answer it, knowing exactly who it will be. I perch on the arm of the chair nearest the phone, with its antiquated curly cord.
“It’s me, babe.” Ana, as I suspected. “I’m about fifteen minutes away.”
She’s phoning from her car, and I imagine her winding her way along the road around the lakes, getting ever closer.
“Perfect. I’ll leave now and I should arrive just after you.”
“Sounds great – see you soon. Hey – I bought a surprise for you.”
“What kind of surprise?”
She just laughs, and I can see her in my mind’s eye, shaking her head, an impish smile on her face. I smile in spite of myself.
“Never you mind. You’ll find out soon enough. See you in a few.”
And then she’s gone.
I put my notebook on top of the stack of others on the bookshelf beneath the window, and the pen on top. Routine is important. If I put it somewhere else, I might not remember where it is later. Slipping into my sandals, I pick the boat keys off the key rack beside the back door and make my way outside into the summer afternoon.
Ana’s my breath of fresh air, my bright light shining out from this darkness. She’s my anchor. Our friendship has survived a lot, not the least of which is these past two years. It’s been almost as hard on her as it has been on me.
Opening up the throttle and heading out over the water towards the small store and café on the far shore, I wonder what surprise she has for me this time. In past visits, it was a coffee machine and homemade Baileys and raisin ice cream. Sometimes it was something pretty she’d seen that reminded her of me. She liked to surprise me. I looked forward to Fridays, when she would arrive for the weekend. As much as I wanted to be alone, five days could feel like either an eternity or a heartbeat. Time, again. Inconsistent, unreliable. Good days, bad days.
The water is still and clear blue. Only on the roughest days are there waves to contend with, and today is far from rough. The sun shines down on my bare shoulders as I reach up to hold my white sunhat on my head, easing off the throttle a little bit as the shore comes into sight. A familiar flutter in the pit of my stomach warns me to steel myself because I’m approaching civilisation.
I pull the boat into the small wooden jetty, tie it up and climb out. My keys dangle from my hand in a forced show of indifference as I walk up the jetty towards the shore. People are sitting outside on the veranda of the café, and I bravely ignore them, walking up the wooden stairs and through the tables, entering through the back door. Ana is already there, and she turns to see me the moment she hears the door open.
She squeals with delight, which is a little out of the ordinary, even for her. People turn to look, but I try to pretend I don’t see them. She throws her arms around me and I return the hug.
“Babe! Oh my God!”
Something is definitely up. She’s not this gushy usually.
“Good to see you, too,” I say cautiously as she lets me go.
I glance around and sure enough, everyone is watching us. I pull her off to the side as someone enters the café from the front door. The last thing I want is a spectacle, although she seems completely oblivious.
“What’s up with you?” I ask, before I can stop myself. “Are you high?”
It wouldn’t be the first time. She giggles, her large brown eyes sparkling. Ana doesn’t giggle like a normal person. Her giggle is deep and suggestive, almost erotic. I’ve often wondered what she’s like in bed. I bet she’s wild. From her long black wavy hair to her deeply tanned skin, she is certainly anything but tame. She has a Maori tribal sleeve tattooed down her right arm, from the shoulder almost to her wrist. Her dress sense is best described as a cross between African hippie and homeless prostitute. She lives to shock and she loves to stand out. She has a hundred times more confidence than I ever did, even before.
She loops her arm through mine and turns me around to face the front door of the café. My heart skids to a stop. Standing there, grinning at me, is Chris.
“Shit…” I whisper.
It’s like the past and present are merging together, muddying the waters. I don’t know which is which anymore. Am I dreaming? It wouldn’t be the first time over the past year that I’ve seen something I can’t explain.
Ana giggles again, pulling me tighter.
“Do I know how to keep a secret or what?”
Chris walks towards me with open arms. He looks different, but my unreliable brain is going in several different directions at once, and I can’t make it stop long enough to figure out why. Tears spring up out of nowhere and I can barely see him anymore, but it doesn’t matter. Ana lets go of me and he draws me into his arms, wrapping them around me in the middle of the café, in front of everyone.
I squeeze my eyes shut and try to imagine that it’s James, not his best friend, who is holding me so tightly.
"A stunning slow burn romance, a potent and beautiful story brought to life with meticulous detail and whilst there was an insurmountable sadness throughout the story, it never felt draining because at the crux was a story where we experienced the complexities of healing, the strength of the human spirit and the power of the heart to love again. A definite recommendation from us!" ~ Totally Booked Blog - 28 August 2016
"A heartbreaking yet heartfelt and inspiring story. You feel the weight of this story while still believing in love and hope. How love forgives. Love saves. Their souls once captured by darkness are now free. Free to love. And free to live." ~ Bianca from Biblio Babes Book Blog - 29 August 2016