To each of them it seemed that the life she led was the only real life and that the other led a life of mere illusion. As mother faced daughter, they both sensed that the end of all things imagined were close. Although neither one could see what was right before her eyes, they felt change was coming at them, change as sure as the leaves of autumn.
Sheila wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. “Jackie, it’s just that I worry about you . . .”
“Worry . . . about . . . what?” The girl spat the words back in three pointed breaths.
Worry had been branded on the forehead of the women some years back when her husband left, without packing a bag, without saying a word. Jackie was in her second year of junior high when he left, right at the peak of being more than either one of them could handle. And Maggie was a senior in high school, trying desperately to find her way. Still, after all these years, Jackie couldn’t see it etched there. And even now, the fear between them smelled like anger to one and anxiety to the other.
“I’m 18, remember? An adult. A legal adult. God, mom, when will you get it?”
“I do get it. It’s just that I still have rules in this house and . . .”
“Then I’m outta this house. Huh? What about that? I’ll just leave!” Jackie took a step forward as if punctuating her own comment.
“It’s the same rules you’ve followed your whole life. They were good enough for Maggie and they’re good enough for you. What’s so hard about it now that you’re 18?”
Jackie shook her head. “Everything. Everything is wrong. I’m ready for my own rules. Moving out sounds good, it feels right already.”
“It doesn’t matter how it feels. Do you think you could afford a place on your own? You have no idea what it takes to survive out there.”
It doesn’t matter how it feels, Sheila told herself, trying to shake off the feeling of tension pushing its way between them.
“I’ll room with Maggie until I find a place.”
“Maggie works almost 50 hours a week to pay for her apartment and groceries and utilities. Is that what you want? Working your life away for shelter and food? I thought you wanted to start college this fall. The very first Statler to go to college. And . . . what about church? Maggie still goes, she’ll want you to go, she’ll have the same rules I have here.”
The mother and daughter looked at each other for a long moment. The clock in the hall chimed the top of the eleventh hour. The slow rhythmic gongs counted down the official end of Jackie’s childhood. Sheila hung her head.
“I’m going to pack a few things and call Maggie.” Jackie flew out of the room.
Alone in the kitchen, Sheila said a desperate prayer for her daughter. Then, without another thought about it she began to pack some groceries for the girl to take with her to her sister’s apartment. Bread, eggs, milk. While her thoughts swirling down the drain of her broken heart, Sheila packed the grocery bag. Just a few staples. Just a few things to get them by.
“I’m leaving, mom.” Jackie yelled from the front door.
Sheila met her there with the bag of food. “Here, take this with you. Just a few staples to help out, you shouldn’t go empty-handed.”
Sheila followed her youngest daughter to her car and put the grocery sack in the trunk next to Jackie’s suitcase, closing the trunk with a thud. Then she went over to the car door window and tapped on it as Jackie started the car.
The girl rolled down the window but didn’t look up. “I’ll be back tomorrow for some more of my stuff.” Jackie pushed a button on her cell phone, the name Maggie lit up on the screen.
Sheila leaned down and spoke gently, “I know I’ve said it a thousand times, but, ‘Go with God, Jackie-girl.’”
Using her childhood nickname brought fresh tears to Sheila’s eyes.
“Sure, mom,” Jackie laughed, “put Him in the trunk with the groceries.” She put the phone to her ear and drove off without another word to her mother.
At midnight, Sheila’s phone shook her from a fitful dream of clocks chiming down hallways that have no end.
“Hello,” she mumbled.
“Mom. Mo . . .” The voice hesitated.
“Maggie? What? What is it?”
“It’s Jackie, mom, she’s de. . .” A cutting sob broke off her final word.
“What? What are you talking about, honey?”
The doorbell rang.
“Maggie? What’s wrong? What happened?”
The doorbell rang again, as Sheila held the phone in her hand. She waited as the gasping sobs of her daughter filled her entire bedroom.
“Maggie, hold on, OK, just hold on a minute, someone’s at the door and,” she set the phone down and got her robe. She walked down the hall and looked out the living room window at the front of the house. Just as she’d suspected, a police car sat in the street, outlined with the blackness of night. Her stomach started hurting and her head felt too weighty for her to move. For a brief moment she considered not answering the door, but her body, without her consent, took her toward it. As her hand grasped the lock the doorbell rang out a third time.
“Mrs. Statler? I’m Deputy Miller and this is Deputy Jones. Could we come in and speak with you?”
“It’s Jackie . . . . it’s Jackie,” Sheila stumbled backwards into a wall as the police officers slowly began occupying her personal space with phrases like “Let’s go sit down, Mrs. Statler,” and “Is there someone we can call for you?”
In a blur, Sheila found herself seated on her couch with the words “accident,” “dead on arrival,” and “car totaled” being flung at her like knives in a carnival side show.
“I don’t understand,” Sheila said, tears had steadily been streaming down her face.
“Your daughter ran a red light . . . side-swiped another car . . . the whole car was totaled . . . there were no survivors.”
Silence settled deep between Mrs. Statler and the Deputies.
“She was going to Maggie’s,” Sheila said. “She took her suitcase and some groceries . . . she should have been there by now.”
“You confirm then, that there were groceries and a bag with personal belongings in Jackie’s trunk?” One of the voices asked.
“Yes, I packed some food for her to take with her, just a few staples . . . to get them by for a while, you know.” Sheila wondered why her voice didn’t sound like her voice.
“Strange thing about those groceries, ma’am,” Deputy Miller began. “The trunk came open in the crash and her bag and the belongings were scattered all over but the groceries . . . strangest thing . . .”
Sheila finally looked at the men sitting across from her. One of them was writing frantically into a small notebook, while the other was rubbing his hands together as if trying to warm up.
“What?” She asked.
They looked at each other, one of the men nodded to the other one.
“What?” Sheila’s raised voice surprised even herself.
“The, um, groceries in your daughter’s trunk were intact.”
“Intact? What? What do you mean intact? Sheila held her stomach tight with her arms, fearful that she would vomit in her lap if she didn’t. She leaned forward, “What are you saying?”
“It’s very unusual to have an accident of this magnitude and still find a full carton of unbroken eggs in the trunk.”
The other officer spoke up, “We were right around the corner and heard the crash. If we hadn’t been the first ones on the scene within a minute of the accident, I would have sworn that someone set the groceries in the trunk after the accident.”
The officer’s head was nodding in what seemed to Sheila to be a very unnatural way. Her gaze rested heavy upon the unreal movements of the figures in front of her. Her eyes closed involuntarily and without warning her daughter’s voice resounded in her head, “Sure, mom, put Him in the back with the groceries.”
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.”