She didn’t answer me right away, and I started to doubt that it was actually her. Anna had left this small town ages ago. Fresh out of high school, she made for the big city. She had plans – she was going to study art. Spend her first year or two in the states and then finish her degree abroad, studying at only the most prestigious of art schools around the world.
Anna had always been an ambitious little girl.
I watched the young woman lift her crying infant out of the shopping cart, bouncing him as she patted his back and rocked him back and forth. I could just barely make out the sweet lullabies she hummed softly in his ear. With seemingly unwavering patience and the expertise of an experienced mother, the young woman unloaded the groceries from her cart and pushed it to the nearest cart return several yards from her car. All one-handed, a sobbing child flailing on her hip.
I didn’t realize I had rested my hand on the open hatch of her car until she turned around, eyes wide with a mixture of surprise and fright. Her free hand reached towards the back pocket of her jeans, and I quickly raised mine to assure her that she was in no danger. She stopped, her hand poised on the phone protruding from her back pocket. Her grip tightened protectively around her crying son as her face hardened.
There was no mistaking her now. This was Anna. This was the bright child with dreams higher than the skies and a smile like the sun always illuminating her face. The sweet little girl who had been my companion for so many years on the playground and in the school halls. My lunch buddy, my study partner, my motivation and my unofficial tutor. I had always been such a stupid kid.
The twinge of guilt I had felt when I first saw her in the parking lot now twisted my heart with a painful grip. I looked into those tired brown eyes, once so full of light and ambition. The thin brown hair, once full of curly bouncing life, now faded and streaked with grey that made her look much older than she should be.
My eyes traced the fading creases in the corners of her eyes – kids used to tease her all the time on the playground for those “wrinkles”, until I showed her they were from her infectious sunny smile. I could still remember the way she beamed with pride as I stood behind her, telling her to smile and then tracing the creases with my finger. “See?” I had said. I would never forget that little giggle.
The pain in my chest made me want to double over, cringe in agony. I had always been such a foolish, stupid kid.
I swallowed hard. Cleared my throat. My voice still cracked as I croaked out her name again.
She didn’t bother to hide the pain my voice caused her. She cringed, wrapped both arms around her son as if to protect both of them from this monster standing before her. My heart broke as I saw the red hue rising in her nose, as the tears formed in the corners of her eyes.
I looked at the tuft of white-blonde hair rested on her shoulder, that was such a stark contrast to her dark hair. The baby had stopped crying, and as he nestled his face against his mother’s shoulder he turned red-rimmed green eyes shyly towards me. Shocking green eyes, like the ones I looked into in the mirror every day.
Dear God. I raked my hands through my own shaggy blonde hair. “How –“ My voice caught on the lump in my throat. “How old is he?”
Her eyes shot flames. White hot flames. “Do the math,” she spat, and then gently shushed her son as he began to whimper again.
I winced. The words stung. But she wasn’t wrong. I shoved my hands deep into my pockets as both of our eyes traveled to the ground.
I cleared my throat again. She sighed. A shaking sigh. A nervous sigh. “What’s his name?”
She nudged a pebble with her toe. Raised her eyes and stared out at some imaginary distraction to her left. I watched her delicate mouth move, silently breathe out a name. I heard her choke on her own voice; even that was a delicate sound. Even in all her strengths, she had always been such a fragile creature. She couldn’t be easily broken, but once she was, she was shattered.
My heart dropped to my feet.
“What does it matter?” she finally squeaked. She swallowed back tears and repeated a little louder, her voice trembling. She sniffed back tears and repeated her question quietly, weakly.
“Anna, I – “
“Don’t say it.”
The razor-sharp edge in her voice set off a waterfall from her eyes. My knees went weak as I watched the salty tears pour from her beautiful eyes. Her beautiful eyes that glared at me with such hatred, and such pain. I had ruined her. Every little bit of the Anna that I had fallen so much in love with, I had ruined in one selfish sweep.
“Anna, I was a fool.”
She shook her head, bouncing her son and hugging him close to her chest. “It’s a little late for that, Chase.” Her voice was like ice.
I nodded. “I know.”
The little boy whimpered again. I looked up as Anna shook her head.
“You weren’t there,” she growled. I started to open my mouth, but she cut me off.
“You weren’t there with me through any of it. Not through the term. Not through the labor. Not through all of the doctor’s appointments or finding out that your son is never going to be ‘normal’. Not through all the nights spent sitting outside his crib as he screamed the entire night. Not through all the random fits because he can’t express himself like a ‘normal’ baby. You weren’t there for any of it.”
She took a deep, shaking breath. I wanted to desperately to wrap my arms around her. To tell her I was sorry.
But sorry wasn’t enough. Turning back time and stopping stupid past me from running like the coward I was wouldn’t even be enough. There was nothing I could do to repair the damage I had caused. I had smashed her into a million tiny pieces, and there was no hope of repair.
“If you –“ Her voice caught in her throat again. “If you think that just showing up out of the blue is going to fix everything, you’re wrong.”
She lifted pained eyes to meet mine. I could feel the lump in my throat dissolving into hot tears behind my eyes as I waited for the words I knew were coming.
Her voice broke with a sob. She shook her head, holding her son tightly to her and burying her wet face in his puffy jacket. I shoved my hands into my pockets, balling them into fists tight enough to drive my fingernails deep into my palms. I silently pleaded with her not to say it.
“This is my son, Chase. It’s always been just me and him. You gave up your chance to be involved when you took off and left me alone.”
She stroked her son’s head. “Jack doesn’t need a father like that.”
My vision blurred as my head started to spin. I forced myself to stay on my feet. I nodded silently, not trusting my voice. My mouth opened and closed several times, but I couldn’t form the words I wanted to say. Why was she still standing in front of me? I wanted so desperately to make things right again, but she was right – I was too late.
She shook her head, refused to look at me. She started for the back seat of the car. “Goodbye, Chase,” she whispered weakly.
“Anna, I’m sorry.”
Anna choked back another sob. This was it. There was no regaining even a hint of the precious bond we had once shared. I had lost her. Without looking up, she whispered those dreaded words again, with more finality.
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