Annalise saw the mother and child fall.
She saw how the mother opened the window wide, all the way, until the pane hit the wall. She saw the mother disappear briefly into the darkness of the room, only to reappear with the child in her arms. The child, tiny, swaddled, little white head poking out. Probably sleeping at this early hour of the morning. Annalise saw the mother lean out the window, look down, pull herself back in, all the while holding the child to her chest. She saw the mother do this once, twice, three times. Then a pause, no one at the window, and Annalise thought, ok, back inside now. Back to sleep. But the mother reappeared and, even from across the wide street, Annalise could see her face. Annalise saw the mother haul one leg out the window, straddle the window sill, haul the other leg out. Sit there for a moment, like a bird, with her child clutched tight. The child a smaller bird. The mother kissed the child lightly on the top of its head. And then both gone, down, down, down.
It had always been more than a little difficult with Annalise. She’d been an anxious child, fretting over schoolwork and house chores, struggling to make friends. She’d read the paper once it was set aside by her father, and asked wide-eyed, worried questions about the news, where is Vietnam, how many people will die there, how about here, will communism get us.
After the fall, Annalise’s mother, Ruth, was beside herself with worry over her child. Aaron, she said to her husband, what do we do? Aaron called his colleague on the phone. Alfred, I just want to check with you about Annalise. They briefly discussed possible drugs and dosages. Alfred meant to say good luck, but didn’t. It wasn’t quite right. At least he’d been of service to his old friend. What a mess, Alfred told his wife later, and she agreed, nodding her head gravely as she stirred the contents of a steaming pot on the stove in their kitchen.
The window across the street was closed now. Annalise watched, waiting for something. Sometimes, a shadow would cross the rectangle of glass but no one appeared. No mother and no baby, of course, but also no one else. Then, a few days after the jump, the curtains were drawn, and no shadows could be seen anymore. It was as if the survivors had said ok now, the show is over. Nothing to see here.
Because she skipped two years of school, Annalise went to college at 16 and was in medical school by age 20. She was considering psychiatry, following in her father’s eager footsteps. He’d said we’ll have a shared practice here in Manhattan, and she’d nodded, eyes wide since childhood.
Alfred, dear old friend, came to visit a few weeks after the tragedy. He had always known about Annalise’s nervous disposition, as his wife called it, and was concerned for her and for his friend, whose heartstrings were held tight mostly by his youngest daughter’s delicate hand.
Alfred and Aaron sat at the kitchen table. So, tell me about Annalise, Alfred commanded gently, as if to one of his patients.
She won’t come out of her room, Aaron said.
What a thing to witness. I can imagine the ripple effects on such a sensitive soul as hers, said
Alfred, his head bowed, hands crossed on the table.
They discussed again the medication that Aaron had given Annalise. Alfred carefully broached the subject of an involuntary commitment. Aaron shook his head, she needs to be at home with her family, she never did well away from us.
Annalise had gone away from home twice in her life, both times to sleep-away camp. The first time, at age nine, her sisters were there too. The girl had sat in the back seat of the car during the drive over, her face frozen in a panicked rictus. Ruth, who was driving, had smiled as she watched her oldest daughters through the rear-view mirror. Whenever she caught a glimpse of Annalise, however, her breath caught a little, as in anticipation of some vague, looming threat.
The call came on the girls’ second day away. Annalise had had some sort of crisis. Kids in her cabin later reported she’d been crying quietly in her bunk for hours the night before. In the morning, a camp counselor found her, pale and shivering, under her covers. When Aaron and Ruth picked her up, later that day, Annalise said nothing. She slept the entire way home, and then slept some more, for almost twenty hours straight. Ruth spent many of those hours sitting on the bed watching her baby girl breathe in and out, in and out. Aaron, with all his years of psychiatric training, couldn’t bring himself to speak of the incident with his own child.
The second time, Annalise was fourteen. A suitable number of years had passed since the dreadful first camp trip. But within a day, Aaron and Ruth found themselves driving back over to get their daughter who’d, again, spent the entire first night weeping and shivering from panic in her bed.
One morning, several weeks after the fall, Annalise got dressed and asked her stunned mother for cash to go get some candy. I just feel like it, Annalise said. When the door closed behind Annalise, Ruth crumbled to the floor and wept. The feeling was so vast and so dense that it threatened to suffocate her. It was like watching a loved one who had been presumed dead and mourned intensely walk casually into their kitchen, very much alive.
Annalise was getting dressed most days now. Some days she’d go out, for candy or a walk in the park. She joined her sister and mother for tea once or twice a week, the family for dinner almost every night.
Annalise started borrowing her father’s books again. Aaron could have wept with relief. He took to leaving choice volumes out in full, casual display for his daughter to find and take, which she did, dutifully. This is real progress, he said to Ruth.
Things went on like this. Then it was the anniversary of the fall. Annalise spent much of that day looking out her own window to the window across the street, which had been shut for the last year.
Aaron had a dream that night. In the dream, he’d taken the girls camping upstate, which had never happened in real life. They set up a massive, cumbersome canvas contraption in the shape of a triangle, with metal poles and stakes that had to be hammered into the ground. Then, during the night, Aaron heard the distinct sounds of a bear lurking just outside, around their campsite. In the dream, Aaron wakes the girls up and instructs them to huddle in the back of the tent while he yells bear bear bear bear to scare him away. The bear sounds recede, but when he turns around to check on the girls pressed against the back side of the tent, Annalise, his baby girl, is nowhere to be found. Aaron woke up drenched in a cold sweat, pressing into his chest with his hand, lest his heart burst out in a bloody chaos.
Everyone slept-in the day after the anniversary of the fall. It was a Sunday. Ruth got up first, at around ten, and made a pot of coffee. On her way back to her room from the kitchen, coffee mug in hand, she walked past Abby’s closed door and heard her daughter moving around, then past Annalise’s room, which was quiet. Ruth thought she might let Annalise sleep a while longer. Aaron was awake now, but still in bed, reading his sleep disturbances volume. Ruth said good morning, and he mumbled something back. She opened the blinds to let in the light.
The sleep disturbances book made Aaron sleepy, so he closed his eyes for a moment. A memory Annalise at seven years of age descended on him, unwelcome. The girl was quite brilliant, everyone knew, and she delighted her teachers with her intellectual prowess. But the teachers knew about Annalise’s shyness, and would mostly let her do her work on her own. One day a substitute teacher called on her to solve a math problem at the blackboard, in front of the whole class. Annalise walked over as she was told, stood for a moment, then wet herself. A puddle formed at her feet, but Annalise didn’t move. Aaron knew that Abby, a few grades above, was called upon to come and assist her sister, who would not speak, not walk away, not look at anyone. Abby picked Annalise up, with great difficulty as she was not all that much bigger, and took her to sit on a bench outside. They sat there together until the end of the day and then walked back home, hand in hand.
When Ruth came back from Karen’s house, in the mid-afternoon, Annalise’s door was still closed. Ruth brushed her hand gently on it, wondering whether to knock or wait. Whether to intrude or give her daughter space. Aaron was still in their room, now dressed and again sitting on the armchair by the window. Did you have lunch? She asked. A sandwich. You? Same. Ruth took her shoes and jacket off, started removing her earrings. Annalise still asleep? She asked. Think so, said Aaron. Ruth took her hair pins out. And Abby? Aaron closed his book, stretched out his legs. Library, he said.
Ruth fried some eggs in the evening, for dinner. She and Aaron and Abby, back from the library with a few heavy books, ate mostly in silence. Occasionally, they glanced in the general direction of Annalise’s room. When Ruth was washing the few dishes they’d used, Aaron suddenly said, do you remember when Annalise was born? Ruth blinked a few times, suddenly confused, unsteady. Of course. She was small.
She was quiet, said Aaron.
Not much more was said after dinner. They walked slowly back to their rooms, dragging their feet, looking wistfully at Annalise’s closed door, ears perked up in the silence. Abby brought her hand to the door, but Ruth shook her head no.
Still in the hallway, Aaron scrunched up his nose and sniffed, as if he could pick up something in the air, a clue or a hint of some kind. His home now felt like a battlefield, and he half expected to smell blood and gunpowder coming out of Annalise’s room. Ruth ran her fingers over the door and slowed her pace. Aaron put his hands on her shoulders and whispered, let’s not, just yet. Ruth swallowed a sob.
They got ready for bed. They changed into their pajamas in silence, put their clothes away. Aaron sat in his chair and grabbed his book. He ran his hand over the cover gently, as if to smooth it, but it was a solid hardcover and needed no smoothing. The hand then travelled to his head and settled on the crown. The weight of it on his neck felt appropriate. He watched his wife. Ruth had taken a couple of Valiums before she brushed her teeth, and was waiting anxiously for them to kick in. She moved slowly around the room, picking up a little ceramic duck and putting it down, drawing the curtains, pulling back the bed cover and fluffing up the pillows. Then she was woozy, thinking that sleep was important, so restorative. The perfect balm for herself, and for her tired Annalise. Ruth got into bed and looked at Aaron, who was reading again, still in his chair. Before she finally drifted off, she noticed how long it was taking her husband to flip to a new page. Ages and ages.
LILA RABINOVICH is a public policy analyst who writes in her spare time. Her fiction has appeared in JellyFish Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Burnt Pine Magazine, The Scores, Cosmonauts Avenue, High Plains Register, Atlas and Alice and elsewhere. One of her pieces was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can find her writing at lilawrites.net