Eyes in the Back of Her Head | wisconsinacademy.org
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Eyes in the Back of Her Head

First Place 2012 Short Story Contest Winner

The day her children went over the cliff on the hiking trail at Eagle Crest, Regina Mayer was in the park gift shop, idly fingering a pair of sunglasses that she knew she wasn’t going to buy, that she didn’t even like the look of but had removed from their holes in the plastic rack anyway. They were adults, these children, their lives for a number of years conducted beyond the rim of their mother’s awareness—perhaps further from that rim than they might wish, this generation of adult children.

“Do you need a pair of these?” Regina handed the sunglasses to Tom, co-celebrant of a recent thirty-five-year-marriage anniversary, as he appeared at her elbow. Two years ago they’d sold the house and zipped off to New Zealand. Upon return they jumped in their new RV and spent another year toddling between Baja and Banff. Next in their yearly flight from winter: Costa Rica. This reunion was just a pit stop: Rocky Mountain National Park, the destination of so many family vacations decades ago.

Tom was happiest outdoors in the middle of a stream or under a canopy of stars, anywhere with raw hands, sore feet, freezing his balls off. He took the glasses. “What are they?”

“They’re sunglasses, babe.” They were the same kind as every pair tucked within the folds of their suitcases and the bags that fit variously to bikes and kayaks. The brand could be purchased in the tchotchke shops of every coast, at any latitude.

There was still time to check in with the rafting company before meeting the kids for lunch. Regina wanted to reserve a wet suit—it was chilly, early October—even though they’d only signed up for the same, fairly easy, half-day float they’d first managed in the Eighties, fingers crooked around the life-jacket bands of a six- and a two-year-old.

When the kids were younger, Regina had claimed routinely that mothers had an extra sense for the antics of their offspring, something like a teacher’s eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head talent. But this was something more primal and not limited to the visible—it included her children’s innermost feelings and preoccupations. Turning the gift shop shades over with her long fingers, however, Regina detected nothing at all of the present danger her children faced, of their ordeal in the coming hours (though, in the aftermath this might be explained by their survival).

It was as if her mother’s sense, over all these years and over all these miles, had fully ripened to include clairvoyance, so that now she saw not merely through space but forward through time, zooming to end result.

• • • • •

It was the weirdest possible angle from which to view a tree: the way a lumberjack might see one, or a dangling parachutist. Wet, bloodied, Mike lay at the base of a clay embankment, twenty, maybe twenty-five feet below and yet looking up at the tippy-top leaves of a slender aspen growing sideways and down from the trail above, as though the tree had bent to inspect him, a curiosity on the ground.

His sister’s head, the dripping ends of her hair and undersides of her nostrils, intervened.

She’d always taken care of him, or so went the family story: Kelly changing his diapers and rocking him to sleep, then teaching him to ride a bike, snort a pixie stick, and finally, before leaving for college halfway across the country, tucking her Trig notes and A-graded tests into the back of his closet to wait the four years until Mike would need them.

“You okay?” she whispered over him now.

 “Not your sweatshirt. You need your sweatshirt.” Mike mustered volume so as to channel command, both requirements for dealing with the river, louder down here than up on the trail. His sister was a black hole of help and protection, inescapable. Mid-semester freshman year, when he’d attempted to bolt from UC Boulder (she’d drawn him that far west), Kelly swooped in again, sending a cute friend to find him at the bus station, to press upon him an envelope with cash and an address in Portland.

 “You need more than a little strip.”

Kelly was tying one ripped sleeve of her sweatshirt under Mike’s chin, wrapping the rest around the back of his head. Raindrops that had been just a little misting spit this morning hit the river with plunking noises. They dotted his sister’s Obama t-shirt. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

“Look at your arm,” Mike said.

Kelly turned her elbow, her face paler than usual, maybe in contrast to the gash that had opened above her elbow.

“How are you?” Mike struggled to sit, blinking away water.

They both looked to Kelly’s belly, to the image of the President’s face from his first campaign days.

“I came down feet first.”

Mike understood that she’d come down after him, on purpose, the scrape on her arm and slick of mud along her side testimonies to heroics. His sister, the rock climber, the athlete, now—and in such a messed up way that it was almost Mike’s fault, too—newly pregnant.

• • • • •

In three decades the park had not changed. The same ring of cabins nestled beneath the same unbothered peaks and ridgelines, their storybook names still paying homage only to the more elegant animals: elk, bear, eagle. On a carved bench overlooking an expanse of rough grass, Regina waited for Tom to return from the bathroom. They’d take a short walk on the nature trail before meeting the kids for lunch. Just once she’d like to see one of these geriatric trail laps named for what it was: The Prairie Dog Track, The Lemming Loop.

Recently Regina had taken up tai chi, ordering a set of DVDs online. She was done with yoga, done with its dizzying downward dogs, tired of the minute movements of Pilates, as emotionally satisfying as clenching and unclenching a fist hidden within a sweatshirt pocket. But there wasn’t enough room in the RV for the new hobby, a strange irritation she’d somehow overlooked until now.

She closed her eyes, stepping forward to practice some of the movements right there on the central lawn. It was chilly and there was a wet smell on the wind, like distant rain sprinkling on one of the peaks.

It reminded her of something. The year Kelly left home, the job of waking Mike in the mornings had fallen to Regina. She hadn’t realized this practical role within the family ecosystem of her daughter’s early morning racket, her stereo and hair dryer. It had taken Mike’s not appearing at breakfast the first day of his freshman year and then his missing the bus for two more days before she caught on. The morning of the fourth day Regina had made her way upstairs to the kids’ rooms, Mike’s door still closed and Kelly’s across the hall flung open to sunlight. She hadn’t been sure what to do, the silence so profound as to be immobilizing. But then she’d hit on the idea of the taps, the bathroom sink and shower on one side of a wall, Mike’s headboard on the other. She’d twisted the knobs and then put her lips to the crack in his bedroom door. “Time to get up. Time to get up. Hey, don’t you have to go to the bathroom?”

• • • • •

The rain was now a definite one, classifiable precipitation. Not only chilling but also muddying the side of the steep bank. Mike gave the twisty aspen one last look as he shouldered the day pack and set off behind his big sister.

They’d decided the river would probably bring them back to the access road they’d parked on.

This past  summer, not two months ago, he’d had to call on her for help. The two-hundred-mile Hood to Coast Relay required a follow van, plenty of beer, and a team of runners,  but his co-workers from the bike shop had begun with their back-outs the week before the race, forcing Mike’s finger on the cell phone. Within twenty-four hours, there was Kelly, all the way  from her low paying yet highly meaningful job at an environmental organization in DC. She’d appeared on the dilapidated doorstep of Mike’s shared house in North Portland with sleeping bag, well-worn backpack, and running shoes slung over her shoulder. She had a big smile on her freckled face and a growler of local beer in her hand that she’d managed to pick up even as she’d navigated MAX.

“I could have met you,” Mike protested as he opened the door.

She’d swatted him as she swept into the cluttered living room—with its mismatched furniture, rotting houseplants, home-welded art projects—that he shared with three male housemates. “Well ‘hello’ to you, big brotha.” She’d begun pretending he was the older one the very month he’d surpassed her in height, as if at thirteen she was already savvy to her probable interests in her thirties.

And there in Mike’s house, eating an apple in the kitchen, had been his roomie Clayton, caught out in a rare moment of clean t-shirt wearing.

This was the other thing about Kelly, something not so glaringly apparent when they were kids but that had come to Mike at the bottom of the ravine, his head having stopped so neatly against the side of that rock: his sister had more brains and luck than anyone he knew, but she was dumb as rubber when it came to men. The time she’d visited him at UC she’d hooked up with a wannabe frat rat, a freshman in Mike’s class later expelled for pulling fire alarms. What was her thing for helpless, see-through losers, for guys who were about as useful as stone in the Bronze Age?

Mike felt a tug. Kelly was digging into the backpack. She’d turned him around to face the way they’d come, and now, reversed in his view, the trees and the bank made Mike’s heart hammer until he closed his eyes. What if they got turned around? No—all morning, the river had been to their right. Walking out, they would keep it to their left.

Ah ha!” Kelly held up the first-aid kit for an ominous lack of rattling. All that aspirin gobbled up during Hood to Coast, when hangovers had constituted emergencies.

“You don’t need a blood thinner anyway,” Kelly muttered, digging through the pack as if somewhere along the line she’d taken a nursing course. “But we’ve got gauze. A needle and thread. Oh—and here are our raincoats.” She held them aloft in the rain.

Mike groaned. He’d had an extra beer at the airport bar last night, having left his parents to their endless game of gin rummy and gone alone to pick up Kelly, needing to be alone so they could discuss the little surprise Mike now felt half responsible for, having led his sister straight to the biggest chump-ion in existence. Eyes lit with excitement, Kelly had asked if their parents knew yet—as if her pregnancy were some minor bit of mischief Mike had been involved in, like a broken lamp from an indoor football game—that she’d been knocked up not by the still-clueless and nice-enough-sounding young DC lawyer, Jonah, boyfriend-ish these days (and yes, she said she was sure) but by Mike’s only-occasionally-rent-paying roommate, a line cook and self-styled promoter of local bands.

And when had that happened? When Mike had been out of the van running?

You’re thinking of having it? Mike had said, too late to see her expression change.

Now Mike remembered something even more awful. “We said we were going to Pine Ridge.”

Kelly stopped rummaging. “Okay,” she said.

They’d left the car near the Pine Ridge trail head but had hiked further up the road to Eagle Crest, another childhood favorite, steeper but shorter. And what were their parents—Team Outdoors—going to say about that? Not even a note left on the dash.

Kelly was busy holding out the compass she’d unearthed from the pack, observing the weather and temperature.

“You just slipped, you know. It could have happened to anyone.” She said this slowly, as if to calm him, not looking at him but out over the river.

“You should have stayed up on the trail,” Mike said, the whine in his voice surprising him. “You could have thrown something down to me or you could have gone for help. Now we’re both screwed.”

• • • • •

“They could’ve had a flat.” Tom Mayer leaned back at the Grand Lodge so the waiter could remove his lunch plate. It had been some minutes since his wife had directed him to quit talking about it, to quit making excuses of any kind.

In his wife’s mind, the kids had stood them up—these same kids who’d slipped away so quietly this morning, their scrawled We’ll meet up at lunch an explicit non-invitation for their parents to join them on the morning hike. She was not going to forgive them, Tom knew. His wife’s resolve was hardening with age, the way other people’s arteries did.

As they drove back to the rental cabin, Tom tried to remember the various sections of the Pine Ridge trail. As in shape as his kids claimed to be, they seemed to do as much beer drinking as anything in their various outdoor pursuits. Then there was the altitude.

And the kids were getting old, too, though they didn’t seem to know it yet.

The cabin was dwarfed by the RV parked outside. Regina went in to put on a teapot but soon stalked back out to the porch. “I guess we’re stuck here all day,” she exclaimed to a copse of pine.

In the meantime, Tom dialed Mike’s cell again. An answering ring came from the top bunk in the back bedroom.

“You know what? I’m not wasting the day waiting around.” Regina stomped back inside to scrawl her own message for the kids.

In this season and temper she could only mean Christmas shopping, a task she set to with a foul storm already darkening in her heart, grabbing up car keys and navigating to the nearest Macy’s like a drunk intent on finishing what had been unavoidable all along. Tom would have preferred to forgo gift giving altogether—what was the point if this was its spirit? Not to mention the bother of storage now that they lived in the RV.

He’d dreamed for years of the day they’d let go of that house, of all those things.

So he said something, but not what he meant and not, to judge from Regina’s dagger-eyes, the right thing: “We should have bought gifts when we were in Mexico. Then they would have been unique.”

They took the Focus, the dinghy that followed so patiently in their migrations. The landing boat that even for its faithfulness to the mother ship was still their means to rove, rove, rove when it was the RV that weighted them now.

Returning four hours later to the empty drive, the kids’ rental car nowhere in sight, Tom was stumped. Did no one remember the first rule? Hug a tree.

Great. Now the kids are probably out looking for them.

• • • • •

“You don’t have any pot, do you?” She wasn’t totally joking. If her brother said yes, he might have a lighter too.

“There should be matches in the first-aid kit.”

She could hear his breathing, high and shallow. She’d checked his pupils earlier, but in Mike it was hard to tell the difference between concussion or hypothermia and his general state in life: an anxiousness that slipped easily to despair. He was wearing Kelly’s sweatshirt sleeve wound round his head like a caricature of an old-fashioned toothache victim.

Now Kelly said nothing. She’d looked for matches in the first-aid kit hours ago.

Mike stopped, slipping the daypack from his shoulder.

“We’re going to be okay even without matches,” Kelly said. “I was just joking.”

But then, somehow, Mike had matches in one hand and antiseptic in the other. He wagged both at her accusingly.

The excitement of realizing they had matches flared in the air between them and then died; it was the acknowledgement that they might be spending the night out here. And what dry brush or wood was there? Kelly’d had her eye out for flammable scrap for as long as she’d been straining to hear human sounds.

It was not unlike how, for weeks, she’d been waiting for human motion within her.

 “Does he talk about me?” she asked.

Clayton?”

Mike’s outrage was the energy she’d wanted to stoke in him. It would bolster her own.

“Have you told this Jonah yet?”

“I’m going to have to.”

“Of course you’re going to have to.”

“No, I mean, Jonah’s black—or mostly black.” 

Jonah owned matching furniture, kitchenware, and grown-up art—nothing that seemed as if it had travelled since a dorm room or weathered multiple break ups and their attendant divisions of property. He wasn’t any older than Kelly, but he somehow seemed to be. Lately this had come to seem true of everybody she knew, and Kelly had begun to wonder if there were some mistake in counting her years, if this were something of which Regina might be capable.

“Oh, well, Clayton’s part Mexican.”

“Really?” 

“No. That’s just what he writes on the forms when he’s applying for food stamps. Because he wants statistics about welfare users to match his favorite stereotypes.”

Kelly laughed.

“Seriously—Clayton’s really a scuzball. You have no idea.”

“Why do you room with him then?”

“Are you kidding?” Mike stopped. “Temporarily sharing housing is different than combining the DNA of our respective family trees, not to mention other nasty, sloppy things that I’m not happy thinking about right now.”

“What if Jonah had kids from a previous relationship? I could love them.”

“Does he?”

No. What Jonah had was a steady job he loved, a healthy jogging habit, and an appreciation for architecture. The first night he’d come back to her place, where the mattress on the floor covered a suspicious carpet stain and a wide strip of tape was permanently affixed across the outside of the only window (movable only by Spiderman) and where her never-cleaned fridge sometimes turned itself off as if in protest, he’d had nothing to say about the smell from the tap or the sounds of tiny, scratching exploration emanating from the walls at night. But this was only a sign of his upbringing: unfailing politeness even in what might have been simply a one-night stand.

“I don’t see why it bothers you so much,” Kelly told her brother. Though she’d moved her clothes and her books over to Jonah’s, there were probably two nights a week that she still found a reason to sleep at her own apartment. Following her back there one night recently, Jonah had said he was ready to do something about those mice. Kelly thought of her shovel, her fire extinguisher, maybe some poison balled in peanut butter. I’m going to send your landlord a note, Jonah had said, sleepy and satisfied with his solution.

Jonah didn’t need her. In fact, he thought he wanted to take care of her. But in the world he lived in, where expiration dates were minded and hand towels matched, the go-to problem solver was letterhead.

Mike came to such an abrupt stop she thought a branch had whacked him in the face. Two birds that had been hiding near them fluttered away, fighting an invisible wind about four feet above their heads. The bank they’d been walking along was now revealed to be, around the next bend, too narrow to continue, the steep side rising from the edge of the pooling water.

They would have to backtrack or cross. Kelly took off her raincoat, stuffed it back in the daypack, perched the pack on top of her head, and plunged in. She sensed Mike following.

On the other side, in shared and shivering earnestness, they began to gather and pile wet brush, handfuls of soaked pine needles, and even logs that were hanging half submerged in the water until, beneath some of this top covering, they began to find slightly less wet sticks and, under that, slightly less wet scrap. Then Mike found some dead branches hanging within a spruce, low enough to reach. “Let’s begin a new pile,” Kelly said, as if whimsically, breathing out slowly.

Somehow they got a little fire started; mostly it illuminated the ridiculousness of leaving its warmth now to try to cover more ground before full dark. They’d have to stay awake to keep feeding it and to keep watch on the river with all this rain.

“I’m pretty sure this would make one of Dad’s Top Ten Places Not to Camp.” Mike gave a laugh to try to make it a joke.

“Getting Wet at Dusk would make his list, too.”

Kelly thought of Regina, who’d enjoyed camping—or must have, given the number of trips the family had taken. Mostly their mother had loved making fun of its duties, playacting. We drive for hours and then hike for more so I can cook your dinner without a stove and do your dishes without a dishwasher? Great! She’d flap an orange towel at them, a towel that at home wouldn’t have been considered for car-washing, but none of the normal rules applied while camping, as if germs were part of civilization, not the natural world.

Kelly had gotten wet only to her waist but couldn’t believe how cold she was. There were entire minutes when she forgot she was pregnant—when she climbed down ledges or jumped into mountain streams. The other day she’d cracked a beer before remembering.

She forgot at times she was nearly thirty-five.

“Though it might not be as bad as leaving the trail to begin with.” Mike was staring into their tiny fire.

Had that been her idea? Maybe Mike was right that she could have gone for help instead of climbing down after him. But action—blind, forward action—was the secret Kelly had so far deduced as essential for adult life. It was the way into mistakes, sure. It was also sometimes a back door out of them.

“Let me see that cut on your arm,” Mike said.

He had tried to bandage Kelly’s arm earlier, but now they had antiseptic. What else had they had all along and not realized? he asked, laughing with a sharp chirp, as if what he would remember from this trip later would be the wellspring of inner resources with which he was currently surprising himself.

“What are you gonna do, suck out the poison?” she joked in a cowboy drawl.

Her arm beneath the makeshift bandage was crusted over with dirt and still bleeding. Her fingernail beds were stained with blood. Mike took out the first-aid kit, the antiseptic, and then something else.

The past few hours, if Kelly thought about the giant purplish area the park occupied in the road atlas, the edges of her vision dimmed and the speck of light she could see directly in front of her shrank and fluttered away, a cotton puff in the wind. Now her head gave way at the sight of the needle and thread, of her brother; when she remembered what she just might have done at Hood to Coast with her wonderful, wonderful life, her shoulders and body toppled.

• • • • •

His wife was not in her right mind. There was no other explanation. And yet here was Tom going along with it—as, he supposed, she’d gone along with him when he’d, in one night, bought an RV and listed their home of thirty years. It was the biggest, craziest thing he’d ever done without asking her. It was like he’d been saving up good behavior for decades to pay for it.

She’d awakened him in the morning—though how had either of them slept with the kids not home? She’d packed lunches, loaded their day bag, and even selected his clothes. She was waiting in the driver’s seat of the Focus when he emerged from the cabin.

Finally they were going to Pine Ridge. Why hadn’t they done this last night?

But Regina didn’t take the right turn.

“Where are you going?” Tom asked thickly. Was it the first thing he’d said this morning?

“It’s Tuesday,” Regina said. “We paid for that rafting trip.”

Tom had not shouted since Kelly had put the boat trailer through the garage door back at the house in Wisconsin. When had that been, 1994? No, he’d shouted when Mike had dropped out of college because a girlfriend had broken up with him. In lovesickness, what Mike did was a little like something Kelly would have done—except Kelly would have found a new guy in a new city in about a week, enrolled in a new and probably better college, and cajoled the successful transfer of all her credits if not outright picking up a degree.

He shouted now. “What?” The single word and its volume seemed to come from somewhere else, the glove compartment, the trunk.

Tom went along as far as walking into the rafting office. He would not put on a wet suit. Regina yanked it back over the dressing room door.

“Fine. Freeze!”

There were six other people in the raft, including a teenaged guide still in shorts, summer-tanned. “I’m sorry, we can’t wait for the rest of your party,” she said to Regina.

Regina tucked her feet under the inflatable bench. She’d applied her sunscreen, attached her sunglasses to their strap.

One time on a weekend camping trip in the Swiss Alps (one of Tom’s first—his parents had grown up on farms and were uninterested in sleeping outdoors for fun), Tom’s group had become lost. They’d been so thirsty that when they’d finally stumbled upon water troughs for grazing steer, they’d cupped their hands to dip out the floating mud and then dunked their canteens. It was the worst and best water he’d ever tasted, tinged with iodine and manure. It was one of the sweetest moments of his life: he had known for a fact that he was alive and that he wanted to be.

It was not a day like today, when the total and encompassing fear of his children’s deaths was nearly enough to eclipse the actuality of their lives. When, if anyone asked if he’d rather go back in time and refuse that shit-flecked water, die right there and forgo all these years, even the lives of his children, he’d feel like the right answer could be yes.

There was no telling where one could be brought in this life, when the direction of that life could curve or shift. It would all seem short in the end, he’d figured when he was Mike’s age. And hadn’t he been Mike’s age just yesterday?

The first snickering began at the front of the boat. As they’d rounded the bend, they’d come across the sight of a young couple, a man and a woman on the bank of the river, one on top of the other. Though, Tom noticed, both were fully clothed.

Were they dead? Tom wondered even as the others giggled.

Regina attempted to stand in the raft, drawing the surprise of their guide. “Ma’am, you’ll have to …”

Then she was over the side. She broke the surface with her clean crawl stroke, in her wet suit a sleek, perfectly outfitted fish. It was as if she knew exactly where she was going, had known this morning when she’d dressed. Tom’s attention was drawn to closer inspection of the couple on the bank.

But for a long moment, still rooted quite firmly within the plastic raft, he did not think to follow, their craft and his swimming wife parting ways so quickly, the bank and the two bodies lying on it flashing by.

They were adults, these children. And the roar of what was ahead, the sound that had been tugging at Tom, must have been ringing all this time in their ears, too.

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Contributors

Jill Stukenberg is a graduate of Marquette University and the MFA program at New Mexico State University. Originally from Sturgeon Bay, Stukenberg returned to Wisconsin from New Mexico in 2010, and starting in August 2012 she will be an assistant professor of English (Creative Writing) at University of Wisconsin–Marathon County.

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