Mommy sang to me. She meant to sing only to me, but she sang to you too since you were there as well. She could sing more notes than there were stairs leading up to the fourth floor where our apartment was back when we lived in the city. This was before she bought our first house, “a house of our own, Sweetie,” she said. It was small, like a box, with only the rooms we needed. I sometimes wanted a bigger house like my friends. They had more toys and space to play, more indoor space away from the mud and slush in our front yard, my play space. Still, I liked our house. I could hear the birds sing from my window every morning and identify them by their calls, like you had taught me. Then we moved again. I did not know why then, Tobias.
Mommy and I moved a lot. There was a time when I was four when Mommy and I moved late in the night. She had me hide in a suitcase. That was the night I learned grown-ups could be scared. She told me to go in, and that she would zip me up. “Don’t make a sound,” she said. “If you do, we’ll get in big trouble.” Shortly after I was all zipped up, I heard loud angry voices climb up the stairs of our apartment. I think they broke down our door. I squeezed myself as small as I could. The suitcase was so tight, and I felt the fabric all around me. I could not see anything it was so dark. The air was stuffy, and tasted like sweat and cloth. I shuddered and tried not to squirm. I wanted to scream, but I remembered Mommy’s words, so I put my hand over my mouth and cried really quietly.
I listened and heard a man’s voice call Mommy “Paula”. I had recently learned that Mommy had another name that grownups called her: Paula. He kept asking where Genevieve was. Genevieve, Genevieve, Genevieve. Mommy said that she put her up for adoption, something like that. Eventually, the men left, and Mommy said I could come out of the suitcase. I gasped to breathe the air. She slumped into a chair breathing heavily. She looked like I felt when I would come crawling into her bed after a scary dream. I thought she was afraid, so I cried, and Mommy held me. We left hurriedly, scared that we would be seen since it was a full moon, but only a barn owl saw us as it flew across the sky. You told me what type of bird that was later.
Maybe that night is why I met you, Tobias. We were on a train, while Mommy and I were in the process of moving. It was the day after she had me hide in the suitcase. I think she was exhausted. I had never seen her nap before. I sat on her lap while her head fell back into the seat. Her eyes closed, and her mouth fell open. I stared at her. Her head lurched with bumps, and she never reacted. I poked her arm, surprised that she did not scold me, because it is rude to poke. Instead she continued sleeping, and I remembered being in the suitcase. I started crying again, but then I met you. You sat across from us at that moment in our compartment, calmly watching us. You were a grownup like Mommy with forest colored eyes and dark hair. I startled. You had not been there before, and I knew Mommy had locked the compartment.
“Mommy, Mommy,” I said, and like any mommy, she woke up at the sound of her child’s voice.
“What?” she groggily answered with her eyes closed.
“Look,” I said pointing at you.
“That’s the seat.” And then you were no longer there.
“Oh.” I said. “I poked you when you were sleeping.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have.”
Afraid of where the conversation could go, I changed the subject. “Mommy, who’s Genevieve.”
“Oh you heard that. I had hoped you had fallen asleep in the suitcase.”
“But who’s Genevieve?”
“Sweetie, Genevieve isn’t real. She’s someone that man wants to be real.”
“Adoption? Adoption is when you don’t have parents, so other parents become your parents.”
I did not understand how someone could be “given up for adoption” and how Mommy could have given up someone for adoption, especially somebody fake. I thought about it, and Mommy slid back into sleep on the train. Maybe grownups lived in a bigger different world than me, but I was big. I was four.
The train took us to a town where we spent the night in a house that belonged to some grownups that were older than Mommy. Their names, at least to me, were “Grandma” and “Grandpa”. Mommy called them “Mom” and “Dad”. Tobias, Mommy called them “Mom” and “Dad”. Adults had mommies and daddies too? And if Mommy had a daddy then-
“Mommy, do I have a daddy?” I asked when we had finally completed our travels and had a house of our own.
“Why do you ask, Gracie?”
“Because you have a daddy. Or do only mommies have daddies?”
“Everyone needs a mommy and a daddy to be born, so yes, you do have a daddy. He just wasn’t nice to Mommy, and I didn’t think he’d be nice to you, so I had to leave him. That’s why you don’t know him.”
“Oh. Why wasn’t he nice?”
“Sometimes people stop being nice. Now, would you like to sing a song with me?”
And so Mommy and I sang. Mommy did not like songs like “Old McDonald” so we sang “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “Hey Jude”. I liked singing. Singing was fun, but the friends I made did not know the songs Mommy and I sang. You did though. You did.
When I played with other kids from church and preschool sometimes the other moms looked at my mommy strangely. Other times other moms were really really kind to us and would give us meals though Mommy said she could care for herself.
“Why do they treat us differently?” I asked you once when I caught you sitting on our old couch in the living room.
“You will know when you’re older, child,” you said. Your voice was soothing.
“But why can’t you tell me now?”
“Because it’s something you need to learn for yourself at your own time. You’re a child. I’m here to keep you that.” You crouched down. “Now do you want to tell me about the cool thing you did in preschool today?” And I did.
I wished I spent more time in our house. I went to preschool, and then later real school for big kids. I went to daycare. I had play-date after play-date after play-date with the kids whose mommies who were kind to my mommy. Mommy said that she did not spend much time at home either since she worked and worked a lot, but I did like it. I watched you follow me.
I liked school and learning. I liked to play dress-up and dolls with my playmates. I liked it when I would play outside and feel the mud beneath my feet and the sun on my arms. You told me the tree in our yard was an American Basswood. Then you told me the names of the sparrows, chickadees, and other birds that landed on it. Mommy never knew how I could name the birdies. “How do you know that’s a barn owl?” she said.
She did know how I could find and name chrysanthemums, her favorite flowers, though. That was because she taught me that instead of you. She pointed at the bright orange splotches one day and said, “See those, Grace. Those are chrysanthemums, my favorite flowers because new life can come in the fall.” I think she thought our peace would end. She had me practice packing for if we ever had to leave in an emergency.
When I was six, I got back from first grade to see Mommy sitting at the kitchen table. Normally when I got home, she took me to a friend’s house or daycare while she would go to work again. Instead she just sat at the kitchen table with her phone out in front of her. She played something on her phone. It was a voice message, a man’s voice. “I know where you are, you liar, and this time I’m taking Genevieve with me.”
Then she saw me and sighed. “Honey,” she said. “Your name is Grace Louise Colden. Never let anybody call you anything else, especially not Genevieve. We need to move now. Go pack like I told you.”
As I went to do as she said, I heard her muttering to herself, but really to the man on the phone. “Keep underestimating and warning me, you bastard, because I will always win. You might have taken everything, but you can’t take her.” She didn’t win.
I think you knew what he wanted though, for you whispered at night to me while you stroked my hair in the motel room that Mommy and I slept in, “Remember you matter, my child.”
When we got to my grandparents’ house, they treated Mommy like she treated me when she was upset. “Why did you come here?” they asked with their faces tense while Grandma grabbed Mommy’s arms. “He knows you’re here.”
“How, how, how?” she asked as she collapsed into the living room chair with her face in her hands. She looked up at them, her face paling and collapsing.
“We don’t know how. Why didn’t you cover your tracks?” Grandma said throwing her hands up.
“I did. I did everything I could, but he still found me, so I left and came here. It was the only place I could go. He had found my previous homes. How do you know he knows I’m here?”
“He called two hours before you arrived,” Grandpa said. “He said you were coming and that he was taking her with him.” Grandpa pointed at me when he said “her”. All three of the adults looked at me, like they had just noticed I was also in the room.
“Has she ever met him?” Grandma asked.
Mommy shook her head. “What did he call her?” she asked.
“Genevieve Susanna Olsen.”
“He can’t even call her by her name. He always had to have his way.” She looked back to me. “Gracie, I need you to listen to me. While we are here, you are never to leave the house unless you are holding hands with one of us. Do you understand me?”
“Do you know what that means?” I looked back to her. “It means no going outside, no playing outside, no anything out. I know it’ll be hard, but you need to stay in here, so what are you to do?”
“Stay in the house and never go outside.”
“How long will you stay here?” Grandpa asked.
“Until I can get something figured out,” Mommy replied.
“What about school for her?”
“She can miss parts of first grade. She already knows how to read.”
“Does she now?” Grandpa turned to me and pulled a small notebook out of his pocket. He scrawled a word on a blank page and showed it to me. “What does this say, Sweetie?”
“Cat,” I replied.
Grandpa wrote word after word on the sheet until he got to sentences, but those were easy too. I could read books. He wrote for me until Grandma scolded him for not helping her prepare dinner. Mommy had slumped into a chair with her face in her hands, and once again I was left unattended, so I went after you. I found you upstairs sitting on my bed.
“Are you afraid?” you said as I rushed in for a big hug. I nodded glumly. “I will be here for you.”
Mommy said she was looking for a place for us to go, but it looked like all she really did was mope. Grandma and Grandpa made a few phone calls where I heard Mommy’s and my names come up. A day or two later, two new people, a man and a woman close to Mommy’s age but maybe a little older, came to the house. The woman looked a lot like Mommy.
Right as they entered, the man bent down and said with his face very close to mine, “You must be Gracie. I’m your Uncle Luke.”
I stared at him for a moment with my mouth open while I quietly said, “Hi, Uncle Luke.”
He looked up to the woman who accompanied him and said, “See, Tracy, she really does look like Paula, and wouldn’t Lila be her age?”
The woman, who I took to be Tracy, looked to me and looked back to the man. “Yes, Lila would be her age.” She looked at me and said, “Hi Gracie, I’m your Aunt Tracy.”
“Hi Aunt Tracy.” Uncle Luke shuffled along and followed Grandma and Grandpa to the kitchen where Mommy was, but Aunt Tracy stayed.
“So, how old are you, Gracie?” she asked.
“Wow, so are you in first grade?”
“Have you learned a lot in first grade?”
“Yeah, I got better at reading and writing. I can do math, but I wish Mrs. Snow would teach us more about plants and animals, like Tobias does,” I said letting your name slip.
“And who’s Tobias?”
“Okay. I think I need to go talk to your Mommy, but I would love to talk with you later.” Then she followed Uncle Luke to the kitchen.
“Why do they need to talk to Mommy?” I asked you realizing that you had entered and put your hand on my shoulder.
“They need to decide what’s best for your safety.”
“From him. But don’t worry now. Let’s look at the birds.” You led me away to the window. You knew there was no one around to see me. We looked at the birds and flowers from the window, and watched the clouds go by. Grandma and Grandpa came over after a while and led me to the kitchen, and everyone but Mommy asked me if I wanted to go visit Uncle Luke’s and Aunt Tracy’s house.
I liked the idea, so I nodded along. Mommy did not like my response. She smashed her palms into the table and yelled, “She’s my child!”
“If she is, then why haven’t you treated her as such and gone to the police?” Grandpa asked
“Why haven’t I gone to the police? I thought I made that clear years ago. When I first threatened to take Grace, leave him, and file a police report, he promptly introduced me to his lawyer. Now he’s gotten even richer. You can’t fight against Jeff Olsen.” She had said his name, a name I later repeated to you each night before I fell asleep. The other grownups all startled and stared at my mother.
Grandma was the first to collect herself. “He’ll never follow her to your sister’s. They live in the middle of nowhere. He tracks you,” she said.
“But you’d do the same as him to me!”
“She needs a normal life,” Aunt Tracy said.
“You just want what you can’t have.”
The grownups went quiet. Aunt Tracy put her hand over her mouth resting her elbow on the table while Uncle Luke stood behind her with his hand protectively on her shoulder. They all looked at each other, and I learned at that moment that adults could cry. Mommy’s face fell into her hands while she sobbed. These were not the cries of a little kid. Aunt Tracy turned to me and said, “Let’s go pack for a vacation.”
The moment I got up the phone rang. Mommy, who was closest to it, answered it. I could tell from the sounds that it was a man’s voice, and my mother’s face twisted angrily while she listened. She could not even let him finish. “You will never fucking have my daughter!” she screamed before slamming the phone on the table.
“There’s a child here!” Uncle Luke snapped.
“I know that!” my mother snapped back.
“But clearly, after all this moping, you’re not in full acknowledgment,” Aunt Tracy replied. Then she looked at me and said, “Come Sweetie, let’s go pack your things.”
“All of them.”
Mommy watched Aunt Tracy lead me away with her eyes wide open and her mouth half closed. Aunt Tracy and I packed up all my things, neatly folding all my clothes. Aunt Tracy sang happily while we packed, but her voice was not as low and deep as Mommy’s. She also tucked me into bed that night. That was weird, but you tucked me in a second time. The next morning, I had to have a talk with Aunt Tracy and Uncle Luke.
“Since you will be living with us,” Aunt Tracy said, “could Luke and I be your mommy and daddy? Can we adopt you?”
It sounded cool to have a daddy, but “I already have a Mommy,” I said.
Aunt Tracy nodded her head and raised her eyebrows at that and said, “I know. You won’t have to call me ‘Mommy’.”
“But you can’t be Grace Louise Colden anymore,” Uncle Luke added. “You need another name so people can’t find you who shouldn’t find you.”
“Does that mean I need to be Genev-”
“No! No! No!” Her shouting surprised me. “You will never be Genevieve. Don’t even say that name.” She took a deep breath. “You are just going to have a new name.” I could change my name? “Your last name will be Singer, since that’s our last name. What would you like your name to be?”
“Do I have to choose now?”
“No. You can take the whole day to choose.”
I thought for a several hours that day until I looked out the window to the autumn day outside. I saw some shrubs and color, Mommy’s favorite flowers, and I knew what my name was to be. “I have a name,” I said to Aunt Tracy and Uncle Luke that evening at dinner. “Chrysanthemum.”
They both looked at each other. “Are you sure that’s what you want your name to be?” Aunt Tracy asked. I nodded while they continued looking at me questioningly. I even knew how to spell chrysanthemum.
“Do you have a middle name?” Uncle Luke asked.
I shook my head. I had not thought of one, but at that moment, I knew what I wanted it to be. “Hope,” I said. “My middle name will be Hope.” They liked that. The next few days were a blur. Phone calls were made. Something about avoiding CPS came up. Uncle Luke apparently went to a shady place and came back with a fake birth certificate where my name had always been Chrysanthemum Hope. I eventually realized that Grace Louise Colden no longer existed. Mommy watched all this happen silently from across the room.
“Give your mommy a hug,” Aunt Tracy said as we were leaving. Mommy shot Aunt Tracy an angry look. She hugged, but the hug was not as big as she usually gave.
“I’m going to take a bath,” Mommy said when I pulled away from her.
“What?” Aunt Tracy asked.”
“I’m going to take a bath,” she said louder for everyone in the house to hear.
“Well you go do that.” With that we drove away. It took about seven minutes of driving in their minivan before Aunt Tracy realized something was wrong, but it was already too late then.
“Luke turn around,” she said.
“Turn around.” Uncle Luke followed her command.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“There shouldn’t be,” she replied. There are some adults that cannot lie to children. When we got back to the house, the adults rushed in leaving me to follow in behind and forgotten. Grandma was at the bathroom door. Aunt Tracy and Uncle Luke joined her.
“Joe! Joe, get over here!” I heard Grandma yell. Joe was the name other adults called Grandpa. “I need you to help me break down the door!”
“What?” Grandpa shouted. Then I heard his footsteps take off towards the bathroom. I began to feel what I felt when Mommy had hidden me in the suitcase two years prior–fear. In that instance, I felt your hand softly press against my shoulder, and I looked up and stared into your eyes.
“Is something wrong?” I asked you, knowing I could expect a response.
You knelt down so you were level with me and said turning my face away from the bathroom, “Yes, something is very wrong, but have faith. Come here.” You opened your arms, to hug me. I readily fell in. That was when the bathroom door fell down and the screaming began.
You pulled me closer, allowing me to press my face against your shoulder and smell the scent of forest that accompanied you while your soft hands went through my hair. “What’s going on?” I whispered to you.
“Someone will tell you soon.”
We heard the screaming of the adults, and we heard the same sound that my mother had emitted earlier while sitting at the table–sobbing. We heard adults weeping. We heard grief.
“What happened?” I asked you.
“I’m going to let one of them tell you, but remember that I am with you, child.”
“Call 911,” we heard Grandma say followed by the sounds of phone dialing.
“But what do we do about the girl? They could betray her to him,” we heard Grandpa say.
“Paula taught her to hide. Paula.” Sobs.
“Oh my God!” we heard Aunt Tracy shout as if she had just remembered something. There was silence, and we heard Aunt Tracy’s feet go towards me. You let go of me so I could face my aunt, but your hand remained present on my shoulder while you knelt behind me.
“Chrysanthemum,” she said as she stood in the doorway. Her face was red with crying. “Chrysanthemum.” She rushed to me and enveloped my small body in a hug. She pulled her face away, swallowed, and grasped my arms. Your hand remained on my shoulder. “Gracie,” she began again, “I’m going to tell you something hard. Your mother is dead.” Her face twisted. “Do you know what dead means?”
“It means she’s gone. She’s gone forever. She’s gone to Heaven?”
“Yes. Come here.” She pulled me into a deep hug. “Go ahead and cry, Sweetheart.” And I cried. I cried and cried, realizing that there would no longer be anyone singing “This Is the Day” to me in the morning, no larger fingernails for me to paint pink, and no one to tell me stories of a life with me when I was too young to remember.
Police officers and EMS were in our house for hours getting all the details of my mother’s death. I was told to hide in the closet in my room and not make a sound so he would not come after me. You were with me in the closet the entire time, holding me while I cried. I did disobey the instructions to be quiet once though, as you know. I looked you directly in the eyes in that dark closet and said, “Tobias, promise you’ll never leave me. Promise.”
“I promise. I promise to never leave you unless you want and need me gone.” And I was comforted.
I do not know if I slept that night. I do not know if anyone in the house did, but the next morning, we had to leave. “Are you sure it’s safe to take her to the same state as him?” Grandma asked as we left.
“He’d never think to look under his nose.” Uncle Luke said. “And besides, it’s not like we’re going to be anywhere near the city. Plenty of New Yorkers have never been to New York, if you get what I’m saying.”
That move from my grandparents’ house was my last childhood move. It was a long trip, but we made it to a small house in the middle of nowhere. It literally was the in middle of nowhere, in the woods in a mountain range called the Adirondacks. We were in a small lakeside town whose population fluctuated with the beauty of the weather in the summer, the color of the leaves in autumn, and the freshness of the snow conditions in winter. The only time it was desolate was in the spring. Aunt Tracy and Uncle Luke, who wanted me to call them “Mom” and “Dad” ran a business that rented out jet-skis in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. Uncle Luke/Dad was the president of the town’s snowmobile club.
They sincerely desired for me to call them Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad. Calling Uncle Luke “Dad” came naturally enough. There had never been anyone in my life to call “Dad” before, not even you. Ever since I had played with children from other families, there had been a small desire to have someone in my life to call “Dad,” but calling Aunt Tracy “Mom” was another matter. She was not Mommy. That woman was dead. At least Aunt Tracy acknowledged it. For a while, she seemed weighed down. I could not call her “Mom,” but once when I was eight I came home from school, and she gave me a giant bear hug.
“Chrysanthemum,” she said, “I wronged your mother.” We never spoke of my mother in the open day for fear of being overheard. “And in doing that, I wronged you. I’m sorry.” She never explained more, but she was crying. An adult was crying…again.
You saw it happen. “You must call her ‘Mom’ now,” you said after that, and calling her ‘Mom’ came easier.
That small town in the Adirondacks was the perfect place for me to finish my childhood and grow up. The years went by much more peacefully than they had ever gone by when I had lived with my mother, my biological mother. We never moved from that house in the woods. The seasons came and went every year with the thick white blanket that covered the land in winter amidst days where it was too cold to go to school, the fresh musty scented wet and floral springs, the mosquito laden summers where the forests and lakes turned gold at sunset and sunrise, and the wild tumultuous autumns where the mountains turned sun colored.
This was a house of our own. This was what having a home was supposed to feel like, and it seemed that the threat that kept my mother and me on our toes during my early childhood had all but disappeared, but I knew he was still there. I kept a small suitcase always packed in my closet just in case. I awoke in the middle of the night shaking with visions of being in a suitcase and hearing the screams of my grandparents and adoptive parents in front of the bathroom door. I remembered the name no one wanted to speak as I spoke it to you every night: Jeff Olsen. I learned, as the education I garnered broadened my world, that I could keep track of him. He was not a man of low profile. His name occasionally ended up in the newspapers, and I could always find those pages torn out and in the trash. The computer taught me more, as long as the browser history was deleted. He was rich. He ran a company. He worked on Wall Street. Destroying other stock brokers seemed to be a hobby of his. He never mentioned once having a wife and daughter.
I continued to watch the seasons go by from our house, fearing the day when we would have to leave in the middle of the night. School was never a difficulty for me, and my teachers always lauded me with praise, but you were the only one who taught me about the woods I lived around, what I cared about. You were the one who went on countless hikes with me. You were the one who reached up and took hemlock needles to suck on, and dirtied your fingers digging up Indian cucumber while we both tasted the sweet white root. You were the one who stood out in thunderstorms with me to feel the pounding of the clear water drops, feel the booming of the thunder, and see the bright flashes of light up close. My teachers were surprised to find that I had no ambition of applying to any big name colleges during my senior year of high school.
I said money was the reason. It really was not like renting out jet-skis and snowmobiles made a lot of money, and that was why everyone believed it. You knew the real reason though, why I still woke up in the middle of the night in cold sweat, why I got anxiety in crowds, for fear of being seen, and why even the idea of going to Albany scared me. I dared not leave the isolation my aunt and uncle raised me in. I spent my first two years at the closest community college to me, determined to hide. I commuted for an hour every day to get to class. I worked a few days a week at my aunt and uncle’s business. Everyone knew that I could have applied for and received a scholarship, so everyone wanted me to do that and transfer my junior year. That was what expected of me, so I applied to transfer to a state school near Canada.
By April, it seemed that the plan was set. I knew where I would go, yet I clung to our house in the middle of the woods. I clung to the trails I hiked up. I clung to the trees and tasted the wet bark. I gazed for loons out on the lake. I put my hands in the wet mossy April dirt beneath my feet. And so, on that one weekend, I took myself up a mountain while the landscape around me hurled itself through pounding rain and burning sun. I found you in a grove. I knew you had been waiting for me, but I was not ready for what you had to say.
“You’re not going to go to Canada for college.” Thus ended any sweet soothing remarks or lecturing.
“The school still is in New York.”
“But that doesn’t change that you deliberately applied to it because it was as close to Canada as you could get.”
“You’re not going there. You need to stop hiding.”
I looked at you. I gazed at your face, my friend, still completely unchanged after all these years. I looked at you, you who never failed to care for me. The wind tousled your hair, but you left no footprints in the dirt. “You know,” I said determined not to change my plans, “most people don’t keep their imaginary friends after age six.”
You took my arm, and I felt your warm hands against my cold skin. “You’re not most people, and I’m not imaginary,” you said. You paused locking your eyes with mine. “We’re going to New York City today.”
“You heard me. You need to stop running. It’s time to end this fear.”
I felt myself pale. “I can’t…I can’t go there.”
“Mom will never forgive me.”
“My child, if she practices anything she believes in, she will. As I said, we’re going to New York, and I’ll be with you.”
I took my truck. My adoptive parents would easily believe I was going camping for a weekend. It was something I did again and again, and I had taken a tent. They had forgotten the threat that had haunted my past, as long as they never spoke the name. My hands shook as I drove south constantly looking to make sure you were still in the passenger seat.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I asked.
“Yes, I do.” And you did, as you directed me out of the Adirondack Park and through the highways that crossed the state as the day wore on. The wilderness that we had lived in vanished, and buildings became more and more frequent and closer and closer together as the sky grayed and darkened. I tensed and breathed more heavily. “I am with you,” you said, “and you are going to do this.” I was.
We entered the city after hours of driving, and careened through the loudest, worst, and most stimulating traffic I had ever been in. The world was now made of concrete, fake light, and noise. When we pulled into a parking spot in a parking garage, I put my hands over my face and screamed. The air did not smell of musty trees, but of burnt carbon and people. I did not hear birds in the air, but the buzz of voices, and the constant hum, honk, and screech of cars. When I stepped out of the car, I vomited on the concrete. There was so much concrete, so much concrete everywhere. You grasped my arms, looked into my eyes, and said, “Don’t fear, kid. Come on.”
You led me out of the garage, and gave me space to cover my ears when we stepped out into the crowds, flickering blinding lights, and noise. I breathed, and we continued to move on. I just looked at you while we moved. You were the only constant in the overwhelming cityscape that surrounded me. You were the only person out of the many I could not avoid bumping into who was actually with me, though you seemed to walk through the people, as they could not see you.
At one point, I realized we had stopped, and you were staring at the glass doors of a high rise in front of us. “We timed this well,” you said looking to me. “He’ll come out at any moment.” At that, while staring into the tungsten light of the building, I felt my head begin to spin and my vision grow fuzzy. I could not do this. I could not confront this man. I could not confront Jeff Olsen.
“Think of your mother,” you said to me. “Think of Paula Colden,” and I remembered the soothing contralto and the long hair I played with. I remembered the first voice I ever heard. If it had not been for that man, she would probably still be alive; however, I would not be. When that man, that man who my aunt and uncle refused to speak of, stepped out of that building, I knew what to say. I felt your hand on my shoulder as you stood behind me.
“Jeff Olsen,” I said. He must have heard people calling him all day and knew what voices to listen to and knew what to ignore, but he stopped for me. He turned. He looked, and I saw fear in his eyes when he took in my face. “You killed my mother. You drove her to her death. Paula Colden. I hope you remember that name.”
He glanced to my left, to where you were standing with your hand on my shoulder, and then back to me. “Genevieve?”
“Do you seriously think I’d answer to that?”
He looked in your direction again. Odd. He cautiously took a few steps towards me. “Why are you here?” He said that to me, but his eyes flickered back to where you were standing.
With your hand still on my shoulder, I heard you say to both his and my surprise, “Well, Jeffrey, I did say you would see me again.” I heard something in your voice that I had never heard from you before, anger.
I whirled to face you. “What?” I said as you removed your hand and turned to face that man.
“Tobias?” His face was white. “She sees you?”
“Of course she sees me. I made it that way.” You grabbed both our arms and began to lead us. “Come,” you said. “Let’s go someplace private so people don’t start thinking either of you are insane as you talk with someone invisible.”
You led us through the maze of people, flashing lights, erratic noises, and bad air. I felt myself breathe more frantically and my vision began to become spotty again, but you squeezed my hand. “Be not afraid,” you breathed into my ear, and I calmed. I looked at the man who followed, and he seemed just as placeless as I did.
“We’re at my apartment,” he said when we stopped in front of another high-rise.
“That we are,” you said. “You must let us in.” I watched as the man took a key card from his wallet and used it to let us in the building. He led us through a brilliant white lobby with a fountain and a suited doorman to an elevator lined with spotless mirrors. He inserted his key card into the slot and pressed the button that took us up to the penthouse, and the elevator zoomed up faster than I had ever cared to ascend. The silence of the building contrasted to the city outside, but it was stifling, nothing like the silence of nature. I leaned against the elevator wall, and looked at the man’s unblemished business suit. He had a leather wallet. His shoes were leather. His smartphone, which he took out of his pocket to glance at, looked brand new. I had never had any of these things. This man was my father.
The elevator ride to the 97th floor was a short one, and the doors opened directly into the foyer of the penthouse. The place looked like it was from a catalog for the most expensive furniture imaginable. The outside walls of the penthouse were made entirely of glass, leaving the apartment permanently illuminated from the lights of the city. You walked in, the most comfortable of our party. You swung your arms, turned around to face us, and said, “That elevator won’t hold you forever.”
With that, the man and I both walked out. You pulled out a chair from the dining room table and fell into it, with your elbow propped on the table. “Please, take a seat,” you said. “We have work to do.” We both obeyed. “Jeffrey,” you said, “this is your daughter. You ruined her childhood. She has been answering to the name Chrysanthemum since she was six. My child, this is your biological father. Do either of you have anything to say?” I was silent. I gazed outside through the glass. I had never been this high on a man-made structure before. It was disconcerting to know that only steel and concrete were holding me up instead of a mountain.
The man remained sitting as rigidly as a badly sculpted stone. “I never thought I’d see you again,” he said to you. “Where have you been all these years?”
“Well, I did say you’d see me again. Let’s see, I did some wandering, but I’d say I spent most of the absence raising your own daughter!” You drove your fist into the table with a loud thud.
The man looked up at you with his brows furrowed and his hands up. “Well maybe if Paula hadn’t stolen her, I would have raised her.”
“Stolen her?” You got up from your chair as you said that. “Stolen her?” Your fist collided with his face, and both he and I yelled in surprise as he fell out of his chair on to the floor. Your foot drove into his chest, and then your other foot drove into his back.
“Tobias!” I shouted. You were violent?
You stopped and looked back to me with a deep mournful expression. You turned back to him lending your soft hand. “I’m not going to kill you,” you said as he took your hand. “I would never kill my children.” The tenderness left your voice. “And when your colleagues ask about the bruises, just tell them you fell.” You paused. “Like your wife!”
He sat back down and shuddered. He turned to you and said, “What do you want from me?”
“I think you should ask her,” you said motioning to me.
“It’s not what I want from you,” I said, “it’s what you wanted, or, at least, why were you after me, and why did you stop?”
The man stared at the table for a moment. He slowly blinked, but then he rubbed his lips together and shook his head. He grimaced and kept his mouth shut. “Answer her,” you ordered.
“There was no point in going after you when Paula died.”
“Answer her first question.”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Are you sure?” you asked, “because I know.”
“Then why don’t you tell her?” You straightened up and put your palms flat on the table. He shrank back.
“Because you need to tell her yourself.”
“The last time you told me I needed to do anything, you were telling me to do something that would cost me my success in college, which led to my success in life.”
“And so you kicked me out, but did that improve your life?” He was silent. “You know, Chris Parkton is a superintendent of a competitive school district in California with two adopted children in medical school.”
“Well good for Chris. So that’s where you went in between me and her and why he suddenly wasted his potential and went into education in college.”
“Did he waste his potential?” Silence. “I know you and your friends thought he did, but he’d disagree, and since we’re talking about wasting potential here, I have a girl here who, thanks to you, we’d both agree is wasting hers.” You both looked to me.
“How?” The man asked. Did he not realize the impact he had on my life?
“I probably could’ve gotten into Harvard, you know.” He looked back up to me at that. He had gone to Harvard. “But I didn’t even apply. My high school was pathetically small. There were only twelve kids in my graduating class. I think they were off to SUNY schools or nowhere, but my teachers had other plans for me. I managed to take AP Bio and get a 5 on the exam even though my school didn’t offer it, so they naturally thought I was destined for bigger and better things. Too bad I had no plans to leave the Adirondacks. You know, shortly after I learned where you lived, I developed an irrational fear of cities and then just plain crowds. No Ivy Leagues for me. Do you know why that is?”
He looked confused and questioning. “I think all throughout my childhood, my mother had me practice hiding and being silent, but nothing compared to the real thing. When I was four, I had to hide in a suitcase while men came and broke down the door. Can you imagine the sort of impact that can have on a four-year-old? Then there were other moves in the middle of the night. I didn’t know what was going on. When I was six, my own mother committed suicide, and I had to hide in a closet while emergency services were in our house so I wouldn’t be found and brought to you. I had to change my name and do my best to erase that past life of my mother. Now I know it was all you!” I was shouting.
The man looked away from me and then back to you, but you remained impassive. He grimaced and turned back to me. “You look just like her, you know,” he said. “And you sound like her too. She was around your age when we met, though obviously, I was older. So, what do you want now, me to pay for you to go to Harvard?”
“No. Why would you think I came here for that? Although that does sound nice.” He looked puzzled. “Because that’s what you’d want,” I answered for him. I got up from my chair and shoved it back in loudly. His gaze followed me, and I looked to you. Truth to be told, I did not even know what I wanted. You had decided to bring me here. Your arms were crossed, and you were looking down. What happened to your elder child, my dear friend?
“What’s the matter with you, Tobias?” he asked. “You never looked so somber when I was a kid.”
“This isn’t how I raised you after your father died,” you replied.
“Well, why do you think I kicked you out?” He looked back to me. “Why don’t you want me to pay for your education? Look, I can give you even more than that if you want.”
I walked over to you and put my hand on your shoulder. “Don’t think you failed,” I whispered in your ear, as you would have done to me.
“I haven’t yet…child,” you whispered back. Child.
“I met Tobias on a train when I was four,” I said to him. “He comforted me in ways no one else could’ve while you were pursuing us. How did you meet him?”
“My father’s funeral when I was five.” He looked down. “He did the same…He did the same. Tobias,” he began and you looked up, “I never thought I’d see you again.”
“More than that. You stopped thinking I was even real.”
The man suddenly jumped in his seat and stared out the window. I turned and saw the tail end of a large bird flying by. “That was a barn owl flying high in New York City,” he said.
“I know,” you said. You had not even looked.
The man got up and looked around, staring out the window as if to catch another glimpse of the bird. “It’s a full moon too,” you said, “though you can rarely tell in the city.”
He walked to the window and pressed his hand against the glass. “I remember the owl moon that night.”
“You should,” you replied still not looking.
“We went a few nights after the funeral. My mom was sleeping, but you took me out in the cold to see the owl moon. Those days in the woods were the best days of my childhood. I can’t remember the last time I saw a barn owl.”
You got up to join him in staring out the window. After a while, I followed in suit. “Dawn’s coming,” he said. He recognized the time of night. We watched and waited while the sky slowly purpled. An arabesque of colors formed banishing the remnants of darkness from the sky, while a glowing red orb crept its way up from the horizon between the towers in front of us. No matter how far removed from nature the city could be, the sunrise could not be taken away. So the three of us watched it. It was a new day.