On the drive up to Bear’s place, Rae relaxes into the seat next to him. She lets Bear hold her hand and casually stares out the window up 101 to Novato, then out to the country roads past Sebastopol and Forestville. Small farms, open fields. Goats and white picket fences; green grass, gold. Rae glances back only once at Mona, asleep in her booster seat.
There are words that mean love and then there is love itself.
This is not untrue. And Rae knows it’s what Bear believes even if he hasn’t said it outright. So she is learning to show her love for him and not just say the word. When he called to invite her up for the weekend, she had been looking over papers, waiting for the water to boil for pasta while Mona drew on the walls of her bedroom. She didn’t know about the wall art until Mona came out, beaming. “Come see, come see!”
“Shit,” she’d said into the phone, following Mona into her room. “I have to go. But, yes, yes.” She told Bear. “A weekend together. The three of us. Sounds great.”
So she packed Mona’s pajamas and a small bin of puzzles, picture books. A pad of blank paper. Markers. Pinky the stuffed dog that used to bark but doesn’t anymore.
Bear makes love sound easy. And why shouldn’t it be? When they pull into the gravel driveway, Rae looks around at the redwoods, the low hills, the sky and thinks: it can be easy. It is easy.
She lifts their suitcases out of the trunk while Bear grabs the grocery bags. Mona climbs out of the backseat and takes off down the path to the front door. Bear and Rae set up the picnic on the porch— salami and cheese and bread from the market. They kiss on the patio. Bear, so tall, pushes a strand of Rae’s hair behind her ear. She likes standing on her tiptoes to reach him. The sturdiness of his form and the heat of his hands. He whispers something: a quiet plan for later, when the stars are out and Mona is snug in the room Bear cleared out for her, the one with the wood paneling and skylights.
Rae calls Mona to come see her room. Mona runs straight to the plump goldfish with feathery fins swimming in a glass bowl on an otherwise empty wooden bookshelf.
Every kid needs a pet, Bear said over the phone last night. And now she sees him nod. “Was I right or was I right?”
“Yes,” Rae agrees. She is learning to show this word, too, and not just say it. “Yes,” she says again, feeling the ease of it all.
Paul wouldn’t understand this place even if he tried. Rae feels the old need to make him see, to make him understand things the ways she does. To appreciate the dry heat, the shady redwoods, Bear’s wind chimes and stepping stones, the pasta dinners and haphazard garden with its ramble of bricks and gnarled apricot trees. The compact magnolia and the random scattering of wooden statues like Rae’s grandfather used to make.
But why does her ex-husband, Mona’s father, need to understand this? This desire makes no sense. But still she wishes Paul saw. The fact that Bear buys weekly lottery tickets using Mona’s birthdate as his lucky number. How he reads the paper from the bottom up. The story he tells of the time he sent a stamped letter off to the savanna, trying for a lion. How he believed a big wooden crate would arrive on his porch with holes for air and a torn page of instructions. How his real name is Gordon but no one ever calls him that.
Rae shouldn’t be thinking of Paul. Not here. Not now. It’s his weekend, technically, to have Mona. Rae made up a story about a preschool party, a school event, she’d called it in order to keep Mona with her for the weekend trip. Still, she knows there is no true way to measure the old by the new, the past by the present. Paul wouldn’t see the point in Bear’s career. He wouldn’t call it a career, even. Bear designs and builds and delivers wooden chairs around West Marin, calculating sales out of the back of his truck. Paul wouldn’t get the way Bear held the silence between Rae’s words with careful tending so that she could gauge the truth of his goodness against her own.
After lunch, Mona runs down to play near the creek (“Don’t go in!”) while Rae cleans up the picnic, stacking plates to put in the sink. After, Rae follows her down to the creek, calling, “Mona!”
At first it is a game: “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
Then: “Mona! Mona! Mona!”
Her name a desperate plea. The only word in the world.
“She’s not here!” she says to Bear. Only he’s not with her. He’s up at the house. She can see him loading firewood into the back of his truck.
Mona! Rae cradles each sound: the open o and empty a. She tries not to swallow the “n” the way it feels like the woods have swallowed her girl.
Too good to be true, this day, this plan. Bear’s plan. She should have known better.
Rae trudges through up-turned roots. Like Demeter in winter, except here it is summer and bright and warm and perfect, with a sky so blue it blurs.
Or, no. Those are her tears.
People lose their kids in all kinds of ways. Just yesterday Rae read about a woman in Colorado who had to pry the jaws of a mountain lion off her five-year-old son’s neck. It happened in her own backyard, 8 p.m., warm summer night, barely light. On Rae’s old street—before—she had these neighbors whose two-year-old son dropped off a pier at Blue Lakes. They had their backs to him, talking to a stranger about local breweries and kayaks and the hot springs up the way when they heard the splash. When they turned, a circle of water swelled where their boy had been. The father jumped in with his shoes and shirt and hat still on. He was in that crystal water in two seconds flat, searching the underbelly of the lake for the small fingers of his tiny boy.
Did the Colorado mother save her kid? Did the neighbor find his son? The desperation gets diminished in the retelling and Rae clings to the idea: the slow crux of a tale, after the fact and everything’s fine. (It will be, right?) The thin-gripped thrust of a child into necessary air.
“Where’d she run to?” Bear comes up behind Rae. He puts his hands on her shoulders. “Don’t worry. She’s here.”
Rae ducks away from him. His new love for her can’t help. What if Mona isn’t actually lost? What if it’s Paul who has lured Mona away, making good on his threats the way he has made good on threats before? Locking her out, wiping the papers from her desk in a fit of rage and the worst: refusing to hand Mona over once when he was angry. Mona was only a newborn then—crying in a dark room while Paul taunted Rae by holding Mona out of reach. They could be anywhere by now. Down the hill, on the road, driving through Guerneville, curving the Russian River toward 101 or taking the scenic route, out to the ocean. And poor Mona buckled in back of Paul’s Acura, asking why—and where—and where—and where?
“She was a here a second ago,” Rae says. The blueness of the sky crushes her. The heat hurts. “She was here.”
“She’s still here. She’s here.” Bear’s voice is calm and sturdy.
“Where then?” Rae wants him to flip the world and make it right again. She wants him to tell her if it is ground above. It feels like she is falling through to some other side, some other slip of time. He only tries to hold her. An hour ago this would have been enough.
“Come on,” he says, letting her go. “You can find what you’re looking for by searching its original place.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Her voice is a hard edge but what does he expect? He is good at these greeting card remarks—but Rae doesn’t want to hear it. All that work to form a child, she thinks. To rearrange organs, shelve secrets, contain, regain and then—
“Don’t do that to yourself,” Bear reads her mind. This is why she loves him—and why she can’t.
“I am Mona’s original place, so where is she?”
“Come on.” He crosses the creek and heads left, pushing branches aside.
The almost moon is a slim afterthought in the afternoon sky. It offers the promise of nothing; fullness, if it comes (when it comes, Bear insists) is days away.
Years ago Rae read about a woman in a suburban town who was carjacked and thrown from her seat. The clip reported there was a baby in the backseat of the car and as the thieves drove away, the mother’s foot got caught in the seatbelt and she held on and held on until her skin was little more than a skid mark.
Whatever happened to that baby?
There is no life for Rae without Mona.
Bear thrashes through the woods. He is a good guy. He scours the creek for her girl, examining even the smallest stone for a sign. The creek only sparkles in the sunlight, reflecting the hopeful sky. In this way, seconds become hours, flapping like pages half stuck between here and now.
Rae checks her phone to see if Paul has called—he would want to make a point of his prize— but she can’t get any reception here. If Mona is gone—if Paul hasn’t taken her—Rae will have to call him. She pictures him getting the call. Impatiently listening to her story and then making her repeat the whole thing. Saying something absurd, something remote like, I’m sorry to hear that. As if her loss isn’t also his.
Their last summer together, two years ago, they drove out to Pt. Reyes. Mona, three then, chatted cheerfully in the back. Rae loved that voice—sound of her searching for the right word. When Mona fell asleep, the car went silent. Rae fumbled with the zipper on her sweatshirt.
“Is it broken?” Paul asked. Then added, “Already?” He was always after her for ruining things.
“No.” Rae stopped clicking the metal piece back and forth. In town they ate at The Station House and then walked over to Toby’s Barn. Mona charged into the dark, open warehouse and started climbing the haystacks. The stacks reached the top of the hangar-sized barn, four or five staggered rows deep.
“Mama, look!” She called and Rae took a step closer, waving.
Paul checked his phone.
“Daddy, watch!” Mona called and he smiled, but didn’t look up. Didn’t see her teetering on one edge before bounding up to another.
When Mona got to the top of the stacks, Rae turned to Paul.
“She’s too high up.”
“Hmmm?” He smiled distractedly. For years she believed that smile was a placeholder for the real thing, but she never figured out what the real thing was. What that smile hid and if there was more to it, or less. When Mona lost her footing and slipped down behind the towers of haystacks, Rae was already halfway up. He didn’t notice the shift in space—the urgent energy—the potential loss. He only stood there with his vacant smile. Rae grasped Mona’s upper arm and dragged her crying to safety and still Paul had not changed that look on his face.
Rae walks deeper into the woods calling: Mona! Something moves down by the creek—Bear, she thinks. Or, Mona! But it isn’t either of them.
There was a last night. A last time. There always is. That moment when the end of one day merges into the start of another. Rae told herself Paul only pushed her head into the wall that one time, but there were others. Mona will tell you—if she remembers. Rae hopes she won’t. Not in the way the memory still shapes Rae’s mind. Not in the way it stops her even now, sometimes, from moving, from breathing the way she imagines other people do.
But what else can the world do for you but turn?
It isn’t easy and it may not even be true, but thinking it makes Rae see the possibility in the promise and in that shadow of time between then and now, the day reconciles itself. Mona emerges from a panel of light.
She appears as easily as she disappeared, happily tiptoeing across a downed trunk. Holding her hands out, taking her time. In an instant, love balances against loss and the whole thing tips miraculously toward life. Bear is there beside Rae. He folds his empty arms across his chest and sighs. Everything fixes itself eventually.
“Mama, look what I found!” Mona calls.
“Where were you?”
“There.” She points to a corner of the forest.
“Didn’t you hear me calling?”
“Mona! I thought I lost you!”
“You have to answer when I call!”
“Okay, but look!” When Mona gets to them, she shows them a rock shaped like an arrowhead in her fist. Dulled by time. Smoothed by water.
“It’s the real deal, alright.” Bear says. He doesn’t take it from Mona. He knows how to treat a treasure.
“You think so?” Rae asks, turning away from him to lean down toward Mona. Rae looks at the rock and sees the years of washing and wishing in her daughter’s puckered hand. The arrowhead, clean now. Ready not for war, but for whatever comes next.
Lisa Piazza is a writer and educator from Oakland, Ca. Her stories have been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is a finalist for the 2020 Porter House Review Creative Nonfiction Contest and currently reads for Fractured Lit. Projects in the works: a collection of linked stories and a YA novel-in-verse. Twitter: @lisampiazza