Pull (Push #2)

by Claire Wallis

Emma’s Prologue

David’s old red BMW is parked on the 9th Street Bridge, and I am standing next to it, looking down into the water. Looking down at the ripples. At her ripples. At the ripples of the little redheaded girl I used to be. A girl that didn’t think she was worth anything at all. The sandbags pull her down fast. Just like I knew they would. I watch her disappear and the ripples return to calm.

I take a deep breath and walk away.

Chapter 1

After Maggie

I’m sitting on a rock next to the river with my knees curled up against my chest. My skin is all shivery. The river is quiet now. There are no more ripples because there’s no more of my momma left. I’m wet and cold, and I don’t understand. How am I supposed to get home before he does? I need to be in my bed. I need to be asleep before Daddy comes home or else he’s gonna be mad.

I wish I could fly. I wish I could fly through the water and down to my momma and pull her right up outta the river and take her back home. I wish I had the wings I made last year, but Momma made me throw them away. I cried when that happened because I was only seven then. I’m eight now, and Daddy says that’s too old to cry. Daddy says that if I cry now, it means I’m a crybaby. I don’t cry anymore. Not even when I hear him yell at her about that map.

I hate that map. The one hanging on our kitchen wall. The one with a picture of the world on it. I want to rip it into a million, billion pieces and throw it in the garbage. Daddy’s always looking at it and talking about all the places that he and Momma were gonna go before I was born. Sometimes at night, I hear him yelling at her about it. I hear him telling her about how she shouldn’t have let me be born. I hear him say that they can’t go anywhere because of me. Because when I came out, everything changed. Because when I came out, Momma got sad.

She didn’t used to cry so much, but lately she’s been crying almost all the time. And when she isn’t crying, she’s silent. She smells different, too. Even though I do her laundry and always try to remember to use a dryer sheet, she smells like oldness and stale chips. I don’t know what I did wrong. Back when I was real little, before she stopped caring, she would hug me sometimes and tell me that I mattered. She would tell me that Daddy was just confused and that he drank too much whiskey and it made his thinking go all crooked. But ever since I turned six, she’s been too sad for hugs. I think it’s because I told my kindergarten teacher about how she cries at night when Daddy yells at her. I think that’s when she stopped loving me. I think that when she spanked me for telling the teacher those things, it knocked all the love right out of her. It didn’t knock the love out of me, though, because I still love her. Because I remember the old momma. The one that sometimes gave hugs.

What am I supposed to do now? What’s gonna happen when Daddy finds out about this? He’s gonna be mad. Real mad. I know she’s gone because of me, and he’ll know it, too. Because why else would she go? Why else would she leave, except to punish me for being born?

I move my eyes from the water to the bridge, and I think hard about what happened up there. I wanted to touch her. Just one more time. I wanted to touch her skin, but she wouldn’t let me. She moved away, told me to get back into the car and go back to sleep. She pulled her arm away from my hand so I couldn’t say goodbye. But then, when I didn’t get back into the car, she touched me. She put her hand on my cheek, and it was warm. Like melted butter. It was the first time she’d touched me in forever, and for a second, I thought I saw love in her eyes. I thought I saw forgiveness. I thought that maybe she’d forgiven me for everything. But then she fell into the water, and I knew it wasn’t true. I knew that her touch only meant goodbye and nothing more. It made me want to cry. But I didn’t. Because I don’t want to be a crybaby.

So instead, I tried to fix things. Just like I always do. I tried to save her. I thought that if I could just jump in after her, pull her out of the water, and tell her that I love her, things would be better. She would forgive me. I knew she couldn’t swim. I knew those things she tied on her feet were heavy. I saw how hard it was for her to push them over the edge. Daddy can’t swim very good either, but I can. Me and Jimmy Paxton taught ourselves last summer in his swimming pool. It’s the kind that you inflate with that machine that plugs into the cigarette lighter in your car and then you fill it up with the garden hose. By the end of the summer, Jimmy and I could hold our breath for forty-five whole seconds.

But forty-five seconds wasn’t enough. Momma sank too fast, and when I reached down for her, she didn’t reach back.

I think it’s because she wanted to go. Because she didn’t want things to get fixed. She didn’t want to forgive me. She wanted to leave me here with him. As punishment for making her sad.

I need to leave. When I let go of my knees and stand up, I see that there is something on my shirt. It’s pinned there with one of the safety pins I have to use when the button falls off of my pants. It’s an envelope. I unhook the pin and drop it onto the ground, folding the wet envelope in half and shoving it into my pocket as quickly as I can. I need to get home. Daddy can’t know that I was here. He can’t know that I couldn’t save her. He can’t know that I failed.

I start running as fast as I can. I run all the way home. And when I get there, I’m happy that the house is empty. He isn’t home yet. I take the envelope out of my pocket and tuck it into my dresser drawer. I strip off my wet clothes and throw them into the washing machine. Then I put on my pajamas, crawl into bed, and pretend my hardest to be asleep.

Chapter 2

Emma—Present Day

I look at David’s face and think about how people all over the world are walking around with massive secrets bound to their backs, weighing them down until their knees scrape the ground. It isn’t just David and me. It is everyone. We all suffer at the hands of secrets, whether we are the cause of them or not. And we are a world of self-made martyrs because of it. We try so hard to hold on to our secrets because we are afraid that no one will understand or that we’ll somehow be judged because of them. People steal and lie and cheat and murder and ignore and deceive, and their victims wear the burden of these wrongs like some kind of godforsaken badge. I am guilty of it, and so is David. But I think David is ready to give up his martyrdom. I think, like me, he is ready to slough off his secrets and move on. He already recognizes that, without them, he wouldn’t be the man that he is. But now, I think he’s finally recognizing that maybe he’ll be a better man without them.

“It’s okay, David,” I say as I brush my hand against his hair, stroking his head as if he were still the small child I am picturing in my head. For once in my life, I know the right thing to say. “You know what, she didn’t want to be saved. It wouldn’t have mattered what you did or said. She had already made up her mind. She saw you standing there, watching her, and she still chose to jump. She chose to do that to her own child. She was gone before her feet even left the bridge, and nothing was going to change that.”

He looks at me as if I just smacked him in the face. “She was sick. I don’t think she saw it as a choice.”

“She had a choice,” I say ardently. “Even if she saw suicide as her only way out, she could have made the choice to leave you out of it. But she didn’t. She involved her own child in a terrible thing—a very grown-up thing—and no child deserves that. And now you are the one who has had to think about it for all these years, and that is really fucking unfair.”

He reaches over to me and pulls me toward him. I climb on to his lap, straddling him and wrapping myself around his body. When I hear him start to sniff back more tears, I want to weep again—but instead, I keep talking. “You’re right. It’s fucked up, David. You’re fucked up. And I can totally see why. I can’t imagine how all this has affected you for all these years. Hell, you already know how messed up I am. You know what Michael did to my life. His choices influenced everything I did for years. And your mother’s choice did the same to you. But you have to find a way to move on. You have to stop punishing yourself for something that wasn’t your fault. We both have to.”

His hands move up to my head and bend it forward, until I am face-to-face with him. He kisses me, and it is deep and lustful. The burn in my skin turns from anger to passion, and I feel loved and needed and right.

“I can’t move on by myself, Emma. I need help. I need you to make it go away,” he says when he pulls his lips from mine. His voice is scattered and nervous.

“Listen, you already know I love you, David, and I always will. If you need me to tell you those words every fucking day for the rest of our lives, I’ll do it. And I don’t ever have to hear them back. I’m not going away. We can move on together.”

David blinks up at me. His eyes are warm, roaming over my face carefully. He seems to be strengthened somehow. His back straightens and his mouth sets into a straight line.

He snakes his hands around my waist to the small of my back, weaving his fingers together and resting his palms against the base of my spine. “I know something you can do right now that will make everything better,” he says, the nervousness disappearing from his voice. “I know what I need.”

I look down at him and cup his face in my hands. I see the crazy current whipping through his body and vibrating in his eyes. I feel his skin start to warm beneath my hands, and because of it, I know that whatever he’s about to ask me to do is energizing and inciting his body far more than anything we have done before. There is utter and absolute ecstasy in his face.

“What is it?” I ask. “What do you need me to do?”

He keeps looking at me, and his hands tighten against my spine. I swear I can feel the blood rushing through his body. Every one of his muscles shudders as a wave of total rapture pulses through his veins. I cock my head to the side and narrow my eyes at him, dropping my hands to my lap. His mouth is not moving, but his eyes are silently screaming at me. They are telling me to save him. They are telling me to reach down into myself, pull out my own heart, and hand it to him. His eyes are telling me that I can do this. That I am strong enough to fix him.

A moment later he blinks, and from my place on his lap, I can feel his body harden. This thing he wants me to do—this thing that he needs—it isn’t sex, of that I am sure. It’s more than that. It has to be. His scalp draws back, and the edges of his mouth twist up into the sweetest of smiles. His lips part, and I think for a second that I’m going to see David’s teeth, but something stops his smile from going that far. I see fear there, too, beneath his grin, and I feel a drip of worry seep into me. He needs to start talking. He needs to wipe up my worry with his words. He needs to tell me what he wants.

I don’t say a word. I just look at him and wait. A moment passes, and he releases his hands from around my waist and drops them backward, onto the rock behind him. He leans his body back and away from mine.

“I need you to let me save you,” he says quietly. The quiver of joy I felt from his body is gone now, and his voice sounds deep and oppressed. “I need you to trust me completely and do exactly what I say. If you don’t…” He trails off, leaving me to wonder precisely what will happen if I don’t comply. I shake my head from side to side and crease my brow; it is a sign that I don’t understand. His eyes leave mine and drop toward the ground. I think I see shame on his face.

“If you don’t,” he continues, “we fail. I fail. And that can’t happen. Not with you.” I lift my hands, grasp his face, and tilt it upward. His eyes settle on mine once again, and I put my mouth onto his. He sucks the air out of me and tangles his fingers into my hair. He already knows I will do exactly what he says. I think he’s always known I would.

He pulls his mouth off of mine and holds me against him. “Save me from what?” I ask.