This is a three-parter. Click here to read Part Two  or here to read Part Three.

A drop of water poised on the windshield. Bree watched as a tiny stream of water wriggled slowly toward the droplet, met up with it, and carried it rapidly down the window. She fixed her eyes on another sedentary droplet and waited for it to be joined by other drops, slowly growing, until it, too, slid down the windshield. Time oozed by slowly, the steady pattering of the rain on the roof of the car manipulating Bree out of her misery into numbness. She didn’t mind entirely, though she wondered idly if there might be some unwanted consequence to putting off her mourning again. Eventually she needed to deal with the pain, but there never seemed to be a good time for it. Behind her the gloom grew slowly gloomier. She shifted her eyes to the clock, then sat bolt upright and turned on the engine.

“Cummon girl. Don’t wanna be up here at night,” she warned herself. She threw the car into gear and drove slowly down the hill back toward the city. Here and there lights blinked on below her, reminding her how rapidly the sun set this time of year. She grit her teeth and pressed the gas pedal, cursing herself for her foolishness. The sun raced her, descending on the horizon faster than she could maneuver the twists and turns of the hill. She mashed the pedal into the floorboard, wrestling her healthy fear of crashes under the weight of her irrational fear of nightfall on the hill.

Howling wolfThe sun beat her, its last rays laughing at her from behind the ocean. She slammed on the brakes just in time to avoid driving off the edge of a hairpin turn. Behind her she thought she heard a faint howl. Her white-knuckled hands clutched the steering wheel, trying desperately to keep her trembling from spelling her doom in a wreck. When she reached the bottom of the hill and saw Mr. Delszeki’s lights on, she stepped on the brakes and slowed down to a stop just in front of his driveway. He wouldn’t mind. He would know why.

She grabbed a paper fast food bag from the small trash receptacle between the driver and passenger seat and breathed into the bag. The scent of stale French fries and old ketchup met her nostrils, but she kept breathing in and out of the bag until her lungs cooperated with her. Tears started falling again, this time in gasping heaves instead of the slow motion waterfall that fell before the rain started. These tears bypassed grief to carry the adrenalin rush out of her system, so she let them run their course before pulling the car back onto the road and driving home at her usual cautious pace.

Outside her home she stared at the door, dreading it. She was a minimalist. Paul was a pack-rat. Everything in her home reminded her of him and she feared remembrance. She pulled her coat closely around her and nestled down into her seat. “You need pills, girl,” she told herself. “I’ll call Jess’s shrink tomorrow,” she answered.

Jess’s husband, Conner, went missing on the hill a year before Paul. She told Bree once what she thought happened to him. Bree didn’t believe in pills at the time. She thought Jess referred to a dream or maybe some horrific urban legend circulating at the time, but Jess’ family made her get pills. So she could take care of the baby, they said. Bree tried to talk her out of it at the time, but now… Well, now she’d be joining Jess, clamoring for her fair share of sanity in pharmacy lines.

Bree’s family, if the term even applied, lived far away. She lacked support except from the smattering of friends she managed to make over the last three years. Jess was one of them before she got the pills. Now she was just another woman Bree exchanged pleasantries with during chance meetings in the supermarket, a mommy-blogging husk of domesticity bemoaning the tragic loss of her husband just before her child’s birth while a couple thousand other women who simultaneously wished to share in her tragedy and compete with her unimaginably hectic life patted her on the back via long comments and mushy emails. Bree simply couldn’t relate to her anymore.

Bree pulled into Jessica’s driveway very early the next morning. She never bothered to ask what time the baby usually woke up, but she knew that Jess’s pills would be calling soon. When the light flicked on in the kitchen, Bree walked up to the door and knocked. She knocked three times before Jess finally answered the door, looking nearly as haggard and wretched as she looked the first few weeks after her husband disappeared, before the pills. She scowled out the door, not really looking at who disturbed her morning. “What?” she barked.

“I’m sorry to bug you, Jess, I just wanted the number of your psychiatrist.”

Bree blinked a bit and peered into the gloomy morning light. “Bree?”

“Uh huh”

Jess’s face softened. She backed and opened the door. “Come inside. You look awful.”

Bree walked in. The sudden warmth of the house reminded her of the chill that settled deep in her bones during the night. A small shiver escaped her spine. She looked around the perfectly kept home with a sense of awe. It seemed far more feminine than Conner ever allowed it to be, more feminine than Bree remembered Jess liking. Jess watched Bree study her home for a moment before jerking her head, “bathroom’s that way. Take a hot bath. I’ll get a set of my old clothes.”

Bree accepted the offer, or rather, obeyed the command to bathe and wandered in the direction Jess indicated. A few minutes later Jess walked in without bothering to knock and deposited a robe on the closed toilet lid. “For when you’re done. The clothes were musty. I’m washing them.” She handed over a mug of steaming tea. “Drink it. You need to get that chill out.”

Bree took the mug and sipped at the apple cinnamon brew. When she felt her core temperature rise high enough to maintain itself for a while, she donned the robe and wandered around the house until she found the kitchen, where Jess sat at the table looking through an album. When she noticed Bree, she slid the album over to her. “It’s us with the guys.”

The elegant scrapbook lay open to the last picture of all four of them together. Five, really. Jess’s adorably pregnant belly seemed about ready to pop right out of the picture. She was a force to be reckoned with in those days, full of life and wonder, insisting that if Sacagawea could backpack through the wilderness with a baby, so could she. The woman who sat across from Bree now bulged with at least fifty pounds more than her pregnant weight in the photo and looked five years older. Bree knew the picture should make her cry, but she only felt numbness.

“Don’t take the pills, Bree.”

Bree shifted her eyes to study Jessica. She looked serious.

Jess shook her head. “Don’t take ‘em. Don’t let ‘em tell you you’re crazy.”

Bree shrugged. “Why not. I probably am.”

Jess shook her head more vigorously and spoke vehemently. “No. You’re not. I let them convince me. Now I can’t help my husband,” her expression and voice shifted suddenly to a pleading, “but you can. You can help them both. Or, at least, “ a tear slid down her cheek, “at least you can go back to your husband. At least, you don’t have to lose Paul.”

Bree shook her head, struggling to understand Jess. “I don’t know what you mean, Jess.”

Jess leaned forward, grabbing Bree’s hand with a vise like grip. “You can get to them. You saw it happen. I know you did. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t. Tell me you saw it! Tell me!”

Somewhere in another room the baby squalled. Bree tried to pull away. Jess glanced in the direction briefly. “He’s fine, he’s in his crib. Tell me.”

Bree studied Jess. Slowly she nodded. “I saw what you saw.”

Bree nodded, satisfied. “And you’re not pregnant?”

Bree shook her head slowly, “no.” She quickly pushed aside painful memories of the miscarriage, the resulting weeks of testing, and the final, dooming diagnosis. “No. I’m not pregnant.”

Jess nodded again. “Then you can go back. You can get Paul back,” She brushed away more tears. “Don’t let them take Paul away from you. Get him back. And… if you can, bring Conner back too.” She looked down at the picture, struggling to contain the emotion that overwhelmed her. Bree waited. “If you can’t bring them back, stay with them.”

Bree jumped up, knocking over he chair in the process, and backed away from Jess, shaking her head in disbelief. “What are you saying? You want me to… to…”

Jess stood slowly, her face a resolute waterfall, “It’s better that way. It must be! You don’t understand yet, but you will. It would be so much better to be one of them than it is to know that he’s out there, alive, and you’re not with him. So much better than hearing them, and fearing them, all the while wishing you had the courage and the power to get him back.”

Bree stared open-mouthed at the desperate woman in front of her. She thought about asking whether the doctors were messing around with Jess’s medication, but decided not to. Deep in her heart, she knew Jess was right. Nothing could be worse than not trying. The baby squalled again. Jess wiped tears from her eyes and hastily left the room. When she came back with the baby, she looked pleadingly again at Bree. “If you find Conner, tell him about his son, okay? Tell him I miss him. And here,” she handed Bree a receiving blanket, “take this.”

Bree nodded and let herself out. She drove back to her own home and jumped out of the car, rushing to gather her things before logic caught up with her. She ran through the house, almost instinctively grabbing the things she needed for an extended trip into the hills. She double and triple checked the list she kept by the door. It took her under an hour to get ready. Before noon, she stood on the thin game trail that lead to the last place she saw Paul, the last place Jess saw Conner.

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