by Alexandra VanBlaricum

Runestone, volume 5

Runestone, volume 5

by Alexandra VanBlaricum

“Can you wake Mommy up?”  

The boy peers up at Lenore with dark eyes, his face grubby with chocolate syrup and hands sticky with melted ice cream. She’s amazed at how much sand covers him. The fine coating in his hair almost looks like dandruff, and his skin looks mottled. He tugs at the edge of her bathing suit cover-up, smearing chocolate on the white material, when she doesn’t answer him immediately, as if he thinks she’s already forgotten him there.

As if she can even possibly ignore a kid that smells so completely like the old fish smell of Caney Lake.  

She loops her camera around her neck before he somehow finds a way to get chocolate on that too, and then glances up at the crowd of people pressing too closely to them both. No one has noticed them yet. To her left, the gaggle of teenagers keep innocuously sipping from their too-conspicuous red solo cups, their music blaring too loud and making the parents lounging behind Lenore complain what seems like every two minutes.  

She had thought about complaining earlier but hearing the parents grumble only made her more resolute to keep silent and ignore the pulsing beginning of a headache at the base of her skull. She doesn’t want to be seen like them in the teen’s eyes, so she keeps clicking photo after photo instead of sipping from her own cup, her jaw clenching tighter each time the too-skinny blonde yips, Jackson, turn it up! This is my favorite song! Or Jackson, can you refill my cup?

Lenore, the small family, and the teenagers are the farthest ones on this corner of the beach. The family, she supposes, had thought they’d be able to escape the choking chaos to her right. The teenagers perhaps imagined they could avoid the cops making circling, half-hearted rounds throughout the crowd. And her? She’d just needed a good vantage point to take the photos her boss needed for the brochure: Fourth of July, happy families, even god damn dogs if that’s what it took to make Caney look ‘fun.’

It is her last shot to keep her job, and now this boy is standing in front of her, waiting not so patiently for her to attend to him, to wake up his mommy so that she could take him home or feed him or even go out with him into the disgusting slime-brown water of Caney.

She glances at the sun descending through the sky. She has maybe an hour or two left to get high quality photographs, and it could take that long just to find this kid’s mom. If there had been a liquor store on the way, she might have been able to get here earlier, but she’d had to backtrack several times on the winding road and had gotten lost for over an hour before she eventually stumbled upon a gas station.

Not that she’d even been able to drink any of the cheap beer she’d bought. She’d planned on doing that as soon as she got one good shot of a lanky father throwing a Frisbee to his son, a fluffy, generic dog nipping at their heels, but then this boy had popped up, smearing chocolate everywhere.

“Where’s your mom at, kiddo?” she says, crouching down so that they are face to grubby face. She’d heard her sister use that word at the park one time when a girl came up to her crying, clutching a bloodied knee between her fingers. You’ll be okay, kiddo. I just so happen to have a magical Band-Aid right here, and it will make all your pain go away. Poof! The word doesn’t sound as natural coming out of Lenore’s mouth.

Maybe it’s a word you can only use if you’re good enough to have kiddos of your own.  

“I don’t ‘member,” he mumbles. Lenore’s stomach squeezes as the first few tears creep out of his eyes. God, she doesn’t know what to do with a kid, let alone a crying one. The last time she’d seen Janie, she’d been crying—they both were—and Lenore had helplessly handed her a cheery-flavored lollipop.

Lollipops are, of course, in short supply here, and she doesn’t think it would be good form for a stranger to be handing out candy to kids on the beach, even if she isn’t that kind of stranger, so she just pats his shoulder a few times.

“Don’t cry! I’m sure we can find her together.” She wipes her hands off on her cover-up, leaving a small trail of sand that mixes with the still-wet chocolate stain. “Do you know what she was wearing?”

He shakes his head. “A pretty hat?”  He says, lips only slightly wobbling now and the tears slowing.

Lenore looks at the people around her. Surely, he couldn’t have walked that far. Someone would have, hopefully, noticed a motherless child wandering around the beach aimlessly. Behind her, the mother is slathering sunscreen on the backs, shoulders, and faces of her three kids. Her too-freckled face is not covered by a hat. The mothers she can see splashing around in the water surely would have noticed that their kid is missing by now, so that leaves the multitude of mothers to her right.

Lenore has never seen so many umbrellas stretched out across the beach area of Caney Lake. A kaleidoscope of reds, navies, oranges, and sunshine yellows, underneath each one a family. Dogs bark, and children weave under and around each umbrella. Some people lounge on towels between the umbrellas or on the very edge of the beach, their toes just barely getting wet in the water that lazily laps against the shore.

Just from here, without having even moved, Lenore can see women lounging on beach chairs, drinking from a thermos wine glass or eating sandwiches. She sees a few mothers helping kids build castles from the muddy sand the lake supplies, and some just flip through the pages of their choice Nicholas Sparks or Oprah Winfrey Book Club pick as their kids fight or laugh or play around them.

And not a single one of those is wearing a hat, let alone a pretty one, and none of them look like they’re sleeping.

“Do you think you can tell me when you see her?” Lenore asks the boy.  Because if he can’t even recognize her then this whole operation or mission or whatever it is might as well be impossible.

He nods, so she starts walking. When he doesn’t move, she turns back around. His thumb has found a home in his mouth, and his eyes look large and wet again. “Can you hold my hand?”  He asks, then sniffles. Wipes his nose.

She’s certain she doesn’t want his hand touching her own. He’s already gotten chocolate on her favorite, well only, cover-up, and she doesn’t want to add snot and saliva to that mix. But she also really doesn’t want a scene, although a scene would probably bring a cop straight to her and would allow her to get rid of the kid. She has yet to see the cops that had covered the area earlier though the amount of park violations within arm reach could certainly fill a ticket book: dogs without a leash, kids left unattended, and glass containers just to name a few.

She holds her hand out to him and flinches only the tiniest bit when he slips his fingers between her own. It’s sticky, wet, and sandy all at once, and she wishes she’d bought some Clorox wipes or even some germ-x at the gas station instead of the beer.  It would certainly be more useful, considering she’d had to leave the beer behind anyway.

Her ankles start throbbing as she trails along the edge of the beach, careful to touch neither the water nor the towels that stretch out past their owners. The kid’s hand feels heavy in her own as she walks, so unlike the tiny weight of Janie’s when she saw her last.  She’d be close to eight now, considering today makes nine years exact since she ran into James at the bar.

Would Janie’s hand be smaller or bigger than this kid’s? They’re around the same age, and Lenore herself had grown fast. Janie may very well be tall and slender or short and stout for all she knew. She wants to shake this kid’s hand out of her own, so she can stop thinking about what Janie might be.

When his grip loosens suddenly, she wonders, for the briefest of seconds, how he heard her thoughts. Then she notices that he’s leaning forward and looking at a family sitting underneath a huge navy umbrella. “You see her?”

The father, face dusted with wrinkles and sand, hands out sandwiches to two kids. His stomach folds over the too-tight swim shorts he probably forced on this morning. His wife, Lenore supposes, sits beside him, sprawled out on a long yellow towel and sipping from a Coors Light. Her dark red hair has been piled into a messy bun at the top of her head and sunscreen hastily smeared across her face in broad white stripes.

The man places a sandwich on a towel behind them, and Lenore can just barely see the hint of a beach hat past the edges of the umbrella. She steps forward, and the woman’s head jerks up. Her eyes narrow at Lenore and the very small space that now separates them. When she finally notices the kid, she frowns.

“Georgie!” she yells sharply. Her kids’ heads jerk up, and her husband looks up from the sandwich he is devouring. “What on earth are you doing?”  She emphasizes certain words as she speaks, her voice rising with earth and doing to an almost uncomfortable squeak. She stands, only slightly wobbly, and eases out from underneath the umbrella, her bun hitting it as she slips out.

Lenore pulls the kid, Georgie, forward. “He found me and said he couldn’t wake up his mom.  I guess he was looking for you?” Only this woman isn’t sleeping, and she isn’t exactly stepping forward to claim the kid either.

She smirks and crosses her arms.  I’m not his mom. I’m his aunt,” she drawls, as if the distinction matters.

“Amber might as well be his mother seeing as she’s always watching him,” her husband remarks. Lenore looks at him closely for the first time. His eyes are dark, darker than the deep brown of his receding hair, and he meets her gaze only after he finishes examining the length of her body. She resists the urge to tug down her white cover-up.

“Where is his mother? He shouldn’t be wandering the beach.”

“She’s back there,” the husband grumbles. He jabs his thumb at the figure Lenore can still only barely see past the umbrella.

“She’s still asleep?” Lenore asks as Georgie shuffles his feet in the sand.

“Passed out more like it,” Amber says. “You’re welcome to see for yourself, but we have a lunch to finish.” She grabs a sandwich from her husband’s outstretched hand, and then sits back down.

Lenore starts to walk to the figure stretched out behind the umbrella, but it moves first. A tall woman stands up, her long auburn hair falling down her back. With the beach hat on and her solid white bathing suit, she almost looks like she belongs at a country club, not here on this beach. Georgie launches himself at her and burrows his face in her stomach. She rakes her fingers through his hair, dislodging the sand that had found itself there.

The movement reminds Lenore of her sister. The last time she’d seen Elle she’d been holding Janie just like that, only her eyes had not been as kind as this woman’s. They’d been hard, cold, and had reminded Lenore of the way her mother had looked at her just before she was going to be scolded.

She hadn’t meant to push Janie. Her cries had just been so loud, and she wouldn’t stop.  Janie had screamed and screamed and screamed for her mom, for Elle, and finally she’d been quiet when Lenore had just put her hands against her chest and pushed. When Janie fell, the sound went, too, and Lenore’s apartment was suddenly, blessedly quiet.

She didn’t think she’d pushed her hard until Elle called the next day and asked about the bruise that had apparently bloomed across Janie’s back and chest. “I don’t think she needs to come back over. Wouldn’t you agree?”  Lenore had never thought her sister could sound so angry, so like a parent.

“Oh, shut up, Amber,” the woman says, but her voice is soft, almost playful.  “You know I’m awake now, and you were supposed to be watching Georgie for me.  I thought you said he was playing in the water with his friends.”

“He was,” Amber says, shrugging.

“Where did you find him?” Georgie’s mother asks, turning to Lenore. Her eyes are a soft green, and she smiles slightly. Georgie turns back to look at her. He’s smeared chocolate on the pristine white of his mother’s suit, but she doesn’t seem fazed by it in the slightest, just keeps running her fingers through his hair.

“He was at the far end of the beach, right where it turns into woods.  He said he couldn’t wake you up and asked me for help.”

The woman laughs, only it sounds a bit too high. “I was only sleeping off the sun,” she says.  “He must not have tried very hard.” She shrugs her shoulders and leads Georgie back to her towel. He sits cross-legged on it and starts eating the sandwich Amber’s husband had put there. His is peanut butter, strawberry jelly oozing out of the edges. “Why don’t you stay a bit?”  The woman asks. “As a thank you for finding Georgie. We have plenty of sandwiches to go around.”

“And beer,” the man says, holding out a can to her. Lenore stares at it, her camera all-too heavy around her neck. She needs to get back to work and take pictures. The fireworks could make a pretty picture, but it’s not what her boss wants. He wants perfection. She thinks back to the photos she had managed to take earlier. There is a dog picture in there somewhere, and a family eating hot dogs. Surely one of the photos would satisfy her boss. If push came to shove, she could even snap a photo of Amber with her kids.

There is, once she thinks about it, no reason for her to say no to the small dinner and beer, so she sits down on the edge of Georgie’s mother’s towel. Georgie sits next to her, content to ignore her and eat his sandwich, as if he has already forgotten that she is the one who brought him here.

His mother hands a sandwich to her, ham it looks like. “I’m Samantha by the way,” she smiles. “Figured I should introduce myself since you did save my son and all.  My sister can be just as rotten as her kids sometimes.”

“Not my kid to watch,” Amber says, holding up her beer. “This is my day to relax.”  Her husband laughs, and Lenore’s stomach squeezes. It sounds like James’s laugh, loud and just bordering on obnoxious. The last time she’d heard it, he was laughing at her.

She makes herself smile.  “I’m Lenore. It’s nice to meet you,” she pauses for a second and looks at Georgie, at the chocolate smears on his face.  He looks nothing like her Janie, but still he reminds Lenore of her. “And Georgie,” she finishes.

“Oh, well, I’m grateful.  Really. Kids can be such a handful, you know.” She shrugs her shoulders helplessly and plucks the half-eaten sandwich out of Georgie’s hands and wipes the strawberry jelly off the edges of the bread before it can drop onto the towel.

Lenore takes a deep sip of her beer. It’s lukewarm, but her headache relents, just the tiniest of bits. “I wouldn’t know personally.” She lies. Or thinks she does. It’s a half-truth. She did know, at one point, what it was like to hold a kid and try to soothe it’s cries, but she doesn’t anymore.

Would Janie even recognize her, or would she even recognize Janie? Would her hair still be pale blonde and slippery soft when Lenore ran her fingers through it to untangle the knots? Would she still like to be told stories when storms blew through?

Though today makes nine years since she ran into James at the club, her life still feels much the same. They’d been flirting back and forth at work for the past few weeks, and she’d told him before they left work where she would be that night. She hadn’t thought he would come, but he had. They’d drank and danced, and then she’d gone home with him.

The next few weeks had been great. They’d shared their beds and their secrets, but when she took a pregnancy test, she realized he didn’t want to share their future.

He hadn’t believed she was pregnant when she told him, and when he finally did believe her, he was angry. He didn’t want to be a dad. “Do you really think you could be a mother?”  He’d asked her and then laughed. He’d given her some cash and hadn’t called when Lenore initiated a transfer from the New York office to one closer to her hometown, to Elle.

Of course, he knew, by that time, how much she drank, and she’d told him about the water bottle of vodka she kept in her desk at work. For the bad times, she’d joked, but even by then she knew that there weren’t enough bad times to warrant how much she sipped from it.

He hadn’t been wrong when he told her that. Nine years later, and still her life is the same as it was that night long ago. She has a daughter, yes, but she knows nothing about her, not anymore. She can’t call herself a mother if she doesn’t know Janie’s favorite songs or stories or foods or what she likes to do for fun.

That night with James had made her pregnant, but it hadn’t made her a mother. Some women just aren’t meant to be mothers. She had tried though, even if no one else thought so. She had.

She downs the rest of her beer, and Amber’s husband hands her another one. “I have heard, though, about what it’s like being a parent.  Probably not the same, right?”

Samantha laughs. Her hat tilts a little bit as she does, and she quickly resets it.  “Oh, no, not at all. It certainly makes me appreciate my mother all the more for what she did, raising Amber and me alone.”

“Not that she did a great job at it,” Amber adds. She looks back at Lenore. “She could be a real bitch sometimes.”  

“So that’s where it came from!” Samantha says. “I’ve always wondered what made you so charming.”  

Amber rolls her eyes. “Keep pushing, and you’ll have to find a new babysitter for Georgie.”

Georgie looks up at the mention of his name, and Samantha pats his head absently. “She really does do a lot for us,” she says. “And she’s a pretty good babysitter, too. Today excluded, of course. We all need a break sometimes.”

The sandwich feels like sand in Lenore’s mouth. She’d said the same thing to Elle. “I just need a break,” she’d slurred. Most of the memory itself is foggy, parts filled in by Elle the next morning, but she remembers clearly what Elle said to her and the promise she’d made.

“Aren’t you going to fight for her?” Elle had asked, her voice quiet as she pulled the bottle from Lenore’s hands. Janie was just a few months old at the time, small and yet so heavy in Lenore’s arms, and that night, Lenore remembers that she had held her close and promised she would never drink again. She’d been sober for the months of her pregnancy, and she could do it again. That night, she’d believed, was a slip-up.

Elle had helped her throw all the alcohol away

And as blurry as that night was, she remembers the next week with excruciating vividness. She remembers how every morning her body ached when she woke up, and how her fingers itched, and how heart and head hammered to the same crashing beat of more. More sleep, more alcohol, more blessed nothingness.

Every time she saw Janie, she didn’t see her child. She saw a reason why she couldn’t drink, and soon that reason wasn’t enough.

When Elle took Janie, she had fought only the littlest of bits. She told herself she could still see her daughter when she wanted. She told herself it was only temporary. She told herself she would soon grow tired of going out and drinking like all her other friends had. She told herself all sorts of things every morning when she went to the liquor store to stock up.

She stopped telling herself it was temporary after she pushed Janie, and she didn’t fight to see her daughter again. It was better that she didn’t have Janie anymore, but it had still hurt when her sister told her that Janie wouldn’t be allowed to stay again. It had hurt more when the mailman had returned Lenore’s Thanksgiving and Christmas cards unopened, the cash and apologies still tucked inside unseen.

She finishes the beer. It settles in her stomach, lingers there unpleasantly. All she can focus on is how much Georgie reminds her of Janie and how much Samantha reminds her of Elle. It’s the way her hands linger close, always ready to help Georgie, how she doesn’t quite let herself look away. Most especially, it’s the way she warily watches Lenore as she sips from the beer.

“Thank you for the sandwich and food,” Lenore says. “But really I should be going. I have to take some pictures for my job before too much of the light is gone.” She holds her camera out, and Samantha smiles. In relief? Perhaps Lenore imagines that.

“It was really nice to meet you. Thank you again for getting Georgie back here.” Samantha nudges Georgie, and he mumbles a half-hearted thank you.

Lenore doesn’t think he’s spoken to her even once since she brought him back. The other kids, too, have ignored her. She was only a temporary condition in their life, nothing worth acknowledging.

She’s been many temporary things in her life: a temporary sister, a temporary lover, a temporary mother. She’s grown used to the temporary, and that is why she holds so tightly to what should be a temporary buzz. That is why she takes the farewell beer from Amber’s hand, and that is why she returns to her cooler.

Alexandra VanBlaricum

Louisiana Tech University

Alexandra VanBlaricum graduated Magna Cum Laude from Louisiana Tech University in November of 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.  She was a member of Phi Mu fraternity, Order of Omega, Student Government Association, Lambda Sigma, and Omicron Delta Kappa. She currently lives in Louisiana where she spends her time reading too many books at once, binge watching the latest show on Netflix, and chasing whatever stories her imagination has conjured.

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