by Sarah Cooper-Ellis

During the summer that my mother was pregnant with her fourth child, my older sister and brother and I were left to play alone. As the youngest, I was the target. “Crybaby,” they called me.

We loved to explore my grandmother’s barn. One day, my brother and sister decided to jump from a platform onto the barn floor below. They dared each other to do it and landed safely. Then it was my turn. I sat with my legs dangling into the frightening space. I could hear them giggling behind me. I felt a pressure on my back, and I was launched. I landed face down, pain jolting through my wrist bone.

That year, we lived on the campus of the boarding school where my father taught. In the evenings, my mother sat nursing our baby brother while the rest of us got ready to go to the dining hall for supper. But our father was angry at our mother taking such intimate time with the baby. One night he exploded and put his fist through the wall.

The next year, we moved to a house off campus, and Jane’s family came to occupy the house with the hole in the wall.

Jane and I were in the same class at school and often played together. One day we squatted over puzzles on the floor of her bedroom, which had been mine. I stared at Jane’s pale skin and strawberry blond hair. I thought she looked soft, weak. Chickenpox craters etched her cheeks, and tiny beads of clear sweat filmed her forehead.

That must have been when my plot to hurt her was hatched. I remember a see-saw on the playground, a co-conspirator friend, and Jane on the ground bleeding. And a secret that I carried with me as I grew.

Sixty years later, I saw Jane at a reunion. I sought her out. She was prettier than I remembered, with a strong jaw.

“Do you want to talk about how you were mean to me?” she asked. There went my hope that maybe it hadn’t been a big deal – hadn’t stuck with her as it had with me.

“It’s the seesaw time I remember,” I said.

“I got blood poisoning,” she told me, “With a very high fever. I stayed in bed for a week. People brought me all sorts of toys and presents!” Oddly, we laughed. But was I forgiven?

“I’m spending time out here this summer,” Jane said. I knew she lived on the other coast. She told me she had an autoimmune disease and had to move out of her apartment. She told me she had a boyfriend who drank too much.

We sat across from each other in the shade of an elm tree. I noticed her eyes – the color of a summer pond – green, dull. I could never know her, I realized.

“We’re burying my sister next Saturday,” she said. “You should come.”

I thought about Jane all week, but I didn’t go to see her again.

""Sarah Cooper-Ellis writes from a deep regard for the natural world. She lives in Putney, Vermont with her husband Abijah. Her first novel, LANDINGS, is forthcoming in 2019.

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