Maybe it’s the calm breeze. Or perhaps it’s the sound of crickets and toads serenading their mates. Or the field and never-ending rolls of hills and trees. Whatever it is, it whispers my name and tugs me back. I can hear the siren call even in the darkest corners of the city intertwining with the neon glow of the light pollution and the hustle and bustle of city life. The loud bellow echoing through the city streets creating a symphony. The song is one I know so well I can ignore it, but it’s always there in the back of my mind stuck on a loop.
Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can still see it. The blue skies that never end. Trees dancing in the gentle winds. Over time, though, the blue faded to gray. The trees lost their rhythm. Much like me, the vividness of the memory is lost.
Now as I stand in the middle of the airport, I wonder if the welcoming arms of home will envelop me in their embrace, or if they will cross protectively over their chest the instant I am seen. Though I crave the former, I know the latter is what will greet me upon my return. Whatever is waiting for me is inevitable. I cannot avoid it. No matter how long I ignored the calls. The news I’d received made it impossible to continue to live in blissful ignorance. Home exists and it is expecting me.
I hand my ticket to the gate agent and smile. He returns the smile, though his is more rehearsed and perfected than mine. The curve of my lips is forced and tired. I’ll save the faux enthusiasm for later today. I can’t waste the effort now. No offense to the agent, he isn’t the one waiting for me. He doesn’t care if I’m genuine or not. He won’t lament the loss of my sweetness to the devil in the big city. He’ll just take my ticket and then move on to the next person. Another face. Another smile. Here I am just a number. A chore to check off a list. I have a name, but it only exists to confirm that I do in fact belong on this jet. My given name means nothing. At least not here.
There it matters. There I am someone. A daughter. A sister. I have a name and that name lays out expectations. It isn’t just mine. The legacy it carries is one I can’t escape. I could try, but home would always remind me. I belong. My smile, no matter how fake, matters. Everything matters there.
I take my place in line, sandwiched between two men in black business suits. My own suit lacks importance. Leggings. Sweater. Boots. Items that allow me to blend in and appear casual. The look, though contemporary and fashionable, provides me with a barrier. Clothing I can hide in. They hide the scars and bruises. The ones that don’t bubble on the surface, but instead linger deep below the skin festering and waiting for secrets to be whispered.
I look up, tucking a stray strand of my auburn hair behind my ear, and force another half-smile at the flight attendant and show her my ticket. She glances down and smiles as she reads. First-class always seems to bring out an extra level of happiness. As if they’ve been trained that I am somehow more special and important than the others. I slowly file into the aisle, waiting patiently for my seat to appear to my right. An aisle seat. Never the window. I know what the ground looks like from thirty thousand feet. I’ve seen it before. More times than I care to mention, in fact. The aisle allows for easy exit. I can escape quickly. I slide my carry on into the overhead compartment and settle into my seat. Unlike my seatmate, I tuck my phone away. Having turned it off before I left my apartment, I didn’t need to check any last emails or make any calls.
Instead, I pull my book from my bag and slip my earplugs from my pocket. My neighbor leans over to say something, but I ignore her. I’m not here for small talk or friendships. She lingers a moment longer than necessary before returning to her screen. I open the book to the page I last marked. Not that I needed to, I’d read this book a million times. The book that was written for me. The one that nearly destroyed my father, and the one that made my mother an icon.
I hated this book. I’d hated for as long as I could remember, yet every year I revisit it. Each year, I buy a new edition. One with an updated cover or a new forward. One to celebrate an anniversary. Unlike the book’s biggest fans, I don’t keep them on display. Instead, I read it and tuck it away in a box. All thirty-five editions relegated to a coffin under my bed never to be seen in the light of day again. I collect them, yet I wish to destroy them. Burn their pages and return them to tiny particles. Brush away the secrets buried within the pages and pretend they do not exist.
“I love that book,” my seatmate says loudly. She ignores my desire to remain unbothered and continues, “is that the new cover? I have a first edition and then the twenty-fifth-anniversary one they did. Have you read her other books?”
Her question is one I’ve yet to figure out how to answer, despite having a lifetime to find one. I watched my mother give birth to them. I sat in a corner in total silence, not daring to breathe or move for fear of interfering with her creative process. Rather than speak, I nod.
“Which is your favorite?”
None of them. All of them. I lift the one I am holding and grin. This time, I pull from deep within my resources and produce a genuine smile. “Emma’s Eyes,” I answer. “Yours?”
“Emma’s Eyes is mine too,” she says, “but I also loved Emma’s Heart, too.”
“Another good one.”
“I heard the author passed away last week,” she says. I wince, trying to hide my reaction. She turns towards the window for a moment. I blink away the tears that threaten to form in my eyes and compose myself before she turns to me and whispers, “so tragic.”
I nod. It was tragic. A tragedy I’d been expecting for years. One I saw coming from the moment I saw my mother for who she really was. The woman behind the words was much different from the woman on the page. Her own smile was rarely seen inside our home. She saved that for her adoring fans. She reserved her passion and compassion for her characters.
“Where are you headed?” she asks. “I’m off to Kansas City for a girl’s weekend. I’ve got twin boys. They’re two and a handful. My mom is helping my husband out this weekend. My name is Jennifer Grant, by the way.”
“Katie,” I say and offer her my hand. She shakes it gently, holding on to me as if I were a wet noodle. I don’t offer my last name—I never do—and thankfully, she doesn’t ask.
I sense she wants to ramble on and on about the challenges of motherhood. So, I nod along and add sound effects that indicate I am listening when I’m not. I allow her to talk to me about the trials and tribulations of working motherhood. Something I know nothing about. Nor will I ever. I ignore the tugging inside me, the one I’ve worked to silence.
“I’m sorry! I’ve been talking about myself and not letting you speak.” She tucks a strand of her brown hair behind her ears and raises her eyebrow, nudging me to speak. “Where did you say you were headed?”
“Home,” I say.
I shake my head. “A little further south.”
She waits for me to answer. When I don’t, she shrugs. “Oh.”
She says it so softly, my guilt kicks in. “It’s a small town just outside of the city. Only a few hundred people live there.”
“Any special occasion?”
“My mother passed away.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” My answer has the desired effect. She offers a frown and turns her attention back to her phone.
The rest of the flight is spent in silence. I read the pages without reading the words. I know this story by heart. I could recite it in my sleep. Emma often comes to me in my dreams. Though my mother never confirmed it, I always knew that Emma was the daughter she’d wished I’d become. Loyal, loving, and compliant. Like my mother, Emma was a wordsmith. She crafts beautiful prose and tells stories. She’s also a private investigator, though my mother confessed years ago that storyline was just a ploy to sell more books. Emma was never meant to solve crimes. She existed for beauty. She gave my mother a sense of peace and calm that she couldn’t get anywhere else.
My mother loved Emma in a way she’d never been capable of loving either my father or me.