Belle Haven

Leslie Pietrzyk

Ten days ago Brenda’s forty-five-year-old sister had killed herself. Five days after that, the body had been found by a couple of unemployed men who were fishing off the Maryland side of the Potomac, in some distant town only vaguely familiar to Brenda, Indian Head.
    Their mother had insisted that Brenda pick her up and take her along to the morgue, too, but once there, she had refused to leave the car.
    So Brenda went in alone. It was like the detective shows on TV: a drawer that slid out, a zippered plastic bag that made a harsh whisking sound when undone, everyone’s faces very neutral and immobile, everyone wearing rubber gloves, no one making eye contact.
    “That’s her,” Brenda had said, staring at the bloated, mottled face. It wasn’t respectful, but she thought of that moment of unwrapping foil from something mysterious that had been wedged in the back of the refrigerator for a long time. Bad, but not as awful as imagined. She supposed people broke down in this room all the time, sobbing and clutching at one another.
    The technician tugged her rubber glove at the wrist, making a sharp snap. “I’m sorry, but we need you to be specific.”
    “Christy Zabriskie.” Brenda looked away, at a wall clock above the rows of drawers. The second hand was stuck, vibrating erratically at the seven. She didn’t add, my sister.
    Today had started gray and raw, and now, noonish, nothing had changed. A sharp wind rolled clouds along the top of the sky, no time for lingering. Rain was predicted for later, which would make the third straight day of it. “Count your blessings, folks—could be snow!” trilled the perky deejay on the car radio before Brenda jabbed the off button.
    At first it had seemed unsettling to drive in silence, but this past week, Brenda preferred it that way. She listened to the tiny things that went unheard amidst the blurred chatter of the radio: tires whishing along the pavement, wind pressing into the driver’s-side window, the engine’s safe and constant whirr.
    Brenda abruptly shifted into the turn lane and, though it was not her destination, made a smooth left into one of the series of parks that ran along the Potomac River: Belle Haven, according to the sign. If her high school French was to be trusted, belle meant beautiful. Beautiful haven, an appealing idea at the moment. She had never stopped in this particular park before, though certainly she had driven the length of the George Washington Parkway many times, to visit historic Mount Vernon; or, on her commute, avoiding the clot of traffic on Route 1; or, sneaking out during lunch hour on a fall afternoon to admire the changing leaves.
    She maneuvered her Honda into a parking spot facing the river. Plenty of spaces to choose from, since normal people were not out walking or biking on such a cold, dreary day . . . though nothing seemed to stop those crazy joggers. She watched as one trailed to a halt a few paces beyond her car, checking his watch and bending over, huffing. Running seemed like torture to her, but then so did any form of exercise, except maybe an occasional stroll through the woods. The jogger straightened and headed toward a tan building that looked like a restroom, and Brenda turned off her car, leaned her head all the way back against the headrest.
    The funeral service had been held that morning, at the Evans-Whitfield Funeral Home, since Christy didn’t belong to any church. There were four people in attendance, not counting Brenda and their mother: three of her mother’s friends and Brenda’s best friend from high school (whom she hadn’t seen for ten or more years; clearly Brenda’s mother had called her; none of Brenda’s current friends knew she had a sister). Only the friend from high school had actually known Christy, as her mother’s friends were not old neighbors, but were from the retirement community her mother had moved into several months ago. They had arrived together, three old ladies stuffed into the back of a taxi. Until her mother had stepped forward to hug them, Brenda thought the funeral home had hired professional mourners. It was a grim little service: the words hollow and difficult to speak, the biblical readings sterile and generic. Brenda had picked them off a Web site the funeral home had recommended. No one cried, though Brenda’s mother had sniffled and dabbed her nose with a tissue.
    The get-together afterward had been even more depressing. Christy had left instructions that she wanted to be cremated, so there was no burial, not that anyone missed standing around an open hole in the ground in this weather. Still, a burial might have added a certain dignity. Instead, Brenda and her mother invited everyone to La Madeleine on King Street. The friend from high school begged off with a stiff-armed hug and an insincere promise to get together soon, so it was just Brenda, her mother, and the three old ladies, who fussed: the quiche from the cafeteria line was too brown on top, the coffee was watery. When they thought no one was looking, they dropped sugar packets and jelly rectangles into their purses. Brenda’s mother was morose and moody, insisting on attention from everyone, leading the complaints about the food, and making disparaging remarks about the Pakistani cashier who wore a headscarf. “Why won’t these people assimilate?” she said loudly as Brenda counted out money to pay for the food. “I’m sorry,” Brenda murmured to the cashier, who stared at the far wall, a haughty expression on her face as if Brenda’s mother confirmed everything she suspected about Americans. They spent only forty-five minutes or so together, but by the end, Brenda felt her head was locked in a vise. Fortunately, the ladies called for a taxi and took her mother back with them.
    And now what? Brenda had planned nothing else for the day; she had put in for a week off due to emergency, explaining that she had to visit a sick friend in Chicago. “Ovarian cancer,” she’d said, knowing her boss would shy away from wanting details about something that sounded personal and unhappy. The days off had seemed like a good plan at the time, but work would give structure and meaning on an aimless, awful day, and for a moment, Brenda considered heading to the office. She could say that the friend had unexpectedly died. No one would ask: she could hunch at her desk, grinding through reports and paperwork. She had a reputation as a hard worker and had been promoted to assistant director of member services last year, so no one would think twice if she went back early to the office.
    But Brenda continued to sit in her car, staring out the windshield at the continuous flow of ripples skimming the river.     One of her earliest memories of Christy was at a park in the summer. Christy must have been eight or so, making Brenda five. Brenda was sitting on a swing, pushing away the gravel underneath with her sandals. The night before she had watched an old Tarzan movie on TV and had gotten the idea that if you dug deep enough, quicksand could appear anywhere. Jane had been trapped in quicksand, and Tarzan had rescued her by swinging down on a vine and scooping her up with one arm. Brenda couldn’t decide which was more thrilling, the quicksand or swinging on a vine, but it seemed more likely she’d find quicksand than sturdy vines in the newly built, clean-cut suburban Virginia neighborhood where her family lived. Christy was playing on the monkey bars, always her favorite. She liked to climb to the top and hang upside down as long as she could, making her head “spinny.” Their mother was sitting on a bench, thumbing through a craft magazine. In Brenda’s memory, no one else was around, though surely that couldn’t be true, as this was the only park for blocks, and in other memories it was crowded with moms and kids. But in this memory, it was the three of them, the sun crusingly hot. Brenda dug and poked with her foot, anticipating the cool quicksand bubbling up, sucking at her sandal.
    Christy called, “Look at me!” and Brenda did, squinting into the bright sun. Christy stood precariously upright on the top bar, her T-shirt vivid white against the empty blue sky, her bare feet diagonal across the narrow metal bar—how could she possibly keep her balance?—and then Christy lifted one foot and deliberately stepped into the air, as if maybe she expected a rung to be there. She thudded onto the gravel below, and Brenda’s mother screamed at the dull sound, throwing down her magazine. Brenda sat very still. Should she have said something before Christy stepped off? Even Brenda, only five, knew people couldn’t walk on air.
    Their mother yelled at Brenda to run home as fast as she could and go next door to the Schultes’ house and tell them to call the ambulance. She made Brenda repeat the words Call the ambulance, Mrs. Schulte. There was an accident, and my sister got hurt in the park, and Brenda repeated them to herself as she ran the three blocks from the park, the rhythm of the words matching her footsteps. She stopped only to look both ways at the street corners—the first time she crossed the street by herself. She hurried up the Schultes’ driveway and onto their long, skinny cement porch where she and Dorrie Schulte set up tea parties for their dolls. She rehearsed the words a final time, but she didn’t knock on the door. Brenda had a firm and distinct memory of that moment, of catching her breath and thinking, If I don’t get Mrs. Schulte, Christy will die. Yet she paused. The front windows were open, and she heard the sounds of a game show on the TV in the living room. Let’s Make a Deal, it sounded like, with Monty Hall and Carol Merrill. She knew she was supposed to hurry—that wrenching, Tarzan-like scream of her mother’s, Christy’s crumpled body sprawled out all crooked, dark blood oozing from her head and puddling in the gravel, her mother kneeling right in that puddle. And yet she didn’t raise her hand to the doorbell. “Christy might die,” she reminded herself, letting the words roll around in her mouth, even whispering them to make them sound scarier. “Christy might die.” Her stomach bounced and wiggled, then made quick twists. Inside, Monty Hall said, “Show us what’s behind door number two!” and a horn went “wah-uanh-uanh,” the sound you heard when the prize was a goat chewing cans or a crate of lemons.
    She immediately pressed the doorbell two or three times and listened to the ding-dongs echo inside the house. Footsteps tapped down the hallway; “Comm-ming,” Mrs. Schulte sing-songed, and the rest was the blur it was supposed to be: phone call, ambulance, hospital, Christy not dying, Christy being saved. “You were very brave,” their mother told Brenda. “I can always count on you,” and she squeezed Brenda’s hand so hard that the fingers all smashed together painfully, but Brenda didn’t yank away. No one ever had to know about that moment on Dorrie Schulte’s porch.
    Brenda pulled the keys out of the ignition and dropped them in her purse. She opened the car door and got out. Though she wasn’t dressed for this sort of weather—wearing black pumps and hose, a skirt, a silk sweater, her wool dress coat, and, apparently, her gloves forgotten at the funeral home or La Madeleine—she decided to take a quick walk. The asphalt path was no more challenging than an ordinary sidewalk, and she couldn’t continue to sit in the car aimlessly staring into space.
    She stood for a moment, then turned to the right. If she followed this path for eight or nine miles, she would end up at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s house. Alexandria was back the other direction, with the airport beyond that, and then Washington, D.C., so that if anyone were so inspired, they could walk or bike the entire twenty or so miles from the current president’s house to the first president’s house. These parks strung along the river were popular—a good place to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July—and it surprised Brenda that she had never before stopped here. Then again, she’d never been to the top of the Washington Monument either or toured the White House.
    The path immediately veered away from the river to take her alongside a thicket of trees, not dense enough to be a proper forest, but offering a wooded feel nevertheless, though the steady whoosh of cars passing ten yards away was hardly bucolic.
    Not that there was much of what Brenda considered “nature” to be seen today, just an indistinguishable assortment of bare trees and brown, mid-winter brush and dead vines; no birds were singing, and it was too early for butterflies and pretty flowers. The only nature present was the kind she didn’t know much about, the inner workings of nature: decaying tree branches, mysterious mosses, scraggly plants impervious to the cold; tiny organisms busy with their thankless biological jobs of breaking down the layers of fallen leaves. She could appreciate the idea of the ecosystem, with everything intricately linked, each component with its own important role, but when she was looking to nature for a quick brightening of the spirits, the concept of the ecosystem was not the first place to turn for comfort, not compared to sprightly birds and budding spring trees.
    She hurried along, her heels tapping the asphalt. The wind was stronger than it had seemed as she’d watched from the warmth of the car, and she tugged at her coat sleeves, trying to cover her bare hands. See, Christy, it’s natural to protect yourself, she thought uselessly; she often had conversations with Christy in her head. Brenda laughed: undoubtedly Christy had been conducting conversations in her head for years, and no one had considered that a good thing.
    Her mother had always said, “Can Christy help how she was born?” Often she’d say that from her bed, where she lay in dim light, the curtains drawn even in the afternoon, surrounded by pillows and craft magazines and half-finished embroidery projects that were destined to end up decorating more pillows; the house was filled with pillows her mother had sewn: gingham, chintz, tapestry, fake fur, velvet; decorated with fringe, rick-rack, tassels, ribbon; round, square, rectangles, triangles. There were a lot of slipcovers, too. Anyone walking in the house for the first time might mistake it for a cozy place to live.
    Her mother would stare at her until she responded: “No, Christy can’t help the way she was born.” Like a fill-in-the-blank question at school, one correct answer.
    It wasn’t Christy’s fault that she felt spiders crawling up her arms and legs when they were sitting in the booth at Pizza Hut; and it wasn’t Christy’s fault that sometimes she wouldn’t go to school and instead flopped in the big armchair all day, doing nothing; and it wasn’t Christy’s fault that in a movie theater she might suddenly start shouting and not stop, not even after they hurried up the dark aisle; and it wasn’t Christy’s fault that everyone at school told Brenda that her sister smelled; and it wasn’t Christy’s fault that she filled spiral notebooks with stories no one could understand: “raingull-west-digjar-skronsh-hignodad-plight-yorkkid-the-end.”
    Dorrie Schulte’s big sister helped them dye their hair in the bathroom sink and drove them to the swimming pool. Brenda’s high school friend had twin big sisters; when Brenda had asked about them at the funeral, she found out that one had a house on Cape Cod where the whole family met for Thanksgiving, and the other worked in publishing, sending along a steady stream of free books. What did Brenda have? An accordion folder of legal documents and medical records. Copies of paperwork and endless forms. Research on programs, homes, centers, and institutions. Lists of medications and dates of abortions. Phone calls in the middle of the night: “We have your sister here.” That disembodied voice and Brenda’s brief hope that “here” meant somewhere very, very far away. “I’ll be there,” she always responded, another fill-in-the-blank answer.
    It wasn’t Christy’s fault when she got evicted or picked up by state troopers as she wandered on the shoulder of the Capital Beltway, or when she took the bus to Brenda’s townhouse and complained that a group of seven Eastern Europeans was following her, or got kicked out of Springfield Mall for yelling at a group of elderly walkers. All this was no one’s fault.
    Brenda was feeling cold now, but she was approaching a long wooden boardwalk that crossed a sloppy, muddy marsh that looked interesting. To the end of the boardwalk and back, she decided. The marsh was cluttered with last year’s cattails, starting to fuzz and fray. As the wind picked up, they leaned, all bowing to the pressure. The boardwalk was wider than the path, and Brenda slowed her pace. An expanse of reeds and sticks jutted up from the mud. With the river in the distant background and the forest edging all around, this would be a pretty view on a sunny day. Brenda imagined ducks paddling about, their brilliant green heads glowing in the sunlight, happy children tossing stale bread into the water (though because this was a nature preserve, feeding the ducks was probably not allowed).
    That no one knew she had a sister wasn’t so much a decision as a moment that had happened. She had gone away to college, and when her first roommate had said, “I’m an only child,” Brenda had blurted, “Me too.” It was dark, their first night alone in the chaotic dorm; they’d just returned from a crowded frat party that featured a plastic garbage pail of purple Kool-Aid spiked with grain alcohol, and they were both tipsy. “I definitely like it that way,” the roommate said, and again Brenda said, “Me too.” The roommate fell asleep first, and Brenda watched shadows drift across the walls of the strange, dark room. Two words. It was so much easier than she had expected.
    Now, it was just habit, like biting your nails or mindlessly eating a whole bag of potato chips.
    Lining the boardwalk were waist-high, wooden posts linked with a loose chain to keep people from falling into the marsh five feet below. Brenda grabbed onto one of the chains with her bare hands and leaned into it, letting it support her weight. It gave a bit, but prevented her from tumbling into the marsh, though, of course, it would be easy to step over the chain or duck under and plunge straight down. She imagined Christy, her whole life spent peering over the side of every bridge, pausing as each car bore down toward the crosswalk, eyeing each belt and razor blade and bottle of pills.
     Then why did it take so damn long?
    Brenda dropped the chain, walked a bit further to where the boardwalk stretched over an inlet of water that led off into the river. A duck swam out from under the boardwalk, but not the kind with a green head; it was just dull brown all over. It seemed to be in a hurry, swimming so fast it left behind a V in the water. She watched until it got caught up in the stronger currents of the river and disappeared from view. There was nothing else to look at.
    Then she noticed a tiny stuffed bear propped up on one of the posts. Just a wee little thing, about six inches tall, tan terrycloth, still in good condition. It appeared to be made with beanbag filler, so it was propped in a seated posture, stumpy legs straight out, head erect. Black stitched eyes stared ahead, oddly jaunty, and a line of black thread formed a grin. There was a red bowtie around its neck. A kid’s toy. She had never been much of a stuffed-animal person; even as a child she had preferred the orderliness of board games. Nevertheless, she picked up the bear; the terrycloth was rougher than she’d expected, and the bear’s arms and legs flopped around. Black thread claws were sewn into the end of each foot. She pushed together the two arms as if the bear were applauding, then pushed harder to make the bear give itself a hug.
    “Why are you sitting out here in the cold?” she asked, staring into the bear’s eyes. Obviously some child had dropped it, and a do-gooder had set the lost toy on a post to make it easier to spot, and so it wouldn’t get knocked into the marsh below. On a bright, sunny day, discovering a tiny bear plopped on a pole would have been charming, but in this lonely weather, it was, well, heartbreaking. As ridiculous as it was, she couldn’t stand the thought of him sitting out here alone like this for the rest of the afternoon, not to mention on into the night.
    She balanced the seated bear in her palm, looked him in the eye. He seemed to be staring back at her, as if expecting something. So she said the first thing in her head: “Don’t jump,” which was supposed to be a joke, though it didn’t sound very funny. So she stuffed the bear into her coat pocket and turned around to head back to her car. It was freezing out here; her ears were numb, her nose starting to drip.
    As she turned, she saw a woman approaching, pushing a fancy, triangular Baby Jogger that held a toddler wearing a bright green fleece coat printed with yellow ducks and a matching hat. The woman was fit and thin—not a single jiggle on her taut body, which was clearly evident since she wore skintight black stretch pants and a spandex top. Her black gloves were equally tight, so Brenda saw an enormous square stone jutting off a ring on her left hand. She had a beautiful mop of blonde hair, barely controlled with a black ear band. The woman’s face was flushed and pink though she was walking, not jogging, her head sweeping side to side as she peered at the ground. Brenda guessed what she was looking for, and her hand went into her pocket to wrap her fingers around the terrycloth bear.
    The woman was murmuring baby talk, which became more distinct as she got closer: “Don’t worry, Lindsay, honey-sweet, we’ll find Jiggy Bear. He’s got to be around here somewhere, and Mommy promises we’ll find him. What a bad Mommy to lose Jiggy Bear! Bad, bad Mommy!” Her voice was soothing, but it seemed the more she talked, the fussier Lindsay was, until she started wailing.
    Brenda intended to pull the bear out of her pocket with a flourish and present it to the crying child, but the blonde woman was so focused on watching the side of the boardwalk that she nearly rammed the stroller into Brenda’s legs. “Oh, oops,” she said, finally looking up. Her eyes were startlingly bright blue, and Brenda stared for a moment before realizing the intensity was caused by colored contact lenses. The woman was in her late thirties, probably the type who had chucked her high-power lifestyle to focus on raising her perfect children. Brenda could see it: historic house in Old Town furnished with antiques, Jaguar with leather interior and personalized plates, rich lobbyist husband, dinner parties with French champagne for VIP friends—one of those lucky lives, careless and charmed.
    Brenda said, “You practically ran into me.”
    Lindsay’s mom gave a big, winning smile. “Sorry!” Her teeth were white and even.
    Brenda should have taken the bear out of her pocket. She stroked one finger over the rough terrycloth, thought about Lindsay tossing the poor little bear over the side of her stroller—the way babies do—this mother too immersed in jogging to notice, and pulled her hands out of her pockets and crossed her arms against her body. No matter where she stood, the wind seemed to come right at her, scraping her face.
    “Have you seen a little stuffed bear?” the mother asked. “Like for babies?”
    Brenda opened her mouth to speak, then shut it and shook her head instead. What was wrong with her? The bear was a big, fat lump in her pocket. Still, she said, “No.”
    “I’m retracing my steps,” the mother said. “So you think I’d find it.” She stared at Brenda with those fake blue eyes. “Unless maybe someone took it.”
    Brenda shook her head again. Her heart was beating hard, as if she expected to be searched and revealed as the liar she was. She imagined the consequent look of disgust in the mother’s eyes if she were to discover the precious bear jammed in Brenda’s pocket, betrayal and confusion shifting into hard anger. It would be an extraordinarily ugly scene, and her heart pumped faster, thinking of the possibility of this flawless woman breaking down and yelling at her, calling her names. Brenda kept her voice pleasant and neutral: “I wish I could help.”
    The mother jostled the stroller in an unsuccessful attempt to comfort the sobbing Lindsay. Then she said, “Not many people out today.” There was that lovely smile again.
    Of course there wouldn’t be a scene. Women like that didn’t break down, not over a stuffed bear, not over anything. Brenda agreed and added, “Pretty cold,” emphasizing the point with an exaggerated shiver. Women like that always shifted the topic to something safe, like the weather.
    “Doesn’t scare me,” the mother said, tossing her mop of hair. To the baby: “We never skip a day, do we, sweetie?” And then to Brenda: “I’m training for my first marathon in May.” She looked at Brenda, obviously waiting for the murmur of awe that always greeted this statement.
    After a moment, Brenda gave in. “Wow.” The woman glanced down at the boardwalk with false modesty, and Brenda wanted to slap herself. Of course this competent woman would be training for a marathon, of course. Her baby was gifted, her teeth were perfect, her body taut, her marriage happy. The only trauma clouding her life was a lost toy. What if Brenda said, “I found your bear, but you know what? Finders-keepers, so ha!” Had anything unfair ever happened to this woman?
    Or, better yet, what would she say if Brenda blurted out that her sister had killed herself ten days ago. Jumped off the Memorial Bridge, she imagined herself saying, left a rambling ten-page note and just . . . finally . . . jumped. I’m the one who had to identify the body when they found it five days later. That was her sister: a body to be found, identified, disposed of. Like trash.
    Brenda took a deep breath and pointed to the river off in the distance. “Someone I know killed herself in the Potomac.”
    There was an awkward silence, and Brenda dropped her hand back down to her side. She added, “It’s okay. She was crazy, so it was a blessing.” Blessing. She had never once in her life used that sappy word. “Well, mentally ill. I guess you’re not supposed to say crazy.
    “I’m sorry.” The mother’s face had turned slightly ashen. But her eyes remained bright, that unchanging blue. She leaned down, murmured to Lindsay, who continued to cry. Then she looked up briefly and said, “It all sounds very . . . difficult.”
    Brenda said, “Actually, I got sort of used to it.”
    The mother stood, and there was the tiniest second where Brenda found herself hoping this woman would say, I know exactly what you mean, and really, truly know: You’re talking about your sister and I know why you don’t tell anyone about her; I know why you kept everything out of the newspapers; I know why you’re so numb that you can’t get a cat, let alone a boyfriend. None of that is your fault. Anyone would have done the exact same thing, felt the same way about it all. Even me, and I’m perfect.
    Brenda knew she wasn’t going to hear any of that. Nevertheless, she added, “Her name was Christy,” even as she recognized how needy she sounded.     The woman said, “Good luck,” and she started to push the stroller down the boardwalk.
    “My sister,” Brenda said, but by the time she spoke, the woman was too far away to hear. Brenda stood for a second, then started walking the opposite direction as fast as she could, until Lindsay’s wails faded. “You too!” Brenda called back aggressively. “Good luck on your marathon! Good luck finding the bear! Good luck with your whole wonderful life!” At the end of the boardwalk, the asphalt path started up again, along with the roar of cars zooming along the road. She picked up her pace so that she was practically running.
    The sky was a bit lighter now, as if the sun were on the verge of poking in, waiting for an opening.
    No, no—this was all wrong; she was doing everything wrong. She turned around to retrace her steps so she could return the bear to the mother. What had she been thinking, stealing a stuffed animal from a baby? What kind of terrible person was she? She could say she found the bear along the side of the path, nearly hidden in the brown underbrush. Lindsay would coo and gurgle, and Brenda would be the hero and save the day.
    Like usual.
    She could explain everything.
    She kept walking fast, though she felt the beginnings of a blister on one heel. The pain bit with every step she took, reminding her of what a horrible, bad person she was. Her cold nose was dripping so much that she swiped her sleeve across her face and didn’t even care. She was freezing.
    The boardwalk seemed farther away than she remembered, but finally she got to it and was unpleasantly surprised that Lindsay and her mother weren’t still standing there. As if time hadn’t ticked away. Ten minutes? Fifteen? Of course they were gone; she had watched them walk away; possibly the mother had started jogging again, training for that marathon. Brenda knew she was being silly, but she stood there, confused, staring down at the rough wooden boards. Could someone just vanish?
    Abruptly, she started running in the direction Lindsay and her mom had gone. Her shoes made a terrible racket pounding the boardwalk, and she thought about taking them off, so she could run faster, though she was panting and puffing as it was, her lungs pressing against her ribs, her purse banging up and down along her side.
    She reached the opposite end of the boardwalk and kept going at that extreme pace for another minute before coming to a stop. Her breath came quick and shallow, and the blister on her heel had popped; others were rising on her little toe and on her other heel. The fronts of her shins felt striped with fire. She turned around, started walking back. That ridiculous bear. She didn’t even want it.
    Brenda pulled the bear out of her pocket, stared at its fake terrycloth face. Its thread eyes weren’t jaunty at all, but were sorrowful and lonely, longing for the drooly safety of Lindsay’s hands.
    When she reached the boardwalk, where she had found the bear in the first place, she decided to leave the stupid thing on one of the wooden posts and be done with it. Go home and turn on the gas fireplace and stare at the rhythmic flames. Open some wine and read a trashy book. Wear flannel pajamas in the afternoon and snuggle under a blanket, warm up. It wasn’t as though Lindsay didn’t have dozens of toys at her disposal or that her mom wouldn’t buy countless more. In a week, Lindsay wouldn’t even remember this Jiggy Bear, or whatever its name was.
    She propped the bear on the post, telling herself, “It’s only a stuffed animal.” It didn’t have feelings. Or thoughts. It didn’t judge her or think she was a terrible person. The red bowtie was a bit askew, and she straightened it. Without thinking, she lifted one hand and backhanded the bear, knocking it out into the marsh. It floated on the surface for a moment, then, absorbing water at a rapid pace, it sunk straight down into the murky brown water, like a rock, until she couldn’t see it no matter how hard she stared. The ripples drifted away. There. Soon enough that ridiculous bear would be buried deep in mud, left to decay until nothing remained; let all those decomposing organisms of nature get busy.
    Satisfied, she started the long, cold walk to her car. Finally, the wind was at her back, not that she felt all that much warmer.
    Any half-assed therapist would be delighted to enlighten her about the symbolism of what she’d just done: bear equals Christy. She wasn’t stupid.
    She slipped her hands into her empty pockets to warm them. It was as if Christy had never existed, which had been her wish all along, right? It might have been nice to cry a little bit as she walked, but she felt too bone-chillingly cold to do that now. Maybe later.

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels: A Year and a Day (William Morrow) and Pears on a Willow Tree (Avon).

“Belle Haven” appears in our Spring 2007 issue.