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Women in my mother's family have an unusual relationship with death. We believe in signs and listening when the universe, or whatever you want to call it, starts trying to tell you something. The night before my great grandmother passed, she was telling anyone in her nursing home who would listen that she was going home; that Daniel, her husband of forty-seven years who had pre-deceased her by five, was coming to get her. The next morning, the staff found her tucked neatly in her bed, her hair and makeup done up as best she could, with a smile on her face.
About a decade later, moments before my mom received the call that my grandma had succumbed to pneumonia, she was stopped by an elderly woman at the grocery store and told, "I'll always be with you." When Mom asked what she meant, the old woman just pat her arm gently and resumed pushing her cart up the aisle. She said that when her phone rang shortly thereafter and her brother told her the news, she wasn't surprised and, underneath the rolling waves of devastation that accompany such loss, there was a sense of peace.
I thought about those stories sometimes, especially when a shift had been particularly long and difficult. Although we were trained and advised to stay detached, watching a patient take their final breath was never easy. It helped to think that there was some kind of afterlife waiting for them.
I should have gone home about an hour before, but a surgery had run long and I was exhausted. Still in my scrubs, I'd stopped into the cafeteria for a coffee and a moment of respite before I'd planned to change and head home. I'd actually manage to get there before dinner was ready! The sun would still be up for a few hours, so maybe a walk would be in order. And then, I'd be able to slip into the bath. Nothing sounded better than a nice, long soak in my claw foot tub.
A girl, maybe nine years old, had come to stand beside my table. She was looking at me shyly from behind a curtain of dark hair and she had a small white bear clutched tightly to her chest. A visitor pass stuck to her shirt gave her name as Arianna. I did my best to smile through my weariness and put my coffee down.
"Are you Dr. Drakeson?"
"I am," I replied, trying to covertly look over her shoulder to see if I could spot anyone who might be searching for their child.
"She said she's ok, she's not hurting. She loves you."
A tingling chill ran up my spine. The girl stared at me with a solemn expression, no hint of teasing or mischief sparkling in her eyes, and my mouth went dry. I slid from the chair to take a knee in front of her so that I was on her level, "What did you say?"
Arianna hugged her bear tighter and cowered away from me a bit, "I was just supposed to tell you."
"Who told you to say that?"
I learned in that moment what it truly meant to feel as if your heart stopped. Every hair on my body stood on end and my throat constricted painfully. I could barely form the words I needed, "Molly? How do you know Molly? When did you talk to her?" My rush of questions frightened the girl, who took a large step back with the watery look of someone on the verge of tears. We were starting to draw attention, but I hardly noticed, "No, no, you're ok, you're not in trouble, sweetie. I just need you to tell me when you spoke with Molly."
"Just now, when I went to throw the trash away. She was over there."
I knew that couldn't be true, she was home on summer vacation being babysat by her aunt, but I found myself hunting the crowded room for any sign of my daughter anyway. Arianna took my distraction as an opportunity to flee back to wherever her parents were, but I didn't care. My coffee forgotten, I half ran from the cafeteria to the locker room, where I tore through my purse to find my phone.
"Come on, Candace," I muttered into the mouthpiece while it rang. Any minute my sister would pick up and laugh at me for getting so worked up over nothing. She'd put Molly on and I'd be regaled with tales of the arts and crafts they'd done together, the adventures they'd had going down to the community pool in the morning. But it just kept ringing.
"Damnit, Candace!" Why couldn't my sister be attached to her cell like everyone else? I threw the phone back into my purse and hurriedly changed into my "civilian" clothes. A small part of me felt bad about leaving my scrubs balled up on the floor in front of my locker, which I wasn't sure I'd even remembered to close, but I was in too much of a rush to take them to the laundry chute. I tried to call Candace a few more times on my way to the parking garage, but each time it went to her voicemail. My tires squealed as I pulled out from my spot and descended to ground level. I was lucky that there was no oncoming traffic because I didn't even slow down as I hit the street.
I probably passed the same billboard every day for however long it had been up, but I'd never noticed it before. A red light had forced me to come to a rubber burning halt and I was left anxiously drumming my steering wheel, urging the light to change, when I saw it. An upset looking middle aged woman was sitting at a kitchen table, staring down at the phone in front of her. Beside it, in bold white text, it asked, "Do you know where your child is?" Panic coiled and writhed in my stomach and for a moment, I thought the coffee I'd managed to get down was going to make a reappearance all over my windshield.
"It's just a stupid ad by one of those responsible parenting groups," I said aloud, "stop looking for signs."
I flipped on the radio to help drown out all the dark thoughts that were starting to shroud my mind. It was playing a song I'd never heard before, some country lite number sung with a slight twang.
"If I die young, bury me in satin; Lay me down on a bed of roses; Sink me in the river at dawn; Send me away with the words of a love song."
When the singer started crooning about a mother burying her baby, I laid on my horn and blew through the intersection, light be damned. It took a car nearly side swiping me to give me pause and think that maybe I was overreacting. Maybe the kid knew Molly from school, they were about the same age, maybe she'd seen me picking her up and thought it'd be a funny joke to scare Molly's mommy. And everything else was all coincidental; the result of me being hyperactively aware. I started to slow down as rational thoughts overtook the hysterical ones. And then I passed a doll lying on the side of the road, her arms and legs thrown askew, her head twisted so that she was facing too far over her shoulder. I might have ignored it except that its hair was the same shade of auburn red that Molly's was. I was a woman of science and logic, but when the signs were all there, I couldn't ignore them. All lights were optional after that.
The drive from the hospital to home was only ten minutes, but it stretched on for an eternity. I almost let out a sob when I turned onto my quiet side street. The speed limit in the residential area was 25, but I was pushing 60 and even then that was with great restraint. I had to get home. I had to see my child.
The thump was so sudden I barely had time to register it. A flash of color, a scream, and the terrible crunching sound of metal beneath tires. I slammed on my brakes and skid to a halt about half mile down the road. I clutched my steering wheel in a white knuckled grip and gasped for breath. My heart thudded painfully in my chest. I could barely bring myself to look in the rear view mirror.
A woman was on the ground in the middle of the road beside a little girl, frantically screaming for help. She held the child, who hung limply in her arms, against her chest. The girl's bike had been dragged for a distance down the street and lay in a tangled mess a few feet behind my rear bumper. I don't know how I managed to get out of my car. I don't know how I made my way back to the pair before my knees finally gave out and I collapsed beside them.
Streaks of red lined Molly's pale face. Her helmet, the blue Frozen one she'd begged for at the store, was split and Elsa no longer had a complete face. My daughter's arms and legs were thrown askew and her head rested at an odd angle against her aunt's shoulder. Candace was screaming, perhaps at me, maybe still just for help, I couldn't make it out. I couldn't touch Molly, I couldn't move, I couldn't do anything except stare at my baby's face.
The ambulance came later, I don't think it took long. They wrapped my little girl in a white sheet and put her on a gurney bound for the hospital morgue. Police tried to question me, but by then the only sound I could make was an animalistic wail. I had no words. As they guided me into a cruiser, I looked back to where Molly had lain, where her blood had stained the asphalt. Standing on the sidewalk just beyond the police tape, grinning and hugging her teddy bear, was Arianna. She waved as the officer closed the door behind me.