“It’s okay, baby. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Through the rear-view mirror, Julie could just see a corner of Lily’s tiny red face. The baby’s hands trembled, irate at being trapped in the confines of her car seat. Julie inhaled slowly and made a soft, rhythmic shushing sound at her daughter’s cries. She slowly turned up the volume on the car’s CD player. The deep, lilting voice of a cello sent notes of Bach’s Prelude in G Major over the beige leather seats. Julie rolled her neck around slowly and it snapped back at her with angry tension. She’d never expected her first day back at work to have gone so terribly wrong. She’d walked into a raging wildfire- one that had been going on without her for months, one that Jason Hunt fully expected her to have solved in the first few hours of her return. And then on the phone, in tears, in the parking lot she’d snapped at Gabe, for not understanding the absurdity of it all. Thirty minutes later she’d walked into the sitter’s to find her baby crying furious, and hungry. She’s been like this all day, the young blonde had said, trying to disguise the potency of impatience in her voice. Julie rubbed at her temples as she slowed the car to a stop at the intersection. Lily’s screams had subsided and were replaced by intermittent, exhausted sobs.
“It’s okay, Lil,” she made her voice low, intentional and calm, mimicking the cello. “Everything’s going to be okay.” Did she keep saying that for Lily, or for herself? She gazed at the faded red of the stoplight. Filtered sunlight beamed across the gray asphalt and reached across the sidewalk, toward a row of red-brick, 1920’s bungalows. Drifting above the delicate leaf patterns on the street, a wraith-like shape drifted into the scene. A small yellow balloon floated into the intersection, pulling a tattered white string behind it like an unwilling captive.
Julie stared, entranced by the movement of the balloon- the way it swayed and dipped serendipitously. It moved across the street in almost deliberate motion. The stoplight changed. Julie did not move her foot from the brake. She kept staring. Somewhere in her mind an alarm was going off. Something inside her was urging her to take action. But the movement of the balloon had become so intensely clear that she could scarcely realize any of her other senses. Having seen the balloon float across half of the intersection, her eyes drifted to the far corner on the opposite side. A young Hispanic man and a tiny, brunette toddler girl stood at the street sign. Julie studied the pink and white pinstripes on the girls dress. The child’s cropped brunette hair swept across her chin when she turned her head. Julie noticed the soft smile that moved over the father’s lips as the child pointed to the balloon. And the blank absoluteness of the change that came over his face when the child dashed into the street. She wanted to scream out. But as if trapped inside a dream, when she opened her mouth she had no voice. She watched, struck motionless in disbelief. A giant, white moving truck moved under the stoplight opposite her. Blurred streaks of white, red, silver and black flashed into the faded sunlight. The smoking rubber of tires smeared a horrible, black streak across the asphalt. A fringe of brown hair swept across a heart-shaped face. A red hand jutted into the center of the chaos. The demon screeching of metal into metal. The eerie, rain-like shattering of broken glass. Julie stared, frozen into the disaster, frozen into time. She felt a surging heaviness in the atmosphere- time being heaved to a stop. Like when Lily was born.
Julie loosened her hands from the steering wheel and stepped, trembling into the street. Her heart pounded loud in her ears. The back end of the truck had completely taken out the front end of a blue sedan. The driver sat motionless in his seat. She couldn’t remember getting out of the car, but felt herself moving toward the collision. She stared at the space where she’d last seen the balloon. And then…a sudden movement came from beneath it. An arm reached out onto the street. Life. Limbs. Hope. Love. Noise. A cry. A child’s cry. Suddenly Julie could feel herself breathing, her heart pulsing out blood to her fingers and toes, the tightness of skin around her cheeks, the way her tongue felt against the back of her teeth. It was the first time in 34 years she had ever been aware of being inside of her life.
The yellow balloon bumped across the rounded curb and upward into the low crooks of a towering live oak, tangling its captive string into the reaching arc of branches.