A loose photo on my desk catches my eye when I walk past on my way to—I stop, rub the back of my neck, momentarily at a loss for what I was doing. I turn in a half circle, hands stretched out in front of me, trying to shake the present like I’m panning for gold. Hoping that the answer to what I was doing will rise golden flecked and shiny above the silt. But nothing. My bladder feels empty, so I wasn’t going to the bathroom. A fullness in my stomach means I must have eaten recently. Still, nothing comes to mind, and when my eyes spot the photo again, I pick it up, grateful for something to occupy my thoughts.
I smile. The picture is of me and Dad after I received my graduate degree in elementary education. School was always a safe place for me, and as I grew older it became an easy leap for me to see myself as a teacher. Teachers didn’t disappear for days inside their bedrooms or have to leave Whittier to drive a truck for weeks on end. Teachers, at least in Whittier, were around and available for students even when the school was locked up and dark. Plus, teaching came naturally to me, and I loved being around kids, especially the ones who were too loud or troublemakers or angry at the world. I could relate. I look at the picture again. Poor Dad. I put him through so much. Once, I pulled the fire alarm, just for fun, and forced the entire building outside in the middle of a night when the snow flew sideways. I skipped school with Tate more times than I can count, and we shook the vending machine so hard hoping snacks would fall out that we broke it. I can come up with a list of stupid things I did when I was a teenager. I think at one point the homeowners’ board wanted to kick us out because of me. But Dad and Ruth were always there, and my antics didn’t go unpunished, at least the ones I got caught for.
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So it was easy picking my major and later deciding to get my master’s in education. Because without all the adults sticking with me, believing in me, and punishing me, too, I might have followed a very different path. Once I was focused, school came easily to me, due much in part to my love of lists and notes and calendars of all kinds. I look again at the picture, remember the proud tautness of Dad’s shoulders, so convinced that I would take my education and travel the world. He wanted me far away from Whittier, refusing to ever see how much this town had saved me. I did have friends who left to teach in international schools all over the world, and I could have gone that route, I suppose, but there was a big part of me that yearned to give something back to the kids in Whittier.
I shake my head, blink rapidly. That was all a long time ago, I tell myself.
In some ways I can feel the years that have passed since this photo was taken in the texture of the skin across my arms, the looseness around my eyes, because time itself has changed me even if I don’t recall its passing. In other ways, it shocks me to face the truth. The present is liquid, flowing from moment to moment, and I am a raft, drifting with the current, not always connected to the minutes or hours, days and weeks attached to the passing of time, until I stare at a photo like this and am forced to acknowledge how much I have missed. I press my arm against my eyes, wait for the burning to fade before looking at the picture again.
In the picture, I’m wearing a black cap and gown, and Dad has his arm tight around me, his bearded face split in two by his grin. I trace the outline of the two of us with one finger. This was taken right before the ceremony, before my mother’s untimely arrival, before I broke the news to Dad about my job in Whittier, and before Tate Dunn walked back into my life.
No, Claire, you can’t come back to Whittier. Dad had touched my face like I was delicate and made of glass, a sad wrinkle in his forehead. It isn’t the right place for you. It’s too small, honey. I think if I’d been able to afford something better for Alice, maybe things would have been different.
I’d put my hand on his arm, made him look me in the eye, because I was both angry and saddened by his words. I’m not her. I’m nothing like her.
The memory fades and I focus on returning the picture back to where it belongs. That must have been what I was doing in the first place, certainly not dredging up old memories that hurt.
Framed pictures line the hallway, and I let my eyes travel over them, looking for an empty frame where this one might belong. There’s a picture with me and Dad by the water, a glistening salmon swinging on a fishing rod between us. Another of me as a toddler—a little monkey clinging to his back during a hike, blonde curls flat against a chubby face. A grainy photo of me standing in the mouth of the Whittier tunnel. Dad took that one the first time he drove me to college. He stopped just before we entered and ordered me out, said he needed photographic evidence that my days of traveling the tunnel were numbered.
My phone buzzes and a reminder pops up on the screen. Relax and read your favorite book, make coffee. I click my tongue and smile. I must have been making coffee; then maybe I got this photo out because I was thinking about him. It’s enough of a guess to make me feel grounded, and now I know my next move: go to the kitchen and see if I made the coffee or was in the middle of it.
When I enter the kitchen, I freeze.
A young girl, maybe nine or ten, kneels on the yellow laminate squares, small hands collecting hunks of glass. She looks up when I enter, studies me from behind glasses with frames that are too big for her small round face. Glasses that don’t look like the prescription kind. And her hair. It’s piled up on top of her head and appears to have been wound around the cardboard of a toilet paper roll. I can tell because half of the roll is sticking through her hair.
A bubble of laughter fights to escape my mouth. I stop myself. Kids don’t like to be laughed at by adults.
“Hi!” I say because I can’t think of how else to start this conversation. It’s embarrassing to have forgotten why she’s here, but something about her puts me at ease. Maybe it’s just because I’ve always been comfortable around kids. “Is everything okay?”
She narrows her eyes, pinches her lips together. “Aw, hell, did you forget about me already?”
Melissa Payne is the bestselling author of ”The Secrets of Lost Stones” and “Memories in the Drift.” She first learned the real importance of storytelling when she worked for a residential and day treatment center for abused and neglected children, where she wrote speeches and letters to raise funds. The truth in those stories was written to evoke in the reader a call to action: to give, to help, to make a difference. Her love of writing and sharing stories in all forms has endured. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children. For more information, visit www.melissapayneauthor.com.