Shades of Grey
by Kimberly VanderHorst
It wasn’t stormy the day he was taken. It’s peculiar the way that one fact keeps bobbing to the surface of my memory. It was overcast, with glints of sun sporadically poking through the canopy of cloud. Andrew was delighted. He called those brief moments “sun-leaks,” and his eager eyes sought them out, pudgy fingers pointing ecstatically up at the sky.
He thought a battle was being waged in the heavens. Amused, I kept driving, listening to him commentate on the action. “The sun’s trying, Mommy, it’s trying to get through. But the clouds are too big. I think we’ll just see a few leaks and that’s it. I wonder why the sun doesn’t give up.”
I laughed, reached over and rumpled his hair. “Hard to say, Mr. Weatherman, hard to say. Stubborn stuff, that sunshine.”
He continued to gaze up at the clouds, then nodded his head. “I guess it is kind of stubborn, isn’t it? Kinda like me, hey Mommy? I wouldn’t give up either, if I were the sun. ‘Cause it’d be a pretty miserable world if the sun gave up, wouldn’t it?”
He was so solemn for a six-year-old. It said something for nature versus nurture that he was so much like the father he’d never known.
Six years had passed since Greg’s death, and still there were times I couldn’t cope. Panic attacks. Dizzy spells. It was easier just to stay home. I could wrap myself up in a blanket of memories and pretend that at any moment he’d be sneaking in the side door, trying to catch me by surprise the way he had loved to do. Memories haunted me like ghosts, eerie but strangely welcome. I found myself courting those moments.
I had developed a talent for pretending.
But we were out of the house now. Simon had insisted we join him at his cottage. Little brother had made good and offered to share. I knew his kindness for the lie it was; his real motivation was to save me. I told him where he could put his salvation.
He said, “Come on Lainey. Think of Andrew. He’d love a week in the country, and you know it.” He was right. Andrew was pale and withdrawn, forced into hibernation by a mother who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) cope.
“We’ll come,” I’d told Simon when I called him back the next day. “But if you try any of that psychobabble crap on me I’ll cut your ponytail off.” I had been sincere in my threat, but he had just laughed.
The weather tells us such lies. It should have been stormy. Instead, the sun gleamed through the overhanging clouds, lighting up Simon’s cottage in a halo of light.
Andrew didn’t run ahead as most boys his age would; instead, he took in the scene laid out before us. I climbed out of the car, pausing to watch as he continued forward. I picture him like that always now, facing the unknown in that brave way he had about him.
No, it wasn’t stormy the day he was taken. The porch was slick with blood and the sun lit upon Simon’s forehead like a benediction. The men were waiting for us there in that remote place, and their smirks made plain what little use my screaming was.
Oh little brother. What have you lead us to?
“We can’t have much farther to go,” I whisper into the dimly lit interior of the car. The lights on the dashboard give a green cast to the shadows. There are others in the car. One is driving, his breath rasping harshly. Another keeps watch out of the passenger side window, watching as houses whip by like dots of melting butter on the pancake-flat fields. Somebody smells like butterscotch. It isn’t Simon, curled up on the backseat beside me, knees tucked under his chin and right cheek pressed against the door. His fingers clench spasmodically at the door handle; clutch, release, clutch, release. He doesn’t understand that the door is locked. He smells of sweat and blood.
The grinding metallic thud of his constant action soothes me, like a clock ticking the seconds away. Not because they are precious seconds. Not because they might be last seconds. Simply because this is what a clock does. I like this sense of inevitable purpose. It confides to me that this is not my fault. What they did to Simon is not my fault. And Andrew…oh, my darling Andrew.
I turn my attention to my knotted hands, frowning at the mass of interwoven fingers. “I can’t feel them,” I whisper, shaking my head. The driver lets out a low grunt and the navigator turns to glare at me, fist balled and held at eye level between us. I wonder if he can feel his fingers. I wonder if he knows how ridiculous he looks.
I steal a smile from happy days and put it on, aware of how crooked and out of place it must appear. He retreats, looking at me uncertainly. I can tell that he lives by faces and what they tell him, nothing more. A stolen smile is all it takes to confuse him.
I hear him mutter something to the driver. I can’t make out the words, but they aren’t friendly ones. “We’re here,” the driver announces, casting a look back at my knotted fingers before turning back to the road, wheels spinning in faint protest at the departure onto a gravel road. The gravel is deep and loud, like an ocean, and I feel us sink and rise and wonder if my praying hands know something secret.
The driver shunts the gearshift into Park, the engine idling. “Get out.”
Everything seems blurred. “Time to run,” I reply, feeling my head spin, smelling butterscotch and blood.
Time never stands still, but sometimes it slows down and shuffles its feet a bit. It’s like that in the car. Too many seconds pass by unaccounted for, and I feel my fingers begin to unclench. Nothing makes sense. Everything moves green and tastes slow. I unlock Simon’s door.
Clutch, release, free. Simon spills out snakelike, face crushed into the gravel, lips inhaling pebbles. “Run!” I shriek.
The driver swears and then we are racing, time and sense rushing in to fill up the sudden vacancy. Simon. I’m coming, Simon. Run for it, Simon. Gravel pops and cracks under my sneakers. I can’t remember opening my door. I hear the driver’s door creak open and then his footsteps behind me. It’s so dark. Simon. Simon, where are you?
The dome light flickers like a bug zapper but I can see the door. Somehow I find the light to see the passenger door fly fast and thick into Simon’s skull. I watch a single pebble trickle from his lips and skitter to a stop. It lies rough and shiny from his saliva until I pick it up, shoving it in my pocket, not knowing why. The men have stopped and I think they are watching me, waiting for something. I can’t see them anymore. I need the light for Simon.
I kneel in the gravel and touch his face through the blood. His lips are still moving. Someone has stopped delivery on the message that he’s dying. Simon. Little brother. My fingers stroke the slick surface of his cheek. The movement seems to drag sound out of his chest, a few last syllables for me to fall on.
“Oh Lainey…” he whispers. “Find him… I…” He falters and trails off. Even in the heat of the sultry summer evening, I shiver. I remember Greg dying. Remember cursing myself for not knowing CPR. It wouldn’t be enough to save Simon, though. He’d fought them at the cottage. I had seen the baseball bat sticky with blood. I watch as he shudders, twitches, and fades.
Obscurely, a shrill beeping sound splits the air. The driver fumbles a pager from out of his pocket.
“Says 911, Don…means the boss wants us right quick.”
Don scowls at him and then gestures at me and Simon. “And what’re we supposed to do with this lot? We’ll never get the ransom from his company now.”
“There’s still hope. Let’s dump him and the kid. And whack the lady upside the head again. We’ll collect before anyone knows what went wrong.”
“Right,” Don replies. I can feel him grinning.
And oh, how much is wrong with me that I welcome the blow? No stars. No loop-de-looping bluebirds. Just blessed, welcome, oblivion.
“Mommy, how come the clouds don’t get tangled in the trees?”
No, not this. Simon dead, and now this. I think I hear myself whimper.
“Oh, clouds are much too smart for that,” I replied, tickling him absently, smiling the deep curved smile reserved just for him. Andrew.
“You mean they never get caught? Not ever? Not even a little bit?” He was disappointed, his rampant imagination brought to a halt by my answer.
“Well, perhaps if the cloud were really heavy. Maybe if it were filled with rain. And only if the tree were extra special clever.” Somehow I managed not to laugh. His sweet six-year-old face was puckered into such a serious expression.
He nodded, staring up at the darkening sky above us, his imagination rekindled. I threaded my fingers through his dark, shaggy hair and caught the glimmer of a grimace on his pale freckled face.
And I laughed. “I know, I know…back off Mom.”
He turned and smiled up at me. So blue, his eyes, the brightest blue. “Nah, I don’t mind.” He returned to his quiet cloud-based reflections, the wooden deck chair creaking under his slight weight. The clouds above us seemed to dance in the wind. Shades of grey.
I shudder into a form of wakefulness, feeling the gritty grinding of gravel against my cheek. Rough rasping coughs tear through me, and a fresh wave of grief washes over me as I struggle to my knees.
The landscape spirals into focus with alarming rapidity, early morning twilight edging the shadowy forms of the trees. One form is not a tree. I can just make out the white t-shirt in the distance. The dark hair. Andrew.
I stumble to my feet, my heart pounding and my brain transmitting wild false messages to my body, telling it I have the energy to run. The distance between us is swallowed in my blind panic, no interval between the moment I stagger to my feet and the moment I collapse next to his prone little body.
He is cold. So cold.
“No,” I whisper. “This isn’t how stories go. This isn’t the right ending.”
I touch his face. There are bruises obscuring the freckles I love. I run my fingers through his hair, detangling the knots in the wavy darkness of it. I want to touch him. Hold him. And yet I know this is not him. This is not my child. Andrew is not here.
What would you give? a voice whispers. What is there in you that is worthy of him?
“Anything. Everything. Nothing,” I reply. My voice sounds harsh to my own ears. There is no surprise in me, to be asked such a question; I have asked it of myself often enough before. The voice though, the whisper in my mind, it is something other. Something outside of me. The thought stirs panic.
Do not fight me. I am the answer to the prayer you have not yet prayed. I am all that you cannot, would not understand. I am the answer. I am the gift giver. I am the magic humanity yearns for and also fears. I can bring him back.
I answer the voice in the quiet of my mind, too distracted by grief to succumb to terror. Partly, I am angry. “Who are you to offer such a thing?”
I have many names. They mean nothing. I am the quiet. I am the deep. I am the dark in which you sleep. I can give you back your son. What would you give?
I lay Andrew’s still form on the damp grass and look away. There are better ways to remember him. Better moments and memories in which to lose myself. Later. The voice in my mind needs answering. “I can’t properly answer a question I don’t understand,” I reply.
A wise answer, the voice replies. I sense that it is pleased. Impressed, even. Your grief has called me to you and your guilt has broken down the barrier that would otherwise keep me from your thoughts.
I feel my chest tighten. It is momentarily difficult to breathe. And then, peace. An easing of the weight constricting my heart.
You see? You see what power I have? What will you give? it demands. What will you give? it shouts.
“Do not mock my grief!” I shout back.
A storm of weeping overwhelms me and I fall to my knees. The grief smothers me like a heavy blanket. My vision begins to fade, spots of blurry black swirling across the landscape.
Relief. Sudden and sweet. I am standing again, calm and quiet. And then pleasure. Excruciating levels of pleasure sending me into an ecstasy such as I have never known. Again I am left gasping. The voice in my mind is wordless and laughing. It occurs to me that I should be afraid.
Yes, it whispers. Yes, you should be. You see the power I have? I will ask you one last time. What would you give for him to live again?
“Everything,” I whisper fiercely.
How little you know what everything is, the voice says, not unkindly. Foolish child. Be gone then, and bear witness of my gift.
And then I am gone: a mere gathering of thoughts propelled outwards from what was once my home. I want to weep, but I have no eyes to do it with. No mouth to launch protest. I am a bodiless scream shrieking my grief to a world that has no ears that can hear me.
I drift. For a time, all is confusion and rage. My body: it has taken my body. Gradually, hope overwhelms anger. Andrew.
Eyeless though I may be, I find myself watching him. He is the anchor to my drifting and the voice has made good on its promise. He lives.
His heartbeat slowly kicks into gear. It echoes within me, a dull staccato percussion reverberating through what is left of my being. I watch the stained t-shirt stretched across his chest rise and fall with his breathing. Gratitude and rage wage an epic battle within me. It stole my body; it brought back my son.
A farmer finds them in his field. He is confused at first and then there is shouting as he sees the blood encrusted on their heads. They are unconscious, their arms twined around each other. But all this is on the edge of my periphery. Everything that is left of me is focused on Andrew. He is alive.
They keep them apart at first. Separate hospital rooms. Separate questionings by the police. The ransom had been paid. Where was Simon? How is it that they survived? I listen to the murmurings and questions as I drift through the sterile and unfriendly halls of the hospital. Always I am drifting. I know what the authorities suspect. The doctors have no answers and the detectives are frustrated.
In time, they let them go, but Andrew and my usurper swim free on a wave of suspicion and doubt. I am not the only one who watches them.
I watch my body care for Andrew. It is my face that nuzzles against his, my smile reassuring him, my arms holding his weeping form against my chest. I am a bundle of thought drifting through the world, yet I can feel. I think wryly to myself about the theories this debunks. Emotions are not a function of glands only. I am enraged. Daily.
I am also confused. The possessor of my body is a mystery to me. That something with the power to bring Andrew back to life should have need of my body is incomprehensible. That it should want to live my life even more so.
“Mommy?” he asks.
“Yes, love?” it answers with my voice.
“Are we going to be okay now?” I can see him tremble. I ache to put my arms around him. It is an exquisite form of torture to witness his uncertainty and have no means of comforting him.
“Yes, Andrew,” it whispers, tucking him against its side, brushing his dark curls back from the lingering yellow bruises smearing his pale forehead. “Everything is okay now. The bad man got the money they wanted and they will never, ever, hurt you again.”
Its answer is fierce and genuine. Not only does Andrew believe, I find that I do as well. It is strangely comforting.
Many years pass. Time is blurred for me. There is no sleep, no escape from the ceaseless cascade of thought that has become my existence. My usurper lives the life I ought to have led, yet I cannot hate the force or being that has given him life and protection. Andrew is happy; he does not know he is an orphan.
Some day he will believe himself so. I watch as my body ages. For all its power, the being inhabiting it does not seem able, or inclined, to sustain it. My flesh begins to sag on an increasingly frail frame. The time comes when I think there is not much time left. I wonder if my body will defy the decay eating away at it and live on and on past all reason.
There comes a day when I see tears pouring from my son, now a man, as he weeps over the death of the entity he believes to be his mother. It hits me that he loved the creature. I have watched all these years and yet it has not registered until the moment of my body’s death. He loved it.
You see now, don’t you? You see a small glimpse of what everything is. There is no love in the quiet and the deep and the dark. Your gift has given your son his life, given you the gift of watching him grow, and me the gift of earning his love. It is no small thing that you did all those years ago.
I am wordless and I can feel the creature smirking. Do you hate me? it asks. I sense its curiosity. I wonder how much of its behavior has been compelled by that curiosity.
“I can’t hate what I don’t understand,” I reply.
It laughs. Good. There is hope for your people, then. Go now. Find your heaven. There are many there who have yet to learn.
I am surprised and the voice laughs.
Do you think there is no learning in heaven? Is it not a place of joy? Go. Find those who have yet to learn what you just have. Teach them.
I hesitate. “I thought you evil at first,” I confide to it.
More gleeful and greedy than evil, it admits. I am grateful to you. You did not know what you were giving, but that makes it no less of a gift. Now go. He has mourned you at last. It is time.
And though I have no eyes with which to see, I watch the earth recede behind me. All is light. I am reminded of the day Andrew was taken. The sun leaks through the clouds, the deceitful sunshine. At last, I journey to its source. At last, I am home.
Kimberly VanderHorst lives and writes in the picturesque South Cariboo region of British Columbia, Canada. A long time lover of all things literary, this is nonetheless her first foray into the world of publishing. She resides with her husband, two point five children, and slightly demented family hamster as she seeks new ways to breathe life into the stories that churn about in her mind.