Water Under the Bridge

The house is finally quiet. We’ve had so many visitors today, I thought they would never leave. Tommy is asleep in the crib next to my bed, bless his little heart. He has no idea that all the fuss was about him. Only seven days old and already famous. Not sure that’s such a good thing. Growing up in the spotlight can’t be all that easy. I wouldn’t know, I grew up in relative anonymity and only stepped into the spotlight when I married David Palmer, the movie star. He was a star back then and is an even bigger star right now. So much so that we had to sell pictures of Tommy to the tabloids, just so the paparazzi would leave us alone. I doubt we really had to, I think David wanted to show off his son, and his beautiful wife, still slim after the pregnancy. What nonsense: I only looked slim because of the corset my stylist had painfully squeezed me into. I hate perpetuating the idea that women should look perfect mere hours after giving birth. It’s so damaging for regular women who don’t have access to stylists and Photoshop. Yes, you didn’t think that was all me in the tabloids, did you? Right after having pushed out an eight pound baby? Give me a break. I still look about five months pregnant, but David would die rather than admit that his perfect wife still has a bloated belly. Money and fame really are a curse sometimes.

Tommy fusses in his crib, but settles again. Good, I have just fed him, he should be happy for a few hours. David had insisted on bottle feeding Tommy, but I won that fight. There’s no way I would let a stranger feed and dress my baby, not after having carried him within me for nine months. He’s mine and I will keep him with me for as long as I can. David will just have to go to his premieres and awards parties on his own for a while. I need something for myself, and Tommy is it for now.

Now that I have some time for myself I should open the present we received today. David is out, of course, but he doesn’t care about gifts anyhow. Why should he? He can buy anything he wants. Sometimes I get tired of how wealthy he is. Is it all really that important? You stop appreciating the small things in life. I think it’s lovely to open presents and see what people have given us. When I grew up, the traditional gifts were practical: clothes for the baby, baby blankets or wraps, toys. Sure, we can buy those ourselves now, but it would be nice to dress Tommy up in something I hadn’t picked out myself. But rich people seem to not care about that; the gifts we have received so far have been useless. To me anyway.

The package is light and as I open it, I feel a spark of hope. Could this be something normal for a change? Underneath the wrapping is a beautiful box. It would almost be a waste to throw that out, but saving it is out of the question.

I open the box and whatever is inside is wrapped in delicate tissue paper. I carefully peel back the tissue to reveal a neat little stack of clothes. I lift them out and lay them on the bed. They are beautiful, albeit for a much older boy. Tommy will have to wait a few years before he can fit into these. The card reveals the clothes to be from an older couple with whom we are vaguely acquainted. I wasn’t even sure why they had come to visit, but now I am happy they have.

I lay aside the wrapping and the box and turn to the clothes. Bright, garish colours – “Summer palette,” Sophie, my stylist, would say – but expensive fabric. I lift up a pair of overalls made of checked cloth: orange, yellow, red and blue. Not really fashionable for this day and age, but something draws me to it. I spread the overalls out on my lap and frown. A memory tugs at my brain, and dread fills me. My heart beats louder and there is a rushing in my ears. I feel like I recognise this garment, but I can’t remember where from. Whatever memories are attached to it aren’t pleasant. My stomach churns and I am suddenly nauseous. I throw the overalls aside and run to the bathroom. I make it just in time to empty my stomach contents into the toilet bowl.

After I clean up and brush my teeth I go back into the bedroom. I carefully pick up the overalls, as if they are poisoned. The nausea is back, and I stuff the clothes into the box and push it underneath the bed. I’m not superstitious, but I’d almost say the clothes are cursed. But why would a nice, elderly couple want to curse us?

I look over at Tommy and have a powerful urge to pick him up, hug him close and keep him safe. I gently lift him out of his crib and settle him on the bed next to me. David will sleep in his room tonight, so I don’t have to worry about him disturbing Tommy. Tommy gurgles a little, but doesn’t wake up. My sense of dread does not pass though.

I lay down next to my beautiful baby and try to sleep. I keep the light on; for some reason I’m suddenly afraid of the dark. I don’t want to be alone, but apart from the personnel, there is no one in the house. And I can’t really ask the housekeeper to come watch over me as I sleep. There are limits.

Sleep won’t come and my anxiety won’t abate. Tommy wakes up and I feed him, but I am going through the motions, not really focusing on my baby. As I am about to fall asleep, an image comes to my mind, unbidden. A little boy of about two, wearing those overalls, lying face down in a river, unmoving. I bolt upright, a scream in my throat and sweat pouring off me. My heart feels like it’s trying to beat it’s way out of my chest and in my head there is only one thought. It wasn’t my fault.

I know, or rather knew, that boy. He was my brother. I haven’t thought of him for years, but long-repressed memories return. I try to block them out, but they refuse to leave. I do not want to be reminded of that fateful day, the day my little brother went missing.

It was a beautiful day and we were playing in the woods behind our house. I was only six and my little brother Joey was two. I don’t know why our mother allowed us to go into the woods unsupervised. Maybe she just needed a break from us. We went deeper into the woods than we had ever had been, Joey dragging me along because he thought he had spotted a butterfly. I didn’t want to look after him, I wanted to sit on a log and pretend to be a princess waiting to be rescued. I loved making up stories – still do actually. I wanted to be a writer before meeting David; now I’m just his trophy wife.

Joey brought me to a river and whined that he saw the butterfly on the other side. I was sick of him by then and told him to shut up. In hindsight not a nice thing to do, but I was six year’s old. Cut me some slack. I sat down on a rock because I was hot and tired and I tuned Joey out. Once he got going, he could whine for hours and I didn’t have the patience to listen anymore.

At one point I must have realised he had been quiet for some time. I looked around, but couldn’t see him. At first I wasn’t concerned – Joey had a habit of wandering off, but he always came back. I half-heartedly called for him, but didn’t go looking. After a while I was getting bored and wanted to go back. I called for Joey, but there was no response. Annoyed, I called louder and walked towards the river, threatening to beat Joey if he didn’t come to me immediately.

That’s when I saw him. Face down in the river and not moving. I panicked. I turned and ran all the way home, crying. I feel the same panic now, the nauseating realisation something awful has happened. By the time I reached home, however, my panic had subsided and I had stopped crying. I don’t remember where my mother was; she wasn’t looking out for us. I hid in my bedroom, praying no one would ask me where Joey was.

No one noticed his absence until it was time for dinner. My mother called him, then asked my dad if he had seen Joey. Finally she asked me if Joey had come home with me. I shrugged. I didn’t want to confess what had happened; didn’t want to be blamed. So I said nothing and pretended to be more upset than I really was.

My parents called the police, who briefly interviewed me. I had become panicked again – not because Joey was missing, but because I was afraid I would be found out. I lied and told them I didn’t remember Joey coming home with me. They took me into the woods to show them where I last saw Joey. I approached the river with trepidation, dreading to see Joey’s lifeless body. But the riverbanks were mercifully empty. No sign of a little boy face down in the water. I felt giddy with relief: I was safe!

The search lasted a month – for the police. My parents are still hoping to this day that a miracle will bring them back their little boy. Only I know that he will never come home.

In the years since the incident I have made myself believe my own lie. I’ve helped my parents look for Joey, and kept hoping that he is still alive. I look for him in every twenty-something man I see, hoping he has been found by someone and treated well. For twenty years I have kept my secret, repeating my lies until they came true for me. But now my treacherous memory strips away the lie and shows me the truth.

I look at Tommy, peacefully sleeping next to me and I imagine losing him. The knot of dread in my stomach tightens and I can barely breathe. Death would be hard enough, but if he went missing without me knowing what happened to him, that would be unbearable. I imagine what my parents have been through – still go through. My mother has never given up hope. What hell she must live in!

And now these overalls. The same ones Joey was wearing when he died. And yes, I am sure he died. No child lies face down in a body of water for an extended period of time and survives. I wonder why the elderly couple gave me the overalls. Where would you even get nineties clothes anymore? Do they know something? Will they blackmail me? I can’t let that happen. I can’t lose what I have. Because if David finds out what really happened to Joey, he will cut me off and take Tommy away from me.

I quietly get up and take the box from under the bed with shaking hands. I bring it to the kitchen. Everyone in the household is asleep, so I can work without being caught. I take the kitchen scissors and methodically cut the clothes and the box into small pieces. Then I bury the scraps underneath the kitchen waste, wash my hands and go to bed. I will pretend I never received the overalls. I won’t have to see the elderly couple again if I don’t want to; David and I are good at cutting people out of our lives. Joey went missing and might still be alive. That’s the truth I must believe again. As for Tommy: I will guard him with my life to ensure nothing will ever happen to him. I have money now, and status, and I will make sure David will love his son and protect him against any harm. Money and fame are a blessing: they will keep us safe.

I slide back into bed and cradle Tommy in my arms. I inhale his baby scent and push all memories back where they belong. I practice the calming mantra my guru has taught me and slowly my anxiety subsides. As I drift asleep I am almost back to my old self.