For nine years, Victoria Gold considered herself lucky.
The day her son Paul went missing cold air blew from the sea, freezing the tiny village on Blackthorn Island. The sun added no warmth to her skin as she sat on the bench in the public park that was bordered on three sides by a forest. Sparrows and finches flew out from the bushes and chirped, dodging the wind, their feathers fluffy.
The playground was noisy with other mitten-clad children and their mothers or nannies, a few fathers here and there pushing their kids on the swings. A little snow remained from last week. Winter had arrived, asserting its claim.
Her kids ran freely. Paul was pushing Nat on the swings. How she adored her identical twins. Nat had escaped being born with epilepsy, which afflicted Paul. They were nine now, with Nat being older by a quick minute. Her daughter, Katherine, age 7, laughed and waited for Nat to hop off and Paul to push her. The boys loved Katie and she knew it. She got on the swing, flying blurred between her brothers, laughing as they swung her higher and higher. What Victoria wouldn’t have done to suspend the hand of time and let the joy and shared love continue forever. But the sea wind stiffened, and with the sunlight weakening, she got up to call them in.
Nat pointed to the big seesaw in the center of the playground. “Can I go on that?”
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” she said.
All three of them frowned.
“But you always work late,” Nat said.
Victoria sighed. “All right, but just for a minute.”
Nat grinned, and the three of them headed for the seesaw. Victoria ran to stop Paul.
“Why can’t I go on it?” he asked.
“It’s too dangerous,” she said.
Paul looked over at Nat. “How come he’s allowed?”
Nat had taken off his red knitted hat with a bobble on top while he waited for Paul and was kicking it in front of him on the ground.
“Nat,” Victoria groaned. Without looking at her, he picked up the hat and tucked it in his pocket with the bobble sticking out. She touched Paul’s parka and helped him put the hood up. “Keep it up so you stay warm.”
Katie tugged at Victoria’s sleeve. “I’m thirsty.”
“Just a second, Katie,” she said, and turned back to Paul. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. You just can’t go on the seesaw.”
“What can I do then?” he said.
Victoria reached down and straightened his eyeglasses. “You can stand next to Nat. You can watch everything he does, but don’t go on anything.”
Paul started to walk away from her, and she could tell his eyes were fixed on the ground. Her heart cracked at the sight of him, with his thin shoulders slumped and his feet dragging clumsily behind him. Her frail little Paul. He was becoming more aware of the things he couldn’t do.
“Wait, Paul. Come here,” she called, reaching out for him. Then she hurried back to the bench with him, and Katie followed.
On their way to the park from Paul’s doctor appointment Victoria had bought a bouquet of white roses at the florist’s to set in a vase on the dining table. There was one small rose among the group that was white like the others but with the top of its petals dipped in red. The shopkeeper had said it was a “beautiful flaw.” And Paul had pointed to the little black mark on Katie’s temple.
“Like what’s on her face,” he’d said. Indeed the red mark on the rose was unusual, just as Katie’s mark, like a blot of ink that couldn’t be erased, was unusual but beautiful on her.
Unusual but beautiful. Strange incidents had happened in the past around Katie. Just before Victoria had gone into labor with her in the summertime, grackle birds with bright yellow eyes, glossy, dark feathers and tails, fell from the sky and landed on their doorstep. Victoria thought they were dead. But when her husband Sam went outside to check, they flew into the air and perched on the branches of a walnut tree, watching over the house until they arrived safely home from the hospital. And three days after Katie came into the world, the skies hailed for five minutes, but only on their rooftop, bringing a chilly break to a heat wave. Victoria didn’t like to think of the incidents often. She didn’t want to know what they might mean.
Victoria reached for the bouquet wrapped carefully in paper, chose the peculiar rose, and handed it to Paul. “For you.”
“Why are you giving the cherry vanilla rose to me?” he said.
“Cherry vanilla. I like that. Did you come up with that on your own?”
“Yeah. Katie might like it better.”
“But I’m giving it to you because it’s extraordinary, like you. Katie won’t mind. She’ll want you to have it. Ask her.”
Victoria glanced at Katie, who nodded at Paul and said, “It’s yours if you want it.”
He tucked the rose in his pocket, bending the stem, and then dashed off to Nat.
“Mom,” Katie complained.
“Let’s get your drink,” Victoria said, taking her hand and sitting down so she could dig through her overstuffed shoulder bag.
The juice box was wedged in between the clipped sheets of her Advanced Literature students’ term papers. She brought the papers in the hope that she might have time to mark them. But the foil covering the hole for the straw had torn. The term papers were a sticky, purply mess.
“Stay here, darling,” Victoria said to Katie, and got up to go into the park restroom.
Her eyes met Nat’s; he was the most responsible. “I have to go into the bathroom for a second. You’re in charge. Make sure everyone stays safe.” Victoria was asked to repeat her words to him so many times in subsequent weeks that they became ingrained in her memory of the day. She needed to grade the papers by that night. Now she’d have to tell her eager students she had ruined their work.
Nat gave up on the seesaw and Paul started to push him on the swings again. It was nice to see them taking care of each other.
“Not too high,” Victoria shouted to them. It sounded harsher than she meant it to.
Paul’s small face looked over at her with worry. She should have stopped walking to tell him it was okay, that she wasn’t mad with him. But the bathroom door was only 10 steps away, less, and she’d just grab a handful of paper towels and be back and give him a hug.
Victoria took off her gloves, shoved them in her coat pocket and sprinted into the heated bathroom. The paper towel dispenser was empty. “I can’t believe this.” Her face got hot. She glimpsed at the mirror that ran the length of the rows of sinks and her cheeks were scarlet. The first two stalls she tried were out of paper, too. She skidded on the tiled floor, mucky with the mud and softening snow people had dragged in, and steadied herself.
The third stall had a few sheets, so she grabbed them and went to the next stall for more. She blotted her students’ papers with the toilet tissue as best she could, but the sheets crumbled into bits and left little curls on the term papers. The trash bin was spilling over with used paper towels. There wasn’t enough time. She had to get back outside.
A teenage girl came in talking on a cellphone. “I really thought he was the one, you know?” She bumped into Victoria, knocking some of the papers out of her hand.
“Sorry,” the girl said and resumed her phone conversation. She stood in front of the mirror picking something out of her braces with her free hand, and then went into and locked a stall with a click, chatting on her phone. Victoria gathered the papers and left.
Outside, with her gloves back on, she went to sit with Katie, who was swinging her feet on the bench. Nat was gently propelling himself on the swings and looking around him. Victoria was about to get up but then saw Paul standing near the swings with his back to her, with the hood of his blue coat still flipped up.
“There’s purple stuff on your jacket,” Katie said. “Can I have my juice?”
Victoria looked down and rubbed at the juice stain with her glove. “I’m sorry sweetheart, but I don’t have another.”
The term papers still needed grading no matter how messy they might be. Victoria stuck her hand in the bag and searched for her red pen and finally found it stuck inside an address book. She turned and looked up. Nat had left the house in an unmistakable red coat and she spotted him right away, but she had lost sight of Paul.
Then he was there, about to sit on the seesaw. With the pen still in her hand, Victoria ran to him. “I’m so sorry, sweetie, but you can’t. . . .” She pushed his blue hood down from behind and he turned around. Green eyes and red hair. He wasn’t Paul.
His eyes widened. “Mom,” he called. A young woman in a denim jacket ran up to them, pulled the boy away from Victoria and held him close to her legs. “What’s wrong with you?” she said before she walked away with the boy.
“I’m sorry, I thought he was my son,” Victoria said. She looked behind and then in front of her again.
She whirled around and scanned to her left, then her right and then back again. The pen fell to the snow-dusted asphalt.
Just like that, Paul was gone.
E.R. Fallon is a former Southampton College student whose creative work has appeared in a number of literary magazines worldwide. “The Beastly Trees” is excerpted from a novel of the same name, for which she is currently seeking a publisher.