Captain Riddell handed Bridger’s new uniform to her, pressed and folded into a perfect square stack, blue and white. Light from the window made the silver name bar on top glint. She felt the strain of keeping her face impassive. None of the other probies smiled either, four men and her. (“Don’t think being a woman is going to get you special treatment here.” She’d heard it from the start.)
“Thank you sir!”
In the parking lot with the window of her Jeep rolled down, her fingers left smudges on the narrow bar where her name was etched. Penny Bridger. She closed her eyes and put her head back against the seat.
Twenty years she’d waited for this.
The sharp edges of the bar dug into her palm and she heard again the siren that had come for her mother.
Penny’s pencil moved over the paper, a potbelly curve and a winking smile taking shape under her hand. She drew the same shape again, picking a green crayon up off the rug where the colors spread out beside her, and filled in the oval. Sun came through the window over Mama’s bed, making a silhouette of her own short-cropped dark hair and round cheeks on the place where she’d drawn the cartoon figures in their boxes, just like in the funny papers her father gave her each Sunday. She giggled and held the paper up to the edge of the covers from her place on the floor, belly against the soft flowers of the blue rug.
“See, Mama? It’s a happy avocado.”
There was no answer. Her mother was asleep. Putting the picture back down on the cardboard she was using for a desk, she wrote in careful letters across the bottom of the page: For Mama, Love Penny. She folded the page in half, making sure she didn’t catch the cartoon figure’s little stick legs in the place where the paper bent, and put the picture on the covers next to her mother’s hand where it rested, palm up, like she was waiting for it to be filled. The other blue-veined hand curled around the bump in her middle that looked just like a bigger version of the avocado Penny had drawn. Once, when the bump had moved, her mother had laughed at the startled expression on Penny’s face.
“That’s just your brother saying hello,” she said and pressed a hand to her belly over the top of her fuzzy blue robe, motioning for Penny to do the same. Penny shook her head, watching the front of the robe.
Now she looked at her mother’s face, waiting to see the flicker of her eyelids. She liked to watch Mama dreaming. Sometimes she smiled in her sleep, her face becoming unrecognizable for a moment, like an actress in the movies they watched on the neighbor’s television through the window across the street, beautiful and remote. Her mother’s brows drew together briefly, and her mouth moved unconsciously into the shape of an unknown word before the lines smoothed and she settled deeper into her dream, head falling to the side on the pillow.
Penny went back to the stack of pictures she’d made since breakfast. There was one for each of the family: Daddy with his striped shirt and dark hair, waving goodbye as he left for work; Becky with her flute, and Alison brushing her long hair the color of the honey Penny liked to put on her cereal. She pushed at the pile with her raggedy-edged nails until all the corners lined up and gathered them together. Mama’s nightstand was crowded with crumpled tissues, pens, her wristwatch and orange bottles of pills, but she wedged the stack of papers into a spot on the corner right at the front where her mother would see them when she woke.
The sound of something small hitting the floor near the bed with a rattling noise was loud in the silent room and she looked quickly at her mother, but her eyes were still closed. Penny could see the breath lifting her chest up and down, just a tiny bit.
She didn’t like seeing her mother so still. She’d come back from the doctor’s one day, leaning on Daddy’s arm, and the next morning, her father had explained to them all that Mama would need to stay in bed from now on until their brother got here, and they would all need to help out.
The only good thing about her mother being in bed was the notes she began writing. Mama was running the household from a command position, propped up on pillows. Her notepad and pencil were never far from her side, and each member of the household could count on a detailed note several times a day. For her father, it would be a list of bills to be paid or which girl had swimming lessons; for Penny’s older sisters it would be the grocery list and the chores. Penny’s notes had little stick people with happy faces who were always running or leaping to catch a ball or even floating up with a balloon in each hand.
Next year she would be old enough to go to day camp during the summer with her sisters and ride the bus across town twice a day like they did. Mama didn’t believe a seven-year old could be trusted on public transportation, even with her sisters along.
“You’d get off at the wrong stop and end up in Chinatown,” she told Penny, shaking her head. Penny knew better than to beg.
She walked down the long hall to the front room, comforted by the swishing sound her favorite track pants made as she moved. The radio with its news program had been switched off when her father left for work and most of the neighbors were gone for the day. The only sound was the robins in the yard. She listened to the birds making their funny chirp that sounded like her friend Juan when he spoke to his father: “Si, si senor”.
Juan’s family lived three doors down. When they spoke to each other, it was like water rushing over rocks, bouncing and bubbling. She practiced the sound, pressing her face to the cold glass, and looked out over their small yard.
Her breath fogged up the window, hiding the robins from her view and she turned away and sat down on the edge of the sofa, bouncing a few times, watching the dust produced by her movement curl up in the long column of sun coming in through the top of the window.
Another sound started from further down the street, replacing the cheerful noise the birds had been making, a strange screeching clatter that got louder, coming closer. She ran to the front door and pulled it wide open. The smell of cut grass made her legs twitch, wanting to run from one end of the yard to the other. Sun was warm on her black pants and she leaned over to see as far down the street as she could, making sure not to cross the metal strip of the doorjamb. She wasn’t allowed to go outside by herself.
She could see as far as the corner beneath the leaves of the big maple that marked the boundary of where she was allowed to play when her sisters were with her. The sound was getting louder and she squatted down to get a better look, watching as the shapes moving in the leaf-shadow became the dark, squeaking wheels and shiny metal rails of a shopping cart, looking entirely foreign outside of the aisles of the market.
It wasn’t just that the cart was out of place that made it look different though, she saw, as it came closer. Paper had been tied to the front with string, and she could see letters and numbers in bright red crayon drawn on the fluttering pages, a big number “1” in the middle. The smiling face of Juan popped up from the back beneath the handle and she grinned, waving. He motioned for her to come over but she shook her head. The squeak got much louder as he came down the sidewalk toward her house and she closed the door part way behind her to block the sound. Her bare feet crossed the metal line as she stepped into the sunshine.
“I’m racing!” Juan called to her, pushing the cart until he stood just in front of the house, stopping next to the mailbox that stood tilted a little to the right, red flag sticking up from its curved top. “You will be on my team?”
His face was the color of the gingerbread cookies her Grandmother sent them at Christmas time. Juan always smelled a bit like cookies too, mixed with the smell of dirt and grass that she thought of as just the smell of boys.
She shook her head again.
“I have to stay with Mama until Becky and Alison come home from camp.”
He hitched himself around and leaned over to look further down the street in the direction of the bus stop.
“They are almost here. Come for just one race,” he begged, hopping to stand on the edge of the cart’s basket at the back, rumbling down the sidewalk a few feet to show her what she was missing. She knew it wasn’t true. The bus came at the end of each long afternoon when the sun had gone behind the houses. She chewed the end of one fingernail and leaned inside the halfway opened door, listening. There was no sound from her parent’s bedroom.
“One race,” she said, ignoring the tiny twinge in her belly at the words.
She grabbed her green and white striped trainers off the rug from their place beside Mama’s and shoved her feet into them without bothering to tie the laces, closing the front door quietly. The cart made a loud screech and lurched forward as she jumped on with one foot, shoving off much harder and faster than Juan had. The handle was warm under her fingers, and her shadow raced along beside with Juan just behind, whooping and shouting with words she didn’t understand. Her trainers dug into the uneven pavement as she pushed off again, the cart teetering for a second on the crest of a speed bump, just between tipping and flying, her shriek of excitement scaring the robins from the grass in the yards.
One race turned into two and she forgot the quiet house and her sleeping mother.
The sun had just begun to come through the lower branches of the maple when she heard the sound of a siren. The fire station was across the street from the IGA. She had passed it many times with Mama when she had still been making the trip for groceries herself, and always stopped to look at the shiny red engines.
But the sound didn’t move away as it always had before. She stopped the cart and looked up at the leaves. The air was cooler and the sun wasn’t overhead as it had been when she’d left the house. Her stomach went into a little ball as it did when she had to go into the doctor’s office to get her shots, and her hands began shaking on the cold metal of the shopping cart. The siren was getting louder.
Juan’s eyes were wide. He left the cart where it was, running down the sidewalk to his own house without saying goodbye as the lights, flashing bright, began to bounce off the dull colors of the houses at the end of her street.
The noise became a horrible thing she couldn’t get away from, even with hands over her ears, pressed hard. An ambulance roared down the street and stopped fast, the siren finally going quiet as people in uniforms, dark pants and bright white shirts, jumped out and ran to her own front door. The house, the mailbox, the sidewalk, blurred together and she could hear the thump of her heart like a giant drum, trying to push itself out of her chest.
“Mama!” she screamed, and the sound was bigger than the siren, bigger than the truck, hurting her throat as it came out of her. Her trainers didn’t make any sound at all on the concrete as she ran for the open door of her house and the room where she’d left her mother.
But her mother wasn’t in bed any more. One man held Penny back while the others lifted Mama off the floor in the hallway and out of the awful dark circle she was laying in, eyes closed, face white and still. The man held his hand to her face, but she clawed it away and pushed at the arms holding onto her, reaching to hold her mother’s hand. It flopped, limp, while two of the men put her on a thin bed with rails and strapped her down, covering her up with white blankets that turned the same bright red as her robe was now.
The tall man who’d tried to hold her spoke quietly to one of the men at her mother’s side, and he disappeared into her parent’s bedroom, returning after a minute, gloved hands blotched red, holding Mama’s pills. She heard again in memory the small sound of something falling onto the floor, the sound she had forgotten once it didn’t wake her mother. She remembered her father’s hand on that same bottle, giving Mama one of the pills the night before.
“You’ll remember to take them?” he had said.
“Of course,” she’d answered, reaching down and ruffling Penny’s hair. “My little helper will remind me.”
Penny stopped struggling and wrapped her arms around her middle as a shaking started in her legs hard enough to make her sit down suddenly. The man let her slip to the floor but patted her gently on the top of her head before he went to her mother’s side and put his hand to her neck, eyes closed, listening to something only he could hear, then nodded at the others. They lifted her up in the thin bed and carried her out the door. Her eyes didn’t open.
Penny huddled on the sofa next to her sisters waiting for their father to return home with news, eyes fixed on the dark spot on the hallway floor as if the stain were some sort of black hole in space that might suck her in someplace she couldn’t return from.
It was dark enough that Penny couldn’t see the tree in their yard anymore when the lights of their father’s old van turned down the street and came to a slow stop in front of the house, the way a stranger looking for the right address would. The shape of his face was nothing like the one she had kissed goodbye that morning, with the smell of aftershave and coffee as soothing as her favorite flannel pajamas.
His eyes were like the dark under the trees outside, and there were lines on his face that caught the shadows. He’d left his hat somewhere and his hair was rumpled, with patches sticking out like they did when he’d been running his hands through it.
“Dad?” Alison asked, braving the silence, but then stopped. Penny watched her sister’s face and her father’s, knowing that whatever was said would change her world forever. But he didn’t say anything.
He moved his mouth in a way that looked like it was meant to be a smile and put his hand on the top of Alison’s head, setting his bag down to reach out and gently touch his knuckle to the underside of Becky’s chin and wipe a tear that was hanging there. Penny stood further back, waiting silently. Her father didn’t reach out for her. He cleared his throat and looked at the corner of the rug where Mama’s shoes still rested, scrunching up his mouth so it sat on his face off-kilter, before speaking.
“Your mother’s tough, isn’t she? She’s going to be okay.” Becky and Alison threw themselves at his waist as if the words had unfrozen them, hugging hard, trying to stifle the sounds of crying in the rough cloth of his work pants still dirty from the factory. He patted their backs, and finally looked up across the space of the living room that felt like a continent, stretching between him and Penny.
“What about my brother?” she asked, and the sounds of crying stopped abruptly. Becky and Alison lifted their heads and watched their father’s face again. Penny felt like someone was holding her too tight and squeezing all the air out of her. She couldn’t make another sound.
Their father reached down and disentangled the girls from his waist, gently but firmly, pushing them away. He crossed the room to the place where she knew the glass bottles full of dark, hot-smelling stuff Mama told her was only for adults were kept, and put his hand on the cabinet’s round metal knob, but didn’t move to open the door. She saw the back of his shirt lift and fill with a deep breath, and he made an ugly, wet sound, choked off, before he answered without turning around.
“You don’t have a brother.” The words didn’t have any color to them. He moved enough so they could see the side of his face, and spoke quietly.
“We’re not going to talk about this again.”
Becky and Alison had moved closer together and she could see their hands held tight between them. They nodded, and looked over at her, watching to see if she would behave or if they would have to take her from the room, away from the man who looked a little like their father but so much more like a stranger that none of them dared to ask any more about Mama, or anything else that had happened that night.
The space of the room seemed to Penny to have exploded to the size of the entire world, with the cold, cold oceans and sky standing between her and her father and sisters. She looked down at her feet on the familiar half-flattened shag of brown carpet and felt like she’d never seen them before and wasn’t sure if they would move and carry her down the hall and to the stairs and her own bed. But her feet obeyed her and she moved past the spot on the floor with her chin pointing up at the seam of the hallway where wall met ceiling, breathing through her mouth so she wouldn’t smell the rotting ocean smell of the place where Mama had fallen. She curled in a ball under the blankets and rocked until she fell asleep.
The tick of the clock on the wall felt like a tiny hammer on the space between Bridger’s eyes. Her hands settled on the creases running down the leg of her new uniform to keep them still.
Practice was over. It was sink or swim.
She felt the roar of the siren begin, rumbling through the walls of the station. It buzzed in the long bones of her legs and rang in her ears over the crackle of dispatch.
“373 South Union. Heart attack in progress.”
Captain Riddell gave her a sharp look.
“You ready for this?”
Her throat closed on the answer and she ran down the long hallway, pushing through the door into the cold. Red and white pulses of light pooled on the dark streets and she froze. The wind moved past her shoulder then, light as the touch of her mother’s hand, and she was running again. She took the last steps that brought her to the ambulance and jumped into the back. The siren seemed to come from inside her.