Just after she turned five, Emily Brownrigg fell into the river. She had been walking through Raccoon River Park with her uncle and her older brother. Bobby was tossing small sticks and rocks into the water, and Emily had paused to play among the slippery boulders along the bank when her feet skidded and she toppled head first into the river.
The Raccoon was more like an over-achieving creek than an actual river. It had been a dry year and because it was early fall, the little river wasn’t deep but the water was swift and very cold. Emily was shocked by the initial iciness but then she flailed and sputtered and got her head above water and coughed. Her legs pedaled until she found her footing in the waist-deep water and slowly made her way back to the bank. “Emily!” Bobby shouted as their uncle watched. She felt like she was dripping icicles. As soon as she got to the rocky bank she began to shiver, partly from cold and partly from fear and the expectation that she was going to be yelled at. Her uncle said nothing, just held out his hand as she tried to regain her footing on the rocky bank. She grasped it and used his strength to get over the boulders and onto the firmer grass. He unzipped his hooded sweatshirt and handed it to her, but she was shivering so hard she couldn’t grasp it. Uncle gently put each arm into the sleeves, rolled the cuffs and, after pulling the hood up over her head, zipped it all the way up to her chin. The dark gray sweatshirt hung to her ankles.
“Let’s go home,” Uncle said, taking her hand. “You’ll warm up as we walk.”
Her feet squished in her tennis shoes. They were red and she had fought for them, because the girl’s shoes were all pink and Emily hated pink. It was a soft color. Red was vibrant and alive. She loved red. She loved all the primary colors. She even loved primary colors at Easter time, when she begged their mother Lorraine to let the eggs sit in the dye longer so they became a deep, dark color. No pastels for her. The more vibrant the better.
Bobby danced around Uncle and Emily. “You’re both going to be in trouble! In so much trouble. You shouldn’t’ve let her fall in, Uncle. You’re supposed to be watching us. You weren’t watching!”
Uncle fixed Bobby with a long gaze, but Bobby was undeterred. It wasn’t often that Emily got the blame. He was carried away with the joy that something bad had happened and that he had nothing to do with it.
“Onto the sidewalk now, Bobby,” was all Uncle said as they emerged from the park and began walking through the neighborhood back to Uncle and Auntie’s house. They were silent for half a block, then Uncle said, “Do you want to run, Emily? That will warm you up.”
Her head was down from cold and shame and dread and she shook it. No, she didn’t want to run. She concentrated on putting one foot slowly in front of the other.
“We could march. Like soldiers. Like you were in Vietnam, right? Let’s march!” Bobby shouted and began marching down the sidewalk.
“I’ve done enough marching, but you go ahead,” Uncle said, matching his stride to Emily’s as Bobby marched ahead, knees high, shoulders back, head rigid. He was much too squirrelly to hold the cadence for long, and he began running forward a few houses, and then running back to them.
It was five blocks to Uncle’s house and by the fourth block, Emily had stopped shivering. She was still uncomfortable but she was glad her teeth had stopped chattering. She kept concentrating on her feet, left foot, right foot and being careful not to step on any cracks in the sidewalk. Step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. She felt something under her chin and it was Uncle’s index finger, lifting her chin until she wasn’t watching her feet anymore but looking ahead.
She took a sideways glance at Uncle. He was looking ahead, his stride matching hers. He wasn’t a tall man, though he seemed imposing to Emily. He had longish brown hair, but not as long as the men Lorraine knew, who sometimes wore their hair tied back in long ponytails. Uncle wore a t-shirt with writing on it. When she asked him what it said, he told her it was his school. He was a teacher at the community college. Emily liked that he was a teacher, because Uncle looked like he was thinking all the time, which is what teachers should do. He took her hand, and she squeezed it. He looked down and gave her a small smile, and squeezed back. She felt happy.
But as they got to the last block, the feeling of dread began to return. Her head dropped and her feet slowed; but Uncle kept his stride and she had to catch up with skipping steps while Bobby bounded into the door shouting, “Em fell in! Em fell into the river! She’s all wet! Boy, is she wet!” The screen door slammed behind him.
Uncle opened the screen door and pushed the front door wider, guiding Emily in under his arm. She stood dripping in the tiled entryway. He gently pushed her forward but she was afraid to step on the carpet and get it wet. She leaned back into him.
Before Emily could say anything, Auntie rushed in from the kitchen. She looked at Uncle curiously and said, “What’s this? What’s Bobby shouting about?” Then she leaned over, grasped Emily by the shoulders and peered into her eyes. “You’re soaking wet! You fell into the river? Don’t move! Take off those wet things right now.” She stood up and ran into the bathroom like the house was afire. Emily wasn’t sure if she was supposed to move or not. She felt Uncle grasp the hood and pull up, and she pulled her arms from the sleeves, shrugged her shoulders and slid out from the bottom of Uncle’s sweatshirt.
Auntie returned with a large bath towel and peeled off Emily’s sweatshirt and shoes and socks and jeans and t-shirt and even her underpants. Before Emily could feel any embarrassment, she was wound like a papoose into the dry towel. Auntie pulled a corner of the towel up over her head and began to rub her hair vigorously. “Are you okay, darling? Any scrapes from the rocks? I didn’t see any, so you’re probably just cold and scared. We’re going to get you into a warm tub right away. Let’s go.”
She lifted Emily up into her arms, and Emily could see Lorraine sitting at the kitchen table, smoking. She stubbed the cigarette out in Auntie’s golden glass ashtray. “What the fuck, Jeff?” she said. “You trying to drown my kid? You were supposed to watch them.”
“I was,” Uncle said.
Lorraine looked pointedly at Emily. “What did you do?”
Emily burrowed deeper into Auntie’s arms. Auntie held her and patted her back as Emily said, “I slipped on the rocks. And then I climbed out.”
Pandemonium broke loose, with Lorraine and Auntie talking all at once.
“Slipped on the rocks!”
“Did you hit your head?”
“You climbed out!”
“Jeff, you motherfucker, you didn’t even help her out of the river? The fucking river?”
Uncle let the noise fall around him and, when there was a moment of silence, said, “A kid’s gotta know how to get out of a river. She’s fine.” He walked into the kitchen, got a pot out of the lower cabinet and some milk out of the refrigerator. He reached into an upper cabinet and pulled out a tin of Hershey’s powdered chocolate. “Go have your bath, Emily. I’ll have hot chocolate for you and Bobby when you’re done.”
Bobby ran to Uncle. “Can we have marshmallows?” Uncle nodded and indicated the pantry. Bobby ran to get them.
Lorraine said, “Don’t try to distract them with hot chocolate. You let my kid fall into the fucking river!”
Auntie clucked, gave Emily a hug, and took her to the bathroom. She raised the cover of the toilet, and, lifting the towel, set Emily on the seat. Emily didn’t think she had to go, but as soon as Auntie started running the water in the bathtub, she did.
“Wipe yourself before you get into the tub,” Auntie said. “Front to back, so you don’t get an infection.” Emily did as she was told, and dropped the towel to wash her hands. The bathroom was filled with warm steam as Auntie tested the tub, and then held Emily above it.
“Test it with your toes, honey. I think it’s nice and warm. Let me know if it’s too hot.”
It was just right. She nodded and smiled, and Auntie gently lowered her in. Auntie tossed a plastic cup into the water, then lowered the toilet cover and sat down.
“You don’t have to stay,” Emily said. “I’m old enough to take a bath by myself.” Lorraine never stayed in the bathroom when Emily took a bath.
For a brief moment, Emily noticed Auntie’s mouth got very tight and then she smiled and said, “It’s nice and relaxing here. I think I’ll stay with you.” She leaned forward and looked at Emily’s knees and ankles. “Everything feel all right? Nothing’s sore?”
“No. I was just cold. It felt like I was dripping icicles!”
Auntie laughed. “I bet it did.” She lifted a green shampoo bottle and poured a drop on the top of Emily’s head. It smelled like the most beautiful flowers. “Lather up,” Auntie said.
As Emily lathered, she could hear voices from the kitchen but not words. Lorraine’s voice sounded angry and shrill, and it was followed by Uncle’s low murmur. Emily had never once heard Uncle raise his voice about anything.
There was a knock on the door, and Bobby peeked his head in.
“Come on in and warm up,” Auntie said, and Bobby came in and sat on Auntie’s soft bathroom rug. The rug was white, and Emily thought Bobby looked like he was sitting on a cloud.
“Uncle will call us when the hot chocolate’s ready,” Bobby said. “Boy, is Lorraine mad that he let you fall in the river.”
“I just fell, it’s not his fault,” Emily said. Bobby shrugged, and Auntie leaned forward and took the cup from Emily’s hand.
“Don’t you worry about them. They’re brother and sister, just like you two. Close your eyes, honey. I’m going to put you under a warm waterfall,” she said. Emily closed her eyes and then covered her face with her hands. Auntie poured two waterfalls and the shampoo cascaded over her hands and down her body. It felt nice. When she opened her eyes, Bobby was lying on his back on the rug, staring at the ceiling. Auntie held a fresh fluffy towel for her and leaned over and opened the drain. Emily stood up and Auntie wrapped her in the fluffy towel and took her on her lap.
As Auntie rubbed her dry, she said, “Uncle’s right, you know. You kids do have to know how to get out of a river.”
When Lorraine woke Emily and Bobby the next morning, it was still dark.
“It’s the middle of the night,” Bobby said, trying to snuggle under the covers. Lorraine pulled the blankets off him. The kids were sleeping on the floor, and there was a cool draft coming from under the bedroom door. Emily sat up and rubbed her eyes. She didn’t want the blanket pulled off of her until she was ready.
“It’s six o’clock. Get dressed. We’re outta here,” Lorraine said.
“Aren’t we having breakfast with Uncle and Auntie?” Emily asked.
“No. We’ll eat later. It’s time to hit the road. Get dressed and get your stuff together.” Lorraine threw their clothes at them. Bobby and Emily started to take off their pajamas and get dressed. Emily looked at the single bed. Either Lorraine had gotten up early and made it already, or she had never gone to sleep. As she pulled on her pants, she could hear someone.
Lorraine left the room. They could hear her go into the bathroom and turn on the shower. When Emily and Bobby were dressed, they started to fold up the blankets they had slept on. Neither of them spoke. Bobby finished first and he helped Emily fold her blanket neatly and stack it on top of his on the floor.
There was a soft knock at the door, and Auntie looked in, her mouth tight and her brow furrowed. When she saw the kids, she smiled brightly and came into the room, with Uncle behind her. Auntie was in her bathrobe, but Uncle was dressed, wearing his green flannel plaid shirt and jeans and socks. Emily wondered if he slept in jeans and flannel like she and Bobby did sometimes. She had never seen Uncle in pajamas or a robe. Uncle had his hand on Auntie’s shoulder, and he patted it.
Bobby said, “We’re leaving.”
“I know,” said Auntie. “We’re sorry. We were hoping you could stay longer. We always have fun when you two are here.”
Uncle’s hand left Auntie’s shoulder, and he walked up to Bobby and patted Bobby’s head. He went over to the bed, sat down, and pulled Bobby between his knees. He started talking quietly to Bobby.
“Sit down, Emily,” Auntie said. Emily sat on the floor, on the blankets they had just folded, and Auntie sat down next to her. Emily liked sitting close to Auntie. She had pretty brown hair that shined and fell in waves around her face, stopping just past her shoulders. Her bathrobe was soft, made of white chenille and tied with a fat chenille belt around the waist. Auntie reached into the big square pocket of her robe. “I have something I want to give you. It’s very special to me.” She opened her hand, and there was a silver necklace with a locket, a fancy “C” engraved on it. “Do you know what a locket is?” Auntie asked. Emily nodded. “Good. My grandma gave me this locket when I started high school. She engraved it with my initial, C for Caroline. Did you know that was my name?”
Emily shook her head. Auntie had always been Auntie.
“I have the same name as Caroline Kennedy, President Kennedy’s daughter. Have you heard of her?” Emily nodded. She had seen Caroline Kennedy in a magazine, because Lorraine loved to read about Caroline’s mother Jackie. Lorraine had said that Caroline had been Emily’s age when her daddy was the president, but that was over ten years ago, before Emily was born.
Auntie said, “A locket is a secret. When you open it, there’s something inside.” Auntie showed Emily how to open the locket. There was a little piece of paper inside. “This note has my name, and Uncle’s name, and our address and phone number. If you ever need help, you find a policeman or a fireman or a lady with a stroller, and you tell them to call us. Tell them our names and phone number are in the locket.”
“Why should I tell a lady with a stroller?” asked Emily. She knew policemen and firemen were helpers.
“Because a lady with a stroller is a mommy, and mommies will help kids who need help,” said Auntie. She slipped the locket over Emily’s head and tucked it into her shirt. “Don’t let your mother see it.” Emily nodded. She knew Lorraine would take it away. “And you can tell Bobby about it later.”
The water in the shower turned off. Auntie looked at Uncle, and they both stood.
“We’re going to make you some sandwiches,” said Auntie. She gave Emily a big hug, and Bobby too. Then Uncle gave them a quick hug. Auntie said, “Remember: our names and phone number are in the locket. If you ever need help, what should you do?”
Emily said, “Find a policeman or a fireman or a lady with a stroller.”
“Good girl,” Auntie said with a warm smile. “I’ll see you in the kitchen.”
They quietly left the room. Bobby looked at Emily, and his look said, We’ll talk later. They finished folding up the bedding, and Bobby helped her put it on the bed, so Lorraine wouldn’t be mad when she got back from her shower.
When Lorraine came back, her long blonde hair was still wet, and the ends made the shoulders of her denim shirt wet. The kids sat on the bed, their blankets and pillows folded as well as they could manage. Emily could feel the locket resting against the top of her belly, and she absently touched it while she waited for Lorraine’s next command.
“You got a tummy ache?” Lorraine asked. Emily looked up at her, confused. “Why are you rubbing your belly? You have a tummy ache?”
Emily shook her head and placed her hands together in her lap.
“She had an itch,” Bobby said.
“Well, don’t itch it. That will make it worse,” Lorraine said, throwing things into the old battered suitcase. She handed each child a brown paper grocery bag with their clothing inside. “Is that everything?”
They both nodded. They had never really unpacked their bags. They never did. They never knew when they were going to up and leave. They put on their coats.
They followed Lorraine out of the room and toward the front door. Uncle and Auntie came out of the kitchen. Auntie held another brown paper bag, and Uncle had a thermos.
“Don’t you want breakfast?” Auntie asked. “The kids need to eat.”
“We’ll eat later,” Lorraine said.
Uncle spoke, “Caroline made sandwiches, and here’s some coffee for the road.”
“We don’t need charity,” Lorraine snapped, opening the front door. “C’mon kids.”
As they walked down the sidewalk to the car, Uncle and Auntie kept pace with them, acting unhurried, like it was a normal good-bye. Auntie said, “It’s not charity. You’re family. We really wish you would stay.”
“I’d like to, Caroline, I’d really like to, but since my brother is so damned controlling, that’s not really a possibility.”
Uncle said, “You and the kids are welcome any time.”
“Sure we are. So you can get into our business. Thanks, but no thanks. Get in the car, kids,” Lorraine said, opening the door.
The sun was starting to rise as the kids got in the back of the Ford Galaxie 500 and put the grocery bags with their belongings on the floor. While Lorraine threw her suitcase in the trunk, Auntie hurried over and put the bag of sandwiches on the seat between them. She pulled Emily toward her and quickly kissed the top of her head.
“We love you both,” she said. “We’ll see you again soon. You’re welcome here anytime. Don’t forget that… Uncle and I love you very much.” Auntie kissed Bobby on the forehead and closed the door to the back seat.
Lorraine slammed the trunk and got into the driver’s seat as Uncle opened the front passenger door and put the thermos on the seat. Lorraine recoiled, like she thought he was going to hit her, but he simply stepped back and said, “Good bye, Lorraine. We’re always here if you need us.”
“Fuck you, Jeff,” Lorraine said, starting the engine. He simply shut the passenger door and, putting his arm around Auntie, stepped back onto the lawn. Lorraine threw the car into reverse and peeled out of the driveway, tires squealing. The kids grasped the door handles to steady themselves. Emily couldn’t see Uncle and Auntie any more, but she saw Bobby, who was taller, give them a small wave. Lorraine tore down the street, going much too fast for a residential street at six-thirty in the morning.
“Judgmental fuckers,” she muttered, putting a cigarette between her lips, lighting it and then turning on the radio and spinning the dial until she found a song she liked. Emily fingered the locket, and as the car steadied to a reasonable speed, she picked up Bobby’s hand and placed it so he could feel the locket too. He nodded solemnly as they watched the neighborhood disappear behind them.
• • •
Nancy Belusky lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and graduated from the University of Minnesota. She currently works as a content strategist and in a past life wrote videos, plays, and articles for medical and healthcare companies. She is currently working on a novel, and this is her first short story publication.