Fiction by Heather Bell Adams
Kayla Ridgeway and I met at the tail end of a mothers’ morning out, of all places. I was packing up the diaper bag and buckling Henry in the carrier. Kayla tipped back a cup of fruit punch and didn’t so much as wince at the sweetness. She had one of those childlike complexions, scrubbed clean of makeup, almost but not quite glowing.
“I’m Bess Creech,” I said. “We live down the road.” I nudged the carrier. “Henry’s coming up on six months. Any day now he’ll be playing peekaboo. I hope so anyway. He’s a little behind.”
Her dishwater blond hair lay limp, and her arms bore the marks of an uneven sunburn. She nodded in a vacant sort of way, her baby in one of those hippie sling things, a sack of raisin-colored cloth. “I’m Kayla.” She looked down at the baby in the sling, her eyes shut, a peaceful ease to her forehead. “And she’s my second, Madison. My oldest is up at day camp.”
“If you’re new and there’s anything you need, anything at all—” My voice trailed off, lonely-sounding.
“Moved down here last week from Waynesville.” Kayla brushed her lips against the baby’s head. “Bad breakup,” she added.
For all the time I knew her, the kids’ dads—she said they were two different men—never entered the picture. Not long after we met, Kayla invited me over to the apartment she’d rented upstairs from the Sawyers’ garage. She’d turned the one room into part kitchen, part den and bedroom. The baby, Madison, stood in the crib and stared out through the railing. I hadn’t brought Henry with me because I’d thought it would be just me and Kayla. In the middle of the room, a young girl of five or six sat on a battered loveseat. Her fingers tapped the pink and blue stripes on the pillow like she was counting them.
“Dakota, say hi to Mommy’s friend, Bess.” When Kayla crouched in front of the loveseat, her paisley skirt pooled around her legs.
“Best?” The girl on the loveseat looked at me sideways. “Like the best ice cream and the best animal? Which is birthday cake flavor, the blue kind. And which is a dog with a swishy tail.”
I met Kayla’s eyes and grinned. “Smart girl.”
Kayla and I sat at the two-person table, and Dakota flitted around and brought us things. A potholder with a sewn-in magnet. A set of salt and pepper shakers shaped like cats.
“From the thrift shop,” Kayla said. “We didn’t bring much with us when we moved.”
“Why Zirconia?” The town was so small, it wasn’t like she’d come for a job.
“Needed a new alternator. We had to wait for it to be fixed. The more I looked around, this seemed as good a place as any.”
Dakota tapped my arm. “Where’s your baby? Don’t you have one?”
“He’s with his granny for the day.”
Kayla said her mother lived in Pensacola. She’d retired there with her second husband, and Kayla hardly ever saw them. Most everything Kayla said sounded a little bit sad, the bright world tinted a dull gray.
Looking back, I guess I latched onto Kayla because my best friend had moved to Gatlinburg some months back. We’d been born and raised together, and her leaving had left me practically dizzy with loss.
“Y’all can visit,” my husband kept saying, like that would fix the yawning day-to-day emptiness. “Go shopping in Pigeon Forge, take the kids on a train ride.” He was big on fixing things, but only if the fix seemed easy.
“I’m glad we met,” I told Kayla, figuring we’d started up something good. “We’ll spend all summer together—me and Henry, you and the girls.”
“Hard to imagine Braxton following me here,” Kayla said.
Before I could ask what she meant, Dakota returned, opening her fingers to reveal three pills. Two white discs and a pale blue tablet shaped like an egg.
“These make me the best mommy to Dakota and Madison,” Kayla said. She placed the pills on her tongue and swallowed them dry.
Over the next few weeks—a month, maybe more—we spent most every day together. At the end of the day, when I thought over the things we’d told each other, my cheeks burned hot. “Sometimes I wonder if Paul is gay,” I said one day, helping Kayla get the laundry in from the clothesline.“He doesn’t seem to like sleeping with me.”
Without missing a beat, she looked at me over the top of the laundry basket. “Braxton was lousy in bed, but I wanted him all the same, even when he stole the checks my mama sent.”
The next afternoon, we were driving back from the public library in Kayla’s car when a thunderstorm rolled in.
“Sometimes I forget about the girls.” The slashes of rain beating against the glass almost drowned out Kayla’s words. “Like they’re not even there or were never born. Especially when they’re asleep in the back of the car.”
I twisted around in my seat to find Henry and Madison sleeping in their car seats, Dakota with her head against the window and her eyes fluttering shut.
“They’re anti-depressants, mood stabilizers,” Kayla said one day out of the blue. We were walking into the Fresh Market, a store that smelled like roses and expensive coffee I had no business buying.
I nodded as I buckled Henry into the cart, the air-conditioning chilling my fingertips. “Do they help?”
She handed Dakota one of the shortbread cookies they gave out for free. Madison, the most carefree baby I’d ever laid eyes on, traced the edge of the sling with her fingers.
Kayla pursed her lips. “I don’t know.” As soon as she met my eyes, she looked away. “I don’t have a clue.” She marched on ahead without me.
Unless I had coupons, I usually wandered around and took the free samples. Kayla, on the other hand, bought pretzels stuffed with peanut butter, a container of dried apricots, and two cartons of Italian gelato.
Back at our cars, she handed me one of the gelato cartons. “Mama sent me a check this week.” Every word she said came out the same way—flat, no up or down to it.
“That’s a nice surprise.” I took the carton, already starting to melt, from her outstretched hand.
“She does it to keep me away. She doesn’t like me around.”
I squinted in the sun as I shook my head. “I’m sure that’s not true.”
One day we let the kids dip their toes in the cool water of Lake Summit. I’d brought sunscreen and beach towels. Henry, whose cap fastened beneath his chin, couldn’t stand the sand and dirt along the shoreline. Whenever he touched it, he flinched like he’d been shot.
Dakota played mommy that day, carrying Madison on her hip and telling her how water was dangerous if you didn’t know how to swim. In the distance, the lake gleamed, its surface puckered like stitches on a quilt. Waves sloshed, sloppy as a drunk, as boats sped past.
“We tried swim lessons at the Y,” Kayla whispered. “Dakota never took to them. She doesn’t like to try new things. Do you think that’s bad?”
I shook my head. “She’s still little.”
“Braxton. That’s who I meant when I said we.”
“Is he her daddy?”
“God no, just somebody I dated for a bit. I thought he loved me, but he didn’t. Nobody ever does.”
I nudged Kayla’s foot with my own. “Come on.”
It was the depression talking. My cousin had been dealing with the same thing all his life. There was no shame in it. “You know I love you,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” Kayla said, like I’d given her an extravagant gift she couldn’t possibly accept. Her words stung, same as if she’d slapped me across the face, but I smiled and nudged her foot again. I didn’t want her to hurt on account of how she’d hurt me.
The next day, Kayla and I hung around my house. We’d gotten the kids down for naps and were sitting with a bowl of microwave popcorn between us on the couch. When Kayla’s phone rang, she raised it to her ear.
“What do you want?” she asked, her voice already a snarl. It’s Braxton, she mouthed.
I raised my eyebrows and went on eating. Those days I was so stressed about Henry that I ate whether I was hungry or not.
“You can’t do this to me!” She screamed into the phone, and I wondered what Braxton could have said in such a short time to provoke such a reaction. Her cheeks had turned splotchy and red. “I told you, I don’t want to talk to you ever again.”
As I took another bite, the popcorn stuck in my throat. I gulped tea, but it went down the wrong way, and I started to choke.
“Look, you were a mistake from day one. I wish you’d never been born,” Kayla hissed, a sound to match the strangled breathing coming from my throat. “You’re such an ass. You selfish prick.”
I pulled myself up from the couch and into the kitchen, as much to get away from her yelling as anything else. At the sink, I turned on the faucet and tipped my mouth beneath the cold water. Kayla screamed and hissed into the phone like some kind of wildcat until all three kids woke up cranky and tired.
“That was very loud, Mommy.” Dakota pulled at Kayla’s pant leg. “That was not an inside voice.”
“How about a snack?” I asked. “Would that make you feel better?”
Dakota scrunched up her nose, but I gave her a grape popsicle. Henry whined no matter what I did, so I carried him outside. Sometimes fresh air helped. His eyes watered in the bright light, and I shaded them with my hand.
After Kayla got the girls settled in the back of her car, she gave me a hug.
“Promise me you’ll never let me go back to that bastard,” she said.
“Yeah, okay.” I laughed. “Not on my watch.”
“Bess, I’m serious.” She touched my wrist, her limpid blue eyes as blank as ever. “No matter what I say, don’t let me.”
I felt the weight of her request. “No matter what?” I asked to be sure.
Kayla nodded. “I couldn’t look in the mirror. If I went back to him, I couldn’t live with myself.”
“All right,” I said. “I hear you.”
Not long after that, we went to pick strawberries. My mama kept the babies for us. It was nice just the three of us for a change—me, Kayla, and Dakota. Dakota made a big show of trying to find the best strawberry, the fattest and reddest. She still acted like she thought my name was Best, though to this day I don’t know if she was serious. We walked up and down the dirt rows, plucking the fruit until our plastic baskets overflowed. Dakota ate as we went, nibbling the tips at first, then ripping off the stem the way Kayla showed her and plopping whole berries into her mouth.
By the time we’d made it through four or five rows, she slowed down. She wore rubber flip flops, and she started squealing when she kicked up dirt and it stuck to her legs. It reminded me of Henry, the way he couldn’t stand to have certain things touching his skin. The tags in his clothes. Anything too slick or prickly or cold. The skin of a peach.
Dakota tugged on my t-shirt. “Miss Best, my belly hurts.”
“Let’s sit down in the shade for a minute,” I said.
We rested under a poplar tree, every one of us smelling like sweat and ripe fruit. Dakota lay down with her dirty feet in my lap and her head—her blond hair tangled like a bird’s nest—in Kayla’s. We swatted away flies and listened to the bees droning, the grass beneath our legs dry and scratchy. It didn’t take long for Dakota to fall asleep.
“You hear anything else from Braxton?” My stomach lurched as I asked. But I took what she’d said, what I’d promised, seriously. And I couldn’t protect Kayla from an enemy I didn’t know was coming.
Kayla put her hands over her face, and before I knew it, started sobbing. Her shoulders shook and her hair slipped from its loose bun. I reached across Dakota’s sleeping body and patted my friend’s back.
“You don’t know how I get,” she said through her hands. “How bad it can be for me. Especially with somebody like him, somebody who takes and takes.”
“So, tell me. I’ve got all the time in the world,” I said, which wasn’t true because already I was running late to pick up Henry from Mama’s and get over to my cousin’s birthday supper. Kayla had known—I’d told her that morning—but she’d forgotten, which was all right. I was all she had.
While Dakota slept and Mama and my cousin waited across town, Kayla talked of how she’d never amount to anything, how many times she went without supper and cried, how she tried so hard to make Braxton happy that she made herself sick.
“Once I thought of, you know, ending everything,” she said. “Driving off a cliff or something.”
“Oh, Kayla, I’m glad you didn’t. You’re here now. And stronger.”
“I get so run down with him,” she said, carrying on as if I hadn’t said a thing. “Appendicitis and who knows how many sinus infections and pneumonia twice.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have to try so hard. Maybe it’ll be easier with somebody else someday.” Even just talking about him, she’d tied herself up in a knot.
That night, after I’d apologized to Mama and my cousin and gotten Henry down for the night, Paul sat me down at the kitchen table.
“What’s going on with you these days?” he asked. “It’s not like you to show up late to a family thing.”
“I’m fine.” I felt heavy, like I’d taken on some of Kayla’s burden. “Kayla needs me, that’s all.”
He took my hands in his. He worked on houses, roofing mostly, and his fingers were rough and blistered. I felt bad for what I’d told Kayla, that he didn’t seem to like sleeping with me. Something you’d think I’d need to be drunk to say, though we hadn’t had a drop.
“Let me keep the baby this weekend and you go up to Gatlinburg,” he said. “See if CeeCee is up for a visit.”
It had been months since I’d seen my best friend. After CeeCee and I had set everything up, I tried calling Kayla. When she didn’t answer, I left a message explaining that I was visiting an old friend and promising to be back Monday morning.
I spent the weekend with CeeCee like old times. Monday came and went with no word from Kayla. I loaded Henry into the car—he was fussing something awful that day—and went by the apartment. Kayla’s car, a beat-up station wagon, was parked in the driveway. Beside it sat a late model pickup truck, candy apple red. I unbuckled Henry and carried him, squirming and fussing, to the door. I knocked and knocked until finally Kayla opened up.
Her appearance surprised me. Most of the time we went around town with nothing more than lip balm and a dusting of sunscreen, but she’d put on foundation and blush and mascara, even a swipe of pink lipstick.
“I’ve tried calling.” I started to apologize for being gone a couple of days, then stopped myself.
Kayla shrugged. Behind her Madison waited in her highchair, a frilly bib I’d never seen before cinched around her neck. “We’ve been busy.”
A man lumbered up beside Kayla like a bear roused from sleep. He had a bushy head of black hair, thick calves, red-rimmed blue eyes.
He flashed a smile at me, a smile that showed his eye teeth. “You must be Bess. I’ve heard a lot about you these last few days.”
“This is Braxton.” Kayla’s voice sounded as level as it had ever been, like nothing had changed. I wanted to pull her into the yard and demand an answer. Henry shifted in my arms, and I tried to re-settle him, but he started to cry.
Braxton held out his hand, and even as I shook it, I looked at Kayla, trying to understand. She smiled, and it came across like a code I couldn’t decipher. Two smiles in the span of as many minutes, his and hers, and I could make no more sense of them than I could shove a rain cloud away from the sun or open up a brain to make it work right.
A week went by, then another. Most every day I called Kayla. Sometimes I left a message, and other times I hung up without saying a word. At night, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep. I stood in the dark by Henry’s crib and rubbed his back until his pitiful whimpers dulled to something akin to peace.
When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I made a strawberry cake. Three layers, buttercream icing, fresh berries sliced and sugared and placed just so. In the heat of the day, I took it over to Kayla’s place, covered in plastic wrap and on a china plate—nice enough that she’d be obliged to return it. Braxton’s truck wasn’t in the driveway.
Right away Kayla answered the door and took the cake.
“Thanks. Looks good.” She sounded wooden, like a wind-up toy. She wore white cut-offs and a lime green t-shirt, stretched out around the collar. Her feet, tan and narrow, were bare.
“Are you all right?”
Kayla glanced behind her. The girls were playing by the loveseat, and plastic rings were scattered across the carpet. Dakota was showing Madison how to stack them. Red, orange, yellow. It wouldn’t have surprised me if it came natural to her, the way to make a rainbow.
Kayla made no move to invite me in. “Of course I’m all right.”
I shifted on my feet. The sun beat against my neck. “It’s just that—you asked me not to let you get back with him. I can’t help worrying.”
“Don’t be silly.” Kayla looked down at the cake. I’d stuck toothpicks in the icing to keep the plastic wrap from messing it up, but they couldn’t take the weight and started to tip over. I tugged at the waistband of my shorts. Braxton could come back any minute.
“You can do what you want, of course,” I said, thinking of how when you’re picking berries, you can bruise them if you pinch too hard.
I didn’t want to act like her mama. I wanted to be her friend again. Most of all, I wanted her to save herself—or if that wasn’t possible, then to want to be saved. Standing in the doorway, the cake balanced in her hand, Kayla looked bored or sleepy. I cleared my throat and tried again.
“You’ll be careful, right? You’re taking care of yourself?”
“You’ve never wanted me to be happy,” Kayla said and slammed the door shut.
That night I made two batches of cookies—molasses and butterscotch. I’d stuffed Lord knows how many of them down my throat by the time Paul got home from work. He scooped up Henry from his highchair and danced him around the kitchen, humming under his breath like an old timey movie star tap dancing in a tuxedo while the world burned.
I grabbed the mixing bowl and flung it against the wall. Henry let out a squeal. Paul stopped his dancing and looked at me with his mouth hung open. The bowl clattered to the floor. Leftover batter dripped down the wall. My thighs trembled as I bent to pick up the bowl, disappointed to find it whole when shattering seemed so sure.
These days Henry is two years old, and he’s still not talking. Not one word. I’d once thought Madison was the best-behaved baby, but maybe she only compared favorably to mine. Henry doesn’t like buttons or zippers or the stitching on blankets. He can’t bear any kind of loud or startling noise. He’ll stare way off into the distance and start scratching like he’s covered in a thousand fire ants.
“Keep telling him you love him,” his doctor says. “It’s possible he understands.”
The word possible gets me, like a blind thrust, a violent stab. Because if it’s possible Henry understands love, that he hears me—really hears me—when I say I love you, then it’s possible he doesn’t, that he never will.
“You know I love you,” I once told Kayla. She’d waved off my words like they didn’t fit. It’s possible she believed me. Or maybe she wasted my feelings for her. It puts me in mind of fireworks going off some place nobody can see them. Cookie batter flung against a wall. The perfect, best strawberry rotting untasted.
It happened only two weeks after she slammed the door in my face. A hot, hazy afternoon. I imagine Kayla in that station wagon, the air-conditioning on full blast, her dishwater blond hair scraped back in a ponytail. If I’d been with her, I don’t know what I would’ve done or said, though countless nights I’ve gone over it in my mind. Maybe I’d have wrenched Kayla’s hands off the steering wheel and jerked the car back onto the safety of the road. Maybe my screaming would have kept her from driving off the bridge.
If I could have, I’d have snatched Kayla’s car from midair, cradling it in my palm like a game piece, so it wouldn’t fall—twisting and turning, the sun flashing on every window—into Lake Summit.
When I first heard the news, my panicked mind snagged on the image of Dakota and Madison asleep in the backseat, Kayla having forgotten their existence, neither of them knowing how to swim. As rumors flew around town, word got out about the girls. Turns out, Kayla had left them at the apartment, a mercy if any ever existed. Now they’ve gone to live with their grandmother in Florida, and I’ll likely never see them again.
“Water is dangerous when you can’t swim,” Dakota had said that day we sat on the shoreline. The best girl. The very best.
I don’t blame Kayla, no more than you’d blame somebody with cancer or a heart that doesn’t work right. Still, I can’t help thinking of her as shot through with holes. A colander, or a sieve, instead of a bowl. She couldn’t hold onto what any of us—me, her girls, maybe even her mama—tried to give her. The words we mustered up, the love we poured out, all seeped right through. I said too much. I didn’t do enough. The wondering, the questions, trail behind me every day like a shadow.
I nudged her foot in the sand beside the lake. I listened in the dappled afternoon shade of a strawberry field. I stood in front of a slammed-shut door and thought of knocking again. Instead, I backed away, the taste of sugar already rotten at the back of my throat.
Heather Bell Adams
Heather Bell Adams is the author of two novels, Maranatha Road (West Virginia University Press 2017) and The Good Luck Stone (Haywire Books 2020). Her work appears in the North Carolina Literary Review, Still: The Journal, Parentheses, The Thomas Wolfe Review, Atticus Review, The Petigru Review, Broad River Review, and elsewhere.