Hole in my Universe by Nickolai Vasilieff

Editor Note:  This essay is an adaptation from a young adult novel (middle grade and early teen).  The 13-year-old protagonist, Sammy, has just lost her mother. Sammy’s emotions boil as she copes with the loss, the confusion of a younger brother who seems unaffected by the loss, and the world that moves-on around her.
 

I wake before the world opens an eye. Straight up, like an L, I stare into the face of darkness. For a week, every morning has been the same. I expect to see my Mom, and when I don’t, I believe if I strain enough, search enough, imagine enough, she will appear.

First, absolute blackness, empty as a hole. I wrap my blanket tight around my shoulders and wait. A red sliver of light crawls across the horizon and sneaks through my window. At the first hint of red my dresser appears, the painted flowers around white pull knobs on the drawers just visible. The glow turns orange and brightens the blossoms, each different of course; Mom never painted two the same. She gave me the dresser for my twelfth birthday and it’s my favorite thing in the room. The horizon turns a fiery yellow as the morning crawls its way to my closet. No door; a low angled ceiling pushed in the corner with a bar on one side. I wanted a beaded curtain to hang for a door, one with a spider in the middle. But Mom called it tacky, so the closet stares at me, like an old woman’s mouth with pants and blouses for teeth. Until this week, I’d never woken before sunrise; now the dawn is my BFF.

I slip out of bed, pull up the covers, hoist my backpack and make a final inspection. Bags of junk everywhere make the room seem small. Uncle Teddy’d told me, “Bring what ever you want, Sammy, as long as it fits in your two duffels and backpack.” I’d carefully sorted through my dresser and closet one item at a time. I worried I’d miss something important: an old stuffed animal, special earrings, boxes of things I’d created at school, a few pictures. But by the time I got half way through the closet the weight of memories was too much. I tossed everything else in the trash. I didn’t want all that junk anyway.

Dust floats through spears of light as I do a slow spin. A glimmer reaches out to me from under the rubble. I check my neck, pat my shirt and choke back tears. The necklace, where is it? My knees slip across the brown shag rug. Bags pushed aside, my fingers comb the carpet and scoop up the silver locket. I pull it to my chest.

How stupid, I’m such a cretin. I almost lost my only connection to her. The muscles in my jaw contract, teeth clench. No, I won’t cry again; that’s all I’ve done for weeks. Every time I hear something, see something of hers, I cry. I want to be done with this.

I clasp the necklace around my neck and turn on my heel. My reflection in the window stares at me, wavy and warped, like I feel. Long brown hair falls to my shoulders. God, what I wouldn’t give for curls. I push it behind my ears, and wipe my sleeve across my cheek. I’ve grown six inches, to five eight, in the past year. Skinny, legs like a giraffe. I shake my head; bumps for a chest and I’m already thirteen. My shoulders slump. Whatever.

I hike up my jeans. “Well, old room,” I say as I notice the hole in the wall, “sorry about that.” One final look at the dresser, a chipped flower winks back and I step into the hall. Headed to the stairs, I can’t help myself. My hand brushes the wall; fingers trace a patchwork of torn edges and bubbles around faded blossoms that lead to her room. I peek inside.

Dead cold silence greets me. A cavern of four walls, bags of folded clothes in the corner, her bed empty, except for the worn comforter where she’d slept. I close my eyes and try to feel her: no jasmine incense, no flowers, no her. I lean on the cold doorframe and slide to the floor. Here it comes, I think, as my head jerks and the chokes and sobs begin.  

~

Three months earlier Mom had called Loren and me to her bed. Loren, my seven-year-old brother, in his room, a large closet Dad reworked into a small bedroom. Loren called it his wonder-cave, no window, but a single light - a Cyclops that stared through a small clip-on shade. The bed, pushed to the end, at a height he could see the parade of painted zebra, lions and elephants that circled the walls. A dresser (white with flowers of course) at his feet. With the door open, enough room for a seven-year-old to slide in and plop down on the bed. It served my purpose too; it got the dorkster out of my room.

Like a rabbit, he raced down the hall towards Mom’s bedroom. I sensed what might be coming and hesitated. We climbed on her bed, kittens eager for her attention. Arms wrapped around us, her breath the only sound. Shadows, from candles on her dresser, danced with the curtains. A string of smoke spiraled up through sunbeams and filled the room with her favorite jasmine incense. I leaned into her and prayed with all my might that she would be okay. 

“I met with a doctor yesterday,” Mom said.

I tensed and squeezed my eyes shut; I don’t want to hear this.

Her voice cracked and she paused. “I told you that I’m sick and was waiting for test results.”

Loren slid his blond curls into her lap and I pushed my head into her breast.

“I didn’t want to worry you, but now I have the results,” she went on. “I wanted to tell you myself because I love you and you need to know the truth.” 

Mom paused, as if she searched for the right words or an answer. “I have cancer.”

I felt my body jerk and a dark fear crawl in.

“It’s an aggressive form of cancer,” she continued, “but there’s hope. There’s always hope. The doctor said I could have a few months or years.”

“Months?” I whimpered.

“They don’t know, my dear.” She gently touched my cheek. “I believe years.”
I gasped and shook my head.  Should I scream, run, or stay like a scared puppy for protection? I stayed, snuggled under her arm and held her tighter.

“As of today, I want both of you around me as much as possible,” she said. “You get me as often as you want: to talk, to sit, to play. Forget the rules. If you want to be with me, I’m here.”

I don’t know if Loren understood what happened. He stayed for a while, silent, then slipped off the bed and wandered back to his room. I stayed. I lay in her lap; an ocean of fear had ripped a hole in my universe. I felt broken and confused. Mom stroked my hair and wound it around her finger. “Hush little baby,” she sang. My body rocked with hers. Tears washed down my face and her blouse. Incense filtered across the ceiling and mixed with her scent. She reached behind her neck and removed a necklace.

“Here, I want you to have this.” She opened the tiny locket, a thumbnail picture of her head next to mine smiled at me. I’d seen the necklace many times, but had never looked inside. Her face brightened. “I’ve always loved how the light in this picture catches your beautiful green eyes.” 

I leaned forward. She reached around my neck and reunited the clasp. The warm locket rested near my heart. 

“Now you carry me with you forever.” She kissed my forehead and wrapped me in her arms. Nothing to say; the locket cradled in my hands. All it means, I thought, is I’m losing her. The room began to spin. I pushed back, her surprised pale-blue eyes widened. I ran to my room, slammed the door, and bent over in pain, ready to throw-up.

“I hate you, I hate you,” I screamed at the bed. My hand gripped the covers, and with one hard pull, stuffed animals flew everywhere. The painted flowers next. I pulled out the drawers, emptied the dresser and with one complete spin, threw a drawer across the room. I pretty much wrecked a lamp and knocked a hole in one wall. Then I collapsed on the floor. Mom came in and sat with me. I pressed into her. “Mommy.”

I’d sneak into Mom’s room almost every morning so as not to wake Loren. I wanted as much of her as I could get and that gave me an hour or so with her alone. We talked about her childhood and my grandparents, who I never knew. I asked about Dad once, but she fell silent and said we’d talk about it later. We never did.

A few weeks after she gave me her necklace her skin turned pale and she spent most of the time in her room. Only a few weeks more and she couldn’t get out of bed without my help. I took care of her just fine, but Uncle Teddy hired an old beak-nosed hospice nurse. She came in and everything changed. They put Mom on medications. I still sat with her, but she only woke for a few minutes at a time. The last two weeks, she hardly knew me.

The morning she died, I held her hand. Her breath so shallow, when she stopped I couldn’t tell. Beak-nose stood by me. She checked Mom’s pulse, then tucked her in like she was going to sleep for the night. Two days later we scattered Mom’s ashes from an outcrop of rocks high above the Columbia River. It’s named Angel’s Rest - I like that. Loren and I held the box up over his head. I slipped the lid open; the wind captured her and carried her into the mountains, like she asked. That was three days ago.

~

Now I crouch against the cold doorframe of her bedroom and wait until the tears stop. My shirtsleeve swipes across my face. It already looks like a used handkerchief and I’m not even downstairs. I reach down and slip off my sandals; the carpet digs between my toes as I tiptoe to the steps. Pictures on the wall pass like a documentary. One-day-old me sandwiched between mom and dad at the hospital to my seventh grade picture, with a smile like a green and purple rubber-banded advertisement for orthodontics. Loren’s pictures are mixed-in towards the bottom, and finally, a picture of Mom with Loren and me next to her. She looks so young and healthy. I stare for a moment, then kiss my fingers and press them over her picture.

I stop at the kitchen doorway. My dad sits at the table, his head on his arm next to a pizza box. Three half eaten slices sit rejected on his plate. But he totally loved the empty bottle that sits next to them. The light in the room is cloudy and the air suffocates as the smell of stale whisky and pizza reaches me. I want to speak, but I don’t know what to say, so I stand there, waiting.

He and Mom split up a year ago. No announcement or anything, he just stopped coming home. Mom tried to make it seem normal, but it wasn’t. I don’t know for sure, but I blame him. I’ve only seen him a few times since then, when he came to pick Loren up for play-dates, and the last two nights, when he stayed at the house. I wonder how he could simply walk out and leave us alone. Part of me misses him terribly, and part of me hates him.

I watch for several minutes. When I bend down to put on my sandals my backpack slips off and hits the floor like a slap in the face. He raises his head off the table and looks at me. I think, I hope, he’s about to say something, like he doesn’t want me to leave, or how sorry he is, or that he loves me. But he only stares. His face droops like someone pulled a cheek and it stretched, eyes watery and bloodshot, breath heavy. Then, in slow motion, like when air escapes from a balloon, he collapses back down on his arm. I stare a moment longer.

“I’ll be at the dock,” I say and walk out.

~

A cool morning mist floats over the road down from the house. I follow it for a mile or so, then take a shortcut through a dew-dampened field to the dock on the Willamette River where we agreed to meet Uncle Teddy. He’ll fly his float plane to Portland from Deer Harbor, where Loren and I will live for a while. He should arrive around ten. Half way through the field I walk into a spider web.

I carefully brush my hand across my face. “Come-on little guy.” Most people are afraid of spiders, but I like them. She flexes her eight delicate legs to inspect my palm. Gold with bright green spots are on her back, and she’s beautiful. I look at her for a moment, then reach out and let her walk on to a leaf. “There you go. You’ve lost your home like me. Now you have a new one.“

The fresh smell of the river and earthy scent of mud greets me at the dock. Ducks and geese feed under the ramp and the sun hides behind the mountains. It’s cold. My toes are wet and I didn’t get much sleep last night, so I kick off my sandals, lie down, and with my pack for a pillow, tuck my feet up under my coat. Just for a moment, I think.

I must have slept for at least two hours. Rough wood planks scrape against my skin as the dock rocks from waves of a nearby motorboat. The sun’s so bright I squint to open my eyes. Trickles of sweat drip down my neck. Along the bank, cattails among green and gold grass rustle as ducks and geese honk, quack and bob their heads around the stalks. I lock eyes with one goose. I’m startled when she spreads her wings and lifts on the dock. She stares me down with one eye and waddles in my direction.

Contentment washes over me. I glance up the ramp. Even though I’m alone, I’m self conscious of my ability to sense what animals feel. Mom called it my ‘special sensitivity.’ I don’t like to talk about it. It’s freaky. Still, today, my ‘special sensitivity’ is kind of nice. The goose cocks its head and I feel her happiness, so strong I giggle. Weird. I’m depressed and I still giggle with a goose. I shake my head. Get a grip, Sammy.  

For a while, I lie on the dock, let the goose peck around my hands and make mother-like sounds that somehow nurture me. I think of Mom, how she used to rock me and make her own sort of cooing sounds. I’m frozen in that position, like if I move I’ll break the spell, and for a moment Mom’s sweet energy surrounds me. Then, as I began to relax, the goose waddles closer and takes a dump right in front of me. 

“Oh my gosh,” I push up and step towards the ramp. I didn’t feel that coming.

Clouds reach out above me; an eagle circles with an eye for food; I scan the sky. “Hurry Uncle Teddy. I’m ready.”

~

 

It’s five after ten and I hear gravel crunch under tires. Car doors slam; Dad and Loren’s voices drift down the bank. Loren appears at the top of the ramp. Like a caped crusader, hands on hips, red and blue tennis shoes, goofy red and yellow superhero backpack, teddy bear (gift from Uncle Teddy) hangs like an upside down skydiver, he hitches up his shorts, adjusts his green baseball cap, and with great intention spreads his arms and announces, “I have arrived.” He’s such a dork.

Loren makes me feel more alone than ever. He doesn’t seem to be affected by Mom’s death or our leaving. I’m haunted, but he continues to live in his smiley-face fantasy world. Quacks and hisses rise from the muddy river-edge below. Loren crouches, grabs his roller bag and punctuates each step with a, “quack.” The dock vibrates each time his bag thumps over a skid-bar. Every few feet he sticks his head through the railing, looks down at the ducks: “Quack, quack” - thump, thump. Behind Loren’s quackery, Dad wrestles with a cart loaded with bags as he tries to make sure the cart doesn’t crush Loren. 

“Hey Duck Boy,” I yell, “you’re gonna get your butt run over.”  

“Shut up,” Loren yells back, upper lip scrunched. Near the bottom he lets go of his roller bag, the handle claps down on the dock and he hops towards the ducks. Right behind him, the heavy cart clunks off the ramp. I wince as it barely misses Loren’s bag. Dad heaves a sigh, pushes the cart to one side and glances in my direction. I feel nauseous.  

“You okay?” he asks.

“I’m fine,” I say, cheeks hot, scalp tight. His face is empty of life, filled only with sadness and anger. He wasn’t always like this. Before he changed, we’d camp in the summer almost every weekend. The sweet smell of pitch and pinecones always in our camps. I’d pick up leaves and twigs as I followed him around like a baby chick. He’d build a fire and toss on pitch-covered branches, an explosion of wild flames. He’d make weird hand-shadows and tell ghost stories, while Mom held Loren and me. I’d act scared, like I believed them, and I did most of the time.

We laughed a lot, until a few years ago when he started drinking. Then he got mean, and sloppy, and fired from his job. The smiles that creased his cheeks and the laughter that danced in his eyes disappeared and so did he. As far as I’m concerned, the man who stands in front of me isn’t my dad, he’s the man called Dad, who left us a year ago.

Dad steps towards me. Oh god, I turn away, and shade my eyes. Canadian Geese soars over, a perfect V formation so close I can hear their wings flap and feel their energy scream a kind of wild freedom. With the tail of the last bird a large shadow sweeps across the dock.

“There he is,” Loren yells, arm stretched out, finger pointed.

The beautiful plane rocks its wings from side to side as if to greet us.

“Hi Uncle Teddy,” Loren shouts. I lift my hand, and reach out to touch him. The plane as it turns left, a flash of reflected sunlight, then it makes a large one-eighty turn and comes back down the river towards us - Magical.

The plane’s engine growls like a lion above the water and makes a steep descent, as if to attack. Just as I think it will plunge in the water, the plane rises up. We all step closer to the edge of the dock; the engine lets out a final growl and falls silent. All I hear is the whir of the propeller. I’m mesmerized. Suspended above the river, the plane swoops down again to catch its prey. Long pontoons grab the diamond surface; it skids and splashes, comes to a stop and bobs like a cork. I gasp as I realize my breath had caught in my chest. The lion roars again and Uncle Teddy points his beautiful airplane towards the dock. 

The dock vibrates and we cover our ears as he comes closer. I see him through the reflection in the glass. He’s so cool in his sunglasses and leather jacket. I must look totally stupid as I bounce from leg to leg. Come on, I think, as he takes forever to get out and tie the plane to the dock. Finally, I throw my arms around him, push my face to his jacket, and totally lose it. I snort and blubber all over him. Maximum embarrassment – but I can’t let go. I’m scared and I need him.

Uncle Teddy holds me until I relax. Then, with me still nestled against him, reaches out and pulls Loren over.

“Hi Champ, how you doing?” He ruffles Loren’s hair, and hugs him.

“Great, Uncle Teddy. Can I fly the plane?”

“We’ll see,” he says and laughs. He unwinds himself from each of us and wipes off his jacket with his arm. I stiffen when he and Dad shake hands and step to the far side of the dock. I’d seen them together so many times: best friends. Now I want Uncle Teddy all to myself. They lean forward and whisper to each other. I flash Mom, when Uncle Teddy smiles and light reflects off his blond curly hair. Everywhere I look, she’s there. Uncle Teddy and Dad talk, shake their heads and glance my way, like people do when they talk secrets about you. When they hug, Dad forces a twisted smile. Thank God, they’re finally done.

There’s a sudden clap and an echo responds from down the river, “Okay,” Dad says, pressing his palms together, “let’s get this show on the road.”

“In the air, Dad,” Loren corrects him. We all laugh and for a moment the tension releases.

As I give my pack to Uncle Teddy, I notice the name San Juan Express painted in bold letters on the side of his plane, with the name Angie painted right below in fancy script.

“Nice name.”

“Yup, my air transport business.”

“I don’t mean the San Juan Express, I mean the Angie,” I say. “Who’s Angie?” Mom teased him about his crush on Angelina Jolie when he was younger. Then, “Shouldn’t it be Angelina? You love Angelina Jolie, don’t you?”

He doesn’t even glance at me. “Who wants to ride up front?” he says.

I freeze. Did I make him angry? Maybe he’s upset. “I didn’t mean …” I blurt out.

But before I can finish, Loren pushes up his stupid hand, jumps up and down, and yells, “Me, me.”

“Okay Champ, you’re up front. He looks at me, smiles and winks. “Sammy, all right if you ride in back?”

With his wink the contraction in my chest releases. I like to tease Uncle Teddy. It’s a game we played a lot in the past, but with all that had happened in the last few months, the world has lost its laughter. Now, at least in one way, we’re back to normal.

“Yeah, I guess.” I say. I hate that I missed a chance to ride up front and that I’d let Uncle Teddy win this round of the tease-game, but I’m so grateful for his wink and smile. In one last effort to recover, I kiss the back of my hand real smoochy-like and say, “I’d LOVE to ride in back of ANGIE!”

While I make my lame attempt to tease, Dad picks up Loren in a bear hug and spins him around. Loren wiggles as Dad whispers in his ear and tickles him. I smile at their play and remember how good it felt when I was younger and he did that with me. He puts Loren down, turns and looks at me like I’m next. I’m pulled for an instant, and then a shiver creeps through me. I wave and scramble into Angie, happy to get away from him. The bucketed back seat pulls me down beside a small window. I bend down so Dad can’t see me as I fiddle with the seatbelt and keep my eyes focused on the buckle. “I’m ready.”

Uncle Teddy adjusts Loren’s seatbelt. Loren’s voice drifts back, “Cool,” as Uncle Teddy hands him a headset.  

~

Angie splashes and bounces away from the dock. Loren holds his teddy bear in a strangle hold. To maximize his dorkishness, he adjusts his headset so it covers one ear and half his mouth. The shudder of the engine ping-pongs my head off the window, I lean forward and hold onto a small handle above my head. Uncle Teddy multitasks as he guides Angie to the center of the river, talks into his microphone, gives Dad a thumbs-up, and guns the engine, sort of in that order.

Angie points down river, picks up speed and a bolt of excitement shoots through me. I peek out, dad waves and shrinks behind us. Waterfalls splash up each side and tiny rainbows form in the spray. I remember what looked like a crash landing when Uncle Teddy arrived and my stomach feels like a knot of snakes. I’m reminded that I’ve never flown in a floatplane. Half of me - totally excited; the other half - totally terrified.

A twang of sadness squeezes me. I turn to wave at Dad, but no one’s there. The entire plane shakes and rattles, the noise so loud it hurts my ears. We hopscotch across the water; waterfalls rise up, bigger and bigger. Angie accelerates, I’m pushed back and my head slams into the headrest. Like a blast from a cannon, we shoot into the sky. My only thought: We’re gonna die.

I blink, duck, and almost pee my pants when I see a bridge right in front of us. Angie stays low and flies under the massive concrete structure; I think it’ll take our heads off. I glance back at nothing and turn forward where we’re about to hit another bridge. For some reason I try to stand, then I’m pushed down as we swoop up over the second bridge. I put my hands over my face. I scream like a Banshee and hope no one else can hear. 

We turn left, cruise out over the city, above the hills where one hundred foot fir trees reach up to wave good-bye. As the city of Portland disappears behind us, a pit the size of Oregon grows in my stomach. We make a sharp turn. I swallow hard when bile rises and stings my throat. I fight back tears. I thought when I left I’d feel better, but now, like an alien, the hole in my universe creeps back in.

I let my eyes close, lean into the side window and press cold glass against my forehead. The monotonous drone of the engine, the constant vibration of the glass, the rhythmic rattle of sheet metal inside Angie’s tiny world gives my brain a rest. After weeks that seem like years, I am in Uncle Teddy’s plane, we fly north and I finally get it, everything’s changed forever.

But I can’t help it. I still just want my Mom.