By LT Ward
Edited by Archer Long & Joyce Creed
A silent phone weighed upon Rebecca. Her sixteen-year-old daughter Annalise had had winter semester finals and was due to update with texts throughout the day. However, silence.
Not one text in response to Rebecca's.
How did Chem go?
You doing alright?
Love you! Proud of you! You've worked hard and however you do on the test is fine!
Parenting her special child meant approaching her daughter with caution as the slightest mispronounced word or poorly timed support could cause Annalise to crackle. The electric charge within her daughter could go off.
Rebecca took the day off from work to stage the scene for Annalise's arrival home from school. The night before, there had been tears, caterwauling that she was stupid, the test was unfair, she should just die.
A knife to a mother's chest.
It was Annalise's charged up moods railing that poured the devastating words from her mouth. Rebecca knew those words, had said them in her darker moments—the same energy was trapped within her own body.
Rebecca jerked the wooden spoon through the cookie batter. Her anxiety slipped down her arm as her mind roiled over the possibilities of Annalise's day. Just be okay, just be okay, just be okay.
In another ten minutes, Annalise was due to come through the front door. Another seventy-five minutes, Ted would be home from work. Rebecca only needed to keep their daughter calm until her husband, Annalise's favorite parent, came home.
Maybe Annalise had had a good day, found the exams to go smoothly, felt relief that the coursework was done for the next two weeks. Maybe she’d had a good day.
A hissing pop followed by a shrieking "Ouch!" announced that Annalise was home. The shock of her touch to the front doorknob confirmed the day had gone poorly.
Rebecca interrupted the series of profanities Annalise muttered as her backpack hit the foyer floor with a thump. "How did it go, sweetie?" An overly cheery question for an expected negative answer.
"It was fine," Annalise growled. She brushed past Rebecca, a static spark nipping her mother’s elbow.
Rubbing her elbow, she followed her daughter into the kitchen. Annalise reached for the fridge doors.
"Honey!" she shrilled. With Annalise's current mood, should she touch the metal doors, the appliance could short out. Rebecca had restocked it last night. They couldn't afford another grocery run and an appliance repair.
Rebecca lightly reached for her daughter, the current ran felt, but not touched, between them.
Annalise whipped towards her mother, fat tears rolling swiftly over her cheeks. If Rebecca hadn't known to look for them, they would have fallen from her child's eyes without notice, the wetness dissipating from Annalise’s face as the heat beneath the flesh steamed them into the air before they fell from her chin.
But Rebecca noticed. Rebecca always noticed her child.
"How did your finals go?"
"It doesn't matter." Anger and sadness seethed in Annalise's words.
"Of course, it matters." A crackling of static screamed through the otherwise silent room. Rebecca inhaled slowly, purposefully, steadying herself for the brunt of energy building from Annalise's hurt. "Please, honey, tell me what happened."
Drawn to the lightning rod of her mother's inquiry, Annalise shouted, "I failed, okay? I failed my tests. My Chem test was so stupid. It covered subjects that the teacher never mentioned in class. I tried to answer those questions, but I didn't know what to put down so I didn't answer them."
The familiar electrical burning smell. Wisps of greyish blackness wafted from Annalise's denim seams. Her ruby, cotton sweater smoldered from the heat of the body raging beneath.
Rebecca reached around Annalise and grabbed the family sized baking soda from the fridge door. She shook the orange box around her daughter, the white powder blanketing and smothering the burning clothes.
"Mom!" she wailed. The sobs racked her not-yet-adult frame. Annalise trembled with eyes clenched. Her cheeks were drenched in wetness, too saturated with salted moisture to steam away. The tears dropped from her chin and onto the baking soda sprinkled on her chest, the powder clumping.
"I'm sorry, baby. I'm sorry." Rebecca dumped more of the baking soda on herself, then set the box on the counter. Tightness gripped her heart. She had to power through her own desire to break down to calm her daughter.
Why couldn't Ted have taken the afternoon off? Between the two of them, Annalise preferred her father, the one who hadn't genetically doomed her to a life of mood swings that could start electrical fires. Instead, he'd claimed he had a presentation he couldn't reschedule and Rebecca was left to handle their daughter.
She knew how, but experience had taught she would be of no help, possibly worsen things, for Annalise. She also knew that whatever she said would be the wrong thing, even when it was said with the right words.
"It's just a few tests. They don't matter. They really don't. Fuck Mr. Schilling for adding shit to your test when he hadn't covered the material in class." Sometimes leaning into Annalise's anger helped.
"I should have known it. If I were smarter, I would have known it. The other kids probably knew it, but I didn't. I’m such an idiot."
"No! No one should expect that of you. It wasn't fair."
"Mom, I didn't even finish the test. I left half of it blank. I failed."
The clumps of baking soda dropped from Annalise's red sweater onto the kitchen floor. They stared at the dirtied white blobs amidst the spilled powder. Rebecca's gaze crawled up her daughter. The locked legs. The fisted hands at her sides. The tremble in her arms. The hyperventilating rise and fall of her chest. The jutting chin with tears steadily streaming.
If only Annalise would take in deep breaths, the internal oxygen needed to settle before the external oxygen around her caught on fire.
"Your dad will be home soon." A last ditch effort to calm her child. Throwing a Hail Mary that maybe Annalise would be able to decelerate the electrical current within her blood until she could find solace in her other parent's arms.
"You just want Dad to take care of your little problem, Mom." Venom saturated Annalise's words.
"Annalise, I love you so much." Rebecca gulped her breath. The sizzle of current in her blood coursed too readily to snatch the kitchen air. "You need to take deep breaths. You need to breathe so that we don't start a fire."
"You mean, so I don't start a fire."
"I mean we."
The oven's timer screeched. Both mother and daughter scowled at the intrusive noise. The sugar cookies Rebecca had tossed in just before Annalise's arrival home were ready to be pulled out.
Annalise threw her head back and roared out a scream that hurt Rebecca's throat. Raw and pained. The electrical buzz wafting from Annalise fizzled, smells of sugar and baking soda replacing the electrical burn. She lowered her head and with glossy eyes streaked with red, she said, "I'm going to take a shower. I'll be fine." Then she stormed out of the kitchen and down the hall to her bedroom, slamming the door.
Rebecca stared at her kitchen floor while the timer screeched on. She sighed, then slipped on the oven mitts and retrieved the baking sheet from the oven, tossing the metal sheet onto the cool stovetop burners. She rested her mitted hands on the counter and hung her head.
Things were getting harder between them.
Ted came home, haphazardly tossing his coat into the front hall closet, his cheeks flushed.
Rebecca had texted him once she calmed down, giving him the heads up on Annalise. He knew the drill.
"She in her room?" he asked, not looking away from his wife as he dropped his car keys into the bowl on the counter.
Rebecca nodded. "I only heard about the one test. I have no idea how the rest of her day went." She gulped hard, again. The confession fell from her lips. "I had to pour baking soda on her again."
"Shit." The look—the flash of anger, frustration, exhaustion—swept across his face, and just as fast, it fell away, replaced by his fatherly concern. "Okay."
"I'm sorry." She was always sorry, the guilt of her genetics promised that.
Ted touched Rebecca's arm, taking the snap of a brusque charge to his fingertips. Then he leaned in and kissed her cheek before leaving his wife to head down the hall to their daughter.
Rebecca lived with the static of winter dryness no matter the weather. When the current within pushed itself to the surface, leaving her on edge, there was no means to stop the small, sharp sparks from appearing. That was until Ted.
They met in college, although Rebecca lived off campus. She needed the space, a place to hide while she donned rubber boots, swathed herself in hideous fire retardant blankets, coated her skin in baking soda during the bursts—a place without judging eyes. But Ted was in her English Comp class freshman year. He sat next to her and chatted with her. No matter how many times Rebecca deflected the conversation, hiding behind her long hair, he chose the seat next to hers and began blathering on about inconsequential things like the weather or their homework or why the professor kept wearing only green polo shirts, always a green polo shirt.
Over time, his pleasantries and persistence wore her down and she accepted a coffee date. Nervousness rattled her. Rebecca had wanted to call him to cancel, but if she touched her cell, the device would have exploded into flames before she could hit Send on the call.
She showed up, adorned in rubber rain boots, despite the dry weather, and cotton leggings and a tee. Rebecca hated her outfit, but it was pragmatic. As she crossed the coffee shop, she touched every metal surface—the door handle, the garbage can, the counter edging—to dilute the charges. The side-eyed glances and murmuring lips of the other patrons did not go unnoticed by Rebecca. By the time she sat down with her latte to wait for Ted, she wore a blush of mortification.
Rebecca ran her fingers over the hot ceramic mug. Her fingertips caressed the heat, turning her flesh scarlet. She liked Ted. She liked how he looked at her. Ted, whose brown eyes from behind his glasses lit up when she smiled back. She thrilled at that look more than she wished to admit. Telling him about her condition meant that light would fade into a glassy disgust as it had with the others before him, followed by a disjointed response that her condition was too much for him and he was bowing out now.
But he didn't bow out.
He wanted to know more. Not in a vulturous way like those others.
When you're depressed, do you go for weeks without showering?
Isn't your mania a good thing since you have so much energy to get shit done? You're so lucky.
With your condition, how fast do you go from happy to crazy?
How much medication do you need to be on to stay sane?
What's the worst thing you've ever done? People like you do horrible things, right?
Ted was different. He asked if Rebecca was comfortable talking about it. She was. With him, she was. He then asked if there was anything he should know about her condition to make spending time with her easier. She was astounded and her mind blanked. But once it recovered, she explained that she struggled with her moods, that more than anything, she needed allowances to recover when something triggered her into a spiral. When that didn't happen, the electrical charge surfaced and she wreaked unintentional havoc.
Brown eyes softened but held fast to the glimmer she needed to see. Ted nodded and said, "Then you'll just have to tell me when you need space and then when you're ready to not have space again."
A different sort of charge slipped through her veins. This one wasn't hot, but warm. There was a high to it, leaving Rebecca heady and smiling. Over their courtship years and even after eighteen years of marriage, Ted continued to be her grounding anchor.
Ted exited their daughter's bedroom, shutting the door gently. He rubbed his face with both hands, sighed, then walked to his awaiting wife at the end of the hallway.
"How is she?" Rebecca asked anxiously.
"She'll be fine. We checked her grades online. She passed her Lit and her Math finals. No word on Chem, but she's calm."
"Yeah. Wrapped in her special blankets and listening to music. When she's a little calmer, she said she'll work on her art."
Rebecca looked past over her husband's shoulder. Ted had done his job, but she was Annalise's mother. Her place was with her hurting child. Yet her daughter didn't want her there.
"Hey." Ted rested his hands on Rebecca's shoulders. He flinched as her body shocked his affection. "You need to go for a run."
Rebecca nodded, then went to their bedroom to change, closing her eyes tight as she passed the door she wanted to open.
As music blasted loudly in her headphones, Rebecca's feet slapped the sidewalk, keeping pace to the percussion. The backwash vapors of her breath slathered her face in warmth against the December cold as she ran. Running had been Ted's idea. That and therapy.
"It's an outlet," he'd said. "Everyone needs a means to burn off their anxiety. You just carry a little more anxiety than most."
The burn in Rebecca's chest and scream in her hamstrings and quads exhilarated her. Her electrical charge grounded to her exercising muscles. After four miles, she jogged up her driveway. The release of a hard workout lightened the strain to her system so much so that when she touched her front doorknob, she only felt coldness through her glove, rather than the sharp pinch of electricity jumping.
Slipping her beanie off, sweat freely dripped from her brow. She found Ted on the living room sofa, playing on his iPad. "How's our girl?" she puffed.
He twisted to face his wife. "Not sure. She's stayed in her room."
Rebecca knocked on the closed door. "Can I come in?" Overheating from her run and her anxiety ramping back up, she removed her gloves and tucked them into her running vest pockets.
"Yeah." Indifference. Typical teenage indifference. Rebecca peeked around the door, then entered Annalise's bedroom. Lavender assaulted her nose. Annalise's wax melt warmer sat on her desk, alighted and fragrant. The teenager hunched over the desk, her arm moving methodically, intentionally. When she finished the last artistic sweep, she turned in her desk chair, the rust colored, fire retardant blankets falling to the floor. "What's up?" A serene question.
"What are you working on, honey?"
Annalise held up a paper with a shadow beast sketch. "Those new Copic sketch markers you and Dad got me are amazing. I'm trying that technique I found on YouTube. The one where I use the markers for outlines, then my colored pencils on top for texture."
Rebecca plucked the picture from her daughter's hands. She awed at her daughter's skills.
For all the dangers and problems of their condition, there was a wonderful side that far outweighed the miseries—their creativity. While Rebecca wrote stories, creative in magical realism or literary fiction, Annalise was drawn to the world of art. Whatever external turmoils she endured, once she settled from them, she channeled her inner creative. The monsters and beasts of her mind became exquisite creatures of beauty upon the paper or canvas.
"It's stunning," Rebecca said earnestly, handing back the picture.
"Thanks." Annalise smiled tentatively at her mother.
Rebecca leaned over and planted a kiss on her daughter's head. Drops of sweat fell onto her hair without a sound.
"Sorry," Rebecca laughed, relieved at the absent crackle. "Guess I'm a sweaty mess."
Annalise swiped at the dampness. "Gross, Mom." She laughed. A light, yet real laugh.
"Okay. I'll let you get back to work."
Rebecca headed to her shower. Lathering her body under suds, she began to cry. She turned off the water for safety and stood on the rubber daisies on the shower floor. Naked, her arms wrapped around her not for comfort but to avoid touching the stall's walls, Rebecca wept. Her tears sizzled as they passed over her flushed cheeks and the lathered soap turned brown and fell from her frame onto the yellow rubber daisies. When her body was empty and exhausted, she turned the water back on and washed off the day.
Winter Break passed. While Annalise stayed home most days by herself, reveling in her freedom from academic requirements, Rebecca and Ted also had a few days off from work due to the holidays. Peace reigned over their pajama-clad days where the threesome baked cookies, played Settlers of Catan, and watched marathons of holiday movies.
Annalise had failed her final, but passed her Chem course with a B. "It's fine," she shrugged. "At least, it's done." Her lax stance and easy smile confirmed she was fine.
Rebecca trusted Annalise at her word, but it was what was said in the quiet between the words that Rebecca listened hardest for. It took one misstep of missing her daughter's emotional needs for things at home to become inflamed. Ted insisted they allow Annalise to say when she wanted help. Rebecca disagreed. Without preempting the bursts, ensuring their daughter was wrapped in supportive words and available heavy duty blankets, Annalise was a risk. To others and herself. Mostly, to herself.
Rebecca walked a never-ending tightrope wire of making sure Annalise was truly alright. Too much space and her daughter would slip into a depression, feeling no one cared about her. Too much attention and she would rage, accusing her mother of not trusting her to say when she wasn't fine.
Over the two weeks of Winter Break, Annalise lost herself within her art projects. When she emerged from her bedroom, she was surprisingly amiable, wanting to hang out and chat with Ted. Sometimes with Rebecca.
When Annalise returned to school, Rebecca's nerves began to frazzle. Their whole family was impacted by the ebb and flow of Annalise's emotions. School was a trigger for Annalise, especially her teacher's expectations, adding her own aspirations for academic perfection to the mix. In Kindergarten, the petite five-year-old had wanted nothing more than to be like the other students. But during a spelling test, she'd forgotten how to spell 'read.' Paralyzed by the loss of a word she'd studied with her parents all week, Annalise had sat a smoldering child and there had been a call from the principal's office that Rebecca needed to come get her daughter.
That was the first of her public incidents.
Even during their downtime from school, the memories of the fights and the fires, those in the public view and those privately at home, haunted Rebecca. It was a mixed blessing to know they were starting back up. Annalise was a junior in high school. Three more semesters of this forced hell. Three more semesters to help Annalise learn how to contain her condition so that she could go onto having a normal life. Normal enough.
At least the routine of school brought on a comforting normalcy.
The spring semester began smoothly, especially as the school swapped Mr. Schilling out for Ms. Nunez, Annalise meshing well with her new Chem teacher.
Timing of things at home being manageable was serendipitous as work slammed Rebecca. Her inbox was flooded with two emails for every one that she was able to clear out, leaving her drained by the time she left work and headed home. As January waned, she was burnt out.
One morning, she sat in her car dreading going into the office. She stared through the defrosted windshield, watching fat snowflakes drift lazily to set upon the glass, melting as soon as they landed. Malcolm, one of her coworkers, stopped before her car, bending with squinting eyes to peer at her. He waved. She waved back, then joined him to walk to the office building.
"Slow morning?" he asked.
"Yeah. There's been a lot of projects and it's getting to me."
Malcolm side-eyed her as he nodded, his jaw tight. "Is it your condition? Is that why you're having a hard time?"
Rebecca gritted her teeth. There had been an incident a few years before, when she'd gotten word that Annalise had accidentally singed her desk after a boy bullied her with cruel words. Rebecca had taken the call from the junior high while at work. A momentary lapse in redirecting her emotions had led to her short circuiting her computer.
There had been a discussion with the IT manager followed by one with HR.
After that, her condition was on display with the whole office and any time they saw her as tense, they jumped to the conclusion that it was her condition. Assholes. Sometimes, life was hard. Sometimes, her condition had nothing to do with her mood and it was just a bad day like anyone else would have.
However, others expected her to be all-consumed with her mental state. A definable box for her to be placed in.
"It's not my condition," Rebecca said in a polite, practiced tone. Better to calm those around her.
She came home from work to find Ted in the kitchen chopping veggies for dinner, bobbing his head and tapping a foot to the music playing in his earbuds.
Rebecca tapped his shoulder. A cerulean spark flickered between her fingers and his shirt. Ted jumped, set down the knife, then rubbed his shoulder. Rebecca's eyelids felt heavy.
"It's okay." He kissed her lips quickly, no spark, just warmth. "Another long day?"
Ted stared at her with a twisted face.
"What?" she snapped.
"Annalise forgot to turn in her Geometry homework. Again."
"She panicked at school and there are burn marks on her dress. She's calm now, but it happened in front of a few kids and she was embarrassed."
Rebecca rushed to Annalise's bedroom. She knocked, then reached for the doorknob before her daughter answered. Her hand was nipped by the bite of electricity between her palm and the metal handle.
"Honey, Dad told me what happened at school."
Annalise was wrapped in heavy duty, rust colored blankets in her chair. Baking soda sprinkled over her hair. "That I'm an idiot and I suck?"
"You are not an idiot and you do not suck. Tell me what happened."
"I forgot to turn in my homework in math and now I'm failing. Again. I should have remembered. I should have been able to do it." Rebecca's eyes darted from her daughter's heartbroken face to the ruined dress on the bed. It had been a birthday gift and Annalise had loved it, but the black edged holes on the skirt and bodice meant that now, it was nothing more than trash.
"Annalise, it happens. Is there any way you can make up the work?"
"I don't know." A gruff cinder odor wafted from Annalise. "What?" she barked at her mother.
"We'll figure this out. We'll fix it."
"You can't fix anything. I messed up my grades and I ruined my dress. And everyone knows. They always know."
"I'm so sorry, honey."
"Of course you are. You regret ever having me."
"No! I love you. So much. I meant I was sorry you had to go through that. I've been there and it's not fair." Rebecca stepped towards Annalise who flinched into her red blankets. Her daughter's lips curled in repulsion.
"You hate me. You hate me. You regret having me. You're sorry that I'm another problem and that I make your condition worse."
Annalise extended an accusing finger at her mother. A brown smudge at the center of Rebecca's blouse bloomed. She slapped at the burning fabric, then grabbed the ever-present box of baking soda from Annalise's bedside table. She smothered the last of the smoldering stain.
"It's not you, Annalise. I had a bad day at work."
"Right," her child mocked.
Rebecca held her daughter's infuriated gaze with her own pleading one. They had been here before. They would be here again. There were no right words to be said.
"I'll let you get back to whatever you were doing, sweetie."
"Fine," Annalise huffed, then turned back to her desk. Her body racked with a silent sob.
Rebecca went to her bedroom and stripped naked. In the master bathroom, she set her red, fire retardant blankets on the tile, then sat upon them, wrapping herself in the protective wools. She sobbed with a crackle of tears streaming her cheeks.
"Have you thought about family therapy?" asked Sonya.
Rebecca's therapist had suggested this in their last session, after she had updated Sonya of the Chem final reaction. Sharp prickles, like those from a waking limb that had fallen asleep, washed through Rebecca's chest. Her hands wrestled with one another in her lap, fidgeting to subdue her condition.
"No," she snapped. Recovering to an apologetic tone, "It's not for us." She wasn't so sure a family therapist was a poor idea, but to invite another person into her family's situation terrified Rebecca. Working with Sonya through her mental health was draining. Her job was draining. Parenting was draining. Rebecca had so little reserves left that adding one more weighty demand into her life instantly overwhelmed her.
Annalise barely spoke with either her or Ted about the bursts. Most often, once she was calm, Annalise behaved as though nothing had happened, the slights and cruel words and heated moments forgotten as though the darkness disappeared with a flipped switch. What would be left of their strained relationship if Rebecca forced her daughter in front of a stranger, asking her to divulge their intimacies so that they may be critiqued?
Rebecca couldn't. The last of Annalise's trust was too thin to risk snipping away with a failed parenting decision. Rebecca looked over Sonya's shoulder to the closed blinds in front of the window. Eye contact was too hard during these sessions.
"That's alright," Sonya reassured.
"We did get Annalise in with her own therapist."
"Really? You did? How is Annalise taking it?"
Annalise had been angry and they had needed to replace the crisped seat of a dining room chair, but later that same evening as she was saying goodnight, she told her father it might be a good idea. She admitted to feeling alone and wanting to talk with someone.
That hurt Rebecca, but she'd rather Annalise talk with someone than no one.
"Ted and I told her together. I'm taking her on Tuesday, tomorrow, after school. We're not sure what to do anymore. Annalise can't hear me anymore. She's convinced I'm the villain in her life, no matter what I do. I just want her to be okay."
"She'll be okay," Sonya said in her soothing voice. Rebecca often wondered if Sonya's therapeutic training had included vocal lessons. Sonya only spoke in controlled, comforting tones.
"I don't believe that," Rebecca confessed. "She's getting worse."
Sonya's lips held her gentle smile a moment longer than what allowed for a comfortable silence. Just as Rebecca opened her mouth to fill the void, Sonya asked, "Do you think you're doing alright?"
Rebecca's eyes returned to Sonya's. The prickles in her chest softened to a light buzz and her hands fell from one another, resting beside each of her legs on the couch.
"You are. And Annalise will get better. She's a teenager. You know firsthand that you're more than your condition. Annalise has hormones raging and the usual hell of teen years and the electrical charges. She's actually doing really well with all that she has to go through."
Rebecca bobbed her head as she absorbed Sonya's words. Her own teen years had been a disaster. She'd learned to isolate from her parents who bestowed the constant advice of Let it go. If it had been that simple, she would have. She tried. They didn't believe her so Rebecca stopped telling them what was wrong. She hid in her room, having her fits while her parents were still at work. It was how Rebecca learned to self-soothe, swathed in the heavy duty blankets and dousing herself in baking soda so that the electricity she released into the air was smothered before it affected her bedroom.
By the time she was Annalise’s age, Rebecca had ruined all of her stuffed animals and replaced her bedding with the scratchy, fire retardant blankets that left her skin irritated and scarlet.
After her session with Sonya, she picked up Chinese food and headed home. During their greasy dinner, Rebecca sat quietly, listening to Ted and Annalise chatter about their days. She felt detached from their conversation, but the lively discussion between father and daughter was enough to validate that Sonya might be right.
Annalise was more than her condition. Rebecca was more than her condition.
They deserved these happier, mundane moments.
While clearing the table, Rebecca finally spoke. "You still good to see the therapist tomorrow?"
Annalise boxed up the remaining chicken lo mein. "Yeah." Annalise shrugged, then shifted her shoulders. An irritation was building in her frame.
"I got the rest of this. If you have homework or want to work on your art, go ahead."
The kindest words.
As the evening turned toward night, the release Rebecca had from therapy wore off. Her hands brushed surfaces with muted zaps and instead of the aroma of Chinese food, a subtle burning smell incensed the air. Ted kissed his wife, pressing his lips to hers until the sparks faded to warm affection.
"You need to self-care."
Rebecca agreed, then went to her room. She sat upon her bed, her brick colored, fire retardant blanket beneath her bum, with a pen and legal pad and poured upon the page a story about goblins. Her pain freely flowed as monstrous demons, taunting the good people. She envisioned Annalise’s shadow beast as she thought of her goblins’ world.
By 10 P.M., she caught sight of her bedside clock. She rose from her bed to bid her daughter goodnight. Between mother and child, they shared a loving hug and a wish for sweet dreams.
The currents rested within their veins.
They drove to the suburbs, then hopped onto a train. The extended Presidents’ Day weekend offered the family a much-needed staycation. So, Ted organized the outing from their rural almost-suburban home of central Illinois to the grand city of Chicago.
"How much longer?" asked Annalise. She bounced within her seat, her eyes flitting between the increasing urban sights whipping by outside her window and the clustered passengers in the cushioned seats.
"Just a half-hour," said Ted, smiling. He slipped his arm around Rebecca, pulling her into him. Rebecca sank into the embrace and the warmth of her puffy winter coat as best as her rigid body could.
After two sessions, it was hard to read how Annalise was affected by therapy. Her first session, she came home quiet and withdrawn. Her parents offered to talk, if she wanted, but she brushed them aside and stowed away in her room until dinner was ready.
The next Tuesday, Rebecca got a call from the school.
"Mrs. Ferrel, there was an incident. We need you to come get Annalise."
Rebecca pulled up into the high school's circular drive, finding Annalise standing in her red and grey P.E. clothes and her winter jacket. When Annalise touched the vehicle's door handle, she flinched from the zapping and popping of her flesh on the metal. Rebecca threw the car in park and ran to her daughter, wrapping her in a red, fire retardant blanket and opening the door.
"I don't want to talk about it," Annalise mumbled. Tears sizzled down her cheeks and the car's deodorizer failed to dominate over the whiff of electrical burn in the air.
"That's okay," Rebecca said. "We can talk about it later."
Annalise walked into her therapy session with hyperventilating breaths, slapping away the smoldering ends of her hair. When she left the session, she was calm, her hair tied into a messy bun on her crown and her lips stretched into a relaxed smile.
She cried that night and allowed Rebecca to hold her. The mother whispered into her child's twisted up locks, "It sucks, baby. It sucks. I know it sucks." She kissed her daughter's head as her own tears fell, lavender fragrancing the bedroom.
The long week was made easier with the promise of a daytime getaway. As the train pulled into the station, an excited Annalise leapt from her seat. She grabbed her father's hand as she started toward the opening accordion doors. Rebecca snatched her husband's other hand so as to not lose her family in the bustling crowd. Ted squeezed her hand and turned to her with a knowing grin.
After a long walk on sidewalks smattered with salt, passing alleyways through which gusts of wind pummeled into their huddled family, they finally reached the base of the marble steps leading to The Field Museum. Gloved hands bracing the metal rails, they climbed towards the towering columns framing the grand entrance.
Rebecca snuck a peek at Annalise. The teen gawked at the massive edifice, her eyes sparkling and her mouth slightly agape. Rebecca suppressed the welling of excitement from her face, conscientious that should Annalise discover her mother looking at her, her bright mood would likely shatter into an infuriated accusation.
Inside, they purchased their tickets, then moved through the grand entrance. Sue, the tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, stood regally as a reminder of prehistoric times and her queen of the dinosaurs status, awing the many visitors into either silence or gasping words.
"This is so cool," Annalise breathed.
Ted had done his research, and the family meandered between the exhibits as he expounded upon the artifact's details as though he were a docent. Annalise livened to her father's passion, asking questions, oohing and ahhing over the curled faded leathers and long-shined metals. Rebecca fell back, enjoying her husband and daughter engaging with one another like a normal family.
Rebecca flinched at her drifting thoughts. What would a normal version of her family look like? She would have less guilt as her child had inherited her condition. She might have more time for her own interests if she didn't need to spend so many hours fretting over Annalise's mood swings.
Ted, a good man who shouldered his wife and child's conditions without complaint, would have the easier life he deserved. He wouldn't have to endure the bites of emotional burns, nor have a strategic awareness of what fire smothering options were available.
And Annalise. Her beautiful child. There was nothing about Annalise that Rebecca would change except to take away the hurt. To alleviate her daughter from the fear of being different from others, the humiliation of divulging her innermost yet external flaws, the sadness when others didn't understand.
Rebecca swallowed a sob. Her fingers twitched and she felt the familiar current buzzing in her wiggling digits.
"Hey, Mom!" Annalise shouted, interrupting Rebecca's spiral. She waved at her mother. "Come here!" Rebecca inhaled a deep breath through a tight throat.
"What's this?" They had wandered into the ticketed Apsáalooke Women and Warriors exhibit, a temporary exhibit featuring the history of the Native American egalitarian tribe. Annalise pointed to a leathered shield behind glass. Across the taut leather, a man painted red waved from beneath three bound feathers and a dried bird's head and neck.
"It's one of the shields of the Apsáalooke people. In their culture, men made the shields, but women were the keepers of them. All genders had a role, Mom. Women, though, they cared for the parts that would protect their people in battle. Like protectors for the protectors." Annalise beamed at her mother. "Kind of beautiful, isn't it?"
Rebecca eyed the artistic defensive equipment, then her daughter. The shield with its primitive painting and long-dead animal head—alluring in its crudeness. Yet it captivated, had purpose, was once used as a barrier between dangers and lives.
She closed in on the case, tenderly resting her fingertips on the glass. The online article that inspired this journey had said the exhibit’s purpose was to share the Apsáalooke Women and Warriors’ resilience. With Annalise at her side, Rebecca ruminated on the women whose most important task had been to oil the shield’s leather and tighten the thong straps, mend the wounds when it had been pierced. The shield, nurtured and loved, was a means for the maidens, wives, and mothers to protect their warriors as they challenged the world. A layering of strength.
"It's beyond beautiful," Rebecca smiled.
The family wandered to the next display. Rebecca kept one step behind her husband and daughter. She looked beyond them to the banners strung, the black and white photographs of the indigenous peoples, the artifacts of a culture new to her. Crow words sang from the speakers below the television monitors with closed captioned translations.
Her creative child had yet to learn how amazing she was.
But Rebecca knew. She would continue to protect Annalise with fire retardant blankets and baking soda, shuttle her to therapy, guide her through the hardships of their condition, so that one day, this incredible person could rise. She knew Annalise’s power and capabilities and that she and Ted would continue to shield their daughter from danger, but not from life.
As Ted rambled on, reading from the small signs in front of the glass displays, and Annalise listened as his rapt audience, Rebecca felt the grounding she needed.