Fractured Light – Jean Callahan
I never meant to hurt anyone. Honestly. I feel awful about it.
In the beginning, the prism was just an escape. It isn’t easy being the single mother of a four-year-old, especially when you spend your days dealing with senile women at a nursing home that smells bad and docks your pay when, through no fault of your own, one of the old ladies knocks over a flat-screen TV.
The only reason I moved that spring was to get away from the drug dealers who lived in our last building, with their loud music, constant cursing, and cars pulling in and out of the driveway, directly under my daughter’s bedroom window. Although the new building was on a busy corner and the apartment was a fourth-floor walk-up, it seemed like a safer place to raise Becky. When I’d finished cleaning our new home – washing the woodwork, waxing the old pine floors, scrubbing the bathroom and the kitchen, I hung a crystal prism in the living room window, to catch the morning sun. Becky loved to watch the refracted light, the rainbows skittering around the walls.
One Saturday morning, I was cleaning, as usual, reaching over to dust the windowsill when my hand passed through one of those rainbows and absorbed the bands of color. That first time, I felt such comfort, such relief.
Later on, I felt a little crazy. I’d seen these crystal prisms hanging in windows all my life and never, ever had I heard of anything like this happening. Was this prism unique? Was the apartment special? I looked into the bathroom mirror, searching for signs of mental illness, or alien abduction, or demonic possession. No, I was the same small, blonde 24-year-old woman, a little overweight, still pretty.
Afterwards, whenever I had a free moment, I played with the prism – usually in the early mornings when Becky was still sleeping. I would extend my fingertips out toward the splintered light, very slowly, and wiggle them in the spectrum of colors. If I caught just the right angle, a rush of energy drew me into a dreamlike place. It felt like hours went by in this altered state but each time I returned, I checked my phone and only minutes had passed. So, I wasn’t neglecting Becky. I would never do anything to harm her.
It was good and bad that Marco’s pizza was right across the street from the new building: good for quick dinners when I got home late from work; bad because pizza and subs have a zillion calories. I was starting to feel like a fat cow, so I was shocked when Rich, the evening counter guy, began flirting with me. First, he’d throw in an extra bag of chips or a box of Swedish Fish, Becky’s favorite candy. “On the house,” he’d brag, like he’d just handed me a $300 bottle of Dom Perignon champagne.
I don’t usually care for guys with beards and trucker hats, but there was something about him. He was tall and so skinny that his legs looked like two exclamation points in tight jeans. He said he wanted to open his own pizza catering business and talked about smoked goose prosciutto, vegetables sautéed in lard, equitably-sourced cheese, all that hipster stuff. I was impressed; I’ll admit it. I started dressing better for my trips over to Marco’s, a little make-up, a sundress instead of a t-shirt and shorts.
One night, Rich spelled out my name in hot peppers on top of the pizza I ordered. I don’t know why but that got to me. Then I began to notice him looking out the shop window when I’d walk by. If he didn’t have a customer, he’d call me in to kid around a bit. He paid attention to Becky, too. He had a running joke with her that Mario, the guy who owned the pizza place, was actually an alligator and that’s why you never saw him behind the counter. She thought that was totally hysterical. So, when Rich invited us to the pool at his apartment complex for a Fourth of July cookout, I said ok. It might be fun for Becky.
By now, I was obsessed. On dreary mornings, when the light was too weak for the prism to catch fire, I was jumpy, hungry for the peace that came over me when I made the shift. That was the phrase I used to describe the prism experience — to myself. I couldn’t say a thing to anyone else. On dark mornings, I hit the snooze button until the last possible moment. I was cranky and depressed.
I slogged through the workdays, rushing old ladies out of their showers into pastel sweat suits so they could spend the time between breakfast and lunch watching game shows and arguing with each other. After lunch, they napped and I wrote up my notes: Nancy had loose stools today; Alice’s pressure sore is healing; Beth lost her hearing aid (again). Then I bolted out of there to pick up Becky by 3:15.
One day, I hung another prism in a sunset-facing window. With Becky fed and focused on Sesame Street, I watched the light dance around the room. I was comfortable making the shift in front of Becky now. It was over in a moment, after all. But, once in a while, when I came back, she’d be looking at me funny. Kids are so tuned in to their mothers.
“Where did you go, momma?” she said one evening. “I don’t like it when you’re not here.”
“Don’t worry, baby,” I said in the syrupy voice that came so naturally after I’d made the shift. “I’m right here.” I asked her to brush my hair, something she loved to do, and then we cuddled and fell asleep on the couch.
I made the shift in the morning on the Fourth of July, so I wasn’t quite ready when Rich arrived. I filled a cooler with sandwiches and lemonade while he paced the living room. “What’s this thing?” I heard him say. Rushing in from the kitchen, I caught him twirling one of the prisms. Sun poured into the room; rainbows glimmered everywhere. His fingers passed through one of them and I held my breath. But he just stood still for a moment, looking a little puzzled, and then shook his head. “Ok, all set,” I said, ushering the three of us out of the apartment.
When we got to the pool, which was wedged between an HVAC unit and the parking lot, Rich’s friends were already there, a bunch of people I didn’t know, guys in board shorts and girls in bikinis, lounging around, taking selfies. He hadn’t told me there would be a crowd; I wanted to turn around and bolt for home. They all gave me the once-over and stared at Becky, as if they had never seen a child before. You could tell none of these girls had babies; they were way too thin and snobbish to be moms. Rich was nice, though. He said he liked my sandwiches. Nobody else brought food; they were just drinking beer and some of them were smoking weed. After a while, the guys got boisterous, showing off for the girls, cannon-balling into the pool.
Rich lifted Becky up onto his shoulders. I thought he was doing it to keep her safe, but he carried her off near the deep end and leaned over, like he was going to drop her into the water. He kept edging away and then loping back toward the pool, staggering dramatically. At first, they were both laughing and then Becky began to look scared. She was starting to cry, but Rich didn’t notice. I had to go over and tell him to stop. He said he was sorry but, after that, the party was over for me. Rich told his friends he’d be back for the fireworks after he dropped us home.
We were quiet in the car. Becky was dozing off when Rich asked if he could come back to see me after the fireworks. I said no. I’d had enough of him. All I wanted was to get home before sunset so I could make the shift. “Is something wrong?” he asked. “You just scared me a little.” He said he was only playing. “Don’t worry about it,” I mumbled.
It was seven o’clock by the time we got home and Becky was fast asleep. I tucked her in without even bothering to change her into pajamas. Then I went back to the living room and stared at the window, waiting for the sun to reach the angle that would activate the prism. By now, I had learned that the shift wasn’t always soothing; it could also be mysterious, strange. But that didn’t stop me needing it. That evening, the place I visited was murky, maze-like. I saw people, but they were blurred, like images on a computer screen before they’re fully loaded. I heard distant voices and rumbling like thunder or a subway car coming in from far off. When I found myself back in the living room, it was dark and fireworks were exploding.
The Friday after the Fourth, I was written up at work when two of the ladies on my unit got into a brawl. Nancy came out with a bloody nose; Beth lost her balance, fell over an ottoman and twisted her ankle. It’s almost impossible to keep these women apart when they’re angry. Still, my boss blamed me. One more write-up and I’m on probation, he said. Because it had been such a rotten day, I was happy to see Rich stepping out of the pizza place and crossing the street with a bouquet of roses. “They’re from my garden,” he told Becky who was delighted that he was giving her – not me — the flowers. “They smell like perfume,” she said, giggling. I could see she had forgotten all about the incident at the pool party. Maybe I’d over-reacted.
I asked him to come for dinner the next weekend. I’m no great cook so I picked up a rotisserie chicken, mashed some potatoes and made a salad. I bought ice cream for dessert. We listened to music and talked about our jobs. Becky wouldn’t leave Rich alone. She sat on his lap most of the evening. At one point, he seemed to be moving in his chair, subtly rocking, and it kind of creeped me out. Becky had a far-away look on her face. I kissed her forehead and lifted her off Rich’s lap. When I came back from reading her bedtime story, the sun was setting and he was gazing at the prism.
“The last time I was here, I touched one of these rainbows,” he said, before I had time to confront him with my misgivings. “I’m not sure but it seemed like something happened. I felt happy, a little dizzy, but happy. Does that make sense?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Rich.”
I wasn’t ready to tell anyone, least of all Rich who, in my opinion, was more than a little sketchy. But, then he raised his hand into the spectrum of colors; his eyes closed, he stood absolutely still, and he — vanished. A minute, maybe two, went by but it felt like much longer. I was about to freak out when he reappeared, grinning at me.
“Wow, wow, wow,” he said, his voice rising with each syllable.
“Shhhhh.” I asked him what happened.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s like I went through a portal. At first there were flashing colors, then it was night and I was walking down a dark road. I could smell smoke and then I saw a bonfire; people were drinking beer, throwing boards and branches into the fire.”
He stayed with me that night. How could I let him leave, now that he knew my secret?
He looked so innocent lying there in the morning, hair tousled, long legs wrapped in the twisted sheets. I was quiet, careful to let him sleep so I could make the shift without him noticing. He didn’t wake up until Becky came tumbling into the bed, clearly pleased to see Rich still in the house. I usually make pancakes for Sunday breakfast. While I mixed the batter, Becky told Rich she wanted to show him her Disney Princess doll collection. They were all caught up in that – he didn’t know much about Disney movies and Becky was explaining who they were — Ariel, Aurora, Jasmine, and the rest of them – when I realized I needed maple syrup. I asked Rich to watch Becky so I could run out to the store.
I was back in ten minutes. She had taken her pajamas off and draped herself in my pink silk shawl. They’d put some music on the radio and she was pretending to be a ballerina. It was more strip show than ballet but she didn’t know that. He did. You could tell by the way he was looking at her.
“All right, that’s enough,” I said. “Let’s get you dressed.” I left Rich sitting in the living room while I put Becky’s clothes on. When we came out of her bedroom, I could see that he was ogling the rainbows again. Becky and I went into the kitchen. “You’re the princess, so you get the first batch,” I told her. She asked for a glass of milk and then tore into the soft, sweet pancakes.
I walked over to Rich. “Go ahead,” I said. “I know you want to do it.” He put his hand up to one of the rainbows and I watched the colors saturate his fingers. As soon as he disappeared, I pulled both prisms out of the windows, raced into the hall and threw them, as hard as I could, down the trash chute. I could hear the prisms tumbling, hitting the walls, glass breaking, and I could hear the incinerator roar into life five stories below in the basement.
“Where’s Rich?” Becky asked when I sat back down at the kitchen table. “He had to go,” I told her, and that was no lie. There’s a new guy on the evening shift at Mario’s now, an older Italian guy; maybe he’s one of Mario’s brothers, but it doesn’t matter. We don’t go there anymore. I’ve lost a few pounds and it’s healthier for Becky to eat homemade food.
Rich’s disappearance was on the news for a while. The police never did find out why he went missing. I feel bad for his parents, but he didn’t leave me any choice. I do miss making the shift, so last week I bought a new prism and hung it in the rec room window at the nursing home. Some of the old ladies really enjoy watching the fractured light.