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Maybe a Miracle

Chapter 2

I'M ON MY WAY to the pool house --- that's where I hide my pot --- when I see Annika floating face-first in the pool. We had watched Harold and Maude about a week ago and the first thing I think is she's just trying to get a rise out of me. You know how Harold tries to shock his mom by pretending he drowned in the pool? But she's been through it all so many times, she just jumps in and swims on by? Like he's not even there? Annika couldn't stop laughing about that, so I figure she's trying to pull the same stunt on me.

She's just floating, not a ripple in the water . . . it's a very convincing performance. So, just to make sure, I pick up a tennis ball and chuck it at her, not too hard, but hard enough. It hits her head and bounces into the bushes. She doesn't flinch. She just keeps floating, facedown, her back to the world, the ripples of her spine in stark contrast to the stillness of the pool.

Annika's threshold of pain is much too low to fake her way through a beaning, no matter how soft. Clearly this isn't some stunt to get attention, not that she would do that anyway. She gets all the attention she could ever want. So I dive in. Some people say this makes me some sort of a hero, but it's what anyone would have done. You probably would have done it too, unless you're in a wheelchair or something. It's really no big deal.

She's in the deep end, near the diving board. When I get to her she's limp. I hang her over my shoulder --- no struggling, no nothing --- and swim toward the steps. It feels like surrender, her rag doll body, like I got there too late. Her mouth is right next to my ear, but nothing is coming out of it, not a gurgle, not a breath. I swim her to the shallow end, walk her up the steps and out of the pool, screaming for help.

When we get out of the water, I give her the Heimlich maneuver. On the second thrust, about a gallon of water comes gushing out, but still there is no gasping for breath, no wheezing. Just silence. It's not like TVwhere they start gulping for air, so I lay her on the stone patio and feel for a pulse. Nothing. Maybe I'm not doing it right. Maybe I'm just making it worse. I scream for help again, for someone to dial 911.

But it's so quiet, all I can hear is the water lapping against the sides of the pool and in the distance the Gormans' sprinkler is going around and around. Water everywhere. I guess I should be scared, but in moments like this you don't really think, there's no time for that. You just do what you have to do, so I try CPR. They gave us a class in gym once, but I'd never done it on a real person, only on some plastic dummy.

I hold her nose while I place my mouth to hers, pumping my breath into her lungs, when finally Mom comes to the second-story window. She must have seen me hunched over Annika, my lips locked with hers. She screams down at me, "Monroe, what the hell are you doing to your sister?" It's such a weird thing to say, like what does she think I'm doing? Making out with her?

I blow another breath into her lungs and I yell, "Call 911!" Again, I check Annika's pulse, but there isn't one there. I look up at the window, but Mom's gone.

This is the part where you jump-start their heart. I'd hoped it wouldn't come to this. You can really screw someone up. You'd think a sternum would be pretty sturdy, but they're not. Maybe nothing really is. Maybe everything is just hanging by a thread.

Even if the ambulance is on its way, there isn't much time left, so I start pushing down on her chest, afraid I might be hurting her, afraid I'm making it worse. But I don't know what else to do. After about a dozen times, she starts to breathe, her chest rising and falling all on its own.

The doctors say I got there just in time. A minute later and she probably wouldn't have made it.

There are times I wonder if she would have been better off if I hadn't been going to the pool house to get high that day. I know that's a terrible thing to say, not that I would ever say it out loud. I just know if it were me, I probably would have just let go.

AS I WATCH them load my sister into the ambulance, water drips from my tuxedo, forming a puddle at my waterlogged shoes. Mom is losing her mind, but they let her ride in the back anyway. After all, who can blame her? That's what she's supposed to do. But what I'm supposed to do now, I'm not quite sure. I'm given a hint, though, before the technician closes the doors. "We're headed to Riverbend," he says. That's the hospital where I was born. As they pull out of the driveway, their siren screaming, a bunch of kids pull up on their bikes to see what all the fuss is about.

Josh Gorman from next door asks me what happened. He's always coming over to play with Annika. They're friends. He wants to know if she's going to be okay. I don't know what to say, so I don't say anything. I should say, "I hope so," but I just stand there, staring at the ambulance as it pulls away. He may have asked me again, I'm not sure. He rejoins his friends and the boys pedal fast, trying to keep up with the ambulance, their bikes' safety flags flapping in the wind. Even though it's humid and sticky outside, a chill comes over me. The street is suddenly empty. It happens so fast I wonder for a second if it happened at all. But that's just wishful thinking; the wail of the siren fading away tells a different story.

I don't know how long I stand there, just staring down the street. When Stevie Robbins drives by on his bike and throws the weekly Chelsea newspaper at my feet, I snap out of it. I look at the paper, but I don't pick it up. I leave it there and go around back. The pool is so still it could be empty. I take off my wet tuxedo and go inside, leaving the monkey suit in a pile by the door. It's the only evidence left that something out of the ordinary happened here.

I put on some dry clothes before I get into Mom's new car, a blistering red BMW convertible that Dad gave her for their anniversary last year. "A cherry on top of twenty-five years," he said. It's the first time I've ever driven by myself. Dad will understand. He'll make an exception.

Annika loves this car, especially when the top is down, which I hate. I always feel like such a dick in a BMW, a red one no less. But Annika will hear nothing of it. She says I'm a snob. Somehow, not wanting to drive a snobby car makes me a snob. Why? I don't really understand. But I don't say anything. There's really no use getting into it with my little sister. Very little joy comes from winning an argument with an eleven-year-old.

I think maybe we'll be able to stop at the Dairy Queen on the way home. She'll want a Blizzard with chopped-up Butterfinger, maybe some onion rings. I tell myself everything is going to be okay, but I don't believe it. I can't get that last image of her out of my mind. Even though she was breathing, her lips were blue when the medics arrived, so blue it looked like she'd just eaten a blueberry sno-cone. I might as well be drunk. The drive is a blur until I pull into the hospital parking lot, press the button, and get a ticket. Until then I don't even realize I'm listening to Neil Diamond singing "Forever in Blue Jeans." Mom loves Neil Diamond, but she doesn't play him in the house anymore. She probably got tired of listening to everyone complain, especially me. I've always hated "Forever in Blue Jeans" and now, here it has me crying. I can't bring myself to credit Neil's emotionally penetrating baritone. It's just I always thought forever seemed so far away, but now it feels like forever might just end today. Aguy pulls up next to me and looks me over like I'm some sort of freak, crying to the stupidest song in the world. I don't care. I just turn it up louder and let the tears fall.

When I get inside the hospital, the first thing I do is call Emily. I tell her about the accident and how it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to make it to the prom tonight. I tell her, "I'm really sorry. There's nothing I can do."

"Monroe, you're not funny. I'm ready to go. My dad's already taking pictures, it's torture. Just get the fuck over here."

"I'm serious." There might have been a few times when I made up stuff, so I guess I can't blame her for not believing me. "Do you hear me laughing?"

"God damnit, Monroe. Look, I know you don't want to go, but it's too late for that now."

"Emily, I'm at Riverbend Hospital." She still doesn't believe me, so I tell her to hold on for a second. I pull over a nurse and I ask her if she'll tell my friend where we are. She takes over the phone and confirms my location.

"See, I told you."

"If this is your way of breaking up with me and going out with someone else, it's pretty shitty, Monroe."

"Jesus, Emily, she's like fifty years old. She's a nurse." The nurse looks at me and scowls, but there's nothing I can do about that. "If you don't believe me, why don't you come over and see for yourself. . . . We don't even know if she's going to make it. She probably could use your help."

I feel bad saying that --- we don't know if . . . I haven't even gone into the emergency room yet, I don't know anything. I only want Emily to believe me. But now they're out there, these words --- and it feels like I've mentioned a no-hitter is in progress, jinxing the whole thing. "Oh my God" is all Emily can say. She's on her way.

MOM'S IN THE WAITING ROOM all by herself. Dad should be there too, but he's in Detroit taking depositions. He's always somewhere else. It doesn't really matter where. It's not like he ever brings back any presents, even stupid crap from the airport gift shop. Not that I need a snow globe or some retarded T-shirt. It would just be nice to know he's thinking of me. The truth is, I barely even know the guy. Dad's a big-shot lawyer. He's never lost a case. Not once. What's scary about him is that he's so persuasive it takes him only a few minutes to get you to agree with whatever it is he has to say. He'll have you believing kittens could be a healthy alternative to chicken if you give him half a chance. At least that's what people say, people who probably know him a lot better than I do.

Dad almost never talks about his cases with anyone in the family. Not even my mom. If you ask, he'll just change the subject to sports, or the weather, or if he's feeling particularly conversational he'll just answer with a short burst of condescension and you'll change the subject all on your own to sports or the weather. . . . Truth is, it makes me not want to talk to him at all, which is probably exactly what he's shooting for. It wouldn't bother me so much; it's just that he's never that way with my brother, Ben. He'll talk to Ben about anything. Emily says my dad is evil --- an allegation based largely on the fact that he represented a waste management company that leaked some plutonium into a nearby river. Her parents are always protesting anything nuclear, so that's where she got the idea that Dad's evil. I never held it against Emily's parents for turning her against my dad. After all, plutonium is pretty vicious stuff. I wouldn't want it anywhere near me either. They say if you dab some on the tip of a needle, there's enough to kill 250,000 people. Dad's client, Waste Disposal Inc., somehow managed to dump seven pounds on the banks of a river within a hundred yards of a subdivision. When the people who lived there found out what happened, they were understandably concerned. The plutonium quickly became the cause of everything that ever went wrong in their lives . . . and they were pissed. Mom and Dad had a party once and I overheard Dad say, "I don't know why they were so upset. Finally, they had something to blame for all their problems. How often in life do people get a chance to do that? It's kind of attractive, really, to think whatever's gone wrong in your life is not your fault." Like most Republicans, Dad talks a lot about personal responsibility; yet he spends his life making sure corporations never have to take responsibility for anything they ever do. It was no surprise when Dad proved those people weren't in any danger --- after all, the plutonium was stuck in mud. In the paper, he said it was as dangerous as a gun encased in concrete. And a jury believed him. They always do. At that same party, one of the guests, well out of Dad's earshot, said, "Jesus Christ is probably afraid to come back, because if he did, Larry would drop a civil action suit on his ass for breach of contract." Then another one of his friends added, "Yeah, Larry would keep JC bogged down in court for so long he'd beg to be put back up on the cross."

They all thought that was pretty funny.

Mom is a mess of tears in the waiting room, surrounded by strangers. Historically, emotional displays aren't our family's specialty, but for once in her life it seems Mom doesn't care what anyone thinks. I sit down next to her and put my arm around her, which I've never done before. She's still wearing her tennis clothes and I can't take my eyes off the white sock with the little green ball on the back of her ankle. I just keep staring at it, wondering why it's even there, what possible function it serves --- that little green ball just hanging there like some sort of fungus. You don't see those little fuzzy balls very much anymore. Some genius probably figured out that they impede peak aerodynamic performance. Or maybe they just realized how stupid they look.

She's crying uncontrollably now. My arm around her shoulder isn't working. I don't know what else to do, so I try to hold her hand. But that only makes it worse. It's not something we'd ordinarily do, holding hands, and now she's crying harder. She must think if it's come to this --- holding hands --- it must be really bad, worse than she ever could have imagined. I tell her everything will be all right. Annika will be okay. I don't know what else to say.

Thankfully, Aunt Sally shows up and I'm off the hook. Aunt Sally's not really an aunt; she was Mom's roommate in college. They've been best friends ever since, so she's more of a pseudo-aunt. We call her Aunt Sally for no other reason than that it would be weird to call her Mrs. Hamilton. She's also my godmother; if Mom and Dad die, she has to take care of us, although I'm eighteen now, so I'd probably just be on my own.

Aunt Sally takes over for me and holds Mom. She's telling her everything will be all right too, but she's a lot more convincing than I was. It probably helps that she didn't see Annika's blue lips. I go over to the other side of the room and look out the window at the fountain, its flumes reaching high into the air and exploding into a ball of white spray like an exclamation point screaming just how serious this all is. People in wheelchairs circle the water and orderlies hold their patients' hands. It's too much reality, so I ask if anyone minds if I turn on the TV. No one says anything. They probably don't even hear me. They have their own dramas to worry about. There's a Reds game on. Annika and I were planning to go see them play next month after I graduate, just the two of us. It was going to be our secret. The plan was to tell Mom we were spending the day at the country club playing tennis and swimming, but instead we'd drive down to Cincinnati. We'd never done anything like that before. Mom probably would have let us go, but for some reason it was more fun to lie. It was practically all Annika talked about for the last week, always in hushed tones, always looking over her shoulder. When she was done with the bathroom, I'd find go reds go written on the steamed mirror.

UNBELIEVABLY, MY BROTHER, BEN, shows his face. It's a Friday night about eight o'clock. By now he's usually wasted. All day Ben plays golf, but once the sun goes down he starts drinking. Ever since Ben was fourteen, people around here started calling him the next Jack Nicklaus. That's pretty high praise, not only because Nicklaus may just be the best golfer ever, but because he learned to play golf about two par-fives from our front door. He's a local legend and I guess now Ben is too. After one more year of college, he'll go pro. He's that good. Whenever people start their Jack Nicklaus talk, I always tell them Ben's really more like the next John Daly. It's pretty generous of me, I know. I don't come out and say Ben's a stupid, self-destructive drunk. They can figure that out on their own.

I guess it sounds like sour grapes and maybe it is. I never really understood the big deal about golf. People are always talking about it like they're mapping DNA or sending a man to Mars. But really they're just hitting a stationary ball into a stationary hole. It's not baseball, that's for sure.

When I see Ben come through the door, I start leafing through a

Maybe a Miracle
by by Brian Strause

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 1400064643
  • ISBN-13: 9781400064649