Georgia was putting Tyler's baseball schedule into her computer when she heard the racing of a car's engine, followed by the squeal of tires trying to adhere to pavement, and then the desperate sound of tires screeching to stop. Finally a silence she filled with—
maybe it was nothing.
She held her breath, tilting her head so her eyes looked in the direction from which the sounds had come, out the window that faced the thick woods behind their house, where the stark lines of winter were disappearing into the fuzziness of spring. She wasn't really looking, though. She couldn't see anything from this side of the woods.
With her hands paused over the keyboard, Georgia heard a sound like that of an enormous book slamming shut. Then a different silence followed, one that didn't ask to be filled. This silence swaddled her and gave her a feeling of suspension. It felt bigger than she was—as if whatever grinding mechanisms that turned the earth had slowed to a stop.
And then the earth's engines roared forward.
Georgia rose from her chair. Although she was moving in response to the sounds, she felt detached from what she had heard, as if she were telling herself, now get up, go see what it was.
Entering the den, Georgia looked toward the escalating voices on the TV. She noticed a ponytail above the top of the couch, peeking through the back of a Yankees' hat. The hat probably belonged to her son, Tyler, but the ponytail belonged to her daughter, Kate, home from college on break. She had just begun this habit of pilfering baseball hats from her brother, and the Yankees had been his favorite team for years, ever since his father had put that tiny navy cap on his little boy head.
Did you hear that? Not that Kate could have heard anything above the noise of the talk show.
Sounded like an accident. On Overlook.
Georgia had to lift up on the patio door while she pulled; it was always sticking. When the door jerked open, she pushed on the screen and stepped outside, into the heat of a southern spring day. Looking again toward the place from which the sounds had come, she heard nothing, but saw pines so dense they seemed woven together. She leaned against the wrought-iron railing, a story above the woods below, straining to see through this blanket of trees to Overlook Drive, which bordered the other side of the woods.
The voice of her neighbor's housekeeper came not from the direction Georgia was looking, but from her left, from the other side of a thin strip of woods separating the two large houses. Georgia smiled, for Ruby was known to involve herself in everyone's business.
The reply came from the woods behind her own house, near the construction site.
Get an ambulance quick.
Georgia ran inside, grabbed the phone, and dialed 911, a learned response to a specific situation. No thinking required. She reacted swiftly, just as anyone would have. Usually, though, the only way she knew to respond was by thinking—turning to a logical self swollen by legal training and years of practicing law. Even though she had discarded the contrived world of documents and meetings for the real world of children and family, she would always prefer the measured comfort of reason.
Kate was off the sofa now, pushing open the screen door to the patio. Georgia followed with the phone, her voice shaking only a little as she relayed the facts, and at the same time performed a mental check—Tom at work, Kate right here, Tyler at school—her ritual at the sound or sight of any disaster. She remained on the patio, while Kate inched down the brick steps, getting closer to the woods.
How many are hurt?
More shouts were coming from the woods. Kate, on the lower patio, looked up at Georgia.
Don't move, man! God, don't move.
It sounded as if the cries were coming from the woods themselves, rising up out of ruts, vaporizing from dead and decaying logs. Georgia shivered.
Ma'am, I need you to stay on the line. How many are hurt?
The operator's voice brought Georgia back to the patio, to holding a phone. I'm not there. But I can hear it. People are yelling for an ambulance. You need to hurry.
Ma'am, don't hang up.
Just like the movies, she thought, with the same agony and frustration she had seen in the actors' expressions. She should be doing something, and here was the operator, keeping her on the phone.
Where in Grove Park?
Where on Overlook?
It's a short street. Just come on.
Near the intersection of Woodland, where it dead ends into Woodland.
Yes, where the house is.
The only house, the one they're building.
Hold for a moment please.
Although the woods prevented Georgia from seeing the construction, she often heard the drilling and the hammers, the lonely ringing of trucks backing up. The rough voices of the workmen also drifted through the trees. Overlook Drive was the only way out of Grove Park. Georgia drove by this house several times a day, observing its progress—the foundation, the framing, the roof. The house sat so far down from the street and so neatly into the woods that it seemed to be rising up out of the woods, more woods than house, the surrounding trees close enough to peer through the window holes.
Glints of metal flashed through the trees. A car was leaving the neighbor's house.
Of course, Ruby was going to the accident.
Kate was now as close to the woods as possible without entering them, off the lower patio, past some stepping stones, down by an old wooden swing set, which looked as if it were being appropriated by the woods, tiny pines coming up between the swings, the wooden beams rotting.
When more shouts came from the usually silent woods, Kate turned to come back to the house. Georgia could see in her distressed expression that the sounds of fear and panic had reached her.
Hurry. You need to hurry.
Ma'am, the ambulance is on the way.
Georgia was allowed to hang up, and she met Kate on the steps. Together they headed back inside.
But now that Georgia was free to do something, she didn't know what to do.
Should we go over there?
She needed to think. Too many people would not be helpful. Ruby was surely there, and whoever yelled for the ambulance was already helping. She didn't want to go merely to gawk. But she needed to be honest with herself. She knew she was afraid of seeing something horrible, severed body parts or bloody heads. Unsure of how she would react, she didn't know if she could handle it. This fear might be preventing her from doing something she ought to do.
Georgia put the phone back in the charger.
Kate adjusted her cap and ponytail.
What could we do?
They stood there. How could they go back to doing what they had been doing?
Then Georgia knew. We should go just in case.
In case what?
But Georgia was in her study, slipping into flip flops. She grabbed her purse and her car keys, never considering walking through the woods.
As Georgia drove down their street, they didn't see any cars, which seemed weird initially, like an empty movie set. But when she thought about it, since they lived on a cul-de-sac with only eight houses, it wasn't unusual. When she paused to make a left turn at the end of their street, a car went by in front of them, which seemed odd too, as if nothing were wrong. She took another left onto Overlook, easing by the house under construction. They looked into the driveway.
No way am I driving in there.
Must be at the back of the house.
I bet that's why we could hear.
And then they saw the car.
It was a little past the construction site, down a gentle slope which separated the street from the woods, nestled in the trees, nose down, seemingly suspended in air. As if, when the car was emerging from the woods, the trees had tipped it forward onto its front bumper and were now standing behind it, and at its sides, holding it in place. The truth was harder to imagine. The car must have spun around as the brakes were applied and then fallen backwards through the air, down the hill into the woods. The heavy engine caused it to land on its front bumper, with the underneath of the car being caught by the thick growth of trees, by the woods themselves. It was almost as if the woods had been waiting for the car, Georgia thought, as if there were a place for it that had been empty before it arrived, like a blanket opened wide, waiting to wrap itself around a newborn.
Ruby was standing by the road, the only visible sign anything was wrong, other than the car tucked so neatly into the trees that Georgia wondered if she would have noticed it if she hadn't been looking in that direction.
Ruby motioned to Georgia, who slowed and lowered her window.
Nobody saw it. Those two men down there, they heard it and ran over. From the new house.
I called 911.
So did I.
Georgia was surprised. She had assumed she was the only one who called. But of course Ruby had called. She had been the one to shout into the woods, the one to break the silence.
Georgia noticed that the shouts had stopped. Ruby's voice was all she heard.
They can't get that fellow in the car to stay still. He keeps trying to get out. I tell you, that car is going to fall.
Georgia looked down at the car, rising up from the ground, growing like a tree from the roots of its front bumper to the branches of its back bumper. But because Overlook Drive sat so far from the woods and also rose so far above them, and because of the thick trees, Georgia couldn't see either the driver or the men who were down there helping. She also couldn't tell what kind of car it was. Just that it was white. She guessed it could fall forward, pitch itself out of the woods. But she didn't think it would. The car seemed completely at home where it was.
He shouldn't move. They told him that. Lord have mercy.
Georgia looked at Kate, who was sitting quietly beside her. Then she nodded to Ruby and drove slowly past the accident. She made a U-turn, intending to go back home, but as she faced the empty space between the road and the trees, where the car must have lifted off for its flight into the woods, she changed her mind. Instead of going home, Georgia pulled onto the grassy shoulder of the road. She put the car in park, but didn't turn it off.
What are you doing?
Georgia had no logical explanation for waiting. This absence felt foreign to her. Yet she had the unmistakable feeling she shouldn't leave, a pull she couldn't explain. She looked to the clear, spring day for an answer, but the sun was keeping its distance. The few clouds were moving fast. The tops of the trees, full with new growth, seemed only to obscure.
Georgia faced the woods. She remembered the first time she had gone in. Tyler must have been about four, and she had thought it would be fun—something a boy should do—to go on an adventure through the woods, down to the creek. Before that day, she had thought the woods lovely. Not afterwards. Underbrush and briars had blocked every step. She remembered wishing she had a machete, something to defend them with, but a machete would not have helped against the things she couldn't see, the things hiding in trees, in empty logs, underneath rocks, just waiting for them to walk by. Every time her head grazed a branch or her leg a bush, she felt as if spiders and ticks were crawling onto her. Yet she couldn't see them. Georgia came out of the woods that day and immediately took a shower. Tyler came out in love with a whole new world. After that, he was constantly telling her about each stick he had gathered to build his forts, and endlessly describing battles with invisible armies, his pine cone bombs. He acted as if he knew he could escape her by heading into the wild woods, that this was a place she couldn't come after him. But that was years ago. He hadn't been in the woods in ages that she knew of. Now it was girls and cars, movies and video games, the SAT, and always baseball.
People were coming out of the woods now, walking up toward the street. They were climbing the small hill. Three people. Three men. And the one in the middle, the one being held up with some difficulty, the one whose face she couldn't make out from this distance, had on khaki pants and a white shirt. The school uniform. Black hair. White car.
Michael—who was in Tyler's class, who was one of his best friends, who had been coming to their house since he was four years old.
That's Michael? He's huge.
Once Georgia recognized him, she knew she had to get to him. She had to take care of him. His parents. She had to reach them, get them here as fast as possible. Ever since Kate and Tyler had started going places without her, as early as preschool, her worst fear was that something would happen to one of them and she wouldn't be there.
She opened the car door.
I'll wait here.
Georgia grabbed her phone and took off up the hill. She couldn't believe she knew the person who was hurt. It seemed slightly fantastic, as if she were participating in one of Kate's reality shows. She needed to remain calm. She wanted to behave rationally. To be able to control herself.
As she got closer to Michael, Georgia was shocked by his swollen, bloody face. She immediately assumed his jaw was broken. Blood covered his torn dress shirt. He still wore his tie.
Michael. She should do everything his mother would do if she were here. She put her arm around him. Are you okay?
The question was merely a bridge, a way to connect the normal to the abnormal. For there was no way Michael could know whether he was okay. He most definitely did not look okay.
All this took no time. A film of the scene would have only shown a woman in black exercise shorts and a white shirt running along a road, slowed by flip flops, sitting down on the ground, putting her left arm around a man in a bloody white shirt, and holding her right arm out, ready to dial her cell phone.
But he wasn't a man. Although he was six feet tall and had the body of a man, he was only a boy, and only sixteen years old.
Michael, it's going to be alright. Can you tell me your phone number?
Georgia dialed with her thumb as he spoke, keeping her other arm around him. There was no answer.
Where were you going, Michael?
I don't know.
Georgia thought it odd how the brain worked, that he could remember a phone number, but not what just happened.
Why aren't you in school?
I don't know.
How could he not be in school? He was supposed to be in school. And then there it was.
Was anybody else with you?
She called her husband, Tom, at work so he could help find Michael's parents.
Georgia realized how glad she was that she had waited. What if she had gone back home? Michael would be here without anyone who knew him.
At that moment, Michael curled forward and sideways to lie down on the grass.
You need to sit up.
It's not good to lie down.
Is that true?
It dawned on Georgia that although Michael was conscious now and seemed okay, something serious might be wrong with him, internal bleeding, something she couldn't see. He could pass out at any moment. Then what would she do? She looked for Ruby, and saw her talking to Kate, now out of the car, both standing off to the side.
As Michael sat back up, he moaned for the first time, as if it had only just occurred to him what had happened.
Hang on. You're okay. Your parents will be here any minute.
Georgia hoped this was true as she sat there with Michael.
In this lull of waiting for the ambulance, she was trying not to think about the fact that if Michael were out of school, Tyler could be too. She was thankful Tyler wasn't the one hurt.
Georgia heard a siren. She patted Michael's arm. The ambulance will be here in just a minute.
It's coming for me?
His question surprised her.
That's a good thing, Michael.
The ambulance pulled to the side of the road in front of Georgia and Michael. The siren stopped. Two paramedics, one female and one male, approached.
Georgia let go of Michael, moving to stand by Kate and Ruby.
One paramedic held Michael's neck still, while the other looked into his eyes with a flashlight.
Georgia turned to Kate, who was chewing on the end of her ponytail.
Are you okay?
She had forgotten about her daughter in her urgency to be there for Michael.
Can we go?
Not until his parents get here.
Cars lined the street now. People were talking. The lights of the ambulance circled red. Doors were slamming with lots of shouting. In the center was the injured boy, the paramedics crouched around him. To one side stood two men; to the other, three women.
A policeman arrived, in a white helmet and high black boots. The paramedics continued putting the brace around Michael's neck, as if nothing had changed, but Georgia felt a shift in perspective, as if the director had called for a wider view.
The policeman looked straight at Michael. Where were you going?
He used the same words, but it seemed a different question than the one she had asked.
I don't know.
The answer, too, although the same, seemed different—cautious.
Was anyone in the car with you?
The paramedics ushered Michael to a stretcher, cutting his shirt off as he lay down.
The policeman stepped closer.
Georgia had to move to the side to see Michael's face.
The policeman leaned in. Son, was there anyone in the car with you?
I don't know.
The policeman headed to the woods.
We didn't see anybody else down there.
Were you looking for somebody else?
The two workmen questioned each other.
Lord have mercy.
Kate fiddled with her hat.
Georgia's eyes were riveted to the policeman disappearing into the dark woods.
Are you his mother?
One of the paramedics was staring at her.
Georgia's face held no expression.
Kate moved closer to Georgia. We're trying to find his mother.
Georgia was unable to see through the trees. She waited.
Mom, are you okay?
Georgia didn't hear Kate. She heard the policeman's strong voice from the woods.
The paramedics told Georgia and Kate to stay with Michael. One grabbed a board and the other a bag. They ran down the hill into the waiting woods.
Georgia didn't want to stay with Michael any longer. She wanted to run down that hill too. She wanted to help the person in the woods, to try to make it right. She couldn't believe she had wasted all that time. No, she told herself, she shouldn't think like that. She should concentrate on what she could see, on what she knew to be true, Michael in front of her. She hoped the person in the woods was okay. She had a flicker of the unimaginable. As it tried to catch, to take hold of her, she wouldn't allow it. She reached out and touched Michael's face, but her hand slipped off. Despite her best efforts, she had failed. All this time she had neglected a child who lay by himself in the woods. No one to look for him. No one to put her arms around him. No one to find his mother. She was trying to keep these thoughts from escaping, but they were rushing out. She would get hold of one. Then another would start up. Soon she didn't have enough hands for all the pieces of herself that were starting to go. What were the chances? Yet, it could be. Sure it could be. Just as much as it could be any child, it could be Tyler. If it wasn't Tyler, it was going to be the child of someone she knew.
Thought failed her.
Please don't let it be Tyler.
She felt for the mother of the child in the woods. She imagined saying—
I know how you feel.
They came out of the woods carrying someone on a stretcher. She could see khaki pants and a white shirt.
Georgia couldn't see, in the policeman's hands, a navy baseball cap.
She thought she heard that silence again, the one asking to be filled. But, no, it was the other silence, the expansive one, the one that came from outside her. She looked around. On the street, a car slowed. The leaves were moving then still, the end of a breeze. She held her breath as a cloud moved across the sun and the silence changed from a sound to a place—a place she wanted to remain. Here, out of the woods, that's where she would stay.
Maybe it wasn't Tyler.
That was the best she could do. She would not go into the woods until she had to. She would stay here, in this place of waiting, pushing away fear, suspending the impact for as long as she could.