Jenny tugged gently on Jordan’s small hand clasped snugly
within her own, shifting her weight in order to balance Lilly securely on her hip. She kept a firm grip on the loop of lavender
ribbon which tethered the helium balloon that she had purchased earlier. Silvery bright, birthday colors floating skyward.
Lilly’s first birthday.
She navigated her way across the front lawn, nearly tripping
over Jordan’s red tricycle and skirting the deluxe swing set she had bought with money that should have been spent on
something more practical. She had never been good with money - always too impulsive. That time it had been a difficult choice
between an engine tune-up or a new swing set for Jordan and Lilly. Now the car was running badly. If it broke down she would
never have enough money to get it repaired. She would never get it right.
Jenny didn’t even notice the scent of simmering applesauce
which filled the air as she juggled Jordan, Lilly and the balloon in order to unlock the doors of her Ford Tempo. The Tree
Top apple processing plant a few blocks away often filled her neighborhood with sweet, comforting, fresh-baked apple pie smells.
That same welcoming aroma had greeted Jenny and Luke the first time they had walked up the sidewalk to the house which had
become their home. In the beginning it had been a happy place, but now she wanted only to get away from it - to get away from
Jenny’s neighbor, Sylvia, was fussing over the row of
bright pink petunias she had planted as a gentle divider between her yard and Jenny’s. She tossed over her usual cheerful
greeting, “Hi, Jenny. How’s everything?”
Jenny smiled, “Fine.” But she wasn’t. Jenny’s
smile had too much in common with those fake building fronts propped up by posts for the old movies, there to give the illusion
of a complete structure with furniture and activities going on within. Or maybe her smile was more like the illusions of the
modern cinema - just a computer simulation of a genuine smile that had been logged on in some previous reality.
Jenny got Jordan and Lilly into the car without incident, but
the balloon seemed determined not to be stuffed inside. It was a battle of wills, but Jenny won out and was soon backing the
car out of the driveway. She had made sure that herself and her children were properly restrained; she wearing her shoulder
harness and belt, the children buckled securely in their car seats. She had also rolled up the windows to prevent her reluctant,
helium-filled passenger from escaping.
At First Street Jenny did not turn right towards Yakima as
she had planned. Instead (and not even knowing why) she turned left, driving through downtown Selah and up past her old high
school which had always to her looked like a red, yellow and blue toy Lego building. She had enjoyed high school. She had
loved being around other people. Now she was truly not even a real person so she avoided everyone.
She drove on past Selah Loop which curved to the left towards
expansive orchards. She continued on as First Street became North Wenas, hugging the foothills along the western edge of the
valley. Eventually the road swung to the left, climbing uphill to reach a steep grade of sharp switchbacks which led back
down into the Naches Valley and on to the tiny town of Naches. Jenny stopped at the only traffic signal in town. When the
light gave her permission she turned right onto Highway 12 and drove onward in the direction of Chinook Pass and Mt. Rainier.
Later on as Jenny drove through the Nile Valley she longed
for the weekends spent there with her grandmother. Those visits were the best part of her childhood. The Nile was where sage
brush and sickle weed became lush meadow and green forest. Where hot and dry became moist and cool. Where preoccupied parents
were replaced by a doting grandmother offering cookie baking, soft hugs and bedtime stories. It was the place she loved best.
Now Grandma was gone. The little white house with it’s shady porch, giant oak and lovingly tended flower garden sold
Jenny drove by Whistlin’ Jack Lodge where she and Luke
had spent their honeymoon. Now he was with Sarah. She couldn’t blame him. She had been as inadequate a wife as she was
a mother. She had even gained some weight - had become hideously ugly. No wonder he had left her. She was never able to be
the companion that he deserved - that she had wanted to be.
Next Jenny saw the turn-off for Boulder Cave. She remembered
the warm August afternoon when she and Luke with two year old Jordan in tow had decided to explore the cave. After hiking
the mile to the cave entrance they had realized that they should have brought along a flashlight. Jenny had suggested going
back to get the flashlight out of the car jockey box, but Luke had insisted that his lighter would offer enough light. After
all, the cave was only a couple hundred or so feet long and had openings at both ends.
It started out as a wonderful adventure, like something out
of a Mark Twain novel. They carefully navigated their way over the earth, rocks and moss while making sure not to get too
close to Devil’s Creek, who’s flow had slowly eaten into the mountainside until it had folded down upon itself.
The flickering flame offered just enough light to show the way. Then it happened. Luke dropped the lighter.
Total darkness. That would be an appropriate description of
what had greeted them. At that point Jenny had panicked, demanding that Luke get them out of there. Why hadn’t he listened
to her? They should have gone back for the flashlight as she had suggested! She hung onto Jordan tightly. He had started to
cry in the unfamiliar and scary place. Jenny had felt like crying herself. Where was Luke? "Luke! How could you drop the lighter!”
She could hear the bats on the cave ceiling getting restless. “Get us out of here, now!”
After fumbling their way through the darkness for awhile they
came back out into the warm sunshine. Everything was O.K. - but it wasn’t really. Luke was on the defensive. Jenny tried
to apologize for yelling at him in the cave. Why couldn’t she have kept calm? Why did she have such a talent for turning
happiness into misery?
Often Jenny felt like she was back in Boulder Cave - alone
in the darkness with Jordan and Lilly. Total Darkness. Not able to find the way out. No Luke to guide the way. No warm sunlight
to break the gloom. No way out. Ever. But the darkness did not originate in the cave. It originated in her soul, anchored
deep down with the weight of an anvil.
Sometimes she was desperate to tell someone about the dark
abyss growing daily inside of her. To let someone know how alone and frightened she felt - frightened of doing something really
wrong someday - of losing control. But she was even more terrified that if she ever did invite anyone into that sinister realm
that they would retreat in horror, taking Jordan and Lilly away with them. Taking her life.
Sometimes she was certain that the only way to make life better
for everyone around her would be to end her own. She had already driven Luke away - had made him miserable. Lilly was too
young to notice but Jordan wondered why Daddy no longer was around to give him piggy back rides and tuck him in at bedtime.
Jenny seldom was the mother that she so desperately wanted
to be - cheerful, caring, outgoing, creative, constructive. She was more often destructive. Sometimes the despair that engulfed
her left her nearly paralyzed. Performing the simplest tasks had become almost impossible. A messy house. Neglected kids.
Self loathing. Frustration. Anger. Why couldn’t she be the person she so desperately wanted to be?
She would tell herself to just get through another day. Stick
around. See if things get better. They always did. The only trouble was - they got increasingly worse in-between the better.
Most of the time she just wanted to escape, but she couldn’t bear to be separated from Jordan and Lilly, to leave their
warm hugs, bright smiles and light kisses. So she just kept trying. Just kept going. Just kept driving...
Thick rows of majestic evergreens materialized on
each side of the highway. In the past these guardians of the forest had always comforted Jenny and brought peace of mind.
The looming giants this time filled her soul with dread and claustrophobia began to set in.
Those forest sentinels finally began to bow aside as the car
climbed higher and higher. Snow capped mountainside hugged the two-lane road on the right. On the left was a dizzying
drop-off to the valley floor far below. Jenny continued driving on.
As they neared the summit Jenny's world became unbearably
out of focus. Distorted. Mt Rainier was not where it should be. Instead there was nothing but a confusing haze. Her life
was dissolving uncontrollably all around her, a terrifying abyss engulfing her. She had to break free. To escape. The car
was suffocating! She rolled down the window. A sharp curve - Jenny pushed the pedal hard to the floor!
The automobile vanished into a thick, ghostly fog. The
silvery bright, birthday balloon finally claimed it’s freedom, escaping out of the open window. In celebration
it floated skyward, breaking through the misty shroud to dance in the warm sunlight above.