She is walking along the beach. In the waves she can hear the sound of shells and below her feet the rocks are smooth, but she knows what if would feel like if they were jagged. They would feel small, each edge a piece unto itself, so that instead of one rock, two rocks, three rocks below her feet, there would be seventy, one hundred, a thousand, and all of those tiny pieces would be stonger than her flesh.
But they are smooth, and she feels nothing, picks one up and rinses it in the salty water and places it, wet, into her pocket. She used to know a boy who collected rocks, when she was a teeneager. He was seven and was in love with her in the way that seven-year-olds fall in love: quickly and passionately and without the knowledge of sex. Once, he said, while she baby-sat him and his sister, "Dance with me." And they waltzed -- did his mother teach him? -- among the chalk drawings his little sister had made in the driveway. Flowers, rainbows, enormous ants, under their feet in pale pink and yellow and blue.
She would like to give that little boy this rock. But he would be grown-up now, twenty-five, maybe with a small boy of his own. Maybe his son, maybe his daughter, would like the smooth, edgeless rock, would carry on his collection.
A cough from farther upshore. For a while, she has almost forgotten her escort. Ellen is there to make sure she doesn't drown herself, or bury her face in the sand until until all she can smell is the roundness of each grain. Would she be strong enough for that? To smother herself and not pull out at the last second, that almost-last breath so close to dying anyway, so that later she would tell the other women she lived with that she'd seen a light, she'd almost . . . .
"Why don't you put that back," Ellen says, nodding at the pocket.
"I used to have a son," she says, thinking of the boy she baby-sat, the one that loved her. Ellen nods. "His name was Adam."
"You could skip it, make a wish."
"He had brown eyes, just like his daddy." If she said it out loud, to someone who didn't know any better, did that make it true? Would they exist, so that she could find them later, when she left this place?
"Sweetheart, it's time to go back. Throw your rock down so we'll make it home for dinner." Ellen is not allowed to talk about anything personal. They both know that. In a way, she likes talking to someone who can't question or correct her. Her doctor, looking at her so hard she feels pinned to the inside of a pizza box like some kid's bug collection, says things like, "When did you live in San Diego?" and "I thought you miscarried," and, "But yesterday, you said you were married when it happend." Her doctor doesn't understand that she's not trying to tell the truth, that she doesn't even always remember the truth, although she does remember that her child had tiny fingers and was so, so small.
"You don't need that rock," Ellen says, more perturbed now, probably thinking about liability, broken windows and mirrors. But, if she holds it in her hand, if it fits, if it fills an absence, then doesn't she need it? She drops it on the ground, but when Ellen turns to leave, she snatches it back up again, curls her fingers around it.
That little boy, though. She doesn't even remember his name. The last time she baby-sat, she said, "I won't be back anymore," and he said, "But I love you," and it mattered, she cared, but not enough to stay, and she knows that the love she couldn't return then was probably the best love she'd ever receive, the purest thing to ever bounce off of her body.
At dinner, she sits next to a woman named Marlene. Marlene has beautiful skin that looks so soft that she wants to touch it, run her fingers along that smooth jawline. Marlene wouldn't say anything -- she never said anything, ever, to anybody, although she stared, and stared, and stared with melty brown eyes, pupils not too big, like some women here. Marlene's two daughters come to visit on Saturdays, and sometime she imagines what it would feel like to take one of Marlene's daughters, to grab her hand and run away from this place. She knows that it would be wrong, she understands that; but it doens't feel wrong, because Marlene has two and can't even talk to them. She knows it would be wrong, but it seems so easy and more fair.
Ellen walks by, hands pills out to the residents. They all get some sort of pills. Pills that make you sleep or calm down or get happier. It is not Ellen's job, passing out the pills, but sometimes she helps anyway. Ellen places a cup in front of her, and also in front of Marlene. The pills are red and green and yellow and taste like nothing. When Ellen turns away, she grabs Marlene's pills. Marlene won't say a word.
They fit in her hand, fill an absence.