Rella Cooper is a successful architect with a bright future. But whispers rustle in the recesses of her mind. Have parts of her past been locked away, along with trauma she has no memory of?
Maybe, I think, when you’ve waited a long time to see something, you need to find your way to it in glimpses.
—Laura Kasischke, White Bird in a Blizzard
Eastport, Colorado—July 1993
Behind the glass, her eyes remained level, hands steady at ten and two.
“. . . a big responsibility. Rella, are you hearing me?”
She blinked. Her grip relaxed to nine and three. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Delain. You were saying?”
“You’ve been absent this entire conversation.”
“I’m a little—off, is all,” Rella responded.
“Well, it’s no wonder. Lack of sleep under these circumstances, I’m sure.”
They passed a sign: HOSPITAL NEXT EXIT.
“There,” Janet Delain pointed.
Continuing up the road, they turned right, following the circuitous asphalt drive to a secluded area behind a chain of buildings, pulling into a small parking lot.
Rella stepped out into the sun. Closing her eyes, she tilted her head skyward, asking its rays to transmit enough warmth to take with her inside.
“How did it feel to be in the driver’s seat?” Janet asked, exiting the passenger side.
“Unusual,” Rella replied.
Windows gaped from the institutional brick edifice. Trees stood guard. Letters in gray stone spelled BROWER over the weighty door’s crest.
Upon entering, a sense of confinement enclosed Rella.
“Name, please,” the front desk person asked without looking up.
“We’re here to see Leah Cooper. Janet Delain, and this is her daughter, Rella Cooper.”
A loud buzz sounded, followed by a click.
“You must be excited to tell her,” Janet said cheerfully as they proceeded down the hall.
In the large common room, odors of coffee, green peas, and gravy, the powdered kind made of corn syrup solids and yeast extract, lingered suspended in the stale air. Most patients were in their pajamas, at three in the afternoon, which made Rella uncomfortable.
“Leah, darling.” Janet glided to her. “Rella and I are here.”
Sitting alone in one corner, fully dressed in a cotton shirt, light brown pants, white ankle socks, and canvas shoes, Leah made an effort to raise her head.
Rella saw the prison in her eyes and resisted turning away. She glazed on a smile, hoping it wouldn’t crack.
“Rella has something to show you,” Janet announced proudly, smoothing her tautly pinned graying hair.
Rella opened her palm and extended her arm. “I got my license today, Mom.”
The mother she knew would have brightened with joy. Instead, she sat, dulled, her expression melted like heated wax.
Rella slowly lowered her hand, eyes cast downward to her sneakers.
“Rella handled the test beautifully,” Janet reported, seating herself next to Leah.
“Our star pupil, as always.”
Rella saw her smile somewhat, the real mom still inside, trying to get out.
“You’ll be leaving here soon.” Janet straightened her knee-length skirt. “They said you will be just fine. Though, you’ve lost ten pounds, with scant to spare.”
Leah didn’t reply.
Rella stepped back from this shell of her mother. She walked over to the puzzle table. Others in the room didn’t acknowledge her.
Invisible, she moved her hands over the broken landscape.
Electroshock therapy, the doctor had called it. The way to fix her.
Rella hadn’t known she was broken.
Her mother was missing pieces. It wasn’t until many years later that Rella would become conscious of the forgotten. And that’s when her own puzzle fell apart.
Trevor Cooper walked into his elder sister’s apartment. Gray sweatshirt thrown over the back of a chair. Mismatched gloves on the floor. Yesterday’s pizza box on the couch.
“Just get here?” Morgan asked, shuffling into the room.
She pulled on the sweatshirt. “Sorry for the mess.”
“My place doesn’t look much better.”
“Third shift, fourth night in a row. Drive-through breakfast. Then on to her hospital. Visiting hours start early.”
“How is she?”
Morgan sighed. “Mostly sedated. She knows I’m there, sort of. I wonder if she really meant to, or if it was an accident.”
Trevor sat on the armrest of the couch. “I thought she had been doing pretty well. Morgan, how old were you, when Mom told you about how she grew up?”
Morgan rubbed her forehead and eyes. “I was in college. Twenty-something.”
Trevor shook his head. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I don’t think she had even meant to tell me. I’d stopped in to surprise her, take her to lunch. She was at the kitchen table, staring off. I sat down in front of her. She didn’t say anything at first. And when she started talking, it was more like she just needed to say it out loud, into the air.”
“A lot for you to carry.”
“I didn’t want to burden you. And she made me promise not to say anything to Rella. But I think now I need to.”
“Mom’s been holding this in, all her life, but there were signs she wasn’t right. Someone as traumatized as she was, there are moments when they just need to escape, and maybe this attempt was one way.” Morgan sighed. “It makes me worry for Rella.”
“What do you mean?”
“What if she tries the same thing?”
Trevor looked at her in disbelief. “What? No way. Rella is the most put-together person I know. She’d never even think about doing that. There’s no reason.”
“I know Mom doesn’t want to die. But she struggles living with the thoughts. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, reading. I wonder if something might have happened to Rella. Like what happened to Mom.”
Trevor’s heart stalled. “That’s not possible. Rella’s never said anything.”
“Mom didn’t either, all that time. Something’s always been off about Rella. I could never put my finger on it.” She pointed, as if she knew what she was aiming at.
Laguna Beach, California—September 2016
Rella leisurely strolled along the street, her long, brunette hair glistening in the sun, past colorful art galleries, surfboard rentals, and boutiques with aquamarine and turquoise jewelry.
One shop caught her eye, a mahogany barrister bookcase, rolltop desk, and antique library catalog outfitting the display window.
She climbed the stairs and pushed open the door.
“Greetings!” the shopkeeper sang.
“Good morning!” Rella returned. “Beautiful day out there.”
“Always the right temperature.” She approached Rella. “Exquisite piece, isn’t it?”
Rella lightly ran her fingertips over the bookcase, imagining what used to be held inside. “Quite.”
“Early 1900s. We offer delivery! Are you local?”
“I am now,” Rella said, smiling.
“Well, welcome to Laguna Beach. ‘A resort for all seasons,’ as they say. Where are you from?”
The room edged in. “Recent graduate,” she answered, dodging the question. “Architectural and building sciences.”
“Ah, wonderful. Diverse inventory here for all design tastes!”
“Yes, so I see. Once I’m settled, I’ll be sure to come back.”
Rella exited the shop.
She followed a curving path up along the bluffs. It had taken her eight years to finish the five-year architecture program, concurrently holding a full-time job to cover expenses. Despite the ceaseless work with little rest, the days had passed like a vacation.
Her mind embraced the challenging activity, her thin, athletic frame thrived in the sporty outdoor lifestyle, and the strange physical pains she’d suffered from for as long as she could remember had diminished a bit.
She rested her hands on the metal railing, the sparkling water reflecting in her emerald eyes. A rising breeze skirted around her crisp capri pants and bare ankles. The coastline stretched, California vast and protective at the same time. An open world charged with energy and possibilities.
She had escaped. From what, she didn’t know. But memory echoes lay sunk far offshore, where they couldn’t touch her.
Trevor splashed cold water on his face. Ran his hands several times through his hair. Pushed up the sleeves of his crewneck shirt.
He called his younger sister.
“Hey, Trev! What’s going on?”
Trevor willed an upbeat voice. “Rella! How’s sunny California? In the new house yet?”
“Got the keys a few hours ago. I still can’t believe it!”
“All your hard work—you deserve it.” Trevor paused. “I was thinking of coming and seeing your new place, check out that view. I could leave tomorrow, if that works. It’s been a long time. I miss you!”
If only he could put Rella in a parallel universe where horrible things didn’t exist.
“Yes, of course—I’d love to see you. Sorry I haven’t been back in a while.”
“It’s cool. I understand.”
Eleven years ago, he’d stood in the Denver Airport terminal as her plane flew away, heavyhearted to see her go, even though the buoyant change in her voice upon arriving in California clearly evidenced that she’d made the right decision.
“The only problem is, I still need to furnish the house.”
“No worries. I’ll find a motel close by.”
Trevor blasted the radio, flipping to any station not disbanded into static, unsuccessful at drowning out the noise in his mind.
He chugged cold coffee as he passed through Primm, Nevada, hints of motor oil and dust scenting the white paper cup. Two hours later, he reached Barstow. He strode into the gas station. Hot coffee to the right, refrigerator cases of cold beer to the left. He stayed to the right.
As dusk fell, he arrived at the address Rella had texted him.
“I’ve come to hire the best architect in the business,” Trevor announced upon entering.
“Trev! You made it!” Rella put aside the papers in her hand and rose from the couch in the first-floor foyer.
“I’ve missed you, Rella.” He gently hugged her. “Working on a Saturday?”
“Just organizing. I officially start in two weeks.”
“It worked out nicely, then, especially with the new house and all.”
Her childlike countenance lit up. Although thirty-eight, most people took Rella for ten years younger, her face locked in time.
“Except for the fact the guest room isn’t ready yet,” she continued. “Otherwise, perfect timing for you to visit!”
He was sick at the thought of contaminating her happiness.
“You look good. Been working out more?” Rella asked.
“Increasing my weights at the gym.”
“Nice. You must be tired and hungry from the drive.”
Wired from the coffee, food far from his mind, Trevor said, “Sure am.”
“I’ve explored a little and have a place in mind. Want to take one car?”
“I’ll follow you there. That way I can head to the motel afterwards.”
Trevor pulled up in his gray 1994 pickup, behind Rella’s new, sporty, powder blue convertible, a recent present to herself after she’d retired the secondhand car she’d used while in school.
“You’re all set,” the valet told him. “Car in front of you paid.”
The restaurant’s exterior terraces twinkled with rows of stringed lights.
Inside, a young hostess with chopped bleached-blonde hair in a thigh-high, sleeveless dress handed Rella a disc, as black and polished as what clung to her body. “Have a drink while you’re waiting,” she cooed with a curl of the shoulder, throwing an unabashed smile at Trevor.
“Still turning heads, I see,” Rella commented as they headed toward the bar.
“It’s the blue eyes,” Trevor said.
Once the disc buzzed, they were seated in the quieter upper patio area.
“Pretty nice place,” Trevor remarked.
“They have organic and vegan options,” Rella said, removing her navy-blue bolero blazer and folding it neatly, placing it next to her on the bench.
“Nice.” Trevor picked up the menu. “Sheesh, nine dollars for asparagus?”
“Since when do you consider ordering vegetables?” Rella said with a laugh.
“What are you getting?”
“The vegetable curry.”
“Works for me.” He folded the menu. “I’ll be right back. Going to scrub up.”
The waitress soon returned, balancing large white plates. Enticing aromas of cinnamon, cayenne, turmeric, and coriander drifted up, awakening Trevor’s deadened appetite.
“Wow, this is delicious!” he declared on the third forkful.
“See, vegan food is yummy.”
The server returned. “Here are the mazavaroo fries.”
Trevor picked one up from the basket in front of him. “So, what’s a mazavaroo fry anyway?”
“They are made with a type of African green chili.”
He popped one in his mouth. “These are terrific! You’re not going to have any?”
“Too spicy for me. I ordered them for you.”
Trevor’s attention hopped between the curry and the fries. “How’s the area? Meeting new people?”
To Rella, people were mystery side dishes, sometimes compatible, but, like mazavaroo fries, often seasoned with ingredients that burned.
“I haven’t had much time to make friends.”
“Seeing anyone?” Trevor asked, aware of the improbability. His sister was attractive, friendly, and likable, but dating and nightlife were relegated to the bottom of her list.
“No. How about you? Anyone special in your life?”
Trevor’s fork paused in midair.
“Oh, Trevor, I’m sorry. Completely insensitive to assume.”
Although several years had passed, wounds have no calendar or clock. Trevor’s heart had been broken by a girl he had intended to marry, and he hadn’t pursued a relationship since. Boyish looks and an easygoing disposition belied the fact that he was about to turn forty, and he’d regressed into an adolescent lifestyle, as worn-in and without risk as his high school team jacket.
He shook his head. “It’s fine, really.”
Unwilling to spoil the evening, he put off revealing the real reason why he’d paused—what was behind his visit.
Twenty minutes later, he put down his fork, plate clean.
“That was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.”
“I’m so glad. You had a long day on the road.” She flipped her utensil in the curry. “How are things back there?”
She’d felt obliged to ask the question.
“You know Eastport. Nothing changes.”
Trevor saw her flinch at the mention of the city’s name, as though she’d been punctured by a tack.
Rella pushed her plate away. “I’ll have to take the rest to go.”
Outside, waiting at the valet station, Trevor looked up at the sky. The stars sparkled happier and brighter in California than they did in Eastport, where their light was somber, tearful.
He wanted to give her one more night of peace.
During his drive into Orange County the day before, Trevor had noted countless communities of clean rows of neat, tightly packed houses photocopied in variations of beige. He liked this area much better. Upcycled beach shacks and cottages painted in bright mint and purple shared the hillside among extravagant residences of varying elevations.
Trevor leveled onto the drive. Unprepared for the grandness of Rella’s house, he faced the towering facade. His eyes traveled from copper-colored natural stone up soaring redwood plank walls. The black metal roof took a blunt angle toward the sky. A massive oak front door rose double overhead, waist-high ceramic blue urns overflowing with fragrant white sweet alyssum on each side. He touched his finger to the bell.
Rella opened the door wearing a big smile and shorts, hair in braids, and unclad feet. “Welcome!”
“You’re bright and chipper,” Trevor said.
“Up at five, went to the gym, ran a few errands, and started in on the house.” Rella wrinkled her nose. “I made sure to instruct them not to clean after closing. They’d use a bunch of chemicals.”
Trevor had rolled out of bed a half-hour ago. “Rella, this place is incredible.”
“Wait ‘til you see the inside!” She bounced with excitement.
“It’s huge!” Trevor exclaimed, his voice echoing. He passed a wide wrought-iron staircase, drawn to the floor-to-ceiling windows in the kitchen and great room. “This view is outstanding.” Beyond the abundant eucalyptus, palm, and cypress trees growing along the slope, the ocean waters glinted like crystals in the sun. “I guess this is what making the big bucks looks like!”
“I love what I do. It was never about the money.”
Trevor ruffled her hair. “I know. I’m sure you still shop in secondhand stores.”
She smiled. “It’s like a treasure hunt, and I feel good giving items a new home.”
“Quite contemporary a place, for you.”
“I considered that. But the floor plan and location are perfect. There’s lots of privacy, and inside it’s pretty much a blank slate. Let me show you upstairs!” She practically ran, taking two steps at a time. “Here is my room,” she said, pushing back the double doors. “And this attached area will be workspace,” Rella explained, gesturing to the side room. “Plenty large for a drafting table. I still prefer sketching the old-fashioned way.”
“A workplace next to your bedroom will keep you up.”
“Better not to let the mind rest.”
Trevor thought he saw a flicker behind her eyes. “And where’s the bathroom?” he asked.
“Down the hall.”
“Huh? A house like this without an attached bathroom?”
“I didn’t want one.” Rella left the room.
Ignoring the question, Rella led the way down the hall.
“This wing was designed to be one extended suite. Here’s the walk-in closet. All this space!” Rella squealed, pirouetting. “I can’t wait to arrange it when all my things arrive.”
“My stuff would fit here.” Trevor traced a four-by-four square with his hands in a nook of the closet.
Rella continued on. “Lastly, the bathroom.” She opened the door and stepped to the side, but not inside.
“Whoa. Is this a crime scene?” Trevor bent to excavate from the rubble.
“I’d been hoping they would have finished more by today. I’m having the tub removed and the tile replaced.”
“It’s all brand-new.”
Rella swiped the piece from his hands and flung it back into the pile, the black square cracking from the force as it landed.
Rella concluded the second-floor tour with the guest wing.
“I have a little surprise in the kitchen. Follow me!”
She practically hopped down the stairs. With a flourish, she opened the door to the refrigerator. “I love a new fridge, glistening clean, nearly empty.”
“Mine’s empty, too, but can’t say it’s clean.”
Rella withdrew the one item inside, presenting a bottle of champagne.
“Haven’t heard of this one, and I won’t attempt to pronounce it,” Trevor said.
Rella brandished two crystal flutes.
“Champagne glasses! All I ever have are plastic cups.”
“Absurd.” Nose lifted, she placed them on the countertop with a lyrical cling. “Such a delightful, crisp sound upon the stone.”
“What?” Rella said, pouring the liquid.
“Remember how you used to dress in those big old hats and wear lace gloves and serve tea?”
Note: my formatting was not held in using this box for the submission, with elements missing. I can submit the pdf if requested.