The phone lit up and buzzed her awake at 1 AM. She sat up in bed and stared at the unfamiliar number as her finger hovered over the screen. She hoped, prayed it would be her daughter Allison, but she hesitated. Late night phone calls did not carry good news. At last she touched the little handset icon and picked up the call to the sound of snuffling and fumbling on the other end.
“Allison? Where are you?”
In an unconscious imitation of other late nights waiting for her children to come home from high school football games or parties with friends, she rose and paced while she talked.
“I’m in Shreveport,” Allison said. “Can you come get me?”
“Yes! Tell me where to go,” she said as she grabbed a pen and a torn envelope from her nightstand.
She dressed in the light from her closet and considered whether to leave a note or to wake her other daughter, Marcy. She was downstairs, hunched over the kitchen counter scribbling out her explanation when Marcy padded in rubbing her eyes.
“What’s going on?” the girl asked. “Why are you up?”
“Allison called,” she answered. “I’m driving to St. Louis to pick her up. She wants to come home.”
“Tonight? Jesus, it’s the middle of the night.”
Marcy shook her head, the unspoken accusation there between them, that Allison would always need rescue while she filled the role of the dutiful daughter, the one who did not disappear for days, months on end.
“If I don’t go now,” the mother began then paused. How could she explain to her daughter that a parent’s love, that bright and shining thing, would not always measure out in equal portions, that there would always be one who needed more than another.
Marcy folded her arms across her chest, looking, with her sleep mussed hair, like the child she once was, and not the young woman who both worked full time and carried a 3.8 grade point in college. “Typical Allison. Why is there always so much drama?” Marcy said as she turned to walk out of the kitchen.
The mother remembered a time when the girls were small, three and five years old but already years apart in temperament. They spent a sunny summer afternoon touring the local public garden. Her daughters tested their independence and rejected the stroller she hauled around behind them as they skipped from one flowering plant to another. At last the younger one tired and they stopped near a fountain spraying a tempting shower of water.
Before she wrestled one child into the stroller she handed a coin to the oldest, instructing her to wait before tossing it into the water with her wish. She turned her back, a mistake that played over in dark dreams for years after. No cry alerted her, only a splash that could have come from a small hand slapping at the shallow pool surrounding the fountain. When she turned around her oldest daughter had vanished.
Her steps to the edge of the fountain stretched miles. She remembered how clear the water was, how the coins scattered on the bottom shined and flashed in the sunlight. Her daughter lay face down, her head turned to the side and her eyes wide open. Tiny bubbles flowed from her nose and broke upon the surface of the pool. The mother reached in and grabbed the back of her daughter’s shirt, hauling her small, limp body back to the surface and roughly dropping her on the rough gravel before she swept her up in a hug. The child hiccupped and coughed out a mouthful of water but never cried. The youngest, confined to the stroller and left out of the action, wailed and thrashed against the straps that held her.
Now the mother checked her phone, gathered up her purse and car keys and had grasped the doorknob to leave when Marcy walked back in the kitchen. This time she was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, her hair combed and pulled back in a brisk ponytail.
She held out her hand for the keys. “I’ll drive on the way there,” she said.
Her mother nodded and dropped the jingling keys into Marcy’s palm. This night the larger portion of love would be spent to save Allison, lifting her from whatever trouble she had found, just as love had raised Marcy from the depth of the fountain years ago.