Home > The Half of It

The Half of It
Author: Juliette Fay


Chapter 1





Helen sits on her favorite bench in the woods by the river, boot heels dug into the stony New England earth, body hitched forward slightly to accommodate the baby backpack. Limp, fleece-swaddled legs dangle by her hips.

Fall is in full profusion here in Belham, Massachusetts. Yellow leaves glint like gold off the surface of the water as they glide by; afternoon sun casts bright but diminishing rays that bounce against the ripples.

Helen doesn’t see the beauty. Her blank stare conjures only the wrong turns; regret is a thing with teeth. There’s movement out of the corner of her eye, and for the briefest moment she’s sure it’s an animal that will chew her to bits.

But it isn’t.

A small child—maybe two and a half or three years old—running. His little-boy legs paddle at the dirt path with the delightful inefficiency of limbs that have only recently learned to accomplish this feat of anatomical engineering. Chubby fists clench as his body concentrates on propelling him forward. Grinning to himself.

The sight of her catches him unawares and he stops smiling, eyes suddenly round in fear. His gaze is locked on hers when his foot hits a root in the path, and he spills forward onto his belly, his neck not yet strong enough to keep his lovely little face from smacking into the dirt.

Helen is up and running to him as he lets out a wail of pain, the sleeping one-year-old on her back jostling against her so that she almost falls right on top of the little boy.

“Hey,” she coos, squatting down next to him, “hey there.” She doesn’t want to touch him—children are so well-versed in stranger danger these days, and she doesn’t want to fuel his panic. But he can’t seem to lift himself out of the dirt, and still crying hard, he only manages to roll over onto his back like a baby turtle.

“Can I help you up?” she asks.

“Yessssss!” he wails and reaches up to her. She slides her hands into his little armpits and lifts him, intending only to right him onto his feet, but he clamps his arms behind her neck and wraps his legs around her waist like a baby monkey, nearly destabilizing her. She gets a better grip on him and stands up.

“Where’s your grown-up?” Helen gently wipes at the dirt on his cheeks with the sleeve of her sweatshirt.

“I runned away!” he says, and this precipitates a whole new round of sobs.

“You ran away? From who?”

“My grandpa!”

Helen immediately pictures an evil old man hitting the boy—or worse—but she warns herself against jumping to conclusions. “Why did you run away from him?” she asks mildly so as not to further inflame the situation.

“I played a triiiiick!” He wails with remorse. “Grandpaaaaa!”

“Okay, okay,” Helen croons, trying not to laugh. Her daughter, Barbara, was emotional and dramatic like this as a child, and Helen had often marveled at the girl’s ability to allow feelings (any feelings, good, bad, or indifferent—the girl could make indifference dramatic) to erupt like flames from an unpredictable volcano.

Jim was always so perplexed by Barb’s emotional outbursts, as if she were an alien species with whom, try as he might, he couldn’t quite communicate. Helen had told him countless times, “She’s young. She just feels what she feels.” And he would chuckle and say, “Apparently.” But to this day, Barb still felt what she felt. It was a wonder.

Helen pats the little boy’s back and says, “Don’t worry, we’ll find Grandpa.”

She’s just turning to head up the path when she hears a man’s voice in the distance booming, “Logan! Logan, where are you? Logan!” The panic in that voice makes Helen’s heart hurt. She’s occasionally lost track of a child and knows there is nothing more terrifying.

“He’s here!” she calls back. “Logan’s here! He’s okay!”

“I’m okay!” the little boy echoes in his high, sweet voice. “I’m okay, Grandpa!”

Helen feels the man’s thumping footsteps coming toward her before she catches sight of him rounding a turn in the path. His face is ashen with worry—either that or he has alarmingly bad circulation. His shoulders hunch forward as he jogs toward them in a strange, ungainly lope. As he gets closer, Helen sees the reason for his galumphing gait: he, too, has a baby on his back, a little pink-capped head bobbing up and down, in and out of view from the oversize pack.

“Hi, Grandpa!” Logan sings out, suddenly happy and excited, as if this is a pleasant surprise rather than a mildly traumatic event that he himself set in motion. He leaps to his grandfather’s arms before the man is quite close enough to get a good hand on him, and the guy stumbles forward, gripping the kid and pressing him into his chest a little too tightly.

His face somehow sets off a ping of memory, a long-buried familiarity, but before Helen can study it further, tears form in the man’s eyes, and his face contorts into a barely controlled sob. Helen is a bit taken aback. Jim never cried. She’s only seen men cry at funerals. Except for Barb’s father-in-law, who cried at their wedding.

“Jesus, Logan,” he chokes out. “You scared the shit out of me.”

“Dat’s a bad word,” says Logan from inside the man’s nearly smothering embrace.

“Sorry.” The man shifts the child into one arm and puts a hand up to pinch the tears out of his eyes. “Don’t tell Mommy, okay?”

“Dat’s okay. Jesus is good.”

A laugh bursts out of the man then, and he catches Helen’s eye, and they both start to laugh. Helen puts a hand up to her mouth. She wants to keep this feeling.

With his face relaxed and smiling, the memory comes clear. Cal Crosby.

Cal fucking Crosby.

With no sign of recognition, eyes still twinkling with humor, he pulls the child back to look at him. The little boy puts his hand up to his grandfather’s cheek, finger pressing on an errant tear. “Is it raining?”

“A little,” he says, though the sky is a cloudless crayon blue, “but it’ll pass.”

Helen continues to stare. How does he not recognize her? But he’s focused on Logan, and she can almost feel the ebbing panic of his pounding heart pulsing through the crisp air against her own body. Fear can blind you. She knows that.

There’s a squawk from the pink cap behind him, and he kisses the boy and attempts to lower him to the ground. But Logan isn’t having it.

“Hold me!” he begs.

“McKenzie needs her bottle, buddy.”

“My legs hurt,” he whines.

It’s Helen’s escape hatch. Let him deal with the bruised toddler and hungry baby. No one wants other adults bearing witness to the inept handling of unhappy children. Because it’s always inept. Child wrangling is rarely elegant, and by the looks of him Logan is summoning the demons of a five-alarm tantrum.

Barb and Danny had loved to throw fits in public. A two-year-old Danny once howled like he’d been hit with a hammer because Helen wouldn’t let him hold the steak knives in her shopping cart at Target. On a trip to Ben & Jerry’s, Barb had hurled her ice cream to the ground, convinced that someone had licked it (And who would that have been—the bespectacled scooper? Helen? Aliens?) and wailed for another. Sam was the gentle bookish child. He never complained on his own behalf. But he could become utterly distraught if he thought a passerby was holding a dog too tightly on its leash, and no amount of explaining about puppy training could console him.

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