Maya stepped away from the hole and leaned on the long-handled shovel, her gaze drawn to the cardboard box on the grass a few feet away. Livingston was in there. Maya grimaced, just thinking about it. Never bury a loved one alone, she had read somewhere. That was right, she was finding out.
The cat had only been eleven, exactly half Maya’s age. She had spotted him that morning as she peered out the front window, a still form on the road’s shoulder. She could hardly bear to look at him as she laid him in the Doc Martens boot box and headed out to the backyard to bury him, which is when things got weird. It happened right after she decided to ask the universe to help her choose a spot.
Please, she thought. The first prayer of her life.
Walking the lawn, when she reached the fence near the woods, it happened: A tug at the sleeve of her T-shirt.
She wheeled around, but no one was there.
Then, another tug.
Even in her shock and disbelief, her face slowly brightened. I understand. An urge came on to gaze at a specific patch of lawn. She rushed over and, as though on autopilot, she began to dig.
Now the hole was nearly deep enough. Maya stared down at the rich Maryland soil, sensing her mind revving. No surprise there.
She smashed the shovel tip down extra hard, feeling the source of that energy, an upset that went beyond Livingston’s sudden, catastrophic departure. She tried to be present, but the usual worries intruded. Why was she still at her mother’s house four months after graduating Towson University? Most of her friends had left Plainfield. They were traveling, moving into real cities, starting lives. And what was Maya doing? Languishing. Drifting. She had earned a degree all right, but a piece of paper didn’t do anything. A person did. And this one seemed to be clueless.
Use that energy, she thought industriously, lifting out a large shovelful of dirt, tossing it onto Muriel’s lawn.
On the next strike she left the tip stuck in the hole and grabbed the handle tightly. She swore she could feel a pulsing, as if coming up from the Earth itself, as if the soil were the skin of a living being she’d just pierced. Ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump, like a heartbeat.
Frightened, Maya yanked her hand back. Then, tenuously she ventured a touch, finding nothing but lifeless hardwood.
Yes, it’s true, she thought. I am going crazy.
She dug more. She would figure out how to live in that house without Livingston though she wasn’t sure how. Who would love her as he had? Theirs was the easiest of relationships: drama-free. Wonderful, abundant affection. Animals were so much easier than people.
Her gaze drifted out into the street in search of her mother’s Lexus. If Muriel pulled in now, well… things could get difficult. Maya could practically hear Muriel’s voice. How could you! Do you have any idea how much I pay the gardener? Unbelievable!
But she probably wouldn’t be home for some time. Muriel was working again, gracing the world of home buyers with her effervescence, throwing out spiels as she showed houses most every day right up until Happy Hour and often far beyond it, when the shelf life of her sparkliness ended.
Maya paused to catch her breath. She tied her hair into a ponytail with the scrunchie on her wrist. She lifted up her face and felt the sun’s warmth on it. She forced a smile, for no reason. People tended to like her smile, though she tended to be wary of people. Her soft, expressive face often drew interest. Her habit was to avert her eyes from people. Vulnerability hovered at the surface. A liability.
Maya stomped on the blade a final time, felt it cut into the earth.
What was this? She tapped around with the tip, probing.
Her brow furrowed, she dropped the shovel and crouched down to look. A glimmer sparkled at the bottom of the hole. As she brushed away the loose dirt, a metal surface came into view. Eagerly she scraped a gully around it, got her fingertips down under it and pulled up—and out popped a metal box.
Stunned, Maya set it on the grass in front of her. Beautiful, carved engravings covered it: the sun, moon and stars. She lifted the lid and found a leather-bound journal inside, its cover a distressed chestnut-brown. Without wasting another moment, she opened it.
“Oh, my God,” Maya said, staring wide-eyed at the first page. “This is impossible. This can’t be.”
Written on the worn, yellowed page was a single sentence that reached forward from the past as if to grab and shake her.
To Maya, with love from your father
She breathed, or tried to. Her gaze flew to the bottom of the page. “Ben Ambrose,” she read. His name, in his hand.
She flipped through the brittle pages and realized what she was holding: his story, from around the time of her birth. What had happened, why he had left.
Memories flooded in, unbidden. Maya was whisked along on the current. The years came back to her—mostly the pain, the wanting, the unfulfilled desire.
She recalled herself at age eight when she had dubbed herself the great detective, Sherleen Holmes, whose brilliant mind would figure this out. She had pored over every corner of the house in search of evidence—a page with his signature on it, a wallet, a baseball glove, anything.
And then, once, she succeeded. A photograph pressed into the pages of an old map book. A man’s eyes beckoned to her. Maya rushed to Muriel, who looked at the photo, holding it away from her as though it were radioactive. Without a word she slid it into her purse, never to be seen again. Still Maya could remember it: Muriel, and yes, Ben, sitting on a bench, the tall buildings of a city rising up behind them.
And now this! She fell back onto the grass, grinned up at the bright sky, hugging the slender volume to her chest. She would savor it. She would consume it. She would read each line a hundred times. She would read between the lines.
Just then the bench-style swing caught her eye, a few feet way. It seemed to be calling to her. No, she thought. Not yet. She placed the journal back in its box and picked up the other box, jolted back to reality by the familiar weight—nine pounds that had never been so still—and again she had to sniff back tears. One into the earth, one out of it, Maya thought. Was life like that, she wondered, an even exchange through a revolving door?
“Goodbye, love,” she said, lowering the boot box down. She covered over the hole and headed for the swing.
She climbed aboard with the journal in her hand. The rusted frame creaked in protest of each of her gentle pushes, reminding Maya of Grandpa Burke’s crusty admonitions.
Reading the first lines, she smiled. It was his handwriting. It looked much like her own, an unholy mix of cursive and printed letters, just barely legible.
Had he had as difficult a history around penmanship as she? As a child, Maya could not write a single sentence from start to finish without interference creeping in, as if her brain and hand weren’t synced up. Often she pressed the pen so hard into the page that she punched right through it. Her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Booth, had said that Maya’s papers resembled relief maps. Maya was crushed. She had been doing her best and with little help from anyone.
Now, for the first time, she viewed her labored penmanship not as a liability but as an inevitability. An inheritance—from a father.
Thrilled, she grazed her fingertips lightly across the page, savoring the little peaks and valleys.
Maya, I miss you already. And you are right in front of me. Whatever has happened or will happen, this much is true: I love you.
There is no easy way to explain why I must go. My reasons, which are—or I should say, were—compelling, cannot match the disappointment you will feel in not knowing me. It is my sincere hope that this can change.
It is early evening as I write to you in my study. My window looks out onto the farm—
Maya set the book down, her heart racing. She reached out for one of the swing’s support poles, seeking comfort in its solidity. His words, to me.
What he’d written was indeed true. This place had once been a farm. Maya loved those years and remembered them well. Summer afternoons spent ranging over the fields in search of Indian arrowheads. At night, playing tag or Capture the Flag with the neighborhood kids in the tall grasses. At dusk Maya would stare out her bedroom window, marveling at the beauty of the waning light on the rolling hills.
Then, Grandpa Burke passed away and the property went to Muriel, who sold of most of it to a condominium developer. So what if the farm had been in the Burke family for a hundred and fifty years? Muriel didn’t care. It was prime real estate situated in the beautiful woodlands of northern Baltimore County, and worth a lot. In time, the neighboring farms were sold, too, and Plainfield became a suburb, its rural past sliding away.
Muriel had had the farmhouse demolished and a tract mansion built in its place. It was “upscale.” It was “nice.” To Maya, it was cold and efficient, a usurper of the beloved past, barren of personality.
One odd thing remained from the old days, other than the swing: a small section of picket fence at the far end of the yard, like an ancient headstone beneath the braches that reached over from the woods. Why had Muriel left it? Maya didn’t know. She imagined her father gazing at it from this very swing as he wrote in his journal.
She read through a few passages in which he expressed his guilt at leaving her. Maya had strong feelings about that—feelings she would set aside for the moment. Then she came upon something interesting.
So let me get on with it. I am a researcher at the university and elsewhere, and this is where it begins. In my work, I have stumbled (and that is the right word) onto the discovery of phenomena having to do with the way change comes about. By change, I mean societal change.
As I dove further and further in, examining the data from every possible angle, seeing the results confirmed in test after test, I came to understand that what I had found was truly extraordinary. I tell you this, Maya, because you must be warned. Everyone must be warned.
A great global change is in the offing of such magnitude that every human system—nations, governments, cultures—will be transformed. Societies will be rocked and altered. Cultures will crumble. Monumental forces churn, even now as I write to you. But this is not what you may think, Maya. The change will be internal. It will come from the inside of man, not from without.
The old does not yield willingly to the new. Great discord often accompanies great change. You, dear daughter, must prepare! But take heart, for the storm will not last. Look beyond its violence to the nourishment of the rain, for that is its greater purpose—
Maya closed the journal, confused. She rocked for a time, trying to comprehend what she’d read. It was a lot to take in. Fantastic is what it was.
No great change had occurred in the years since he had penned those words. No “storm” had hit. One could say the world was ever-changing and dizzyingly in flux but it was pretty much the same world from day to day.
She stared at the woods, disappointed. What kind of a man would write such things? Was this how he wanted to introduce himself to his daughter? As unhinged?
Desperately she wanted to make sense of this. She had to. She swung harder, hitting her boot on the rusted iron pole.
An idea did come, finally. She sat upright. She smiled. Yes. There was validity to his predictions, for hadn’t the most incredible one just happened?
I found your journal.
He had buried it there because he knew she’d find it and read it.
But how could that be?
A car horn honked, startling her. The book almost fell from her hands. Josh’s Mustang was idling in the driveway. He waved to her.
Maya looked over at him and then back at the artifact in her hand. She felt discord, her heart continuing to race. She would tell him to go away so she could remain on the swing and take in more of this miracle—this catalog not only of her father’s life, but possibly hers, too. But then she recalled how insistent Josh had been. She had agreed to go out. She waved at him.
“Be right back!” she shouted, forcing a smile.
She placed the journal back in the box and took it with her and dashed for the house. In her room, she slid it far under her bed, sending dust balls dancing on the hardwood floor.
Standing at her bathroom sink, Maya scrubbed the dirt smudges and tear stains from her face, and ran a comb through her hair, pleased to be looking at an attractive young woman who had kept her tan through the Indian summer.
She grabbed her jean jacket from the back of the chair and started for the door but then stopped, bent down low and peered under the bed.
“Later, Dad,” she whispered, noting the strange feel of that word on her lips.