by M. E. Owen
I’m the one you see every day for lunch. I’m the one with my hair in a kerchief, standing in fragrant steam as I ladle chili. Or slicing the stale pies collected before dawn from the big chain groceries. Or putting an extra yeast roll on your plate because you’re far too thin.
I’m the one that looks like she should be driving around the tony neighborhoods of Seattle’s Eastside in a mom-mobile, taking the kids to soccer practice, or ballet or karate. And you’re right. I should. And I will, when I get home. But for now, the mom-mobile is parked behind the loading dock, next to the Mission’s battered van, because for now, I’m ladling soup.
The back of the mom-mobile is a tangle of sports equipment. The karate bag belongs to my youngest, Matthew, who is almost thirteen. He likes karate because it’s orderly and respectful, and there are rules. He’s not at all like his older brother and sister. They’re loving, well-behaved children, don’t get me wrong, but they’ve never had the self-discipline that Matthew has, the intense focus.
So your question is what is an Eastside soccer mom doing behind the counter of a downtown Seattle soup kitchen? Maybe I did some shoplifting, a bit of upper-middle-class rebellion by petty larceny, and I’m doing my community service. Maybe I have a younger brother who lives on the streets in a far-away city, and that by helping you here, that’ll translate into someone helping him there.
Or maybe I’ve got a healthy dose of wealth guilt. Maybe I think that, by spending these fourteen hours a week here, it somehow makes it okay that I have a well-maintained yard and three healthy children and a loving husband with a good job, and you have a thin blanket with only a few holes so far, and a doorway that you can usually sleep in when it rains.
Maybe it’s one of those. But it isn’t.
I began having … let’s call them dreams, but they were no more just dreams than a bullet is just a piece of metal. They started a year ago. I dreamt of Matthew as a two-year-old. But, like many of the denizens of dreams, it was Matthew, but it was not my Matthew. Where my Matthew exploded into his world, explored, and commented on everything to the point of driving us crazy, this Matthew began to lose his vocabulary. And over the course of two months, this Matthew stopped making eye contact with anyone, including me. He stopped responding to the world. It was like he discarded it and fell into a much, much smaller place that only existed in his own head.
I saw this dream Matthew, and he was as sharp and real as my own bright, precocious son.
Over the next months I watched helplessly as the other-me fought to keep her child in the world, not to lose him. I watched as he slipped farther and farther away. I watched as her marriage strained under the pressure, as her other children began to exhibit signs of anxiety — insomnia, hypochondria, over-protectiveness of their little brother that sometimes slipped into aggression against other children.
I tried to tell my husband, tried to make him understand that these weren’t normal dreams.
“Define normal,” he said. “At least twice a week I dream of getting chopped to pieces by an axe-wielding psychopath. You’ve got it easy.”
There were other people there. People who tried to support and help other-me, who brought dinner through the church network, who were just good friends and neighbors. And they were all people who are present in my own life.
With one exception. Again and again, I saw the other-me interact with a woman that I know I have never met. This woman was a dear friend, and when I saw her, I felt an affection that I never felt for my own blood sister.
But the dreams with her in them were always hazy. I could see that she was shorter than I am, that she had cropped blonde hair, but I never really saw the rest of her face, and I never heard her voice.
She was always there, even when she wasn’t in the nightly dream. She was a part of our lives, our family. She was there as dream-Matthew turned four with no vocabulary and an aversion to social interaction.
She was there when he was formally diagnosed. “There’s nothing wrong with his brain, Mrs. Norman,” the doctor told me. “It’s more like there’s a layer of deep fog between him and the rest of the world. We have to teach him how to get through the fog to interact with us.”
She was there when the therapists and special pre-school classes began to have a positive effect.
And she was there when it all slipped back again, and stayed.
And then, six months ago, I had my last dream of this Matthew. And this time, the woman who was sister to me in all but blood spoke, and I could hear her.
We stood in my driveway, the Doug fir needles and branches from last week’s windstorm still unswept and going to stay that way. She had been over to help mulch the back part of the yard, but gotten distracted by the disaster inside the house. The church ladies brought meals, but she cleaned the toilets.
I’d been walking her to her car, but of course, we got to talking and wound up standing there as the sun lowered and the afternoon cooled and the kids played in the side yard, the older two keeping an eye on Matthew as he threw sand around in the sandbox with a cup, over and over.
It began like the other dreams with her in them, silent and hazy. I could see myself talking earnestly to her, but I could not see her face.
Then everything snapped into focus, and it was like an analog channel suddenly tuned to the perfect frequency.
I saw her face clearly for the first time, saw her green eyes and the girlish smattering of freckles on the bridge of her nose.
Her voice was very serious, and her eyes met mine with an intensity that startled me. “Do you understand?” she said in an unmistakable Philadelphia accent. “If God or an alien or the Spaghetti Monster appeared this second and said they’d fix Matthew, but that in the same instant I’d die alone in a dumpster after a decade as a homeless junkie? And nobody to mourn me or even know I existed? Do you understand, Ruth? I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
I knew she meant every word.
As the dream ended and I began to awaken, I thought of Matthew, my Matthew, and remembered the nasty virus that had scared us so badly when he was two. And I knew then that God or the alien or the Spaghetti Monster didn’t even get to finish the question.
That was the very last of those dreams. That was the last I saw of the other Matthew, the other me.
Over the next months, if I hugged my youngest son a bit too often, or squeezed him too hard, well, I think I can be forgiven.
When I’m not ladling soup at the Mission, I pursue other avenues. I come early when I can, and just walk around the downtown neighborhoods for awhile, looking. Just in case. And I’m certain I saw her a couple weeks ago. She was about a block away, leaning against one of the few big elms that are left in the small downtown park where the homeless tend to gather. I called, and tried to catch up to her, but she bolted and lost me.
But as certain as I am of her deal with God or whoever, I’m just as certain that she’ll come to this soup kitchen.
So I hope you’ll forgive me if I look more closely at you. You fit the profile — short, perhaps blonde under your filthy hat. I hope you’ll forgive me if I ask you a question that makes you glance up so I can look at your eyes and listen for an accent when you answer.
Because I know she’s here, in this city, and I know she’ll come to this kitchen. I don’t know why I’ve been given this chance to find her, and I’m not going to ask.
I’ve done the math, counted the months. She’s been out here almost ten years, and I don’t have much time left.
So if I make you uncomfortable as I try to look past the drug-induced haze, past the wall that you put up between yourself and the hard world, I’m sorry.
And when you’re not her, I hope you’ll forgive me for forgiving you.
E. Owen writes science fiction, fantasy, and crime, often in the same story. She’s appeared in Fiction River, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. You can find her at MEOwen.com