Half Full Circle
by Rhonda Gill
Rhonda Gill

Rhonda Gill lives in Southwest Virginia with her family, too many pets, and an insatiable need to write. The mountain community around her provides endless inspiration. Along with authoring two novels, Rhonda has penned numerous stories based on the antics of real citizens. All names have been changed to protect the innocent.

"Mom, they're all gone!"

The wail of my firstborn crescendos through the house from two rooms away. I set the fishbowl I'm holding back on the kitchen counter, and the betta inside it gives me a baleful look. Irie's water is filthy, and he depends on me to clean it. Although he's just a fish, I definitely sense an attitude when his needs go ignored.

"My Princess Barbie. Anastasia, Blue Skipper and Mermaid Barbie . . . all of them, just . . ." The pause as my daughter draws a breath seems pressurized, an air lock of pubescent emotion. "Gone!"

I cringe. Irie stares. He spits out a bubble and it rises quickly to the water's surface, where it bursts without a sound.

Lori walks into the kitchen behind me, announcing her presence with the sound of bunny slippers shuffling on the linoleum.

I face her, braced for a tirade.

She waves the cordless receiver at me, fingers clutched around it so tightly her cuticles turn white. "I spent my whole life collecting them, and now. . . ."

She could be mourning priceless artifacts, a warehouse of national treasures too valuable for public display. Instead, she's grieving about twelve years of Barbie, mass-produced dolls with matted hair and scars of diverse and unknown origin in the soft plastic of their legs. Yet, for Lori, twelve years is a lifetime. Each doll a touchstone. An association with innocence that, for our family, ended in divorce and disillusion.

She continues, her voice as tight as her grip on the phone. "Now they're gone, and I have nothing to show for any of it."

The whiteness in her cuticles creeps upward, toward her knuckles. I notice the sharp contrast between bloodless skin and alternating pink and purple nails, a vestige from the Hannah Montana phase that is slowly conceding ground to Good Charlotte.

The phone clatters to the kitchen counter. Lori whirls, bunny ears flapping madly against her pajama legs as she stomps through our living room toward the sofa. She flings herself down, crossing her arms beneath the ledge of her budding chest. Her blue eyes look glacial.

I follow and sit beside her, regretting my decision to let her make a phone call so close to bed time.

"They were in the storage building," she tells me, fisting her hands on top of her flannel-clad knees. "And it got robbed. Nana said all our toys are gone. The stuffed animals, Battleship and Monopoly, Matt's Tonka trucks and that big wrecker you and Dad bought him. . . ."

I watch her carefully, not sure what to say.

"And what really smacks is that the storage building got robbed during the summer, and she just now gets around to telling me that my Barbie collection is part of the stuff missing. Just now! On the phone, when I called to ask her about that fuzzy coat Mamaw bought me last year. Shoot. . . ." She interrupts herself with a sniffle and paws her nose with the back of one hand. "It's probably gone, too."

I sigh, letting the air escape carefully so I don't sound like I took a right hook to the diaphragm. Yet that's exactly how I feel, bruised and breathless, sucker-punched by the latest family drama.

"Lori." I cautiously place an arm around my daughter's shoulder. "I think Mamaw has the coat. I think she got it out of the house before everything went in storage. I'll call her tomorrow and make sure."

Lori sinks against me, her head on my chest. I hold her, marveling at the armful she's become. I remember when she weighed eight pounds and could fit entirely in the crook of my elbow.

"Know what else she told me?" She mumbles into the fabric of my sweatshirt, and I can feel the heat of her tears through the heavy material. "She told me to quit making such a big deal out of it—a bunch of dolls isn't worth crying over."

I'm silent for a long time, holding her while she weeps. I try to see this tableau from Nana's perspective, recalling that her own daughter died at thirteen and that she'll most likely bury her son before he's forty. I work at feeling sympathetic—the theft of a few Barbie dolls probably does seem insignificant to a woman whose life is steeped in loss. Still, I can't see any reason to make such a heartless remark to a child. Especially my child, who in her own right, has suffered loss on a comparable scale.

I give Lori's shoulders a squeeze and hope it's a reassuring one.

"I know those Barbies meant a lot to you," I say. "But we're going to survive this, too. Hang in there—things will come full circle eventually."

# # #

At this ungodly hour, the darkness shows no sign of relenting. Four a.m., and I am running late.

Last night, the local news called for freezing rain, and though the ground is wet from precipitation that fell while I slept, I see no ice. I've lived in Virginia since September, and winter has taught me the importance of cranking my car well before I intend to drive it. I regard it now from the safety of my front porch. It's a six-year-old Ford Escort, remarkably sure-footed on rain-slick Appalachian roads. Perched at the top of my driveway, the aging subcompact is glazed with water, glinting like a Marquis diamond under the streetlights.

My morning newspaper route includes few residential customers. I prefer to deal with businesses—convenience stores, mostly—that buy them in bulk for re-sale. It's a short route, and I'm always finished in time to be behind the wheel of a county school bus. Once I park that, I spend five hours punching keys on a cash register at the neighborhood Texaco. If my ex paid child support, maybe I could eliminate at least one job. Instead, I'll work all three and endure his mother's contempt for being such an unfit provider.

I go back in the house and take one last peek at my children. My son Matt lies buried beneath a pile of blankets on the top bunk, Lori sprawled across the entire length of the lower one. Her feet dangle from beneath the covers, bare and pale in the dim light. They are the same size as mine but pudgy and tender with youth, neither calloused nor dirt-stained on the bottom. I resist the urge to jerk on her toes the way I did when she was a baby. In those days, such a prank might have elicited a flap of her foot and a sleepy little giggle. Now, I'd probably get a mule-kick to the nose.

Silently, I pull the door shut and tiptoe away.

Outside, the night is still. Every sound muted, as if the earth spins underneath an acoustic baffle. I stop for a moment in the shadows beneath my porch roof and take a breath. My lungs spasm from the cold. I exhale gently, watching the fog of my breath dissipate in the thin mountain air.

Only now do I see the ice. The steps are frozen. I negotiate them carefully, using both hands on the rail. It's frozen, too, with stubby, half-formed icicles hanging underneath. Across the yard, my car sits in a shallow lake, the water at least a quarter of an inch deep. It ripples and shimmers as it flows slowly down the paved hill of my driveway. At the road, it makes a turn at the ditch and disappears into a culvert I can barely see from where I stand.

I curse my choice of shoes. Sneakers—good traction, but they offer little protection against the elements. My feet will be soaked by the time I get to the car. Dreading the chill of ice-cold water seeping through their canvas uppers, I put one of them gingerly on the ground in front of the steps and let go of the rail.

My rump hits the bottom step with so much force my teeth clack together. I bounce off it and land in the water, only it's not water—it's a solid lake of ice. Both my hands fly out to break my fall and my purse goes sailing. I hear its contents clatter as they rain down on the frozen ground. Now I'm sliding, picking up speed as I hurtle toward the front wheels of my car, grabbing for any hold I can get on the ice. Its surface is rippled and still looks fluid, but it doesn't yield to either my weight or my desperate fingers. Faster and faster I spin, the denim of my jeans offering little protection against the temperature. Finally my back slams into the car. I reach behind me and hold tight to one wheel, my legs splayed out in front of me with all the ungainliness of roadkill.

Freezing rain . . . suddenly I understand what that means. I berate myself for being so foolish.

Born and raised in the Deep South, I'd believed freezing rain to be extraordinarily cold precipitation, a phenomenon less noteworthy than sleet. Now I know my enemy—rain that freezes instantly, freezes in motion—rain that turns to ice so quickly it doesn't lose the appearance of liquid. Rain that turns my driveway into a sheet of ice with all the traction of a professional hockey rink.

I gaze at the front porch, estimate the distance to be twenty feet, and wonder if I can crawl that far.

It might as well be Pluto, as far away as it looks.

# # #

I sit on the sofa holding a Ziploc baggie full of ice cubes. It's wrapped in a towel, but too cold to press directly against my bruised cheek. It makes my teeth hurt, and numbs my skin to the point I worry about frostbite.

A noise in the hallway gets my attention. My son stumbles from his bedroom, eyes puffy and blond hair sticking straight out from his head.

He stops walking and squints at me. "What are you doing home?"

Matt is ten, not yet capable of adult sensitivity or tact. I disregard the bluntness of his question and, for the moment, the question itself. "Geez, kid . . . did you sleep in that hair?"

He scowls, but before he can fire back a retort, he notices the sight outside our window. "Wow," he says, his eyes growing wide.

For all the damage it did to me, the ice has transformed our yard into a crystal wonderland. It glitters and twinkles beneath the morning sun, weights the willowy branches of our birch tree until they bow and scrape the ground. A faint dusting of snow has turned the landscape white. Too bad it didn't fall before my four a.m. excursion, tipping me off to a foe sneakier than rain.

"Wow, what?"

I turn toward the voice. Lori stands in the hallway.

"It's like a giant snow globe outside." Matt presses his nose against the window. "And somebody just shook it up."

The snow falls in earnest now. Flakes as big as dimes, so many that they bump into each other and swirl in crazy patterns on their way to the ground. I stare out the window with my children, unable to recall the last place I saw our snow shovel.

"School got cancelled?" Lori turns the statement into a question.

I nod.

"Cool." Barely suppressing a grin, Matt scampers into the bathroom and shuts the door a little harder than necessary.

Lori pads to the sofa and sits beside me. She points to my face. "What did you do?"

"I fell down the steps." Not a lie. There's just no need to tell the whole story.

She nods with a slight frown, but a moment later she looks away. It's obvious her thoughts have moved on.

"You know what makes me mad?" she asks, her expression as cold as freezing rain.

Clearly a prompt. So I respond. "No—what makes you mad?"

"Last year I asked Dad to let me get my Barbies out of storage. I wanted to bring them here so I could play with them, and he wouldn't let me. So I guess, in a way, he's the one who stole them."

I don't want to foster resentment between my children and their father no matter how much I resent him myself. But there is no way to justify what he has done. To do so would be untruthful. And I won't spin fairy tales just for the sake of pretending their father is worthy of their respect. So I say nothing.

"Nana told me she's going to get a lawyer."

I blink. I can't imagine why Nana would hire a lawyer to rescue stolen Barbies when she told Lori they're not worth crying about.

"She said she's going to take us away from you, because you can't afford us. You work all the time and leave us here by ourselves too much. She says neither you or Daddy has any business raising us."

Rage, sneaky as ice in the predawn darkness, ambushes me. I feel tendrils of it snake around my heart, rise in my throat.

The kids spent last summer in Georgia. They went down to satisfy the divorce decree. It was their Dad's turn for visitation, but apparently he missed the point. He left them with his mother while he moved into an apartment near his best source of oxycodone.

So yes, Nana did have them all summer, but she had them by default. She likes to think the kids chose to stay with her, and believes they would be better off if the arrangement became permanent.

I know better.

In June, Lori started her period. She said nothing to Nana about it. Yet she immediately made a long-distance call to confide in me.

Eventually Papa noticed an open box of pads in the hall closet and confronted Lori. Just as any twelve-year-old girl would have been, Lori was mortified. Yet Nana never made the connection—these children do not trust her with the sensitive details of their lives. They love her, but love and trust are not a package deal.

I swallow my impulse to voice an uncensored opinion of Nana. No matter how badly I want to react, this is not the time for self-indulgence.

"Do you think you'd like living with Nana?" I ask.

Lori shakes her head. "She can't really take us away, can she?"

I don't know. So I just smile, and keep my answer simple. "No. She can't."

Lori sighs and pushes herself to her feet. "Good."

She disappears into the bedroom, and a few minutes later I hear the tinny strains of Good Charlotte coming from her earbuds.

# # #

Irie swims to the front of his bowl and flares his gills at me. Then, with a flick of the extravagant, iridescent white fins for which I named him, he glides behind the stalk of his floating bunch plant and pouts.

I study his behavior, trying to figure out why he is upset. I fed him earlier and he ate well. So he's not hungry. His bubble nest is huge and frothy, clustered at the front edge of the bowl. That supposedly means he is happy and, according to some betta experts, ready to find a female betta and make little bettas.

But the water is cloudier than it was yesterday, and particles of fish poop are suspended in a silty layer above the gravel. Irie is mad because his bowl is still dirty. I'd bet real money on that.

I keep a gallon of water seasoning in a jug on the counter, so I drop the prescribed amount of StressCoat in it and swish it from side to side. While the mix settles, I pick up his fishbowl and start dumping dirty water into the kitchen sink, careful to keep Irie from pouring out with it.

My Mom lost a betta down the drain once, so I'm extra cautious. I envision Irie being sucked through the pipes and into the city sewer, his elegant fins battered and filthy from the muck. I stop pouring water and hunt the drain plug.

Irie is a survivor of extreme neglect. I found him languishing on a shelf at Wal-Mart, floating on his side in less than a half-inch of slimy water. His cup had been shoved behind those of a dozen brighter and more active fish. He is nearly an albino, and people buy bettas for their color. Ignored for days, he had gone without food, fresh water, or tending of any kind. Had I not taken pity on him, I'm convinced he would have died within hours.

I pick up his bowl and continue dumping water, holding it with one hand while I try with the other to corner him in a Dixie Cup. He's a wily little creature, beaching himself on the rocks to avoid capture. He flips and flops and launches himself in the air, nearly landing in the cup by himself. Surprised, I flinch.

And lose my grip on the fishbowl.

It slips through my fingers in an agonizing, protracted tumble to the edge of the countertop. I grab and, for an instant, juggle the fishbowl like a ball. Water sloshes and spills down the front of my shirt. Gravel scatters and the bunch plant lands on the linoleum with a splat. The wet bowl is as slippery as ice, and I have no more luck with it than I did with the freezing rain. It hits the floor with a tinkle and a crash, and Irie lands beside it in a hail of glass shards.

For a moment I stand frozen, petrified with shock. Then I scramble to save him, squatting with the intention of scooping him up in my hands. He wiggles helplessly, fins stuck to linoleum, broken glass littering his scales. His translucent eyes roll wildly and he gulps the air, able to breathe because nature designed his species with lungs, but suffering just the same.

Feet appear beside me, inches from the glass shards. Painted toenails, alternating pink and purple. I hear water running from the faucet, and there is a deluge in front of me as a cupful of it gets dumped over my hands and onto Irie's pitiful body. The force of it washes most of the glass away from him and loosens his fins from the floor. I peel him up and cradle him in my palms.

"Here, Mom . . . put him in here."

The jug of conditioned water is thrust in front of me and I dump him into it. He does a headfirst spiral toward the bottom, but halfway down he rights himself. He flares his fins and, to my disbelief, shakes himself like a dog.

Then my breath catches in my throat. The water is tinged with red.

"Oh, no!" I grab the jug and try to examine him, tilting it this way and that, searching for a cut that, judging by the amount of blood, must have nearly severed him in half.

"Mom, you're bleeding."

I look down and realize the blood is coming from me, not Irie. The index finger of my right hand sports a gash so deep I think it might require a stitch.

"Oh, no." I set the jug down and try to staunch the flow.

Lori grabs my wrist and sticks my hand over the sink. She turns the water on and washes the blood from my fingers.

"Hold still," she says. "I'll get you a Band-Aid."

While she's gone, Matt tiptoes into the kitchen and stares at the mess. Without a word, he grabs the broom and starts sweeping the glass into a pile. He dumps the larger pieces in the trash and chases the smaller ones around with the dustpan.

Lori comes back, and she has brought peroxide. She pours it over my finger and we watch in silence as pink bubbles boil from the cut.

"Real slick, Mom." She rinses my blood from her hands and dries them on a towel. "Cut your finger all the way off next time. Then I'll have a neat story to tell everybody at school."

I can't reply. I'm busy watching her wrap the Band-Aid around my finger, trying not to bawl in gratitude.

Matt has cleared the floor of glass shards, and now he nudges me aside so he can wet a towel in the sink. He mops up any glass particles that might be too small to see, matter-of-factly cleaning away spatters of my blood as he goes.

# # #

Footsteps on the porch steal my attention once again from Irie and, as expected, he gets an attitude. He swims to the back of his new bowl and turns his tail to me.

My children burst into the house, slinging snowflakes all over the carpet. I tense, but quickly remind myself that snow is nothing but plain water in a different form.

"Mom, you gotta come see our snowman!"

"He looks just like Frosty!"

"We made snow angels in the driveway!"

"Mine's bigger!"

"Shut up, stupid. Mine's bigger because I'm bigger!"

Lori's blue eyes are lit up like twin gas flames, hot enough to melt all the ice in her expression.

Matt takes off his gloves and heads for the bathroom. Over the sound of his pee hitting the water, I hear him singing the words to a Good Charlotte song.

Unexpectedly, Lori turns and stares at me with a thoughtful expression. "You told me yesterday that things will come full circle eventually."

I nod. "Yes, I did."

"Well, I'm not sure I want them to."

Not sure what she means, I just look at her.

"Think about it, Mom—full circle is all the way around. Three-hundred-and-sixty degrees. You end up right back where you started."

"Okay," I agree cautiously, not sure where she's going with the idea.

"So—wouldn't that put us right back in Georgia, with Dad? And Nana?"

Aha. I get it now. I nod, encouraging her to continue.

"But I really like it here, in Virginia. Where it's just us. Matt does, too." She tilts her head and looks at me with shrewdness far beyond what any a twelve year old should possess. "Maybe things will just come half full circle. Because that's a one-eighty—opposite of where we were when everything went wrong."

In his bowl, Irie glides to the surface and takes a big gulp of air. He works it in his mouth, forming a spit bubble of impressive proportions. After a moment, he releases it to join the other bubbles he has tediously positioned at the front of his bowl. It's an original work of art by Irie, a monument to the act of survival.

He notices me watching and flares his fins. No doubt about it—I am convinced he is proud.

"Come see my snow angel," Lori says, grabbing my hand. "It really is bigger."

I smile at Irie and follow Lori outside into the snow.

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