The two of them sat in the corner booth of the restaurant with the beautiful sunset splashing through the window onto their faces. Nona studied it with a slight smile. It reminded her of summer days when she was little, when she and her father would sit on the back steps after supper and watch the sun go down. She would curl up in his lap as he stroked her hair, and she felt safe and loved. This was, of course, Before.
“Beautiful, isn't it?” her mother said now, looking out the window of the restaurant.
Nona nodded. She lifted her wineglass to the light and studied the amber liquid. She was under-aged, only fifteen in fact, but her mother always let her have a little wine at dinner. She believed that the easiest way to prevent a person from abusing alcohol is to give them free access to it. Nona tipped her head back and drank. The wine sparkled on her tongue like the sunset on her eyes, and the taste was very good.
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.
Her mother, who knew nothing, smiled. She’d been smiling a lot lately, consumed over this vacation thing. Nona hadn't seen her look so happy, in fact, since Dad became an epilogue, an afterthought, a postscript.
Oh, Mom, I'm sorry.
A lock of dark hair fell in Nona’s face as she leaned over for another forkful of cake. She didn't bother to push it back. Nona's hair was very greasy, dangling limply down to the middle of her back. Her scalp itched constantly, but she didn't care much. She hadn't washed her hair in a week. Now that it was so heavy it didn't need any curling or hair-spraying or even brushing. It was almost cemented into place in the mornings, which saved a lot of effort on her part. Nona was very concerned with efficiency because these days it took a tremendous amount of energy for even the simplest tasks: things like changing her socks, making her bed.
But maybe she would wash her hair tonight. Maybe she had reason to be cheerful now. Anticipation.
“Are you excited about the falls, Nona?” her mother asked, still smiling, bright-eyed. So happily unaware. Ignorance truly was bliss. "I know I am. I mean, it's one of the greatest things you can see in nature. It'll be beautiful, Nona.”
“I am excited,” Nona mumbled through a mouthful of cake. Her mother had looked at her oddly when she ordered desert first, but had acquiesced. Life was uncertain, except for Nona’s own.
She had planned it so beautifully. She'd written the note back at the hotel and put it in her suitcase. It had taken a lot of work, writing that note, explaining everything but making sure her mother would feel no blame. She had signed her name with a flourish. Nona had also read a book about Niagara Falls and was assured her plan would work. To add weight and make her body sink faster, in the unlikely event that the fall didn’t kill her outright, she'd started filling her backpack with rocks. One stone at a time, always when her mother wasn't looking.
Her poor mother, who knew nothing. Of course, Nona’s mother was the type who deliberately did not notice anything disturbing or scary, like when her husband began to come home late every night because of “extra work at the office.” Everyone kept saying they had seen him with another woman, yet she never thought anything of it. Even when Nona found out all the details and could no longer look her father in the eye, her mother had blithely ignored it all. It was infuriating, the way she blinded herself. All the same, Nona hated to hurt her like this. But she had no choice. There was no other way, she knew this now. She, too, had been blind, all these long months. She could have committed the act a million times, in a hundred thousand ways, but she had willfully suffered. Well, she would suffer no longer.
“You’re in a good mood tonight,” her mother remarked. “Better than you’ve been in a long time. I know it’s been hard for you…” Her voice trailed off. They never spoke of what had happened; but sometimes it clouded their heads so densely that they could barely see one another.
“May I have another glass of wine, Mom?” Nona asked sweetly. What the hell. She might as well make the most of it.
Night found them both curled up in their beds, but Nona lay awake and stared at the clock. She had gotten very little sleep lately: turning off the lights at eleven to stare up into the dark, finally nodding off around three in the morning, and then waking at seven or so, unable to sleep again. She felt things more acutely now. Running across the gravel driveway at home, she could feel each individual stone right through the soles of her shoes. The last time she had fixed her hair, the comb’s teeth had caught on a tangle and it hurt so terribly much that tears came to her eyes. Emotions were sharper too. Those self-loathing voices inside her head were louder now. They constantly reminded her how worthless a person she was, a waste of human flesh. On and on they went. Well, peace and quiet tomorrow. Nona’s father had escaped his demons; she could too.
She lay in that big soft Hilton Hotel bed and watched the scarlet numbers on the digital clock. When they flashed midnight, she got up.
She went into the bathroom and found towels in a cupboard, then turned on the water in the shower. Why not wash her hair? Why not wash her body, wash off all the dirt and dust and grime that had accumulated in the days since her last bath? Why not make her body clean and fresh for a fresh start?
She stayed underneath the warm spray until it grew cold, using all of the shampoo in the little bottle and almost an entire tiny bar of soap. Then she stepped out of the stall, dripping wet, and made use of the hotel towels and blow dryer.
Soon she was dry and clean and her hair was fluffy for the first time in weeks, as she stood naked before the full-length mirror. A tall girl, slender, but well-developed, with dark hair and dark eyes and olive skin. A beautiful girl. She felt her breasts with her hands, weighing them, wondering if they would grow any larger, wondering what it would be like for someone else to touch them. She had had many opportunities. All the boys at school craved her—at least, they had before she began to let herself go, started wearing the same clothes over and over for days and so on. Outwardly, at least, Nona had been nothing at all like the voices said. Inside, she was not so sure.
None of them understood. Not her teachers, not the boys, not her former girlfriends, no one. Hair and makeup, and clothes, were not worth it anymore. Schoolwork? No. (Her mother had signed the last report card without looking at it, saving Nona the chore of having to listen to a tirade about all the C’s. She had always earned straight A’s before.) Nothing mattered anymore. It was all she could manage just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to keep hanging on from day to day. Perhaps she had delayed the act this long because she simply had not the energy for it.
She decided not to put on her old nightgown. Instead she went to her suitcase and put on the new pajamas her mother had bought her. They were soft and fuzzy and warm. Dropping into the bed again, she smiled up at the ceiling. She felt good.
Nona's mother was sound asleep in the other bed, snoring softly. She looked like a corpse lying there, her hair staining the pillow, the sheets wrapped around her like a burial shroud.
“Sorry, Mom,” Nona whispered to her, then she closed her eyes and the darkness erased her.
The falls were beautiful. Nona's mother couldn't get enough of the sight. She gripped the rail and simply stared, drinking it all in, admiring the pale rainbows dancing above the water. Though they were probably a hundred feet above the Niagara River, Nona could feel its cool spray in her face as she stood next to her mother.
The rail only came up to her waist. Perfect.
“It's beautiful, Mom!” she shouted over the noise of the water. Niagara, she had read her book, was a Native American word meaning “smoke that thunders.” The description fit perfectly. Nona couldn't actually see the falls, only huge clouds of spray like thunderheads rising from the water. Powerful, resplendent, and ultimately, chilling. There was nowhere to go but down.
Her backpack straps were cutting into her shoulders. It was very heavy with all the rocks in it. She was used to carrying a pack full of school textbooks, but this was something else entirely. Fifty pounds or more, maybe. Absently, she shifted position, trying to ease the pain. She was more concerned with the Plan than with her aching shoulders. Like her mother, she simply couldn't tear her eyes away. She was reminded of the women in Greek myths who would sit in the water and sing so beautifully, that sailors were lured to their deaths jumping off the ship to reach them.
Nona reached behind her and touched the back pocket of her jeans. The note was there, carefully folded into a neat square. It had to be delivered correctly, or the Plan would fail. Her idea was to hand it to a bystander—any of the sixty or so people standing nearby would do—and then go for it. Quiet at last. Paradise tonight!
You don't have to hold on anymore, Nona told herself. You know what to do. In a few minutes it'll be all over. Peace and quiet at last.
“Sorry, Mom,” she murmured again, knowing her voice would be lost in the falls' roar. But she felt she had to try anyway. She reached inside her back pocket for the note, felt the paper between her fingers, and pulled it out. She unfolded it.
“Nona, look.” Her mother grabbed her arm and pointed. “See that boat? That's the Maid of the Mist.”
Nona froze in horror. She dropped the note and covered her mouth with her hand to stop herself from screaming. Her mother...
She could not do this with her mother standing next to her. She simply could not.
A thousand images filled her mind. Nona and her mother. Picking apples in the orchard at home. Swimming at their summer house on the lake. Going on these trips to places all over the country, every summer (except the year Dad left). Discussing books they both had read. Her mother, whom she loved so much, who loved her so much. She could not leave her mother as brutally as her father had. She had to spare her that, at least.
Why, if she jumped right now, her mother might dive in after her, maternal instinct, trying to save her kid without even thinking. Then they'd both drown.
Idiot, the self-loathing voices scolded. You're a coward, Nona, and you always have been. A goddamned coward and you'll never be any better. You don't have the courage. That’s why he left you. He was ashamed of his cowardly daughter.
Oh, I will, she assured them silently. Just not in front of Mom.
“Why don't we go into the gift shop?” Nona suggested in a bright false voice. There was a solution. She would pretend to follow her mother into the shop, but melt back into the crowd at the first opportunity. Wait a few minutes, then take the plunge. There would of course be a commotion, but she'd have time to get the job done.
“No, let’s stay awhile,” Nona’s mother said. She wasn’t looking at the falls anymore. Instead her eyes were directed at Nona. She looked…apprehensive. Why? She knew nothing, right?
Nona slipped her backpack off her aching shoulders and walked over to a nearby bench, trying to calm herself. You've waited fifteen years. You can wait a couple of minutes longer. Come on, now, everything's going to be just fine.
But it didn’t work, and when she lowered her head and tried to bring out the tears she had buried for so long, nothing came.
She didn't look up until she felt her mother's hand on her shoulder. Her mother's face was the color of oatmeal. She was carrying a piece of notebook paper in one shaking hand.
The note, which Nona had dropped over by the railing.
“Nona...you wrote this...”