Proxy: Chapter Five

Chapter Five

I wish I could say that I had seen it coming, that I noticed the signs. But that would be a lie. It's a lie that I want to tell more than anything, but I know that I couldn't bear the weight of it.

The rest of the week went on smoothly for me, at least. The kids seemed to really like me, or at least not mind me. I liked them, I was sure of that. I had glitter and glue all over me, I left trails of it everywhere I went, but I didn't mind. I was good at this, and I savored the feeling. One of the second graders gave me a friendship bracelet. I only hesitated for a moment before I figured out what I was supposed to do. I handed her the bracelet that I had made to demonstrate the friendship bracelet craft to the kids, and she laughed with delight as I tied it on her wrist. Her name was Addison. I don't know why I remember that.

It was all going so well for me, but the documents that I have found indicate that this was when the trouble first began for Sheena. This was when she began to feel sick at night, hardly able to sleep through the long summer nights. This wasn't something that I observed. It all flew so far below my own radar. Maybe I noticed that she seemed exhausted in the morning, but it didn't make enough of an impression to stay.

I do remember what happened on Friday. Everyone who was there does. Even some of the people who weren't there remember it.

We came to the church early in the afternoon to help get ready for the big concert that closed out VBS for the year. The sanctuary needed to be transformed into the magical, sparkling city under the sea before the kids arrived, and Sheena and I had happily volunteered. The back of our van was piled high with blue and silver streamers after an emergency run to the party store. I was already planning my strategy for getting the decorations up and building the beautiful underwater city that the kids had been looking forward to all week.

Sheena pulled the car into the church parking lot and I unbuckled my seatbelt, already scrambling to get out of the car and start unloading. But my car door was locked. I looked over to Sheena, about to ask her why my door was locked, but the question died on my lips. She was still in her seat, hands gripping the wheel so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. I noticed for the first time that there were dark circles of exhaustion under her eyes, almost the color of half faded bruises.

She stared out at the road, but her eyes weren't tracking the cars that passed by. They were just staring without blinking, almost as if they didn't really see. I decided to call her name. "Sheena?"

"Sometimes, I don't feel like myself. Like I'm not really here. Like I'm watching from the bottom of a well while everything else happens. I can come back, usually, but it gets harder every time. Maybe someday I won't come back."

What she was saying was nonsense, but it scared me. Maybe I understood on some level, if it scared me that much. I said her name again, but my voice shook. "Sheena?"

She blinked rapidly, then turned to me, rubbing at her eyes. "Sorry, Corinne. I didn't sleep much last night. Bad dreams, I guess. We better haul all this stuff in. We got a city to build."

"Okay, yeah. Yeah. Let's go," I said, already clambering out of the car, practically running around to the trunk. I watched Sheena closely for the rest of the night, but she acted mostly like herself. The other volunteers noticed how tired she looked, and they asked her if she was okay, if she felt all right, but she waved them off effortlessly-- "I'm fine, really, I just didn't sleep very well last night. Dinner didn't agree with me, I guess! We're still on for some ice cream at the end of the night, though, right?"

She said it so often that I think she believed it. I almost believed it too.

We were almost finished turning the sanctuary into a sparkling, otherworldly wonderland when the youth pastor stepped out into the aisle. "It looks incredible in here, gals. The kids are gonna be blown away. I have one more job that I need done, though."

"What do you need, Devan?"

He held up a big silver video camera. It would look clunky and retro today, maybe even antique, but back then it was so shiny and new that I almost couldn't bear to look at it, too afraid that I would break it. Pastor Devan continued, holding it up like a prize, the way he had held up the great golden cup that would be the winning team's prize that first night. "We need someone to film the concert tonight. I've been making a movie about this year's VBS, and I've gotten most of the highlights myself, but I'll be up there tonight, so I can't film tonight. Any takers? Anyone interested in being in the director's chair tonight?"

He was wrong, of course. He was still the director, and the star too. He just wanted someone else to hold the camera and follow his cues. But if there was one thing I knew how to do, it was that. I raised my hand. He looked surprised, but he didn't tell me no. Instead, he held out the camera and showed me how to use it, even had me take a brief clip of the volunteers decorating the sanctuary and building the city. "Thank you, Corinne. You've been a big help to us this week. Have you missed being in the group with all of your friends?"

"I like helping out. Besides, I have friends here too," I said, holding up the friendship bracelet that little Addison had given me. It was a little too big for my wrist, and it never really wanted to stay in place. I had to keep on tightening it over and over again. Pastor Devan grinned and nodded approvingly. He even held up a hand for me to high five, and I obliged him, returning the smile. "Good stuff! I'll pick up the camera from you at the end of the night, then."

"Okay! I'll give it back."

"I believe you, Corinne."

After a few hours, the sanctuary was transformed completely, and I practiced with the camera by slowly pointing it around at the beautiful chaos of blue and silver and purple and green. Sheena had to come over and collect me, smiling gently. "Come on, Corinne. We've gotta go meet our kiddos." She seemed to be almost herself again, although those circles had still settled under her eyes, the bruise like colors looking older and older with no sign of healing.

That last night, I helped the kids make tiny little terrariums, homes for the little clay creatures they had made the day before. They were meant to be seahorses or hermit crabs or some other real thing, I think, but under their playful fingers they became something else entirely, things that were fantastic, sweet, and utterly unrecognizable. Addison showed me hers, and told me in a whisper that it was a mermaid, but it had to be a secret, because otherwise, they would catch her and stuff her like a caught fish, and display her over some man's mantlepiece. I told her I would keep the secret.

Sheena floated from table to table in our classroom, helping as she could. But her hands shook, and she kept spilling sand and glitter and sequins all over the tables. I gave her a piece of candy that I had stolen from one of the other stations, thinking that maybe she might have low blood sugar, like my father would get sometimes. She smiled and ate it, told me thank you. It didn't do much to stem the shaking in her hands, but I felt that I had done what I could. "Maybe you should go to the doctor on Monday?" I said, quietly, hoping that keeping my voice low would help her forget that this was not my place.

She laughed, wrinkling her nose at me. "Go to the doctor? Corinne, I can hardly get away from the doctor. It's just been a rough few days. I'll kick this in a few days. Don't worry, Corinne. You're very sweet."

The last group of kids for the week left, so we followed them to the sanctuary. I had my camera in hand and took my place in the aisle, pointing my camera around and around the crowded room. I spotted my father in the back rows with the parents, looking around impatiently for me and Sheena. I wanted to wave, but I didn't want to shake the camera and ruin the shot, so I kept at my work.

The first song of the concert was a sing along that Pastor Devan and his wife led us in, one of the new praise songs that year, the ones that bloom so bright for a season and then wither away to nothing without a trace on the brain. Then the little kids came to the front, to do a little song and dance that they'd been working on the whole week. This was another place where Sheena had volunteered-- she was up front, not onstage but in front of the kids, so the shy ones and the forgetful ones could watch her and keep doing the dance the best that they could. I hit the button to zoom in on her for a moment, then zoomed out again to capture the full picture. I found that I liked this too. It was more comfortable to experience the world with an extra layer of distance, to protect me from it. It still is.

And it's always good to have some sort of objective record. Or at least one that can pretend to be objective. I saw it all happen through the video camera's tiny screen. It went like this:

First, there's that brief close up on Sheena Leonard, who seems to be doing quite all right at this juncture, smiling and singing and dancing, dressed in her archaeologist outfit. Then the camera zooms out to capture more of the children, awkwardly smiling and and singing, just slightly out of time. In front of them, Sheena stumbles slightly, but appears to recover, still smiling. One of the children, a little boy with curly red hair, stops singing. It could be a simple cage of stage fright, but he points, and Sheena drops out of the frame entirely.

The person holding the camera runs towards her, though at this point the camera is pointed down at the carpet and swings back and forth so wildly as to be impossible to discern. Someone calls out for a doctor. The person holding the camera sets it on the ground, and the frame is full mostly of people's legs and the bottom halves of pews draped with silver fabric. At bottom right, however, Sheena's face and shoulders are seen, eyes open wide as her body shakes. A long string of saliva or vomit dribbles out of the corner of her mouth. Someone's hands reach out and turn her over onto her side, away from the camera, so that all that can be seen is her curly dark hair and the frantic shaking of her shoulders. Someone shouts again, this time to call an ambulance. Someone else is crying. It might be a child, but it is difficult to determine in the jumble of noises on the film. The motion in Sheena's body stops. The camera is shut off.

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