THE MOST TERRIBLE THING
By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Dawn was still painting the world in shadows when they arrived. It was just the two of them. They’d ridden in silence for most of the way. Turning into the lookout point’s small asphalt lot, Helen debated a moment before deciding to park in a space on the far side, as many yards from the stone ledge as possible. So early in the day—barely seven—the sun wasn’t yet up above the canyon walls across the gorge.
She wasn’t a morning person but she didn’t know any other way to do this. She wanted to observe the anniversary first thing, free from prying eyes, pay her respects in her own way and then go. And of course, it was the same hour when it had happened, if not close to the same minute and it was important to her to observe such a detail.
She was not a sentimental person, nor was she someone prone to irrational or hasty decisions. She would never call herself spiritual, which would have been an oh-too-convenient way to explain her desire to be there, one year later, at around the same time that life as she knew it came to an end. She merely felt the need to remember her sister by seeing what Ann would have witnessed in her last moments when the darkness that swirled around her sibling her entire life had finally, inexorably, claimed her.
She glanced at Dan, hunched beside her in the passenger seat, his eyes searching her face. He was trying to be solicitous but she knew he was annoyed.
“I’m fine. Let’s go. It won’t take long.”
“We can take as long as you need.”
Helen nodded, grateful. She reached behind her, picked up the bouquet from the rear seat and stepped out of the car.
“The most terrible thing has happened!”
Dan’s anguished call exactly one year ago came back to her as she stood shivering in the parking lot. Her stomach shrank as she recalled how she almost hadn’t taken the call, the number on her screen unfamiliar. Dan, breathless, sobbing, explaining he’d had to phone from the ranger’s station because he didn’t have enough bars to get a connection. Letchworth like that at times, as she’d learned over the next few months. A place where modern communication faltered even as the upstate park’s primeval beauty, the vistas of its glacial gorge—the Grand Canyon of the East!—demanded a verbal reckoning, a way to capture in words the immensity of what one was seeing.
Helen didn’t approach the ledge right away. Instead, she stayed put for a moment, hugging the bouquet to her chest as she stared across the canyon at the wooded cliffs far on the other side. The flowers that she’d gathered the day before hardly the most typical medley but perfect for the occasion. Queen Anne’s lace. Daucus carota, the wild carrot. More importantly, Ann’s favorite wildflower. Perhaps her favorite flower period. Each plant a stalk ending in a palm-sized canopy of tiny, white filigreed blooms, in the center of which always rested a single dot of red. The legend that the solitary red bloom symbolized a drop of blood spilled by Queen Anne when she pricked herself with a needle. A speck of color marring an otherwise pristine piece of handiwork. Marring—or enhancing by acknowledging an imperfect world? Helen was sure Ann would have seen it as the latter. Ann, with her struggles to escape the darkness in her life, appreciated as no one else the complicated nature of what it meant to be human. And of course the wistful joke that Ann, with no e on the end of her name but always wanting one, chose the flower that represented what she wished she were called. How she wanted her name to be. Who she wanted to be.
“What are those for?”
Dan, out of the car finally, standing beside her. Looking outdoorsy in jeans, a red flannel shirt and a newish blue North Face jacket. The March air chilly though not quite below freezing. Helen left her own jacket in the car. She wanted to feel the cold. Ann hadn’t had a jacket that day either. Had flung it off at the last second in a manifestation of her distress, according to Dan. Helen glanced over at him. What might have been, she thought. Once, her future brother-in-law. Trim, athletic, handsome—one of the few men who could pull off a beard without looking creepy or professorial, or both. Ann deeply attached to him, her first long-term love after she’d finally stabilized, a love reciprocated by Dan in spades. What made her death all the more difficult to fathom, though perhaps in the end not entirely inexplicable. Even healed, functioning well for the first time under her finely balanced regimen of meds and therapy, Ann cycled. The disturbances she experienced by the end were like faint tremors deep underground compared to the landscape-rending earthquakes of the past. But they were disturbances nonetheless. And just as destructive when hitting unawares, as they’d all learned too late.
“Just a little present,” Helen said. “For her.”
“Queen Anne’s lace,” she corrected, trying not to snap.
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“They were her favorite.”
She was surprised he didn’t know this. Or was she? “I’ve been taking comfort in them recently. Like they’re telling me something about her.”
“Weeds, telling you something?”
“They’re a flower. At least they were to her.”
“You sure you’re OK?”
She smiled at him sadly. “Yeah. I know it’s a little weird, all this.”
“It’s not weird. And it’s OK.”
“She would have appreciated you being here. I mean it.”
“I’m glad you called.”
She wasn’t sure she believed him but it didn’t really matter. She was telling the truth. It would have meant a lot to Ann to know Dan came along this morning. Helen was sure of it. It was the point she made to him when she raised the possibility a month ago. First in an email, then a text, then an actual call. Unusually persistent for her. True enough, she had her doubts at first. Why disturb him after so many months? It wasn’t like he was family despite what might have been. And he was seeing someone now, Tina, which made her wistful but also happy that he’d been able to move on. Dan and Tina. Nothing so cutesy as Dan and Ann. Ann and Dan. Perhaps for the best. A good egg, he agreed at last to join her for the impromptu, private anniversary.
The most terrible thing has happened!
How awful, everyone said afterward. The two of them on a weekend getaway. Down at the lookout for what was supposed to be a romantic, early morning peek at the sun rising over the gorge. No indication anything was wrong. No one quite sure what circuit tripped in Ann’s brain at the last second—
Helen shook her head, took a breath and walked up to the ledge. To the brink of the canyon. To the end of her world. She looked down and saw the Genesee far below, barely visible in the lightening of dawn. She followed it left where it snaked its way between the cliffs until disappearing around a bend.
“So beautiful,” she said.
“Yeah,” Dan said, coming alongside her.
“And so sad.”
He nodded without speaking and hugged himself against the chill.
To this day Helen marveled at the coincidence. At the convergence of events that led her here this morning. Here with Dan. She was so rarely in Rochester. And practically never at night. After a long day of work the idea of venturing thirty minutes into the city seemed downright daunting. Tracy accused her of becoming a little old lady decades before her time. But in truth Tracy was nearly as reluctant to exert herself after her own long hours.
But somehow, there they were, half a year later, half a year after it happened, sitting in a booth at a brew pub off Monroe Avenue with Laura and Kate on a Thursday night, reminiscing about Ann in what quickly but comfortably became a kind of unofficial wake. A chance to summon memories with fondness and even a few laughs in a way that had been impossible at the time of her death, so stricken were they with the shock and pain of it all. Two drinks in, already at her limit, Helen had excused herself to use the restroom. As she was returning to the booth, winding her way past the bar, she heard the words.
She stopped. The phrase spoken just loudly enough that it rose above the din of the restaurant. Just forcefully enough that she recognized the voice. And then there it was again, followed by laughter.
“Hey, Dan,” Helen said, locating her sister’s fiancé after a couple of moments. Ex-fiancé, she supposed. Or former fiancé, since they hadn’t broken up? Is that how you put it when death intervened? She hadn’t seen him since the funeral, although they’d traded a couple of emails related to Ann’s possessions. He was sitting at a table with several people she didn’t recognize. She saw right away he was more than a little drunk. A striking, raven-haired woman beside him was gripping his arm and whispering furiously into his ear.
“Helen,” he said, surprise flitting across his face as it quickly reddened. He stood up, swaying a little. The woman beside him reluctantly released her grip. She was really quite beautiful, Helen thought. That was Tina, she learned later. “What are you—”
“Tracy and I decided to emerge from hiding. About time.”
“I know what you mean,” he said, loudly. Helen looked at his companions. None of them, except for Tina, made eye contact.
They chatted awkwardly for a couple of minutes. She could tell he knew she knew he was drunk. It was clear he wanted to say something to her, and just as clear that Tina, eyes flashing, wished she would just let them be. Finally, words dying on their lips, Helen said she should be getting back to Tracy and Laura and Kate. There was a vague promise to meet for coffee the next time she was in the city. They hugged lightly and said goodbye.
Maybe she’d been mistaken, she thought later that night, staring out the car window at the dark fields as Tracy drove them home down the 390 expressway. With all the reminiscing they’d done that evening about Ann, was it any surprise that Helen’s over laden mind seized on random sounds in a loud and crowded restaurant and construed them into something she didn’t actually hear? Queen Anne? Why would Dan have uttered such a phrase, even drunk? And with that note of...of what? Not derision, exactly. Annoyance? Irritation? Superciliousness?
She put the incident out of her mind. They were busy, after all, she and Tracy, and life did have to go on. She might never had revisited the evening had she not in a weepy moment of weakness a couple of months later spent an evening alone—Tracy working late—trolling through some of the texts she and Ann traded in the last few weeks before her death. In the days immediately afterward, the messages had seemed nothing more than transparent conglomerations of words that reflected Ann’s voluble and at times darkly humorous personality. Now, Helen found herself scanning them for deeper meaning. Many were tried-and-true observations about their parents and their brothers. Others the usual complaints about work, on both their parts. Snarky comments about politics. If sadness tinged some of the messages, like a dab of black ink clouding a glass of spring water, it was no more or no less than the melancholy that Helen was used to in many conversations with her sister.
In the end, only one message really stood out. A text that Ann sent two weeks beforehand. A throwaway sentence following a mention of an argument she and Dan had at dinner one night. “It’s worrying how exasperated he gets with me.”
Exasperated. That was it. That was the inflection she’d heard in the words in the brew pub. Queen Anne. Or was it—Queen Ann? A drunken dig at his late, high-maintenance fiancée? Really?
Not that evening, and not the next one either, but soon afterward, Helen started opening Gmail, entering Dan’s email address instead of hers and idly testing passwords. 12345. ABCDE. “Password.” His birthday. The day he and Ann got engaged. Trying them on a lark. Just to see what would happen. Nothing did, for many days. Wrong password. Try again.
Then one day something she typed in worked.
“She liked daffodils, too.”
Helen started. “What?”
“Ann,” Dan said, standing beside her, looking across the gorge. “She liked daffodils. I mean, not just Queen Anne’s carrot. She used to like it when we saw daffodils in the neighborhood.”
“Queen Anne’s lace.”
“That’s what I meant.”
Helen wondered if what he were saying was true. She’d never heard Ann talk about daffodils, though it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Ann liked to surround herself with color as a way of warding off the darkness that too often permeated her mind. Bright scarves, pins, shoes. But she also had a thing about cultivated flowers as exploitative and unnatural, though Helen wasn’t sure where daffodils fit in that particular belief system. After all, you saw them growing on their own in pretty weird places—riding artificial knolls at highway interchanges or tucked into patches of woods that survived a new subdivision’s bulldozing.
Helen looked down at the canyon floor. As the darkness faded she could now see, far to the right, the mist rising from the waterfall that drew the most visitors to the park. Despite the majesty of the scene unfolding before them here, high above the river, the sight of the cascading falls appealed to something more elemental in people’s minds. A familiar beauty that proved irresistible. Helen counted herself in that number, although she knew Ann found the falls clichéd compared to the view of the gorge. A daffodil of predictability compared to the wildness of Queen Anne’s lace.
“I know about Tina,” Helen said.
Dan started. “What?”
She continued staring at the river, the bouquet hanging loosely in her right hand. “Tina. I just wanted you to know.”
“Yes. I told you, right? When you emailed me. About today?” Dan’s voice tight and impatient.
“No. I mean, yes, you told me. I know you’re engaged. What I’m saying is that I know about her. I know you were with her before.”
“Before Ann died.”
A short silence while they stood and listened to the breeze through the trees surrounding the parking lot, branches empty except for the slightest hint of buds.
“What are you talking about?”
Helen lifted the bouquet and stared at it sadly. Found the single red bloom in the largest of the filigreed canopies of white. “She had so much in common with these flowers. You know?”
Dan turned to look at her. She could tell he was angry. And why not, if she were being honest about it. He hadn’t really wanted to come this morning. Only at her insistence had he agreed. An insistence spooned out in anguished silences over the phone.
“She was drawn to imperfection.” She brought her finger to rest beside the red bloom. “This kind of summarized how she saw herself. That she would never be well. Completely well. No matter how she tried. There would always be a little something wrong. Something nobody could fix.”
“What did you mean just now,” Dan said. “About Tina?”
Helen sighed. “I know you were cheating on her. On Ann, I mean. I know you wanted to leave her but you didn’t know how. I know how demanding Tina was. And that the two of you discussed possibilities. Lots of possibilities.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You were right by the way. It is a weed. Queen Anne’s lace. But Ann was kind of weedy herself. Not like you.”
“What I meant before is I think she was trying to tell me something with the flower. The weed. Not consciously, I mean. But just something that I was meant to think about. That’s the only way I can describe it. Almost like she always knew, deep down, what would happen to her and that it was this simple roadside plant that would bring it all into the open one day.”
“Helen,” Dan said, and his voice was sharper now. Something dangerous in his tone. “I’m not sure what you think you know, but it’s not true.”
She sighed again. “I read your emails, Dan. And hers. Tina’s. All of them. Back and forth. Discussing options. All the different ways. I know, OK?”
“How could you have—?”
“I told you. It was the Queen Anne’s lace.” Carefully, she set the bouquet down on the ledge.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not,” she said, taking a step back to face him directly. “I’m not being ridiculous.”
“Of course you are. How could a weed—?”
“Queen Ann was your password, asshole. That’s how I know what you did. How I know what really happened that morning.”
His eyes started to widen. But she moved before he could speak, thrusting out both arms fast, the way she’d practiced, palms flat and hard as old-fashioned irons against his chest. He fell back against the ledge, lost his balance as terror gripped his face and then was gone, cart wheeling through the air with a single, long shriek. Down, down, down.
Helen stood for a moment, calming her breathing. She didn’t lower her eyes to follow his trajectory. She knew how far it was. The short article in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle after Ann’s death had helpfully included the distance. It was many hundreds of feet. Jagged boulders to meet you at the bottom once you stopped falling. Instead, she kept her eyes on the wooded cliff across the gorge where streaks of light were brushing the treetops as the spring sun finally rose. After a moment she picked the bouquet off the ledge and threw it gently over the cliff with an underhanded toss.
After another moment Helen turned and walked to her car. She started it, backed up, cut the wheel sharply and drove out of the parking lot. It took her about three minutes to drive back to the park entrance. She stopped beside the ranger’s wooden booth. She composed herself before getting out of the car. Then she willed tears into her eyes. It wasn’t hard. She had a twelve months supply. And more, if she were being honest about it. Many, many more.
She pounded hard on the door with her right fist. The ranger, a young, sleepy-looking man, opened up a second later.
“Please help,” Helen said.
“Please—the most terrible thing has happened.”
Andrew Welsh-Huggins describes himself as a “Writer, reader, and owner of too many pets.”
His short fiction has appeared in Kings River Life, Down And Out Magazine, Tough, Mystery Weekly Magazine, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
He is also the author of the Andy Hayes private eye mystery series, and editor, Columbus Noir, upcoming from Akashic Books (March, 2020).
Copyright © 2020 Andrew Welsh-Huggins. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!