Milkwishes had been dead for years before Ryan realized he had forgotten her name. That was in June, when he was back at home for his mother's sixty-seventh birthday. The two of them were sitting on the stoop, talking amiably about how they really ought to do something about the weeds, when Ryan saw, by his feet, a dandelion that had turned white too early.
He plucked it, and, as he always did when he thought of dandelions, he saw a brief flash of Milkwishes — her gold-white hair, the white blotch that spilled across her pale blue eye, her lips puckered out as though for a kiss. Without thinking too much about it, he blew the seeds into the warm evening air, and then, maybe because he was at home, or because his mother was close to turning seventy, or because his father had died the winter before and nostalgia was chasing him a bit more doggedly than it had in other years, he let his mind linger for a half-second longer than he otherwise would have on that image of Milkwishes — long enough to notice, for the first time, that in his head she was now only Milkwishes, which of course was not her real name.
"Mom," he said, tossing the stem to the lawn. "What was that blonde girl called, who lived in the neighborhood when I was little?"
"Oh, lord," his mom said. "That was so long ago. I have no idea. What on Earth made you think of that?"
"Nothing, really," Ryan said. "She used to call dandelions that had gone to seed milkwishes, and I always think of her when I see them."
"That's funny," Ryan's mom said. "I remember you calling them that — all the kids did, one summer. But I didn't think anyone in particular had come up with it." Her mouth bent downward in a way that signaled to Ryan that she was about to say something clever. "I thought it was just kid slang, one of those words that used to spring up all around the neighborhood out of nowhere..."
She paused, very lightly, to give him the chance to finish her sentence. He could have, but he didn't, and so she said it for him.
That evening, Ryan took a walk by himself in the meadow behind his house. He'd told his mother he was going outside to call his girlfriend, Chloe, though Chloe had actually moved out of their shared apartment the week before. His mother had liked Chloe enough that he told himself he was doing her a kindness by waiting to tell her about the breakup until after the birthday weekend, though he knew deep down that his mother's passion for her birthday could not be spoiled by anything as insignificant as the end of yet another yearlong relationship.
Throughout Ryan's entire life, his mother's birthday had been honored with a pomp equal to his own; it was only when he was in high school that he realized that other children's parents generally allowed their own birthdays to fade into the background as those of the kids took center stage. In fact, as a very young child, Ryan had interpreted his father's decision to allow his birthday to be marked merely by the bestowal of a tie, a hurriedly made card, and an even more hurried kiss on the cheek as a quirky personality trait, of a piece with the shyness that had made him seem like a bit of an outsider at every gathering of more than two people, including their family of three.
But now the McCormicks were a two-person family, which meant that the responsibility of sufficiently celebrating his mother's birthday fell solely on Ryan's shoulders. He knew in his heart that he'd lied to her not for her own sake, but because he didn't want to see the expression of pity that would move across her face before she rearranged her features into a bright show of support. Indeed, he could imagine the face she would have made so well that it didn't even need to appear in order for him to feel irritated and oppressed by it, and so he stomped through the darkening meadow, despite the dampness that rose up around his shoes, for much longer than any actual phone call would have taken.
The sun had gone down by the time he reached the well, which he only recognized as his destination when he settled himself at the edge of its lip. Most of the evening's light was gone, but enough remained that he could tell that all of the dandelions within his reach were a glossy yellow, not yet gone to seed. The question of Milkwishes was still nagging at him — after his mother had made her clever remark, Ryan had fought the urge to tell her that she was wrong, that the word milkwishes wasn't just neighborhood slang. Milkwishes — whatever her real name was — had invented milkwishes, he was absolutely sure of that.
It occurred to him with a jolt of surprise that he'd thought about Milkwishes, if not every day, then at least every week, since he was six years old — not explicitly, exactly, but in that flash of image, the blonde girl with the scarred eye pursing her lips to blow the white puff of seeds away. He saw her face not only every time he thought about dandelions, but every time he heard the word wish, and he even had a vague but distinct memory of knocking a gallon of milk to the floor a few weeks ago, seeing the puddle of white spread across the tile, and thinking idly about telling Chloe about how a girl in the neighborhood who'd died had called dandelions milkwishes — not for any particular reason, just as something to talk about as they'd mopped the floor. The picture was a tiny fragment of his childhood that had gotten tangled up in his memory, clinging to a cluster of associations like a burr clinging to the edge of his pant leg, traveling with him, unnoticed, all the way to adulthood, when so many of the things he'd tried to take with him had been lost.
"He found himself thinking about another piece of the memory — a girl in the neighborhood who died."
He tugged up a dandelion and rubbed it between his fingers, crushing it to release its sour scent. Like a little poem, really, milkwishes. Wish because you wished on them, milk because they were white. A small flowering of childhood creativity that deserved to be attributed to its creator, not dismissed casually as nobody's slang. Except... was he absolutely sure he hadn't gotten mixed up somewhere on the long journey from childhood to now? If he looked more closely at the memory, wasn't it possible that he'd associated the girl he thought of as Milkwishes so strongly with the word not because she'd invented the term, but because she'd had that damaged, white-scarred eye that an adult might have once called milky, and that light hair that fell somewhere in shade between the gold of a dandelion's petals and the whiteness of its seed? And wishes — he groped for why Milkwishes might have been associated in his mind with wishes, thought he had it, and then felt it slip away. Instead, he found himself thinking about another piece of the memory — a girl in the neighborhood who died.
Not just died. Drowned. Milkwishes had drowned. Her drowning was as integral a part of the memory; he was as certain of it as if the words had been scrawled on the back of the photograph of the sunlit girl he'd been carrying around with him all this time, a picture he'd rarely bothered to flip over. But what he now realized was that, for the past twenty years, he'd never bothered to correct the vague impression, which was surely just a mixture of childhood imagination and confusion, that she'd drowned right here, in this well.
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His mother was in bed when he came inside. She was still awake and probably would be for hours — it was just past nine, and a line of light still glowed beneath her door — but he avoided talking to her this late in the evening, because—to put it bluntly — she drank herself to sleep every night, and it unnerved him, hearing the way her words sloshed around in her mouth, her emotions a little messier, a little rawer, than they were during the day. His maternal grandmother had been the exact same way, although her drink of choice had been sherry, not rum. The strain of alcoholism that ran through his family struck him as oddly innocuous, the force of it difficult to gauge. His mother, after all, demonstrated no obvious ill consequences from her nighttime drinking: she popped up energetically every morning by seven and biked off to the gym every afternoon. Similarly, his grandmother had remained mostly healthy until dying, badly, of Alzheimer's, at eighty-nine, though as her cognitive function had declined, her "bedtime" glass of sherry had arrived earlier and earlier. By the time she'd moved into assisted living, she was in the habit of passing out in her recliner before the sun went down.
"She was still awake and probably would be for hours... but he avoided talking to her this late in the evening, because — to put it bluntly — she drank herself to sleep every night, and it unnerved him, hearing the way her words sloshed around in her mouth, her emotions a little messier, a little rawer, than they were during the day."
Fully aware of the irony of pairing the action with this particular train of thought, he poured himself a stiff whiskey, enjoying the sound of the ice cubes stretching and cracking against the glass. See, there it was again — an image, tangled up in memory. He always saw a brief flash of his grandmother whenever he had a drink before bed, which meant he saw her pretty much every single night. Except that he didn't exactly see his grandmother — he saw his mother, her face blurrily superimposed on his grandmother's body, stretched out in the blue recliner, but this grandmother-mother hybrid was... corpse-y, in a way that wasn't remotely real; the figure was not dying, she was Dead, which meant the image had come almost wholly from his imagination, because his grandmother had died in a nursing home, not splayed out, drunk, in her chair.
And it seemed to him — the distinct layers of this image were peeling back much more easily than the other, no doubt because it was so much more recent — that this set of associations had been formed, at some point, by a single explicit thought: he'd poured himself a drink, and thought something bitter and dry, along the lines of: Here's to hoping the drinking gets us both before the Alzheimer's sets in. And then the next time he'd poured himself a drink, he'd remembered having that thought, and he'd remembered it again the next night, and the next, until the thought no longer took the shape of words but had been compressed into a single image, a mixture of imagination and truth so familiar that he hardly even registered its persistent flicker across his mind's eye.
So maybe Milkwishes hadn't invented milkwishes. He could have been wrong about that, just as he was definitely wrong about that eerie childhood belief that she'd drowned in their well. Belief was really too strong a word for it; it was just another set of associations, the image of the stone well set subtly in the background of his mental picture of the little girl making her wish. He'd been constantly warned away from the well when he was a kid, but only in the general way he was warned not to play with matches or get in a canoe without wearing a life jacket; the warnings had not been accompanied by the terrible urgency they surely would have carried if a child had died there. Besides, if someone had drowned on their property, surely his parents would have mentioned it in conversation at some point over the past decades; they tended to avoid uncomfortable subjects, but not to that extent.
So — invented. But if Milkwishes hadn't drowned in their well, then how had she died? And what the hell was her name? He thought — although he was straining now past the point of any real credibility — that there was some sensation of distance embedded in the memory, that maybe she'd been... on vacation... far away... at the seaside or something like that, when she'd drowned, which was why he remembered the fact of her death but nothing else, no funeral or people dressed in black or... anything, really, except the flat finality of her death.
"How could she have let something so awful get lost?"
Ryan drained the whiskey and poured himself another, even though, up until the breakup, he'd been trying to limit himself to one per night. It was strange, wasn't it, that his mother hadn't said anything about Milkwishes drowning; strange that his mother didn't remember Milkwishes's name, although you'd think the death of a child her own son's age would have been seared across her memory. Even if Milkwishes had drowned somewhere far away, his mother must have known her mother, and surely the effect of the tragedy had rippled through the neighborhood; it seemed bizarre that he himself could have forgotten Milkwishes's name, but he had an excuse, he'd been so young, four or five at most — how was it possible that something so awful could have had so little effect on his mother; how could she have let something so awful get lost?
As this last thought unspooled, he realized that he was feeling the effect of the drink; he was growing melodramatic and morbid and he ought to go to bed. But, like a child, he stubbornly defied his own exhaustion. He stayed in the living room and had drink after drink, thinking about Milkwishes — what had happened to her; what the fuck was her name — battering his head against the unshakeable wall of his childhood amnesia until he felt not only mentally but physically sore. By the time the sun rose, he was soddenly drunk and incandescently furious, aware that if he didn't get up and go to bed his mother was going to find him in a couple of hours, passed out in his father's chair, and even if he did make it upstairs to his room, it was late enough and he was drunk enough that he was guaranteed to be exhausted and hungover and unable to celebrate his mother's birthday weekend with anything like the enthusiasm she deserved. She would be obviously heartbroken about this, but she would hide her disappointment and pretend to be enjoying herself for his sake, and it made him angry that she saw him as such a child that she believed he needed to be protected even from her disappointment in him. Go to bed, Ryan, he thought to himself sternly, in his father's voice, but the admonishment had no effect on him; he'd fallen into a well of self-pity as deep as the one that Milkwishes definitely, absolutely had not drowned in: his father was dead and it was just the two of them, him and his mother and their terrible memories, and they'd spend however many birthdays she had left pretending not to be hurt by each other, sitting side by side and getting politely drunk on the stoop, watching the weeds grow and grow as they waited for the monster of forgetfulness to devour them.
His mother came downstairs in the late morning and cooked herself a birthday breakfast, filling the house with the smell of maple syrup. He woke up as soon as the pots and pans began clinking in the kitchen, but didn't open his eyes until she waved a plate of pancakes under his nose.
"Good morning, sleepyhead!" she said brightly. "I thought we could eat on the stoop, it's so pretty outside."
"Sure, Mom," he said, his head throbbing, stomach churning, sleep crusting his eyes. He helped her carry everything outside, and they settled themselves on the steps, their coffee cups beside them, their plates balanced on their laps.
"Oh!" his mom said, "I remembered, last night, before I fell asleep, the name of the little girl we were talking about yesterday. The neighbor. Her name was Margaret. Margaret Allister."
"Have you lost your mind?" Ryan said. "Margaret Allister didn't move here until I was, like, twelve years old. She isn't dead. We're friends on Facebook. She lives in Alameda."
His mother flinched at the uncalled-for harshness, but she covered it again with a smile. "Nobody died in the neighborhood! At least not anyone you played with. Claire Dougherty's son was killed in that car crash, but he was younger than you — I think you were in college by then."
"Mom," Ryan said. "I'm not talking about Claire Dougherty's son, and I'm not talking about Margaret Allister either. I'm talking about that little girl, who died when I was, like, five or something. She had really light blonde hair, and a scar on her eye from some accident, and she drowned, on vacation I think. Remember?"
"Oh, that girl!" his mother said. "Goodness, I can't believe you remember that. But no, you never knew her. You're thinking of Daddy's friend, the girl with the blonde hair and the scar. She died when he was little, drowned in a pond."
"No," Ryan said. "You're wrong. She didn't."
"You're the one who's wrong, smartypants," Ryan's mom said pertly. "It was definitely her. When you were in preschool, you were so curious about her, asking all these questions. You refused to believe that she wouldn't come back if you wished hard enough — I remember it was your birthday wish when you were five, that Daddy's friend would be alive again; you used to steal Daddy's change and make wishes on coins you threw in the well. Maybe on dandelions, too, although I don't remember that specifically. I think you thought Daddy was sadder about it than he was, or maybe you were just figuring out death. It gave us the creeps, to be honest, how much you talked about it... but then you got older, and I thought you'd forgotten about it, because you haven't mentioned it since then. My goodness, that was so long ago."
Ryan asked, quietly, "Did I ever see a picture of her? The girl who drowned?"
His mom frowned and said, "No, I don't think so? I can't imagine where you would have."
"I remember her, though. I can see her face."
"I think you must have just invented that, from what Daddy told you. The blonde hair, the scar — he always was a good storyteller, such a memory for detail! And now you feel like you remember her!"
"And do you know her name?"
"Gosh, no. Not now, if I ever did. I always thought of her as Daddy's friend, and I guess I thought you did, too. It's so funny how the mind works, isn't it?"
The question floated in the air, but he let it drift away without an answer, because he was mesmerized by his memory of Milkwishes's sun-drenched face, the milky eye, the pursed lips, the pale hair that fell around her shoulders; a face that was as real to him as anything else in his memories of childhood — and yet here he was watching it dissipate, break gently into pieces and float away into the distance, like the seeds of a dandelion carried off by the wind.
Copyright © 2020 by Kristen Roupenian. “Milkwishes" is a new, never-published addition to the forthcoming paperback version of CAT PERSON AND OTHER STORIES by Kristen Roupenian, published by Scout Press, an imprint of Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission. Pre-order the paperback, out April 14, HERE.