The park was always busy around bank holidays, especially Labor Day. It also happened to be Bailey’s favorite day, something about childhood memories and warm fuzzy feelings. She wasn’t too clear on the details. In honor of those days, every year Bailey would sit below the old peach tree and watch the neighborhood families make memories. Memories that she once had. Now, all she could do was look on and try to remember those for herself.
The first year she sat at the park alone was the easiest. She was filled with so much joy and hope that she simply had to remember something. Sadly, nothing. Each year after became more disheartening.
Year after year Bailey sat with her knees to her chest and stretched the boundaries of her memory to find a detail. Anything. A name, a word, an action. Instead, all she received were the familiar squeals of children being chased by their parents and hugged around the middle when they were finally caught. After so many Labor Days, Bailey began to wonder whether that warm fuzzy feeling she had was made from actual memories or just from these watchful days.
This year, though, Bailey had a feeling something was ripe to change. The air seemed crisper, the sun warmer. The families had multiplied and grown, the children who were young once now more mature as they watched the festivities. In the distance, Bailey could see the towering cornstalks swaying in the gentle breeze. Something clicked in her brain.
She stared ahead and swore she could almost hear the stalks rustling against each other. Another click. The children in front of her screamed and splashed in the day-after-storm puddles. Corn, rustling, screaming, puddles… click.
The earth fell away from her feet, the peach tree faded from view, and the sunlight dissolved.
The squeals of children somehow remained.
“Bailey, come on! The storm’s coming!” Though the voice was shrill with fear, it gave way to a giggle that made Bailey’s eyes shoot open. There was something about it, the way it lilted at the end and fell into a shower of hiccupping breaths and staccato notes.
She sat up and breathed heavily as she took in the scene. Dark and pointed cornstalks shot up around her and darkened her view beyond. The bright blue sky on her left didn’t match the dark black clouds on her right, and the wind made the corn bend at a ninety-degree angle. But none of these things made Bailey scared or intrigued; the voice that shrieked her name was what was most concerning.
“Bailey!” The voice rang out again, not too far away. Bailey stood up and noticed immediately how the corn, though sideways, was much taller than her. The ground was closer than she remembered. Despite this discovery, Bailey took off at a sprint towards the high voice somewhere in the distance. Something about the timbre of it hitting the wind made Bailey desperate to find the source.
She pushed aside errant cornstalks until she heard loud gasps interspersed with laughing fits. Bailey wanted to call out to this stranger who knew her name, but how could she when she didn’t know their name? Desperate, Bailey yelled, “I’m here!”
“Bailey?” The laughing stopped abruptly as her name was raised.
“Yeah, right here!” Bailey gasped.
“Bailey!” The corn immediately in front of Bailey parted and revealed a teen with blonde hair, gray eyes, braces, and a pink tutu mussed with dirt and grime. “I thought you’d never wake up.” The girl’s eyes watered as she took in Bailey’s appearance. Just as Bailey was about to stammer some emergency comfort, the blonde burst out into the same laughing fit as earlier and slapped Bailey hard across the arm. “Come on, Bails, we’re gonna miss the storm watch!”
The storm watch… Before Bailey had a chance to investigate further, the girl took Bailey’s hand and began running. The girls ran against the wind, hair smacking into their faces and getting caught in their throats. It wasn’t lost on Bailey that her shoes fit perfectly in the divots engrained in the runny soil. Wasn’t lost on her that her companion who was currently pulling her arm did so with a routine in mind. The corn, the rustling, the storm. This had happened before. This was the past. Bailey was reliving a moment.
Bailey’s revelation forced her to stop short, making the girl dance on the tips of her toes before half-falling into the mud.
“Bailey, what gives?” The girl shrieked, shaking mud from her hair.
“Who are you?”
The sudden question made the blonde stop and scrutinize Bailey’s face. “Only your best friend in the whole world, silly!” Though the words were lighthearted, something in the girl’s face made Bailey think this exchange had happened before.
“Right, right. Sorry, uh—”
“Linda,” the blonde responded, saving Bailey the embarrassment. “It’s Linda.” Her face softened though Bailey could see her eyes watering.
But before Bailey could comment on Linda’s state, Linda shook her tears away and grabbed Bailey’s hand. “Come on, Bails! The storm watch!”
After a good amount of tripping and giggling past the awkward moment Bailey and Linda shared, the girls arrived at the cornfield clearing with the other children. The storm watch was about to begin.
Naïve Bailey thought the storm had already started – what with the crazy wind speeds and sideways corn – but Linda laughed when she brought it up.
“The storm doesn’t start until the winds knock us down and the rain makes this place look like a rice paddy!” Linda exclaimed, clapping her hands together. This seemed to be a routine affair considering all of the neighborhood’s children were here waiting for the storm.
“And why do we care so much about it?” Bailey had to ask. Storms were cool, she’d admit that much, but what was so special about sitting in the rain and risking a cold?
Linda’s face contorted slightly as she searched for the practiced response. “There’s not much else to care about,” she murmured, pushing a damp tendril off her cheek.
Bailey cleared her throat to respond, but a crack of thunder interrupted.
“Hush, it’s starting!” Linda pushed Bailey and opened her arms wide.
The rain poured down in buckets and droves, the wind pushing it every which way. Bailey couldn’t tell which was louder: the thunder or the screams of possibly fifty children. Looking around, she could tell that the other children followed in Linda’s example. All fifty pairs of arms spread wide and accepted the onslaught of rain. Not wanting to look out of place, Bailey bared her already-soaked torso to nature.
It was exhilarating.
Before long, Bailey found herself screaming with the others and splashing in puddles without abandon. Socks be darned, shoes be forgotten! Now was the time to live.
Bailey managed to sneak a peek at Linda once or twice. Both times the blonde was twirling and singing with a small but clear voice. Bailey only ever caught a few words over the din, but she swore she could hear the past is passed among the cacophony of voices and nature. Over and over, the lilting melody became as much a part of the scene as the storm.
By the time the storm ended, the clearing was empty save for Bailey and Linda lying in the mud. The neighborhood children had long disappeared, the rain long gone. The world was quiet for a while; the blue skies had returned and the smell of fresh rain rose up from the field around them.
After a few minutes of content silence, Bailey heard Linda turn (as evidenced by the squelching mud) and look at her. “So, what did you think, Bails?”
Bailey allowed herself a smile and a genuine laugh. “It was the best moment of my life, I think.”
Silence spread between the two of them. Luckily, Linda had the foresight to break it by saying, “You’re always so melodramatic. I thought the one last week was better.”
Bailey frowned. If she was in this young body, reliving this young memory, shouldn’t she be able to remember things like this? This conversation, the storm last week, Linda’s name? The girls seemed so close in this moment, but Bailey had no recollection of them ever bonding like this. No storm watches, no Linda in her pink tutu, no young Bailey with muddy shoes and knotted laces. Was this memory where those warm memories spawned from? Or was this just a desperate dream to remember those memories she thought she had?
Linda seemed to notice the growing and tense silence again. “What are you dreaming about, Bails?”
It was like Linda could read her mind. “Oh, uh, nothing. Just thinking.”
“About how things will never be like this again,” Bailey whispered, closing her eyes to the ironic blue sky. She could hear Linda’s sharp intake of breath before she once again traded her emotions for positivity.
Linda gently poked Bailey’s arm and smiled when Bailey looked up at her. “Come on, let’s get moving.”
As Linda stood up, leaving a Linda-sized mold in the ground, Bailey’s vision went static. She could feel Linda’s hand pulling her upwards and then, nothing. Sound became silence. No more soft cornhusk rustles, no more Linda.
Bailey woke up before her body knew how. The memory was painstakingly etched into her mindscape, each line and curve written in vibrant colors. The events were almost too blinding to recall, and yet Bailey could remember the way the mud smelled as she lay in it with Linda. The best moment of her life was long gone, so where did that leave her?
It left her with someone vigorously tugging on Bailey’s arm. She cracked open her eyes one at a time, noting a woman with curled blonde hair and intense gray eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses. Behind the woman, who was abnormally close to her face, Bailey could just make out the playground and the continued squeals of toddlers. She was back in the present.
The woman moved her head to be directly in front of Bailey’s gaze. “Are you okay? That was quite the tumble,” she said. The way the woman cocked her head in genuine concern was so confusing. How had Bailey fallen down the hill? Tripped somehow? Maybe rolled in her sleep?
She didn’t have time to question the figure, however, because she was gone by the time Bailey came to her proper senses. People were beginning to crowd around her, none of them the girl with gray eyes, and the world was beginning to crumble. She saw a flash of blonde hair disappear beyond the playground where the cornfield was, but the crowd wouldn’t let her leave so easily. Bailey stood up on unsteady feet and stumbled her way through the small mob that was forming around her. Instead of voicing her pain, she began running.
Her feet slapped the pavement in disjointed rhythm past the peach tree, the playground, and the cornfield. After a quick assessment yielded no sign of the blonde, Bailey kept running past blooming trees, cavernous sidewalks, and loud main streets. A few people stopped and watched her as she ran by, but no one confronted her. Lucky they didn’t, because Bailey might have broken someone’s nose in her hurry.
There was something terrifyingly familiar about the blonde with the gray eyes and the way she stared into Bailey’s own. There was a myriad of emotions bare in the woman’s eyes: concern, loss, confusion, disappointment. The last part was the most distressing. How could a stranger show that much negative emotion towards a random person?
Unless, that person wasn’t completely a stranger. And Bailey wasn’t some random victim.
Bailey halted in her tracks and analyzed her surroundings. She wasn’t too sure about this neighborhood – she didn’t remember running that far past the convenient mart – but the smell of musky dirt was too hard to ignore. Memories of the storm watch came rushing back. She swore she could even see a flash of blonde hair somewhere, a pink tutu not far behind. She looked across the street from where she stood and noticed the abundance of cornstalks lying dead in the field.
Sure, it was early fall, but that meant corn was ripe for the picking. There was no logical reason for the corn to be dead, not that many stalks anyway, and yet there it was: the complete and total devastation of an entire field of crop.
Even though this couldn’t possibly be the same field the storm watch happened in, the sight was enough to tip Bailey over the edge. Her tears fell down her face in streams, leaving glistening pathways around her cheekbones and down her neck. Thoughts of the blonde with gray eyes disappeared in light of the cornfield graveyard. Time passed in minutes and possibly hours before Bailey decided to start walking home, wherever that might be.
Before she left the scene, Bailey took one last look at the expansive cornfield. She noted the browned husks and dried out stalks. She processed the muddy puddles in random spots around the field from the previous day’s storm. She let herself remember this moment and others before it, when things were simpler and she knew people like Linda.
As she made the move to walk away, she didn’t notice the lone stalk alive and well to the far left of the field. She didn’t process the way it swayed and glowed with fresh color. She didn’t let herself see the woman with curled blonde hair and tortoiseshell glasses sitting beneath it with a notebook in her lap.
Bailey walked away from the field with her heart heavy and her gaze glued to the pavement. She didn’t hear the sound of the notebook closing, the pen clicking, or the soft rustling of the corn stalk as the blonde woman stood up and brushed its side. Bailey would remember this moment—the corn, the death of a memory, and even the blonde with gray eyes—but only because she didn’t bother to look.
Featured image: Summer: Young September’s Cornfield (1954) by Alan Reynolds