It was back again, the only tree on her land that wouldn’t put down roots. Deborah sat forward in her rocking chair, pen scratching in her journal, eyes fixed on the section of forest framed by her bedroom window. Beyond the white expanse of snow blanketing the clearing, a looming wall of red pines hemmed the cabin in, swaying as the wind howled through the trees. When the wind lapsed, the trees fell still.
All but one.
Deborah’s pen moved lower on the page, sketching the tree’s new position. She didn’t own a camera, had never bothered to buy another after her daughter ran away from home, taking Henry’s Nikon with her. It was probably gathering dust in a pawnshop somewhere—a disgrace to her husband’s memory. With an arthritic fist, Deborah clutched the musty quilt draped over her shoulders, pulling it tighter to stave off the shivering fit that always arose when she thought of Henry. Her other hand continued sketching, clamped around the pen despite the pain in her gnarled joints. The scritch-scratching reminded her of something trying to get out.
Someone was whispering her name. Deborah cocked her head, listening as the wind whistled through the cracks in the logs. Cold air nibbled at her ankles. Closing her eyes, she muttered a prayer under her breath. When she returned her gaze to the window, the tree was closer—in the clearing now.
Deborah documented the changes, scowling. The record was for her, to aid her failing mind. She had nothing to prove, not to her nosy neighbor, Evelyn, and certainly not to the doctor Evelyn had dragged out to examine her. Armed with a
prescription pad, the hack had poked and prodded Deborah with his frigid stethoscope, tutting about the dangers of living off the grid at her age. He’d smiled as he spoke—not to Deborah but to Evelyn—about advanced stages and care homes.
But Deborah had lived alone for decades. She didn’t need the doctor’s advice or his medication. She had her faith. God would protect her, show her the way. And if God saw fit to lead Deborah into the forest, to wake her in the small hours of the night with the icy waters of the stream flowing past her knees, that was God’s business. Who was she to question His plan? The pills only dulled her senses, closing Deborah’s ears to His message. Her mind was sharper without the doctor’s prescription.
Without the pills, Deborah noticed things.
Like the tree.
She squinted through the frosted windowpane. The tree was a pale, blurry brushstroke, barely distinguishable from the snowy backdrop of the clearing. When she blinked, it shuddered like a mirage, leaping closer.
Deborah flipped to the next page. Her hand was cramping, unable to keep up. The tree was moving faster than usual. Like it was desperate to close the distance between them.
Eager to reach her.
The intensity of her focus wavered as fatigue took hold, tugging her eyelids down like window shades. The pen’s scratching slowed. Her head bobbed, then sank.
And then the well opened up below, a hungry black mouth swallowing her alive and whole, and she was plummeting down, down, down—
The pen struck the floorboards and Deborah woke, gasping. Anxiety squeezed a clammy fist around her chest. She clawed at the rocking chair’s armrests, spilling the journal from her lap. Inhaling shaky breaths, she stared up at the knots in the ceiling and waited for her racing pulse to slow, to resume its thready limping.
She couldn’t recall the last time she’d managed to drift off at a reasonable hour. Every night, the insomnia moved her bedtime back further, withholding rest, until she gave up, resigned to waiting for dawn.
On the nights when she did sleep, Henry always woke her.
Deborah rose unsteadily, shaking her head. A cup of tea would calm her nerves. Grimacing as her hips creaked out their usual complaints, she retrieved the journal from the floor. She stood up, laid the pen across the journal’s leather cover, and patted it, as if to reassure it—and the tree standing just outside her window—that she would return.
Not bothering with the lights, Deborah made her way into the kitchen. Fifty-three years she’d lived in the cabin; she could navigate it blind.
The floorboards were quiet underfoot, not squeaking and cracking like she was accustomed to. She sighed. She was losing too much weight. She was never hungry, and so she forgot to eat. The groceries from Evelyn’s weekly deliveries sat untouched, moldering, until the smell prompted Deborah to dispose of everything. But she was an adult. If she was hungry, she would remember to eat. And if she sometimes forgot? Well, then that was a problem with her appetite, not her memory.
Deborah returned to the bedroom with her cup of tea, switched on the bedside lamp, and glared at the pen lying on the floor—the pen she’d placed atop the journal. She was sure.
Although…things had been moving around on her as of late. Only yesterday, she’d found her slippers out past the stream. Her glasses strayed from room to room, hourly. And she kept losing teeth. But she no longer wasted time searching. It was a small cabin. Her missing items always turned up—in the shower, the freezer, the basement—eventually.
The leather strap was another matter. On the night after Henry’s death, and every night since, Deborah had found it laid across her pillow. She could never say how it got there, or when. The leather was worn smooth from use. The initials FJT engraved on the handle did not belong to Henry or to any member of their combined families.
But years of trials and tribulations had taught Deborah to recognize the strap as a tool, a gift from the Lord. And so, she had used it, as He instructed, in the battle for her daughter’s soul. After she—Deborah wouldn’t speak, wouldn’t even think her daughter’s name—had succumbed to the temptations of the Devil, the strap had become an unbearable reminder of Deborah’s failure. It was the punishment she deserved for believing her daughter’s lies. For letting her out of the basement, to run off into the night.
Deborah glanced over her shoulder. The strap had been moved from under the bed back onto her pillow.
As she stooped, groping for the pen, Deborah’s eyes drifted up to the window. Startled, she cried out. Hot tea sloshed over the rim of the cup, scalding her hand.
Something stared back at her through the glass. Eyes flashed like green mirrors, reflecting the light from the lamp. A pale flutter of movement tapped against the pane—too solid to be snow, too thin to be human.
Cowering, Deborah shielded her eyes with a quaking hand. When she finally mustered the courage to peek between her fingers, it was only the tree outside. Standing close enough for Deborah to make out the network of faint blue veins running beneath its smooth, skin-like bark.
November exhaled, breathing winter into the cabin. Skeletal branches scritched across the window, a sound not unlike the scratching of Deborah’s pen. A patch of fog expanded across the glass.
Deborah frowned. She wiped the glass with her fingertips, but no lines appeared in the fog. It was on the other side of the pane. The cloud diminished, shrinking.
And then a new cloud appeared, near the top of the frame. As if whatever was breathing on the window had grown weary of crouching to peek inside. Deborah shuddered. She yanked the curtains closed. She would not worry about the thing outside the window, the tree that looked less like a tree with each passing night.
She returned the pen to her journal, slapped it hard against the cover. She placed both inside the cookie tin on her nightstand and secured the lid, so they would not wander off.
She sipped her tea, made a face, and spit the tepid liquid back into her cup. A clinking sound gave her pause. Deborah dipped a finger into the tea and fished a tooth out. She added it to the cookie tin with the others, then wiggled the few remaining teeth in her gums, pondering as she probed the empty sockets between with her tongue.
No, she would not worry or call the doctor.
She would pray.
Deborah knelt before her bed. Hands clasped, she bowed her head and prayed for God to reveal his plan.
When her devotion was proven, Deborah rose from her aching knees and climbed into bed.
Listening to the squeal of branches on glass, she waited for Henry to come.
He never spoke, not when he was in her room. Not when he was seated at the foot of her bed. Not when he was crawling up over her, springs squeaking as his weight folded the mattress in two, with Deborah cradled at the center—wide awake, unable to move.
He did not utter a sound. Not when he was perched on her chest, crushing the air from her lungs, a sensation like drowning, but colder. Heavier.
Like an avalanche, burying her alive.
“Henry,” she croaked. “You’re hurting me.”
But Henry said nothing. Green fire flashed in his lidless eyes, writhing like the aurora borealis in a starless sky. Licking outwards to illuminate gaunt cheekbones, the exposed hollows of his nasal cavity, the gaping, yawning, drooling mouth that was not Henry’s, couldn’t be.
“You’re dead,” Deborah whispered, expending the last of her breath. As if it would make a difference, reminding her husband that she’d already laid him to rest—more than thirty years prior—over a hundred miles away from where he now crouched.
Owl-like, Henry tilted his head. His ear ticked past his shoulder, his collarbone, vertebrae popping as his chin took the place of his forehead.
And yet, Henry’s inverted grin said, lips peeling back from teeth like porcupine quills.
And yet, and yet…
Here I am.
Most nights, Deborah waited for the paralysis to subside. Once she was certain Henry was gone, she would creep from her bed to close and lock the front door, though Henry never needed a key to get in. When the door was locked, she would fall to the floor and pray until the light of dawn pushed the shadows back into the corners.
Waiting for the next visit, and the one after that.
Over time, Deborah had begun to doubt. She wondered whether God had abandoned her. For hours, she prayed but the Lord, like Henry, never spoke aloud. The silence was deafening.
She had never felt so alone.
But on this night, Henry took Deborah’s paralysis with him. As he lumbered down the hall, she collected the tin from her nightstand and padded barefoot after him. Fumbling with her necklace, Deborah pinched the gold crucifix between her fingers. The tiny nub of her crucified savior bit into the pad of her thumb. She was awake.
This was real, not another nightmare.
And she was so very tired of waiting.
At the front door, Henry turned—a pale, twisted tree filling the frame. He crooked a finger, beckoning for her to follow.
And so she did.
Wearing only her nightgown, Deborah cradled the tin against her chest and followed Henry out into the cold. A single trail of footprints marked their passage through the snow.
Looking back, Deborah smiled.
It seemed the Lord was carrying her after all.
If the door was locked, she would leave.
Claire approached the cabin at a slant, flexing her hands to release the nervous energy building in her chest. The cabin seemed smaller somehow, as if the harsh Minnesota winters had whittled it down in her absence. The squat structure with its slanted roof and weathered shingles appeared almost harmless now—hardly the fearsome trap she had escaped from as a teenager.
Without her mother, the cabin was little more than a box of logs waiting to be emptied and sold. Claire breathed out, hard, and climbed the four steps to the porch in a rush—
—gripped the knob and turned.
It was locked.
Claire put her back to the door and slid into a crouch. Her dark hair fell in a wavy curtain to cover her face. Tears spilled down her cheeks. The warmth of home had never felt so far away.
She’d lied to herself: the door was locked, but she couldn’t leave.
The gallery was failing; she hadn’t finished a painting in two years. Emma was working extra shifts at the hospital to support their family of four. On the rare nights when their schedules collided, they avoided each other. When they did speak, they fought.
Sighing, Claire leaned her head back. The oppressive silence of the forest was just as she recalled. No cheerful bird song to distract from the shadows creeping into her mind to darken her thoughts. Nothing but the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, the cold promise of bad memories seeking her out. She almost wished she’d relented and let Emma come along, if only so she wouldn’t have to face her childhood trauma alone. But then she remembered the promises she’d made at their last appointment with the marriage counselor—to quit drinking, open up about her feelings, share her past—and she was grateful Emma wouldn’t be there to supervise. Prying with questions.
Watching, waiting for her to backslide.
Claire rose, determined. She had come here with a purpose: Selling the cabin would help alleviate their financial stress. Once the past was behind her, she would share a few stories with Emma—the ones with their teeth pulled by time—to satisfy her wife’s need to understand.
More importantly, she would sober up here in isolation, where her family wouldn’t be punished by the symptoms of her withdrawal.
She brushed at her eyes and checked the time. Their neighbor Evelyn was due to arrive with the keys at noon. Anxiety tightened its hold. Claire stamped her feet, trying to chase the blood flow back to her frozen toes. She was forty-one-years old—not the frightened, shrinking girl who had fled from her mother’s cabin twenty-five years before but a grown woman with children of her own.
She could do this.
Just before noon, a faded green truck pulled into the clearing and parked outside the cabin next to Claire’s shiny white pickup truck. The hearty old driver climbing down from the cab selected her footing with the deliberate care of a woman who has passed the threshold of sixty with both hips intact. Eyeing Claire’s truck, she whistled and said, “She’s a beauty. Yours?”
Claire shook her head. “A rental.”
“Ah, of course.” The woman smiled, crinkling the crow’s feet around her steel gray eyes. She peered up through thick-lensed glasses and extended a hand. “You must be Claire. I’m so sorry about your mother, dear. Truly awful, her wandering off the way she did.”
Claire shook her hand, momentarily speechless.
Evelyn bobbed her head as if Claire had spoken, wiry silver curls bouncing about her round, lined face. She unlocked the front door and stepped inside.
“Let’s get some light in here, brighten up this cave,” Evelyn said, pulling the curtains back from the pair of windows facing the clearing. “Ah, much better.”
Claire remained anchored to the porch, paralyzed by the sight of the living room.
“What’s wrong,” Evelyn asked.
“Nothing, I—I just…” Claire stammered, embarrassed. Heat flared in her cheeks. “You’re sure she’s gone? My mother?”
Evelyn’s expression softened. “It’s been a year with no sign, no word. We’re persistent around these parts. We don’t give up searching if there’s any hope…”
“But they never found her body.”
Evelyn smiled, sadly. “Come inside, dear.”
She reached out a hand and Claire took it. She felt like a child as Evelyn led her over the threshold.
Once inside, her fears seemed silly. It was obvious the cabin was abandoned. Cobwebs shrouded the furniture. A thick layer of dust covered every visible surface. Walls constructed from stacked red pine logs swallowed the light from the windows. Poorly insulated cracks bred shadows. Insects scuttled into hiding as Claire’s boots thumped over the worn floorboards.
“Are you cold? Evelyn asked as she bent to examine the woodstove positioned between the living room and the kitchen. “I can get a fire going.”
“No,” Claire said. “Thank you.”
She was sweating—a combination of nerves and withdrawal. Her moist palm smeared a clean stripe through the faded green brocade of the couch facing the front windows. To the left of the couch, her father’s antique record player stood on a corner table with a collection of records housed in plastic crates underneath. There was no television. A Bible lay open on the coffee table. Claire closed it without looking. The book thumped shut, dispersing dust in a swirling cloud.
Evelyn sneezed. “This place could use a good cleaning.”
“My mother, she’d never let it get like this,” Claire said. “Not if she was in her right mind.”
“I tried, dear. Truly, I did. But your mother was stubborn as hell. When Doc diagnosed her with dementia, she chased him out with a broom. She wouldn’t even consider moving to a care home. But…” Evelyn blinked up at the ceiling. “I should have tried harder. I know that. Instead of enabling her, bringing her groceries, gas for the generator. But if I’d cut her off, she would have just gone without.”
Claire stared into the framed picture above the couch, studying the image of The Last Supper as if she might discover something new. But they were the same faces that had hung over her for sixteen years. Everything was exactly the same. It felt like a horrible injustice, that this place had persisted so effortlessly while her life in California was falling into ruin.
Claire drifted past the woodstove and the hall, moving into the kitchen. To her right, the heavy oak dining table her father had carved by hand stood with two accompanying chairs beneath a window looking out onto the porch. The refrigerator, sink, and stove stood like ancient relics on her left, separated by two shared countertops. The basement door, set in the kitchen floor, lay flush against the far wall; her eyes glanced off it, repelled. She directed her gaze to the window directly above instead: the view of the shed at the clearing’s edge.
“I’m glad you got my emails,” Evelyn said. “I’d have reached out sooner, but it took a while to find you under the new last name.”
“I got married,” Claire murmured.
“Oh? Who’s the lucky guy?”
“Gal,” Claire said. “Emma Brooks, my wife.”
“Even better,” Evelyn said. She tossed the keys on the dining table and turned to the refrigerator. The door released a sucking sigh as she pulled it open. Evelyn fell back, grimacing. “Ough, we’ll have to leave the door open, let this sucker air out. How long are you staying?”
“Just as long as it takes to clean this place up. We’re hoping to sell as soon as possible.”
The basement door was pulling at Claire’s focus like a flaming car wreck in her peripheral. Her eyes kept straying to the slot—a narrow twelve-by-three-inch opening with a swinging metal flap—and the keyhole above the doorknob. She could almost hear the deadbolt thudding home.
“Is the basement locked?” Claire asked.
“Oh, yes. But give me just a minute—”
“No, that’s okay.” Claire snatched the keys from the table before Evelyn could reach them. “I’m going to look through the bedrooms.”
Frowning, Evelyn tilted her head. Claire shied away from her scrutiny, feigning interest in the assortment of cleaning supplies and linens behind the rolling closet door in the hall.
Evelyn trailed along behind her, saying, “I’m sure you remember the well’s around back. The pump is a bit rusty but work it long enough and the tanks will fill. You’ll have plenty of running water for dishes, a shower…”
Claire leaned into the cramped bathroom at the end of the hall. The door swung inward, just missing the toilet on the left to bang against the corner of the tiny counter with its yellowed sink on the right. She approached the clawfoot tub crammed against the back wall and pulled aside the mold-speckled curtain. The shower attachment was bent, the porcelain lining of the tub stained.
“How Deb managed to get in and out of that monster without a railing, I will never understand,” Evelyn said. “Just be careful you don’t slip and crack your head open.”
Claire backed out of the bathroom and into the hall. She could keep going, rewind her way into the truck, drive back to the airport.
Her childhood bedroom waited to the right, her mother’s bedroom to the left. Pushing her fists into her coat pockets, Claire went left.
The walls of the master bedroom were bare. The queen-sized bed with its four-post bed frame was positioned opposite the door, in the lefthand corner, so that even lying down, her mother could look straight into the bedroom across the hall. Claire prodded the chair pulled up to the window, watched it rock in the dim light filtering through the flower-print
curtains. The quilt piled in the seat still held the vague shape of her mother’s shoulders.
“Still no landline here, of course,” Evelyn said, “and no Wi-Fi. If you need to make a call, you’ll have to go down the road, nine miles or so, to the One Stop.”
“Thanks,” Claire mumbled, distracted by the contents of her mother’s closet: more bedding, several modest dresses on wire hangers, boxes overflowing with paperwork and old photographs taken by Claire’s father. The only three photos deemed worthy of framing stood in tarnished frames atop the nightstand beside the bed. Claire didn’t need to look to know she wasn’t in them.
The door to Claire’s bedroom stood open. That there was a door at all was unexpected; shortly after Claire’s twelfth birthday, her mother had removed it from its hinges and stowed it in the basement. Later, Claire had used the door as a mattress—a slight reprieve from the basement’s cold concrete floor. Her mother must have hauled it back up.
Opposite the door, a white metal bed frame set lengthwise against the wall supported a twin mattress. Claire recalled lying awake at night, staring at the window past the foot of the bed to avoid her mother’s beady, watchful eyes. The full-length mirror was gone. Her mother had smashed it to pieces before locking Claire in the basement for the first time.
Claire didn’t need to search the dresser in the corner to know there was nothing of value inside. She’d taken everything that mattered when she ran away from home. With her father’s camera slung around her neck and a crumpled twenty-dollar bill in her pocket, she’d fled without looking back.
As she stepped inside her childhood bedroom, her eyes fixed on the leather strap lying at the center of the mattress. She stiffened, as time seemed to collapse. Her vision narrowed to a pinprick. The room was suddenly far too warm for all the layers she had on, stifling.
She was dimly aware of Evelyn sidling past her. Gesturing at the eastern wall, Evelyn said, “My place is about a mile that way if you cut straight through the forest. But I’d advise sticking to the road so you don’t get lost, even though it’s closer to a mile and a half that way. Just look for the mailbox. And be sure to bundle up if you’re walking.”
Claire managed to nod, but the strap demanded her attention. She needed to touch it, to prove it was real.
As Evelyn continued talking, Claire approached the mattress.
Even after years of lashings, the strap seemed longer than she remembered—and thicker. As if the four stitched layers of leather had expanded over time. Claire’s heart skip-thumped.
Then, her anger took control. She seized the leather strap and marched through the cabin with it held at arm’s length, the way she might handle a venomous snake. She carried it outside, all the way to the tree line, where she hurled it into the forest, watched it spin end over end, strike a branch, and disappear.
A low whistle spun her around.
“Good arm,” Evelyn said. Leaning against the porch railing, she removed a flask from the inside pocket of her coat, took a long draft, and offered it to Claire with her eyebrows raised. “You look like you could use it.”
Without hesitation, Claire tipped the flask to her lips. The whiskey burned her throat. Heat blossomed in her stomach. She swallowed, coughing. “Sorry, I’m—”
Evelyn raised her hands, palms out.
Claire sniffed and nodded her thanks. She would contend with the guilt of breaking her promise to Emma—already—when she could breathe again. Later.
“Come on,” Evelyn said. “We’re out here now. Might as well give you a refresher course on the generator.”
After they finished in the shed, Evelyn showed Claire the wood stacked behind it, covered with a blue tarp to keep it dry. “There should be enough here to get you through the rest of winter, though I doubt you’ll be here that long. The woodstove’s been cleaned, so you don’t have to worry about burning the place down—unless you really want to.”
Claire managed a weak smile. The long-dreaded homecoming had sapped her energy, so when Evelyn offered to bring dinner, Claire surprised herself by accepting. She didn’t want to be alone on her first night at the cabin.
“You can get a few groceries at the One Stop, but you’ll be paying tourist prices,” Evelyn said, snorting. “Highway robbery. You write up a list of the stuff you can’t find there, and I’ll pick it up on my Friday run to Zup’s.”
“No,” Claire protested, “I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“You’re not asking; I’m telling. The drive’s an hour long each way, so I only make it once a week. No sense in both of us being miserable.”
Only after Evelyn’s truck had rumbled back down the driveway out of sight did Claire allow herself to crumble onto the porch steps. She lowered her head into her hands, breathing in the smell of the pines, the lingering odor of liquor on her breath, and wept.
When she had nothing left but congested gasps to offer the surrounding trees, she straightened and walked to the rental truck. Blasting the heater, she tuned the radio through hissing static until she found an oldies station.
As she followed the road, passing Evelyn’s mailbox on the left, Claire rehearsed her impending phone call to Emma: careful optimism, a light tone—maybe a joke. She didn’t want Emma to worry. Worried Emma asked a lot of questions.
The One Stop slid into view through the trees, a boxy log structure announcing its purpose with large wooden letters fastened to a shingled roof. Claire tightened her grip on the steering wheel. She considered driving on—back to the highway, the airport, the warmth and safety of California.
Instead, she pulled into the gravel parking lot. If she was lucky, Lily and Silas would be home when she called. Thinking of her children strengthened her resolve. She squared her shoulders, forced a smile. Whatever it took, she would get through this—for her family.
No more running.
Emma slid out of her Prius with her cell phone pinned between ear and shoulder, turning sideways to avoid bumping into Claire’s Volvo. The station wagon had been moved; the thirty-degree angle between the front bumpers suggested that the person responsible had not been driving long, which could only mean…
“Lily!” Emma hollered, thumping her elbow against the door separating the garage from the kitchen. The straps of her reusable shopping bags were cutting off her circulation. Her hands were otherwise occupied with juggling her purse, lunch bag, and a hardback novel. As the voicemail from Claire ended, Emma shouted her daughter’s name again.
The door swung open. Lily’s face appeared in the gap. Her cheeks were flushed, her hazel eyes wide and questioning beneath the nest of long dark curls gathered in a messy bun atop her head. Stray hairs floated about her temples. Steam billowed from the pot on the stove behind her.
“Oh, hey—” Lily’s easy grin spread. “Here, let me get that.”
As Lily’s nimble fingers unburdened her arms, Emma breathed in the scent of herbs, garlic, and mushrooms. Her stomach grumbled in anticipation, even as she groaned aloud.
“Shi—oot,” Emma said. “It was my night to make dinner, wasn’t it?”
“Late again,” Lily said, clicking her tongue. Her socks spun on the linoleum, long legs returning her to the stove in an elegant glide. “Good thing I heard about the accident on the radio.”
“Yeah, well, accident aside, we were short-staffed again. Both Trish and Julie called in sick. There was no one else, or I would have been home hours ago.” Emma sank into a chair at the kitchen table and removed the pins holding back her short blond hair. She narrowed her eyes. “The radio…You wouldn’t be talking about the car radio, right?”
The spoon-on-skillet stirring sounds stopped for half a beat, then resumed.
“Because a learner’s permit requires an adult to be present,” Emma said, “and as much as I appreciate you picking up the slack with dinner—”
“You need a learner’s permit to drive the car.” Lily pointed with her wooden spoon. “Not to listen to the radio.”
Tomato sauce dripped from the spoon’s end, and Lily disappeared below the level of the kitchen counter with a dish towel in hand. She reappeared, straightening to her full height to stretch her spine. Emma would never get used to craning her neck to look up at her daughter. A blink, and Lily had gone from six years old to six feet tall.
“That kind of thinking won’t keep you from getting pulled over,” Emma said, “or prevent some idiot drunk driver from blowing through a red light. I know Mom lets you go to the store and back sometimes, and I hate playing bad cop, but—”
“There’s a message from Silas’s school.”
Irritated by the knot of trepidation forming in her stomach, Emma approached the machine. She was forty-three, far too old for the sickening stomach flips that accompanied any brush with authority. But the girl inside her—the goody two-shoes who had moved from hall monitor to summer camp leader to sober driver—quailed at the possibility of a reprimand. Being a stickler for the rules had carried Emma safely and successfully through nursing school and into a profession where her discipline and (here she could see Claire rolling her eyes) anal retentiveness were actually appreciated. Necessary, even.
And Silas wasn’t the type of kid to screw up; he was the type the screw-ups ganged up on. Emma knew; she’d been that kid once. She played the message. Listening to Silas’s principal drone on about an altercation between several of the boys, Emma wondered when the man would come to terms with the reality that suspension alone was not a viable solution. If anything, Silas would get it worse when the bullies returned from their mandatory vacations.
When Lily’s name was mentioned, Emma’s eyes popped open. She hadn’t realized she’d been drifting off, asleep on her feet and still wearing her scrubs. The principal concluded his message by requesting that Emma contact him after the winter break to set up a meeting.
She shook her head in disbelief. “You…” Emma leaned on the counter just as Lily pushed a plate of spaghetti under her nose. Saliva flooded her mouth, but she ignored her growling stomach. “You assaulted a child, Lily?”
“Assaulted?” Lily rolled her eyes, a near-perfect replica of Claire. She deposited two plates piled high with spaghetti on the kitchen table, then returned for the garlic bread, scrubbing her mouth with the back of one hand. Emma realized she was trying—and failing—to keep from smiling.
“What part of what I said is funny to you?” Emma snapped.
“It’s not funny, I—” Lily glanced down the hall at Silas’s bedroom door, then lowered her voice. “You want to do this now? Dinner’s getting cold.”
Emma flared her nostrils and tried her best to burn holes through Lily with her eyes.
Lily sighed. “Okay, just…can you please not bring it up to Silas, at least not tonight? It took forever to get him to stop crying after I picked him up—”
Lily pressed the air down with her hands. “Shh. I know, I know. Silas was texting me—Don’t look at me like that; you said his phone was for emergencies. Well, this was an emergency. He’d already tried to get ahold of you at the hospital.”
Lily checked the hallway again for signs of movement. “The other boys were picking on him and…they made him eat a, uh, dog turd they found on the soccer field. He wanted to come home. I couldn’t just leave him there. So I walked home, got the car.”
“You’re only sixteen. They just let you drive off with him?” Emma pulled her hands back along her jaw to knot her fingers behind her aching neck. “What the hell were they thinking?”
“Probably that I look a bit older than sixteen with Mom’s sunglasses on. The way I marched in there, they didn’t have a lot of time for questions.” Lily sighed. “Memma, I really am sorry. I went five under the speed limit there and back. If there had been any other way…”
“Don’t you ‘Memma’ me,” Emma said, scowling despite the tug of nostalgia she felt at Lily’s use of the affectation, a blend of “Mom” and “Emma” that Lily had mashed together as a baby, then later passed along to her younger brother. Claire and Emma were so rarely in the same room anymore that their children’s need to distinguish between them verbally had been rendered almost obsolete.
Emma massaged her temples, exhaled slowly through her nostrils. As her anger deflated, guilt and a vague, familiar sadness seeped in to replace it. She was tempted to let the subject drop, but…“That doesn’t explain the thing with the kid. The principal said you—”
“When I got there, one of the boys who’d been messing with Silas was still hanging around, calling him names. The teacher was too busy watching the other kids to notice him tossing rocks and bits of garbage at Silas. And Silas wasn’t doing anything to stop him, just sitting there on the front steps, crying. Then, the little asshole—”
“The little a-hole squished a piece of chewing gum into Silas’s hair, right as I was walking up. I guess I just kind of…lost it.” She shrugged. “I picked him up by the shoulders and carried him through the front doors, hung his jacket up on one of those hooks they have in the entryway. He just happened to still be inside it—the jacket, I mean.”
Emma tried to summon a reprimand and couldn’t. “But he was only, what, seven or eight years old? Lily, his parents could sue.”
Lily’s lips twitched into a smile. “I wish you could have seen it. He was kicking his short little legs, screaming bloody murder as all the kids came back from recess.”
Claire would know what to say. Emma envied the ease with which her wife interacted with their children, the trust between them. The kids told Claire everything, and were forgiven everything, while Emma was left to dole out punishment. It wasn’t fair, but she couldn’t blame Claire for being the favorite parent. “So…there’s probably a message from your school on the machine too, then?”
“Probably. There goes the dream of perfect attendance.”
“That’s not the point, Lily.”
“It was just the last two periods, math and history. And I’m a week ahead in both.”
From down the hall, Emma heard Silas’s snot-choked voice call out, “Memma?”
She shot Lily a look—we’re not done talking about this—then called back, “Dinner’s ready, Si. Come and get it.”
Silas padded into the kitchen on bare feet, pushing up his glasses. He threw his arms around Emma’s waist with an
intensity that knocked her off-balance and mumbled into her stomach, “I need a haircut.”
Emma combed his hair back from his face. It hung to the middle of his back, golden and lustrous, except for a patch near the crown of his head that stood on end. Where Lily had hacked away the chewing gum, Emma realized.
“It’s barely noticeable,” Emma said. She licked her fingers and tried to smooth the errant patch down, but it sprang back up.
“I still need a haircut, though,” Silas said. When Emma lifted his chin to get a better look at him, his brown eyes were shining with tears. “Alicia says my long hair makes me look like a girl.”
Lily pulled a chair out from the dining table and dropped into it, muttering, “Well, Alicia is a little see-you-next-Tuesday.”
“Lily, did you already take your insulin?” Emma asked.
“Yep. Right before you got home.”
Silas wrinkled his nose at his plate. “I thought it was Memma’s turn to cook.”
“What makes you think I didn’t?”
A sly smile spread across Silas’s face. “Because it stinks.”
“Like you can smell anything with your nose full of snot. Blow it, would you? I’m trying to eat over here.” Lily tossed a napkin across the table to Emma.
Silas took the napkin from Emma. More and more, he insisted on doing things himself. Blowing until his nose honked, Silas watched Lily chase the noodles hanging from her fork. “You’re supposed to use a spoon, Lily. Memma, she forgot the spoons!”
“I’ll get them,” Emma said. She returned in time to catch Lily flinging a noodle across the table at her brother. “Hey, no food fights inside the house.”
“It’s not a fight,” Lily said, wiping her orange-stained lips with a napkin. “It’s an exchange. He was just about to hand one back across the table. Isn’t that right, Si?”
Cheeks bulging, Silas opened his mouth to reply, but Emma shot him a pointed look. Silas chewed, swallowed and said, “Ugh, you can have all of it.”
“That gross, huh?” Emma suppressed laughter with a bite of her own, then grimaced. “Is this sauce from a can?”
Lily threw up her hands. “Couple of foodies, you two. You’ve been watching too many cooking shows.”
“Mom makes the sauce from scratch,” Silas said. “It takes hours, but you can’t rush a good sauce.”
“Well, your mom is an excellent cook,” said Emma. “I just front the money for groceries. And your sister here covered for me, since I was running late, so I think we both owe her a thank you.”
“More like ‘no thank you.’” Silas stuck his tongue out at Lily.
“How’s Mom?” Lily asked. “Did she call yet?”
“She did, but I missed it. And before you ask, no, I can’t call her back. There’s no landline at the cabin.”
“She’s alive, though? Sounded all right?”
Lily’s eyes flicked up from her plate to scan Emma’s face. Searching for evidence to the contrary, perhaps. “What’s the plan for winter break? Will Mom be back by then?”
“Winter break is…?” Emma muffled a yawn with the back of her hand.
“The next two weeks,” Lily prompted. “Starting after this weekend.”
Emma reached for her cell phone. “Today is…Tuesday?”
“I’ll call your schools in the morning, let them know that I’m taking you out early for a family trip.”
Emma took a bite of spaghetti, chewing slowly to buy time to think. She didn’t want to admit that between the heated fight she’d had with Claire the night before and the extra hours of overtime, she had completely forgotten about winter break. With the false cheer of Claire’s voicemail still ringing in her ears—This place needs a lot more work than I was expecting, but I should be able to get it done. I’ll need to stay longer than planned, though.—Emma was faced with the possibility that Claire might not be home for Christmas.
That this could prove to be the first in a long line of split holidays hurt Emma’s heart. They’d been circling the idea of a trial separation for the last year. But it was too soon. She had meant to try harder to fix things, to work on their marriage, but the time had slipped through her fingers.
Lily kicked her under the table, repeating the question.
“Maybe. I’m not sure yet,” Emma said.
“Oh!” Silas interrupted, leaning across the table to point his fork at Lily. “Do you exist in real life or are you made up?”
“Yes or no questions only,” Lily said. “And I think you mean fictional.”
Silas said, “Fine. Are you fictional?”
Lily’s eyes slid from Emma to Silas. “Yes.”
Relieved, Emma sat back in her chair. Lily and Silas’s perpetual game of Twenty Questions had been cropping up mid-conversation with increasing frequency over the last six months. Emma suspected it was their way of coping with the inexplicable tension that had crept into their daily lives.
“How’s the homework situation?” Emma asked.
“All done with mine.” Lily pushed back from the table and gathered their plates, rumpling Silas’s hair. “I’ll help with yours. But first you need to shower.”
“It’s your stinky food,” Silas said, hooking his fingers around the last word to form air quotes. Emma wondered where he’d picked that up from—another development she’d missed during her long hours at the hospital.
While Emma washed the dishes, Claire’s voicemail played on a constant loop through her mind. Underneath all the forced, high-pitched optimism, her wife had sounded rattled.
On impulse, Emma dried her hands and dialed the hospital’s number. A plan was forming in her mind. Twenty minutes and three short conversations later, Emma checked in on Lily and Silas, then pulled her laptop from its case and climbed into bed. Keying in her password, she couldn’t help but imagine Claire drinking herself to sleep, despite the promises she’d made during their counseling session.
Emma played the message again, listening to Claire navigate the one-sided conversation like a tight-rope walker. But there was a tremor in her voice right before she said, “I love you,” and ended the call. An echo of the young woman who had clawed her way out of vivid nightmares—sweat-drenched, screaming, and often swinging—nearly every night for the first year they’d lived together. Emma had been there, by her side, to hold her until she stopped shaking.
But now Claire was alone, isolated at the source of the childhood trauma she refused to discuss. Emma would have given anything to be with her, to lend the support that Claire had once drunk up like water in the desert; the same support that she now resented, rejecting Emma at every opportunity.
“So how are things, really?” Lily was watching her from the bedroom doorway.
Emma groped for a believable response and settled for what she hoped was a casual shrug.
“You could talk to me about it, you know,” Lily said. “If you wanted.”
But she couldn’t, not without forcing a wedge between Lily and Claire, or between herself and Lily. Against her better judgement, she asked, “Has your mom mentioned anything to you?”
“She let slip that you were in marriage counseling a while back. But,” she hurried to add, “it was an accident. You know Mom.”
“Right.” Emma didn’t need to ask if Claire had been drinking at the time; it would have taken a crowbar to loosen her lips, otherwise. She chose her next words carefully. “Things…could be better. But we’re working on it. How’s your blood sugar?”
Lily leaned her head back, sighing. “Fine. I told you I’d let you know if there were any problems.”
“Yes, I took my insulin. You don’t need to ask three times a day.”
“I’m sorry. Lately it feels like everything is flying past me. Thanks for tonight, by the way. Dinner, taking care of Si.”
Lily bowed, then sidled over to sit at the foot of Emma’s bed. Folding her coltish legs beneath her, she said, “Maybe you could talk to Mom about homeschooling again. He’s so small for his age, and he doesn’t have any friends.”
“You know how she feels about homeschooling.”
“Just because she had a bad experience doesn’t mean it’s the wrong choice for everyone. And it’s what Silas wants.”
“We both feel like Silas will be better off in the future if he doesn’t run from his problems,” Emma said. “He’ll make friends, eventually. Once Mom’s back, we’re going to talk with the other kids’ parents—”
“You know that won’t work.”
“I know that I’m his mother, and yours. You’re just going to have to trust me on this.”
“Whatever. It just seems like you and Mom have a lot going on. Maybe you’re not seeing the whole picture.” Looking up at the ceiling, Lily said, “Just tell me this: are you actually trying to make it work, like, for real, or are you just holding things together for me and Silas?”
Emma’s mouth fell open. Were they that transparent? All the tiptoeing around, trying to hide the conflict in their marriage, seemed pointless if Lily could read their situation so easily. And if Lily had noticed their relationship failing, how long before Silas started asking the same questions?
“I love your mother more than I ever have, or ever will love another person in this world,” Emma said, “except for you and your brother.”
Lily nodded. Her gaze drifted to the laptop. “Working?”
“No, I’ve been thinking about that trip. I already called in a few favors at work, so I have some time off.”
“Uh-huh…” Lily’s expression was guarded. “So, you thought we’d fly out to Minnesota and surprise Mom?”
“I’m worried about her.”
Lily tugged her hair loose from its messy bun and twisted a strand around her finger.
“You think it’s a mistake,” Emma said.
“I think…”—Lily took a deep breath—“Mom needs space. Especially if she’s trying to quit drinking. Yes, she told me. And you just showing up, it might be kind of, like, an invasion of privacy? That’s all I’m saying.”
From the next room: “Lily! Are you old?
“What’s old?” Lily shouted back.
“I must be ancient,” Emma said.
“Yep.” Lily winked at Emma. “I’d better go unplug him. The light’s off, but he’s probably under the blanket with his phone. Just…think about what I said, okay?”
Emma tucked Lily’s hair behind her ear and kissed her forehead. “When did you grow up?”
Lily smiled. “Love you.”
“Love you. Close the door behind you, please.”
Emma lay back into the pillows with a groan. Finally released from her daughter’s scrutiny, her mouth twisted as a tangle of emotions surfaced. She put on her headphones and called up the playlist of songs Claire had put together on her phone, insisting that Emma’s selection of music was cringeworthy. Smiling as their favorite Paul Simon song flooded her ears, she closed her eyes, and tried to breathe.
It could be a nice surprise: a Minnesota holiday. They could do their shopping tomorrow, fly out on Thursday. Emma mentally listed off the various items they would need to pack, unaware—or unwilling to admit—that she was no longer thinking in hypotheticals.
And anyway, she’d already bought the plane tickets. They were on special, and nonrefundable. Decided, Emma smiled.
It would be a nice surprise.
Copyright © 2023 R. L. Meza