N SUNDAY EVENING WHEN KENNETH BROUGHT the kids home, he came into the house with them instead of saying his good-byes in the driveway. He stood just inside the mudroom door, watching them drop their overnight bags and jackets onto the floor as if he were studying the migratory patterns of a nomadic tribe.
Morgan’s cell phone beeped; she tugged it out of her jacket pocket and squinted at the screen. “Kimmi’s sleeping over tomorrow night,” she announced.
“But it’s a—”
“No it’s not, Mom,” Morgan corrected. “We don’t have school on Tuesday. It’s Soldier Day, or whatever.”
“Duh, Morgan, it’s Veterinarians Day,” said Grady. “They get it off so they don’t have to deal with pelican guts and goat poop and junk like that.”
Morgan registered her disgust without looking up from texting Kimmi.
Day,” said Kenneth, trying to stifle a laugh. “It’s when we remember all the people who fought for our country.”
“Remember?” said Grady. “I didn’t even know any to begin with.” He grabbed Kenneth’s hands. “Mom, look. I can still do that spinny thing.”
As he walked his feet up Kenneth’s legs and pushed off to flip over, Kenneth let out a grunt of exertion. “You’re getting too big for this, buddy.”
“You just need to work out more,” said Grady. “Hey! Maybe I can stay over tomorrow night and we can go to the gym again!”
“I can’t,” he told Grady. “Even though it’s Veterans Day, I still have to go in to the office.”
“I could just hang around with Tina until you get home.” He took Kenneth’s hands again to do another climb and flip.
“Tina has to work, too,” said Kenneth, disengaging his hands and patting Grady on the shoulder. “But, hey, I’ll see you in two weeks, and we’ll definitely go to the gym, I promise.”
Grady stopped trying to grab at Kenneth’s hands. “Two weeks?” he said, staring up at his father, his voice muted by surprise. “Two
“Grady, you know it’s every other weekend,” said Kenneth defensively. “That means there are two weeks in between.”
The boy looked to his mother for a denial of this wholly unbelievable calculation.
“More like twelve days,” she said.
“Oh.” Grady stared down at his overnight bag for a moment. “Well, bye,” he muttered, then turned toward the kitchen, dragging his sock-clad feet across the floor tiles.
“Bye, Dad,” said Morgan. She gave him an awkward hug and followed Grady out. Kenneth watched them go.
“Everything okay?” asked Dana, suspicious now that the kids were gone and he was still standing there.
“Absolutely.” He zipped his jacket up another inch and yanked the waist down over his hips. Dana waited, annoyed by his fidgeting and his failure to leave. “I might stop in on Wednesday while you’re working late,” he said. “Depends on a couple of account reps. I’ll let you know.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“Okay.” His hand gripped the door handle for a moment, and then he left.
Dana padded through the house later that night, turning off lights and slipping the sticky ice-cream bowls into the dishwasher. Suddenly there was a buzzing sound. Searching around, she saw Morgan’s cell phone on the counter and picked it up. There was a text from Kimmi: OK BUT ITS FUNNER IF ITS MORE KIDS.
Dana wasn’t a big texter. She could reply to Morgan’s occasional messages to BRING SNEAKERS FORGOT GYM or CAN U GET CELLO AFTER SCHOOL. But it took her a minute to figure out how to see the entire text thread. She was also slowed by a momentary qualm about snooping at a private conversation. But what
was so much “funner” with more kids?
WANNA SLEEP OVR MONDAY NITE? Kimmi had begun six hours earlier.
WHOS HOUS, Morgan replied.
HOW BOUT MINE I HAV TRIPL CHOC BROWNIE MIX, Morgan offered.
The texting veered off toward a debate over triple-chocolate brownies versus maple-frosted sugar cookies, randomly interspersed with updates on each one’s activity of the moment (from UGH HATE STUPD ENGLSH to SRRY BACK NOW NAILS DRY to IDIOT BROTHR TOOK PHN).
Then Kimmi suggested, WE CUD SNEAK OVR TO DEVYNNES.
YEAH FUN, replied Morgan. But this was quickly followed with MY MOM WANTS ME HOME CUZ ITS R TURN TO HOST.
Kimmi asked, U LIKE DEVYNNE?
YAH DEF, responded Morgan. VRY COOL.
CAN DEVYNNE SLEEP OVR TOO?
MY MOM SEZ ONLY 1 KID. They bemoaned their mothers’ lack of understanding for a few rounds, and then Morgan suggested Devynne come over on Tuesday morning. The three of them would still have the whole day together. SO JUST U AND ME FOR MONDAY NITE, she concluded.
OK BUT ITS FUNNER WITH MORE KIDS.
Why had Morgan declined to invite Devynne over, too? Dana had hosted plenty of three- and four-girl sleepovers. And why had Morgan doggedly asserted her right to host, despite Kimmi’s obvious preference for her own house? A pinprick feeling went down Dana’s spine.
she told herself.
How bad could it be? They’re twelve, for Pete’s sake!
Morgan had lived a fairly sheltered life (until recently anyway, when Kenneth left and the roof blew off their shelter), and this Devynne sounded a bit more worldly; possibly Morgan was intimidated by that. Or maybe it was Nora’s occasional brusqueness—she had come down pretty hard on Kimmi about baking treats and was obviously concerned about Kimmi’s weight (though the girl was ballerina thin). The implications about Morgan’s own more rounded tummy were certainly enough to make her worry.
It’s just a jumpy time for her,
Dana assured herself, turning off the lights and going to bed.
The next day her concerns about the texts ebbed to nothing as her mind took up the task of obsessing over every emergency that could possibly arise from leaving the kids home while she went to work on Tuesday. Veterans Day being one of the lesser holidays, Cotters Rock Dental was very much open for business. Alder would be home, but Dana still felt vaguely anxious.
“Come a little late, leave a little early,” Tony suggested. “I’ll even give up the pleasure of your company if you want to go home for lunch. Don’t worry about me—I’ll just hum to myself and try not to whimper,” he teased.
“You don’t think I’m a negligent parent, letting them stay home alone?”
“No, I think you adore your kids and you’re a little bit of a worrywart, which is a recipe for an excellent parent, in my humble opinion.”
I just love this guy,
she thought, allowing herself to believe him for the moment.
The boy who had tackled Grady at school drop-off the previous week came over that afternoon. His name was Javier, “But everyone calls me Jav, like javelin, ’cause I’m like a spear flying through the air,” he told Dana matter-of-factly.
“They call you that because you
them to,” corrected Grady.
“So?” said Jav.
They skittered from one activity to the next, leaving a trail of sweaty socks, elastic bands, Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, dirt-encrusted stones, and Monopoly money. At five o’clock Jav’s mother called about picking him up. “Lemme talk to her, can I talk to her, when you’re done I have to talk to her,” chanted Jav as both boys wiggled impatiently. A sleepover at Jav’s house was quickly arranged. Dana felt funny letting Grady go to a stranger’s house overnight, but the lure of adult supervision while she worked the next day clouded out fears that Jav’s family might be members of a sacrificial cult.
Alder and Jet worked on a poster for the Wilderness Club. Actually, Alder worked, her head bobbing close to the paper to add detail to the elaborate landscape. Jet ate peanut butter out of the jar and made comments like, “Not gonna lie, that squirrel looks really freakin’ vicious.” After dinner they went to the club treasurer’s house for a fund-raising meeting. “We have to, like,
and talk about raising, like,
?” Jet explained carefully to Dana.
Alder rolled her eyes. “I’m sleeping over at Jet’s,” she said. “I’ll be home before you leave for work.”
Morgan and Kimmi emerged occasionally from Morgan’s room to get a snack, go on the computer, and once to take a walk around the block. “I disgust myself if I don’t exercise,” Dana heard Kimmi tell Morgan as they pulled on their boots. After dinner they made brownies and ate them with scoops of ice cream while watching
shrieking and hiding against each other, as sewer sludge spattered the host’s face.
At ten o’clock Dana herded them up to bed. They were tucked into sleeping bags on the floor, heads sharing the same pillow in the cozy darkness, when Dana returned to the office to pay bills. Short of a massive and immediate turnaround in Kenneth’s prospects, Dana wouldn’t be an at-home mom again anytime soon. In fact, it was now clear the cushion had been getting slowly unstuffed ever since Kenneth had left. Two homes were a strain on even a healthy paycheck, and belts that should’ve been tightened hadn’t been. And yet there was no way she could have told her kids, “Not only is Dad moving out, but you won’t be able to do all the things you used to do and have all the things you used to have. The cloud has no lining, silver or otherwise.”
Dana stared at the wall of drawings that Morgan and Grady had made for Kenneth.
Daddy still lives here with us,
the pictures seemed to say.
You don’t have to worry about anything.
She rose and carefully, lovingly, slid her finger under the taped corners of each picture and laid them on the end of the desk.
No more lies,
Then she went to the kitchen to console herself with the brownies and ice cream she had so carefully avoided the entire evening. But there were none. She checked every cupboard and found nothing. She did, however, find that the pan in which they were baked had been washed and shoved to the back of the pots cabinet. The ice cream was also gone, the box buried in the garbage bin, shrouded with newspapers and an empty cereal box.
The pins and needles along her spine rose up again. Her brain scrambled for plausible explanations, and she knew that if she wanted to, she could make herself believe any one of them. Or she could simply stop thinking about it and go to bed, which was almost as tempting as those brownies had been.
No, she would have to do something. She would start by asking Morgan about it tomorrow, after Kimmi had gone home. When she got to the top of the stairs, however, it was clear the girls were not asleep. They were in the bathroom. The light streamed out into the darkened hallway from the not-quite-closed door, and Dana could hear Kimmi’s voice.
“See?” she was saying. “I don’t even have to use my finger anymore. My stomach just knows what to do.”
HERE WAS A MOMENT, AS SHE STOOD THERE IN the dark quiet of the hallway, when Dana’s mind went completely blank, as if the plug had been pulled in her cortex. When her brain reluctantly powered back up seconds later, she questioned whether she had really heard what she’d heard.
But she had. And as the sounds of muted gagging from behind the bathroom door crackled in the air around her, she knew she had a decision to make.
Do I respond now or come up with a plan and respond later?
Dana was completely dumbstruck by the situation before her. She wondered how she could possibly handle it without making a scene. If Morgan had been alone, that would’ve been one thing; with Kimmi involved it was so much more complicated. But there was a notion poking at her, prodding her to act. It said,
Morgan needs to know that I know. And if I don’t do something now, I might chicken out.
She pushed open the door. Kimmi was rising from her knees by the toilet. Morgan was lowering herself into a crouch, index finger jammed to the knuckle into her mouth. Startled mid-motion, the two girls turned to stare at her. Then Kimmi blurted out, “Mrs. Stellgarten, we’re not feeling well, and we think maybe that chicken you made for dinner wasn’t cooked all the way through and we might have blotchy-ism.”
If you’re going to lie to me, at least get the word right.
“It’s time to go to bed,” she said quietly.
“Mom . . .” whispered Morgan.
“Bedtime,” said Dana firmly.
The girls scurried back to Morgan’s room. Dana stood for a moment in the hallway, listening to them settle into their sleeping bags, wondering if she’d handled it properly. She padded to her bedroom, realizing ruefully that she would have the whole night to obsess about it.
Not the whole night after all. Sometime before dawn Morgan floated wraithlike into the room and silently slid under the covers. She did not touch Dana, as she usually did when she crawled into the bed, didn’t tug gently at Dana’s hair or at the skin on her elbow. She simply lay there, meekly waiting to be thrown a scrap of her mother’s attention.