It’s dark as I bite my nails past the skin in the drive-thru lane at McDonald’s. I can’t remember how I got here. I barely remember leaving the house. Reluctantly, swiftly, without changing out of the new pajamas that the girls picked out for me for Christmas. This trip has to be fast. I can’t leave them alone in that house with him.
The car in front of me lurches forward and I pull toward the LED-illuminated drive-thru menu. A December wind invades the dry heat of the car when I roll down the window.
“One moment,” a female voice booms from the speaker above the order screen.
“Sure,” I try to respond, but no sound comes out and I mouth it instead.
I’m certain that he hasn’t touched them yet. At least pretty certain. I would just know. Moms just know, I tell myself. I’m pretty certain that moms just know.
I miss my mom. She would know.
I’m certain that he hasn’t touched them yet, but I know he thinks about it. I know he does. The way he looks at them in the morning in their elementary school skirts, talks to Anna like she’s not seven but seventeen, touches Natalie’s soft white arms when she inevitably falls asleep during movie night. It’s not right. It’s not decent.
I know my mom would tell me to pray for the girls, for Peter, for salvation. Her usual religious shit that doesn’t change anything at all. Still, I could just use some help is all. I miss her, and she knew about Peter all along.
“Can Jesus help you?”
“What?” I manage a whisper. I can see my breath in the cold night air.
“Excuse me, ma’am. I didn’t catch that,” the voice replied. “Can I help you?”
Brightly backlit photographs of burgers stare down at me from the board. My mind goes blank. Peter gave me instructions and I’ve forgotten.
“What’s the best?” I ask and look up at the rearview mirror. There is no one behind me. No one I’m holding up, but still I’m wasting time. I have to get home to my girls. “I just need some help.”
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
“Never mind. Just can I get a—” I stall, panicking, needing desperately for the numbers and the combinations on this board to reveal the answer to me. I can feel my breathing getting shallow and quick. In through the nose, out through the mouth, I think. Focus. Focus.
“Yeah, sorry. Just can I get a—two actually—two of the chicken fingers meals. And—wait actually are fingers the same thing as tenders?”
“And then what is the difference between those and nuggets?”
The woman on the other end sighs audibly.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I’m in a hurry, but I have to get this right.
“Nuggets are smaller and rounder. Fingers are longer with more breading. That’s about it.”
It comes to me. “Selects,” I practically shout. “My husband said chicken selects. Two of those. Is that the same?”
“Two chicken selects,” the voice repeats back without answering my question. On the order screen, CHX SEL (2) comes up next to the price.
“Lots of ketchup please,” I add. “We’re out at home.”
I look back to the menu with its overly saturated colors and bright pictures—the ketchup and the tomatoes too red, American cheese nearly fluorescent against the darkness of the surrounding parking lot. “One Diet Coke. And two Sprites.”
“Yes, that’s all, I think.” I scan the board to see if I’ve forgotten anything.
“I said ‘Are those small?’”
“Oh, yes. No, wait. No, not small. Medium actually.” I feel my face growing hot in spite of the temperature.
“Okay, then. That’s—”
“Wait. I’m sorry. And fries. Do the selects come with fries?”
“I can make them meals for you and include the Sprites.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“That’s $12.42. Window 2.” The microphone clicks off.
I’ve been having such a hard time talking to people lately.
“Well then, go see someone. Someone whose job it is to help you talk about everything,” Peter had said a couple weeks ago. Before I figured out about the kids. He barely looked up from his paper. “If you really feel like you can’t talk to me, then go see someone.”
“We can’t afford it.”
Peter put down his paper. “Then talk to me.”
I glanced up at him, his gray eyes wide under those bushy eyebrows, the corners of his thin lips curled up into a near smile.
“Stop laughing at me.” I turned back to my fingernails, picking the polish off and leaving pink flecks on the tablecloth.
“I’m not laughing at you, hon. Talk to me.” He covered one of my hands with his own, his hairy knuckles obscuring my nails.
“Why can’t you try?” I remember thinking that he looked older to me, his jawline covered in stubble and less defined than it used to be. He looked unhealthy. Fatter maybe. My thumb began to sting where I had been picking it around the corner of the nail. Peter’s voice lowered to a near growl. “Why not?”
I looked up and stared him straight in the eyes. “Because you hated her,” I said as I pulled my hand out from under Peter’s and put it in my mouth. It tasted like the ocean but sweeter.
Peter dropped his head and shook it down at the table, exhaling loudly through his nose. “Right,” he had said as he picked up his newspaper.
My phone’s vibrations urgently rattle the pens and loose change in my cup holder. Why am I still waiting here? My grip on the wheel tightens to a chokehold. This was supposed to be a quick trip. I need to stop losing time like this. The front screen reads “HOME.” Peter. I silence it and pull forward to Window 2.
Window 1 is dark as I drive by. Not a lot of business at this hour. Not during the holidays anyway. Even the kids that usually lurk in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven across the street are gone. Home with their families, requests to go hang out with their delinquent friends denied by weary mothers trying to keep something sacred.
I hate those kids. I hate their ridicule, their mock catcalls, their pleas to buy them cigarettes. I know that they think I’m a head case. I don’t know when I stopped being able to stand up to kids half my age.
When I pull up to Window 2, a tall, thin woman wearing too much makeup is waiting for me, staring out through the glass, expressionless. She is late thirties, but fighting it hard, her hair done up in a slick ponytail underneath her headset. A sign taped to the glass covers the bottom half of her face: HELP WANTED.
The window unfolds like an accordion. “D’ya get lost?” the woman says as she hands me my sodas and a paper bag through the window. Her nametag reads Debra. “We’re still waiting on the fries. It’ll just be another minute.”
I take the food, making room in the console for the cardboard soda tray and the grease-stained bag.
The window begins to close.
“Wait,” I say. With the car window open, I am freezing. The building blocks none of the wind that I had hoped it might.
“Yes?” Debra says. “There’s already a lot of ketchup in the bag.”
“No, that’s not—thank you,” I say. “Can I ask you a question, Debra?”
“Who was working here yesterday?”
“But someone was?”
Debra purses her lips. She’s losing patience. “Safe bet. We don’t close.”
“You don’t close for Christmas?”
“We don’t close,” Debra repeats. “At all.”
“How do they clean? If you are never closed?”
“They clean around us.”
“They clean around you?”
Debra doesn’t respond. She folds her arms and looks back toward the kitchen. Seconds later, a teenage boy rounds the corner. He hands off two orders of fries to Debra, who holds them up in the window for me to see.
“Fries,” she says, placing them in the open paper bag that she had ready on her side of the glass. “There you go.”
I pay Debra and wish her a Merry Christmas. She just nods and shuts the window, vanishing into the kitchen.
I check the glove compartment for any loose cigarettes. All that’s there are the little orange bottles that I took from my mom’s house before the police got there. I guess I thought they wouldn’t be able to tell.
I was wrong.
No cigs. I’m tempted to buy a pack at 7-Eleven, just to suck two down in quick succession in the parking lot before I head home, but there’s no time. I have to get home to my girls.
My phone goes off in the cup holder again. I answer. “Hello?”
“Mary.” Peter sighs. “Okay. I was just wondering what happened. Did you get everything okay? It’s really not too late for me to get to the grocery store with the girls. The one on 9 is open late.”
My jaw begins to hurt. Clenching again.
First he wanted me to pick something up, get out of the house. Leave him alone with them. Now he wants to take them somewhere. Whisk them away before I get back.
“I got food,” I manage.
“Okay. Oh, hold on one sec.” I can hear him talking away from the mouthpiece but I can’t quite make out the words. I’m speeding down the highway, making a left onto Florence. There’s no one on the road. Peter comes back. “Sorry hon, the girls want to know where you ended up going.”
“Mommy got McDonald’s,” he repeats to the girls. There is some muffled, high-pitched cheering. It’s gone over well. I can’t help but smile.
I did it.
“I’ll be home soon,” I say, more to the girls in the background than to my husband. A second of silence on the other line makes me wonder if he’s hung up. “Hello?”
“Mary, I’m really proud of you. This is big,” Peter says. “We’ll see you soon.” I hang up as the light changes to green.
The way home feels longer than it used to. I drive past hundreds of front lawn Christmas displays, tacky flashing lights, and blow-up snowmen competing for attention.
Decorating isn’t what it used to be.
I drive past Longview. I know the lights in the house at the end of the block—the quiet ranch with the weeping willow—are all off, the driveway piled high with unmoved snow, the mailbox crammed full of magazine subscriptions and church newsletters.
Peter keeps telling me that we need to put it on the market, or at least take care of the snow and clear out her things. Just throw them away like she never existed.
It’s obvious that no one lives there, he said. He drives by after work sometimes. It’s going to get robbed.
Like he would even care.
I’m on my street now. I can see the softly pulsing blue light from the TV in the window as I pull into the driveway. Peter opens the door when he hears me pull up.
He comes out to the car. “Need a hand?”
I hand him the McDonald’s bag and take the drink tray out of the console to carry in.
“Let’s switch,” he says, handing me back the bag and taking the drinks from me. “You should be the one bringing this stuff in.”
We walk up to the house in silence. I am torn between the anticipation of seeing the girls’ excitement and my dread to be back in this house.
When I walk in, they are sitting on the floor in front of the TV in the living room. Miracle on 34th Street is on again. It’s their favorite Christmas movie. And the only one we have on DVD.
“Come help Mommy set the table,” I say, holding up the paper bags.
Anna springs up. “You’re back,” she says. “We already did. With Daddy.”
I remind myself to nod and smile. “Well then let’s eat some dinner, girlies.”
Natalie is still sitting on the ground, although she has turned around. She is staring at her older sister. She hasn’t acknowledged my return yet.
“Nat,” I say. “Hi.”
Anna grabs her sister by the elbow and pulls her up. “Happy Meals, Tally.”
“Hi, Mommy,” Nat says quietly, staring at the ground as she passes me.
“Wash your hands before we eat, girls,” Peter calls from the kitchen. Anna leads her sister to the bathroom down the hall. Peter calls to me. “Mare, want to put some of that stuff down?” I am watching the girls walk down the hallway slowly, with Anna pulling Nat behind her. Something is off. Something is not right. “Mare, it’s pretty late. We should probably get going so they can get to bed.” Peter is behind me now. He touches my elbow and I instinctually twitch away from him. He puts his hands in the air. “Sorry,” he says. “Here, let me take that.” He takes the bag from me and brings it into the kitchen.
In the kitchen, Peter rambles on about something he saw on the news. A kidnapping maybe, I don’t know. The sound of his voice is making me clench my teeth hard. I’m not really paying attention; I just get bits and pieces like “crazy people,” “so sad,” and “what kind of country are we living in?” I begin to push back my cuticles with my teeth.
My mother and Peter used to get along. When we first got married, they got along well actually (“She’s a real pisser, that woman,” he used to say). But more recently, she started noticing things about him—things that she knew about from living with my father for so many years. She started seeing things that I wasn’t seeing yet, and he started trying to get her out of our lives—calling her toxic, saying she was bad for the kids, saying that we needed to get her full-time help. He thinks that the way she died proves he was right; he thinks it’s that simple.
“Hello? Are you in there?” Peter comes into focus right in front of me now, his face shiny with sweat even this time of year. “Lost you there for a minute,” he says, and laughs. It’s a nervous laugh. Guilty.
“How are you hot?”
“What?” he says. “I just asked if you wanted any water. I can make tea though if you’re cold.”
“How are you sweating right now?”
He stares back at me quizzically. I can hear Anna running down the hall. She rushes into the kitchen and stops between Peter and myself. He breaks our tense eye contact first and looks to Anna.
Anna holds her hands up in the air, palms to him. “All clean,” she says.
Peter kisses the open palm of her left hand with a loud mwah sound. “Then it’s—” he goes to kiss the other palm and I resist the urge to pull her away from him, tensing my arms to my side. “Chicken fingers time. Grab a seat,” he says. Anna slides into her usual spot.
Natalie is not far behind her sister, little legs carrying her slowly into the kitchen. Natalie isn’t the runner and yeller and door slammer that Anna is. She’s a very quiet girl. I worry about her the most.
Once we’re all seated, Peter divides up the two chicken select meals between himself and the girls. Four pieces for him, three each for them, fries in a bowl in the middle. “Are you sure you don’t want anything, hon?” he says to me.
I don’t respond. I can’t stop watching the girls. Anna is practically bouncing up and down in her seat, and even Natalie is looking at the white-and-red paper bags with a kind of impatient anxiety, rocking toward the table. We don’t usually let them eat junk food. This is a special occasion. And I did it.
“Mommy,” Anna says almost immediately. “Do you want one of mine?” She is holding one of her chicken tenders in the air, gripping it like a baton in her tiny fist.
“No thank you, sweetheart,” I say. “Let’s say grace though before we eat.”
Peter leads the girls in grace, with Anna reciting each line loudly in tandem with her father. Both girls close their eyes for grace, but hers keep peeping open, checking to see if we are impressed with her memorization. I catch her eye and wink. She closes her eyes fast, but a wide smile spreads across her face.
“Amen,” Peter says.
“Amen,” Anna repeats. “And a special prayer for Grandma Maggie who’s in heaven.”
She takes my hand on the tablecloth. Her little fingers are greasy as she shoves them between my own.
“That was very nice, sweetie,” I say, returning her squeeze.
“That was great, Annie,” Peter says. I glare at him, but he doesn’t notice. He’s distracted by Natalie, who has started eating before anyone else even though the pieces are too big to fit in her mouth. I take her fork and start cutting each piece into bite-sized chunks with the edge. She picks up each as I finish cutting it, swirling it around in the little pool of ketchup that she’s made with one finger and popping it in her mouth. I can barely cut fast enough.
“Chew it up,” I say. “You’re going to choke.”
“Let me get you a knife,” Peter says and gets up.
I watch Natalie continue to inhale her chicken selects, and I open my mouth to chastise her. “Nat,” I say. “I told you to chew—” She looks up at me and I stop. I put the fork down on Natalie’s plate. Peter is returning to the table with a knife. “What happened to the pajamas she was wearing before?” I say. Natalie is wearing a new pair of Clifford pajamas. I had dressed her in polka dot pajamas before I left.
Peter tries to pass me the knife. I don’t take it from him. He leaves it on the tablecloth in front of me and sits down.
“What?” he says, as if he hadn’t heard me.
“What happened to the pajamas she was wearing before?” I repeat. “What happened to the polka dot pajamas?”
“Nothing happened,” Peter says.
I turn to Natalie, who is staring down at her plate. “Nat,” I say, loud. “Natalie.” She doesn’t look up.
“Hon, nothing happened. We just decided to change for Happy Meals.” He tilts his head and lowers it closer to the table in an attempt to enter Natalie’s line of vision. “Right, Tally Bear?”
I look at Anna. She is staring at her father, eyes wide. Her cheeks are stuffed full of chicken meat that she has stopped chewing. She looks like a chipmunk.
“Anna,” I say. “What happened to your sister’s pajamas? The new ones.” She looks at me with the same wide eyes and swallows her food. I can see it move down her throat in a lump.
She coughs and shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
“Anna,” I say. My hand comes down on top of her hand, sitting on the tablecloth. She tries to wiggle it free.
“Mary,” Peter says, standing up in his seat. “Come on.”
“Anna,” I say. “Look at me.” Anna continues to shake her head at me. Her mouth is open but she isn’t speaking. “Look at me.”
“Mary,” Peter shouts. He pulls my hand off of Anna’s. “Enough.”
I stare at Peter. “What did you do?” I say, standing to his level. Natalie whimpers softly to my left.
“What did I do?” he shouts across the kitchen table at me. “You’re kidding, right?” Anna starts crying, more loudly than her sister. A sound like a siren or an injured dog, impossible to ignore. We both look down at her.
“Jesus,” Peter says. He crouches next to Anna’s seat and puts his hands on her knees. I am fighting every urge in my body to pick up the butter knife in front of me and stab him.
“Stop it,” I say.
He looks up at me, confused, and then back to Anna. Ignoring me, he wipes her nose with his shirtsleeve. “Can you take your sister with you to your room for a second, honey?” She nods and he mirrors the motion.
Anna slides out of her seat without looking at me. She takes Natalie’s hand and leads her out of the kitchen, down the hall toward their room.
“What did you do?” I say. “What did you do?”
Peter watches them go and waits for the door to click shut before he turns back to me. “Do not speak to me like that in front of my daughters ever,” he says through clenched teeth.
“What did you do to her?”
“Nothing, Mary. Jesus Christ. What is even the issue with the pajamas? They are just fucking pajamas. Not every single present from your mother is going to last forever.”
“Where are her pajamas? What did you do?”
“They are in the wash.” He rubs his eyes with his hands. “It’s not sabotage. You need to start facing facts about that woman and get it out of your head that I’m the villain.”
“Why are they in the wash?”
“Nat had an accident. She fell asleep watching that movie and woke up on the couch with her pants wet, okay?” he says. “Bad dream or something. I don’t know.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Yeah, well big surprise there. You just believe whatever you want to anyway.”
“Where are her pajamas? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“She was embarrassed. She didn’t even want to tell me. Anna had to tell me. She thought you would be mad because they were the ones your mother got them for—I don’t know—whenever that was.” He shrugs. “Looks like she was right.”
“No,” I say. “That’s not why.” I slam my palm on the table and the table settings still left rattle.
“Take it easy.” Peter says. He tries to reach out to touch my hand but I retract it into myself. “Can’t you see that there’s a problem here? With Anna here at dinner trying so hard to make you happy? It’s sick.” I look down the hall. Light spills out from under the second door into the darkness. Peter continues. “Even your kids know you’re more likely to side with a dead woman than with them.”
“Keep your voice down,” I hiss. “That’s not true.”
“It is true,” he says. He obliges me and lowers his voice. The corners of his eyes turn down. “Why do you think Nat thought you would be mad? The way you freaked out when Anna broke that stupid elephant.”
“That was for her baptism,” I say, enunciating every word. He is not going to distract me.
Peter sighs and shakes his head. He picks up Anna’s plate, scraping her uneaten
chicken fingers and fries onto his own. He does the same with Natalie’s plate and stacks them up. He throws out the food and brings the plates to the sink where he stands with his back to me.
“I don’t believe you,” I say over the running water.
“You know what, Mare,” he says, placing the first clean dish in the dryer rack. “That doesn’t really surprise me at all because it’s always something. Some new way that I am trying to destroy the image of your mother.”
I get up and walk over to the door to the basement deliberately. I open it.
Peter is still talking. “I am just trying to help you to move on. And this is totally unrelated anyway.” He pauses. “But a pretty good indicator of the problem.”
I disappear into the darkness of the basement. I’m moving too quickly for my eyes to adjust, but I know this house well and I know to skip the second-to-last step. It’s rotting. You have to hit it gently or not at all.
The basement is unfinished, but Peter put up a wall and built a makeshift laundry room in the back when I was pregnant with Natalie. The new machines were his gift to me and we didn’t have any room upstairs for them.
It is freezing down here beneath the earth. I tread past stacks of canned food, a few plastic bins filled with Anna’s old stuff. Things we’re saving for Natalie when she gets bigger. Hand-me-downs. The light is on in the laundry room and I can feel the warmth of the dryer before I even open the door.
When I do, I can see that both machines are on. A load in the washer and a load in the dryer.
A loud crack comes from behind me, followed by a thud.
“Damn it,” Peter says. He followed me down here and hit the second step too hard. It has finally broken under his weight.
I am furious. He knew I would ask. He put them in the wash because he knew I would ask.
“How do I know that she had an accident?” I say. Peter stands up from where he has fallen. He brushes his pants off, and the light from the open door at the top of the stairs illuminates thick plumes of dust that come off. “How do I know that she had an accident?” I am yelling now.
Peter’s neck snaps up and he is looking at me now, mostly a silhouette against the light from behind him. Some of the light from the laundry room comes from the other direction, and it catches a glint in his eye. He stares at me without speaking, and I can’t tell if he is going to cry or hit me. Peter has never hit me before, but I recognize my father for a moment.
He steps toward me, and I freeze. He is inches away from my face now, still silent. His mouth is pressed shut and he is breathing heavily through his nose. I can feel his breath graze the tip of my nose. It makes me shiver.
“Mary,” he says. “Look at me. Look at me, honey. What is going on with you? This can’t still be going on.” There are two small parallel scars on his right cheek from a fight he got into in high school. Some kid hit him with a metal ruler and both edges broke the skin. They’ve been there as long as I’ve known him. It occurs to me now for the first time that they look like scratches.
“How do I know it wasn’t blood on there?” I whisper. My breath makes a little cloud of steam in the air of the basement. It catches the light for a second and dissipates.
“What?” he whispers, his eyes opening a bit. “I didn’t catch that.”
I can feel my own hot tears against my skin now, sticky and itchy as they dry on my neck. I can’t believe I let this happen. “How do I know it wasn’t blood on there?” I repeat, barely able to keep my voice steady.
Peter’s face falls suddenly. His eyes go blank like TV screens turned off suddenly, all the light sucked toward a spot in the center that vanishes, leaving a gray afterglow that fades to black. I realize that the look that had been there was hopefulness. I feel a knot form in my stomach.
He pushes past me to the laundry room, disappearing for a moment only to return holding something. Pants. Impossibly tiny polka-dotted silky pajama pants. He shoves them at me. I can feel the dampness first. The smell is next.
“They weren’t in that load,” Peter says. He’s not yelling. “They were in the hamper.”
I hold the pants in front of me. In the dim light, I can see the dark stain expanding out of the crotch into both legs. I shake my head and try to speak. “I’m sorry,” I whisper over and over, but Peter continues to talk over me.
“And there’s no blood because I would never, ever hurt my daughters.”
I look up at him. Now the tears are coming fast down my face and I can’t catch my breath. “I’m so sorry,” I say. “I thought—” The words get stuck in my throat. I choke on them and cough.
“You’re the one hurting them,” he says and takes a breath. “Jesus, Mary. Blood?” The tendons of Peter’s neck are straining in and out, pushing against the skin.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I just . . . my mom had said something, and it all seemed—”
He frowns and shakes his head. “Stop.”
“Stop,” he yells. “Just fucking stop.” He looks to the top of the stairs and falls silent for a second, listening for movement above. “I’m taking the girls to get something to eat,” he says. “You should make sure to be asleep when we get back. I’ll take the couch.”
Peter walks up the stairs and I can hear his footsteps continuing down the hallway, over to the girls’ room. “How do we feel about some ice cream?” he asks, loud standing in for cheerful. “Is it too cold?”
I can’t even hear the response. Usually it would be loud because ice cream is a big deal. But an agreement is met nonetheless. I hear boots being pulled on, coats zipped up, the front door slamming shut. I’m sure that at least Anna knows where I am, that I’m sitting on the last step in the dark. I’m sure one of my girls asked if I was going to come, because they’re worried about leaving me alone here, because she’s scared of what I might do, because a small part of Natalie isn’t sure what to believe.
Kate Brody’s work has appeared in The Dirty Napkin, Pif, and 34th Parallel, among other publications. She is an MFA candidate at NYU. This story originally appeared in TLR The Tides