Saturday, November 1, 2014

Tonight's the Night


            I wonder, Sarah thought, what it’s like to be a mother.  She, stunning and youthful, rubbed her bulging belly under the pink maxi dress – two sizes above normal – and looked out to the cul-de-sac where the neighborhood children ran after each other, their eyes wide and mouths open. The sun was almost out of sight over the hill behind the freshly-sodded Pedigree house when the bluish LED lamp turned on and birthed shadows from bushes. Summer nights brought a certain kind of leisure in Missouri. It wasn’t like visiting Uncle B when he lived in Washington D.C. where you could walk around Wisconsin Avenue or Bethesda to keep yourself amused. No, there in the suburbs of St. Louis, you go out and sit on your porch or go for a hike at Castlewood State Park. Sarah was an active women who finished half marathons in a little over two hours. She liked to run down the lakeside trail and watch the ducks float on the river. Ever since her pregnancy and the move into her new home, time did not allow her to participate in these activities as much. As a child, Sarah lived a sheltered life. Her mother was an elder at the First Methodist Church of Chesterfield. Her father left her one week before her third birthday. When Sarah was a teenager, her mother talked to her about the dangers of higher education. Much to her mother’s fear, this discussion did not affect Sarah’s decision to attend college. During her sophomore year at Missouri State University, Sarah met Kyle in one of her elective classes, and their romantic relationship further distanced her from her mother. The only contact Sarah received from her mother was a yearly Christmas card that invited her to church and to repent from her worldly ways by accepting Jesus as her lord and savior.
Billy Conrad, as a member of Sarah and Kyle's neighborhood, liked to sit on his porch. His house was on the end of the street overlooking the main road. Sometimes, Sarah would take a walk to the top of the neighborhood where he lived. She would see him sitting on his rocking chair, hands greasy, gulping a tall boy of Natural Light. If he didn’t see the kids playing down in the cul-de-sac, he would take out his ‘68 Charger (or his ’72 Roadrunner or his ’69 Camaro) and gun it down the street. Sarah called the police department and complained – and so did many of the parents. One time, she even confronted him while he was working on a radiator. “Excuse me,” she said, “but there are children in this neighborhood. We don’t want them getting hurt.” Billy laughed. “I’m sorry missus, bu’ fast cars are made fer driving.” The neighbors didn’t talk to him much.
            After the darkness drove the children inside for the night, Sarah entered the kitchen and reached for her prenatal vitamins in the cabinet above the microwave. There was a letter on the counter; Kyle must have placed it there when he got home from work. He went to the bank about an hour ago, and Sarah expected him to come back anytime soon. There wasn’t a return address on the envelope and Sarah tore the taped flap in subdued anticipation. Inside, there was a single loose-leaf piece of paper – still with the broken frills on the left edge. Sarah recognized the handwriting as her Uncle B’s. Her uncle informed her that he opened a separate bank account to help with groceries and food for the new arrival. He also wrote down his address in the letter for future correspondence. "I did this," he wrote, "so no one at the post office could see it on the envelope. At the end of the message, he wrote, in all capital letters: BURN THIS LETTER AND THE ENVELOPE WHEN FINISHED. LOVE YOU. B. Sarah placed the letter on the table, shook her head and smiled.
                  Uncle B was a retired CIA agent who won $300,000 in the lottery six months ago. Sarah didn’t think that her secretive uncle would think to share his winnings with her. When Uncle B worked for the government, he talked about retiring late in life and using his savings to buy a boat and fish for bass on the Meramec. He previously lived in Washington D.C., but recently moved out in Union to get away from headquarters. The last time Sarah visited him was three years back when he received an award from the agency in D.C. She didn’t see him much, but she talked to him often. Uncle B said he would like to see her as soon as she got situated in the new house. He didn’t like to spoil new beginnings. Sarah crumpled the letter and envelope into little balls and placed them into the trashcan.
            “What a change of heart, Rorschach,” Sarah said, as she looked over to the living-room carpet, where a tabby pumped his paws and kneaded, languid from evening trickery. Sarah heard the garage open and looked at her watch. Kyle walked through the back door and looked tired. “How did it go?” Sarah asked.
            “It went all right,” Kyle said as he opened a sac and scooped grounds of coffee into the French-press while he filled up the kettle. Sarah could smell the earthy scent of ground Arabica as it circulated around the living room.
            “I’m surprised it took that long.”
            “I guess we will have to get used to it. We are going to have at least eighteen years to test our patience. What’s a little financial planning?” Kyle said as he turned from the stove and looked at Sarah with a kind expression and winked. Dimples appeared at the corners of his lips. His smile reminded Sarah of why she married him. She pressed her head firmly into the head of the recliner and her hair pressed outward; her bangs were a fortress.
            “We’ve been married two-and-a-half years now. I think I have the patience,” Sarah said and laughed. Rorschach looked up from the beige pool of synthetic fibers and stared.
            “I got a letter from my uncle today.”
            Kyle took out a mug from the cabinet. “So that’s who sent it. I should’ve known. I keep expecting him to send some sort of microscopic microphone to spy on us.”
            “He probably already has,” Sarah said as she opened the compartment under the coffee table, “I found out that my uncle can help us out with Charlie. Uncle B said he would open up a separate bank account for us.” Sarah took out baby blue nail polish from the cosmetics box. “It’s going to help out a lot especially since I haven’t had any luck finding a teaching job ever since we moved."
            “That’s very kind of him,” Kyle said, pouring the steaming water into the press.
            Sarah felt a sudden rise of uneasiness. She looked down at her fingernails. “All I know is that things are going to work out. We’ve wanted this for a while now. Sarah blew on her fingers and the polish clotted.
            Kyle said seriously, “I don’t think anything can hold us back.” He pressed down the plunger and noted the peculiar color of the coffee.   
            Kyle took his steaming mug and went to his office to research a case summary. After her nails dried completely, Sarah did some of the chores downstairs – vacuumed, emptied the trashcans and wheeled out the receptacle, and fed Rorschach. Then, she went upstairs to look at Charlie’s room. It seemed like there wasn’t a day that passed that Sarah didn’t spend time in it. Paint buckets with dried paint like shagbark hickory around the rims lined the wall. It’s almost time, Sarah thought as she looked at the half-full blue room. 
            The April moon was out and powdered the rooftops with a mix of white and blackish-blue. Children left tricycles and balls in the grass. Sarah and Kyle cuddled and laughed on the couch while they watched Look Who’s Talking. Sarah loved watching old movies she enjoyed as a child. Kyle never watched anything except the Discovery Channel and reality court shows, and Sarah was surprised to find that he didn’t watch lots of things people their age grew up watching. Sarah kissed Kyle’s cheek and then they heard a knuckling at the front door.
            Kyle looked down the hall. “Did you hear that?” Then, after a few seconds, the doorbell rang. Kyle walked to the door. The moment the door opened – the moment when the humid air scurried through the crack, an upbeat male voice said “Hello Kyle.” Kyle turned on the porch light. “Hello Mr. Pedigree,” he said. The visitor wore a formal dinner coat, slick black shoes, and sucked an unlit stogie between his dry lips.
            “I’m sorry it’s late,” said Pedigree, “but we were wondering if you guys had any milk?” His teeth were so white.
            Kyle rubbed the back of his neck. “I think we have some. What’s the occasion?”
The gray-haired man on the porch appeared nervous. “We are going to make pancakes for breakfast tomorrow. Martha was going to get some from the bakery, but we figured you would have it. I thought you two lovebirds would still be up doing something.” Mr. Pedigree guffawed and pat Kyle on the shoulder.  
            The couple was new to the neighborhood, but they met Mr. Pedigree and most of the other neighbors a couple times before. A month ago, when Sarah and Kyle were outside unloading the U-Haul truck, Mr. Pedigree walked over from across the street, wearing a black stovepipe hat and holding a black cane with a metallic eagle head. He introduced himself and said that he stayed home and watched the stock market and his wife owned a small bakery off Manchester. The Pedigrees were well off, although certainly not upper class. Mr. Pedigree said that his style made up for his money. Before he left the couple to unpack their belongings into their new home, he curiously looked at Sarah’s belly and asked how long. “Seven months,” she said. Mr. Pedigree smiled like a mime and said, “Oh my,” and took out one of Rorschach’s mouse toys from a box on the driveway. A playful toss and an “Oh ho!” and the mouse jingled into the grass. Some of the neighborhood children – Nick Jackson, who lived next door to the Pedigrees, and Megan Carlyle who lived two doors over from Sarah and Kyle – told them about Mr. Pedigree’s strange behavior. Nick said he saw Mr. Pedigree digging through their trashcan late at night and Megan swore she heard him having a conversation with himself in the backyard when she came home from walking her dog one night. When the children told Sarah and Kyle about Mr. Pedigree’s behavior, the children’s parents laughed and shook their heads. “He’s eccentric,” they said, “but he’s not crazy.”
            “Yeah, we usually stay up pretty late,” Kyle said, an effort to keep the conversation going.
            Sarah walked to the door and there was a patter from the bottom of her furry white slippers.  “Hello Mr. Pedigree,” she said.
            Mr. Pedigree looked at her bulge and his eyes were owl eyes. “Great Scotts,” he said. “The little guy is almost here!” He balled his fists and brought them toward his chest and shook with excitement. Sarah and Kyle laughed. “Well, we have milk,” said Kyle. “You’re in luck.”
            Sarah went to the refrigerator and came back with Vitamin D milk.
            “Thank you. We don’t need that much,” Mr. Pedigree said. “I will return it to you soon.”
Mr. Pedigree walked two steps and then quickly turned around. “Say, will you guys be home tomorrow evening?”
            “Well, I’ll be home all day except for my check-up at ten,” Sarah said. “One of the perks of a future temporary stay-at-home mom. Kyle has court at four, so he shouldn’t be home later than six.
            “Great. Martha gets off work early in the afternoon. Bakery hours,” Mr. Pedigree said. “You guys should come over tomorrow. Seven o’clock? Nothing big, just dinner.”
            “We’d love to,” Kyle said.   
             As Mr. Pedigree walked back to his house, he took out a butane lighter from his jacket pocket and the smoke from his cigar looked like cirrus clouds rising heavenward. He stood outside his front porch to finish his cigar before when he heard a croaking sound from the backyard. There was a small patch of trees that opened up into a small pond. From among the frogs the sound came, and Mr. Pedigree quickly forgot about it in a sudden wave of excitement as he remembered the shower for Sarah. When he finished and extinguished what was left, Mr. Pedigree put the milk in the refrigerator and went upstairs.
            Martha was sitting in bed, her gray brows creased in concentration. A notebook sat in her lap and her pen twitched between her fingers. Mr. Pedigree took off his jacket, hung it from a hanger, and placed it in the closet.
            “You’re up late,” he said.
            “Did you get the milk, Paul?”
            “Sure did.” he said. “It felt so sneaky borrowing ingredients from the victim.”
            Martha laughed. “Well, I’m glad we got some because if we plan on having the cake for tomorrow – “
            Mr. Pedigree gasped. “They can come, Martha! It will be delightful for them. I remember when our old neighbors from Clayton surprised us when Maddie was born. It created excitement."
            Martha yawned and nodded. “I thought that I could make several layers with blueberries. We can make it a boy theme.”
            “That would be good.”
            “I can get it started when I head to the bakery in the morning.”
            “I’ll be in charge of the festivities,” said Mr. Pedigree.
            Martha turned off the light. “There’s so much to do tomorrow,” Mr. Pedigree said.
Twenty-five minutes later, when Martha was on the edge of consciousness, Mr. Pedigree, fully awake, said, “Oh! We should see if the neighbors can come! And family – they need to see their families!”
“Go to sleep, Paul,” Martha said, but Mr. Pedigree couldn’t go to sleep.

            The sky was overcast and the moon looked like a headlight behind the clouds when Mr. Pedigree stepped outside in a black robe and loafers. The neighborhood was quiet except for chirps and croaks. He saw Rorschach standing by the mailbox – rubbing his caramel face into the pole. “Hey kitty kitty,” Mr. Pedigree said and continued walking toward the end of the neighborhood. Questions exploded in his mind. Should I hire a caterer? What wine should I buy? If the neighbors attend, should he have them park up the street so that Sarah and Kyle won’t notice? He stopped before Shoettler road, which ran perpendicular to the neighborhood street, and turned back. He heard a crunch of a can and saw Billy on his rocking chair. “Mr. Conrad! Great night for beer, eh?” Billy opened up another can and lit a Marlboro Menthol. “What are you doing tomorrow evening around seven o’clock?” asked Mr. Pedigree.
“The same thing I do every night,” said Billy as he leaned forward to get a closer look of the ridiculous character that stood at the end of his driveway. 
“Well, if you find yourself bored, I am having a surprise party for Sarah and Jack. They are the new couple that live down the street. They are about to have their first child.”
Billy brushed his brown hair away from his eyes with a greasy hand. “I know who they are.” His response had a slight tone of agitation.
“Well,” Mr. Pedigree said, “you should come. It will be so much fun! I think I am going to buy fireworks.”
Billy grunted and Mr. Pedigree nodded politely before walking back toward his house, whistling a piano riff from “What’d I Say.”

~

            Rorschach sat near the pond behind the Pedigree house and looked out over algae and lily pads. Coyotes howled in the woods and fireflies sparked over the greenish water.  The once overcast sky now revealed patches of clarity, and specks of stars peeked through the tree branches. Rorschach perked up his ears and turned toward the back patio, where Mr. Pedigree smoked a cigar and muttered to himself about preparations. The frog in Rorschach’s mouth kicked his slimy legs like a child doing a handstand in a swimming pool.

~

            The next morning, Mr. Pedigree’s Chrysler 300 drove west on highway 44. Every now and then, after he turned off the highway toward Union, he pulled over and looked at the directions that he scratched onto the back of Uncle B’s crumpled letter. He saw a clan of leather bikers turn into the FLEA M RK T parking lot. Venders left their unattended wares covered with tarpaulin and they looked covered bodies from where Mr. Pedigree calculated his turns.
             He eventually found his location. Uncle B lived in a mid-sized ranch with an in-ground pool in the back and a fishing boat hitched to his Ford Raptor in the driveway. The housing sat on a lot of about three acres, and there was a bullet-holed target set up behind the large open land behind the pool. When Mr. Pedigree parked on the side of the road near the driveway, he saw two white-tailed deer grazing in the backyard. Mr. Pedigree went up to the door and lifted the iron knocker when he heard a voice from the garage, “Who are you?”
            Mr. Pedigree turned and saw a late-middle-aged man with light blue Levis and a lumberjack flannel shirt. Uncle B walked around toward the front of the porch and Mr. Pedigree noticed a revolver holstered to his belt.
            “You must be Sarah’s uncle,” said Mr. Pedigree.
            “How did you find me?” Uncle B asked.
            “I saw Sarah the other day and asked for your address,” Mr. Pedigree said. “The reason why I came was to ask –“
            “Who is Sarah and how do you know her?” Uncle B’s eyes were slitted searchlights.
            “She and Jack live across the street. She said you were her uncle. God, if she is playing a trick on me, she is going to get it,” Mr. Pedigree said with a grin.
            “Spread your arms,” Uncle B said.
            “Oh! Is this a game?” Mr. Pedigree asked.
            After Uncle B frisked Mr. Pedigree and made sure he wasn’t wearing any cameras or microphones, Mr. Pedigree told Uncle B about the surprise party for Sarah and Kyle. He told them about the cake and the fireworks and all the neighbors that might attend. Even his daughter was coming in from Florissant. Uncle B said that this would be a good opportunity to finally see the new house. He agreed to go. After Mr. Pedigree left, Uncle B made a phone call. No one was home, so he left a voicemail: “Why in the world would you give that crazy son-of-a-bitch my address? Love you.”
             It was eleven-thirty in the morning when Sarah returned from her appointment with the doctor. He gave her good news, and everything looked normal. Once Sarah returned home, she wheeled the empty trash bin from the street corner to the garage. She noticed that Mr. Pedigree’s car wasn’t in the driveway, which was odd because he always did his investments in the morning. After she went inside, while the bluish flame fingers warmed the tea kettle on the stove, Sarah had to go upstairs to look at the nursery. Had to. It was going to happen – the child was going to happen. The doctor said so. It was Sarah’s dream ever since she first watched The Lion King as a little girl. Her cub was almost here, and the world would be his. She would teach him all about the great circle and the way things work and imagined her boy with his mama’s bangs and his daddy’s smile clinging to Kyle’s leg as he worked in his study. In a way, Sarah wanted to take her parental opportunity as a revolt against her terrible relationship with her mother. Charlie would view his mother as a guide and Sarah would try her best to make sure that he is well-equipped to deal with life’s adventures and mishaps. On the north side of the nursery wall, the shadeless windows offered glimpses of the outside world and Sarah looked out and saw the toyless lawns before she went downstairs to watch the tea.
Kyle came home around six – more toward six-thirty than six – while Sarah was upstairs straitening her hair. The two of them haven’t had much time to go out lately – especially because of Kyle’s long hours. This dinner at the Pedigree house was a rare double date for Sarah and Kyle.
Kyle took off his shoes, stretched his toes, and combed his hair. “Hey Sarah,” he said, “are you getting ready?” He barely heard her reply.
            As he made himself a whiskey sour in the kitchen, he saw Rorschach pawing at the back sliding-glass door. “Someone wants to come in,” Kyle said with a naïve voice. Kyle opened the door and saw red splotches trailing off into the grass.
            At 7:02, Kyle locked the front door of the house before they walked across the street to the Pedigrees. The sun was a giant grapefruit overlooking the earth.  The neighborhood was strangely uneventful; children weren’t out playing. None of the neighbors sat on their porches either – not even Billy Conrad.
            After Kyle and Sarah knocked at the door and were called to the backyard by a shout from Mr. Pedigree, they were greeted by a surprise from the neighbors. The Jacksons were there and so were the Carlyles. The Pedigree’s daughter, Maddie, also came to help out with the preparations. Uncle B was there too and Sarah couldn’t believe it. He told her that he parked his truck down the street so she wouldn’t get suspicious. It worked.
            Martha brought out the green bean casserole and the steaks with mashed potatoes along with paper plates and everyone except Uncle B laughed as Mr. Pedigree told jokes over the croaking frogs and rowdy children. Blue balloons bobbed in the gentle breeze and the silver streamers twinkled like an old man’s eye. Mr. Pedigree brought out four bottles of cabernet and the adults talked while the children wrestled in the grass as the moon started to show. “Tonight’s the Night” played from a portable stereo. Everyone was smiling and telling Kyle and Sarah about the excitement they had just before they had their first child. Kyle placed his hand on Sarah’s thigh and she met him with a squeeze. Eventually, the toads bounding through the grass distracted the children, and they started to chase after them. Sarah stood up in the middle of the conversation and said, “He’s kicking! He’s kicking!” The neighbors cheered and Mr. Pedigree lifted up his cigar and glass of wine made a toast.


            Every face in the neighborhood grinned in this moment. Even Billy Conrad smiled as his unsteady hands ran along the new clear coat of a Ford Maverick in his garage in an alcoholic haze. "She's so perdy," he said.

            Everyone finished dinner and thanked Martha for the delectable meal. Mr. Pedigree suddenly jumped and almost fell. “Wait! Wait!” he shouted and his face went into an elaborate frown, “I almost forgot the pièce de résistance!

            Billy guzzled three-quarters of his current can and crushed it on his forehead and grunted. He opened up the little wooded box that attached to the wall of his garage and took out keys. 

            Cue the music! Martha pressed a button and the sustained notes from the 1812 Overture filled the backyard while Mr. Pedigree took out a plastic bag hidden behind the steps to the sliding glass door.

            The 302 4.9 liter engine idolled in the garage. Billy put the clutch in reverse.

            Mr. Pedigree placed an artillery shell on a concrete slab beside his house. Everyone waited. The sky lit up as the first shell exploded. It looked like neon confetti. Mr. Pedigree lit the wick on the second shell when Rorschack ran in a greedy, fiendish rush past the side of the house toward the pond. "Oh!" cried Pedigree as he knocked over the firework cylinder. The golden tail of the firework arced across the street and connected with Sarah and Kyle's house. There was an audible tap like a wiffle ball hitting concrete and the shell exploded. There was a rumble up the street as the sparks and heat of the fireworks ignited the light gray shutters of Sarah and Kyle's home. "Call the fire department," Pedigree shouted.  Sarah saw the flames and she ran toward the street. Her open mouth was a black hole. The Maverick hit her right thigh at 40 miles per hour.


~
      "I don't know if there's any more I can do for you," said a low-pitched voice on the telephone.
            "I'll have to see what my husband has to say," said Sarah.
            "Please do. Oh, and one more thing. Even though it will take a few weeks to process your refund, we can offer our clients a one-month stay at a condominium."
            "It's fine. Thanks. We are staying at my uncle's." She hung up the phone.
A nurse came in and checked her blood pressure. Uncle B was there, sitting on the end of her bed and reading the local news. "I hope that son-of-a-bitch is enjoying his stay at county. There's a short article in here about the incident."
            "I'm done hearing about what happened," Sarah said as she lifted her hands and placed them on her stomach. "It could have been a lot worse." 
Uncle B peeked over the top of the newspaper and seemed to watch something outside the window. Sarah picked up a small carton of milk from the bedside table and sipped from the straw. 
            After all the visitors left her room, Sarah fell asleep. She dreamt that she was crawling toward the edge of a cliff that overlooked the ocean. Her arms strained under the weight of the rest of her body. Gulls cackled somewhere below and the salty air brushed her nostrils. The end of the cliff was just a few feet away - close enough for her to reach out and grab the end. There was an unknown man with a plastic mesh trucker hat with a fishing pole on the beach below. She did not know why, but she could not stop staring. Sea wind exhaled through her hair when the man slowly looked up and stared directly into Sarah's eyes from the beach. The man's face grew larger in small increments just like someone zooming in with a camera. All Sarah could see were his gray eyes.
            Kyle worried about Sarah for the two months between the Billy incident and his son's birth. He tried to stay optimistic by painting Charlie's room at Uncle B's house, which took a lot of lawyering to convince Uncle B to allow his nostalgia-inducing CIA room to be turned into a nursery. Uncle B said he would paint over it when the snail-paced contractors finished re-modeling the upper-story of their house. Sarah was still recuperating in the hospital when her son was born. Even though the doctors said she probably wouldn't walk again, Charlie was a low-hanging fruit of hope that Sarah thought she could reach from a wheelchair.

~

            Psychologists say that everyday things can trigger flashbacks of traumatic experiences. They say it might benefit victims of traumatic events to seek professional counseling. Something as ordinary as rain could incite the feeling of drowning in someone who almost died at the beach – say. One day, while Kyle was at court and Uncle B was fishing, Sarah heard a car horn at the four-way stop a block away from Uncle B’s house. She experienced a short, intense panic attack which caused her to unwillingly create an impenetrable boundary around herself that did not allow the slightest reaction to the objects around her. A few minutes later, while Sarah was nearing the end of her attack, Charlie started crying. Sarah sat in her wheelchair with her face in her hands. She eventually comforted him, though, after feeling guilt for her helplessness. Sarah used Charlie’s onesie to wipe her tears. This was Sarah’s first flashback.
            That Saturday, after Sarah’s physical therapy session, Martha and Mr. Pedigree stopped by for a visit. Sarah was watching Ghostbusters in the living room when she heard Mr. Pedigree’s laugh in the foyer. She sadly looked toward the ground, then picked up the remote and increased the volume.
            “There she is,” Mr. Pedigree said when he entered the living room. After intentionally ignoring Charlie sleeping on Sarah’s lap, he said excitedly, “Oh! Little lad! Don’t think I didn’t notice you!”
            “Paul, please control yourself. You will wake him up,” said Martha. She handed Sarah a bouquet of roses and chrysanthemums.
            After the Pedigrees left and after Uncle B returned from one of his weekend hunting trips, Kyle grilled chicken on Uncle B’s new propane Grillmaster and everyone ate outside for dinner. Charlie was asleep inside and his inhales and exhales transmitted through the monitor. After taking an aggressive bite from his sandwich, Uncle B said to Sarah, “I forgot to tell you,” he swallowed. “Someone from Fern Ridge School District called the other day. I thought it was one of those annoying telemarketers so I didn’t answer. They left a message though.”
            Sarah took a sip of iced tea. “What did they say?”
            “They said there’s an opening at the high school.”
            Sarah played with a piece of iceberg lettuce in her salad. The teeth of the fork made a cracking sound as she stabbed. “I think I should take some more time to recuperate.” She looked across the field of bluestems and wild rye that grew in wild thickets behind Uncle B’s house. Charlie sniffled on the monitor.
            “You take all the time you need,” said Kyle. “We are fine for the time being. No need to rush things.” Kyle touched her hand.
            Sarah had her second flashback that night when she slept in the nursery while Uncle B and Kyle were downstairs playing poker. She usually turned the T.V. off whenever Charlie went to bed but the tramadol made her drowsy and she fell asleep in the rocking chair. She didn’t know what spurred this feeling – the pain in her thigh had an almost phantasmagoric freshness. It was almost as if Billy Conrad ran into her again. She woke up and gasped. Charlie opened his eyes and hiccupped.
            The following morning, Sarah woke up early to talk to Kyle at breakfast before he left for work. An unexpected misty rain early in the morning formed a giant cloud of dense fog. Toast sprang from the toaster with a ding. Sarah sat down with Kyle at the walnut table and told him all about the flashbacks. “Maybe you should see somebody,” he told her. ”It might be good for you.” Sarah looked down at her hands, turned them over, and scratched her wrist. She knew what a mother would say – a good mother that would stop at nothing to make sure she was in the best condition for parenting. “You’re right, dear.” There was reluctance in her voice and Kyle sighed and straightened his tie. “You’ll be back. These things take time.”
            After Kyle left and while Uncle B was in the garage painting his skiff, Sarah sat by Charlie in the nursery and cried. Sarah felt vulnerable when she was alone. Even since her childhood when her mother and father deemed her old enough to stay home when they went out for short periods of time, Sarah felt exposed. There wasn’t a reason for it; she simply did not like the feeling of aloneness. She thought she was alone while Charlie gazed at the mobile over his crib with spittle running down the side of his chin like a tear.  
            Sarah did not expect her parents to come visit, but they eventually did. After Sarah took a nap, she combed her hair in front of the vanity mirror when she heard her mother’s voice downstairs in the kitchen. She took Charlie out of his crib and rubbed his head. “It’ll be okay,” she whispered. “It’ll be okay.” Her mother wore a pair horn-rimmed glasses and there was a little white swirl of sunscreen on her right cheek. She was talking with Uncle B when Sarah wheeled across the living room. Uncle B looked nervous. “So it is true,” her mother said. “How can my grandson ever expect to have a normal life when his mother doesn’t know the Lord and cannot take care of him?”
            Sarah didn’t answer. “She’s doing fine, Pat. She’s getting it all together,” said Uncle B.
            “I sure hope so. I can’t stand the thought of one of our little ones receiving any less than he deserves.”
            Sarah’s eyes narrowed and a wrinkle formed above her nose. “Why the hell do you care?” Her mother opened her mouth, but Sarah interrupted. “You’ve spent your whole life thinking about protecting me from outside influences that you forgot to show me love. You haven’t even met Charlie.”
            “I tried, Sarah. I tried, but your father – you know about his condition. He hasn’t been himself lately.”
            Sarah started to cry and she took Winston back to her room. She stared at Winston through the bars of the crib. Her hooked finger squeegeed her tears from her eyes as she pushed the power button of the television with her free hand. Just as the Pixar lamp animation displayed on the screen, she opened the door and wheeled toward the front door. Uncle B was standing in the kitchen drinking a Diet Coke and she could hear her mother talking on the telephone on the back patio. His eyes were balmy like menthol on chapped lips. “You’ve been through a lot, sweetie.” The hair above Sarah’s eyebrows were wet. “Can I borrow the keys to your truck?” Uncle B reached into his pocket and tossed her the keys. “I love you,” Uncle B said.
            The easiest part was transferring from the wheelchair to the driver’s seat of the truck. After ten minutes of crying and cursing to herself, she managed to climb into the cab. The wheelchair retreated slowly then turned and rolled down the driveway until it reached the grass before the sidewalk on the other side of the street. She knew that driving a vehicle would be almost impossible for her: her brace didn’t allow for Sarah to bend her knee to reach the gas pedal. She straddled the center console and let her right leg down into the foot space of the front passenger seat. With her left foot, she controlled the gas and the break while she leaned and steered. Tears rolled down her cheeks and pooled between her lips. While driving down Highway 44, Sarah saw the upper curve of the sun peeking over the hill. Dusk colored the sky and clouds a purplish-red. When she arrived at the house, Sarah parked on the street because the construction workers had two POD bins in the driveway. There were plywood boards in one of the upstairs windows, and debris cluttered the roof in small piles. Some of the neighbors sat on their porches while the group of playing children diminished as they went inside for the evening. Sarah thought she saw Rorschach run across the street.    
            Sarah exited the truck – her able leg searching for the ground. The neighbors were nice enough to cut the grass and there were some leftover grass shavings in the driveway. Once Sarah managed both of her legs out of the truck, she bent down on the pavement and crawled toward the front door through the yard. Her arms itched from the grass and she groaned when she tried to pull the locked door handle. She reached into her back pocket for the key before wiping her tears and unlocking the door. Everything she could from the front door looked just how they left it. The objects in the house – the cabinets and furniture – had an unmistakable eeriness to it; it was almost as if Sarah crawled into the ghostly ruins of Chernobyl. Silence permeated the house except for the uneven clunks from Sarah’s brace against the wooden hallway floor. Dust and ash rose in small plumes as Sarah crawled up the stairs. Faces on the walled pictures smile through the dust on the glass. The door to Charlie’s nursery was closed and Sarah cried hysterically when she noticed the Bambi ornament she hung from a nail lying on the floor. She pawed at the wall, lifted herself to the doorknob hole, and saw the black, charred room.

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