She woke up like a writer full of words. An artist full of color. A wife with problems. She lay in bed for a while, eyes shut. But when she was certain, she threw off the sheets.
In darkness she walked to the living room, feeling her way with a hand against the wall. At the mantle she fumbled for a box of matches, struck one. Flame touched wick, wick caught, and she licked her fingers and snuffed out the match. She floated the candle on her palm to the kitchen. She set it on the counter next to the fridge.
She opened the fridge and removed a bottle. With her thumbnail she cut the wrap around the top. She could have used the gadget from Brookstone, one pump to penetrate the cork and one to pull it out. But she didn’t want to rape it. She wanted sensual.
She poured herself a glass. Stood in the kitchen under the light from the blood moon falling through the skylight. She stood in the moon beam shower and kicked off her slippers, which skittered across linoleum.
His words from this morning played in her head on repeat, like a fragment of song she couldn’t kill. He’d asked about the money again. Was it in the account? Maybe it was, she said. They both knew it wasn’t. Their eyes locked, and she told him the truth, sort of. Some of it, she said. Not a lot. Not enough.
The doorknob would pop if she weren’t careful. The door would squeak. It took her a full minute to open it without waking them, a trick she’d learned as a child so she could use the bathroom. She remembered waking Mother, Mother stomping her heels, screaming curses at children who made such noise that others couldn’t sleep.
She padded gently on the balls of her feet towards the bed so as not to thump the floorboards. She knelt, set her glass on the nightstand, combed the girl’s head with her fingers.
“Sweetie,” she whispered. The girl was sleeping so soundly.
“Sweetsies,” she whispered, louder.
“Baby doll!” she said abruptly, teeth clenching. Relaxing. Tenderly.
The girl stirred. Blinked. Struggled to open her eyes.
“Baby doll, time to fly.”
The girl brushed her hair from her sleepy face. “Momma?”
“It’s time to go, baby doll. Let’s go.”
She reached down and slid her hands under the girl’s warm little body, pajamas stuck to her skin
“It’s dark outside,” said the girl.
“I know, baby.”
“I don’t want to go.”
Her own words from this morning played on repeat, too. Electric bill, four hundred. The doctor even more. She paid all the bills, and the girls’ tuition. “I’m doing the best I can,” she said.
He took a step forward. He was not a violent man but there was violence in his jaw, molars grinding. “How much?”
She couldn’t say.
“How much is left?”
He stepped closer. He wouldn’t hit her, but he wanted to. Maybe not her. He wanted to hit something. “How little?”
She struck another match, and an orange glow lit the girls’ room. Shadows danced in corners, on the bean bag, the closet door. The little girl fumbled with her sticky pajama top, then closed her eyes. Her arms fell, pajama top tangled around her face. She wobbled, a marionette asleep on her feet
“Baby doll!” shouted the woman, and the little girl woke up again, put out her hands for balance and blinked. “Let’s go!”
She would rather have been yelled at. Yelling implied she was worthy of a response. It was the way he’d stared at her, it was hateful. Then he turned his back on her. In that one moment, he’d destroyed so much.
She sucked her cigarette, blew smoke up towards the tree tops.
“I heard you.”
“The rocks are hurting my feet.”
The gravel road led them towards the bridge.
“I know baby.”
“Why do you get to wear slippers?”
“I’m the mommy.”
“When I’m the mommy, can I wear your slippers so the rocks –“
“No more questions, baby doll.”
It was the tuition. That was the problem. They couldn’t afford it. The public school would have been fine. That’s why they’d bought here. Good schools, everyone said. Worth the taxes.
They reached the middle of the bridge and stopped.
“Momma why are we stopping?”
“Time to fly, baby.”
The little girl grabbed two handfuls of nightgown. “Momma, I don’t want to fly.”
“My feet hurt.”
“I wish my sister was here.”
“She’s not your sister, baby.”
“I wish my step-sister was here.”
“Honey shut UP!” shouted the woman.
The outburst surprised the girl, who took a moment to register what had happened. Slowly, her face collapsed, and she began to cry.
The woman scooped her up and held her close, comforting, soothing, squeezing, clawing, whispering, scratching. “I’m sorry, baby doll.” The girl continued to wail, and the woman let go. Her nightgown snapped back and sank towards the rocks below.
She returned home as the sun was coming up. Her husband was in the kitchen, pouring coffee. He glanced up, said “Where have you -…” He stopped. Coffee swirling in the clear glass pot.
“Solving problems,” she said. She wanted to smile but killed it. “Cutting tuition by half.”