By Abi Newhouse
In the early September light, the kitchen’s white counters looked bright and glistening. Louise rubbed a sauce stain near the stove, then stood back to look at her work. The four younger children had left to piano lessons. The house could be clean for an hour, at least. Upstairs, the shower turned on, and the water swirled in the pipes, traveling through the walls. The two oldest children should be getting ready for the church choir concert. A box elder bug crawled along the window frame. Louise snapped it dead with her rolled up rag.
Louise looked out the kitchen window to the gardens—the white picket fence, tips pointed and paint peeling, surrounding vines and corn stalks, still at the beginning of budding life. Beyond the fence lay the pumpkin patch, empty of bulbous gourds for a couple months yet. She looked at the orchard then, the trees scraggly, leaves rustling in the breeze. Some peaches and apples held to the branches and others dropped to the ground like heavy rain, but beyond all that, a figure walked towards the house.
She leaned over the sink and squinted. Louise’s husband walked out of the barn and waved towards the figure. The figure tucked something under his jacket. The two men met in the middle, her husband and her oldest son. Another box elder bug landed on the cupboard, its body diagonal, antenna twitching. Louise raised the rag once more, but the bug burst into flight, wings humming.
Her son Ed had not done anything spectacular yet. Louise hoped he would raise his grades in high school, join the track team, try an instrument, but he stayed in his room and listened to loud music. She let this happen. She grew up without a mother—she died in childbirth—and with a resentful father who worked as a psychiatrist. Louise moved away from her father as soon as possible, and since then, they only talked once a month for about five minutes. How are you? How are the kids? Louise felt she had no one to ask if Ed’s behavior seemed normal. The women in the church group never let on to their own disappointments, like a rule, don’t talk about the negative, unless it’s someone else’s negative. Pretending became natural.
Ed came through the back door, his left arm hunched over his side, the other hand pulling his jacket tight. He drummed down the stairs, his hand sliding over the railing. The water shut off upstairs. Footsteps on the tile.
Louise stood smiling with the other mothers in the dim multipurpose room of their church building. It had taken months to feel included in this crowd—in the book club, the group email, the volunteer clan they’d created. She loved to drink wine with them once a month and do anything but talk about kids. Or that’s what she told herself. She wanted to be detached like the other mothers, and yet the façade was exhausting. Her four little children ran around the gym, hiding under tables and chasing each other through rows of chairs. Children never sit still unless they have something to watch. Louise’s husband talked with the men.
A woman in the group touched Louise’s arm. “Mary did wonderful on her solo,” she said. Louise thought of her daughter, how her eyes had seemed red, glistening slightly—though Louise would never bring that up with the women. Mary had done well on her solo. Her voice cracked slightly at the end. When the concert finished, Mary had run offstage. Louise looked for Mary in the crowd and found her on the steps of the stage, staring at the people. Like Ed, Mary hadn’t done anything particularly spectacular, though she did like to read and she did act in school plays. That was something. She couldn’t see Ed anywhere.
A loud clatter interrupted the steady conversation. One of Louise’s children lay on the ground, screaming and crying. She and her husband rounded up the kids, said quick goodbyes, and rushed out of the church building. Louise had wanted an excuse to leave, anyway.
As they rushed out, Mary caught up to Louise and said, “Mom, Ed was pulling on my shirt.”
Louise said, “Did he hurt you?”
“No, but I didn’t like it.”
“Did you tell him that?”
The small son walked so close to Louise that she tripped over his feet. “Well in that case, he’s just going to think it’s okay in the future.” She caught herself and grabbed the boy’s hand, keeping him at a safe distance. Mary had always been so sensitive, and Ed the opposite. Insensitive and too curious. Ed walked by his father. They probably talked about cars.
The family climbed into the van. From the front seat, Louise could hear Mary sniff in the back.
Mary always cried wolf. She’d screamed once in the night, and when Louise stumbled into Mary’s room, still half asleep but moved by endorphins, Mary had the lamp on and sat in bed.
“There’s someone at my window,” she had said, her eyes wide.
Louise sat on the edge of the bed, heart still strobing.
“Someone’s looking in my window.”
Louise looked at the sky, black, lightless. Mary’s room was on the second level of the house.
For nights and nights Mary would scream about the same impossible thing. She ended up sleeping with one of her little sisters for a couple weeks. A jumpy little sweetheart.
When all the kids left for school and her husband left for a business trip, Louise allowed herself five minutes of breathing alone. The closest she ever felt to her father was when he taught her to meditate. It’s a release, he’d told her, from the chaos. She sat in the middle of the living room, stray toys and dishes all around her, and she closed her eyes. In these moments she would picture the sun, but a close up version where she could see the fire float around the surface, the heat a comfort in her mind’s space. Sometimes she’d imagine other planets too—the slick ice rings around Saturn, Neptune’s possible waves—but this time she stayed by the sun, warming her hands, her chest, her face.
Louise went to Ed’s room to return some socks he had left on the sofa. In his window well, a green plant bloomed, its leaves long and spiky. Fuzz grew in the middle. Some sort of flower, Louise assumed. Ed said he would be growing a plant for a science project. She felt a swell of pride as she watched the plant soak sun.
Ed had always been a tricky child, messes everywhere he went, his voice a couple pitches above a normal volume. Her own father had analyzed everything she said without really listening. She didn’t speak to Ed that often, she realized, never asked him his opinion on anything. Is that what would guide together the gap she so often felt with age?
The phone rang upstairs. When Louise answered, the principal announced herself.
“Your son, Ed?” the principal said. “We’ve been having some trouble with him.”
“What sort of trouble?” Louise felt sick. She pictured Ed as a one year old in his high chair, eating cut up strawberries.
The principal was quiet for a moment. When she spoke, she sounded annoyed. “Apparently, he’s been caught lurking in the girl’s bathroom a couple different times, and I’ve just now heard about it.”
Louise could faint. She’d never fainted, but she was sure she could. When she composed herself, she thanked the principal for the information, said she’d be to the school immediately, and sat at her table with her head in her hands.
Ed—the spastic son who used to play with toy trains and then traded them for matches and dried grass too close to the house. The little boy who’d asked for bedtime stories every night and when he hit the beginnings of teenage years blocked his door with his desk chair. She’d worried, of course she’d worried, but he still looked her in the eye. He still sat with his family at dinner. He played with the kids. What questions did he have that he would not voice to his parents?
At book club, the mothers discussed the book for five minutes and then went into more pressing matters—the gardening or gossip. Louise couldn’t pay attention and sat on the edge of her chair at the edge of the circle, swirling her wine. She would usually only drink at the book club, once a month, and even then just one glass. This glass was her third, as full as she could get it without spilling. One woman brought up the math club they’d decided to have another time once a month to hone their skills. Another reminded the others about how she’d teach them to make their own yogurt, if they’d only ask.
Louise never liked math. She didn’t like the yogurt talk—how it comes from expired milk. How can they eat that? How can they make that?
She stood, a bit wobbly, and moved to the kitchen for some air to breathe. The dessert lay on opal glass platters: butter cookies with jelly, almond melt-aways. She stuffed three butter cookies in her mouth and pushed the rest together. No trace. A box elder bug crawled along the counter, out of place. Louise flicked it away.
Ed hadn’t seemed at all ashamed, only irked that he’d been caught. He had laughed when the principal asked him why he did it. Louise wanted to curl into a ball in the principal’s office, and she wanted to at the book club, safe, leaning against the counter. She wanted to become so small and unnoticeable and free.
Another woman came to the kitchen. Louise knew she must look ridiculous, hunched over the desserts, crumbs falling from her mouth. The woman tried not to act disgusted, Louise could tell, and she said, “Are you okay?”
Louise, feeling light and heavy at the same time said, “Can you listen to me?” The question came out different than she pictured, both the words and the delivery. She slurred like a dying snake.
Louise told her about Ed, her fears and her sentimentality towards him, and of Mary, who for some reason seemed to relate to Ed’s problems, but maybe she just pictured her sniffing in the back of the van, and who could tell in a state like this? The woman’s eyes went wide at all the right moments, and she did look genuinely worried, but it could have been the lighting. As far as Louise knew, no one in the group let themselves seem vulnerable to one another.
“Oh Louise,” the woman said. “When it rains, it pours.”
Louise left soon after, wondering at her ability to drive but also not caring, and she found herself in a bookstore, the idea came to her like spiritual guidance, a revelation. She searched in the self-help section for parenting directions. A manual. A how-to. She took a book called Raising the Wayward. She bought a bottle of wine from the shop next door to go with it.
In the morning her head burst like new blooms, and she opened her eyes to see Mary standing by her bed.
“Mom,” Mary said, and took a deep breath. Always dramatic. “I thought you should know, Ed is growing marijuana in his window well.”
Marijuana. Words flashed in Louise’s mind, all the synonyms: green, hash, Mary Jane, dope, hemp, 420, weed. A weed. It wasn’t a flower for science class. It was weed. Louise closed her eyes again and folded her arms over her face. She could hear Mary leave the room.
Saturday morning. Ed was probably still asleep. Louise could hear Mary upstairs in the bathroom. The other kids played in the living room, toys strewed about as if she’d never been there. She tried to call her husband. He did not answer. There wasn’t much he could do from so far away anyway. She usually let her husband discipline Ed, so Ed could learn to be a good man like her husband. Ed did not seem to care about being a good man. Anger churned inside her, and she remembered what her father would say: Anger is a secondary emotion. What are you feeling first?
Louise breathed and searched. Fear? Frustration? Sadness? Regardless, she went to the garage and pulled on her yellow gardening gloves. Without thinking, she hopped down in the window well, hoping Ed would wake and hear the commotion. She yanked at the plant, close to the ground so the root would come out and never grow again. The plant was stubborn and held on, but she swayed and pulled in all directions until it burst from the ground, dirt dangling.
She climbed out of the window well and marched through the garden surrounded by the picket fence, stomped on the dirt meant to be the pumpkin patch, and kept moving through the orchard trees where fruit would fall from her force. She’d rip the plant to shreds by the fence in the back. She’d cover it with dirt and rocks.
When she looked up, she saw Ed dart from a bush by the fence, headed towards the barn.
“Ed!” She screamed. “ED!”
He stopped. Louise felt proud, for a very small moment, that he knew it was a time to listen. She looked at his hands. He held binoculars.
She looked at the house.
From the position by the fence, he’d be able to look into the second level bathroom easily. Where Mary showered.
Louise and Ed both stared at each other’s hands. Then they looked each other in the eyes.
It rained outside, so Louise put on a movie for the younger children. Ed sat in his bedroom, the door locked from the outside, the window boarded shut, all electronics taken away, so he could only sit on his bed and think. Just think. She had yelled at him. Think about what you’ve done.
Louise watched the younger children, lined on the couch, staring at the screen. The youngest girl sucked her thumb, a habit almost all of her children had at one point. She remembered Ed when he was even littler than that, again at his high chair, how he’d clap after every bite of grilled cheese.
She missed the feeling of a baby’s head on her chest, she being the ultimate comfort. She gathered the youngest in her arms and the little girl didn’t ask questions, just lay back on her mother, keeping her thumb in her mouth and never taking her eyes off the screen.
Louise drifted off, surprisingly, though her thoughts bolted in every direction. She lay in a half awake lethargy and pictured all that had gone wrong, trying to figure out the order of things. There was no order of things. All the memories bunched and expanded like an accordion, all of them stretched and snapped.
Outside thunder struck, and her daughter settled in closer. Louise saw the sun then, her eyes still closed, trying to block out the gray. But the sun churned this time, it didn’t feel peaceful, it’s flames lapped at the space around it. She tried to shove out faces and voices from the day, Ed’s laugh and Mary’s cry—pushed to the side. Searching for peace, searching for help, searching for—meteors fell into the surface, each of them bursting and melting simultaneously, pieces of rock flying around her. She couldn’t dodge. Didn’t know how to dodge. She was falling instead of floating. Burning. All of her going down together.
Abi Newhouse is a graduate from the creative writing program at Utah State University. She has been published in Chantwood, Crab Fat, and Coup D’Etat magazines. She loves her cats, her growing plant collection, and moments alone. She’ll be attending the MFA program at George Mason in the fall of 2017.