Real Family

Ginger kisses the crown of her son’s head, rises from the table. “Finish frosting.”

As she walks to the front door, she feels the lightness in her arms, the cool wood floor against the bottoms of her bare feet. The water pipes thrum; Ethan’s still in the shower. “Pizza’s here!” she calls up the stairwell.

When she opens the door she is surprised by how light it still is outside. Somehow she has missed this, the gradual passing of spring. For too long she has been stepping out the door with her head down, trying to make it through this phase of life. She squints into the setting sun, grins at the delivery boy, tips him generously.

Robert’s head is still bent over his work when she returns.

“Time to wash up for dinner.” She uncaps two bottles of beer, pours them into glasses she’s left to frost in the freezer. “Do you want milk or juice?” She picks up the glasses, one in each hand, and swings around.

The first thing she notices is the color of the frosting on the cupcake in his hand, how deep a shade of pink it is, deeper than she recalls having made it. It seems he just keeps circling around and around the top of the cupcake, as if he’s dissatisfied with his workmanship, wanting to get the knife strokes perfect.

“Robbie? It’s time for dinner.”

The water pipes go silent. Upstairs, Ethan is whistling.

The kitchen fills with the humid scent of pizza, making Ginger’s mouth water. “Robert.” Her voice is stern but cautious. “It’s time to put that away.”

He continues to ignore her, his back hunched, obstructing her view so that all she can see is the tip of his knife poised over the cupcake. He holds the knife tip just over the dessert, as if he is waiting for something.

Ginger sighs. “Okay. That’s it.”

Drip. Drip. Two red drops fall onto the table drawing her eyes towards a puddle that has suddenly appeared there. The dye, Ginger thinks, but when she looks across to the kitchen countertop the bottle of red food coloring is where she left it, cap on, lined up next to the others of blue, green, and yellow, a row of oversized tears. Robert swipes at the hair that has fallen into his eyes and Ginger sees what has created the liquid puddle.

The sound of the glasses shattering against the tile floor jolts Robert. He drops the knife, twists in his seat. The hand he has injured—the left, just like Ginger’s own damaged hand—grips the back of the chair, the cuts jagged and uneven, the skin sawed through with something blunt—the butter knife he’s been using. The pain he must have endured to do the damage he has done to himself. Blood crawls between his fingers; his hand leaves messy smears on the wood of the chair. Ginger’s view to the table is unobstructed now; it stuns her how easy it is to identify the cupcakes her son has frosted, the rage and sadness of them.

From above, footsteps pound against the hallway floorboards. Ethan calls out: “Everything alright down there?”

Ginger pushes her toe forward, hears the crackling of glass. Just step over it, she tells herself. That’s all you need to do. But she is paralyzed, unable to move toward her son to help him, even though she knows that sooner or later she must.

“Mama?” Robert’s face is contorted, preparing for the next trick of emotion. He lifts his arms up, reaches out to Ginger. “Mama?

“What’s going on?” Ethan is standing in the doorway.

Ginger grabs a dishtowel from the countertop, rushes to Robert before Ethan can. She feels the glass puncture the bottoms of her feet, the pain exploding inside her head. As she steps the slivers of glass sink deeper into her flesh. She throws the dishtowel over Robert’s hand.

“What happened?” Ethan cries.

Robert sobs, his mouth drawn wide, gasping; he cannot get enough air. He pushes at Ginger, tearing at the towel she’s forced over his hand.

“Nothing!” shrieks Ginger, wrapping her arms around her resisting child, stroking his head even as she feels the violent waves, protesting shudders of his body beneath hers. “Hush, Robbie. Hush up now,” she murmurs but it only provokes him more. He struggles, digs his fingers into her locked arms, but she will not let go; she will never let go. She looks up at Ethan but cannot hold his gaze which is, in that moment, telling the story of their lives.

“It’s just a scratch,” she tries and nearly laughs at the absurdity of the words. She doesn’t know what else to say; her mind won’t work beyond tightening her grip around the fierce, vibrating body of her son. My son, she thinks and wants to declare out loud so that he understands: You are my son. But the words won’t yet come.

Lenore Myka’s fiction was selected as one of the 100 Distinguished Stories by The Best American Short Stories and won the 2013 Cream City Review fiction contest. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, West Branch, Massachusetts Review, H.O.W. Journal, Upstreet Magazine, Talking River Review, and the anthology Further Fenway Fiction. She received her MFA from Warren Wilson College.