Fiction by Sara Henry
Ro hides in the lilac bush and pretends she’s in heaven. She’s not sure if the dead can smell flowers or see the color purple. She thinks a lot about what the dead can feel. She found a mouse in the backyard and put it in a box under her bed until it suffocated. Its body was stiff and gray and flat. As she imagines this, two hands reach through the leaves and grasp her throat. She flops her head to the side.
Lyle shakes her head a little. “Dead as a doorknob.”
He shakes her some more until her eyes open and she starts coming to life. Her bare feet twitch. She gurgles the back of her throat and stomps out of the bush, her arms extended in front of her.
“She’s gonna eat me!” Lyle squeals as his sister chases him. He runs past the pool, laughing, the muscles in his back tensing. Their mother’s voice darts in the air. When she’d started screaming in the kitchen they’d gone into the yard to play zombies. She’s not yelling at them this time. She screams at the house itself—the stained tiles, the green wallpaper, the cutlery in the sink—because she doesn’t like living in it. She tells it that it’s worthless and a liar. Outside, her words don’t make it through the windows. Only her anger follows their backs like a swarm of bees.
“Okay, start counting.”
It’s Ro’s turn to wait for Lyle to find a place to die. She walks to the front porch and counts to thirty slowly, with her fingers over her eyes.
When Ro is finished she scans the front yard, looking for signs of her brother. The long driveway is empty and bright. The porch swing is still. Ro stares down the driveway and wills her father to pull up in his black car. He won’t, because he’s on a plane above the ocean, headed to China. Ro imagines his hands tucking the tray back into place in their gentle way.
Somewhere, she hears a door whine open. The sound cuts through the July afternoon like wire through butter. Ro creeps to the backyard, looking for her brother.
She sees his back first. In front of him, their mother is standing in a blue nightgown with her arms outstretched, her dirty blond hair falling past her shoulders. There’s a steak knife in her right hand. There are bits of green on the blade, vegetables she chopped up. She grins at the sky as if she’s just killed a monster.
“I love the earth,” she shouts.
The yard is speechless. Ro doesn’t understand what she means. All the winged animals keep flying in circles, indifferent to the three of them.
“Come on, I want to play. Let’s play.” She drops the knife next to her and jumps in the pool with her clothes on. “Get in, it’s warm,” she says, twirling in the water, splashing.
Ro hesitates. She looks at her brother. After a few seconds, he smiles, the eyes he inherited from their mother crinkling at the edges. He shrugs, and she shrugs back. They silently agree to keep this moment a secret. They won’t tell anyone—especially not their father—because they know that this is somehow wrong. But their mother is happy. Ro is embarrassed and happy and afraid.
She jumps in the pool with her brother and lets her mother’s long skinny arms draw her in. Her breath is thick with the smell of liquor. She kisses their foreheads, claims them as her own. The water is warm. That is enough for Ro. Her mother spins her and her brother around, and Ro laughs hard, life coming into her body in fierce little breaths.