The sound of the smashing was like thunder that comes out of complete silence and snaps every nerve in your body. Amelia didn’t flinch, didn’t cling to her sister or whimper; she just looked up from her book and laughed.
Katie wasn’t afraid. That wasn’t it. It was just that when she heard the noise she felt sorry for the house, like it was a stranger she had seen crying in the street.
The next day dust crept into their noses and mouths. All that was left of the fireplace was a hole in the wall and a jumble of stones.
“What about winter?” Katie said, even though she knew it was too late now. “Won’t it be cold?”
“It’s not as cold here as it is in Iowa,” said Dad. He was wearing goggles and looked like a bug with his hair sticking up where the elastic was pulling it too tight. He threw a floorboard into the pile next to him. Nails, like bent teeth, poked from the bottom of the wood.
Katie felt her mother’s hand brushing the hair on her shoulder. “We can get a gas fireplace,” Mom said.
Sweat was dripping from Dad’s face. Why did he sweat so much? “If you want,” he said, “you girls can draw on the walls. They’re coming down later today.”
Katie brought her box of markers into the living room. A memory tugged at her dress, a memory of the pine tree that stood in their front yard in Des Moines. As if peeking out of their attic window, she watched herself and Amelia, two little girls in coats of fake rabbit fur marching around the tree and kicking the snow off its branches. She drew the scene on the wall but it didn’t look anything like the picture in her head. Amelia was humming a song to herself. She’d drawn yellow and purple circles on the wall.
“What’s that?” The words came out meaner than she wanted.
Amelia looked at her and back at the mural with raised eyebrows, like the question had come as a surprise.
Katie looked again and saw the petals, the creamy yellow middle. The drawing was bright and beautiful.
“I’ll take a picture so we don’t forget,” Mom said.
Amelia flung her markers toward the box, and they bounced off of the plastic, flying in different directions. She pulled on Katie’s arm. “Come on, let’s go outside.”
Dad walked into the living room with an angry-looking tool in his hands. Katie wanted to run, to throw herself in front of the flower and say, “Tear down the tree. It’s so ugly. Leave this alone!”
But she followed Amelia out of the back door, holding onto her sister’s hand, and her head was turned so that she could stare at the images as they grew smaller and smaller, until her shoes touched the soft ground, and Mom closed the door behind them.
“Can you think about it?”
A plate of snickerdoodles lay on the table. She bit into one, a flutter of cinnamon sugar and butter. Raymond was sitting across from her at the dinner table. The girls had just gone to bed, and the only light came from a lamp that threw scalloped shadows against the wall. Patty heard a whisper from the back of the house and glanced over her shoulder, but the kitchen was still and silent.
“What do you think?” Raymond said again.
“About going back to work, you mean.”
“It doesn’t have to be forty hours a week. Thirty-five, even thirty.”
It was something she could picture, pulling on a pair of low heels every morning and settling into the reception desk at a dentist’s office or high school. But in her imagination the woman wasn’t quite her. It was a more slender woman with, for some reason, red hair.
“I’ll work here and there,” she said. “But I don’t know about doing it full time.”
He stared at the table with his palms and fingers touching. After a moment, he reached for a cookie from the plate and stood up from the table.
A few minutes passed with her sitting there, her arms wrapped around her body even though she was warm. Overhead, she heard the first sighs of rain, and then the periodic tap of water against plastic as it dripped into the bucket on the kitchen table.
Inventive, that was the word Raymond had used, buying a dilapidated house and fixing it up the way they wanted. It had seemed like fun then. “I’ll build you a sewing nook,” he’d said, and at the time she thought she would spend quiet afternoons taking in dresses and sewing Halloween costumes for families on their new street.
But now she felt tricked. It was Raymond alone who had wanted to move from engineering to education, to transfer their family to the South. They were paying for it with tarps and buckets. Missing closet doors and animals in the walls. Dust, everywhere.
Just before Patty went to bed, she paused at the plate of cookies.
Standing there, she felt a sensation from long ago, the impression of a coin against her chest. She realized it was a memory from that time as a girl when she’d been selling lemonade and baked goods in the front yard. An old man had bought a snickerdoodle and had given her a whole silver dollar.
“Keep the change,” he’d said.
That was twenty-five years ago. Patty shut her hand around air and held it close to her.
He was sharpening his utility knife when the first of the accidents happened. The new wood felt firm underneath his feet, and the walls stood solid but patchy, still in need of a few coats of paint. Smoothing the blade of the knife with a stone, he worked scrape by scrape. Nearly done.
He sensed Patty standing between the French doors, watching him.
“Don’t you want a cutting board?” she said over the noise.
He shook his head and continued.
She disappeared from the doorway, and when Raymond’s eyes glanced up to find her, his hands slipped. The tip of the knife gouged the flesh above his knee, and a geyser of blood shot into the air. He dropped the knife and grabbed his leg, yelling out.
“Ray?” Patty called from the kitchen. He heard her running across the plywood.
“Good Lord!” She wrapped the dishcloth she was holding around his leg.
On the way to the ER Patty sped through the amber lights and kept her hands on the wheel at ten and two. Her eyes never left the road.
He kept waiting for it. “Raymond, I told you to be careful,” she was going to say. “What’s wrong with you?” Or maybe he’d just get a scowl and a few days of silence that amounted to the same thing.
She didn’t say anything. And when she opened the passenger door her touch on his arm was different. Gentle, like she didn’t want to hurt him.
Amelia was alone in her room, drawing a puppy, when she heard something in the corner.
She jumped. The sound had come from the corner, somewhere high up. She slid off the bed, landing on her toes. But the scratching in the walls had stopped.
As soon as it started again, she raced to the study, where Daddy was reading a big book like he always did in the evenings.
“Daddy! It’s making the noise again!”
He looked up from the book.
“What’s that, sweetie?”
“The creature is back!”
He placed the book on the table next to him and got to his feet. Amelia waited for a moment, but he was too slow, and she beat him out of the room, running back through the kitchen to find what had made the sound.
She stood in the doorway of her room and Daddy came in behind her. They could hear the wind splashing in the leaves outside, cars singing.
A few minutes passed. “Call me if you hear it again, OK?”
She tried to stay awake until she could hear the creature running in the walls.
And there it was! Something was moving! Then she realized it was just her feet rustling the bed sheets.
She tried to stay awake. But the night was falling so soft.
“Tulip time!” she heard in her sleep.
The first thing she saw in the morning, across her room, was the picture pinned to her dresser mirror. Her family was sitting in a sea of red tulip bowls. Daddy’s arm around Mommy’s waist. Katie’s hair in two shiny braids. Amelia, three years old, squinting in the sunlight.
“Tulip Time!” It’s what Daddy used to say when it was time to go to the festival in Pella. The girls would dress up in white hats and funny wooden shoes. They’d spend a day there, eating almond letters and watching the parade of pretty dancing Dutch ladies go by. That was a long time ago.
In the bedroom, as she was looking at the picture, something flickered behind her. She turned to see a face and eyes staring at her, a big tail puffed out behind the animal’s little body. She kept her mouth shut tight as she stepped toward the door.
Daddy trapped the squirrel in a cat carrier and placed the cage into the bed of his truck.
“Don’t hurt him!” said Amelia as he got in the driver’s seat.
“I’ll let it out in the woods,” he said.
“I can’t believe that thing got in the house,” Mommy said, shaking her head. She kept her hand to her cheek as the truck drove away.
It was the summer after the knife incident. His T-shirt was heavy with sweat, his headband dripping into his eyes. He dropped his crowbar. A beer, he thought to himself. That’s what I need right now. Soon enough.
Patty was sewing at the kitchen table.
“How’s the back porch coming?” she said.
“So.” She put down her needle. “When are you going to get to the roof?”
She was in jeans, and her hair was half-up, a dozen strands of gray spraying in every direction. Raymond surveyed the house and saw boxes and piles of papers littering the dining room table.
“Patty, I can only do one thing at a time,” he said.
“We’re catching the rain in buckets. It’s ridiculous.”
Amelia had skipped into the kitchen. “I like it when it rains,” she said. “It feels like we’re the Swiss Family Robinson.”
“Well, there you have it.”
Amelia snatched a cookie from a jar on the counter, but before she ran back to her room, he trapped her in his arms.
She giggled and squirmed.
“Raymond, she doesn’t want to get all sweaty,” Patty said.
Amelia scampered back into her bedroom.
Raymond returned to the back yard and looked at the porch sprawled out before him. The sun was diving into the tree branches, and he could hear the neighbors slamming their car doors shut, as if putting the finishing touch on their workdays. They would go home and turn on their televisions and think of nothing.
All he wanted was to be in his chair with a beer and Dickens. What had possessed him to start this crusade against the house, anyway? Money. A lack of money. But it didn’t matter now. He had no choice but to finish.
He bent over to grab his crowbar from the ground and felt a sharpness, like a sword, slicing through his forehead. Clutching his face, stumbling to one knee, his fingertips traced something long and wooden. A splinter that must have been jutting from the house. Waiting for him.
He trailed blood behind him as he ran to the bathroom. I’m blind, he told himself. No way around it. He lifted his cupped hands from his eye.
The thing staring back at him from the mirror looked like a cheesy Halloween costume.
ZOMBIE WITH PLANK IN EYE.
But he could see. With his index finger he followed the pathway the eight-inch splinter had taken. It had punctured the skin under his eyeball, traveled over the soft, white flesh, and pierced his sweaty eyebrow.
“You lucky bastard.”
For reasons not clear to Patty, Raymond had neglected the roof for far too long. For a year (a year!) the rain had been trickling into the house over the girls’ heads. All he’d done was sling a blue tarp over the shingles and weigh it down with a few bricks, a quick fix if she ever saw one.
“You know, we’re supposed to get a big rain in a couple weeks,” she said one morning.
He was eating a piece of toast, grading papers.
“I said we’re going to get a big rain. Middle of the month.”
Raymond nodded, stood up with the papers tucked under his arm, and put his plate in the sink.
“Did you hear me?”
Raymond turned to her. “What do you want me to do?”
She put her hand flat on the counter and looked at him.
“Something about the roof.”
“It’ll be a few weeks,” he said. “I have to get the porch done.”
The few weeks passed, and the tarp was still pinned to the house.
She went to his study. In the entryway, her eyes lingered on a picture on the wall. Old Ernest Hemingway sitting at a table with a bottle of wine and a cat.
When Raymond saw her, he placed his bookmark in the novel he was reading. “Hey there, P,” he said when she sat down.
She could practically hear the rain breathing, waiting all huddled up in the clouds.
“I’m really worried.”
He didn’t answer, so she added, “about the rain.”
“We’ve got the tarp up there, and bricks holding it down. There are buckets if anything leaks through. It’ll be fine.”
He opened his book again.
That night, Patty lay in bed and listened to the rain do its tap-dance over her head. She threw off her blanket and walked to the kitchen. The buckets already held an inch of water. She had to do something.
Slipping on her rain jacket, she took the aluminum ladder from the shed and carried it to the side of the house. The water was sliding off the plastic tarp above her head, and the rungs of the ladder felt cold against her fingers.
She almost yelled when halfway up, the ladder slid an inch. But she kept climbing. If she could just move the bricks, she might be able to cover the spot where the water was coming through. As she reached the top, she extended her right hand to grab hold of a brick.
The ladder slipped out from under her and she was on the ground, her mouth full of leaves and mud, her left arm wrenched behind her back. She blinked, and soon the shock from the fall came raging through her limbs. She cried out, breathed in deep, and looked around. The ladder had disappeared in the dark rain.
Not far from where she had fallen was Katie’s window, the lights out. She crawled to the window, reached up, and tapped as hard as she could on the glass.
Her mother’s face was in the window, black streaks across her cheeks and forehead. Dead brown leaves stuck in her hair.
She was crying.
Katie had only seen Mom cry two or three times before. Once when Grandpa died, and then another time or two not long after that. She didn’t like the sound of hearing her cry. It was like the whimper of a little dog.
But when Katie ran to the back door and found her mom outside crouching against the house, shivering, she realized her mother wasn’t actually crying. It was raining, and so her face was wet, and she was holding her shoulders to keep warm.
“I fell.” She spoke loud enough for Katie to hear her over the rain, but her face looked tight, and her eyes were fixed on the ground. “Can you get Dad?”
As soon as she told him, Dad crammed on his boots and leapt off the doormat into the rain outside. Mom leaned onto them both as they helped her to the car. Inside, Dad twirled around looking for his pants, shirt, house keys. Before he left he put a hand on Katie’s shoulder.
“We’re going to the emergency room,” he said. “You’re old enough now to stay here with Amelia. I don’t know how long we’ll be gone.”
Her father’s eyes were watery with red circles around them. “Don’t worry. Mom will be all right. She’s just in shock.”
“Why was she out there?”
“I don’t know. I have to go.”
Her parents returned early in the morning. Mom had broken her left wrist and leg, so she was bandaged up like a mummy. Bruises were blooming blue and purple on her arms and knee. She let the girls draw on her casts.
When Mom picked them up from school, Amelia would run and hug her more tightly than ever.
“How are you feeling, Mom?” Katie would remember to ask.
She looked down at Katie and smiled.
“I’m getting better.”
Then a week after Mom’s fall, Katie heard someone knocking on the roof. She walked into the living room, into the bathrooms and closets. But the knocking was coming from the other side of the house, closer to the kitchen.
Outside, past the dry streaks in the dirt where the ladder had slid, she saw the tarp. It was lying lifeless on the ground, a dead monster.
It was Dad who was up on top the house. He was singing a song, ripping off red shingles and throwing them into a pile on the ground.
“What are you doing?” she said.
He stopped singing, and looked down at her.
“I’m fixing this roof.”
© Rebekah Lee Mays
[This piece was selected by Frances Gapper]