Amy wasn’t supposed to be home when Eric returned. She was tucked away in the unlit den with her car tucked in the garage. If Eric had been the sort to notice things, he might have seen her rain coat by the door or her keys in Aunt Clara’s crystal bowl.
She pulled up her knees to shrink father into the couch corner as she listened to his unmindful commotion below her in the basement. She imagined innocuous reasons for leaving work mid morning Tuesday. Church had called and needed help with maintenance. He was having an affair and had left some gift in the basement. His Mother called because of the steady rain. Maybe her own basement was flooded and he needed the shop vac.
She didn’t exhale until he exited the outside basement door. When the air left her, the urgency rushed in, and she scuttled to the foyer to nest herself into the corner. So this was her movie? A weak spy thriller? Probably a dated horror film; no longer frightening since it’d all been done so many times before.
She had sandwiched herself between her grandmother’s sideboard and the leaded glass front door, hoping her shadow wouldn’t catch his eye. The prismatic view showed only a long tool of some sort go onto the floor of his sedan’s back seat.
He looked up at the house, but she imagined him staring at her.
Come in and we’ll talk. We can plan a new life. It doesn’t have to stay like this.
She stayed motionless until he backed out the drive and was out of sight. Then her deflated body litled into the framed cross stitch over the sideboard and almost threw it to the floor.
It was the hopeful wedding gift from her mother. The tiniest x’s turned into pink roses and dainty little figures of a bride and groom. The message by the date said, “Bless This Marriage. Bless This House.”
On her best days, Amy prayed a similar thought; sending it up over and over again as she vacuumed or got the girls from school. The prayer might call forth the dream once imagined, or at least remind her of why she felt called to marry Eric. On her other days, she cried in the couch or stitched together her own hope in the form of a normal seeming life — doing the things that might even out Eric’s mind. They ate meals he liked at 6:30 sharp. Went to church together every Sunday; the day she filled his weekly pill holder. And after family movie night on Friday they had sex as the girls slept with bellies full of popcorn.
Their families knew he wasn’t well. A few in church knew. And work . . . it was 11:13 on Tuesday afterall. Her phone buzzed with his text. “I’ve always loved you.”
Shit. Here we go again. She responded, “I know. Please come home.”
Instead of Eric, a police officer came and the relief she felt got instantly washed out by guilt. She sent up a new prayer. I’m sorry God. I’m sorry I felt that.
But Eric was alive in police custody. He would be transferred to a psych facility, for a short while again. He’d taken the rifle to the park, changed his mind and called the police, not her, to come help him.
Later that week he said, “I couldn’t leave you and the girls alone. It wouldn’t be fair.” He shifted in the chair as he spoke to the kitchen island countertop. She’d chosen Corian.
“I imagined you all at church without me. At the funeral. I thought about you having to work full time and the girls without you at home and no father. All those rumors at school over how I died.”
They were bonded together here on earth. It was God’s will. She had prayed endlessly for strength and love and fortitude. And she was here, wasn’t she?
She said, “Let’s go to bed. We’ll talk tomorrow after work.”
“There’s no more work for now.”
She nodded. Of course. “We’ll get through it. We always do.”
That last part was wrong to say. She apologized to God, but not to Eric.
He stood suddenly and said, “It’ll be different soon.” His voice choked out before he could say the next thing. And he went to the basement before she could say, “It doesn’t have to be different.”
The girls slept together in the eldest girl’s bed. Amy went in, as she often did, and slid in next to them. The older one was more like Eric, always so worried and so quick to anger. She put her arm around that child’s shoulders and whispered into her hair as the tears came.
“You’re a good girl Ava. You’re Mommy’s very good girl.”
When she first smelled the burning, she held on tighter for a split second before jumping up and into the shadow of Eric.
“No please.” She climbed back into the bed, spreading her body over the girls.
He only said, “I’m sorry.”