They Were Very Sick

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BY CALLEY NELSON

The clock above the sink read five minutes later than his watch. Panicking, he ran to the bathroom to retrieve his daughter’s hairbrush. She was finishing her croissant and fruit cocktail at the kitchen table, humming and swinging her legs.

“Hurry up and finish breakfast,” Todd snapped, dragging a chair out. The wood wailed and Todd cringed as the sharp edges of the chair legs scratched the floor.

Serena wiped the crumbs from her lips with the sleeve of her t-shirt, watching her dad’s knuckles turning white from gripping the chair so tightly.

He took a swig of lukewarm coffee and set the hairbrush against her scalp. Black hair knotted the bristles as he tugged, and Serena watched the stringy strands of hair sail to the wood and meander out the French windows, falling like cobwebs on the tree branches and bike seats lining their suburban street corner. Squirrels and birds would turn her hair into little pillows and take them back to their families: mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins, preparing for the eventual cold.

Serena held her head straight, feeling her scalp crack like an egg with every pull as the sun caressed her forehead and sweat pooled at her temples.

“If you’re still, we can get this done faster,” Todd said, holding her chin in his palm and pulling the brush through. Ripping out his daughter’s coarse, corkscrew curls sounded like tires on gravel. Her hair, he thought, was so much like her mother’s. She twitched, and Todd barked at her to hold still. She was such a restless kid, he thought.

Serena tried, meditating on the loose black clumps rolling into the corners of their old town home, watching dust-flecks rise in the room’s sunlit window, imagining the conglomeration evolving into birds and flapping out the window as her father set the brush on the counter, picked up a bottle of hairspray, and pushed the nozzle until her hair felt wet and sticky. Todd plastered the fly-aways with one last spray and patted down her cowlick. He inspected her round face for a stray hair from many angles and was satisfied to find not one out of place. Although he despised hurting his daughter, he took great pride in calming her thick and unruly mane, taming it into a braid with the rose-infused hairspray his wife had used every day, even on the days she refused to leave their master bedroom. With a resounding clink, he set the can on the table and checked his watch. They should leave in ten minutes if he wanted to get to work early, as he normally did. He allocated one hour for working out, ten minutes for breakfast, ten minutes for braiding Serena’s hair, five minutes to get them both in the car, and 20 minutes to drop Serena off at school and get to the radio station, but today Serena had fallen back asleep after he had woken her up twice.

He tied a hair elastic around the bottom of the braid and as soon as Serena felt his hand ease up, she leapt off the chair and ran to the bathroom to take a good look in the mirror and flatten her cowlick one last time, because sometimes it would pop up like a horn and the kids at school would tease her about it.

“Hurry, Serena. Five minutes,” Todd shouted from the kitchen.

Serena rolled her eyes at her dad banging around with the dishes and fussing to organize their lunches and backpacks. She looked in the mirror and took off her glasses, fogging them up with her breath and wiping them with her school shirt. She didn’t want her dad to bug her about the smudges on the car ride, checking his rearview mirror at every stop sign until she pulled her spray and cloth from her backpack and cleaned them. Her mom used to dismiss him as anal when he’d pester Serena about her smudged glasses. “It means that I want you to look your best,” he had told her.

Her vision was still clouded when she put her glasses back on, and her head ached from how hard he pulled the brush at her scalp. Feeling dizzy, she sat down on the toilet in her khaki pants, listening to her ears fill with a dull, achy ring. Her stomach lurched up into her chest and she turned over on the porcelain and retched, her body thrusting into the bowl. She hacked one solid piece, with something stringy and metallic attached to it, scratching the skin off her esophagus. One final heave, and it was just a wave of dry, sweet bile.

Serena backed up against the wall to rest her head and opened her eyes. Instead of seeing the remnants of her breakfast, a woman with coarse black curls hugged the toilet seat, knees on the pink bath rug and red stilettos piercing the shower curtain. Hair and bubbles spilled and sputtered over the porcelain rim. The woman blubbered, sloshing water on the tile and pink rug, attempting to pull her head out of the bowl.

Serena yanked at her navy shoulder pad, but the woman wouldn’t budge. She reached around the woman’s neck, anchoring it with the back of her elbow. She tugged as hard as she could and together, they flopped backwards. In shock, Serena gasped and stood up, letting the woman’s head slide onto the rug. She could hear her dad’s work shoes clomping down the hallway.

“Time to go, Serena!” he shouted.

Serena looked at the cracked door and pushed it shut.

She stared at the face of the woman. She looked dead with her eyes closed, her tongue lolling out of her red mouth like a frog catching a fly, her white blouse collecting her eye-makeup like a bib, her necklace turned around and twisted.

Serena picked at the pendant, pulling it out straight on the chain with her forefinger and thumb. It felt cool and slick between her fingers. She pressed her face towards the woman’s neck. It was a small heart on a silver chain. Her dad polished the necklace and their wedding rings every night before going to bed until she died. It was the necklace she had given her mom for Christmas last year, their last Christmas together.

She wheezed, her chest rattling from falling so hard on the bathroom floor.

“Are you all right, Serena?” Todd called from the kitchen. “Get your shoes on.”

“Mom,” Serena whispered. The woman smiled and stood over her, brushing the creases out of her navy blue pantsuit. She looked like she had just spun out of a tornado with her black hair sticking up and her clothes crinkled, but her red heels were shiny like the wicked witch of the West.

“Can you start the shower for me?” the mom-like woman asked. “I’ve had a long day at work. Here,” she said, extending her hand.

Serena thought she looked like a clown in her big red shoes and messy makeup, but Serena took her hand and assisted her up on her wobbly high heels.

“What’s wrong, Serena? It’s just me,” she said, stretching her arms and clasping Serena against her chest like a locket.

“Where were you?”

“I’ve missed you and your father so so much. Can you start the shower for me?”

Serena nodded and played with the faucet until the water was hot while her mom stripped down to her bra and tights behind her, throwing her suit in the corner by the door. Everything would be different with her mom back. Maybe Dad could sit still now. Maybe he could watch TV or read a book. Maybe he wouldn’t worry so much about groceries and laundry and work and money with her mom back home and he would be able to sleep again.

“Tell your dad that I’m in the shower if he needs me,” she said, rubbing the mascara marks under her eyes with the tips of her fingers.

Serena beamed at her mother, gave her a hug, and scrambled out the bathroom door.

“Daddy!” she yelled, running into the kitchen where Todd was rinsing the grounds out of the coffee pot. “Mom’s in the shower.”

Todd dropped the pot in the sink and turned off the faucet.

He looked down at Serena, her little cheeks pink with excitement.

“Get in the car and we’ll talk on the way to school,” Todd said.

“But really. I saw her.”

He slammed the coffee pot in the sink and towered over his daughter, glaring into her moistening green eyes.

“Get in the car,” he yelled through his teeth.

“She’s in the shower though,” Serena said, wiping and blinking away her dad’s spit from her face. Feeling angry, she stuffed her feet into her white Keds and shuffled out the door.

He sighed and walked toward the bathroom, watching the steam seep out of its cracked door. He gripped the doorknob and the condensation melted softly into his sweaty palm. He couldn’t help but wonder if a shadow of Regina’s younger-self had formed in the long wisps of heat, her limbs and dark hair undulating in the dim shower light, her short toes, her bitten nails, the delicate skin behind her knee that he’d run his fingers over in bed, her sharp nose and the scar above her left eyebrow she received in a playground accident before he knew her. He stepped into the bathroom, turned off the scalding shower and ran out the door.

Todd drove Serena to school in silence. It wasn’t until he had gotten to work that he realized he had forgotten her lunch. His whole day was shot. He called his boss to let him know he would be late.

Even after five cups of black coffee, Todd still couldn’t concentrate on the article he was supposed to write. His fingers felt numb on the keyboard. He could think of nothing except Regina and Serena. It was his entire fault. He shouldn’t have let Regina have a baby. Regina’s grandpa and uncle had been diagnosed schizophrenic, but it was mild and treatable. Regina hadn’t developed symptoms until a year after they had exchanged vows. She was a month pregnant then. It hadn’t been too late for an abortion.

Todd went to the bathroom, washed his face and took a good look at it. The wrinkles around his mouth and the lines around his eyes made him feel self-conscious with age and the responsibility that came with it.

He’d been a failure of a husband.

He was a failure of a father.

He couldn’t create the security his family needed and it was entirely his fault.

That night, he came home to find Serena and her babysitter playing dolls in the living room. It was as if they’d both swept the morning’s incident under the bathroom rug, as if the reason Todd hadn’t seen Regina in the shower was because she’d been hiding underneath that pink, shaggy thing. It was Serena’s first troubling episode, and though it was a large one, he just might be able to head off another. Almost simultaneously, though, he couldn’t help but wonder if everything he’d feared might come to pass.

But what could he do?

He would make Serena’s favorite dinner. They would eat it. Afterward, he would tell her that they’d be visiting a doctor together. That was the plan. If he could edit his writing, he could edit himself, put his intentions into the smallest of muscles that tighten at the neck, and loosen them. At some point, he didn’t know when, Serena would ask Todd if they were sick, and he’d tell her, yes, yes they were very sick. If only he could change that, if only it were that simple.


Calley Nelson is an acquisition editor at Curbside Splendor. Her work has appeared in Juxtaprose Magazine, Selfish Magazine, Brooklyn Vegan, The Chicagoist, Chicago Magazine and elsewhere. She’s currently a web content specialist at ComPsych Corporation where she writes about work-life balance and wellness. Calley received her BA in Creative Writing with a concentration in fiction from Columbia College Chicago in 2015.

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