“What do you think is going on?” Sally asks Gillian.
“Something weird,” Gillian says.
Just that morning, Gillian noticed that Kylie was wearing one of Antonia’s black T-shirts. “If she catches you wearing that, she’ll tear it right off your back,” Gillian informed Kylie.
“I don’t think so.” Kylie shrugged. “She’s got too many black shirts. And anyway, she gave this one to me.”
“What do you mean by weird?” Sally asks Gillian. She was up half the night making lists of what could be affecting the girls. Cults, sex, criminal activity, a pregnancy scare—she’s been through every possibility in the past few hours.
“Maybe it’s nothing,” Gillian says, not wanting Sally to worry. “Maybe they’re just growing up.”
“What?” Sally says. Just the suggestion makes her feel skittish and upsets her in a way pregnancies and cults simply can’t. This is the possibility she’s avoided considering. She cannot believe Gillian’s talent for always saying the exact wrong thing. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? They’re kids.”
“They’ve got to grow up, eventually,” Gillian says, stumbling in deeper. “Before you know it, they’ll be out of here.”
“Well, thanks for your expert parenting advice.”
Gillian doesn’t catch the sarcasm; now that she’s begun, she has another recommendation for her sister. “You need to stop focusing so much on being just a mom, before you shrivel into dust and we have to sweep you up with a broom. You should start to date. What’s holding you back? Your kids are going out—why not you?”
“Any more words of wisdom?” Sally is such pure ice even Gillian can’t fail to notice she’s getting frozen out.
“Not one.” Gillian backs off now. “Not a syllable.”
Gillian has the urge for a cigarette, then realizes she hasn’t had one in nearly two weeks. The funny thing is, she’s stopped trying to quit. It’s looking at all those illustrations of the human body. It’s seeing those drawings of lungs.
“My girls are babies,” Sally says. “For your information.”
She sounds a little hysterical. For the past sixteen years—except for the one year when Michael died and she went so inside herself she couldn’t find her way out—she has been thinking about her children. Occasionally she has thought about snowstorms and the cost of heat and electricity and the fact that she often gets hives when September closes in and she knows she has to go back to work. But mostly she’s been preoccupied with Antonia and Kylie, with fevers and cramps, with new shoes to buy every six months and making sure everyone gets well-balanced meals and at least eight hours of sleep every night. Without such thoughts, she’s not certain she will continue to exist. Without them, what exactly is she left with?
That night Sally goes to bed and sleeps like a stone, and she doesn’t get up in the morning.
“The flu,” Gillian guesses.
From beneath her quilt, Sally can hear Gillian making coffee. She can hear Antonia talking to Scott on the phone, and Kylie running the shower. All that day, Sally stays where she is. She’s waiting for someone to need her, she’s waiting for an accident or an emergency, but it never happens. At night, she gets up to use the toilet and wash her face with cold water, and the following morning she goes on sleeping, and she’s still sleeping at noon, when Kylie brings her some lunch on a wooden tray.
“A stomach virus,” Gillian suggests when she comes home from work and is informed that Sally will not touch her chicken noodle soup or her tea and has asked for the curtains in her room to be drawn.
Sally can hear them still; she can hear them right now. How they whisper and cook dinner, laughing and cutting up carrots and celery with sharp knives. How they wash all the laundry and hang the sheets out to dry on the line in the yard. How they comb their hair and brush their teeth and go on with their lives.
On her third day in bed, Sally stops opening her eyes. She will not consider toast with grape jelly, or Tylenol and water, or extra pillows. Her black hair is tangled; her skin pale as paper. Antonia and Kylie are frightened; they stand in the doorway and watch their mother sleep. They’re afraid any chatter will disturb her, so the house grows quieter and quieter still. The girls blame themselves, for not being well behaved when they should have been, for all those years of arguing and acting like selfish, spoiled brats. Antonia phones the doctor, but he doesn’t make house calls and Sally refuses to get dressed and go to his office.