Ominous clouds are gathering overhead when Tess loads Emily into the shopping cart and strapped her in. She hasn’t bothered with an umbrella, though Emily’s blue raincoat drapes over the handle of the cart.
Twenty minutes. Give me twenty minutes.
Emily turns the pages of her well-chewed animal book. Content for the moment. “Coo-Coo,” she says and holds up a picture of a white cow.
“That’s right. Cow,” Tess says in a high-pitched, sing-song voice. She smiles, and Emily smiles back.
Twenty minutes. Give me twenty minutes.
Tess glances up when they pass under the security camera, she and wishes she hadn’t. Her hair, unwashed for two days, is pulled into a limp ponytail; her black tee shirt crusted with a variety of stains strains against her overlarge breasts. She’s given up trying to get back into her jeans and wears a pair of gray sweats.
She has to shop and pick up the twins. Jimmy and Nick will barrel into the car, laughing and vying for her attention, when she really wants quiet, but she’ll listen and smile and ask questions because they need her.
Life is always more hectic when James is home. It’s easier when he’s traveling. He always wants diner at six. He wants the kids in bed by eight. He wants the kitchen cleaned. He wants sex. He wants and wants.
“Ca, Ma. Ca.” Emily points to a black and white cat.
“Cat, Emily. That’s very good.” Tess kisses her youngest, the surprise baby who’d come five years after the boys. Three years after she’d lost Alice. She resents James for that too. He was driving when their car was hit. She knows it’s unfair.
Since the accident she’s had a weird recurring dream where she’s running down the Yellow Brick Road, but she’s not heading to the Emerald City. She’s heading for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but when she finds the pot, all the gold inside turns to hair curlers. Tess isn’t sure what it means, though she always did want curly hair.
She has a comfortable life. She volunteers at the boys’ school when she can get her mother to watch Emily. She just has this empty spot in her gut that won’t go away. Sometimes she thinks it’s going to swallow her whole.
Tess unloads her cart and pays for her groceries. Usually, she chats with the clerk, but today, she’s quiet. She has five minutes to get to school.
“Mamamamamama.” Emily’s wail shatters her small shell of concentration. Emily’s book lies on the floor, and she tries to wiggle out of her seat. Blood is welling out of her nose. Since she was a baby, Emily has suffered from intense and unexpected nosebleeds. They aren’t dangerous, and they usually only last a minute, but they are terrifying to Emily and to strangers.
“Is she okay?” The clerk is offering Tess a wad of tissues, which she snatches before she scoops up Emily.
“Yes, thanks. She’s got a little cold. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Tess can feel her cheeks burning as she bends down to grab Emily’s book.
Someone says, “Poor little thing.”
Another voice mutters, “Why would you bring a sick child out in this weather?”
Tess’s eyes are stinging. The clerk, a young girl with spiked black hair and a pierced nose, gives her a sympathetic smile. “Do you need help to your car? I’ll get you help.”
Tess shakes her head. “I’m fine. I—“
But a young guy, one of the developmentally disabled kids the store hires, is already at the cart. Tess knows him vaguely. Ritchie. He wears a bright yellow poncho and gives her a big goofy smile.
“I got the cart,” he says. “Big storm outside. You need an umbrella.”
Tess grabs Emily’s blue raincoat before he goes skipping out the door with her cart. Emily’s arms are thrashing, and Tess barely forces them into the coat. “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay,” she says, but Emily howls louder than the wind.
Tess walks the gauntlet of staring faces, ducking her head down. She passes a couple of teenage boys who look at her as if she’s some kind of circus freak, and she almost laughs when Emily flings out her snotty hand.
“Damn, is that blood?” One of the boys cringes.
The rest of the boys laugh, but at least they aren’t laughing at her.
Ritchie waits just outside the door, and she points to her big SUV. She hates it, but James insisted it was just the right car for a three-child family. Big, substantial. A real mom car.
Ritchie unloads her groceries, but declines a tip. Tess is left standing in the rain, rocking sobbing Emily against her. The little girl’s cries slowly turn to sniffs and finally Tess can slide her into her car seat along with her damp animal book. She shoves aside some of the trash in the back seat: a half-empty bottle of water, a baseball, Nick’s magnetic chess game. The detritus of her children’s lives.
She shuts the car door and walks slowly to the driver’s side ignoring the pouring rain, knowing she’ll be late for the boys, dinner will not be served at six, and James will be disappointed in her once again.
Tess gets into her car and sees that Emily has fallen asleep in the back seat. Rivulets of water run down her face, and she uses the bloody tissues to wipe her arms. Bits of white cling to her wet skin.
There’s nothing to do but go on.
She leans her head against the steering wheel for a moment before she straps on her seat belt and starts the engine.
The rain pours down like it’s the end of the world.