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A Sweet Thing

3rd Place Winner – 2018 Fiction Contest

Kyle and I arrived at his parents’ house in the early evening. He had barely removed the key from the ignition when his mother, Caroline, appeared at my window. Her face was obscured in the evening shadow, save for the whites of her eyes and her teeth as she smiled at me. She helped me out of the car while Kyle retrieved our suitcases from the trunk.

“Miriam,” she said, throwing her arms around me, engulfing me in a pungent cloud of lavender oil and residual paint fumes. “It’s so good to see you. Come, you must be exhausted.” She looped her arm through mine and brought me inside. Kyle followed, lugging our suitcases up the walk.

Caroline deposited me in a chair in the living room and set about pouring a glass of wine. The interior of the house was decorated in a kitschy, nostalgic way, with cuckoo clocks and wicker furniture, and several amateur paintings of birds and flowers. Upon closer examination, it became clear that all of these were painted by Caroline herself. Her loopy signature was visible inside the edge of every frame. I asked if she had been painting something before we arrived.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I was down in my studio in the basement. I almost lost track of time completely. It’s nice to have my own space, but I get a little carried away...” 

She placed a glass of red wine in my hand and directed Kyle to the guest bedroom upstairs. Then she sat down across from me on the loveseat. Candles burned on the coffee table between us, softening her face so that her hard edges did not seem quite so severe. Her son’s resemblance to her was striking—they had the same aristocratic nose and wide, angular jaw. It occurred to me that it was a more flattering face for a boy.

She clasped her hands in her lap. “How have you been?” she asked.

I sipped my wine. “Very good,” I said, blandly. “I’m sorry, I’m always a little foggy after a long car ride.”

“Of course,” said Caroline. “Harry is upstairs, he likes to take a nap before dinner, but I’ll expect he’s up now that Kyle’s arrived. Oh, and Emily is here somewhere, I just never know where ...”

I slowly drained my glass. Kyle and his father came down the staircase, talking loudly. A blue-gray cat climbed into my lap and kneaded my thighs.

“You’re not allergic, are you?” Caroline fretted.

I shook my head, my mouth full of wine, and scratched the cat between the ears. It blinked somberly at me. “What’s its name?”

“I see you’ve already made friends with Willie,” Kyle said in answer. He stood behind me and wrapped his fingers around my shoulders. “Where’s Emily?” he asked his mother.

“Harry, where’s Emily?” Caroline looked to Kyle’s father, a large man with an ample face and a belly that preceded him wherever he went. Harry shrugged. “I haven’t seen her since this morning,” he said. “I’m sure she’s hiding in her room.”

“Will you go tell her that Kyle and Miriam are here?”

Harry ambled off. Kyle slid into the chair beside mine and reached over to scratch the fur under Willie’s chin.

“How was the drive?” Caroline asked.

“Not so bad,” said Kyle. “There weren’t many people on the road. We made great time.”

“And how are your jobs going?”

“Well,” we agreed.

The insipid pleasantries, the wine, the sweet glow of the candles and the purring cat all filled me with a deflated sense of melancholy, which I attributed to my tiredness. I looked at Kyle, expecting to see some trace of exhaustion in his features. He seemed perfectly alert, even excited.

“Here she is!” Caroline said, looking past me. I turned as best I could without disturbing the cat.

“Hi, Miriam.” A girl approached me with her hand extended. She wore a placid smile. I reached forward and shook her hand.

“You must be Emily,” I said. She smiled some more. Kyle rose from his chair to embrace her. When they broke apart, she moved over and sat down beside Caroline on the loveseat. The three of them fell into conversation. I stroked Willie’s fur and the cat turned over on my lap, exposing its white belly to me.

I had always been curious to meet Kyle’s sister, but Emily was remarkable only in that her appearance made no real impression upon me. The first thought that came to my mind was of a blank canvas. She wore a white cashmere sweater and beige slacks. Though objectively nice-looking, with an elegant shape and all of the roundness of youth, her face was mild and expressionless. All the while that they sat there talking, her vapid smile remained, a slim crescent as precise as the moon outside.

The sound of a timer going off issued from the kitchen and Caroline rose to address it. Everyone moved into the dining room. I sat down across from Emily, watching as she poured herself a glass of wine and leaned back in her chair. She stared at something on the table in a way that made me suspect there was not a single thought in her head.

“Emily,” I said. “Are you in school?”

Emily raised her eyes, wide-set and colorless.

“I graduated in the spring,” she said.

“And what did you study?”

“Biology,” she said.

“What do you want to do?”

“I’m going to be a nurse,” she said. “I’m applying for nursing programs.”

“That’s admirable,” I said. “I could never be a nurse. I don’t have the spirit.”

“That’s our Emily,” said Kyle, raising his glass to her. She turned her gaze on him and the smile slid back into place. “She’s all about self-sacrifice.”

“May we all follow your example,” I said.

We ate green beans, sweet potatoes and brisket, and when dinner was over the family convened in the living room again, where they continued talking well into the night. Eventually I caught myself nodding off and excused myself to go to bed, but despite my exhaustion lay awake for a half hour or so, waiting for Kyle to join me. The only light in the room was from a street lamp below the window. It cast a frayed orange circle onto the ceiling above me.

When at last Kyle came in, I opened my mouth to say something. But before I could, he slid on top of me and pushed my legs apart with his knee. After several clumsy, breathless minutes, it became clear that he had had too much to drink. He moved off of me and turned over.

“Your sister seems very nice,” I said.

He grunted his assent.

“She’s reserved,” I said. “You two must be very different.”

“She’s a quiet one,” he agreed, barely articulating. “A sweet thing ...”

His voice trailed off. I closed my eyes and listened as his breathing fell into the rhythm of sleep.

 

•    •    •

In the morning, I went down to the kitchen alone. I found Caroline making coffee. The television was on in the living room. “Harry likes to keep up with the goings on,” she said to me. “He sits there all morning, I don’t know how he does it.”

She poured me a cup of coffee and I brought it out onto the back porch, which overlooked a tidy lawn and a black pond with white lilies dotting the surface. Beyond that stood a dense outcropping of trees. It was so tranquil that I didn’t see Emily at first, sitting on a bench in the yard, facing away from the house.

I watched her for a few minutes, waiting for signs of movement. She sat perfectly still as though mesmerized by something in the distance. The morning rose around her, dewy and almost painfully bright. I went back into the kitchen and asked Caroline: “Does Emily want a cup of coffee?”

 Caroline was peeling a pile of potatoes in the sink. She raised her head and looked out the kitchen window at Emily, her gaze cagey and shrewd. Then she smiled at me and said, “I’m sure she does. Why don’t you bring one to her?”

I nodded and retrieved a mug from the cupboard. As I poured, I asked, “Is she meditating, or something?”

The potato peels made a wet sound as they dropped into the bottom of the sink. After a pause, Caroline replied, “I’m not sure. She’s a thinker, our Emily.”

This starkly contradicted my impression of the girl, but I picked up the mug and went out the back door. I stopped a few yards away from Emily and announced my presence: “I brought you a cup of coffee!” I almost expected no response at all, but she looked around instantly and her expression broke into a tidy smile. She moved over on the bench to make room for me. I sat and held out the mug, which she accepted.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No problem,” I said. “This is nice, all this. Like a Zen garden, almost, with the pond.”

She nodded. She held the mug in her lap and made no move to drink from it.

“Do you come out here every morning?” I asked.

“I don’t like the noise of the television,” she said. “It gives me a headache.”

I noted that this might be the longest sequence of words I had yet heard issue from her mouth.

“How long have you lived with your parents?” I asked.

“I’ve always lived here,” she said. “I didn’t move away for college.”

I nodded, and we sat in silence for a few moments. I watched a snowy lily move with the ripples in the pond, a shock of white skimming the darkness below.

“Do you like it?” I said.

“Like what?”

“Living here?”

She seemed to ponder this question. Then she said, “I suppose I like it, yes.” After a pause she added, “I’ve never lived anywhere else.”

“Miriam!”

I looked around and saw Kyle standing at the back door.

“I won’t bother you any further,” I said to Emily. I stood up and walked back across the lawn to Kyle. He wrapped his arms around me and planted a kiss on my mouth. “You guys have a nice little chat?” he said.

“I think so,” I said.

We went inside and kept Caroline company while she finished making breakfast. Every once in awhile, I glanced out the window at Emily, still sitting resolutely with her back to the house. Only when Kyle called her in for breakfast did she finally rise from the bench to join us.

While we ate, Harry announced that he and Kyle were going fishing.

“You girls could come down to the lake, too,” said Harry. “I know Richie’s wife would love to meet Miriam.”

“Fishing, Harry?” Caroline said, chewing her potatoes with vigor. “Why can’t we do something that we would all enjoy?”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to excuse myself,” I said. “I actually have some work I need to get done.”

“See, she has to work!” said Harry. “I’ll keep Kyle occupied.”

Caroline frowned. She turned to me. “I will be in my studio, if you need anything at all,” she said.

Kyle and his father left around eleven-thirty. I sequestered myself in the guest bedroom with my computer and another cup of coffee. The window of the room looked out onto the street and the front yard. Each time a car passed the sound reverberated in the windowpane, drawing my head up. Even with the extra coffee, I found it difficult to focus. After an hour or so, I went to the kitchen to get something to eat.

I found bread and other sandwich makings in the refrigerator, and as I ate I wandered around the first floor of the house. The living room, the dining room, the porch, it all reminded me of a nursing home; the faintly sour smell, the muted colors, the flat light on the walls all painted in a spectrum of dowdy grays. I came across what I assumed to be a study. There were boxes piled in the corner. One of the boxes sat open, revealing inside a series of photo albums, stacked and labeled by year. I extracted one from 2002 and opened it somewhere in the middle.

Kyle’s bony face was incongruous with the body of a child. It made him look solemn and forlorn, whereas in adulthood it lent him the appearance of shrewd intelligence. It occurred to me, as I flipped through the tenth year of Kyle’s life, that he rarely spoke of his childhood as if it were his own. Whenever he told anecdotes from his youth, he always framed it in a fanciful, storybook way, as though his boyhood was so blessed and uneventful that he could not conjure an unpleasant memory. But the child in the photographs was wan and unsmiling, with hooded eyes and a prominent, furrowed brow.

By contrast, Emily had been round and rosy-cheeked, her face exuding more emotion in one photograph than I observed in the hours I had spent with her. I heard Caroline moving around in the kitchen and went to intercept her, carrying the photo album under my arm. She was washing a few of the residual dishes from breakfast. I sat down at the kitchen table and said, “I discovered a treasure trove.”

She craned her neck to see what I had in my hand. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Kyle was an adorable little boy. What year is that?”

“2002. He never talks about what he was like as a kid,” I said. I flipped a page in the album.

“He was a serious child,” said Caroline. “But he grew out of that.”

“And Emily?”

“She hasn’t changed all that much. She was more gregarious, but I think sometimes that landed her in a bit of a tight spot.” Caroline picked at a dish with her fingernail.

“How do you mean?” I said.

“She struggled at school,” said Caroline, evasively. “I don’t think the other kids were very nice.”

I didn’t press the issue. “I wasn’t very popular in school, either,” I said.

Caroline stacked the dishes next to the sink and dried her hands. “Have you two decided on a date for the wedding, yet?” she asked.

I shrugged. “We were toying with the idea of next summer. We have a lot of stuff to plan, and with work there’s so little leeway ...”

She nodded. “A summer wedding will be nice,” she said. She sat down at the table across from me and pulled the album out from under my hands, turning it toward her. She flipped a few of the pages, but didn’t seem to be looking at the photos. Then she shut the album and said, “I’ll put this away for you,” and got up and left the room.

I retreated back upstairs to the bedroom and sat hunched over my computer, watching the sun descend and lights flicker on in the other houses as darkness fell. Eventually I gave up on working and went back downstairs for a drink. The house was empty, save for Willie, who was asleep on the kitchen table. I knew that Kyle and his father had probably gone out for a beer. There was light visible under the door to the basement, so I figured that must be where Caroline was. I made my way to the bar in the living room, turned on a lamp and poured myself a glass of wine. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard from the other side of the room: “Will you pour me one as well?”

Emily was sitting in the window seat. I placed my glass down on the bar very carefully to disguise my shaking hands.

“Of course,” I said, exhaling hard. “You scared me.”

“Sorry,” she said. “I had a headache, and the lights bothered me.”

“Are you sure alcohol is the best idea if you have a headache?” I said.

“It’s not so bad now,” she said. I poured her a glass and she walked over to retrieve it. Then she sat down on the couch and crossed her legs. She was wearing a blue sun dress under the same white sweater she wore yesterday. I picked up my own glass and leaned against the bar, taking a long swig.

“How did your work go?” she asked.

“I didn’t get as much done as I would have liked. It’s hard to concentrate outside the office.”

We were silent for a little while, drinking. Then she said: “You don’t happen to have a cigarette, do you?”

I raised my eyebrows. “I wouldn’t have pegged you for a smoker,” I said.

“I pegged you for a smoker the minute I saw you,” she retorted.

I decided not to pursue that. “There are some in my purse,” I said. “I’ll get them.”

When I came back downstairs, Emily was waiting by the front door. I pulled my shoes on, but she went out onto the stoop barefoot, tucking her dress under her legs as she sat down on the top step. I handed her a cigarette and a lighter.

“Kyle doesn’t like it when I smoke,” I said. “I don’t suppose your parents like it when you smoke, either.”

“My parents don’t know I smoke,” she said.

“Well, it’s not a habit I would pick up again, if I could go back,” I said.

“It’s not a habit. I don’t do it enough for it to be a habit.” She handed the lighter to me and took a long drag from the cigarette.

“May I ask why you do it at all, then?” I said, lighting my own.

She looked at me. “Why do you do it?” she said.

“It’s relaxing. It makes me feel like I have control.”

Emily blew smoke downward, at the steps below her feet. “Well, I suppose that’s why I do it,” she said.

“I lived with my parents in college for a while,” I said. “It got really lonely.”

“It’s lonely, but not because there’s nobody around,” said Emily. I thought that this statement sounded oddly juvenile coming from a grown woman.

We smoked and I drank the rest of my wine. Occasionally a car passed on the road in front of the house, the lights growing brighter and moving over us, illuminating the pale expanse of Emily’s face, as empty as ever.

“When are you and Kyle going to get married?” she asked eventually.

“Sometime next summer,” I said.

“My parents never thought he would get married”

The cigarette smoldered in my hand.

“They didn’t think he’d ever have any friends, either,” she said.

“Oh?”

She crushed her cigarette on the top step and leaned forward onto the heels of her hands. “He was fucked up, for a while,” she said. 

I swallowed. “What do you mean?”

“He used to do bad stuff,” she said. “He liked to steal a lot. He would beat kids up at school. He beat the shit out of me. And other things.”

My mouth filled with an acrid taste. I crushed my cigarette beneath my shoe.

“Even if that was the case, he’s not like that now,” I said, standing up.

“We shouldn’t leave these on the stoop for my mother to find,” said Emily, gesturing to the crumpled butts. Then she turned her face up to mine and said, carefully: “And, I wouldn’t be so sure about that, if I were you.”

I went inside, not bothering to hold the door open for her. I climbed the stairs to the bedroom and fished around in my bags for a toothbrush and toothpaste. As I scrubbed at my teeth, I felt the nicotine buzz in the nape of my neck, and stared hard at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. The color was high in face and my eyes were glossy. I rinsed my mouth out and splashed water on my cheeks.

Downstairs, Caroline was preparing dinner. Emily had reoccupied her place on the sofa. I avoided her gaze and went into the kitchen to see what assistance I could offer. I was setting out plates in the dining room when Kyle and Harry walked through the front door. They were boisterous and, I suspected, a little drunk.

Kyle talked avidly of the day while everyone ate, and though I tried to listen, I found myself fighting the undertow of my thoughts. Occasionally someone spoke my name and I snapped to attention, smiling mechanically. I spied Emily watching me from across the table. Her face was unperturbed, not so much as a ripple of emotion passing through her features.

The night seemed unwilling to end. When I finally found myself climbing into bed, the deluge of noise that I had held at bay throughout the evening came pouring into my brain. Kyle sensed that something was awry. For a long while he lay awake with me, stroking my back and my hair.

“What did you do today?” he asked me.

“Hardly anything.”

“Did you get any work done?”

“Not really.”

I tried to focus on the pressure of his fingers along my spine.

“Your sister and I talked for a little while,” I said.

His hand paused for a moment. “It’s good that you two are getting along,” he said.

I turned over to look at him. “Do you know that she smokes?”

His brow furrowed. “No, I didn’t know.”

I turned back around. “Well, she does.”

He leaned forward to kiss my shoulder, then turned onto his back and was asleep within minutes.

I stared at the insides of my eyelids, breathing deeply, trying to trick myself into sleep. Eventually I got back out of bed and ventured down to the kitchen for something to drink. I was filling a glass from the faucet when I heard a noise behind me. I turned to see Emily sitting at the table. She was wearing only a t-shirt and underwear, and had Willie cloistered in her lap.

“You should make more noise when you’re in a room,” I said to her. “People might think you’re sneaking up on them.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” she said.

“Me neither.”

I gulped the water as quickly as I could and put the glass in the sink. “Goodnight,” I said, and made to leave, but Emily said, “You know, what I said to you, earlier ...”

I paused. “Yes?”

She stared at the floor, one hand absently traversing the length of the cat, who squirmed under her touch.

“Yes?” I prompted.

“You shouldn’t just forget about it,” she said. She pulled the cat closer to her with both hands, scratching it behind the ears and along its belly.

I turned to face her. “Emily,” I said.

She looked at me.

“What did Kyle do to you?”

The cat let out a desperate mewl and Emily released it, watching it bolt from her lap into the shadow of the next room. She stood up, her t-shirt barely skimming the tops of her thighs.

“You should ask him,” she said, and followed the cat out of the room.

 

•    •    •

The next morning, I woke before Kyle and began packing up our things. When he opened his eyes, he looked at me and said: “You’re getting a head start, I see.”

“I just have so much work to do,” I said, stuffing a shirt into my suitcase. “I want to get back to the office.”

He crawled across the bed and stood up on his knees, pulling me into his chest and wrapping his arms around me.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

I nodded. His hands wandered up to my breasts and he kissed the back of my neck. I let him fool around for a few moments, then delicately removed his hands and turned away. “I’m sure your mother has breakfast downstairs,” I said.

He fell back onto the bed and stretched. “It certainly smells like it,” he said, and rolled off the other side of the bed onto his feet.

When I went down to the kitchen, Caroline had a cup of coffee already poured out for me. I went onto the back porch and gazed out into the yard. I saw Emily sitting on the bench, staring at the pond lilies.

Caroline emerged from the kitchen with another mug in her hands. “Miriam, would you be so kind as to take this out to Emily again?”

I hesitated, but agreed, traipsing across the yard to where Emily sat. I placed the coffee on the bench beside her. She did not look up, only said: “Thank you, Miriam.”

I followed her gaze to the pond. One of the beautiful blossoms had wilted and taken on water, and was now floating just beneath the surface, its petals warped by the murk, undulating like the arms of a sea creature.

I said nothing, and turned and walked back to the house.

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Contributors

AnnaKay Kruger is the third-place winner of the Wisconsin People & Ideas 2018 Fiction Contest. Kruger is a freelance writer living in Madison. She specializes in subjects related to science, technology, and food, but writes creatively whenever given the chance.

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