At rest, coiled up, Michael’s mother is about the size of a riding mower. Michael’s living room is not much bigger than her.
With a shudder, she rises. Her little piston feet march, pulling her out of her coil. Lifters above the feet kick out like dancers in a line. She snakes into the kitchen. Julie shrieks in horrified delight. Their mother opens the refrigerator.
Julie and Michael watch as she prepares them lunch. She nudges them into chairs at the table. They haven’t eaten at the table in a long time. Maybe she’s getting better. The food isn’t quite right, but they gnaw the uncooked noodles and push the raw meat aside.
Their mother doesn’t want to let them leave the house. When Julie tries to follow Michael out to play, their mother slithers around her, blocking the door. Their mother has struts that elbow out and banks of blades that saw past each other.
Another time, Julie is sitting in the dirt under the tree in the back yard, digging holes with a trowel. Michael wants to see what she’s doing. His mother plucks at his clothes and drags herself outside with him. So he goes back inside. He doesn’t want his mother getting dirty.
He sneaks out the back door while Julie is with it in the front room. He plays with his friends.
It’s late when he comes home. As he passes her, his mother turns suddenly and crushes him against the wall. He is more startled than afraid. His ribs bend against her weight as he gasps. He pushes her back into her place and goes to bed.
In the morning, his mother is still in her spot, but the sawing blades are all swinging. They never stop. At dinnertime, the mother starts breaking dishes. She picks up a dish off the top of the stack in the cupboard. She turns and slams half the dish into the counter, then drops the half in her claw to the floor. Then she picks up the next dish. She keeps going until all the dishes are gone, like it’s a chore or a game. Julie screams and tries to get the unbroken plates away from their mother. She cuts her hand on the broken edges. Michael wraps the cut in toilet paper and masking tape. They don’t have any Band-Aids big enough.
“Mom is mean,” Michael tells child protective services on the phone.
“Everyone thinks their mother is mean,” she says. “You’re just not used to actual, attentive parenting.”
Michael and Julie tend to their mother. Carpet needs to be cleaned out of her teeth. She needs to be oiled and tightened. There are parts that pull loose and parts that seize. Near as Michael can tell, his mother is trying to destroy herself.
She’s loud. She smells funny—like spoiled salad dressing. The whole house carries her reek; even in the hot, pink-fiberglass-lined crawl space, where Michael goes to hide in the comforting heat and dust, he can catch a faint whiff of vinegar and hear her off-rhythm thumps and screeches.
Michael leaves first thing in the morning to get away from her. It’s Saturday. The carpet is all chewed to pieces, rising in a foam of tangled strings around his mother, baring patches of scratched wood floor.
“Can I come with?” Julie asks. She has a hollowness around her eyes, like her skin is getting transparent.
“You’re too little,” Michael says, and feels like a bully. “We’re playing sports. You’ll get in the way.” It’s true, but that’s not why he says it. Their mother might leave the house if no one stays with her.
Michael feels something sharp at the back of his throat, like he has tried to swallow a knife. Julie sits against the wall by the stairs, her knees in front of her, staring at their mother. He wants her to stare at him instead, to stare accusingly. He waits by the door to give her the opportunity, but she doesn’t, so he goes.
Darla lives in the house across the street, and Shaun and Stella live in the house next door to Darla. The four of them play all manner of sports and chasing games in the combined space of the two yards. Sometimes Julie plays, too, but usually when that happens she and Stella sneak off together to do girl-things. Darla isn’t into girl-things. She is into bossing the boys through two-on-two versions of football and baseball with lots of ghost-men on base. Lately, though, Darla has been oddly aloof, not wanting to be center anymore though she used to revel in her unique ability to hike the ball properly.
When Michael gets to her backyard, Darla is waiting for him. Stella stands back a bit, by the oak tree in her own yard, watching like a sentry or sniper.
Darla walks up to Michael, her head down, her hands clasped behind her. She kicks the dirt. She is in her favorite Cleveland Browns jersey.
“Hi,” Michael says, feeling like someone has to say that. “What’s up?”
Darla looks back at Stella, and though Stella does nothing, Darla nods at a silent signal. She breathes in and faces Michael, eyes up and defiant. “You wanna go with me?”
GO. It’s the code word of all code words in their junior high school world, and he wants to “go” with someone. Not right now, but soon. Not before the other boys, and not later than them, either. He’d always imagined he’d “go” with a girl from TV—not the star of the show but the Girl Next Door, or the Quirky Best Friend—not a real girl, and certainly not Darla, who is larger than him in every possible dimension. Michael stares at her strong, square face. If it were a Magic 8 Ball, the answer was “outlook unclear.” He steps back. His eyes involuntarily drop to her small breasts, bumping out the tops of the seven and five on her jersey. He quickly snaps his eyes up. “Uh . . . I . . . don’t know.”
Her lower eyelids frown and he thinks she is about to punch him, but she just nods. “When will you know?”
“I don’t know,” he says, honestly, horrified at his own lack of knowledge. Shouldn’t he know? Painfully and suddenly it’s clear that life will not hand him a ring of hearts or fill his ears with violins to tell him that he has fallen in love. It might happen for normal kids, but not for him, not ever.
“That’s cool,” says Darla, shrugging.
Suddenly the fear of not going with Darla is greater than the fear of going with her. He might never be asked again. “What would we do? Would we . . . would we have to kiss?” He tries not to recoil.
Darla says, “No. I mean, not at first. You have to go together for, like, a year before you kiss.”
“So we would, like, hold hands?”
She nods like they are discussing the infield fly rule. “Yeah. Or just . . . go places together.”
“Like when we ride our bikes to Kmart?”
“Well . . . yes and no. Same stuff, only we’ll be going together.”
“I could do that,” Michael says
Darla’s cheek dimples on one side and Michael knows he’s said the right thing. His chest swells like swallowing too much pop.
“Cool,” Darla says, with another half-shrug. She looks back at Stella, whom Michael had forgotten about, and then leans over and pecks his cheek.
It is the quickest, driest touch, like a thumbprint, and then she squeals—a half afraid, half joyous sound. She runs past Stella, around the corner of Stella and Shaun’s house. Stella pauses a moment, marveling at Michael like he’s become something new, then runs after her friend.
Michael, suddenly alone, worries.
• • • •
His mother’s attempts to cook only destroy what little food is in the house. The only way to stop her from mixing broken glass and green beans is to cook before she decides to try. Michael knows how to make mashed potatoes and steam canned vegetables. They eat mashed potatoes most days. He can also bake potatoes, but that doesn’t feel like cooking. He insists that they sit down and eat at the chipped card table in the kitchen at least once a week. It’s supposed to feel normal, but it doesn’t. The kitchen cabinet doors are mostly gone. There are holes in the walls, too, and though he thinks he’s getting better at it, the potatoes are lumpy. Today there is no milk and they crumble dryly despite being stained yellow with government-issue margarine.
“My peas are touching the potatoes,” Julie says. “I hate when they touch.”
The phone rings.
“Just don’t eat those ones,” Michael says.
The phone rings again. Julie asks him, “Are you going to get that?” It rings again. “We could get in trouble,” Julie reminds him.
Michael slips out of his chair as slowly as he can. He approaches the living room, where the phone sits on a table near the wall. He has to walk around his mother. She jabs and plucks at him, smelling sick. Michael thinks she hates it when they talk on the phone. He cups the phone to his ear and turns away from the noise. “Hello?”
“Hi. Can I come over?” Darla’s voice is higher and breathier on the phone.
The machine behind him undulates, something groans deep inside it, metal warping, near to snapping.
“Hello?” Darla asks.
“We’re eating dinner,” Michael says. “Bye.” He hangs up.
Julie stands at the stove, picking peas off her plate and dropping them back in the steamer. “That was fast,” she says. “Who was it?”
“Darla. She wants to come over.”
Julie considers. “No one said that wasn’t allowed, did they? She’s not a stranger.”
Michael sat back down. “It’s better if I go to her house.”
Their mother howls, a series of metal parts grinding past each other, clanging as they slip free.
“Mom wants us to always stay home,” Julie says. “You’re cheating.”
Michael doesn’t argue that. “Eat your peas,” he says. “They’re good for you.”
• • • •
After dinner, Michael has to oil his mother. Julie is in her habitual spot against the wall by the stairs. “I hate our mother,” Julie says. “I hate her.”
She says “hate” like she enjoys the taste of the word. Michael wishes he could hate his mother. He tries, sometimes, but nothing comes up. It’s just a machine.
Michael wants to sneak out and see if he can find Darla. He needs to apologize.
“I hate her,” Julie repeats.
Michael thinks about telling someone his mother has turned into a malfunctioning machine. The last adult he tried to tell just said, “You are lucky to have a mother who cares about you.” This is about the same thing the school guidance counselor said, too. He wonders what other kids are saying about their mothers that what he says doesn’t sound strange.
Michael knee-walks backward from the niche he entered to pour oil in one of his mother’s many mouths. A whirring blade saws back and forth over his head, but he’s long used to dodging that one. He looks back at Julie. “Can you finish?”
“It’s your turn,” Julie says, staring straight at their mother with her sunken eyes.
“I’ll be right back.” Michael presses the walls to avoid his mother.
He steps over Julie and she grabs his jeans, tries to stop him like their mother does. “Take me with you,” she says.
He yanks out of her grasp easily.
• • • •
Darla’s house is lit up. He can see shadows moving from room to room, hear the sound of a plate being scraped, a voice talking. It sounds normal, like life in a movie. He leans against the oak on the tree lawn, not wanting to step on her grass uninvited at night. He wonders which room is Darla’s and if her room is all pink inside like a girl’s room, or if it’s all sports posters and blue, like a TV boy or a tomboy, which Darla is.
He decides that tomboys are the best kind of girls and hopes his some-day daughter will be one, too.
A light goes off. Michael is getting cold. He crosses the street back to his own house, which never has lights showing on the bottom floor.
Sometimes Michael wakes in the middle of the night to find his mother hanging over him, dripping oil on his face. Sometimes she chopped up the blanket and the end of the mattress with her saw-feet. Sometimes she just reared up over the bed and stared at him until dawn.
Michael wishes he knew how to take her legs off. They tried building a barrier at the bottom of the steps out of the remains of the sofa, but the machine only ate it.
Julie has her own bed on the other side of the room but these days she crawls in next to Michael and they turn back-to-back. They both like having something against their backs at all times. They don’t talk about this; they both just know it, and that’s comforting.
Tonight, Julie asks, “Are you going to marry Darla?”
“No. I don’t know. Maybe.” Michael is looking at the wall, which is cheap fake wood paneling and not like any bedroom on TV. In the dark, he imagines faces in the pixelated knots. He doesn’t like to turn his back on the paneling. His spine is prickly and he presses more firmly against Julie.
“If you marry Darla, take me with you. I’ll be like your kid and you’ll be my mom and dad.”
Michael feels her thinner, smaller back breathing against his, and he’s comforted by this thought. He imagines the three of them in a playhouse. Everything is small and cute and ordinary. He could cook and Darla could . . . Darla could fix everything. “Okay,” he says.
They drift off to sleep, and he knows Julie is imagining the same things he is. His prickly spine relaxes.
• • • •
Michael awakens to a crash. Pre-dawn light seeps into the room like weak tea. At first he doesn’t know why he is awake, but then there is another terrible collision. Michael jumps up, puts his arms on one side of Julie, his legs on the other, making a protective cage of his body. He’s afraid the ceiling will fall on her. He hears explosions and the machine screaming.
Julie curls into the tightest ball under him. “Don’t go,” she says. Michael realizes that he was about to go.
The house shakes. “I have to,” Michael says. He picks up his pillow and puts it in his place, on top of Julie. “Just stay here.”
“I hate you,” Julie says.
His mother is beating herself against the right wall of the living room, blocking the archway to the kitchen. The paneling has fallen, mostly, leaving bare joists and the smell of crumbled cardboard.
Michael jams himself between the wall and his mother and tries to push her out. His hands slide and the edges of metal parts cut his fingers. Michael has never been so sweaty. Julie wriggles in beside him. She puts her back on the wall and her feet on their mother, her stick-legs straining. With a shudder and a crack that Michael fears will bring the whole house down, they get their mother back into the center of the room.
The floor sags in a goofy grin where it meets the wall now, the scraggly remains of the carpet spilling into the dirt below the house like a tongue. Their mother rocks.
Julie is gasping, on hands and knees. She looks up at him. “Are we in trouble?”
“I don’t know,” Michael says.
• • • •
Julie and Michael eat dry cereal for breakfast, seated on the bottom of the stairs. There’s no milk, but Michael still tries to use a spoon. Julie picks hers one flake at a time from her bowl. Their mother is oddly quiet. Maybe she’s satisfied she has destroyed enough for one day.
Someone knocks on the front door. No one knocks on their front door except Jehovah’s witnesses and door-to-door petition people. Yet there is knocking. Julie looks at him. “You should get that.” When he doesn’t move, she says, “We’ll be in more trouble if we don’t open the door, won’t we?”
Michael puts down his bowl.
Darla is at the door. She waves. “Can I come in?”
Michael is relieved for one second. He steps out onto the porch and closes the door quickly behind him. “No.”
“I thought you said you’d go with me.”
Michael feels cheated. There was no contract, no implication that going with a girl meant letting her into your horrible life. “I do. I am. I . . . it’s a mess in there.”
“So? You’ve been in my house when it’s a total mess.”
He’s been in Darla’s living room. It smells like flowers and is decorated with her mother’s collection of porcelain dolls, which are trophies for making sales goals. The dolls are all different but all the same, mounds of ruffles and girlishness, set off against the raspberry-colored walls. It’s like being inside an old-fashioned valentine. It’s not on the same planet as the word “mess.”
Michael holds firmly onto the doorknob behind him. He feels Julie tugging on the door, wanting to come out. “There’s a hole in the floor,” he says, truthfully. “My dad doesn’t want anyone to come in until he finishes fixing it. It’s dangerous.” It’s a big lie and he’s amazed how easily it comes out of him.
“Oh,” says Darla. She looks like she’s planning her next pitch rather than arguing a rule. “Your dad.”
She’s waiting for him to admit the lie. Darla knows their dad has been gone for a long time. “It really is dangerous,” Michael says.
“I get that. I bet it looks cool, though. Can I see it?”
Julie is still tugging hard on the door. Muffled, he hears her calling. “Michael, she’s moving!”
“My dad would get real mad,” Michael says, and that’s good; it’s something a normal person would say.
Darla leans toward the living room window, but the blinds, as always, are drawn.
Julie stops tugging at the door. Michael relaxes a bit, but doesn’t let go; Julie can be clever at tugging games. “Why don’t we go to your house?”
Darla rolls her eyes. “Boring. How about we ride our bikes to the train tracks?”
“Sounds great,” Michael says.
They get on their bikes. Michael doesn’t stop like he should and tell Julie that he’s leaving. He goads Darla into riding further away than they ever have, further than she’s allowed.
They discover a new, magic place: an old depot shed between the railroad tracks. Every surface is decorated with graffiti and teens have left treasured evidence of their presence—beer bottles and pens and lighters. Michael finds a broom and clears the floor. He imagines this will be their new house. He tidies things while Darla breaks bottles on the tracks just to see them explode.
They miss lunch and almost dinner. When they get to Darla’s house, Darla’s mom gives her a talking-to, but it’s like a sitcom mom; there’s no threat of violence. And then Darla’s mom tells them to wash their hands and makes them sandwiches with leftover meatloaf, which they get to eat on paper plates on the back porch.
“I wish your mom was my mom,” Michael says.
“No you don’t,” Darla says. She frowns at her food like she doesn’t want to be there.
“Sit like a lady,” her mom says. “Michael, don’t you think Darla would look beautiful if she let her hair grow out?”
Darla squirms and stares hate at her sandwich and Michael wishes there was a way to agree with Darla’s mom and disagree with her at the same time.
“You’d be so pretty if you just smiled more,” Darla’s mom says, tucking Darla’s hair back behind her ear. Darla’s mom looks at Michael like they have a secret—like Michael can transform Darla into a girly-girl.
“Can we play Madden after dinner?” Michael asks, and Darla straightens with open relief.
• • • •
After one game of Madden, Michael has to go home. It’s late.
He opens the front door and immediately he knows something is wrong. His mother is making a squishy sound, much quieter than usual.
They don’t keep bulbs in the ceiling light in the living room. Their mother breaks them too frequently. “Julie!’ Michael runs into the dark. He trips on something round, soft but firm. His mother jolts and shifts over him. His chest lies in a nest of carpet strings. “JULIE!”
In the buttery light spilling from the kitchen door, Michael sees a fat maggot on the carpet by his eyes. He screams and crawls backward, over the log he tripped on. His eyes are still on the fat maggot, and then he realizes it has a fingernail, painted glitter-pink, and there are two logs, thin and soft, under his knees. His sister’s legs. His sneaker lodges in his mother’s gears; he fights his way free. He wishes he could black out, but he feels each slide of skin under him as he scrambles off his sister’s body.
Julie’s lips compress and open, but he can’t guess what she’s trying to say. He hits hard joints with his forearm, batters himself as he tears Julie out from under their mother. Blood is gushing from her missing finger. Michael tears off his shirt and mashes it up over the wound, tries to tie it.
He scrambles to the phone, knocks it off the table. He picks it up. There is no dial tone.
It takes a lot of effort to slow down, get the flashlight from the kitchen drawer, follow the cable to the wall, unplug and re-plug it, follow it to the phone, unplug and re-plug.
He does everything right; their mother has done something to the phone.
Julie rolls over. “Don’t,” she says.
Michael says, “Sorry. God, I’m sorry—I have to go.”
He runs across the street and beats on Darla’s door.
• • • •
Police lights bathe the living room in swimming red and blue. The cops hold tiny notepads, like waitresses. They put a blanket on Michael even though he isn’t cold. It’s rough and his arms feel like metal against it. He sits against the wall by the stairs, his knees in front of him. The police never look at his mother. They stand too close to her. They don’t fear her. They look at Michael like he’s a problem.
The front door hangs open, a terrible violation—their private sphere bleeding out into the street. Darla stands there, her brown hair gilt with street-light sodium, a halo of frizz, her mouth hanging open a half-circle, the outdoors a backdrop behind her, black and featureless.
Michael wants to run to her, but his mother is between them. His mother and the awful absence of Julie.
Eventually, Darla leaves. His mother collapses down with a sigh. The policemen push the machine out of its coil, ease it through the front door.
“You did the right thing,” a man in hospital clothes says.
The adults talk about temporary housing, about how he’ll get to see Julie soon, very soon. He doesn’t believe them, but he knows they hope what they say is true.
Michael still doesn’t hate his mother.