By: Christina Yang
Sue notices that the front door drifts open throughout the day. She’s perplexed. Are people forgetting to shut it, has a ghost come through, is the door broken? It’s the day after the Chinese New Year, the reason the family has gathered. Outside, it’s freezing in the worst possible way, a joyless and desiccated cold, absent of a good, heavy snowfall. So Sue, being conscientious and dependable and increasingly bitter over these designations that have followed her through the course of her life, shuts the door whenever she sees it ajar.
In the living room, bright red paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. A single potted orchid sits on the coffee table. Neither Peter, seven, nor Ava, three, are wearing pants. Sue put a hard-boiled egg into each grandchild during breakfast, which she felt good about, but then they got into the cabinet when she wasn’t looking, and now they are eating dried marshmallow bunnies from Easter. Sue checks her phone.
“When is Daddy coming home?” Peter asks.
“Just as soon as a doctor removes the googly eye from your brother’s ear,” Sue says.
Ava perks up. “Is William going to die?” Sue is disturbed by the hope in Ava’s voice. She wonders what her granddaughter knows about death.
“Of course not,” she says. “But what can we learn from this very unfortunate incident, kids?”
“Don’t put foreign obstacles in your body,” Peter intones, wagging his head back and forth.
Sue takes a second. “Objects. Don’t put foreign objects in your body.” She turns to Robert, her ex-husband. “Have you heard from Bobby yet?”
Robert doesn’t look up from the football game. “Nope.”
She stares at the back of his head, annoyed. Their son has been at the hospital with William, five, since last night. Megan, their daughter-in-law, is upstairs asleep with the baby, recovering from a C-section. Without exactly agreeing to it, but understanding that she was the natural choice, Sue has found herself running the entire damn ship, and she feels incredibly unsettled by the responsibility.
The doorbell rings, and Robert’s wife, Carla, stands up. “I’ll get it.”
“We should call Bobby,” Sue says to Robert. “They’ve been at the ER an awfully long time. Maybe something’s wrong.”
“Okay,” he says.
Ava says, “Nai Nai, can we go up to our room and play?”
“Sure, honey,” Sue says. The children thunder up the stairs. “Quietly,” she calls after them. “Your mother is sleeping.” To Robert, she says, “I meant you. You should call him.”
Robert closes his eyes and throws his head back. “Sue. He’ll call us if something is wrong.”
Carla returns bearing a covered casserole dish. “That was one of Megan’s cousins. Joanne?”
“Joni?” Sue says.
“That’s it, Joni. Dropping off a lasagna.” Carla lifts a corner of the tinfoil. “Oh wait. Baked ziti.”
Carla is in her mid-fifties, a decade younger than Sue. She has the kind of hair that barely moves, and fingernails that feature entire painted scenes on them. Sue’s style has always skewed towards the unadorned. Yet there is a certain exuberance to Carla’s tackiness that presses at Sue’s vulnerable spots.
“Look, why don’t you ask Megan what’s going on?” Robert says. “I’m sure she’s talked to Bobby.”
“She’s resting. I don’t want to disturb her.”
“Fine then,” Robert says. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
A bowl of potato chips perches on his stomach. He is much too heavy now, can hardly get in and out of a chair, doesn’t exercise. When they were still together, he used to mow the lawn every weekend and refill the bird feeders, paint the walls whenever Sue craved a change. That stopped when he finally married Carla after Bobby and Amanda were grown. Sue believes Carla has made him lazy, has never forced him to rise to his best self. Perhaps that’s not entirely true or fair, but Sue clings to it anyway. Then again, who can blame her? To have to make nice with her ex-husband and his mistress for the sake of the family at large would put anyone over the edge.
Sue goes back into the kitchen to unload the dishwasher. She can hear Peter and Ava upstairs giggling and shouting. There are intermittent thumping noises that suggest they are jumping on the furniture, which they are not allowed to do.
Sue sticks her head into the living room. “Robert, can you check on the kids?”
“They’re fine,” he says.
“Robert.” It’s Carla this time. She shoots him a look that says he better go upstairs. He looks down at his half-finished snack and lumbers to his feet. Both Sue and Carla watch him take the stairs one at a time, hanging so heavily onto the banister that Sue is afraid it might break away from the staircase.
When he has disappeared, Sue looks at Carla. She’s about to thank her, but then something inside of her hardens, and she retreats to the kitchen again. In recent years, Sue found out that during the height of the affair, Robert had taken Carla to a casino once. This had devastated Sue. No, she has never wanted to go to a casino with its sticky low pile carpeting, where people amused themselves by throwing away their money. But maybe if Robert had seen her as a different person back then, someone open and worthy of effort, he would have asked her. Maybe if Robert had asked her, she would have said yes.
A few minutes later, Carla walks in. “I thought I’d come in and help.”
“Well, you didn’t have to do that,” Sue says. It comes out sounding mean, and she is disappointed by her lack of restraint.
“I want to help,” Carla says, already poking around in the fridge.
They work together in silence. Sue reloads the dishwasher with dirty bowls and silverware. Carla makes a turkey sandwich for Peter and Ava’s lunch. She uses white bread with too much mayo.
“Voila!” Carla says. She holds up the finished sandwich which she has cut into halves and placed onto matching plates.
A sudden flash of anger tears through Sue. What does this woman want? It’s just sandwiches, for crying out loud. Sue must have had a look on her face because Carla shrugs and then busies herself with drinks for the children.
A knocking starts up. It’s coming from outside, against the walls. The sound is hasty and insistent, yet oddly distant. The women look up from their work.
“Woodpeckers,” Sue says. Carla follows Sue’s gaze to the window above the sink. All that is visible is a line of naked trees in the backyard. Sue pounds her fist against one of the cabinets, but the hammering continues unabated. Anyway, even if she’d scared the creature away, the damage is still there, only hidden from view because of where the birds are in relation to the house.
Upstairs, they hear a loud thud and a howl. Sue and Carla look at each other. They drop what they’re doing and run out of the kitchen.
Sue hurries past the front door which has yawned open yet again. When she is at the top of the stairs, it hits her all of a sudden, and she cries out, “Woodpeckers!”
“What?” Carla doesn’t even pause.
“Never mind,” Sue says, but she is smiling. The pecking is the reason the door won’t stay closed! She has figured out the source of today’s trouble.
When the women reach the bedroom that the boys share, they find Robert on the floor with Peter and Ava dogpiled on top of him. The three of them are one wriggling mass, just a tangled mess of limbs. Sue peels the children off of Robert, and Carla says, Robert, Robert, are you okay? He doesn’t respond. He’s curled up on his side, and his entire body is shaking. The women bend over him.
He’s injured, Sue thinks. They have to help him.
Then she notices Carla’s hand on his shoulder. She moves aside so that Carla can roll Robert onto his back. He throws his arms and legs out flat. Tears leak from the corners of his eyes. The women look at each other, and Sue can see the concern on Carla’s face.
Then it dawns on Sue that Robert is laughing.
He opens his eyes. He blinks up at the ceiling as he catches his breath. “That was fun,” he says.
Bio: Christina Yang graduated from Columbia University. She loves the library, a good binge watch, and a hot meal cooked by someone other than herself. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grub Street and The South Carolina Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and three children.