THE SEA OF red robes caused the two waffles with syrup, not as digested as he’d thought, to swim through Jim’s stomach like it was a pond full of pollywogs. Despite the heat and the dizzying effect of all that red, he wouldn’t allow himself to feel ill.
Yet, sitting through long-winded speeches, the roll-call of graduates — 532, according to Ellen — made him tired even before the afternoon sun had a chance to whip up sweat on his neck and forehead. But it was worth it. The whole event was worth it — he loved her so much he ached. Once this was over, they could proceed with their lives. Or that’s what he’d thought until last night.
ROBERT SQUIRTED ANTI-BACTERIAL soap onto his palm. It looked like a dollop of pus in the center of his hand — a strange yellowish orange color. But the strong odor and the way it sucked moisture out of his skin told him it did its job.
When Sara was a baby, Deb had been on him all the time about keeping his hands clean. He hated the smell of the soap, but wanted to prove how dedicated he was to providing the best care for his daughter. After the first few years of Sara’s life, filled with countless hand-scrubbings a day, it was a habit he couldn’t get rid of.
Being the father of a girl was very serious business. He might argue a man’s behavior was under more scrutiny than it was with a son. Sons required verbal guidance on becoming a man. A daughter absorbed it all by osmosis, then modeled her choice of a mate on her father.
Thelma leaned toward her eldest daughter-in-law, the one she thought was most sympathetic, although lately she wondered if anyone had even a shred of sympathy for her. Sympathy was a fading virtue, swallowed by a world filled with women wrapped up in their careers, men trying too hard to be thirty when they were fifty, and children completely checked out, as their whole lives shrank to a three- by four-inch screen.
She whispered, although not too softly since the rock music coming from the speakers was on the loud side. “Birthday parties nowadays are for the parents. What happened to homemade cupcakes and punch and a few games?”
Jan smiled. “It’s different now.”
“That’s my point. Champagne? For a three-year-old? A cake from a bakery?”
Jan smiled and sipped her champagne.
Thelma sipped from her own glass. She didn’t approve, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy it.
Even though the cake was made by a professional, they still couldn’t get a true red. No different from homemade. The Winnie the Pooh shirt was a sickly color, reminiscent of undercooked beef. The cake was half-eaten now, the golden bear sliced down the middle, the knife smeared with white and that lurid pinkish-red frosting, globs of white cake clinging to the blade like barnacles.
Rose’s flaming red hair was shrouded by the hood of her sweatshirt. She wore oversized dark glasses, almost black. Although the chances were slim, if she saw someone she knew on the train, she didn’t want them to see her.
With eyes raw and red from crying through the night, her throat scraped dry, and her fingernails broken and crusted with blood from clawing at Bradley’s arms, howling with pain while he stared at her blankly, she couldn’t be seen in public. A mess. Inside and out.
She sat on the painted metal bench. It was cold, but the chill was strangely soothing. The station was deserted at five o’clock in the morning. The commuters were home in warm beds, wrapped in the pleasure of a three-day weekend.
Yesterday had been her nephew’s baptism. A precious baby with a flawless face, round blue eyes, lips just learning to smile, letting out healthy shouts of complaint when the minister dripped water on his forehead. The pat of a crisp white handkerchief on his skin hadn’t silenced him. Only when his mother held him close, kissed his cheek, buried her nose in his wisps of hair, had he stopped crying. That’s when Rose had started crying.
A woman holding a baby carrier walked toward her from the ticket machine. She wore a down-filled jacket that was brown with grime along the front edges. Her hair was wrapped up as tightly as Rose’s, but tucked inside a baseball cap. She the carrier on the bench and sat down. The sleeping infant pursed its lips then settled into a deeper sleep.
Rose’s crying the day before had quickened to sobs. Her precious baby girl would never take a breath, never scream to be comforted by her mother. Her child was lost in a mass of blood and tissue.