Holiday ’16 Fiction: The Growth of Hearts and Other Lies

written by Michael L. Monson

Rain drops dangle from pine needles and speckle the window panes. James sits at the kitchen table, staring down at a bowl of cereal, poking the cheerios with his spoon. He’s late for work, again, should have taken a bagel in the car, but he’s tired and in no hurry to get to a job he hates. The wind blows, tapping a black, leafless branch against the window.

James’ wife, Piper, still in bed, moans softly in her sleep. James wonders what time she gets up these days. He pulls back a starched sleeve and checks his watch. He should be merging onto the freeway by now.

Something behind him moves. He turns, hoping to see his wife, but instead it’s his daughter, her six-year-old feet, covered by her too-long pajama pants, taking one stair at a time, her little fists twisting sleep from her eyes.

“Hey, Ellie baby,” James says.

She comes across the kitchen, still more asleep than awake, and climbs into his lap, curling against his chest.

“You okay sweetheart?” James asks, his hand squeezing her cold, bare feet.

“Um,” she says.

“You want some breakfast?”

She turns in his lap, putting her arms around his neck. He kisses the top of her head.

“Daddy has to go to work,” James says.

He waits for her to move, to climb off his lap so he can get her a bowl of cereal and some juice and be on his way, but she doesn’t, instead tightening her hold on his neck.

“You want to go lie down with Mommy for a while?”

Her head shakes against his cheek.

“Okay, Daddy’s got to go, Sweetheart,” he says and tries to lift her away from his body, but she won’t let go.

“Come on,” he says and kisses a cheek as soft and smooth and nice to touch as a silk pillow. He draws in a deep breath, squeezing her tiny body and says, “Okay, I’ve got to go.”

“Daddy?” the girl says, leaning back and looking up into his face.

“Yes?”

“What’s the biggest animal in the world?”

James screws up in face in feigned concentration. “Um, an elephant?” he says.

She thinks for a second then nods and puts her head back on his chest.

**

Late that afternoon James sits at his desk, his chair turned away from the half-finished document on his computer screen, his eyes staring blankly out the window at the grey buildings and the low-hanging clouds and the birds perched along a wire. The cellphone in his pocket chirps. He pulls it out. A text from his wife: Pick up Ellie from my mom’s house. Won’t be home till late.

He puts the phone back in his pocket, not giving the message any more thought than he would a traffic report on the radio, simply accepting the information and adjusting his plans to accommodate it.

**

Driving home that evening, Ellie strapped in the backseat, a fast food bag in her lap, a small drink with a straw and a plastic lid in the cup holder of her car seat, James looks in the rearview mirror and asks, “Did Mommy say where she was going tonight?”

Ellie, digging in the bag for the toy says “no.”

“Did she leave with anyone? Lauren or Becky?”

“No,” Ellie says, now looking down at the plastic-wrapped toy in her hands.

James looks forward again at the rows of cars idling on the freeway in front of him, the long line of red brake lights stretching out like a string of Christmas lights, reflecting in the wet pavement.

“Daddy,” Ellie says.

He looks into the rearview mirror again. The toy sits on the seat next to her, her chicken nuggets and fries in boxes on her lap.

“Yes, Sweetheart?”

“Grandma said they can put a pig heart into people.”

James turns to look at her. “Why did she say that?”

“I asked her,” she says, chewing on a French fry.

“Why did you ask her that?”

“I just wanted to know.”

“Oh,” James says. “Okay.” He thinks for a minute. “Do you have any more questions about that?”

“No.”

“Okay,” James says and the traffic starts moving again.

**

Ellie and James are both in their beds when Piper finally comes home that night. The garage door opens followed by the door into the house. The heels of her shoes click on the tile in the mud room. For a second it’s quiet and she’s either crossing the carpet toward the bedroom or to the kitchen. James feels his stomach clench as if seized by a fist, but the grip relaxes when a thin yellow line of light from the kitchen brightens the gap underneath the bedroom door. He hears the faint whoosh of the refrigerator door opening and then the suck and click as the magnets around its edges seal it shut again. A few seconds pass and then a glass clinks softly in the sink.

When Piper comes into the bedroom she doesn’t turn on the light, not this time, as if this time she cares about waking him. She crosses to the bathroom in the dark, easing the bathroom door closed behind her.

James, fully awake, wants to sit up, snap on the light, throw open the bathroom door, but his suspicion keeps him pinned to his bed, suddenly afraid of the confrontation.

A toilet flushes. A sink turns on then off. Piper steps back into the dark of the room. Her silhouette steps out of its shoes and dress and she slides carefully into bed, lying on the far edge of the king-sized mattress, her back to James.

He wants to say something to her, has to say something to her, even if it’s nothing. “Hey, you okay?” he finally says, no hint of sleep in his voice.

“Yes,” she says, no sleep in her voice either. She doesn’t say anything more. After a few seconds she takes in a deep breath and lets it out slowly through her nose as if she were tired. He recognizes this as her signal to him that she’s done talking. He rolls away from her now too, facing the opposite wall, staring at the red numbers on the alarm clock.

**

The next night when James comes home from work, Piper snatches her purse and brushes past him. “Ellie needs a bath,” she says and then she’s gone, out in the garage.

“Hey, Sweetheart,” James says to Ellie as he watches is wife’s silver Mercedes pull out of the driveway and disappear down the street. “What you eating for dinner?”

“Cereal,” Ellie says, “Want some?” She holds out a spoon, dripping milk on the table.

“Cereal, huh,” James says and opens the fridge.

“Daddy?”

“Yes.”

“Did you know that the blue whale is actually the biggest animal?”

“What’s that?”

“The blue whale is the biggest animal.”

“Oh really?”

“You said it was an elephant.”

“I did, didn’t I.” James looks at his daughter and smiles. “But you know, I think you’re right. A blue whale is definitely bigger.”

“I know,” Ellie says and slurps up a spoonful of cereal.

After a bath and pajamas and hair brushing, James takes Ellie to her bedroom to put her to bed. Taped to the wall above her dresser is a crayon drawing of an elephant.

“That’s a pretty elephant,” James says. “When did you draw it?”

“Today.”

“Did mommy say it was okay for you to put tape on the wall?”

“Jenny did it for me.”

“Who’s Jenny?”

“My babysitter. I’m going to do a blue whale tomorrow.”

“Oh,” James says.

“Do we have any big paper?” Ellie asks.

James smiles at her, brushes the blonde hair out of her eyes. “I don’t know.”

“I need some big paper for a blue whale.”

“I guess you do.”

“How can I draw a blue whale and blue water?”

“Time for sleep.”

“Daddy?”

“Sleep,” James says, kissing her forehead.

“Did you know that blue whale’s heart is as big as a car?”

“Really?” James says, folding the blankets up around her neck.

“And you know what else?”

“No more talking. Time for sleep.” James crosses the room and turns off the light.

“Daddy?”

“Yes,” James says pausing in the door.

“Did you know that a blue whale’s heart is big enough for people to stand up in?”

“I didn’t know that,” James says.

“Daddy?”

“Yes.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too, Sweetheart.”

Days pass and then weeks. Piper goes out most nights, sometimes in workout clothes, sometimes in a dress. When she stays home, she stays on her computer until after James goes to bed. Some weekends she’s in the mood for being with Ellie and takes her to a theme park or a movie. When James follows them into the garage she says, “You’re coming?” and he says “Is that okay?” and she says “Whatever.” They both hold hands with Ellie as they walk down the sidewalk or sit in the theater, but never do they touch each other. Other weekends she’s not in the mood to be with Ellie or with anyone else for that matter, staying in bed all morning, never changing out of the tee-shirt and shorts she wears as pajamas, saying “Mommy’s too tired,” when Ellie crashes into her bedroom.

**

One day James calls home in the middle of the afternoon. He needs to ask Piper if they can go to his parents’ house for Thanksgiving this year. They haven’t been in three years and his mother is getting upset. James has avoided bringing it up with Piper for nearly a month, but his mother is calling almost daily and Thanksgiving is only a week away.

When Piper answers her voice is bright, even excited, as if she were waiting for someone to call, and for a moment James lets himself think that everything is back to the way it was before, but when she hears it’s him her voice drops.

“I’d like to go to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving this year.”

“What?”

“It’s been three years and would mean a lot to my mother.”

Silence.

“Maybe we could rotate every other year,” James says.

Silence.

“Piper?”

“What?”

“Thanksgiving.”

“Fine.”

“So I’m going to call my mom and tell her we’re coming.”

“Fine.”

Silence.

“Alright,” James says. He tries to think of something else to says, but there’s nothing. “Well, I guess I’ll see you…later.”

He waits for her to say goodbye, but, after a second, the phone beeps and the call is over.

Wednesday evening, the day before Thanksgiving, James leaves his office and drives straight to his in-laws’ house. The streets shine with rain, reflecting headlights and streetlights and the lights shining through the city shop windows. Christmas advertisements are already out.  A woman’s face on a billboard smiles down at him. She’s advertising jewelry, holding a string of diamonds loosely in her long, beautiful fingers.

Piper’s mother’s eyes widen when she opens the door.

James says “hello,” says he’s there to pick up Ellie.

“Of course,” Piper’s mother says; she says “Come in, come in.”

As James follows her through the entryway and down the hall, Piper’s mother says, “So you’ll be with your family tomorrow.” She thinks that’s “wonderful.” His mother will be “so happy.” How is his mother, she asks; she hasn’t seen her in so long.

In the family room, Ellie sits on the couch next to Piper’s father. She’s playing a video game, her grandfather smiling, telling her “good job,” “watch out for that guy,” “jump,” “shoot,” “get ‘em,” “nice work.”

“Come on Ellie, time to go,” James says.

She says “okay” but doesn’t look away from the screen.

“Come on, Sweetheart,” James says. “We’ll stop at McDonalds on the way home.”

“We already gave her dinner,” Piper’s mother says.

“Come on, Honey,” James says.

The character Ellie’s controlling on the screen fires at a zombie, exploding its body in a spray of blood.

“Alright,” James says and steps around the couch to pick up his daughter.

“No,” she cries, kicking, not letting go of the game controller.

Piper’s father cocks his head in disapproval. “She was almost at the end of the level,” he says.

James has something ready to say about violent video games but doesn’t.

“It’s okay, Darling,” Piper’s father says. “We’ll play again next time you come to visit Grandpa.”

Ellie is not consoled.

James pries the controller from Ellie’s hands and drops it on the couch. He walks straight for the front door, Ellie wriggling in his arms, still crying.

“Enough,” he barks.

Piper’s parents exchange looks.

“Oh, James wait,” Piper’s mother says. “Her backpack.” She hurries down the hall and returns with a pink, princess bag. “There’s a treat in there for the way home if you’re a good girl,” she says, but the bribe doesn’t work; Ellie’s still too upset.

“Thank you,” James says, but the words come out clipped, the emphasis on you instead of thank, expressing his desire to leave instead of gratitude.

“I’ll walk you out,” Piper’s mother says and waves at her husband to get up.

When they reach the front door, James tries to turn the handle with one hand while holding Ellie’s squirming body with the other.

“So Piper’s bringing pies tomorrow,” Piper’s mother says, her voice pleasant, as if there weren’t a screaming child between them.

“Um, yeah I guess,” James says, straining to hold on to his daughter who is now reaching for her grandpa, saying she doesn’t want to go.

“You’ll be back soon, Sweetie,” her grandfather says.

“Why?” James asks, suddenly letting Ellie slide out of his arms. The second her feet hit the ground she runs to her grandpa and clings to his leg. His hand strokes her hair. He bends and whispers something in her ear, more to avoid James it seems than to say anything to Ellie.

“I mean why?” James asks. “Why does she come here every day?”

Piper’s parents look at each other and a silent conversation seems to pass between them.

“Be a good girl and go home with your daddy,” Piper’s father says, finally, and lifts her into his own arms. “How about Grandpa carries you out to the car.”

**

Ellie’s asleep when they pull into the garage. Piper’s car is not there. Carefully, James unbuckles her and lifts her from her car seat. Her head feels heavy on his shoulder as he carries her up the stairs, her arms wrapped instinctively around his neck. He stoops and with one hand pulls back the blankets on her bed.

Something’s different about her room. It takes a moment to figure it out in the dark, but then he sees them, drawings taped to nearly every inch of wall, pictures in crayon and marker, elephants and whales and dinosaurs, all smiling, some with giant hearts overlapping the animal outlines.

Ellie rolls in her bed, dragging a tangle of blankets and sheets with her.

“Good night,” James whispers and kisses her lightly on the forehead.

That night as James lies in bed alone, the moonlight slanting through the openings between the slats in the blinds, his mind traces back up the black and twisted stream of memory, trying to identify the point where Piper’s life first began branch away from his. But there’s no day, no conversation, no event he can say was the exact moment it happened, just an imperceptibly slow fading away, like the bleeding of day into night, autumn into winter, the changing of a boy into a man.

James stares into the darkness above his bed, determined to be awake when she comes home, but he’s not.

The next morning he wakes to the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. It’s Ellie getting her own breakfast, he thinks. He’s overslept and she’s hungry. He rolls over, expecting to see his wife’s back curled away from him on the far edge of the bed, but she’s not there. So that’s it he thinks, it’s finally happened, but before he can digest the sourness of this realization, he hears her voice in the kitchen, only somehow it’s not her voice, at least not the one he’s used to, familiar but also surprising, like seeing someone for the first time without their glasses.

James throws off the bedsheets and goes to the bedroom door. Piper, an apron covering her skirt and blouse, is helping Ellie finger press the ridges into the crust of an unbaked pie.

“There he is,” Piper says, looking up and noticing James. She sounds as friendly and cheerful as a girl expecting to be asked on a date. “Go get your daddy one of those doughnuts and some juice,” she says and raises her eyebrows at Ellie.

“Hey,” James says, walking cautiously into the kitchen.

“We’re making pies for Thanksgiving,” Ellie says, putting a plate with a chocolate doughnut covered in orange sprinkles on the table.

“I can see,” James says.

Ellie lists the fillings they’re putting in the pies: cherry, apple, pumpkin, chocolate, but James isn’t listening, his concentration absorbed by the sight of his wife at home in the daylight, everything about her that had for so long seemed sharp and dangerous now soft and safe.

“You better get ready,” Piper says. “We don’t want to be late for your mother.”

It was the sort of thing any normal wife would say, any wife getting ready for a normal Thanksgiving, and so hungry was James for normal that he gobbled it up without questioning why it was being served.

**

When they arrive at James’ parents’ house later that morning, Piper plays the part of the perfect daughter-in-law. She reaches out her arms for leaning-in, back-patting hugs; she air kisses cheeks; she notices new decorations. A sister-in-law’s hair style is commented on; nieces and nephews are greeted by name.

While Piper is in the dining room, lighting candles, James’ mother gives him a look that says: well, it’s good to see that’s all sorted out, to which James smiles and shrugs.

During the meal, Piper glows, laughing at everything that’s meant to be funny, sympathizing with everything that is not. She tells stories about James, funny, good-natured, slightly teasing stories, the type of stories told by women who are confident they have everything they want and are no longer afraid of losing it.

By the time the pies are plated and dolloped with vanilla ice cream, everyone at the table is in love with Piper again, an envious, we-are-not-worthy sort of love, like that of a teenager for a celebrity, their prior grievances forgiven and forgotten. And so infatuated are they that no one pays attention or even thinks twice when Piper checks her phone under the table or excuses herself to go to the bathroom more than would otherwise seem normal.

After the dishes are cleared, Piper stands at the sink, her sleeves rolled in coils up around her elbows, her hands buried in suds, scrubbing plates.

“Go sit down,” James’ mother says.

Piper says no, that she, James’ mother, did all the cooking, but when, a few minutes later, the phone rings in Piper’s purse, she dries her hands on a dish towel and nips out into another room without saying a word. Less than a minute later she’s back.

“James, baby, I need to go over to my parents’ house for a quick visit.”

James looks over at the men sprawled on the family room couches, some watching football, others nearly asleep. Normally he would want to be with them, to recline and relax, let the rest of the day pass without serious thought or concern, but not today. Instead he wants only to be with his wife, this new wife, or rather his old wife suddenly and inexplicably returned from wherever she’s been all these months.

“Sure, no problem,” James says. “I’ll go get Ellie.”

“No,” Piper says, her voice suddenly firm. “You two stay here with your mother. I’ll just be a little while. Go watch football.” She looks at his face for a minute as if expecting him to say something and when he doesn’t, she smiles and turns and leaves the room.

It’s this last part about watching football that snags in his mind like cotton on a rusty nail. Not so much what she said but how she said it, the slightest hint of desperation in her voice, the gentle verbal nudge toward the other room, the giving of an additional reason when the first alone would have sufficed.

“Are you sure?” James calls after her, his emotions and intuition wrestling against each other for control of his thoughts.

He follows her, watching at a distance as she gathers up her purse, desperate not to let her slip away but afraid to object, sensing that too much pressure could upset the fragile balance that has inexplicably returned to his life.

Piper crouches next to Ellie who’s busy arranging a family of dolls in the front room. Piper says something to her, whispers it into her ear. Ellie doesn’t look up. Piper says more, runs her hand down her daughter’s blond hair, and kisses the crown of her head.

“Goodbye,” Piper mouths to James and skips out the front door, easing it closed behind her.

**

An hour passes, then two. Ellie falls asleep in the basement watching a princess movie. James knows he should wake her, that she won’t go to bed that night, but he lets her sleep. He can’t get into the football game and is too restless for a nap. He checks his watch, the clock on his phone, the time on the microwave. He stands in front of the windows in the front room, looking out at the street. He makes up excuses for why Piper is taking so long: her mother forgot to put the pies in the oven, traffic on the freeway was bad, she’d stayed to help with the dishes.

Finally he calls her cell phone. It rings three times and goes to voicemail. He doesn’t leave a message.

“Where’s Piper?,” his mother asks when James wanders back into the kitchen.

The question annoys him. He doesn’t want to answer but knows he has to, so he says that she went to visit her family, that she’ll be back soon. He calls again. No answer. An hour later it’s dark outside and his mother asks again, “Where’s Piper?” He says she’s on her way, but this is a lie, he has no idea if she’s on her way. He calls again and again it goes to voicemail.

Ellie comes toddling up the stairs, asking where her mother is. James says he doesn’t know.

His mother says: “I thought you said she was on her way.”

And James says: “I thought she was.”

And his father says: “Maybe she already went home.”

And James say: “No. She has the car. She has to come back and pick us up.”

And his brother says: “No, she doesn’t. The car’s in the driveway.”

James doesn’t believe him; he’s sure the car is gone, but when he opens the front door and looks, there is it, right where he’d parked it that morning. James goes into an empty bedroom and calls Piper’s parents. They thought she was at his house. Piper’s mom starts to say something but stops herself and instead says she’s sure everything will work out “for the best.”

In the kitchen again, James’ mom asks if he spoke to Piper, if she’s coming back.

“She’s not feeling well,” James says and then says they’re going to go home. He tells Ellie to get ready. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone, but manages a few goodbyes to his siblings and their spouses.

On his way out the door, Ellie in one arm, her backpack in the other, James’ mother says that it was such a nice Thanksgiving, one of the nicest she can remember.

Piper’s car is in the garage when James pulls in and for a moment he believes the lie he told his mother, that maybe Piper isn’t feeling well and went home and fell asleep and that’s why she didn’t answer her phone or come back, but inside the house is dark and empty.

“Where’s Mommy?” Ellie asks.

“I don’t know.”

James goes into the basement to check the office, looks in each bathroom, each bedroom.

“What are you looking for?” Ellie asks.

“Nothing,” he says and then he says, “Come on, it’s time for bed.”

“I’m not tired.”

The headlights of a car sweep through the front windows. James looks up, but the car passes.

He knows Ellie isn’t tired so decides to give her a bath. While she’s playing with a pair of pastel-colored ponies in the water, James sits on the toilet lid, staring at his phone, searching his wife’s social media profiles for a clue. He finds phone numbers for her friends, but lacks the courage to call them. More time passes than he realizes. Ellie says the water is cold. James wraps her in a towel and carries her into her bedroom. He dries her, patting the towel behind her knees and tussling it in her hair to make sure she’s all dry before he helps her with her pajamas.

“Daddy?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not tired.”

“I’ll lie down with you.”

“Daddy?”

“Yes.”

“When’s Mommy coming home?”

“I don’t know.”

“Daddy?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t wait until I’m a grown up.”

“Why’s that?”

“So my heart will be big enough to carry Mommy in it.”

James looks at the animal drawings papering the walls of the room. “What do you mean, Sweetheart?”

“Mommy says that wherever she goes I’m always in her heart.”

James rises up on an elbow and looks at Ellie. “When did she say that?”

“She always says that.” The room is quiet for a moment and then Ellie says, “She said it to me today before she left. She said that even if she doesn’t see me for a long time, I’m always in her heart.”

“She said that today?”

“Yes and when I’m grown up she’s going to be in my heart too.”

James lies back down. A car passes in front of the house but does not stop. James says, “I’m sure your heart is already big enough, Sweetheart,” and thinks but does not say that hearts, unlike bodies, grow smaller with age.

A little arm falls across his chest and he feels the brush of soft lips on his cheek, an innocent kiss from a child, a kiss that gives without trying to take.

When James wakes the next morning, he’s still in his daughter’s bed. She lies sideways, her tiny foot in his neck, and he knows, without even getting up, that his wife has not come home.

Ellie sits up, pushes hair out of her face and asks if they can make chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast.

James forces the downward tug of his mouth into a closed lip smile and says they can, of course they can, they can always make pancakes, and then he rolls out of bed so Ellie won’t see the sudden tightness in his lips and the quivering of his chin.

____________________________

Michael Monson’s writing has appeared in in The Blue Lake Review (online), The MacGuffin (print), and Analog (print).