The children knew, mostly, what had been done, what they did. But they didn’t want to talk about it. They wanted to talk about what had been done to them instead. How she misunderstood.
They talked through the vent in their wall — the wall they shared, one side his, one side hers — until late at night, believing no one could hear them, believing she could not hear them. Banned for the evening from TV and games, banned from contact, she punished them by withholding love temporarily. They had to make their own dinner. Cold sandwiches. Glasses of plain milk. They weren’t allowed chocolate syrup when they’d been bad. Weren’t allowed dessert or going out doors. They ate silently, knowing they could lie down on their bellies on the carpet in their rooms — doors closed, chins propped up on fists, raw elbows digging into the carpet, whispering or speaking at a volume somewhere in between a whisper and a full voice. The whisper that believes no one — not she — could hear.
They didn’t understand ventilation systems. Didn’t understand how the tubes that carried the warm air into their rooms in winter carried warm air into the living room, the hallway, the bathroom, the dining room, their mother’s — her — room. They didn’t know about their connection to one another. They had never lay on her bed, flat backed, arms at their sides, wishing for silence. They’d only cried in their own beds on the sheets she had picked out, on or under the comforters she had found right for them.
She didn’t know.
They left their dishes in the sink. A knife still jammed with peanut butter, two plates, two milk glasses, not even rinsed. They knew she wouldn’t say anything about the dishes. She’d just wait until their doors closed and come out and wash them herself. They would hear the clank and clack of the dishes together, the water running. They would hear her sigh before she started and imagine, with a bitter happiness, that her mouth was drawn tight, her lips pushed together like her clenched teeth, her eyes angry with the chore they should have done.
But that’s not how she did it. Her mouth was open, slack. Tongue quiet and still, the saliva pooling under it. Her eyes soft with the wondering about the right thing, the question of how to do this right. She didn’t think about washing the dishes at all. Only about them.
As the dishes clanked, she would think of her own mother, how she broke things — dishes, a vase, ceramic figurines — after she spanked her for her own wrong doings and how she never thought it was fair, how she’d check in the mirror for broken blood vessels, a bruise she could use for blame, for guilt. A bruise that never showed up. And she thought at least I didn’t do that. Hit them.
The plates and cups were left to dry in the strainer. She wiped her hands on the dish towel and slowly folded it back onto the ring on the wall. Clank. The ring fell back to the wall.
When her footsteps disappeared down the hall, they fell onto the floor by the vent in practiced succession.
Then silence because they didn’t know what to say.
“When she goes to sleep, you can come in,” the girl said. “We can play cards.”
“No she won’t.”
“She always does. She hears everything.”
“No she doesn’t.”
“She finds everything out. I hate her.”
“Why is she so mean?”
“Kate’s mom lets her — ”
The footsteps again. A kitchen drawer opened. They could hear her hand rustle in the silverware drawer, pluck something out. More footsteps. A bottle set down heavily on the counter, the top unwrapped. A silent sort of rustling, then a pop. Then a cabinet door opened and shut, a glass placed down on the counter — tink.
“What’s she doing?” The whispering softer now.
“Opening wine, stupid.”
Then her footsteps down the hall again. Gone.
“She drinks too much.”
“No she doesn’t.”
“Yes she does. Every time she’s upset.”
“She’s always upset.”
“She’s always drinking.”
“No I’m not. She’s stupid.”
Every word traveled through the vent. She tried to swallow them all through the wine glass. They hate me, she thought. Hate.
I hated my mother. And the hatred felt complete and solid, something I could chew on and spit at her feet.
And their words kept slicing through the silence. A car would roar by outside and she’d miss some part of their conversation, relieved and panicked at the same time. She’d missed something, and she’d drink down the absence of words the same way she drank the words. She drank it all and fell asleep with the bed still made, the creases of her lips stained purple, holding onto the pillow her head wasn’t sleeping on. She would find something to say in the morning.
But the morning was Saturday. And she had too many things to do. Too many things and no words. She woke up and tried to walk through her headache, but it walked with her, throbbing with each step. Her silent children sat at the table, bowls of cereal floating and bobbing with the upset of their spoons before them.
They didn’t turn their heads when she came in, resolved and unified in their hatred. She put bread in the toaster, a cup of water in the microwave, unwrapped a tea bag and held the paper tab between her fingers, let the tea bag dangle and wait like the words she wanted but wouldn’t come.
They finished without looking at one another, and this time, washed their bowls and spoons and cups, put them next to their dinner plates in the strainer. Clank. Click.
Step step step step.
Their doors closed to her. Again. What she asked for. No. What she told them to do. She dropped the tea bag into the cup, pressed it down with a spoon and let go. It bobbed up to the top. She pushed it down again. It came back up. So she decided to leave it alone.