Every night, Corrine makes her rounds. She is not a doctor, or nurse, although she’s often called upon to play these roles. She knows the virtues of early to bed, early to rise, but she relishes the quiet when everyone else in the house sleeps. She comes by it honestly: her mom was a night owl, too. She understands now, the need for this alone time. And yet it’s increasingly difficult to quiet her mind.
She performs her nightly ritual—switching off lights, attaching devices to cords and tethering them to walls, feeding and watering the menagerie of critters the kids have talked her into—taking care of the living, while feeling closest to the dead.
Lock your doors, she hears her grandmother say as she double-checks the sliders in the living room that lead to the back deck, makes sure the wooden safety bar is securely in place.
She remembers afternoons of playing games with her grandma while her mom worked, endless rounds of Go Fish. Aller pêcher her grandma would say, determined to teach her a foreign language. To help her imagine a larger world.
An image of her grandma’s bruised hand as she shuffled cards all those years ago flashes in her mind. She can picture the purple knuckles, the bulging veins, as if it was yesterday. She tastes the fear she felt when her mom told her about her grandmother being mugged. Her grandma hadn’t locked the entry door to her apartment, and a man had accosted her in the vestibule, grabbed her purse, and pushed her to the floor, then fled.
“I am fine, ma chérie,” her grandma had said when she noticed Corrine staring. “Just a sore hand, and my purse held nothing of consequence.” She dealt seven cards each, stacked the rest of the deck between them.
“I will lock my doors from now on,” she continued, “but I will not be afraid.”
Corrine glances at the clock now and goes through her mental to-do list before she can rest. Next, the dog, who she coaxes to the front door. She flips on the porch light and looks out the window before opening the door. The dog sticks his head out, sniffs the air. On high alert. Neighbors have reported coyote sightings, and she’s heard howling in the distance. A four-wheeler was stolen from a man’s garage down the street last week. She listens. Nothing. She nudges the dog’s butt, and he traipses into the night. If she doesn’t make him go now, he’ll wake her later.
She continues on, first to her daughter’s room, where she adds water to the hermit crab’s dish, wets a small cloth to boost humidity. Her daughter was ecstatic when she won the crustacean at the Ohio State Fair; Corrine, less so. She knew it would be just one more thing to care for, and she didn’t want to care. But she read that the crab breathes through gills, and without enough humidity, it can die a slow suffocating death. Now she obsesses about it, checks it more than necessary.
Next, the litter box in the laundry room. Her least favorite job, but if she tends it every day, it’s less bad. She enjoyed the respite from poop scooping while she was pregnant. Doctor’s orders, she told her husband. But now the job was hers again.
She washes her hands in the kitchen sink, takes a sip of café au lait, cold now, but still sweet. The way her grandma taught her to make it. She remembers this detail, even though she recalls only a smidgeon of the French she was taught: some words and phrases, which seem to hover closer to the surface lately, since the Paris attacks. She remembers vividly, and can’t excise from her mind, the photos from Paris, the news reports from the Bataclan Theatre, the gunfire that could be heard outside the Stade de France.
She closes the door, throws the deadbolt. Next up, the animals in her son’s room. First, she will tend to the carnival goldfish, whose lifespan has defied all odds, then the hamster. But as soon as she enters the room, the fluorescent lights in the hood of the tank illuminate the fish, floating belly up. She moves closer, studies its bloated gut and its scales—now pale orange instead of shiny tangerine. She recalls her son’s joy when he won the fish, bouncing a ping-pong ball into a cup of water. She and her husband had joked that the elementary school game was early practice for college beer pong.
She wonders how the fish could look this decayed when it’s only been dead a day. She would have noticed it was dead last night, wouldn’t she? Or perhaps she neglected the fish, distracted by the damn hamster on its wheel, shooing it off so the squeaking wouldn’t wake her son.
On her rounds tonight, she has barely registered the sleeping humans, but now she is acutely aware of them, of her son under the blankets in his bed, the tank casting enough light that she can see his arm thrown above his head, just like his dad sleeps.
Suddenly, she has to check all the living creatures in her care. She tries to push back the pictures that crowd her mind, horrifying images of her daughter, son, husband, dog, all bloated like the fish. She checks the hamster first. It’s sleeping, but she lifts the cage lid, nudges the apricot fur with her finger, wanting proof of life. She knows it will likely wake up and jump on the wheel, that she’s risking waking her son, but she’s willing to risk it. Long gone are the colicky baby days, when she prayed for him to sleep, only to be so unnerved by the silent monitor when he eventually did that she could not sleep herself. She goes to him now, positions her cheek under his nose, just like she used to, his breath caressing her cheek, allowing her to breathe again.
Her son should not be home on this night. He should be on his eighth-grade class trip to Washington, D.C., but it was canceled because of the heightened security threat to the Capitol. He was disappointed. She was relieved. She hadn’t realized how much so until she got the school’s automated call, and suddenly the feeling of malaise had lifted—a French word she still remembers, a dread she hadn’t fully known was there.
Her son turns over, away from her, mumbles in his sleep. She strains to hear if she can make out actual words, yearns for a glimpse into his inner thoughts, the ones he used to share with her, but that he now keeps locked away. He sighs, and she resists the urge to shake him awake, demand that he talk.
She looks at the fish again, still floating, watches the bubbles surface from the volcano, the mini treasure chest still opening and closing, despite the nearby corpse. She thinks of when she held her son within the safe bubble of her body, watching the towers fall and stroking her swollen belly, wishing she could somehow keep him contained, safe.
Do you have a cinq? she hears her young voice asking. Aller pêcher, her grandma says. How do I do this? she asks the ghosts of her mother, her grandmother. How did they not buckle from the love, the loss?
In the morning, while her family says audible prayers for the fish, Corrine will say silent prayers, praying for those who have met the same fate, for the people grieving for them, saying their au revoirs—or is it adieux? Her grandmother taught her that one was more final than the other, but she can never remember which one.
Standing with her family, she will thank the heavens that on this day, in her world, all but the fish have been spared.