Upstairs, the daughter listens to the intermittent hymn of cars speeding down the two-lane highway. Paging through a clothing catalog, she runs her fingers over dresses she isn’t allowed to wear, totals the sums of imaginary purchases. When she reaches the end of the catalog’s parade of even-toothed women, she slips through the college-ruled sheets of her latest notebook, pages indented by her tidy hand. Blue ink. Gel pen. A mix of printing and cursive. Do they think of me? she had written. Do they think of how I’m the only one left here with them? Them being the parents. They being her older siblings, now scattered to the wind. The parents were in that bad kind of love, all limbs and so much longing they made each other miserable. She misses her sisters, the last one especially. Sarah had married eight days after turning 18, and she had served as bridesmaid, been a member of the wedding, walked unsmilingly down the aisle, though she had been dutiful, though she had thrown rice.
She prints the date at the top of a new page, holds her pen over the first line. But the thoughts she had only a minute ago dissipate into the close air of her room, so she shuts the notebook and stands in front of the bedroom window peering into the clear black night. A car appears over the hill; she pulls up the bottom of her sweater, exposing the latitude of her belly button, showing her white flesh to the world, a beacon in the darkness. As the car draws nearer, she lifts her sweater higher, brightening the flare. All she needs is one person to see her, one person to know she’s here.
Downstairs, the mother sits on a ragged loveseat nearest the wood stove, the warmest place in the house. Outside, howl the wind and coyotes. Outside, nightbirds perch in pine. She opens the curtains to night, looks for life. Then, the shadow of a deer on the hill beside the house, the small body of a rabbit in a moonlit patch of snow. Satisfied, she closes the drapes, resumes her post next to the fire.
She reads the latest Watchtower, the one for Sunday’s meeting. The last of the last days are here; the Great Tribulation will begin at any time. Look what they’re doing to our brothers and sisters in Russia. She stops fumbling with the loose thread on the arm of the loveseat. It takes her breath away to see it start, finally. She quits wondering if she has enough gas money to go door-to-door on Saturday, to get to the meeting on Sunday. She stops rehearsing how she’ll ask her non-believing husband for extra cash or what she’ll say to her daughter when the girl complains about going to the Kingdom Hall.
To know the end is near is a relief.
Besides, the animals will still be here. She imagines a garden, a menagerie, a small yellow bird settling on her hand, then taking flight.
“What are you doing?” her husband asks, startling her.
He emerges from their bedroom unsteadily; he hasn’t outslept the beer.
He looks at her blankly, then walks by, the hem of his bathrobe brushing the tops of his calves. She hears urine falling into water, the toilet flushing. He walks back through, farts, and disappears into the open mouth of the bedroom.
Her shoulders relax.
She lets her Bible fall open in her lap and reads the first scripture she sees, a game she plays with Jehovah.
And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes,
and death will be no more, neither will
mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore.
The former things have passed away.
He is always there, always listening.
She closes her eyes, wipes a tear away, and listens for something from outside—some sound reassuring her that indeed the end is near.
The father had hoped to fall back asleep once he returned to bed, but now he doesn’t know. He hears the thump of his wife putting another log on the fire. Numbers flash in his mind, calculations done while she was still asleep and his daughter still awake doing whatever teenage girls do when wintering alone at night. Heating bills. Car insurance. Car payments. Groceries. The split skin on his fingertips from cutting rubber at Uniroyal sting from soap and hot water. His mouth tastes like the end of a can of Miller Lite. The beer haze beginning to lift, his chest is alive with an animal scrounging for a bed but never settling in. Gas for the car. Propane for the house. Property taxes. Electric bills. Hands outstretched. Can I have…
Once he wanted to be a priest. A jazz musician. A state trooper. But he is none of these things. He is a father, a husband married to a woman who is perpetually leaving him for Jehovah. Can I have some gas money to go door-to-door with the sisters? He doesn’t have to give it to her. He doesn’t have to do anything.
During the good part of his childhood, he lived with his grandmother. She made him cherry pies, and he gorged himself on sweet filling and pastry. Then she sent him outside to roam her five acres, a small king. She was widowed and muscular, died shoveling snow. He thinks of her now, imagines her just outside the window, so that if he pulled the curtain back, he’d see her face. Would she smile or scowl? Jesteś taki dupek, he hears her say as she did when he misbehaved. Polish was her native tongue; he remembers words he doesn’t understand.
Waiting for his wife to return to bed, he plays his grandmother’s voice on repeat. It makes the idea of death comfortable almost, knowing she is already there, her work-weathered hand outstretched, waiting.
DARCI SCHUMMER — Darci is the author of the story collection Six Months in the Midwest and the forthcoming novel The Ballad of Two Sisters, both from Unsolicited Press. Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Jet Fuel Review, Folio, MAYDAY, Sundog Lit, Jellyfish Review, and many other places. In May 2023, she was the artist-in-residence at La Pointe Center for the Arts in La Pointe, Wisconsin, on Madeline Island. She teaches writing at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and edits The Thunderbird Review. Connect with her at darcischummer.com.
Art by FRANCESCA LEADER — Francesca is a self-taught writer and artist whose fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Wigleaf, Fictive Dream, the J Journal, Leon Literary, CutBank, and elsewhere. Her artwork has appeared in publications such as Scapegoat and FERAL, and will be featured on the cover of the November 2022 issue of Adanna Literary Journal. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @moon.in.a.bucket/mooninabucket.