12:40 PM Mom is on the back porch in a jean dress and bare feet. She’s wearing her special-occasion sterling silver cross pendant, and sticking out between her lips are the heads of four pushpins. She’s on her tiptoes, tacking a crumpled Quick Thrift paper bag to the corner where the wall meets the ceiling.
I’m sitting on the steps. “Can’t I just spend the night at Hel’s?”
“Hm-mm.” Mom replies, shaking her head so the rubber curlers tremble in her hair. She spits the tacks into her palm. “You got the whole break to see Helena, and you know the family’s only here for summer supper. They’d miss you. And don’t call her Hel. Sounds like you-know-what.”
“Hell?” I grin.
“Cut it out, Georgia.”
Mom kicks at the air next to me, too focused on repositioning her project.
I squint at the brown grocery bag. “How’s that gonna keep the hornets away?”
“They’ll think somebody’s already made a nest. Be too scared to challenge our bag for turf rights.” She brings a thumbtack to her teeth but instead it punctures her bottom lip and she sends it rolling down the steps. “Damnit!”
Mom is pinching her lip and wincing. I stand and gently move her hand away; there’s a plump red glob ready to fall to the woodwork. I think for a moment.
“Does that count as first bloodspill?”
“Don’t see why not,” She shrugs. “Counts as a new lipstick shade, too. Call it Red Seventy Seven. Mom’s red.”
I start hunting for the lost tack. “Pushpin red.”
I glance up and she cracks a smile, blood between her teeth.
2:35 PM Dad and I sit on either side of Mom on the good couch (not the one we cover with a quilt). She’s got a photo album on her lap, open to the back page. Bulging in one of the glossy sleeves is our summer supper kit: A dozen or so white envelopes A pair of toenail clippers A fading family picture from the reunion of ’85 A handful of flesh-toned Band-Aids A pen, matte plastic blue and almost out of ink
Mom takes the photo out, along with one envelope, the pen, the clippers, and a bandage. This is when Dad and I cover our eyes with our hands, but as always, I peek sideways past my fingers and through my hair.
She slips the picture into the envelope and seals it. Then she turns the envelope over and inspects the toenail clippers. I watch between the folds of a white-blonde curtain as Mom squeezes the clippers and the metal bites down on the tip of her ring finger. She sucks air through her teeth.
Mom’s finger hovers over the little square on the envelope that expects a stamp. She squashes the wound into the outlined box like she’s killing a bug. When she lifts her hand up, there’s a neat red fingerprint as postage. She uncaps the pen and writes “5:30 PM” in her big, bubbly handwriting.
“Second bloodspill. Done!”
Dad and I take our hands away from our faces, him so he can pull the paper slips from a bandage and wrap it around Mom’s finger, and me so I can take the envelope. Dad kisses Mom’s temple and gets poked in the eye with a curler. We laugh.
I walk the envelope out to the front steps and slip it under our cheap rubber welcome mat. In cartoony blue letters the mat says, If It’s Monday, Don’t Bother!
You wouldn’t know it, but the underside is spotted with the impressions of browning fingerprints.
4:06 PM “You sure you can’t come over?”
“Yeah,” I sigh, chewing on the coiled phone cord, “Mom wants me here. She says they’d be sad if I wasn’t.”
“Can they be sad?”
“Some of them. I know Great-Gran Hattie can.”
I can practically hear Helena trying to imagine the supper. “So when are the zombies getting there?”
“They’re not zombies,” I say, but Helena is already doing the groan of the risen dead. “They’re just family.”
“That’s not what my youth pastor says.”
“You told him?”
“I tell him everything! That’s what confession is.”
“It’s not your thing to confess!”
“Oh, he didn’t believe me anyways. And it’s not like you go to church,” She retorts.
I burn for a few seconds before I fire back, “Did you tell him you let that grade twelve guy put his hand up your shirt?”
She starts zombie-moaning again.
4:45 PM I’m dressed for dinner, a slouchy white sundress with vertical yellow stripes. I think I look like a demented hospice nurse. I head to the bathroom at the end of the hall, meaning to dull the effect by letting my hair down. Mom is making industrial quantities of fruit salad in the kitchen, infecting the house with syrupy pineapple and Maraschino cherries.
Our bathroom is a wide, sunny expanse of linoleum, and I go straight to the full-body mirror near the sink. I pull the elastic from my ponytail and let it fall around my shoulders. I see Mom’s hair. Dad’s dusky, narrow eyes.
And Dad himself behind me in the oval reflection, sitting in the bone-dry bath with his knees pulled against his chest. I realize this with a start and turn to face him.
He’s in a collared t-shirt and pleated khaki pants, hugging his legs and staring at the wall with a deeply fearful concern.
“Sorry Georgia, honey,” He says, not looking at me. “Didn’t mean to spook you.”
“What’re you doing in the tub?’
Dad runs both hands through his hair; nice hair, thick, dark hair. “Huh. Well. I’m just taking some thinking time. Having some thinking space.”
I purse my lips and nod as if to say, I understand. That’s normal. That’s a normal way for a thirty-nine-year-old man to behave. I turn back to the mirror. My hair is straighter than Mom’s. My eyes not quite as black as Dad’s. I open a drawer under the sink and use a chapstick that I fish out of it. Dad’s still behind me, below me in the mirror, watching that wall like it changes every time he looks away.
I turn to leave. My hand is on the glass knob when Dad says, “Georgia?”
“Do you think it’s right? The supper, I mean.”
He’s looking at me now, arm over the edge of the wide porcelain tub. I open my mouth, close it, open it again and take a breath.
“I think it’s tradition.”
Dad’s staring at my hair, then at my dress, the parts that aren’t me but Mom. He doesn’t look any less nervous. But he nods.
“Don’t—uh. Don’t tell your mother I’m in here.”
“Yeah, no, I won’t.”
I close the door.
5:30 PM My parents are playing happy-house-couple. Mom is waiting by the door, angelic, fat flaxen curls framing her cheeks, thin bangs stopping just short of her evergreen gaze. Next to her, Dad’s holding a bowl of potato salad and trying not to look terrified.
There’s a barrette in my hair and I reach up to adjust it, but Mom hisses “Don’t.” through her smile. My hand falls back at my side.
The doorbell rings.
6:22 PM We’re ten minutes into summer supper and it’s going well, all things considered. The dinner table folds out to comfortably seat all the grown-ups and there’s a pleasant breeze coming in through the window screens. Great-Gran Hattie is having the same conversation with Mom that they have every year:
How is the herb garden doing, love?
Oh, it loves the daytime showers we’ve been getting. There’s nothing I can’t put basil on.
That’s wonderful, darling. You know your granddad always used to—
Basil and tomato sandwiches, Gran. I know. I made some for him. He’s sitting there to your right.
Hattie turns her head and there’s Great-Granddad, working on a ciabatta roll that’s been sliced down the middle and filled with basil leaves, mozzarella, and cuts of fresh tomato.
Oh. Dear. You know he—
Beat you, I know. When Momma was young. Do you remember what happened?
Hit him. You hit him one night with a…?
A marble figurine of Saint Theodora…
And he fell.
Fell down dead, Gran.
And then there’s always a pause. The conversation has dropped to a whisper and Great-Gran Hattie is eyeing her husband like that little statue might not have been heavy enough after all. I always listen in on this next part.
Why is he here?
Same reason you are.
Mom doesn’t change her tone, hardly even looks up from her plate of neatly cut chicken and greens. She just eats, sips her hibiscus tea, takes compliments on the food. Lets Hattie sit there and silently stomach the fact that a fracturing blow to the head was not enough to permanently put the bastard in the ground.
Eventually Mom will pull a mirror compact out of her dress pocket and slide it over to her grandmother. Hattie will take it and open up the little blue case to lock eyes with a woman in her forties, hair bunched into a stylish net, pearl-necked and echoing another era.
Mom won’t even watch the understanding set in. She’ll just pick at her spinach and maybe reach over the table to fix my crooked barrette.
Helena told me once that the Bible says the devil is beautiful. Beautiful like a high-piled tray of watermelon on a clear June day. Beautiful as golden ringlets around a pretty face.
7:07 PM Mentally I’m doing my morbid tally. There are two babies, a premature newborn from 1978 and an influenza toddler from 1922 babbling and reaching for silverware.
There are lots of car accidents and heart conditions, young and old, digging into chili and cold macaroni. Talking to each other like they’ve never met, or worse, flirting like they have. My great-uncle was a DOA from a head-on collision in 1954, and here he is with his hand on my second cousin’s knee under the table. Mom catches on and brings an empty tray to the kitchen just so she can swat at him on the way there and stare daggers.
There’s a kids’ table that I’ve never been comfortable sitting at, partially because I’m not much of a kid, and partially because it’s mostly distant relatives from the eighteen-hundreds. And I have trouble enough relating to other tweens as it is without a century gap.
I’ve gone back to stripping my corn cob when something knocks against my shin. Quickly I slide my chair back from the dinner table to see my Great-Great-Aunt Nan, nineteen years old and still hysterical from the fever that killed her, scuttling along on all fours.
Someone has made themselves comfortable on the bad couch—there’s a person-shaped lump laying very still beneath the quilt.
7:35 PM Dessert has been served and I retreat to the kitchen for equal parts whipped cream and privacy. Dad’s already there. He’s got one hand on either side of the deep steel sink and is looking out the window into the meadow behind our house. The sun is well on its way down.
“Lord, Georgia. Startled me.”
“Guess we’re even. Whipped cream?”
“Top shelf in the fridge.”
It’s actually next to him on the counter, condensation circling the tin canister. Mom probably sent him in here to get it and he just hasn’t worked up the will to come back to the table.
As I take it, I ask, “You a little out of it? Seen some ghosts?”
Dad chuckles and lowers his head. Squeezes his eyes shut. “Ghosts wouldn’t eat all of our shortcake.”
8:14 PM Now that it’s completely dark outside, I can feel how many people are in my house. Men in suspenders, women with gloves sipping coffee or tea. Children in bonnets, overalls, flour-sack dresses.
As the night has progressed, a few of them have grown less lucid. There’s an old lady I don’t recognize in a two-piece business suit clinging to a table leg. A boy in a scout uniform talking into our fireplace.
Right on time, a quarter past eight, Hattie and her husband stand and walk to our mantle where Mom keeps knick-knacks and my school awards. There’s a small Virgin Mary on a plaster platform. My Great-Gran studies it. Slowly she takes her husband’s hand, squeezes it, squeezes harder until he flinches and then they’re gone. No goodbyes from guests at summer supper.
Outside a neighbor pulls out of their driveway. The crash victims flock to the window to watch for the car, tipping chairs and spilling drinks in the process. Mom cleans up while they press their faces desperately to the mesh screen. Moths to the zapper. The frantic gravity of the end. Bright headlights sweep our walls, and six or seven more relatives vanish quietly in the glow.
The heart conditions and asphyxiations are still stuffing their faces with strawberry shortcake when they start, one by one, to cease to be. My grandfather is holding the tin of whipped cream when he goes. It clatters to the table and rolls as far as my mother’s hand. She sets it upright.
“Say bye to Grampa,” She says to me, nodding at the empty chair.
8:33 PM “I can’t talk yet. We still got people over.”
“Christ on a croissant, Georgia, when will they all be gone?”
“After third bloodspill. I seriously gotta go, Hel.”
“Wait. Wait, wait, wait. Is that what makes them leave?”
“The last ones, I guess. But really it’s just what makes them stay gone.”
“Weird. Very weird. Talk to you, Georgia.”
8:35 PM I’ve just hung up the phone when Mom catches my eye from the living room and holds up three fingers. I nod.
Dad’s razor blades are in the same bathroom drawer that the chapstick was. My hair has gotten frizzy over the course of the dinner like it’s expecting a storm. I avoid my reflection while I fetch the blades.
The family has done well this year; the only loiterers are the Boy Scout, who’s sitting in the fireplace now, and whoever’s under the quilt. One summer I withdrew to my room only to find the three removed cousins who died in a school fire sitting on my bed. They’d found my artificial candle (real ones make me sneeze) and turned it on, and I walked in on them perched crisscross around it, watching the fake flame and quizzing each other on multiplication tables.
But this time, they’ve left my things alone. I check the whole second floor, the bathroom, the backyard—we’re almost done.
I take the razor blades to Mom while Dad scrapes plates over the trash. Her curls are starting to lose their hold, and she looks tired. I turn my back to her and keep an eye on the kid crouching in our fireplace.
Mom takes a handful of my hair and lifts it out of the way. She uses one blade to nick the back of my neck, no deeper than a paper-cut, and squeezes the skin around it. I feel her use her knuckle to spread the blood an inch or so in each direction. She lets my hair fall. Pats my back.
“Give it five or ten minutes. Once they’re gone, Dad and I will need you for dish duty.”
Our couch-dweller starts to move. I don’t want to see who it is. I escape to the back porch.
8:41 PM I’ve called Helena on our cordless phone. I’m watching distant traffic between the hills.
“We’re going to the waterpark tomorrow,” She chirps, “Wanna come?”
“I’m pretty tired. Might just sleep in.”
“Necromancy is hard work.”
“Shut up, it’s not—”
“Take a joke, Georgia.”
Helena means well. She really does. She doesn’t understand; when she loses people, they don’t come back. I’d be bitter too. Who wouldn’t?
“Hey,” She starts, in her serious voice, “So, when you die…”
“Bear with me. When you die, is your mom gonna bring you back for summer supper?”
I lean against the doorjamb. There are already raccoons going through the garbage my dad put out.
“Why would she outlive me?”
“Oh. I guess I wasn’t thinking. Rather, would you—”
“No, I know what you meant. And trust me, sometimes I think Mom just isn’t ever gonna die.”
Hel doesn’t laugh. I don’t either.
“I’m gonna go help cleanup. Maybe I’ll see you after the waterpark tomorrow, okay?”
I end the call and use the dim green light from the phone to check on Mom’s Quick Thrift bag. Wonder whether hornets are really that stupid.
The bag shifts, breathes when illuminated. Two hornets come crawling out of it, then return to continue construction on their new nest, deep in the thumbtacked paper sanctuary.
I give it twenty-four hours before Mom notices and sets fire to the whole thing.
Sarah Navin is a young writer living on the South Carolina coast. Her work has appeared online in journals like Gone Lawn, The Dying Goose, and Sleet Magazine, and in print with Haunted Waters Press. She is currently nursing an emotional dependency on The Mountain Goats.