Prompt: wellspring; house inspection
(Yes, this one is late too and no, I didn’t bother to say anything about it, unlike last time. This is because last night, when it should’ve gone up, the only thing I would’ve been capable of saying was “star pox” and a string of less inventive expletives.)
Tara looked at the clock on the VCR and gave a piteous groan. “I am so f–” She swallowed the rest of the word. Parents don’t swear, she told herself. That was a rule, right? She loaded the rest of the flowers, wilting lilies in plastic containers, into a trash sack. She normally would not throw away anything that could still be used in even the most trivial way. Five days after the funeral, though, Tara got vindictive pleasure from tossing the things. They had done nothing but stink up the place and leave yellow pollen over everything in a fifty-foot radius. She cinched up the stack, headed for the garbage bins out front, and told herself again that parents did not swear. And against all odds, and expectations, she just became a parent.
There was something morbid and horrible about living in her best friend’s house, cleaning things that should have been Abigail’s, and eating food left in the fridge and pantry since before Abby died. None of that could trump the strangeness of taking care of Abby’s kids. If a half-used bottle of mustard could make Tara a teary-eyed, putting Amber and Ben to bed at night threatened to send Tara running from the house.
Sometimes, Tara thought the kids were handling their mother’s sudden death better than Tara was, which just added shame to the brain-breaking mix of emotions she felt. Two weeks ago, she had barely known Amber and Ben existed, she and Abby exchanged infrequent e-mails, and Tara lived out of a motor home on a meandering path across the country for her consulting work. Now she served as guardian to both kids and the house and had to justify both facts to everyone she met. She couldn’t even justify it to herself.
Tara dashed back inside. There was less than an hour before the social worker was supposed to arrive. She still had not touched the kitchen. As she swung through the house, bumping furniture in her haste, she saw Amber in her mother’s room, at the computer. She could keep herself entertained quietly and indefinitely, one of those ten-going-on-forty kids.
Ben, on the other hand… He had a sheet tied around his shoulders and zoomed around the room like a superhero. Abby had told Tara before how active he was, starting with late-night kicking sessions before birth and becoming ever more pronounced for the next seven years. Tara could see, though, how uncertain he felt after losing Abby. He could not sit down to dinner without watching his sister for guidelines. Now he was a satellite in orbit around her, never stopping and never leaving.
“Is your homework done?”
“Yes.” “Yeah!” “No.” “Tattletale!”
Tara squeezed her eyes shut, trying for one second just to wish herself away. “Okay, well, who wants help me clean up?” Amber hopped out of the office chair to follow Tara. Ben swooped around her with his cape–it was possible he transformed from superhero to pterodactyl at will.
For someone who willed guardianship of her children to a grade school friend with the least kid-friendly lifestyle ever, Abby had no shortage of mourners. Orphans of a young, single mother garnered a hell of a lot of sympathy. Add in a (lovably?) incompetent caretaker, and the kitchen soon overflowed with covered dishes of kid-approved food. If Tara never ate another bite of mac and cheese or another grocery deli chicken finger, she would be the happiest person alive. That left a pile of clean, once used aluminum pans that Tara could not bring herself not to use at least once more.
Tara eyed them, along with the kids. Amber looked between them and Tara. She seemed to take pity, as she often had in their short time together. “Mom hides stuff in the attic when we have guests.” Tara bit back tears at Amber’s use of the present tense for Abby. She gave each one a couple of tins and carried the rest herself.
The whole house felt like Abby–not just the colors she liked, but the liveliness she imparted to a room. The attic, Tara was surprised to discover, was no exception. Clear plastic totes contained baby clothes and art projects and broken dishes labeled “future mosaic.” Just enough dust covered things to give the proper attic impression, but not enough to drive a person out. In one corner, a sheet had been tacked up to cordon off an area. A pulled-back edge revealed pillows and blankets. “Do you guys play up here?”
Amber got quiet, for once not volunteering the rules of operation in the house. Ben dropped his tins and charged over to collapse on the pillows. The kids weren’t tall enough to pull down the stairs to the attic; Abby must have brought them up herself. Tara felt like a voyeur. She turned to find something else to think about, like where to put the tins for the time being. Instead, she spotted a tote marked “Abby, ’77 to ’87.”
“What’s that?” Amber asked as Tara lifted the lid off the tote.
“This is from when your mom and I were growing up.” She lifted out stacks of paper doll clothing and impossibly snarled friendship bracelets. “Look at all this stuff.” Tara swallowed against the lump in her throat. Some of the things in there… “I can’t believe she kept all this.”
At the bottom, there was a hand-bound book of miscellaneous pages, some still ragged from being torn from notebooks. It creaked as she opened the cover. The first page had to be unfolded to see the whole thing. Ancient adhesive tape flaked, yellow and brittle, from the seams.
Amber crouched next to Tara. “Is that a map? Where is it supposed to be?”
Tara ran a fingertip across blotchy ink. She traced little mountains and thread-fine rivers. City towers spiked like forests of needles. The edges of the continents were festooned with scattered islands. “It’s a place that never existed.”
“You mean you guys made it up?”
Tara cleared her throat and folded up the map. “Yeah. We just made it up. We should hurry up. They’ll be here any minute.”
“Wait.” Amber peered through the clear plastic tote toward the wall. “There’s something back there.” She pulled the now-empty tote out of the way. A flat wooden box had been hidden behind the tote. It had rivets and straps of leather across the top, like an old steamer trunk, but it was no more than four inches high. Amber started popping open the big latches on it before Tara could say anything. The lid sprang open on its own when the last latch released.
Amber scrambled back. “What is that?” Light, golden and soft and moving, poured out like water from a spring. “Do you know what it is?” She had her little hands tight around Tara’s arm.
“Yeah, I do,” Tara said faintly. Then the doorbell rang and she added, helplessly, “Shit.”