“Michael is crying,” Emma said. “He won’t go to sleep.” She stood in the doorway to the living room, in her pajamas.
Carrie looked at her husband, and the unspoken question hung in the air:
Who takes over?
They had a kind of rotating shift in the family where one of them slept on a mattress on the floor in Michael’s room because Michael could best fall asleep (and stay asleep) if someone else was there. Carrie suspected he was afraid of the dark.
“Is he scratching himself again?” Jon asked. “I don’t want any more scratches to clean for infection.” He was almost lying down on the sofa, one hand on the remote and another in Carrie’s. They were watching an interview on Fox with an unexpected but very enthusiastic presidential candidate, who had just announced the previous week that he was running.
“He is not scratching himself,” said Emma, “but he wants me to turn on the light and it is on. I can’t seem to do it the way he wants.” Her eyes were wide, but she wasn’t looking directly at either Carrie or Jon. She stood very rigid in the doorway.
“I’ll come,” Carrie said quickly. “Go to your own room and sleep.”
“Okay.” Emma disappeared, quiet like a ghost. Or perhaps they couldn’t hear her because Michael’s crying had become louder.
“Fuck … ” Jon clenched the remote hard. “Why does she, like, give up after two seconds? It was her turn tonight.”
Carrie frowned. “I forgot to tell you. I think Lyanne and Meredith are after her at school again.”
“What?” Jon sat up. “Did they—”
“No, no—nothing serious at any rate. But still. She is taking it hard.”
“You should have told me.”
“She didn’t want to talk about it and my brain was toast when you came home, okay?” Carrie removed her hand from Jon’s.
“Okay. Don’t worry about it.”
“But I do. And even if school had been okay for her, you can’t expect Emma to deal with Michael alone. Not when he is like that.” Carrie began getting up.
“I don’t expect her to deal with Michael alone,” Jon said stiffly. “I was just asking about school.”
“And I gave you an answer!” Carrie stopped in the doorway. She opened and closed her fists.
Michael’s crying became louder. He was also yelling something incoherently now. It was the same thing, but she couldn’t understand the words.
“So now I’ll go calm him,” Carrie continued. “For the thousandth time in a row, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m going to be up at five o’clock for tomorrow’s shift.” Jon was staring at the TV screen now with the same intensity he reserved for targets on the station’s firing range.
“I know!” Carrie knotted her fists again.
Jon sighed. “If you go to Michael’s room, I’ll talk to Emma. She needs someone to talk to.”
“Don’t you think I talked to her today?”
Jon turned off the TV and looked at her sharply. “Hey, I didn’t say that.”
For a few moments, it was high noon between them. Even if it was dark outside. But it had been like that many times before, and it could only end one way.
“ … I’m sorry.” Carrie wanted to go over there to the sofa, sit down again, and squeeze his hand or something, but it felt awkward now. It didn’t matter. They would do what they had to and take turns in sacrificing what they had to.
Symbols of affection were only meant for special occasions, not a permanent war. Or maybe they were more important than ever in a war, but after a while, you kind of stopped feeling them, didn’t you?
She felt slightly nauseous, but she willed herself to move. Finally. “You can record the interview, can’t you?” she asked, even if Jon had turned off the TV and didn’t really seem to care, anyway. But it was what she needed to say. She didn’t need any more hand grenades thrown back and forth.
“I’ll be in Em’s room in five.” Jon just said.
Carrie nodded. Then she turned and went into the kitchen and downed two Tylenol with a big gulp of juice from the bottle in the fridge and then dried her lips with her sleeve.
From his room, down the narrow hallway, she could hear Michael banging the lamp now. “Light-light-light,” he called. Even though there was light in his room and everywhere in the hallway and kitchen and living room.
“Coming, pliskie!” Carrie felt like a shadow, as she half-ran the few steps down the hallway and then to Michael’s room.
Michael was sitting in his bed, his hair all ruffled. He knocked his right hand against the glass on his bedside lamp.
“Uh, careful,” Carrie said and went over and turned it off first and then turned it on. “Did mommy have to do this, huh? Couldn’t Emma do it?”
Michael’s face was red but she could see that he calmed visibly already. Carrie sat gently down on the bed beside her son. “Pliskie … Try to lie down.”
Michael looked at her, his face all teared up and for a moment her heart broke, despite her feeling a million years old and ready to just pack up and flee to another country.
She took his wipes from under the bed and dotted his eyes while counting slowly: “Zero-two-four … ” She had to count in a special sequence. First 0-2-4-6-8. Then 1-3-5-7-9 and, for some reason, 10. Each eye in turn.
And after that, Michael relaxed and nestled himself in the bed and said, “blanket”.
His lips twitched a little as if he was trying to smile, but couldn’t yet. Carrie gently pulled the weighted blanket to his chin, as he liked it best.
“I’ll stay with you now,” Carrie said. “We will leave the light on.”
Carrie lay down on the mattress on the floor and pulled the extra comforter over herself. She was fully clothed. She knew she would probably fall asleep fully clothed.
As she lay there and listened to Michael’s breathing, and tried not to listen to Jon talking to Emma in her room, everything buzzed in her mind. The argument with Jon before they went in. The thousandth time, the thousandth argument. The feeling that she could just stay down here on the mattress and never get up again. The searing guilt of letting Emma down. The anger that Emma couldn’t or did not want to help Michael. Then more guilt about ditching some of her own responsibility for Michael on her nine-year-old daughter so she could sit with her husband for a few moments of peace and listen to some pundit or other they couldn’t remember the day after.
All of these thoughts and plenty of others did their best to flood her brain, and she knew she had to do something to prevent it or simply … drown.
So Carrie reached out for something else to focus on.
Anything, no matter how stupid.
And the first thing, she figured she’d try was … the lamp. Michael’s bedside lamp.
So she kept looking at it for a long time.
Last edited 5 Aug 2023