When her sister, Abigail, called her at college and said, “You need to come home,” Cheryl asked, “Is this for real?”
“Yes,” Abigail said.
“Can I talk to Mom?”
“Is it Mom?”
“I don’t know,” Abigail said.
“What does that mean, you don’t know; it sounds like you’re not telling.”
“I really don’t know,” Abigail said. “You know how Mom always puts herself in the middle of things.” Abigail paused. “And bring good clothes.”
“You’re scaring me,” Cheryl said. “Should I be scared? No one in L.A. wears good clothes unless.…”
“I don’t know,” Abigail said again, “just come home.”
Abigail had done this before. The summer Cheryl was 13, Abigail made her come home from sleepaway camp. Their parents had gone to Europe; Abigail stayed behind; she was 17 and supposed to be in summer school.
It was six months after their younger brother, Billy, died while they were visiting their grandparents in Arizona. Billy told them that a poisonous snake had bitten him; “Put a cold washcloth on it,” they said, and then he was dead.
“I need you to come home,” Abigail had said.
“Did the plane crash?” Cheryl asked.
“The plane Mom and Dad were on?”
“No,” she said.
“I thought maybe it did, because you told camp it was an emergency. The camp director came and got me out of the lake.”
“Sorry,” she said, “I thought I told them you could call me back.”
“You told them you’d hold on.” Cheryl was standing on the porch of the camp office in a dripping-wet bathing suit. She was talking on a phone with a long yellow curly cord that had been passed through the open window. She used the drops from her wet suit to spell her initials on the wooden porch.
“Where are you?” Cheryl asked.
“I don’t know,” Abigail said. “I’m lost.”
“What do you see around you?”
“Eye shadow,” she said.
“Are you in your room?” Cheryl asked.
“Come home,” Abigail said.
“I’m in the camp play and the talent show,” Cheryl said. “This week there’s a bunk cookout, an overnight adventure and it’s my turn to be the baker’s assistant. Plus, I’m in the bugle corps, I play reveille.”
“Don’t make me beg,” Abigail said.
When they were young, Abigail was a fairy. She wore white wings everywhere she went. She didn’t like to answer questions, didn’t like to be pinned down.
Their mother joked that she drank too much coffee when she was pregnant with Abigail. “It wasn’t the coffee; it was the pills, diet pills,” their father said.
“The doctor gave them to me,” their mother said.
“What kind of doctor wants a pregnant woman to lose weight?” their father asked.
“A Beverly Hills doctor.”
Cheryl packed her footlocker and said good-bye to her bunk-mates.
When she got home there was a huge sign, drawn in red lipstick on a white sheet, hanging between the telephone poles. “WELCOME HOME BABY SISTER.”
And Abigail was very thin.
“Have you stopped eating?” It probably shouldn’t have been the first thing Cheryl asked, but it was.
“I’ve been picking at things, there wasn’t much left.”
They went outside and looked at the “edible” garden where the swing set used to be—their parents planted it to encourage Abigail to take an active role in her own nutrition. Most of the plants were dead.
“You have to water it,” Cheryl said.
Abigail shrugged. “I have trouble with things that are so needy.”
They set up in Billy’s bedroom and talked about how weird it was that no one talked about anything. Abigail was the keeper of the feelings; she hung on to everything. Their mother used to say, “You wear your feelings like jewelry.”
When they were young, Abigail was afraid of floating away. She was so worried that she might simply vanish that she literally wanted to be tethered to another person.
First, they used some old laundry line, then climbing rope and carabiners, until they discovered the small weights that you use to keep helium balloons down. Abigail kept them in her pockets—a big help.
And for a while, she was better; she married—Burton Wills, her plastic surgeon—but she also kept her room at home, not like an office but like how it was when she was a kid. Burton didn’t seem to mind.
For Cheryl this time, coming home from school in Minneapolis, felt even more difficult. On the way from the airport to the house the car passed a field of oil pumps in the middle of nowhere, milking the earth, which already looked decimated, barely able to feed scrub brush and the occasional sage bush. All of it felt entirely different, alien.
“How did you pick Minneapolis?” Cheryl’s friends from high school had asked. “We never heard of it before.”
“I wanted to go to the most normal place I could find. It’s where Charles M. Schulz grew up.”
As soon as she arrives at the house, Cheryl walks right through it. She passes through the living room and steps outside; the pool is an inky black wishing well—no toys, only a floating sensor. The view is limitless, all of Los Angeles is spread out below. She takes off her shoes and dips her toes in—hot. The heat is like a physical lozenge, a sedative. There is no edge—she has no body, there are no boundaries, she, the water and the air all are one.
She used to stay out there at night, lingering in the darkness. Her father would come and get her out of the pool. “It’s a wonder you don’t just shrivel up,” he’d say. The pool felt safe, she could hide there—invisible. She takes her feet out of the water and goes back into the house. Her wet footprints evaporate behind her, vanishing as she walks.
“Where are you?” she texts her sister.
“In traffic,” Abigail texts back.
The accountant who lives next door comes out onto his deck; his hair is longer and he now has breasts. He waves. She waves back.
“She’s driving the car.”
Twenty minutes later, she hears the engine turn off and suddenly she’s afraid, flushed with the feeling that this is the before—the end of the familiar. She hears the front door open and close. She stays put, or it’s more like she can’t move, she’s immobile on the lounge chair by the pool.
Abigail comes out onto the patio, so thin that she actually looks flat. Her arms and legs are white like copy paper. The only thing normal about her are her feet, jutting out in sandals with red nail polish that catches the light like safety reflectors.
“Should we go inside?” Abigail asks.
“Here is good,” Cheryl says, still paralyzed.
“We need to talk.” Esmeralda brings glasses of water with lemon and a plate of carrot and celery sticks.
“Is it that bad?” Cheryl asks, looking at Esmeralda for confirmation.
Esmeralda makes a face; she doesn’t want to be the one to say so, but yes.
Esmeralda has been with them since before Billy was born. She was the baby nurse, the nanny and then the housekeeper, and now Esmeralda does everything for them because apparently they can’t do it for themselves, or maybe it’s just been so long that they’ve forgotten how.
Abigail drinks. Cheryl eats. Amid the hyper-consciousness about food, the threat of starvation, she overeats, having not one or two sticks but the entire plate.
“Is it Dad?” she asks.
“It’s Mom and Dad,” Abigail says.
“Are they getting a divorce?”
“I don’t understand.”
“It was Dad and then it was Mom.”
“Can you just tell me what happened?”
“Dad was at work. He had an incident.”
“Like an occurrence?”
“Like a crime show?”
“Like a problem,” she said.
“When did this happen?”
“And why did no one call me?”
“We wanted to see what happened. We hoped there would be a turnaround. There was nothing you could have done.”
Esmeralda gives her a hug, “I’m sorry.”
I could have prayed, Cheryl says softly to herself. She prays every day; something she’s never told anyone. “So, where’s Mom?”
“She’s at Cedars too.”
“Did you tell her I was coming home?”
“I told her,” Abigail says; her voice sounds odd.
“Mom was at the salon, she had cucumbers on her eyes, was eating almonds, you know how she does.…”
“Fifteen almonds a day.”
“And you know how she has so much filler and Botox and everything.”
Cheryl nods, “Yes. And she doesn’t even like the way it makes her look, she just does it because that’s what people here do.”
It’s like the nightmare where I’m trying to tell everyone something is wrong and no one can hear me. It’s like a zombie apocalypse.
Abigail, who has also had all the filler and Botox, nods back. She doesn’t smile or frown because she can’t. “Well, somehow a peanut got in. She blew up and no one noticed because her lips are already so puffy—they didn’t get bigger on the outside, she puffed up inside.”
“She’s not ‘at’ Cedars, she’s ‘in’ Cedars.”
“In the same room?”
She shakes her head. “They’re heavily sedated and on ventilators.”
“Will they wake up?”
“No one knows. She was seriously oxygen-deprived.”
“This is like a nightmare.”
“That’s why I called you.”
“It’s like the nightmare where I’m trying to tell everyone something is wrong and no one can hear me. It’s like a zombie apocalypse,” Cheryl says. Abigail puts her arms around her. They are so thin and ropy that it’s like being encircled by Twizzlers.
“I called Walter,” Abigail says.
Walter is her best friend from childhood, pre-childhood—infancy. “I thought he might be helpful. He said he’d come over later. Should we go to the hospital?” Abigail asks.
“Should we bring her a plant?” Cheryl asks. “Mom always liked African violets.”
Cheryl marches into the house, takes the African violet off the windowsill in the kitchen, clutching it for comfort.
Their father is in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit. He has what looks like a turkey thermometer stuck deep into his head.
“Is that like a pop-up timer?” she asks.
“It tells us the pressure in his head,” the nurse says.
“Is it permanent?”
“You’ll have to speak with the doctor,” the nurse says, exiting the room.
“He looks terrible,” Cheryl says. “He would never wear a shirt that color.”
“You mean the hospital gown?”
“Can we put on his regular clothes?” Cheryl asks. “Do we need permission?”
“Like we could make him any worse?” Abigail says. She tugs on the front of her father’s gown, trying to pull it off him. “He’s heavy.”
“We could try and lift him,” Cheryl says. “Or how about we just put a shirt on top?”
The clothes he was wearing when they brought him in are in a big plastic bag in the closet. Abigail lays the shirt on him and pulls up the sheets, tucking him in. Cheryl takes his shoes to the bottom of the bed and puts them on the ends of his feet, hanging off his toes.
“Better?” Abigail asks.
“He looks awful.”
“Maybe it’s the medication,” Abigail says.
“Maybe it’s what’s left of him, maybe it’s all there is. This is not good,” Cheryl says, shaking her head no, no, no as if the repeated motion will set things free. “Not good at all. Can we see Mom? I need to see Mom.”
They take the elevator to nine.
“It’s me,” Cheryl says, squeezing the mother’s hand. “Are you in there, Mom?”
“Hard to tell,” the nurse’s aide says.
“Burton thinks Mom looks good, very relaxed.”
Esmeralda rubs the mother’s feet. “She always liked me to rub her feet.”
Cheryl kisses her mother on the forehead. Her skin is taut, smooth, no wrinkles. “I love you, Mom. Happy Administrative Assistants Day.”
“Is it really Administrative Assistants Day?” Abigail asks.
“It said so on my calendar.”
“Mom loves a special day.”
Cheryl puts the African violet on the ledge, in the sun.
“I know you find it offensive, but I have to eat,” Cheryl tells Abigail as they’re waiting for the valet to come with the car.
“How about a smoothie—they don’t really smell.”
They drive to a juice bar. Abigail orders just kale, parsley and cucumber. Esmeralda gets mixed berry acai. Cheryl orders the Kitchen Sink, and while she’s waiting she eats some raw vegan cookies. “Do you have soup?” she asks.
“Cheryl, it’s 101 degrees outside. There is no soup,” Abigail snaps.
As soon as they get back to the house, Cheryl is drenched in aloneness, the cologne of empty, the odor of nothing. Mid-afternoon, she has a pizza delivered—she meets the guy outside, eats the whole thing standing on the other side of the fence and throws the box away out by the curb in the neighbor’s blue recycling bin.
Later, she finds Abigail in her room, sitting on the floor, ruler in one hand, scissors in the other, cutting the pile on her green shag rug like it’s blades of grass, one thread at a time. “It should only be an inch and a half—these are two inches.” She shakes her head. Cheryl sits on the floor next to her sister. “I won’t be okay if they die. That’s always been the issue—how alone I feel. I married Burton because he doesn’t intrude on my loneliness but at the same time I’m never actually alone.”
“I know,” Cheryl says.
“I’m trying to be the big sister, the one in charge, but it doesn’t come naturally.”
“You’re doing a great job. What’s the plan for later?”
“Later when?” Abigail asks.
“Tonight, tomorrow and all the days after?” she says.
“Burton would be fine with me just staying here,” Abigail says, cutting the shag a little more quickly.
Cheryl realizes that if Abigail stays, even for one night, it will create a whole new problem: Abigail will move back home and Cheryl will be stuck living there with her—forever.
“That’s okay,” Cheryl says. “I’m fine to be on my own. Nothing is going to happen to me, all the bad stuff has already happened.”
“Is Walter coming over? Did he text you?” Abigail asks.
“He asked, ‘How bad is it?’ ‘Bad,’ I said. ‘Big bad?’ he asked. ‘Supersize,’ I said.”
Esmeralda is ready to go. “I have to make dinner for my family. I’m sorry. I’ll bring you leftovers tomorrow, empanadas.” Cheryl sends Abigail with her, giving her a hug, then wishing she hadn’t; Abigail is like a human Post-it, there’s nothing to her—no dimension.
When they leave, Cheryl locks herself in the bathroom—she feels the need for a safe room. She needs to be held, comforted, and in the absence of humans the space between the tub and the towel rack will do.
She sits on the floor, not crying, maybe not breathing either. She sits on the floor telling herself to let the tile hold her, let the grout be the cement that keeps her whole. She digs her nails into the rubbery vein of caulking along the side of the tub, takes a deep breath and instead of an exhalation out comes a bellowing, puking wail. She sobs hysterically until her phone makes a loud ping. The ping acts like an off switch; the flood stops as suddenly as it started. She abruptly ceases crying and pulls the phone from her pocket; a text from Burton: “Abigail arrived home—do you happen to know, did she eat anything today?”
“She had a smoothie,” she types back, wiping mucus from her face.
“Where are you?” Walter texts a little while later.
“I’m hiding,” Cheryl writes.
And because she doesn’t want to say between the tub and the towels, she gets up, pulls on a swimsuit and a wrap, unlocks the sliding glass doors, goes out to the pool and sits.
“In the backyard,” she types. He comes in through the pool gate.
“You remembered the code,” she says.
“1-2-3-4. Some things never change.”
“Until they do,” she says. There’s a pause. “You look good—muscly.”
“Eating meat again.”
“It’s really good to see you.”
Walter and Cheryl have known each other since before they could sit up. Their mothers took them to Music Together class; he smiled at her and she threw up on him, or so the story goes. “Spit up,” she always corrects. “When you’re four months old, it’s called spit up. I didn’t throw up on you until much later.”
They grew up together, each other’s witness and confidant.
They go into the house. “Should I try and distract you?” Walter asks, digging around the game closet. He takes out the game Operation. She uses the electrified tweezers to extract the wishbone—her favorite part.
“Is this helping?” Walter asks.
“It’s certainly matching how strange I feel,” she says.
When the game is over, she goes into her parents’ bedroom, moves from object to object, touching her mother’s things, moisturizers, custom-compounded sun creams made by the dermatologist, tanning sprays.
Walter comes out of the bathroom wearing her father’s robe, his arms filled with pill bottles. “Did you know your dad was on all this stuff?”
“I don’t think he took all of it all the time,” she says.
They play a game of dress-up, of tag, of jumping on the bed, of calling out an event and then diving into the parents’ closets to get ready for it.
“Lunch at the club,” Walter calls out.
“Awards ceremony,” Cheryl says.
“Sylvia,” Walter says while wearing the father’s tuxedo.
“Ben,” she replies in her mother’s ball gown. “Where did we go wrong?” she asks.
“We got what we wanted,” he says.
“It’s like a kinky psychodrama,” she says.
“What time period are we in—before or after?” he asks.
“Let’s start with before,” she says.
They play until they run out of costumes, until they can’t think of what else to say except things that are too painful to say, and then they lie down side by side on the parents’ bed—dressed for golf. Walter takes Cheryl’s hand—they sleep.
Cheryl wakes up at three A.M. and goes out to look at the moon. Even when it’s 100 during the day, Los Angeles gets cold at night. It’s like a wine cooler—somewhere between 50 and 55 degrees. The darkness is chalky black, the city below looks smaller, more consolidated than during the day. Through the night, she sees a lava lamp glowing in the neighbor’s house. She goes back for a blanket and in her room she finds a book that she loved as a kid, takes it outside along with a flashlight and the blanket and sits by the pool reading, pretending she is in another time.
She remembers reading stories about children playing outside at night, catching fireflies in mayonnaise jars. She found them comforting—until she realized there was no such thing as a mayonnaise jar in their house and there were no fireflies in Los Angeles.
Across the top of the hill, a thin white plume begins to rise—first like steam creating a cloud of its own, then it starts to blossom, filling out the night sky like a balloon on a long narrow string, blooming like a mushroom cloud—are they smoke signals or special effects?
There are visitors at the hospital.
Carlton, the father’s ex–best friend, is the first. “You know that I gave your father his start,” he says.
“I know,” Cheryl says; this is what Carlton always says.
“I’m the one who encouraged him to go into the law. He wanted to be an actor and I told him, forget it. You’re good-looking but you’ve got no talent. It was me who made it happen, I brought him clients before he had any. As far as I’m concerned, I sent you kids to school, I paid for your mother’s face-lifts and, see that bag his pee is going into, I probably paid for that too. And what does he do for me, nothing.”
“Carlton,” Cheryl says, “is there something we could do that would make you feel better, that would show you how much my father valued your friendship?”
“You see that ring he’s wearing, the kind of showy one with the emerald? As much as I don’t like jewelry on a man, I always admired that ring.”
“It’s yours,” Cheryl says.
“Do I take it now?”
“Sure,” Cheryl says. She has no idea why she’s giving this jerk her father’s ring, but she’s not going to back out now. Carlton picks up her father’s hand. “Be careful of the IV,” Cheryl says.
“It’s swollen,” Carlton says, holding her father’s hand in his own.
“Yes, he’s retaining fluid.”
Carlton tries to take the ring off, to spin it from the finger. The ring’s not budging. He tries again, yanking the father sufficiently that an alarm bell goes off and the game of tug-of-war has to be suspended until the nurse comes in and resets the machines. The nurse gives Carlton a tube of Surgilube; he greases the finger with a grotesque pumping motion that prompts Cheryl to look away.
“Got it,” Carlton announces, exiting with his shiny prize.
“I wish I had better news for you,” Abigail says when the agitated movie-star client arrives with his assistant.
“I don’t believe it for a minute,” the movie star says. “Some people will go to any length not to have to tell me to my face that it’s over. If he wants to dump me he should just say so.” His voice is loud, recognizable—people stare. “I may be a big baby but it’s not like I can’t take it.”
The movie star takes out his fountain pen, the one he likes to use for autographs, and stabs her father in the bottom of his foot.
“Come in,” Cheryl says, ushering him into her father’s room—and out of view.
“Holy shit,” the movie star says when he sees him. He takes out his fountain pen, the one he likes to use for autographs, and stabs her father in the bottom of his foot. The nib of the pen stays in the flesh when he pulls out and beyond that nothing happens, except ink leaks onto the floor. There is no grimace, no jerking of the leg.
Cheryl pushes the button in the wall, “Nurse, can we have some wipes for a cleanup?”
“I guess I needed closure,” the movie star says, plucking the nib like a thorn out of the bottom of her father’s foot and departing.
At home, Dr. Felt, the mother’s shrink, calls repeatedly. He calls and hangs up and then calls again like a stalker. He leaves a series of messages of escalating intensity. “Are you on vacation?” “I can’t help but take it personally. Is there something you forgot to tell me?” “Have you no respect for our process?” And finally, “If you don’t call me, I’m going to have to release your time—do you know how many people want Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 A.M.? That’s prime time, baby.” There’s a long pause, then, “And you know what, you’re really selfish, only a selfish person would behave this way. You’re a bitch, a real bitch.”
“Do you want me to call him back?” Walter asks when Cheryl plays him the messages.
She thinks of the one time she went to see Dr. Felt, who she always suspected was having an affair with her mother. “Do you want a boyfriend?” Dr. Felt had asked her. “Yes,” she’d said. “Then you need to lose 10 pounds,” he said.
“I want to be the one who tells him,” she says to Walter as she’s dialing. “Hello, Dr. Felt, it’s Cheryl.” There’s a pause; he has no idea who she is. “Sylvia’s daughter.”
“Oh,” Dr. Felt says, clearly surprised.
She proceeds to tell him what happened to both her mother and her father and when she’s finished all Dr. Felt says is, “I’ll need some kind of official confirmation.”
She’s stunned. “Like what?”
“A report from the hospital would suffice. It’s quite the story you’re telling me. In order to believe it, I’ll need to see some paperwork.”
“I’ll say good-bye now—Cheryl,” Dr. Felt says, pausing before saying her name, like there’s something about it that’s bitter on his tongue.
The hospital schedules a family meeting. The doctor, whose name is embroidered on his long white coat, begins, “The problem with modern medicine is we’re able to keep people alive who in any other country would have died within hours of the event. Sometimes we’re lucky, but more often we end up here,” he pauses. “In the land of difficult decisions.”
“I’ve been doing a neurological stimulation program,” Abigail says. “Twice a day for 15 minutes, I tell my father the jokes, read the letter from the White House, and for my mother, I wave her favorite coffee beans under her nose.…”
“Your parents are not asleep,” the doctor says.
“What’s the best-case scenario?” Cheryl asks, cutting to the chase.
“That depends on what you’re looking for,” the doctor says. “Some families hope the patient lives for a very long time, even if it’s like a potted plant. And others hope the end comes quickly, peacefully.”
“If it was your parent, what would you wish for?” Cheryl asks.
“I would wish I didn’t have to make a choice,” the doctor says.
Abigail is angry. “I think they’re lying,” she says. “That’s what they say to keep you here. They want you to beg them to keep your loved ones, it’s all about getting the business.”
“I didn’t get that feeling,” Cheryl says, and her voice cracks.
“You should get them out of there,” Walter says.
“Where would we take them—on vacation?” Cheryl asks. She is not so secretly angry that Walter is leaving tomorrow for a family trip to Croatia.
“Home,” Walter says.
The thought had never occurred to her.
“You need to get them out before something worse happens,” he says.
“Worse like what?”
“Flesh-eating bacteria. MRSA, gangrene. Before they start cutting off pieces of them.”
“Walter is right,” Abigail says. “They need to be home.”
That night before he leaves, Walter pulls out his wallet.
“I don’t need your money,” Cheryl says.
He hands her a photograph of her brother, Billy. “It’s his class picture from second grade,” Walter says. “He gave it to me and I carry it like a talisman, a reminder to trust myself and not let others negate my experience.”
“I love you, you asshole,” she says, pressing the photo to her heart and hugging him.
“I’ll see you soon,” Walter says.
It takes a lot of negotiation—lawyers, sign-offs—to get Sylvia and Ben out of the hospital.
“No backsies,” one of the hospital administrators says. “If you take them home, you agree to take full responsibility. If something goes wrong, you can’t bring them back to us.”
“We understand,” Cheryl says.
The furniture is moved to the edges of the living room. The carpets are rolled up. Using blue painter’s tape, Cheryl and Abigail mark off two large rectangles on the floor indicating where the hospital beds will go. They unfurl a padded fluorescent orange safety mat. “It’s antimicrobial,” the man from the hospital supply company says.
The beds arrive and the night before their parents come home Cheryl and Abigail sleep there, pretending it’s a special kind of a spa. In the morning a crew brings the heavy equipment, ventilators, IV pumps, stacks of sheets, diapers, an enormous assembly of goods. “Mom would be pleased,” Abigail says. “She loves high production values.”
The mother and father come home in a convoy of special intensive-care ambulances. The nurse comes with them and does the unpacking, the fine-tuning.
It’s like having a new baby or a pet; there’s a lot of anxiety, wanting to be sure they get it right. Cheryl pushes her father’s Barca-lounger into the living room and parks it between the hospital beds, so the nurse can put her feet up.
The smell of the food one of the nurses brings for lunch upsets Abigail, who first looks pale and then begins to froth, bubbles of saliva beading on her lips. She retches. “Can you say something, please?” she begs Cheryl.
Cheryl goes into the kitchen. “Excuse me….” The nurse looks up from her lunch, as if to say, if your request is going to interrupt my meal—that’s gonna be a problem.
“Would it be okay if you ate outside?”
“Pardon?” she asks as if deeply offended. “Is there a medical reason I should eat outside? Our contract says that we are allowed to bring in our own food and be provided with equipment to heat or refrigerate it. I just want to know if there’s a medical reason—like do you have an allergy?”
“My sister is sensitive to food odors.”
“That’s not a medical reason,” the nurse says, taking another bite of whatever is in her bowl.
“It’s very hard for her to be around food,” Cheryl says.
“Mental illnesses are medical conditions,” Cheryl says.
“Fine, tell her to get a note from the doctor and I’ll show it to my supervisor.”
Later, Abigail, exhausted, resists going home.
“I promise you,” Cheryl says. “Nothing will happen while you’re gone.”
“You won’t leave them alone, will you?”
“I’ll be right here.”
Early the next morning Burton shows up; he finds Cheryl outside by the pool. “Where’s Abigail?”
“She’s home.” There’s a long pause. “She didn’t wake up this morning.”
“She’ll be over later?” Cheryl asks.
“Her body gave out, her heart stopped.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means she’s gone. Abigail died.”
Cheryl is overcome with the strangest sensation of rising up, levitating, a kind of liberation that feels entirely unfamiliar. She doesn’t understand it. Why is this her reaction? Has she been so terrified about what might happen to Abigail that the absence of fear, the absence of the weight is causing her to float away? And is this it? Is this the kind of floating that Abigail was afraid of? Or was that something else?
She looks around—nothing is out of place. Abigail is dead, but still the coffee automatically made itself, the newspapers were delivered, the morning nurse arrived and fed and changed her parents. She got away, she thinks.
“What do you think killed her?” Cheryl asks.
“Malnutrition and a weakening of the heart,” Burton says. “The last few weeks were especially difficult.”
“She was terrified about being left alone,” Cheryl says. There is a long silence.
“What would she have wanted?” Burton asks.
“I don’t think she’d like to be in a coffin,” Cheryl says. “She would think a coffin made her look fat. She would like to be made as small as possible, to fit inside a pill bottle.” She turns to Burton, “Will there be a funeral? And what about the after-bit? I don’t think we can do it here at the house, in front of them?”
The funeral is small; Abigail is buried next to their brother in a row of plots the parents bought when Billy died. “They bought more than they needed—in the hopes the family would expand,” the funeral director tells Cheryl and Burton.
They stand in their black clothes with their sunglasses on against the bleached sky, the backdrop of the city behind them. Burton, Cheryl and Esmeralda. It’s the first time they’ve left the parents home alone with only a nurse.
A man in a white hazmat suit wanders down the street. “Has anyone seen my queen?” he cries. “The swarm is loose.”
On the way home they stop at the one restaurant Abigail loved—Tu Es Moi—and celebrate her life in foams. They have a flight of foams—15 of them, each one under 10 calories, everything from Thanksgiving Dinner to Salted Caramel Pastrami.
When they get back to the house, Cheryl opens her father’s safe, counts out six months’ pay and gives it to Esmeralda. “You need a vacation,” she says. “Tell me where you want to go and I’ll transfer the miles from my father’s account.”
“It is too much to say good-bye to everybody all at once,” Esmeralda says, and begins to cry.
“I know,” Cheryl says, comforting her. “But this isn’t good-bye, it’s just a chance for us to gather ourselves and make sense of things. The fact is, I need to be alone for a little bit.”
Esmeralda nods tearfully, “You’re all grown up.”
The funeral is followed by a Facebook shivah—Cheryl posts a message about Abigail’s death, and then the rabbi who married them adds a post, and Cheryl and Burton follow it each evening for seven days by posting a remembrance at sundown. Old friends add memories of their own. And after seven days Cheryl and Burton write a thank-you note to everyone and post more photos.
Now that it is just Cheryl and her parents, Cheryl spends more time talking to the nurses; she learns things about her parents, details about their skin, their smells, their habits. They may not be able to communicate—but there are things the body enjoys. The night nurse tells her that her father likes a little pot smoke blown in his face. “His blood pressure goes down, his digestion is better.” She nods. The nurse blows a little smoke in her face; she breathes deeply. He does it again. “I’ve also got edibles if you want some,” he says.
On Thursday at three P.M. when the morning nurse has to leave for her shift in the ER and the three-to-midnight nurse is stuck in traffic coming from Orange County, Cheryl isn’t worried. “Not a problem,” she says. “It’s okay. I can be alone with my parents for an hour. Just go.”
The morning nurse leaves, grateful. Cheryl, a little nervous, sits between her parents, and then after a few minutes goes outside.
She is out by the pool when the power goes off. It takes her a few seconds to realize what’s happened. There’s a peculiar absence of noise. Silence holds the air. The pool pump has stopped, the compressor for the air conditioner is hushed. Cheryl hurries inside; the clock on the microwave is dark, the television screen is flat black. There are high-pitched alarms, squeals like helium balloons coming from the living room. Her first impulse is to call Abigail and then she remembers, there is no more Abigail. She switches the alarms off, turns to her parents and says, “I’m not sure you noticed, but the power went out. We’ve been having a heat wave, it’s probably a rolling blackout. There are backup batteries. You’re currently at 95 percent. All is good. I’m just going to step outside for a minute and see if I can learn more.”
Cheryl goes out the front door, wanting to confirm that the blackout is not theirs alone. A man in a white hazmat suit is wandering down the middle of the street, swinging what looks like an incense box in front of him, back and forth like a priest at Christmas. “Has anyone seen my queen?” he cries. “My queen has flown away.” She realizes it’s the neighbor. “Stay inside,” he shouts. “The swarm is loose.” She hears the air buzzing and quickly closes the door.
She sends Burton a text, but it bounces back. She calls the nurse stuck in traffic from her cell phone but the call doesn’t go through. She goes from room to room looking for a landline. In Abigail’s closet she finds the powder-blue princess phone. It feels lighter than she remembers a phone feeling. She turns it over—the bottom is covered with duct tape. She peels it off; the insides of the phone have been removed. Four loose joints fall out. She can’t reach Walter.
The house gets warmer and starts to smell of urine and shit. Cheryl opens the glass doors. There are birds outside, the sounds of dogs barking, children playing in a pool, a woman talking in the distance.
Meanwhile, the red and green lights blink and the machines continue to breathe for her mom and dad. The IV bags keep dripping. And her parents, Sylvia and Ben, remain unchanged, their bladders emptying into the plastic containers at the end of the beds.
Cheryl keeps thinking she should do something, but there is nothing to be done.
An hour later, as the backup batteries begin to fade, Cheryl gets the favorite book from her childhood, sits in the Barcalounger between her parents and begins to read aloud. When she is done, she takes her father’s right hand and her mother’s left and draws them to her, holding them close, on her chest, over her heart, praying, waiting.