Two weeks to Thanksgiving
Take time to yourself every day. Keep your boundaries. Remove yourself from situations where there is bait.
Amanda was repeating everything she’d gone over with her therapist the past two sessions as she white knuckled the steering wheel of her little blue Honda Civic.
“What are you afraid is going to happen,” Dr. Wittes asked, “if you spend a month at your parents’ house?”
“I guess,” Amanda began, “I just don’t want to be infantilized there. Every time I go there it’s like we all fall into the same roles we had as kids. We sit in the same seats at the table. My mom still has my Harry Potter bed set on my bed. Then the same petty fights; it makes me feel powerless. And this will be the longest I’ve stayed there since college, it feels suffocating.”
“But you do have power,” Dr. Wittes said, the Zoom screen freezing while the audio continued so that her face was frozen, eyes closed, mouth open, head thrown slightly back. “You can maintain your independence and your habits if you draw the right boundaries.”
Amanda looked up at the exit sign. She was passing Youngstown. Another 400 miles or so until she was home. She knew she should stop soon to eat and go to the restroom, but with the pandemic she was trying to only stop once on the whole trip from Chicago to New Rochelle. And, if she was being honest, she knew her mother wouldn’t like her only stopping one time.
She started mapping things she could do once she got there. Don’t watch Jeopardy and Wheel after dinner every night. Go upstairs for an hour and read. Sleep in the first few days. Sit in the chair by the window where Amy usually sits.
Of course, taking Amy’s seat would probably provoke a fight. Amy was the enforcer of all of their roles. She loved being back in the house, the four kids each assigned their proper place; everyone doing the same chores as before; her as the leader of the gang, the self-appointed Wendy Darling of the family, leader and surrogate mother.
By the time Amanda approached the large, brooding Tudor she grew up in, the temperature had noticeably dropped. The sky was almost black at only 4:30 pm. Otto, their ancient Weimaraner, announced Amanda’s arrival as soon as she closed the car door and her mother rushed to the door to greet her.
“Amanda I’m so happy you’re here,” her mother said, kissing her cheek and squeezing her with a hug. “Amy and Aaron are already here.” Otto was half-heartedly jumping up on her legs and Amanda rubbed his face, now white with age.
Over her mother’s shoulder, Amanda could see the house decorated with deep reds and warm oranges, little plastic pumpkins decorating the hearth in the formal living room, a large ceramic turkey wearing a pilgrim hat by the entrance to the dining room. Aaron’s leg was peeking out from behind the wall to the family room where ESPN was blaring. Amy was polishing silver at the dining room table.
Amy, seeing Amanda, beckoned her in and said, “wash up, I need help with these.”
Amanda seethed. Of course Amy wouldn’t bother to greet her and would immediately order her around. She was ready to retort when she remembered therapy: no one can make you do anything. You control your reactions. Take a minute and be firm, but calm.
“I’ll help you out in a minute, I’m going to go put my stuff upstairs,” Amanda replied, turning left toward the stairs and up into her childhood bedroom.
As usual, everything was exactly the same; a faded red Gryffindor bedspread with Hogwarts crest shams, trophies, awards, photos with middle school friends, an enormous and embarrassing poster of Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory.
Amanda sat on the bed, looked around, let out a long sigh, and set about putting her clothes in the empty drawers. While she had never been able to convince her mother to redecorate the room, she had at least convinced her to make room in the drawers.
As she was tucking her running shoes into the closet, the lights in the house flicked three times. When they righted, they were dimmer than before, casting eerie shadows off the trophies and dresser. Amanda decided she wouldn’t go back downstairs to help Amy. It was still two weeks to Thanksgiving. She just drove 13 hours, Amy could wait.
Amanda started dozing on the bed, the shadows growing, seeping out of the corners until they blanketed the entire room.
The next morning
Amanda woke up to her mother digging through the back of her closet. She was irritated her mother didn’t bother to even knock, as usual failing to treat her with any respect or show her any privacy.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Amanda asked, eyes bleary.
“I’m getting out some of your baby things. Amy told me a lot of them are considered vintage now. I could make a good bit of money on them,” she said, as she was pulling a wicker bassinet and a pile of quilts out of the walk-in closet.
“Mom, half of that stuff is considered like a death trap now. You’re gonna give some baby SIDS,” Amanda said sardonically, hoisting herself up on the side of the bed.
“Oh, don’t say that, it’s awful. Here, come help me, Amanda.”
Amanda walked over to the closet where her mother was dragging a disassembled crib out into the room. They moved the rails out into the room.
“Why do you still have this stuff, mom? I’m 24, what were you saving it for?”
“You know me, sweetie, sometimes I just can’t let things go,” her mother said. “Go down to the kitchen, daddy made breakfast.”
When Amanda arrived in the kitchen, her three siblings were sitting at the kitchen table in the same order they always sat. The head of the table empty, where her father would sit. The seat to his left Aaron. To his right, Amy. To Amy’s right, Avery, who apparently arrived late the night before. Amanda sat next to Aaron and reached over the table to grab a few pancakes and some bacon.
“So,” Amanda’s dad started, “do you all want to go rake the backyard after this, like old times? Whoever has the biggest pile gets twenty bucks?”
Amanda was annoyed at how her siblings, who ranged in age from 26 to 30, all immediately agreed and started eagerly laughing and plotting the ways they would best each other in a leaf raking competition in their parents’ backyard. It was grotesque, in a way, how they seemed to forget that outside of these walls they were adults who had jobs and houses and apartments; how they sat there grinning and guffawing, trying to impress their father with leaves.
The raking took twice as long as it should have because Avery, in an attempt to win the competition, kept kicking everyone’s leaf piles apart, whooping like a donkey, and Otto, the dog, imitated him. In the end, Aaron had the most leaves; he smiled ear to ear as he accepted a twenty-dollar bill from their father. A 6’4” 28-year-old a software engineer practically leaping over winning twenty dollars.
“You could at least try to have fun, you know,” Amy said to Amanda, casting a disapproving glance over her shoulder as they walked toward the house. “It’s going to be a long month if you act like a sour puss the whole time.”
“Don’t you think it’s at a little bit weird that we all just act like children as soon as we get here? Out here raking leaves for money. I mean, we don’t even do adult stuff together, like drink or play cards, it’s weird as hell.” Amanda realized she was almost shouting.
“There’s no need to yell, Amanda,” Amy said, trying to stifle her fury. “There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your family. I, for one, love coming here and taking a break from normal life. No emails, no bills, no thinking. Why do you have to be so serious all the time? Why can’t you just lighten up?”
Amanda wanted to respond, but she realized that fighting with Amy was falling into the same pattern she wanted to avoid. So, she said nothing and went back into the house, Amy throwing her nasty glances as they went through the sliding glass doors.
Amanda looked out over the yard, now leafless. It seemed to stretch out and blur like a mirage, and when she blinked it was back to normal. Then, the first snowflakes of the season started to fall.
One week later
Amanda went into her closet to grab her running shoes. She wanted to run in Glen Island park to clear her head. Despite texting with her therapist every night, taking time to herself, walking away from irritation, the walls of the house still felt like they were closing in on her. She kept finding herself in the same old roles, playing the thimble in Monopoly, making the iced tea every night for dinner, playing Luigi on their ancient Wii.
Her shoes were too big, at least a full size too large. How can this be? I’ve worn these every day. Amanda spent 10 minutes adjusting her socks and laces, putting the shoes on and off again, but no matter how many times she tried, the shoes were too large.
“Mom,” Amanda called. “Mom! Come here!”
Her mother rushed into the room, “what is it sweetie?”
“My shoes, mom, they don’t fit at all,” Amanda said, waving the shoes in her face. “I’ve worn them almost every day I’ve been here and they’re too big!”
“It’s ok, I’m sure we have another pair here for you somewhere. Let me look.”
“No, mom, aren’t you listening? The shoes stopped fitting. They fit yesterday,” Amanda said, urgently.
“I’m sure we can find another pair, don’t get upset,” her mother said, starting to rummage around the closet.
“But mom, why would they grow overnight? They’re at least a size too big!” Amanda was almost yelling now.
“Don’t be silly dear. I’m sure they just stretched out from getting wet in the snow. Here, here’s an old pair of sneakers,” her mother said, handing her a pair of tattered old ASICS.
Amanda was about to ask why her mother saved her track shoes from 8th grade, but she thought better if it and put them on anyway. She drove over to Glen Island and ran for over three hours in the snow and mud, until the darkness made it impossible for her to see.
Everything was like it had always been. Her mother wore the same apron, a frilly number with a cornucopia, her father wore his deep green sweater over an Oxford shirt, Amy had the same plaid skirt that she wore in high school. The entire scene was like watching an old home movie. Even Aaron and Avery seemed younger, like at any minute one of them would start talking about lacrosse tryouts or PSAT scores. Amanda thought she would burst if she didn’t do something, anything, to disrupt the flow, so she sat down in Aaron’s usual seat.
Everyone was still moving steaming plates from the kitchen into the dining room as she sat, so it was her mother who noticed first. “Amanda, what are you doing there, honey? That’s Aaron’s seat” she asked, halfway laughing with a strained undertone.
“What?” Amanda replied, “I’m just sitting here.”
Aaron stopped abruptly seeing her there, “Hey! That’s my seat, what’s going on?”
Amanda answered, “Oh come on, Aaron, it’s just a seat, who cares?”
Amy chimed in, hand on her hip, “you’re pulling this again, are you? I mean, give it a rest, Amanda. You’re so childish!”
Amanda was on her feet, “Me, childish! Look at this scene! Jesus Christ, Amy, you’re thirty and you’re wearing the same Thanksgiving clothes you did in 2005! Doesn’t anyone here ever want to grow the f— up?”
Avery quietly sank into his assigned seat and said softly, “come on, Manda, be cool. Just sit in your seat.”
Their father said firmly, “Honey, sit in your seat and let’s move on.”
Amanda huffed and shuffled to the seat next to Aaron, Amy throwing daggers at her through the rest of dinner. She hardly noticed the dinner at all until she looked down at her legs and saw them dangling above the floor, no longer long enough to touch the ground.
A week after Thanksgiving
“Mom! Please, come, help me!” Amanda woke up, screaming.
Her mother ran in to Amanda’s room, “What sweetie? What is it? What’s wrong?”
Amanda’s face was contorted into a horrified scowl as she pointed wildly at her legs, “My legs mom, my legs. They’re too short for the f—ing bed! Look at me, mom, look! What’s happening?”
“Oh, baby, it’s ok. We have a smaller bed for you,” her mother said as she edged over to the corner of the room where the crib rails leaned against the wall.
Amanda’s mouth hung open. She couldn’t believe it. We have a smaller bed? Is this woman really telling me I should sleep in a goddamn crib?
Amanda reached over to the nightstand to grab her phone. She could text Dr. Wittes for a reality check. But her phone was nowhere to be found. She paused, took a deep breath and tried to remember Chicago; her job, her apartment, the bar down the street, but none of it was coming to her. She knew she lived in Chicago, she was sure, but it was gone; escaped out of her brain.
“Mom, please listen to me,” Amanda said, keeping her voice low and calm, in hopes that her mother would take her more seriously if she weren’t hysterical. “Mom, I need help, please. Something isn’t right, I’m supposed to fit in my bed, mom. Mom are you listening to me?”
“Of course, sweetie,” her mother replied. She came over to the side of the bed and tucked her hair behind her ears. “Give me a hug, everything will be ok.”
Amanda was dragged up into her mother’s arms, her mother kissing Amanda’s head and patting her back.
“Russ!” Amanda’s mom called out. “Russ, come help me in here.”
Her father came in, big smile on his face, “Here’s two of my three favorite girls. What can I do ya for?”
“Amanda needs a smaller bed, let’s set this up with the toddler rail,” her mother said, gesturing to the crib.
“Wait, mom, you can’t be serious. You’re going to set up a toddler bed? Mom, I need to go to the f—ing hospital, I don’t need a new bed,” Amanda said, screaming now.
“Amanda! That’s enough! I won’t tolerate that language out of you anymore,” her father said sternly.
She watched incredulously as her parents set to diligently assembling a toddler bed and she realized she was swimming in her pajamas. My siblings, that’s it. Surely they will see this is crazy. They must understand this is crazy, this will be too far, even for them.
“Amy! Aaron! Avery! Come here!” Amanda yelled. She heard the banging of their feet as they ran into the room and watched with horror as they entered, Amy no more than 12 and Avery, a little boy, wearing Ninja Turtles footie pajamas. She screamed so loud the neighbors' dogs howled in response.
One week later
Amanda was sure something wasn’t right, but she didn’t know why. Her mother was buckling her into a wooden chair and placing a large plastic tray in front of her. She kissed her forehead and rubbed cheeks.
“Look here, Amanda! Over here, Amanda!” her father said, smiling cheerfully and squeezing a squeaky rubber duck as he flashed a polaroid camera.
Aaron and Avery were in the family room playing with plastic hockey sticks. Amy brought her Samantha doll over to the tray and made it dance in front of Amanda.
“Oh Russ, would you look at that. What a great big sister, sharing,” their mother gushed.
Amanda wanted to say something, none of this was right, but all that came out was a cry and the harder she tried to talk, the harder she cried. Her mother pulled her out of the highchair and said, “oh, is someone sleepy?”
Her mother took Amanda upstairs into her bedroom, where the crib was no longer set up as a toddler bed, but as a full crib. Her mother pulled Amanda’s head into her chest and rocked her until the sobs subsided.
“That’s right, baby. Mommy’s got you. Mommy will always be here for her baby.”
Despite herself, Amanda’s eyes started to droop; her mother placed her down in the crib, popped a silicone pacifier into her mouth, and handed her a small, tattered stuffed bear. Amanda’s soft, fat fist grasped the bear and she fell into a deep sleep.
On a small nightstand in her mother’s room, a cell phone vibrated continuously. The screen showed hundreds of missed calls, the most recent from Dr. Wittes. Amanda’s mother picked it up, looked at the screen, and turned the phone off.
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Oooh that last line was so chilling! I love it!
What a great story! Your descriptions of the setting were fantastic along with the family members' behaviors and the odd power dynamics at play. I totally didn't see that twist coming either, it was very well executed.
Thanks, so much!