S— fingered a compact of highlighting cream, a shade labeled Prismatic Peon, comparing it to another shade, Obsequious Lace. If she chose wisely, she’d look like she’d slept a proper eight hours. If she failed, she’d continue her life as the forty-year-old blobfish of Lincoln Heights.
Her phone buzzed and she smashed around in her purse for it, cursing, and then—grimacing with triumph—lifted it from the den of receipts and scattered self-applicator tampons. Caller ID: The kid’s school.
“Yes? This is S—.”
“Mrs. M—, your son H— is here in the office with me. He has a rash on his face and arms, some sort of allergic reaction. I’ve phoned his doctor. Are you able to take him there now?”
S— tried and failed to sever herself from her disappointment. Above her the long rectangles of fluorescent lights flickered like so many affectionate glances. It was all so box-store beautiful, orderly and neat, rows upon rows of coveted items, a surplus, a luxury, a glut. She’d been here for two hours and she didn’t want to leave. She had more shopping to do—her cart only held three carefully chosen items (a self-watering vase, a jade green plastic storage basket, a curtain rod) and there was a whole solid acre of the store she hadn’t even visited yet. The smell of bottled shampoo was gentle all around her, as were the soft shuffling noises of people pushing carts to and fro, moving up and down the broad aisles like fish in a stream, their expressions like her own, softened into beatific gratitude, minds buttered by the calm of desire and attainment. In their bulging wallets, sleek credit cards waited confidently for their unveiling, and she didn’t want to go, not yet, not ever—
“Oh yes, I’ll come now,” she said, driven to speak by the sharpening silence on the other end of the line.
“I understand it’s a disruption,” the woman said, “but he really needs a doctor.”
“Just getting into my car now,” she lied, and hung up the phone.
For a minute or two, she did nothing but stand there like an idiot, arms at her sides, considering all that waited for her outside of the store: the tedium of her job as a remote customer service representative for the world’s wealthiest and greediest online retailer; the ever-expanding ways in which she failed her children, rendering them less perfect and more confused by the hour (her son, for example, was prone to panic, no doubt because of her constant worry and apologies; who knew if his current condition was intensified by the anxiety she’d planted in him or not?); her inability to converse frankly with her husband about the children, their finances, her purchases; the feeling that she was trapped precisely because she was loved by her family and loved them back, as if that made any sense. It wasn’t just all of this, it was bigger, much bigger, than any of them; it was chronic illness and mass incarceration and nuclear warfare and systemic poverty and student loans and Tahlequah and the plastic labyrinth expanding in the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Hawai’i and California, complete with its own plastic Minotaur and a plastic spool of thread winding back to a plastic Ariadne, who was really no more than a gun produced by a 3D printer. S— glanced down at her cart full of plastic home goods. She was a willing cog in the misery of the humankind.
But here at T—her mind quieted. There were choices, there was order. There was nothing but the large, sensible room filled with necessary, temporary objects. “Shopping is a feeling!” she’d once heard in a movie. It is! It was!
She found herself pushing her cart not toward the checkout line but instead to Aisle 19, so that she could look with adoration at a series of lotions and bath bombs for severe eczema.
“So many choices,” S— murmured, petting and fussing over the containers, as though this would be the thing to save H—, and not her immediate attention.
By the time S— arrived at the school, horrified with herself, de-tranced by the gray wet openness of the day, her purchases hidden away beneath a yellow afghan in the trunk of her sedan, almost an hour had passed. Her son was swollen almost unrecognizably, expanding by the minute, his figure more oval than boy. The nurse rolled him to the front door as S— signed him out.
What have I done, she thought, what is wrong with me?
“The traffic,” she lamented to the receptionist, to the nurse. “I raced here as fast as I could.”
The nurse waved her toward the door, muttering something about almost calling an ambulance. S— rippled with self-hatred, guiding her son out of the school and to the parking lot.
“H—, I’m so sorry,” she said, helping the inflated boy crush into the sedan’s backseat. “Is it hard to breath?”
He made a sound not unlike breathing.
“Hold tight,” she said. “Mommy loves you.”
He was the size and shape of a large weather balloon now, and expanding by the moment. His hands poked out of his bulging torso like two tiny beaks.
She drove with too much speed and carelessness to the doctor’s office. “Maybe when this is over, we can go to T— for a new toy?” The thought of all of those aisles of toys, brand new in their shining packages, calmed her.
The weather balloon bobbed slightly up and down, the noise-not-unlike-breathing continued. Frantically addressing the rearview mirror, she searched for any sign of H—‘s angelic eyes and nose and mouth but could only make out a few stray dark hairs where his eyebrows had been. The swelling had stolen away every discerning feature.
S— wouldn’t let herself think of losing him, but she noted how obviously it would be her own fault if she did.
“I bought some eczema cream for you, honey,” she said helplessly. “We’ll go to T— and hang out in the toy aisle, and I’ll let you pick not one but two—”
They were here. She interrupted herself, leaping from the car and tugging his door open, and he half-floated, half-squeezed through the opening. Across from the doctor’s office was a large park, the tall aromatic pine trees swaying fitfully in an angry and judgmental wind. The clean cold air stung her eyes. She put her palm against H—‘s rubber form—trying to stave off her own terror, It’s eaten even his clothes!—and pushed him gently, swiftly, toward the building, watching as his feet—two small, sneakered hooves now—hovered over the yellow and white lines painted on the concrete. Inside, the nurses were waiting for him, having been phoned by the school nurse long before, and they ushered him into an examination room straight away.
Within moments a masked nurse appeared with an EpiPen. She lifted her arm like a murderer and then plunged the autoject straight into the menacing red balloon; a movement so marked with violence that S— screamed in alarm. Her son—his bulging sphere having filled half of the compact room—first shuddered, then exploded.
In the clarity of the moment, when the mother thought perhaps her son had died, time slowed. Her thoughts rose cleanly from their anxious mud, one after the other like starlings from a field. They gathered together in a dark swarming cloud overhead. You’ll never surface from this. You’ve destroyed him, as you always knew you would. It’s your own superficiality that’s done it. You’ll never be forgiven, you’ll never be without despair, without grief. And to think of all of the time you’ve wasted with your purchases, your wandering, your obsession with that awful place—
But in the next moment H— was returned to himself, her darling nine-year-old son. He tucked into her arms and wept from the harshness of his trauma and relief and she enfolded him in kisses and tears. She told herself it was a new beginning. Nothing would be taken for granted again. She would become responsible for him fully now, for herself. She would become an enemy to everything she hated—inattention, capitalism, stupidity. She held him and the nurse gave her an appreciating look, a You’re-a-loving-Mommy look, but S—, ashamed, knew what a lie it all was and quickly looked away.
She took her son by the shoulders and smiled into his affectionate, tear-stained, sweet eyes and said, “Ready to go home, my darling?”
“You said we could get a toy.”
She stood, embarrassed, and took his hand. “I can’t thank you enough,” she told the nurse.
Her son tugged on her, elaborating, “Two toys.”
“You’ll have to bring him in straight away for allergy testing,” the nurse said. “So we can figure out the culprit.”
“I ate a poinsettia,” H— said, and S—‘s brow furrowed, Like the leaves or the plant or the pot and all, what could you possible mean—. “On a dare.”
“’Tis the season,” the nurse laughed, and S— smiled with false patience and finished up with appointment-making and copay matters and then left, her son striding along beside her. He gripped her hand as tightly as she gripped his.
“Let’s wait a second.” she said as they buckled themselves into the car. “I just need to sit here.”
After a few deep breaths, she said, “I’m so glad you’re okay. I would die if anything happened to you.”
She wondered if he could feel her love for him. If he felt it—if he really, truly felt it—he would bring his hands to his throat and clutch at the bulging, mean tentacles. He would struggle, again, to breath. If something else doesn’t ruin him, my love will.
But it was all returning: normalcy, routine, decent health, her laziness in keeping watch of anyone, let alone herself. It moved back over her like a cold fog and she relaxed into it. Such relief. Such fatigue. She closed her eyes for a long moment, then reversed the car from the parking lot and pulled into traffic.
“Two toys,” H— said again.
She nodded. Her dumb promises. But her ears were stuffed full with the imagined cottonwoods of loving sounds, tiny wheels spinning on clean linoleum, spills instantly mopped, broken glass swept up by red-shirted workers who waited invisibly in the wings. She drove back to where she had started, her son humming all the while, and she wondered where in her house she would hide these new things.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.