Sam wipes at his nose and pulls away blood. “Mommy!” he cries. “It’s bleeding again.”
I hear him from downstairs, in the unfinished basement, where I’m fighting the good fight, the never ending fight to conquer the loose ends of storage.
“Mommy?” he calls again.
“Sam, I’m coming,” I say, side stepping over the tattered Christmas tree box.
In the kitchen, Sam has set up a triage. The medical supply cupboard has been ransacked and raped; its contents spilled all over the kitchen table.
“Sam, all you need are tissues and a cold compress. What is all this for?” I ask him while tipping his head back and forcing him to rest it against the back of the chair he’s sitting in.
“Dwad said ywour not supwost to sit wike this,” he tries to say. Clotted blood running down the back of his throat, muffling his words. “Dwad says you cwould suffocate.”
“Yes, but I’m here,” I say stroking his baby blonde hair. “Mommy’s here. I won’t let you choke.”
“Mwom,” Sam protests. “I’m too owld to call you that.”
I wrinkle my nose at him. “You’re hardly old enough to stop calling me Mommy if you don’t want to.”
“Jenny and Emwery say I’m too old.”
“Your sisters don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Sam giggles. He leans forward. “It stopped!” he says happily, holding up his clean tissue for inspection. He sniffs heavily, appreciating the ability to breathe freely again.
“Careful, buddy. You don’t want it to start up again.”
He nods. “Can I have some chocolate milk? I think it will make me feel better,” he says, trying to weasel his way into special treats.
“Sure thing,” I say. He might think he’s too old to call me Mommy, but he’s not too old to still want to drink chocolate milk at every opportunity. I open the fridge and shake the bottle. It’s almost empty. “Looks like we’re gonna have to get some more today, buddy.”
“If I go to the grocery store with you, can I get a treat?” he asks, preemptively already trying to wear me down.
“We’ll see,” I say. “Hey, hand me your cup I’ll put your medicine in it.”
Later that afternoon after a rushed trip to the grocery store for more milk, a supersonic stop at the dry cleaners and a lightning fast pit stop at the drugstore to pick up the refill on Sam’s medication, we get McDonalds for lunch and we eat it in the car, seatbelts still tucked in and only a turn from the drive-thru exit. Sam hands me his toy from his meal, reaching to the front, telling me I can have it because he doesn’t want it.
“You’re welcome. Come again,” he says giggling at his own joke.
I watch him in the rearview mirror, stuffing his face with fistfuls of French fries and looking out his window. His dimpled hands are still babyish. I want to keep him this way forever. He kicks his feet freely and feels the Grand Canyon underneath him.
I turn my wrist and check the time on my watch. “Oh, hey, buddy,” I say, putting down my hamburger. “It’s time to take your medicine again. Hand me your drink. I’ll mix it in there.”
“Will it taste bad?” he asks, one sticky hand reaching towards the front of the car.
“Does it ever?” I ask while reaching around and grabbing his chocolate milk carton, the one that came with his meal.
Sam shakes his head. “Nope! Medicine. Time for medicine. Medicine!” he sings dunking his fries in ketchup.
I take the medicine bottle from my pocket and think about the dosage. Two drops. I swirl it around to mix it in. That should be enough for now. More at dinner perhaps. I hand it back to him.
He happily slurps away.
“Remember to drink all of it,” I say.
“Don’t worry, I love chocolate milk!” he says, wiping away the faint trace of a milk moustache on his upper lip with the back of his hand. “Thanks Mommy. You’re the best Mommy.”
I smile in the rearview mirror and watch him. He’s so happy. He makes his chicken nugget into a spaceship. Crash landing it on the window, bouncing it off his head and dancing it along the top of his car seat.
“It’s time for bed, Mr. Chicken Nugget Spaceman,” he says. It lands with a woosh sound and Sam tries to tuck it in underneath a blanket of fries. “No!” the nugget says. Fries explode into the air. “I’m too old for tuck-ins! I’m a big boy!
The pit of my stomach drops.
“No, no, no!” he makes the nugget say. “But you have to. Let Mommy tuck you in. Don’t you want Mommy to tuck you in?”
I close my eyes trying to calm my breathing and push away the bad thoughts. I try not to think about how he wouldn’t let me tuck him in a few weeks ago. How he wanted to do it himself. How he said that he was a big boy and could put himself to bed.
“Jenny and Emery don’t do tuck-ins,” he said. “I don’t want one either.” I knew I was losing him then. I knew I had to do something before the others got to him.
“Noooooo!” the nugget protests. “Let Mommy tuck you in!” Sam’s mother voice says. “No! I hate you!”
My fists clench involuntarily. I know he picked up that phrase from his older sisters. I’ve never heard him say it out loud before. Not yet at least.
Sam mutters consoling words to his food in a manner that seems all too familiar considering the situation he is reenacting. Suddenly, he stops. “Mommy,” he says slumping down in his seat, tucking his hands against his stomach. “I don’t feel so good.” The blanket of fries drift to the floor. Salt is rimmed around his lips. “My tummy hurts. My head feels like its swimming.”
“You probably ate your food too fast,” I say. “Remember how we talked about taking little bites?” I turn around in the car and touch his knees as if that might help.
“Can we go home? Please, Mommy. I need to go potty.”
“Sure thing, buddy. Can you hold it till we get home? We’re just down the road.”
He nods, his suffering too great to speak. I put the car in gear and push the pedal to the floor.
But we still don’t make it in time. Sam’s bodily urges were quicker than me. I start up the washing machine with Sam’s soiled clothes and it immediately goes off balance, announcing my misfortune by pounding against the wall. Bam! Bam! Bam! I quickly fiddle with the controls to keep it from waking Sam.
“Where’s Sam?” husband asks.
“Oh! Geeze! You scared me!” I say, surprised to see him standing behind me. “I didn’t hear you come home.”
“Where’s Sam?” husband repeats.
“He’s in bed.”
“Is he sick again?”
I shrug. “He must be coming down with something. I’m washing his clothes now.”
“Glad it’s you and not me.”
He says it so casually that I hate him, but I hide it well. I know the girls learn how to treat me from him. “Just a little accident,” I say.
He nods and disappears into the bedroom to change for the gym. His afternoon routine seemingly undisturbed.
I give the machine a good kick for the trouble it’s caused. It grumbles and goes back to washing. But my relief is short.
“Where’s my soccer uniform?” Jenny yells from the bottom of the stairs.
“Shouldn’t you have already left? You’re going to be late,” I counter.
“If you’d learn to stop touching my shit, I’d be on time more.”
“Don’t talk to me like that.” Sometimes I think I hate her the most.
“Fine. Where is it then?”
“It’s in your bag. Like it always is. I didn’t touch it.”
“Didn’t you even wash it? I needed you to wash it.”
I let the silence answer for me.
“You’re a useless mother. I hate you,” she says rushing out to carpool.
She’s gone before I can say anything else.
I check on Sam in his room. I kiss his cheeks, grateful that he’s never yelled at me. Grateful that he will never yell at me. He needs me. I’ll keep him that way, I think. He’ll always need me.
I fill up his sippy cup and pull the bottle with his medicine from my pocket. It’s not time for it, but an extra drop couldn’t hurt right now. I think he needs it.
“Sam, hey buddy,” I say shaking his shoulder slightly. “It’s time for your medicine. It will help you feel better. I promise.”
Sam groggily reaches for his cup “You gotta drink all of it, buddy,” I say, tipping the cup upwards so he gets every last drop to feel better.”
He sighs and falls heavily back down onto his bed. I readjust the sheets. “I’ll bring you up some dinner in a little bit,” I say, brushing the hair from his forehead.
I close Sam’s door behind me and turn to see husband standing in the hallway watching me. How long has he been there? He stares at me, something hidden behind his eyes. “I think he’s feeling better,” I say trying to break through the ice that’s between us.
“That’s good,” husband answers. “But maybe we should take him to the doctor.”
“No, you know how that goes. They can never find anything wrong.”
Husband eyes me, he’s suspicious but I can’t pinpoint what he has to be suspicious about. I’ve been very careful. I think about the black, cloth bag in the basement. The one with the metal zipper that is carefully tucked behind the box of Christmas decorations. It’s impossible that he’s found it. I moved it this morning. I made sure.
Husband sighs. “It’s just odd that it’s only Sam that seems to get sick,” he says. “It’s never the others.”
I shrug. “The others are older. They don’t need us as much.”
“That’s true,” husband concedes. “I just feel bad for the little guy.” He leans over me and peaks into Sam’s bedroom. “I mean, he’s been sick a lot lately.”
I shrug again.
Husband reads some sort of meaning from this movement and says that I’m right. That he must worry too much. He kisses my cheek and says he’s off to the gym and will be back in time for dinner.
I smile and watch him disappear down the stairs. I stay frozen until the garage finishes closing, only then do I know that I’m safe. I exhale and touch my pocket to make sure that the medication bottle is still there. It is and I breathe a little easier.
But now I have to check the basement.
Even though no one is in the house I’m quiet as I move boxes around the basement. I act as if I’m looking for something, paranoid that someone somewhere is watching me. I even stop every so often to put my hands on my hips and sigh in frustration.
I can’t go right for the bag. It would be too obvious. I restrain myself from doing it, even though it’s the only thing I want to do. It’s too desperate and it makes the idea of what I’m doing all too horrible. Even though it’s for Sam’s own good. I’m doing it all for Sam.
The Christmas tree box is heavy and I move it out of the way with some unintentional grunting to get to where I’ve hidden the bag. It’s tucked underneath the box with the tree skirt and the angel topper. It’s a completely uninteresting box that no one should be getting into for at least another six months.
I take a deep breath, hoping that the bag is still there. If it’s not, I’m not really sure what I’ll do. I count down from three in my head.
I lift up the box and the black zippered bag stares back at me. I sigh audibly and set the box to the side. I check inside the bag. Everything is still there. Eleven empty Visine eyedrop bottles and six unopened ones rattle back at me. I take the half used one from my pocket and put it inside with the others. I can’t risk having it near me right now. Not with husband on the prowl.
I don’t know why I keep them this way. If I was smart, I’d just throw them out, but I can’t help it. I scoop the bottles into my hands, turning them over like a prayer handed beggar.
They bring Sam closer to me and maybe I like remembering him this way. A tiny drop here. A few drops there. They bring my baby back to me. They make him need me again. He’ll be mine forever this way.
It’s for the best.
The garage door opens. I look up towards the ceiling. What is he doing back so soon? My paranoia sets in and I have to quickly find a new hiding place. Where to hide it? Where can I hide the bag until I have time to find a better spot?
I spin in circles looking for a place. Then I see it: a small opening in the insulation near the window in the corner. It will have to do. I quickly tuck the bag inside and pull the insulation over to cover it. I bound up the stairs and close the door behind me just in time for husband to walk in from the garage.
He drops his gym bag on the tile. “Were you just in the basement?” he asks.
“Yeah, I thought I heard a noise. What are you doing home?”
“The gym was closed. Power outage.” He circles back. “A noise?”
“Yeah, the water heater or something, maybe.”
“I should probably go look,” he says, walking towards me.
“No,” I put my hands out. “It’s okay. I checked. Nothing seems wrong.”
There’s that suspicious look again. “Alright,” he says. “But if you hear it again, let me know.” He turns and picks up his bag. “There’s been some water leaking in from somewhere underneath the insulation near that window in the corner. I had to pull it back from the wall down there so it could dry out. Did you see it? It was soaking wet this morning.”
“Oh,” I say, my voice catching in my throat. “Yeah, I saw it. It seemed alright. Not wet at all.”
“Good,” he says. “I’ll check on it later. Since I’m not working out today, I think I’ll just go for a run.”
“Mommy?” Sam calls from upstairs. “Mommy, can you come help me?”
“Think you can handle things here for a bit?” husband asks.
“Sure thing,” I say, patting husband on the arm, pretending everything is fine. “It’s what I do.”
Sam wants me to read to him. Then he wants to color with me. Then he wants another story. He doesn’t want me to leave. He says I make him feel better. “If I have to be sick, I’m glad that you’re my Mommy so that you can take care of me,” he says.
My heart soars and I’m so ecstatic, so completely lost in the moment that I forget about the basement. I don’t even hear when husband or the girls come back home and I don’t hear them wonder about why dinner isn’t on the table.
It’s not until later that night when I suddenly remember. I drop the laundry I’d been folding and turn to run to the basement, but it’s too late.
“What’s this?” husband says, standing in the bedroom doorway. He’s holding the black, cloth bag.
“I don’t have any idea what that is,” I say with surprising ease.
“It was behind the insulation in the basement.” He sits down on the edge of the bed. “It wasn’t there before.”
I hesitate to ask the question. I don’t want to seem too eager, I swallow the lump in my throat, but he answers for me.
“I didn’t open it,” he says.
Relief floods my body.
“I didn’t want to know whatever it was. I don’t think I could handle it. Do you think its drugs?” he asks. “Do you think the girls are into drugs?”
I reach for the bag and turn it over in my hands as if it confounds me as much as it does him. “I don’t think that’s what it is,” I say. I have to be careful here. One small slip and the tiger will pounce.
“Then what is it?” he asks. “Do you think we should open it?” He reaches for the bag.
It’s a jagged, harsh word that immediately arouses Husband’s suspicions. “No?” he asks wide-eyed.
I pull the bag closer to me and try a softer approach. “I just mean, why don’t you let me talk to the girls? Girls respond better to their mother anyways, everyone knows that.” I smile to lighten the mood, pulling the bag inconspicuously closer to my chest. Now that I have it again, there’s no way I’m letting it out of my sight.
Husband smiles back. “Alright.” He seems relieved.
“I’m going to check on Sam,” I say, taking the bag with me.
In the hallway, my body gives out and I slump against the wall. I hold the bag to my chest, feeling the tiny, plastic bottles shift around as my heart beats against them. That was a close one. I stifle an anxious laugh. There’s no way he could know what was inside of the bag if he didn’t open it. He would’ve been more upset if he had opened it. I’d know if he was lying. He’s terrible at it. I tell myself that I’m safe. I promise myself that I’ll never be this stupid again. I swear to God I’ll never let this bag out of my sight again.
But I still have to check. Old habits dying hard and whatnot. I gently pull back the zipper, careful not to make a sound.
I count the bottles out of habit. Just to be sure, even though I’m sure that they’re all—
One of the unopened bottles is missing.
There’s only five.
There should be six.
“Mommy?” Sam calls out. “Mommy, I’m thirsty can you bring me some chocolate milk?”
“I’ll get it for you, buddy,” husband says, locking eyes with me. He’s in the hallway, watching me and leaning against the doorframe. “I think Mommy might want some too. Right Mommy?”
“Oh, no, I can—,” I protest, trying to remain calm.
“Why don’t I get it for both of you?” husband says brushing past me. “I’ll make it up just the way you like.”