Kim Venkataraman, originally from Maine, lives outside of Boston with her husband and two children. Her short stories have been accepted by exactly twelve magazines. She is working on a book inspired by her grandfather's childhood, when he and his sisters were orphaned at the start of the Depression.
Her finger healed, you can barely see the scar. But still there's a lingering numbness from that day when a knife sliced her finger as easily as a mushroom, just like a mushroom in fact. She'd thought at first she'd cut it off, but the tip of her pinky was still connected, dangling from a bit of skin. So her finger healed, and most of the time she forgets she has no feeling in it. But sometimes when she reaches for something, like her coffee, and her smallest finger touches the cup, she's reminded it doesn't feel things the way it should.
After leaving the hospital that day, Charlotte and Brian went by her parents' house. She closed her eyes to the buildings and cars that passed in a nauseating blur. She wasn't ready to go back to their tiny basement apartment, where droplets of blood still lay sprinkled across the cutting board. They found her mother working in the garden, but her doting concern about Charlotte's hand was soon interrupted by a phone call that sent them back to the emergency room. The same woman sat at the information desk, and a cart of flowers still stood by the elevator. But this time Charlotte, Brian, and Eleanor rushed in and found Charlotte's father straining to sit up as a doctor examined his arm. He was saying, "Baby, baby, can you hear me? It's going to be okay," to the woman lying next to him. Charlotte had never heard her father sound like that, helpless and on the verge of tears.
"Oh . . . Ellie," he said, his voice changing to a dull whisper, when he noticed his wife.
"Hank, what happened? Are you all right? What's going on?"
# # #
The first time she drove by his house, she hadn't planned to go there. But on a winter morning—almost a year after the day of accidents—Charlotte looked up his address in the phone book. Ever since he'd left her mother and Charlotte told him to go fuck himself, she'd never thought about where he lived. But there it was in black and white—14 Aster Lane. When she drove down his street, quickly at first and then more slowly the next few times, she got angry. His house was nice, too nice, bigger than the house he had left her mother living in. She didn't see a car, but she just knew that there was a big Cadillac sitting in the garage. From there she drove to her mother's house. It was a cold, raw day. Dead leaves blew in circles on the driveway and clung to Charlotte's pants as she tapped on the side door. After checking in the garage, she walked to the backyard and found her mother in the garden.
"Mom, what are you doing? It's freezing, you shouldn't be out here."
Plants were strewn on the ground. Brown, withered stalks lay piled on blackened leaves. The entire plant bed was empty. Charlotte reached down and helped bring her to her feet.
"Mom, it's too cold. You should be resting."
"Yes, fine, I'm done here." And she let Charlotte walk her inside.
# # #
After Eleanor got sick she started taking naps, at first just in the late afternoon. But after a while Charlotte could arrive at her house at almost any time and find her mother on the couch, curled up under the afghan. Sometimes she'd sit for a while and leave without waking her. One evening as she left, Charlotte paused in the hallway to stare at a tray filled with seedlings under glowing purple lights. Each frail stem precariously balanced a pair of leaves, bending under the almost unbearable weight.
That night she climbed into bed without changing her clothes and curled up against Brian. She stared at the shadows on the wall, and it was suddenly clear to her. Some cancers grow slowly over time and some more quickly. But her mother's cancer had started just like a seed. Her father's cheating and his leaving were the poisonous seed that started it all.
# # #
Standing in the living room of her father's house, Charlotte took one last look around. The daylight was nearly gone, and she didn't want to turn on a light. In the dusky shadows the house felt barren and cold. It was the fourth or fifth time she'd been inside the house and, as always, it looked perfectly neat and picked up, as if whoever lived there was perpetually away on vacation. But she knew he was at work. He left every morning at 8:30, drove three miles down Route One to the engineering office where he'd worked for twenty-eight years, and came home at about 6:30 or 7:00 each night after stopping somewhere for dinner, usually Buck's Steakhouse or The Villa.
She knew he lived there by the clothes that accumulated in the hamper and the addition and subtraction of items in the refrigerator. But what amazed Charlotte was how neat the house was. He must have opened the mail each evening and watched TV for a while, but the coasters and the remote control were always neatly arranged on the coffee table, the counters clean with no clutter anywhere. The toaster was lined up next to the can opener, which was lined up neatly next to the knives.
The first time she'd walked up to his door, she couldn't decide whether to knock or to ring the doorbell, and so did nothing. Walking away, she took his newspaper and stepped on the impatiens around his mailbox. The next time, she went in the house through the unlocked patio door and looked around for a few minutes before leaving. But a few weeks ago she'd opened the freezer door before she left. There were only a couple of frozen dinners, a bag of peas, and two ice trays inside, but Charlotte hoped, as she drove home, that the freezer would work furiously all afternoon. She pictured frost lining the freezer and spilling out on the floor and her father kneeling to clean up the mess, wondering how he'd left it open.
Eleanor died on a Tuesday. She'd gone back into the hospital the week before to get stabilized so that they could try a new round of chemo. But then the doctors started talking about a blood clot and pressure on her brain and blood collecting in her lungs. Charlotte stayed with her and held her hand. Her mother stopped asking what the doctors were saying about her condition, it was as if she didn't care. Or maybe, Charlotte thought, she already knew what she'd be told.
In the unreality of the rest of that week, Charlotte kept forgetting, just for a minute, that her mother was dead. Hank came to the funeral, which took place on a warm April morning. Charlotte didn't see him at the church, but at the cemetery he stood off to the side. A few people went up to talk to him afterward, but when Charlotte thought to look over again, he was gone.
# # #
The first thing she broke in her father's house was the picture. She noticed the square gold frame just as she was turning to leave the guest room. Partially hidden by a lamp, the frame held a slightly blurry picture of Charlotte next to the ocean somewhere. Cape Cod? Maine? The wind was blowing her hair, and her smiling face was tipped to the side. The picture had been cut from a larger one, one that must have included her mother. When was it taken? It must have been on some summer vacation. But what year? It didn't really matter, though, Charlotte thought. Whatever image of her family she'd held then was already a lie. After the car accident her father had finally admitted that the affair had been going on for years. Years.
Charlotte's hand reached out and swatted the picture off the table. It turned through the air and smashed against the closet door. Walking from the room before the air had settled around the picture, Charlotte could see that although one side of the frame had broken off, she was still smiling blankly up into space. That night Charlotte stayed in his house until the sun disappeared behind the trees. When she finally turned to go, she looked at her watch—6:40. He could be home any minute. Slowly she looked around before walking through the cool air in the backyard to her car.
The next morning Charlotte pretended she was asleep while Brian showered and got dressed. Before he left he rubbed her shoulder, and she reluctantly opened her eyes.
"Don't you have a class this morning?"
"No," she answered, rolling away from his touch. It was the first week of October, and she hadn't mentioned she'd never got around to registering this semester. Closing her eyes, she pulled up the sheet to cover her face, not wanting to see the light coming in under the shade. I'll just stay here a little bit longer, she thought.
# # #
The brick hit the sliding door near the top, making a hole and sending long cracks down the glass. She had always found the door unlocked, but today she didn't bother checking. It was a very satisfying feeling, picking up one of the bricks that bordered the patio and deciding where to throw it. When she reached in to open the door, she smiled when she realized it was locked.
In the family room she turned on the light. It was still the middle of the afternoon, but the sky had filled with heavy, gray clouds that made it seem much later. She turned on the TV and walked around the room, looking for anything new before going into the kitchen. She opened the fridge, stared at the clean, mostly empty shelves, and reached for a can of beer. Its wet, popping noise echoed in the hallway as she walked down to the bedrooms.
She opened bureaus and closets, pushing things aside, looking. Some of the drawers she closed, some she didn't. After a while she went back to the kitchen for another beer, deciding instead to bring the remaining three with her. In the guest room closet, a couple of old wool suits hung to the side, but on the top shelf was a cardboard box that she hadn't noticed before. She took it down, opened another beer, and began to empty the box's contents on the bed. There were two photo albums and envelopes filled with loose pictures, old birthday and Christmas cards, and a college yearbook. She carried the photo albums to the family room and began turning their pages, staring at her family frozen in time. Charlotte as a baby having a bath in the kitchen sink. Her first day of kindergarten, eyes wide as the school bus pulled up. Her mother carrying the turkey on a platter on some long-ago Thanksgiving.
She'd turned off the lights and the TV by the time he came in.
"What the hell . . ." he said when he noticed the broken glass on the rug. It was only after he'd walked into the room that he noticed Charlotte sitting on the couch. He couldn't see the knife tucked tightly by her side.
"Charlotte . . . what are you doing here?"
"Hey, Dad. Just thought I'd stop by, you know, on the way home from the cemetery. Maybe you were there today? Bringing flowers to Mom's grave?"
Hank looked at her. "Uh . . ." he said, searching for words.
"I've been enjoying these pictures, reminiscing and all. Why don't you sit down and take a look. We were such a happy family, a healthy family. Mom doesn't even look like she has the cancer inside her, does she? Do you think she got it when you started to screw around, or was it later, when she found out about it?"
Charlotte could feel herself sweating. She rocked herself slightly to keep from crying. Her father turned to her, his face showing sadness, or was it irritation? He raised his hands, waving them in a mock gesture of "I give up, I give up." And it was then that she threw the knife, hurling it with all her strength at his chest. Then she folded herself down on the couch and cried.
In the car on the way to the hospital, the buildings and cars passed in a nauseating blur. Hank drove his car quickly, running one red light, then another. Charlotte's hand, which had been holding the knife's blade when she threw it, was wrapped in a dishtowel. Her father had run to get it before walking her out to his car. The knife was left lying on the floor where it had landed.