I groan and wilt against the kitchen table.
“Aunt Li?” says Thea, alarmed.
“I just realized,” I say, “That you’re older now than I was the first weekend you stayed here—during one of your mom’s surgeries. You were fifteen or something.”
“Oh god,” she says, relieved. “Oh, that is a doozy.” She stares into the sink, weaving her fingers through the running water. “I’m old,” she says, and turns the faucet off. “Hold up, I think I was only ten. That buys us a bit of time.”
“Oh good,” I snort. “That young? You always seemed older.”
I massage my shoulder blade. My niece has made the trek out here, and she’s staying the night. As we finish cooking dinner, the falling light becomes palpable in the room. Slanting shafts of gold fall through the kitchen window, filling certain forms, missing others. One illuminates the fuzz on Thea’s cheek and dumps shadow into the creases around her mouth that deepen when she smiles.
“I remember most of that weekend,” she says.
“Probably more of it than I do,” I say. I rub the muscles in my forearm, perpendicular to the grain. My arm, papery, buttery, flecked brown and gold, looks nice against the wooden table. Same color family. “Although—you were so young. If you were ten, then I was…forty-two? I was old enough to know it would make a good memory. We were still hopeful at that point, right? It was a nice weekend.”
“The carrots are washed. Want to help cut?”
I push against the table to get up. I roll my foot in a circle to get out the cracks. She hands me a knife.
“I remember floating the candles down the creek,” she says.
“Mmhmm. And that bike you found under the porch.”
“And the cards I pinned to the frame so they’d flap in the spokes.”
Standing next to her at the counter, I chuckle and make a sound like a machine gun with my tongue. Then I realize I’m slicing my finger instead of the carrot. I gasp.
“Oh, honey.” She takes my finger in her hand and squints at it. “Here.” She pulls me over to the sink and opens the faucet over the cut.
“Is it deep?” I ask. I can’t even tell.
“I don’t think so,” she says.
“I’m entirely too old.”
“That wasn’t because you’re old. I cut myself all the time.”
“Well, I haven’t cut myself cooking in years.”
She wraps my finger in a paper towel. “Congrats.”
I can’t return the sass. I’m choked by the poignancy hanging like smoke in the room. There are wrinkles in Thea’s hands—I’ve just noticed. Yesterday was twenty-four hours, and I missed all of them waiting for today. Why is it that every time I look up the sun is setting?
“You know, Hagan’s starting to develop quite the personality. I think he made a joke the other day.” She’s already putting the vegetables in the oven.
“Really? God, I miss that little guy.”
“You saw him two weeks ago!”
“I could see him everyday and it wouldn’t be enough. How’s he liking preschool so far?”
“Good, I think! He comes home happy. He’s resilient, easy-going.” We walk into the living room and sit on the couch. The pill-balls on the fabric blaze in the glow. Thea immediately starts picking them off.
“He must get that from you,” I say. “I was always amazed at how you handled it.”
“Handled what? Mom? You know I didn’t have a choice.”
“I know. None of us did. But you handled it the best.” I see in my periphery that her hands have stopped moving. I’m squinting hard at the bridge of her nose. “Hold on, Thea. Would you mind turning your head? Right there. That little curve between your eyebrows and your nose. That’s your mom’s.” I reach out to trace it with my finger.
She jerks away. “Oh my god, Li! Do you want this to be a miserable evening? Let’s talk about something else.” She gets up from the couch and starts to rummage through the drawer of the desk by the wall. “I know there’s a deck of cards in here somewhere. Isn’t this where you keep it? Why don’t you go open up the wine I brought.”
I wade slowly into the kitchen. Maybe it’s just my mood, but my posture has gone to the dogs. I catch my reflection in the glass of the door, and I’m practically bent double. I try to straighten up as I ruffle through the grocery bags Thea brought, checking each one twice for the bottle of wine.
This slanted light is unforgiving for sure. It lights up the layer of dust coating the floor under the table. I try to rub it off with my foot as I glance over my shoulder to the living room. “Thea? You sure you brought it?”
Her steps sound loud and quick against the floorboards as she enters the room.
“Li, it’s right here.” After the words, her face dries oddly stiff. She hands me the bottle. It’s cool and smooth and heavy. I set it down. She’s looking at me in a way I don’t recognize, and I can’t tell what it means. I keep silent and rub the meat of my thumb.
I try to relax my brow, but something has got it all scrunched up. I take a deep breath, and, against my will, it comes out a sigh. I’m so surprised by the sound that I almost look around for its source. When I inhale again, I feel like I’ve gained fifty pounds, all in the chest.
“Thea. The time’s pressing on me like no other. I wish I hadn’t thought of that thing about our ages.”
“Jesus, Aunt Li.” Her fingernails tick against the table. “Why do you do this? You’re so nostalgic you can’t enjoy yourself, and you get me all moped out as well. You’ve got plenty of time, trust me. Twenty more years even.”
“But you’re leaving in fifteen hours.”
She sighs, clearly irritated, and glances around the kitchen. Her eyes rest on the dark linoleum pealing beneath the cabinet. Something in her gaze unlatches, becomes deep and hollow. I can tell she’s left the room.
I’m frustrated at myself for acting this way. Maybe this is why she doesn’t live closer, why she doesn’t visit more. Come to think of it, no one visits me as much as I’d like. I close my eyes and realize my house is ringing with her energy now. It will probably echo when she leaves. But I can’t blame myself for talking about the past. At this point, I have so much of it.
I stand up and stretch my arms up over my head. I try to circle them around to the back, but it doesn’t quite work. The shoulder joint has always bemused me.
I hear my niece’s sharp intake of breath. “Aunt Li, I—“ But I cut her off.
“I’m going to go for a walk. Catch the last shreds of the gloaming. I’ll be back soon.” I touch her shoulder on the way out, craning my neck to catch her nose against the light.
I decide to walk a spiral around the house, which is surrounded by a good bit of lawn. I shuffle my feet over the crunchy, July-stricken ground, making ever-wider circles. The drought has done a number on my yard, but I don’t believe in sprinklers. It’s a prickly moat to my tower. Keeping what out? What in? I try to relax, to focus on the feeling of my feet against the earth. I entertain the idea of a mantra, but don’t need it. The grass keeps repeating, blade after blade—yellow brown, yellow green, black shoes, fading in the low light. My niece is just sitting alone in my house, with less than fifteen more hours. What am I doing?
Walking and walking. Blinking, breathing. Mothers and daughters, sons, aunts, grandmothers swarm through my mind. White face after white face, blue and brown eyes, laughing, glaring, gabbing. Their crows’ feet and I-teeth, bridges of nose. Images overlap, overlay, meld, and I blink. Round and round the house I blink.
And when I’m not looking, not listening, the drought creeps up my left arm. It bores into my shoulder blade, clutches my neck, oozes down my sternum. I begin to feel like a vulture, circling. Or maybe I’m standing still, and the earth is a vulture ringing me.
Then I remember having read something. Along with the obvious physical signs, an unshakeable sense of doom is a symptom—
Lights flash behind my eyes. All the tension drains from my legs, and I pitch toward the dry grass. Forehead—thump—against dust-cracked earth. A fly smears against a windshield somewhere, and I lie in an awkward crumple, gulping for air like a fish.