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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Ready to Fall

A Novel

Marcella Pixley

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)



When Mommy finally comes home it’s almost bedtime.

I’m sitting on the top stair wearing my green railroad pajamas. Grandma is sitting next to me, our knees close together.

Daddy opens the door and they come in.

She walks into the house first, with slow shuffling steps. Daddy holds her around the waist very, very gently, almost not touching her.

He is carrying a white plastic bag with her things in it.

The dark winter sky gasps behind them.

Daddy closes the door.

He puts down the white plastic bag.

He takes Mommy’s coat from her shoulders and drapes it over the arm of the couch.

Mommy is wearing her Vassar sweatshirt that zips up the front. She is wearing yoga pants and slippers. She is also wearing a plastic hospital identification bracelet.

Daddy takes Mommy by the elbow and leads her to the rocking chair, which is waiting for her like a grandma with purple velvet arms. This is our favorite chair in the entire house because it is where we used to rock and cuddle and drink milk when we were new. I almost remember it. My head in the crook of her arm the way it is in my favorite baby picture. I am one day old. Just a furry black head. Max.

Daddy helps Mommy into the chair.

She leans back and closes her eyes and doesn’t rock or move at all, which is very strange because Mommy is usually moving all the time.

Daddy lets her sit there a minute. He hangs up their coats. Then he closes the closet door, goes to the white plastic bag, opens it, and places things on the coffee table one at a time. There are pamphlets and bandages and boxes and medicine bottles and tubes of ointment. Then he comes back and kisses Mommy on the head and they both stay like that for a while, his cheek resting on the top of her head, not saying anything, just being there together.

Grandma holds my hand and hushes me so I won’t interrupt them.

Don’t go down yet, she says. Let them settle in first.

But I haven’t seen Mommy for two days and one night and I’m not about to stay up here. I want to tell her a joke about a boy and a dragon.

I yank my hand out of Grandma’s and crash down the stairs in my pajamas feet like a green hurricane, with Grandma close behind me step by step, holding on to the banister saying, Here we come. Welcome home, honey. Oh, look at you.

I am tumbling and twirling down, stomping and slobbering like the Tasmanian Devil, growly and monster-crazy, whooping and leaping off the last three stairs all at once, so I land with a thump and slide in my pajamas feet toward Mommy, who is not rocking in the rocking chair. She opens her eyes and smiles at me. Her eyes are still as blue as they were before she left, and her smile is still filled with the same pretty white teeth. I think she is going to tell me a joke. But instead she holds out her arms.

Baby boy, she says.

It is the same voice she had before she left.

But she looks smaller than Mommy.

I stand in front of her and don’t know what to do.

I want to jump in her lap and scrunch up under her chin and kiss her cheeks and put my fingers in her hair and rock like I used to when I was a very little Max-Max. But Daddy told me it might hurt to have me press, so I need to be very careful with Mommy and not hug too tight.

How about an air hug, Daddy suggests.

Yes, says Grandma. An air hug would be just right.

Mommy holds out her arms and closes her eyes and kisses the air.

I hold out my arms and close my eyes and kiss the air too.

Not good enough, I whisper.

Not good enough at all, Mommy says, laughing. Come over here. Let me take a look at you. It’s okay. Come on up.

I tiptoe to the rocking chair. She smiles and nods, which is the same as permission, so I climb up on Mommy’s lap and hug her really gently around the neck with both my arms.

Good job, honey, says Grandma.

Mommy kisses my nose and my chin and she tickles my back with her fingers up and down like dancing spiders and then she blows a slurpy raspberry in my neck and I growl like a monster.

I forget what Daddy said and lean in a little too far.

Mommy pulls back.

Okay, she says. Her voice is tight. Time to climb down now.

Daddy lifts me off.

There you go, champ, he says. Give Mommy some space now.

Grandma takes one of my hands.

He’s been such a good boy, Grandma tells them.

Mommy’s eyes go all soft and watery.

I’m so glad you were here, she says.

Oh sweetheart, says Grandma, I’m just glad I could be here for you. I wish I could do more. You know that, don’t you?

I know, says Mommy. But tell me, was he really okay? Did he get upset at night?

Grandma swings my hand back and forth and then kisses my fist.

He was just fine, she says. Her voice is light and cheerful because she is pretending I was not upset so Mommy won’t feel bad about leaving us.

Mommy looks doubtful, so Grandma finally admits that I cried at bedtime. But we told stories, didn’t we, Max? And the stories helped calm him.

Grandma told me a story about a magic toy store, I say. You want to know what toy I picked at the magic toy store?

What did you pick? Mommy asks.

A magic jack-in-the-box that when you wind him up and wind him up, he finally pops, zoing, out of the box, he zoings up and then he keeps on zoinging higher and higher and higher until he reaches up to the moon.

Holy moly, says Mommy. Grandma sure is a great storyteller, isn’t she?

I nod. I want to keep on telling, but Mommy looks small. She is putting her head back in the chair and closing her eyes again.

Listen, Max, says Daddy. Why don’t you go upstairs for a while and let Mommy and Daddy talk with Grandma.

I want to be with Mommy, I say.

I know, Daddy says. But we need some alone time with Grandma. You’ve had her all to yourself for two whole days. And now it’s our turn, okay?

I don’t say anything.

You know what I really want, Maxy? Mommy asks me.

Her eyes are still closed.

I really want you to draw me a special feel-better picture of something that will make me laugh. Would you do that for me? Would you go up to your room and get your sketch pad and imagine me something funny with lots of colors?

Mommy opens her eyes. Even though they are the same blue they’ve always been, they are full of something new. Something that hurts.

My lip is quivering like a big baby.

Hey, she says. Hey, come here.

I come over.

Mommy kisses me on the forehead.

Go on, son, says Daddy. Be a strong boy.

He looks me in the eyes.

Being strong means you’re not allowed to show them you’re scared.

Okay, I say.

Promise? says Daddy.

I promise.

Okay, says Daddy, I promise too.

We do pinkie swears.

Daddy rubs his eyes. I don’t think he will be able to keep his promise.

Go on upstairs, says Grandma. I’ll be up in a few minutes to tuck you in.

Can you tell me the magic train story again? I ask.

Anything you want, says Grandma.

So I march back up the stairs to my room like a soldier wearing boots.

I am a strong boy. I am the strongest boy in the house.

I take out my colored pencils and my sketch pad. I find orange and purple.

I draw a purple dragon with a little orange boy riding on its back.

I want to know which color is Mommy’s favorite, because I will use that color for the fire coming out of the dragon’s mouth. If Mommy says her favorite color is green, then the fire will be green, but if Mommy says her favorite color is blue, the fire will be blue.

I go to the top of the stairs.

Daddy and Grandma are talking.

They are talking in soft voices so I won’t hear them, but I do.

I crouch behind the banister and listen.

I hear lots of words I don’t know like prognosis and recuperate.

Give it to me straight, says Grandma.

Daddy tells it straight. His voice is flat like the kind of line you make with a ruler that stretches all the way across the page without any lumps.

Okay, says Daddy. After the first five years she has an eighty-one percent chance of survival. Then after that, the odds go up to something like ninety. That’s pretty good odds. Plus the surgeon said the tumor was contained. It had not spread to the lymph nodes and they think they got the whole thing. So we have reason to be optimistic.

Mommy is crying.

It is not a quiet, hiccupping, sniffling cry like I make when I don’t want anyone to hear me. This is a cry that comes from Mommy’s heart, which used to be covered with breasts that fed me milk, but is now only covered by stitches and gauze and bandages, which are all thinner than breasts, which is why I can hear the cry coming so loud from beneath her Vassar sweatshirt, breaking out of her chest like a huge bird and rising into the house, its great wings casting shadows on each of us.

Oh, honey, says Grandma.

Grandma and Daddy go over to her. They put their hands around her shoulders and lean in their heads. They hold her while she cries.

I want to run down there so they can hold me too, but I pinkie-swear promised I’d be strong, so instead of running into their arms, I scramble as fast as I can from the banister back into my room, slipping and sliding down the hallway on my pajamas feet with my mouth pinched tight so nothing comes out. I jump into my bed and scrunch myself up in the corner and put my blanket over my head like a tent and cry into my hands under the blankets, holding on to my sobs so no one can hear, keeping all the howls inside my mouth with my fingers, all alone in my room until Grandma comes up the stairs and finds me.

Max. Max. Oh sweetheart.

Grandma takes the blanket off my head and takes my hands away from my mouth and gathers me into her arms so I can press my face against her shoulder, and she rubs my back and holds me and whispers into my hair that it’s okay, it’s okay, and she rocks me and rocks me and rocks me until my head droops against her shoulder and she holds me and kisses me and lowers me down onto the pillow that feels like a cloud.

I wonder if in heaven the angels sleep on pillows made of clouds. I hope so. I hope they have someone nice to tuck them in. I wonder if God has warm lips like Grandma. I hope he sits on the edges of their beds when they are too scared to go to sleep. And then when they have finally stopped crying, I hope he closes the door slow and quiet so the light in the hallway makes a triangle across the pillow and they can curl up in the light and pray that everything is going to be all right.

Text copyright © 2017 by Marcella Pixley