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The car idles. Grace cuts the engine, cradles the parking brake, and pulls. Her secret swirls inside her. She presses a hand to her belly and takes a deep breath to kill the nerves.
After a hurried morning school drop-off for her son, Luca, Grace checks her hair in the rearview, hoping Lee can squeeze her in for a quick trim before work. She loves that her best friend owns a hair salon in her home, and that Grace can test the latest hair potions and coloring techniques when Lee needs a guinea pig. She knows it comes at a price: Lee’s gifted son, Mason, her chronic singleness, her insistence on being housebound. Her entire world is shrink-wrapped.
Grace registers what she has to tell Lee and doesn’t know where to start. She imagines the shock, the aftermath, and how it might affect their relationship. She shakes her head, knowing it must be done, and exits the car.
Lee’s small ranch—a rental in the up-and-coming Donelson Hills neighborhood—begs for fresh paint, new windows, and an updated roof. The rusted railing outlines a weather-worn front porch, unruly shrubs, and a once gorgeous magnolia has recently been struck by lightning. Now, a singed black nub is the only reminder of shady mornings spent beneath its leaves.
On more than one occasion, Grace has offered to hire a mowing service or landscaping company, but Lee insists she’s got it handled.
Grace lets herself in the side door. Lee’s voice rumbles from the back in a succession of pleas. “Come on, buddy. You’ve got to work with me.”
She tiptoes toward Mason’s bedroom and stalls in the hallway as Lee struggles to get Mason’s shirt over his head. No matter how wide Lee stretches the necks of his shirts, that moment his head disappears, he panics, punches, and claws against the thin womb of fabric as the claustrophobia—one of his main phobias—takes hold.
Mason and Luca are both seven, but Mason refuses to get dressed by himself. As a result, mother and son work in the same order: right sock, left sock, underwear, pants—never shorts, even on the hottest days—long-sleeved shirt, short-sleeved shirt over the top (soft cotton only), and a plain rubber band around his left wrist.
“Buddy, please work with me.”
“I can’t if you’re doing it wrong.” Mason’s tone splinters his mother’s resolve. Lee’s ribs quake with every breath, but she starts the process over, layer by layer. She knocks a flock of hair from her forehead with the back of a knobby wrist. Grace taps gently on the wood, careful not to startle Mason.
“Hey, hi. I didn’t hear you.” Lee swivels toward the giant wall clock. “Is that the time?” Grace knows Lee is calculating the morning routine: Mason’s breakfast, her breakfast, shower, waiting for Noah—Mason’s homeschool teacher and occupational therapist—mixing color, and prepping the salon. Lee’s cell rings and she abandons her task to grab the call from her office.
Mason rolls his eyes and turns his attention to Grace. “Please help me.”
She kneels down. “I’m always here to help.”
“Why can’t she do it right? We’ve been doing it the same way since I was five.”
Grace smiles. “I know. Come here.”
He reaches his arms overhead as she removes the fabric. She drinks him in. His unruly mop of kinked hair. His impossible paleness, despite hours of sunshine. His slight build. The patches of red that sometimes crop against his cheeks like poppies. “What do we have here?” She inspects the shirt and pinches the tag. “The culprit.”
Mason crosses his arms and taps a foot. “She’s slipping in her old age,” he says. “Clearly.”
Grace chuckles and snags a pair of scissors from Lee’s desk to snip the tag. “You know, your mom’s got a lot on her plate. You should cut her some slack.” She glances at Lee, who’s still on the phone, her back turned to both of them.
“You’ve got a lot on your plate, but you always remember to remove Luca’s tags.”
“Luca doesn’t mind tags.”
He shrugs. “Well, if he did, you’d remember.”
She winks. “Maybe.” She helps him with both shirts and stands back to assess. “So handsome.”
Lee returns. “How’d you get him dressed?”
Mason straightens and eyes his mother warily. “Grace found a tag.” He says the word as if it’s grotesque.
“There was a tag?” She looks bewildered. “I could have sworn I cut all of them out.”
“Hey, it’s fine. It happens. Right, bud?” Grace gives him a stern look.
He sighs and bumps against Lee’s bony hip as he walks to the dining room.
Lee presses the pads of her fingers into her eyes. “Sometimes I feel like he hates me.”
Grace fondles her shoulder. “He doesn’t hate you. It’s called being a mother. It’s their job to give us a hard time.”
Copyright © 2019 by Rea Frey