Shyla picked up yet another dirty pair of underwear from the floor, taking care not to wake the sleeping child nearby. Never had she thought she would become that parent. But Rodney’s room had become so messy that an odor was starting to settle in. Ashley would be back home early the next morning and she could only imagine how upset he would be to come home to a house that actually smelled. “Wow, Mom, seriously?” Dawn was standing in the doorway giving her a disapproving glare while twisting her light brown, wavy hair around her finger. Shyla hated when she did that; it reminded her of the catty, popular girls she went to high school with. “What do you want me to do? It stinks in here.” “You could at least make him help you.” She’d actually tried that, but the eight-year-old had become more of a hindrance than a help, so she decided it was best to do it herself after he went to bed. She was about to say this when she realized she shouldn’t have to explain herself to a fifteen-year-old. “It’s a school night—go to bed,” she barked. Dawn rolled her eyes and walked away muttering something under her breath. She looked around the room. Not perfect, but good enough. She was tired herself and had to be up early to pick up Ash from the airport. She turned out the light and was about to walk out of the room when a commotion from Rodney’s bed stopped her. He was hyperventilating and thrashing around in his sheets. The first time she witnessed him having a night terror it had terrified her, even though one of the social workers had warned her that they were very common in children who went through foster care. Now she knew he would quickly quiet down and not even remember it in the morning. She sat on the edge of his bed and shushed him gently as she tucked him back into his sheets. Sure enough, in a moment he was dozing peacefully again. She didn’t leave him right away. She rubbed his back for a minute and then she couldn’t exactly explain why she did what she did next. She lifted his head from his pillow and eased herself further onto his bed. She sat cross legged, and half lifted, half dragged the child onto her lap. It was a bit more difficult than she’d thought it would be, for such a skinny boy he was heavier than he looked. She tucked his arms on top of his stomach and cradled his head in the nook of her arm. His legs were too long for his feet to be wrapped in the blanket and poked out of the swaddle. Shyla rocked back and forth and hummed. She looked up slightly panicked when she thought she heard a noise from the hallway. She didn’t want one of her daughters to walk by and ask what she was doing. The obvious answer seemed to be that she was trying to capture something she missed. She had never been able to rock and cradle him as a baby as she had done with her daughters. She bent her head so that it rested on top of his and took a deep breath of his scent. She loved the way he smelled, fresh as a child should. She missed the soft scents of childhood on her daughters. Nowadays there was only the pungent artificial smell of whatever Victoria’s Secret or Bath and Bodyworks perfume they were using that day. The soft scratchy feel of his hair against her cheek reminded her of her father. When she was a young child, long before her father had gone bald, she remembered running her hands over the short, cropped coils of his hair. A year ago, when she first showed her father a picture of Rodney, he laughed and said she finally had a child who looked like her. She laughed it off and pretended it didn’t bother her. But it did, much like the jokes her family had made about her marrying a white man in the first place. Now she intertwined her hand with Rodney’s and looked at where their skin met. It was true that they were almost the same complexion, but the similarities stopped there. Still, when she was out with Rodney, she was never mistaken for being his nanny as she often was when her daughters were young. Rodney hardly ever let her get close enough to sniff the top of his head. Anytime she tried to hug him he would worm his way out of her grip. She often worried that even after a year, he hadn’t bonded to her, but she only had girls before so maybe this was normal for boys. Every weekend when she picked him up from soccer practice, she couldn’t help herself from surreptitiously looking around to see how the other boys greeted their mothers. She pressed a final kiss onto the top of his soft head and gently eased herself out from under him and back onto his bed. He barely even stirred. Early the next morning, Shyla sat in her car watching the rain pour down the windshield. She craned her neck over her shoulder, trying to spot Ashley in the stream of people with suitcases exiting the airport. Almost everyone carried a large umbrella that obscured their faces and made it even harder to spot her husband in the crowd. She couldn’t help but feel a bit anxious surrounded by cantankerous taxi drivers on all sides. She’d tried to time herself so that she wouldn’t have to wait long but she had been waiting for fifteen minutes already. She sighed and looked at the clock again. At this rate, Olivia would have to get Rodney and Dawn out of bed and ready for school. Olivia might be able to wrangle Rodney, but she knew Dawn would push back at her older sister’s authority. She was ripped away from her thoughts by a rapping on the passenger side door. She breathed a sigh of relief and unlocked the door so that Ashley could get in. “Hey, hon, how was your trip?” She didn’t really need an answer. The deep, dark bags under his eyes told the whole story. They both awkwardly leaned over the center console for a quick kiss. Ash leaned back in his seat, pushed his damp hair back from his forehead, and closed his eyes. “Too long.” “Well, do you feel closer to your co-workers after all the team-building exercises?” “Not really.” “What kind of stuff did you do?” “You know, camp-like stuff.” “Did you have okay weather? It rained here almost the whole time you were gone.” “We didn’t get any rain.” “You know, while you were gone—” “I’m sorry, I’m just so tired. I’m going to try to sleep until we get home ‘cause I still have to go into work today.” “Yeah, sure. Let me turn up the heat.” Shyla wasn’t sure whether he actually managed to fall asleep, but they didn’t talk for the rest of the ride home. As they walked through the front door, Shyla was pleasantly surprised to see that Dawn was fully dressed, had her bookbag packed, and was finishing her breakfast. “Where’s Rod—" she started but stopped when she saw him standing on a chair by the door ready to pounce on Ash. Ash saw him too but pretended to be surprised when Rodney jumped on his back. “Augh!” He howled in mock surprise, before flipping the screeching Rodney over his shoulder, pinning him down to the floor, and tickling him until Rodney was crying with laughter. “Ash, don’t get his school clothes dirty.” She knew she was, once again, being the wet blanket. But she didn’t want him to show up at school with his clothes wrinkled and streaked with whatever was on the kitchen floor today. “Ah, he’s fine.” Ash pulled Rodney to his feet and patted him on his back. “Go get your bookbag, bud.” If there had been time for her to change Rodney’s clothes, she would have, because Olivia seemed to think it was okay to send him to school in cargo camo pants and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt. She decided to just be grateful that he was ready to go on time. “Who’s taking us today?” Olivia grabbed her own messenger bag; she decided at the beginning of the school year she was too old for a regular bookbag now. “I’ll take you on my way to work.” Ash grabbed his car keys. “Hurry up, bud.” Rodney giggled as Ash gently pushed him on the back of the head to hurry him out of the door. By now, the rain had stopped, and the sunlight was pushing its way through the clouds. Shyla watched the four of them file out the door and grimaced at the sight of the overgrown lawn. “Ash, when are going to—" “I know, I know. I’ll do it tonight after work.” At two o’clock Shyla was waiting outside in her car once again. This time to pick up Rodney after school. Olivia and Dawn were involved in so many clubs and extracurriculars that they didn’t come home until Ash was coming home from work. Rodney didn’t have soccer today, which meant that it was just the two of them for the rest of the afternoon. “Hey, bud!” she said cheerily as Rodney got into the car. “How was school?” “Good.” Rodney looked out the window and waved to a kid walking past the car “Is that a friend of yours?” “Yeah.” “What’s his name?” “I don’t know.” “How is he your friend if you don’t know his name?” Rodney just shrugged in response. Shyla glanced in her rearview mirror and saw Rodney’s friend hug his mom before he climbed into the backseat of his car. “Can we get a dog?” “What?” She found herself caught off guard as she closed the front door and dropped her car keys into a bowl in the entryway. Rodney never initiated conversations with her. “Because I’m all alone after school before Dad and ‘Livia and Dawn come home. If I had a dog, I’d have someone to play with.” “You’re not alone. I’m here.” She regretted it as soon as she said it. She knew what Rodney said next would probably hurt her feelings, even if it was unintentional. “If we got a dog, he could eat the grass, so dad wouldn’t have to cut it.” That response caught her off guard and she laughed. “Dogs don’t eat grass, only cows and sheep do.” She walked over to the window and looked disdainfully out at the front lawn. “Oh,” Rodney sat down at the table and ate the yogurt she had given him. He looked very thoughtful as if he were trying to come up with another useful skill a dog could offer. Shyla knew Ash meant well, but by the time he got home tonight, he wouldn’t be up to mowing the lawn, especially since it was getting dark earlier and earlier. She pulled on her old sneakers that she used for garden work. “Rod, sit there and don’t get up until you finish your homework.” Rodney pouted. “When you’re done you can go watch cartoons.” Shyla went out to the garage and pushed the lawnmower out onto the front lawn. She hadn’t operated one in years. When she was young, her mother made her mow the lawn on occasion, so she wouldn’t grow up to be “prissy.” The cool weather made it easier than when she was a kid mowing in the summer heat. I’ll just do the front lawn, she thought, and she gave the motor a couple of tugs and started pushing it across the lawn. She finished in a little under an hour, but it barely felt that long. She looked around with a sense of self-satisfaction. I still have another hour or two before it gets dark. Might as well trim the edges, too. She hummed happily as she moved around the fence. “If we got a dog, and robbers broke into the house, the dog could eat them.” She turned around and raised an eyebrow at Rodney. She hadn’t even heard him come outside. “That’s a good point. But dogs don’t eat people either. But a dog could scare intruders off.” “So, we can get a dog?” “Maybe.” Rodney grinned, clearly proud of his efforts of persuasion. He leaned against the fence and looked around the yard. “I thought Dad was gonna’ mow the lawn.” “Dad’s really busy. I thought I’d help him out.” “You did a good job.” Shyla put the trimmers down for a moment and turned around to grin at him. “You think so?” “Yeah.” Rodney pointed at the trimmer. “Can I try?” “I don’t think so.” “Why not? I’m big enough!” “I know, but it’s not as easy as it looks.” She looked down at his crestfallen face. “You could help me out if you weeded the flowers.” Rodney looked as if he were considering the proposition for a moment. “Ok.” “Just make sure you grab it near the bottom, so you pull out the whole root.” Rodney nodded, knelt in the dirt, and got to work. Shyla watched him out of the corner of her eye as she worked. He seemed to be having fun playing in the dirt as well as pulling the weeds. When she was finally done, she put the mower and trimmer back into the garage just as Rodney pulled up the last weed. “I’m done!” He proudly marched up to her. She decided not to tell him he’d pulled up some flowers and plants too. “You did a good job, bud!” She rubbed his head affectionately, but he scowled and ducked out of her grasp. Today it didn’t bother her as much. She didn’t even care he’d caked his good sneakers in mud “I’m hungry. Can I go inside and get some cookies?” “I’ve got a better idea.” Even though it was only fifty degrees outside, Shyla’s face was damp with sweat. “Let’s get some ice cream.” Rodney looked at her as if she were about to play a practical joke on him. “But it’s pretty close to dinner.” Shyla shrugged. “One cone won’t completely ruin your appetite. Anyway, you’ve earned it.” Rodney tore off down the sidewalk without even checking to see if she was following. He was much slower on the walk back, carefully licking his cone so his ice cream didn’t fall. “You’re very meticulous with the way you eat your ice cream.” “What’s that mean?” “It means you’re very careful.” “You have to be careful. If you lick it the wrong way, the ice cream might fall off the cone.” “Is ice cream your favorite dessert?” “Yup, my mom used to let me eat it every day for dinner. My real mom,” he quickly clarified. Shyla tried not to take this to heart. He didn’t say it with any amount of malice but instead matter-of-factly. They reached the house at the same time that Ash was pulling into the driveway and getting out of the car with the girls. Rodney seemed to forget his careful ice cream cone eating strategy and ran towards the house to tell his sisters about his day. “Dawn! Livvy! I got ice cream and you didn’t!” Ash frowned when he saw the front yard. “You didn’t have to pay the neighbor kid to do the lawn. I told you I was going to get to it.” “I didn’t. I did it myself.” “I helped!” Rodney shouted while jumping up and down for emphasis. “That’s right Rodney did the weeding.” “Great job, Rod!” Olivia held her hand over her head and Rodney laughed while trying to jump high enough to high-five her. “C’mon let’s get inside, it’s getting dark.” Ash poked Rodney in the back to prod him towards the front door. Shyla was on such a high from the afternoon that she barely even noticed how quiet Ash was throughout dinner. Later that evening, Rodney was in bed and the girls were shut up in their own rooms. After she finished cleaning the kitchen, Shyla peeked into the den to see what Ash was up to. He was laying back in the couch recliner in front of the television. She went to the kitchen to grab two beers before joining him. “Thought you might want one of these.” She settled down next to him as she passed him his drink. “Thanks.” Ash took a swig but didn’t say anything more. Shyla turned her attention to the TV to see what her husband was watching. “Baseball? I thought you had lost interest after the Cubs didn’t make the world series?” Ash shrugged. “What’s the matter?” She pressed. “Nothing else on?” “No, not really.” A commercial came on and Ash flipped absent-mindedly to the evening news. Shyla got caught up in a story about parents protesting the curriculum at a nearby school and didn’t hear Ash’s comment. “What?” She tried to turn towards him while still listening to a mother complain about tone-deaf history lessons in the local middle school. “I said you didn’t have to mow the lawn today.” “I know, you already said that. But I wanted to. And anyway, it was getting embarrassing.” Right after it came out of her mouth, she realized it was probably the wrong thing to say. “I just meant I was trying to help you out.” “I don’t need you to help me out with the yard work.” “What’s the big deal, I thought I did a good job.” “Yeah, no it was fine.” Ash seemed to be trying to adjust his tone. “Just in the future, just let me take care of it.” “You always say you’ll take care of it, but it sits undone for weeks.” “Hm,” Ash said nothing and crossed his arms over his chest. “What is the big deal? I didn’t even mind. With Rodney, it was even kind of fun.” Ash still said nothing “Just tell me what your issue is, and I won’t do it again.” “The issue is…” Ash groaned and dragged his hand down his face before turning to her to answer. “Do you realize how it makes me look to the neighborhood to have my wife outside mowing the lawn?” A heavy silence hung in the air for a moment until the words sunk in. She connected the dots and couldn’t help but let out a brief guffaw. “That’s it? That’s why you’ve been sullen all evening? Because you didn’t want the neighbors to see me mowing the lawn?” “You don’t get it. The things you do are a reflection of me.” “Ashley, that’s ridiculous.” “Never mind. Forget I even said anything.” Ash picked up the remote and started channel surfing again. Disgruntled, Shyla got up from the couch and wandered into the kitchen. She absentmindedly dropped her empty bottle into the recycling bin and leaned against the counter. She stared down at the floor until her eyes got blurry and her feet faded in and out of focus. Moving without any real purpose, she hurried past the entryway to the den and went upstairs. The doors to both of her daughter’s rooms were shut and she could hear top 40 music blaring from behind Olivia’s door. Rodney’s door was open though. She leaned on the doorway of his room with her eyes drifting, not focusing on anything. She was pulled out of her daze when Rodney thrashed from one side of his bed to the other. His little round face was pinched up together and his lips were just barely forming words. This wasn’t a night terror. It seemed to be a run-of-the-mill bad dream. A moment later his face relaxed and his mouth dropped open as he sank deeper into his pillow. With a defeated sigh, Shyla walked into his room to throw his clothes from the day into his laundry hamper. She picked up a sock and looked around for its mate. She caught sight of it in Rodney’s bed, right next to his head. Disgusting, she thought to herself as she reached over Rodney’s head to grab the sock. As she drew her hand back, Rodney grabbed her wrist and held it against his chest, hugging her arm like a child might hug a teddy bear. She passed the sock into her other hand and tossed it into the laundry hamper. She looked down at him for a moment and smiled before trying to extract her arm. But as she tried to move it, Rodney grasped it even closer and flopped onto his stomach. Deciding to give up, Shyla dropped to her knees beside the bed. She could stay there until Rodney rolled over again and let go. But he didn’t let go. Not for fifteen minutes. Her knees started to hurt so she tucked her legs under her and sat on the floor. Five more minutes passed, and she could feel the strain in her lower back. She tried again to extract her arm, but as she did so Rodney frowned and started to whimper in his sleep. She tried to readjust herself to be in a less painful position but no matter how much she squirmed she couldn’t stop the bedframe from digging into her side. She resigned herself to the fact that she would have to take ibuprofen for her back in the morning before putting her other arm on his bed and resting her head on it. She tried to forget about the aches in her back and instead concentrated on Rodney’s hot, sticky breath warming the crown of her head.
Janae Carter is an emerging writer based in the New York metropolitan area and a recent graduate of Adelphi University’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing program. She tends to write in a variety of fiction subgenres but most of her recent work has been realistic fiction pertaining to human relationships, particularly concerning women and girls of color.