Amelia opened the curtains. Bert, still in bed, squinted at his crossword.
“Come on,” he said, making a sophomoric grab for her waist as she passed by, “coffee can wait.”
“If the coffee waits, breakfast waits,” Amelia said, cinching her robe, “if breakfast waits, I wait. If I wait, Adam waits. If Adam waits, he’s late.”
Bert laughed at her impromptu poem. “Being late isn’t going to kill him.”
Amelia addressed him over her shoulder before she shut the bedroom door and left him to the crossword: “a man doesn’t understand these things.”
Amelia turned the phrase over in her mind as she passed down the hall, pausing to rest her fingertips on the doorframe of the spare room in a sort of caressing motion as she did every morning. Bert, when you got down to it, didn’t understand the intricate system put in place to keep life ticking just so. For all his good-natured affection, he really didn’t get it and by extension her. Yet somehow, as her mother would say, it all works.
She knocked on Adam’s door. A formality. The nine-going-on-ten-year old was awake and making his bed.
“Breakfast in 25,” she said, and took off for the kitchen.
Coffee for her and Bert. Fruit cereal for Adam. Multigrain toast for her. Microwaved turkey bacon and two eggs, post, for Bert. Their dining room adjoined the kitchen, a nook big enough only to hold a 5X5 wooden table and a wine rack.
Amelia set four places. Then she shook her head and picked the fourth setting back up.
Bert was up and doing his morning business, she could hear the water heater kick on as his shower drained the tank. The coffee’s digital clock read 7:37, 28 minutes past her prediction to Adam. He was being a drag-foot this morning, something he indulged in only every so often. Ascribe it to some shift in temper, some temporary caprice of a normally punctual boy.
7:38. She peeked in Adam’s door. The boy was still in PJs, bed unmade as he sat on the end. He did not look up at his mother, but at his cupped palm.
“Adam? Is something wrong?”
The look on his face startled her. It was a very worldly mask of despair for such a young boy.
“Mom,” he said, “I found these by my bed.”
She could see where he’d moved the mattress away from the wall, perhaps chasing a sock. The gap was filled with legos and bookmarks and a motley assortment of crumbs.
Adam opened his hand like a flower. A bolt of terror shot through Amelia, sourceless and directionless, left her feeling weak-kneed.
In her son’s palm were plastic earrings, the kind that were made to clamp painlessly on a young girl’s earlobes. Fake pink gems glittered from the loops.
“What were those doing by your bed?” she asked with a carefully constructed calm.
Adam just looked at her.
The sound of the shower door sliding open startled them both. As one, mother and son moved to scoot the mattress back to the wall, hiding the earrings once more in their secret cache.
Bert chewed with his mouth open. Mother and son ate in a tense silence, each trying not to let on that something was wrong.
Bert washed his bacon down with coffee. “Summer’s coming. What should the project be this year, hmm? Boat? Treehouse?” He set the mug down. “I got it. We should finally do something with that empty room.”
“Actually.” Amelia covered his hand with her own. “I was thinking, maybe we try for another child. I’ve always wanted a little girl.”
Bert snorted and tugged his hand away. “We’ve already got a boy, what more do we need? You don’t want to share your whole life with a boring old girl, do you sport?”
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind having a brother or sister,” Adam said quietly. He didn’t look up from his plate. “It gets lonely being by myself.”
Bert looked between them, incredulity spreading across his face. “Man, I just don’t get you two. What we’ve got here, it’s perfect. Three is the perfect number for a family. You’ve got the head of the house, the mother, and the heir. Enough cash to go around.” He shook his head as he took another sip from his mug. “Anyway, sport, I think I hear the school bus idlin’ out there.”
Amelia spoke quickly, silencing her son with a kick under the table. “Actually, I’m driving him to school today.”
“What did I say? If Amelia is late, then Adam is late…” she shot him a coy look.
Bert laughed and plunged a scrap of her toast into his eggs.
“Send him to school half-dressed. That’ll teach him.”
“A man just doesn’t understand these things.”
Amelia waited, motor idling in the station wagon, as Bert got into his sportier chili-red coup. Mother and son were bundled up against the lingering chill in the air.
Bert shut his driver’s side door and gave them a little wave. Amelia smiled wanly and blew a kiss. She put the car in reverse, foot on the brake, as Bert backed the car out of the driveway and rumbled away. Then she put it back in park, and they both got out.
Amelia wasn’t even sure what she was looking for. The closest thing she had to concrete evidence was the sick feeling in her stomach. She tore apart the mantel photos, looking for figures hidden by the frame, secret messages written on the back, anything. No. Just her and Bert doing a series of mundane things, eventually joined by Adam. Amelia stood looking at the ugly jade lamp Bert insisted on bringing into the marriage, fingers throbbing from prying picture frames apart.
What was missing?
What was wrong?
Her whole life semed ajar, as if something had been crudely subtracted and the hole left half-patched. Why did the thought of a girl-child awaken such a sick, sad feeling in her chest?
As her mother said, somehow it all works out.
How? How did it work? Sifting through the pages of her life, Amelia could recall no stirring declaration of her heart for Bert. She remembered his proposal. A vague joy, distant and unremarkable. Nothing more.
Amelia retrieved her bug-out box from the bottom of her clothes hamper (the one place Bert was guaranteed to never go) and flipped through it. Dirty love letters, a recipe for bloody mojitos (a drink invented with her sorority sisters) and jewelry she was no longer bold enough to wear. Beneath all that, pictures of old lovers. Men, with full heads of dark hair and kind eyes and sure hands. Men who looked almost nothing like Bert, with his balding pate and watery gaze( and neither did Adam, now that she really had time to think about it.) What had led her to chose him? Vaguely, she felt that she’d met him and fallen head over heels, but why? What enduring quality led her to marry an ambitionless man ten years her senior?
In the stack of photos, there was a snap of her on a picnic blanket with her college beau, David. The timer he’d used had malfunctioned, there was motion blur obscuring his face as he dashed to the blanket. The wind whipped Amelia’s hair as she laughed.
Amelia knew that picture. She had its sibling on the mantel.
Retrieving the snap, it was easy to see how closely they matched up. Her hair, now tamed by a scarf, was in the same style. The lighting was the same. The duck meandering in the background now stopped to nibble on bread.
But it was Bert at her side, not David.
Amelia clutched the photo as she mounted the stairs. The door of her son’s room was half-open. The boy himself was sitting on the floor, legs and arms wrapped around something she couldn’t quite see.
He unfolded, still holding the object protectively. It was a vinyl bouncing ball, bearing a small pink horse in the middle of a star.
“Mom,” he said, “this ball.”
Amelia nodded. “I’ve seen it. It wasn’t hidden.”
“Mom, look at this ball. Does this look like something I’d want for myself?”
The realization brought a fresh wave of horror. She handed the photographs to her son. He studied them with a severity she had never before seen in him. He looked up. “What do we do?”
“We turn the house upside-down.”
The rumble of Bert’s coup died down in the driveway. His keys clattered against the door as he wrenched it open. “Hey family? I’m home.”
The rest of the house was dim. The only light he found was the den, where his wife and child waited for him. The floor was a collage of photos and small objects. Bert gingerly tiptoed through the mess.
“Whoa, did a tornado rip through here?” His chuckle died away when he saw the stony faces of his family. “What?”
“Bert, how long have we been married?”
Bert furrowed his brow. “…is this about the boat idea?”
“Have we ever argued?”
“We don’t fight.”
“Let me rephrase that: have we ever had dissenting opinions? Have I ever been allowed that?”
Bert looked from her to Adam, who held his gaze without flinching. Bert looked away.
“What did I forget this time?” he asked jokingly.
“You didn’t forget. You just don’t think about these things.”
“Baby—” he stepped on something with a plastic crunch. He lifted his foot to reveal a girl’s play earring. He whitened slightly.
“I wanted a girl,” Amelia said flatly, “I’ve always wanted a girl.”
“We can have one.”
Amelia gave him a withering look. Bert was sweating heavily, tie doffed and wrung between his hands.
“I love you,” he said abruptly, “don’t you know how much I love you? My life was so much worse before I got you. And Adam.” He shot a wan smile at the boy, who had not shifted even slightly. “You’re the best thing to ever happen to me. And what we have, it’s good. Can’t you just be thankful for that?”
He began shuffling backwards, towards the mantelpiece. There the jade lamp clashed with every single piece of decor in the house. Amelia did not stop him.
“I can fix this,” he said slowly, “I can fix anything. Just let me—”
A toy ball bearing a horse inside a star, the kind a mother would buy for a small girl, flew across the room and hit the jade lamp. The lamp wobbled and fell to the floor, shattering into pieces. Adam sat back, empty handed, with a satisfied nod.