Lolly trudged up the long gravel driveway that led to her home. The strap of her schoolbag cut deep into her right shoulder. Mama kept saying she needed to shift it from one to the other, or else she would become lopsided. But her right side just felt stronger. Or maybe it was, like Mama said, just a bad habit.
The driveway snaked around, dodging old maples and oaks, so at first Lolly could not see the house. But after a few minutes the large white Pennsylvania farmhouse loomed ahead, just past a row of flowering pear trees Papa had planted last year. Really, just past the trees that Papa had made his work crew plant for him. Lolly had heard one of the new men grumbling when her father wasn’t around.
“Is this really part of the job?” he asked. “We’re paid to build houses, not landscape for the boss.”
“You get paid just the same whether it’s a new house or his house,” Toby had said. Toby had gray hair and large bronzed arms with muscles and dark veins that looked like thin ropes. He had been old for as long as Lolly had known him, ten years altogether, though she couldn’t remember the first few. Toby was the foreman on all of Papa’s building jobs, but it was still a rare day when he did not stop by the house to do a small repair or check to see if Mama needed help moving something heavy. Papa said that Toby was worth any other ten men he could hire.
The pear trees were loaded with pink blossoms and Lolly stopped beneath one to inhale the sweet fragrance. Only one more week of school and she could spend her days at home with her sisters and brothers, swimming in the pool behind the house and exploring the woods even farther back. Lolly was the middle girl, born two years after Pam and one before Kathleen. When Katie was born, her parents had thought they would never have a boy.
“Three in a row,” Papa liked to tell people, “and Rose didn’t want anymore, but I knew our luck would change.” Two years later Kevin and Tad had arrived in rapid succession, Irish twins people said, and Papa was already talking about how they would take over the business some day.
Lolly thought maybe this wasn’t fair, that the girls—who after all had to watch their littler brothers—were not getting some of the business. But she knew Papa thought of his daughters as his little princesses, and he and Toby had fixed up the largest bedroom in the farmhouse with that in mind. Three twin-size beds were lined up along one wall and behind each was a built-in headboard upholstered in pink satin. The headboards were trimmed by wood frames painted gold, and they rose to a peak near the ceiling where golden wood tiaras extended a few inches from the wall. Swathes of diaphanous pink tulle fell from the tiaras and were caught and held back by brass rosettes. The beds themselves were covered by white quilted spreads and fringed pillows that Mama had made on her Singer sewing machine. Lolly knew that Papa loved her, but she thought that someday, pretty soon, they would all be too big to be princesses, and then maybe being a girl would not be so special.
Lolly pushed open the heavy front door and called for her mother. It was Tuesday; her sisters had after-school club meetings and the boys were at Cub Scouts, but Mama would be home. This was her special time when she could sit alone with her mother in the kitchen, drinking a glass of strawberry Kool-Aid and talking about her day without interruption. Mama herself never said very much. As she sat across from Lolly at the chrome-rimmed dinette table, sipping milky tea, her light green eyes seemed to stare into the past where Lolly was bravely leaping onto the spinning schoolyard merry-go-round or cleverly decorating the class Valentines box with red crepe paper. Lolly hoped that someday she would tell a story that would make her mother so proud that she would suddenly look right at her, surprised to see her own daughter. But in the meantime it was enough that she would sometimes reach over and stroke Lolly’s straw blonde hair, absentmindedly twirling it around her fingers.
Now Lolly dropped her schoolbag onto the oak bench in the front hall and called again. No one answered; everything was still. For a moment she froze, unable to move her limbs although her heart was beating rapidly. This was the way it was the time Mama left, three years after Tad was born.
The three girls had come home from school together and found an empty house, curiously still at a time when it should have been pulsing with rambunctious toddlers. The girls had first looked in the kitchen where in late afternoon their mother was usually chopping vegetables for dinner or rolling out dough for pies. But the room was starkly clean, the air unscented by cinnamon or rosemary and the bare lemon yellow Formica counters polished to a cold shine. The girls had shouted and searched every room, but Mama wasn’t there.
Pam took charge, and called Papa at work. Later they found out the boys had been left with Mrs. Nestor who often minded them while Mama went grocery shopping. Papa’s sister, Aunt Jeanne, came to stay that night, and everyone kept saying that everything was all right, that Mama was on a little trip. “A trip where?” Lolly had asked. “Just a little vacation,” Papa answered. “Someplace nice.” But Chief Leyton came in his patrol car twice, and Aunt Jeanne kept murmuring, “Those poor babies.” Pam warned Lolly not to bother Papa about anything. When Lolly asked her what was happening, Pam told her that no one knew. Mama was just gone.
But she came back. After three days, Mama came back and everyone pretended she had never left. Before she returned, Papa and Aunt Jeanne sat with the three girls at the kitchen table, and Papa told them that things had to change. Aunt Jeanne would stay for a little while, but after that they all needed to help Mama more with the boys. And they must never ask her about her vacation. That was Mama’s private time and not any of their business.
At first, it had been very hard not to ask Mama where she had gone, but after a few weeks, her mysterious absence became a faint scar on Lolly’s memory. It worried her at first, but gradually it only bothered her if she looked directly at it. Aunt Jeanne went home to Pittsburgh as soon as Mama stopped sleeping so much, and after that, Mama seemed almost like her old self: sewing costumes for Halloween, baking cakes for church fundraisers, and inviting the whole class to a party at the house whenever one of the children had a birthday. Only dinners were different. There were no more homemade lamb stews or warm baked apples in sweet yeasty dough. Some nights she might make hamburgers or hot dogs with a side serving of canned baked beans or frozen peas. But just as often, Pam would heat up some Campbell’s tomato soup and make grilled cheese sandwiches, or mix together canned tuna fish with mayonnaise and stuff it between two slices of Wonder bread.
Now Lolly slowly walked into the kitchen knowing what she would find. The counters were clean and empty. There was no glass of red Kool-Aid on the table and no tea cup sitting next to a copy of Newsweek open to a story about last week’s news. But the back door was open, and Lolly could see through the screen door that the pool had been filled. A wave of relief spread through her body, and as she deeply exhaled, she realized she had been holding her breath. Mama would be waiting with her snack outside by the pool.
Lolly ran to the screen door and called out as she pushed it open. “I’m home, Mama! Do I need to change my clothes first?” She blinked hard as the low afternoon sun momentarily blinded her, and then saw that the chairs around the umbrella table were unoccupied and the umbrella itself hung limp, unopened. Sunlight sparkled off the surface of the pool; the water was clear, almost pristine. For a moment, as her eyes refocused, Lolly was confused. She thought she saw a pale naked doll floating face-down on the far side of the pool, like one of her Barbie dolls when she played with them in the bathtub, teaching them to swim. But the figure was too large. And the golden hair that spread like a fan on the surface of the water was just like her own.
Lolly slipped into the water, and waded toward her mother. Her dress and shoes quickly absorbed the cool water and the weight pulled her downward. She knew she was not a good swimmer and for a moment she wavered, tempted to retreat to the pool’s edge. Then she imagined herself at the kitchen table, telling a story and watching Mama’s eyes open wide with amazement and stare with pride directly into her own. “You were floating, Mama, and I was afraid, but I kept going anyway, and I pulled you into the shallow water and I raised your head and you began to breathe.”
Lolly took a few more steps forward, but stopped with her head still above water, her blonde hair damp just below her ears. Looking down, she now saw the rope hanging below her mother’s neck, lashed to one of the large grey cinder blocks Papa kept stored in the tool shed. In the next moment, she heard her own voice screaming “Mama,” as her legs collapsed beneath her and she tumbled down into the water, arms waving wildly above her head. Then tan, muscled arms were pulling her out of the pool, and Toby was slapping her back as she spit water over his shoulder.
Toby gently laid her on the lawn and knelt beside her, his saturated work clothes dripping down onto her own sodden dress. “You’re okay, baby,” he kept repeating. “You’re okay.”
“But Mama,” Lolly struggled to speak. “You have to get Mama. You have to wake her up.”
Toby closed his eyes and slowly shook his gray head. “No, baby,” he said, his voice a low, gentle whisper. “First, I’m going to take you into the house, and then I’ll call your father and Chief Leyton. Your mama’s not going to wake up.”
Lolly nodded; she knew that. She knew it before Toby said it. She knew it when she saw a fan of golden hair in the pool. When she was blinded by the light of the afternoon sun. When she opened the door to an empty house. And when Mama sat sipping tea at the kitchen table, her pale green eyes staring into a story that was not being told.
E.B. Axelrod lives and writes in New Jersey. Last year, one of her flash fiction pieces was published by Split Lip Magazine, and one of her short stories was long-listed for the 2016 Bath Short Story Award. In June 2016 and 2017, she participated in L’Atelier Writers Retreat in Villeferry, France, where she expanded her collection of short stories. In 2014, she was selected to participate in the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, where her fiction workshop was led by Meg Wolitzer.