“Mahm! Maaahhhmm!” A bump jarred the pictures against the wall, and a boy squealed.
Rose sighed, and tried to keep reading. She was unable to actually see the words on the page, however, as the noises next door escalated.
“Gimme back Staceeeeey!” A girl screamed. Rose heard audible scrambling, and thudding. Crying. Footsteps.
Her door burst open, hitting a well-formed groove on its splintered surface against her dresser. The baby in the nearby crib hiccuped in his sleep at the sound.
Rose lowered her book to see Johanna’s wet, red face and frustrated body standing in the doorway. Sighing, Rose set the open pages onto her crumpled bedspread. She nudged her long, brownish hair off a shoulder.
Jackson came up quickly behind his sister, also angry and crying. “Mom, Johanna wouldn’t get off my -” he immediately began.
“That’s not true! You had my Stacey! -” Johanna defended loudly, as Jackson cut her off with,”I wouldn’t’ve had your doll if -” Their accusations mingled rapidly, shrilly.
Shoving toys, clothes, and the comforter aside, Rose sat up and pushed herself off the bed. Two steps across the crowded floor brought her within reach of the caterwauling children. She gently pushed them apart, whisper-yelling, “Jack, Jo! Quiet! The baby’s sleeping!”
Jackson and Johanna stopped yelling, contenting themselves with making faces when they thought they could get away with it. Rose sighed, and pulled them into her room somewhat. “Where is your dad?” She asked them.
Jackson shrugged and looked at the TV, mutedly flashing a commercial from the worn dresser-top. “He went downstairs,” Johanna supplied, also turning like a moth to the screen. She pulled a raggedy plastic doll from her brother’s limp grip. Rose sighed again.
“Jackson,” she began. He grunted. “Jack, why were you even in the girls’ room?” He didn’t respond. Tugging at his arm, Rose repeated her question.
“I dunno,” he supplied.
She tried Johanna. “Johanna?” Her daughter turned, questioningly. “Jo, why was Jack in your room?”
Johanna paused, seeming to search inside her brain for an answer. She also shrugged. “‘Cause he’s a jerk,” she concluded.
“Am not,” Jackson countered, distractedly.
“Are, too,” Johanna responded.
“Am not. You are,” Jackson said, never taking his eyes from the screen.
Rose walked over and switched the television off, breaking the spell. The two children looked up at her in surprise. “It’s way past bedtime,” she announced, “And you have school tomorrow. And, your brothers and sisters are sleeping.”
Her son made a disgusted face and cast around for something else to look at. He flopped on the bed, on top of her book. “Okay, Mommy,” her daughter said sweetly. She skipped around a shoe pile and out of the room, Stacey Doll swinging from her side.
Rose looked down at Jackson for a minute, hands on tired hips. He didn’t shift.
“All right, all right,” she said. She sat next to his pretendedly-prone body. She saw his face automatically grin, though he squinted his eyes closed. Rose ran a hand tiredly through her locks, loosening a few knots and positioning it out of her face. Leaning down, she reached around his middle and added, “Let’s go to bed, Jack.”
Grunting, sighing, and heaving, she managed to slide him off and onto his feet. He teetered, threatening to fall back down. “Jack, stop,” Rose chastened, in her best Mom Voice. He opened innocent eyes to check how serious she might be.
Some seriousness, tiredness, or hopelessness got through to him. With the air of an always-obedient child, he smiled, wriggled from her grip, said, “’Night, Mom,” and ran from the room.
Rose blinked, then realized something. She walked to the doorway. “Your room, Jack,” she yelled as quietly as she could. Giggling, Jackson retreated from the end of the hallway and into his own room. Hopefully, Rose thought, he’d actually make it to bed.
She paused, lingering. She looked back at her bed where One Man’s Desire lay closed and crumpled on the blankets, thanks to Jackson’s intentional resistance. She suddenly didn’t want to continue reading about people with no responsibilities, who somehow managed to travel to the Caribbean, and had endless spending money. The book couldn’t yell louder than children, smell better than the dirty clothes piles, or paint a picture of spaciousness amidst her bedroom clutter.
She scanned the clutter. Shoes rested in unmarried clumps near dropped pants, clumped socks, and old toys. Clean shirts and underwear hugged dirty friends between and beneath the shoes. A recent attempt by three-year-old Missy to feed herself had left everything with a light sheen of Cheerios.
Rose considered cleaning, again. Her eyes moved past the floor to the bed, the crowded dressers, to Luke’s sleeping form in the old crib. She distractedly combed at her head with her fingers again. Luke was such a good sleeper, and so peaceful to watch. Exhaustion won out for Rose.
She decided to go find Sean. He was supposed to have been to bed an hour ago, and she missed him.
Rose turned her bedside light off and headed out toward the stairs. It wasn’t an easy journey in the dark, but she didn’t want Johanna, Jackson, Luke, or the other sleeping children to suddenly wake. “Ouch,” she whispered; then, “Ooh;” then, “Uh,” as various invisible floor litter poked her feet through their fraying socks.
She felt along the wall of the hall, listening for any non-sleeping sounds from the two kids’ rooms on this level. They seemed silent.
A sudden gap beneath her outstretched foot told Rose she’d reached the stairs. Her groping hands found the wall just inside. She flicked the dim, bare bulb on. There was no use putting her life at risk for sleeping children when it came to the stairs.
She carefully navigated the maze of puzzles, dolls, socks, dress-up heels, and forgotten food crumbs that led downward. Her long hair fell from one side to the other as she peered ’round her midsection to see where each foot would land.
Her slow descent brought her to the crowded, dark family room. Squinting, she realized she’d left her glasses upstairs by the lamp. She peered around the old bookshelf, cringing as she stepped solidly on a Lego piece.
There, at the end of the room: a small light; a phone screen backlight reflecting from eyeglasses. Sean.
Her heart fluttered at the sight and her stomach flipped. Though they both looked a bit different now, Rose still felt those fleeting feelings she first had when she was sixteen.
He had been seventeen, studiously watching some game on television -just as he was studying a different sort of game now. When she’d walked in with his younger sister, he’d turned immediately. Their eyes had met. He’d smiled.
Sean continued staring at his phone.
Rose picked her way over a carpet of toys toward him. He sat slouched, his body curved and sunk against the couch. His phone was propped atop his bulging stomach. His face frowned at what it was watching.
Rose waited. Sean watched his game.
“Sean?” She finally ventured. His shrouded blue eyes blinked and looked up in surprise. A thousand potential phrases crossed Rose’s mind as she saw the tired lines of Sean’s face, the strained state of his gaze. She smiled, to comfort him, and decided on, “I just wondered if you were outside because the light’s on in the garage shed.”
Startled, Sean frowned. “No, I’m here,” he said. “I didn’t even go out there after work.” He glanced back at his screen for a few seconds, then lifted a strong, heavy hand to the side of his phone. The family room dimmed to near-darkness in the sudden absence of backlight.
“Maybe it was Daniel,” Rose suggested. Despite wishing for undivided attention, she felt sorry for interrupting Sean’s down time.
Sean hefted his large frame from its cushioned groove. He pushed his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. Pocketing the phone, he then took Rose’s hand. He smiled at her in the half-light sneaking down from the stairwell. “Don’t worry, Rosebud. I’ll go turn it off and lock up.”
“Thanks, Dear,” she responded, relieved. She really did think Daniel had left the light on, or maybe Sharon. Since it was the tool shed in question, she suspected Daniel more. He’d been talking about building a pinewood derby car already.
Down the basement hallway leading away from the family room, however, the lights were dark. Daniel, the other boys, and the other girls’ bedroom lay in that direction. If Daniel had been outside, it hadn’t been recently.
Sean and Rose navigated the staircase upwards, the tiny great room, and then the kitchen. Sean’s steel-toed work boots creaked and clicked as the sticky laminate flooring complained of people crossing it at such a late hour. Rose’s socks stuck softly, without accompanying groans.
All was silent in the sleeping house besides the floor they’d just crossed. Rose sighed in relief.
Sean peered out the flimsy curtains that separated the kitchen door from its neighboring garage. A door with a window should not lay between a garage and house; it was just another quirk of the old place.
Sure enough, a sliver of light ran beneath the shed door in the corner. Sean could see it between boxes and the minivan, just barely. Rose peered over Sean’s broad shoulder. She smelled his Old Spice; she shivered at teenage summertime memories.
“I was going to go turn it off, then I got busy with dinner and the kids…” her voice trailed off.
The tiny digital clock on the counter beeped as the hour changed to 11:00 p.m.
“Don’t worry, Rose. I said I’d be happy to lock up.” Sean unlocked the deadbolt and carefully pulled the door open. The loose handle threatened to come out in his hand. “Gotta fix that,” he mumbled, as he had for the last month.
He clumped down the cement stairs, his mind on loose doorknobs. Rose tread quietly just behind, looking furtively left and right in the crowded garage space. She pulled the door closed carefully, to avoid fumes getting into the house. They squeezed between the van and wall, ending just in front of the shed door.
It was shut. “Sean,” Rose began. She hadn’t remembered the light inside being orange. Had one of the kids changed out the bulb? Douglas, perhaps?
“Hm?” Sean answered absently, as he turned the knob and pushed inward.
Whatever Rose had intended to ask him flew completely out of her mind as she stepped closely behind him again, and stopped. They both stared.
Where a narrow, gas-fumed space had before housed paint cans, tools, and dead spiders; Sean and Rose now saw -the mouth of a cave? They stood in their garage, yet also stood at the entrance of a small, round, rocky cavern.
Sean stepped forward in shock, Rose gripping his elbow. The cave opened onto a wide, shaded swath of sand. Palm fronds swept above and around their startled figures. A brightly-colored bird soared across the sunshine in surprise. Gently moving air brushed across their skin in a lightly warm embrace. The endless, engaging song of forever-lapping ocean played just a few hundred yards down the beach from their toes.
Their toes? Unconsciously, Sean had continued into what had been the shed. Rose had followed, not wanting to let go of Sean for anything. Simultaneously, they looked down at their feet -and could clearly see them.
Not only were Rose’s feet bare, but she was wearing her swimsuit with a wrap. Not only was she wearing her swimsuit and wrap, they appeared brand-new. She appeared brand-new. “I’m skinny!” She exclaimed in excitement.
“Well,” she amended, as she turned this way and that, sweeping each shoulder with her hair in process, “I’m skinnier.” She smiled at Sean, and realized she could see him clearly although she was still not wearing her glasses. He, too, was thinner, and not wearing glasses or day clothes. But what struck her first was how much more awake he appeared. The tired lines were gone, the slumping manner, the hopelessness he’d often seemed to walk around with -all gone.
“Sean, you look …handsome,” Rose said, and blushed. Sean smiled, and took her hand. He brushed some of her hair away, and tucked it gently behind her ear. “You look beautiful,” he told her sincerely, and made the blush run more deeply. Rose was certain even her neck was red.
She turned and looked back at the door they’d come through, biting her lip in indecision. Sean followed her gaze. The door was still ajar, and still the shed door. Its peeling brown paint was comforting, though this derelict condition had reminded them of necessary repairs in the past.
Just then, they heard the faint sound of actual music. A guitar, perhaps? Rose now looked at Sean, a question written in her trusting eyes and worried eyebrows. Sean shrugged, then said, “I’ll go check it out.”
He pulled away from Rose, but she tugged at his arm. He turned back. “Don’t leave me here alone,” she pleaded.
Sean stepped near, closing the space between them. Drawing his arm from her light grip; he put it around her back, around her soft, flowing hair. He could feel her body; smell her fresh, young scent he knew so well. Rose felt the tension of passion in his strong arms as Sean pulled her abruptly into his embrace and kissed her deeply.
Rose relaxed in the tropical breeze. The sand warmly cushioned her tired feet and the birds, waves, and rustling leaves sang only of paradise. She drank his love.
To Be Continued Tomorrow…