Katherine Bell is a writer and Communications and Marketing Coordinator from Frederick, Maryland. Katherine has been published in the East Coast Literary Review and she has short stories forthcoming from Connotation Press and Welter. With her boyfriend, she writes and publishes a blog called We Write Together.
The Sulphur Sink
Every night, we boil our tap water so it’s hot for baths. The water goes into the cheap aluminum pots I bought at a yard sale, and we watch as it rolls and bubbles on the stove. We put oven mitts on our hands and slowly carry the pots up the stairs one-by-one from the kitchen to the bathroom, where we pour the water into the tub and watch it steam into a big cloud as it meets the air. Then we do it again.
My daughters don’t complain, but sometimes I wish they did. I know they want to be normal and have a mom who doesn’t wake them up in the middle of the night with her screams. They’d rather have a mother who doesn’t forget what time they need to be picked up after school or which of them is the one who likes to go to the library every weekend. But they don’t complain about me. They don’t complain about anything.
Two weeks after we bought the house, the hot water heater stopped working and I couldn’t afford to buy another one. One week later, it rained. That was when we learned that the roof had holes no one told us about. There was one that would push rain through like a funnel, tiny pinprick holes made a mist and turned our upstairs bedroom into a rainforest. In September, the first frost of the year cracked our siding and we could feel the wind on the inside whenever it would blow on the outside.
One day in November, my youngest, Denise, brought home The Little House on the Prairie. I was sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for the oven to warm so I could put in the store-bought pizza. Denise dropped the book in my lap. “I’m just like Laura,” she said.
I reached for the book, thumbed through its pages. “What do you mean?”
“It’s like living in the old days,” she said. She was smiling so proudly. “Laura didn’t even have running water.”
She twisted her brunette curls around her finger. Her pink shirt was just barely too small for her, and her jeans were ripping apart at the knees. “Oh,” I said. Her smile faded away and I couldn’t look at her anymore. She left me sitting at the table alone with her book in my hand.
The wind was fiercest in January and the four of us had to snuggle in my bed to stay warm. It reminded me of Fort Jackson, the nights the unit would stay up too late seeing who could do the most shots without throwing up and falling asleep wherever we passed out, all despite our 04:30 First Call. My daughters will never know about that part of me.
I would wake them up every morning with a new round of screams. Jenny, my oldest, shook me awake each morning. I would come to in her arms with the last scream on my breath and freeze, paralyzed from the mix of the dream-world and reality colliding and coagulating in my brain. One night I dreamed she was alongside me in the Humvee wearing a flak jacket and kevlar helmet. When the IED exploded, like it does every night in my sleep, I lost my grip on her wrist and she started sliding away from me, dead or dying.
When Jenny woke me up, I didn’t know where I was, and I couldn’t stop screaming. When I finally realized I was in bed and she was safe, I hugged her so tight I thought her internal organs might implode. She didn’t push me away. She hugged me back and stroked my hair. “It’ll be okay, Mom. You’ll be just fine.” The rest of that night I hid away in the living room enveloped in blankets reading the Little House on the Prairie to keep myself awake.
When I was deployed for fifteen months, they lived with their father. Living with that man for over a year was enough for them to be happier with me in the cold and the filth of a broken-down house. I can’t ask my daughters what happened while I was gone. The bits and pieces they’ve shared have made me uneasy and I imagine that they were fighting a war with their father while I was fighting a war in a foreign country. Still, they had hot water. They had salads and cookies and pocket change to buy candy and magazines. They had Internet, Wi-Fi, and cable. Jenny saved up for a few pedicures. Denise could purchase her own books, rather than be a slave to the library. Lucy bought a leotard and ballet slippers. It’s more than I can do for them.
I once suggested they move back in with him. I was instantly silence by three pleading looks around the dinner table. “No,” Denise said. She left her seat, pried open my arms and forced herself between them. As I brushed her hair out of her eyes, I knew she would never tolerate such a suggestion again. Jenny and Lucy stood and joined the bear hug. Together we all felt whole. The kitchen around us was so silent I could almost hear their thoughts. We were different members of the same team. Team Harrison. I stifled the urge to shout “Hooah!,” at the dinner table.
Valentine’s Day marked the date of my divorce, a yearly reminder of the two soldiers in my unit that we lost that day. Throughout the day I vacillated between sleep and distraction, between pillows and On the Banks of Plum Creek. I had trouble staying focused on the pages, and whenever I would close my eyes, I would hear the roar of the IED as it tore through the convoy and upended our Humvee.
I’d see the way my best friend Maria’s face changed in seconds from laughter to seriousness to pain. When I looked down and there was a crimson mess where her left leg had been, I remember that I gaped at it before taking action. It felt like I was in some movie where the camera was zooming in and out and going from slow to fast motion without stopping. I couldn’t even tell who else was alive.
I counted the hours I had left until my daughters would come home from school. Finally they did, Jenny with a bouquet of roses, Lucy with a box of chocolate, and Denise with a bag full of cards and candy.
Lucy handed me the box, a medium-sized red heart. “This is for you, Mom.” She set it in my lap. I brushed my hand over the embossed packaging and tore the plastic away.
“Do you know how long it’s been since I had a piece of chocolate?”
The girls nodded. “Since you bought the house.”
“What are you going to try first?” Lucy’s voice brought me back to myself. I glanced from her to the box and removed the lid.
“Which one would you recommend?”
Without hesitation, Denise stepped forward and pointed to a round light-colored truffle. So I picked it up and popped it in my mouth. I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time, something hard to describe, but the closest I could come would be happiness. It was fleeting, but it felt real. That feeling might never show up again.
I handed the girls the box, and they chose their morsels with consideration and thoughtfulness. They weighed their options and chose strategically, trying to maximize the flavors of chocolate that each person could taste. I watched as Denise took control, speaking to the principles of division and reason. “If there are twenty candies total and there are four of us, then we each get five. Mom and I don’t like white chocolate, so by default, Jenny and Lucy each get one of the white ones. That leaves nine milk and nine dark. But, Lucy, you don’t like dark, so the rest of your four are milk. There are five milk left and three people. Who likes milk just a little more than dark?”
As she talked, she lit up. Math was easy. She could use facts to reach a decision. She was the youngest, but she was masterful in her decision-making. The older girls deferred to Denise and chose their chocolates. Jenny ate hers slowly. She was always careful and delicate, like when she helped me write out lists, sitting next to me in bed. She pasted them up so that I could see them and remember things.
Lucy grabbed at the chocolates, stowing hers away. She had such drive and motivation. She wants to be a dancer and, tries to learn on her own—watching lessons on YouTube in the library after school, taking notes, and practicing on the makeshift barre she’d built out of aluminum cans and duct tape in the basement. My girls were so different from one another, but so familiar to me.
Jenny called me on my cell phone during my VA appointment. I could hear her sigh. “There’s a problem at home,” she said.
As I pulled the phone from my ear, I heard her add: “I love you.” I would have said it back, but it was too late, I was already pushing the button to end the call.
I drove up and down the mountain roads, through the budding oak, red maple, and cherry trees until I made it back home as the sun set. Our twisted gravel-paved driveway, sinister as the shadows fell, led to the house, which looked clean and stately on the outside, disguising the problems on the inside. I killed the engine and sat in the driver’s seat. “Come on, soldier. You can do this. You’ve been through so much, one more little thing won’t kill you. Let’s go, soldier! Hooah!” I was my own drill sergeant.
Before I got out of my car, I took one deep breath and let it out slowly. All of the lights downstairs shone brightly, but those upstairs were dark. Through the illuminated hallway and into the kitchen, I crept, listening for my daughters’ hushed whispers that quieted as I approached.
They all sat around the kitchen table. Denise looked from Lucy to Jenny as though she was the mastermind behind whatever plan they’d concocted. Lucy’s hands were folded in her lap, but I could hear her picking at her fingernails. Jenny wouldn’t look at me, her hands crossed over her chest.
“What is it?” I looked from daughter to daughter.
“See for yourself.” Jenny stood. She walked past me to the sink and turned it on.
Something yellowish sprayed everywhere, like an invisible thumb was pressing up against the spigot. It reached the ceiling, dripped over our cabinets, and the floor.
It hit me. The rotten egg sulfur stench. It came in through my nostrils and burned my eyes. Immediately, I was in Iraq, trying to push Maria’s patella back into her leg. Her skin turned white as each drop of blood hit the sand. That stench hit me, the chemicals in the IED smelled like gut rot and I teared up for the wrong reason. Maria cried. She babbled incoherently until I placed a finger across her lips. Then she cried and I just cradled her head and cried with her, shaky, ugly and harsh.
Then I was standing in the kitchen with the smell lingering in my nose and tears streaming down my face. My girls stared at me, frozen in time. They didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know what to do next. The sobs came fast, faster than I was expecting and I sank to the floor. I didn’t have anyone to pray to, but the girls joined me on the floor. Denise grabbed my right arm; Lucy grabbed my left. Jenny came over. She sat down right in front of me and crossed her legs. She took each of her sister’s hands, forming a circle.
“Mom,” she said. Her voice was even and calming.
I nodded and wiped the tears from my cheeks. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
They knew they deserved more, but loved me anyway. Lucy rested her head on my shoulder. Then, for what felt like hours, we sat together like that, in a circle on the kitchen floor and making plans for the future.