Milk


She didn’t tell her husband what she had seen.  That while standing in front of the bathroom mirror,
scrubbing her face, brushing her teeth, he was there.  Not a shadow in the bathtub, but a boy, couldn’t
have been more than five or six and pale, nearly iridescent, looking at her over the glossy white lip of the
tub.  The toothbrush fell loose in her mouth then dropped to the tiled floor by her toes.  She blinked,
rubbed her eyes with the pits of her palms and then peeked again.  He smiled at her and then leaned
forward, out of view.  She heard the splashing of water.  Then nothing.

She smoothed lotion over the loose skin of her cheeks and exhaled slowly.  She inhaled, bent down and
picked up the wet toothbrush, dropped it in the trash.  Exhaled again.  And then she went and lay down
beside her husband, who was already breathing slow heavy breaths in the dark.

“Toothbrush,” she said quietly into a handheld tape recorder.  She slid it back beneath her pillow and
closed her eyes, hoping to find him again, the iridescent boy, slippery in her tub.  She imagined him
holding a delicate pile of bubbles in his palms, blowing them toward her.  She felt them melt on her skin
and smiled as she slid into sleep.

In the following weeks, he began popping up more frequently.  At the dinner table, staring blankly over a
plate of slippery noodles; during meetings at work, running his finger along the long windowsill; in her car,
strapped to a booster seat and gently nudging his feet against the back of her seat.

He was always relucent and milky white with round guileless eyes that she couldn’t quite bring herself to
meet.

She wasn't sure why he came like this, as the boy she had held during thundershowers and after bicycle
spills, the child who brought her his scrapes to be kissed.  She had always felt guilty for giving him that
impression — that her lips could heal anything, that she had any magic in her at all.

On the morning of the anniversary, she ate dry toast and listened as a stocky man on her television
warned her about the traffic she would face on her drive to work.  Hovering above the expressway in a
helicopter, he told her where the accident happened, why the cars were backed up in a colorful chain,
twisting down the roads like ants trapped in a maze.  Flippantly, from his perch in the sky, he chuckled, “I’
d say it’s a good day to walk to work.”

She sipped her coffee, felt it coating the soft walls of her mouth as she swallowed.  She imagined herself
walking to work, winding her way down the highway, waving at drivers trapped, shoulders slumped in
their overheating cars.

The accident itself was a tractor-trailer truck, somehow turned over on its side.  Two or three other cars,
she couldn’t tell exactly — with all the flashing lights and official vehicles crowding on the scene, smashed
and gnarled behind it.  One rammed into it.  The front half of the vehicle was gone.  She couldn’t tell if it
was buried in the truck or had simply snapped off. Like a Matchbox car.  They all looked like toys.  The
whole scene looked like something her son could’ve arranged on their living room carpet.  She could
almost hear him calling to her, pointing to his play area.  A carpet designed to look like a miniature city, a
maze of roads, buildings, curved crayon-green treetops.
Look, Mom. The truck flipped.

She put down her coffee and lifted the handheld recorder to her mouth. “Milk,” she said then popped the
stop button and stuffed the recorder into her purse.

She took the back roads to her office.

                                                           * * *

They had company coming for dinner, she and her husband.  Their daughters were coming home, and
she imagined each of them folding into her arms.  She knew them by their bones, by the way the curves
of their shoulders met with her own when they embraced.  Katie’s slight frame nestled itself completely in
her chest.  Jennifer was broad and taller.  She could’ve cradled her mother like a small child.  And Melissa
was her equal, the daughter who matched her frame, their shoulders first knocked against one another,
like bumping against a mirror.  Then they’d each slide just enough to accommodate the other and exhale
in unison.

The cursor on her computer blinked at her as she sat in her cubical, imagining her daughters sitting in
traffic, making their way to her house for dinner.  She thought to warn them about the truck.  About the
accident, the cars splayed sideways, ripped apart.  The line of metal and wheels strung together by puffs
of exhaust, waiting with impatient grunts and long motorized moans.

“String beans, cherry tomatoes, salsa,” she said into the recorder, then laid it beside the phone on her
desk.

                                                           * * *

Her husband followed her around the kitchen as she cooked.  He didn’t say much, just watched her as
though she was on the verge of collapse.  Slicing onions, misting the counter with the pungent spray, she
resisted the urge to snap at him, to tell him to go sit and drink a beer.  Leave her alone.

Instead, she stole glances at him, trying to see him as she used to, when his puttering around the
kitchen was welcome.  How he used to whistle while slicing cucumbers and she’d hum, stirring pots of
tomato sauce.  And how sometimes their tunes would mingle, and he’d put down his knife and come up
behind her.  She’d put down the spoon. Let the sauce burn.

But now he was just a nuisance.  Another shadow hovering in her periphery, another reminder that
things were different.

“I called the girls,” she said finally, glancing at him sideways from the cutting board.  He was standing
beside the sink.  “You know, to warn them about the traffic,” she explained.

“Of course,” he said and then shook his head.  He looked down to the tiled floor, then back at her,
climbing from her bare feet to the curve of her shoulders, her bent neck, gray eyes, focused intently on
the pile of white onion, the knife in her clenched fist.

“There was an accident,” she explained as though he has asked.

“I know,” he said and walked to the fridge.  He pulled out an amber bottle and added, “There always is.”

“Don’t start with me, Martin,” she called after him as he walked out of the room.  “There was a truck
overturned.”

                                                          * * *

The phone call had come as she was setting the table.  Accident. Miller’s parking lot. Kevin.  She
remembered it all in fragments — flashes of light, the droning cries of car horns, spiny twists of metal,
shattered glass glittering on pitch-black pavement, the asphalt so new that it looked like it would sink if
they’d stepped on it.  The vapors of exploded airbags, exhaust, smoke, and the scent of fresh tar on a
humid August evening.

The gurney wheeled past, a white sheet draped over the humps of his head, chest, feet.  A tan hand
dangled down, paint stains beneath the fingernails, the oily residue of his summer job.

Someone had sped from the off ramp and into his car as he was turning into Miller’s to pick up milk for
his mother.
She hated the sheet that hid him from her, and then later the coffin at the funeral carrying his body
away.  She felt heavy walking behind it, drifting forward with the current of the procession as though she
were wading through water.  She stared at the hands of her nephews as they hoisted her son on their
shoulders and down the aisle in a box that seemed too small to hold him.  She watched it through the
blurred veil of her tears, dumbstruck at the reality of it — that her son was somehow contained in that
there.  At the absurdity that such things could hold any of us.

                                                           * * *

“Good God, Joy,” her husband said, coming up behind her as she was setting the table.  “Don’t do this.”

She stood straight and blinked as though she was just waking.  She felt the weight of the silverware in
her palm.  Her eyes bounced across the white tablecloth.  Plates, glasses, napkins, all set neatly.  For six.

“They’ll be here any minute,” Martin said, turning back toward the living room.  “Please, don’t do this in
front of them.”

She didn’t speak, only reached down and lifted Kevin’s plate.  She held it to her chest and walked it back
to the hutch.


What was left of her family sat at the table and scooped the food she’d cooked onto their porcelain
plates.  Katie spoke of a new boyfriend.  Jennifer complained about work.  Melissa was quiet and their
father busied himself with pouring wine whenever someone’s glass grew shallow, mostly his own.

Joy saw her son sitting as a child in the seat across the table from her.  She blinked, squeezed her eyes
tight and then popped them open, one at a time and complained about her contacts not feeling right
whenever she felt someone watching her curiously.

She wanted to see him as he was last year, just through the door from work, chuckling in the kitchen
with his father.  She wanted to see the smile lines on his tan cheeks, the flop of his paint-speckled hair
falling over his blue eyes.  His gentle voice, volunteering to go to the store for her, to pick up what she
had forgotten.  “You should at least wash your hands before you go,” she’d told him.  “You look like a
bum.”

He’d smiled at her and told her to relax; it was just a quick trip.

Then there were the sirens, the droning car horns, the white sheet and the humps of his body beneath it.

And now this boy across the table.  So small and clean and quiet, watching her.

She slid her hand into her pocket and felt relief as her fingers wrapped around the tape recorder.  She
brought it out and set it on the table.  A dull thump that stopped Jennifer mid-sentence in her
explanation of standard office procedure in the event of a fire drill.

“Joy,” her husband said, his eyes darting from the small silver recorder to his wife’s blank face.  “Not
tonight,” he said and reached toward her, his fingers nearly touching the back of her hand before she
jerked it back to her lap.

“Every night,” she said.

Martin slapped his palm down, wobbling the table, sending wine sloshing over the lip of his glass and onto
the white tablecloth.  It soaked in and then feathered outward, crimson wisps unfurling between them.

"This is ridiculous. I mean, really,"  he said. His eyes implored his daughters around the table:
Help.

But they sat, each with lips slightly parted, speechless.

                                                          * * *

She had bought the tape recorder two days after the accident, convinced that if she hadn't forgotten to
pick up milk on her way home from the work that evening, her son would still be alive.

She recorded everything she might need throughout the day — chicken thighs, salad dressing, soap, dish
sponges.  At first, she slid the plastic strap around her wrist and clutched the body of it in her palm
throughout the day.  Later, she found it more practical to have it attached to her somehow, so she
couldn't lose it.  She fashioned a clasp and clipped it securely inside her purse, easily accessible for her.  
She rambled to herself in the car.  She talked to it in her cubicle at work. Her little scarlet letter, tucked
beneath her pillow at night.

"I'm sorry, girls." Martin stood from the table.  "I thought having you here tonight would help."  He
walked to the living room, muttering beneath his breath and hanging his head.

Joy stood without speaking and then disappeared into the bathroom.

                                                           * * *

“I think Dad’s out for the night,” Melissa said after the other daughters had each taken their turns at
hugging and leaving.  She stepped beside her mother, who was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, the
slender tape recorder resting on her lap.  “I think he finished that bottle himself,” she said.

Joy didn’t speak, only closed her eyes and let herself lean against her daughter’s warm waist.

“It’s not going to bring him back, you know,” Melissa said.

She sat straight and looked up at her daughter.  Her palms smoothed over her thighs and she shook her
head.  “Go check on your father; get him a blanket or something before you leave,” she said.

                                                           * * *

Joy filled the tub.  Emptied it.  Filled it again.  With bubbles.  Without bubbles.  Ran it ‘til the water ran
cold.  The boy did not appear; her husband did not come for her.

She sat with her feet in the water until they were numb, her toes shriveled like white raisins.

And then the sirens started.  Loud and whirring like carnival music blasting through her bathroom
window.  She pulled her wrinkled feet from the tub and covered her ears.  
Was the neighborhood on fire?

She ran out to the living room and found Martin lying on his recliner.  She tore past him to the front door
and flung it open, letting in the August night but nothing more.  
Where were the lights? The sirens? The
chaos?

“What’re you doing?” Martin mumbled without so much as sitting up in the chair.

“There’s been an accident,” she said and grabbed her purse.  “How can you just lay there? Can’t you hear
it?”

“There’s always an accident,” Martin said and turned away from his wife as the screen door slapped
behind her, and she ran wildly into the night.

                                                          * * *

“Where is it?” Joy yelled, storming barefoot through the storefront.

“Where’s what?” the man behind the counter asked.

“The accident?” she insisted. “I heard the sirens all the way up the street.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Ma’am,” the man said, eyeing her bare feet and shaking his head.  “I just
got here an hour ago, but it’s been quiet.”

She squinted at him.  The sirens were harder to hear with the music he had playing over the speakers.  
He might have missed them. But she didn’t.

She walked to the dairy case and pulled down a gallon of 2%.

“Just this,” she said, placing the plastic jug and her purse each on the counter.

“You ok, Ma’am?” he asked.

“Just the milk,” she said again, but nodded slightly.  He was about Kevin’s age, she thought.  He had the
same rumpled, careless look about him, a good kid.

The man counted her change without looking at her.

In the parking lot, Joy sat in the car and listened to the wailing and screeching of horns and sirens.  She
pulled the tape recorder from her purse, rewound it to the beginning.  She got out from the car and
pressed play.

“Peanut butter…orange juice…shampoo… ”  She lowered the recorder to the ground beneath her front
tire. “French dressing… tomatoes…”

She climbed back behind the wheel; the boy was in the backseat.  She turned the ignition and saw his
round eyes in her rearview.

“You ready?” she asked, looking back and smiling at the boy, her son.

He didn’t nod or smile or even flinch as Joy pressed her barefoot down on the pedal.

The bump was quick, almost nonexistent.  And after she slammed her foot on the break, she practically
leapt out of the car to see if she’d even done anything at all.  To see if it even worked.

It had.  She knelt to finger through the pieces: the shards of silver plastic, the tangle of thin brown tape,
the red button, all there, crushed and scattered on the concrete.

“Is everything ok?” The man from the store called out from behind her.  “Did you pop a tire?” he asked,
coming nearer. “Did you lose something?”

She heard him and thought of a thousand answers she could give.  That she’d lost more than he would
ever understand, more than she could ever explain, or record, or crush beneath the thick rubber of her
tires.  But she didn’t say anything, just climbed back into her car, leaving her shards behind on the
pavement.

The night was finally quiet.
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Melanie Haney
Contents
Melanie Haney is a mother of two very small children living in the woods of Southern, NH. She holds an MFA
from Lesley University and writes in an attempt to maintain some semblance of sanity between changing
diapers and cleaning. It works. Sometimes. She has won fiction competitions sponsored by
Family Circle
Magazine
and the Ann Arbor Book festival. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Family Circle Magazine,
Quality Women’s Fiction, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Eureka Literary Magazine, The Summerset Review, elimae, Relief
Journal
among others.  http://melaniehaney.blogspot.com
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