The woman slides the glass door open inch by inch, to the roar of the rain jackhammering the brick patio. She cocks back her husband’s loafer, in her right hand. The possum is there again, lumbering past, a baby clinging to its back. Both look half-dead. Drenched, greasy, bedraggled. Rain stabbing them like sewing needles. Gritting her teeth, she chucks the shoe. The possum skitters away into the bushes, leaving its baby behind. The woman watches for movement, but the thing lies there, brown and motionless as a baked potato.
She slams the door shut and sinks to the floor. Closing her eyes, she slips into a dream. She is pedaling a unicycle down the steps of the Vatican. She begins to cartwheel out of control …
“Robbie!” the girl squeals, jolting the woman.
“Sally, God damn it!” Only yesterday she vowed never to swear in front of the children again.
The girl starts to cry and the woman scrambles to her feet and pats her back. “Mommy’s sorry,” she says. The boy, younger by just nine months, stands gripping a handful of the girl’s blonde hair.
For days the children have been ill, moving about the house listlessly, wearing oversized T-shirts. The girl in the woman’s pink breast cancer awareness shirt, the boy in an orange Denver Broncos shirt. She has rolled up the sleeves for them but the hems brush the floor like ball gowns. Damp sheets and blankets tent the woman’s dining table and chairs. She has pegged the children’s clothes to the drying rack and everything smells of bleach and vomit, the moldering laundry.
The “Australian adventure,” as she and her husband call it, is now six weeks old. They are renting the house and everything in it. She’d wanted a clothes dryer, but the man at the warehouse said they didn’t carry them. Australian women, he told her, hang their laundry in the sunshine.
The girl lifts the sheet and crawls under the table.
“Where did Sally go?” the woman asks the boy. “She has disappeared!”
“I live in here now,” the girl says.
The woman bends to the boy, who is banging a plastic bowl with a wooden spoon, and asks him if he’d like a piece of toast. She holds it in front of his face. Though all the lights are on, the kitchen feels dim and shadowy. The boy won’t look at her.
The day is everlasting, the rain thrums the roof like a freight train, and the flat gray light never changes.
At one point, the woman discovers three of the boy’s Hot Wheels in the toilet, lying atop his poop as if stuck in mud. She extricates them with a pair of tongs and places everything in a pot on the stove to boil. Moments later, she hears the sharp clink of breaking glass and finds the boy standing over the toilet. Her favorite coffee mug, the one that says, “There’s a chance this is wine,” lies in pieces in the water. She wants to scream, but the boy has a way of not making eye contact, of not seeming to care, so instead she yells at the girl, who had done nothing wrong. The girl crumples to the floor, sobbing.
Later, she smells burning and finds the pot empty and smoking, the wheels of the toy cars fused to the bottom.
For the rest of the day the woman tries to do better. She makes sugar cookies, scribbling math on a notepad in an effort to convert cups to grams and fahrenheit to celsius.
“Would you like to help me stir the batter?” she asks the girl, who eyes her warily and crawls back under the table.
After the cookies, the woman insists the children snuggle close on the couch. She reads them book after book because it makes the girl happy and the boy quiet. And when she tucks them into bed, finally, she counts the day’s sins, and hopes the children will remember the treats and the books and not her barking at them or locking herself in the bedroom to cry.
Her husband promised they would spend every weekend on the beach, but he is always traveling and it is always raining. Nights she can’t sleep, the woman gnaws on the small bone of her wrist and stares at the ceiling. She flicks on the lamp and writes long letters to her friends back home. She writes to her mother who is dead.
But this night, at last, they sleep. All three of them. And with the dawn, the sun is shining. Instead of making the woman’s head hurt, the ratcheting call of the kookaburras delights her. How funny! How exotic! She sings to the children as she showers. She uses the tea tree shampoo that makes her smell like a forest. Today it will be no trouble at all to dress the children and take them out. She will make a game of getting the boy into his clothes and into his car seat. She has her map and she will find the park even though she got lost before and had to make U-turns and the boy screamed and she yelled at the girl, who had done nothing wrong.
Today won’t be like that day, at all. Today they will meet some other moms and children, maybe find out where the good playgroups are.
On the phone with her husband, she reports that the children are perking up, that the rain has finally stopped. This week he’s working in Adelaide. She tells him about the possum.
“I hate the possum,” she says. “It’s a horror show.”
“I doubt it’s a possum,” he says. “They’re nocturnal.”
“But it looks just like the pictures.”
“Must be something else.” He tells her she has to do something about the dead whatever on the patio before it starts to decompose and stink.
She tells him her plan for the day.
“Just don’t get lost.”
“I was really tired that time,” she says. “I have a map.”
She hears chewing noises. A sigh. “I’ll give you directions. Get a piece of paper and write this down.”
* * *
The children have upended the plastic wastebaskets and put them over their heads. They stumble about the kitchen with their arms out, bumping into things, bumping into each other. She read somewhere that children inherit their intelligence from their mothers.
“Where did my little ones go?” the woman asks. “Maybe I will have to take some other children to the park today.” She had planned to blow dry her hair, put on a little makeup, but instead she spreads her map out on the counter. She studies the directions her husband gave her, running her teeth over the bone of her wrist.
She buckles the children into their car seats. The girl is singing “The Farmer in the Dell” and the boy kicks his legs and stares out the window. As she starts to back out of the driveway, the woman remembers and throws the car into park. She runs around to the back of the house. The lump of possum is still there, sun glistening on its wet fur like a spotlight. Trying hard not to look, the woman finds a sand bucket and covers it.
She follows her husband’s directions to the letter, but down one street they come to a dead end. She pulls over and unfurls the map over the steering wheel. She has to make a U-turn and the boy screams. Again she pulls over. She twists around in her seat and pats the boy’s knee. “You and me both, kiddo,” she says. The girl offers him her bear but he pushes it away. The woman looks at her husband’s directions. The boy is screaming and she can’t think. She tries again, this time just following the map.
Finally they round a curve and she sees the entrance. “There it is! Isn’t Mommy clever?” Through his tears the boy says, “Isn’t Mommy clever?” The woman laughs a little too loud and a little too long and the girl claps.
After hats and sunscreen, they walk across the parking lot before she remembers the picnic basket. The woman knows that to the boy this is like a U-turn so she tells the two of them to sit on a bench and watch as she runs back to get it. They will get a cookie if they stay put. A man in a broad-brimmed hat sits on a bench nearby. She can’t see his face but she knows he’s looking at them. He crosses his legs, flicks open a newspaper.
“Time me,” she says to the girl and sprints to the car, feeling the man’s eyes on her.
* * *
The park is vast and empty, surrounded by a high wrought-iron fence. Galahs and cockatoos tweet and squawk from craggy gum trees. The woman breathes deep the scent of eucalyptus. The girl sits on a swing and asks for a push. It is already quite warm. The woman grabs hold of the chains, pulls back the swing, and lets go. The girl’s blonde pigtails float behind her like streamers. When the swing returns, instead of pushing, the woman catches the girl around her waist and plants a kiss on her cheek.
“When will the kids come?” the girl asks.
A kookaburra cackles and startles them. The woman sees the boy running toward the edge of the park. She takes hold of the girl’s hand, pulls her off the swing. The boy has gone behind the gum trees. The woman calls his name over and over. He is so very fast. With a whomp, the girl falls down and skins her knee. The woman pulls her up and makes her run. The bright blue of the boy’s legionnaire’s cap darts in and out of view.
“I hate Robbie!” the girl screams. Her voice ricochets off the trees.
The first thing the woman sees is the boy’s bright cap, then she sees him being carried by the man, who is marching toward her. His hat is pulled low over his eyes, his mouth drawn tight. The boy is wrapped around him like a koala. As they approach, the boy stares into the space over the woman’s shoulder. Reaching for him, she starts to thank the man. He draws back, raises his chin, and looks at her from under the brim of his hat.
“Your lad was nearly out the gate,” he says. He looks at the girl’s bleeding knee, the tears and snot running down her face. “I have a mind to report you.” He digs a hankie out of his pocket and waves it at the girl.
“Give him to me.” The woman steps closer, tugging on the boy’s arm. But the boy clasps the man tighter. The raw skin on the woman’s wrist is exposed. She lets go of the boy and tugs her sleeve down over it.
“I don’t know how they do things in America, but …”
The girl blows her nose into the man’s hanky and holds it up to him. “Keep it,” he says.
“If you put him down he’ll come to me,” the woman says.
The boy looks right at her and repeats, “Come to me.” He starts scissoring his legs and the man holds the boy away from his body and lowers him to the ground. The man, the woman, and the girl watch as the boy raises his face to the sky, throws his arms out, and spins. His blue cap flies off. Faster and faster he spins in the broken sunlight that spills through the trees.
“There’s something wrong with him,” the man says.
The woman and the girl, who know this game, raise their faces and arms, too. They spin along with the boy as the mother hums a tune. Today, it’s “Waltzing Matilda” because she hopes it might annoy the man. Long ago, she promised herself that when her boy spun she’d spin, too, and make it a dance. She closes her eyes and lets the sun warm her skin and when she opens them again, the man is gone. The boy and the girl roll around on the grass laughing.
* * *
Her son has fallen asleep in his car seat. Slowly she unbuckles the straps and lifts him into her arms. He is warm, curled into her body. The front windows of the house shine gold. Her daughter’s hand is soft as dough in her own as they make their way around to the back. She only wants to check. First it’s her husband’s loafer she sees, filled with rainwater. Then, nearby, the bucket, lying on its side. They hear a sound, an electric combination of hiss and screech. Her daughter points. There through the leaves on the lowest branch of the gum tree, they are steadily regarded by two pairs of very large eyes.