Hands, Katherine Rogers
There was a spider climbing the wall above my bed. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was one of those nasty Florida spiders that’s so much bigger than it needs to be, bred on an extensive bug population and muggy climate.
“It’s moving,” I reported.
Sean, too intent on cleaning out the bathroom, was silent. I held my bottle up to the light, dismayed to see it was almost gone. A fat drop fell from the rim and landed on the black tulle that scraped my body raw.
“I spilled,” I said to no one.
The spider scuttled onto the ceiling where it seemed content to sit directly above my head. The ceiling fan made a sad ticking noise, half-heartedly pushing warm air in a circle.
My brother emerged from the bathroom. “Just for clarification’s sake, were you planning on helping? At all?”
“Can’t. Busy.” I lifted the bottle to my lips.
Sean gave me a disgusted look. “You’re drunk.”
I was drinking wine, in excess. It was the kind of cheap, sweet wine that makes your teeth ache. Sean had raised an eyebrow at me when I slipped it in the shopping cart earlier that day, but he bought it without question.
“What I don’t understand,” I moaned, rolling onto my stomach, “is why we’re doing this now. We just put her in the ground, like, four hours ago, and now we’re throwing out her things.”
Sean glared at me. His sandy hair was standing on end from stressed fingers being pushed through. “You’re joking, right?”
“You’re the one who kept saying we should do it tonight, right after the funeral. I asked you, like, three times. And I know you’re not drunk enough to forget.”
I extended my hands above me, towards the spider. They were far away. Almost obsolete. “Somebody’s in a bad mood.”
Sean looked at me on the bed. “You’re not legal,” he said, as if realizing it for the first time.
I took a swig before speaking again. “I think it’s depressing.”
The cottage looked nothing like I remembered from the couple times I’d visited postmortem. I had made a habit of referring to life after my mother’s split as “postmortem,” even though Sean hated it. He liked to remind me that “postmortem” didn’t mean departed, it meant dead.
Now I suppose it really would be appropriate.
Everything in here was gone—the pictures, the dishes, her god-awful seashell collection. Either packed away in cardboard boxes or thrown in one of the many trash bags that crowded the kitchen floor.
Sean glanced around, taking in the one room cottage. “I don’t know. I think it’s nice.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t nice, I said it was depressing.”
He let out a breath. “Okay, Avery.”
“She could’ve gone anywhere. Literally anywhere. And she chose to come to the grossest state ever.”
“This is what you’re fixated on? That she went to Florida? You’re not questioning—oh I don’t know—her parenting techniques or her mental stability?” Sean’s voice was mean.
“There’s nothing to question there,” I shot back. “Her parenting techniques? None. Mental stability? Lacking. But fucking Florida? I don’t know about that.”
There was another pause, and I could tell he was about to say something I’d hate.
“Speaking of moving…”
“Jesus Christ, no. You’re really trying to segue into this?”
“My offer still stands.”
I gave him a thin smile. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Come to Tucson. Just live with me and Tyler for the rest of the summer. When school starts we can talk about arrangements—”
“Arrangements for what? You think I’m going to drop out of college just because she died? Sorry, Sean. You’ll just have to keep policing me from across the country.”
“I’m not suggesting you drop out. I was just saying for the summer maybe you’d be better off living with people for once. Instead of up in Michigan, alone—”
“I have an apartment. It’s fine.”
“It’s a glorified dorm room, and don’t say I’m being pretentious about it again.”
“Does Tyler still have that fucking dog?”
Sean’s lips quirked. “Yes.”
He sighed. “At least think about it.”
“Okay,” I lied.
Perhaps sensing we were at a stalemate, he went back to the bathroom.
I focused again on the spider, who was still frozen. I wondered if it was dead. What happened when spiders died? Did they let go? Would it fall on my head? Or would it stay up there forever, microscopic hairs clinging to the stucco?
There was a sudden crash from the bathroom, followed immediately by the smell of lilacs.
“Fuck,” was Sean’s muffled reaction.
“You okay in there?” I drawled.
“Avery, get a broom and dustpan.”
I heaved myself off the bed, intent upon my new quest. “Aye, aye, captain.” I walked unsteadily to the closet and yanked open the doors to reveal an ancient-looking vacuum, a cardboard box, and a broom and dustpan leaning in the corner.
One of the box flaps was open. I knelt to investigate.
It was my mother. Her face beamed up at me from under dusty, scratched class. Next to her I sat, wearing pigtails. This was definitely pre-mortem. Long before. Taken on one of the days she could actually be bothered.
A shadow fell over me as Sean appeared in the doorway. “Did you find something?”
I forced my voice through the sudden tightness of my throat and shut the flaps. “Just another box of junk.”
“Add it to the trash pile.” He reached past me and grabbed the broom. “And come help clean up.”
I pushed the box back into the shadows and climbed out of the closet. As I drew closer to the bathroom the smell of lilacs became more intoxicating, recognizable as something I’d smelled a thousand other times during stiff hugs at sad birthday dinners and awkward reunions.
“Way to break her shit, Sean,” I said, because I wanted the memories to stop.
He handed me the dustpan full of broken glass. “Be careful where you step. The dumpster is out back.”
I gave him a salute and headed for the door.
Outside, the night air was thick and still. Mosquitos immediately swarmed my ankles. I inhaled deeply, breath restricted by the tight satin sash across my waist. I cursed myself for not bringing a change of clothes.
I picked my way through mangroves to the dumpster. Here, the air lingered with something else: the smell of smoke.
Head buzzing pleasantly, I followed the path around the side of the cottage, towards the beach. Then I stopped.
Down the beach, a bonfire was raging. The shouts of partygoers mingled with the gentle lapping of waves and the whisper of the palms.
“Well, that will not do,” I said aloud and set out across the sand, which was harder to navigate now that I had a liter of wine in my system. My foot collided with a stack of garden pots, sending them clattering to the ground, but I didn’t stop.
“Hey,” I croaked, then cleared my throat. “Hey!” A few heads turned towards me. “You can’t have a fire here. It’s against the rules. It brings the sea turtles—”
“What is she going on about?” one of them said.
“She’s drunk,” another replied.
“The sea turtles are going to die.” I come to a standstill about twenty yards away from the group. “You need to turn the bonfire off.”
“Hey, fuck off,” someone said.
“Or come join the party,” someone else called, followed by a series of hoots.
I was suddenly painfully aware of how alone I was out there on the beach. The cottage seemed so far behind me now. I took a step back, crushing a shell painfully beneath my heel.
“I just—” I stammered. “The sea turtles—”
One guy stepped forward. “What did we just say?”
Suddenly a hand latched on to my upper arm. I looked up to see the bleary image of my brother.
“Sorry,” he said, slightly out of breath. “We were just leaving.” With that he started dragging me back up the beach, away from the fire.
“Fuck off,” I muttered, trying to wrench out of his grip. But he was strong and I was tipsy, and I couldn’t do anything. Not until we passed the wooden fence that separates the cottages from the public beach. I managed to hook a leg around it, bringing us to a halt.
“We can’t just leave,” I said.
“You’re drunk,” he snapped.
“I’ve been getting that a lot tonight.”
“And that—whatever you just did back there—was fucking stupid. Do you understand that?”
“They have a bonfire,” I said quietly.
“They can’t have a bonfire.”
Sean sighed. “I know.”
“Because the sea turtles—”
“I know, Avery.”
I look at him and finish, “They follow the light and get washed up on shore and die.”
“We’ll call the police. Just come inside.”
“You should have said something. You should have done something.”
“What was I supposed to do, Avery?” he snapped. “It was fifteen against one.”
He shook his head. “Fine. Do whatever you want.” He let go of my arm and started walking back towards the cabin.
My head was pounding, clarity coming fast and painful now. “Sean.”
“Why aren’t you more…angry?”
He paused. “What?”
“I mean why aren’t you more angry at her?”
“It’s actually angrier—”
“Don’t do that.”
“She left.” Words started spilling out, like lilac perfume. “She left you and me and moved down here, to do what? Pretend her children didn’t exist?”
“And then she has the audacity to go and have a fucking heart attack, and look—you’re still cleaning up after her. Even now.”
“You’re the one—”
“I know I’m the one who said we should do it but that’s because I want it fucking over with!”
It occurred to me that I was yelling. My face was wet and burning. Down the beach, the party had fallen silent. We stared at each other in the darkness, and I saw my brother trying to pull himself together.
I wouldn’t let him. “She was a bad mom, Sean. Admit that.”
“Trust me, I have.”
“It doesn’t seem like it.”
“I have. Long before you ever did.”
“That’s not true. You’ve never been mad at her, and you should be.”
“Why?” I opened my mouth to respond but this time he cut me off. “She wasn’t a bad person. She was just unhappy. And it showed.”
“She was unhappy because of us.”
“Yeah, probably,” he snapped, which shut me up. It always shut me up when Sean snapped. He pinched the bridge of his nose. I squinted out at the bonfire reflected on the water and waited.
“She’s already been gone for three years, Avery. Now she’s just…slightly more unavailable.”
“That’s a cold way of putting it,” I said, because he was right and that sucked. “But don’t you care about why she even left in the first place?”
He shrugged. “There are lots of whys. Maybe it was easier for her to pretend she wasn’t a mom. Maybe the booze is just cheaper down here.” He gave me a pointed look. “And maybe it was better this way.”
“You’re honestly telling me that leaving her seventeen year old daughter with her twenty-two year old son was a better way?” I scoffed.
He crossed his arms. “You weren’t hard to take care of. And I was doing it before then too, whether you’d like to admit it or not. All you did was sulk until college started.”
“Well I’m glad my teenage angst was beneficial for someone.” I sat down heavily in a lawn chair. The plastic stuck to the backs of my thighs in the thick air.
“It’s okay if you miss her, you know.”
I shook my head. “I don’t miss her. That’s not what this is. I’m just upset about the sea turtles.”
We were quiet for a moment. Back down the beach, the party had started up again. Hoots and hollers punctuated our silence. I realized how much I hated people.
“Come inside,” he said, and I complied.
Back inside the cottage felt cool—cold, almost. We sat on the bed, staring at the piles and boxes of stuff. My eyes traveled up to the ceiling. The spider was gone.
“You don’t want to keep this stuff, do you?” I said.
He looked at me. “What do you want to do with it?”
“We could sell it.”
“We could burn it.”
I looked at him. He smirked. I shook my head. “I hate her, not the sea turtles.”
“We could just ignore it for now.”
This suggestion took me by surprise. “That’s not very proactive of you. I’m surprised.”
“We could ignore all this and call the cops on that party and watch them get arrested.”
I paused. “Will they actually get arrested for this?”
“Want to see?”
I grabbed the remainder of the wine and followed him out to the front of the cottage, where we proceeded to watch fifteen ornery college students get slapped with fines. And we sat there longer still, watching dawn break golden and crisp over the ocean.
Today was going to be warmer than usual, I could tell. With absolutely no breeze. The perfect temperature to raise those nasty, overgrown spiders.
About the Author
Sarah Mueller · Loras College
Sarah Mueller graduated from Loras College in May 2019 with a degree in Creative Writing and Media Studies. She has also had work published in The New Plains Review. “Sticky Air” first appeared in The Limestone Review.
About the Artist
Katherine Rogers · Susquehanna University
Katherine Rogers graduated from Susquehanna University in 2018. Her work has also been published in Persephone’s Daughter. This piece first appeared in RiverCraft. More of her work can be found on her Instagram @kmrogers96.