By Leila Mohr
We are walking along the dunes at Corn Hill Beach with my grandfather, Baba. The sun is broiling our backs, and there aren’t any clouds. We smell like suntan lotion and laundered clothes. Baba breathes heavily as he walks. He wears clean sneakers with white socks pulled halfway up his calves. I have a new pair of flip-flops in one hand, my toes seeping into the sand. My brother runs ahead, an inflatable red lobster tucked under his arm.
We were supposed to leave the Cape a week ago to go back home to our mother, but we are still here. At night, after we’ve been bathed and fed, my grandparents fight about what to do with us. The day camp with the dreadlocked artist has ended; neither of us did well with tennis.
Wyatt is eight, and I am ten. We sleep in bunk beds in my grandparents’ renovated wing. When I close my eyes, I hear large ice cubes fill my grandmother’s glass, the freezer open and close. We have a whole dresser of new clothes they’ve bought us, some colorful toys in a wicker basket. If they yell at each other loudly enough, Wyatt sniffles and cries. “Be quiet,” I try to tell him, but he doesn’t understand. On my back, I lie as still as I can be in the top bunk, pretending I’m frozen in glass. If my grandmother hears my brother cry and peeks into the room, she’ll think that I’m asleep.
“Over here,” Baba says, and we move toward the water. He’s packed a cooler with Goldfish and Milano cookies, juice boxes, and cans of Coke. His white hair sneaks out the back of his baseball cap. Wyatt throws his shirt off and runs into the water, thrashing wildly in the waves. Baba takes off his shoes and socks carefully. He looks far out into the ocean, his soft skin glistening in the sun. The waves crash onto the sand, and the wind twirls through my hair.
Last week, when I asked my grandmother why we weren’t going back home to our mother, she wouldn’t give me a straight answer. “Your mother is busy,” she said. She was staring at herself in the mirror of her bathroom, fluffing her hair. “She’s writing a paper for her Statistics class.” My grandmother sprayed perfume on her wrists and then rubbed them together. Her gold bracelets slid down her arm. “She needs more time.”
“Don’t you want to go in the water?” Baba says.
The truth is I am afraid of swimming, but I get up and walk slowly through the thick sand, sitting down at the water’s edge. Wyatt is pretending to be a shark, flapping his hands like fins and growling. We are two different islands; we almost can’t see each other.
* * *
The next day, our grandmother takes us to her friend’s studio in Provincetown. The room is dusty and made of wood. They stand cramped over a tiny kitchen island while Wyatt and I slouch on a cushion in the window. He plays with a Spiderman action figure, banging it against the windowpane. I look at my grandmother and her friend; their faces lit under a dangling orange bulb. My grandmother says something under her breath, and I can tell she’s talking about us. Her friend wears a yellow scarf tied around her skinny neck. Bright red blush is smeared on the apples of her cheeks. She looks over at us from the kitchen, shaking her head.
“How long are we going to be here, anyway?” my brother asks.
“Probably forever,” I say.
I don’t know anything more than he does, but I tell myself this is where I want to be.
“I’m bored,” he says.
“Why?” I whisper. “This is better than back home.”
Wyatt kicks my leg with his dirty sneaker.
“No, it’s not,” he yells. “Back home is way better than this shit.”
Neither of us is talking about our mother.
“Be quiet, kiddos,” my grandmother calls from the counter. She has a thick white stripe in her red hair. Her friend drops a handful of ice cubes into each of their pale pink drinks.
I try to imagine what my mother is doing without us. I picture her walking around the neighborhood late at night, her long skirt dragging on the sidewalk. I imagine the way she looks when she falls asleep on the couch before dinner. I imagine her when she sits in the living room with all the lights turned off. Then I stop.
Wyatt glares at me, going a little cross-eyed, then picks up his action figure, hurling it across the room.
* * *
Baba and I stand in my grandparents’ driveway as the sun is lowering into the trees. He puts his hands on his hips and stares at the three llamas behind the fence of the Monroes’ property next door. Baba’s been trying to sue the Monroes to make them get rid of the llamas ever since they arrived last year. He hates the way the llamas smell and look and especially how they screech. The llamas have golden fur and tall, fuzzy ears. I like the way their bodies waddle as they sniff around the fence, but I won’t admit this to Baba. His polo shirt is crisp and white; his soft belly hangs over his belt.
“The Monroes should listen to you, Baba,” I say. “Llamas don’t belong on the Cape.”
Baba turns to me, looking startled.
“Well,” he says. “The Monroes never listen to anyone.” On the side of his face is a large sunspot the size of a quarter. Around his serious eyes are thick folds of skin. The woods smell like rain and wildflowers. Baba shakes his head and looks down at the gravel. I can tell he thinks the llamas are dirty, and I know he hates dirty things.
Baba turns around, walking along the driveway. When we first arrived three weeks ago, he held my hand and gave me piggyback rides while we gathered seashells on the beach. Now he walks ahead, leaving me on my own. Once he’s on the deck, I stand on my tiptoes, trying to get a good look at the llamas, but all I can see are hints of their shaggy fur through the trees. I wait for them to scream the way Baba hates, but for some reason, they are silent.
* * *
For dinner, my grandmother makes swordfish with rice and herbs and salad. We sit at the round table overlooking the deck. Opera is playing on the stereo, and tall candles burn on the shelf behind us. Baba eats without saying a word and keeps getting up to refill his water glass. My grandmother’s gold earrings shine under the ceiling lamp. Her knuckles are bulgy knobs from arthritis.
My grandmother says children should be seen and not heard, so I sit as quietly as I can, barely moving a muscle. Other times she wants to talk, reminding me to always be a good daughter to my mother. I sit on the edge of my seat, and my mind stays ready. I can go whichever way she pleases.
Wyatt eats all his rice and only two bites of swordfish. He pushes his plate in front of him and sinks into his chair, his head slumped in his hands.
“No elbows on the table,” my grandmother says, peering down at him.
Pink splotches form along his face. I’m afraid he’s going to cry, so I nudge his ankle under the table.
“And you need to finish what’s on your plate, mister,” my grandmother says. She puts her hand on his shoulder, guiding him back in his seat. “No leaving this table until you’ve eaten every last bite.”
There’s a stain of bright red lipstick on her glass. She sits with her chin curved up toward the ceiling like she is a queen and we are her subjects.
Baba chews each bite of food slowly. His ears are hairy and very large. I try to eat the way he does: making a perfect bite, then putting the silverware down to chew. He brings his napkin to his lips between bites, dabbing his mouth gently.
On the bookshelf in my grandparents’ living room is a photo of my mother in her red lifeguard swimming suit from when she was younger. The suit is wet with water, and my mother looks at the camera with her hand in front of her eyes, shielding her face from the sun. At home with her, we eat fish sticks on the floor from paper plates while we watch TV. She holds herself importantly, like my grandmother, but she and Baba have the same sad eyes.
When my mother was in trouble last year after a fight with her ex-boyfriend Mark, Baba surprised us by flying into town. He walked through our house like he was scared to be there. “You shouldn’t have shown up without calling, Dad,” my mother said. While she ran from room to room, gathering dirty dishes and picking up trash, Baba took me outside to sit on the front steps. He put his arm around my shoulder and told me that when he was a kid, his father lost everything in the Great Depression. “I had to clean toilets to put myself through law school,” he said. His eyes looked glassy and liquid, like crystal balls. Later, I asked my mother why Baba was so upset. She thought about it for a moment. Then she said that Baba didn’t like how many things were broken. “He thinks I can do it all on my own,” she said, “but I can’t.” My mother chugged a bottle of orange Gatorade with both hands. “I’m doing the best I can,” she said.
Wyatt takes a big bite of swordfish and then spits it out onto his plate, pretending to throw up. “I hate this stupid food,” he says.
My grandmother takes a long sip of her clear drink on ice, her lips tightening. She looks toward Baba, but he doesn’t say a word.
My grandmother pulls Wyatt off his chair and drags him into our bedroom.
Wyatt screams and cries, throwing something against the wall.
The Opera has stopped playing. “That was a tasty dinner, Baba,” I say. I try to make eye contact with him, but he’s staring down at his empty plate, fiddling with the clasp of his wristwatch.
* * *
In the morning, my grandmother drives us up the road to a kids pottery class at the Arts Center. The registration had already closed when we found out we were staying on the Cape, so my grandmother had to squeeze us in by calling the instructor herself. Wyatt is still mad at my grandmother for last night. She holds his shoulder, guiding him in a straight line as we walk through the parking lot. Wind shakes the trees above us, and the salty air is crisp. My grandmother’s high-heeled penny loafers click against the pavement. She helped found the Arts Center, so she is an important person here. My grandmother is also important because she has written speeches for politicians and is the president of many clubs. She likes to remind us of all the things she does, that she is an expert of art and words and manners. When the people in the Arts Center office see us walk by, they come to the door and wave.
“Be on your best behavior, kiddos,” my grandmother says before leaving us.
The pottery class meets outside under a tan-colored tarp. We stand around, grabbing hunks of clay from a lumpy pile in the middle of the table. Wyatt grabs his clay sloppily and uses both hands, sculpting it into a bulbous-looking face.
“That’s interesting,” the teacher says, walking past him. “Is it a monster?”
“No,” he says, without looking up. “It’s my grandmother.”
I’m too far away to kick him under the table. Two kids with matching buzzcuts talk too loudly, chattering on and on about the drive-in movie theatre in Wellfleet. I fumble with the clay, trying to imagine what Baba might like. Wyatt looks scary as he thumbs at his ugly clay face. He goes a little cross-eyed again, acting like no one is watching.
Baba had open-heart surgery last year, so I mold a piece of the wet clay into a heart, the only thing I can imagine him liking. On the day of his surgery, my mother made us drive by her ex-boyfriend Mark’s house over and over. It was what she did when she was stressed, a way to calm her nerves.
I knead another ball of clay with my knuckles, making it into a mug for Baba to drink his morning orange juice. The kids are still talking around me, but in my mind, their voices are static. The teacher touches my shoulder and I jolt up in my seat. She bends down to inspect my creation. “You better finish up,” she says. “It’s almost time to go home.”
The teacher smells like wet clay and hash browns. Her dangly earrings blend into her hair. She stands up and wipes her clay-covered hands on her apron. She looks at me like I am far away.
* * *
That night, my grandmother serves us steak and mashed potatoes that she’s ordered from a restaurant called Logan’s. She pours the potatoes onto plates in the kitchen from a plastic takeout container, some splattering onto the counter.
At the table, Baba runs his fork through the potatoes and then puts it down, taking a drink of his water. I can tell he isn’t happy with how messy the plates look or the quality of the food. My grandmother stands in the kitchen, looking at us angrily. She makes herself a clear drink on ice and licks her finger, flipping through the newspaper. Then she turns away and stares out the window above the sink toward the Monroes’ property. She runs her hand through the white stripe in her hair. I try to figure out why she’s mad and wonder if it’s because of the llamas. Even from the table, I can hear them making their usual noise.
Wyatt starts eating right away, slurping up his potatoes loudly.
The phone rings and my grandmother runs to answer it. “Hello, darling,” she says, and I know without a doubt that it’s my mother. She walks quickly into her bedroom with the phone, taking her drink and closing the door behind her. The potatoes are runny and taste like straw.
Baba eats half of his steak and gets up from the table. He walks to the door of my grandparents’ bedroom and then stops. He leans forward, trying to listen, but then wanders off to his office in the back of the house.
Wyatt puts his head down on the table and starts to cry. His tears moisten the rust-colored tablecloth.
“What’s wrong with you?” I say.
“Just shut up,” he says. “Don’t look at me.” He keeps crying, harder and harder. His tears are on his T-shirt and his napkin, and even in his hair. I get up from the table and run to the bathroom in the renovated wing. I lock the door and sit down in the dry bathtub. I try not to think about what’s wrong with my mother. But when I close my eyes, I see her floating in the middle of the Kettle Pond in Wellfleet. Wyatt, my grandparents, and I are standing around the edge of the pond. We try to yell at her, to ask her if she’s okay, but she can’t hear us. She floats on her back in her red lifeguard uniform. Her hair looks like black ink in the water. One of the llamas shrieks loudly from the Monroes’ property, and I open my eyes. I try to make myself cry like Wyatt, but my tears must be frozen. Nothing comes out.
* * *
At pottery class the next day, the teacher gives us our fired sculptures. The strange face Wyatt made looks more like a lion than our grandmother. The teacher doesn’t say anything when she hands me my mug with the heart on it, but she seems impressed with Wyatt’s. She ruffles his bangs.
When we get home in the afternoon, Baba is reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson in an armchair. I slip my shoes off at the door and run over to him.
“This is for you, Baba.” I want to tell him I’m glad he didn’t die during his open-heart surgery, but I don’t.
Baba holds the mug into the light and studies the uneven heart on its side. He breathes heavily as he turns it in his hands.
“Thank you,” he says, placing it on the table beside him.
My grandmother is watching us from the kitchen. She runs into her bedroom and comes back out, holding a box. “You want to see something great?” she says, sitting down on the couch. “These are your mother’s things from when she was a child.” She searches through the box, sorting through red ribbons and papers with the letter A. Then she takes out a stack of little notebooks. One of them says Poems by J.B. Dunne. “That was her pen name,” my grandmother says. She opens the notebook and reads one of the poems, her face twisting as she thinks, then passes it to Baba.
Baba squints through his glasses, reading the poem in the little book. Then he holds it in his lap and stares into space. My cheeks sting. I look at my mug on the table, already forgotten. She isn’t special anymore, I want to say to my grandparents. She doesn’t even have a job or make us dinner. I want to tell them she acts just as immature as Wyatt, that she’s worse than a little kid.
My grandparents stay in their spots beside each other. All I can think about is grabbing the box from Baba’s hands and spitting on it. Wyatt throws a basketball into the air, and it almost knocks into the antique lamp next to the dining table. Neither of my grandparents looks up.
* * *
Outside the house, Wyatt sits on the rope swing that hangs from the black oak tree, his feet barely touching the dirt. Baba built the swing last summer when we came to the Cape with our mother. I pick wild blueberries from the cluster of bushes next to the driveway, collecting them in a mug.
“I don’t think Baba likes us anymore,” Wyatt says. He holds each white rope tightly, stretching one foot down and kicking at the dirt. His face is covered with freckles from the sun.
“Don’t say that,” I tell him. My grandmother is inside on the phone, and Baba has been gone all day, but I still worry that somehow they can hear us.
“Why?” Wyatt starts pumping in the swing. “I don’t care.”
“You’re wrong,” I say. I hold the mug in my elbow and try to ignore him, pretending I’m a mother in the olden days, gathering food for her children. “You don’t know anything.”
“I know more than you do,” Wyatt says, hocking a loogie in the dirt. The wind sends bits of leaves flying through the air. “I hate Baba.”
Breath catches in my throat. Wyatt doesn’t know what I know: that Baba bought us our house and pays for our food, that the Spiderman action figures my mother buys for him are really from Baba, not from her.
“You would love him more than anyone in the world if you were smart,” I say.
I stare far into the blueberry bushes. When we were here with our mother last summer, she sat on the deck reading the newspaper while we played. She smoked cigarettes at the picnic table when my grandmother and Baba were gone, letting the ashes fall into a used soup can.
“Don’t tell Baba I’m smoking, kids,” she said.
A car drives by the winding gravel road. Before it appears through the trees, I hope that it’s Baba coming back home. Wyatt swings through the air, his floppy bangs blowing in the wind. I stuff a small handful of blueberries in my mouth. The car drives past us but doesn’t stop. I try to picture where Baba might be. My grandmother says he doesn’t have any friends and will drive all the way to Falmouth if he needs to get away. “Your grandfather needs hobbies,” she told me once. “He has nothing else to do.”
* * *
“I just need a little bit more time to myself,” my mother says on the phone. “To work on my Statistics paper.” It is almost our bedtime, and Wyatt and I are both in our new pajamas. Wyatt yawns and crosses his arms in front of him. “Are you having a good time?” my mother says. “You haven’t said anything bad about me to Baba, have you?” Her words are slurred.
My grandmother watches us from the other side of the kitchen counter. Draped around her shoulders is a leopard print scarf. She paces along the counter while Wyatt talks to my mother, looking sideways at the phone. I can tell from how her eyes dart around the room that she is worried about something, probably my mother, but I don’t feel sorry for her.
* * *
Late at night, I hear Wyatt snore from the bottom bunk. Outside, cicadas sing loudly. The heavy glass door to the deck opens and closes, and I tiptoe to the edge of the hallway. Through the crack of the door separating the renovated wing, I watch my grandparents fight. Baba paces the floor, his hands in his khaki pants’ pockets. My grandmother stands in front of the sliding door like she is guarding it. Broken glass has shattered on the floor between them. My grandmother’s face is as red as an apple.
“It’s not my responsibility,” Baba yells. “And I’m not going to do it anymore.”
“Oh shut up, Eddie,” my grandmother says meanly.
“Bailing her out like this only makes things worse,” Baba says. “They’re her kids.”
Baba tries to leave through the glass door, pushing past my grandmother, but she spreads her arms out dramatically, holding her place in front of the door handle. Her lipstick is smeared above her mouth, and brown liquid has been spilled on her dress.
“She’s sick, Mary Lou,” Baba says, staring at my grandmother’s face.
“You’re sick,” my grandmother yells.
I climb back up to the top bunk. If Baba doesn’t want us, then I don’t want myself.
Under the covers, I plan out where I would go if I ran away. I picture myself racing across the gravel road and then deep into the trees, all the way to the Kettle Pond. I try to imagine what they would do if I disappeared.
* * *
At the table in the afternoon, my grandmother tells us to write letters to our mother. She brings us markers and postcards with photos of lighthouses. “Tell your mother that you love her madly.” My grandmother is wearing a fringed suede coat that’s supposed to be fancy. Her nails are freshly painted red, and she holds her hands on her hips, looking down at us.
“Come on,” she says, gesturing for us to sit up straight. “Let’s do it with some energy.”
Wyatt draws a picture of a monster and writes, “I love my Mom,” in his usual messy scribble. I take my time, trying to think of what to say. I grip the markers tightly, pulling the caps on and off.
My grandmother is standing in the kitchen making a drink on ice when I finish my postcard and bring it to her.
“Let’s see what you wrote,” she says. Her eyes narrow as she scans the postcard.
“Baba’s mad because the llamas in the Monroes’ yard make too much noise. The lawsuit isn’t going anywhere. I hope nothing bad has happened to you, Mom.”
Red streaks creep up my grandmother’s neck to her face. She rips the postcard in two as she watches me. Then she throws it in the trash.
“Why don’t you try it again,” she says. She pulls an onion from a bowl on the counter and starts to chop. “Go on,” she says. She takes an Altoid from the tin on the counter and sucks on it, staring at me closely. I feel her eyes on my back as I turn around. Instead of sitting at the table and writing another postcard, I slip outside to the deck, slamming the screen door behind me. Fireflies glow in the twilight. I grab one as it flies by, holding it tightly in my hand.
I run to the back of the house and kneel down next to the gardening supplies. The dirt is wet from the rain. I pound the ground with my fists and rub the dirt over my arms. Tears rush down my face, and I wipe them away, the mud from my hands stinging my eyes. I don’t care anymore about anyone, not even Baba. I don’t care if he hates that I’m dirty. I don’t care if he hates dirty things.
My grandmother walks through the grass and stands over me. Even from here I can smell her sour breath.
She bends down and reaches for my hair. She runs her fingers through the snarls in the back. She reaches for my hand, but I push her away.
“Come on,” she says, kneeling down. “Come back inside.”
I slap her hand away and crouch even closer to the house. The grey shingles press against my back, and the dirt is still wet on my face. I want to growl at my grandmother, to make her go away. Instead, I cover my face with my hands and cry some more, more loudly this time. My grandmother steps away from me slowly. On the back of her fancy suede coat is a thick smear of dirt.
* * *
We watch Labyrinth in the living room in our pajamas. My grandmother sits behind us, talking to herself as she does a crossword puzzle on the round table. I’m not paying attention to the TV but listening to her as she mumbles on and on, trying to figure out the puzzle. Her ice cubes clink against her glass.
Wyatt nuzzles up next to me; a sunburn that’s started peeling is stamped on his nose.
“I miss Mom,” he says, his upper lip quivering. Instead of crying loudly like usual, he covers his eyes with his hand.
Wyatt peeks behind him at my grandmother and narrows his eyes at her. “How much longer will we be here?” he whispers, bending down to hide in the couch cushion.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I might be running away.”
Wyatt considers this, nodding thoughtfully.
“I’d go to California,” he says. “It’s always warm there.”
“I would just live out in the woods,” I say. “Off the land.”
We are both ducked down, our faces almost touching.
“I don’t need anything anyway,” I say. “I can take care of myself.”
Wyatt squints as though he’s wondering whether this is true.
“You’d never do it,” he decides, wiping his eyes. “You’re too afraid.”
He reaches for the remote on the coffee table and starts flipping through the channels. Before he can say anything else, I force the remote out of Wyatt’s hands and switch off the TV. I clutch it tightly and sprint into our bedroom as he starts to scream, slamming the door behind me.
* * *
Baba and I are sitting on the couch in the living room when the phone rings. It’s late at night. My grandmother is out with her friends playing bridge, and Wyatt is already asleep. Baba gets up and walks slowly to the phone in the kitchen. He says hello and then holds the receiver away from his ear. Even from all the way on the couch, I can hear my mother’s voice on the other line. Baba turns his back to me. A large wrinkle runs through his white polo shirt.
“What are you saying?” he says. “What’s the problem?”
He goes into his bedroom and closes the door. I get up from the couch and stand in the hallway next to the kitchen, my back pressed against the wall. I can hear Baba’s footsteps pace loudly, the low tone of his voice, but can’t make out any words. The lightbulb above the stove flickers. My clay mug sits on the windowsill above the sink, next to my grandmother’s stash of matches.
I imagine my mother walking alone in our neighborhood again. This time she is stumbling.
Baba comes out of the bedroom and puts the phone back in its caddy. He goes to the sink without looking at me and holds his hand under the faucet, letting it run.
“She shouldn’t have done it, Baba,” I say loudly. “She shouldn’t have called so late.” My hands are held behind my back, and my shoulders are shaking. Baba turns around slowly and looks at me; his sad eyes are as wide as seashells.
“Let’s not get carried away,” he says quietly. He walks past me back to his room, flipping off the lights before closing the door.
* * *
Early in the morning, the sky is still silver and the air is still wet. I unlock the front door and slip outside to the deck. A foggy mist falls on my face, and I walk down the steps and onto the gravel, looking for the llamas. The fog starts to clear, and I take off, running through the trees. My sneakers almost slip on the wet leaves, but I steady myself. When I get as close to the llamas as I can, I slip my fingers through the wire fence, looking up at them. Their eyes are dark and wet like pools of oil. One of the llamas glares down at me, letting out a long, ugly screech.
The sound is so loud that it almost hurts. I bend over, covering my ears. One of the llamas is taller than the other two. I wonder who they are to each other. My fingers squeeze the fence tighter and tighter. I stare into their huge dark eyes and scream back.
Leila Mohr is a 2021 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Fiction from The New York Foundation for the Arts. She earned her MFA from Columbia University and her BA from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a novel. This is her first published story.