Authors: D.J. Palmer
Simon went alone to dinner with the superintendent and his wife and arrived back home at close to nine o'clock in the evening, carrying a newly purchased plumber's snake he had bought while running errands after school let out. The pesky clog in the bathroom sink had not cleared after earlier attempts with boiling water, baking soda, and salt. He slipped on a pair of gray sweats and went to work on the clog while Nina folded clothes on the bed.
Again it hit her, how strange it was: a scene as normal as could be, but with a new cast member in place, as if Simon were Glen's understudy.
“How's the drain coming?” Nina asked as she laid one of his polo shirts flat on the bed, folded the sleeves back, smoothed the fabric with her hands, carefully folded the sides, and then folded it in half, trying to match the way Simon did it, remembering the instructions on the YouTube video she had watched. Admittedly, she felt a bit insecure, oddly territorial about domains that had once been entirely her own. She had never felt this way with Glenâa need to keep a spotless kitchen and an organized, tidy home, now that the chaos of moving was long gone. But for reasons unclear to her, Nina felt a silent judgment from Simon at times. There was nothing ever spoken, no quip to make her prickle, but a glance, a look that implied unmet expectations.
Any little thing out of placeâa picture hanging crooked, a shoe not
on the shoe rack, a salad not made, a bed left rumpledâhe would tend to it with a resigned air, as if to say this little fragment of disarray had everything to do with her job, their main source of contention.
And so, Nina found herself researching the best ways to fold a polo shirt, if for nothing else than to chip away at the doubts building up about her domestic abilities. This business of messing up Simon's dinner with the superintendent had rattled her. It wasn't like her to forget a plan. She didn't even remember hearing about it until it was too late to alter her schedule, all because she'd been preoccupied with workâor at least that's what she told herself, echoing Simon's words.
If Simon held any lingering resentment about the dinner, he masked it well. Upon his return home, he'd talked glowingly about the school, support for his curriculum, additional money for the robotics team, and the improving test scores across the district. He also shared his worry about the growing epidemic of vaping among young people, another topic that had come up at dinner.
“Have you talked about vaping with Connor and Maggie?” Simon asked from the bathroom.
“No,” Nina said, feeling guilty because she had become well-versed on the issue thanks to her clients.
“It's really a massive problem,” he said. “The THC in the oils these kids are using is way more concentrated than the stuff we had, and a single JUULpod has about the same nicotine level as a pack of cigarettes. Can you believe that?”
Nina could, because she had read up on it.
“You really should talk to the kids about the dangers,” Simon said.
You're not being a good mother.
“Or I can,” he added. “If you'd preferÂ â¦ at least to Connor. You wouldn't believe all the ways that kids hide this stuff. You have to keep an eye out for behavior changesâmoodiness, slipping grades, asking for money.” Simon laughed to himself from the bathroom. “Look who I'm telling, an expert.”
An expert who hasn't talked about it with her own kids,
“Speaking of behavior changes, have you noticed anything strange about Maggie?” Nina asked.
Half of Simon's body appeared in the bathroom's open doorway. He rubbed a hand dry on his sweats.
“Besides acting like I'm the worst person in the world? No.”
“She's beenÂ â¦ different lately,” Nina said. “There's something up with her.”
“Talk to her about it,” Simon suggested, as if Nina hadn't considered that possibility.
“Yeah, I know, and I will, I'm just asking if you've noticed any changes.”
“She still hates me, Nina, and I don't think that is going to change anytime soon.”
Nina heard the hurt in Simon's words and her heart ached for him. He was trying so hard to make it work for everyone, Maggie included. Once again that voice rose up inside her, blaming her for not having paved a better path. She wondered how she could have made it easier for everyone. Could she have better prepared Maggie for the transition? Why hadn't she waited longer to take a job?
Simon returned to the sink and Nina to her laundry when she heard him cry out, “Ah, got you, you bugger!”
A moment later, Nina was in the bathroom, observing water from the running faucet flowing unencumbered down the drain. The plumber's snake stood almost triumphantly on the vanity; its tip browned with gunk fished out from the offending pipe.
“Well done,” Nina said, giving Simon a gentle kiss. “What should we do with this?”
Nina held up the snake, having adopted Simon's penchant for keeping a flawlessly clean bathroom.
“Put it under the sink,” he said. “I'm not completely confident the drain won't clog again.”
Nina opened the cabinet below, while Simon intently studied the water running from the faucet to see if his work really was done.
Inside the vanity, Nina spotted something she'd never seen before: a small, brown glass bottle that looked like it belonged in the medicine cabinet. She took the bottle out and examined the label. It read
R&H IPECAC SYRUP
, which she had a vague recollection was used to induce vomiting.
The safety seal had been removed, and it was obvious some of the contents had been dispensed. Her mother had kept a bottle around the house, and Nina recalled doing the same when Connor was little in case of accidental poisoning. But with poison control hotlines, ipecac was rarely recommended now, and people were encouraged to discard it. Nina had learned this from one of her online courses and remembered having tossed out the medicine ages ago.
“Is this yours?” Nina asked, holding up the bottle for Simon to see.
A grim look crossed his face as if Nina had unearthed something more than a bottle.
“Yes,” he said quietly.
“What on earth do you have it for?” she asked.
Simon shut off the faucet and took the bottle from Nina's hands. He looked shaken, his eyes glazed over.
“I bought it for Emma,” he said, a bit darkly. “More accurately, to use on Emma. It was a just-in-case measure because she was a pill-popper. I haven't really talked about it with you, but in addition to her depression, she was addicted to pain medication. It happened before the opioid crisis was in full bloom, so she stockpiled quite a bit from different doctors, something I found out after the fact.”
That's how she got the pills to kill herself.
“They kept on prescribing even though she had overdosed twice. After the first time, I bought the ipecac, and I gave it to her before we went to the ER. Then her doctors told me it was dangerous to induce vomiting. I don't know why I kept the bottle. Funny, the things you can't seem to part with. Honestly, I didn't even realize I'd brought it here.”
Nina didn't know which of Simon's belongings were part of his history
with Emma. Was the blue ceramic mug he favored a present from her? Had they been antiquing together when they stumbled on the leather love seat or that area rug in front of it? There was never a good opportunity to inquire that didn't feel slightly ghoulish. Emma rarely came up in conversation, for reasons Nina understood all too well. It had taken many, many months of silent rumination, not to mention a push from her friends, to open up about the most unpleasant moments of her own life. Again, Nina thought of Dr. Wilcox's advice that Simon should seek professional help, but soon that was replaced by another thought, a darker one.
You're not safe.
Hugh's words again. Hadn't she put him out of her mind, settled on a picture of him as a drug addictâlike his sister, as she now knew? Is that how Hugh had gotten hooked? Had he been siphoning pills off Emma? Nina took a moment to think about stepping a toe or two over the line. What knowledge she couldn't acquire in her online searches, perhaps she could find out from a primary source.
“What was she like?” Nina asked. She caught a glimpse of herself in the bathroom mirror, and for a second it was a stranger looking back at her. She wondered when this new hairstyle would feel normal to her.
“Who? Emma? Why are you asking?”
An edge invaded Simon's voice, a whisper of how he sounded when he found her on the computer, secretly venturing into his past. He eyed her warily, but his expression remained affable.
“I don't know; I'm just curious about the people in your life, your marriage, is all. We don't ever talk about it.”
But her thoughts spoke more truthfully:
Because I want to know more about HughÂ â¦ I want to know if I should trust him, and really, if I should pay him.
Simon stood behind Nina and wrapped his arms around her. He studied their reflection in the bathroom mirror, rocking her back and forth as if swaying to music only he could hear.
“I don't talk about it because I'm with you. We don't talk about Glen all the time, do we?”
He kissed the top of Nina's head, the reflection of his eyes staying locked on hers.
“No, I suppose we don't,” said Nina. “But maybe we should.”
Simon pulled away, looking suddenly confrontational. “Why? What good would that do?”
“I'm just curious, is all,” Nina repeated, her heartbeat picking up as she edged toward the truth. “I want to know all about you, including your past. Did you and Emma ever talk about having children? What did you two fight about? Why do you think she took her own life? There's a big part of your life I don't know anything about, Simon. Maybe you're holding on to something, and, well, talking about it would make things better.”
Trying to read Simon's emotions was like looking at a blank canvas.
“Better in what way?”
Nina felt her resolve begin to retreat. “You know, better with me, your issues with my job.”
Nina waited anxiously for a crackling smile that didn't come. “Are you serious?”
“My only concern is that you working is bad for Maggie,” Simon said, venturing into the bedroom, with Nina following. “You yourself said she's acting strangely. I wonder why?”
“That's not fair,” Nina said, responding directly to his sarcasm.
“I told you what would happen,” answered Simon.
“Why are you being like this?”
“Like what?” Simon snapped.
“Mean,” said Nina.
Simon picked up the clothes that Nina had folded and brought them to the closet, where he carefully shelved them.
“I'm not being mean,” he said, talking in an almost saccharine tone,
a few ticks from being condescending. “I'm simply stating the facts as I see them. Maggie is struggling, and, well, I'm not surprised.”
Guilt and anger exploded like fireworks going off inside her. Color flushed her cheeks.
“I don't get why you keep harping on my job. It's an issue of yours and I don't think my working has anything to do with Maggie's behavior. I'm merely trying to get a better sense of your life before us, learn a bit more about Emma, and Hugh, and what they were like. That's all.”
Simon emerged from the closet with a bemused look on his face. His arms were folded tightly across his chest, head cocked slightly to one side, his eyes appraising Nina curiously.
“I don't remember ever mentioning my brother-in-law to you,” he said tonelessly.
Nina's thoughts flickered. She searched for the right words, some satisfactory explanation, but her throat convulsed, a hitch entering her breathing.
“I'mÂ â¦ I'm sure you did, at some point,” Nina said nervously. “He must have come up in conversation and you forgot. Where else would I get the name?”
Simon's eyes raked over her with an assessing glance.
“Hmmm, I think I would have remembered.”
“Well, I'm positive you mentioned him,” Nina said assuredly. She hoped the bravado camouflaged her mounting discomfort. Simon did not seem dissuaded.
“He's a drug addict, and I told Emma to be careful with her medication because of it, but she never listened. We were robbed more than once, and I'm sure it was Hugh's doing. I think Emma was sure, too, because she kept forgetting to set the alarmâsister helping brother. Do you remember
A jagged energy came from Simon. His eyes dimmed. Deep channels creased his forehead. He stepped forward, an almost threatening gesture, and Nina felt a sudden urge to retreat. The next instant something shifted again, so quickly that if Nina hadn't been on alert, she'd
have missed it entirely. In a span of a few beats, his expression went from withering to wary to affable. It was as if a director had yelled “Action!” and Simon immediately slipped into character.
“I must have talked about him,” he said. “Guess I forgot.”
“You frightened me,” Nina admitted.
“Well, Hugh frightens me,” said Simon. “Brings up bad memories.”
Simon sat on the bed, and Nina sat down beside him.
“It's hard for me to talk about Emma.”
Nina's inner voice spoke loudly:
NowÂ â¦ now is your moment.
“MaybeÂ â¦ maybe we should talk to someone together,” she suggested.
Simon's eyebrows arched. “Who?”
“My therapist, Dr. Wilcox.”
Nina tossed out the suggestion, nervous how Simon would respond.
For a moment, he again was that blank canvas, but soon enough a thoughtful look crossed his face, followed by a light of recognition.
“Sure,” he said, giving her hand a squeeze. “I think I'd like that.”