“Sprinkles” by Ward Howarth

In my hand, the 2 x 4 feels like a weapon.

Which it is, in a way.

A weapon of choice.

Leverage for a new life, both literally and figuratively.

To be honest, I had considered using a handheld blowtorch to melt down the outside door handle of my in-laws’ screened-in back porch and render it inoperable. A real showy and dramatic gesture, to really bring home the point I was trying to make. But the cute man at the hardware store said the heat of direct flame alone, plus the gloves I’d need and even just the small propane tank I’d have to lug around — it would all be overkill, really, and to just go at it simple.

A hammer, nails, and wood.

“What exactly are you trying to keep from getting out of this door?” he asked.

“Animals,” I said with a smile, and he nodded in approval, as if he’d had to tackle this very same problem more than a few times in his own life. Quite assuredly, I imagine, given the looks of him. Some visible brawn through his shirt, a confident smile. In truth, I hate to think this is true, since by animals I really mean people, but the end result is the same, no matter how I might spin it to a divorce lawyer.

And since it’s the day after Christmas, and it’s cold as shit outside, I get right to it, bracing the nearly 4-foot long piece of wood across the door with my hip, hammering one end of it into the outer trim near the hinges and the other just below the latch, jamming it up under the exterior handle, two nails on each end.

And just like that, it’s done.

I test the screen door to be sure it won’t open and a forceful tug on the outside handle gives me satisfaction. It has, at most, perhaps a quarter inch of give, and I yank on it a few times to be sure, just to hear and feel its spirit of frustration. Not so unlike my own, I think, pulling a pack of Marlboro Lights from my back pocket. It shouldn’t be long now, I think, just to wait out the time it will take for my family to unwrap the gifts I’ve left for them under my mother-in-law’s overdecorated Christmas tree. We stay at Greg’s parents’ house every year for the holidays and I swear, with the ornaments, the lights, the fucking two-ton Angel they nearly weld to the top, the thing could collapse any minute now, and yet Gail would probably blame me, again, for ruining Christmas.

She’s certain to do that from now on, I think, allowing myself a smile and taking a long drag, the warmth of the smoke in my lungs the only true comfort I’ve known for days. Greg may have given me a hug on Tuesday. Or was it Monday? Our physical interaction is so infrequent, so insignificant, that I can’t even remember it, and now, shaking here in both the cold and the stir of my own nerves, I’m looking forward to not having to remember it at all.

“Aunt Claire?”

Stunned by the innocent sound of my niece’s voice, I whip around to find her standing just behind me, shivering. She’s left her coat in the car, apparently, even after I’d explicitly told her to wait there for me and not get out. I even gave her my iPad, put on some Netflix anime I know she likes, and promised her ice cream once we leave. She’s nine.

I try and hide the panic in my voice. “Goldie, what are you doing? I told you to wait in the car for me.”

Marigold fidgets with her hands. She’s clearly uncomfortable. With the situation, with the cold. “I… I didn’t know where you were.”

“I’m right here, just like I told you I would be. Now please, go back to the car. We’re gonna leave in just a minute.”

“OK,” she says, and for the briefest of moments, I’m relieved she’s complied so willingly. I’d be so proud of myself, I think, if she were my own child. But then her eyes find the 2 x 4 across the door and she points at it, surprised.

“What’s that?”

My eyes also dart to the door, as if I, too, am stunned by the 2 x 4. Something so out of place, so out of touch with its surroundings.

Please, Marigold.

Any minute now…

“Oh that?” I say, as surprised as I can be. “That’s just something that grandpa asked me to help him with. Now, please, go back to the car, I’lll tell you all about it over ice cream sundaes!”

Christ, I think, the both of us trembling in this NorCal chill, why couldn’t I have thought of some other consolation? I wink and I smile and that nearly convinces Marigold to turn and go, but then we both hear what sound like raised voices from inside the house. Marigold looks good and scared now. Why couldn’t you just have stayed in the car, I think, kneeling down to her and calling up a stern auntie voice. “Look, I wasn’t supposed to tell you, but your mommy needs to tell everyone about something important, and she wanted me to take you out for ice cream while she did it, ok? It’s mommy and daddy stuff, you know, ugh. So please go back to the car, because if you catch a cold, mommy will not be pleased, and you know what that means.”

Marigold does indeed know what that means, knows the biting weight of self-doubt that comes from even just one of my sister’s thinly veiled corrections and, even worse, Evelyn’s holier-than-thou criticisms that get under your skin like a virus. I wonder, after today, if that will change? Because what she and my soon-to-be ex-husband are most likely trying to explain to her husband and his parents in this very moment, raised voices and all, is why each of them received the very same Christmas present from me, an individually wrapped framed photograph of Evelyn and Greg doing the very thing he and I used to do almost daily in college and then well into our marriage, for a time, until work and life and my two miscarriages got in the way of joy and happiness and all that in-sickess-and-in-health shit.

Thankfully, Marigold just looks at the ground, the way all young children do when adults get the better of them, and mumbles an ‘okay’ before turning and hustling off to my car, which I’ve parked on just the other side of the cul-de-sac where my in-laws live, far enough away that she won’t see any of what’s about to happen, but not so far away that I can’t quickly get to it and take off. Suddenly, it dawns on me that I’m thinking like a criminal. Look at me, a getaway driver! I may not be doing the right thing, but at least I’m doing it well, I think, taking a long drag and listening as the sounds of discord from inside the house get closer and closer to the back sun room.

And it’s almost like a cliche, then, the way that memories and moments hit me from all sides, as if I’m suddenly dying and seeing my last light. I think of meeting Greg at that basement show in college, the one where I was too scared to even approach the beer keg because I didn’t know how to work the faucet. I think of spending entire weekends in his dorm room, drinking Johnnie Walker while we listened to Black Flag and Stiff Little Fingers and played strip poker with his roommate and his girlfriend. I think of our forest wedding in Humboldt and the way we timed it to the autumn solstice so that we’d always be away hiking on our anniversary. I think of my first miscarriage, of course, the way it appeared so suddenly, out of nowhere. Right there in the toilet one day. And then I remember how insistent Greg was that since we weren’t going to be parents right away that it was the right time for him to pursue life in a band and the wrong time for me to attend law school. So much for family planning, I think, and it’s as clear as day, the way I remember my second miscarriage. It happened on a Thursday while Greg was all the way up in Oregon, opening for a hot local band on the verge of their big break. I remember crying so hard over the phone I could hardly form words. I remember him telling me he was about to miss sound check. Greg tends bar now, four nights a week, and hasn’t touched his bass in months. I take my last drag and toss the butt and think of how I told all of this to the private investigator I hired and of the way I rambled off to him as if he were my therapist. And then I think of that cute man at the hardware store and I wonder if he’s a good listener and if he’s single. If he is, I wonder if he’d like to fuck a soon-to-be divorced paralegal later tonight in the back of an ’03 Accord with 140 thousand miles and its check engine light on.

“Claire! Claire!”

At long last, there’s Greg, trying to get through the back door.

At long last, there’s Greg, stuck.

Just exactly where I’ve been for months.

Stuck at home, stuck at work, stuck at the fertility clinic.

And Greg being Greg, he just keeps at it with the door, trying to get out, screaming my name. Tears well in my eyes as I realize it’s the most passionate he’s ever been toward me and I wonder if he screams Evelyn’s name that way, too. Behind him, I find my soon-to-be ex-in-laws, Gail and Dan, gawking at me as if I’m both possessed and terminally ill at the same time. I won’t miss either of them. Gail had always been impossible to please, and Dan, well — let’s just say Dan never missed an opportunity to check out my ass. The tears are really falling now as I start to back away, but there’s no way I can pull my eyes from the spectacle of horror I’ve created, watching now as my sister’s husband Tom — really a nice guy, he doesn’t deserve this — he’s coming after Greg now with the fury of a linebacker. And the sinking feeling within me reminds me that this is not a victorious moment, or one in which the brave heroine gets her due, and I can only hope — can only pray, really — that this is the ugliest moment I will ever know.

I force myself to look for Evelyn through the madness — these sun room windows are really quite impressive, you can see all the way into the kitchen — and I find her there, slouched in a heap, covering her face as she sobs into the floor. Let me tell you, sister — I know the feeling. The emptiness spreading now throughout your entire body? The complete inability you’ll have in the coming days to process even the simplest of tasks? The loathing, the self-hate, the soulless feeling that your life is destroyed?

Merry Christmas, bitch.

And now, having finally seen enough, I turn and start for the car, for Marigold. Before any of them think to just run out the front door and come after me. And it’s a shame, really, that I’m confronted with an even sadder truth beyond everything I’ve just witnessed — just how long will it be before they realize Marigold is with me?

So I decide, right then and there.

Marigold and I will have as much ice cream as we like — with sprinkles.

Lots of sprinkles.

Bio: Ward Howarth is the author of River City Blues, a historical thriller set in Richmond, VA during World War II. He was voted ‘Best Local Author With A New Book’ in Richmond Magazine’s 30th Annual Best & Worst issue, August 2017. He was born in Richmond in 1976 and lives there with his wife and son. A television broadcast professional by day, he is currently at work on his second novel. Find him on Twitter at @Ward_Howarth.

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