Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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The Tests

by Claire McMurray




Vivianna


It is sunny and warm and quite dry. So she puts the top down on the convertible before she gets in, careful to put the gift in the back where it won’t blow away. As she speeds down the highway she imagines how she must look to the other drivers: a young woman, carefree and pretty, her long hair streaming out behind her. The image pleases her and she manages to feel peaceful for a few moments until she remembers about Wendell. She pictures him sitting at his desk, perched high on the seventeenth floor, his feet rubbing back and forth on the cream carpet. It is a tic that she finds particularly irritating, for he also does it at home at the dining table. His glasses will be balanced on his nose as he frowns fixedly at his computer screen.

She looks at the highway like a ribbon running beneath her and at the bright sun above. Sundays are for drives like these, she thinks, or for lazy brunches of waffles and berries. Not for the air-conditioned office and the click, clicking of the mouse. Not that she has had many such lazy days. She, too, has spent her share of Sundays trapped at work. Trapped is perhaps the wrong word, for it implies resentment and anger. She loves her job and feels that it suits her nicely. She always returns home with a sigh of contentment and a sense of accomplishment. Even so, on days like today she is happy enough to escape it and to just drive, warm and smiling in the sun.

She takes her exit and follows the twists and turns of the map. She enters a subdivision like a maze, with shingled cottages lining the curving streets. She finds the house and pulls the car up to the curb. Teetering inside on her heels she stretches the gift out in front of her like a talisman. She finds she is made slightly anxious by all of the bright colors, banners, and cardboard cutouts of babies and rattles plastered to the wall. Louisa emerges smiling from the kitchen, her belly swollen under her cotton dress.

“Vivianna!” she exclaims brightly. “I’m so glad you could make it.” Louisa takes the gift and hands Vivianna a glass of punch. “How are things in the office? David still being an asshole? Did the merger go through? God, it feels like forever. It will be nice to get back once this is over.” She points to her stomach. “Be glad that you don’t have to deal with this, my dear. I don’t know what I would do if Linus weren’t a Parent. He can’t wait for it.” She rolls her eyes, but her voice is gentle.

Vivanna sips the punch and tries to scrunch her eyes into an expression of sympathy. Truth be told, she has no idea what it is like to be pregnant, nor will she ever. She has little contact with children. She has a sister in Oakdale whom she visited several years ago when the little girl was born. She can remember holding it on her shoulder, feeling that it would break. It mewled and whimpered and after a minute she had to give it back. In general, she is not afraid or nervous or even bored by children. It is just that they are not a regular part of life as she knows it. It is the feeling of flying high in the wings of a plane, looking down at the shrunken people below. She knows that they are families, teeming with life and love, but to her they are just dots, just black specks on her horizon.

“Do you have a sister?” a voice pipes.

She feels a tug at the hem of her skirt. She looks down and sees a small, elfish face and a pair of bright eyes between two curling pigtails. The girl is looking at her expectantly, wanting an answer. Vivianna clears her throat. “Yes, I do, actually. But she lives far away.” She uses that unnaturally bright voice one makes around children. To her it sounds false and hollow, but the girl hardly seems to notice.

“Oh, I see,” she answers. “Well I don’t.”

The girl then takes Vivanna’s hand. It feels small and clammy and stays still inside hers. They stand there together without moving, and Vivianna feels foolish. She wonders how she can get out of this gracefully. After a minute a stocky red-cheeked woman barrels over to them and picks the girl up in her arms. “I’m sorry about this,” she says. “She does this sometimes. She gets crushes on people she doesn’t know and tries to monopolize them – usually young women. We’ve talked about this, haven’t we Moorea?” They whirl away and Vivianna is left on her own by the fruit tray. She nibbles on a grape and thinks about the girl’s freckled nose. She had a nose like that when she was young. The freckles faded with age.

It is time for Louisa to open gifts so they all gather round in a circle. Vivanna notices the girl eyeing her from across the room, raising her eyebrows in a pantomime of secret communication. Vivianna sends a small wave back. The gifts are passed around with the requisite oohs and ahhs. She is happy to see that the tiny dress and booties she has bought have passed muster. Careers never know what to buy for things like this, and she always worries that she will have bought something impractical or inappropriate.

She sneaks off to the bathroom and when she has finished the girl is standing outside of the door waiting for her. Moorea begs to go down to the basement and play with her. “A tea party!” she exclaims brightly. “Everyone is waiting.” Vivianna listens to the sounds coming from the den. There is laughter and shrieking. Undoubtedly the women are playing one of those games when guests eat chocolate out of a diaper or pin the pacifier on the baby. She weighs her choices, then follows Moorea down the hall.

The basement is darker and colder than she imagined, but the cool air is not unwelcome. The two sit on the brown carpet and Moorea looks at her adoringly. Vivianna doesn’t know how to start so she follows the girl’s lead. At first, they are cross-legged and stiff with formality. The tea is for the queen so they must bow their heads solemnly for a moment. Then they mime drinking and eating with a circle of friends. Moorea rattles off their names. “Now it’s your turn,” she says. “You have to say the food we are eating.” So Vivianna lists all the delicious, indulgent food she never allows herself to eat as Moorea squeals with delight: chicken salad with mayonnaise, chocolate cake with buttercream icing, fried chicken, mint ice cream, roasted duck, and blueberry pie. Vivanna lets her brain run free and adds to the list. She likes the deep chortle the girl has, almost like an old man. She notices how Moorea’s head bobs back and forth when she becomes excited.

Vivianna wonders how old the girl is. She is no good at guessing things like that. But she thinks it might be close to the age of her sister’s girl. She imagines her sister sitting in their stone basement with her daughter, miming and giggling and laughing together. On the phone Vivianna hears plenty about the tantrums and vacations and milestones but nothing about this – the everyday moments of make believe and the times not captured by a camera. There must be thousands of such moments that simply slide by unremarkably and stitch together a childhood. She knows that she can be selfish, that she doesn’t like the sound of tears and gags at the smell of human waste. She doesn’t have the aptitude for it. The Tests told her so, a long time ago. And yet no one told her that it could be like this, that a mother could squat in a basement with her daughter and, for a moment, recapture what it was to be a child.

Moorea yawns and her eyelids droop. It must be nearly naptime for her. Vivianna notices a scratched rocking chair in the corner and carries the girl to it. She is heavy in Vivianna’s arms. The two sit together on the chair’s worn cushion and listen to the comforting creaks. Vivianna feels the warm body slacken with sleep as they rock back and forth in the darkness. She remembers when she and her sister were young twirling their skirts together in the grass, arms outstretched to the clouds. She squeezes the feeling beneath her shut eyes and wishes for nothing but to return to those days.

Dylan


Dylan is glad he rented a van, for the suitcases, crates, rolls of posters, and bulging duffles are too much for the sedan. If you added four bodies to the chaos it would have been impossible. He throws the last bag into the back and marches into the house for a final check. He is in charge today and so must maintain a solid façade. He is the one who rented the van, planned the packing, and mapped out the route. Marienne was too busy with the newest contract, and it shouldn’t fall to her anyway. This is his domain and he knows he can master it with efficiency and grace.

He hears the familiar laughter, a kind of rolling chuckle, coming from the living room. The twins’ curly heads are bent over the brochure as they snort and point at the bright pictures of corduroy-clad co-eds and moss-covered buildings. Dylan has never completely understood their sense of humor or their way of mocking the things he finds to be beautiful, striking, and special. He feels a slight twinge when he looks at the brochure. He never had the chance the Tests have given his boys: four years to live among books and papers and ideas. The only time he stepped onto a campus was to attend the mixer where he met Marienne. She was a snub-nosed twenty-year-old mathematics major and he was a year into his family practicum. They shared some punch her friends had spiked and then sneaked to the football field to talk and kiss under the star sprinkled sky. As vivid and dizzying as that night had been it was five years later when Marienne’s sweaty hand gripped his so hard that his bones rubbed together and shrieked with nightmarish intensity at the hospital ceiling that his life truly began. He held the wriggling red-faced bundles, breathing in their indescribable spice, and bowed his head to theirs. He had already held dozens of babies but never two at once. He reveled in their heaviness as they filled his arms with warmth. He felt fearless and fulfilled and determined to never, ever put them down.

He reminds the boys that they are to leave in five minutes and wanders the house looking for Marienne. She stayed up until two last night squeezing numbers into a spreadsheet, and he is afraid that she might have drifted off to sleep again in a corner. It is not unusual for him to stumble upon her curled in a chair or flung across the bed he has just made. He always says her name gently to avoid startling her awake and she will stir slowly, her mouth stretching into a hazy smile. On his search, he passes by the boys’ room and shuffles to a stop on the carpet. Though hearty, barrel-chested seventeen-year-olds, they still insisted on sharing a living space, despite their father’s protests. From all that Dylan had learned it seemed best to provide each child with his own unique space in which to grow and to explore, but the twins were adamant. He had finally backed down. Dylan had hoped for an end to the late-night giggles and rumbling fights. If he was completely honest with himself, he had also hoped for a small space to emerge between the two, if only large enough to accommodate Dylan himself. The room is not completely empty as the boys have left behind their furniture and much of their belongings. Collared shirts still swing on hangers in the closet and pencils sit in the cup on the desk. But he can feel the twins’ vitality already leaving the room. He sniffs the air, realizing how soon that special scent will fade, leaving behind it the smell of stale carpet and musty air.

He feels an arm snake around his waist as Marienne rests her chin on his chest. “You’re really going to miss them, aren’t you?” she says gently as she, too, looks into the room. “I know that we both will but it is different for you, isn’t it? You have been their rock and their protector for seventeen years.”

“They have been the most important thing in my life,” he says and then immediately regrets it. He doesn’t like saying these kinds of things aloud or admitting her into the deepest parts of his self. The two of them work so well together because he can normally keep this well of emotions buried away. He uses it only to feed his love for the boys. When he turns it on for them it can flow endlessly – silent, deep, and unrelentingly powerful.

She rubs her cheek slowly on his shirt. “They will still need you. You will always be there for them, and they know it.” He gives a noncommittal grunt. Her voice becomes bright. “Just think of all of the hobbies you can develop and projects you can work on now. In fact, I have to admit I’m a little jealous of you right now.” She swats him playfully on the butt. “No reason at all for you to feel sorry for yourself.”

He clears his throat. “Of course not. I actually have a long list of things I would like to get done. Parts of the house need repairing and there are new dishes I would like to cook without teenagers simply inhaling them. Plus, I have lots of cleaning that I’ve been putting off. I’ll be fine. Just fine,” he repeats reassuringly. “Now let’s go find those boys and hit the road. We’ve got a long day ahead of us.”

He and Marienne round up the twins and everyone piles into the van. It is cozy but comfortable inside, and Dylan relishes his time behind the wheel. He guides his little family through the maze of ramps and highways. His sense of self is sharpest when he is leading his pack and when he has mapped out the course of their journey or smoothed out the schedule for the day. For this reason, he has always liked driving on family trips. So he tries to trick himself into believing that at the end of the day they will park at a motel and all pile into their rooms for a sound night’s sleep before the next day’s vacation.

When they arrive, they are immediately consumed by a flurry of activity. There are meters to be fed, dollies to be found, and bags to ferry back and forth. Marienne hangs posters on the wall while he and the boys haul the twins’ belongings, putting each bag and box in a growing mound upon the floor. Once, when he allows his mind to wander, he thinks about the contents of those bags and boxes. They contain shirts he bought for the boys, books he wrapped as Christmas gifts, and sheets and towels they all three picked out together at the mall. There is not one item, he thinks, that he has not touched, bought, or wrapped. He is leaving bits of himself behind among the toothbrushes and terrycloth. Will the twins ever think of him as they brush their teeth or wipe the striped washcloths across the stubble on their chins? As soon as he thinks this he has to duck behind the corner of the dorm building and push his hands against his chest. It passes after a moment, and he returns to the van for the last load.

The twins catch sight of a touch football game that has sprung up on the dorm’s lawn and glance longingly at it out of the corner of their eyes. So, the goodbyes are hurried and cheerful, and Dylan and Marienne climb back into the van for the ride home. As they make conversation he strains his ears for phantom roars and rumbles from the backseat. His own voice seems to echo when he speaks, and Marienne’s chirps drift and fade into the air. He pulls up into the driveway and turns off the van. His arms are so heavy that he cannot imagine being able to remove his seatbelt, to pull the door handle, or to push the door shut. Marienne turns to him and pats his shoulder. She raises her eyebrows and looks at him questioningly. He thanks God that she does not say anything then. He meets her eyes and shakes his head. She clicks her belt and climbs out of the van.

“I’ll give you some time,” she says before she walks inside.

They have been gone all day and now dusk is falling. He looks at the tire swing hanging from the oak tree in their front yard as it spins gently in the breeze. He can just make it out in the blackening light. The last of the summer crickets sing to him from the yellowed grass. They gently hum his sadness to the neighborhood. He stares at the front curtains and knows he does not want to go back into the house that is now brightly lit from within. He has no wish to unfasten his belt or push open the van door. So he turns the key and the engine roars back to life. The crickets fall silent. He backs the van out of the driveway and points it toward the road. Then he drives.

Markus and Kimber


They lie side by side in the darkness, her back curved into his thin chest. Every so often she weeps but makes no noise. The only proof of her grief is the sudden arching of her spine. When this happens, he tightens his hold in the hope that he can squeeze the melancholy out of her. He imagines it exiting her mouth in a cloud of greenish vapor as it flouts up through the ceiling and out of their life forever. He knows there is no shame in crying; he has been told many times over the past year that “emotional release in any harmless form” is acceptable. Yet still he remains strong for her sake. He doesn’t quite know why. This is not the first time they have lain like this. It has become a frequent occurrence of late. While other couples stride in circles in the mall, secretly siphon vodka from their parents’ liquor cabinet, or hold hands greasy with popcorn in the theater, the two of them embrace in the dark and talk of a future that will never be.

Parent, Parent, Parent. He tries the word out in his mind as he has done a thousand times. Do its rhythm and sound improve with the plural? Parents, Parents, Parents. No, it seems to him even uglier, a harsh staccato. Its sound is cruel and sudden, like the angry slamming of a door.

She sniffles and then sits up, staring straight ahead. “Maybe they will let one of us change,” she says with no note of hope in her voice. “I heard once about a kid who was allowed to switch with a petition from his parents.” This is well-trodden territory. They both know their roles: hers to profess hope, his to protest. She is the idealist and he the realist. He thinks it strange that two people on the same track should differ so much in temperament. Perhaps there is some truth in it when she wonders if one of them received the wrong results. He shakes his head to dismiss the thought. A year of Tests doesn’t lie. They don’t make mistakes. Everyone knows that.

“That’s just a myth,” he answers. “You know that. We can’t change. We’re stuck as parents and we might as well accept it. Two parents never end up together. Who would make the money? Only really rich people can do that. It’s not an option for the rest of us.”

She shakes her mane of blond hair defiantly and a few loose strands tumble into her eyes. “Well then maybe we’ll just have to become rich. Then we could do what we want.”

“How are we supposed to make money if we aren’t trained to work? Win the lottery?”

“Now you’re talking,” she grins. He loves the way her lips curl to reveal the snaggle tooth she so despises. It was her crooked smile that drew him to her in the first place. He sat next to her in Child Development and when she began giggling during the lesson on tantrums his heart melted. At first, he merely found her pretty, but soon he was picturing her as she held their baby in her arms, the soft downy head cradled by her long, delicate fingers. He bites his lip and the pain distracts him. He can’t think like that. These fantasies are like quick stabs to his side. He imagines the blood running down his ribs in ribbons, the dark crimson swirling in circles and streams. He is often visited by images like these, beautiful, haunting and cruel. Perhaps he should have tried harder on the Tests and gone for an art degree. He could do it, he thinks. He could become a painter or a sculptor – anything but a Parent.

“Why can two Careers be together but not us?” she asks sulkily. He knows she doesn’t expect an answer. Because they don’t have a child to support. Because they have the money. A better question would be: How can they expect us to take the same track together and not fall in love with each other? Surely, we are not the only ones suffering like this, he thinks. There must be others. What are they doing and thinking right now? Are they also huddled in the dark, mourning their future?

Without warning she turns to him with a cunning glint in her eyes. She seems more energized than usual, quite keyed up. “Why don’t we become criminals?” she says. “We could rob from the Careers and give to the Parents. Like Robin Hood. Or just steal for ourselves. Then we could have whatever kind of life we wanted.” He is silent. She nudges him with her shoulder and smiles. He can see that she is mostly kidding, but there is a scrap of truth in it. It is a scrap that sends a cold shiver down his back. She might have it in her, but he knows that he does not. This has gone too far, this dreaming and wishing and plotting.

He knows then that it has to end. He is so tired and so sick with desiring that he cannot go on. He feels the last spark of anger melt away, leaving resignation and relief in its place. All he wants is to take the path well-traveled, to join the others, and to do what he is told. He must let her know that it is over and that they have lost. His brain, numbed and dulled, searches for the words. He knows that they will come if he tries hard enough. He sighs softly and turns toward her, stroking her hair with his hand. Then he opens his mouth to speak.

Winnie


Darkness has just set in so she pulls the brightly-colored curtains shut, pausing to look at the yellow monkeys that tumble in all directions on the garish fabric. She turns towards the small voice that wheedles and cajoles from the bedside. “One more story, Nana. I’m not sleepy yet. I want you to stay with me. Just one, just one!” Winnie sighs and sits on the slatted chair next to the bed. The little girl’s frizzy curls are framed in the lamplight like a halo. She thinks of her own daughter at that age, with those same wiry ringlets and large staring eyes. She too would clamor for bedtime tales – monsters, dragons, fairies, talking animals – anything that would prolong the moment when mother shut the door and darkness reigned.

Her daughter has been a good Parent to her little girl. Even now she can sense the mother hovering around the hall corner, worrying about the disruption to the usual bedtime routine. Winnie looks at Alphia wriggling on the bed and wonders what she could tell her next. She has run out of the usual fare of knights and quests. She was never very good at inventing stories. She always rehashed the same five or six, but her daughter never minded. She was a much more docile child than this squirming, fidgeting creature and demanded no more than a few magic wands, princesses, and a snuggle with Mama. Alphia knows her own mind and does not hesitate to make unusual and sweeping demands. When faced with a thwarted desire she sheds floods of tears, but these are short lived and soon forgotten. “What would you like, my snuggle bear?” she asks. “King Arthur and his knights? Or Atalanta and the golden apples?”

“Noooo,” the child wails as she hits her head against the pillow. “I’m tired of those. No more knights and no more Atalanta. No more make believe. I’m a big girl now, Nana. I want a real story.”

“What does that mean, my love?” Winnie asks gently. “What does a real story mean?”

“One about grownups,” Alphia says immediately.

“I’m afraid grownups’ lives aren’t very interesting. We don’t do much that is worthy of storytelling. Unless you want me to tell you about some famous grownups, like the Chairman.”

“No, not him,” she answers scornfully. “That’s boring. I want to know about real grownups. Like about you, Nana. Tell me about when you were a little girl.”

Winnie thinks about that. It was more than half a century ago. That time is so blurred that it radiates like the lamplit halo that encircles her granddaughter’s head. She remembers a few fears and joys and a long river of afternoons spent on the grass, up trees, and down the wormhole of childhood. “I’m not sure what you want to know about, my dear,” she says. “It’s hard for me to remember much about that time. Do you want to know about the games we played? Or what life was like back then?”

Alphia tilts her head and hesitates. “No, Nana. I don’t want to know about that.” Then she says, “Tell me about your family. Did you have a little brother too? Was your mommy like my mommy?”

“No, not much, my bunny. My mother was …” What was her mother? Winnie finds it impossible to put into words. She thinks of her as two different people: before and after. Things began to change when she was only six, just about the age that Alphia is now. Only bits and pieces remain of the time before. She can see them bouncing like fragmented clips of an old home movie, tripping on its track. She sees her mother arriving home from work, wisps of hair escaping her bun as her eyes droop and she wipes her forehead with a limp hand. Winnie would run to hug the woman as she opened the door, and her mother would grip her tightly as though she were the only thing still keeping her on her swaying feet. She sees her mother rising before dawn and tiptoeing past the cracked bedroom door to throw loads of towels and t-shirts into the groaning washer in the basement. She hears her whispering in low, harsh tones to her father late at night when they thought she was asleep. Her pricked ears would burn when she caught her own name.

“My mother was a very busy woman when I was a little girl,” she answers finally. She did the best she could for me.”

“But was she a good mommy?”

“Yes, she was, in the end.”

The changes were not sudden, for it took years to implement everything. Gradually, her mother’s smile brightened. Bit by bit, her hair smoothed, and her sighs became less deep and frequent. There are a few moments that still capture Winnie, times when she sensed that something was different. Her eighth birthday fell on a Wednesday, and her mother rose early, spending all day baking cupcakes, blowing up balloons, and teaching her daughter to make buttercream icing from her own mother’s recipe. Her mother seemed never to stop humming and bustled around in Winnie’s favorite apron, the one that was dusted with light pink rose petals. Or there was the first summer vacation they spent together, just the two of them. The afternoons splashing in the pool and the cucumber sandwiches in the park seemed deliciously infinite.

“She would take me to the pool and to camp and to horseback riding lessons. She was a good mother,” she repeats. But as she says it, Winnie wonders. It is true, but was it enough? The morning of her sixteenth birthday she found her mother with cake froster in hand, frozen in mid-gesture. She was staring, transfixed, at the red velvet mound with an indecipherable look in her eyes. Her mother would occasionally have moments like this, when she stared straight ahead and drifted away from them for a minute or two. These times always frightened Winnie and she would quickly turn away, pretending not to have seen.

Winnie looks at Alphia on the bed and notices that she has stopped wriggling. She is gazing at her grandmother with glassy eyes and snuggling her head into the pillow. “It’s time for bed, my love,” Winnie says as she pats the girl’s head. Alphia gives a little groan but shows no other form of protest. Winnie looks once more at the curls spread on the pillow in the circle of light and gently kisses the forehead. She reaches for the lamp, and the room sinks into darkness as the grandmother leans back in the chair and listens to her granddaughter breathe. Winnie thinks how Alphia knows nothing of the torments of the past, of the transformations that the changes have brought, or of all the people who still continue to struggle. Instead, the child, like all children, will slip blissfully into the nothingness of sleep and wake in the morning, reaching out for her mother.

THE END


© 2017 Claire McMurray

Bio: "I currently work as the Graduate Writing Specialist at a Midwestern university writing center. I had a story published by Aphelion Magazine in December 2014 and have had my creative writing published by Scholastic Press in the past. I have recently begun writing articles about parenting and have been published in 2016 by Brain Child Magazine, Parent.co, and Scary Mommy. I also have a forthcoming peer-reviewed academic article in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal. I received my Ph.D. in French from Yale University in 2010, am fluent in French and German, and lived in France and Germany for several years."

E-mail: Claire McMurray

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