Kak didn’t have to look to know she’d overslept. She didn’t remember shutting off the alarm. That’s what happened when you tossed until an hour before it went off.
She’d have to hurry now. Her bedroom door eased open in absolute silence. Kudos to the ‘Tween Waters Inn maintenance staff. At home she’d been forced to buy a can of penetrating oil to vanquish the awful creaking hinges that alerted her mother to her departures. It took a week for Stammer to notice Kak had muted the old fasteners and could slip in and out of their Paterson, New Jersey apartment undetected.
Taking no chances, Kak stopped the door when it was just wide enough to accommodate her slim frame and moved noiselessly into the dark living area. There she picked her way carefully across the hardwood floor to the kitchenette, avoiding the one squeaky spot she’d memorized from the day before.
The cabinet next to the refrigerator held the mugs. She wrapped her hand around one without clinking it against its neighbor. Once she extracted it, she located the bottle of Malbec she’d placed at the back of the counter the previous morning. The cork yielded soundlessly to her twisting. She extended a finger into the mug and poured until the wine touched it. This allowed her to maximize the fill level without flipping on the light. She licked off the drops clinging to her fingertip.
The car keys were next. By holding the microwave door closed while she pressed the button she could release the latch with minimal sound. She took the keys from the middle of the turntable. Stammer had been hiding car keys in the microwave since Kak got her license. To discourage their discovery, she’d announced to Kak that eating microwaved food caused loss of memory, concentration and emotional instability. This was supposed to keep the appliance from being opened. Kak made the discovery at seventeen when her desire for a frozen burrito overrode her mother’s warning. She kept the knowledge a secret from her mother by only taking the keys when Stammer was asleep and replacing them in exactly the same position after she returned.
Mug and keys in hand, she crossed the room again, avoiding the squeaky spot. The latch to release the deadbolt on the door to the screened porch posed a final hurdle. This, she knew, could make a slight popping noise when released. She leaned against the door to take the pressure off the spot where the deadbolt rubbed the strike plate. It opened without a sound.
The burst of pre-dawn air from outside exhilarated her. She inhaled the invisible cocktail, a pleasant mix of island vegetation, sea, beach, and one final ingredient: finality. Gone were the inevitable conversations about the events of the weekend ahead. The last minute details. The feigned excitement. Everyone around her plowed ahead as if a Saturday wedding expressed the ideal culmination to the week. The silence in her chest made her the only person with a contradicting point of view.
Kak stepped into the screened porch and froze. Stammer sat in a wicker chair with a cup of tea, watching the dark sea.
“You’re quiet,” Stammer said, without looking.
“I didn’t want to wake you. I was afraid you’d be tired from the long day.”
“That old. Am I?”
Kak circled around to where she could see Stammer’s face. Or would have seen it if not for the goop smeared all over it. A thick cream-colored application covered her from hairline to neck. It looked like one of those plaster death masks they would have applied to a deceased Napoleon or Beethoven to record their final features before photography became practical.
She caught herself wishing she’d lived in a time when her face would be preserved in plaster. Young. Wrinkle-free. Her chin sharp and tight.
Then her mother blinked.
“Stammer,” Kak said. “What the hell do you have all over you?”
Her mother took a delicate sip of her tea, pursing her lips to avoid getting the concoction on the brim of her cup. “Anti. Aging mask.”
“Anti-aging mask. Where did you get it?”
“Evelyn. Gave me the. Recipe.”
Of course. “What’s in it?”
“Banana. Heavy cream. Honey. Oat flour. Water.”
Reciting lists proved easier for Stammer. Individual items came out individually, with natural breaks that obscured her usual struggles. Kak suspected Stammer lived for these moments, when the stutter fell at a natural pause and she sounded like anyone else. This couldn’t be engineered on a regular basis. The more complicated or stressful the situation, the less she guarded herself and the worse it got.
“And what made you suddenly decide you needed an anti-aging mask?”
Her mother didn’t respond to this.
“She’s intimidating,” Kak said. “Isn’t she?”
They’d never discussed Evelyn before. It was as good a time as any.
“Good role. Model,” Stammer said.
“Good role model? You’re fifty. What do you need with a role model?”
Stammer sipped her tea and set the cup down. “For you.”
Kak stared at her, incredulous. “You think I have something to learn from Evelyn?”
“What could I possible need her guidance for?”
“For. Getting what you. Want from life.”
“What I want from life. What do you know about what I want? What does she know? Just because you didn’t get what you wanted in life doesn’t mean I have to get it in your place.”
“I. Didn’t say that.”
“You think that’s what I want? Anti-aging cream? Perfect hair color and tennis lessons? A face without wrinkles?” She moved to where her knees just touched Stammer’s. “Expression lines. Isn’t that what Evelyn calls them?”
Stammer reached up, touching Kak’s chin with her fingertip. “You. Look great.”
“Well. You look awful.”
It was cruel but it had always been cruel. Stammer said nothing.
“Did she call attention to your age spots?” Kak asked. “Is that how she got you so shook up? Except she called it hyperpigmentation. Didn’t she?”
She knew the word exceeded Stammer’s range by two syllables, even on a good day.
“Say it with me, Stammer,” Kak said, mustering all the venom a daughter could for a mother. “Hy-per-pig-men-ta-tion.”
Kak didn’t care how deep the verbal daggers struck. “That’s what they do to you,” she went on. “They get you thinking you’re not good enough. Not perfect enough. And that’s where they come in. To save you from yourself.”
Stammer opened her mouth as if to answer but thought better of it. Kak remembered the embarrassment of having a mother that couldn’t speak like the other moms. A mother who sounded slow. Stupid. Now Kak’s tirade exploited the one advantage of having a mother with a speech impediment. Winning an argument. Stammer couldn’t possibly match her pace.
“And you swallow it,” Kak said. “You know why? Because you believe it yourself. Inside you know you’re not enough. That you’ll fail. And it seems like an easy way out.”
She took a gulp of the Malbec. “So you settle. You smear on the anti-expression cream. Because you aren’t supposed to show any evidence of ever having had an expression. If all goes according to plan you get through life with no expression at all.
“And that’s your fate. Sitting alone everyday with your face hidden under a layer of goop while Philip goes off to work with interesting problems to pass his time and all those expressions to crease his face. ‘A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction’. Oscar Wilde.”
“And they’re not afraid to show it. They don’t have to avoid being who they are. As if who you are isn’t good enough anymore. As if you needed a different face. And not just a different face. A different name. Someone else’s name, as if that changes anything.”
“What’s. Really going. On.”
“Would you do it differently? If you could go back? Just have a fling with the artist and marry the lawyer?”
“Don’t take so much time answering.”
“It’s. Easy to have. Ideals when you’re. Young.”
“I thought that’s what youth was for.”
“To be.” Stammer silently measured the next word for her mouth. “Invincible?”
“Is that what you think? That I see myself as invincible? I’m the way I am because I know I’ve already been destroyed.”
Kak took the arms of Stammer’s chair and leaned in close until she could smell the concoction. She grabbed Stammer’s hand and pressed it to the stillness of her own chest, letting Stammer feel the nothing that was there, searching her for any sign of recognition.
“Is that dramatic enough for you?” Kak asked.
Stammer leaned forward, her brow creasing visibly under the layer of youth goo. Finally, Kak thought. Someone would see her dilemma. Instead Stammer’s nose found Kak’s coffee mug.
“You’re drinking,” Stammer said. “Already?”
Kak relaxed. “The trouble with the world is that it’s always one drink behind.”
Stammer brushed this aside. “You can’t. Keep doing this.”
“I know. This is it. This morning.”
She kept her face up so her mother could see the truth of it. Yes. This was really it. This morning.
“I promise,” Kak said. A final truth before nothing ever mattered again.
“I have to go. I left my sandals at the beach yesterday.” Even that was true.
“You haven’t. Had breakfast.”
Kak pushed her index finger into the goop at the bottom of Stammer’s ear and ran it along the length of her jaw to her chin, scooping off a dollop of anti-aging mask. She popped the expressionless breakfast into her mouth.
“Delicious,” Kak said.
A sharp knock at the front door to the cottage startled them both. Kak looked a question at Stammer.
“Evelyn,” Stammer said. “She’s taking us. Shelling.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Kak whispered. She didn’t wait for the answer. She already knew it. Stammer may not have understood the reason for Kak’s behavior, but she knew her tendency. Any warning of exposure to Evelyn triggered her natural flight response. Her mother intentionally let it arrive without mention.
Stammer got up to answer the door.
“She’s taking you shelling,” Kak said, slightly louder this time, moving quickly to the screen door, pushing through it and holding it to prevent it from slamming.
Stammer’s voice pierced the quiet. “Wait.”
“Quiet,” Kak whispered. There was no time for this. Evelyn would grow impatient and wander around to the porch.
“Don’t forget,” Stammer said. “About the. Shower.”
“The couples,” Stammer said. “Shower. At the—”
“Temples,” Kak finished for her.
“Don’t be. Late. Be. On time.”
“I won’t,” Kak whispered, slipping into the shadows.
“Won’t be. Late or won’t be. On time?”
She heard the question, but she’d rounded the corner of the porch. Any sound now could alert Evelyn to her presence. She stopped and crouched to wait and listen, taking a careful sip of her Malbec. In the stillness she heard herself swallow. It alarmed her, as if the mouthful of wine plunging down her throat might somehow echo its way to Evelyn’s ears.
A faint rasping drew Kak’s attention. Somewhere below her. She peered into the shadows at her feet. A snake? It was all she could do to avoid jumping up and outing herself. Then she saw it. A hermit crab dragging its home, a tiny queen conch shell no bigger than a golf ball. It moved across the splash block at the bottom of the down spout on the corner of the cottage. Each time it pulled itself forward the shell scraped the porous concrete. She watched, wondering if it ever longed to drop the shell. To stroll about without shouldering the burden wherever it went. But the hermit crab didn’t think about such things. It only knew the heavy shell kept it alive. She wondered where it found the shell, and whether it weighed its options carefully or snapped it up quickly so it wasn’t swept away by the next wave. She decided its name was Evelyn.
The front door opened and Kak listened to the brief, predictable exchange between the two women. Yes. It’s a good morning. Really should have started earlier. It’ll be a hot one. Something about the anti-aging mask. Kak could only imagine how pleased Evelyn must have been to see it.
“It’s. Just the two of. Us,” Stammer said. “Kak went for. Coffee.”
Kak listened intently in the resulting pause. Evelyn the hermit crab scraped the splash block.
“Oh,” Evelyn the human said.
The door closed and she peeked around the corner. Evelyn the human had entered the cottage. Kak hurried past the empty front step hoping her bare feet would find no sharp pebble on the path, resolving in advance to take the pain in silence if they did.
Evelyn’s Range Rover sat next to the Jetta so the absence of the car when she emerged to take Stammer shelling wasn’t likely to be something Evelyn would overlook. The lie would be obvious. Good. Kak fired up the Jetta, grateful for the quiet engine, and got it moving with the windows down to let the breeze push her thoughts away.