Dana had ten minutes, maybe twelve. That was her son Colin’s limit. The shower ruse, where she set Colin up with a snack in front of the television, ran the shower but didn’t take one, would hold him through one commercial break. Then he would come looking for her, pounding on the bathroom door, and by that time she better be back or there was no telling what her 2½-year-old son would do. Clear the bookshelves? Climb out a window? Start the car in the garage? He had already done all that and survived—it was what he would get into next that drove her mad.
This was the last time, she told herself, as she walked out the French doors, onto the patio and across her backyard. This was the last time she would sneak into Joy’s house. This was the last malicious act. But then again, Dana thought each time was the last.
She weaved through the row of pine trees separating her yard from Joy’s and emerged into a parallel world of plush lawns and planned gardens and custom-made play sets. Even the sandbox was groomed. Dana felt anger rise—not because Joy’s property was worthy of a magazine spread, she couldn’t care less about that—it was what Joy had said while surveying Dana’s lot: Some people should just raze it and start over.
But that was years ago, and Dana had gotten her back. Turns out, dandelions spread rapidly when their puffy seeds are strewn over even the most well-kept lawns. And they are very hard to get rid of.
The back sliding door was left open to allow the cats access to the house, making entry much easier than in years past when Dana was forced to procure keys or override the alarm system. She passed through in one graceful move and found herself standing in Joy’s immaculate kitchen, cats roaming at her feet. It always amazed her how Joy managed to keep her house looking like no one lived there—no clutter, no piles, no strings of dust in the ceiling corners. Perfect rooms for perfect people, she brooded.
The family room adjacent to the kitchen caught her eye—something was different. She peered into the renovated room—new leather sectional, beige berber carpet, creamy wall paint, and a huge plasma TV—an interesting addition for the family who never watched TV. Dana wondered if the flooding from her last visit (she had turned a faucet on in the children’s upstairs bathroom while Joy attended Peyton’s preschool pageant) had ruined the family room. She wondered if insurance had covered the redo. She hoped not.
Riding the success of the flooding incident, Dana was confident she could retire—and she did stop for a few months—but then came the neighborhood block party. Joy was there, mouthing off per usual—fussing over the dubious nutritional content of the potluck and the propensity for other people’s children to be too rough or too selfish with their toys. It pleased Dana to see more than one mom roll her eyes. She was enjoying the annual event, though at one point, winded from chasing Colin, she said to no one in particular, “His activity level exhausts me.” The other moms commiserated, but Joy interjected, “My kids may not be hyperactive but I’ll tell you what is really exhausting—keeping up with their brains.” Dana fumed for the rest of the party and in the days that followed, she couldn’t get Joy’s dig out of her mind. She tried calming self-talk: Nobody likes Joy. She has a sickness. Just ignore her, ignore her, ignore her. But the strategy did not work, and sooner than she expected, she found herself back on the inside.
Dana glanced at her watch—she needed inspiration quickly—there was no telling what an unattended Colin might do. She focused on the kitchen desk, typically a great resource. Once, she had rigged a fine point pen to explode ink all over Joy’s cherrywood kitchen. Another time, she removed stamped envelopes containing bill payments Joy had intended to mail, presumably incurring late fees and interest penalties when they were never received. Over the years, Dana had released a field mouse into the attic, recalibrated the bathroom scale to weigh heavy, and turned an interior light on in the SUV draining the battery overnight. So many successful missions—but Dana needed a plan for today. Down the hall, in the mudroom, she considered the rows of shoes, lined up in size order by season, and recalled the time she swiped a brand new Stride Rite and hid it in the yard for the lawn guys to mow over. Try as she might, she couldn’t top that, shoe-wise.
Out of original ideas, Dana headed down the basement stairs to the playroom—she would have to sabotage a toy—a key piece, but nothing beloved this time. Last year, she had kidnapped Hunter’s Honey Bear. She hadn’t thought it through—just grabbed the first stuffed animal she saw. The boy was heartbroken, and Dana had felt remorse. Never hurt the children—or the cats—became her pledge. Though she would not steal a child’s comfort object again, she did relish the mother’s bewilderment over the missing Honey Bear. It disappeared without a trace, Joy had said over and over as she searched the house, the neighborhood, and every place that Hunter had been since receiving it for his birthday. But she would never find Honey Bear unless of course, she dredged the town dump. Dana had made sure of that.
It irritated Dana to see the finished basement. It looked like a playroom in a museum diorama. She could hear Joy singing: Clean up, clean up, everybody, everywhere. Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share. And the worst of it was her kids—her three robotic kids—actually placed each errant toy in its labeled bin. It’s not that Dana’s boys didn’t help, they did—they just hurled the toys at the bins and at each other, and sometimes at Joy.
Dana scanned the tidy custom shelving but nothing caught her eye. Brio? They had so much and she didn’t know which of the track pieces were integral. Duplo? Educational puzzles? Mensa-selected board games?
There was a thump from upstairs. Dana stopped breathing—she was sure Joy wouldn’t be back until Campbell got off the bus at three, but what if her husband came home from work midday? Her heart raced. She waited and heard nothing else. Maybe it was one of the cats. The house was quiet, perfectly still, but Dana was spooked and wanted to leave immediately. As she sprinted towards the basement stairs, she nearly tripped over, but managed to sidestep, a wooden table with an outline of the US map—a built-in puzzle. This had potential. She had taken a puzzle piece before—but Joy had simply purchased a replacement. This one looked special, maybe even handcrafted. Not wasting any time, Dana pried California from the West Coast and ran up the stairs. She closed the basement door, placed California in the kitchen sink garbage disposal, slipped out the slider and ran home. Back at her house, she took the stairs two at a time, relieved to find Colin in the den, still watching television. He was out of his rocking chair, though, probably on the brink of tearing through the house. She had made it home just in time.
“Mama!” Colin grinned, breaking into celebratory laps at her appearance.
“Hi Buddy,” she said, running down the hall to shut the shower off. She took Colin’s hand and led him back to the den—the mismatched den—splotchy rug, chipped coffee table, wobbly floor lamp. Crossing her legs, she put her head back against the worn couch and panted. Colin plopped in her lap, babbling incoherently, gesturing at the TV. Joy’s words played in Dana’s head: How old is he now? And he’s still not talking? Oh, what do I know, all mine were speaking in paragraphs at that age. Dana knew it was true, this kid needed a speech intervention, but who was Joy to highlight it?
It took her awhile to catch her breath. As satisfying as these jaunts were, it was too stressful and she promised herself, never again. Too much could go wrong. Joy or her husband could return early; someone could see her running through the yards; the housecleaners could change their schedule. The humiliation of getting caught overwhelmed—she couldn’t hand another victory to Joy.
Had she left a trace this time? She replayed the mission: only California was removed. The basement door was closed. She checked her moccasins—she never wore anything with a tread for fear of leaving tracks—the bottoms were dry, no sign of mud. As meticulous as Joy was, she was unlikely to do a fiber analysis of her home upon finding a puzzle piece missing. Dana ran through it over and over and calmed down. With nothing out of place, she probably would not be caught. But still, this was the last time.
The cartoon was over and Colin was raring to go. Dana took him to the playground after lunch, planning to stay until her older son Timmy was due home from school. After a hectic morning, Dana welcomed a peaceful afternoon. She pushed Colin on the swing. He was peaceful, too, as always, on a swing. So much so, Joy had once asked: “Have you considered… he may be on the spectrum?” For once, Dana had a response, “My boys are athletic, not autistic.” and without another word, she had lifted Colin from the swing and stormed away.
Here it was a beautiful day, she had one kid content to swing, another content in school (at recess, anyway), yet Dana couldn’t stop the soundtrack of Joyisms running in her head: Your kids actually eat that stuff? Mine request organic. Believe me, I’ve tried, but they just don’t enjoy television—they would much rather read. We wonder about nature vs. nurture—is it because we are superior parents or is it our superior gene pool—probably a little of both.
Nothing stopped this soundtrack—not even the malicious acts—though since she started sneaking into Joy’s house, the murderous fantasies had ceased (and that was a plus). But the soundtrack continued to play in an endless loop.
On her way home from the playground, Dana drove down Joy’s street and saw a plumber’s truck parked in the driveway—that was promising. Maybe California had wrecked the disposal. It was a good choice, California: Joy’s beloved home state and one of the larger puzzle pieces. Vermont, where Joy had gone to college, and Connecticut, where her first child was born, may have been missed, may have been mourned, but would not have required a plumber’s services.
A couple of hours later, en route to Timmy’s football practice, Dana detoured by Joy’s house again. The plumber’s truck was still there and for the first time in a long time, Dana felt buoyant. It was a lot of work, engineering schadenfreude, but it was important work, not just for Dana—for the entire neighborhood. She could imagine the buzz: Did you hear about Joy’s garbage disposal? A kid from playgroup put something down it. It had to be replaced. Dana knew she was going in again and knew exactly what her mission would be. It was an old idea, devised after discovering the condom supply in a drawer in the master bedroom. She only needed a pin. Dana couldn’t wait to see how Joy managed with four perfect children.
Kate Gibalerio was a banker and teacher before pursuing her interest in writing. She writes creative non-fiction and poetry and has recently focused on fiction. Her work appears in the Spring 2008 edition of Boston Literary Magazine. Kate lives with her husband and three children in Massachusetts. E-mail: kate.gibalerio[at]verizon.net