I blinked. My uncle casually tossed the two halves of the silver coin on the floor. Then he left my room without another word, and closed the door behind him.
That night, for dinner, my uncle asked my mother to bake a ham. She did, and we ate it with buttered mashed potatoes, crescent rolls, and french-cut green beans. My uncle had his plate piled high with food: a thick chunk of ham in the center, – he had cut for himself nearly half – a mountain of potatoes, with gravy dripping over the sides of the plate, and four rolls smeared with butter. We did not say grace that night, as we usually did, and he just dug into his food, tearing at everything all at once.
My mother’s eyes had a glazed-over quality to them throughout the meal. She watched my uncle smack and gnash his teeth, and lick the grease and gravy from his lips, and seemed to not be offended one bit by his complete lack of table manners. Usually, if I were to so much as let out a small burp, she would snap at me for it, and deny me any and all desserts for the night. This wasn’t like her at all. Instead, she was completely inert, and only moved to mechanically shovel up a forkful of mashed potatoes, and deposit it into her waiting mouth. I wondered what could be wrong with her. She had seemed normal when she got home, and even seeing her angry at me was better than this.
A bottle of wine was out on the table, and I did not remember how it had gotten there, or where it had come from. My mother and uncle each had a glass, but I had only seen my uncle drinking any. My mother’s glass remained untouched, and the bloodred substance looked thick and solid.
There was no conversation at the dinner table that night. Nothing was said, no questions asked. Just the regular scraping sounds of individual forks and spoons and knives, and the occasional quiet thud of a glass of milk being set back down. My uncle was the loudest one at the table, with his smacking jaws and satisfied groans and belches. When he was done he sat back in his chair, and patted his swollen belly. He reached for his wine glass, and tipped his head back, draining it.
“Ah,” he sighed. “That was one terrific meal, I must say. Don’t you all think so?”
He looked to each of us in turn. My mother nodded, and I heard her say, in a flat, dead voice, “It was lovely. We must do that again soon.”
I said nothing, and stared at my plate. I had eaten of course, had still been hungry, but throughout the whole meal I had been constantly expecting something horrible to happen, and would not have been in the least surprised if my uncle had jumped up with a knife, and stabbed me or my mother with it. I could feel his eyes on me, knew he was expecting me to say something, or try and stand up to him, so that he could have me get in trouble with my mother again. I was sure that, if he wanted, he could have her shouting at me and grounding me in a heartbeat. So I just nodded too, and asked if I could be excused.
“Why yes, you may be excused,” he said to me. “You may be excused from the table, and to the sink to wash the dishes. Your mother has worked so hard for you recently, and you owe it to her.” He was looking at my mother as he spoke, and she smiled.
“Yes,” she said. “That would be very nice of you, dear.”
As I got up from the table, and took my plate to the sink, my uncle filled his glass with more wine.
“Drink up,” he told my mother, and she did.
I cleared the table as they both sat there and went through the whole bottle of wine. Then my uncle produced another, and refilled my mother’s glass. I put the stopper in the sink and ran the hot water, filling it up and adding the dish soap so that the suds bubbled and frothed on the surface.
As I scrubbed my plate with a brillo pad, I could hear them talking. They were talking and swapping stories back and forth, about trivial things first, such as work, or menial daily life. But as they moved on to the second bottle of wine, they began talking about my father, and what a great man he had been, and how it was such a shame what happened to him, and how my uncle wished that he had known him better, and us all, for that matter, and he vowed that he would hold onto us as family, through these hard times.
My mother sniffled and sobbed at my uncle’s sentiment, and when I glanced over at the table, her head was leaned up against my uncle’s chest, and he was stroking her hair, and shushing her. He looked up, saw me watching and caught my eye, and he smiled a crooked grin.
The dishes kept piling up, and once I had finished washing my own, I was forced to clear the table, wrap up the leftovers and stick them in the fridge, and wash all of the dirty pots and pans. My uncle went to the freezer and brought out a tub of chocolate ice cream, and scooped out big chunks of it into a bowl for my mother, and one for himself. He did not offer any to me, and I did not ask.
Soon enough, they were laughing together. My uncle told my mother jokes, and she laughed loud and bright, and sounded happier than I had heard her since before my father died. She did not laugh much these days. But if I listened closely, there was a strained quality to the laughter, as if it were being ripped out of her throat.
They finished the second bottle of wine with their ice cream, and then my uncle leaned over to whisper something in my mother’s ear. She giggled, and put her finger to her lips, and glanced over her shoulder to look at me. “Shh,” I heard her say. “He’ll hear.”
My uncle stood up then, and helped my mother to her feet. He wrapped a hand around her waist, cradling her hip, and they walked past me and out of the kitchen, my mother giggling and leaning against my uncle. I heard them walk down the hall, open the door to my mother’s bedroom, and shut it again with a click. They left their bowls on the table, and when I went to pick them up, there were brown puddles of melted ice cream sitting on the bottom of them.
I spent the next half hour cleaning all of the dishes, and drying them and putting them away. I did not know what to do with the empty wine bottles, so I washed them and set them on the counter next to the sink. I was tired, and wanted to go to bed. I felt helpless and alone.
After emptying the sink of sudsy water, I went around to all of the lights in the house and shut them off. I maked sure the doors were locked, though I was far more scared of what was in the house than anything that could come in, and went to my bedroom and locked the door. I did not feel like brushing my teeth. The bathroom was right next to my mother’s bedroom, and I did not want to go there.
I changed into my pajamas and sat in my bed with The Hobbit, and read as Bilbo and the dwarves were captured by trolls, arguing and trying to decide how best to kill them all, and I found myself wishing that Ms. Cleary and Clara were more like Gandalf, who showed up when he was needed most, to trick the trolls and save the day.
When I turned out my light and shut my eyes to try and go to sleep, I heard noises in the other room. They were the voices of my uncle and my mother, and they were muttering to one another. Then the muttering stopped, and there was a brief silence. I began to hear low and high-pitched, rhythmic groans. It sounded as if they both had terrible stomach aches from the ice cream, and were laying next to one another on the bed, and clutching their bellies. The groaning and moaning grew louder and faster. Now it sounded like my mother was in pain, and she cried like she did that time she had stubbed her toe. There was a squeaking sound too, the kind my bed made when I jumped on it. I wondered at what was going on in there. I wondered what my uncle was doing to her, and I was afraid for her, and I was afraid for myself, too.
The noises escalated in both volume and speed, and then suddenly, they just stopped, with a great, final low, loud grunt from my uncle. The entire house waited, and my ears were strained to pick up anything from the other room. Any noise or motion that might signal my uncle coming over to my room next.
Then I heard movement, the shuffling of feet. A door opened. A light switch was flicked on. I heard a small splash as something was dropped into the toilet, and then it flushed. Then the creaking floorboards as feet moved again. The light flicked off, and the door creaked open and closed again.
And then there was nothing. Nothing but the beating sound of my own heart, and the tiny screaming inside of my chest, that was the question of what it was that I had just heard.