It smelled like coffee again. Each morning—every morning, it seemed, that same crimson odor seeped into the walls and the sheets. Each morning—every morning, it woke Maurice up.
He sat up in bed, hair matted to his skull, eyes crusted over. Every morning started the same: the flame-soaked coffee, the dizzy eyes, the lethargy; waking up was never quite easy for Maurice, but lately, it had been worse.
He stretched his arms, flexed his ankles, rubbed his palms over his chest and shoulders; he was still all present—all flesh and blood. Down the hall, he heard cabinets being opened and closed; he heard pans chiming against one another and the fridge being examined. Again, he smelled the overdone coffee. Maurice glanced at the dip in the mattress beside him—the blankets tossed to the side, the pillow next to his own—and he sighed.
Reese was in the kitchen again, making breakfast. It had been one month since Maurice made his own breakfast—one month since he hadn’t woken up to the stench of coffee and the careless sounds of an amateur cook rustling about. Did he resent it? Maurice considered: to live alone had its own happiness, its own isolation. To live with someone? It had its glories and failings as well. Even with one such as Reese, whom Maurice loved very much, there had been issues. Autonomy was diminished; solitude near impossible; romance had suffered as well—it felt nearly like a disaster. Their relationship felt changed for the worse. Was it a mistake to move in together?
He rummaged the dresser next to the bed for a t-shirt and stuffed his head through it; it smelled of fresh linen and lavender, just recently washed. Reese had done it—he always did both of their laundry. Reese took it upon himself to make the breakfasts, make the dinners—to be the clean and orderly guest in his own new home, always commenting on Maurice’s lackluster homemaking. The remarks stung; the nagging grew tiresome. Maurice was sick to death of it—to live with someone! He who had spent his whole life alone and unbothered, to now expect another always present in his bathroom, his bed, his kitchen, touching his body, kissing his mouth, stroking his hair. Always another to say they know better—make your bed this way; use this type of shower curtain; put your shoes away in this order. Maurice could feel their relationship dying—how could it be fixed?
Reese came back up into the bedroom. “Finally, you’re up!”
Maurice mumbled in response. They shared a kiss—Reese smelled of coffee.
“You left your sweater in the kitchen again. I keep telling you to quit forgetting it.”
“It’s okay. You know how I just hate clothes lying around. I’m making breakfast if you want to come down soon.”
“I’ll be down in a second.”
As Reese walked out of the room, he called back out to Maurice, “you forgot to water the plants again! We might as well throw them out; they are as good as dead.”
Maurice glanced at the potted flowers next to the window. The earth had cracked; the stems were quickly turning brown; the leaves were crumpling into themselves. He would water them later, though perhaps they were as good as dead.
He pulled his sweatpants up to his waist, combed his fingers through his hair, and strode towards the kitchen.
* * *
The sky burned blue.
The sun was hot and the day was bright—and the sky kept burning. It made the ground warm—softening up the doughy mud that covered the playground. It was moist and chocolatey brown—perfect for mud pies.
Hannah was quite the artist when it came to her mud pies; it was one of her favorite things to do. She formed the circle, smoothed the top, glazed the sides. The mud spread all across her hands and her clothes. Mom was going to be angry, but maybe the mud pie would make up for it. Yes, Hannah could give her the mud pie.
But how could she carry it? it was too wet, too formless to carry. Maybe she could bring her mom to it. Despite the dirt slathered across her face, the stains on her yellow dress, the crust under her tiny fingernails—the pie would make up for it. How could it not? It was so perfect, so smooth and fresh. She had to get her mom right now, quickly, before anything happened to it. Not a moment could be lost.
Hannah sprinted through the playground. Her friend Johnny was on the swings, but she didn’t bother looking at him. The sand flew through the air as she kicked it up in her race to the finish; she could see her mother sitting on a bench, talking to some lady. Maybe she would want to see the mud pie as well.
The dried dirt cracked as she smiled—it felt a little itchy, but that was alright. It was worth it. She was so close—only a moment away. She could see the other lady turn and face her.
“Um, Jessica,” she said, pointing towards Hannah.
“Mommy!” Hannah screamed; the sky blazed above her as she watched her mom turn around.
“Hannah!” she gasped, “What have you done? Oh, you’re so dirty!”
“I made a mud pie! I have to show you. Come on, mommy! You have to see it before it gets knocked down.” Hannah grabbed the hem of her mom’s shirt and tugged, dragging her out of her seat. She didn’t realize yet what she was missing; the mud pie was just so perfect.
“Hannah,” her mother said, pulling her hands off of her shirt, “that’s enough. Your face! You’re covered in mud—what have you been doing?”
Hannah was frustrated; she just said what she had been doing—making mud pies! She told her this again.
“Sweetie, you are getting too old to be playing in the dirt like this still. Look at your pretty dress! How will I be able to clean it? Come on, let’s go wash up in the bathroom.” She stood up, with a vague look of irritation. What could she be mad for? She hadn’t even seen the mud pie yet.
Hannah fought all the way to the toilets—she hated being in there. They were stinky and gross and boys would try and run in all the time. She hated it absolutely. But now, her mom was so upset. And for what? Hannah stayed silent as her mother scrubbed her tiny fingernails and wiped a paper towel across her cheek. Her face burned, and her lips kept making a weird feeling; she wasn’t going to cry—no, she wasn’t. She was not about to cry in front of her mom. She was too old for this.
“There you are,” her mom sighed, as she threw the last of the paper towels into the trash bin, “all better.”
Hannah could only nod. She did not trust herself to smile yet.
“Oh, honey, what’s the matter? What’s wrong, Banana?”
There was nothing wrong with Hannah Banana. She wanted to show her mom her mud pie—only because it was so pretty, and so round, and so perfect.
“Why am I too old?” she said firmly, forcing her lip to stop moving, “Too old for what?”
“Well, too old to be playing in the dirt. You know better—you know it gets your clothes all filthy and I have to work very hard to clean them.”
“I’m sorry,” Hannah replied, her eyes stuck to the floor. She looked at her shoes, once pink, now covered in brown. But she was a big girl now—too old for mud pies. She did know better and she knew to say sorry when she did something bad.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. But you’re a big girl now. You don’t have to cry—it’s okay. Thank you for apologizing.” Her mom took her by the hand out of the bathroom. A big girl too old for things like mud—too old for crying. She would know better from now on, even if she didn’t quite know what it meant to be old.
The sky outside continued to blaze. Did the sky grow old? Did the sun? What were they like when they were kids? Maybe her mom knew. Maybe she could ask uncle Maurice.
She had seen photos of her mom and uncle Morrie when they were kids—they looked just like her. Now, they were big, grown. When did they become old? When would she stop being such a kid and learn to be a grown-up? Maybe it started by giving up mud pies. Yes, that’s a start. She could be a grown-up as well.
Hannah kept her eyes forward as she walked past her perfect mud pie. She did not know if it had been trampled on and ruined.
* * *
Clouds were forming in the distance. The day, so clear and blue just an hour before, was now threatened by a few puffs of gray roiling on the horizon.
“I bet it’ll rain this evening,” Reese said, “those clouds don’t look very friendly.”
“I doubt it. A few clouds don’t spell out a storm exactly,” Maurice countered. The light turned green; he pressed the gas pedal and drove forward, right towards the storm in the distance.
“Don’t be grumpy. We didn’t have any plans for the night anyway; it’s not a big deal.” Reese put his hand on Maurice’s thigh, careful not to get too close to the transmission. His leg was very tense.
“Grumpy? Sorry, I didn’t notice.” It wasn’t a lie. Maurice fell naturally into a grumpy mood. Even on a day as beautiful as this, with looming clouds to portent a rainstorm. He took his hand off the steering wheel and held Reese’s, rubbing the fingers with his thumb. He didn’t want to seem grumpy. The day was going well and he was enjoying, for the most part, Reese’s company.
“You’re going a bit fast, hon.”
Was he? It was a poor habit of his, to speed while he got lost in thought. He checked the speedometer—only ten over the limit, but he let his foot slightly off the gas pedal anyway. He did not want to argue, for the day had been going well.
But now, after a last-minute call from his sister, Maurice was driving to pick up his niece and watch her for the night. It wasn’t a problem, but he did not care for last minute changes. Jessica had a date, it seemed, although he didn’t know what kind of a date was planned only a few hours before it happened.
“Do you think Hannah will remember me?” Reese said.
“Of course she will. It has only been a year or so since you’ve last seen her.”
“I don’t think so. Kids are always meeting new people; I doubt I was any special to her.”
They passed the old movie theatre, the bookstore, and a few chain restaurants. Jessica did not live far, but Reese had suggested they take the back roads, since the freeway was full of traffic.
“Go down 93rd,” he chimed in again at a stoplight, “there’s a train coming. We can miss it that way.”
Maurice pulled his hand away, placing it back on the steering wheel.
“How old is Hannah now?”
“She’s turning eight in the Fall. We’ll have to remember to make time for her birthday.”
“We?” Reese laughed, with a mock incredulity, “You’re always the busy one. Remember how you were hardly there for my birthday?”
Maurice drummed his fingers against the wheel—he worked that day and suddenly he was the bad guy; Reese always managed to “joke” about it. But the day was going well and he did not want to ruin it. Jessica lived right around the corner; they were almost there. He tried remembering whether Hannah’s birthday was the 7th or the 8th—when did they celebrate last year? It was on a Friday, he knew that. And now the clouds, which had seemed so far away, had branched out over the sky, swallowing up much of the sunlight.
“The turn’s right here.”
This! Always this, dammit! Yes, he knew the fucking turn was right here. Was it so necessary to be pointed out? Was he incapable of driving on his own accord? Always to be nagged at. Always to be reminded of the obvious. Life had allowed for a simple car ride to his sister’s to bring out the worst in him. How did this happen?
They stepped out of the vehicle when they pulled up to her driveway. The clouds, once merely looming, were now quite formidable. They blanketed the sky above the two of them, and a slight breeze had picked up. A single raindrop landed on the sidewalk in front of Maurice.
“See?” Reese smirked, “I told you it was going to rain.”
* * *
Hannah watched the drops of water bead up on the window before sliding down the glass. The sky had darkened; the once burning blue had been snuffed out into a gray fog. Past the water droplets, the streetlights’ glare streaked through her vision. She thought they looked like glowing spider webs.
The rain sloshed down the sidewalks. She thought about how muddy the playground must be, and how soaked her mud pies might—
She corrected herself. She was a big girl who did not play in mud. When she and her mom had gotten home that afternoon, all the crusted dirt and grime was scrubbed off her skin and out of her hair. She changed into fresh clothes and made a promise to keep them clean. Though it was now raining quite heavily, Hannah would stay out of the dirt.
She didn’t know how to break it to uncle Morrie, though. He would always play in the dirt with her, and was just as delicate with his mud pies as she was with hers. But she wanted to be a big girl now, and would have to tell him no. And yet, he was an adult—why did he get to play in the dirt? Maybe big boys still got to play outside; they didn’t have to worry about ruining their pretty dresses. Maybe their clothes were easier for their moms to clean.
Besides, the rain was too heavy for mud pies. It would just melt them down back into the earth. So maybe he wouldn’t even ask her. She could just stay sitting in the back seat of his car, with her back straight and her nose high—her small hands folded in her lap. Being a big kid was easy, and she prided herself on her newfound adultness. She hoped Morrie would notice.
She loved her uncle. He always played with her and paid attention to her, even when he was busy. When he walked in their house to pick her up, she made sure to give him the tightest, squeeziest hug she could muster. He grabbed her and lifted her into the air, smelling faintly of wood smoke, just like always.
He also came with another man. She did not remember his name, but he had a familiar look to him. Had she met him before? He spoke briefly to her, waved while she was still in Morrie’s arms, and talked to her mom. He didn’t say much to her afterwards, but Morrie didn’t either. They both were quiet as they drove out of the neighborhood. Maybe this was what adults did—maybe they stayed silent when words were not needed. She took in the silence and kept her eyes fixed on the beads of water dripping from the window.
The faint thrum of rain hitting the roof of the car began to lull Hannah to sleep. She had been playing all day—up early to catch the sun—and would probably fall asleep soon, even though she did not wish to. She wanted to play with Morrie and stay up to talk like adults. Her eyes closed involuntarily, and they only opened again when they pulled into her uncle’s home. He lived in an apartment, so he didn’t have a yard. There wouldn’t even be mud nearby to play with.
They ran quickly from the parking lot towards the stairwell, though the water still managed to soak Hannah’s new dress. She hoped her mom wouldn’t be mad, since this time, it wasn’t her fault.
“What the hell is that?” the other man shrieked—the one that waved at her. He jumped backwards and bumped into Morrie, who was holding her hand, pointing at the ground right next to the rosebush.
The three of them huddled under the canopy and peered into the bush, though Hannah was slightly afraid. She clutched the hem of Morrie’s jacket until her knuckles turned white, and kept most of her body behind his.
“Do you see it?”
“See what? What am I looking at?”
“Something moved in there—Look! You can see its foot.” The other man bent forward, his finger getting closer to the mystery creature.
Uncle Morrie dug his phone out of his pocket and shone a light towards the ground. Now illuminated, covered in the bright light, was a small puff of feathers, huddled against the flowers, twitching its tiny wings.
“It’s a bird,” the man said, “it looks like a baby.”
“It must have fallen during the rainstorm—maybe from the nest.”
“What do we do?”
“What do you mean?”
Hannah frowned—she frowned so hard her jaw ached. The light bounced off the tiny bird’s eyes, and she swore it was looking at her. It twitched; it kicked; it opened and closed its mouth. It must have been freezing.
“We have to save her!” she screamed, tears stinging in her eyes. She hated to see such a small thing in pain. She could not leave the bird to die—it was not something a big girl would do.
“No, Banana,” Morrie said, smoothing her hair down, “birds carry diseases. We shouldn’t touch it.”
“But she’s not an it—she’s a girl!” Hannah stamped her foot, and immediately regretted it. She needed to stay calm and convince her uncle. She was a big kid now. “We have to save her. She’s cold and lonely and sad. Please, Morrie! Please, can we take her inside?”
“I—I agree with Hannah,” the other man said, putting a hand on Morrie’s jacket, “I can go grab a trash bag or something and pick it—her up with it.”
Hannah beamed. She pulled on Morrie’s coat and held her breath. He has to say yes. He just has to. It’s two against one—they should win.
“Fine,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “but don’t touch it. Don’t pet it. Don’t get too close to it. Promise?”
Yes! Yes! Of course she promised.
After the other man ran up the stairs, Morrie kept staring at the bird. Hannah wondered what was the matter with him. She hugged his leg and pressed her face into his jeans.
“What are we going to call it? Her—sorry. What are we going to call her?” he asked.
“Bella,” Hannah replied, after a moment of thought.
Her name would be Bella.
* * *
“Bella” did not stop twitching nor chirping. Her pathetic yelps, faint and soft, distressed the entire household—the noise was a reminder of the bird’s suffering, despite having been taken out of the frigid rain and into the dry household. The noise could not go unnoticed.
She lay on a bed of old pillow cases, next to a lit candle, stranded on the dining-room table. Maurice watched Hannah; she was sitting at the table, eyes locked on the bird, with a slight expression of anguish crossing her forehead. She did not, however, touch Bella.
“What happens if she dies?” Reese whispered, as he walked up from behind.
“I don’t know. Throw it away? I don’t want her to touch it, especially if it’s dead.”
“I didn’t realize that she might still die. I thought bringing her inside would save her.”
Maurice just shrugged—he turned around to go into the kitchen. The dishes, which had since been stacked in the sink, needed to be put in the dishwasher. Reese followed him, wringing his hands as he looked about the room.
“Maurice, those dishes still have food on them.”
“So? That’s why I’m putting them in the washer.”
“No,” Reese said again, taking a plate out of his hands, “you can’t put dishes in the washer if there is still food caked on—it won’t come off. You have to scrub it first.”
“They’re just some fucking plates.” Maurice muttered, but regretted it immediately. Boyfriends don’t curse at each other; he would have to control his temper. As he washed the dried sauce off of a spoon, the water accidentally sprayed all over the floor. “Shit,” he mumbled.
“Jesus, hon, it’s not that hard.” Reese nudged himself between the sink and Maurice, taking the sponge off the rim. “Just let me do it.”
Maurice kept his mouth shut. He was not ready for this yet—for a fight, for an argument, for a break-up. The two of them rarely fought. Why start now? But their relationship was already dying; they had begun to fight over dishes. He stepped back and leaned against the refrigerator, putting his hands in his pockets. He noticed the drying rack was full, so he thought he could start taking care of them while Reese loaded the dishwasher.
He stacked all the plates together and turned to put them away in one of the cabinets, but when he opened it, he found coffee mugs instead. “Where are all the plates?”
“Up here,” Reese said, moving to a different cabinet, “right above the silverware.”
“Since when has the silverware been in that drawer?”
“Oh, well—I organized everything. You had dishes thrown into every cabinet.”
Oh? Of course. Not even the forks were safe from Reese’s input. But Maurice just shrugged it off; dishes were not something to start an argument over—nor were birds, or driving, or birthdays, or laundry.
Maurice opened another drawer and was met with steak knives. “So where do the spatulas go?”
“Over here. Jeez, you really never come in here, do you?”
“Why should I? You’re always the one making the food now,” Maurice snapped. He didn’t mean for it to come out so harshly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Maurice sighed—he ran his fingers through his hair and put the spatulas in the correct drawer. “Nothing. It’s just—I feel like I don’t even know my own home anymore.”
“What home?” Reese grumbled, “this place is a disaster. I’ve been trying to pick up around here ever since I moved in, and you still leave it a total pigsty.”
“Maybe that’s because I never want to be here anymore—I have no space to myself. You took over everything.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what happens when you live with someone. It’s not just about you anymore.” Reese leaned back against the sink. With his arms folded over his chest, and his eyebrows furrowing in that particular way, Maurice knew that he was getting into dangerous territory, but still, he did not stop.
“No, but it’s all about you. I can’t even put the dishes away, because I don’t know which fucking drawer the spatulas go in. You never even asked me to rearrange the kitchen. You never ask me anything—you just do it.”
“Bullshit! You have someone who actually starts cleaning and organizing all your crap, and you throw a fit about it. And you’re only just now mentioning this to me? Why haven’t you said something sooner?”
“Because it’s not that big of a deal! But it just keeps adding and adding, and I can’t do anything by myself anymore! You move in with me a month ago, and my entire life changes—you micromanage everything I do—you always think your way is best. Fuck, I can’t even tell Hannah not to bring a disease-ridden vermin in the house without you correcting me. My own niece!”
“Then why don’t I just leave? Moving-in together causes things to change, Maurice—that’s obvious. I thought you would have known that when we agreed to do this. Is this all a mistake to you? Because I’m getting so sick of having to nag you like I’m your mother, since you can’t clean up after yourself—Christ, you can’t even wash a spoon without getting water everywhere!”
Reese was sick of it? Did he have these thoughts all along? Maurice looked down at his feet. He had, the whole time, thought Reese was fine with everything. He never showed frustration or annoyance; Maurice thought that he was the only one to suffer from them having moved-in together—but he did not suffer alone. He never even considered Reese’s feelings, nor thought about how this might be difficult for him. What kind of a boyfriend was he? What kind of a man?
When he looked up again, Reese had already left the room. He was alone again. He thought of his life before Reese had moved in. He thought of what changed. Why was he so angry about it? Why had he not mentioned it before? Why wait to explode over a spatula, with his niece in the other room? He hated himself for it. He had been afraid all along of losing what he had with Reese—losing that connection, that spark. And in that fear, in his rejection of change and his irrational frustration, he had killed it himself.
He heard a scream from the dining-room. Before he could move, as his mind began to panic, Hannah came running into the kitchen with tears falling down her face.
“Bella isn’t moving anymore! She’s not making noise—why isn’t she moving?”
* * *
Hannah was sitting at the table when the shouting started in the kitchen. It didn’t bother her too much, but she hated the idea that uncle Morrie was upset. And of course, Bella was taking up most of her attention.
She wasn’t sure what happened, but Bella’s tweets were slowly becoming quieter, her movements less often, her eyes softening. Hannah hoped it meant the pain would stop soon—that she was beginning to feel warm. She hoped, and hoped, and hoped that Bella was comfortable—that she would be alright.
The yelling in the kitchen stopped, all at once. Her ears rang from the booming silence, and she saw the other man walk out down the hall. The silence continued, burning Hannah’s ears and making her feel like they were stuffed full of cotton.
Bella had turned to face her; she looked into her eyes—small black pebbles, reflecting the flicker of the candle, and then? Nothing. It was as if she froze—turned into solid ice, and Hannah froze up with her. She had stopped moving; she was no longer making noise; her leg, constantly kicking and clawing at the air, reclined limply against the pillow case. But what did it mean? What could have happened? She was dry, warm, cozy, watched over by Hannah—and yet? The movement still stopped; the noises still quieted.
Morrie held Hannah as she cried. She could not understand what had happened. Why was Bella still so sick?
“We were too late to save her, Banana,” Morrie said as he held her to his chest, “she was going to die anyway. But at least she didn’t have to die alone, or stay stuck out in the rain.”
Die? But why did Bella have to die? She should have lived—she was resting on a pillowcase, protected from the downpour. Why did she have to die? Morrie kept stroking her hair and bouncing her in his arms, like people did to babies. Was she a baby again? She did not like being a big girl anymore—she did not like having to deal with this.
“I’m so sorry,” Morrie said, as her tears kept falling, “I’m so sorry, Banana.”
He began to cry as well; she could tell by the way his chest shook. Did everyone cry when something died? Why couldn’t everything just live, just stay alive? Morrie sat them down at the table, and they both looked at Bella. She looked so small, so delicate. Her feathers shrunk down; she seemed to melt into the wood of the table. She had died. They were too late to save her, and despite them trying, death was always possible. It is always possible to die. Morrie called for the other man to come—he called him Reese. Uncle Reese—she called for him as well. They should all be present to watch. Death was possible for any of them.
He came into the room confused, unsure, but when he saw the still body of Bella, he too began to say sorry. He was so sorry that she died. They were all sorry.
“It’s okay, Uncle Reese,” Hannah said when he sat beside her, “we tried to save her. Thank you for bringing her inside.”
Morrie hugged him—she hugged the both of them—and they were all crying. Death had come for Bella. She was so, so young—younger than Hannah, and death had still come. It is always possible to die.
Hannah was a big girl and a little girl again, both together. She could be both, for it did not matter—it would not matter—how old she was. Morrie and Reese were big and both had cried. She could cry as well.
* * *
They buried Bella by the rosebush outside, right where they had first found her. The flowers would bloom over her body, and perhaps new life would spring from it. As they stood around the lump in the soil, they had noticed the downpour began to lighten up. The storm was fading.
Jessica had then picked Hannah up. Apparently the date had not gone well, but she was glad to see Hannah once more. Maurice would miss his niece. He loved her and loved her kind heart—all she had wanted was to save that bird, and yet it still died. Death had still come.
He did not know why he had cried, why he had sobbed alongside Hannah and Reese. Between the pressure of the day, the fight with Reese, the anguish in Hannah’s voice when she pronounced that Bella had stopped moving, he still felt shaken and raw. He was afraid that Reese would leave him, now that he had yelled at him. He was afraid their relationship was long dead.
But when he saw him again that night, there was no bitterness in Reese’s face. There was pain, there was sorrow, but there was no anger or bitterness. Maurice did not feel angry anymore either. But he felt sorry—so sorry for the way he spoke to him—so sorry for being angry over nothing.
Was it nothing? No, Reese said, no it wasn’t nothing. He was sorry as well; he did not mean to nag or criticize; he should have asked before rearranging the kitchen. They had both apologized. They had both cried together when Bella died. They laughed about their plight. There were worse things than a spatula to argue over. They had explained to Hannah, together, what it meant to die and why Bella did. They worked as a team. Maurice felt good to be on Reese’s team once again. He promised himself to never leave it.
“Did you hear that she called me ‘Uncle Reese’?”
“Yes, I did. I told you she remembered your name—she was just nervous.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Reese said, kissing him as they lie on the bed together, “maybe you’re right.”
Maurice remembered to water the plants that night. He was sick of watching their cracked roots and the husks of their soil beds—he knew how easy it was to make them bloom, to make them thrive; death was not always necessary. He had seen enough death that night—he promised himself to water the plants every night from now on.