Little Lovely Things – Maureen Joyce Connolly

When Claire Rawlings thought of her family, it was more with the mind of a geologist than a physician—the sweeping drumlin of Andrea’s collarbone, the narrow plain of Lily’s sternum, the sculpted features of Glen’s face. Her dreams, too, were crowded with images of rocks and continents gliding, meeting at ragged seams, and then drifting apart. This night, the first Saturday in September, with a heat wave stalled over greater Chicago, Claire woke sitting upright, pillow crushed to her chest. A mosaic of impressions, foggy and frenetic, competed for clarity in her brain. Something vague about the girls. Her nightgown, twisted and damp, clung to her body, even as a chill ran along her skin. She turned toward the landscape of her husband, dark against the pearlescent glow of the window. Claire could smell him more clearly than see him, the musty scent of heated skin and sweat-tinged bedclothes. “You were calling out,” Glen said, shifting to his side. Their boxer mix, Gretchie, who was curled into a tight cashew between them, groaned at the disturbance. Claire touched her hand to her temple. In addition to a minor headache, fragments from that dream were hide-and-seeking in and out of her consciousness. A yellow sky. A pond covered with treacherous ice. She’d go check the girls.

But first, she leaned over her husband, peeking under the forearm that was thrown across his face as if he were shielding himself from an unseen onslaught. “Room air conditioner,” Claire whispered, as if a magical incantation would cause Glen to lose his frugality, his fear of falling short of money before she completed her medical program. She was in the final phase—all clinical rounds, with only five more months to go. Slipping carefully from bed, she left the sleeping duo in peace. In the hallway, the house seemed to sigh in the layered light—darker near the ceiling, softer near the window. Built in the late sixties, pretty much everything inside, including the kitchen linoleum floor, remained original. In the surrounding yard, saplings had grown into mature maples and oaks. Claire often imagined this house longed for unfettered sunlight as much as it did for upgraded appliances. Outside the girls’ room, Claire’s thoughts went to her pregnancies—the rich awareness of fetal cells inside her, dividing like wildfire, each one blossoming from a small bud into a perfect being. Two beautiful daughters, three years apart.

As she entered the doorway, a snapshot from the dream flashed in her mind—this time, icy stalagmites gleamed in the distance and two small figures appeared on the pond. And then nothing. Momentarily losing her breath, Claire steadied herself against the dresser. She could just make out near her hand a spray bottle where bits of plant material— most likely dandelion—hung in shadowy suspension. Monster repellant: jetted each night into every corner, the closet, and under the bed before lights-out. This was all four-yearold Andrea, in so many ways Claire’s binary star—stubborn, feisty, and exhaustingly curious. She now lay silently on top of the covers, her valance of short brown hair matted with perspiration. Across the room, fifteen-month-old Lily slept soundly in her crib under the window. Beneath her quartz-pink lids were crystal-blue eyes shaped like sideways teardrops. And that froth of yellow hair! Always a struggle to get into a ponytail.

Claire glanced again at Andrea’s concoction slightly aglow in a thin shaft of light. A crescent of lemon peel was barely discernible in the murk. She smiled. These materials had been gathered and assembled with Andrea’s characteristic attention to detail. But could this be evidence that my daughter might be feeling insecure? Even with in-home day care and Glen’s teacher’s schedule, the girls wanted Mom. No. She shook her head. She wasn’t quite thinking right. This was just the heat and the perennial lack of sleep, shifting her already active imagination into overdrive, scuttling her thoughts into frantic insects. Just last night she’d almost delivered a dose of Tylenol to Andrea before realizing it was Lily with the teething pain.

Andrea was fine; both girls were fine. Claire wiped her hand across her eyes. They were moister than they should be. The headache was growing more insistent, and fatigue flushed through her limbs. She dropped quietly onto the rocker patterned with Mother Goose characters. The bedroom door squeaked open, and a square black nose followed by a sleek dog body padded in. Gretchie sniffled Claire’s hand and then collapsed with a satisfied grunt next to her chair. Leaning back, Claire inhaled the clovery sweetness of her daughters. Her beauties. Still so much a part of her very body.

Along with Glen and Gretchie, this family was the closest thing to a single perfect organism. A shiver of contentment raced through Claire’s veins, overshadowed only by a strange feeling left by that dream. Chapter 1 Claire Thwap, thwap, thwap. Claire woke bleary-eyed to the sound of neighborhood sprinklers through the open window. Swords of sunlight cut through the tree cover into her eyes. Her back grumbled at the angle she’d struck in the Mother Goose chair: ninety degrees south for her lumbar region, twenty degrees north for her neck. The girls’ beds were empty. A brief ember of panic stirred until Glen appeared in the doorway. “Can you hurry, Claire? I have to be at the field in thirty minutes.” He helped as assistant coach to the high school’s football team on weekends for extra income.

“Lily’s dressed.” “Andrea?” “Nope, but eating Eggos.” “One for two.” Claire tilted forward and groaned. “I’m hurrying.” “You okay, hon?” She nodded. It was her turn to take over their shared routine. She dragged herself to the bathroom and into the shower, where the hot water goosefleshed her skin. Glen appeared in a cloud of steam to hand her a towel and then pointed to her stomach. “Claire?” She looked down.

A faint rash was splayed across her abdomen like a pink Canis Major. “Might be,” she spoke slowly over the din of the water, careful not to convey concern, “a slight reaction.” “Reaction?” Glen’s voice tensed. “To what?” “Hep C vaccine.” A new strain of the virus was invading healthcare facilities like mad, messing with patients’ livers or kidneys. The residents had been put on an accelerated vaccination schedule. Two doses, back-to-back. Glen’s gem-blue eyes filled with worry. “Don’t do that, babe.” “What?” “That oversensitive thing.

It’s nothing. I’ll take a Benadryl.” “You should call in.” “You know I can’t do that.” “Or you won’t.” He paused before smiling. “Laid a T-shirt and shorts on the bed for Andrea.” Claire dried off, dressed, and hurried into the kitchen where Glen blew three kisses before disappearing out the door. Sunlight blared across the worn flooring, promising another scorching day. Claire convinced herself she was feeling okay, even as a new ache spread into her jawline.

It was now seven thirty, and caught in motion, there was no time to slow down and reconsider her schedule. “Dog-dog!” Lily wriggled in her high chair, her unbrushed hair fluffy as a dandelion in seed. She looked at Claire and thumbed a mound of syrup off her tray, which threaded its way to the dog’s waiting muzzle. “Ta-dah!” “Lily, no!” Claire groaned. “You too, G. No!” Gretchie’s monk-brown eyes swam with guilt as she snuffled the amber goo with her blunt snout. “Andrea, can you help?” Claire turned to find her older daughter standing next to the parakeet cage, still in her Curious George nightgown. Andrea wedged a finger into the gap of her missing front tooth and wiggled, attempting to loosen the remaining one. With her other hand, she stuffed a neat little triangle of waffle through the wires of the cage. Soldier-gray Butkus scooted along his perch, his right wing flaring awkwardly like misfolded origami.

Bau-auck! Bau-auck! Claire rubbed her temples with her fingertips. “Andrea! Don’t! He doesn’t eat waffles.” “Why not?” “It’ll make him sick. That’s why not.” “How?” “Honey.” Claire sighed. “It just will.” She almost said, He’ll choke on it, that’s how. He’ll gobble it down and it will glom into a wad in his gizzard and he’ll end up at the bottom of his cage, feet pointing to heaven, Xs for eyes, strangled on a frozen pastry. But she chose her words carefully around Andrea, the daughter with mercurial eyes and moods to match.

You could never tell which way she took things: sometimes indifferent, other times overly concerned, like an old man in a little girl packet. Butkus snatched the morsel—his sharp beak too close to Andrea’s finger—and gobbled it down in one smooth motion. He then scooted quickly back to the center of his perch to stare at Claire accusingly with one white-rimmed eye. Bau-auck! Bau-auck! His scratchy little voice pierced the air with a strain of verbal awareness. Hurry up! “Okay,” Claire responded in a falsetto tone, the one she used on Glen when he pissed her off. “Thank you, Butt-Kiss.” “What did you say, Mommy?” “Nothing, honey. Please hurry!” Claire lifted Lily from her high chair and grabbed the Benadryl from the cupboard. She took only one dose because, Christ, she had to function on rounds today. Auck! Auck! Damn bird.

Within twenty minutes, Claire was leading Lily outside across the driveway to their ’91 Taurus wagon, a gift from Glen’s parents to help in this final surge until Claire became a doctor. Smattered with the detritus of Happy Meals and Goldfish, the interior was now a disaster zone. She set the day care bag on the seat and rummaged in the glove box for her wraparound sunglasses, the kind that pretty much blocked all light. She slipped them on her face, then opened the back door. Lily, bright as a button in her shorty overalls, climbed eagerly into her car seat. Claire barely registered the goofy-eared stuffed rabbit, clutched against Lily’s chest. “Good girl, sweetie.” Claire lingered a moment, absorbing her tiny framed daughter, before turning to call through the open window. “And-rea-ah…we’re in the car.” Behind her, the house door slammed.

“You’re next, honey.” But Claire’s mouth rounded with surprise when she pivoted toward her older daughter. “Charm dress today? Who said? Daddy?” She could tell by Andrea’s sheepish look that Glen had done no such thing. Claire ran her fingers along the soft, blue fabric. A childhood keepsake, it was sewn by Claire’s mother, whom she had lost to pancreatic cancer in high school. The real charm was that within the hem, Claire’s mother had hidden a small religious medallion—a depiction of the Virgin Mary—for protection and good luck. Claire peered over her sunglasses and met her daughter’s copper penny eyes. A remorseful pout appeared beneath the Milky Way of freckles across her nose and cheeks. She stuck a finger into her mouth and wiggled her wobbly front tooth. “We’ll talk about this later,” Claire said and pointed to the open door.

But Andrea stepped back and refused to climb into her booster seat when she spotted the turquoise bunny swinging from her sister’s plump hand. Lily lifted him high and pulled one of his springy legs. Boing. His ears flopped in unison as he bounced. Andrea’s finger popped from her mouth as she jutted her bottom lip. “Jumpers is mine!” Technically true. Glen had brought the bunny home, his face flushed with pleasure, after Claire announced her first pregnancy. But Claire wasn’t about to mess with Lily after her recent bout with teething pain. Eyeing Andrea, Lily leaned forward against her shoulder harness and squeezed the bright-orange carrot attached with Velcro to his paw. Crrrunch.

The sound of compressed cellophane ripped through the air. Andrea stiffened. “Honey,” Claire spoke slowly. “If you don’t mind Lily with Jumpers, then I don’t mind the charm dress.” Andrea spent a full five seconds measuring the situation, shifting her gaze between Claire and Jumpers, back and forth—Mommy to bunny—and back again. Then she looked down at her dress. To Claire’s relief, her daughter finally capitulated and climbed into the car. Claire strapped Andrea into her booster seat and quickly shut the door. She got behind the wheel. It was almost eight o’clock.

She’d need to step on it. Heading down sleepy Crestview, they passed bungalow-style houses and sycamores whitening with age. Claire grimaced at her face in the rearview mirror; even the dark lenses of her sunglasses couldn’t disguise the shadows edging her slate-blue eyes. Her normally glossy brown hair seemed lifeless today, an unruly mass of dry tendrils left over from an aging perm. Only last week, Glen had expressed mild dismay at the attention and money spent on Claire’s hair. Time and money. They were desperate for both. She wondered how he would do in this heat at the football field. Hopefully, they’d call practice early. This stress, this frenetic rushing around, would all be gone when she officially became an MD.

“Muh-uh-meee!” Lily cried, writhing against her straps. Only five houses down and already they were pulling to the curb. “What, honey?” Claire jerked the Taurus to a stop and torqued around to face the girls. Jumpers lay on the seat next to Lily, empty-pawed, appealing with doleful eyes. “Lily hurt Jumpers.” Andrea kicked the back of the passenger seat. “Where’s his carrot?” Claire’s stomach stirred. A sour taste surged in her mouth. Lily sobbed as she pointed to the floor. “Shh, shh.

I’ll get it.” Claire unbuckled and jackknifed over the seat. Her head thrummed and stars flickered at the edge of her vision. She managed to grasp the orange triangle submerged in a shadow and struggled upright with the toy in hand. Lily snatched the carrot eagerly back into the chub of her fist. Andrea’s eyes enlarged as she fought back tears. “Here, sweetie.” Claire shuffled through the day care bag and extracted a Pop-Tart. “Take this.” She held it out still in the packet.

“It’s strawberry, your favorite.” Andrea accepted the offering, but not without terms. She stared out the window as she tore at the package, giving her mother the back of her head. Within one bite, crumbs and gooey Pop-Tart guts dotted the front of the precious blue chambray dress. “Oh, Andrea!” Once on the expressway, Claire felt a bit better as they passed through the outer rim of the western suburbs. Wild Queen Anne’s lace nodded at the edge of the road like a gathering of small cumulonimbus clouds. Knowledge of the natural world was important. She’d already begun pressing wildflowers and leaves into a scrapbook for the girls to study more closely when they were older. But that, like so much else, was back-burnered for now. “Look, hons.

Look out the window. Believe it or not, those pretty flowers are a type of wild carrot.” She started up a childhood song, the girls’ favorite. “Count the clouds, one, two, three…” But Claire remained a lone voice. “See the birdie in the tree!” She had never known them not to engage in their favorite ditty. “If he has a broken wing, he will never sing, sing, sing.” “Jumpers would eat them,” Andrea announced over Claire. “Those carrot flowers.” Claire met her daughter’s gaze in the mirror. She couldn’t read Andrea’s expression, other than a mixture of mirth and sarcasm beyond her years in her tight, little face.

And then Andrea lifted the hem of her dress and all was hidden beneath a veil of blue. Something like cold electricity shot through Claire and she gripped the steering wheel. The dream. It now returned to her with perfect clarity. The girls surrounded by white, playing on a frozen pond, dressed only in summer clothes. Frantic at the thinning surface, Claire called to them, but each crack running from their feet was a delight, another reason to press farther from shore. She watched her daughters grow smaller, tiny as seeds in the distance until finally they were swallowed into the silence of ice. And in that frozen landscape, both girls were outfitted exactly how they were now: Lily in her yellow overalls and Andrea in the charm dress. Claire’s hands, slick with sweat and shaking, almost slipped from the wheel. The next exit, she recalled, would be a cloverleaf.

A slow banking loop and they could be heading back to Upton Grove. She shook her head. No, she needed to remain resolute. The driving force that had carried her this far in life would get her through this day. They were more than halfway to the hospital already. She’d get that nice attending—his name slipped away from her—to help her out, take a quick look at that rash on her stomach. Everything would be fine. She shifted to the middle lane and blew past the turnaround that would take them back home. Not two miles past the exit, Claire’s view of the road began to waver and seemed to pour beneath the car like an ugly asphalt river. An earwig of paranoia inched through her brain.

What if the Benadryl was masking something worse than what she’d original surmised? A series of chemical reactions, potentially life-threatening, could be cascading through her blood. Was it really just the vaccine doing all this, or had she been standing on the cusp of a precipice and just slipped? This balancing act—mother, wife, doctor-intraining—seemed extreme enough to be against some law of nature. Claire started singing again, her voice shaking. “Count the clouds…” But a quick glance into the back seat showed her she’d lost her audience, as both girls were now asleep. Andrea was bent forward at an acute angle in her booster, and Lily was slumped sideways, head tilted, her upper body forming a perfect S-curve. Claire squinted through watery eyes as the Chicago skyline came into view through the windshield, then blurred into a smudged charcoal drawing. She blinked hard to clear her swimmy vision. Her heart galloped. There was no longer a choice; she needed to get off the highway. She slipped the Taurus into a line of cars merging down the next exit ramp.

Following the traffic, they passed graffitied walls and shops with barred windows. A cop pointed right, then left, then right again—confusing as hell. Claire went right instead of left, or vice versa. Some guy in the other lane honked and flipped her off. Feverish blood rushed through her veins and she jerked the steering wheel hard. Damn, damn, damn. Luckily, neither girl reacted. Yet the nausea returned, this time with greater ferocity. Claire’s breathing quickened and constellations flickered in her eyes. She needed to stop, collect her bearings.

Approaching an intersection, she spotted a recognizable beacon in the wilderness of the rundown area: a bright-yellow-and-red Shell sign. Pull over here. Catch your breath. She feared she might pass out. This was drawn from experience, having suffered the same symptoms during her pregnancies, with Andrea giving her the worst of it. Crossing traffic lanes, Claire tried to divert her feverish mind with trees: gymnosperms first, then pines, firs, ginkgoes. Then, running short on those, deciduous trees, then plants in general, even cactuses. Cactuses? She’d never even been west of Iowa, and Iowa made her think of corn, which reminded her of the sensation of food in her mouth, corn in particular, round and globular. She gagged. The Shell station thrummed with energy.

People were at the pumps filling their tanks or grabbing coffee from the store. A bus emptied passengers nearby. Following the sign that pointed to the restrooms, Claire accelerated past the squat building, narrowly avoiding hitting something. Could’ve been a dog, it was so quick—almost a flash, only without light. Or a trick of her overextended brain. Still, she honked before jerking to a stop in the concrete-walled alley behind the building. Next to the bathroom, Claire slapped the car into Park and rested against the arc of the steering wheel. The girls breathed heavily over the wheeze of the vents. Claire wished her unsick self were here. Or Glen.

Or someone. She only knew she couldn’t risk shutting off the car, having her girls boil in the heat, like a distracted mother at a shopping mall in the newspaper only a week ago. As she slid from the running Taurus, a light burst of wind, hot as a blow-dryer, ruffled her shirt. She gave the bathroom door, held open by a pneumatic arm, a test shove. It would clearly take a purposeful push to move from its moorings. Claire glanced back to register her sleeping girls. Lily, behind the driver’s side, her head connected with the window, glowed in a slice of sunlight. She had to stretch to see Andrea hidden from immediate view, still bent in half, the back of her head evident over her knees, sleeping nonetheless. They were at peace, protected from the vicious heat with the car running, the cool air circulating. * * * The gas station bathroom was a cell.

A dark, filthy cell with deep, shadowy wells around the toilet. Leaning into the sink, Claire touched the faucet gingerly with the back of her hand. A forceful stream splashed against the porcelain, drowning out the labored growl of her Taurus outside the open doorway. She could feel her two girls, her babies, fast asleep in the car, angled like wildflowers toward the sun—in the direction away from their mother. Water. And then more water. Some on her cheeks, some in her mouth. Passing her wrists under the stream, Claire froze at a smattering of crimson slashes on her forearms— the rash was spreading. Her legs weakened. Dropping to her knees, Claire flattened one hand on the greasy floor like a kickstand.

She couldn’t pass out. Not now. She squeezed her eyes shut and inventoried the stuff she’d packed: Pop-Tarts, Goldfish for Lily, juice boxes. What about crayons? Did she remember to pack them? Andrea loved to color. Wasn’t there a stash in the glove box? Exactly where the air-conditioning was certain not to reach. An image popped into her head: the rainbow-hued cylinders, wobbling into molten pools in the heat. The thought of their waxy odor sent a spasm through her stomach. She leaned over the toilet and vomited. With her head suspended above the filthy bowl, a small quake traveled from the floor through her body. It took a moment for Claire to understand that it signaled the door had somehow shut, shivering tightly into its jamb.

That she was now in total darkness. She tried to rise. But she could barely lift her head. Her only awareness was a surge of post-vomit relief like a tepid bath. She was not yet alarmed—her fevered brain had stopped working on overdrive the way it normally did. She imagined herself on her feet, wadding up toilet paper and wiping away the crap on her face. And then another thought materialized in Claire’s mind: her girls on that frozen pond, disappearing into nothingness. As she stood helpless on the shore. Claire cried out. Then all went black.

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