All afternoon the children avoided their mother: moving from room to room, or from indoors to outdoors, a step or two ahead of her. They joined together occasionally, all except Robert, but they didn’t gather again until their father returned. By then it was late afternoon; when they stood on the driveway, their shadows stretched from their feet nearly to the house. Robert’s stomach hurt most when he stood up straight, so he walked bent over at the waist, hobbling like an old man. Their father had eight bags of ice, and they each took one from the trunk of his car and carried it to the deep freeze in the garage—each except James, who ran from one sibling to another, touching the bags of ice and yipping with something that wasn’t quite shock and wasn’t quite laughter.
“I think baths might be in order,” their father said. “Or showers, as the case may be,” he added, giving Robert a look that acknowledged his seniority.
Normally this would have pleased Robert, but he was too worried to smile or even nod. The others dashed toward the laundry room door, conscious of an earlier dictum of their mother’s that they avoid the other entrances to the house for the rest of the afternoon, since she had “done” them already and didn’t want to have to “do” them again. Robert trudged after them.
His watch was gone. He had been everywhere, retraced every step from his room to the piano to the shed; he had searched and searched, bent over examining every inch of the house and every inch of the ground. And now he was bent over again, not searching but shuffling in pain.
In his room, he looked in his desk again, just in case he was wrong in remembering that he had already looked there, but to no avail. With no choice but to search outside a fourth time, he left his room and headed back to the laundry room, almost literally bumping into his father as he came in.
“Line for the tub?” his father said.
“There’s hot water to go around. I’ll bathe James and call you when we’re finished.”
With Robert gone, Bill took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was 4:55 and the party started at 6:00. Early in the summer he’d suggested they have the party on a Saturday this year, so he could help more, but Penny had insisted that it was a weekday kind of party—that a Saturday party was a different sort of thing and would change the guests’ expectations and her ability to deliver.
He found the children’s bathroom door closed and tapped at it. “Is that you in there, Rebeck?”
“Dad, can you come in?”
He opened the door and poked his head in. Rebecca was in the tub, slouched so that the ends of her braids skimmed the water. “Can you pass me the good-smelling soap?” she said.
Penny had cleaned, leaving the countertop sparkling and fresh hand towels on the rack, but there was no soap in sight.
“I’m not sure where . . .”
“Maybe the medicine cabinet?”
He opened the cabinet only to have three bars of soap and a glass bottle of cough medicine come tumbling out.
“Oh, oops, whoops,” he said, slapping at the soaps but slowing the bottle enough that it landed gently and didn’t break. “Now which of these is the good-smelling one?”
“Ah, you want me to smell them.” He brought a plain white bar to his nose, then a yellow bar of Dial, and then a pink bar that smelled of strawberries and chemicals.
“Don’t mistake it for an ice cream,” he said, handing her the pink one.
She watched him from under her dark eyebrows and brought the bar close to her lips.
“How was your day?” he said, easing himself onto the closed toilet seat.
She dipped the soap in the water and rubbed it between her palms. She thought of telling him about not getting to help, but she didn’t want to make him sad. She rubbed the soap harder, but it didn’t get sudsy; there was only a little foam, large-bubbled and unsatisfying. She was a bit sorry she’d asked for the strawberry, which wouldn’t be the most mature thing for her to smell like. She didn’t like it when adults spoke to her as if she were a little girl. Or a little girl—she hated it when people were talking to the boys and then changed their voices when they started talking to her. She brought one foot up out of the water and rubbed it with the soap.
“Hot,” she said at last.
“A hot day. That could be a good day, I suppose.”
“You aren’t a heat-loving girl.”
“I’m a comfort-loving girl,” she said, “who tolerates heat.”
“Rebeck, it’s good to be home.” Leaning against the toilet tank, Bill felt the hours of work drain from his body.
“How many people are coming?” Rebecca asked, setting the soap in the soap holder.
“Looks like about sixty.”
“Good thing it won’t rain!”
“No, that’s what you always say! You say, ‘Good thing it won’t rain,’ and Mom says, ‘You don’t know it won’t,’ and you say it’s never rained in late July since you came to California.”
“I believe you,” he said with a smile. “You are one of the most reliable people I know.”
Rebecca looked away. “Dad?”
“I tried to keep James occupied.”
He smiled. “Of course you did. I would never have thought otherwise.”
Ryan had tried, too, and he was trying again, lying with James on their bedroom floor, playing animals. He had a number of props for this, and he’d brought them out of the closet: old washcloths for blankets, a collection of bottle caps that Badger and Dog could use when they were ready to eat.
“Dog sayin’ arf arf arf,” James cried, making his dog lunge at Ryan’s badger.
“No, James,” Ryan said. “Dog is gentle. You love him, right?”
James didn’t answer.
“Maybe we should give him a bath before the party. Then he can put his new collar on.” Ryan went to the closet for a shallow plastic basin. “Let’s give them a bath together.” He set the basin between them and walked Badger over to it. “One, two, three,” he said, and he jumped Badger into the imaginary water, where Badger bounced up and down, splashing vigorously. “Alley-oop,” Ryan said, and he jumped Dog in, too. “Look, they’re splashing.”
“Alley-oop,” James said. “Alley-oop, alley-oop, ALLEY-OOP!” He scrambled onto his bed and jumped, shouting, “NO MORE MONKEYS JUMPIN’ ON THE BED.”
Their father appeared in the doorway. He had the rumpled look of late evening, his tie pulled loose, shirtsleeves rolled. “Time for your bath now, James,” he said quietly, and James slid off the bed and ran to him.
In her room Rebecca considered what to wear. Her colorful dresses were on one side of her closet and her plain dresses were on the other, and though she loved getting a bright new dress like the purple-striped one she’d picked out a couple weeks earlier, she generally ended up with something darker and less adorned. She had a navy dress with a small white collar that she had worn at least once a week this school year, and she was reaching for it when she saw, hanging way off to the side, a sleeveless white dress decorated with yellow daffodils, not just printed on the material but embroidered with bright yellow embroidery floss, the effect being of real flowers floating over a white background. Her Michigan grandmother had made it for her and sent it in a box with small floral sachets tucked between the folds of tissue paper. She had never worn it for fear of ruining it, and she was relieved, as she pulled it over her head, that it still fit, though it pulled slightly across her shoulders and was shorter than most of her other dresses. She found some white socks with yellow edges, sat on the bed, and pulled them onto her clean feet, carefully folding them down so they were cuffed identically. She strapped on her black patent-leather Mary Janes and stood before the mirror. She was satisfied with the way she looked—satisfied was the happiest you ought to be about how you looked; she had read that somewhere—though her hair, in the day’s braids, wasn’t quite as partyish as the rest of her. In fact, they were yesterday’s braids. She needed her mother’s help to redo them, though, and at this point, with the party starting in under an hour, Rebecca didn’t want to bother her.
She pulled the elastics off the tips of the braids and combed her fingers through her hair. When she was finished, it fell in sharp zigzags halfway to her elbows, and tears pricked at her eyes. She should have washed it. She really should have washed it, but it was far too late now—James was in the tub, with Ryan and Robert yet to go—and even if she had time she wouldn’t take a second bath just for her hair.
Or would she? She was caught in the middle, with the right but difficult thing off to one side and the wrong but easy thing off to the other, and she imagined the bathtub empty right now, available, and herself carefully taking off the dress, and removing the shoes and spotless socks, and putting her robe on, and going back down the hall to the bathroom—and she couldn’t say for sure that she would do it, which made her imagine shaking a finger at herself, a picture that came to her so frequently it might as well have been a scene captured by her father’s camera and put in one of the family photo albums. Except it wasn’t a real picture: it was the Rebecca of the moment, in this case wearing the daffodil dress, shaking her finger at another Rebecca, usually a younger, smaller Rebecca, standing with her head down.
“Carry on,” her father sometimes said when one or another of the children was stuck in a bad situation. He didn’t say it in a mean way; it was more: I know this is hard, I’m sorry it’s so hard, there are various things you could do, you could sit down and cry, or you could try to carry on. Can you carry on? I have a feeling you’ll be able to carry on.
Rebecca ran her brush through her hair, and that helped—the kinked strands blended together, and it looked a little less messy. She decided it would have to do. She left her room and headed for the kitchen, pausing when she saw that her mother’s door was ajar. She stood outside the door, listening. Water running, drawers opening: there was none of that.
Just then James came running out of the bedroom hallway in clean clothes. Her father followed, and when he saw Rebecca he stopped and smiled. “You look lovely,” he said, and a flood of warmth rose into Rebecca’s face.
“I forgot to wash my hair.”
“I’d never have known. To me you look perfect.”
“Let me see,” her mother called from the bedroom, and then she pulled open the door as if she’d been standing right there all along.
But she hadn’t. She’d been sitting on her bed gathering strength for the final push. She had cooked and cleaned, but the last part, getting herself ready, was the hardest. With the house and the food, she simply followed a plan that was the same from party to party, year to year. But when it came to herself, to her hair and makeup, her clothes and shoes, she was not so easily satisfied. Yes, she was a doctor’s wife and a mother of four, a suburban matron to the core of her being. But she wanted, just once a year, to look like someone important. The women she saw photographed at galas—they had something that went beyond a fashionable hairstyle or an expensive couture gown. It was an air of not doubting their right to be photographed, an air of having. As the daughter of a hardware store owner, Penny had never enjoyed anything like the advantages these women probably took for granted.
“Look at you,” she said to Rebecca.
Rebecca looked up at her father. When he was around she understood her mother better, or at least found it easier to know what to expect. She waited for him to say something that would make her mother go further, tell Rebecca how she liked the dress.
But Penny said nothing, and Bill hesitated and then said he was making progress on getting the children bathed. Cutting her losses, Rebecca reached for James’s hand and led him to the kitchen. Trays of hors d’oeuvres lay everywhere: on the stove, the countertops, the table, even the top of the refrigerator. “That’s a ton of food,” she said, more to herself than to James. “She did a lot of work.”
In the master bedroom, Penny was telling Bill the same thing. She wasn’t complaining, but she wanted him to be aware of her work so that he would feel honor-bound to do his, which wasn’t simply the shaking of hands and the fixing of drinks—it was much more than that.
“I am glad to see them,” he said. “Or I will be.”
“But I want you to act glad. Enthusiastic.” “Spirited” was another word. She wanted him to be spirited in the way he greeted the guests and even more spirited in the way he moved from group to group and joked with the men and teased or complimented the women.
“I’ll try,” he said mildly.
“Why can’t you say you will?”
“Because I tried last year.” And the year before that, he thought but didn’t say. “I may not have it in me.”
She was at her dresser with her back to him, holding her hair on top of her head with one hand and using the other to pull tendrils loose in front of her ears. He could see her face reflected in the mirror, the way she turned her head slightly and cast her eyes sideways to look at her profile.
He said, “Is there anything else I can do?”
Dropping her hair, she found his eyes in the mirror and looked at him. She couldn’t say she wanted him to cross the room and turn her around to face him and then to hold her close. He couldn’t say he knew this but had Ryan to move along and himself to get ready—that even if he couldn’t transform himself as fully as she wanted, he needed to wash up and change. And so they held each other’s gaze for another moment until Penny—who of the two of them had more to lose—broke the look and opened a drawer in search of bobby pins. And with that, Bill returned to the children’s bathroom.
ANN PACKER is the acclaimed author of two collections of short fiction, Swim Back to Me and Mendocino and Other Stories, and two bestselling novels, Songs Without Words and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, which received the Kate Chopin Literary Award, among many other prizes and honors. She lives in San Carlos, California.
Excerpted from The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer. Copyright © 2015 by Ann Packer. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.