Sunny picked up the two older children from the church preschool half an hour late. She double-parked, checked her makeup again, then stepped into the vivid heat to get the stroller from the back before getting the baby out of the car seat and strapping her in. She fixed a rueful smile on her face before heading inside.
Kayla and JJ immediately wrapped themselves around her legs as soon as she got in the door. The teacher, Miss Crystal, greeted her pleasantly as though she hadn't just been babysitting off the clock.
"I didn't know they'd be setting up for the parade this early," Sunny explained, as she pried JJ off one leg and picked Kayla up to put her in the stroller alongside the baby. Kayla moaned but seemed to realize the battle was futile. "Every road's closed down, seems like. I do appreciate you waiting."
"Oh, I would have been waiting anyway," Miss Crystal said. "The pastor likes me to stay around in case he thinks of something for me to do."
"Well, I'll get them out of your way soon. JJ, how about you go get Grizzly and then say goodbye to Miss Crystal, all right?"
"Not going home," JJ said hopefully, looking at Sunny.
"Not going home," Kayla parroted, starting to squirm.
"We're not going home, honey, Mama's got errands to run. Now go find Grizzly, okay?"
JJ gave her a suspicious look but trudged off to his cubby. Sunny busied herself making sure that Kayla and the baby were secure in the stroller, hoping that Miss Crystal wouldn't take the opportunity to bring up anything that might have happened that morning – Kayla biting or JJ pushing or one or both of them withdrawing from the other children completely – but instead Miss Crystal just asked, "So are y'all going to the parade later?"
The knot in her stomach relaxed a little, but she made sure to keep the same smile on her face. "My mother's coming by later to take them all to see it. I'll have to pass. I've got a million things to do around the house and by the time my husband gets home, he's so tired he doesn't want to do anything or go anywhere."
"I got Grizzly," JJ announced, coming and waving the battered thing in her face.
"Good job. Now say thank you to Miss Crystal and let's go."
"Thank you," JJ and Kayla said dutifully. Miss Crystal looked like she wanted to say something else, but Sunny took JJ's hand and wheeled the stroller out of the room without looking back. She went back outside and loaded all three kids into the car, put the stroller in the trunk and then got herself into the driver's seat. Before she started the car she checked her makeup one last time, making sure her bruises weren't showing.
It took an extra half hour to get to the pharmacy because all the regular roads were closed down, which meant JJ and Kayla both got bored and started fighting in the back seat. Sunny mechanically said, "Stop it," at regular intervals, but her heart wasn't in it and she was sure it showed. Her voice just blended in with the noise.
When she parked the car in front of the pharmacy, she turned around and said, "Now I want y'all to behave while Mama gets her medicine. That means no yelling, no running around, no fighting. If you behave and act right, I will get you candy."
"I want M&Ms," JJ said.
"Candy," Kayla agreed.
"If you behave," Sunny said, "y'all can have some candy. But you need to mind me in the store, hear?"
"Yes, Mama," both children said.
Inside the pharmacy, she grabbed five packs of batteries before heading to the prescription pickup counter. Kayla and JJ stood by the counter for about thirty seconds before getting distracted by the greeting card carousel. Sunny shifted the baby on her hip and said, "JJ and Kayla, stay where I can see you and behave." They gave her a cursory glance and continued spinning the carousel.
"Cutting it close today," Earl said from behind the shelves where he was measuring neat white pills into vials. "We're closing up and heading for the parade soon. Even the fire station's closing up today. Just hope a fire doesn't start in the store while Ray and I are out there or we'd come back to a pile of ash."
"Hope not," Sunny said vaguely. She put on the face that worked with Earl – the I'm-too-busy-to-have-a-thought-in-my-head face. "Too bad about this heat, isn't it?"
"Miss Vera was in earlier and she was fretting about her garden. If we don't get rain soon, she's plum out of luck. I told her to grow tomatoes instead. What can I do for you today?"
"Did Dr. Patterson call in my prescription?"
"I'll fetch it. Any questions about it?"
"Dr. Patterson mentioned side effects…no alcohol or anything?" She measured out the co-pay one-handed, trying not to wake the baby.
"Forget about any of that," Earl said. "Not unless you're looking to pass out. Sedatives don't play nice with alcohol."
"Oh," Sunny said. She took the vial and awkwardly put it in her purse. "Well, that's settled then. Do you have any more packs of double As?"
"What, you want more? Looks like you got a bunch already."
"Oh, you know…" She tilted her head one way and then the other. "The downstairs smoke alarm's been beepin' like the battery's dying and once one goes they all go. I just figured that –"
She heard a sharp "Hey," behind her and flinched, startling the baby. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a rush of movement, someone approaching quickly, and she clutched the baby to her and looked for JJ and Kayla. It took a split second before she realized that the movement was one of the clerks running up through the aisle, because either JJ or Kayla had knocked the card carousel off balance and it was falling over, Happy Anniversaries and To My Dear Wifes and Sorry For Your Losses spilling onto the floor. JJ and Kayla had disappeared; she saw a flash of red that might have been JJ's shirt going around a corner.
"Oh, Lord," Sunny said, and went after her children, ignoring Earl calling after her and the clerk picking up the cards and the baby screaming, because she just needed to keep her kids safe for a little while longer and the only way they could be safe was if she could see them.
She found them hiding by the magazines, JJ keeping lookout while Kayla huddled behind him. She felt a dull, sick relief but by now she just wanted to get all of them out of there, so she leaned over, grabbed JJ's wrist and said, "No candy."
Neither of them reacted at first. When the words sunk in, JJ's face screwed up and his mouth opened and Kayla followed suit, loudly. Sunny didn't have the time to feel humiliated so she just hustled them outside into the heat, all three children howling with indignation, and somehow managed to get them back into the car. Once they were back on the road she realized she'd forgotten the batteries but she'd only been buying them so that later she could say that she had and now she just didn't give a damn about them.
The kids eventually seemed to realize that screaming was getting them nowhere. The baby was intermittently fussing like she was getting hungry but it wasn't at emergency level yet. Kayla was distracted by the parade preparations out the window, watching the police officers and firefighters in their uniforms. JJ held onto Grizzly and sucked his thumb. Sunny drove.
When they pulled up into the driveway, JJ said, "Why are we here?"
"Because I need to get y'all some clothes to bring over to Grandma's," Sunny said. She turned off the car and checked her makeup before going to gather the kids.
"No," Kayla said when Sunny went to unbuckle her.
"Your daddy's not home yet, Kayla, and we're only staying for a minute. Now let me unbuckle you."
Both JJ and Kayla looked suspiciously at her but didn't say anything. Sunny said, "Leave Grizzly in the car, JJ, we'll be leaving soon."
"No," JJ said.
"Fine," Sunny said wearily.
Inside, she gave the baby a bottle and then hauled the two big suitcases out of the closet to take them upstairs. JJ followed close behind her.
"Why you doing that?"
Sunny paused from where she was folding JJ and Kayla's socks and shirts and pants and all of their church clothes into the suitcase and said, "Every time you see Grandma you go out in the yard and do I don't even know what, and I don't want you getting dirt all over her house so I'm bringing a change of clothes. Do Mama a favor and go check on your little sisters?"
JJ was always pleased when she referred to his ability to figure out Kayla's hiding spots. He said, "Okay," and strode off purposefully.
Sunny finished packing one suitcase and then went into the nursery and loaded up the other one with the baby's bottles and diapers and formula and pacifiers and whatever other things she could fit. She looked at her watch, fixed her makeup, and hauled both suitcases to the car, calling, "All right, y'all, we're heading out."
Her mother was sitting on her front porch when Sunny pulled up. She crossed the lawn in long steps as Sunny was unbuckling the kids from their seats.
"I brought over some of their clothes," Sunny said, passing the baby over as JJ and Kayla ran around their legs, chattering excitedly. "I'll bring them in."
"Right," her mother said. "Did y'all eat?"
"I thought they could have something at the parade."
"Surely they can have a little something before. JJ and Kayla, go inside, there are pecan swirls on the counter."
"Mama, I don't want them filling up on junk."
"Oh, don't be silly, it's not junk. Nuts are good for them."
"Pecan," Kayla said, waving her arms around.
"Fine," Sunny said. JJ and Kayla both took off at full gallop. Sunny shouted after them, "One each and that's it!"
"I thought I'd let you have my phone," her mother said as Sunny was getting the suitcases out of the car. She bounced the baby on her hip. "I only keep it for emergencies so the battery's full up. You can leave it in the car."
"All right," Sunny said. "Can I put these in the hall?"
"I'll bring them up later. I'm going to take this one out of the heat."
"I'll be there in a minute." Sunny bent down and kissed the baby's chubby fists. "I love you, my sweet girl."
Both JJ and Kayla were sticky when she brought the suitcases inside but she wasn't going to say anything about it. Her mother gave her the phone, a clunky gray thing that she stuck in her purse. Her mother took her chin in one hand and tilted her head one way and then the other appraisingly. Sunny waved her off.
"When's he getting home?" her mother asked.
"Not for a little while yet."
"Oh. Well, I suppose you should just set off then. Kids, say goodbye to your mama."
Kayla began to cry. She flung herself at Sunny's ankles, wailing. JJ dropped Grizzly and tried to block the door with his body.
"JJ –" Her mother went and moved JJ away from the door. She said to Sunny, "Just go, it'll be harder on them if you draw it out."
Sunny kissed Kayla's head and said, "Goodbye, honey, I love you." She leaned down to give JJ a hug and he grabbed her hand, pleading, "Mama, no!"
Sunny went to the car and left her mother and her angry, frightened children behind. She stopped for gas and used the moment to steady herself. In the distance she could hear drums from where they were warming up for the parade.
By the time she got home she had decided that she wasn't going to spend any time worrying about what she had to do. She went into the kitchen and took every old battery she could out of the junk drawer. She got out the stepladder and went around the house taking down the smoke detectors and replacing the batteries, That was easy.
She put the stepladder away and went back to the kitchen. She sat by her big bay window and stared at the cabinets she had painted butter-yellow, her favorite. JJ and Kayla's drawings were on the fridge. She had hung a framed verse from Corinthians over the stove.
Sunny shook her head. She grabbed a pen and paper and wrote all three children's names down in block letters, folded it and put it in her pocket in case she needed it. The vial of pills was still in her purse.
She checked that the whiskey her husband liked was in the liquor cabinet and then took two glasses out. This was easy, too, just like crushing pills to mix into the kids' applesauce, and she emptied half the vial onto the counter and ground the contents into a fine powder before sweeping it into the bottom of the glass. She put the glass in the sink for later.
The next part, she wasn't so sure about. She got the toolbox out, hauled it upstairs to gather up a few of her clothes, and then dragged everything down to the laundry room. The instruction manual for the washing machine, thick as a dictionary, was up on the shelf with the detergents and fabric softeners. She dropped the toolbox with a clank and took the manual down.
It took a few minutes of leafing through the manual before she found the diagrams of the machine setup and where the gas line was attached. Sunny told herself that she wasn't worried. This was just another do-it-yourself job, the kind she'd been doing for years, nothing to fret about. She took a deep breath, braced her body against the washing machine, and pulled for all she was worth.
Finally the machine lurched away from the wall, leaving a space wide enough for her to work. The gas line was right there, sticking out the back like a snout. Her hair was stuck to her face. She opened up the toolbox to get the wrench, but her hands were shaking too badly for her to get a grip on it. She pushed the wet strands out of her eyes, took the list out of her pocket and laid it on top of the washing machine so that she could see it. She said the children's names over and over again to herself, first silently and then under her breath, until finally she picked up the wrench and bashed in the gas line. She stopped once she could see it gaping open.
Sunny put her clothes in the washing machine, went into the bathroom and threw up. She brushed her teeth, washed her face and fixed her hair and makeup. When she was presentable again she went and turned the washing machine on, just as she heard his car pulling up outside.
It only took her a few seconds to get out of the laundry room, close the door, and back into the kitchen. By the time he opened the front door, she was quietly wiping down the counters.
She didn't look up when he came into the kitchen, just said, "My mother came by to take the kids to the parade. Want me to fix you a drink?"
She felt him considering her, gauging if she was going to start up what he called her foolishness. She kept her face placid and dutiful.
Finally, he said, "Fine. You can bring it in to me."
Sunny went to the liquor cabinet and got his whiskey. This seemed enough for him; she heard him retreating into the living room and the sound of the TV switching on.
She got the glass out of the sink and took the ice tray out of the fridge. She poured in just enough whiskey for the powder to start to dissolve, then dropped in a few ice cubes and poured the rest of the liquor over it. She didn't think she had to worry about if it tasted bitter or not. He liked to slug his drinks.
She brought the glass into the living room, placed it by his side and said, "Here. You want anything special for supper?"
"Doesn't matter," he said without looking up.
"I'll start on it," she said, and went back to the kitchen. She got some potatoes out, sat down and started peeling them, ignoring the blood pounding in her ears, and she waited.
She didn't wait long. She heard him give a choked, outraged howl from the living room and then a heavy thud. Then it was just the sound of the TV.
She put the potato down, picked up her purse and went into the living room. He was lying face-down on the floor. She didn't want to look at him too long in case any pity or last trace of love got to her, so she just took a cigarette from his pack on the table and turned her back on him. She struck a match and lit the cigarette, eyes closing against the smoke, and took it to the laundry room.
Even from outside the room, she could hear something roaring and hissing inside. She flattened herself against the wall, opened the laundry door a crack and tossed the lit cigarette inside before closing the door quickly again. She held onto her purse and rushed out the front door, not pausing to look back.
Outside the air was full of the sounds of the parade, of everyone in town gathered far away from her. Sunny got in the car and drove to the highway, where there was a 7-Eleven open. She bought milk and bread, handing the money over blindly, and she had to force herself not to run out without waiting for change.
She could see the black smoke in the sky the second she stepped outside, shooting straight up, thick and almost industrial. The highway stretched on before her to cities she'd never seen. Sunny got back in the car and drove towards the smoke, just to see what was there.
She turned on the radio and rolled down the windows. The parade drums and the music didn't drown out the thoughts inside her head, of the last time he'd beat her, because she'd told him she wanted to leave. How he'd held her by the scruff of her neck and promised that if she ever started that up again he would kill the children to keep her from getting them. How she'd realized with absolute clarity through the pain and the fear that she could live knowing that her soul would burn in hell forever but that she couldn't live a life without her children. Her heart pounded in perfect time along with the parade drums, louder and louder, and by the time she pulled up and saw the house they used to live in burning to the ground, it was easy for her to reach for the phone in her purse and dial 911, screaming.