Annie Brown died right before dinner. The mashed potatoes were still in the pot on the stove, the dented pot with the loose handle, but the meatloaf and the peas were already on the table. Two of the children were in their usual seats. Jamie tried to pick a piece of bacon off the top of the meatloaf, and Ali elbowed him. “Mom!” he yelled.
“Bill, get me some Advil, my head is killing me,” their mother said, turning from the stove to their father, her ponytail waving at them, her hair more or less the same shade and texture as the Irish setter’s down the street. She’d done the color herself, and she said she wasn’t happy with it, too brassy, but she figured she’d just let it go. Her husband said it looked fine. Of course he did.
“Bill,” she said again, looking at him with a wooden spoon raised in her hand, and then she went down, hard, the spoon skidding across the floor, leaving a thin trail of potatoes, stopping at the base of the stove. Ali didn’t see it because she was still policing her little brother, but she heard it.
Ant and Benjy came running in from the back room when they heard their dad yelling, “Annie! Annie! Jesus Christ!” Her husband tripped over the spoon as he ran to her, lifted her like it was nothing, and carried her into the living room. He pushed the coffee table into the wall with his foot so he could lay her down flat in the middle of the floor.
“Call 911, Ali,” he said to his daughter.
“What is your emergency?” said the woman, who had an accent that sounded like she was from somewhere else.
“My mother fell,” Ali said. It didn’t seem like enough, but she didn’t know what else to say.
“Give me the phone,” her father said. “Get out of the way.”
The kids all went back and sat still at the kitchen table as though if they moved it might make things worse. It was so quiet that Ali could hear them all breathing, especially their father. After a few minutes there was the faint sound of a siren, the faraway sound the kids heard when they had been sent to bed and Annie and Bill were watching some cop show in the living room and had turned the volume down. The siren got louder until it was all around the five of them, in them, in their teeth and their skulls, and then it stopped, and crash, crash, crash, things moving outside, and then the crew was through the front door as their father held it open and their mother lay still. No one ever used the front door. If someone rang that bell, Annie always said, “Now who in the world can that be?” When the family came into the house, they came in through the kitchen. There was a mat there, bristly, brown, to wipe their feet on, and a bench inside to leave their shoes on. No outside shoes in the house—that was the rule. “Is she part Japanese?” Annie’s mother-in-law once asked.
It was weird, the kitchen and the living room like two different places, two different stories, two different planets. Behind the big arch that separated the two rooms, the four children sat at the kitchen table frozen into something like a family photograph, meatloaf, peas, salt, pepper, the Brown kids gathered for a weekday dinner, Jamie, the youngest, with a smear of barbeque sauce on his fat pink cheek.
The EMTs made a wall of blue canvas backs around Annie so that all you could see were her slippers, like her feet were all that was left of her. Bill Brown bounced from side to side, adrenaline all over, his eyes big and then blinking, big and then blinking, like someone in a movie who was trying to send secret distress signals without giving anything away to the bad guys. Annie’s slippers were purple and Bill had given them to her for Christmas even though she had told him she wanted a locket. They all heard her, a heart-shaped locket to put a picture in. “These are nice,” she’d said when she opened the box and found the slippers. She’d prepared herself; you couldn’t see a shoebox shape and think there was a locket inside unless your husband was the kind of man who would put a small box in a bigger one as a trick, and Bill wasn’t that kind of guy.
When she came home from working at the nursing home in the evening or the morning, depending on her shift, she would take off her rubber clogs at the back door and put on the purple slippers. Sometimes Bill would smile when she did that, like he was thinking he’d done good. He said that when he was happy about something: “I done good.”
There were the slippers, still, as if no one was wearing them, and there was Bill, bouncing up and down in the living room, his mouth open, panting. Hyperventilating, Ali said to herself, remembering Girl Scout training. She wondered if her father was going to faint, if there would be the two of them lying there on the rug, both their parents, their kids staring. “Stand back, Bill,” one of the EMTs said, both men leaving wet, gray spots on the carpet from the old snow they’d picked up on their shoes outside. One of them was a man whose son used to be on Ali’s Little League team. One of them was someone Bill and Annie had gone to high school with. They lived in that kind of place.
Jamie was still picking idly at the meatloaf so that one crispy corner of it was all picked out and most of the bacon was gone, but now Ali wasn’t going to stop him. Ali was staring at her mother’s feet. They hadn’t moved once. She kept waiting for her mother to sit up and say “What happened?” or “I’m fine” or “Let me up.” She kept waiting for the EMTs to do that thing with the paddles, to shock her mother’s heart back to life. She figured that even if she couldn’t see anything but the men’s backs, she would hear that sound, pop pop, and her mother’s feet would do a little jump. They had one of those machines in every hallway at the nursing home where her mother worked. Her mother had shown Ali when she’d visited once. “Do you know how to use that?” Ali had asked. “Of course,” her mother said. “It wouldn’t be much use to people if I didn’t.”
“Let’s get her on the gurney,” Ali heard one of the men say.
“What’s a gurney?” Benjy whispered.
“I’m coming with you,” their father said, and really fast they were out the door, him, her, the EMTs, and then there were all the hard metal sounds of things moving and slamming, the ambulance starting up and the siren wailing, then dwindling, as the ambulance moved off their street. The living room felt as empty as if there were no one home, the way Ali figured the house did in the mornings after they’d all gone to school and their parents had left for work and the only sound was the furnace in the basement clicking on and off, the hot air whooshing up through the vents, the occasional creak of the hamster wheel from Ali’s room.
It was quiet now except for the sound of Jamie sucking barbeque sauce off his fingers and some murmurs from outside that were the sounds of neighbors, even in the cold, on their front steps trying to figure out what was going on over at the Brown house. A siren didn’t sound on their street without everyone coming out to see. They’d done the same thing themselves. Chimney fire, their father might say, sending everyone back inside as the fire engine backed down the block.
“Where are they going?” said Benjy.
“The hospital, dumbass,” said Ant.
“Shut up,” Ali said. “Don’t be mean to him.”
“You’re not the boss,” said Ant, like he always did.
“What happened to Mommy?” said Benjy.
“I don’t really know,” Ali said.
Ant and Ali didn’t eat anything, but the two little boys had meatloaf and even some potatoes, though they were cold, with ketchup on it all. They didn’t eat the peas because there was nobody to make them do it. “We should go to bed,” Ali said. “We have school tomorrow.” Jamie and Benjy went to their room, and when Ali checked on them they were asleep, their clothes on the floor, no face washing, no tooth brushing, but she wasn’t going to wake them up for that. Benjy had his thumb in his mouth, and in the quiet she could hear him sucking on it, just the way she’d heard him when he was a baby and couldn’t be without a pacifier for even a minute.
The little boys had bunk beds up against the wall, but Ant had a twin bed up against the window. He was lying down flat and staring out.
“Is she going to die?” he said without turning his head.
“What are you talking about?” Ali said kind of meanly, even though she was thinking the same thing. Her mother’s feet, so still.
She went downstairs and sat on the living room couch. The house felt big all around her, even though it wasn’t, like it had expanded without the grown-ups in it. It’s not like they hadn’t been left alone before with her in charge, like after school when their parents were both late from work, or when their mother and father went to the diner for dinner. But that was always planned. Ali, put the mac and cheese in the oven. Make sure Jamie does his eye exercises. One hour of TV, and that’s it. They never just got left like this, like everyone had forgotten they were even there.