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On the rocks 

Hayley Shucker


Exodus by Chamenou Mikey Chang

Hayley Shucker is pursuing her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence. She’s had a short story published in StoryLine Coastline’s “arts and letters” online magazine, a creative non-fiction essay published in Adanna Literary Journal, and sold a poem to Tree-Free Greeting. She’s a lover of musical theater, cats, and baking.

     “You’re really okay with Mark still visiting his mother?” Fran asks, leaning against the counter. It’s seven o’clock in the morning, and she’s already been to Pilates, showered and styled her hair, and is dressed in her cream power suit with black pumps. Meanwhile, yesterday’s maxi dress sticks to the sweat beneath my breasts and between my thighs. My hair is knotted and thrown in a bun. Every mother owns this look. “It’s been nine days, Carrie.”

     I’ve been counting very carefully. It’s been nine days since Fran noticed his absence, forcing me to inform her he’s out of state caring for his ailing mother. (It’s always good to have a fictitious ill relative.) But it’s been twelve days since he’s been gone.

     “She’s on borrowed time,” I say while mixing boxed pancake batter for Gianna and Georgie, who have taken root in front of the television. They are clad only in their diapers. Mark habitually comments that the twins are three years old, so they shouldn’t need them anymore. Diapers are costly. While I would love to call it quits on the diapers—I change them most of the time—we can afford them, no problem. Their tardiness doesn’t surprise me. Growing up, my body’s milestone progress was dilatory. No best of show for the dog who doesn’t sit or roll over when she is supposed to. My adorable little Pomeranians take after me.

     Fran looks me dead in the eye. “When’s he coming home?” I almost burn a pancake. 

     Fran is our neighbor, newly divorced. First, it was separated, and she’d slink over to our door, asking Mark if he could fix this or explain that to her. She wears a suit to work. That bitch knows how to snake a drain or light a pilot light. Or she can look it up on the Internet. I affix a smile on my face, the one I wear for block parties, family gatherings, and when the twins show me something they’ve drawn. It’s surprising how many innocent items look phallic—spoons, snails, giraffes—and I wonder if my obsession matches the definition of a pervert.

     “As soon as he’s able.”

     Fran gets bored and leaves for work. Fucking Fran.

     It didn’t piss me off that Fran threw herself at Mark. That was nothing new. He’s got a strong jaw, full lips that encase mine, scruff that isn’t scratchy, and while he isn’t what one would call “fit,” I think he has a gorgeous body. A delectable plumpness. I like having something to hold on to during sex. Seven-month-pregnant me could be standing right next to him at the pharmacy picking up my prenatal vitamins, and women would flirt with him. Mark pretended it wasn’t a big deal. That laissez-faire attitude toward relationships is what triggered our arguments. Eventually, Gianna and Georgie absorbed my energy, and I couldn’t fight him anymore. Let flirts be flirts. 

     I serve up silver dollar pancakes to the twins on disposable plates. Happy, syrupy fingers fly in all directions as they gobble up the sugary puffs. This carpet is trash anyway since Mark fell asleep smoking one night and charred the corner when the lit cigarette tumbled from his lips. Stains from the twins are the least of my worries. 

     Just need to wait a few more days. Then I tell someone a version of the truth.

     I suspect he’s run off with someone. My money—his money, if I’m being technical—is on the cute-as-a-button check-out girl Amy from Ralphs. I see how he looks at her when we’re at the grocery store and he thinks I’m busy with the twins. One time his erection was visible through his jeans. Although she is only a few years behind me, my children have aged me about a decade in the short time they’ve been on this earth. Rough skin, stretch marks on my stomach and breasts, and the occasional stray gray hair define my body. I don’t think that’s why he ran off with her. Mark’s never given me the impression he likes younger women. We’ve played bedroom games, and he’s never once asked me to role-play or dress up as a schoolgirl. Not that I wouldn’t be willing to. Everyone has their kinks.

     I believe he ran off with Amy because she’s a genuinely nice person, which is probably rarer than getting struck by lightning. Twice. Anyone else would have encouraged him to clear out our joint bank account. Take the money and run. Amy has a good heart. She babysits for us, sometimes free of charge. She recently finished her Master’s degree in psychology and volunteers at the community center teaching a parenting class. She wouldn’t leave the twins with a broke mother.

     Money makes me nervous. Not panicked. Nervous. I haven’t worked since the twins were born. I make jewelry for fun; occasionally, a neighbor commissions a necklace or earrings from me. I’m like a teenager mowing the lawn, making enough for drive-thru movie dates. But we four survive on Mark’s meager disability check and his part-time income as a mechanic. It is the third of the month, and we still haven’t gotten the deposit. The military finances are usually a little slow, and we are coming off a weekend. Typically, I wouldn’t worry. That’s the last thing I want to know before I tell people he’s gone. Will Mark’s deposit come, or did he contact the Veteran’s Office to change the account?

     The morning he went missing, I panicked. Our cash jar had been cleaned out. The car was still in the garage. I called his cell phone but found it lodged between the couch cushions. I immediately logged into our bank account on my phone, but all our money was still there. It wasn’t a lot, but none of it was missing. No large withdrawals or suspicious transfers. That temporarily stopped the panicking. We wouldn’t be evicted. I called the mechanic shop and asked to speak with him, but his boss dropped several F-bombs because Mark had quit out of the blue two days prior. I reported our cards as lost and changed our passwords, so he couldn’t drain our savings digitally. If he wanted to fuck me over, he’d have to do it at a branch in person.

     I toss the syrupy plates in the garbage and walk with the twins to the bathroom. I strip them of their diapers, heavy with urine, and help them into the tub. A quick bath with lukewarm water and bubblegum-scented body wash, and they are happy. I dress them in clean diapers and let their fuzzy hair air dry. I bring the tablet into the bathroom and put on cartoons. Their giggles make me feel like I’m succeeding as a parent.

     Gianna and Georgie are good kids. Exhausting, but good. I thought that without Mark’s help, they’d be harder to care for, but truthfully, it’s a relief to know I only need to focus my energy on the twins. I peel off my dress, damp from the humidity. My underwear smells rank and sour as I shuffle the overstretched elastic down my thighs. I cool the water and step into the shower. For five minutes, I get to have nice-smelling skin.

     “Mommy,” Gianna says. “When’s daddy coming home?” She always waits until I’m in the shower or on the toilet to ask questions. I think she knows that’s when I can’t leave.


     “When he wants to.” I’ve perfected this refrain. The cool water satiates my pulse points, and I wish my children were as easy to calm.


     “Where is he?” Georgie asks.


     “I’ve told you. Taking care of grandma.” There’s a hint of irritation in my voice, so they return to their cartoons. My children aren’t stupid. They know I’m lying. But like any animal, they will adapt and learn. And Mark could come back—not to be with me, but to see his children. He might be a mediocre partner, but he isn’t a bad father.

     The faucet screeches as I twist the handle. I wrap a clean-enough towel around me and hope the mildewy stench doesn’t wipe off on my skin. “Pick something for Mommy to wear today.” Gianna and Georgie wander off to my bedroom, leaving the tablet running on the floor. I log into the bank account—still nothing. I enable push notifications.

     It’s the middle of summer, and I’m wearing a bright orange Jack-O-Lantern shirt Gianna chose, jean shorts (because I talked them out of sweatpants), and ballet flats. For themselves, the twins chose graphic shirts with beach pictures. They’re fucking with me.

     The air conditioner in our ten-year-old Mazda is busted, so the windows stay down the entire trip to the 99 Cents Only Store. I fill a cart with paper towels, laundry soap, instant noodles, more pancake batter, a bottle of wine for me, and for each of them, a cheap plastic toy from some knock-off intellectual property that is sure to break by the end of the day.

     I pull into the Ralphs parking lot. We don’t need anything, but checking here every few days has become a habit. Different days of the week, different hours of the day. No sign of Amy. I have her address from babysitting, and a drive-by has crossed my mind, but I lack the guts. Amy could be on vacation or out sick. But in my experience, only stupid people make excuses to twist the obvious clues into shapes they prefer. I should know. I was a love-sick teen. Some people never grow out of that phase. 

     The sight of Amy strolling past our car, tying her red apron around her waist is so normal I almost don’t register her until she flips her bouncy hair. I stumble out of the driver’s seat and scramble to unhook the kids from their car seats. There’s a plastic arm on the floor already. I sympathize.

     I scan the aisles before spotting her in the produce section. Gianna and Georgie’s little legs can’t keep up as I power walk over there, unconvinced Amy is real. 

     Amy catches me fumbling toward her and waves. “Hi, Carrie. Nice shirt.”

     She looks slightly put off, but that could be my ragged appearance, not guilt. 


     “Hi, Amy. The kids picked it out. Did you do something different to your hair?” Her curls are perfect. Mine are frizzing out of control.

     “It’s our new hair oil. I’ll show you.”

     We follow her across the store. In my most casual tone, I say, “I haven’t seen you around. How have you been?”

     “I’ve been caretaking for my grandfather. He’s confined to a bed.”

     Immediately, guilt rushes over me. I imagine a wrinkly old man on a hospital bed hooked up to an oxygen tank and an IV. 

     “You’re an angel. Is there any way we can help you?” 

     “That’s what I love about you, Carrie. You’ve got your hands full.” She gestures to the twins. “But you still want to help. I’ve got him under control. Besides, he gets grumpy when he doesn’t get his way. Not fun to be around.” We reach a wall of hair supplies, and Amy plucks a small glass bottle off the shelf and hands it to me. “This is the stuff.”

     I look at the label. It retails for twenty-eight ninety-five. A little more than Mark’s monthly supply of cigarettes. I hand her back the bottle. “Maybe next time.” Then I notice her wristwatch with the thick leather band. “A little big for you, isn’t it?”

     She laughs, and I think I detect some nerves. “It belongs to my grandfather.”

     But the watch looks familiar. “Mark has a similar one.” Then I notice a stray sliver of pink nail polish on the band, and I know it’s the same watch. Part of me likes being right. “The company probably sold hundreds of them,” I say to put her mind at ease. I don’t care if she’s fucking Mark or if he left me for her. The twins might resent him, but I don’t. Mating isn’t a competition. I used to think it was when I was younger, but I’ve come to realize that I have more important things to worry about other than a boy not loving me anymore. If he ever did.

     “See you next time, Carrie.” Amy scuttles off.

     Time for a duel. “Amy,” I call after her, and she pauses. “I hate to ask, but our sitter canceled. Would you be able to watch the twins tonight? Mark and I have a date.”

     Amy’s poker face is a valiant fighter. No twitches in sight. “I have to work until seven.”


     “Thanks anyway, Amy. See you around.”

     I book it out of the store before she can continue our game. Georgie begs for me to carry him, so I prop him on my hip, and Gianna follows me close behind as we make our way back to the car. Something doesn’t add up. I make the plunge and drive to Amy’s house, unsure what I will say to Mark. I want to prove to myself I’m right. 

     Amy lives in a quiet and clean neighborhood. Her house is small but picturesque, which is fitting given her sweet personality. Gianna and Georgie whine about the heat as we approach the door. It feels like a spy movie as I hunt around for locations where Amy would hide a spare key. A man walks out of his house to the mailbox and eyes the three of us. I throw on my best “mom” smile. Then I pick up Georgie and make him wave. Kids are a great distraction, but just to be sure, I bend over to put Georgie back down and stick out my ass.

     The man adjusts his pants as he pretends to sort through the mail while he walks back inside. Sexy awkward is my specialty. It’s nice to know men still find me attractive. A crash in the corner steals my attention. Gianna smashed a porcelain rabbit figure. I’m about to get mad at her when I see a bronze key amongst the pieces. Smart kid.

     We slip inside. Air conditioning caresses our flushed skin.

     “Mom, I want juice,” Gianna says. Her little cheeks radiate with warmth.

     I sit them on the couch and hope Amy still has juice boxes from the last time she babysat. Success. They’ve already found the remote control and made themselves at home. They slurp away, unaware we are technically breaking and entering. Shit. The grandfather. Hopefully, he’s senile enough that we can fly under the radar. I stroll around, preparing my babysitting alibi, and peek into both bedrooms. Amy keeps a pristine house. No old man. I suppose she didn’t say her grandfather was staying at her house. 

     I’m on my way to corral the twins back into the car when I hear tinny rattling. The sound is faint and hard to pinpoint. I brush it off, but then there’s a loud clatter, and the floor vibrates just a hair. My shoe pushes aside the carpet runner in the hallway, and there’s a latch on the floor. Too many thoughts pulse through my brain to process. But I need to see what’s behind door number three, Monty.

     I poke my head into the living room. The twins are passed out on the couch, so I tug open the latch. Groaning noises and a narrow ladder greet me. I climb down and pull out my phone to use the flashlight.

     It’s a small, unfinished room. A weathered bed and a chuck of wood are on the cement floor. There’s a man tied to the bed, spread eagle. Mark.

     His beautiful face is bruised, and a strip of tape is over his mouth. He’s weak. Gaunt, even. He starts crying once he sees my face in the flashlight's glow. I cry a little, too. He muffles something, so I rip off the tape. 

     “Untie me.”

     “Of course,” I say, shaking off the realization that Amy is insane. I fumble with the knots around his wrist, but I can’t get a grip.

     “Hurry up.”

     “Let me get a knife from the kitchen.”

     “Don’t leave me.”

     Clanking sounds ring out above us, and Mark cowers.

     “Amy’s at work. It’s just the twins.”

     I climb up the ladder but freeze in my tracks and almost piss myself. Amy’s sitting at the little kitchen table with two glass tumblers.

     “Have a seat.”

     Gianna and Georgie are still sleeping on the couch.

     “I wouldn’t hurt them,” she says in an even tone.

     With no other choice, I sit.

     “What’s your poison? I’ve got whiskey, wine, coffee.” When I don’t move, she adds, “Poison was a poor word choice. I apologize. None of it is poisoned.”

     “Water is fine.”

     “Suit yourself.”  Amy stretches and goes to the fridge. She hands me a chilled water bottle. “I think this calls for whiskey, personally.” Amy plunks a few ice cubes in her glass and pours herself a generous amount. She rejoins me. Stray tears well in my eyes. “He’s not worth crying over.”

     “He’s beaten and tied up in your basement.”

     “But he doesn’t love you.” She takes a swig.

     This should make me cry more, but it doesn’t. I shake my head. “That doesn’t matter. He’s the father of my children. We need him.”

     She wags her finger at me. “You need his money. It’s different.”

     We hear Mark call my name from down below, but neither of us moves.

     I acquiesce. “People are asking questions.”

     “Tell people he left you. People love single mother sob stories.” 

     I sink back.

     “Don’t sulk. You’re almost as smart as I am.” 

     I meet her eyes.

     “That was a compliment.”

     I nod.

     “You knew he was sleeping around, but you don’t seem to care. That’s why those tears are curious.”

     The tears are mostly from shock. I care. Sex with Mark is good; fireworks when he makes an effort. But there are only so many times a person can have the same fight. Georgie can probably count higher than the number of times we’ve had sex since they were born. Post-partem, exhaustion. Our relationship fractured after I got pregnant, and it never recovered.

     “My choices were to leave him and raise the twins on my own or to accept that Mark wanted more than the three of us and raise the twins together. I chose door number two.” 

     “You didn’t report him missing, which was strange. Are you a woman with a plan?” 

     “I’m a mother. Queen of improvisation. I thought you two had run off together.”

     Amy takes another swig. “He suggested it.”

     “But you thought reenacting Misery would be more fun?” I don’t know where my attitude comes from. She holds all the cards here.

     Her perfectly straight pearls peek out of her glossy lips as she smiles. “You’ve got bite.” She pulls out her phone and shows me her security app. “You triggered my silent alarm, but you had a hunch and followed through.” I watch myself with the twins on the screen. “I knew you’d notice the watch.”

Mark’s voice is louder this time. “Carrie, what the fuck is taking you so long?”

     Amy and I stare at each other in silence. We are both waiting to see what my next move will be. It was different when I thought Mark had just run off with Amy. Amy holding him hostage—I’ve got to untie him. We both know that.

     “Why didn’t you go?”

     She shrugs as if I’m asking her why she wouldn’t wear his letterman jacket. “Why would I? His plan, if you could call it that, was for me to leave my home, my job, my friends and live on his disability check.”

     That last part stings. It’s always the fucking money.

     “And,” she continued. “He was going to leave Gianna and Georgie. Can you believe it?”

I crack open the water and gulp half of it down. I don’t say the obvious. That Mark tied up in her basement still means my children are fatherless.

     “You two are free to date, fuck, whatever.” 

     “You misunderstand. Mark was sleeping around. But not with me.” She finishes her whiskey.

Fucking Fran strikes again.

     “I love your kids. They can be difficult sometimes, but that’s just kids. Mark made a pass at me one night when he came over to pick them up.” Amy smirked. “When I said no, he suggested running away with me, starting over.” 

     The unattainable are always more attractive.

     “And this is your way of what? Teaching him a lesson.”

     “Don’t you want a partner who respects you, Carrie?”

     My phone pings. Mark’s deposit landed in the bank. 

     “The kids miss their father.” I drop my voice to a whisper. “He can’t die.” I don’t know what part of her I’m trying to appeal to. 

     Amy places her hand over mine. “I know you depend on him financially. But, Carrie, think about it. He quit his job and planned to run away with someone else. If Mark is going to come home to you and the kids, it will take a lot of work.”

     A spark of hope ignites in me. “Amy, are you saying that Mark can eventually come home? If he respects me?”

     She looks at me as if I were a dying doe she’d reamed with her truck. “I suppose it’s up to you when he comes home. I won’t stop you. I believe people make changes for the better, but it’s hard work.”

     Mark howls my name. Instinctively, I stand up, but so does Amy. I walk to the ladder. She follows close behind. Her casual demeanor is unnerving. What does she want? I descend into the muggy room, partly worried she may trap me down there with Mark. Only a soft glow of light spills into the dark room through the hole.

     “Carrie, what took you so long?”

     I stand still as Amy joins me. Once Mark makes out Amy’s face in the glow, he rattles around, foolishly trying to free himself from this mess. Making messes is easy. Cleaning them up can be impossible. There’s no telling how deep a stain goes at first glance. I sit next to Mark and place my hand on his heart. I look back at Amy, but she isn’t attempting to stop me.

“Carrie, hurry up, baby. Untie me.”

     I caress his face with both hands, stroke his fuzzy beard, and kiss him. “Mark, were you really going to leave me and the twins?”

     His face twists and his lips quiver. “Never. Whatever she’s told you is a lie. She’s crazy.”

I must be as well because her plan intrigues me. Amy tsks and covers his mouth with a fresh piece of duct tape. While Mark struggles and squirms, I don’t flinch.

     The numbers swirl around my brain. Jewelry orders have been picking up lately. Even without Mark’s part-time income, our expenses are manageable with his disability check if we budget. Fewer groceries, fewer laundry loads, no cigarettes. We might even save money.

     Amy’s glossy lips curl into a smile. A vixenish radiance stirs about her face. As if she can read my mind, she says, “We get what we deserve. It might not look like we thought, but it’s better than we could have imagined.”

     I hold her sweet gaze. Gianna cries upstairs. Amy sticks out her arm to stop me from leaving. Everything happens too fast to question. 

     “I’ll check on them,” Amy says. Then she climbs the ladder like nothing out of the ordinary is happening. I command my legs to follow her, but none of my limbs move. Immediately, I worry she’ll trap me down here, too. Tears spill down my cheeks. I listen, waiting for a deadbolt to click or a lock to snap, which is difficult to do over Mark’s grunts. Nothing comes. Faintly, Amy’s melodic voice sings “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.”

     This is my chance. My legs find the strength to stand, and my shoe kicks something across the ground. A cufflink skims the top of the cement. I examine it pinched between my thumb and index finger. Expensive. The engraved initials read T.D. Rachel from my Mommy and Me class used to bitch about her husband. Then she abruptly stopped. Wasn’t her last name Dupont? I flick it back on the ground and look at my husband. Mark’s face is somewhere between pain and ire, as if he’s sick from drinking and stepped on an action figure on the way to the toilet. There’s no guarantee Mark will change, but everything in life is a gamble. What could one more bet hurt?

     I ascend and fight the urge to catch a glimpse of Mark on my way up.

     Amy and the twins cuddle on the couch. Gianna sleeps soundly again. She and her brother snore. Their lips stained purple. 

     “Walk me out?”

     Amy nods. She carries Gianna, and I take Georgie. We strap them into their car seats.

“By the way, Gianna broke your hide-a-key rabbit. Sorry. I’ll replace it.”

     “Kids will be kids. No harm done.”

     I get behind the wheel and spy her handsome neighbor through his living room window, lifting weights shirtless. He smiles at me. Seems I’m not the only one showing off. “I meant to tell you, Mark and I are taking some time apart.”

     “Sorry to hear that. If you need a sitter, you know who to call.”

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