John has worried for years that something would happen. A stranger or even a neighbor might break into his house and steal from him, harm him or his wife and child. It is a man’s responsibility to protect his family. This year he quit allowing his daughter to leave the house. It’s hard on her, nearly nine and anxious to spend time with her friends, even to go back to school. This surprises him because he had hated school as a child and longed to stay at home, to watch television or to sit in his room. He has allowed his wife to leave the house, but only for highly necessary reasons—the grocery store or the gym where she works out daily. But it isn’t enough—they aren’t safe enough. He needs security.
John has a wall built around their house, fully enclosing it. He does it as a surprise without mentioning it to his wife.
What difference will it make? his wife asks. There will still be a door, a way inside. We have to leave for groceries. You have to go to work.
No, he tells her. We don’t have to do any of that. None of us will ever leave this enclosure again. This is our home and it is safe.
We’ll die, she says. She purses her lips and stares at him. She is very beautiful, like a statue or a work of art. Sometimes he is surprised when she moves or speaks. It’s startling. He’ll be sitting at the table reading or perhaps watching television in bed and she’ll shift her body slightly or say something. He’ll shriek, but in a manly way. Who wouldn’t be surprised to see a mannequin come to life inside their own home?
So we’ll die, he says. It’s better than some of the alternatives. I saw on the news that there was a man breaking into people’s houses and just watching them sleep. He would stand at the foot of their bed and stare up at them. Each night he’d get a little closer until he was nearly breathing on them. Imagine the violation.
That would be better than dying in here—starving to death, she says.
Ahhh! he says. Sometimes he forgets she is talking to him, forgets to listen and absorb her words. He likes to talk, likes to string words together, and it upsets him when his perfect wife speaks—it is terrifying to see a statue talk.
She tries to muss her hair a bit and squints at him, looking more like something alive.
Oh, he says, it’s you. I paid the water, electric, and cable decades in advance so we can safely live here forever, if need be.
But will we have food delivered? she asks.
No one comes in or out! he says. What’s the point of this wall if I let people come and go as they please? Then there might as well not even be a wall. But we are safe here, inside, finally. We can relax.
He takes her outside to show her the wall. She can’t even look at it, so large that it casts darkness across the entire yard. The grass will die. The bushes will wither. She stares at the ground, grass still green, but for how long? How long until it goes brown and brittle, wearing into the earth until it’s nothing more than an ugly woven mat? She can feel the skin crinkling on her face. She can feel herself becoming old. She had imagined she would age more slowly, gradually and with some minuscule amount of grace. It would be a thing she wouldn’t even notice. But she can feel her skin desiccating. She can picture death taking her body and laying it neatly down, like a lover, on the kitchen floor. That’s where she pictures it—the kitchen. John might not even notice. He might stand on her throat, wondering where his dinner was, why the house was in such disarray.
I can’t—I can’t, she says, and goes back inside. John stays out there for a long time, admiring the wall, basking in it.
John’s wife doesn’t have a name, not one she remembers. Sometimes he calls her by the names of actresses from television shows or movies that he’s been watching. He called her Mildred just one time, and she liked that one. It made her think of the miniature houses that her grandfather used to build, outfitted with tiny couches and beds, itsy light switches and fixtures. He had thought of everything. Even a tiny woman to live in them all. He called the tiny woman Mildred. Tiny Mildred moved from house to house. She never saw her grandfather move Tiny Mildred, so it was as if the tiny figure were alive, moving to whatever house struck her fancy. Tiny Mildred was indistinct, a small peg meant to stand in for a woman. But to be Mildred is lovely. But now it’s worse, somehow, as though being called Mildred one time has made all the other names nasty. Dirty, they stick to her, insults, humiliations.
Currently her husband is stuck on the name Penny. She imagines herself flat and circular, copper in color and taste. Her body, stamped with the image of a man as if to remind her of what she lacks. She is owned, she is currency, she is expendable and easily cast aside, lost, forgotten. She pictures herself inside her own mouth and cringes at the blood metal taste of her own body.
Not Mildred has learned to love housework—has learned that this is expected of her. She likes to sweep the floors and scrub them with a very small brush because she knows it is more thorough this way. If her back doesn’t ache, if her arms and shoulders don’t burn, if her neck isn’t so sore that it hurts to look to one side, she hasn’t done a proper job. This is her main concern: doing a good job. She usually cleans while John is at work, because it is upsetting for him to see her clean. She bends her body strangely and has many unattractive postures while cleaning. She makes faces. She has tried to not make the faces, but it seems she cannot help herself even though she knows these faces are very, very ugly. So it is best to clean when John is otherwise occupied.
It is going to be hard to clean without John present if they are all locked in this house together. Either her body or the house, which is an extension of her body, will become unattractive. It feels as if John will be living inside her soiled body. Nothing will be private. He will upset her bowels, he will make her sweat, he will make everything unattractive, unordered, just by having seen it.
She stays awake after John has fallen asleep, and she makes quick, hard work of the house. She scrubs counters and floors, bleaches the bathrooms, and removes any proof that living creatures such as themselves have been here. Her fingers go pruny, so dried and rigid that the skin breaks and the bleach burns through the pink exposed flesh of her. She desperately smears at the mirror, trying to get rid of any hint of streak or smudge, and she sees herself, or rather, she sees right through herself, like she is nothing at all. She only sees the cold cleanness of the bathroom, sees the way bleach has stripped the life out of it. She blinks, and there she is, only she hadn’t noticed at first. She hadn’t noticed her body, her face. You grow accustomed to those things. You carry your own body and face with you everywhere, and they are not important things, not really, not in the face of living and trying to cut out a small space that you might inhabit with the body you cannot see.
Not Mildred’s daughter, Emma, brings her mother a huge garbage bag full of food. She lugs it up to the house, drags it inside and to the kitchen, all while her father is napping. She makes a terrible racket, but he doesn’t wake.
Where? her mother asks. How?
Part of the wall bows out if I push it the right way, Emma says. You could fit through the gap, too. We could just go.
I can’t, Not Mildred says.
I didn’t think you would, Emma says, but if you ever want to.
Not Mildred shakes her head.
I could show you now, that way you’d always know.
I can’t look at it, Not Mildred says.
Emma gives her the bag.
Not Mildred hides the food in the laundry room, where her husband will never look. She has to laugh when she sees the bag’s contents: potato chips, cookies, hard candy, and taffies. I’ll make you a list, she says, and Emma nods.
A few days later Emma brings another bag, this one full of root vegetables, crisp lettuce and tomatoes, as well as a chuck roast.
Next time take a backpack, Not Mildred says, so it will be easier for you to carry everything.
It wasn’t hard, Emma says. Her daughter is perfect and round-faced, cheeks over-red as though always flushed, and hair forever sticky in her face. Her nails are bitten and somehow also caked with dirt and grime. She has a small but plump belly, which she is clearly looking to maintain. Not Mildred wants to grip her by her belly and wiggle her, but the child is at that age where everything embarrasses her, even if there is no crowd or other person to observe her. It is as though the child feels always watched, under a microscope. Not Mildred cannot imagine who it is that watches.
She plugs her slow cooker into the laundry room wall and lays a cutting board atop the washing machine so she can slice onions, carrots, and potatoes into the pot to go with the thick slab of red meat. She aerates the meat with a fork and presses slivers of onion and garlic down into the punctures she creates. She pours Worcestershire and beef broth into the pot, watching it cascade over the meat and settle, lapping, into the bottom. As the roast begins to warm, Not Mildred cleans the kitchen, which is just outside the laundry room. She uses an excess of white vinegar to camouflage the cooking meat’s smell, savory and luxurious in the face of imagined paltry dinners of rice and beans.
Not Mildred and Emma eat their meal hurriedly, standing in the laundry room over the washing machine and dryer. This becomes their habit, and they develop a language that is a few code words, but mostly winks and shrugs, to communicate about their laundry room meals and whether or not a dish is ready to be consumed. John never notices.
Not Mildred becomes bold, cooking while John is showering or before he wakes. Occasionally she and Emma will eat a meal at the kitchen table—never in the dining room, with its proximity to the room that John and Not Mildred share. Even the kitchen table, small as it is and covered with John’s sports magazines, which he insists that no one move, is a small comfort, even a luxury. A person deserves to sit and eat a meal at a table. It is a small thing, rarely considered, one of the routine comforts that make up a life. Not Mildred also longs to walk out across her yard, a few feet down the sidewalk, and to her mailbox. She would enjoy even the cool feeling of reaching her hand inside the shadowy aluminum box to pull out letters addressed primarily to John, though sometimes ones for her would slip through. Coupons for the grocery store or a subscription offer to a lady’s home improvement magazine. But the mailbox is beyond the wall surrounding their home, and besides she doesn’t want to go outside and stand in the oppressive shade of the wall, not ever. To feel that cool shade cast down on her body is to be burnt, to be crushed to death, to feel gravity pull her down and hold her in place, flattening her out until she is that thing—a penny.
Will you bring back some sleeping pills? Not Mildred asks Emma.
How many? Emma asks, not seeming at all surprised by the question.
As many as you can easily manage, she replies.
That very night Emma returns, and her backpack is filled with sleeping pills in different bottles and brands. How has Emma acquired all these? Not Mildred doesn’t ask. She hasn’t, in all this time, asked about the food or how Emma acquires it with no money. It seems best not to inquire—not to know—only to be glad that they have the food. Otherwise, she would starve to death slowly alongside her husband, perhaps watching their child’s body grow gaunt and emaciated, wide eyes sinking into her head as the flesh on her face receded and became hollowed out. She can picture holding her child’s dead body like a doll’s, rocking it and brushing her hair, changing her clothes, making her up prim and proper. Not since she was a toddler has Emma allowed her mother to brush her hair or dress her.
Not Mildred crushes the sleeping pills into a fine white powder and mixes them into her husband’s meager dinners. She finds that he requires two to three pills, either because he is a man or because he is a rather large man. She herself takes half a pill each night so that his raucous snoring doesn’t wake her. He is near thunderous, sleeping or awake. In the daytime he bellows. He runs the child ragged. Emma, he calls out, his voice booming and shaking the walls of their house. As if from nowhere Emma appears. The child is whip-fast. Not Mildred is never even sure Emma is inside the walls around the house, but she appears every time he calls. He wants her to clean a small mess he’s made. He’s spilled water across the floor. He wants her to refill his glass. He wants her to read some very fine print aloud. Not Mildred cannot be sure, but she suspects that sometimes Emma changes the words as she reads them. They are small changes: a hat is blue instead of red, or there are five women instead of five men. Not Mildred can’t guess at what Emma’s game is, but she persists in it.
John feels increasingly tired, haggard. He can barely drag himself from bed. He goes to sleep early and wakes up late.
Something’s wrong, he tells his wife.
We are starving, she says. For dinner last night we ate only rice and a very small portion of beans. We are sick. We are dying.
I think I need slightly larger portions, John says. I think you and Emma can eat less. You do not seem nearly so tired as I am.
If that’s what you want, she says.
It will be a relief to eat less at dinner with John, because Not Mildred and Emma are having trouble eating the bland sad portions alongside him, after or before they will have another of their elaborate feasts. They feel constantly full. Not Mildred hopes that their overfull sluggishness will translate as a lack of energy due to starvation. Surely John cannot discern the difference.
Lately, Not Mildred and Emma are on a surf n’ turf kick. It was scallops and London broil last night. Not Mildred never ate so much in her life, and surely not so much red meat. John had thought it unladylike to consume large quantities of red meat. Sometimes he had allowed her a very well-done steak, charred until stiff. She had enjoyed these steaks, savored them. But preparing dinner last night, she found herself tossing out the first few scallops the way you might throw away the first pancake, always overcooked or gummy, the pan either too hot to not hot enough. Such waste, such luxury, she has never experienced.
I would love to grill a whole fish, Not Mildred tells Emma, and Emma nods emphatically.
I would like to poke the fish in its eye, Emma says.
Yes, Not Mildred says. It is good luck.
They smile at each other.
John cannot even leave the bedroom. He does not understand how his wife can do it, except that women have a kind of inner womanly fortitude. They are made to suffer. Their bodies carry and expel children, so of course she can power through starvation. He should have begun eating larger portions of their food much sooner. If only he were less selfless, but he has always been a man who cares about what’s best for his wife and children.
Not Mildred brings him three small meals a day, each one dosed with sleeping pills. For a while he seemed to be growing resistant to them, but she’s upped his dosage and now he seems fairly sedate. The television in their bedroom is constantly playing, volume cranked up obtrusively, which is convenient because now Not Mildred and Emma don’t have to worry about being quiet. They eat all their meals at the dining room table. They are festive about it. Emma brought home a variety of candles in various sizes and shapes and colors. The table is a cornucopia of candles, all flickering and glowy and smelling of pear, vanilla, cinnamon, rose, and honeydew.
Tonight they eat crab étouffée, thick and brown smothering dirty rice, and a spicy sausage and prawn gumbo with fresh okra. There’s also a huge pot of steamed crawfish. They are more adventurous than they could have been before. They can use the whole kitchen. They can make a mess. It smells like salt and heat, and their eyes water from the Cajun onion sting of it. They eat all the crawfish, cracking their husks messily off, and make a good dent in the gumbo, but the étouffée is too much, too thick, too rich to eat on top of everything else. They feel themselves swollen.
Not Mildred starts to clean up the mess, carrying dishes into the kitchen and scrubbing down first the dining room table and then the floor beneath it, which is splattered with oil and water and the shells of shucked prawns.
Emma leans back in her chair.
We could leave, you know, Emma says.
But why? Everything seems to be going so smoothly.
You’re trapped in here, Emma says, and you don’t have to be.
I’m so happy, Not Mildred says. Aren’t you happy? Isn’t this the best it’s ever been?
He’ll die, Emma says.
Not Mildred begins to scrub the floor with her very small brush, working outward from her body in a circle. Yes, she says, I suppose he will.
Then what? Emma asks.
Why should anything change?
Why should anything stay the same? Emma asks. She stands up and leaves her chair pushed away from the table. She twists her sticky hair up onto her head and uses her own hair to tie it into place. Emma, in spite of all they’ve been eating, has grown tall and thin. Her face has narrowed. She turns and goes, leaving by the front door.
Not Mildred cleans the kitchen. Cleans the rest of the house. Goes to change John’s sheets and sponge him down.
John doesn’t have the strength to eat for a few days, and he finds, miraculously, that he feels better not having eaten. Perhaps his system needed a good clearing out. With emptiness comes a kind of clarity, a sharpness of the senses. He’s hungry, but he can think. He can move. He can pull himself out of bed and use the bathroom instead of the bedpan that his wife keeps for him and has been helping him use. He is a bit nervous to eat again, nervous to overwhelm his sensitive system, one clearly more highly attuned than either his wife’s or child’s.
You should eat a little, his wife tells him. She holds a spoon full of brown liquid out to him.
What is it? he asks.
Plain broth, she says. Surely that won’t upset your stomach.
He takes a few sips, but no more.
I’ll leave it here for you, she says.
You don’t have to, he says. I’ll get up. I’ll eat at the dining room table with you and Emma.
She nods and takes his bowl. She doesn’t tell him that she has not seen Emma in many days.
She cooks their dinner, broth and rice, very slowly, hoping that Emma will return before she is finished, but Emma hasn’t returned by dinnertime. Not Mildred sets a place for her at the table, but it remains empty and conspicuous.
She feels a wave of happiness when John begins to eat without asking where Emma is, as though he doesn’t even notice she’s missing. He scrapes his bowl with his spoon, a sound that used to bother her, but now she is thankful for noise to fill the silence, to fill in the gaps where Emma isn’t. Shirtless, he is visibly much frailer than the man he once was, but he is still capable of producing such noise.
Where’s Emma? he asks, mouth full of broth.
Oh, she must be in her room, Not Mildred says.
Emma, he yells, Emma, dinnertime. He sputters broth across the table and onto Not Mildred’s arm. She can feel his spit seeping into her skin, maybe working its way down into her pores.
Maybe she doesn’t want to eat because she knows you need it more, Not Mildred says. Knows how weak you’ve been.
She should sit at the table with her family, he says, standing up.
Wait, she says.
He looks at her. He does not have as much trouble remembering she is alive, lately. She is not so perfect anymore. She looks tired, and she has plumped up a good deal. His wife has always been a slender woman, but now there’s a fullness to her face, something immediate and human. She has, now, the look of fruit gone overripe but still outrageously clinging to the vine.
Why? he asks. For what?
I’ll get her, Not Mildred says. You stay here and eat. Relax. We’ll be right back.
Not Mildred goes and sits in Emma’s room. It has only been a few days, perhaps a week, since she came in here and told Emma goodnight, but the room feels strange, uninhabited. She opens Emma’s closet, and it’s empty. Bare hangers. The dresser draws are empty. No suitcase under the bed. Emma’s possessions, along with her life, have been stripped from the room. Not Mildred feels her own body gutted, feels Emma removed as if surgically yanked out of her. She clutches her abdomen and bends over, dizzy.
Melanie! her husband yells.
What will she say? How will she explain? Will he secure the gap in the wall once he knows about it? It will probably not stop him to know that his only daughter would be trapped outside the wall if he closed it up. He wouldn’t allow the household’s safety to be breached, not even for his daughter. And then, with the wall secured, Emma could never return, and they would both truly starve to death.
It turns out to be as easy as anything she’s ever done. She takes a knife from the kitchen and slips it between his ribs, which have grown prominent after his scant and skipped meals. She pulls the knife smoothly out and slides it back in a few quick times. He makes a loud noise, but it hardly registers. He makes so many noises. The blood bothers her. It gets all over him and his clothes, the chair, the floor. She leaves him slumped under the table, clawing at himself, and she comes back with a tarp. He’s still convulsing, and she tilts his body to slide the tarp under him so he won’t get any more blood on the floor. She leaves him there to go get a mop and bucket, bleach and rags, and a trash bag. They’re low on trash bags. She hasn’t thought yet to worry about things like trash.
He quits moving sometime while she’s mopping the floor. When she finishes, she checks and he’s dead. She isn’t sure what to do with his body, but she knows she can’t leave it on the dining room floor. She ends up dragging him, still on the tarp, to the front door and taking him out into the yard. All the grass is dead, and the shrubs have withered. No sunlight shines through. Their small yard is completely shadowed by the wall. She simply leaves him there and goes back inside.
It is hard at first, but she becomes used to the routine of it: cooking and eating her own meals, cleaning after herself, crocheting, and reading. She pulls old blankets apart so she can reuse the yarn. It is calming, both the destruction as well as the creation of a new blanket. But she misses her daughter, and she worries about food. She thinks of their wild excess and wonders why she didn’t save some. They threw away so much food, carried off by Emma in trash bags every time she left the house.
After a few weeks, as she truly begins to run out of food, Not Mildred finds a bag full of it on the kitchen counter. A whole chicken, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, apples, milk, cheese. There’s even a small bag of cheddar popcorn, which has always been Not Mildred’s favorite. The garbage has also been removed. After that, a package of food arrives roughly every week and the trash is taken away. Not Mildred tries to stay awake, tries to be vigilant, but the food arrives when she’s asleep. She even stays in the kitchen, but she cannot stay awake forever, and trying to force herself to stay awake only makes her exhaustion more complete. Eventually she sleeps, and then the food arrives. She can only assume that it’s Emma. At first she tries leaving notes for Emma—she asks Emma to come home or to write to her, but Emma never does.
It is not so bad inside the house. She has food—she has her own good company. She grows accustomed to her life. She thinks of herself as Mildred now. Mildred, she says aloud sometimes—just lets the words hum inside her mouth, her head. Mildred.
Mildred’s skin droops. Even with all the creams that Emma leaves for her, she cannot fight it. Her spine begins to curl. She is hunched and shorter. It’s a glory she’s never gotten ill. Possibly it is because she hasn’t been exposed to germs, to all sorts of dangers outside the walls of the house. Everything is so clean and private.
Her hearing has begun to go, but she is tired anyway of television and the radio. She can hear her own voice inside her head without speaking aloud. She likes to tell herself elaborate stories, alternative realities, ones where she and Emma are together and she watches Emma become a young woman whom she is very proud of.
Her fingers ache so she cannot crochet anymore. It hurts even to hold a book for a length of time, so she cannot read. She spends her time sitting quietly and remembering. She remembers Emma crabwalking at such high speeds up and down the hallway. She remembers the kitten that Emma stole from the neighbor’s house and tried to hide in her room. Mildred had pretended not to hear the mewling, but John wouldn’t play along. John made her take the kitten back. John, John, John. She sees now how carefully and thoroughly her life was shaped by him. Not only when he was alive. Their marriage was not so long. A little more than ten years, and what’s ten years? It has been these past decades without him and without Emma that he has truly shaped and controlled. Every bit of her life, even the moments before, during, and after she killed him: they all belong to John. John has made her this old woman. He has made her this thing, has rendered her clearly, has done everything. All Mildred ever had was Emma, but she hardly had her at all. Perhaps Emma, too, was shaped by John. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what Emma’s life might be. Emma would be a woman herself now, with children or without. Perhaps a partner of her own, and what would that look like?
All the meals come fully prepared now, and Mildred only has to warm them in the microwave. It is hard even to walk, hard to pull herself out of bed. She’s scared to shower, and what’s it matter if she doesn’t? Who’s to care what she smells or looks like?
She sits and waits. One day Emma will have a whole life, almost like Mildred has, a life that may not have been what she wanted but was the result of choices she hadn’t realized she was making. Once Emma accumulates that life, holds it in her hands and doesn’t know what to do with it or how she got it, maybe Emma will feel something like kinship for her mother. So Mildred waits.