When You Were Here

By Claire Lombardo

Prompt, by Megan Giddings: A family wakes up on Christmas morning to find all their chosen holiday gifts are gone. They instead find unwrap weird objects (an old pipe, a sock with a weird stain, etc) and become very, very confused.

 He wanted to explore the world.

It was something she’d seen gnawing at him since his infancy, the desire to pull away, push the limits, move until something stopped him—first the bars of his crib, then the space-age gates she and Pete put up in all the doorways, and then a series of less tangible barriers, all of which he scaled with startling competency.

The night Josh left for good he’d been talking to them about Allen Ginsberg, about his revolutionary worldview and his candor and his individualism. He was flunking seven of his eight classes. The principal had called Carolyn in for a meeting earlier that day. Pete was beside himself and Josh was apathetic.

 “Allen Ginsberg went to college,” she said, lifting her voice over the sound of Pete’s are you fucking kidding me. She wished her husband would calm down. She wished Josh would stop making that face. She wished the two of them, for once, could unite. Pete and Josh had very little overlap, but Carolyn saw herself as the link, the shaded space between two adjoining circles. They both loved her, fiercely, and she wished they would stop yelling at each other long enough to notice the commonality.

“College isn’t what it used to be, Mom,” Josh said. “It’s become another empty rite of passage for the fucking brainwashed elite and I refuse to waste my time or your money finding myself with a bunch of bourgeois suburban asshats who just want to—”

 “Would you watch your mouth,” Pete said, hypocritically.

 “It’s a means to an end,” Carolyn said. “Yes, you’ll be better off in the world if you get a degree and yes, that’s problematic, but there’s so much to be gained from it, sweetie, there’s so much that can happen during that time and then when you finish you can do whatever you’d like. You can use what you learn to—you can make a difference, honey. And you’re not going to be wasting our money, okay? Money’s not—” She refused, as much for her son’s sake as for her own, to become a woman who could straight-facedly utter the phrase money’s not an object.

 “Of all people,” Josh said, fixing his gaze on her, the one that unnervingly contained both his father’s capitalistic pride and Carolyn’s own innate skepticism, “I thought I could count on you to not be a fucking automaton about all of this.”

 This was followed by a lot of don’t you dare talk to your mother like that and do you have any idea how lucky you are and you’re grounded, of course, but if you don’t get your goddamn grades up to passing standards by the start of next quarter there’s a boarding school with your name on it, kid. And she hated him then, Pete, for doing that, for sounding like that, but when Josh was sent to his room Pete was the only one left and so she leaned into him a little and forgave him when he said I’m sorry, I just want him to understand that he’s capable of more than this clichéd hippie bullshit because she knew, underneath the parts of him she couldn’t stand, that he loved their kid as much as she did.

*      *      *

Pete is snoring, and each time his lips pillow outward on the exhale she contemplates pouring her bedside glass of water on his face. Instead she rises early, goes straight to the kitchen to put on the coffee. She’ll be waiting when the rest of them awaken, bright-eyed and jovial, appropriate beverages in vintage glass Marshall Field’s mugs, playing her part for at least this one day of the year.   

 She likes occasionally to imagine herself as being domestically inclined. The inkling blooms quarterly, appearing in the form of festive spring jams, glitter-encrusted nondenominational ornaments, politically relevant adages carved into pumpkins, labor-intensive summer cocktails with big basil garnishes. The rest of the year she’s apathetic, lazy, and earth-toned, but sporadically she shines, assembles artisanal tins of truffles and crochets tiny vests that her children will never wear because they do not live in Dickensian England. This year she hasn’t had the energy, though she did, however, indulge the girls in an afternoon of paper-snowflake-making; the resulting chains are draped across every doorway in the house. She ducks beneath one as she enters the kitchen.

Their new house feels vacuum-sealed and stuffy, with none of the drafty nooks they took great pains to tamp when they lived in the creaky old Queen Anne three blocks away. It’s supposed to be one of the perks of living in a fancy house but it makes her feel frequently claustrophobic, hypoxiated. She cracks a window over the sink and feels the chill seep in, snake its way through the folds of her bathrobe. She revels in the cold as she scoops in the coffee grounds, forgetting to use the special Holiday Blend that Pete brought her from his Secret Santa exchange at the office.

 She goes to turn on the tree, the tree that her daughters believe to be lit continuously because they go to bed before her and rise after. She vacillates lately between ruing their ignorance and embracing it with fervor.

 They’ve gone overboard for the kids this year. A bevy of electronics for Ellen, a tiny Casio keyboard for the girls to share. And Carolyn has bought Pete a new watch to replace his aging Timex, a fancy, formidable piece with a tiny diamond anchoring the hands to the center, with love, your C engraved on the underside of the band. She’s made it clear that she loves him, she thinks, but she knows that reminders are important.

 Pete stayed awake into the wee hours assembling a dollhouse for Amelia. Carolyn—smaller hands—helped to construct all of the tiny pieces of furniture, the microscopic cardboard boxes of cereal to fill the kitchen cabinets, but she left him after one a.m. fiddling aggressively with the scalloped roof of the carport, kissed his hair and told him not to strain himself. It’s a huge house, the approximate height and width of their kitchen table, and it’s hidden in their bedroom. Pete has an endearing vision of surprising Amelia after the rest of the presents have been opened, asking her if she’ll run upstairs under the guise of retrieving his cell phone. He still remembers to do things like this for them, and Carolyn is grateful.

 In the dark living room she toes with slippered foot for the switch on the surge protector, and it’s not for several seconds after the lights go on that she notices the packages beneath, not the overcompensatory bounty that she and Pete laid out last night but a collection of smaller gifts, shoddily wrapped in what appears to be the finance section of the newspaper. She picks one up, roughly the size and shape of a perfume bottle, and woozily scans the headline arching partway across, THE SHRINKING MIDDLE CLASS: ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE WIDENING W—. The ends of the package are neatly sealed and she imagines briefly an intruder armed with Scotch tape, a red sand-filled dispenser like the one on her husband’s desk. It’s then that the realization sweeps over her—an intruder—and she feels her insides wake up, feels the kind of alertness normally afforded to her only in the late morning, when she’s alone in the house and consuming the final silty dregs at the bottom of the coffee pot. She looks around her with alarm, eyes with suspicion the shadows cast by the end tables. Then she darts up the stairs, silent in her slippers, to check on the girls.

 Ellen, prone to nocturnal migration, is longwise at the foot of her bed, her thumb in her mouth. She’s eight and they’re supposed to be discouraging it. It started in the spring but Carolyn hasn’t had the fortitude to read When You Love Thumbody: Helping Your Child Overcome Oral Fixation, gazes at it wearily on her nightstand each evening before the falls asleep. She goes and pulls Ellen’s blanket more tightly around her shoulders and stoops to kiss her forehead. 
 Amelia, who just turned five, is in the same position Carolyn left her last night, curled onto her side, hugging a stuffed platypus. Her breathing is deep and phlegmy—the congested remainder of a weeks-old cold. Carolyn rests a hand against the sleepy heat of her daughter’s cheek. 

The girls are fine.

She passes the closed door next to Amelia’s room and stops for just a second, thinks about turning the knob, changes her mind. She peeks in at Pete again, though she can hear his snoring from the hall and knows he hasn’t been murdered in the five minutes since she left him. She sinks into the corduroy glider in the corner of their bedroom and shifts the weight of the package around in her hands. There’s something wet seeping out of one end and her immediate thought, in her heightened paranoid state, is that maybe it’s blood, but the residue it leaves on her fingers is sticky and clear, fragrant, familiar. Gardenias. She carefully peels back the tape and removes the paper. Hand soap. Half-full, gummy around the rounded tip, pink liquid oozing from the opening. Theirs, from the upstairs bathroom. She’d bought it from Target last month. Pete hated the smell, said it made him feel like he’d been molested by an Avon lady. She insisted that they finish the bottle, that they not let Pete’s recent promotion ruin their historical frugality.

She entertains the momentary possibility of some household-product fetishist, a twisted interloper who derives sexual satisfaction from—what, smelling the hand soaps of distressed suburban families? But then she sees the small markered notation over the newsprint, written in Sharpie, left-slanted handwriting that she’s committed to memory. mom.

*     *     *

After the girls were born, Josh had started giving them practical gifts to counteract the cloying toddler artwork—he knew, she supposed, that he couldn’t compete with their popsicle-stick picture frames and their alarming abstract portraits. He gave Carolyn shampoo and batteries for her Walkman and Pete economy-size packs of Dial soap and bundles of athletic socks.

She and Josh had come to bond over their shared hatred of Christmas in the last few years, would sit back and watch with tolerance as the girls tore into their gifts, as Pete bopped around the kitchen in a green apron, humming the classic rock versions of carols and making pancakes shaped vaguely like Santa hats. Last year they’d taken a walk together, trudged through the snow, knee-deep in the woods beyond the backyard, a couple of curmudgeons.

“I thought,” she said, easing into it. “As your Christmas present this year, I thought we might go on a trip.” Pete had allowed her to handle the reveal. He and Josh were barely speaking at the time; he was willing to care for the girls in her absence, support her last-ditch effort to corral their son, mold him into something protectable.

 “You already got me a bike,” Josh said. They were the outdoorsy ones, she and he, the ones who didn’t mind the cold, who rode their bikes through the rain, hoods pulled down tight over their ears. Pete and the girls were homebodies, finicky and temperamental and bookish. She’d thought the new Cannondale—expensive, forest green, made to withstand the elements—might mean that she could see more of Josh. But the trip was her trump card.

“I know that,” she said. “But I was thinking maybe California. Seattle. Out west,” she added, with air quotes, smiling at him.

“What for?” he asked.

 “Break away from the—you know, the daily grind. Take a little breather.” She understood her son’s desire for distance, but if he was going to go far, she wanted him to be padded by something, an expensive dorm room, an illustrious dining hall, a verdant quad.  “And maybe—maybe look at a college or two.”

“Mom.” Josh stopped walking, turned to face her. It was the first time she’d ever beheld him as a man; his face looked startlingly like Pete’s but also like her father’s, a formidable mix of forehead and insubordination.

“Just to look,” she said meekly, starting to walk again, slowly, kicking up clouds of snow with her boots. But Josh stayed put behind her, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his fleece.
 “Mom,” he said. “You know me better than that.”

He disappeared in March. Left her a note tucked among the teabags in their metal canister that she didn’t find until three weeks later, finally detoxing after nearly a month of nothing but strong black coffee. thanks for trying, sorry for everything. She never bothered showing it to Pete; she knew he’d only fixate on the comma splice.  

*    *    *

She wraps herself in Josh’s old oversized Westbrook Wildcats hoodie and goes to the back porch, crunches over a layer of frozen snow in her slippers and watches the steam rise from her coffee. The backyard is polka-dotted with the children’s erratic footprints, Amelia’s snow angels, impossibly small squirrel tracks zipping across like traffic lines. 

Before coming outside she’d opened a few more of the packages—discovering an opened box of Cheerios, the bag inside sealed with a chip clip; a stack of folded pillowcases from the linen closet upstairs; her forgotten package of Holiday Blend from Pete. And the sugarbowl from the kitchen counter, its lid affixed neatly on top with four pieces of Scotch tape. She feels a flutter of hope when she remembers the tape dispenser—perhaps they can dust it for Josh’s fingerprints! But the thought is extinguished quickly, dismissed as inane—firstly because they have his fingerprints already, a cardstock grid from the frightening FBI Child Find initiative that happened when he was in preschool; but also because they already know the perpetrator.

Could he still be around? Is there a possibility that he’s stayed in the area, is crouched in the neighboring bushes, watching her, waiting for her to respond to his offerings? But it’s too cold for a stakeout. She reminds herself to check the mudroom when she goes back inside, certain that Pete’s new gray parka will be missing.

She’s searching for meaning in the objects, poetics in the soap dispenser, a cry for help in the sugar bowl. But all she can think of is what Pete said to her two weeks after Josh went missing, one night when they were together on the couch, twined together in a hug that was purely palliative, both exclusively concerned with the comforting ballast of the other’s warm body.

“He’s always been kind of an asshole.” 

Her brother had just visited for the afternoon so she assumed, initially, that her husband was talking about him. He’d brought them a cookie bouquet and a bottle of scotch and had asked Carolyn, fifteen days after her firstborn went missing, if she’d always been so sensitive. She pulled Pete closer, rested her cheek against his abdomen.

“Since he was a baby,” Pete continued, and she loosened her grip in confusion. “He’s—I know we’re not supposed to say things like this, but he’s selfish. He’s a selfish kid. He’s never—he’s incapable of thinking about things that don’t immediately affect him.”

“He’s seventeen,” she said, moving away from him entirely, feeling her heart start to race. “What seventeen-year-old isn’t selfish?”

“It’s more than that with him.”

“Did you really just call our kid an asshole?”

But he was right, kind of. Josh had always been difficult, a contrarian, prone to the most clichéd kind of youthful nonconformity. He had a poster of Magritte’s pipe above his bed. He sometimes wore a beanie. And Pete—who wanted nothing more in life than a comfortable house, a steady job, to provide for an affable wife and cooperative kids—struggled to see past it, was never quite able to regard Josh with anything other than discernment. Pete was a hard worker, restraint and determination and bootstraps. And like many successful men before him, he’d raised kids who took it all for granted.

“I thought you liked free spirits,” Carolyn said. “You told me when we met that you liked that I was—”

“You,” Pete said, pulling her against him again, “would never do something like this.”

*    *    *

She is sitting at the kitchen table, her chair pushed back, third cup of coffee cooling in the leaky ceramic mug that Ellen pieced together during her fine arts elective. She’s done a sweep of the first floor and found a few other items missing—the wad of cash they keep in Pete’s desk drawer to pay the landscapers and the housekeeper, and the engagement ring that she stopped wearing a few years ago because it began to turn her skin beneath the band scaly and red. If they really wanted, they could track him using that. Send out an alert to pawn shops. Did people still use pawn shops?   

“Mama?” Amelia is in the doorway, bafflingly small in the Ho! Ho! Ho! pajamas she insisted on wearing last night though she outgrew them two years ago. The cuffs at the bottoms of the legs expose her tiny white ankles, the flecks of blue polish on her toes from when Carolyn took Amelia and Ellen for a girls’ day, trying to compensate for her recent distraction, overcaffeination, absenteeism. Her youngest daughter has come down the back stairs, bypassing the dearth that awaits her in the living room. Carolyn tries to smile at her.

“Merry Christmas, pumpkin.”

Mama what time is it,” Amelia says, worming her way into Carolyn’s lap, resting her heavy head against the sharpest part of her collarbone; her children have always known and targeted the parts of her that incite the most pain.

“Early,” Carolyn says, reaching for her mug around her daughter’s body.

“Was Santa here,” Amelia asks. Her inflection flies out the window when she’s tired; all of her sentences are declarative.

Carolyn can only imagine what the other parcels contain. The saltshaker, which appears to be missing from its usual space on the kitchen counter? An errant toothbrush? The nightlight that Ellen no longer demands be lit when she falls asleep? Amelia smells like sweat and nutmeg and stale oxygen.

“Of course,” she says.

“Did he eat my cookies.” Carolyn and Pete nibbled their way through the plate of Jingles at midnight, toasted each other, as was their custom, with bourbon-spiked cider. It had almost been nice, being with him like that. It had almost felt normal.

“Every single one,” Carolyn says. Pete consumed more than half the plate alone while laying the flagstone of the miniature front walkway.

She’s forgotten to check on the dollhouse. Of course she and Pete would have noticed Josh smuggling it away in the night—wouldn’t they? And it would be difficult to balance something so large on the handlebars of the Cannondale. Though if anyone could do it, Josh could. She rises from her seat, hugging Amelia to her chest for a few seconds.

“Do me a favor, my little elf,” she says, “and go read in your bed for about ten minutes, okay? I’ll come get you. Let’s let Ellie sleep a little bit more. I’ll go wake up Dad.”

“But—”

“No buts,” she says. She’s become a mean mom since Josh left. She kisses Amelia’s forehead in apology. “It’s good to do nice things for each other on Christmas, okay? It’s nice to let Dad sleep in a few minutes; he works so hard.” Amelia pouts, but only for a second.

“Can I read The Grinch?”

“Can you ever,” Carolyn says, and she carries her daughter back to her bedroom.

*    *    *

The dollhouse is intact in the corner of their room, but some of the more expensive furniture is missing, the little antique pieces she picked up from a flea market, justifying the cost to Pete by making the face that makes him do whatever she wants, the face that she discovered in the weeks after Josh left, the face that she didn’t even have to make an effort to arrange at that time but which is now premeditated and feels manipulative and untoward. That face has gotten her a new garbage disposal, the repulsive guinea pig that Ellen so desperately coveted, a couple nights of Pete losing himself between her legs while she rested against the pillows and did nothing, and a specific name-brand kind of Breakfast Blend that’s easier on her stomach than some of the darker roasts.

Pete had covered it with a sheet before he went to bed, tucked it away from view in case one of the kids came in during the night like they tended to do. The intruder has recovered it, folded the sheet with care around its intricate eaves and microscopic shrubbery. The bathroom is missing a juicebox-sized porcelain sink; the floor of the living room is bare without its Oriental rug the exact dimensions of a playing card; one of the bedrooms lacks a brass four-poster turned down with pale green Egyptian cotton sheets.

He must need money. How can he not? It’s not selfishness, she thinks, but survival. He’s newly eighteen; his birthday passed quietly in September. She’d spent the day in bed, wondering what he was doing, imagining him showing up, throwing his arm around her shoulders like he did sometimes, towering over her, demanding genially to know where his funfetti cake was.

He never appeared that day, but today he’s been here. He still has his keys. He still has enough of a heart to not deprive his little sister—she thinks of him the day Amelia was born, his awkward pubescent pelican form holding the baby in his arms like a Cabbage Patch Kid—of the dollhouse she’s desired since she could speak, even if he’s content to rob the rest of them blind.

She goes over and sits on the edge of the bed next to Pete, examining the flop of his hair, the pillow he has clutched against his chest, the few inches of exposed calf sticking out from the blankets. She traces a finger around the angle of his elbow, cold to the touch; he likes to sleep with his limbs outside of the bedding.

“Honey,” she says. He stirs but doesn’t wake, reaches out as if to take her in his arms but then hugs the pillow closer to his chest, her substitute, her formidable goose-down stand-in. She lies down next to him and cups a hand to the side of his face. “Pete, sweetheart, wake up.”

His eyes flutter open and he blinks a few times before he smiles at her.

“Hey, Merry Christmas,” he says.

“Darling,” she says. “We’ve got a bit of a situation.”

 *    *     *

They’ve agreed to avoid the police but Pete has already contacted an untoward acquaintance of one of his work friends who’s a private investigator, a guy who was more than happy to receive a phone call at 7am on Christmas morning, who is probably, at this moment, skulking around the pedmall between Madison and Greenfield, looking for an athletic kid with auburn hair and a bike that cost more than some cars.

 “I just don’t want him to get in trouble,” she says to Pete once he’s hung up the phone, once he’s looking at her with a face that says Only for you but even for you I’m questioning this, you see?

 “Might not be such a bad thing,” Pete says.

“What might?”

“Consequences.”

“He has to be desperate, Pete; he has to be—”

He leans in and kisses her forehead. “I know, Car.”

When the girls join them, she watches Pete lift Amelia into his arms and guide Ellen over to observe the empty cookie plate on the mantle, to check out their stockings, which Josh has left—thoughtfully—untouched. It isn’t quite as simple as this, but Pete has always been a better father of girls.

“Mom, can I open one?” Ellen asks, eyeing the motley collection of newspaper parcels under the tree. Carolyn meets Pete’s eyes across the room and he shrugs.

“Sure,” she says. “Have at it.”

Ellen lunges to the pile, searches for one with her name on it. Josh has labeled them all, an even number of secondhand gifts for each of them. Carolyn watches her daughter tear ruthlessly at the wrapping, watches her pull out the stuffed bunny that’s resided in her bed since she was born. She frowns.

“Harriet?”

“I should tell you,” Carolyn says, going over, kneeling beside her, placing a palm on her daughter’s back. “We decided to do something a little different this year.”

Amelia joins them, selects one of her own gifts, discovers a half-used set of Colorforms.

Mama?” she says, sheer accusation.

“Yes,” she says vaguely, a nauseated smile on her face, her eyes fixed dimly on a spot above Pete’s head. “Yes, I thought we’d all think about conservation. Get a jumpstart on our New Year’s resolutions.”

“I don’t get it,” Ellen says.

And why should you, Carolyn thinks meanly. 

Amelia begins to mewl in protest but Pete silences her, rises from his chair and goes to put his hands on Carolyn’s shoulders.

“Listen to your mother,” he says, squeezing. “She knows what she’s talking about.” 

Pete takes their bereft progeny upstairs to show them the dollhouse and while they’re gone she sits by the tree and breathes in the quiet. She weaves an artful narrative in her head in which all of his offerings bear some great celestial weight, in which he’s telling her—in the coagulated soap, in the dusty spaces between the Cheerios, in the fibers of the pillowcases—I’m still here.

*    *    *

The night he left she’d gone back into his room to continue their conversation and found it empty, a damp breeze coming in through the open window. Before she could panic, he called, “I’m out here,” a disembodied voice from out on the roof. She went to the window and found him stretched out on the diagonal, residual wisps of cigarette smoke wafting away from a butt in the gutter.

“God, do you have any idea how nervous it makes me when you come out here?”

He flexed his muscles, did a little flutter kick with his legs that made her instinctively jerk forward to catch him. He turned back and grinned at her. “Catlike reflexes,” he said, and then he extended a hand out to her and helped her onto the roof, where she settled beside him with shaking knees.

“Those you get from your father,” she said. “Come on. You’re grounded.”

“I’m still on the property,” he said.

“Don’t be a smartass.”

“I just wanted some fresh air.”

“Smoke isn’t fresh air.”

“Mom.”

“I wish you wouldn’t do that to yourself,” she said.

“I’ll quit soon.” 

“When’s soon?”

“Not as soon as today but not as far-off as next year.”

“How about tomorrow?”

“I’ll have to check my schedule.”

She shifted herself, tentatively, and craned her neck to look down at their lawn, the luxuriant blooms of the lilac bushes.

“You know Dad’s just looking out for you, right?”

“Yeah, what a guy.”

“Stop that.”

Josh would be moving on, she thought, one way or another. But Pete wouldn’t. Pete was in it for the long haul. Pete was the one who’d continue to be there when the children grew up, to keep her company in the big airless house. Pete, her hearty New Englander who wasn’t going anywhere, who told her so frequently that she worried too much, who misguidedly thought that tough love would be the thing to keep their eldest around, who looked out for all of them, even in his sleep.

“If I do end up—like, if I went somewhere, it wouldn’t be because of you.”

“Please don’t be dramatic,” she said, because he usually liked it when she ribbed him.

“Just saying,” he said.

“Life will become less boring, sweetheart, I promise. Sometimes you have to go through the motions in order to—you know, find things that are meaningful.”

“What, like you did?” he asked, and she shifted away from him a little, stung.

“Sure, like I did,” she said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You really like your life?”

She wished, fleetingly, that Pete was around to tell him to watch his mouth.

“Of course I do,” she said.

“Because you seem kind of—blasé a lot of the time.”

“Blasé?”

“It means—”

“I know what it means. I’m not the one who’s failing English.”

“Jesus, Mom.”

“I’m not blasé,” she said. “I’m an adult. I’ve got three unruly children to take care of.” She nudged him a little with her foot, apologizing. “Not everything’s exciting all the time, okay? That’s just life, kid.”

“But it doesn’t have to be.”

“You say that now,” she said. “But come see me in twenty years and I promise you’ll have a different perspective.” Josh regarded her warily and she leaned over and kissed the top of his head. “This entire conversation is a cliché, love, do you realize that?”

“I’m kind of tired. I think I might go back in.”

Josh helped her back through the window and she hugged him goodnight and then she went and joined her husband in their bedroom, and when he asked why she was crying she told him, simply, I’m just tired, and Pete—bless him—knew what she meant, and he hugged her to him, and they fell asleep, together, and as they slept Josh slipped back out the window, down the slope of the roof, across the lawn—stopping, maybe, to pick a bushel of lilacs, his mother’s favorite?—and he kept going, further and further and further until he had to return.


Claire Lombardo is an MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Little Fiction, Oyez Review, Burrow Press Review, Atticus Review, Wyvern Lit, Luna Luna Magazine, and other journals. She lives in Iowa City and is currently at work on her first novel. You can find her online at www.clairelombardo.com, or on Twitter @clairelombardo.