“In the Family” by Rebecca Bernard

Our Sister Who Will Not Die: Stories by Rebecca Bernard

Three days before her son’s funeral, Maxine hears a rumor from her next-door neighbor that two or three of the mothers from the neighborhood have decided they might not attend. These women, struck by grief, by pettiness and intrigue, by righteous anger, will not, cannot bring themselves to come, and she, his mother, must not put stock in them, their judgment. And this is fine, this she can handle, but not the destruction of her flowers. Because someone, some cruel person, has wrought havoc on her garden. The tulips in the front yard, the pansies in the flower boxes, the daffodils along the driveway, and the zinnias from the pots on the front porch—all have been uprooted, torn apart, petals scattered to kingdom come, and for what? Maxine Jackson is laid bare. She was already laid bare.

When her husband Frank died, three years earlier, the neighbors of Dew Meadows came in full force. They brought casseroles, condolences, ferns, offerings of neighborly concern and empathy. They pet her sleeve and rubbed her son Zachery’s head. The men offered to repair the missing fence post that Frank had planned to fix before dying suddenly of a heart attack. The women, black bosomed and perfumed, complimented her tea cake at the wake, sent meals, and dropped off care packages of detergent and toilet paper.

And, granted, back then, Maxine was a different kind of woman. A widow. All veil and worth in the eyes of the so-called suburban holy, the pure of hedge and carport. The mothers whose sex was true and chaste. The ones who did not make mistakes, who did not trespass. Who had not felt the frailty of loss, of where it might bring you.

And yet, thinks Maxine, gripping her glass of wine, worrying the armrest of her chair—when a child dies, see how the blame must surface.

Alone now, except for Georgie, the family cat, Maxine sits in the green velvet chair by the living room’s bay window and views her flowerless lawn, her flowerless porch. Breathing shallowly, she sips her glass of wine, concentrates on the armrest’s wooden knobs. On the ground by her feet she notices one of Zachery’s soccer cleats. She picks up the shoe and breathes in deeply, the smell of sweat, of teenage boy, of longing and loss, then tosses the shoe to the floor and wraps the thin, cotton robe tighter around her shoulders.

Zach will be buried in two days. No, not buried, cremated. Like Frank, he will be burned and released into the world. And the death, an accident—it was an accident—will live on in her, the mother. Five nights ago, the policeman rapped on the door. His eyes weren’t downcast, they were direct. The kids they go to the quarry. They drink, they drink too much. And sometimes, they don’t make it home. I’m so sorry. Maxine sucks in her breath and the gasp of her suffering is like a meal to be eaten now, tomorrow, forever. She presses the soft green velvet with her fingers. The only thing to do, keep breathing.


Maxine and Frank had been the kind of in-love that even after seventeen years of dating and marriage, they could not seem to get enough of one another. It didn’t matter what they did, they were happy-happy. Afternoons perusing sweaters at the Gap, evenings at Outback Steakhouse feeding each other bites of rare, over-priced sirloin, Saturday mornings at the community golf course holdings hands and Zach, their smiling child, riding along in the golf cart—a kind of easy, dumb bliss, too good to be true in its simplicity. When Frank mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges, Maxine would come outside in cut-off shorts to offer him an iced tea, pass him the sweating glass, and watch him swallow the cool drink as moisture gathered between her narrow shoulder blades. Sometimes she wondered if her happiness was just too much to be believed, to be deserved.

But, of course, the death changed all that. It was a leveling device, something to make everyone even, even if it felt somewhat, or very, uneven at the time. So, Frank died and then it was just her and Zachery. Zach. Z. Her son, her baby, the only thing left, so it made sense they became closer. He was fourteen then, but still downy behind the ears, still sweet and meandering in his pubescence. He was a child, but not quite a child. He was a memory. A small glimpse of the love of her life who had left early, so early, but not Zach. He was still there. Still fresh. Still lithe. Still hers.

And so, in the wake of Frank’s death, Maxine could recognize she had been something of a mess. It wasn’t until after the first full month of mourning that she and Zach began venturing into public, and it had been her idea to make these necessary trips into a game. The Pity Party she called it. They’d dress all in black, drive the family’s silver Subaru to the Kroger, and she’d pretend to be unmoored. Zach guiding her down the aisles, his hand on her lower back, stopping only occasionally to giggle at his mother’s pretend stumblings, her quiet moaning, as they gathered bags of Sun Chips and organic chicken breasts, Hot Pockets for Zach and boxes of wine for Maxine. The strangeness of their display safely warded off the pushier neighbors with their endless condolences, the pity which at first felt honest, but later, Maxine thought, felt the tiniest bit smug.

The first weeks after Frank’s death were something like that, a strange mix between loss and absurdity. How the dead person was like a crater, impossible to avoid, and yet she would somehow forget, find herself turning to speak to him, to ask Frank a question and realize once again he was dead. She was constantly between tears and hiccups of inappropriate laughter, and she and Zach both agreed that Frank would have thought they were acting crazy, but that he would have understood, and he would have loved them for it just the same.

It took about three weeks after the funeral for she and Zach to fall into a new post-Frank pattern. She’d pick him up from school, leaving her job at the plant nursery, and then he’d do his homework in the kitchen while she started on dinner. Though at the beginning, dinner was usually what they referred to as “guess the casserole.”

“So, what do we think?” Maxine stood, staring inside the refrigerator at the neatly stacked Pyrex containers. The lids were all different colors, and Monica Allen, head of the neighborhood association, had told her that the moms had coordinated this to make returns that much easier, which turned out to be true.

From the kitchen table, Zachery raised his head from his geometry textbook and shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe one with not too much brown in it?”

Maxine nodded, then tapping her foot, bent farther into the fridge to select a green-lidded square. Opening the lid, she revealed a crust of browned cheese.

“What is it?” Zach called from the table.

Maxine gazed at the gelatinous square then over to her son. His hair was getting long on the sides, giving off the same overgrown look that had plagued Frank till the balding began. “You need a haircut.”

“Yeah, but what kind is it?”

“Partially brown one. Maybe macaroni?” Maxine took a fork and poked beneath the crust. An ooze of tomato sauce broke through.

“I’m hungry. Whatever is fine, I guess.”

Maxine nodded and turned on the oven, set the temperature to 350 degrees, and went over to the table where Zach sat, the table where they’d eaten countless meals together as a family over the last fourteen years.

She squeezed onto the bench beside Zach and leaned her weight against him. He pushed back slightly, so she pushed harder, making him lean to the side. Then she released all control and slumped against her son, knocking the pencil from his hands.

“Mom. You’re so weird.”

“Well, you’re my kid. So, what does that make you?” Maxine sighed, her weight leaning against her son, and pictured Frank’s face. He’d been a slight man. They were a slight family. Though Zachery was getting tall, would be taller than his father, it seemed likely.

She sat up, then pushed her shoulder into Zach again, stopping him from picking up his pencil. This time Zach pushed back against her with more force, so she started to tickle him, like she’d done when he was little, like she and Frank had done to Zach on any number of occasions. And she kept going, tickling his skinny middle, her hands moving fast, his elbows trying to knock her away, but she didn’t stop, not until she saw he was crying, begging her to stop, his face red like a child’s.

“Please, stop.” She saw him then, his hands balled into fists and rubbing at his eyes, whether in tears or laughter it wasn’t clear.

“Oh baby, I’m sorry.” She put her hand on his forehead, and he let her. Then she pulled him into a hug, and he let her do this as well.

“Dad’s just not here to protect me is all.”

Maxine loosened her hold and pulled back slightly to see her son’s face. His eyes were slightly red, but it looked like he was starting to smile. “Protect you?”

Zach nodded, “Or you.” He reached for her, hands poised to tickle her sides, and she scooted off the bench, half laughing, half crying, until she got her footing on the cool kitchen tile, one hand bracing herself against the granite counter.


Her son faced her. Standing now, his legs slightly apart in a wrestler’s position. He looked older to her then, mature almost. He nodded, “Truce.”

The oven beeped, and with an exaggerated motion, Maxine wiped her right hand across her forehead, whistled “phew.” Donning oven mitts, she placed the casserole inside the oven and set a timer to check it in twenty minutes. She glanced back at her son who had resettled himself on the bench, found his pencil, and was back to work. His head was down, the shaggy hair on the sides sweeping across his face.

“I’m going to fold the laundry, honey. Let me know if I don’t hear the beep?”

Zachery nodded without looking up, and Maxine let her stare linger a moment longer on his brown eyes downcast on the book, the lashes thick and full like her own, like Frank’s had been. Through the window behind Zach, she could see the birdbath Frank had installed. A brown finch flitted about in the shallow water. She refocused her gaze on Zach’s face, his high cheekbones, the dark thickness of his eyebrows and then she looked away. Frightened, briefly, at the feeling of looking at Frank, but not Frank, Zach. Her baby boy, her husband’s son.


The doorbell rings and Maxine jolts upright in the armchair, nearly upsetting her glass of pinot grigio, her reverie broken with the familiar dong. She doesn’t see a figure at first, but there’s a red Jeep parked along the street, and she remembers that she’d told Norman Williams, the Unitarian minister, that he could stop by to go over the service for Zach. The doorbell rings a second time and Maxine gets up slowly to answer the door.

“Oh, Max—how you holding up?” The warm, creased face of the minister greets Maxine, and she finds herself drawn into his arms, feels the pressure of his fingers on her shoulder blades.

She pulls away gently and smiles, avoiding his eyes and their pooling sympathy. “Thanks for coming, Norm. I just haven’t felt so much like leaving the house.”

Norm nods and follows her as she walks toward the kitchen. “Can I get you something to drink?”

Norm shakes his head, “Nothing for me, thanks.”

Maxine stops when she gets to the kitchen island and then gestures for Norm to sit at the table as she moves to pour herself a glass of water from the Brita.

“I wanted to make sure you were okay, Max. What with—” Norm raises his hand in the air then fans it out gesturing toward the front yard.

Maxine nods and leans against the counter, drinks the water, and feels the delicate muscles in her throat move as she swallows. “It is what it is.”

“I didn’t think anyone could be so indecent.” Norm doesn’t look at her, looks down at his brown loafers, as if he too were to blame.

She puts down the glass of water and pulls a green grape from the bowl where they sit clustered on the island and places it in her mouth. She gestures the bowl toward Norm, but he shakes his head.

“I mean, a child is dead, how could anyone think to do something like that. But you know what, it’s probably just another kid, someone with a lot of feelings they don’t know what to do with. Oh, Max. I’m sorry.”

Maxine watches as Norm tenses his hands into almost fists. Her mouth is partially open, and for a moment she tries to see herself as he sees her. The thin robe, the slim ankles exposed, the bare feet. Her nipples just slightly erect in the cooler than average April morning.

“It’s a handful of people if anything. They’re scared of what they don’t understand. They want something to blame. Most people have been fine. Kind. Normal, you know.” Maxine sighs. “Should we talk about the service?”

“Right. I’m sorry, Max. I just thought, you know—we were better.” Norm closes his eyes and shakes his head again. A display of righteousness, she thinks.

Norm isn’t handsome like Frank, instead maybe bulbous, this might be the word she would use if it didn’t seem so cruel, so petty. In this moment, sitting across from her, she can sense his discomfort. That he doesn’t know what to do with himself, his hands, his feet, his concerns about their shared humanity. And then it strikes her, as if a slap to the face, how much he’s like them, those mothers. That he wants her to dispel the rumors for him. He wants her to say out loud that none of it’s true.

“Norm?” He raises his head and looks at her, looks her square in the eye. She opens her mouth slightly and then purses her lips and frowns. “Are you sure I can’t get you something to drink?”


On the one-year anniversary of Frank’s death, Maxine made a special dinner for herself and Zach. She didn’t remind Zach of the date or the reason for the elaborate meal, but she figured he might guess, as they had grown close in the preceding months, had begun to develop something of a secret language, a way of communicating that didn’t always involve words. With Frank’s life insurance policy, Maxine was privileged to continue working only part-time for the local plant nursery, as she had done before his death, making use of her degree in horticulture. After soccer practice, Zach would walk the short three-quarter mile to the Grendel Nursery and meet his mother just as she was finishing her shift. Then they would drive home together, sometimes stopping for pizza or ice cream or groceries as need dictated.

On this particular Wednesday, Zach arrived slightly later than usual, and Maxine could sense something fidgety in his movements, the tossing of the backpack into the SUV or the way his hand glided back and forth over the radio presets looking for something to listen to.

“So?” Maxine waited to speak, waited until she and Zach were on the main thoroughfare that led past the strip malls and office parks of their community.

“So?” Zach echoed back, slightly higher-pitched, his fingers tapping an uncoordinated rhythm on the passenger side window trim.

“How was practice?” Maxine’s eyes focused on the road but glanced intermittently at her son when it was safe to do so.

“Sucked mostly.” Zach stopped drumming his fingers and leaned his seat back, his eyes closed.

Maxine said nothing, this being one of the few times she’d heard him speak this way, like someone else’s teenage son. Like the ones you found on television, all reticence and snark.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked, sitting up and putting his feet against the glovebox, something she’d ask him not to do before.

“Rotten bananas,” said Maxine. She pulled into the left turn lane to enter the gates of Dew Meadows.

Zach was quiet beside her, but she could sense his desire to say something, to respond to her in kind, but she resisted looking at him and he stayed silent.

As they drove through the neighborhood, Maxine waved to two different couples walking their dogs. She made sure to keep her wave stiff and controlled, like a Miss America contestant. These were her tricks, her mood lighteners, same as the ones she’d used with Frank when he’d been grumpy or frustrated or depressed by ugliness at the firm. Now there was a silence between she and Zach, and in a way, it felt like a place she’d been before.

They arrived at the house and, wordlessly, she opened her door and headed for the porch. Zach trailed behind her, pulling his black Jansport by one strap and as she unlocked the door, he stood behind her quietly. She could sense that he wanted to speak, and as they walked in the house together, she glanced back and saw his mouth open, fumbling for words he didn’t say.

“Do you want a snack? I won’t have dinner ready for a couple hours.”

Zach shook his head and started toward the stairs that led to the second story. She watched as he moved up the stairs, his shoulders slumped like the broken stalk of a crocus.

“Hey,” Maxine called after him.

“Hey,” he called back down to her. His eyes lingered on her face, and she felt the sad, adolescent weight of his gaze. Then he turned and continued up the stairs.

In the kitchen, Maxine poured herself a healthy glass of wine and got started on dinner, the meal that had been Frank’s favorite, chicken involtini with spinach and prosciutto. Pounding the chicken breast and listening to Bob Seger radio, Maxine could almost transport herself to another time, imagine herself in a parallel dimension where the permutations of death were rearranged, and Frank was still alive, about to walk through the door, a pink box from the bakery held gingerly in his hands, his lips about to press against her throat, his hands on the small of her back.

A second glass of wine and the frying pan out, sautéing the rolled bird, browning it on each side and then, as if by magic, Zach was in the kitchen with her, but his face was no longer stony, no, his eyes were slightly red, slightly puffy and his jaw was fixed and hard, trying not to cry, and so she hugged him tightly to her and he let her.

When she let go or he pulled away, he leaned against the counter and looked at her, and she felt almost embarrassed at his gaze, its sudden adultness. “So?” she asked again and then turned to swallow the end of her second glass.

“Can I have some?” He looked almost pleading to her, and for a moment she considered saying he could, but then she shook her head.

“We can’t all the way fall apart.” Then, “Here,” and she opened the refrigerator and pulled out the orange juice and poured him a glass. “Same thing, basically.”

He nodded and then rubbed at his eyes with his open palm. “Dad’s favorite?”

Maxine nodded. “You can help with the potatoes or you can cut the ends off the green beans.”

“Green beans, I guess.”

He came and stood in front of the chopping block, so they were side by side. He was taller than her, but for how long had it been that way? The revelation felt strange to her in the small space of the kitchen.

“This is going to be delicious, I think. You think?” The room smelled like butter and white wine, rich and sweet.

“Jack and Andrew were talking about you before practice.”

Maxine listened, didn’t interrupt, used her tongs to poke at the chicken and then bent down to retrieve a glass dish for placing the rolled breasts in the oven.

“They said you—”

Maxine reached for the composting container and passed it to Zach. His eyes didn’t meet hers. “Put the ends in here.”

Zach nodded and she could see him biting his lip in her peripheral vision. “They said you were the reason Dad died.”

Maxine nodded slowly. “How’s that?”

Zach reached for his juice then put it back down. “It’s stupid.”

“I’ll bet.” Maxine refilled her empty glass from the box on the counter. “They just want a reaction is all. Anything they said isn’t true.”

“They were talking about the way you look. How you look good or whatever. How their moms were talking about it or something.” He swallowed, staring down at his feet. “That you and dad liked each other too much, you know?” Zach’s face was reddening slightly, perhaps, Maxine wondered, from the heat of the stove, the potatoes boiling now, the idea of his mother’s sex.

Maxine reached out a hand and placed it on her son’s head. She rubbed back and forth to feel the stubble of his fresh haircut, the tiny hairs swaying back and forth under her touch. Zach didn’t resist, he let her pet him, and a moment later Maxine felt herself awake as if from a dream. Zach, beside her, had closed his eyes and was holding her hand, clasping it in his own, and she felt the strength of his fingers. They were just now longer, wider than her own, and they clenched her hand tightly, so tightly. It was the wine. Maxine shook her head to clear her thoughts, then pulled free of her son’s grasp and placed the chicken into the oven.

“Dinner will be ready in twenty—why don’t you get started on homework and I’ll finish this, yeah?” Maxine bent down to retrieve the steamer from a lower cupboard.

Zach stared at her for a moment, then nodded and moved toward the kitchen entrance, its open vaulted doorway. “Sorry.”

Maxine caught his eye, smiled. “I’m glad you told me.” She forced her smile brighter as he left the room, listened to his socked feet as they moved up the hardwood of the staircase. When he was nearly to the top of the stairs, Maxine glanced toward the window where she could see her reflection in the glass. It was dark outside save for the streetlights; any starlight obliterated in the planned suburban sprawl. She moved her hands slowly from her neck to her hips, smoothing the fabric of her shirt, her slacks, feeling the shape of her figure. Making eye contact with her own reflection, Maxine bit her bottom lip until she felt it had grown red, redder, nearly lipsticked in its color, then, nodding to herself, Maxine turned back to the stove to finish Frank’s dinner.


Maxine and Norm agree to make the service a simple one. A chance for Zach’s friends from school to say their goodbyes, nothing religious in nature, just a time for those in the community that choose to celebrate Zach’s life to do so, openly and in public. Both Maxine’s and Frank’s parents passed away years before, and there’s little extended family to speak of—the ceremony will be simple and true to Zach’s nature—though as Norm points out—any funeral for a child is naturally more brutal, more confusing, and therefore, in many ways, impossible to get right. The point is to try your best.

Maxine has finally convinced Norm to accept a cup of coffee and now, somewhat regretting her insistence, they sit together in the front living room, she on her velvet chair and he on the sofa with its dainty clawed feet. She’s put some stale Oreos on a plate between them and the minister slowly spins one of the cookies in his hand.

A silence has developed after Maxine asked about Norm’s experience with funerals for children and Norm’s subsequent slow, careful answer that, yes, he’s presided over a handful in the twenty-three years of his ministry. Now, Maxine stares out the window, its view of the Turners’ hedges and white pebbled driveway so familiar that the sight feels like a companion, an old friend.


“Yes?” Maxine turns to Norm, unsure of the time that has passed since he said her name into the still room.

“Had you thought about music? Maybe some of his friends would know a song or two to suggest?” Norm lifts his coffee cup to his lips and swallows.

“Yes, I’ll find something. Maybe something from his iPod, I think.”


Maxine nods, tucks her bare left foot under her thigh.


Maxine looks at Norm and this time his eyes are downcast. “Yes?”

“I hate to ask this—” Norm hesitates, clears his throat. “Did you know he’d been drinking? Going to the quarry?”

“I did.”

Norm cups his chin with his hand. “I’m so sorry, Max.”

Maxine reaches for her coffee, then changes her mind and leans back in the chair. “He told me he’d gone a couple times, that he liked to go there and think. Not that I didn’t guess he was drinking. I mean—” Maxine stops speaking, digs the nails of her right hand as deep as she can into her palm. “I didn’t think I could stop him.”

“He was alone when it happened?” Norm glances at her, then looks away.

“As far as I know.” She pauses, breathes in silently through her nose. “Two girls from another school found his car, after I mean. One of them was supposed to meet him for a date. I’d never met the girl.” Maxine puts her hand over her face, can feel the awfulness of this feeling seething in her cheekbones, under the eye sockets. From underneath her fingers, she can sense Norm leaning forward in his chair and then a moment later she feels his hand on her back, moving gently back and forth like a metronome.

“I shouldn’t have brought it up, Max. I’m so sorry for all you’ve had to go through.”

It’s okay, she thinks. We get what we deserve, she thinks. And then, aloud, “You just want to understand. We all do, I mean, we want to know.”


After the initial period of grief was when the real sense of loss set in, at least for Maxine, and she assumed, for Zach as well. A week, a month, three months, even six months after the death, to be grieving almost constantly was all right to most people. Most people who didn’t lose their husbands or their fathers at such a young age could understand. Most people who had known real love and lost it—they could accept this version of another’s suffering. But then eventually, the sadness had to end. At some point, come the one-year mark say, the grief needed to be hosed off, put away, except for on special occasions—Father’s Day, anniversaries, birthdays—when it could be reignited in all its wet and messy feeling.

Still, a year, a year and a half after Frank was gone and Maxine still felt daily the absence of her best friend, her lover, her partner. Two or three failed first dates at the behest of other women in the neighborhood had only further cemented the idea that most people were not Frank, and that being still beautiful in her middle age made her desired, but rarely seen. She and Zach, unlike most of the other mothers with teenage sons in the neighborhood, had become increasingly close. They spent time together without complaint and enjoyed each other’s company, liked one another as people, as family, as mutual beneficiaries of Frank’s enduring love and memory, and though this closeness did not come without the occasional comment from the neighbors, for the most part, Maxine felt proud of their love.

For despite his relationship with her, Zach was also a normal-seeming kid, though not as much a kid now that he was just two months shy of sixteen. He helped her clean up around the house, and sometimes he made dinner, scrambled eggs or grilled cheese, his specialties. In the afternoons or on weekends, he skateboarded with his friends or played basketball and sometimes he brought friends over for dinner or hung out at the mall and went to see terrible movies. She had the sense that he liked girls, and that sometimes they liked him, too, though he was shier in this regard, at least with her. But what was most precious to her was how they were able to treat one another like humans, and sometimes, Maxine wondered if this was a gift, that if Frank had still been alive, Zach might have been darker, more selfish, more like the other boys who angered easily at their mothers’ love. But not she and Zach, they had an intimacy that was rare, that Maxine lingered on sometimes, at night, when she was drifting into sleep, how lucky she was, despite the pain or because of it, that she had a child to love so much, a younger, newer version of the man that she had loved. A person to mend her heart.

Then on a Saturday night in early June, Maxine went on a particularly terrible date. The man was tall, relatively good-looking, a tax attorney and family friend of one of Zachery’s friend’s fathers. His name was Graham, and she felt like meat by his side. In response to his brutish stares and his unilateral command of the conversation over such topics as the problems with female CEOs and how she ought to invest Frank’s pension, she’d gotten herself drunk, nearly stumbling drunk or definitely stumbling drunk, whichever kind meant that she was unable to drive herself home, and so let him do so at the cost of a rough grab at her left breast when they arrived at her house and his tongue, thick and chalky, jammed down her mouth like a fat, engorged bulb.

When she eventually managed to get herself out of his car, she staggered up her driveway and onto the front porch, got her key to work in the door and, finally, collapsed on the tile of the foyer, her purse open, its contents spilled and her head curled swan-like onto her lap. It was there that Zach found her, lifted her up, agreed to get her a glass of wine so she would stop crying, and helped her up the stairs to her bedroom, the bedroom she had shared with his father.

When Zach managed to get her settled at the foot of her king size bed, she sat swaying, gripping the glass of wine in one loose hand and using the other to hold his arm. It was then she could finally start to hear the question he’d been asking her, see the concern and confusion in his boy face as it peered down into her own.

“What happened?” he asked. His look so gentle, the nose and lips of another person, an earlier person blurred across the version of his face that she could make out in the spare light of her bedroom.

She shook her head, the words a series of scattered seeds stuck inside her throat. “Nothing happened.” She reached back with one hand and managed to unzip her dress halfway, inching her shoulders free, the top of her black bra exposed. She closed her eyes, opened them a moment later and put her lips on the glass in her hand, left red lips on the rim of the glass and leaned back, spilling the wine onto her black dress, her bare clavicle. She closed her eyes then opened them, and he was in front of her again, so skinny but strong seeming in his shirtlessness. This strange version of her oldest friend in gym shorts.

His features swirled before her and she reached a hand toward him. “Stay with me. Okay, baby?” She thought about laughing but when she opened her mouth no sound came out, which seemed like something funny in its own right. And then he was beside her on the bed, hugging her and crying, and she said, “It’s okay, baby. Really, I’m okay.”

He was crying or his face was wet, and she kissed his cheek. He tasted like salt, then she kissed his mouth, like he was a baby, like he was her baby, and she felt her tongue against his teeth. And she was holding him down on the bed, and in her arms, she felt him go rigid, she felt him unwillingly excited against her, she felt him go limp, then the attempt to crumple up, to be so small, to disappear, to be a child once again and she let go.

“I love you, Frankie,” she said and then darkness, her eyes closed, the room spinning and then nothing. Nothing. Then the morning, the bed empty. The house empty. Her dress sweet and crusted with dried wine. But no, it wasn’t empty. He was still there, still breathing, asleep on the far side of the bed, and inside her gut, the most hideous bloom.


When Maxine finally says her goodbyes to Norman, he insists on giving her a hug and in his warm, forgiving embrace, Maxine briefly feels herself untether, slip away, lose all and any sense of why continuing to be a human being is worth anything at this point. But then he’s gone, and she stands barefoot on the tile of the foyer, in her empty house, far too big for a creature as small as she. She continues to stand, feeling the cool tile, its coolness, the cool house, its windless silence until the mewing of the cat interrupts her thoughts, and the animal’s hunger redirects Maxine with purpose to the kitchen.

More wine. As if it was ever the solution, but now, now it matters so little that filling her small-boned frame, drowning her organs in Chablis, in sauvignon blanc, is finally no one’s problem but her own. But again, the box is almost empty, and this will mean a need to leave the house, to venture out into the world, to chance a meeting with the one or two or three mothers who have seized on her trespass, however unbelievable, intuited her as the worst kind of rot in their clean, wholesome community, and how, with what evidence?

The wanton lie, the accidental truth, the casual peeping tom who may or may not have seen mother and son in the backyard, she tanning in her orange bikini and the son, her son, his eyes unhealthily fixed on her body. Or maybe even it was Zach, a slip to a friend that sometimes, yes, sometimes, she let him sleep in her bed. That sometimes she fell down drunk and it was he who undressed her, he who brought the aspirin, who rubbed her swollen legs from where she’d stumbled. Together in bed, clothed but tender, tenderly together, anything not to be alone, to not have to forget the feeling of another’s person’s body, the smooth skin, the muscles moving like shoots sprouting toward light, involuntary. The mistake. Then the death. No, the accident. But she, the culprit, regardless, her guilt licking her insides clean as a chicken bone, clean as something that could never be clean again. Her baby, dead. Her baby gone, her sins, her selfishness, his undoing.

But this is her kitchen. This is the counter under her fingers. This is the liquid sloshing in her belly, her lack of belly. This is her cat, Georgie, who must be fed. Maxine goes to the pantry, takes out a tin of cat food and empties it neatly into the cat’s food dish. To feed the cat, this had been Zach’s first chore, his first responsibility in the days of she and Frank, in the days of parenting, in the days of keeping it together.

She has not been in Zach’s room since the death, but Maxine decides she will go there now. Thinking of her words to Norm, she realizes she will not find his iPod, it was on his body when he died, but she will find something, some sound, some trace of the person he could have been.

Maxine takes the stairs slowly, lets each step feel like something solid beneath her weight. When she reaches the landing, she pauses, then says the name out loud to the empty house. “Zachery.”

Without thinking, she knocks on his bedroom door before entering and when she enters the smell of him is so intense it nearly cripples her to the floor. Her mouth is dry. Her teeth, the deepest recesses of her gums, they ache, pulse with the blood of feeling. It is too much. Maxine slumps down to his bed and fingers the dark blue comforter, closes her eyes.

Two nights before his disappearance, his death, Zachery had come into her room, late at night, smelling of cheap beer, not turning on the light and wearing only boxer shorts. He had entered her room as he had sometimes done in the last year, in the time since her first attempt on his body, and he had sat on the edge of the bed, her bed, and put his hand on her face, waking her. “Maxine.” He said her name, as he had sometimes done recently. The word in his mouth did not sound like Frank’s voice. There was a bitterness, a sense of loss that made her weak, a falling out of the bottom of her stomach as if driving quickly over a hill.

“Are you drunk?” Her face remained on the pillow, her eyes partially closed.

“Maybe.” He sighed, a deep chasmic sigh that Maxine felt herself falling into, a sigh where Frank lived at the bottom, as if in a well. A child lost and trapped.

Maxine stayed quiet, slowly she tried to rise, but Zach put his hand on her shoulder, held her down gently, but firmly.

“There’s a girl I like.”

Maxine nodded, pushed herself against his hand and this time he gave way. “Oh? What’s her name?”

Zach shook his head. He put his hands over his face, over his eyes, and rested his elbows on his knees. Maxine waited, slowly reached out a hand to rest on his back.

“I don’t know her name yet, but I saw her.” His face was still in his hands and Maxine began to gently rub his back.

“Does she go to your school?”

Zach shook his head. Under her fingers, she could feel the heat coming off him, the feeling of dried sweat on his bare skin.

“She goes to Lincoln. I saw her when we played them. Her friend is going to set us up.”

“Good.” Maxine stopped moving her hand, started to pull it away from him, but Zach reached back and grabbed her fingers, pushed them down against the bare flesh of his shoulder blade. Maxine hesitated, felt the cool air conditioning under her thin nightgown, closed her eyes, then opened them. “You deserve someone good.”

Outside the window of the bedroom, Maxine thought she could hear an owl, then nothing, then a car driving too fast down the street, past her house and then onto some other street, some other place.

“I won’t tell her about us.” Zach still held her fingers, pressed them down firmer now into his skin, pressed down the nails, so she wondered if she was hurting him.

“There isn’t any us, baby.” Maxine felt her body, its edges and lines, blurred somehow, like shame smoothing away the limits, nothing between she and her son but loss, a misplaced need. The softness of her mother heart beating in her chest. She was his mother, still.

“Do you wish I was him?” He dropped her hand and it fell back to her lap like a petal. “I could be him if that’s what you want.”

She looked at her fingers, how hollow they looked in the lightless room.

Zach looked at her, then away. “All my friends talk about fucking you.”

Maxine pulled the comforter around her, sat farther up in bed and looked at her son, held the space between their bodies in her mind, like a rock, a jewel, then leaned forward to touch his hair, to let it fall through her open fingers. “I’m sorry, baby.”

Zach was quiet. The room was quiet. Outside, if she strained hard enough, Maxine thought she could hear birds sleeping, readying up for their morning songs. It was a sound she had never thought about before.

“I’m tired, Mom.”

“I know, baby.”

“I miss him.”

Maxine nodded, leaned forward and again touched her son’s face, his hair, its feeling just slightly greasy, and then his arm, the muscles in his slim arms and then, again, she made herself let go.

“Can I sleep here tonight?” He turned to look at her, his eyes, brown, glossy, red-veined like his father’s had been when he was just done, so done with the day, with it all.

“I don’t know, honey.”

Zach stood up and walked to the far side of the bed, the side where Frank had slept and he pushed aside the sheet, the comforter and crawled beneath the layers, and in a moment, she knew she would turn to him, move toward, hold him, her baby, and he would hold her back, be unable to resist, neither of them safe from letting go, neither of them safe from what it is they’d felt, neither of them free from Frank’s love.

In his bedroom now, in the light of day, Maxine comes to. Her own hands digging into the soft flesh of her upper arms, the nails indenting the skin in crescent moons. Outside, the sun brightening, the clouds dissolving, dissipating so they might no longer weaken the light’s path through the open windows of her empty house.

She closes her eyes, feels her guilt like the thick loam of the earth mounting her, piling around her in a thick, confusing agony. She drops her hands down, her chest collapsing against her knees, and from the ground by her feet, takes a dirty shirt from the bedroom floor, the fabric soft in her fingers and presses it to her face, her baby, her boy, a smell like fruit so sweet, so ripe, its bruised flesh in her fingers, nothing she could have known she wanted, until. Bright sunlight against her closed eyelids like milky white light on a Sunday afternoon, its color the end of everything, but it reaches her here, deep below the earth, and she calls his name, both their names, sweet tendrils of sound, of longing, rising upwards in her otherwise empty home.


Excerpt from Rebecca Bernard’s Our Sister Who Will Not Die: Stories, used by permission of Mad Creek Books, an imprint of The Ohio State University Press.

Rebecca Bernard’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Colorado Review, and Wigleaf among other venues. Her debut collection of stories, Our Sister Who Will Not Die was selected by Nick White as the winner of the 2021 Non/Fiction Prize sponsored by The Journal and is forthcoming from Mad Creek Books August 26, 2022. She is an assistant professor at Angelo State University and serves as a fiction editor for The Boiler.