The boy, Billy, was the husband. He pinched an imaginary tie knot between his fingers, straightened it in front of an imaginary mirror, then ran his hand over his blond curls in an attempt to mat them into a neat, business-like part. He picked up a lunch box of Legos lying on the floor of the girl's room and used it as a briefcase.
He was upstairs in the girl's house, across the street from his own. It was summer, hot, but raining too hard to be outside. Gusts of wind slapped lashes of rain against the window. The girl heard the pane rattle in its frame. Her mother was downstairs, watching the storm through the back screen door. Hot air blew in an angry breath. The rain honeycombed on the weave of the screen, and spotted across the door in unknowable shapes.
I'm off to work, Maggie, Billy said. He leaned in and not-quite kissed the girl on the cheek. She was the wife. He always made the rules to these games.
Maggie giggled and backed away. Her long, dark hair fell over her face, covering her smile. That's not how it goes, she said.
He walked to the other side of the room and sat down on the floor in the corner. He opened the lunchbox and studied its contents. Then he reached for a pretend phone and said, ring ring, ring ring.
The girl stood staring out the window.
He said again, ring ring, ring ring.
Maggie turned. What are you doing?
Billy pretended not to hear, because he was far away, at work. Because she should have heard the phone ringing.
I don't want to talk on the phone, she said.
Ring ring, ring ring.
Fine, Maggie said. She held her hand to her face, thumb to ear, pinkie to mouth.
Hello, she said.
Hi, honey, it's me, he said.
You sound happy, she said.
I am, he said. I got a raise. My boss is paying me a million dollars. I'll buy you a huge diamond.
He was holding his hands out to show her how big. She laughed quietly. That's not how it goes, she said. Work isn't happy.
Sure it is, he said. What's for dinner tonight?
KFC, she said.
Won't you make dinner yourself? He said. Aren't you the wife?
That's not how it goes, Maggie said. He did this when they played. Changed the rules. It was hard to keep up with what he wanted from her.
Oh well, he said. KFC it is. You know that's my favorite!
Gosh, she said. Is being the husband just shouting all the time?
Billy shrugged. Gotta go, he said. I think the boss wants to see me. Maybe he'll make me the boss. Tidy up the house while I'm gone. He put the pretend phone down.
I'm not doing that, she said.
He had turned his back to her and faced the wall, speaking to an invisible person.
Hello, Maggie said. No response.
She sighed. Ring ring, ring ring, she said.
He picked up the imaginary phone. Hello?
I'm not doing that, she said again.
Oh, hi, honey, he said. Doing what?
Tidying up, she said.
But, honey, he said. The neighbors are coming for dinner. We need to make the house nice for guests.
That never happens, Maggie said.
Welp, Billy said. Boss is calling me again. See you tonight, honey. Have a nice day.
He turned back to the wall, speaking to his made-up boss, but she kept her hand-phone to her ear as she stared out the window to the space in the driveway where her father's car had been this morning. It would return again as the hot summer sun was setting. He would return.
Honey, I'm home, Billy yelled. Maggie jumped. He had snuck up behind her, or she got lost staring through the raindrops, trying to see between them.
The boy leaned in for another fake kiss, but she felt his breath on her cheek, just above where the taut skin still shone faintly, where a fading pain pulsed. Maggie flinched and leaned away. Billy, the husband, did not notice.
I'm starving, he said. Where's the KFC?
Oh, she said. Then again, oh. Maggie turned away from the window and the room looked darker, her eyes having adjusted to the grey light of the storming day. It's right here, Maggie said. Let's eat. What would you like to drink? Would you like a beer?
A beer? He said. A beer at dinner?
Sure, she said.
Billy shrugged. Okay. They sat on the floor by her bed and she grabbed a basket of stuffed animals and pulled it to them. She offered the boy an orange horse, but then she pulled it back. Wait, she said. You told me the neighbors were coming over.
Oh, he said. Right. Well. They called the office. Change of plans. They're coming over later. To play cards.
Cards? Maggie said. That doesn't happen. Does that happen?
It's going to happen, he said.
You should have told me, she said. People don't like it when you don't tell them things.
Okay, Billy said. He bit into the orange horse, hard. He drank from his invisible beer. Mmmm, he said. Good beer. Sweet.
That's how it goes, Maggie said.
The boy perked up. What about the baby? He said.
She fell back onto her butt, her legs still folded, knees straining and bulging, pointing toward the boy. What? she said.
The baby, he said. Our baby.
For a moment, she remembered her mother downstairs. She would keep her distance from Maggie. She always did for a while after, as if her silence was a salve, her distance a bandage. She would lay out a snack for them, cheese and crackers on the island in the kitchen, but she wouldn't call up to tell them it was there. They would just have to go down eventually and find the plate of snacks laid out next to two room-temp juice boxes. The girl wanted her now, wanted her to interrupt, distract the boy from all this playing house. If they could break for snacks, Billy's imagination could move to something else.
Maggie did not just say she was hungry. She didn't just suggest they go get a snack. Because the boy was chewing on that orange horse with such relish, tearing imagined flesh from the creature with a smile on his face. She could almost imagine the grease on his chin, almost imagine his smile crumbling to scowl, his body lunging across the invisible table between them. His expectant eyes wide as he said, Where's the baby? Where's our little baby?
You're the baby, Maggie said, reaching forward, pulling the horse out of his grasp. His look held steady for a moment, deciding if this was where House should go. And then he giggled. The baby, he screamed, and fell onto his back, kicking legs and waving arms in the air above him.
She slid across the carpet to sit next to the boy-now-baby.
Time to feed the baby, she said.
Baby's not hungry, Billy said, flailing around, rolling away as she reached out for him.
Maggie grabbed his shirt and pulled him back. Parents make the rules. Now sit up.
He sat up and leaned against the side of her bed, sitting so perfectly upright, so rigid and L-shaped that he made himself giggled even more.
Maggie held an imaginary spoon and scooped it into a pretend jar of baby food.
What flavor? Billy asked.
Babies don't get to pick the flavor, she said. Then, Strained peas.
Yuck, he said.
Don't fidget, she said, leaning in and holding out the imaginary spoon.
The boy opened his mouth and then clamped it down on the spoon. He scrunched up his face but also made mmm-mmm sounds. Then Billy pursed his lips together and made a spurting noise as if he'd spit some up.
Baby made a boo boo, Maggie said. She laughed at the spurting sound when the boy made it again. She leaned in with another spoonful and Billy clamped down then spit up again. They were both laughing at the sound now. He nearly fell over and she leaned in closer to feed him more of the imagined baby food.
Come on now, Maggie said. You need to eat to grow up big and strong.
Another spoonful, another clamp, another spit up.
It's getting everywhere, she said, laughing. It's on your clothes.
Billy pawed at the stains he pictured on his clothes, bit at the tips of his fingers, even pointed a finger out to Maggie's mouth and she turned away. This food is for babies, silly, she said.
He tried to wriggle away from her next spoonful. She laughed at first then nearly fell forward as she stretched to reach his mouth and missed. It spilled on the floor, Maggie said, still laughing but now kind of staring at where the small puddle of strained peas would be.
Billy tried to crawl away and she pounced on him, grabbed his foot and pulled him across the carpet. Come on, baby, supper isn't done yet.
He rolled over onto his back, but would not sit up. So Maggie climbed on top of him staring down at his face. Now you have to eat. Sit still.
She reached the spoon down and he pushed it away with a free hand. For the next one, he just turned his head resolutely to the side, and then when she reached there he swiveled to the other side.
Maggie stopped laughing. You're spilling peas everywhere.
Baby not hungry, Billy said.
She pressed her fist, with its imaginary spoon, into his cheek, smudged it around. You're spilling it, she said, laughing again. You're spilling it.
Okay, Billy said. Okay, okay, okay.
You're spilling it, she said. You're spilling it. The laugh gone. The words getting harder, sharper.
Hey, he said. Hey, okay. Hey.
You're spilling it, Maggie said. She was yelling now. You're spilling it. You're spilling it.
Okay, Billy was now yelling back. Okay, okay. He strained to raise his head, to scream the word into her face. Okay, he screamed.
Stop spilling it, she yelled as she straightened up, as her fist opened and dropped the pretend spoon, as she wound up and watched her hand swing through the air, her face contorted by some buried anger.
The sound when Maggie slapped his face seemed to stun the whole room into silence. She just looked down at Billy, watched closely for his reaction. The cheek was already reddening, blotched and fiery in its color. She wasn't sure, but she thought she could see herself, stretched and distorted across the curve of his watering eye. For Billy, she was just an image melting in front of him, dissolving behind his tears.
Downstairs, the mother's hand rested on the bannister. She stood at the bottom of the stairs she wouldn't climb. Not yet, not now.
Her father's hand, maybe some faint itch still in its palm, some fading memory of what it could do, was out there somewhere in the hot, storming world.
Billy didn't cry out. The tears that welled in his eyes ran down his cheeks but he was too stunned to wipe them away. He watched Maggie's chest heave, watched her stare at him but also not at him. At something in the contortions of his face, the creases and wrinkles of fear laid out like a set of rules she knew by heart.
Finally, she was thinking. They were playing the same game.
Matthew Fiander’s work has appeared in the Massachusetts Review, South Dakota Review, Yalobusha Review, Barren Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Exposition Review, Prime Number Magazine, Waccamaw Journal, and elsewhere. He currently teaches writing at Wake Forest University in Winston- Salem, North Carolina.