Then twelve months passed and once again: the company picnic. A day greeted with joy, with dread, with stoic indifference, depending on who you were. It was Tess’s company, where she’d worked since college graduation. The whole family attended every year—a late-June weekend that was inevitably hotter than average, the sun proud and ablaze in its new summer glory, temperatures of 85 to 90 that felt like 115, whorling clouds of insects above the weathered tables. The children loved it. It was held at a place in Maryland called Misty Glen Farm, which was not a farm at all but a sprawling outdoor corporate-event facility, staffed with dozens of young hourly workers manning massive grills and bounce houses and pony rides. The picnic was practically an all-day affair, noon to seven. Barbeque, pies, horseshoes. Old-fashioned family fun.
They lived in northern Virginia, thirty miles southwest of DC. They climbed into the car just before noon. The usual skirmish broke out between the three children—ages thirteen, ten, and eight—about who got the windows, who was stuck in the miserable middle. Long ago the thirteen-year-old devised a schedule, a complicated rotation system based on their weekly hours in the car—which ultimately gave her the least number of center-seat minutes, though no one could prove it—and while the schedule now annoyed her (she was far too old for such stupidity), she reminded her siblings of it, dusted off the parameters of the system, hinted at its complex rules and implications for this daytrip. Her sister and brother, utterly confused but unwilling to admit it, conceded. The middle child buckled into the middle. They backed out of the driveway, their father at the wheel, sunglassed, baseball-capped. Tess typed the address into the GPS on her phone.
“Do we want to take the Beltway, like this says?” she asked. “Or should we go the back roads, avoid the traffic? What did we do last year?”
“I don’t remember,” Christopher said. “Whatever you think is best.”
Tess glanced at him, wary. Was that the meds talking, or was he really leaving it up to her? Despite the fact that he was the one behind the wheel? Despite the fact that he had never before been unopinionated about a driving route? He’d finally agreed to start taking the pills a month ago. She’d been watching him carefully, with a blend of nonchalance and nervousness, trying to detect if they were helping, hurting. Doing anything at all.
They arrived at the farm, parked in a field, surveyed the scene. It was crowded. The company was very big, with several gleaming office buildings throughout the metro area, many departments doing vastly different things. Tess had been telecommuting the last ten years, visiting the office twice a month, at most. She wasn’t close with her coworkers anymore, except the handful directly up or down her chain of command. She looked around for them.
The children and Christopher selected a picnic table, in a quiet area near an old, splintered playset, to serve as their home base for the day. They claimed the spot with backpacks and tote bags, water bottles, sunscreen, bug sprays of escalating poisonousness.
“Start with the all-natural spray,” Tess begged the kids. “Only use the DEET if the situation gets dire.”
“I’m going straight to DEET,” the oldest said, spraying her arms. “Let’s be realistic.”
It was overwhelmingly hot.
The place was huge, crowded with options. A softball field, multiple pavilions, food stations, carnival games, a wide range of contests all day (Hula-Hoop, watermelon-eating, sack race). A DJ and dance floor. Oldies music pouring out across the landscape.
“Can we go get hot dogs and chips?” the middle child asked, knowing the initial consumption of something resembling a meal was the only way she’d be permitted to move on to ice cream and cotton candy.
“Can I climb the rock wall?” the boy asked, remembering he’d been too terrified to climb it last summer, and not quite sure, even as he asked, if he was any less terrified now.
“I might get my face painted,” the older girl said vaguely, unsure whether this was still a cool thing to do when one was preparing to enter high school. She eyed the vicinity for teenage-girl faces bearing butterflies, hearts, flowers.
Christopher said nothing. His head was tilted back, he was staring intently, unmoving, into the oak that branched near their table. The meds, thought Tess. She tried to find something heartening in his silence. His face was not anguished, his eyes were not red-rimmed with fatigue. He was not racing immediately to the beer station.
Tess’s younger sister also worked for the company, though in an entirely different capacity and location, and she soon arrived with her twin three-year-old girls. They lived nearby in Bethesda. Tess’s sister was occasionally obsessive, occassionally provoking, yet Tess preferred her over most people on the planet. The sister’s husband couldn’t make it this time, which Tess translated to mean “has no desire to spend another excruciating afternoon trying to make conversation with your spouse.” Tess was disappointed. Her brother-in-law was fun to have around. He was talkative, jovial, and eternally willing to tumble with kids.
Tess and her children surrounded the stunningly beautiful twins, who were clad in matching lavender sundresses. Tess pushed everyone aside and wrapped her arms around her nieces’ bodies and pressed her lips to their soft hair and missed desperately the presence of such tiny children in her life. The little girls, trained to politely endure this kind of fawning, tolerated it regally for about thirty seconds before wriggling away toward the swings.
“Do you mind watching the girls a minute while I run to the bathroom?” Tess’s sister asked. “I didn’t have time to go before I left because we have this ladybug infestation that’s killing me. They’re everywhere, and the in-laws are coming tomorrow, and I’m just walking around with a Dustbuster because I don’t know what else to do. It’s an exercise in futility—I mean, they’re multiplying.”
“Ladybugs are good luck,” Tess said. “You have an infestation of good luck.”
“Ha,” her sister said, then wandered off in search of the bathroom.
Christopher took his son to the pony-ride ring, then the mini-golf holes, then the two bounce houses. The second one was in the shape of a dragon, whose mouth opened out into a slide decorated with red-orange flames. The son took his sandals off and entered.
“He might want socks on,” the teenage girl bounce-house operator said, but it was too late. The exposed vinyl of the steps, sizzling in the sun, burned the boy’s feet—first as he entered, and again as he scrambled out, trying to escape. He cried. He tried not to. He was sensitive and historically quick to tears, but he was intuiting recently from his third-grade peers that it was shameful to show emotions quite so openly. He particularly hated to cry in front of his father, though he didn’t fully understand why. It wasn’t because his father would scold him, but something more like the opposite: His dad paid too much attention to the tears, he was too quick to validate. His mother tended to simply check for open wounds and then move on—on the whole, a better method.
“Hey, it’s okay, buddy, I know that must have hurt really bad,” Christopher said, crouching to embrace his son, and in spite of himself the boy buried his face in his father’s neck and wept. After a moment he lifted his head and saw the zipline area in the distance.
“Can I please go on the zipline?” he asked, though he knew the answer.
“One more year,” Christopher said. “Ages nine and up.”
“Could we ask them? I’m almost eight and a half.” The night before, his oldest sister told him to just claim to be nine and ride the dumb thing. But he couldn’t bear to suggest such a blatant rule violation to his father and risk changing his mood. Plus, there was the troublesome issue of whether he was actually ready to ride the zipline, bravery-wise.
“How about we do the hayride?” Christopher asked.
The hayride was a very very slow tractor pulling a trailer lined with bales of straw. It drove a continuous loop around the entire perimeter of the grounds, stopping at various points where riders could disembark in relief, seeking shade, or a cold drink, or fun. It was possible to stay on and encircle the entire Misty Glen on the hayride if one wanted to, if one could handle the unrelenting heat and the extensive time commitment.
Christopher and the boy climbed on when the tractor stopped near the softball field. By the time it had rumbled past the field, ten minutes later, the boy was ready to get off. “I’m going to keep riding,” Christopher said. “See Mom and the girls, over there? Run to them and ask if anyone wants to ride the hayride with me. They can meet me at the next stop.”
The boy sprinted off, and Christopher watched his small figure recede until it reached Tess. The tractor rolled along, the only other passenger a grandmother fanning a sleeping infant in her arms. He wiped the sweat from his neck and drank from his water bottle and looked at the sky, at the dusty ball field, at the scattering of neon-orange T-shirts worn by Misty Glen staffers. Dangling bodies glided along the zipline, smoke wafted from the grills. He hated taking the medication. He hated it. But he was giving it a try. He owed that much to Tess, after this last bad patch. After his long-building frustration with his painting finally tsunamied, crashing over him in the trench of winter. After that underwater month. Quitting his high-school teaching job, giving up his shot at becoming head of the department.
Actually, it wasn’t hatred so much as fear: He feared the pills. He didn’t like going to therapy. But these buoyed Tess, and he wanted her buoyed.
The middle child watched a boy walk by, his mouth buried in bright ice. “Can I get a sno-cone, Mom?” she asked.
“Sure. Wait—how many treats have you had so far?” Tess asked. Her middle child was sugar-crazy, junk-food-crazy. Tess tried not to worry about it on occasions such as this. She tried to just let the child enjoy the day. Plus, she forgot to pack her own meal and was overwhelmed, at the moment, by the complex tangles of her personal dietary concerns (what could a vegan-leaning pescatarian eat at this picnic?). Thinking about food this much always made her head throb.
“Not that many,” the girl insisted.
Tess closed her eyes, then opened them. “Fine. Go with your sister.” She looked over at her oldest daughter. “Would you please walk with her to get a sno-cone? I need to stay here with the twins.”
“What! Why do I have to go?” the oldest cried, in a sudden vicious rage. “I’m not going!” Tess stared at her daughter, awash in hormones, and tried to calculate the date. The girl’s cycles had started a year earlier and Tess was working to establish a mood pattern to better communicate with her. The sun snuck behind Tess’s sunglasses and kicked, hard. Her son appeared, alone, and leapt into a sandbox with the twins.
Where was Christopher? Where was her sister?
Tess felt a rage of her own beginning to rise. She sprayed Deep Forest DEET high into the air and stepped into the dangerous vapor, into the scent of carcinogens and pine.
“We will now all go together to get sno-cones,” she announced. She’d shifted into team-leader mode, the mode used to bring herself back from the edge of any given precipice. “Come on kids, let’s go. Everyone follow.”
Down the hill, around the basketball asphalt. They found the sno-cone stand behind the bingo pavilion, adjacent to the nachos-and-cheese machine.
“I can’t believe everything is free here,” the middle child said in wonder. “Every year, I get here, and I can’t believe it.”
Three young men in neon stood dishing out snacks. This was their summer job. They had just finished laughing about something sexual that two out of the three didn’t actually understand. The sight of this cluster of grinning teen-ish males made the older daughter flush. The most brazen-looking of the boys, who was also the oldest—maybe twenty—and also the most blonde and blue-eyed, scooped the ice and poured the rainbow of syrups. He smiled at Tess. She smiled back, realizing with a touch of wistfulness how many years it had been since she would have found a summer job like theirs enjoyable in any way. Right now she longed deeply for something air-conditioned and free of frivolity, like a museum. Or a library.
The sno-cone worker nodded toward the sisters, who were a few feet away helping the twins grip their fists around the paper holders. “Those two young ladies are gonna cause you some trouble pretty soon, huh?” It was daring on his part, making a semi-flirtatious comment to a mother about her daughters, but his instincts had been correct: Tess interpreted his words as a compliment to her. She laughed a light laugh that the oldest daughter found tonally mortifying.
“They are, aren’t they?” Tess said. “I’m in for it.”
“What did he mean, ‘trouble’?” the middle child asked worriedly as they walked away. The oldest child didn’t know what he meant either, but she had a sense, and it left her swimming in ecstasy and fury. How wide and exciting her future seemed, how full of boys. But how could he have lumped her in with her sister, that baby? She was a teenager—wasn’t that clear? She was almost fourteen. She should’ve worn her cutoffs. What was she thinking with these long loose shorts? She’d dressed athletically for the three-legged race and the egg toss, which she and her sister won last year, but which in this moment held no appeal at all. It was too hot for those dull games.
The daughters went off to the zipline. Tess wandered the picnic campus with the twins and their melting sno-cones, looking for her sister. She found her behind a pavilion with a plastic cup of zinfandel, deep in conversation with Tess’s manager.
“How can you drink in this heat?” Tess asked. She considered the scene before her. Her boss, Dennis, was a divorced, bearded, exceedingly calm man who collected Civil War memorabilia. Though not handsome in any discernable way, he was inexplicably attractive, something Tess and her sister had agreed upon in the past. The conversation in progress, faces close and voices low, seemed far too serious for the setting.
Tess did not like this mixing of her worlds.
Recently, over the phone, her sister had made a lighthearted comment about “trying” infidelity. “For the benefit of my marriage.” She spoke of it as one would mention taking up jogging, or participating in a community garden. Tess laughed it off. But in their next conversation, her sister presented a list of conceivable benefits. She didn’t have a specific partner in mind, she said; this was, so far, a theoretical construct. Just in case her sister was even partly serious—surely not—Tess argued vehemently against the idea, pointing out the obvious flaws and the disasters that could result, the likely carnage, the almost certain backfiring of this insane marriage-improvement plan.
“You’re intellectualizing emotion,” she accused her sister.
“You’re right,” her sister said. “I am.”
Tess now lifted a twin. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, placing the child into her sister’s arms. “I come bearing children.”
Tess and Christopher’s daughters hiked back, panting, from the far side of the zipline. They filled cups at the fountain-drink station. The hayride passed, their father aboard, and the older girl felt a flash of embarrassment—why was he so weird, riding that thing alone?—which gave way in the same moment to sadness. “Come on,” she said to her sister. “Let’s get on the hayride with Dad.”
They climbed aboard at the next stop. Christopher smiled. “My lovely daughters. Your chariot awaits.” He placed his palms on the hay bales to his left and right. “I fought off the crowds and saved you the best seats.” The ten-year-old sat down, close against her father. The older girl, whose pendulum had already swung back to annoyance, sat on the opposite side.
Christopher leaned down and sipped from his middle child’s straw. “That’s not water.”
The girl looked up at him desperately. “Please don’t tell Mom. I never ever get to have soda.”
Christopher whispered, “I hereby grant you permission to ingest high-fructose corn syrup for this one day of your childhood.”
She laughed. How she loved her father. She didn’t understand the rest of the family’s preoccupation with his moods. When he was silent or surly, she avoided him; when he was smiling and funny, she engaged. She actually used this same strategy in dealing with everyone in the household, including her mother, and especially, recently, her sister.
Christopher put his arm around the girl. He too had been a middle child, a quiet boy with a sketchbook finding his way amid a household of kind-hearted but maniacally athletic males. He tried to remember to pay special attention to her, because she often disappeared on the edges of groups in a way that reminded him of himself. She lacked the physical distinction of her mother and siblings, all of whom had an angular dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty. She was plainer, paler. Her face was unguarded. He wished he could protect her from all that was to come. He kissed the top of her sweaty head and inhaled the scent of her hair. He wished he could protect them all.
“Look.” Christopher pointed up. Both girls angled their chins to the sky.
“What? I don’t see anything,” the older daughter said.
The other chewed on her straw and pointed. “Those clouds.”
“It’s going to storm,” Christopher said.
The sky charcoaled, fast. Thundered, spat. Soon, rain in sheets. The hayride stopped and the girls dashed, shrieking, to the nearest shelter. Christopher followed them slowly, soaked, water pelting his head, shoulders, arms. What he was afraid of was numbness. Or maybe not numbness, exactly, but that the pills would dampen or warp or erase something essential. He’d tried explaining this to Tess, in the winter.
“That makes exactly zero sense to me,” she said. “What is this ‘something’?”
Tess and her sister stood under the biggest pavilion, out of the rain. Children sat on the cement floor watching ZeeZee the Clown’s magic show, previously planned for later in the afternoon but hastily rescheduled for now.
Her sister nudged her and pointed.
Tess turned: Christopher, motionless, out in the gusting downpour. Eyes closed, several yards away from the roof edge, thunder rumbling above. “Oh good God,” Tess said. She looked back at the children; they were transfixed by ZeeZee—even her eldest, who sat cross-legged with one of the twins in her lap. Dennis leaned against the far wall and Tess saw him glance out at Christopher and then turn, with concern, toward her.
Wonderful. She would have to go out there and drag her spouse to safety. Was he being intentionally odd? Did he want to be hit by lightning? She would talk to him tonight about dose adjustment. She and her sister watched Christopher a moment longer, and in that moment Tess saw her past, present, and future as one repeating loop. “Will I forever be pulling this exact same man out of this exact same rain?”
Her sister, wisely, did not respond.
Tess walked to the patio edge. “Christopher!” He turned, surprised, and sloshed over. He looked tired. He was so much older than he used to be. She was struck with a bizarre, frankly irritating, jolt of pure affection for him. “What the hell were you doing out there?” Her voice not as fierce as she hoped.
“I was soaked anyway.”
“Well.” Tess sighed. “Our stuff is in the corner. There’s a beach towel in the green tote.”
The storm passed, the sun reemerged, heat returned immediately—muggier, steam rising from the puddled asphalt, mud splashing up on bare ankles as children chased one another into the grass. Most of the family ran off to collect little plastic prizes at the carnival games—except for the boy, who remained hovering, hesitant, a few yards away from the magician clown as she packed up.
Tess approached. “Do you mind if my son looks at your equipment? He’s very interested in magic.”
“Sure, come on over,” ZeeZee said. “Happy to share my secrets.”
“This certainly must be a fun job,” Tess said to the costumed woman, trying to be polite, as the boy examined rainbow scarves and nesting mirrored boxes.
“Something to do in my retirement is all,” ZeeZee replied. “Keeps me busy.” Her flame-red curly wig shifted, a tuft of gray emerging above her ear. “You know, get out of the house once in a while, get off the couch. Just yesterday I went over to the Y, signed up for—”
“Do you ever think to yourself: I give up?” Tess asked abruptly.
ZeeZee squinted her smeary makeup-ringed eyes and cocked her head to the side. The wig shifted further. “Give up what?” Her real mouth frowned, even as her painted mouth remained a wide grin. She sat down on a folding chair and began removing her enormous scuffed black clown shoes.
“Alakazam!” Tess’s son said. He waved a glittering wand.
ZeeZee pretended to be startled, then looked at him fondly. “I remember when my boy was his age,” she said. “They grow up fast, don’t they? And then we’re too old to do them any good. It’ll happen before you know it.”
I’m still pretty young, Tess thought. She looked at ZeeZee’s bare feet uneasily.
“You’re pretty young,” ZeeZee continued, as if she’d read her mind. “But time speeds up. You gotta be ready. You need interests, hobbies. You got any hobbies?”
“Not really. Just work and family,” Tess said. “And reading. Do books count?”
The boy tapped his mother’s shoulder with the wand. “A hobby is an actual activity, Mom.”
“Right!” ZeeZee exclaimed. “An activity! Exactly what I’m saying!”
The dinner line opened. Plates of smoked meat and rolls and overdressed salads, pie ladled into bowls. Tess’s sister said she was going to invite Dennis to sit with them. Tess’s head shake and glare did not deter her. Tess ate a roll and picked at her bowl of three-bean salad and tried to think of something professional to say. Who even knew what project she was working on these days? For better or worse, she’d learned to compartmentalize her career tightly into the hours she sat in her windowless office by the kitchen. Outside that room, the detachment she felt from her job was almost amnesia-like in its remove. She took a deep breath and spoke cheerfully down-table to Dennis. “How’s the Drammond account going on your end?”
He looked at her.
“I mean the Dermott account, of course,” she said. But Tess’s sister deftly shut down the conversation before it could begin, pulling Dennis into her orbit.
Christopher and the kids swatted bugs and chewed.
With no warning, one of the twins erupted into a violent tantrum. Screams, flailing, a plate of food hurled onto the ground. “What? What is it? What’s wrong?” Tess’s sister, panicked and flustered, searched for wasp stings or splinter wounds as the wails escalated. Then the second twin joined in and it became clear: Nothing was wrong, everything was wrong. This was a standard late-afternoon meltdown, curable only by swift exit. Tess’s sister gathered the overtired, overheated, writhing children, and in five minutes they were gone.
Tess, Christopher, Dennis, and the three children. They ate, calm in the wake of the twins’ departure. At the end of the table, Christopher lifted his younger daughter’s left arm and examined it for a full minute, while the girl, unaffected, continued to take bites of a burger in her right hand. Sweat glazed both father and daughter’s hairlines. Tess watched her husband but didn’t comment. She glanced at her boss, diagonal across the table, who was also eating a burger and also sweating and also watching Christopher stare at the small arm. The middle child moved on to her pie, left hand still unavailable. She smiled up at her mother. “Oh Mom, this pie is delicious. Want a bite?”
The softball game started and Christopher and the kids left to watch. Dennis stood, and Tess thought he was leaving, but he walked around and sat on the bench next to her. They turned to face the playing field in the distance, their backs against the table.
“How have you been?” he asked.
How have you been. How does one answer such a question? My life partner is no longer employed and may or may not be recovering from a nervous breakdown. The sun lower in the sky and easing. Cheers from the field. Summer-soundtrack music drifting from the pavilions. The shadowed tree line, the expanse of green. The dragon bounce house deflating, being pawed by orange-shirted figures who were putting the creature away for the night. I’m not capable of answering that question at this time, Tess thought. The ground: patchy. Damp red dirt and grass thick with weeds.
Tess shifted her foot and carefully lined up the right side of her right sneaker against the left side of his left sneaker, so the toes were exactly even and the soles just barely grazed each other. Dennis looked down. Tess was aware that this was inappropriate shoe contact—likely quite uncomfortable for Dennis. They should’ve been discussing the Dermott account. But she did not move her foot. Dennis glanced from side to side, hoping no one else was witnessing this awkward moment. He thought of Tess’s role as one of his most reliable and productive employees, and he thought of the sad strangeness of her husband in the rain that afternoon. He did not move his foot.
Within this sliver of touch they sat without speaking. Tess, from behind her sunglasses, scanned the horizon.
The company picnic was over. The family came together, formed a group, a ragged unit, and made their way out of the gates through the field to the car. Sticky and dazed. Heatworn. The doors opened, they fell in together, collapsing into the staleness, into the oven-hot belly of the family vehicle. The windows descended, they gasped for air. Tess drove. At first, they said nothing, all immersed in their individual separate lives, reflecting on the hours elapsed, on the hours still to come. Then the boy, strapped into the middle of the backseat as assigned, saw the numbers on the dashboard clock—7:06.
A memory. His birthday in late January, his mother on the edge of his bed in the dim room, his two nightlights aglow and his two stuffed gorillas against his chest. His mother saying goodnight, telling him once again the story of his birth. All the drama and elation of his arrival in this world, her gratitude, her wanting him to be happy and healthy and so on, and he loved the sound of her voice but felt himself only half-listening, lulled, fading into sleep, until she concluded her monologue with a bit of factual data: His official birth time was 7:06 p.m. “So that means,” the boy said, opening his eyes, “that every day at 7:06, I’ll be a day older.” His mother pressed her damp face against his cheek.
“I’m a day older,” he now announced to his family in the car. “It’s 7:06. I’m exactly one day closer to turning nine.” Oh how he longed to be nine.
His eldest sister, on his right, patted his leg absently, gazing out the window, thinking about the boys at the sno-cone stand and wondering how much longer her hair might be by next year’s picnic, how much taller she would be, the prospect of these mysterious changes. The boy’s parents were quiet, Tess navigating through the mass of cars and Christopher examining a constellation of mosquito bites on his leg.
But the middle child heard him. And although she was ten, certainly old enough to understand the basic principles of age and birth order, she felt a familiar uneasiness at her brother’s statement, a twinge of panic, an illogical but real worry she’d harbored for years that someday her brother might, in fact, catch up with her in age. If she no longer had that—her status as his older sibling—what would she have? Sometimes this felt like her only possession, her only talent. The fact that she was not the youngest.
“Whatever,” she muttered, looking out at the summer evening. “It’s only one day.”