Melinda stopped short of turning off the engine. Holding her breath, she listened to the reporter wrap up the radio announcement. The dulcet tones relaying the FCC warning faded into tinny transitional music promising the forthcoming interview with a biologist and his discovery of some new subtropical species of butterfly.
Before the lepidopterology segment began, Melinda flicked the key lodged in the ignition, silencing the sedan’s rumbling and inquisitive interviewer. A check on her watch showed the hands nearing eight.
“Don’t be on time tonight,” she whispered.
The reporter’s words, the near right angle on the watch face and the thought of splashing water and another nighttime of wails quickened her pulse.
Hustling her purse and briefcase from the passenger seat, Melinda slipped behind the wheel and into the humid night. She didn’t feel the clinging air, however, and her heels rounded the bumper and mounted the porch stairs on instinct. Jabbing the front door’s key into the lock, she hurried inside.
The gush of water leapt from her worries and filled the hallway, undercut by Ted’s humming and a round of giggles. Dumping her briefcase and purse, Melinda trotted down the corridor, homing in on the bathroom’s gurgle. She flung the door open without slowing.
Ted glanced over his shoulder while Vicki slapped at the bathwater. Her pudgy hands cast droplets onto his arms, bare in his faded souvenir tee-shirt from a concert back in ‘92, dampened his ruddy stubble and the bags beneath his weary eyes.
“Look who’s finally home, Vi,” said Ted.
Pivoting away, he scooped frothy water into a red plastic up and dribbled it over Vicki’s head. She tittered with glee and clapped her hands. When she swayed in the tub seat, he slipped one pale hand beneath her armpit like he might have a guitar’s neck and held her steady until she sat upright on her own.
Coming to his side, Melinda knelt, her a-line skirt stretching around her knees. “Have you used the shampoo?”
Ted scooped another cupful of bathwater. “Mommy doesn’t know our schedule very well does she?”
Melinda hugged her arms around herself, her body feeling small, empty and surprisingly fragile.
“Ted,” she whispered. “Please.” She swallowed the sudden warble in her voice.
He glanced over, the severity in his square-jawed features ebbing. “I was about to.”
Spying the honey yellow bottle, Melinda plucked it from the tub’s rim and skimmed the ingredients. The third on the list made her shudder. She snapped closed the lid and cradled the bottle in her hands.
“I’m going to need that,” said Ted.
“I heard a warning on my way home.” She twisted the label into his view, her thumb beneath the multisyllabic threat. “The FCC believes it’s causing sleep disorders in infants and toddlers.”
The nights of Vicki’s shrieks, her seemingly endless crying, Ted’s rolls in and out of bed, his promenades around the living room’s coffee table or his circuitous route from kitchen to front door and back humming every tune in his arsenal seemed to coat the bathroom’s tiles.
“You think that’s the problem?”
Melinda shrugged. “Isn’t it worth a try?”
“I’ve tried everything else.”
He swiveled to Vicki. She’d quieted, for once, and seemed to be following their conversation, blue eyes wide as teacups.
“We’re going to do something different tonight, Vi,” said Ted, his tenor softening.
“What do you want to use?”
“How about your old body wash?”
From across the tub Melinda fetched the sage bottle within a ring of film and perused the ingredients, comparing the list to the toxic one. “It’s not listed.”
“Then let’s try it.”
“Do you think it’s safe?”
“Does it have anything the other doesn’t?”
She checked again. “No.”
“I bet it’ll be fine.” Ted took the bottle and popped the cap with his thumb. “I like’d how it smelled anyway.”
Melinda stared at the puddle of pale-green he poured into his palm, the smell of ginger and orange wafting up like steam.
“Yeah.” He scrubbed his hands together, frothing bubbles. “It made Mommy’s skin feel soft too,” he said, massaging the foam into Vicki’s scalp.
Melinda leaned against the sink’s pedestal, the rough patches on her elbows and knees scratching the silken coating of her business jacket and pantyhose. While Ted resumed one of his songs, she floated on the gentle rhythm and body wash’s aroma, each punctuated by Vicki’s splashes; a wet but approving applause.
The clapping, shouts, roars and hoots he’d had in black box theaters and larger auditoriums seemed to echo their daughter’s ovation, a distant memory of months long past. The spice and citrus scents replaced the haze of cigarettes and alcohol, and the jacket and skirt cinched around her deflated body traded for tactfully ragged jeans and the crimson halter top he been able to spot through the crowd.
Not anymore, thought Melinda.
Rising, she collected a fluffy bathrobe from the hook behind the door and laid the feathery terrycloth against her cheek.
“All done,” said Ted, rinsing the final bubbles from Vicki’s downy head.
He tugged the towel draped on the rod at his right, wrapped it snug around Vicki’s naked body and hefted her from the inch deep pool. Rocking her lightly in his arms, he turned and paused.
Melinda met his gaze and offered the robe’s open arms. She held her breath again while considerations passed behind his cobalt gaze.
“Look what Mommy has,” whispered Ted.
Vicki pointed a stubby finger and he stepped forward so Melinda could thread on the canary sleeves and slip off the towel. She hung it back on the rod while they exited, Ted’s nighttime humming quieting in their trek down the hall to his once-studio.
Unplugging the tub’s drain, she let the water seep away and tidied up the bathroom, mopping up the puddles and drips and dumping the possibly toxic shampoo into the trash. Once in order, she flicked the light switch and headed for the living room.
The darkness welcomed her, and she slipped out of her heels and dropped onto the couch. Turning on the baby monitor, she curled her feet up under her and hugged one of the paisley pillows, resting her chin on the corded edge.
As if from another planet, the monitor transmitted Ted’s gentle cooing and the bedtime rustling in Vicki’s room. Burbles mixed with the soft swoosh of the ambient noise maker mimicking the heartbeat Melinda felt thudding against her ribs. She listened while Ted whispered through a book about caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies, and then the wooden floor creaked and the door hinges groaned, each announcing his sneaking departure.
But where are you going? she wondered.
Melinda clutched the pillow close, and clasped tighter when Ted’s silhouette appeared in the doorframe. She didn’t move for fear of scaring him off or disturbing Vicki’s tenuous quiet. In the passing seconds, he drifted near and took the cushion by her side.
Eyeing the monitor, Melinda stopped counting when she reached triple digits. Vicki’s shifts here and there over road the fake heartbeat, but nothing more broke the stillness. The silence seemed to stretch, however, leaving other problems in their wake.
“Sorry I was so late again,” she whispered.
“No,” whispered Ted, “sounds like it was good you were at the office.”
He reached out, his hand finding her knee below the skirt’s hem. “No, it was good. It is good.”
Exhaling a long breath failed to release the tension in her shoulders and Melinda snuggled deeper into the pillow.
“This wasn’t how I thought it was going to turn out.”
“They needed you.”
“I know but—”
She stiffened when Ted caressed her thigh, his fingers pruned and tinged with an orange and ginger tang. A slow smile curled his lips, one she couldn’t remember seeing since they’d come home from the hospital.
“We’ll figure it out,” he whispered.
She stared at him in the dark, the shadows deepening his voice and the lines on his face. “You think so?”
“Yeah.” He caught her gaze and moonlight gleamed in his eye. “We will. One FCC warning at a time.”