My mother is building a ladder. She says she needs to change the bulb in the hallway, the one she has asked my father to change only a dozen times. I stand in the doorway of the garage and listen to her banging and swearing, the thundering bellow of her voice shaking the doorframe.
My father’s hammer looks awkward in her hands, but how hard can it be, she mutters through the nails in her teeth. My fingers clench every time she slams the hammer down.
Pay attention, Mavis. Slam.
Don’t rely on any man. Slam.
Your god damn father. Slam.
When she finishes, she leans it against the wall and stands back, wiping her dusty hands on my father’s coveralls. It leans at a sad angle and one of the rungs looks as if it will break if anyone bigger than a child steps on it. I test that theory after she goes to bed, dragging the ladder into the kitchen and using it to climb to the top cupboards where my mom keeps her stash of chocolate and other junk food.
Should have used screws, my Uncle Carl says when he sees it for the first time. Might have sanded it a bit. He gives it a little wiggle and winks at me. Wouldn’t catch me on that thing, he says, the corner of his mouth twitching.
Before my mother built the ladder, my father used to do all the building in our house. He’d call me into the garage. Look at this, Mavis, he’d say, his hands drifting down the back of my legs. Look at this, he told me every Saturday until one day he wasn’t there, and my mom started using his tools.
He ran off, my mother tells Uncle Carl after she builds a flowerbed in the backyard, a big one, and she digs and digs all night. In the morning, we plant flowers in it. Daffodils, she says, because your father hated them.
The feminist agenda, Uncle Carl jokes one day when my mother is struggling to replace the rotted floorboards in the downstairs bathroom, the ones she begged my father to do after the tub began separating from the tile. My mother launches a measuring tape at Uncle Carl so hard it leaves a bloody scrape on his forehead.
Uncle Carl stays away for a long time, and while he’s gone, my mother builds a bookshelf and a lopsided nightstand for next to my bed. Get the drill, she tells me. Your father could do this. So can I.
She spends more time making furniture and fixing things than she does sleeping or cooking. After a while, I can’t hear her voice without the drone of tools over it, a super-imposed soundtrack of hammers, planners, and tile saws. I use the ladder to pull pots and pans and dishes, too, down from the top cupboards. They spread across the counter where I can reach them, rows and piles of kitchen stuff. I cook for us, my mother and I, and she eats whatever I make as long as I bring it to the garage.
My mother cuts her pinkie and almost bleeds to death on the garage floor. When I call the ambulance, they tell me to wrap it and apply pressure. Uncle Carl picks us up at the hospital; he glares at my mother and cooks me noodles and sauce in one of the pans from the counter.
We’re the only family we have, Mavis, he says more than once, pulling me in for a tight squeeze, his breath hot on the side of my face. It’s true, my mother and I don’t have anyone else because my father’s parents are dead, and my mother’s mom moved to Panama with her yoga instructor and never came back.
My mother sees Uncle Carl’s hand cupping the back of my leg and lets out a wail like a banshee. I run from the room, their yells behind me. In the backyard, I drag my mother’s ladder to the big tree in the back. Skipping the worst rung to avoid wood splinters stabbing my bare feet, I scale the ladder and perch in my tree fort, the one my mom and I built. I sit still in the very centre, careful not to move near the uneven edges that groan and creak when I get too close.
Hospital, Uncle Carl’s voice carries through the yard, and you need help, I think he says.
Leave us alone, my mother screams, and I clasp my hands over my ears, terrified of both the thought of losing her and the thought of living with her another moment.
Carl comes over more and more often and after my mother sets fire to the garage and the fire department must come put it out, Uncle Carl shows up with a suitcase and vows to stay. For your own good, he tells my mother. You and Mavis need a man in the house.
I run to my treehouse, forgetting to skip the bad rung. I’m too frightened to scream when the splintered wood stabs my foot, though I lose my grip and crash to the ground. I can’t catch my breath enough to call for help so I lay on the grass flat on my back. I stare at the sky until my mother appears over me, beautiful and terrible. She bundles me into her arms and puts me to bed. And whispering, she tells me, Carl wants to take you away, but I’ll protect you.
That night, my mother digs and digs in our backyard. She stays up all night building another flower bed, a big one about the size of a man. And Uncle Carl doesn’t come back, but in the spring, my mother and I plant flowers in both raised beds and every year, the daffodils come up bigger and brighter.
Finnian Burnett teaches undergrad English and creative writing. They’ve published in the Bath Flash Fiction Award Anthology, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, National Flash Fiction Day, and more. In their spare time, Finnian Burnett watches a lot of Star Trek and takes their cat for long walks in a stroller. Finn lives in British Columbia, Canada, with their wife and Lord Gordo, the cat. Finn can be found at www.finnburnett.com