Table lamp, silver, with linen shade. 40-watt bulb, soft white:
What his sister tells him is that she needs someone to watch the kids while she picks up Mom from the hospital. Did he really think she was going to handle this all alone? If he wants to help out for once, she says, he’ll tell Jessica the situation and get on the road. Like, now. He tells his sister he’ll tell Jessica, but the truth is that Jessica hasn’t shared his bed for months; she sleeps in the master bedroom, while he sleeps in the guest room, where they’ve relegated most of their least-loved furniture. Like this lamp, a leftover from Jessica’s graduate school days. He observes its shade, his eyes adjusting to the light, and tells his sister he’s on his way.
Ceiling fixture, kitchen, brushed nickel, 4-bulb:
It’s just like her brother to sleep through a night like this, the sister thinks, with Dad in the hospital and Mom at the end of her rope. That’s why she’s moved back home, so she can help Mom deal with everything, while her brother is off in his own little world, like usual. She sits at the kitchen table and writes a list of things he can make the kids for breakfast, in the event that she and Mom aren’t back in time. Outside, it is dark. She can see herself reflected in the sliding glass doors, haloed by the kitchen light.
Car headlights, sealed beam bulbs, clear, halogen, 35 watts:
If his sister would ever listen to him, he thinks, as he drives the backroads to his parents’ house, she might pick up on the fact that his marriage is falling apart. How can she not tell? But, then again, how could she, when she’s so wrapped up in Dad’s health problems, in Mom’s fears and worries, in addition to raising two kids as a single mom. Still, to act like he’s letting everyone down, when he’s the one driving thirty miles in the middle of the night to watch her kids. Someone should make him a cape, he thinks, then realizes he’s actually just said this aloud, to the steering wheel, to the radio, to the front windshield, where the headlights offer up the occasional deer, watching from the shoulder of the road.
Nightlight, upstairs hallway, Snoopy-themed:
She doesn’t think the kids will wake this late at night, but you never know. The nightlight is from her childhood, probably an electrical hazard of some kind or another. Still, it works. That old doghouse. That familiar glow.
iPhone 8, 4.7-inch screen display, brightness: medium:
When he gets Jessica’s text—where r u?—he can’t exactly respond to it in detail. He holds the phone at steering wheel level and manages to text Becca called. Driving. Parents’ house. He thinks about adding more, but what else is there to say? A car, approaching in the distance, switches its high beams off.
Parking lot lights, LED, 80-watt, occasional flickering:
Hard to believe, but she still has to search for a parking place in the hospital lot, even at this time of night. Day, she should say. Early morning. Either way, she’s got to hold it together for Mom, who is not terribly great at holding it together, which only upsets Dad even more, as she’s reminded Mom a thousand times. She rehearses the look she will turn on Mom when Mom turns a look on her that says, Who is it that can tell me how to be? She is good at this look, has used it several times in the past few days, whenever Dad’s health plays keep-away with them. Walking across the lot, she thinks she hears cicadas in the trees, then realizes it’s the lights, thrumming, clearing their radiant throats.
Porch light, 3-bulb, black finish, steel frame:
She’s left the key under the mat, foolishly, but it’s probably OK at this time of night, he figures. The lock resists the key at first, and he wonders why Dad hasn’t gotten around to loosening the lock with graphite, the way he always did, and then it hits him that he’s grown now, and his marriage is over, and Dad is probably dying, and what does the door lock matter now?
Fluorescent light, 32-watt, 2-light, single cord:
Mom’s look is all she needs to know. She goes to her, and then to Dad, whose eyes are closed in the unflattering light.
6-inch mounted hallway light, bronze finish:
From the front hallway he can see into the kitchen, where someone has left the overhead light on, and where can barely glimpse a note on the kitchen table, pinned beneath a ballpoint pen. In his sister’s scrupulous script, no doubt. He closes the front door behind him, locks it, quietly. And that’s when he hears the kids at the top of the stairs.
Lighted keypad, Trimline phone, white, wall-mounted:
Between sobs, his sister tells him the news. He says, Oh no. Says, How’s Mom? Says, Oh no. Says, I will. Says, Actually, they’re already up.
Ceiling fixture, kitchen, brushed nickel, 4-bulb:
Why is he here? Who is on the phone? Where is their mommy? Why is he crying? To these questions, he has an answer, and that answer is: he reads the note, then takes a bowl from the cabinet, grabs flour, baking powder and oil from the pantry, and milk and eggs from the fridge. He’s here to make them breakfast, he tells them. What else? The kids give him sleepy, skeptical looks at first, but then he finds the chocolate chips and their faces light up.
Anthony Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines (U of Iowa Press), as well as four short story collections. New work is out or forthcoming in The New Yorker “Daily Shouts,” One Story, DIAGRAM, New Letters, X-R-A-Y, Moon City Review, and The Best Small Fictions 2020.