by Sara Kachelman
It is chicken casserole they are going to have for dinner and the mother has changed out of her pantsuit and put on her YMCA t-shirt with the black baseball man on it, this over a pair of lifeless cotton shorts. The father has been home for an hour and is watching the news while the daughter looks at friends on the computer.
The mother pulls out a pot and a baking dish and begins shredding the chicken she has boiled and refrigerated the night before. She scavenges the bone with wet fingers. The surgical light scours the sink as she separates flesh from meat, meat from bone. She pushes her hair back with her forearm. She humphs.
"Another hard day?" asks the father. A commercial blinks on and off. A vibrating brush pulses the smiling bacteria from a set of teeth. "Say, what happened?" he asks again.
"Nothing," says the mother. "Just that baby, still," she says, "it's got everyone upset."
The father is about to ask something but is distracted by the reappearance of the newscaster with the strikingly sideways face. Coal miners emerge from a collapse, dark skin, some other country. The program switches to a politics expert with predictions of the new election, and the father puts the television on mute. "Still alive?" he finally asks.
"Still alive, and it won't die either," she says. "They've got it hooked up."
The mother is now chopping onions for the casserole, and her tears fall quietly onto the cutting board.
"Three months old. Child and Family Services are going down to Lexington to sit with it in twelve hour shifts," she says. "Ward of the State."
The daughter gets up from the computer and walks into the kitchen. She observes her mother's tears and the onion, finely minced.
"Hey mom," she says, chewing on a raspberry. "There's a spider in the bathroom."
The mother rips off a paper towel and goes on the hunt. She blows her nose loudly in the bathroom and the daughter hears a dull thud against the tile. The mother reenters the kitchen and pulls the trashcan out of the cabinet and drops the paper towel in and closes the apparatus with her hip. She bends down to the lazy Susan to get out the Cream of Mushroom for the casserole.
The mother's nose is gone. She is now trying to open the can of soup. Her shoulders hunch over as she strains. The daughter offers to try but her mother shakes her head, eyebrows screwed up in the middle.
"You mean to tell me they got a three month old baby hooked up and there's no chance?" asks the father in the next muted commercial break.
Grimacing over the can, the mother's mouth droops down the right side of her chin.
"It opens its eyes sometimes, but they say it's automatic movement, it's like clockwork, she's brain-dead," says the mother.
"Can't unplug it?"
"The state doesn't have full custody yet," she says. "We're waiting."
"Twelve hour shifts, huh," says the father to himself. The mother pops the lid off of the can and one of her ears jumps to the floor. She kicks it under the oven.
"What hours?" he asks.
"What hours are the shifts?"
"What does that matter? Four to four," says the mother. She pours the soup onto the chicken with the onions and remembers to cut up some garlic. She opens up the spice cabinet and reaches for it.
"Four to four? That's a bad shift. They should do seven to seven, or six to six, like we do at the plant," says the father.
"Something to do with traffic," says the mother.
The woman's shoulder breaks like a hinge and the right arm swings back lifelessly with the garlic. Using her other arm, she cuts off her right hand, dices it up with the garlic, and puts it in the casserole. She breaks off her right arm and puts it gingerly in the crisper drawer with the celery.
"Here," says the daughter, pulling up a chair. Her mother's knee was beginning to bend at a strange angle.
"You forgot the crackers," says the mother. "That's the best part."
"I'll do it." The daughter smashes up Ritz crackers and scatters them over the top. She pushes her mother's pinkie finger down into the gloop. She finds a heart and nipple, too, which surprise her, but nevertheless she puts the dish in the oven.
"I need new underwear, sometime this week," the daughter mentions.
"I can't do it tonight," says the mother, her left eye and eyebrow dribbling down her cheek.
"Sometime this week," the daughter says.
"Well, are you ever going to tell us what happened to it?" asks the father, heaving himself up from the chair and going through the mail on the kitchen counter. He looks at the mother with his eyebrows up, the prosecutor.
"Financial doesn't get to know what happens," the mother sighs. "We just hear the other workers carrying on." She brushes her hair back and her hand comes away with an ear in it.
"Damn," she whispers.
The family looks at each other quietly. The mother's eye has fallen into her lap. She is looking for it with her other eye. The daughter begins to nimbly set the table, her young hips nudging the dining chairs. The father sits down with the bills.
"Utility's gone up," he says, picking at his teeth. "Hot tub's not worth it," he says, "for how much we use it." His wife's spine crumples in the chair. She slumps.
When the timer goes off, the daughter takes the casserole, golden brown, out of the oven and puts it on the table. She moves her mother and the chair up to the place setting. The father bows his head and says the blessing, the same blessing he has always said, and the mother and daughter wait for him to finish.
Our father, we thank thee for this meal, and the nourishment that it may give to our bodies. God bless the hands that prepared it, as we use our bodies to further the teaching of our lord and savior Jesus Christ, amen.
The family looks up, blinks. The mother folds her napkin across her disjointed lap, over the eyeball and a breast, and says: "The mother's girlfriend threw it against the wall. The mother's girlfriend, lesbian, grabbed it up and threw it against the wall. They left together. They're over in Searcy." The mother's mouth flattens its lips somewhere on the back of her neck. The family looks down at the clean plates, the glasses clinking their clear ice. The father and daughter find that they are very hungry. They gather up forkfuls of the steaming chicken, steaming Ritz fingers and heart, and swallow like things starved.
Sara Kachelman is from Florence, Alabama. She studies English at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where she serves as editor-in-chief of the student literary journal. She has published poetry in Cactus Heart. This is her first national fiction publication.