Veronica answered the door. A man without sleeves stood there. She felt her right eye twitch involuntarily. She saw a large truck parked on the street behind him. “We’re here to . . .” he said. Veronica cut him off. “It’s Wednesday,” she said. “You’re working on the bathroom floor.” The man appeared to be choosing his words. “It’s ah Thursday, but we are working on the bathroom floor.” Veronica nodded, ignored a flurry of twitches in her eye, observed another man standing with him who did have sleeves, and kept nodding and did not open the door any further.
Eventually, the men entered the house. They did not mention the cold pot of oatmeal on the floor in the hallway, but they did seem to stare at it for a while. Slowly, though, Veronica felt a realization break through the stress. She grew aware that her three homeschooled children became docile and obedient with the men in the house.
“Go get the oatmeal out of the hallway,” she said to Tim. He did.
“Put on pants,” she said to Sara. Sara was clothed and in her right mind at once.
“Stop playing that,” she said to Lindsey. Lindsey abandoned her careful study of one line of Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood in an unending loop, closed the lid over the piano keys, got her math book, and started working practice problems
By the time Veronica turned her attention to the other two, all three of her children were working math problems. They did not bicker. They cleaned the kitchen in less than an hour. They sat in the living room discussing relations between Israel and Palestine without shouting.
This period of bliss continued for one week, until the work in the bathroom was complete. Veronica noticed that the twitch in her right eye was gone. Her hair seemed to have regained its luster. She witnessed herself having the thought, “I can even.”
On Monday of the next week, however, the twitch came back in full force. At one point, when she burst out crying after restarting a history lesson for the fifth time in an hour, the children had the audacity to laugh at her tears. She went to her bedroom, turned the children over to Satan, and locked the door. She watched six consecutive episodes of Fixer-Upper on her phone, and then sat in silence for nearly an hour. At the end of this period of reflection, she had a plan.
On Thursday, she let the children sleep in until 8:00 AM. They started breakfast.
“Oh,” she said. She peeked through the curtain over the sink, out the window. “They’re here.”
“Who’s here?” Tim said.
“Some men, doing some work in the garage,” she said. “I’ll go let them in.”
She went out to the garage. The children stuck their spoons into the rice pudding and took bites, and listened to the sound of the garage door opening, and men’s voices trading sentences with their mother’s. Veronica came back into the house, and the sound of tools began in the garage.
“What are they doing out there?”Sara said.
“They’re men from the city,” Veronica said, almost cutting Sara off. “They have to work on a sewer main that runs underneath our house. Someone reported some problem down there this week. The only way to get to it is through the garage, I guess. Finish eating, clean up, and start your math.”
The effect of the workers took instant hold on the children. They finished all of their schoolwork before lunch, and spent the early afternoon conducting a forensic analysis of the apparent controlled demolition of building 7.
Later, Veronica sat on the couch, reading the novelization of the 2006 film Failure to Launch. The children sat with her, reading novelizations of other films. Tim looked over at Sara.
“Did you feed Svetlana?” he said. Svetlana was their cat. Veronica’s head snapped up from the book.
“I’ll do it,” said Lindsey. She stood and stretched.
Veronica jumped to her feet.
“I have to go for a run,” she said. “The alarm on my phone just reminded me. I’ll be back in a bit.” She jammed on her shoes and ran out the door. The three children sat on the couch, staring at each other. Lindsey shrugged and opened the door to the garage.
A sheet hung down from the rafters, bisecting the garage. A bright light shone against the sheet, clearly showing the silhouettes of four hard-hatted figures engaged in various tasks. Spray paint on the sheet said, “Dust Sheet—for controlling concrete dust”. The workers didn’t seem to notice Lindsey, but kept at their tasks with admirable consistency. One of them seemed to roam in a continuous circle around the others. Lindsey assumed that he must be the foreman. She got the cat-food down and poured some into Svetlana’s bowl. The other children watched the workers for a moment and returned to their reading. Lindsey came inside, shut the door, and picked up the novelization of My Dinner with Andre.
In the garage, Veronica let go of the ropes she’d been pulling to move the three mannequins. She could barely contain her joy. She turned off the train set, and the looping train came to rest right at her feet. A life-size cutout of Matthew McConaughey from the multiplex marketing for 2008’s Fool’s Gold—taped to a wooden dowel that stuck up from the top of the engine—smiled at her.
Moving the mannequins from the basement to the garage had been the hardest part. Since the beginning of their marriage, Chet had never understood why they might ever need three mannequins, but she’d had a gut feeling for the past 16 years that they’d come in handy. And she was right. She smiled back at McConaughey. She could have it all. She could do anything.
She stepped over the cord that ran from the stereo, still playing audio of men working, to the outlet on the wall. She said a prayer to Kevin McCallister, patron saint of people who own several mannequins and need to fool their enemies. She snuck out to the street, ran as fast as she could to the front door, and entered the house panting—time to make dinner for her enemies.