Behind the Red Door - Megan Collins


Now that it’s summer, it’s not my job to protect the children. I have finished the follow-ups on the girl who submitted a suicide note for her English essay. I have closed the file on the boy who came to school with rope burns on his neck. The suicide note was written with pink Magic Marker. The burns were from a jump rope that the teenage stepbrother wrapped around the boy like a scarf, just before he squeezed.

The children don’t stop needing protection, but every job has a contract, and mine stipulates that from June to September, I am to forget everything I’ve witnessed, to not think of what else that girl might be writing, how else that boy might be marked. I am to relax on the couch in our Kendall Square loft and sip the chardonnay that Eric has handed me. I am to scroll through my phone while my husband cooks our dinner and the news drones on in the background.

I should be doing my homework. Fresh off an appointment with Dr. Lockwood, I’ve been told to make a list of anxiety triggers. She thinks if I get them down on paper, I’ll get them out of my head. But on paper, the words growl at me, take on body and breath. Our upstairs neighbors’ footsteps. My recurring nightmare. The guy on the T who coughed without covering his mouth. I filled up a third of the page before I had to throw the list away, my throat tight.

I don’t think my new prescription is working.

“Do you want tomatoes in this?” Eric asks, but I’m looking at a Facebook post from one of my colleagues, the other social worker with whom I share an office. She’s smiling on the beach, her skin glowing, and I’m wincing at the burn I’m sure she’ll get.

“Fern?” Eric says. “Tomatoes?”

I look up. He’s wearing the stethoscope apron I bought him. It was supposed to be cute and stupid and funny, but from here, it looks like a snake is slithering along his chest.

“Whatever you want,” I answer.

“No, whatever you want. This could be your last real meal for days. With Ted, it’ll just be takeout and frozen dinners.”

“I think I saw him cook some rice once.”

“Was it instant?”

“Might’ve been.”

Eric pinches his lips together, then nods. “We’ll do tomatoes.”

He’s always like this. Indignant about my parents. When you have a mother and father like he does—who leaned across the dinner table to kiss each other, who took Eric and his four siblings to Disney World every summer, who treated each of their kids’ birthdays like a national holiday—it’s hard to feel warm toward parents like Ted and Mara.

He doesn’t think I should go to New Hampshire tomorrow. Ever since Ted called me last week asking for my help in packing up the house, Eric’s been in a mood. He thinks I’m too kind to my father, too “How high?” when he says “Jump”—and he’s sometimes right. But when it comes to Ted, there are certain things I can’t say no to.

After a few minutes, Eric turns off the stove, plates our meals, and brings over two steaming dishes of pasta. During the school year, we eat at the table so I can shovel food into my mouth while writing case reports on my laptop. But it’s summer now and I’m not allowed to bring my work home with me anymore, so we eat in front of the TV, perched on the edge of the couch.

Eric loves to watch the news, so we’re watching the local news. It’s our trade-off for him doing the cooking. When I cook, we watch game shows. I find the rhythm of them soothing. The rules are laid out right at the beginning. Somebody always wins. When Eric cooks, I play it cool so he can have what he wants, but truthfully, I prefer to avoid the news. I don’t need more things to add to my list. E. coli outbreak. Carjackings. A rare disease that killed a woman my age. If I tell Eric I’m convinced I’ll develop this same disease, I know what he’ll say: You will not. It’s extremely rare. As a doctor, the word rare means something different to him than it does to me. To me, it means “possible.”

“Oh, this is crazy. Have you heard about this?” Eric increases the volume on the TV. I look up from my pasta to see a picture of a woman on the screen. Next they show footage