The pot lids hopped and fizzed when Mark’s mother laid the wooden spoon down calmly, opened the back door of the kitchen, disappeared into the overgrown garden, and drowned herself in the river that flowed past their house.
Mark figured out what happened an hour later, as he scraped potatoes from the blackened scab at the bottom of the pot, when she sloshed back into the room. She didn’t blink. Pools of water shimmered over her open, staring eyes. Her short hair plastered to her skull in thick tendrils; a curl of fern clung to one dull, grey cheek.
Mark gripped the plastic spatula harder. “You all right, Mum?”
She turned to him, and opened her mouth to speak. Bubbles of air emerged from the river water that was contained, as if by a force field, behind her teeth.
“Yes love,” bubbles burst, and her words emerged with a slight pop. “I needed some air.” She stopped, her flaccid face showed no emotion, but foam churned at her lips and released shrill, staccato laughter.
Mark edged back to the hallway. Behind him sounded the brusque clatter of Dad’s keys against the front door. Mum picked up the pot, walked with it to the counter, and scoured charred mush onto three plates. Dad dropped his suitcase by the stairs, and sniffed in a dramatic fashion as he strolled to the kitchen.
“Did you burn dinner again, Liz?” he asked, and slouched against the doorway. “Hardly a homecoming treat.” She shook her head slowly, her water-full face bent to her task. Thick beads slipped down her hair and splashed onto the plates.
Dad glanced at Mark, and frowned. “Put that down,” he said. Mark stared at the crooked spatula in his white-knuckled grip, and twitched a refusal. His father reached over, tugged it from Mark’s hand, and walked to Mum. He tossed the spatula into the sink and laid his hand upon Mum’s damp shoulder. Mark shuddered.
“I’m not hungry,” Mark said.
Dad tasted the mash. He winced. “I don’t blame you.” Absentmindedly, he rubbed the small of Mum’s back. A little frog jumped from under her cardigan, and flopped onto his arm. It winked its gold eyes at Mark, and climbed Dad’s suit sleeve like it would a tree branch.
Mark pointed. “Your arm!” The frog settled on Dad’s shoulder, and nestled under his earlobe. It lifted its head, and stared at Dad’s open ear.
Dad looked down. “What?”
Mark felt as if the air was made of water, and he was suspended, breathless, unable to swim.
Mum handed Dad his plate of crusted mash, withered lamp chop and sodden vegetables, and they sat at the table. “Don’t you have homework to do?” Dad asked, and he laid his hand upon Mum’s limp fingers, and squeezed.
He leaned forward and kissed her, and the river gushed into Dad and filled him up. His fingers trembled a shivery beat against the tabletop.
They separated, and raised their watery eyes to regard Mark. Their moist ashen lips stretched, and crescents of silver water gleamed.
Bubbles boiled in Dad’s mouth. “What’s wrong?”
Mark bolted from the room, gulping for air.