The Morning House
By Kate Heartfield
“This B&B is frankly unacceptable,” Dad says. “I want to go home.”
Sylvia freezes, runs through all the things she shouldn’t say.
You are home, Dad.
No, don’t argue. Never argue. Rule number one. Don’t dismiss. Get into his world, because he can’t get into yours.
Don’t you remember? You bought this house before I was born. You and Mom.
Don’t mention Mom, for God’s sake. Maybe today he doesn’t know she’s dead.
I know you think it’s a bed and breakfast, but this is actually your house. We all live here, now. Me and Kayla and David and you, together. Remember, Dad? Remember? We moved in with you, in March, after the diagnosis. But this is still your house.
Geez, Dad had said that to her, once. Years ago. When she was eight. “This is still your house, Sylvia.” She’d been sitting down at the bottom of the sloping lawn, by the cast-iron arbour. Her butt was wet from the grass but she refused to come in. She was waiting for someone to come through that arbour and take her away to the Mirror House, where everything was the same, but better. In the Mirror House, Mom and Dad always got along. They weren’t getting a divorce. Sylvia didn’t have to stay in Vancouver. The Mirror House was her home. But the real house wasn’t. Not anymore. She was moving away with Mom.
Dad sat with her quietly for a long time — he was younger then, bigger. He sat in the wet grass and just let the silence stretch. At last, he said, “This is still your house, Sylvia.”
She shook her head. “Not this one.” She looked through the arbour, at the fence beyond.
“Ah.” A long pause. “The old story about the house that’s just like ours. Well, maybe there will be a special other house in Vancouver too.”
“It’s not imaginary. I’m not making it up.”
“I didn’t say you were, sweetheart.”
“Then why don’t you believe it exists?”
Dad pulled a blade of grass, thought for a while. It was getting dark. Time for dinner, with Mom and Dad, and everyone would be polite. Sylvia didn’t want dinner.
Finally, Dad said, “There’s this principle in science called Occam’s Razor. It basically means that when we ask whether something’s true, we try to work with what we already know. I already know that when I look through that arbour, I see a wooden fence. I know many other people also see a fence, right? So how can I explain that you see a house there?”
“I don’t see a house there. Only sometimes.”
“Right, OK. Well, I could imagine all kinds of reasons why there might be a house there sometimes, but I think the simplest explanation is that it’s a house that only you can see. Which doesn’t mean you’re making it up.”
She thought about this for a while. “What does it have to do with shaving?”
He was puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, ha, right. Well, it’s because you’re shaving away extra bits that you would need to assume for your theory to be true. Like my beard.” He put his hand to his face. “Needs a shave, actually. Want to feel?”
She put her hand to his stubble and smiled despite herself. It was very bristly.
They got on the plane the next day, her and Mom. There wasn’t a Mirror House in Vancouver. And when she came home for Christmas, there wasn’t a Mirror House in this one either. Dad was right about that. He was wrong about the other thing, though. It hadn’t ever felt like her house, ever again.
What does it mean for a house to feel like your house? She thought about it a lot, when she was a teenager, and out of synch with the world, and the very concept of home seemed alien, like something that happened to other people. Thought about it more lately, since she learned the word for Dad’s refusal to believe he was home. Reduplicative paramnesia. He might recognize the patterns, the shapes, the colours. Yes, that couch looks like my couch. Yes, I sit in this chair every night. But he doesn’t recognize the feeling. He’s sure the house is another place, because the bit in his brain that said “yes, I live here” is malfunctioning.
He gets the same thing with people, sometimes, too. The house is a copy, and Sylvia is an imposter. So far, that’s rare, and only happens on the worst evenings, when the sundowning goes deep down low. The feeling he’s supposed to have for his daughter is wrong, and he knows it, but he doesn’t know why.
And feelings don’t live in the heart after all. Turns out they live in the brain, where reason lives. And the razor can’t cut through itself.
Sharp is a word people use for Dad only now, in the dementia years, funnily enough. No one ever called him sharp when he was teaching, writing, inventing. They called him brilliant, maybe, but never sharp. But he was. He had a mind that could cut through anything. And he always accorded Sylvia the respect of being honest with her, even when she was eight years old.
People say that having a parent with dementia is like reversing the relationship, but that’s wrong. Dad’s not a child. And Sylvia’s not his parent. It’s something else. Something that sometimes looks like that. But it’s a new place that neither of them used to live in.
They’ve been through the conversation about the house, now, several hundred times. At first, six months ago, he looked puzzled, then smiled ruefully, accepted it. Pretended to accept it. Now he just gets angry that nobody believes him. No amount of evidence will convince him. And she can’t let him get angry, not now, so close to sunset, with Kayla in the next room, listening.
Be neutral, she reminds herself. Divert and distract. Be a politician. Be a telemarketer. Be a script.
I understand what you’re saying. That must be frustrating.
I’m sorry you feel that way.
Let’s look at some of your things together. Let’s look at your family photos. This is your chair, do you see your chair? Yes of course I know there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. No, you’re not a child. Yes, your head is very clear. You’re right. You have always been smarter than me. You’re right, Dad.
It’s too damn hard. She’s no good at it, and he sees through it. She’ll say she understands his frustration, he’ll demand to know why she hasn’t done anything to fix it, then. Why are we still here, Sylvia? Why are you ignoring me? Oh, don’t say you understand, you bitch — he never used that word, before, certainly not around his family. And Kayla’s in the next room.
Then there are the lies. She’s supposed to get comfortable with telling him lies, eventually. Everyone says she’ll find it’s the only way. But she can’t make her mouth do it.
You’re right, Dad. This B&B is no good. Tomorrow we’ll go home.
Should we go home now? Go for a little drive? You’ll recognize the front door when we get there, won’t you, Dad?
You’re right. This B&B is terrible. Too bad our house is being renovated. Fumigated. Burned down?
She’s frozen, and she just hasn’t said anything to him at all. A long silence.
“Uh huh,” she says, finally.
“Uh huh? What does that mean, uh huh?”
What does anything mean? They live in a surreal reality. A Dada reality. Ha. That’s clever. What a shitty, selfish, useless thing to be, at a time like this: clever. Cleverness has no value in her life now. Her days are filled now with doing, not thinking. She’s an actor who forgets her lines and a doer who doesn’t get enough done. The vestiges of her cleverness are irritating puns she thinks up and won’t tell anyone, not even David, because who the hell cares and it’s not funny.
“It means OK, Dad. OK? I hear what you’re saying. I’m sorry you don’t like it here.”
“Who would like it here? I don’t care how much you saved. Just get a hotel next time. It’s a terrible neighbourhood. It’s dangerous. You ought to know better.”
He’s looking out the window, now, and Sylvia follows his gaze. The neighbour, Mr. Morrison, is out watering his plants. Oh, shit.
“There,” Dad says in a hoarse whisper, ducking behind the curtain. “I told you. The plans have all been set in motion. Tonight they’re bringing in the guy at the top, I’d imagine. They’re going to kill me because I know all about their plans. Drug deals. Now you can see for yourself. But I forgive you, Sylvia. You just didn’t understand. It’s OK.”
Kayla’s standing in the door between the dining room and the kitchen.
“Hey, sweetie,” Sylvia says, heat rising up her chest, up her throat. It’s no coincidence that the Morrison family is Black. The old Dad, a liberal middle-class white man of a certain generation, would have been carefully friendly with them, made a point of saying what a nice family they were, sharing a beer with Mr. Morrison on Canada Day. New Dad is full-on racist. Maybe some of the racism came with the dementia, maybe it was all just unveiled by it, fed by it. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is his white four-year-old granddaughter sees it all and doesn’t miss anything. Sometimes Sylvia feels like she’s trying to catch harm in her fingers like water.
“Look!” Dad says, pointing, forgetting to hide. “I told you! A grey van!”
There are a lot of grey vans in the world. There’s actually no grey van there anyway. Yes, you’re right, it’s a grey van, which proves that Mr. Morrison the nice software developer across the street is involved in a vast conspiracy involving drug deals and silencing you, Dad, the only man who can take him down.
“Let’s go to the backyard,” Sylvia says, brightly. “Then they won’t see us, and we won’t see them. OK?”
Kayla runs out the French doors to the backyard happily, and Sylvia holds out her hand for Dad. He takes it, and looks at her, his eyes filled with terror. Get into his world, the social worker says. But his world is a horror movie. If she gets in, how does that help him get out?
“Come on, Dad.”
He walks beside her, steady on his feet today. She doesn’t say he should be using his walker. Save that fight for another day. They’re all out of fight at the moment.
Sylvia darts forward, grabs the bit of Lego off the dining room floor, sticks it in her jeans pocket.
“Kayla,” she says, coming out of the French doors into the sun and the grass, “We can’t leave Legos on the floor. Grandpa might trip. You know that, honey.”
Kayla’s already down at the bottom of the sloping green lawn, playing with her remote-control truck. She’s running it back and forth through the cast iron arbour stuck in the middle of the suburban yard, halfway between the peonies and the succulents. Sylvia must have been about the age Kayla is now when Mom bought that arbour. A few years before the divorce. She can’t remember when she first started pretending there was another house and family on the other side of it, one just like her own. But better. It was probably around the time she became aware of Mom and Dad’s fighting. Classic coping mechanism, really.
Sylvia gets Dad settled on a hard-backed chair. He’s happier out here. He’s always liked to sit in the sun, and he likes to watch Kayla playing. His granddaughter is the light of his world: a light so bright it shines all the way into his world and Sylvia’s, both at once.
Dad takes her arm. “I’m sorry, Sylvia.”
“It’s OK, Dad.”
“I didn’t want to tell you. About all the machinations. I didn’t want you to know, and be scared.”
He’s told her about it a dozen times, but Sylvia just says, “I know, Dad. It’s OK. You’re safe here. Nobody can get you, not here.”
You’re safe. It’s one of those pat expressions that he despises and sees right through. How could he possibly be safe when he is about to be executed by a drug gang? It is impossible, inconceivable, that he is not going to be executed by a drug gang. Once everything comes out, once the full story is known, then Sylvia will understand at last, but he forgives her. He’s told her, over and over, that he forgives her for his imminent murder. But she never seems to care. She sees all of this in his face, knows his thoughts just as she knows his sentences, by heart. He looks at her, brows knit, as if trying to understand what the hell is happening in her world. Then he nods, giving in, pulling on all his resources. She loves him so goddamn much. She’s tired, sure, but he’s living a nightmare, all the time, and he’s doing his best. She’s the one who has it easy, all things considered. Anger has hollowed her out. No, not anger. Exhaustion. Or maybe anger?
She feels numb, she feels like crying, and all she can do is pat his hand, and say, “Let me see what the girl is up to, down there.”
Walking down the grassy slope feels like childhood. It speeds her steps. The remote-control truck goes in and out of the arbour, under the arch.
“You know what, sweetie?” Sylvia asks, and doesn’t wait for an answer from her four-year-old, who is always listening. “When I was your age, I used to think this was a doorway to another world.”
“It is,” Kayla says. “The other lady comes through it.”
Sylvia stops, chilled. Kids say the creepiest things sometimes. But then she smiles. Like mother, like daughter.
“What other lady, sweetheart?”
“The one who looks like you.”
Sylvia grabs on to the thin metal bar of the arbour, which is somehow cold despite the beating sun. She looks down at her daughter. It’s been weeks since Dad had an episode of Capgras syndrome; lately the “other women” of Dad’s world, all of them Sylvia in this one, have been quiet or gone. Is Kayla mimicking her Grandpa’s delusions? Playing with the ideas she’s seen and heard? Maybe it’s healthy. It’s good to be open, right? For her to understand what’s going on? Maybe nothing is healthy. Maybe this was a horrible idea, all of them moving in together.
But what can change? When Sylvia lost her job right after the diagnosis, it seemed like the best thing to do. With the money they’re saving on day care for Kayla and the money they’d have to spend on nursing care or a memory ward for Dad, Sylvia going back to work would be a net drain on the family. She never trained to be a caregiver. She trained to be an architect, and a good one. But here she is at forty, halfway through her life, and she doesn’t see any pathway through to tomorrow.
David calls from just inside the house, saying hello, he’s home from work. He sounds tired. He offers to make dinner. Sylvia brings Dad in and gives him his pills. Another couple of hours until Dad sundowns. A bit of a breather, before that. She puts on Matlock for Dad and Kayla sprawls on the floor with a puzzle. Maybe Dad will get interested in the puzzle. Maybe everything will be OK. She can smell the tacos cooking.
Sylvia gives David a sideways hug, a peck on the cheek. Then she goes back outside. It’s a summer evening, the light less direct now, and pleasantly warm. Over the backyard fence just beyond the arbour that leads nowhere, the sounds and smells of barbecue and low chatter from a different set of neighbours — ones who don’t figure into Dad’s delusions, at least not yet.
Kayla’s remote-control truck is still there under the arbour. How old is a kid supposed to be before they stop leaving everything everywhere, and is the number different when said kid shares a house with an old man who’s fallen twice in the last month? It’s like a math problem, and it all adds up to bad parenting somehow, Sylvia’s sure.
She walks down the slope again, away from her house, walks through the arbour, and through it, and sees her own house, the lawn sloping up to it. A mirror image.
Sylvia whirls. Behind her, through the arbour, is the backyard fence. But she knows which way she walked. Doesn’t she?
Something is very wrong. Not just the direction. Everything. The light. The temperature. The sounds — birdsong, no barbecuing.
Oh goddamn it, there might be a genetic component, or an exposure to pesticide; she grew up in this house, the same house Dad lived in all those years, who knows what the hell the neighbours were putting on their lawns in the 80s, and now Dad is afraid of nice Mr. Morrison for crying out loud.
Sylvia walks up the slope, a little shaky. She’s just very tired. And if the day comes when she gets Lewy Body Dementia too, well, there’s nothing she can do about that. At least she knows what to expect.
When she gets up to the patio doors, Dad and Kayla are sitting there inside the dining room, working on a puzzle together. Great! But where’s David? The kitchen’s empty. He’s gone somewhere.
A woman, who looks like Sylvia, walks from the living room into the dining room.
The Sylvia who is standing outside the patio doors forgets to breathe and stumbles backward, loses her footing. She crashes into the chair where Dad sits. But nobody in the house looks up. Then Kayla does, looks right at her, says nothing. Turns to the Sylvia beside her and says something.
Sylvia, outside Sylvia, breathes again. She watches the family for a while. This woman who looks like her — who is her. It’s morning here — of course it’s morning, that’s why the sun is different and the air is different, that’s why David’s not home. The arbour led her to another world. Just as she always suspected, although truth be told, she was hoping for fairies.
But this is still wonderful in its own way. The family looks peaceful, seen from the outside. Morning is always a better time than evening. Sylvia’s never been a morning person, but that’s not the point, that doesn’t matter, she’ll do what she has to do, morning or evening. In the morning, Dad’s less tired, less delusional. Whatever the reasons for sundowning in dementia might be — the doctors always shrug when they talk about it — it makes the evenings bad, the mornings less bad. And Kayla’s always happy in the mornings.
Nonetheless, there can’t be two Sylvias in this world, and there definitely can’t be no Sylvia in the other one.
So Sylvia turns around and walks too quickly down the hot grass.
She picks up the remote-control truck. But suddenly, she’s afraid that she can’t come back here. The arbour will be fickle. She’ll be like Lucy after the first time through the wardrobe, disbelieved, unsure how to get back. And she can’t tell anyone — can she? She thinks about David’s face, of everything David has been through.
Sylvia wants to leave something of herself here; it feels like she would have a foothold, if part of her world were in this one. So she puts her hand in her pocket, and pulls out the Lego piece. A yellow five-by-one, lethal to bare feet. She thinks for a minute, then walks over and puts it just under the leaf of a succulent, where Dad won’t trip on it. Probably.
Then she walks back through the arbour and into the evening of her world. She walks back up and opens her own French doors.
Inside the kitchen, David is putting the food onto plates. He’s moved Kayla in here, and she’s sitting colouring on the kitchen floor. Not a good sign.
“Your Dad’s on one early tonight,” David says, his voice tight. “Where have you been, anyway?”
“Just getting Kayla’s truck from the lawn. It looks like it might rain. It was just a few minutes, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, well, a lot can change around here in a few minutes.”
Sylvia goes into the living room, where Dad is sitting with tears streaming down his face, his hand tremor dialled up to eleven. Sylvia kneels beside his chair and puts her head on the armrest. Another evening begun: his worst time.
“It’s OK,” he says, their stock phrase now. Who knows what he means by it in this moment.
“Yep,” she answers. “I know, Dad. It’s going to be OK. I’m here.”
The next morning is peaceful, and Sylvia gets some laundry done. At lunchtime, Dad won’t eat his sandwich.
“But tuna is your favourite,” Sylvia says.
He shakes his head. “I never touch the stuff. It has worms in it.”
Kayla, sitting in her spot at the table, laughs.
Dad likes to make his granddaughter laugh, so he leans over to her conspiratorially, and says, “WORMS. EW.”
“EW!” Kayla echoes, and puts her own sandwich down onto her red plastic plate.
Sylvia can feel that her next moments are not going to help anyone, but she can’t make herself care. She marches around to Dad’s plate, picks up one half-sandwich, peers at the tuna salad.
“No worms, Dad.”
“Well, I saw them. I believe the evidence of my own eyes. They’re in there.”
“I’m telling you that I am looking at the sandwich right now and there are no worms in it.”
How dare you say the food I prepared for you has worms in it. How dare you make things harder for me and my child and what the hell are you going to eat, exactly? How many foods are off the list, now?
She takes the sandwich away, throws it into the garbage, bangs the lid.
“Sylvia, I just don’t want — ”
“I said it’s OK, Dad. Here.”
She brings him a banana, cracks the peel for him, and goes out into the backyard. She hates the word “OK”, as she hates all the words that come out of her mouth.
She takes a quick look. A moment away.
On the other side of the arbour, it’s also lunchtime, but somehow it feels like the morning side of noon. The Sylvia of the Morning House served macaroni and cheese, which is going over better. Dad looks glum but he isn’t kicking up a fuss. Kayla is eating her carrot sticks. Sylvia should have thought of macaroni and cheese. She watches the other house for a few breaths, and then remembers there is no one in her world. She is not quite allowed to be an absence.
Sylvia bites her lip, then removes one earring — a cheap metal stud — and sets it on a criss-cross in the metal of the arbour. Then she walks back through it to her world.
Three hours later, Dad goes for his afternoon nap, but Kayla tosses and turns and says “Mommy?” until at last, Sylvia brings her out into the living room. They sit together on the couch and watch Paw Patrol in silence. Twenty minutes go by, that way. Kayla will be grumpy at dinner time, not having slept. Dad is sleeping more, these days. That’s OK. Everything’s OK.
In the other house, does time roll backward? Is it mid-morning there now?
“Where were you, Mommy?”
“Hmm?” Sylvia looks at Kayla. “Oh, do you — do you mean at lunchtime, when I went outside for a second?”
Kayla shakes her head. “Just now. You went away.”
“Oh. Sorry, honey.” Sylvia smiles. “I was woolgathering, I guess. Do you know that word? Your Grandma used to say it. Daydreaming. Thinking.”
“It means pieces of you go away?”
Sylvia knits her brows. “Not exactly, darling. Well, I guess that’s one way to think about it. I guess you could say your thoughts go away. I guess our thoughts are ourselves, in a way, right?”
Kayla nods soberly, and turns back to Paw Patrol.
In the morning, Sylvia finds a bracelet on her bedside table, under an open window.
It’s elastic, with natural pearls. She stretches it with her fingers, rotates it, thinks. David’s already at work, so she texts him a picture of it.
did you find this somewhere
don’t recognize it, no, why
She wants to write back: It’s not mine, but it was in our bedroom. No, I don’t mean anything like that, of course. I just mean, it has to be mine, but I don’t recognize it. Maybe Kayla found it. Maybe Dad found it. Maybe I brought it here. Maybe I’m losing my memories. But Lewy patients think people are stealing from them, not bringing them things. Right? Right.
Instead, she puts the pearl bracelet on her wrist. She makes pancakes, and everyone is happy. Kayla kicks her feet.
“That’s a pretty bracelet, Mommy.”
“Thank you, sweetie. Did you put it on my bedside table, by any chance?”
Kayla shakes her head. “I never saw it before.”
“Hmm, well, it’s nice, wherever it came from.”
Dad glances at it. “Is it new?”
Well, that answers that; he didn’t put it there either. Unless he forgot.
“I think it must have been at the bottom of my jewelry case for a long time or something. Who knows what’s in there. We should sort it out today, Kayla. Would that be a fun project?”
Kayla nods. “It makes you look happy, that bracelet.”
Sylvia nods, and turns it on her wrist, feeling the nub of the pearls pressing into her fingertips. Dad starts telling Kayla about how pearls are formed, chattering happily about the things that he knows, the things that other people know too. Sylvia knows what these pearls are too. A gift from the Morning House. A foothold from the morning, in the evening. A piece of herself to lend her strength.
About the Author
Kate Heartfield’s latest novel, The Embroidered Book, is a Sunday Times bestselling historical fantasy about Marie Antoinette and her sister Charlotte. Several of her short stories have appeared in PodCastle. She is a former journalist who lives near Ottawa, Canada.
About the Narrator
Kaitlyn is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and current speculative fiction writer. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Workshop and writes short stories to avoid editing her novel. Currently living in Japan with her husband and four loud children. Pre-coronavirus she spent her free time hiking, traveling, and learning new languages. Now she stress-bakes and binges Turkish TV shows.