In Our Lovely Deseret
Edited by Robert Raleigh

Brainwaves
Kathryn S. Egan

[p.237]Those people are bare,” Greta said.

Sara squinted at the forms at pool edge, white-lit by the underwater lamps. They seemed attenuated, with wide mouths and eyes, like the aliens in Close Encounters. Sara saw a world of abstract blots without her contact lenses, but after nineteen hours of wearing them she couldn’t bear them scraping against her eyes. She’d allowed five-year-old Greta to guide her down the stairs from their third floor room in the best hotel in Chico, California.

“City people wear tiny little swim suits,” Sara said.

“I can’t see any suits. That man doesn’t have his big boys on,” said Greta.

“Big people don’t swim in their underwear, honey. He wouldn’t be wearing his big boys in the swimming pool.”

“They’re looking at us, Mom.”

Her eyes squinted to slits, Sara could see fine lines, like the vertical one on the back side of a man climbing out of the pool.

The people were silent, watching. Two forms stood in the water. At least five sat, legs dangling in the water, towels clutched before them, heads turned toward Sara and Greta, eyes and mouths Os. They waited.

“We have to go upstairs,” Sara said.

[p.238]”You said we could swim. You promised. Then hot fudge sundaes. Then Chutes and Ladders. All night, Mom. You said.”

“I didn’t know there would be other people in the pool.”

Sara wrapped Greta in a towel and pulled her to the stairs.

Never break a promise to a child. One of the ten Mother’s Commandments Sara had learned in Relief Society and taped inside her pantry door. So far she’d broken three of them, been totally inconsistent-telling Greta on Thursday she could wear whatever she wanted to school, then making her wear jeans instead of her Godzilla Halloween costume; and then, rather than demonstrating loving kindness when Greta cut off one side of her hair all the way to her part, leaving it crewed, Sara had screamed at her—as if having great hair was a necessary part of being an okay person. The Ten Commandment list was revealed to her each morning when she reached for a jar of homemade granola.

“You said it would be fun,” Greta sobbed. It was only 12:15 a.m. Seven hours and forty-five minutes to go.

“How about a nice long bath in our room? You can stay in as long as you want.”

“No.”

Sara ran water, picked up Greta, and sat her in the tub.

Greta screamed.

This would be so much easier with a friend. Not Brad, of course.

“We could have talked it over at least!” he’d said when she told him she was pregnant.

“You think I poked holes in my diaphragm or what?”

“You did something. You and I used to be a team. You were one with me, but you changed. You had a kid without us talking about it.”

“You won’t have to change your life a bit,” Sara said. That was one commitment she’d been able to keep. So far she’d raised Greta as if she’d been immaculately conceived.

The night before Sara took Greta to Chico, Brad had told her she should just give Greta Seconal just before the EEG. How much more practical than keeping her awake all night so she’d fall asleep at eight for the test.

While Sara was packing overnight stuff for her and Greta, Brad had picked up the box of Chutes and Ladders. He looked at the game, and made a face.

“They make rules like ‘keep the kid awake all night’ because they [p.239]like to be in charge,” he said. “You can bet if Dr. Hitch had to do this with his kid, he’d figure a way to get some sleep.”

And then, “Kids get headaches. This is not a big deal.” Sara should feel duped for following the orders Dr. Hitch’s nurse had given her for preparing Greta for the brain scan.

“Usually our mothers take along a friend or husband to spell them,” the nurse had said. “You got anyone?”

Why don’t you come with us, Sara nearly begged. The nurse had taken a liking to Greta in the months they’d lived in Meadowlake and become Dr. Hitch’s patients, especially since the headaches.

Children are hard, Greta told herself often. Just because they’re born all the time doesn’t make having them a trip to the store. Raising them is not a mindless activity. Like doing laundry. Or housecleaning. Or going to church.

Brad thought mothers should take care of children while they did real work like quilt and can.

He also said, “A mother is supposed to be there for her kid,” like he was mad at her for leaving Greta with La Dean too much. Like it was her fault about Greta’s headaches.

It was the nurse, not Dr. Hitch, who had first suggested the EEG. “We don’t have the facilities to do one here at Meadowlake Hospital,” she said. “You’ll have to drive down the canyon to Chico.”

“Can’t we check into the hospital and have the nurses keep her awake?”

“Your insurance won’t cover it. The hospital administrator doesn’t like to check in a patient for an outpatient test. Makes him look bad.”

Sara felt overwhelmed.

“No one on the nursing staff will have the time it takes to keep Greta awake all night, not the way you would. You can’t expect that except from someone who cares as much as you,” the nurse said. “You have to keep her awake so she’ll fall asleep in the morning for the test. It will be worth it. You’ll know for certain if the headaches are from something bad-organic-in Greta’s head. Or if it’s just growing pains.”

Brad, Sara, and Greta had moved to Meadowlake because Brad had a survival plan for the coming bad days—the last days. It took all their daylight to begin, starting with constructing a chicken coop and raising five hundred chicks. Sara had to cull the sick ones and recognize a vent as a sign of puberty. There hadn’t been time or clear days to make friends with anyone but Dr. Hitch and his nurse.

[p.240]Sara felt lucky to have encountered La Dean and her two children in his office one day. La Dean had started talking like they’d known each other all through high school. Said she did babysitting in her home.

“Let’s all go,” La Dean said when Sara explained the ordeal. “I’ll bring mine and we’ll have a party. The kids would love it. They hate going to bed.” La Dean, a girl whose high school graduation tassel hung from her rear-view mirror, along with two baby shoes, outgrown by the children she’d had by the time she was nineteen, figured she and Sara were compatriots.

Sara imagined herself at 1:00 in the morning with La Dean, Greta and La Dean’s two, both in diapers. La Dean loved soaps, call-in radio talk shows, and cowboy music. Sara had never seen La Dean in anything but blue jeans and one of her husband’s sweatshirts. And cowboy boots.

“I don’t think I could stand it,” Sara said.

“Whatever,” La Dean said.

Sara turned up the radio speaker in the bathroom. She thought it might help keep Greta awake. The only station on was country-western.

La Dean didn’t care as much. She would have let Greta stay in the pool with the naked strangers while she read a movie magazine, or a novel. La Dean read thirty romance novels a month, like it was her college education.

Greta turned on the hot water. Sara watched as she emptied a bottle of hotel shampoo into the water.

“Nice bubbles,” Greta said and piled them into her hair.

Sara worked the bubbles into Greta’s hair, piling shoulder-length strands from the uncut side into swirls. Sara had not allowed Greta to cut her hair since a boy in preschool asked her if she was a boy or a girl.

“I want to see,” Greta said.

“You’ll have to stand up to see in the wall mirror,”Sara said.

“It’s cold.”

“Okay, I’ll get a mirror from my purse. I’ll leave the door open so I can see you.”

“Mommy, the wind will get me.”

Sara left the door open a crack, wide enough to keep an eye on Greta as she fumbled in her purse. Greta cried her loud protest wail, [p.241]and Sara brought the purse to the side of the tub. A swatch of watery foam drenched her face, bangs, hair hanging down her shoulders, and the purse.

Greta glared at her. Sara held her by the chin, pushed her backward and rinsed. Greta shrieked and kicked.

“I want to see! You have to do more bubbles.”

Sara opened the drain. “There aren’t any more. You used them all.”

“I wanted mermaid hair.”

Someone thumped on the wall from the other side.

“You have to be quiet,” Sara said, putting her hand over Greta’s mouth. Greta licked.

On the radio a voice like a basset hound’s whined, “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.”

Greta ran in her towel to the other room. Sara finished cleaning up the water, dried her purse and hair. She found Greta in her pajamas, the bottoms backward so the feet were twisted to go forward. She was curled on the bed clutching her purple-haired Raggedy-Ann, sucking her thumb, not quite asleep.

“Oh no you don’t,” Sara said. She yanked the pajamas off by the latex feet.

“I want to go night-night,” Greta said, flopping back into place, resuming the thumb.

“No, you’re going to put on your new jeans and shirt. We’ll play games.”

“I want to go to bed!”

“You never want to go to bed! Remember what we said? You get to stay up all night. You get to see the sun come up.”

“You said we’d have fun.” Greta pulled her pajama bottoms on, this time getting the feet straight.

“How about something to eat?” Sara found the room service menu Greta had left under the bed covers. “Look, here’s a picture of a hot fudge sundae. Do you want strawberry instead? I’ll order one for you. And then we’ll play Chutes and Ladders.”

“I hate that stupid game,” Greta said, in a voice very much like Sara’s.

“You love that game! I promise I’ll play it all you want this one night.”

[p.242]Greta glared as she sucked her thumb and rubbed her chin with her doll’s purple head.

Sara tried to remove the pajama bottoms. Greta held on to the waist band. Sara grabbed the feet and pulled.

“You get to wear your new jeans! We’ve been saving them just for tonight.”

Greta wrenched herself onto her stomach, still clinging to her pajama bottoms. She sobbed into the quilted lime green flowers of the queen-sized bedspread.

“Okay, you can wear your pajamas. Outside. Everyone will see you.”

“No one is awake.”

“We’re going to the park.”

“My head hurts.”

Sara sat back, limp. “Like a headache?”

“Just before. My head is getting ready.”

“You can’t go to sleep.”

“Just for a little while. I’ll be good, Mommy. I’ll go to sleep in the morning. In the hospital. I’ll brush my teeth, say prayers, and go to bed.”

Sara picked her up from behind and tried to stand her on her feet. Greta folded to the floor.

“I’m not Greta. I’m a chicken.”

Sara let go of her. “Good,” she muttered. “Then we’ll just chop off your head and eat you.”

“No! No! No!” Greta jumped around like a chicken missing its head. She ran around the room, jumped on the bed, jumped again and again.

“No more headaches, Mama! I promise, no more headaches.”

Sara stood at the side of the bed watching Greta’s face yo-yo up and down. She tried to catch her as she came down. It was like catching an angry hen.

“No one is going to chop off your head, Greta.”

“Yes. At the hospital. I’ll go to sleep and the nurse will put pins in my head and when I wake up my head will be all gone.”

“No, the aches, the headaches. They’ll be gone soon. We’re trying to find out what makes them happen.” Sara tried to keep up with the moving face, her own head nodding [p.243]up and down. “We’ll fix your head once we know what’s making the aches.”

Greta shrieked then flopped on her stomach, bounced once and lay prone. “Will the pins hurt?”

“I’ll show you.” Sara cupped her hands over Greta’s head, her finger nails resting on her forehead and temples. “Does that hurt?”

“It feels like when we play broken egg.”

Sara bonked Greta’s crown with a knuckle, then uncurled her fingers slowly down the damp sides of Greta’s head.

“Oh, Mom, that’s not what they do. Dr. Hitch said there would be pins.”

“I don’t know about you, but I definitely need that hot fudge sundae,” Sara said.

“With whipped cream and two cherries.”

Holding the room service menu very close, Sara could read the telephone number. She dialed. Nothing happened. She dialed the front desk.

“Nothing’s open, ma’am,” a sleepy voice said. “You looked at the clock lately?”

“It says twenty-four-hour room service,” Sara said.

“Nobody ever called after midnight, so now it’s eighteen-hour room service.”

“You’re open at six?”

“Usually.”

“Is there anything in town open now?”

“Police station. Hospital.”

“Where could we get hot fudge sundaes?”

“Denny’s. They have ice cream.”

Sara wet her contacts and put them into place, which made her eyes burn and tear. When she could see, Greta appeared, sitting on the bed, dressed in the new jeans and long-sleeved shirt.

They had to walk past the swimming pool to get to the parking lot. Sara walked on the outside engaging Greta’s attention away from coupled bodies.

“We’ll go to the playground. Can you imagine swinging in the middle of the night?”

Greta stared away from her at the pool. “Are they mommies and daddies?”

“Probably not yet. They’re too young.”

[p.244]”They’re doing what mommies and daddies do.”

“That’s right, just like in the book. They’re loving each other.”

“Oh, oh, oh, oh,” one of the girl bodies yelled.

“And then we’ll go look in the windows at all the toys,” Sara said. She pulled Greta through the shrubs bordering the pool and parking lot.

They couldn’t eat their sundaes. The towering blobs in glass cones melted down the sides, followed by the whipped cream and the cherries that rode the white mass like sleds down a mountain side.

“It makes my stomach sick,” Greta said.

The waiter who had built the sundaes watched them as he mopped the red tile floor. Sara took a bite and glanced at him, making sure he saw her eating. He hadn’t wanted to make a sundae at that hour. She wished she hadn’t insisted. The ice cream felt like wet cement, congealing on its way to her stomach. She put down the spoon. She sipped her coffee. Greta said the smell made her want to throw up. She slid from her stool to the freshly mopped tiled floor and laid down.

“You can’t do that,” Sara said. “If you go to sleep now, you’ll be just like Tetrazzini in the morning. All bright-eyed and ready to crow.”

“Tetrazzini is a girl chicken. She doesn’t crow.”

“What does she do? Show me what a girl chicken does.”

“You show me.”

Sara squatted, wrists against her hips with fingers turned out for feathers, and waddled. Her thighs screamed in pain after three steps.

The waiter who made the sundaes was making coffee. He put the giant can on the counter and stood still. He stared at Sara.

“You have to peck,” Greta said. “You don’t look one tiny bit like Tetrazzini.”

Greta bobbed her head, mouth pursed, nose down. She pecked Sara’s back.

Sara turned away from the watching waiter’s eyes to concentrate.

“Bok!” she said, her eyes crossed, her mouth pulled into a chicken beak. She scratched the wet tiles with her toe. Hard to do in running shoes.

She heard a snort of laughter. The waiter.

Greta turned in circles, scratched with her sneaker, then knelt and folded her arms out to her sides. She laid her head on the floor and closed her eyes.

“Ha!” Sara said. “I win.”

[p.245]”I’m laying an egg,” Greta said. “You can’t bother me or I’ll peck out your eye.” She began to snore.

Sara sat back on the floor, ignoring the wet seeping through her jeans.

“Is there a Sara here?” the waiter yelled, holding a phone receiver.

“I’m a Sara,” she said, wondering if she should admit it.

“Some guy wants to talk to you.”

“Having any fun yet?” Brad’s voice said. “I fed your chickens.”

“Thanks.”

“La Dean told me to track you down. She should be there.”

Sara looked around. No La Dean.

“At the hotel,” Brad said. “She decided to go down and help you anyway. She left her kids here. With me. She said I had to watch them while she went to get you. Some nineteen-year-old calling me useless.”

He expected her to get angry at La Dean. She said, “La Dean’s used to her husband helping out with the kids.”

“The guy at the hotel desk said you two were at Denny’s. How’s the ice cream?”

“Okay.”

“I’m not changing these kids’ diapers.”

“You have to. They’ll get rashes. I don’t think we can get back there before noon.”

“Good news, most of the chickens survived. You did well.”

“What?”

“We’re going to make it. Everything’s going to be okay.”

Sara looked at Greta, now asleep, shorn side next to the wet tiles.

“I have to hang up now, Brad. I have to call the hotel and tell La Dean where to meet me.”

The waiter leaned on his broom, watching them. Sara wondered what he had to laugh about.

KATHRYN S. EGAN is a professor of communications at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Previously published writing includes: The Principle (Randall Books) and numerous scholarly articles. She was a Media Watch columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune, and won Utah Writing Competition awards for fiction in 1993 and 1995.