By Audrey Stydinger
Mrs. Tunne’s lungs are on the outside. Her shirts all have a big hole cut out in the front to make room for them. I watch them from the kitchen floor. She sits by the kitchen doorway in a hard-backed chair, breathing deeply, taking in all the cooking smells. Her lungs swell up so much as she inhales that I think they’re about to explode and get gross bits all over the table and the floor, but then they sink back in and we’re safe again. I feel crazy when I think that I have the same exact parts in my body and when I breathe in deep they threaten to explode just like that.
I’m one of only two normal people here, but being so normal makes me feel weird sometimes. Even Diana, who’s only nine, has spots that change shape every day. That’s something, at least. The other normal person is Rob, but he hardly counts. He’s been running the place for twenty-three years, so he’s more at home here than anyone else. He’s not that normal on the inside, anyway. I’m starting to figure that out.
Everyone else looks kind of like a science experiment. There’s Mrs. Tunne’s lungs, and then there’s Mr. White's legs, which fused together like a fish tail when he was still in the womb. He smokes all the time, even while he’s sitting next to Mrs. Tunne, but her lungs are still shiny and pink, perfect. He doesn’t care what it might be doing to his. He told me so, and he told me no one else here cares much about the smoke, either. “Aaron, we all have much bigger problems to worry about.” Like Diana’s mom, who has hair that grows crazy fast all over her body, so she has to shave a couple times a day. Or Mr. Tunne, who has only one eye in the middle of his face and a bunch of problems to go with it.
Mr. and Mrs. Tunne were still married when my dad and I first got here two years ago. I was eleven and Dad’s left side had just fallen off a few weeks before. The doctors had told him to come here where he could get specialized care. Dad was in a wheelchair and Mom pushed him up the ramp of the porch and into the foyer. I walked next to him, holding the only hand he had left. Mr. and Mrs. Tunne were sitting in the living room and they were holding hands too. I know I made a face when I first saw them. I’m still embarrassed about that. But Mrs. Tunne just smiled at me, while Mr. Tunne blinked and looked away, letting go of his wife’s hand.
Mrs. Tunne kept his name when they divorced a few months later. I don’t know her maiden name and I don’t want to know it. She’s engaged to Mr. White now, and they’re supposed to get married next week. Dad thinks Mrs. Tunne’s taste is getting weirder with each man, so he has his hopes up that he’ll be next. He makes me spray cologne on him every day before he leaves his bedroom. Dad says so much dating and marrying and breaking up happens here because there isn’t much to do except fall in love.
He told me that a couple nights ago when he was drinking, but he wasn’t drunk. They dilute the beers here so much that I’m even allowed to have a few sometimes. Nobody knows why the people here are the way they are, so the caretakers don’t want to take any risks. Mom was relieved when she found out. She thinks Dad always drank too much, and that’s why his side fell off one day the way it did. Dad thinks it’s because he worked too much. Sometimes, after I’ve had a lot of those beers because no one’s really paying attention, I think it might have been because of me. I know the doctor said it was just a “freak accident,” but I still wonder sometimes.
I was there when it happened. It wasn’t like his side got blown off or anything--it just wasn’t there anymore when he woke up. He stayed in bed and called to me, but he wouldn’t tell me in words what was wrong. I had to look for myself. I searched for his missing parts under the bed and through the whole house, but they were just gone. The remaining half didn’t bleed, just lay there open, and I could look inside like his body was one of those dollhouses cut open in the middle. Mom panicked when she came home, which made me truly afraid for the first time all day. Dad didn’t offer any explanation. He said he was hungry.
His body got sewed up, but doctors said they couldn’t replace the missing parts. I know he minds, but he doesn’t complain around me. Mom complains for him. She visits sometimes, but she stays in Dad’s room with the two of us the whole time. She and Dad both thought I should stay here and help him get used to his new life, but Mom still lives in our old house two states away. They got divorced practically the same day as the Tunnes. No one has explained to me why yet, and I don’t think they will.
Since my dad likes Mrs. Tunne, I’ve decided I should try to make her like him back. At the very least, I should make sure that they’re a good fit for each other. Dad can’t move around the house as fast or as easily as I can, so it’s my job to appear wherever Mrs. Tunne is and listen to what she says. I could put in a good word for Dad if I do it right, so I’m spending a lot of time today in the kitchen. That’s kind of bad because I keep taking food off the counter, but maybe I deserve it for all the hard work I’m putting in.
The kitchen is big because it has to help feed the eight permanent residents who are here because they have to be, me and Diana who are here because people we love are here, and the employees who move in and out and who sometimes eat with us. But sometimes they bring in fast food and I get to eat chicken nuggets and milkshakes. Mrs. Tunne likes to sit in a hard-backed chair next to the doorway. She can’t get too close to the employees while they’re cooking in case something splashes on her lungs.
She knows I stare, but I don’t think it bothers her. Like now, with her hands on her knees, she looks over at me, catches my eye, and smiles, just like when she first saw me. She’s older than my dad, just had her fiftieth birthday a couple weeks ago. I wanted Dad to buy her chocolate or jewelry, but he got her a book instead. Mrs. Tunne motions for me to come over, and I stand up from where I was sitting on the floor with my legs crossed.
“Are you excited for dinner, Aaron? Doesn’t it smell delicious?”
We breathe in deep once more, together. The onion smell is so heavy in my nostrils all of a sudden that I feel tears prick my eyes, but I love it.
“I never thought liver could taste good until they moved me here. That Seth, he really knows how to make it. He doesn’t let it get all tough and chewy like my mother did.”
Excited, I say, “Yeah, my dad says the same thing. He loves all the food they make here.” I hesitate, realizing I had just lied, in a way. “Well, not the steak, but he says that’s hard to make.”
“Oh, I don’t like that stuff anyway. They always make it rare. I don’t like the taste of blood in my mouth when I eat.”
I nod and nod at that, even though the image of Mrs. Tunne with blood coming out of her mouth and collecting under her chin makes me queasy—not that it’s her fault that it’s there. My brain likes to think about stuff like that sometimes, and I haven’t figured out how to stop it. Mrs. Tunne pats my back like she knows I need reassurance.
“Mr. White wanted steak at our wedding,” she continues. “I think I’ve talked him out of it. What do you think we should have for dessert?”
Mrs. Tunne laughs and her lungs quiver. “What kind of teenager likes cheesecake? But that’s a good idea. With cherries on top?”
We fall quiet again. From looking up at Mrs. Tunne’s eyes, I’m pretty sure she’s thinking about the wedding. But then she says, “I really like the book your dad got me. I just read it yesterday. Did you help him pick it?”
“We ordered it online,” I tell her. “We picked some together but then Dad made the final choice.” Well, he closed his eyes and pointed randomly at the screen. We had three choices on a wish-list, but Dad couldn’t decide which one, and he was starting to get annoyed. I wouldn’t just pick for him like he wanted me to. His finger ended up landing on a novel about a British queen. I don’t know which one, but I hope she wasn’t one that had a bunch of people killed.
“He made a good choice. You know, I love those historical novels. The details are so beautiful.” Then she leans in so no one walking by can hear. “Don’t tell him, but I already have a copy. It’s one of my favorite books.”
I try not to grin. “I won’t tell,” I promise.
We fall silent again, but it feels comfortable. We sit there not talking for a few minutes until Rob comes in and reminds me that it’s almost three o’clock--time for my dad’s appointment.
I head upstairs to my dad’s room so I can take him to the doctor’s office. Most of the house is shiny wood, bouncy carpet, and creaky steps. There are narrow corners where I stub my toe and a rotary telephone in the corner of the living room. We also have a huge elevator, enough for two full-sized wheelchairs to sit next to each other with space in between, and it’s all silver and cold and doesn’t make a sound. It floats between the four floors, the doors clicking open and shut kind of like a toe tapping.
Dad uses it more than anyone else, even though he’s not the only one who needs it. The others in wheelchairs have been in them since birth, and they’re used to being in one place all day. It’s all they’ve ever known. But Dad still remembers running up and down stairs, sticking his head out the back door just to check the weather, pacing the bedroom when he and Mom fought. I have to help him move around so he doesn’t feel stuck.
He’s in his wheelchair, which he’s made really comfortable with a big pillow for his head and cozy blankets over his lap. I see him from the side and for a second my brain fills in his left side so that he looks whole again, but then it’s gone. My brain does that a lot. I wonder if that’s normal. I think I see both strong arms and both long legs, his left eye that I remember being a little droopy but as warm as the one left over, the fuzzy matching sideburns. I bet his brain does the same thing, and that’s why he doesn’t like to look into mirrors.
“Are you ready?” I ask as I take the handles of his chair. I push it over the piles of laundry on the floor and we bump along.
“As long as they don’t do anything too crazy,” he answers. “A needleful of water and a pat on the back is about as much as I can handle.”
“You really think they just give you water?” I nod at Mr. Tunne, who’s standing in the hallway, and push the down button next to the elevator.
“Well, maybe there’s something else in there.” Dad shrugs his one shoulder. “I do feel pretty sleepy afterwards. But it could just be a placebo. Do you know what that is, Aaron?”
“Yeah.” The doors open and I push him in. “We learned the word in class last year.” “It’s a good word,” he says. “Ninety percent of the people here are just getting placebos from the doctor. Maybe not Mr. Tunne. But everybody else, definitely.”
“Then what’s the point?” I ask as the doors open on the ground floor.
We wheel past the living room where Mr. White sits alone with a book, past the kitchen still bustling with activity but no Mrs. Tunne, past the dining room with its glass double-doors locked and shut for the next three hours until dinner starts. Into the back where everything shifts. The walls here aren’t a soft tan but a bright white, scrubbed clean. There are three rooms--two rooms for the patients to be tested in, put to sleep, injected, whatever else they might do here, and one office where all the files are. The office door is always closed and sometimes I imagine that the room is actually empty, because no one knows or understands anything, or even cares enough to try to write something down. We go into the middle room.
The wheelchair is made for a person twice Dad’s size--a normal person. The people here installed a seatbelt for his tiny waist, so he doesn’t rattle around too much and fall out. He’s fifty percent less likely to catch himself with one arm, after all. The seatbelt is supposed to be easy to open, so Dad can do it with one hand, but it really
isn’t. So I lean over him and snap it open while the doctor stands in the corner of the room, waiting for us. He encourages independence. That’s why I help Dad out of the chair by myself and hover by him while he hops over to the examination table. I give him an extra push so he can jump up and sit down it, facing the doctor.
I don’t know the doctor’s name because I’ve never heard anyone say it, but I know him by his face. He always has a little bit of stubble that makes him look old. He walks over to Dad and I move the wheelchair out of his way, then walk over to the other corner by the door and wait.
“Any changes since yesterday?” the doctor asks.
“Not that I’ve noticed.” My dad is really nice when he’s with the doctor, a lot quieter and smiling a lot more.
The first thing doctors do to me when I get a check-up is listen to my heart, but that’s not what they do to my dad. The doctor touches my dad’s head like he’s kneading dough, and every time, he asks my dad about headaches or trouble focusing or fuzzy vision or unclear memories--Dad and I have heard it so much that sometimes in Dad’s room, we mock him in a high-pitched voice. Then he checks my dad’s reflexes by hitting him on the knee, so now Dad has a bruise there that never goes away.
The doctors were worried about Dad’s brain at first because half of it was gone, so they ran tests. He could still talk and blush when the beautiful doctor leaned in close and jump when she pricked him in the arm, and he could remember that he was still married and make a joke about it that made her smile. They figured after days of tests that he’d stuffed the left side of his brain with the things he didn’t need--embarrassing memories, grudges against parents and old high school bullies, the name of the first girl he liked, who he thought about more than he should have. But he didn’t change much even when all those things fell out. I think the big things wrapped around his brain like a blanket and can’t be shaken off no matter what happens.
My feet are asleep by the time the appointment is over. Getting Dad in the chair is a little easier than getting him out because gravity helps. He can mostly do it himself now. I wheel him into the living room. Mr. White sits next to the bookshelf with a newspaper over his face, and Diana’s mom is napping by accident on the recliner. The hairs on her arms are already dark and thick, even though I saw her with just stubble a couple hours ago. I wonder if Diana knows what a normal person looks like. She probably thinks I’m the weird one here.
I put dad’s chair right by the window. He likes the view out towards the street because it’s easier to spy on people. From the window in his room, he can see the mountains in the distance, but not really any people. I would take him out onto the front porch, but he says he doesn’t like all that bright sunlight. I stay with him in the living room. I pick a book from the bookshelf and start to read, sitting on the carpet with my back against the wall. I only go outside now when Diana asks me to play with her or when one of the employees here takes me out on an errand. I guess I don’t like the sunlight that much, either.
The front door opens with a loud bang. Rob comes in yelling. “Mrs. Tunne!” he shouts down the hall. He’s holding a huge box in his arms. A swath of white fabric sticks out of it, so long it’s almost touching the floor. A woman is trailing behind him with her arms crossed in front of her chest. She glances in at the living room and smiles at us before looking away real quick. “Mrs. Tunne!”
Diana pops out of somewhere and starts running up the stairs, yelling Mrs. Tunne’s name a bunch more times as she goes. Rob stands with his hands on his hips, staring up the steps until the steps start to creak and Mrs. Tunne comes down, slow and sure like always.
“The tailor’s here with the dress you picked online.” Rob sounds like he’s been running. “If you guys hurry, you can be done with the fitting before dinner.”
“Oh, good.” Mrs. Tunne moves past him without looking at the box. She reaches out and shakes the tailor’s hand. “Thank you so much for coming here.”
“Well, she is being paid extra,” Rob says. He pushes the box into the tailor’s hands, waves at us in the living room, and moves with his long legs into the kitchen. Diana comes bouncing down the steps with a fire truck in her hands. She treats it like a doll, even though she’s too old for dolls anyways. The tailor looks away from Mrs. Tunne’s lungs long enough to stare at Diana’s spotty skin, which is extra bumpy today too. I think this woman is a lot like me.
They go upstairs. Mr. White shakes his newspaper like a man in a black-and-white movie. Diana’s mom doesn’t stir even when Diana nudges her knee and tickles her toes. In the back of my head, I think about Mrs. Tunne getting her fitting. Her dress must be extra-long because she’s tall. The tailor must be so scared, trying to cut the dress just right. I imagine the tailor poking the lungs by accident with a needle, the way they would deflate as everything leaks out.
A couple months ago, the residents celebrated Rob’s twenty-third anniversary of working here. He started as just another helper, taking people to their appointments, cleaning up, making meals, but unlike the others, he stayed until he was making calls to families and doctors, explaining paperwork to overwhelmed residents, and arranging renovations. He says he never tried to be the big boss, that it just happened. Everyone loves him for it, even my dad who wasn’t here to watch him rise. Rob can’t really do anything wrong, even when he does.
It was his idea to start hosting weddings in the backyard. He got himself ordained just so he could be the one to marry his residents--and so he wouldn’t have to spend the money on a real priest. This is going to be his fifth wedding. He should probably have a system down by now for organizing them, but he doesn’t.
“What kind of cake?” he yells from where he’s standing by the rotary phone. “Chocolate or vanilla? Chocolate or vanilla, Mrs. Tunne?”
She and I are in the kitchen again, but she goes around the corner to help Rob. I follow her, a few steps behind. “Don’t they have strawberry? I can’t imagine there are only two choices.”
“Strawberry?” he says into the phone, his voice still a little too loud. He shakes his head. “She says it won’t go with the frosting.”
“What kind of frosting did you order?”
“Peanut butter. That’s what Mr. White asked for.”
She shakes her head back and forth. “That’s disgusting. Why am I marrying someone with such bad taste?” She laughs and her hand goes to her collarbone, just above her lungs. “Tell them vanilla frosting. But isn’t there a way to bring someone to the house so we can look at some pictures together? Like in the movies.”
Rob holds the phone away, puts his hand over it. “I don’t think she wants to come here,” he tells her.
“Oh, of course. Bringing the tailor was difficult enough. Well, order whatever she thinks is best. No one cares here as long as they can stuff their faces.”
He nods at her, pats her shoulder as she turns away, and keeps talking on the phone, this time his voice a lot quieter.
She comes back to join me in the kitchen again. No one is even cooking right now. She folds her hands in her lap. “That tailor was so scared, I thought she was going to hurt herself.”
I don’t say anything, but I feel my face getting warm. The silence goes on for ages and I wait for her to leave, but she doesn’t. Then I hear Rob’s loud voice again. “Aaron. It’s time for your dad’s appointment.”
I take the steps slowly, feeling really tired. As I push in the door to my dad’s room, it bumps into the footrest on his wheelchair. He managed to push himself that far, I don’t even know how. He has his cell phone in his lap. I figure something big must have happened, but he doesn’t tell me right away. We’re in the elevator together when he finally says, “Your mom wants to visit on Friday. She’s already taken the day off of work.”
“But that’s the wedding.”
“Of course it is.”
“Did you tell her?”
The elevator opens and I push him out like we’re not talking about anything. “She doesn’t need to know. She’ll be gone before it starts. You’ve noticed how soon she leaves after she arrives, right? She spends less time here every visit.”
I did notice, but I thought it was all in my head. My grip on the handles gets tighter and I wheel him into the doctor’s office.
It’s Thursday, the day before the wedding. Dad’s been sitting at the living room window all day. Every time I ask him if he wants to move, he says no. Diana’s mom is there too, on the other side of the room, and I’ve already caught her looking at Dad once or twice. Mr. White is in his wheelchair in the middle of the room, and Rob is with him holding a long skirt and a pair of scissors.
“We don’t need a tailor for this, do we, Mr. White?” Rob says. “We’ve done this before.”
Mr. White looks up at him with his hands folded. He always wears pants that were made for him. Right under his waist, his legs are still separate, but they merge together lower down. His pants are shaped just right for that. But when he runs out of those pants, Rob just puts him in long skirts instead. For tomorrow, Mrs. Tunne wanted Mr. White to have something new and extra-nice to wear, so Rob ordered him a black maternity skirt, so he’d have lots of material to work with.
Rob fumbles with the fabric, trying to hold it up against Mr. White’s lap.
“I can help,” I say, walking over. There’s a tang of alcohol on Rob’s breath. Not the kind they have here—the kind Dad used to drink before. I hold the end of the skirt in my hands. It’s silky and stretchy and a little longer than the ones my mom used to wear. I bunch up the skirt and slide it over Mr. White’s single foot, start pulling it up his legs. They’re hairless, the skin tight and puckered. I run the skirt up until I can’t anymore.
“Help him stand up,” I say to Rob. Rob gets up and moves with heavy feet to the back of Mr. White’s chair. Rob pushes his hands under Mr. White’s armpits and Mr. White grunts and twitches, but then he relaxes his body. Rob begins to lift him. Mr. White pulls his foot in a little for balance, the skirt still hanging above his knees, starting to slip. I try to hurry, scrambling to pull up the skirt, but Rob is stumbling. With another grunt, Mr. White falls back into his chair as Rob gives up.
“Done it yet?” Rob peers down at me over Mr. White’s shoulder.
“No.” I bite my lip hard. “Try again.”
I hear a whistling sigh come out of Mr. White’s mouth. Rob leans down, grips him, pulls up. I look around the room for someone to help us. Diana’s mom is shaving as fast as she can, leaving bright red streaks on her skin as she goes. Dad’s not even looking at us, and I don’t know where anyone else is. I start pulling on the skirt again, and I almost have it. Mr. White’s legs are shaking under my hands.
“Let me go,” he says to Rob. “You’re hurting my arms.”
And he does let go, dropping him like dirty laundry. Mr. White falls fast, missing the chair, and I lunge out of the way as he hits the floor. The skirt isn’t quite pulled all the way up, and Rob leans over Mr. White as he lies on his side, staring past me at the living room doorway. Rob pulls the skirt into place and smooths it out, moving Mr. White’s body like it’s a mannequin.
“Looks like it fits. For the most part.” He steps away and rubs his hands together. He turns to the doorway and I look over too. Mrs. Tunne is standing there. “Come help us cut this up. It’s a little long.” He picks up the scissors from where he’d left them on the floor, and then he takes them over to Mrs. Tunne. “My hands aren’t too steady right now.”
Rob leaves the room and I stand up. Together, Mrs. Tunne and I pull Mr. White back into his chair. She tries to smile at me over his shoulder but it doesn’t exactly work. I leave her standing in front of him with the scissors. My dad is trapped where he is in the living room, with nothing to look at but the nothing outside the window and Mrs. Tunne.
I go to bed wondering who made Dad’s side fall off. If it was Mom, or Dad, or if it was me.
It’s the day of Mrs. Tunne’s wedding, but right now, you can’t tell. I’m in Dad’s room with him and Mom. Mom and I sit on the edge of his bed, and Dad faces us in his chair. He’s drooping sideways a little, to the left, like he still has an arm there to lean on. Mom hasn’t been talking much about herself. She keeps asking us questions about things happening here, but I don’t know how to answer. I talk about the games I play with Diana and the food we eat. I don’t even say anything about Mrs. Tunne.
Mom stands up and goes to the window. I know already what she’s seeing, because I looked earlier. She can see the dining room chairs lined up outside, and the podium in front of them. She can see Mr. Tunne moving chairs around by himself, but she can’t see his one eye, because his head is down, looking at what his hands are doing.
“What’s happening out there?” she asks.
I look over at Dad, hoping for a hint about how to answer. It’s a lot harder to read his face these days, but I think he raises his eyebrow and pushes his shoulder up like a shrug.
“A wedding,” I say, fast. “They have a lot of those here.”
“Oh? Residents getting married?” She keeps staring. “I guess there’s nothing better to do here,” she says after a while.
“That’s what I keep telling Aaron.” Mom and Dad both turn a little so they can look at each other, and I’m pretty sure they’re both smiling.
“It can be an adventure,” Mom says. “Who knows, maybe you’ll be next.”
The ceremony is scheduled to end at sundown. Mom leaves just an hour before it starts. Dad asks me to leave him in his room until it’s time to get seated. I leave the room to go downstairs to help, and I see Rob in the hallway. He’s just closing the door to the room of one of the residents who never comes downstairs.
“It would be great if she could come down to the ceremony, wouldn’t it?” he says to me. “But she has a good view of it out of her window at least. You know, Mrs. Tunne visits her all the time.”
“Mrs. Tunne is really nice.” I stand up straight when I’m talking to him.
“She’s kind of like the queen of this place, have you noticed? Like I run everything, but she’s the figurehead that gets all the credit. I think it’s a good arrangement.” He doesn’t wait for me to answer. He probably thinks that since I’m still only thirteen, he can talk to me like I’m a blank wall. He passes by me and I close my eyes, my fists tightening. I breathe in deep, but I can’t smell anything at all. It just makes my chest hurt.
There are four rows of seats and Dad and I sit in the last one. Lots of part-time employees come, and Mr. White’s three adult children are there, with families and smiles. Everything looks almost the same as in the movies. But there are no flowers, for the safety of Mrs. Tunne’s lungs. Mr. White sits at the top of the aisle in his wheelchair, which is decked out in white ribbons, while Mrs. Tunne walks to him. He has a pair of crutches so he can stand in front of the podium with her. As they face each other, I watch her calm, regular breaths. I hold my dad’s hand as they say their vows.
“She looks the same as always,” he whispers in my ear, looking pleased.
Mrs. Tunne becomes Mrs. White as the sun sets, just as planned.