We heard about it on the radio Sunday morning: Older people in New Zealand were forgoing book groups in favor of coffin clubs. They were learning carpentry and reminding themselves how to sew. My oldest daughter was listening with me in the car, and surprised me with detailed plans when she got off the school bus the next day. Her coffin would be smaller, because she was seven, but long enough to grow into over the next couple of years. If she hadn’t used it by ten, she would design and build a new one.
“My favorite colors and stuff will be different when I’m older,” she said as she buckled into her booster seat. “I might not like purple velvet then. I will be better at drawing, too.”
“This is weird,” I told her.
She rolled her eyes at me, a new skill picked up the first week of second grade, and muttered under her breath. She took hold of her three-year-old sister’s chubby fingers and cooed to her.
“I’ll design one for you, too, Lizzie-girl! But you’ll have pink and blue.”
“I love pink and blue!” Lizzie exclaimed.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” I said.
Lizzie began to scream in outrage, and Annie sat back, satisfied. She fanned out the sketches in her lap, running her finger along the lines. Lizzie continued to scream as we drove the half mile home.
I watched Annie in the rearview mirror. Her expression froze for a second, then she dug into her backpack for a pencil, erased something oh-so-carefully, and began to draw again. I went over a speed bump too quickly and her pencil jagged to the side.
“AUGH!” she cried, frantically erasing. She looked up at me distrustfully and my heart clenched. I had intentionally not slowed down and she knew it.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll be more careful.” She went back to work.
Lizzie was asleep by the time I pulled into our driveway. I hauled her out and up onto my shoulder, and followed Annie up the walk to the front door.
“Here.” I handed her the key.
She was inside and up the stairs to her room before I was through the doorway. She stayed up there until dinner, not answering when I called to her about a snack or homework. She brought down new plans to the dinner table. These were perfectly measured in black ink. Dotted to show textured fabrics inside.
She had prepared a list of materials she needed from the hardware store.
“I need Daddy to help me with the amount of wood,” she said and scooped three meatballs out of the bowl. “He understands these things.” She covered the meatballs with parmesan cheese.
“Then I need you to take me to the store for fabric,” she said. “I’ll use my allowance.”
I reached for my wine glass.
She nodded and began to eat. Lizzie, next to her, slurped up a spaghetti noodle and yelled, “I WANT A COFFIN TOO!”
“I’ll make you one when you’re seven,” Annie said, offering me a hesitant, apologetic smile. “Coffins are for big kids.”
“Thank you,” I said.
My phone buzzed, a text from their dad about the weekend. Would I mind if the girls missed a day of school Monday for a last-minute family trip? He would have them back by 5pm. I had a flashback to the texts he’d sent while dating, fifteen years earlier. He’d been so funny. I’d tried so hard to impress him with my wit.
I wrote back something supportive and not witty, mentioning that I appreciated his thoughtfulness. He smiley-faced me back. We were doing much better now that he had a girlfriend.
At eight o’clock I sent the girls upstairs. Lizzie demanded to be carried, but Annie went without complaint. Never one to argue, not since Justin died. She got ready for bed as I tucked Lizzie in and was waiting for me when I got to her room.
“I’m going to build it next week,” she said. “Once Daddy buys me the wood.” She wrapped her arms around my neck and squeezed me hard.
“Okay,” I said. I kissed the top of her head. “I love you.”
“I’m going to make it perfect. You’ll love it once you see how perfect it is.”
“I know I will.”
I walked down the stairs, the pictures lining the walls a blur of family gatherings. Frames of laughing, wet kids at the pool, the three of them hiding under the Christmas tree, my ex-husband awkwardly holding our newborn son in the hospital. I touched the most recent photo, of Lizzie waddling toward her brother, arms extended. Justin looking at the camera. The dark gray half-moons under his eyes emphasizing his empty gaze.
I traced his bony arm down toward Lizzie and noticed Annie in the background. Somehow I had never seen her there before. She was leaning against the brick wall of the public library near our house, watching her brother watching me. Her face half hidden in the shade of the building.
The middle child. No, the oldest child.
I sat down with a loud “thump” on the bottom step. I closed my eyes, bending forward to press the lids into my knees, wrapping my arms around my shins.
I wished so many things for her, but I could only think of one thing for myself.
Mine would be deep orange inside. A soft, silky orange cloud to sink into. Annie could draw scenes on the fabric before we stitched it into place. I would take care of the wood myself. I had never done that, always letting the men in my life handle anything that required precision.
Annie and I would figure it out.