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Rated: ASR · Fiction · Family · #950819
"For the first time ever, it looks like she really is dying."

"You're getting too pale," I tell her, opening the blinds in her room. "You look like you're dying. You're not dying, you know."


"You have to get out of bed, Mom. You have to eat. You have to go to work."

She looks up at me with glassy, bloodshot eyes. "Dun hafta," she says in a singsong, her thick tongue jumbling up the sounds.

"Your bed wasn't meant to be a tomb, Mom."


That's the thing about my mother. She doesn't take orders from anyone.


Sometimes she won't let me look at her. She burrows under the covers and hides her face. "You hate me," she says, her little-girl voice trembling.

"I don't hate you," I tell her, time and again. "I love you. You need to go back to work, Mom. How're they supposed to survive without you? Come on... Mom..."

"I can't get up," she tells me, time and again. "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!" she spits into her pillow, and then she won't speak anymore, no matter how much I prod.


"Why do people change?" she asks, picking at one of her knuckles, as I pass by her room.

I look at her, through the matted brown hair and into the tired blue eyes, at the rumpled pink nightgown that she hasn't changed since she crawled into bed three weeks ago, at the thinness of her hands lying on top of the sheets.

"Sometimes they get sick," I say gently, "and it makes them different."

"Besides that," she says impatiently, her voice high. "Not everyone can be sick."

I stare at her. "Sometimes they're just being stupid," I say, and take a deep breath. "Anyone can be stupid."

I go down the hall to my bedroom and close the door. I turn up my music so I can't hear her crying.


"The Beatles are in town," she says one day, reading the paper.

"They're all dead, Mom. All but Paul." I flip on the bedside lamp and tell her not to read with the lights off.

She smiles up at me and flips it off. Her hand touches mine. We freeze for a minute.

"I took you to one of their concerts when you were a baby," she says quietly.

"They were dead then, too," I tell her, and I turn the light back on. I go to leave, but she grabs my wrist. Her fingers feel like ice.

"Sometimes I want to go outside," she tells me. "I want to get out of this room."

I smile at her, bright and full. "Really?"

"They'll take me when it's time," she says with a tearful grin. "You will call someone when I die, won't you?"


"Mom, I brought you breakfast."

She looks up from the pillow, her eyes dazed. "I don't want any, Steph."

"It's just a McMuffin. You love McMuffins."

"Leave it by the bed."

I walk over and place the bag carefully next to her on the floor. "I was thinking we could get a dog," I say suddenly.

"I was thinking I could slit my wrists and jump into the River Styx," she replies, turning over.

"Does that mean no?"

She doesn't answer. I open the bag and take out the McMuffin, picking at the yellow sheet of egg.

"I'm ravenous," she says, turning over and grabbing the food from my hand, stuffing it in her mouth.

"You haven't eaten in weeks," I say when she's swallowed her last bite.

She nods, holding her hand to her mouth.

"That's good, that you're eating. Maybe soon you can..."

She sits up in bed and coughs twice, then spits chunks of half-dissolved McMuffin onto my lap.

I wipe off the food and look up. She's laughing. "I'm getting a dog," I tell her, and leave.


I hold a warm, hairy mass in my arms. "His name is Charlie."

"He can't stay," she says, looking up at me. "He's cute though."

I stare at her. "I'd keep him downstairs. You'd never hear him."

"I'm allergic to dogs," she says, and rolls over, burying her face in her pillow.

"You're lying. We used to have dogs when I was little. I remember."

She picks her head up and stares at the wall. "Never."

"We did. Dad --"

"We never had a dog, Stephanie," she says, and puts her head down.

"He's buried in our backyard."

She rolls over onto her back. "Bury me next to him, then."

"You're not going to die, Mom."

She smiles sadly. "I get a little closer every day."


I put out food for Charlie and climb the stairs, carrying an envelope in my hands.

"Dad sent a letter," I say. "Open it."

"Tell him I'm not home," she says groggily, and closes her eyes again.

I go to leave. "Steph?" Her voice stops me. I turn my head to look at her.

"There was a Charlie in the Beatles, wasn't there?"

"No, Mom," I say quietly, and shut the door behind me.


My father wants custody. I tell Mom this over tuna sandwiches, sitting on the side of her bed. Her toes poke my back.

"He doesn't really want you," she says. "Just child support."

"You don't make any money," I tell her. "He'd spend more feeding and clothing me than he'd get from you."

She stares at me. "I do too make money."

"From what?" I challenge her.

"I take God's money when he's not looking." She drops the crust of her sandwich on her plate and smiles at me. "God's got a lot of money." She falls back on the bed and props herself up on her elbows. "You think he'll let me be an angel?"

"I want to go live with Dad," I say, avoiding the question.

She closes her eyes and sighs, and for the first time ever, it looks like she really is dying.


"You almost had a baby brother."

"I did not. Dad would've told me."

"He doesn't tell you everything." She takes a sip of water.

I shake my head. "Not anymore. But he used to."

"Did he tell you about Michael?"

I sit back and look her evenly in the eye. "Let me guess. He was the baby brother I almost had."

"No," she smiles. "He was our first dog. We buried him in the backyard."


When I was little, Mom and Dad went out every Thursday night. They always left me with the same babysitter, Jeannie, who chewed spearmint gum and smoked cigarrettes on our couch. Sometimes she had her boyfriend over. Then, when I was nine, my parents came home early and caught Jeannie on the couch, smoking and watching porn with her boyfriend while I played in the kitchen. Dad wanted to give her a second chance, but Mom said she had to go.

I like to think that was the beginning of the end.


I come home from school one day to find Mom downstairs, walking around the kitchen.

I stare.

"Hey, sweetie. Pork chops okay for dinner?"

Charlie jumps up and licks my face. I push him off. Leaning against the wall, I bury my face in my hands and laugh and laugh until I start to cry.


Mom is back in bed by the time I've finished changing my clothes. She left the pork chops on the counter, frozen solid as rocks.

"Dinner's cooking," she tells me when I show up at her door.

I nod. "Why'd you do it, anyway?"

She shrugs. "I thought you'd be proud."

"I am," I say softly. "I miss you sometimes, Mom."

She smiles. "But I'm right here."

Sometimes my mother is so logical it makes me want to cry.


We chew silently. Charlie ventures into the room and watches us eat, sitting placidly and panting. I put my plastic fork down and smile at my mother.

"I don't really want to move, Mom. I just said that."

She smiles weakly. "You sure, Steph?"

"Yeah. I like it here," I lie.


It's dark outside. I flip on the bedside lamp. "Mom?"

Her eyes fly open. "What?"

"Dad's girlfriend called a few minutes ago. They've invited me for the break. I won't be staying, just a couple days."

She sits up in bed. "But who will take care of me?"

"Charlie?" I offer.

But I already know I can't go.


I think she gets a little crazier every day. I come from the store one day to find her out in the yard, spinning around in circles. Charlie is tied to a nearby tree.

I walk over. "What are you doing?"

"Losing my inhibitions."

I stare at her for a moment longer and sigh. She stops spinning and collapses on the grass.

She pats the ground next to her. "Bury me right here," she laughs.

I close my eyes and listen to the wind.


Winter comes quickly. My father won't let me out of the trip I agreed to. I promise him one night, that's all. I don't even think my mother can handle that. I leave her instructions, written out and posted above her bed, and put Charlie in her room. But somehow I don't know how she'll do.

I get to the airport and climb off the plane, sick to my stomach. I'm not sure whether it was the airline peanuts or the turbulance or just leaving her, or maybe a classic case of all of the above. Dad greets me with open arms. His girlfriend smiles. They take me to the food court in a nearby mall and order me heaps of Chinese food. The girlfriend remarks that I'm getting too thin. I wonder how she can know this when she's never seen me before.

Dad asks how my mother's doing. I shrug. He asks again.

"She's fine. She's on the PTO again. Practically the president."

He nods. "How's her work? The catering business?"

"Great. People are singing praises for her... Um, pork chops. Left and right. It's all I hear about."

The girlfriend smiles. "I'm glad she's doing well."

I smile back and hope another lie doesn't manage to leak between my teeth.


Dad knocks on my door. "Just a minute," I tell my mother, and look up, holding my hand over the receiver.

He smiles warily. "I thought the high school cut the PTO."

"Reinstated. Mom was excited."

He nods. "Ah. You know what, honey?"


"I used to eat your mother's pork chops. They were terrible. Tough. Has she gotten better?"

I smile sweetly. "Loads better, now that you're gone."

He looks hurt for an instant, then sighs and closes the door. I put my ear back to the phone. "Mom?"

"Yes?" She sounds tired.

"How's Charlie?"

I hear her laugh. "Fine. Has your father asked about me?"

"Yeah, yeah, he has," I tell her.

"What did you say? All good things?"

I smile. "Yeah, Mom, all good things."

As if there was anything good to say.


My plane touches the ground at 3:52 in the afternoon. I hail a taxi and sit in the back with my duffle bag and my thoughts. We reach home before I have a chance to sort out too many of them. Mom is out in the backyard, sitting under an oak tree next to a small pile of dirt.

"He wouldn't stop barking," she tells me, and smiles.

I take a second to figure out what she means.

Then I scream.


"I'm sorry," she says again. She's lying in bed, eating a tomato sandwich.

I lie sullenly beside her. "Yeah."

"He was a cute dog."


I pick up an empty paper cup and throw it at the wall.

"Do you hate me now?"

I look at her out of the corner of my eye.


"I don't know," I say truthfully, and seeing the tears start in her eyes almost makes me smile.


"Dad called," I tell her, sitting on the edge of the bed. I sigh. "He said he sent you a summons and you didn't show up."


"They decided that I have to go live with him," I say. "They said you weren't stable enough to take care of me."

She sits up in bed, a worried look on her face, and takes my hand in hers. "But you won't really go, will you? You won't really leave me?"

I give her a sad smile and squeeze her cold fingers.

"But I need you," she says, her voice shaking. "I need you."

"I'm going to go get dinner," I announce, and pull my hand away.


I put a picture of her in the box, and look up to see her standing in the corner of my room. "You're taking me with you," she says with a tiny smile.

I nod.

"I'll miss you, you know."

I nod.

"Look, I'm getting better. I get out of bed nearly every day. Can't you stay, Steph? Please?"

I shake my head. "I have to go, Mom. Dad's lawyer said that since you didn't show for the hearing, I have to go." I've explained it to her a hundred times, but she never seems to understand.

I don't need to tell her that I would have gone, anyway.


Dad comes by to pick me up and drive me to the airport. He flew in to see my stuff got in the moving truck okay, and decided I might as well fly back with him. He wants to see Mom.

"She's not home," I say weakly, but it sounds more like a question than a fact.

He goes inside and heads up to their room. It used to be theirs. His feet are heavy on the wooden stairs. I remember when I was younger, I used to wait for that sound. In those days, it didn't sound quite so much like impending doom.

"Helen?" He knocks on the door, waits a moment, and opens it. I follow behind him. Mom is lying on the bed, propped up on her elbows.

She smiles when she sees me. "Stephanie? Are you staying?"

I look at him. It's his fault this all happened, anyway. If he hadn't moved out to California for that job, hadn't sent the divorce papers, hadn't met the girlfriend, she never would have started this. She never would have gotten so out of it.

Dad looks at me. He's waiting for me to say no, to put the final stamp of approval on this.

Mom looks at me. She's waiting for me to say anything. Lately, she drinks up my words like water, as if they're the only comfort and safety she needs.

"Stephie..." Mom says softly, and smiles a little. "I need you, Steph."

I look around her, at the crumpled up newspapers and dirty dishes, at the clothes strewn about as if she'd changed out of her grungy, foul-smelling pink nightgown even once in the last four months. I look at her matted hair and her big, bloodshot eyes, so trusting, so needy.

"I have to go, Mom," I tell her. "I have to."

I turn and run down the stairs. Dad says something I can't hear and follows. We're almost out the door, me shaking and him holding my shoulders and mumbling comforting words, when we hear it.

It's funny, how one gunshot can change everything.


We have to get a special permit to bury her in the yard. Dad wants to just put her in a cemetary and be done with it, but I won't let him.

When the gravediggers come they want to know where. I look at them for a moment. Then I start spinning around, around and around.

"What are you doing?" Dad screams at me. He doesn't understand.

"Losing my inhibitions," I tell him.

He lets me spin. They all let me spin, my skirt and hair whipping out around me, my arms like helicopter blades. I collapse on the grass with a thud.

"Right here," I say.


I stand on top of her grave. Dad's waiting in the car. We never had a funeral. I think it's sad, but I know noone would have come, anyway.

"I always said you weren't going to die," I say, looking down at the dirt beneath my feet. "I thought I had to teach you everything. Thought you couldn't do it without me. Maybe it was the other way around."

I sit down, not caring that my skirt is yellow and the fresh dirt is muddy from the recent rain. "Some Eleanor Rigby you are, huh?" I tap the dirt beneath my fingers with a tiny laugh. Dad honks the horn. "I didn't hate you," I tell her in a shaking voice. "Never."

I pick up a stick and carve a heart in the mud. "I guess God'll let you be an angel, if you really want it. I don't know how the whole angel thing works. Ask for me, okay?"

The horn honks again. "I need you more than you need me, you know."

That was always my biggest secret.
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