Salvador wants to blame everything on global warming but the summers have always been hot in the desert. I’m preparing things for our guests but he’s still running around in the boxers he bought from an expensive art boutique in Paris years ago. He’s claiming it’s too hot for clothes.
Covered in tiny yellow butterflies, the silk design looks less like a masterpiece and more like he’s got a problem with incontinence. At his age, it’s a miracle he doesn’t.
“You need to get dressed, Sal. They will be here any minute.”
“What? You don’t think they’ll like my fancy pants? I know you do.”
With this, he tries to do a little dance gyrating his hips toward me until something seems to catch and he winces. He braces himself against the kitchen counter and his cheeks flush red. I don’t laugh or ask if he’s okay. Long ago I learned his ego bruises easier than one of our garden tomatoes and with guests on the way I need him in a good mood.
He should be using his carved wooden cane but he’s often too proud. Despite his age, his lean body still contains hints of strength and youth. I can almost see the man he used to be and it gives me hope. His blue-grey eyes catch mine and I see hurt and maybe hesitation behind them. The pain of aging feels unfair and undignified. I wink at him and force a smile.
“Get dressed, Mr. Cassanova. Save the sexy for later.”
This does the trick and he saunters away into the bedroom the best he can with a slight limp. I consider crushing up some pain pills to put in his dinner but I think a few glasses of wine may have the same effect. We’ve got a lot riding on this evening and everything needs to go as planned. One misstep and we will have to abandon everything and start over.
Sprinkling a dash of fresh pepper on the top, I smile at the masterpiece waiting for our dinner guests—my grandmother’s rather unorthodox bean and rice casserole which takes an entire day to make. I slip the blue cast iron pot into the oven to keep it warm, take off my flowery apron, and stand in front of the hallway mirror to apply some pink lipstick and a little mascara.
Although my long silver hair looks stunning braided into a crown on the top of my head. I frown at the uneven tone of my skin and the way the wrinkles around my faded hazel eyes and mouth make my features appear sunken. I’ve never gotten used to seeing myself like this.
Salvador wraps his arms around my waist and nuzzles my neck. My body reacts to his touch, as it always has, and I breathe out loudly in fake annoyance. He laughs and steps back. Watching him in the mirror, I see him put up his wrinkled hands in surrender and then let them drop. When he speaks his voice is breathy and low. There are careful layers hidden behind his words and I wonder if he’s having second thoughts.
“You can’t blame me, Toba. You look so good in that dress. I want it to be just us.”
My emerald green dress has a plunging neckline and shows off all the parts of my body he loves so much. He leans against my back and reaches around to playfully tug on the intricate thick golden chain around my neck. I want so much for this moment to last but I can’t trust those feelings. Tonight needs to happen for everything to be okay again. One more time.
“You’ve seen me wear this dress a hundred times, Sal. Now, let’s look at you!”
Spinning around I face him and examine his white linen pants and rich burgundy silk shirt with tiny brass buttons. He’s swooped back his unruly grey hair with gel taming it to the sides of his head, but I know it won’t stay down for long. Our outfits go well together and I pull him beside me and turn back to the mirror to take us both in. We are a stunning pair for being in our 70s and I know it will put us at an advantage tonight.
The doorbell rings and Sal pulls me to him for a quick kiss. There’s homesickness in the way his lips press into mine, and I know it’s been too long since I’ve allowed myself to sink into him. There’s been too much to organize and sort through. I’ve barely kept it together, but tonight will change it for us. Hope makes me feel bold as I kiss him passionately on his neck.
“Tell them to go away.”
His voice and body shudder. For a moment I worry he’s forgotten where we are but then he smiles and his hands travel along my body tracing the curves until he reaches the places he likes best. Does this need to happen? Is he trying to tell me he doesn’t want to go through with it? It’s been so long since I’ve seen such clarity and passion behind those cloudy eyes and I want to send our guests away and simply be devoured by him. The doorbell rings again and I hear Frida’s soft voice.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Reality rings through me and I reluctantly pull myself from Sal’s strong arms. He looks like he may cry so I grab his hands in mine and squeeze them. If I could freeze time I’d lock us at the doorway with passion flowing electrically between us, but I can’t. Tonight is important. I will him to understand the message in my eyes and then kiss him quickly on the cheek.
“Later, my love.”
My voice cracks. Tears threaten to erupt and I pinch my forearms hard to bring myself back to this moment. Draping purpose around my shoulders and swallowing hard, I step around him and open the door to our guests.
His voice trails behind me and the word lands on my shoulders pressing so hard I stumble in my flat ballet shoes as if they are the six-inch stilettos of my youth. Sal says nothing more and I wonder if perhaps I’ve misread his intentions. Maybe this was a mistake after all.
“Hello!” I say. “Welcome to our little home!”
Frida and her date stand beaming in the doorway with a bottle of wine and a bouquet of fresh colorful tulips. I chose Frida for her stunning curves, gorgeously thick black hair, and rich brown eyes. She’s wearing a white linen dress and I realize how perfect she will look standing beside Sal. It feels almost like fate and it eases some of my anxiety.
Her partner for the evening, though, surprises me. From our conversations at the coffee shop, I expected her to be attracted to the artsy kind with glasses and wild hair. Instead, this tall dark man looks like a supermodel complete with a dimpled smile and incredibly deep brown eyes. I blush a little as he steps forward and kisses my cheek.
Frida follows behind him and kisses me as well. The rich rose scent coming off her makes me wish I’d thought to spruce myself up a bit more. I probably smell like food and perhaps Sal’s musky aftershave. They are an extraordinary and glamorous pair.
“This is my dear friend, Diego,” Frida says. “We met on holiday in Rome last year and haven’t tired of each other yet.”
Diego winks at her and then turns his attention back to me.
“We are so grateful you invited us to your home. Frida can’t stop raving about her new friend and her famous artist husband.”
With a look of fake embarrassment, she playfully punches him on his tanned muscular arm. I straighten my back and remind myself of my mission. Play the part, Toba. You are fully capable of this. You’ve done this many, many times before. You can do it again.
“Don’t mind him, Toba. He’s just jealous I’ve been talking about someone other than him.”
“Guilty as charged.”
They both laugh and I join in and take the bundle of beautiful flowers from Frida and place them in an empty vase just inside the door. Sal has disappeared. This doesn’t work without him and I feel panic squirming inside my gut—a swarm of wild cicadas chirping “danger, danger.” I hate this feeling.
What if he’s forgotten they are here? What if he’s gone to the studio to paint or climbed the ladder to the rooftop garden? What if it’s not a good day after all? His memory has been slipping more and more. I need him alert and strong tonight.
Sal appears in the doorway to the kitchen holding a bamboo tray with four crystal wine glasses and a bright silver bottle opener. Winking at me, he crosses the cozy living room and places it on the wooden coffee table. There’s a look of triumph in his eyes at the look of shock in mine. He remembers.
“Thank you,” I say. “Diego and Frida, I’d like you to meet my husband Sal.”
Diego crosses and the two shake hands, but Frida looks a little starstruck. She hasn’t moved and I savor this moment. My words have worked on her. The spell is cast.
“I’m…I’m…oh, my goodness, listen to me babbling. I’m sorry. I’m just such a big fan of your work and I can’t believe I’m finally meeting you.”
“Well, I hope I’m not a disappointment to such a stunning woman as yourself.”
Sal steps forward takes her hand and kisses it gently. Frida blushes and Diego pulls her to him with a giggle. I get the sense he’s jealous of her obsession with both of us and that’s understandable. It’s far worse than he can imagine, however. I swallow back regret and shame. There’s no time for that.
“You are everything I thought you’d be and more.”
Frida’s cheeks are pink and her voice sounds a bit shaky. She stares around the room at Sal’s paintings, her eyes wide and filled with tears she doesn’t even try to hide. His artwork has this effect on most women and I watch a small smile cross Sal’s face. It’s always nice to be appreciated.
Diego offers to open the bottle of wine and Sal nods, taking my hand and sitting with me on our stripped green couch. Frida walks around to look closer at “Midnight in the Garden” and then “Dinner for Two.” Diego removes the cork and pours four glasses of a strong-smelling red wine. Sal squeezes my knee.
After passing a drink to each of us, Frida and Diego sit in the two antique chairs across the coffee table and we all stare at each other. Youth and beauty radiate from both of them. It’s an almost tangible thing in this dim room—a glowing warmth I feel calling me. I deserve to feel this again.
There’s a brief moment of silence, but Diego laughs and fills it with his confident, booming voice. He’s a man used to having everyone looking at him with a strong jawline and a head full of luscious deep, black curls. Confidence mixed with the arrogance of old money.
“You’ve got a beautiful house here, Sal. It’s quite a bit away from the world though, isn’t it? I suppose that’s on purpose. Wanted a break from the big city life? All your adoring fans?”
With this, he gives Frida a little patronizing glare but she doesn’t notice. She’s staring back and forth from Sal to his paintings. Her eyes are glassy and she’s barely blinked.
“We chose this location for the stunning views of the night sky. There’s nothing else quite like it,” I say. “Perhaps you saw it when you drove in?”
Diego nods and then goes on and on about telescopes and seeing the Aurora Borealis from his yacht. I’m more interested in the way Frida’s looking at Sal. She’s barely sipped her wine and she’s holding tight to the arms of the chair. Her soft voice cuts off Diego in mid-sentence.
“Have you painted the sky, Sal?”
Everyone looks at her and she blushes. Her red lipstick has left a slight mark on her glass and the dim light of the room makes her thick hair appear shiny and wet. Sal smiles gently and avoids looking at either me or Diego.
“Yes, I’ve painted many versions of the night sky. Hundreds, maybe thousands.”
Frida leans forward and I almost laugh as she presses her breasts together unnecessarily. There’s no denying her beauty in any setting but she seems to be untethered. This is happening far faster than it should.
“I bet they are wonderful.”
“Would you like to see one?”
The timer I set in the kitchen dings right on time. Sal finishes a second glass of wine with a huge gulp. Memory seems to be returning to him. He knows what’s happening and appears to be playing the part a bit too early.
“Why don’t we eat first,” I say.
Diego nods and adds, “Yes, I’m rather hungry.”
He pulls Frida’s arm but she doesn’t move. It’s as if the world has shrunk down for her and all she can see is Sal. An artist and a muse.
As familiar as the scene is for me, it never gets easier. The gravitational pull of Sal’s magnetic energy feels electric and I have to shake my head to avoid allowing jealous thoughts to take form. Play your part, Toba. No second guessing or stopping it now. One more time.
“Diego, would you help me set the table?”
Without a word, he looks from Frida to Sal and then follows me into the kitchen. I hand him the deep blue starry napkins and point to the small round table outside on the veranda surrounded by strings of white globe lights. He blinks back tears and doesn’t move.
“There will always be a Sal to take her from me.”
He’s not talking to me, but I understand the feeling. If I didn’t need Frida so badly I’d happily end this all right now. This isn’t something I accounted for, his feelings, and I feel a bit ashamed of myself for not realizing it before this moment. He will suffer from tonight, yes, but men like him always bounce back. He will be fine.
“He’s an old man, Diego. You are handsome and strong. You have nothing to fear.”
My words seem to have shaken him back to life and he looks at me as if he has no idea what I’m talking about. He laughs, grabs the pile of silverware sitting on the counter, and walks smoothly out the back door. Far off in the desert, I hear the howl of a lonely wolf calling for its pack.
I watch Diego from my place in the kitchen as he gently sets the table with careful attention to detail. A graceful man with long limbs and manicured hands. There’s an ease and beauty about him and I realize I’d have fallen hard for him in my youth. He stares up at the night sky and scowls.
“It’s not so great.”
He’s mumbling when he returns to grab the bowls and the basket of fresh-baked bread. I can tell he’s unnerved far greater than even he himself understands. Perhaps he feels the danger sparking around him but can’t name it.
Purposely I move into his path and smile at him holding the dutch oven in my hand. Tilting the lid, the strong spicy scent of the dish spills out around us. He returns my smile.
“That smells wonderful.”
“Thank you. It’s a family recipe passed down for generations on my mother’s side. I’m the fifth woman in my family to make it and it’s only for special guests like you, Diego.”
This compliment seems to have brought back some of his joie de vivre and he takes the heavy dish from my hands outside to the table. Frida and Sal join us moments later and I can tell she’s on the hook. A few more well-placed words combined with the food and we’ll have her.
“What did you think of my Sal’s work?”
Frida and Diego greedily spoon the food into their mouths while Sal and I watch. It’s working. They seem mesmerized and although I can’t be sure, I think Sal’s already feeling better. He touches my leg under the table. Diego begins talking with a mouthful of food.
“Forgive my manners, but this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten and that’s saying something. I’ve eaten at the finest restaurants in the world and nothing compares. I’m serious. You could make a fortune on this dish.”
They always want to make money off of it. I’m disappointed by his predictability, but it’s Frida who matters right now. Smiling, I repeat my question.
“What did you think of my Sal’s work?”
Her dark brown eyes look up and meet mine for the first time since starting dinner and I can see the start of the change in them. They are smokey and the pupils shrunk so small you can barely see them, a tiny seed in a murky sea.
“Oh, it’s just about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The phoenix…the moon…I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I wasn’t prepared for any of this. It’s just so…overwhelming.”
Frida begins to cry and Diego looks alarmed but can’t seem to stop himself from spooning the food into his mouth. Frida scoots her chair back and walks around the table until she’s standing beside Sal’s chair. It’s time.
“Would you like to watch me paint something?”
Sal stands and squeezes my left hand. Neither of us like this part, but tonight will be the last time. We’ve agreed on just one more painting. One more canvas covered in blood. One more shot at youth. This time we won’t waste it playing and traveling. We will have a family—a daughter to pass things onto. We will be smarter and more careful. One more time.
“I’d like nothing more.”
Frida’s crying harder now and her voice cracks, but when Sal takes her hand a rush of happiness causes her to visibly relax. He guides her down the winding path behind the house to his studio. She will give her life for us. For Sal. She will be his muse. Our sacrifice. Another great work of art.
Diego continues to eat but panic has set into his eyes. I move so I’m sitting on the table beside him and begin to sing. The rich tenor of my voice spills out around us, following Sal and Frida to their tasks, and flowing out into the desert in all directions. It’s a visible mist now and Diego breathes it in.
He’s smiling by the time I walk him to his car. There will be no memory of visiting us and he’ll forget about Frida too. Tomorrow will be a new day for him, for all of us, and I kiss him on the cheek. He pulls me into a tight embrace.
“Goodbye, dearest Diego.”
“Goodbye, my love.”
There’s no confusion on his face. He’s forgotten already. I watch until the red taillights of his silver car disappear over the horizon and then spin in a circle. The aches and pains of aging are already fading and I can’t wait to jump into Sal’s arms and make love in the morning.
One more time.
Author’s note: The process of writing continues to both amaze and delight me. I started out with an idea of an elderly couple needing to sell a forged piece of art to not lose their house. The husband perhaps has dementia. However, as I started to get to know Sal and Toba, something far more sinister appeared to be brewing. When the ending hit me I was again surprised by it and I had to go back and rewrite the beginning to match. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did writing it.
Short Story Challenge | Week 33
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about a dinner party. We had to include phoenix, canvas, homesick, evening, spicy, rooftop, cicada, orthodox, ding, and spruce.
“What’s that horrible sound?” Walter asks, setting his black coffee mug on the wooden end table and muting the television. He misses the coaster by an inch.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Winnie says, moving the cup onto the coaster for him before she hears it—a harsh, grinding noise far off in the distance. A chainsaw, perhaps, or a car struggling to start.
“For heaven’s sake. I need quiet! Is that too much to ask?”
Winnie takes a drink of her coffee to avoid answering. There’s a shiny black rhinoceros beetle eating a banana on the screen and the movements of its big horn line up with the loud sound outside. Winnie giggles. Walter grunts.
“What’s so funny?”
She points at the strange insect on the TV and her husband turns it off. With a dramatic sigh, he hoists himself from his green-striped chair and walks with three slow shuffling steps to stand before the large bay window. He adjusts the glasses on his nose and stares in the direction of the noise.
Sunlight reflects off the many crystal prisms hung in the window casting round rainbows into Walter’s thin, grey hair and across his unshaven face. Winnie loves him, even if he makes her feel bad most days. Next month will be 40 years of marriage. They should plan a party.
“This won’t do.”
Turning toward her, she can see the anger and accusation in his grey eyes. He blames her for anything and everything that’s gone wrong since she insisted they sell the farm and move to this small house near town. She didn’t want to move either, but they couldn’t keep up with the work of the farm. They are both in their 70s, their only child lived more than two hours away, and Walter has a heart condition. It was the right choice to move, but he holds it against her. He makes her pay.
Coming up beside him she slips her arm around his waist and leans her head onto his shoulder. He used to tower over her, but now they are closer in height. As he shrugs her away she sidesteps, pretending to check the succulents on the windowsill to see if they need water. The tenderness between them has been replaced with iciness. It burns.
“There’s nothing to be done. I’m sure the sound will stop soon. Let’s watch the rest of our show. Those beetles are really fascinating.”
The grinding outside gets louder and sounds as if it’s coming toward them. Walter leans closer to the window and she does too. There’s no sign of whatever is making the noise.
“Can’t you do something?”
He’s not using his cane and wobbles for a second, but Winnie knows better than to put out her arm to steady him. The hair on the back of his neck is standing up like some pissed-off alleycat and she tries to rub his back. Stepping away, he makes a low sound. Did he just hiss at her?
“What would you have me do, Walter? You need to relax.”
“Don’t tell me to relax. You can find a way to make it stop. I need quiet—you already know this. It’s not good for my blood pressure.”
Translation: you made me move here and I hate it. I’m going to use my anger at the situation and your worry about my heart to make you feel sorry for me instead of taking responsibility for my own actions.
“Walter, are you seriously asking me to get dressed, leave the house, track down the source of the noise, and get it to stop?”
“I’m asking you to care.”
Using the wall to steady himself, he presses past her and disappears into the kitchen. She hears him pulling out the big silver pot from under the sink and slamming it onto the tile counter. They’re supposed to make two different fruit jams tomorrow, but it sounds like he’s starting it now. Winnie feels the tightness in her lower back and knows she won’t be much help. Damn him.
She straightens the pillows on the couch and gathers up the coffee mugs before heading to the kitchen. Walter lowers the peaches with a wooden spoon into the pot of boiling water. His eyes look red and it’s obvious he’s been crying.
Winnie feels a wave of exhaustion as she slumps down into one of the yellow kitchen chairs and looks out the small open window. They really should get a new screen, but the old farmhouse didn’t have any and it reminds her of home. She loves to sit here with her eyes closed and hear the sounds of the world—even if they are far different living in suburbia than out in the country. Today, she only hears the horrible grinding sound. What could be making such a racket?
Something brushes against her cheek and she opens her eyes. A brightly colored peacock feather lays in front of her. It must have flown in the window. She picks it up and stares at it in wonder. A magical gift.
“Walter, look at this!”
Keeping his hands on the counter he turns and his eyes widen upon seeing such a beautiful, delicate thing on their cluttered wooden table. It reminds them both instantly of their favorite family memory when their daughter wanted to be a turkey for Halloween. She’d proclaimed it at the breakfast table on the first day of October dressed in a mustard-colored jumper, her red hair braided into two long braids, and her feet stuffed into mismatched rain boots.
“A wild turkey with lots and lots of feathers,” she said, jumping up and down and shaking her butt.
Even then, at barely three years old, their only child knew what she wanted. A perfectly wild, free-spirited mix of the two of them, Wren made each day adventurous and challenging. They loved her with a ferocity verging on mania and they both knew if something happened to her they’d not survive. She was their everything.
They worked on the costume in secret each night after Wren went to bed and hid it on the top shelf of the pantry during the day. Walter collected feathers in the woods behind the farm and sheared one of the sheep for stuffing. Winnie attached the feathers one by one with a perfect whipstitch to a fluffy suit made to look fat and round by the fresh wool.
A day before Halloween they decided to show it to her. They needed her to try it on so they could make sure the placement of the wings hit the right spots of her body and make any last-minute changes.
“Surprise!” they said together holding it up when she woke from her afternoon nap.
“What is it?”
“A turkey,” Walter said.
“Just like you wanted,” Winnie said. “Your costume.”
Falling onto the floor in a heap of anguish, Wren sobbed and sobbed. Both parents sat beside her confused, waiting patiently until she could catch her breath and explain the costume catastrophe cry fest. Several minutes later she bolted to her room and emerged with a sketch of the “turkey” complete with colorful blue, green, and gold feathers.
Walter scooped her up into his arms and explained the mixup and asked what they could do to fix it. He was always so good at staying calm with her, listening, and problem-solving. They deconstructed the costume and using dye, an old umbrella, and lots of hot glue, turned the turkey into a beautiful peacock with a few minutes to spare before trick-or-treating.
“She was the cutest peacock ever,” Walter says.
“It seems like yesterday.”
Silence falls between them for a minute as they both relive that night. Driving in the old red pickup holding hands while the colorful peacock and her little brown and white dog Gromit bounced around the back. They’d driven down one of the long, gravel farm driveways and she’d jumped out and ran to the door with her hollow plastic pumpkin, Gromit barking at her heels. The neighbors would give her candy and she’d repay them with little gleeful laughs and grateful hugs.
Both Walter and Winnie jump as the grinding sound erupts outside, much closer and louder this time. It’s a low strong bass-heavy booming sound and it causes the windows to rattle, the wind chimes to move, and a picture to fall off the wall. Winnie retrieves Walter’s cane from where he left it in the living room and the couple steps onto the front porch together.
“What in the heck is that?”
High above them, amongst a bright blue sky with streaking white clouds, are hundreds of glowing balls of light moving in straight even lines across the sky. They appear to have no mass, no distinct anything really. More like bubbles than anything. Booming bubbles.
“I have no idea, Walter.”
Looking around, it appears most of the neighbors aren’t home. Is it possible in their attempt at simplifying their lives by cutting out watching the news has backfired? Did they miss some kind of important announcement? Wren will know what to do.
Winnie leaves Walter sitting in his old rocker on the front porch and finds the pot of water still boiling on the stove. She turns it off and leaves the mushy peaches where they are. Retrieving her cell phone from where she left it plugged in last night, she grabs the binoculars Walter uses to watch the birds and a bottle of water.
“They’ve stopped moving,” Walter says.
She hands him the binoculars and the water bottle before taking her place beside him on the porch. The bubble things sit still and silent in the sky. Maybe it’s some kind of sun flare or an optical illusion.
Not only has the sound stopped but everything around them seems paused. There’s no bird song. No rumbling cars in the distance. It’s quieter than a night on the farm and it makes them both feel uneasy.
Wren lives a few miles away in an apartment with her girlfriend Jade. They run a trendy coffee shop downtown filled with their artwork, used books, and mismatched comfy sofas. They have open-mic nights, write-ins, and art shows.
Winnie attends a lot of the events, but feels jealous and a bit out of place. Her daughter and their friends are so cool, free, and creative. It’s intimidating. After retrieving her reading glasses from her pocket, she sends Wren a text.
“Hey, it’s mom. Call me ASAP. It’s urgent.”
Walter hands Winnie the binoculars and then takes a long drink of water. He’s shaking slightly and Winnie realizes he needs to eat or his blood sugar will get too low. Before she can get to her feet, however, he reaches out his hand and squeezes it. There are tears in his eyes.
She presses the binoculars to her face and then lowers them covering her mouth in shock. The things aren’t bubbles at all but shiny metal ovals which are lowering slowly toward the ground. Not a solar flare. Not an optical illusion. Things. She checks her phone and finds Wren’s message unread. It’s not like her.
“What do we do?”
Walter doesn’t answer at first and Winnie isn’t sure if he heard her or if he’s thinking. She feels her heart beating fast. Every science fiction movie and television show plays through in her mind. Please let this be the Prime Directive kind of aliens and not the old “we are out of room on our planet and need yours” kind. Actually, let it not be aliens at all.
“We have to find Wren and Jade. Family should be together for whatever this is.”
Nodding, Winnie rises to her feet and hands the cell phone to Walter.
“I’m going to pack up a few things. You keep trying Wren.”
Walter nods and then grabs her hand and squeezes it. They’ve always been a team in crisis and she can see today will be no different. His eyes are softer now and she’s hit with a wave of gratitude for all he’s done to protect her over the years. She wants to say so much, but panic and worry about their daughter wins out and she lets go. When she’s inside she hears him call out to her.
“It’s going to be okay.”
The confidence and strength she has always admired in him can be heard in those words and it brings stinging tears to her eyes. He will get them through this. They just need to focus on finding Wren and it will all be okay. Whatever is happening, they can face it as a family.
Digging out an old black backpack of Wren’s from the hall closet covered in tiny buttons, Winnie fills it with Walter’s medicine and some food. Going into the bedroom, she pulls out two large suitcases. One she drags to the kitchen and fills with canned goods, chips, nuts, and a can opener.
The second suitcase she sets on the couch and fills with things from around the house. The photo albums from the bookshelf. A tiny pink crochet baby dress with a matching bonnet from a box under her bed—the first thing Wren wore after being born in front of the fireplace 35 winters ago. Wren’s painting of the farm hanging above the fireplace. Her grandmother’s antique perfume bottles from the top of her vanity. All the jewelry Walter and Wren have given her, including a locket with a piece of baby hair inside. Her favorite rose teapot.
Walter unlocks the white van and he helps her load the bags into the back. They add pillows, blankets, and several large bottles of water. It reminds them both of the big fire when Wren was 10, scrambling to evacuate before it got too big and the roads were closed.
Walter stayed back and used his tractor to dig trenches/fire breaks around the farm and help his neighbors do the same. The fire stopped less than 20 feet from their large barn, but not before burning all their crops and half the county. It was a terrifying time, but they were a lot younger and had more energy to get things done. Now, it feels like too much.
Collapsing into the van, they are exhausted and sweaty from all the activity. Winnie makes Walter eat a protein bar and take an extra blood pressure pill. She takes a handful of painkillers for her back and hip. Checking the phone again she sees her message to Wren remains unread. Her stomach drops.
“I hope she’s okay, Walter. It’s not like her to not answer.”
“It’s barely noon. Maybe they had an art opening last night and she’s still asleep. She keeps her phone away from her bed like we do. I’m sure she’s okay.”
While Winnie appreciates his optimism, she can tell by the fast way he pulls out of the driveway he doesn’t quite believe it himself. They both look up at the sky and see the bubble things have gotten much lower. How long did it take them to pack things up? How long do they have before something truly terrible happens? Can they reach their daughter before then?
They pull onto a deserted freeway and drive for a few minutes before reaching downtown and taking the exit leading to Wren’s apartment. One of the silver bubble things sits atop a window-covered skyscraper, balanced on its peak like a marble on the end of a pen.
Winnie’s aware of the hysteria now in her voice. She can’t help it. The streets are empty. Homeless camps abandoned. Businesses open without electricity or people. Stoplights don’t blink red, they are simply not working at all.
Rolling down her window she finds the eerie quiet far scarier than it was on their little suburban street. They drive through an oval shadow and she pokes out her head to see another one of the things has reached the building level. It looks shiny but still without any real substance. If only she had something sharp she’s sure she could burst it.
“We need to get to Wren. She’ll know what to do.”
She loves her husband’s faith in her daughter and can’t help but feel the same way. Since moving close to the city, Wren and Jade have helped them with everything. They arrange their groceries to be delivered, take them out to fancy dinners, and make sure they always have tickets to every show in town.
Last Friday Wren and Jade took her to get pedicures and out to lunch at a fancy cafe with mimosas in huge crystal goblets. That weekend they took Walter for a drive in the country and asked him to teach them the names of the different birds hanging around the rice fields. They are beautiful, wonderful girls. Women. She loves them both very much.
Pulling up to the three-story historic white building they don’t see Wren’s little gold car parked out front. In fact, there are no cars anywhere. Slipping through the unlocked side gate, they enter the small courtyard shared by three apartment buildings. It has a large stone fountain in the center surrounded by planters of hollyhocks, oxeye daisies, and marigolds.
Walter stops at a green picnic bench and sits.
“Go on without me. I’ll wait here.”
Winnie wants to argue but she’s anxious to reach her daughter and Walter walks so slow with his cane. Kissing him on the top of the head she sprints as fast as her aching body will let her to the blue stone staircase leading to the front door of her daughter’s apartment building. It’s really a beautiful place—old and decorative. It’s so Wren.
There are only five stone steps but Winnie finds herself grasping the thick metal handrails and pulling herself up inch by inch. She’s really tired. Packing the van was too much for both of them and she’s wondering if they should have stayed put and waited for Wren. What if she’s gone to fetch them and they aren’t there?
When she reaches the top another horrible thought occurs to her. If the electricity is out the elevator won’t be working. Her daughter lives in a penthouse on the third floor. Winnie won’t make it up all those stairs. It’s not possible. This all feels so foolish.
With a final look up toward the thing in the sky, she turns the large brass knob to at least call to Wren from inside. It’s locked. No! She hadn’t thought of this. It’s always unlocked.
She bangs both fists on the hardwood for several minutes. The sound echoes around her but nobody comes, except Walter clunking toward her with his heavy wooden cane. He stops at the bottom step and leans on a large stone lion.
“The door’s locked. We can’t get in. What if she’s up there unconscious or something and we can’t reach her? What if she needs us, Walter? We can’t do anything! I’m useless!!”
She didn’t mean for it to come out and she covers her mouth a bit shocked at herself. Tears flow down her face and she takes steading breaths to stop herself from losing it completely. It’s not true, she knows it’s not, but she’s felt it for a long time. Far longer than losing Wren to college. Far longer than losing the farm. She’s felt useless most of her life.
Walter smiles up at her. It’s a genuinely kind smile and it reminds her so much of the boy he was when they met. She’s drawn to him, like she was back then, hobbling down the small staircase and landing in his arms. He pulls her close. He smells of Old Spice and wood. Why does he always smell so good?
“You have never been useless a day in your life, my love. From the moment we met you saved me. I don’t deserve you.”
From above them, the metal bubble softly sighs releasing a gentle, cool breeze. The courtyard fills with dancing cherry blossoms swirling in all directions—a private, silent show for two. They sit together on the bottom step and catch the delicate petals in their hands, a bouquet of pale pink and white.
Sunlight becomes darkness as the thing above them descends lower bringing stillness and cold. Peacock feathers float around them, first a few and then hundreds. Each contains a memory of their child—she’s here with them. They feel her in every feathery touch and they smile at the life they’ve had together. It was good. They did good. When the grinding sound comes they don’t flinch or look up. They hold hands and smile.
Author’s note: Each week I’m inspired by something in my life and it flows into my stories either directly or indirectly. These peacock pictures are from my trip to Oregon last week and they were begging me to use them somehow in a story. I struggled for a few days to find a direction to take Winnie and Walter but ultimately was led to the empty courtyard filled with feathers. This is my 30th short story this year and I feel both depleted and inspired. Your likes and comments keep me going, so please let me know what you think of the story in the comments below. Share with a friend if you really like it. Thanks for reading and have a great week!
Short Story Challenge | Week 30
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write about parents solving a problem together. We had to include rhinoceros, umbrella, announcement, petal, feather, fruit, placement, sketch, wobble, and boil.
Sometimes my teenage daughter’s anxiety gets too big, and I pick her up early from school.
I know her education is important, but living through a pandemic has changed my priorities and perspective. When she calls me, I don’t hesitate and I don’t make her feel bad. I get her.
Last week I picked her up after a flurry of upsetting texts. She told me her mental health was bad again. It scared me. It scared her. She’d kept it from me for weeks because she didn’t want to make me sad. My heart broke she’d tried to protect me, and I felt I had to say the right thing.
“We face what is,” I said.
These four words felt important.
I repeated them.
“We face what is.”
This opened the door for her to share, and for me to listen. We made plans for her to get new kinds of help, and to pursue roads to healing we hadn’t considered before. I reminded her she isn’t alone, and I’m more interested in her truth than in feeling comfortable and happy.
The next day, I was sitting alone and spiraling out about my eyes.
My eye to be specific.
I’ve got one good eye and one lazy one. It’s been this way my entire life, and normally it’s not on my mind. But lately, I’ve had trouble seeing when I read, or when I’m on the phone. Things were blurry and I couldn’t read the instructions on a medicine bottle. I bought a pair of reading glasses, and it helped. This should have been the end of it.
However, my anxiety over the experience grew and grew. It became unruly, demanding more and more of my attention and emotional energy.
I’d convinced myself I must have some horrible disease, most likely brought on by my weight gain and laziness. I began to tally all the ways I’m failing at caring for myself. I don’t wear my sunglasses all the time. I spend too much time on screens. I don’t blink enough. I got bacon grease in my eye on Christmas morning, which was irresponsible and preventable if I’d paid better attention. I haven’t done enough research to see how to protect my eyesight. I don’t eat enough green leafy vegetables or omega-3 fatty acids. I’m going to lose my ability to see, and it will be my own fault.
As I sat still, berating myself, those four words I told my daughter came to me.
“We face what is.”
I looked up the number of an optometrist near me and made an appointment.
As I sat in the waiting room, all the anxiety and blame thick about me, I kept countering it with those four words. Whatever the eye doctor tells me, I will face. I have family and friends who will love and support me. I can’t face what I don’t know.
As I went through the exam, I made lots of self-deprecating jokes. I knew I had to keep the mood as light as possible, and I had to keep talking.
“Which is better? One or two? Three or four?”
Each question was scary. The letters I couldn’t see felt ominous, surely indicators of something serious. I kept trying to hear it in her voice, waiting for the bad news to drop.
My eye’s fine. I’m getting older. It’s normal.
She prescribed reading glasses, the same kind I’m already using. She told me I’m okay.
We face what is.
I have some other health things I have to face. I’ve put on too much weight. I have pains in my hips and back. I’m concerned I might be pre-diabetic, it runs in my family, or I could be putting too much strain on my heart. I’m taking steps to correct my health, which means facing things like the scale, a check-up at the doctor, and returning to the gym. All of these things feel hard, and damn, there’s a lot of judgment and guilt around them.
However, I can’t do anything without turning toward what is. I have to stop ignoring the truth for some pretend comfort. I have people who count on me, and I have a lot more I want to do with my life. There’s no reason to run from perceived scary things or to let myself build them up until they are monstrous. It’s far better to shine a light on them.
The bath bomb transformed the water a vibrant blue and I stared at it, silence all around me, searching for something it reminded me of.
The eyes of someone I love.
The sky at dawn near the mountains when the moisture is thick about you.
The hydrangea bushes in front of my childhood friend’s house.
It was then I caught sight of my body below it. Startled, I thought, I don’t know this body.
My wrinkled stomach like a balloon deflated, yet somehow full, was shockingly white. My thighs, covered in dozens of freckles, looked like the skin of my daughter’s back. I had to touch them to see if it was me.
I’m 40 years old, and I feel as if I barely know anything at all. It’s off-putting to feel so unsure of yourself, so undone by your life, so completely and utterly alone.
“You need to stop being so busy.”
“What are you running from?”
I’ve heard these words from my mother and friends for years.
They ask me as if I know.
They look at me as if I can see.
I can’t. I don’t know. I’m not who you think I am.
This is such self-centered bullshit, all of it, this blog, my life, my writing. I’m beating my head against a brick wall praying for it to be a pillow so I can rest. Walking around, moving, moving, moving, always moving, so I don’t feel the truth of it all crush me.
Don’t look at me, but please for the love of God would somebody look at me. I’m more than the chores I do around my house, the books I escape into, the words I write in desperation, the tears I don’t even allow out anymore.
I’m alone in the blue of the water, sinking into nothing, slowly heading toward nothing, but still dreaming and hoping for something.
This morning I woke up early to make steel-cut oatmeal with homemade applesauce. I spooned it into pretty bowls, played the “Moana” soundtrack and tried hard to listen to my kids for the entire drive to school.
Yesterday, I made pink homemade bubble solution and watched all the “tricks” the kids wanted to show me; a bubble stacked on a bubble, a bubble inside another bubble and “look there’s a mosquito inside a bubble!” (That one was impressive).
These were premeditated mothering moments.
I don’t dislike doing these things for my kiddos. Not at all. I’m just finding I must “manufacture” them more than I used to. I don’t have the kind of mental and emotional energy I had for entertaining my kids. It’s not “spontaneous” anymore.
I plan these moments out now and make deals with myself.
Be a patient, good mother all morning and when you get back home you can stare out the window for 30 minutes.
Play three games of Sorry! after homework, then you can make the kids play outside and listen to your audiobook while cooking dinner.
These deals keep me going, because motherhood is hard and I don’t want to share my candy or my blanket.
I don’t want to hear how unfair everything in the world is, how blobfish are the ugliest creatures on earth, every detail of a dream which includes the phrase “and for some random reason” about a thousand times, how adorable sugar gliders are and the life-changing effect a giant pogo stick would have on our family.
I just want to sit in silence and do what I want.
So, I do extra things when I can muster it up and make deals to push myself. I cut sandwiches into hearts. I fill hot water bottles up before bed. I massage their feet. I listen to the same story over and over.
Sometimes I’m rewarded with moments of pure motherhood bliss.
When my girl puts her hand on my chest because, “I can feel the warmth of your heart momma.” Swoon.
When my boy curls up in my chair, and I rub his head, and he coos the same sound he has made since he was an infant. Nothing better.
But then there are the moments when they are so loud, I can’t even breath. When the sound of their voices, even in play, makes me want to scream.
Yesterday, I read the same paragraph 15 times because the kids were laughing so loud I couldn’t comprehend the words in front of me.
They run by as squirrels, bears, monsters, quickly morphing from one to the next effortlessly with a kind of unhinged glee I can’t ever remember feeling.
They tear things out of every cupboard to make elaborate costumes, forts and lands, in an endless game of pretend which leaves me feeling dizzy with the speed and ferocity of it all.
Don’t you guys want to watch some TV?
Did I just say that?
Yes, I did.
I am turning 40 years old in April and I think I’m having a stereotypical freak-out. I don’t want to. I keep telling myself, it’s a number and it means nothing.
But, shit, I still have so much stuff to do.
I was supposed to have written lots of books by now, have tons of friends, explored castles and be a serious grownup.
I still sneak candy, forget to brush my teeth and don’t like vegetables (I only pretend to so my kids will eat them). I wear all black like a moody teenager, love Harry Potter, cry when I’m disappointed and don’t know what I’m doing.
When I pay bills and taxes I feel my age. When my back hurts after scrubbing the tub or my hand hurts from sleeping on it wrong, I think maybe this is adult life.
But, I don’t feel like an adult.
Maybe I never well.
I’m just Bridgette, and maybe accepting all my contradictions is the most grownup thing I can do.