A Life In Death

This short story was part of the Short Fiction Winter Writing contest 2016 for ShortFictionbreak.com. The assigned theme was “between two worlds”. 

“I’m glad you got back safe. You guys didn’t have to help with the move.” Lauren said over the phone as she walked through her empty apartment.

“Don’t be ridiculous, of course we did! Anyway, let us know how your first day goes. We are proud of you!” her mother said before hanging up.

 After an exhaustive month-long interview process Lauren was going to begin her new job at a tech-start up in Manhattan. She was glad for this important step in her career and happy to be in New York, but like all of her successes, joy was undercut by an inescapable sense of obligation imparted by her high achieving and high earning family.

Prior to them coming to New York to help her move it had been a few months since she’d been around her family. She forgot the hold they had on her

“You’re a little bloated dear. Are you watching what you eat?” Her mother commented at brunch yesterday. So Lauren hadn’t eaten a bite. Opting for champagne and cigarettes instead. She forgot about that resigned, pathetic feeling that washes over her when she acquiesced.

With her parents back in Illinois and only two weeks left before starting her new job, she was going to enjoy herself.

Nina was the first person Lauren called as soon as she accepted the job offer. They made plans to meet and Lauren had been looking forward to it for weeks. Nina and Lauren went to Bowdoin together. They had mutual college friends in New York, but as they grew older were more distant with them than with each other.

“Did I tell you how happy I ‘am that you’re finally here?” Nina said as she gave Lauren a tight hug. Nina wore a fashionable jumpsuit with heels. She looked effortlessly elegant and stood out in the casual bar they decided on.

“I bumped into my ex, Alan yesterday.” Lauren said as she put down her glass of wine.

“He’s insufferable!” Nina rolled her eyes. Lauren always got the impression that Nina never liked Alan, or anyone else she dated.

“He seemed okay. I mean, pompous as ever but nice enough.” Lauren said. 

“He works at the Times now. Did he mention that? Nina asked.

“He sure did!” Lauren said with a laugh. Was Nina making fun of Alan out of possessive jealousy?

She quickly changed the subject. “Another bottle?” Asked Nina.

“Yes!” Lauren was glad for their friendship. She would’ve had to make an effort to reconnect with the Bowdoin group and she couldn’t stand the thought. Half of them were snobs and the others who didn’t come from highly educated wealthy backgrounds were working hard to impress one another.

Almost through their second bottle, Lauren returned from the restroom to find Nina leaning over the bar, chatting with the bartender. Lauren wanted to leave just then.

“I think I’m gonna head back. It’s been a long day for me.”

“Everything okay?” Asked Nina.

“Just tired.” Lauren responded with a quick smile.

Nina went to grab her wallet and Lauren stopped her.

“This was fun.” Lauren whispered to Nina as she hugged her goodbye. Her hair smelled lovely. Lemon verbena.

Nina was everything to Lauren. For years she struggled between envying and admiring her. Until she came to terms that she had been in love with her. Now that they were in the same city, the proximity made her nervous.

“Quit romanticizing the friendship.” Lauren would constantly remind herself.

Nina wouldn’t ever want Lauren the way she wanted her to. A few physical encounters during your college years don’t mean love. Exposing her true feelings to Nina could end badly and besides, what would her family think? 

She thought she would have grown to be free of her family’s expectations by now, yet there she was, doing precisely what they wanted. Lauren had stopped hoping for an untethered future. The melancholy she often felt was now insouciance.

Back at her new building Lauren gave a friendly wave to the doorman and took the elevator to the seventh floor. Lauren struggled to open her apartment door. The exhaustion of the weekend-long move coupled with wine made her clumsy. A man, one of her new neighbors perhaps, walked by and asked if she was okay.

“Just new to the building. Have to get used to this door.” She responded without looking up from the lock.

He came back toward Lauren but she didn’t turn to face him in time. She was struck on the head with something metallic. There was a flash of light followed by searing pain.

When she finally came to, she saw faces hovering over her. A couple was screaming. She felt footsteps through the hall moving quickly away. The woman held Lauren saying. “It’s okay, we’re going to get help.” Lauren was tired. The brightly lit hallway became warm around her and then it fell away to a cloudy sky pierced by tree limbs.

She was in her family’s backyard. It was raining hard but it quickly stopped and the sun lit up the grass and dried it instantly. What was happening?  She saw herself as a toddler. She held a little girl in her arms.

“Who are you going to be now?” the tiny child asked.

How can a toddler speak so clearly? “I don’t know.” Lauren answered.

Lauren pulled the child closer to her. She was smaller now, an infant. She had to protect her.

The ground under them rose up over the house and Lauren heard an ice cream truck jingle growing louder. “I want to go hear the music! I want to follow it” Said the baby in her arms.

The land beneath them became a slide that brought them back down to the yard but now her family was there posing for the annual Christmas card photo. They wouldn’t catch the truck in time now.

“You are late Lauren!” Scolded her mother, grabbing Lauren hard by the arm causing the baby to fall away. She couldn’t catch her, she was gone.

Lauren was weeping, on her hands and knees looking for the baby that fell and vanished. Distracted in her search she then crawled directly into a city bench, banging her forehead on the cold metal. She looked up to see Nina sitting on the bench with the bartender she was flirting with that night. He had his arm around her. She held up her left hand to show off a ring.

“We’re married.” She said, looking down at Lauren.

“But I want to be with you Nina.” Lauren’s muddy hands held on to Nina’s. She waited for her to respond. Nothing.

A voice came out of nowhere. “Yes, it’s too late. Who are you going to be now?”

“I’m not sure, I’m not sure!” Lauren screamed back.

Lauren’s body felt hot. Her clothing was melting away but it didn’t hurt her. Then there was nothing but the sounds of the hospital room.

Nina went to see her soon after the police took her statement. Lauren had been unconscious but breathing on her own.

“The assailant was likely planning to kidnap her after he knocked her out.” Said the policeman. “Luckily, the doorman tackled the guy when he tried to run away.”

“It’s a miracle you were there at the right moment.” Said Nina as she embraced the couple who had made the 911 call.

Lauren regained consciousness after eight days. A family came to visit but she didn’t know who they were. Lauren felt badly for upsetting them when she declined to go to their home and recover. She asked them for space and time. Lauren thought “Maybe one day I’ll come to see them as my family.”

The doctor told her family to respect Lauren’s wishes and that rushing things could be detrimental.

When Nina came to visit, Lauren lit up.

“Do you know who I ‘am?” she was nervous for Lauren’s response.

“I know I love you. I didn’t want you to marry the man from the bench.” Lauren was still a little confused.

“Oh I’m not married.”  Said Nina with a laugh.

“Well I’m glad.” Lauren smiled, and then cleared her dry throat.

“Nina, the only thing I’m certain of is that I love you. That has to mean something. Otherwise why would my brain wipe out almost everything else except you?”

Nina was smiling, her eyes shiny. She held Lauren’s hand, and looked up and sighed.

“You always held back. You never told me, though I hoped you felt the same.” Nina confessed. 

“I won’t hold back anymore, I promise you.” 

Nina placed her hands on Lauren’s face. She bent forward and kissed her softly.

The day she left the hospital to live with Nina, Lauren saw a small child following her in the hall. She stopped and told the girl “I think I know who I’ll be now.” the child smiled and skipped away toward a minstrel tune. An ice cream truck in the cold of December.

 

 

 

 

Therianthrope

Sara and her older brother were close despite him living in Chicago. They visited each other when they could and talked on the phone at least once a week. Nick and Sara were more a family unit than their actual nuclear family ever was. Their parents divorced when they were seven and four and they spent most of their childhood being pawns in a power struggle between both parents. Once Sara graduated high school their father moved to Arizona with his girlfriend or “partner” . Their father was a podiatrist who experienced a good deal of success early in his career and had retired at fifty-two, took up carpentry and sold his tables, tool sheds and birdhouses online. Diane, his girlfriend was a child psychologist who was kind but always acted like she saw through both Sara and Nick. As if her experience working with kids made her a of mystic who could read a young persons entire life with one minute of interaction.

The drive from Brooklyn to Pennsylvania was quiet for the first half until Sara realized she was making this awkward for Leo, her roommate who kindly offered to give her a ride to her mothers home. How is he supposed know what to say?

“Hey, sorry for being so silent. I’m kind of out of it, but we can talk about whatever.” Sara knew she had to be the one to break the silence. Leo was too polite and sensitive and she had loved that about him. Leo had never once made a pass at Sara and once he realized she was interested in both men and women she sensed that he viewed her as an asexual entity. To Sara this was a relief.

“Don’t apologize, seriously. Its totally cool, I understand.” Leo shrugged and smiled at Sara.

“So I guess she took pills. That’s what the doctors said at least. Her friend stopped by that day to drop off some of her garden tomatoes and when she went to knock on the door it was unlocked. And, they are pretty close and it’s a small town so of course she lets herself in expecting my mother to be home. I feel badly, like maybe I should send her friend,  Jean, a card or something. So fucked up.” Sara was never close to her mother because she had never seemed like a mom to her. Her mother was not hateful or abusive by any means but she lacked the solid, consistent maternal warmth that Sara had seen in other mothers.

Their mother, Susan Lee Kline was never meant to have children. Not in the traditional sense at least. Susan did not believe in raising her children under a close eye, in fact Susan didn’t believe in being involved much at all. “As long as you are safe, healthy and inspired I will not interfere in your journey!” Her parenting style was supportive but unattached.

Sara’s brother Nick had won a fairly large regional debate team competition his junior year of high school and Sara remembers how happy he had been that night. Their mother did not attend the debate but picked them up afterward and treated them to a meal in the towns nicest restaurant. She kept telling waitstaff how her son had just won a very important debate competition and they were out to celebrate him.

“Look at me gushing, but I can’t help it! I mean, this is a very competitive debate team he is on and he is younger than most of these kids he went up against, so here we are, celebrating a big victory!” She was beaming with pride. Sara remembers her mom looking pretty that night even though she hadn’t bothered to change out of her studio attire. A stiff white button down mens shirt rolled at the sleeves and Levis with pottery slurry splotched on the knees.

After that day their mother never mentioned Nicks debate again though, as if it had never even happened.

“Nick and I both knew she was always a little, I don’t know, emotionally unbalanced. But I never thought she would go so far. Erratic yes, but suicidal?” Sara sighed. Annoyed at the fact that even the way in which her mother died, just as she had lived, gave Sara no indication as to who she was.

As a child Sara had struggled to find a connection that would link them together, anything that would show her that they shared blood. But her mom was not a singular being with concrete personality traits. She shrunk and expanded in ways that made no logical sense and the few times Sara felt a kinship with her, it was always fleeting like a handful of water doomed to leak through her fingers. She would catalog these memories in her childhood journal and reread them time and time again. Like when Sara arrived home in tears after a friend told her her hair was the color of poop and her mom consoled her and took her for ice cream where she told her “Everyone has an opinion but that doesn’t mean they are right. Remember that!” At twelve when Sara needed a bra her mother had made the shopping experience fun. They got fancy drinks at a coffee shop and went to the Valley Shoppes. The nice mall which was a little too far outside of town but was worth the trip. She remembers how her mom made a funny joke about the mannequins in the bra department being too busty. “Excuse me miss?” Her mother had asked a sales woman. “We need some assistance finding a few bras that are suitable for the average human preteen girl, so nothing like this.” She said pointing toward the row of mannequins in lacy bras. They sang to Savage Garden in the car on the way home that day. They had moments few and far between of mother daughter affection. For the most part however Sara’s mothers love was poured into her work and not her children.

Susan Kline was never one thing at any point in time except when she was working. In her youth she had received local recognition for her ceramics but she never took her talents seriously until after Sara was born.

Her tiny shop and online store ended up being rather lucrative despite how poorly Susan had managed it on her own until she finally hired an assistant. Some of her pieces had even ended up in museums. And yet she was always consumed with a mania to produce. “I’m feeling like something is incubating right now and I just need to call it forth!” She would say this each time she was trying a new technique, increasing her hours spent in the studio listening to piano music on cassette.

Both Sara and her brother had given up on trying to decipher their mother and eventually found peace in the distant relationship they had shared. They admired her from afar for her talent of course but mostly for her whimsical way of operating through the world. Her death however, created a kink in the abnormal normalcy that they had grown comfortable with.

“Will you miss her?” Leo asked. He had known of Sara’s unorthodox relationship with her mother.

“I think I’ve missed her my whole life.”