Uncomfortable Truths in our Fiction (and the winner is!)

In my last post, I asked those interested in winning a copy of U.P Reader Volume 4, containing my memoir piece, “Much Different Animal,” to let me know in the comments. Out of a shoebox, I drew Maria Donovan at Facts and Fiction as the name of the lucky winner! Thanks to all who entered, and I’ll be sure to post the story as soon as the rights revert to me.

Meanwhile…here’s a fictional story that was published a few years back, which I first wrote about in my post, “Inspired by a Dream.” This tale was, in fact, motivated by a dream. It also contains some snippets of the truth from a much earlier lifetime. Hope you’ll enjoy it!

SLIP OF THE LIP

“You awake?” Soft breath tickled the woman’s ear.

“Wha?” Words failed to form in her mouth devoid of saliva. She spotted a glass of water on the nightstand and swallowed a gulp. Beyond the edges of the thick comforter, the room was frosty. She glanced over the bedside and saw a young, dark-haired girl gazing back at her. A somewhat older, fair-haired version joined them in the room wearing an expression of both joy and worry.

“We made you some toast,” the blonde girl said, raising a paper napkin holding more butter than bread.

“I don’t…” started the woman.

“The baby’s tryin’ to climb over the side of her bed,” the older girl continued. “Dad said he was goin’ to play basketball. I changed her diaper in the crib but didn’t know if I should take her out.”

“I better check,” suggested the woman, rising from the bed and noting she had slept in corduroy jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and thick white socks.

The woman brushed the walls with her fingertips to calm the swaying that assailed her, as they walked down a short hallway together. Upon entering a smaller bedroom decorated with bright wallpaper, the youngest child stood and shook the rail, light brown hair standing on end, as if electrified. “Mama-mama-mama,” she repeated with a wide, toothless grin.

The woman searched the oldest girl’s green eyes.

“Remember us?” the girl whispered.

“Don’t be silly,” the woman replied, lifting the youngest sister from a dark wooden crib.

“It seemed like you were gone for a long time,” said the middle girl, trailing the small group from the room.

“Just a little while can feel like forever,” the woman evaded.

Upon entering the kitchen, a snowy scene greeted her outside the large window. On a calendar hung low from the wall, dates leading to a Friday in December were each crossed out in a childish scrawl. A flyer for an arts-and-crafts show hung next to it on a corkboard. She placed the baby in a highchair, turned up a nearby thermostat, and walked over to inspect the refrigerator’s contents.

Breakfast was a confusion of canned fruit, toast, and cold cereal drenched in the remnants of a milk carton. They ate out of mismatched containers since most bowls and plates from the cupboards crustily decorated the countertops and one side of the sink.

The middle child chattered and regaled the woman with snippets about a series of babysitters, while the toddler banged with a spoon on the tray of her highchair. The oldest girl didn’t say a word and studied the familiar stranger at their table.

The awkward morning passed, even though complicated by details that remained beyond the woman’s reach. “Baba, baba,” the little one begged and placated herself by sucking on a bottle of watered-down apple juice retrieved from under a chair. After giving up her quest of navigating the living room, she plunked down on her diapered bottom with a wide yawn and soon fell asleep on the worn carpet.

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The oldest grabbed an afghan from a nest on the sofa, where someone must have slept the previous night, and with a motherly pat covered the dozing youngster. The woman agreed when the middle child asked if she could go down in the basement to ride her bike.

“I’m Tina, and that’s Linda, downstairs. The little kid’s Nora.” Seeing the slight nod of acknowledgment from the woman, the girl offered, “You told me, once, that you ended all our names with an ‘a’ because your mom’s name was like that.”

Seeing another flicker of recognition, Tina said, “Sometimes you liked lookin’ at our baby books and stuff from over there,” and pointed with a chewed thumbnail at a shelf. “I didn’t like it when daddy made you cry,” she added, before she headed down the stairs to join her sister.

Tears closed the mother’s throat and stole any possible reply.

The afternoon was a treasure hunt. She moved in slow motion, while sifting through folders in an organizer on the kitchen counter and drawers of a small desk, finding past-due utility bills and Tina’s school papers printed with care. When she came upon hospital invoices and insurance correspondence, she noted the designation, ‘Patient name:  Elizabeth.’

The woman opened a purse set on top of a free-standing kitchen cabinet, saw several dollars in the change compartment, and took a long look at a driver’s license resting alongside the money.

After removing several prescription bottles from another zippered section, she examined the labels and scanned her recent memories. She hesitated for a few seconds, dumped their contents into the kitchen sink, and watched the rainbow of capsules swirl and dissolve in a torrent of hot water. The medicinal odor reached her nostrils, and memories of a stark and lonely room surfaced. Bile rose in the woman’s throat, and she vomited into the basin watching the last of the pills circle the drain.

She then sat cross-legged on the floor and leafed through baby books filled with hope and family picture albums telling the story of another lifetime. Her brimming eyes stared into the smiling faces.

Returning to the room where her journey had begun that morning, the unmade bed offered temptation of surrender. She ached to lie down, close her eyes, and stop trying to remember. Instead, her eyes focused on the surface of a dresser. She lifted a rectangular wooden box that smelled of cedar and hunted for a tool to open the lock. After resorting to a paperclip, she opened the box and peered through small plastic envelopes at tiny, pearl-like baby teeth and glanced at greeting cards saved from long-forgotten occasions.

At the bottom, a slip of paper lay folded. ‘If you go to the game tonight, is Beth coming, too?’ It was signed, ‘Natalie.’ Natalie? More questions than answers.

Car tires sounded outside the house on a snow-packed driveway. She snapped the lock into place and returned to lengthening shadows in the living room. The tempo of her heart accelerated.

Upon entering the room, the man’s eyes slid away from hers. “Sorry about the dishes and laundry, Beth. I meant to do all that before you got home last night…”

“I need to get something from the store,” she interrupted. “It won’t take me long. Tina and Linda are playing with Nora in her room.”

“I’m not even sure you’re supposed to drive, yet, Beth, and it’s getting a little slippery out. I’ll do it instead,” he insisted.

“It’s okay. I’ll just go to the nearest place.”

“Let me at least make sure the driveway’s clear enough for you to get out,” he said and headed back outside.

With a flash of irritation, she scooped keys from the desk, retrieved her purse, and grabbed a hooded jacket and gloves from hooks on the wall. The moment he returned, she hurried out the door.

Beth held her breath, and the light car balked in the deepening snow when she tried to back from the driveway toward the street. She wasn’t surprised he hadn’t cleared the way, after all, and a shadow that appeared in a window of the house next door caught her attention for a moment. Rocking the vehicle between reverse and drive, she finally was free.

As Beth drove, her headlights cut through the escalating snowstorm, and she recognized passing streets and buildings as if awakening from a hazy dream. At a sharp curve in the road, she visualized the dark river beckoning from beyond a tall stand of pines. Driving past the first little shop with a flickering entrance light, she slid to a stop at the second.

Beth wore no boots and picked her way through slush in the small parking lot before entering the market. She soon returned and moved to place the container of milk on the front seat. Without knowing why, she stepped back into the swirling flakes and opened the trunk of the car.

There she discovered two handcrafted ceramic pots under an old woolen blanket. Beth removed her gloves to caress the pottery’s rough lines and noticed the vessels were room temperature. Considering her options, she decided to leave them in place and slammed the trunk closed. Mentally arranging the pieces to fit, Beth followed tire tracks through the snow, in return to someone’s life, if not her own.

“June’s on the phone,” Tina announced, pressing the device Beth had left behind into her hands when she entered the warmed kitchen. The woman placed the milk in the refrigerator with a pounding heart and took a deep breath.

Words from the other end could have cut, but instead sounded reassuring through the stress roaring in her ears. “Several people saw him with Natalie buying pottery at the arts-and-crafts show, of all places, today. You’re much stronger than you know, Beth.”

Her friend’s voice was familiar and treasured, like a song recalled from childhood. She envisioned many hours spent next door with June, sharing endless cups of coffee and personal revelations, with the children dancing around them.

“Thanks so much,” she replied into the phone. After ending the call, Beth glanced at her three daughters, who played amid a sea of building blocks in the soft, yellow circle of lamplight. Tina’s solemn eyes met her own. The man looked up from the television and blushed over what he guessed was a new disclosure.

The volume from a blaring sports event faded into the background. Beth’s field of vision narrowed, and she peered down a long, dark passageway. Accepting the truth, her view then brightened, as vague uncertainties rearranged into recognizable order.

She descended the basement stairs and picked her way between bicycles, roller skates, and piles of laundry on the cement floor. Beth found what she wanted high on a dusty shelf. He met her at the top step when she returned and followed her along the hallway to the room they had shared. She opened the large suitcase on top of the bed and then hesitated.

“At least you can take the kids with you, this time,” he said.

“I’m not the one who’s leaving,” she answered.

A memory spread before her with the same clarity as the moment it occurred. She had sat, folding laundry in a beam of sunlight that slanted through the blinds, while inhaling the warm sweetness of just-washed baby clothes. Her husband had come home from work in the middle of the day and claimed they needed to talk.

“I love you, Natalie,” he had mistakenly begun.