On Her Special Day (Extended)

The snow fell thick and heavy, coating the window with a lacy frost. On another day, in another life, Anna would’ve welcomed the storm and the long shadow it cast within the room. She would have lit some candles, curled up on the chaise with a plush blanket and a book and propped a steaming mug of cocoa on a nearby table. A fire would have sparked and spit heat into her cozy suite. She would have felt safe.

Today, however, the snow induced a panic within her; Anna felt the plummeting, sharp crystals as a visceral brunt of rage from Mother Nature, and she could only endure the pounding pressure, the fury of the flurry until it passed. Feeling helpless, she put her hands over her ears and scrunched her eyes shut. She rocked back and forth, one foot covering the other, her arms squeezed tight to her sides. She was a concave form curling in on itself, spineless and primal.

The knock at the door startled her, caused her to shiver out of the shriveling, her fingers and toes, elbows and knees unfurling.

“Who is it?”

“It’s mother, dear. Can you please let me in?”

A rattling at the knob incited another rise of oily panic, which Anna tamped down as much as she could. Today was not the time to lose her tenuous grasp on sanity.

“Coming, Mother,” she said, rising and tightening the belt of her creamy silk robe.

“Honestly, honey, what is wrong with you? How long does it take to answer the door? What are you doing in there? Are you ready?”

Rose stalked into the room, her spiked heels clipping against the wooden floor. As she prowled her way to the voluminous, milky dress hanging at the front of the boxy wardrobe, one red stem caught on a loop of decorative carpet, causing the elegant woman to wobble.

Rose scowled at her daughter.

“Why do you insist on hauling in these disgusting rugs? They’re horrible, like someone vomited spools of thread. I thought I taught you better than that. What kind of style is this?”

Anna stood silently in the doorway as Rose wiggled her foot more securely into the strappy stiletto. Diamonds winked at her ears and her wrists, and a cold ruby hung at her décolletage. Her slim fingers remained bare of all fine jewels, of rose and yellow and white golds. She smoothed down her scarlet skirts and ran a hand over her artificially blond hair before turning to her daughter.

“Why aren’t you ready to put your dress on? Why isn’t your hair and makeup done? Are you serious, Anna? Today, of all days. Have you taken your medication?”

Anna fought the instinct to shrink her body, to hunch her shoulders so as to better absorb the stacked barbs her mother aimed in her direction.

“Yes, Mother. I always take it.”

Rose narrowed her green eyes, tastefully shadowed in a sparkling charcoal.

“I don’t know that I believe you, Anna. I just don’t know what to trust with you. You’re as bad as your father, may he rest in peace. You’re just going to have to pull it together today. I have neither the time nor the patience to accommodate you.”

Anna looked away as a painful tear surfaced near her lower left lid. She balled her fists to control the grief and the show of emotion. She couldn’t appear weak, especially not now, not like this, in front of her mother.

“Oh, stop it,” Rose huffed. “Not today. Today is special.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Sit down. Now. We clearly have work to do.”

Her brusque tone left little room to argue, and Anna knew better than to try. Years of therapy had taught her that she could only endure Rose’s force. A different kind of Mother Nature.

Rose clapped her hands, and the bracelets danced up and down her thin forearms.

“Let’s get started.”

She pulled and tugged at Anna’s long, wispy hair, jamming in bobby pins and yanking strands through a curling iron. Anna sat stoically and stared at the empty face reflected back at her in the vanity’s mirror. Rose reached for a bottle of hair spray and spritzed out the thick and heavy hold. Drops fell like flakes on Anna’s now helmet-like updo.

“Good. Make up.”

Chemical-smelling lotions and powders slapped across her tender skin, mascara globbed onto her pale eyelashes, a deep, rich crimson sunk into the crevices of her lips. When Rose stepped back, Anna caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She looked like a younger version of her mother. It was disconcerting. Anna felt her skin crawl, rejecting the phony exterior Rose had painted on.

The woman herself leaned in to examine her own reflection. Anna noticed the collection of wrinkles at the bridge of her mother’s nose, the fillers that gave Rose rounder, softer cheeks. She noticed Rose sliding a glance in her direction, and though Anna couldn’t understand why, she saw envy, resentment and a raw yearning pass over Rose’s plucked and pampered visage.

“Get your dress on now, Anna. It wouldn’t hurt you to smile, you know. There you go, nice and pretty like a good girl.”

Anna felt her cheeks crack at the smile, makeup dropping off in flecks to land on bare, ivory skin. Her blue robe pooled at her feet, and she strapped on the complicated undergarments Rose had insisted she wear; they gathered the loose skin from her weight loss and smoothed the puckered skin the cellulite had refused to concede. When Anna pulled the dress on, however, it felt light and smooth against her skin, a kiss, whisper. Rose pulled up the long zipper, then stood, hands on hips, assessing her daughter.

“You’ll do, I guess. You’ll do.”

Anna felt oddly like a prized piece of livestock, fattened and groomed and sold to the highest bidder. She rubbed her chilled arms, strove to recall the soothing feel of the fabric.

“Let’s go, Anna. Let’s go. Put on your shoes. That’s a girl.”

Anna tottered to the door, one hand gripping a lifted corner of the frothy gown, the other gingerly patting her painful, tight coif.

“Come on, come on. Chop, chop, Anna. People are waiting. It’s rude to make them sit around and wait for a prima donna.”

Anna nodded and passed through the door, Rose close behind her. As they reached the winding staircase, Rose wrapped talon-like fingers around Anna’s arm.

“Here comes the bride,” she trilled.

The piercing pitch made Anna wince and draw back, but Rose wouldn’t relinquish her hold. Guests milling about the gleaming, spacious foyer clapped. More guests, attracted by the commotion, streamed in from adjacent rooms and likewise applauded politely. For Anna, the smacking of skin against skin, flesh against flesh, was a dull ache running counterpoint to Rose’s shrillness.

As Anna descended the wide marble stairs, murmurs of “lovely bride,” “fortunate match,” “give it five years” stroked her body, icy cold and smooth. She shivered, again rubbed a hand over goose-pimpled flesh.

“Stop that,” Rose hissed. “Go to your fiancé. Now.”

The guests parted like the Red Sea, Anna thought to herself, allowing her to pass through to the man waiting for her. A man she barely knew. A man she couldn’t stand, couldn’t bear to touch.

Rose pushed at Anna’s back.

She stumbled forward, stopped, picked up the folds of her tulle petticoats and skirt. She walked toward the man, each step weightier than the last until the lifting of each foot felt like she was pulling it out of dense drifts of snow. The man, well-muscled and clean-shaven and with the air of someone used to power and prestige, embraced her, laid a chaste kiss on her cheek. She felt his soft lips pierce her skin. The guests oohed and aahed. Anna screamed, silently, hysterically.

She couldn’t get her lips to spread into a smile, and her hands began to tremble. Her heart hummed, her head lightened as she thought bleakly of her life. Her father’s death, not six months earlier; her mother’s quick matchmaking with the man she’d barely known in school, a boy who used to poke at her jiggly arms and thighs and laugh with his friends; the superficial well wishes from those she knew were consumed with more material matters than happiness.

When the man turned, eager to accept the congratulatory handshakes and thumping pats on the back, Anna shifted back, her new shoes sliding against the hardwood floor. Across the grand ballroom, where women clad in sequins and pearls and men in shiny tuxedos plucked delicate amuses-bouches from silver platters, a French door, its panes glistening, beckoned.

Anna twisted her way through the room, weaving between full champagne flutes that were the victims of grand gestures. None of the guests acknowledged the bride with the sad eyes and stunning gown, so immersed were they in the event of the season. With her arm behind her, Anna quickly and quietly unlatched the door. Her eyes darted from side to side as she inched her way out of the stately home, away from the much-anticipated ceremony and the lavish reception. The door closed with a click.

Anna continued backward until her calf hit snow. It didn’t register until she felt the icy bite of the wet fabric. She whirled, layers of fabric lifting around her. She looked back once at her mother, a woman whose lovely face and fashionable dress belied her greedy and competitive nature. Rose was in her element, flirting with the latest widower, her mouth stretched wide in laughter, her body leaning forward, her hand draped on his arm. Anna knew that, given enough time, Rose would once again claw her way to the top of the financial and social pyramid, looking regally down at those beneath her, Anna included.

With her back to the house, to the man, to the mother, to her future, Anna leapt into the snow.

And she ran.

She ran and ran, flying across the field, past the stables and the tennis courts and the small cemetery that housed the still upright, shiny tombstone of her father. Anna’s pale skin and hair and her wedding gown were camouflaged by the strengthening storm as she streaked away from the mansion. Her legs, which had once dragged her body forward, now pistoned in the heaps of snow. Her breath puffed out in foamy clouds, and the freshness of the air revived her, pinkening her arms and cheeks, brightening her eyes.

She ran until she could run no more, until she reached the stream that bordered the estate. Without a thought, she splashed in. Droplets of water tickled her nose, slid down her cheeks. She fell backwards, arms splayed, eyes closed.

Her head hit a rock that split open her skull with a pop. Her blood pumped out, mixing with the freezing water and the swirling fabrics. From the pocket of her dress, an orange bottle swam out, the pills inside rattling with the force of the current. The make up washed off, and the hair loosened from its pins to dance around the young woman’s beautiful, serene face. Snowflakes, burying her in a pure, shallow grave, fell one by one. Those that bussed the water disappeared. Her heels, caked in dirt, the satin ruined by moisture, bobbed nearby, hovering, until they floated away, swept along by the stream.

She was free.

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On Her Special Day

The snow fell thick and heavy, coating the window with a lacy frost. On another day, in another life, the storm and the long shadow it cast within the room would have been cozy, sheltering. Anna would have lit some candles, curled up on the chaise with a plush blanket and a book and propped a steaming mug of cocoa on a nearby table.

Today, however, the snow induced a panic within her. It was a visceral brunt of rage from Mother Nature, and Anna could only endure the pounding pressure, the fury of the flurry until it passed. Feeling helpless, she put her hands over her ears and scrunched her eyes shut. She rocked back and forth, one foot covering the other, her arms squeezed tight to her sides. She was a concave form curling in on itself, spineless and primal.

The knock at the door startled her, caused her to shiver out of the withering, her fingers and toes, elbows and knees unfurling.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Mother, dear. Can you let me in please?”

A rattling at the knob incited another rise of oily panic in Anna, which she tamped down as much as she could. Today, right now, was not the time to lose her tenuous grasp on sanity.

“Coming, Mother,” she said, rising and tightening the belt of her creamy silk robe.

“Honestly, honey, what is wrong with you?”

Rose stalked into the room, her spiked heels clipping against the wooden floor. As she prowled her way to the dress hanging at the front of a boxy wardrobe, one red stem caught on a loop of decorative carpet, causing the elegant woman to wobble.

Rose scowled, glared at her daughter.

“Why do you insist on hauling in these disgusting rugs? I thought I taught you better than that.”

Anna stood silently in the doorway.

“Why aren’t you dressed? Why isn’t your hair and makeup done? Are you serious, Anna? Today, of all days. Have you taken your medication?”

Anna fought the instinct to shrink her body, hunch her shoulders so as to better absorb the barbs her mother aimed in her direction.

“Yes, Mother. I always take it.”

Rose narrowed her eyes.

“I don’t know that I believe you, Anna. I just don’t know what to trust with you. You’re as bad as your father, may he rest in peace.”

Anna looked away as a painful tear surfaced near her lower left lid.

“Oh, stop it,” Rose huffed. “Not today. Today is special.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Sit down. Now.”

Her brusque tone left little room to argue, and Anna knew better than to try. Years of therapy had taught her that she could only endure Rose’s force. A different kind of Mother Nature.

Rose clapped her hands.

“Let’s get started.”

She pulled and tugged at Anna’s wispy blond hair, jamming in bobby pins and yanking strands through a curling iron. Anna sat stoically and stared at the empty face reflected back to her in the vanity’s mirror. Rose reached for a bottle of hair spray and spritzed out the thick and heavy hold, drops falling like flakes on Anna’s now helmet-like updo.

“Good. Make up.”

Chemical-spelling lotions and powders slapped across her tender skin, mascara globbed onto her pale eyelashes, a deep, rich red sunk into the crevices of her lips. When Rose stepped back, Anna caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She looked like a younger version of Rose. It was disconcerting. Anna felt her skin crawl, rejecting the phony exterior her mother had painted on.

“Get your dress on now, Anna. It wouldn’t hurt you to smile, you know. There you go, nice and pretty like a good girl.”

Anna felt her cheeks crack at the smile, makeup falling off in flecks to drop onto bare skin. Her robe pooled at her feet, and she strapped on the complicated undergarments Rose had insisted she wear. When she pulled the dress on, it felt light and smooth against her skin, a kiss, whisper. Rose pulled up the long zipper, then stood, hands on hips, assessing her daughter.

“You’ll do, I guess. You’ll do.”

Anna felt oddly like a prized piece of livestock, fattened and groomed and sold to the highest bidder. She rubbed her chilled arms, strove to recall the soothing feel of the fabric.

“Let’s go, Anna. Let’s go. Put on your shoes. That’s a girl.”

Anna tottered to the door, one hand gripping a lifted corner of the frothy gown, the other gingerly patting her painfully tight coif.

“Come on, come on. Chop, chop, Anna. People are waiting. It’s rude to make them sit around and wait for a prima donna.”

Anna nodded and passed through the door, Rose close behind her. As they reached the winding staircase, Rose wrapped talon-like fingers around Anna’s arm.

“Here comes the bride,” she trilled.

The piercing pitch made Anna wince and draw back, but Rose wouldn’t relinquish her hold. Guests milling about the gleaming foyer clapped politely. The smacking of skin against skin, flesh against flesh, was a dull ache running counterpoint to Rose’s shrillness.

The murmurs of “lovely bride,” “fortunate match,” “give it five years” stroked her body, icy cold and smooth. She shivered, again rubbed a hand over goose pimpled flesh.

“Stop that,” Rose hissed. “Go to your fiancé. Now.”

The guests parted, like the Red Sea, Anna thought to herself, allowing her to pass through to the man waiting for her. A man she barely knew. A man she couldn’t stand, couldn’t bear to touch.

Rose pushed at Anna’s back.

She stumbled forward, stopped, picked up the folds of her petticoat and skirt. She walked toward the man, each step weightier than the last until the lifting of each foot felt like pulling it out of dense drifts of snow. The man embraced her, laid a chaste kiss on her cheek. The guests oohed and aahed. Anna screamed, hysterically, silently.

When the man turned, eager to accept the congratulatory handshakes and thumping pats on the back, Anna shifted back, her new shoes sliding against the hardwood floor. Behind her was a French door, its panes glistening, beckoning. With her arm behind her, she quickly and quietly unlatched the door. Her eyes darted from side to side, but no one noticed the bride inching her way out of the regal home, away from the much anticipated ceremony and the lavish reception. The door closed with a click.

Anna continued backward until her slim calf hit snow. It didn’t register until she felt the icy bite of the wet fabric. She swirled, layers of fabric lifting around her. Her back to the house, to the man, to the mother, to her future, she leapt into the snow.

And she ran.

She ran and ran, flying across the field, her pale skin and hair and her wedding gown camouflaged by the strengthening storm. Her breath puffed out in foamy clouds, and she felt the freshness of the air revive her, pinkening her arms and cheeks, brightening her eyes.

She ran until she could run no more, until she reached the stream that bordered the estate. Without a thought, she splashed in. Droplets of water tickled her nose, slid down her cheeks. She fell backwards, arms splayed, eyes closed.

Her head hit a rock that split open her skull with a pop. Her blood pumped out, mixing with the freezing water and the swirling fabrics. Snowflakes fell one by one, covering her, burying her. Those that bussed the water disappeared. Her heels bobbed nearby, hovering, until they floated away, swept along by the gentle current.

Free.

Shipshape and Heartbreak

Her name was Madge, and she loved the color blue. On the last day of her life, she wore blue socks rolled at the ankle, a blue-and-white striped dress (because they were the easiest to put on) and tiny blue stud earrings (like what ladies wear). She’d also slid on a headband to pull back the wispy bangs that hung in her eyes. When she’d checked the band from all angles (left, right, front and behind), she stepped back from her vanity and carefully closed the headband drawer, making sure that everything in it stayed tidy. Shipshape, her mother always said. Madge whispered it to herself whenever she closed a drawer.

“Shipshape.”

Although she was thirteen, Madge didn’t look much older than nine. She was petite and chubby, her body snug in the dress like a pork sausage in its casing. Madge wasn’t aware of her size, but she had the habit of running a hand down her rotund belly. She’d seen her mother do the same when pregnant with baby Ashby; Ashby, unfortunately, had not survived infancy, and Madge’s mother had become very tired. Madge believed that Mama had taken to the color black, so she’d wrapped the dark around her like a winter coat filled with goose feathers. That’s why she stayed in bed all the time. It was warm and soft and opaque. But with Mama always sleeping – and Madge frequently tiptoeing in to kiss Mama’s cheek and tuck her in – the house had become messy.

Madge stood in the kitchen doorway, surveying the wreckage.

“This is not shipshape,” she whispered to herself. “Not shipshape. Not Bristol fashion.”

She wagged at a finger at the room, shook her head from side to side so her hair swung, kissing her rosy cheeks, and tsked. She loved to tsk. She visited Ms. Marie every week to work on her speech, and tsk had been some of the first consonants she’d mastered.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

Banana peels lay on the floor, coffee grounds sprinkled the counter, dirty dishes were piled precariously in the farmhouse sink. A few cupboard doors were ajar. Tomato skins from spaghetti dinner a few nights back were piled next to the silverware drawer, and a carton of expired milk had tipped over. White chunks slopped out of the cardboard opening.

Madge, earnest and hardworking, plodded over to the trash can. She lifted the lid, placed it on the floor, and grasped the plastic bin with both hands, lugging it over to the dirty counters. With a sweep of her chubby, pale arm, the old food, the crumbs, the wadded paper towels tumbled into the white plastic bag.

Madge clapped, applauding her own efforts. She beamed at the now slightly less cluttered counters and moved down to sweep more crumbs. They tinkled into the bag like rain, and Madge, who loved a good sprinkle – but not thunderstorms, never thunderstorms – giggled. She pushed up her blue plastic-framed glasses with one stubby finger then got on her hands and knees to scoop up the abandoned peels. After she’d tossed them, she wiped her hands and called it a day.

“That’s a day!” she trilled.

She galloped, tripping once but catching herself on a hall table, to Mama’s room. She knocked at the door then pushed it open.

“I cleaned, Mama!”

The lump on the bed didn’t move. Didn’t make any response, any acknowledgement of Madge’s proclamation, let alone her presence.

Madge bounced around the bed and knelt in front of the blanket-covered swelling. She stroked a hand gently down the worn cotton blanket and dropped her chin to the mattress.

“Mama,” she whispered. “The kitchen is shipshape. Shipshape.”

Mama didn’t move, at first. But she moaned, long and low and muffled by the covers. Madge, her big, compassionate heart bursting, scrunched her face in sadness. Her voice shook as she asked “Mama?” With a sniff of her small, pushed-in nose, she resumed her stroking and a hot tear slid down and around her cheek to drop onto the pilling flannel sheet.

“I love you,” Madge said, then hefted her pudgy hulk onto the mattress. Mama scooted over with a groan, but when Madge lifted the sheet to crawl in, Mama reached out an arm and pulled her girl close.

Soothed, Madge swiped first at the tear, then at her running nose before snuggling into her mother. She laid a chaste kiss on Mama’s dry cheek and rubbed her head against Mama’s chest.

“You will be happy?”

Mama didn’t answer.

“Mama?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“I make you happy. I know the trick. Be back soon,” Madge told her mother, excitement tingeing her voice.

Madge crawled out from under the blankets and hopped like a bunny rabbit over to her room to grab her favorite purse. It was made out of blue denim and had the name “Madge” scrawled across in silver sequins. Madge picked at the sequins with her fingers before sliding the strap over her arm.

“Bye-bye,” she called to the house. To her mama.

“Bye-bye,” came the murmur from the other bedroom.

Madge stepped out into the sunshine and closed the front door tightly. It must be shut then pulled, so the latch would catch. Madge loved that phrase. Latch would catch. Latch and catch. Latch catch. Ms. Marie liked those sounds too.

She clutched the handle of her purse with one hand and bounced down the concrete sidewalk. Some of the neighborhood kids were playing down the street. Madge’s eyes brightened with anticipation. She continued her lope down the broken and cracked pavement and called hello to the neighbors outside enjoying the summer afternoon.

“Hello, Mr. Bates! Hello, Mrs. Klein!”

Mr. Bates and Mrs. Klein responded with waves and well wishes for Madge to enjoy the lovely day. And Madge went merrily on her way, eager to play with the kids at the end of the block.

But when she reached them, they formed a line, not allowing her to cross.

“What do you want, Mongoloid?” Joey Foster from 612 Rosemont Street asked.

Madge was puzzled. Her forehead crinkled, and she tilted her head to the side. What was Mongoloid? Was that like a creature from another planet? Like the movie that Rebecca from school talked about all the time? The one with the bicycle and the candy? Madge loved candy. So maybe she would be a Mongoloid, if they liked candy like the E.T.

“You can’t cross here. No Mongoloids allowed.”

Joey crossed his hands over his chest. He looked to the other kids, staring them down with icy blue eyes until they straightened their stances and glared at Madge.

Joey was the product of a broken home. Madge didn’t know what a broken home was, but Mrs. Klein had told her that earlier in the summer. She said that was why Joey was a mean boy. Madge thought her own home was broken as well. Like a giant crack ran down the length of it, and Mama was on one side and Baby Ashby’s room was on the other. But Mrs. Klein said that was different and that Madge was a honeypie who should just ignore Mean Joey.

“I’m not Mong-Mong-Mong-o-loid,” Madge stuttered. “But I like candy.” She grinned.

Mean Joey stepped forward, the toes of his shoes inches from Madge’s white Velcro sneakers.

“I said, no Mongoloids.”

Madge couldn’t look Mean Joey in the eye. She felt uncomfortable, both with the harsh delivery of his words and the closeness of his rail-thin body. Mean Joey was all sharp angles, a body of knives. Madge thought that he could easily slice her, so she looked at the ground and took baby steps backward.

“I’m not alien,” she whispered, eyes focused on the blades of grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. Her headband slipped forward, landing on her hairline.

“What did you say? Did you say ‘alien’?” Mean Joey swiveled in his black high tops to look in disbelief at the line of kids behind him. “She thinks she’s an alien?”

Mean Joey laughed, his mouth wide open, his teeth coming to points. His body shook and bowed back, and he laid a hand on his stomach. His eyes, however, didn’t show any humor. They stayed mean.

Madge, not understanding, began to smile. Giggle. Suddenly, however, Mean Joey stopped. He looked Madge up and down then reached a skinny finger out to press it into the soft, spongy skin at her shoulder. Then he pushed her. Startled, Madge fell back, landing hard on her rear. She looked up at Joey. Her bottom lip slipped out from her smile and began to tremble.

Mrs. Klein, who had been watching the exchange from her yard, threw down her hose and stomped down the sidewalk. Her chunky black oxfords squeaked with each footstep, and her thick-lensed glasses slid down her nose. She was retired, a widow. She and her husband, Jacob, had never been blessed with children – which Mrs. Klein never really minded, to be honest – but she’d taken a shine to the sweet-natured Madge. And Mrs. Klein was not one to stand bullying of any kind. Of any kind.

“Young man,” she said, her arm outstretched, her finger pointed, her body subconsciously echoing Mean Joey’s aggressive posture. “You stop that right now. Right now! If you don’t leave this poor child alone, you can bet I’ll be on you faster than a duck on a junebug. And I have your mother’s ear. Now git. Git!”

Mean Joey sneered at the tiny old lady who glared up at him, her watery brown eyes magnified by her lenses.

“Whatever, lady. C’mon,” he said to the row of kids who had stood silent in awe, in fear.

They trooped off. Mrs. Klein helped Madge to her feet, brushed off the gravel stuck to her legs and gave her a little tap on the bottom.

“Now, you are a strong girl, you hear? But you stay away from that boy. He’s bad news.”

Madge nodded. Bad news.

“Now, you git too. Enjoy the sunshine. Maybe later, you can stop by for some gingersnaps, all right?”

Madge sniffled, nodded. She liked the snappy cookies. They were crisp like their sound. Snap.

“Go on.”

Madge started forward, looked back at Mrs. Klein. Waved. Mrs. Klein smiled, and her glasses slipped to the tip of her nose.

Collecting herself, Madge resumed her lumbering skip down the street, though it was ever so less energetic as before. At the end of the block, she turned right. She wasn’t allowed to cross the street, but there was a market just around the corner. No crossing the street. Mr. Jackson, who played with the money, was nice, and he sometimes gave her a lollipop.

She pushed inside, her mood restored when she heard the tinkling of the bells that signaled a customer’s entrance.

“Hi, Mr. Jackson!”

Mr. Jackson, an elderly gentleman who had just welcomed his seventh grandchild – and his first granddaughter – welcomed Madge with a great big hug, wrapping strong arms around the squashy girl. Madge hugged back, love floating out of her body to dance around Mr. Jackson.

Perhaps more emotional than usual, Mr. Jackson felt tears prick his eyes at the easy affection. Lord, he loved this girl. Sometimes God takes things away from people, but he gives them something else. Madge, she might not have a normal life, but she had an abundance of goodness. That was a rarity.

Mr. Jackson stepped back, pushed Madge’s headband into place.

“What can I get for you today?”

“Chocolate. For Mama.”

“Ok. Anything else?”

Madge blushed, lifted her shoulders to her ears.

“I want candy. I’m an alien.”

Mr. Jackson was puzzled, but didn’t say anything.

“Alright, you know where it is. I’ll be up here at the counter.”

Madge knew where it was. It was her favorite aisle. The brightly-colored packaging spread before her like a glistening rainbow. Different shapes – squares, rectangles, circles – and different sizes – teeny-weeny, small, medium, large, super large – were hers for the choosing. But that was the difficult part. Choosing.

She stood in the middle of the aisle, surveying the selection. She knew Mama’s favorite already. Hershey’s. She picked one up, balancing it in her warm palm. For herself, she wasn’t sure. She loved m&m’s. She loved Reese’s Pieces. She loved Jujubes.

Madge tapped a finger to her scrunched lips. She swayed back and forth, hemming and hawing. She reached her hand out once, twice. Finally, she moved a few feet down to grab a clear plastic bag of gummy worms. Gummy worms. Those were the best choice. She could slurp them up like the spaghetti on Tuesday night. And she’d picked a package that had lots of blue ones.

Her task completed, she met Mr. Jackson at the counter and plunked down two dollars’ worth of coins. Mr. Jackson’s nimble fingers picked through the pennies, nickels and dimes. When he rang up the total, Madge clapped at the ringing of the machine.

“You have a good day, Madge.”

“You, too,” Madge replied happily as she left the store, goodies in hand.

Madge stepped on to the street, impatient to slurp a worm. She tucked the Hershey’s bar into her denim handbag, then ripped into the gummy worms. In her excitement, she split the bag down the middle, and wiggling, colorful worms dropped onto the street. Madge shrieked and bent at the waist to gather them up. She tucked the half-filled bag under an arm, then rubbed the dirtied worms on her dress. They’d be clean now. Shipshape.

As she wiped down her treats, Mean Joey watched from a few sidewalk squares away. He hated Madge. He didn’t know why, but she sparked a rage in him, not unlike the rage he seemed to spark in his own father. Of course, that rage always came with a six-pack. Still, it felt good to be powerful over someone, to cause them fear and pain. Serves that Mongoloid right. Mean Joey didn’t know who she was, skipping up and down the streets like some retarded elephant.

The thoughts grew louder in Mean Joey’s head, and his hands fisted. Madge, oblivious, continued to wipe the worms on her dress before biting into them. When Joey stepped forward, Madge turned. Fear flooded her eyes, causing them to bulge, and her cheeks drained of color. Bad news. But, she still offered him a worm. Not a dirty one. A clean one from the package she’d taken from under her arm.

Disgusted, Mean Joey slapped at the worm so it flew onto the street, crushed under the spinning wheels of a passing car. Madge watched her blue-and-green’s worm death. She turned to Mean Joey, confused.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why not,” Mean Joey sneered before pushing Madge into the street.

Madge didn’t have time to scream, only yelped as she stumbled into traffic. As the speeding red car hit her. As her body tumbled up and over the hood. The worms went flying, sprinkling onto the street. The car squealed to a stop. Joey ran away. Mr. Jackson came running. Mrs. Klein came running.

And somewhere down the street, in a desolate room, under a pile of heavy covers, someone began to sob.

To My Mother

Dear Mom,

I saw you for the last time today. You were curled up in a hospital bed, your body frail, your hair thin, your skin cold. You opened your eyes briefly when I came into the room. What was vibrant blue is now cloudy white. You still had that spark of liveliness behind your gaze, but it had dulled, become tired and pale and worn. It is a small comfort, but I think you were ready to go. You waited until I could say goodbye, then you squeezed my hand once as I cupped your wrinkled one in my own. You closed your eyes for the last time, and I laid my forehead on the white starchy sheets of your bed.

I miss you so much.

I wasn’t able to tell you much in the end. You were always sleeping, I was nervy and restless and overwhelmed. My nerves felt like they were on fire; even the touch of my daughter’s hand to my own sent sparks through my skin, bumped my heartbeat up to a gallop, flushed my skin. I couldn’t sit still, except with you. Then I had the calmness, the quiet, the company. But the words wouldn’t come. So here are the words I would wrap for you as a gift, tuck them in your pocket, bury them with you so you could carry them with you until I see you again. I’ll see you again.

You are, and always have been, the person I have strived to be. You worked so hard for me, even after Daddy died. Looking back, I realize that the late nights, the overtime, the myriad part-time jobs and couponing and skimping and saving were for me. It took the beauty of motherhood for me to understand that sacrifice. I was ungrateful as a teenager, and I know it. I wanted what the popular, rich girls had; you couldn’t give it to me, and I punished you for it. I’m sorry. Sorry that I underestimated your love, your home, your lack of materialism. That was the greatest lesson you have taught me, one I hope to pass on to Sylvie. It is not what you have that makes you who are; it’s your core, your self, your values and thoughts and feelings that determine your self-worth. Funny how the outside doesn’t really matter.

You showed me how to laugh. Still, when I watch movies, I imagine you sitting next to me, tucked under your favored blanket – you always loved being cozy – laughing and laughing and laughing. You had the best laugh. It started deep in your belly, rolled through your chest, bubbled out of your throat and mouth, filled the room with giddiness and light. Sylvie has your laugh.

You have always accepted me for who I am, my choices and my mistakes, my achievements and my failures. I had to take responsibility for my decisions – that’s what an adult does, you told me – but you always supported me. And occasionally gave me that kick in the butt I needed. Procrastination is my best friend and my worst enemy. But now I hear you in my head, telling me to “get on that!” and “be proactive!” and “stop talking, just do it!” The only thing missing is the motherly swat that would follow your orders.

And thank you for introducing me to Jack. I should’ve known that you would set me up on the one blind date that would turn into a relationship, then a marriage. I could tell that day by the spark in your eye, your uncontrollable smile, your nervous, jittery movements around the kitchen. How is it a mother always knows before her daughter? When he proposed, you danced – DANCED – around the room, shaking and wiggling and punching the air like I’ve never seen! And you cried silent tears at the wedding.

Now the only tears left are my own. They are hot and stinging and fall from my eyes in a drenching rain. I can’t stop them. Even now they drop onto this letter, polka dotting my words.

You are my mother, and I love you. I thank you.

I miss you.

Always,

Lacie

Run Away Home

10-year-old Margot stomped into her room and slammed the door so hard that the puppy calendar on the back swung wildly. She opened the door and slammed it once more, just for good measure. The panting golden retrievers slipped off their nail, and the glossy pages slid to the floor.

“I hate you,” she whispered, with a furtive glance toward the closed door.

When there were no angry footsteps, no answering shouts, no punishments, Margot balled her fists and raised her voice – almost to speaking level.

“I hate you.”

With rebellion pumping through her, Margot strode forward to pull the rolling suitcase out from underneath her unmade bed. She flipped the pink lid up and over, then tossed in her fancy dress, a nightgown, socks. Brearly, her favorite stuffed animal, the pillow from her bed. Her new chapter book. Her baby blanket, the one she still slept with, though her friends didn’t know that.

She pulled the pink lid back over and sat on it, reaching around and between her legs to tug the cheap plastic zipper closed.

She was leaving this place, Margot thought. She hated it here, hated her mom, hated her little sister. She wanted to go to where her dad was. She knew that he’d gone to heaven, and she wanted to go to heaven, too. Margot wasn’t exactly sure where it was, but she thought she’d be able to find it.

Her dad had always told her what a smart girl she was. Every summer, when they’d gone on their annual road trip to South Dakota to visit her grandparents, Margot would sit in the front seat with him, the paper map unfolded and spread across her legs. She’d follow the highway lines with her fingertip, tracing it upwards and sideways. She was a navigator, her dad said. And he’d reach out a hand to stroke it down her head, his strong fingers catching in her mess of golden curls.

If she could direct her dad from Iowa to South Dakota, she could definitely find heaven.

She slipped on her parka, then tiptoed over to her door. She turned the doorknob slowly and pulled it open a few inches, just enough to peek out. The carpeted hallway was empty. Her mother’s bedroom door across the hall was closed. But Sally’s door was open, and Margot could hear her sister’s voice singing sweetly.

She snuck past her mother’s room, and the suitcase wheeled silently behind her. She tried to pass Sally’s room, but the little girl glanced up and asked, “Margot, where are you going?”

“Shh. I’m just going away for a while. I’m going to find Daddy.”

“But Margot, Mommy said he was in heaven.”

“I know, stupid, that’s where I’m going.”

“Can I come?”

“No, you can’t. I’m going by myself.”

“Mommy’s not going?”

“No.”

“But Margot, how will you get to heaven without Mommy? We can’t cross the street by ourselves.”

Margot sighed.

“Sally, heaven isn’t across the street.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know, ok? I’m going.”

“Bye, Margot.”

“Bye.”

Margot pulled her suitcase to the front door and stepped outside into the cooling air. The sun was setting, stretching long orange fingers across the sky. She walked down the concrete steps, her suitcase bumping along behind her.

The tree-lined street was empty; everyone, it seemed, was inside, eating dinner with their families. Windows glowed warmly, smiling faces gathered around polished tables piled with food. Cats and dogs were put out back.

Margot turned left, deciding to head north. That seemed to be the most reasonable direction, to her way of thinking. South Dakota was to the north, Santa Claus was to the north.  Heaven must be to the north.

She took off, marching down the street, her head held high, her eyes focused and determined. Her suitcase rolled along behind her, its plastic wheels shredding from contact with the rough, uneven sidewalk. But when she got to the end of the block, Margot puzzled about where to go next. Best to just turn and continue walking, she thought.

As she’d told Sally, heaven wasn’t going to be across the street. She smiled to herself at her sister’s innocence. What a funny girl, Margot thought, forgetting her annoyance earlier in the evening. She was going to miss Sally when she met up with Dad, but someone needed to stay behind to take care of Mom. Sally was the best at making people smile and laugh, and she would improve Mom’s bad moods – the ones that had lasted since Dad had left. Mom still worked and shopped and drove Margot and Sally to soccer practices and ballet lessons, but she yelled a lot more now. She’d yelled tonight, upset at Margot for refusing to go to the upcoming dance.

Well, Margot didn’t want to go to any stupid dance, no matter how much money her mother had spent on a new dress. The dance was for daddies and daughters only; mothers weren’t welcome. And since Margot’s dad had left, she didn’t have anyone to go with. She was absolutely, definitely not going with her mom. It was too embarrassing.

Margot slowed down to rub an ache at her chest. Her suitcase butted the backs of her legs, and she took a step forward. She didn’t recognize what the pain was; she only knew that it hurt. It hurt near her heart. She couldn’t know, but swirling underneath her parka, her blue sweater, her white undershirt and freckled skin, was guilt and grief and hurt.

She looked up at the brief twinkles of stars just coming out to play. She closed her eyes tightly, squeezing them shut until she could see shiny squiggles across the tops of her eyelids. She wished, and she wished to find heaven, to find her missing parent. She wanted Dad to come down and go to the dance with her, to hold her tight and tell her that she was his special girl. But when she opened here eyes, the street was still empty.

Hugging her arms to ward off the growing chill, Margot turned in a tight circle, her feet catching on the unsteady suitcase so that it toppled to the ground. No, Margot was still alone. And she still needed to find heaven.

She let out a deep breath, but, determined to continue, to escape her misery, she picked up her suitcase and continued down the street. And when she got to the end of it, she turned and walked up the next one. And when she got to the end of that one, she turned to walk up the street that had her home.

As she got closer, she saw her mother standing at the open doorway, her arms crossed at the waist and a heavy cable-knit sweater wrapped around her. Margot stopped, staring at the silhouetted figure.

“Margot?”

Margot stood at the sidewalk. She felt like her legs were frozen to the ground. She couldn’t move.

Her mother stepped over the threshold and descended the stairs. She came half-way down the walk, before calling out again, “Margot?”

Margot nodded.

“Sally said you were running away.”

Margot nodded again.

“Where were you running to?”

“Heaven.”

Margot’s mom made a choking sound, a sob that broke somewhere inside her. She looked away. She gazed at nothing, saw nothing, just tried to control the tears pricking her eyes, the anguish filling her throat.

“I wanted to go be with Dad. I don’t want to go to the dance without him. I took my dress with me to show him.”

Margot’s mom turned back, taking in – for the first time – her little girl with the deep brown eyes. She dropped to her knees and reached out her arms, her expression begging for Margot to walk into her embrace.

Tired and hungry and hurting, Margot let go of the suitcase, to rush into the open arms, to lay her cold cheek on the thick cotton-covered shoulder that smelled like home.

“Margot,” her mother said, rubbing her hand in circles on the girl’s back, “I wish I could tell you how to get to heaven, but I don’t know how. I think the only people who know are there already.”

“I can’t get there by myself?”

“Not right now.”

“When can I go to heaven?”

“Later. Much later. Dad will be waiting for you.”

“He doesn’t mind? He won’t get bored?”

“No, and he won’t get bored. There’s plenty to do there. I bet he’s fishing with Grandpa right now and listening to music.”

“Do I have to go to the dance without him?”

“No, honey, you don’t. You and Sally and I can stay in and eat popcorn and watch movies. And we can talk about Dad.”

Margot’s mom stood up and reached out a hand to her daughter. Together, they walked into the white house with the blue shutters, the one that had its own glowing windows and that smelled like dinner time.

His Mother, Her Ending

He sat in the chair, his left hand fingering the nubby gray fabric of the arm rest. His right hand lay on the bed, browned and wrinkled and rough against the snowy waffled blanket.

He glanced down and the thought crossed his mind – not for the first time that afternoon – that his mother’s hand seemed so small, so fragile against his. Her pale skin was crinkled and scored with lines; her knuckles were bruised and swollen, a result of the arthritis that puffed up her joints. He rubbed a thumb over the fingers, taking comfort that they were still warm.

It was funny, he thought, that his mother seemed to have shrunk over the years, yet she remained tall, strong and vibrant in his memories. The red-headed woman with the bawdy laugh, the easy smile, the toned arms that would just as soon wrap you in a bear hug as wring a chicken’s neck for Sunday supper.

“Excuse me, sir?”

He jerked his head up, his eyes focusing on the man in the white coat in front of him.

“Yes,” he said, standing and wiping his now clammy palms on his corduroy pants.

“I’m Dr. Kent, your mother’s physician. Can we talk for a moment?”

“Sure.”

He followed the doctor out into the hall, his tennis shoes squeaking on the tile floor.

Dr. Kent glanced down at his clipboard, reviewing his patient’s history before settling his calm and steady gaze on the nervous man in front of him.

“Mr. James, are you aware of your mother’s condition?”

“You can call me Albert. I just know that she’s real sick. Is she going to get better?”

“Albert, I’m sorry, but she’s not going to get better. As it stands now, the best and only thing you can do is make sure she’s comfortable. We can give her medicine to relieve some of her pain, but her organs are gradually shutting down. The machines in her room are helping to keep her alive, and you need to seriously think about what you want to do. I strongly recommend speaking to her attorney, or whoever may have power of attorney. Again, I’m very sorry.”

Dr. Kent patted Albert’s shoulder before striding away, his coat flapping behind him.

Albert turned and leaned a shoulder against the cold metal door jamb. He scrubbed a hand over his face and through his graying curls. He was a simple man, a farmer, one who rose with the sun, who put one foot in front of the other, who did what needed to be done. But, Lord help him, he didn’t have the strength to deal with this. Any of this.

He let out a long breath, his cheeks ballooning, his lips spreading. He walked slowly to the bed in the middle of the room and looked down at his mother’s gray and wizened face. Her eyes were clamped closed, the lashes stubby and thin, the mouth pursed, even in sleep.

Albert leaned down and kissed the papery-thin cheek.

“I love you, Ma. I don’t know what to do. I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to do.”

A tear dripped from his eyes, clung to his skin before dropping onto his mother’s neck and sliding down onto the pillow.

As he fought to hold back his grief, Albert felt a gentle touch on his cheek, a delicate, shaking finger wiping away the wet track of the tear. He opened his eyes and stared into the clouded green of his mother’s.

She laid a hand on his cheek, and her mouth pulled up gently at the corners. Her eyes sparkled, full of love. She gave a slight nod of her head, the effort causing her puff of hair to shake, her eyes to close.

And Albert understood.

“Goodbye, Ma.”