Sticky juice trickles down your knuckles, leaving trails of strawberry red in its wake. Your face is stained from the artificial sweetness of your popsicle, the sugary taste still lingers in the corners your lips and in your mouth. The stick sits in your slack hand, every last morsel of flavor pulled from the corpse of a miniature tree. You laugh a little at yourself, but it is quickly silenced. The warm summer air is as thick and golden as honey, pouring down your throat with each breath. Sweat stains your clothing, gluing your shirt to your skin and sticking your legs to the crumbling patio. Mosquitos threaten to land on your arms and legs, kept at bay by your frantically slapping hands. But despite all this, you feel content. This unforgiving warmth has been, and always will be your greatest weakness.
“Come inside!” A shrill voice shrieks, shattering your quiet solitude like thin ice that someone has slipped through. You quiet your groan; the screen door is open, and even the buzz of the cicadas won’t mask the sound. Shirt rubbing uncomfortably against a sunburn, you rise. The stained popsicle stick bangs loudly as it enters the rusted tin garbage can. The local country station blares piercingly on the old radio your mom refuses to replace.
It ain’t broke, she says in your mind, her faux southern accent prominent, so there ain’t no need to replace it. Although you never really understood the joy she gets from changing and hiding, you still smile at the memory.
With each step you take the sunlight fades, leaving you chilled and shivering. The house creaks and groans, alive under your feet. You have lived in this house for your entire life, but it never ceases to unsettle you. Her soothing voice enters your mind again, this time whispering to a child. We are lucky to have a house that breathes. That’s what it’s doin’ you know. When it rattles and shakes. But don’t worry darlin’—it’s here to protect you.
“What is taking you so long?” Sharp as needles, the words prod you forward, ushering you deeper into the confines of the house. Shadows loom across the sunken floorboards, fingers reaching toward your exposed ankles. Your fingertips tremble as you reach for the doorknob, knowing what horrors it will release. A deep breath does little to steady your nerves as you carefully turn the tarnished knob. The first thing you see is a king-sized bed that makes the frail figure laying upon it look even smaller. You try to avoid this room, but most days your efforts are futile. Your steps are quiet as you pick your way through blankets and pillows.
The pale figure’s hand folds into yours, as if unaware of the fact that it was supposed to be the bigger one. Her clammy skin is the texture of paper, soft and thin and hanging from her bones. Like clothes hanging from a plastic hanger. Wires and tubes frame her once beautiful face the way her hair used to. Her eyelids flutter like the pale wings of butterflies. You turn to the other figure in the room, putting yourself in between him and your mother, a desperate need to protect her fills you. A rhythmic beeping fills the air between you, in time with her weakly beating heart.
“It is time for you to say your goodbyes. She doesn’t have much longer.” A few months ago, before you had to grow up too fast, you laughed when you heard this absurdly high-pitched voice. Your mother had shushed you with a kind smile and went back to listening intently to his words. Now, it feels like all the color has been stripped from your world, and the only thing that kept you going is nearly gone. You feel yourself begin to crumple like paper that looks like your mother’s skin. You knew that this was coming, but the naivete of childhood held you up like a balloon. A balloon with a thousand holes that is quickly deflating.
You shut your eyes as you hear the doctor approach you. His polished leather loafers are louder than you expected they would be. Clinging desperately to your mother’s hand you pray for her to stay with you. “Mama,” the word emerges as a choked whisper from your throat. The monitor beeps rapidly for a few moments before dying down. What little warmth that was left in your mother’s hand is now gone. The paper of her skin is damp with your tears and before you know what is happening hands are on your shoulders and the room is at your back.
Your heart throbs in your throat but you are startled that you can feel anything. Liquid gold light enfolds you as you step outside, but you find no joy in it. The cruelty of it greets you like a plunge into icy water, some part of you imagined that the sun would just disappear. Or at least have the decency to be covered by some clouds. In the slanting rays, you look at your skin and marvel at how the light changes it. Your skin isn’t paper like your mother’s. Even though the muscles all around your chest are throbbing and you are convinced that your heart is gone, you are still here.
A train howls in the distance sputtering down the tracks. Pink clouds are trapped across the sky by the setting sun—flies in amber. Beauty is everywhere, your mother’s voice sighed as lightning had crossed the sky, don’t you ever forget it. No matter where you are there is always something. Her fingers had tugged your hair into a long braid as she stared longingly at the thunder-filled sky. Every fiber of her being itching to dance in the rain. You always knew that once you were sound asleep, she would dash out there. Skin vibrating with adrenaline, as rain poured from clouds that looked like pencil smudged on a thin sheet of paper.