Contest #19 shortlist ⭐️

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  1. One of those really nice wool blankets from Costco
  2. Donuts from Dunkin’
  3. A journal and a nice pen
  4. Flowers. Roses.
  5. A scotch (the good kind)

There’s a quiet pattering of rain against the window that looks down into the parking lot. Her head rests against the glass, watching people coming and going. Many carry balloons and flowers; most have Congratulations! scrawled across them. It’s cruelly ironic.

She sighs, annoyed, and taps her pen against her hand. What else? There were probably lots of things she needed: groceries, makeup for Lilia, a birthday present for her niece. It just seemed so far away right now. Any life outside the hospital room didn’t exist, and anything that entered quickly became as dead as the rest of the room.

She’d just have to text some stuff to John. He’d understand. He’d take time off work to pick up CJ, or buy their groceries, or walk Pluto. And she knew the kids would support him, too.

“Bella? What are you doing?”

“Watching the rain, Mom.”

Bella turns toward the hospital bed, towards the empty beeping. Her mother’s watching, her eyes wide like an owl’s.

“What are you sitting on the window for? There’s a lovely chair right here.”

Bella wrinkles her nose. It’s white, like everything else. She can feel its emptiness radiating around the room in waves. If she sat there, she’d become a part of that emptiness.

“What are you writing?”

She looks down at her notepad. “Just a list. Of the stuff you wanted earlier. Remember?”

She frowns. “No, I don’t. I don’t need anything. Put that silly thing away.”

Bella smiles to herself, and tucks the notepad into her back pocket. She stands to move across the room and into the chair. “Everyone needs something. You can have whatever you want, Mom.”

She snorts. “Because I’m on my deathbed? Please. When you’re as old as I am, you don’t need anything anymore.” She scowls at the sheet of paper poking from Bella’s back pocket. “Much less a ‘really nice wool blanket from Costco.’”

Bella blinks. “You really don’t remember? It was just a few hours ago.” It scared her, that her mother’s memory had leaked in that short time, like sand through a fork.

“Course I don’t remember.” She glared up at her. Her skin is dark, and used to be darker until age pulled at it, stretching her features and fading her beautiful color. Light spots dot her forehead, like an aging and elegant leopard. “Why would I remember when I don’t care all that much? Now,” She settles herself into a more comfortable position. “Tell me something about your day. How are CJ and Lilia? Does Lilia like that scarf I got her?”

Nurses would tell Bella all the time that her mother didn’t act like a sick person, much less a ninety-one-year-old on her deathbed. I know, was all Bella could say. That could be a blessing and a curse though. For instance, when something truly frightening happened-- like her mother not recalling the last few hours-- it made it much more real. It reminded her how sick she really was. Bella shook off the thought.

“CJ and Lilia are fine,” she said. “Lilia loves her scarf. She looks beautiful in it.”

Bella smiled a little, recalling her daughter’s lovely face, the bright blue weaving delicately against the dark midnight of her skin. It brought out her eyes and the faint bluish hint of her black hair. She gazed at the woman in front of her, seeing an identical blue tint.

Her mother’s face brightened. “Good,” she said. “Pretty girl. Blue looks nice on her. I’ll make a nice red one for CJ too.” She looks satisfied.

Bella glanced down at her list. “Are you sure I can’t get you anything, Mom? You really did ask for all this a while ago.” It seemed unfair that her mother could give so much to her and her family and she wasn’t able to give anything back.

Her mother scoffs. “Please, girl. Give me anything, I’ll chuck it in the trash the second you’re gone. I don’t want anything or need anything, except you and the girls.” 

“Yeah,” Bella murmurs. A bit ironic, considering she was leaving them-- just like Dad and Duncan had left.

Her mother was still talking, but she wasn’t listening, thinking about her brother. Sweet, funny Duncan. He’d remained strong through his illness, never breaking down in front of them or his children. He cared for them too much. Bella missed him.

“Besides, I’m about ready, I think.”

Bella’s head snaps around to her. “What? Ready- ready for what?”

“To die, of course. It’s time.” Seeing Bella’s stare, she elaborates. “I’m old. I’ve been swinging my fists all my life, hitting everything in sight. I’m about ready to let my opponent win. I’ll miss everyone terribly,” she adds, “but I’m happy to go. Don’t think Jesus will be lettin’ me get away this time. Honestly, I don’t really want to run from him anyway.” 

She nods, satisfied, and leans back in her bed. Bella just stared at her. “That’s it?” she whispered. “That’s all? You’ve decided you’re done? That you’re going to let your opponent win? Life and death isn’t a wrestling match! What about us? How can you be ready to leave? How can you--” she chokes back the words. How can you want to leave?

“I don’t want to leave,” she snaps. “Don’t talk to me like that. I’m just--”

“I’ll be right back,” Bella interrupted, scooping up her purse. “Don’t get into any trouble while I’m gone.” She didn’t want to listen to this. Or really, hear the rest of her sentence.

“Where are you going?”

“Just out. I’m going to get a coffee.”

Bella shoulders her coat and slips out of the room before her mother can say anything else. She felt tired, bone-heavy and aching. She supposed she could blame part of it on her late nights and lack of sleep, but she also knew a big part of it was just the heavy, familiar grief that came with her mother’s illness.

It was pouring sheets as she stormed into the parking lot, making a beeline for the small silver Prius parked neatly between two minivans. The rain stuck her braids to her face and traced droplets down her shirt and against her skin. She jammed the key in and started the car. She didn’t know where she was going. Maybe to get a drink.

She was a mile down the road before she realized she was crying, silent tears mingling with the raindrops. She wiped them away angrily and focused on the road ahead.

It just wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that her mother thought losing her life was justified and right, that she didn’t even act like she was ill, wasn’t fair that she believed it was her time to give up the fight.

What about me? she wanted to scream. What about your grandchildren? Don’t you remember what happened to this family when Dad and Duncan were gone? How can you leave us like that again?

It was selfish, really. Selfish and stupid and unfair.

The tires screeched over the wet pavement, an angry rhythm that drummed along with Bella’s heartbeat.

Acceptance, she thought bitterly, swerving around a blue car to another lane, acceptance. Of death? No, the fact that she’ll be gone soon, and we’ll be left without her and she’ll get to see them when I can’t--

And soon she was sobbing again, too fast and too suddenly to catch her breath. A car honked behind her and she raised a shaking hand to give it the finger.

Bella hadn’t cried since she’d found out her mother was sick, had somehow buried down that pain. Maybe a small part of her had believed her mother would get over this, the way she had the last time she was so sick. But now, with her mother talking about dying and being ready, it was just… just so much more…

Real, she thought.

Bella pulled over to the side and took deep, shuddering breaths to calm herself. Her arms wrapped around herself, holding on tightly. Rain pattered against the windshield, the roof. Her thoughts pounded against her head.

Real, she thought again. Real, real, REAL!

She slammed her fists against the windshield in fury, the tears breaking down her face again as she sobbed. She leaned forward, pressing her forehead into the steering wheel, her whole body shaking with grief.

Why is it real? Why is it real? Why does this have to happen so many times??

She didn’t know if she cried for hours, for minutes or days. She cried until it didn’t feel like she would ever stop, cried until the rain lessened briefly then came down harder. Bella cried as the cars passed again and again, colors flashing, people that meant nothing to her and that knew nothing about her. She cried as every thought spiraled in her head, until she couldn’t cry anymore. Whenever that happened, it didn’t mean she wasn’t sad anymore-- for Bella it meant she was ready to bury down the pain until next time. She couldn’t cry all the time. She had a family to look after.

But when she did cry, she cried like there was no tomorrow. She cried as though to release all the grief and all the pain, even though she couldn’t, never could.

Bella took a deep breath and wiped her hands on her pants. She sat there for ages, until the tears dried on her face and her insides were ice again. She sighed, gazed out the window. The thought came again: Why does it have to be real?

Bella sighed again and turned the key in the ignition. The car roared to life, the lights flaring up, dancing yellow through the raindrops. Bella placed her hands on the wheel, prepared to turn back around to the hospital, when an idea struck her.

She turned off the car again and pulled her list from her back pocket. The pages were damp and stuck together. She read over the list again.

These were all the items you’d buy for someone in the hospital-- which her mother was, but they didn’t summarize who she really was. Her mother didn’t want something stale and given often, the only cost being someone’s wallet. She didn’t want anything at all.

Except a reminder that she mattered.

And wasn’t that what everyone wanted?

She wanted to know that she had lived and that her family would continue to live on-- because she was ready to go. She was ready to see everyone she had lost and everyone that mattered to her.

Bella picked up her phone and tapped a number into it. “John?” she said.

CJ, Lilia and Pluto were all bundled into the car, their breath fogging the window. Lilia was tracing the outline of her scarf. CJ was stroking Pluto’s head.

“Where did you say we were going?” CJ asks. She looks impatient. She was missing her lacrosse practice.

Bella kept her eyes focused straight ahead. “Dentist. Stop complaining. This is an important appointment.” She can’t look around at her girls. If she does, she would start crying again. They knew Grandma was sick, but not so sick that she might be dying soon. Bella’s mother was adamant they shouldn’t know. And honestly, Bella couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Lilia pipes up from the backseat, “Can we pick up some lunch? I’m starving!”

“No time, sweetie,” Bella replied, making her voice sound brisk and motherly. Pluto sticks his big yellow head next to Bella’s arm and pants happily. He could always tell when they were visiting Grandma. He adored her.

John had managed to take time off work to pick up Celia, Max, and Christian, Bella’s niece and nephews. Duncan’s kids.

Bella drove hard and fast, with an urgency she couldn’t quite pinpoint. It just felt very important to get to the hospital right away, and she had a feeling why. Her stomach felt sick, twisted up in knots. Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.

Soon, but not yet.

It was still raining, hard, and turned the hospital larger and wet than it had seemed before. CJ and Lilia were bickering in the backseat, when they suddenly came to an abrupt stop. “What are we doing here?” CJ sounded nervous.

Bella doesn’t look at her, instead turning to grab her purse and stuff Pluto’s leash in Lilia’s startled hands. “Visiting Grandma,” she said. “Get your coats. It’s chilly outside.”

CJ stared at her. Lilia’s eyes were wide.

“Let’s go,” Bella said impatiently. She opened her door with a pop and slammed it before Pluto had a chance to try and leap out like he always did. Slowly, her daughters slinked out of the car. There was a dangerous look to CJ’s eyes, like she somehow knew what was happening. She stared at Bella reproachfully.

Lilia, meanwhile, was trying to handle Pluto. Her face was blank, fearful, and she looked up at her mother several times anxiously.

Bella didn’t want them to be scared.

But there was nothing to be said, so she just hoisted up her purse and stalked towards the looming double doors.

It was very quiet inside, quiet as a snake. Quiet as Death, Bella thought with a shiver. She pushed the idea aside and hurried up the stairs, trying to look calm. CJ and Lilia stumbled behind her, Pluto panting eagerly at being somewhere new.

The door to her mother’s room was ajar and Bella pushed it open, warily. “Mom?” She tried to quench the fear climbing up her throat.

“Here.” John’s voice.

He was gathered around her bed, with Celia and Max. Christian was sitting quietly in a chair. John smiled at Bella, but his eyes were tired.

Bella’s mom was laying back with her eyes closed, talking to Celia and the others. Celia was smiling and nodding, tears shining on her cheeks, while Max had taken his grandma’s hand. 

She was telling some story of her youth, her face smiling and animated, and she looked happy and relaxed. She turned her face towards the door as they came in and opened her eyes a moment. She smiled wider.

“My girls,” she croaked, and they lost it, running forward to launch themselves into her arms. Lilia was crying already, harder than Celia. CJ’s face was pinched and tight with worry, and she kept biting her lip. Still, she looked infinitely more relaxed, just by seeing her. 

They talked for hours about anything and everything. Bella’s mom didn’t say much. She kept her eyes closed tight, but did her best to smile and nod along with the conversations. 

She looked so, so tired.

It was then that Bella knew; something inside her broke a little, and her heart was trying to lodge itself in her throat. It was an enormous effort not to start crying right then and there, but she had cried herself out hours ago. 

But it was still difficult when a nurse came around to quietly tell her in the corner that her mother was in a lot of pain, and had asked for the drug a few days ago. “But not yet,” she had said. “She didn’t want to go yet. I think she was waiting for you.”

All she could do was nod.

Soon there were lots of long hugs, and great sobbing tears that splashed over everybody’s clothes; soon there were panic attacks and last-minute embraces and kisses on the cheeks. “Don’t go,” Lilia had moaned. “Who’s s-supposed to m-make me b-beautiful?” She started crying again, harder.

“You’re already beautiful,” was all she said. Soft. Rasping. Tired, so tired.

Soon it was Bella’s turn for a moment alone with her. She held her mother’s hand. Her eyes were blurry.

“Oh, my girl,” she murmured. “Bella. I’m gonna miss you so, so much.”

Bella swallowed hard. “I’m sorry for getting frustrated earlier,” she began. “I’m sorry for asking you not to do the turkey on Thanksgiving. I’m sorry I didn’t buy you those earrings for your birthday, I’m sorry I didn’t give you back your favourite shoes, I’m sorry I wouldn’t wear Grandma’s wedding ring, I’m sorry-” She couldn’t say anything else. She was crying too hard.

Her mother leaned up slowly to wrap her in a hug. Her eyes were shining with tears. “Sweetie, those are all just objects! They don’t matter. You matter. I never needed an apology from you. I never needed you to say you are sorry in all the years that I’ve known and loved you. I never needed you to give me anything. I never needed anything but you. You’re enough, Bella. You’re all enough.” She was crying so hard she barely made out the rest of her sentence. She coughed, weakly, and fell back onto the covers.

Bella was shaking. “Don’t leave,” she whispered. “D-don’t go. Don’t- don’t--” She broke down, covered her face with her hands. Her mother pried them off and just looked at her. Her hands were trembling, her face was age-lined, her eyes milky and full of exhaustion. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. 

Bella’s head dropped into her lap. Her shoulders shook. Her mother slowly wrapped her frail arms around her body and shook with her. 

For a long moment, it was just the two of them.

Bella pulled back, sniffing. “Do you really not want anything?” she said.

No,” she snapped, sounding annoyed again. “I don’t need nothin’.” Her eyes met Bella’s with a fire entirely familiar to her, as familiar as her own skin or the smell of the rain.

Bella smiled. “Okay, Mom.” she said. “Whatever you want.”

December 13, 2019 19:59

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1 comment

Anastasia S.
13:49 Jan 18, 2020

This story is beautifully written! I love the characterization of Bella's mom.


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