32 comments

Drama Romance Contemporary

On my birthday he brings me flowers. 

A thin bouquet of sweet apricot-colored carnations. A million little delicate petals that smell of small-town grocery stores. The white papery tag is still hooked to the plastic but I don’t dare look at it. The flowers are real, dripping water into my palms, but the gesture is fake. 

He holds my hand in the doorway and kisses my ring. A fake ruby the size of a thumbnail that he gave me for my last birthday. I hate the way it reflects in his eyes but I have to wear it when he visits. He never misses a birthday and this time is no exception. 

I invite him inside. It’s the polite thing to do and we both know it. When his skin gathers on his forehead I know it makes him too happy. Seeing me stripped bare of makeup and limping around my home in shapeless nightgowns. 

He sits on the couch. Stains and feathers puff up around him and I laugh. It lasts a second but he smiles back. I hide my face in the flowers. 

The carnations fall into a cheap, cracked vase. One of my dance teachers gave it to me for my bleeding feet and streetlight eyes. I pretend to forget him in the living room and the fact that flowers need to be watered. Gray blisters blossom on their pretty faces and somehow I am satisfied. If I am to be ugly, they should be too. 

I place a kettle on the stove. There’s a bag of dried leaves with daisies on the front. I remember when they fell from the sky. No need to ask if he wants chamomile because there are some things I know for sure. One of them is his general dislike of tea. The other is that he is here for a reason. 

“Happy birthday,” he says, looking not at me but at the photographs on the windowsill. They are black and white, portraying a woman and a girl, years ago. They are timeworn and the sun has whitewashed them, but you can still make out their little hands and open eyes. 

I rest opposite of him. We stare into their unsmiling faces. “I used to have a daughter. Now she lives in Switzerland with a nice husband and three children.” I tell him my story in a sentence but he already knows. 

“I did not ask,” he replies. 

The kettle screams from inside the kitchen. He glances in its direction and knits his fingers together. Him being nervous and wordless is something that comforts me. 

I smile at him, rising slowly from the seat, and hobble into the kitchen. I see my reflection in the silver pot and frown. There are dark bags under my eyes and I rub them, hoping they’ll disappear. The kettle is twitching and so I twist the heat away. 

The water needs to cool down, but I don’t want to return to him immediately. So I close the door. I look at the yellowing kitchen in the hazy afternoon light and sigh. The carnations are the only lively thing in here, despite the fact that they are choking out their last breaths. 

From inside the living room, I hear him hum. It’s an abrupt sort of noise, and almost like I can see his lips part. Those soft, heart-shaped lips that used to be pressed against mine. 

When I join him again, I see that he is flipping through my mail. It has been laying on the coffee table, a jumble of bright-colored stamps and various words and letters that fit into addresses. Some of it is from a month ago and I didn’t care. 

His hands freeze when he sees a certain postcard. It’s a picture of a beautiful brown mountain dappled with snow, the background a fading orange. The sunset and peaks are dizzily reflected into the lake below. In the lower left-hand corner it reads ‘Switzerland’ in red marker. 

He shows it to me and I avoid his gaze. “She sends you mail?” 

I clean my dried lips with my tongue. “Not anymore.” I think of the tea and the way his cheeks will wrinkle when he turns sixty. His cheeks are red and he touches the thick paper like he knows who’s touched it before. “Don’t look like that. I know she sends you mail all the time.” 

“Of course she does,” he says, setting the card down and crossing a leg over the other, “all the time.” 

He crosses his legs when he lies. I know this because that’s exactly what he did when I asked him if he loved me, back on Broadway, thirty years ago. He held my calloused hands and denied it. I tied my ballet shoes and danced off into the curtains. I had a secret. He didn’t follow. 

I stand suddenly, patting my pockets like there is something important I need to remember. He stands too. “I have tea,” I tell him, folding my arms into each other. The walls are drowned in sunlight and it reminds me of the time I took my daughter to the ocean. 

“I do not favor tea.” His words are final. He peers at me like I’m not the woman he made love to, back in New York, thirty years ago. “I’m sorry, Stela,” he mutters. It’s the three words he repeats every birthday of mine. 

I step away from him and life. “You should leave.” 

He doesn’t protest. The flowers are listening from the next room and I can hear their whines. He stops by the door, clutching the frame with his fingers. His fingers are white like marble when he opens his mouth. “Goodbye.” 

I roll my lips together and watch the door shut with a creak. The house’s bones rattle and I know it feels as old as me. I’m alone and it feels cold on my shoulders. I don’t want to miss him like the other girls did, back on Broadway. 

My phone is in the kitchen and I wrap my hand around it. The metal is cool and slides against my cheek. I type the digits from an unknown postcard and hit call. The phone fits into place beside my ear.  

Wisps of dust float around me when lost rings vibrate the device. Suddenly they stop and I hold my breath. 

“Hello! This is Beth Withers. Please leave a message at the beep.” 

My breath trickles through my teeth. Beep

I step into the living room before talking. The photographs and their many eyes tug at my hair. It’s streaked silver and they laugh at it. 

“Hello Beth. It’s . . . your mother. I received your postcard. What time is it for you? Anyways, I just called to tell you that it’s my birthday. You might’ve forgotten and that’s okay. It’s probably not even today anymore where you are. I don’t expect you to remember your life here. Anyways, I turned fifty.” I find myself collapsing into the couch. “Your father visited today. He said you write him letters and I know he’s lying. I’m not angry, I . . .” I played with the fraying threads. Standing up again, I walk back into the kitchen. “I love you always.” I remove the cabinet door and find myself a tea cup. The tea splashes a little when I pour it. “I’m sorry.” 

Then the world goes silent. I keep telling strangers my life in a sentence and they don’t care. The people in the photographs are blurred and old. I need to move on with my eyes that have seen the world and so I put the phone down. 

The carnations and their bruised faces tickle my palms. I sip tea, watching the steam billow off the surface in waves, thinking about postcards and gray light that filters through windows.

December 02, 2020 04:57

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32 comments

Scout Tahoe
05:14 Dec 02, 2020

This requires no explaining. I tried to like it, I really did. My aunt is in Switzerland. This is for her. Thank you for reading.

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Genevieve Taylor
05:02 Dec 02, 2020

Scout, I really love this story! It gives off this sort of indescribable energy that has come to define your writing in my mind. It has been so wonderful watching your style evolve over time, and I've absolutely loved seeing you grow and improve on this site. Great work! This story is incredible, and proof of your amazingness :)). I hope it wins! -Vieve

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Scout Tahoe
05:04 Dec 02, 2020

Aw, thank you so much. Me too, haha. You're so kind, Vieve.

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Fjc Montenegro
01:54 Dec 04, 2020

Damn. Your imagery is too good! It's not fair. I read it once and it was just pure enjoyment so I had to read it again to really try and offer some constructive criticism haha. A few small notes: 1. there are a couple of "knew" I think should be "know" maybe? Nobody mentioned this so I might just be sleepy. :P 2. I have a question about "the time I almost lost my daughter to the ocean." I feel that was almost random. Is that what pushed the daughter away? If it is, I think it's too discrete, it might go unnoticed. I only connected the...

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Scout Tahoe
02:51 Dec 04, 2020

Thank you, Splinter! As always your comment was so, so helpful. 1. Ah, I did not read over this before posting and that might be the reason. I'll fix as soon as possible! 2. I might just delete that sentence. I was actually referencing to that she almost drowned in the ocean. But if that's not clear I'll change. 3. I might also delete that sentence too. I just meant that she was not the only one after him back when she was on Broadway. Ha, it's not because of your long day of work, it's because of my terrible sentences. "You paint wit...

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Fjc Montenegro
22:50 Dec 04, 2020

It's there! I've just posted it. I was trying to get some feedback on another forum before posting here but no one answered. lol Congrats on the shortlist!!! Well-deserved.

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Scout Tahoe
23:48 Dec 04, 2020

Yes! Heading over now! And thank you.

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Rayhan Hidayat
16:37 Dec 02, 2020

I like how this is just a snapshot of consequences, while the event that led to this isn’t important except for the fact that it must have been really really bad. Lovely imagery as always! 😙

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Scout Tahoe
17:30 Dec 02, 2020

Thank you! ;)

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Writer Maniac
02:28 Dec 10, 2020

Woah! I loved this story! The vivid imagery, the broken people and the realistic setting. I could smell, feel and see every part of it, so well done! I'm looking forward to reading more from you! P.S. I would love to know your thoughts on one of my recent stories 'An Unfortunate Series of Events' whenever you're free

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Scout Tahoe
03:11 Dec 10, 2020

Thank you. And by the way, I got that same story for critique circle! ;)

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Writer Maniac
03:18 Dec 10, 2020

Oh, that's a weird coincidence seeing that I got your story for critique circle :D

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Scout Tahoe
03:44 Dec 10, 2020

Oh, yeah, if one author gets another then that author gets them for critique circle, if that makes sense.

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Anna Mosqueda
18:48 Dec 07, 2020

To put my feelings about this story into the fewest amount of words possible I will say this...WOW. Great job, I'll be reading many more of your stories:) ~Anna

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Scout Tahoe
19:31 Dec 07, 2020

Thank you, Anna.

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Rachel Macmorran
23:17 Dec 03, 2020

So wonderful! Tender as a bruise. This story is so full of poignant imagery. I love the petals that “smell of small town grocery stores”. And the old lie— a denial of love. I think you really expertly alluded to the events that led to this moment without needing any exposition. Very well done. My only critique is that Her message to her daughter seemed almost normal for someone so obviously damaged. But maybe that just reveals something about me! I really enjoyed this overall. I’d love your feedback on my latest if you have the time....

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Scout Tahoe
00:17 Dec 04, 2020

Thank you, Rachel. I'd love to know how I can make the phone call better if you don't mind. :) I'll check out yours if I get time.

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Rachel Macmorran
02:24 Dec 04, 2020

Oh gosh! I’m just trying to imagine. It’s such a subtle play, and the smallest changes might throw off your whole excellent characterization. Mindful of that danger, Here’s my take: “Hello Beth. It’s ...mom. I got your postcard. I just realized I don’t know what time it is there. Are you sleeping? It’s just that— it’s my birthday today. Maybe it’s not even today there. It’s okay. Anyways, I turned fifty.” I find myself collapsing into the couch. “Your father was here. He said you write him letters but I know he’s lying. I’m not angry...I......

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Scout Tahoe
02:54 Dec 04, 2020

*Applaud* Thank you so very much. It's wonderful. I'm going to use that and definitely going to check out your story when I get the time, which should be soon...

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Scout Tahoe
02:59 Dec 04, 2020

Fixed them! Let me know what you think. ;)

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Rachel Macmorran
17:11 Dec 04, 2020

yes! more...broken. There's still that intimacy of mother and daughter, but jagged, off-key. This whole story is really fine work. Kudos

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Scout Tahoe
17:18 Dec 04, 2020

Thanks:)

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Zilla Babbitt
16:24 Dec 03, 2020

This. Is my favorite story. That introduction. The flowers. The crossing his legs when he lies. The happy birthday. The realization that they had a kid. Maybe you need to keep hating your stories because they turn out so GREAT. I mean it. This was really, really good. That ending. I love that she calls and then hangs up. Great job, Scout. Great, great job. Thank you for sharing this. Well done.

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Scout Tahoe
18:23 Dec 03, 2020

Wow, I’m so glad you liked it. Really. Thank you for the comment. ;) Just curious, which story is your favorite of mine?

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Zilla Babbitt
15:28 Dec 08, 2020

Well, I loved your first one. And I'd be remiss to not say the ones that were shortlisted. But personal favorite? The Meisie one. I can't remember the title. That has so much potential still. It was great.

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Scout Tahoe
16:01 Dec 08, 2020

My first one? A Grandmother's Tale Via Gmail? Haha I hope you don't mean that one. Written on Juniper Leaves, yes. Thank you.

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Zilla Babbitt
16:04 Dec 08, 2020

I do! It was funny and sweet. Your style has changed since then but I still love it :)

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Scout Tahoe
16:12 Dec 08, 2020

Okay, thanks! It’s funny because I consider that story one of my worst.

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10:43 Dec 02, 2020

I wonder what's pushed the daughter away. It has to be a pretty huge thing as we see in the message the mother sends. The parents are separated. I suppose one question I'll have to live with Is: why does he keep coming and why does she let him? This is a story with a great plot. We can glimpse the inside life of a broken family and we can tell that life, to them, is a plaything. I like the words you've chosen to use to show us Switzerland (the title). Good job, darling!

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Scout Tahoe
14:18 Dec 02, 2020

Thank you, Abi. I’m so glad you liked it.

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Tempest Wright
18:36 Dec 04, 2020

This is beautiful described, and it brings so much sadness to the heart. I love how the carnations, and how they almost seem to reflect her emotions. Great job!

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Scout Tahoe
19:16 Dec 04, 2020

Thank you.

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