Contest #143 shortlist ⭐️

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Fiction

“Ah, I should’ve looked here first!” Abadio said, huffing as he climbed up the stairs.

I looked up at him, attempting an apologetic smile.

“I should clean up this place for you since you love it so much,” he said, moving some broken furniture around.

I shook my head slowly. I didn’t need him to tidy up his rooftop for me. All I wanted was a surface big enough to host my body, and I was getting smaller with each passing day, so that was easy.

“Aren’t you cold?” he wondered.

I was growing rather fond of Abadio who was a tiny man of about sixty. He reminded me a little of my maternal grandmother. Like him, she’d loved to talk and ask questions without waiting for answers. It bothered me back then, but it was just what I needed now.

“I know it’s your break time, but I was wondering if you could help Asante and me set up for the evening?” he said, not really expecting me to say no. “My nephew decided that he’d best celebrate the birth of his son at the restaurant. Don’t ask me why! The custom here is for the women to celebrate such things at home with other women,” he said, waving his hand disapprovingly.

I nodded.

“OK, then. You can start by cleaning the tables and putting them in threes,” he seemed happy with how the conversation went.

I turned back to look at the clouds one more time as he started to descend the stairs.

He turned around and cleared his throat, “Ahem, Madison?”

Oh, he meant right now? I got up and followed him down.

I set to work, wiping down the wooden tables. I had to be careful of the edges. It seemed that I got a new splinter wedged under my skin almost every day. I had to learn to stay even more alert handling these tables than during cooking or baking. In a way, it was a good way to keep my mind from wandering.

I finished arranging the tables and went into the kitchen to help Asante with the cooking. She always gave me the jobs she had no patience for. I tried to recall the last time I’d seen that woman sitting down. Unlike other Ghanaian women who sauntered about and took their time doing things, she was always running.

I noiselessly pulled a stool and sat down at the table with my back to the stove and started peeling the potatoes. Asante knew not to babble to me as her husband did. It helped that her English was rudimentary. She would just hand me stuff to do.

The radio blasted over the sounds of bubbling stock and urgent slippers dragging the floor behind me. It usually played the charts, some old, some I didn’t know, but occasionally, there was a Ghanaian song I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand any of what the singer was saying, but it seemed to me that she was pleading with someone, asking why. Why did you leave me? Why can’t you love me? Something like that. The tune was slow and heavy, almost grief-laden. A few tears fell onto the potato peels sitting on my lap. Where did those come from? I thought they had dried up.

Asante took the peeled potatoes to wash them and handed me onions to dice. I used to dread even going near onions. My eyes would water, my nose would start running, and I would feel miserable for at least one hour afterwards. Back in Sweden, I used to use powdered onion. It wasn’t the real thing, but at least I maintained a decent face. If I attempted a fancy dish that required real ingredients, I’d ask Daniel to cut the onions. He would go to the basement and get his swimming goggles to do it, laughing and shaking his head at my incompetence.

But I took what seemed like twenty big yellow onions and started peeling and dicing. It didn’t matter. Because nothing mattered anymore. 

Sure enough, within seconds, my face became blotchy and my eyes turned to taps. A few seconds more, I wasn’t able to breathe through my running nose, so I started breathing through my mouth while wiping my face on my sleeves. I didn’t realise that I had started sobbing until Asante rushed towards me, took the onions from me and led me to the sink to wash my face. I tried, I really did, to stop my chest from heaving and my throat from closing but I wasn’t successful, not entirely anyway. It was just like it had been in the beginning when it all happened.

Abadio came into the kitchen wondering what the fuss was about. When he saw me like that, he gave his wife a rueful look and said something in Akan. She nodded and led me upstairs, back to the roof. I sat back on the spot where I had been earlier and she crouched beside me mumbling something and firmly stroking my hair. It might’ve been a lullaby or something from some holy book. She didn’t have a nice voice per se, but it was motherly and authoritative. She gave me the kitchen towel she’d been holding in her hand and I used its moisture to cool my face.

After a few moments, she said apologetically, “I go now?”

I closed my eyes and nodded. My sobs were now quieter and farther apart. When I could no longer hear her footsteps going down the stairs, I opened my eyes and looked at the sky. I thought I saw swimming goggles just like the ones Daniel had. That gave me comfort, so I lay on my back on the dirty floor, ignoring all the broken chairs and forgotten tyres and focused my eyes and mind on conjuring the memory of Daniel in the freezing water at Tofta Strand. He must’ve been seven or eight years old. He had been convinced that he was diving. I took a million videos and photos of him coming in and out of water with his goggles on, telling me in excitement about all the things he was seeing, or thought was seeing. Taking in his skinny upper body with his ribs clearly showing through his skin, his orange trunks, his wide smile missing all front teeth. I wonder if I’d be exaggerating if I said this was the happiest memory of my entire existence. Nothing trumps it, not even the moment they placed him in my arms right after he came out of me.

Another cloud moved closer into my vision field. This one looked eerily similar to an ambulance. I swear it had four clearly defined wheels and a siren. I tried to close my eyes, but every time I opened them again, the ambulance was still there, too slow to move out of my sight. Too slow to reach the damned hospital in time. I covered my mouth stifling a wail. Why couldn’t I just see happy things? I had been mastering the art of visualising objects. Last week, I saw Elfo, Daniel’s plush elephant floating in a bright blue sky, just like Daniel would hoist him up and around the kitchen. Even yesterday, I was able to see two clouds that, when they met, formed a bike just like his. The little red one, with stabilisers, not the blue one that he was riding when…

Why am I seeing these awful things today? The only escape for the past two months had been this fantasy of mine that flew me out of this world where children die and into a world of reliable blue skies and lovingly deceitful clouds. And now what?

Why am I forced to relive it all? I sat up, pulling my knees to my chest, going through the blur of my last hours back in Sweden. As soon as the doctor told me she couldn’t save him, I got into my car and drove to the airport like a maniac. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t pack. I didn’t go home first. There was no place to call home anymore. I checked that I still had my passport from the previous night’s appointment at the bank, left the car, probably unlocked, in the taxi rank, and rushed into the main hall. I looked at the board with the departing flights. I didn’t care where I was going, as long as it was as far away as possible from where I was standing. The first flight with available seats was to Dubai, but that didn’t seem far enough, so I asked the man behind the counter if I could continue somewhere else from there. The only logical next flight seemed to be to Accra, Ghana. I booked it. And those were the last words I spoke since then.

As I lined up for customs, I threw my water bottle into the bin. After a brief moment of hesitation, I threw my phone in there too. I know my parents must’ve been worried sick about me. I know they had to deal with arranging a funeral on top of losing their only grandchild, and now their daughter, but I was too weak to care. It seemed that for you to be able to think of others, you had to be alive. Or maybe, in a way, I was taking revenge on the world, and everyone in it.

The whole thing was a blur. I would doze off for hours that seemed like minutes and dream for minutes that seemed like hours. I’d have dreams of Daniel squealing, running down the stairs to jump into my anticipating arms, but falling, shattering to pieces, or drowning in a black hole I didn’t know existed in the middle of our bed. On the second flight, the old woman in a colourful turban sitting in the window seat woke me up because I had apparently been “with demons”.

In some mysterious way, I ended up sharing a taxi with this man who introduced himself as Abadio. I must’ve looked pitiful because he invited me to his home. A few days later, it became clear to him and Asante that I didn’t have a plan. I ate very little and did things around the house to compensate for my utter silence. One day he asked if I was interested in helping out in the adjacent restaurant. I nodded.

The ambulance had now dispersed into tufts that joined a few other tufts and formed a child's face. Chubby cheeks, almond-shaped eyes, small ears. I had to smile. This was Daniel playing with me, like when he used to draw shapes I had to guess. 

I could hear noises from guests arriving downstairs. Cars parking, adults greeting each other, babies crying. I knew I had to get up and help downstairs, but I was enjoying this smiling face in the sky so much, so I decided to wait until it shifted shape. 

A few seconds into my gazing at the face, I heard footsteps approaching, so I wiped my face with the back of my hands, preparing for whatever Abadio wanted from me. But when I turned around, I was met with a little boy instead. He looked at me for a few seconds, so I gave him the most reassuring smile I could muster. He took a few steps toward me and asked me in English if he could sit on the tyre next to me. I motioned at the tyre and wiped some dust as an invitation. 

We sat there looking at the clouds together. We watched the sky turn from baby blue to violet, streaked with hues of gold and pink. That was my favourite time of the day. I always made sure I timed a break during that time, when the heat subsided, the bird chirps quietened and the sun and the wind joined efforts in painting the sky and moving the clouds around.

The boy, who must’ve been around Daniel’s age, would smile in amusement sometimes or frown in concentration some other times. I watched him watch the sky and almost wanted to ask him if he saw what I saw, but my tongue was heavy and my lips wouldn’t part.

More footsteps could be heard behind us, so we both turned around. Abadio was there with who appeared to be the boy’s worried mother. 

“This is our Madison! Well, I call her Madison because she looks like the girl from Splash!” he laughed.

“She doesn’t have a name?” the boy looked from me to Abadio.

“I’m sure she does!” said the mother, “maybe she just can’t talk?”

“Not ready to talk!” Abadio said, winking at me. 

I looked down, wondering if I was ever going to be ready. Ready to tell them that my name was Rita and that I once had a son. His name was Daniel.

The woman gestured to her son. He got up and waved at me.

Before reaching the door, he turned around and said, “Can I come again next time and watch the clouds with you?”

I nodded.

April 29, 2022 05:00

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11 comments

Andrea Doig
07:18 May 08, 2022

Shew what an emotional ride!! So beautifully written. I feel her pain as a fellow mother. I can’t imagine even carrying on and totally understand her just running away. Some amazing lines and such a clever idea on the prompt. Wow. Well done. Thank you for sharing. Worthily shortlisted x

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Rama Shaar
10:19 May 08, 2022

Thank you so much for this wonderful comment. I really hope no parent has to endure such pain! And I really appreciate you commending the style and concept!

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Katee B
17:32 May 06, 2022

💕☁️☁️☁️

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Chris Morris
19:16 May 03, 2022

Ah, what a heartwrenching story. As a parent this is the worst thing imaginable for me and I really feel for Rita. You wrote this beautifully and almost brought me to tears. I particularly liked this line: "I would doze off for hours that seemed like minutes and dream for minutes that seemed like hours." And the fact that you ended it with "I nodded" - what a last line. She's still not ready to talk, but she is accepting a friendship with this boy who reminds her of Daniel. Really great stuff here, well done.

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Rama Shaar
19:20 May 03, 2022

Thank you so much! Your comment literally is the best thing that happened to me today! I hope you and I (and all parents) never have to experience this.

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Chris Morris
14:01 May 06, 2022

I'm so glad to see this story was shortlisted! This week was my first as a judge with Reedsy and I put your story forward to be considered. Very happy to see that the other judges agreed with me and that it was recognised as one of the best. Thoroughly deserved, congratulations. And please write more!

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Rama Shaar
16:41 May 06, 2022

I am beyond grateful for your support! So many thanks! I can't tell you how happy I am!

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Kevin Broccoli
16:09 May 12, 2022

This is such a tough matter to take on as a writer and you did it beautifully. Well done.

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Rama Shaar
18:03 May 12, 2022

Thanks so much! I really appreciate your comment!

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Rebecca Miles
09:11 May 07, 2022

Who doesn't love a bit of cloud gazing? I love your poignant take on this past-time: watching your narrator remember all those beloved objects form in the sky was really moving. Strong characterisation, dialogue and a creative approach to the prompt.

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Rama Shaar
12:32 May 07, 2022

Thank you for your lovely comment! I loved writing it!

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