You sit on the bed, worn quilt draped over you. There’s a hole in the quilt, one that your knee fits through perfectly, edges frayed from years of sitting in this exact position. Sunlight from the window streams in, lighting up the words on the page of the book in front of you. Black type-written words on creamy background; you stare but don’t truly read.
You read the first few pages, and that was enough.
How could she?
You stare at the book in your hands, florid, garish colors illuminating the cover. Annmarie Locke, it says on the front. You know, of course, that her name is plain Mary-Ann, but she found it too old fashioned. You can remember what she said to you, when she told you her book was being published.
“I want them to read it, and think someone young wrote it.” She patted her hair, a dark red, straight out of a bottle. It used to be real red, fiery and bright, but as she aged, it faded to gray, then white. Now she dyes it, finding solace in the hair salon.
You used to think she was so cool, so unique for having red hair. (Yours is a mousy brown). But now? What’s the use of pretending? You have, and have never had, no patience for people who pretend to be someone they’re not. You never thought your mother would be one of those people. She irritates you, and you don’t know why.
These thoughts cruel and you know it. Shifting under the brightly patterned quilt, you push the cruelty out of your mind. She’s your mother, for Christ’s sake. And it’s been her dream to write a book forever. But this… it’s a gaudy story, a housewife who embarks on a forbidden romance. Sex, clichés. It’s cheap, made to sell.
The part that bothers you most, though, is how fake it all is.
“Momma?” Isabelle comes running into the room, stumbling along on chubby legs. You hurry to shove the book under the covers. For a five-year-old, she’s a precocious reader, and has taken to stealing your books. The last thing you need is her getting ahold of What Happens Under the Palm Trees.
“Hey, sugar plum. What have you been doing?”
Proudly, she holds up a crayon drawing.
“This is you, Momma! And this is me, and Poppa, and Grandma!”
My mother’s hair is colored bright red, the same shade as Izzy’s. There’s a line down my mother’s head, though. Her hair may be flame colored, but her roots sprinkle snow on the fire.
On the back of Izzy’s drawing, crayon words are scratched out on the page. She begins explaining, rapidly, hands flying, her story, which seems to involve a French-fry loving unicorn. You smile at her, but your mind floats away, spinning backwards twenty years.
She was always a writer, ideas flowing out of her pen, vast countries and characters, sweeping dramas, beautiful poetry. You would sit with her as she wrote, and you would write your stories on a notebook she bought you. She whispered in your ear,
“Beautiful, darling. Never stop.” That notebook was the most special thing you had. It was the home of your hopes, your dreams, your characters and writing. You had grand plans to be an author. You were in awe of your mother. She was always working on books, writing and writing and writing.
When you got a little older, you realized nothing she sent to agents was ever published.
She wrote a book, and by that point you were twelve. You read it, and thought it was the most beautiful thing you’d ever read. You (and your father and mother) were sure it would be published.
It wasn’t. Even now, you don’t know why. It was sad, and eloquent, and perfect. But twelve-year old you took that rejection to heart. No matter how good your work was, it wouldn’t amount to anything.
You shoved your notebook under your bed, and quit your creative writing class.
You waited for her to write more, to show you you could.
But she didn’t. She just stopped, as though that final rejection broke her. She hasn’t written until now. She always wanted to publish a book- it was her dream. But you can’t help thinking, even as you make dinner. As you and Izzy and Saul sit down to eat. As you kiss him, ask him how his day was, tuck Izzy in. You can’t help thinking, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
“Becky? Are you alright?”
You turn to Saul, staring at you perplexed.
“I’m fine. Just… confused.” You try to decide how much to tell him. He’s tired, you tell yourself. He doesn’t need to hear about this. But it all comes rushing out anyway.
“It’s my mom. You know how she got that book published?” Involuntarily, he makes a face. “Exactly! It’s bad. And… she used to be so different, idealistic. This is all wrong. Saul, I just don’t understand!” You aren’t expressing it clearly, your thoughts are coming out a jumbled mess.
Saul thinks for a moment, and you can see it on his face. He doesn’t understand, you knew he wouldn’t. The line above his eyebrows crunch together before saying to you,
“You should go see her.”
“Saul, she lives in Maine.”
“I know. But you have those days off coming up- the firm won’t miss you. And you haven’t seen her in a really long time, anyway.”
That’s how you wind up in her house. It’s small, and cozy, perched, precariously, it always seemed to you, at the end of a cul-de-sac in an unremarkable town in Main. When your father was alive, this place lived with him. He was always singing. He set up wind chimes on the front porch only days before he died- he was that sort of person. Anything for music.
Now, they don’t make any noise.
Your mother greets you inside with a hug, as always, and you sink into the embrace. It’s as soothing and restorative as a hot mug of tea.
“Mom. Congrats on the book!” You smile, pumping as much joy as you can into the beam. She grins back, but you can’t help thinking there’s something missing. The smile doesn’t stretch to her eyes.
“Mom, are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m lovely.” She pats her hair, again, and your eyes are drawn to the roots. Snowy white peeking out from cherry-in-a-bottle red. She leads you into the house, the place that used to be your home. The oak dining table is where the two of you would sit, writing. That stain on the couch is where I spilled hot chocolate, when Aunt Emma visited.
You realize, suddenly, that Izzy has never been here.
You make polite conversation, smiling and nodding. You feel, suddenly, as though you can’t relate to her at all. When that book showed up, a present wrapped and tied with a ribbon, on your doorstep, you couldn’t imagine telling her you don’t like it. You don’t think you ever can.
“I’m just so pleased at the publication!”
You nod cheerfully. At least, you hope it comes across as cheerful.
“I’m proud of you, Mom.”
When it gets late, she directs you to your old bedroom. She’s kept it, pristine and perfect, and you can almost see your ghosts, living in the room, as alive to her as the real you is now.
You sit at the desk where you used to do your math homework, pen hovering over a crisp sheet of paper. For a moment, you want to put your pen to the page, let the words flow out like they used to. But you shove the thought out of your mind. Here’s where writing got Mom. In a dusty old house, trapped in the past.
So instead, you write a letter, and address it to Izzy. She loves getting mail, even if you’ll reach home before the letter does.
Early the next morning, you wake up. You’ve always been an early riser, and your mother is, well, the opposite. And so you walk into her office, opening a drawer. You’re looking for her files, the practical reason for being here. Mary-Ann Locke has never been a good records keeper. You loved it when you were younger, loved her disorganized, spontaneous activities. She was always bubbling with ideas. You remember, once, you were driving to school, and she swerved off the road when she saw a robin.
“It’s spring, Becky, spring!” And she jumped out of the car, and the two of you skipped school and spent the rest of the day giggling over your hastily packed picnic lunch. Now she would never dream of doing something like that, you are worried- she is retired, after all, and these records need to be in order.
Instead of records, though, you find paper. A huge bundle of yellowing sheets, held together by an overworked rubber band. You stare in surprise at the first words.
His voice was dice, clattering onto a stained table. It was the clink of beer bottles, the creak of a screen-porch door. She wondered, not for the first time…
Your eyes can’t swallow it up fast enough. It’s her book.
The real one.
The one she could never get published.
When you hear her stirring, you run back to your room, taking the bundle with me.
You don’t know what you’re going to do, you only know that you can’t leave it here. You can’t let it languish in this dusty place, trapped with the ghosts of your past. Because this is your mother. This book, these papers left to rot. They are her.
The past is over.
The future is waiting.
When you say goodbye, you almost cry. You touch, carefully, the manuscript, now secreted in your backpack. And you hug her, the top of her head below yours. You stare at her roots, and realize, the red makes her happy. It makes her feel young.
If it makes her happy, it shouldn’t matter to you.
“Mom,” you say, suddenly, surprising even yourself. “Mom- why don’t you come and visit us, sometime. You haven’t seen Izzy in forever.”
She smiles, a real smile, one that lights up her features like it used to, as she says.
“Of course I will, Becky. I’ve been waiting for you to ask.”
So you put the manuscript on your desk. To read, and reread, and read again. You want to leave it in this position of honor forever. But no. But you can’t. Because you move it over, making way for a brand-new notebook you bought at Target.
Izzy’s footsteps clatter down the stairs, her squealing happily.
You put your pencil to paper.
And you write your way into the future.