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Contemporary Fiction

“Are you sure you don’t want to join us?” Angie asks as we meander out of the office. It’s been a long week, and everyone wants to chill. For Angie and my other coworkers, it means heading to the bar down the block for drinks. For me, it means not seeing any other living creatures except my cat and my plants until Monday morning.

“I’m sure,” I smile. “My friend is coming over tonight, and we’re going to hang out this weekend.”

It’s a bald-faced lie, but I can’t bring myself to feel guilty about it. My coworkers are all nice people, but it’s hard enough to deal with them during the workday. I feel like I’m walking on a tightrope, trying to manage their different personalities and figuring out what even their tiniest changes in expression mean. 

Right now, all I want to do is to enjoy my own company. And at first, it seems like my night will go exactly as planned.

The first thing I do when I get home is kick off my heels. My cat, Bastet, is feeling generous tonight because she hops onto my lap and lets me cuddle her for a few minutes. Then I head over to the shower, letting the warm water rejuvenate my weary muscles. After that, I nuke some Ramen, grab the latest Nora Roberts novel and head out to the balcony. I pause only to say high to my cacti—I have three of them out here—before settling in on the wicker hanging chair I’d splurged on last month.

I sigh happily. It’s going to be a wonderful weekend.

The meet cute has just happened when my doorbell rings. I freeze. I’m not expecting anybody. More importantly, I don’t want to see anybody. Should I just ignore it?

The bell rings again, and my anxiety kicks in. What if it’s important? What if it’s an emergency? What if my not answering the door could lead to the end of the world as we know it?

My sock clad feet skid across the wooden floor as I race to the door. Like an idiot, I fling it open, forgetting to check through the peephole. I swear, one of these days, I’m going to get murdered.

Unfortunately, that day isn’t today. As soon as I recognize who’s at the door, I say, “Nope,” and try to shut it.

My mother is too quick though. She nudges me aside and barges in as if she owns the place. My aunt Sarah and cousin Nora follow, and though Nora offers me a sheepish, apologetic smile, it does little to comfort me. An ambush from my mother never turns out well. And I can tell from the determined glint in her eye that this is going to be bad. Very, very bad.

“I wasn’t expecting you,” I say awkwardly as my mom eyes my apartment.

“You still haven’t repainted your walls. I told you last time you need a brighter color. And of course I didn’t tell you I was coming. You would’ve disappeared like you did last weekend.”

I don’t deny it, because it’s true. Instead, I remember my manners and offer them something to drink.

“Oh no, we don’t have time for that,” Aunt Sarah says. “We’re going shopping.”

My spirits lift instantly. “Well, I won’t get in your way then. Have fun.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Mom snaps. “You’re coming with us.”

“I don’t need to go shopping,” I argue, my voice rising alongside the panic in my stomach. Spending time with my mother is bad enough; spending it shopping with her is like hell on earth.

She snorts, pointedly looking me up and down. Suddenly, I feel self-conscious in my well-worn pajamas.

“Get dressed,” she orders. “We’ll be waiting for you in the car downstairs.” 

Defeated, I retreat to my room to put on an appropriate outfit for leaving the house.

“I’m sorry,” Nora whispers after I’ve clambered into the backseat next to her. “I tried to tell them to leave you alone, but you know how Aunt Liya is. She won’t listen to anyone.”

“I know,” I sigh. It’s not Nora’s fault, really, except it kind of is. In Nora, my mom sees the daughter that I could be: charming and vivacious, pretty and gregarious. 

But as much as I try, I can’t be Nora. I stutter and stumble through conversations, confuse and misinterpret social cues. 

I pity my mother, I really do. It must be difficult to see me and Nora side by side, and know that she got the short end of the stick. Knowing Aunt Sarah, she probably rubs it in Mom’s face every chance she gets.

“How’s work going?” Aunt Sarah asks me.

“Good.”

“Elaborate, dear,” my mother says through clenched teeth.

“Really good.”

Nora pipes in with an anecdote about her own job. She probably means to take the pressure off me, but all it does is make me look worse. 

“Slow down,” Aunt Sarah says to my mother. 

“I’m driving the speed limit,” she barks.

“You’re driving dangerously,” Aunt Sarah replies.

I glance out the window and realize that Aunt Sarah is right. “I got promoted on Monday,” I say, hoping that if Mom sees I’m putting in an effort, she’ll calm down.

It backfires. “You didn’t tell me that,” Mom says as she makes a sharp turn. “I called you on Tuesday. You didn’t tell me.”

“I forgot,” I say lamely. 

“You didn’t forget. You just didn’t care enough to tell me.”

“For the love of God, Liya, slow down.”

“Shut up—” my mom starts but her words are cut off by a horrible screeching. The car skids wildly, and my heart rises to my throat as the car crashes into a tree.

For a moment, we’re all quiet. Then Nora says “Oh my God,” and Mom is panicking and crying and Aunt Sarah is yelling at her for getting us into this mess.

But I don’t pay attention to any of it. I move around my arms, legs and neck to make sure there’s no injury. My back feels a little sore, but other than that, I feel fine. Given how everyone else are now arguing with each other, they’re probably okay, too.

I take off my seat belt, and check outside. We’re off the road, which is good because we’re not blocking traffic. “We need to call the police,” I announce, as I step outside and start taking pictures of the accident. The front end of the car is crumpled up like paper; it’s a miracle we’re all okay.

“What are you doing?” Aunt Sarah demands. “Now is not the time to get stuff for your Instagram.”

“This is for the insurance company,” I explain. “Are any of you hurt?”

They all say no, but I tell them that they should get a thorough check up anyway. Sometimes car accident injuries aren’t visible.

By the time I’m done with the pictures, they’ve all come out of the car. Mom’s calling the police, but she’s not able to explain the situation right, so I take the phone from her and talk to them instead. I handle them when they show up to the scene, too. They file the report and leave.

“Now what?” Mom says, looking at her precious car in despair. 

“We need to call a tow truck,” I tell her. “And Monday morning, you need to call your insurance company.”

“Wow,” Nora says. “You really know what you’re doing.”

I shrug. Angie had gotten into a car accident a few months ago. As she’d described the scene at work the next day, I’d realized that I wouldn’t know what to do if I were in the same situation. After I’d gone home, I’d looked it up just in case. For once, my anxiety had paid off.

“You stayed so calm, too,” Aunt Sarah adds. “We were all freaking out, but you were so…cool.”

Aunt Sarah and Nora continue to lavish me with praise and I grow increasingly uncomfortable.

Finally, Mom says, “Let’s call a tow truck, and then let’s go home.”

Finally.

Aunt Sarah and Nora agree, and forty minutes later, I’m hopping back on my chair on the balcony. “I should’ve been here all along,” I tell my cacti. “What a waste of a night.” I pause for a minute, then say, “I take it by your silence that you agree.”

I laugh at my dumb joke, then open my book. But apparently, I’m not meant to relax tonight because my phone rings. I groan, but tense up when I realize it’s Mom.

Why is she calling me so soon? Did something happen? Did she realize she’s hurt? What if she got into another accident?

“Hello?”

Mom sighs. “You always sound so afraid when you answer my calls.”

I immediately relax. If she’s criticizing me, she’s fine. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes.”

I wait, wondering if it’ll be rude if I ask her why she called. Finally, she says, “I’m…I know I can be hard on you sometimes.” All the time. “I…I wish it would be easier for us to get along. But our personalities are so different.” Different is an understatement. “What I’m trying to say is, you don’t always deserve my harshness. And I’m sorry.”

I begin to panic again. There is something wrong with her. “Are you dying?”

She laughs humorlessly. “Oh jeez. I must have been bad if a simply apology has you thinking I’m dying. I’m fine. I just realized tonight that I’ve always been so busy focusing on your weaknesses, I never saw your strengths. I never took the time to understand you, to see that…any parent would be proud to have you as a daughter.”

Proud. My mom is proud of me. 

“And you should be proud of yourself, too,” Mom adds.

“Thank you,” I whisper.

“Good night, dear.”

“Good night, Mom.” I hang up, and look up at the sky in amazement. “Well, how about that.”

Shaking my head, I smile, and finally get back to my book.

July 26, 2021 12:55

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