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Mystery Sad Fiction

Now and Then

by Kirsten Wall

It was small, and it was scarlet. Beat up in a way that testified to how much it was used and therefore, how much it was treasured. Clearly, it meant something to someone. Kathleen Bauer knew she had to return it to its rightful owner, but for the life of her, she could not figure out to whom this dusty, old diary belonged. And how had it wound up on her nightstand?

She would ask her mom. Yep, Mom always seemed to know the answer to any question. What time is the milkman coming today? How much did streetcar fare go up by? Ask Mom; she’ll know. The only problem is that Kathleen cannot remember the last time she saw her mother. She’s gotta be around here somewhere, Kathleen thought to herself. Mom rarely strayed too far from their house. How could she, with all that she had to accomplish each day before Dad got home from work? Laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping, mending. And even though Kathleen and her brother Robert were no longer little kids – they were 15 and 10 now after all – the matriarch of the Bauer home remained dependably present and available for her family. Nothing happened under their roof without Mom knowing about it, so surely, she could shed some light about this mysterious diary.

“Mom?” called Kathleen, sitting atop her bed with its simple white comforter. No response. “Mom?” she said again, a little longer and a little louder this time. Still nothing. She’s probably out hanging laundry on the line, thought Kathleen. It looked like a beautiful day outside, and her mother loved how the bed sheets picked up the scent of the lilacs growing in the backyard. I’ll just ask her later.

Kathleen turned the diary over in her hands and contemplated whether to open it or not. Her parents had taught her to not be a Nosey Nellie and insert herself into other people’s affairs. On the other hand, how could she return the diary if she didn’t read a few pages to determine its author?

The diary looked to be from a bygone era. Maybe as far back as 50 years ago, around the turn of the century. If that was the case, the author might not even be alive anymore. Maybe its owner had been a teenage girl like herself. How interesting it would be to learn about day-to-day life from the 1900s!

Kathleen had to admit; she was just plain curious. What was that saying Dad always used? Curiosity killed the cat? Oh Dad. Always goofing around. He loved silly quips like that. She knew neither she nor her cat Delilah would die if she read the diary.

Come to think of it, where is Delilah? Kathleen thought to herself.  She hadn’t seen the old girl conducting her slow prowl around her room yet today. She leaned over to peek beneath her bed where Delilah liked to relax amid all of Kathleen’s old stuffed animals and toys she had outgrown but was not yet ready to part with.

That’s strange, she thought as she slowly raised herself back up.

Delilah wasn’t there, but neither were any of Kathleen’s belongings. Where was Dolly with the eyes that closed when you laid her down? Where was her favorite teddy bear who suffered from a missing nose and matted fur as a result of all those childhood hugs? Surely, Mom would never have thrown out such precious items. She knew how much they meant to Kathleen.

Where is Mom anyway? Didn’t I need to ask her about something?

The diary! Kathleen shook her head slightly to refocus her thoughts. I’ll just read an entry or two and then go find Mom and Delilah.

Kathleen slowly opened the front cover and found the typical inscription of “This diary belongs to” with a line beneath it on the first page. Kathleen smiled when she saw that the name written on the line was Kay. She liked that name, and she had recently tried to adopt it as a nickname for herself. Kathleen sounded so formal. Nevertheless, Mom and Dad wouldn’t have it. “We named our children Kathleen and Robert,” Mom had said decidedly. “We are not calling you Kay or your brother Bob”.

Turning to the next page, Kathleen was a bit disappointed to find that the first entry was from only a few weeks ago. So much for learning about life from the past. No matter. Even though it wasn’t polite, it would still be fun to secretly delve into a stranger’s life for a while.

April 27, 1953

Dear Diary,

Not much happened today. Just another day in ninth grade.

I can’t wait for next year. Once I’m in tenth grade, maybe Wally Wells will notice me. He’s already a sophomore and he is so dreamy.

Yours Truly,

Kay

Boy, Kathleen knew how that felt! She, too, was a freshman and was anxious to move up the ranks. Wasn’t there a boy named Wally in her school too? Something about that name seemed familiar. She shrugged and continued reading.

May 8, 1953

Dear Diary,

Mother’s Day is only a few days away and I have to figure out a way to come up with a present for Mom. But I don’t have any money! Maybe I can offer to babysit for Mr. and Mrs. Tucker across the street. I’ll walk over and ask them in a few minutes.

If that doesn’t work, I guess I’ll just cut some lilacs from our bush in the backyard and try to make a nice centerpiece for the dining room table. Mom always says how much she loves the way lilacs smell.

Yours Truly,

Kay

Wow, thought Kathleen. Kay’s mom loves the scent of lilacs just like her own mother. What a coincidence!

Okay, I know I said I was only going to read a couple of entries, Kathleen thought to herself. But this is just so strange. Kay and I are both in the ninth grade, and both of our mothers like the same flower. Even our names are similar! What are the chances? I have to keep going.

May 13, 1953

Dear Diary,

It turns out that the Tuckers were out of town for Mother’s Day weekend, so I couldn’t earn any money to buy Mom a gift. She loved the lilac bouquet I put together for her though. Until Delilah hopped up on the dining room table and knocked it over, that is. The vase broke, and there were petals and water everywhere! I love my cat, but boy, I sure was mad at her!

I’m getting angry all over again just thinking about it, so I’m going to sign off.

Yours Truly,

Kay

Kathleen’s mouth went dry and her eyes widened. She stared at the words again, trying to make sense of what she had just read. How many people besides her had a cat named Delilah? She certainly did not know of anyone else who did. Was she dreaming? How could she have all of these things in common with a stranger?

Something was wrong. For all of the familiarity found in the diary, Kathleen could not shake the feeling of unease descending upon her, as if she was becoming untethered from her surroundings. A pit started to form in her stomach.

She needed her mother, and she needed her now.

“Mom!” Kathleen called out. “Where are you?”

No response.

Kathleen looked down at the small, scarlet diary - the source of her growing fear. And that’s when she saw them.

Her hands. They weren’t her hands. They were wrinkled with bulging blue veins and grotesquely curled fingers. They belonged to an old woman. How were these hands connected to her body?

The unease that had led to fear now gave way to absolute terror. Kathleen hurled the diary at the wall as if it had burned her. She couldn’t stand to touch it anymore.

Her eyes darted around and she suddenly realized she was not her in bedroom. Her bedroom at home was big and pretty, and it was filled with her books and clothes and photos of her friends. This room was more like a jail cell. It was small with a strange bed that had rails on the sides. There was a wheelchair in the corner. Why in the world would she need a wheelchair?

What is this place?

“MOM!” she cried. “Mom, I need you! Where are you? Where’s Delilah?”

Kathleen began to cry, and her calls for help morphed into shrill screams of indiscernible words. She wanted to run, but her legs would not move. Were her legs not her own either?

“Mrs. Wells,” a calm voice came from the doorway. “Mrs. Wells, it’s ok. It’s me, Nicki.”

A young woman with short auburn hair and a kind smile slowly approached the bed. She was dressed in an outfit that reminded Kathleen of pajamas.

“Where’s my mother? Where’s my cat? I can’t find them! I haven’t seen them!”

Nicki slowly took a step forward.

“Who are you?” Kathleen demanded to know. “Where am I? Where’s my mom?” She tried to sound brave while the tears continued to fall.

“I’m Nicki, and I’m here to take care of you. You’re in your room here at Pinewood Grove. You’re safe. And I’m going to be here with you all day.”

Nicki took Kathleen’s hand in hers and did not appear alarmed that it was the hand of an old woman. Nicki’s touch was gentle and so was her voice. Something about her was familiar, but Kathleen didn’t know exactly what it was. She could feel her heart start to return to its normal rhythm, and that felt good.

“I know it’s hard to not have your mother here,” Nicki continued. “But your brother Bob is coming by for a visit in just a little while.”

Kathleen shook her head in an effort to bring her thoughts into focus. Robert was coming? Coming here? How did he know about this place? What was it called – Pine Something? And why was this perfect stranger of a girl calling him Bob? Mom and Dad would not approve of that.

“Robert is coming?” Kathleen looked to Nicki for reassurance.

“Yes, he is,” she answered patiently.

As if on cue, Kathleen’s father appeared in the doorway. “Hi Kay! Hi Nicki!” he greeted each of them with a sunny grin.

“Dad?” Kathleen stared at him incredulously. “How did you know I was here? Is Robert with you? This lady said he’s coming to visit. You know her?”

Dad’s big smile fell just a bit and he leaned his head slightly to the side.

“No, Kay, it’s me. It’s Bob, your brother,” he said softly with his fingertips pressed to his chest.

Oh Dad. Always goofing around. Kathleen did not quite understand this joke, but she was happy and relieved to see his familiar face. He could help her straighten out this crazy day.

“Dad, do you know where Mom is? I need to ask her something. I can’t really remember what it is right now, but I’ll probably think of it when I see her. Is she out hanging laundry on the line? Oh, and have you seen Delilah?” Kathleen’s questions tumbled out as if she couldn’t ask them fast enough.

Dad turned to Nicki, his sad little smile still on his face.

“So I guess bringing in her teenage diary isn’t helping, huh?” he asked the young woman. “I was really hoping it might make her happy to read through those old memories.”

Nicki bent down and retrieved the diary where it still lay on the floor and handed it back to him. “It was worth a try,” she answered with compassion in her voice. “But it seems to cause her a lot of fear and confusion. This is the third time this week I’ve found that little book hurled across the room.”

“Ok, I’ll take it home,” he said with resignation as he flipped through the pages. “I’m no Alzheimer’s expert. Just wanted to help.”

“I know that, and you are helping. Just by being here for her - meeting her in her memories, wherever they happen to be,” said Nicki. Then she turned to Kathleen before heading back out the door. “I’ll let you two visit. Mrs. Wells, be sure to let me know if you need anything.”

Bob turned to his sister and sat down beside her on the bed.

“Hi, Little Brother,” said Kay brightly. “It sure is good to see you. When did you get here?”

“Oh,” Bob answered, slightly startled. “Just a few minutes ago. I was talking with Nicki for a moment. She really is a great nurse.”

“The best. She makes me feel safe, like Mom always did. I think that’s why I like her so much.”

Bob nodded and gave his sister’s leg a gentle pat.

“Hey, remember the Tuckers who lived across the street from us when we were kids? I don’t know why, but they crossed my mind today,” Kay remarked wistfully.

“Yeah, I remember them. I’m glad you do too, Sis.”

May 23, 2023 18:03

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9 comments

David Ader
15:45 Jun 18, 2023

Clever and the sadness pervades the whole experience. I think you clued us in early on about what was going on so the back and forth of her thoughts were, in a positive way creatively speaking, cringe-worthy. I might have ended it on another note like someone else suggested. Perhaps she at the very end reverted to dementia when Bob left the room or she looked up at "dad' and thought how much older he looked. My point is that because of what I saw as the early 'reveal' reverting back to the start might also have worked. I enjoyed the story...

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Kate Winchester
02:46 Jun 03, 2023

This was a clever take on the prompt! I enjoyed it. I knew something was off but I liked the slow reveal. Great job!

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John Siddham
04:04 May 31, 2023

Excellent piece. Loved the suspense until the reveal. Well crafted!

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Kirsten Wall
22:37 May 31, 2023

Thanks so much!

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Connor H
00:08 May 29, 2023

I think this is my favorite take on this prompt that I've read so far, and I've been trying to read as many as possible. The stranger's diary turning out to be her own, and that she's loosing her memory, it's so painful! Writing is supposed to make people feel, and boy did I feel for Kay, Bob, and Nicki. This is so sad and so beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing!

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Kirsten Wall
13:44 May 30, 2023

Thank you for your feedback!

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Delbert Griffith
10:22 May 28, 2023

Oooh! Very clever! I love the take on this prompt. The reveal was great. I knew something was coming, but I didn't know what. The missing mom, the missing cat, all of her favorite stuff gone. And then, the thunderbolt. Very, very good. This is not a critique, but a personal preference: I would have liked the tale to end on a darker note. You set it up so nicely, and we're hit with Kay's sickness. The ending is wrapped up a little too neatly for me. Maybe end it with her waking up every morning, calling out for her mom and her cat. And then...

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Kirsten Wall
14:40 May 28, 2023

I almost went that very route but was concerned it might be too much. I think I’ll go back and make some edits. Thanks for the feedback!

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Delbert Griffith
10:22 May 28, 2023

Oooh! Very clever! I love the take on this prompt. The reveal was great. I knew something was coming, but I didn't know what. The missing mom, the missing cat, all of her favorite stuff gone. And then, the thunderbolt. Very, very good. This is not a critique, but a personal preference: I would have liked the tale to end on a darker note. You set it up so nicely, and we're hit with Kay's sickness. The ending is wrapped up a little too neatly for me. Maybe end it with her waking up every morning, calling out for her mom and her cat. And then...

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