Contest #228 shortlist ⭐️

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Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

TW: explicit language, spousal violence, mention of suicide

There’s nothing like a mother’s hug to make you feel like a child. I nestle my face into her shoulder and breathe deeply, savoring the hints of lavender and roasted meats. She’s deep into making Sunday dinner and the aroma lingers around her, even standing on the windy sidewalk. 

“My baby,” she coos as she brushes my hair. “I’m so happy you’re home. Are you sure you don’t want to transfer to a closer school?” It’s the same question she’s asked every time she’s seen me for the last two and a half years. I lie each time.

“I wish I could, you know that. If I could transplant RISD to California, you know I would.”

“But then they’d have to rename it and think of all that paperwork.” She parrots back my usual joke, half smiling. 

“Right.” We stand, drinking each other in for a moment, before being hit by a sharp blast of wind. “Fuck, let’s go inside maybe.” 

“Don’t swear. It isn’t ladylike.” I’m well aware of her list of things I must or must never do in order to be a proper lady. She reminds me often. When I’m home, we both pretend I care. 

The house is warm and perfectly styled, as usual. She’s always been the ultimate homemaker. As much as I resist most of what she represents, I have to admit that any talent for design I have came straight from her. I just apply it to sculpture instead of my house. 

The only flaw in the design is the oversized TV mounted above the meticulously styled fireplace mantel. And the unshaven lump staring at it. “Hey, Pete.” I don’t pretend to be excited to see him and he returns the favor, only offering a grunt of acknowledgement. 

Rather than remaining in his miserable presence, I follow my nose toward the kitchen. Behind me, Mom offers another gem, “Those pants are fitting more snugly than I remember.”

“They’re new. This is the style.” Lie. 

“I just want you to be healthy.” 

“What about ‘body positivity’, Mom? What about ‘health at every size’ and all that?”

She rolls her eyes and turns to her cooking. It’s better for both of us not to go down that path. 

I change the subject to a different topic to fight about. “I see the pig is still living in the house. I thought maybe you’d have built him a sty by now.” Pete brings out the absolute best in me. 

“Shush now, keep your voice down.” She casts a nervous glance over my shoulder. “He works hard and doesn't need your sass. Or mine. We both have our jobs to do.” I hate hearing her be so passive. She’s a smart woman, for all her flaws. It sucks that she lets men walk all over her. 

“Whatever, better you than me.” I wanted that to be my wedding toast to them last spring but Mom vetoed letting me speak. See? Smart woman. Since then I’ve found fewer and fewer reasons to come home. I’m pretty sure everyone is happier that way. Except Mom maybe; she’d love us to be one big happy family. I’d love Pete to drop dead. 

I start lifting the lids of various pots and pans, taking in the deliciousness. “Yum, this looks amazing.” Mom snatches a lid away and slams it down on the extra-buttery mashed potatoes. “Those are for Pete. You don’t need all those fat and carbs. They obviously feed you just fine in Providence.”

“Gee, thanks, Mom.”

“Seriously, Clara. You need to watch your health.”

“By health you mean weight.”

“So what if I do? It’s not healthy.”

“And Pete is so healthy that he can eat whatever crap he wants?”

“Don’t swear. Pete can eat whatever he wants because I’m not his mother.”

“Got it. Whatever. I won’t touch the mashed potatoes.”

“Promise?”

“Yep. Promise.” It’s actually been a while since she’s been this intense about being the food police. She must have seen some new “research” online. If she’s feeling this strongly about fat, maybe she’s let up on sugar a bit. 

—--- 

The meal is as good and as bad as expected. Mom’s cooking is top notch, even though she won’t let me touch half of it. Pete’s behavior is bottom of the barrel, even though it isn’t directed at me. After what happened in August, and my subsequent boycott of Thanksgiving, he seems to have decided that ignoring me is best. Thank god. 

“The pork isn’t as good as last time.” He actually burps at the table. If this was a movie, his character would be criticized as too much of a caricature. 

“I’m sorry, honey. Can I get you something else? More gravy? Or mashed potatoes?” So much for not being his mommy. 

“Whatever. Ya, give me more.” A small lump of potatoes lands on his wrist as she spoons them onto his plate and he grimaces like she wounded him, “God dammit, Trish, get your shit together.” She flinches away like she anticipates even more of a reaction. I sit silently, like an asshole. 

—--

Even with the tension, we linger over the meal. Mom’s food is just too good to rush away. She carries the conversation, talking about prices at the grocery store and the new plot lines on her various soaps. I nod along and wonder about dessert.

Because I refuse to acknowledge his presence unless I have to, I don’t know how long Pete has been glassy eyed and pale before I notice. It isn’t until he starts to list to one side that I realize he’s in trouble.  

“Um, dude, are you okay?” I hope he’s not about to throw up at the table.

He slumps further to the side.

“Oh shit, oh shit,” Jumping out of my chair, I grab for him. Pete’s heavy though and I can’t stop his fall. Instead of anything from my meager first aid training, my mind offers up a thought on how every impact can technically be classified on the Richter Scale. Does a 300-plus pound man falling off a chair count as an earthquake? 

“Call 911!” I don’t look up, assuming she’s already doing it. His eyes are open but staring blankly. My fingers prod at his wrist, then his neck, searching for a pulse. I don’t know if he doesn’t have one or if I’m just bad at finding it. There’s no breath on my hand when I hold it in front of his mouth. Shit. I try again, maybe I missed it. Nope. He’s still staring at the ceiling. One pupil is bigger than the other. I’m pretty sure that is really bad. 

I push at his chest tentatively, then harder. “Straight arms, one inch deep. Or two inches?” My train of thought careens off the tracks and out of my mouth. “To the tune of ‘Staying Alive’.” I push harder but it’s awkward. I struggle to get above him, as though he’s gotten even bigger as he lays there, looming larger in the room. Don’t panic, don’t panic. I shove again, trying to go hard enough and fast enough at the same time. “Come on, shit, shit. Is the ambulance coming?” I’m panicking. 

Apparently I’m not the only one. I risk a glance away from Pete and Mom is just watching us. She hasn’t even moved toward her cell on the counter. “Mom, call 911. Come on. It’ll be okay.” She’s obviously frozen. “Just get the phone, I’ve got this.” She still doesn’t move. “Mom!” 

Seconds crawl by. I shove at Pete’s chest. “Mom! Please!” 

“You can slow down.” I startle when she finally speaks. 

“What? No, it’s supposed to be a certain speed. I think. I need you to help, please.”

“No.”

What the hell? “Mom, he’s going to die.”

She just looks at me. She knows. I hesitate, looking down at his prone form. He’s the dead deer on the side of our road last year, just kind of a lump of nasty flesh, nothing inside. For all I know, he’s already dead. Wasn’t I just thinking that a dead Pete wouldn’t be so bad? I feel sick even thinking about it now. “We have to try.” I can’t be a person who just lets her stepdad die on the dining room floor. Even if I fantasized about it.

“You are trying, sweetie, so hard. You’re just a little thing though. You tried so hard, but maybe it never would have worked anyway. I’m so proud of you. Thank God you were here for me. I just froze.” She’s rehearsing our story. I’m not pushing on Pete’s chest anymore. She hasn’t reached for the phone. “I’ll snap out of it and call the paramedics in a moment.” Cool as a cucumber. I shiver. 

There’s silence. Pete doesn’t breathe. I do, barely. Mom starts clearing the table. Or, not really clearing it, just rearranging the dishes. Compulsively shifting the serving plates around. Swapping our plates into different places. She takes the mashed potatoes into the kitchen and I hear the water running. I stay kneeling next to Pete. I think I want to be able to say I stayed with him. I think I want to be able to say that under oath. 

The clock claims it’s only been 5 minutes when Mom picks up the phone. She could have made it in Hollywood with those acting skills. By the time the paramedics arrive, Pete is very dead and no one looking at our table would suspect a dish had been removed. 

—--

An aneurysm. Nothing that could have been done. Still I expect more of an investigation. More questions. Especially after it comes out that Pete has money. Had money. Had lots and lots of money. I’m briefly angry that I had to take out all those student loans. But then I just pay them off. And get myself a sweet off-campus apartment. With no roommates. I buy a new car. New to me, not actually new; I don’t want to waste the money. Most goes into savings. Investments. The rich get richer. I’m rich now. Mom, too. She does buy a new car. And a house. And a six-month trip through Europe. 

No one blames her. She’s grieving. She’s gone to recover and find herself. Poor dear, they whisper. This is the fourth husband she’s lost. Four! Certainly a kind soul like her doesn’t deserve such tragedy. Each time she has used her pain to help others. After the car accident, she visited children in the hospital. When the third was found in his car in the garage, she raised all that money for suicide prevention. What an angel. She deserves to enjoy this money. 

And she deserves the handsome new man she meets on her trip. 

I should warn him not to eat the mashed potatoes.

December 16, 2023 03:27

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5 comments

Jeremy Stevens
20:15 Dec 27, 2023

YES. Kind of reminded me of Roald Dahl. Well played.

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Philip Ebuluofor
17:15 Dec 26, 2023

Funny. White guys. Congrats. Fine storyline

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Philip Ebuluofor
17:15 Dec 26, 2023

Funny. White guys. Congrats. Fine storyline

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Mary Bendickson
19:18 Dec 22, 2023

Even though the theme is criminal this was such a witty read. Congrats on the shortlist.

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Angela Nichols
17:37 Dec 22, 2023

What a fun read. This reminds me of the song Goodbye, Earl by The Chicks. Black-eyed peas and now mashed potatoes as a vehicle for murderous freedom. I think I'll have to pay more attention to family dinners from now on.

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