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Horror Coming of Age Holiday

“Honey, you are… done!” the stylist exclaimed and lightly batted at her hair with a long-toothed comb. 

“Thank you,” Sarah replied self-consciously. She locked eyes with her reflection in the mirror and instantly regretted it. She looked haggard and rumpled and thin. Her hair perched on her head like a tired bird, resting on a nest of pale, wispy curls. 

The stylist caught her look, and spoke to her reflection, “You look gorgeous, darling.”

“Really?” her voice trembled, high and fluty. 

“Really, dear.” 

Her mother’s warm voice was at her side in an instant, eyes tearing as they gazed together at her reflection. Bright roses bloomed on her cheeks, the color showing cleanly on her creamy-smooth skin. Yes, it wasn’t bad, like she thought at first. He would be pleased. 

In her mind, she saw Henry’s face at the end of the aisle, shining proudly as every eye in the room watched her.

“It’s not how you looked on your wedding day,” she said hesitantly. 

Mother’s brow rose, and her gaze shifted down and to the side. She paused before looking back up and saying, “I know, but it’s okay. Because it’s you, dear, and you’re not me. It’s your special day, and I’m so happy for you. He's everything I dreamed he would be for you.” 

“Thank you,” Sarah whispered. 

“You’re welcome, honey. It’s true, you know. You’re going to look great at the show,” the stylist interrupted. “You better get going, we’re cutting it pretty close. You’ll need to find a seat.”

Wearily, she rose from the chair as the stylist helped her up. They walked to the salon door arm in arm where an attendant was waiting for her. 

“Girl, you look amazing,” he beamed, taking her arm from the other woman. “Ready to see the kids?” He held her hand firmly with his own. She glanced at his nametag, “Darrick,” before leaning into him.

“Yes.” 

She smiled as they walked, but couldn’t bring herself to say “thank you” again. It was all too much. Time was slipping by so quickly, and before she knew it the kids would be all grown up. Little Henry was already so big! At least she still had a few more years with Charles before he started school. 

Henry checked his watch. 

“Are we going to make it?” she asked, trying to pick up her feet with more urgency. 

“The bus just pulled up, there’s still time to find a seat,” he said with a reassuring pat. 

They entered a cozy atrium decked in Christmas decoration. Green and gold tinsel snaked across every door frame and around each window. Plastic wreaths and clip-on ribbon bows dangled from corners, to doors, and to the front desk. Stickered Christmas characters pranced jovially over the large windows, and tucked behind a craft table, a cork board was tacked with glossy cardstock cutouts of dreidels, minoras, and Stars of David in jewel-toned blues.

Sure, it looked a little unimpressive and artificial for her taste, but nevertheless she felt awash in the warm spirit of Christmastime. Basking in its glow, she conjured the smell of fresh garland and the shine of polished bells in silver and bronze. The greenery had been wound around lamp posts and hung over the heavy recital hall doors, the bells tied high with red ribbons in bows. They walked briskly, just short of a run. Henry’s class would be the first to sing, and they were running late. 

They slipped through the doors as the choral director finished her introduction and the children were lining up. Henry deposited her in a seat as the children’s babble was being stifled by the woman’s short, rhythmic waving. Sarah caught her breath as softly as she could, and the music began to play. 

Had she been wrong about which class was first to perform? She scanned the dewy faces of the choir. They were all pointed at the choral director, none of the young children searched the audience for parents. Their attention was trained on the hands and lips of the director, who mouthed wordlessly. 

No, Henry wasn’t among them, she would have recognized the wool sweater from his grandmother she had dressed him in. It made him itch and dance around, but she risked it for him to look nice for tonight. Perhaps it was a last minute schedule change, then. She turned to check her husband’s gaze, perhaps following it to where he found their son. 

Was Henry not there either? She turned to check her other side. 

Her blood ran cold. Heart beating furiously, she snapped her eyes forward, willing every muscle not to look again. What was happening? She squeezed her knuckles in her lap until they ached. No one would believe what she had seen. 

It was not a chair beside her but a window, overlooking the gathering twilight in the parking lot. Staring in at her, face inches from the glass outside, she had seen a monster. 

No, not a monster, she thought with a chill. That was a woman, glaring at me. Perhaps she should look again, didn’t she know that woman? No, I don’t know anyone like that. 

She didn’t know anyone who would crouch inches from the window and glower so openly at strangers. Her breath was so cold, she hadn’t even fogged the glass. No, she would not look at such a woman, decrepit and foul as she was. 

Still, her heart raced. Locked as her hands were in her grasp, her shoulders held the tension until they burned. A bead of sweat rolled down her temple, but the music played on, jolly as ever. 

And so she stayed, frozen as a doll, watching the performance of yuletide melody play itself out. When the crowd shuffled to disperse, she released a sigh she hadn’t known she was holding. She was grateful to hurry away without drawing outward suspicion that she was fleeing the scene. 

But she had not looked where she was rushing, and at the first turn she became lost. Others shuffled and coughed behind her, so she pressed on the next turn, and the next, until no whispers of shifting jackets or breathy mumbles pursued her. Only then did she stop to look around, horrified to find she was alone. 

No, she realized. Not alone. In the glare of a still-life photo, she saw her. She started down the hall with fresh speed, casting a hasty glance over her shoulder. At the window where the wall formed a corner, the horrible woman was still watching her, eyes wild. She must have followed her around the building. She dared not look again, turning to clutch the wall lest she fall as she fled. 

Her hand touched the air when it reached an open door. Without a thought, she went where her hand had gone, into a darkened room, away from the staring eyes. It was calm and cool in the room. The thrum of her pulse faded away, and she heard soft beeping nearby and raspy breathing. Her eyes adjusted to the gentle street light from the window. 

Her mother was sleeping on the bed, still and silent in the moonlight. She hadn’t known she would be asleep, and now feared to wake her. So, she remained quietly at her side, resting in a chair after standing so long. She did not think she had been dozing until Mother’s voice woke her. 

“What are you doing here?” she whispered with reproach. 

“Mother?” Sarah leaned in. 

The cold light twisted her mother’s face with shadows as she recoiled away from her. “Don’t call me that!” she snapped. 

“Don’t be upset with me, please, I only wanted to-” 

“GET OUT!” 

Her shriek pierced the attempted explanation. With a panicked jerk, she stumbled from the room and into the hallway. 

I only wanted to help, she pleaded in her mind, holding the wall to stay standing. You needed so much, I had to put you here. Strength left her body. It was all she could do to sink to the floor. 

“Mrs. Beeker!” A heavy footstep thundered toward her. 

She looked up, and Darrick was beside her, lifting her up. She cast her eyes around doubtfully. 

“Where are we?” 

“You’re in Chauncey Center, I’ve got you,” he supplied. She hung heavily on him. “Girl, you know you shouldn’t be walking alone without your cane. I tried to find you, I see you trying to walk without it. If I had seen you somewhere, I wouldn’t let you hold up the wall on your own.”

“I think I left it in my room…” she said slowly, slurring as she trailed the thought and it slipped away. “What was I thinking?” 

“That’s okay, I’ll help you find it,” he reassured her. “I know, this place is like a maze.”

Thank you, she wanted to say, but her words were trapped in the ether. I lost my thought, I need your help to find it. 

Instead, they went to her room. Darrick brought her a cane and turned on the TV to her favorite channel. 

He knew her so well. How long had she been here? She wondered, and she checked the window outside. The night was inky blackness. Long enough, I had better get to bed, she thought, and she turned off the TV. 

In the black mirror of the screen, she saw her. She wasn’t a stranger at all. It was Mother. Her face was haunted, and she had become a drawn, vengeful spector. Her time had come. Mother was here to make her pay, she would know the humiliation she had made her suffer.

“No, please,” she begged, “It couldn’t be helped, you couldn’t take care of yourself.” But there was no escaping the accusation of her weeping mother’s face. She could not be reasoned with, she could not be made to understand. “It’s not my fault,” she cried, “you needed to be here. It wasn’t anything you did or didn’t do.”

Her hands shook as her mother reached for her face. In a terrible instant, her world shattered with pain. Through the tortured haze, her mother still reached for her from the ground, and there her memory slipped away. 

Where was she now? 

She was trying to remember how she got here. 

Here, the blinds were closed, but daylight peeked through. The room was brightly lit with fluorescent fixtures recessed overhead. The ceiling was foam squares, the floors hard tile. The doctor was explaining something to her, but she had been lost in thought, trying to remember how she got here. 

“Mrs. Beeker?” The doctor was looking at her now, expecting a reply.

“Sorry,” Sarah quickly answered. “I’m trying, it’s just -” and here she gestured in circles around her ears. She dropped her hands and sighed in exasperation. 

“Yes, of course,” she said compassionately, and the keys of her laptop clattered in a rapid burst. 

The door flew open, and Henry was standing there. His face was fresh as ever, shining like it did when she saw him at the end of that long walk years ago. They locked eyes, and his gaze transported her to another time when their eyes met similarly, when everyone in the room was watching her. 

“Henry!” she cried. “Thank God, you’re here!” 

“No, Mom. It’s me, Charlie,” he panted. “Henry’s in California,” he reminded her. He rushed to her bed as the doctor rose. 

“I’ll be just outside, you can find me,” she excused herself. 

He nodded to the doctor, but when he looked back at his mom she would not look at him. 

Sarah was staring hard at the closed blinds, her chin wobbling. 

“Stupid, so stupid, Sarah,” she muttered. Henry wasn’t in California, she knew. “How could you forget, stupid girl,” she chided. 

“Mom, it’s okay, really,” he tried to sooth her. “We kind of look the same, you’ve always said,” he said with a nervous laugh.

“NO!” she wailed. How could he understand? She shook her head fiercely. I don’t want him to know. 

She was rocking to the extent she could, her bottom aching, inconsolable tears falling swiftly. 

“It’s okay, it was an accident,” he desperately offered, patting her back. 

No, it wasn’t, she thought, mind flashing to the horrible image of Mother reaching for her. She meant for it to happen, so I could know. She didn’t want him to know about that, either. 

“Just a clumsy, stupid girl,” she squeeked. 

Tears filled her to the brim as if she was a cup. Then, with a single upset, they all spilled out. She fretted and sobbed uncontrollably, crying until she forgot why. Only then did her words and tears begin to slow, and she heard her son beside her, felt him rubbing her back in panicked jerks.

“You’re not, it’s okay, it’s okay. Everything is going to be alright,” he said awkwardly as her spent tears were traded for hiccupping breaths. “You’ve had a fall. The hospital said your hip is broken, and you may have had a sort of - some kind of… event,” he searched for the terms without finding them. “I need to talk to the doctor, OK? Are you alright? I mean… Will you be alright if I go?” 

She bobbed her head, trying to reassure him with a smile, but failing to meet his eyes. When he got up, she pulled the bedsheets over her head. She couldn’t stand for him to see her shame-faced, trapped as she was. 

He can’t stand to be around you, a voice like her mother’s seemed to say both within and outside of herself. Just like you couldn’t stand to see her like that. Isn’t that why you never went back? 

“I wanted to,” she whimpered. “There was just never enough-” 

Time? No, you didn’t have time for her, the voice sneered. No time now, either. You’re running out. Can’t make time, can you? 

“No,” she admitted miserably, allowing the viscous thought to pass through. Just need to keep breathing. Her shaky breaths fortified her as she endured the cruel voice, long enough that her breathing slowed, and she fell into a deep sleep. 

She didn’t realize she had been dozing until Darrick touched her shoulder delicately. 

“Your date has arrived,” he informed her playfully. He supplied her with a walker and led her down the hall. 

Her excitement rose as she walked closer to her locker and saw him standing there. 

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said humorously, eyes glinting in delighted amusement. She felt more than saw the motion of others around her, but for her there was only him.

She laughed lightly and announced, “Well, here I am.” And then, “I’ve missed you, Henry.” 

He shrugged and repeated, “Well, here I am,” and held out his arms for a hug. He always knew how to make her laugh. 

He cast a look around and guided her to a corner where they could talk in private, away from gossipy teachers and schoolmates. “I was thinking maybe later I could take you dancing,” he said, and then he laughed nervously. “What do you think?” 

“I don’t know about that, Henry, I’m not one for dancing,” she said bashfully. 

“Maybe not,” he allowed, “But if I had seen you somewhere, I wouldn’t let you hold up the wall on your own. I’d still like to go out someplace tonight, if you’re up for it. I think you’ll like it, the food is good.” 

She pretended to consider until she finally said, “Alright, that sounds nice. I’ll go if you want to take me out.” 

He beamed handsomely. “Sure, I was worried I’d have to talk you into it. Samantha has the kids in the car. I just need to check out with the desk before we go.” 

What is he talking about? She wondered, but she let it go. Henry could be silly and say things strangely, but that was part of his charm, too. She’d play along today since she didn’t want to spoil the fun. 

She sat in the front as Henry closed the door for her. Samantha had moved to the backseat with the kids. They were growing up so quickly! She listened to their chatter for a while, but wasn’t able to follow it. So much had happened, and she wasn’t a part of it anymore. But that didn’t matter, really, and it was just nice to be together for a little while. 

After a while, she looked out the window at the scenery. She saw it passing in the distance, but in the foreground she saw her mother’s smiling face reflected back at her. 

Or was it her

They locked eyes in the mirror like before. 

I’m sorry I didn’t go back, was her heartfelt apology to the ghost, and it was as if the words transported them to the salon all those years ago. She saw her own youthful face, side by side with her mother’s, looking at her reflection with love in her eyes. She continued, I wanted to, but it was so hard to see you like that.

Just like then, Mother’s brow rose, and her gaze shifted down and to the side. She paused before looking back up and saying,“I know, but it’s okay. Because it’s you, dear, and you’re not me. It’s your special day, and I’m so happy for you. He's everything I dreamed he would be for you.”

December 17, 2021 21:26

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