Fiction Sad Contemporary

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

T/W: Deals with anxiety, grief; a little swearing.

Miriam woke up sick with dread, her stomach churning. Allie. Something had happened to Allie. She could see it clearly, the twisted frame, the shattered glass, a broken headlight lying on an icy road. Part dream, part memory.

She ran to the bathroom and vomited, reeling with the image. She wiped her mouth, stared at the worry-worn woman looking back at her in the mirror. Wondered briefly where she had come from.

Liam came down the stairs, heavy footed and bleary eyed, still shaking off sleep, to find her cramming things into her purse. A travel mug sat on the island, steaming. Chamomile. For anxiety. Just as good as Xanax, she said, although she'd never given the Xanax much of a chance. He watched her, wary. The set of her shoulders, the frantic movements of her hands. She took her wallet in and out of its pocket three times, zipping, unzipping, zipping, unzipping. Liam wasn’t ready for this, not yet. He needed coffee. He trudged over to the kettle, refilled it, stifling a yawn. Put it on, found the clicking of the stove ignition and the whoosh of gas soothing despite his wife's frenetic energy.

“Are you going somewhere?” he asked, purposefully casual.

Miriam didn't look up, didn't answer, rummaging in the junk drawer for something, the sound of loose batteries and pens and extra chip clips banging into one another.


"I'm driving up to Colby," she said. Her voice caught at the end, like she wanted to add something, but couldn't.

"Why?" Liam asked. He straightened, on alert. "Did something happen?"

Miriam nodded, lips pursed tight, tears threatening. She found what she was looking for, the case for her sunglasses, shoved it into the overflowing purse.

"Miriam, what? Is Allie OK?"

"I don't know, I just, I had this vision and I know something's wrong."

Liam’s shoulders slumped as he leaned back against the kitchen counter. Relief, exasperation. The water in the kettle was rumbling, pinging against the metal sides.

"Did you call her?"

Miriam nodded, screwing the lid on the travel mug. Her hands were shaking - she kept mis-threading it, starting over.

"She didn't answer."

"Well, she's probably still sleeping. Why don't we try her again before you drive three hours on a hunch."

“I tried three times.”

Liam tried again.

“She’s in college now. We have to let go a little.”

"Damn it, Liam!" Miriam slammed the lid down on the island. Tea sloshed over the sides of the mug, puddling around the bottom of the cup. Insipid, brown water on the glossy white counter. "Don't you remember what happened with Toby? And your mother? The poor dog?"

He winced when she said Toby's name. He always did. Kept Toby locked up in his own way. Miriam was looking at him now, demanding, pleading. Believe me, stop me, help me. The kettle was starting to scream, thin and reedy. Liam moved it to the back burner, turned off the heat, thought about how to fix this.

"You know that was coincidence, sweetheart. How many times have we talked about this? I know your dreams feel real but -"

"They aren't dreams. Something is wrong. I'm her mother and I know when something is wrong."

Miriam checked for her wallet once more, then screwed the lid on the mug, not bothering to wipe up the counter. She went to the foyer, pulled on her parka, her boots. Liam trailed her, watched her from the doorway, leaning against the frame.

"I'll call you when I get there," she said simply, looking back at him through the open door.

Liam nodded. Resigned.

"Careful on the driveway," he called after her back. "It looks icy." She raised a hand in acknowledgment, not turning around again.


She kept the radio on as she drove. Numbing, mindless music, words she could softly mouth while her mind spiraled. Remembering. Imagining. Churning. Like a record player skipping, playing the same thought over and over again. The music was meant to keep her tethered to this moment, to the ever-evolving now. It was something her therapist had suggested. Listen. Breathe. Focus. It helped, a little. Just enough to keep her on the road, keep her breath coming in and out, in and out.

The dog had been the first time. The poor, stupid dog. It was Allie's dog, a retriever. Maxie. They'd only had him two years, a Christmas gift for Allie. They'd put him in a little wrapped box with airholes, just like the movies. The look on Allie’s face when the box had barked had filled Miriam to the brim, had briefly and completely wiped away all the grief, all the noise. It was one of those cliché things people said, that they'd do anything for their children to be happy. But it was true. Miriam would do anything for Allie's face to light up like that.

Miriam had been at work, sitting silently at one end of some conference call when she felt it. Like something had snapped inside of her. An image of the dog, lying in the street. She would be OK without the dog. She was fond of him, of course, but not overly attached. But Allie adored him. Slept with him at the foot of her bed every night. Miriam couldn't bear the idea of her daughter's grief. The idea that Allie might feel like she did. It left her breathless, something tightening in her chest. She'd left the conference call without hanging up the phone or saying anything, simply left whoever was on the other end talking into an empty room. A tinny voice on a black speaker, talking to no one. When she'd arrived home the nanny had already wrapped the dog in a blanket. Allie ran to her mother, sobbing, shaking. Miriam had slept in her daughter's bed that night, curled around her long limbs. A silver lining, she had thought, a chance to hold her whole daughter in her arms. Her baby girl.

The wipers clicked on, jolting Miriam back to the car. It had started to snow. Just a flurry, nothing threatening, but enough to activate the wipers. Miriam liked the snow. She hadn't always. She used to find it tedious, a nuisance. She liked it now because Allie loved it, was always the first kid on the block to run outside the morning after it snowed. To flop down on her back, waving her arms and legs up and down, filling the yard with angels. Miriam watched the new snow slowly cover the crusty, brown snow at the edge of the highway as the miles clicked past. It made the world look clean again, if only briefly.

Liam's mother had been the second incident. Liam didn't like talking about it, didn't believe in intuition like Miriam did.

"She was sick," he always said. "It was going to happen any day. It's confirmation bias - you don't remember the times you were wrong."

She didn’t remember the times she’d been wrong because there hadn’t been any, but Miriam didn't argue. He was grieving his mother, didn't have room for his wife's anxiety, for the fear that followed her around, always on alert for the next flash of knowing that would upend her life.

Then there had been Toby. Miriam tried not to think about it, purposefully pushed the images away, locked them up in boxes. But they popped up anyways, searing through her mind when she least expected it. The numbers on her alarm clock, 2:20 AM, when she'd sat bolt upright, as if she'd heard the crash. Her phone lighting up with an unknown number. Liam in his bathrobe and slippers, running through the snow into the fluorescent hospital entrance. Toby's face, so serene, belying the damage beneath the sheet. Four-year old Allie's hands in black gloves, reaching up for her own as the priest droned on. His empty bedroom, the Lego rocket he’d been building, even though he hid it under the bed when his friends came over. She'd spent 14 years in therapy trying to process it – it, the accident, the loss, the absence, the knowing she would never feel whole again – but still the images lurked under the surface, ready to attack.

And now Allie. Miriam could tell she wasn't breathing, tried to count in for four, out for four, but could only get to two. Tried to loosen her jaw. Repeated the mantras she'd worked so hard to embrace. None of it worked. By the time she pulled off 95 onto the exit for Colby she was a knot of panic, barely breathing, driving on autopilot. She didn't bother parking, pulled straight up to Allie's dorm and left the car in the circular drive. Pounded on the door until a bewildered looking student let her in without saying anything. Found Allie's room. The green heart on the door with Allie's name on it, another devastating image already settling into her brain. Burst inside, not bothering to knock.

Allie was sitting at her desk, head bent over a textbook and a pad of graph paper. Wearing her plaid Colby pajama pants, her hair in a messy braid. She turned, startled, when the door opened.

"Mom, what the fuck?"

Miriam flew the last few steps to her daughter, hugged her awkwardly over the back of the chair, inhaling the scent of her hair. That cheap Herbal Essences shampoo she used.

"Mom," Allie pushed her back after a moment, twisted in her chair. "What happened? Why are you here? You're freaking me out."

Miriam sank onto her daughter's bed, let out all the breath she'd been holding inside her since she woke up. An infinite exhale.

"You're OK," she said. "You're OK."

"Yeah, of course I'm OK. Is something wrong?"

"No, I just… I was sure something… and then you didn't answer your phone… but you're OK."

Allie stared at her, concern slowly morphing into disbelief.

"You mean… you drove all this way and burst into my room because you thought something might be wrong? Jesus, mom, you can’t keep doing this."

Dumbfounded, Miriam thought. Allie sounded dumbfounded.

"I had a bad feeling. You remember with… your brother."

Allie gaped at her. She had been so little when they lost Toby, she didn't remember him. Not the real him, anyway. Just fragments of memories, snippets from the time before her family was broken. All she saw now was her mother's inability to move forward.

Abruptly, Allie stood up, slamming her textbook closed.

"I can't deal with this right now. I have finals to study for."

She started angrily packing her books into her backpack, that ratty canvas backpack she refused to replace.

"I'm going to the library. You can stay here until… until, I don't know, until you’ve pulled yourself together." She gestured at her mother, a hand motion meant to dismiss, belittle.

"I'll come too!" a voice squeaked. Miriam peeled her eyes away from her daughter, noticed Allie's roommate, Janice, huddled at her own desk. Silently watching this family drama unfold. Miriam had only met her once, at move-in. Allie said she was timid, studious - the perfect roommate.

Janice scrambled to get her bag together, met Allie at the door. Allie paused, backpack slung over one shoulder, looking at her mother.

"You need help, mom," she said. That casual, vicious tone only a teenage girl can affect. "Like, seriously. Professional help. Whatever you're doing is not working."

Miriam searched for compassion in her daughter's eyes, for even the tiniest hint of understanding. But she found only anger. Behind her, Janice looked slightly awed. Her eyes darted back and forth between Allie and Miriam as if to ask - can she get away with this? Can daughters say this to their mothers? Miriam wondered what the girl's relationship with her own mother was like.

Allie left.

Miriam stayed on her daughter's twin bed, the waterproof mattress rustling under her. Allie is OK, she told herself. Allie is OK.

But are you OK, Miriam?

She sucked in her breath. The question rang through her head as clearly as if someone was sitting in front of her, staring at her.

Are you? Are you OK? Are you OK?

"No!" she sobbed the word into her daughter's empty room.

Then, quietly, chest heaving with all the pain and relief and release, "No."

She cried and cried and cried.

The phone rang long after she'd finished crying. She was sitting, staring absently at the cheap, short dresses on display in Allie's closet. Pink, purple, polyester. They looked brash and whorish in the fluorescent light of the closet. She let the phone go to voicemail without looking at it. When it rang a second time, she picked up.

"She's OK," she told Liam.

"I know. She called me."

A long silence. This chasm between them.


Miriam waited, wondering if Liam had the answer. If he knew what to do, how to help. He wasn't good at this sort of thing, heartfelt conversations and emotions and feelings.

"… I'm worried about you."

"I'm worried about me, too."

"Can I come and get you?"

A tiny sob escaped Miriam. To be held, to be taken care of, to let someone else do the worrying. It felt like a candle in a dark room.

"OK," she hiccupped.

"Stay where you are. I'll be there soon."

The phone went silent. Miriam slid off the mattress to the floor and counted the dresses in the closet over and over again.

January 03, 2022 15:34

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