Anne was a child still when her mother, Helen, fell terribly ill. At a time when she was barely able to tie a shoe, she became a mother of her mother. Anne brought Helen food on a flowered tray. Evenings, after her own bath, she filled a bucket with her soiled water to wash her mother with a sponge. She rode the school bus. Shortly after the sickness began, Anne cancelled her flute lessons, stopped showing to ballet. While the other girls and boys were making college visits, she was turning corners with grocery bags in her bicycle basket.
Anne eased her mother, step-by-step, when Helen wished to move between rooms. As slow as their movements grew, time seemed to quicken. Anne celebrated twenty birthdays: one after another, it seemed, like buttons slipping through their holes. Longer than a long marriage the two lived together. Anne blossomed into her middle age without notice; Helen faded along beside the furniture cushions. Anne left the house less and less, and the bricks along the front path began to loosen, to turn.
Some time in Anne’s early forties Mike moved in across the street. He mowed the yard without a shirt. The sun darkened his skin. He liked to watch the starlings above their two houses move as a flock, each bird turning with the others (this turning, he saw it everywhere). Anne watched him watch, unable from inside to see what it was he was witnessing. Evenings, from a dark house, Mike watched Anne move across the yellow windows, back and forth, back and forth, everything so quiet: waiting, watching, dying. The trees, they hushed.
Anne and Helen’s mailbox door hung open. Mike repaired the latch. He tucked the bricks into the ground and slowly (weeks it took) made it to the door. And there, at last, when Anne opened it for him, they felt it as a gush, a current, a turning, and they could hardly stand against it. Yet when he asked, she said no (Helen in the background stomping her old foot against the hardwood).
Anne and Mike were consistent – him with offers, her with refusals. None of this weakened their need. Helen, gray as a cloud, understood; she tightened her hold. Anne grew tense. She scrubbed her mother’s skin with a sponge until the skin bled. Dishes fell from her hands. She ironed the sheets so stiff it was painful to sleep upon them. Across the street, Mike mourned, turned in bed all night. He drank hard liquor until he felt as empty and hard as the street between them.
One night Mike erupted. He loaded himself into his red pickup, the gas pedal hard against the floorboard. He hit the mailbox first, turned, sped up the brick path, over the bushes, the flowers asleep in their beds. The front end of Mike’s truck entered Anne’s bedroom through the wall. The headlamps lit her small room. Her bed slid. The headboard cracked in two.
If Anne had been dreaming of him, she dreams of him still. A dream we hope does not end with his weeping, crawling through the shattered glass, bleeding beside her in her bed. He kept her body from growing cold too quickly, as long as he could. Down the long hall Helen never heard the crash, but she could feel it – the chill as it tried to find her, knocking, turning, pounding, rattling every last knob.
Jan LaPerle lives in east Tennessee with her husband, Clay Matthews, and her daughter, Winnie. She teaches at Tennessee’s oldest college, Tusculum College. She has published a book of poetry, It Would Be Quiet (Prime Mincer Press, 2013), and an e-chap of flash fiction, Hush (Sundress Publications 2012), and several other stories and poems. She recently won an individual artist grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission.
Jan LaPerle was a finalist in our 2014 Innovative Short Fiction Contest, judged by Manuel Gonzales.