I had to write many short stories in one of my courses last year. This is one.
Mother Knows Best
Once the sound of rushing water met my ears, I released a breath I’d been holding for days. My pounding heart eased to a slow, steady beat as I kicked off my shoes, dropped onto the couch, and finally let the tension drift away. The worn leather wrapped me in a cool cocoon, a sharp contrast to the heat building in my cheeks. It’s odd how months of worry, stress, and heartache can evaporate once it’s done. When they’re gone. My face flamed, ashamed.
A friend told me this was how it would be. Bessie shared her husband’s horrible last months. Bed-bound. Struggling for air. Wasting away, body and mind. Screaming and thrashing. Morphine. Even though I’d witnessed it in family after family, I never believed that death could be anything more than a crushing cinder block, making each breath heavy and beat of the heart weak. No. After begging for a miracle or a quick final slumber, it’s more like a void. Conflicting emotions have canceled out and now there’s just something missing. Sighing, I let Bessie’s wise advice wave away the shame.
“She will be just as relieved as you are that her suffering is finished, so remember her fondly and smile when those good memories show their face,” she patted my hand as she glanced toward Harry’s photo on her nightstand.
I took a ragged breath and met her kind eyes. “But how do I help him do the same?”
She grasped my hands tightly in hers and squeezed as hard as her frail hands would allow. “For now, just be there. When the time comes, you’ll know.”
My feet tapped absently against the hard wood floor as I took in his apartment for the first time. The many times I’d visited the past six months had always been heavy and distracted, and I never noticed the things around us collecting a heavy layer of dust. I shuffled in sock-covered feet toward the kitchen and searched under the sink for his cleaning supplies. Armed with only an old rag, I began dusting every surface. Tables. Shelves. Frames. The television. The-.
I stopped in my tracks when my eyes registered the familiar image. The large canvas sat on the wall by the hallway, its black frame polished and dust free. The black and white photograph of us had always been one of my favorites. Well, it wasn’t really of us. It was a memory from our graduation trip: our feet brushing as they hung over the dockside. A view from his mom’s lens.
The sound of the shower stopping barely registered as I stared. We’d been best friends since childhood. Instead of going on our class trip, we begged our parents to take us somewhere different. Somewhere special, just us. Ever since we were kids, our folks vacationed together at Spigner Lake. When I decided to go to college in New York, my parents decided to sell our vacation home to pay for it. They kept the lake house long enough for one last trip. Gavin’s mom took us for an entire month that last summer. I spent the whole time pining over him, and it was on that dock that we shared our first and only kiss. We went our separate ways the next week.
“That seems like so long ago,” a deep voice solemnly offered, startling me. Gavin rested a hand on my shoulder and rubbed his thumb along my collar bone as I placed my hand over his.
“Ten years, “ I trailed off simply, lost in my own thoughts.
I hadn’t registered his absence when he returned and offered a steaming cup of coffee despite the late hour. Graciously, I took my mug and followed as he nodded toward the couch. Sitting side by side, we stared forward in silence, my hot cup the only anchor holding my seasick heart. I tried to focus on the heat and aroma filling my senses, but I could only worry about the heartbroken man by my side. The sound of his mug meeting the table brought my eyes to his, offering him a small smile.
“The service was beautiful. I think it was exactly as she wanted,” I started, grabbing his hand and holding it tightly in my lap.
“I think so. Or, at least I hope so,” he smiled softly. “I’m glad you were there. I couldn’t have done this without you.” His eyes watered slightly before he grabbed his cup and took a quick swig, awkwardly trying to cover his emotional reaction.
I cleared my throat. “Bessie wanted to tell you she’s sorry she couldn’t come. You know, her-”
“We’ll go see her tomorrow,” he quickly interrupted, stopping the conversation in its tracks. These past few months Bessie’d been our rock, a second mother to us both. Now her health was deteriorating quickly, and with the recent events, the idea of losing her brought a wave of fresh anxiety. The wounds from Anne’s death were too raw. We were too drained.
Reaching for the remote, I turned on the television to relieve the need to fill the silence. We sat staring at infomercials, my head leaning on his shoulder as a familiar comfort to us both.
“She never understood, you know,” he cut through the silence.
“Understood what?” Confused, I sat up and eyed him in question.
His eyes remained glued to the television. “Why I let you go.”
My heart fluttered at the mention. “You didn’t let me go, Gavin. We both drifted apart and let life get in the way.”
“She thought I did. She thought I should have begged you to stay that summer…” he trailed off as his green eyes finally met mine.
“She also thought I should have begged you to come with me. She said ‘oh, that boy can learn photography anywhere’,” I revealed, rolling my eyes and smiling at Anne’s antics. “She wanted us married before we were out of diapers.”
A grin broke over his face. “You know it’s only because you were the daughter she never had,” he teased. “I think she would have traded me for you if given the chance.”
“Oh please!” I waved him off. “You were Anne’s golden child! Her photographer protege!”
Gavin smiled and stared down at his fidgeting fingers. “She never thought I’d be a corporate man.”
“She was so proud of you, photographer or not.” My hand squeezed his. “She told me so every time we talked about you.”
His arms snaked around my waist and he hugged me tight, trying to mask a small sniffle. When he finally pulled back, his hand reached up to cup my face as his eyes found mine. I offered a small smile and covered his hand with my own.
“Manipulative or not,” he whispered, “mom was right.”His lips gently touched mine.