2009 Short-Story Contest: Second Place Winner
Second-place winner: "Eleven Days"
Published: January 1, 2010
My mother had been gone for eleven days now. We carried on like we always did, Dad and I—pouring too much milk over our cornflakes at breakfast, sifting through the ads that came in the mail, taking turns watering the tiny ring of marigolds that circled the lamppost in the front yard. We made our beds and took our weekly Saturday morning trip to the market. We were good at proceeding, good at pretending. Neither of us mentioned my mother.
When I was nine, she slipped out the back door as we were sitting down to Easter dinner. I'd just watched her spend forty-five minutes arranging slices of ham in the shape of a bunny on an enormous silver platter I'd never seen before.
That morning, I'd told her I was in the spring play at school. She asked how many lines I had and I said they'd picked me for the chorus. She took her pocket calendar out of her purse and wrote "Lily—play practice—4 p.m." on every single Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in April. Then she flipped the page and did the same thing for May. Twenty-six times she wrote it, again and again and again, in her grand, loopy handwriting. I sat silently, watching her solemn eyes follow the quick arcs of the pen. Then she closed the calendar, put it back in her purse, clasped her hands together in her lap, looked up at me, and smiled. It was the smile you give a kitten in the pet store window—dim, hopeful, mostly dim.
She came back one Sunday in September, after I'd finished my first week of fourth grade. I remember watching a long, low car, its mint-green finish muted by age and dust, rumble slowly down our narrow dirt road. Its windows shimmered in the glare of the morning sun. The car heaved and lurched with even the slightest rise or dip in the road, and a thin trail of exhaust dissolved quickly into the hazy air behind it. At the end of our driveway, the car bucked heavily to a stop, as if the driver had unexpectedly spotted something familiar.
The back driver's-side door opened amid a cloud of powdery earth that had billowed up from the road. I watched my mother slide out of the backseat. She waved dust from her eyes and closed the door behind her. Her hair was the color of an old penny. It had been blonde, like mine, when she left. And it had grown well past her shoulders—longer than I'd ever seen it. She wore a black tank top and a tiered white skirt that swept against her ankles. She had nothing with her.
She raised a hand to her forehead to shield the sun and studied our house from the roadside. I could not make out her expression. A row of thick silver rings on her right hand glinted in the white light. They were new too.
I slowly leaned into the ruffled pink drapes that framed my bedroom window. I closed my eyes and let the curtain's rough, netted lining scratch against my face. They had a sharp, synthetic smell, like sawdust. I inhaled, deep and slow, until I'd used up all the air.
When I was little, we'd loved Dr. Seuss, Mother and I. Every year, we'd celebrate his birthday by baking a purple cake with yellow polka-dots. We called it our Sizzlesazzlesuzzle cake, and we ate it for breakfast every morning for a week, like untended schoolgirls on holiday, while my father silently downed his yogurt and stared at the opinion page in the morning paper.
"The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go." It was her anthem. Sometimes she woke me for school that way, panting the words against my ear in a low, frantic voice, her breath thick with the scent of nuts and licorice. Sometimes she belted it out in the frozen foods aisle when we went grocery shopping at midnight. Sometimes it was our secret, like the time my father was lecturing me because I refused to dress for gym, and she stood in the doorway behind him mouthing the words with such urgency that you'd have thought she was trying to tell me there was a secret escape tunnel hidden behind the sofa.
As I got older, she'd say the first sentence and pause, waiting for me to follow with the second. I remember I would barely be able to stay in my skin at that moment, waiting for her to finish so I could begin. My voice would rise and accelerate with so much greed that to anyone else, those beloved words must have sounded like nothing but a mangled squeal. But in my mother's high, knowing eyes, I saw pleasure. I saw pride. We knew, the two of us, what this was: a promise.
I edged an eye out from behind the curtain and saw her start up our driveway. Her walk was slow and casual, the way you wander up the grocery aisle when you don't have a list, scanning the shelves for dinner's inspiration. Suddenly, she stopped and spun back toward the car, still sitting where it had come to a stop by our mailbox. She hunched over, like she was trying to get a better look at something, and raised an open hand questioningly in the air. I saw when she turned that the seam of her skirt had unraveled. A long white thread snaked down the back of her right leg. The driver's window rolled down quickly, just an inch or two, and from within I could hear hard, raised voices, which my mother returned, the nasty edges of her tone carrying easily through the hot air. I couldn't make out anyone's words. Then, she marched over to the car and yanked open the driver's door, gripped its corner frantically with both hands, and, slinging all her weight behind it, slammed it shut again in a fury. I got a glimpse of a bearded man wearing a tropical shirt in the front seat. The car then immediately pulled away. I heard laughter mix with the hum of the swelling engine.
This time she walked quickly up the driveway to our front door. I turned and tiptoed toward my bed, careful to skip the spots in the floorboards that moaned. I grabbed a book from my nightstand, eased onto the bed, and glanced at the clock. Dad always spent Sundays at the conservatory. He would not be home for hours. I freed the breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding.
She never did ask how the play turned out. Or if I learned to add fractions with different denominators in math class. Or how we celebrated Dad's birthday. None of those things mattered once she came back, and we all knew it.
I told myself that this time wouldn't be any different. But the truth was, there were hundreds of reasons why this could be the moment when everything changed.
I picked my chemistry book up off the kitchen table and walked to the front window in the living room. The sky was the plum-gray of oncoming night. A whisper of peach lingered on the treetops in the distance.
The window crank was draped with a brittle cobweb. I wiped it away, swung open the window, and flopped back into dad's recliner. I balanced my open book carefully on the armrest over a pear-shaped coffee stain. I had a test tomorrow, first period, and I tried to concentrate. Ten, twenty, sixty minutes passed. I read the same sentence again and again. The distant din of a spooked mockingbird floated in on the cool air. A light wind rushed through the magnolia tree in the front yard, sweeping its branches gently against the house. Then, silence.
--Posted Jan. 1, 2010