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My Mother, My Mother
I was only there for my mother. It helped that she’d called me the day after the marathon to congratulate me on my qualifying time, I was feeling flushed with victory… or maybe just too exhausted to argue, too fatigued to resist fate. So, when she’d oh-so-politely asked me to come up to the family cottage for the weekend, I said ‘yes.’
That’s how I found myself sitting at the front of the old motor-boat that served as the “ferry” to and from the island in the lake. The boat was operated by “Uncle” Chuck, a man who was eighty-nine years old if he was a day. He was a cheerful old man with one carefully groomed snowy forelock and a lot of liver spots. He grinned with blocky dentures when he saw me approach his old house by the shore. He was always sitting out on the porch in his creaky rocking chair. Hugging me and mumbling into my shoulder – when had he gotten so short? – he refused the twenty I offered him. He didn’t talk much on the ride over. He never did.
The air over the lake was chilly, moist. I felt closed in and trapped by the heavy and ominous cloud cover that sped across the lake. The waves were choppy, rough. I asked Uncle Chuck if a storm was coming but his reply was lost in the wind that tossed his single lock of hair back like a sail.
The boat curved around the island, aiming for pier number four. Just past it, flanked by hoary oaks and thick pines was the cabin. On the pier stood my mother in a thin yellow sundress and high-heeled sandals, her bony arms crossed tightly over her chest.
The cabin had been in the family for generations, or so she’d always told me. It was a medium-sized building constructed of logs, tile slates on the roof that always leaked, and thick window frames painted a rusty red. The cottage had two bedrooms; a kitchenette equipped with a stove and fridge; a living room with a couch, armchair, transistor radio, and a fireplace; and a small dining room with an old Formica table and three chairs – one with a ripped seat repaired with duct tape. A screened-in porch ran around the entirety of the outside, acting like a shield against the army of mosquitos.
My mother began waving when we were close, bending to grab the prow, to help guide us along the pier. Her hands were all over me as I tried to climb out of the boat, rocking both of us and nearly tumbling us into the gray water. Uncle Chuck only laughed as he pulled away, waving one wizened hand above his head as his motorboat cut through the water back home.
She held my hand the whole walk to the cottage. Hers was smooth, raspy – like dried-out papyrus. Mine began to sweat immediately, out of nerves or maybe stress. We climbed the three stairs to the porch together, she held the crooked screen door for me, and then pushed around me so she could open the front door as well.
Stepping inside, I was immediately blasted by the overwhelming heat. In the fireplace, a cheery blaze crackled and sparked. Aunt May sat in the over-stuffed orange striped armchair to the right of the fire, a small mystery novel in her hands and huge bifocal glasses pushed up her nose. Unlike my mother in her formal dress, Aunt May wore one of her deceased husband’s flannel shirts and gray sweatpants.
Stepping into the cottage after all these years was like stepping back into my childhood. It made me feel small and helpless. Everything was the same, just older, more faded. The wallpaper was now yellowed between the vertical stripes of roses, the bare hardwood floor was dull, the single handmade rug even more threadbare in front of the fireplace. Two paintings hung from either side of the chimney. They were old oil paintings featuring a hateful-looking middle-aged man and sallow young woman: my grandparents according to my mother.
Without much urging, I sat on the couch, sinking deep into the age-softened cushions. My mother hustled into the kitchenette and I heard the kettle clatter on the stove, a very familiar sound. Aunt May said something, so soft I couldn’t hear her over the fire, so I just forced a smile and nodded. She went back her book.
Even the smell was the same. An overpowering bouquet of floral air freshener, with undertones of mildew and wood polish. The air tasted the same on my tongue, it tasted like home.
Only it wasn’t home, not anymore. Not since I found her secret, hidden away underneath the loose board under her bed. She’d been proud of what she had done, so proud she’d documented it in a journal, an expensive leather-bound affair that barely fit in the space she’d created for it. Maybe that’s why I’d found it. She hadn’t replaced the board carefully enough so that it protruded from the floor just enough that I had noticed it when I had been snooping through her stuff, looking for the Harvard acceptance letter she’d confiscated from me when I was eighteen.
If you opened it in the middle, the journal would have appeared to be a normal scrapbook dedicated to her newborn daughter. She had the typical pictures: me as a baby at one year old, three, kindergarten, first grade all the way up to high-school graduation. She had the typical crummy crafts a daughter would make: handprints in primary colour paint on computer paper, crudely drawn people and animals in crayon, a poem I wrote for Mother’s Day when I was six.
If you open it to the first five pages however, it only contains newspaper clippings chronicling the disappearance of baby Ester Derry from the pre-natal unit at a hospital in the city closest to the little island where we went to spend our summers. Baby Ester would have been the same age as me if she’d been found, but she never was. The parents, Andrew and Lisbeth, waited for a call from the kidnappers and they offered rewards for information, but nothing came of it. The last article was two years later, I would have been three. It was a small article, probably relegated to a back page, looking back on the couple who had suffered such a tragic loss. The black and white photo that went with the article was haunting. In it, Lisbeth is painfully thin and sick-looking. Her husband, Andrew, isn’t even looking at the camera, his face hangs down and his shoulders are slumped.
Lisbeth is forcing a smile, hugging another woman wearing nurse scrubs. A group of men and women stand behind the three with solemn faces. The caption describes “Baby Ester’s mother hugs leader of “Find Ester Coalition” in gratitude for efforts over the last two years.” The woman dressed as a nurse is my mother.
She came back from the kitchen holding a tray laden with a teapot and cups, and she sat down next to me on the couch preparing the three cups the way she knew everyone liked their tea – heavy milk and sugar for Aunt May, light milk for me, black for her. The perfect host, she handed out everyone’s teacup complete with a chocolate biscuit on the side.
Lisbeth Derry had died when I was sixteen. Lung cancer. Andrew Derry had followed shortly after in a car crash. He’d been three times over the legal limit. I found this all out when I tried to find them two years after I’d left home. I’d never had a chance to meet them.
My mother was speaking now, her voice a melodic drone buzzing in my ear and her left-hand perching lightly on my knee. I didn’t touch the tea set in front of me.
I don’t think she knew why I really left home. I am sure she thought it was because I wanted to go away for university. Not because of what she’d done two decades before.
The gun lay heavy against the small of my back, hidden in the loose folds of my hoodie. I heard my mother saying my name, the name she gave me, once, twice, three times. I turned to look at her with a bright, wide smile.
“What was that, Mother?”
Thanks for reading, I’ll be posting another flash fiction tomorrow so make sure to come back then!
x P.L. McMillan