Part 7 of a longer short story about a teenager still learning how to navigate tricky situations, the price of loyalty to the unworthy, and the demands of any relationship. (Go to the beginning: Part 1 )
As always constructive criticism, feedback or even a note to say hi in the comments is welcomed!
“Give her this.”
Dad had passed me a photo as I was climbing out of his van. Over the last few days, I had studied it closely, but even so, again held it close to my face, trying to spot a detail about the people within it that I might have missed before.
They were a student pair of the 70s. A laughing, flirtatious girl in a high cut, dusty orange dress, no stockings and big sunglasses, grabbing the broad arm of a young, man in matching shades, khaki short sleeves and a mullet he no doubt now regrets.
Back before bitterness, before disappointment, before anything deeper than looking stylish in a photo. Would the promise of a memory be enough to convince her to take Dad’s call? Was I right to even ask her to? Mum wasn’t this girl any more. If she had the chance, perhaps she would walk into this photo and yank off those glasses, and make her younger self see the world in all its current, regret-coloured greyness.
Jesus stared down at me from every wall. The memory associated with them of my Grandma, cleaning, straightening, proudly hanging new ones she found at garage sales, calmed me. I remembered her forcing us all to eat together, an increasingly difficult task as we grew into moody teenagers; secretly calling Mum’s work to organise a shift change or day off so she could come to a school event; and not so secretly agitating for Dad to come home, in huge fights with Mum. The thought of those fights, usually in Maltese, and accompanied by lots of tea-towel throwing, made me nervous again.
I heard the car drive in, and the engine switch off, the clang of keys against the door frame. Mum was home already! Lost in the photo, my sewing jumble was still on the table, with all three dresses hanging behind it.
I took my place in front of the table, shielding them with my body in case she went into a rage again. As Mum came in she looked at me, then at the dresses, then back at my face, probably seeing there a mixture of white fear and defiance.
She burst into tears.
“I really don’t need this now, Rachel.” She said, disappearing into her room.
I sat heavily in the pool of kitchen light, with a weird, mixed, burn of relief and bewilderment in my chest.
That was unexpected.
It took half an hour, and a cup of tea, to build up the courage to slip into her room.
Despite the heat, she had pillows and blankets bunched around protectively. At least it was soft to cuddle into.
We lay in silence for a while. It had been a long time since I had come in here. Her room, and her bed, were where we met at times of family crisis. When Dad had left, or been asked to leave, Mark and I had come in to sleep in a big, comforting family jumble. After she came back from visiting Mark in the police cell, we slept a week in this room together. With Grandma gone by then, the house and all its previously occupied rooms had become a wound.
“I’m not a monster.” Her voice was hard to hear through the blanket. She threw out an arm and pulled me in under.
“I know that uni is a big step when you’re not sure what your interest is. But the world doesn’t care, doesn’t wait, and you’ll lose all those opportunities that come when you’re young. You need to be ready to catch them or they’re gone forever. Uni, work, these are things you have to do, not because they’re fun, but because they’re what you need to get security. A home sewing business will never give you security. I’m not saying this to be mean, just realistic, cos you have no training other than Grandma. Who will want a teenage seamstress apart from other teenagers, maybe? Find some job at least as a parachute. Y’know, I talked to my supervisor for you, and she’s happy if you wanted to come in, do some work experience, maybe even get some paid hours. That’s a good compromise, if you don’t want to go to uni yet.”
The heat and blankets were becoming oppressive. I flipped them open a bit, to allow in cool, fresh air.
“Mum, do you even like working there? I remember how you wanted to be a librarian. What happened to that?”
“Because things didn’t work out. All of your Dad’s business failures left us too broke for me to do a Library Science course, or to volunteer in the library until a job came up. Nerry’s is at least stable. Pays your school bills, buys your food!” I can feel her body tensing up, her arm withdrawing and a pillow getting wedged in between us. “Why can’t I have one kid following my lead? Mark and his idiocy proved that he’s your father’s son. I was hoping when I saw your good grades that you would enjoy the chances I missed, but lately I’m beginning to wonder if you aren’t also his daughter!”
The blankets were being pulled off me. I let them go and sat up, “It took two people to make me, Mum, I’m not your clone, and couldn’t be if I tried.”
“Then you’re just going to leave me too.” Her voice was flat, and I couldn’t see her expression in the dark, but the words gave me hopes that helped control the anger and resentment our budding fight had produced.
“They want to come home, Mum. Mark’s been training as a baker at-”
“When did you see your brother?” She sat up.
“I’m not happy with you interacting him, Rachel, he’s a criminal now, and people don’t change.”
“Mum!” The angst roared back and my hands itched for one of Grandma’s tea towels to hurl. “He’s your son! My brother! You wonder why you’re alone? It’s because you pushing us all away! Always remembering our mistakes! Sometimes people fail Mum, why don’t you get that?”
“You told Dad to leave.”
It was out there now. Time to test which one had been telling the truth. The proverbial gloves were off, and her counters could be the finishing blow to the boys’, and my, hopes of us ever being together again.
“You said he ran away, but you kicked him out! There’s a pattern here! Mark fucks up once and he’s broken beyond repair? Now I’m not following the plan, what will you do? Change the locks when I’m out? I bet you’ll love being all alone, except when you’re at a job that you fucking hate!“
“Move out then! Move out! Maybe you might finally understand what it’s like to struggle. Even then you won’t have to support an ungrateful family, always knocking you on your back! Get out Rachel, out of my room!”
I stood, stumbling a little as the blankets tangled. We glared at each other, even as my anger began to subside into a cold ball of regret in my gut.
Well, I’ve fucked it all up now.
Hands shaking, I took Dad’s photo out of my pocket and placed it on the bed.
“They want a second chance, Mum. To – I don’t know – show you they made good.”
Her voice was less angry, but guttural like she was pushing the words out through clenched teeth. “Your Dad made life really difficult, Rachel. I know you don’t remember, but I do. I don’t know if I could ever forget enough to forgive him. Either of them.”
“Just talk then. Maybe it’ll help, you know.”
She picked up the photo, gently, though she shook her head. “It’s impossible to go back. I just can’t let all these years go so easily.”
“Dad’s going to call. Just talk. Don’t even talk, just listen.”
She shook her head again. Placing the photo, face down, on the nightstand, she turned her body away, but didn’t protest when I climbed back in and curled around her back.
Lacking the energy to speak any more, sleep came quickly, and so heavily that I didn’t wake even when she left for work in the morning. When I did rise groggily to drag myself to school, I noticed the photo was gone.