Mother was dead. I sat up startled and leaned against the pine headboard of our bed. I didn’t dare move, lest the slightest move I’d make would drown out her raspy voice calling in the middle of the night: ‘Emily, Em, come!’. I knew it was dumb and she would not speak again, not to me, not to anyone. It was only in my dreams that I still heard her. Every bloody night.
Sometimes she’d ask for water, in that small petulant voice she used when she knew there was no need for her to call out, but she still did it. Waiting for me to shuffle out of my bed and come offer her the glass of water that was right there on the night-stand, easily within reach. Arguing with her at that ungodly hour was pointless and it would only ruin my sleep, so I just stood there, holding the glass so she could take the tiniest sip and give me that meek smile, the ‘look how helpless I am’ smile that no longer fooled me.
At other times, I’d find her sitting up in her bed, her face wrinkled with worry - ‘I think I heard a noise at the window’. I knew there was no one outside, but still I checked, pulling the curtains aside with a firm move and staring out into the darkness. Who’d want to break into such a house, a small two-bedroom council house slowly falling into disrepair? But then, you never knew. I’d pull the curtains back tight, kiss Mom on the forehead, pat her small bony hand and trudge back to bed, cursing my life as I struggled to go back to sleep. ‘You’re just a cold-hearted bitch, that’s what you are’, I’d scream at her - only inside my head. I would never dare say such a thing to her face and even thinking like that made me feel ashamed of myself.
The raspy voice, that pained ‘Emily’ I’d just heard, that was for real. It was when the pain in her bad hip was killing her and she was scared and the only thing that could ease her suffering was a sleeping pill. I never left those on her nightstand, not that I was afraid she might end her life, she wasn’t that kind of a woman, but I knew there was a strong chance she might take too many by mistake and I’d have to call an ambulance and the last thing I needed was another trip to the hospital. After she’d swallowed the pill, I’d sit on the side of her bed, holding her hand until she could hardly keep her eyes open.
It was mostly that desperate voice I head in my dreams and, so, even six months after her death, Mother still managed to torture me and ruin my sleep. But things were different now, she wasn’t really there anymore and I could turn up all the lights and have a cigarette waiting for my heartbeat to slow down. No need to hide in the bathroom, so she wouldn’t see me. I was free, at last.
She decided to pack some sweaters and her black jeans, as well. They were going to a nice cabin by the lake, where the weather was supposed to be great that time of the year, he’d promised. However, after living with Steve for three years, she wasn't sure if she could take him up on his word. His idea of fun rarely matched hers and she could already imagine herself freezing her ass off in some godforsaken wilderness while he fiddled around the fireplace, trying to get a measly fire going. ‘Oh, well’, she smiled to herself,’ I guess all the jokes about programmers being useless in real life are true after all’.
Steve was everything she’d ever wanted in a man, soft-spoken and hard-working. Such a shame Mom did not live to see her finally married, to such a good man. Sometimes, when she waited for him by the window, she tried to imagine her mother’s reaction seeing him as he pulled the car in front of the house. So self-assured, so handsome - for at 54, Steve was still a good-looking man, tall and fit, with barely a hint of a paunch - thanks to her newly discovered cooking skills.
Speaking of cooking, better pack a can of ham and some frozen beans. And fresh bread, they’ll need to buy some on the road.
The cabin was neat, although the air seemed a bit mouldy, the place could do with a good airing while they strolled down by the lake.
‘Before the week is over, you’ll be sick of all the fish’ he said and she laughed. It was their long-running joke, for as much as he loved to fish, he rarely caught anything worthwhile. She suspected he just loved the idea of being a fisherman and toying around with his gear, but it was one of the things she was willing to allow. Men. What can you do?
Thankfully, there was a small store two miles down the road so they didn’t run the risk of starving to death if he didn’t come back like a hero with a bucketful of fish, like the man he imagined himself to be.
They had been dreaming the whole year about this week-long vacation by the side of the lake, seven blessed days when he could enjoy the fresh air and the soft jazz playing on his iPad, while she relaxed on the pier, reading a book and waiting for him like a dutiful wife. But it was too hot and it was full of mosquitoes, so Emily found herself bored to death by the evening of the second day. She was in no mood for reading so she paced up and down the dirt road peering at the lake as she waited for him to be done with his fucking fishing. Who even needs to fish these days when you can buy whatever you want at the fucking store? Why did I ever agree to come here? She cursed herself, she cursed Steve, she cursed the whole goddam world. What need was there for me to get married at my age? Mom was right, I was better off on my own…
It didn't work. Even with two good blankets and the fire roaring, Emily was still shivering. Steve insisted it was just a cold, but she was sure it must be a spider bite. The place was probably crawling with all sorts of nasty insects and now she was running a fever, but Steve kept saying it was nothing. ‘I’ll make you a nice hot tea and you’ll feel better in no time’. As if he could be trusted to make a decent cup of tea. The sweetener he’d managed to find in a drawer tasted something horrible and anyway by the time he’d brought it to her it wasn’t even hot anymore.
‘No, of course, I don’t you to warm it up for me again. Don’t bother.’
By now she was sure there was some poison in her system and she furiously checked herself to find the bite mark.
‘See, there above the ankle, don’t you see it is swollen?’ she pointed accusingly. The whole trip had been a disaster and God only knew what would happen now, the bite could get infected by morning and all the medicine they had were a couple of aspirins he’d found in the glove compartment.
‘It’s just a rash’, Steve insisted. ‘Perhaps a glass of wine would do you good’, he added taking out a bottle from the fridge.
He only said that to annoy her, she was sure. He knew Emily did not drink. Her mother never drank, either and she most certainly did not approve of women getting drunk. Like Emily had done at that freshmen party in her first year of college. Mother wouldn’t speak to her for a week after that, even though Emily swore she’d only had two beers and the stains on the skirt where from some boy spilling a glass of wine on her lap. She rarely went to parties after that.
‘Do you have to ruin any good moment we have?’, Steve asked looking at her over his by now empty glass. There was no reproach in his voice. In fact, it wasn’t even a question, but him stating a truth that had been obvious from the beginning but he had refused to acknowledge.
His finally settling down with a good woman had been a huge mistake, he could see that now. Her quiet ways which he knew he would not find in a younger person were not a sign of a woman content with having someone to share her twilight years with. She was not looking after the happiness she had been denied all those years spent taking care of her mother. What she longed for was someone to share her misery with.
She worried over her sagging breasts and the wrinkles on her brow, but he was OK with those. It was part of the deal when you marry a middle-aged woman. His biggest mistake was to believe she’d learn how to love him. He knew her story, he knew she hadn’t had much time for romance and she wasn’t used to letting go and expressing her feelings, but now he wondered if she had any feelings at all?
It was clear the vacation was ruined. Better drive back home right now and have her goddam leg taken care of.
‘Sometimes I think your just a cold-hearted bitch, that’s all you are’, he said as he started the engine.
Story written for @mariannewest's freewrite challenge, the weekend three-prompt special'! Check out her blog and join our freewrite community.
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