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Definition of a Mother
Definition of a Mother
The rain fell heavily on the pleated roof. Perhaps too heavy for June. May Shealon lay in bed listening to the soft plunking sound of rainwater dropping into the tin can Chase had set out for his science project. Downstairs May could hear her mom tossing pots and pans around, and the smell of burnt toast and spoiled milk wafted into her room. May squeezed her eyes tight until the colors came. The colors that dance before your eyes after you get hit hard on your head, or when you want to block something out so you squish your eyelids together so hard your head feels like a hot air balloon. She could picture herself rolling over and checking the clock, seeing what early hour it was. Come on, she prompted herself. But it was too early for her brain to communicate with her muscles, and she remained twisted up in the scratchy sheets.
Suddenly, her door flew open with a sound that was sickening to May’s sleep-drugged ears. Her brow furrowed and her lips pursed to rebuke the trespasser, but a flop of brown hair fell into view, and she merely whimpered.
Chase leaned lightly on the waist-high bed. He played with the hem of his shirt as he spoke. “Mom made breakfast again and I told her I’d wake you up and get you to come down.”
May thought longingly of cold cereal and biscuits that came from a tin. Anything but the pile of mush her mother concocted every Sunday. She threw her arm out over the opposite edge of the bed and turned over so she was facing Chase and tucked her hands under her head; her eyes still glazed shut with sleep. “Time,” she asked, licking her lips delicately.
May tossed back the covers and sat perched on the edge of her bed for a moment, rubbing her eyes and staring at Chase through her eyelashes. Taking the hint, Chase left the room.
“Good morning, May.” Karen Shealon turned at the sound of her daughter shuffling into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes and yawning. When May didn’t respond, she went back to the stove, returning the pan to its proper place. Chase came up beside her and took the spatula from her loose hand. “It’s a beautiful day today!”
May slunk into a chair. “It’s raining.”
Ms. Shealon frowned at the window, cursing the sun for hiding today.
Baby Stella wandered into the kitchen on pudgy legs. She too looked up at the rain-streaked window and gurgled happily. Then she let out a tiny cough and bit her lip. Ms. Shealon’s brow furrowed and she crossed the room to pick up her baby. Even though Stella was four, her mother was still picking her up and carrying her around. Ms. Shealon had stopped carrying May and Chase when they turned two. “I think she’s sick…”
“Stella’s fine, Mom. Stop acting paranoid.” May rested her head on her hand, her elbow propped up on the table. Chase sat down next to May and knocked her elbow off the table, jerking May awake. This was so typically Chase; eager to please, the perfect one, that May let out a cry and hit Chase on the arm lightly. Chase was about to turn and smack May back, and their mother was going to reprimand them. The sun was about to cast slants of hope across the cracked windowpane, and a car was planning to turn into the Shealon’s neighborhood. But all of a sudden, Stella let out a tiny squeak and threw up her breakfast onto her mother’s shirt. There was a delicate silence, a whisper of quiet held for only a moment, and then the car turned down another road, and a cloud appeared in front of the sun. Then a disoriented mother of three grabbed her coat and her keys and ran out of the house.
“How is she?” May gripped the phone to her ear, turning her knuckles white and her fingers extended until they rubbed against the soft rubber of the phone buttons.
Margot spoke heavily and answered immediately, “Your mother is in a lot of shock. She-”
“No, I meant Stella.”
There was a silence on the other end of the phone. Perhaps May had spoken too abruptly. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about her mother, it was just that she knew that even if Chase or she had Mono, her mother wouldn’t have rushed to the emergency room as quickly as she rushed when Stella threw up on her white dry-cleaned shirt.
“Stella has a disease called Lupus. Lupus attacks your immune system. I’m not sure how you contract it, but Stella…that’s what she had.”
“What…. what are they going to do…. to fix her?”
“Lupus…. May, honey, she just had a cold.”
“This morning Stella passed.” Pause. “Lupus is fatal. There is no known cure.”
May sunk to the floor. She hadn’t even known Stella all that well. Their mother seemed to think that her children’s lives were separate from hers. There was Karen and Stella’s life, and Chase and May’s life. They only overlapped when Karen drove the kids to school and when Stella was away from her mother for an hour at bedtime. There wasn’t even a mutual connection; Stella’s father was Karen’s current boyfriend, while May’s father was long gone.
May closed her eyes and rested her cheek against her knees, which were scabbed and bruised. For the first time in too long, her father’s smiling face darted into view, surrounded by the heavy blackness that lies behind your eyelids. All May’s memories of Roger Shealon had been looking up at a towering man, his loving arms stretching towards her. It wasn’t until she was older, and had been going through a cabinet in the living room that she found a picture of him and realized he was not a big man at all. The picture was taken two years before the divorce. Two years before the last time she had seen him, before he walked out, lugging his two suitcases that carried his life, and left May’s world forever.
May’s mother had fallen into a mood for the next year or so. The occasional phone calls until May was seven had not sustained the family, and bits of May’s universe had crumbled at her feet. She could still remember that Saturday she had returned home as though it were yesterday. Her mother had been sitting at the kitchen table, a tall man stroking her thin hand. When her children entered, the sun shone on Karen’s face as though she was literally radiant with joy. The man stood up, towering over the kids, but Karen remained seated, and ushered the man down again, as though saying her children were not worth it. The man turned out to be the father of their new baby sister, who was born less than four months later. May and Chase became dead weight, a part of the past that had no connection with Karen’s new, better life. Stella was her world now.
Chase came in, interrupting May as she was absorbing. He looked so scared and disoriented May barely recognized him. “May. Mom’s not doing so hot.”
“May, I don’t want to go,” Chase cried.
“What do you think I can do about that? Do you think I want to go?” May muttered, not willing to deal with her brother at the moment.
“Margot’s house smells like old lady. And her cats are creepy.”
“Yeah, well, we’re not even going to Margot’s house. She chose the perfect moment to go on a pleasure trip to Paris. We’re going to New York, dummy. Do you even listen?”
“What? New York?” Margot lived only one state over, in Mississippi, and Chase had stuffed his suitcase full of shorts and the occasional jeans. “We don’t even know anyone from New York.”
“Well, we must,” May breathed testily, “because that’s where we’re going.”
After a silence May decided not to be mean, so she offered up the only information she had on the topic. She tried to remember Chase and she were on the same team. “You know how every Christmas there’s always presents that Mom doesn’t have us write thank you notes to because she says they live too far away? Well, Mom and her sisters aren’t on very good terms.”
“Wow. Aunts we never knew about!”
May said nothing, refusing to build up enthusiasm but not annoyed enough to kick her brother out.
“Well, why do we have to go anywhere?”
Now May was annoyed enough. “I don’t know! Get out. I’m packing.”
Chase gave her a look that was teetering on the edge of the look he used to give when he was little when he didn’t get his way. May and her mother used to call it his puppy dog face. But this was all before Stella was born. Before he left, Chase’s face changed and he asked, “Do you think we’ll ever come back?”
There was an almost imperceptible pause as May threw random objects into her black suitcase. Looking up, she was struck by how mature he looked. “Finish packing.”
After he left, May sat back on her heels and scanned the room, double-checking for anything she might need for the next week or so. She eyes skipped instinctively over things that might jog memories, but occasionally her mind formed the pictures without her consent. There was the screen she had tried so hard not to see for so long. There she was, across the room, the phone pressed against her ear. This was back when her father called now and then. Her hair was cut really short, curling around her ears and parted angularly down the middle. She had cut it herself, following in her best friend’s footsteps. May hadn’t seen Ramona in four years. As seven-year-old May turned, talking into the phone, she could make out a bump on the back of her head.
The picture changes, and May and Ramona were on bikes. May was babbling on about her father, recalling all the memories she had of him. They were both looking forward, but for some reason neither of them could see the tree. May blinked, not wanting to remember. But she was at the head of the stairs, gazing down into the living room. Margot was seated on the couch, her feet planted firmly on the ground, her arms out while Karen paced, her hands pressed over her ears.
“Karen. Karen! You still have two children. You can’t just get rid of them. You have responsibilities.”
“I can’t-can’t deal with-with them. Send-send them somewhere else.”
“Where else could they go, Karen? I’m leaving for Paris in a week and your brother is completely inaccessible.”
“New York. My sisters. In New York.”
There was a silence and May could only hear the tapping of Karen’s feet against the floor. May’s hands grew cold and she padded up the stairs, closing her ears against Margot’s, “Alright.”
The screen faded and May blinked back into reality. Rising, she pulled a book off the bookshelf and flipped to the middle, skimming past unwanted words. Cradling the dictionary in her lap, she ran her finger down through the Ns and onto the Ms. When she came across the word she was looking for, she tapped her finger against the page, blinking back tears, this entry the confirmation. The dictionary read, “A woman in relation to a child or children to which she has given birth.”
Nothing about love. Nothing about care. No matter what Karen did to hurt her children, she would always apply to Webster’s definition of a mother.
The flight attendant glanced at May’s ticket and steered her down the second aisle. May pulled Chase along behind her and shuffled past rows and rows of blue cloth. Everyone on this plane is either bored, asleep, or sick, thought May. Except for us. We’re just scared.
When they got to row twenty-four, May slid into the window seat, pressing her forehead against the glass and breathing slowly, watching the fog rise and fall when she pleased. She heard Chase click his buckle shut, but she left hers undone, as though they would arrive in New York and second, and a buckle would only hold her on the smelly airplane longer.
“Smells like barf,” May whispered.
“Nothing.” She twisted around in her seat so she was taking up the whole reflection in her window, emitting everyone else from the picture. She noticed that there were two plates of plastic in between the plane and the outside world, a little bit of air breaching the gap between the two. How horrible it would be to be caught in there like that, she thought. Caught between freedom and refinement, between fresh air and barf air. She had thought the plane would be the worst, but she realized now that the limbo land would be far worse. Not quite controlled but not quite free. She closed her eyes and leaned all her weight on the plastic.
“Excuse me? I think that’s my seat. Could you…?”
Chase’s voice echoed in the back of her head, “Oh, um, ok. May? May, where are our tickets? May.” Chase shook her shoulder lightly for a moment before May regained mobility. She dug through her beige tote, shoving aside two or three books, a crossword puzzle Chase had stuck in there, a packet of gum, her wallet, and a leaking pen.
“Ummm…” The man was beginning to get impatient, and was shifting from one foot to the other, putting down and picking up his briefcase. Almost everyone was in his or her seats, and the flight attendant’s voice had come on over the loudspeakers, asking for everyone’s attention during the safety procedures. “Can you…I always like to follow along with the safety procedures.”
May made a face into her bag, but she was too tired to mock the quirky man. She couldn’t find anything in this dim light, she decided, and raised the bag onto her knees. The man was really bothered now, and was about to ridicule May when Chase told him rudely to â€˜shut it’. May finally came up with the tickets, unfolded them intentionally slowly, and shoved them in the exasperated man’s face.
The man half-smiled triumphantly. “Yes! Yes, see, this says seats A and B, and this is F and G. You are sitting over there.” He raised his thin arm to point to a pair of empty seats sitting across the plane from them.
“But the flight attendant told us- ”
“Yes, well, this is my seat. B-uh, have a good flight.”
Too exhausted to refuse, May followed Chase across the airplane to their real seats, dragging her feet and her tote, her eyes half-closed.
She sat down perfunctorily, keeping her eyelids closed, and rubbed her nails across her lips over and over, scraping away any evidence of the last things she had said to her mom. Chase touched her arm, then seemed in need of guidance, because he asked her, “When do you think Mom will get better?”
May squeezed her eyes shut. “Shut up,” she whispered. She wasn’t sure if Chase heard or not, but when she opened her eyes again his arm was back in his lap and his earphones were in his ears, his head turned away from her.
May slouched in the worn blue fabric, tucking her feet underneath her. Her knee brushed against something that crinkled, and she lifted a tired hand and plucked it out from between the wall and the chair. It was a boarding pass for Edmund Clive, who was traveling the same way she was a day ago. She adjusted in the seat, and felt the indentation from Edmund’s back in her chair. She could tell he was about six feet tall, and had two children in New York who he was going home to. He had sandy blonde hair, a voice that rang like the bells at her church, was happily married and went to Florida in the summer and England in the winter. He was also a lawyer and a part-time assistant for a private eye who had been the best at his job since 1990. Feeling more depressed after concocting Edmund’s life, May tucked the boarding pass in her bag, stuffing it between two books.
May rested her head against the smelly headrest and took a deep breath. This is a smell I will remember forever, she thought. This is what sadness smells like. This is what losing everything you ever held onto and called your own smells like. This is what patience pushed further and further until it just snaps like a rubber band, leaving you deflated and empty smells like. This is what the absence of hope smells like.
It took May a moment to realize her nose was running, and a moment longer to realize her eyes were, too. She rested her head against the window again and closed her eyes until the whole world was squished to fit her needs, to make it bend to her command. As the plane took off, and the sound of Chase’s iPod faded into the hum of the engine, May Shealon slowly drifted off into sleep.
When May woke up, everything was black. Then the clouds shifted and the city was there, with a million different colored lights, all blinking and flashing and reading things like Pricilla’s Nail Salon, and Cold Beer, in the city that never sleeps. May thought she was looking down at a giant Christmas tree, with all the dainty ornaments and the angel on the top holding a huge torch. The multi-colored glints split the darkness and streaked across the moon, and May held out her hand to try and touch them, to hold onto the little pieces of beauty in a dark world. Next to her, Chase shifted and she withdrew her hand from the glass, bending underneath the seat to find a magazine she could read. She pulled Elle from the plastic bag with the words Have a Great Flight! written on it, but every page was filled with smiling women telling May to try their new product, or get rid of aging with a single application, and May shoved the magazine back into the bag.
It was almost light outside when May and Chase stepped off the plane into the terminal and looked into the throb of sweating bodies for a woman who they had never seen before. Chase wormed through a break in the crowd, not bothering to grab May’s hand, and stood up straight on the conveyer belt, gesturing for May to climb up with him. Unwillingly, May pulled herself up next to her brother, lugging her tote along with her.
“Do you think that’s her?” Chase pointed to a heavily built woman leaning against the cart dispenser. As the pair watched, she closed her eyes and rested her head back, tipping herself off balance and sending her reeling. May stifled a laugh with the hope Chase didn’t see her lighten up.
Still with the hopes of lifting his sister’s spirits, Chase pointed out a little boy running in circles around his carry-on. May giggled and whispered, “Over there,” stretching her arm out across the terminal towards a man with tattoos cascading up and down his arms, his face enveloped in ink.
The game seemed to be working, and Chase doubled over both in laughter and exhaustion when he pointed out a confused looking woman holding car keys and a thick book with dark hair. “How about that confused woman over there? Think she could be picking us up?” He imitated how the woman’s voice might sound, high-pitched and airy, “Chees? Chees and Mee?”
May’s good mood was dying out, and she jumped off the platform, sitting down on her tote and resting her elbows on her knees, propping her head up on her shaking hands. In a fit of exhaustion, Chase keeled over next to May and shook with squeaky, burnt-out giggles while May pretended not to notice him.
“Chase? Chase and May?”
May looked up at the woman with the dark hair and heavy book. “Aunt Aidan?” she asked, confused with her brother’s uncanny choice of travelers.
“Nicole. Aidan had a late shift at the clinic. You better hurry up now or we’ll hit the traffic.” When Nicole spoke, she seemed to be exerting as little energy as possible. She used no hand or body movements that were not absolutely necessary, and even her lips seemed to barely vibrate as words passed through them. Without any â€˜follow me’ gesture, she turned and started squeezing through the throb again, May and Chase following her on invisible leashes.
Her car was a small, sophisticated black Lexus with black leather seats and scorching door handles. The sun slanted in through the windows in thick rays, draping the car in a hot, sticky curtain. The only doo-dads lying around in the car was a stack of CDs in the glove compartment and a box of Kleenex in the passenger door handle.
“You like Bruce Springsteen?” Chase gestured toward the top CD.
Nicole shook her head. “That’s my friend’s.” She shifted the stack into the light so Chase could make out a hot pink post-it with the words â€˜RETURN TO CAROLINE’ on it. May and Chase exchanged a look. May was wondering why her youngest aunt had a sleek black car to drive around in when most of the population living in New York didn’t even own a car, rather used subways and taxis as their form of transportation. Chase was wondering what kind of lunatic would drive an impeccable black Lexus and not own a Bruce Springsteen CD.
New York wasn’t as exciting as Chase thought it would be. He had seen pictures from when his friend had gone for his birthday, and he owned a tiny snow globe of the city, with miniature buildings that brushed the sky and a great big reindeer gliding over the city. He hadn’t thought to bring the snow globe with him on his trip, but ended up throwing it in his suitcase anyway. Packing had been the hardest. Looking around his room, he kept seeing things he knew he would need in New York, and packing suitcase after suitcase.
Once, May had dropped in and asked him what he thought he was doing. “I’m packing for New York,” he had answered innocently.
“Well you didn’t have to pack everything but the kitchen sink. Temporary trip,” she had declared snottily, rolling her eyes and bracing herself against his doorframe.
Now Chase wondered why he had had the incessant need to bring everything in sight. Just like May had said, this trip was temporary, and he could have just brought some clothes and a book and he would have been fine.
While Chase sat slowly popping the bubbles he wasn’t supposed to be blowing with the gum he wasn’t supposed to be chewing, May’s eyes grew larger and larger, absorbing New York all at once. Unlike her brother, May had never seen pictures of the city, because she figured she didn’t need to. She was never going to go there, so why bother? And if she did go there, why would she need to see pictures? But now her nose was glued to the glass, and she thought about how different this glass was compared to the glass in the airplane. If the airplane’s glass was broken, oxygen would leak out, and it would be harder to breathe. If she pressed down on her little pinky, this glass would slide open, propelling oxygen into the car and sucking the sour smell of lemon spritzer out.
She pressed down her finger.
The second the window moved, Nicole jerked from behind the wheel and muttered frantically, “Oh no. We don’t want that down.” A moment later, the breeze was gone.
May turned back to the window and watched as things passed, slowly processing. There goes a movie theater. There goes a bridge. There goes a bar. Night sped up until May had to turn from the window to avoid the sun’s glare.
Finally, the black car shook and turned into a tiny alleyway brimmed with dumpsters. A boy sat on top of one of them, playing with what looked like a set of car keys and bumping his legs up against the trash bin.
Nicole slid out of the driver’s seat and motioned to the boy. He jumped up and ran to her, skidding to a stop right in front of her and, taking the keys from her, he brushed off his backside and hopped into the driver’s seat, pulling the car back out the way it came. In response to the kid’s confused stares, Nicole said nothing.
Nicole’s apartment was at the top of the building; the one right below the penthouse apartment, and there was something going on upstairs that was causing such a racket that the first thing May heard when she walked in was one of her aunts screaming at her neighbors to shut it. The next thing she heard was one of her father’s favorite bands; the B-52s, telling her to “Roam If You Want To.” The woman who had shouted at her neighbor had short blonde hair cut jagged, hanging over her eyes and raised high in the back. It was the same haircut May’s friend Abby had begged her mother to get last spring. May never would have thought it could look even remotely okay on anyone who was not her best friend, but it highlighted her aunt’s sky-blue eyes and May thought it didn’t look half bad. She was holding a small butter knife and had a nametag in the shape of a smiley face on her white coat with the words “Hi! My name is Aidan,” on it.
Aidan smiled a tight smile at her guest and nodded to her sister before going back to buttering her toast. There was a small woman at the oven, her brown hair up in a messy bun, her face white with flour. As May waved tentatively, she smiled widely, making May want to smile back, and brushed her hair away from her face, smearing flour and chocolate across her cheek.
“Hi!” The aunt caked in flour grinned a grin that was too wide for her face and enveloped May and Chase in a bone-crushing hug as though she had seen them before. Chase made an effort to pat her back while May stood awkwardly, refusing to display any affection towards a woman she had never seen before. “OhmygoditissogoodtoseeyouKarenhastoldmesomuchaboutyou!” She pulled back, holding May’s face in her hand and stroking her cheek with her thumb. “I’m your aunt Charlotte, but you can call me Lottie. Welcome to New York!” She turned around and pulled out the sheet from the oven, laying it on the counter and taking off her oven mitts. “I made you some cookies. Chocolate chip, sugar, peanut butter, cinnamon, oatmeal raisin, oatmeal, butterscotch.” She sighed deeply, a little sad that the kids weren’t more excited. “You can have whatever you like.” She smiled weakly at May and pinched Chase’s cheek.
Nicole muttered something to Aidan underneath her breath, grabbed her coat and walked out. May looked quizzically at Aidan. “She’s a summer student at NYU. Gonna be an artist someday. Just wait and see. Hopefully she can graduate within the month with all the extra credits she’s cramming into her already full schedule. That girl is like a wind-up clock that never stops.” She shook her head.
May licked her lips. “Who was that boy out there who drove Nicole’s car away?”
“Oh that’s Ben. His mom’s a friend of Nicki’s and he’s her valet for extra pocket money. Sometimes she brings him strawberry pop, and he’ll wash her car. Nicki’s gonna be sad when he graduates high school and goes down to California to become a doctor. He was inspired when he met me.” Aidan smiled like she was about to cry and May pin-pointed her as someone who gave herself perhaps more credit than she deserved.
Lottie had gone back to her cookies; neither of the children had wanted one, even after her hard work. “I’m tired,” she said, and walked ten feet to her bedroom, tapping the door closed.
Aidan looked at May and Chase. “You guys want a tour?”
May looked around at the apartment and got her tour. The home looked like it was meant for one, but it would be crammed with five people for the next couple days, at least. The sisters shared two bedrooms, but they condensed into one since they had guests, and Nicole hardly ever slept at home. The kitchen was the first thing you saw when you entered, and adjacent to the front door was a door leading into a tiny living room with enough room for two people, a TV, and a couch. May felt a wave of homesickness wash over her, but she stuck it out and waited until it passed. If she started getting homesick now, it would only get worse.
“No thanks. I’m just really tired.” May picked up her bag and dragged it into the room across from the one Lottie had gone into.
Aidan nodded as though she too was exhausted. “Ok, well, if you need anything, I’m right here.”
May didn’t answer, and her brother walked into their bedroom before she closed the door tightly against the world.
That night, May squeezed her eyes shut and tried really, really hard not to hear the noises coming from outside. After a while, colors danced before her eyes, making her head feel light and airy, and spots obscured her vision. At her house in Alabama, the only thing you could hear at night was the air conditioning running and running, making tick-ticking noises every couple minutes as a way of keeping itself on its endless, repeating cycle. A siren wailed out May’s window, causing her to jump. Lying back down, a car honked and a light flashed out letters over and over. But the sign’s endless track wasn’t like the air-conditioning cycle. The air-conditioning was familiar, spewing out cold air every time May’s sheets grew too sticky. It would shudder slightly, as though it was making itself cold, but it would keep going anyway, just for May. These lights couldn’t care less about May. They just kept flashing and flashing, alerting tired travelers that they could come inside and stay if they wanted to. But no one wanted to, and even if they did, the lights wouldn’t stop flashing.
May tried rolling over, putting her pillow over her head, but that made it hard to breathe, and the pillow smelled like dust bunnies, clogging up her airways and making her jerk up in bed. She hardly even noticed when her eyes started to water. She knew she would never fall asleep like this, so she sat up straight in bed.
She wasn’t sure exactly what she was doing as she pulled on jeans and sweatshirt. Maybe she was overtired. Perhaps she was asleep. But the sound of the door creaking as she pushed it open sounded very real to her. In retrospect, she couldn’t even remember what she was thinking as she descended all those stairways.
As the hot night air hit her, all she knew was that she had to get out. Ironically, all the sounds that had driven her nuts inside that tiny apartment sounded nice and carefree once her head was clear. May squinted her eyes, trying to trace the breeze’s route across the land, beginning as a mere sea breeze and stretching and pulling itself along until it reached her. May opened her arms and took a deep breath. What she was really smelling was urine and spray paint still fresh on the sidewalk, but what May smelled was the sweet scent of freedom. Perhaps if it had been light outside, or if she had slept longer on the plane, or if her head was a little clearer, May would have realized how stupid and ridiculous she was being, but as the circumstances were, she only smiled as shrouded beings brushed past her on their way to three o’ clock work.
May skipped up 68th street, rounding the corner by swinging around the taxi sign pole. Then she ran down 69th, and leaped down 70th. After ten minutes, May was both on a freedom high, and hopelessly lost. Turning down a random corner, May ran right into a wall. Blinking, she realized there was a door. The sun was beginning to come up, so she pushed hard against the hinges, listening to it give way under her steady pressure.
There was a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, giving off a pitiful glow, a faint aura of security, and May ascended the stairs that were offered, each step cold and echoing against the hollow walls. At the top of the stairs was another door, and May gave it a shove.
When the air hit her, it took a moment for May to realize she was outside again. Two tentative steps were taken, and May looked down, then up quickly. She hadn’t realized she had climbed that high. Below her was New York. At eye level, she could see almost halfway up the Empire State Building. Giddy with fear, May giggled. There she sat down, crossing her legs and leaning back on her elbows.
Her hand brushed against something alive. How strange, she thought, for dandelions to be growing atop a tall building like this. Sometimes things are put in the most unlikely situations, but they adapt. They change to fit their environment. Perhaps she could flower like the dandelions on top of the building.
May picked one of the flowers, pinching it between two fingers. She held it at eye level and blew with all her might. Every single petal came off, floating into the distance. May sat and thought how each looked like they had their very own parachute, a steady hand to guide them through their short life until they fell on the dirty streets and got trampled. This thought made May want to cry, then made her want to laugh in the same second.
She wondered what her aunts were doing right now. Where they looking for her? They had probably called the police and were crying their eyes out, calling her mother and explaining she had to come get her.
Finally, May decided it was time to go. More awake, she hurried home along the dark streets, wishing she had never left Alabama. Slipping into the apartment, she listened attentively. Chase was still snoring, and there was no movement behind her aunt’s door. No one had even known she was gone. At this thought, May didn’t know what to do with herself. She slumped down in the little space between the cabinet and the sink and cried herself to sleep.
The next morning, no one asked why May had fallen asleep beside the sink. Aidan had found her slumped there, and had shaken her awake quietly. She had asked if May was ok, and then there had been no more words exchanged on the topic.
Lottie sat at the kitchen table with coffee in one hand and the newspaper in the other. “Oh!” she cried.
Aidan looked up, startled. May kept stirring her coffee.
Lottie tore her eyes away from the paper. “You know that lady who lived on 68th? She was murdered last night around three. Such a shame. I never knew her, but I have friends who did. Poor woman. Such a scary thought, hmm?”
May froze. Three o’ clock. 68th street. May never went out at night again.
When May finally got up the courage to take the phone off the hook and dial, she hung up after the first ring. Come on, she told herself. She had to get this over with. Taking a deep breath, May reached for the cordless again.
“Mom?” May held her breath, as though anyone else could have picked up her mother’s cell phone, and the voice she had dreamt about for two nights now wasn’t really what she was hearing now.
“May?” There was a silence on the other end, causing May to choke up and sniffle into the phone. “What’s wrong?”
In disbelief, May hung up the phone. Turning around, she didn’t see Chase lingering at the edge of the kitchen. He didn’t say anything, just crossed the room and hugged her tightly. Usually, May would have pulled away, resisting any affection she had not chosen to give in the first place, but she felt so lost, so hopeless, that her arms went limp for a moment and she let her baby brother hold her.
Chase pulled away as Lottie walked into the kitchen, pinching a purse tight between her elbow and her side, staring across the room to the mirror perched on the wall as she did her hair. As she worked on the mess of stringy waves, the tacky glue in the wall gave way under the pressure of the mirror and fell, clattering to the floor. May and Chase both turned, but Lottie acted as though nothing had happened. “I got these a long time ago from a friend of a friend of her sister’s friend who couldn’t go because her brother’s friend flaked out on her.” She held up two tickets. “You like musicals?”
May squinted at the print on the tickets. “Phantom of the Opera? Didn’t that just come out?”
“Okay so I got them yesterday. You wanna go?” She turned to a glum looking Chase. “Aidan says she has something special planned for you too, if you don’t have plans.” She smiled.
Chase shifted uncomfortably. “I guess so.”
“What time is the play?”
Lottie smiled. “Now.”
The lines were long and the crowd was pushy, but May and Lottie managed to squeeze through the bands of greasy pedestrians to their seats.
Lottie sighed, setting down her purse under her seat. “Don’t you just love New York?” she said sarcastically.
“No,” May answered without humor. Lottie turned and looked at her, but May kept her eyes on the stage.
“Oh, May, sweetie, I know you miss your mom, but try to see the good things in New York. I know it’s hard. Hey, do you like to shop?’” Lottie reached out for May’s hand and May didn’t pull away.
May said nothing. She did like to shop, but not with Lottie.
“You know, when I was your age, there was a little girl in my class who I didn’t know very well, but I still knew her, you know?” The curtain was opening, but Lottie didn’t stop talking. “Well, one day I was on the swings at recess and I fell off and broke my arm on the bench nearby. I was really upset and a real brat about it, blaming everyone, even my friends, for my injury. Well, the girl, I think her name was Linda, got in an accident a week after I broke my arm, and she was sent to the hospital. Now, I didn’t really know her, so I didn’t actually visit her, just sent her get well cards and things.” Sarah Brightman was dancing around the stage, singing the opening lines of the play, but Lottie’s voice rang above hers, striking a note in May she didn’t know was there. “But I remember it like it was yesterday, that day when I walked into my classroom and there was a new girl sitting in Linda’s desk. The girl had one leg, one arm, and she had a neck brace.”
May cringed and wondered where this story was going.
“It took me a while before I realized that this was actually Linda herself, but I just didn’t recognize her. After that, I never complained about my arm again, because it would heal, and it would go away in time, as though it was never there. See?” She wiggled her left arm up and down. “But Linda was never going to get her leg back, or her arm. So there is always someone out there who has it worse than you, even if you think you could not get more miserable.” Lottie tapped my arm. “I know it seems impossible right now, and I’m sorry. But your mother is going to get over this, and you are going to leave New York. In a couple years, it is going to be like this never happened. You won’t forget; you will never forget. But you will move on.”
When May and Lottie returned to the apartment, May asked Lottie if she could go for a little walk.
“Um, sure.” Lottie looked worried, though, so May promised to keep her cell phone on.
Heading down 67th, May struggled to remember her exact route from a couple days ago. She knew she had somehow made it to 70th, so she followed her instincts and traced her blurred memory down to the old building. She was about to push open the weathered door, but her foot slipped slightly on something and she bent down to pick it up.
It was a ripped ticket, brown and yellowed with age, the edges droopy with the years it had withstood. May thought of the boarding pass she had found in the plane and wondered where Edmund Clive was now. Was this his ticket? Had he himself held this ticket years ago, hoping to find something inside him before he walked in to go see a matinee to lift his spirits? May looked up past the grayed lettering she had missed before, telling May that where she had ventured to the other night was an old abandoned theater, and stared up at the sky.
The roof looked exactly the same in the morning as it did at night. The ground was littered with dandelions, and May thought she saw her wish floating around in the sky over to the west. Stepping carefully, May picked her way over to the edge of the roof and sat down, swinging her legs below her and trying not to faint. Glancing down the alley, her eye caught on a group of boys bouncing a ball back and forth, a little younger than she. One of them missed the ball and it rolled out into the road, where a taxi driver ran right over it, cursing at the children and deflating the ball. May thought about what Lottie had said about her friend Linda, how there was always someone out there who was worse off than her. These boys had to live in New York, whereas she only had to stay for a couple days. But the way the little boy who had missed the ball laughed and waved at the taxi driver, May could tell he didn’t hate New York like she did. First impressions were important, she realized, and she hadn’t even allowed New York to give her that much. Down in the alley, the youngest boy started to cry as his friend darted out into traffic to retrieve the dead ball. Twisting around, May spotted a dirty yellow ball with faded letters sitting not ten feet from her. She hopped up and snatched it up.
She was about to call out to the boys that she had a ball, that she could give it to them if they asked nicely, but instead she lay down on her belly and held her arms out over the edge, letting the ball drop out of her grasp.
May heard the ball smack the pavement and an exclamation of surprise. Then a little voice called out, “Thank you, May!”
Startled, May sat up and gaped down at the boys, who were back to their game, happily playing with the ball May had dropped without a moment of thought.
It was only as May was walking back to the apartment that she realized the youngest boy hadn’t known her name after all. He was thanking Mary, the mother of Jesus. May almost laughed out loud as the thought came to her that the boy had believed Mary had seen their loss and sent them a new ball.
Smiling, she took out her vibrating phone and answered it without looking at the caller ID.
“May? Where are you?” Lottie’s voice rang out through the phone.
“Don’t worry, I’m coming home.”
“Okay. See you soon.”
May stayed with the phone in her hand long after Lottie had hung up, realizing she had just told her aunt she was coming home.
“May!” Aunt Aidan greeted May at the door, her hands covered in chocolate icing and flour. “Come join the party!”
May looked around the apartment and found only Lottie, Aidan, and a confused looking Chase. “Um. Okay.”
“We,” Lottie said, “are baking a cake for Ms. Nicole, who happens to be graduating Tuesday!” She jumped up and down and clapped her hands together, reminding May of an overexcited two-year-old.
May tried to look excited, smiling and nodding at her aunt, who just looked so thrilled to be doing this in a smelly apartment in New York that May laughed out loud. Across the room, Aidan turned up the radio and started nodding her head to the Supremes, singing like her life depended on it. May glanced at Chase who smiled sheepishly and shrugged, blaming his crazy aunts on May.
Letting go, May dipped her hands in the flour on the counter and patted Lottie on the shoulder, who turned, surprised, and dusted May right back. May giggled and took extra sugar from the cabinet, dumping over two cups more than was required into the mixture of brown goop on the counter. Lottie’s eyes grew huge and she burst out laughing, saying they were going to kill themselves if they ate that.
“Stop!” Aidan cried, soulfully shaking her hips. “In the name of love!” Lottie cracked up at the sight of her reserved sister getting lost in a song. Aidan dipped a spoon into the mixture and pulled it out, bringing the utensil to her lips.
“No!” laughed May, but she made no move to stop her oldest aunt.
“Mmm,” hummed Aidan, delighted with the sugary soup. “This is the worst cake I’ve ever had!”
Lottie pulled it off the counter and tossed it into the oven, slamming the door shut and baking it. She sang as she worked, “But this time, before you leave my arms. Hmm, hmm, um, la, la. Something.”
The other three laughed at her lyric loss. “And run off to her charms,” May helped.
Aidan jumped in. “Think it o-over.”
None of them knew any more except for Chase, because he had often heard Karen singing it when he was little. While May was away at daycare, he would stay home and listen to his mother sing along with the radio. But he was a boy and he pretended to be at a loss.
When the cake was ready, they realized they had enough for two, so they stuck the rest of the batter in the oven. In the end, one made Lottie gag, and one was pronnounced edible. May wrapped the good one in foil and set it aside where Nicole wouldn’t see it.
Something made May think of Linda again, how her whole world had changed in a couple hours. It was true, what Lottie had said. There was definitely many people who were more miserable and worse off than May, but looking around at her family, May doubted there was anyone in the whole world who was happier than she.
The Supremes were still on a roll now with “You Can’t Hurry Love”, when the phone rang. May hopped over to the phone, dodging Aidan’s flailing arms as Lottie tickled her stomach. “Hello?”
Noise in the kitchen froze. May’s whole world hung on the phone, and she resisted the urge to hang it back up, to shut off her mother’s voice from her new life. “This is she,” she said stiffly.
“Hello. I am required to come get you now. Your trip with your aunts is over. I will come first thing Wednesday morning. How is Chase?”
“I will see you then.” The click sounded much louder and more final than it needed to. Noise resumed in the kitchen. Aidan’s laughter grew and grew until she was red in the face, and Chase’s spasms of giggles brought him around the kitchen, and he asked May what was wrong.
“That was our mother. She’s coming on Tuesday morning.”
Two days. That was all she had. It was so strange how in just four days your whole world could change, even how you see it. Just a moment before she had thought nothing could go wrong; that she had reached a spot in her life where nothing bad would ever occur. There she realized Lottie had been right about the fact that May was not the worst off, but very, very wrong when she said May would move on. This moment, this past hour, had been the best hour of May’s life, and moving on would take a very long time.
But time was funny. May remembered a quote she had heard once in class; it takes a minute to meet someone, an hour to know them, a day to love them, and a lifetime to forget them.
The day before May and Chase’s mother was coming up, Lottie took the kids out into Central Park to walk around. The sun slanted down through the trees lightly, and every couple minutes a cloud would pass in front of the sun and the path would be shrouded in darkness. Lottie paid for a ride in an old fashioned horse-drawn carriage, and they all clambered in.
“Nice day, huh?” Good-natured as always, Lottie tried to lift the kid’s spirits. “May, did I ever take you to Rockefeller Center?”
May made an effort to not sound too bummed out. “No, not this trip. Maybe we can go next time I come up.”
Lottie smiled and patted Chase’s hair back into place where it was sticking up in the back. “And Chase, maybe next time we can go see a Broadway production just like your sister. What movies do you like?”
“I dunno. Indiana Jones, I guess.”
Lottie laughed lightly. “Well, I don’t think Indiana Jones will be playing any time soon, but we can find something. How about I send both of you guys a list of weekends we are available for visitors and plays showing then?”
Chase nodded okay, but May stayed silent.
“I know Nicole is going to be sad about not having you guys at her graduation. It’ll just break her heart.”
“That’s okay, I barely knew her. I only saw her when she picked us up from the airport.” May had spoken too abruptly, and hurt shone through Lottie’s eyes. May wondered what it would be like to be so close with your sibling that whatever hurt them hurt you two times worse. “I mean, I still wanted to go, and if she’s anything like you, I know she’s just wonderful.”
Lottie smiled weakly and patted her shoulder. “You’re a sweetie.”
The horse clip-clopped down the road, stumbling a couple times in pot holes. Maybe, thought May, life is just a series of potholes, and the best you can do is try to avoid them.
Tuesday morning, May woke up early, and hid between the sink and the counter again. This time, Lottie woke up early too and sat with her, talking about random things May would never have thought of. Around seven Lottie started talking to herself and May dozed off again.
When May woke up for the second time, Lottie was there in the kitchen.
“Hey there sleepyhead. Was I too boring?”
May just stared.
“Hmm. Too early for words, huh? Can I send you down the street to get some groceries? I thought we might bake a cake for your mom. She might not like the one we made for Nicole.” She smiled at their inside joke
May shrugged and nodded. She took the twenty dollar bill offered and walked out of the apartment without getting dressed.
Instead of going down the usual road to the grocery store, May turned on 70th and walked the familiar path to the old abandoned theater. Lying down in the same position she had nearly a week ago, May closed her eyes and smelled the clean air around her.
She figured she should probably head back, but she knew that when she did, her mother would be there, invading the space May had worked so hard to keep her out of. May had almost adjusted, but there was her mother again, and May knew if she went back there, all the unspoken words she had kept inside would come gushing out. Things like the fact that yes, Karen had lost a child, but had she forgotten she had two more? May closed her eyes and didn’t open them for a long time.
After a while, May felt a presence around her, and she knew someone else was on the roof, but she didn’t open her eyes. She felt a warm body press up against her and cradle her head. As Lottie stroked her hair, May’s started to cry, her throat clogging with all the sobs that had never been released. May didn’t wonder for one moment how Lottie knew where to find her. Lottie knew things that were still a mystery to May, and she didn’t fight it. Lottie whispered words to May that new mothers would whisper to their babies when they couldn’t fall asleep; all the words May had never heard. All the words Stella had heard from day one.
When May was all drained out, she stuttered and let out one final sob, then slowly opened her eyes, knowing Lottie would be there when she did.
Maybe May couldn’t do anything about having one mother who didn’t love her as much as she wished, but here she had three mothers who loved her more than she could ever imagine. Lying there, May couldn’t help but think how Nicole, Aidan, and Lottie were the kind of mothers not in the dictionary. That maybe she had found something the dictionary couldn’t comprehend. Sniffling, May held on tight to her mother.
This will certify that the above work is completely original. Kelley Buck