Short Story by Debut Novelist Natalie Haney Tilghman

52 hertzWe were so psyched to get this beautiful short story by debut novelist and award-winning writer Natalie Haney Tilghman.  She co-wrote the novel “A 52-Hertz Whale” with Bill Sommer, and it’s getting some amazing reviews!  What a way to open YARN’s 6th season!  Happy reading.

 

Diseases Starting with “A”

By Natalie Haney Tilghman

 

You’ve felt tired for most of ninth grade. Actually, more than tired—exhausted. One minute you’re taking notes in World History, and the next, your eyelids snap closed. Afterwards, the only evidence of your nap is your notebook page. The handwriting starts out strong, detailing with incredible clarity the minutes after the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, but then your cursive changes into hieroglyphics, until, finally, it flatlines.

The accompanying headache is new. It starts right after a conversation with Mom where she asks who you would want as a guardian if she dies. This is not exactly a question you want to answer because if Mom dies, you’ll be an orphan like Annie, except that there’ll be no Daddy Warbucks to buy you the skinny jeans you want at the Gap or take you to the roller coasters at Six Flags. Instead, you and your little sister Anna Maria will have to move in with Aunt Clara, Uncle Marco, and their seven cats in Hicksville, Kentucky. Or Dad’s fraternity brother, Steven. He smokes pot and still thinks that your father, who died nine months ago, got reincarnated as his pet parrot only to spend the day repeating lines from Beatles songs. If you pick Steven, you won’t have to go to another high school, you’ll just have to endure his two boys who torture animals and play with fire. If you choose your aunt and uncle, you’ll ride on the back of your uncle’s ATV to school instead of the bus. But you’ll never see Sam Pick—the boy genius in your Bio class who you wish would choose you for Seven Minutes in Heaven—again.

The more you think about living in either house, the more it feels like someone is tap dancing on your brain. So you tell Mom if she dies, you might consider joining her. Be serious, Mom says, giving her “you’re such a teenager” look, the one where she glares at you over the top of her eyeglasses. So you decide on your aunt and uncle because they once took you to a Fall Out Boy concert without telling Mom. If Mom dies, you’ll be pissed at her. And you figure attending more Fall Out Boy concerts while she watches from heaven will be a little bit of revenge.

The more you think about living in either house, the more it feels like someone is tap dancing on your brain. You end up staying home sick from school the next day with the same headache. It occurs to you that you might have a brain tumor from sleeping too close to the alarm clock. In the cancer support group that Mom made you attend months ago, another kid said that his baby brother got cancer that way. Before Dad died, you didn’t really think about all of the bad stuff happening in the world. You saw that people died on the news, sure. But the ways that people could die on the news were limited: car accident, murder, fire. Now, you know that anyone can drop dead at any second from almost anything—like your gym teacher who had a brain aneurysm in the frozen foods department of the grocery store. Or the girl two grades above you who caught some virus on vacation in Mexico and died in two weeks.

Image © Derek Σωκράτης Finch (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sagesolar/17050225387/)

Image © Derek Σωκράτης Finch (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sagesolar/17050225387/)

Once Mom’s station wagon pulls out of the driveway, you go downstairs to the family computer and Google “fatigue and headache symptoms.” One website lists 629 potential things that could be wrong with you: acanthamoeba infection, abdominal cancer, accelerated hypertension, acute leukemia of ambiguous lineage. And that’s just the diseases starting with “A.” You are convinced that what you have is not the flu, but abdominal cancer because that’s where it all started with Dad. The symptoms for abdominal cancer, the website says, are vague: fatigue, stomach pain, nausea. But you memorize them anyway.

As you walk into the kitchen for breakfast, your headache starts to move into your stomach. You put a hand on your belly and feel a pulsing there. A tumor, for sure. You read somewhere, maybe in the pile of library books Mom checked out when Dad got diagnosed, that tumors hijack blood in the body. The drumming in your stomach feels like a tumor’s heartbeat.

To keep from imagining how you’ll look in a wig, you decide to work on your English paper in Dad’s old office. Almost everyone in your class is interviewing their fathers for the essay on career interests, which is less awkward than asking a total stranger about his job. Only the kids from screwed up families, who live in the Blair Creek apartments near the highway, plan to write about their mothers’ careers. If Mom was a surgeon or a lawyer, it might not be so bad. But for the last fifteen years, she was a stay-at-home mom, and now, she is a crossing guard at the upper elementary school. When you saw how excited she was about the oversized neon vest, whistle, and hand held stop sign, you didn’t have the heart to tell her that the two years she spent in culinary school qualified her for a position that could be filled by a fifth grader from the safety patrol.

Interviewing Mom would be committing social suicide.

As you stare at the blinking cursor, you realize the problem is that you never really asked Dad about his job because it sounded boring. He travelled downtown in a sports coat and sold massive amounts of your fundraising chocolate for your dance team to his colleagues in the humanities department where he was a history professor. Dad used to joke that his work involved teaching heavily caffeinated undergraduates about a bunch of dead guys. You page through heavy texts on European history, hoping to discover more, but you could care less about the major figures of the Reformation. Really, all you want to know is what picture Dad chose for his screensaver at work, who he ate lunch with, if he preferred to use red or blue pens for grading.

You decide to call Barbie, the department secretary. When she answers, you ask for Dad out of habit. Barbie doesn’t seem to recognize your voice anymore. She pauses and clears her throat. “Professor Lucca is no longer with us. I’ll connect you to Phil Brickman, the Department Chair.”

While the elevator music is playing, you try to think of how to say you are the dead employee’s child.

“This is Phil.”

You swallow and prepare your best imitation of a grown-up voice. “I’m trying to reach Peter Lucca.”

“Sadly, we lost Professor Lucca several months ago. How can I help you?”

“I’m just trying to figure out what to do now that Professor Lucca’s gone. I needed to ask him some questions. For my research.”

“Well, if this is about a senior thesis, my office hours are Thursday.” Phil Brickman sounds like he is in a hurry. Papers rustle. “Just stop by and I’ll try to pick up where he left off.”

“Actually, I was just wondering, what happened to the classes he used to teach?”

“History of Early Modern Europe is being offered this semester. I’m the temporary replacement while we conduct a search.”

“Do you still give extra credit to students who know the origin of the term ‘Dark Ages?’”

“I’m using Professor Lucca’s syllabus if that’s what you’re asking, yes.”

“What happened to his candy dish and the miniature globe?”

“Who is this?” Phil Brickman demands.

The Great Ball of Sadness sits in your throat. The only way to make The Great Ball go away is to cry—long and hard—the desperate kind of cry that a lone goose makes in sky when the rest of its flock has disappeared into the clouds.

Brickman mumbles, “This must be some kind of sick joke.”

“I wish,” you manage to say before a honking sob escapes.

But Phil Brickman is already gone.

 


 

Later, you text your best friend Becky Stewart: “I think I’m dying.”

While you wait for Becky to respond to your text in sixth period study hall, you lie on the couch with Lovey—the baby blanket that you rescued from the memory box in your closet. You rub Lovey’s fraying satin edges against the side of your face and watch “Full House.”. Everything about the sitcom seemed funny when you were little, even the fake audience laughter. Now, you realize that it is really sad how the dad is widowed and his daughters don’t have a mother to ask about periods, boys, and bra sizes. Instead, they have two wacko uncles. The situation on “Full House” is so sad that the television screen starts to blur.

Becky texts you back finally. “LOL,” she says.

You pull Lovey over your face until all you can see is the blanket’s pattern of discolored baby birds sitting in otherwise empty nests.

 


 

The next day, the headache is still going strong. You are tired even thinking about the day, and it feels like someone is stapling your stomach to your spine. This can only mean that the tumor is growing, pressing up against your back and squeezing out all of the other organs. You just hope it hasn’t metastasized. Mom makes an appointment for you with Dr. Turner, your pediatrician and neighbor, for later in the day.

While you wait for Mom to get home from work, you sit in the living room with the lights out, listening to that really old Meatloaf song, “Anything for Love,” and thinking about your funeral. Becky will cry remembering your haunting last text. Standing at your coffin, Anna Maria will confess that she wore your favorite sweater without asking then spilled orange soda all over the front. Even Sam Pick will be there. He’ll drop a paper football into you coffin, expressing his “secret and undying love” for you. It is hardest for you to picture Mom, standing alone in the corner holding her head in her hands as if to make sure it is still there.

 


 

On the way to Dr. Turner’s office, Mom pulls into the McDonald’s Drive-Thru. She can’t come with you to the appointment because she has a Young Widows Support Group meeting. As the line of cars creeps slowly forward, you feel Mom watching you.

“One Big Mac and one Caesar salad.” Mom yells out the window like the cashier is deaf or foreign or both. “And two Diet Cokes.” Her voice lowers about ten decibels when she talks to you. “How are you doing?”

If you tell her the truth—that you could be a professional mourner ripping your clothes and wailing at a million funerals each day, and still have tears to spare—then Mom will send you back to Dr. Landon, the psychologist you went to after Dad died. At first, you trusted Dr. Landon because he told you his father died when he was your age, too. But then you looked at his notes when he went to the bathroom and saw he said that you were doing “okay.” You decided after that not to talk to him, even if it meant sitting in silence for the whole half hour. Anyone who ever really lost a parent would never use that word. There is nothing “okay” about sitting in a dead parent’s closet for hours at a time, just to breathe in his smell. Or writing letter after letter to the dead parent and having no mailing address. To everyone else in the world, this day is just as boring as any other. For you, this day marks nine months, one week, two days, and sixteen hours since you last saw Dad.

You sigh so hard that your bangs lift off your forehead. “Besides losing my hearing, I’m fine.”

“Very funny.” Mom unsnaps her neon crossing guard vest. She’s wearing a hideous sweater that features an appliqué Tooth Fairy with happy eyes and an outstretched wand. Her earrings are miniature molars.

“Please tell me that kids in the third and fourth grades don’t still believe in the Tooth Fairy.”

“Most don’t.” Mom’s eyebrows almost shake hands. She desperately needs a wax. “But some do, and for them, I wear this stuff.”

“The whole thing’s a big fat lie.”

Mom places the back of her hand on your forehead like she’s checking your temperature. Her skin smells of the soap in her bathroom that is shaped in little roses. She pulls you closer until you’re almost in the middle seat. With your head on her chest, she combs her fingers through your hair. Her heart plays the same lovely note again and again. For several glorious minutes, your stomach stops hurting.

But you are not fooled. This is cancer’s cruel joke. There was one week during his illness that you thought Dad was rallying—his energy was up and he attended your tap recital.

Ten days later, he was dead.

 


 

Dr. Turner’s

"waiting for the doctor" © Robert Couse-Baker (https://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/16979480800/)

“waiting for the doctor” © Robert Couse-Baker (https://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/16979480800/)

waiting room resembles a toy store—wooden blocks, children’s books, and a fish tank. All of the other patients are under ten and you wonder why you still see a pediatrician when you are fifteen years old. The mothers of the young children in the room eye you suspiciously, probably wondering the same exact thing. To ignore them, you do the “Hidden Pictures” in Highlights magazine.

In one picture, a family sits at the dinner table. The mother serves turkey on a clock, a nail hides in the checked pattern on the father’s tie, and the girl’s heart sticks to her shoe. A feeling of satisfaction unspools inside of you as you consult the answer key where all of the hidden objects you found are highlighted in red.

A nurse calls your name. She leads you down the hall and leaves you alone in Dr. Turner’s office. You follow her instructions and take off your clothes—that’s when you realize that you are wearing Minnie Mouse underwear with a hole in the butt. So you put on the little paper gown and hope that Dr. Turner won’t notice that you’re wearing underwear from seventh grade.

Dr. Turner’s office is stocked with pamphlets about different diseases. You read the bullet points about asthma, diabetes, Lyme disease, and allergies, putting all of the pamphlets back in the display, except for the Lyme disease one because a major symptom is fatigue. If your class notes are any indication, you are very fatigued. In third grade, your Girl Scout leader got bitten by a deer tick at Camp Tockwogh, caught Lyme disease, and was paralyzed on the right side of her body. You practice walking around the examination room dragging your right leg behind you like a heavy log, just in case that’s the diagnosis.

As you limp past the door, Dr. Turner enters the room. Instead of commenting on your weird behavior, Dr. Turner offers you his hand. His eyes soften—this is how adults look at you now like you are a homeless dog, shivering on the sidewalk. Dr. Turner has on a bow tie dotted with ship anchors and the boat shoes that he always wears, even to cut the lawn. The Turners live across the street from you in the Shaker Heights subdivision. This year for Halloween, they passed out the big bars of candy, instead of just the snack size. You only know because Anna Maria made you go trick-or-treating, so she wouldn’t be alone. Thankfully, no one seemed to recognize you, the makeshift ghost.

“Sophia, hello,” Dr. Turner says. “It’s been a heck of a year for you guys. How’s your mom?”

“Good, I guess.”

“If I remember right, you’re a freshman at Carlsburg like my boy.”

James Turner is in your Italian class. He’s infatuated with humpback whales and has to go to the Resource Room for extra help.

“It’s a lot harder than last year. I’m just trying to keep my head above water.”

Dr. Turner rolls up his sleeves as though he’s planning on getting his hands dirty. “You’re not the only one. James is struggling, too, especially in Italian. I think middle school was more his speed. Smaller classes, less homework.”

You are grateful that Dr. Turner is treating you like a normal kid who still likes to talk about normal things like school.

“I told James that if a clueless guy like me can survive, he will too. You know, Seneca, the Roman philosopher once said, ‘Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.’”

You smile. Once Dad died, there were suddenly a bunch of ordinary words—words like “survive” and “live”—that some people assumed you couldn’t bear to hear anymore. Thankfully, Dr. Turner is not one of those people. He actually reminds you a little of Dad, who was always quoting historical figures.

“Let’s take a look and see if we can figure out what’s going on.” Dr. Turner puts his hand on your shoulder. “How are you feeling?”

Lots of people have asked you this question in last couple of months, but they usually don’t want to hear the real answer. This is Dr. Turner’s job though—he’s paid to listen to people talk about pain. So you describe the aching that moves like weather from your head to your stomach and everywhere in between. Dr. Turner shines a light into your mouth and nose, studying those dark places as if he might discover something. After, he asks a bunch of questions and examines you, listening to your heart last.

As he leans close, you breathe in his spicy cologne, and though you can’t remember for sure, it smells like the same one Dad used to wear. Dad knew Dr. Turner only well enough to talk baseball or borrow tools, but Dr. Turner raked the leaves when Dad was sick. “See guys, I’m replaceable,” Dad joked.

Really though, Dad and Dr. Turner couldn’t have been more different. Dad had a shock of black curls, and using his Sicilian grandfather’s recipe, he made his own homemade wine every year with grapes bought from an old man in South Philly who claimed to be Frank Sinatra’s second cousin. Dr. Turner seems to spend much of his free time shining his antique car in a Harvard ball cap that he always wears, probably to hide his thinning hair. Dr. Turner is no Dad, but you close your eyes and inhale his clove-scented cologne. For a few minutes, the pain in your stomach deflates.

“You’re alive.” Dr. Turner laughs and plucks the stethoscope from his ears.

You’re shocked. Shocked that he thinks you’re fine. Shocked that he laughs and jokes in a way most of your friends won’t around you—not anymore.

He offers you a starlight mint from his pocket. “I’m guessing you just had a twenty-four hour bug of some sort.”

“That’s it?” The candy tastes like Christmas.

“The good news, Sophia,” Dr. Turner says, “is the worst should be behind you now.”

 


 

The next morning, your headache feels as though it has been downgraded from hurricane to tropical storm. In first period Italian, Signora Friedman starts to explain a new group project that will involve reading a myth about the city of Rome and answering questions. You look out the window. The spring wind tosses a handful of blossoms from a tulip tree into the air. This time last year Dad was still hiking with you in the woods behind Shaker Heights, whistling birdcalls into the new leaves. The Great Ball of Sadness returns. But then you remember what Dr. Turner said about surviving.

On the other side of the classroom, James Turner, taps his fingers on the desk to the beat of music in his own head. When Signora Friedman announces that it is time to find a partner for the assignment, you drop your pencil. To your delight, it rolls several yards towards James Turner. By the time you retrieve it, the rush to find a partner for the project is over. Becky has buddied up with her soccer teammate Sara. She pouts at you and mouths “sorry.” Normally, you’d be disappointed about this Becky-Sara allegiance, but now you could care less.

James Turner waits at his desk to find out which student is unable to find a partner. When you tap his shoulder, James startles. You ask if he wants to work with you, and he looks around as though to make sure the invitation isn’t meant for someone else before accepting. At your suggestion, it is decided that you’ll meet at the Turner’s house to work on the project after school.

Later, you and James take turns reading the myth of Romulus and Remus aloud, pausing to answer the questions on the handout. The story is about twin brothers who were orphaned and left to die in the wild. Luckily, a wolf adopts them, nursing both back to health so that Romulus can go on to found the city of Rome. When Becky is your partner for school assignments, you spend more time discussing the three-dollar bangle bracelets everyone’s buying at Claire’s Boutique than the actual homework. But James is focused on the task at hand. Just as you and James are finishing the assignment, the garage door grates open. Dr. Turner appears in the living room doorway moments later, his fish patterned bow tie loose around his neck.

“Hey guy,” he says, messing up James’s hair. Then he notices you. “And Sophia. What a surprise!”

Your heart buoys up into your throat, even though you can’t tell if Dr. Turner’s enthusiasm is due to the fact that James doesn’t often have visitors, let alone female visitors, or if he’s genuinely happy to see you. Dr. Turner invites you to dinner, and without even checking with Mom, you agree to stay.

During the meal, the Turners have a ritual where they take turns talking about their day. Mrs. Turner rehashes every detail of her tennis match as though it is Wimbledon.

When it is his turn to speak, James looks at his plate. “Did you know that a humpback whale’s heart weighs three times as much as a human’s?”

“That’s one heavy heart!” Mrs. Turner smiles in a forced way that causes wrinkles to appear on her powdered face.

“Not really,” James says, pausing to gnaw a finger and spit the cuticle out. “I mean, there’s the blue whale—”

“Not at the table, honey.” Mrs. Turner straightens her silverware.

James sucks at the blood blooming on his finger. And you suddenly lose your appetite for dinner—broccoli chicken casserole, which you are certain is the same dish that Mrs. Turner brought to your house after Dad died.

“James is our resident cetologist,” Dr. Turner says in a way that makes it sound accomplished instead of weird for a fifteen-year-old boy to like whales more than football or girls.

He then tells a story about one of his patients, a four-year-old girl dressed as Elsa from “Frozen,” who tried to bite him during an immunization. Everyone, even James, laughs. You are wondering what Dr. Turner said about you at the dinner table the night after your appointment when he turns unexpectedly towards you.

“How was your day, Sophia?” he asks.

 


 

At home that night, an idea for your social studies paper starts to materialize. Your English teacher, Miss Bender, is new to the school. Before she moved to suburban Philadelphia, she’d never been outside of Georgia. Miss Bender doesn’t know about Dad. She doesn’t know about the hospital or cancer, the funeral or the cards kids at school gave you after. That makes you wonder. What if you wrote about a doctor who handed out starlight mints? A doctor who wore normal clothes instead of a white coat so sick kids would be less scared? A doctor who quoted dead philosophers who knew about living? You rush downstairs to the computer in the dark, almost tripping over your nightgown. The first line of your paper comes easy: For this assignment, I chose to interview my father, a pediatrician.

 


 

A week later, on your way home from the bus stop, you see Dr. Turner crouched over a flowerbed in his front yard. You wave at him and he motions for you to come over.

“Sophia! How are you feeling?” Dr. Turner asks, his face glowing with sweat.

“Better, thanks.”

“Actually, I wanted to thank you,” Dr. Turner says. “James says that you got an ‘A’ on that Italian assignment. The one about the myth.”

You stare at your shoes, thinking of your English essay and how much you want that lie to be the truth.

“James enjoyed working with you and that’s saying something,” Dr. Turner continues. “Usually, he hates group projects.”

A worm of guilt burrows deep into your chest. “Isn’t it early to be planting flowers?”

“Mrs. Turner’s been on me for a week about the garden.” Dr. Turner sweeps his hand towards the neighbors’ houses. “She likes us to keep up with the rest of the street.”

Every front yard in Shaker Heights pops with spring color. Daffodils bob in the breeze near the Phillip’s house and freshly planted red geraniums line Wilson’s walk. Then there is your house. From your view on the Turner’s porch, you notice that the ceramic pots Mom made in her crafting class two years ago are empty. The entire lawn is the sickly yellow color that grass turns after it gets peed on by a dog in the same place repeatedly. Someone stuck a mitten, probably found sometime after the snow receded, on the shovel that leans against garage.

Image © pwenzel (https://www.flickr.com/photos/pwenzel/3519368310/)

Image © pwenzel (https://www.flickr.com/photos/pwenzel/3519368310/)

Dr. Turner follows your gaze then dusts off his hands. He loosens a single marigold plant from the tray and hands it to you. Warmth honeys in your head. But through the bay window, you can see James in his “I Break for Whales” shirt hunched over a book at the kitchen table, a pencil behind his ear. His foot pedals up and down, some sort of nervous twitch. When he looks up from his reading, you’re sure he sees you standing there with his father. You remember once at a block party years ago, you were paired with Dr. Turner for potato sack races. Maybe it was because you were the smallest and he was the tallest. Or you were both pretty good runners. You don’t know how you ended up on Dr. Turner’s team, really. All you remember is that James said, “I never get to see you, Dad.”

“Thanks,” you say, “But—”

Dr. Turner presses the flowerpot into your hands. “No one here will miss it.”

 


 

The next day, clouds plug up the sky for most of the morning, and after seventh period, rain slaps the blacktop where you wait for the bus with a crowd of other kids. Your blouse is white and, of course, you haven’t remembered your umbrella. The binder you hold over your head offers little protection, and within minutes, your clothes stick to you like a second skin. The bus is sixteen minutes late. Wind slips beneath your collar, raking icy fingers across your neck. Windshield wipers seesaw and car doors slam as other kids cram into cars, piling on one another’s laps. Before Dad died and she went back to work, Mom always would pick you up from school on rainy days. Usually, she would take you to the café down the street for decaf lattes. Her knitting needles would click as she listened to your latest Becky-Sara drama. Sometimes, she described her projects—making homemade jam or sculpting fondant flowers in Ana Maria’s favorite colors for her birthday cake.

A familiar car pulls up to the curb now, an old blue BMW. Kids crane their necks to see if they know the driver as the window rolls down. When Dr. Turner’s face appears, your pulse gallops. He searches the crowd of drenched kids. His face softens with what must be recognition. Somehow, he seems to see you even though you are the smallest kid in the crowd.

Dr. Turner waves. But as you start to smile and take a step towards the car, you hear a voice behind you. “Excuse me.” James Turner brushes past you, oblivious, curls flattened to his forehead by the rain.

James jogs to the car, flings open the door, and drops into the passenger seat. Dr. Turner kisses the top of James’s head and then fiddles with the radio. You realize then that Dr. Turner never saw you. And the reason he never saw you was because he wasn’t looking for you. Just like someone might miss a sword in the grass of a “Hidden Pictures” puzzle if she were only focused on searching for a flower. Your legs stop moving forward. There is still time to run up to the car and ask for a ride. The Turners would feel terrible if they knew you were out in the rain. But you freeze. The car rolls away, splashing through a puddle.

 


 

After another ten minutes, the bus is still missing-in-action, so you decide to walk home. Five miles and eight drenching splashes from passing cars later, you open the front door to find Mom still in her crossing guard uniform crouched over the kitchen table. Towers of overstuffed file folders wall her in on three sides and a plume of steam hangs over her coffee mug. She studies some papers through her new reading glasses. You can hear people crying in the other room. Anna Maria is watching her favorite soap opera again.

You drop your backpack right in the middle of the room, and because it weighs as much as a bowling ball, there is a satisfying boom that makes Mom start.

“Mom, you’re home?”

“Early dismissal for report card pick-up.” Mom removes her glasses and inspects you. “I didn’t even notice the weather. How long has it been storming?”

“Like forever.”

Mom swallows and makes a face like it hurts. “And nobody offered you a ride?”

You bristle at the memory of the Turner’s car pulling away. “You left me.”

“I know, I got caught up,” Mom says.

The Great Ball of Sadness is stopping up your throat. But you can’t cry. You can’t.       Because then Mom will and there is nothing worse than seeing an adult cry like a child. Right after Dad died, you found his old accordion in storage and showed it to Mom. She cried so hard that red dots appeared and then multiplied on the skin of her chest and throat. You had to hold her under the arms to keep her from collapsing onto the floor. A couple of weeks later, Mom visited Dr. Landon, and when you were looking through her purse to try on some of her Ruby Red lipstick, you saw an orange pill bottle with Dr. Landon named as the prescribing doctor. The medicine name sounded German.

“I have so much to do,” Mom says. “This estate stuff. My will.”

Gray roots sprout from her part—new hair that hasn’t yet been dyed brown. Maybe gray is her natural color now. Mom turns back to her papers, sips her coffee, and grimaces.

Your face is hot. Even though you try to remember what Dr. Turner said, the Great Ball of Sadness will not go away. You are crying and making sounds—sounds composed of feelings for which there are no words, a noise that is more animal than human. Tears and snot run together, an ugly mess of wet.

“I’m sorry.” Mom reaches for you, draws you to her. Her eyes are dry and her shirt smells like home. “I’m sorry, Sophia.” She chants these words over and over with the softness of a lullaby.

Over Mom’s shoulder, you notice the flower from Dr. Turner. Someone has placed it on the windowsill where the bloom leans towards the sky, yellow petals impossibly bright. The flower is growing amongst the kitchen clutter: an old family picture, a forgotten appointment reminder, and a bowl of keys that were probably once important but that don’t unlock anything anymore.

 


Natalie T 2Natalie Haney Tilghman co-authored “A 52-Hertz Whale,” Young Adult novel recently released by Carolrhoda Lab (Lerner) that features the same characters in this short story. Natalie received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Prize and first prize for fiction in The Atlantic’s 2010 Student Writing Contest. She would like to dedicate this story to the memory of her father (Luke P. Haney, 1952-1991) and to all young people who have lost a parent. Visit Natalie at www.natalietilghman.com.

 

 

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