The following story is by guest contributor Loretta Martin. Loretta is an editor who lives in suburban Chicago, IL, with her artist husband Phil. Her short-short story “The Delivery” appears in Every Writer. She has published lifestyle articles in print and online. A former piano major, she occasionally proofreads classical music scores, impersonates a gardener, and refers to herself in third person. Loretta can be contacted at LM33709@gmail.com.
Jenna snapped out of a troubled sleep, her pupils distended and her face sweaty. She lay still and listened, waiting for her brain to name the sound that woke her and identify its source. She knew the noise had not come from her. She didn’t move to look at the clock or switch on the bedside lamp. The air conditioner hummed smoothly, but her cotton nightgown was damp against her skin. Once her eyes adjusted to the moonlit darkness, she scanned the bedroom for shadows, movement, or outlines that looked suspect. The security system had been set, and she was alone in the small house.
“What the–,” Jenna cut the question off; she hadn’t meant to speak out loud.
At the same instant, bits from a dream flashed like phantom limbs after amputation. She was trapped in a thick vine from her feet to her chest. Attached to the vine was a single flower—her mother’s face—on a stem that swayed inches from Jenna’s own face. The gums smacked juicily because all teeth were missing; no words came from the gaping, cavernous mouth, only a red mist that sprayed Jenna’s face. The baleful glare was familiar, and with each breath she struggled for, Jenna felt herself become smaller. Even so, the vine-thing kept tightening its grip.
The dream faded as her brain continued to struggle with the sound, a clattering like dry gravel in an empty can. Her mouth tasted of the pennies she sucked on secretly as a child. Shut in her room, she’d swish the coins around in her mouth, finding comfort in the metallic taste. She did this often when her mother, a former beauty queen, reminded her only child of her “many shortcomings.”
“Can’t you stand up straight? Do something with that hair of yours! It’s Friday—why are you home? For goodness sake, Jenna, how hard can it be to drop those extra pounds?
Attempts to stand up for herself always ended with her mom snatching the last scathing word, like a bush warrior celebrating victory by eating his opponent’s heart. What had she done wrong, other than be born?
Jenna learned to count on her independence, intellect, and natural compassion, qualities she knew came from her father, who died when she was four. Her mother, on the other hand, navigated life—and her four subsequent marriages—by relying on her looks and razor-sharp tongue.
It was a miracle, she thought, that she’d grown into a fairly well-adjusted woman, capable of loving and being loved. After finishing college, she accepted the job that took her the farthest distance from home. She and her mother were satisfied exchanging only the occasional boiled-down email. Yet here she was, sleeping in her mother’s bedroom—a first—because her own had been converted into a sewing room.
Home again, and frightened by a noise she didn’t recognize. She tried combatting fear by thinking about why she’d come back.
What started as cervical cancer worked its way through her mother’s lymph nodes and settled, ironically, in her mouth. The diagnosis, Stage 4 oral cancer, came with a prognosis of a few weeks, give or take. Her mother’s emails had mentioned nothing of her medical struggles, and it was only two weeks ago that she consented to allowing her oncology team to contact her daughter. Dutifully, Jenna requested a medical emergency leave.
She stayed first at a hotel close to the hospital, then at another one near the hospice where her mom spent her final days. During lucid moments between morphine drips, her speech distorted, she insisted that Jenna apply her makeup. When her daughter held a mirror for inspection, she scowled.
“You nevf know nuffin ‘bout beauty or cosmethics,” she said, turning away.
Jenna daubed at bloody the spittle that landed on her mother’s chin.
Sometimes she complained about her dentures—an assault to her vanity she never got over. They no longer fit properly, but she insisted on wearing them despite the pain they must have caused.
“How many times do I haff tell you,” she croaked, “they click eff you don’ clean right!”
It did no good to remind her that clicking dentures had nothing to do with how they were cleaned.
Their last days together were marked not by reconciliation or affection. Instead, daughter and dying mother co-existed in the same emotional freeze zone they’d always inhabited.
It hit her: The noise was coming from under the bed!
Its proximity catapulted her into action. She snapped the lamp on, but her trembling hand knocked it over onto the rug, setting off a spinning light show in the room. Steeling herself, she threw the sheet back and, in micro movements, leaned down to peer under the bed.
Like dancers in frilly tutus, dust bunnies swirled in the flashing semi-darkness. Looking closer, Jenna spotted something lying between a bed leg and the metal grate of the baseboard air vent. In the watery light it looked like two perfectly aligned rows of translucent pearls encased in a seashell. It took her a moment to recognize her mother’s spare dentures. Each new blast of air set off a vibration—a clattering—across their enamel surface.
Laughter bloomed like flowery pyrotechnics ignited in Jenna’s stomach. It started to shoot upward, but she choked it down before it exploded into the room. As always, her mother had the last word.