This story is by Victor Garate and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
If life had gone the way Cath hoped, then he would not be standing in front of the red door of his old home, holding nothing but an empty luggage bag and dreams left unfulfilled. The lights on the low ceiling buzzed and flickered the way he remembered. But, that was the thing: he only wanted to remember. He wanted this place to be nothing more than a distant memory. A bad dream. The hard times he had managed to escape. But since he was there, standing between the peeling walls oozing black mold, then it meant that he had failed, and he hated that.
Cath took in a deep breath and knocked on the door, ignoring the dread that clawed at his stomach. He waited for a moment. Then he heard shuffling. Footsteps approached the door and stopped. There was a pause, and Cath had the eerie feeling he was being watched through the door eyepiece. He shifted in place and tried to emulate the curvature of a smile. He knew he was failing.
There was a click, then the door opened. Time seemed to freeze as Cath locked eyes with his mother. Everything around them descended into darkness like a slather of fresh black paint seeping down a blank canvas. At that moment, there existed only two people in the entire world: a boy and his mother.
Time had not been kind to her. It had washed away the youthfulness of her skin so that now wrinkles marked her cheeks, and bags hung from her tired eyes. But Cath knew time wasn’t the only cause for the extra silver hairs that stuck out against her black curls. With a sting of shame, he knew he was the guiltiest of all.
Realizing he had not yet said anything, Cath cleared his throat, rolled his shoulders back, and forced another smile. “Hey, mom.” He waited for a response but she only stared at him, her arms dangling at her sides. “Well, uh… I’m back, as you can probably tell… and, uh… I know I’ve been away for a while now… I was sorting things out. Anyway, I’m back now and I wanted to know if I can move back in with you and—you know—help around and stuff.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets, pursed his lips, and nodded too many times. He prayed his mother would say something, anything.
But she remained silent, keeping her steely eyes steady on him.
Cath scratched his head and chuckled through gritted teeth. “Mom, I really need you to say something.” He then paused for a moment to breathe. He needed to be calm. “Look, I know I shouldn’t be here, and you have every right to close the door on me, but I want to help you.” He breathed again, his shoulders slumping and his face softening. “Mom, I’m…I’m really trying to change, you know?”
Once again, she said nothing. Cath clenched his jaw and stared down at his old, shabby shoes. A barrier had forged between them, and he felt useless for failing to break it. Even without uttering a single word, his mother somehow managed to make him feel small. He cursed under his breath as tears rolled down his burning face. Now the exit door behind whispered in his ear, urging him to walk away from everything. It would be easy, after all. But Cath knew nothing would be solved.
A soft, ghostly whisper cut through the silence. “Four years.”
Through blurred, teary eyes, Cath peered up at his mother, unsure if she had truly spoken. “What?”
“You were gone for four years. You never responded to my calls or my texts. You never once decided to return.” She had the look of someone who had given up. Someone who had managed to endure years of misery, supporting the weight of a million pounds, but whose legs were finally about to give way.
“Mom, I know I messed up!” Cath said, grabbing her arm, desperate to make her understand. His heart sank as she pulled her arm away, repulsed by his touch. He took a step back and ran a hand through his hair. “Mom, please listen to me. I can help you. I can get a job, I can get some money, and—in a month or two, I don’t know—I can help you and my brother get out of this dump.” He wanted her to accept him. To tell him that she will give him one last chance.
When she did not respond, Cath panicked. “Mom, please! Please say something! Look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about what I’ve done. Please—please forgive me!”
“Do you remember the last thing you said to me on the phone?” she said, a fire burning in her eyes.
Cath froze, a shiver running down his back. He knew exactly what she was talking about but he did not want to remember. “Mom, please, I—”
“Cath,” she said, speaking his name for the first time, “tell me the last thing you said to me before you disconnected your phone.”
The repressed memory of their last phone call tore through its chains and crawled to the forefront of Cath’s mind. Tears flooded his eyes and spilled down his face. He tried to fight the memory off but he couldn’t.
Four years ago, Cath had been at a party with his friends when his mother called. He had been ignoring her calls and texts for a month. He wanted her to leave him alone. He desired to be his own man, disconnected from his mother. To him, of course, that meant getting drunk with his friends, wasting away the precious time his mother had payed for him.
He had gone outside and answered the call. Soon, a war ensued between them and yells filled the night sky.
Finally, after years of battle, Cath had had enough. “I don’t need you! I never needed you! The only reason I’m here in college is to be as far away from you as possible! Don’t you ever call me again!” And before his mother could say anything, Cath had ended the call. Their relationship ended soon after.
Cath now cried before his mother, stuffing his face into his palms. He felt like a monster. A hideous and repulsive monster, undeserving of love. “I’m sorry…I’m sorry…”
“You are not the same Cath that left this house four years ago,” his mother whispered.
Cath stood still and silent, unable to look her in the eyes.
“The Cath that lived here was a good kid with a good heart. And he left me with a promise: he would go to college and come back with a job to help his family. I had never asked him; he was just eager to help. But you—I don’t even know who you are.”
And before Cath could react, his mother slammed the door shut, leaving him alone in the hall, the last words carving a hole in his heart.
The world had ended. It was over. Buildings and bridges came crashing down. And beneath all the chaos and destruction was Cath.
He suddenly felt an intense urge to sink to the ground, wrap into a ball, and stay there forever. Once a man sure of himself, now a boy with no idea what to do.
Cath turned around and stared at the end of the hall. He had no other choice but to leave. Before he left, he took one last look at the apartment, and he noticed something he hadn’t before: the red paint of the door was peeling off, revealing the ugly, grey color underneath—not all that different from himself.
With an empty heart, Cath walked to the end of the hall. He was a monster with nowhere to go.