This story is by Elizabeth Halleron and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The streetlight was flickering.
Really, really flickering.
If it were any other time, any time at all, I wouldn’t have noticed it.
But it wasn’t any other time. It was now.
And the streetlight was flickering and it was giving me a goddamn headache.
If it wasn’t so dark out, I wouldn’t have had to notice the stupid flickering streetlight. But because I was here, now, in this situation, waiting for Leah to show up, with this stupid pit in my stomach, I was getting a headache because all I could focus on was that streetlight.
A screech of tires coming to a stop tore my attention away from the flashing streetlight. Finally.
The car door slammed as Leah ducked her head out, just barely missing catching her long, platinum hair in the door.
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“You’re the one who wanted me to come here. Why are you late?”
“Relax, babe. I had to come straight from work. Bartenders don’t have a nine-to-five. Unless you’re talking AM.”
“I’m trying out a new thing. Calling people babe. What do you think?”
“I don’t know yet.”
I know how this must have looked. Two young-ish (early thirties can be young, too) people, one of them with bleached blonde hair and a T-shirt with an obscure rock band and tattoos covering her arms, meeting in a dim parking lot under a flickering streetlight at one in the goddamn morning. I’m not an idiot. I know this looked like a freaking drug deal.
“What did you get?”
Leah blew a strand of hair out from her face and wrung her hands together. “You aren’t going to like it,” she muttered.
The pit in my stomach widened, becoming a giant abyss–a chasm, sucking in all happiness, leaving only despair and uncertainty. “Tell me.”
Leah pulled something from her bag–a large envelope, the kind that holds pictures. Incriminating pictures. This is what I expected, I mean, hiring a private investigator. I expected this exact envelope containing pictures. But that’s not what I got.
“Where are the pictures?”
Leah looked at me like I was an idiot. “Don’t believe everything you see on television, babe. What you wanted didn’t need pictures. It’s not like you are looking for a cheating spouse or some shit like that.”
“Oh.” When she put it that way, I did feel like an idiot–an idiot who was staring at the papers she slid out of the envelope with a morbid fascination. “But you found her?”
“I think so, yeah.”
The chasm inside me filled…just a little bit, but enough to catch my breath. I hadn’t realized that I’d been holding it until that moment. Leah must have seen the look of relief on my face, because her mouth quickly turned into a thin, pursed line.
“Don’t get your hopes up too much. Remember, I said you weren’t going to like it.”
“But you found her.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Where is she?”
Leah bit the inside of her cheek and fidgeted with the papers in her hands. “Maine.”
“Okay…that’s not that bad. I can do Maine.”
“That’s not the bad news.”
“Then what the hell is?”
Leah hesitated a moment, then jerked her arm out, thrusting the papers she was holding at me. I snatched them from her hands, almost hard enough to give us both paper cuts.
“I got in contact with her parents–you know, her other ones.”
My eyes scanned the printed out emails in my hands. The pit in my stomach widened to the point that it was a chasm anymore, it was a void–a black hole sucking out all of my energy. “They don’t want me to meet her.”
Leah shuffled her feet a bit, but kept her eyes on me. “Yeah.”
I couldn’t see the paper anymore. I couldn’t see anything. All I could hear was my heartbeat, my breath, the blood rushing in my ears–everything else faded into the background.
But this was what I had expected. This is what I deserved.
I didn’t deserve to meet her. Who was I, showing up out of the blue after sixteen years? I had no right–no privileges. No, I gave those all away with her, when I left her in the waiting room of the hospital with a note pinned to her chest and a stuffed elephant in her carrier. Those words were forever etched into my brain, like a tattoo that even lasers couldn’t remove.
“Please find her a good home–her name is Natalie Rose. I love her. I’m sorry.”
I didn’t deserve her.
Leah touched my arm, and I snapped back into the present, into the dingy, dark parking lot at one in the morning with the incessantly flickering streetlight that was giving me a headache. I tasted blood in my mouth–metallic. I hadn’t even noticed I’d been biting my tongue.
Leah’s eyes were full of pity. I didn’t want pity, nor did I need it. All I needed was one thing.
“What’s her address?”
Leah sighed–she had expected this. It was her job. It wasn’t her place for her to tell me to let it go, that I should respect the parents’ wishes, etc. She just needed to give me the information.
“1627 Rivercrest Drive, Camden.”
“Thank you.” I handed her a wad of bills–all I had saved for a long time. “Thank you so much.”
“Just doing my job, babe.” Leah slipped the cash into her back pocket, riding up her shirt a bit, revealing even more tattoos. She made to turn away, but I stopped her.
“I don’t like it.”
“Hmm?” she said, tilting her head to the side, just a bit. Just enough.
“The whole ‘babe’ thing. I’m not into it.”
She gave me a little half-smile, quirking up the side of her mouth just enough to let me know I’d amused her. “I’ll take it into consideration.”
And then she was gone, and I was left in the dimly lit parking lot with the strobe-like streetlight, holding what was basically a rejection letter. But I was smiling, because for the first time in a long time, I knew exactly where I needed to go.
Another streetlight. In another state.
Luckily, this one wasn’t flickering.
I don’t think I could have handled it if it was.
My head hurt enough. Why was it that my head hurt when thinking about her?
While sitting in my car (a crappy, rusted over Toyota), waiting, thoughts rushed through my head. Questions. What was I waiting for? What was I going to do next? I had gotten here–Maine, to 1627 Rivercrest Drive, in Camden. I had driven the thirteen hours, only stopping for gas and bathroom breaks. The entire time I had been determined–I would get here, knock on the door, and ask to see my daughter.
But why was I so unsure now?
Was it because I didn’t know what this would do to her?
The house was covered in a fresh coat of paint. A bright white porch lined the front, while flowerboxes stuffed with pansies adorned the railing. The windows, clear and clean and covered with curtains, blocked the view into the house.
I didn’t know what she was going to look like. Of course, I knew the basics–sixteen year old girl, brown hair, blue eyes.
I wondered if she would look like me.
And then the door opened.
And she came out.
She looked old–too old for me to have given birth to her. Her hair was long and just a bit curly. I couldn’t see her eyes. She was tall and lean, and she walked confidently. If I hadn’t known that she lived here, I don’t think that I would have recognized her as my daughter.
I wouldn’t have recognized my own daughter.
Then what the hell was I doing here?
What kind of person–what kind of mother–does this?
Showing up out of the blue to wreck my daughter’s life?
I turned the key in the ignition and the engine rumbled noisily.
Through my window, I could see that she was looking at me. I couldn’t resist the temptation. I looked back at her. Her eyes were blue, electric, just like mine. I wondered if she noticed that we had the same eyes.
I peeled off the curb and drove away.
A year later, I was in my crappy apartment, sitting at my kitchen table going through the mail. It was mostly bills–except for one.
A nice, thick cream-colored envelope. The return address was 1627 Rivercrest Drive, Camden, Maine.
I had never forgotten the address.
Inside the envelope was a letter. The first line: