This story is by Evelyn Puerto and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
After our mother’s funeral was over, my sister Eileen told me she had bad news.
She waited to tell me until the guests were gone. They left us with an empty house littered with dirty plates and reeking of lilies. Desolation overwhelmed me as if I were sinking into quicksand, never again to sense a whiff of joy in my life. My mother was gone.
What news could be worse than our mother dying? I sat listlessly, staring at the battered wooden table that stood in Mom’s kitchen. A few rings marred the surface where we had heedlessly set coffee mugs on the wood. How Mom scolded us for that. “Pay attention to what you’re doing!” she’d say. “It’s the little decisions in life that show who you are.”
I knew this wouldn’t be good. Eileen’s eyes were red, and her dark hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail, so unlike my sister who always had to be perfect.
“Becky.” Eileen pulled out a chair and sat down. She put a well-manicured hand on my knee. It was a useless gesture, since my paralyzed legs couldn’t feel Eileen’s fingers stroking my thigh. Eileen scooted her chair closer to my wheelchair. “I have something to tell you.”
She stared at my chin as she spoke. She told me how after our father died, our mother gave her control of all the money. That way Mom could continue put all her time into caring for me. After I’d been left quadriplegic and slightly brain damaged after a car accident, I had become her full-time job. Our mother trusted Eileen to invest the money wisely. The idea was that after Mom passed, I could be cared for an upscale home.
And the bad news? Mom’s trust in Eileen was misplaced. Eileen managed to grow the money by playing the stock market. Emboldened by success, she got cocky. She pursued riskier investments, lured by the promise of huge gains. Until the market crashed and there was nothing left.
I slumped in my wheelchair. I wasn’t sure if I was more shocked by her account or that she told me in a steady voice. Did she care what she had done? “Did Mom know about this?” I asked.
“Yes. I told her last week.” Her tone was flat, as if she was asking me to pass the butter. “She told me there was nothing I could do to make up for this betrayal.”
“She was right!” I didn’t care that I sprayed spit into Eileen’s face. It dawned on me that my biggest nightmare was about to become a reality. I was going to be moved to a low-cost nursing home. I shrieked, calling Eileen all kinds of names. My only consolation was watching Eileen blush and cringe as I cursed her.
She agreed with every insult I hurled at her. “You’re right, I’m scum. I’m worthless.” Then she told me what arrangements she’d made for my care.
I told her never to speak to me again.
Seven years passed. A young man clasping a worn briefcase intruded into my drab solitude. “I’m Ryan Markham, your sister’s lawyer. I know that things have been strained between you and your sister—”
I glared at him. “I don’t want to talk about her.”
He took a step closer to me. I obviously hadn’t put enough ice in my tone. He was still there. “She would like to see you.”
“No. Tell her never. And go away.” I turned my face to the wall and clenched my jaw. It was Eileen’s fault I was stuck here, in this worn-out home filled with the stench of urine and forlorn souls who spent their days slumped in wheelchairs, staring at nothing. Not the future my mom had promised me, not the home filled with light and activity and staff that wasn’t so overworked that they could take a few moments to actually care.
A week later Ryan was back. I scowled at his trim business suit and dark tie and his hazel eyes that seemed to be pleading with me.
“What?” I asked.
“Miss Jennings, I have some unfortunate news for you.” He took a deep breath. “Your sister has passed away.”
“So? After what she did, I don’t care.” I shook my head. “Good riddance.”
“She left you all her money.”
That was a surprise. “She didn’t have anyone else to give it to?”
Ryan shook his head. “You were all she had.”
I supposed if she treated others like she’d cheated me, then she would have died alone. “How much?”
“Enough that you can choose another place to live, if you’d like. Your sister left me detailed instructions that I was to work with you to find something you would consider suitable.”
I jerked my head back and stared at him, wide-eyed. “You mean I can leave this hell hole? When can we start?”
Ryan gave me a flicker of a smile. “There’s one condition. Eileen left an envelope, and she wanted to you see what is in it.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “I’d be more than happy to look at it.” I narrowed my eyes. “But there’s the small detail that I can’t use my hands to hold anything.”
He ignored my sarcasm. “That’s why I’m here.” Ryan pulled up a chair next to my wheelchair. He opened a large manila envelope and dumped its contents on to my lap.
I stared at the bundle of envelopes, tied up with a black ribbon. I recognized Eileen’s handwriting on the top one. They were the letters that Eileen had written to me, letters I had returned unopened. Ryan picked up the bundle, untied it, and opened the first letter. He began to read.
The initial few letters were what I expected. Pleas for forgiveness, vows to make it up to me.
“See?” I said. “All empty promises. She left me to rot here for seven long years.”
Ryan didn’t respond. He reached for another letter, one from about six years ago. “I’ve arranged for a private duty nurse to come two shifts a week to help you.”
I stared at Ryan. “I’m not sure I remember that.” Remembering some things had become so hard after my car accident.
Ryan kept reading letters. After a few months, the private duty nurses were coming nearly every day. Private duty physical therapists and activity therapists arrived twice a week. Special meals were delivered for holidays, birthdays and at other random times. There was nothing in the letters about her life. They were all about me.
I blinked, trying to fight off the feeling of unreality. “I wondered why sometimes the staff were more attentive than others. Why some days the nurse had all kinds of time to spend with me. I just thought things were getting a little better around here.” I scowled at Ryan. “Why didn’t someone tell me?”
Ryan pointed at the letters. “She tried. You had no other family left, and you refused visitors…” He looked at me with a sad smile. “I’m sorry.” After a pause, he picked up the last letter. “This was written a few days ago, after I was here last.”
I looked down so he wouldn’t see the guilt in my eyes.
“Dear Becky, I’m writing one last time to beg you to forgive me. I’ve done all I can to make it up to you. Part of me died the day I told you I lost all the money. The rest of me will be gone soon. I hope the years you have left will be better than the last seven. Ryan will explain everything. Love, Eileen.”
“That’s all?” I asked.
“That’s all she could manage to write a few days before she died. She’d worked two jobs for years and denied herself any relief. Never took a day off. She practically kept her heat off in the winter, refused to turn on her air conditioning in the summer. No cable tv. Every penny went to pay for the extra caregivers or into the trust fund she was building for you.” He shook his head. “She kept saying ‘it’s the little decisions that show who you are.’ When she knew her health was failing, she wouldn’t go see a doctor. She just kept up the frantic pace, always trying to earn one more dollar.”
I could hardly believe what he was telling me. Eileen had tried to help me? If I had the use of my hands I’d cover my face. As it was, I had to content myself with a few deep breaths. I’d been furious with her all these years, resenting her, hating her. All the while she was trying to make up for what she’d done.
Helplessly, I stared at Ryan, my jaw as slack as my useless limbs. “How did she die?”
“Basically, she worked herself to death. It was all for you. She died so you could live.”