This story is by Stacie Odeneal and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In hindsight, it happened her sophomore year of college.
Or at least that is when it seems to have started, when the world began to turn slowly. And then not at all.
1997 went according to plan for Beth Brownstone. Raised in a tight knit family firmly fused around the city limits of a charming east Tennessee town, she had grown up with a firm reverence for God-almighty while fully possessed by the spirit of her ancestors thanks to her maternal grandmother. Between killing snakes and canning jam, Beth had learned the worth of tradition and the value of strength from Nana, who stood as Beth’s North Star and loudest champion.
Beth’s unassuming childhood culminated in those most hallowed hallmarks of ideal southern gentility: varsity cheer leading captain, homecoming queen and valedictorian of her graduating class. She had been to second base with the captain of the football team and was thinking of going to third when she found him playing ball with a busty blond stranger and called the game off altogether. She broke curfew a handful of times, but with good reason. And cheated on a geometry test once, though a guilty conscience led to confessing to her teacher who agreed to drop her score by a letter grade. Fortunately, the test was only the second of the semester, giving Beth ample time to complete extra credit to compensate for her lapse in judgment.
As baccalaureate approached, Beth was inundated with scholarship offers and acceptance letters. The local community college invited her to join the cheer leading squad. While her parents pushed her to accept a scholarship to a nearby state school where Beth could become a kindergarten teacher, like her mother before her.
Rather than join her peers on the class graduation trip to Panama City Beach, Beth traveled with the baptist church’s Women Mission Union to Memphis where she spent the week sneaking down to Beale Street by night, and performing puppet shows for cancer-stricken toddlers at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital by day. The daily dichotomy between life and death was stark to a girl who still enjoyed Sunday afternoons among all eight of her great-grandparents, swinging high on porches overlooking peaceful fields of row crops and grazing cattle. Memphis left Beth with a throbbing lust for neon signs and boiling music. And a quiet love for the hope that simmers in patients just above a jarring diagnosis, impatiently waiting for the thing that transforms simmering hope to miraculous reality.
The jive tunes spewing from the Rum Boogie Bar sealed the deal. Against her parents’ wishes and the lasting stability of a debt-free lifestyle, Beth Brownstone chose to attend Tulane University, a private university in the heart of sin-soaked New Orleans no less than ten hours from the sacred sanctity of rural Tennessee. Fueled by a dream to be a pediatric oncologist, she enrolled in Tulane’s pre-med program, ignored the feigned support of her parents, and drove a new-to-her Nissan Altima through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to her new home at Monroe Residence Hall on Tulane’s campus.
Her freshman year went well. She joined Chi Omega, partly because its philanthropic focus was the Make-A-Wish foundation, and partly because they asked her to. She made the Dean’s list twice and got a part-time job as a lab runner at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. She dated a guy named Ashton, but regularly spent the night with a guy named Ashar whose Pakistani poetry spoke to her soul more intensely than any overtime touchdown ever did. She met her first drag queen and her first drug addict. Then she tried to convince herself church didn’t matter. But she felt a hole in the spot where she assumed her soul lived on those mornings she ate beignets in bed instead of making the trek to a local church. So she compromised by volunteering to serve lunch at a local homeless shelter where a devotional was offered. She told herself she was there to hear the Word, but deep down she knew she was there to see God.
Every Sunday afternoon, she enjoyed telling a proud Nana about classes and school events so Nana could tell the girls at the salon. Every morning, she enjoyed telling her worried mother about the day’s agenda so her mother could tell the police where to start looking in case Beth mysteriously disappeared. And every night, she enjoyed telling her envious sister of the fun flings that awaited in the weekend. But mostly she enjoyed telling the tourists on Bourbon Street she was a med student at Tulane. Not that she lied, such that the baby Jesus would cry, as much as she often waited until gulping a swallow of her virgin daiquiri to mention the “pre” part.
Faster than she hoped, her first year of college drew to a close. The last year of her Nana’s life did the same. While she was out looking for summer subleases, her parents’ home number flashed on the face of her shiny new Nokia cell phone. Assuming it was just another call to beg her to return home, she fished the phone from her bag to silence the obnoxious ring. But as she flipped the phone open, and realized the call was placed at the most expensive rate period of the day, Beth’s heart sank.
It was her mother with eight brief words that changed a lifetime.
“Baby, Nana’s gone. You need to come home.”
Sitting at Nana’s table, the summer felt empty for the first time in her 19 years. While Beth had been reporting sorority mixers and test scores, Nana had forgotten to mention she was inexplicably losing weight. Then passing blood. Finally when she passed out at choir practice, she was taken to the hospital where she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. The loss was sudden and painful, and in no way dulled by the helpless reassurance shared around a mournful community: “at least she didn’t suffer.”
As fall approached, Beth found it impossible to think about leaving home. She transferred to the local state school where she could commute to the college of education, and finally went to third base with the football captain. On her last day of student teaching, the high school quarterback proposed. They married with every intention of living happily ever after.
Beth was certainly not lacking in good intentions. She had intended to find fulfillment in teaching kindergarten. She had intended to make her family proud. She had intended to be in love forever.
But as she now knew all too well, intentions are rarely enough.
Intending to make it work, she planned a romantic surprise with the football captain. She found a substitute teacher, then spent the day being waxed, painted, blown out, and made over. She visited the closest Victoria’s Secret in the next town over, where she intended to buy the sluttiest lingerie sold in the Bible Belt. But where she instead found him, the football captain, holding the sluttiest lingerie you can buy in the Bible Belt up to the bared bosom of a blond stranger, in a moment that felt all-too-painfully familiar.
The next moments passed in ringing silence until she realized the football captain was whispering in her ear.
“Baby, it’s over. You need to go home.”
Once again, she found herself feeling empty at Nana’s table. The divorce soundly behind her, she had taken her half of his retirement, the wedding china and a brand-new Nissan Altima to the home Nana had left Beth in her will. As she opened the cabinet where Nana kept her wedding china, preparing to put her own wedding china in its spot, Beth realized she did not feel empty again. Rather she had felt empty ever since.
As she tears fell silently down her cheek, a yellowed sheet of paper fluttered from the open cabinet. A letter in her swirling loops, dated the Wednesday of her final choir practice, Nana had been penning one of her famous letters of support, sent when a call simply would not do.
“Beth, you are so good at meeting our expectations, but so bad at finding your own. You are our brightest star, and I am so proud you have found your place to shine in New Orleans. I know you will only grow brighter as you find your place in the world as a doctor. Sweetheart, it’s just beginning. Don’t come home now.”
Suddenly it crashed around her, laying at her feet as scattered shards of wedding china, destroying the fragile display upon which she had served a lifetime of broken dreams. She stood silently among the shattered remnants, as a ghost taking inventory of a life left un-lived, with only the truth left to fill the empty space within and without: there are things worse than death, like that which kills us slowly.