This story by Erin Halden is the Grand Prize winner of the 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Erin Halden writes. Sometimes she gets paid; sometimes she doesn’t. She keeps writing anyway. She got her start as editor-in-chief and sole reporter for Spot News, the main daily newspaper on Jupiter (at the age of seven, no less). She can be found on her website and on Facebook and Twitter (@erinhalden).
“I’m not doing it.”
“But you like Aunt Kat.”
Julia rolled her eyes.
“You’ll do as I ask,” snapped Julia’s mother. “Or no car this weekend.”
“That’s not fair,” shouted Julia. “She’s your sister. You take her.”
“I’m in meetings all day.” Julia’s mother shrugged into her black blazer and grabbed her computer bag. “Kat can’t drive herself. She’ll be too sick after.”
“Can’t she take a cab?”
Julia’s mom stamped her feet into her black pumps. “That’s enough, Julia. Be at your Aunt Kat’s at three o’clock, right after school. I’ll see you tonight.” She disappeared into the garage.
Julia dragged on her backpack and grabbed the keys to the hand-me-down Toyota Corolla her parents liked to remind her she was lucky to have. Not everyone has their own car at sixteen, Julia. A car with a back seat full of burn holes from the time her stupid older brother tried to smoke cigarettes with his stupid friends and glitter nail polish all over the dash, spilled by her airheaded older sister.
As if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, now her aunt would probably puke all over it. Julia reversed down the driveway, dreading the day ahead of her.
Julia knew what to expect. She’d gone to one of Aunt Kat’s chemo appointments with her mother, six years ago. Stuffy waiting room, sick people shuffling in and out, hushed voices. Aunt Kat, IVs in her arm like porcupine quills, acting like everything was fine, asking Julia about school, trying to smile.
Julia would have to prop her up after, walk her to the car, like she and her mother had six years ago. And that was when Kat was stronger. Would she even be able to stand this time? The last time Julia saw her, at Christmas, her eyebrow-less face hung slack, her frail frame shook even when she sat.
Julia had kept her distance.
At 2:54 pm, Julia pulled up in front of 824 Laurel Street. She turned the car off and dropped back against the seat. Her aunt’s bungalow looked smaller. And more exposed, somehow. Had she lost a tree in her front yard? Julia couldn’t remember. Had it always been white? In Julia’s memory, it was yellow.
She used to know Aunt Kat’s house better than her own, she’d spent so much time here. Aunt Kitty Kat – that’s what Julia had called her back then – even gave Julia her own room. And she never, ever told her to clean it. Julia’s older brother and sister thought Aunt Kat was weird, so Julia got her all to herself. She’d spent so many afternoons alone with her aunt, which often turned into sleepovers, with her tucked up in bed while Aunt Kat made up wild stories about magical lands. For months after her Aunt Kat read her The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Julia went into every closet in every house they went to, looking for a way into Narnia.
That’s enough, Julia.
They used to do other things, but Julia couldn’t remember now.
Aunt Kat was an artist. A painter, mostly. She turned her house into art. She painted murals on the walls, the ceilings, the floors. “Life is my canvas, Jules,” she used to say.
“I have fairy blood, you know,” Kat had told her once. Julia was seven. With her wild black hair, porcelain white skin, bright blue eyes, and tiny frame, she could be a fairy, Julia had thought. All she was missing was wings.
“Is that really true?” Julia had asked.
“Do you believe it?” asked Kat.
Julia nodded. She wanted to believe it, anyway.
“Then it’s true,” said Kat.
Julia checked her phone. 2:59. One more minute. Then she’d have to walk across the flagstones to the front door, ring the bell, and face what was left of her aunt. The treatment’s gonna kill her before the cancer does.
Her aunt was slow to open the door. A thin red dress hung on her skeleton frame and a blue turban covered her hairless head, picking out the blue in her eyes, the only part of her that had any life left.
“Hi, Aunt Kat.”
The living room furniture was just as Julia remembered, but the murals on the walls were gone.
There was just splotches of formless color splashed here and there. Perhaps her aunt was experimenting with abstract art these days.
She walked past a puddle of blue paint on the floor, long dried. She remembered. She’d spilled that paint, one day. “That patch of floor needed something special,” Aunt Kat had said. And she and Julia had transformed the spilled paint into a pond filled with goldfish and white-flowered lily pads and spotted frogs. She could still feel the warm water on her hands, perfect for swimming.
But it couldn’t have been warm, frowned Julia.
“I made your favorite. Oatmeal raisin cookies, extra cinnamon-y. They’re in the kitchen. Follow me.”
Julia fidgeted. “Don’t we have to go? Your appointment and all?”
“We have some time.”
Her aunt’s paints were out, her two-person table and chairs pushed away from the color-splashed wall. She handed Julia a cookie.
Julia took a bite. The taste caught in her throat. She’d forgotten how good her aunt’s cookies were. How much fun she’d had making them. Aunt Kat always let her pour in as much cinnamon as she’d wanted. Somehow they’d always turned out perfect.
Julia cleared her throat. “What are you working on?”
“I’m adding flowers to the forest scene,” said Kat.
Yes, that’s what the kitchen mural had been. Julia remembered now. But there was no forest scene on the wall now. Just random color. She squinted at the wall, trying to see anything resembling, well, anything.
“It’s gets harder to see as you get older,” said Kat. She picked up her brush, dipped it in purple paint, and began adding splotches to the wall.
“How are you feeling these days?” Julia asked into the uncomfortable silence.
“I’m dying, Jules.”
You’re going to have to hold her up while I get the car. Stuffy clinics, IVs. Julia crossed her arms against the water welling in her eyes. “That sucks,” was all that came to her.
Aunt Kat smiled and held up a brush. “Paint with me.”
“But I can’t see the forest.”
“Do you believe it’s there?”
Julia nodded. She wanted to believe, anyway.
“Then it’s there.”
Wiping away an escaped tear, Julia dipped the brush in red paint and turned to face the wall, unsure what to do next. She glanced at her aunt. And, she could see. The purple paint was a flower, delicate petals balanced on a swaying green stem. Next to a graceful birch tree. In a patch of wildflowers, and the base of a tall oak.
Julia sucked in her breath as the forest scene assembled itself before her. And she remembered. This is what they used to do. She touched her brush to the wall. A red rose swirled out. She did it again, and again, rose after rose. She laughed and stepped forward, off the linoleum and onto soft grass. The smell of roses wafted around her. She painted a bluebird. It chirped.
Her aunt laughed. “You remember how,” she said.
“Why did I forget?”
“That’s what happens when you grow up.”
“I don’t want to forget.”
Together, Julia and Aunt Kat walked through the forest, painting flowers, frogs, dragonflies. Julia ran her hands through grasses, and they bloomed. She touched rough bark, and moss spread. She swiped away clouds, gathered warm sun on her face, shook her hair in the lilac breeze. Laughing, she painted a wild mane of black hair on her aunt, filled in her hollow cheeks. “That’s better.”
Her aunt painted a fallen log on the shore of a shimmering blue lake, and they sat down together.
“I want to be seven again,” said Julia.
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“I don’t want all this to die.” Julia choked on the words.
“Do you believe it lives in your heart?”
“Then it will never die.”
Julia held her aunt’s hand and they watched the sun set in the forest.
“We missed your appointment, Aunt Kitty-Kat.”
“That’s okay, Jules.”
As Julia walked back to her car, she noticed her aunt’s house was yellow.
“The funeral’s on Thursday.” Julia’s mother’s eyes were red and swollen. “I found this, when I was going through Kat’s things. It has your name on it.”
She handed Julia a small canvas. It was covered in splotches of paint.
“It doesn’t look like anything,” said her mother. “Do you know what it is?”
Julia held her breath, tears spilling down her face. Her mother shrugged and left Julia’s room.
Julia blinked once. The paint swirled. She blinked again. She saw a forest. Blink. A cloud-streaked sunny day. Blink. Flowers. Blink. A portrait of Julia. Age seven.
Julia breathed out. “I’ll remember.”