This story is by Stephanie Newbern and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Cherry whispered to herself as she faced the wall, rocking on her tiptoes, “Mom, it’s going to be okay, you’ll see, everything will be okay.”
She clutched two portraits to her chest. One of her, Mom, Dad, her siblings, and a Labrador retriever; the other of her, 19 years old, with her boyfriend, Jared. A tear cut through the dust.
It was the only light in the aging house. No sounds could be heard, not even the harsh winter wind.
Mom entered the living room watching and waiting. Cherry almost dropped the pictures when she turned to see her. Cherry started to smile, but her hair stood on end and she couldn’t open her mouth to speak. Mom didn’t want to walk on the creaking floors of the house, but she managed. For every step forward, Cherry stepped back. Mom set the box of personal belongings on the coffee table.
As Mom grabbed the pictures from Cherry, her fingers began to crack the frames. She stopped herself. “There’s no going back now,” she muttered.
Cherry stammered, “M-Mom, I…”
“Shut up,” Mom snapped back, as if awakened from a daze.
Cherry’s eyes widened at the can of lighter fluid and matches next to the box. “What are you doing with those?”
“I said, shut up!”
Cherry thought, Mom just needs some time to herself, and so do I. I’ll call later to check on her. Gathering her coat and purse, she went to the kitchen back door.
The knob wouldn’t budge.
Hmmm, weird, she thought. She went to the front door in the living room. That knob would not turn. Tugging several times, the knob held fast.
Cherry’s heartbeat rose. Okay, one more door I can try, she thought. Leaving her coat and purse in the hallway, she rushed to the patio door. Nothing!
As she wrestled with the patio door, her hands became weaker. Cherry gasped and collapsed in the nearest chair, shaking her head. She felt that vibe again; it could only be Mom standing right there.
Oh no, she’s doing it again, she considered. Cherry tried to dart past Mom, but she blocked her path.
Mom whispered, “It’s just us now, dear. You ain’t fooling me like you did your dad and siblings. I see you for what you really are.” Reaching for Cherry’s shoulder, she wriggled away.
“Mom, you can’t do this,” Cherry pleaded.
Mom held up her hand, “Don’t you dare say it! Always the suck-up, daddy’s little girl, family favorite! Now, I’m all you’ve got.” Mom turned, paused, showing the picture with Jared, “And you ain’t got that sorry excuse for a boyfriend no more, neither!”
Cherry sprinted to the cellar, desperate to catch her breath. Her hands felt numb.
She jumped at the thud of her purse landing on the cellar floor. Cherry hesitated, then searched through it.
I need my phone, she thought panicking. Where the hell is it?
Cherry slinked to the cellar doorway, glancing up the stairs into the kitchen. Mom’s back was to the door. Her hands fumbled for a cigarette, and she couldn’t light the match.
Snatching the box of personal belongings and lighter fluid, Mom bolted to the cellar and paused in the doorway. She couldn’t see in the dark, but Cherry watched her from the underground crawl space.
“Take this garbage,” Mom’s voice slurred, as if she was intoxicated. She tossed the box across the cellar, and it landed in the corner, all contents spilling out. Cherry remained quiet, and she didn’t dare breathe.
“You and your sentimental bullcrap,” Mom’s rant continued. “My stuff is all gone! That’s the thanks I get for taking care of you all! What makes you so damn special!”
Cherry’s voice was delicate but still penetrated the darkness. “Mom, didn’t you see the drawing I made for you when I was in third grade? I know it’s in that box. Look at it…”
Mom interrupted, “No, I don’t give a damn about your stupid drawing.” She removed Cherry’s phone from her back, twiddling it between her fingers. “Ya know, I think I’ll hang onto this. Wouldn’t want your beau to find out you’re down here, now would we?”
Cherry licked her dry lips. How would she escape the house? She didn’t know how long she was in the crawl space, but she felt her legs tingle. Mom disappeared, her footsteps getting fainter.
Her body ached as she climbed out of the crawl space and stood up. Searching in the dark for something to keep warm, Cherry’s face hit the ground.
Did she trip over a water pipe?
Blood trickled from her head. Waving her arms desperate to seize something-anything, her hand landed on a crusty envelope tucked inside a crack in the pipe. Why it was there, she didn’t know. Curiosity took over and she pulled it out, tearing it a little. After holding it to the window, she could barely make out the words, “My Dearest Wife – Love Forevermore.”
Cherry paused, then took a deep breath while opening the faded letter. She held it up directly against the window to read it.
After what seemed like two hours, her jaw tightened. She began to rip it, but she paused halfway through.
Cherry’s voice echoed in the cellar. “It’s not my place to stay behind this wall.”
The house was as still as ever.
Skulking her way out of the cellar, she tiptoed up the stairs, holding the handrail, afraid it would break. Cherry held onto the walls, trying not to fall over and disturb the quiet.
She inched her way through the house, peeking into each room.
“Mom, are you- are you there?”
At the end of the hallway, something slithered under the ajar bathroom door. Cherry burst it open to find a hulking figure under a dark blanket. Or maybe it was a tablecloth. She moved closer, but no sign of movement.
“Mom!” Cherry raised her voice. This time, she heard labored breathing. She poked at the figure. “Get up!”
“No, leave me alone!”
She wrapped her arms around the figure with such force, and they scuffled.
Mom screamed, “Stay back! Don’t come near me!”
Cherry tightened her grip, “Mom, you’re going to see this!”
She jerked the tablecloth away, but Mom pushed Cherry out into the hallway. As she struggled to regain her balance, Mom darted back into the bathroom, slamming the door.
Cherry threw her shoulder into the door again to break it open. She found Mom huddled in the bathtub, with water running from the showerhead. Cherry’s throat swelled as her gaze settled on the scissors at her wrist.
“Take this,” Cherry said holding the crumpled paper. “You need to read it.” When she refused to budge, Cherry unfolded the paper and thrust it in front of her. Mom hesitated, then timidly took the note, but she still didn’t look at it.
She knelt down next to the bathtub, pleading. “Mom, it’s a note from Dad before he died. Look at it. How could you not know you were his whole world? Not good at showing much affection, but he still loved you. Dad got rid of the stuff he gave you because he thought he was a bad husband.”
Mom didn’t respond. She was sobbing and sniveling like a baby. She rocked back and forth.
“And Mom, you’re not going to treat me this way anymore. I’m your little Cherry on top. Remember when you used to call me that?”
Mom’s face turned to Cherry then finally at the torn note in her hands. After what seemed like an eternity, she closed her eyes as if to meditate. The scissors slipped from her bleeding hand into the bath water.
Cherry heard glass shattering, a thud, and a banging noise. She jumped.
“Cherry?” the voice called.
She sighed with relief; “Up here!” she called back.
Jared appeared in the doorway, then his face relaxed. “Cherry, are you all right?”
“Thank heavens you’re here,” Cherry pulled Jared towards her.
“I was so worried,” Jared’s voice wavered. “When you didn’t answer your phone, I- I thought…well you know…”
“Shhhh,” Cherry placed her hand over Jared’s lips. “She’s not going to do anything to me.”
Jared nodded. “Look what I found by the front doorway.” Jared held Mom’s scarf, ripped into shreds, along with the pictures of the family and him and Cherry together. The faces were cut out. She pushed her fingers through the holes.
She choked back the tears, “Dad gave her this scarf in Italy for her birthday…”
“I’ll go downstairs and wait for you. They’re here now and they’ll take care of her.”
“Thank you, hon,” Cherry’s voice quivered.
After Jared went downstairs, Cherry turned back to Mom, and climbed into the tub.
“You don’t have to be alone anymore. I’ll take care of you. We all will,” Cherry kissed her forehead, wrapping her arms around her.
Only then did Mom take Cherry’s hand, hold it to her chest, then smiled.