Little Surprises -Week 4

Click here to learn about my self imposed Ray Bradbury 52 week short story challenge. 

Do you care where I get the inspiration for my short stories? Probably not but there are only about 5 people who read my blog regularly and I’m not going to guess how many of those are family members, so I feel free to ramble. This is based on the breath of a true story, not mine, but true nonetheless. One day I will write the real story or a truer version, until then here is my massively fictionalized rum induced writer’s dream.

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Little Surprises

“I don’t love you.” She spoke in the dark to no one.

“I don’t love you.”

She spoke as a child who looked at her mother with pudgy cheeks, damp with tears, mourning the loss of a toy she would be denied no matter how she pleaded. “I don’t love you.”

The words poured from Annie’s eyes onto the pillow beneath her head. She didn’t realize that she was crying, or even alive except the cracking inside her chest signaled the breaking of her most vital organ.

“What’s the matter” her mother said standing in the open doorway, blocking light from the kitchen from filling the dark room. “What’s the matter?” she asked, though she knew.

Annie sat up on her elbows and looked at her mother through swollen eyes.

“Why are you crying?” Her mother said then sighed.

Annie said nothing but laid back down and stared into the darkness above her head. The door clicked closed and outside the room she heard her mother and sister cleaning the table from dinner. Eva hummed a song her mother whistled along to and Annie drifted to sleep and dreamed a hundred dreams she would never remember.

In one of them her father sat beside her on her bed and said nothing. Dressed in his uniform, he smiled and touched her face then faded away into the morning rays of sunlight caught by crystal window hangings and scattered on the far wall of her room. Annie opened her eyes to the vague feeling that she was not alone.

Her empty stomach rolled as she sat up and saw that Eva’s bed was empty, the sheets half on the floor next to a discarded nightgown and a stack of books with fabric markers sticking out at various intervals.

“Eva” she said bending over to pick up the clothes her younger sister left in a pile the night before.

The smell of eggs called her to the kitchen and she left her own bed unmade, stopping by the bureau to change from the dress she’d fallen asleep in. The brown calico fell to the floor, her undergarments accompanied it and she looked into the small oval mirror glad to be able to avoid anything below her neck. As her stomach grew, so did her distaste for her own body. Everything was different now, her mother said it was too early, that the changes were in her own mind but there was the bulge in her stomach and her breasts were sore. When she bathed and washed her hair, it came out in long strings between her fingers. It was too soon for the world to know, but it wasn’t too soon for her.

She began wearing her mother’s dresses, though they were too big on her and her own still fit fine. She didn’t feel she had a right to look pretty the way she once had, and for weeks she had seen no one except the man who brought milk and never looked up from his task to see her smile or frown, much less notice if she was pretty or plain.

There was a fullness beginning to grow inside her and a sad irony that with each passing day the emptiness she felt grew a little more than her unborn child.

Annie wrote to Leo but the letters came back unopened. The lack of response reminding her of the final words he said before he left for school. “I can’t.”

Her hope had died with those words. The elation she’d felt when she realized why she’d been so sick and the promise of a happy life with the one she loved ended before she had a chance to think of what they would name the baby. He couldn’t, it was true, but she had no choice.

“You don’t give yourself away to summer boyfriends.” Her best friend Lily told her.

She buttoned the front of her dress and wondered what her father would say if he was still alive. At night in her dreams he held her as he had when she was a child and twisted the end of her hair around his finger and told her that everything would be alright, but she couldn’t be sure the dreams were real. The minister of the church she’d attended all her life said there were only evil spirits and that any lingering feeling of life in an empty room belonged to overactive imagination but her imagination didn’t explain why Annie felt peace when she cried out for her father.

She closed her eyes and called his voice. “Ah, my macushla d’not worry so.” His Irish brogue had faded and his words seemed far away but they were enough to help her finish getting dressed, enough to help her fix her hair before she left her bedroom. She slipped her father’s signet ring on her finger and turned to face her mother.

The kitchen smelled of fried eggs and burnt toast and Annie watched Eva move from the stove to the breakfast table without looking up to acknowledge her. She had a teacup and saucer balanced in the crook of her arm and whispered “damn” when a piece of toast fell to the floor. Annie said, “I’ll get the silverware.” And walked toward the china cabinet.

“No!” Eva almost dropped the plate she held. “Friday is my morning. I’ll do it.”

Annie smiled and dropped the three forks. The silverware inside shook when she tried to push the stubborn drawer back in its place.

“Will you tell mother to come inside please?” Eva looked up for the first time since Annie had come into the room and was surprised to see her sister dressed and looking almost normal. Her hair was pinned up and pretty the way she’d always worn it before Leo left for school and life left Annie. “I have to get to school early.” Eva said telling herself she would never fall in love. She turned back to the pot of bubbling porridge on the stovetop and Annie stuck the top half of her body out of the screen door. Her mother was talking to Mrs. Bates.

“Mother,” she tried not to yell. “Breakfast.”

The two women looked up. Mrs. Bates smiled, waved and said loud enough for Annie to hear, “I wish my daughters were as helpful as yours Molly.” Her mother laughed and said goodbye then walked towards the house and Annie pulling her coat a little tighter to her chest. The wind whipped and she shouted for Annie to get inside.

Tea the color of wine was still warm in the teapot when the three were done with their meal. Eva leaned over and kissed her mother goodbye, smiled at Annie, and gathered the scattered contents of her school bag.

“Be careful” Molly called out to her daughter as the girl wrapped a scarf around her neck, “It snowed a lot last night.”

“Alright Mother” Eva smiled and left.

Sitting at the table Molly closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose while Annie gathered dishes from the table and carried them to the sink. “Do you want more tea Mother?” she said, but Molly shook her head and opened her eyes. Annie watched her mother’s gaze on the wall of hanging pots and skillets. She wondered what she thought of as she sat in the quiet of the morning. She felt sad to look at her mother and see only a shadow of what once had been. From pictures Annie knew she had been the loveliest of all her friends and sisters. The light shone through her eyes in those old photographs even when everything else had been hard to make out.

She had been married once before she met Annie’s father and Patrick was more handsome in the faded grey photographs than any man she’d seen in color, though childlike loyalty forbid her from verbalizing that sentiment and maintained that her father was certainly the most handsome.

Patrick died a day before they were married a year and Annie’s aunts had often told her that they feared that Molly’s heart would never recover from the blow.

“It had been a rainy day, when Patrick was hit by a car on his way to work.”  They told her. It had always been such a romantic tragedy to Annie as a girl, she compared the wedding picture in her mind of her mother and Patrick to the pictures she had of her father and mother.

“He healed her” Aunt Edna said of Annie’s father and Annie wondered if the healing came suddenly or slow like spring after a long winter.

“We feared she would never smile again.”

But the smile she found when she married Annie and Eva’s father only lasted until his death. When Annie was 14 her father had a heart attack and left a widow and two daughters. In her own grief Annie never noticed her mother’s rapid aging or that her smile had changed completely from the one her daughters had known before their father’s death. It was almost as if her face forgot how and what she showed to the world after was only a mask.

It had been four years of grief silenced by hard work and the need to provide.

Annie was struck by the picture before her of a woman grown old because of loss of love and the fight to survive.

She’d grown to think of her mother as cold but standing above her she knew that she had felt everything the world threw at her and felt it close but shared it with no one. She wondered how much unknown grief had been held in the rough hands now cradling a cracked teacup.

“Sit please?” Her mother asked.

Outside someone’s chicken had gotten loose and ran up their back steps. Through the open screen they heard a man curse, grab the escaped fowl and wave an apologetic hand to the women he hadn’t seen sitting at the table.

“Mrs. Bates has a cousin in Ohio.”

Annie poured tea in her empty cup.

“She knows of a house for girls” her mother paused then looked Annie in the eye when she said, “in your position.”

Molly looked at her daughter who put a teacup full of lukewarm tea to her lips and drank. Her face twisted at the bitter taste and the girl who was quickly becoming a woman looked at her mother.

“I think you should go there and have the baby.” Molly told her daughter.

Annie said nothing but wondered what Leo would think.

“He isn’t coming back.” Molly said.

There were no more tears that needed to fall or words between the two that hadn’t been spoken in the silent bond between mother and daughter. Annie didn’t tell her mother that she loved Leo, her mother knew. She didn’t say that she wanted to keep the baby because both women knew a bastard child and an unwed mother would never get any further than the kitchen table where they sat trying to make peace with an inevitability that would break so many hearts.

Molly curled her callused fingers around the long slender ones that Annie clutched to the fabric table cloth. She didn’t need to tell her daughter that she had to let go.

“Can’t I stay?” Annie asked, her plea little above a whisper, “Please.” She knew that she had to go but that she would beg to stay.

“You’ll start to show soon.” Molly said and that one fact answered every question that could be asked.

It didn’t matter that everyone on the block knew, unmarried and pregnant wasn’t something that good families allowed, no matter how poor they were.

“What if it was Patrick?” Annie asked then wished she hadn’t.

Molly sat still for a moment and thought while her forefinger rubbed the flowered handle of a teaspoon. Outside the chicken called out in clucks that she’d escaped her owner again and followed the sound of children on their way to school down the sidewalk. Through the door Molly and Annie could hear the chicken cluck, and the children squeal and giggle until the sound quieted and Molly said,

“You’ve never asked me why I don’t go to church with you girls.”

Annie didn’t know what to say. Her mother worked all the time and she always supposed she used Sunday morning to catch up on laundry or the mending she did for some of the neighbors to supplement her income. The girls went every week then most days came home and relayed the message for their mother while they had their afternoon tea. Sometimes Molly would knit and nod but sometimes when she was in a dark mood, would tell the girls to keep their preaching outside.

“It’s because” She said to Annie, “once it was Patrick.”

When your life unravels in the moments it takes to tell a single story nothing will ever seem sure again. No amount of rooting yourself in a place or with a people will change what you know, that life and love and truth are fleeting and change as sure as snow melts and turns to water only to freeze into ice that causes you to stumble and slip.

Annie sat with flat palms on white linen and listened to her mother tell her of a life she’d never heard. Molly gave her innocence up one night after ice skating with friends on Sun Prairie pond. It was January and the night was the coldest it had been that winter. The sky was so clear that the stars looked like specks of gold lit from behind by sunlight. “He could have asked me anything then.” Molly said smiling at the memory of Patrick. “It was more romantic than any poem ever written.”

Molly looked at her daughter and wished only that she would understand. “I got pregnant that night.” She told Annie about how Patrick was afraid and wanted her to get rid of the baby, and about her father and the aggressive way he’d convinced Patrick that marriage was the only option.

“He ran away and died when the car he was driving hit a patch of ice on a windy road.”

Annie didn’t believe it, she’d always felt a quiet kinship towards Patrick because he was her mother’s first love and everything she knew about him, most of the things imagined, proved that he was good and kind.

“You’re his.” Molly said through tears Annie had never seen before. Questions rushed into her mind and poured from her lips faster than she could hope to remember what she said to her mother who was across from her sitting steady, streaming tears. If she had been able to recall anything at all Annie would know that she had asked nothing. The hand of someone from a world not far from her own was placed over her moving lips so that all Molly heard was an audible rush of breath and groan. Arms they could not see encircled them both, holding Molly’s shaky shoulders and Annie’s quivering hands.

It had all been a lie, the wedding to Patrick and the pictures that were nothing more than snapshots from an afternoon by the river. Molly couldn’t bear for her children to think of her as loose so that when they were old enough to ask her second husband had taken Annie in his lap and told her that once long ago her mother had been married to a man she loved, a man she had grown up with from the time of her girlhood but that he died and left her broken. It was, Annie thought, more truth than lie.

“Then I’m not Daddy’s?” Annie asked the only real question she needed an answer to.

“Of course you are.” Molly felt a hot rage to defend the life she’d built and the heart of the last man she loved, the man whose arms were cloaked in the veil on the other side of time and wrapped around their daughter Annie.

“He loved you” she said, and could almost see him. “You were one when we met, I was living with my Mother in disgrace. No one would see me, or you.” It was hard for Molly to get the words out but the time for truth had come and gone and she was left with the rocky remains of a life that might still be within the grasp of her daughter, if only she could make her understand. “Mother took you to church every Sunday but I wasn’t allowed. People in the market wouldn’t speak to me.”

Annie stared at her mother.

“I grew so fat that I couldn’t move before you were born and after I didn’t want to.”

Molly went on to tell her daughter about the darkness that came with those days, and the longing for any life at all. “You think that you can handle it, but you can’t.”

“You did.” Annie told her mother, trying to grasp at what she was losing.

“No, I didn’t.” Molly shook her head. “I met your father the day I was going to jump from a bridge into a half frozen river. Annie sat back in her chair and brought her hands to her throat. “He talked me down” her mother said, “Then took me home and made me coffee and asked what was so wrong about life that I would want to leave it.”

She saw the pain her daughter was in. “We were married a few months later and moved to Tennessee. He wanted you to grow up without a stigma and to believe that you were his very own.” She smiled at Annie, “because sweetie, you were.”

“You want me to give this baby away.” Annie looked at her mother wanting understand and run away. “Do you wish you’d given me away?”

Molly’s eyes were dry now, she wiped away the last of the tears and resolved not to let any more fall on the table that morning. Annie had to give the baby up, there was no other option Molly would allow. When Patrick left her and her life ended she resented the baby that grew inside her. She hadn’t held Annie after she was born or given her a name. Her mother did all that. Her mother was the one that rocked the baby to sleep each night after it nursed at Molly’s breast and wished she could cry or feel anything anymore. When she was saved from the bridge over the river Molly had been disappointed. She just wanted to feel something again even if it was a flash of pain before the blackness. She’d never hoped for heaven after losing Patrick twice. Annie wanted to keep the baby, Molly was sure of that, but she couldn’t know all the horrors that would come with a baby born on the wrong side of matrimony.

“You didn’t want me.” Annie said. “You don’t want me now.”

“Annie.” Her mother moved toward her but Annie stood and backed away.

“Patrick didn’t want me, Leo didn’t want me and you don’t.” She had her hands placed protectively over her stomach “How do I know you aren’t lying about Daddy too?!” She cried.

Molly saw that she was losing the one battle she needed to win, the fight for understanding and a life Annie was going to give up before it began.

“Don’t be ridiculous” She said trying to regain control, “Of course I want you.”

Outside the snow began to fall as children, late for school, ran down slick sidewalks careful to avoid hidden ice. The man with the chicken who wouldn’t quit leaving her pen wandered down the street clicking his tongue to his cheek. Molly stood at the kitchen sink while warm water ran over bowls of crusted porridge and watched the chicken peck in her white yard. She wondered when the snow would melt and spring would come, she wondered what life would look like then, in the warm sun with flowers blooming all around. A saucer slipped from her hands, fell to the floor and shattered. From her bedroom Annie heard the crash and looked up from open suitcases but didn’t move to help. So much had been broken already, one little dish didn’t seem like much to her anymore. They decided that she would go to Ohio early, as early as the next morning if there was room on the train, and that one more secret from Eva wouldn’t be hard to keep. There were hardly any clothes she needed to pack, Molly had been assured that everything Annie needed would be provided, but she packed socks and nightgowns anyway, not wanting to board the train empty-handed. There were books of her father’s that she wanted to take and read through but she didn’t. He didn’t seem like hers anymore. Annie removed the signet ring from her finger and left it on the lace covered table by her sister’s bed. Eva wouldn’t question anything left behind in her hasty departure. She left the pictures of Patrick too, preferring to embrace her fate as one who was undesired by all who had claim to her. “You probably wouldn’t want me either” she told the child inside her.

In the end she boarded the train with one suitcase instead of two. Her mother saw her off with a kiss on the cheek and a reminder that even if she didn’t believe it, she was cherished. Eva cried and hugged her sister. “I’ll see you soon” Annie promised over the whistle of the train. “Goodbye” she kissed the top of her sister’s blonde head and mounted the steps, never turning to wave goodbye.

Annie found her seat and was happy to be surrounded by three empty places. Looking out of the window as the train sped away, she didn’t cry as she thought she would or feel the loneliness of her impending year long solitude. If she had been able to see her father and Patrick in the empty seats across from her she would have known that it was because she had never been alone and that what she felt sometimes in the quiet of night or when she looked at a picture of someone she loved was a longing for a kind sight she couldn’t have on this side of the veil. She smiled as the train sped past the pond she swam in with her father and sister and across the seat in his arms a baby wiggled and laughed.

Callie Armstrong © 2014

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. You’ve got the gift girl!

  2. Oh my gosh Callie. I don’t even quite know how to express how amazing this story is. It literally made me cry. It’s amazing, beautiful, touching, unforgettable. There are so many descriptions and details that had me shaking my head in wonder – your writing is heart and soul, pure and true, utterly mesmerizing. You really do have a rare talent that I am in awe of, and it is such a pleasure to read your wonderfully moving stories!

  3. Truly wonderful. You do tell this so well and the heartbreak for both women comes through. The story I’m writing at the moment touches on this theme too, but more from the perspective of the man involved. But the idea of the shame women were faced to endure when pregnant out of wedlock is something which the story hinges on.
    You say it’s a true story and you are right. How many women, even successive generations of women have gone through this? Even now women go through this;not the stigma of unplanned, out-of wedlock pregnancy so much but certainly abandonment after pregnancy.
    It’s a beautifully written story on so many levels. I am honoured to be one of the five who regularly do read your blog! 🙂 Who’d want to miss out on this?

  4. Wow! That was powerful. You write emotional scenes so well, never spreading it on too thick, just enough to give us a glimpse. I really enjoy reading your work. Thanks for sharing!

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