Never Came Back: Chapter 10
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I returned home from walking with Bitsy with a heavy weight on my chest. Thoughts of Dad spiraled through my mind, mixed with marriage papers, and random memories of mom that cropped up with it. A text pinged on my phone.
Hope your day goes well, Dad texted. I won't be in town today, but would love to meet up soon. Thanks again.
With a frown, I tossed the cell phone on the passenger seat of my car to respond to later. My legs ached. I leaned my forehead against the steering wheel with a sigh. I knew I didn't have to talk to mom, but I also knew I Would.
I don't want to do this, I thought, blinking. I don't want to see her and know they're still married.
She'd be inside, absorbed in her television. Crumbs of food would litter the kitchen counters. Or maybe it would be pristine and smell like Windex, for when she hid her massive food binges. We used to binge together, laughing at TV comedies. A pang struck my heart. I missed those happy moments, even if they were built on a rocky foundation.
"I got this," I said, sucking in a deep breath through my nose. Hearing my own voice gave me strength. "I can do this. I don't have to talk to her about Dad."
My keys bounced against my leg when I shuffled inside, quietly closing the door behind me. "Hey Mom," I called, pitching my keys onto a stand next to the door. My feet seemed to sigh when I pulled them out of my sneakers, peeled off my socks, and luxuriated in the cool press of the wooden floor on the soles.
No response came from the other room. When I rushed inside, I let out a long breath of relief. She wore a set of headphones. The light from the TV flickered against the dark walls. She'd turned off almost all the lights. When I flipped the switch in the kitchen, she glanced up, her eyes distant as if coming from a trance.
"Oh, hey," she said. "How was the walk?"
"Fine," I called while rooting through the fridge. I shoved aside a package of bologna, a tupperware of spaghetti and meatballs—she always added a little brown sugar to make the marinara sauce sweeter—and a half-empty pizza box. I grabbed an apple from the crisper, a water bottle from the door, and straightened up. Mom had already turned back to the TV.
"How was your day?" I asked, twisting the cap off the water. It cracked with a couple of pops. The sound satisfied the ball of tension drifting around my chest. I drew in another deep breath.
"Finish your work projects?" I asked.
She lifted the remote and flipped the channel, eventually settling on an old rerun of NCIS. Trying to predict the killer had been one of our favorite games. Actually, she seemed to have a knack for it.
"Yep," she said. The usual silence fell. Her skin looked pasty white in the restless light of the television, and I wondered when she'd been outside last. After being hospitalized with her heart attack, she'd gone on a few walks. Not many. The activity pained her knees and hips. Still, she'd tried. Sometimes, she sat in the sun. Slowly, however, that had decreased.
When I drank, the water ran down the back of my throat with a cool kiss. I downed half the bottle and cleared my throat. "Hey, Mom. Can we talk?"
I waited for her to turn off the TV, but it continued to flicker in the background. Light flooded the room when I flipped the switch. In the light, Mom looked pale. The fan blew directly on her from above, tossing her thin hair, which she wore in a simple braid behind her head. She used to love styling it in varying bobs. I frowned, wondering when that had stopped.
Her eyes didn't quite meet mine. "What's up?" she asked around the sound of a dog food commercial. Her hand reached for her usual bowl of honey roasted peanuts at her side, but they were already empty.
"Can we talk without the TV on?"
She muted it. The silence swelled for a moment, until I let out a deep breath.
"Uh, Mom, something happened earlier this week that I wanted to talk to you about today."
Mom readjusted her robe, fidgeting with the frayed edge. She still didn't look at me. I wondered if this inability to look in my eyes had sprouted some of my wild teenage abandon. I could see myself at sixteen, silently begging her to catch me while I had boys in my room. See me, I could imagine myself saying. Please see me.
"Okay," she murmured.
The words stuck in my throat. Dad is here. How could I say them without giving her a heart attack? Would Mom panic? Would she scream? No, Mom didn't scream anymore. She retreated. Fell back into that shell where she saw nothing; not even me.
"Dad came over."
They fell out of my mouth like gunfire. Fast. Heavy. Mom blinked. Her forehead furrowed into deep grooves that reminded me of garden furrows.
"Dad," I said. "Dad came back."
In the greatest display of emotion I'd seen in years, her eyebrows rose. "Oh?"
"Few days ago. He wanted to speak with me. We went out to dinner and talked for a long time."
We've been texting, I wanted to say. You're still married, by the way. So there's that.
Her nostrils flared. I held my breath. Would she say something? Would she be angry, or frustrated, or at least feel betrayed? Yelling at me would be far preferable to her stoic, toneless silence that stretched like a distant gong.
She turned back to the TV. I saw her stunned uncertainly in her tense profile. The clench of her jaw. Her wiggling brow that didn't seem to know where to settle. Then it all slipped away. She fell behind her glass mask of vapid indifference. It happened like a light switch. On. Off.
"Mom? He uh . . . he wants to talk to you about the divorce. He says you aren't answering his calls."
She didn't respond. I leaned forward, tugging on her sleeve. She remained in place. Her eyes didn't seem to see the flashing figures on the television. The restless ticking of the clock in the background. Was she breathing? Her chest moved slightly every now and then.
She tore off her headphones, lifted the remote, and hit the volume button. A flood of sound filled the room. She turned it up, higher, until it wouldn't go any louder. Wincing, I stood up, my hands covering my ears.
"Can you turn it down?" I called.
Her lips pressed in a tense line. Frowning, I stood up. The raucous game show grated on my nerves.
"He has some papers for you to look at!"
Mom tried to turn it higher.
Unable to bear another moment, I reached for the plug and yanked it from the wall. The TV silenced into a gray screen, reflecting the drab room. In the wake of it, a strange silence followed. I wondered when I last heard nothing in this house.
"Plug it back in," she said, nostrils flared.
"Mom, did you hear me?"
"Plug. It. Back. In."
The seething, low rage in her voice frightened me. For some reason, I couldn't bring myself to say the word Dad. I thought about saying you need to sign the divorce papers already, but that was his fight, not mine.
"He needs to talk to you."
Her face screwed up in wrinkled concentration. With a grunt, she pushed free of the couch, moving over to the TV with great difficulty. The fabric of her robe hung around her in ratty yards. Her body seemed to have taken the shape of the couch. I swallowed, tears in my eyes, as she plugged the TV back in. The blast of noise filled the room again, drowning out all my frenzied thoughts.
Mom worked her way back to the television and said no more. I opened my mouth, then closed it again. Seconds later, I found myself stalking to the car, tears tracking down my cheeks like hot rivers of magma.
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