This bit of fiction was written for a client who was compiling stories for a site about love and loss. I’m assuming it’s not the site to visit when you need to see something cheery and uplifting. Despite its decidedly less-than-sunny tone, I think it’s a good example of my fiction work and shows off some of my dialogue skills.
Emily was waiting for her visitor. She set her book down and looked out the window. The view was nothing to write home about, as her mother would have said. Unremarkable buildings in unremarkable shades of brown and gray set against a dull, slate sky, while run-of-the-mill cars trundled past and anonymous people emerged from, and disappeared into, the boring buildings. There wasn’t much more to speak of happening on her side of the window. Down the long hallway behind her, a number of residents (they were called residents rather than patients to make them feel more at home, although Emily often thought captives or inmates might be more fitting) sat parked in wheelchairs outside their rooms, staring at nothing, many not even aware of their surroundings. Nurses moved along the hallway seemingly in no particular hurry to get anywhere, stopping occasionally to administer medication or speak to a patient in a voice that said “you may be three times my age but I consider you a child.”
When she was a girl, Emily often sat at the window waiting for a visitor to arrive. Of course, the view was much more beautiful then. Her father had died in an automobile accident when she was very young, but he’d left Emily and her mother well taken care of. Their home was in one of the nicer sections of town and from her second story window, she had a lovely view of the rolling hills and trees that bordered her neighborhood. While waiting, she could see people out for a stroll, the mailman making his rounds and other children out playing hopscotch or hide-and-go-seek.
Growing up, her best friend was Rose who lived on the next block. Rose would usually come to play at Emily’s house because even at eight years old, Emily’s mother insisted on walking her where ever she went. Embarrassed at being treated like a baby at such an age, Emily found it easier to just invite her friends over rather than arrive everywhere with her over-protective mother in tow.
One of the games Emily and Rose most loved was Ballerina Faeries. They could spend hours dancing and playing in the backyard garden, pretending they were as tiny as hummingbirds, darting and spinning from flower to flower, hiding from each other and from “people” under the feathery, soft petals.
“One day,” Emily told her mother, “Rose and I are going to be real ballerinas. We’re going to move to New York City and join a ballet company and then travel the world and become famous!”
“Oh Emily,” her mother said. “Why would you want to do such a thing? Who would take care of me if you were out dancing all over the world? Why don’t you just stay here and dance for mommy in the living room like you do now? Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Emily didn’t think that would be fun at all. But it didn’t matter much. Rose and her family moved away a couple of years later and the ballerina dreams went with them.
As Emily grew older, she saw her school chums gaining little freedoms — wearing make-up, hanging out at the diner after football and basketball games and going to dances with boys. But with each passing year, Emily’s mother grew more protective and shortened Emily’s leash. And more and more often, it seemed, she brought up the loss of her husband as the reason behind Emily’s lack of freedom.
“You never know what might happen. Your father was just going to work and he never came home.”
“It might not seem like a big deal, but it was just an ordinary day for your father, too.”
“I already lost your father, I couldn’t stand it if I lost you.”
When she started high school, Emily took a journalism class and joined the school newspaper. There she developed a close friendship with a girl named Stacy who shared her interest in writing. Together they covered stories about the activities of various school groups, like the drama club and pep squad, and did investigative pieces on stories such as the condition of the girl’s locker room … bad, and the quality of the cafeteria food … worse!
“I can’t wait to go to college!” she told her mother over dinner one night. “Stacy and I are going to find a school with a great journalism program and share a dorm room and win Pulitzer prizes before we even graduate!”
“Dorm room?” her mother said. “Just where do you plan on going to school?”
“I don’t know,” Emily said. “You told me daddy left enough money for me to go to college.”
“He did,” her mother said. “But I’m sure he didn’t intend for you to go running off somewhere and leave your mother all alone. There are local schools you could go to.”
“I know there are,” Emily said. “But none of them have the kind of journalism program I want. I thought a school on the east coast might have …”
“The east coast?” her mother exclaimed. “Oh no. No, no, no. That’s much too far. What would I do without you? What if something happened to you?”
“Mom, nothing is going to happen to me!”
“I’m sure that’s what your father thought. And look what happened to him.”
“One minute he was just going to work,” her mother said. “And the next minute we were alone. No, not again. There’s money for school … for a local school.”
“Mom! That’s not fair!”
“Your father dying wasn’t fair,” her mother said. “But it’s the hand we were dealt. Now, come on dear, finish your dinner.”
“I’m not hungry,” Emily said. “May I be excused?”
“Oh, don’t go,” her mother replied. “You know how I hate to eat alone.”
One day Emily came home from school very excited. A boy she liked had asked her to the Homecoming dance. Michael was older than her and handsome and sweet and Emily didn’t even think he knew she existed.
“Mom!” she called when she walked in the door. “Mom! Are you home?”
Her mother came rushing out of the kitchen. “Oh, Emily! Thank God! You’re late. I was so worried about you!”
Emily glanced up at the clock on the living room wall. “Mom, I’m like fifteen minutes late.”
“Anything can happen in fifteen minutes,” her mother said. “You need to call me next time you’re going to be late.”
“It would take me longer than fifteen minutes to find a phone,” Emily said.
“Are you trying to make me worry on purpose?”
Emily took a deep breath. “No Mom, of course not,” she said. “I promise. Next time I’ll call. Now, guess what happened.”
“Was there an accident?”
“Mom, no,” Emily rolled her eyes. “It’s not always something tragic. A boy asked me to Homecoming!”
“Do I know him?”
“No, I barely know him.”
“Not a stranger. I go to school with him.”
“I suppose he’s one of those football players who’s always going to those beer parties,” her mother said.
“Actually,” Emily replied. “He’s vice-president of the student body and president of the math club.”
“Sounds like an egghead,” her mother scoffed.
Emily sighed. “Would anyone make you happy?” she asked.
“No one is good enough for my little girl,” her mother said, smiling. “Now, let me have his phone number. I’d like to call his mother.”
“Absolutely not,” Emily shot back.
“Emily!” her mother said, surprised. “I can’t have you spending time with someone if I don’t know his parents.”
“Don’t test me on this one, mom,” Emily said. “I really like this boy and I’m not going to let you embarrass me by treating me like a baby. I’m sixteen and old enough to pick my own dates. You can meet him when he comes to pick me up.”
“I don’t think I like your tone, young lady.”
“You’re going to like it a lot less if you mess this up for me,” Emily told her.
“Fine,” her mother huffed. “But I want to talk to him. I want him to understand that there are rules. I won’t have you two out gallivanting around until all hours.”
“Fine,” Emily agreed. And she smiled. For the first time in her life, she felt like she’d won a small victory against her mother.
Emily was quite sure that the two weeks between the day he asked her to the dance and Homecoming Day passed more slowly than the two weeks before Christmas when she was a child. But that evening had flown by far too quickly. Maybe it was because the silences didn’t feel awkward, maybe it was because she could have stared into his soft, brown eyes for hours without being bored or maybe it was because when he kissed her time stood still. But she supposed it was actually because that was the night she had fallen in love.
Time after that night moved in waves for Emily, the elongated stretches between seeing Michael, and the rushing whirlwind spent in his presence. And, of course, her mother did everything she could to minimize the amount of time they spent together.
“You know you’re not going to be able to get into one of those fancy-schmancy colleges if your grades start to suffer because of all the time you’re spending with that boy,” her mother said.
“His name is Michael and you don’t want me going to one of those fancy-schmancy colleges anyway.”
“Well, you won’t be able to get into any school if they drop too much.”
“My math grade has actually gone up, mom,” Emily told her. “Stop worrying.”
“What I’m worried about,” her mother said, her voice dropping to a whisper, “is you getting pregnant.”
“Mom!” Emily exclaimed.
“You’ll ruin your life,” her mother said. “You’ll ruin my life. I don’t want to raise another child.”
“Trust me, mom,” Emily told her. “It’s not something you need to worry about.”
“Oh, I worry,” her mother said. “I worry a lot. The more you’re away from me, the more influence he has over you. You need to spend more time with your mother, that’s what you need.”
“That’s what you need,” Emily replied.
“Well maybe you’re right,” her mother said, her voice beginning to quaver. “I mean, who do I have? Just you. And now you’re off with that boy and I’ve got no one. I miss you and our time together.”
“Oh mom,” Emily said, “Don’t cry …”
“And one day you’ll miss me,” her mother went on. “A girl needs her mother. Mothers and daughters are a special bond. Especially one like ours where we’re all each other has in the world.”
“But mom,” Emily said softly, “I’ve got Michael now.”
“Oh, Michael, Michael, Michael,” her mother sobbed. “Michael is just a boy. I’m your mother. I need you!”
The next year, when Emily was a senior in high school, Michael went away to college. Both thought their hearts would break and poured out their feelings in long letters to each other over the months until he came home during breaks over Easter, Christmas and summer. While many young people might find their feelings waning during such long periods apart, Emily and Michael fell squarely in the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” camp.
It seemed the deeper in love they fell, the more despondent Emily’s mother became. Often taking to her bed for long periods at a time, sleeping for days on end and refusing to eat. Emily grew so concerned about her that she decided to forgo her first year of college to stay at home and look after her mother, afraid to leave her alone.
Apparently, that did the trick because her mother rallied under Emily’s devoted attention and only slipped back into her depression after Michael’s first visit during the spring of his sophomore year.
Emily had been sitting in her usual spot, in her second story bedroom window, watching and waiting, when she spotted him driving up the street. He pulled to a stop at the curb and got out of the car, a bouquet of roses in hand. Emily paused for a moment, smiling, relishing the sight of him after so many months – his sandy hair blowing slightly in the wind, his crooked smile, the bounce in his step as he made his way up the walk to the front door. She heard the bell ring and raced for the for the door; passing her mother, who’d also heard him arrive, on the stairs.
She yanked open the door and for a moment didn’t see him until she looked down. There he was, on one knee, roses in one hand, a small, open jeweler’s box in the other. “I can’t stand to be away from you a minute longer. You’re my everything and I need you by my side for now and forever. Please say you’ll marry me.”
Her mother gasped.
“Yes, yes!” Emily cried. “Of course I’ll marry you!”
Michael stood up and lifted her into his arms, spinning her around. “I’m officially the happiest man on earth,” he told her.
Both grinning from ear to ear, they turned to face Emily’s mother to receive their congratulations and were instead greeted with a look of abject horror.
“No, no, no,” she sputtered. “No, this is not happening.”
“Mom?” Emily said. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re too young. You’re both too young. It’s too soon.”
“Well I didn’t intend to get married right this minute,” Michael said. “I’ve got the school year to finish, but I thought this summer …”
“And then what?” Emily’s mother demanded. “You’ve still got two more years of school left. Where will you live? In the dorm?”
“I’ve got some money saved,” Michael told her. “We can get an apartment off campus and …”
“What about Emily? When is she supposed to go to school?”
“Well, I thought she could start at the university with me.”
“With you?” her mother yelled. “And what about me?”
“Ma’am?” Michael asked, confused.
“Who’s going to take care of me?” she shouted.
Michael looked at Emily. “I thought she was getting better.”
Emily shot her mother a warning look. “So did I,” she said.
The Day of The Proposal, as Emily had come to think of it, was the last time her mother had really been well. She’d been in bed when Emily had returned from her date with Michael that night and hadn’t gotten up except to use the bathroom for more than a week. And all during that time, Emily had been unable to convince her mother to eat and could scarcely get her to drink more than a few sips of water. Finally, she’d gotten so worried she’d called her mother’s doctor who’d told her to call for an ambulance.
Her mother had spent more than a month recuperating in a mental hospital, diagnosed with severe depression. When she’d finally come home, it was with a plethora of pills, many of which left her so groggy and lethargic she still spent a great deal of time in bed. When she was out of bed, she wasn’t much better. Whether it was the medication, her hospital stay or her condition, she’d become even more clingy and dependent. Whereas before she became nervous and anxious when Emily left the house, now she became so if Emily left her sight. She also lost the will or the capacity to do things for herself …
“Emily, will you cut up my chicken for me?”
“Emily, I can’t reach my book.”
“Emily, my water glass is empty.”
Almost overnight, Emily became her mother’s sole caregiver.
Michael was patient at first, hoping her mother’s condition would improve, or that Emily would get help caring for her. And Emily did try. But every nurse and aide Emily brought in was met with such a fuss and such abuse, they rarely lasted more than a few weeks. They discussed finding a home for her, but at her mother’s relatively young age, Emily didn’t have the finances to sustain her in one for the rest of her life.
After Michael graduated, he took a job on the east coast, where Emily had dreamed of being a ballerina and going to college. He begged her to come with him, to put her mother in a home for just a few years, until they could get on their feet, but Emily said she couldn’t. She was all her mother had and she couldn’t leave her all alone the way her father had.
Eventually, the letters became fewer and farther between, and the ones that did come were filled with more mundane details about his life and his work, and less about his love and his longing for her.
Then one day the phone rang and when she answered she was surprised to hear his voice. After a bit of chit chat, he finally said, “Emily, I’ve got something to tell you and I didn’t want to say it in a letter.”
Emily slowly placed the phone back in the receiver. As long as she didn’t hear the words, as long as she didn’t know, she could go on with her life. She could wait. She would wait. She would hope. She went to her room, she sat by the window and she watched.
In the nursing home, an aide gently shook her shoulder. “Miss Emily? Miss Emily?” Then she quietly called to one of the nurses who was coming out of a nearby room, “Helen, I think Miss Emily has passed.”
Helen felt Emily’s wrist for a pulse. “Poor dear. And still sitting here waiting.”
“For Michael,” Helen said. “Always for Michael.”
“I’ll ask admin to contact him,” said the aide.
“Don’t bother,” Helen said. “There’s not really any Michael. Probably never was.”