Kristy Ramirez writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, love letters and grocery lists. Her work has appeared online in Literary Mama, Tribe Magazine, and SheLoves Magazine, among other places. She lives in Texas with her husband and four children and writes to make sure she leaves something in the world besides clutter.
The flies circle again. Allowed in by the wide open back door, they find me as I sit statue-like on the edge of the couch, no longer bothering to close off their entrance.
The buzz, a previous annoyance, now offers companionship and brings to mind the usual worries. Did Willow pass her spelling test? Is Jack’s bully still the menace he was, conjuring nightmares and fears of school?
I don’t have answers to my morning questions. Removed from my own life, my companions are flies. Flies, and my mother.
“You said you’d be here, or you’d send Eileen,” I huff into the phone, trying desperately to swat my rage away with the flies. My voice wreaks of little sister dependence: You said you’d take me along, you said you’d play with me, you said, you said.
“We both have jobs, Kate,” Brett responds distractedly, and I imagine him pulling on his tie as Eileen slides her slender feet into four inch heels.
“I have a life, Brett. I have my kids, my husband.”
“But you don’t have a job.” His statement is definitive. Argument over, deal closed.
“I’m going home this weekend. I’ve been here for two weeks. If you aren’t here by then, you and Eileen can pull your weight by paying for help. Or a nursing home. I’m not opposed to that.”
The other end of the line is silent, and I know I have him.
“Is it that bad?”
“It’s Alzheimer’s, Brett. What were you expecting?”
“But is it that bad now? Could we ethically exercise that option with no doubts?”
I look down at the perfectly circular scar on my inner arm, the skin a milky shade whiter than the rest. People say flesh burning is an unforgettable scent, but all I remember is the sound, the hiss of my eight year-old skin sizzling before I felt the pain.
“I’m way past worrying about options that are ethical.”
Her house, previously our house, sits alone at the intersection of three dirt roads, a dead end no matter which path you take. Brett used to joke, “Our house, where no one can hear you scream.”
I do hear the scream as she crawls out of bed and realizes she no longer has a pack of cigarettes sitting next to her night stand.
I don’t yell back. Patiently, after a long intake of breath, I respond. “Please come in here to talk to me. Don’t yell from room to room,” an admonition I use on my own children at home.
“You steal them! I know you do!” she says, barreling into the room, her arms thin, her hair thick but untamed, crawling from her head like snakes from Medusa’s.
“I didn’t steal them. You can’t smoke those anymore. You forget and leave them lit all over the house.”
“Humph,” a sentence in itself. “Why do you still live here?”
“You need to start closing the door at night, mom,” I say, moving past the question I’ve received every morning for 14 days. “I don’t hear you get up and open it, but it’s always open in the morning. It’s not safe to leave it open. Flies get in. And mosquitoes.”
“I like fresh air, I don’t mind flies, and I don’t believe in Zika,” she says dismissively, searching the pantry for her stash of secret cigarettes.
“Great. I’ll call the government so they’ll know not to be concerned.”
“Don’t let them connect you to Kennedy. He’s too handsome to actually get anything done.”
“How old were you when he was shot, mom?” I ask, not sure if I’m hoping to trigger a memory or humiliate her.
“You took my stash, didn’t you? You always were a thief.”
“We’re going to start cleaning out the house today, I think.” During the minutes between my phone call with Brett and my mother’s awakening, anxiety and coffee convince me my brother isn’t coming. He’ll pay for the nursing home, take my word it was the ethical decision so he never has to get close enough to see for himself.
The house, a dark relic complete with wood paneled walls and window units serving as air conditioning, needs to be ready to sell as soon as I can move her to town to the only nursing home available, the one that smells like piss and offers medication to soothe in the absence of family.
My mother’s chin tilts slightly upward, a cat catching a scent. “That could be fun. I haven’t pulled the boxes from that back room in forever.”
“Any idea what’s in them?” I ask before I can stop myself. Her answer will be unreliable if there is an answer at all.
“Pictures. I took tons of photographs of you and your brother as children so when you left me, which I knew you would, I’d have something.”
“But you keep them in boxes instead of hanging them on the walls.”
She shrugs. “I seem to forget.”
“Quite an understatement,” I mouth under my breath, excusing myself to make a phone call.
Trey picks up on the first ring. “Has anything changed? Is Brett there?”
In the background I hear the movement of my life, the kids clomping through the house collecting backpacks, Trey turning on the sink to rinse dishes. “No, he’s not, but I’m leaving. I’ll be home this weekend.”
“You need to leave. That place is toxic, she is toxic. I shouldn’t have let you go alone.”
I nod but can’t answer. “You know you can escape that place, right? It’s not all that exists.”
I do know, but it’s taken years for me to be able to drive down the dirt road coming from the north without clouds of anxiety strangling me, something Trey is well aware of. This house feels like an island to itself, as if nature rolls up the drawbridge and isolates inhabitants from the rest of the world. Every time I step out of my car, I’m sure there is no way out, that the roads suddenly won’t lead anywhere but back to this place.
“I’m okay. She’ll be in a nursing home in two days if all goes well. I just need to make it a bit longer.”
I hang up the phone, even less sure if there is a way for me to escape.
The boxes sit draped in dust, clouds of it exploding into my face as I pull them from the bottom of the closet. “These are all pictures?”
“What are you talking about?” my mom says, entering the room with a vacuum cleaner.
“The boxes, mom. We’re going through the boxes today.”
“You can. I need to tidy,” she says, turning the vacuum on and disappearing into her own thoughts.
Just as well, I think.
The first box reveals that in place of a filing system, my mother has used a cardboard box to house important documents. Her birth certificate, social security card, and marriage license sit unprotected, each document creased and pressed like flowers between book pages. I decide to take that one with me and move to the next box where I find the promised photographs thrown together without any sort of system.
“Mom, are these photos important to you? Do you want to keep them all or can we curate the collection?”
The vacuum is off now so I know she hears me, but she stands staring out the window as if she doesn’t understand. Finally, she says, “Why would I want to get rid of my pictures?”
“We’re cleaning today. We need to organize for when you can’t live on your own anymore. You can’t keep everything, but I will store the boxes you want at my place.”
She shrugs. “I don’t live on my own. Your father went on a business trip. He’ll be back.”
Sighing, I decide not to remind her that the “business trip” happened when I was nine. My hands automatically reach for the pictures, putting them on the floor while I slowly try to calm my heart rate.
“Fine, mom. You can wait, but I’m going to organize these pictures.”
“Well, if you’re so determined, I’ll help. You won’t know half the people in them.”
She sits on the floor, an obedient child with her legs criss cross applesauce, her hands that are not yet old hovering over the pictures trying to decide where to start.
“Where’s the one of you eating that cotton candy?”
I shake my head, still staring down at black and white images I don’t recognize. “I don’t like cotton candy. I tried one bite as a child, hated it, and never ate it again. There’s no picture of that.”
“That’s not true. You loved it! I took you to a carnival and you begged for candy right when we were about to leave. I tried to say no, but you were just so determined.” She digs through a box to the right of me. “I think you were about 11.”
“So dad had already left for his business trip?” I ask, trying to point out the faults in her brain, a mind I see as Swiss cheese, mostly holes where all the coherent thoughts escape.
“No, girl. He didn’t go on a business trip. The bastard just left.”
“What else do you remember?” I ask, angry now and okay with letting her talk herself into a web that will leave her lost and humiliated.
“I just remember we used to be close, and now you don’t come to see me. I braided your hair every night before bed when it was wet, and you’d wake up with those curls coming down on all sides.”
“No, that’s what your mom did for you.” I stop short of reminding her that she used to pull my hair, swung me into a radiator by it one time. She won’t remember, and I hate her for it.
“Who has the memory problems now?” she asks to no one in particular.
“Get out, mom,” my own voice, direct and offering no room for dispute, surprises me. “I want to do this on my own. I can’t do it with you.”
“This is my house,” she says, shocked by my words.
“Not for long. Go somewhere else in the house. Walk down the damn road and into the woods. I don’t care, but get out of this room.”
Obediently, she walks away like the scared child I once was.
She sits on the porch steps staring out at her feet, a defeated position, but I don’t trust it. I make it five whole minutes before feeling the pull to her, the magnetic force drawing me in to see if I’ve been the one to hurt her this time.
I perch, that’s what she called it when I stood paralyzed, not sure if I should enter a room. Studying the wooden deck, I search my mind to recall where the squeaky board is.
Superstitious, I don’t step on it. That board was the bane of my existence the few times I snuck out as a teen. The high pitch squeal recalls the pain of the screen door opened precisely to smash the side of my face, a gift from my mother who was hidden under the cover of dark right inside the house. The sound still causes me to wince.
She doesn’t acknowledge my present, so I take a breath and give my speech to the back of her head.
“I always thought I’d be the good one, and I was in a way. I didn’t tell what you did to us because I thought my payback would come when one day you needed me and I was here for you. You’d ask for forgiveness and I’d say something like we were taught in Sunday school, that I’d forgiven you long ago. Patience and long-suffering, I thought I could endure it.
“This is not who I am in my real life, the one without you. I’m good to my kids. I don’t yell or get angry often. When I’m here with you, I hate who I am. I devolve. I blame you, I don’t forgive you for that. You make me hate, even more now than I hated you when I was a kid.
“And you don’t remember. You don’t care. I thought you’d apologize one day, but you won’t. Would you have, if you hadn’t lost your memory? I’ll never know.”
She turns around slowly, the smile on her lips barely noticeable. “Well, that was good. Are you trying out for a play? You might actually have talent at something.”
The nursing home has her room ready, and 48 hours after I promised to move her, she’s gone. It takes every bit of strength that I have left to walk into the house and start cleaning once she is securely tucked into a corner room in the nursing home. She went without a fight, never acknowledging after my confession to her that she knew what year it was or her own name. There were no more lucid moments.
The largest part of me wants to find a match and set the house on fire, stand in the yard and see the roof collapse in on this prison. Instead, I walk through each room collecting the rest of the items to be thrown away.
In the farthest part of the back closet sits one last box. Pictures overflow from the lid, and I’m tempted to just throw them out. Instead, my hand slowly opens the box.
These I recognize. They are actually of us, me and Brett, my mom and dad sporadically thrown in. We do not smile, we do not line up like happy soldiers, we do not touch. My brother and I look as if we’ve survived horrors unknown, and my father disappears from the pictures early on.
I won’t keep them, won’t contaminate my home with this sadness and loss, but I’m still compelled to look at them one more time, a shot at capturing a happy memory should one exist.
At the bottom, the edge stuck to the corner of the box, is one of a girl holding cotton candy and smiling, her mouth full of pink grainy sugar. I study the photograph for five whole minutes before accepting that it’s me, and the woman beside me with a cloud of pink floating near her face is my mother. The expression she’s wearing passes for what a smile might be on someone else, and I am obviously elated, a feeling I don’t remember ever having before I was an adult and away from her. A Ferris wheel spins in the background, and I tuck the picture in my purse, evidence of sweetness I don’t remember tasting.