This is my response to the first prompt in the Writer's Write 12 short stories in 12 months challenge. I was to write a short story (1,400 words) inspired by "The List". I'm not sure if I'm allowed to share the story outside of the challenge, but here it is anyway.
Revised from the version I first posted on Feb. 13.
Revised from the version I first posted on Feb. 13.
At the end of a hallway in an old wooden house, there was a grey-painted room with wide-planked creaky floors. The room was inhabited by a long crowded table, overflowing bookshelves, and the scent of creative endeavour. In it, a woman squinched her eyes at a drawing propped in front of her. She was muttering under her breath about uncooperative rabbits and stubborn trees, but as she was a polite sort of person, brought up to be careful of her words, nothing she said would have been unprintable in the children’s story the drawing was meant to become.
Deep in thought, Carol patted the loose papers on her desk. A solid lump under one brought a look of interest to her face, but when she uncovered the box of matches she admonished it, “You belong in the kitchen, you do. How did you end up here?” The fog of absentmindedness cleared only slightly, overwritten by the scene so vivid in her mind of woodland creatures at a birthday party nestled in the nook of a large tree. Unmindful of the ink-laden brush in her hand, she scrunched her pockets only to be disappointed in their emptiness. “Glasses… glasses…” she muttered again, as if speaking their name would cause them to appear. Still grumbling to herself Carol peered in desk drawers, stood on tiptoe to see the upper reaches of the bookcase, and swept pots of ink and jars of brushes from one end of a shelf to the other.
From the doorway, Rachel watched the frazzled woman move around the room, tails of the overlarge shirt drifting behind her in time with the grey-sprinkled braid hanging down her back. She recognized this ritual.
“Mama,” she called out softly. “Your glasses are on your head.”
Carol whirled around, startled at the sound of the voice so suddenly intruding on the birthday party, one hand going to the top of her head where, indeed, were perched the missing spectacles. Unfortunately that hand was the one also holding the wet brush.
“Blast!” Carol said with irritation, feeling a drop of ink seeping into an eyebrow. Rachel laughed, waiting for the words she knew would come next: “How did they end up there?”
“Don’t worry Mama… it’s just Old Timer’s.”
“Oh ha ha, smarty pants. You’re not too old for me to ground you, you know.”
“I know. I’m sorry, mom.” Kiss to the cheek. “Go back to your work. I’m heading out to meet the girls for a movie, so there’s nobody home until late tonight, ok?” This was to let her mother know there would be no demands for maternal attention from any of her three children and she could happily get lost in the world she had created for her latest children’s book.
Rachel waited in the doorway a moment longer, but Carol was already contemplating her landscape, glasses now properly perched on her nose. About to turn back down the creaky hallway, Rachel noticed the glint of a ring of keys amid a bundle of pussy willows. Smiling affectionately, she carefully hung the keys from a hook beside the front door on her way out.
Many hours later Carol stood at the kitchen sink scraping ink and charcoal from under her fingernails. It had been a satisfactory session, all in all. The story had been plotted out long ago but the illustrations had taken longer this time. It seemed more difficult of late to concentrate, so tonight had been a breakthrough, actually, and she had industriously completed two full spreads and roughed out a third. Something was niggling, though, tugging at the very edges of her brain. What was it? It was something Rachel had said to her.
Rachel. The thought of her youngest daughter reminded Carol of the movie theatre, and thinking of the movie theatre made her think of the shopping mall. It was last week sometime, wasn’t it? Wednesday, maybe. She couldn’t find the car. It had been a lovely morning of window shopping and a nice cup of tea with a new magazine. Then she left the mall, walked down the row where she had parked, and couldn’t find her car. She didn’t panic right away; after all, this happens, right? Doesn’t everyone have at least one story about that hilarious incident of wandering the rows of a parking lot trying to find their particular minivan among hundreds just like it? But after twenty-five minutes of wandering and increasing frustration, she went back inside to ask for help from mall security.
It was as two of the men were traversing the rows of the second lot with an eye out for a black vehicle with her registration number that Carol’s phone rang. “Hey, mom, I’m running a few minutes late ‘cause I forgot to get gas earlier. I’ll be at the door in about 10, ok?” It was her youngest boy calling from the car he’d borrowed for the morning in exchange for which he dropped his mom at the mall. The same car two perfect strangers were at this moment helping her find.
The security team assured her it happened to enough other people that she had no reason to be embarrassed, but she just knew they would be sharing this story with the rest of their crew and that she would never be stepping foot in that mall ever again. And that night her family teased her yet again about Old Timer’s creeping up on her.
Hadn’t she always been forgetful though, a little less hemmed in by organization and schedules than most people? Carol used to pride herself on being free spirited - interestingly artistic was how one friend described her. Her concept of time had never been tied to an actual clock, and her grasp on the details of plans or events were invariably fuzzy. But what if, instead of being creatively carefree she was actually losing her connection to the world around her? Maybe the fact that she kept calling the dog Ben when his name was Felix was a warning light of incipient large scale memory malfunction.
Caught between the dread of knowing and fear of the unknown, Carol began a discreet campaign of reading articles about dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s. She hated that word, couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud, but she’d read enough to convince herself the word now belonged to her. It was an unspeakable word to be carrying around in her mouth, nearly falling out during conversations about summer plans. It was like an explosive device. She imagined that if she poked at the word too aggressively it would go off, flinging loss and forgetfulness into every corner of her mind.
Not yet. She wasn’t ready to own it yet. She couldn’t bring herself to see a doctor let alone talk about these fears with her family. Saying the word out loud to another person would make it real. Would turn benign forgetfulness into a ravening creature feasting on her memories.
She tried to imagine disappearing from her life. Slipping away from her babies. Sure, they were grown now - the oldest was out of the house - but things were starting to get good with them now that she didn’t have to ‘mom’ them anymore. She was looking forward to watching what they would become. She wanted to see their own families grow, hold grandbabies, travel to Peru with her husband like they’d always talked about. How could she experience the joy of watching Rachel walk down the aisle if she couldn’t remember who Rachel was?
Months ago, when the dreadful thoughts first took hold, she feverishly wrote down all the things she wanted her people to know. “I love you.” How to say it in such a way that the truth of it stuck? Was it possible to wrap a hug in words on a page? Line after line of a notebook quickly filled with all the deeply heartfelt messages from mother to child, from wife to husband, to friends so close they were her heart’s family.
Once the emotional lightening bolts had been recorded, she took to adding random thoughts and words of wisdom as they wandered into her mind.
Keep spare keys by the front door.
Look after your teeth.
If you find the perfect jeans, buy a second pair.
Celebrate each other’s birthdays.
Have chocolate. Always.
Uncle Martin gets farty with potatoes, so stick to squash at Thanksgiving.
Remember how Mrs Garber stepped off her porch and broke her left leg and hip. They had to cut off her trousers and she was mortified. Always wear good underwear.
Rachel is to have the original woodland sketches.
Pay attention, even to the little things.
Back in her room at the end of the creaky hallway, Carol stood in dimness, head bowed and hands folded over her notebook as if in prayer. After a few quiet moments she tucked it safely into a drawer, then closed the door as she left the room.