You’re in the parking lot above the lake when your phone rings, and you stare at the screen a while before answering. They never call from the nursing home except when things are bad. Your mom’s not responding, can’t be woken, you might want to come. You hang up and walk the dirt track to the water’s edge, the place where you like to come to drain off the stress of the working day, and as you look out across the glassy shimmer, your ancestors rise in a lacy cloud and settle on your arms, chest, and head.
This is new.
When you first came here, they never paid you any mind, just flittered around the gator-looking log where they like to bask or dipped their heads into the joe-pye weed, but this time they mean business. You can tell from the sticky whisper of their feet on your skin. Here’s your Mee-maw who had a minor stroke at 55 and stayed in her lounger for 30 years waiting for another. Your two gay uncles, one forever in the closet, and one who did Pride every year in full drag and let you wear his rainbow wig. Aunt Flora, bitten by a rabid dog who she’d caught lapping foamy-mouthed from her kiddie pool. Your father who taught you how to change a tire and shoot a BB gun, he’s here too for old times’ sake, having left when you were 13 for a sexy widow whose daughter had your exact same name.
Even the babies are here, the ones your mom couldn’t carry to term. You wish they’d lived. From everything you’ve seen, there’s safety in numbers. You’re the first and only port of call, but Mom’s always said you put your own needs before hers. Sure, you moved away, but when her second husband left and she showed up on your doorstep with a roller case and her own comforter, you took her in and fed her one bite at a time like a baby. You’d get home from work and smell the wine before your key was in the door. And when she married the next guy, you never told her how he’d always find a way to grab your ass two-handed when you’d show up on holidays with fruit baskets and baked goods.
And now there’s a deathbed to consider and a trip to the nursing home you really don’t want to make. What kind of daughter lets her mother die alone, you ask yourself in a voice that isn’t yours. You lift your arms, each one a sleeve of flickering wings, and ask your kin for advice. What’s family good for except to tell you what to do? You wait, hands stretched high like a hallelujah, but there’s only a soft lapping on your cheeks and behind your ears.
They’re multiplying by the minute, so many you have to brush them off the back of your scrubs before getting in the car. As you back out of the spot, you remember your mom going after the neighbor’s boy with a hammer when she found him on top of you on the basement couch. There’s that. And one time she let you play hooky from school and took you to Denny’s for a Grand Slam with milk shakes and extra fries. And before your dad left – it comes back to you as you pull into your driveway – he’d slap her on the butt when she wore slacks, and she’d get all tight-lipped pretending to be mad, and the room felt full of caramel, thick and gummy and holding you in place.
In the end, it’s a false alarm, a bad reaction to the amoxicillin your mom was taking for a UTI. The nurse calls again to say she’s back to her ornery self. Medication always did whack her out. Not like you, who needed not one but two shots of Demerol when you tore up your knee. Genes aren’t the whole story, but tell that to the ancestors. Weeks later they’re still with you in your house, rising and settling as you get on and off the couch, sucking the nectar from your orange peels and the skin of your bananas. Whenever you get home from your shift, they flock to greet you. They seem to think you need the company. Truth is, you’re getting used to the smell of rotting fruit and the sight of chrysalises hula-hooping from the ceiling, each one pulsing like a sturdy beating heart.
Fiona J. Mackintosh (@fionajanemack) is a Scottish-American writer living in Washington, D.C. She has won the Fish and Bath Flash Fiction Awards and the Reflex Fiction Prize, and her stories were selected for Best Microfiction 2019, Best Small Fictions 2019, and the 2018-19 BIFFY 50. You can read her work at fionajmackintosh.com.