A short story by jannatwrites:
Kathie stood on the sidewalk outside Gail’s house. She felt something under the arch of her thin-soled shoe, so she stepped aside to investigate. A thick green weed pushed up through the jagged sidewalk crack. A sign of life in front of a house that seemed closer to death than life. In April, there should be green leaves, new growth and desert blooms, but not around this house. The mesquite trees were leafless and even the cactus garden looked old and tired. Kathie made a mental note to hire a landscaper, but she doubted if it would help. She suspected the house had taken on the aura of its owner.
It grew more difficult to summon the energy and will to complete each visit. But every day, Kathie did it because Gail needed her. Everyone else had either died or quit trying.
Kathie trudged up the narrow walkway, made more challenging to navigate by the overgrown bee brush hedge that followed the path all the way to the porch. Standing there, she felt much older than her sixty-one years.
After she rang the doorbell, Kathie looked up and noticed cob webs strung from the eaves down to the top corner of the door frame. The terra cotta colored paint peeled off the stucco, exposing pieces of chicken wire and Styrofoam underneath. Like skin sagging off a skeleton, Kathie thought. More tasks to add to the list. She wondered which one would break her, or if she possessed the strength to do it all.
When Gail didn’t answer, Kathie retrieved her key and unlocked the deadbolt on the metal security screen door. She gave it a sharp tug because it always rubbed against the metal frame when the wood around it expanded in the heat. With a scrape, the door came loose. Kathie put the key into the lock on the wooden door. The splintered wood told visitors of many years spent in the harsh desert. Kathie jiggled the doorknob as she turned the key– the only way to unstick the tumbler so the pins would fall into place.
A wave of heat sucked the air out of Kathie’s lungs when she stepped over the threshold. “Gail? It’s Kathie, where are you?” She shouted, as Gail couldn’t hear very well.
Kathie found Gail lounging in her chair in the sitting room, wearing black pants and a long-sleeved red and green plaid shirt with a snowman applique on the breast pocket. Her white hair was haphazardly combed, but she held her head high with a regal sort of air. Not a single bead of sweat appeared on her forehead.
Gail turned her head and flashed a broad smile. “Kathie! I’m so glad you came. I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“I stayed yesterday for four hours, but I’m glad you missed me.” Their greeting could have been scripted, since every visit began the same way. “Aren’t you hot in here?”
“Well, yes, it is a little warm. I turned the thermostat, but it’s broken.”
Kathie checked the thermostat in the hallway. She had put an electronic one in last year because Gail couldn’t read the numbers on the old one, but Gail never grasped how to use it. Kathie found the fan turned to ‘heat’ instead of ‘cool’ with a temperature of eighty-two degrees. She swiped the perspiration from her forehead with the sleeve of her T-shirt and set it to cool at seventy-eight degrees.
By the time Kathie sat down in the armchair across from Gail, she felt the cold air blowing through the vents. An empty chair between them completed the semi-circle seating arrangement. “Did Anna stay with you this morning?”
“Anna?” Gail asked, confused. “Oh, yes, Anna. She did come.”
“Did she feed you lunch?”
Kathie followed Gail’s gaze to the closed glass doors on the fireplace. They reflected a shadow of her that kept her attention. Although Gail seemed content with silence, Kathie wanted to draw her into conversation before the skill withered away. Like petals of a cut rose, Kathie thought.
“Where’s Frank?” Gail asked.
“He’s probably running errands.” Gail and Frank were married for sixty-two years when he passed away two years ago. The first time Gail had asked about Frank, Kathie told her about his death, but Gail became inconsolably upset. The next day, she had asked again, like the day before never happened. Since then, Kathie lied.
“Okay.” Gail studied Kathie. “Are you seeing my husband?”
“Frank loves you–only you.”
“How long have we been friends now?”
“We’ve been friends for as long as you can remember,” Kathie said.
Gail turned her attention back to the fireplace.
Kathie glanced around the room and felt like she traveled back two years in time. Her gaze rested on Frank’s shoes with a thick coat of dust on top. They were next to his armchair, just how he left them. On the other side of the chair, a foot-high stack of yellowed Arizona Republic newspapers sat unread. If she inhaled deeply, she might smell Frank’s essence: a commingling of Old Spice and body odor.
“That trip to the pine trees was fun,” Gail said after a long silence.
Gail nodded. “The ones with the trunks bigger than a bear hug.”
“Oh! The redwoods, yes that was a beautiful trip. It’s hard to believe that six years have passed since that vacation.”
“How old was I then?”
“Okay. How old am I now?”
Kathie couldn’t think of anything else to say about the trip without risking an accidental invitation of the evil cloud that suffocated Gail’s memories. Coherent exchanges were fleeting and she didn’t want ruin it.
“What about Las Vegas?” Kathie asked. “Do you remember going there?
“We took you there for your eightieth birthday, like you always wanted.”
“You’re a good friend, Kathie.”
Kathie smiled. She wished she could bottle this moment before confusion chased it away. “You too, Gail.”
“I loved watching the kids play on the beach,” Gail said.
“The girl with the beach ball and the boy building a sand castle.”
There was no trip to the beach. Gail would have fallen in the sand. Kathie followed Gail’s stare, and looked higher. The mantle housed an assortment of pictures. The kids at the beach were strangers in the picture that came with the frame, which had never been replaced. Gail used the photographs as cue cards, and the paper memories led her astray.
Kathie bit her lip and restrained her yearning for the lucid conversation that had been a hoax. She felt like she stood on the shore and watched Gail drift toward the middle of the lake in a canoe without paddles or a life vest. She had to reach out.
“What did you do with Anna today?” Kathie asked.
“What day is it?” Gail’s stare remained on the fireplace.
Gail frowned, deep in concentration. “I don’t know,” she finally said.
Kathie struggled to find a neutral topic, or anything to fill the weeping silence. She needed a sign that Gail could still manage on her own; the only way Gail wanted to live.
“I’m hungry,” Gail said. “Do you think we should wait for Frank?”
“I can get you something. What would you like?”
“Really?” Kathie loved Bandy Burgers, but Gail didn’t share her taste.
Gail smiled at Kathie. “Aren’t they your favorite?”
Kathie knelt down next to Gail and threw her arms around her in a hug. “I love you, mom,” she said, resting her head on Gail’s chest.
Kathie jumped away from her.
“Who are you?” Gail yelled. Terror flickered in her eyes.
Kathie’s eyes widened and she trembled. “I-I’m sorry. You reminded me of my mom. It’s okay, I’m still Kathie.”
Gail watched her skeptically, but when Kathie didn’t make another motion toward her, she relaxed and returned her gaze to the fireplace.
Kathie held her sadness until she stood on the front porch. After the front door closed behind her, she cried so hard her ribs hurt. Her eyes hurt. Every part of her body, inside and out, ached. The mom Kathie knew had evaporated three years ago, and Gail’s body served as a constant reminder of that loss.
From the porch, Kathie stared across the street – past Gail’s barren yard, past her car parked at the curb. The neighbor’s well-watered lawn sprawled underneath the shade canopy of a weeping mulberry tree. The green appeared more vibrant against the row of white daisies and purple petunias that lined the entire length of the driveway. A young boy and girl squealed as they rode their bikes down the long driveway, racing the stripe of flowers to the sidewalk.
Kathie’s mind pondered nothing, and everything, at the same time – just a rumble of noise like dinnertime in a popular restaurant. Then, one liberating thought bubbled to the surface: death is the path to life.