Today marks the publication of the first of our top five stories, Lily Burke’s “Lips are Chapped and Faded.” Our judges called this piece “very emotive,” and we’re sure you’ll see why and enjoy it.
The white tile floor and the slight buzz from the fluorescent lights overhead had become a comfort to Felicity. As had the smell of strong cleaner and the near constant beeping of machines signaling that someone’s heart was still beating.
Seven times during the few months that Felicity had been a frequent visitor of the hospital did she hear the beeping stop, only twice did it restart after a few moments of waiting with a bated breath.
Her first handful of visits had left Felicity with a slight pounding in her head by the time she left. But now, she had grown quite accustomed to it all.
“I’m surprised you’re awake,” Felicity said as her way of greeting.
The woman in the hospital bed gave her a tired smile, “Just had my meds.”
“That’s good,” She said softly. She sat down in the chair next to the bed. She might as well take it home with her once this whole endeavor was over, she had spent enough time sitting in it that it was practically hers. “What did Doctor Matthews say about your surgery?”
The older woman rolled her eyes, they had sunken deeper into her skull since Felicity was last here. “I’m recovering as expected.”
“Are you coming home soon?” Felicity said, her voice laced with hope.
Her mother was quiet for a long moment, her hands folded tightly in her lap. When she answered her eyes were fixated on her bone-thin fingers. “He’s not hopeful.”
Felicity inhaled sharply, “Oh.”
Her mother looked up at her now, her smile sad. “We both knew that already though.”
She reached out and laced her fingers with her mothers, they were cold. “Don’t you dare give up on me just yet,” Her voice broke.
“I wouldn’t dare.” Her mother’s laugh didn’t do much to convince Felicity that she meant what she was saying.
“People have survived much worse,” Felicity reminded her. “The mom I know wouldn’t let little cancer beat her like this.”
Her mother leaned back against her pillows, sighing softly as she relaxed. “That mom is still here love, don’t you worry.”
Felicity waited until sleep pulled the older woman under, before she released her hand. She debated sticking around until her mother woke up but decided against it. The naps were growing longer with each passing day and Felicity was terrified that one of these days the nap wouldn’t be just a nap anymore.
She kissed her mother’s cheek lightly before standing. Her skin was no longer the sun-kissed color that Felicity had grown up seeing. Her brown hair had been gone for a while now, cut off back when they thought that the chemo would work. The chemo had made her frail too. Her ribs were countable from the lack of appetite she had nowadays.
Felicity pushed the image of her current mother out of her head as she moved towards the door, knowing that if this was her final goodbye she wanted to remember the woman as she did growing up.
“I love you mom,” She whispered before slipping out of the room.
Doctor Matthews was standing at the nurse’s station writing in a patient file when Felicity spotted him. She approached slowly, unsure if he would be happy to see her or not.
He glanced up at the sound of her boots on the tiles, the soft click noticeable. “Hello,” He said. His smile hesitant.
“She’s getting worse Jordan.” Felicity leaned against the counter, she grimaced at how tired he looked.
Jordan’s tentative smile dropped into a frown, “We’re doing everything we can.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be enough,” She confessed, “I’m losing her.”
He replaced the pen he was holding with her hand instead, squeezing it gently, “We just have to stay hopeful.”
“Hopeful,” She repeated. The words felt foreign in her mouth like she was learning a new language.
Jordan nodded, “Do you want to sit in my office for a little while. I have to check on a post-op surgery but then I can be yours for lunch.”
Felicity hesitated. “We should probably try to keep our personal life out of work,” She decided.
If Jordan was disappointed he did a good job at not showing it. He just let go of her hand with a final squeeze and took a small step back. “I’ll see you at home then?”
“Of course.” Felicity headed back into her mother’s room, knowing that her time was almost up.
“You used to be so little,” Her mother said as her fingers ran over the page in the old photo album. “My little girl.”
“I’m still your little girl,” Felicity replied.
Her mother’s bed was covered in old photo albums, most of the photos faded and the covers stained from Cheeto covered fingers of children. Her mother had requested that Felicity bring the boxes in during her visit. Meaning that Felicity had to go down to the basement to locate the boxes which were sitting in a large pile along with the rest of her mother’s things. The boxes had been there since they sold Felicity’s childhood home. A thin layer of dust graced the top of them.
Her mother sniffled, “There’s so much I have left to do.”
The sound of Felicity’s heart breaking rang out loudly in the tiny hospital room that had become home over the past few months. “And you’ll get to do it.”
Her mother reached up to adjust the small tube in her nose, “I was really hoping that I’d get to see you walk down the aisle.”
The diamond ring felt heavy on her finger, it once was her mothers, back when her father was still alive. “You will mom.”
The older woman shook her head, the oxygen tube shifting against her face. “I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
“You can’t give up fighting,” Felicity snapped. Her insides felt hot as anger seeped into sadness’s place. “You don’t get to give up on me like this.”
“Fiz,” Her mother said compassionately, “I know this is hard for you, but I need you to get ready for the worst.”
“The doctors say that there was still hope,” She cried, “You still have hope.”
Her mother moved the photo album off her lap and onto the bed next to her. She moved slowly, lifting each book carefully all onto one side. “Come here,” She said once all the books had been moved. Felicity joined her mother on the tiny bed. She fought back even more tears at the thought that they would have never fit on the bed together before her mother got sick.
Her mother stroked her hair tenderly. “You are the strongest person I know,” She told Felicity, “You are going to be okay in the end, I promise you that.”
“Please don’t say that,” Felicity said burying her head into her mother’s shoulder. The bones were hard against her cheek.
Her mother shushed her, “Fiz, love, I need you to listen carefully to me now okay? I know that this isn’t easy for you, because trust me this isn’t easy for me either my dear. But I need you to be ready to let me go. I need you to let me go when the time is ready if you promise me that, I promise I will fight until my last breath for you.”
Felicity tears turned into sobs, the bed shaking beneath them. “Mommy,” She cried, “Please, don’t leave me.”
Her mother stayed quiet, only the sound of the heart machine beeping and Felicity’s sobs filling the empty space.
“Please don’t leave.”
Her mother took a steadying breath, “I would never even think of leaving you love, and I never will. I’m not going anywhere.”
Felicity’s words blurred with her sobs until she was incomprehensible. Her mother stuck it out, this not being the first breakdown she had experienced when it came to her daughter.
Even after the sobs turned to whimpers she continued to hold her, she held her until she became too weak to keep her grip and sleep pulled her under.
Things began to look up for the pair as winter turned to spring. Her mother slowly regained her strength. Day by day she was able to stay awake a little longer, her breath becoming a little steadier. She wasn’t cured, not by a long shot but for once it looked like things might be okay in the end.
Felicity brought her home in April, situating her in their spare guest room.
She took the opportunity to bring her mother out dress shopping with her. She was desperate for her mother’s approval just in case she wasn’t able to be there to see her walk down to where Jordan would be standing.
Felicity and Jordan did everything they could to move the wedding along at a faster pace, hoping to have everything ready by June.
Flowers were picked and guests were invited. Her mother held Felicity’s hand through it all. Her opinions came in a quiet voice, gentle but firm. It went unspoken that Jordan was to push her chair while Felicity walked alongside it, her hand coming to rest on her mother’s shoulder.
When they weren’t busy planning her wedding they were planning a funeral. Sat together on the back porch Felicity listened as her mother rattled off what she wanted. They picked her final outfit out, along with her casket, a simple black one, just like the one her husband had been laid to rest in years prior.
Guests were chosen and pictures were picked to be placed around the room. Her mother asked for a closed casket, wanting to be remembered as the woman she once was, not the woman she had become.
The papers with the instructions were set aside, as the trio tried to remain optimistic about the future.
Speeches were written, tears staining the paper for different reasons.
“You’re going to make it to this wedding,” Felicity would tell her mother when they were sitting alone in the kitchen.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Her mother would answer, her voice truthful, “I’m not leaving when we’re so close to the finish line.”
And Felicity would believe her. The constant reassurance became the only thing that Felicity had to hold on to when it felt like the world was falling to pieces around her. She believed her because believing anything else would only break her.
“Your father would be so proud of you,” Her mother said one night.
Felicity glanced up from folding her mother’s laundry, “You think so?”
Her mother nodded firmly, “Jordan is exactly the kind of man he dreamed of walking you towards one day.”
Felicity smiled, “He’s kind of perfect isn’t he?”
Her mother’s laugh was met by a harsh coughing spell. Felicity rushed over to help bring the glass of water up to her mother’s chapped lips. She waited until the coughing stopped, her mother’s grip on her arm relaxing as she sucked oxygen in through her nose, the tube helping to fill her lungs faster.
“He is,” Her mother said as if nothing had happened. “I can tell he’s going to be a great husband.”
Felicity set the water down and resumed her folding. “He’s extremely grateful that he got to meet you. Tells me all the time how lucky he is to know such a wonderful lady like yourself.”
“Cheeky,” Her mother snorted. “But I could say the same thing about him. He’s very special.”
Felicity felt the heat creep up her neck and spill out onto her cheeks. “You approve of him?”
“Oh honey,” she murmured. “I approved him the moment I met him. I can’t wait to watch you walk down the aisle to him.”
“I can’t wait for you to see it.”
Her mother passed four days before the wedding. Jordan said it was painless. She simply fell asleep he explained after the shock had passed.
They laid her to rest the day before the wedding. They followed the instructions she had given them to a tee. Everyone was asked to wear orange or pink, one the color of hope and the other the color of love respectively.
Her mother hated the thought of a sea of black staring at a black coffin. She told her daughter that the idea of people sitting around crying for hours made her upset, she wanted them to smile at her memory.
“Being alive is a blessing” Her mother had told her once, “When it ends we should be celebrating, not mourning.”
Her service was simple, speeches were given, each one being an old memory of the woman who reminded everyone of their favorite part of humans. Stories of her laugh, or her smile, of her compassion and warmth, of her kindness and endless love. Felicity took the opportunity to say to farewell to the person who had been her safe place since the moment she was born. One word was said repeatedly. Home. Her mother was a little piece of home to everyone who knew her. She was a safe place to run to when things got rough. She was supportive but gave you room to grow. She taught Felicity how to love and how to be loved, and that no matter where you put your roots you’d always be able to find a sense of home in the people around you.
A large rainbow had graced the sky the next afternoon. There was not a cloud in sight, and no rain had fallen in almost a week, and yet there it was, in full view of all the guests in attendance. As Felicity stepped outside onto the grass with Jordan waiting for her at the end, she saw the rainbow. And she smiled. Her mother had promised her that she would be there and she was never one to break a promise.
Felicity took a deep breath, sending up a thank you, before taking the first step towards her new home.