Over the next ten days we will be publishing the ten finalists from the 2022 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. The theme of this year’s contest was “The Night Before.” This, the third of our ten finalist stories, made it to the final round of judging with our guest judge, Laurin Jefferson. Today, enjoy Jenell Hall’s story, “Yesterday.”
As I stepped onto my front stoop, the icy slush, reminiscent of the blizzard a week before, penetrated the sides of my brown dress shoes. My toes curled and flexed as a futile attempt to warm my already frostbitten feet. The warm air of my home pulled at me to go back inside. I disobeyed the screams from bare hands sitting tensely between the pleats of my skirt. My reddened knuckles pressed into the already strained seams of the handmade pockets my mother had sewn. I began closing the door behind me, my heart still yearning to run back. The unwelcoming air pierced my ears as I pulled the door shut, bracing my feet into the wet, slick, snow. I pressed the square tips of my shoes into the grooves of the faded bricks. I forced the stiff hinges to give as the door finally clicked shut. I exhaled. The air warmed my face briefly before it seeped out the sides of my mask. I breathed out again, hoping the warmth would stay long enough to defrost my numb nose. Sadly this slight relief was fleeting.
I have lived in this house for almost all my life. Not till recently did the closing of my front door become a dreaded task every morning.
I walked haphazardly down the uneven stones jutting from the frozen ground beneath me, the quiet crunch of the snow rhythm with my quick steps. I felt the harsh wind become too much for my thin puffer and pulled the hood up and tight to the sides of my blushed face. I waited in silent torture, my skirt barely covering my upper thighs, the thin sheer tights offering nothing for my trembling legs. I cursed as I felt the mixture of snow and rain soaking my socks. I imagined the dignified pattern of flowers now soiled with rain and dirt. I questioned if a private school education was genuinely worth this daily agony.
Before I could finish the thought, the bus steamed by with me in the first row. As soon as school had begun it was over and so was the precious relief it yielded.
As the bus door creaked closed I looked back longing for it to stop again, for it to take me anywhere but here. I gazed at my house, an elegant three-story townhouse. My eyes followed the bricks surrounding each window in the perpetually captivating pattern. I looked at each window steadily bringing my eyes back to the first floor, my home. Eventually, through much avoidance, my eyes fell on the steps, the steps my mother had put in many years before, after I tripped on the disheveled bricks that once laid there. I pressed my tongue against my cold front teeth and felt unevenness gifted by those very bricks. I looked down at my footsteps carved into the slush that morning, the singular pair of footsteps. My heart fell at the sight. Though familiar, the sight still made my heart sink into the pit that had been growing in my gut.
My eyes wandered as I walked slowly through the house; the dusted walls no longer felt like my home. As I walked into her old room, the depressing possibility that had become my reality hit me once again. I never imagined that the glow-in-the-dark stickers I stuck on the walls when I was five would one day be covered in dust and cobwebs. I placed my bags down and walked back into the kitchen. Regardless of every notion telling me the improbability, my hope still bellowed on as I placed my hand on the cold brass handle of the pantry. With bated breath I looked inside, my mind flooded with emotions as I stared blankly at the familiar empty walls. I let my hand release its chilled grasp. I closed my eyes firmly. Dark streaks of blue and purple danced against my eyelids as I fabricated the image I wished stared back at me. I pressed my cracked knuckles into the nearby countertop. I felt the pain pulsate and build, shooting up my arms and pooling at the tips of my fingers. After about a minute I untensed my arms. I slowly brought my battered hands to my chest pressing them together. Holding my own hand had become my greatest comfort. I rested my head against my hands still clasped on my chest. The tears that had welled in the corners of my eyes dissipated. I gathered up all the strength I had left, my tingling fingers following the clean lines of my lapel as I let my hands fall limply at my sides.
I robotically completed the meaningless tasks that were too painful to comprehend. I let my mind go numb to escape the thoughts and emotions that I could not handle. I brought the delicately prepared Pb and J through the narrow halls, my steps short and heavy. It felt like the entire weight of her illness was pulling me away from the door, slowing every step down as if I was walking through a sea of molasses. Regardless of how much I slowed my steps down I still made it to the end of the hall. I stood inches from the curtain I had put up to make the hospital bed in the middle of the living room feel more like a room, my body wavering, blowing, shifting in my shoes. I felt as though I could fall to the floor at any moment. I lifted my hand to my side, hooking it in the waistband of my skirt, my fingers pulsated.
In a second I gathered all my strength. I wrapped my fingers around the edge of the curtain, and in one swift motion, I was inside standing at the gateway to all the hurt in my life. I stared blankly, pain welling up in my heart.
I was returned with a small lopsided smile filled with nothing but love and happiness. My insides melted into warm soup. My chest was untensed for the first time all day, I breathed in so deep that the air filled every inch of my body. The feeling lifted me releasing the pain that had tethered me ever so firmly to the ground.
But when I exhaled, so did the lightness and joy. My heart fell to the floor no longer fazed by the presence of my mother. I now saw the illness, I saw her sunken in cheeks, I saw the veins popping out of her arms. I put the sandwich at her side as I imagined her full cheeks perfect and blushed, her lips lathered in cheap lipstick. But that image of my mother was slowly fading, replaced with a colorless face, only broken up by bloodshot eyes and clouded irises, that were once warm hazel. I felt the tears in my eyes, the same eyes I used to share with my mother. I often stare into my bathroom mirror looking into my own eyes and the elegant structure of my face. It looks more like my mother than the woman lying in front of me. I felt my body go limp as the machines and tubes came into view. I sunk into a chair. I could feel my mother’s small smile fade as her gaze burned into my back.
My voice cracked and sputtered as I tried to speak. I looked at my feet placed firmly into the pale carpet. I could not meet her eyes. The sharp ring of the phone jolted me with a relieving reason to leave. My heart broke, yet I could not see my mother in this condition for a second longer.
I pushed my hands into the plush armrest shooting my body into the air and my feet one after the other. There was nothing but footsteps. I picked up the home phone sitting on the kitchen counter. I walked to the corner of the kitchen and sat on the counter. This was the only place in the kitchen where I could not see into the living room where my mom’s hospital bed was. She had moved out of her room, the one that she had grown up in back when her parents lived in mine. She gave me the master bedroom when I was born. She never wanted to leave the happy memories she had created in her room.
I took a deep breath with my face as close to the window as possible. Every room in the house was filled with the stale smell of death. I placed the phone between my cheek and shoulder. One of my mom’s nurses answered, “Hi Lidia, I am calling to check in to see if you have reconsidered a 24-hour nurse? I think it could really benefit the both of you.”
I paused as if I was mulling over the idea, I was not. “I am not really sure for now I think we are okay, maybe we can reassess in the following weeks.”
I cut her off quickly, “Have a good day.”
And then the conversation was over. The kitchen was silent.
While I was struggling to even look at my mother, the idea of some random woman being by her side all the time was not okay with me. I sank onto the floor, the lower cabinet handles scratching my back as I went down. I sat on the floor of my kitchen looking around at the house that was supposed to be under my control. But it really wasn’t under control at all. The half-eaten bowl of cereal from this morning was still on the counter. The dishes had still yet to be cleaned. I sat up a little till my eyes were parallel with the counter. I could see the dust and grime that still was not cleaned. The idea that one day I would clean it all up swirled around my head. It wasn’t the idea that I had to clean that was hard, rather the fact that my mom was never going to.
I got up from my seated position, and yelled from the hallway already halfway out the door, “I’ll be right back mom, love you.”
She answered weakly, “Okay, be safe, love you.”
The amount of effort I knew it took to produce words quickened my steps. I walked quickly to a nearby convenience store. I bought a bouquet of hydrangeas and a deck of cards. I walked even quicker back, excitement finally pulsed through me.
With flowers and cards in hand I pushed open the door, flung off my shoes and ran into the living room. I could not be more excited. I knew I didn’t have my mom for much longer so I might as well take advantage of it!
I walked through the house and towards her room excitedly exclaiming. “Mom! Guess what! I got cards, maybe I could show you a card trick and I got you flo-“
She was asleep.
The sight was disappointing but not heartbreaking, the doctor said she had a couple more days. I cut the ends of the flowers and filled a vase with water. I dropped a penny into the water just like my mom had taught me. I placed the flowers in the water whipping the excess water from the sides of the vase.
I placed it at her bedside with the deck of cards and walked to my room. I would show her tomorrow.