I entered it in NPR's "Three-Minute Fiction" contest, the rules of which dictated 1) it must be 600 words or less, 2) must be fiction, and 3) must begin with the sentence, "She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door." Such parameters didn't feel as scary to me as normal ole' fiction for some reason.
But the topic was hard.
She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. With a feeble push, she is in Room 19, which is a good fifteen degrees hotter than the freezing waiting room where she has spent the past three days, shifting on uncomfortable hospital chairs, avoiding this exact moment.
Just inside the door, a curtain blocks the room, and a cart blocks the curtain. On the cart is an endless supply of safety gear: masks, latex-free gloves in three sizes. She adjusts a mask around her ears, and breathes in deeply. The paper is supposed to protect her from her mother, her infectiousness, her poison.
If only it had been that easy, she thinks fleetingly, but then checks her bitterness. She remembers the words in the book, dog-eared and waiting, just outside the door. Slowly, she pushes the curtain aside.
The dusk barely drips its blue light through the blinds. In the dim room, countless machines surround the bed and emit green lights and numbers and wavy lines. The steady beep, beep, beep is at once mesmerizing, soothing even, and grotesquely harsh.
And then, she sees her. Swallowed by blankets, a skeleton. Her mother.
She closes her eyes reflexively, imagining the garden. The one she found two nights ago, when the racing confusion and absolute nothingness overwhelmed her, and she pronounced to a roomful of waiting-room strangers that she was going for a walk. Off the lobby, following tiny signs, she stumbled upon a tiny outdoor Japanese garden, scattered with pebbles and quiet corners.
It was dusk, and the garden was gauzed in blue. The December air cut to her lungs. In the far corner, a waterfall sputtered a slow, frozen trickle. On an icy granite bench, the feeling of nothingness that had overwhelmed her dissipated. And, at that moment, she felt close enough to God to know what to do.
She prayed. For what, is between her and God. But it had something with everything ending soon.
Opening her eyes, rising to leave, she saw the book. Stuck behind the bench. As she read the title, her stomach lurched. Mothers: The Gifts They Give Us. Without thinking, she tucked it under her arm and headed back inside, feeling certain her prayers had been answered. Knowing, just knowing, she could find what she needed in this book: understanding. She felt certain that if she understood, she could forgive.
Two days later, and she had still not gone to see her mother. Instead, she had combed this collection of short stories, poems, and tributes. She had read. And read. Searching with a fervor she had not felt in years, desperately wanting to find her mother within its pages.
She had found nothing.
At first she was angry. The words in the book isolated her. (What wouldn’t she give to have such fond memories? Such admiration for the woman who gave her life?) But as Room 19 visitors came and went, she knew it was, finally, time. Time to say goodbye, defenses high, but nakedly unarmed.
And now, studying the woman in the bed, she cries without warning. She forgets worrying about how she is supposed to feel. The search for understanding. The answers that she’ll never find.
She forgets the book.
Kissing her softly on the forehead, she brushes aside gray wisps of hair. My mother loved me, she tells herself, willing herself to believe. Her mother’s chest is cold, which feels nice on her hot forehead. There she rests in room 19 until the blue disappears and the soft darkness comes.