short story competition finalist 2018: Ready

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short storycompetition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Simone De PeakI AM out of the passenger door before the monotone voice of the sat nav had finished saying “You have reached your destination”. Sam leans over, ducks his head to meet my eyes and asks me if I’m ready.

I’ve been ready for this my whole life. Long before my father gave me the address for this place lost in the middle of somewhere. Long before Sam and I pleaded with our tired car to please get us here in time. Long before I dispatched my memories of a waif-like woman with dark eyes to the furthest corner of my heart.

“I guess you are,” he says, pulling himself upright in the driver’s seat. “I’ll be back at that town we just passed through, booking us a room. Ring me when it’s over.”

As if I was about to murder someone or something. Perhaps I was. Murdering the memories I’d found again, dragging them back to the forefront of my vision, just so I could replace them with a new one, the most important one.

“Okay, but I don’t know how long …”

“It doesn’t matter. Just ring me.”He gives me a patient smile.I stood and watched our car vanish into the dust then turned toward the crumbling farmhouse beyond the trees. Clouds surrounded its fragile frame. Inside my mother lay dying.

A woman stood in the doorway, arms behind her back holding the screen door ajar. Before I could decide if she was a nurse or a friend, she had thrust one strong hand toward me.

“I’m Neridah, a friend of Barbara’s.”

“Your mother,” she inserted into the silence.

The weight of those two foreign words hung there, impatient, brooding.

I followed her inside to a sparse room containing a two-seater lounge and a small coffee table with an old battered transistor radio sitting dead centre.

“Barbara doesn’t like a lot of stuff.”

Or people either, I thought. I also thought I was done with judging her a long time ago.

“Are you ready?”

“My boyfriend just asked me that before he left me here. I wouldn’t have come if I wasn’t ready.”

“Right. This way then.”

She gave the bedroom door one short sharp knock before opening it to reveal a shell of a woman hiding under a light blanket. My mother. What was left of her.

“Come in. Sit down.”

The voice came from the gap that was her mouth, her lips dry, brittle.

Neridah closed the door on us as I sat on the corner of the bed, my clasped hands hidden in the folds of my dress.

“Don’t be afraid, Sarah. It’s just cancer, nothing contagious.”

I went to speak but she cut me off with a wave of a bony hand, the gesture light but heavy.

“Sarah. Your father picked that name. I didn’t care one way or the other.”

“I know. He told me.”

“I’m sure he did. What else did he tell you? That I didn’t care about you. Anyway, it’s true. Well, mostly true.”

She stopped then, waiting for me to answer but all I wanted was for her to speak, to tell me her truth. An exhalation of breath and she ploughed forward.

“I didn’t want children, not even one. They always say it’s different when it’s your own. But it wasn’t for me. From the moment that I saw you, I knew.”

I wasn’t ready at all. Not for this. I’d wanted regrets, apologies, even excuses. Not these sharp words slicing through my heart.

“If you came here for an apology, I can’t give you one. The best thing I did for you was to leave.”

“Well, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I came.” I got up to leave but that bony hand of hers commanded me to sit down again.

“Oh Sarah, it’s nearly the end. Stay. Make this the best thing you can do for me. The only thing.”

Confessions wear people out. The release of my mother’s confession had been like the last flash of a long-burning flame. Now she was just embers, waiting for me to put her out.

I started to talk then, to tell her about my life, not because I wanted or expected her to change her mind but because I wanted her to know that I had made a life without her. Meeting my best friend in high school, learning to sew, making my first dress, opening my own shop, selling my creations, my first kiss and all the kisses after that. Nothing extraordinary but she had missed it all.

My mother sunk into a deep sleep as I spoke but it didn’t matter. I’d been saving all this up for now. This was for me, not for her.

Night came and so did the rain. It scratched at the window. A tree creaked outside in the wind. The house answered back.

I kept talking until every memory had poured out of me and into my mother. Just when I thought it was over, an image of her the day she left pushed itself forward. Standing in the rain at the end of our driveway, a wet slick of hair and sad clothes, her empty eyes gaining more distance. She turned and she was gone.

Now she’s gone for the last time. Her final breath came right before my confession but there was no point stopping now. I told her I was pregnant. I told her she was the only one who knew. I told her she had left me again, left me to make sense of this bleak emptiness growing inside me, left me with the weight of not knowing if I would ever be ready.