Empty Nest Syndrome, by D. Krauss
“Don’t even think about going. Just, please, don’t.” Marvin’s reflection implored her from the mirror, his tie half-Windsored, the coat on a door hook ready for donning.
Carol was on the bed and still in her bathrobe, which indicated she wasn’t thinking about going, oh no, not at all. But then she spoke. “She’s my daughter, too.”
“Yes, she is,” Marvin held her reflected gaze. “But it’s her day, not yours.”
“I won’t do anything.”
“Yes, you will.”
“I won’t! I promise.”
Marvin made an exasperated noise and finished the knot but it was askew. “Carol…”
She tried defiance, but lost. Collapsing into the robe, she said, “All right.”
“I mean it.”
“All right!” she snarled that and he turned but he wasn’t angry. Sorrowful. “Carol…it’ll be okay. She’ll be okay. You have to stop being such a crazy person.”
“I’m not crazy,” she must have said that a thousand times these past few weeks. Ward against her daughter’s accusation. “It’s just…I’ll miss her.”
He sat down and gathered her and she cried into his shoulder. “Girls grow up,” he said softly. “They make their own way. You did a good job.”
“I know, I know,” she snuffled. “But can’t she be mine for just a little longer? Just another year? She can take some more classes, there’s no rush…” Wow, sounded crazy even to her.
He said nothing, the impatience to be off moving him towards the door, his worry about her keeping him there. She pushed at his arm, “Go on, then. Just go. If you don’t show up, well…” and she glanced nervously around.
He checked around, too, set his jaw, nodded, grabbed the coat and walked out. But not before a “Carol, please, just stay here.”
The house grew quiet. Too quiet. She listened, sorting out the familiar sounds—ice machine, a leaky toilet, odd floor creaks of the settling house. She then sought the long gone ones—a baby crying from a distant crib, door bursting open and an excited ‘Mom! Guess what I did in school today?”, a car horn and a “Mom I’ll see you later don’t wait up.”
And, then, the last two months—”Mom, have you lost your mind?” “Mom, what is WRONG with you?” “Mom, why are you following me?”
Until…”Dad, I don’t want her showing up at graduation. She’ll cause trouble, and you know what that’ll mean.”
Yes, you know what that’ll mean.
Carol got up and ghosted into Mary’s bedroom. She stood in the threshold and threw back her head and took in a big breath. Perfume of coltish girl and vibrant life and drawings and diaries and slumber parties and late night all night phone calls. She looked at the posters—some boy band on that wall and some dangerous band on the other. And the one the recruiters gave her: young noble men and young beautiful women all uniformed and intent and looking off to A Bright Future. “Do you think they’ll put me in a medical field? I really want to be a doctor.”
No, Mary, I don’t think they will.
She told Mary they’d put her where she least wanted to be and Mary’s eyes had stormed. “They don’t do that. They give you one of your top three choices and mine are all medical field and the recruiter said I do three years in that and then I’m eligible and I’m good in math so I’ve got a pretty good chance…”
And Carol said otherwise and the storm got bigger and Marvin sided with Mary to drown Carol out because you never knew who was listening and Carol got more frantic and intercepted Mary’s phone calls and tried to keep her from going out and followed her to the recruiters and there’d been repercussions, repercussions but don’t you see, Mary, don’t you understand I’m just trying to save you…
Carol dressed quickly and went out the back door, keeping to the wall and peered around the corner. Quiet. Empty neighborhood. Of course, everyone was there. She made her way along side streets and through yards, ducking whenever she heard a distant motor, so it took her longer than normal to reach the school field. Music was already playing, the Graduation March, and she zigged along an obscure, ivy-covered wall and buried herself in the bushes and dug through until she found the chain link fence.
Somehow, she’d found the perfect location to see the entire field. On the left were bleachers, and she looked for Marvin among the similar dark-suited sober men standing there as the March wafted on the breeze but couldn’t make him out. On the right, dark-suited sober men sat on a stage replete with flags and podiums, and it looked all official and festive and Forward to the Future, didn’t it? And there, the graduates, single file of them snaking back to the distant gym and around and through the island of folding chairs between bleachers and stage, half of them already seated, all smiling and giggling and turning to each other and grasping hands and joking and absolutely not investing this with the sobriety it demanded.
Just like when she’d graduated…
Clinging to her best friend Sarah and making eyes at her boyfriend Joey three rows back and not even bothering to look for her Dad in the stands, alone, because Carol’d told her Mom to stay home, too, not to ruin things, you old lady, you washed up and forgotten woman, you’re the past and I don’t need you ruining this for me because this is my graduation, mine, and I’m the future…
Carol peered through the chain link, calculating by Mary’s last name where she would be and was that her, was that? She shifted for a better look…
Someone cleared a throat.
With a yelp, Carol leaped back, tangled in a bush and fell flat in the parking lot. A hand reached down and grabbed her coat and yanked her back while another hand slapped against her mouth, stifling her scream. “Shut up!” a fierce woman’s voice in her ear. “You want to give us away?”
Carol knew that voice. “Lydia!” she whispered through the smothering fingers. “What are you doing here?”
“Same thing you are, now get down!” Lydia dragged her back against the fence and crouched, making a small target. Carol blinked at her. Lydia was brave and tough and mouthy and oh, boy, had there been repercussions— demotions and monitoring and even a stint in some camp. But she was still brave and tough and mouthy. A person you’d expect to be here.
Lydia turned back, finger to the lips, and they both settled against the fence. The last line of marchers was in place and the music stopped and there was that moment of anticipatory silence as one of the stage suits got up and said, “Please, take your seats,” within a feedback squeal and the rustle of robes and feet and the ceremony started. Dread ran through Carol’s heart.
Speeches first, the same old speeches, and she and Lydia exchanged glances, not believing a word of it. “She wouldn’t listen,” Carol said, bitterly.
“My Tom wouldn’t, either,” Lydia pressed against the fence, staring intently. “I think I’ve got him spotted.”
“Can you see Mary?”
A few moments scrutiny, “No, not really. I think she’s in the middle behind that fat kid.”
Carol followed her verbal directions and, yes, possibly that was her, obscured by other graduates. She could imagine Mary, flushed, eyes shining. Listening to the speeches. Believing.
“We’re running out of time,” Lydia muttered and panic flooded Carol. Yes, they were.
Because it was the last speech and it was over now, too soon, too soon, and one of the suits strode ponderously to the microphone and gazed benevolently over the eager, forward leaning graduates. “Class of 27,” dramatic pause, “you are dismissed!”
Cheers. Pandemonium. Caps flew into the air, the band struck up the school song, the men in the bleachers back slapped and yelled and shook hands and called out but none of the graduates looked their way because they were too busy hugging and kissing and grabbing and singing with each other, only each other.
“No!” Carol sobbed against the fence.
There was a rumbling and the trucks pulled onto the field, the black trucks, with their black suited guards and their black weapons. The trucks wheeled and backed up and the doors opened. Black jump-suited men and women with clipboards fanned out from the trucks and stationed themselves at strategic points and called out, smiling, and a graduate would squeal and hug a friend and go stand in a line behind the clipboard and the men in the stands yelled encouragement.
The athletic kids like Tom in one line, the fat nerds in another, the young beautiful women, like Mary, in another…
Carol knew that line.
“No!” Carol grasped the chain link, ignoring how it cut into her fingers. “God!” Lydia uttered the forbidden, “they’ve got Tom in the soldier line!” They both watched helplessly as the lines grew and the clipboards marched the kids between the guards into the trucks and strapped them in and Carol swore, swore, there was Mary, heading for the long cold barracks, tied to her cot while the soldiers came in, one after another, until she’d had her required five and the sixth, the sixth, Mary, was yours, all yours, and they let you out and you got a house and a Marvin and a Mary to raise, your very own in a time when there was nothing your own and yes, Mary, you’ll get crazy, too, as graduation approached…
“I can’t let this happen!” Lydia stood straight up, the terror in her eyes, the news reports reflected there, deserts and jungles and cities in ruin and fire and the bodies, the bloated, torn bodies in wars all the same that never ended. “I just can’t!” and she bolted out of the brush.
“Lydia!” Carol grabbed her pants leg, “don’t!”
Lydia kicked her hard, driving Carol back, “Urff!” Lydia stood over her, insane, fists clenched, “Don’t you see?” she shrieked. “We’re both useless now! Useless!” Lydia leaned down. “You know what’s going to happen.”
Yes, she did.
Lydia stared at her a moment and then whirled out of the brush, bee lining through the parking lot towards the gate. Carol watched her through the breaks. She was so fast, dodging her and there, tough and strong and, could she actually make it? Carol’s heart leaped.
A line of fire, like a yellow laser, shot down from the sky and sprayed over Lydia’s running form. It made a thrumming sound, like a sewing machine, and Lydia made no sound as she just evaporated, a reddish and white mist swirling within the yellow. It was so quick that it was almost puzzling, until the drone made a swoop over the parking lot and Carol understood. She held her breath and quivered as the drone banked over the fence line. Didn’t they have infrared? But it didn’t line up on her position, just flew away.
Carol breathed and looked back through the fence. A few graduates and clipboards were watching the retreating drone, but shrugged and were quickly loaded and the last of the trucks closed and joined their companions lumbering through the field and out the gate as the cheering men lined the driveway, the guards standing watchful between them and the trucks. Carol didn’t know which one contained Mary, so she selected one of the last and blew it a kiss.
She crept out of the bushes, fearful, but nothing came after her. She’d make it home before Marvin, who would stay here drinking himself into a stupor with the other men, the lies easier to take that way. She’d clean the house and make herself a dinner. A good one.
The last one.
D. Krauss is a former military officer and intelligence analyst currently residing in the Shenandoah Valley. He’s been, at various times: a cottonpicker, a sod buster, a surgical orderly, the guy who paints the little white line down the middle of the road, a weatherman, and a gun-totin’ door-kickin’ lawman. He’s been married over 35 years now (yep, same woman), and has a wildman bass player for a son. Find him at DustySkull.com
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