Mother’s Voice, by Keshia Swaim
“Hold on a sec.” I cradled the phone against my shoulder and yelled down the hall, “Jarred Riley, you have two minutes to clean up this mess or I’m spanking your bottom!”
“Sorry.” I turned my attention back to the phone. “I swear that boy acts like he was raised in a barn.”
“Wow.” Chrissy’s laugh bubbled trough the receiver. “Do you realize how much you just sounded like Mom? Besides, I thought you didn’t believe in corporal punishment.”
“I didn’t. But honestly, it’s the only thing that works with him anymore. Turns out Mom wasn’t wrong about everything.”
“She would have loved hearing you admit that.” Chrissy’s voice turned wistful.
“I know. She did love to be right.” I forced passed the lump in my own throat and plucked a butterscotch from the candy dish. “Want to hear something weird? Since the accident, it almost feels like Mom is here sometimes. And those gross little candies she always carried, it’s like I crave them now.”
“The brain does have strange ways of coping.” There was a slight hesitation in Chrissy’s voice.
“Thirty seconds, Jarred!”
“Lighten up.” Her laugh was back. “He’s just a kid.”
“Kids need rules, and discipline, little sis. You’ll understand one day. That is, if you ever finish school and decide to start a family.”
“Yeah, okay, Mom. I’ve gotta go.”
Why did I say that? “I’m sorry, Chrissy. That was out of line. I didn’t mean…”
“It’s fine.” She cut me off. “But my break really is almost over. I’ll talk to you later.”
I stared at the receiver after the call disconnected. I knew how much Mom’s not-so-subtle hints about grandchildren bothered Chrissy. Wasn’t I the one who interrupted her rants, reminding her that Chrissy was studying to become a doctor, and babies really weren’t the best idea right now? I’d have to figure out how to make it up to her. But, judging from the toy cars still scattered around the room, I had other matters to deal with at the moment.
“Jarred Riley, Now!”
He finally shuffled down the hall, followed closely by Oscar, the cat he’d managed to talk me into letting him have last month. As soon as Jarred bent to scoop up some of his toys, the crazy beast took off, bouncing from one piece of furniture to the next, chasing who knows what. Of course, when I moved to push him off the couch, I managed to knock over my incense warmer, dumping red wax all over my new tan throw pillows.
“No.” I moaned. “That will never come out.”
“Calm down.” Mom’s voice seemed to float in my brain. “A damp towel and a warm clothes iron should do the trick. Just make sure to use an old towel.”
“Jarred, Oscar needs to go outside for a while.” I glared at the cat before marching to the linen closet. I had no idea where the memory of Mom’s wax-removal trick came from, but I was glad I’d filed it away at some point. Twenty minutes later, the damp spots on my pillows were barely noticeable. Just in time to start dinner.
“Jarred, don’t forget to have your room cleaned before your dad gets home.” I sighed, heading toward the kitchen.
“Guess who just made dinner reservations for your birthday this weekend?”
I’d been so focused on getting dinner done that I didn’t hear Kevin come in. “My birthday?” I repeated numbly. Maybe that’s why Mom had been on my mind so much recently. It had always been ‘our birthday.’ Mom said that no gift could be better than sharing her special day with me. “Oh, honey that’s…” I couldn’t stop a tear from slipping through my lashes.
“Laura, I’m sorry.” He wrapped me in a tight hug. “I didn’t even think. I’ll cancel and we can just stay in.”
“Now you listen,” Mom’s voice was back, “he actually remembered this year, and you’re not going to cancel just to have some pity-party.”
Shaking my head to clear it, I sighed. “No, it was a wonderful idea. I need to get out of the house. It will be fun.”
“Are you sure?” Kevin’s face was skeptical. “Because I can call the sitter and tell her—”
“Oh no you don’t.” I forced a smile. “A kid-free evening is exactly what I need. Now give me about ten minutes and I’ll have dinner ready.” I shooed him out of the kitchen before he could sneak another bite.
Finally, after washing the dishes, I was able to slip off by myself. Jarred had challenged Kevin to a game of Frisbee, so the house was wonderfully quiet. Curling up in bed, I reached for my worn copy of Jane Austen’s classics. It had been a gift from Mom on my thirteenth birthday. The love of the classics was one thing we’d always shared, and no matter how many times I read the stories, they always made me feel closer to her.
When Kevin’s alarm went off, I snuggled deeper into my pillow, barely registering the kiss he planted on my cheek before the bedroom door closed.
“Well, I never.” Mom sounded indignant. “Thirty-two years I was married to your father, and I got up to make him coffee and breakfast every day.”
“Kevin doesn’t eat breakfast. And he’s perfectly capable of making coffee.” I stopped mid-yawn and bolted up in bed. “Mom?” I whispered. “Are you—Are you really here?”
“Well of course I am. You can hear me, can’t you?”
I felt a spike of excitement followed by pure panic. There was no way to count the times since her car wreck that I’d wished for just one more chance to talk to my mom. But, my mom. In my head. This was so not going to work.
“Mom?” I tried again, tentatively. “How are you doing this? How are you here?”
“I have no idea.” She huffed. “But it’s about time you noticed. I’ve been trying to get your attention for weeks.”
For weeks. “It’s all really been you.” I rubbed my temples, willing this to make sense. “The butterscotch candy, the weird cleaning spree last week,” my breath caught, “what I said to Chrissy yesterday!”
“It’s been getting easier to get through for some reason.” Her voice was smug. “But I’ve been around for months. You’ve got to admit, Jarred is behaving better. And since we rearranged your den it is much easier to have company over.”
“We?” I felt a sinking sensation.
“Yes, yes,” I could just see Mom flicking her hand in dismissal. “I figured as long as I’m here, I might as well help out. I’ve got to say, Laura, I really thought I raised you better than to—”
“Help out?” I hissed. “Mom, this is my life. You can’t do this. You can’t just take over raising my child and running my home.”
“Well, it’s good to be able to talk to you again, too.”
Wincing, I climbed out of bed and grabbed my jeans. “That’s not what I meant. You know I miss you. It’s just that…”
Still wrapping my brain around the idea of even having this conversation, I sighed. “Your idea of ‘helping out’ always means doing everything your way.”
“And what’s wrong with my way?” Mom’s voice rose in pitch. “I’ll have you know I dedicated my whole life to your father and you girls.”
“And there’s nothing wrong with that.” I cut off her rant before she could continue. “But did you ever consider that your way isn’t the only right way?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Chrissy is a perfect example. She’s going to be a doctor. A doctor, Mom. She’ll be able to save lives. But you never told her you were proud of her decision. Instead you just griped about her not having kids yet.”
“She’s my daughter.” Mom snapped. “Of course I’m proud of her. I just want her to have the same joy you two brought me. Don’t you want your sister to have the same love you do for Jarred?”
“That’s just it.” I tugged a brush through my hair, searching my reflection for signs of insanity. “It doesn’t matter what I want, or what you want. It’s Chrissy’s life. What was right for you doesn’t have to be what’s right for her too.”
“I’m sorry I’ve been such a terrible mother.” In my mind, I could see Mom’s lips thinning to the point they almost disappeared, like they always did when she was really mad. “Unfortunately, you’re stuck with me until I can figure out how to get out of here.”
Get out of here? You mean out of my head? “Mom, I never said you were a terrible mother. You were a great mom when Chrissy and I were little, but…but we’re not little anymore. You never let us grow up, make our own decisions, our own mistakes.”
“It’s not my fault that—“
“Jarred’s up.” I cut her off when I heard little feet padding down the hall. “I really can’t deal with this right now.”
Mercifully, Mom went quiet just before Jarred opened the door, looking for his breakfast. Even though I could tell she didn’t approve of his toaster pastry, or Oscar lounging on the dining room floor, she was quiet for most of the day. My mind, on the other hand, wouldn’t stop spinning.
Was I really going crazy? Why was this happening to me, and not Chrissy? Should I tell her about it, or would she want me to be evaluated? And what kind of daughter spends possibly her only chance to talk to her deceased mother picking a fight?
Other than grabbing a butterscotch every time I passed the candy tray, I had no real sign that Mom was still with me until I started making dinner.
“Chicken strips and French fries? Really Laura, I can’t believe you let Jarred eat like that.”
“It’s his favorite.” I muttered under my breath, making sure Jarred wasn’t within hearing range. “Since we’re leaving him with the babysitter tomorrow, he gets his special meal tonight.”
“Your father and I always did that for you girls, too.” I could hear the smile in Mom’s voice. “Spaghetti was always your favorite. But at least I made sure to serve proper vegetables with it.” Her nagging tone was back. “I don’t even think those fries are any good. They look wrong.”
“That’s because they’re carrots.” I didn’t bother to hide my sigh.
“Carrot sticks. I bake them, lightly seasoned, and Jarred loves them.”
“Oh. I never would have thought of that.” I might have picked up a hint of approval in her tone, but before I could press the issue, Kevin walked in the door.
“Laura.” Mom stage-whispered, even though I was the only one who could hear her anyway. “Laura, wake up.”
Glancing at the clock, four A.M., I stifled a groan and shuffled to the kitchen. “What?” I whispered back, reaching for the coffee grounds.
“Happy Birthday, honey.”
Instantly, tears pricked my eyelids. “Happy Birthday to you too, Mom.”
“This year, I even get my wish,” she chuckled. “I’m not getting any older.”
“How can you joke about that?” I scrubbed my eyes with my palm.
“Well, getting mad about it didn’t change anything for me, so why not?” I could imagine Mom shrugging. “But that’s not what I pulled you out of bed for. Did you mean what you said yesterday, about me being a good mom?”
“Of course I meant it.” I poured myself a cup of coffee, then caught myself before offering one to Mom. “And I’m sorry about the other things I said. I love you, and I’ve missed you so much. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dreamed of being able to talk to you again.”
“But you meant them.” She interrupted my apology. “You meant everything you said, didn’t you?”
“Not the way they came out. I never meant to argue with you again, I just wanted you to see that Chrissy and I are adults now. We’re strong, intelligent women, just like you raised us to be.”
“Yes, you are. I never meant to make you feel like anything less. I was just so afraid that once you stopped needing me, I wouldn’t be important to you anymore. You’ll tell Chrissy I’m sorry, won’t you?”
“Once I figure out how to tell her about any of this.” I smiled.
“Maybe that’s why this happened to you.” I imagined Mom smiling. “You always did take a little more on faith than she did.”
“Maybe.” I shrugged
“But that’s the reason I woke you up.” Mom’s voice turned brisk. “You won’t have to deal with me in your head any more. I think I’ve figured it out.”
Panic clutched my chest. “No. Mom, I don’t want you to go.”
“Go?” Mom laughed. “Honey, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll always be around in one way or another. I just won’t be trapped in your skull anymore.”
Despite myself, I felt a twinge of relief. Sharing a brain with my mother was not something I wanted to make permanent. “Okay, so what did you figure out?”
“How to let go.”
And then she did. It felt like a subtle shift, a pressure I hadn’t even noticed being released in my brain. Yet I could still feel her in the room. And watching the candy dish slide back to its “proper place” at the center of the bar, I knew, without a doubt, that Mom would always be a part of my life.
Keshia grew up in a small town, graduated from a respected University, and landed a steady job. Then she discovered that reality is boring. She has made it her mission to save others (and herself) from reality by writing as often as she can. She’s had several short stories published, and her debut YA novel, Blood Bound, will be out in September 2013. When she’s procrastinating, Keshia can be found on Facebook, Twitter @KeshiaSwaim, or her blog, The Book Addict.
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Tags: family, ghosts, Keshia Swaim, relationships, supernatural