The Inheritance, by E. M. Sole
She was dying, before her time. Tears filled her eyes as she remembered all the promises left unfulfilled and all her many regrets. Katie stared at the water-stained ceiling. John said it looked like a cat but she couldn’t see it. She wished, just once before she died, she could see the magic he always saw in the world. To her, it was just ugly stains in an old plaster ceiling of an old house that they had never gotten around to fixing up.
Katie listened for a few minutes to the radio playing downstairs. They were trying to drown out her reality. She couldn’t blame them for it must be very hard on John and especially the kids living their lives with their mother upstairs dying. Her parents were here staying in the downstairs guest bedroom, the room John called his office. Katie wondered where he was getting his work done, not in the guest room, since he always said he couldn’t write with the kids, or anyone else around. Maybe he had finally given it up as a futile dream.
Dreams, she sighed, something to long for. Katie wished she had a dream, something impossible to hope for, but her life even as a small child, according her mother, was one of practicality. She helped with the house work from the time she could walk, and had completely taken it over by high school, giving her mother time to pursue her career which seemed more important than family. She always excelled in academics at school. It was a lot of hard work with never any time or reason for dreams, and never any time to be a child, to play or to dream like other children.
A soft knock on the door was followed by John’s voice. He was always so quiet now. He never used to be so quiet about anything. “Katie?”
She sighed and turned her face to the wall, not wanting to see him, not wanting him to see her like this any more than he had to. She screamed “What? Oh, do come in already. It’s still your bedroom.” But it wasn’t anymore. Now John slept on an old couch in the hall with the door cracked open so he could hear her if she called for him. Katie couldn’t see how he got any rest, she could see the toll in his aging wrinkles and unkempt hair.
“Didn’t want to disturb your sleep,” he said. It seemed more like he couldn’t stand being near her, she thought. “Supper,” he said, as he pushed the door open, moving slowly, as if he could break her just stepping too loud. “Tomato soup, chocolate pudding,” he said.
Soft foods, and bland too. Katie sighed. It wouldn’t kill her any quicker to have some taste would it? “I’m not hungry,” she said.
“Come on you’ve got to eat.”
“Or? I won’t starve to death will I?”
“Please don’t talk that way.” He sounded hurt.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
He handed a little dish of pills to her. “Be sure you take these,” he said. Then he left as quiet as he’d entered. She knew he would be back later to check. What were they? Painkillers probably, the doctors said there wasn’t anything that would save her life.
After her last dream, she woke the whole house up with her screaming. She was laying on a cold hard surface in a dark very cold room. Then a dim light came on just enough to see the row of beds, each one with someone laying covered with a sheet. She looked up from her bed to see a man walked along the beds pushing a cart. Its wheels were squeaking painfully, and the harsh chemical smell of formaldehyde preceded it. He was wearing a white lab. His face was covered by a white surgeon’s mask. He stopped where Katie lay, and lifted something from the cart. The light glinted along its blade. “A scalpel.” she shrieked. Suddenly she knew that she was in a morgue, and on the other “beds” were corpses. The man lowered the blade until it touched her throat. She tried to move but couldn’t. She tried to scream but couldn’t not in her dream anyway. In the real world, she was making enough noise to wake the dead. At least that was what her mother said after everyone calmed down and the kids had gone back to sleep.
She told mother about the dream and somehow the conversation drifted into what happens after a person dies.
“Don’t worry about it. After all, if they do an autopsy you won’t be there to feel it.”
“How do you know mother?” Katie asked. “Maybe the dead can still feel and see and hear, and just can’t respond to anything.” Mother laughed and told her to go back to sleep. Then she left but Katie did not go back to sleep, and she hadn’t slept since.
John helped her to the chair by the window. “The change in scenery will do you good,” he said as he put the tray holding supper on the table by the chair. Outside the kids were throwing a football. She turned away but that made her face John, so she looked down. “I’ll bring the kids in before they go to bed.”
“No don’t.” Katie glanced out the window and quickly turning her eyes back to the floor. “You don’t have to force them to see me.” She closed her eyes and remembered when John told the children that their mother wouldn’t be with them much longer. Josh screamed that she had promised to always be here for them.
John frowned. “You’re their mother, and …”
“And they won’t have many more chances to see me.” She finished it for him, “Didn’t you ever think that maybe they won’t want to remember this? That they’d rather remember me the way I was?”
“Do you remember the camping trip we took last summer?” Katie looked into John eyes, trying to guess where he was going with this. She’d just started to realize something was wrong, and made the doctor’s appointment when they got back. “We went to the woods. Remember how much fun Robbie had when you told him all about the different kinds of trees and the animals that depend on them?” She nodded hesitantly. “And Josh got a tick on his arm, you got it off and he acted like it was magic.”
“Yes I remember,” she said, “let them have that mom to cherish the rest of their lives, not this one, this frightening sick helpless …”
“Don’t talk like that. You are still the same person.”
“If only I had a little more time.”
“If you did what would you do with it?” he said.
“I’d have a more time with them and you,” Katie paused, “and I’d have a dream.”
He laughed. “If that’s how you want spend the time, you do have me and the kids, and you can spend it dreaming.”
She shook her head. “There’s no time left.”
“What dream would you dream if there was time?” he asked. Katie turned away from him. “Come on tell me.”
“I don’t know. I never wanted any more in my life than I had, till now. And I don’t want to waste a dream on this stupid sickness.”
“Even if it meant that you could be alive longer?”
“You heard the doctor just like I did. There’s nothing they can do, no hope. Anyone with eyes can see that.”
“There is that guy on the internet” John said. They had this discussion already.
“He’s a fraud. We aren’t going to waste the money that’ll send the kids to college on an impossibility.”
“Isn’t that what dreaming is about, hoping with no hope, trying without a chance of success?”
“That’s stupid.” Katie closed her eyes. It all sounded so pitiful now. “Please I’m tired.” John patted her arm. “I’ll go, but try to eat something after you’ve rested.”
Katie opened her eyes when she heard the door close. “How stupid can you be? Saying you want to spend time with him, and then driving him away.”
Katie stumbled back to the bed. It was harder to hear the kid’s voices away from the open window. She lay on her back and stared at the stain. “Still doesn’t look like a cat, just a stain.” she sat back up, suddenly overwhelmed by an irresistible impulse to make it look like a cat. She pulled a crayon out of the bedside table drawer, a remnant of Robbie’s days of drawing on the walls as an obsessed toddler. Carefully she got onto her knees feeling like any moment she was going to plummet backward off the bed onto the floor and break her neck. Her fingertips touched the wall trying to glue themselves to it as she reached up. She drew one pointed ear, and then the other ear was clearly visible. She ran the crayon over the chin. There was a crack she could see now that she was closer. The eyes were there, but a cat needs whiskers three of them each side. Reluctantly letting go of the wall she drew a big melon shaped body. As she was finishing the door opened, Katie turned too fast at the sound of Robbie’s squeal and lost her balance. John caught her, he always did.
“What are you doing?”
“It looks like a cat now,” Katie said admiring her drawing.
“Let me help you down.” John sounded scared.
Robbie yelled, “Mom! It doesn’t have a tail.” John frowned at him.
“A cat has to have a tail.” Josh was insistent.
“I’ll climb up and draw a tail if it’s that important.” John started to pull Katie down.
“No, Mom’s got to do it. It’s her art.” This time it was at Robbie insistence. Katie reached up, balancing with a hand on John’s shoulder. She drew a long clumsy tail. “Yeah!” The boys yelled.
John pulled her down. “What were you thinking?”
“I wanted to see the cat in the stains.” she looked up at the ceiling and smiled. “And now I see a cat.” John gave the ceiling a glare. “Looks more like a long tailed pig to me.
“Dad!” Robbie said with anger in his voice.
Josh ran out of the room. He came back quickly with a piece of drawing paper. “Mom, draw me a cat, for over my bed.”
“One for me too.” Robbie pushed his way past John and onto the bed. It was the closest she’d let the boys get for some time, “Then when you go away, you will still be here for me in the picture you made.”
“Yeah.” Josh started crying softly. He tried to hide it but started Katie crying too. They had to get another piece of paper after the first one was ruined by their tears.
E. M. Sole is a proud resident of Nebraska, living there with three jack russell terriers and a very confused cat. She was given the gift of the love of literature of all types by her grandmother, a gift that has grown in value through the years. Her short stories have appeared in Lorelei Signal and Liquid Imagination.
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Tags: death, E.M. Sole, family, relationships