Second Place Winner: Life at the End of the Tunnel by Micki Browning
Mom’s voice pierces my sleep and I stumble into the living room. She’s perched on the lip of my sofa, her attention focused on the television. On screen, the camera pans across a courtroom, settles on the twelve bored jurors who will decide the fate of Jodi Arias.
“That woman should get the chair,” Mom says.
I yawn. Nine years as a cop has left me ambivalent about any case that doesn’t require my testimony. Plus, it’s three p.m. and I’ve only slept six hours.
“They need to lock her up and stow away the key,” she adds.
“Throw away,” I correct, before I can stop myself.
She’s pulled her gray hair into a ponytail. Normally, it hangs lank down her back. I can’t quite tell if it is twisted or rolled-- but I’m pleased she took more than a moment on her appearance.
A commercial comes on and she looks up. “What time are we eating at your friend’s?”
“We’re not, Mom. She’s coming over here. We’re grilling.”
“Oh, that’s right. What’s her name again?”
“That’s right. She’s really nice. You’re lucky to have such a nice friend.”
“I am. Can I get you anything?”
Her face is blank.
“Are you hungry?” I prompt.
“Is there any baklava left?” Hope plays like a child across her face.
“No, Mom. We finished it.” I want to spare her feelings, pretend that neither of us realize she ate it all. The crystalized splats of honey and broken walnut bits on the floor are the only evidence the pastry ever existed.
“I ate a banana, Bossypants.”
This, I know is a lie. I’d made my rounds after I returned home from shift, glanced at the fruit bowl, poked through the trashcans, scrutinized the bottles in the liquor cabinet. I want to protect her, but my jurisdiction doesn’t extend into the place she now inhabits.
The commercials end and I lose her attention. I open the blinds. Afternoon sun brightens my condo, assaults my eyes.
“What time did you get up today?” I ask. She’s so engrossed with the program, I have to repeat my question.
I see her eyes flicker up and right, a cue she’s trying to access memory that likes to hide from her. She finally settles on “Early.”
“Early morning or early afternoon?”
“Quit being mean to me.”
I suck in my breath and let it out slowly. I need tea. Caffeine. Something to quell the fatigue left in the wake of too many night shifts, too few good years with my mother.
“I’m just trying to look after you.”
“I can take care of myself just fine.”
This time we both know she’s lying.
“I’m not one of your perps.” She purses her lips in a pout.
I have to smile. Perps. I’ve never used the term in my life. Maybe she picked it up from the ubiquitous courtroom dramas she consumes when she can’t sleep. The East Coast term isn’t a word she learned from me. California cops dealt with suspects, crooks, scroats, the occasional asswipe. Not perps.
Still, Mom had a point.
“What’s your friend’s name again?” she asks.
“What are we taking to Shelly’s tonight?”
I reach for my mug. “Nothing. She’s coming here. We’re grilling ribs.”
“That’s right,” she says to hide her error, then she’s gone again, preferring the company of combatants on television to her daughter.
Tea suddenly seems too difficult. I replace the unused mug in the cabinet, careful to line it up with the others in the collection. “I’m going to take a shower.”
She doesn’t look up as I retreat.
I’m swiping mascara across my lashes--the same dark fringe that once framed my mother’s eyes--when I hear the cell phone.
I dart to the nightstand in time to see Mom’s face flash across the screen before it goes to voicemail. I glance at the clock. Sixteen minutes since getting in the shower. How far could she have gone? I drag on my jeans, yank on a t-shirt, and grab my phone.
She’s on the balcony and I pull open the heavy glass slider. A dark spot stains her pants, but she is smiling.
“I locked myself out.”
This is impossible, but it’s not the time to dwell on that fact.
“I wet myself.”
“So I see.”
She is not embarrassed. I am.
“Mom,” I hear my voice drop into the tone I use to calm distraught children. I can do this. I do it with strangers all the time. “What happened?”
“When you left, I went outside, the door locked behind me.”
She stands in a puddle. My mother.
“Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Lifting a foot, she steps toward the door.
“Wait. Take your shoes off, I don’t want you to track across the carpet.”
The words sound familiar, a whisper from childhood.
Her bony hand clutches my arm. She is unsteady on one foot and I support her. She kicks off one slipper, then the other. On two feet again, she drops her hand from my arm. Before I can stop her she pulls down her elastic pants. Her panties sag, but I’m relieved for the ivory garment. My eyes dart across the greenbelt that separates my condo from the neighboring apartment. I see the curtain swish as someone ducks out of sight.
“Come on, Mom. Time for a shower.”
We enter the bathroom together. I turn on the faucet and test the water. Not too hot. I close the door to give her the privacy she no longer wants.
The bedroom window draws me to the space beyond the panes. I lean against the sill and think of who the woman in the shower used to be: my beautiful, witty, capable mother with her brunette bob and stylish suit, the woman who encouraged me to reach beyond myself, to pursue life unfettered by doubts. I don’t know this woman she’s become. Worse, I don’t want to know this woman. I’m frightened she’s my future.
I draw the drapes and hide in the shadows, holding my breath until the room darkens further. Tears fall first. Then a sob breaks free of my chest and I’m gulping air, unable to stop, unable to quiet.
Her touch startles me, but I’m more surprised to find myself holding my gun. I hide it behind my back and swipe my other palm across my face. Mascara darkens my hand like a bruise.
The mattress sags as she draws me down onto the bed. “Why are you crying?”
Reasons slice away my defenses and inside I bleed. My vision narrows further. I am lost.
She strokes my hair. Pulls me close.
I am her daughter, again. Still, I cry.
“Shhhh. Little one. Can you see that?”
I straighten, desperate for a connection. But the room is too dark.
I shake my head. “No.”
“That’s life, little one.” She pats my thigh. The towel drops around her hips. “The life at the end of the tunnel.”
I think of correcting her. Instead, I clasp her hand, mirror my fingers over the top of hers. My weakness passes, a squall with no more strength. It’s my turn to offer her comfort.
The noise is as I expect, but the flash of light blinds me. The shell ejects to the right, lands near my feet. I will need to call 911. But not yet.
“That’s right, Mom,” I whisper. “There is life at the end of the tunnel.”