unwilling [short story]

She has a small scar on her right breast, but its origins are clouded in mystery. Like a Nike tick, almost, but backwards – less just do it and more just what did you do?

She just isn’t sure. But she does know that now she can’t stop looking at it, peeking above the neckline of her dress, pressing it when no one’s looking to feel for raised edges, signs of a more permanent disfigurement. Maybe it’s the mark of an alien probe. Maybe she has cancer and it’s clawing its way to the surface. Maybe it was just her new ring – it has been catching on everything, and its latest assault is still tender on her nose – but really, the more she thinks about it, the more she just knows that it’s something bad.

Inconveniently, she has this realisation at approximately 1:48 on a Tuesday afternoon, while sitting at her desk, theoretically reading through a spreadsheet. Her hand drifts to her chest again, and more than ever before, she clutches at this branding she must bear, this inevitable death sentence, until she realises Felicity from the next cubicle over is looking at her oddly. ‘Hannah, are you okay?’

Hannah manages a nod, but she’s fast falling apart inside. If she dies, what then? She’s single; she has nothing to her name but a room in a crappy flat and an above average DVD collection. But what would happen to those DVDs, to her old but nostalgia-inducing t-shirts, her ‘aspirational’ size ten dresses that hang crisply from hangers, never worn? She needs a plan. She needs to know that her fragmentary life will live on, in some way, not in a skip bin outside the old weatherboard house she’s on recently started thinking of as ‘home’.

So she thinks about talking to the necessary people about what she wants to happen should she… pass on. She won’t go into details – no – best not to worry anyone just yet. Could be nothing, couldn’t it? She’s twenty-eight, too young to worry about these things, they’ll say, but Hannah was always the girl planning her life. None of its gone to plan – she was supposed to be a famous jazz pianist by now, and while she did have blue hair for a while, it faded into a distinctly swampy tone and was swiftly dyed over and regretted. She hasn’t fallen in love – not officially, and certainly not in a requited fashion – and she certainly doesn’t live in a Parisian garret. All and all, she’s a great disappointment to her fifteen-year-old self, and reminds herself of this fact every day as she puts on her lipstick.

She tries to forget this fact as she makes a list of who she needs to talk to. Her mother, father, sister. Maybe Lacey, the one friend from school she keeps in contact with – Lacey would like the more spangled of her dresses, Hannah’s sure about that. Her ‘book club’ – really, they drink too much wine and talk about how much they hate Jodi Picoult on the rare occasions they actually remember to meet up, but they are the closest thing to a friendship group that Hannah has right now – apart from Felicity and Hamish and her other office drone workmates. A tick in the ‘maybe’ column for them, then.

Her mother only lives a few streets away from her, but it’s the first time Hannah’s been over in weeks when she knocks on the door. ‘Hannah? Has something happened?’

Yes. ‘No, no… just in the neighbourhood.’

‘You’re live in the neighbourhood, but you never just… turn up. But, I mean, it’s lovely to see you, darling. Come in, come in.’

Hannah follows her mother through to the kitchen, where a packet of biscuits sits beside a martini glass. ‘So, uh, how’s everything going?’

Her mother shrugs, and dramatically downs the rest of whatever was in the glass. ‘Henry’s left me. Surprising no one.’

‘Wasn’t he always going to be going back to Perth, Mum?’

‘Well, I mean, yes – but plans can change, can’t they? If he’d really loved me, he would have stayed – or asked me to go with him!’

Christ, Hannah thinks. My sixty-two year old mother is turning into a lovesick, destitute… me. ‘Well, it was good while it lasted, wasn’t it?’ She’s still not used to her mother dating. Ten years of post-divorce singledom has suddenly been replaced by ‘getting back in the game’. She feels almost threatened by this new and ‘improved’ figure, this mother who gets manicures and actually drinks cocktails and hosts dinner parties with a variety of canapés.

Her mother sighs, and picks up a Tim Tam. ‘It was. It really was. The places he took me!’

Hannah sincerely hopes that a) she’s talking about restaurants and b) she’s not going to elaborate. ‘Ah, well, moving on. We can have dinner or something, sometime.’

‘That would be lovely, Han. Now, but enough about me and my woes – there must be a reason you came round.’

Hannah is silent, and looks down at her hands, fingers twined together and knuckles turning white. Her v-neck jumper exposes the telltale mark. ‘Um… I don’t know, I was just thinking about stuff. About being prepared in case anything ever happened to me. Would you take care of my things?’

Her mother’s eyes have bulged slightly as she’s saying this, and once the question’s actually been asked, she laughs – a sparkly, vodka-tonic kind of laugh that sets Hannah on edge. ‘Oh sweetheart, you’re so young! Whatever are you worrying about that for?’

‘I just – you never know, do you? Jessie Randall from Gabby’s class died last year, completely out of the blue, some freak disease – it can happen to anyone, can’t it? I don’t want to… go, you know, and my whole life just gets erased because of a lack of foresight and a landlord who’s handy with a rubbish bag.’

To Hannah’s utter surprise, her mother actually looks thoughtful. ‘Jessie Randall, really? That’s awfully sad. I suppose you have a point. I had a will at your age, but that was part of the whole getting married thing, which obviously hasn’t come up for you yet.’

‘Obviously.’ Thanks for rubbing it in, Mum. ‘Yeah, a will. That’s what I really need to do, I guess, but I wanted to, you know talk to people about stuff beforehand, so I know what to put… or so you know what to do in case something happens before I get around to that.’

‘What do you mean? Are you – you’re not… you’re not thinking about suicide, are you? Darling, darling, I know things aren’t quite –’

No, Mum. I’m not suicidal; I’m just being practical. I want to be prepared.’

Her mother seems to be on the verge of tears. ‘Oh, Hannah. Don’t scare me like that.’

Sorry. I didn’t mean to. It’s not what I mean at all.’

‘Well, you’ve given me quite a start. Let me fix us both a couple of drinks to calm us down.’

Hannah can’t argue with that, and while sipping her dirty martini – her mother’s become quite the barmaid – she manages to make some mental notes about things would best suit this new social butterfly of a maternal figure. Perhaps she can argue over the dress collection with Lacey. They wear the same shoe size, too – maybe the next Henry will be more easily won over by a woman in on-trend footwear.

Another drink, several hugs, and a dinner date booking later, Hannah leaves her mother’s house in a slightly tipsy state, glad she walked rather than driving. She needs the exercise, anyway – especially if she wants to be strong in the face of possible health-related adversity. It does mean that she’s got a long bus ride to her next planned stop, but that gives her time to contemplate – and time’s what she needs right now.

Five minutes after she’s paid her fare, though, she’s asleep against the vibrating bus window. And when she wakes up, groggy and thoroughly disoriented, cheek and chin crusty with saliva, she finds that she’s overshot her intended stop. The resulting ten minute backtrack does give her a little of her intended contemplation time back, though, and with after she downs can of coke, she’s almost good as new again. She crumples the can and drops it in her sister’s recycling bin on her way up the driveway.

Gabrielle answers the door, but before she can say anything, something small and fluffy darts between her legs and makes for the rose bushes at the end of the garden. ‘Oh, for goodness sake, there he goes again. Hi, Han.’

Gabrielle is married – happily, even, or so she claims – and lives with her husband and an ever-expanding stomach. Hannah could swear she’s been pregnant long enough to have produced multiple squalling infants by now, but no, there’s still supposedly a month to go. Hannah’s not sure how any further growth is possible without Gabrielle entirely losing her centre of gravity, and yet, every time she sees her, she’s still upright, still mobile.

‘Mum said you might drop by.’

Hannah tries to call whether or not she mentioned her visitation plans to their mother, but memory’s clouded by her sleep. ‘She did? Were you talking to her?’

‘We’ve been talking a lot lately, what the big day getting closer and closer.’ Gabrielle grins, and laces her fingers together over her stomach. ‘She’s loving being the fount of all baby knowledge.’

‘What if it’s a boy, though? She doesn’t have any experience with boy-kids.’

‘Well, we don’t really want to enforce gender expectations on the baby, either way.’ Hannah knows that this is Gabrielle’s way of saying ‘it’s a girl, dammit.’ She’s heard her telling the same story to friends, but she’s also heard her husband, Dave, tell anyone who’ll listen that Gabby won’t know what to do with herself if she finds herself the mother of a little boy. ‘All the names we’ve chosen are gender neutral, so that we can just pick whatever’s the best fit, rather than feeling constrained by societal expectations.’

My mother’s a floozy and my sister’s suddenly a eighteen year old Women’s Studies major. ‘Right. Like what?’

‘Well, I like Cameron and Jaimie. Dave’s pretty keen on Riley, but we’ll see.’

‘Cool.’ Now that she’s come all this way, Hannah has no idea what she’s doing here. Gabrielle and Dave are both lawyers. Beautiful house, beautiful neighbourhood, beautiful child on the way, beautiful lives. As she always does when she makes her trek out to her sister’s place, Hannah feels dowdy and unsuccessful, and wonders why she bothered – it’s not like either of these guys or their unborn spawn will care about her remarkable selection of supernatural TV shows.

‘So what brings you out here? Mum said you were being all contemplative or something.’

‘Yeah. I… oh, hey, Juju.’ Hannah’s favourite part of Gabrielle’s life, her Birman cat Julius, has come back inside, rose petals falling in his wake. Julius and Hannah have a lot in common – both of them are a bit overweight and a bit bemused by the human inhabitants of the house. She picks him up for a cuddle, and scratches him behind the ears, only to have him scratch back – just above her collarbone.

‘Oh, sorry about him. He’s still being nasty, like last time. It’s the new food the vet’s got him on, I think. Makes his coat shiny, and it’s good for his teeth, but he doesn’t like it much.’

‘It’s okay.’ Hannah hears herself replying, but she’s far away, watching the blood well bit by bit in the shallow cut. Just like the one she got last time she was here. On her right breast. ‘I’m okay. I’m really, actually okay.’

‘Um, good.’

Hannah jumps up, startling both cat and owner. ‘Actually, I have to go. I’ve got things to do, but – it was good to see you. This has been very helpful.’

‘Hannah, what do you mean?’

‘Everything’s great. I just got some good news. I have to go.’

And leaving her pregnant sister uttering confused protestations, Hannah grabs her bag and flees from the house, from the magazine-cover neighbourhood and chokes back a sob, because her throat is thick with tears of joy.

 

(I’m cheating a bit with this one, as I didn’t actually write it today, but it was constructed in one day, so it still fits the parameters. It was written for submission to a literary journal, and since it didn’t get selected, I figured, what the hell, TO THE BLOG WITH YOU. Not my finest work, after all, it’s a 2000 word story entirely bashed out in an hour or so, but still. LONG STUFF!)

2 thoughts on “unwilling [short story]

  1. Aha, that was a funny twist. It made me laugh (with relief). I liked Hannah. It’s a nice story, and characters made me laugh inside. x

    1. Gracias! It’s been a while since I dabbled in short stories (I’m mostly slogging away at novel concepts when I’m not doing posts for this here blog), but it was somewhat satisfying, which is nice.

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