The Third Maddy
I’m almost asleep that night when my door opens. My mom hovers in the doorway and I keep my eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. Still, she comes in and sits on the bed next to me.
For a long time she doesn’t move. Then she leans over and I’m sure she’s going to kiss my forehead like she used to when I was a little girl, but I roll away from her, still feigning sleep.
I don’t know why I do it. Who is this new Maddy that is cruel for no reason? She gets up, and I wait to hear the door close before opening my eyes.
A single black rubber band sits on my nightstand.
Life is a Gift
The next morning I wake to yelling. At first I think it’s Olly’s family again, but the sound is too close. It’s my mom. I’ve never heard her voice raised before.
“How could you do this? How could you let a stranger in here?”
I can’t hear Carla’s response. I open the bedroom door quietly and tiptoe out onto the landing. Carla’s standing at the foot of the stairs. My mom is smaller than her in every way, but you wouldn’t know it from the way Carla’s shrinking away from her.
I can’t let Carla get blamed for this. I fly down the stairs.
“Did something happen? Is she sick?” Carla catches my arm, pats my face, her eyes scanning my body for signs of trouble.
“She went outside. Because of him. Because of you.” She turns to face me. “She put her life at risk and she’s been lying to me for weeks.”
She turns back to Carla. “You’re fired.”
“No, please, Mom. It wasn’t her fault.”
She cuts me off with a hand. “Not only her fault, you mean. It was your fault, too.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, but it has no effect on her.
“So am I. Carla, pack your things and go.”
I’m desperate now. I can’t imagine my life without Carla in it. “Please, Mom, please. It won’t happen again.”
“Of course it won’t.” She says it with absolute certainty.
Carla starts up the stairs without a word.
Mom and I spend the next half hour watching Carla pack. She has reading glasses and pens and clipboards in almost every room.
I don’t bother to wipe away my tears because they just keep coming. Mom holds herself more rigid than I’ve ever seen her. When we finally get to my room I give Carla my copy of Flowers for Algernon. She looks at me and smiles.
“Isn’t this book going to make me cry?” she asks.
She pulls the book close to her bosom and holds it there and doesn’t take her eyes off me.
“You be brave now, Madeline.” I run into her arms. She drops her medical bag and the book and holds me tight.
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper.
She squeezes me even tighter. “It’s not your fault. Life is a gift. Don’t forget to live it.” Her voice is fierce.
“That’s enough now,” my mom snaps from the doorway. Her patience has run out. “I know this is very sad for you both. Believe it or not, it’s sad for me as well. But it’s time for you to go. Now.”
Carla lets me go. “Be brave. Remember, life is a gift.” She picks up her medical case.
We all walk downstairs together. Mom hands her a final check, and she’s gone.
as•ymp•tote (ˈasəm(p)ˌtōt) n. pl. -s. 1. A wish that continually approaches but never achieves fulfillment. [2015, Whittier]
I pull the curtains aside as soon as I’m back in my room. Olly’s standing at his window, his forehead pressed into his fist, his fist pressed into the glass. How long has he been waiting? It takes him a second to realize I’m there, but it’s enough time for me to see his fear. Evidently my function in life is to strike fear into the hearts of those that love me.
Not that Olly loves me.
His eyes roam over my body, my face. He makes a typing gesture with his hands, but I shake my head. He frowns, makes the gesture again, but I shake my head again. He disappears from the window and returns with a marker.
I nod. Are you? I mouth.
I shake my head.
I pantomime excellent health, existential angst, regret, and an enormous sense of loss, all via a single nod.
We stare mutely at each other.
I shake my head. A gesture that says: No, don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault. It’s not you. It’s this life.
More Than This
My mom wordlessly kneels to gather scraps of drawings from our game of Honor Pictionary and stacks them into a neat pile. She keeps the best (defined here as either really good or really bad) ones from each game. We sometimes look through our collection nostalgically, the way the other families look through old photos. Her fingers linger atop a particularly bad drawing of some sort of horned creature hovering above a circle with holes in it.