The Losing Side of Things

Cora Nichols slumped in a burgundy-colored sofa, her arms a shield of defiance at her chest, and glared at her family. How could they laugh and talk with one another? She had a mind to go over and slap each and everyone, show them what grieving a loved one truly looked like. Even the funeral director had more sense, somber and quiet, standing at the front doors, welcoming those that entered. At least, he knew how to behave at a wake.

She grumbled under her breath, placed her hand on her seat to push herself to standing, but then realized she wasn’t going anywhere. The actual effort in moving to get at them was too much; she was adhered to that darn couch, as if a twenty pound cannonball hung from her neck. She would have to hate them from afar. She shook her head and sighed, resigned to staying put.

Her shoulders folded inward as she grabbed a wad of tissues from the side table. She twisted the soft, white fibers into long strands, like snakes, periodically using a tip to catch a tear that escaped the corner of her eye. She didn’t want to cry in front of these losers and leeches. They were all fakes.

Well, maybe not her brother or her father, but everyone else was for sure, especially her mother. She was the biggest fake of them all, with her glass brimming with red wine, as if she carried it as an accessory to compliment her stylish outfit, pressed and fitted. The truth of it was she drank damn fast and never went dry—definitely not a teetotaler, as Mimsey would say.

Cora wanted Mimsey. She wanted to listen to her play music, to hear her laugh, to eat wieners at Long Man’s Eatery. She wanted the one person in the world who got her. She could talk to her grandmother about anything: boys, make-up, her monthly, the best bras to buy…boys. The last best time she remembered of Mimsey was at Long Man’s Eatery before the cancer stuffed her in a hospital bed and drained her vibrancy, until she was no longer.

They both had ordered the footlong hot dog the Long Man’s Eatery was famous for—each dog overflowed with yellow onions, mustard, ketchup, and sweet relish. She remembered laughing and pointing at the big smudge of ketchup on Mimsey’s cheek. They had giggled and talked, taking up a good two hours before they left, and, of course, touched on the subject of her mother as they always did. Mimsey calmed her angst and reassured her.

“Don’t let your mother’s inabilities hamper your own happiness, Cora,” Mimsey had said. Cora shrugged and nodded, though she truly believed that was impossible. How could her mother’s drinking and hatred for her not hamper her own happiness? Mimsey had passed her hand the length of Cora’s cheek and gave a sad smile, as if there was so much more to be said but there was no way of saying it.

Mimsey then told her of her grandfather, Marmaduke Masterson, the town drunk before he stumbled into an oncoming freight train and passed the title to his cohort, Billy Bunkingham. Mimsey said it took three days to find all his pieces and parts. She’d laughed then, tears brimming on the edge, and said, “Even at the end he was a stubborn old goat.”

Mimsey’s exemplification of love baffled Cora, especially with all the broken promises her grandfather had strewn about like candy at a parade. Even him falling into the train was a broken promise, to leave a woman alone with two children to raise on her own with no money to be had. Mimsey had an answer for that too. “Papa was ill, honey. Just because he was ill didn’t make him bad, just unavailable.”

She talked about setting her anger aside and focusing on being happy herself regardless of what he did or didn’t do. She accomplished that with her music, which was always a calling every since she was a young girl living in the Granite Mountains of Montana playing banjo on the front porch. She became extremely successful, one of the most successful women in the Northwest, doing what she loved, playing music and performing throughout the world.

That seemed odd to Cora though, not the playing music bit but the ability to love him without hate. She couldn’t imagine not having this tornado of feelings whenever she thought of her own mother. In some ways it kind of felt like giving up, focusing on being happy herself, especially the way Mimsey had—she never once hated Papa, not once. How was she supposed to make herself happy when her own mother hated her? That felt like a hole that could never be filled.

Fresh tears stung Cora’s eyes, small pricks of pain that promised a terrible storm if not contained. She grabbed more tissue and clenched her hands into tight fists. Now what was she supposed to do? Mimsey was no longer there to help her or calm her. Even her confusing answers had comforted and offered hope.

Now it was all gone, along with Mimsey, who laid downstairs in the funeral home’s formaldehyde-encased basement. Not smiling. Not laughing. Not breathing. And definitely not eating any wieners. Cora’s breath hitched in her throat as a flood of whirling, hot emotion rushed out from her core to the tips of her fingers and toes.

She’s not dead. She can’t be.

Her mother cackled from across the room, her face split with a too-jovial grin. Cora cringed. Stinging tears, emblazoned with fury, raced down her face, like a silent stream of lava, carving her pain into her skin. She wished her mother was the one that was heart-beat-challenged instead of Mimsey. If only Mimsey could come back from the dead and switch places with her mother.

“Excuse me?” Cora jerked her eyes from her mother to the woman who sat next to her trying to tell her something. The woman’s mouth pantomimed words she couldn’t hear, until her eyes focused, almost as if she needed to dial into her surroundings like a radio antenna looking for a signal.

“So sorry for your loss,” the strange woman said, her black and gray hair pulled back into a loose bun on top of her head. Wisps of hair floated around the oval shape of her unusually smooth-skinned face, similar to tentacles trailing a jellyfish. She patted Cora’s hand and flashed her a sweet smile and then left.

Who was that? Mimsey knew so many people. She saw now that the majority of those attending the wake were strangers to her. A few she knew from joining Mimsey while she played music with friends. Others familiar from brief encounters but not known. She skipped from face to face, assessing them, wondering who was really there to say goodbye, but not one of them looked as broken as she felt.

Her gaze bounced over the room to the door that led to the basement where Mimsey rested. Her mother hadn’t wanted the casket brought up. “Too morbid,” she’d said. Her last opportunity to see Mimsey stolen, ripped from her, by no other than her own mother. Cora swung her angry eyes back to her mother’s profile.

Her mother laughed and carried on, her speech and balance resembling that of a teenager imbibing vodka for the first time. Disgust turned Cora’s stomach. Why Mimsey? Why not her mother? Her thoughts shot to the sky, an attempt to plead with a god she didn’t believe in. No answer came. Nothing that reconciled her thoughts and feelings or created understanding to why the one she loved the most was gone—forever.

Mimsey was to be cremated, burned to ash, and then dispensed in the flower gardens of the City’s library. Of course, this human-dispersement wasn’t sanctioned, highly illegal, but would be done all the same. She would make sure of it. Her mother planned on keeping Mimsey’s ashes on the mantel, supposedly to remember her by, always keep her in her heart. Yeah, right.

Her mother didn’t keep anyone in her heart. Cora planned on stealing the ashes at night and visiting the library’s grounds; Mimsey’s favorite flowerbeds were there. “To lay with the dead is best to be done with their words not their rotting bodies,” Mimsey said while she laid in bed dying, her voice raspy and strained. Cora’s mother said that was ridiculous and planned to showcase her urn on the mantel above the never-used fireplace. Mimsey’s face had fallen, and Cora secretly pledged to carry out Mimsey’s wish.

But what if she could save more of Mimsey than just her ashes? She imagined sneaking downstairs and stealing Mimsey’s body. She could hide her in a closet or the basement or her own room. She could visit her everyday. Was it possible for Mimsey to come back? She rummaged through what she knew from science class but came across little that gave her any inclination that she could bring Mimsey back from the dead. But, damn, that would throw her mother for a loop. Especially, if Mimsey came back as a zombie.

A small sting of revulsion and dread pin-pricked her gut at the idea of her loving, beautiful Mimsey coming back as a zombie, that was, until her mother’s loud laugh on the other side of the funeral room reverberated off the drab-beige walls. Maybe Mimsey being a zombie wouldn’t be so bad after all. She could eat her mother first.

Zombie movies bombarded Cora’s mind: decaying skin and gnarled, black fingernails ripping a random person’s exposed throat; sharp, mangled teeth crunching a skull and eating the delectable brains inside. Maybe Mimsey could rip through all these damn people too, these money scrounging relatives that pretended love but just wanted their inheritance.

“It’s time to go,” her father said, interrupting a gruesome display of scavenging-zombies devouring the people in the funeral home. “Everyone’s coming to the house.” She spied him from her peripheral unwilling to give his presence importance. Her fantasy enticed her, offered a solution to all her feelings and the devastating problem with her loveless mother. He pressed her to get up with his hands gently squeezing her shoulders.

She resisted, stuck in her imagination with Mimsey eating her mother’s brains, but then she relented and did what he wanted. She let him guide her out of the funeral home to the car, even though she didn’t want to go home. There was no relief there. There was no relief anywhere, no matter where she went. She leaned on him for support, as they went, for the earth drew her bones to the ground, as if both the earth and her bones were magnets reaching for one another. Even the unusually brisk summer-breeze didn’t slow her descent.

“Henry, tell your daughter to stop slouching,” her mother snapped when Cora climbed into the back seat. Cora collapsed into herself further and glared at the passenger seat’s headrest, hating the sound of her mother’s alcohol-infused tone.

“Leave her be, Margie,” Henry said, his voice carrying a thinning resolve not to yell. Cora saw it in his face, when she peaked out from under her eyelashes at him. He was ready for Margie to pass out too, to be done with her drinking and unsolicited comments. But sometimes mother had a resolve of her own and a complete abnormal ability to consume more alcohol than was humanly possible and still walk and talk. Not that Margie would remember it in the morning. Oh no, she wouldn’t remember, and neither would they, or, at least, they wouldn’t act like they remembered.

Margie blew an annoyed breath between clenched teeth, as she slid into the front seat and tipped her full drink to her smeared, red-painted lips. Silence infiltrated the cab of the car, except for the sounds of Margie drinking, her slurps of alcohol and clinking of ice fueling the anger in Cora’s belly. Henry stayed attentive to the road as he pulled out of the funeral home parking lot and into traffic. Her brother tapped his finger in time to the music he listened to on his headphones, his way of ignoring the unnerving crackling of egg shells that followed their family wherever they went.

“I saw you,” Margie hissed from the side of her lips, breaking the silence. She let her words limp across the air for a minute, while she took another drink, her way of letting them hit her target. The energy in the car crackled and flared with heat, an impending torch about to explode into a thousand other torches to consume them in flame.

The second torch burst when Margie speared her eyes to Henry’s profile, trying to pierce his impassive countenance with invisible daggers of indignation and anger. Her nutmeg-colored eyes burned with fury and her jaw clenched. She tossed the last inch of wine down her throat, the glass now empty. How many more miles until they arrived home? Too many to be stuck in this car with her hateful, drunk mother. Cora’s heart thrummed and fractured with fear. Please hurry, dad, she urged.

“Saw me what?” Henry said, his voice casual, though the edges prickled with knowing-annoyance—this was normal, this mid-conversation uptake that started hours ago in her mother’s mind that no one else was aware of until now. His face stayed unresponsive, his eyes on the road.

“You bastard, cinching your eyes to her ass! And right in front of me!” Liquor imbued spittle sprayed the air as she talked, her voice grew louder with each syllable. Cora covered her ears with the palms of her hands, muting the exchange, but no muffling could silence it for good.

“Who’s ass?” This time her father offered a brief annoyed glance, as if he owed her his attention, which, of course, he didn’t. Why did he put up with her? Cora hated this.

“Chrissy Maller. Like you don’t know. Her tight ass and perky, goddamn tits,” she said this as she grabbed her own breasts and hips and jostled them about like she was tenderizing steak for kabobs. “Twenty years younger than me. No wrinkles. Yeah, I get it. I’d do her too.” She chuckled then and went to drink more wine and looked confused when none wetted her tongue.

Silence lingered after her words, as if she had forgotten what she’d been talking about, and then a synapsis sparked in her brain and she started up again. “Chrissy Maller. Cinched your eyes to her tight ass, alright. And at my mother’s wake.” She slurred the last three words and leaned her body toward Cora’s father, as if elongating her spine would help the words come out coherently.

“He doesn’t like Chrissy Maller,” Cora interjected, edging forward between the two front seats. Her hands shook and her cheekbones felt like hot coals under her skin.

“What?” Her mother swiveled her head toward Cora’s voice, bouncing her head off the headrest as her movements were uncontrolled and too fluid. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head and lingered, the whites of her eyes staring at Cora for a moment, and then hitched front, ready for a fight.

“Don’t,” her father said and caught Cora’s eyes in the rear view mirror.

“Don’t what—” Margie tossed herself the other way, her eyes sweeping over Henry, trying to grasp the turn of conversation. She fumbled with her empty wine glass until she opened her passenger window and threw it out, obviously disgusted that it was empty and wouldn’t magically fill on its own. Glass shattered on the ground, the sound of its breakage spiking the cab’s air with impending violence.

“What are you doing?” Henry said, his face visibly frustrated and shocked at Margie’s behavior, not that, that was out of the norm but no matter how many times she threw whatever or said mean, hateful things, there was always this moment where Cora’s father looked surprised, like he couldn’t believe she’d do that. Why were any of them surprised by Margie’s predictable unpredictability? Cora wondered. She wasn’t going to change.

“What?” Margie said, like what she had just done was completely normal. Cora jumped into the conversation again, using her parent’s confusion as a cue to begin where she’d left off.

“You know it’s true, dad. You don’t like Chrissy Maller. If anyone’s having an affair, it would be her!”

“How dare you! Me, an affair. You’re father cinched his eyes to her ass,” her mother shouted, twisting her body to face Cora again. A gust of sour alcohol intermingled with fermented grapes gushed from Margie’s mouth, swarming Cora’s nostrils with putrid-sickness.

“God, you stink,” Cora said, as she grimaced in revulsion and coughed, fanning the air with her hand.

Margie grabbed Henry’s shoulder to help maintain her twist, which caused Henry to turn the steering wheel, swerving the car over the yellow line. “I do not stink, you damn brat. Who are you to talk to me like that?”

“Hey!” Her father shouted, sloughing off Margie’s hold and straightening the car on the road.

“Nice name calling, mom! You’re ridiculous, you know that? A drunk is what you are! Always drinking. And let’s not forget you’re always flirting too. And right in front of dad—”

“How dare you!” Her mother’s face flushed red, her lips stretched tight across her teeth. She snarled and spat her words, repeating the same statement over and over, like a record stuck in a repetitive groove.

“How dare me?! How dare you! Dad does everything around here, laundry, keeps the house, helps with our school stuff, everything. And where are you? Drinking and trying to get with other men. What’s wrong with you?”

“Cora, stop,” her father pleaded as his eyes danced back and forth from the road to the rear view mirror.

“No, she needs to hear this,” Cora said, ready to blast her mother with more. She needed to hear all of it, to know how truly awful she was, then maybe she’d get it. How could she not get it? How could she do what she was doing and not know she was ripping their family apart?

“She’s not hearing you, honey. She can’t,” Henry said, his voice the only calm sound in the car, except the constant tap-tap of her brother’s fingers drumming against his thigh. Her brother tossed them a pain-induced glance but quickly averted his eyes back to the side window, to the sloping hills populated with picture-friendly houses all looking like potential candidates for the next Hallmark movie.

“What do you mean, she can’t hear me? What is she, deaf?”

“Yeah, what do you mean, I can’t hear her? I hear this spoiled little shit just fine.” Her mother glared at her father for doubting her.

Her father pulled to the side of the road, slammed on the brakes, and brought the car to an abrupt halt. He ignored Margie and pivoted round to face Cora. “Please, Cora. Stop. I’ll explain later, but right now I need you to stop talking to her.” She started to say something, anything to get him to understand that her mother needed to hear what was wrong, what was always wrong, but his eyes stopped her. There was something desperate he was trying to get across, something she didnt’ quite understand, something similar to Mimsey’s eyes when she tried to talk to her about her mother. Something that couldn’t rightly be explained, or maybe something Cora couldn’t quite hear, almost like another frequency.

She didn’t answer him but slumped back in her seat and returned her eyes to her side window. Her mother yelled intermittently, which her father ignored as he pulled the car back onto the roadway. He turned his blinker and took a left, slowing to accommodate the residential speed limit of twenty-five. Her mother mumbled and smacked her lips, periodically slapping the dash to make a point, but no one really listened anymore. Cora wanted to. She wanted to keep yelling at her, even strangle her, anything to get her mother to “get” it.

Her mother was killing her, couldn’t she see that? Cora tossed a glance at her brother, who still tapped his fingers in time to the music that he could only hear, his gaze intent on the passing scenery. How did he tune her out so well? She was jealous. She didn’t want to be in that car, dealing with her damn mother, not when Mimsey was gone. Cora tried to zone out on the square houses with the same L-shaped porches and paved driveways, but she only saw what could never be hers—contentment…love even.

****

Cora woke, lying on her bed, somewhat confused at how she came to be there. Memory hinted at her father urging her to the car. She remembered her mother snapping at her and the unbearable weight of silence that pushed all the air from the cab and then her mother’s accusations and her yelling, and then there was the memory of her father’s eyes…

What did it all mean? She didn’t know. Didn’t want to know, really. Not knowing seemed safer at the moment, like if she hid it in an abandoned water well with thick wooden boards on top, she could create normality for herself. She could find something worth holding on to. Maybe more sleep would be best, forget the unfortunates of life, all the sadness and death. At least Mimsey was in her dreams. A definite consolation.

Cora pulled her leg closer to her chest but something pulled her leg straight. “Stop it,” she said and sat up, rubbing her eyes and scowling.

“You need to get up,” her brother Chad said, his hand gripped her foot. “You missed lunch.”

“What? Where’s Mimsey?” She swiveled her head from side to side, checking her room, her scowl morphed into panic. Her eyes widened as she searched her room, her hands clasping and unclasping her comforter, as if she could grab onto what alluded her.

“Mimsey?” Chad’s brow creased. “Mimsey’s dead.”

“No, she’s not. I was just with her. She was playing banjo, all of her friends were there, playing music.” Her voice cracked and sped up, as if saying the words quickly could conjure Mimsey’s form from thin air, manifest her love like magic.

“You were dreaming. Plus, if Mimsey was back from the dead, I’d be wary of getting too close to her. She might eat your brains!” He lunged at her with his hands raised, ready to grab her, as he groaned. She jerked back and threw a pillow at him.

“Stop that! It’s not funny.”

Chad lowered his hands, his snarling lips undone and sheepish. “I was only joking.”

“Well, it’s not funny.” She glared at him. How could he joke about Mimsey? And it didn’t help that his supposed joke dislodged her own cache of zombie flicks, eager to escape their hiding place and avenge her.

“Anyway, get up and come downstairs before Mom comes up here. She’s not in the best of moods. She started earlier than usual.” Chad shook her foot as a friendly reminder and then left, leaving her door wide open. Mom drinking? What was odd about that? It’d be more unusual if she wasn’t.

She rubbed her hand over her face and through her hair. She swung her legs out over the edge of her bed. Mimsey was not a zombie in her dreams. She was beautiful, vibrant, affectionate, and kind—the complete opposite of her mother.

Cora wanted to lay down and sink back to the dream where Mimsey’s upbeat bluegrass sounded and her loud smile of utter joy brightened the room, but she was wide awake and mother waited. Demanded her presence. She pulled a tissue from the blue-paisley tissue box that sat on her bedside table and blew her nose. Fresh air rushed her airways. Better to appease her mother, make an appearance, even if she didn’t feel like eating.

Downstairs bustled with left over people from the funeral, relatives that decided to stay for a few more days and make use of vacation time and visiting. Cora cringed at making small talk and feigning interest in their stories and opinions, when, really, she didn’t know them. Didn’t want to know them. Most of them left twenty years ago, before she was born; the permanence of resentment and clashing characters being the spark, as Mimsey used to say.

Now they blundered about, pretending concern and grief, all in the name of want and money. For Cora, Mimsey’s wealth was unimportant. Irrelevant. No money or material status gained from Mimsey’s death could replace her. That loss was insurmountable.

“Finally, you decide to come down. There are left overs in the fridge,” her mother said and moved from the bottom of the stairs to the kitchen through swinging doors that fanned her presence from view. Cora followed. Her mother looked on edge, deep lines creased her brow, but she was painted and brushed, looking put together, even though it was evident to Cora that she was anything but. A pang of concern parted Cora’s lips, almost enough for the words “are you okay?” to slip out, but she snuffed her concern in a cerebral hold of vindictiveness. Good, she was suffering.

“There she is,” Aunt Millie said once Cora stepped into the kitchen. She rushed Cora, pulling her in, and squeezed her with her fat, flabby arms. She pushed Cora out to arm’s length. The smell of fake roses and cigarettes engulfed her. “My, my, my, what a pretty girl you’ve grown up to be.” She twirled a lock of Cora’s hair between her fingers. Cora gave a weak smile, unable to fully breathe, wishing her aunt would remove her yellow-stained fingernails from her hair. Pretty soon she’d need to shower, wash her Aunt’s stench from her clothing and skin.

“You have mama’s eyes,” Aunt Millie said, as her own grey-green eyes shadowed with loss and memory. “So much like mama, don’t you think, Margie?” She turned to Cora’s mother, waiting for her to agree.

Margie gave a slight nod. “Cora, eat some food and then come into the living room. The attorney is here and will be going over grandmother’s will.” Margie refilled her coffee cup and stirred in a large dollop of whiskey. The skin on her face now hung heavy, her edginess replaced with an unsustainable burden, seemingly more than her human skin could carry.

Aunt Millie drew the back of her hand down the side of Cora’s hair, her eyes racing with thoughts that Cora couldn’t decipher, and then she followed Margie out the other set of swinging doors that led to the living room. Loud chatter infiltrated the kitchen but was soon muted as the doors closed. Cora stood alone, watching them go. She wasn’t up for this, whatever this was. The floor anchored her feet, and her mind bristled, as if every thought she had protected itself in steel armor and broadswords. Maybe she was battling zombies after all.

She prickled at the laughter she heard on the other side of the doors. Who could be laughing? She gritted her teeth.

“Cora, get some food and come out,” her mother said, her head a quick glaring presence before she retreated behind the door’s cover again.

Cora forced air out through her nostrils, annoyed. I’m not hungry, she wanted to yell at her. Damn woman. Always telling everyone what to do. She could retreat back upstairs, to sleep, but the thought of bucking her mother’s authority needed more energy than she had, especially after yesterday. Plus, her mother would only stand for so much, regardless of Mimsey dying. And she’d been drinking, which didn’t bode well for anyone in close proximity.

Several saran wrapped dishes decorated the kitchen counter. She tentatively peeked under plastic wrap and sealed lids, until she found a dish that looked somewhat appetizing. She ambled into the living room with her small plate of salad. The room strained at the seams. Uncles and aunts, cousins and second cousins, her parents and brother, all crammed their plump and skinny bodies onto the dark-leather couch and love seat, and her dad’s cloth-covered recliner. Other’s populated the dining table which the living room sat adjacent to. Some even kneeled on the soft orange-colored living room carpet and perched on the fireplace hearth.

One woman stood out to Cora, a complete stranger, with undisciplined wavy red hair, like an out of control fire atop the woman’s head. Silver jewelry peppered with different colored stones adorned the woman’s fingers, wrists, ears, and neck. Even the wide leather belt that cinched her long, light-blue dress about her waist sparkled with Native American turquoise and red agate.

“Now, let’s quiet down,” the unknown woman said and tapped a manilla folder that resided on her lap with her index finger. The rocking chair creaked under her voluptuous weight as she shifted in her seat. Her large breast’s undulated beneath the thin fabric that accentuated their curves, and her low cut v-neck displayed her cleavage for anyone to see, from any angle.

Cora stopped her own further emersion into the living room, staying next to the swinging doors that supplied a quick escape, if needed, back into the kitchen. Who was this lady? Her attire dimmed everyone else’s, their clothes and hair now drab and boring. This woman shouted attention.

Cora didn’t like her.

“As most of you all know, I’m Margot Giammari, Molly’s attorney and the one handling her estate. Of course, some of you are more familiar with Molly as grandmother, mother, or mother-in-law.”

Several whispers rustled the quiet of the room. Some of the family hid smiles behind secretive hands to their lips in anticipation. They all wanted Mimsey’s money. Her possessions. Cora glared at her family, searching their faces, witnessing their betrayal. How could they? Tears bombarded her tired eyes and blurred her disappointment. Her family was a disgrace.

Margot patted the air with her hand, stifling the whispers as their urgency began to climb. The family’s eyes focused on her. She opened the manilla folder to a thick stack of papers. Most of what she read was legal jargon, stating the formalities of a Last Will and Testament, and then she paused. “I bequeath the bulk of my estate, which is stated forthwith, in equal amounts to my two daughters, Millicent Mirari Masterson and Margie Lupa Masterson Browne.” Margot went on to state the details of the bequeathment, though everyone knew there was more than that. A lot more.

Cora’s ears burned with the muted whoops of excitement that slipped from her aunt’s lips and the sigh of relief and the small smile that graced her own mother’s lips. The others having not received what they had “won” yet twitched with anticipation, knees bounced, fingers drummed, chests leaned forward as if prepared to spring ahead, like starving cats having eyed a weak mouse. Then Margot read bequeathments for her Uncle Ted and Cousin Myrtle, both obnoxiously excited, and then she said, “And to my beloved Cora—”

Cora’s tears evaporated. Rage riled her blood. She threw her uneaten salad into the middle of the living room floor. The cobalt blue ceramic plate obliterated into a dozen misshapen triangular shards. The impact echoed off the cream-colored walls like a gun shot. Everyone stopped. First they stared at the mess of blue plate, broccoli, and raisins, and then their eyes searched for the origination of the unforeseen explosion until they found her. Their eyes were wide with shock and disappointment, some even with anger. How dare she, their eyes said.

Well, how dare them!

Cora’s hands bounded into fists at her side. “What the hell is wrong with all of you?” Heat burned her cheeks. This was the opportune time for Mimsey to be a zombie, she thought. She could eradicate their betrayal with her powerful, ravaging hands. She could crack their skulls in two and devour their wicked, small-minded brains. She could gnaw on their bloody intestines while they screamed.

Her mother eyed her, piercing Cora’s searing steam of anger. For a moment Cora returned her mother’s stare, but then she noticed that a distilled cloud diluted her mother’s rich nut-brown eyes to a dulled-color of dirty, puddle water. Her mother wasn’t really there, was she? And, yet, she knew that whether her mother was sound of mind or not, she still could spin a tornado of cutting verbiage to destroy the room. She willed her mother to stay seated, to not quiet her outrage or attempt to hide it under the rug, where so many things were put.

Her mother didn’t move though. She just stared at her, drinking her whiskey-fueled coffee, her lips pressed thin. She was too far gone to care. Cora’s breath flared like molten lava from between gritted teeth. She panned her eyes over the over-stuffed room, carefully avoiding her father. All eyes were on her, waiting for her to conclude her tantrum. She wanted them to leave. Die even.

“Death is never easy and either is the allocation of the deceased’s assets but both are inevitable,” Margot interjected in a loud, authoritative voice. “Now, if you’d be so kind, leave us be or get a broom and clean up your mess.”

Cora’s mouth dropped open, as did several other’s. The room’s air stopped oscillating, and Cora stared at Margot, anger fused her nails into the meat of her palms, the pain unrecognized. Mimsey could definitely eat her first and then her mother. Cora considered picking up the salad. Carefully. Neatly. Then dumping it on the woman’s head. Her fists shook with the idea, the pleasure of doing it, but then she caught movement to her left.

Her brother.

He crouched on the floor in front of the fireplace, his face pale. Concerned. Confused. His young teenage years evident. He looked to her for guidance. Always had. And now, she was failing him miserably. She shot menacing eyes, the most hateful angry eyes she could muster, at Margot, pivoted round, and shoved the kitchen’s swinging doors out of her way and returned to her room. She slammed the door, the impact shook the pictures on her wall. She fell face first onto her bed and flailed her arms and legs, like a two-year-old, until her muscles tired.

Her mind spun with images of her plate flying through the air; her mother’s disappointed, distant eyes; Margot’s audacity; and then, as her overwhelming hatred rose, zombies populated her thoughts, eating her enemies, leading her into a horrific dreamland of loss and gore.

****
Cora rolled onto her back and stretched her arms overhead. Birds chittered outside her window, muffled by glass. At first, her mind lulled over the day’s possibilities, having no responsibilities in the summer since she hadn’t landed a summer job yet, but then her smile curdled with guilt. Mimsey was dead.

Fresh resentment surged her body, so much so that she sat upright. The vultures downstairs were ready to pick Mimsey’s bones clean. She could hear them talking over breakfast. Her hands fisted and the tendons in her neck protruded.

The smell of bacon and eggs penetrated her bedroom, causing her stomach to grumble, which felt like a betrayal—eating their food would show weakness. She couldn’t do that. Her stomach groaned, obviously not concurring, and then she remembered throwing her dinner last night. That’s why she was so hungry. And what did that damn attorney say? Leave us be or get a broom and clean up your mess?! Cora punched her lemon-green coverlet. How dare that woman!

What was she going to do about it? Sit there and whine like a baby?

She hurled her blankets back, exposing her bare, white legs. She grimaced at her toes that desperately needed a good pedicure and then pushed herself out of bed and dressed quickly. She smoothed her wayward bangs to the side, as she buttoned her shorts one handed. Clothed, she stormed down the stairs.

“You’ll have to make your own breakfast,” her mother said, as Cora stepped into the kitchen. She didn’t turn to face Cora, her hands busy with pouring whiskey into a steaming cup of coffee. That’s all she ever did anymore. A freshly opened fifth of whiskey sat next to her cup, becoming fast friends with the other bottles of booze that populated the counter. Her mother was a lush.

“I’m not hungry,” Cora said, but her stomach protested. She slapped her hand across her belly to muffle her stomach’s rebellious grumbling.

“Sounds like it.” Her mother spun round, the small of her back now leaned against the counter, her coffee cup cradled in both hands at chest level. Her brown eyes weighed heavy with annoyance. Annoyance with her. As usual. Cora, the daughter that wasn’t good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough, and was always causing trouble, disturbing mother’s way of things. Nothing new.

“Is she here?” Cora clamped a hand to one hip; her other curled into a tight fist at her side.

“Who?”

“The attorney. Margot.”

“No.” A minuscule spark alighted her mother’s eyes but dimmed in what Cora presumed was her mother’s need to maintain her distance from her. Of course, she’d keep her distance. When Cora needed her, she was never there.

“She’ll be here this afternoon,” her mother said, her voice clipped and cold, like chiseled ice. She took a slow sip of her doctored-coffee, never taking her eyes off Cora.

“What? She didn’t finish her little hand-out ceremony last night?”

“As you put it, no.” Her mother set her cup on the counter and allowed her hands to rest on the top of her thighs. For a moment, Cora saw sadness, an overwhelming sadness that looked as if it would buckle her mother’s knees and possibly her mind. Then, as if her booze had magical properties, the sadness washed from her face, like autumn leaves down a storm drain.

Cora brushed a hand through her long hair. “Why didn’t the attorney finish last night?”

Her mother remained silent, her eyes penetrating. Cora’s skin twitched. Why wasn’t she answering? She willed herself to not fidget, to not show her impatience. She needed to maintain her strength against her mother; otherwise, her mother would use her weakness against her.

“I don’t have time for this,” her mother shouted. Spittle erupted from her mouth out into the air, the mist visible for a millisecond before descending to the linoleum, out of sight. Cora jerked back, cursing herself for letting her mother’s outburst catch her off guard. “You and your goddamn tantrums. I just lost my mother! My mother!” Margie grabbed the front of her white-colored button down shirt and pulled it from her body, as if she doled out a needed reckoning to herself. “Do you even care? No, not at all.” She turned in circles, her eyes scraping the floor, as she talked more to herself than Cora. She mumbled and grumbled, her words a mishmash of cuss words and bafflement.

Then she suddenly raised her eyes and burrowed them into Cora’s. “How do you think that makes me look?” she said in a harsh, guttural whisper that made Cora flinch. There was so much hate. She stared at her mother, wishing zombies were real and that they could come out and play right then, relieve her of this woman who hated her so much.

“Well, you got what you wanted, didn’t you?” her mother said, with a flip of her hand, as she leaned back into the counter. Her passion and insane ramblings scampered to the shadows of the kitchen, ready for a toss of booze to numb their wounds. She unscrewed the lid from the whiskey bottle and took a healthy swig, drowning the fight she had just a moment ago.

She dashed the brown fire into her coffee mug, splashing droplets of coffee and whiskey onto the counter, returned the cap to the half-empty bottle, and then smoothed the front of her shirt. Her composure returned though fuzzy, as if out of focus. “Some of the family decided to take a break, wait until this afternoon to finalize everything,” she said, her voice controlled, though frayed. She resumed cupping her coffee like a dying baby bird, like it was the only thing she could rely on. The only thing that understood her.

“Oh,” Cora said, not sure how to respond, glad that some were rethinking their ways. Mostly though, her mother’s crazy rant rattled her. Was this one of those moments where in hindsight she’d refer back to it as the moment her mother began to lose her mind to the point of never finding it again?

Things were getting worse, Cora thought. She felt like she was Alice in Wonderland having eaten a small candy that transported her to hell, an ever descending torment of insanity and hate, and her mother was the gate keeper. And then there was the fact that the family was still coming back to disperse Mimsey’s belongings, so it wasn’t really victorious anyway, was it? Just another damn delay. Nothing would change for the better, only for the worse.

Laughter rang out from the dining room. Several voices enjoyed themselves way too much. The kitchen doors from that direction swung open, displaying a four-person-line venturing in to dispose of their breakfast plates.

“Good morning, Cora,” Aunt Millie said, as she broke away for the others who followed, setting her empty plate on the counter. “Did you sleep well?” Her noisome scent of fake roses and cigarettes billowed about her. Maybe she was a zombie in disguise, trying to hide the smell of her putrescence with cheap perfume and stifling cancer-sticks. At least she could do Cora a solid and eat her mother. That would be the nice thing to do with such a loss hovering over her.

Cora said nothing. Fury stung her fingertips as she recalled the look of excitement on Aunt Millie’s face when the bequeathment had been read. Now she was a wealthy woman, could retire early, travel the world like she always wanted to.

“Damn, what a throw last night,” Aunt Millie’s daughter Sandra said, being the second in line with a half-eaten plate of eggs in hand.

Sandra was a family favorite, even Cora’s mother lit up like a firebug coming out at night. Sandra was manicured-pretty, gracefully tall and slender, intelligent. She was to attend St. Thornelius Medical School where her mother worked. All would be perfect then: her mother the celebrated medical professor; Sandra the dedicated medical student. It made Cora sick.

And where was Cora? She had a D in math and spent too much time writing short stories and poetry. Writing wasn’t productive, her mother said. Writing was slothful daydreaming—going nowhere, worthless.

“Bam, just like that, all over the floor,” Sandra continued with her take on the previous day’s events. She struck the counter with her hand for emphasis. Several glasses and cups vibrated.

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t be so goddamn happy that Mimsey is dead,” Cora retorted, her arms wrapped her chest like a security shield.

“Whoa, no one’s happy that Mimsey died,” Aunt Millie stepped into the center of the kitchen, her arms splayed open, as if she could diffuse the anger in the room by pressing it into the shiny linoleum. Then she gently grabbed Cora’s biceps, her eyes sympathetic and understanding. “No one’s happy, sweet girl.”

“You practically whooped it up like you were at a damn football game. I guess you could say your side won, huh?” Cora wrenched her arms from Aunt Millie’s hold and moved backward. The kitchen’s wall now braced her.

“That’s not fair,” Aunt Millie whispered. Her grey-green eyes lost their jovial light and darkened. She looked to her sister for backup, but Margie just watched and drank her spiked coffee.

“You’re one heck of a brat, you know that?” Sandra said and came to a foot from where Cora stood. For a brief second, Cora wondered how Sandra kept her pores so tiny, almost non-existent, like porcelain. Cora tried everything, special cleansers and toners, pore strips, pore-shrinking mineral make-up. No matter what she did, nothing. She was stuck with visible pores and oily skin. Again, another thing to hate.

“You think you’re the only one who loved Mimsey? Huh? What a fool. We all loved her and knew her in our own way,” Sandra said. Cora returned Sandra’s hard stare, but soon the effort of doing so was too much. She dropped her eyes; she couldn’t bare to see Sandra’s too-perfect complexion anymore.

Cora’s father entered the kitchen. He set his empty plate at the edge of the kitchen sink. “What’s going on?” His face was visibly unaware, innocent really.

“Cora’s having a problem with my mother’s will,” Margie said, her tone implying this was normal, Cora being the problem. She brought her cup to her lips, her eyes peering over the rim as she drank. She looked so detached, like she didn’t give an ounce of concern for what transpired in front of her, as if she’d lost her ability to experience life, as it was, in the now, where so many things were a mess. Cora envied her for a split second, wanting to step into the fuzzy perspective of drunkenness, where being present wasn’t required, almost looked down upon.

“What’s the problem?” Her father took each person in turn, eyes searching for an answer, as his brow pleated like a layered skirt with worry.

“This family sucks. They’re just here for Mimsey’s money!” Cora spat. Sandra rolled her eyes. Aunt Millie hung her head, shaking it, and mumbled something under her breath. Margie refilled her cup, more whiskey than coffee this time and snorted through her nose; a tiny acknowledgement that she was still in the room.

“Cora, you do realize that the will the attorney is reading is your grandmother’s will? It’s not ours. It’s hers,” he said in his gentle manner; something she’d always appreciated about her father—he never made her feel stupid or an inconvenience—but she didn’t want to “realize”. She wanted them to stop treating Mimsey like a damn bank. “Mimsey met with her attorney and allocated what she had to whom she wanted it to go to,” he added.

“But some of these so-called family members haven’t seen her for years. They’re only here for her money. They don’t give a damn about her.” Cora stomped her foot and dropped her hands to her sides and puffed her chest.

“You’re right. There are some here that just want what they can get.” He paused and ran his hand over his mouth and down his chin. “Mimsey was smart though, wasn’t she? Do you think she didn’t know who was greedy and who wasn’t, when she made her will?”

Cora hadn’t thought of that. How sad, to sit and break out her belongings to people who didn’t care about her. “Why would she do that? Give stuff to people who don’t truly love her?”

“Well…sometimes love is funny, doesn’t make sense, you could say. Sometimes we give even when we know the other person offers us nothing.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“No, but loving someone isn’t supposed to be about what you can get from them, even if that means love isn’t returned. Loving someone means loving them as they are, worts and all.” His eyes flitted to her mother’s frame, and though she didn’t believe he meant to do that, she saw now that he offered her mother love all the time without ever receiving it back. That didn’t seem right. Why stay with someone who doesn’t return the love you give?

“So, it’s okay to be treated like crap just because you love someone?” She stomped her foot again and flung her hand out in exasperation.

“No, it’s not.” Henry held her angry eyes with his compassionate ones, as if the words that once filled his mouth disappeared, and then he said, “There are times when you love another whether they give anything in return, and you do that for a time, deciding if what is given is enough to sustain or not. In some cases, it’s best to give love and stay close to that person, and other times it’s best to give love but from a distance—either option requires time to know.”

“Sounds screwed up.”

Henry laughed and shifted his feet. “Relationships are messy and definitely aren’t black and white. Regardless, Mimsey assessed her relationships with her family and friends and determined what she wanted to bequeath them. She made her own decisions, and all we’re doing today is honoring those decisions.”

“What about Aunt Millie being excited? Or Uncle Ted smiling like a dorky kid finally getting a date?”

Aunt Millie gasped, opened her mouth to respond, but Cora’s father put his hand up to stall her.

Her father chuckled. “Yeah, Uncle Ted did kind of look like that, didn’t he?” He cleared his throat. “But really there’s nothing wrong with Aunt Millie or Uncle Ted, or any of them for that matter, feeling relief or happiness at their inheritance. Aunt Millie can retire now, whereas before she couldn’t. Sandra’s college tuition will now be paid in full. Uncle Ted was on the verge of losing his house and declaring bankruptcy. He doesn’t have to do that now.”

Angst-filled silence saturated the kitchen’s air. Each person waited, only their eyes betrayed their breath as they looked from Cora to her father. Cora glared at each of them in turn, unable to give her father all of her anger. Down deep she knew he didn’t deserve it. He wasn’t her enemy, but she wanted to stay angry. To revel in the heat of it—the power of it.

Then she saw Mimsey’s face next to her father’s, a translucent shape. She wasn’t really there, of course, but it felt like it nonetheless. Her eyes were concerned. Her head tilted in the way she would when someone’s thinking didn’t add up. Even Mimsey’s voice echoed in her mind. “Doesn’t feel good when another is right, never does when we sit on the losing side of things, but we have a choice on whether we stay there. There’s more damage in staying than not.”

Mimsey’s face smiled her tender smile and watched her, as if she knew her ghostly presence would facilitate her words to sink in faster. Then she vanished and left only her father looking at her, his eyes hopeful that she’d see what he spoke of. Mimsey’s words looped in Cora’s mind, like an annoying song stuck on repeat. She wanted to turn it off, break the record, but she couldn’t. And, if she could, wouldn’t that be like slamming the door on Mimsey’s memory?

Rage twisted under Cora’s skin, tightened her veins with tension, and hammered blood between her ears. She stared at her family as they dumbly watched her. Time slowed. She thought her body would explode. She wanted to trust Mimsey—“we have a choice on whether we stay there”—but she fought the validity in Mimsey’s statement. She didn’t want to let her anger go—it fortified her, gave her sustenance. Her anger’s strength pulsated through her. She felt like she could survive all of it—the death of Mimsey, her mother’s hatred, her inadequacies—if she could just stay angry. What would happen to her if she let her anger go?

And then, right when she thought her rage would engulf her, Mimsey’s sweet voice whispered in her ear. “Let it go, darling.” Her fury shape-shifted. She clenched and unclenched her hands. Her breath came sharp, forced in and out, until she couldn’t stop the unendurable pain from erupting.

She crumpled to the floor, her back sliding down the wall as her hands cradled her face. The back of her shirt hiked up as she slid, the scrambled-egg texture of the wall cool against her skin. Her father swooped down to her and swathed her with his arms, instant warmth radiated around her, which made her make-shift dam crumble and shatter. He cooed in her ear, “It’s alright,” his breath like heat from a comforting campfire.

She collapsed into his strength, unable to contain the dust devil in her soul—the ever swirling, ripping evidence of what was wrong with her—even though she believed if she kept her soul locked tight, stayed angry, stayed separate, she wouldn’t have to feel. Fucking feelings. Mimsey was dead, lost to the cremator’s flames, now ash in a cheezey-flowery urn on her mother’s mantel. What a joke!

Rage and hurt coughed and sputtered and burnt her tears; she could feel them as they ravaged her face, drowning her cheeks and vision. Her father held on, his arms solid, unmoving, as if he knew she needed only an anchor to the earth to then be able to move ashore. His cooing ceased but his presence remained, and her peripheral of the kitchen disappeared as she burrowed her head into his soft Peruvian wool sweater.

She had never felt this before, this kind of loss. How would she survive? If she followed her mother’s lead, she’d be drunk already and void of any feeling, even the good memories, which didn’t sound so bad. Not feeling would be good, right? But she didn’t really want that; she might forget Mimsey, lose all the fun and love they had, had. She squeezed her father tighter, as if his love were a life preserver saving her from a perilous sea.

“I’m here. Just cry. Get it out.” Her father’s voice cracked with emotion which increased her own flow of murky pain and grief. She didn’t want Mimsey to eat her families’ brains anymore…

Well, maybe Sandra’s, and possibly her mother’s. She chortled mid-way between a sob, the image of Sandra’s head a gory mess, as Mimsey violently chomped and grunted. And then another image came to mind: her mother’s intestines trailing behind her, like toilet paper stuck to her shoe while Mimsey hunted her for one more tasty-intestinal-bite. She giggled at the thought. Her father gave her a relieved smile at hearing her small laugh, not knowing the slide show of utter destruction she saw in her mind.

Aunt Millie watched Cora and her father, her eyes soft and tear-filled. Sandra crossed her arms and rolled her eyes again then left the kitchen. Cora’s mother…well, she just stood there, drinking. Cora couldn’t read her mother’s face, as if whatever spirit she had, had turned the lights off and went on a long journey to China or the Netherlands. This pained Cora. Why did her mother have to be this way?

Her father shifted. “Let’s get off this darn floor and find a softer place to sit.” He helped her up, her legs feeling weak, and led her out of the kitchen. At first she prickled when she entered the living room and was confronted with the sprinkling of family that had arrived to finish the reading of Mimsey’s will. She sucked her breath in and her heart beats tripled. Her father gave her an encouraging look, his eyes reminding her of Mimsey’s wishes, and gently tugged her through her body’s instinctual recoil.

He headed to the over-stuffed couch, passing hello’s and how are you’s as he went, and then motioned her to sit next to him. His smile was broad and warm, though when he offered it to her compassion and acknowledgement of where she was softened his face, his eyes, his lips. This lured her in to sit next to him, to relinquish to his comforting arm about her shoulders, to take tentative steps toward trusting that she could survive Mimsey’s death and the bequeathment of her assets.

The bequeathment felt more like they were gifting pieces of Mimsey’s spirit to those who were incapable of nurturing and caring for it, though. Pain stitched Cora’s heart at the thought, stuttering her breath and stalling her full release into her father’s comfort. None of these people were going to care for Mimsey. Now there truly would be a death, after all this. A death of Mimsey’s soul. Her love. Her beauty. Her grace. Her music.

Cora’s brother plopped down next to her. His abrupt weight jostled her and cracked a thin line in her morosity, clearing a path for her mind to remember what her father had said, the will and these damn bequeathments were based on Mimsey’s wishes. Her brother flashed her a mischievous grin and playfully punched her arm, barely missing her father’s hand. He seemed happy that she was part of the family, not standing in the doorway throwing uneaten plates of food.

Her mother sat on the other side of her brother, her coffee cup brimming anew, and looked ahead at the family members that filtered in through the front door. Her impassivity did not register them, except the slight flitter of her eyes over their features. For a brief second, after taking another sip of her enhanced dark roast, her eyes alighted on Cora’s, but they slipped from her as if there was nothing worth seeing. Why couldn’t her mother love her? Why did her mother hate her so much?

Cora fixed her attention on her mother, hoping she’d turn, and what? Smile? Tell her that she loved her? She felt silly even wanting her mother’s attention…but she did.

An eddy of emotion violently whirled, gnashing Cora’s insides, as if shards of melted glass cut her, a macabre of jarring emotional-coloring that left her stunned and at a loss. Annihilation threatened, a harsh whisper to her insides where her soul resided, splintered and bandaged, and she thought she’d be engulfed. Then she remembered something Mimsey had said about her mother before she died, “Don’t take your mother’s anguish as your own. You have a choice.”

Did she? Have a choice? A choice implied a light-switch action, as if she could turn her thoughts and emotions off and on per her convenience. She didn’t think that’s what Mimsey had in mind, though. Talk about impossible. Mimsey said a lot of times our choices were only for this day and we’d have to recommit tomorrow. Could she do that? Did she want to?

She scrutinized her mother who embodied prim and proper. To anyone else she might announce achievement and strength, but to Cora she was just drunk and cold. She’d been that way for as long as Cora could remember. She then turned her attention to her father who wore love, kindness, strength, warmth, perseverance, achievement, and more on his person. He radiated stability and compassion. Maybe she did have a choice, though not an easy one. For now she snuggled closer to her father’s warmth and strength, but her eyes, no matter how much she wanted to disengage them, periodically navigated their way back to her mother’s profile. Searching. Waiting.

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Fiction, Short Stories

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