After my father remarried, I became angry. I was sixteen, and I didn’t want a mother. Molia said she wouldn’t mother me, but her eyes were soft with green flecks, and her hair a lighter shade of red than Mom’s, so I didn’t believe her. I drank on weekends at crowded house parties full of the same kids I went to school with during the week. The peach schnapps or lemon gin allowed me to be a different person. I graduated early and headed two states over for university at almost eighteen. There, I imagined I had no family. I was free of the memories, free of the pain, free of all that thready neediness I tucked under my ribcage where it pulsed during long classes. On the off day a stray strand showed, no one tugged, and I could fold it away nights in my extra-long dorm bed. The tender ends frayed from the fingering. My roommate invited me to her place for Thanksgiving, and my new boyfriend’s family went to an island for winter break; it would’ve been crazy for me not to go. Turquoise horizons, soft sand, warm sea water. Spring break I took an internship, but summer was an endless expanse and I had to go home. It was hard work, not forming a relationship with Molia. There were many short answers, and of course, because my father was often there with her, it meant our relationship suffered, too. How was work today? Fine. Marty Cheever stopped by. Oh? I’ll text him. They’d bought a new house, so at least Molia hadn’t slid right into Mom’s room, though they kept Dad’s bed—it was some sort of old sleigh bed, big wooden headboards that curved toward the walls. Isn’t that weird, sleeping in the same bed with a different spouse? And wasn’t it wrong to sit in lawn chairs, his arm slung around her shoulders the way he did with Mom— before her shoulders were too small, too frail. Then, one night at work—I worked in food services at the small hospital in town—I walked past the ER waiting room to go outside for my break. It was the shortest distance to the parking lot, and I liked to smoke old-school cigarettes with the long filters. I didn’t see him until he grabbed my arm and I whirled around, ready to slap whatever guy thought he could grab me like that. Dad, I said. Molia, he said. I don’t know what it is yet. Heart attack, I found out later, much later. They transferred her to McMaster, twenty minutes away, a bigger and better hospital with surgeons and specialists. I didn’t know it then, of course, but I felt something pop, when he said, Molia. A rib maybe. I pressed down on it with my palms. When I looked into Dad’s eyes, there, five steps from the fresh air, I saw the fear, the pain, the everything I had been trying to ignore since Mom—since then. I saw those eyes while I stood arched over the industrial sprayer back in the kitchen, spraying hot onto smelly pudding trays, washing away food scraps before stacking, sanitizing, pushing through the steel garage of a dishwasher. I finished my shift, drove through the stars to Hamilton to sit with Dad on hard armed chairs, staring at wrinkled magazines. Hey, I said, when Molia finally opened her heavy-lidded eyes. I squeezed her hand, gently, tenderly. You’re here, she said, and she fell back asleep.
Wendy BooydeGraaff's short fiction has been included in Oxford Magazine, Great Lakes Review, West Trade Review, NOON, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, she now lives in Michigan, United States.