On her deathbed, when all that could be done had been done, and the end neared, Mother pulled me close and gave me three pieces of advice. She warned me never to drink coffee after 2pm, never to drink and gamble, and to be wary of ostriches in top hats. As my last cup of coffee was over five years ago and my gambling was restricted to the occasional lottery ticket, the first two statements puzzled me, while the third was downright baffling. When I asked her about it, she shook her head and said the pelican had stolen her words from her. Not for the first time, I suppressed an ache at seeing what had become of her brilliant mind, patted her hands and told her I needed some air, but I’d be right back.
It was the last thing I ever said to her.
As her only surviving relative, it fell to me to sort through Mother’s affairs. Stepping inside her house, the full weight of its emptiness struck me as fiercely as any blow and I collapsed in the hallway and wept.
After I was out of tears, I ascended the stairs and headed for the bedroom, where Mother had done almost all of her writing. It was exactly as she’d left it before being admitted to hospital. The curtains were an obscenely bright shade of orange, the carpet was fluorescent pink with yellow polka dots and the bed’s covers were zebra-striped. Yet, despite its competition, the writing desk drew the eye immediately upon entering. Perhaps it was its simplicity, a striking comparison to the garish monstrosities that surrounded it. Or maybe it was the towers of documents spread across it, in an order completely nonsensical to anyone but Mother. I slumped into the swivel chair and began to work through the desk’s contents.
As I sorted through papers and unpublished manuscripts, my mind drifted back to that final day, as it’d done countless times already. I imagined staying with Mother and holding her hands as she passed. She told me she loved me one last time and smiled when I said it back to her. Seconds later, her eyes widened, she exhaled for the final time and I saw the look on her face when she finally transcended her frail and broken frame. I saw it all, over and over, a highlight reel of what should have been and each time it destroyed me.
After a few hours of this, I came across a necklace. It was a simple piece of jewellery, which surprised me, as mother’s adornments were always grand, lavish pieces. This was simply a piece of brown rope wrapped tightly around a green gemstone I believed was an apatite. Holding the necklace up to the light, I marvelled at the colours that shone through the stone.
For the first time in days, I smiled. I’d always been fascinated with gemstones – almost certainly as a result of Mother’s interest in them—yet I’d never been this mesmerised by one before; it almost seemed to pulse with energy. I could have spent all day peering into its depths. Each time I vowed to stop, I promised myself just another minute.
My reverie was eventually broken by a series of yawns. Even though it was only two o’clock, I found I could barely keep my eyelids open. Perhaps the stress of the week was to blame. I pulled the necklace over my head and dragged myself to the guest bedroom. Without even bothering to undress, I flung myself on the mattress and instantly plunged into a deep sleep.
Somewhere, I heard waves and seconds later, my eyes were struck by bright light. Once I’d stopped blinking, I took in my surroundings. I stood atop a cliff, overlooking a sea that stretched outwards, reaching the horizon. Someone sat at the cliff’s edge, their legs dangling precariously over the side as the wind blew. Walking closer, my breath caught in my throat.
It was Mother.
She wore a dark red dress and the apatite necklace hung from her neck. I touched my chest and found I too somehow wore the necklace. Mother turned to look at me and my heart almost burst; she looked exactly as she’d been before the illness had gotten its hooks into her and begun the slow decline. She even had a full head of hair.
“Hello, my darling,” Mother said. “Won’t you come sit with me?”
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard her free of pain. I opened my mouth and waited for a sound to emerge, any sound, but none did.
“Don’t stand there gaping. Come along, now. I don’t have all day.”
I shook myself and found my voice.
“Mum? No. This can’t be real. It’s just a dream. It has to be.”
“Perhaps it is an errant daydream. Perhaps not. Frankly, does the reality of the situation truly matter?”
I reflected on this for a moment before replying.
“No, I suppose not.” I walked through the grass to the cliff’s edge and sat beside her. “It’s a lovely spot.”
“Your father and I went here once, before you were born. I always wanted to visit it again, but after he passed, it seemed better to leave it alone.” She glanced at me. “I see you found my necklace.”
“Is that why I’m here? The necklace?” I shook my head in disbelief. “How can that be?”
She shrugged. “Who can say? Reality is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.”
“I’m not going to get a straight answer, am I?”
“Did you ever get one from me?”
I smiled. “No, I guess not.”
We sat in silence for a moment, looking at the sky. It really was the most perfect shade of blue. I thought about what should have been and felt a knot twist inside my stomach. As if sensing this, Mother turned to stare at me. Even at the end, her emerald eyes always held an incredible sharpness and I felt pierced by them yet again.
“I’m sorry, Mum.”
“I should have been there, at the end. You shouldn’t have had to do that alone.” I looked down, unable to face her. “I needed air. The smell. I…I couldn’t face the smell anymore. I never knew death had a smell, not like that, and I…”
All of a sudden, I felt as hollow as my words and, without warning, the truth rushed out, like a dam finally bursting.
“I couldn’t bear to be around you anymore. Isn’t that awful? I couldn’t handle seeing you like that, what you’d been reduced to. It broke my heart and I had to get away, just for a minute.” I ran a hand through my hair, ignoring the tears streaming down my face. “I never did get air. I went into a side room and burst into tears. When I came back, they told me you were gone and it was awful, and terrible, but you know what? A part of me was relieved. Glad, even. Can you believe that? You were dead and a part of me was glad, and it’s been destroying me ever since.”
I closed my eyes and exhaled, deflated. I’d finally spoken it aloud, my secret truth that I’d hidden even from myself. It was a relief to have it out in the open, even if I wasn’t sure how I could carry on. What type of person was glad their own mother had died?
Mother reached across and took my hands in hers. If I’d had tears left to shed, they’d have rolled down my face again. I didn’t deserve this.
“Oh, my dear. You poor thing. Why ever would you torture yourself like that? You have nothing to feel guilty about.”
The force behind the word made me open my eyes and look at her. Her face was stern; it was the expression she always wore whenever I’d annoyed her.
“I was in a lot of pain and my mind…” She sighed. “Oh, my precious mind. The worst of it all. I was still me, yes, but I was surrounded by a deep fog and it was hard to keep everything straight. Of course you were relieved. I wasn’t going to get better, just worse and worse. How many more nights of pain until I wasn’t even a shadow of my former self? Oh, I was glad to go.” Another sigh. “I was peeing blood by the end. Let me tell you, no one wants to have to put up with that longer than they have to.”
I shook my head.
“I still feel guilty, Mum. You dying shouldn’t be about me, but I can’t shake this. I don’t know if I’ll ever be right again.”
“I know. That’s your pain and something you’re going to have to work through. I’m afraid there’s no quick fix for it.”
“What if it never goes away?”
“It’ll fade. It’ll take some time, but it will.” She squeezed my hands. “Remember the good times and please, remember me with hair!”
“I thought you rocked the Lex Luther look.”
“I have no notion of who that is, but I assume it’s not a flattering comparison.”
She sounded so scandalised I couldn’t help laughing. The noise surprised me, making me laugh even harder. Mother looked at me with a face of fury, before she too burst into laughter. We laughed hard and fell back into the grass, as the ridiculousness of it all overcame us. Unused to the sound of it since Mother died, I allowed it to take control and was soon overwhelmed by great belly laughs that matched the rhythm of hers. My sides ached with the strain of it, but it was a good pain – pain born from happiness, from sharing a moment with someone I thought I’d run out of moments with.
When we finally stopped, we looked at the perfect sky together.
She broke the silence first.
“I love you, darling.”
“I love you, too.”
I felt my throat tighten again.
“I wish I could stay.”
“I know, my dear, but you have a life to lead and so much ahead of you.”
Mother leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I smiled, remembering how hard I always had to scrub to get her lipstick off of my cheeks – I half-believed it was the main reason she used that awful brand.
“Be good. Be kind to yourself; the world certainly won’t be. And please remember to drop by from time to time.”
“How will I—”
Light flooded my senses, disorienting me. When it cleared, I was back in the guest bedroom, staring at the ceiling. It took a few minutes to find myself again.
I’d never had a dream like it. I often remembered bits and pieces after waking—confusing fragments that quickly faded—but this time I remembered everything. I’d laid my soul bare and Mother hadn’t disowned me—at least, the mother my mind had conjured. I wished it was something we’d talked about when she was still alive, so I could know what she really thought, but of course, there was so much I wish I’d said when I’d had the chance.
Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve.
Absentmindedly, I rubbed the back of my hand against my cheek and felt something smudge against it. Curious, I held it up to the light: it was stained red. I stared at it in shock for a moment, before practically flinging myself from the bed and racing to the bathroom. Heart pounding, I inspected myself in the mirror and gasped.
There was no mistaking it: my cheek was smudged with lipstick.
I pinched myself several times and—when this did nothing—bit my tongue hard. Still nothing, aside from my immediate discomfort. I sunk to the floor, necklace clutched tight. It felt warm against my palms and in that second, I realised I was going to be okay. I wasn’t alone and never would be.
“See you again soon, Mum.”
Somewhere nearby, I heard laughter on the wind.
This story first appeared in The Purple Breakfast Review in 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Gary McKay is a speculative fiction writer from Northern Ireland. He’s had stories published in Kraxon Magazine, The Purple Breakfast Review and Tidbits, and can be found on Twitter at @GaryCMcKay.