2021 Short Story Writing Contest 1st Place Runner-Up
By Elizabeth Glass
I was at the kitchen table having cereal when my mom burst in, walking faster than she had in years, not using her walker or wearing her oxygen. She fell into the empty chair, wheezing, a thickness audible in her throat. I was determined to keep reading the paper and eating. She always did that—came rushing into my house like it was hers. That’s what I got from living next door to my parents, though. I thought it would be perfect—I could watch after Mom and Dad without living with them—but my inability to lock the kitchen door seemed to deter that. I locked it once and she banged and banged, waking me up after I worked a sixteen-hour double-shift and had to go back to the hospital eight hours after I got off. That was when I was in Emergency before I moved to orthopedic. I got too old for the ER, my fifty-year-old knees couldn’t take it anymore, not with the extra weight I’d put on.
I looked up. Mom was still there, red-faced, breathing hard and waving her hand in front of her face. I hoped she’d disappeared. “Where’s your oxygen?” She leaned in, took my glass of orange juice, and drank most of it down in a long series of gulps. I started to get up and get myself some more juice—in a new glass—when Mom put her hand against my mouth with surprising strength. “What the hell?” I asked.
“I was at the funeral home. There’s more. More than us. Another one.”
I pulled back from my mom’s hand and drank the milk from my cereal bowl, with the remaining Coco Pebbles and all. Mom was so full of drama who knew what she was going on about. Her bringing up the funeral home made me think of Dad lying on a metal table getting formaldehyde pumped into him and his blood draining. I wished I had never seen that happen to someone while I was in nursing school.
Mom followed me to the sink when I rinsed my bowl. I’d just have to keep walking to get away from her. She trailed me to the living room where I plopped onto the couch. She sat on the recliner. I’d have to help her get out of it. She couldn’t do it on her own. I bought her one for her house that lifted her up, and she always forgot mine didn’t. I should have sat there when she came over, but it was dad’s chair before he went to the nursing home. It was comforting to have it, but I didn’t sit in it.
“Listen to me,” she said, “there are other kids. Another wife.”
“I don’t keep up with your shows anymore, Mom, you know that.”
“No.” She waived her hands around her head like she was waving away a bee. “No, not on TV. Here. They’re here. They’re there. They’re at the funeral home.” I frowned. I had known she was getting older—seventy-eight now—but I hadn’t seen dementia coming on. “Ryan, remember how he called you Ryan sometimes? There is a Ryan. Same age. You’re the same age. You even look alike.”
I walked across the room and got her an inhaler and put it in her hand. “What are you going on about, Mom?”
She used the inhaler. “Martin, your dad Martin, he had another family in Idaho. Ryan was his daughter there. There are two of them, daughters like here.” I stared at her, wondering if I should slap her to get her back to her senses, despite that only working in movies.
“I’ll go get your walker and oxygen,” I said.
“No,” she yelled, “sit.” I did. “Listen to me, Yvette. There is a whole other family.” She started with the flying arms again, so I got up and held her hands down. She focused in on me. “Your dad, he had another family in Boise.” She leaned back and the seat reclined on its own, nearly making me fall. I caught myself before I landed chest-first against her.
“Not possible. Mom, you’re making stuff up.” He did work two weeks here in Louisville then two weeks in Boise, like that, back and forth. Even when he retired, he kept doing that, said it wasn’t something he could just stop doing because his body was too used to it. That it was built into his psyche and he’d get Alzheimer’s if he didn’t. I didn’t argue, but it did make me wonder. I figured he bet horses or something, never that he had another family. Well, maybe not never, but not often. I knew she wasn’t making it up.
“I met them. Her name is Blanche. The kids are Ryan, who’s a girl, and Candice.”
I sat back on the couch. “Did they know about us?” I picked up the remote, then set it back down.
She shook her head, “No. I don’t think so. Blanche seemed as surprised as I was about meeting her to meet me. We need to call your sister, have a family meeting.”
“If it’s a family meeting are we going to invite Blanche and the girls, too?”
Mom waved her finger at me and pursed her lips. I walked next door to get her walker and oxygen. On the way out of her house, I looked at the spot where Dad’s recliner had been and gave it the finger.
Glenna, my real sister—unlike Ryan and Candice—wouldn’t come to a family meeting, but would meet me at the hospital cafeteria. I told her I was off because Dad died, but that was the only place she’d meet. Maybe because it was one place Mom wouldn’t go. She was sitting at a table when I got there. “Go get lunch,” she said. She had a stern look on her face and I knew we couldn’t talk until I did. I got an orange and a Coke, then sat across from her. “Here.” She motioned me to the chair next to her. “I don’t want to yell.” I switched chairs. She pursed her lips and squinted, looking a lot like Mom. “Are you telling me you didn’t know?” she asked.
“How couldn’t you? It was obvious,” Glenna said. I peeled my orange. Glenna was older than me and made me feel stupid and inferior when she knew something I didn’t. “I gather you didn’t know,” she said.
I shook my head. “Well, I suspected something,” I said.
She nodded. “You knew. You had to. How could you not?”
“How did you know?” I asked.
“Just did.” She took a bite of her hamburger, then pushed it away. She was thin, and had been a cheerleader. I was neither. “Didn’t you ever answer the phone?” she asked.
I nodded, then realized I hadn’t. Glenna had. That or Mom or Dad. If it was late, it was Dad because it was work and he took the calls outside. I’m sure the realization showed on my face. Glenna said, “See, you knew. At least you should have.”
“How long did it go on?” I asked. I took a bite of the orange and spit the seed into my hand. I didn’t remember to get a napkin, so I put the seed in the peel on the table. Glenna glared at me. I never felt smart around her. Even here, where I was head nurse of my unit, I felt like a stupid kid.
“Forever,” she said. She watched the orange juice run down my face and shook her head. The juice got on my top. I’d dressed so I could go straight to the funeral home, but I’d have to change first. “His kids—his other kids—are our ages. Well, the oldest is your age and the youngest, two years younger. You and the oldest were even born in the same month. Didn’t you know he had two different wallets?” I shook my head. “The brown leather one for here, and a black alligator skin one for there. Each one had a different driver’s license and pictures of the kids that went with the state in it. Shit, didn’t you go through his stuff?” I shook my head again and took a bite, causing juice to go down my chin again.
Dr. Leachman walked up behind me and said, “You on my service today? I almost didn’t recognize you out of scrubs,” he said.
“No sir, I’m off. My father died. I’m just here to . . .,” I looked down at my orange, “to eat.” I blushed. It was stupid to be here, that I always agreed to go with Glenna’s nutty schemes like meeting at the hospital, that I let her make me feel like I was a moron. I smiled at Dr. Leachman. “I guess I couldn’t stay away.”
He smiled at me. “Sorry,” he said, then patted my back awkwardly and went on. He looked back after he had walked a couple tables away. “You’re my favorite nurse. Tell your dad that.”
I nodded. “Will do.” I smiled. Which was more laughable, not reminding him my dad just died or being there in the first place? Glenna got up and stomped toward the front. She came back with napkins. I wiped my face only to find the orange juice had dried on it and its stickiness pulled parts of the napkin apart and stuck them to my face. “I’ll be back.” I went to the bathroom, but not the one next to the cafeteria, the one by my unit. I got into my locker and found a clean shirt, put it on, then put a scrubs top over it to keep clean. I went back downstairs. Glenna acted like I hadn’t been gone but for a minute. I thought she’d be fuming or even would have left. At that point I didn’t much care.
“Here’s the thing,” she said, “they’ve been around as long as us.” She took a drink of my Coke. “Ugh, sugar.” She spit into one of the napkins, got up, went to the water fountain, and swished water around her mouth. She sat back down next to me. “Their mom and he married even before Mom and he did. It just took them longer to have kids.”
“How do you know all this?” I asked.
“Listening. I can’t believe nobody else listened in on their calls. Maybe Ryan did. I bet she did. She knew about us.”
“What? How do you know?”
“We wrote each other,” she said. “Just a couple times. Actually, she wrote you. She saw a picture of you and you two look so much alike—well not anymore with the weight—but you did. She wrote you, but I got the mail, so I pretended to be you and wrote her back. You had to know.”
I shook my head, but I did. My eyes were full, so I walked to the Coke fountain and filled my cup, then stood there pretending to read the nutritional information. I didn’t want Glenna to see me cry.
“You on my floor tonight?” I turned around. It was Dr. English. My favorite orthopedic surgeon. She was kind and I’d even considered becoming a surgery nurse to work with her. I decided against it since I was getting older by the time I met her, but I hadn’t entirely ruled it out. I shook my head. “Sorry, I’m not even working today. My, I’m out for funeral leave.” She looked me in the eyes and squeezed my arm. “You’re the best. I hoped you were working.” She hugged my shoulder with her chin, an equally awkward thing to something I would do. “Take care of yourself, that’s more important.” She turned to go. “Was it your Dad?” I nodded. “That’s rough.” She went to a table to eat by herself. She had charts with her. She never did just one thing at a time. She was infamous for having food, and especially coffee or soft drinks, spilled on her notes. I went back to Glenna, but sat across from her. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“I thought you knew.”
“Bullshit.” I stared at her. “Bullshit.” I got up and left.
I took Mom to the funeral home. Glenna wouldn’t go, which upset Mom, but Glenna often upset Mom. They were waiting for us. All three of them. Ryan did look a lot like me, but was much bigger. I thought Glenna had been saying I was larger. Ryan came to me and gave me a hug. “I’m glad you’re here. The others, they don’t understand. I knew we could make them understand.” I pulled back. It was strange to look at her, but even weirder to look at Mom and Blanche. Blanche looked exactly like my aunt, Mom’s sister. It was eerie, and I nearly asked her if she was my aunt. Ryan introduced us all. “I appreciate the letters. I’m glad you all knew about us like we knew of you.” I stared at her, my eyes so open they started to feel dry. “You all knew about us?” I asked. Ryan nodded. “Of course we did. Just like you all knew about us. It made things easier, I think. Don’t you? How awkward would it be to just be finding out now?”
“Pretty awkward,” I said. “So, he told you about us?”
“After we found out.” She pushed her hair back from her face. “Same as with you all.”
I nodded, but didn’t say anything. “Mom, you want to sit down?” I asked. “Thanks, honey, I will,” Blanche answered. My mom pushed forward past Blanche. “I will, too.” I helped Mom over to a seat and Ryan helped Blanche. We were in the lounge, so it was more comfortable, and we weren’t in the same room as Dad’s body. I sat down next to Mom on the couch. It was stiff, so she might be able to get out of it herself. I knew she wouldn’t want help in front of Dad’s other wife.
“You were his favorite,” Ryan said. “He was so proud of you for becoming a nurse and for looking after your mom and him. That’s not surprising since you were always his favorite, but it’s nice you did that.” I nodded again. I didn’t know what else to do.
“I didn’t know about you,” I said. It just came out, fast, blurted like an unexpected burp. I looked at my half-sisters, my Mom, and whatever Blanche was—my step-mom? “We didn’t. Only Glenna knew. We didn’t.”
Ryan took a breath in and Candace laughed. She laughed and laughed. “I hoped this would happen! I hated knowing about you. I always hoped he would die and his precious Yvette wouldn’t know anything about us, that we’d surprise you and you’d have a heart attack.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just sat there while she kept laughing. “I’m happy you feel like I did every time he left for his two weeks with you.” She stopped and her face was wet, though she still laughed. “He had your pictures hanging in his study in our house.”
I would look in his office at the house, but I didn’t think there were any pictures there. I shrugged. “No heart attack.” My heart beat loudly in my ears, though, and I couldn’t stand up or I was sure I’d faint. Mom sat next to me, her lips pursed and her hands flailing by her ears. I took her hands and held them in her lap. Had she always had the swinging arms or was that new? It seemed new, but I wasn’t sure.
Blanche walked over and sat next to Mom. She patted her lap. “It’s so good to finally meet you after hearing about you all these years.” She got up and nodded at her girls and they filed out of the room, stopped in the other room to look at Dad’s casket, and then went out the front door.
“Did you know?” I asked. Mom shook her head and tried to lift her hands, but I held them down. “Glenna didn’t tell you?”
“Glenna knew?” she asked.
I nodded. “She told me today.”
“She should have said something.” She hung her head. I thought she was going to cry, but she didn’t. She tried to get her hands back, but left them in her lap since I held them.
“Would you have stayed with him if you knew?” I needed to hear her say it. She met my eyes and shook her head. “Let’s go,” she said. She popped off the couch like a twenty-year-old.
Mom had me look through everything in his office for pictures or evidence of his other family, but I didn’t find anything until I reached way behind files and found his other wallet—black alligator skin just like Glenna had said. I opened it and there was Dad with an Idaho driver’s license. I looked through the pictures and we were all there: Blanche, Mom, Glenna, me, Ryan, and Candace. To be sure I found his brown leather Louisville wallet and there was nothing of the other family. I imagined what it would have been like if we had known. We wouldn’t have had Dad this whole time. I would have only seen him once or twice a month on weekends he was in town—even if he had even split his time between cities. I had a dad and since I never knew it was half-a-dad, I had a whole one. This changed everything. And it changed nothing.
I walked next door to my house and sat in his recliner, which I knew I’d use until I wore out the chair.