Warning: This work has been rated 18+.
My mother died on a Sunday afternoon. When it happened, I wished I was somewhere else. Someone else. I wished I was my sister, sitting in the driver’s seat of her husband’s SUV bobbing her head along to some slow-jam her husband insisted was music and waiting in the Kiss & Ride lane at the big metropolitan airport for her gaggle of kids and our extended relatives to stagger off of their four-to-six hour flights booked last-minute in hopes to see grandma one last time before she went. Never in my life had I so wished to be in Kim’s place, to be the one with a husband and kids and Responsibilities that could excuse me from watching an old comatose woman fade from the world.
There’s some sort of irony in the fact that I was the only child there to watch our mother go. Kim should have been there, she really should have, being mom’s favorite and all. I shouldn’t have scoffed at the idea of driving two-and-a-half hours each way into the city in highway traffic. I should have smiled, gladly offered to give Kim the extra time with mom, put up with her kids and her husband and our siblings asking where I’d been last Christmas, Thanksgiving, and every holiday for the last six years.
Naturally, it would be me. It was always going to be me, sitting stiffly in the rocking chair I had given her ten years before that she had hated so much she relegated it to daddy’s den after he was already too dead to argue about it. It was always going to be me, blowing hot air into my cupped hands, shivering beneath the sub-arctic air conditioning, looking on as her heart monitor flat-lined and she presented me with the last magnificent “fuck you” she could give as she faded from the world without so much as one miracle moment of clarity for spending her long and overwhelmingly healthy life as the World’s Shittiest Mom.
To say that I did not love my mother is an understatement.
There wasn’t much to look at in my father’s old den, my mother’s new tomb. On one wall stood a towering set of bookshelves built into the frame of the house, filled with six total editions of The World Book Encyclopedia interspersed with very traditionally old-man knick-knacks like expensive cigars he would never smoke and brass coated bulldog statuettes. Hung over where dad’s desk used to be was a copy of that painting with the dogs playing poker that my brother Randy had painted for him when we were teenagers. Only instead of playing poker, they sat around the table reading newspapers and drinking coffee. Randy had painted lewd pictures of women under crass headlines on each paper, but dad’s vision had always been too terrible to notice. He proudly showed that painting off to every business client he brought into that office and no one ever had the heart to tell him.
The only thing that was ever of interest in that room, anyway, was dad’s hand-carved desk he built with my older brothers while my sister and I looked on in envy. That desk got dragged out to the curb when mom’s hospital bed went in, none of my siblings wanting to bother with directing a crew of movers to take it cross-country to one of their homes or offices.
Of course, neither did I. But sometimes, like that moment I sat in the sharp legato of mom’s flat-lined heart, I wished that I had.
I leaned forward, flipped off that then-useless heart rate monitor and let the house deepen into the kind of quiet that follows a lifetime of noise. For the first time in fifty years, my childhood home was without the tornado that was my mother. Without her dishes clanking in the sink as she obsessively washed and rewashed our dinner plates four, five, six times. Without her designer heels clicking up and down the uncovered wood floors and stairs of our old house because she insisted carpet attracted mites. Without her words sneering at me while I holed myself away in my shared bedroom with my cello, a stack of books, my headphones blaring sound thick enough to cover her. Without her telling me that I was sick, that no one would ever be able to put up with me like that, that I was meant to spend my life alone.
I sighed, ran my hands over my knees. I was thin, everything about me was then in those days, my corners so sharp they threatened to tear straight through my skin. I could only imagine what my mother would have had to say about that. “Oh, Theresa, what are you doing to me? Did I raise you to hate food? Are you trying to pretend I neglected you?”
I raised myself from the rocking chair and stretched, drawing my arms over my head and yawning. Goosebumps trailed my bare legs and I adjusted my spandex shorts, wrapped my arms around the dull grey sweatshirt hung loosely over my shoulders. I shuffled to the thermostat in the hallway, jacked the temperature up twelve degrees and stood shivering in the hallway as the vent overhead dusted me with hot, stale air. I looked into the kitchen at the end of the hall, debated whether to put something on the stove, or at the very least start a pot of coffee (maybe order a couple pizzas?) when a knock at the front door shattered the silence enveloping my mother’s house.
I counted back the hours; Kim would be just now pulling into the Kiss & Ride lane at the airport. Her husband, Roger, would be loading the family’s bags into the car-top carrier Kim had told me—beaming with marital satisfaction—that he was so proud of. The neighborhood knew not to come knocking on Patricia Woodruff’s door. She had been a nuisance even before she got sick, always peeking through her heavily-curtained windows to watch you strolling down the street, carrying in your groceries, playing with the kids in your backyard. When the cancer hit, she became a downright hermit.
Uninterested, I ignored the knocking and padded into the kitchen. The coffee pot sat washed and dry—three times, Kim had insisted while I rolled my eyes, in honor of mom—on the rack beside the sink. It would be hours before the family got in, but the extra warmth seemed pleasant in the meantime.
Twenty minutes later, after wrestling the fancy coffee maker my brother Dan had bought mom last Christmas that she’d apparently never learned to use, I had mug of something passable, and the knocking kept on.
“Fuck everyone,” I muttered to myself. I dropped my mug on the kitchen island, dark coffee sloshing over the edges onto mom’s pristine countertops, and strode toward the front door. My hair was a mess tied at the base of my neck, my thin face shadowed by dark circles and aged far past my twenty eight years, and I didn’t care. The neighborhood knew what to expect if they came knocking on Patricia Woodruff’s door, but they knew even better what to expect from her washed-up exile of a daughter.
The hallway was a haze of dust particles drifting in the shafts of light that bled through the cracks in the heavy curtains draped over every window. I focused on the knock at the door, at the sound hanging around my shoulders as I cut through the thick silence that had finally caught up to my mother. I ignored the way the photos that covered the walls towered over me, each of them a memory that smirked at me, reminded me of everything every person who shared my blood had done wrong. Of everything they would never know they had done wrong.
I threw open the front door, satisfied at the way it cracked into the table of knickknacks and key bowls my mother had collected beside it. “What?” I demanded of the squat, moist man stood out on my mother’s front porch. He extended a hand through the doorway at me, a stack of pamphlets stuck under his arm, his smile criminal. “Harley Carmichael, Genetic Savings and Clone,” he introduces, throwing my hand in an over-exuberant greeting. “I hear your mother has passed?”
My brow drew into a glare, my only interest in returning to my coffee for a moment in peace before my sister dragged the noise back in. In the back of my mind, my mother growled, “Oh, Theresa, smile for once in your goddamn life. Make a good impression. Don’t you care about your mother?”
“Look,” I told the guy, wrapping a hand around the doorknob and dragging the front door toward me. “I don’t know how the hell you know that, but there’s something called respect for the dead so if you could so kindly get the fuck off my porch—”
“I’m here today to offer you a one of a kind opportunity, Miss Woodruff,” Harley interrupted, edging himself into the doorway, his foot stuck between mine braced in his path. He looked up at me, towering a good foot over his balding, sweat-streaked head. “Truly one of a kind,” he continued. “You won’t get this deal anywhere else.”
I shifted a step back, but kept my hand firmly on the doorknob. “You’ve got the wrong house,” I told him. “There’s no way you should even—”
“Know?” Harley raised an eyebrow, his small mouth tightening into a deeper grin. “Of course you might think that, Miss Woodruff, but my organization has been watching you for a very long time. We like to keep our interests in order, and everything indicates you would be the perfect candidate for a study of this magnitude.” He slid a pamphlet from the stack under his arm and waved it in my face.
“Alright I don’t know who you think you are,” I said, planting a hand on his shoulder and giving him a shove out of my mother’s doorway. He barely stumbled onto the porch, my already meager strength waned in the face of the last week with Kim and my mother. “But you can’t just go around telling people you’ve been watching them, not to mention the ethical grey-area of stalking someone, and if you don’t get off my mother’s property right now I swear I’ll call the fucking cops.”
Harley’s grin widened and he whipped the pamphlet around in his hand. Over a two-tone color scheme and poorly photoshopped graphics read, in bold letters: Genetic Savings & Clone: Giving to Tomorrow What Yesterday Stole. He flipped it open, jabbed a thick finger at a string of side-by-side photos of dogs and slightly smaller, somewhat similar looking dogs. “We’ve spent years perfecting the science, and we believe we can do it,” he says. “We can bring your mother back.”
My jaw dropped, my grip tightening on the doorknob. “And why the fuck would you think I’d want to do that,” I sputtered.
Harley’s spectacle faltered for a moment. He frowned, eyebrows dipped together as he pulled a notebook from his pocket. “Just one moment,” he murmured, drawing a fat finger down a list of names. He looked back at me. “Kimberly Woodruff?”
Ire built like plague between my ribs. “No,” I said. “Her sister.”
The man squinted back at his list and nodded. “Ah, of course,” he said. “Just as well I’m sure.” He shoved the notebook back into his breast pocket and returned to the pamphlet. “As I was saying, we believe we have perfected the science to allow us to bring our loved ones—or, in your case, not so loved ones—back from the dead. Or, at least, a version of them.”
He glanced up at me. “You see, this isn’t your science fiction clone project.” He turned a page on the pamphlet, tapped a block of text. “She wouldn’t be your mother, per say, but more of a…genetic equal. The same pieces put together from the start, a second time around.”
“Look, buddy,” I said, inching the front door closed. “I don’t know what you’re on, but you’ve got the wrong person here. Now you can get out of here on your own or wait for the cops to make you, but I’m really not interested.”
“But Theresa,” Harley insisted, planting a meaty palm on the door and smiling his criminal smile. “I’m telling you, your mother would get a second chance at a whole new life, from the very beginning. And you would get a second chance at your mother.”
I could only stare, blankly, back at him. “You want me,” I said, “to raise my mother as my child?”
Harley nodded in a way that suggested he had not considered it this way before. “In so many words, yes.”
“You’re fucking nuts,” I said, acid on my tongue. Harley opened his mouth, pamphlet held in midair as if to demonstrate an oncoming point, and I slammed the door in his face. I locked it twice for good measure and fell back against it, the dusty hallway hanging around me like a daze. Anger vibrated through my limbs, and I wondered if I ought to call the cops anyway, get rid of this lunatic before the more sensitive, less sensible Kim got home and had a chance to be persuaded. She had been talking about her and Roger trying again.
I sighed and covered my face with my hands. My mother’s voice rang in my ears—“Quit slouching, Theresa. No one wants to see you slumped over like that, you’re going to ruin your good posture.”—and I was back sitting at my mother’s kitchen table, dinner plate in front of me. I was the only one left sitting there, my dinner cold, my siblings having ran off long ago to play Nintendo. I could hear their arguing from there, but mother wouldn’t scold them. That was often a right reserved especially for me.
“Theresa,” she said, wet to the elbows in dishwater as she scrubbed at the sink. She didn’t look at me while she talked. She never looked at me when she talked. “Theresa, are you trying to make me look like a bad mother? I mean seriously, what sort of child refuses to eat their dinner day in and day out. You're already so thin, the neighbors will notice.”
I cringed at the way she said thin like an insult. “Mom, I don’t like meatloaf.”
“Of course you do, darling, meatloaf is your favorite,” she insisted.
I frowned, turning over a crumbling slab of meatloaf with my fork. “No,” I told her. “Meatloaf is Randy’s favorite.” But I knew she didn’t hear me, or didn’t listen. They were always the same when it came to me.
“Really, it’s an excellent meal I don’t know what your problem is,” she continued, dishwater slopping over the edge of the sink as she furiously scrubbed at the dinner plates for the third time that night. “That’s your grandmother’s recipe you know. That recipe has won awards, Theresa, but no it can’t please some stupid kid who doesn’t know any better.” She was talking to herself then—she talked to herself more and more when I was around—but she didn’t bother to keep it to herself. I used to think maybe she didn’t know I could still hear her, that she couldn’t gauge her own volume. Eventually I started to believe she did it on purpose.
There was a crash as a dish fell to the floor, shattering over the tile like a soapy star gone supernova. I froze. I could still hear my siblings arguing over the two functioning Nintendo controllers. I could hear my father on a late business call in his den, shouting at someone on the other side of the world. But there in the kitchen, everything was too quiet.
“Goddammit, Theresa,” my mother shouted, spinning to face me. She jabbed a pruned finger at the mess on the floor. Her hair had fallen out of its tight bun, strands floating frazzled around her face. “Look, look what you made me do.”
In an instant, though, her anger melted away and her shoulders fell. I was crying and she was tired. She sat across from me at the kitchen table, edged my plate closer to me with a pleading look in her eyes. “Come on Theresa,” she said. “Please just eat your dinner. I’m trying to be a good mother. Can’t you just do this one thing for me? Why don’t you want me to be a good mother?”
I realized I’ve been holding my breath and it bleeds through my clenched teeth. I was back in the hallway again, the dust and warped glass of the pictures on the wall holding me in a half-hearted embrace. A piece of paper slid through the mail slot on the door and landed between my feet. I picked I up, crumpled it into a ball in my hands. “I’m calling the police,” I shouted back through the door. Kim would be home soon, with Roger, Randy, Dan and all the kids. I didn’t want her to see this.
Kim would have jumped at the chance to bring mom back, wouldn’t she? It was a favorite daughter’s wet dream. Honoring your mother in the greatest way imaginable. Though I could hear her voice in the back of my head, the same voice she had every time I came to her with a baby squirrel fallen from its nest or a plan to start a backyard freak show with the neighborhood cats or my idea to spend three years traveling the country in a log cabin hitched to the back of my pickup truck. “Don’t you think that’s kind of weird, Theresa?”
I had never been the kind of daughter Kim was capable of being. There was guilt in my bones where I should have had something more. There were so many things I was incapable of as my mother’s daughter, but for there to be something that Kim couldn’t—wouldn’t—do for her, that was a new experience entirely.
I shuffled back to the kitchen. The mug of coffee left sitting on the kitchen table had gone cold, but rather than pour myself another from the pot I sunk into the same kitchen chair I had occupied every night for the entirety of my childhood. I sat with my knees apart, back straight as a rod, palms pressed hard into my thighs. It had been years since I had picked up my cello, but I wasn’t sure I would ever erase the memory from my muscles. Wasn’t sure there would ever be a day I felt the cold sting of anxiety crawl over my shoulders and didn’t immediately assume that musician’s posture.
In those moments it was like stepping straight back in time, to long afternoons spent sat on the stool in my shared bedroom with my back to the door and cello propped between my knees. I could hear my mother down the hall, laying flat on her sheets pulled taught over the bed as she chatted with one of the few friends she managed to maintain over the years of neuroticism. “My Theresa is just a dream on the cello,” she’d tell anyone who would listen. “Really you should hear her. There’s nothing like it.”
My mother’s words stuck to my spine, filled the places between my ribs. If I could do nothing else right, I could play the cello. Never would anyone have called me a prodigy, far from it. I didn’t go on to audition for Julliard or even play regularly past my eighteenth birthday, but to my mother I was divine. To my mother, this was the thing I could do right.
Without a thought, I’m standing in the doorway of Kim’s and my childhood bedroom. It has barely changed since I moved out at nineteen but for the pile of boxes full of dad’s old stuff stacked conveniently on my bed only. Kim’s is as well made as the last day she slept in it. I’m drawn, though, to the old cello propped neatly against my rehearsal stool, a stack of my old sheet music left on the wooden stool worn down by hours on hours of playing until my fingers bled. My mother never once told me to practice, never once sneered at me that I could never be good enough. Late at night, I would see her reflection in the darkened glass of my bedroom window. See her standing there in the doorway, eyes closed, swaying slightly as my bow swept over the strings. I played like that every night, waiting for her every night, until the day my dad died. After that, even the music couldn’t be good enough for her.
I drifted across the room, let my fingers slide across the strings. It was my first cello, one I hadn’t played for so many years, long ago replacing it with newer more expensive models. But mom had kept it all this time. I wondered if I had kept on, if I had made the effort once in the last ten years to drag my cello out to my mother’s house and play for her, if it would still have made her proud. If I could have filled all my thinning, empty places with that pride. If it could have washed out all the grief for good.
Somehow, I knew it wouldn’t have.
In my hand I held the pamphlet Harley stuck under the door, the cheap slick paper still damp from his big, sweaty hands. I didn’t even remember picking it up.
Downstairs, the front door swung open and a waterfall of noise washed into my mother’s silent house. Kimberly called my name, her heels clicked along mom’s bare wood entryway back to the den. I counted her steps to the door, left hanging open, the room abandoned. “Theresa,” she shouted my name, heels rattling as she ran to my dead mother’s side. “Theresa where are you? What happened to mom? Theresa what happened?” There were sobs stuck in her throat, and I could hear her urging Roger or Randy or Dan to keep the kids out, take them out of the house, distract them for a while.
“It’s okay, Kimberly,” I said out loud, though not loud enough for her to hear me all the way up in our childhood bedroom. I looked to the pamphlet in my hand, the spaces between my ribs full of something thick and new. “Mom’s gonna be okay.”