This story was a finalist for the 2021 MAYDAY Fiction Prize
The first letter came on a Monday morning; Patty knew it was Monday because her head hurt from Sunday drink specials. When she opened her eyes, the room spun like it did every morning.
“Holy shit!” came her brother’s voice from the kitchen. He appeared in the doorway to her bedroom, eyes pink and glassy, waving an off-white envelope. If it hadn’t been for the smell of cheap weed, she might’ve thought he’d been crying.
“You’re never gonna guess who it’s from.”
Patty saw an excitement in her brother’s eyes, something she hadn’t seen in a while. At twenty-two, he still resembled a teenager, baggy eyes and blemished complexion, bony frame, and skin that never saw sunlight. A vampire comparison seemed cliché. She noticed how long his hair had gotten and thought about making a comment.
“I don’t like guessing,” she said, pulling her stained comforter tighter around herself. They usually didn’t talk this early, both night-owls. Bartending and serving kept them apart in the evenings and asleep during the day. Their longer interactions occurred during the occasional dinners Patty tried to maintain. “You can leave now.”
“It’s from Mom.”
The word hung in the air. Patty didn’t speak.
“See for yourself.” He gave her the envelope. In the upper left corner, her mother’s name was boldly printed above the words: VALLEY STATE PRISON. Patty wished her mother in prison was more of a surprise than her mother sending a letter. Patty stared intently at her mother’s name, like it might disappear if she glanced away. It had been ten years.
“Get rid of it.” She tossed the letter to the foot of her bed.
Her brother took the letter and left.
Patty wanted to be asleep again, for her hangover to go away, for a clear mind. She wanted the mailman to go back in time and skip their house that morning.
* * *
The last time Patty saw her mother in the flesh was a Sunday, when rain made their block in Queens grayer and more mundane than usual. All morning her mother screamed into the phone, barely intelligible behind the TV Patty watched at full volume.
When her mother came downstairs in the tight, radioactive green dress she’d worn out the night before, Patty didn’t think much of it. It was the duffel bag sitting at the bottom of the stairs that drew her attention. Patty wasn’t used to her mom leaving that early. To say nothing of seeing her mother before noon.
When Patty heard the rustling in the kitchen, she peered inside. Her mother was gathering every coin she could find and stuffing them into her purse. There went the laundry money. “Mom?”
Her mother turned. There was never a warmth in her mother’s eyes, but now Patty felt something cold. “Don’t ask anybody for anything, Pat.”
With those words, her mother left. The receding clack of heels on wet cement was a sound Patty would never forget.
* * *
Her brother hadn’t listened when she told him to throw away the first letter. She found it a week later, sitting neatly on his dresser during her search for a lighter. The envelope was torn, so Nick had read the letter. He hadn’t mentioned its contents, and she didn’t want to know.
When the second letter came, Patty held it in her poorly manicured hands, feeling dirty, like when she’d steal makeup or go through boyfriends’ phones. She set the letter, seal unbroken, on top of the first.
* * *
After the first letter, Nick had walked around their squeaky house with an unexpected bounce to his heavy steps. In the morning, he’d greet Patty with a hello, which she found disorienting. Chores were getting done, floors swept, dishes washed. For a flicker of time, Patty thought their mom might have done some good. Even if it had been unintentional.
But the second letter turned Nick into a ghost. He sulked, barely responding when Patty teased him or asked what he wanted for dinner. The energy from the first letter had been drowned by the second.
* * *
Dinners used to be different. Their mother would sit at the unfinished wood table with her slender, nyloned legs crossed, cigarette in one hand, plastic cup of red wine in the other. Patty and Nick would share glances over their Ready Rice and undercooked chicken, waiting for their mother to leave so they could scrounge up something edible.
One night stood out. Patty was twelve and the food, especially cold. Her mother’s dark eyes stared out the window. She asked, “How was school today, Patty?”
Her mother’s eyes remained attached to the overgrown grass in the backyard, her fingers tapping the table’s grainy surface. After stamping out her cigarette in the dirty yellow ashtray, she cleared her throat and said, “Your dad died.”
The news felt less like a bomb and more like a pinprick, stinging for an instant before the sensation disappeared. She hadn’t seen her father in seven years and couldn’t recall his face. She almost didn’t notice Nick, tears bubbling in the corners of his eyes. Strange. He’d never even met their dad.
Their mother lit up another cigarette. “He deserved it.”
Later that night, Patty sneaked into Nick’s room with a knock-off Beanie Baby she’d swiped from the corner store. A flicker of childish joy returned to his features.
* * *
Steam rose from the microwaved lasagna. Patty ate, while Nick pushed the spongy food around with his fork. Patty couldn’t stand the quiet anymore, “How was your day?”
“You want to talk about what Mom’s been sending you?”
“I don’t think there’s anything we need to talk about.” He studied the noodles, meat, and sauce.
“I’d like to talk about it, though.”
“Then talk about it.”
Patty realized she’d been white-knuckling her fork. “It’s hard to talk about when I have nothing to go off of.”
“Do you have a question, Pat? Or are we going to be passive aggressive all night?” He looked tired, slumped over like something, or someone, was pushing down on his shoulders. Finally, he met her eyes, “She’s in a lot of trouble. I think I should go to California to help her.”
Patty cackled. “You’re joking, right?”
Nick set down his fork. He looked tired, slumped as if a weight pushed down on his shoulders. “She’s my mom and I love her.”
Patty thought back to when they were children. Even though she was only five years older, she made her brother breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. She’d wake him up for school by throwing ice in his bed. She beat him up when he stole money from her room but held him when nightmares sent him crawling into her bed.
“But she doesn’t love you.”
With that, he stood up, suddenly taller, older. She saw years of hurt and guilt that he’d hidden so well. She also saw a scared boy needing his mom, and Patty wanted to do or say anything to make it go away, but all she said was, “You need a haircut.”
He stomped up the stairs and slammed his door like a teenager. Left alone, for a moment Patty thought she knew what it felt like to be a mom.
* * *
The next morning, Patty opened her eyes. After the room stopped spinning, she listened for her brother’s footsteps. The only sound came from the occasional wind rattling her windows.
First, Patty checked Nick’s room, but he was gone and so were the letters.
When she went downstairs, the silence followed her through the living room, into the hallway. It felt like a desperate game of hide-and-seek. In the kitchen she found a folded piece of paper, her name printed on top in jagged letters. Patty felt lucky not to know what it said on the inside. If she chose, she could exist in this mystery for as long as she wanted. She could, but then Patty flipped open the paper.
I’m going to get mom. I took
the money from the vase.
* * *
In the unforgiving December air with the defroster on high, Patty sat in the driveway, hands clenching the disintegrating steering wheel. In the backseat sat a duffel bag with enough clothes to last her a few weeks if she planned well, which she never did. She reached down to the gear shift once, twice, three times before planting her hands firmly back on the wheel, like it might keep her from floating up and out of the car.
She looked at her house, “Do I go?”
Her eyes landed on her brother’s window, the dark curtains pulled shut. Patty pictured the window seat just inside, where they used to crouch for hours, and remembered how they’d spy on neighbors, or how they’d read books until their eyes felt droopy and they’d nap in the sun. How sometimes her baby brother would fall asleep right in her arms, gently snoring, heavy, and warm. And how the morning their mother left, the last time they’d see the woman that gave them both life, Patty could not remember what was playing on the TV, because that memory was entirely engulfed by the soft, warm skin of her brother’s hand grabbing her own, squeezing so lightly she barely knew he was there.
REILLY WEED is a writer and filmmaker based in NYC. She received her BA from Wayne State University. Additional work and contact information can be found at reillyjane.com.