After Death By Chloe Riggs

A door slams. Slams? No, that’s too subtle for the amount of noise it created. It shook the walls of the house, jarring me out of my sleep. Giggles float through air, followed by the not so quiet ‘Shhing’. 

I check the time. 2:30, in the morning. I have three hours until I have to get ready for work. No, I had three hours left to sleep. 

I reluctantly pull the blanket off of me, inviting the cold air to embrace me. With goosebumps forming on my skin, I crawl off the mattress, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. I follow the dim lighting of the night light in the hall, making sure to not run into anything. My feet stop outside my mom’s room, forcing me to stare at the shadows dancing underneath the door. 

I should barge in there. Demand for him to leave. Finally confront my mother on her behavior. But what use would that do?

She would laugh in my face and tell me I’m being silly. She would go back to her little rendezvou, ignoring my presence. Even if I screamed, she still wouldn’t listen. It’s her way of grieving. Her way of dealing with the loneliness she was enclosed in when her only love died. 

I tear my gaze away, blocking out the sounds that reverberate through the walls. I walk further down the hall, entering the confined bathroom. It used to feel big, too big for one person, but now it feels constricting. 

Reaching into the shower, I turn the water on, making sure the handle is angled just right to allow the temperature to be hot. When I see the steam rising from over the curtain, I climb inside, letting the water burn my skin. 

My mind wanders, traveling from my lack of sleep to my mom’s house guest tonight. From being early to work to making sure I prepare breakfast before I leave. From wanting to stay under the water for hours to remembering the consequences of running the water for too long. I feel an ache in my stomach, one similar to the feeling of nausea, but it feels hurt, not unsettled. 

I grasp the handle, hesitating, before I yank it down to turn off the water. I close my eyes, feeling the last of the drops hit my back and scalp. I pull a towel from the curtain rod, drying myself with more effort than I should need.

When I’m showered, dressed, and a little less drowsy, I bounce around in the kitchen. There’s bread in the toaster on the counter, the coffee pot next to it prepared to be turned on. I’m rummaging through the cabinets for the breakfast bars I bought last week. I know they are in here, I ate one yesterday, but I can’t seem to find them. 

I close the cabinet door, looking around the kitchen aimlessly. When my eyes land on the familiar box in the trash, I feel my shoulders slouch, the aching feeling in my stomach starting to ramp up its effects. 

I hear shuffling down the hall, signaling me to straighten my back and plaster on a small smile. I watch as a mid-fifties, pot-bellied man exits my mom’s room. His clothes are messy, his dress shirt untucked from his hanging dress pants. He has a hold of his belt, in the midst of fastening it, as his gaze is fixed on his surroundings. 

His eyes meet mine, widening for a fraction of a second as he finishes buckling his belt. He stands awkwardly, fiddling with the coat over his arm, his wedding band glinting in the light, before he nods his head at me, a courteous smile on his red-stained lips. I return the gesture, waiting for him to finally leave my view. When he has sauntered out of the house, I release the breath I was holding. 

Mom sure isn’t picky about her men anymore. No, she doesn’t care if they’re single or married, tall or short, fat or thin, old or young, and so many more unpleasant things. 

Like clockwork, the toaster pops and mom enters the kitchen, clad only in an oversized t-shirt. I grab the soft butter in the fridge, smear it on the toast, and pick up a banana. I serve the meal to my mom, who is now seated at the small, circular table, her face planted in her crossed arms, with a glass of water and two red pills. 

I could slam the plate on the table or dump the water on her head. Maybe it will wake her up from this endless nightmare. Maybe it will force her to see the mess she created. 

I don’t, it wouldn’t be fair. Instead, I gently set the plate and glass on the table, setting the medicine next to it, and rub her back. “Mom?” She grumbles something incoherent. “Your breakfast is ready,” when she still refuses to lift her head, I continue, “We have to leave soon, so can you at least try to eat something?” She still doesn’t budge, “I’m going to finish getting ready, but I’ll leave this here for when you’re ready.” 

I slowly move from the table, turning back to check on her. She looks so weak. She looks as if someone punched her in the gut, releasing all of the air from her lungs, and she has yet recovered. I should stop her from continuing to ruin herself. I should prevent this from happening again. I shouldn’t mess with the way she recovers, though. No, I should give her time. All she needs is time. 

After getting ready, I leave a note on the counter for Jacob, my little brother. I double check the coffee pot is prepared and ready to be brewed. I make sure I leave the toaster out, his blueberry bagels next to it. I make sure everything is in order for when he wakes up. Lastly, I hesitate to leave some money on the counter, just enough for him to get a cab or ride the bus to the restaurant. 

It’s part of our deal; I take care of mom in the morning, he takes her in the evening. It’s the only way to keep track of her. He’s gone back on the deal, though. He’s taken the money for himself and left me with mom all day. I still trust him, regardless, because he’s still young. He shouldn’t have to face what I did at his age. He should have time to live his life and have fun. 

I feel the muscles in my back tense, the sick feeling in my stomach returning. Hissing a breath from the pain, I grip the counter and stay planted, waiting for it to pass. When it finally does, I straighten, fighting the dizziness that follows. 

“Josey, do you have anything I can wear?” Mom comes from down the hall, still wearing the same shirt, but her hair is brushed and the wrinkles and worry lines of her face are disguised with make-up. She didn’t eat the food I gave her, only swallowed the medicine and water I provided. She’s going to be sick later.

I want to tell her no, she has her own clothes. I want to make her fend for herself and learn that I can’t do everything for her. I want her to see how tired I am. To see the pain I’m in by just one look and start asking me a bunch of questions on ‘what’s wrong’ and on how I’m feeling. I want her to be my mom again.

I feel my mouth itching to open, the words stuck on my tongue, but I nod my head, instead. “What kind of outfit do you want to wear?” 

It takes an hour before we finally leave. 5:30. It takes another hour until we get to the restaurant, the traffic heavier than usual. I spend the entire drive drumming my fingers on the steering wheel. 6:31, we finally arrive at the decaying building. 

I walk inside, my mother taking her time to step out of the car. She flips her hair around graciously, trying to catch the attention of the men who pass by. It’s the skin-tight dress drawing their attention, though. They whistle as she struts into the restaurant behind me, but she waves them off, feigning innocence, but it’s pure seduction.

Making my way into the, in need of repair, building, I head to the back, noticing one of the two employees I have, pulling chairs off the tables. We share a few words, her informing me I’m late, and me agreeing with her observation. I go in the back, heading straight for my office. When I enter the cluttered room, I try not to glance at the stack of papers on my desk, mostly comprised of bills. 

It takes me hours to sort through a quarter of it, with me jumping up and down to do a variety of other daily tasks. I get up to attend to customers, cook them food, and provide them with drinks. I keep a weather eye on my mom, constantly having to shoo men away from her feet. I watch out the foggy windows, searching for my brother’s shiny, blue hair. 

I even have to take breaks for a few minutes every now and then to steady my racing heart. I try to drink sips of water throughout the day, but I get too wrapped up in my work to keep track of staying hydrated. I feel my stomach sinking as I move and my dizzy spells beginning to return. 

With my hands gripping the edge of the counter, I hear a familiar voice wafting around the air. Sucking in a breath, I straighten and glance up, noticing the blue-haired boy in the corner, flirting with a bunch of girls. Instead of giggling, though, they dump their smoothie on him and leave the restaurant without paying. Another meal I have to find the cash for. 

He shakes his arms, flicking the smoothie onto the wall. I want to yell at him. To scream at him for disrupting my customers and making a mess. I want to throw a rag at him and force him to clean it up. I don’t.

I have tried before to make him a part of this dysfunctional unit. I have tried to get him involved and to participate. I’ve tried everything I can, but he still puts up a fight, leaving me to surrender. He has his own way of grieving, just like Mom, and I have to be respectful of that. 

Dad built this restaurant before he met mom, and my brother was supposed to take over when my dad retired. This restaurant is where my parents met. It’s where I grew up, where Jacob grew up. It meant a lot to us, but now it only means something to me. When Dad passed away from cancer, I took over his restaurant. Mom was going to sell it, and Jacob was too young to inherit it. If I didn’t do anything, I would have lost everything I have of my Dad. I would have lost every part of the only hero in my life. The only thing that keeps going. 

I hear my heart pounding in my ears, adding to the echoing voices of the people around me. Jacob is cursing at the girls who have already escaped, while demanding for a towel. Mom is trapped against a wall, a tall and lanky man towering over her. Amelia, my employee, is asking me for more food. The customers’ conversations are growing louder, but duller. 

I feel my palms sweating, my grip on the counter slipping. Shooting pains run up and down my arms, never staying in one place. I watch as the room spins, voices becoming muffled as my breath hitches. Then, the dark blocks everything out. 

It surrounds me, enveloping me in the cold. I can’t see anything. No, I see spots, odd shapes of light. The ones that appear when you press the palm of your hands against your eyelids or when you glance at the burning sun. Yes, I see them and they follow in the direction of my gaze. 

But why? Why do I see them? Where’s the light? What happened to the people that were previously surrounding me?

Mom and Jacob. Why can’t I hear their familiar voices? Why can I not hear the bickering customers? What happened?

I bring my hand to my chest, an instinct to check the pace of beating my heart. I feel nothing. There is no beat, not even a murmur. Something’s wrong, I know it, yet my hands are no longer sweating. 

My breathing, I can’t hear even the slightest whistle of air. The shooting pain in my arms has vanished. The knots in my shoulders, I can’t feel them. The only thing working is the whirling thoughts in my head, but even those are starting to fade. 

Where am I? In the restaurant or somewhere near it. The power must have gone out.

I pinch myself, trying to wake from this dream, but nothing happens. I can’t even feel the contact. 

Am I standing? I have to be, right? My feet feel rooted to the ground, but I also feel like I’m floating. Am I sitting? No, I would feel the tension on my back.

Where am I? Surely no place on Earth is this dark, but where else could I be? 

Am I still me? Who even am I? Josephine Renoylds. The owner of my dad’s restaurant. That’s who I am. 

It has something to do with the electric, it has to. Any moment the lights will kick back on. I will be back in…in…in the restaurant. Yes, the restaurant is where I’m at because I’m the…I’m the…owner? Yes, I have to be. 

Why does everything feel fuzzy? What happened?

I look around once more, nothing appears, but the scene seems to calm me. It almost makes me feel blind, blocked from ever viewing anything again. It almost makes me feel choked, walls caving in. It almost makes me want to scream out in agony, but I don’t. No, instead, I relax. 

Where am I? 

Clearly I’m somewhere with no light. Perhaps it’s night time? Maybe the moon is blocked by clouds? What about the stars, though? 

I don’t know where I am, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it should. I don’t panic. No, I loll in the darkness, taking comfort in the cold chill swimming across my skin. This scene, this area, allows a safe feeling to develop inside me. 

A light gradually materializes. It’s bright, brighter than the sun, but it doesn’t blind me. No, instead it calls to me, dragging me towards its illuminating structure. When I reach its reassuring form, it engulfs me, blocking out the darkness I was previously surrounded with. 

I blink away the fuzzy scene, objects shaping into my view. There’s a tan couch perched in front of a screen that covers the wall. A podium rests behind it, in front of me, with a folder sitting atop it. I curiously graze my fingers over it, tracing the name written in sharpie: Josephine Reynolds. 

Who is Josephine Reynolds? Is she someone I know? Someone I knew? Am I supposed to remember her? Remember this place? Why does it feel so inviting? Do I live here?

Words appear on the now turned on screen. It’s instructions; instructions to have a seat. I do as requested, ignoring the folder, as if I’m being mind controlled. A movie starts to play. A movie? No, there’s no opening or federal warnings. Plus, the image is too vivid, too alluring to be a simple movie. No, this is someone’s life playing on the screen in front of me, showing a baby girl entering the world. 

I watch as the little girl goes home, grows up in a big, beige house. I study her interactions with the people in her life; her brother, her mother, her father. Her father seems to be the closest with her, as she visits him at his restaurant every moment she can. She goes to college and studies for a business degree. Everything in her life is on track, but then it takes a turn for the worse. 

Her father? Gets sick and dies of cancer. Her mother? Turns into a helpless teenage girl. Her brother? He stays immature, never having the proper figure in his life to show him the way. 

Josephine? She stays strong. She grieves for her father by taking care of his business, keeping a piece of him close to her. She watches over her mother, making sure her mom doesn’t go too far in her endeavors. She raises her brother to her best ability, never losing faith in him. Most of all, she doesn’t break. 

No, she does. She falls apart right at the end, her stress and anxiety becoming the better of her as she has a heart attack. A heart attack that leads to her death. A heart attack that was caused by the people around her, the people she trusted and put her own life on the line for. She went through so much, held so much in, that it became her undoing. 

I don’t realize I’ve been sobbing until the screen turns off, and I’m left alone. Something tells me to glance back at the folder on the podium. Something whispers in my ear, forcing me to open it. When I do, it clicks. The first sentence is all I need to answer all of my questions.

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