Presenting the 2018 Milton Literary Festival Young Authors Creative Fiction Writing Contest High School Grand Prize Winner
By Madison Loud
St. Francis High School, Grade 9
Lila, my sister, and I stood about six feet away from the bark-covered trunk of a large oak, our mother’s favorite tree. Its branches cast a cool shade over us as we stared at the base of it. Our eyes remained entranced on the very thing we had come here for. A human spirit marked by a single stone.
“Do you think there are plenty of oak trees up there, wherever she is?” I finally asked after a long period of silence.
She was not quick to answer. Lila never was. She liked to think about things, and once she thought about this, she answered, “Yes. Yes, I do.”
A cool September breeze came, and I knew she was right.
One year prior, our mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, leukemia to be exact. Time suddenly seemed to slow down, every second of it seeming more precious than the previous. Throughout every second of this, there was always the irony that poked at me. It simply was that while she needed to treat her body like a temple, her body treated her as if it were a prison, and she was the prisoner.
The same day she received the diagnosis, she locked herself in her bedroom for about an hour. We assumed she was crying like us and did not want us to see, but when she came downstairs, we realized that was not the case. Not a single tear stained her face as she walked in, holding a piece of paper the size of a receipt. It was a bucket list.
This list contained five different places my mother had always wished to go to. Adventures were never far from my mother’s mind, so none of this was really a surprise. Still, the list hit us hard for two reasons. One: this was my mother’s way of saying she knew her fate and was accepting it by laying out her wishes. Two: We knew that these tasks would be improbable to complete.
Several months later, however, they became impossible when she suddenly became sicker than any of us were prepared for. She could barely leave the house for a doctor’s appointment, let alone travel to Australia, Italy, London, Japan, and France, the five places on her list.
Instead, she was trapped inside of our home. She would watch the oak trees sway in the wind as she drank coffee in the mornings. She would eat a simple lunch and then read a book. She would talk to us on the phone if we were not there in person and then go to bed. She would wake up the next day, and the next, and the next, and repeat.
I found peace in this repetition. It was healthy. It was good to hear that my mother was the “same old, same old” instead of getting worse. However, for her, repetition caused boredom, and boredom caused sadness.
“She’s not getting any better,” Lila said to me one night, six months into my mother’s illness. Mom had just gone to bed, and Lila and I sat by the fire in our living room, quietly speaking.
“She’s not getting any worse,” I pointed out, trying to sound positive. However, the huge stretch it took to reach that positivity was obvious in my tone. She shook her head and then lifted it up to the mantle above the fireplace. My eyes tried to follow hers but failed to find the subject of her stare. “What are you looking at?”
She stood up slowly and picked up the receipt-shaped piece of paper off of the mantle. The bucket list. She sighed as she looked over it. “Five things. Five simple things,” she mumbled, running her pointer finger down the list.
I let out an even deeper sigh than she did. “Not simple, Lila. I wish they were simple. We all do.”
She shook her head and frowned, still focused on the paper in her hand. “It’s her dream, Jade. It shouldn’t matter whether or not they’re simple things. She deserves that dream to come true.”
I stared at the fire, trying not to acknowledge the truth in what she was saying. Of course, our mom deserved it. It was just impossible. I somehow spoke even quieter as I said, “Lila, I wish there was a way, but she’s too sick. She’s not allowed to travel out of the country. The doctors won’t let her.”
Her head swayed anxiously from side to side as tears filled her eyes and she looked down. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted my mom to be alright. I wanted all of this mess to leave even faster than it had come, but what was I supposed to do? Whether I liked it or not, you couldn’t cure someone with wants. I had learned that the hard way.
Suddenly, we heard low, deep moaning omit from our parents’ room down the hall, followed by my dad’s smooth, calming voice, no doubt trying to soothe the pain away from Mom. I bit my bottom lip to try and hold back tears as well as the urge to run to her side.
Lila, having also turned towards the ghostly cries through the walls, finally looked at me. “It’s her dream, Jade,” she repeated, more firmly this time.
“Lila, stop. Just let it go . . .” I said, finally angry. It became hard to stifle the want to yell at her as it boiled in my throat. “There comes a certain point when you have to draw the line between wishful thinking and reality! The reality of the situation is our mom is not okay, and as long as you’ve got your head in the clouds, thinking about a list of things that are never going to happen, you’re only making that reality harder!” I had snapped at my own sister. Not the kind of snap that you would expect from any siblings, but the kind where I could feel myself shaking and face turning red in guilt afterward. The kind where I could see tears come down Lila’s face before she attempted to wipe them away.
She had always done such a good job of hiding any negative emotions from the rest of us, that I had forgotten that she could even feel them, or anything, other than optimism. I knew I had crossed the line when she suddenly would not look at me, despite my sudden attempt at an apology.
Then, before I could stop her, she clutched the list in her hand and took it with her as she walked out of the room. I was still shuddering as I listened, remaining still, to her footsteps march up the stairs and into her room. She remained up there for several minutes, ten at most, as I remained standing, staring at the fire, until finally, I heard the front door open, and then close, followed by the sound of her car exiting the driveway.
She’s just mad, I told myself. She’ll be back in an hour.
She wasn’t, though. The next morning, I woke up on the couch in our living room, having fallen asleep there the night before by accident after deciding to wait for her to return. I rubbed my tired eyes slightly, and then pushed up from the cushions of the couch and walked to the front door. I looked out the window, expecting to see her white car parked near the mailbox, under the oak tree, as it should have been. It was nowhere to be seen.
When she did not return all day, I called her several times. Lila and I had always been so close, it made me ache from my insides out to think of her ignoring my calls. My stomach flipped and turned with worry, as it did later that night, and the next day, and days after that.
Three weeks later, Lila had not returned.
My father had enough to worry about, so he reassured me that Lila was responsible enough and that she would return soon. My mother, having been calmed by my father, who did not want her to worry, tried to tell me the same thing. I was not so positive, however. I knew my sister.
My sister did not get mad easily. She did not get discouraged easily. Most of all, she did not disappear easily, without telling anyone.
I thought back to our fight. If that was even what you could call it because I had really been the only one to yell or get mad or do anything. I thought of how calmly she had left. I thought of the bucket list in her hand, clutched tightly.
The bucket list.
Why would she leave with it?
Why would she leave at all?
I tried to answer my own questions over that long, dreadful period of time. I reflected back on that night, over and over again. Somehow, each time I thought back upon it, it became more painful. You see, it was not just me yelling at Lila. It was the buildup in weeks leading to it. It had started with me ignoring her, knowing she would only bring foolish optimism to our horrible reality. I had stopped believing in a brighter side, having been in the dark for so long. Then, I began to reject her help with school, with coping, and so on. She had always looked after me as my big sister, but I was so tired of having her talk to me like a child, only telling me that things would get better, even as we watched our mom wither. Yelling at her had just been the cherry on top of the poisonous cupcake I had been baking for a long time.
For the next week, I didn’t know what to do. I had always thought that my sister was overprotective, but now I could see why. She was protecting me from having to suffer through the misery of my own thoughts. Thoughts that came as I watched my mom groan and become nauseous as she took her pills. Thoughts that later evolved into far worse visions. Visions that made me suddenly weak. For the first time, I was truly weak.
One night, after my college classes suddenly seemed to weigh down on me more than my remaining strength could carry, I rushed home, needing a break. It was a relief to climb into the old, yet soft blankets of my childhood bedroom. The wind blew the branches of the trees outside my window, producing the sound of a low, soft whisper against the random pitter-patter of a light sprinkle of rain. I pulled my blankets up to my chin due to a sudden chill.
Across the hall, I suddenly heard my parents in their room, loud and clear.
“What’s wrong, honey?” My dad.
A slight shuffling followed with several sniffles, clearly from my mom. Finally, she spoke. “It just hurts.” Silence. I willed myself into a long statue, not daring to move and let the blankets create noise. I hated the lack of sound. It left so much potential for so much pain to take place. Then, she continued, a sad tone in her voice. “Do you remember that creek we used to take them to when they were little, where we would go hiking?” Her voice cracked several times as if the tears had scrubbed her throat dry.
A long pause. “Yes,” my dad said, his voice uneven, like a ball of yarn unraveling. “Yes, I do.”
She began to cry. I imagined his arms sliding around her and through her now short hair and cradling her. Even as my eyes became large, green ponds filled with water, I forced myself to keep quiet. The last thing I allowed myself to hear was, “I miss my life,” from my mom as she cried. Like the trees she adored, her branches, suddenly weak after a storm, had broken. My mother had finally broken.
I had as well, across that narrow hallway in my own room, though it no longer felt like mine. Its walls covered in posters of bands I used to care about and trophies I used to be proud of suddenly seemed foreign to me. I had grown out of myself, somehow, in these past months of breakage. I was lost and damaged and done for.
Then suddenly, the front door of our house opened.
Knowing the one person it had to be, I slowly sat up and wobbled down the hall. The sprinkles of water outside had turned to rain, soaking her shoes which left wet footprints behind her as she walked. I followed them into the living room, passing two suitcases on my way.
Suddenly, Lila turned and, of all things, smiled. A canvas bag rested on her damp shoulder. As I stepped closer, I focused on the several papers I could see clutched in her hand: our mother’s bucket list and several plane tickets with varied dates from over the past month. Each ticket had a different destination, each one matching with a place on Mom’s list. I stood there frozen and stunned.
Finally, I said, “You completed her list for her.”
She still smiled, a kind, meaningful smile. “I had to,” she sighed, clearly struggling for the right words. “She passed so many things on to us, I had to do this for her.” She gave me a nervous look, and suddenly, tears streamed down my face like never before, yet I smiled because Lila knew. She always knew the answer, and now I did, too.
It is okay to cry. It is okay to hope. It is okay to try and defy the odds. It is okay to fail to do so. It is okay not to be okay.
That was simply it.
For those next couple of weeks, my mom wore a bright smile as she walked throughout the house, which was no longer a prison. It was now Australia, Italy, London, Japan, and France, thanks to the mementos Lila decorated all of the rooms with. She grinned more than she ever had in those days, despite the odds, happier than ever.
I realized that odds were a waste of time, anyway. Feelings were better to go by. I had learned from my sister that whatever you felt, it was okay, as long as you used your feelings up before they disappeared because after all, they were only temporary. So, we did.
We embraced laughter at family movie nights.
We embraced joy during dinners together.
We even embraced sadness after a few months passed, with Mom passing as well.
So, there I stood, with my sister under that oak tree, staring at her gravestone, marked with her name, Elaine Slatener. Simple, yet beautiful. Perfect.
I slipped my hand into the hand of my sister, who had gotten us through the storm with her strength. I smiled.
We would be okay.
When were you forced to embrace a multitude of complex feelings? Tell us in the comments.