The Waiting Woman
Fiction by Jessica Matelski
I come back to myself one piece at a time. My throat is sore from shouting, my skin sticky with sweat and tears. Where is my mother? I haven’t finished forming the thought before I’m pushing the syllable out of my mouth, cracking my lips as they spread across my teeth in a sob.
My own voice ringing in my ears, I look around the room for something, anything that is real and solid in the dark. Are my eyes open? I can’t remember, can’t even tell. My skin tingles with pinpricks of fear. “Mom!” I hear myself scream.
I feel my wet eyelashes come apart as I gasp between sobs, and then I see it. There, in front of me, is something, a thin line of light that sways with each ragged breath. I will myself to still, to stop the light from moving. I flatten my hands against the smooth fabric on either side of my body. I move my left hand away from myself and startle when my littlest finger meets the cool plane of a wall.
I’m in a bed. I’m on my back. I’m looking up.
True, true, true.
The streams of my spent tears cool and curve into my ears as I count truths. The piece of myself that can be more than fear arrives, presses my shoulders into the bed. I can barely blink for shame. I’m too old to cry for my mother, too old to feel terror at not knowing where she is. But my eyes follow the path of light that cuts across the ceiling, to where it bends and then angles toward the floor. A door, open a crack. A shadow, waiting. The shadow of the woman who comes when I call.
I swallow and fill my lungs in little catching breaths, push the air out again in a long, steady rush. The next breath I take is smooth, silent. Quiet breaths, again and again.
I close my eyes so that I won’t see the bent line of light vanish in the dark.
There’s a boy under the table. He says the blankets and sheets draped over the sides make it a fort and not a table. He’s crouching over a scene he’s built out of little plastic blocks. It’s another fort, the last line of defense against an army of green men crawling across the scrolling flower pattern of the carpet. The red flowers are lava, the boy says. Jimmy.
“What comes after G?” the woman asks from where she stands at the kitchen sink. She doesn’t bother to turn around and look at me where I sit at the table. There is a plate of food in front of me, so mashed I can’t tell what shape it has been. I feel like I’m going to vomit.
The woman leaves through a door next to the sink, and I hear banging and cursing from the next room.
Where is my mother? I feel her absence more than anything, and it makes me hate the woman who is here. If my mother knew how the woman treats me, the silly question she asks and the tone in her voice. Like I’m a baby.
I’m not a baby. Truth.
Something happened to me. I can feel it. My entire body aches, and I can’t remember the thing that happened to me.
“What happened to me?” I shout after the woman.
She comes through the door and drops a plastic basket full of laundry on the kitchen floor. The sudden clap of sound brings my shoulders up to cover my ears.
“What happened to me?” I demand, raising my voice.
“Nothing,” the woman says.
I’m old enough to know she’s lying. But a familiar fear keeps me from asking her again, making her tell me a truth. Where is my mother? Something happened to me, and my mother is gone. I can feel it.
I look at the spoon next to the mash going cold in front of me. I think about holding the spoon, using it to push the food to the edges of the plate and reveal the pattern I know is at the center: a flower in the same dark blue as the leaves that dance around the rim.
A thought flashes across my mind, and I nearly lunge to catch it. A girl falling from a tree. I’m there, see it happen. “Don’t go any higher!” I call. But my brother has made it to the next branch already, and the girl is always following him. The next moment, she’s falling, the branches she’s climbed clawing at her dress as she passes by. Her arm twists beneath her; blood soaks her hair. She won’t open her eyes, no matter how I cry. She always says she doesn’t remember falling or climbing or running to the park with me and my brother. But I am there, and I see it happen, so I know it’s true.
My hand doesn’t reach for the spoon but for my temple. I run my trembling fingers to the back of my head and feel for blood at the base of my skull. “Did I fall?” I ask. “Is that why I can’t remember?”
“You fell,” the woman says, “But that was a long time ago.”
I try to hold the thought. A long time ago.
The woman holds the corners of a bed sheet in her hands and spreads her arms apart as far as they’ll go. “You never answered my question,” she mumbles, her chin pressing the sheet to her chest as she brings the corners together before her. She snaps the bedding away from her body with a crack, and my shoulders go up again. “What comes after G?”
What a stupid question. I won’t answer.
Am I the girl? I close my eyes and see my brother, shadows of oak leaves dancing across his white shirt high above me. I can almost feel the grasping branches score my skin as I fall. My entire body aches, and when I try to open my eyes, I can only lift my lids far enough to see tiny blue leaves on white.
“This is my mother’s plate,” I say, and when I close my eyes again, I drift away.
I’m not a baby. I’m not the girl. True, true.
The girl is a neighbor. She and my brother joke about the tree and the fall. “It’s not funny,” I say, and they laugh anyway. He doesn’t see it from the dancing depths of the shadows, and she doesn’t remember, so they tease about who dares first and which one follows the other. But I see it over and over, and I never, ever laugh when they laugh.
I know I’m not the girl who fell.
“H,” I say to the woman, who is driving us somewhere.
“What’s that?” she says, speaking to me and not to the flat phone in her hand for the first time since she strapped me into the passenger seat, as if I couldn’t do it myself.
“Huh?” another woman’s flattened voice comes through the phone’s tiny speaker.
“Oh, it’s just Jean,” the woman says, and her voice lilts prettily. “What’s that, hun?”
“H comes after G,” I say, and I know I shouldn’t be proud. I’m too old to be proud of remembering my alphabet. But the woman smiles, and I am so relieved.
“That’s right,” she gushes. “I can’t believe you remembered that question from yesterday.”
“Progress,” I hear the flat woman’s voice say through the phone.
“Who’s that?” I ask, and I don’t keep the edge out of my voice.
“You know who that is,” the woman says sweetly, but I can see the whites of her eyes as she slowly shakes her head.
“Hi, Jeanie. It’s just Diane,” the voice says.
“Say hi to Diane,” the woman demands.
I turn and look out the window. If the woman wants me to say hi to Diane or do anything else, she’ll have to ask nicely.
“She’s just a little nervous about seeing the doctor,” the woman says to the flat phone.
Is that where we’re going, to the doctor? She doesn’t tell me anything, especially if I want to know it. But the doctor can tell me what happened, why I can’t remember. How long ago I fell. A long time ago. We stop at a traffic light, and I watch a man standing near the corner. His shaggy black dog looks just like mine. It walks in shrinking circles on the patch of grass between the man and the road. The dog stops circling and squats. The man glances around quickly. His eyes meet mine, and he looks through me as easily as he looks through the window.
The car moves again, and I twist in my seat toward the glass, sending a small twinge of pain through my back. But I watch the dog a little longer as it kicks up clumps of grass and the man pulls on the leash in a hurry.
My dog is Sergeant or Baxter. I walk him when everyone else is asleep, to the end of the road, and let him off of his leash. He runs into the darkness that stretches away from me, and I wait. When I start to worry, I whistle and whistle and whistle again. He comes back slowly, the yellow light from the high lamppost at the end of the road grabbing for his white coat as he zigzags between shadowy patches of grass.
Next to me, the woman lowers her voice, a whisper I can hear just as clear as anything. “It’s just, I thought I was done raising my kids, you know? But here we are.”
Another woman’s voice sighs out of the phone’s tiny speaker. “You’re doing the best you can.” They say their lilting good-byes.
I run my tongue along my bottom lip and shrink my mouth into a tight circle. I whistle, and the woman curses.
“You scared me!” the woman says. “What was that for?”
“Where’s my dog?” I ask.
The woman shakes her head. “Not here, so please don’t do that.”
I push the air past my lips again, pull it back through to keep the sound going.
“I said, stop that. Please!” the woman says, her hands tightening on the steering wheel.
I know the truth, so I say, “You’re not my mother.”
The woman looks at me with tears in her eyes. I stare back, daring her to climb. But she shakes her head and moves the car toward a large brick building. She drives diagonally across empty parking spots, around little curbed islands of rock that sprout wispy trees.
“Not everyone has a mother, Jeanie,” the woman says. “And you should be thankful I’m here.”
Jeanie. I hate that name. But everyone calls me Jeanie.
No, not everyone. There’s a boy who calls me Blue Jeans, which is silly, but I like it because he says it. Sometimes he just calls me Blue, and I tease that it sounds like he’s calling a dog when he shouts for me from the driveway.
“But you do come running when I call, Blue,” he says with a smile that pushes all the way up to his eyes. True.
I slide into the passenger seat of his car. As he backs down the driveway, I breathe in the fading pine scent of the air freshener swaying from the rearview mirror.
“How do you do that without looking behind you?” I ask.
He shrugs and says, “Magic,” and a little part of me believes him.
After dinner, in the flickering dark of the movie theater, he takes my hand. I stare straight ahead, terrified. Thrilled. I can’t focus on the white light ahead of me, can’t remember to care about the story it’s telling. I feel his breathing, the small, frantic tap of his foot on the floor—I swear, I can feel him blink through the places where our hands touch. His fingers tighten around mine, and I hold my breath, my ears ringing as he brushes the pad of his thumb across my skin in little circles. I will myself to turn toward him, and I find him smiling back at me. He leans over to say something, and I lean to meet him, but he turns his head just before he speaks, and his lips meet mine.
“I’m sorry!” I gasp, pulling back.
He laughs and bends toward me again. “You’re sorry,” he says, resting his head against mine while his shoulders shake. “Blue, you’re a funny girl.”
I laugh too.
“James,” I whisper.
“I told you. He’ll be back tomorrow,” the woman says, holding a flannel nightgown in front of me. I sit on the edge of the bed, swinging my leg, trying to tap my foot on the floor like he does. When I don’t take the garment from her hands, she says, “It’s gonna get cold tonight, so you need to wear something warmer.”
I reach for the thing and feel the cool caress of evening air across my back, my arms, my breasts. I gasp and pull the nightgown to my bare chest, crossing my arms against myself and feeling my face heat with shame. “Don’t worry, Jeanie,” the woman says. “You don’t have anything I haven’t seen before.”
My heart pounds through the flannel. “Is James here?” I ask.
“Tomorrow,” the woman answers.
Relief sighs through my body. I glance at the narrow bed and wonder, “Where will he sleep?”
The woman is stooping over the foot of the bed, lifting the mattress to tuck the sheet underneath it. She straightens. “He’s not sleeping in here, Jeanie. It’s not good for either of you.”
Tears well in my eyes, and I fumble with the ball of nightgown. I turn it over and over in my hands, but I can’t find the right shape, and I don’t want to be naked a moment longer. Before I can stop it, a sob escapes my lungs, runs up my throat, and tumbles out of my mouth.
The woman sighs and comes to stand in front of me again. “Here,” she says, taking the nightgown from me. “Let me help you.”
Someone is screaming for me, and I’m trying to reach him. Terror echoes in the quiet room. I can’t make my legs move, so I lay still, waiting to hear the voice again. My left hand hurts, and I find my fingers curled into my palm, the nails biting into my skin. The fist I’ve made is resting against the cold surface of a wall that shouldn’t be there, to my left. The bed is too small.
“James!” I yell, frantic.
I close my eyes against the panic and try again to move my legs, but there is something twisted around them. I push as hard as I can against the wall to my left. It doesn’t move, and I don’t move either.
Suddenly, all I see is a bright wall of white that is solid, cold, and endless in front of me. “James!” I wail.
“I’m here,” a man’s voice comes through the dark, and it stops my heart. I can’t turn in the fabric twisted around my body.
“You’re here?” I sob. I feel the mattress dip behind me, a hand rest on my shaking shoulder.
“Yes, I got back today, remember?” he soothes. “We had dinner together.”
I close my eyes against the endless expanse of the wall. “I can’t move my legs,” I say, pleading. “Something happened to me!”
The light on the other side of my lids goes out, sending a familiar pattern of shapes dancing across a dark field before me.
“You can’t just turn the big light on like that. It scares her,” the woman says.
“Sorry,” the man’s voice comes from the foot of the bed, but I can’t tell if he’s talking to me or to the woman. I feel the twist of sheets moving around my legs.
“Here, I’ll do it,” the woman says.
“She was calling for her mother.” The man’s voice comes from right beside me now, and it cracks on the words. James?
“No,” I correct him, certain. “Someone was calling for me. I think he’s having a nightmare. But I couldn’t move. And the wall–” The wall to my left, where a man should be.
The man who isn’t James clears his throat. “You can go back to bed,” he says, and I wait for the words to make sense.
“All right, but don’t sleep in here,” the woman says. “It doesn’t do her any good.”
I feel ashamed for waking her and for waking the man. He sits on the bed next to my pillow as the light from the door narrows into a line in the shadowed room.
“Are you okay?” he asks, his voice gentle.
I shake my head in the dark.
“I’m sorry I had to leave for a couple of days. I know it’s hard for you,” he says.
“Were you having a nightmare?” I ask, dreading the answer.
“No, I think you were.”
“You were calling for Mom,” I say.
A long, dark silence stretches while he brushes the damp hair away from my face. “Yes, I had terrible nightmares when I was a kid. And you would come when I called. Every time.”
I wait, and the words make sense.
“I came when you called for your mother,” I say. Truth.
The man’s voice is so soft when it reaches me. “Of course you did.”
“Jimmy,” I say as the piece falls away.
Jessica Matelski is the author of many works in several genres, from screenplays to short stories, creative nonfiction, novels, and even a few poems over the years. While form and subject vary widely, unifying all of her work is a generally unfinished and unseen quality. To show for her lifetime of writing, she has stacks of embarrassing childhood journals, plastic bins full of college writing assignments, a house littered with scraps of ideas, and accumulating works in the cloud. Jessica has a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Several grad schools laughed (one assumes) at her GRE scores, and so she entered the workforce via a job that sounded made-up. After discovering that editing closed captions for television was, in fact, an actual job, Jessica worked in media accessibility for many years and recently transitioned to technical writing. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she spends most of her time engaged in a writing prep routine perfected over decades. She begins by clearing her head via a long walk with her dog while simultaneously filling her head with an audiobook. With her head returned to roughly the same state it was in before all the clearing and filling, she then turns her attention to the physical plane and to readying the room in which the writing will happen. Indeed, preparation forms the majority–and quite often, the totality–of her writing practice. Casino Literary Magazine’s stated mission prompted Jessica to examine the meaning of “high stakes,” realize that it probably means something different for everyone, and determine that for her, it means finishing something and sending it somewhere. For reasons that are perhaps obvious at this point, this marks her first publication.