This story was originally published in the 7th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection
Sunlight filtered through a broken window, barely conquering the dust filled air to land on what was left of the Victrola. Kayla hesitated, just a moment, thinking she could escape before the dust anchored her to the rest of the ruins in the room. Her feet moved forward as her mind considered the possibilities. Her chest and her resolve tightened as she passed quickly through the light without noticing its warmth on her skin. She remembered the room as it had once been – before the wallpaper peeled, before the rats chewed holes in the floors, before her mother had died. A smile crossed her face as she remembered her adventures with the Victrola.
It was her mother’s prized possession and her own secret treasure. As a child she would sneak into the room when her mother was otherwise occupied and sift through the contents of its intricate belly; knowing if her mother caught her there would be hell to pay. She would quietly remove the thick vinyl records covered by frail yellowing paper. With a care her mother never showed them, she would pull a disk from its casing and turn it between her small hands, reading and re-reading song titles that meant something to only a hand full of people in the world. She remembered desperately wanting to hear what was imbedded in those tiny grooves, but knowing better than to try. She laughed at how many fanciful moments she had spent in her life inventing the explanation for how those grooves could hold the sound captive and how a tiny needle could set them momentarily free. She had been so convinced that she could use that knowledge to permanently free her mother’s softer side.
A noise in the kitchen brought her back to the present. “Olivia? Is that you?” She heard the noise again then the familiar growl of her beloved terrier. She started walking to the kitchen. “Olivia, what is it girl?” She made her voice warm and inviting without thought or effort. Olivia ran to her, tail wagging, covered in cobwebs. Kayla laughed. “Mom would have hated you rooting around in there.” She pat Olivia gently on the head to let her know she approved of the exploration. Kayla straightened herself and turned to do what she had come for.
The notice of intent to condemn had come as a shock. Kayla’s mother had willed the house to her 10 years before, but it had been more than 20 since she’d seen it. Kayla remembered the initial look of surprise on the attorney’s face when she started cursing her mother after hearing that she was to be the sole beneficiary of her mother’s worldly possessions. He couldn’t understand her sense of betrayal in learning that even in death her mother couldn’t keep a promise. In his estimation, greed should have overpowered any emotion the situation could generate. Thus, they were both differently surprised when, instead of selling the house to anyone who would take it, she called him a few days later and asked him to set up a system where the property taxes could be paid in full each year without her immediate interaction. She still marveled at his ingenuity, though never asked for details. The initial investment she had given him remained intact. The taxes, as well as a healthy stipend for the attorney’s trouble, were paid out by the interest, and she had never had to step foot onto the property … until now.
Kayla moved carefully through the first floor rooms, trying to ward off the feeling that was welling in her chest. She stood at the foot of the stairs wondering if they would support her weight, and if she could support the weight of what she would find if they did. She felt the familiar brush as Olivia passed her on her way to explore the new territory her master had presented by looking upward. Kayla reluctantly followed her, watching helplessly as she disappeared into the bathroom leaving Kayla to stare at her mother’s bedroom door. The thick smell of stale cigarettes invaded her mind. She wanted to go in, but hesitated. She felt seven again. Still shaken from the nightmare that woke her, she entered the room wanting comfort only to receive a smack in the face and a slurred “what the fuck do you want? Go back to your own bed.”
Kayla stood in the doorway, frozen at the sight of the broken bed surrounded by empty medicine bottles and bedpans, evidence of the painful last moments her mother lived. Even now, she could find no comfort in this room. “I’m going mom.” She said out of habit before turning to face the long hallway. She knew her own room was at the other end. The butterflies grew more active in her stomach. She was afraid of what she would find: a post mortem message of the love her mother could never express in life or a confirmation that what life they shared meant nothing. She wasn’t sure she was equipped to deal with either.
Kayla felt Olivia at her ankles. She was still filthy and her tongue was almost dragging the floor, but she was happy. She moved forward, looking back at the motionless Kayla. She was telling her master, in her own way, that the world was OK, that they would survive this adventure and find more on the other side of every door they discovered. Kayla envied her openness. She took a deep breath and began the short, slow walk to her bedroom. She felt the familiar pains in her chest as she noticed the old scuffmarks from her mother’s shoes. It had always amazed her that the door could survive the violent beatings her mother would give it trying to get to her. A shiver passed through her spine as she remembered feeling the muted blows as she leaned against the door. She couldn’t believe that it had not fallen over from the weight of the history it held.
Olivia scratched the door. She wanted to go in. “Are you sure Olivia?” Her paw lifted and scratched her answer on the door.
Kayla reached and turned the knob. Her stomach tightened and she held her breath. Her eyes involuntarily closed as she caught the first glimpse of the familiar faded red walls. Her mother had not changed the color. She felt the sudden urge to turn and run, illusions of her mother safely intact, but her legs refused to move. She heard Olivia’s familiar exploratory noises in the room and opened her eyes.
The tears rolled down her cheeks and she let the sorrow pour out of her soul. She openly sobbed as she watched Olivia bravely climb into the slightly open drawer of her white dresser, weather worn, but exactly in the place she had left it. Kayla walked over and examined the long forgotten, dust covered treasures she’d left behind. Her hand ran across a tarnished silver heart. She remembered the moment her mother had given it to her. “Because you are growing into a beautiful young woman, you need womanly things. Keep your treasures safe inside.” Tears welled in her eyes as she realized how much she had really forgotten. She wondered how many other tender moments she would never find.
She picked up her heart and looked around the room. Her anger eased. “I love you too mama.” Olivia, hearing the softness in her master’s voice, returned to her. Kayla took her free hand and gently placed it under Olivia’s dirty chest. “What am I going to do with you?” She pulled Olivia from the floor and brought her close to her. Olivia unsuccessfully tried to escape capture; wiggling constantly until Kayla’s soft grasp told her it was time to relax. Kayla laughed, enjoying both the feeling of unfiltered life and the knowledge that she was finally ready to let her mother rest.
Kayla felt clean and light as she returned to her car. She opened the door and watched Olivia jump onto the back seat, searching for the perfect spot to lie down before falling quickly into sleep. A small part of her envied Olivia’s aptitude.
Kayla quietly took her place behind the wheel, starting the car with one hand while holding her tarnished silver heart in the other. She took one final look at her past, remembering both the good and bad the house held in its shaky frame. She took a deep breath and slowly pulled out of the driveway, watching the house grow smaller in the rearview mirror, feeling the weight of her childhood leave as it disappeared from her sight.
She would call someone tomorrow to have the Victrola delivered to her home; the rest of what could be salvaged would be donated to Habitat for Humanity. The land and the tax fund would be donated to the community.
Olivia shifted in the backseat and Kayla instinctively reached to touch her.