My mother was swaddled in an old blanket that fanned out over her feet. A mermaid beached and forgotten, she sat in the musty recliner in the living room watching her hundredth hour of TV. I only heard her hollering after I took out my earbuds to readjust my hair into a tight ponytail, the kind that Teen Vogue, said was in fashion.
In the living room, the TV blared an old Dr. Phil episode that couldn’t hide the whoomp, whoomp sound of my mother’s oxygen tank. She muted the TV, and the pressurized sound echoed off the walls, reminding me of a whale’s song a teacher had played for the class once in fifth grade.
She tried to hold up her hand, her sign for silence, but her fingers got caught in the tubing snaking down from her nose and across the lump of her body. She was starting to look like a potato, her sickness making her loose and gain so much weight that her shape, especially under a blanket was undefined. Like most girls my age, I thought more about my body, its strengths: slight ankles, an innie belly-button, and curly hair that boys loved to touch, and its weaknesses: bad pores, pudding shaped knees, and a back that was borderline scoliosis. I’m not sure how else to explain it but to tell you that If I was the sunset on a beach, my mother was the gray clouds over a forest of leafless trees.
I waited at the end of the couch, hoping she’d manage to untangle her hand without pulling out the nose piece, but she failed again. The oxygen escaped like water from a spilled cup, and she floundered, hands batting at the tube. Normally, I’d rush to help her because I couldn’t stand the sight of her struggling. But we agreed last night that she didn’t want me to help her anymore, that she’d have to start managing on her own.
My mother had been sick for as long as I could remember, the news of her illness crashing my sixth birthday party like an unwanted guest. I’m fourteen now, and I can rarely choke down my disgust. Do you know how hard it is to invite anyone over or the gymnastic routine I have to go through to explain her condition. The fake sympathy was enough to make anyone gag. One girl spent the whole night trying to come up with ways to help my mother like I hadn’t tried, like if we just smiled some more, and put juvenile bows in her hair, you know?
“Empathy. It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” my father had said the month before he left, taking the only computer with him, offering me a half-hearted invitation to come with him.
“I won’t be the one that kills her,” I cried.
“It won’t kill me either,” my father said, as if death was contagious.
My mother waved furiously, her face turning red, while I stood, waiting, tongue clicking off the seconds, willing her to push herself out of the chair. The more she struggled, the harder it was to hold out as if it were a test she had refused to study for. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I stomped across the carpet, stopping at the arm of the chair. I took the nose piece from her lap and gently haloed it around her neck. Her skin was ashy, a smell of old potatoes came from the thatches of her hair. She grabbed at my wrists, but she wasn’t strong enough to stop me from putting the nose piece back into place. I left my hand there pushing lightly until her body reclaimed the lost oxygen.
After a minute, she said, “Malerie, You’ve got to get stronger.”
“I can’t watch,” I said, reaching for the remote.
“When you were a baby I tried to let you cry in your crib. I didn’t make it fifteen minutes before I went running down the hallway, yelling your name.”
“Come on, Mom. What does that even mean? I’m not the one that’s sick.”
“It’s in the genes,” she said. “Don’t you understand?”
I let go of the nose piece, waiting for it to fall out. It stayed that time, the oxygen murmuring its secrets, while I walked backward recounting my steps.
Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, TINGE Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Spartan, Hawaii Pacific Review, and New World Writing. Find him on Twitter.