This story now resides on my website under October Shorts.
Starting All Over Again
(An Ellie Conway short story)
Mitch’s mom hugged me hello. We walked into the house arm in arm. That’s how it was my whole life when I was with Joan. Easy. Relaxed. Part of me wondered if things would change now it was me and Mitch. Now I wasn’t just Simon’s daughter. The aroma of chicken roasting filled the air. I pushed the crazy thoughts aside, everything felt right.
“Come into the kitchen with me,” Joan said giving me a squeeze. “Mitch is running late.”
I got the memo. Something came up at work and he’d be late but not too late. Usually it was me running late. So this was new.
Joan’s kitchen filled me with joy. Warm, delicious smelling, comfortable. I sat at the kitchen table and watched her check on the cooking chicken.
“Anything I can do?”
“No, all taken care of. You can tell me about your day?” Joan replied, placing a bottle of pinot noir on the table and two glasses. She sat opposite me.
“Two glasses? Where’s Alan?” I asked realizing I hadn’t seen him when I arrived.
She smiled. “He’s over at your father’s. He’s been there all day. He’ll be in later.”
Joan poured the wine.
“How was your day?” I said sipping the red liquid and enjoying the sensation of warmth that followed.
“I had a lovely day.” Joan took a sip of her wine then placed the glass back on the table. “Tell me about your day.”
Images from my day flashed in my mind, I discounted the first four. They were not things that should be discussed before, during, or anywhere near a mealtime. The next image was Mitch smiling at me. That one would do nicely.
“Mitch and I went for a run at lunchtime. We ran along the river.” I sipped more wine. That wasn’t all we did at lunchtime. I knew there was a smile on my face and could feel Joan’s eyes on me.
“That sounds a nice way to spend a lunch break,” Joan said. Smiling she leaned on her elbows. “How often do you see each other?”
Her question threw me. It felt a little like a left-fielder. Daily. Sometimes twice a day. If we were both in town. If not, we talk every day. I bit my lip. We were almost living together. Perhaps I didn’t hear the question correctly. I was pretty sure Joan knew how much time we spent together.
“Sorry what was the question?”
“How often do you see each other?”
“Often.” No need to elaborate.
“We were talking about you last night,” Joan said.
I knew they were. Mitch was at my house talking on the phone to his mom for over an hour. Sweet. I loved how close they were. Mitch and his mom. My Dad and me.
“You knew,” Joan said with a smile. “He adores you, Gabrielle.”
He’s either got taste or he’s insane. Maybe a bit of both? Gabrielle?
“Yes, I did know you two were talking last night.”
She nodded, smiled, sipped her wine and then spoke, “Does he stay over a lot?”
I felt my eyes widen. Not really wanting to take this conversational path but knowing I needed to answer her question.
“I suppose he does,” I replied. The floor could open up anytime now, I’d be quite happy to be swallowed before she asks anything else.
Joan sipped her wine and regarded me with inquisitive eyes. The look faded and was replaced with a softer expression, as if she thought better of following her curiosity.
“You make him very happy,” Joan said.
I felt tension leave my shoulders. “He makes me happy.”
“Do you know what we were talking about last night?”
“No.” That was the truth. I left him to his phone call and didn’t ask afterwards, beyond my usual questions about how his mom and dad were. Mitch told me we were invited to dinner tonight and that he’d said we’d be there. A smile edged over my lips. I liked that he was able to do that, because he knew my current schedule and he knew how much I loved being at his parents place.
“He’s going to ask you Gabrielle …” The look Joan gave me said she thought I knew what she was talking about.
My mind stalled. Ask me what? I gave the thought a kick and it rolled over. Oh, ask me. I had an urge to look in the oven and see how big the bird was … just in case it wasn’t just us at dinner tonight. My eyes drifted down my shirt. Pleased I’d had time to go home for a shower and clean clothes. My heart pounded. Another sip of wine helped steady the sudden nerves. Surely she didn’t mean tonight. Maybe I got it wrong. Yeah. Wrong.
Joan’s eyes widened, she smiled in a knowing fashion. Panic surged through me. I took a big sip of wine.
“Ask you. What will you say?”
Time to play dense.
“Depends on the question …”
Joan sighed, smiled, and said, “To marry him.”
No mistaking what she said that time. Just like that, Joan changed in my eyes. She went from a loving caring mother and someone I’d always felt comfortable with to a potential mother-in-law. Bubbles of terror burst in my mind sprinkling everything that was good with bloodied confetti.
Images of my last mother-in-law crammed all available space in my head. Memories of Mac’s mother made me feel ill.
More terror bubbles exploded. There she was, Beatrice Connelly, smoking up a storm, swearing and cursing at the world while a big cloud of evil encroached upon her fragile mental state. More confetti fell as she made ginormous wooden bows to decorate the outside of the house at Christmas time; and overloaded the electrical circuits with a hundred strings of fairy lights. She spread misery like a thick blanket smothering everything within her reach. She hollered about how useless her husband was and how Mac was just like him. Rampaging through my mind casting aspersions upon my character. She told anyone who would listen how I was out to ruin her family. Me! She couldn’t understand how being near her family made me physically ill and how I didn’t want to ruin them, I didn’t want anything to do with them. Well apart from Bob and Mac. Bob was still in my life and I was pretty sure Mac would always haunt me. Another image surfaced, Beatrice sat in her rocking chair on the front porch with a six-pack of Bud and her rifle, shooting squirrels. She picked them up by their tails and flung them into the woods behind the house. Dead squirrels hung like macabre Christmas decorations from the tree branches as the air filled with her crazy cackle. I knew my mind wasn’t done with the joys of Christmases past. Rolls of wrapping paper dropped in front of me. The specific wrapping paper that we had to use each year and the screaming fit that ensued because she changed her mind once about the wrapping paper and didn’t tell anyone. Then I saw the seven Christmas hams Bob bought because she wasn’t happy with the shape of them. I watched in horror as she hacked one of the hams to pieces with a large knife, then turned on Bob. Mac restrained her while Bob disarmed her. Sedation followed and a quiet afternoon ensued. A bottle of vodka sat on the counter in her kitchen. She drank vodka like water, a trait she passed on to her oldest son, Eddie the ‘tard. A shudder shot through me.
The mother-in-law from hell. I could hear her screeching at me down the phone about how it was my fault Carla committed suicide.
Yes, mother-in-laws invoked terror, much like mothers did.
Joan’s hand touched mine. I jumped. She laughed and gave my hand a warm squeeze.
I swallowed hard, and then took another sip of wine while I tried to convince myself Joan was the only mother who could call me Gabrielle without it sounding like a precursor to an interrogation. My mother favored water-boarding. Or at least that’s what it felt like, and it always began with my full name. I hadn’t heard my real name since her death, well, until Mitch said it once at Rosslyn Metro. He quickly accepted I preferred Ellie. Oddly, I’d never asked Joan to call me Ellie. I couldn’t understand that.
“Are you all right?”
I smiled back. “I’m fine.”
At that moment, the backdoor opened and Mitch walked in. He kissed his mum’s cheek then leaned over the table and kissed me on the lips. Long, slow, warm, he was home. A hole opened in the air above the table, swirling black clouds sucked the images of Beatrice Connelly from the room then dissolved. Leaving the air laced with roasting chicken and a hint of Mitch’s cologne.
A chair scrapped on the floor. Joan busied herself at the counter.
Mitch slid into the chair next to me.
“Hi,” he said, smiling, and bumping me with his arm.
“Hi,” I replied, bumping him back.
He picked up my glass and took a mouthful of wine. “This is nice. Do I get a glass Mom?”
He handed me my glass and read the label on the bottle. His mother set a glass in front of him, and rubbed his shoulder.
She didn’t hit him. She didn’t scream. She didn’t belittle him or accuse. She openly adored her son.
“How was your day?” she asked and actually wanted to know.
“Good. Busy,” Mitch smiled. “Tell me about your day?”
“Just the usual,” Joan replied. “Until Gabrielle arrived.” She walked behind me toward the refrigerator, pausing to give my shoulder a squeeze. “Lovely having you here early,” she said then carried on talking to Mitch while she moved to checked on the cooking process.
I watched them for a few moments and remembered why I loved being around Joan so much as a kid. She was the mom I always wanted.
Joan looked at me, she smiled and said, “Remember the question?”
I grinned. “I’d say yes.”
Confusion crossed Mitch’s face and made us laugh.
Copyright Cat Connor 2013