Short Story about Loss
Ellen waited for me at the end of the long driveway, her robe dancing in the soft breeze. She had been drinking for the last few hours, evidenced by an empty bottle sitting on the cracked, mouldy wooden porch beside her thin frame. My cousin had problems. Recently my father died, and thus he left some loose ends I needed to mend. I made the fifteen hundred mile plane trip to Texas where I grew up. It was approaching winter and although there was no snow on the ground, the air grew cold and unforgiving.
The car crunched over some stray gravel as it made its way towards the front of the house. Ellen smiled with an edge; she knew she could (try to) manipulate me again. It’s not going to happen this time.
This once proud woman with two kids (not in her custody anymore, thank god) and a company specializing in pharmaceutical distribution had taken a nosedive. I hauled my bag out of the back of the wagon and ambled up to her. She nodded silently; unsure of what to say to someone she hadn’t seen in years. We didn’t look much alike either.
“Hey Joanne.” She slurred, giggling softly to herself. I really didn’t want to supervise a thirty five year old woman with substance abuse problems.
“Hello. How are you doing?” It was a dumb question. I knew how she was doing. She had no hope for the future.
“I’m just fucking dandy. Do you want a drink? I picked up some good gin from the store.” I brought some food of my own. I had a hotel room back in town so I didn’t intend to sleep here. She slid a glass across the table once we went inside and followed it with a bottle.
“I’ll just have coffee.” She looked at me while I filled up the machine with water and the grounds. It purred to life under the setting sun.
“My life hasn’t been the same since Aunt Carla died.” Ellen lowered her gaze to the floor. “Now that Uncle Jack is gone I don’t know what to do.” Maybe going to therapy might be the first step.
“Drinking isn’t usually a good option.” I said. Where were all the mugs?
“You’re so cold. Your dad died and you don’t even care? What the fuck is wrong with you? I seem to care more than you.” The liquor was talking.
“Ellen, you’re drunk and not making sense. Of course, it affects me but I have a job to do. I have to sell this place and pay off their debts. They had a lot of debt. I don’t have the luxury of lying around crying and drinking as you do. The responsibly is on me. Where the fuck are the mugs?” It was a mistake coming out here when my cousin was here. She poured another drink from the dirty glass bottle and pounded it back. I shook my head. This was already too much for me to handle.
“I’m not drunk. I just had a few drinks.” She hung her head once again.
“It’s getting dark. Where’s the light switch?” I was so out of my element. I stared at this broken woman in front of me, clutching the bottle as if a newborn baby.
“It is over on that wall. You don’t care about me, do you? I love you, Joanne. You were like my sister.” I almost laughed at her silly comment. We saw each other four times a year growing up. Christmas, Fourth of July, The Superbowl weekend and Thanksgiving were the only times each year my parents and her parents spent in each other’s company. I flicked on the switch and bathed the tiny kitchen in soft, glowing light. Her face took on a much darker tone now that I could see it, the wrinkles and spidery veins like train tracks. She had aged in the last decade.
I wasn’t exactly young either. At least I had the decency to take care of myself.
“We barely saw each other growing up. Christ, you forgot my name on a few occasions. We weren’t like sisters. I didn’t even see my own sister like that.” Charlotte was a stuck up cunt.
“I thought of you like that. You never gave me a chance to tell you. It would feel weird to call you for no reason to talk to you. Don’t talk that way about Charlotte. She had more sense than you.” Perhaps it was time for you to sober up, maybe take a short nap while I hid the rest of the alcohol. I don’t know if she had any more containers of booze stored in the house but I assumed she did.
“So now you’re insulting me by telling me that my sister is better than me? Get real, Ellen.” I added cream to my coffee and took a sip. “I think I should go and wait until you’ve sobered up. I have so much I need to do.” Because my sister was useless and wouldn’t help me get Mom and Dad’s finances in order, I had to do it all myself. Oh well, that is life.
The sun finally set on the little house surrounded by the barren field and it felt like the world had ended. I had lived in the city for a multitude of years, went to college there and raised a family. Being out here in the country gave me a sinking feeling, as if humanity had disappeared off the face of the earth. I had to go.
“I didn’t mean that. Let’s start over again.” She stuck out her hand like a goofy bitch and smiled. “I’m Ellen.” I couldn’t believe it.
“Let’s not do this. I’ll come back in the morning. Please stay out of trouble.” My cousin didn’t want to hear that but I cared not. I would do anything to get out of here and make my way back to the hotel. I turned to walk out of the room until she came up close behind me, trailing me to the front door.
“I thought about killing myself this morning. I didn’t know how to accomplish it but I thought about it. Don’t leave me alone here. I can’t take it.” She wanted to cry and admit defeat.
“Ellen, please go to bed. We will talk about this tomorrow. I’m really busy.” I stole away with my coffee cup into the desolate world. My car had begun to frost over in the impending cold. Now that the sun had gone away, I shivered. Was she really going to commit suicide? I just realized how cold and unforgiving I was towards my cousin (one of obvious frail mindset). As I sat in the car, warming it up for the journey ahead, my thoughts drifted in the direction of her. Then they hovered over my deceased parents. I cared a great deal for them. Dad’s death left a crater in my heart.
Ellen stood on the porch, glaring at me with a mug of her own cradled in her shaking hand. Her eyes appeared sunken, malformed for a woman in her mid-thirties. I couldn’t believe what happened just now.
I backed the car out of the driveway until I reached the county road. As the car rolled over the frosty ground tears formed in the corners of my eyes, clinging to a place where they couldn’t escape, much like Ellen. Charlotte made an appearance once again in my memory. Why didn’t she care? Why was I the only one who seemed to care? I stopped at a small store on the side of the road. I used to go there numerous times as a child; it was a bakery in those days. Now it served diner food and had an attached convenience store. The neon sign goaded hungry, tired travelers to its doors.
I parked in the back behind a delivery van and made my way into the building. As soon as I entered the lobby, a waft of smoke slapped me in the face. I remembered that this county fought and won against a smoking ban. Two greasy truckers sat at the bar, picking through fried potatoes and steak. They didn’t have trucks outside, so perhaps they drove regular vehicles. A tired looking old waitress sat next to a young one, most likely the main tip earner. Not many others sat in the restaurant (it was dingy and dirty) and those that did purchased very little. I wondered what happened to Mike’s bakery.
“Hello. Have a seat anywhere.” The girl instructed me.
“Okay. I’ll get some mixed fruit to start.” She nodded.
I sent an email to Charlotte and my friend Carolyn, stating that everything was going well but I didn’t feel at home in that house so I was staying at a hotel. Ellen needed time to sleep it off, to sober up and get her life back in order. The girl brought over some fruit and a notepad. I picked up a piece of grapefruit and nibbled on it, the acid stinging my lips. My cousin had never contemplated suicide (as far as I knew) but at this junction in her life, it seemed like a logical way to go. The girl waited impatiently, tapping her pen against the hard paper pad. I couldn’t think now.
“That’s all for now, thanks.” The rude bitch walked off.
I went back in time to when we were on good terms. Our husbands used to play pool in the basement of her house and drink crappy beer on the porch while we watched TV and discussed our love lives. I grew tired of it, especially when she began drinking and acting like a fool.
I ate the fruit nervously, plucking out the cherries and placing them on the table, probably not a good idea since this joint isn’t exactly clean. Then the peach slices, and the mandarin oranges followed. Before long, I had separated them into distinct groups, like prisoners in jail cells. The girl came over.
“Do you need another plate or something?” She wanted nothing more than to see me leave. I thought the same thing.
“No. I’ll take it with me.” I grabbed a napkin and herded all of the fruit pieces into it, closing it down. I tossed two dollars onto the table and walked out.
I sat in the car with the heat going full blast, trying to warm up. Part of me told me to go back to the house and stay the night, or at least check on Ellen and see if she was all right. No, I couldn’t do it. I made the journey back to my hotel.
An hour later, I returned to the city and parked in the hotel lot beside the fancy Mercedes coupe. A black man drove this particular vehicle, not that it mattered. Fuck it, I decided to give her a call.
“Ellen? Are you there?” I spoke into my cell. Her cell wasn’t on apparently.
The man at the front desk greeted me. He wore pants that were too short for his wiry legs and sported a handlebar moustache, akin to a dastardly movie villain from a forgotten era. I waved in response, not caring as I ambled up the tiny flight of stairs. My bed awaited me.
I was so tired that I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Sunlight streamed in and the sound of muffled cars inching along the road outside woke me up. I had failed to lock my door and realized I had left all of the lights on all night. Immediately I dove for my phone.
“This isn’t right.” Perhaps she had passed out drunk from the night before and not woken up yet. Due to her being business oriented now, she generally woke up early every day. However, this was before Dad died and she had a more steady home life. I dressed quickly (even though I wasn’t sure why) and made a cup of coffee in the cheap machine on the countertop. I chose a kitchenette because I had a dislike for eating in public as evidenced by my fruit sorting at the diner. At least the morning was nice outside.
More frost lightly settled on the tops of vehicles and buildings. The maids puttered about in the hallways, rows of plastic carts piled high with soiled sheets and god knows what else. They muttered in Spanish with their hoarse voices. I waved to them and took the stairs to the lobby.
“Hi there. Did I receive any messages?” Of course, no one would send me any messages (I had a phone after all), I always wanted to ask that at a hotel.
“There is nothing today.” The same goofy looking hipster responded.
I left the hotel into a wall of ice. Small crystals formed in the air, stinging my cheeks and neck. Instead of going to my car, I decided to take a stroll to the coffee shop across the street to grab my cousin a tea with lemon for her inevitable hangover. Even if she were hung over, surely she would’ve sent me some sort of reply. I drove onto the highway and cruised with the radio droning on softly in the background, weather reports and other shit. My cousin became my concern.
Creeping past construction on the right hand side, I stared at my phone. Nothing yet. This made me uneasy.
She might have killed herself.
I recounted her last words she said to me, about how she wanted to end her life. Many people thought suicide was a selfish decision and “the easy way out.” There is nothing easy about ending your own life, the choice is permanent, the methods usually painful. There is no coming back. It’s the hardest choice you will ever have to make (if you do make it). Everyone knew this, but wanted to keep death as far away as possible. I can see why.
Soon I approached the road where the scummy diner sat. I avoided that place now and went straight for the farm where Ellen was most likely sitting on the front porch in her robe, pouring more booze into a glass. Déjà vu.
It had to happen.
Worst case scenario is that she would be too out of it to function, and thus I would head back into the city and do a few things until she woke up. At this point, it seemed like a better plan. The absolute worst case was finding her in bed, overdosed on pills and alcohol, decomposing. I shook my head for even thinking of such things. Joanne, you shouldn’t do that.
I scolded myself a lot since getting involved with my cousin again. Things have changed drastically since we connected. My father’s passing sparked a flame in me. I realized I had been stupid, careless and filled with regret. There was so much more I could have done for my family, so many promises I could have kept. Instead, I directed them towards a family (ungrateful at times) but I felt in the end that my parents were adults and could take care of themselves. Ellen, however, was a child. She acted like a seven year old.
I reached the driveway but pulled off to the side of the road, bracing myself for impact. What happened last night, I couldn’t say until I discovered her. She wasn’t on the porch (not a good sign) so I eased the car into drive, rocks flicking all over my windshield. The sun rose slowly in the sky and a few birds chirped, although most of them had left for warmer places. Her car hadn’t moved from the spot, so she hadn’t driven anywhere. There was still food and booze in the house for at least a day of two so she had no reason to leave.
“Ellen?!” I shrieked from the porch. There were no responses to my calls. She had locked the door and I didn’t have a key so my next course of action was to find a window and sneak in.
The easiest windows were the two on the front porch, but they were locked and I wasn’t about to smash them just to gain entry. I walked around the house and tested all of them on the ground floor. All locked. I saw one on top of the shed near the bedroom, open slightly. Alas, I couldn’t get up there.
I parked my car underneath the shed and climbed up, forcing the window open and entered the hallway outside a bedroom.
“Ellen?!” Yet another unanswered call.
I discovered my cousin slumped on a bed with pills and two bottles of wine. I stumbled over to the bed as quickly as possible.
“Ellen? Ellen?” I checked her pulse. She wasn’t breathing.
The world became a blur after that. I remember calling 911 and swimming through a thick haze after the ambulance arrived. My cousin had been dead for a few hours, at the very least since midnight. She had also started to go stiff, something I failed to notice. I sat there in the living room, sipping her wine while people secured the body and took it away.
“Joanna?” my old neighbour Mr. Charles stood in the doorway. I wiped my eyes and shook his hand like a fucking president kissing corporate ass. He was a nice man though.
“I’m sorry this happened to you.” He said in a low, full whisper. “She was a good kid.”
“She had problems.” I muttered, taking another big drink of wine.
“I heard from your father before he passed. If you need anything from Mabel and I, feel free to ask.” What a kind man he is.
“I will, although I’m almost forty. I’m capable of taking care of myself.” Jesus, Joanna. Be more outgoing sometimes.
“It is just a suggestion. Say hello to your family for me. I have to get back home.” He kissed the top of my head and walked out of the house.
After all of the paperwork was finished and the people had left, I sat in the house for a few hours, waiting for someone to phone. I had contacted everyone I knew but the only one to reply was Charlotte.
So this was it. I left the house, staggering into my car. The last thing before smashing into the fence at the edge of the road was seeing my husband and kids flash before my eyes. I had too much to drink; I had turned out like my cousin. Realizing why she did what she did was the first step.
Everything blacked out.
I guess things were going to change.