“I think I remember hearing Mom’s heartbeat,” I say to Claire over the hum of the window fan meant to circulate the humid summer air.
“Like, ya know, from inside the womb,” I tell her.
“That’s not possible,” she replies.
“Why not?” I ask. “Anything’s possible. Anyway, how do you know?”
She shrugs her shoulders and picks up the teen magazine she’s been reading for over three hours.
“Look,” she says, changing the subject. “Here’s another quiz. It’s called ‘Are You A True Feminist?'”
I push myself up, the old mattress groaning in protest.
“Where ya goin?” she shouts, feigning disappointment. She would rather be with her best friend, Sherie, who tells people to say her name with an accent on the end, like Sher-REE.
Mom is still asleep. These days she sleeps a lot. A nurse comes in three times a week to help, but mostly it’s just me and Dad looking after her. My sister thinks our mom’s bedroom smells like death and refuses to go in, but I know the real reason Claire won’t go in to see Mom. It’s because she’s embarrassed.
Last month, Claire brought home a boy. I heard their voices downstairs, Claire giggling, then the door to the liquor cabinet slamming shut, followed by more giggling and Claire’s attempts to shush her boyfriend, even though she was making all the noise. Claire said they were about to do it in the living room, Claire down to her bra and underwear and the boy in his boxers, when she looked up and saw Mom standing in the doorway in a long white nightgown as pale as her skin, watching them with a creepy, blank expression. She looked like a ghost, and the boy thought she was one. He screamed, grabbed his balled-up clothes, bolted out the front door, and never called Claire again. Claire screamed at Mom. She told her that living in this house was like living in a goddamn horror movie and that Mom was possessed. I told Claire if anyone was possessed, it was her.
Later, I went into Claire’s bedroom. As soon as I walked in, she started back up. “Mom is just a burden and none of us will ever be happy until she’s gone.” I smacked her hard across the face. Claire, hand over her reddening cheek, grabbed her magazine and stormed out of the room. Later, I heard her reading a quiz over the phone to her friend. The quiz was “Do You Really Know What Turns a Guy On?” The sound of her giggling made me want to slap her again.
In the middle of the night, I check to see if Mom is still breathing. I hold a mirror up to her mouth, and it fogs up a little. I whisper in her ear, “I think I remember hearing your heartbeat before I was born. When I was a baby.”
She doesn’t move. Her eyes are closed, her face slack. I squeeze her arm hoping she’ll open her eyes a little, a sign that she hears me.
“You know how I know?” I say to her. “Because I read a book from the school library about how babies remember the noises they hear before they are born. Like voices or certain types of music. I think I remember your heartbeat.” I put my head on her chest and listen for the soft thump beneath her paper-thin skin.
When I wake up, the sun is trying to break through the cracks in the shade we always keep pulled down. Mom hasn’t moved. I check her breath on the mirror again before I go. Claire is in the bathroom doing her hair and makeup. She takes forever, and if I bang on the bathroom door, she says she’ll be done in a minute, which means 30 minutes. I’ve gotten used to waiting on her, so I don’t knock. She still hasn’t completely forgiven me for the night I slapped her.
I go back to Mom’s room to give her a kiss goodbye, but she isn’t in bed. She is standing by the window, looking out over the yard, over the garden where she and Dad used to spend hours together, tending to it and talking about it as if it were another one of their children. I remember following her up and down the rows, her floppy straw hat casting shade over her sunburned cheeks, waiting for her to pluck a ripened strawberry or tomato off the vine for me to eat.
I push the curtain back so she can see the whole garden, and I feel the brush of her hand against mine. I wrap my hand around hers and hold it, waiting with her until I have to leave for school. The nurse comes in just as I need to go and guides my mother back to bed.
On the last day of school before summer break, I walk to Burt’s General Store on the edge of town for a box of Red Hots, then take the path that winds through the woods adjacent to our neighborhood. On the trunk of a fallen tree, I eat the Red Hots slowly, one by one, until my tongue tingles, and I listen to birds, saying their names aloud when I recognize their song.
The trail opens to a mowed field that exposes a row of houses, ours the last on the street. I can see the ambulance in the drive when I emerge from the woods, but I don’t run across the field that separates me and my mother. I look toward the sky and watch the birds circle overhead, wishing they could swoop down and lift me up, out of the field.
Dad is sitting on the couch with his head in his hands when I come through the door. His eyes are tired and rimmed red, his gray, thinning hair mussed, his shirt damp with sweat and tears. I go upstairs, and they are loading my mother’s body, hidden beneath a sheet, onto a gurney. I think about Claire, who always comes home late from school. She will be the last to know.
Since Mom died, Claire is never home. She stays with her friends, occasionally breezing through our lives to grab more clothes or makeup and something to eat, leaving the house disheveled and in a flurry. The thick scent of her perfume and hairspray hangs in the air.
Dad tells me softly not to be angry with her. He says deep down—way down—she is grieving but doesn’t know it yet. And that someday it will come to the surface and she will need me to hold her up. He tells me it’s okay to live my life now, but I have a hard time doing it.
In my mother’s room, I lie on her bed, my head on the soft pillow. I can still hear the soft thump of her heart, a steady drumbeat lulling me to sleep.