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A short story by Sally Berneathy

            The lightning bug glowed then dimmed and disappeared into the dusky folds of the summer evening. A few feet away it reappeared, briefly illuminating the green of a rose bush leaf.

            Laura put one small, grimy hand over her mouth to repress a giggle as she saw the flash and knew the magical creature would not escape her now. She tiptoed to the bush, gently scooped the glowing spot into her palm and cupped the fingers of both hands around it. Squinting into one end of her fist, she held her breath, mesmerized by the rhythmic blinking.

            From the open living room window, the "Studio One" theme song drifted out, mingling with the sounds of crickets and night birds. Laura looked toward the sound. Mama and daddy sat together on the old brown sofa, their faces tinted bluish-gray like the moving figures on the black and white television screen in the corner of the room. The sweet, pink smell of roses surrounded Laura, blending with and coloring the familiar scene.

            Her bare toes wriggled contentedly in the loose dirt. She opened her hand and blew gently on the small light in the center of her palm, encouraging the magical creature to fly away.

            Mama's head turned toward the window where Laura watched. "Hi, Sweet Pea. You come on in now. It's too dark to play out. I made some chocolate fudge with peanut butter, just the way you like it. It oughta be cool by now."

            "Oboy!" Laura clapped her hands and turned away to go to the kitchen door.

            "Are you gonna sleep all day?"

            The whining mumble halted her in place.

            She shivered and turned back to the window. Her mama and daddy were gone, replaced by a wizened, grey-haired crone who reached for her with bony fingers.

            Laura opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out.

            With a gasp, she jerked upright in bed and opened her eyes to see her mother standing over her. "Well, you finally woke up. I thought you were gonna sleep all day."

            Blinking, trying to push aside the clinging tendrils of her dream, Laura focused on the clock beside her bed. "Mother, it's only 6:30. I didn't get here until after one this morning."

            "Do you want your eggs fried or scrambled?"

            Laura groaned but threw back the sheet and swung her legs over the side of the bed, onto the faded carpet. "All I want is coffee."

            "You're gonna get sick if you keep eating like that. Can't tell you anything. You'll be wanting me to take care of you when you get sick." Her mother shuffled out of the bedroom, mumbling to herself.

            Laura ran her fingers through her short, cropped hair, halfway expecting to feel the long, silky strands from thirty-six years ago. The dream had disconcerted her, taking her back to a time that no longer existed then rudely thrusting her into the present.

            For an instant she contemplated lying back down, trying to escape reality for a few more minutes. The six-hour drive last night had exhausted her.

            No, that wasn't quite true. She'd been exhausted to start with. The last few weeks of trying to accept that Ted had left her after twenty-three years of marriage, of floundering aimlessly in a suddenly-strange world, of realizing that her grown daughter had a life and she wasn't a very big part of it—those things had stolen her energy.

            Now all she wanted was to lie in this familiar, lumpy bed beside the window sill and listen to the birds singing in the catalpa tree she used to climb. She wanted to recall her dream and pretend for just a few minutes that she was still ten years old and living in a safe, familiar place. She wanted to hear her mother and father talking in hushed tones in the kitchen while her mother made breakfast, the two of them laughing intimately, then including her in that intimacy when she stumbled in, wiping sleep from her eyes.

            She wanted her mother to hold her and soothe her and make everything all right.

            She stood. What was the matter with her? She was forty-six, not ten, a little too old to be running to her mother.

            She threw on a T-shirt and pair of shorts then went into the kitchen and took her old seat at one end of the yellow Formica table.

Through the screen door, the morning breeze drifted in. A neighbor's rooster crowed. A blue jay shrieked raucously, a sure sound of summer.

            If she closed her eyes, she could so easily slide backward in time.

            But only for a poignant, heart-breaking second, only long enough to emphasize the heart-breaking contrast with the present.

            She concentrated on forcing herself to eat breakfast. Her mother's cooking skills had slipped. The eggs were greasy and overdone, the bacon underdone, the biscuits hard and the coffee bitter.

            But she was home.

            Settling her cup in its saucer, she caressed the chipped, gold-tone surface. "I remember when we got these cups and saucers out of boxes of oats. Remember, Mother? Daddy and I ate oats every day so I could have more cups. I thought they were really gold."

            Her mother's eyes went unfocused. "I think those cups were my Mama's." Her voice was tentative.

            Frowning, Laura set down her coffee. "No, they weren't. Don't you remember?"

            "You always used to drink cream in your coffee. I remember that." The voice was stronger now.

            "I know, Mother, but that was when we had cows and real cream and I was skinny."

            "My daddy taught me to drink coffee with cream. I loved my daddy. I would have drunk anything he gave me." Her faded blue eyes welled up with tears. "Your daddy drank cream in his coffee, too." She looked over at the empty chair. "I sure do miss him. I don't know why he had to go and die."

            Laura's stomach clenched into a hard knot at the familiar comment. "I don't think he did it deliberately, Mother."

            "I get so lonesome. I wish I could die and get out of my misery." She shredded her biscuit, scattering the pieces on her plate.

            Laura sighed. "You don't have to be lonesome. You could join the Senior Citizens' group. They'd send a bus for you every day. You could meet other people and make friends."

            "I don't want to meet other people! They wouldn't be family. You're my daughter, but you went off and left me. You left me for that man, and now he's gone and left you all alone."

            The muscles in Laura's chest constricted. Her lips compressed tightly, as if they could seal in the pain. Her mother must know how much she was hurting already. Why was she trying to make it worse instead of trying to ease the pain?

            When Laura didn't respond, her mother pushed her plate aside, untouched except for the shredded biscuit. "I'm just an old woman nobody wants, not even my own daughter."

            "Mother, I spend six hours driving down here and six driving back every month! I call you every Sunday!" As though she were listening to someone else, Laura heard her voice rising, out of control. "Ever since Daddy died, all you've done is sit around and feel sorry for yourself! You don't make any effort to help yourself."

            The old woman's face collapsed into its network of wrinkles. Tears filled one gully then overflowed into the next.

            Laura clenched her hands on the edge of the table, resisting the impulse to lean across, grab the jagged shoulders and shake the woman, shake her until she stopped crying, until she remembered more than just patches of their lives...until she started acting like Mother again.

            The strange woman with tears streaking down the ravines of her face jerked clumsily to her feet, staggered around the table and put bony arms about Laura's shoulders.

            Laura's anger drained away, replaced by sudden, frightening knowledge.

            She rose slowly and reached down to the fragile frame. "I'm sorry, Mother. I—" She stopped, knowing she couldn't explain that she was angry with this helpless stranger for taking her mother's place, for needing her when she needed her mother.

            "I'm sorry," she repeated. "I love you, Mother. Please forgive me."

            The woman looked up, smiling. "I'll always forgive you. You're my sweet little Laura and I love you."

            "I know you do." Her mother had loved her and cared for her when she was a helpless baby, when she couldn't speak or walk and had no memories. Her mother had guided her through her adolescent traumas, easing each step along the way as best she could, giving her a world of happy memories.

            Now the past was gone. Her childhood was gone. Her father, her husband, her daughter...all a part of the past.

            She herself was in the same place as her mother.

            But the two of them had each other even if the roles were reversed...even if it was Laura's turn to give the care and support now.

            Outside a mockingbird sang cheerfully. The sun made dappled patterns as it came in through the lace curtains over the sink. The scents of bacon and coffee hung in the air.

            The world changed. The different seasons came and went, surging and ebbing, like happiness, like youth and old age, like giving and receiving support. Only love would never change.

            Laura patted her mother's shoulder. "You go sit in the living room now," she said softly, "and I'll do the dishes and bring you another cup of coffee with lots of cream, just the way you like it."


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