fiction

Three Weeks

It was a row house, attached on either side.  White with green shutters on the three windows she could see from the street.  A pretty, quiet street, similar to her mother’s home fifteen minutes away.

Her mother does not know she’s here.  Her mother would not understand.

She sits in the car out front for a few minutes, waiting until the clock reads 10:59 a.m.  She then turns off the car, takes a deep breath, and opens the door.

“You must be Holly.”

She blinks, her eyes adjusting to the sunlight, and focuses in on a middle-aged woman with short gray hair, just long enough to be tucked behind large ears.  The woman is wearing simple clothing – an oversized white T-shirt and yoga pants.  Behind her Holly notes two cars – a silver minivan like the one her brother drives and a two-door Honda Civic.  Holly nods at the woman, still standing at the driver’s side of her car with the door wide open.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the woman, who Holly knows must be Marjorie, says as she gives Holly a half-wave.  “Take your time.  Just come in front when you’re ready.  We’ll be in the kitchen.”  She turns and walks toward the green-and-white house.

Holly’s eyes flick down to her phone.  At this point, she must go inside, or seem crazy – she knows that.  But, this whole thing is crazy.  Her brain begins to imagine getting back in the car, setting her things on the passenger seat, starting the car and peeling out quickly before Marjorie notices.

There’s a text from her mother on her phone in a little green bubble.

Will be at Sacred Heart until late.  Leftover lasagna in the fridge for you and Lee.  

Holly closes the car door and shoves her phone into her back pocket.  Then she takes it out and type Okay love you! before walking down the front lane and into the door of Marjorie’s house.

The entryway is simple and unadorned, and lead straight to the kitchen, where Marjorie sits.  She has several decks of cards on the kitchen table, and she is wearing simple stud earrings.  These are the things Holly notices as she thinks what she is going to say.

“So, Holly – ” Marjorie asks, warmth in her tone.  “What brings you here today?”

Holly’s eyes fill with tears so quickly that she chokes out her reply.

“My dad died.”

*****

They make a follow-up appointment for the next week, and Holly allows Marjorie to give her a brief hug before she walks back out the front door.  Everyone wants to hug her recently.  More for themselves than for Holly, she thinks.

She walks toward her car and is aware of a young man walking down the street toward her.  It’s Staten Island, so people mostly drive everywhere.  He has shiny, smooth hair pulled back in a low ponytail, and he smiles at Holly before turning up the walk to Marjorie’s house.  I know him, Holly realizes, smiling back, aware that he will not remember her.  It’s Holly’s curse to have an excellent memory for names and faces, a fact that often causes resentment when others lack this skill.

The young man is Elliot – a fellow student at Holly’s high school, St. Joe’s, and she did not know him well.  He was kind and smart and played baseball.  She had homeroom with his twin sister and was in the National Honor Society with Elliot.  If she remembers correctly, he was in the band.  And during the summer before their senior year, his twin sister was hit by a car and killed.

It was his smile that reminded her of his identity so quickly.  She’d barely noticed him before his sister’s death – Elaine was her name.  After the accident, Elliot was one of the most beloved and popular students in the school.  He had always been well-liked, but his loss gave him an air of mystique.  He was crushed on by lowerclassmen and was voted Homecoming King.  He had a great season with the baseball team senior year; Holy remembered working on the yearbook spread, with a giant photo of Elliot slapping hands with a teammate.  There was a one-page dedication in the back of the book for Elaine, with her senior portrait, her holding a white rose and wearing a black shawl to cover her clothes.

He’s already entered Marjorie’s house, and Holly gets into her car and quickly pulls away from the curb.

*****

When Holly was little, she learned about death from movies.  Bambi.  Beaches.  The Lion King.  But, like most little kids, she didn’t process it very much until she was a little older.  She started to grasp the concept after her grandmother died when she was seven.  Then, when she was in sixth grade, her math teacher announced during study hall that Nicky LaGrier’s mother had passed away and that the honors program students and staff would be making a condolence card for Nicky.  Cancer, Holly heard the teachers discussing while the students drew and wrote and colored.  She found out that Nicky had been absent that week because his mom had been getting worse and worse and then died.

Holly had felt empty when she thought about Nicky.  She reacted strongly to his loss.  She cried herself to sleep in her mother’s arms several nights in a row.  Her mother said it was because Holly was a feeler and a helper.  Her dad didn’t say very much, but as they were driving home from soccer practice, he suggested they stop for an Italian ice and he held Holly in front of him, his arms snugly around her torso, while they waited.  He drove her to and from soccer practice three nights a week and to two games every weekend.  She was on two soccer teams, a local rec team and a travel team.  Her dad – Ned – coached the local rec team.

They spent many hours in the car together, Holly and Ned.  Her travel team practiced 90 minutes away twice a week, and she remembered bringing homework in the car with her and asking her dad things she couldn’t ask around her mom.

“I don’t know what to get her for her birthday,” Holly had complained once.  “I never know. What are you getting her?”

“A peach sweater,” Ned said easily.  “Your mother looks really good in peach.”

*****

For her second visit with Marjorie, Holly remembers to bring eighty dollars; her Yelp profile had not indicated that customers had to pay in cash, but Marjorie had been very sweet and calm about it and simply asked Holly to pay her double the next time.

She knocks on the front door and hears Marjorie call her inside.  She opens the door and walks in, over to the kitchen table and sits beside Marjorie, who smiles at her.  Today she is dressed comfortably again in stretchy jeans and a navy blue Penn State hoodie.  Her casual dress continues to fascinate Holly, who expected dangly jewelry and long flowing skirts.

“How you doin’, Holly?  Do you want some coffee?  I’m glad you’re back.”

Her accent, too, is startling to Holly, who dropped her New York accent quickly after moving out of state.  Marjorie drops letters – the ends of gerunds, most of her r’s – and certain words, coffee and you’re, echo in Holly’s brain.  Her parents don’t have strong accents – it usually emerges with words like walk and talk.  Holly grimaces when she considers appropriate tense.  My mother does not have a strong accent.  My father did not have a strong accent.  

Marjorie begins to lay out cards in front of her on the table, quickly, confidently.  She lays out about half the deck and then closes her eyes, putting her left hand on the table just centimeters from Holly’s crossed arms and her right hand on the far side of the table, with one of her fingers barely touching an outer card.  Holly wonders if that’s important – if that means something.

“I see a woman,” Marjorie says softly.  “I think maybe your mother?  She’s young.  Blue eyes.”

Holly is careful not to react.  It could be her mother or Lee.  Of course, Marjorie knows most of the cast of characters in her story already, from the week before.  She knows about Holly’s mother, Maggie, and about her two older siblings, Lee and James.  And she knows that Ned died.

“And three young people – not that young,” Marjories continues.  “But young.  Too young.  It”s all very sudden.”

Holly’s ears prick up, and she silently wills them to be cool and indifferent.  She wants to know that all of this is for real.  Marjorie’s eyes are closed now.  They closed last week, too, just before she heard Holly’s father.  If she actually heard Holly’s father.

“This family is in pain.”  Marjorie’s eyes are still closed.  “He’s worried.  They’re not – connected.”

When the thirty minutes is up, Holly gives Marjorie the money and thanks her.  She doesn’t mean it.  She feels angry and sad, and she almost forgets about Elliot until she sees him, six feet away from her and about to turn up Marjorie’s walkway.

“Hi,” she says as they pass each other.  Elliot smiles kindly, but keeps walking.  Holly turns and watches him unabashedly as he walks into the house, his bookbag slung over his shoulder.  She tries to figure out if he had sadness in his eyes, and if he had sadness in his eyes those first days of senior year when they all returned to school.  He’d sat in front of her during NHS, and she remembered him turning around to pass the sign-in sheet back to her.  Was he sad then?  Is he sad now?

*****

Her mother is arranging flowers when Holly returns home.  Lee is nowhere to be seen – probably trying to get some work done – and James has been back at his apartment since right after the funeral.  The flowers mean that her mother was going to the cemetery.  And Holly, for sure, did not want to go.

The guilt is instantaneous.  The moment she had the thought, it overwhelmed her.  Maggie knew that Holly didn’t want to go.  She wouldn’t invite her.  But still – the guilt came.

Maggie squints at the arrangement.  Their kitchen is cozy and messy.  There have been family and friends coming in and out of this kitchen, bringing food and taking dirty dishes and struggling to find some small gesture to show how much they care and how much they miss Holly’s dad.  The result is that the kitchen is spotless – way more spotless than when the family was left to their own devices.

Holly sat down at the table beside her mother, resting her head on Maggie’s shoulder.  Maggie softens at the gesture and puts her arm around Holly.  “You doing okay, sweetie?”

The question is meaningless, and Holly doesn’t feel obligated to answer.

“I’m going to leave in a few minutes, but there’s food in the fridge if you need anything.  The Jeffersons dropped it off.  Chinese food, I think.”  Maggie stands, stretches, then carries the flower arrangement over toward the front door.

Holly can feel her fists tightening.   Her mother’s tone is pleading.  She wants Holly to come.  But Holly can’t go to the cemetery.  Holly doesn’t want to go to the cemetery.  She feels like pounding her fists on the floor and crying out like a toddler.  She feels like kicking someone really hard.  “Mom?”

Maggie turns and looks at Holly.  “What?”

“It’ll be okay if you want to date someone else again someday.”

Holly doesn’t know where the words are coming from.  She hadn’t planned them out.  When she wrote copious notes in her journal all night, she hadn’t written these words.  When she was driving home from Marjorie’s house, these words were not on her mind.  But she suddenly wants her mother to know – that Ned loved her and wanted her to be happy.  If she could hear her dad’s voice, surely this is what he’d say?

Maggie shakes her head, slowly.  Her eyes are dry.  “I’m going to go, Holly, okay?”  That gentle lilt in her words.  They were all being so careful around each other and it made Holly nervous and angry.  Maggie walks toward Holly and rumples her hair a little.  “I’ll be home in an hour.  We can talk.”

As soon as the front door closes, Holly’s head crashes into her arms and she begins to sob.  Ned has been dead for six weeks.

*****

When she was little, her dad worked from home, writing a novel.  He got phone calls periodically, from his agents and from publishers, and she’d answer the phone politely: “This is Holly, may I ask who’s calling?”  If Ned was busy or out, she’d write down messages in her third grader print.  When Ned returned the calls, he’d said, “Yup, that was my daughter who took the message,” and he’d laugh when the callers said how grown-up she sounded.  Holly could hear his pride.

If he wasn’t working on a book, Ned would be a little lost.  During the summer Holly lived at home and took temp jobs in the city, she’d often come home to find Ned laying on the couch watching the news.  And she’d feel profoundly, overwhelmingly sad, and worried that her dad wanted a job and couldn’t get it.  She didn’t even know if her dad is actually sad.  But, she is sad, thinking that he might be.  And she’s not brave enough to ask him about it.

On nights like this, Holy would sometimes invent an errand she needed to run.  “Dad,” she’d ask, “do you think you could take me to the mall?  I need wrapping paper.”  Ned would initially seem too exhausted to rise.  But he ultimately would, never pointing out that Holly was a young adult and fully capable of running errands independently.  Once they were in the car, Holly felt they each could relax.  She could ask her dad questions about his childhood, about sports, about what things had been like when she, James, and Lee were little.  Ned had dark, so-brown-it-looked-black hair that curled up at the ends when he let it get too long.  Holly has his hair and his eyes.

*****

Each time Holly leaves Marjorie’s house, she sees Elliot.  In fact, she thinks that part of the reason why she’s still coming to see Marjorie is because Elliot is going to see her, too.

There has to be something.

Today Marjorie shuffles the cards and reveals three to Holly, one of which was the death card.  Holly feels irritated looking at the card, mostly because she knows she got beat.  She was beaten by Marjorie before they even began, with her admission of her dad’s death – but how was she supposed to hold that in?  “The death card doesn’t always mean death or loss,” Marjorie says distractedly as she peers over the rest of the cards.  Holly smiles at her tightly.  Resentfully.

During this session, their third session, Marjorie hears Ned talking.  She hears him assuring Holly that everything’s going to be all right, and that he wants her to take care of her mother.

Holly almost rolled her eyes at Marjorie.  She would have if she didn’t feel so foolish, having given this woman some of her hard-earned money.

“He wants you to go back,” she hears Marjorie say.

This freezes Holly.  “What?” she asks, trying not to seem too interested.

Marjorie’s eyes are open. She is peering at her cards, and then up to the ceiling.  There is a fan above the table.  Holly wonders, if they turn it on, would dust and dead bugs fly everywhere?  “I don’t know,” Marjorie says.  “He is saying that he wants you to go back.”

Holly thinks.  She is away.  She has been home for the six weeks since Ned dropped dead in the home office.  Her town, her apartment, her girlfriend – they’re all hundreds of miles away.  When she’d left town, she’d told her girlfriend – a fairly new relationship – that she might not ever come back.

How could she?  Her dad was dead.  Her mother – she could’t leave her alone.  Her head spins as she considers this.  There was no way Ned would want Holly to go home.

Holly stands up abruptly, pushing her chair back.  “We can end here.”

She expects Marjorie to protest.  The older woman pushes up the sleeves of her sweatshirt and keeps her eyes down on the cards.  Holly looks at her for a moment before grabbing her car keys and her phone and heads for the door.

*****

It’s sunny outside when Holly emerges.  This time, she doesn’t walk to her car.  She sits down on the front porch.  Waiting.  It takes a while; her appointment ended early.

She spots him when he’s half a block away, and she thinks back to the first day of school senior year.  It was like a traffic accident.  Throughout that day, whenever she spotted Elliot, she saw a dozen faces behind him gazing at him.  He seemed uneasy with his new visibility – or was she just projecting?  Was she just thinking about herself, and what she’d feel like if she’d had a twin sister that was smashed and ended while running across a busy street, giggling and feeling utterly invincible?

She thinks about all the mundane and absurd conversations she’s had recently with complete strangers about her loss.  Calling the GRE office to cancel her exam, which was scheduled for the day of Ned’s funeral.  Seeing her old soccer teammate at the gym – she remembered Ned and gave Holly a temporary membership, whispering just don’t tell my boss as she slipped the card across the counter.  The phone calls – not from family and friends – but from telemarketers, asking to speak with her dad.  Breaking the news to them.  Becoming comfortable with the words I’m sorry, but Ned Flynn is deceased tripping from her tongue.

What the hell do you do, she thinks, when the one who died is your twin sister?  How do you answer the simplest of questions?  “Do you have any brother or sisters?”  She can’t remember if Elliot and Elaine had other siblings.  Do you omit that major fact – I once shared a uterus, a bed, my life with someone – a kind of bond that no one but a twin understands – and then she just fucking died?

Elliot is surprised to see her sitting out front.  “Hey,” he says.  He doesn’t seem nervous, or shy.  He doesn’t seem broken.

“Is it helping you?”

He looks confused, for a moment.

Holly shakes her head.  She has forgotten that this guy, like many of her fellow St. Joe’s graduates, has no idea who she is.  “I’m Holly.  We graduated the same year.”

To her surprise, she sees a light of recognition flash in his eyes.  “Holly Flynn?  You played soccer?”

She nods a little too eagerly.  And it feels like a sign.  And before she can stop herself, she erupts.

“I like talking to Marjorie, but it’s not helping me.  I woke up this morning and I forgot.  I was so happy, for this one second, because I forgot and it all was like a bad dream , faded away, to the back of my consciousness, and I forgot.  And it was like one moment of relief.”  Holly chokes back tears.  He lost his twin sister when they were sixteen.  She lost her dad, who she didn’t even live with anymore.

Big picture, Holly.  Reign it in.

She can’t.  “But then I woke up and I remembered, and it was so awful.  But it needs to get better, right?  But I thought – maybe if I could talk to him, it would get better.  And I thought Marjorie could help.  But maybe she’s a fucking quack, and maybe there is no heaven.  But then – what?  And if you’ve been coming here for five years, then it can’t be helping you.  But is it?  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry, Elliott.”

She catches her breath and waits a beat.  He’ll hug her.

But he doesn’t.  She stares up at him.  Elliot has blue eyes, which she hadn’t realized before this moment.  She never notices eye color.  Her dad has hazel eyes, she knows that, but only because she knows that she has her dad’s eyes.  And his hair and his olive skin.  Now it’s just her and three blue-eyed freckled Irishmen in the family.

“Hold on for a second,” he says.  “Let me tell Marjorie I’m running late.”  He steps around her and enters the house after a brief knock, the kind Holly uses on Lee’s bedroom door.

When he comes back outside, he pulls the door gently shut.  His backpack is gone.  He sits down on the steps beside Holly, but not too close.  “I’m sorry to hear about your dad, he says quietly.

Holly rubs at her eyes fiercely, determinedly.  She does not look at Elliot.

“Holly, Marjorie has a son.”

It’s said with a sort of finality, as if he is revealing the answer to a mystery.  Holly suddenly feels exhausted – heavy and empty and dry but drowned.

“He’s 15.  He’s studying for the PSAT.”

It seems like gibberish to Holly’s sleep-deprived, addled mind, but synapses are slowly starting to fire.  A connection clicks, and she can feel her face growing red and hot.  She peeks over at Elliot.  “You’re not seeing her – the psychic?  You’re tutoring her kid?”

Elliot nods, apologetically.

It had not occurred to Holly, not even for one second, that Marjorie might have kids.  She felt as naive as she had in kindergarten, when Mrs. O’Hara had introduced Holly to “my daughter Olivia” and Holly had asked, But where does she sleep?  It was as inconceivable for Marjorie to have kids as it was for Mrs. O’Hara to have a house rather than just a cot in the supply closet where they kept the finger paints.

She’d thought – what had she thought?  That Elliot was doing the same thing she was doing.  Trying to hear the voice of someone he loved.  Trying to talk to someone he loved.  She starts to dig her nails into her thighs and her breathing gets that choked, breathless quality that is associated with hyperventilating.

She feels an arm go around her shoulders, and she is grateful.

“I did come to see Marjorie, as a – well, you know,” Elliot says quietly.  “Right after Elaine died.  I googled ‘psychics Staten Island’ and she was the first to pop up.”

Holly slides away from him and looks up.  “You did?” she asks.

“Yup.”

“But you don’t anymore?”

Elliot shakes his head.  “I got to know her a little, and she found out I was looking for a part-time job.  She suggested tutoring.  Her son’s fantastic, but he’s always struggled in school.  I’ve helped him keep his grades up.”  He smiles fleetingly.  “He’s gotten to be like a little brother, of sorts.”

Holly scratches her fingernails along her legs, squeezing ever so often, and wishing she’d walked straight from Marjorie’s kitchen table to her car.

“I thought it was kind of silly,” he continues, “talking to Marjorie.  Trying to talk to Elaine.  And it was.  But everyone does it.  We just want to know that they’re okay.”

Holly’s eyes fill with tears again.  She balls up her fist and presses them against her eyes quickly, briefly, and then lets go.  “Are you okay?” she asks.  “I mean – does it get better?”  She takes a deep breath.  “I just need to know that it gets better.”

Elliot isn’t looking at her.  She takes the opportunity to examine him – his tanned face, his wavy hair.  She wishes she could take his brain and put it inside her own head.  She wishes she could know.

He stands up and brushes off his jeans reflexively, though there’s no dirt or dust to speak of.  “I should go in,” he says.

Holly jumps up, too.  She feels for her keys and nods vigorously.

“You can get my number from Marjorie, maybe,”  Elliot says quietly.  “Or – ”

“I can write mine down,” Holly says quickly.  She finds her journal and tears out a page, scribbling her number.  “Just send me a text later today.  I’ll be in town for a while.  But – I may go home after a little bit.  I mean, back to where I live.”

Elliot takes the paper and smiles at her again.  “I’m sorry again, Holly,” he says.  Then he turns and enters Marjorie’s house.

Holly walks over to her car and sits in the driver’s seat.  Her phone buzzes twice before she can start the ignition.

There are two texts from her sister.

Stop talking to Mom about dating dudes.  It’s been six weeks.  Give it a month.

Holly lets out the kind of laugh that might be called a guffaw – sharp, loud, involuntary.  Had she actually done that?  It seemed impossible.  Every day seemed like an eternity.

Just kidding.  And Mom’s fine.  But want to talk later?

Yes, Holly types immediately.  She takes a breath and pretends to be blowing out 21 birthday candles.  She hopes sincerely that no one from Marjorie’s house is looking out the window.

The second text is an unknown number.

It doesn’t ever get better.  You just get used to it.  Sorry again Holly.  Hope you’re okay.

Holly stares at her phone, curious, calm, and confused.  She glances at Marjorie’s house and sees no sign of movement.  She starts her car and pulls carefully away from the curb.

“Hi, Dad,” she whispers carefully, gently.  “It’s me.”

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