The two-story white house that embodied the front of the Last Out Hotel was inching ever closer to ruin. Its wooden siding was worn and broken, and the house’s color, once a sleek white, was fading fast after decades of buffeting by the desert wind and dust. The dark roof had dulled under the strong sun and its shingles had peeled upward, tired. The house windows, bare in thin old frames, had lost their shutters long ago. In front of the house, the roofed porch stood darkly over columns that had chipped at their bases, some with cracks that had crept far upwards. The sign on the dry, dusty lawn stated the hotel’s name and FREE BREAKFAST AND DINNER in an old, frontier era font. From the back of the aging house stretched a corridor to the low ranch building that featured the hotel’s guest rooms. The ranch part of the hotel was younger and in sounder condition than the house. The long, low building showed a fresh, unspoiled white, its walls sturdy and new. The windows were recently installed Thermopane, framed and crossed in unspoiled, white vinyl. The roof here had very black shingles that reflected the sun in white flecks.
Ms. Diana Gunn had owned the Last Out Hotel for the past twenty years. She bought it in middle age with the savings from a store manager job on the prospect of a decent, steady income from the many tourists who visited the area. She moved into the main house, then in sturdier walls, with her new beaux, a passionate man who claimed to be good at repairing buildings. Within a year she was pregnant with their child. Soon after, some roof tiles broke, and her partner proved less than able to patch them. He made excuses why, then left one night and never returned. Without him, Diana managed the hotel and raised her newborn daughter alone, struggling to meet both responsibilities. The stream of guests whom she relied upon thinned as new hotels and motels, built closer to the highway, took them. Over time, she resigned herself to the upkeep and maintenance of the hotel. As long as it yields a living, she told herself. The small, thin woman was at the front desk every day, her dark, black curls made up tidily, her dark, brown eyes attentive to every new visitor who came for a room. She greeted people in a ready, waiting voice. She was eager when the guests asked her about the attractions in the region; she spread open maps of the area on the front counter and, with her delicate hand, pointed out the landscapes and sites they seemed interested to know. She pointed out more than they asked to see when she could. She hoped the guests would extend their stays to visit it all or even return to do so, her idea, of course, that they would stay with her. In the evenings, Diana gave herself the duty of serving her guests their complimentary dinner in her own dining room with good plates and silverware. She came always in an acceptable outfit to the meal and sat at the table head leading the conversation, smiling at each of her guests. While being hostess was part of her role managing the hotel, Diana liked to think she was somehow off duty while at dinner. She forgot completely her hotel’s trouble in drawing guests when she did this.
Mandy Gunn was Diana’s nineteen-year-old daughter. She was a tall, lean, young woman with dark eyes and long, red hair. “You always look so nice,” Mandy’s mother liked to say touching her daughter's cheek, a favorite habit since the girl turned thirteen. Within the past year, Mandy had graduated from the local high school and settled into a role as her mother’s full-time assistant. Mandy helped around the hotel office and, when her mother was busy elsewhere, filled in as hostess at the guests’ dinner table. She talked long and expertly with the guests, the task that, like her mother, she found least like a duty. When she was not occupied, Mandy enjoyed walking the dry land that surrounded her hotel-home. She would lose herself in the sage and the flat expanses and not think of returning inside. The land seemed too beautiful to leave, she felt.
In the past few months, Mandy’s mother Ms. Gunn had gone to her doctor because she had been constantly tired. Her condition had puzzled him, and he seemed never to have come across it. He sent her to specialists who took MRIs and discovered her upper torso dotted with malignant tumors. They gave her a copy of the scan and pointed out knobs, feeding and growing inside her body, above her breasts, within the shoulders, in the upper back. "Can those lumps really be there in me?" she asked the physician pointing at the scan taken of her; she was much in disbelief. She went for radiation treatment that did not improve her state, though the specialists had claimed it would. Ms. Gunn found herself without options other than to go for a complex, perhaps risky surgery, by a new, young oncologist in town. This doctor had come on the scene because of a shortage in the area and had an overflow of cases already in his first months. He could schedule Ms. Gunn for an operation no sooner than in three months. This left Ms. Gunn significant lag time. Something of having to wait and something of the cancer made her feel more tired and defeated than ever. In the morning, she struggled to rise from bed and tend to herself. She dressed haltingly, her arms and neck straining. The simplest hotel tasks challenged her. When guests showed at the front desk, Ms. Gunn had difficulty standing to greet and register them. At dinner, she did not follow the conversation. Neither had she the patience to address and settle the bills that demanded her attention.
Ms. Gunn admitted to Mandy she needed help. A mindful daughter, Mandy stepped in to aid her. Every morning now, she fetched breakfast to her mother in her room. She brought the food on a tray up the stairs and found her parent lying in bed, her eyes wide, awaiting her always. Mandy worked to get her parent to sit up and feed her. The feeding was always a slow process for the old, tired woman. When it ended, Mandy would help her parent to dress and use the bathroom, then bring her back to the bedroom and set her in the corner armchair by the window to read. The woman could do little else than stay there in her condition, the daughter knew. Mandy went downstairs to attend to the hotel once she had her parent set. During the day, she returned many times to do small things for her mother. She brought the woman lunch. Ms. Gunn welcomed the effort, offering thanks in her exhausted voice. About ten at night, Mandy transported her parent to the bathroom for her evening shower. She set a hard, plastic chair in the tub for the woman to sit and tend to herself, which she still could manage; in the meantime, Mandy sat outside the bathroom and read a magazine. She turned the pages to read the headlines and look at the pictures until she gave up and dropped the magazine on the floor. When her mother was done, Mandy brought her back to the bedroom, helped her change, and put her to bed. Mandy found she was herself tired after all this tending and she went to her own room.
Since she began to help her mother with her disability, Mandy found the hotel had several serious problems she had not known about. For one, it turned out her mother had foregone paying many bills over the past six months. Mandy discovered a large box stuffed with them behind the hotel’s front desk. These included the bill for roof repair to the guest rooms, eight months past due; her mother had attached a sticky note to it where she had written, Delay until collections call. A bill for electrical work was three months past due; the follow-up, tucked in the same envelope, read, Urgent. You must act. When she discussed the notices with her parent, her mother said, “I gave up figuring how to pay them. Try and discover if you can.” That night, Mandy spread the bills on the back desk of the lobby and tried to decide which to pay. She found the hotel had too little money to cover the great amount it owed. She did not like discovering this. It was her mother’s responsibility the hotel was in these straits, she told herself. She put the bills back in their box and walked away from it.
These problems seemed to get worse, however. Mandy found the hotel’s vendors eager to push her expenses ever higher. An air conditioner in a guest room broke, and the service person suggested costly updates that might not even return the equipment to good condition. “Your mother always agreed to my ideas for maintaining the hotel,” he insisted at one point. Then the hotel’s food vendor offered Mandy a new line of specialty bread that she had to decline. Suddenly, the vendor was urging her to sign a new contract with what seemed like several hidden costs for bulk vegetables. Mandy, feeling insulted, refused him twice before he left her alone.
While Mandy juggled taking care of her mother and the hotel, she sought to collect herself. More than once, she would gaze out the window and watch the wind wave through the sage bushes and raise the dust in great billows on the dry, flat land beyond the hotel. She knew only the winter rain would relieve the cracked, burnt expanses hurting for water. A long distance away loomed tall, black mountains, the sky and clouds behind them. Mandy felt lost in the scene and thought she must go somewhere. She did not wish to stay behind a desk any longer.
She made it a new habit to go into town to run errands that she could have left to the part-time clerk. She went to buy food for the night’s dinner and supplies for the hallway closet. She sought her items in more than one shop and walked the few blocks between them to draw out the time. During these trips, Mandy met Bill Kendall, a clerk in one of the stores. Bill was a tall, twenty-year-old with neat, blonde hair and very blue eyes. When they spoke at the counter, he smiled when she smiled and squared his shoulders at times. Mandy learned his parents had raised and home-schooled him on a ranch outside of town. He told her about it.
“I take care of the loose animals on our land. I round up the steers that strayed out the farthest. Me and another ranch hand. We would ride until sundown.”
“Are there many steers that go loose?” Mandy asked.
“When someone doesn’t watch them, there can be. Or if they get fearful. Sometimes they get a mind to go on their own, however. Then I have to run after them and wear them out. I can do it even when it’s hard.”
Bill explained that he worked as a clerk to save some money before he would either go to school or take a foreman role with his father. “Thinking of my future,” he said proudly. He was very interested in Mandy whenever they talked. He asked about her life at the hotel.
“So you sort of run the place now?”
“You must like it. I mean, there’s no one over you.”
Mandy recalled her duties and the hotel's overdue bills and curled her lips. “I like it and I don’t. I’d enjoy the freedom more if I didn’t worry so much.”
“Your mom managed to take care of it. You will once you’re used to it.”
“Maybe once I am.” Mandy smiled. Bill sounded confident and assured.
Soon enough, Mandy and Bill went on a date at a local diner. The diner, while old, was the go-to place in the small town. They stayed very long, talking at a corner table apart from everyone else.
"I don't know about you but I'm into action adventure movies," Bill said at one point after he had finished a second soda.
"Really? Which ones?"
He named a popular blonde-haired star.
"He does some good ones. They always put him in the most bizarre scenarios. Like the one from two years ago where he was crawling on the floor in that burning building."
Bill smiled. Soon they brought up music.
"Nothing better to listen to than country on the radio after I leave the store at the end of the day," he said.
Mandy smiled. "I like to listen to country in the car when I drive around town." She named her favorite country songs and he told her his.
Mandy went home excited they both liked the same movies and music. She listened to the radio loud on the way back to the hotel.
Bill took his lunchtime to join Mandy as she made her errands around town the next several weeks. He carried her bags of newly bought goods as she walked slowly beside him. Soon, he was showing her to parts of town that she had not known: a small park beyond a plaza, a quiet tree-lined street, an old landmark house. “Isn’t he a strange looking guy up there!” Bill said as they studied a statue in the park. “I’d never guess he was a frontiersman. Or that thing he is shouldering was a rifle.” Mandy laughed and he smiled.
In the plaza, another time, Bill said, “The garden here is supposed to be pleasant. I don't know if I'd agree.”
“Why wouldn't you?” she asked.
“The flowers aren't safe.” He showed her his hand. He had a thorn lodged by his thumb where he had grasped a rose. Mandy went white, but he let out a laugh.
“No, I’m alright. But what a face you made! Over a thorn.”
Mandy caught his mood and laughed at herself with him.
Sometimes Mandy discovered Bill left items of his when he left early from their dates. Once it was a set of keys on the dinner table, another time his wallet. She held onto each and thought of the next time she would meet Bill and could return them. She found herself imagining whether he would miss the set of keys or address book before she saw him. However, Bill stopped by the hotel to inquire if she had them. She presented the item, usually at the ready in her pocket, and he smiled, more than a little happy at her eagerness to return it.
As she became more familiar with Bill, Mandy seized excuses to leave the hotel and be with him. She would think the meat she had bought the other day too little to last the week and go to town to get more. The nails to repair the sidewall of the kitchen were too short and she must return them for longer ones. She went always when Bill would be free and felt a relief once they were together. One day as they took another stroll by the town shops, Bill asked, "Would you like to visit somewhere more out of the way?"
Mandy agreed, happy for the change. They were done visiting the town center and walked on the side streets. Fewer people passed by; the adobe buildings receded behind them.
“Doesn’t it feel like we have the neighborhood to ourselves?” he asked as they took a side street. “Everyone must be at work. Except us.”
“I know. I don’t even see a dog or a cat.”
“I don’t either.”
Beside a large tree with spreading limbs, Bill stopped. He stepped forward and kissed Mandy. She held her eyes shut and let him.
Bill told Mandy one day, soon after, that he was going on a trip for his parents’ ranch. He had to sell off livestock that had been born that spring since he was taking the foreman role at the ranch and needed the business experience. The trip would keep him upstate for a month. “I don’t know if I can call you from the remote places I’m going."
"Not even email?"
"Upstate is pretty much the boondocks. Bad wi-fi. We may be without contact.”
Mandy felt sad to hear he would go. She had planned to meet him more in town and devised ways to escape the hotel more easily. She had prepared to skip the guest dinners that she liked hosting. She felt, in fact, she should stay always with Bill. Bill’s blue eyes stuck to hers, and she did not doubt he had the same feeling for her.
Mandy had not spoken yet to her mother of Bill. She thought now she should; her poor mood, since Bill had gone, convinced her they were serious and that she ought to be upfront with her mother about him. So, she told her mother one afternoon. She mentioned her talks with Bill at the store and their strolls in town. She left out the details of their going to the farthest streets and his kissing her. “He’s really the nicest guy,” she said, shyly, as she studied the red and black carpet in her mother’s room.
“And so you’ve seen him every time you go into town on your errands?” Ms. Gunn asked, seated in a chair by the window. Her voice was straining, and Mandy heard a brittle edge to it.
“I guess sometimes you’ve gone to town just for his sake?”
“Does he want you to come often?”
The tension in her elder's voice struck Mandy. “He seems to. He hasn’t said. But I won’t see him for awhile now. He’s gone selling for his parents and will be away a month.” More quietly, she added, “He doesn’t know if he can call either where he’s going.”
Ms. Gunn turned toward the lace-curtained window. She leaned her worn face nearer the pane that opened on the parched land. “He may be gone awhile. Your father left once and did not return.”
"Bill is returning. He won't be like Father."
Ms. Gunn looked out the window without replying.
Mandy confined herself largely to the hotel in the next weeks as the weather turned very hot and dry. When she looked out the window, she saw the dust in the desert rise in burning billows and the sage brown under the strong sun. When the A/C in the house broke, she decided it too expensive to repair, so she installed old metal fans around the main floor and opened the windows. She felt the warmth as she sat at the front desk, checking the guest ledger, and reviewing the accounting books. The heat felt heavy behind her forehead; during the worst of it, her pulse pounded in her wrist and neck. In the evenings, she left a clerk at the desk and went onto the flat expanse by the hotel to walk. By then, it was dusk, and the land had cooled. She walked jostling the dust under her shoes. Her skin dried and tightened as she went. Tall cacti broke the flat expanse far in the distance before her; they loomed tall and broad with their raised arms. Night came and the gleam of white stars pierced the great, black sky above her. She studied them, her head tilted so that the blood drained back until she felt faint. Then she returned to the hotel, crunching the sand and grit under her shoes in the dark, a sound she liked to hear. When she sat by the window later at night, the dark, firmer shapes of the brush stood forth on the land and, in the distance, the black mountains. She considered Bill who had been gone more than two weeks.
Mandy's thoughts for Bill affected her mood more than she had thought. Ms. Gunn asked her one night, while Mandy was reading to her after dinner, “Why have you been pining so much lately?” The elder’s voice quavered, and her dark eyes shifted as if dreading some answer she had imagined.
Mandy had decided it best not to share her feelings over Bill any more than she had; they seemed too personal to tell now. “I don’t know,” she said shrugging.
Ms. Gunn persisted, however, her worry stamped on her brow. “But what are you thinking? You are occupied.”
“No, it’s only the weather.”
Ms. Gunn reclined stiffly against her chair and asked nothing more. But her worn face cracked with signs of unease when her daughter moved her.
Two days later, when Mandy set the breakfast tray before her mother in bed, the elder said, “You brought only one pill.”
Mandy started. Her mother always had two pills of a medication that combated fatigue due to her cancer. “I’m sorry. I’ll run downstairs and—”
“But why did you think to bring only one pill? You never did.”
Her mother's upset alarmed her. “I don’t know why I forgot. It was a mistake.”
But Ms. Gunn did not seem as confident. She sat there brooding as her daughter went downstairs for the medicine.
The displeasure Ms. Gunn revealed in this encounter soon bore stranger fruit. The old woman started to drag the conversation between them, always seeming worried whenever her daughter stopped talking. "Just how are the guests?" she would ask, smiling more than she had since she took to her room. "Anyone interesting check in? What about the cook, the maid? They aren't causing problems, I hope?" She asked even about the postman for whom she had never cared. The only thing Ms. Gunn did not ask was whether Mandy had heard from Bill. Mandy found her mother’s new talkativeness overeager; she did not indulge it more than she had to without being rude. She hurried their tasks together to get away sooner. But Ms. Gunn noticed and slowed her eating or dressing to ask about things that she felt Mandy had failed to discuss. “Tell me more about what’s happening,” the old woman said once. “You know I don’t have enough life up here.” Mandy talked, aiming to please her. However, she seized eventually on some excuse to go—"I have to return to the front desk. There's a gentleman waiting. I have to make a phone call..." and she made for the door. Her mother, realizing Mandy would leave, became disappointed despite all the attention she had gotten.
Soon after she started pressing her questions, Ms. Gunn became frightened of Mandy touching her. The elder shrank from her touch and insisted Mandy hold her only by the elbow and small of the back. Mandy did not understand the reason until the morning when, walking into her mother’s room she discovered her elder changing into a blouse. Her mother sat at the bedside; her back was bare, and lumps protruded between the shoulders and near the neck. The elder, startled that Mandy had entered, quickly drew the clothing over her body and turned with a frightened face.
“It’s ok, mother,” Mandy said, coming to her. “You can’t help what’s happened.”
But Ms. Gunn did not relax; she acted as if she had made some horrible mistake letting Mandy find her without the blouse. Mandy did her best to make her parent feel less self-conscious. She kept her hands from the lumps on her mother’s back as she helped her dress. She played up every sign of health the elder gave. However, Mandy found it did little good. She herself could not help thinking of the cancer that grew and wore at her mother daily.
Finally, there came the day before Ms. Gunn was to have surgery. The air was dry and still. Mandy had brought her mother downstairs to eat at the dinner table with the hotel’s two current guests to mark the occasion of her elder’s coming visit to the hospital. Mandy spoke at the table much as her mother was used to when she had been hostess. One guest told her he was traveling to California and anticipated a quiet night’s rest after a long drive that day. The other, a nervous, defensive man, said he had lost his way on back roads in the mountains that afternoon and was all too glad to have his room to sleep in for the night. The dinner and conversation would have been interesting except Ms. Gunn was more than usually tired. Mandy had to do everything for her: move her seat, raise her drink, and feed her dinner, one forkful at a time. When they finished the meal and the guests had left the table, Ms. Gunn leaned forward and asked Mandy, “Would you mind reading to me early tonight after taking me upstairs? I don’t feel I can stay up much longer.”
“I will see if I can after finishing business at the desk.”
“You couldn’t put business aside for tonight? I’d like you with me.”
“I know, but there are a lot of bills due this week and I have to take care of them. They can’t wait.”
“Even before I have to go to the hospital?”
Mandy understood her mother’s concern. To leave home for surgery was an upsetting thought. She would have liked a companion to be by her the whole time until she went. But Mandy could not figure her way around the bills. She must attend to them. “I’ll try to get through my work to read with you. All I can do is promise.”
Mandy smiled but saw that she had not encouraged her parent.
The two walked from the dining room with Mandy leading her elder by the hand and went to the house stairs right across the hall. Mandy waited for her parent to take the first step up the stairs, but her mother said, “I’m too tired. Please carry me.”
Mandy studied her mother's bowed form and realized she would need to do that. “Alright then,” she said. Mandy had carried her parent earlier, so she had no problem doing it now. Placing one arm around the woman’s back and hooking the other under her knees, she lifted her and started up the stairs. The elder became limp in her arms and sunk heavily toward her the higher they climbed, her blue patterned dress crumpling at the chest and legs. Her hands hung loose, unable to close. Mandy carried the old woman carefully to her bedroom and sat her in the corner armchair by the table. The elder's head nestled on the headrest. She opened her bleary eyes and studied Mandy as if from far way. Mandy bent over her face and smiled. “I’ll be back later.” She stepped to the door leaving her parent curled into the crook of her chair.
Downstairs, Mandy took out the hotel ledger and worked steadily at it as night came. The numbers on the pages failed to add to less than the money on hand, and she re-totaled the costs in small sums and then checked whether they really could be so high. Her mind drifted with the night's warmth as she worked. She moved her pencil lazily over the pages only hoping she made progress. The ledger soon became a scramble of numbers and bars to her. She slowed down, and the quiet fans in the window and the foyer distracted her. She decided suddenly not to go to read with her mother. In her broken mood, Mandy believed her mother likely would fall asleep before she got to her anyway. She continued to sit idly at the front desk alone; the other hotel staff had left for the evening.
Mandy was surveying the accounts again when she heard steps on the porch. She raised her head and discovered Bill Kendall coming to the screen door. He smiled at her with his strong, blue eyes. “I'm still welcome here?” he asked. "Or am I?"
Mandy went quickly from the desk and opened the door. “Bill!” she exclaimed as he stepped inside. He had come dressed to impress; he had on a black shirt with long sleeves, a pair of clean, blue jeans, and dark, formal shoes. He had combed his blonde hair very neatly and his face showed soft in the hall light. The two stood before each other. At once, there seemed a charge between them that excited her. The two drew together and he kissed her.
"I thought of you when I was away," he said, his voice hushed.
"I hoped you would."
"You think of me?"
Bill kissed her again and leaned closer. "Here we've known each other a while and become close. Wouldn't it be alright if we..." He paused and looked at her before trying to speak again. "I mean, why don't we..."
"Why don't we...?"
"Be together. Intimate. Like...tonight?"
A hot feeling rose inside Mandy. She remembered them in town, walking farther from the shops and finding the quiet streets where no one else went. His time away and her wait at the hotel, tending to her parent, had not lessened the feeling that had drawn them together, she realized. She did not move as Bill leaned forward and kissed her. She accepted and gave the kisses back; their mouths slipped over each other. Bill reached a hand behind her head, pulled a little at the bun in her red hair and loosened the strands. He fondled these. “Do you want to?" he asked, pressing her.
A sudden pang of fear rose in Mandy as she considered her parent upstairs. She remembered she was taking her to the hospital the next day. "Bill..."
"Wouldn't you like it?”
The hot feeling that had built in Mandy, that had grown strong in his absence, flared within her. She no longer worried about her parent. “Yes,” she said. She would be with him. He had wished it for now and she knew she did, too.
"Where can we?" Bill asked. Mandy surveyed the main floor with a quick turn of her head and picked the parlor beside the dining room. The parlor had a large, blue plush couch where people could lie down. No one possibly would disturb them in that space. She led him there by the hand and had him wait. Then she went to the staircase nearby and looked toward her mother’s room that stood near the top. The door was closed as she had left it and she turned away, satisfied. She went to Bill in the parlor and locked the door.
The two sat in plush chairs at opposite ends of the couch and, without looking at each other, undressed. Mandy pulled off her clothes without catching on any part of her body. Bill freed his torso and his legs easily. When the two were done, they faced each other, and the blood rose in Mandy’s face. Bill stood before her and his very blue eyes set confidently on hers. Mandy moved toward the dark couch between them and lay down, her head of red hair pointing toward the hallway. Bill stepped forward and together they positioned. As his torso blocked much of the ceiling light, his top half threw a dark shadow on her. It worried her for an instant. Bill asked, “Want us to begin?”
Mandy snapped from her mood and said, “Yes.” So, Bill entered her and started to move. Mandy felt him large within her and getting larger, reaching and touching her unlike she had believed he could. Then she had a sudden thought. Bizarre as it seemed, she imagined he might go on within her and not stop. He would touch parts of her she never meant for him to touch. She froze, studying him as he hung over her and her first fear of his shadow returned. She lay there unable to move, not speaking even while believing she should.
When they finished, they returned to their chairs and were dressing again. When he buttoned the last button on his black shirt, Bill lifted a bright face toward Mandy, but she did not return it. She leaned over, nervously studying the carpet by her feet. His expression clouded as he went and stood beside her.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m okay.” Mandy did not look up.
“Then what’s wrong?”
“I feel bad.” She was frightened suddenly that she had given herself to him. “I don’t want to say why, but I feel that.”
“You haven’t changed your mind about me—I mean, not right after…”
“I dunno.” Mandy twisted her hands. “But could you go now?”
“You do want me to see you still?”
“I think so. But please, can you go?”
Bill stepped slowly from her. At the parlor door, he turned and said, "Goodnight, Mandy.”
Mandy did not answer. She bowed her head as she heard Bill walk down the foyer, out the hotel, and drive his truck away from the roadside. When everything fell quiet, Mandy did not hold back her feelings anymore. The wave of guilt that had risen within her broke loose. How could she have done what she did there in the parlor across the hall from the hotel's main desk? she asked herself. She had chosen it while her mother was upstairs waiting for her. Her mother whom she had tended these many months. In the room right beside the one where her mother had met and and dined with the guests, she had been with Bill. The idea of her pleasure with him made her feel very strange. She paced about the room. The fine armchair where Bill had sat still showed the shape of his body. The porcelain vase in the corner raised its clutch of artificial sunflowers and sage, their colors dull. Feeling she must go now to her mother, Mandy stood, crossed the room and made for the staircase. Mandy took the steps slowly, her head bowed, hand tight on the stair rail, the idea of the parlor heavy upon her. She heard the staircase creak under her in the silent house. When she reached the top of the stairs, she found the light shining under her mother’s door. Mother has not gone to bed, Mandy thought, as she gently opened the door.
She discovered her mother cradled in the side of her armchair, her eyes shut as if she were asleep. Mandy went to her side and leaned over to rouse her, saying, “Mother, wake up.” But her parent did not move as Mandy jostled her arm and shoulder. Her mother's skin was cold. Fearfully, Mandy pressed a hand to the side of the woman’s neck. There was no pulse. She grasped her parent's face and jostled the head, side to side, as she cried, “Mother! Mother!” Before she knew it, Mandy sank onto the floor crying beside her mother’s chair. She’s dead, Mandy thought. I was with Bill and she died. She remembered her mother’s body in her arms on the stairs that night and being unable to move in the parlor after Bill had gone. I did it knowing she was here, she told herself. I did it like Bill and I had the world to ourselves. She recalled her mother's wariness over Bill and realized the effect that her seeing him must have had on the woman. She worried I would leave her alone, Mandy saw. And I did tonight. At the idea she had brought her parent to dread, she crumpled, overcome by a sense of responsibility for her loss and the unknown life that now lay before her.