The Beekeeper

Short Story by Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen

The Beekeeper

When I find the counselor waiting for me in the hallway on Sunday morning, I know something bad has happened. "Hello again, Miss Campbell," she says when I've come near enough to hear her. “Could we talk in the lounge for a few minutes?"

She leads me to the end of the hallway, to an open room containing small square cloisters of chunky wood-framed furniture. A maniacal smiley face has been crayoned onto the sea-foam floor tiles by some child while adults weren't watching.

The counselor settles on a stiff evergreen cushion beside me. Her kind, worn face is framed by loose honey curls. Placing a hand on mine, she begins whispering, as if quiet discussion might make hearing the news easier. "Your mother’s condition has worsened. Last night was the most difficult one yet."

"Oh." What else can I say?

"Our staff is doing everything possible, but we don't know how much longer Beatrice has." She pauses, allowing that to sink in. "It’s time to call your sisters.”

"Right," I say, focusing on the smiley face. "Okay."

"No, it's not okay. But I'm going to help you through it."

I might cry if it weren't for two things—one, the numb feeling that took hold the day I first learned nothing could be done to save Momma, and two, my worrying over whether or not my sisters will come.

I visit Momma’s room afterward. A breathing mask sits on her face, and new medicine pouches hang from her drip. Her skin is so paper pale now, I can make out the vein trails beneath. Cheap Irish skin, Granddad called it. Burns easily, irritates easily, is practically see-through.

On the miniature television hovering in the corner is a show about beekeeping. Momma's head is turned toward the set, but her eyes are closed. Onscreen, an elderly woman in a crisp linen pantsuit who is draped by silver netting narrates, undaunted. "The queen's purpose is to lay egg after egg," she says, the camera following her casual glide between the hives. "Worker bees choose an egg or larva to prepare as a new queen when the colony's current one is failing or has died. For the hive, the raising of a new queen is time-sensitive. Colonies unable to replace them are doomed."

The bleeps and pings coming from her heart monitor are too familiar now, I've heard their song so often. "Hey, Momma," I say, settling into a vinyl recliner at bedside. "Are you awake?"

Her eyes flutter open and shift my way. She reaches out and pats my hand, her heart monitor finger clip tapping my birthstone ring.

"Heard you had some trouble last night," I say.

She exhales, still focused on my hand.

"You okay?"

Her eyes meet mine, as if to ask Do I look okay?

"Sorry. I don't know what else to say."

She moves for her slate and chalk, out of reach on her lap. I push them close enough but not into her hands—she hates that—and she takes them up.

No need to say anything, she writes.

I shrug. "I won't then."

She erases the slate with her sheet and then writes: I know you love me.

Again, the urge to cry comes.

Don't worry, she writes next. Everyone who went before waits for me.

She’s certain of this. I'm not so sure.

 

I return home after Momma has fallen asleep. Usually, I don’t stay so long at the hospice. I did today because I don’t relish the task before me.

I pace our sunflower-themed living room, straightening the faded tapestry pillows on the golden damask couch and throwing away the withered flowers in the coffee table’s vase before getting down to it. The phone’s buttons spring beneath my fingertips. "Rose," I say when my older sister's voicemail answers, "it's Dahlia. I need you to come ." My voice cracks. "I can't do this alone."

Next, I dial Lily's last known number, hopeful that it still works. "Listen," I tell her voicemail. "I know that things haven’t been…” I pause, thinking better of what I’m about to say. “Just call me back," I say instead.

Then I make the final call. I pray Travis picks up instead of his wife, who often interrupts.

"Drake residence," chirps a female voice.

Shit. "Hello, Betty. It's Dahlia."

"Oh." The phone line crackles as if freezing over. "How are you?"

"I've been better. My mother is worse."

A pointed silence first. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"Thank you. I would like to bring Iris and Daisy to see—"

"I'll speak to Travis." Betty always says this when brushing me off. "He'll call you back."

"Listen, it’ll probably be the last—"

"Did I say no?"

"It's just important that my sisters see their mother before—"

"Well, I've been their mother for some time now."

"Yes, I know this. But—"

"And praise Jesus that Travis won custody! The girls tell me things, you know. The liquor, the men..."

My throat aches. "That was long ago."

"Not long enough to forget about! She was the very definition of unfit."

I reply to this in exactly the way I didn’t want: "Yes, and she's paying for it now."

Betty's sudden silence is sharp. "Travis will call you back," she finally blurts, then hangs up, leaving me with the drone of a dial tone.

*

Rose, Lily, Iris, Violet, Daisy and I grew up in a yellow Victorian in a Queens neighborhood that was gentle when my grandparents bought in but was rough by the time we came to live with our widower Granddad. From the front windows, we counted the large cracks dividing the pale asphalt, the bald patches spreading across neighbor's lawns, the spots where the curbs gave up and crumbled. Cancer curbs, Rose called them. Our narrow lot was surrounded by a rusting cyclone fence intended to keep the unwanted out. Even so, Granddad forbade us to be out in the yard alone.

We never had time for that, anyway. Lily and Iris were responsible for cleaning and cooking, Violet and Daisy for helping as best they could, Rose and I for earning enough money after school to cover the groceries and utility bills. Before Daisy was born, Momma had worked part-time; Daddy's Social Security checks supplemented her income just enough to support us all. When she became a bona fide alcoholic, however, she lost her job and used the checks to support the liquor cabinet instead.

One bath night, before the accident, Violet told me Lily wouldn’t let her open the curtains in the afternoon because it put Momma in such a foul mood. She wanted to know why Momma couldn’t stand the sunlight. Although she might have been old enough to understand, I shrugged. She didn't need those details.

*

The following afternoon, I'm back at the hospice. An on-duty nurse briefs me: Momma had a better night than the previous one, but not by much. He asks if I've spoken to my sisters. I tell him I’ve tried, wishing I could say that at least Rose had called back.

The same show about beekeeping is on the set in her room again. "Don't they show anything else?" I ask Momma.

Her tubes shift a bit when she shrugs.

I take the remote, and after clicking through all the channels, I understand. She hates talk shows and soaps, all that's on during this time of day. Channel Ten's repetitive nature programs are the one palatable alternative.

After Momma has fallen asleep, I look through a cooking magazine someone has left on her bedside table.

Through her breathing mask, Momma wheezes and then says, "Wheel."

I look up, throwing the magazine aside. "What do you need?"

She can't seem to draw enough air to speak again. I hurry to bring the slate and chalk closer. She scrawls: When I die, play Wheel of Fortune. I'll talk to you through it.

She watches my face while I read this, so I try not to scowl. Momma has a few stupor-stitions, as Lily calls them. This one comes from a fantasy that developed after my grandfather’s funeral. That evening, we’d found Momma at her computer that evening, bawling that Granddad had begun communicating from beyond through it. "Ask him a question and then start the game," she'd slurred, "and no matter what the answer is, it just fits!" No, Momma, I'd wanted to say, the liquor is making you think that, but I didn’t. Between the alcohol and now the painkillers, she’d never sobered up enough to realize Wheel of Fortune is not a hotline to Heaven.

Momma stares, awaiting my answer. "Okay," I say. "If you want."

She smiles and rests the thinning spot at the back of her head against the indented pillow.

 

When I arrive home, I have one message on the answering machine. It’s from my boss. Ned asks that I “would be so good as to call” him back. I don’t hesitate.

"Dahlia," he answers in that gorgeous English accent of his. "How are you?"

"As good as can be, considering."

"How's your mum?"

"Hanging by a thread still."

"I'm so sorry."

"How's the office getting along?" What I wouldn't give to go in and have a crappy day alongside everyone else. When they told me Momma had little time left, though, I took family leave right away. I didn't want to be arguing with some supply company about a missing shipment while she was taking her last breath.

"Everyone misses you," Ned says. "Especially me."

This thrills me, but I don't let on. "That's nice of you to say, Ned."

"Come back whenever you're ready,” he says, and it sounds a bit like a plea.

Some evenings, I lie awake wondering if I've earned the right to lose good sense and give him the green light. What would it be like, collapsing against his sweater, breathing in his warmth? Paradise, I’m certain. He's a family man, though, and I know firsthand how much kids need a father. Having had a front row seat for Momma's disaster-prone love affairs, I also know that a few months' happiness isn’t worth the years of misery that follow.

"Well, then," Ned says, growing uneasy with my silence, "if you need anything, you know I'm here."

"I do," I say, snapping back to reality.

"You'll be in touch then, when…"

Even he can't say it. "I will."

The phone peals the instant the handset is back in its cradle. I yank it up. "Hello?"

"It's me," a voice says, resentful.

"Lily." I sit back down on the sofa, pulse climbing. "Thanks for calling back."

"Yeah. Look, I can't come."

I expected this, but I'm trying to picture her face. Is she resolute, I wonder, or does she want convincing? Pushing her when she’s set only leads to more problems.

"You know why," she adds.

"Lily, there won't be another chance."

"I know."

"Then why won't you come home?"

"Because. God, Dahlia—I couldn't wait to get out. We lived like slaves. All those assholes she brought into the house, like Sal… I mean, what kind of mother—?"

Lily breaks off, and I know her eyes are clamped tight, her hand is pressed to her mouth to prevent even the slightest sound from escaping. “She didn't mean what she said that day.” I clutch the handset tight enough to crack it. "She was drunk."

"Still defending her, even when her goddamned liver is quitting because of her abuse."

"I'm not, Lily. Come home. Make peace, even if you need to do it screaming. Otherwise—"

"I’ll regret it? Oh, no—I won’t. You know who will? Momma."

"She already does."

A pause. "She told you that?"

"No, but she would if she could. She uses a slate now."

Lily becomes so quiet I can no longer hear her breathing.

"Think about coming home, will you?"

Again, a sudden dial tone buzzes in my ear.

*

Daddy brought flowers for Momma every Friday. They were thick with fragrance and lush with color, combinations of the most vivid colors he could find. Although Rose and I were not quite three when they stopped coming, we both remember the way our mother removed the bouquet from its paper sheath, the way she cut the stems under running water, the way she arranged them in her best vase before delivering them to the coffee table.

This weekly ritual is the only thing about Daddy that we remember.

Everything else about their lives together, we learned from Momma. She'd dropped out of college the year Daddy graduated to marry him. They didn't have much time to nest; my twin and I came into the world roughly five months later, five weeks premature. Rose emerged looking like Daddy, redheaded and blue-eyed, wailing upon arrival. I followed, looking more like Momma—blonde and green-eyed—but silent, making no complaint about the tight squeeze or the sudden temperature change. The doctor thought something was wrong—babies who didn't cry on delivery often had serious reasons why—but Momma took me home the minute they said I could leave the hospital. That was Momma—headstrong and hell-bent on doing what she deemed right.

Rose thinks Momma first cracked after Travis left us. Granddad, were he still alive, would probably say wicked men had caused her ruin. But the truth is that Momma's sanity started slipping when Daddy died. Countless nights after we opened the front door to find a policeman instead of Daddy, I crept down the hallway while my twin slept to watch our mother, who’d sit on the living room couch and stare at the front door for hours, as if certain he'd come through it again if she watched long enough.

*

When I enter Momma's room on Tuesday morning, I have mild déjà vu. The beekeeper is back onscreen, although this time she's seated beside an open hive and explaining the hierarchy of a colony. Momma is rapt for this, her droopy eyes unblinking.

"The males, called drones, grow from unfertilized eggs," the beekeeper says. "They are stingerless, twice as large as the female worker bees, and—well, let’s just say that they’re a bit slovenly. They leave waste around the hive for the females to clean up—but this lasts only until the ladies have finally had enough. Roughly once a year, the females band together to carry the drones to the hive's entrance and pitch them out for good.” The beekeeper rises, grinning. “They even station guards to prevent the evicted drones’ reentry."

A buzzer-like laugh comes through Momma's mask. She grabs her slate and writes, then tilts the board my way. There’s one word there, underlined twice: SAL.

I manufacture a chuckle, averting my eyes. That’s all I can give her.

If Momma had a type, Sal typified it. He wore thick-lensed glasses and lounged shirtless on our couch, showing off a large belly carpeted with dark hair. He bragged about having attended five colleges; he called himself a musician but performed only on street corners. Although he proclaimed himself an avid reader, we only ever saw him watch television and empty snack bags.

One night while Momma and Daisy slept down the hallway, he sat watching Jeopardy while the rest of us cleaned the room around him. "Quit that shit," he snapped, when Lily started the vacuum.

"Sorry," Lily called back over the din. "Can't hear you."

Sal leaned forward, grabbed the cord, and yanked the plug from the wall. “Now you can.”

That really pissed her off. "Hey—I'm cleaning up your mess."

"Why bother? The house looks like shit anyway." He readjusted himself on his concaved seat cushion. "Do something useful."

"You do something useful. Get off your fat ass and find a job!"

"What did you say to me?" Sal rolled off the couch. "Say that to me again."

"Get a job, freeloader!"

He went after her and she dodged, knocking a chair over. Iris and Violet screamed. I jumped from my seat at the dining room table, where I dried flatware.

"Make me," he said, getting right in her face.

Lily tried to push him, but she may as well have shoved a glacier. "You're a joke!"

"Then you’ll find this funny," he said, and he slapped her.

Lily’s head went sideways. She recovered at once, turned her face back toward him, glared to show him she wasn’t impressed. He laughed at this.

Our younger sisters wailed, hugging each other. "Just stop," I screamed, and Lily brought up her fists. Sal nodded, laughing, reading to slap her again. “STOP IT.”

Then Rose flew into the room, a cast iron frying pan in her hand. Landing behind Sal, she swung it full force into the back of his skull. An awful, hollow ring sounded—a stomach-turning clunk as pan met pate—and Sal fell with the grace of a wet sandbag.

The screaming ceased, and all eyes went to Rose. “Well, somebody had to stop him," she said, throwing the pan on the couch.

Somehow, we rolled him onto a hardwood dolly Granddad had kept in the hall closet and moved him onto the front porch. I crept into Momma’s room to get his guitar and duffle bag. We put these next to him out there, then went back inside.

Cold drizzle finally revived him. When Sal sat up, clutching his head, Violet—who kept watch from the front windows—gave a little shriek.

He staggered to the door and jiggled the knob a while before realizing we'd locked him out. "You bitches had better fuckin' let me back in."

"No way in hell," Rose shot back, cast iron pan back in her hand. I’d taken up the rolling pin, and Lily gripped a large bread knife, which she looked a little too eager to use.

His face was against the wood. "When I get back in there,” he breathed. “I'm going to fuckin' hurt all of you."

"If you come back in here," Lily replied, strangely calm, "my sisters will hold you down while I cut your tiny dick off. Got that? You’ll lose what little you got."

We waited. My heart thrashed my breastbone, dizzy with terror and power.

After what seemed an eternity, Violet squealed. "He's going!"

I rushed to the window. Violet was right. Sal ambled down the uneven sidewalk, the guitar slung across his back, the duffle bag strap over his shoulder.

Momma taps her slate, bringing me back to the present. You girls were right to kick him out, she has written there. He was trash.

"You weren't happy with us," I remind her.

She shrugs, wipes the slate clean and writes: Mothers can be stupid sometimes.

I look away. She doesn't need me to confirm this. Not now.

*

The men didn't come around straight away. They came after we'd moved in with Granddad, about a year after Daddy's death.

Rose and I were two months shy of age four when Momma announced she needed the therapy of a Lakota sweat lodge. Granddad had no choice but to take care of us until she came back three months later, her emotional toxins lessened but her midsection increased by the little souvenir she had squirming inside her. Lily was born the following spring.

When our half-sister was old enough for the rest of us to feed, Momma started working evenings at the Old Town Tavern down the street, where she met the rest of her babies' fathers. Some nights, she didn't come home until breakfast. Granddad and she would shout at each other over our cereal bowls. "I'm trying," Momma usually snarled, lifting screaming Lily from her booster chair before fleeing. "I'm doing the best I can!" Granddad never followed her; he'd sit there instead, his gnarled hands trembling.

A few weeks after my seventh birthday, I crept out of bed for a drink of water and found Momma in the bathroom on all fours, blood dripping down her pale legs. "Call 911," she told me in uneven, raspy breaths. "Tell them your Momma’s lost a baby." Confused, I'd rushed to the telephone and repeated this to the dispatcher who'd answered the call. "Come and help us find it," I said.

When Momma came home from the hospital, she told us the baby had been a girl—no surprise there, she said, because she couldn't make boys—and she'd named her Hyacinth because every girl deserves a name, even a dead one. Granddad said nothing after she left to lie down; he only stared at the wall before mumbling something and heading off to his own room.

For a time after the miscarriage Momma became dependable, coming right home after her shift. Then Travis, an old high school boyfriend, started showing up at the tavern. This time, only Lily was surprised when Momma’s belly began to swell. By the time Iris was born, he was somewhere in Montana trying to “find himself,” working on a horse ranch.

Granddad died in his sleep around Thanksgiving of that same year—a stroke, the medical examiner said. Momma thought she’d caused it. She found grieving easier alongside Max, a surly construction worker who moved in when Momma told him to and moved out when Momma told him Violet was on her way. His leaving made her swear off men again—until Travis returned two years later, contrite and interested in getting to know his preschool-aged daughter. Momma, who'd never really gotten over him, was all too happy to cooperate.

*

At lunchtime, I step off the bus and walk the uneven sidewalk homeward, not looking when the catcalling men on one porch start in. A green Ford Taurus is parked at the curb in front of the house. I slow to examine it before I open the gate and head up the walkway.

I realize after I've closed the front door that someone else is there. A large black bag sits on the floor by the door and noises come from the kitchen. I'm all set to run when I hear the tea kettle whistle. Intruders don't make tea.

"Who's there?" I call out, but I already know.

My sister comes through the archway, her lava-red hair cropped into a neat pageboy, her thin frame made even slighter by her fitted black pantsuit. "Dahlie," she says, reaching for me.

"Rosie." I pull her to me and bury my face in her neck, squeezing her so tightly she begins to chuckle. "Sorry," I say, releasing her. "I'm just so glad you're here."

"I'm here because you asked me to be." Rose motions me to the kitchen. "Come on. I'll make you a cup."

Her slender fingers tighten around her teacup while I give her an update on Momma's condition. Her face twitches once or twice but is otherwise bereft of emotion. "She won't make it to Sunday?"

"Not likely."

"Well, then, at three o'clock we should get our sisters."

"Betty will freak if we show up unannounced."

"Screw Betty."

I realize then that what I needed most was her attitude.

*

"He's gonna stay this time," Rose whispered through the dark to me after Travis tucked us in. He'd come back for Iris's sake but ended up fathering all of us: helping with homework, playing games, making sure we brushed before bed. Momma hadn't been so happy since Daddy died. I prayed that Rose was right.

But then Momma grew annoyed with Violet climbing up her shirt and felt sickened whenever spaghetti sauce simmered on the stove. She didn't tell Travis right away. I'd guess she was hopeful he'd propose before the news had to be broken. The night Travis figured out she was expecting, he freaked and packed a bag while we girls slept.

Not long after he left, Momma turned to the only effective painkiller she could get without a prescription. Daisy was spared the long-lasting effects, but Momma's dependency was far from casualty-free. Not only did her drinking kill one vital organ, it plucked six of her girls away from her like petals from a dying flower.

*

When the Taurus pulls into the driveway, Betty barrels out the front door, her pin-straight golden hair oppressed by a tortoise-shell hair band. "You didn't call!" she cries, her arm slicing the air like a manic soccer referee. "You can't do this. We have rights!"

"Our mother is dying," Rose tells her.

I lean across Rose, addressing Betty through the driver’s side window. "We'll bring them back in two hours."

"Travis!" Betty screams at the house, hugging her pink acrylic sweater.

The screen door opens, and seventeen-year-old Iris emerges, curly ash blond hair blowing every which way. "Hey," she calls, running over to us.

"Get back in the house!" Betty shrieks at her.

"What—are you on crack?” Iris asks. “I haven't seen Rose in, like, years."

"We're going to the hospice," Rose tells her. "To see Momma."

Iris looks stunned, and I realize Betty has kept the news to herself. "Is she bad?"

"Real bad," Rose says.

"I'm going," Iris announces, pulling the backdoor handle.

"You're not! Travis!" Betty calls again. "Get out here!"

The door swings open again, and Travis appears, thirteen-year-old Daisy trailing him. At once, I'm struck by how much she looks like our mother.

"What's going on here?" Travis demands upon reaching our car.

"We want to take our sisters to the hospice,” I say, interrupting Betty for a change. Just this once."

"You can't just come here and pick up the girls whenever you want," Betty snaps. "It's a school night! Iris, get out of the car."

Iris puts on her seat belt instead. "I'm going too," Daisy says, running around the back to the other side.

"Neither of you are going anywhere," Travis says. "You have homework."

"Our mother is dying," Rose repeats, incredulous.

"You still need to clear this with us first!" Betty retorts.

"Travis," I say, my voice firm and rational. "If Iris and Daisy don't see Momma now, they may never get a chance again."

He considers this for a moment. "I'm very sorry to hear that, but—"

"What would Jesus do, Travis?" Rose interrupts. "Huh? What would Jesus do in this situation?"

He looks as if Rose has just horse-whipped him. Anger billows from Betty's ears. "Don't use the sweet Lord to defend what you're doing!" she screeches.

But Travis knows he cannot argue the point. "Two hours."

"Thank you," I say, and with the sound of Daisy's seat belt clicking, we're off.

 

Rose parks in the closest spot she can find to the hospice entrance. "Nobody run," she commands, releasing her seat belt. "We go in as a family."

"Oh, good," the counselor says when she sees us. "Beatrice is awake."

I lead my sisters to the room. "Momma, I have a surprise."

She turns her head and gasps when she sees her other girls. Her eyes spill sudden tears.

Iris and Daisy run to her. Rose and I hang back to watch Momma hug them using all the strength she has left. Momma opens her eyes, looks to my twin and mouths her name.

Rose moves so fast, at first I think she's falling. She brings my prone mother's hand to her cheek. "Hello, Momma," she says, voice cracking as she settles beside her.

Momma makes a good sound, and Rose leans over to kiss her. I wander to the window while my sisters fuss over her—the real her, the sober her, the one they've been denied for so long. I marvel at the steadily moving traffic, the strolling pedestrians, the people outside having a normal day, a day in which their mother isn't about to die.

"Dahl," Rose says, then I hear Momma tapping the bed rail.

I settle in the chair Rose has surrendered. Momma's tear-streaked face is filled with a happiness she hasn't known for a long time. She grasps my hand and pulls it close to her heart. "What is it Momma?" I ask.

Blinking, my mother rasps, "Thanks."

*

When Rose and I were in kindergarten, Momma was summoned to school to watch me walk.

The school nurse led me into the gymnasium where Momma stood waiting, her hair pulled back in a hasty ponytail, sleeping Lily cradled against her faded denim shirt. "Let's get on with it," Momma said.

"Dahlia, I want you to walk this balance beam," the nurse said, lifting me up so my feet rested on the edge. "Just walk to the end without falling off."

It wasn't more than a foot off the ground, but I remember feeling panic—perhaps because Momma had been called in to watch. I inched forward a bit. The nurse called out, "A little faster, dear." She had a stopwatch in her hand. Hurry, I thought. I took two quick steps forward and fell right off. Momma rushed forward to catch me with her free arm.

"This is what I was telling you about," the nurse said, not moving from her spot. "This child needs special classes."

"She rushed it." Momma helped me up and brushed the floor dust from my blue gingham dress before taking my hand. "Let her try again."

"Mrs. Campbell…" The nurse looked as if she tried hard to be patient with Momma. "We have all the information we need. Dahlia has other difficulties, too. She hardly speaks—"

"That's because her twin does the talking for both of them."

"She needs remediation, Mrs. Campbell. She isn't like other children."

"Now, you listen," Momma said, pointing a finger at her. "Nothing's wrong with my girl. She functions like her twin in every way. So what if she doesn't talk so much? So what if she can't balance as well as you'd like? It doesn’t mean anything."

"I think you should let us—"

"No," Momma said. "I won't." Then she pulled me toward the gymnasium door.

We emerged into an empty school corridor. "Where's your classroom?" Momma asked. I pointed, and she led me onward.

At the classroom door, she knelt down in front of me. "You listen to me, Dahlia," she said, cupping my face with her free hand. "I know you can do whatever you set your mind to. Maybe you aren't ready to do some things right now, but you’ll get there. I'm not letting them tell me anything. I won't ever give up on you."

When I nodded, she smiled and struggled back to her feet, Lily still dozing against her bosom. "Okay, then," she said, opening the classroom door for me. "You go back in there and work hard for Momma."

And without a single word of affirmation, I scampered inside.

*

Rose doesn't speak about the visit until Iris and Daisy are returned to Travis and Betty. "If I'd known how much Momma's changed,” she says, turning at the street corner, “I'd have come sooner."

"She’s different when she’s sober," I say.

“I still can’t believe that when told Lily had blown her off, she wrote, 'I can’t fault her for doing what I’d do.'" My twin rests her left elbow against the driver's side window and presses a hand to her forehead. "I wanted to call Lily right then."

"We can try her tonight," I reply.

"Yeah, let me talk to her this time. Maybe I can convince her."

*

Three weeks after we tossed Sal out, Momma told us the news in a casual way, as if speaking to a group of friends over Sunday brunch. "I'm gonna name this one Freesia," she said. "That's pretty, right? I thought about Daffodil, but people would be jerks and call her Daffy."

"Tell me you're joking," Rose said, stricken.

Momma frowned, swaying in her seat. "Why would I joke?"

Lily threw some cereal bowls into the sink. "Christ! Another fucking baby? In case you haven't noticed, Momma, we can't afford another."

Rose and I gaped at her, horrified yet impressed. We'd also been thinking it.

"We'll be fine," Momma hissed.

"No, we won't! I am so sick of this shit! I thought things might get better now that I can work too, but no—now we'll need diapers and formula—"

"Don't you forget,” Momma growled, “who’s the mother here."

"You haven't been one for a long time,” Lily said. “You're not sober enough. And how do you think this baby is gonna come out, anyway? She'll be pickled!"

Momma stood up slowly, so none of us expected what came next—the fast swing of her arm, the cracking sound, Lily's head jerking sideways. Rose jumped up to bear hug Momma from behind. Iris screamed, and Daisy began to cry. Violet ran from the kitchen, hands over her ears.

I was too stunned to breathe, let alone move.

"I HATE YOU," Lily screamed, a hand pressed to her stinging cheek. "I FUCKING HATE YOU!"

"Then LEAVE, you little bitch!" Momma snapped. "I never wanted you anyway."

We all froze.

Lily took it like a champion, unblinking, her mouth tight. "Fine," she said. "I'll go."

Momma snorted, still struggling against Rose's now catatonic hold. "No!" I was surprised to hear my own voice speaking. "Lily, she's drunk. She doesn't mean it."

"Don't tell me what I mean," Momma said, breaking free from Rose.

"Shut up," I told her, rising. "Lily…"

But Lily's feet pounded toward the stairs and then up to her bedroom.

"Happy now?" I asked Momma. "She's packing."

Momma snarled at me, opening her mouth to say something I'm sure would have been just as nasty, but then we heard tires squeal and a woman scream.

Rose craned her neck to look out the dining room windows. "Oh, my God! Someone's been hit by a car!"

Momma's face changed.

Rose and I vaulted through the front door. A black El Camino was stopped in the center of the street. We ran to where some people had gathered around a body.

Violet's body.

"No," wailed Rose, dropping down on the crumbled curb.

Momma staggered past me. I could smell the scotch, the stink of it fogging from her mouth and nostrils. She pushed a man aside and knelt down.

"Vi, baby?" she asked, dropping down, leaning over her. "Vi? Baby, open your eyes." Momma slipped a thick hand under Violet's neck. "Open your eyes, baby. Violet… Damn it, open your eyes."

 

Violet was laid to rest beside our grandfather. Two weeks after that, Freesia decided she wasn't sticking around either and came the same way Hyacinth did—much too early to survive. Once the ambulance carted Momma off to the hospital, Lily said her final goodbyes and, using her first paycheck, took off for the reservation in South Dakota where her father lived.

With little more effort than what it took to put a bottle to her lips, Momma had lost three of her girls. But she still wasn’t done. After her discharge, she began ordering delivery of enough gin to deaden her grief. Soon she began hearing things. Under the circumstances, Travis—who'd just returned to New York with an infertile, born-again Christian wife—felt more than a little righteous about pursuing custody. When Momma failed to show up at the courthouse, she lost Iris and Daisy, too.

Rose left the house not long after Travis came to collect them. "Too quiet," she said. “It was chaos before, but it was also family.”

"I'm still here," I said.

"You can leave, too."

"What about Momma?"

"She's a lost cause, Dahlie. Don't you get that?"

"I can't give up on her."

Rose sighed. "Look, I don't want to fight. If you feel obligated, stay and watch her self-destruct. I can't."

"Do what you have to do then," I said, walking away.

So Rose moved into the city, fell in love with a coworker, married him, went to night school, got a degree and got a promotion. She went from counting pennies at our kitchen table to having an expense account—a poor girl who worked hard for a piece of that American dream we all learned about in school.

To be truthful, I envied Rose—not for her success, but for her ability to surrender Momma. No matter how much proof I had I should do so too, I couldn't. Not while there was still breath in her body, and along with it, a chance that she might change.

*

Lily doesn't answer her phone, so Rose leaves a very detailed message. I listen from the kitchen, knowing that once Lily hears Rose's glowing testimonial, she won't be calling back.

That night, I dream I'm in a strange building that looks like a hospice, blinding white and smelling of disinfectant. A nurse who resembles Vanna White tells me my mother will soon be relocated here. "On whose order?" I ask.

She motions down the hallway to a closed office door. "The one in charge.”

"I want an audience. Now."

"You can't." When I push past her, she cries, "Wait!"

I turn the knob and push through the office doorway, fully expecting God to look just like Pat Sajak. Instead, I find the beekeeper. She sits on a stool among her hives, a serene smile on her gaunt face. Honeybees hum around her, dancing in spiral trajectories between a clear sky and a lush carpet of grass.

I get right down to business. "You can't have her."

"You don't make that call," the beekeeper replies.

"Don't you have enough already?" I ask, advancing. “Don't you have my father and grandfather? And Violet? You've even got Freesia and Hyacinth! Why do you need her too?"

"Because it's her time."

My eyes overflow. "You could take me instead."

"Someday, yes. For now, you stay."

"But why? I have nothing. No family, no friends—"

"Darling, don't you understand yet?" The beekeeper leans forward to whisper the rest. "You're the new Queen."

"No—she's the Queen. She's always been."

"Let go of her, Dahlia. It's time."

Then a truck's muffler kicks back somewhere on the street outside, waking me up.

Rolling over, I stare at the far bedroom wall, listening to my heartbeat, trying not to think.

You should have done something sooner. That's the standard thought; it always comes first. But Momma had done much to hide her condition, hiding in her room and demanding near darkness whenever she came out of it. By the time she'd passed out in the bathroom and I flicked on the light to discover how jaundiced she was, how mottled by spider veins her skin had become, her liver was too damaged to ever heal. A transplant was not possible; the hospice—a comfortable place for her to die in—was the only option left.

If I'd paid closer attention, I think, for all the good it does now, if I'd forced more direct contact, if I'd not spent so much time fantasizing about Ned, maybe I would've seen sooner, maybe I could've done something.

Maybe.

*

"Let's go see Momma after we eat," Rose says when I come downstairs on Wednesday morning to her homemade biscuits with apricot jam.

We arrive at the hospice forty-five minutes later. I'm telling Rose that the next time we travel at rush hour we should use the subway when we round the corner and find the counselor waiting, along with a doctor.

"We tried to call your cell," the counselor says, "but—"

"I forgot to charge it," I answer, defeated.

"Oh, no," Rose says, her voice childlike.

Momma died while we were eating breakfast. Minutes before her last moment came, she'd been euphoric, waving her slate at every staff member who'd visited her room. The counselor presents it. My girls came to see me! it says. Underneath is a maniacal smiley face. "May I keep this?" I ask.

"Of course," the counselor replies.

Rose and I hold hands when we go in to see her one last time. Momma looks strange now. The spaghetti junction of tubes, her bulky finger clip, and her plastic breathing mask have been removed.

Rose waits a few moments before speaking. "She looks… relieved."

I couldn't have put it any better.

*

Flowers are the easy part; Rose and I agree that we want Momma to have a roomful of them. My twin and I struggle, however, with the burial decisions. Eventually we compromise, choosing cremation and a gold-plated urn that will be interred. “Let her be with Daddy now,” Rose says, which persuades me. “She always wanted to be.”

The service is small. We're surprised by some of the people who show—most of the hospice staff, a few of our coworkers, a sister of Travis’s who just adores Iris and Daisy. Betty doesn’t accompany her stepdaughters, only Travis does, but it’s okay because the girls don’t care. Rose's husband, Jake, supports us also. He's a godsend because he manages the surprises that we just cannot, such as the beautiful arrangement Lily sent—red carnations shaped into a big, broken heart.

After the service, Rose and I invite people back to the house, where we serve cake, tea and coffee. Ned kisses me on the cheek before he heads for home. I gaze after him with some longing. Rose catches this and raises an eyebrow; she's seen the wedding band on his left hand. "Don't worry," I tell her.

When the last guests are out the door, Rose comes to hug me. "Jake and I will clean up," she says. "It'll give us something to do. You relax."

"Thanks," I say, wondering what to do with myself. It’s a genuine problem, and not just for the moment. I can’t stay here forever; the house must be sold. I should also find another job, abort my daily temptation. I need to learn how to live like a normal person, and it feels like too much at once. I wish Momma could somehow help me.

Then, I remember.

I boot up the old computer. I thought my mother’s request was crazy, but now I hope her Wheel of Fortune posthumous hotline works. I click on the icon when it appears onscreen, loading the program. "Momma, speak to me," I plead, starting the game.

A PHRASE is the clue. First, I choose "T." One letter block turns. Next spin, I pick "H" and get another. "M" is a bust, so I wait while my computerized opponents go. I try "N" when my turn comes again and net the last letter. I still have no idea what it might be. I buy an "E" in frustration and stare at the four blocks that turn over.

At once, I know the answer.

To confirm, I spin again and ask for a "G." When the first letter turns, I move to solve.

GOD SAVE THE QUEEN, I type in.

The screen flashes with victory. Grateful, I sit back and whisper, "Thank you, Momma."

About the Author

Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen

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Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen fiction has appeared in Proteus, The East Hampton Star, The Best of Every Day Fiction and other publications. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Literature from Stony Brook Southampton, and teaches writing at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island.