Golden Seagulls

Short Story by Megan Monforte

Golden Seagulls

Elizabeth Boyd was staring at the big yellow M beyond the windshield of her car. She’d been doing this for so long it had gone blurry and distorted, becoming a pair of small hills, a set of rabbit ears, a golden seagull the way her daughter, Caroline, used to draw them. Every single picture that child drew had birds of some kind, plus trees, flowers, a ragged strip of turquoise sky along the top. And, for a while, at least one unicorn, always with a pink tail and a purple horn.

Elizabeth took in a deep breath and stretched her neck, tilting her head to one side and then the other. She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms and the big yellow M went back to its glaring iconic form. She sighed.

A single sheet of paper lay on the passenger seat, her tangled handwriting spilling off its lines. The application had taken her three hours to finish because she hadn’t wanted to misspell anything or use the wrong words. She’d almost asked Caroline for help, but then she would have had to tell her what she was doing, and she did not want to tell her. Or anyone.

A minivan pulled into the parking lot then, maroon-colored and shiny, with a few stickers on its back window. It eased into the drive-thru lane and Elizabeth was suddenly envious of whoever was behind the wheel. They were only here to order food. She could do that. She could still do that. And maybe she would. Maybe she’d pull out of her parking spot and get in line too, order a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and just go home, forget this whole idea.

But she was out of options. That fact came back to her again and again, like a dull ache that never let up. She couldn’t string six words together on paper anymore, let alone craft a decent lead. She couldn’t even see the keys on the damn keyboard clearly. Everything to the right of Y, H and N had disappeared on her after the surgery. It was just another thing they hadn’t told her would happen, another part of herself she’d lost without warning, and now here she was. Sitting in this parking lot like she was sixteen or something. She’d had a better job when she was sixteen. Reshelving books all summer at her town’s library. It was dull at times, but mostly she people-watched and flipped to random pages in the books she was returning. She’d read a paragraph and try to write the rest of the story in her head. Oh, that was another thing: reading books. Impossible now. She forgot the characters from chapter to chapter.

But she would take any job at this point, because she couldn’t stay home anymore. Puttering, lingering over coffee, flipping through the channels on the TV—it just didn’t suit her. She’d always been a doer and she needed to be useful. It’s why she’d gone to work at the newspaper, and why she loved it.

“Just rest,” she’d been told by everyone who came to visit. Take it easy. Go slow. Give yourself some time. That was her favorite—as if there was some limitless supply of time. As if starting from scratch at forty-two was something everyone did and felt completely okay about.

None of the people telling her to rest would be okay themselves with “just resting” while regular life carried on all around them. That’s what made Elizabeth the most furious. No one understood what she was up against now. Because no one asked. They looked at her, saw that she appeared whole, patted her arm and told her to take it easy. They didn’t see the effort it took her to make a grocery list, tie her sneakers, remember Caroline’s school schedule. They couldn’t feel how depleted she was at the end of the day, even when she’d “just rested,” as they’d advised.

She sighed again and glanced at the application. Without meaning to—it had almost become a tic—she reached up and touched the back of her head, her fingers immediately finding the dent. Her husband, Charlie, hated that she referred to it that way.

“It’s a scar, Libby,” he’d said, many times.

“A scar is flat, or raised. This is a ravine,” she would tell him. From what she could feel—and what she’d read in her medical records—it was a quarter of an inch deep, and about four inches long. It curved slightly, like a crescent moon, right on the crown of her skull. She had no sensation there; the dent was numb, and would always be numb, according to the doctors. But she knew it was there, and she knew it was not just a scar.

Caroline touched it for the first time the day Elizabeth came home from the hospital and said, “Ew, Mom.” She was fifteen.

Before she lost her nerve, Elizabeth finally opened the door and got out of her car. The day was gray and damp, and the air in the parking lot smelled of French fries, which reminded her of the year after she and Charlie were married. He traveled for work so often back then, which left Elizabeth alone and rudderless. Some nights after work she’d drive to the diner instead of to their silent apartment. She’d sit at the counter with whatever book she was reading, order a grilled cheese with tomato, and stay for two hours. She’d read and eat and chat with the people behind the counter, but sometimes they were too busy to chat and that was fine. Just being in the diner—drab and shiny at once, smelling of fried foods and spilled coffee, with its constant clatter of silver and ceramic—made her feel safe. And for a while, she’d miss Charlie a little less. She hadn’t thought of those days in years. The memory made her heart ache now, with something that felt like grief.

Elizabeth checked her reflection in the driver’s side window. Her hair was all gray now—it had grown back that way—and still very short, but not entirely ugly anymore. The other day in the kitchen, Caroline had studied her for several seconds and then said, “The hair is looking better, Mom. It’s sort of...punk rock.” Elizabeth was sure that wasn’t true, though she also wasn’t sure what “punk rock” meant to a fifteen year old. She just smiled and thanked her daughter.

Elizabeth had put on the same clothes today that she’d worn to her other job interviews: a black skirt and a short-sleeved blouse with a Peter Pan collar in a light shade of blue, because Caroline said the color brought out her eyes. She thought about wearing something different this time, because so far the outfit hadn’t brought her much luck—not at the home goods catalog, nor the animal shelter, nor the stationery store—but this outfit was familiar now, and familiar was good.

Elizabeth blew out her cheeks, watching her face in the window, and then caught a glimpse of the application, still on the passenger seat, nearly forgotten. “Oh God,” she muttered. “Useless brain.” She grabbed it from the car and crossed the parking lot.

Inside the restaurant, the air conditioning was at full blast and raised goosebumps. She wished she’d remembered a sweater. Only a few of the tables were occupied, mostly by senior citizens with Styrofoam coffee cups in front of them. Elizabeth tried to remember the last time she’d been here. She’d gone through the drive-thru from time to time, a late lunch or quick dinner if she was covering a story. But not since her daughter was small had she actually been inside to eat. Maybe it was Caroline’s sixth birthday party?

“Can I help you?”

Elizabeth jumped, and turned to find a woman standing next to her. She would never get used to people sneaking up on her right side now. They just materialized out of a black void, not making their presence known until she bumped into them or they spoke to her, startling her half out of her skin.

“Yes,” Elizabeth said, her voice too loud and too high. She thrust the paper she’d been clutching toward the woman. “I’m looking for a job. Here’s my—” The word was gone. Damn it.

The woman waited a few seconds, smiling kindly, then warily. “Application?” Her shiny dark hair was pulled back in a bun and she wore a white Oxford blouse with a red polyester tie that reminded Elizabeth of Caroline’s old Brownie uniform. Just a simple little tie that overlapped and snapped in the middle. Caroline had hated wearing it.

“Yes,” Elizabeth said, letting out a sigh. “Application.”

The woman glanced down at the sheet of paper. “Okay, then. Wonderful, Mrs…Boyd.” She looked up again, kindly smile back in place. She introduced herself as Susan, the assistant manager. “I actually have some time to take a look at this now. Do you have a few minutes?”

Elizabeth nodded, heart still hammering in her ears.

“Wonderful!” Susan swept her arm toward a back corner of the designated eating space. “Have a seat right over there, anywhere you like, and I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

Elizabeth slid into an orange booth made of hard plastic and watched her potential boss disappear behind a door marked Employees Only. The tabletop was slick and salty, so Elizabeth folded her hands on her lap and waited. She still felt breathless after being startled by Susan. Her peripheral vision had been one of the more maddening casualties of the surgery. She bumped into walls and doors and people, and sometimes it took her forever to find something simply because it was on her right side and she hadn’t turned her head far enough. “I feel like a racehorse with blinders,” she said to Charlie, a few weeks into her recovery. “Except I can’t take them off. And I’m not a racehorse.”

“At least it’s only one side, one blinder,” he said, meaning to be helpful. He wanted so badly for Elizabeth to stay optimistic. It made her want to throttle him.

And how could she forget the word “application”? It was written right there across the top of the paper. She clenched her hands and tried to breathe slowly, the way her occupational therapist had taught her, and forced her thoughts back to Caroline’s sixth birthday party.

There’d been a dozen squirmy kindergarteners squeezed into booths, shoving and shrieking; ketchup stains and meltdowns over pickles and spilled orange drinks. And poor Caroline, hiding in the play area. Elizabeth had started to panic when she didn’t see her daughter in the gaggle of kids sitting down to eat, but then she spotted a pair of wide blue eyes peering out from between the bars of Officer Big Mac, a burger-shaped treehouse jail meant for climbing.

Caroline was shy as a little girl and even though she had begged Elizabeth for months for exactly this birthday party, she’d been overwhelmed by the chaos, her classmates running around, all skinny-limbed and pigtailed, squealing her name, demanding her attention. Elizabeth had to coax her daughter out of hiding with a chocolate birthday cake featuring Ronald and Grimace iced on top—and the promise that they could go home as soon as she blew out the candles.

Elizabeth looked around the restaurant now and saw that Officer Big Mac and the rest of the old playground had been replaced with newer, sleeker equipment. She supposed it was safer this way, and at least not as garish, but it made her feel worried, somehow, and hollow.

“Thanks so much for your patience,” Susan said, sliding into the booth across from Elizabeth and startling her again. A frown crossed the assistant manager’s face when she noticed the tabletop wasn’t clean, but in one fluid motion she pulled a cloth from somewhere—a pocket? a magic sleeve?—and wiped it free of grease and crumbs. “So!” she breathed, tucking the cloth back where it came from. “I had a chance to review your application. Tell me why you’d like to join our family here.” She smiled big, perhaps expecting an answer full of equal enthusiasm and eagerness. Elizabeth’s mind froze.

“Well, Susan.” She tried to return her interviewer’s smile as she searched for an answer. “My daughter had a birthday party here...and it was lovely...and I thought it must be a nice place to work.”

Susan’s smile faltered for just a moment. “Well, that’s wonderful! We don’t have too many birthday parties here anymore. Kids today seem to like those loud places with tokens and video games and flashing lights. And parents have such guilt over fast food. When was your daughter’s party?”

“About…”  Elizabeth couldn’t count anymore, backwards or forwards, and especially not in her head. If Caroline was fifteen now, and she’d had the party when she was six… “Oh, it was a while. A long time. Years, actually. But it was a very nice party, a great memory.” The words just fell out of her mouth. She wondered what her face looked like.

“Oh! Well, I guess that makes sense,” Susan said, shuffling papers around on the table between them. “As I said, we don’t do many parties anymore. I probably would have remembered your daughter’s. But I’m glad she had such a good time!” She looked up again with her big company smile. “Now, let me tell you about some of our current openings and everything you’ll gain from a career with us….”

It was six months after the surgery when Elizabeth called the newspaper. She had given herself that much time to get back in form. She’d actually had Charlie mark the exact day for her on a calendar. (“Are you sure that’s a good—?” Charlie had started before Elizabeth looked up, daring him to finish that question. He held his hands high in surrender and circled the date, writing 6 mo. post-op inside the square in his small, neat print.) And on that day, a sunlit Tuesday in early April, Elizabeth had called Mary-Claire and asked for an assignment.

“Oh, Elizabeth!” Mary-Claire had said, after a beat, as if she couldn’t place the voice at first. “How are you feeling? We’ve been thinking about you.”

Elizabeth felt her shoulders tense. She’d hoped her typically caustic editor would forgo the “thinking about you” line, that she would have anticipated its vapidity. They’d become friends during their years at the paper.

“I’m fine, thanks, good as new,” Elizabeth chirped. “What do you have for me?”

“Oh, I—” Mary-Claire hesitated. “We didn’t think you’d be back so soon. I actually…”

Elizabeth’s skin prickled as she waited for Mary-Claire to finish her sentence.

“I didn’t think you were coming back at all.” Another pause. “You know. After the last time we spoke?”

Elizabeth’s mind spun like a Rolodex, flipping through snippets from the last half year. It was all she had: snippets. They were nebulous and murky, a collection of photographs smeared with Vaseline.

She had no recollection of speaking with Mary-Claire.

“I apologize if I gave you the wrong impression,” Elizabeth said, opting for bluster. “But I am coming back. I’m back now. I want an assignment.” I need an assignment, she didn’t say, because I can’t remember who I am. I’m collecting pieces of a puzzle here. Help me.

Mary-Claire had put her on hold for a few long minutes and then given her the opening of a new grocery store several towns over. It would be the biggest one in the county, with its own coffee shop, bakery, pharmacy, photo lab and florist. It was a pathetic assignment, something for a stringer, and tears blurred Elizabeth’s eyes as she hung up the phone because she knew it would be hard for her, and that made her angry. But it was something.

“It’s something,” she kept whispering to herself, and within a few hours she felt the familiar rush—of being on deadline, of needing to put a story together, of having something important to do besides reading words and pictures off flashcards in her O.T.’s office and reciting the current month and year over and over again.

The adrenaline wore off when she sat down to make a list of questions before calling the grocery store manager. She couldn’t make her hand write what was in her head. She decided to wing it instead, but stumbled over her words on the phone. Was she just out of practice, or was this her new brain? He was a nice enough man—Paul something, she can’t remember now—but there was an edge of impatience in his voice. She arrived at the grand opening the next day an hour later than she meant to. She hadn’t driven by herself very often since the surgery, and the closer she got to the store, the more confused Elizabeth had become. Old buildings had been knocked down to make way for the new store and she had lost her bearings. Eventually she pulled into the parking lot of a coffee place and asked someone for help. “Would you mind writing the directions on paper?” she said. By then, the back of her shirt was damp with sweat and her body was humming with anxiety.

When she finally arrived at the store, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was long over, as was the official press tour. Elizabeth went inside, clutching the reporter’s notebook she dug up in a desk drawer, thinking she would find Paul Whatshisname and get a quote or two. But the place was cavernous and cold and crowded with chittering shoppers, and so she turned around and walked right back to her car. After she’d found her way home—using the directions from the person in the coffee place parking lot—Elizabeth called Mary-Claire and told her she’d gotten a flat tire. (Lying came so easily to her now.)

Mary-Claire was sympathetic and said they’d had a photographer at the store and they could fill the page space with details from the press release. No worries.

“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said. She expected to feel humiliated but was flooded with relief. The whole experience had terrified her.

“These things happen,” Mary-Claire said, in a too-kind voice Elizabeth didn’t recognize. “I’ll give you a call when we have another story for you.”

Elizabeth closed her eyes and tightened her grip on the receiver. “No, you won’t,” she said to the dial tone.

“You should have just used your GPS, Mom,” Caroline insisted later, after Elizabeth told her family she probably wouldn’t be working at the newspaper anymore.

“I never needed it before,” Elizabeth said, leaving out that she’d forgotten how to use the contraption.

“It’s a new time, Lib,” Charlie had said, pulling her into his arms and kissing her temple. “I know things feel different, but you’re still the same deep down. Right?” He always used to kiss the top of her head during their hugs—he was just the right height for it—but he didn’t kiss her there anymore.

“Now, I see you used to work at The Record,” Susan was saying now, across the hard plastic table. “I guess that means you have excellent communication skills.”

“Yes,” Elizabeth answered. And then, after a beat, “I do.”

“Well, that’s helpful!” Susan chuckled. “So much of what we do involves interacting with our customers, ensuring they have an excellent experience here.” She looked down again at Elizabeth’s application. “All of our employees are also required to train on the cash register, so that at busy times anyone can help our customers place their orders. As part of the interview process, we ask all applicants to take a math test. Oh! Don’t worry, it’s easy-peasy! Do you have time for it right now?”

Elizabeth stared at her. There was always a catch. Every job interview she’d been on, there was something that tripped her up, some deficiency that came to light and robbed her of the chance to prove herself relevant. Everything was measured extrinsically, even in her recovery. Being alive wasn’t enough. It was always, “Can you stack these blocks with your left hand?” and “Who is the president?” and “What word was on the card I showed you five minutes ago?” The doctors and therapists wanted data for their charts and Elizabeth hated all of it. I’m here and I’m breathing, she often thought, wanted to scream. Why isn’t that enough?

“Well, math has never been my strong suit,” she said now, to Susan, forcing a jovial tone. “But I will give it my best shot.”

“Wonderful!” Susan pulled a sheet of paper from a file folder on the table and slid it across to Elizabeth. “I am supposed to give you five minutes to finish these, but I really think that rule is for kids who are still taking math class every day.” She winked at Elizabeth and handed her a pencil. “I’ll give you ten minutes, okay?”

“Thank you so much,” Elizabeth said, knowing that ten days wouldn’t be enough time. As Susan left the booth again, the equations on the paper blurred together. Elizabeth rested her head in her hands, knowing she was done.

The bleeding started on a Thursday evening, not long after dinner. Elizabeth knew right away what was happening—the pain was very particular—but she didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t supposed to happen again. A small, tired, fed up part of her thought maybe she could sleep it off this time. Maybe if she stayed calm, it wouldn’t get worse. So she told Charlie she had a headache and was going up to bed. He was watching TV with Caroline.

“Feel better, sweetheart,” he’d called, without taking his eyes off the screen. Elizabeth had made it up the stairs and into bed, but after that—nothing. The next thing she remembered was the ambulance. Charlie wasn’t in it with her and she kept asking for him, or she thought she was asking for him, but none of the EMTs seemed to understand her. The pain was brutal. Like a meat cleaver in her skull—that’s how she later described it to Caroline. Like a million needles in her brain at once. Like the worst ice cream brain freeze possible.

The next memory Elizabeth had was waking up in the Intensive Care Unit, her mouth full of cotton balls. That’s how it felt. The meat cleaver sensation was gone, but she did not feel good. She opened her eyes and saw the top of Charlie’s head resting on the edge of the bed, next to her abdomen. He was in a chair, bent over at the waist, in the same clothes he’d been wearing in front of the TV.

“Ginger ale,” she tried to say, but her throat was too dry. When she raised a hand to touch her husband’s head, he jolted.

“Libby,” he said, eyes bleary with tears and sleeplessness. He smoothed her hair with his hand. “You’re still here.” He picked up her hand—she noted the IV taped to the back of it as he did—and touched his lips to her knuckles. He told her how he’d heard her moaning upstairs and found her on the floor next to the bed.

“I knew what it was,” he said. “Right away. I knew.”

He called the ambulance and then sent Caroline next door to the neighbors’ so she wouldn’t see her mother carried out on a stretcher. “I thought you’d be dead by the time the paramedics got there, I really did.” He rested his forehead on her hand and Elizabeth felt awful for having scared him, but it all seemed far away, like it had happened years ago. Charlie lifted his head again and told her how he’d been instructed to follow the ambulance in his own car, and how many red lights he’d flown through, praying he wouldn’t get killed or pulled over. “I hated being apart from you, not knowing what was going on in there.”

Did he mean the ambulance or her brain? Elizabeth wondered but felt too tired to ask.

“Libby.” Charlie stood and bent over her, his face close to hers. “This can’t happen again. We have to do something.”

Elizabeth studied her husband’s face. The stubble along his jawline was so gray. She’d never noticed that. “Ginger ale?” she tried again.

“If they don’t take it out now, you won’t be so lucky the next time,” he said, his voice thick with feeling. “That’s what the neuro told me.”

The “it” was a tangle of defective blood vessels lodged in Elizabeth’s parietal lobe. She’d known about it since she was nineteen when she’d had her first stroke, and the opinion was that she’d been born that way, with a ticking time bomb in her head. There was a chance it would never bleed again, and Elizabeth had decided to take her chances. The idea of brain surgery was too foreign to a teenager, and too frightening to consider.

“It’s time, Libby,” Charlie said, gripping the rails of her bed in the ICU. His cheeks were wet with tears. Elizabeth hadn’t seen him cry since Caroline was born. He pressed his lips to her cheek and then murmured in her ear. “It’s a common operation. They know how to do these things now. And we can’t lose you.”

Caroline had come to visit after school the next day, still in her plaid uniform and navy blue knee socks, brave face firmly in place until she saw a certificate on the hospital room windowsill.

“Last rites, Mom?” she’d said, holding up the piece of parchment-thin paper that somehow guaranteed rapture for Elizabeth’s soul. “Seriously?”

“Oh, you know these hospital priests,” Elizabeth had said, trying to sound more robust than she felt, avoiding her daughter’s eyes. She hadn’t known they’d administered last rites. Why hadn’t Charlie mentioned that? “They’re a little dramatic. Nothing better to do.” She watched as Caroline turned around and placed the certificate back on the windowsill. The girl’s shoulders were slumped and Elizabeth was struck with fear. What if she had died? What kind of a mother would that make her? The worst kind.

“Come sit down, honey,” she said to her daughter, patting the hospital bed. She held Caroline’s hand, which was cool and soft and nearly bigger than her own. “They’re going to open my head, kiddo,” Elizabeth said quietly. She searched Caroline’s face for questions. “I’m a little scared, if you want to know the truth, but I’m going to be okay.” She waited and then added, “No priests in the operating room, I promise.”

Caroline kept her eyes down and said only one word. “Good.”

Susan returned, as promised, ten minutes later. She slid into the booth again, and smiled expectantly at Elizabeth. “How’d we do?” she asked. Elizabeth had folded the math test in half, and then in half again, and again, until it had become a small, thick rectangle. She hadn’t answered a single question.

“Well,” Elizabeth said, unfolding the paper. “The sign out front said you were hiring friendly and motivated people. I didn’t know I needed to be a mathematician, too.”

“Oh.” Susan glanced at the blank test and blinked a few times. “It’s just that if you’re working the cash register, it helps if you—”

“Do you still do birthday parties? My daughter had her sixth birthday here and she loved it. Well, no, she hated it but her friends had a lot of fun and I could—”

“Yes, you already mentioned that,” Susan was saying, confusion creasing her brow. “We talked about—”

“I could help with the parties.” Elizabeth heard her voice go shrill with desperation. She was mortified, but the words kept coming. “If I just did parties I wouldn’t need to know math. I can hand out the paper hats—do you still have those?—and serve the cake and make sure the kids don’t get stuck on the playground….”

Susan looked down and picked up the pencil she’d left for Elizabeth’s math test. She rolled it between her fingers and Elizabeth thought, This is what I have become. So sad and awkward that people can’t even look at me.

“No one will hire me,” she said quietly, and Susan’s eyes finally met hers. “I had this thing in my brain. I was born with it, and last year they had to take it out so I wouldn’t die, and—” Elizabeth tried to laugh, but it didn’t sound light. It came out rough and jagged. “They took some other things from me, too. Like my memory. I can’t remember what I made for dinner last night, or the code for my ATM card, or the names of any friends my daughter made in the last six months. I can’t see anything over here—” Elizabeth waved her right arm back and forth. “And I can’t be a news reporter anymore, which is something I really loved to do. I don’t even remember conversations I had with my editor or how to get places. Clearly I can’t do math. And no one will hire me because of all of this.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that.” Susan’s voice was full of compassion and Elizabeth wanted to scream. Being handled with kid gloves was too much for her to bear, and also too late. She was already broken. The damage had been done.

“Please don’t—just...don’t apologize.” Elizabeth ran her hands over her face. “I don’t need sympathy. I need to work.”

After several seconds, Susan said, “Maybe if you take the math test home and study? Practice? You can come back another day and try the test again....” But even she seemed to realize that was not going to happen.

Elizabeth took in a breath and forced a smile. “Thank you. Perhaps I’ll do that.” She slid out of the booth and stood up, reaching up again to feel the back of her head. “I appreciate your time.”

“It was my pleasure,” Susan said. She gathered the paperwork off the table and tapped it gently into a neat stack. “If there’s ever anything I can do—”

But Elizabeth was already walking away. The place had gotten busy; it was lunchtime. Many of the tables were occupied now and there were lines at all the registers. She watched one of the employees behind the counter. He was young—in his twenties, most likely—with black hair curling up the sides of his uniform hat. He didn’t smile as he took his customer’s order, but he pressed buttons on the machine in front of him quickly and without looking. He turned to grab a box of French fries from the holding station behind him and filled a large cup with ice and soda before spinning back around to place both on a tray. Elizabeth tried to imagine herself back there and realized how utterly foolish she’d been to think this was her last option.

She’d been out of options for a long time.

On her way to the door, she stopped outside the play area, watching a few kids climb and slide and shriek as their mothers sat on a bench, digging through their handbags or flipping through magazines or chatting together. Watch them! Elizabeth wanted to shout. She wanted to shake the women’s shoulders and demand they memorize everything about their children in this moment. “While you can still remember,” she whispered, tasting tears in her mouth.

“Mom?”

Elizabeth flinched and turned her face to see her daughter standing there with a few friends. Inanely, she wondered if they’d been there the whole time, watching her interview implode.

“What—what are you doing here, honey? It’s a school day.”

“It’s a half-day, Mom. I told you that this morning.” Caroline moved closer, and put her arm around her mother. Her friends walked away, toward the counter to order their food. “Are you okay? I feel like I should be asking what you’re doing here.”

“I’m fine, honey,” Elizabeth said, wiping her face.

“But why are you here? Do you come here a lot when Dad and I aren’t home?”

Elizabeth smiled, remembering again for a moment the diner she would hide in when Charlie was away on business. “No, no. Actually, until today, I hadn’t been inside here since your sixth birthday party. Remember that? With all the crazy kids?”

But Caroline wasn’t listening. She was studying her mother’s face, looking for reasons to worry. She rarely asked Elizabeth how she was feeling, but Elizabeth could always sense her concern.

“I’m fine, honey,” Elizabeth said again and put her hands on her daughter’s shoulders. “Look at me, C. My head feels fine. I’m okay. I was just here for…” She nearly said “a job.” She felt in that moment that it would be a relief to tell someone, to be reassured that it would all be okay, eventually, somehow. But not now. And not Caroline. “I just...I had a weird craving for a Filet-o-Fish.”

Caroline’s eyes narrowed and her mouth twisted to the side. Elizabeth shrugged, as if her hankering for fast food was a mystery to her, too.

“That’s a little weird, Mom.” She searched her face a few moments more and then said, “Well, let me drive you home, at least.” Caroline held out her hand, apparently for the car keys.

“I forget many things,” Elizabeth said, “but I am sure that I did not forget you getting your driver’s license.”

“I have my permit, Mom. You knew that.” After a pause, Caroline added, “Dad’s been taking me out to practice. You didn’t know that, because we didn’t want you to feel nervous.”

Elizabeth looked at her daughter’s face as they pushed through the restaurant’s glass doors and stepped into the parking lot. It happened less often now, but sometimes she could still see her little girl, the full cheeks and toothy grin, curiosity and concern alighting her blue eyes. The braids were gone and her hair had turned a few shades darker, but Elizabeth still caught glimpses.

They got into the car—Caroline on the driver’s side, her mother next to her—and Elizabeth handed over the keys. She watched her daughter turn on the ignition, cautious but sure, and move the gearshift to reverse. It was too much to take in, all that had been happening around her without her knowledge, so she turned to gaze out the passenger window instead.

“Does that sign look like a seagull to you, Caroline?” she asked, realizing as she did that she would probably never come back here again. “The kind you used to draw when you were little. Remember?”

“Hmm? What Mom?”

Elizabeth looked at her daughter behind the wheel, her shoulders hunched forward as she looked both ways at a stop sign once, twice, three times. The blinker click-clicked in the silence. Caroline finally pulled out onto the road and the yellow M disappeared from Elizabeth’s sight.

“Nothing, honey. It was nothing.”

About the Author

Megan Monforte

Website

Megan has been a working writer since high school, when she freelanced for her town's newspaper. She has since used her word nerd skills as a columnist, editor, copywriter, speech-crafter, blogger and coach-slash-cheerleader for high school students anguishing over their college application essays. She was also, once upon a time, fired from the Walt Disney World college program. Traumatic then, irrelevant now, but forever a fun story to tell.