15 January 2014

The Way It Ends - A Lunch in the Park Short Story

Kate woke to the winter sun on her face and the sound of the baby chatting away in her crib. No, Kate reminded herself, not baby, almost two years old. With a sigh, Kate pulled herself away from the warm, sleeping body next to her, undisturbed by the sunshine and the not-a-baby. Kate was always grateful when he slept through the night wakings, but  she wished he would take a morning every now and then, maybe a Sunday morning like this one, so she could sleep late, maybe read a book in bed. 

Kate put her bare feet on the worn rug, rough under her feet, and slipped on her bathrobe, then padded down the hall to a bedroom crowded with bed and desk and dresser and crib and the over-sized personality of a dark-haired not-a-baby who seemed to fill everything.  “Good morning, my girl.”

“Up! Get up! Breakfast!”  That was every morning. Sunday mornings meant a slower start. Kate scattered handfuls of Cheerios, apple slices and chickpeas on the tray of the high chair, mixed muffins, brewed a cup of tea and readied a pot of coffee. 

“Pretty! Booful Flowers!”

Kate smiled at the girl and at the vase of roses on the coffee table. “Those are roses, Priscilla. Uncle Alan bought them for me for Valentine’s Day.”

“Alan here?”

“Yes, he is. And I think I heard him get up.” Kate tipped the muffins out onto the cooling rack and righted them carefully. “I bet blueberry muffins will get him to come out.” Back down the hall she tapped at the bedroom door.  “Breakfast is ready. I made muffins and there’s coffee. Do you want an egg?”

“No eggs. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

“Okay, I thought we might go to the American History Museum. It’s supposed to be nice today.”  

“Yeah, just . . . I’ll be out soon.”

In the kitchen, Kate sipped her tea with her eyes closed, listening. Priscilla crunched through apple slices. The bathroom tap turned on and then off again. A drawer opened in the bedroom. In the hallway a door opened and clicked shut. There was a knock at the door.

It was Liza, the teenaged babysitter from down the hall. “Hey, Liza. Did you forget something last night?”

“No, Alan asked me to come over this morning and take Priscilla for an hour or so?”

Kate frowned and turned, past Priscilla in her high chair, past the vase of red roses, to Alan who stood in the living room, fully dressed, holding his backpack at his side. “I wanted to talk to you alone this morning,” he said, not fully meeting her eyes.  He put down the backpack and walked over to the high chair. “Priscilla, do you want to play with Liza this morning?” 

Priscilla nodded and reached for Liza. Liza looked at Kate and back at Alan again, uncomfortable, wishing one of them would smile at her.  

Almost immediately Kate did smile, at least around her mouth. “Here, let me send some of these muffins with you,” she said, piling half of them on a  plate. “We wouldn't eat all of them anyway and Priscilla hasn't had any yet.” She handed Liza the plate, and then the diaper bag from it’s hook by the door. “So, I’ll come get her in an hour, I guess.”

Liza nodded mutely and led Priscilla out by the hand. Kate closed the door gently and turned to Alan, pulling the lapels of her robe closed. “What’s going on?”

“Maybe we should sit down.”

“I don’t want to sit down, Alan. I want to know what’s going on.”

“Please sit down.” Alan sat on the couch and when Kate came and sat next to him he took her hand. “Do you remember all the plans we had, all the traveling we were going to do?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I still want to do that.”

“So do I. Priscilla’s bigger now, and my dad is feeling better. He could take her for a week or so this summer and we could go somewhere.”

“I don’t want to go somewhere for a week or two. I want to go far away for a long time.” He paused for a moment as Kate pulled her hand away, and then forged on. “I want to stay someplace long enough to meet interesting people and find a favorite cafe and know the shortcuts home at night. And then I want to get on a train and go somewhere else and do it all again. You used to want that, too, remember?”

“I did, I still do. But my mom, and Theresa, and Priscilla. Everything got turned upside down and I got stuck.”

“You didn't get stuck, Kate. You chose this.”

“I chose it? What did I choose?  For my mother to get cancer? Or my sister to get pregnant? Or did I choose for her to have a breakdown and run away and leave me with the baby? I didn’t choose any of this.”

“Yes, you did. You could have kept the original plan and made Theresa move back with your parents. You could have given Priscilla to your father when he offered to take her. We could be in Prague or Sydney or Madagascar right now.” 

“Priscilla was tiny and my father was worn out from taking care of my mother. You know how much work that was. I didn't have a choice.”

“You always think you’re the only person who can do things the right way. Maybe if Theresa had moved home she could have helped with your mom more. And maybe your dad wouldn’t have been so worn out and Theresa wouldn't have run off. You don’t know how things would have been. You just assumed Theresa would screw everything up so you took over. You chose for her, and you chose for me, too. You never asked me what I wanted.”

“It’s my sister. I know how she is. She would have run off no matter what. And what was I supposed to do with my niece? Just leave her?  What if it had been your niece?”

“Well then I would have dealt with it. But I wouldn't have expected you to deal with it. I wouldn't have just assumed that you’d deal with it. I would have told you to go without me. I wouldn't have held you back.”

“Did I hold you back?” Kate’s eyes began to fill and she blinked back tears. “I thought you wanted to be with me.”

“I did.” Alan reached for Kate’s hand again, but she pulled away. “I still do. I just . . . I can’t right now. My twenties are slipping away. I’m supposed to be traveling and instead I’m here, playing house with you half the time and living with my parents half the time. I have all this money saved for traveling I'll never do if I stay with you.”

“If?”

“I bought a plane ticket. I quit my job. My flight is on Tuesday.”

“Tuesday? Like the day after tomorrow Tuesday? Don’t you need to think about this some more?”

“I have been thinking about it. I bought the plane ticket on New Year’s Day, and I gave notice at work two weeks ago.”

“And you’re just telling me now? What the hell was last night? Why the flowers and the dinner and the stupid violinist?”

“I wanted one more great memory with you, Kate. I didn't want to ruin our last weeks together. I still love you. I think I’ll always love you. You were the first real love of my life.” Alan reached into the front pocket of his backpack and pulled out an envelope. “I wrote you a letter. I knew I wasn't going to be able to say this the way I wanted to.  I hope . . . I don’t want to lose your friendship, Kate. You've been the most important person in my life since Freshman year.”

Kate stared at the envelope for a moment before she stood up, walked to the front door and opened it. “Get out,” she said, her voice low and unsteady. “Take your letter and your flowers and get out.”

“Kate . . .”

“I said get out!”

Alan stood. “Kate the neighbors will hear you.”

“The neighbors? The neighbors? You mean like the babysitter? You might as well have told her you were breaking up with me. Or do you mean her mother who is probably standing at the door right now?” Kate turned out toward the hall. “Are you getting this, Lena? His plane leaves on Tuesday and he’s only telling me now because he loves me. And I’m telling him to take his bullshit and go.”  She turned back to Alan. “Does that about cover it?”

“Kate, please don’t be this way.”

“I will be any way I want to be. You don’t get a say anymore. Now go. Get out while I am still this way.” Kate stopped and took a breath, staring at the floor. “If you don’t leave before I start crying I will never forgive you.”

Alan put the letter on the table, pulled out his wallet and put a twenty dollar bill next to it. “That’s for Liza.”  He picked up his backpack and started to leave. At the doorway he paused and brushed his fingers across Kate’s cheek. “I’m really sorry.”

Kate kept her head down, her eyes focused on a single nail in the coppery strip of metal that marked the threshold. Alan left, taking the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. Kate did not move until she heard the fire door shut behind him. She looked up and saw the letter and the flowers on the table. In a flash she pounced on them and was back at the door before it could swing closed. Across the hall she dumped the letter, the flowers, and the vase into the garbage chute, holding the flap open until she heard the glass breaking in the basement.  Back in her apartment she slammed the door shut, and then stood in the quiet emptiness.

There was no one to call. Her mother was dead. Her sister was missing. Her best friend has just walked out the door. Kate sat down on the couch and stared at the spot where the flowers had been.  

There was gentle knock at the door, then the handle turned and the door opened. “Kate?”

“I don’t really want to talk right now, Lena.”

“Oh, I know, honey,” Lena said softly as she came and put her arms around Kate. “I didn't come to talk.”

Kate leaned her head against Lena’s shoulder and sobbed.

(Read more about Kate and Priscilla in Lunch in the Park.)

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