Lillian: A Short Story


She opened her eyes, rubbed them and stared into the pitch darkness that surrounded her.  She waited for her eyes to grow accustomed to the lack of light, certain that they would, that shapes would begin to reveal themselves as curtains, lamps, a chair in the corner, a bathrobe hung from a hook in the door. She started when the door opened, letting in the sharp light from the hall along with a lumpy figure.  A woman, she thought.  “Mrs Anderson,” the woman said. “You’re awake.”

Now that she could see around the room it was not the room she had expected.  It was not the bed she had expected either and when she looked at her hands  lying on top of the bedcovers, folded corpse-like across her chest, they were not the hands she expected to see.  There was a wedding ring on her left hand.  A plain gold band.  She stared at it and brought into her head a picture of the man she associated with it.  The lumpy person, definitely a woman in scrubs, came closer and asked if she needed anything.  “I need to know exactly where I am and when I got here,” she said.  Or at least that is what she tried to say.  What came out was mainly the words where, when, and some garbled sounds but the woman-nurse?- in scrubs seemed to understand.

“Last week.  This is a place where you can rest now.  You’ll be okay.”  the nurse said in a reassuring tone, and then poured some water and helped the thin, nightgown clad woman to sit up for it. Slowly she reached up and took the plastic cup.   She drank it all down quickly, feeling the liquid unsticking her tongue from the roof of her mouth, lubricating her throat.   With water, came memories.  The  nurse made pillow fluffing motions and tucked her in like a child, telling her to go back to sleep and not worry about anything but she was only just beginning to remember that she had anything to worry about.  She wanted to write it, to write what she remembered, but she would have to wait until morning so she told herself what she wanted to write down as though it were a story, a bedtime story before going to sleep.

There was a cabin and a lake, perfectly idyllic.   He was tall and dark. He  laughed a lot and Lillian meant everything to him.  He taught her to swim, to fish, to strike matches for the fire.  He didn’t like lighters, and said there was nothing so satisfying as striking a match.  Lillian looked like him with dark, laughing, straight eyebrows and just one dimple when she smiled, and the same cowlick that was not tamed by the bangs she cut for herself that summer she was eight.  There was always so much water.  The lake.  The rain.  It always rained there. “Murphy’s Law” he said, but it was no matter because the fish bite better when it rains.  I stayed in the cabin and read my book by the fire but the two of them, they went out fishing in the rain.  Sometimes from the dock, sometimes rowing out just a little ways in the punt.  “Your mother, she worries,” he said to Lillian.  “We don’t want to make her worry too much.”

That place.  And now THIS place.  She wasn’t sure about this place.  It seemed it could just as easily be a prison as a place to rest.  So dark.  So quiet and that lumpy woman coming in to see her in the middle of the night.  She slept some more.  This was a place for sleeping.

It might have been a week later.  “You have a visitor, Mrs Anderson.”  A woman with short dark hair, grey at the roots and obviously needing a fresh dye job, slipped hesitantly into the room and sat in the chair beside the woman in the bed. 

“I’ve brought you some word search puzzles, Mum.” She said. 

“When have I ever liked those?” Replied the woman in the bed.  She didn’t trust this visiting woman or the way she seemed to know about her.  According to her she liked word search puzzles. Children’s games!  She twisted the gold ring on her left hand, refusing to reach out for the games that were offered.  The visitor had to put them on the bedside table. 

“You don’t let him come.”  The woman in the bed said to her visitor. “What do you have to say about that?”

“Mum, no.  No, you’re forgetting.  Dad has been gone a long time, remember?”

“Don’t you Mum me or tell me what to remember.” 

There were tears in the eyes of the visitor and the woman in the bed saw the tears and she watched the visitor get up and leave. Feeling satisfied she thought to herself, she wants me to believe she is my Lillian but I know she isn’t.  Lillian has bangs that stick up a little on one side.  Lillian is ten.  When did my hands get so gnarled and veiny?  Too much water, that’s it.  Always washing with my hands in the water.  It ruins hands.

On another day a woman in blue jeans and a red sweater came into the room.  She said she was a volunteer but the woman in the bed was not impressed.   Reading was bad, dangerous.  Bad things happened.  Red sweater woman sat in the chair and opened a book she had brought with her in a quilted bag.  The woman in the bed knew she was trapped and she had to listen though this would have been a really good time to sleep.  “Short stories”, red sweater woman said, “by my favourite writer.”

 “I’ve read that one already,” the woman in the bed  said but her words went unheard.  As the volunteer read, the woman in the bed let her mind wander.  There was no stopping it really, so not much letting was involved.

Reading was the best thing to do when he went fishing.  I always worried.  Not that he didn’t know how to be safe, but that doesn’t always matter when there is water involved.  I always worried and tried to read to distract myself.  I remember.  I remember that.  He often went alone.  I hated that he did that but oh no I couldn’t say anything about it without him just laughing and telling me I worried too much.  I remember that.  I worried too much.  He laughed.  Water.

The volunteer woman was nearly finished reading the story and the woman in the bed was anxious to write in her journal.  It was all she wanted to do these days.  Her hands didn’t work very well but she could still write.  Whether or not anyone could read it was another matter but that saved her having to worry about privacy.  She was thinking and not listening but she heard the volunteer woman say something that sounded like the story was over, something about a dead turtle and a lost sock or some nonsense.  A too-clever metaphor probably.  “That’s not a happy ending” the woman in the bed said sharply and thought to herself, nothing that comes out of my mouth sounds half as intelligent as it sounds while it is still inside my head.

“Not all stories have happy endings, now do they” red sweater woman said placatingly.  “Realism, that’s the popular thing now. And happy endings are… well there’s nothing wrong with them but they aren’t what really happens most of the time.” 

“I’ve had enough realism, thank you very much.  My whole life has been realism so I don’t need a story to get more of it.”  As she spoke, the woman in the bed wondered if she had always been this cranky.

Red sweater woman sighed and got up and said she had to get going. “I hope you sleep well tonight”, she added to the scowling figure in the bed, who thought,  which is about all that is left to hope for me now.  Then, as soon as she was alone she got out her journal.  She wrote about the day as she usually did and added her usual message for Lillian.  Some day she would be gone, some day not far away, and she wanted Lillian to know how much she loved her.  She wanted her little girl with the dark hair and one dimple to read it and know.  Where was she? Why didn’t she visit?

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