British Columbia, Canada
The lace edging on the cream curtain’s trim was yellowed, a curled loose thread hanging at the very end of its sloppy knot keeping it from touching the dead fly society creating a biohazard at the window frame. Perfect to hang over the dirt-covered hardwood floor, that one unsightly scrape from a thrifted greyed sofa they’d scrounged up and dragged into the living room, only to have it etch its history as another one of Ma’s hysterical acts of everything-is-just-fine-if-we-ignore-it. Instead of another scrap project, the last of its kind being a ragged wool rug that teetered between clean and just unruly enough, is nothing. A big, old, empty. The kind of empty that echoed a breath and pronounced creaks in the infrastructure that whispered silently otherwise.
Ma would’ve hated it.
Nasima could taste the remnants of the sickly sweet soda she’d drank fifteen minutes ago. Maybe more if she bothered to think. It soured her breath when she exhaled, fingers sticking together where the pop had dribbled from its aluminium can, pooling into knuckles and under nail beds. She ran her tongue over her molars, once, twice, then again and again until the tip of the paling muscle gave up, numbed from the barbed enamel.
Ora didn’t come by until later, when Nasima’s entire world is packed away into cardboard boxes driving away without even a wave farewell. Should’ve expected it. Trash treated trash like trash. Comparatively, Ora was all tall and elegant, silk clothes and hair done with pins patching her together, an otherwise vacant body decorated with falsities. Lying honestly. Ora was good at that.
“Sold it,” Nasima muttered when Ora inquired about the missing furniture. A weak grin. “Should be done by the weekend. No more house, woo. I’m crashing with Tiger for a bit until I figure stuff out. The, uh, estate agents or whatever said they’ll take care of the practical things, but I’m keeping an eye on it.”
Ora’s slender arm stopped where it was digging around her purse. “The ones your Ma hated? ‘Cause they scammed the charity group she helped out in? What’s it, the safe ejection site downtown?” Ora asked, raising an eyebrow as she took out a cigarette pack. Smoke between pursed lips, Ora extracted a small, pastel pink lighter from inside her shirt, chipped nails catching a spark on her cigarette. Inhale. Exhale. She blew upwards into the frisk air, smoke curling towards the streetlamp. Nasima watched it cut and disappear abruptly exiting the light, as if it’d never existed at all.
Ma had barely worked at the shelter. Wasn’t a scam, but obtuse service. Two weeks tops before she’d been forced to stop, and Ma had managed to make as many connections as possible to make Nasima’s life harder. “Yeah.”
Another exhale. “It would be easier if your mama was dead,” Ora told her, tucking the lighter back inside her bra.
The edges of Nasima’s mouth ticked down and her eyes darkened as they drew closer. Before she could speak, Ora flicked her pinky at Nasima’s nose with the hand propping up her smoke. The burning amber skimmed the bump of her nose bridge, the sharp assault of menthol tobacco melting crinkles into dark skin along the smeared ash. It itched. At Nasima’s kittenish startlement and displeasure, Ora threw her head back. The long expanse of her neck pulsed with laughter, coated with sweat that stuck the sheer fabric of her collar to skin.
“I’m serious,” Ora said. “Dead dad, mama losing her marbles – Kev’s on my ass for missing shifts to drive you places. Apparently, helping out a family friend with her cooky mother doesn’t mean shit when it’s holiday season. Not that this would’ve been an emergency anyway, but you know I’m here for you. Even if I think you should just give up.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“You want to do it.”
It’d be easy. Nasima had been offered that, too, at the care home. I know you said otherwise, but it’s never too late to change your mind. It’s difficult, even when you’re not young. Your mother would be under good care, the round nurse had told her, an exhausted, practised smile on her lips framed by sagging cheeks and pale blue eyebags. Mariam isn’t the first of our dementia patients and won’t be the last, but she’ll have every bit of attention and support she needs. An understanding hand on her shoulder, one after a month of unguided confusion and anger and grief. Snap. Nasima had pushed past Isabel, or Isabella, possibly Elizabeth’s scrubs and stomped down a stupid, carpeted hallway, an ugly portrait of a patron saint baby mocking her with unwavering eyes following her all the way to the stairwell.
Ma would’ve hated the carpet. Maybe paint over the baby, call it her new muse. Replace the graduation photo over the front door, its water-marked print stashed somewhere else among the bustling house.
Take two, Nasima’s hand stuttered over the pamphlets. Ink marks all over costs, details, options. One, two, then again and again circling yet another clause. Ma had cackled at something on the television in the hotel-esque home she’d been brought to. Yesterday, she’d thrown a tantrum, screeching at everyone and Nasima. Freaks! Ma had screamed raw, clutching onto upholstery that would’ve never caught her eye before, refusing to leave or stay. Stay away from me! Then eventually, she’d tired herself out. Moments later and she’d giggled, pointing out the ceiling fan and how antiquated it looks, perfect for your vintage record collections, Nasima, dear, and laid in her bed with minimal hassle. In the end, Ma hadn’t even looked over when Nasima held her frail hand and kissed her cheek goodbye, enthralled by the show.
The pamphlets were quiet where they sat at the bottom of Nasima’s bag, the leather strap static on her shoulder. Nasima wished it was thicker, heavier, more a burden on her back than just a folded sheet of recycled paper. Isabel-la-beth’s number was saved on her phone, under Nurse who could make Ma laugh better than you ever had. Take one, Ma told daughter Nasima don’t let me go. Take two, Nasima watched a stranger in her mother’s skin stare back, resolute in her belief Nasima was there to hurt her.
Nasima imagined Ma dead.
Perturbed, Nasima told Ora, “I like that Ma’s alive.”
“Mm,” Ora agreed, words huffy with laughter. “That’s what loving children say about their mamas. Glad to hear it, Nasima. Solid work. Right next to deadbeat dad: deadbeat daughter, extraordinaire. Nasima Kassab.”
“My dad wasn’t deadbeat. His work forced him to leave, and then it killed him,” Nasima grumbled. “Don’t project.”
Ora didn’t answer.
Inhale, exhale. One, two, then again and again.
“I can taste it,” Ora announced suddenly. She spun on her heel, swung onto the fence, knees hooking against the pine. She flourished her arms, bracelets clattering against each other next to Nasima’s ear where she’d landed her arm. “The air, Nasa, can you taste it? Can you feel it?”
“Your death stick?” Nasima said flatly. Still, she shouldered and stood tall, spine unraveling one by one as her chest rose. A deep inhale, an introduction, a welcome of airborne grime and burning gasoline into her lungs. Menthol cigarette smoke, trailing into her nostrils and embedding itself into her clothes like the V of Ora’s fingers. Distant car honks, tires against wet asphalt, cicadas chirping in the background of an almost city-edges, one Nasima had never grown familiar with.
“Smells like shit,” Nasima commented.
Ora snorted. “That too. Look, want your cake and eat it too? You can only make a shitty, shitty cake, Nasa.” Ora stubbed her smoke into the wooden fence and smushed it with the sole of her heels. She spat behind them into the pitch-black ditch and took out a stick of lip balm from her purse, puckering and smacking her lips tacky with artificial flavour. “You love your mama. But you’re walking dead. Do something about it, other than digging yourself an early grave like Pops.”
“It’s not easy,” Nasima whispered, a lifeline in the darkness.
Exhale, inhale. One, two, then Ora shifted. The streetlamp behind her head was a glowing halo that looked down at Ora and said, “It will make it easy,” and Nasima blinked away the heat behind her eyes, burning bright.
The windows warped her reflection as they stretched with speed, tearing through the air with a velocity not unlike Ma’s love. Nasima counted the white painted metal frames of the train, with mundane, blocky navy and mustard yellow details smoothed onto each car as they passed. One, two, then again and again as her kaleidoscope doppelganger looked back at her. Nasima, it mumbled through closed lips, cheeks protruding with blotches of acne on dark skin, darker painted over glossy windows highlighting the glare of the lamps. Nasima, what are you doing?
“I am making a cake,” Nasima whispered back. “For you, Ma.”
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