LEAVETAKING • by Deirdre Coles

Dinner that night was not a success. Given the stringy chicken, the pallid green beans, Catherine was hardly surprised that her daughter only picked at the meal.

“I wanted to talk to you about something,” Lauren said cautiously, lifting her head.

Catherine tensed, feeling fight-or-flight instincts kicking in. Here’s where she tells me she’s pregnant. Or she’s on drugs. Please, let her just be asking if she can get a tattoo.

“Okay,” she said.

“I was thinking I might move in with Dad and Stephanie.”

Catherine rocked back in her chair. This she had not been expecting. She had no idea what to say, and just kept staring at Lauren.

“I’d still live with you part-time, but we both know the high school down there is better,” Lauren said, talking fast. “And I’d like to get to know Emily better. She is my sister, after all.”

Catherine winced. Correcting Lauren, saying “half-sister”, would only sound petty. But it hurt all the same. As if the girls’ different mothers didn’t matter. As if only their father counted.

And she certainly wasn’t going to bring up Lauren’s reaction when they’d first learned Stephanie was pregnant. In what Catherine considered David’s biggest act of cowardice to date, and that was saying something, he’d asked Catherine to break the news to their daughter rather than telling her himself.

When she heard, Lauren had started crying so hard she could hardly breathe. Catherine hadn’t known what to say that time either, but she’d rocked her daughter for what seemed like hours, Lauren clutching onto her arms like a much younger child.

Right now, Catherine could only say, “I don’t know what Dad and Stephanie would think about that.”

“Oh, I already talked to them,” Lauren said, which hit Catherine like a slap. Knowing how she and Stephanie felt about each other, knowing the delight Stephanie would take in being the first to know… My daughter must really hate me.

“Steph says it would be great,” Lauren continued. “She said she could use the help now that Emily’s almost two and getting into everything.”

So that’s it. Stephanie was one of the laziest women she’d ever met. Catherine had often thought that it was Stephanie’s perpetual air of indolent ease, not just her youth and yellow hair, that had first attracted David. Such a contrast to Catherine herself with her efficiency and her lists.

Stephanie must have had a rude awakening, faced with the demands of a baby, and then a toddler. No doubt she’d expect Lauren to serve as a live-in, unpaid nanny.

Lately, at night, sitting up in bed with a second or sometimes a third glass of wine, Catherine had been playing chess on her laptop. Her mind clicked into chess mode now, thinking three moves ahead. If she put up a fight now, Lauren would dig in. Her daughter would face a parade of horrors rather than admit to her mother that she’d been wrong.

But after a few weeks, a few months of taking care of Stephanie’s daughter, Lauren might come back. If Catherine left her an opening, a way to save face.

But maybe not. From what patchwork glimpses Catherine caught of her daughter’s inner life, Lauren had been having a bad time at school. She was somehow the wrong kind of pretty: curvy figure, troubled skin stretched tight against a slightly too-long jaw, and wide brown eyes that showed every hurt.

A new school might mean a fresh start for Lauren. A chance to reinvent herself as somebody harder, somebody meaner, somebody you wouldn’t dare hurt.

Catherine couldn’t blame her. She’d done much the same thing herself in her own youth, although she’d had to wait until college to do it. It’s a mistake, she wanted to say to her daughter. But she knew Lauren wouldn’t listen, just as her own younger self would not have listened.

That’s when the switch flipped in Catherine’s head, from an almost abstract contemplation of the possibilities to the realization that this was really happening. And she found it hard to speak, caught up in a wave of grief.

She had known that the separation was coming. She knew that her time with her child was running out. But Lauren had just barely started her sophomore year. Catherine was supposed to have almost three more years with her. The few college friends she still kept in touch with had promised her that older teenagers were easier.

She and her daughter were supposed to create a lot more memories together to serve as a bulwark against the loneliness that would come when Lauren left. They were supposed to become friends again.

With her throat so achingly tight, Catherine didn’t even try to give a straight answer. She tried a weak joke instead.

“So, what was the thing you wanted to tell me anyway?” she asked.

Lauren grinned back.  She gave her mother a rare approving look, glad Catherine was taking it so well.

Then Catherine ruined it all by starting to cry. It had been a long time. Her tears burned across her skin.

“Oh, baby girl, I’m going to miss you so much,” she said.

Lauren sat frozen, awkward, and scared across the table. Catherine let herself imagine, just for a second, that her daughter might get up and hug her. But she didn’t. And finally Lauren spoke.

“I’ll still be living here, too,” she said, although they both knew she wouldn’t, not really. “It’ll be okay, Mom.”

“I know it will,” her mother said wearily. “I know.”

Deirdre Coles lives in Seattle, where she likes to come up with story ideas while running unnecessarily long distances.

This story is sponsored by
StoryADay — StoryADay May is an extreme writing challenge for short story writers. Write every day, not “some day”.

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