THE READER • by Pat Hart

“I’m just saying, it seems fucked up to tell her, she doesn’t even know who he is anymore,” Jenny said.

“It’s more fucked up not to tell her,” Susan said.

The sisters were continuing the argument they’d been having via cellphone as they drove to St Barnabus’ Senior Nursing Center. Near the entrance they passed a cement statue of a man in robes with a hipster beard and huge disk behind his head.

“Who’s that?” Susan asked.

“St Barabbas?” Jenny said, wickedly swapping the placid Barnabus for the infamous sinner.

“Give us Barabbas!” they chanted, laughing.

They found their mother in the dayroom near a window with an open book in her hands, as though she was reading.

The dementia had come on rapidly. One day she was losing her keys, the next she couldn’t find her way to the kitchen. The doctors were mystified at her atypical symptoms, her sudden and complete break from reality. Yet, despite her inability to recognize her husband, or her daughters, she maintained her lifelong habit of reading, even if it was just an act. She flipped through books, scanning each page top to bottom before turning it. These were not romances or cozy mysteries, but book-clubby books, the best of the literary novels available in the tattered paperback library of the dementia unit. The stack of unread books on her bedside table burned down like a candle while the stack of ‘read’ books grew, as though she was some sort of literary processing machine.

The doctors had never seen this before, a woman so intent on dragging her eyes left to right, and turning the pages of a book, appearing to be engrossed in a complex fictional world and yet unmoored and adrift in real life.

Jenny and Susan pulled chairs up close to their mother. Susan gently eased the book out of her hands.

“Mom? Mom?” she said peering into her mother’s blank, blue eyes. “It’s me, Susan, and Jenny… your daughters?”

Their mother looked at them pleasantly, not a flicker of recognition for either of them.

“We have some bad news,” Susan said, drawing her mother’s cool hands into hers. “Dad has passed, he’s no longer with us.”

“What happened?” their mother said and then, as though a switch had been flipped, her face shifted from slack to keen in an instant.

“Ahh… Ahh…” Susan stammered. Her mother’s hands slipped out of hers like the string of a balloon, just a tickle across the palms.

“He shot himself, Mom,” Jenny said narrowing her eyes, suspicious.

“He’s dead? For sure?”

Jenny nodded and sat back, her spine curving into the molded plastic chair.

“Asshole,” she said. “Where’d he do it?”

“Bathroom,” Jenny said.

“Surprisingly considerate,” she snorted.

“What’s going on?” Susan said.

She glanced at her daughter and then, ever so subtly — just a tick up to the left, rolled her eyes.

With a sigh she ran her hands over her stain-splotched housedress as though seeing it for the first time and said, “C’mon my chickies, let’s get out of here.”

Placing her feet squarely under her knees and using her arms, just as the nurses had taught her, she pushed herself upright with a soft “Oof!”

She shuffled down the hall, her slippers squishing on the linoleum. With each step she regained a bit more of her normal stride, straightened her back, and at the doorway to her room even added a wee bounce.

Jenny and Susan followed behind her, whispering to each other.

“What the hell?”

“I don’t know—”

“Well, I don’t know either.”

In her room, she rummaged through her dresser. She put on pair of jeans, struggling to zip them up.

She cast off the old housedress; the thin fabric billowed and collapsed onto the bed. She pulled on a t-shirt, looked in the mirror, and ran her fingers through a tangle of gray curls.

“Mum, have you been faking?” Susan said.

“Maybe?” she said, tilting her head to one side and smiling. It was the same puckish, pleading look she used to use when she’d lie to them. Everything was Fine! Great! All good! despite blackened eyes, tears, bruises.

But then she dropped the façade and said: “Look, you girls remember… him with his guns, and us all lined up on the couch like sitting ducks.”

The girls looked at their mother’s reflection in the mirror and remembered. Susan reached out and twined her pinky finger around her sister’s, locking them together, as they used to do, their hands hidden between the couch cushions.

“And after your girls moved out… it got worse. Much worse. He would have killed us both.”

The girls nodded; they knew it was true.

Their mother clapped her hands to break the mood and bustled around the room, filling a suitcase with clothes and gathering toiletries.

“You can’t just leave, Mother. There are rules,” Jenny said.

“I’m going to my husband’s funeral,” she said somberly as though aggrieved, her hand fluttering over her heart. So convincing.

Then with a sly smile she said, “I won’t be back. I finished Gone Girl last night.”

Pat Hart writes plays, monologues, short stories, and novels. Playwriting credits include “Book Wench” a one-act play, performed at the Strawberry One-Act Festival, Summer 2015, New York, New York. Published short stories include “The Vigil,” The Writing Disorder, “New Wife vs. Old Wife, a love story,” and “Dragon Boogers” novel excerpt in Voices in the Attic, and “Spider Ball,” Rune. Pat is the founder of Free Association, a reading series for established and emerging writers in Pittsburgh.

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