The January sky, with its waning moon, was a glistening onyx dome, hard polished and pin-pricked with the light of faraway suns. The young woman sat within shadow upon the wide concrete steps of the church; clutching a woolen blanket about her, little enough protection against the cold.
An older woman, worn around the edges, waded through the yellowed light pooled at the curb. Her breath fogged the air, as she made her slow way toward the church. She was bundled in an oversize cloth coat and tattered scarf, and she carried a gift-wrapped box, held before her in both hands, as if it were an offering. The night was still, as she stopped at the bottom of the steps.
“Want some company?” she asked. Her voice carried the rasped edge of a smoker.
The young woman turned a pale hand toward the bare concrete beside her; the older woman made the climb and lowered herself to the top step, gathering her coat about her as she did so.
“Here we are,” she said. “Again.”
“Is that supposed to be funny?” the young woman asked.
“Maybe,” the older woman said. “God knows we could use a laugh or two during these get-togethers.”
She thrust one hand deep into her coat pocket and fished out a fliptop box of cigarettes and a battered Zippo lighter. Her hands rolled through habitual motions, as her eyes remained upon the young woman. The cigarettes and lighter were back in her pocket, even as she drew her first taste of the nicotine.
“You could offer me one,” the young woman said.
“They’re no good for you.”
“Neither is sitting for hours on cold concrete,” the young woman said. The older woman sighed.
“You could call me Mom,” she said. She drew in another lungful of smoke.
“No, thank you.”
The older woman stubbed her half-smoked cigarette upon a worn step edge and transferred the gift from her lap to the open patch of concrete between them. The young woman turned her head to look at it.
“Happy birthday,” the older woman said. She waited, but the young woman remained silent. “It’s a — ”
“It’s the same thing you brought me last year,” the young woman said; interrupting. She pulled the blanket even tighter about her. “And we’re going to sit here and repeat the same things we said last year, too.”
“Why do you say mean things like that?” the older woman asked. The young woman shrugged; the movement was all but hidden by her blanket.
“It’s the truth, isn’t it?” she replied. The older woman reached out but the young woman drew away.
“Oh, Baby,” the older woman said. “Please understand. I was just a kid and all alone; no one even knew I was pregnant.”
“Is this the part where you tell me how you crawled into the bushes outside your dormitory and delivered me all by yourself?”
“There’s no need to be a smart ass,” the older woman said.
“And then trudged here through the snow, with me swaddled in a blanket, and left me for someone else to take care of?”
“You would think,” the older woman said, “that after twenty-two years, we could manage some sort of peace.”
The young woman did not respond. They sat in silence for a time. At last, the young woman put her hand upon the steps, next to the gift.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Tell me the story.”
“Not tonight. And you can yell at me, if you want; God knows I do it enough.”
The older woman coughed and fumbled in her pocket for her smoking gear; she drew it forth but then sat without moving, staring at a single remaining cigarette.
“I swear,” she said; not looking away from the cigarette. “I thought it was the right thing to do. I thought this church would be a safe haven; that somebody else could take better care of you than I could, could give you a better life.”
She returned the lighter and the solitary cigarette to her coat pocket.
“Will you forgive me?” she asked; still not looking at the young woman.
“You ask that every year,” the young woman replied.
The older woman stood; she moved down the steps, wobbling, as if she just was learning to walk. At the bottom, she stopped but did not turn to face the church.
“Maybe next year?” she said.
“See you then.”
The older woman shuffled toward the street. The young woman remained upon the steps.
“I’ll be here,” she said. And her words were no more than an echo.
K.C. Ball is a retired newspaper reporter and media relations coordinator. She lives in Seattle, a stone throw from Puget Sound and she writes because if she doesn’t, she”ll just burst. In addition to Every Day Fiction, her flash fiction has been accepted for publication in Boston Literary Magazine, Fear and Trembling, Murky Depths and Morpheus Tales. K.C. blogs at nowplayinginseattle.blogspot.com.