Outside Paula’s window, the leaves were almost gone from the maple tree. She worried about her friend Andrea. Two weeks ago the tree blazed orange and scarlet, and now it was just skeletal branches against the dim and misty sky. And in six months it would bud green and gold. She hoped Andrea would get well. She closed the book that she’d been trying to read, a new translation of the Odyssey for the next semester, closed it on the page where Odysseus speaks with his mother in Hades.
Paula remembered her mother before she died. Young and slender, younger than Paula, who was fifty-two and looking matronly with her big hips. Paula never got to see her mother grow old. She had, at last, forgiven her for dying.
“Paula, dear.” Her mother appeared, wearing the apron Paula had sewn when she was in seventh grade, a cotton print of roses and baby angels with wings. “I want you to study hard.”
“Yes, Mother, I do.”
“I want you to get all A’s.”
“I only got one B. That was in Civics.”
“I know. You hate reading the newspaper.”
“I like reading books.”
“When I was your age, I liked books of fairy tales.”
“Were you twelve once?”
Her mother lightly flicked the tip of Paula’s nose. “Don’t mock your old mother.”
The next year, her slender and beautiful mother drove to the Fifth Street Bridge, got out of the car, climbed over the rail, and jumped into the river. She was thirty-seven. Paula’s brother was ten, and at first he thought she would somehow return. “Mickey expected you to come back a week later.”
“I was truly dead and gone,” her mother’s ghost said. “I missed all of you. Your father, of course, but you and Mickey most of all. I wanted to see you grow up.”
“Look at me, Mother. I’m fifty-two. You must be seventy-seven.”
“You’re beautiful, but I see a thirteen-year-old.”
“I got my Ph.D.” Paula pointed to her framed diploma with the gold-colored seal in the corner. “I’m a professor.”
“Funny, you look thirteen to me.” Her mother touched her own cheek with her familiar gesture of puzzlement.
Paula stared at this young, aproned woman with her chestnut-brown hair and her clear eyes. She wondered what her mother would’ve been like if she had survived depression. Her mother would be judging her: “You should find a nice man and have children.”
“Mother, I’m fifty-two.”
“You could adopt.”
“Mother, that ship has sailed.”
“I liked Evan.”
“You were gone before I met him. How could you have known?”
Her mother shrugged and put on a tricky expression. “I have my ways.”
“He’s dead. Cancer.”
“Perhaps in another pocket of time he would be alive?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I always liked science, you know that. Your father called it woo-woo science. But there are all sorts of things. Horatio says, ‘More things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”
Paula shook her head at her woo-woo mother.
Paula’s cat, Schrödinger, trotted in, tail perpendicular, confident, alert, powerful. She bent down to pet him, and he felt warm and solid.
Paula looked up and saw a vase of wilting roses on the nightstand and an old mother lying on a bed, the golden afternoon pouring down on her. But this was not possible. This mother had white, floaty hair. Her eyes seemed cloudy. This was a future that never happened. The living room had become a bed chamber.
Paula’s head buzzed.
Her cat, Schrödinger, ambled in, now skinny and old. Then Atom, her mother’s cat, came in meowing, stropping her ankles. “Okay, sweeties. I’ll get you a fresh can.” But they weren’t interested in food.
Her father had loved that cat, especially after his wife died.
Atom jumped up on the bed, and the old mother petted him until he nipped at her. “He only likes a certain amount of petting. Such a particular, fine cat.” She smiled and turned her creamy, cataracted eyes on Paula. “I saved him from death. I found him as an abandoned kitten, and I saved him. I don’t know where he is now.”
“We put him to sleep.”
“I don’t know where he is now.” Her mother’s face was infinitely sad. “So many things I don’t know. What is love? Will the universe unravel? Will there be a union of body and soul? Will we see again the people and creatures we loved?”
“And have you been healed of your depression?”
She sliced the air with her hand. “My pain is over.”
“Oh, Mother, that’s good.”
“I love to see your happy face. I can take that memory to eternity. Are you happy, dear? No danger? You don’t have my depression?”
Her cat, Schrödinger, trotted in. In this version her mother was young again.
“I just have a bad cold,” Paula said. “My October respiratory infection.” She coughed for her mother, a little, jagged exhalation.
“Don’t make light of it.”
“Only a mom would take this seriously. My friends get colds and we just pooh-pooh their complaining.”
“I used to get those heavy infections around my lungs, hot around my heart and throat,” her young mother said.
“I feel so sorry for you.”
“That’s in the past.” She waved dismissively. “No respiratory infections anymore. All gone.” She opened her arms wide, as if to display her health.
“Andrea has lung cancer.” Paula wanted to rush into her mother’s arms and tell her about her friend. “Will she get better?”
Her mother straightened the hem of her apron. “I was remembering about the past–that is to say, you were remembering. Anyway, you and Andrea were fighting about who was responsible for tearing the apron that you sewed in Home Ec class.”
“Andrea tore it–she pulled it out of my hand and caught it on a doorknob.” The perfect, unimportant memory made Paula shake her head at herself. She wanted to embrace her mother, but knew she was just a shade. “Will you come back?”
The young mother walked to the door, whispered, “Love,” fluttered her fingers, and disappeared.
Schrödinger meowed. Paula turned, picked him up, and hugged him to her chest.
Cezarija Abartis’ Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in FriGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Lascaux Review, r.kv.r.y, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012 and “To Kiss a Bear” was selected for Wigleaf’s Longlist 2016. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is http://magicmasterminds.com/cezarija/