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I came home from school to find my mom in her room, surrounded by piles of jewelry. I saw everything from gaudy costume pieces to the diamond sets my dad had given her over the years. Her back was to me. She was sorting through each little bauble, armed with sticky notes and labels and markers. Once she had stared at a piece for a full minute, she would scribble something in her tall, loopy handwriting and wrap the sticky note around the object in her hand. Then she would crawl over to one of her piles and lay it neatly with its brothers. I stood in the doorway watching for a while, but I got bored and walked away. I heard the bottle of sleeping pills in my backpack shake and click together as I walked to my room.

“You’re home!” she called, after hearing my door slam behind me.

“Yup.” I pulled the plastic drugstore bag out of my backpack and quickly stuffed it in my sock drawer. I didn’t want her to worry about anything, and I didn’t want to answer any questions.

“I need you to look at these,” she pushed open the door and stumbled into my room, tripping over the flip flops I had just taken off. “Which ones do you want and which ones should I give your sister? I can’t decide.” She set a few rings on my bed, and spread two necklaces next to them.

“I don’t care, Mom,” I hated when she did stuff like this.

“You’ll care when I’m dead! I don’t want you and Sarah to have to go through all of my stuff and figure out what it is and who gets what when I’m gone. It’s a gift for you. I’m preparing everything.” She pulled on the sleeves of her Nike jacket and crossed her arms. Her hair was still in a messy bun and she didn’t have any eyeliner on, so I figured she hadn’t had time to shower since she got home from the gym.

“Fine,” I rolled my eyes. “I like the silver ones.” I picked up the pewter colored ring and the small, bright silver chain from my bed and handed them to her. “Sarah can have the other ones.”

“Okay!” She was unfazed by my lack of investment in this decision. “I’ll put them in your pile.” She scooped up the other pieces of jewelry from my bed and walked out, dramatically stepping over the flip flops. I closed the door behind her and flopped back onto my bed, thinking about the bag in my sock drawer.

My mom had been obsessed with preparing for her own death ever since her dad died. We weren’t that close with my grandpa because my mom didn’t like her stepmom, but she did go see her dad about once a month the last few years of his life. Sarah and I only went once or twice a year, usually around Christmas to help decorate. My grandpa had some dementia, and his wife stuck him in a “retirement home” in Montecito and moved to New York with her “brother.” He had a room in a private estate run by a couple that was probably not certified in any kind of health care service, but his wife made the decision and my mom didn’t have the time or energy to try and change it. Besides, my grandpa didn’t complain much. My mom found some of his old photo albums in a box in his closet, and he would flip through them with us and tell us all about the cars he had and the faces in his pictures from high school and the Navy, but he couldn’t remember my name.

The last time he was in the hospital, his wife finally flew out to see him. He didn’t recognize her, but he did recognize my mom. He always knew who my mom was, probably because he saw her the most, and she called the caregivers to check in on him very often. My mom said he was fading in and out of consciousness a lot, but the nurses promised he was comfortable. On her fifth consecutive day driving up to see him, she called me crying while I was in Spanish class. Her dad was dead. She had walked into the hospital room to see a piece of yellow notepad paper tossed on her dad’s still warm legs with different burial options and prices. His wife was bargain shopping.

We didn’t have a funeral for my grandpa because his wife didn’t want to have one and my mom didn’t know how to contact any of his friends. My dad said we should try to do something. My mom took us out to Denny’s because that was my grandpa’s favorite restaurant, and she read us the eulogy she had prepared while we ate pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches, and all the other customers looked at us like we were crazy. People mailed flowers to my house for weeks, and we had to watch all of them die.

Just when we thought it was all finally over, we came home to piles and piles of boxes blocking our front door. My grandpa’s wife had mailed my mom all of his stuff, after selling all the valuable things of course. Boxes of clothes and photo albums and random paraphernalia were still sitting in my garage, because it was too overwhelming for my mom to deal with. The only thing she knew she wanted was an old purple bowl with a mirror on the bottom if it, because she remembered it being on her dad’s coffee table when she visited him as a little kid. We found that and resealed the boxes.

I knew this was her way of dealing with her dad dying. I knew she didn’t want my sister and I to have to sort through boxes of photos of people we didn’t know and wonder who they were and what had been important to her. But this was excessive. I got up and spent a few hours cleaning my room, hoping to make her life a little easier.

*****

The sleeping pills didn’t work. I started throwing up after taking ten of them, so they didn’t stay in my system long enough to do the job. I threw the bottle in the cabinet under my sink when my mom came into the bathroom with 7-Up and a wet towel.

“It must have been something you ate.”

I nodded.

*****

My mom didn’t work on Fridays, so she spent them working on personal projects. I came home a few Fridays after the jewelry incident to find a copy of her will on my bed.

“You remember where the fire box is, right?” she asked fervently, dragging me by the arm into her office where the fire-proof box with all of our important papers was in its usual spot, on its shelf right under her desk.

“Yes, Mom, I know. Why?” I hadn’t even had a chance to put my backpack down yet. It was heavy with books and P.E. clothes because I had decided to empty my locker that day.

“Your dad and I are going to Vegas this weekend, I just want to make sure you’re prepared in case something happens.”

“Nothing is going to happen. You’re literally going to be gone for two days.”

“You never know. By the way, you’re staying with your Grammy.”

I tried to fight her on that, and I thought I could win with my argument this time (Sarah and my ages combined equaled 27, which seemed like a solid, adult number), but it didn’t work. We had really been hoping to stay home alone that weekend. Sarah wanted to watch all the shows on TV that Mom thought were inappropriate, and I wanted to try again.

My Grammy’s house was always fully and ornately decorated. She was an antique fanatic, and she found things at yard sales and thrift stores that she thought were valuable and filled her house with them. Even the room that I had decorated for myself, with simple silver picture frames and blue lights to match the bedspread, was slowly being taken over by her collections. My mom complained about it all the time. For Christmas every year, she asked her mom for the gift of preparation. She wanted her mom to tell her what was important to her, even if she just put a sticker on it, so my mom would know what to keep and what she could get rid of when my Grammy died. She always got a Michael Kors purse under the tree instead.

My Grammy had these spoons that I really liked. They were small and shaped like shovels and we always ate ice cream with them, even when we got older. She got them on sale at a department store when I was a kid. I figured I would ask for them when she died. I never asked if they were important to her. I just knew they brought me happy memories.

I had been planning on jumping off my parents’ roof, but my grandparents’ house was only one storey high and it was mostly surrounded by grass, so I didn’t think it would work. I sat on the roof for a while anyway, thinking. I pictured my body sprawled on the garden underneath me, and I realized my Grammy would see me when she sat out on the porch to drink her morning coffee. I didn’t want that for her, so I crawled back through the attic window and got in bed, dreading carrying all of my books back to school with me on Monday.

Christina Brown

 

Christina is currently a graduate student in the American Studies Department at California State University, Fullerton. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English (Creative Writing emphasis), and her poems and short stories have been published in places like cul-de-sac, The Island Fox, and self-distributed zines.  Once, she was accidentally on an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and is still recovering.

 

57 comments

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  7. Emily Cann ( Likes: 148 ) says:

    Hey Christina, let me start by saying I totally respect the transition from poetry to prose and its challenges. My primary genre has also been poetry in the past, and my story is one of the first fiction pieces I’ve actually managed to complete. What I like about this story is when you see some poetic elements break through. You have moments that are very well phrased and moving and that’s always refreshing to see.

    Unfortunately, while I did find certain phrases touching, I was not moved by the piece as a whole. And I will be the first to admit, it’s not hard to make me cry. Devastatingly easy I might say. And usually, anything involving suicide is especially effective. Seriously it doesn’t take much.

    But this didn’t make me cry. Actually, it barely made me feel. I think the problem is that the pain of your main character doesn’t come through. It is easy to superimpose our own ideas about death and loss and preparation on to this piece, especially because it is well-articulated and easy to digest (not a criticism at all–I find often narratives of depression are so gritty they are almost too hard to read). This makes the piece meaningful because it is a bit of a blank slate that we want to see ourselves in.

    But the thing is, death is incredibly hard, and painful, and it spurs a million different emotions out of it. Yes it is somewhat heroic of our narrator to make the decision to persevere despite her desire to kill herself, but you’re only barely touching on the significance of the pain. You’re knocking on the door of the pain house, but you have to go inside, make a sandwich, curl up under a blanket and stay there. Your themes are important, definitely, but you’re lacking the heart. This story should hurt. It should leave you angry and devastated and empty and hopeful all at once. I want it to. But it just doesn’t.

    1. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      Hi Emily,

      Thanks for the feedback! I agree that the narrator’s dance with suicide isn’t a very bluntly emotional story, I didn’t really want it to be. I wanted to marginalize her for a few reasons, some of which I’ve mentioned in previous comments. This story was originally meant as an opportunity for me to process some things that my own family went through, but I challenged myself to write a character who was in many ways my opposite to see how someone else might have dealt with it (or really, how I think someone else might have dealt with it). I’ve also always been interested in the way that the narrators in ‘classic’ American literature are often merely observers, like Nick in the Great Gatsby. It’s such a weird trope to me. I typically do like to deal more heavily with emotion, especially when I’m working in first person, and it was weird to shift away from that (especially coming from poetry where emotion is almost always at the center).

      All that being said, I do think that (most) stories should elicit some emotional response from the reader. I don’t necessarily want this to be a story that makes people cry uncontrollably with their sadness sandwiches (which, by the way, was an awesome image). Do you see anything in the story outside of the suicide attempts that you emotionally connected with, or anything you think should be brought closer to the reader to make that emotional or other connection more possible? Always looking for ways to improve 🙂

    2. Emily Cann ( Likes: 148 ) says:

      So I’m not sure what you mean by marginalized. I’m familiar with Gatsby’s narrator, but I would never refer to him as marginalized (he is a white man in New York, after all). I think maybe what you’re talking about is the pedestal writing perspective, which, I’ll admit, I’m having a hard time coming up with other classic examples… It is a common style however, and I like the idea of relegating your depressed narrator to that position, but the style only works if you use the reduced first person to focus on another character. (Nick does this by focusing almost exclusively on Gatsby; I attempted this in my own story, with my nameless narrator focusing only on her older sister, Dee). It’s great to have a character you know very little about, but it’s maybe not as great to know nothing about anyone. Like, if you want to carry this Caraway example forward, which I definitely do as a big Gatsby fan, then the reason Nick works, or that you care at all about him or his stupid opinions and life is just because he is so enraptured by the enigma of Gatsby, and we as readers get to learn about this huge mystery through his eyes.

      My issue with your story is that you don’t quite dig into any of the characters. Like, if you want to go with pedestal, or marginalized or whatever you want to call it, then go for it, but don’t do it halfway. Relegate your narrator to the shadows, but up the ante with one of your other characters, you know? Like the mother, she could be fascinating, the way she’s fixating on her own death, dwelling on it, you might say, but make that more interesting! Flesh out her quirks, give her a more pointed sadness behind the behaviour. You’re telling a sad story, just lean into it a bit.

      Also let’s not shy too far away from the fact that your narrator is interesting. The reason Nick succeeds so well is because he’s boring as all hell. Like, the dude does not matter, he just shines the best possible light on Gatsby and his situation. I told my story the way I did because telling it from Dee’s perspective wouldn’t have the same effect as telling it from her sister’s, who is forced to helplessly watch from the sidelines.

      Finally, I never meant I wanted this to make me openly weep. I meant more like one lonely tear streaking down my face. And only because I’m a crier. But the best stories I’ve read that deal with some darker material (i.e. suicide, depression, death, the like) at least give me a kind of ache in my gut for some reason. Glad you liked the idea of sadness sandwiches though, even if you don’t feel inclined to write with one in hand.

    3. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      Yeah, by marginalized I meant like her own story and thoughts are decentered in the story, not that she’s marginalized by society. I definitely get what you mean with the characterization though. I think the mom character is the one I’m most interested in, and in future drafts I’m most excited to learn more about her. That relationship also makes the most sense to explore, I think. Thank you for taking the time to give such thoughtful, constructive feedback! I really appreciate it. In my opinion, that’s the most fruitful aspect of this competition.

      I see there’s some conversation going on over on your story. I’ll try to contribute tomorrow after I’ve gotten some sleep 🙂

  8. SimonP ( Likes: 19 ) says:

    I had a hard time with this piece. I agree with other commenters that the pills don’t quite work, but overall that doesn’t matter all too much in a story like this (could easily be interpreted as a will to live which comes to fruition in the end, but I can’t even tell if that’s giving the writing too much credit). My main problem is the technique itself. This is a topic we are all familiar with and have had beaten over our heads in literature so in order for me to become invested in a story about death, I need a lot of help from the author which I just didn’t get here. An emotionally detached narrator can be a good method – see Kazuo Ishiguro, Miriam Toews, or our old friend Salinger – and definitely evokes a bleak tone, though this may be a half step too far. I find it crosses over from ‘detached and atmospheric’ to ‘dry and factual’. It is a fine line, sure, but I just didn’t get that feeling of oppressive emotional shutdown that I wanted. There was a bit too much ‘My dad did this’, ‘My mom did that’, ‘My grandpa did something else’, etc.. And the suicide attempt came right out of left field for me; it’s hard to care for such a matter-of-fact character and understand what emotional place they are coming from for such a dramatic event. Overall, there are some good ideas (I definitely like the thought of wanting to ease the burden of others overpowering the will to take one’s own life) but they need deeper motivation and style. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking writing about important topics makes the writing important regardless of its quality, as I did for years!

    1. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      Thank you! Those are some interesting points to consider. My home style is actually poetry, so balancing different characters and storylines in a prose/fiction piece is always something I grapple with. It seems like everyone wants to know more about the narrator and less about the surrounding story, which is interesting to me because I challenged myself to write from the perspective of a character who herself is sort of marginalized in the story (white American men have been doing it forever, I thought I should at least give it a shot. Here’s to you, Nick Carraway). Focusing on her characterization would definitely change the piece a lot. Things to play with in future drafts! 🙂

    2. SimonP ( Likes: 19 ) says:

      I wouldn’t necessarily say you should focus less on the surrounding story, it is very important to the arc. My concerns lie more with style than content. The narrator needs personality – which is understandably hard when also trying to convey emotional detachment. In cases like the authors I originally mentioned, this comes from a unique voice with their narrators having distinct speech/thought patterns and their reactions to events being unpredictable. Again, it’s a fine line between fact delivery and character-driven response to events. I would sooner see you take a step back and not rely on suicide to up the dramatic tension of the story and focus on the relationship with the family through the lens of your narrator.

    3. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      Now you’re writing a different story! Hijacker! Haha thank you for the feedback!

  9. secpav ( Likes: 263 ) says:

    I think the piece leaves a bit to the imagination. It strikes a different chord depending on the life experience of the reader, which in turn may cause the reader to fill in the intentional blanks….or in some cases not.

  10. amandawheaton8 ( Likes: 329 ) says:

    I’m wondering why the main character is trying to kill herself? Is it a cry for attention so her death obsessed Mom will notice her? Or maybe because her life lacks purpose? I like her , I just wish I knew her a little better….

    1. rgy ( Likes: 11 ) says:

      I wondered the same thing. At first, I thought she had the sleeping pills because she wanted to hide them from her mom, who wanted to kill herself as part of her preparations. Making arrangements, after all, is often a part of suicide. And her mom seems deeply affected by her dad’s death, which would make sense as a trigger for suicide. The narrator seems close to her grandfather, and unhappy with the way her grandmother treated him, but not so close that it would push her toward killing herself. Is she clinically depressed? Is her attempt a cry for help? If so, why did she try to hide it from her mom? The story does a good job of evoking a death-haunted group of people who are struggling to deal with the pain and ambiguity that death leaves in its wake. I feel like specifying the struggles of the narrator just a little more (even some vague hints at what motivates her particular drive toward death) would go a long way.

    2. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      Hi Amanda – come on, you can do better than regurgitating my questions about Sean’s story! (how curious that his last name bears such resemblance to yours :p)

      would knowing more about her change where your sympathies lie in the story? That’s something I definintely struggled with in the craft.

    3. Sophie-anneBelisle ( Likes: 1076 ) says:

      I actually appreciated that the reasons driving the main character to want to kill herself were not specified. If it were clearer I feel it might make the whole story about it and I was under the impression that it was more about the characters’ perspective on death and their relationship to each other.

    4. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      I’m glad that’s how you understood it, Sophie-Anne! That is what I was hoping for 🙂

  11. Sophie-anneBelisle ( Likes: 1076 ) says:

    The description of the places in your story are on point, I almost wish there was more so I could be immersed even better in the story. I have to agree with the crowd and say that the “throwing up pills” bit is not so believable in the way it is currently described. I enjoy the the different relationships towards death exposed here.

    1. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      Thank you! I think I could definitely elaborate on setting more in future drafts. I was mostly focused on exploring the relationships in the story, so that’s where my attention went.

  12. Allison Peel ( Likes: 41 ) says:

    “People mailed flowers to my house for weeks, and we had to watch all of them die.” I love this line. I also really like the title, how the various arrangements (flowers, jewelry, funerals, wills) are tied together into a powerful piece about life, the end of life, and family.

  13. Mark ( Likes: 33 ) says:

    Hey Christina, I really like your story. I think it touches on an important voice when talking about adolescents/young adults that a lot of writers get wrong. Sometimes the turmoil of your teenage years can come about in a subdued way, and weird logic takes you to weird places. That being said, I felt like the limits of your narrator’s knowledge were sometimes broached by your omniscience as an author. For example, the line: “She was unfazed by my lack of investment in this decision” is completely true. The mother is unfazed, it’s an aesthetic judgement by the character, but the use of such a definite word as “was” tells the reader a truth that the narrator cannot ascertain. I think I’d like to see less certainty in this story. However, that last line about not wanting to commit suicide lest it cause a family member grief is heart-wrenching. Great story.

    1. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      That’s interesting! Thank you for the feedback Mark, I really appreciate it!

  14. Mike McGraw ( Likes: 84 ) says:

    Christina, very nice read. The mother’s so caught up in her worries, the narrator not only doesn’t bother her with her own problems, but even pushes her own story about contemplating taking her own life to the margins. Her decision at the end was logical, based on love, and therefore (for her) simple. Love it so much.

  15. alfonso ( Likes: 6 ) says:

    Really enjoyed reading your short story and reminded me of the movie Lady Bird. Both your story and the narrative of the film share the themes of complicated relationships mothers and daughters. Great storytelling in your part.

  16. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

    “I started throwing up after taking ten of them, so they didn’t stay in my system long enough to do the job.”
    I’ve known plenty of addicts and I’ve known people who’ve tried to kill themselves with pills, so I’m curious what you had in mind here. What was she taking? Why did she throw up so quickly? The people I know who’ve lived forced themselves to vomit, and it wasn’t quite so casual. Just sayin’

    1. Christina Brown ( Likes: 1414 ) says:

      I was playing with the idea of an extremely passive character. Writing passive characters is always a challenge for me because that’s the exact opposite of my personality. I tried to downplay the choices she was making and what was happening to her. I also intentionally left the actual pill taking/vomiting scene out for the sake of ambiguity. Thanks for noticing <3

    2. Sean Wheaton ( Likes: 1184 ) says:

      Although even the most passive of people would still make the distinction between sticking their hand down their throat because they realized that what they did might, in all actuality, kill them, and vomiting because of the drugs. I get passive (and I’m a master at passive-aggressive) but it’s hard to identify with completely oblivious about one important detail while having the presence of mind to enumerate exactly how many pills she took. Just sayin’

    3. Mike McGraw ( Likes: 84 ) says:

      Sean, I personally had no problems following the character’s logic or the level of detail here. Many of us have met people who’ve attempted, and the reasons, level of commitment, and knowledge of the process are varied, I would assume. I don’t know them all.

      I think there’s a rule somewhere about using “Just Sayin'” twice in one short conversation. Merely an opinion.

      Also, I love every one of you. You’re all awesome.

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