Flash Fiction by Emily Deibler
Maman's brittle white hair drifted on the pillow like dove wings as she said, "Poupee, you should go eat something. Or sleep." She said it like someone about to feel relief, like a fairy tale maiden at just before the end of a story. Even with deep lines bracketing her mouth, she looked beautiful, eyes shining in a soft but terrible way. Often she had these phantom smiles, as if she was already one step in the other world.
Marcy didn't leave Maman's side because she knew the moment she did, she'd die. The only reason Maman was here was because she didn't want her daughter to see her go. Not like she’d seen . . .
(She had seen so much death.)
The house can’t take another ghost. I can't take another ghost.
Maman sighed through her nose. Even as the blunt woman who had ridden cycles when it had been only a man’s sport, she was still too much of a proper lady to tell Marcy to just go, she was tired, she just wanted to be in that little house by the sea with Papa and her sister and mother and father and little Roger. That must’ve been what she was thinking, silently resenting her daughter for tethering her here.
(Marcy sometimes thought about how, though she loved Georgina and Berthe and Andre and Justine, she could be with Papa and little Roger and Jehanne and Liz again.)
When Marcy touched Maman’s hands, she had to keep herself from tracing the little rivers in her hand. It was hard, anyway, to touch something that wasn’t a tube. Sometimes they wouldn’t speak at all. Sometimes Maman would speak at random whatever came to mind. The nurses and doctors hadn’t quite liked Marcy staying around so often like a crow in a graveyard, but after a time, they had let the old executioner’s daughter do as she wished.
Maman’s hand was too cold. She needed more blankets.
“I’m sorry,” Marcy murmured, entwining her other hand with Mama’s windchime-thin fingers.
“For not being strong enough for this.”
“I love you too much,” Maman croaked. “I love you so much it's split my heart.”
Marcy’s voice cracked. “Just like Papa.” The anticipation for grief burrowed in her throat like she was a nightingale swallowing thorns, but there was also the helplessness. She was supposed to be the brave girl she’d always been, traveling in a labyrinth under a manor or investigating murders--even traveling to another world. Not just sitting her, waiting for her mother to die.
Marcy crawled into bed with Maman, smelling the lily perfume that had been sprayed into the room, the one thing of note in an otherwise sparse hospital space. After an hour of making sure Maman hadn’t stopped breathing, she drifted off in a restless sleep where everything was plastic tubes and beeping coughing into her mind like syrup. Still, even then, she was dreaming before long, dreaming of car lights and pink and white and Paris, dreaming of white beach sand and that little white house.
She awoke with the room gray and cool from a rainy morning. The white of a nurse's apron flashing and disappearing like lightning.
Someone cleared their throat, and she realized her own burned, as did her eyes. It was as if the fog of sleep was still with her, always with her. Each day she faded more and more into that land of dreams, the other world she’d found herself in, the one with Tante Juliette's gentle smile. The one with Papa holding the brother she’d never held until then.
A cough. She looked across from her pale, sleeping mother. André was there, sitting, his hat in his twitching hands, hair almost fully gray.
what took you so long? Marcy wanted to say. He sighed when he looked at her, as if anticipating her chiding.
“Cousin,” he said.
“Cousin,” she replied.
“I didn't . . .” She didn't know if that was as much as a confession as she'd get from him, a man who operated the guillotine for a living and had only shed his sense of stoic masculinity about death so far. I didn't want to be too late. I don't want to see her die.
Well, Marcy didn't either, but she also didn't want to argue and disturb Maman. “Where are the others?”
“Waiting in the other room,” he said.
Rosalie kept walking on white sand, but one side of her was dark water and the other was fog. She felt—a warmth. Someone was here, or someones, sending sunlight to her.
(Anatole had always been her sunrise.)
They were ready for her. She swore her mouth was salt, that she'd crumble into the sand like Lot's wife.
The dead could wait, as dearly as she'd missed them and cradled them to her heart, even when it made her bleed. Her daughter and nephew needed her; they were still alive and suffering. Poor, poor Marcy with guilt she had no business settling on her shoulders. Rosalie had been alive for ninety years, feeling her skin grow thin as paper and fold tightly against her spine. There was no shame to be and by anyone. No one could fault her body for starting to darken with twilight in her veins, stars in her eyes.
She was ready and unready all at once. Accepting, but knowing she had been one of the few people to keep Marcy here when her mind went into its fugues. She thought of Marcy lost in fog, like those dreams induced by her nerves where she lost her daughter and couldn't find her.
Maman, Maman Maman . . .
It's okay, my love. I'm only sleeping. A nose was on her cheek, a broad hand on her head.
Marcy was a survivor. Her brave girl, her poupee. If anyone could be lost and find themselves, it was her girl. She always found her way back home.
Maman, Ma . . .
Then Rosalie was in the sea. It was up to her knees, the sky blurry and gray. She blinked, and it was like she had let color in, like a needle popping a phantasmagorical bubble. The sky was blue, yes, and gold and violent and colors she had no names for, so overwhelmed by the sight of something beyond her comprehension her body locked and tears sprung to her eyes. The water against her legs—now a violent, glorious teal
against her legs was soothing and overpowering all at once. She felt every hair, every nerve standing to attention like mouths seeking the juice of a wild strawberry, or honeysuckle. Her mouth was salt, salt, salt.
And suddenly there were hands around her, and when she saw those soft touches they were, she wept.
In its sleep, the lonely house creaked, and Georgina snored. Marcy stood over her with a valise in her hand.
She knew she shouldn't do this, but she'd be damned if she ended up like Grandpa, weeping and resigned to communing with his ghosts. It wasn't fair to anyone she loved to try to mitigate that. It would be better to find a place exorcised of all the demons in this town, ones that whispered from beyond the grave.
In the starless night, as fog wreathed the grounds where Papa once grew his roses and they all would run around with their dogs, Marcy left, the auto door slamming resolutely, a train in the distance giving that low organ sigh of finality.
A native of North Georgia, Emily Deibler is a published poet and author. Her short story “Deer in December” was published in TL;DR Press’ Halloween 2018 Horror collection, NOPE. She has also published her poems “Turkey Hunting,” “Patty,” “Samantha,” and “Daughters of the Sun.” Her debut novel, Dove Keeper, came out in October 2018. She can be found on Twitter at @emilydeibler. She is a regular contributor to Marías at Sampaguitas.