Short Story: "Goodnight, Mom"
Intro: So I took a Writing Fiction class for my minor at school last semester, and this was my final short story submission for the class. I really enjoyed writing it and the feedback I got from my peers in the class was so helpful in shaping the edited version of the story. It's a little long for a blog post, but I wanted to share it anyways. Having it read by other people is a little difficult because I was at a very different place in my life when I wrote it, and some of those parts of my life seeped into the piece. But I wanted to share it now because I'm finally happy and comfortable with the point of my life that I'm in now, despite the difficult things that have happened in the past few months since this was written. I hope you enjoy the story, and feel free to let me know what you think!
Anxiety. It was all June-Marie felt when she boarded the bus every morning of her junior year to get to the high school. She knew that when she boarded that bus, someone would be on it. Someone who she had known for three years and yet who had never known the way she felt. She tried not to feel anxious about boarding the bus every day. But she did. She couldn’t help it. Sometimes feelings couldn’t be suppressed.
“Hey, Junebug.” Henry Dover grinned as June-Marie sat down next to him on the bus in late October. He was the only one allowed to call her that, and even he barely had that pass. “How was the weekend?”
“Good.” June-Marie nodded, carefully tucking her left leg under her right so that her skirt wouldn’t reveal anything unpleasant, “I learned a new song on the piano.”
“Really?” Henry asked, nudging her slightly, “You’ll have to play it for me sometime today.”
“I will.” June-Marie replied absent-mindedly. Her skirt was itching her leg but she didn’t want to scratch it—red streaks down her leg was hardly an attractive sight.
June-Marie looked up and met Henry’s gaze, the intensity of his want for this promise making her smile.
“You would like him, you know.” June-Marie said quietly as she tucked her legs under her comforter and two extra blankets that night. “I really think you would.”
She set her alarm for the next morning and turned her phone off, sliding it under her pillow to minimize the temptation of scrolling through old text messages instead of going to sleep.
“I think he might like me too.” She whispered, shrugging slightly to try and offset the smile on her face. “I played a new song for him today. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The one you play in that video that Dad watches.”
She sighed slightly, refusing to let the tears pricking her eyes escape.
“You shouldn’t have left me like that, you know.” She whispered, so quietly that it was almost nothing, “You shouldn’t have let God take you.”
June-Marie reached over and flicked off the light switch, drenching the room in darkness as she wiped away one disobedient tear.
“Happy Thanksgiving.” Henry grinned as June-Marie sat down on the bus next to him.
“Thanksgiving was four days ago.”
“Yes, but despite our captivating text messages, I haven’t seen you since before
Thanksgiving.” Henry laughed, “So, Happy Thanksgiving Junebug.”
“Happy Thanksgiving, Henry.” June-Marie smiled to herself. She could feel his arm touching hers. His arm didn’t usually touch hers. But today it did.
“Are you doing anything tonight?” Henry asked after a few minutes of terse silence. June-Marie thought for a moment. Monday night. It depended on what Henry wanted of her. If he wanted her to unclog his drain again because he was too scared to tell his parents that he didn’t know how, the answer most certainly would be negative.
“I’m not sure.” June-Marie answered, the classic response for if you had no plans but wanted to ensure that the other person’s offer was of some worth before accepting, “Why?”
Henry looked over at her and met her eyes for a second before looking away, blushing. His arm shook slightly against hers.
“I was wondering if you’d like to see a movie tonight. With me.”
June-Marie felt her heart jump into her throat as she contemplated this offer. It sounded like he was asking her out on a date. Her, June-Marie Rodd. A date with Henry Dover.
“I think I would like that.” She nodded slightly as they pulled up to the high school. A slight blush crept up her cheeks and she tried vigorously to keep it from being noticeable. “I’ll pick you up at seven.”
Henry nodded and they stood to get off the bus.
“I can’t wait.”
“He kissed me, you know.” June-Marie changed from her red-and-white-striped dress to her red-and-white-striped pajamas at 11:54 that night. Her dad had a strict curfew of 12:00. She had barely made it home in time. “He told me I looked like a candy cane in my dress. I think it was a good thing, though. I wore the dress that was always your favorite. The red-and-white striped one.”
She climbed into bed and tucked herself under the covers. She set her alarm and tucked her phone under her pillow. She hadn’t scrolled through conversations with her mother in over two months now.
“I think something might come of this.” June-Marie whispered, staring up at the scorch mark on her ceiling. The one scorch mark they couldn’t fix. “I hope something might come from this. You would like him. Did I already tell you that?”
She rolled over and turned off the light.
“I got you a Christmas present.”
“You really shouldn’t have.”
“You didn’t get me one?”
June-Marie smiled as she took off her backpack and put it on her lap, pulling out a small rectangle wrapped in red-and-white-striped paper.
“Of course I did.” She handed Henry the present as the bus lurched to a stop at the next corner. “I hope you don’t hate it.”
Henry unwrapped it slowly, careful not to rip the paper too much. June-Marie watched him and kept smiling, unable to stop. He was by far the cutest boyfriend she could possibly have. The way his brow furrowed as he focused on the unwrapping. The way one lock of his dark hair fell onto his forehead and almost touched his left eyelid. He hadn’t worn his glasses in weeks. His glasses used to keep his hair out of his eyes.
“The Joy Luck Club, first edition.” Henry looked at June-Marie and smiled from ear to ear before giving her a quick kiss, allowing the limited PDA in this one specific moment. “Thank you so much, Junebug. I love it.”
June-Marie blushed at the kiss in public and shook her head quietly. She had searched for weeks for that first edition of Henry’s favorite book, but she couldn’t let him know that. Not at this time of year.
“I’m glad.” She replied as the bus arrived at the high school. “You deserve only the best.”
“He told me he loved me today.” June-Marie picked up the socks on her floor and threw them in her hamper before closing her closet door. She hated that closet door. She liked her old closet door, the one stained with paint drips from when her mother had hand-painted it and covered in polaroid pictures of June-Marie laughing with her friends. Pre-Henry. Pre-fire.
“I didn’t know what to say at first.” She continued, forgetting about the closet door and sitting down on her bed, legs stretched over the side. “I didn’t know if I loved him quite yet. But then…then, I just looked at him, and saw his eyes, and realized that I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone in my life.
“And I know what you’re going to ask.” She laughed slightly, tears starting to form in her eyes, “‘So did you say it back?’ And the answer is yes. I said it back, and I’ve never seen anyone smile so big in my whole life.” June-Marie sighed, tucking her legs under the comforter on her bed and layering three blankets on top of that. “Except for you, I guess. In that picture. From when I was a little kid, and we were in the snow. At the old house. The better house. The one where no one left me.”
Tears were falling now, escaping from her eyes and falling straight past her ears and onto the pillow, leaving maroon stains in the pink case. June-Marie’s head flooded with images that she didn’t want to see: waking up and smelling smoke, her father rushing her out of the house as her mother tried to get out of bed. Standing outside in the cold while she watched flames leap out of her own room and her parent’s. She remembered hearing her father yelling at her mother to move. To get out, to get out. But the painkillers were too much and the fire was too much and everything was…too much.
Her father thought that her mother was following him out the door. And by the time he realized that she wasn’t, it was too late. The firefighters wouldn’t let him back in the house to save her. June-Marie remembered the doctors saying that her mother died of smoke inhalation an hour and forty-three minutes after she was taken to the hospital. Why hadn’t she followed her husband out of the house?
June-Marie shook her head and brought herself back to the present, ignoring her tears and flipping over to the side of her pillow that wasn’t wet.
“But I think you should meet him anyways.” She whispered finally, remembering what she had been talking about before. “Maybe after New Year’s I’ll introduce you two.”
June-Marie didn’t set her alarm for the next morning; she would wake up on Christmas morning just fine. Even though this would be the first Christmas morning where there was a lot less to celebrate.
“Merry Christmas.” June-Marie whispered, turning off the light. “Goodnight, Mom.”
“I like this bus.” Henry looked around them as he held June-Marie’s hand in his own, “It’s different than the one we take to school.”
June-Marie nodded silently, feeling her heartrate start to pick up. She didn’t know how to do this. She wasn’t sure if there was a ‘right’ way to prepare anyone for meeting their significant other’s parents.
Or, rather, parent.
“Did you do what I asked?”
Henry shook his head slightly.
“No, I didn’t have time, Junebug.”
June-Marie tried not to seem upset, but felt her heart sink a bit. Had it been too much to ask for him to listen to her mother’s favorite song before meeting her?
“You didn’t have time?”
“Well, I mean…you already played it for me once. Is it so bad that I didn’t listen to it?”
June-Marie was silent, staring straight ahead. She loved Henry with everything inside of her. But she needed to know that this meant a lot to him. That this trip meant almost as much as it meant to her.
“Junebug, I’m sorry.” Henry finally said after a minute of silence between the two, “I should have listened to the song. I know this means a lot to you, and I guess…I guess I’m just nervous.”
June-Marie nodded again before sighing quietly.
“It’s alright. I love you.”
They rode in comfortable silence for a few more minutes, neither speaking, both breathing in sync with each other without having to think about it.
“This is our stop.” June-Marie whispered quietly, pulling on Henry’s hand as she stood up. “Are you ready?”
He squeezed her hand and nodded silently, his expression solemn.
They walked off of the bus together and through the front gates. A light snow had begun to fall. June-Marie could feel it on her face, one snowflake every few seconds. Nothing terrible. It was just right.
They stopped walking in the middle of the cemetery, in front of a headstone that read, Virginia Rodd. 1971-2019. Beloved daughter, wife, and mother.
“Hi, Mrs. Rodd.” Henry whispered, kneeling down in the soft layer of snow that was forming on the grass. “I’m so honored to finally be meeting you.”
June-Marie watched him carefully. Henry placed his hand on the headstone as he continued to speak softly, some of his words too quiet for June-Marie to hear over the cars flying past on the street behind them.
After three and a half minutes, Henry stood to join June-Marie and took her hand in his, kissing her cheek softly.
“Thank you.” He whispered, tears in his eyes and on his cheeks. “Thank you, Junebug.”
“My mom called me that, you know.” June-Marie smiled. “She was the only other one. I think of her when you call me that.”
Henry squeezed her hand. June-Marie felt the tears starting to come and turned to leave the cemetery. One year ago, there hadn’t been a headstone there. 363 days ago, it appeared.
Henry followed her for a second before June-Marie turned around, letting go of his hand and leaving him to take another look at the headstone.
“That was him, Mom.” She whispered, extending a red-and-white-striped gloved hand out to touch it. Her tears felt like ice on her skin. “That was Henry. I told you you’d like him.”
She stood and turned to walk away before looking back again.
“I love you. And I don’t think I’m mad at you for leaving me anymore. Just so you know. Being angry is just too…hard.”
She sighed. Her breath fogged the air. Henry waited patiently for her just a few yards away. June-Marie wiped away her tears and took a deep, shaky, cold breath.