The Worst Thing
Mother hands Alice a house key, a gleaming piece of aluminum with sharp little teeth suspended from a length of string. “Don’t lose it,” she says, and Alice can barely contain her excitement. The key grants access not just to an adult-free house; it unlocks her future.
A few weeks later, Alice digs into her coat but finds her pocket empty. She retraces her steps, upends every item she can think of, shakes out her clothing, her bag, even her shoes. She finds a homework assignment she’d forgotten to turn in, wads of well-chewed gum slumbering in their silver wombs, but no key. “This,” she says, “is the worst thing that will ever happen to me.”
Alice’s best friend announces that her family will soon relocate to some country Alice has never heard of. Alice has few companions, certainly none she can confide in. She fills the void of quiet afternoons with the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls she long ago put away. After years in the attic, their clothes have faded and they reek of mothballs. One is missing an eye, the other grins crookedly with only half a mouth. But, Alice reminds herself, they’ll never move away.
Alice sits across from her mother and father at the dinner table, the too-dry steak lodged in her throat. “We’re separating,” her mother says. “It has nothing to do with you.” Her father nods solemnly. Alice wants to speak but the meat blocks her words.
Alice takes a job at a local warehouse. She sorts mail, files papers and ferries lunches in from a nearby sandwich shop. Life falls into a predictable, comfortable rhythm. She moves into a tiny studio apartment and decorates it with furniture from a second-hand store: a lamp with blue tassels and a green rug with a stain she covers with a scuffed old trunk that doubles as a coffee table. She calls her mother on Thursday nights and her father on Sundays.
One morning, Alice’s boss approaches her in the mailroom. He pushes her against the wall and kisses her, hard. Then he steps back and takes a long hard look, a predator considering his prey. “No,” he says, “You’re really not my type.” He walks away, leaving Alice to catch her breath, wondering if she’s relieved or offended.
Alice feels a lump in her breast. Can’t be, she thinks. A few weeks later, a doctor gives voice to her unspoken fear. Still, the cancer diagnosis doesn’t seem real until her hair falls out in large, brown clumps. She peers at the pink-headed young woman in the mirror. A stranger stares back.
Months pass in a blur; Alice weathers the hell-storm that the doctors call treatment. Her hair grows back, her strength returns. Some years and many check-ups later, she’s declared cancer-free. She celebrates with Joe, the young man she’s been dating. Joe flashes a nervous smile, pops a ring out of his pocket and blurts out a proposal. “Will you marry me?” Once again, Alice can’t speak but she nods enthusiastically. They seal the deal a few months later, at the Cathedral where Alice was baptized. Her father’s new wife drinks too much and her mother sits alone. Still, it’s a grand occasion.
The doctor opens a file and confirms what Alice already knows: they will not have children. She doesn’t hear the rest of his monologue. She doesn’t care whose fault it is, doesn’t want to hear about adoption or support groups or books she can read. On the way home, they pass a raucous playground and Alice looks away.
On a sunny morning in late July, Alice walks into the bedroom and gently nudges her husband. “I’ve made pancakes,” she says. When he doesn’t respond, she shakes his shoulder. It feels cold. Joe’s eyes stare at nothing. His lips are parted as if in mid-scream. With trembling hands, Alice reaches for the phone. It takes her three tries before she can dial the numbers: 9-1-1. She watches the men zip his body into a shiny white bag.
Milk in one hand, jam in the other, Alice trips on the way to the fridge. She spends what feels like days, though she’s later told it was only eight hours, lying helplessly on the faded linoleum floor. Her weekly caregiver finds her and Alice is transported to the hospital, where she learns she has broken her hip. After surgery and a stint in rehab, she’s moved to a local nursing home. “You shouldn’t live alone,” her doctor says, and Alice knows he’s right. Still, she can’t bear the thought of leaving her home.
Alice forgets how to use the remote. She’s not sure if it’s daytime or night. She’s suspicious of the people around her, especially the friendly ones. She feels her mind draining from her head like water through a clogged drain. Each day that passes, more of her memories leave her, until, finally, she is left with only the past. Suddenly she is seven again, and her mother gives her a key. It’s a lovely thing, she thinks. I will keep it forever. She reaches into her pocket and curls her brittle fingers around the smooth metal object. “This,” she says to the pale yellow walls of her room, “is the best thing that will ever happen to me.”
Heidi Heim’s work has appeared in both online and print publications, including The Short Humour Site, Verdad magazine, Mississippi Crow, Full of Crow, The Linnet’s Wings and Popcorn Fiction. She lives in the snowy Mid-West and dreams of summer.
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