Short Fiction: Beth
“How was your day?” Beth asked as Chloe buckled herself in.
“Good.” She was already texting, her dark head bent over her phone.
“What was good about it?”
“What?” Chloe said, removing one ear bud.
“I said, what was good?”
“I dunno. Just stuff.” She put the ear bud back in.
Beth persisted. “Who could be texting you already? Weren’t you with them all day?”
Chloe looked pained as she removed the ear bud again.
“What?” she said.
“Never mind.” Beth sighed and glanced in the rearview mirror at Jake.
“What were you saying about dodge ball?” she asked.
Jake launched into a play-by-play that lasted all the way to their driveway.
They went into the house and Chloe hung up her things, gulped down a granola bar, and disappeared upstairs into her room. Beth gave Jake a snack and helped him with his spelling words. She got dinner going and returned some phone calls.
After an hour had gone by she went up to Chloe’s room and tapped on the door. No answer, so she went in. Chloe was lying on her bed, staring at her phone.
“What are you doing?” Beth asked.
Chloe didn’t look up. “I’m reading.”
“Do you have any homework?”
“No,” Chloe said.
“You need to practice piano.”
Beth waited for a long moment, feeling suddenly awkward standing there, as though she were trying to speak another language but couldn’t find the right words.
Chloe looked up. “What?”
“Please don’t say ‘What’ like that,” Beth said. “When are you planning to practice?”
“In a minute, okay? I just want to finish this.”
Beth left the door open and wandered down the hall to her room. She folded a sweater Dave had left on the chair and put it in his drawer. She picked up a bookmark from the floor and put it in the nightstand drawer. She pulled out the battered copy of W. H. Auden’s Tell Me the Truth About Love, a gift from Dave when they were dating.
She sat on the edge of the bed and paged through the small book. It was crammed full of 14 years’ worth of anniversary cards and scribbled notes from tiny hands. A photo slid out and landed on the floor. Beth leaned over to pick it up.
The photo was of her and Chloe at her first birthday party. Beth was holding Chloe, who was smiling at the camera, her face and hair smeared with pink frosting. Beth remembered how tightly Chloe had been holding on to her, just as she had the entire first year of her life. It wasn’t until after that party that Chloe had begun to venture away from the safety of Beth’s arms.
“Mom,” Chloe poked her head around the bedroom door. “Maddy wants to know if I can sleep over tomorrow night.”
Beth paused, wanting to say no, wanting to clutch her daughter to herself as tightly as Chloe had once clung to her, but she said, “Sure.”
She stood up, letting the photo drop to the bed, and held her arms open. Chloe moved across the room and leaned against Beth. She pulled her daughter close and breathed in the faint smell of coconut shampoo, not even needing to bend down because the top of Chloe’s head reached just below her nose.
Chloe relaxed into her mother for a moment, then pulled back, flashed a smile that made her look for just an instant like her one-year-old self, and flounced out of the room.
In a moment the sound of Chloe’s scales filled the house and Beth put the photos and cards back into the book and tucked it into the drawer.