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There was little chance other travelers would recognize her, but Julia avoided making eye contact with anyone on the flight from Berlin to New York. In a childish way, she acted as if keeping her face hidden below her baseball cap would protect her from confrontation or unwanted curiosity. It was her first return trip across the Atlantic. Her first time traveling solo. She hadn’t seen the New York skyline since before 9/11. On the flight to Raleigh she slept fitfully, distracted by the fantasy of Patrice following her from Europe to apologize. To say she’d retrieved all their photography business savings. But a more volatile reunion awaited Julia in Raleigh, and no amount of money could buy back the years apart from her mother.
She weaved through the airport terminal with her roller suitcase, which was stuffed with a tripod and lighting equipment. She couldn’t stop to capture architectural angles or colorful passersby. For years she had grown used to being the caddy while Patrice handled the camera. Now she was like a traveling musician with only half an instrument. Several five-hour energy shots churned in her stomach as she heaved her bag into an Uber. She fought the urge to fraternize with the driver, to pepper him with questions about American politics and how to reconnect with an elderly parent.
The car delivered her to an address she had memorized, though the small house appeared only vaguely familiar, a dull white below a canopy of trees. The luggage she tugged up the drive had been hastily purchased from a German street seller with cash raided from Patrice’s wallet. Julia had left a terse note in its place saying she’d gone east. Taking the pocket money was petty, but her last exchange with Patrice had gutted their trust and left her reeling.
Squirrels scattered away from her path to the door, taking position as sentinels on nearby tree trunks. A stone statue of St. Francis, green with algae, guarded the front porch. His stoic face reminded Julia of the sculptures outside the cathedral in Santiago where she and Patrice had first photographed tourists. A dollar here, a dollar there. It took a while to add up.
The door opened abruptly after Julia rang the bell, and a young woman with raven hair and wide brown eyes greeted her. She wore purple scrubs with an embroidered heart on one side of her chest and “Ismelda” spelled out on the other.
“I’m here to see my mother,” Julia said, shivering under the woman’s suspicious gaze, no longer feeling protected by her sunglasses and hat.
“There wasn’t a daughter on the visitors list.” Ismelda folded her arms, a rose tattoo prominent on one forearm.
“Let me talk to her. She’ll recognize me.” Julia removed her glasses and barreled into the house. The sound of a television beckoned her to the kitchen, where she’d once eaten breakfast every morning and completed her homework after school. The patterned floral wallpaper and faint licorice smell transported her back decades. Even the dim, yellowish lighting in the sitting room was still the same. The sound of Ismelda’s protests faded to the background.
Her mother’s head did not move when Julia dropped her suitcase on the tiled floor. A telenovela danced on an outdated square screen, but the old woman’s attention was directed out the window at the lush backyard. She sat in a cushioned chair at an oval wooden table, her tight gray curls and silver nightgown matching the collection of ceramic cat figurines on a shelf behind her. The opposite wall was plastered with Coca-Cola memorabilia, and an array of cookbooks on a nearby shelf had doubled in size compared to Julia’s memory. Below the kitchen table there were stacks of science and travel magazines, her father’s homebound version of adventure. Mysteriously, being in the house slowed Julia’s pulse, as if she’d been in a race the past couple decades and had finally stopped to breathe.
There was only a hint of recognition in her mother’s eyes as she carefully embraced the woman’s frail body. “Well, no wonder you never came to visit me,” Julia said, kneeling next to the table. “You have everything you need here.”
Her mother’s round face, withdrawn eyes and wide shoulders were familiar, though diminished with age. But the doctor’s emailed warnings of advanced dementia had not prepared Julia for the brunt force of being treated like a stranger. It sent a twisted rush of relief and regret through her hungry stomach. Ismelda’s looming presence also kept her on edge.
“That’s me,” Julia stood, looking at the young woman as she pointed to a framed photograph on the kitchen shelf. A teenaged girl with spiked pink hair held a striped gray cat in her arms. Julia turned back to the kitchen table. “I’m gonna stay a while, Mother. Figured I could take care of you while I get back on my feet.”
She wandered to the cabinet to look for coffee, feeling liberated by the lack of response from her mother. For a second she wondered what her father’s funeral had been like. Her mother hadn’t sent any pictures. Only some money, which Julia received gladly and considered a positive sign.
“I need to call my manager,” Ismelda squinted at the photo on the shelf, then at Julia.
“Suit yourself,” Julia said as she scanned the half-used packages for something similar to French espresso. “Ask if we can get a discount now that I’m here to help.”
Ismelda spoke into the phone using coded language while shadowing Julia’s circuit around the house. When Julia began opening closet doors and digging through boxes of her father’s records, Ismelda squeaked and hung up the phone.
“You can’t do this.”
“What? Look around my house?”
“Your house? I… how do I even know you’re her daughter?” Ismelda tried to close the closet door, ramming it shut against a pile of blankets.
Julia huffed and marched to a bedroom down the hall, still painted green and containing her old desk. Banking on her mother’s knack for hoarding, she sifted through papers until she found a plastic identification card. Then she returned to the kitchen and rummaged through her backpack. After a minute she pulled out a second ID.
“I’m only sixteen in this one, but it’s the only driver’s license I have.” Julia pointed to the faded picture from the 90s. Then she waved the one with a more recent photo in Ismelda’s face. “This one’s up to date. European national identity card. See, same face.” She removed her hat and ran her fingers through her short brown hair.
“The names are different.”
“I hate the name Paula. It felt like people were talking to someone else.” Julia shook her head. “I changed it when I moved. Why am I even telling you this? Point is, it’s me.”
Ismelda was resolute. “The doctor is going to come by and assess the situation,” she said.
“Well, they’ll see I have it handled now. We won’t need your help.”
Ismelda’s mouth dropped open, and she exclaimed in Spanish, her attention directed over Julia’s shoulder. Julia swiveled to look out the kitchen window. In the settling haze of dusk, a shadowy, hunchbacked figure was swinging a shovel into a mound at the base of an oak tree. Ismelda cried out again and shot out the back door. With a chuckle, Julia recognized her mother’s feverish determination.
Grabbing the picture of her and the cat from the shelf, she followed Ismelda to the backyard. The sheltered, square lawn was smaller than she remembered, and after a few strides she was almost halfway to the rear fence. She ducked around bird feeders hanging from the tree branches.
“Let go of the shovel, ma’am,” Ismelda said in a cracking voice, stepping erratically as she tried to grasp the old woman’s elbow. A spray of grass clippings scattered against Ismelda’s scrubs as Julia’s mother scooped the pointed end of the shovel into the ground with jerking movements.
“Tell her to come out and help me.” Mother’s gray curls bounced and caught on a low-hanging branch. “Our cat deserves a proper burial.”
Julia crouched next to a stack of stones at the base of the oak tree, staying out of the shovel’s range. Ismelda stepped back and delivered Julia an exasperated look.
“Calm down, Mother,” Julia said. “We already buried Bandit.”
“There you are,” Mother said in a biting tone. “Leaving the hard work to me again. I told you to leave that girl in the kitchen and give me a hand.”
Julia swallowed and held out the picture. “You framed this. It was right before Bandit got sick. You collected all his favorite toys and we buried them under the tree. Dad even said a prayer.”
Mother stopped to loosen her hair from the branch, and Ismelda hovered over her head to pick out several leaves caught in the gray frizz. Julia grabbed the shovel from her mother’s weakened grasp. The trio surveyed the bald patch of grass, the small ruptures in the soil appearing like an easily distracted dog had been digging for a bone.
“You sure found that shovel quickly,” Julia shivered, an eerie feeling of deja vu settling over her. The day they’d buried Bandit had been dreary and cold. Patrice had stayed in the kitchen while Julia watched her parents lower the small body into the earth. The black rings around the cat’s eyes were like a dark, permanent sleep mask. Her chest had been hurting with fury for having to miss her first photography show, for having to make Patrice wait inside.
“You think I don’t know my way around my own house, Paula?”
“Call me Julia, Mother.” Julia’s neck stiffened in offense as Ismelda put an arm around her mother’s tiny waist.
“Julia? I don’t know a Julia.” Mother wheezed as she slowly returned to the kitchen.
Ismelda looked back at Julia. “You sure you don’t need me? Your mother likes to go on little outings like this.”
“I like to go shopping,” Mother said.
“She likes to slip out the front door and check the neighbor’s mail. I found a stack of envelopes in the fridge the other week.”
Ismelda held the old woman’s hand to help her through the back door, but Julia barred their path.
“Look, thank you for taking care of my mother. But I saw the bill in the cupboard. We can’t afford your services anymore.” Julia took her mother’s hand and led her to the kitchen table. Ismelda wore a sour expression for the rest of the night. After several calls, Julia negotiated an end to the home health aide services. Meanwhile, her mother returned to a reserved state in front of the TV.
The next day, a bald, stone-faced doctor dropped by to assess Julia’s mother. He checked her vitals as she sat in an easy chair in the musty sitting room. Julia stood with her hands on her hips next to the window, avoiding eye contact with Ismelda. The morning sunlight glistened on a collection of fine china plates hanging on the back wall. A team of wooden rocking horses were lined up in the corner, the yarn of their manes dusty and gray. She’d begun to recognize the gradual decay of the house and its contents after years without maintenance.
“Everything alright, doctor?” Julia asked as Ismelda said goodbye to her mother.
“She needs regular visits for her cognitive impairment. You’ll need to bring her in.” The doctor hesitated at Julia’s facial expression. “I can contact Adult Protective Services if there’s a problem.”
“No, of course not. I’ll take good care of her.” Julia gave a small smile, her eyes darting away from the doctor to the wooden horses as she considered their exchange rate on eBay.
Just as abruptly as she and Patrice had moved across the Atlantic as teenagers, Julia was now the sole charge of her easily-bewildered mother. The humid summer nights became an incubator of melancholy, stifling any opportunity for rational thinking. As she adjusted to her mother’s taste in microwave dinners and telenovellas, Julia formed the ritual of thumbing through pictures of her and Patrice every night before bed. Mother’s faint wheezes rose and fell next to her as she flicked from one image to the next on her phone screen, trying to re-enter the fond memories without succumbing to the nasty thought of her partner traipsing across Europe with their younger assistant, Mara. She had to wait in this position for almost an hour before turning out the light and retreating to her own improvised bed on the floor nearby. Otherwise, Mother would stir and ask for her deceased husband or her favorite cat.
The pictures from Julia’s phone scrambled her body clock, keeping her awake as she lay on the musty cot she’d found in the attic. If she reached out with her right hand she could feel the frayed end of a quilt hanging off the foot of the bed. Until recently she would have been able to touch Patrice. Instead, she ticked away at a mental list of wrongs to bring against her partner in a lawsuit. The problem was trying to afford it.
One night a burning sensation began to consume her restless legs. Her jaw tightened as the sagging cot pressed restrictively around her arms like a straitjacket. Struggling to regulate her breathing, Julia sat up and turned to see her mother’s body at rest, her eyes covered in a mask decorated with cardinals and bluejays. Moonlight filtered through the sliding glass door leading to the backyard, casting a silver glow on the back wall of the bedroom. Julia’s heart hammered as she surveyed a collection of her childhood photography in collage frames and shelves of dusty I Love Lucy memorabilia. Beyond the glass door she saw the row of empty water bowls against the house, the overgrown perimeter hedges, a tilting birdbath in the center of the lawn, and the bird feeders hanging over Bandit’s grave under the oak tree.
Many summers ago, the spirited stray cat had captured her mother’s affection with his brilliant, masked eyes. It took Julia’s father some time to tolerate the cat’s presence, but Bandit paid the man’s indecision no mind, quickly becoming a permanent resident in the backyard. As parakeets, a three-legged pit bull, a calico and a tabby were added to their number, Mother’s usually reserved demeanor was rehabilitated along with the yard. She became tireless, from healing ailments to making complex toys, with a continuous list of chores for Julia and excuses for her husband.
Julia turned from the yard and slipped out the bedroom door, winding through the maze of boxes in the hallway, half unpacked from her searching. The wood paneled wall was lined with progressive images of her childhood. In each, her mother and father were gray haired, from the snap of her first birthday to the one with her wearing a cap and gown. The graduation photo was the last taken of them together.
She ducked into the door next to the kitchen, her newly converted studio. Julia’s redecoration of the room was simple—a nondescript yet pleasant backdrop covering the lone window, created by a pink sheet from the hall closet. She had pinned it to a projector screen her mother used as a teacher. Julia set a heart-shaped metal box on a table in front of the sheet, between the two lighting umbrellas she’d crammed into her suitcase. Lucille Ball’s puckered face stared back at her. She squinted into the viewfinder of the old point-and-shoot she’d found in her father’s desk drawer, and captured three images as the flash engulfed the musty room.
The click and burst of light was all too familiar—a reminder of black tie galas, fashion shows, lavish homes, and gourmet restaurants a world away. Her responsibility had been booking their gigs and coordinating the lighting, while Patrice operated the camera. And the goddamn finances. Having a camera in her own hands now elicited the greatest comfort she could find.
She continued with an array of Hello Kitty merchandise and decided she should post a few items on eBay immediately, seeing as it was the middle of the day on the other side of the world. Her mother had some vintage clothing that was making a comeback on social media. Julia photographed these on hangers suspended from a towel drying rack. She would have criticized the gaudiness of it, except they were selling quickly.
There was a buzz in her pajama pants pocket, a text from Ismelda. I don’t feel comfortable with this.
Julia returned to the hall and found the checking account summary she’d marked with a neon post-it note. She’d never given much thought to her mother’s finances until returning home. Her father’s modest retirement fund was dwindling, and she had no other family. That morning Julia had called the bank about the information needed to transfer money between accounts, but it turned out to be complicated. She resorted to sending Ismelda a request by text message. Now her stomach trembled as she clutched the bank statement and continued into the faint light of the kitchen. Through the partitioned window in the side door, Julia looked out onto the empty street. There was no telling what her mother would do while Julia was out of the house. She had taken the liberty of hiding the shovel under a pile of sticks. Taking a deep breath, she listened for any movement in the hall. Carefully she unlocked the back door and dialed Ismelda.
“Thanks for taking my call, I know it’s late,” she said in as sweet a voice as she could muster. At the end of the driveway she turned right. Over twenty years ago she’d walked these neighborhood streets as a teenager, planning with Patrice how they would travel the world. For her mother’s sake, she convinced Patrice to wait until after they graduated high school.
“Your message sounded urgent,” Ismelda said in a cool tone. “I want your mom to be treated well.”
“Look, I know I swooped in suddenly. But I’m overwhelmed. There’s so many decisions to make.”
“Why can’t you hire someone else?”
“I need to get a power of attorney.”
“I can’t give you legal advice. Get a lawyer, Paula. Or Julia, or whatever your name is.” Julia imagined the young woman’s eyes widening as she rubbed the rose tattoo on her arm.
“You have experience with Mother, and I need a witness. Someone to vouch for her condition.” She felt a burning lump in her throat and was reminded of trying to convince a Dutch nightclub owner to host their photography exhibition.
“Like I said, ask someone else,” Ismelda replied. “You should have thought of this when you let me go.”
“I need the money to take care of her. To make ends meet.”
“I can call the doctor, you know.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Good night, Paula.”
Julia kicked the pavement when the line went silent, sending her phone flying from her grasp. She was several blocks away from her mother’s house. The heavy darkness between street lights reminded her of the cavernous catacombs below Paris. She got on all fours and retrieved her phone, then struggled to her feet.
As she retraced her steps, the bank statement swished against her pajama pants. She stuck close to the curb, periodically stepping over piles of leaves and debris. As she fumed over her predicament, she suddenly became aware of a solid form near her feet.
Instinctively, she knew it was a dead animal.
She yelped as she passed the small body, then broke into a run, convinced beyond reason the corpse would make pursuit. In her lizard brain state, she cursed and crumpled the paper in her hand. Her heart thumped in her chest as she stopped at the next driveway. The shadowy houses on each side of the street were dormant. An owl hooted from the claw-like tree branches above.
Recovering her composure, she decided to inspect the roadkill more closely, concerned it could have been a neighbor’s pet. As Julia approached, the form took shape through the gray. The carcass was almost exactly in the midpoint between street lights. The unfortunate creature must have scampered over the curb soon after nightfall, just as a car barreled through. She crouched a couple paces away and let her eyes adjust. A triangular head with bared teeth and a dark stripe across its eyes came into focus, along with matted, ashy fur, and a ringed tail bent in half. Its body lay on one side as if resting.
The unfortunate raccoon reminded her of a similar discovery several years ago, when she and Patrice had given up on the polished luxury of Parisian clients and roamed the French countryside photographing Catholic parishes and sun-kissed vineyards. In one such rural village there had been a report of missing livestock, and the couple offered to document the hunt. Ultimately, the lost cows were found in a swamp, half-swallowed in the mud, their hooves protruding from the speckled, gray mire.
She couldn’t shake the image of the dead animal as she returned to her mother’s house, frustrated that her midnight walk had offered little clarity. Entering the back door, she found the hallway light on. A shadow moved across the boxes, and she again clenched the crumpled paper in her fist. Mother stepped from the hall closet, the colorful bird mask pulled up to her forehead. Her eyes were wide, the wrinkles almost stretched from her face.
“Where have you been?” Mother’s voice was the clearest it had sounded since Julia moved in.
“On a walk.” Julia hid the paper behind her back and stepped cautiously through the kitchen, wondering if her mother recognized her.
“Why did you leave these boxes lying around?”
“You wanted to look through them with me. Decide which ones to keep.”
“That’s silly. I’m not moving. This is my house.”
“Let’s go back to sleep.” Julia reached for her mother’s hand. The old woman yanked it away, instead grabbing a broom leaning against the wall.
“Bandit’s hiding in the closet again.”
“That cat kicked the bucket twenty years ago.”
“How rude, talking to me like that. I have a mind to call and ask for your replacement.”
Julia sighed. She stuffed the crumpled paper under her waistband and bent down at one of the boxes.
“How dare you look through my things?”
“Mother, it’s me. Look—” Julia shuffled through a box filled with her school projects and report cards, sliding out a photography portfolio. “I took these. There’s me, you, and dad. There’s Bandit and your crazy birds.”
Her mother bit her lip and fiddled with the facemask on her forehead. Julia continued flipping the pages, until a stuffed envelope fell to the floor. Curious, she opened it and thumbed through its contents. There were magazine clippings, a newspaper article, and an advertisement printed out from a webpage. She recognized the avant-garde images of crisply dressed models, minimalist architecture and wheels of cheese aging in a cellar, having edited them herself. She looked toward the old woman but was unable to meet her gaze.
“You found my Paula collection,” her mother said. “My daughter is a photographer. I try to save everything I see of hers. She changed her name, so that made it a bit harder. You see she spends time with the strangest people.”
Julia snorted. “Takes one to know one.” She felt her heart flutter as she took her mother’s elbow and dropped the envelope back in the box.
With her mother back in bed, Julia knelt beside her cot, clutching a pillow to her chest as she leaned forward in a child’s pose. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw silvery moonlit patterns projected onto the carpeted floor through the sliding glass door. The glowing shapes were like film negatives, forming images of Patrice’s distinctive jawline and long, wavy hair. She saw the scenes stored in her mother’s envelope of the underwater restaurant in the Maldives, the garden tea party in London, the dock with the tiny sailboats in Greece. She thought of all the money she’d spent on postage for magazine submissions, for train tickets and airfare. Patrice never wanted to see the same place twice, so Julia tried to give her the world. They had excelled beyond taking portraits of clueless tourists, reselling antique toys and donating plasma. Their photography had developed a following and found its way back to Julia’s mother. But while Patrice still yearned to wander, Julia now wanted a place to land.
A swish and scrape against the sliding glass door caused the moonlight characters to flicker. A white and black blur flew across the visible patch of ground outside. Suddenly, the quiet was rent by a hair-raising screech that sent Julia toppling backward with the cot in tow. Her mother rattled the bed frame as she sat up with a squeal.
“It’s okay, Mother.” Julia swept the hair out of her face and crawled on all fours to the glass door.
“Why is Bandit outside?”
“It was a wild animal.” Julia knew better than to correct her mother’s sense of time again. The flower bed on the other side of the glass was scattered with pine needles, but a trail of tiny paw prints could be seen rounding a corner behind a row of hedges.
Julia stepped outside and keyed on her phone light. The beam illuminated the side of the house behind the hedge, and she slowly scanned the string of prints. Just beyond the coiled hose, a large gray raccoon appeared like a silhouette against the painted white brick. The creature was very much alive, its masked eyes wide in fright. It shivered, with whiskers trembling, but did not move from its discovered position. Julia, too, was frozen in place.
The raccoon, poised with fur raised along its arched back, held a banana peel in its sinewy paws. The peel dangled halfway into an abandoned water bowl. Julia stared through her scraggly bangs at the raccoon’s glossy black eyes. The pair remained in their face-off for an inordinate length of time.
Even without the aid of the dancing moonlight patterns or her cloud-storage photos, an image of her estranged partner flashed across Julia’s mind—she was back in the moment when she’d admitted to Patrice how much she wanted to settle down. She couldn’t remember now if she’d expressed a desire to buy a house or visit her mother, or both. It was all so raw and hazy. She no longer cared about Patrice blowing their savings on new equipment or choosing to stay in Germany with Mara. Instead, Julia saw her own fear and fragility reflected in Patrice’s eyes. She kneeled automatically, pine needles crunching below, and the raccoon scampered off into the night. The hum of cicadas lulled her into a trance.
“Paula, you’re letting in a chill.” Her mother was at the sliding door.
Julia sighed, slightly irked at her mother for using her birth name, but she returned quickly to the bedroom to keep the old woman from wandering into the night. As Julia approached the door, she was struck by her mother’s lucid expression of concern. Her eyes shone beneath her heavy eyelids, her nightgown hanging on her outstretched arms like the leaves of the old oak tree in the yard. Impulsively, Julia nestled into her mother’s embrace as if she were again a little girl who had awoken from a bad dream. For a moment the nagging thoughts faded to the background—the power of attorney, her loss of income and influence, Mara’s youthful beauty, the memory of Patrice being told to wait in the kitchen during Bandit’s funeral, the ticking clock of her mother’s health.
“Do you remember, Mother?”
“Remember what, darling?”
“When you said you loved me to the moon and back, no matter what?”
“Of course. I still do.”
Julia blinked away tears, soberly returning to adulthood as she helped her mother back to bed. Lying on her cot, she tried to calculate what time it was in Berlin. She clicked on her phone screen to draft a text message to Patrice. Instead, she flipped over to eBay and removed the postings of her mother’s collectibles. The light was harsh and blinding, so she promptly shut it off. Swallowing a lump in her throat, she remembered her mother’s words again. To the moon and back.
In the transition to sleep, Julia again faced the raccoon’s eyes, now appearing as great reflective pools of water, into which she waded up to her ankles, her knees, her waist, her chin. Her body relaxed as the water receded, until finally she stood again on dry ground.
Joseph R. Goodall
Joseph R. Goodall is the author of the short story collection What the Bird Sees in Flight, as well as a civil engineer dedicated to responsible land development. Born in New Zealand and now living in Atlanta, his historical and literary fiction is inspired by the contradictory ways humans steward their inner and outer environments. His writing has appeared in Flora Fiction and elsewhere online.