Dropping off Jung’s groceries was an easy matter. Traveling from the market, the small, barn-style house was now on her path. As she eased her car into the driveway behind her sister’s, rarely used, blue sedan, Nema could see the lights in the front room shining brightly, and her self-absorbed nephew lounging on the sofa, staring at the wall plasma. Wrestling the basket free of her car, she stepped against the wind and headed for the back door.
The little five-by-four foot mud-room held a grubby, solar chest freezer against one wall that was forced into the space left-over when the narrow pantry cupboard had been built. A wide coat peg, stuffed with jackets and sweaters mounted above a seldom-washed, woolen shoe-runner graced the other side. The runner was a token effort, as the family’s footwear spilled across the floor like puzzle pieces. Kicking a heavy, blue snow-boot firmly into the side of the freezer, Nema grunted as she picked her way through mess. One of these days she would probably trip back here and split her head open. Judging by the amount of dust it was a good bet she wouldn’t get found for days. Knowing Jung would want to look things over, she didn’t bother putting anything away, just dumped the basket’s contents on top of the freezer and made sure the jars didn’t roll off. She let the wind slam the door behind her as she left.
Backing down the driveway, the clock in the dashboard read 6:23. It was possible that dinner wasn’t a complete loss. If she skipped the vegetable casserole and opted for a fresh salad instead, she could regain her lost time. Neisha loved the casserole, but she would also love the salmon steaks with white cheddar mashed potatoes. The lemon bars could cook while they ate. It wasn’t quite the feast she had originally envisioned, but it would still be a nice dinner.
* * * * *
The apartment was in shadow when she opened the main door and stepped into the kitchen, the lock closing behind her with a polite click as opposed to the violent slamming of the morning. Dropping her bag on the counter top Nema paused for a second to allow the lagging wall sensors to notice her. A couple more seconds passed before the ceramic ceiling tiles finally flickered to life, spreading a white, opalescence across the kitchen surfaces. She huffed softly through her nostrils and resolved to send a message to the Quad Housing Manager about the problem after dinner. She could have walked all the way into the dining room before the lights had come on.
Mentally sorting through the contents of the refrigerator as she wriggled out of her jacket, she thought she decided she might be able to throw together a nice fruit salad with fresh whipped topping. It might be a bit of an overkill with the lemon bars, but they had the whole weekend to eat it up. Dropping her shoulder bag over a coat peg on the wall, and her jacket on top, she turned to the sink and nearly walked right over top of Neisha. Making a sound similar to that of a cat whose tail was firmly stepped on, she laid one shaking hand over her racing heart as she grabbed her daughter by the shoulder with the other and gave her a nervous shake.
“Aish! Make some noise Neisha, you nearly killed me with fright.” Panting with alarm, she stared at the girl, waiting for a playful smirk or joke. Nothing came. Noting the bags under Neisha’s eyes, Nema switched immediately to concern. “What is it? What’s wrong with you?” Her skin looked pale, almost yellow, and the shoulder she was still holding felt smaller somehow. “Neisha, talk to me. What’s going on?”
Neisha stayed motionless except for her eyes. Shifting her gaze away from her mother she fastened it onto the floor in front of Nema’s feet. Her arms hung limp at her sides, as if she didn’t have the strength to raise them. In her right hand she held a thin stack of papers that seemed to whisper against each other despite her immobility. Nema locked her eyes onto the papers and felt her stomach clench so tightly that she bent forward and groaned. How had she not seen that right off? Only the JOC used real paper. She bent farther over, fighting the pain that was now slicing through to her lower back. Her groans turned into moans of denial as she sank to her knees.
“No. No, no, no. How? Why?” Five years! Neisha had gotten a green light every year, and her grades were exemplary. She would get into a good Cause right away. There would be no waiting around in service of a pointless one until a spot opened up in a better one. “Six? How can there be six?” Sobbing now she pressed her head to the floor and slid forward like a penitent beggar until her crown touched her daughter’s feet. Blindly she reached out to wrap her arms around Neisha’s ankles and cling to her, dragging her head into her shins while her tears ran freely onto the girl’s socks. “Why?” The last word was a drawn out gargle.
For several minutes the only sounds in the apartment were Nema’s sobs which eventually burrowed through to her conscious self. Neisha didn’t budge through the entire display, or even speak. That immobility made Nema overly aware of her distressed display. Hitching hard, like she might vomit with each attempted breath, she struggled to pull herself together. She pulled herself upright and sat back on her ankles to wipe at her face, using the sleeve of her shirt to mop her nose. It wouldn’t matter, there were other shirts, and this one could be cleaned. Looking up, she tried to focus her swollen eyes on Neisha’s face. The girl looked like she had aged many years in just the time it had taken Nema to fall apart. For a second Nema felt shame for her lack of control, then let go of it as her eyes picked up a strangeness. Her memory from that morning, the one where Neisha’s grinning face was framed by a halo of hair, was now overlayed with the image of a tired, old woman, sunken eyed and sallow complected. Realization hit hard as she squinted at the plasma on the dining room wall. The digital clock display read 6:38 pm. School had let out at 2:15 pm. Neisha had been alone with this paper for over four hours, while Nema had been acting a fool at the market on Jung’s behalf. It was a battle to not give into the desire to just collapse again in a heap of grief and shame on the kitchen floor and stay there. Forcing herself to stand, Nema reach for the Summons.
“Dinner will be ready shortly.” The words were a scratchy whisper, but it was the best she could do. As she took the paper from her daughter’s hand she felt the old woman slither across the brief, physical connection and settle inside her, curling tiredly around the sputtering, living spirit that had, only a short time ago, been planning a celebration dinner in honor of the this paper not arriving. A few more tears ran out of her eyes, unchecked, and splatted on the floor as Nema turned to drop the Summons on the counter, then open the refrigerator to get the fruit for the salad.