This is an excerpt from a short story collection I produced through my school. Two of my peers and myself wrote short stories involving a kind of mental illness (Anxiety, Depression and Grief), all set in one school in one day. My peers wrote about two students at the school, whereas I chose to write from the perspective of a teacher. This is the end of my story, taking place after a long and stressful day.
Gail shuts the door behind her as she steps into the warmth of her home. It’s dark outside, she’s late again, grading papers and writing lesson plans long past seven o’clock. Her shoulders fall, no longer needing to set a good example for anyone with proper posture. She rolls her neck, shakes her shoulders, trying to shake off her anxiety brought on by the difficult day dissipating behind her. She sets her bag down, slips off her shoes and places her keys in the shell-shaped bowl by the door.
Her husband is singing along to Frank Sinatra in the kitchen, the sounds and smells of dinner sizzling melodiously. This makes her smile slightly, his off-key voice too loud and uninhibited for him to have realized he’s no longer alone in the house.
Gail pads softly down the entryway, passing the living room in her socks and stopping in the doorway of the kitchen. “Hi Robert,” she calls, her voice straining to be heard over the music.
He turns, startled for a moment, but then he’s grabbing her hands and leading her into the kitchen, trying to get her to dance along to That’s Life. She laughs harder now, no plastered smile necessary. They waltz over to the stereo and he drops her hands to turn down the music.
“Hi honey,” he kisses her forehead.
“How was your day?” she asks, plucking a carrot from the cutting board as he flips over the chicken.
“Oh, the usual,” he launches into a mundane story about another day at the office. She’s calmed by his voice, not quite monotonous, deep and lulling. He plates salad, rice and chicken, telling her a mildly funny story about his lunchtime meeting.
He pulls the chair out for her, setting both plates on their small, two-person table. The kitchen is warm and garlic-scented. Robert sets a glass of chilled white wine to the left of each plate before sitting down across from Gail.
“Isaac called today.”
“How’s the baby?”
“Sounds like she’s doing really well. Getting bigger everyday. She can almost walk now,” he cuts his chicken into even strips.
“Healthy as ever. They both sound tired, but they’re getting used to dealing with having a baby. Preparing for the terrible twos though.”
“I wish Isaac could remember how terrible he was. He had a habit of biting.”
“How could I forget that?” Robert holds up the index finger on his left hand, which still has three tiny tooth marks in a shiny scar.
“We really should have them over soon. For brunch or something.”
Robert nods, pushing a forkful of chicken and rice into his mouth, adding nonchalantly, “Maybe give Cordelia a call too?”
Gail nods, but her neck tenses again, tired of having this conversation. “We can’t keep paying her rent Robert. She graduated a year-and-a-half ago. She needs to get a job, but instead she’s relying on you always giving in to her demands.”
“She’s our youngest daughter, Gail. We can’t just cut her off.”
“That’s not what I’m suggesting, Rob. But maybe only paying half the rent.” They eat in silence for a few minutes, her chest flaring under her green sweater, the only sounds being forks and knives and the dishwasher humming behind them.
“The chicken is delicious,” she reaches for his hand, rubbing her thumb over his briefly. Apologies were always emphasized to their children, but seemed to have missed the adults. Both are too stubborn to say I’m sorry.
“And happy anniversary, by the way.”
“What?” Gail scrapes her fork through the rice.
“Twenty-two years of teaching, sweetheart. Congratulations!” He’s smiling kindly at her, his hand still in hers. He reaches his other hand out for his glass, and when she does the same they clink, the sound reverberating around the quiet kitchen.
“Thank you,” she’d almost forgotten, the beginning of the day and her excitement over a cupcake almost inconceivable.
By eleven, Gail has removed her violently green sweater, swapping the day’s constricting khakis for pilling grey sweatpants and a loose cotton top. She sits in her closet office, which is cluttered with cards and drawings from students. Art from her children is framed and lining the walls, soon to be taken down and replaced with art from her grandchildren. Family photos crowd her desk, some in the form of magnets stuck to her computer. They’re years old now, from when her children still lived at home and they could take vacations in the summer. She always liked that, a perk of being a teacher. She had whole summers off, for road trips and sunburned faces pressed cheek to cheek.
One of her favorites sits precariously on top of her PC. It’s a photo she took of her whole family on Hoover Dam. Robert stands behind the two boys, holding bunny ears behind Dylan’s head. He’s scowling slightly, thirteen-years-old, misplaced angst making it impossible for him to pose or smile. Isaac is twelve and ecstatic, an engineer at heart, so much difference in that year between him and his brother, smiling widely. Gail remembers his fascination with the inner workings of the dam, the rushing water loud and exciting to his ears. Cordelia is balancing on one foot, like she was trying to take up as much of the frame as possible, in a floral dress and clashing floral tights, her curly blonde hair wild in the wind, her tongue sticking out from between the wide gap in her front teeth.
She was so sweet back them, when she was still eight and still a mama’s girl. That lasted for fourteen years, until both her brothers were gone, and the house started ringing with silence, punctuated by doors slamming and shouting competitions. Gail thought having dealt with two teenagers would have made her a pro by the time it was Cordelia’s turn, but she wasn’t prepared for the hatred she felt emanating from her daughter. Gail feels her heart beating faster in her chest. She takes a few breaths, then punches a number into her landline.
It’s almost one by the time Gail slips into bed. It’s only Tuesday. Wednesday now, technically. She’d had a surprisingly pleasant conversation with her daughter. Cordelia had agreed that half the rent was more than reasonable. She said that she already had a few interviews lined up. That had made Gail happy, finally seeing her youngest take some initiative. Cordelia even told Gail a little about the new guy she was seeing.
“Girl talk” wasn’t something they ever really shared. Cordelia had been a secretive teenager, and Gail had never been sure who out of the gaggle of teenagers that traipsed in and out of her house for five years was “just a friend.” But this time, they had talked for almost an hour. Two adults, easily mother and daughter again.
Gail is happy with this thought. She settles into her plush mattress, matching her breath to synchronize with her husband’s. But another thought is creeping up on her. She tries to simultaneously push it away and remember why she doesn’t want to think about it with each weighted blink of her eyelids.
She didn’t help anyone today. Chaos rushes back to her. She remembers, suddenly, with almost violent clarity, that look on Alex’s face. Anger and fear and desperation. Anxiety starts flowing through her again, prickling her skin, her eyes no longer heavy but stinging wide open.
That poor girl, Emily, who didn’t come back to class. She’d left discreetly, Gail hated to admit. By the time class was over, though worried sick, the school knew there couldn’t be a man hunt. They’d have to wait those forty-eight hours, making everything seem just a little more like a crime show. Her mind whirrs. Her chest is clogged with that desperate feeling. A useless feeling. She quietly pushes the duvet off her. She pads down the hallway, past their large bathroom, past the washer and dryer. She falters in front of Dylan and Isaac’s room. Alex reminds her vaguely of her eldest son when he first started high school. Quiet and brooding. Dylan even went to counseling for a few months after he started skipping class and chain smoking. Gail reaches her hand out in order to peel off a leftover piece of tape from the signs that had once plastered their door. She continues down the hall, passing Cordelia’s old room, eight letters still spelling out her name on its surface.
Gail creaks down the staircase, her footsteps muffled by the four-year-old carpet. She makes her way through the entryway, passing the den and their neglected dining room. In the kitchen, she makes herself some tea, switching on the light above the sink after scalding her hand on the steam from the kettle. She sits with her mug of mint and honey at the little round table. Her head is spinning emptily. She rests there, alone in the half-darkness, waiting for her tea to cool. The clock ticks closer to morning.
She wants a solution. But for now, she finds solace in the fact that at least fatigue puts her in a good mood.