Grace had a small scar on her chest—no longer than a fingernail, no wider than floss— that I never asked about. It was visible for the few weeks every summer when the air smelled like melting tar and sweat and she resigned herself to wearing flowy sundresses that bared her arms and hung just low enough in the front for the scar to peer out. On the weekends, my dad turned up the air conditioner until we shivered, burrowing ourselves into the couch under a pile of old quilts to watch classic movies.
Grace kept to herself, working in the garden and going for long walks. We never asked where she went. She came back burnt and dry, her skin alternating between red and white when she touched it, and even then she wouldn’t accept any help with the aloe. She slathered handfuls of it over her shoulders and up her back but could never quite stretch to the spot in the middle. When Dad offered help, she wouldn’t respond, still reaching for that unreachable place. When she finished, she’d excuse herself up to the room. I would look over at my dad and raise my eyebrows.
“Go easy on your mother,” he’d say. “She’s doing her best.”
I would turn my head back to the movie of the day. I imagined every beautiful starlet as a far-off sister who would eventually make her way home. More than anything, I wanted someone to move into that room. Dad had disassembled the crib and replaced it with a queen bed. “Now we can party into the night with our friends, and they’ll have a place to crash,” he’d said to Grace, doing his best attempt at playing air guitar, hoping that there was a chance she’d smile back. But she looked through him with empty eyes and waited silently for us to leave, closing the door behind us.
It made sense to me when she got sick. She barely ate, barely drank. Dad took her to a doctor, then another, then another; I’d watch him back out of the driveway, his face turned to watch for oncoming traffic while Grace stared out the passenger window. They’d come back in silence. Grace became more worn. She got smaller as the months passed, a bony stranger drifting through the house. When she shrunk so much that her pants wouldn’t rest on her hips, she went to wearing only dresses, which barely hung from her shoulders and sloshed around her waist. There was nothing warm or summery to those dresses when my mother wore them. Our lives were steadily marching toward winter.
Grace made her way up the stairs to the room earlier and earlier in the day. Some days Dad left work early to see her, to check in on her, and lay on the bed with her, occasionally reaching for her deadened hand as she stared into the ceiling with faraway eyes. I sat with her every day after school, but only because my dad had asked me to. I never knocked; I knew she wouldn’t respond. I walked in and sat on the edge of the bed, my back to her, waiting for the eventual sound of my dad’s shoes on the stairs so I could leave.
The walls were still powder blue and the whole room had taken on Grace’s achy energy. Whatever this room had been, it wasn’t anymore. I hated being there. In moments when the room closed in on me, my hand would drift over and rest on her arm, the sallow arm of an old woman, which she shook off the same way she shook away my dad’s hand from hers. The straps from her dresses fell casually off her shoulders, and I left them there. Her skin was whiter than it had ever been, her veins so clear it seemed they’d eventually push their way out. The darkened scar tissue on her chest screamed out against the white. It was such a part of her that I rarely even noticed it anymore but, on this day, I notice it. I look at it, examine it, search it, then, just this once, I touch it.
Grace’s shoulder twitches involuntarily at my touch—I pull back my hand. Her eyes fade in from wherever she’s been. She twists herself around to sit up next to me. She looks at her hands.
“No,” she says. “It’s okay.”
She is still looking at her hands. I reach over one quavering finger and pull it along the red ridge, her chest rising and falling under my fingertip. “How did it happen?” I ask.
“That’s my hiding place,” she says. “It’s where I keep the grief.”
I want to be young enough for this weird little lie, to trust her like I had way back when, for things to be like they were before the crib was disassembled. They can’t. I yank my hand back.
“If you don’t want to tell me just don’t then,” I say. I look at her small, withered hands. The dry hands no one is allowed to hold.
She turns to face me with a tired smile. “Go ahead,” she says. “Open it.”
I glance down at the scar and back up at her face. “What, like cut you? I’m not going to cut you, Grace.”
She takes my hand and guides it back to the scar, to the end of the scar, to the final bump at the end. “Feel that?” she asks. My eyebrows pinch in over my eyes as I focus on the bump. “That’s the zipper.”
I drag my fingertip back and forth across the bump, the possibilities sharpening and hardening under my touch. I search Grace’s face and she smiles. It’s still weak and barely larger than a grimace but it’s the most I’ve seen her smile in months. “Really, it’s time. Past the time, probably.” I hesitate, then pinch the tiny bump between my finger and thumb and tug it toward me. The metallic purr of the zipper tears through the room’s thick silence.
Grace’s scar parts effortlessly like lips opening for a kiss. The black legs of something immediately push at the edges of the opening. I once saw a spider crawl out from a drain in this way, pulling itself out, legs first, then its obsidian body. These legs are wider, more hesitant, but pull through the opening just the same. The letter M. It is uppercase, small, black, and unexpected. I have to stare at it for the better part of a minute to be really sure that it isn’t some kind of bug. The letters that follow the M from the dark sliver in Grace’s chest are small and woven tightly together, inseparable. They wobble out of the hole and down the front of her dress, across her lap, onto the bedspread between us, and nestle into a neatly formed line.
MICHAEL WASN’T PLANNED.
I turn back to look at Grace but her eyes are closed. I look at the opening, waiting. The next letters push through, stretching the hole a little wider, turning up the corners of the wound like a smirk. The letters bump into each other as they scuttle down her body, drunk on their freedom, before gliding onto the mattress below the first set of letters.
I LOVED HIM MORE.
I stare at that row for longer. It is difficult to feel slighted by something you already knew. The letters start coming faster now, more confident. I LEFT THE WATER RUNNING. The letters accelerate until they are just a scroll expelling from her chest. I WAS ONLY GONE FOR A MINUTE. Grace’s eyes are pressed shut, her lips pursed. YOU WERE SCREAMING. Her nostrils flare with her breaths, deep like a woman in labor. I THOUGHT YOU WERE HURT. A tear rolls down her right cheek. The text shoots from her chest. The space between us has filled so the sentences are lining themselves up behind us on the bed; I have to turn to read them. WE CAN’T GO BACK. The bed rattles and the headboard cracks rhythmically against the wall as more letters run from her chest and rumble around on the comforter to find an unoccupied place to rest.
As the words pummel out, the slice in Grace’s chest grows larger and larger, her ribs cracking apart, her breasts hanging at her sides. I can see everything inside of her. Her heart lays there in the open, pulsing beneath the swirling words. It looks clean, like the drawing hanging on the wall of the doctor’s office. The left ventricle shows just the tiniest glimmer of light through the haze of words. I move in closer, swatting the letters away, and see the metallic tab gently clinking against the chain. I glance back up at Grace but her eyes are still squished shut, the same pained expression she’s thrown on at least half a dozen times a day since Michael left us. I reach into her chest and tug at the zipper.
The pink outer layer of the heart falls away, leaving only the middle—the part that gave it shape, the quiet fleshy framework of the heart. It is only one word, only three letters, all lowercase and humble among the maelstrom of capitals, a hovering question in her chest without any punctuation or expectation. I stare at it and immediately want nothing to do with it. I think about leaving her in this room with the letters and the words and her cracked ribs and her powder blue walls that she won’t paint over. I think about it, but I stay. I know this word is there only for me. I know I’m the only one left to say it.
It doesn’t feel right coming out of my mouth and I don’t look at her—I look at my feet. My voice sounded thick and distant, like it came from someone else. The other words stop moving around. No more words leave my mother’s chest. It’s just that one word hanging there, facing me.
I have to look up. Grace is looking at me with her head cocked, her eyes scanning my face. The silence is deafening against the noise from moments before. I realize that I’m crying— how long have I been crying? I don’t know what to do, so I look at the letters on her lap, and the ones on the bed, and I start picking them up, filling my hands with them—and then pushing them back into Grace’s chest, back into her heart. They don’t stick, they keep just falling back out onto her lap and the bed and the floor. I see they aren’t sticking so I thrust them harder into Grace’s chest. I’m sobbing and can’t catch my breath. My chest feels tight and hot, like it might just explode open.
Grace grabs onto both of my flailing hands and pulls them gently down to my lap. She holds them there until my breathing slows. I have no idea how long we sit like that, just her warm hands holding mine. After a time, she lets go. She stands up and stretches her arms toward the ceiling, cracks her neck, then pulls her ribs and skin back toward her middle, cinching it all up and zipping the scar closed. She walks out of the room and heads toward the stairs, pausing at the top of the staircase for me. I follow Grace down the stairs through our quiet home, the letters all following behind us in a tranquil procession, not quite knowing what to do with themselves now that they’re out.
Sarah Sexton writes stories about monsters, both figurative and literal. Sarah received her MFA from Pacific University and lives in Duluth, Minnesota with her two loving dogs and one surly cat. She specializes in fabulism and flash fiction.