blivious to the rambling voices in the living room, Riley McCullough stared at the shapeless white lump on her plate. They didn’t look like much, but her mother had found the sweet spot of garlic in the mashed potatoes. The salmon smelled fine and the asparagus looked perfect, but she couldn’t bring herself to eat. She caught only one in ten words from the TV, something about stock markets, too boring to tolerate. A steady thrum from the central air unit was more interesting.
She slid her sock-covered feet back and forth over the linoleum. Sitting in a sideways lean, face propped up in her palm and eyes closed, Mom seemed as interested in food as Riley felt. Something wasn’t right. She wasn’t ever this quiet. Today had been the last day of eighth grade, and Mom should’ve been an explosion of questions about her day, what she wanted to do with her summer, and all sorts of the usual parental chatter that occurred every single night.
Riley pouted at her lap. The repeating series of dancing teddy bears on her red pajama pants mocked her with their vapid smiles.
“Your food okay, hon?”
Riley straightened in her seat, taking the weight of her face off her left fist. She let her arm fall flat on the table. “Yeah, it’s fine.”
“What’s bothering you?” Mom attempted to sound comforting, but came off tired.
Oh, yeah, that too. In addition to Mom being strange, her plans for the most awesome summer ever had gone up in smoke. She’d get to spend the first fourteen days alone and bored.
“Amber’s parents are dragging her off to Puerto Vallarta for two weeks.”
Her mother made a weak attempt at a chuckle. “I’d hardly call that being dragged off.”
“They sprung it on her as a graduation present… we had plans. I can’t believe she’s gonna be gone for two whole weeks. It’s not fair. This is like the big summer before high school.”
“Riley… you’ve got the whole break ahead of you. Two weeks isn’t a big deal. Besides, what plans did you have? Hanging out at the mall?”
“Ugh, Mom…” Riley rolled her eyes. “We’re not mallrats. We were gonna try and start a guild.”
Mom set her fork down and worked her fingers over the bridge of her nose. “You’ll be a freshman in a couple of months, Rile. You can’t spend your whole life shuttered in your bedroom with video games. Have you given any thought to a summer job?”
“No.” Riley stabbed a fork into the lump of potatoes. “I can’t work. I’m only fourteen.”
“Fourteen? Wow, I had no idea.” Mom smirked, though she seemed distracted or exhausted. “I checked groceries when I was your age for a couple hours a day. I’d like you to consider it this year, but I won’t force you. Next year, young lady, is another story.”
Riley poked at her salmon. “I guess I could apply at GameStop or something.”
“Wow, no argument?” Mom pushed herself upright with visible effort. “What’s really bothering you?”
“You’re too quiet.” Riley stared at her plate for a moment. “You’re never this quiet.”
“Oh, I’ve just had a horrible day at the bank. Pritchett’s been riding me about the second quarter customer satisfaction figures, the Fed is coming in for a ‘routine audit,’ and I’ve got a city inspector giving me grief about the building. He can’t seem to understand I’m just the branch manager… I don’t own the damn place.” Mom deflated. “Oh, and Mr. Hensley thinks I’m going to Hell.”
“Pritchett’s the pudgy, bald guy that wears his tie so tight it looks like his head’s gonna pop like a grape?”
Mom laughed once, her expression bleeding to a wince. “Yes, but don’t repeat that at the Christmas party… you’ll get me fired. He’s the district manager, and a complete control freak.”
“Are you okay?” Riley stared into her mother’s eyes. “You look like shit.”
“Just a headache.” Mom closed her eyes and massaged the bridge of her nose. “Oh, and I heard that. Mind your language, Rile.”
Riley grumbled inside, wondering what Mom would think of the way the kids at school talked. She looked up, ready to argue, but the exhausted expression on her mother’s face stalled the argument before it started. “‘Kay.”
“Mmm. Hey, would you mind loading the dishwasher when you’re done? I think I’m going to pop some ibuprofen and close my eyes. Damn stress is getting to me.”
“Sure, Mom.” It’s my turn anyway. Riley glanced at her mother’s glass. “Is that water?”
“I already feel sick. Not up for the Manhattan tonight.”
“Oh, damn. I’ll call Guinness.”
“Hush, you.” Mom scoffed with a hint of a smile. “I don’t drink that much.”
For ten-ish minutes, only the clank and scratch of forks and knives on dinnerware broke the silence.
“Looking forward to your first day of summer?” Mom again tried to smile.
“Amber can’t even come over tonight… they’re leaving in the morning. I get to be alone for two weeks.”
“You can get started on your summer reading then. You haven’t even taken them out of the bag yet.”
Riley rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’ll jump on that right away.”
Mother stood, smiled, and wandered down the hall to the bathroom. Riley glanced through the open archway, the din of financial news from the living room a dull murmur in the back of her consciousness. Mom hadn’t questioned the attitude in her voice. Worry danced in her belly, but maybe the simple truth was she’d been too worn out to start a meaningless argument. They both knew Riley would wind up at least skimming through the books… probably in the last three days before school started.
September felt like an eternity away, too far ahead to worry about now. She picked at her food until the squeak of the bathroom faucet cutting off made her look up. Mom shuffled down the hallway with her eyes closed, swaying as if dizzy. After a moment, she made her way to the living room, bracing a hand along the wall for support. After eating the rest of the fish, half the potatoes, and two sprigs of asparagus, Riley shoved the rest in a small plastic container and fridged it. Mother hated throwing food out, even if it was green vegetables. Riley’s insistence on going vegetarian ‘for the animals’ lasted about six months. Still, pork or beef rarely saw the inside of their kitchen. Chicken and fish provided a routine break from quinoa and various all-veggie things she found online.
Why did Mom ask me to pack the dishwasher? She knows it’s my turn since she cooked.
She gathered utensils, plates, pans, and cups in no particular hurry. Amber would be waiting for her online, so at least they could stay up late tonight, mothers-be-damned. Maybe they could get two weeks’ worth of hanging out accomplished in a few hours. A squirt of detergent in the reservoir preceded her lifting the door with one foot and kicking it closed while stretching to shove the bottle back in an overhead cabinet.
Once the dishwasher started up, she crept up to the archway and peered into the living room. Mom sat askew in the recliner facing the fifty-inch flat screen, a hand on her face as if deep in thought. She had refused to let Riley connect the Xbox to the ‘main TV,’ declaring that one for ‘TV purposes.’ Three middle-aged men in suits sat behind a desk covered in strips of neon, debating stuff about Wall Street.
“You okay, Mom?”
“Fine, fine. Just waiting for the Advil to kick in.” Mother rubbed her temples. “Haven’t had a headache like this since”―she waved her hand around―“since I got promoted.”
Riley tiptoed closer. “You sure you’re okay?”
Mom took her hand, offering a weak smile. “It’s just a headache, Rile. Really, I’m fine. Don’t get yourself so worked up.”
“‘Kay. Yell if you need something.”
Mother shielded her eyes with her hand as soon as Riley let go to walk away.
“Probably,” whispered Mother.
“Want me to call Dr. Gest?”
“If it doesn’t go away in a few hours, sure.”
Riley lingered at the door watching her mother for a few minutes. No alcohol, no nagging, not even the usual supportive talk about her lack of friends, and how she should try to make more. She’s gotta be exhausted. That job is killing her.
“Mom, take the day off work tomorrow. Let’s have a movie day… we haven’t done that in like months.”
“I’ll think about it.” Mother paused to take a few quiet breaths. “There’s a bunch of new Pixar ones you haven’t seen.”
“We’re out of popcorn.”
Mother looked up, forcing a smile. “Easy enough to fix that.”
Riley’s worry lasted another few seconds before she grinned and drifted away from the arch, dragging her feet on the way down the hall to her bedroom. Aside from one Captain Jack Sparrow poster above her headboard, she had decorated her room with video-game couture. Amber had accused her of murdering an older brother and stealing his digs. The theoretical location of the body had been a two-year running joke.
That girl likes pink way too much.
Three pillows covered in navy-blue linen formed a pad upon which she sprawled, propped up on her elbows before a thirty-six inch flat screen hooked to an Xbox sitting on top of two milk crates full of DVD cases. The spot in her computer desk where the PC should go contained a graveyard of old controllers, some smashed in anger, others worn to the point of death.
After putting on her chat headset, she kicked her feet back and forth while waiting for the console to power up. A moment later, she popped into the e-lobby for Call of Duty.
“Hey, where the hell have you been?” Amber’s yelling flooded her skull from both ears, making Riley cringe. “I’ve been bored off my ass for like an hour. Come on, Rile, the noobs won’t shoot themselves in the head.”
A few button taps put her in the same virtual space as her friend. DoomBear14 appeared on the line below her friend’s username: IH8Toobers.
“You need to de-cute your tag, Rile. You look like a squeaker.”
Riley grinned. “I like makin’ the old men rage quit when they get killed by someone with a silly name.”
“You’re such a bitch, Rile.”
“I know.” Riley examined her fingernails. “Piss them off, and they can’t play for shit.”
A flurry of other names filled in both sides of the roster, and soon the lobby screen switched to a level-loading image.
“Ugh, I hate Panama. Nothing but goddamn campers,” grumbled Amber.
“Crap, we got squeakers,” said a man.
Riley forced her voice up into a preteen range. “Hi everyone! This is my first time. I just got this game for my birthday. Can someone tell me how do I shoot?”
Voice chat erupted with the expected laughs, taunts, and ‘aww, leave her/him alone’ requests.
Fifteen minutes later, the opposing team realized Riley was the Irish word for ‘Troll.’ After twenty-two kills and four deaths, the entire other team called her a cheater. She giggled every time she got the drop on ‘DeltaForce187,’ and after the seventh un-answered kill, an incoherent roar came over the voice chat and he logged out.
“Victory for team Bear,” squeaked Riley.
Another two rounds came and went. Despite it being more of the same, it never got old. The simple tactic of sticking with Amber and working as a team protected them from the lone wolves, but every now and then, they’d land in a match with a competition squad and get soundly smashed―though twice she held her own enough to be extended an invite.
Until they heard she was fourteen.
A patina of camo-clad bodies, Eastern European backdrops, and bullets faded to an automatic routine.
“I still can’t believe you’re going to Puerto Vallarta for two weeks.”
“Yeah, it sucks,” said Amber.
“Wait, what?” asked a boy that sounded about their age. “In what world does that suck?”
Amber sighed. “There’s nothing to do there.”
“You could work on your summer reading,” said Riley.
“Go to hell.” Amber cracked up laughing.
“Jesus Christ, is this friggin’ high school? Come on, play the goddamn game.”
“Aww, someone’s got their old man diapers on too tight,” said Amber in a sing-song tone before lowering her voice to mock a man. “This is the virtual military, hut hut. Serious faces, please.”
Riley laughed, biting her lower lip as she snuck up on a sniper hiding in a stack of sewer piping. The player, a deep-voiced man, launched into a diatribe of obscenities after she knife killed him. She was pretty sure his anger stemmed mostly from the girlish squeal he let off as she scared the crap out of him.
“I found the knife button.” The cursing got worse when Riley giggled like a five-year-old.
She made her way down off the elevated position to the next best sniper roost on the map, the roof of a big warehouse. The spot was empty, but she hid behind a stack of what looked like concrete bags.
Four death announcements flashed by.
“I found the grenade launcher,” said Amber.
An expected series of complaints about the ‘noob-tube’ followed.
“Hah,” said a boy. “‘I hate toobers’ just killed people with a tube.”
“It’s called irony,” said Amber.
A minute later, Riley twitched when a digital soldier went by. The same sniper she knifed minutes before ran to the edge of the roof and flopped down in a prone position. She crept out, planted a C4 charge between his boots, and backed away to her hiding place.
“How does the semtex work?” asked Riley, again making her voice sound like a little kid’s.
The sniper’s virtual body went flying like Superman to the middle of the map.
“Oh, I get it.” She giggled.
For another twenty minutes, the girls tormented that particular sniper until the round ended and the game dumped them back to the e-lobby.
Amber’s voice came over a private chat. “Hey Rile, it’s been like two whole hours, and your mom hasn’t bothered you once. It’s a miracle.”
“Yeah, it’s nice.” Riley dropped the controller and moved around to sit up, stretching and rubbing her sore elbows. “I think she’s getting sick.”
“Oh, that sucks. She drunk again?”
“She doesn’t get drunk drunk, just has enough to turn into the nag-o-tron 3000.” Riley glanced past the door, at the dark hallway. The murmur from the TV now sounded like some late-night show. According to the clock, it was 12:11 a.m. and Mom was still up. “Amb, I got a bad feeling. I’ll be right back.”
“Your mom is like the terminator, ‘cept without like the killing and stuff. She’ll kick it.” Amber yawned. “So what are you gonna do for two weeks?”
“I dunno.” Riley couldn’t look away from the hall. Something felt wrong. “Wanna bail on the trip and stay here?”
“I would ask but… the vacation is supposed to be like a surprise present for me. Be kinda crappy to do that, even if they are my parents.”
“Yeah… Uh, one sec. I wanna check on her.”
She peeled the headset off, stood, and walked out into the hall. More canned laughter broke the silence in intermittent bursts between jokes only an old person would understand. With her fingers tracing the wall, she snuck up to where the corridor opened to the living room. Half hidden behind the corner, she peeked at her mother who remained seated in the recliner in the same pose she’d left her in.
“Mom?” whispered Riley. “It’s late. You should go to bed.”
The curtains on the TV behind the host’s chair saturated the room in an unearthly dark blue light. With the volume way down, she couldn’t make out why the guest was laughing so much. She couldn’t even tell who it was aside from he was someone famous―but not so popular she could place where she’d seen him.
“Mom? You look pale.” Riley stopped at the arm of the chair and put her hand on her mother’s shoulder. “Mom? Wake up, it’s like midnight.”
“Hmm?” Mom let off a disoriented moan. “Midnight?”
Riley shivered at the sound. “Yeah. Come on. Go to bed. You need to call out tomorrow. Are you sure you don’t want to go to the doctor?”
“I’m not going to work tomorrow.”
Mother leaned forward in the chair and reached for the coffee table. Her fingers grasped at the wood four inches to the right of the TV remote. She tried again to grab it, missing. Mother tilted her head up at Riley with a confused look, as if she couldn’t understand why the remote wasn’t in her hand.
“Mom?” Riley clutched her mother’s shoulder after she looked down and tried unsuccessfully for a third time to pick up the device. “Mom, you’re scaring me. I don’t care if it’s midnight, I’m gonna call Dr. Gest.”
“Wha…?” Mother looked up again.
The whites of her eyes had gone blood red.
Riley stepped back, covering her mouth. Mom gazed into space, with no trace whatsoever of recognition or awareness. After a few seconds of silence, she slumped back in the chair, mouth agape.
Riley screamed and stumbled away.
She stood for a few seconds after her lungs emptied. Mom’s chest rose and fell in slow, shallow breaths. The room spun. The voices from the TV sounded like they were inside her head.
“Mom!” Riley shrieked again. “Mommy!”
Mom didn’t react.
What just happened? No. No, this isn’t real. Mom’s not sick. She ran two circles around in front of the TV, looked at Mom again, and sprinted to her room. Six seconds passed as she stared dumbstruck at the Xbox lobby.
Why am I in my room?
She turned on her heel, glancing at the weak moonlight coming in through the kitchen windows. Mom? Oh, shit, Mom!
Riley ran to the kitchen and grabbed the cordless phone with enough force to knock the base off the counter. She punched 911, not breathing until she heard a ring tone.
“911. What’s your emergency?”
She gazed at nothing.
“Hello? This is 911. Do you have an emergency?” The woman on the other side muffled the mic. “No, it’s not dead, I can hear someone breathing.”
“911 Emergency. Do you have an emergency?”
“Okay, you sound like a kid. Are you okay?”
“Take a few breaths, and tell me what the problem is.”
Riley burst into tears. “Mom. My mom…”
“Easy, sweetie. Take a breath and tell me what happened?”
“She’s sick.” She babbled through a few sobs. “Her eyes are red. She’s not moving.”
“Try to stay calm, sweetie. Your mother needs you to stay calm. I’m sending people to help.”
“Okay.” Riley sank to her knees in the middle of the kitchen, bawling.
“Don’t hang up, okay, sweetie? Stay with me until they get there.”
She sniffled. “‘Kay.”
“How old is your Mom?”
“Tell me what she’s doing right now.”
“I’m in the kitchen.” Riley coughed and sputtered, unable to stop crying. “Hang on.”
She crawled to the three-step stairway from the tiled kitchen to the carpeted living room. Mom hadn’t moved.
Riley looked away, not wanting to see her like that. “She’s slumped in a chair staring at the ceiling.”
The voice on the phone blurred, becoming an indistinct series of comforting lines, likely read from a flash card. Riley offered the occasional ‘mmm-hmm’ or ‘huh’ as bits and pieces of words snagged on her consciousness. She scooted closer, inch by inch, until she could reach up and hold her mother’s limp hand. Though her skin was warm, her contact got no response. Riley curled up against the side of the recliner.
Three minutes later, red and blue lights flooded through the front door window. The same meaningless word repeated from the phone. Riley looked up at the silhouettes of a pair of cops in the frosted glass of the front door. Answering the bell would require letting go of Mom.
“Can you get the door, sweetie?” asked the woman on the phone.
Riley stood on autopilot, trudging to the foyer as a distant siren gained in volume. A blast of thick June wind pushed the air conditioning away as she opened the door. One police car had parked out front, half nosed into their driveway. An ambulance rounded the corner at the end of the block and gunned the engine. Riley stared up at the cops as if they were aliens. One grasped her by the shoulders and eased her out of the way while his partner hurried inside.
“Is there anyone else here with you?”
“It was only a headache,” she muttered.
“Are you alone?”
“My mom…” She looked to her left over the front lawn as the ambulance doors banged open and a gurney clattered out. “Just my mom.”