Cheerful screams beating against my eardrums. Buttery popcorn sliding down my throat.
Her hand wrapped around mine.
Every summer since I was five, Mom and Grandma took me to a small seaside amusement park just thirty minutes from our suburb. We’d leave early in the morning and I’d sit in the backseat, listening as they bantered about what music to play. When we arrived, I’d become mesmerized by the way the arched iron entrance framed the sun as it lifted from the sea.
Visiting Cosmic Coast every year was a tradition they had started during my mom’s own childhood. They always laughed about how nothing ever changed there. The space-themed park hadn’t updated any of its food carts or games and the paid entertainers still wore the same fluffy teddy bear costumes, although now their neon colors had faded to pastels. That was another thing we found funny—a coastal park with an outer space theme had giant teddy bears walking around.
We used to hold hands as we walked through the gates. I never thought anything of it until I grew older and ashamed and began wiggling my fingers loose of the custom. I remember the flames of embarrassment rising in my chest and the heat engulfing my cheeks when people looked our way.
We rode everything –the Tilt-O-Whirl, the Carousel, the Bumper Cars and all the roller coasters. While the mild rides had the usual names, the roller coasters had space-themed names: The Sonic Scream, Venus Escape, Galaxy Zoom. And of course Grandma and Mom’s favorite: Supernova.
Roller coasters didn’t scare me as long as I closed my eyes. I enjoyed the rush of wind in my hair, the feeling as my stomach dropped and the screaming and laughter that surrounded me. But I could never open my eyes.
Mom never bothered me about it.
“She’s afraid of heights, is all,” my mom would say to Grandma, patting her hand and smiling reassuringly. “Just let her enjoy it the way she wants to.”
Grandma had always been stubborn about this issue. She let me get away with my fear on most rides, but she gave me so much grief over Supernova. They saved that one for last because they said it was like a farewell to the park. The Supernova had no special twists or upside-down loops; it was a series of hills that wrapped around the entire park.
I had grown up hearing everyone talk about how Supernova offered an amazing view. But I still couldn’t manage to open my eyes. I always told myself I would, never daring to say it out loud in case I couldn’t.
The last time we all went to Cosmic Coast I was twelve and still wearing my hair in the messy braids I insisted on doing myself. My mom’s hair was long and full, touching her back. Grandma’s face was filled with wrinkles and she hadn’t yet forgotten how to use her laugh lines.
After hours of rides, popcorn and gossip, the sun began to set in the distance behind the ocean and it was time for our last ride. We made our way to Supernova where the line of people flowed way past the usual stopping point.
“Poppy, will you open your eyes this time?” Grandma started as we settled into the back of the line. She raised her eyebrows at me.
“Stop…” I mumbled under my breath.
“Mother, does it really matter?" Mom laughed, her deep green eyes crinkling in the corners. She pinched Grandma teasingly like they were old friends rather than family.
“You have to grow up,” Grandma said, still talking to me. She shook her head. “You have to get over this fear you have.”
Mom leaned down to whisper in my ear. “Don’t listen to her, my sweet Poppy. You just be yourself.” She kissed my cheek and I smiled at her gratefully. Grandma’s frown softened as she watched us.
When we finally reached the ride, we took our place at the front of the coaster. Mom and Grandma took a seat on either side of me like they always did. I buckled myself in immediately with shaking hands.
Mom watched me quietly. After the roller coaster operator had checked our buckles and moved on to the row behind us, she grabbed my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. I normally would have batted her away but this time I didn’t.
“You can close your eyes,” she told me. She hesitated before continuing. “But if you open them, I promise you’ll be safe. I’ll be with you.”
I stared up at her green eyes, the same eyes as Grandma’s. She stared back kindly.
“It’s so beautiful, Poppy,” she told me with conviction in her voice. “Grandma just doesn’t want you to miss out. After all these years of riding, you’ve never even opened your eyes. You've never even seen what it looks like from the top.”
The coaster started moving along the track and we both leaned back into our seats. I heard Grandma on my other side even though I couldn’t see her. She was telling me it was okay to close my eyes. She reached for my other hand and I let her hold it.
As the coaster slowly lurched up its first hill, I stared intensely at the handlebar in front of me, ignoring the scenes of the city and beach on either side. Even in my peripheral vision I could tell they were spectacular sights.
Just as we were about to reach the top of the hill, I closed my eyes tight. Mom squeezed my hand like she knew somehow.
Grandma was named after her mother’s favorite flower: Marigold. Marigold Azalea Robbins. I don’t know why Great Gram named her after a flower, because Great Gram was an “Alice Elizabeth” who came from a family of other simple names: Jonathon Mark, Susan Ann, Tomas Joe, etc.
But that was my grandma’s name and she was so stubborn about starting a tradition that she ignored Grandpa’s request for a Junior and instead named her firstborn son after one of her favorite plants: Sage. Then when she had my mom she named her after the flower my Grandpa had presented her with on their first wedding anniversary: Rose.
Uncle Sage and my Grandma had never gotten along, probably because she’d spoiled and favored my mom. Grandpa died when I was six and of course Uncle Sage had no intention of taking Grandma in, so she came to live with us. I learned to fall asleep to the rhythm of her snores as they passed through the walls.
To understand my mother, you’d have to first understand the bond she and Grandma shared. They lived and breathed like puzzle pieces glued together and they fought, forgave and loved each other like best friends. While I hid from my mother’s public affection, she’d grown up holding her mother’s hand with pride. Grandma was only 20 when Mom was born, so I always attributed that to their closeness.
Unlike my grandparents, my mom and dad struggled to have children. They got married immediately after college when they were both 25. After suffering through two miscarriages over a span of five years, they finally had me. Dad wanted to name me after his mother Katherine, who had died when he was three. So my mother compromised and they named me Poppy Katherine instead of an entirely floral name. Poppies were my mother’s favorite flowers— she’d even adorned a flower crown of the orange-red plants on her wedding day.
She wanted us to be best friends so badly, and we were close of course— but I wasn’t built the way she and Grandma were. They were fearless and spontaneous and carefree and I was more like my dad: a follower of the rules, self-conscious and way too careful. I quietly wished I was more like my mom sometimes.
I was thirteen when Grandma started changing. She’d always been fiery and stubborn but not in a dangerous way. It didn’t start on one particular day or anything, but I have one memory that to this day I can never shake. It has tainted my perception of who Grandma originally was. It’s as if that memory has blurred the edges of my happy times with Grandma, turning them into black and white scenes that don’t seem real anymore.
That day, I was sitting on the oak bench beside Mom as we played with the piano. We used to have it in the family room because Dad said it made Mom “shine”.
She took my fingers, placed them along the keys and guided me into a beautiful, slow melody. She hummed as we played her song together. I grinned up at her, admiring her wavy gold locks as the afternoon sun glinted across her face, and she caught my gaze. She smiled, leaning down to kiss my forehead.
BANG! The sound of glass crashing to the ground bellowed from the kitchen.
Mom gasped and our bodies jolted in a unison of shock. We gazed at each other for a moment before Mom rose to her feet and called out towards the kitchen, “Mother?”
We found Grandma sitting cross-legged on the tile floor, tears streaking down her scrunched-up face. She pointed towards a disarray of shards.
“Mother! Are you okay?” Mom cried out as she reached for her.
Grandma blubbered, “I wanted to serve some punch but the bowl was so heavy!” She burst into tears like the world had ended before her eyes.
Mom glanced at me before speaking again in a purposefully steady voice, “It’s alright. Let’s just sit down so I can see if you’re hurt, Mother.”
“I’m not hurt, Rose! Damn it, I’m fine! I just need to serve my damn punch!” Grandma snapped, shaking herself from Mom’s grasp.
I swallowed, keeping my eyes on Mom. No one said anything. Mom’s eyes were shiny and she kept opening and closing her mouth so many times. I had never seen her so unsure before. Grandma breathed heavily, glaring at us, and balled her hands into fists.
Dad eventually walked into the kitchen, his eyes widening in horror the closer he came upon us. Mom pressed a hand to her cheek and closed her eyes. “What’s going on?” He stared at Mom, waiting for her to speak. When she avoided his gaze he turned to me. “Poppy?”
I’ll never forget the way Mom looked at me when Dad said my name: her head turned so sharply, her narrowed eyes sparkled flames, her lips turned down at the corners. For the first time in my life, I feared my mother.
Grandma wasn’t the only one who had changed.
I was thirteen when Grandma began to forget what day it was on the calendar. She began to forget who we were once I’d turned fourteen. And shortly before my fifteenth birthday, she attacked Mom. Mom had leaned in for a hug after dinner, and Grandma lashed out, screaming that my mother was a stranger trying to hurt her.
I honestly think that moment is what destroyed my mother.
Dad had had enough at that point; he sent Grandma to a nursing home twenty minutes away. Mom visited every single day. She even agreed to pretend that she was whoever Grandma believed she was each day, per the doctor’s request. Some days Grandma thought Mom was a volunteer who had come to read books to her. Other days, Grandma thought she was another patient. On the rarest of days, Grandma screamed and cried when she saw Mom, insisting the staff save her from my mother’s wrath. Those days, Mom didn’t come home until it was too dark to see the moon. I would wait outside on the front deck, the nursing staff’s words ringing in my ears from an earlier phone call… “We had to send your mother away…your grandmother was hysterical and wouldn’t see her…she left at 2 p.m. She isn’t there yet?”
Each time, Mom would drive up around 8 or 9 p.m. She’d park in the driveway, cut the ignition, and meet my gaze from where I sat on the rocking chair. Then she’d put on a fake smile and step out of her car, apologizing immediately, her lies mingling into the night air and blending with the creaks and moans of my chair.
“I’m so sorry honey,” she’d say every time, “but Grandma really needed me today. Today I read her Wuthering Heights. How are you honey?”
“Fine,” I’d reply warily as she’d smooth back my hair and lead me into the house.
Dad got the call one evening while Mom was straining pasta and I was setting the table for dinner. About a month after Grandma had been living away, she died in her sleep just hours after Mom’s last visit.
It’s not like I would have described my mom as “happy” during those last few years with Grandma, but if I were to compare her behavior then to her behavior after Grandma died, it would be like comparing the sun to the moon: impossible.
Mom became so depressed when Grandma died that Dad forced her to see a psychiatrist we’d known from church who put her on antidepressants. He was a soft-spoken man, with salt-and-pepper hair, kind blue eyes, and a slightly timid demeanor. She’d been seeing him once a week for two years until he finally retired and moved out of state. I was seventeen when this happened.
The medicine she took was great at keeping her calm, but Dad thought she still needed someone to talk to. For two weeks, Mom went without a therapist. She seemed more sensitive, easily offended by the sitcoms she’d see on TV. I remember the day she ranted to me for a full fifteen minutes about how stupid she thought it was that television shows joked about the elderly losing their minds. I had been passing through the family room when it happened, just heading into the kitchen for a snack, and she’d ambushed me from her favorite blue loveseat. The TV flickered before her out of my view and I remember turning my head somewhat to see what show had offended her this time. She snapped at me that I needed to pay attention to her when she spoke.
“I would have never ignored my mother,” she said, her voice trembling slightly.
Who are you? I had thought at the time, fighting the memories as they trailed on the edge of my mind. Memories of pianos and holding hands on roller coasters and the promises she once made to always be there for me. You’re not my mom anymore.
Then one day, Dad came home from work with an announcement that changed everything.
“So today at work, Greg from the marketing department came by my office and we got to chatting…” Dad began as we were sitting at the kitchen table.
Mom brought a forkful of spaghetti up to her mouth then paused. “And?”
Dad swallowed some water, glancing at me before looking back at Mom. “He has a friend from college who has made quite a successful career out of psychiatry. He says he can call in a favor and get you an appointment.”
For a moment, my parents stared at each other in silence as if they were conversing with their eyes. Mom’s bright green eyes looked resistant and cold and Dad’s dark brown ones seemed to be pleading with her.
“Well…” Mom swallowed her spaghetti and then looked down as she swirled her fork around. “What is this doctor’s name?”
“Stephen Quincy,” Dad replied.
Mom sighed quietly and then looked up at him. She put on her best fake smile—the one she’d once given me all those late nights after Grandma wouldn’t see her— and nodded. “I’d like to give this a try.”
Dr. Quincy was a young man in his mid thirties. Although Dad and Mom both went in for an initial session together before she continued alone, I had never met him myself.
Dad really liked Dr. Quincy. They both enjoyed golfing, both graduated from NYU, and in my dad’s words they both “cared very much” about my mother’s “well-being”.
Mom didn’t see that. She also didn’t like him.
Her dislike for Dr. Quincy was gradual. It began with the occasional complaints and worries. Every night at dinner, she’d tell us how strange she found his lack of a family life to be.
“Some men don’t want to settle down in their thirties,” Dad would say in a muffled voice, his mouth usually full of whatever dinner we were having. He didn’t take her complaints seriously.
“But he doesn’t even have a girlfriend,” Mom insisted, her plate filled with barely touched dinner. “He’s just odd, Daniel. You don’t see it?”
Dad would always shrug and say, “No sweetheart. I think you’re looking for reasons not to like him.”
Then one day, Mom stopped taking her medicine cold-turkey. She had been warned by her previous doctor never to do this. He said it could have dangerous consequences and really mess with her brain. When Dad found out, he became furious. I had been sleeping upstairs when I was jolted awake by the sound of his yelling. I sat up in my dark room and waited for my eyes to adjust. I stared at myself in the antique mirror across from my bed and tried to make sense of what my parents were saying downstairs. I had never heard them yell at each other before. Dad had adored and practically worshipped my mother for as long as I had been alive. He never lost his temper with her, until that night.
After a few hopeless minutes of strained listening, I stepped out of bed and put on my slippers then tip-toed down the hall. I took a seat at the top of our wooden spiral staircase and peered down, where I could see Dad pacing in a straight line while Mom stood a few feet away from him. She had her hands clasped together at her chest in a prayer formation.
“Please Daniel, please listen to me,” Mom begged in a hoarse voice.
“No! You have got to stop this!” Dad shouted, shaking his head as he paced by her. “I don’t know what I am going to do with you.”
“He’s not right, Daniel,” Mom pleaded. I could only see the back of her head. Golden waves trailed down her bathrobe. “He—he wanted to keep me on those pills forever!”
“What else are you supposed to do, Rose? It has been two fucking years and you haven’t gotten better!” Dad snapped. “I will not live like this. You hear me?! You are taking that medicine again!”
“No I am not!” Mom screeched in a voice so shrill and animal-like, that for a moment I truly wondered if she had been possessed.
Dad stopped pacing. He stared at her, his face red, his hands shaking from where they sat on his hips. The house sat still for a long time. I slowed my breathing in anticipation of whatever was next.
Finally, Dad put his arms to his sides. He stepped forward slowly and then cupped Mom’s face in his hands. “You,” Dad started with tears in his voice, “are my everything. But you have got to get better. Poppy and I need you to get better.”
Mom shook her head as it rested in his hands. “I will not take those pills ever again, Daniel.” She paused. “But I will continue to see him if that’s what you want.”
I met Eli at the mall candy store, Kooky Kandy, the summer before college started. I had gone in looking for chocolate-covered gumdrops, a treasure I’d been searching for for months.
“I’ve honestly never heard of chocolate-covered gumdrops before,” the Kooky Kandy cashier told me with a skeptical expression, as if he doubted my sanity.
“Oh they’re real,” I insisted. “You know that seventy-nine cent store that used to be downtown by the pizza place? They sold them there.”
The cashier blinked at me with his mouth open, revealing lime-green braces.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I told him with a friendly smile, “but they were perfect.”
“Really? They were so good you’d call them ‘perfect’?” a voice from behind said.
I turned around to see a guy roughly an inch taller than me, with wavy brown hair and a slightly sideways smirk. His eyes were what reeled me in at first though. They were a light blue, softer than the sky.
“Yes,” I told him, still smiling. “I’ve been here for almost thirty minutes searching. But I can’t find them.”
“That’s too bad,” he told me, grinning back. He picked at a hangnail on his pinky finger. The skin around his nail was red from previous abuse. “I would have loved to try them. I don’t even like gumdrops but anything smothered in chocolate is a classic to me.”
Then he folded his arms and leaned into a nearby metal display of licorice. The display wasn’t as sturdy as he had assumed and the whole thing came crashing down, plastic packs of candy collapsing to the floor. He almost lost his balance but steadied himself at the last minute by grabbing the counter. The cashier scowled at him and I giggled. Our summer romance began there, right before the eyes of the brace-faced cashier.
The month of May drifted by almost dream-like. We went star-gazing on abandoned fields and shared ice cream cones on warm days, holding each other’s slightly sticky hands afterwards. Eli took me to movies where we whispered back and forth and snuggled in the dark. I sat on his lap around bonfires, pretending to pay attention to my friends’ stories when all I could really think about was his finger tracing circles on my thigh.
In June, we traded secrets for kisses in his banged-up Jeep. Eli told me about his twin sister, who died at four from a car accident. How sometimes he really missed her, even though he couldn’t remember that much. How he wished his parents had given him another sibling instead of divorcing.
I told him about Cosmic Coast and about my Grandma’s slow progression into Alzheimer’s. I told him how much my mom resembled a ghost these days, floating through the house in her bath robe and spending hours in her room with the door locked.
“I’m so sorry,” Eli said, leaning in to kiss me after I had finished.
While I laid on his chest he twirled a strand of my hair around his finger, a mantra I had come to know well. The familiarity of it soothed me to sleep almost every time. I had some of the best naps of my life that summer.
Eli was taking me on another date—we’d had so many by now I’d lost count—to a Fourth of July festival downtown. But this time, he wanted to meet my parents.
When the doorbell rang I ran down the stairs anxiously, my lace white dress fluttering behind me. I’d gotten ready early in anticipation of hurrying Eli and my parents through introductions.
I opened the door and stood on my tiptoes, pressing my lips to Eli’s in greeting. His eyes widened as I pulled away.
“Uh Poppy, your dad could be around the corner with a shotgun!” Eli fake-whispered to me as he stepped inside.
“My dad doesn’t even own a gun,” I replied with a shrug. “I think you’re safe to do whatever you want.”
Eli laughed. “Okay then…” He rushed over to the couch and plopped down, propping his feet up on the coffee table. He turned his head to stick his tongue out at me.
“Poppy? Is your boyfriend here?” Dad called from the kitchen. Eli gasped and jumped up from the couch, clumsily knocking a book from the table in the process. He put the book back before taking his place beside me.
Dad walked into the room wearing one of his navy work suits and his gray hair was slicked back like usual. He shook Eli’s hand and smiled at us.
“Mr. Wilson, it is a pleasure to meet you,” Eli said in the most serious voice I’d ever heard him use. I stared up at him with a smirk but he ignored me.
“So,” Dad boomed in his deep voice, the volume of it filling the room around us. “You kids going to a festival?”
“Yes sir,” Eli replied, deepening his own voice slightly. “But I’ll have her home by ten, don’t worry.”
Dad wrinkled his eyebrows. “You mean eight, right? I sure hope you’re not planning on keeping my daughter out so late.”
Eli glanced at me with a panicked expression before Dad laughed. I rolled my eyes.
“I’m kidding,” Dad said, smiling widely. He looked at me. “I actually won’t be here when you get back. I’m going into the city to stay the night for a conference tomorrow.”
“But it’s the Fourth of July,” I said, glancing at the stairs where my mom should have appeared by now. “You’re leaving Mom alone for the holiday?”
The air around us seemed to shift when I mentioned her. Dad’s smile faltered noticeably.
“This is my job,” he said wearily, like he was repeating himself. “Your mother understands how important this is.” He headed for the front door. “I’ll see you tomorrow evening.”
“It was nice to meet you,” Eli called in an uneasy voice.
My dad nodded at him. “You two have fun.” Then he was gone.
Eli and I stood together for a moment, not speaking. Then he turned to me and pulled me in for a hug. “What are you thinking?” he said into my hair.
“I don’t know if she will be coming down, but let me check on her before we go,” I told him as I pulled away from his grasp.
The stairs creaked beneath me as I made my way to Mom’s room. I tried to turn the knob but it wouldn’t budge. I lifted my fist to the door and held it there for a moment before knocking.
“Mom?” I called through the door.
Mom’s voice came back muffled and annoyed. “I’m taking a nap, honey.”
“Um…Eli’s here,” I said, staring at the chipped purple nail polish on my toes.
“I’m sure he’s a nice boy,” Mom’s muffled voice replied.
“Maybe you can meet him now?”
“Not now,” she said, her voice drifting farther away from me. I heard a soft click from inside the room. I knew she was in her bathroom now.
“So I have some big news,” Eli said quietly before taking another sip from his Cherry Icee.
We were sitting on a blanket in a large grassy field downtown. There were people everywhere; some had blankets, some had lawn chairs, some had both. But it was strangely peaceful as we waited for the fireworks to begin. Everyone spoke in hushed voices as if they were afraid they’d miss the show otherwise.
“A spot opened up on the study abroad program,” Eli told me, a grin sneaking onto his face. “I’m going to Japan.”
I swallowed a huge mouthful of my blue raspberry Icee and squealed; people looked over curiously, squinting their eyes at us in the dark. I put a hand to my open smile.
“It’s only four months,” Eli continued. “I’ll be back in mid-December. And I’ll have wifi so we can email.”
I nodded, still smiling. “I’m so happy for you! I know how badly you wanted this.”
Eli shrugged. “I’m going to miss you though.”
I looked down at my Icee and twirled the straw. Blue chunks of ice swirled around and around in my cup. “I’ll miss you too.”
I looked up at Eli and waited for him to speak. We stared at each other even as the night sky began to erupt into bursts of light. People clapped and cheered all around us. Behind Eli a woman pulled her young daughter close, murmuring into her ear and pointing to the sky.
“I love you,” Eli whispered to me. I smiled giddily and told him I loved him too. Then he kissed me as the red, blue, white, and silver fireworks pierced the sky.
Eli dropped me off at home around ten-thirty. He walked me to the door and kissed me goodbye, offering to come inside and watch a movie with me. I told him I wanted some alone time with Mom instead. I stood on the front deck watching him carefully back up out of the driveway. He gave me a honk and a cheerful wave before pulling off down the street. I closed the front door behind me and sighed happily, completely aware of the goofy grin still on my face.
The house was dark except for the floor lamp by Mom’s favorite blue loveseat. I stared at it for a few moments, trying to remember if I had left it on or not. The idea began to sprout that Mom had come out of her room at one point. I put my purse down on the coffee table and then sprinted up the stairs.
“Mom?” I called, knocking on her door. “Mom are you awake?”
I knocked again, but then considered the doorknob for a moment. I had tried to open her door so many times throughout the past few months that I’d given up hope on it ever being unlocked. But at this moment, it was. The door slid away from my fingertips as if beckoning me inside.
I stepped into Mom’s room and at first wondered if I’d stepped into a dream. My mom had never been a messy person. She was the parent who lectured me about making beds and organizing books in alphabetical order. But this room was a complete disaster. Clothes were strewn across the floor, the bed sheets were tangled, and there were at least seven half-empty glasses of water sitting on her nightstand. The TV fluttered on mute; a rerun of some black-and-white sitcom was playing.
I rushed down the stairs. “Mom?” I called out. “Mom!”
I checked the family room again, but it was empty. I checked the downstairs bathroom, the dining room, Dad’s office. Then I walked into the kitchen.
She wasn’t there, but I noticed that the door leading to the garage had been left open. A twitch of common sense told me something was off, but like a reckless girl in a horror film I slowly walked towards the garage.
The moment I stepped into the garage, I could see her. Maybe she had intended that. I stumbled down the steps in shock, losing my balance and landing on my knees on the cold concrete floor.
I stared up at my mother as she hung from the ceiling. A rope with one end was looped around her neck, its other end tied around the steel belt that opens the garage. Her once beautiful healthy gold hair was stringy and gray. Her hands hung limply at her sides as her body swayed. Her green eyes were open but lifeless.
Suddenly all I could hear were the hoarse screams escaping from my mouth. I tried to stand up to find my phone but something ached in my stomach and then all at once blue liquid was spilling out of me. I pressed my palms to the ground to keep from passing out. I heaved and heaved as a puddle of blue formed on the ground before me.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“It’s a shame to lose your mother so young.”
“She was sick… there was nothing anyone could have done.”
“You poor thing….”
Mom’s funeral was held in the pretty red-bricked Baptist church we’d been going to since I was born. During the service, I had to remind myself not to stare up at the stained-glass windows. Mom and I weren’t religious people—it was Dad who made us go to church—but even in tragedy I couldn’t deny the beauty of the building.
I made my escape from the crowd of overwhelming strangers and tearful relatives by excusing myself for the restroom. But instead of turning left for the ladies’ room, I turned right for the door.
I found a bench with a pond beside it several yards from the back of the church. I took off my heels and stuck my toes in the pond and tried to clear my mind. But then I saw Eli open the back door, craning his neck to look for me. I sighed when he spotted me. He stuck his hands in the pockets of his black pants and made his way over.
“Hey,” he said when he finally reached me. He looked me straight on without pause and smiled sadly. “Can I sit?”
I shrugged, turning my head to watch my toes in the water. “As long as you don’t tell me you’re sorry. Or that it’s a shame that my mother is gone. Or that—” and here I laughed harshly “—she was sick, of all things.”
Eli blinked at me and took a seat on the edge. “Poppy,” he began slowly, “she was sick. You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Sick? My mother was not sick,” I snapped, glancing at him before turning back to the pond. “She was fucking crazy.”
We both sat without talking for a few minutes. The wind rustled through the trees behind us and in the distance I could hear car doors shutting as people finally left.
Eli took on a lighter tone when he spoke again. “I’m not going to Japan,” he told me, sounding entirely fine with this decision. “I’ll come home from school every weekend so we can be together.”
At that, I turned to face him fully. I was instantly stunned by how handsome he looked in his black dress shirt but I ignored the butterflies. “What? No. You have to go. That’s an incredible opportunity and you won’t get it ever again.”
“I can apply next year!” Eli said, waving his hand like it was no big deal. “Japan doesn’t need me.” He gazed at me longingly and lovingly. I don’t know why, but I desperately wanted him to stop looking at me that way. In fact, I wanted to slap that dopey look right off his face.
“I don’t need you to stay,” I told him harshly.
Eli’s eyes widened in disbelief. He began picking at the red skin around his thumbnail. “Poppy, you can be as nasty as you want to be. I know you’re hurting—”
“—but I love you. I would rather be with you here than without you in Japan.”
I pressed my fingers to my face and groaned. “Oh my God Eli, please stop. Okay? Go to Japan. Forget about me. I’m just your summer fling.”
After a few minutes I pulled my fingers away to see that Eli’s eyes were suddenly shiny and rimmed with pink.
“I can’t forget about you,” Eli said in a low, broken voice. “And you’re not a fling.”
I stood up, wiped the back of my dress and took one last look at him. “Go to Japan,” I told him in a tone so cold I hoped it’d be enough.
I took the first semester of college off to help Dad pack while our realtor tried to sell the house. Things between us were more strained than usual. We could barely meet each other’s eyes. We parked our cars on the driveway and Dad hired a cleaning service to prepare Mom’s room for house showings.
One month after Mom’s funeral, I came downstairs one morning to find the local newspaper spread out on our kitchen table. Dad usually read the paper in his office while he drank his coffee. I considered that maybe he’d forgotten it today until I read the front page headline.
STEPHEN QUINCY UNDER INVESTIGATION IN SEXUAL ASSAULT ALLEGATIONS FROM FORMER PATIENTS.
I read the headline several times before pulling out a chair and sitting down. My mind spun in circles while I studied the image of Dr. Quincy’s professional headshot. I’d never seen him before but now I knew what he looked like. He had a full beard and thick hair to match, his teeth were slightly crooked, and his smile didn’t quite reach the corners of his eyes.
Without thinking I grabbed the newspaper and began ripping it into shreds. I tore the headline apart first and then his face. Scraps of letters, teeth and hair glided to the floor. Just as I was about to ball the whole thing up and toss it out, I noticed something else.
COSMIC COAST TO CLOSE ITS GATES AFTER BANKRUPTCY.
Beside the small headline was a picture of Supernova with the water glimmering beyond it. I scanned the text for details on Cosmic Coast’s final opening.
It was today.
I was heading upstairs to grab my sweater and purse when I heard it. A faint but strange sound that I couldn’t quite place. I followed the sound, trying to walk lightly so the floorboards didn’t moan. It led me to Dad’s office.
His office was enclosed by two French doors with window panes, so I could see everything. He sat at the desk with his back to me, cradling his face in his hands. Every few seconds his shoulders shook as he gulped for air, the sound of it louder than his weeping.
I moved on to the stairs. I grabbed my keys and purse and a sweater with orange poppy flowers that Mom had given to me one Christmas.
Before I got into my car, I checked the mail. A large yellow envelope with multiple stamps and Eli’s sloppy handwriting awaited me. I tore it open immediately. I had not heard from Eli since the day of the funeral.
A bright pink package covered in Japanese symbols and smiley faces emptied into my hands. I peered through a small plastic window and gasped. Chocolate-covered gumdrops.
I hugged the package to my chest and smiled. I drove the whole way to Cosmic Coast popping gumdrops into my mouth.
Cosmic Coast was the busiest I’d ever seen it. For the first time in my entire life there was a line at the ticket booth. I waited twenty minutes just to buy my entry ticket and then another ten to get into the park.
I was shocked to see people standing in lines to take pictures with the pastel teddy bears. One girl with short pink hair who appeared to be my age was crying and rubbing her eyes near the restroom. A guy with dreadlocks stood next to her, complaining about how the local government was the reason Cosmic Coast was bankrupt. I continued on past them. The park was so congested with people, I almost felt claustrophobic.
I walked past the funnel cake and popcorn carts, past the souvenir shop and the Tilt-O-Whirl, past all the places I’d loved as a child. Then I reached the place I’d always dreaded.
Supernova was the one ride you always knew you’d have to wait for. Today that was especially true. The line snaked past the designated stopping point, around a palm tree and ended by an umbrella stand. I stood with my arms folded and waited, my mind blank at first.
Then an elderly lady stepped nearby to take a group’s photo and Grandma’s face flashed into my mind. I remembered her deep belly laughs and the way her green eyes crinkled in the corners when she smiled at me. When I was little, she played hide-and-seek with me in her house. I used to hide behind the potted plant in her kitchen and when she found me she’d tell me she would just have to plant me because I was her “sweet Poppy”. I remembered how I used to think I’d always be safe with Grandma, until nobody was.
Thirty minutes had passed and it was almost my turn to ride. I could see the coaster loading zone; I was at the finish line. My stomach began to twist into knots at the realization of what I was about to do. I remembered the last time I had been here with Grandma and Mom.
Mom’s face appeared in my mind. Her smile, her laugh, her golden hair. Her hand holding mine. The way she used to hug me and tell me she’d always be here.
But now she would never be here again.
My lips trembled again and I could feel my face morphing into something unpleasant as the coaster arrived at the dock. I took a seat at the front. Two guys—one tall and lanky and wearing a bright green hoodie, the other short and chunky with square-framed glasses—followed me. We all buckled our seatbelts and then waited for the operator to check us.
Everyone sitting behind us seemed to be shouting and laughing. And all I could think was is this how my mother felt towards the end of her life? Like she was supposed to be happy but she just couldn’t find the will? I closed my eyes and leaned my head back on the seat.
I missed Mom so much that I felt like a version of myself had died and left with her—the version of myself who searched for chocolate-covered gumdrops and believed in happy endings. Tears slid down my cheeks. The operator asked if I was alright and I shouted at him, “Please just start the damn thing!” After a few minutes, we started moving.
There were so many things left to tell her. Like how much I hated her for forgetting me when Grandma changed, and how much I hated myself for returning the favor when Mom became depressed. I’d never get to say sorry for all those times I was embarrassed by her. I wished I could take back every second I wasted not holding her hand. Most of all, I wanted a chance to beg her to stay.
I love you so much, Mom. I hope you knew that.
The guys next to me cooed appreciatively over the view as we hit the top of the first hill.
I remembered the last time I’d sat here with my mother. She’d wanted me to see everything so badly and I never had. And now she would never know that just as we ascended the hill, I opened my eyes. And God, it was gorgeous. I could see cars cruising around the gray skyscrapers to my left, people sunbathing on the beach to my right. The sky was clear and the water shimmered. I gazed down at the park where the rides were spinning and looping in colorful blurs and the people were merely ants.
I was the first person to scream. I cried and laughed all at once, feeling weightless and free. I lifted my hands as we dipped down each hill closer to the ground, then back towards the clouds.
Supernova carried me around one final time, as if bidding farewell. Later that year they tore the entire park down and sold the property. But on that day, I said goodbye to Cosmic Coast.
And I said goodbye to my mother.