Emma stares at her mother for the first time in five lonely years. She cannot believe they are seated a mere three feet apart, close enough to embrace. Her relief defies description, and yet something lingers. Something she's not prepared to acknowledge.
Unsure of where to begin, she plays with the sterling ring on her index finger, slowly spinning the band clockwise. She debated bringing flowers before deeming it silly under the circumstances.
She can't help but marvel at how little Iris has changed. Her hair is shiny and coiffed, her complexion no more creased than when last they were together. At this, she has to stifle the laughter that begs to follow an absurd thought.
"I've missed you, Mom," she whispers. The words are insufficient, too flimsy to bear the burden of her sentiment.
"I miss you, too, sweetheart. Constantly."
She catalogs the loving response for future solace.
There's a conspicuous lull in conversation. What now? It would be insincere to ask how Iris is feeling when she already knows the score.
Her mother beats her to the punch. "How's your job going at Andersen Marketing, LLC?"
Emma sighs at the phrasing. "It's okay. I have a new coworker. He's looking for a wife but seems to prefer tall brunettes. I'm safe."
The poor attempt at a joke lands without so much as a splash. "That's good, honey."
Nervous, she studies her mother more closely. Her eyes, rheumy and distant, are tracing the walls as if observing a glacially paced insect. The joie de vivre Emma remembers so well is nowhere to be found. Wishing to unsee this, she looks away, but the damage is done.
Iris, perhaps sensing tension or a failure on her part, tries again. "That's a lovely lipstick, Emmy. The shade is beautiful on you."
Her pout is painted matte nude, a choice that would've drawn Mom's ire back in the day. "Absolutely draining!" was Iris's motto when it came to pale clothing and cosmetics.
Now she really does laugh, recalling the way they'd duke it out at Nordstrom every spring. Emma never imagined she'd long for motherly criticism until it vanished from her life.
"Are you dating anyone?"
"I was. We broke it off about six months ago. It's been rough."
She averts her gaze once more, this time out of shame. She's been drinking heavily as of late and, although illogical, doesn't want her mother to suspect.
Iris stretches an awkward hand across the table. She is vibrating from the wrist down, her flesh nearly opalescent beneath the window's glint. Shocked by the nurturing gesture, Emma leans forward, ready to grasp. She's dreamt of this very moment.
The mechanical screech from above severs their emotional tie. A disembodied voice comes over the loud speaker. "Please do not touch one another. Thank you."
Haughty and impatient, it sounds more like THANE-cue.
Both women fall back, suitably chastised. Iris can only add, "I'm sorry, sweetie. Have you been attending church? That may do the trick."
Her daughter bristles at the mention, more frustrated by the second. She doesn't reply.
At two o'clock on the dot, an employee in heels comes click-clacking through the steel door. Thrusting out her palm, she announces, "I'm Nadine, your chaperone."
It requires willpower not to scoff at the title.
"Iris and I will meet you as specified. I trust you understand our policies and have arranged for separate transportation?"
"Yes," she confirms with some unease. "I'll be there."
Perhaps the change of setting will improve things. While a lazy attempt was made to decorate the building, its austerity is doing them no favors. She should've agreed to the at-home reunion.
Pulling her scarf tight, Emma steps into the frigid December afternoon. Cheeks burning, she attempts to flag a taxi amid the season's famed bustle. As a child, she used to anticipate this chaos with glee, basking in its magic.
A river of uncertainty washes over her. It may be better to sleep off the sting of the anniversary, now all the fresher, with a bottle of wine.
Alas, the heart is not so readily dismissed. Climbing into the bright yellow capsule, she directs the driver to their destination.
Emma waits on a snowy bench, taking in scenery fit for a Hallmark card. New York's antique charm has a way of coming alive once the months turn white and gray.
The frozen pond is surprisingly uncrowded. She feels like an island, the trees and their secrets her nearest company. Being in the city always amplifies her loneliness, a reminder that out of millions, she knows almost no one.
Since the accident, her social circle has dwindled to a few friends whose texts she ignores. At her lowest, she believed they had abandoned her. It's been difficult to swallow that, just maybe, she was the one who turned her back. Depression comes with casualties, however unfair.
A familiar greeting is borne on the winter wind, cutting through her self-reflection. Startled, she gravitates towards the chipper sound. Iris is not so much skating across the ice as she is stomping, inch by precious inch, a toddler testing out her sea legs.
The endearing spectacle gets a smile out of Emma. She shakes her head, a sense of calm sinking into her muscles. This is what she came for. Iris channels her amusement, throwing her mittens up in a what are ya gonna do? motion.
She never was much of a skater. Em had been the ice princess in the family, dazzling everyone with her finesse from the age of four onward. This used to be their favorite spot, an annual treat after shopping and hot chocolate.
Nadine sets up farther down the park, allowing them a respectful degree of freedom. A man in a black jacket is by her side, preoccupied with some device.
The women glide together for what feels like a blissful eternity. Iris's movements grow more natural with each passing minute, strengthened by the practice. In a display of trademark wit, she instructs her daughter to show off.
Emma obliges, humbled by the chance to please. Shifting her weight onto one foot, she executes a few modest jumps. Her mother claps while picking up speed, aiming for the center of the pond. They are mirror images of flushed contentment.
That's when it happens. A harsh gust plows through the air, slicing Iris's torso in two. There is no blood or gore, none of the carnage one would assume. It's as if she's been sawed clean across the middle by a phantom illusionist.
Her upper body remains stationary, rigid as the water on which they stand. Her lower half drifts to the right, disconnected and fading. Though alert, she has lost the capacity for speech. Emma is overcome with horror. Panicked, her own mouth floods with saliva, drowning her attempts to call for help.
"Abort!" she hears a woman shout. It's Nadine, a fact she will process only later. "Shut it down NOW!"
The pores on Iris's face dissolve into pixels, small and distinctly linear. Her gaze is focused straight ahead in perceived apology. She continues to morph, angular and inhuman, until nothing but blocks of color remain.
Then she is gone. This time, there is no trail of perfume or empty shell to confirm she was ever there.
It's like watching her mother die all over again.
On the way to a relative's holiday party, they had crossed paths with Billy Eaton, a 20-something soaked in vodka who sealed their fate.
Emma escaped the crash with broken ribs and a concussion. Iris didn't make it to the hospital. This summary, while accurate, does nothing to capture the rippling effect. Much of her soul was buried alongside her mother's form. Unlike wounds of the flesh, these holes never heal.
Therapy didn't make her grief any more manageable. Money can furnish a person with the best coping skills on the market. What it can't do is soothe the sorrow that creeps in at three A.M. or offer support after a difficult day. Sometimes the new normal is, no matter how much the gurus protest, a lesser lot.
When ViviTechnic came on the scene in 2028, Emma initially paid it no attention. Owing to a breakthrough in holographic technology, the company promised an interactive experience with the deceased that would alter the notion of authenticity.
Upon learning the simulation's success relies on the volume of media provided, her interest was piqued. Iris spent decades working as a news anchor. Desperate, Emma submitted those files without expectation, only to receive a preview that made her shiver. There was her mother's lilt, her nuance, reanimated to perfection.
She booked a session, glossing over the disclaimers. Somehow she didn't anticipate the knowledge required for even a brief meeting. Nor, it seems, did ViviTechnic. The company neglected to inquire about Iris's faith. It knew nothing of her preferences or the subtle ways in which she fussed when prescribing affection.
In the end, these details come to mean everything. They are what we hold sacred when the rest has returned to the earth against our will.
On the final night of Hanukkah, Emma trudges through virgin snowfall clutching a bouquet of red roses. Using her glove, she dusts off the gravestone until its etching is visible. She kneels on the patch of ground before it, unconcerned with the chill seeping through her jeans.
Here she lets go of every thought, each fear and longing that has had nowhere to land. Once spent, she collapses against the marble. While the loss is still present, ever a parasite, its urgency has been exhausted.
Iris may not be able to answer aloud, but what lies beneath is real, a strange comfort in an increasingly pretend world.