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Fault Lines

by Melissa Wozniak 9 months ago in Short Story · updated 3 months ago


The phone rang in the middle of the night and on the other end of the line a man told Neil that his mother had passed in her sleep after an uneventful evening watching game show reruns with the Plassman lady down the hall she didn’t like. The man’s voice was apologetic and leaden with sorrow, as if this was a most unusual occurrence in a home for the aged, and after five excruciating minutes, Neil cut him off. I’m OK, he said. Really. It’s OK.

I know things weren’t easy with her, the man ventured. Your mother wasn’t an easy person.

It’s OK, Neil said.

Life doesn’t always tie itself up in a neat little package with all the answers, does it, the man continued. Maybe one day we’ll know. Or maybe we won’t.

It’s OK, Neil repeated.

The crows were the first creatures to rouse that morning, moving like ninjas under the cover of darkness. Around six, the songbirds began their daily call between the poplar and the willow ash, and as sunlight crept in, streaks of gold cut across newly fallen snow. Neil’s breath fogged a circle on the inside of his bedroom window. He observed the sensations in his body: none yet. He was still safe in the stage of grief where nothing is real and his mother is still asleep and even though his logical mind knew it to be untrue, the rest of him didn’t. He wanted to go for a swim. He wanted to eat a hamburger.

He continued to sit at the window until his desk clock flipped from 8:59 to 9:00. Then he picked up the phone and called his aesthetician.

It’s urgent, he said. I mean, everything is OK, it’s just…

We have an opening at two, the receptionist said.

Before Neil was old enough to understand his mother’s words, he learned to forecast the weather of her moods. They would change like dervish winds that whip fallen leaves in their own invisible storm, a forcefield that would arrive as a cyclone on a cloudless summer day.

Things that incited Margaret Perry’s rage included:


cigar smoke

leaving a glass ring on the counter

sock stains

the color green

looking a certain way

thinking about looking a certain way

the state of Illinois



Always Neil.

He grew to be a skittish kid whose safety relied on going unnoticed. He became a desert hare with ears tuned to the slightest hint of danger.

By the age of five, he became a skilled cartographer of the ridges and valleys in his mother’s face.

When a storm was brewing, the first signs showed up between Margaret’s eyebrows. They pinched together and formed a little bump, and the indent on the left side deepened. Then a wave would travel to her forehead, where the lines rippled upward and ended in a severe arc over her right eye. Anger reached a breaking point when the temporal vein started pulsing close to the surface of her skin, and Neil instinctively took cover. He would slip out the back door to the juniper bushes, or hide behind the neighbor’s garden shed, drawing his knock knees into his chest and making himself very small. If the lines around his mother’s mouth began to droop, Neil knew she was slipping into an abyss that would send her to her room for weeks at a time. Neil made himself a lot of peanut butter sandwiches.

But just as unpredictably, Margaret would feel good. Some mornings she roused him with music in her voice, took him by the hand, and set off on an adventure through the woods. Crossing the threshold of oaks at the corner of their property was like stepping through the magic wardrobe in his favorite fantasy book. In this alternate world, all was well. He felt loved. The two of them made up stories about mice and mushrooms, imagined cities out of decaying logs, and when they reached the edge of the old moss-rimmed pond, they sat and Neil rested his head against her warm, receptive shoulder that smelled like linen bleached by the sun, and he believed, genuinely believed, that this time it was going to be different. He sealed his vow with long puffs through reddened nostrils that crystallized in air, and the frozen pond, it seemed to be an omen, its surface smooth and serene.

He never dared to walk out on it and test its strength. Beneath the surface there were also lines and cracks, and it was only a matter of time before the seasons changed and the ice fell through.

Neil lost count of the number of times his heart broke before he turned eighteen and moved to Chicago.

The drive to his aesthetician’s office took less time than normal, since it was the middle of the day. Neil idled in the parking lot and kept the heat blasting. He scrutinized his face in the rear view mirror. Now a skittish middle-aged man whose instinct to run continued in all aspects of his life, Neil’s face had begun to take on disturbing characteristics of his mother’s. The left forehead indent made its debut first, followed by the sad lines by his mouth. The emotions behind the lines terrified Neil. The emotions were what flattened him, over and over and over again.

His aesthetician had no lines on her face, but Neil could still read it. I’m doing OK, she replied when Neil asked her, and for the most part that was true, except her green-gray eyes were duller than usual and tinged with discontent. How are you?

I’m OK, Neil said.

She inserted a needle with gentle precision into Neil’s forehead, just under the surface of his skin. One, two, three, four, five pricks. That’s it. Twenty one-thousandths of a liter, an unbelievably minuscule amount, less botulism toxin than you’d find in a moldy grape, and a tsunami of grief disappears.

The thing he hated about himself the most was that he couldn’t help her.

Neil boarded the plane as the little bee stings in his forehead began to subside. A calm warmth spread into his temples. He began to relax. Frozen pond, frozen face. He was going to be OK.

His mother never talked about what happened, but whatever it was, it changed her. Trauma lives in the body. It invaded her cells and Neil’s cells too, because he was already inside of her when it happened, a microscopic egg in her ovaries. They lived through it together, whatever it was. Neil understood her more than she ever knew.

There’s a swamp behind this place that they call a lake, his mother told him a week ago, on the phone. Remember that dreadful lake we used to go to?

…I loved that place, she said, after a pause.

Those were her last words to him.

The mortician was a pudgy man with lines that exploded like sunbursts from the corners of his eyes. His face told a story of gut-busting laughter, of grandchildren held joyfully to the sky. He hovered nervously behind Neil as they approached the casket.

Margaret Perry lay at rest. She was slightly puffy, slightly yellow, slightly frog-like. Her face appeared as Neil had never seen it: the creases were filled in, the indents vanished, the veiled pain that masqueraded as anger was gone.

You did a good job, Neil said. Yes. You did a very good job.

Short Story

About the author

Melissa Wozniak

I spent my life looking for the map until I realized I had to draw my own.

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