On a snowy evening in January, Landrien Moriset stood in the doorway and stared down at the dead woman lying against the wall. The woman peered out through wide, unblinking eyes. Her wrinkled hands lay palms up against the hardwood floor. Her head was wrapped in a red night scarf and resting against the wall. The body was so still and inanimate, like a doll. Snow blew into the house and the wind whipped at Landrien’s back as she knelt down and brushed her hands against the dead woman’s blotchy cheeks. Her mother was dead.
A few hours earlier, Landrien would have been willing to bet good money that her mother would live a long life, a life that largely comprised of making her daughter feel worthless. What a difference a few hours and a heart attack can make.
“Landrien, can you email me a copy of the interrogatories for the Muscatine case? I don’t know where the hell I saved my copy,” said Jordan Sheehan on the other end of the phone earlier that evening. She put him on the speaker while she frantically rifled through a stack of manila folders on her desk. Note to self, organize your desk tomorrow, she thought, pushing a couple of folders aside and opening another.
“Sure. I’ll send it in a few. Have you heard from the defendant’s attorney, what’s-his-face?”
“Larry? No. And we still need to respond to his request for Jennifer’s prior employment records,” he replied.
“Yes, we do, Jordan. Deadlines are coming at us faster than a teenage virgin, and we haven’t even gathered our witnesses,” she fretted, opening a folder and still tugging at her hair with her free hand. “I’m sorry. That was unprofessional,” said Landrien. Her cell phone rang, and she glanced at it exasperatedly. “I gotta take a call, Jordan. Let me talk to you in a few, all right?”
“No problem,” he said.
She answered her cell phone. “Yes, Darren?”
“Have you been over to Mom’s?” asked Darren.
“No. I’m busy.”
“Come on, she’s sick. You think you could let go of your attitude and make some time for her just this once?” he shot back.
“I’m really not interested in another one of your lectures right now,” said Landrien, hovering over a letter and glancing at the clock on her computer screen. It showed a quarter to five.
“Look, I don’t get off work for another six hours. Can you at least go check on her when you get off at five?”
Landrien sighed. “I don’t know. I might be here kind of late, and anyway, I’m sure she’s fine.”
“Landrien,” he groaned.
“But I’ll try to check on her as soon as I can,” said Landrien, relenting.
“Good. I just…I have a bad feeling.”
She smiled. “You always have a bad feeling.”
“Well, the doctor did tell us to keep an eye on her. Just in case,” he reminded her.
She slid the letter inside a manila folder and made a note on a legal pad. “Yeah. But you and I both know Mom wouldn’t give us the satisfaction of dying so soon.”
“Don’t joke like that,” said Darren. “I gotta go. Just call me and let me know she’s fine.”
“Sure thing, big brother,” she assured him. After the call ended, she switched the phone to silent and dropped it inside her purse.
She emailed Jordan, gathered her purse and jacket and turned off the light in her office. Considering the headache that had begun to brew around her temples, she figured it might be time to get out of the office for the day. “See you tomorrow,” she called, waving to Mary Ann, the senior attorney in her unit, as she passed by. The woman stared sleepily at her computer screen and nodded to Landrien.
When she reached the end of the hall, she stopped at Jordan’s office and lingered in the doorway.
“So, you’re hanging around past office hours again. Could I convince you to leave this place at five for once?”
Jordan looked at her over his black-framed eyeglasses. He sat behind a large desk covered in papers and manila folders. He leaned back in his chair. “What’re you offering?”
“Drinks. I need to unwind,” she said, peeping down the hallway to ensure that no one was nearby.
“You always need to unwind.”
Landrien placed her hands on her narrow hips. “And? You coming?”
He regarded her for a moment and then closed the folder in front of him. “All right then,” he said, shutting down his computer. He gathered his briefcase and jacket and approached her with a smirk on his face. His hand brushed enticingly across her waist.
While Landrien stared up at the ceiling, Jordan rolled over onto his back, his chest heaving up and down. She fluffed the pillow under her head and continued gazing at the cottage cheese ceiling. Who thought up cottage cheese ceilings? What horrible person came up with the idea to do this to every house and apartment? Perhaps the landlord would let her paint over it.
When Jordan began to put his arms around her, she inched away and, instead, pulled out a cigarette and lighter from the top nightstand drawer. She dragged in as much of the smoke as she could and blew out before she passed the cigarette to him. He took a long drag and passed it back to her. Leaning against the headboard, she watched him and listened to his heavy breathing and the sound of cars passing beyond her window.
“I thought you gave up smoking,” Jordan remarked.
“I did,” she said, passing the cigarette to him.
He smiled at her. “I guess it didn’t take?”
“Not so much.”
“Have I told you how much I love your apartment?” he asked.
“Only every time you’ve been here,” she said as he kissed the top of her right arm.
“I’ve been thinking about moving to West Philly, you know. I’m tired of the suburbs.”
“I bet you are. All that nice yard space and low rent—”
“And nosy neighbors and overpriced SEPTA passes,” he added. “It’s hard to afford the city, though. I don’t know how you afford it.”
“I don’t,” said Landrien. “It’s called living paycheck-to-paycheck.”
“That’s no way to live,” he said, running his index finger along the middle of her arm.
She breathed out more smoke. “No. It really isn’t.”
Jordan propped himself up on his elbow and faced her. “Well, here’s a thought. How about we get married and split the bills on a place around here?”
She shrugged. “All right. Sure.”
“Yeah?” he asked, his voice an octave higher. He sat up and considered her. “Seriously?”
“Sure,” she repeated, her gaze fixed on the ceiling as she blew out smoke. She adjusted the pillow beneath her head.
“You know I was only joking, right?”
“Okay.” She put out the cigarette in an ashtray on her nightstand and glimpsed the clock. 8:15 p.m.
“Would you actually do it?” he said.
“Sure, why not? We like each other well enough, I suppose. And so far as I can tell you don’t have any particularly unclean or otherwise unpleasant traits.” She sat up and stretched her arms above her head, yawning as she did so. She slipped her arms through a blouse and buttoned it. She ran her fingers through the dark, tight curls that stopped just over her ears and patted the stubborn strays sticking up in bold defiance of gravity. “I have to go check on my mom. You can stay here if you want. I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” said Landrien, glancing over her shoulder at him and slipping her feet inside a pair of black leather boots that rose to her knees.
“Let’s get married,” he beamed, a big grin on his face.
“Great,” said Landrien. “Yeah, let’s do it.”
She stood up and went toward the closet, where she pulled out a red pea coat. At last, she turned to him and said, “I’ll be back in a few.”
Landrien dialed the police and the coroner to inform them there was a body at 4516 Belmont Road in Phoenixville and that it required removal. She was not sure why she called the police. After all, her mother was very much dead, and there was no longer any possibility of saving her. Did people call the police when they found an old person dead of natural causes? The question lingered in her mind until she remembered she needed to call Darren.
She rolled her eyes and held the phone away from her ear as Darren yelled at her on the other end, but she accepted his barrage of abuses without interjection. “She’d be alive if you weren’t so fucking mean, holding grudges that don’t mean shit anymore. All you had to do was go over after work like you said you would. What was so hard about that?” He needed to scream and blame her, and she did not see why she should deny him this opportunity. He was a grieving son.
As soon as he began to sob, however, she gave him the number of the coroner and said, “I’m very sorry.” She ended the call without waiting for him to respond.
Landrien then sat a few feet away from her mother’s body and leaned against the wall. She hardly took her eyes off her mother while she sat there on the floor in the dreary, quiet living room and waited for the police and coroner to arrive. Her gaze drifted over her mother’s silk blue robe draped over her knees, which were bent back at a sixty-degree angle. Perhaps she had sat down on the floor to rest and catch her breath, not understanding that she was, in fact, having a heart attack. Her last heart attack. Noting the red head scarf, Landrien figured her mother had been preparing to lie down on the sofa and watch television in the living room until she fell asleep, her nightly post-seven o’clock ritual. This night, she did not make it to the sofa.
When the police officer and coroner arrived, she signed some papers and watched them drive away with the body. She shut off the lights in the house and locked the door. For a moment, she stood in the driveway and studied the modest two-story house where she had grown up. Then, she got into her Camry and backed out onto the snowy road.
That night was the first of many sleepless nights for Landrien.
A few days later, she stood next to her brother and watched him dump the ashes of their mother’s body into the Schuylkill River. She gazed out at the murky water and up at the sky, and she wanted to believe in something. She was not sure what, but she wanted to believe in something.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Berneta L. Haynes’ debut novel, Landrien Moriset, is widely available at Amazon and other well-known book retailers.
An author, attorney, policy expert and versatile creative, Berneta is the Founding Editor of Waking Writer. She launched this site as a side project initially to help spotlight other writers, offer helpful writing and publishing advice, and to indulge her own writerly and artsy passions. She finds joy in discovering and sharing work from new, emerging creatives and writers and has a particular interest in science fiction, children’s and young adult fantasy fiction, photography, and visual art.