My short story, “Her Mother’s Playlist,” won Best Prose Award in the Red Clay Review literary and arts magazine contest. The issue’s theme was music and this story is told from the point-of-view of a teenager dealing with her mother’s mental health issues and the role music plays in their lives.
Please follow the link below to read the entire story.
Her Mother’s Playlist
Kayla opened the apartment door and stood at the threshold. Music swelled around her. Her mother’s voice belted out the lyrics to Katy Perry’s Firework. Kayla breathed a sigh of relief: it was a happy day.
She stepped into the foyer and closed the door behind her, glanced into the living room.
“Hi, sweetie!” Her mother opened her arms wide. “Come dance with me!”
Kayla set her backpack on the hall bench. She had a reading assignment for science class, a take-home quiz in history, and math homework, but they would all have to wait. When her mom was in her happy mood, there was no saying no. She walked into the living room, her steps in rhythm to the pounding beat.
Her mother grabbed her hands and twirled her around. “Baby, you’re my firework!” She let go of Kayla’s hands and reached for the sky, her face turned up like an evangelist praying to the god of music.
When Kayla was younger, she loved when her mother was in her happy mood. They played dress-up with her mother’s fancy dresses, costume jewelry, and high heels. They painted each other’s faces with make-up, looking more like clowns than ladies. They’d look in the mirror and collapse into giggles.
Now that Kayla was older, she knew the price they’d pay. As high as her mother soared would be as low as she dropped, a meteor plummeting to the earth to crash and burn.
Firework ended and they were on to I Kissed a Girl, her mother wrapping her in her arms and kissing her each time the lyric played. Next up was Roar, and her mother dropped to all fours, shook her hair like a mane. She pulled Kayla to the floor. “Roar with me, baby, roar!”
In between the beat of the music, they heard a pounding from below. Kayla recognized the sound: their first floor neighbor driving his cane into his ceiling. “Turn down the music, god dammit!”
“Party pooper, party pooper,” her mom sang out. “Come up and join us. I’ll show you a good time, Henry.”
Even though she knew her neighbor wouldn’t take her mother up on her offer, Kayla cringed. Too many men in the past had. She turned down the volume. “Sorry, Mr. Cahill.”
“God, I’m horny.” Her mother grabbed Kayla’s shoulders, stared into her eyes. “Let’s get dressed up, go to a bar.”
“Mom, I’m sixteen. They won’t let me in.”
“They will if you’re with me. We’ll order you a Shirley Temple.” Her mother’s eyes glittered like stars. “Come on! We’ll have fun. We can dance, sing as loud as we want.”
And you’ll find a desperate man to hook up with, Kayla thought. “It’s too early. There won’t be any men there yet. Why don’t we make some brownies first?” Sometimes enough chocolate would satiate her mother’s desires.
“Yes!” Her mother clapped her hands and she danced into the kitchen to Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off. “Cause the neighbors gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. But I’m gonna shake, shake, shake, shake.”
Kayla followed her mother, pulled out chocolate, flour, sugar. Her mom took out a brownie pan and tapped a spoon against it like a drum. They fell into a routine. Kayla measured each ingredient as precisely as a watchmaker. Her mother dumped everything into a bowl, breaking eggs and laughing as bits of egg shell swirled around in the mix. “Extra crunchy! Just the way I like it.”
Kayla put the brownie pan into the oven to the sound of the Black-Eyed Peas I Gotta Feeling. When the song ended, Kayla’s mother asked if the brownies were ready.
“We’ve got another fifteen minutes, Mom.”
“I can’t wait that long. I want them now!” She stomped her foot.
“How about I make us a cup of hot chocolate while we’re waiting?”
“Okay. Then let’s dance some more.”
Kayla watched as her mother twirled her way into the living room, collapsed on the floor, and laughed hysterically.
“My feet are all tangled up, baby girl.”
Kayla opened a kitchen cabinet and reached behind some never-used glasses. She pulled out a container of sleeping pills, dropped two into her mother’s empty mug, and poured the hot chocolate over them. She stirred until they dissolved, then floated a few marshmallows on top.
She carried the mugs into the living room, set them on the cocktail table, then pulled her mother up from the floor. She hugged her tight. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, sweetie.” She brushed a strand of hair off Kayla’s face, as Thelma Houston belted out Don’t Leave Me This Way. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re my everything.” She began to cry. “Don’t leave me, Kayla. Don’t ever leave me.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Mom.”
“Everyone always leaves me.” She put her hands over her ears. “Turn off that music. I hate that song.”
Kayla led her mother to the sofa, handed her the mug of hot chocolate. She went to the stereo and clicked it off.
She sat next to her mother, wrapped her arm around her shoulders, until she felt them sag. She fluffed a pillow, lay her mother down, and tucked an afghan around her. She watched her mother sleep, then got her backpack and went into the kitchen. She ate the brownies for dinner, then tackled her homework. The next morning, she kissed her still-sleeping mother on the forehead before she left for school.
When she got home that afternoon, Kayla opened the apartment door and stood at the threshold. Nora Jones’s haunting voice sang Come Away with Me. Kayla closed her eyes, leaned against the doorframe. It was a sad day. There’d be no homework tonight. She’d need to hold her mother’s hand all night, keep her from falling into the abyss.