The early-afternoon warmth of the rocks in the mostly dry riverbed seeped into Charlotte’s bare feet as she stepped from one to another. The nights and mornings had turned cold, and she stopped momentarily, closing her eyes and relishing the sun on her face. With a sigh, she opened her eyes and gazed at the nearby mirrored buildings that now lined the banks.
Over the years, skyscrapers had overtaken the last strips of desert along the river banks. She missed the days of her youth when she could stand in place and see nothing but open spaces, though she’d always heard the traffic of the interstate. It wasn’t like she was outside the city. It only seemed that way. The built-up banks and flood plain had made that easier.
She stepped to a small puddle, the last remaining after the release of high water from the nearest dam. Summer had been wet, but once the storms ended, the puddles had slowly evaporated—as puddles usually do.
She bent down and gingerly plucked a few blades of long grass that grew at the edges and added them to the small bouquet she carried in her other hand. Mother was getting older, but flowers still brought her joy.
It didn’t take long before the tattered blue tarp came into view. Silver threads from the underside lifted and fell with the breeze. The center sagged slightly, reminding Charlotte it might soon be time to tighten the nylon twine securing it between a couple of mesquite trees.
Grinning, she chuckled. There had been a time in her life when she’d known nothing more than huddling underneath the tarp with a blanket and the leftover sandwiches and cookie crumbs she and her mother had found in the receptacles of attractions favored by field-trip attendees. The science center and zoo were the most lucrative.
Their daily schedule had been exhaustive. Breakfast, “dishes,” and bathing came first. Then they traveled the streets, making sure their immediate needs were met. They never begged, but if someone offered them cash, they didn’t turn it down.
Along the way, Mother taught and quizzed Charlotte on a number of subjects. She had never accepted their circumstances as a reason for Charlotte to skip learning. Mother may not have wanted the usual picket-fence life, but she still had her standards. At night, Charlotte read from the books her mother had stashed away, soaking in what each taught her about the world she lived in, but on the outskirts of.
With a curved back, she shuffled under the shade of the tarp, the temperature dropping as she did.
She crawled to the back and knelt down, laying the flowers on her mother’s chest and lifting her wrinkled hand to cover the stems. The fresh fragrance lightened the air.
“Mom, please come home with me.”
“This is home.” Her voice rasped as she opened her eyes and laboriously raised her hand to Charlotte’s face. “I can’t leave.”
“You can. I have a house now and a job. I can take care of you.”
Charlotte helped her sit up and lean against a large stone. Then she dug into the bag that crossed over her chest and hung to her hip. Opening the thermos, she poured the soup into the cup and spooned a bite to her mother’s lips. Chicken and Stars had been a family favorite for years.
“You do. You come every day,” her mother said before clumsily slurping the soup.
“Mom, it’s cold in here, and you’re stuck in bed.”
Mother coughed, the creases in her face deepening. “I’m not cold. Besides, I’ve always liked the cool air.”
Charlotte leaned over and grabbed a bottle of water from the supply she’d dropped off a week previous. Popping the seal, she handed it to the aged woman. “Drink.”
Mother took the water with shaky hands and lifted it carefully to her lips. As Charlotte watched, she resisted the urge to help steady it.
“You need help. A hospital,” Charlotte said. “I have a good job.” Her eyes burned, and she blinked. “You don’t have to worry.”
A soft smile lifted Mother’s lips, her eyes crinkling at the edges. “I’m not worried, Char. I’m old, and I’m dying, and I’m exactly where I want to be.”
“On the edge of a dried-up river surrounded by rocks, lizards, and rattlesnakes, lying on a pile of dusty blankets?”
“It’s the life I chose.”
“It isn’t a life. It has never been a life!” The tears fell from her eyes now, rolling down her cheeks and falling to the dirt floor.
Mother’s blue eyes met hers, glistening, yet clear. “I’m proud of you.”
“What?” Charlotte blubbered in confusion.
“I’m proud of you,” Mother heaved. “You grew up under unusual circumstances. Not many children can say their parents chose to live on the streets.” She eyed Charlotte. “Yours won’t.”
Mother coughed again, her breathing raspy. Charlotte’s lungs squeezed painfully each time.
“Charlotte,” her mother breathed. “Was it really that bad? Being raised by me?”
She shook her head violently. “No. I don’t understand your choice, but we were different than the others. You taught me to read and write. You taught me honesty.” A slight giggle escaped her lips. “We weren’t down on our luck; we were living it.”
The words were faint, more of a gasp than anything.
Charlotte nodded. “It was true, wasn’t it?”
Mother nodded. “I lived the high-paying job.” She coughed, her head lurching forward as her chest crumpled under the pressure. “Didn’t like it.”
Charlotte thought of the afternoons spent roaming the riverbed and looking for sparkling pebbles or tiny wildflowers. She remembered the “vacations” spent splashing in the trickles of water released from the dam. She grinned as she remembered Squeakers, the kangaroo rat who adopted her, sharing her sandwich crumbs and warm pockets.
“I know, Mom.” She wiped at her tears as she gazed at her watch. “I have to go.”
Charlotte lifted the frayed tarp and felt the sun touch her face. Breathing deeply, she stepped away from her mother. How could she step away? Clenching her eyes shut, she reached into her bag and pulled out her phone.
The call to her boss was fast. A family emergency. She hadn’t called in before, but this time she had no choice.
Shoulders slumped, she eased back beside her mom and took her hand. Already asleep, the aged woman’s breathing had softened, and she didn’t stir. By evening, Charlotte had managed to spoon a few more bites of soup into her mouth, then curled herself into the single blanket not in use.
The packed dirt beneath her was free from stones and burrs, but hard—different than how she’d slept in the past. Mother had always piled the blanket under and over her. Now she tugged Mother’s blankets higher, tucking her in.
She hadn’t always agreed with her mother’s methods. As a teenager, she’d nearly left, stomping up the edge of the riverbank and down the street. But she’d known enough to realize that as she sought assistance for herself, she would end up separated from her only family. As a minor, the unknown had been scarier, and she stomped back that same day.
It wasn’t until her early twenties that society pulled at her. Society and the nice man she’d met at the science center. Thank goodness, Mother had always insisted on cleanliness. It took weeks for her to tell Nick the truth. The questions had become a wedge, but the answers were nearly as divisive, at first.
Restless sleep wrapped tendrils around her sometime during the night, but as Mother’s breathing changed, Charlotte lifted her head.
Shaking her gently, the realization came. Mother would never wake again.
It wasn’t until the sun reached its zenith that Mother passed peacefully in her sleep, unhindered by needles, wires, or walls. It wasn’t what Charlotte wanted, but it was right. Right for Mother.
Charlotte picked up her phone and sent a text, then scrounged around for Mother’s washcloth and brush.
The prickling in her eyes quelled as her tears mixed with the cool water of the washcloth. Gently, Charlotte wiped the dirt from Mother’s skin, then brushed and braided her hair. As she finished, she heard voices.
Within minutes, a hand touched her shoulder, and as she turned, Nick tugged her into his arms. He held her there without speaking. It’s what she needed. Pulling her from beneath the tarp, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and helped her shuffle away from the others.
“She wouldn’t leave.” Charlotte sniffled.
“She loved it here, just like you.”
“Not like me. I left.”
He hugged her tighter. “Kind of.”
She raised her gaze to his, questioning. He eyed her bare feet.
“Whenever we go for a walk, you take your shoes off. It doesn’t matter where we are. Why?”
“I want to feel the earth against my skin.”
“And halfway through, when you close your eyes?”
“The sun and breeze on my face.”
“You make a point of not finishing the best part of your lunch and dinner, and you wrap the smallest of leftovers up before throwing them away.”
“Someone might be hungry.”
“When it rains—”
Charlotte smiled. “I dance in the puddles.”
“We have a cage full of rats.” He chuckled.
“I guess I do love it. But I still left.”
“We never really leave the things we love.”
Charlotte looked at him, her chin trembling. “We don’t, do we?”
He brought her closer and tenderly kissed her forehead. “Never.”