The READ LOCAL First archive represents Utah’s most comprehensive collection of accomplished writers who practice fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction, and memoir.
This month we bring you a short story by Shauna Brock, an award-winning writer who covers the music scene and pop culture.
Brock, a self-identified “bisexual, polyam dyke,” has spent the last ten years organizing the Salt Lake City Writers Group. She’s been twice recognized by Utah Arts and Museums in their Original Writing Competition. Her work has appeared in anthologies like The Nature of Cities and Desert Wanderings.
In 2019, the Utah Pride Center and 1 to 5 Club (which she co-founded in 2005) gifted her the Shauna Brock B+ Community Unicorn Award for her years of service.
—from the Greek, a scab formed after a burn
She’d stopped in Vegas overnight and from there, it was a seven-hour drive to Kearns, and Rebecca only stopped once in Beaver. Pulling off I-15 into a Chevron that she was sure looked shiny under blue neon, she used the surprisingly clean bathrooms and poured herself a cup of too-strong coffee. For the last leg of the drive, she let Melissa Etheridge take her past the ominous glare of Mt. Timpanogos and through the stop-and-go traffic around the Point of the Mountain. The houses on the hills stunned her. In all of her previous trips back to the valley, she’d flown in, stayed one night, and headed out on the earliest flight. Since when were there so many people in Lehi and where the hell was Eagle Mountain?
Heading across the valley, Rebecca hit the Spaghetti Bowl and cut over onto I-80, heading out to 5600 West before making her way up newly widened streets still lined with aging, split-level, picture-window homes. She turned left and right and then left again before realizing the house she was looking for was still there, but boarded up, silent. The lawn was brown and the driveway, always cracked before, was crumbling.
Rebecca let out a curse and floored her car back toward the interstate, heading past Magna with the lake on one side and the ever-present smoke from the smelter stack on the other. Construction barrels marked the way; new lanes of traffic bearing people homeward to Tooele and Grantsville.
At six o’clock, as the light was starting to thin, she pulled into the parking lot of a dilapidated apartment building and waited. Even covered in the dirt of travel, her new Kia stood out among the broken pavement and rusty cars. She lit a cigarette and then another, baking slowly in the September heat. The wind shifted through her open car window, bringing the barest promise of cooler air. She wrinkled her nose at the smell. In her childhood memories, the lake was always a dream, a hint of an ocean she never thought she’d get to see. Once, they’d all gone as a family out to Antelope Island and she’d chased her imaginary friends around the beach, pretending they were on an island in the Pacific. Adulthood taught the harsh reality that the Great Salt Lake smelled of brine shrimp and tar.
Finally, he emerged and as always, Rebecca flinched just a bit. It wasn’t his fault that he looked just like their father. Given her position in front of his door, it was almost impossible for him to miss her, but she honked anyway and waved. He saw her and walked over, a dark cloud settling on his brow.
“Rebecca.” Brian Thomas leaned against the frame of the car, “Surprised to see you here.
What, felt like slumming?” He sounded bitter. “City’s that way.” He pointed east. “I’m sure there’s a nice hotel with room service and a mini bar waiting for you.”
“Shut up, Brian.” She opened the door, pushing him back, and climbed out of the car. For a long time they stood eye-to-eye; her smoking, him reeking of stale booze and bad pot and something else that was most likely illegal. Finally, she dropped the cigarette butt and ground it under her boot. “I drove by the halfway house over in Kearns. No one was there.”
“Yeah, it got shut down.”
She rubbed her eyes, feeling the pinpricks of a headache poking into her skull. “I’m the contact. Why didn’t I know about this?”
“I figured you knew, Becky. I figured if it was that important to you, you’d find me. And, you did. You’re the one who lives in LA. Or D.C. Or Vegas. Or wherever anymore. Not my fault you didn’t pick up the phone. Last time they talked to you about her, you were out of the country. So maybe they just figured I was a better contact.” He was exasperated. She didn’t care.
She had a whole life full of exasperated and for all she’d been willing to put behind her, there were some wounds that just wouldn’t heal. “Maybe it was a stupid idea to let you become the emergency contact, anyway, Rebecca,” he challenged.
“Maybe it was, if you can’t even leave a voicemail.” She wanted another cigarette. Instead she ran her hand through her hair and took off her sunglasses. “Where is she, Brian?”
He cocked his head. “Her caseworker got her a place in a dump like this one. Get her off the meds and she’s pretty damned lucid.”
“Lucid enough to convince a judge she’s able to take care of herself?” Rebecca rubbed her eyes, silently cursing the problems in the social welfare system, angry that no one had bothered to talk to her while this whole legal thing was going down. Would it have been so hard for them to actually follow up on a call?
Coming to terms with her ghosts had been good for her mental health, but maybe staying estranged from her family would have been better in the long run. Maybe it was better if her brother was their contact. “Brian, you take her off the meds, it’s only a matter of time before she starts drinking. And from there it’s just a matter of time before she starts playing around with the drugs again and then it’s a problem for all of us.”
“You know, you could always take her home. You’ve got the four-bedroom, three bath, loft house with the garage and the back yard. Put her in the mud room with the dog. She won’t know the difference.” He paused for a long time before speaking. The wind picked up over the lake. “Rebecca, you have a life. Why do you even care? Leave us here to sort out our own shit in the shadow of the temple.”
“Because blood stains never go away, Brian.” She sighed.
“Let him fade.” They stared at each other in silence for a while. Between them, the wounds would always be fresh.
“So why do you care?” She scrutinized him like she eyed possible defendants when they walked into her office. They were the same height, but where she’d inherited their mother’s build and coloring, he was their father. Burly arms, broad shoulders, hands that made her flinch when he flexed them. “You could disappear into the wind and I’d never know anything.”
“Because I did that once, remember?” He nodded back to his apartment. “You want to come inside?”
“Got anything burning in there that’ll make me fail a drug screen just by being near it?”
She bit back the interrogatory questions about meth. His teeth told her what she needed to know. “Get your wallet. I’ll take you to dinner.” He scuffed back into the apartment and she waited. The wind shifted again, adding the pitch of sulfur to the scents it carried. Somewhere not too far away, she was sure she was missing a spectacular sunset on the lake.
“How’s that husband of yours?” Brian asked as he came back over. He’d brushed his teeth and changed his shirt and he didn’t reek quite as badly. “You know, the one none of us get to meet? Kinda thinking he’s a fantasy you made up to make us think you really did have the perfect life. The house a lie too?”
“He’s fine and you haven’t met him because of his schedule.” She rolled her eyes and got back into the car. Brian followed suit. “How’s the trucker world?”
“Economy is in the crapper. How do you think it’s going? Winter’s coming anyway and the I-80 route’s a bitch once snow starts falling in Reno. I’m gonna look for local stuff.” Neither of them mentioned the chance that he’d fail to pass a drug screen.
It was a struggle to cut off her instant, sisterly co-dependency. Her and Matt’s line in the sand when she made contact again with her family had been offering any kind of money. Of them, she was the successful one. It wouldn’t take much for them to come looking for a handout. No money exchanged hands and she never paid a dime in rent or utilities although she’d bought groceries and would pick up the tab for dinner. She was willing to make phone calls for them, willing to put in a good word, but she never co-signed applications or even paid with a credit card around them. Paranoid, yes. But it kept her boundaries firmly in place. “You hanging in there though?”
“Best I can. When I can work, the money is good.” He paused and she felt him looking at her. “How’s life with the wolves or whatever Matt does?”
“Dolphins. He’s a marine biologist, remember. And right now he’s out on the ocean.” After a minute she gave her brother a break. “Really, it’s been good. I miss him, but that’s a natural state of affairs.”
Brian snorted. “You’re the idiot who thought long distance marriage could work.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t working.” She pulled into a chain noodle place that she knew offered vegetarian options and shut off the car. “I said that it’s hard.” Glad for the distraction of moving from the car into the restaurant, Rebecca focused on the menu and getting a table and watching her brother order a beer to go along with dinner. She ordered wine for herself. Wine with cheap noodles. The height of class.
Brian took his time speaking when he joined her at the table. “Mom’s really … she’s hanging in there, Rebecca.”
“She’s lucid? Really? Ha.” The last time she’d seen her mother, Debra Thomas had been sitting on her bed at the halfway house, counting her individual strands of hair. It was hard to imagine her aware enough of herself to walk into a liquor store and buy booze.
“Comes and goes. I hear from her when she is.” Brian shrugged.
“There are times I think she never should have been paroled. She’s a danger to herself.”
“Even schizophrenic meth-head child-abusing murderers deserve parole, Rebecca. Or isn’t that what the code of law is all about?”
She bristled. What the hell did he know about anything? “The code of law is that it is better that one thousand guilty go free rather than arrest one innocent person.” She winced at the holier-than-thou tone in her voice. “But mom isn’t innocent.”
“She’s schizophrenic. And a drunk. And a meth-head.” Brian sounded resigned and that only pissed her off more.
“It doesn’t change what she did. Not to Dad and not to me.”
“Like you wanted Dad to keep slapping us around?”
“No!” She sighed. “No. But …”
“Rebecca, you have to deal with life as it is right now.” His voice dropped a notch and she relented her anger to listen. “Mom isn’t taking her medications and her social worker doesn’t check in every day. But she’s still managing.” He paused. “Hey, did you bring Matt up to see her once?”
“She remembers that, you know. She talks about it like it was a dream though.”
“She was pretty out of it that day.” Rebecca fell silent while the food was dropped off. She thanked the server with a smile and stared into the red water glass on the table in front of her. Maybe Brian was right. Maybe he was the right person to look after their mother. He understood her, at least. “She’s always been pretty out of it.”
“She can’t help it.”
Rebecca raised her eyes but not to look at Brian. She stared over his shoulder at a point into nothingness. There was a fine line between what mental health issues did to a person and an inability to take responsibility for ones actions. Her mother walked that line like she was an acrobat at a circus she’d created for her family to watch. It was so easy to brush off the alcoholism as a reason for what was wrong. If Debra would stay off the booze, her doctors could really determine what meds were best for her.
But she couldn’t stay off the booze without a case manager working with her daily. She couldn’t get that without at least a halfway house to help. She couldn’t get that if the damn state kept closing them.
They fell silent as they ate, and Rebecca let her mind wander. It was easier than actually dealing with what brought her out here. She could have boarded a plane and flown to her cocoon of security. Matt would hold her and keep the shadows away. Instead here she was, staring at her big brother, wondering just how much of a leap it was for either of them to snap.
“I should see mom,” she said, pushing her noodles around in the bowl. “It’s why I’m here.”
“Yeah.” Brian nodded.
Rebecca glanced down at her hand, at the tell-tale scars. The one on her middle finger was from when she’d cut herself picking up the broken glass from one of her father’s beer bottles. The three prong marks in her thumb had been from when her mother had sworn it was Rebecca who was telling the voices to kill. The one on her palm was from the night before her mother had killed her father. Rebecca had burned dinner and her punishment had been a second degree blister that ended up getting infected while she was in the children’s shelter.
She sighed and flexed her hand and took a sip of her water. “Where’s mom living now?”
“This half-renovated motel over in Magna. Kinda between my place and the old halfway house, actually. Won’t last long. The new construction is coming her way, you know. Everyone’s moving here. But it’s there for a while and it seems like management, they actually pay attention to the people who come into the lot. There’s a lot of seniors who live out there. Want to make sure they aren’t being hurt, you know.” He gave her the address and Rebecca filed it away. Maybe, if management was as good as Brian said, her mother was in an okay place.
Brian pushed his plate away and Rebecca realized she had barely touched her food. It was cold now, the grease congealing in the noodles, and she gagged a bit. “You didn’t eat, Rebecca.”
She shrugged. “Other things on my mind.” The restaurant was suddenly crowded and she needed to get out. Without checking to see if Brian had finished his beer, she fled to her car and smoked a cigarette while waiting for him to catch up. The sky was fading, not quite the velvet blue of night, but the electric blue of day was gone. A few minutes later, he emerged and she drove him back to his apartment in silence. The light over the mountains was low, casting everything in a rough, orange glow. The lake was now bathed in shadow and there were clouds gathering out in the Western desert.
“Brian …” she sighed as she pulled into the slot in front of his door. “Get off the drugs, okay?”
He rolled his eyes at her. “It’s just for fun, Rebecca.”
“I’m not seeing a party right now.” They stared at each other for a long time before Brian opened the door and stepped out of the car.
“Take care of yourself, Rebecca,” he said. “And call me when you’re done with Mom.”
The door slammed and Rebecca waited until he was inside his apartment before driving off.
The building wasn’t hard to find. A converted weekly-stay motel in the shadow of the mine; faded brown bricks gave way to thin brown doors and broken chairs in front of most apartments. It was like the rest of the once thriving mining town – dusty and sagging and clinging to a last shred of hope that someday what had made it great would return.
Three kids, no older than six, played on a small patch of lawn under a porch light in front of what Rebecca assumed was the leasing office. A wrinkled face poked out of the door when Rebecca pulled in, but she must have been unassuming because the door closed again.
The majority of the few cars were all similar to the ones at Brian’s place – old, faded, rusted. There was a reasonably well-cared for Ford and a new-looking Elantra. In front of the door to number six sat a woman. She had a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Her skin was sallow, her cheeks sunken, and her hair thin and torn at the ends. Her shirt was stained and there were rips in her jeans. A new bruise purpled above her eye.
Rebecca almost turned around, but she’d come up for a reason. Matt was right – she needed to finally address her ghosts, not just live with them. Unlike in video games, ghosts didn’t stop chasing you no matter how far you ran. She couldn’t save her mother, but she could help soften the fall. Pocketing her cigarettes, Rebecca turned off the car and stepped out, trying to control her nerves. It had been a while since they’d had a lucid conversation.
“Hi, Mom,” Rebecca said once she was in ear shot.
Debra blinked and tilted her head, looking up at Rebecca like a cat looked up at a perch. A dark smile spread across her face but never touched her lips. “You’re my daughter.” Her speech was slow, careful. “You here to convict me?”
Rebecca sighed and crouched down to her mother’s level. “No, Mom. I just drove up to say hi.” A man emerged from the apartment. He stared at Rebecca and then walked away without saying a word. Instinct told her that inside, she’d find some cash on the nightstand and a used condom in the trash. A small part of her rejoiced. If her mother was turning tricks, maybe she’d get caught and locked up for good. But cops went after the hookers who worked the streets, not the older women exchanging sex with fellow users, putting out for twenty bucks so they could supply their habit and get some fries. “Can I see your new place?” She didn’t bother to ask about the bruise. Experience told her that her mother wouldn’t remember it.
Debra stood on unsteady legs and tripped her way back into the converted apartment. It was a studio, decked out with a bed and a kitchenette with a hot plate that had to be out of code. It smelled of beer and cigarettes, but Rebecca didn’t see any drug paraphernalia in plain sight. Not that it meant anything. A business card was attached to the fridge with a magnet, a time for the next appointment with the case worker written in red sharpie. There was twenty bucks on the bedside table. Debra collapsed into a chair and tucked her legs up under her. Rebecca checked the fridge. No food. Expired orange juice. A new six pack of Natural Light. “Hey Mom, do you want to go to the store?”
“Nah. It’s okay.” Debra rubbed her face and dropped the mostly empty beer can. It spilled and Rebecca searched for a roll of paper towels. There weren’t any. Suddenly she wasn’t sure which was worse, a life where the memories couldn’t be sorted through and came down upon you in sewing machines and boxes of rat poison and Christmas ribbon, or a life where there was nothing left to document, not even paper towels to clean up a mess. She walked out to her car, grabbed the roll she kept in the trunk, and spent ten minutes wiping down the surfaces in the room. Her mother just counted ceiling tiles and bubbles in the air and anything else that caught her attention.
Why was she here again?
Oh, that’s right. Because she’d told her therapist she was tired of running from her ghosts. So instead, she hunted them down, faced them, and cleaned up after them. But she couldn’t talk to them. That much was certain.
The paper towel in her hand was black and she tossed it into the unlined trash can. Two fruit flies buzzed up and out and for a moment, Rebecca stared at them. At night, did roaches crawl over her mother or was this place more of a spiders and ants kind of dive? While her mother wandered to the fridge for another beer, Rebecca checked the closet. The clothes were all on the floor save for a stained white t-shirt which was hung over the crossbar. On the top shelf was a shoebox and the doll Debra had been holding the day she’d introduced her mother to Matt.
Her investigation complete, Rebecca sat in the other chair. No way in hell was she sitting on her mother’s unmade, freshly prostituted bed. At least the scent of tobacco covered the smell of sex. But sitting still gave her nothing to do but take stock of her family history and think. Maybe it was a good thing she and Matt were having a hell of a time getting pregnant. She wouldn’t want her mother within two states of her child and Brian was a good man, but he was just so messed up. What if the illnesses that claimed her father and her mother and her brother were somehow passed on to the child she craved so desperately. Maybe it was good if their genetic line stopped here, with this generation.
“You look tired.”
Rebecca blinked and looked at her mother. Debra had stopped mumbling and counting to herself and suddenly, it was one of those moments, a moment where they could connect. So, she allowed herself to try. “Work keeps me busy, Mom.”
“Too busy to see me.” The words were low and Rebecca bit back the guilt. She wasn’t guilty. She didn’t feel guilty. But the look in her mother’s eyes made her wish she could do more. She also wished she’d never reopened these wounds.
“No, Mom. I’m just busy and it’s a long drive up.” She glanced around the room again, wanting to actually do something and not just sit and talk. “Come on, let’s take that money you have there and go to the store? You need something in your fridge.”
“I’m okay, Rebecca.” It was the most lucid her mother had sounded in a long time and Rebecca froze. “I’m okay. Stop trying to fix me.”
Rebecca watched her mother take another sip of the beer in her hand and when she lowered the can, the glazed look was back in her eyes. Debra stood up and stumbled over to the bed and collapsed down, and again, beer spilled. This time, Rebecca didn’t bother cleaning it up. She walked outside, leaving the door slightly ajar, and sat down on the step to think while her mother slept. The sky was now a dark blue velvet, sprinkled with the first glitter of starlight. First, she called a hotel back in Salt Lake and made a reservation for the night. Then, she lit a cigarette and texted her husband. She didn’t call Brian.
The wind shifted, bringing the faintest smell of salt and beach and a memory of standing at the window at a long-forgotten house, reaching as high as she could on her very tiptoes, trying to see all the way to the lake and hoping, somehow, that it was really the ocean.
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