Sunflowers by Carmen Catena
Every morning, Thomas arose at seven o’clock. He left his bedroom, walked past Riley’s room, down the staircase, through the den, and into the kitchen. Every morning, he filled the percolator—an aluminum contraption that was almost as old as he was—with Maxwell House and plugged it in, then made himself two eggs, scrambled. Every morning for the past six months, he stood at the south-facing window and imagined Mona out in the garden among the sunflowers while the percolator bubbled behind him. He smiled, thinking of Mona with her hands in the dark brown soil. She had lived her life as though she were a renegade sunflower, and the sun was drawn to her.
The percolator gave one last, long hiss, a snake alerting him that his brew was complete. He poured two mugs full and sat down at the table. The tablecloth was yellow—Mona’s doing. A few weak February sunbeams danced across it, and, for just a moment, Thomas sensed Mona there.
A quarter of an hour later, his mug and Riley’s chair were empty. His granddaughter hadn’t once missed their morning ritual since coming to live with him six months ago. He’d heard her come in last night, so he knew she was in the house. Even though she worked late shifts at the bar, Thomas knew Riley liked to get up early. Perhaps she slept through her alarm.
His feet carried him into the den. Wood-paneled and blue-carpeted, the den was a relic, but it was the coziest room of the house. Photos crowded the walls. He stopped to look at his favorite: he and Mona seated in plastic chairs in their backyard, their three children and seven grandchildren stood around them. It was taken last summer—Riley had just graduated—and it was the last time they were all together before cancer and divorce irreparably shattered the family.
Riley was arrested a few weeks later. She’d driven her mother’s Corolla into a telephone pole. Thomas got the call from an old colleague at the Northampton County Sheriff's department; Riley blew a .16. He’d used every bit of clout he had to keep her out of prison for being twice over the legal limit, but she’d still had to spend the weekend in jail.
It was the same weekend, in fact, that Mona received her diagnosis. Her cancer was advanced, her decline swift; she was gone forty-seven days later.
Thomas pushed open the door that blended in so well with the den wall and climbed the hidden staircase. The steps groaned under his weight.
After Riley was released, she called Thomas. She told him she was committed to getting clean, but she couldn’t stay at home, and with Grandma in the hospital, would he like some company? His granddaughter reminded him so much of his wife. They had the same bulbous nose and the same sense of humor about it. The same attitude about life—and, in Mona’s case, death: bring it on. Whenever they entered a room, it was as though they flipped a hidden switch, turning flood lights on themselves, shifting the energy their way. You couldn’t help but notice them.
Thomas agreed to Riley’s request without hesitation. He thought he could provide a more stable environment than her parents could, with their messy split, and he didn’t mind taking her to work while her license was suspended.
He was starting to get concerned, though. Last week, she told him she was getting a ride to work from friends, but the truck that picked her up didn’t belong to any of the young women he knew but two unshaven men at least twice her age. When Thomas inquired about it later, noting bags under her eyes that hadn’t been there before, Riley brushed him off with the confidence only youth could conjure.
“Just regulars at the bar, Papa. They’re harmless.”
Riley’s door was cracked; Thomas knocked lightly.
“Riley? Are you up?”
He waited a moment. No answer.
“Can I come in?”
He pushed the door open a bit more to see if she was still sleeping, but her bed was empty.
It had been Riley’s mother’s room, too. Out of respect for both his daughter and his granddaughter, Thomas rarely stepped foot into this room. In fact, he could count the times he had on one hand. Once, when he caught Maria sneaking out at age fifteen (those stairs!); once, when Maria had dropped out of college and came home with Riley in her belly at age twenty; and once, when Riley moved in, to help her with her boxes.
“I don’t think Riley should live with you, Dad.” Maria had called him up on that moving day. “What if she tried to sneak out? You can’t hear anything anymore.”
“You’re forgetting the stairs” he’d replied. “The dead could hear someone sneaking out.”
Riley was probably in the bathroom, and he’d just missed her.
The windowless hallway was dark; the bathroom door was closed as well. Thomas pressed his ear against it but didn’t hear the shower running, or the sink. He knocked. No answer.
He tried the handle. It was unlocked. He opened the door, stepped inside.
The coffee in his stomach churned.
Riley was sitting on the closed toilet seat. Her head was thrown back, contorted in an impossible position, wedged between the toilet tank and the sink. He couldn’t see her face. Her legs—fully clothed, thank God—were splayed out before her, her arms limp at her sides. A razor and a rolled-up dollar bill lounged on the sink next to her.
He fell to his knees in front of the bathtub as his breakfast came back up. Tears mixed with regurgitated coffee and eggs as he threw up again and again until there was nothing left but bile. He hung his head over the tub, throat aching. He breathed through his mouth and watched the black and yellow mix into brown, sunflowers in the earth.
Carmen Catena (she/her) is a writer, teacher, and TCK. She currently lives in Colorado with her family, where she is working on her first novel. Find her on Twitter @carmcatena