The ticking of the clock on the wall of Mary Bailey’s kitchen echoed in her ears. She tried not to watch the clock, but she couldn’t stop herself. She was growing obsessed with the passing of time.
It had been twenty-two years since Daddy died. Twelve since Mother died. Her husband, Arthur, had passed away four years ago. It had been eight months since her son, Artie, and his wife had been to visit, and three months since her daughter, Linda, had come. Two weeks since she had seen her sister, Eva, and six days since her young friend had visited.
Mary had spent her entire life in Little River. Seventy-eight years had passed by so quickly that Mary was afraid of how little there seemed to be left. When she was young, old age was something she didn’t even consider. She had built her life around Arthur and their children. She was so busy being their wife and mother she hadn’t thought about them leaving her.
When Arthur had his first stroke, she had taken care of him, thinking they still had many years together ahead of them . . . just different ones. For seven months Mary cared for her husband. She drove him to physical therapy, helped him learn to walk again, to eat again, and applauded his every bit of progress. She was sure he was on the brink of being almost his old self again when the second stroke happened. She was shocked when he slipped into a coma. Even then, she expected him to wake up. She never thought it was really the end until it was already over.
Artie and Linda came back to Little River for the funeral–Artie from Michigan and Linda from Alabama. When they were children, Mary imagined they would grow up and get jobs in Little River, or maybe even in Knoxville. She imagined a houseful of grandkids sleeping over on the weekends. When Artie left for the Army, she had been heartbroken to see her son go. When he met a girl, she thought they would come back to Tennessee when his service commitment was over. Instead, he married his Sheila and moved to Detroit to be near her family. Linda stayed nearby for a while, but, when the paper mill closed and her husband, Jack, lost his job, they had to move to where there was work . . . first to Knoxville and later to an unexpected opportunity in Huntsville . . . taking Mary’s grandchildren with them.
As devastated as Mary was during Arthur’s funeral, she had basked in the presence of her two children, her seven grandchildren and their spouses, and her two little great-grandbabies. That was the last time her whole family had been together. She had two more great-grandchildren she hadn’t yet got to meet.
When she thought about how much family she actually had, it felt like a sin to be so lonely. She had to fight off depression like an actual enemy. If she let herself think about how the highlight of most days was catching the mailman in a talkative mood, the loneliness nearly choked her. For years she had a friendly conversation every day with her next door neighbor, but elderly Mr. Worthington passed away last December. They said it was a heart attack, but Mary was pretty sure it was the holidays.
Mr. Worthington’s house had been for sale ever since. Mary had watched the realtor show the house to a handful of different people through her living room window, but it wasn’t until a week ago that the realtor displayed a sold sign in the front yard. Mary had glued herself to the window for days, but hadn’t seen the first sign of a new neighbor. She assumed it would be someone, not quite her own age, but close. The houses in her neighborhood were older and small. Young families were drawn to the newer homes on the other side of town, and the more well off people to the Victorian homes in downtown Little River.
At nine forty-two a.m., according to the kitchen clock, Mary’s phone rang. It took her a moment to get out of her chair with her bad hip, but, with the aid of her walker, she made it to the phone by the fifth ring.
“Hello?” Her voice came out as a croak. She hadn’t spoken to anyone in two days. Mary cleared her throat, and repeated, “Hello?”
“Mary?” The voice on the other end sounded confused.
“Yes. It’s Mary.”
“Mary, its Eva.”
“Hey, Sis.” Mary smiled, despite the pain in her hip. Her sister didn’t call very often anymore, because her hearing wasn’t what it used to be.
“I wanted to come see you today, but Lenard’s bad again,” Eva said.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Doc says he’s got pneumonia,” she answered. “You know how bad his lungs are.”
“Too many years in the mines,” Mary replied.
“I said, ‘too many years in the mines.’”
“Too many what?” Eva’s voice got louder each time she asked someone to repeat something.
“I’m sorry, Sis,” Eva said, just as loudly. “I can’t hear a thing on the phone anymore.”
“I know,” Mary sighed. “Maybe I can see you next week. If Lenard’s better.”
“No, he’s not any better yet.”
“I said, ‘if he’s better’. Next week.”
“I sure hope so,” Eva replied. Mary wasn’t sure if she ever heard exactly what she had said.
“Take care, Sis,” Mary said, and hung up the phone.
Shuffling back to the living room, Mary carefully lowered herself into the recliner and reached for the remote. The mail usually ran around one in the afternoon, and she tried to be on the front porch when the mailman came around. Eyeing the clock, Mary sighed and clicked on the T.V.
She was engrossed in an episode of “The Waltons” when she heard a car door slam. Curious, Mary turned off the T.V. and pushed herself up from her chair. Before she had gotten completely situated, she heard two more car doors shut. As she reached the side window and pulled the curtains aside, a U-Haul pulled up behind the blue sedan parked in front of Mr. Worthington’s house. A woman and two little girls stood looking at the house.
“Well, I’ll be,” Mary whispered. She never in a million years thought there would be children next door.
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, The Society of Classical Poets, and various other literary journals. She recently won an Honorable Mention for her short story “A Slow Burn” at the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society’s annual convention. She also received the Springs of Helicon Award for Poetry, awarded by Tennessee Wesleyan University. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.