Summer Short Story Award Honorable Mention: “Level of Emergency” by Tanya Nikiforova

March 18, 2024

“Level of Emergency” by Tanya Nikiforova was chosen by The Masters Review editors as one of two honorable mentions in our 2023 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers. In this story, Paula, a recovering alcoholic, makes a surprise visit to her estranged daughter Amy and young grandson Charlie, whom she hasn’t seen in years, in response to a letter she received about Charlie’s cancer. “Level of Emergency” hooked us early in our reading and never let go, and we’re thrilled to publish it among our contest finalists.


On Monday morning, Paula opens her front door as the sky takes on the first flush of cerulean. She ambles through the still, sleepy neighborhood to Marty’s Gas and Convenience where Sid works the overnight shift and buys a cup of black coffee and enough food to sustain herself for twenty-four hours exactly. She appreciates Sid’s complete impassivity to her on these outings. After four months, it feels like kindness. Kindness in averting your gaze from a person who buys single-serve cereal and a past-expiry sandwich each morning. Kindness in not pointing out that it is unusual and possibility dangerous for a fifty-eight-year-old woman to subsist on this alone.

On her way back, Paula retrieves yesterday’s letters from a mailbox that keels over to the right a bit more each day. These past months she has lived in a rental popular with the sober living community. The single-story structure is encased in thick, weathered concrete and stands out of place next to renovated Victorians and brightly painted family homes. She prepares to barricade inside until the following morning when the whole ordeal is repeated, but on reaching the front door she sees her eldest daughter’s name on the upper left corner of an envelope. Paula sets her white plastic bag down and opens the letter cautiously. On a roughly folded sheet of yellow legal paper, her daughter’s uneven handwriting rumbles across the page.


Paula, Mother, Mom…

I don’t worry about you, anymore. But I wonder. Sometimes, deep into the night. I wonder how you’re living. I wonder if you’re drinking. I wonder if you’re alive.

While wondering today, I discovered that not ONE of the numbers I have had for you in the past decade is in service, and emails to you boomerang back in seconds. On the internet, you don’t exist except in court records and police reports. So I looked up this address online and the pictures screamed, SKETCHY METH LAB, and I thought, this must be the place.

The last letter I wrote was to Ron to tell him about Charlie’s diagnosis. He was upstate then, not taking my calls. Charlie is on his third round of chemo, by the way, and is upchucking all over the house. I can’t get the smell of vomit out from the left couch cushion where he watches monster truck videos or from his favorite monster truck bedspread. I tried everything – industrial bleach, pure vinegar, expensive detergent. I wondered today if you might know how to do it. You knew these things at some point.

I can’t imagine that you worry about me. But if you find yourself wondering, call me.



Paula walks into the dim entryway, closing the door behind her. And it is there, as her eyes adjust, that she sees walking towards her a gray swan, four-foot, then six-foot, growing in seconds, huffing as he waddles her way. She admires his muscular neck and smells his marshy breath. As she turns on the light, it flickers overhead. An inverted shadow of the swan hangs in the air in front of her, and she takes care to walk around it on her way to the kitchen.

In her fourth month of renewed sobriety, Paula still believes in the power of visions. She is a pragmatic woman but accepts her susceptibility to old-fashioned apparitions and reads extensively about telepathy. Much later she will use clinical terms and describe it all as – my fucked-up brain chemistry, burned out circuits, random neurotransmitter explosions, and sap seeping from my brain. But in this last week of September, Paula knows to read the signs and feels grateful for this guiding light.

She peels back the lid from the plastic Cheerios bowl and drowns the O’s in milk. This isn’t her first swan vision. She remembers the swan sitting by her hospital bed while she writhed and soaked through sheets in the throes of withdrawal. The swan untied her hands from restraints that bound her to the bed rails while doctors stood at the foot of her bed with their backs turned. She heard snippets of their voices as if surfacing for a moment to catch her breath before being pulled back underwater. In various pitches the voices said pint-a-day, mother of three, psychosis, DTs, aggressive, against medical advice. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, the swan rested his head on Paula’s soft abdomen.

Even now, it doesn’t occur to Paula what the visions might mean about her untethering from the world. She is steadfast and loyal to them. She listens to their urgent messages and heeds their advice, no matter where it leads. Each vision is a fruit to be peeled until the seed of meaning falls from its core and into her palm.

Well, there is the letter, she thinks.

There was a need there, a tug in that strange writing, a gentle pull on a line to signal—what? A thawing between mother and daughter who haven’t spoken in years? A call for help placed, miraculously, to her?

She would go to them. She would help with Charlie. Seven, or eight? Were third rounds of chemo common, or even possible? “I’m coming, Amy,” she says to the swan, to no one, and shudders at the surprise of hearing her gruff voice reverberate through the walls.

* * *

Paula stands over a small rolling suitcase flipped open on her bed and deliberates over what to bring, or, more specifically, how long to pack for. She decides not to be presumptuous. She packs three changes of clothing, the sandwich purchased that morning, a toothbrush, and a book loaned to her by a fellow in AA called “The Enigma of Street Light Interference.”

There are things she doesn’t bring. A phone of any kind, for instance. Better to not invite trouble on the road, she thinks. Her last phone was retrieved from an apartment she set ablaze when a cigarette fell from her lips at the tail end of a bender. She remembers getting checked for smoke inhalation when a firefighter brought the device to her. “Thought you might want it,” he said. She couldn’t imagine why. Pieces of charred plastic flickered off the phone as it was handed over. Paula expected it would disintegrate at her touch, but when she held it, the home screen lit up. She knew if the device could survive a fire she started because of vodka and cigarettes the device helped her procure, she had to destroy it, immediately.

“Excuse me, hey, think you could shoot this?” she asked a hose jockey.

“Don’t carry a gun, m’am.”

“Can I place it under your truck tires then?”

“Sure,” he said, resigned and unphased.

After the fire trucks heaved and whistled out of the parking lot, Paula stood over the phone’s carcass. No more phones, she thought. That’s the lesson to be learned here. She told EMS that she didn’t, after all, want to go to the hospital. She was fine. She went inside the apartment and surveyed her latest damage.

* * *

Midafternoon, Paula’s bus pulls into a station nestled in scorched late-summer grass. Lacking a phone or a map, Paula shows Amy’s addressed envelope to an overstuffed man of her vintage. He gives directions, each left and right turn told with increasing exasperation and, probably, concern for Paula’s health in attempting this journey on a 95-degree September day. Paula thanks him, waves off his concerns, and rolls her suitcase over three miles of broken sidewalk. As the sun starts to set, she summits three unstable porch steps and knocks on Amy’s navy-blue door.

When the door opens, Amy doesn’t look pleased. Paula gets it. She didn’t call, as the letter invited her to. Sweat-soaked and short of breath from the hike here, she looks a decade past her actual age. And she hasn’t seen Amy in four years. Nothing to do now but forge ahead.

“Well here I am, oldest daughter. I got your letter and thought I’d give an in-person report. I live in a real nice rental that’s not at all a meth lab. I’m four months sober. And, as you can see, I’m almost completely alive.”

Amy stands behind the screen door that separates them, quiet for a few moments. “What letter? You don’t look so good, Mom.”

Amy leaves the door open and goes inside, neither inviting her in nor telling her to leave. How familiar this is to Paula. This ambivalence from friends and family when she arrives at their door days late, or appears uninvited.

“You staying?” Amy asks, once Paula steps inside. Paula nods.

She stands, suitcase in hand, as Amy carries bedding and towels into the first-floor guest room, silently. Paula is still standing while Amy warms a single bowl of rice and beans in the microwave and puts it on the kitchen table.

They stand then eye to eye, three feet apart, appraising each other with equal parts suspicion and longing. Paula wonders how her body would react to eating a homecooked plate of food for the first time in months, or to touching her daughter.

“I’ll pass on the food, but I’ll take the guest room. Thank you, Amy.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Want to…sit? Talk?”

Amy takes a deep breath. “I’ll pass on talking, tonight.”

“Fair enough,” says Paula.

In the guest room, a painful wariness fills Paula’s body. She thinks about how this morning she awoke with no plans but the usual and managed to transport herself across the state to face her daughter like it was nothing, or worse yet, like it was easy. How she had capacity, long forgotten, for sudden and unexpected new life. She feels tremulous, but then remembers the swan, and that she just followed the signs to get here. She falls asleep on top of a fading quilt she made when the kids were young, in another life, with her clothes on. While asleep she dreams that in her absence the swan walks to Marty’s Gas and Convenience in the morning and buys her regulars. Sid hands over the change, not saying anything.

* * *

The next day Paula awakes to the feeling of bass thumping through her body. Half-conscious, she remembers midnight at clubs, feels herself surrounded on a dance floor at that sweet spot of the night before the sober tourists go home and she is left with her people, ready to really start their evening. She stumbles, disoriented, out of her room to find Amy on a stationary bike in the family room. There is a lot of flesh, Amy’s perfect taut flesh, bobbing up and down the on the bike. Amy faces a laptop and three lamps point at her face. She lunges up, leans forward and pedals with fury. She yells like a drill sergeant into the computer screen and she shakes her hips suggestively. She dances on this bike in her sports bra and underwear while her lips move, but Paula can’t hear the words over the music. Paula stands behind her transfixed. Her vision is blurry. Amy yells, “You’re in the frame!” When Paula re-focuses, she sees Amy glaring. “Mom you’re in the frame. Mom. MOOOVE!” Paula crosses the room into the kitchen.

There, at the round wooden table, sits a perfect small pale bird of a boy in an oversized wool sweater, grinning. “Oh boy she’s going to be mad at you. You should have listened to her.” Paula can’t make sense of how this small kid could be saying this to her until she realizes the kid isn’t four, the age he was when Paula last saw him, and the age he still looks to be until he speaks.

“Hey-a Charlie.” Paula isn’t sure of what to do exactly. She swings her arms at her sides, indecisive about giving a hug or a high-five and settles on a pat on the kid’s right shoulder.

“Hey-a Paula.” Paula finds that the coffee is warm still and, relieved to have something to do with her hands, prepares a cup. “So, Charlie. What’s your mom doing in there?”

“She works for the internet. She rides a bike to loud music.”

Charlie seems to think it is all pretty obvious.

“Ahh…” says Paula, with no better understanding. “So that was a no-no what I did, huh?”

Charlie nods. “Oh yea, Paula. Rule number one: never get on camera when mom is recording.”

“What do you do if you need her while she’s recording?”

“I just text her my level of emergency. Like I text her a 1 if something is up but I’ll probably be okay. Like I spilled a glass of milk or something. I text her a 2 if I’m not feeling well and am throwing up. Level 3 is if there’s blood.”

Paula stares at the kid and blinks.

The music stops and Amy enters the room, glistening. “Dammit it, Mom.” Handing her a coffee, Paula says, smiling, “Charlie explained it all to me. You work for the internet.”

Paula looks at Amy’s freckles as she wipes her shoulders with a towel. How do you reconcile your child as a grown woman with trenches of mistakes and baggage, when she still has the constellations of a toothless kid, filled with exuberance? Vodka used to blur those lines, and without it, Paula is helpless.

“How long are you here for, Mom?”

“As long as you need me,” Paula says.

Paula reads Amy’s face and can tell she’s not buying what Paula’s selling. But Paula’s not buying it either. Even as she says it, she knows it’s not true.

“Okay Mom. We’re going to the doctor.”

* * *

She wasn’t invited, exactly, but gets in the car anyway. In the vast space of a three-hour car ride, she thinks it’s interesting that no one has mentioned the whereabouts of Ron. She also thinks maybe it’s better not to ask, but the words fall out: “So, where’s my favorite son in law?”

There is no change in Amy or Charlie’s expressions. Like they didn’t hear her. She wonders if maybe she didn’t say it out loud, maybe the words just bounced off the walls of her skull without finding the path to her mouth that she intended. Then Amy says, dryly, “He moved out two months ago.”

Paula is incredulous. What kind of man does this kind of thing? But she’s known a few in her life, and she’s been the leaver more than the left behind. So she feels both pissed at and defensive of Ron at the same time, which makes her chest ache, which makes her want to drink. She thinks about the routine of her past four months, the walks to Marty’s, Sid, the hours inside of the house. She shouldn’t have come here.

She doesn’t ask any more about Ron. They drive to the sound of Charlie humming in the background. Not sporadic hums but entire songs, albums even, of hums. Paula doesn’t ask Amy what that’s about.

* * *

The oncology unit at the Children’s Hospital isn’t how Paula imagined it, which was sort of like a Disneyland where all the characters wear white coats. It’s not that she doesn’t have a frame of reference for hospitals, more that all memories of ER visits for the girls’ broken arms and earaches drowned in her head long ago. This is an angular, industrial building with clear glass, violently air conditioned. There are pictures of little kids on the walls doing kid things like swinging and swimming in pools, but otherwise the building could moonlight for corporate law offices on weekends.

When Charlie’s name is called from the waiting room, Paula stands, too. She follows Amy who follows the nurse, and they all trail behind Charlie down the long, fluorescently-illuminated hallway. Charlie turns so that he’s walking backwards as he points out the weight scale on the left, the blood draw lab on the right, yelling so Paula hears in the back, like he’s giving a college tour. Paula listens for trepidation or fear in his voice but doesn’t find any. Amy, too, seems upbeat. While the nurse checks Charlie’s blood pressure, Amy asks about her garden and the last episode of a show they are both watching. The nurse says, “I died laughing, literally,” which Paula finds distasteful. Why mention death in a place like this, where surely children die every day, but Amy says, “Me too.” Charlie says, “Me three,” and only then they are all quiet.

When the doctor enters, Paula finds him difficult to look at, like a cubist painting you must blur your vision to make sense of.  Curly hair springs off his head in all directions, reminding her of a clown wig. His teeth are too large for his face, accentuated by the doctor’s apparent inability to do anything other than smile.

“How are you doing, Charlie?” he asks.

“Good I’m feeling well I don’t think the chemo has had any side effects,” Charlie answers, professionally.

“Eating well?”

“Three meals a day.”


“Nine hours every night.”

“Liking school?”

“Yea, especially when I get to skip.”

Amy sits in the corner, hands folded in her lap. Her head bobs back and forth between the doctor and Charlie. She seems so small to Paula, while Charlie on the exam table projects a young man, a decade older. The doctor says that Charlie’s third round of chemo seems to have taken, his lymphoma again disappeared on initial scans, but it wouldn’t be until Charlie’s scans today that they would know for sure.

“Do you have any questions, Grandma?” the doctor asks without looking at her, feeling for something on Charlie’s neck. Paula doesn’t register they’re talking about her, since she has never considered herself to be a grandmother, let alone a Grandma. Mute, she feels herself perspire, feels a fire burning the lining of her stomach because, no, she doesn’t have any questions. She wouldn’t even know what to ask.

The doctor and Amy give each other knowing looks when she is silent. Paula thinks she sees the doctor wink at Amy.

* * *

Five floors down, in the sterile basement, they follow signs to Radiology. Charlie, now hospital gowned, still leads the way, continuing the tour. “On my right is the vending machine with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos that Mom gets me after my scans. Important information for you to know, just in case you’re ever in charge of my post-scan snack arrangement.”

“Noted, Grandson,” says Paula. She’s trying it out now, seeing how it tastes. Grandson…grandmother. Mother.  

When they call Charlie for the scans, Paula watches him open the door and enter a dark room, this time on his own. She and Amy sit with Charlie’s empty chair between them.

“I never liked Ron,” says Paula, after a few moments.

“That’s like the worst kept secret in our family.”

“I always thought you would be the one to leave him, not the other way around.”

“I’m pretty leave-able.” Amy chews on her bottom lip. “But not Charlie.”

Paula wonders how her egress and re-entry into the lives of her daughters shaped their adult selves. She thinks for the first time of all those who left Amy. Paula, to detox the first, second, and third time when Amy was in high school. The girls’ father, to another family, to the racetracks, and then, finally, to the morgue. Ron, to wherever he was hiding. Her younger sisters who moved to India, found jobs in Alaska, changed their names and married people who were nothing like their parents. And here was Charlie, balancing precariously before her. The totality of it all is astounding.

“You didn’t deserve the childhood you got,” she says finally.

“You say that as if it all turned out how it did because of some unknowable force, and not decisions made by you and Dad.” Amy shakes her head as she looks downward.  “I had a good childhood. It just ended when I turned ten.”

“When I started drinking.”

“When you stopped being a mother.”

“You don’t ever stop being a mother. Even when you’re a shit, alcoholic mother.”

“What about a mother who, poof, just disappears?”

A pregnant pause fills the air and expands the space between them.

“Why are you here, Mom? Why now?”

“You keep asking that. Your letter, Amy. And I saw a sign. I got the letter, and I saw something and it told me that you needed me. And maybe I could come here and, I guess, do something good.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Amy.

“I have been using signs to keep me grounded. Out of trouble. On the right path. Away from drinking. Closer to good.” Most of her friends were using signs and stepping through recovery to be closer to God, but not Paula. Good was a place she remembered like a book read in childhood, a place on a map in a hard-to-reach valley that you are sure you once visited despite the improbable journey to get there. A penny lost in the drop down the rabbit hole, there, somewhere just there on the periphery as a reachable and knowable way of existence. She didn’t expect miracles. She didn’t expect to luxuriate in comfort, wealth, or happiness. She just wanted, for a moment or two, to sit somewhere that the sun warms your shoulders and your feet touch solid ground and you are not falling, falling, falling. To just sit there, not thinking of anything in particular, not digging with a spoon to get somewhere better. Just, good.

Amy’s whole body seems to be tremoring, and she wraps her arms around herself trying to warm her core, or keep her abdomen from bursting open and spilling out on the scuffed linoleum. Amy is definitely not good, Paula thinks. She reaches out, tries to touch her daughter’s hand, but a decades old memory of her daughter’s small fingers interlocked perfectly with hers leaks under a closed door and knocks around inside of her heart. So instead, Paula grazes her bare shoulder with her palm, and Amy recoils.

“I came because I thought there could still be something I can offer you, as your mother. When I think about you, alone, with all of THIS,” she swings her arms exaggeratedly around the room, “I feel sick to my stomach. I can’t fathom how you have been handling this all by yourself. And I think I came to say…”

It sits there, curled up on her tongue, unwilling to leave.

“How sorry, how incredibly sorry I am about the way things turned out for you and your sisters when…”

Amy cuts in, “It’s okay, no, no, no. I don’t know about them but it’s not like I’ve been sitting around waiting or an apology, or for help to arrive. If I wanted or needed or ever expected any of it, I wouldn’t have made it as far as I have. I have…accepted some things. There’s no point in trying to change the past, or the future.”

Charlie is back then, all smiles. “I karate-chopped that cat scan,” he says, and knife-hand strikes the air in front of them. They both reach for him, reach for his hands and touch his cheeks with their own.

* * *

When they park next to Amy’s house, on the front steps Paula sees a stout, short haired woman in slacks and an ocean blue button-down shirt dotted with dark sweat stains.

She uses her hand to cover her eyes from the sun and yells as they open the car door, “How’d it go, Charlie?” Charlie bounds up the stairs, says something to her, and they high-five.

“Shirley, my lawyer,” Amy says, casually.

Inside of the house, the air is stagnant. “We better get started,” says Shirley, and sets her oversized leather bag on the kitchen table. From her bag she removes papers, yellow legal pads, manila folders, three-ring binders, a laptop.

In the absence of explanation, Paula’s imagination runs wild. She imagines Amy divorcing Ron and getting all of his money. Amy suing the doctors who failed to diagnose Charlie’s cancer early enough and getting his treatments paid for.

“The second cease and desist notice arrived. They’re getting serious,” Shirley says.

No one is paying attention to her, so Paula listens, and as she listens, she comes to understand that Amy has been recording exercise videos that too-closely mimic those of a popular home spinning company. Customers tricked by her use of a copyrighted logo have been paying for her content, thinking that she was the real deal.

“Amy, are you out of your mind?” Paula asks, and both women look at her in surprise. “Are you getting sued?”

“None of your business,” Amy says.

“Fine, I just…didn’t expect this.”

Amy produces a grunt mixed with a laugh. “Butt out, Paula. If you want to help, take Charlie outside for a walk,” she says. “Take the stroller,” she yells through the screen door once Paula is on the porch.

“He’s EIGHT, not a baby,” Paula calls back. But when she sees Charlie, he looks drained and anemic.

“She’s right, Paula, let’s take my transformer,” he says.

* * *

When Paula presses a button, the stroller unfolds to become three times its size. Charlie gets in gladly, and even though it is searingly hot outside he covers himself in a thin gauzy blanket. Paula pushes the stroller down the sidewalk, wheels constantly catching on the concrete. They walk three, four, then five blocks until reaching the heart of their neighborhood and businesses begin to line the street. When Paula sees Marty’s Gas and Convenience, she is surprised by the comfort she feels. When they step inside, she tells Charlie that he can buy anything he wants as long as it adds up to twenty dollars exactly, and Charlie is up for the challenge, leaving the stroller behind to look at one toy after another, one package of candy after the next, doing math. The clerk looks them over and says, “A little old for a stroller, ain’t he?” Paula is disappointed that Sid’s benevolent noninterference is not company policy that carries over to the other franchises.

They sit on a bench in some shade outside of the store.  Charlie arranges his loot: a pack of bubble gum, a Hot Wheels car, and two pairs of sunglasses.

“Mom says you’ve got problems,” Charlie says.

“She’s not wrong.” Paula watches Charlie fiddle with the sunglasses.

“How did you stop drinking?”

“I don’t know,” she says, which is the truth. “I’m also not sure how I started it.”

“Do you think you’ll drink again soon?”

Paula can’t look at Charlie, so she looks straight ahead. “Probably.”

“I think I might die if the chemo doesn’t work this time.”

Paula feels the asphalt move up and the expansive sky move down, and the two of them compress between these forces. She finds herself unable to speak.

“Mom and the doctors won’t tell me the truth. They tell me everything will be fine.”

“Maybe they’re right, Charlie.”

“Maybe,” he says. “But they don’t know. Like you don’t know about why you drink. Like Mom doesn’t know.” Paula’s chest is compressing. Across the parking lot she sees the streetlamps flicker on, even though it’s mid-day.

“Richland asked me if he could have all my monster trucks if I die.”

“Who the fuck is Richland?”

“My friend at school. I told him he’s a bad friend for asking so he can only have my really crappy ones we got at the yard sale last year, not the new ones from the store.”

Paula laughs and wishes she could exact this kind of levelheaded vengeance on her well-wishers and enemies, too. Charlie hands her a pair of sunglasses, and they both wear them for the walk home.

* * *

On Wednesday they drive back to the hospital to get the results. In the hospital parking lot, Amy takes Charlie out of the car, and gets back in the driver’s seat. She rolls down the window to look at Paula. “I can’t do this, Mom.”

Paula’s throat feels dry and scratchy.

“Okay, I’ll go. I can go,” she manages.

Amy doesn’t say anything else, just rolls the window back up.

As they ride up in the elevator, Paula feels a slight jostle, and suddenly bends over to vomit on the carpet in the corner of the elevator. “Sorry, Charlie. I guess I’m nervous,” she says, shakily. Charlie pats her back and tells her that popsicles help him when this happens. And about how everything in his room smells like vomit. “But I don’t mind it,” he says. Sitting in the waiting room, Charlie places a gentle hand on her left knee.

“What do you know about your mom and the lawyer?” she asks. “How much trouble is your mom in?”

“About as much as you and I are,” Charlie says, and then they call for him.

* * *

When the doctor enters the room, the door isn’t closed yet before he announces, “It’s good news, Charlie.” Paula feels the vomit come up in her mouth again and swallows it this time. “The last CT scans show us that the cancer is gone,” he says, clapping his palms together. “Where’s your mom, by the way?” Charlie doesn’t say anything, and Paula feels an unspoken need to produce an alibi.

“She’s home with a cold.”

The doctor squints his eyes at her skeptically, the first time she has seen him frown.

“Well tell her to call me so I can tell her the good news.”

“We can tell her ourselves,” says Paula.

* * *

She thinks Charlie should be deliriously happy, bouncing off the walls in elation, but his shoulders are hunched and he seems lost as he shuffles through the hospital lobby and then outside. Paula finds Amy in the backseat of the car, asleep with a blanket over her. When she opens the car door, the first thing that hits her is the dizzying smell of bottled-up ethanol. Small empty bottles of Jim Beam are arranged in a perfect row on the back seat floor mat. Paula lifts the blanket to look at Amy’s face, a vision in deep sleep, with flushed cheeks that would be attractive to anyone except for an experienced alcoholic. Charlie sits in the front seat with his sunglasses on, now crying softly. She keeps patting his shoulder as she drives them home, telling him, “This is good news, Grandson. You need a different set of levels now, for good news. Like level of goodness, one. And this is, I don’t know, this is five, ten, or one hundred. It’s everything.”

About a mile from home, Paula looks in the rearview and sees Amy sitting up, disoriented. “It’s good news, Amy, it’s good,” she says. So, this is why Ron left. How is it that she didn’t see it? Amy closes her eyes and nods.

At home, they send Charlie to nap and Amy holds him for a long time, her body cupping his in bed. Paula goes through the kitchen, opening cabinets and drawers, counting the half-filled and empty glass bottles behind cereal boxes and bags of rice.

When Amy comes out of Charlie’s room, Paula is sitting at the table, holding the letter.

“I found the bottles, Amy.”

Amy spins herself around, unsteadily, to face Paula. She lets out a shaky, “Yeah. And?”

Paula knows she can’t lecture her, wouldn’t know how to without being a hypocrite. And, she realizes, Amy is still a little bit drunk.

“Why did you write me that letter?” Paula asks.

“What. Letter. I didn’t write you a letter.”

“You did.” Paula stands and throws it across the room, but the letter just pirouettes down and lands on the floor between them. “You just don’t remember doing it.” Amy looks at the folded yellow paper, but doesn’t move to pick it up.

“Say it, Mom.”

“Say what?”

“I’m just like you.”

“Even if you are an alcoholic Amy, it’s not like me. You are so much stronger than me. You have so much more ingenuity. I would have never been able to keep it together for Charlie like you’re doing. I would have never had enough clarity or wit to come up a money-making scam that worked well enough to get me sued. Not in the throes of it.”

Amy laughs at this.

In that moment, with the sun announcing an early fall departure, and a surprisingly cool breeze flowing through the windows, Paula knows in her most intimate inner spaces that she is going to leave. She thinks about the three of them out on their own paths, weathering their own storms, floating in space connected to each other by the thinnest of threads.

She doesn’t share her intentions or fall asleep that night. Just after midnight, she gently peels off the bedspread covering Charlie’s body, and replaces it with the quilt bearing “Home Sweet Home” that she made when the girls were little, when it really, truly was that. She takes the bedspread and the couch cushion covers and stuffs them inside of the washer. She mixes in a bowl equal parts white vinegar and detergent, adds a tablespoon of baking soda, and squeezes a lemon. She pours it in and turns the machine on.

When the dryer buzzes her awake from a reverie heading for sleep, she takes everything out and holds the warm bedspread to her face to smell deeply. Nothing, no vomit, no Charlie, just the generic smell of detergent, cleanliness, renewal. She re-covers the couch cushion and replaces Charlie’s bedspread, kissing his nearly bald head.

* * *

In the new chill of the morning, Paula walks back to the bus station. She waits impatiently for the clerks to finish their breakfasts and open the kiosks to buy a ticket home. She should feel accomplished, she tells herself. She followed the signals. She came and saw and helped. She knows this is the inevitable end to a heat wave, to a moment of calm in the ocean, to the pause on the chaos and destruction she has borne and lived. But she can’t help but think, maybe. And once she thinks it, it hangs there, that dangerous and unpredictable chameleon of a word. Maybe. Maybe the three of them, maybe this town, maybe something new that has never existed before can grow here.

The clerk looks at her expectantly as Paula’s eyes dart all around the station in search of something ethereal and out of place, a sign of any kind to guide her, even one not meant for her. But there isn’t one.

Instead she remembers that yesterday, at Marty’s with Charlie, when they sat in that parking lot and looked off in the distance and talked like grown-ups, what her eyes were resting on but refusing to see in that parking lot was the sign above an open door, reading, Fine Wines and Good Spirits.

She closes her eyes now and takes three deep breaths, one for each of them.

“Okay, I am ready,” Paula says to the clerk, who is thinking about anything and everything but the buzzing woman before her, with hair that needs a wash, in her third change of clothes, deciding, maybe for the first time, what happens next.

Tanya Nikiforova is a primary care physician who writes fiction inspired by the breathtaking range of human experience she encounters in her profession. She is a first-generation immigrant from Belarus and resides in Pennsylvania with her husband and young children.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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