Writing by Olivia Tu
There was an odd feeling that came with driving on the gravel parkway of the neighborhood. The car decelerated. Ivy opened the door, stepped out, and slammed it shut with a resounding bang. Gone was the view of congested stores and dusky roads, now replaced by the sweet flowers, which littered the grass of every front yard, sickingly lovely. Just the same, she thought, as if nothing’s changed in six years. Shrill cries still rang from the nearby playground, and she swore she could smell the scent of the lemon cake wafting from Miss Beth’s house. The day before, upon receiving a wretched phone call, she had trashed her apartment in a frenzy. Shards of porcelain, mangled fabric, and miscellaneous objects flew like the debri of a storm. She told herself it was merely because she couldn’t find where she had stashed her clothing, but when recalling the sense of hysteria she had fallen into, a round of icy blades dug into her scalp. It was so disruptive, that even the wheezing man in the adjacent apartment room, who had not spoken a single word to her, had chastised her for “stalking around like a Jack-In-the-Box”. After her emotions had subsided, she hauled out her worn suitcase from the closet. The pandemonium of junk on the floor seemed to reflect vestiges of shattered wine bottles, and a room bearing purple walls, the creeping drip of the water pipe ticking like a grandfather clock. The images resurfaced intrusively, for a second, and she wildly shook her head. A distant drop of sweat slid down her temple, a coil of fear tightened around her neck. She’d hardened her heart for so many years, and truthfully she was proud of her unmoving and sane nature – it meant that she had changed. But just now, it had been too close. It had been too similar of an experience, and she did not want to become the same person her mother was. How was one even supposed to react to a mother’s death that came so abruptly? Break down in tears? She noticed how no tears were shed. Immediately plan a funeral? Who would she invite, and who would show up? She might as well just host a secluded ceremony by the candlelight, with guests of wine — a night for reflection, for both.
In the small neighborhood, Ivy’s stomach squirmed. There it stood, sturdy and stout, with the same small brown roof. On the outside, it appeared unblemished, complete with two abandoned porch chairs, but the windows grew weary with dust. This building, she wanted nothing more than to crush the bricks beneath her fingers and plant its rotting carcass in the soil. Breathe in, breathe out. You’re only here to visit… Indeed, the timid lady on the phone had insisted for her to “return and visit one last time”, not that she had a choice. “Your mother would want you to see her one last time, inherit her possessions. But of course, it’s up to you.” “Thanks…I’ll see.” As an only child and the only faithful relative, she had been given all the family belongings, not that they had much— most things were either destroyed or lost with time. But, she’d rather lock all the items in a glass cage and sell the house. Ivy jangled her keys in the lock, stepping in with feather-like footsteps, as if an ancient monster slumbered within – one she had to be careful to skirt around. She made a note of the curtained-off area in the living room, and wanted to briskly walk past it, as that was where the unsettling aura radiated from. However, she still caught a glimpse of a wooden casket, which set her nerves on edge. It was almost as if she could hear her mother’s sharp screams, piercing the silence like arrows, each one striking with deadly precision. It was as if the stale scent distorted into one of burnt tobacco and alcohol. It was as if the walls were closing in, cutting off her breaths and bringing forth waves of nausea, time ticking, ticking, and ticking… Such a coward. She found herself sitting on one of the porch chairs, palms sweaty against her knees, the wood stiff against her back. Had she sprinted out? “Hey!” a young voice called. “Would you like some lemon cake? These are specially baked by me, so rejecting them would be rude.” Ivy turned to see a small girl, about five or six, standing in a bright dress and holding a plate of sweets. “Who are you?” she asked. Why are you here? I’m not in the mood for company. “My name’s Zoe!” The girl pointed towards the house in yellow, “I live just over there!” Ivy’s attitude towards the girl shifted; it turned out that this girl was Miss Beth’s granddaughter. When she was younger, she’d always thought that Miss Beth was a pain, since she’d force her into her house on weekends. Miss Beth would make her stay for almost the whole day, and she’d be required to study, with the occasional sweets as company. However, Ivy had never realized the good of her intentions– taking her away from her house where a tempest stirred alone, trying to shape her into a studious woman in order for her to support herself. “What brings you over here, Zoe?” “Well, my grandma told me to come over and accompany you, but-” the girl stopped halfway, knowing she’d been a bit too honest. “Nevermind that. Would you like some?” Ivy looked at her innocent eyes with a complicated expression on her face, finally deciding on taking a piece of the dessert. The lemon cakes were a part of her past self, a memory in the trail of dust behind her. She never thought she’d see them again. “Where do you live currently, ma’am? It looks like you’ve just came here.” Ivy took a bite out of the dessert, a sour flavor staining her mouth. “I’m living in New York right now, might move around a bit.” “New York?” Zoe questioned. “Why that place? Isn’t this small town better? I really like it, I would stay here forever if I could.” Zoe clearly had never traveled before. Why wouldn’t she move to New York — where the bustling of the city drowned out her worries? She had come to like the high end apartments and barrage of blaring lights that clouded her vision to hide away a washed-out relic. “A new place, new experiences,” was the answer Ivy finally settled on. She wanted to say that it was where she could disassociate herself with the past, but that would’ve been a lie. “Do you live alone over there?” She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the question. Even if she wasn’t before, she’d be alone forever now. Her mother’s sharp face flashed in her mind. “Of course. One can’t stay in the company of others forever.” The girl sighed, her breath blowing her bangs. “Then don’t you ever feel lonely? Even though my grandma can be annoying, I could still never live without her.” “Well,” Ivy said, looking away from Zoe. “I find it peaceful being by myself.” A half-truth. She did enjoy being able to focus on herself, not having to carry the burden of anyone else and tangling in someone else’s life. However, she couldn’t stop the flicker of envy that ignited whenever she glanced into restaurants, markets, and malls, admiring them. Not their fortunes or opportunities, but rather their circle of warmth, their harmony as a family. Bitterness stung in her eyes. Additionally, while living alone without the presence of others, with the exception of her colleagues, she discovered that it was difficult to be optimistic. She could sometimes feel a creeping madness dancing along her skin, threatening to overwhelm her senses. A madness that seemed to whisper, “Like mother, like daughter.” “You…,” the little girl seemed hesitant to ask the question on the tip of her tongue. She took a breath. “You have a family, don’t you?” “Yes, of course I do. Don’t we all?” Why else do you think I’m here? Zoe clearly did not know the situation at hand. “Then you don’t ever think about them? What are they like?” She did, she did, even if she didn’t want to. Mainly, it was about her mother, since she hardly knew any of her other kin. Her mother, a mystery she couldn’t piece together. She sometimes found herself wondering…maybe she hadn’t been understanding enough of the struggles her mother went through, wanting to be cared for and understood so badly. Maybe her mother was like a rose; they say the thorns are a mask to protect a rose’s true beauty, so perhaps her mother’s true intentions had been obscured by the thorns of her madness and scorn. Did she love her mom; did her mom love her? Maybe her mother had named her only child with spite, after the poison ivy that inflicted rashes upon those who touched it. Maybe she had named her with thought, like the vibrant ivy that draped in gardens. With her mother’s death, her mind had been caught in a turmoil, a quicksand of the past she couldn’t escape. Did she feel sad? Mad? Remorseful for cutting off contact? “I do,” she answered. “Now, why don’t you tell me about your household?” Zoe’s eyes lit up. “Oh, sure! My mom, she’s really nice. She lets me get what I want at the store and always reads me bedtime stories. She even…” Her jubilant voice continued on, and Ivy basked in her words, noticing how the lemon cake revealed a sliver of sweetness on her tongue. The sunlight illuminated the two figures sitting on the porch chairs with a bronze glow, and the boisterous shouts of children rang in the air. As Ivy looked back into the little girl’s eyes, that sparkled patiently while she listened and spoke, she found an odd sort of sola