Right now, Sherri’s kitchen light seems too bright, and she feels like she’s waking up from being passed out or asleep at her small red dining room table, though she hasn’t been sleeping or drinking. Instead, she’s been awake and wrapped inside a cocoon of nausea and headache, tight enough to shut her down. The small rectangle window above the kitchen sink is open but covered with a wire mesh screen, keeping mosquitoes out. She can almost feel the sound of their buzzing and realizes her head is on her hand and she’s staring at the window instead of writing, so she sits up straight, thinking she needs to get to it, finish this letter and take her meds and get to bed before another wave of pain comes on. Looking at the yellow paper, she inhales the deep and even breaths that once cleared the pain but now hurt like hell. She focuses on the first line, in blue ink.

    Dear Maria,

            It’s 1 a.m. This is the last thing I will write you. I have so much I want to say but don’t know really how to start.

    Sherri rolls her eyes, thinking how these lines are straight out of some stupid movie or TV show. She looks at the small, framed photograph on the table, a close-up of her daughter Maria’s face. In the picture, the girl has brown hair that curls up underneath her earlobes, a wide jaw and a wide smile. Brown eyes. She likes bright colors and always has, which Sherri knows is a weird thing to consider, given Maria’s age. Seventeen now, and living with her father and stepmother, twenty minutes up the road, though you’d think it was three hours, given the frequency of her pop-ins. When Maria stops by, she sits fidgeting on the edge of the couch and stares around for half an hour. Looking at the framed picture on the table, Sherri remembers the night six years ago when Ray locked her out. A warm May evening like this, only different. Back then, bugs didn’t matter. Time was nothing. All that factored was whiskey and dancing and cowboys in tight jeans and black boots who weren’t her husband. On that night as Sherri stood outside the house, pounding the door to be let in, she saw herself in her peripherals, reflected in Maria’s window. Ragged face and smeared make-up. Straggly hair and untucked shirt, buttons done all wrong where if you looked you could see her right breast. Maria’s face suddenly appeared alongside Sherri’s reflection, wide-eyed and awake. Maybe the kid had been there all along, only Sherri hadn’t noticed. Sherri thought, This is wrong, no girl should see her mother like this. But she didn’t think to stop all the running. Instead she turned away from the window and hazy picture of herself and her daughter. She moved on. Got this trailer and some furniture, a telephone number, her own line in the phonebook. Things were good. Then this cancer. After that, the operations at the run-down city hospital. The radiation and chemotherapy. The envelopes of hospital bills that went straight to the trash.

    Sherri doesn’t like the notion of regrets. Thinks they’re stupid. People do things for reasons. Change and grow and become new all the time, so to judge who you were is just the same as judging somebody else, and you can never know anybody’s situation. Sitting here at the table, she taps her Bic, thinks for a moment, stares at the paper and wonders if she should write about the mosquitoes and their hum. Tell Maria to listen and pay attention to what is being said. Tell Maria, I gave you that name for a reason. I knew that people would sing it whenever you told them who you were. There are so many songs with Maria in the title or in the verses. I gave you this name so you could gauge people you met by what they sang. But that’s a lie. She gave Maria the name on a whim and only later found out how many songs used the name. Even now, Sherri can’t recall the titles of the songs themselves, only the places wherein her daughter’s name appears, and how the notes tend to rise when people sing it.

    Against the yellow sheet of paper, the lamp hanging over the table feels too bright. Sherri considers turning it off. The porch light outside the window would suffice once her eyes adjusted to the change. But she wants to get through this. All day, she skipped the morphine for this part of the evening, this moment. She reminds herself: a clearer head means steadier writing. Smarter thinking. But then tonight, once the drugs started drifting, she came to know the waves and layers of pain that have stayed beneath the morphine. She wants to write, They are not shitting to say it eats you inside out.

    These days she is awake as much as a sick person sleeps. She pukes up the Ensure, even when it’s at room temperature. It’s when the little things stop mattering—long gone are the big things—when the vanilla shakes and breathing hurt, when sleep steals too much time and awake means hurting, that the morphine is important.

    Sherri wants to write all of this down. How she will miss the choice in lights. How the bulb would burn her hand if she held it and it would hurt if she licked her finger and touched it, and the room would feel cold with the light off. She could unscrew the bulb and put it against her face, roll it along the bones in her cheeks to feel the warmth. To know the bones that make her body. She holds her hand up in front of her face and stares at it as if the room is dark. Skinny isn’t the right word for what she sees—gray skin, deep wrinkles—and she refuses to find a way to describe it. She wants to tell Maria to think more about time, to make it stop when she wants. Stop and stare at things a while. Don’t be impatient to move on. But don’t be scared to move on either. Up above the sink and on the window, Sherri sees something flicker. A gray moth’s landed on the screen, its tiny chest expanding and contracting. Thin wings flapping. Sherri wonders how it’s holding on and why it’s staying here. And, for some reason, she suddenly thinks of the word Lepidoptera.

    She remembers a sunny spring day in fourth grade, sitting beside the warm window in the classroom with her cheek in her hand, elbow propped on the desk, staring out at a large oak tree across the distance. The twisted trunk and thick branches that stretched out, covered in green leaves. She heard Mrs. Ludwig say the word and it caught her attention. Mrs. Ludwig, who’d said so many times before that she’d about given up on Sherri. Used to say how she never paid attention and was a sweet girl when she wanted to be and could maybe amount to something if she stopped fidgeting. Sherri thinks how she was restless, even then. Never good at a fucking thing, not school or boys or kids or writing. Now Mrs. Ludwig’s eyes fall on Sherri, and Sherri feels like she’s been caught. Behind the woman on the green chalkboard in white lines of chalk are two wings and antennae, but Mrs. Ludwig is standing in front of it, teaching the class. Sherri moves her head around and Mrs. Ludwig steps aside to let Sherri see.

    Sherri shakes her hand as if she’s written a lot. The plan tonight was to say good-bye. To say she’s sorry to miss the things she won’t see, like graduation, wedding, career, and grandkids. To name what she’ll miss most when she’s gone, that way her daughter will always see these things and live better. But everything that comes to mind feels stupid. Another reason Maria can say someday to somebody, My mom was such a dumbass. Here, take a look at this.

    She wants to write, I too love colors. When I was a little girl in school I used to wear overalls and a rainbow striped shirt every day. Not just because we couldn’t afford different, but because I loved them. But what she really wants more than anything in this needling moment is the hurting to stop. She can feel the next wave coming, as if she’s kicked something hard and knows pain is on its way, like she has felt all day and night, only this time much longer and more intense. She could write this. She could tell Maria how she’s afraid to die, how the morphine eases things. That this is life right now. She could take the whole bottle. She could tonight. But how does one say this to the daughter who doesn’t visit? What is most on her mind and in her thoughts. How there aren’t words to describe this. And isn’t there more to say than that? She wonders how on earth, on this yellow sheet of paper, to describe the fear of death, to teach an appreciation for life—in this light, on this evening, to a stranger.

    She sets the pen down. She turns out the lamp and collapses back in her chair. All dark. Just sound and the memories and what’s coming. She folds her arms and rests her cheek on the table, keeping her eyes on the screen. The moth breathes and flaps its wings but goes nowhere, staying with her. Sherri matches its breathing. She mouths the word. Lepidoptera. Like something beautiful being beaten to death, but it means butterfly. Even this gray ashen creature wants to be here. She remembers the words to one of the songs for her daughter and sings to the moth, feeling the hum inside her throat.

Jason Skipper’s work has appeared in numerous journals, including Hotel Amerika, Third Coast, and Mid-American Review. He has received awards and honors from Zoetrope: All-Story, Glimmer Train, and Crab Orchard Review, as well as three Pushcart nominations. He lives in Tacoma, Washington, and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University. Currently, he’s working on a short story collection and a memoir.

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Jason Skipper