This was my entry into round 3 of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge in April 2016. While it didn’t win me any prizes, it was still fun to write. My prompts were as follows:
Character: A hoarder
Synopsis: Pushed to the breaking point caring for her mother, Anna does the unthinkable. When her compulsive eavesdropping tendencies collide directly with the fruits of her mother’s compulsive hoarding, she learns the hard way that both compulsions can be dangerous.
The pain came in waves, building and rolling to an almost unbearable crest any time Anna moved.
She had no idea how long she’d lain sprawled uncomfortably on the dusty carpet amid piles of garage sale junk. Her right leg, the main source of her agony, was bent at an unnatural angle above her knee.
Had an hour passed since she’d killed Mother? Three? Five? The light that filtered in from the tiny room’s only window could just as easily be from street lights as from sunshine. Either way, there wasn’t much light getting in; Mother and her “things” had seen to that.
Anna shifted her weight and breathed in sharply as another burst of pain assaulted her. Oh God, the pain was agonizing.
She could almost hear Mother’s voice, made gravelly by decades of smoking, saying “I told you so.” Before her stroke, Mother’s favorite refrain had been “Nothing good will ever come of eavesdropping, Anna. It’ll get you killed someday.” Oh, how right Mother had been.
For as long as she could remember, Anna had needed to listen in on conversations; it didn’t matter whether she knew the participants or not. That’s what had led to her current state of affairs.
Anna supposed it was a sort of sickness, this compulsion to eavesdrop, not unlike Mother’s hoarding.
Would she die here in Mother’s apartment? Anna thought it likely, and maybe that would be cosmic justice for what she’d done to Mother, one final gift from karma.
The path she had created through Mother’s things earlier had all but disappeared. Stacks of long-forgotten items collected over decades loomed large over Anna, their shadows made imposing by the hallway light. With her broken leg, the piles might as well have been mountains; she didn’t see how she could possibly make her way out of this room.
Mother was in the recliner in the next room, but she couldn’t help now.
Anna couldn’t bring herself to call out for help, not yet. If someone were to come to her rescue, they would also find Mother’s body. No, she needed to find another way out of this predicament.
Part of her wondered if her survival instinct would eventually take over. If so, would anyone even come to her aid? She hadn’t been able to stifle her screams when her leg snapped, nor had she been able to do anything about the noise as stacks of Mother’s things crashed down all around her. Still, no help had arrived.
As sharp waves of pain waned again to a bearable throb, Anna reflected on how she had gotten into this mess.
She hadn’t come to Mother’s apartment with murder on her mind. No, the idea had slowly taken hold in Anna’s mind as they sat together.
The woman who had once been larger than life had become a shadow of herself. Robbed of the ability to do any of the things that had once brought her joy, Mother couldn’t really communicate anymore after the stroke, except through grunts and moans.
Anna’s frustration with the situation had been building steadily. Her weekly visits left her alternating between unbearable anger and debilitating sadness. An only child, the burden, and it had become a burden, of caring for Mother rested solely on Anna’s shoulders.
On this particular visit, Mother’s only contribution to the conversation had been a vehement response to Anna’s suggestion about cleaning up the apartment and donating some of the clutter.
“Nnnnggs!” Mother had shaken her head for emphasis.
“Yes, Mother, your things. It’s time to let go of them.”
It wasn’t a new topic of conversation, nor did Mother’s reaction surprise Anna.
In that moment though, Anna had simply had enough. Enough of the hoarding. Enough of Mother’s helplessness. Enough of her own sense of helplessness with the situation.
Before she could change her mind, she found herself reaching for Mother’s pillow. A moment of confusion had been followed by a terrified awareness in Mother’s watery eyes. With a steady hand that belied her inner conflict, Anna had held the pillow over Mother’s nose and mouth until her weak flailing had ceased. It hadn’t taken long.
Moments later, Anna had heard raised voices coming through the apartment wall. The neighbors could not possibly have known what she had done. But Anna found herself overwhelmed by the need to hear their conversation.
At first, Anna shimmied into the tight space behind the recliner. She felt herself becoming calmer as her ear pressed against the cold wall, knowing the relief of an overheard conversation was just moments away.
However, she quickly realized that she wasn’t able to hear well enough, so she’d followed the voices on the other side of the wall into the next room: Mother’s den.
Calling it a “den” was laughable. This room was nothing more than a storage facility for Mother’s things. Nearly every square inch was filled, and stacks reached the ceiling in some places.
Before the stroke, Mother had frequented yard sales and discount stores, spending her meager pension on things she would never use: gardening tools, when she had lived in this urban apartment building for more than 20 years; baby and toddler clothes which had become a constant source of arguments, as Anna had no children; old newspapers; and even boxes full of sugar packets Mother had spirited away from restaurants over the years.
As Anna’s need to hear what was being said next door became more intense, she had forged a pathway through the stacks to a place near the middle of the apartment wall.
Pausing briefly, she had imagined that she heard a rustling sound from Mother’s living room. She quickly dismissed it as a creature of her overactive imagination. Nothing was happening in Mother’s apartment; she had seen to that. Next door was where the conversation was happening, and she had to hear it.
Almost frantic, Anna had eyed a stack of boxes nearest the thin wall that separated her from the neighbors’ conversation. In her haste, she hadn’t investigated the boxes’ contents, and had made a snap judgment that the stack would be stable enough to hold her weight. Too late, she realized her error.
The box under her feet had collapsed, sending her crashing to the floor. Had she simply fallen off the box with room to break her fall, she might have been OK. Instead, she had nowhere to land but on top of more junk.
Her leg had twisted at an odd angle. The sound of her bone snapping had been audible even amid the noise of the boxes and stacks pummeling her already-aching body as they crashed down.
One of the upended boxes was part of Mother’s collection of baby and toddler clothing, so Anna had grabbed the first thing she could reach, a neon pink toddler’s dress with “Mommy’s Girl!” emblazoned across the front in cheerful, green lettering. Even in her pain, she recognized the irony as she fashioned a tourniquet of sorts for her leg.
Severe pain brought Anna back from her reverie as she shifted in a vain attempt to find a more comfortable position.
Again, her mind registered sounds coming from the direction of Mother’s living room. This time, she thought she heard shuffling noises coming from right outside the doorway. Surely it was her imagination; she had killed Mother, after all.
Through the apartment wall, and through the haze of her pain, Anna heard murmurs of speech once more. The muffled voices soothed her, but even so, she was overcome by a fierce need to actually hear the conversation.
With a singular focus, Anna ignored her pain for a moment as she worked to clear away the stack of things closest to the wall.
Too late, she saw that the open box into which she’d reached for leverage had held Christmas ornaments. Under different circumstances, this might have been laughable since Mother had been Jewish. Anna wasn’t laughing now though; she felt a new searing hurt as broken glass dug into the tender flesh between her thumb and index finger.
Even as she screamed at this excruciating pain, Anna continued her quest. Perhaps shock was responsible, for she felt something akin to giddiness. Just a little closer and she knew she’d find the sweet relief she sought.
Wholly consumed by her pursuit, Anna didn’t notice the sound of shuffling footsteps as they crossed the threshold into the den.
From the doorway came an anguished howl.
Anna felt herself break into a cold sweat as realization struck her. She turned, feeling at once a daughter’s joy and relief, and a murderer’s cold dread.
Mother’s shadow loomed tall as her frail hands caused towers of her precious things to come crashing down into the valley where Anna now sat.
A heavy box connected with Anna’s head, and her mind replayed Mother’s raspy warning once more before she lost consciousness:
“Nothing good will ever come of eavesdropping, Anna. It’ll get you killed someday.”