Saturday, March 14, 2009

THE REUNION by Debbie Browning

Fiona Byrne is a woman of no significance. Life’s disappointments have won her, in victory claiming the vibrant trophy of her soul and leaving empty the mirrored case that displayed it. Cleverly, she employs those mirrors; dazzled by them and their own reflections, few notice she is an illusion.

Now, all her tricks sufficiently performed for the duration, she sits alone in the corner of a long gray couch in a room overflowing with conversations she cares nothing for. There is no one here she feels affinity to; her grandmother and Aunt Sarah have long been gone.

The crowd shifts and jostles in the small room. Unbalanced, a man slumps to the cushion beside her. Peripherally, she watches a speckled hand rise from the comfort of a tan polyester knee and push the bridge of square glasses to the top of a flat red nose. Becoming aware of her, he swivels the hand mid-flight, a vague wave hello. Misfit dentures smack noisily on a celery stick as he asks her, loudly, slowly:

“Where…. is… your husband… then?”

“I’m not married.”

“You… and… Ricky divorced….,” smack smack, “Hate…. to…. hear it did you… bring… the kids then?”

“I don’t have kids.”

He furrows his brows and submits her to a darting inspection. “Aren’t… you… Sally Ann, Myrtle’s…. girl?”

“I am Fiona Byrne.”

Hearing this, he dismisses her with a grunt and a gesture then rises irate and clumsy from the couch. A glob of peanut butter perches awkwardly on the edge of the emptied cushion, as though unsure whether to stay or follow.

Fiona pops a thumb knuckle, the slow crack the emotional equivalent of a wildly thrown dish. Sally Ann is a mildly retarded, thirty-something cousin. To be mistaken for her is an affront, yes, but like a bee sting; the true injury, like knife stabs, is voicing her failures to anyone, let alone the lush, ill-tempered Uncle Fink.

She has been judged unworthy by the bottom of the barrel.

A ‘glass-half-full’ kind of woman would pare the compliment from the encounter: after all, Fiona had just been mistaken for a woman at least ten years her minor. Fiona, however, has not seen a half-full glass for many years.

Aunt Sicily, scrawny and puckered beneath a fake mound of blue-black hair, shuffles to a stop nearby. In a skirt as tight and red as her wrinkled lips, she raises birdlike arms and squawks out above the noise: “Someone has tracked dirt on the carpet. Please, check your shoes! Please, check your shoes!”

Fiona crosses her short legs at the ankles but does not inspect her shoes. It would be a silly gesture, like a ghost checking its pulse.

Fiona leaves no footprints.


The middle of seven children and the fourth girl before three much-awaited boys, Fiona grew up feeling like an eleventh finger: useful in its own way, but primarily unattractive and not worth touting.

Two relationships in college reinforced those feelings. The first was with Sam, a boy cockier than his looks or intellect would warrant, who after a year of dating (and Fiona’s fifteen-pound weight gain) told her that he was breaking up with her because the relationship had no future; he could never marry a woman with no waist. The second relationship lasted much longer. Who is more like me than me? she would wonder happily in response to Jordan’s claim that he wanted to marry someone ‘just like her’. After five years of being the girl he loved in the mean time, one day Fiona came home to find Jordan packing his bags and aglow in the glory of a woman ‘so wonderful, you’ll love her, she’s just like you!’

In the twenty-five years since, Fiona has not dared risk her heart. She has not dared risk the familiar discomfort of her loneliness for even a moment’s hope of something better. So she lives in a quiet, safe misery that greets her like an abandoned but familiar house after a busy workday.

Fiona does not think often of the times and people who have formed her. But they have not left her. They are heaped in her psyche, where they compost and rot and fertilize weeds of self-doubt, and choke her once lovely self-esteem.

Intuitively, she knows things are amiss. Sometimes she wakes in the earliest morning hours sick with a desperate unrest: life passes while I fail to live! Then sleep comes, and waking, and before she leaves the house she dons a dark cardigan and a mask of indifference, and thus enters protected into the busy-ness that camouflages her barren life.


Fiona’s family is outside, the life of the party. Her brothers Ray, Thane and Willis are the immodest stars of a rowdy football match. She hears their whoops and deep-voiced shouts above the low murmurs in the living room.

She rises and walks to the dining room, where an antique walnut table bears the weight of typical mountain foods: cornbread, cole slaw, ears of corn, potato salad, chicken casserole, green beans, sliced ham, various sweets. Fiona is not hungry, but she takes a paper plate and fills it.

Every morning, Fiona rises from bed and thinks, I wonder if I’ll die today. It does not sadden her to think she might. She can find no useful purpose for her self, no point to her existence. Why endure it? But endure she does, for she realizes each day takes her one step closer to death and whatever it holds, which surely must be better than this empty life.

Someone bumps into her. A roll tumbles to the carpet from the edge of her plate. Fiona squats to retrieve it, thinking, Sicily will have a fit. But then, who in their right mind carpets a dining room?

“Is that you, Fiona? Fiona Byrne?” It is a deep voice, soft, hesitant and hopeful.

Fiona stands, and a wide smile lifts her cheeks and crinkles the corners of two green eyes that sparkle and flash.

Smoke and mirrors.

“Yes, I’m Fiona.” She doesn’t recognize the man, at first. He is tall, several inches over six feet. His sandy brown hair is cut military-style. He has large blue eyes and a strong nose, full lips and a square chin. He is thin beneath khakis and a short-sleeved, blue-striped sport shirt.

He is looking at her with… awe? His face shines with it.

He closes his eyes and covers them with a shaky hand. When he opens them again, they are welling with tears.

“It is you. You don’t recognize me, do you?” He takes a step back, for her better inspection.

Then she remembers and sucks in her breath.

When it is released it carries a name: “Stanley.”

Her right eye twitches: inside her, a mirror has cracked.


His fists pound on the front door. “I know you’re in there, and you’d better run. I’m coming after you, you hear me?” he screams. “I’m coming after you so you better run.”

Inside, she crouches behind a country-blue couch. It is worn and faded and the middle droops like an old swayback mare. It is so different than when it was delivered seven years ago. Then, it had been a shiny beautiful thing, the first new living room suit she’d ever owned. Lord, how proud she’d been. How she’d monitored what went on it: no food, no shoes, no feet, no dirty kids. How many times had she made them sit on the floor instead?

So pointless now.

She puts hands over her ears to muffle the pounding and screaming. The skin on her hands is red and scabby and cracked from too many hours immersed in detergent and water, too many hours cleaning everything in the house over and over again every day: floors, walls, light switches, clothes, bedspreads, shoes, the couch, light bulbs. Yes, even light bulbs. Jeddy will not tolerate a dirty light bulb, so every light bulb in the house gets washed every day.

For ten long, miserable years she has done it. And for ten long, miserable, miserable years she had been beaten on just like that front door, any time she made a mistake, a misstep. If she breathed wrong and it upset whatever illogical sense of balance existed in Jeddy’s mind, she paid for it with bruises to her body, bruises to her dignity.

She can not take it any more.

But she is afraid, so afraid. Why is he here when he should be at work? Can he know her plans?

Ten minutes more and she would have been gone. Moments earlier, she had been in Zed’s bedroom packing the bare necessities plus a few of his favorite toys, hoping the toys would make this just a little bit easier. She saw the boys through the window as she scurried around: Stanley, ten, under the shade of a big maple tree at the edge of the thick woods, wearing his favorite red cowboy hat and wrestling with the chain on his old rusted bike; Zed, six, on the back porch playing with his miniature cars.

They are oblivious to her plans, and that is exactly what she wants. She is not sure how they will react to leaving, and if they rebel against it, she wants it to be after they are in the car and far from here.

The pounding gets louder. As a precaution this morning after Jeddy left for work, she locked the deadbolt. The key to it has been lost for years, so they never use it. Now Jeddy knows something is up because it is locked, and it has turned his normal fury to a black rage.

Suddenly the pounding stops and she sucks in a breath and wonders what he is up to. She thinks about the windows. They are locked, too, but will he break one to get in?

She drops her head into her hands and silently cries out to her mother.

Can you help me? I need you!


They were so poor growing up.

Of course.

In this southwestern West Virginia hollow that has been her home for twenty-six years, poverty is an ogre that roams the hills and devours any blooms of motivation and hope; he belches out ignorance and addiction; he seeps gloom. In his wake is the rubble of education and opportunity.

These hills are beautiful to gaze upon, but their rich green canvas is stretched over a stench of despair.

And she has breathed it so long.

Growing up, there were eight sisters in two bedrooms sharing four beds and four blankets. Her parents slept on an enclosed back porch that stepped down into a yard of stingy, stubborn clay that refused to yield anything but the paltriest vegetables.

Food was hard-earned. Laughter was scarce. Heat was a sweet dream.

But there was strength and dignity that flowed like a river from their mother and she poured it into them, nearly drowned them with it.

So what if their clothes were made from the discarded flour sacks collected from the local mill? They were clean and pressed to perfection; their stitches were impeccable.

So what if they were made fun of at school?

“You’re Kelly stock,” she’d say. “Hold your head up and be proud.”

“Your great-great grandmother came over on the Mohongo in 1851 and worked like a slave to pay for all her brothers and sisters to come to America and escape the famine,” she’d say. “You’re here today because of a strong woman. Her blood runs in you. Hold your head up and be proud.”

“We’ve always been a poor bunch, and your father is nothing to be proud of, but we work hard and we deserve the dignity we claim,” she’d say. “Hold your head up and be proud.”

They were strong stock poured into a weak stew. Her mother’s iron will made sure none of her daughters ever grew to find the taste acceptable.


She knows she can’t crouch behind the couch forever. She must do something.

Memories of her mother give her strength. She stands to fight, to claim the dignity she deserves, just as Jeddy breaks through the front door. Rage has taken him. She sees the gun.

He tells her he is going to kill her and the boys because they are his or nothing. He takes aim as she turns to run. She hears the shot and feels it plunk into the wall beside her, a thousand pellets of death.

She runs out the back door. She must save the children. She reaches Zed and scoops him up and is halfway across the yard to Stanley when she hears another shot and in the span of a lifetime sees the right half of Zed’s face disappear, feels him go slack in her arms, feels the stings on her back and then the heat, a fire that burns her inside and out. As she stumbles to the soft grass she sees Fiona step from the woods.

Fiona. Sweet, shy Fiona, a diamond born into a family of gravel. Fiona spends more time here than at her own home; Fiona is more my child than anyone’s.

Run Fiona!

Her dying blue eyes meet Fiona’s wide green ones; Fiona nods slowly, grabs Stanley by the back of the neck just as he takes a step toward his father, and yanks him with her into the trees. They disappear from view and she closes her eyes.

In the woods, Fiona pulls Stanley behind a tree and peaks around to the yard. Aunt Sarah is on the ground dead, she is sure, and Jeddy is running his fat, old body across the yard in their direction. She takes Stanley by the shoulders and whispers, “Lie on the ground behind those bushes and don’t say a word. I’m going to keep running. Once Jeddy follows me, go across to the neighbor’s house and get help. Tell them to call the police.”

Fiona lifts the hat from Stanley’s head and holds it out to her side, shoulder high, then shoves Stanley toward the bushes. “Go!”

She runs through the woods noisily, keeping the hat beside her at a height to mimic Stanley, and is both terrified and triumphant when she hears Jeddy crashing through trees behind her. She hears a shot and feels something small and cold bite into the calf of her left leg. It hurts and scares her; she runs faster, reaching the safety of her own yard and house well ahead of Jeddy. She pushes through the back screen door and turns, watching Jeddy stumble into the yard, bent over and too out of breath to take even a small step.

She catches his gaze and holds up the empty red hat in triumphant taunt: You won’t get him.

Rage flares again on his face, and something else, something she does not know. With a swift move he turns the gun on himself. The blast echoes in the yard long after his body hits the ground.


They stare at one another for long moments. Then Stanley pulls from behind his back a stout, rectangular box dressed in bright pink paper and polka-dot bows.

“My mom didn’t want to die that day. I knew she was planning to take us away, and I could tell she was nervous but…hopeful too. I actually saw her smile at breakfast that morning. I think about it a lot, that smile. And sometimes I ache because she deserved so much that she never had a chance to claim. Yet she had so much dignity and strength, even when things were at their worst with my dad. And I think about my responsibility not to squander this life I’ve been given as a gift, twice, first from her and again from you.”

He wipes away a tear. “Sorry. I know I look like a fool. I wanted to get in touch with you so many times but my grandmother wouldn’t allow it. Then, I guess… I guess time just got away from me.”

He pushes the box toward Fiona. “There’s nothing I can give you that equals what I feel or that comes marginally close to expressing my gratitude to you for saving my life that day. But I think it’s something you’ll like.”

Fiona puts her plate of food on the table and takes the box. It is heavy.

“Open it now, if you will. Please.”

She does, slowly, and once all the shiny things are removed and she sees the gift, its simplicity and brilliance, she is too overcome to speak.

Seeing her emotion, he smiles and nods.

“Good, good.” He takes a deep breath of relief then tries to lighten the mood, teasing, “Hey, you better not let Sicily see you messing up her carpet.”

“It was just a roll, no butter or anything.”

“No, I mean that.” He points to her feet. She looks down and is surprised to see dried dirt clumped around the toes of her shoes.

“I guess you’re the one leaving dirty footprints.”

His words slice through her like a fiery sword, and Fiona cannot lift her head for the shame.


THE REUNION earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.


Debbie Browning has been a business and freelance writer for almost 20 years, working primarily in the public relations, financial and pharmaceutical industries. Her dream life, however, is as a fiction writer. In 2004, her first two short stories were published in the local newspaper. Her third short story, The Reunion, is the first entered into competition. She is slowly, painfully, joyfully at work on her first novel.