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To Cheer as They Leave You Behind

She comes early, forcing you to reschedule meetings from the car as Alan drives, white-knuckled. You don’t mind—sending contract notes while in labor is the sort of story the partners will tell for years.

Delivery is an athletic event, but you understand those. You ran cross-country in college, before law school took over. You understand pain, how to bear down and force your body into submission.

And then it’s over. They put her in your arms, swaddled and squalling, and she is exactly as you imagined. She nuzzles against the sweat-sticky skin of your breast and goes quiet, looking up at you. Beside you, Alan is crying, because of course he is. But you have eyes only for your daughter. Here, at least, other people were right. You look into that tiny face, as fat and red as a drunken senator’s, and feel the flood of love like a second water breaking. And right behind it, a second wave cresting and breaking on your shore, is pride. You made this, from your own body. She is perfect, and she is yours.

She is yours.

• • • •

People tell you to go easy on yourself: friends, doctors, your mother when you return her calls. They all tell you it’s a trap, this cult of perfect motherhood. A lie of the nineties, that you can have it all, be it all. They say all a child really needs is love and safety, and that everything else is just selling baby books. You’ll burn yourself out trying to do everything. You smile, and thank them, and recognize the sentiment for what it is.

Loser talk.

That’s how you discover your miracle. You’re getting a fresh padsicle out of the freezer to ease the raging fire in your perineum when you see it sitting on the counter: the plastic-wrapped horror show of the placenta. It strains against its transparent prison, a smooth bulge of purple flesh slowly defrosting back to viscous life.

You’d told Alan to get it encapsulated, which he must finally be getting around to. Before the birth, it had seemed like the obvious way to eat it: ground up and dried in a handful of pills, comfortingly generic. You weren’t about to leave any mommy points on the table by throwing it out, but that didn’t mean you were excited about chewing your own afterbirth.

Yet now, as you watch it sprawl there like a deflated balloon, a fat sack of your own blood, you’re surprised to find yourself intrigued. It’s a slug, a blob, the discarded takeout container your child’s been eating out of for nine months—and yet it’s yours. You’re curious, in the same way you sniff your own farts or taste yourself on Alan’s lips after he goes down on you.

The knife—a three-hundred-dollar Miyabi Black you got from your boss in lieu of a honeymoon—slides smoothly through purple-veined jellyfish. You don’t take much. Just a sliver. Just to know. The skillet’s already on the stove, where Alan leaves it to dry. Your flesh sizzles and spatters against Teflon.

In moments it’s done: a shriveled little curl of you. You study it on the fork, blow on it to cool it. You laugh once at this moment of autocannibalism, then put it in your mouth. You taste like nosebleeds and pennies.

There’s a rushing sound in your ears. The muted, underwater thumping of a heartbeat. Darkness closes in from all sides, drawing you backward down a narrowing tunnel before the light blinks out.

Color. Motion. It takes long moments to realize what you’re seeing.

It’s the mobile in the nursery, the Marvel one that Alan loves and you’ll be throwing in the trash shortly. Captain America and Iron Man bob on their rotating strings, staring down at you like angels over the baby Jesus.

Down at you. You struggle to lift your head, and succeed only in tilting it sideways. The bars of the cradle are huge, a prison of whitewashed wood. You reach for them, but your arm barely responds. It jerks spastically into view, your pudgy fingers refusing to uncurl from their clenched fist. This is not your body. This is not anybody’s body, really. Not yet.

Terror sets in, and you scream. Here, at last, is something that responds appropriately. The howl erupts from your throat, threatening to turn you inside out.

Beyond the bars of your cage, the door opens. A woman waddles in, earbud LEDs glowing, balancing an open laptop.

It’s you. You look like shit, wearing yesterday’s clothes, a button-up above and Muppet-fleece pajama pants below the camera’s view. You’re shouting to be heard over the screaming.

“—and I said we’re not letting that language stand. I know you don’t think Luis will fuck us on this, but that’s not the point. Contracts are glory holes: you leave an opening to fuck you, eventually somebody will come by and fuck you. Just make it happen, okay? I gotta go.”

Yesterday’s video meeting. The Ruiz deal. You close the laptop and set it on the changing table, then turn toward the cradle. Your eyes meet.

What is happening?

You smile tiredly and walk over, looming hugely over the crib. You reach down and scoop you up, holding you to your chest. Your screaming falters, breath rushing in. You rub your back in time with your sharp, panicked sobs.

“Poor baby,” you coo. “Everything is so confusing.”

• • • •

You spend twenty-four hours in your daughter’s body. You only know the time because of external cues—Alan returning home, snippets of conversation, the minor changing table disaster that taught you the concept of the Blast Zone. You drift back and forth between colicky panic and exhausted sleep. Yet as the timeline finally syncs back up with the present—your present—the rushing returns. You scream with fear and gratitude as you fall backward down the well of perception.

And you’re back in the kitchen. You look down at the fork in your hand, the pan still hot on the stove. The room smells of cooked meat.

In the next room, your daughter cries.

You go to her.

• • • •

You don’t tell anyone about it. How could you? It was a hallucination—some psychedelic postpartum bullshit. Besides, it’s over now. You have work to do.

But when Alan returns home the next day with the encapsulated placenta, you wrap the bottle in a paper bag and bury it at the back of the freezer.

• • • •

After three years, you’ve almost convinced yourself you’ve forgotten. You tell yourself you don’t remember the bag beneath the ancient block of freezer-burned peas. But then Alan leaves a window open.

You only turn your back for a second. Really, it’s your fuckwit paralegal’s fault. If she’d done the job right the first time, you wouldn’t be scrambling to salvage the contract on the kitchen table among the half-eaten remains of your dinner, while your boss fumes through your earpiece and Alan pouts in the other room.

The partner’s warnings are loud enough that you almost don’t hear it: the soft breath of surprise, the wooden clunk of a four-hundred-dollar Williams-Sonoma chair tottering back into place as little feet disappear out the window.

Lights. Sirens. A white hospital room with a mass-produced watercolor of lilies. Your daughter, swaddled once more. Only this time, she won’t learn to walk. That time has come and gone.

You and Alan keep it together for almost twelve hours, then drive home to pack what you need for a long hospital stay. As soon as the car doors close, the screaming starts. It’s his fault for burning dinner, which necessitated opening a window. It’s your fault for not watching her. He collapses under the weight of your disgust. You let him.

Back at the apartment, you go the fridge to pack snacks—the little organic pudding cups she loves, with the graham cracker bears, just in case. But your hand knows better. Without admitting to yourself what you’re doing, you pull open the freezer door. Retrieve the bottle from the back.

You don’t know how many it takes. Later, you’ll regret the waste, but this is no time to experiment. You dump half the bottle into your hand, then your mouth, choking on the dry film of the capsules. You shove your mouth under the kitchen faucet, but it’s already happening: the roar, the dark.

You’re back in your daughter’s body. The bright plastic shapes of the preschool playground, now looming large. Other kids run squealing, and you run with them, playing some indecipherable game involving a blanket. It feels good, running. Better than any cross-country meet. There’s a joy in the rattletrap jangle of limbs, the miracle of muscles still learning to fire in harmony.

Your body is moving, your mouth saying words, but you’re not doing it. You’re a passenger, riding inside the vehicle of your daughter. Yet as in the cradle, you concentrate. This time it’s easy. You stop running, watching your hands as you wave them in front of you. Somewhere in the back of your head, there’s a sense of confusion, but it’s not yours.

You sit back and let her take the lead once more. She resumes running and playing with the other kids. The moment of confusion vanishes. But that’s the beauty of young children—everything is strange, and thus nothing is. You watch the world from her perspective, simultaneously bored and fascinated: The preschool teacher’s professional affection, which feels genuine to a child who knows no better. Alan, his face momentarily alight as he picks her up, before getting drawn back into his podcasts. The full sparkle of childhood. Real and not real.

You let it all play out, right up until she notices the bird on the power line. Sees the chair next to the window, perfectly positioned for a better look.

And then you take control. Calmly, you turn and walk back into her bedroom. You get out the Legos. In no time at all, she’s forgotten all about the chair. Bedtime comes, the fast-forward of unconsciousness, and then up and off to school. All perfectly normal.

Then the clock runs out, and you’re back in your body. The house is clean, no trace of grief’s explosion. Alan is at work. Your daughter’s breakfast dishes soak in the sink. Everything is as it should be.

Except that you’re not at work.

And the half-full bottle is still in your hand.

• • • •

She is eight, and looks just like you. Everyone says so. Your height, your slender build. Your eyes, so bright and intense. She is beautiful in a way that constantly cracks your heart, forcing in more love than you would have thought possible.

She looks like Alan, too, of course. But people know better than to say so. She is your daughter.

What she is not, however, is gifted. At least according to the Meriwether Academy assessment test. You march into the principal’s office, your daughter sinking mortified into one of the hypermodern plastic chairs outside.

To your surprise, he doesn’t crumple and combust like an ant under a magnifying glass. You’re not the first Power Mommy to pressure him. But that just reinforces your certainty that this is where your daughter should be. You get him to agree to a retest.

And she flunks it again. Oh, she’s plenty smart—creative, insightful, reading and writing well above her grade level. At any ordinary school, she’d be in the advanced section, but sorry, she’s just not Meriwether material.

She’s dejected—not because she cares, but because she knows you do. But while you’re disappointed, you’re not nearly as angry as the first time. You hug her and tell her not to worry, that you’re not upset, that everything will be fine. You watch her spirits lift as she sees that it’s true. Because you will love her no matter what.

And because you made sure they gave you the results the same day.

• • • •

You take just one pill this time. It’s high time you experimented, and besides, twenty-four hours is a lot of runway. You can always take more if it doesn’t work.

But it does. You’re back in her head. You can feel her anxiety as a low thrum, so similar to yours as to be interchangeable. You wait.

You don’t answer every question. You don’t need to, and even though there’s no way to trace it, someone might get suspicious. But when she hesitates, you’re there. Your words. Your reasoning. They flow out in her precious voice and awkward, sprawling handwriting, her muscles lacking your years of training.

You feel no guilt. Meritocracy is a joke—the people who start with advantages acquire more advantages. There is only one person who matters, and you will give her everything.

• • • •

When she’s nine, Alan serves you papers.

It’s the first time he has ever surprised you.

• • • •

The pills aren’t a magic bullet. You can’t take every test for her, and even if you could, it’s not like you’re going to spend your nonexistent downtime memorizing factoids any adult would Google. But you’re there when it counts, for the big tests, proving that two heads really are better than one. You’re there at her cross-country meets, propping her up from the inside, like Jesus in the footprints poem. It was then, my child, that I carried you.

You’re proud of her, and proud of yourself. Magic or not, it’s not easy being a single mom. Your friends don’t understand why you fought so hard to keep Alan from getting more than every other weekend. Neither does he. He’s never understood what went wrong between you. He doesn’t know about the chair, and the window.

But it doesn’t even matter, because custody isn’t about punishing Alan. It’s about making sure that when something bad happens, you know within twenty-four hours. As long as she’s living at home, you can be the cool mom, relaxed and permissive, knowing there’s always a do-over. On the weekends she’s gone, you lie awake worrying. The idea that something could happen and you wouldn’t know until it was too late is unacceptable. This is what it is to be a mother.

Your daughter, though, is a wonder. She took the divorce as well as could be expected—which is to say, not that well. There were some blowouts, early on. But you respect that. She’s so much like you: Your stubbornness. Your drive. Your anxiety. She’s as moody and mercurial as you were, but the higher the pressure, the more she rises to meet it. At sixteen, she’s already racking up college credits.

But it’s not all brass rings and GPAs. You have fun. You like the same books, the same music, even if she inherited her father’s juvenile taste in film. On Sundays you blast soul records older than either of you and order Thai food and play fuck-marry-kill with podcast hosts. You go running together in the park, and revel in the way her teenage legs easily outpace you. And this, too, is motherhood: to love someone like a hurricane, and cheer as they leave you behind.

• • • •

Letting her go away to college is the hardest thing you’ve ever done. You’re proud, of course—Ivy League, just like you planned. But watching her stack boxes in the tiny dorm room with its wood trim and angled ceiling, you can feel the distance between you expanding; feel yourself being pulled backward again down that long tunnel, if only in your heart.

You throw yourself into your work, but it’s not as if you ever really stopped. You’ve always been running at full speed, proving that you can be a mom and still “lean in,” but now there’s no break in the cycle. You sleep, you work, repeat. Your friends say you should use the free time to start dating again. Alan got remarried long ago, because of course he did. But you can’t be bothered. As you quip regularly, that’s why God invented vibrators. You’d rather make equity partner than find a partner.

But you are missing something. And you know how to get it.

You try to pace yourself—a pill every few weeks. There’s a limited supply, and who knows how many she’ll need in her safety buffer. How long is a life, especially a charmed one? But the few calls home a week that are your condition of tuition aren’t enough. You need more.

Mostly, you watch. It’s enough just to ride along, experiencing college again, all the ways it’s the same and different. Oh, you steer a little here and there, away from poor choices, toward good ones. You get the salad instead of the burger, stand up to the overbearing team captain, dump the asshole. It all works out.

You try all the standard time-travel stuff, of course. You’re not an idiot, and you saw plenty of those movies back when you were still throwing Alan a bone. You look up the winning lottery numbers, then take your pill and guide her to the gas station to buy a ticket. But when the drawing comes, the numbers are different. That’s not what the magic is for.

One night in sophomore year, she calls you sobbing at three a.m. You already know what she’s going to say—not the specifics, but enough. There was a party. She was drunk.

You tell her it’s going to be okay. And it is. You go to the kitchen and get the pills.

This is what they’re for.

• • • •

Your daughter is in therapy. You find out by accident, during one of your random samplings. The college has counselors on campus—real therapists with medical degrees, not the guidance counselors you remember. A solid investment against the bad press of student suicides.

You sit in a big, overstuffed armchair and listen from the inside as your daughter describes her symptoms: Detachment. Loss of control. The feeling, in moments of stress, that she’s no longer in charge of her own body. Like she’s watching someone else live her life.

The therapist—a gray-haired, heavyset woman—listens intently, then talks to her about dissociative disorders. Depersonalization is common, she says, and nothing to be ashamed of. They can work on it with cognitive behavioral therapy, and in the meantime, they can get her on some antianxiety meds to see if that stops it.

• • • •

It doesn’t.

You cut back. You’ve always known you’d have to—there just aren’t enough pills. This was just a bump to get you through the initial empty nest. And when you do go now, you’re careful to restrain yourself. Only taking over when it really matters. It’s like parenting a toddler all over again: you stop her if she’s about to walk into traffic, but otherwise, you’ve gotta let her get a little bruised. It’s the only way she’ll learn.

But she does learn. She passes the bar—another situation where your help was, in fact, warranted. She knew the material, just had a panic attack. By helping her answer questions, you showed her she wasn’t actually stuck, and gave her the confidence to finish the test. Purely an assist.

She’s got a new boyfriend, too. You like this one: tall, funny, a South Dakotan with linebacker shoulders and a passion for veteran disability claims. He dresses like a farmhand on weekends, but fills his work suit like a statue. You can feel the tremble in her stomach when she looks at him.

Did you ever feel that way about Alan? He was pretty, but always was an accessory, swept up in your wake. When you pushed, he melted away, disappearing into his phone. This one’s a fighter. He’ll hold his own and tease you—no, tease her—right back, arguing with a cockeyed smile. But when she’s breaking down, as she does so often these days, he’s there, solid as an old barn. He wraps her up in the smell of rough cotton until she comes back to herself.

It’s disorienting, sometimes, when she brings him home to visit. The moments when you forget whose eyes you’re looking through.

You’re happy for her.

• • • •

Your baby is getting married.

The wedding is beautiful, if you do say so yourself. You rent out a winery, with grounds straight out of a landscape painting and a candlelit cavern-cellar for the dinner. There are immaculately groomed alpacas with bows in their hair.

To be clear, you did not pull some mother-of-the-bride power play. Your daughter is not a doll for you to play dress-up with. But when you saw the stress she was under, the hairline fractures in her mask of capability—well, what kind of mother would you be not to offer? After all, she’s working eighty hours a week to claw her way to the top, whereas you have . . . if not peaked, at least plateaued. You’re a realist. You came a long way, but not everyone gets to be an astronaut.

Your daughter, though—there’s no telling how far she could go. If one of you needs to shoulder wedding planning, it might as well be you.

And now here you are. The two of them glow golden in the sunset as they take their vows. He cries—silent, manly tears that run down into his beard. It looks good on him.

Alan’s there, of course, with his new wife. Not so new anymore, really. He’s as useless as ever when it comes to helping orchestrate the event, but they’re the first ones to join the newlyweds on the dance floor, laughing uproariously as they bust ever-more-ridiculous moves. You tell yourself they’re drunk, but you know this is just what he looks like when he’s happy—the silly, goofy side that always embarrassed you. He and your new son-in-law hoist your daughter up onto their shoulders and parade her around the room.

Your dress was chosen for style, not dancing. You direct the staff and accept everyone’s compliments, then hang out on the sidelines with the goddamn alpacas.

• • • •

You’d like to say you do it because you’re drunk, but the truth is that you get drunk to let yourself do it.

It’s the night after the wedding. You’re alone in your condo, just you and the dozen opened bottles that you weren’t going to leave at the venue, because by God you paid for that wine. All day you’ve been winding things down, making sure elderly relatives can call themselves an Uber without giving out their bank passwords. Now you’re sprawled out on the couch in your pajamas, doing your best to make sure some twelve-year-old Bordeaux doesn’t get any older. Your eyes skim a novel on your phone, but your mind isn’t there.

You threw the perfect wedding. Far better than your own—a stodgy, religious affair to keep the previous generation happy. You’re proud of your next-level mothering. But you still can’t help but wonder what it was like. To be the center of all that attention. Just to ride along.

You shouldn’t. This was her day. Yet pretty soon the bottle is empty, and so are you. You go for another, but open the freezer instead, digging for the little bottle in the back.

And then you’re there, at the altar. You feel your—her—heart race as you recite the words that you—she!—feels so deeply. You’re running down the aisle as everyone cheers. You’re laughing at the toasts, getting roasted by friends with inside jokes you only half understand, but that are clearly hilarious. Your mouth hurts from smiling.

It is everything.

You hold yourself back, begging yourself not to interfere. These are read-only memories. You strain to stay passive, letting her drive, just bathing in the adoration. It doesn’t matter that no one knows it’s you. What’s the difference, anyway? Your daughter is a part of you, and you’re a part of her—more than just a part. You see yourself on the sidelines and feel a momentary pang of pity for the old woman in the green dress, too uptight to dance at her own daughter’s wedding. You don’t know whose thought it is.

And then the party’s over, and you’re flopping down exhausted in the rustic bridal house the venue’s provided. The bed is poofy and floral, a horseshoe over the door. Your new son-in-law is unbuttoning his shirt.

Oh no.

But then, this is what you wanted, isn’t it?

You’ve been inside her when she’s fucked before. It was inevitable, all those college nights. But never with him. But you don’t stop him as he reaches out and slides the satin strap from your shoulder, his beard broom-bristly against bare flesh. And that’s right, isn’t it? To not stop? You can’t touch, and so you must touch. You let her move your fingers to his chest, sliding around and up that strong back.

You shiver as he kisses his way down your stomach, kneeling on the rug beside the bed. Settling in. He knows what she likes, which makes it what you like. You can’t help but respond, even if you didn’t want to. And you do. Your body shakes.

Then he raises his head and looks at you, and it’s the same look from the ceremony. The one that sees you, and knows you, and would tear the world to pieces for you.

And you can’t stop yourself. You grab him and pull him to you. You flip him beneath you, pulling his hands to your chest, and slide onto him in one endless, savage motion. You see the startlement in his eyes, the pleasure that you can still surprise each other. His eyes never leave yours as you ride him, pinning you both in this moment.

You cling to his shoulders. You cannot make yourself let go.

• • • •

You’re in a meeting when he calls. You don’t even get the message until an hour later, at which point you walk out of the office without telling anyone. Just get in your car and drive.

They call it an “inpatient program,” but you know a nuthouse when you see one. Calming pastels. Windows screwed shut. The framed flower paintings snap you back to a different hospital, a different window.

Your son-in-law’s face is wooden as a doctor catches you outside the room, explaining how she’s no longer in physical danger—they were able to pump the pills out with saline—but you still need to be careful, as she’s emotionally fragile right now.

As if you need to be told that. You thank the doctor and tell the son-in-law to go get some coffee. He gives you space.

Inside, she’s sitting up beneath thin white hospital blankets. She looks out at you red-eyed through a fence of unwashed hair. You hesitate by the door, knowing neither of you wants you to see her like this.

And then you push past it, because you’re her goddamned mother. You take her in your arms, and she collapses in big heaving sobs. You whisper words of comfort, like “love” and “idiot.”

“It’s like I’m not even me,” she gasps. “Even at the wedding . . . it’s like I’m not there. Like everything is happening to someone else.” Her hand balls the poplin of your blouse. “I don’t want to keep living like this.”

You hold her until your son-in-law returns, then quietly excuse yourself and go vomit in the restroom.

• • • •

When you get home, you go straight to the kitchen. You feel a similar dissociation as you watch your hand draw the bottle from the freezer. You hold tight to the image of your daughter in that bed as you pour the remaining pills down the garbage disposal. There aren’t that many left, anyway.

You go for the faucet, then think better of it. Reaching down past the disposal’s gross rubber flaps, you grope around and pull out a pill. It’s still dry.

Just one.

Just in case.

You set it aside and turn on the water.

• • • •

She swears her new therapist saved her life. Your son-in-law thinks the hospital stay was a wake-up call. Either way, it’s a miracle.

Slowly, she gets herself back together. With the dissociative episodes over, eventually the anxiety starts to follow. She attacks work with a newfound zeal, while also ferociously carving out time for her home life in a way you never thought possible. She’s so good her bosses have no choice but to accept it. She is the working woman you always wanted to be, a bulldog in the courtroom and yoga on the weekends. She takes her husband to Bali and leaves her laptop at home.

You’re thrilled for her. Nobody could say otherwise. And you work on yourself, trying to embrace the role reversal and learn from her example. You travel. You sign up for a dating app. But it’s still hard, not to have that escape hatch. To be just one person.

It doesn’t matter, though, because it’s not a choice anymore. The pills are gone—all but the one. You buy a locket to hold it, its tiny weight a constant against your chest.

You’re tempted, sometimes. Of course you are. But any time your hand creeps toward it, you remember the window.

• • • •

Your daughter’s set to argue before the Supreme Court tomorrow. It’s a career-defining moment, the capstone of years of work, and you think about it constantly, as if it were your own case. It would be easy to be jealous, but in truth, it’s all you’ve ever wanted: for your daughter to eclipse you. The prestige, the respect, the perfect husband—that she’s the one living it is irrelevant. You’ve been there, every step of the way. You’re there still, in your mind.

Which is maybe why you don’t see the truck make an illegal turn through the crosswalk. And then you don’t see anything for a bit.

When the world resumes, you’re surrounded by off-white and blinking monitors. Life is a series of hospital rooms, connected by long stretches of denial.

Your body is a terrifying mixture of excruciating and numb. A nurse looks pleased to see you awaken, but mainly so she can finally put a name on your chart. You don’t carry your wallet when you go running, and the crash that shattered your body did the same to your iPhone. The only other thing you had on you, she says, was your medication.

You must look confused, because she points to the little bedside stand. There, next to a plastic bag containing the corpse of your phone, is your locket. That seems important, but your eyes are already closing once more.

• • • •

When you open them again, your daughter is there. Tear-streaked mascara contrasts with her impeccable suit. You start to reach for her only to realize she’s already holding your hand.

You’ve been unconscious for twenty-nine hours. The doctors have done everything they can, but your torso is basically soup in a bag. The attending physician, a kind man with tired eyes, explains compassionately that you’ve got hours, not days. None of it hits you as hard as that first fact.

Twenty-nine hours. Five hours too late for the pill to change anything.

When he’s gone, you ask your daughter how the case went. She laughs, pained but genuinely amused, because it’s so you.

“I don’t know,” she says. “It’s happening right now.”

Here, now, is a pain the fentanyl can’t touch.

“The hospital called two hours ago, while we were getting ready to present. I almost didn’t check the voicemail—unknown number, so probably spam, right?” She smiles grimly. “I came straight here. Peterson is handling the oral argument.”

Peterson? No. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. This case was everything—her moment of triumph. And you’re ruining it.

She squeezes your hand. “It doesn’t matter.”

“The hell it doesn’t!” The words scrape across the broken glass of your insides.

She barks another laugh, but you see how deeply the truth cuts. She leans forward, and her jaw tenses with the effort of holding herself together. For your sake, you realize—she’s trying to be strong for you.

“There’ll be other cases.” She chokes on the words, changes course by covering your hand with both of hers and smiling gamely. “You’ve always been there for me. Now I get to be here for you.”

And here it is, your final victory: a daughter better than you in every way. A woman good enough—strong enough—to sacrifice her finest moment for her family. To stand on the precipice of greatness, and then let it go. Love and pride glow incandescent inside you.

You pull her close, laying your cheek against hers.

“You were here,” you whisper. “I’ll always know that.”

Every choice leads you back to her—this person you made, and who made you. For all your mistakes, you are hers, and she is perfect.

But she almost didn’t check that voicemail.

You reach for the locket.

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James L. Sutter

James L. Sutter is a co-creator of the Pathfinder and Starfinder Roleplaying Games. He is the author of the young adult romance novel Darkhearts (Wednesday Books, 2023), as well as the adult fantasy novels Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine. In addition to Nightmare, his short stories have appeared in such venues as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionBeneath Ceaseless SkiesEscape Pod, and Machine of Death. In addition, he’s written comic books, essays for publications like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed: Queers Destroy Science Fiction, a wealth of tabletop gaming material, and video games—most recently the Starfinder audio game for Amazon’s Alexa, featuring Nathan Fillion and Laura Bailey. He lives in Seattle with his wife and several roommates.