Otherwise Engaged by Liz Betz

Sheila is awake in the middle of the night as usual. Once long ago, she found her mother up in the middle of the night; having her secret cigarette. Sheila crawled into her lap and they sat there together in the most pleasant manner. After that Sheila woke every night so it could happen again, her pattern chosen. It became something she never gave up. A sleep dysfunction? Not at all. 

When the sun is done for the day, when most of the world is quiet…well you spoil that by sleeping, she believes. The real trick is that she doesn’t allow ‘day’ thoughts during these hours and that makes the difference. Her mother taught her this, ‘now we can be pleasant’ she’d say, or other times she’d say that ‘the night expects us to be pleasant.’ 

It is another way that Sheila maintains strict rules about her thoughts, no moping, no second guessing her life, nothing but things she enjoys. If sex is implied; she’ll not deny it. She meets many men as a realtor and is known for her social life, but much more middle of the night time than she wants to admit to is spent online, scrolling catalogues for clothes. This goes well with a little wine or something more spirited. Even if she has a grown daughter, Sheila is not dead. Which reminds her of her new rule; thoughts of Kim are not allowed. Think of goodness, remember positive things, shape these night hours pleasantly. 

Sheila looks up from her computer screen out into the dark and catches headlights out on the highway. It’s good to see someone else with a life after midnight. The time? 3:14 A.M. A time when the party would be dying down but the romance might be starting. She remembers her nights; the wine-glow and the pairing. The journeys into the dark to find a private place. Rolling over and finding the warmth of your partner. A frown flickers across her face – those years abruptly halted by middle of the night feedings of her baby. Kim. 

How she thought her life would be…but everything changed. Romances have been replaced by hook-ups. Marriages, hers included, easily dissolve. Babies? Grow up. Kim is no longer a child. Everyone said she was lucky when her baby started sleeping through at six months of age but Sheila would have felt more like a mother if Kim needed her in the middle of the night. 

However, these are not thoughts for her. She’s proven she is resilient; she has a life after midnight. The middle of the night is still a friend, online shopping a pleasantry. Like this find. She turns back to the screen to gaze at a pair of black velvet pumps with a clever white toe and bejeweled bow accent. They remind her of the beauty of the night, black beside the white moon, the jewels like stars. Into the cart.

Sheila is sure that the jewel arrangement is identical to a necklace she already owns and both of them the perfect accessories for the dress she’s almost slim enough to wear again. With that thought she types in another search. Body shapers – nasty garments they might be – do promise easy firming without any more diet or exercise. She adds a pair to her order and completes the transaction. Her purchases will be coming soon. She tosses her head as if she’s already wearing the glamorous combination and gestures with her glass of wine to the other nocturnal souls. She’s the person to toast, the star salesperson at the real estate office, living a life to be envied. 

A yawn overcomes her that she recognizes as a signal; the distraction of shopping, the buzz from the wine, and now sleep will envelope her sweetly, enough shopping for now. She turns off her computer and the corner lamp, grateful that her mother taught her about the softness of the night, without the judgment of those light-of-day realists. 

She glances out the window as a vehicle on the highway slows and turns down her driveway. Instinctively Sheila checks her cell phone reception as she hides in the shadows between the display cases where Kim’s dolls still pose in their perfect pretend lives. At this moment, she is very aware of being alone, watching as someone approaches her home.

Another thought crosses her mind. Earlier, she brought in her groceries but never returned to put her car in the garage. If it is stolen, there will be insurance hassles and police reports. But if that is all…if stealing the car satisfies the intruders and no more harm is done…or the approaching lights might be a simple mistake, the wrong driveway or a mischief maker – did young people still go joy-riding? 

Kim could answer that, but her daughter moved out long ago, She’s safe. Not as safe as when she lived with her father. No, she moved in with her boyfriend the minute she could. It been surprising this arrangement lasted this long but Kim would stick it out, even if it were horrible, just to prove a point. But it means tonight, Sheila has only herself to protect. 

Wait; the vehicle seems familiar. The half-ton truck pulls onto the cement pad while the security lights blaze on and off amid the wail of the horn. Kim gets out of one side while her boyfriend, Arthur, slips from behind the steering wheel. 

What in the world? Sheila heads down the stairs to the door, turning off the security system as she goes. Kim’s arrival, although better than thieves, and how it set off the alarms could have been a genuine shock to her. But anything involving Kim will be disturbing too. She passes the mirror on her way to the door, annoyed to recognize her ratty housecoat and cosmetic-free face; she hates being caught like this. But her daughter claims these are superficial vanities. Sheila opens the door. 

“You said I could come anytime, so here I am.” Kim’s arm is around her partner’s waist, her head rests in the crook of his shoulder. They gallantly steady each other, like a pair of tipped bottles in a barroom trick. The young man clears his throat. 

“Kim said you’d likely be awake. I hope that’s true because we have news to share, Mother Sheila.” Arthur says. 

Sheila winces. How many times has she objected to Arthur’s greeting her this way? The name makes her sound like a nun – and it is unfortunate he uses it now. She could smack him. Kim too. What type of adult expects a welcome after they set off her security alarms? Do they expect her to be pleasant? 

“Well…” Sheila eyes narrow, she can give as good as Kim. “I just found a pair of shoes that I’m going to love. How would you feel if I arrived on your doorstep to share that news?” 

Arthur draws back as if Sheila has spit on him. 

“I told you, she’d be like this.” Kim speaks into Arthur’s shoulder. His arms tighten around her. 

“Easy Kim. Your mom wants to hear this. I know she does.” 

“She doesn’t care. You heard her; she’s bought new shoes. That’s important. What I have to say is not.” Kim glues her face to the flannel of her boyfriend’s shirt. Arthur murmurs little noises one might use to gentle a frightened animal. 

“Okay, Kim. It’s still the right idea to tell your mother first. Don’t you think, sweetie? But it’s your decision, I’ve got your back either way.” He kisses the top of her head. Irrationally Sheila wants to push him aside so she can kiss her daughter. As if Kim were a downy-headed child coming through the night to her lap, as Sheila used to come to her own mother. 

But Kim never did anything like that, she was an ornery child, no babying for her. Still Sheila yields to this moment of tenderness, she can’t help it. She’s hurt her daughter; she’s said the wrong thing. Why does this always happen? Her daughter came to her. She came with news. A sourness fills Sheila’s throat. Perhaps she can make it right. 

“I’m sorry Kim. I…don’t want to be mad…but the alarm went off, and I was sound asleep. It frightened me. Surely you understand.” 

“You lie. You just told us you were online shopping.” 

Kim pulls away from Arthur, heads for the truck. He follows her, his first few steps backwards so he can still speak to Sheila.

“This isn’t what she wanted, she wanted…she came to you first.” He helps Kim into the truck, closes the door and comes around to the other door. He speaks louder because of the distance. 

“Kim’s right about you. I’m really sorry, but she is right.” 

The words burn Sheila as the truck roars to life, turns around. There is a flash of profiles, Kim staring forward, Arthur giving her a curt nod. 

Sheila slumps against the doorframe, her head suddenly woozy. She stumbles inside, closes the night on the other side of the door. 

Nothing she said was wrong, it just was taken the wrong way. She’d said ‘they could have woken her’. Hadn’t she? Of course, that’s exactly what she said, Kim twists everything. There is no pleasing her, she’s hateful and mean. A tear squeezes out of Sheila’s eye. Why did her daughter turn into such a bitch? She should treasure her mother, make things pleasant. Arthur too, had no right to raise his voice to her. He doesn’t know her. He…

…has asked Kim to marry him. That has to be the reason they showed up on her doorstep. Kim came to share her happiness with her mother and she…said something that Kim took offense to. Of course, what else does Kim do? She prefers bluntness over being pleasant, because, according to Kim, to be pleasant is to be in denial. 

If they are getting married, and the more Sheila thinks of it, the more certain she is; she could have offered them some champagne, they could have celebrated. She reaches the liquor cabinet. She has champagne. With or without Kim, the occasion calls for champagne. The pop echoes in her empty house. Does she need a glass? No, she damn well doesn’t need a glass. She doesn’t need to have anyone to drink with her either. Her daughter is getting married. Her daughter came to her in the middle of the night, but instead of it being a beautiful thing the moment went ugly. 

Sheila takes a long drink from the bottle and only a little bit runs onto her chin. She switches off the light, preferring to make her way in the dark. Too much light makes her think. Too direct a beam of light would make her believe she did something wrong. She did nothing wrong. 

She starts up the stairs, to Kim’s loft. Sheila may use the room as a sort of office, but it’s Kim’s loft still. 

The loft is that one last family project that failed. It didn’t avert the divorce. It didn’t make Kim choose to live with her mother, even though she’d worked so hard to make everything in the loft perfect. The display cabinets Sheila designed for Kim’s dolls; each cubicle decorated as if a movie set. Kim wasn’t allowed to play with the collector dolls, but she understood. They were special. 

Sheila stands in front of them, offering a toast to each display, their contents half remembered and half visible in the night. The classroom with the darling desk, red apple on top, the swimming pool with lounge chairs and pool toys, and the wedding scene in the center, the most lavishly decorated of the cubicles. Each doll represents a mother’s pleasant dream fulfilled. 

But it’s a foolish game. The dolls were left behind. Only the toy horse made the transition. Kim took that with her. It was a foolish thing to buy, foolish of Sheila to let Kim play with it rather than leaving it in the display with the western dressed doll. If Sheila had not sparked the initial equine interest…but who knew that would be Kim’s destiny? Sheila offered her a trip to Paris. She paid for ballet lessons, and modeling classes but Kim was foolish about horses. Which put her in Arthur’s world. 

Sheila saw all of her daughter’s world on social media – brandings and keggers, the beat-up trailer that came with the job at the community pasture. Their collie pup, Kim’s first day at work at the diner. 

Sheila’s eyes open wide. Kim will use social media to share her news. She absolutely will!

She can be can be the first to congratulate her daughter. She can do that; it will prove to Kim that she understands and is happy for her. Sheila has to be first to respond to Kim and Arthur’s special news. Now there will be no sleep even if the night lasts forever. 

Oh, if this night would last forever. The sun will only expose how Kim has hurt her. How despite how little Sheila deserves this, her daughter hates her. The steel hard determination that Kim has, never letting Sheila have things pleasant, always talking about her mother’s delusions and how she is to blame for Kim’s problems. By force of will, Sheila tells herself to turn away from these thoughts. She rubs the back of her head. This will be okay, she’ll make it okay, just let Kim post her news online. 

The wait involves more champagne, and then why not do a little shopping? Kim might want new cowboy boots. Then she sees the perfect pair. Stylish and striking. How gorgeous, black with silver star studding. They could be a peace offering, couldn’t they? If Kim would be nicer, they could get along. They could shape themselves into mother and daughter. If Kim would just try. But she mustn’t go down that rabbit hole; counting heartaches is not for her.

Liz Betz is a retired rancher who loves to write fiction. Her pastime seems to help her days go by, her brain to stay active and sometimes keeps her out of trouble. An overactive imagination is a wonderful thing to harness, but left alone…Her publication credits are many and varied as she explores the fictional world of mostly somewhat older but not necessarily mature characters. 

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