By the Time I Come Home – flash fiction

Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig. Take a random selection of five words and incorporate them into your story. I drew:

Foxglove
Orphan
Lollipop
Casket
Acid

The room was unusually quiet today.

Tobey noticed this especially when Uncle Rob entered. Uncle Rob always laughed, always brought Tobey a little present.

There was no laughter, no present, but just a hug and a somber mood.

Tobey was old enough to not be disappointed over the lack of a present. He had something for each hand to hold today anyway.

In his left hand, a purple foxglove flower, Mom’s favorite.

In his right hand, the lollipop Mom had given him before her work trip.

The lollipop remained in its wrapper. Tobey had been too sick to eat it.

Mom’s trip was going to be a long one. The large lollipop had told him that.

“By the time you have finished this,” his mom would say each time, “I will already be home.”

She had always been right. The lollipops took a long time for him to eat,though sometimes he rushed through it, hoping to bring her home sooner. Biting off chunks broke the rules of their game, so he only licked. Besides, every time he came back to the candy, it reminded Tobey to water his mother’s foxglove plants.

Mom trusted Tobey to do that for her.

None of the flowers wilted on his watch.

The lights in the chapel were dim, but sunlight streamed down onto the casket at the end of the room.

Tobey clutched his fists, but not so hard as to crush the flower. With a reassuring touch, he stepped forward, moving down the center aisle.

People he sort of knew, friends of Mom and distant family members parted for him. Tobey heard things like, “…an orphan now,” whispered as he carried the flower and candy forward.

“What will they do with him?”

Robert will see that he…

Such a shame that she…

Tobey tried to ignore those whispers. It was impolite to listen in on conversations clearly not meant for him.

Uncle Rob walked beside Tobey, head tilted down to speak to him. “Remember, Tobe, this is just a chance to say goodbye for now.”

Tobey nodded without looking up to Uncle Rob. Seeing his uncle’s face streaked with tears had shifted something in Tobey’s chest, and it had not felt good.

What if Tobey had not been sick? What if he ate the lollipop now? Crunching through it might be against their rules, but maybe Mom would understand. Tobey wanted her to come home, not stay in this dim chapel.

He fingered the plastic wrapping on the lollipop. Its multicolored swirls spun around, a sort of entrancing pattern.

The hand on his shoulder told Tobey he had stopped. Uncle Rob did not push him forward, but kept him from moving back, too.

Raising his left hand, Tobey touched the flower to his nose and inhaled. The foxglove was a lovely scent.

Tobey moved up to the casket.

Someone lay inside.

Tobey knew, on some level, that it was Mom.

He almost recognized her face. It seemed misshapen now, like God had reached down and reshaped the clay.

“…serious acid burns…”

…worked as a safety inspector, but how…

…should he see her like that?

Uncle Rob squeezed Tobey’s shoulder, then stepped back. “I’m here if you need me, Tobe.”

Tobey nodded, then turned back to Mom.

Of course it was his mother. There she was. Her face was not so bad off that he could not recognize it.

She almost looked serene.

And she wore her favorite dress, the purple one.

It draped down over her like the hanging foxglove flower, almost the same color.

“I love you, Mom,” Tobey said.

Her hands were crossed over her stomach. With a little effort, he managed to lift the top one. Her skin was wrong, somehow, waxy and unyielding, but she let him lift her hand for this.

The lollipop slid into her grasp.

“By the time you finish this,” Tobey said, tears in his eyes, “I’ll be there, home with you.”

A sob shook his small frame and he almost ran away from the casket. Anything to escape this,not find out it was all wrong, that she would be home the next day.

Uncle Rob stood behind him like a rock, and without even seeing him, Tobey propped himself against the man’s presence. He could do this.

Turning back to his mother, Tobey lay the flower on her hands.

“And I promise to water the foxgloves for you while you’re away. I promise.”

Soon, they closed the lid of the casket.

The foxgloves did not wilt.

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