Henry sighed outside of Kingswood Senior Living. His mother was late getting off work, and they were supposed to go grocery shopping. Finally, his mother came through the front door looking weary. Her sunken cheeks were just a family trait that Henry had himself, and it exacerbated her tired look.
She looked up at her tall son with a sigh. “They need me here for another half hour or so.”
Henry shrugged. “Fine. I’ll go back across the street to the apartment and wait-“
“No, you won’t. You’ll come in, and wait for me to get off work. You know once you start playing on that Xbox, you completely tune me out.” she replied. Henry interrupted by sheepishly murmuring ‘sorry’ and she responded with an easy smile. “Just get in here and find something to do for the next while. It won’t take long.”
Henry didn’t argue and followed his mother into the assisted living home. A quick survey of the signs told Henry where the cafeteria was. The food wouldn’t be great, but he’s eating Salisbury steak TV dinners every night so who was he to be picky. Hell, he could sit and read something by Walt Whitman on his phone to distract him if the food was that bad.
Henry popped his earphones in and listened to his deadbeat father’s latest rock album. Sometimes, Henry liked to think the album was about his dad – or Toney Bullet, as the world knew him – giving up the tour life and settling down with his family back in Kansas. Maybe even get a little brother or sister so Henry won’t be so alone. His thoughts broke when he found the cafeteria. Music blared in his ears as he grabbed for the last fork, and an older, but much skinnier hand did at the same time.
“Let loose, sonny. I was here first,” the old woman told him as her hand shook unsteadily from age. Henry arched a brow; there was a red stick in front of him. She wore a red track suit with gaudy jewelry that sparkled of authentic plastic, red flip flops, and lipstick a shade darker than the rest of her ensemble. Even her hair was red, save for the white roots that were showing. Henry was pretty sure she was glaring at him, but it was hard to tell with her badly drawn eyebrows that wiggled like a snake. Her shaky hand tugged on the fork again.
“I said let go, boy!”
Henry decided to pretend he didn’t hear the red woman and took the fork anyway, then went to sit down so he could begin eating. Almost immediately the old woman followed and sat across from him, glaring. She sat a stuffed cat next to her as well; how the hell had he not noticed the thing before?
“Fine, then. I’ll wait till you’re finished.”
“You can’t be serious.”
The woman showed no emotion. “That potato you’re eating looks a bit like you.”
Henry sighed and dug into the potato, her eyes following the fork. She took this as an invitation to keep talking. “That’s a nice shirt. You’re too skinny to fill it out right, though.”
Henry arched a brow again. This lady was just weird. “Really? I’m too skinny? You seen yourself?”
“Yes, and I’m in tip top shape! I was a gym teacher all my life, after all. Now, you finished with that fork yet?”
“Kinda can’t eat because an old woman won’t leave me alone.”
“I can’t eat either. Some young kid with acne on his face took a fork from me.” Henry decided to ignore her and tried to eat again. While her bitter eyes watched the fork, he noticed her petting the stuffed cat next to her. If Henry didn’t have any weird habits of his own, like wearing his arrowhead pendant literally 24/7, he might have judged her a bit harsher.
“You look too young to be in here,” the old woman said.
“Waiting for my mom to get off work.”
“You’re waiting for your mom? Well, aren’t you a good son,” she said sarcastically. “Better than my good for nothing daughter.”
“What’s her name?” Henry asked, not really caring, but it was clear the woman was going to try to annoy him regardless. The woman paused and looked at her stuffed animal.
“I… I can’t remember. But it’s not like I want to remember. Now give me that spoon!”
“It’s… a fork. Don’t you want it washed first?” The door opened, and Henry saw his mother approaching with a coworker. The coworker tended to the old woman and took her out of the cafeteria as she clutched her stuffed cat. Henry’s mom smiled.
“I see you’ve met Ruth. She’s… interesting.”
“For lack of a better word. Can I ask why she keeps that stuffed cat with her?”
His mother’s smile turned sad. “It comforts her, brings her a sense of stability and peace of mind. On some level, I’d say it’s the only thing keeping her from losing her mind completely after her daughter brought her here.”
Premise: In class, our teacher asked us to fill in some blanks with words. We didn’t know why, we just gave her what ended up being keywords: Xbox, Walt Whitman, tracksuit, stuffed animal, the color red, an old woman with a daughter she doesn’t speak to, a random teenage boy, TV dinners, Henry, and Ruth. Then, out of all the people in the classroom, she asked me for the final word. I was irritated about being called on when I tried so hard to hide, so I muttered, “Fork.” She then told us to write a two page story using the keywords, the conflict being about a fork. A lot of people stared at me like, “Really? Look what you did.” So here’s the result of my teacher getting back at me for being a smart ass.