Ruth's dinner had been delicious, even outstanding, although she questioned her judgment about such things at this point. Even though she considered the whole thing ludicrous, she had decided to ask for a healthy vegetarian meal, heavy on local, organic, seasonal vegetables. To her surprise, it seemed that someone who knew how to cook had prepared it for her, a braised tempeh stir-fry with sweet potatoes, red bell peppers, carrots, and cashews.

It was difficult for her to remember enjoying the taste of cabernet sauvignon, or the flush it brought to her cheeks, but she drank it anyway. And she savored her plain cheesecake, the real indulgence. She ate it in tiny bites, letting each melt on her tongue, rolling it around in her mouth like a lover's kiss, every last morsel. How long had it been since she tasted this?

Now Ruth sat in a tattered leather desk chair, savoring her view of farmland out the plate-glass window, and the trees and mountain beyond, far more than her meal. As dusk approached, the late October sky seared pink above the autumn calico of the trees. She scribbled in her journal, describing the scene, the rising moon, the taste of cheesecake, the worn chair cradling her back. She noted the stretch in her legs as she leaned back and crossed one over the other.

"Ruth, hey, someone's here to see you. It's Kayla." Mark Maxwell poked his head in and spoke gently, almost lovingly. "Are you ready for her, Ruth?"

Ruth closed her notebook and stood, smoothing the front of her pants. "Yes, thank you, Mark." She became aware of her heart battering her ribcage, like it was trying to escape.

"Okay, Ruth. About twenty minutes, then, okay?" Maxwell's eyes glistened.

"That's fine."

Ruth steeled herself against falling, her hand on the desk, as Kayla walked in. Maxwell closed the door behind her, and Kayla came forward, dropping a purse and sweater on the desk.


"Hi, Mom." Kayla's voice, clear and unobstructed, right there in the room with Ruth, rang like a bell on still air. She appeared radiant, though serious, in black trousers and a pressed oxford. As she moved closer to her mother, Ruth could see that Kayla's eyes were puffy under her eyeliner, that her lips were swollen and her nose a bit pink.

"Oh, Kayla, I love you." The words brought forth tears for mother and daughter both. Ruth caught herself, breathed deeply, reached for a tissue to blow her nose. "You look beautiful. You are beautiful."

"Thank you. I--" Kayla looked down, but then raised her eyes again to meet her mother's with obvious intention. "I love you, too, Mom. I always have, and I always will." It sounded rehearsed, but not insincere, as though Kayla knew she'd have trouble speaking so she'd practiced.

They stood, looking at each other across three feet of stale institutional air, no words coming, none necessary or even possible. The time for words had passed. Ruth reached out to touch Kayla's hand, nodding toward the big window. Together they walked right up to the glass and stood, shoulder to shoulder, watching the sun and the moon jockeying for space in the sky, the concomitant streaks of pink and red, puffs in shades of gray crossing paths above the woods. Ruth was aware of Kayla's scent, her long curly hair redolent of a stick of Juicy Fruit, or maybe a melon daiquiri.

They watched the sky shift like a kaleidoscope, and then, as though he were sent just for them in this moment, a hawk lazing back and forth across the pink. Ruth turned to look at Kayla.

"Can I hug you, Kayla?" It had been so long since she touched anyone.

"Yes, Mom." Kayla turned to her mother, her eyes floating.

Ruth moved closer and raised her hand to her daughter's face, tucking a wayward curl behind her ear, then setting her open palms on Kayla's cheeks, holding her there, searching her overflowing eyes. She pulled Kayla's face closer and raised her lips to kiss her daughter's warm cheek, then the other cheek, then her forehead, careful to include smacky kissing sounds each time. She moved her head back just slightly to look her daughter in the eye again, and then leaned in, her right cheek to Kayla's, eyelashes fluttering against hers, then switching sides for another butterfly kiss. She pulled back again, just briefly, and then they were nose to nose, back and forth, girlish Eskimo kisses, just like sixteen years before, but sodden with grown-up tears.

When Ruth embraced Kayla, it was like she became superhuman, not of this world or any other world. Her arms wrapped around her daughter, squeezing her tight, their bodies tight together, so that Ruth could feel all of Kayla, could inhale her, could feel her breath in time with her own, the blood rushing from Kayla's baby heart through her limbs and back again. Like Kayla was a part of her, like Kayla was her. Kayla came from her, Kayla was hers, her baby, always, and this, right here, was all she wanted. All she would ever need. Kayla heaved with sobs and Ruth pulled her closer, enveloped her like a little girl, temporarily broken and needing her mother's love. Just like that.

Her hand on Kayla's back, bony spine jutting through her cotton shirt into her mother's palm, Ruth gripped her like there was no tomorrow. The click of the door slammed through her heart, Ruth dug her nails into Kayla's back and buried her face in her neck, her collarbone, her Juicy Fruit hair.

"Ruth? I'm so sorry, Ruth." Maxwell's soft voice shot through her like electricity. "I had to. It's--" He choked, cleared his throat. "Just another minute, I'm so sorry." He left the door open but stepped back.

Ruth pulled back to look at her daughter again, Kayla's puffy face, tears flowing, nose running, breathing through her mouth, eyeliner smeared face. Dark eyes peered back at Ruth through all of that, like she was gazing into her own. She kissed her daughter hard on the lips, pulled back again, drinking her in, her eyes, her eyes.

"I love you, Kayla. I will always love you, I will always be with you. Know that and be strong, and good, be good. You're my good girl." She kissed Kayla on the cheek again as Maxwell's voice pierced the space between them.

"It's time, Ruth."

They broke apart and Kayla gathered her things, wiping her eyes on her sweater. Maxwell guided Kayla through the door by her elbow. She stopped and turned around to look at Ruth one last time.

"I love you, Mama, up to the sky and back again."

Kayla ducked under Maxwell's arm and out the door. Exchanging a look with Maxwell, Ruth stepped forward and allowed him to take her arm. Together they walked into the hallway, into a crowd of onlookers. Kayla was there, behind some others.

"Stand clear, now, people. Dead woman walking."

I am back in the Indie Ink writing challenge this week! Thank goodness, I've missed 'em. This week, Francis challenged me: "An old chair, a dead woman, and a stick of Juicy Fruit." I challenged Brad MacDonald with "antagonistic mystic." Go read!