*This story originally appeared in Short Fiction Break and went on to The Metaworker.
**No part of this story may be copied or reproduced without written consent from the author.
Ice Cream or Moxie
by Kristy Gherlone
In the heat of the summer, back when Willow’s mother slipped in and out of lunacy, sometimes she’d wake up at night to find her sitting on the edge of her bed. She’d whisper, “I’m in the mood for something sweet. Let’s walk to Mulberry’s. It’s a good night for ice cream.”
Willow would search her eyes. If they seemed contented, she would slide out of bed and allow herself to be pulled out into the dark.
Mulberry’s was a hike, but electric energy buzzed through her mother as they walked along. It felt like carnival rides and fireworks. Like parades and Christmas. The feeling was catching. It felt like she could walk until dawn without getting tired.
All at once, Willow wanted to skip and run! She wanted to laugh out loud and dance around, but didn’t. Instead, she stayed silent, letting the humid air wrap around her shoulders, while her mother gushed on and on about the things they were going do that summer.
They would go to the ocean and eat lobsters! They would climb the mountain and rent a cabin at the lake! They would have picnics at the park and go to the town pool every day! Willow wanted to get excited about those things, but couldn’t.
Her mother would stop to point out stars. She’d show her the Milky Way and the Big Dipper. Then she would begin to tell Willow about the sky in Arizona, where she’d grown up. “You should have seen all those stars. There were millions of them out there in the desert. I swear you could see all the way to heaven, if you wanted to.”
Willow’s stomach would tighten.
“Sometimes, I wish I’d never left. I wish…” her mother would say, her feet slowing.
Luna Moths danced around the street lamps overhead, attracted by the light and warmth. Sometimes, Willow felt like a Luna Moth, lured into the brightness only to get burned.
Willow could hear motorcycles and cars zipping up and down Main Street. “We’re almost there. Thanks for bringing me! It is a good night for ice cream,” she would say, trying to lighten the mood again, if it wasn’t too late.
“…I wish I’d never met your father…What? What did you say, Willow?”
“We’re almost to the store.”
“What? Oh. Well, I’m not getting ice cream. I think I’ll have a Moxie instead.”
Willow’s mother drank Moxie when her mood was changing. She said it reminded her of how bitter life could be.
A few doors down from Mulberry’s, there was a bar. There were always a few people milling around out front smoking cigarettes. Willow would try to pull her mother into the store before anything bad could happen.
“I bet your father’s in there. I bet he’s with a woman,” she’d hiss, her eyes growing dark.
“I can’t decide if I want a Strawberry Shortcake or a Crunch. What do you think?” Willow would ask, starting up the steps.
“Oh, I don’t care what you get! As a matter of fact, if you want ice cream so badly, you should go ask your father! Why do I have to pay for everything while he’s out having a grand old time?”
“I don’t know,” Willow would say.
“Just forget it. I’m not in the mood now. Let’s go,” her mother would say, whipping around and storming towards home.
Willow walked alone on the return, her mother having retreated inside of her own mind. She’d call out, spitting questions, and slinging insults at people who weren’t there. There were no promises of good things to come. Her energy was gone. It was catching. Willow would get so tired, it felt as if she could sleep for a week.
When they’d get back home, Willow would fall into bed. After a time, her mother would peek her head in through the door. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Maybe tomorrow we’ll try again.”
“Okay,” Willow would yawn. “That would be fun.”
“Sometimes we do get ice cream, don’t we?”
“Sometimes we do and sometimes we get Moxie.”
“Oh, I don’t like Moxie. It’s so bitter.” Willow’s mother would say. “Ice cream is so much sweeter.”