Date Published: August 26, 2020 (ebook); September 22, 2020 (print)
Publisher: Propertius Press
Tolan has always let her mother have one secret — how she got that scar on her face — playing along with her mother’s game of inventing outlandish tales to explain the wound away. But when she finds a manuscript on her mother’s computer that promises to reveal the true story, Tolan only hesitates for a moment before curiosity compels her to read on.
She’s hoping for answers, but instead, she finds more mysteries tucked away in her mother’s past. Her mother appears to be associated with Bo, a feisty photojournalist who flies to Cuba in pursuit of a story and becomes embedded with Castro’s rebels, but Tolan can’t quite work out their connection. She’s more clear about the relationship between her mother and Michael, a man twelve years her senior. They bond over their shared outcast status, and their friendship quickly becomes intimate, but the relationship antagonizes the self-appointed moral watchdogs in their small town, who start to convert their threats into
action. Tolan is pretty sure that Michael is her father. Her mother told her he died years ago, but the book suggests their story had a different ending.
Almost overnight, everything Tolan thought she knew about herself and her family has changed. She wants answers, but to find them, she risks destroying her closest relationships.
Tolan’s been sitting at her mother’s computer long enough that the fat blocks of sunlight on the carpet have withered to emaciated fingers. She just needs to print her paper, but the essay is fifteen pages long and their printer secondhand slow. Boredom sends her eyes wandering over the photos that cover the walls, pictures of Tolan and her mother, mostly, and some of Tolan with her best friend, Tori. Tolan likes to pretend that she wants her mother to take them down, from time to time, so other people won’t see them, but her mother never does, because she knows that Tolan not-so-secretly loves them, even if she’s being silly and making faces.
Tolan looks at a picture of the three of them from last Halloween, and smiles. She and Tori had talked Tolan’s mother into dressing up with them so they could go as the witches from Hocus Pocus. Her mother hadn’t seen the movie, and wasn’t exactly cool, so she didn’t know that women’s Halloween costumes tended toward raunchy, and she came out of her room in the one the girls had picked out blushing scarlet. Tolan shakes her head, chuckling. They’d taken pity on her eventually and let her hide in the car, but not before they asked one of the men handing out candy to take a picture of the three of them.
Tolan actually thinks the picture came out really well, all things considered, and there was the added comedic bonus of placing Tori, who was 5’3”, between Tolan and her mother, who were 6’2” and 6’4.” Even her mother, who hates having her picture taken, and probably hadn’t even heard of foundation until Tori did her makeup that night, admits to liking the picture, in large part, Tolan thinks, because Tori had used concealer to hide that scar that runs from her mother’s right cheek to her eyebrow.
Tolan listens to the printer rumble and reset, her knee bouncing and her hand jiggling the mouse and sending the cursor careening about the screen, document titles and program names flashing as it moves over them, spreadsheets and inventory lists for her mother’s bookstore. Then a file catches her eye: ‘The Tall Girl.doc.’ Tolan opens it:
Sarah woke when the window shattered. She’d fallen asleep on the living room floor. The brick landed thunderously and cartwheeled, catching the meat of her cheek as it ripped over her brow, crashing to a halt against the couch behind her. The clock ticked, baseboards creaked. She heard a car, a dog, nothing, pushed herself off the ground; a shriek of pain ripped through her as a shard of glass bit deep into the flesh of her palm.
The last three pages of her essay have slipped off the printer tray and onto the floor, but Tolan doesn’t notice. She feels like she’s been struck. Her mother’s name is Pan, not Sarah, but that brick, the way it caught Sarah’s cheek… Tolan looks back at the pictures, the one from Halloween where her mother’s scar is hidden, then at the others.
It had been a game between them, the scar. Tolan would ask how it happened, and her mother would invent a wild story: she fought off fifty cannibals in the Amazon, was abducted by homicidal aliens two Fridays in a row; she got into an altercation with a conspiracy of angry lemurs.
But they’d never play that game again, now, because they couldn’t, because the scar had become a brand that marked her mother as a stranger and a liar, as a woman with a secret past and false present.
The church bells are tolling six o’clock; her mother will be home soon. She emails the file to herself, collects her paper, and walks back to her room.
Her guitar is in the corner, waiting; she plays every day, especially when she’s confused or troubled or frustrated. She always starts by tuning it, though it’s never really out of tune. The ritual soothes her, helps her think or not think, silences the rush and babble of voices in her head.
Tolan takes it from its stand, gently, as always, but quickly, too, because she doesn’t want to think anymore. Her guitar is a Patrick James Eggle Parlour Cuban that Tori gave her for her birthday. Sometimes Tolan says it to herself, repeats the five names over and over until she feels calm again. Tolan has memorized snatches of the write-up the guitar received: “impressively grown-up… open timbre: warm, smooth… richly textured… counterpointed by a sweetly sustaining bite in the highs.”
If her mother knew what it cost she’d make her give it back, but Tori said it was no big deal. Her parents have more money than they knew what to do with.
Tolan is wondering why her mother never told her she was writing a book as she strums the first chords, but she’s lost in the music by the second bar, words stealing from her lips, meek as children.
About the Author
Ciahnan Darrell’s short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, most recently in The Columbia Review, and his story, ‘What Remains,’ was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is a contributing editor at
Marginalia, an international review of literature along the nexus of history, theology, and religion. He holds an MDiv from the University of Chicago, an MA in philosophy and the arts from Stony Brook University, and an MA and PhD in comparative literature from the University at Buffalo. A Lifetime of Men is his first novel.