Lake Effect, Volume 26: "Sunburn"


By Lauren Osborn


     Once, you had a dream that the sun flickered out at two-twenty-two in the afternoon, but you couldn’t be bothered to notice. As the sky sank from cerulean to phthalo to a black so black you could almost see your reflection underneath it all, you were inside, writing a letter. “Dear Mom” you started to write, but quickly erased the “Dear” and replaced it with just “Mom.” In the dream, your mother died. Your mother—who loved you with softness and rage in equal measure. Her life was long and so stretched out over the bones of her years you were surprised holes hadn’t ripped through her seams.
     When you woke up, your hair was slicked with sweat. Your sheets rested somewhere in the void between your bed and the door. When your mother picked up the phone after the second ring, her voice couldn’t quite fill the sunken black hole that had formed in your chest, somewhere too deep to reach.

     Your mother once told you the story of your birth over a glass of wine, her shoulders heavy, hands unstrained. She’d never wanted a child.
     You imagine her hospital room, a bright artificial light bleaching a breaching child, umbilical cord too short. If you sit still enough, you can feel the tug around your neck, pulling you back into her. Your screams pitched together against sterile walls.
     Did it hurt? you asked, knowing the answer.
     We scar our mothers from the inside.

     If the sun were to vanish, it would take a week before the global temperature would drop to 0°F. Within a year, -100°F. Soon after, warmth would be a memory no one keeps.

     As the temperature in your mother’s doctor’s office made its creeping descent, you briefly entertained the idea that her future ghost had come to pay you a visit. Of course, your very much alive mother was sitting next to you, eyes fixed somewhere in the air where the word cancer was breathed from the doctor’s lungs and made a solid reality, staining what was once an uncomplicated life. You looked over your shoulder, eyes focusing on the writhing whiteness of the walls that never seemed to settle in one place. Your lips parted to speak, but the air took refuge in your lungs, refusing to concede.

     You imagine you wouldn’t miss the sun, but you know better. You would miss the morning glow through your bedroom curtains, the bird song, the callous heat so much like her strike against your child-soft cheek.

     Your mother held you after your first heartbreak. And the second. And the third. She used the back of her warm hand to stroke the tears dry on your cheeks. You remember the stale smell of her breath, and how she repeated the prayer this too shall pass into your unwashed hair.

     Your mother once burned your 11th birthday cake in the oven. She forgot the occasion she was baking for.

     Within the sun’s glowing center there’s a light we can’t see, furious and invisible. It’s responsible for sunburns. Cancer. Our cells scorch and swell in angry blisters, our bodies a mirror of heat. When you tell her you no longer love her, a common lie forged in teenage angst, she looks as if she’s been branded.
     We scar our mothers from the inside.

     Because you couldn’t bear to watch cancer extinguish her, you moved twelve hours southwest, to a place never frozen. You still call her every day, but she doesn’t always answer. You write her letters. You watch the sun drown beneath the endless horizon, excruciatingly slow.

     Sunlight takes roughly eight minutes and thirty seconds to reach earth. When we notice its absence, it has already been gone the same amount of time it takes to make pasta. To text your family with the news. To fall asleep crying. When was the last time you spoke to her? What love has been lost in the thick of all those unspent months?

     As a child, your mother told you to never look the sun in the eye, but you did anyway. As you lifted your chin to the sky, the golden light sliced your eyelids and set the world in red. You felt the heat blush your cheeks. You felt your eyelashes burn. You wondered how to love something so hostile. You wondered who you would be without it.