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Mother's Day: a Short Story by Joyce Li

Working on any Sunday was bad enough. Working on this particular Sunday was heavily

bemoaned by all the employees at the cybersecurity company. Sophie despised being there, too, but not for the same reason as the others. Glancing up, she checked the time. Half an hour left, and she would be free of the freshly cut spring flowers laid proudly alongside family photos, the incessant chatter about surprise brunches from that morning, or the homemade gifts that others planned to surprise their mothers with that evening.

Mother’s Day. It was one of the most commercialized holidays in the country. Sophie was

quick to dismiss it as frivolous and superficial. Sure, mothers could be nice and all, but did they really need a day dedicated to performative gratitude? She busied herself with work, resolving to simply survive each minute. Sophie liked the friendly office chatter well enough under typical circumstances, but she found herself steadily retreating more into her visuals as time passed. Although she loved her job as a graphic designer, she had clenched her teeth last month when assembling advertisements for Mother’s Day promotions. Maybe some mothers didn’t need cybersecurity because they deserved to have their identities stolen.

Let it go. It’s almost over, Sophie thought. She had been glad to resume her normal

projects recently, along with the upcoming promotions for Memorial Day. Now, that was a

reasonable holiday to move on to. It was totally fine that her Mother’s Day flyers were currently plastered on every wall of the room at the moment. Even if she couldn’t crumple them up, she could simply avoid looking at them. They had been skillfully designed, but Sophie couldn’t take the slightest pride in this work of hers. Sending warm messages about the holiday had felt like a betrayal to life’s cold realities.

Sophie shook off her spiraling feelings, returning her attention to the comfortingly dull

text of the company’s biannual report on her screen. It’s not that deep. It’s simple marketing. She was meeting up with a friend later that evening, and weren’t friends one’s chosen family?

Five o’clock came. Quickly packing up her few items, Sophie made a beeline to the door.

On the way, she nearly bumped into Steve, a tall, burly man whose simplest mannerisms

screamed clumsiness. Clearly, he had made a lunch trip to the grocery store next door, as he was holding a bag filled with daffodils, various candies, cupcake mix, and a glittery card scrawled across with messy handwriting.

“It’s for my mother,” Steve answered with a mix of embarrassment and pride. “I’m going

to make the cupcakes myself, all from scratch.”

“Aww,” two passing coworkers chorused with huge smiles. “What a Mama’s boy.”

“Isn’t that sweet?” a third one added. “I’ve never even seen you make that kind of effort

for your fiancée before.”

Sophie found herself unwilling to contribute to the conversation. If her coworkers

thought it odd of her, then so be it. She hurried around to the elevator, relieved to finally step foot into the balmy spring air as she looked for her car. It was a perfectly sunny day, and bright splashes of color peppered her surroundings. She hadn’t seen Beth in a while— they never had as much free time as they did in their college days— and that made her all the more excited for the opportunity to catch up. Beth was a terrible texter, but Sophie was able to glean a fair amount of information from their staggered conversations. Most recently, she had learned that Beth had painstakingly broken up with her boyfriend, Justin. Or was it Jesse? It was hard to keep track of them all.

Sophie knew that it was wrong to be comforted by the failure of her best friend’s

relationship, but she hated the way that Beth allowed men to take over her life. For all the time that they’d known each other, she hadn’t seen Beth remain single for more than two months. Some of her relationships lasted a few weeks, while others lasted a few years.

Only during those short intermissions between men was Sophie able to enjoy the best

version of Beth. Sure, Beth used her as a therapist, but Sophie liked providing support and

feeling needed. It was far more appealing than being kicked down a notch on the priority list, having their few plans subject to cancellation. Stopping at a red light, Sophie changed the music to an upbeat song.

“Girls’ night!” Beth had promised. Based on past experiences, Sophie anticipated an

evening full of complaints about each of Jesse’s character flaws and misguided actions. Some actual fun would be nice as well. What really mattered was being able to spend time with her best friend, to relish in their shared independence. On the other hand, Sophie really needed a reminder that she had people who cared about her in her life.

Sophie was opposite to Beth in the sense that she had never been attracted to anyone in

more than a platonic way. Relationships like those that Beth entertained didn’t appeal to her, and a few close friends provided all the emotional satisfaction that she needed. Yet she sometimes worried that as they grew older, her friends were beginning to slip away, caught up by life developments and new demands. She had no siblings, and her father had passed away before she was old enough to grieve him. Increasingly, Sophie found herself actually alone.

Of course, Sophie had been alone for most of her life. She felt more than comfortable

cooking herself nice meals, silently appreciating art in a museum, or even going on solo road

trips. Almost any activity that was typically spent with others, Sophie had enjoyed alone. After all, she was the only one who was guaranteed to be with herself for the rest of her life. Over the years, Sophie had learned to understand herself, even to accept herself.

Before long, Sophie was pulling into the parking lot of a local diner that had long been

her and Beth’s go-to. As she walked toward the entrance, she felt her heart lift a little with each step. The sun’s warmth soaked into her skin, and Sophie relished in it. Life was good. What more could she ask for?

Sophie pulled the door open and scanned the restaurant for Beth’s mess of long curly hair.

Sure enough, she spotted her friend near the window, the same place where they always sat.

However, she wasn’t alone. Sophie hesitated, wondering if an overly friendly stranger had

decided to make conversation. A few steps closer told her exactly who it was, and it was

certainly no stranger. At that moment, Beth looked up and waved Sophie over.

Sophie felt a bit dizzy, and her heart thumped loudly in her chest. Usually, she spent

Mother’s Day alone as a lazy Sunday, sometimes even forgetting that the holiday existed. Why did each reminder of it today add a bit of unease within her? She shook her head to clear it, forcing herself to behave normally.

“Hey, Beth’s mom! I didn’t know you were visiting,” Sophie greeted after a brief pause.

She wondered what exactly to address the older woman by; after all, she had no idea of her

marital status. Sophie tried never to make assumptions, especially when there were more adverse possibilities than the default. Although Beth referred to her mother every so often in

conversation, Sophie had never actually met her. The resemblance was clear; apart from a

narrower nose, Beth’s mother looked like a future version of Beth. Even their curly hair was

styled the same way. Sophie hovered before the pair a bit warily.

“Call me Paula!” Paula insisted. “So you’re Sophie. You seem much more promising than

the last friend Beth introduced me to.”

Before Sophie could decide how to respond to that, Beth explained, “My mom’s staying

with me for the time being! She’s been feeling lonely lately, and her arthritis has been bothering her more—“

“Don’t worry, I plan on living for several more decades at least,” Paula replied, winking.

And Sophie believed it. Paula’s overall affect bubbled with a bright, youthful energy. “It’s

wonderful to meet you, Sophie.”

“You too, Paula!” Sophie replied automatically. She felt detached, mechanical, despite

the blood pounding in her head. Beth should’ve known better than to do this. Sophie was

repeatedly amazed and dismayed by how her friend could be such a sweet and genuine person while also being unintentionally self-centered and a flake. A brief flash of irritation swept through Sophie, but then she thought of how Beth was always there with a smile and a

contagious optimism, how she had guided Sophie out of her comfort zone through spontaneous backpacking trips and karaoke, how she was just a scatterbrained free spirit who had never once directed any ill intent toward Sophie. Sophie could provide her some reprieve for her shortcomings, as she was sure she had many of her own.

Realizing that she was still awkwardly standing, Sophie made a move to sit down before

realizing that the table was only set for two. Frantically, she raked her gaze across the nearby

tables until she spotted a nearby seat that she could grab. She pushed it toward Beth and Paula, requiring them to hastily scoot their own chairs and plates aside.

As she took a seat, she made herself regain composure. This could still be a girls’ night.

Adjusting to changing circumstances was an important life skill. She should’ve better prepared to expect the unexpected.

“Beth, why didn’t you tell me how fashionable your friend was? My goodness, you are

making me feel underdressed.” Paula gestured to her own perfectly starched green blouse.

Beth rolled her eyes. “Come on, Mom, stop fishing for compliments. We all know you

look good.” Paula threw her head back and laughed.

“You really do, Paula,” Sophie added honestly. She felt her guard drop a bit despite

herself, and acceptance began to trickle in. So she wouldn’t be spending that promised alone time with Beth after all. So her friend had put someone else before her again. So she was without a mother on Mother’s Day. So what? Paula seemed cool. Sophie wouldn’t let her disappointments show. “And thank you— I got these jeans from that thrift store around the corner for just eight dollars. Actually, Beth introduced me to that store.”

“And I was the one who introduced Beth to it,” Paula declared. “In fact, I remember

buying maternity clothes from that very store before she was even born.” Beth smiled wearily, as if she had been reminded of that fact many times. Paula beamed back at her daughter, then at Sophie in turn, nodding with approval at her jeans. “I knew the nineties would come back around,” Paula continued smugly. “That’s the way fashion, and life, works.”

“I’ve actually always worn this style,” Sophie admitted. “Even back when it made me

totally stand out from a crowd. I just like the way it fits.”

“And it fits you perfectly! Just right for your body type!” Paula exclaimed. Sophie

blinked, surprised in a good way. Somehow, compliments from older women had always meant the most to her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d received one. Back when she was in grade school, her English teacher’s positive feedback on an essay would leave her floating for the rest of the day.

“When she says that, she means it,” Beth added.

The waitress, an angular woman with pink and brown hair, flounced to their table. “One

large peanut butter fudge sundae!” Paula and Beth clapped in delight. It was only after they

picked up their spoons that they seemed to remember Sophie. Three pairs of eyes darted around the table, looking for a third set of utensils. There was none.

“Oh! And some utensils for our lovely friend Sophie over here,” Paula called to the

waitress. She glanced at the completely empty setting in front of Sophie. “And a drink. The

drink’s on me.” As the waitress handed Sophie a spoon and fork wrapped in a napkin, Paula

gestured toward the ice cream. “You do the honors.”

“It’s our tradition,” Beth explained. “Dessert is the best appetizer.”

“Thank you, but I can’t. I’m allergic,” Sophie replied, a bit guiltily. She didn’t want them

to have to rearrange their habits for her.

“Oh, that’s right. I can’t believe I forgot. I’m sorry.” It was Beth’s turn to look guilty.

“No, no, don’t worry about it,” Sophie reassured in a hurry. She quickly ordered her own

food in order to free Paula and Beth from their obligatory delay.

Sophie began munching on her french fries while Beth and Paula made quick work of the

ice cream. The conversation remained light, and everyone was feeling a bit more satisfied.

Suddenly, Paula’s previously jovial spirit shifted into something more somber, and she leaned

toward her daughter. “Beth, something’s happened between you and Justin, now, hasn’t it?” Beth raised her eyebrows, looking slightly amused but also worn. Paula took in the expression, pursing her lips in commiseration. “I knew it -- you wouldn’t stop talking about him last time. What happened? Tell me everything.”

As Beth launched into a litany of problematic traits of Justin’s, followed by a

comprehensive review of their parting conversation, Sophie felt herself shrinking. Her perpetual role as Beth’s comforter, although accepted grudgingly, had brought meaning to her. Now she saw that she was only a substitute for the support that Beth really relied on.

She wasn’t sure why she couldn’t bring herself to jump into the conversation. After all,

she could list off Justin’s flaws as effectively as the next person. Yet it appeared as if Paula and Beth had forgotten about her entirely; they were tossing words back and forth in a way that only those most intimately acquainted with each other could manage.

Sophie felt like a special sort of third wheel. She couldn’t possibly intrude. Putting up

with Beth’s string of boyfriends was one thing; she knew that they were temporary. She also

knew that once the excitement died down, she would retake her place as Beth’s primary

confidante. Beth’s mother, however, was a constant source of love and trust. She had been that source for Beth’s entire life. And the sanctity of that relationship was something that Beth could barely fathom, much less disrupt.

As if she sensed what was on Sophie’s mind, Beth turned to her and drew her back in,

praising the good judgment in Sophie’s negative first impression of Justin. Paula nodded

approvingly. “You’re lucky to have a friend like Sophie, Beth. Wise and fashionable.” Sophie

immediately softened, conclusively finding herself unable to feel anything but fondness toward Paula. It wasn’t her fault that not all mothers were like her.

Sophie blinked, surprised to find that her eyes were welling up. Wonderful. She quickly

swept a hand across her cheek, but that only further caught Paula’s attention. “Oh, no, is this your peanut allergy?” she asked with true concern. “I didn’t know that watery eyes were a

symptom; I thought they mostly manifested as rashes. Beth never had allergies growing up, and I must say that I don’t know what to do. I hope it isn’t serious. I’ll call the waitress to clear the used plates right away. Or do you need medical assistance? I can call for that too; I know that some peanut allergies can be quite dangerous. I’m so sorry for our carelessness!”

Beth met Sophie’s gaze, and it was clear that she understood instantly. “No, Mom, Sophie

is fine. Her allergy is kind of weird, but it’s pretty much harmless. Stop embarrassing her!”

Sophie wanted to laugh or hug Beth, but she couldn’t do either without painting herself in an even stranger light.

Paula looked visibly relieved, though her lips were still slightly pursed with worry. “Oh,

all right, if you’re sure. Now, what did you say you discovered about Justin’s cybercrime


“I know this one all too well,” Sophie interjected dryly, throwing herself into the

conversation. She would have to be more careful to shutter her storm inside. It could wait to be dealt with until she was alone again.

The dinner went by in cheerful tones, punctuated by abundant laughter. Blueberry

pancakes and plant-based burgers were ordered and promptly consumed. Sophie felt herself loosening up, more of her smiles appearing genuinely. Enjoying each moment, she forgot to remember that this wasn’t really hers.

As the waitress returned to collect their plates, she gushed to Paula, “It’s been wonderful

serving you all tonight. You have beautiful daughters. I’m so glad that they remember who the most important person in their lives is.” In a thoughtful tone, she added, “My little one is in kindergarten right now, and I just hope to have this kind of relationship with her someday. Happy Mother’s Day, ladies.”

Paula looked greatly amused. “Well, that just warms my heart. I’m tipping her well.

Where to next? I believe the thrift store is still open. We could catch that new horror movie that everybody said was terrible. Or, we could hit the club...”

“Mom,” Beth protested. “Really?”

“You know I know how to have a good time,” Paula shot back lovingly. “Now, we

shouldn’t keep Sophie here for too long. I’m sure her own mother is waiting on her. We can’t

steal her, as much as we might like to!” Paula patted Sophie’s hand.

Sophie felt sick, and not from the fries that she’d just devoured. She could easily explain

that she could, in fact, stay. That she wanted to. That she would be happy to join them in just

about any activity. She was sure that Beth and Paula would’ve been more than willing to

welcome her into their outing, and she could almost continue pretending that she was a part of their family. Almost. But she didn’t allow the words to escape her throat. She wasn’t looking for the same pitying expressions or the widened eyes and shaking heads that she always received upon revealing too much about herself.

Beth— who held a vague prior understanding of the circumstances— was wincing, her

mouth opening to speak. The cloak of her concern felt stifling already, and Sophie ached to

throw it off before it could fully entrap her. She certainly didn’t need it to be multiplied twofold after the outspoken Paula realized the situation. Sophie caught Beth’s eye and offered the slightest indication not to continue.

“You’re right. It’s been a long day and I should get going. It was great meeting you,

Paula,” Sophie smiled. She took pride in knowing that her smile was very convincing.

This was confirmed as Paula returned the grin. “Not as great as meeting you, Sophie! I

hope to catch you on the pages of a fashion magazine next time. Or do you young people still read magazines? I heard it’s all about that new app now. Beth, what was it called again?”

Their voices faded as Sophie walked away. When she reached the door, she glanced back

one last time, maybe to wave. But Paula had already turned back to her daughter, and they were completely immersed in each other. Bathed in the diner’s yellow glow, it was clear that they were natural soulmates.

It was like Sophie had never been there.

∗ ∗ ∗

As Sophie drove away from the diner, she found herself humming along to a sad song

that she hadn’t remembered selecting. The sunshine from earlier had long faded into a dark sky and a solemn chill. She passed rows of houses lit up from the inside, presumably filled with happy people making happy memories.

Inside her apartment, she found the usually relaxing silence to be frustrating. She flicked

through shows on her streaming app, skipping past Gilmore Girls. She made herself some

chamomile tea, but cursed when it burned her tongue. She was never usually this careless.

Dumping the tea down the drain, she told herself that this time was all hers. She could fill it with baking, but she was full from dinner. She could go for a run, but she felt dizzy and drained. She could take out her watercolors, but she didn’t trust her brushstrokes at the moment. Nothing called to her, so Sophie resolved to an early bedtime.

As she turned off the light and flopped onto the pillow, however, Sophie reached for her phone before she was even aware of the motion. She refrained from opening her usual social media apps in order to avoid the inevitable Mother’s Day posts. Instead, automatically, she found herself going to her saved voicemails, where only one message rested. It had continued to pull her back in ever since she’d received it a month ago.

Sophie felt her muscles involuntarily tense as she played the recording. She had long

memorized the words by now; she could’ve recited them as easily as an actress might recall a

scene in a play. It would’ve made for quite an exciting monologue. Somehow, though, drama wasn’t as fun when it was occurring in real life.

“Hi, Sophie. Well, it’s me. Your mama. Oh, Sophie, sweetie, I can’t believe it’s your

birthday again. I remember when I was your age, I was already returning to work after having

you, trying to make a living for the both of us. You were a fussy child. I’m sure you’ve become

calmer with time, and that your skin has cleared up. Oh, I’m just kidding. I could only have

dreamed of the kind of freedom that you have now. Anyway, sweetie, I miss you. I’m getting older, and the doctor told me I don’t have much time left. I know you’re a grown woman now, but take it from someone who has the experience: life is too short to hold onto anger. I do feel that it’s just cruel to keep a dying woman from her only child, her sweet Sophie. Oh, the life I’ve lived. To have all my love swept under the rug and my few mistakes hung up to display. Sophie, I’m sorry for everything. Maybe I was a bit tough on you sometimes. I’m only human. Please forgive me; it was the best I could do. And now, I’d just like to see my only daughter again, before it’s too late. I love you more than anything.”

Every muscle in Sophie’s body had tensed as she listened, and she forced herself to relax

them, one by one. Calm down, Sophie thought. Think it over. If you still want to do it in an hour, you can.

An hour later, Sophie found herself in exactly the same position. This time, she jabbed

the dial button before she could change her mind.

It’s not too late to hang up, she reminded herself with the first ring. She might not have

even heard the phone yet. Yet her hand remained motionless.

Get ready to speak. Don’t you dare stutter, she demanded with the second ring. She is not

going to hear any sign of weakness from me. If Sophie’s heart had been beating quickly before, it was a percussion ensemble now. She pushed some damp hair away from her forehead impatiently.

Voicemail, she realized with the third ring. She wasn’t sure whether she felt more relieved

or disappointed. Should she leave a message? She hadn’t prepared a monologue of her own. Why hadn’t she prepared one? If she simply hung up, her mother was sure to recognize the missed call as being from her. Sophie mentally kicked herself for not considering this more thoroughly. She wasn’t sure if she retained enough courage or motivation to ever try calling again.

The thoughts sped through her mind at record speed. One ring later, she realized that they

were all unnecessary.

“The person you are calling has blocked your number.”

About the Author:

Joyce Li is an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park, set to graduate in May 2023 with a B.S. in Psychology and a minor in Creative Writing. Joyce loves the creativity and empathy that is explored through storytelling, and she focuses especially on writing about character and interpersonal relationships.


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