My novel, LABOR OF LOVE, is available now on Amazon. In the latest novel in my bestselling Lakeside Hospital medical romance series, pediatrician Lily meets visiting obstetrician Mercedes. They know from the start their relationship has an expiration date, so what’s the harm in a little fling?
Read a bonus scene below.
The following is a deleted scene from my latest novel. In it, Mercedes is helping her mother clean out her house and struggling with guilt after discovering a secret – her mother has been without running water for some time.
Mercedes didn’t have the promise of a date with Lily to distract her that weekend, so she had no choice but to finally make her way home.
It still took her until Sunday morning to work up the nerve, but she got up, dressed in the plainest clothes she’d brought to Illinois – a bulky hoodie and an old pair of jeans that were so worn that she didn’t consider them appropriate for public use anymore, plus a pair of running shoes that had outlived their purpose a few months ago but were still good for wading through her mother’s hoarder house.
She arrived around eleven, full of caffeine and resentment, and walked up the unstable porch steps to ring the bell. The wood gave under her feet with every step, rotting no doubt after years of neglect, and Mercedes added that to her list of gripes.
I know she wouldn’t let you in the house, Jewel, but could you not have fixed up the porch, or sent Michael over to do it? She thought while she waited for her mom to come to the door.
This wouldn’t be Mercedes’ first time seeing her since she came back to Evanston. She’d been sufficiently shamed after her first dinner with Jewel to call their mother on her way home that evening, and she’d taken her mom out to eat a few times since then.
Twenty years had taken their toll on her. The woman Mercedes remembered had been imposing, with a big personality and a temper that could turn on you when you least expected it – especially if you broke one of her cardinal rules and told someone the family secret. The woman that pulled Mercedes into a hug outside the Arby’s in her neighborhood – refusing to eat anywhere nicer or travel into the city – was thin and the flesh around her neck hung more loosely than it used to.
She was getting older – nearing seventy – and it was hard to see all those years piled on at once.
She still had that personality though, and that temper. When Mercedes told her the reason she was back in Evanston, and that she intended to help her clean up her house, her mother had pounded one fist on the cheap pressboard table they were eating at and said, “You’re not getting rid of my stuff.”
“Mom, you don’t have running water,” Mercedes said, catching herself midway through the sentence and lowering her voice so no one in the restaurant around them would hear. “It’s not sanitary.”
“No, it’s not,” she’d insisted. “What do you think they did a few hundred years ago? They got by.”
“They got cholera,” Mercedes said. “This is non-negotiable. I came all the way out here from Seattle and I had to stop my research to take care of this for you.”
“You’re turning this into a bigger deal than it is,” her mother had said. “I’ve gotten by just fine for the last two years-”
“Two years?” Mercedes said, and this time she wasn’t able to keep her voice down.
She wanted to stand up right then and there and throw her hands up. How could anyone survive two years without running water. A thousand questions ran through her mind, and most of them were hygiene related. Do I really want to know? She thought, but she was here now. She was in it.
“Jewel didn’t say it had been that long,” Mercedes said, forcing calmness into her voice. She’d gone to the hospital’s library and picked up some literature on hoarding after her conversation with Jewel, and spent the last month pouring over everything she could get her hands on. The more she read, the grimmer she felt about the whole trip, but getting hysterical wasn’t going to help anyone.
“She doesn’t know,” her mother said. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell her.”
Great, another secret.
“How can she not know?” Mercedes asked.
“I may have fibbed,” her mother said. “When she found out about the toilet not working, I told her it had just been a week or so. She was getting so upset, and she’s got so much on her plate already – I didn’t want to add another thing.”
But let’s just pile it all on me, Mercedes thought. Because I’ve got nothing better to do than clean up your messes – literally.
She took a deep breath and said, “I’m here for one reason – to help you get your water turned back on so that Jewel doesn’t go into a downward spiral. She’s really upset about all of this, and I want to make sure your living environment is safe. That’s all the skin I have in this game – I don’t care how much stuff you have as long as we can make a path to whatever a plumber needs to access to fix the water. Can we make a deal? I won’t throw out anything more than I need to, and you’ll let me do what I have to do.”
That was a lot more generous than Mercedes was actually feeling – she wanted to evict her mother for a week, back a dumpster right up to the house and start flinging stuff out the windows. This was the best compromise she had in her.
“Okay,” her mother had said. Then she picked up a curly fry, popped it into her mouth, and asked Mercedes about her research as if the 700-pound elephant in the room had up and disappeared.
And that was what brought Mercedes to her childhood home on a bright Sunday morning, waiting for her mother to open the door so she could assess the magnitude of the task.
Opening the door turned out to be more of a process than Mercedes expected. First, she heard her mother moving around inside the house, then the door opened an inch or so and stuck.
“Hold your horses,” her mom said through the crack, giving another yank on the door.
Mercedes felt panic rising in her throat. Was it really that bad? “Do you have stuff piled in front of the door, Mom? That’s a fire hazard.”
“No,” she said. “It’s just that there was some water damage and the door swelled. When it’s cold, it’s hard to open.”
Relief washed over her. That was another problem that she’d need to fix before she went back to Seattle, but at least it was a normal one. “Do you want me to push?”
“No,” her mother said. “You’ll knock me over. I’m almost there.”
She gave another good yank and the door popped open, squeaking against the doorframe. Mercedes’ mother had to look behind her to take a step backward and then around the door, pushing the screen door open for her.
Mercedes looked inside the house for the first time in two decades and all the air rushed out of her lungs. For a moment, even though she was standing in the fresh air and objectively, she could feel a cool breeze on her cheeks, there wasn’t enough oxygen in the world. She looked past her mother and saw that the living room had disappeared, swallowed under twenty years of stuff.
The pathways that Mercedes remembered, plenty wide enough to get from room to room, had shrunk to thin little spaces no wider than five inches in some places, and there was just heaps and heaps of stuff stacked everywhere, some of it approaching the ceiling. The couch had disappeared a long time ago, from the looks of it, and the TV was buried as well.
“Don’t judge,” her mother said as she stepped back and made room for Mercedes.
Mercedes just gave her a withering look as she came inside. She knew she’d get farther with her mother if she put on a fake smile and pretended that what she saw didn’t absolutely horrify her, but that intrusive thought had come back, vivid as ever. My mother is mentally ill.
Jewel tried to warn her about how the house had changed. Even if Mercedes had listened, no words could have prepared her for this. She wasn’t sure whether to cry or laugh or be sick.
“Where do you sit?” she asked, gesturing to where the couch used to be. It was probably best to stick to mundane topics right now – anything else would be too much.
“Oh, I don’t use this room much anymore,” her mother said. Her tone was so casual, as if what she was looking at didn’t match what Mercedes saw at all. She just shrugged and said, “I mostly hang out in my bedroom.”
Mercedes tried to take another deep breath, but the air wasn’t good inside the house. There were so many years and layers of dust, and stuff was stacked against every wall, blocking the air vents. It’s okay. You can breathe – not well, but you can breathe, she told herself to keep from panicking. In the back of her mind, she noted the vents as another problem.
“Let’s just deal with the water for right now, okay?” she said. “Which toilet is the broken one? Upstairs?” “Well,” her mother said, looking bashfully at a stack of magazines near her feet. “It’s not so much the toilet – I know that’s what I told Jewel, but I just didn’t want to alarm her.”
“She should be alarmed,” Mercedes said, feeling the urge to grab her mother by the shoulders and shake her as she added, you should be alarmed, too! But she was doing a pretty good job maintaining her composure so far and it would be a shame to ruin that streak now. “Sorry. What’s the actual problem with the water?”
“It’s the main,” her mother said. “Two winters ago, we had a cold snap and as best I can figure it, the pipe going from the street into the basement froze. It was old anyway, and ever since then if I turn on the water, it leaks like a sieve, so I just had to turn it off.”
Mercedes closed her eyes. “How much water damage was there? Is there mold, too?”
“No, no,” her mother said. “Nothing like that. I cleaned it all up. I’m not one of those filthy people that can’t clean up after themselves – you know that, baby. I just have a lot of stuff.”
Mercedes nodded. It was the understatement of the century, but in some small way she was right – the house could have been a lot worse. “Can we get to the basement from inside?”
“Yeah, I keep the stairs clear,” her mother said. “Come on.”
She led her through the living room, both of them having to turn sideways and squeeze past a mountain of storage tubs at one point. It was like exploring a landscape that Mercedes was once familiar with, only to find that everything was not quite the same as she left it. The house she’d known as a kid was still here, just magnified by a factor of at least ten.
They went through the kitchen, having to take a circuitous route around the dining table that Mercedes and Jewel used to eat their Pop Tarts at every morning before the school bus came. Now, the table was no longer visible, and its perimeter had grown by several feet where her mother had stacked boxes upon boxes of every type of kitchen gadget and small appliance imaginable, as well as at least twenty gallons of bottled water.
Well, that’s what she’s doing for water, Mercedes thought. She noted that the refrigerator was inaccessible and didn’t sound like it was plugged in, and she saw a single foot of counter space that was cleared, with paper plates and bags of plastic flatware stacked near it.
“Is that where you eat?” she asked.
“It’s where I prepare my meals,” her mother answered. “I eat in my room.”
I don’t want to see it, she thought, spontaneously adopting it as her mantra to get them both through this ordeal with a minimal amount of trauma. I don’t need to know. Then they walked past the stove, which Mercedes nearly missed because there looked to be a year’s worth of newspapers stacked on top of it.
“Mom! That is so dangerous,” she said, reaching for the newspapers to move them… somewhere.
“It’s fine,” her mother said, waving her hand dismissively. “That range hasn’t worked in years.”
“How do you cook?” Mercedes asked before she could help herself.
“I eat fresh fruit and veggies, mostly. I follow a raw diet,” her mother said, puffing out her chest like she was proud of herself.
Except for the curly fries and roast beef sandwiches, Mercedes said, but she let it slide. “Let’s just get downstairs, okay?”
The basement was unfinished, just one big room the same size as the 1,000-square foot house above. It was a damn good thing the house wasn’t any bigger or else the problem would just be more insurmountable. The basement had been a wreck even back when Mercedes lived at home. It was the first place to become a disorganized storage unit for her mother’s unchecked collecting and Mercedes remembered taking Jewel down there when they were in elementary school, excavating their way through the maze of junk as if they were treasure hunters.
It had been fun back then because sometimes they really did find a treasure in all the stuff – a toy they’d forgotten about, or a Christmas present their mother had lost track of and forgot to give them. Those were the good old days when Mercedes had no idea that wasn’t normal.
She followed her mother slowly down the stairs – there was a narrow path there just like everywhere else – and saw that the junk level in the basement had risen by about two feet, coming up to her waist when her feet finally found firm concrete. Her mother headed toward the water shut-off and Mercedes stood at the base of the stairs, frozen for a moment.
She looked at the joists above her head, trying to decide if they were sagging. How many more years of stuff could this house hold before the first floor became the basement, taking her mother with it as it fell?
And she was just wading through the mess, oblivious to the weight of it all – above her, around her, because of her.
Mercedes was leaning significantly closer to the sob end of the spectrum and away from be sick, although she hadn’t discounted that possibility. She spotted the furnace in the opposite corner from where her mother was and asked, “Does your heat still work?”
“Yes,” her mother said.
“Really?” she asked. It was like interacting with a child, and she wasn’t sure she’d be convinced until her mother actually turned on the furnace to demonstrate it.
“Yes,” her mother said, testy this time.
Mercedes started to pick her way across the basement in the direction of the furnace. She had to see it for herself. The stuff was piled much more chaotically down here, and she found herself climbing over things for most of the journey – good thing she was wearing her oldest jeans and worn-out sneakers.
“You don’t have to look at it,” her mother snapped from across the room. “What are you, an HVAC technician?”
“No,” Mercedes grumbled under her breath while her back was to her mother. “But I do have a vested interest in you not setting yourself on fire.” It took her a couple minutes to get to the furnace and then she turned around, snapping at her mother, “There are cardboard boxes stacked all around this thing!”
“Those are the Christmas decorations,” her mother explained, making her way to Mercedes’ corner of the basement. “They go up right after Thanksgiving so they wouldn’t be there when the furnace kicks on.”
“If you don’t mind, I’m not going to take any chances,” Mercedes said, grabbing the nearest box.
“Put that down,” her mother said, climbing more frantically toward her. “You said you weren’t going to move anything today.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Mercedes said. “But this is a ridiculous fire hazard. Your whole damn house is a fire hazard and if you’ve got yourself barricaded in your bedroom like I’m imagining, you’d never get out in time. I’m moving these boxes.”
“Stop,” her mother demanded. “I didn’t give you permission to come in here just to let you ransack my house.”
“I can’t possibly make it any messier than it already is,” Mercedes snapped at her, setting the box down hard on the first flat surface she could find – the washing machine. Nobody’s going to be using that anytime soon, she thought as she grabbed another box.
“I know where all the stuff is,” her mother said. “If you move it, I won’t be able to find it.”
She tried to wrestle the next box out of Mercedes’ hands and Mercedes snatched it away and stacked it on top of the washer, too. She could hear the panic in her mother’s voice, and she knew from all the literature she’d read that this wasn’t the way to handle someone like her. She was making it all worse, but it was either cry, vomit, or focus all of her energy on getting those damn cardboard boxes away from the fucking furnace.
When her mother tried to bar Mercedes from picking up the next box, she shoved her away. Her mother stumbled back a few steps, her heel caught on some piece of junk or another – probably a toy that should have been pitched or donated decades ago – and she sat down hard on the pile.
Mercedes and her mother just looked at each other for a long minute, sizing each other up, and then Mercedes turned back to her task and her mother crossed her arms in front of her chest like a pouting toddler, watching her work and making sure she didn’t move a single thing that wasn’t necessary.
It took Mercedes almost half an hour to clear a two-foot space around the furnace. Half of that time was just trying to find places to stack the boxes that wouldn’t cause a cave-in, but she got there eventually, and then she turned back to her mother.
“There,” she said with finality. “Nothing got thrown away – just moved. The furnace is safe now, and I’m not even going to look at the water main today. We’re going to have to clear a path to it before a repairman can come and do something about it, and I don’t have the energy to think about that right now. Do you need anything else from me today?”
“No,” her mother said. Her arms were still crossed in front of her chest and she still sounded like a petulant child.
Mercedes gritted her teeth and brushed past her. “I’ll call you in a couple days and we’ll come up with a game plan.”
She left her mother pouting in the basement and got out of the house as fast as she could. By the time she was finally on the front porch again, she was breathing heavily, leaning more toward the being sick end of things. She had to stop and put her hands on her knees, taking a few long, deep breaths. Fresh air never felt so good filling her lungs and she couldn’t seem to get enough of it.
My mother is mentally ill, and I haven’t been here.
When she could breathe again, she got in her rental car and drove away as fast as she could. Seattle had never felt farther away.
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