Windshield wipers skidded across the window of Heidi’s rental car as the rain began to let up. She reached the edge of the development and turned right onto Sgt. Trace Lane, heading for New Town. She hadn’t seen her mother since moving away at seventeen. Would she look the way Heidi remembered? There was no telling what condition Betty was in, after all this time.
Betty Vaughan had been a classic beauty in her day. Heidi grew up amongst a thicket of her mother’s modeling photos covering tables and shelves throughout the house. That was more her father’s idea, but her mother never complained. Often, Betty would pause while dusting to lift a frame and gaze at herself frozen in a sultry pose.
Cancer hit Betty hard. Between the disease and the treatment, her soft beauty wilted and left only thick, scarred veins and tissue-paper skin draped over bones. Her fierce red mane departed early in the battle, replaced by outrageously colorful Pucci scarves. Heidi spied her mother in one of her weakest moments, staring at a vision of her former self and asking, “What’s the point? I’ll never look like that again.” Late that night, Jack Vaughan packed the photos into boxes and brought them to the attic.
Heidi was only ten at the time, but she knew a quitter when she heard one, and her mother had quit at life. Not just life – but motherhood. Her only child wasn’t enough to keep her fighting for survival. Betty faded rapidly and Heidi spent more time away from the house that summer, distancing herself from her mother. On the rare occasions when they spoke, Betty seemed lost in a fog of memories and regrets, barely aware her daughter was in the room.
Heidi nudged the coupe along, trying to remember where to find her mother. The development was divided into three sections: Gates Hill, Restmere, and New Town. She had no trouble discerning one from another. Restmere was a flat green expanse just off the main road. All plaques were set flush into the ground, allowing plenty of space for a picnic or gathering. Gates Hill was the oldest section, crowded by hundreds of vertical monuments, many of them crumbling or listing to one side. Heidi wondered how so many people could be buried so close together.
Ahead of her stretched New Town, notable for its synthetic glass shells. As a girl, she’d called them “bubbles.” Over the years, more and more bubbles had appeared as residents were added to this section. She felt sorry for people whose loved ones were buried in the old-fashioned graves. How was it possible to visit with someone you couldn’t see?
Heidi glimpsed a flash of red to her left – her father had placed roses only yesterday. She parked and stepped from the car. Surveying the field, she noticed new graves without bubbles. Pity the poor souls whose bodies were unfit to view after death. She approached her mother’s tomb and peered down. Clouds parted, allowing the sun to shine like a spotlight into the vault. Heidi reached out, wiping water from the bubble. Her mother’s face appeared from behind the veil of raindrops.
Four feet below, Betty Vaughan lay resting as though she might wake up and begin a conversation with her daughter. A red wig was sewn to her scalp and heavy silicone makeup filled in the deep creases of her face. Heidi removed a photo from her pocket and compared her mother at 25 to her mother at an eternal 32. The differences were obvious, but that was the fault of the disease. The undertaker, for his part, had done a miraculous job restoring Betty’s youth and vibrancy. And, as promised, the new embalming process, combined with the airtight viewing chamber, had held decomposition at bay.
Heidi tucked the photo of her mother among the roses. Betty’s appearance hadn’t changed since Heidi had left town. She took comfort in that and found a sliver of relief from guilt she’d carried in the years since her mother’s death. What bond between them had been destroyed in life, could be renewed in death – that was the promise of the bubble. Her mother was there – right there, waiting, listening.
Heidi knelt in the damp grass and draped herself across the bubble, hugging it, feeling the cool glass against her cheek. Fresh tears joined raindrops on the glass, and her body shook with sobs. She was ten again and grieving the loss of a woman who had valued the image in old photos over her own life and over her daughter’s life. None of it was fair.
Finally spent, Heidi dried her face on her sleeve and gazed down at her mother. Had she lived, Betty would be 43 years old next month. Her prediction in the midst of illness was only partially correct: had she survived and lived to old age, she would not have regained the beauty that made her famous. Only in death did Betty Vaughan look like her old self.