Mockingbird in tree photo by Tim McCormack via Wikimedia CommonsBethany knew the dream well. She’s lying in an open coffin, eyes alert to the world outside. She lifts her head and glimpses a vision of soft, rolling hills caressing the horizon. The scene feels strangely familiar, yet she can’t quite place the memory. In the foreground, resting on a low branch of a leafless elm tree, a mockingbird dressed in black satin smiles, steps forward, clears his throat and screams “Eereet! Eereet! Eereet!”

Then come the huge shadowy arms reaching slowly upward and latching onto the coffin, their magnetic grip pulling her downward, ever downward. Though her mother has been dead over a year now, those arms are unmistakable. Arms that in life never let go. And now the grasping fingers hold tightly to the coffin from which she is unable to escape – and doesn’t even think to try. Flapping its wings, the mockingbird rises and circles above. “Eereet! Eereet!”

Bethany woke from the dream to a chilly, gray Monday, happy to be heading back into the land of the living. Weekends were especially hard for her. There was no one demanding things of her. There was no one telling her what to do next. There was no one giving her a reason to get up.  And often she didn’t.

Settled into her well-worn desk chair, she barely finishes reading the first email when a new face appears in front of her. “Hi. I’m Marge. I’ll be assisting you with Steve’s accounts.”

Bethany was the only person Steve had ever trusted to take care of his clients. Now, with uninvited change staring at her, she attempts to penetrate the intruder’s eyes with her own, hoping to extract some clue as to the real reason for this unwelcome intrusion.

Steve’s footsteps interrupt her optical cross-examination. “So, Beth. You’ve met Marge! We’re lucky she agreed to join us. She comes with terrific references.” Marge evades Bethany’s searing glare.

“May we speak in your office NOW, Steve?” Bethany pushes past him, not waiting for an answer. Steve closes the door behind them, wishing he could delay the conversation forever.

“Did I do something wrong? Is this because of the way I spoke to Mr. Jeffers last week? He’s an absolute idiot. You know it, and I know it.” Bethany’s eyes narrowed, searching Steve’s face for the truth. “Are you getting rid of me?”

“I’m struggling for the right words, Beth. It’s not Jeffers or any one thing. It just seems you’ve been handling a lot lately, and I thought … well … I thought you could use some help.”

“I don’t need help, Steve. If there’s a problem, just tell me and I’ll fix it.” Outside the window, she hears a mockingbird’s cry.

His expression somber now, Steve tells her that he knows it’s been a tough year, but they just can’t go on with her “losing it” with clients and work continuing to back up. “Look, Beth. You’ve been with us a long time, and I appreciate that. But maybe, after training Marge, you could use some time off – some personal time.”

She knew now that Terrific Marge was there to replace her. What was left of her solid world was dissolving before her eyes.

“Eereet! Eereet!”

She took a deep breath before asking Steve again if he was firing her. “Beth,” his eyes were gentle. “I want you to take some time for yourself. A job will be waiting when you’re ready to return.” “Will I still be working for you, Steve?” But she knew the answer. His face told the story.

“OK. I get it. You don’t have to worry about me losing it anymore.” She made it out of the building before the first tear fell. The mockingbird flew alongside her, urging her on as she fled for the safety of home.

The next few weeks were cold and lonely, harder even than after her mom died. Each day merged seamlessly into the next, while the dreams continued, ever the same.

Then one morning, as soon as she opened her eyes, she knew something had changed. This time the arms had not been able to hold onto the coffin. This time the mockingbird had pecked relentlessly until those bloodied, grasping fingers released. Bethany was free at last to lift herself up and walk away.

And this time she did. No mother. No boss. Just Bethany and a red silk clad mockingbird on her shoulder, both smiling as they set off together toward the rolling hills and into the beckoning sunlight.

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NOTE:  This was my 2015 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize entry. Although I never win or even get close to winning, I like to use the contest (and it’s 750 word limit) to get myself to sit down and actually write some fiction.