Almost two years ago, I was sitting at my mother’s bedside in her hospital room, putting the finishing touches on a short story. I submitted it from the armchair at the foot of her bed on September 29, 2017; she died twenty-four hours later. On September 10, 2018—almost a year later—my story, “The Siren and the Switch,” was accepted by EDGE Science Fiction & Fantasy Publishing for inclusion in Fantastic Trains: (An Anthology of Phantasmagorical Engines and Rail Riders).
I showed up at the hospital on a Wednesday, thinking she’d be going home in a day or two. I brought my laptop, aware that the deadline for Fantastic Trains submissions was right around the corner, and a copy of another anthology that included my first-ever published story. I’d submitted my short romance on a whim, and to my great surprise, the editors accepted it. I didn’t realize at the time that it wasn’t a paid gig; I was just over the moon to see my name in a real-life book. I wanted to show my mom.
When it became clear that my mother wasn’t leaving the hospital, that she was too weak to lift the pen to sign her last will and testament, let alone lift the paperback I’d brought her or even turn the pages, that the lung cancer she’d been diagnosed with only the week before had spread to her lymph nodes and her bones and wherever else cancer sneaks in, I shoved that book back in my bag. I considered reading it to her, but I didn’t trust my voice. It was all I could do to keep vigil, my computer warm and humming in my lap.
I wrote my query email to the editors of Fantastic Trains to the soundtrack of heartbeat monitors and morphine drips. I agonized over how to address it. “Dear editors”? “Dear Jerome and Neil”? I settled on “Dear Messrs. Stueart and Enock” as appropriate to the style and subject matter and also proper grammar. I read and reread that email a dozen times to check for typos, opened the attachment to confirm the font and the width of my margins. Was my bio too long? Was my salutation too obsequious?
Finally, I just sent it. Afterwards I listened to my mother’s breath, shallow and rasping, and set my laptop aside to feed her ice chips when she woke, gasping and miserable with thirst.
My mother never got to read that story. I’m not sure she ever got to read any of my stories, to be honest. And this isn’t even my best story. It’s pretty and I love it, but the plot is a touch thin and doesn’t do the world-building—of which I am rather proud—justice. But it is wrapped up in my last memories of her and so will always be special, important. My only regret is that I didn’t read it to my mother before I hit “send.”