“Something’s Different About Sheila” by Carolyn Burns Bass

We’d like to present a new Feature Story here at Metro Fiction. Please check the Welcome page for more information about us. This week, we see what happens when a mother’s intuition and a daughter’s inhibition come face to face.

Please enjoy our Feature Story: “Something’s Different About Sheila” by Carolyn Burns Bass:


My mother sees a shift in my demeanor the moment I walk in the door. She has a sixth sense about my life and confronts me about anything she thinks distasteful or immoral.

“Something’s different about you, Sheila,” Mama says, drawing back after a hug.

As a child, I sometimes wished she would use that sixth sense to draw out my pain and help me purge the memory of the night my younger sister died.

So traumatized herself by Candy’s death, she never saw the gaping gash on my girlhood and the shame into which I was caged.

The cuts I made between my fingers to purge the pain went unnoticed for years, and when she finally asked, I told her they were cracks from dry skin. She bought me Lubriderm.

I cringe, wondering what’s coming next.

She tilts her head and bores through my façade with knowing eyes, her clinch on my shoulders solid and unrelenting. “You’ve had sex, haven’t you?”

A chill creeps down my arms; my hands tingle at my sides. Despite my improvised smile, the initial shock of her pronouncement broadcast on my face confirms her suspicion. She is just about to release her grip when I meet her eyes.

“Yes. I’ve had sex. And it was fantastic.” I roll my eyes across the room, relieved that my grandma and Tommie’s mom, Ida, are fixed on Tommie swirling in the skirt she stitched from worn-out jeans. My stepfather, vicariously fighting the Daleks in an episode of Doctor Who, barely looks up at our arrival.

“I’ve always expected this from you.” Mama releases me with a disapproving frown.

My grandmother sidles next to me, nailing my mother with her knowing eyes, confirming a suspicion I’d always had that McMillin women can hear multiple conversations at once.

“Give her a break, Edie. You can’t expect her to buy a car without looking under the hood and giving it a test drive?”

“Just be careful,” my mother says with a huff. “Get on the pill. Believe me; kids before you’re ready will ruin your life.”

“Sorry I ruined your life,” I say. “But don’t worry. I have no intention of having a baby.” I know she’s referring to Holly’s birth ruining her life when she was 19. Nevertheless, I’m not on the pill and Mustafa didn’t use a rubber. A nagging fear steals my victory.

At dinner, Tommie and I pile our plates full of stuff we never eat back at our place, gobs of mashed potatoes swimming in gravy, great hunks of ham and glistening plops of jello salad. To keep the mothers from pointing their truth-winnowing sticks at us again, we talk about the twenty-fifth high school reunion Mama insists my stepfather take her to.

Ernest doesn’t want to go, just like he didn’t want to go to the prom when they were high school sweethearts. Ironically, it was that prom when Holly was conceived that contributed to Mama’s ruined life.

“Are you two getting a room at the hotel?” Tommie asks.

“Why?” Ernest replies. “We have a room here.”

“It would be romantic,” Tommie says.

“Too romantic,” I say. “Wouldn’t it be funny if Mama got pregnant after the reunion, just like she did after the prom?”

“I’m too old to get pregnant.” Mama says to dismiss the thought.

Grandma and Ida look at her as if she just crawled out of a time warp. Grandma turns to Ida and says, “Remind me again how old you were when you got pregnant with Tommie?”

“Forty-two.” Ida grins and looks straight at Mama. “Isn’t that about your age, Edie?”

I swallow the hysteria bubbling from my gut with a mouthful of jello. Tommie is having such a hard time maintaining, she presses her lips together until they’re blue from the concentration. She lifts her fork and dips it into the gravy bowl and begins forking gravy onto her potatoes in a losing battle against drips. I point my fork toward her and nod. She looks down at her pathetic attempts at forking gravy to her plate and together we lose it.

The thought of Mama having another unwanted pregnancy at the same time as me sends me over the edge. I glance again at Tommie and we continue our mutual fit while the parents stare at us like we’re aliens stepped right out of Dr. Who. Deep inside that place of unspeakable truth, I know, the laughter is only a cover for the fear growing louder than my mother’s nagging ever would.


Carolyn Burns Bass is a journalist , author of fiction, and founder of Twitter’s popular #litchat literary discussion. “Something’s Different About Sheila” is an excerpt from her yet-to-be-published novel, The Sword Swallower’s Daughter.


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One Comment

  1. Very well done glimpse at a famiily. I enjoyed this, despite the unsettling udnercurrent.

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