The Predictable Heartbreaks of Imogen Finch by Jacqueline Firkins (Excerpt)

The Predictable Heartbreaks of Imogen Finch by Jacqueline Firkins (Excerpt)

predictable finch





Why do I always run out of clean underwear on the mornings I’m running late? The pair I find bunched up at the back of my drawer says Happy Holidays! but they might as well say Human Catastrophe. After nursing last week’s breakup over way too many beers with Franny last night, I lost track of how many times I hit snooze. I left myself no time to put on makeup or dry my unnecessarily long hair after showering. Instead, I dig a pair of jeans and a wool pullover out of my laundry pile, yanking them on before making a mad dash from my disaster zone/basement suite up the stairs to the kitchen. If I hurry, I can make toast to go and get to the florist’s without eliciting questions from my boss, Kym. Questions I will invariably answer because—as has recently been proven for the millionth time—I have the backbone of a single-celled amoeba. One hint about my raucous night and I’ll be spilling every detail, even the most embarrassing ones.

I’m flying across the kitchen so fast, beelining it to the toaster, I don’t see my mom standing by the glass doors to the backyard until she speaks, halting me midstep.

“Seven herons,” she says in a tone so ominous even Stephen King would tremble at the sound. “Seven herons and six grebes.”

“Six grebes,” I repeat, instantly aborting my hopes of making it to work on time. This is life with my mom. One minute I’m an average twenty-eight-year-old woman who isn’t living up to her potential. In the next, I’m dropped into an eerie convo about ducks. “The black and white ones with the funny little mohawks?”

“The cresteds, yes.” My mom nods as she turns toward me. A frail hand rises to her lips and rests there, almost as though she’s trying to silence herself. “A change is coming, Imogen. A shuffling of expectations. A surprise.” Her eyes widen, though I can’t tell if that means the surprise she just referred to will be good or bad.

It’ll probably be bad. Few of my mom’s prophecies fall into the Happily Ever After category, though the range of predicted catastrophes is broad, from minor friend spats to lifelong curses. She swears this is simply the way of things, and has been for countless generations. According to her stories, prophesying runs in our family, popping up every third or fourth generation, manifesting in early childhood, and only in the women. One of my ancestors milked it in the carnival circuit, shrouding herself in black lace veils and delivering doom and gloom from the back of a dusty old caravan. Another was a secret military advisor to Napoleon. It’s a colorful family history, if also an embellished one.

My mom watches as I resume my attempt to throw together a hasty breakfast, pulling a bread loaf from a turquoise tin breadbox we inherited from my grandparents, along with half the contents of this house. A few of the items are vintage chic, but most are old, ugly, and in need of replacement. Not that we will replace them because A: my mom has assigned profound importance to everything we own and B: we don’t have much money to spare. Too bad my mom can’t foretell a windfall.

“A surprise, huh?” I ask when I can’t stand the silent staring any longer.

“The directions they were facing suggested an unexpected loss. A severing. A transformation.”

“That’s a lot of information for one flock of birds.”

“It’s the grebes,” she says as though this explains everything.

“What if one was a piece of driftwood? Hard to tell when it’s so foggy.”

“No, no. There were six. I counted them over and over.” My mom turns toward the glass doors again. Outside, beyond a motley collection of wind chimes and a pair of beat-up lawn chairs, a pale sun is trying hard to burn away the morning fog. We only live a block from the beach, though our ocean view is obstructed by a three-story stucco apartment building that went up the year I was born, painted in a dull green that was probably supposed to blend in with nature but has yellowed with age, making it look like regurgitated pea puree. It’s the perfect symbol of life in Pitt’s Corner. Something transcendent is always close by, but it’s obscured by a cheaply manufactured eyesore.

“And the herons?” I ask, unsure why the grebes are getting all the credit.

“Yes. Exactly. The herons.” My mom fails to take in my look of confusion as she continues staring through the doors, though whether she’s staring at the ugly building, the fog, or a horizon in her mind’s eye, I can’t tell. “Thirteen birds. And a shift in the wind. I felt it in my bones, just like when your father died.”

The mention of my dad slows my movement with the toaster. This is the problem with my mom’s prophecies. Despite how batshit crazy she often sounds, finding omens in whatever elements of nature she’s paying attention to on any given day—birds, frogs, flies, clouds, ripples in puddles, stripes on a caterpillar, the reeds that poke up through the Oregon sand dunes—all of her prophecies come true. Not that she knows exactly what will happen, and the details are just general enough to allow room for skepticism. They’re also accurate enough to support the theory that she might, in fact, be a witch.

She knew when my dad’s fishing boat would sink in a squall, taking him and most of his crew with it. She knew when my brother, Antony, would wreck his friend’s uninsured sports car and hemorrhage his college fund paying off the cost. She knew my sister, Lavinia, was destined to travel to Europe at age twenty-three, and then stay there, finding contentment as a literary researcher in Oxford. And she knew on my sixth birthday that I would never be first at anything.

Naturally, I was devastated by her pronouncement. I sobbed. I screamed. I railed at the world, furious that I was doomed to a lifetime of mediocrity I had yet to wrap my naïve little brain around. I only knew I hated limitations. I also had a fierce determination few could reckon with. My tears shed, I turned my attention to proving my mom wrong. Over the following years, I entered poetry, art, and baking contests. I played every sport I could find the time for. I auditioned for plays and talent competitions. I joined debate and math teams. I busted my ass for top grades. I ran for student offices, even ones I didn’t want, as long as I had even the slimmest chance of getting voted in.

Twenty-two years later, after accumulating countless red and white ribbons without ever nudging past second place, I’ve long since stopped fighting my curse. I wish I could say that means I’ve found peace with it, but I can’t. Underneath a light veneer of cynicism about my lot in life, I’ve never stopped yearning, just once, to be more than a nominee, a runner-up, a forgettable name among the ranks, or a girl a guy dumped once he met a hotter, smarter, funnier, more interesting girl he really wanted to be with. Case in point: Greg’s spaghetti confession. Predictable by now, but still …

As I lean on the counter and wait for the toaster to work its magic, my mom slides into a chair at our rickety 1950s chrome dining set. She’s wearing two sweaters today, one maroon Fair Isle and the other teal cable-knit, with two different shirt collars peeking out underneath. I don’t tally her skirts, but I’d guess three. She always wears an odd number of garments. Even numbers are supposedly unlucky. Also on her unlucky list: unripe crabapples, silver spoons, broken egg yolks, and foxes. I try not to feed my mom’s eccentricities, but since I can’t totally dismiss them, I strike a conversational balance.

“So, that wind,” I prompt. “This upcoming change isn’t going to be good?”

She smiles softly, no longer trancelike. Just kind of slumpy and sad.

“It’ll be”—she pauses, thinks, thinks some more—“complicated.”

“Yeah, but good complicated or bad complicated?”

She studies me for a long moment while I try not to fidget under the intensity of her gaze. Her eyes are a deep umber with copper, gold, green, and blue speckles, a color combination she passed down to all three of us. But where my siblings and I see only what’s in front of us with our marble eyes, our mom sees everything. It’s unnerving.

“How much do you want to know?” she asks.

Copyright © 2023 by Jacqueline Firkins

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