Where the Sun Sets by Chloe Hart

18-year-old Noelle is stuck in small-town Georgia caring for her little sister and their depressed mother, when she finds out her best friend Jenny is leaving for Miami.

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It was the last day of my senior year of high school, and the first day of sticky summer vacation. Sticky is a word I use for the small-town Georgia air and my little sister's fingers. On the bus ride home, I sat next to my best friend Jenny, smelling everyone's sweat and hearing them talk about their plans. Summer camp, family beach trips, summer jobs.

"What are you so quiet for?" asked Jenny.

Jenny was five foot nine and skinny with blonde, boxed dyed hair, and she always smelled like her too-sweet vanilla cake body spray. She looked like a girl in a teen magazine being used to sell self-tan, apart from her two front teeth that were pushed outward in opposite directions. We shared our hatred for school. We never did well on tests, reading and writing had never come easy, and math was just as much of a foreign language to us as Spanish was. We spent our class time talking about the latest season of Survivor and playing MASH. We both knew we weren't going off to college, and I had found comfort in that similarity.

"I don't want to waste this whole summer hardly ever leaving the house and just doing chores," I said, looking out of the open window. The hot breeze blew on my face. It made it hard for me to breathe.

"Why don't you get out of your house then for once, Noelle? Find something to do," Jenny said. Her words hurt me, but I didn't let it show on my face. The truth was that I could've tried to get out of my house more often. My mom and sister would have been fine without me for a few hours, but I knew the guilt would gnaw at my chest. And it didn't matter; I wouldn't have known what to do or who to call if I had left the house. Jenny was my only friend, and she'd be gone soon.

"I have to chase after Lena all day."

"I can't wait to be in Miami," Jenny said. I rolled my eyes, picking at the loose skin around my nailbeds.

Not only was Jenny leaving me friendless, but she was also going somewhere where people did things besides get married and pregnant and drunk. She had a job lined up with her uncle who owned a hotel in the city. She had it set up perfectly: a free room at the hotel, a job at the front desk that she didn't have to apply for, and free-range access to a city that made our town look like a speck of dirt. I loved Jenny, but I couldn't help but feel jealous.

"What if you came with me?" Jenny asked.

"You know I can't just leave my family," I said. Jenny didn't know much about my life at home. All she knew was that my mom had gotten sick during our freshman year of high school, and that was the truth. She had never been to my house; Mom felt uncomfortable having people over. She never saw me dress Lena for school. She had never seen the dishes piled up unless I did them. She never had to wonder why my mom never left her bed.

"You hate it here." She wasn't wrong. I wasn't happy with my repetitive, suffocating life, but I felt stuck. Instead of telling Jenny the truth of how I felt, what came out of my mouth was a stupid excuse. "Don't you think it's hot enough here? It's ten times this in Florida, all year round."

Jenny looked at me with a frown and furrowed eyebrows. "Have fun in Plains watching cows shit all day."

As the bus neared my stop, I pictured my mother clinging to her crumb-filled bedsheets, her pale body sinking deeper into the mattress.

Before the bus driver could brake, I peeled my sweaty thighs from the vinyl and pulled on my cut-offs as I walked down the aisle. I felt my heartbeat in my ears. I bounded down the bus stairs and ran with heavy feet down the gravel drive. I walked up the unfinished pine stairs and slammed the door to our double-wide trailer behind me. It smelled like Cheerios and kitty litter. I tiptoed down the hallway and opened the door to my mom's room, slowly twisting the knob. Mom's room had its own humidity; it was its own biome. The heaviness of the air carried the sour scent of mildew and, faintly, onion. When my mother left the room, the smell followed her. I never really saw her take showers. She was still there, in her bed, face down under mounds of quilts and sheets. I stood in the doorway just long enough to hear her strained inhales, her heavy exhales. She hadn't always been confined to this space, so drained of any feeling at all. The best times with Mom were before Lena when my father still came around.

My first memory is a summer day with my father, Mike. He didn't sleep at our house, and my mom and I never knew when he would stop by. We were both happy when he slammed the screen door that day, calling for us with his raspy smoker's voice. He was synonymous with the Double Bubble gum he kept in his cargo shorts pockets and the blue and white Finding Nemo inflatable pool in the front yard. Mom laid out on the plastic lawn chair in her yellow bikini, with oil-coated skin, drinking Coors light and singing every song that came on the radio. Mike blew up the pool with his breath and filled it with the frigid cold of the hose water. He tried to get me to laugh, puffing out his cheeks and pulling on his ears. I remember playing with his dark spikey hair, the scent of salt and sandalwood sinking into my fingers. When the sun began to lower in the sky and the kiddie pool was covered with a thin layer of grass from my feet, Mike kissed my mother, handed me a piece of bubble gum, and rode off in his Dodge Charger. Mom ordered pepperoni pizza and we fell asleep together on the couch, as she held me against her warm, sunburned chest. I was her little girl.

With each passing year, he visited less often. When Mom told me she was pregnant, I hadn't seen him in eight months.

After I had checked on Mom, I walked down the hallway and into the living room, plopping down on the sunken corner of the couch. I picked up the remote and turned on the TV as I waited for the elementary school bus to drop off Lena. I couldn't focus on the show because I couldn't stop picturing my mother in her bed. I wanted to help her. I wanted Lena to see the mother I used to know. I just didn't know how to ease her pain.

I had just started my freshman year of high school when she started to fall into a depression. Mike was replaced by monthly checks that could hardly cover our grocery bill. Lena was two years old and becoming harder to handle. I knew my mom was struggling, so I offered to do anything I could for her. I took the bus to the closest stop to Walmart in town and walked an extra half mile to get to the store. I bought things I knew I could cook myself: pasta, frozen pizzas, eggs, and bacon. I started cooking one night a week.

"You're making life so much easier," my mom had said to me after I had cooked us hot dogs for dinner after school. She sat across from me at our two-person dining room table where we fit three. Lena sat in her highchair that she had outgrown, squeezing hot dog mush through her chubby fingers.

"Your dad can go screw around with whoever he wants. As long as I got my girl here with me." Mom smiled at me, but her eyelids drooped, and her mind seemed to be somewhere else, or perhaps nowhere at all. She was vacant. I couldn't understand how this was the same woman who never stopped singing. When she would offer me her attempt at a smile, I felt that I had a chance of getting my old mom back. All I had to do was make things manageable for her. One night of cooking a week became every night. I always cleaned up after. I started doing my laundry because, at fifteen, I was plenty old enough for that. And since I was doing my laundry, I thought I might as well put Mom and Lena's stuff in with mine and fold it all too.

Even though I was doing everything I could think to do, things only got worse. Days would go by without her eating or getting up at all. She did nothing but sleep. That spring, when I noticed her weight dropping, when her room first developed that pungent, sour scent, I knew she needed help beyond me.

After I had put Lena to bed that night, I walked into my mother's room. I put my hand on her shoulder and shook her slightly. I was slow, careful not to hurt her. Her eyelids fluttered open to reveal bloodshot eyes with yellow-crusted corners. I sat on the side of the bed; her body was outlined with dampness on the moth-bitten bed sheets. My eyes were wet with tears before I could say anything.

My words came out in hiccups, "Mom, I want you to go to the doctor." She noticed my tears and shifted her body to sit up against the headboard. She touched my arm with a cold, bony hand. I felt so heavy at that moment, as if every burden that I had taken on since the start of the school year manifested physically in my body. My core tightened as I tried to hold myself together, tried not to wail, for my mother's sake.

"Baby, what's wrong?" my mother asked.

"I'm scared for you Mom. You look so sick. Go to the doctor. Please." I took deep shaky breaths. My mom's eyes began to water, too. She reached out to hold me, and I held onto her, tightly.

"You shouldn't be worrying so much about me." That night, I felt like a little girl again.

She did go see the doctor, and her tests and blood work looked fine except for slight anemia. They diagnosed her with chronic depression accompanied by chronic fatigue disorder. The doctor prescribed a little orange pill called Elavil and told her to keep track of her moods for the first few months of the medication. After the first month, I noticed a difference. She wasn't back to her old self, but she was awake more often. She would sit at the dinner table again, and eat with the family, but I was still the one cooking the meals. I saw improvement, and for me, that was enough.

I sat on the couch and waited for the elementary school bus to drop off Lena. My corner of the weathered couch had a permanent sunken spot. I picked up the remote and turned the TV on to a random channel. I would never ride the bus home with Jenny again. I didn't even know if I would see her again at all. This hadn't occurred to me when I was sitting next to her. I always talked to Jenny about leaving Plains, and how I longed to see any other part of the world. I imagined how I would look in a bikini, disappearing into ocean waves. I pictured Jenny driving late at night on a lit-up four-lane road lined with palm trees, me in the passenger seat. I thought of seagulls with outstretched wings. To me, they were mythical creatures.

Now that she had handed me the chance, I felt like I couldn't take it. As much as the place suffocated me, everything and everyone I had ever known was in that town. It's where my family was. But high school was over, summer vacation was just summer. Just another set of months in my year. The darkness of my home was now my life for as far as I could see.

Before I saw her walk through the front door, I heard Lena running up the porch stairs. She dropped her backpack off her shoulders at the threshold, kicked off her light-up sneakers, and ran to sit next to me. Her hair, damp with sweat, stuck to her forehead. She smelled like pennies.

"How do you feel about never being in Mrs. Freeman's class again?" I asked. Lena smiled big enough to show her missing front teeth.

"I'll never have to do addition ever again!"

I smirked and decided to let her think that the hardest part of her life was now over for good.

"I was thinking I would make us pasta tonight, sound good?"

"I want chicken nuggets," Lena whined. If I had offered her chicken nuggets, she would've asked for pasta.

"Too bad," I said. Lena tore her eyes from the cartoon animals on the TV to glare at me through her bushy eyebrows. She scrunched her nose and bared her fuzzy teeth at me like an angry chihuahua. I reminded myself that she would need a bath tonight.

I got up to make our dinner after a few hours had passed on the couch with Lena. I went into the kitchen, which was in the same room as the TV, the only difference being the change from carpet to tile. I filled a dented pot with tap water and put it on the stove. As I waited for it to boil, I went to check on Mom. I worried that she would be in the exact spot and position that I had seen her in hours earlier. I knocked on her door gingerly, hoping not to wake her if she was sleeping. I heard no response. I opened the door, slowly. She lay, propped up on a pillow, staring past me with the same absent, hazy eyes. Her hair, stringy with grease, framed her face. The only noise was the whir of the ceiling fan.

"I'm making dinner, it won't take long," I told her. On her bedside table sat the remnants of the scrambled eggs and bacon I had made for her that morning. A thin film of dust covered the water in her glass. The little orange pills spilled out of an open bottle and scattered across the dark wood.

"Thank you, sweetie, how'd the last day go?" Mom's voice was croaky. Those words must have been the first thing she had said all day, at six o'clock at night. I thought that if it wasn't for me checking in on her, cobwebs would form in her throat. She would die from asphyxiation.

"Good. Graduation is on the 26th," I told her, even though I couldn't picture her face in the crowd.

"I hope I'll be able to make it. I'm proud of you, honey," she said. I knew she wouldn't come. I used to see Mom at every insignificant thing I ever did.

I remembered the day of my third-grade recorder concert. Mom had saved up some of her money from her old waitressing job at Magnolia Griddle before she had stopped showing up. I came home from school that day to a puffy blue dress with a ribbon tied around the waist waiting on my bed. I put on my greying white tights and scuffed black Mary Janes and felt beautiful for the first time. Mom and I walked proudly hand in hand into the school gymnasium, my purple plastic recorder at my side. Despite my newfound confidence, I was too scared to blow into the mouthpiece. Mom didn't care; her red checks bunched up under her eyes as she smiled and clapped. A standing ovation for Mary Had a Little Lamb.

She had missed Lena being an angel in that year's nativity play. She hardly left the house for anything anymore.

I walked to the kitchen, closing Mom's bedroom door behind me. Through the window over the sink, I saw the sky darken over the red dirt road that led away from my home and the sweet gum trees that grew in the yard. The turtle-shaped sand pit that had been there since before I had clear memories was littered with pinecones and one of Lena's baby dolls. My old bike lay on the ground with rusted chains. The flower beds I had planted with my mother still grew weeds and black-eyed susans every year. It was a view I had stared at for so many nights. There wasn't anything like this in Miami or anywhere else. Listening to the cicadas chirp, I imagined Jenny in her two-story house, deciding what clothes she should pack for Miami. She would be leaving by the end of that week. A sharp hiss made my jaw clench. On the stovetop, the water was boiling over, dripping into the open flame. I turned the heat down and added the pasta.

After I had finished cooking, I called for Lena to come to the table. She was still curled up on the couch with the cat.

"Come eat!"

"Okay, just one more minute," Lena answered. I walked towards Mom's room, hoping that Lena would be sitting at the table by the time I came back. I opened the door to the bedroom.

"Dinner's ready," I said. I hated how frail she seemed, like it would take all her strength to come to the table.

"Be there in a minute," she answered.

Back in the kitchen, Lena had already served herself and was shoving huge forkfuls of pasta into her already full mouth. Red sauce stained the perimeter of her lips, making her look like a little circus clown. I made my plate as I listened to Lena smack her food. As I sat down to eat, I heard Mom's feet shuffling down the carpeted hall. She had a way of making her small body sound heavy. She pulled a chair out for herself, and I got up to make her a plate.

"So," I said, "I was thinking about what I should do now that school is over." I put Mom's plate in front of her and sat down. She began poking around her food with her fork.

"Maybe you could start making some money working at a grocery store," Mom said. I wasn't sure if she wanted me to make that money for myself or to help pay the bills.

"My friend Jenny invited me to go to Miami with her." My own words surprised me. I never planned on mentioning this to my mother, but that night, the words seemed to tumble out of me uncontrollably.

"Miami? That's a big move, you're not ready for that," my mother said. I never meant to say this to my mother, and it was surely not realistic, but how could she say I wasn't ready? I was eighteen years old, and I had been nothing but dependable for the last four years of my adolescence.

"She just mentioned it, I didn't tell her I could go," I said.

"Well, do you want to?"

I didn't know how to answer my mother's question. Of course I wanted to go to Miami. But I also wanted to be there for her and Lena. I loved them. I felt like I didn't know myself outside of the context of that trailer home. What would they do without me there? What would I be without them?

"I've thought about it," I said through a mouthful of dinner, staring at the shadow of my head on the table.

"What about your sister? She would miss you," my mom said. Lena stopped chewing for a moment.

"Where are you going?" Lena asked.

"I don't know," I responded, "Just eat your food."

"You know I want you to be happy, but we need your help around here. You know I'm sick, I can't help that." Hearing my mother plead like that hurt me. I didn't want to leave her, helpless. My mother was sick, but her kind of sickness was indefinite; this wasn't a cold she would get over. I had no way of knowing if she would ever be alright again. It could be another four years; it could be the rest of her life.

"I've done everything I can do to make things better."

"I didn't realize that being here was such a burden," my mother said, dejected. The yellow light from the lightbulb in the kitchen began to flicker, as it had been on and off for weeks. Our dated floral wallpaper was peeling in the corners. I would just stay there, watching dust collect, becoming as depleted as my mother was. She stood up, having hardly touched the meal I made.

"I want you to be happy, I just don't know what I'd do without you." She left her plate on the table for me to clean and walked back to her bedroom.

I put Lena to bed early. In the kitchen, I filled the sink with hot water and soap. I scraped the food my mother and I didn't eat into the trash can. As I scrubbed, the orange-scented dish soap smelled like every night of my life. After I put the dishes up to dry, I took my cell phone with me to the front porch. In Georgia, even the nights were thick with humidity. The air felt the same way it did the night of my junior prom.

I was on that porch, wearing the cream-colored dress I had finally found after weeks of scouring thrift shops. I sewed little golden threaded flowers onto the neckline to make it mine. It lay delicately against my shape. I had even gotten asked to be someone's date. Franklin Archer, a senior who was just hardly taller than me, had sent one of his friends to ask me during our lunch period. He wasn't cute or popular. His hair was big and curly and his nose curved outwards from his face. I said yes because Franklin Archer was a nice boy, and I was happy to have anyone who wanted me as their date. I waited for him to pull up the long driveway in his dad's rusted Volkswagen. No boy had ever been to my house before. I felt my hair growing frizzy from the humidity. When I heard the wheels make the gravel crunch, my mother did too. She appeared in the doorway.

"Who the hell is coming up our driveway?"

"My date. For prom."

"You never told me you were having a boy come over here." She held her arms taut at her sides, rubbing her thumb in circles around her index finger.

"You aren't doing this tonight. He needs to turn around. Now," Mom said. Franklin had pulled all the way up the driveway and was about to get out of the car. Mom shot a bug-eyed look at him that made him hesitate before getting out. He opened the car door slowly and stepped out in a grey suit with pants that were short enough to show his freckled ankles.

"Noelle can't come out tonight," she said to Franklin from the porch.

"You can't do this," I said.

"You know I don't like strangers coming here," she snapped. She was ashamed of our overgrown lawn and her yellowing teeth. "And I don't want you around some no-good boy either. You're too good for that. You're gonna wind up pregnant. You're my little girl."

"I'm sorry ma'am." Franklin was beet red and hadn't even closed the car door yet before he was getting back into the driver's seat. "Didn't mean to cause a problem." Hot tears fell down my face, streaking my makeup. He was gone.

"Don't cry, Noelle. Why don't you change out of that and let's put something on the TV?"

I didn't understand why she had kept me home from prom and my date; decided that she would hold me in her arms for the first time in a long time. I sat down on the wood-planked floor of the porch and saw all kinds of winged insects floating around the light next to the screen door, attracted to the only light they could see for miles around. Then I began to understand. I could feel my sweat start to soak through my T-shirt. I scrolled through the contacts of my phone to the J names and pressed the call button next to Jenny's. She answered on the third ring.

"I'm coming," I said.


  1. I found the main character and her situation very relatable. I was in mourning for her lost youth, and for the whole family. This quote, "My friend Jenny invited me to go to Miami with her." My own words surprised me. I never planned on mentioning this to my mother, but that night, the words seemed to tumble out of me uncontrollably” woke me up from my sadness. It was a hope. I feel like this is the story of so many eldest children…who become the parent. The fact that she says she is going to go to Miami is radical. I got chills. But the transition to the prom needed a sentence or two more. I couldn’t tell if it was in the same linear timeline. I suspect it was, and was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I absolutely loved this story. Thank you!

  2. This story is a realistic portrayal of the hardships and horrors faced by children in a household where one or more parents have untreated or undertreated mental illness.
    Having major depression is not an excuse for sociopathy!
    Their mom has no interest in her own recovery and the elavil is clearly insufficient to treat her illness to remission. Thus Jenny and Lena are victims of their mother’s absolute selfishness and Jenny has been forced to become a parentified child.
    It is satisfying to see Jenny break free at the end of the story.
    Poor Lena - she is like a hostage - maybe Jenny can take Lena with her…
    The story evoked strong emotions in me - great job!

  3. Tough call for the narrator. She stays and is miserable, or leaves and mother dies. Sad, but believable.

  4. “Where the Sun Sets” is the heart wrenching story of a teen caught up in an onerous, suffocating existence taking care of her young sister and her psychologically disabled mother. Little Lena doesn’t know any better, but Noelle’s mother knows very well what she costs her daughter in soul-killing guilt and imposed obligations. Chloe uses repeated and myriad allusions to smells: “She smelled like pennies,” the odor of sweat, and a home that reeked of “kitty litter and Cheerios.” Her descriptions are rich and powerful and add a great deal to what is a simple story: a young woman who wants to untie the apron strings and experience life on her own terms, without the anchor of her needy family. The story concludes with Noelle vowing to follow her friend to the Sunshine State, but one wonders, will she follow through. The burdens she is confronted with seem simply overwhelming. One can but hope. Excellent story, Chloe

  5. I loved this story. William Trevor and Colm Toibin have often written about the child who must stay at home to take care of the parent. It was the tradition in Ireland. This "American" version of the theme has great description and details. I do think she will go to Florida. Well done, Chloe.

  6. As others have said the grounded and real, yet wonderfully descriptive writing style bring so much depth to this heartbreaking and very real story.