"Amira's Head"

Mom started talking to Amira about two and a half months before she died. She had many invisible companions during her illness—a brain tumor tends to manufacture such things—but most of them didn't stick around for more than a few days. Some barely lasted an hour.

The conversations she had with her other imaginary friends never made much sense. Just one random sentence after another, some in English, some in French, and some in languages which had never graced this planet until Mom and one of her tumor people invented it on the spot. Sometimes there weren't even words—just laughs, grunts, and odd noises which defied classification. And many times there were barely sounds—just hands and arms in agitated motion—and on rare occasions, even dancing.

But Amira's arrival changed all that. When Mom conversed with Amira her words had direction and purpose and she talked about things I could recognize. It was almost like she was talking to an old friend on the phone. In fact, the conversations were so realistic, I wondered if she were reliving past conversations with a person who actually existed. Maybe Amira was an old college friend or a favorite student from her high school teaching days. Maybe the tumor had made time more fluid and Mom had decided to backstroke to a happier age.

That's another thing I noticed. The most striking thing. Whenever she spoke with Amira, Mom was happy. She was actually better than happy; she was beaming, almost like she was in love.

One afternoon, when I arrived at home to do my tour of duty with Mom so my father could get out and stretch his legs and get a much needed breath of fresh air, my mother's eyes focused on this universe and I asked her flat out who this Amira person was.

"She's my daughter," Mom replied, somewhat annoyed as if the answer to my question should have been obvious.

My heart sank. When she was healthy, my mother was an incredibly smart and unflinchingly sane woman. It was sad to see her psyche fray like worn yarn. If she were manufacturing fictional children, it wasn't going to be long before she lost track of who the real ones were.

"But Mom," I reminded her gently, "you only have two daughters. There's Allie and me. That's all."

Mom clenched her jaw and there was a long, stony silence. I'd made the mistake of mentioning my sister who was pretty damn close to being estranged. She only called to ask for money and rarely came home even though she lived only sixty miles away. And since Mom officially became terminal, Allie had only visited once.

"She's my best daughter, Nicey," Mom finally said. Then, she stood and slowly dragged herself upstairs. Within minutes I could hear her chattering away and laughing in her room above me. Amira had come to visit.

After Mom dropped that bomb about Amira being her best daughter, I began to eavesdrop on their conversations more actively. I found out quite a few things. Had Amira actually existed, she would have been the middle child. She liked good clothes and was a fine cook. She called her mother every day. She came to family reunions and actually enjoyed them. She married her college sweetheart and they were still married some fifteen blissful years later. She and her husband were both successful civil engineers like my father. She liked smooth jazz and read pulp romances to decompress like my mother. She was a literacy volunteer at the local library. She'd produced no grandkids, yet but she and the hubby would get there eventually, just give them time….

The more I listened, the more it became clear that Amira was everything Allie and I were not. Her life was respectable, neat, and clean. No messy divorces (Allie and me) no dropping out of grad school five months shy of a degree (me) no terminal underemployment (Allie and me again) no grand artistic aspirations which predictably came to naught (me). Amira was better than best; she was damn near perfect. No wonder Mom was beaming when they spoke. God or the tumor was doing a good thing: granting a dying mother her last wish.

One Sunday evening after dinner there was a knock on the door. That was not unusual. One of the ladies from my parents' church always came to visit on Sunday evenings bearing gifts of bright flowers, good food to last for most of the week ahead, and prayer. So, when I went to answer the door, I thought it was going to be one of them.

But after nearly four months of Sunday evenings, I knew all the women who ministered to the sick. There were four in all. Each of them had dropped by at least three times. So, imagine my surprise when I opened the door to see a complete stranger.

"Hey Nicey," the woman began, as if she'd known me all my life, "is Mom asleep?"

I answered on autopilot. "She's up in her room, but no, I don't think she's asleep yet." I tried to place where I might have seen the woman before. She wasn't from the church. Like I said, I knew all of them. She looked to be a few years younger than me. She was a little plump, but very pretty. Her hair was as wildly curly as mine, but somehow she managed to wear it long and keep it tamed. She was dressed in a stylish taupe power suit with matching handbag and shoes. She reminded me of a picture of my mother I'd seen in her college yearbook. A woman most likely to succeed.

"Nicey, Nicey! Earth to Nicey!" the woman exclaimed with mock annoyance. "Aren't you going to let me in?"

Oh. Yes. I guess I was being rude. I stepped back and let her through.

"I'm sorry I haven'