Mall maintenance halls are creepy. Plain and white, with fluorescent lighting, they evoke images of serial killers, hockey masks and bloody butcher knives. The figure standing at the end does not help matters.
He’s wearing a brown hood, pulled low over his face, casting the upper half in shadow and exposing only his beardless chin. A long knife hangs from his side and a quiver with arrows is on his back. Dressed in a green long shirt, black pants and brown hood, he appears ready to attend a Ren Faire. I can’t tell if he’s looking at me or past me. I assure myself that he’s gazing beyond me because that is the more bearable thought.
A gaggle of girls bursts from the bathroom in a cloud of body spray. They pay no attention to the man, and they wouldn’t. I step to the side to let them by and slip into the restroom. After doing my business, I check to make sure I’m alone before standing at the mirror.
Bracing my hands against the sink, I concentrate on what I came to the mall for: yarn for a coworker’s baby blanket, a new sketchbook and a pair of shoes. The steel sink feels cool and wet under my hands, anchoring me more firmly in the moment, in what is real. Not for the first time, I’m glad I don’t have close friends, as that would only complicate these moments.
I know the hooded man is one of the phantoms only I can see and not some costumed crazy. It’s like knowing there is a fire because of the heat against my skin. And, as always, that feeling spikes a need in me to forget somehow, to reach for a beer or bottle of liquor to distract myself. My gut clenches against the need but I shove against it.
Desdemona, I remind myself, you have a good job at the law firm and you’re going to school to be a paralegal and you have a pretty decent life. Don’t screw it up. You can do this.
I pull my curly red hair into a pony tail. Leaving the restroom, I don’t look toward the end of the hall and re-enter the stream of people on their Saturday shopping excursions. My cell phone rings the sound of chimes in a breeze and I stop to dig it out of my purse. “Hello?”
“Is this Desdemona?”
I don’t recognize the thin, quavery voice. “This is she.”
“This is Mae Winslow. I’m one of your mother’s neighbors.”
“Hello. Is everything all right?”
“I’m afraid not. Can you come down? There’s something very important that’s happened.”
Someone bumps into me and I step a little more out of traffic. “What’s wrong?” I reply.
“Desdemona, I really think you should come—”
“What’s wrong?!” My voices spikes and a couple of people glance my way.
“I’m so sorry. I wanted her to call you sooner, but she wouldn’t listen. Said you needed to focus on your schooling.”
“Is she all right?”
“No, darling.” The old woman pauses and I nearly scream at her to go on. “Your mother is in the hospital. She has lung cancer and there isn’t anything more the doctors can do.” Another terrible pause. “You should come down right away.”
Tears prick my eyes. “I’ll come. Which hospital? What room?” Pressing phone between ear and shoulder, I fumble for the pen and notepad I keep in my purse. Ms Winslow gives me the information and I jot it all down before saying goodbye and ending the call.
The man in the hood walks by, slipping away unseen by everyone else, and I have to fight the urge to throw my phone at him, to demand to know if he was some sort of death omen. I close my eyes. Breathe deep. Count to ten. And I tell myself that he can’t be real, that he isn’t, but the cell phone in my hand is.
The drive from Florence to the Orangeburg Regional Medical Center is only an hour and a half but it feels much longer. Pushing my beat up Chevy as fast as I dare to go, I screech into the hospital parking lot barely two hours after the call. Getting out of the car, I run to the long red brick building with curving sides. The building is only five or six stories and Mama is on the third.
Hospitals all smell the same: antiseptic, medicinal and sometimes with an undertone of urine. Walking into my mother’s room, a scent hits me. The smell of death hangs on the air like cobwebs and stinks the place like road kill. Maybe it’s only my imagination, but as I stare at the frail woman in the bed, half-buried in the blankets heaped on her, I’m almost smothered by the rank.
“Mama,” I breathe, closing the distance between us with quick steps. Her hand is so bony and so cold when I take it between mine.
“Hey, baby,” Mama breathes out. Her voice is low and scratchy and she pants like she can’t catch her breath. “Glad… you came.”
The urge to berate her and demand answers beats at me like fire in my mind, but I hold it back. Leaning forward, I kiss her on the forehead and blink away more tears. “I’m glad I came, too.”
“Didn’t want to bother you.” She swallows. “Didn’t want you—” She coughs hard, half-lifting up from the bed. When she finishes, she lays back and swallows. “Doesn’t matter now.” Her eyes drift closed.
Movement and a squeak of someone standing from a chair call my attention over to an old woman sitting in a corner. She has curly white hair and wears a flowery blouse with bright blue slacks. Her purse matches her slacks.
“Are you Ms Winslow?” I ask.
“Yes. Why don’t we talk outside and let your Mama rest?”
I give Mama another kiss on the cheek before following the lady out into the hall. Once we’re there, I blurt, “Why wasn’t I told sooner? How long has she had this?”
Ms Winslow holds up a hand and pulls the door closed. “She was diagnosed last year. I’ve been taking her to her appointments and looking in on her.”
My mouth drops open in shock. Last year was the last time I saw Mama. We had Thanksgiving dinner. I teased her for eating half of a chocolate pumpkin pie. She said she probably wouldn’t gain a pound. We almost felt like a normal family again.
“Desdemona,” the woman continues, “she told me about your troubles. She thought she could beat this and was afraid you would return to bad habits.”
I focus back on her, pulling myself out of the well of memories. Anger and weariness war in my chest as the impact of what she’s saying leaks into my brain. “She was afraid I would relapse and start drinking again.” I swallow hard. “Thank you for being with her and helping her.”
“It’s been an honor. Sadie is a wonderful woman.”
“She is. I’m going to sit with her now.”
She takes a slip of paper from her purse and presses it into my hand. “This is my number. Call if you need anything.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”
Ms Winslow walks away and I re-enter the room. I sit down in a green faux-leather recliner next to the bed. Her mouth opens and a deep rattle crawls out of her throat. It fills the room with its grating sound and goes on and on as she breathes in and out. It doesn’t even stop when she begins to thrash, as if her body is trying to physically force air back into its lungs.
Frantic, I hit the call button and a nurse rushes in. She straps Mama down.
“What’s that rattling sound?” I ask.
She grimaces. “Fluids are building up in her throat and upper chest because she can’t swallow anymore.” She fusses with the blanket covering Mama. “We call it the death rattle because it happens close to passing. I’m really sorry.”
I nod, her words numbing me. The nurse leaves and I return to the recliner, holding Mama’s hand.
Outside the windows, day deepens into night and, just to distract myself, I try to watch the History Channel but the grating rattle makes it hard to concentrate on Peruvian ruins. I turn it off and lay back in the recliner. A nurse comes in to check Mama’s vitals and fetches me a blanket.
At some point in the night, sleep manages to carry me away. I dream about the dark streets of Charleston; the sections tourists won’t find in their brochures. When I ran away years ago, I knew these streets like second nature but tonight they are a maze and I wander through them, screaming for my mother.
Near dawn the next day, something jerks me into wakefulness. I stare at the ceiling, trying to understand what woke me. Then I realize. The rattle has stopped.
I launch out of the recliner, looking at the wasted shell of my mother. Her chest rises and falls a few times before it stops. My hand goes to her throat, for her pulse, but there’s nothing. Settling back into the recliner, I lay my head on the bed, clutching her cold hand.
It’s raining when I enter Hammondville. Beyond the streaks of water rolling down the windshield, red brick buildings slip past, becoming clear between the swipes of the swishing wipers. It looks like nothing has changed since the 1950s. Certainly, nothing has changed since I left four years ago.
I recognize Strick’s Pharmacy, the Klip ‘n’ Kurl and the Shoe Tree. Memories of shopping with my mom or walking alone around town slip through my mind.
I leave the town on the main highway and after another few minutes I turn down our dirt road that winds between pine trees, mossy oaks, magnolias and black gums The houses along it are as I have always remembered them, if maybe a little more worn from time. And from the occasional hurricane. God bless the South.
Our house sits on the end of the road, after it curves and becomes a private drive. A big ‘No Trespassing’ sign hangs from the trunk of a pine tree at the head of the driveway. As I park underneath an old sycamore, the rain lets up into a fine mist.
I don’t get out right away; just stare up at the yellow two-story with white trim where I lived until I turned sixteen. When Dad died. The official story was that he disappeared but I know better. My mind twitches a little at the memory and, for a moment, the rumble of underbrush breaking under something large fills my ears.
Shuddering, I shake off the memory and get out of the car. The sweet scent of jasmine and roses wafts over me. A few drops of rain splatter on my head as I stride up the front steps onto the porch. The spare key is still tucked on top of the frame of the door.
It’s like stepping into a childhood memory as I enter the living room. The same yellow couch and armchairs, sprays of pink cabbage roses printed on the fabric. The same pink curtains. Even the same crappy television with its foil-wrapped bunny ears.
I should hear Mama at her daily chores. She should be asking me how things are going in Florence or if I’ve heard from my brother, Nathan. It’s at this moment that I realize I haven’t called him.
I take a deep, shaky breath and walk to the brightly painted kitchen, dropping my purse on the counter.
“Dammit, Mama,” I sigh, scrubbing my face with the heels of my hands. If she had told us sooner, I wouldn’t have to do this. But what if Nathan already knew? There’s only one way to find out.
For reasons unknown, his phone number is still in my contact list and I’m glad. I’m not ready to go through Mama’s things in order to find it.
It rings three times before he picks up. “Yeah?”
“Hey, Nate, it’s me.”
“Dizzy! What’s up?”
“Please don’t call me that,” I snip, bristling.
Another deep breath. At this point, I’m going to hyperventilate. I reach out and grab the back of a chair. “Mama died.”
The silence on the other line stretches for so long, I check my phone to make sure the call is still connected.
“Lung cancer. She was hospitalized on Friday. She died early this morning.”
“You were there.” A poisonous, hurt tone threads into his voice.
“Something wrong with your phone? Why the fuck didn’t you call me?”
Because I didn’t think of it until now? Instead, I ask, “Would you have come?”
“What the hell kind of question is that? Of course I would have come. Why didn’t you call me?”
“Maybe it’s because every time you came into our lives, you only brought pain. Last I recall, you stole Mama blind.”
“You are the last fucking person to accuse anyone of breaking Mama’s heart,” he snarls.
“Nathan, I—Hello?” Pulling the phone from my ear, I check the display. He disconnected.
I toss my phone onto the table with a grunt of disgust at the world in general before going to fetch my suitcase. The idea of Mama’s death was so surreal, I packed hurriedly with the thought that I would be spending the weekend with her. Everything was going to be just fine and we would have a laugh over neighbors who make mountains out of anthills. Now I wonder if I remembered to pack something suitable for a funeral.
Suitcase in hand, I climb the stairs to the second floor to my bedroom, which is still how I left it the last time I came here so long ago. The book I planned on taking but didn’t still sits on the dresser and the bed is neatly made. As I stand just inside the door, I curse myself for never coming to visit. Maybe I would have noticed something was wrong. Maybe I could have forced the truth out of her. Maybe, maybe.
The room is small and painted a pale blue with a lilac undertone. The only furniture is the bed, a nightstand and a large chiffarobe. Nothing hangs on the walls. I took all of that with me when I moved out.
I drop the suitcase on the bed and go to the window. Through the rain, I can see our pond beyond the fence and I strain my eyes to peer into the stand of willow trees lining it in a graceful sweep along one side. A memory that’s been dancing on the edge of my mind tugs on me, prompted by the willows.
It was twenty years ago, my fifth birthday, and my parents threw a huge circus-themed party in our front yard. Half my class came and maybe five of them I actually wanted there. Mom, in full-on super-mother mode, organized games and crafts. My dad’s friend, who owned a pony farm, brought five brown and white ponies for the kids to ride and they stood chained to one of those horsey-go-round things. Dad and three of his best friends gathered by a huge pit while half of a hog cooked beneath red and black embers.
I hated it. After playing one or two games because Mama pushed me to, I stood off to the side in my bright red and white party dress. I’ve always preferred the quiet, I guess. The loud carnival style music swirled around me, with an undercurrent of conversations and laughter. I noticed both of my parents either tending to a task or talking to someone and slipped away to swing by myself in the set in the backyard.
I never heard anything besides the creak of the metal and the distant sounds of the party. There wasn’t a cold wind or a prickly feeling. I just looked over my shoulder.
The gate in our fence stood open. Maybe someone opened it during the party set-up and forgot to close it to keep unchaperoned five-year-olds away from the pond.
A tall man walked among the willow trees, slipping in and out of rays of sunshine. Light bounced off the golden armor he wore like a wink. Feeling curious, I jumped off my swing and ran through the open gate toward him, the high grass swishing over the skirt of my dress. I stopped under the nearest tree.
He stood mere feet away. The tendrils of the trees cast long, waving shadows over his gold armor. It looked like something out of a movie with dragons. Wavy lines were carved on his chest plate but I couldn’t make them out. He wore a helmet with a narrow slit for the eyes and, where his mouth was supposed to be, the metal curved to make a beak.
He took a step toward me. I squeaked, backing up. The man held up his hands in a soothing gesture, the armor making a soft clacking noise. He slowly took off the helmet. His face was surprisingly normal. No scales or scars. He had a crooked nose and thick white-blond hair. He smiled at me. It was a nice smile. I couldn’t help smiling back.
I looked over my shoulder. Mama ran through the gate toward me. I turned back but the man was gone.
“Desdemona,” chided Mama as she came under the willows. “You know full well you shouldn’t be out here alone. Did you open the gate?”
“No, ma’am. Did you see him?”
“The man in the yellow.”
A pained expression crossed her face. “There’s no-one out here but us, honey. Come on.” She held out her hand, which I took. We began to walk back toward the fence. “Sweetheart, if you ever see anything like that again, don’t say anything to anyone, all right?”
“Because, honey, no-one will believe you and might think something is wrong with you.”
“Because, honey. Just because.”
That was the first time I ever saw something not of this world. As I come back to myself, gazing down at the willows lining the pond, it occurs to me that now I will never understand why Mama told me not let people know what I see. I always thought that maybe one day she would explain. Now she can’t.
I drop heavily onto the edge of my bed and cradle my head in my hands, sobs breaking from my heart.