His Mother's Eyes
Gasping desperately for air, Horace awoke with a start.
He had the dream again, the one where he thought he was being suffocated. His eyes, now wide open in fear, took in the white pristine walls of the hospital room as they closed in around him. He felt the coarseness of the over-starched sheets on his body, heard the soft humming of machinery, and smelled the cool, pure oxygen that hissed through the long, thin tube that ran from the wall to his nose. A large shunt jutted from the top of his right hand, permanently stuck into his artery like a miniature harpoon. It was taped securely to his wrist. The tape pulled uncomfortably at the hair on his arm and Horace followed the path of the clear, plastic hose that ran from the spike to a bottle of liquid hanging from a shiny chrome stand beside his bed. He could feel the unnatural liquid entering his arm, and it gave him a metallic taste in his mouth.
Horace Staffor had fought the hard fight, but the cancer had won. His steel-gray eyes were dulled by fatigue, his body weak, weaker than yesterday and the day before that; he could hardly lift his head.
He knew it was just a matter of time now.
The door swung open. "Are you awake?" the heavy-set black nurse asked. "You have a visitor." She beamed a smile at him, overly white teeth set against her dark face, as if the news of a visitor was supposed to cheer him up. Horace didn't want to see anybody--didn't want anybody to see him--not like this.
She held the door open and the tall, gangly man, who had been by three times earlier, entered the room with a strained smile on his face that was obviously forced to hide the worry. "Hey, Dad. How you feeling today?"
"Tired, Chris...really tired."
"Well, I can come back later if you want, but I'd like to talk to you a bit if you're up to it?"
"Sure, Chris. I'm not going anywhere," He attempted a smile, masking little of the pain. "What's up?"
His son pulled a hard-back chair up to the bed and sat down. "How's the pain, Dad?"
"Oh, all right I guess, about the same."
"They doubled your dose of pain killer, you know. They said you were waking up in the middle of the night screaming."
"They told you about that, huh? Well, it's not from the pain. It's this damn dream I keep having."
"Dream? You need something to help you sleep?"
"No, that's just it," he said, rubbing his face with his one free hand. "The more they drug me, the harder it is to wake up from the nightmare; and it feels like if I don't wake up, I'll die."
"Jesus, Dad, that doesn't sound good. You wanna talk about it?"
"Tell me what you wanted to talk about first. What's on your mind, son?"
"Well . . . it's Mom."
"Your mother? What made you think of her?"
"Oh, I don't know. I was going through some of your papers at the house, checking your health insurance and stuff, when I ran across Mom's old journal, you know, the one she kept after she got sick."
"Oh, that old thing." Horace looked away, let out a deep sigh, as if reminded of something he didn't have the strength to face. "Your mom was pretty out of it when she wrote that stuff, Chris, so I wouldn't take it to heart. I don't know why I've hung on to it for so long. I guess I should have thrown it out years ago." He looked back at his son, saw the dark circles under the large round eyes, his mother's eyes, and the gaunt and worried face. "So, that's what this is all about?"
Chris laughed nervously. "Yeah, I guess. You know, she said some pretty terrible things about you, Dad. She said you were trying to kill her. And that you were putting something in her food...some kinda drug. She also said she wasn't crazy at all, but it was the poison you were giving her."
"Do you believe that?" Horace looked into his son's eyes--Elizabeth's eyes.
"No...no, of course not, Dad. I mean, I saw how you took care of her. I know how it ate you up inside to see her like that."
"Yeah, well everyone wanted to put her in a nut house, the doctors, her parents . . . everybody. But I wouldn't let 'em."
"I know, Dad, I know. I was only eight, but I saw how violent she got. But I always felt she was still my mom. I really don't know how you handled it for all those years--all the fits of cussing and screaming, and the way she used to throw things at you."
"Yeah, I couldn't get her to eat. She'd just throw the damn plates at me. Her paranoia became so severe she wouldn't trust anybody, not even me. That was why I kept her locked in her room. I was afraid she'd hurt herself, or worse...you."
"Do you really think she would've hurt me? Because I remember how she used to call for me all the time, screaming my name, and beating on the door begging to be let out just so she could hold me. One night I stood by that door, listening to her and crying. I'd press my hand against it, dying to call out to her. Hell, Dad, she was my mother, and she was calling for me."
"I know. I can imagine what it must've been like for you. Your mother was always ranting and raving, but I can tell you this, she was dangerous."
"But why couldn't you let me see her, Dad? Maybe it would've helped."
"Helped? I don't think so. I mean, she didn't even know who I was half the time. And then she became so delirious there toward the end, that I actually had to tie her to the bed just to keep her from hurting herself."
"Well, in her journal she wrote about how you got what you wanted from her, all her money, a son, and that now you had devised a plan to kill her off."
"Crazy talk, Chris...just plain crazy talk. She was insane."
Horace suddenly went into a fit of painful coughing and Chris gave him some water from a plastic cup at his bedside.
The young man stood up and prepared to leave. "We can talk about this later if you want. You need your rest."
"No...no wait, Chris. I need to tell you how it really was...you know, between me and your mother."
"Look, Dad, this can keep. It was forty years ago. Besides, it ain't gonna change anything."
"Yeah, yeah, I know, but hell, I'm dying anyway, and you need to hear the truth."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, your mom and I, we were nothing more than...companions of convenience, you might say. We did not marry for love, or money, or even because we were close friends. We married because she got pregnant...and that's the God's truth."
"Well, that's pretty common these days, Dad. At least you didn't run out on her."
"No, I wanted to marry her. In fact, I was glad she got pregnant. Actually, I wanted you more and she knew it, that's why she always held it against me. Your mother was ruthless, Chris. She had been taught to be content with the best of everything. To her, you were just one big inconvenience. She bitched about losing her perfect shape, and how everything was my fault. And then when she started showing, she caught flack from her parents about the whole thing. She even asked your rich grandfather to pay for an abortion, but I went to him and said I would marry her instead. In those days, respectability was more important than love, especially in the circle of wealthy friends her parents hung out with."
"You never loved her?"
"Loved Elizabeth? No. Although I tried, she was incapable of love."
"Then why'd you stay together after I was born?"
"That's a good question. I'm still struggling with that one myself. I suppose it was because you needed a mother. At least, that's what I believed at the time. And then the years rolled by so damn fast, and then she became ill. I did what I thought was best for you. I always have."
"I don't remember her ever being mean to me. She'd read me stories at bedtime, and I'd fall asleep mesmerized by her voice. I always thought she was a loving mother."
"No...not Elizabeth. She hated too intensely--blamed me and everyone else for ruining her life. I finally came to realize that she'd do anything to get back at me. And that's when it happened."
"What happened, Dad?"
"I remember it was during a big thunderstorm, and you were maybe five or six years old at the time. I woke up with a start as thunder rolled through the house and shook every window. Your mother wasn't in her bed, so I immediately ran to your room, and there she was, bending over you with a pillow just inches from your face. She stared at me with scorn and she had a crazy look in those big wide eyes of hers. I believe if I hadn't come into your room at that moment, she would have killed you just to get even with me. That was the day I locked her in her room."
"My God, Dad. Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"What good would it have done? It was my problem, not yours."
"Yeah, but Dad, geez, that's way over the top. She could have tried to kill you too."
"Oh, she did, several times, but I out-smarted her."
His chest started to wheeze and Horace went into another fit of coughing. Chris helped him to sit up and try to cough it out, and after a tremendous amount of hacking, he started to breathe easier. Horace wiped the spittle from his chin with his shaking, slate-colored fingers.
"You see, your mother was crazy, but she wasn't nuts. She didn't want to spend the rest of her life in prison. Oh no, that would've messed up her social life, so she planned little accidents for me. She had always hated me for smoking in bed, so one night she set fire to my covers with a burning cigarette while I slept. It's kinda funny now that I think about it--the cigarettes being the one thing that actually killed me. Anyway, it was always a battle of wits with your mom, and I guess that was about the closest thing to a relationship we ever had."
"That's sick, Dad. No one should have to live through that."
"I know, I know, I felt the exact same way. But then one night it hit me. In fact, it was your mom that gave me the idea."
"What do ya mean?"
"Well, she had just had one of her really bad spells, and it had been a long hard night for the both of us. I had her tied to the bed, and she was just lying there sleeping so peacefully. And I found myself wishing she could be like that all the time. I was so damn exhausted. So, before I headed off to bed, I fluffed up her pillow. The next thing I knew, the pillow was in my hands, and I was pushing it over her face. She looked so peaceful and all...so normal, you know? And I wanted that for her--to be normal, I mean. So I pushed the pillow down harder just as those big brown eyes shot open and I could see the craziness inside of them again--the fear. I pushed it down and held it there. Then she started to squirm and scream, tried to get away, but I held it...held the pillow on her face. Her screaming and cussing was muffled like I had always hoped it would be, and then it just stopped altogether. I was free."
"You killed her? My God, Dad!" Chris stood up, backing away from the bed.
"It was the best thing for everybody, Chris. It really was."
"No, Dad, it wasn't! You had no right! You killed my mother, you crazy son-of-a-bitch!" Horace saw a hatred and loathing in his son's eyes, something he hadn't seen since before Elizabeth had died.
"You sick bastard! Everything Mom wrote about you was true. Everything! I'm glad you're dying, old man. You deserve to die!" Chris abruptly turned and ran out of the room. The door automatically swung shut and Horace heard the click of the latch, leaving him alone in total silence.
Horace waited for his son to come back so he could explain everything. It hadn't been his fault. The whole thing had been Elizabeth's idea. In one of her rare moments of lucidness and clarity, she told him to do it--she had told him to kill her.
Horace lay back in bed, tears following the cracks and crevasses of his old and tired face. He closed his lids over eyes that ached from the strain of watching and waiting for Chris to return, and finally he slept.
He had the dream again.
It was late, and the room was very dark. The door opened briefly, emitting a glimpse of the bright hallway lights outside. Then someone covered in shadows, quickly entered the room. Horace heard the click of the door as it closed, and then he awoke from the dream.
"Chris? Is that you?"
There was a shuffling of feet, then someone glided to the head of his bed and gave Horace a start. A pillow was quickly thrust over his head and pushed down hard on his face. The last thing Horace saw were Elizabeth's eyes--those big, round, crazy eyes--full of hatred, and madness.