by William Cole
Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Supernatural · #2291038
Brian's mother moves in to help him adjust to life as a widower.
TW: This piece contains descriptions of a psychologically abusive relationship between a mother and her adult son (inspired by surrogate spouse syndrome), as well as the grief associated with the recent loss of a romantic partner.
I saw my husband's shadow the night he passed. It was standing in my room, a spot of emptiness, darker than the surrounding darkness on his side of the bed.
I never imagined I'd need a nightlight as a 31 year old man. A woman in a cardigan gave me a cheeky smile when I took it off the shelf at Home Depot.
"It's for my son," I said rather unconvincingly. "He's afraid of the dark."
"Get this one," she replied. "The bulb is brighter."
"I wanted to have more in common with you, Brian, but not like this," my mother, Jude, told me at the memorial. Tears suffused and magnified her eyes. Her manicured fingers brought my hand to her heart. "I'm so sorry."
I thanked her, as I had thanked the line of grieving relatives ahead of her. Jude had waited to be last to leave.
I told her about my nightmare - that he had visited me before he left.
"It's sleep paralysis, honey, nothing more. The same happened to me when your father died."
I counted midnight terrors among the few things we had in common these days. The family bloodline apparently included blue eyes, night terrors, and early spousal death.
"I have a suitcase in the car," She said.
The house had been empty but for myself and Skimbleshanks since Colin's accident - I hadn't even felt his presence since that first night. I felt no reason to resist her offer. My life had been missing tenderness.
She marched back through the door with unforetold confidence, her brown-dyed curls riding the still air. She thrust open the blinds, flooding the room with evening sun.
Jude fingered a souvenir - the tiny model of the CN tower that had been collecting dust on my desk. "This simply won't do."
A few days later, I was looking through our photo album under the amber light of Colin's antique lamp when Skimble emerged to join me. After turning around a few times, he settled down next to me.
It's interesting how grief seems to affect animals too. Skimble was Colin's cat more than mine. He had him when we met, so he was always Skimble's favourite. This was his first time leaving safety beneath the couch since the accident. With Colin gone, I felt we would grow closer. I was happy to have a warm body next to me, and the little guy seemed happy to still have me too.
"You've got your papa's eyes, old man," I scratched under Skimble's chin and watched his face crinkle in much-needed joy. "And your father's sentimentality. Of course you'd come out to see the album."
Jude came by with a sandwich - ham and cheese, cut diagonally. "You shouldn't be looking at things like that. It's just a reminder of the past."
"What's wrong, Brian?"
"No, it's not stupid. Tell me."
"It's just," I began, an insect of painful nostalgia skittering up my throat. "Colin said we were like ham and cheese. We just worked so well together."
I could feel her disappointment. The insect seized my vocal cords with barbed legs. I gulped down the pang of guilt and shame at feeling intensely emotional over something so innocent, but the insect clung on, turning my voice hoarse. "I told you it was stupid. You're right. Maybe the photos are a bad idea. Too many reminders."
Jude shooed Skimble away with the back of her hand and sat next to me, shushing. She ran her hand through my hair, down my cheek, turning my face towards her. A simper creased her lips.
"It's okay, love. I can make you another sandwich. I will help you get through this."
That night, I awoke to the sound of Skimble growling, deep and resonating on my lap. His back arched, the incandescent glow of the nightlight forming a halo around his orange tail, bolt straight and bushy in the air. The sound set the hairs on my neck on end. My breath quickened. I realised I was sitting upright.
I felt a presence again, but it was different. Darker. A mote of lightlessness formed on the floor at the foot of the bed. It grew in size, as though someone was dripping invisible ink from a point in space above it which splashed and turned thick and pitch-like against the carpet. It seemed something biological, a tumour that expanded as it consumed the light and warmth around it. I was overcome by a wave of cold.
Skimble spit and hissed. The thick rumbles from deep in his body turned to full yowls. His ears pressed firmly to the sides of his skull. He backed up slowly on arthritic legs until he hit the wall. His pupils dilated into deep wells, fixed to the growing pool on the floor.
Fingers emerged, rising like swamp gas from within, and gripped the rim of its puddle. A black and rotted arm reached up and came down on the floor. More ink spilled from its digits in thick gouts. I was transfixed by fear, too scared to move or make any sound louder than a pathetic croak.
Both arms strained against the floor, shaking with effort. A mouldering face with hollow eyes and cheeks pressed against the pitch-like puddle in front of me. Surface tension clung to its teeth as they gnashed with a sickening clop, clop, clop. A voice, thin and airy, emerged.
I awoke, drenched, to the sound of shattering glass and swearing. I ran into the living room. My mother was throwing pictures into a cardboard box, every one of Colin and myself.
"Jesus Murphy, what happened?" Jude indicated my crotch, which was stained with piss.
My body shook in wracking, sobbing bursts. My knees surrendered to gravity. A great outpouring of fear and grief and relief and horror fled from my heart and stomach and spread across the ground.
Jude rushed to join me on the floor. She hugged my head to her chest and I sobbed until the pain in my stomach begged me to stop.
Though all tangible evidence of the spectre was gone, I felt its effects linger. It had snatched warmth and light from my home, along with all the positive emotions associated with them. It was difficult to believe that my mind could conjure something so viscerally counter to life.
"You saved me when your father died, you know," She said. "I don't know what I would have done without you. And now, I'm here for you."
She ushered me to the bathroom and stripped off my clothes. She shook her head at my embarrassment.
"Come on, Brian, it's nothing I haven't seen before." The ends of her wet sleeves clung to her arms.
Hot water rinsed my bones of grief and terror and sent them down the drain.
Sleep paralysis, nothing more.
My mother decided to sleep with me at night. "The sofa isn't good for my back anyway," she concluded. She relegated Skimble to the living room, complaining of allergies. He crowed at the door in protest the first night before returning beneath the couch.
I felt as though I had been reset to childhood. My mother bathed me, made me sandwiches. She held me when I had nightmares. The shame I felt was only matched by the relief that I could let go of my more basal needs to focus on my grief. I was lucky to have her taking care of me.
I was always a mama's boy, something Colin had tried to train out of me. "It's good to hang on to childhood," he said. "You want to live in it, Brian."
She had me young, and my father had passed away not long after that. "I'm all she's got," I replied. "She's all I've got."
It took him a while to warm up to me because of that. Understandably, he wanted to date me, not my mother.
We were magnetic. We went to the same campus parties by accident. We became friends first. I helped him with homework, he took me dancing. An accidental touch or two and a night of drunken fumbling later, we made it official.
A few years after, we flew to Toronto to visit his family and decided to drive back. He wanted to collect rocks from each province on the way. We got as far as Winnipeg before giving up and booking a flight - no amount of audiobooks would carry us through the Prairies. When we landed in Vancouver, I found my place packed with our friends (my mother was not invited) and he proposed.
In his vows, he said he thought of our souls as intertwined. I told him I couldn’t live without him.
And then he was struck in a hit-and-run. He died in the hospital from his injuries.
Jude continued taking down photos. I held the step ladder while she removed our favourite picture, a portrait we had taken of us with Skimble for our first anniversary.
When she wasn't looking, I hid Colin's rock collection - BC, Ontario, Manitoba - under the mattress. I reasoned that it couldn't remind me of my grief if I couldn't see it by accident. It hurt too much to have something he loved sitting in a storage unit. How many times had we talked about finishing it? How many trips had been cancelled due to one family emergency or another?
I couldn't blame Skimble for returning to his spot under the couch. If I was small enough, I probably would have joined him.
I woke up in the middle of the night to a sudden chill. My eyes fluttered open, and my heart stopped. The spectre was standing in the corner of my room, having risen before I woke. It was dressed in the rags of something that might have been a dress or shawl that rippled as if underwater.
Its legs moved in mawkish bursts, like a toddler trying to remember how to walk for the second time. Bituminous pitch leaked from its rags and splattered onto the carpet. I felt the prickle of adrenaline as it shuddered towards me.
Again, I could not move. My legs would not even tremble. My mother slept soundly beside me, her arm gripping my own, unaware of the apparition that lurched through the room.
It lowered itself as it neared me, forming the black pool as its mass intersected the floor. The smell of rotting meat enveloped me. With its face nearing mine, I could see the last remnants of flesh melting away to nothing. Maggots squirmed in its eye sockets, their wetness glistening in the light. It reached under the bed, pulling out the bag of rocks. A desperate croak emerged from my mouth.
It held the bag in its fist and raised a finger to its mouth. Icy air streamed forth, carrying decay with it.
It continued its path around the bed, towards my mother. It suffered the weight of the bag, moving more slowly across my vision. Its remaining sinews trembled with effort. Through shuddering breaths I tried to calm myself, to find the courage to scream, to warn her of the ghastly figure.
It stopped beside her. Holding the bag in both hands, it raised the rocks over its head.
I shut my eyes to block out the horror.
Finally, I screamed.
When I opened my eyes again, the rocks lay scattered on the floor. My mother sat upright, eyes wide. The spectre was gone.
Skimble hadn't left his spot for several days, not even for water or litter. I needed him with me at night to warn me of the encroaching spectre. I bent down to check on him.
"Mom," I said, heart in my throat. "Where's Skimble?"
Jude came into the room in her nightgown. A veil of hair fell over her shoulders. She wasn't wearing a bra. "What's that?"
I turned around from the couch to face her. "Skimble. He's not in his spot."
"Oh, that," she said plainly. "One of the ladies from work said she'd take him in."
Rage and confusion boiled up within me. "You gave him away without asking me?"
"Well, I'm sorry Brian, but didn't you see him? He was miserable. He needed an owner that could take care of him. Besides, all the hair was setting off my allergies."
"I- Skimble was my cat! I took care of him!"
"Please understand, honey. He's just a cat, I am your mother."
"He's all I had left of my family! Look around! This isn't even Colin's house anymore." I realised that I was shouting at the top of my lungs.
Jude huffed and set her arms at her sides. "It stopped being his house when he died, Brian. Nothing here has. I am all you have left of your family." Tears welled up in her eyes. "You're all I have of mine. A lot of people would kill to have a mother like me."
My breath caught, the insect returning to steal my words. "I don't want you in my room anymore. You're trying to take over my life," I strained.
Her knuckles turned white as she clenched her fist. "If that's what you really want, baby. If it would ease your worries, I would do anything for you."
Chill roused me from an uneasy sleep. From through the door, a pinprick of black formed. Rot filled my lungs.
I gathered what strength I could. "What do you want?" The voice was not my own. It belonged to someone braver.
Its face pushed through the painted oak. Blackness clung to skeletal features tighter than skin, the ink-like effluvia shining in the nightlight. It bared its teeth, pitch forming a film inside its mouth that pulsated like an alien egg. Growing, then deflating, then growing until it seemed about to burst..
Monstrous noises came from its throat, guttering, croaking like a raven. They grew high pitched, panicked. Teeth gnashed wildly, clop, clop, clop.
"What do you want?" I begged, barely more than a whisper.
Then hands emerged and began clawing at its neck and chest, ripping away what flesh remained in grisly clumps. It was frantic, desperate.
It dropped suddenly, noiselessly, into the floor. The door swung open.
My mother crept through the doorway, a plastic bag in hand. On seeing me awake, she lunged, pulling it quickly around my head. Panic and fear enveloped me. My whole body thrashed as I wasted the last of my breath.
Unthinking, I swung my fist as hard as I could, catching her on the temple. She stumbled back towards the door. It was enough for me to escape.
Realisations hit me all at once like barbed arrows. I charged her shoulder-first and she fell through the doorway to where I had fallen weeks before. I was out the front before I realised I had nowhere to go. My husband gone, my only remaining friend was a cat who may not even be alive. I ran and I screamed and I charged down the street until porch lights turned on and concerned neighbours in nightgowns or towels peeked out their windows at the poor man who lost his husband last month and oh it was so terrible. They thanked God that it wasn't them who lost their loved ones. Even if they had, they would never be caught raving in the streets, bloody hand, shredded feet, and piss-stained pyjamas.
And above it all was the guilt of having punched my mother.
Someone called the police, and they came within minutes. They gave me a blanket while they calmed the neighbours and put me in a cell until they could arrange someplace better I could stay and recover. I begged until my throat was bloody that they wouldn't hand me over to my mother.
I saw my husband's shadow the night I finished his rock collection.
I suppose sea glass isn't technically a rock, but Colin always had a knack for the unconventional. I added the lump of translucent green to the carrying case, in the spot labelled "Newfoundland". I pushed long hair out of my face, turned to a rising sun which did not warm me. Cool ocean air swept the last remnants of sorrow from my grief-addled body.
I put the case of rocks on my hotel nightstand. Colin's side. He visited me, inky black against the moonlight. Cold as a winter night, my tears turned to frost on my cheeks.
But my heart was warm. I was ready, and he was too. Whatever curse bound him here, - a life taken too early, a love stronger than death, an unfinished rock collection - it had been broken. He did not have the strength to speak anymore, but I knew with every part of me that Colin was saying goodbye as he sank into the murk for the last time.