Two lost children search for their mother
“I don’t like it here, Jack," Penny whined. "This place gives me the creeps.”
“I know, Pen," I said, "I don’t like it much either. Everything's so weird."
“Where’s Momma?" she asked. "It’s cold, and I wanna go home.” She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered, her thin body shaking as if she were wearing wet clothes.
“Me too,” I said, still watching the strangeness of the water. “How long have we been waiting, anyway?”
She furrowed her eyebrows. “Uh . . . I'm not really sure. I can’t remember things, but it feels like a long time.”
“Yeah . . . a long time,” I said, mesmerized. We continued to dangle our feet over the edge of a rickety, old dock and stared at the black water below.
Spellbound, I tried to tear my eyes away from the water. It had a syrupy flow to it, thick and heavy like black honey. The water dragged at my thoughts, and my memories, trying to drown me in its inky depths. Even now, its hypnotic pull made me feel as though I were falling headlong into it. I gripped the dock with all my strength and forced my gaze away.
I stood then, stretching my stiff muscles and feeling as if I had been sitting in the same place for too long, or that I was coming out of a deep sleep, all cold and achy. I dug my hands into my front pockets for warmth, my numb fingers finding a flat smooth rock. For the life of me I couldn't remember where I had gotten it, but instinctively I knew it was shaped perfectly for throwing. Winding up, I tossed it across the face of the river.
The stone skipped oddly to-and-fro for a moment, and then the black water rose up with a gaping dark mouth and swallowed it.
"What the . . . "
A chill ran through me. "Did you see that, Pen? The river just ate my rock!”
“Stop it, Jack, you're scaring me!”
"But I'm telling you, that was the weirdest thing I've ever seen."
"You should be helping me figure out where we are instead of throwing rocks."
She was right. I had been concentrating so hard on the river that I completely overlooked our surroundings. I took a quick look up and down the watercourse.
The banks were lined with old, gnarled trees that grew thick in the deepening shadows. Their crooked branches twisted toward the ground so that they appeared to crouch in the darkness like deformed giants desperate to pull their roots free of the thick, black mud. Above, and all around us, tall, erect cliffs framed a strip of gray sky like a window into another world. But it was always the look of the inky water that pulled back my gaze.
“What’s that?” Penny asked pointing upstream.
I strained to see. “Where? I don't see anything.”
“Up ahead, do you see it?”
I did, and it was as black as the water, floating toward us.
As I studied it, I thought it was a cow or something, but as it neared, I saw that it only looked like that because its body was so bloated and swollen.
It spun around in the current as it approached, and then I saw its canine features.
“It's a dog," I said, "a big dog.”
As it passed, I noticed it had a swollen tongue that lolled from the side of its mouth, and its skin looked as if it would burst at any moment.
Penny shuddered. “Eww, Jack, that’s gross! What happened to it? It looks all burnt.”
“I don't know, maybe there was a fire and it got trapped.” As sickening as the dog looked, I couldn’t believe its size. It was the biggest hound I had ever seen. Its head was huge, and its mouth was filled with pencil-sized teeth.
Penny started a nervous dance, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “Jack, I wish Momma would hurry up. What if there are more dogs like that around here? Dogs that aren't burnt?”
“I doubt it," I said, trying to calm her. "I think the river just made it swell up like that."
We watched it together, both of us lost in our own explanations until it finally sailed around a curve in the bank and out of sight. I thought about Momma then, and the more I did, the more my head hurt. I couldn't recall anything leading up to the time we were left sitting on the dock.
“You know," I said, "I can’t remember how we got here, can you?”
“No, my head feels all mushy inside. The harder I try to remember, the more it seems to slide away.” She brightened then. “But I do remember some things . . . like colors.”
“Colors?” The word seemed like something I should know but didn't.
“Yeah, you know, like blue.” She closed her eyes and rubbed at her forehead, and then suddenly remembering blurted out, “Blue like the sky!”
I looked up at the strip of gray sky. “Blue, huh . . . are you sure about that?”
“Pretty sure,” she said, her face twisting in thought. “Yep, blue,” she said again. “Cause that’s my favorite color.”
“Well, the next time you see it,” I teased, “lemme know, will ya?”
She became very serious. "I don't think there's any blue around here, Jack. I don't think there's anything like we're used to seeing."
My gaze was pulled back to the river where I saw another shape drifting toward us. The fact there were dead things in the water at all was enough to make my stomach lurch, and then as if on cue, it made a loud gurgling sound like when you've had too much water to drink.
Penny's keen sight picked it out first, and as if she were too afraid to say it aloud, she whispered, “I think it’s a body.” I strained to see, but the water was so dark I couldn’t quite make it out. Wiping at my eyes, I looked again and then saw it clearly. It was the body of a man.
As the corpse approached us, we saw its skin was bubbled and scalded — burnt just like the dog. I strained to see his face and almost jumped when I did. His features looked all twisted and crooked, and his mouth hung open as if he died screaming.
Penny had seen it too. “No, no, no, no," she said backing away. "This can’t be happening.” She stomped her feet on the platform as if she refused to believe she was awake and not in some kind of nightmare. Beneath us, the oily water sloshed and churned, and then the old dock swayed, threatening to give way. “I want, Momma!” she yelled. “Where's Momma?”
“Easy Pen,” I said. “You’ll sink us!" I grabbed her hand until the dock steadied itself. "He’s dead, he can’t hurt us.” We both watched in horror as the man floated by. I had never seen a dead man before, and hoped for as long as I lived I’d never see another. My eyes continued to track the body until the dark water carried him out of sight.
Penny started losing it. "Where are we, Jack? What is this place?"
"I don't know, Pen," I said, draping my arm around her shoulder and pulling her against me. She buried her face into my chest. “Take it easy, don’t worry,” I said. “It'll be all right. Look, he's gone now.”
Then her head snapped back as if I had said something wrong. She stared up at me. Her face showed that familiar dimple it carried on one side when she had the look. The same look she'd get whenever she had one of her nightmares. It was usually right after Momma and Poppa had a big fight. I’d wake up, and she’d be right there, just inches from my face, staring at me. She never said a word. Most times, I’d just put her back to bed, and then lay down beside her until she fell asleep. She told me once, that she kept having the same dream, a dream where something bad happens to us — something real bad. I knew she was thinking about it now.
A cold breeze tugged at her long black hair and I lightly brushed it from her eyes. Pressing my forehead against the side of her skull, I whispered, “Everything’s gonna be all right, Pen, I promise. Momma will get here soon, you’ll see.” Her desperate gaze dropped to the water, and I felt her body stiffen as she pulled away from me, her breath catching in her throat. “Oh God, there’s more.”
I looked upriver. A large group of burnt bodies floated toward us, their heads bobbing up and down in the water like a crowd of human corks, their mouths stretched as wide as empty buckets. They reminded me of a jack-in-the-box that would suddenly pop out in the dark with the scariest face you could ever imagine, a face black and burnt to a crisp.
Some of the bodies floated, while others moved just beneath the surface, the dark water changing their grisly features. Several drifted under the dock, and I looked into their dead eyes as they stared back at us.
“Let’s get out of here, Jack!” Penny said, her voice trembling with fright. “Something's gonna happen if we don't, I just know it.” She began to cry then while she pulled at my hand. It was as though she expected the bodies to jump out at us, clutch our legs, and pull us into the water. “Jack, please, come on," she urged. "We gotta go! Now!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay." I pulled away from her and stared at the dead. "There’s gotta be an explanation for this. Maybe there was a terrible fire or something. Hey, maybe that's why the water’s all black.”
“I don't think so," she said. "I think it's something really bad. Besides, I don’t smell any smoke, do you?”
I sniffed the air. There was a strange aroma, but not one of smoke. “There's gotta be a reason," I said again.
Tearing my gaze from the floating bodies, I looked around, praying with all my heart that I’d see Momma coming — coming to the rescue in her big black Cadillac. Instead, all I could see was a group of trees covered with stringy moss that hung from the branches like tattered shreds of gray cloth. "What is this place? Where are we?"
“Jack, come on!” She pulled at me again. “They smell! They smell like rotten eggs.”
I hadn’t noticed it before, but now the air was thick with the stench of something dead. “All right," I said,. "Come on, let’s get out of here.” We turned away from the watercourse and walked together in stunned silence down the length of the dock and into the unknown.
I started to remember.
It was a warm day under a bright, blue sky, and Penny and I sat on the front porch dangling our feet over the edge waiting for Momma to take us to church. The Mulberry tree sang with the excited chatter of sparrows, as the tire swing spun slowly beneath it on the end of its rope. It felt as though it was waving to us, friendly-like, to come and play, but we knew better. Momma would give us hell. There was no getting dirty while wearing our church clothes, that was the law. Even though they were used and bought at the thrift store, Momma made us take care of them as if they were brand new.
In the distance, I heard the neighbor’s big, black dog bark at something unseen. I also heard Momma and Poppa arguing.
“Dammit, Russ!” Momma yelled. “Just once, I'd liked to see all of us go to church together—like a family!”
“I told you a hundred times Vickie, I ain’t going nowhere near that church. You ain’t gonna use me to prove to those hypocritical friends of yours that we’re just like them, 'cause we ain’t!”
“It’s got nothing to do with that, and you know it! You gotta get out. You've gotta get on with your life. There were a lot of people laid off, Russ. You ain’t the only one with problems.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. You don't know what it feels like.”
“Oh, you think you got problems? Try keeping things going ‘round here with no money coming in? Just try it! You’re supposed to be an example to our kids. Is this how you want them to remember you?”
“Get out of my face, Vickie!”
“Fine! I will!” she screamed. “I’ve had it with you, anyway. You ain’t nuthin’ but a lousy drunk!”
I heard a loud slap echo through the house.
“Don’t you ever talk to me like that, woman! I’ll beat you like there ain’t no tomorrow. Understand?”
Things got really quiet.
I heard momma’s high-heeled shoes march angrily across the wood floor and through the kitchen. She tore at the cupboards, slamming doors and throwing things around like she was looking for something. I could hear her crying.
“What in the hell ya think you’re doing with that?” Poppa asked.
“I told you, you son-of-bitch!” Momma screamed. She sounded hysterical. “I told you what was gonna happen the next time you hit me!”
“Put the goddamn gun down, Vicki! Put it down, now!"
"Dammit, woman, I’m warning you!”
”You ain’t never gonna hit me or these kids again. Do you understand? Never!”
A shot rang out, and then something heavy crashed to the floor.
Penny stared at me wide-eyed and trembling. I could hear her teeth chatter—she had that look.
Then, the screen door slammed open and Momma stormed out of the house. Her cheek was bright red on one side, nearly matching the printed roses on her old dress.
“What’s happened?” I asked, jumping straight up. “Where’s Poppa?”
“Get in the car!” she hollered, digging in her purse for her keys. “Move!”
We didn’t hesitate. We’d seen Momma mad before. As quickly as we could, we clamored into the back seat of the car. Through the rear window, I looked back toward the house hoping to see Poppa come out. But he never did.
Penny grabbed at my arm. “Jack? Something bad’s happened.” She gripped my arm and dug in her nails. “It’s like my dream, Jack. Just like my dream!”
I didn’t know what to say to her. I felt sick to my stomach—the world seemed to swallow me like quicksand and my vision darkened around the edges. I was too stunned to move, too stunned to speak.
Momma started the Cadillac, gunned the engine several times, and then threw it into gear. The car tore down the dirt driveway in a billow of dust as tall as the house.
A dark cloud moved over us.
The crack of distant thunder and lightning hurried our steps as the black sky shook the rain out. We rushed upriver as fast as we could, weaving in and out of the deformed trees and sloshing through thick, sticky mud.
There were two large boulders ahead. They appeared to have collided against each other and formed an overhang, I pushed Penny between them and we huddled together inside its shallow cave facing the gnashing storm. It smashed around us with dagger-like rain and biting wind. The gray rainwater flushed in torrents down the rocks and crevasses until it found its way to where we pressed together—the downpour left us chilled, soaked, and unclean.
Penny pulled her legs tightly into her chest and shivered, shuddering as though with fever. “I feel so cold. Like I ain’t never gonna be warm again.”
I moved in close to her and tried to offer what little warmth I had left. We stared out at the rain from under the rocks like scared rabbits.
Penny sniffed at the air. “Can you smell it?”
“What?” I asked.
“The rain. It smells nasty, like . . . like pee.”
The rain did smell bad, and there was a tang to it like urine. “Just hang on,” I said. “It can’t last forever.”
But it did, at least it felt that way. After a time, it stopped.
The downpour had made the ground muddier than before—the air fouler. We slowly emerged to the stench of the drowned landscape.
I didn't like the way Penny looked. She was scared—lost—and there wasn’t anything I could do or say to make it better. Sometimes when there's no hope, you've got to make some.
“Come on, Pen, buck up,” I said at last. “We gotta keep looking for Momma, right? I bet she's worried sick about us; probably been looking everywhere."
I checked around to get our bearings. To the south was the river. To the north, I saw tall, erect cliffs.
“I think we should try for those hills,” I said. “You know, see what we can see.” I pulled her gently along behind, but she was barely moving and didn't talk.
She had that faraway look again and it was getting worse. “Come on," I coaxed. "We gotta keep moving and find Momma. Besides, it’ll help dry out our clothes.”
We started out for the canyon wall, slipping and stumbling in the freshly churned muck. Once, Penny fell face-first into it. As I helped her up, I saw she was crying.
"What's wrong, Pen?"
"Momma's gonna be mad. Just look at what I did to my dress."
I felt so relieved to hear her speak. "Don't worry," I laughed. "I'll tell her it was all my fault."
From over a rise, we saw someone—an old woman struggling toward us through the mud.
“Children!” she yelled out. “Children, wait!” She hurried to catch up, falling several times herself.
As she approached, I saw that she wore a tangle of matted hair that dangled to the shoulder straps of her torn and muddy dress. Her limbs looked old and knotted, bent like the trees and covered in muck.
Penny pulled at my hand. “Jack, let’s go. I don’t like her. She looks like an old witch lady.”
Even though the woman was haggard, thin, and ugly, for some reason I felt the urge to stay.
“Maybe she can help us," I said. "She might even have seen Momma.”
I held onto my courage and waited. The woman, gasping for air, scrambled across the small, mud-strewn slope, and then stumbled to a stop in front of us.
“Oh, children, I’m so glad I found you,” she said. Her labored breathing sounded as if she were about to choke. She held her arms out to us, as though she expected us to run to her, and give her a great big hug.
Penny backed away, stepping behind me and clutching at the back of my shirt. “Come on, Jack, let’s go.”
The woman’s face was like a broken rock, all ragged edges smeared with grime. Her mouth resembled a crack in dried mud, and her skin appeared to have had all the juice wrung from it. She looked as wrinkled as a crumbled paper sack.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” she said, still trying to regain her breath.
“Why?” I asked. “Who are you?”
That made the woman pause. She looked bewildered, as if she were waking from a dream, and did not know where she was or why she had come here. “You don’t know me?”
“No!" Penny yelled from behind me. "Go away!”
She tried to address her appearance—brushed at her dress, ran her brittle and bony fingers through her hair. “Look at me! Don’t you recognize me at all?”
She stepped closer to us with a ragged grin, revealing several missing teeth behind cracked and bloody lips. Again she raised her arms as though to gather us to her drooping breast.
“That’s close enough,” I said, then quickly picked up a rock and threatened to throw it. “Stay back, I’m warning you!”
The smile dropped from her face. I could see her grappling to understand the situation. “Children, don’t you remember me at all?”
“No!” cried Penny from under my arm. Her knuckles were white with fear as she gripped my shirt. “You’re a crazy lady! Leave us alone!”
“But I know you. I . . . I can feel it. I know I know you. Please, come . . . come to me.”
As if on cue, Penny and I backed away.
She became frustrated and angry. “Children! This is no time for games. You’re not supposed to be here!” Her voice became a cracked whisper, hoarse with exhaustion. “This is a very bad place. You don’t belong.” She stepped closer. “Come with me, now!”
Penny shouted. “We don’t know you, lady! Get away from us!” The sound of Penny’s frightened voice jolted me into action.
“Run, Penny!" I screamed. "Run!”
The old woman lunged at us. “No! Stop! Please, wait! You don’t understand!”
We ran hand-in-hand until my chest hurt until my booming heart knocked the breath out of me, then Penny slipped and fell in the mud.
“Are you all right?” I asked, helping her back to her feet.
She coughed raggedly. “I . . . I can’t breathe. I feel like I’m smothering.”
“Just hang on to me, I gotcha.”
When she looked back she saw the old woman stumbling after us. “She’s still coming!”
Coldly, I looked at the stone I still held in my hand. “Not for long,” I said.
I sat Penny on a boulder that jutted from the ground. “You stay here and rest, okay? I’ll take care of the crazy lady.”
She nodded weakly. “Please, Jack . . . be careful.”
I walked out to meet the old woman.
“Go away!” I yelled and then threw the rock at her. It passed just inches above her head. “Go away! Leave us alone!”
She kept coming, muttering something I could not hear.
I searched the ground for another rock. Finding one about the size of a baseball, I wound up and threw it as hard as I could. This time it hit her square in the chest and made a loud cracking sound as if the stone had broken her in two. She fell to her knees, clutching her chest as if shot.
“Go away, you crazy old coot! We don’t want nothing to do with you!”
The mind-widowed woman wept as though she had come to the end of herself. She pounded her gnarled fists into the mud and coughed up a gush of red vomit that ran thick down her chin and neck.
Through her beard of blood, she said, “Please . . . listen . . . you don’t belong here.”
At that moment, I actually felt sorry for her. She was just an old woman after all—pitiful and helpless—what harm could she do? But I had to think of Penny. Right now, I was all she had. I turned away from the old woman. “Come on, Pen,” I sighed. I helped her up from the rock. “I don’t think she’ll follow us anymore.”
Together, we lumbered our way through the mud, then crested a small hill until we couldn't see the old woman anymore. We veered toward the cliffs.
The Cadillac shot down the narrow highway toward the river. Penny and I bumped heads as we slid from one side of the car to the other with every turn Momma made.
Penny screamed, “Do something, Jack!”
I grabbed hold of the front seat and tried to lean forward. “Momma? Momma, please, slow down! You’re scaring us!”
“They’ll take you away from me,” she ranted, “and throw me in prison. I can’t let that happen.” She glanced over the back seat, her eyes wild, her cheek red and puffy, as if a bee had stung it. I hardly recognized her. “I’ll never see you again,” she wailed. “You’re my children. You belong to me.”
We sped toward the river, its banks bulging with water the color of mud.
“Momma, please!" I shouted. "Slow down! It’s the river! The river!”
I grabbed for her shoulder, my fingers hooking the chain she wore around her neck with the small golden cross. “Momma, please!”
She pushed my hand away and the chain broke, the necklace dropping down the front of her dress. I fell back into the seat as she continued to rave. “Nobody’s going to take my kids from me. Do you hear? Nobody!”
Again she looked back over her shoulder, but this time her eyes were filled with love. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “Just remember to keep me in your hearts. Forgive me, my darlings—I will always love you.”
She smacked the power switch to the door locks, and I heard them slam down with a muted thud that had all the finality of a closing coffin. Then she pointed the car toward the river and smashed the accelerator down.
“She’s crazy,” Penny said, sagging into me for support as we continued to hurry across the mud. “Why does she keep following us?”
“I don’t know,” I said, my voice cracking. "She said we didn't belong here. How could she know that? Do you think she knows where Momma is?"
“I think she's lost, just like us, Jack." Then she squeezed my hand tightly. "I’ve never seen you act like that before. You were very brave.”
“Yeah, well, I was scared, scared as anything. But you were right. We never should’ve talked to her.”
As we angled our path toward the sheer cliff wall, it began to get dark. It was a strange kind of dark, heavy, and thick as though it wanted to crush us, smother us.
Penny was out of breath, so we stopped to rest. She looked pale and weak--almost gray--her lower lip quivering from the cold. Gazing at the steep rocks ahead, I watched as she measured the distance between the hills and the way we had come. “I think we should go back to the river," she said. "There’s no way we can get over those mountains.”
“You can’t know that for sure. Besides, if we can reach higher ground, we might be able to see what’s around.”
Suddenly she stiffened and moved into me. “It’s the old woman," she whispered. "She’s still following us.”
I looked over my shoulder. The woman stumbled after us, and I could hear her mumbling as if she had lost her mind. “Yeah, I know, but she’s staying out of throwing range. Don’t worry, she can’t keep up with us for long. She’s too old.”
Sorely, we continued on, tripping and stumbling until we reached the canyon wall. As I predicted, we finally lost sight of the old woman and focused our attention on the bare stone that loomed against the sky before us. The mountain stood gray with age and cold, worn smooth by time, wind and rain. The cliffs looked insurmountable—the ground bitter and broken. As we followed the wall, searching for a way to climb up, we became exhausted and could walk no further. Leaning our backs against the cold stone, we collapsed in a ragged heap at its base and slept.
I heard someone humming a song that I knew once but had forgotten. I felt my hair smoothed back from my face, and then felt a kiss at my brow. The song continued, and I remembered then that it was the one Momma used to sing to me as she rocked me to sleep, the glint of her golden crucifix nestled between her breasts and shining like newfound treasure.
My eyes shot open.
The old woman stooped over me, her face just inches from mine.
Startled, I jumped up and pushed her. “Get away from me!”
My shouts awoke Penny, and she clambered to her feet in a daze. When she saw the old woman, she inched her body along the cliff wall as if she were trying to slip away from a horror that she was too frozen with fear to run from.
“Why can’t you just leave us alone?” I yelled. “What do you want?”
The woman stared up at me, her face cracked and broken, her eyes full of tears. When she tried to stand up, I pushed her down again. “Stay back!” The touch of her skin was like an elephant’s hide.
“I mean you no harm,” she said. “I just want to talk. You’ve got to try to understand . . . you’re not supposed to be here. This place is for . . . .”
A terrifying howl split the air.
The old woman jerked her head toward the river, a frightened expression etched across her face. “Hurry!” she said, becoming frantic. “We have to leave! The hounds are coming!”
“What are you talking about?” Penny asked. “What hounds?”
“The wild dogs! They keep everyone near the river. We’re not supposed to wander.”
I remembered the large, burnt dog we had seen earlier. Compelled by the old woman’s fear, I turned to follow her gaze. A pack of huge black dogs boiled over the shattered ground. They moved quickly toward us from deep shade into the borrowed light of the sky. I had never seen dogs that big before. The sight staggered me.
“It is forbidden to leave the watercourse,” the old woman explained. “The dogs come—they always come.”
Penny was gripped in fear. “We’re not going anywhere with you!"
The woman’s shoulders slumped forward. She leaned against the rock to find strength. There was a glint of a gold chain from around her neck. In a broken voice, she said, “You don’t understand. I remember now. I’m . . . I’m your mother.”
The air filled with bloodcurdling howls, like the wailing from tortured animals, torn and suffering.
“They’re coming!” she yelled. “Run!”
I sprang into action and filled my hands with stones. “Penny, help me find more rocks!”
I looked up to see the animals running with their noses in the air, the scent of their prey in the wind. When they caught sight of us, their howls turned into unrelenting rage. They barreled forward, eager to rend flesh.
Desperately, I looked into Penny’s eyes. “If anything happens to me,” I said, “anything at all . . . gets out of here. Do not try to help me, just run.”
Abruptly, clutching a rock in each hand, I turned and stepped forward to meet the large beasts.
The creatures bounded in huge strides, their howls an abandoned wave of fury that poured ahead of them. Their eyes shone cruel and heartless, their slathering fangs seemed to reflect a sickly hue.
The old woman grabbed me from behind and shoved me toward Penny. “No! You can’t fight these creatures. You must get away! Run, I say!" She emitted a shrill one-note scream, "Run!”
It was then that I recognized something in her eyes—something that made me remember everything.
The old woman did not see the lead hound as it leaped; its monstrous bulk sailed through the air and pounded her to the dirt like a thin, torn sheet. For a moment, they rolled together upon the muddy ground, the beast snapping at her with bared fangs as she feebly tried to cover her face with her arms and hands.
Boldly, and without thinking, I set my feet and threw a stone at the brute as hard as I could. It struck the hound soundly upon its side, and it yelped and turned its venomous glare in my direction. Its eyes burned into me, making my legs shake. I could smell its rank breath, and it nearly forced me to gag.
In a moment, the others were on top of us, pinning us against the canyon wall. The old woman yelled, “Run! Run toward the river!”
This time we bolted—the massive dogs baying closely at our heels, herding us.
We ran as if our strength sprang from a deeper source than the fear that drove us. The dogs followed for a time, but then slowly backed off and returned to their former prey. By the time we reached the watercourse, we collapsed upon its muddy shore gasping for air.
Looking at Penny, I flung my arms around her neck and caught her in a hug of desperation, my head swirling with memories. “Did you hear?” I panted. “Did you hear what she said?”
“Hear what? What’s wrong?”
For a moment, I couldn’t speak, my heart was splintered and torn like kindling. “That old woman . . . she said . . . she said she was our mother.”
“I don’t believe it. She doesn’t even look like Momma.”
“I know, but I’m starting to remember things. I remember we were all in the car together.”
“Car? What car?”
“The Cadillac, Penny! Remember? Momma drove it into the river! We couldn’t get out! She locked the doors. Locked them!”
I felt weak, stretched to my limits. “We couldn’t get out,” I cried. “We . . . we drowned.”
“Drowned? No, Jack, we’re here. How could we have drowned?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know, Penny, but we did. I remember! And that old woman . . . she’s . . . she’s Momma!”
“No, she can’t be. She’s all old and wrinkled.”
“But she is, I tell ya! That’s why she keeps following us!”
“But why . . . why does she look like that, all old and ugly?”
“I’m not sure, but we’ve gotta go back. We’ve gotta try and help her.”
Just then, there was a sound like a million kites as they popped, fluttered, and caught in the wind. Overhead, the clouds foamed, black and gray tangling together and racing across the sky.
“What’s that, Jack? Can you feel it?” Penny said, urging me to my feet. “Something’s happening! Something’s calling us.”
I too felt drawn toward the sound. The same feeling I got from the river only stronger, more demanding. Forgetting all about Momma, we staggered against the approaching storm toward the river.
Not far ahead, we could see other people gathering along the shoreline. They moved as if in a trance with slack, vacant expressions, wailing madly and flailing their arms in the air. They sounded like tortured souls—their voices shuddering up into the heavens.
As if in answer, the sky cracked and boomed, and lightning lit up the clouds and charged the air with electricity. There was another loud pop, and a bright column of orange flame shot down from the sky and lightly touched the muddy banks of the river. The people moved toward it like moths to a flame, screaming as they walked into its fiery finger.
We watched in absolute horror as their bodies burned in agony.
One by one, the flames scorched and seared them, then spit them out again. They became blazing infernos, stumbling into the ebony water as though it would soothe their stinging flesh. The river took them as they sank like thrown stones, coughing up the last of their lives and disappearing beneath the water’s blackness.
The lethal pillar of fire leaped from person to person, fed upon their flesh, one after the other, charring them the color of shadow, and then sending them dancing wildly into the river, their body fat sizzling and bubbling as if they were bacon on a griddle.
“What is it?” Penny shrieked. “What is happening?”
I gaped madly at the sickening scene before us, a tortured vision of pain and suffering. It was obvious that these people wanted this—they expected it—they were damned. Slowly, I began to realize the truth.
The flame moved toward us.
“Come on,” I yelled. “We gotta get out of here!”
As we turned to run, we again came face to face with the old woman.
She moved toward us, unraveled and confused; her body scored with deep bites and lacerations that covered her brittle arms and legs. The transparency of her skin, almost white, exposed the dark map-work of her veins. Her face seemed engraved with grief and longing. Nestled between her breasts, I saw the gold chain—the cross.
In a voice that sounded knotted and rough, hypnotized by fire, she spoke. “Children . . . I’ve . . . I’ve found you.” She staggered, almost fell. “That’s good . . . there’s still time.” She looked back over her shoulder. “The hounds . . . they left me when I started toward the river . . . they left me.”
Penny stepped forward, fearlessly, her black hair flying like raven wings about her shoulders. “You’re not Momma!” She stared into the old woman’s eyes. “You don’t even know our names!”
The old woman’s body waved in the wind. “Your names? I . . . I don’t remember. Your names were taken from me.” Then, like a whisper against the storm, she said, “Listen to me. You must listen. You have to cross the river before the flame touches you. It is your only chance to return home.”
“But, why?” I moaned. “Where are we? Why are we here?”
“You don’t belong here. This place . . .” she said looking around, “this place is for those who take their own lives. Your spirits have followed me here. But you are innocent! You have to go back. You have to cross the river!”
“But we’ll drown! You know we’ll drown!” Penny shouted.
“No!” she groaned, as though she had run out of words. “Your innocence will hold you up. You must trust me!”
Penny had heard enough, facing me she said, “She’s lying. We’ll drown. I know it.” Then turning back on the old woman, “You want us to drown! Just like before!”
“No! No, that’s not true, child.”
“Child?” Penny screamed in frustration. “You keep saying that. My name is Penny!”
The old woman’s eyes lit with recognition. “Penny? Yes . . . Penny.” She spoke the name again as if she had said it simply to hear the sound. “Yes, I remember now! Oh, Penny! Penny . . . my little darling.” She reached out as if to scoop her up into her frail arms.
Penny stepped back, refusing to touch her. “Why, Momma, why? How could you do it?”
The question hit her like a slap. “Because . . . because I couldn’t bear to be without you,” the old woman said as she hung her head and began to cry. “But I was wrong . . . so wrong. My selfish act cost me everything.” She sadly looked into Penny’s eyes. “Don’t be afraid, honey. Just remember to keep me in your hearts, for I will always love you.”
Penny’s face fell slack. “That’s . . . that’s what momma said just before we drowned. She said she would always love us.” The words began to soak into her like a cool drink of fresh water, and then without hesitation, she rushed into her mother’s arms, sobbing, “Momma, Momma! Oh, Momma! Please take us home, Momma, take us home.”
“Yes . . . yes, Penny, my love,” she cried as she stroked her long hair. “Home . . . it’s time to go home.” She tenderly pushed her away, looking up at the pillar of fire. “But we must hurry.”
Momma wobbled upon weak and tired legs. It was obvious she had come to the end—like a rock struck too hard or too often, she wavered there for a moment as if she would crumble.
The flame crept nearer.
“You’re coming with us,” I insisted, grabbing her hand.
“Oh, Jack, after everything, you still love me?” With a torn smile, she gently pulled my hand to her cracked cheek, wetting it with her tears. “No,” she said heavily. “No, my darling. I can not come.”
“Look at me, son. I have been marked for damnation—a crime of the spirit. I cannot leave this place—ever.” She stared at the approaching inferno, shoring up the last of her strength. “The flame comes for me,” she said wearily. “It always comes. I’m ready now.”
I shook my head unable to comprehend what she was saying. “But you helped us—saved us from the hounds! You must cross over with us. I won’t leave you here! I won’t!”
A strange light shone from her eyes like a beacon to the approaching flame. “No, Jackie! I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
The column of fire licked out a probing arm of flame. I could feel the searing heat. “Quickly now, children,” she said, grabbing our hands. “This way!”
Before we could object, she led us down to the water’s edge. The flame followed, waiting patiently with fire hot enough to incinerate stone. “Hurry! Hurry before it’s too late!”
“But, Momma, I’m scared.” Penny cried. “This is just like before! The water scares me!”
Momma suddenly ripped the gold chain from her neck and shoved it into Penny’s hand, then desperately pushed her toward me. “Take care of your sister, Jack. Cross the river. That’s the way home.”
I hesitated. The woman before me was old and worn out, but I could still see Momma inside. I wouldn’t leave her. Not now—not after what we went through to find her. “Please, Momma!” I begged. “Please!”
She saw the look on my face, the tears rolling from my eyes, then shook her head. “No!” Then softer. “No, Jack. You’ve got to think of your sister now. She’s the one you must save.” Her eyes pleaded with me. “Save her, Jack. Save Penny." The sound of the approaching flame flapped madly like the last inward suck of air before the blast of a hurricane. “Now go!” she shouted. “Go!”
I halfheartedly turned from her, biting my lower lip and hoping the pain would wake me from this nightmare.
“You can do it, Jack! Cross the river!”
“But, Momma . . . please . . . .”
“Hurry, boy, hurry!” She pushed me forward and I cautiously waded out into the water. It felt slick as oil, and seethed with malice. “Come with us, Momma!” I screamed. “Please, come with us!”
Tears blurred my eyes as I took Penny’s hand and coaxed her into the black water. “Come on, Pen,” I sobbed, “hold on to me. I’ll tow you.”
“But I’m scared, Jack. I’m afraid of what’s in the water.”
“Just keep your head up, your mouth closed, and hang on.”
Together we waded out into the murky depths. The thought of something lurking just below the surface forced me to kick off the bottom and start to swim. Penny held onto my shirt and thrashed her legs wildly.
The current moved us slightly downriver and away from the shore. As I swam, I desperately struggled to keep my mouth closed. The thought of drinking the water made my stomach lurch.
As I turned my head to see Momma one more time, I caught her waving goodbye—saying farewell to everything she had ever loved.
Without warning the pillar of fire took her from behind.
“No!” I screamed. “Momma!”
I watched as the flame charred her skin instantly; seared her lungs like hot coals; and blistered her frail flesh as it consumed her. She moved within the fire like a dancing puppet, her gaze locked upon us the whole time as she turned a dark, sick hue.
And still, she burned.
The blaze whipped around her—defiled her form—ate into her body. The flames licked from within her eyes, fingered the inside of her mouth, and burned away her memory forever.
Then it spat her out.
She stumbled forward, as the ink-colored water rose up to greet her. It lapped about her eagerly and pulled her under. For a moment, her face shone like a dim gray rose just beneath the surface, and then disappeared.
“Momma! Momma!” Penny kept calling until she was hoarse from the effort. The loss behind her eyes showed like an open wound and her whole body trembled and shook as she struggled to keep her head above water.
Suddenly, she let go of me. She turned and began to dog-paddle back toward the shore. I grabbed at her, yelling, “Penny, come back! She’s gone! Momma’s gone!”
The stinking river pulled at her clothes, and the weight of the dress she had worn for church that day so long ago, wrapped about her legs and dragged her under. I saw the panic in her eyes as she began to sink.
“Hang on, Pen, I’m coming! Hang on!”
A black shape rose from behind her and with a shiny, slick arm, reached around her neck and pulled her under. “Penny!” I dove for her, and felt her arm, but it slipped from my grasp. When I surfaced, she was nowhere in sight.
There was a tugging at my leg and bubbles exploded all around me. A terrifying dark head slowly broke the surface just inches from my face.
Gasping and coughing mouthfuls of water, I thrashed wildly in the river trying to get away. The creature reached out and grabbed me. Its skin glistened smooth and tight, while long black snakes hung from its mouth and wrapped around its head; reflected in its goggles were red and blue lights.
Fighting desperately, I kicked and screamed as it dragged me out of the remnants of shadow and into the sunlight.
Then it pulled me from the water where several people gathered around me, wrapped me in blankets, and rubbed vigorously at my arms and legs.
“This one’s still alive!”
I saw another black-skinned monster emerge from the water carrying Penny. Her arms and long hair hung down like drowned black weeds. Two men rushed forward and grabbed her, then laid her down next to me upon the grassy shore.
She wasn’t moving.
A man in a white jacket pushed his way through the crowd and knelt by her side. He tilted her head back, pinched her nose, and then blew into her open mouth. I watched him do this several times. Then Penny suddenly coughed, spewing black water from her lungs. There was a look of relief on the man’s face as the others patted him vigorously on the back and congratulated him.
A policeman walked into my line of vision, and I heard the man with the white coat say, “I’m afraid the mother didn’t make it.”
“Jack . . .?” Penny squinted numbly at me, moaned, and whispered, “Jack?”
“Yeah, Pen, I’m right here.”
She blew out a heavy sigh, put her hand in mine, and then pressed Momma’s gold chain and crucifix into it.
I clutched it tightly. “Thanks, Pen.”
She smiled and glanced up into the sky. “Look, Jack,” she said, pointing weakly, “Just like I told you . . . blue sky, blue and beautiful.”