Mark goes to see his mother one last time, but doesn't find what he expected.
| It was a beautiful day, one of those that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. The late afternoon sunshine beamed down from a clear blue sky as Mark drove his old blue convertible down the deserted Ohio highway. Here and there, groups of trees broke up the open rolling fields, and occasionally a farmhouse appeared briefly before falling behind in the distance. Cows chewed their cud contentedly while farmers plowed their fields, neither paying any mind to the blue car as it passed by. Mark vaguely noticed the scenery as he drove, though he seldom paid any attention to it. His mind was alternating between the distant past and the immediate future.
As he drove through the open countryside, Mark considered his destination. He hadn’t been there in years, almost ten of them. His mother didn’t know he was coming; no one did. This was a planned trip, but a secret trip nonetheless. Mark was going home to see his mother for the last time, to tell her goodbye. They were not close; he hadn’t talked to her in several years. However, she was the only person in the world who loved him, and he felt obligated to see her one last time. He also wanted to see the house where he grew up before he did the deed. He had a lot of memories wrapped up in that old house.
Mark had decided to kill himself. It was not a decision that he had agonized over, and he actually felt calm and relieved once he arrived at what, to him, was the obvious conclusion. Mark had left home abruptly just before his eighteenth birthday. He couldn’t remember exactly why, but he knew that thinking about it turned him into an emotional wreck, so he rarely let it enter his mind. He had ended up living in his car for almost a month before he decided to join the Army and get away from everything. After three years of being yelled at and going places no one would ever want to go, he realized that the military was not the life for him. After getting out, he bounced from one job to the next, never getting attached to anyone or any place. He couldn’t seem to find his place in the world, his niche. He wasn’t exceptionally good at anything, and couldn’t seem to find a job that he really liked. Likewise, there didn’t seem to be a woman out there for him, and his attempts at a relationship rarely lasted more than a week or two. He felt invisible. More and more frequently, he found himself wondering why he continued to try, why he let himself be beat up by life. He began to despise himself, concluding that he was a loser. After all, everyone else seemed to be doing just fine, so he reasoned that the problem must lie within himself. And how do you get rid of a problem? You kill it, you crush it, you eradicate it. It made perfect sense.
As he drove along the empty road, his thoughts turned to the house. Mark’s grandparents had built the house after the Second World War, and they gave it to Mark’s mother and father for a wedding present when they retired and moved to Florida. Mark had lived there from the day he was born until he was seventeen. He realized that well over half of his life had been spent in that house, and almost all of his happy memories happened there. He supposed that the same was probably true with most people, except that Mark had instead turned bitter and cynical at an age when others were just starting to succeed and become happy with their lives. Why me, he wondered. Why me?
The pastures and trees gave way to houses as Mark entered yet another nowhere town on the way to Bainbridge. Children played in yards and rode bicycles in the empty street. Some of them glanced at Mark as he passed; their faces shining with eager excitement and joy of life. Mark stared back at them, nostalgia flooding through his battered mind. He longed for the days when he was one of those children, back when life was so easy and wonderful. Those days that never seemed to end, and when they did, another perfect day replaced them instantly. I had it made, and never had a clue, Mark thought to himself. He shook his head and focused on the road. He was back out in the country now, and the town was only a spot in the rearview mirror.
Mark thought about the time he had camped out in the back yard with his younger brother for a week. He had been about ten years old that summer, maybe eleven. His brother had been about nine. Their dad had brought home a two-man pup tent and helped Mark and Billy set it up. He had wanted to move into it forever; it was the coolest thing he had ever experienced. They used it as a fort in the daytime, sending each other on safari trips around the neighborhood and retreating there from the local cannibals and enemy attacks. At night it was a tipi, or a wild west camp, or their Huck Finn hideout. That had been a great summer.
Then there was the time he learned how to rappel in Boy Scouts. He loved it from the first time, and soon he realized that he could rappel right out of his bedroom window by tying a rope to his bed. His room was on the second floor, so it saved a lot of time climbing stairs and it was a lot more fun than using the door. His dad had a fit when he realized that there was a trail worn through the shingles under Mark’s window. Mark grinned to himself as he remembered his dad pointing and shouting, his face turning purple with rage at the damage. Kids didn’t think about those things, but dads sure did.
Before he realized it, two more hours had passed, and Mark was entering the outskirts of Bainbridge. He tensed up inside, not sure what to expect when he arrived. He knew that things change with time, but he didn’t want it to be much different than when he had left. He slowed and turned onto Creek Street, and then turned onto Hickory. The houses in this neighborhood were all older, and hadn’t changed much. He slowed the convertible to a crawl, afraid he might hit something as the first seventeen years of his life rushed back to him all at once. Everything was here; the tire swing at Jimmy’s house, Mrs. Morgan’s bush-covered yard where they played hide and seek, the hump in the cracked sidewalk from the underlying tree root that made such a perfect jump for bikes, everything. There was the streetlamp that he had climbed and then fallen from, breaking his left arm. He saw Mr. Berone’s privacy fence where he had carved his initials in a heart along with Becky Russell’s, and wondered if it was still legible. Probably not, but you never know. At last he saw his mother’s house. His palms were cold and clammy, and he was sweating profusely. His stomach was tying itself in knots, and he felt nauseous.
Mark stopped the car a few houses away and shut it off. He pulled a flask from under the seat and drank deeply. He coughed a bit, and took another swallow. This was even harder than he thought. He fought back the depression for a bit longer, and stepped out of the car. There was the tree, that perfect tree that had been created solely for climbing. He had spent countless hours up in that tree, and remembered it like it was yesterday. He heard laughter, and looked further up in the branches. His heart lurched in his chest as he saw and recognized Jimmy Rikmore, his best childhood friend. Jimmy was still about ten years old, though. Mark wiped the sweat from his eyes and looked again. It was just a squirrel, chattering and jumping from branch to branch. He took a deep breath and looked at the house.
The paint was a little rougher, and a bit faded. The grass was high, and the swing set was in shambles. Overall though, it hadn’t changed much, as he had feared it might. He took another swallow from the flask, walked up the sidewalk and climbed onto the porch. The porch swing hung just as it had for as long as he could remember, and his mother’s plants and flowers were placed around the railing and hanging from the ceiling. He put the flask in his hip pocket, brushed his hair back, put on his best fake smile, and rang the bell. After a few moments, he rang it again. No one answered the door, so he cautiously tried the knob. It turned under his sweaty grasp, and he pushed it open.
“Hello, anybody home?” he called. “Mom, it’s me, Mark. Hello?” He stepped into the hallway, waiting for a reply. The house was dark, and he turned on the light switch. There was no answer, so he went into the living room. The shades were pulled in here, and the room was quite dim. He walked to the lamp and turned it on, and let out a horrified scream. His hands went to his face, his chest contracted, and he shrieked again.
His mother sat in the same chair she had always sat in, or a mummy that used to be his mother, anyway. Her skin was dried and shrunken, her skeleton-like hands still clutching a newspaper. Mark glanced around the room quickly, to make sure there were no other horrible surprises awaiting him. He looked back to his mother, attempting to calm himself a bit. She had obviously been dead for a long time.
“Oh my God, oh shit,” he sobbed. “Oh Christ, this can’t be happening.” He tore his eyes away from her and stumbled to his father’s easy chair. He sank into it, and took a moment to get a grip on himself. At last he stopped shaking, and reached for a tissue from the box on the coffee table. How could no one have found her? How could she sit here so long without anyone noticing? He tried to grasp the situation. He knew that her utility bills were paid through direct withdrawal from her bank account, but surely she had friends who would come looking for her, right?
He looked back to his mother again. She looked so old, but she was only fifty-two. His eyes wandered to her sewing table, where he saw a prescription pill bottle, and an empty whiskey bottle. The realization dawned on him suddenly.
“Oh, you bitch,” he whispered hoarsely. “That was my plan! You stole my way out.” He shook his head in disbelief. “I came here to see you before I kill myself, and you beat me to it.” He pulled the flask from his pocket and took a long drink. “I can’t believe this shit,” he muttered. He got up from the chair, lit a cigarette, and walked out of the room.
He found himself upstairs in his old bedroom. There were some boxes stacked along one wall, but his bed and dresser were still against the other wall. He sat on his bed and looked out the window. He had gotten his first kiss on this bed, so long ago. He was thirteen, and Becky was over helping him with algebra homework. The radio was on, and Motley Crue had come on, singing “Without You”. He took his lamp and pretended it was a microphone, and sang the song to her. She had laughed and blushed, and he did the same. When it was over, he made an exaggerated bow, and flopped down on the bed beside her. She laid back beside him, and kissed him quickly right on the lips. He leaned over and kissed her back, blushing furiously. The next day he carved their initials in a heart on the neighbor’s wooden fence.
He sat there staring out the window for a long time. Memories tumbled over each other, things he hadn’t thought about since he was a kid. A tear trickled unnoticed from the corner of his eye. Being back here where he had been so happy made him feel even worse about the way his life had turned out. If it hadn’t been for… for what? He frowned, unable to finish the thought. Something had happened, something so horrible that he had forced himself to block out, to seal it off. It tugged at his mind, trying to surface.
Mark went back downstairs and made his way into the kitchen. There was a loaf of bread on the counter, covered in mold so thick it looked like a moss-covered stone. He picked it up, meaning to throw it outside, and opened the door to the laundry room. He took one step into the small room and stopped stock still. Curled up in front of the back door were the remains of Maxwell, the family dog. His skin was drawn in against his bones, and hardly recognizable. Mark’s stomach gave a lurch, and he stumbled against the washing machine. Death seemed to be all around him, and it was making him afraid to see what might lie around the next corner. As if his mother’s suicide wasn’t enough, she had let the dog starve to death. He dropped the bread and turned, staggering back into the kitchen, and slammed the door.
He lit another cigarette and took a long drag. The flask was getting low, and he finished off the remaining whiskey in two burning swallows. The visit was turning into an unexpected nightmare. He had intended to have a nice afternoon with his mother, perhaps even staying the night, before returning home to put an end to his misery. He hadn’t been even remotely prepared for this. After a moment, he turned on the faucet in the sink, and bent to wet his face.
“Haven’t seen you around here in a while,” a familiar voice said from behind him. Mark spun around to see his father standing there. He looked the same as he had when Mark was a child, though it was hard to focus on him in the low light. Marks heart pounded furiously from the surprise, the adrenaline overload making his legs weak and his arms heavy.
“Dad?” Mark gasped incredulously. “Dad, wh-what... you’re dead, I saw it… I mean… oh man, I must be losing it.” He shook his head, and his dad nodded knowingly.
“Yes,” he confirmed, “I think you probably are.” He turned and walked to the door. “I’m going to see your mother,” he said. He disappeared from view around the corner.
Mark raced through the house and out the front door to his car. Once he got outside, the world seemed normal again, and he was sure that he had imagined at least part of it. He popped the trunk, pulled out the half-gallon jug of whiskey, and refilled his flask. He put the bottle to his lips and realized that the cigarette was still hanging from his mouth, burned away to the butt. He spat it into the street and took a swallow from the bottle. The sun was setting, and night was fast approaching. Tree frogs chirped as he stood there in the street, and he listened to them for a moment, letting the sound soothe him. When his hands stopped shaking and he caught his breath, he got in the car.
He sat in the front seat for a while, drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, and thinking about what happened. It all seemed so surreal, but he was afraid to go back inside. He didn’t want to know what had been real and what hadn’t. He also didn’t want to find out what else his imagination might come up with. He knew he was deranged and quite possibly insane, and there is no fear like the fear of one’s own mind. At long last, and with a bit of a buzz, he finally steeled himself to return to the house.
As he walked slowly up the sidewalk, the buried memory flashed into his consciousness. It had finally managed to break through the mental wall that he had so carefully built around it all those years ago. It came on strong, and all at once, almost as if he were watching it happen again. He heard the angry yelling, then the screams. He saw himself rush to the laundry room door, pulling the curtain aside. He watched his brother on the back porch, beating his father with a claw hammer. The blunt head penetrated his father’s skull with a crisp but squishy sound, splattering blood and brain matter all over the gas grill, the walls, and the floor. Mark watched, petrified, from the laundry room window, until the glass became so covered in blood that he could no longer see. Then he had run away screaming in shock and terror, falling off of the front porch as he frantically tugged his keys out of his pocket, running away from the horror he had just witnessed, running away from his life. He ran, and had never been back until today. It was this memory that he had locked away in a mental trunk and buried as deep as it would go, sealing it off from his consciousness. He hid it because he couldn’t deal with; he couldn’t comprehend it, couldn’t accept what he had seen as real. He remembered it now, with one foot on the step, bottle in hand, frozen in the coming darkness. He slowly came back to the present, and made his way into the living room.
His mother’s body sat where it had, and he stood beside her, squinting to make out the words on the newspaper in her hand. The date on the paper made it almost a year old, and Mark looked at the story she had been reading when she died. He blew the dust off the page, and saw the headline: CONVICTED KILLER SENTENCED TO DEATH. He read the article, and learned that his brother had been caught, convicted, and sent to death row. His death date was... Mark checked the date on his watch... tomorrow. He sank to the floor beside his mother, and drank from the bottle again. He noticed that he had left the flask in the car, and brought the big bottle in with him. It was just as well, he decided. His thoughts turned to his brother and their dad. Now that the truth about the matter had finally emerged in his mind, he began remembering more and more. The thoughts and memories came flooding back faster and faster, spilling out so rapidly that he could barely process them all. The pleasant memories were gone now, replaced by those of fighting and shouting; anger so strong it was almost visible, years of Billy rebelling against their father at every turn, Mark and his mother watching silently from the background, unable to stop it. Not that either of them had ever even remotely considered the possibility of death becoming involved; up until that day one of them had always walked away. Mark never dreamed that it would end up like this one day, with his father dead, his brother about to die, his mother taking her own life right here in the living room… that was just something that he couldn’t have imagined actually happening.
He saw the television remote on the floor beside him, and turned the TV on. The news was reporting on a car accident. Mark lit a cigarette and watched absentmindedly. He had sat here as a child, watching the news with his family beside his mother. He gave a start as he heard his father’s name, and turned the volume up.
The reporter was recapping the events and the trial, and then announced that his brother would be put to death in the electric chair in just over an hour, at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow morning. Mark’s mind was going a hundred miles an hour in slow motion, in a vain effort to catch up with itself. He drank and smoked absently but constantly, and watched the random thoughts and memories as they drifted through his muddled mind. An hour later, he reached over and picked up the pill bottle from his mother’s table. They were a prescription sleeping pill, he saw, and there was about half a bottle left. Mark turned the bottle up and swallowed them all, his cigarette falling to the floor unnoticed. He washed them down with the bottle of booze, barely feeling the burn of the whiskey on his throat. At last, in a stupor, he dropped the bottle. It fell on its side, and the whiskey spilled out onto the carpet, igniting instantly into raging blue flames from the still-burning cigarette butt.
The television anchor was counting down to the execution, just one minute now, but Mark didn’t hear it. The walls were on fire, and the flames were rapidly spreading to the ceiling and the other rooms of the house. The hair on Mark’s head was gone in a flash and his skin was melting, but he didn’t feel it. He remembered this one time, when he was a kid....
The first fire truck screamed to a stop in front of the blue convertible. The firemen quickly connected the hose to a hydrant and began spraying down the house, but it was too late to save it.
“This place is already toast, let’s soak down the neighbors houses,” yelled a fireman. Seconds later, the remaining frame of the house collapsed in upon itself, a cloud of sparks shooting up into the night sky.
Two towns away, in a small cement-block room, the prison coroner closed up his medical kit and grabbed his clipboard. He noted the time in the appropriate blank, and signed his name to the death certificate. He was relieved that the execution had gone smoothly. Glancing over the list of witnesses, he noticed that there were no family members present. Isn’t that odd, he thought to himself. Maybe he didn’t have any family left. He zipped up the body bag with a shrug and nodded to his assistant.
“Alright, you can take him out. It’s over.”