A family learns of each others' wickedness at their father's death bed.
|“Bet’cha didn’t know your grandmother’s name was Jill.”
Jim hadn’t known. Mama had always called her the crazy witch and he had only been a teenager when she passed, more interested in frying brain cells to the tune of anti-war songs at the hand of head-banded “free thinkers” on their stickered guitars. So much about the family had changed since then—or perhaps nothing had really changed at all. It may have been they had always been this nutty and the craziness was just coming out the older they got.
Father was looking less and less like Father with each passing week: patches of moles had spotted his neck where there hadn’t been any before, and more white hairs had sprouted from his ears. The old man shifted in his bed, turning to face his son, who sat at its edge with a dour look to mask his sorrow. That Father’s condition was terminal didn’t stop Pops from being Pops. He rejected every hospital and nursing home they proposed sending him to. In his words, “I built this house fifty-three years ago and I ain’t leavin’ it for some graveyard reception room.”
It had been a trying week, the kind that brings gray hairs and ulcers. Things had gone from bad to worse, especially with Mama, who’d gone bat shit nuts from Father’s illness—or at least more so than normal. On Monday she had insisted the doctors ‘pull the plug’ to end his pain, disregarding the fact that Father was still cognizant, or ‘sharp as Jack Frost’s icy prick,’ as he so loquaciously put it. And when Ma’s request was denied, she refused to see him anymore, claiming she just couldn’t bear the thought of him in that kind of pain.
Father’s lips folded into a frown.
“Jim, I’m not sure when your siblings are supposed to arrive, but I have to confess something before I die. Since you’re my oldest, most trusted son…it’s a horrible thing, Jim, rotten like your Ma.”
“Pops!” Jim’s glare prompted a dismissive wave from Father.
“I know, I know,” he said, “her condition makes her that way, but you and I both know she’s been off the meds for some time now. That’s beside the point, I guess. I need to tell you something, need to say my piece before I go and you’re as good an ear as any.”
A chilled sweat cooled Jim’s forehead while dampening the fabric at his armpits. He had his own confession to make, but had only intended on sharing that secret with his father’s gravestone.
”Son…” Father made several attempts to swallow, but his throat rejected each one. Jim fetched a juice box from the mini fridge next to the bed, but the old man merely shook his head and coughed. The grating sound of that cough sent a wave of shivers down Jim’s neck, and when a welling of tears began in Father’s eyes Jim found it near impossible to fight back tears of his own.
“You remember when I told you kids how your grandma passed away in her sleep some forty years ago? Well, truth is…I killed her, son. She was lyin’ there in bed one night and I gagged her good. I killed my own mother, Jimmy! My mother!” The wetness in Father’s eyes became long streaks that altered their paths at each age line. Jim couldn’t stand the sight of it, and so he asked the first and only question that came to mind.
“Why’d you do it, Dad?”
Jim didn’t actually give much of a rat’s ass why Father had done it. If his grandmother was anything like Mama—and from the stories he’d heard, they were nothing less than soul twins—he understood completely. And more than that, in some sinister way—a way that brought a rush of heat to his cheeks—Jim found his father’s sin comforting. At the very least, it made him feel a tad better about his own misdoings.
Father shrugged as he let out another hoarse cough. “Your grandma was a loon, just like your Ma, and twice as mean.” Then he laughed, but without humor. “I suppose it’s true what they say: men marry their mothers.”
Jim’s stomach made a sudden loop-de-loop, bringing about a strong urge to vomit. Instead of vomiting, though, he muttered, “I have a confession, too, Dad.”
Father dried his eyes with the frayed end of the bed sheet and gave his son a disconcerted look.
“I killed Mama…just last night. I stabbed her several times, and…” The rest of what he'd intended to say caught in his throat, but that didn't matter. Father knew the gist, and his expression turned blank, almost calculative. He held this look for several seconds, which Jim thought was much worse than had he wept or cursed.
”Pops…I’m sorry,” Jim said with a sniffle, hunching forward so his elbows rested on his knees. “I’m so very sorry.” When Father spoke next, his tone was calm.
“Why’d you do it, Son?”
Jim let out another series of snivels and snorts, then patted his teary face with the blanket. “Same reason you killed Grandma, I s'pose. Ma was insane! She wanted you dead, and I don’t think it was just to ease your suffering.”
“No,” Father answered. “No, I suspect it wasn’t. She’s set to earn a lot of change when I pass.” He held Jim’s hand. “Tell me just what happened.”
With a final sniffle, Jim gathered himself, straightening in his chair and took in several deep breaths. The room smelled of death—musky and stale—and Jim supposed that was appropriate.
“It was late,” he began. “Mama had gone to her room for the night. When I was sure she was asleep, I went in with a knife from the kitchen—I picked the biggest one I could find. I couldn’t see her and didn’t dare to turn on the lights, but I could hear her breathing. On the way to her bed, I stepped on someone’s hand. At first I thought it was odd she was sleeping on the floor, but I guess when you’re as crazy as Ma is it shouldn’t seem so strange. When I heard a grunt, I stabbed her. She awoke immediately and hit me with something hard and metal…hurt like a son of a gun…then she kicked me a couple of times and went back to the bed—must have realized she had been sleeping on the floor.” He paused a moment, squeezing Father’s hand hard before continuing. “I stabbed her three or four times after that--then she stopped moving altogether.”
Father turned to look out the window at the far end of the room. Autumn had come early, and Jim also thought that was appropriate. It had come early in more ways than one.
”And then what happened?”
”Then I split…ran out of there just as fast as I could!”
Father was still looking out the window when he returned his son’s squeeze with a tighter one of his own, one of comfort and understanding. ”It’s all right, Jim. It’s all right. It’s over.” He was smiling, but Jim thought he saw some grief in the old man’s eyes. “We are not to mention this to your brothers or sister when they arrive--not then, nor ever.”
Jim meant to nod in acknowledgment, but guilt had frozen him. Instead they sat in silence, hands clasped for several minutes as they stared out at the leaves of brown, red and gold, spiraling down to the cold earth. Jim had hoped to share a meaningful moment with his father before he’d passed on, but this certainly wasn’t what he had had in mind.
A half hour later, the door creaked open and Jim’s younger brother peered in. “Hey there, mah brudder. Hey-a, Pops,” Joe said. “Okay if I intrude?”
Father grinned brightly as though everything was once again right with the world. Jim supposed that perhaps everything was, in a way, though his stomach remained knotted with worry.
”Hey there, kid!” Father beamed. Joe hated being called “kid,” which was precisely why Father always did it. But today Joe didn't seem to mind, and he slapped Jim's back on his way to giving Father a hug. Then he sat in the chair to Jim's left and started rambling on about the routines of his life: the job, the house, the hobbies, the wife… all of this now seemed so pointless to Jim, and he barely listened. Instead, he replayed his father’s confession again and again in his mind.
A few minutes later, Joe’s demeanor made an abrupt change and his voice broke into a stammer. “Jim…er, Pops…I’ve got something to tell you guys. You won’t like it, but if I don’t tell you now…” Father and Jim exchanged nervous looks.
“What is it, son?”
“Shit…I…I don’t know how to start,” and he hunkered forward with a hand clutching the back of his own neck. “I…I killed Ma…killed her late last night in her room.”
Jim nearly fell out of his chair, and he could see that Father was just as surprised.
“I know…it’s horrible!” Joe continued. “I went into her room…it was so dark…only she wasn’t there. It was just me an’ the dog…so I waited for her with a shovel I’d grabbed from the garage. After a long time of waiting, Mama's door opened and she walked in. I crept up to her. I was sort of crawling and she must’ve known I was there, because she stepped on my hand and came after me with a knife." Joe uncovered his sleeve to reveal a bloodied bandaged wrapped tight around his upper right arm. “She got me once pretty good, so I hit her hard with the shovel.”
“And…what happened next?” Father asked with widening eyes.
“Next?” Joe’s face had turned as pale as candlewax. “Well, I don’t think Ma was quite dead yet, because she tried to choke me—but I slipped through her fingers and fell onto the floor. I was a little dizzy, but I was all right. Then I got the hell out of dodge…went out through the window next to her bed.”
“But…how do you know she was dead?” Jim asked. “I mean, you said she attacked you after you hit her with the shovel.”
Joe considered this, and finally shrugged. “I got her pretty good and Ma’s fairly old. I guess I figured the blow hadn’t taken full effect yet. I’m sure she’s dead, though.”
Jim tried to wrap his head around his brother’s story. Remembering the shovel, he touched the soft but shapely lump that had ripened on the summit of his hairless head.
“I don’t know what to do, Pops!” Joe began to cry. “I’m so sorry…I didn’t mean to do it! I’m sorry!”
Father smiled much the same way he had smiled after hearing Jim’s confession. “It’s all right, my boy, it’s quite all right. Tell me why…tell me why you did it.”
Joe stopped crying and gave his father a perplexed look. “I…it’s just…you know how batty Ma was and she was getting crazier by the day! She was never nice to any of us, and…I guess the way she treated you, the way she abandoned you…well, I guess it was the final straw.”
A brief laugh escaped Jim’s lips and Joe a look of befuddlement to his brother. It was Jim's good fortune that at that moment the twins, John and Jay, had flung the door wide open, allowing Jim a reprieve from having to supply an immediate explanation.
“Get outta bed, ya lazy, good-fer-nothin’ old kook,” Jay scorned. “I know yer fakin’!”
Jim had always thought the twins had the misguided delusion that they were in some way comical. Normally, such an entrance would have caused him to roll his eyes, but today he couldn’t have been happier to see them.
“How’s the ticker, Pops,” John set a box of chocolate-covered cherries on the bedside table.
”You crazy A-holes,” Father snickered. “You know I can’t have that stuff.”
“Who said they were for you?” John grinned back, and then in a more serious tone, “And why can’t you have them? Because they might kill you?”
Father laughed hard, and it was good to hear him laugh like that. He seized a chocolate cherry and popped it in his mouth. Brown and red juices streamed past the folds of his lips as he chewed. “In that case,” he said, “couldn’t you have made it whiskey?”
John belted out a hearty laugh of his own. “Oh, and by the way, Pops, we did what you asked—everything’s taken care of.” He said this last part with a clear-as-day wink, and Jay’s expression hardened as he gave his twin brother a hard elbow to the ribs.
“What the HELL, Jay-Jay?” John roared. “Jim and Joe don’t even know what I’m talking about.”
”What are you talking about?” Father asked. His face was half-blackened by chocolate and cherry mess (Joe had made several attempts to wipe his face with a tissue, but the old curmudgeon batted away the helping hand each time).
“We killed Ma…just like you asked us to!” John blurted out.
“Effin’ A, John!” Jay followed this with a hard smack to his twin's head.
Jay’s face flushed red with rage. “Dammit, Jay, what’s the big deal?”
“Hold on a minute, son. You killed Ma?” Father was so surprised he nearly spit the cherry from his mouth.
“You asked the twins to kill Ma?” Jim gasped.
Like Jay’s face, Father’s had reddened, but more from embarrassment than anger, and he sunk back against the headboard of the bed.
“Yes, well, I suppose I did,” he said, and cast out another succession of raspy coughs. “Your Ma was going to rewrite the will; you kids wouldn’t have gotten a cent! Not to mention she was always a pain in the ass.”
Each of the four brothers stared at one another in befuddlement. It was all a lot to take in, but it was Joe who looked the most confused and, when he finally spoke, he did so in one giant burst of breath.
“What in the devil are you all talking about? How could you two have killed Ma? She was already dead! How could Pops want Ma dead? What the hell happened?”
John took a step back, his eyes darting rapidly about the room.
“Easy Joe," Jay said, resting a hand on Joe's shoulder. “You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack! It all happened late last night. It was very dark…we went into her room and waited for her in the closet. When we heard the door open, we waited some more…she crept around a lot, but y’know, Ma’s crazy and all that. And then we heard a noise—a loud thud and a groan—we figured she had tripped on something. I’m not sure why she didn’t turn on the lights at that point, but she seemed to be okay because she was starting to move again. We crept out from the closet and John strangled her…and that’s what happened.”
“She fell hard on the floor when I let go,” John said. “I never killed anyone before.”
“There was still movement, though,” Jay added. “I figured she must be convulsing, or twitching or something. I saw this TV special that talked about how a chicken’s body can run around in circles for a bit after its head’s been chopped off. I figured the same bit of science must’ve applied here. I kicked her just to be sure.”
Jim’s bottom lip hung in a stupor as though it had been loosened from his jaw. “But…that doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “How could you have been in that room last night? I mean, if I only stabbed Joe one time, who was I stabbing after that?” Joe and the twins gave Jim a look as if he’d just struck them, but they didn’t have much chance to ask any follow up questions. Judy’s screams made sure of that.
The youngest of the siblings had finally arrived. She entered the room with a lifeless, bloodied English Spaniel draped over her outstretched arms—Max. Her white and blue polka-dotted dress was stained with splotches of crimson and her face shined with a glaze of tears.
“I found him in Mama’s room,” she cried. “Someone killed Max! Someone killed Max! Someone killed Max!” And she went on like that for a good half minute before adding, “Who would do such a thing?”
None of the brothers offered a response, however; the room was silent apart from Judy’s cries.
Finally, Father cast a sigh and groaned, “Ah, mercy. The woman lives.”
As if waiting for the proper cue, the door slammed shut and a note slide through the crack at its base. It was then when Jim began to notice how warm it was getting. Joe fetched the note and read it aloud. “It’s from Ma,” he said. “I don’t understand. All it says is ‘I’m sorry, but you’re all getting a bit too crazy for me.’ ”
Black smoke flooded the room and, in a panic, Joe drove his shoulder into the door again and again. A few seconds later, the twins joined him, but the heavy oak wouldn't budge.
Something large is likely blocking it, Jim thought. Mama’s crazy, but not stupid—three stories up…she’d know that door would be our only escape.
He cried, but less out of sadness than might be expected. Father squeezed his hand once more as the other siblings wheezed and coughed and dropped like flies one by one. The old man searched his son’s eyes for traces of fear, but Jim knew he wouldn’t find any. The hardest part about letting Father go was the idea that he couldn’t be there for him…not in the truest sense, at least. Now he could. He could truly be in the moment with his father.
As the room filled to blackness, their view of the great oak tree through the window began to blur until it was blotted out entirely by the growing blackness. In that blackness, the two of them smiled together, sharing their final moments.