As Nick’s first step from the car broke through the thin skin of ice covering a puddle, and he felt the freezing water soak through the canvas of his shoe, for one gloriously emancipating moment he considered telling his mother they’d have to go back home, call the whole thing off…
But she was already out, shuffling towards the trailhead.
Jesus. He sighed, massaging his temples. Even if I did call it off, she’d just have me back out here tomorrow. Another hour and a half in the car listening to her increasingly dubious stories about my childhood. Might as well get it over with…
He hefted himself out of the car, grunting as his knees popped. It was colder than he’d anticipated. He shrugged down deeper into the fur-lined denim jacket.
Coming up behind his mother, he saw that a chunk of the lining was dangling from the back of her wig. She turned, smiling. “Isn’t it beautiful out here?”
He looked at the black sticks of the leafless trees, the iron gray sky. No. It’s really not. They’d come too late. They’d missed the foliage. It wasn’t beautiful, and the only thing more depressing than this cold, dead weather was the fact that she either thought it was beautiful, or thought that saying it was, when it clearly was not, would somehow enhance or validate their experience.
She took a deep breath of the dusty air. “Doesn’t it remind you of our trip to Massachusetts?”
“I don’t remember ever going to Massachusetts.”
“When you were five or six? Massachusetts?”
“I hear you. I just don’t remember going.”
She looked at him intently a moment longer, a wave of confusion passing through her milky eyes.
When Nick’s mother had called two weeks earlier, asking him to come out and help her take care of a few things, he’d initially said no, it wouldn’t work, not right now with everything else going on in his life, but maybe he could come out during the winter (which, if nothing else, would give him time to come up with a more specific, defensible excuse). It was only after she’d threatened to come to him, saying she’d book a flight for the next weekend, that he had relented.
“How much farther?”
“You don’t remember?”
“Mom…you keep asking me stuff like that. If I remembered, then why would I ask you?”
She cocked her head, again looking at him as if he were some ultimate curiosity. “Well…It’s just that you used to love to come out here so much. I’m a little surprised you don’t remember.”
He shook his head, took a breath. Two days earlier, he’d scarcely set foot off the plane before his mother had conscripted him into driving her to the mall for what was supposed to be a quick trip for shoes, but had turned into a five hour shopping spree to replace practically her entire wardrobe. The next morning, right as he’d gotten out of bed she’d told him she was selling her Cadillac, and that he’d need to meet “a couple of people” out front. From ten A.M. until dark he’d been letting people in and out of that fucking car, riding around the block, listening to fat farmers telling him why the car wasn’t worth half of what his mother was asking.
And then this morning, she’d sent him out to rent a car for this trip to the cave. Followed by, tomorrow, a trip to Long Beach. He’d tried to explain to her why they might have taken these day trips before selling the car, but she’d launched into some weird story about how his father had always loved rental cars, and he’d left it alone. At least, miraculously, she didn’t ask me to help her move. The apartment was practically cleaned out when I got here, and she said the new place, up in Astoria, is all set up and we can just cruise in tomorrow after the beach…
Nick’s mother, he’d come to realize, had reached the age where she wanted to take stock of her life with one last circuit of the places she used to love. Tonight when they got back into town she was taking him to dinner at The Sand Dollar, and then a movie at The Coliseum. Closing the book on the past, but also maybe gearing up for one last burst… hence the new threads, new apartment, presumably some new wheels…
But did she have one last kick left in her? By all appearances, the answer was a resounding “No.” Her hands shook, she routinely left the keys in the door of her apartment, and she’d already told him the same story about her neighbor’s yippy Pomeranian three times.
Although, I’ve been wrong before…
Five years ago, when he and Danny had returned home for Christmas, they’d been shocked to find their mother suddenly elderly and fading fast. One night after she’d gone to bed they’d acknowledged the elephant in the room, broaching the topic of who would need to do what following her obviously impending death.
Basically two grown men calling “Not it!”
But when Nick had come back less than a month later, right after Danny’s death, expecting to find his mother reduced to a semi-coherent invalid with the stress and grief of her loss, expecting a second death hot on the heels of the first, he’d discovered quite the opposite. Maybe something about the attention she’d been receiving as the victim’s mother, or her renewed purpose, trying to nag the cops in California into looking for her missing son, had revitalized her. Her voice, previously an old lady’s faltering tremolo, had been sure and powerful. She’d put on weight, the color had returned to her sallow skin, and with her freshly dyed hair she’d looked twenty years younger than she had at Christmas.
Leading up to Danny’s “disappearance,” there’d been warning signs, apparently, though Nick, a thousand miles away from his mother and twin brother, hadn’t been around to see them. She’d told him how “After Danny disappeared, they found his apartment…very dirty. It looked like he hadn’t been taking very good care of himself for a while. They found his car down in California, in the forest, just south of the border with Oregon. And as for Danny…” she would sigh, “just, gone. Disappeared.”
Disappeared, my ass. Even after all these years, that’s how she says it…disappeared. Best case scenario, Dan found himself a nice, secluded spot back in the woods, and swallowed a bottle of pills. More likely… he’d always had a tendency for douchebags. There’d be guys crashing at his apartment, stealing his shit, that I wouldn’t have trusted to take out my garbage. The cops said his apartment had been totally cleaned out, with his stereo and Nintendo and some baseball cards turning up at a pawn shop, and the car had been driven until it ran out of gas, so… all things considered, even the odds of a nice quiet suicide are pretty slim.
Now, watching her small jerky steps along the dirt path, it was hard to imagine that another rebound might be on the horizon. Her back was humped and her hair had gone thin and gray. Her hands were spotted and bony, like the hands of some ancient bird. During the hour and a half car ride, her stories had ranged from irrelevant to downright bizarre. How she thought her landlord, Mr. Sample, had been spying through her window so she’d moved a dresser to block it. How she needed Nick to fix the sink in her apartment so the incoming tenants wouldn’t try to sue her. How she’d been disinvited from attending church social events due to some elaborately idiotic disagreement with some other old lady.
She stopped up ahead and turned to face him. “Here it is. I’ll bet now you remember.”
Beyond where she stood was a small hill covered with dead grass. Nick could just make out the overgrown mouth of a cave, about three feet tall.
He began to tell her, once again, that he didn’t, but she’d already ducked inside. He saw the beam of her flashlight slashing back and forth. He stepped into the cave. “Mom… ”
Her face loomed up out of the darkness, deeply shadowed and stark white. “You used to climb the rocks. You had some adventure game made up, you and Danny. Knights and dragons. You’d play for hours… ”
Nick panned his light around the cave. Fuck me. In a week of unrelenting depressing shit… this is the worst. That this would be a place she needs to see one last time… The interior of the cave was dull and smelled like… he wasn’t entirely sure. Shit, maybe? The walls were singed. Teenagers having a bonfire. Watch out I don’t sit on a used rubber in here.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know, Mom.” His tone was apologetic and sad. He shrugged.
Then suddenly he frowned as something occurred to him. “Why the hell would we ever have come out here?”
His mother smiled. Her mouth continued to spread, overly large white teeth glaring through the shadow. Her eyes were bright. “Well, in point of fact sweetheart, you’re right to be a little confused. I can explain it to you.”
Nick squinted beyond his mother, through the mouth of the cave. The shadows had thickened into darkness. He laughed and it echoed back overly loud. Hollow and edgy. “You can explain to me on the way to the car. We better head back.”
Her lips seemed to pull back further. “You haven’t been out here. Not before tonight. Your father has. Danny has… ”
He took a step towards the mouth of the cave and she moved to the side, in front of him.
She laughed and the shadows shook. “I wish I could tell you why it has to be here, in this shitty little cave. I’d love to understand it, myself. Just one of those pockets of energy in the world, or something. I’ve known it can only happen here, just known, without knowing why, for as long as I’ve known what I am. That’s why, once or twice a lifetime, I always end up back here on the Oregon Coast… ” His mother’s neck stretched, extending like a python and her jaw dropped with a click, dangling. Nick screamed, staggering back into the wall of the cave as her cheekbones spread, nose collapsing back into her head so that her mouth opened cavernously, eyes rolling back in their sockets. The wig sloughed from her bald head, pooling on the floor behind her…
Trapped and screaming in terror, Nick lunged forward, intending to knock her down, to run out into the forest, but she caught him by the biceps and shoved him back. Her voice issued from the depths of the gaping maw. “Time to bring you back into my body, Nicky, where you came from… ”
He groaned thinly deep in his throat, the sound of helpless horror a small boy might make, raising his hands and stepping back from his mother as she reached out, her arms extending, the bony fingers digging into the back of his neck, pulling him closer. “I have to say, I think I almost let it get away from me this time. I’ve been growing more and more forgetful, to the point that a couple of times I forgot, for just a moment, what needed to be done… Imagine that. Imagine if I’d just ended up an old lady, puttering around a lonely apartment, and died. Or even worse, remembered too late. When I was too broken down to get out of bed. To get you down here… ” She laughed. “If I ever have twins again… ”
She sighed. “I should have done it all at once. This way… I thought it would buy me more time. Twice as much… But it hasn’t worked that way… You and your brother aren’t double, you’re halves… ”
Her neck stretched further and she lowered her face down onto him. At the last moment, as his head moved into her mouth, he saw the jagged teeth, rows of shards pushing out through the flesh all the way down the cavernous throat, and he saw that the flesh inside the throat was pulsing, swelling and deflating, like a heart.
All those teeth fell upon him at once, and he heard, with detached horror, his own skull cracking, and felt himself pulled up off the ground, enveloped in the hot wet pink flesh of his mother’s throat…
Rod could hardly believe his luck. When the beautiful brunette with the Brooke Shields body had slid into his booth at The Ghosthole and asked “Is that your Ferrari out front, and if so, you want to take me for a ride?” he’d known that the quiet martini on the way home from his racquetball game had just turned into something a lot more memorable. But he certainly couldn’t have anticipated this…
She hadn’t wasted any time. They’d scarcely pulled out of the parking lot before she’d gotten down to brass tacks, telling him “This car turns me on. I want you to take me somewhere, right now… ”
A cave. Normally, he might have pushed for something easier, earlier, pulling the car over and telling her she could either deliver, and get a ride back to the bar for a night cap, or get out and walk… But this woman, Vera was her name, told him she was on a nostalgia kick tonight, hence the reaction to the old Ferrari, and that this cave was where she used to go with her boyfriend when she was a kid.
So although he’d rather not go traipsing through the woods in the dark, for a night with a middle-aged woman who wanted to fuck like a rebellious teenager, he figured he’d better just do as he was told.
Well worth the wait… He smiled, looking up through the canopy of pine needles at the stars, taking the last drag of his cigarette. It seemed like she would have gone at it all night, but after three rounds, even with the Viagra he’d slipped into his mouth on the drive out here, he needed a timeout. But now, he realized with a grin, it seemed as if the crisp night air on his naked body may have galvanized him back into action. He ducked back into the cave… and froze, mouth dropping open, horrified at what he found waiting there…
She was on her back, holding her knees in the fetal position, rocking back and forth. He recognized that position. His girlfriend had been trying to get pregnant for the past few months. He yanked her legs flat, looming over her. “Oh no no no… what the fuck do you think you’re doing, you stupid bitch? What, you’re gonna get yourself knocked up, and fucking blackmail me… “
Suddenly she was up and had him by the throat. “Don’t worry. You’ll be gone long before the baby’s born.” Her jaw dropped, her eyes rolled back, and her neck extended, swaying…
They’d found that guy’s Ferrari all the way down in Arizona, left by the side of the road, out of gas…
Detective Garcon sighed. They had perfectly clear video of the woman that dipshit, the missing guy, had left the bar with, but so far no leads. The abandoned car’s engine had still been warm and pinging, but the only people they’d found in the area were a handful of the usual desert weirdos and a beautiful eighteen year old girl, hitching to California after leaving some type of fucked up nonsense with a boyfriend up in Montana.
Garcon laughed to himself. Apparently, that girl had really been something, so good-looking that one of those Arizona cops had offered to take a day off and drive her down to Southern Cal himself.
And from what Garcon had heard, the guy still hadn’t come back to work.
BIO: After attending the University of Idaho and the University of Montana, Adam Phillips is heading into his second decade teaching and coaching junior high school, showing the kids how to read, write, run, wrestle, and dominate the hardwood. He hosts a weekly anti-sports sports program, “The Infield Dirt,” on Radio Boise, and has two novels, years and years in the making and production, coming out over the next few months that he really thinks you might like. Manifest will be coming from Montag Press out of San Francisco, and Something Like My Name will be coming from Propertius Press in Virginia.