Chapter 26: Family Reunion
My mother looked at me from under a scowl and said, "I thought you were dead."
"Just because you repeat it to yourself over and over again doesn't make it true, Mom. Believe me, I know."
She harrumphed and started walking toward a pair of large glass doors that led out to a well manicured courtyard. Her back was hunched and she walked with a noticeable limp. Her skin was almost translucent and she had trouble filling out her clothes. "Well," she said, "you look like you should be dead. What happened? Girlfriend beat you up?"
Several of the other residents were watching us and not trying very hard to hide their curiosity.
"Yeah," I said. "Something like that."
A lady with white hair and an unnatural hip to waist ratio waddled up to my mom and asked, "Adie, is this your boy? Is this the musician you're always bragging about?" The lady came up to introduce herself but when she was close enough to see me through her cataracts, she jumped back. "Oh dear! Are you all right? What on earth happened to you?"
"Alice," my mother said, "this is the dingo that ate my baby." She chuckled. "His girlfriend beat him up again."
"So, you're not her son?" Alice asked.
"I am, but only by birth."
Alice gave my mom a playful tap on the arm. "Adie, you old devil. You never said you had two boys."
"Actually," I said, "she has three."
"Three!" Alice was practically swooning. No doubt this was going to be the gossip du jour for the next month. I could see my mother's face redden as she opened the doors to the courtyard.
"Alice, my little dingo and I would like to catch up. So, if you'll excuse us."
"Oh, of course." Alice was all smiles as she waved to us and walked away.
When Alice was out of earshot, my mom turned to me and said, "Get your ass out here before I finish what your girlfriend started!"
I went through the doors and followed her to a small little grove where there was a park bench underneath a willow tree, looking out on a flowerbed in full bloom. I felt right at home with my cane and my girdle. Even the sling didn't feel terribly out of place.
My mom sat down on the bench and gestured me to sit down next to her. "All right, what is this about? Do you need money?"
"No, Mom. I don't need money." I did my best not to moan as I sat down. My chest felt like it was about to slide into separate pieces and open up like a cracked coconut. "Did you ever think that maybe I just wanted to stop and say hi?"
"Oh God, how much do you need?"
"I don't need money for Christ's sake!" Pain shot through me and for a second I thought I was going to pass out. It took me a few seconds to catch my breath.
"Well, I know you didn't come here to visit. So why are you here?"
I reached into my sling, pulled out the blood-stained teddy bear, and set it on the bench between us. She didn't move. She just looked at it, her face growing darker. My mom looked up at me and said, "What the hell is it doing out of the box?"
"It was destroyed. Ricky left it-"
"Oh, there you go again, blaming your brother. I asked you to do one thing, one thing, Dingo, and you go and screw it up then try to blame Ricky. Why can't you take responsibility for yourself? Huh?"
I didn't have the energy to argue with her. There was a constant pain in my chest and my head rattled every time she opened her mouth. All I could do was sit there and listen as she went on. "It's Ricky's fault. It's Ricky's fault," she mocked. "I suppose it's Ricky's fault that I'm stuck here in this geriatric zoo, too. And it's Ricky's fault that I have to lie to my friends about who my children are."
"No, that's not what I'm saying."
"Then what are you saying? That it's my fault?"
There was no way I was ever going to win with this woman. "I'm not saying it's anybody's fault, Mom. I'm just trying to tell you what happened."
She gave me a wave of dismissal and stared off into the flower garden. "Oh please, like I could ever believe anything that came out of your mouth. Always telling lies. If you had just kept your mouth shut in the first place, this wouldn't even be an issue."
The flowers bent slightly in the breeze while the long, green leaves of the tree around us swayed like a giant hula skirt. I looked down at myself on the bench, took in the cane, the girdle, the sling, felt the bandages on my head. Then I forced myself off of the bench and stood in front of her.
"Cindy Baxter," I said.
My mom looked up at me, her eyes squeezed into tiny slits. "What are you babbling about now?"
"She was the first person Michael killed."
My mom's eyes narrowed and her mouth puckered impossibly tight. "I think it's time for you to leave now." She made to stand up but I put the tip of my cane to her chest and pushed her back onto the bench. "How dare you!" she hissed.
"Cindy was twenty-two when he killed her. Then there was Larry Morgan."
"Stop this instant!"
"He was only eighteen. Getting ready to leave for the Army."
She shoved my cane aside but I brought it back up and pressed it against her even harder. "I'll scream for security!"
"And then little Lilia Martinez. Do you remember her? They showed her picture at the trial. The one with the pretty pink bows in her hair?"
"Stop it, stop it!"
"She was only eight."
My mother was swatting at my cane, her face contorted in rage. "You prickless bastard! I don't need you to remind me-"
I dropped the cane and grabbed her blouse, my splinted fingers pressing into her neck. Even in my weakened condition I was able to pull her off the bench. She weighed nothing. "Twenty-seven people, Mom! How many of their names do you remember? How many?" She was hitting me with her tiny hands balled into fists. They felt like sparrows pecking at my chest, but even so, if it wasn't for the girdle, they would have dropped me to the ground.
"How dare you do this to your own mother!" Tears started rolling down her cheeks. "Let go of me!"
"Why? So you can run away? Ignore it? Try and forget what your baby did? What about the other babies? Huh? What about their mothers? Tell me, what about them?"
"What about Jerry Danielson? Or Linda McPherson?"
"Mary Vesperov. Sister Virginia. What about them?"
"Or Shawna Roberts. Elaine Smith. Little Bobby Horowitz. The Renowski twins!"
"Stop stop stop!" She started hitting my arm in the sling. Little spots of blood were showing through the white of my t-shirt.
"I've never claimed to be the perfect son and I've made more than my share of mistakes, but coming forward about Michael was the one thing I've ever done in my life that I know was right. The only thing I can look back on and say that it was the right decision. For once I didn't make a mistake. Yet you still hated me for it. You made me carry the guilt, didn't you? Saying that it was my fault, that it was my testimony that took your little baby away, put the needle in his arm. You always blamed me! But you never once, not once blamed him!"
"He was my SON!" Her voice cracked and she started sobbing. Snot and tears ran down her wrinkled face until she buried her face in my chest, still hitting me with her tiny fists. Her voice was muffled as she wept in my shirt.
She cried against me until she was exhausted. I eased her back down onto the bench, set the teddy bear aside, and then sat down beside her. She wiped her nose with her sleeve. I put my good arm around her but she shrugged it off. I put my hand in my lap and we sat on the bench in silence, watching bees and butterflies flit among the flowers.
After a while, I reached into my sling and pulled out the picture and handed it to her. She didn't look at me when she took it from my hand.
"Sarah gave that to me. Wanted me to know what you looked like when you smiled. You have a very pretty smile." She handed the picture back to me and returned to watching the flower bed. "How old are you?" I asked.
My mom looked at me and said, "You going to start visiting on my birthdays now?"
"Come on, how old?"
"I'm fifty-six. Why?"
I set the picture on my knee. "Because you look eighty-six." I tapped the photograph with a splinted finger. "It's killing you, Mom."
She nodded, still staring at the flower garden. "I know, son. I know." She rested her elbows on her knees and propped her chin in her hands. "How did you know?"
I slid the picture back into the sling. "Eunice Devereaux told me."
"Darby got hold of the box and tried to sell it to her in exchange for her dowry. But Eunice could tell that Michael's soul wasn't all there."
My mom rolled her puffy eyes. "Goddamn Graeaes. I never did like that girl."
I smiled. "Yeah, that's why I married her." I picked up the teddy bear and set it in my lap. "But why split it?"
My mom hugged herself. "The Graeae wasn't the only one I was hiding it from." She looked at me. "And I'm a mother. Sometimes it's hard to let go."
I nodded and looked out to the flowers. "She's not going to stop until she finds it, you know. And without the box, it won't take her long."
"I'll talk to Sarah, have her spell another box."
"Mom." I put the teddy bear in her lap. It stared up at her with its only eye. "I'm not looking after it any more."
She turned her head to me. The bags under my mom's eyes were red and swollen, her eyes bloodshot. She grabbed the doll and started grooming it, pulling away little bits of lint and brushing off patches of dust. "What is it you expect me to do?"
"Let it go," I said. She pulled the bear to her chest and pressed her face against the top of its head. "You can't burden yourself with this any more, Mom. Enough is enough."
"You know what will happen. You know where he'll go."
I nodded. "Yes, and deservedly so. But it's not your fault, Mom."
She rested the teddy bear in her lap and ran her finger along the edge of its tattered ear. "Yes, it is. It is my fault." Her lower lip quivered as she smiled down at the doll. "I knew, Daniel. God help me, I knew what Michael was doing. And I didn't do anything to stop him. I wanted to, but… He was my baby boy."
This time when I put my arm around her, she didn't resist. She let me lean her against my shoulder and hold her. She rested one hand on my knee and held the teddy bear to her breast with the other. I could smell jasmine in her hair.
She didn't cry. But I did. I didn't know why. I didn't know if it was guilt, shame, anger, frustration, all of it, none of it, I just didn't know. But no matter how much I despised her for how she treated me, I loathed her for how she treated herself. But all that anger, all that hatred bled away until there was nothing left but sad admiration. Sad admiration for a woman who was willing to eternally damn herself just so that she could keep the soul of her child safe from the hell hounds that hunted it.
Even if only for a little while.