We don't get in to town much, but Sand Skillet, Texas is a small place, and people talk. It's a twenty-one mile drive south to get there from our place, nine miles of it washed-out caliche roads, and the other twelve over patchwork asphalt that the county could give a damn about maintaining.
I been driving those roads since I was thirteen, old enough for the local law to overlook a kid behind a steering wheel, as long as he was just working chores. When my daddy was dying, we made the drive about three times a week. Pills and serums were always arriving at different times, and either I had to go in to pick them up, or we had to bring Daddy in to get needled.
You can do a lot of thinking in twenty-one miles.
I remember the worst one, the worst drive. It was a beautiful day, right there at the beginning of spring, everything carpeted in fresh green and wildflowers. The air has that special clean taste, the harshness of winter grinding away the dead skin of the world. Birds were singing, they didn't understand that it was a horrible day.
The cemetery, just outside of town, quiet except for weeping women, or a sniffle every once in a while. I stood there, my arm around my mama, and the sun hot against the back of my legs. Black pants, and everywhere they touched, it felt like someone breathing on my skin. I felt sweat drip down my calf as the preacher began talking about the valley of the shadow of death.
He said he would fear no evil, and I stared at the wooden coffin and I tried to imagine my daddy tucked in there, and I thought about how it was no big deal to fear no evil. There's not so much of that in these parts. What we had to fear was a tractor slipping off its block while you're looking at the axle, or a deer jutting out in front of you when you're driving home on a winding dirt road in the middle of the night. Or cancer, cancer that can't be fixed and eats you up to where you scream all through the night, no matter how tough you are, and when you finally die, it's a relief, even though you were never the type to give up. Never the type to break. Cancer like my daddy got.
We drove home after that, the air clean in my nose, and my mama stared ahead and so did I, and neither of us dared to speak, because we were both being strong, and that's so damn hard sometimes.
When we got home, we still didn't speak, and Mama went in and started putting away all the food the church ladies had gave us, and I stood out by the truck and I looked out over the family land, and I tried not to cry, and I tried not to think about how I was the man of the house now, and even though that might seem easy to some people, it really isn't.
There were a thousand ways for me to ruin the crops, to kill the livestock, for me to mess up and lose our home. I thought about them, about each and every one, and I promised myself that I wouldn't let any of them happen.
I was scared, so scared. I walked across the dirt and rock driveway, my ears ringing with silence, even though I could hear the gravel crunching under my boots and the chickens clucking over in their yard. I went in and I hugged my mama and I told her, it's gonna be all right. We're gonna be okay.
She hugged me back, and she cried into my shoulder and she told me I know, I just miss him already, I know it'll be okay, but I miss him, I haven't lived without him for forty-eight years, and I don't know, I don't even know how to do it. I patted her on the back as she cried and told me things I didn't want to hear about being alone.
Twenty-one miles, and people talk. They talk about how sweet old Cora, she's been losing a step ever year since Pete died, and poor old Jeff, how's he sposed to deal with all that. I act like I don't hear them, and they act like they weren't saying it.
But it's a small town, and I been on the other side of this thing before. Hell, even when I went in to get feed a few months ago, and the regulars was in there talking about Laura Johnson, about her only kin being some kid from Dallas who didn't know up from down, not unless it involved condominiums or strip malls. I sat there, on that plastic-covered stool, while the ceiling fan turned lazy and pushed tobacco smoke around the room. Smell of worked leather and feed, undercurrent of chemical killers for weeds or bugs or rodents.
Listened to the old men talk about how that kid, he wasn't gonna waste a second on the farm that Gravy Johnson's family had owned since before Sand Skillet was even a town. Probably gonna sell it first chance he got and head on back to Dallas with his check and no thought at all about his kin who had worked their blood into that piece of land.
Then they started talking about Laura, about how she died, how it'd been coming for a while, ever one knew it. This was the kind of talk that'd stop when I walked in here a few years ago, after Daddy's cancer got bad.
The kind of talk that would resume when I walked out, but instead of Laura or her Dallas kin, they'd be talking about me and my mama, who was losin more of her mind with ever passing day, and pretty soon it'd just be me out there, and my dear god that boy has had to deal with some bad turns in his life.
They'd talk about Kristie, about how what a damn shame that was, she was always such a sweet girl.
Boy's had a hard life, that's what they probly said.
She's at the table when I go back in, just sitting there, staring at the tarnished wood. Her hands are folded in front of her, clenching and unclenching, and when she looks up at me, I see tears running down her face.
That look in her eyes, I know it and I hate it more than anything. I hate it more than the look of fear she gets when she can't remember, or the look of confusion. It isn't one that shows up much, but when it does, it breaks my heart.
I sit down beside her, and I put my arm around her, and she pats my hand softly, and wipes away the tears with her other arm.
"I was washin up the dishes, and I just...I just, it all came back, and I..."
"It's okay," I tell her. "It'll be okay."
Her sobs are like a little girl's, soft and scared and undeserved. I try not to hate God.
"I'm such a burden," she says.
"You're no such thing."
"I saw breakfast. I don't even know how you can tolerate me. Those eggs weren't even cooked."
"That's how I like em."
"Just take me out to the pasture and shoot me, Jeffrey. I don't want to live like this."
I don't have anything to say to that. I don't know if I'm being selfish or sane, but I can't take her out and shoot her, not even if I tried. I hate this, I hate to see her like this. The moments when it's really her, but instead of being able to enjoy them, it's always dirtied up because she hates being what she is for the rest of the time.
She told me once what it was like coming back. Said she didn't remember what had been going on, exactly, but she remembered clearly right before it started happening, how she was always worryin about forgetting things. And then it was all unclear. Like looking through a window covered with ice.
That unclear seemed to go on forever, she said, and then it's suddenly like the window's scarped clean, and the main thing she knows is that it's happened. That worst thing, that she's always been scared of, it's happened. The worst part, she said, is knowing that it will happen again, and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it.
She told me that a while back. We don't talk about it much anymore. When she's her old self, I try to make the most of it. We go for walks, or listen to music.
It's so hard, though, you never know how long it lasts, you never know how it'll end. Usually, she gets tired and goes to sleep. Couple times, it's happened when she was awake. One moment, we're talking about how she knew what she was going to name me as soon as she found out she was pregnant, and the next, she's asking me if I'm the new boy they hired to pick up the milk bottles.
She used to joke. About how if she ever lost her mind, she didn't want to go to the home for old folks. "Just set me loose in the pasture, let me roam around until nature takes its course."
Somewhere it changed to take her out there and shoot her, I don't know when. Around the time I started trying not to hate God, I figure.
"I love you," I tell her. I can't think of anything else to say, but I don't want to waste my time with her. "You aren't a burden, you're my mama, and I love you and I'll always love you."
She breaks down and cries then, and I tell her shh shh hush now, and I think about how when my first dog died, how she held me just like this, patted me on the back just like this, told me shh shh, hush now. How when I went through my first heartbreak in high school, she did the same thing.
How when my wife died giving birth to my stillborn child.
Covered in vomit, drunk so that I couldn't even see the stars I screamed up at, but could almost see the cowardly god hiding behind them. On my knees, bottle in hand.
Screaming, tasting blood from screaming so hard, and vomit from drinking so hard. Screaming up at God, calling Him names and daring Him to take me on face to face instead of all this behind-the-scenes bullshit.
My mama, who hadn't been herself in over two months, she came out, and she held me and she patted me and she told me, it'll be okay, and she cried with me and she told me shh, shh, hush now.
She walked me in and cleaned me up as best she could, and she put me to bed.
I woke up the next morning and found her sitting on the couch, confused and lost, nervously clutching the filthy towel she had used to clean me up.
As angry and hung over as I was, I knew I had to man up. I took the towel away, and I cleaned her up and familiarized her with her home of over fifty years, and we talked small talk, quick talk, and I earned her trust just like I had to do most days. We didn't neither one of us go to my wife's funeral.
Eventually, she hushes, and we step outside. I show her the strawberry patch, because that was always one of the things we did together. With my daddy, there was farming, there was fixing trucks or tractors, there was slaughtering cattle or hogs. There was lessons about watering, or planting, or crop rotation. There was cleaning a firearm or cleaning a spark plug or cleaning a plow disc. Always something, always everything. Everything a man needed to know.
I didn't get to share much with my mama. The strawberry patch, that was something we always did together. Ever spring, we'd go out and mix manure into the soil, we'd get on our hands and knees and work the earth and we'd talk about all of the things I couldn't talk to Daddy about.
So I take her out there, and I show her. I've put a lot of work into it. Each evening, after supper, when I miss her the most, I come out here, and I work on the garden. The soil is the best on our land, I've got a decorative fence around it, just like we used to talk about back when she knew she was my mama. I got a little butterfly statue out in the middle, she always liked butterflies.
She sees it and she puts her hands on her mouth, like when I was a kid and got her a great Christmas present, and she hollers in excitement that it's beautiful, just beautiful.
The thought comes into my head that she's seen it a hundred times, and I kick that thought out and say, "Let me give you the grand tour."
Time passes. Too quick, like it always does when she's back. I show her around the strawberry patch, and we walk out in the pastures--I talk to her while she picks wild flowers, I tell her all the gossip I've heard while sitting down at the Co-Op on that red plastic-covered stool.
The sun settles against the horizon, and she gets a worried look on her face. I take her in and I shut all the window shades and I turn on all the lights and we make supper. The dusk is always her worst time.
She cleans up, and it smells so good. Some face cream, I can't remember the name. It smells like it should. When I have to get her ready for bed, it always smells wrong. I could use the same soap, the same shampoo, the same skin moisturizer, but it still never smells right.
She comes out in her robe, and she kisses me on the cheek and she tells me she loves me, and I want to bawl like a little kid. Instead, I smile, and I show her nothing, just like with the eggs, just like with Laura Johnson, and I tell her I love her, too. And I watch her walk to her bedroom.
I clean up, make sure everything looks like it should, make sure it looks the same, and I go to bed myself. I stare up at the ceiling and I pray to God that she'll wake up with me in the morning, and I beg Him to help me. Help me love Him again.
I wake up the next morning and she's in the kitchen, cooking breakfast. And she smiles that smile. That smile that tells me she wants to know me, feels like she should know me. That smile that tells me she's lost and confused again. That smile that tells me God doesn't want me to love Him.
"Good mornin, Mama," I tell her. "How did you sleep?"
"Just fine," she says, smiling that on-the-surface smile as she pours me a cup of coffee.
He's covered in sweat and dust and his skin is burned from the sun. Usually, he smiles. Nice kid, good manners, makes jokes when you want to hear em, just shuts up and does his job when you don't.
Mark's his name. Seventeen years old. Been working at the Co-Op for the past year and a half. He looks way too skinny for it, but whatever weight he's got, it's muscle.
Today, he isn't smiling. He looks serious, but silly. Like a boy trying to act like a man, like a man trying to hide his fear and failing. I ask him how's he doing and he shakes his head slow and tells me he ain't sure.
"You seen the news?"
I tell him I haven't--radio's busted in the truck, and didn't have time to see anything on the TV this morning. I don't tell him that I had to get out of the house as quick as I could because I couldn't bear to see Mama roam around there, trying to find dishes that have been in the same spot for the last five decades.
"Some weird stuff," he says, "My dad says it's nonsense, but I'm not so sure. I saw some stuff on the internet, and it looks pretty real to me."
"Weird like what?"
"Weird like zombies." I stare at him, waiting for the punch line or the explanation or whatever comes next. He doesn't say anything, just stares at me back.
"I don't know, that's what the people online are calling them. On TV, it's still people suffering from some disease or another. Mass hysteria, mob rage, every channel has a different name for it. They're attacking people, biting them."
"Don't zombies come back from the dead?"
"Yeah, I guess. They haven't said anything about that yet, but all the places that have had these outbreaks have had news blackouts. They're being quarantined. Some say it's to keep in this infection or plague or whatever it is. Others say it's to keep information from spreading."
"I'm with your dad, Mark. Sounds like nonsense."
"Yeah, it does. But there's a little information getting out. The closest report to us is from Oklahoma City, and there's a guy on a forum I talk to. He posted this morning, right before the media blackout, he said it's legit, that folks are going crazy, attacking people. He said he didn't know if they had come back from the dead, but he said it sure as hell looked like they were corpses."
I don't want to tell him he's being stupid--it wasn't too long ago I was his age, and being told the things you believe are ridiculous is a hard thing to take. I don't even look at him odd. Just try to look like I'm considering the things he said, and when a chill runs down my spine, I decide I'm pretending a little too hard.
"I don't know, Mark. Sounds crazy."
"Yeah, I know it does. And those old guys inside, they'll be talking about how it's just another trick by the government to make us believe we need socialized medicine. Or that this is some nerve gas brought over by the terrorists. They've been in there talking about it all morning. Hell, maybe they're right. But there's places this is happening that the terrorists and the president probably don't know about. Little towns out in the sticks, that's not what you attack when you're trying to prove a point. I know I'm just a stupid kid, but I'm not so stupid that I close my mind off to something just because it's crazy."
"I'd listen to you over half the old men in there," I say. "Not sure I'm ready to believe in zombies just yet, but thanks for the heads-up, no matter what it is."
"Just be careful. I know you two are out there all alone, and if something happened, there idn't anyone around to help you out."
"If I spot anything weird, I'll give you a call down here," I tell him.
"If you spot anything weird, just remember that you have to go for the head."
I fight back an urge to laugh and I tell him thanks. I go inside to pay for my feed, and the old men on the plastic stools are deep in discussion about health reform and the tricky government.
I know better than to get involved in a political discussion with these men, so I sign the charge invoice and head back home.
I'm halfway through unloading the bags of feed when I hear footsteps behind me. I jump a little, I don't know why. In the back of my mind, I guess I was thinking about Mark's story.
I spin around, and there's my mama. She's still wearing the apron she had on when she was making breakfast, but it's covered in blood. I drop the bag of feed I'm holding and rush over to her.
"Dear lord, Mama, did you cut yourself are you okay?"
She looks dazed, but her eyes don't have that foggy, lost look that they do a lot of days. Judging by her eyes, I'd say she's not doing good in the connection department, but at least she isn't so out of it that she doesn't remember her home. But she's not responding at all, which is always a bad sign.
I examine her hands and arms first, thinking maybe she was cutting up a chicken or something and the knife slipped. The whole time I'm looking, I'm asking her, does it hurt, where does it hurt, how long have you been bleeding.
So much blood, it's all over her arms, her apron, some of it's on her face. She still won't answer, and I'm fighting to hold down my panic. It doesn't look right, the blood don't. It's too brown, too dark. And the irrational part of my brain tells me that it's so dark because of her problem. Maybe that's what causes the loss, is your blood goes sour. It's a stupid thought, I know it is, and I kick it outta my head as quick as it came in.
"Mama, you gotta tell me where it's coming from, what's hurt. I have to stop the bleeding. You don't tell me, I'm gonna have to strip you down and wash you down with the hose, just to find out where fresh blood's coming from."
"You'll do no such thing," she says. Indignant. I stop my frantic exam and look into her face. She doesn't seem nearly as out of it as I thought.
"The strangest thing just happened," she says. "Laura Johnson attacked me. I had to...I had to shoot her."
"Oh no. Oh no, Mama, oh no." Oh God. I can't get any air. I feel it blowing across my skin, chilling the sweat, drying it. My heart's beating too hard. I can't hear it, but I can feel it beating so hard that it feels like I can hear it.
She killed someone. Who did she kill? Whose is this blood? All I can think about is how they're going to take her away, lock her up. I promised her I'd never let that happen, I'd never put her in a home, in a little room where all she had was walls around her. They're going to take her away and lock her in there and she's going to think that I did it.
How bad do I not want that to happen? Bad enough to try to cover it up? I don't have much to lose. This land that's always belonged to my family. If I get caught, they'll lock me up, and the government will take our land. And prison might drive me over the edge, but is that so bad, at this point?
Maybe I could get away with it. Mama wouldn't remember, nobody else comes out here. Just plow up some land, bury the body, it never happened. Could I live with myself? If I covered up a murder?
Someone's dead. Someone's really dead. Not a game, not a movie. Am I really considering hiding a dead body and pretending that it never happened? Someone who was alive this morning when I was eating breakfast, maybe they were eating breakfast with their family.
"My mind's playing tricks on me, Jeff. I remember...didn't Laura pass away fall?"
"Yeah, Mama, she did."
"Hm. Then what's she doing around back by the strawberry garden?"
"I don't know," I say, tears running down my face. "But I guess we ought to go find out."
Posted under Short Stories on 10/25/10