The Other Mother
Mary B. Sellers
On Tuesday, it was there again, pulling ugly faces at me from the dark corner of the stairs.
It always seemed to come then: late afternoon, right after school, just when my mind was a turbulent sort of sloppy, my backpack slouched onto my right shoulder and half unzipped, weeping out an assortment of neon-bright eighth grade thingamabobs: pencil eraser caps, impossibly bent paperclips, puckered and badly torn algebra quizzes.
I figured the thing came when there were enough shadows to the day to collect around itself like a dim dream of a cape. It was always hiding a little—flirting with the possibility of showing itself, but ultimately deciding against it.
You always told me not to worry about it, because that time of day could play tricks on the eyes, even the best ones. Light bends in strange ways. Things appear in ways they really aren’t and never were. Plus, (and you’d say this with a frown) I needed glasses, that I was a fool to go about the world not seeing things as they should be seen.
—Everything can be a mirage when you don’t see properly, you’d told me once.
And I’d laughed, then, cutting my eyes to my sneakers, not knowing what to say but wanting to say something.
Secretly: I liked the slight, out-of-focus dreamland quality my bad eyesight afforded me. I’d never liked the coldness of logic, how it cut—with gemstone sharpness—clear angles into the everyday, easy to lose myself within the prisms of its unscrupulous precision.
But that Tuesday, things were different. It had been a bad sort of day and I’d eaten lunch in the girls bathroom again. It smelled, and the tile was scummy. The old warped full-length mirror was framed with little scribble hearts drawn in black and blue sharpie. There were phone numbers without zip codes and cuss words and one time, even, I’d glanced my own name—the subject of a mean sentence that wasn’t altogether true—and I’d spent the rest of my lunch period scraping it away with a rusted-over bobby pin I’d found in one of the bathroom’s damp corners. But this particular Tuesday, I’d also failed another math quiz. I hadn’t gotten a date to the dance. My locker got stuck and wouldn’t open because it was overstuffed. Mom forgot to pick me up again.
And maybe it was this particular string of sadnesses that made me stop and look the thing in the eye instead of ignoring it like I usually did when it appeared. I didn’t pour myself a bowl of cereal or plug in the percolator for my usual after-school coffee or even stop and stoop to pet our old family dog who’d been spending her last days on a pink, oversized towel in the corner of the living room that got the most sunlight.
Instead, I looked at the thing, looked at it good and true with the eyes of my unfocused adolescence, until they adjusted to the shadows and I could make out its form better. Every time I blinked, it pulled a new and uglier face than before with its wide, lipless mouth and old-paper eyes. They were a nasty yellow color. The yellow of sick things. With a tiny shock, I realized it had no pupils. There was only that insistent yellow hungry glare. In the shadows, if I squinted just right, its eyes resembled two twin moons, full and ripe—even overly ripe, maybe—with an almost bugged-out quality about them. The sorts of eyes found in cartoons when the scraggy brown coyote catches a glimpse of the roadrunner at a distance, alarmed by his own desire to… what? I never knew what the coyote would do with the roadrunner if he ever caught it. Remembering this in the context of The Thing, it bothered me to the point my stomach ached a little. I had the strange thought that maybe I was this thing’s roadrunner, and I shuddered—a full cartwheeling of my heart. And all too late, I realized that was exactly what I shouldn’t have done: I’d read in books about this, how showing fear to a thing made the thing stronger, how doing so stroked whatever predatory instinct it might have. As if smelling fear reminded something that it could eat you, easily.
So the ugly faces grew uglier, and I—like the easiest of prey—grew more and more transfixed. Time passed; the shadows grew up all around me. After a while, I sat down onto the hardwood floor at the base of the stairwell, letting my backpack slip from my shoulders. I sat as near to the bottom stair as I could get without touching it. It was covered in a beige foamy carpet that looked rough and coarse. Sometimes, I could hear the old dying dog whimper in her sleep from behind me, could almost feel the deep dreamless peace in which she did her quiet dying, as if it were some invisible cavity that contained all the daylight in the house, to which myself—and the thing—were irrevocably excluded.
At some point, not at twilight but just before it, the thing’s wide grimace-grin of a mouth flattened into a thick black line. I watched it curiously. Though the line looked solid enough, it vibrated, almost as if the thing was purring or murmuring to itself. This line was the only sharp thing about it. Everything else about the thing was dulled at its edges, like something from a child’s watercolor. Recognizably abstract. The thing had a shape but I had no name for it. However, the shape was ancient. That I was certain of; it was the only thing I was certain of, for my mind had gone bleary with all the focusing I’d done. I watched as the thing seemed to collect whatever lavender darkness there was about it—a cloudy shield of sorts—and I nearly laughed aloud at the thought of it, because, inexplicably, I was unafraid. The fear had left me with merely the thought of a laugh. And that’s when you opened the door, glossy black briefcase in one hand and jangle of car keys, so loudly metallic, in the other. Looking at me with tired brown eyes, you said—
—Where’s your mother?
There was no trace of the black thing now, as I watched my mother, surprisingly gentle in her movements—raise herself from where she’d been squatting on the stairs. Taking one at a time, she walked down them towards you. There was only the dusky smudge of her features, the familiar medical drowsiness that coated everything about her these days. When she came into the light, the hollows of herself were deepened to a color close to cobweb, as the bright spooling from the carport lit up the dark behind her. As she made her way towards you, I thought I caught her eye, or maybe it was only the feeble flicker of dilated pupil, ringed in the yellow of dead or dying things.
I dreamed of moons that night. Twin screens of themselves: one dark twin, one light.
Mary B. Sellers holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Mississippi and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing with a Fiction emphasis from Louisiana State University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, where she served as graduate prose editorial assistant for The Southern Review. Her graduate thesis, a hybrid novel of stories, fairy tale vignettes, and memoir, RAPUNZEL HAS INSOMNIA, was a finalist for the University of New Orleans Publishing Laboratory 2018 Prize. Her fiction and creative nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in Flash Fiction Magazine, Grimoire, Third Point Press, Sidereal Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, Literary Orphans, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The New Southern Fugitives, among others. Originally from Jackson, MS, Sellers now lives and works in Seattle, WA, with her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Daisy Buchanan.