IN THE EVENT OF DEATH
Simon Strantzas is the author of Beneath the Surface (Humdrumming, 2008), Cold to the Touch (Tartarus Press, 2009), Nightingale Songs (Dark Regions Press, 2011), and Burnt Black Suns (Hippocampus Press, 2014). He is the editor of Shadows Edge (Gray Friar Press, 2013). His fiction has appeared in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and has been nominated for the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife in Toronto, Canada.
THERE WERE MORE PAPERBACK BOOKS IN MY MOTHER’S house than I realized. Pocket-sized, well-thumbed, all with yellowed covers of swashbuckling men and bodiced damsels, they were lurid reminders of a habit that dated back forever. I knew they took up a single shelf, but not boxes beneath her stairs, or shelves in her garage, or crates in her attic. The house overflowed with them, spilling from every corner and nook. So many books, so intricate a reflection of her life, and her own struggles to escape.
“What are you going to do with them?” Wanda asked as I filled another box.
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Do you think you’ll sell them?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know if I could.”
The answer seemed to satisfy her, though I wondered if she understood what I meant. Then I wondered the same about myself.
It had been fewer than two days since my mother’s death, but I had not yet had a chance to grieve. There were too many things that needed to be done, too many arrangements to be made, and only me to do them. Wanda helped as much as time allowed, but her job at the hospital was the only thing supporting us as I worked on my novel, and we couldn’t afford her missing a single shift, not if we were to afford the funeral. I’d managed to put the bulk of the arrangements into place, but I needed to choose a dress for my mother to wear and I didn’t feel strong enough alone.
I hadn’t taken Wanda to the house before, afraid of letting her see where I’d grown up in case it altered the way she felt about me. I knew it made no sense, but there were so many complicated emotions stored within those walls that I failed to see how she could avoid being changed by it all. The house practically vibrated as we stood there.
Wanda walked from room to room, my mother’s death transforming the place from house to museum, picking up and inspecting items as she did so. Along the mantle was a series of photographs. Wanda studied them, then looked at me.
“Where’s your father?”
I shrugged. It was a question I’d asked in different ways my entire life. My father had died of some illness shortly before I was born, and my mother had nothing more to say about it. She had no photographs of him, never spoke his name or acknowledged he had existed, and yet it was clear that she had loved him dearly. I had once gone so far as to ask my Aunt Renée about what had happened, but my question caused her to cross herself vehemently and scold me for not minding my own business. My mother had always been overly protective—her worry when I had terrible nightmares as a child only made them worse, and as a teenager I had to rebel before I could escape her smothering arms—so for years I believed there was some deep secret to his absence and her silence. As I grew older I quietly realized that sometimes there are wounds that never heal, and pressing only causes them more pain. I decided if it was easier for my mother to forget, I wasn’t going to keep reminding her.
Wanda and I went through her closets slowly, looking for the right item. Had it been up to me I would have picked the first thing I found, but Wanda was more careful. She knew better what my mother liked, what she thought she looked her best in. I didn’t argue, happy to have one burden lifted from me, though all the same worried that one less distraction meant my grief took one step closer.
As my wife pulled down another shoe box from the closet’s top shelf, an envelope came free and fluttered to her feet. She bent down and picked it up. Reading the front, she frowned.
“It’s addressed to you.”
The envelope felt lifelessly thin, and printed beneath my name in my mother’s hand was: TO BE OPENED IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH. In my mind’s eye I traveled to the past to watch her carefully scripting those words, and the vision was too much to bear. It took a few minutes and my wife’s arms around my neck before I was able to break the seal.
I don’t know what I’d hoped to find. The letter was prefaced by a few painful words urging me not to cry or miss her, followed a list of instructions letting me know where she kept her banking information and how best to access matters of her estate. None of this surprised me: my mother had been a practical woman and remained so until the end. It was reassuring, in its own way. She concluded the list with two requests. The first was that her entire collection of paperbacks be delivered to my Aunt Renée who, despite how I might have felt about her, had been her closest friend since childhood; the second was that I never read the diary she kept in her nightstand drawer. To be certain, she wanted it buried with her.
Despite my hopes, there was nothing in the letter revealing the mystery of my father’s death.
Behind me was the infamous nightstand. I had memories of tracing the patterns carved in its legs with my finger while my mother folded laundry or read one of her novels. It was a piece of furniture I knew very well, yet never once did I realize it had a drawer until I took a closer look. History makes us blind. History, and time.
I gently rocked the handle and slid the small drawer out. Inside was yet another paperback novel, Lord Vanity, bookmark halfway between its rich covers of scarlet and gold, and lying beneath it a small diary with a brown faux leather cover. Its pages sealed with a flimsy lock.
“You aren’t going to read it, are you?” Wanda asked me. The horror she felt was folded into her face.
“Of course not,” I said, though I could not deny my curiosity. If my mother had written at all about my father, wouldn’t it have been there? Part of me wanted to scour its pages, but the rest was terrified. I had spent so many years blanketed by her worry that I couldn’t disobey her final wish, even if it meant the answers to all my questions.
Assuming they were answers I wasn’t too frightened to read.
I pulled myself out of bed the next morning, the funeral still a day away, and drove an hour to Maple to see my Aunt Renée. I went alone, my wife deciding she’d rather nurse her unhappiness in front of a piano than endure another painful visit. Instead, boxes of old paperbacks kept me company, filling the car with a musty tangy odor. It smelled of the past.
I had other motives for the trip beyond delivering the boxes, most of them centering around the revelation of my mother’s diary. It raised questions I hoped my aunt could answer.
It took time for my Aunt Renée to answer her door, and when she did her face was puffed and tear-streaked. She didn’t smile.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said, and walked off. I took that as invitation to follow.
My aunt’s house was larger than both my mother’s and my own, and yet felt cramped with all the items shelved along the walls and piled in the corners. I had never liked the place as a child—it was dark and oppressing, its strange atmosphere repellent. She rarely seemed to open her blinds, and the giant shrine to her savior that dominated the front room wall left me uneasy.
“This is it?” she asked, staring in the box of paperbacks I carried.
“The rest are in the car. She wanted you to have them.”
She shuffled through the box.
“You didn’t have to bring them today.”
“No, I suppose not. But I thought I might as well. It gave me a reason to come up and see how you were.”
She snickered. “How do you think I am? How are you? Just peachy, I’d guess?”
I smiled as gently as I could.
“I’m doing okay,” I said. “It’s tough, but I’m doing a little better than I thought I’d be.”
She made a disapproving noise but said nothing. Instead, she pulled books out of the box one at a time and set each on the table.
“Are you still writing your satanic stories?”
I looked down at my hands. The back of one carried tiny indentations, as though fingernails had been pressed into the soft flesh. The pale color slowly gave way to red; I tried rubbing away the discoloration with my thumb.
“They’re only stories, Aunt Renée. They don’t mean anything. Most of them aren’t even trying to scary. They’re just about how people feel.”
She looked up from the half-empty box and squinted.
“That’s how the demons start. They make you think it’s nothing at first, and maybe it is, but once they get their talons in you they sink and sink.” Her hands were up, fingers curled in shriveled claws and pressed against her chest. “Before you know it, you’re doing the demons’ work on God’s earth for all eternity.” She stopped and looked back into the box.
“Where’s her diary?” she said.
I was glad for the change in topic.
“I was going to ask you about that. I didn’t even know she had a diary until her note said so. But she asked me not to read it. Just to put it with her in the coffin. But what if it mentions my father? All I know about him was that he was sick, but not what he had or what he was like. I need answers, Aunt Renée, and this might be my only chance. Yet, the note…”
“What’s this about a note?” My aunt held out her free hand. “Let me see it.”
“I—I don’t have it with me.” I stumbled. “Why would you need to see it?”
“I should ask you the same thing. You don’t need to see anything. Especially that diary. Bring it to me as well.”
“Why? What are you going to do with it?”
“I’m going to burn it.”
I was horrified. Then her face transformed into a cauldron of hate and she seethed, “That diary—it’s evil and must not be allowed to exist. I would have done it years ago if your mother told me she still had it.”
“It’s her diary,” I said. “There’s nothing evil about it.”
“You’re a fool. You can’t possibly be so ignorant. Not when you are already doing his bidding. You need to wise up and take the Lord into your heart. He’ll help you vanquish the evil.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“Aunt Renée, I’m not going to disrespect your religious beliefs, but—”
“Your being here, in my house, disrespects them. You’re family, and your mother has just passed, so I’m making an exception. But don’t misunderstand…” Her voice became intensely quiet; I could feel it crawling up my spine. “Your mother may not have seen it in time, but I do. You’re your father’s son. And I pray every night an angel will come and deliver you. It’s been the angel of death twice before. Maybe you’ll get lucky. The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Her words hung in the air. What she said, what she implied—I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, but as the seconds passed I realized she was right. I was being a fool.
“I’ll leave the rest of the boxes, Aunt Renée, then I’m going. After the funeral, you won’t have to worry about seeing me ever again.”
My aunt’s eyes betrayed her anger as she watched me unload the rest of the boxes from the trunk of my car and drop them in her front hallway. I did so silently, waiting for an apology even though I knew none would come. And she did not disappoint me. In fact, it wasn’t until I was done and made the mistake of looking at her that she finally spoke.
“Get out of here,” she said. “Don’t you ever bring your demons back here.”
“Gladly,” I said, storming toward the door. As I pulled my car out of her driveway I saw her on the porch. She looked withered under the bleached light.
“I’d pray for you,” she called out. “But you don’t deserve it.”
My tongue was sour as I drove, a nauseating shiver of adrenaline bubbling beneath my skin. When I arrived home, my poor wife had to listen to my hatred erupt for nearly an hour, the red heat of it spewing out, and no matter how much I said or for how long it never seemed to end. It was unquenchable, and only my eventual exhaustion slowed me enough for Wanda to interrupt.
“I found something,” she said. “While you were—while you were out. I found something in the boxes we brought back from you mother’s. Though I’m not sure if this is the best time to show you.”
“Show me,” I said. “It couldn’t make my day any worse.”
“I don’t know if worse is quite the word for it,” she said, then opened up a dresser drawer and produced a stack of paper fastened with a blue elastic band. “I thought you’d want to see these, especially in light of your afternoon.”
I took the pile from her and without removing the elastic flipped through the first few pages. When I realized what she’d found, I looked up. She nodded.
“It’s more poetry. Look, they’re dated. They were written sometime before you were born.”
“Why didn’t I know any of this? Why did she hide it from me?”
“I don’t know, but Dan—”
“Do you think—” Everything rushed through my head; I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight. “Was she embarrassed? Did my aunt say something to dissuade her? I bet—”
She startled me and I stopped talking.
“Dan, before you do anything you should read some of them. Some of the poems.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she said, then paused. “Nothing’s wrong. I just think you should read them.”
I skimmed the first poem in the pile.
The word that came to mind was nightmarish, but in its truest sense. Reading her poetry was reading a nightmare on the page—an actual nightmare. It lacked any discernible narrative, rather inundating me with corrupted images, flashes of that which lurked deep within my subconscious. Men in tailcoats and creatures with long tails slithered over one another. Words mixed and intertwined on the page in uncomfortable juxtaposition. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen, worse than the strangest weird fiction I’d ever encountered, and afterward it was unclear if what I remembered was real or a fevered dream. A dozen stories sprung to life in my inspired mind.
“What do you make of them?” Wanda asked. “Are they your mother’s?”
“They have to be,” I said, wiping my dry mouth. “I recognize her handwriting. But I don’t understand why her poetry was such a secret.”
Wanda was surprised.
“I think it’s pretty obvious why she didn’t show them to you or to anyone else. They’re vile.”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw your face. You know exactly what I mean.”
I touched the ink on the page. Even it was beautiful.
“But what was wrong with them? Nothing vulgar or crass. Nothing profane, as far as I can see. I don’t remember much beyond a few images, but they seemed like science fiction. Was there something about aliens? And maybe a name…Varshni, or something? I remember an old clock…”
Wanda crossed her arms as though cold.
“I don’t like them, Dan. It’s as simple as that. Get rid of them.”
“But they’re my mother’s,” I said, stunned I was emitting the words. “I can’t just—I mean won’t just—”
She put up her hand.
“Just keep them in your office, then. Away from me.”
That much I could promise.
For the first night since my mother’s death, my dreams weren’t filled with memories of her. Instead, she was displaced by images from her poetry, and they made little sense as they played over and over against the inside of my skull, trapping me in a perpetual state of half-conscious delirium. My droning hallucinations were vivid, teasing the revelation of things that lay beyond my perception. I rose from bed bound by frustration, worried my incessant turning would wake Wanda, and in my hazy stupor I decided to creep across the dark house to my office. My head was in turmoil, but it seemed wise to record my most bizarre thoughts on the chance I could use them in a future book. But as I tried I found myself incapable of concentration. Each image too slippery to pin down—my imprecise words could not capture their true meaning. Frustrated, I rubbed my strained eyes and saw my mother’s face behind the explosions that followed. It was stretched out and warped, but conveyed utter disappointment in me. My tired brain struggled to comprehend why, and when I realized I had been crying but didn’t know for how long I knew it was time to lie down again. There was so little time before the dawning sunlight would burn away the vestiges of my nightmares and force me to confront a far worse dread.
I stood by the door for an hour, dressed in my finest pinstriped suit, holding my mother’s tiny diary. Behind me, my wife moved from room to room, dressing for the funeral. She was only a few feet away, while I was unmoored and untethered, drifting into the ether and away from the world I knew. Wherever I was going, nothing would be the same for me. And I wanted to cry over what I had lost, and because I was afraid of what was to come.
Wanda and I arrived at the funeral home early to say our goodbyes. My mother lay in her casket, but I only recognized her by fragments—the actual person I knew was gone; a wax stranger lay in her place. Wanda stood to the side while I whispered my final words, then touched the diary waiting in my jacket pocket. It wasn’t much comfort.
I dried my damp eyes and turned to my wife, but found my aunt instead, standing in the middle of the room, her eyes bulging, her lips quivering. I didn’t know if she was crying, laughing, or barely containing her fury, and I didn’t care. I knew only my own fury.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
“I’ve come to prevent you from making a serious mistake.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The diary. What did you do with her diary?”
“How is that your business?”
She stalked toward me. She was smaller and frailer, yet descended like a fuming giant.
“I’m trying to help you, don’t you see? I’m trying to save your soul.”
“My soul doesn’t need any saving. My soul is doing quite fine on its own.”
She stopped, thankfully, and glared at me. Then she noticed my wife.
“What’s it like,” she asked her, “being married to an idiot?”
“Hey,” I shouted. “You talk to me. Stay the hell away from her.”
My aunt laughed.
“You have no idea what that book is, do you?” She shook her head. “I’d hoped you’d burned it and its sin from the world. I’d hoped you’d burned it and scattered the ashes. But I see now. You’re no different from him. I knew it as soon as I laid eyes on you. Your mother didn’t listen, but I knew, and I protected her. Your father at least had alien malevolence behind his eyes. You? You’ve always had nothing. Maybe those evil secrets will fill you, but if we are all lucky it will be your funeral soon enough.”
With this, she wrapped her black silk scarf around her neck and stormed out of the funeral home. She did not once turn to acknowledge me or my mother, the woman who had once called her sister. It was as if she were a stranger, and that was perhaps the most hateful thing she did on that day. She denied my mother one last goodbye before she left this plane. I’d had enough of my aunt and her zealotry and antics, and swore I would never intentionally set eyes on her again.
If I’d only had the strength.
The funeral had been more difficult that I’d anticipated, and the various pains offered me a clarity I could have happily done without. When Wanda and I arrived home, all I wanted was to take off my suit, pour myself the strongest drink we had, and sink into the couch. I needed to clear the thoughts that gathered in my head like storm clouds. Even with Wanda near, I was bereft, and in my distraction I realized the jacket I was trying to hang was too heavy. Something was in its pocket, something that was not my wallet, and as I freed it I felt my heart seize.
My mother’s diary. In the commotion of my aunt’s entrance and accusations, I’d forgotten that it was still in my pocket, that I hadn’t put it in her casket, even as we dropped flowers onto her vault. Everything had been wiped from my mind as I was consumed by sadness and anger, but what I had done was unforgivable. My mistake was irreparable.
The guilt broke me. I became a recluse. For weeks, I was unable to function without dwelling on my failure, on what it meant for my mother’s journey beyond the veil. Wanda did her best to help me, but I rejected everything she said. I was inconsolable. When eventually she had to return to work, I was left alone to wallow in my private darkness. I knew intellectually she had no choice, but an irrational part of me could not forgive her abandonment. I treated her poorly when she came home at night, which over time caused her to return later and later in the evening.
If only I still had my writing, my one escape from life’s torments, but it too evaporated in the shadow of my guilt. As days became weeks, my head filled with chaotic imagery—swirling star-studded vistas and cosmic turbulence—and those few sentences I managed to scribble down were senseless. My mind raced too fast and in too many directions to capture it all, and what was left were fragments strung illogically together, wholly indecipherable as soon as I set them down. Without writing, without my wife, without any anchor at all, I slipped further beneath the surface.
As time passed and I became less frequently sober, the voices that pushed in from the edges of my thoughts worked themselves deeper into my psyche. I could not forget my failure to bury the diary, but neither could I spend the rest of my life staring at it— not if I wanted to resist falling irrecoverably into insanity. The idea crossed my mind to burn it, but I couldn’t. It would have been like burning the last piece of my mother, and perhaps my only link to my father. I spent my time daydreaming what might be contained within the diary’s pages, what secrets my mother had wanted to keep hidden. My aunt knew something, and it was so vile she could not contain herself around me. Who was my father? What had he done? I wanted so desperately to know.
It was only a matter of time before I could no longer resist the temptation. Between bouts of drinking I found myself holding the diary, running my hands over its worn covers, convincing myself I could feel heat exuding from it. When I finally broke the seal and cracked it open, when I finally saw my mother’s name in her large schoolgirl hand, I nearly retched, as though my body were revolting at the thought of what I was about to do. I could have put it down easily, forgotten about it, left it behind, restarted and repaired my life. But instead I leafed through pages so well thumbed they were linen, looking for mention of my father.
I quickly forgot my purpose and became lost in my mother’s life. I had known her only as overly worried and overprotective, but quickly I came to realize she had once been anything but. She had thrived on ill-considered risk in her youth and was often joined by my equally adventurous Aunt Renée, not yet quite as angry or as pious as she would become. The revelations in the diary were so bizarre and unlikely I could barely believe them. Were they not in my mother’s handwriting, likely I wouldn’t have.
She was introduced to my father at a holiday picnic. By then she was bordering thirty and was still not looking terribly hard for someone, yet he emerged nevertheless from what she called “a sea of Coke bottle glasses.” She did not think much of him at the time—he was a quiet, aloof, attractive only in an inoffensive and average way, and was the opposite of every man or boy she’d ever dated. Even his speech was peculiar, as though he’d only read books from a hundred years earlier or more and yet had no idea how to pronounce most of the words. Strangely, instead of repelling her, she found it oddly charming and began seeing him despite my Aunt Renée’s jealous disapproval.
The honeymoon period of my parents’ affair did not last long. Soon after they started spending time together my mother was subjected to a string of intense nightmares. She didn’t elaborate, hinting only rarely about what they entailed. What was more concerning were the headaches and nosebleeds they caused. Her suffering was genuine, and the only balm was to start recording those terrifying visions. I recognized a lot of the exorcised images in the poems Wanda had found. As the frequency and intensity of my mother’s nightmares grew, the sleepless nights and terrible thoughts ate away at her waking life.
Whatever their cause, my aunt took her seriously. She too had noticed peculiarities about the man, things that were not quite right. Like the way he seemed to forget how to use his hands, or stuttered when he spoke as though warming up an unused instrument. He did not recognize simple things such as streetlights, but his memory for what he encountered was eidetic. And yet he was only interested or aware of his surroundings when he stared into the night sky.
My aunt did not understand my mother’s infatuation with him, and for the first time we agreed. My father sounded wholly undeserving of my mother’s affection, and yet he remained in her life, despite how poor its quality had become. My mother fell ill and remained so for a very long time, the constant morass of nightmares destroying her sleep, preventing her from doing anything but shambling through the new house she and my father had bought together. Then, without incitement, without reason, my mother admitted she’d become suspicious of who my father was. I skipped forward and back, trying to understand what she meant, but she did not mention it again. “He is not who he says,” was the entirety of what she wrote, and even that she tried to scribble out.
With the next entry, her journal became consumed with poetry, foregoing the recording and documentation of her life. The poems were as strange and confusing as anything I’d read, made more bizarre by their inchoate nature. They were proto-typical pieces without sense of timeframe or inspiration. They simply existed in that no man’s land of the past, the churning blood of her unconscious. But even jumbled and fragmented, when I read closer I was struck with a kind of terrified confusion. My mother clearly didn’t realize what she was doing as she wrote those poems, but I knew. I knew because they were the same images I saw every time I sat in front of my keyboard. I was dreaming my mother’s horrors, sharing her mindscape. And instinctively I knew we were not the only ones. Someone else haunted our mutual dreams. Someone else for whom they were not dreams at all.
I found nothing more in my mother’s diary. As abruptly as her poetry began, it stopped, and in its wake all she entered were the most perfunctory details of her life. My father became a ghost in the pages, never mentioned, though his presence was felt among the accounts of my mother’s activities. His illness was fleetingly suggested during an account of my mother being at the hospital, no doubt near the time her pregnancy was discovered. Shortly thereafter an oblique apology was made about my aunt, but what had caused the falling out was unclear. Whatever it was, words were not needed to communicate its seriousness. Yet it didn’t stop my aunt from visiting, as a short entry about going to tea soon followed. Even the date of my father’s death was unclear. No mention of it was made before I reached the unexpected end of the diary, and on reviewing the preceding entries to see what I’d missed, I found only more questions. With my mother gone and her diary unresolved, there remained only one person who knew my father at all, one person who might answer those questions my mother did not want me to ask. As loath as I was to see my Aunt Renée, I knew I had no other choice.
Sometime in the midst of my breakdown I’d received word from a distant cousin that my aunt was ill. She was confined to a bed in a hospital a few minutes from her house in Maple. After what happened at the funeral, I understood why she never reached out to let me know she was sick—no doubt she expected me to be glad, as though there were some divine justice to it all. She would have been right, but part of me understood that it was a horrible thing to feel. I telephoned Wanda with the news, but regretted it as soon as I heard the distance in her voice. Still, she urged me to go see my aunt.
“Dan, you have to. You’ll regret it if you don’t. She’s family.”
“Is she? I don’t even know anymore.”
“She related enough. You need to put everything behind you and go. Maybe it’s the fresh start you need.”
I knew she was right. I needed to see my Aunt Renée because she was not long for the world, and when she went the truth about my heritage, about the strange revelations in my mother’s diary, would go with her. But I was also terrified about what she might say. I wasn’t certain I could bear to hear it. But what choice was there? Wanda was right: I would never be able to move on until I spoke to her, and time was running out. I sobered up enough to drive to the hospital and park on the fifth floor of the garage. Then I stayed in the car for thirty minutes, preparing myself.
The hospital had been built within the last decade, and unlike where my mother had suffered through her final days, it was clean and full of sunlight. My aunt’s room was private, and flowers filled the windowsill—as did crucifixes of various sizes, and a single image of Jesus in a golden frame. My aunt was asleep, snoring gently, her glasses askew on her head. On the tray table beside her sat a covered lunch, waiting for her to wake and eat. I pushed it aside then gently called her name.
“Aunt Renée. It’s me. It’s Daniel.”
One eye creaked open, then the other. There was the wheeze of oxygen pumped into her nose. She carefully licked her lips.
“What are you doing here? You stink.”
Her voice was little more than a slurred croak. I tried not to be reminded of my mother.
“I need to talk to you. I need to tell me about my father.”
She closed her eyes and laughed—one hitch of her shoulders, her breath rattling. Immediately, she winced, but the smile didn’t completely fade.
“You can’t be saved. Get out. Go away.”
“Aunt Renée, I read my mother’s diary. I read all of it.”
To this, her rheumy eyes opened wider.
“What did you learn? Nothing. You didn’t learn a thing.”
“I need you to tell me who he was. What happened to him? Why were my mother’s dreams so strange?”
I was desperate for answers, growing more desperate when I heard how difficult it was for her to breathe. I did not know how much longer she had.
“Give me some water. That nurse, she’s trying to kill me. What’s the opposite of drowning? She’s trying to dry me out. She wants my jewelry.”
I was confused for a moment—my aunt was wearing no jewelry—but when I saw her crippled hands adjusting a clasp that wasn’t there, I realized her medication was causing her to hallucinate.
“Do you know where you are right now?” I asked. She gave me a sidelong glance as though that didn’t deserve an answer. “Do you know who I am, Aunt Renée?”
She shook her head. She didn’t want to say.
“Aunt Renée, who am I?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who am I, Aunt Renée? Tell me who I am.”
Suddenly her hatred exploded, filling her with vigor. Her eyes bore into me.
“You’re a blasphemy. You’re a thing. You’re like him. Like your father.”
“Your mother told me what he was, what he said he was, so we took care of it. But I never believed. I knew he was lying. Satan’s kind always lies. He was a foul-blooded thing sent to test and torment us.”
“What did she say?” I pleaded. “What did my mother say?”
“It wasn’t in your precious diary?” she spat. I shook my head, and she laughed, then slumped, and I watched the energy dissipate from her like spewing air. She closed her eyes to rest.
“What did she say, Aunt Renée? Please tell me.”
My aunt spoke, but it was a mumbled whisper. Her last reserves were depleted. One of the machines she was hooked up to buzzed every few seconds. The sound was deafening.
“What did she say?” I repeated, leaning close, my ear to her mouth. Outside in the hall there was some commotion.
“She said he was lost. She said he didn’t belong then, that he wanted to go back. She said he hated the meat most of all, that it wasn’t big enough to contain him. She said in his sleep he would make sounds like he was talking, but the words were so old they made her cry. She said he was not who he said he was, and when she found out he wouldn’t let her go. He was a monster.”
“What did he do?”
“Do?” she asked, her eyelids cracking apart, revealing a sliver of white. “He made you. Wasn’t that enough?”
My aunt fell asleep then, and try as I might I could not revive her. When I left, the nurses were making her as comfortable as they could.
I’m left with more questions than answers.
My Aunt Renée never regained consciousness, and it wasn’t long before she was buried, too, in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, not far from my mother. I never found out what she was talking about, and little of what I did know made any sense. I tried going through my mother’s diary again more than once, traveling back in time to look for hints about what my father was, about what my aunt discovered that was so vile she turned into a religious zealot, about what my mother had done that caused her to hide from the world. But there was nothing, no stone left to turn. All I had were impressions and my mother’s frightening poetry. And my unbearable dreams.
I find it impossible to write now. Every image that appears to me is suspect—I wonder if they are of my own conjuring or strange visions from my father, trying to communicate with me from wherever he is. I’m sure he is somewhere, alive, as out of my reach as I am of his. He still communicates to me through my dreams, and they continue to degrade and become unbearable, as though my inability to lance them by way of writing is only building up the pressure. If that’s true, I wonder how long it will be until I explode, and what might happen then. But I can’t—I just can’t bring myself to write another word, so instead I drink and sit in the dark and wait for whatever truth is coming to reveal itself at last. Wanda has not given up on me yet, but it’s only a matter of time. I have nothing left inside that she would want—it has been carved away by death and unearthed secrets. What remains is a shell, a living, breathing shell of meat and blood, existing in the present. The sort of thing an ancient alien being might want to inhabit, should it somehow be skipping through time and space in search of a vessel. That’s the sort of crazy idea that occurs to me now, the sort I can no longer exorcise through writing. It is like something that might occur to one trapped deep in the horror of a nightmare. Trapped without any hope for escape.