By Victoria Hardy
A short story
Eli used to tell me that I was the best mom he’d ever had. I thought it was an odd statement, but tucked it away as one of the cute things children say. Or at least I did until he died. After he died I thought about it – a lot. He said it the first time right after he learned to talk and they were also his final words to me. What had he meant by that cryptic phrase? I was his only mom, not the best or the worse, but the only mom he’d ever known.
Recovering from my injuries, I couldn’t get his words out of my head. Had he been speaking of reincarnation? Had he even known about reincarnation? Or had he been speaking of different dimensions? He did love science fiction, but he certainly couldn’t have known about reincarnation and science fiction the first time he said it as a toddler. As he grew older he’d make the statement to show he was pleased with me, a new video game, an expected trip to dinner and a movie or permission to go out with his friends would result in a bear hug and the statement, “You’re the best mom I’ve ever had.”
I didn’t feel like a good mom, though. Would a good mom tell the doctors to pull the plug on a horribly injured child? Is that listed somewhere in the old child rearing books as an example of spectacular mothering? If he had survived, the doctors made it clear he would be unable to walk or talk and would need twenty-four hour care. He would essentially be a needy mass of brain-damaged meat, but what if the doctors were wrong?
I agreed to have the ventilator removed ten days after the car jacking and shooting, I just couldn’t conceive of how that swollen head, nearly the size of a pumpkin, could ever return to its natural proportions. What if I was wrong? The pain from my own injuries felt needed and deserved, my rightful punishment for losing faith in my son. Maybe had I given him more time, maybe months, maybe years, his brain and personality would have returned to normal. Maybe, but I’d never know.
At least that is what I thought at the time.
Mourning is an interesting condition and as I recovered physically I found that my thinking grew strange, odd and frightening at times. It was as though a door opened in my mind and set the most outrageous thoughts free. Until the day of violence that changed my life so radically I had been a rational, normal woman, so the strange knowings and thoughts that began appearing in my mind struck a primal fear in my soul and I questioned my sanity.
Could a violent event cause insanity? I was sure that it could, but I was afraid to seek professional help. One of my strongest recurring thoughts insisted that I knew something I wasn’t supposed to know and to draw attention to the fact would lead to my death. So I suffered in silence and watched my words, afraid that I would expose myself. I became very reclusive and had ample opportunity to get to know my new and terrifying inner world.
Digging in the garden one day, it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t Eli who died, but me. I sat back on my heels, stunned by how real the knowledge felt. I looked around the yard, the summer colors appeared more vibrant than I had ever noticed, and I realized that I was dead. A hummingbird buzzed my head and I chuckled, maybe being dead wasn’t so bad. I went back to digging (I mean, if you’re dead why not plant flowers on a pretty summer day?) and I heard Eli’s voice in my head, “You’re the best mom I’ve ever had.”
I then understood with amazing clarity that in one dimension I was dead and Eli was alive and in this dimension Eli was dead and I was alive. It suddenly all made sense. As I put impatiens in the ground I began to wonder, was there a way to reach him in his dimension? Was there a way to step over? A door, a gate, a path? As these thoughts came to me I received the recurring warning that I knew something I wasn’t supposed to know and I was afraid. I was afraid, but I was also determined, maybe there was a way to reach my son.
By this time I had fully accepted the fact that I was insane and I figured perhaps the insane know more than the sane about the actual workings of the world. Perhaps the insane see through the illusion humanity has set before us and that was why they were dangerous and locked away. I decided then and there that I would rather be insane and possibly find my son, than be sane in a world where he was beyond my reach.
I just had to figure out how to find the door and I knew when it appeared I would only have moments to step through. I also knew that when I did step through I would die in one dimension and live in the new one. I had no idea how this worked, but I felt it was absolute truth. I was concerned I might not recognize the door when I found it, though. Would it just appear as an opening before me? Would it appear as a real, solid door? Would it be an opportunity? How in the hell did I find it?
As strange as my life had grown, it grew even stranger as I began to look for the passageway. My dreams began to haunt me, not in the fashion of nightmares, which may have been normal considering my mental state, but by laying out the next day’s events in chronological order. I would dream the day before I lived it. As I was experiencing the day in my waking life, I understood that I was living the same day over and over. I wasn’t just living every day twice, once asleep and once awake, I’d been living the same day for a million years, like a skipping record repeating the same line over for eternity. I was stuck and the only way I could conceive of becoming unstuck was a radical change, so I quit my job.
Being unemployed gave me plenty of time to explore my strange, new world and I fell deeper into my unique madness. I began to get my things in order and started cleaning house from top to bottom. I gave Eli’s belongings away and most of my own; if I were to die in this dimension I wouldn’t need anything.
Then I emailed my dead son. I figured if anything could reach across dimensions it would be the Internet. In the emails I told him I was looking for him and I promised that I would find him and we would be together again. I didn’t really expect a response, so I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t hear back and the silence from his end didn’t dampen my determination.
I was sure the door wouldn’t appear in my home or yard, so I began exploring the city. I went to the places that Eli and I had frequented and I went to places I had never been. I began to talk to strangers, not telling them of my quest, but making idle chitchat hoping for a clue that only I could unravel.
I was given many clues over the next weeks, all of them leading nowhere. The emotional drain each time one didn’t pan out left me exhausted. When I’d receive a subtle push from a stranger, the excitement raced through my body, my heart would rush and I would know without a doubt that I was close, close to stepping over and close to Eli. But then, when I couldn’t find the door, the rush in my body went from joy and wonder to disappointment and fear and I’d question my sanity.
The clues, meant only for me, brought a strange shift of perception. The colors were brighter, my sense of taste and smell heightened and my body felt lighter, as though the heavy burden of gravity had deserted me. But I began to lose faith in my goal when my attention was drawn to a teenage boy staring up into a tree. I ambled over, fighting the desire to run to him, and asked what he saw. He smiled at me, his pupils made large by his drug of choice and said, “There’s whole other worlds up there.”
I stared up into the tree trying to discern the path and saw nothing, disappointment raced through my body and my mind, divided into two camps, argued viciously. One side insisting I had gone crazy, while the other side soothed that I was getting closer. The incidents always followed the same pattern, the heightened perception, a cryptic, indecipherable message and then the crash of depression when I couldn’t find the doorway. I couldn’t give up, though, I knew Eli was waiting for me and I knew I would find him.
After a month of spending my days in parks, on streets and instigating strange conversations with the homeless, I was worn out. The two camps in my mind continued to battle and the voice that declared my insanity was growing stronger. “You can’t just find a door and rejoin your dead relatives,” the voice insisted. “If that was possible don’t you think everyone would do it? Wouldn’t it be common knowledge?”
The voice that insisted I knew an unknowable secret was growing weaker and I was both saddened and relieved, perhaps I was coming back into the light of the sane. I began to ignore the shifts of perception and turn a blind eye to any clues coming my way, I didn’t want to end up like some of the homeless I had met. I felt as though I was turning my back on Eli, but self-preservation demanded I put away the childish thoughts of extra-dimensions and try to go back to work and reality.
My dreams changed then, no longer showing me the next day’s events, but full of images of Eli, lost and alone. Was I turning my back on my son again? What kind of person was I? Was my sanity more important than Eli’s security? I was torn, I was at a crossroads in which one direction led to a sane and lonely life without my son and the other direction to worlds of deception and trickery where I may find my son or I may just as easily be locked away in an asylum.
I accepted a temporary job. I wasn’t ready for corporate decisions and stress and the position seemed simple, mindless and just what I needed to turn back time to the single-dimension world that I had known for forty years. I kept to myself and listened to the conversations of those around me. As I listened to the group of strangers, aged from late teens to late seventies, I began hearing direct phrases from my past that had made an impression on me. It was a reunion of my dead relatives in new bodies and I realized I had slipped over the dam into the sea of schizophrenia. I made it three days and walked out as one of the younger members in the room was discussing the string of stepmothers she had known. And when she said, “Vivian, now she was the best mom I ever had,” I picked up my bag and left without a word.
I sat on a park bench watching an elderly couple feed the pigeons and wondered what the hell I was supposed to do. It was hard enough to move forward in the world without Eli, I didn’t need the added challenge of suddenly being crazy. I considered going to a doctor, but the warning in my head could not be denied. I didn’t know if I knew something I shouldn’t, but if I told the truth of what I was experiencing I would surely be locked away, medicated and maybe even worse things would happen. Scenes from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest filled my head.
I sat for hours and then hunger announced its presence. I walked across the street and entered a restaurant I’d never tried. It sat back off the street and displayed a cluttered yard of rusted antiques to passersby. I placed my order and heard the staff quietly talking about the only other patron in the restaurant. I glanced over my shoulder and saw an overweight man sitting alone in a wheelchair.
“He can’t talk,” the male employee said. “His nurse drops him off and he just points at the things on the menu, it’s usually the same thing every time.”
“Well, he pointed at corn, fries and a slice of pepperoni pizza,” said the waitress.
“Yeah, that’s what he usually gets.”
I smiled, those were Eli’s favorite foods and his usual birthday menu. I didn’t see this as a clue at the time; I felt nothing but hunger and gratefully took the to-go bag when it was handed to me. I turned to leave, passing the man in the wheelchair without a glance and then he spoke.
“Mom?” he said in a garbled voice.
My feet took three more steps before my brain caught up and then I stopped and looked at him. It wasn’t a man; it was a teenager with short and spiky hair, a pierced ear and a deep scar over his left eye that ran into his hairline. He smiled. “Hey, Mom.”
My feet moved to the table with no conscious decision and I was vaguely aware that the music from the overhead speakers had become a slowed drone. I looked down at the boy and knew I had found the door. It was Eli. It was Eli in a world where I hadn’t pulled the plug, in a world where I hadn’t survived the shooting.
“Sit down, Mom,” he said, throwing his heavy arm on the back of a chair with obvious effort.
I looked down at the chair, it looked like a normal chair, but I knew that it was the door I had been looking for. If I sat in it I would enter a dimension that I had never known, a dimension where I was the mother of a terribly handicapped child and that child would be a stranger to me. The broken boy sitting in the mechanical conveyance was both my son and not my son.
Time seemed to slow even further and I was aware of the staff at the counter staring at us with stunned expressions while the music filling the room droned nonsensically. I placed my hand on the boy’s arm resting on the chair and something inside of me screamed in protest.
“Sit down, Mom,” the boy slurred again, spit sliding down his chin.
I made my decision and wrapped my arms around his thick neck and kissed him on the cheek. “I can’t this time, son,” I whispered in his ear, feeling as though I was pulling the plug again. “But I’ll see you soon. I promise.”
He nodded his head and smiled. “Okay, Momma. Promise.”
I turned away and as I opened the door to step outside the music returned to its normal pace and the staff regained their composure and went back to work. I stepped onto the street and no longer felt insane. I had found the door and it was real. The entrance I found was not what I expected, but I knew there were more doors and more worlds.
I was the best mother Eli had ever had and if I stepped over into the dimension where Eli was a stranger, helpless and trapped in a nonfunctioning body, I could not be the great mom he loved. I couldn’t handle the idea of Eli not being whole and now I knew that other worlds existed out there and in one of those worlds Eli was just the same as I remembered him.
I will find him. After all, I promised and the best moms don’t break their promises.