“So, who are we bidding goodbye to next?” Asked Suzy the hivemind abomination, skipping happily down the road without an inkling of worry or sadness on her face, the opposite of mine.
“My family,” I muttered. “Considering I’m going to be absent for a long time, I figured it’s only right.” My feet dragged on the pavement as I trailed behind her. She turned back towards me and cocked her head inquisitively.
“You look like you’re headed to your own execution,” she quipped.
“Not looking forward to this” I muttered.
“So… Why are you doing it then?” She asked, walking beside me with her hands behind her back.
“Because sometimes you have to do stuff you don’t like,” I replied. “Like asking for help from the creature that killed your girlfriend.”
“Do you dislike so much? The fact that I am helping you?” she asked, pursing her lips in a skeptical expression. I looked at her and sighed.
“I don’t have to like it. So long as we save humanity, that’s what matters.”
“Might as well get used to it,” she chuckled. “We’re stuck together until your wish is fulfilled. Feel free to call it off early, if you want to.”
“Like a really fucked-up genie...” I said, looking at her with suspicion. “Actually, why is it that you’re so concerned with granting my wish anyway?”
“Are you going to complain when someone grants you wishes?” She asked, grinning in amusement back at me. As always, nothing I said seemed to bother her.
“No,” I replied. “But it pays to be suspicious of a… An entity that I don’t even understand helping me for free. You mentioned before, something about payment for my service… What’s that about?”
“You were part of the play,” she replied simply, looking away into the distance.
“Your murder play at the theater? The one I survived?”
“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee,” she quoted, smirking. “It’s important to leave someone alive to tell the tale.”
I looked back at her with anger and horror. I remembered still the ‘tale’, the desperate struggle to survive, the people panicking and fighting before having their throats slit on stage, bodies dumped like garbage after being drained of their blood. If I closed my eyes, I could still picture perfectly the look on the actress’ face before I threw a can of paint at her, sending her falling down 25 feet head-first onto the hardwood stage. My stomach froze in nervous sympathy to the recent memory.
“A bunch of people killed each other. The end,” I said, venom dripping from my words. “Sorry, but, that’s a shitty story.”
“Everyone’s a critic,” she replied, shrugging as she looked away.
“Why is it so important that I survive to tell the tale anyway?” I asked, still unconvinced.
She looked at me and flashed a small, distant smile, so unlike any of her other sarcastic grins. “For the memory of Carcosa,” she replied.
Our conversation was brought to a halt as we reached our destination. The hospital was a large, white building, with a small pleasant garden on front as well as a place where cars could drop off or pick people up right next to the front doors. The windows were of tinted glass, preventing me from seeing anything inside, but I still knew exactly in what room they were in.
“With all due respect... ” I said, not taking my eyes off the hospital, “I think it’s best if you sit this one out. Wait for me here, this won’t take long.”
“It’s your choice,” she shrugged. “But if you need my help just call me, ok?”
“Any special ritual I need to do? People I need to sacrifice to the King in Yellow?” I asked sarcastically.
“My number’s on your cell phone,” she grinned, taking a small smartphone from the pocket of her hoodie. “Name’s Suzy. Send me a text when you’re done.”
After navigating the initial bureaucracy at the front desk, I was notified that I could still visit her and was allowed to proceed to the room. The place felt familiar to me by this point, as I entered, downright to the smells. The usual disinfectant and sterile hospital smell mixing with the scent of the potted plant in one corner and the unpleasant smell of a body that only received the occasional sponge bath while it slowly died, a musty and sickly stench. That one came from my mother.
She was lying on one of the beds, eyes closed, hooked up to an IV that drip-fed her painkillers, medication or whatever else she needed. I had no idea what it was giving her this time. The machine beside her, which quietly monitored her heart rate, was a new addition.
I was surprised to see my brother, Anthony, sitting on a chair next to her while typing on a laptop. He glanced up from it and our eyes met, showing he was just as surprised to see me there.
“Cody?” He closed the laptop and got up. With a few steps he was next to me at the entrance of the room. “Why are you here?”
“I wanted to see her.” We both spoke quietly, the hushed tones used in a hospital room next to someone who is dying.
“Oh, ok. Umm… Now?” he asked, still taken aback. He was lighter-skinned than me, which did not help hide the dark circles under his eyes or the nervous sweat he wiped from his brow. “Did anything happen?” He asked, trying to keep his tone nonchalant, but not quite succeeding.
“Well, I’m going away on a trip and I thought...” but my whisper was interrupted.
“Cody? Cody, is that you?” My mother asked, stirring in her bed. Me and my brother exchanged a quiet glance before I walked and sat down on the chair next to her.
“Hey mom, it’s me,” I said. I moved my hand to hold hers, but thought better of it, awkwardly hovering my hand before resting it on the bedside.
She was incredibly thin, her skin an unhealthy white that made a stark contrast with all the freckles on her face. You could see both vein and bone as the skin hung limp on them. Her eyes were tired, but still looked at me intently, her gaze pinning me in place like a butterfly on a collection.
“What do you want?” She asked at last.
“I came here to see you,” I replied, frowning.
“Hm,” she grumbled. “Suddenly you’re so interested in paying a visit to your mother now?”
“Can we not fight? Just this once?” My voice was deliberately quiet, barely repressing a sigh of annoyance.
“Huh. Sure, sure,” she said with the exact same tone while looking at me up and down. “So… No news then? Nothing at all you want to tell me?”
I bit down a reply, stopping myself and taking a deep breath before replying, “Actually there is something I came here to tell you.”
“Hah,” she let out an impatient snort. “Yeah, of course. So, what is it?”
Another awkward silence. I braced myself before speaking. “I am leaving for a very important trip tomorrow. Don’t know when I am coming back.”
The look on her face was one familiar to me. An expression of deep disgust and hate, her eyes just slits as her upper lip curled in a snarl. “I see,” she spoke, her voice deceptively calm, unlike her expression. “So you’re not even going to bother waiting for me to die.”
“Mother! It’s… It’s not even as if I want to go. But this is important!” I stressed. “Christ! Do you think I wouldn’t stay with you if I could?”
She barked a short laugh. “Wouldn’t be the first time you run away from your responsibilities.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake…!” I started before she angrily interrupted me.
“First the drugs! The shame and pain you brought to our family! Five years lost on that!” Her tone was relentless, despite her weakness, and fierce as ever. “A 23 year old graduating high-school, a grown-ass man in the middle of a bunch of kids. Then you had to choose that pointless major! When I told you...”
“It was MY fucking choice,” I spat out, getting up from my chair. “I know I have my share of fuckups but there’s no way that…!”
My brother cleared his throat, interrupting our argument. We both looked at him, standing uncertainty near the door.
“I, ahh… I’m going to get a drink,” he gestured his thumb at the corridor outside. “So… I’ll be going. Does anyone want anything?”
His eyes darted back and forth between us, but neither me nor my mother replied. He nodded wordlessly and opened the door, fleeing as quickly as he could. There was only one other person in the room, a patient on the bed opposite to my mother’s, but he was still fast asleep, despite all the noise. Now it was just the two of us, fuming in silent anger.
Her eyes followed me silently as I paced around the room, avoiding her gaze. There was silence for a moment, before she broke it.
“Do you want to know what is your biggest problem?”
I sighed, still not looking at her. “I’m sure you’re very eager to tell me,” I replied.
“The problem is you run away. You always run away,” she scoffed. “At the first sign of hardship or trouble, off you go! Taking the easiest road, nevermind where it will take you...”
“Is this really what you want our last day together to be? Us shouting at each other?”
We stared at each other, silently considering our words. Then she closed her eyes with a sigh and the contrast was as night and day. She looked so tired, so utterly broken by her disease. She looked so different from how I once knew her, so weak and tired.
“Did I ever tell you the story of my father, your grandfather, Elias? How he left Brazil?” She opened her eyes again, less hostile than before although her expression was still far from friendly.
I frowned, trying to remember. “He fled a dictatorship there, right?”
She snorted dismissively. “Ever tell you how?”
“Umm.. He crossed the border to another country, then eventually asked for asylum here, right?”
She blinked, looking me up and down. She did not look pleased by what she saw, but seemed to come to a decision and settled down, looking into the distance with a faraway expression.
“I was little at the time. Ten years old, I barely understood what was happening, but I knew some. That my father was a journalist, back when that meant something. Even such a small paper, they called it A Folha do Ceará, it was still important. People paid attention to what they wrote.”
My memories of my Grandfather were distant and hazy. All I could recollect was a small, balding man that took forever to walk anywhere but always would give me money to get sweets or a new game or toy I wanted.
“He looked the smallest and most inoffensive man alive,” she continued, smiling distantly. “They called him Magrinho... It means thin.” She spoke his nickname in accented Portuguese, which I had never bothered learning. My mother’s homeland, as far as I was concerned, was another, distant world.
“He was always polite and quiet, always toeing the line... Hm!” She snorted again. “Back then the military paid very close attention to what they wrote. Yes...”
A lull followed as my mother frowned, some sort of internal debate barely visible as her eyes flickered.
“I… I still don’t know what he did wrong. Maybe he published the wrong thing… Or maybe he did nothing at all. Just suspicion, or being at the wrong place and wrong time. My mother sometimes wondered if he was quietly helping the rebels... But I never knew. All I saw was the soldiers taking my father away.”
She looked at me now, straight in the eye, and her voice grew harsh. “They tortured him. He never said a word of what happened in the three days they took him, but when he came back he looked five kilos thinner and his two front teeth were missing. Just two stumps in his gums." She paused for a moment and shivered in horror of a memory more than 40 years ago. "But I never saw him complain or cry. No weakness, just... The same small and quiet man he had always been.”
He had dentures by the time I knew him. I just assumed my grandpa’s teeth had fallen out from old age, like usual.
“They released him, but only because he had a friend in the army who vouched for him. And they still took his passport, so he couldn’t travel.” She swallowed, grimacing and shifting her position slightly. “We left my hometown a day later, I couldn’t even say goodbye to my friends. We sold what we could and drove off in our battered old car... We drove for days and nights towards the border, mother and father switching now and then. When we slept, we did it in the car, usually parked close to a truck stop or in a two-street city in the middle of nowhere. A family of three, plus my baby brother, all sleeping in a small car.”
She shuddered, the ghost of that memory still haunting her even after all those years. “Those weren’t pleasant nights. It was hot and cramped in that car, and my legs always hurt from not being able to move them. But not as bad as that one night...” She closed her eyes for a moment, before continuing. “We were all in another small town in middle of nowhere. I never learned its name. My father had bought us some bread and cheese, which we all ate before going to sleep. But that night were woken up… By a man with a gun tapping at our windows.”
She stopped her story and looked away. I sat next to her but said nothing, waiting for her to continue.
“He looked poor, didn’t even have shoes. Just sandals… No idea what a robber was doing in such a small town, but he still had a pistol. He pointed it at my mother and shouted for everyone to get out of the car. My mother was crying, begging him not to do it, clutching her baby, as if to protect him. God… If he took our car and our things in that place? What would become of us? We were miles away from anywhere we knew, and my father was a wanted man...”
She shook her head sadly. “My mother and father begged at him, but the robber just cursed at us. Yelled for everyone to get out, or he’d shoot us. I was crying. In all that, my father relented. He opened the door of the car. My mother and I got off, still crying, and my father offered the robber the car keys...”
There was the slightest pause, a nervous fidget, before she continued.
“When the robber was about to take the keys, my father grabbed the gun with one hand and stabbed the man on the neck with the car keys. He got off only one shot, and I thank god to this day that it never hit anyone. My father stabbed him again as they struggled, until he managed to pull away the gun. And then my father, who I had never heard say an unkind word about anyone, shot the man in the face the first moment he got the gun.”
She went quiet, letting what she had just told me sink as I grimaced, uncomfortable. I still could never imagine my grandfather doing such a thing, even as little as I knew him.
“We all hurried back into the car and drove away, after he cleaned the keys from most of the blood. Nobody slept for the rest of the night. We just drove for the next day and night until we reached the border to Bolivia. Once there we left the car and crossed the border on foot, at an unguarded spot, and stayed at the house of a friend of my father until we were granted asylum here.”
“We never talked about that night. This is the first time I tell this story to anyone,” said my mother, looking at me once more. I nodded, unsure of how to react. This was more than she had ever confided to me in months. Years, maybe.
“Your grandfather killed a man,” she said softly, “so that we could survive. He was tortured, and endured every kind of hardship… All so that you could be here. He was always a quiet man, but he knew how to fight.”
My grandfather had passed away while I was very young. The same traffic accident that killed my father. A tragedy that struck our family very hard.
“He didn’t run away when the first opportunity presented itself,” she finished, again looking angrily at me. And just like that, the illusion of a bond we had was broken.
“Nice story,” I said, biting back the sarcasm on the tip of my tongue, “but grandpa and me are not the same person.”
“The same blood is in your veins!” She raised her voice, still tired and hoarse but full of bitterness. “So when are you going to stop floundering and finally fight, once in your life, for anything?”
I could tell her about the night in the theater, on how I had killed five people while trying to survive. I could tell her that, even now, I was fighting to save everyone in this world from a horrible, violent fate. If I really wanted, I could even force her to believe me. I could call Suzy, the Queen in Yellow.
“Yeah, well… Sorry to disappoint you,” I scoffed. But I wasn’t sorry, not really. I could not even be bothered to try to argue that she was wrong. I had already disappointed her so much, what was one time more?
“Cody!” She spoke urgently, her voice still low, but more anxious than angry. “In this world you need to learn how to fight to survive. Get a good job, a good family, and stay here to take care of your mother, along with Anthony... If you just wait to see where life takes you, then you’re as good as dead! Please... Don’t break my heart when I have so little time left…?”
It was a low blow, her request piercing me like a nail, leaving me with nowhere to run. After coming close to her, I replied, “I know how to fight for what I want, mother. ”
“Then prove it,” she asked. She was completely earnest in her worry as she pleaded me, no barbs visible in her words. “Give up on this… Silly trip or whatever it is you’re planning. Stay with me and your brother. And also give up on that silly course you’re taking. Choose something nice and stable… You don’t have to be a doctor if you want, an engineer or a teacher… If I have to go to heaven, let me see my sons walking a good path. Please, please… Just give me this before I go.”
I could lie to her. I could tell her yes, I could tell her that I was going to a university far away, make something up, give her some final comfort before she passed away, a gentle lie, the best possible kind of lie you could tell…
“Sorry,” I told her. “But I have to go. This trip might be the most important thing I ever do in my life.”
These words shattered our last hope of polite conversation or kind words. We stared at each other again. Hate, pain, grudges from years past that contaminated everything we said and did to each other. There was no going back from that.
“Then go,” she turned away, unable to look at me. “Don’t bother coming back. Ever.”
“Hate you too, mother,” I replied, getting up and walking away. Neither of us turned back to look at each other before I left the room for the last time.