by Eric Sentell
(This story contains violence.)
Ryan parked his dead mother’s Corolla in an abandoned lot across the highway from Patty Johnson’s trailer park, stuffed a pair of brown jersey gloves in his back pockets, and looked around for people and cars. Seeing no one, he walked under the blaring, beating sun across the asphalt, onto crunching white gravel, past faded single-wides, and up the concrete steps of Patty’s mildew-stained trailer, panting and wincing with each pace. He slipped on the gloves, pulled them over his long black sleeves, and then knocked, half-trembling, on her door. He took out a four-inch pocket knife, opened the blade, and hid both hands behind his back.
Patty answered the door in gray sweatpants and a lime green t-shirt with the fuchsia words “Blessed Girl” printed on a breast pocket. Big blue eyes rested in her round, wrinkled face, and her thin graying hair hung in a loose ponytail. Ryan could pass for her son with his blue eyes, fair skin, and blond hair.
Her voice creaked. “Yes?”
“Can I come in?”
“Ryan Pretz. Patricia’s son.”
“I wanted to talk.”
“Oh, oh, yes, come in, uh-huh.”
She waved him inside and hurried into the kitchen, offering coffee, tea, soda, and water faster than he could decline each. A teetering stack of empty picture frames cluttered the kitchen counter and rattled as Patty’s feet thudded against the floor. He counted six different framed Bible verses in four different font styles hanging on the living room and kitchen walls. She sat at a round kitchen table with a small floral centerpiece and waved Ryan to a chair. He sat with his hands behind his back and swung them to his lap under the table. His head bent forward as though he were examining something tiny in the woodgrain.
Patty leaned her clasped hands on the table. Her welling eyes peered over the centerpiece’s plastic leaves, red seeds, and white flowers, drilling into the top of Ryan’s bowed head. She said, “I wanna say you can’t imagine how sorry I am, how shocked I was, but I figure you’re tired of people telling ya how ya feel.”
He looked up at her shirt. “Blessed Girl.” Ryan almost chuckled.
Ryan faced his mom beneath the giant cross hanging on the white wall above the altar of Solid Rock Baptist Church. Quarter-sized holes between her breasts seeped dark blood down the lilac dress she had worn that day. A few drops splattered on the altar’s blond oak wood floor. Wild brown hair hung over her shoulders, and she spoke in a rasp.
“You love me?”
“I love you, Mom.”
“Then do what I say. You love me?”
“I’m always right, remember. You love me?”
“I love you.”
“Then deal with Daniel.”
She sat at a round plastic table at the sanctuary’s rear with eight other women, near the church’s white doors. Her long, neat ponytail fell over one shoulder while she smiled warmly over an open Bible. They discussed a boy who struggled in college, dropped out, returned, and dropped out again; who couldn’t keep a job, find a girlfriend, or make friends; who never knew his father, who had a hard, hard life, though his mother tried her best.
The church doors boomed open at 3:05 p.m. Daniel entered, extended his thin arms, and began firing a pair of Glocks. Patricia rose, took the first bullets, and plopped back in her chair, eyes wide, mouth gasping. The bullets echoed as the others fled, and more shots cracked the air. Padded chairs set up for Sunday burst into slivers of plywood and chunks of urine-colored foam. Bibles and bodies thudded onto the blue carpet. His mom’s pale face slammed down on the table. The copper smell of blood overwhelmed Ryan.
Ryan saw Daniel up close. Brown eyes and hair. Thin face, sharp bones and angles, pointed nose, puckered mouth. Gaze like his soul had left him.
He saw himself standing on the church’s concrete steps before dozens of foam microphones and reporters from St. Louis, Kansas City, New York, D.C. He forgave Daniel Lynn Johnson and assured them that his mom would’ve wanted him to forgive. That in heaven, she forgave. Sitting in red overstuffed chairs, he listened to news anchors praise his incredible maturity, his wisdom, his upbringing, the lessons adults could learn from him. He watched himself, a pencil-necked, chubby eighteen-year-old who looked twelve, participating in televised candlelit prayer vigils while soft voice-overs informed viewers about his absent father and dead grandparents. Alone and tender, blue eyes wide and pleading, blond hair tousled just so, he was the perfect victim’s family member.
Then Ryan saw his mom sit up in her chair and shout through the blood pouring out of her mouth, “Remember me remember me remember me.”
When his pulse stopped throbbing in his shoulder and the nausea lessened, Ryan picked up a pen and notepad from his nightstand and marked the fortieth night of the Dream. It always ended at 3:05 a.m.
He went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. His fingers massaged swollen eyes and hollowed cheeks. The base of his skull throbbed, and weights pressed on his temples from the inside. He tried to force tears but couldn’t. All he could manage was a sob choked halfway out.
After a couple weeks of Dreaming, Ryan couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t eat, couldn’t fall asleep, and certainly couldn’t return to sleep. All day, every day, he wondered if forgiving Daniel — if claiming his mom forgave him — had been a lie. He wondered if forgiveness was something you told yourself just so you didn’t walk around shell-shocked the rest of your life.
Sometimes he could fight his way back to half-sleep until late morning, but mostly he sat in a stupor thinking, thinking, thinking through the dull hum of exhaustion, ignoring his friends’ texts and Snapchats, scrolling Instagram mindlessly and watching TV without paying attention. Long stretches of the day vanished from memory, and the rest blurred into one long analysis of the Dream. After twenty nights, he felt too haggard to care about anything.
Then he heard his mom’s voice say, “Remember me.”
Ryan spun circles searching for someone in the kitchen. He checked his phone. Set to silent. Then he checked all the televisions. Black screens. He stalked through every room, even his mom’s, looking in closets, peering under beds, and pulling back the curtains. He knew he was alone, but he searched some more and locked the doors.
Mom always took him to Dr. Toney, so he started there. They squeezed in an immediate appointment for Patricia’s son. Toney suspected stress. “I can only imagine the strain,” he said thickly, holding back tears, his tanned and wrinkled face on the verge of collapse. But to be safe, he referred Ryan to a neurologist in St. Louis. Dr. Ayyagarri gave him a CAT scan on the same day as his appointment. After it came back normal, she had to call in a hospital social worker to back her up on grief’s tricks before Ryan accepted that he didn’t have a brain tumor.
After the fortieth night, Ryan decided to take the Dream seriously. He went online and read as much as he could about Daniel and the county jail’s security. Without meaning to, he learned all about Daniel’s childhood and his mother. She had given so many interviews. He read them all.
A compromise occurred to him. His mother had always taught him to seek compromise. He laughed and said, “Sure, Mom.” He had never felt anything like what he felt next.
Patty said, “So I’ll just say, I can’t say anything equal to how sorry I am.”
Ryan murmured, “That doesn’t bring her back.”
She pressed her lips together. Her eyes filled so full that it seemed impossible tears didn’t spill. They sat for a long time, saying nothing, staring at the yellowed table and its floral centerpiece.
Ryan raised his gloved hands above the table and placed the open knife between them. “Winchester” was printed in black letters along the spine of the four-inch blade. The handle had an attractive wood finish, gold-plated ends, and a slight curve perfect for gripping, thrusting, pulling, slashing.
Patty flinched but stayed seated. Ryan assured her that he had been assured he wasn’t crazy, just very stressed. Then he summarized the Dram, told her about the voice, and explained what it all meant. If his mom were at peace, she wouldn’t care about anything on earth, she wouldn’t visit him in dreams, she wouldn’t speak to him in the kitchen. So, she wasn’t at peace. He could change that. He could listen. Avenge her death. A soul for a soul.
But he didn’t know if he could live with damning Daniel, who’d surely go to hell, so that his mom could rest. A soul was a soul after all. Besides, he couldn’t get to Daniel in jail.
“So you came for me?”
“Yes!” he yelled. “You said such holy things after the shooting. When you prayed for Jesus to return and renew all things — the ABC interview, remember — I knew you were a believer. Vengeance doesn’t have to be a soul for a soul, it can be a soul plus a soul. Yours following Mom’s to heaven.”
When the thought first occurred to him, Ryan told Patty, he laughed and said, “Sure, Mom.” That instant, he felt a cold, tingling sensation begin at the crown of his head and cascade down his face, his neck, his shoulders, and the rest of his body before shuddering into his legs. He still had the Dream that night, but at the end she said, Don’t forget don’t forget don’t forget.
“See? Don’t you see?” Ryan begged.
Patty stared at the knife and said, “God sent you here to kill me. Or your mom did. Yet here we sit.”
Ryan felt failure crushing his chest. He told himself to move; he visualized grabbing the knife, lunging across the table, and slashing a gaping red line across her throat. But he just sat and stared at his knife’s handle, the waves of woodgrain, the gold plating.
She coughed wetly, half-choked. Ryan slid around the table and shoved her in the chest. Her eyes widened. She gasped but didn’t scream. The chair scooted back with her in it, grating against the white linoleum. He pushed her again, tilting the chair on its legs. She shielded herself with one hand, the other wobbling in the air for balance.
He turned, tears welling up, breath catching in his throat, and ran to the door. He burst through it and half-ran, half-fell fell down the steps. The gravel slid and scattered as he regained his footing. He ran past the other trailers, past an old couple sitting on their deck, past the highway. He heard only his heavy footfalls rattling the picture frames on Patty’s kitchen counter, the door slapping against the trailer, the gravel crunching under foot, his own panting and sobbing. At home he sank onto the living room carpet, cried himself unconscious, and slept like the dead.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story