EVEN WITH THE SWEAT ON HER FOREHEAD AND THE skip in her breath, she didn’t look sick. Her skin didn’t have the peachy glow I was used to, and her eyes weren’t as bright, but she was still beautiful. The most beautiful woman I would ever see.
Her hand flopped off the bed, and her finger twitched. My eyes trailed from her brittle, yellowing nails, up her thin arm, to her bony shoulder, finally settling on her eyes. She was looking down at me, her lids two slits, just enough to let me know she knew I was there. That’s what I loved about her. When she looked at me, she really saw me. She didn’t look past me to the other dozens of things she needed to do with her day, or tune out my stupid stories. She listened, and it made her really happy. Everyone else seemed to nod without listening, but not her. Never her.
“Travis,” she said, her voice raspy. She cleared her throat, and the corners of her mouth turned up. “Come here, baby. It’s okay. C’mere.”
Dad put a few fingers on the base of my neck and pushed me forward while listening to the nurse. Dad called her Becky. She came to the house for the first time a few days ago. Her words were soft, and her eyes were kinda nice, but I didn’t like Becky. I couldn’t explain it, but her being there was scary. I knew she might have been there to help, but it wasn’t a good thing, even though Dad was okay with her.
Dad’s nudge shoved me forward several steps, close enough to where Mommy could touch me. She stretched her long, elegant fingers, and brushed my arm. “It’s okay, Travis,” she whispered. “Mommy wants to tell you something.”
I stuck my finger in my mouth, and pushed it around on my gums, fidgeting. Nodding made her small smile bigger, so I made sure to make big movements with my head as I stepped toward her face.
She used what was left of her strength to scoot closer to me, and then she took a breath. “What I’m going to ask you will be very hard, son. I know you can do it, because you’re a big boy now.”
I nodded again, mirroring her smile, even if I didn’t mean it. Smiling when she looked so tired and uncomfortable didn’t feel right, but being brave made her happy. So I was brave.
“Travis, I need you to listen to what I’m going to say, and even more important, I need you to remember. This will be very hard. I’ve been trying to remember things from when I was three, and I . . .” She trailed off, the pain too big for a bit.
“Pain getting unmanageable, Diane?” Becky said, pushing a needle into Mom’s IV.
After a few moments, Mommy relaxed. She took another breath, and tried again.
“Can you do that for Mommy? Can you remember what I’m about to say?” I nodded again, and she raised a hand to my cheek. Her skin wasn’t very warm, and she could only keep her hand in place for a few seconds before it got shaky and fell to the bed. “First, it’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to feel things. Remember that. Second, be a kid for as long as you can. Play games, Travis. Be silly”—her eyes glossed over—“and you and your brothers take care of each other, and your father. Even when you grow up and move away, it’s important to come home. Okay?”
My head bobbed up and down, desperate to please her.
“One of these days you’re going to fall in love, son. Don’t settle for just anyone. Choose the girl that doesn’t come easy, the one you have to fight for, and then never stop fighting. Never”—she took a deep breath—“stop fighting for what you want. And never”—her eyebrows pulled in—“forget that Mommy loves you. Even if you can’t see me.” A tear fell down her cheek. “I will always, always love you.”
She took a choppy breath, and then coughed.
“Okay,” Becky said, sticking a funny-looking thing in her ears. She held the other end to Mommy’s chest. “Time to rest.”
“No time,” Mommy whispered.
Becky looked at my dad. “We’re getting close, Mr. Maddox. You should probably bring the rest of the boys in to say goodbye.”
Dad’s lips made a hard line, and he shook his head. “I’m not ready,” he choked out.
“You’ll never be ready to lose your wife, Jim. But you don’t want to let her go without the boys saying their goodbyes.”
Dad thought for a minute, wiped his nose with his sleeve, and then nodded. He stomped out of the room, like he was mad.
I watched Mommy, watched her try to breathe, and watched Becky checking the numbers on the box beside her. I touched Mommy’s wrist. Becky’s eyes seemed to know something I didn’t, and that made my stomach feel sick.
“You know, Travis,” Becky said, leaning down so she could look me in the eyes, “the medicine I’m giving your mommy will make her sleep, but even though she’s sleeping, she can still hear you. You can still tell Mommy that you love her and that you’ll miss her, and she’ll hear everything you say.”
I looked at Mommy but quickly shook my head. “I don’t want to miss her.”
Becky put her soft, warm hand on my shoulder, just like Mommy used to when I was upset. “Your mom wants to be here with you. She wants that very much. But Jesus wants her with him right now.”
I frowned. “I need her more than Jesus does.”
Becky smiled, and then kissed the top of my hair.
Dad knocked on the door, and then it opened. My brothers crowded around him in the hallway, and Becky led me by the hand to join them.
Trenton’s eyes didn’t leave Mommy’s bed, and Taylor and Tyler looked everywhere but the bed. It made me feel better somehow that they all looked as scared as I felt.
Thomas stood next to me, a little bit in front, like the time he protected me when we were playing in the front yard, and the neighbor boys tried to pick a fight with Tyler. “She doesn’t look good,” Thomas said.
Dad cleared his throat. “Mom’s been real sick for a long time, boys, and it’s time for her . . . it’s time she . . .” He trailed off.
Becky offered a small, sympathetic smile. “Your mom hasn’t been eating or drinking. Her body is letting go. This is going to be very hard, but it’s a good time to tell your mom that you love her, and you’re going to miss her, and that it’s okay for her to go. She needs to know that it’s okay.”
My brothers nodded their heads in unison. All of them but me. It wasn’t okay. I didn’t want her to leave. I didn’t care if Jesus wanted her or not. She was my mommy. He could take an old mommy. One that didn’t have little boys to take care of. I tried to remember everything she told me. I tried to glue it to the inside of my head: Play. Visit Dad. Fight for what I love. That last thing bothered me. I loved Mommy, but I didn’t know how to fight for her.
Becky leaned into my dad’s ear. He shook his head, and then nodded to my brothers. “Okay, boys. Let’s go say goodbye, and then you need to get your brothers in bed, Thomas. They don’t need to be here for the rest.”
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said. I knew he was faking a brave face. His eyes were as sad as mine.
Thomas talked to her for a while, and then Taylor and Tyler whispered things in each of her ears. Trenton cried and hugged her for a long time. Everyone told her it was okay for her to leave us. Everyone but me. Mommy didn’t say anything back this time.
Thomas pulled on my hand, leading me out of her bedroom. I walked backward until we were in the hall. I tried to pretend she was just going to sleep, but my head went fuzzy. Thomas picked me up and carried me up the stairs. His feet climbed faster when Dad’s wails carried through the walls.
“What did she say to you?” Thomas asked, turning on the tub faucet.
I didn’t answer. I heard him ask, and I remembered like she told me to, but my tears wouldn’t work, and my mouth didn’t either.
Thomas pulled my dirt-soiled shirt over my head, and my shorts and Thomas the Train Underoos down to the floor. “Time to get in the tub, bubby.” He lifted me off the floor and sat me in the warm water, soaking the rag, and squeezing it over my head. I didn’t blink. I didn’t even try to get the water off of my face, even though I hated it.
“Yesterday, Mom told me to take care of you and the twins, and to take care of Dad.” Thomas folded his hands on the rim of the tub and rested his chin on them, looking at me. “So that’s what I’m gonna do, Trav, okay? I’m going to take care of you. So don’t you worry. We’re going to miss Mom together, but don’t be scared. I’m going to make sure everything’s okay. I promise.”
I wanted to nod, or hug him, but nothing worked. Even though I should have been fighting for her, I was upstairs, in a tub full of water, still as a statue. I had already let her down. I promised her in the very back of my head that I would do all the things she had told me as soon as my body worked again. When the sad went away, I would always play, and I would always fight. Hard.
FUCKING VULTURES. THEY COULD WAIT YOU OUT FOR hours. Days. Nights, too. Staring right through you, picking which parts of you they will pull away first, which pieces will be the sweetest, the most tender, or just which part will be most convenient.
What they don’t know, what they’ve never anticipated, is that the prey is faking. It’s the vultures that are easy. Just when they think all they have to do is be patient, to sit back and wait for you to expire, that’s when you hit them. That’s when you bring in the secret weapon: an utter lack of respect for the status quo; a refusal to give in to the order of things.
That’s when you shock them with how much you just don’t give a fuck.
An opponent in the Circle, some random douche bag trying to expose your weakness with insults, a woman trying to tie you down; gets them every time.
I’d been very careful from a very young age to live my life this way. These bleeding heart assholes that went around giving their soul to every gold-digging banshee that smiled at them had it all wrong. But somehow I was the one swimming upstream. I was the man out. Their way was the hard way if you ask me. Leaving emotion at the door, and replacing it with numbness, or anger—which was much easier to control—was easy. Letting yourself feel made you vulnerable. As many times as I tried to explain this error to my brothers, my cousins, or my friends, I was met with skepticism. As many times as I had seen them crying or losing sleep over some dumb bitch in a pair of fuck-me heels that never gave a shit about them anyway, I couldn’t understand it. The women that were worth that kind of heartbreak wouldn’t let you fall for them so easy. They wouldn’t bend over your couch, or allow you to charm them into their bedroom on the first night—or even the tenth.
My theories were ignored because that wasn’t the way of things. Attraction, sex, infatuation, love, and then heartbreak. That was the logical order. And, it was always the order.
But not for me. No. Fucking. Way.
I decided a long time ago I would feed on the vultures until a dove came along. A pigeon. The kind of soul that didn’t impede on anyone; just walked around worrying about its own business, trying to get through life without pulling everyone else down with its own needs and selfish habits. Brave. A communicator. Intelligent. Beautiful. Soft-spoken. A creature that mates for life. Unattainable until she has a reason to trust you.
As I stood at my open apartment door, flicking the last bit of ashes off my cigarette, the girl in the bloody, pink cardigan from the Circle flashed in my memory. Without thinking, I’d called her Pigeon. At the time it was just a stupid nickname to make her even more uncomfortable than she already was. Her crimson-spattered face, her eyes wide, outwardly she seemed innocent, but I could tell it was just the clothes. I pushed her memory away as I stared blankly into the living room.
Megan lay on my couch lazily, watching TV. She looked bored, and I wondered why she was still in my apartment. She usually got her crap and left right after I bagged her.
The door complained when I pushed it a little wider. I cleared my throat and picked up my backpack by the straps. “Megan. I’m out.”
She sat up and stretched, and then gripped the chain of her excessively large purse. I couldn’t imagine she had enough belongings to fill it. Megan slung the silver links over her shoulder, and then slipped on her wedge heels, sauntering out the door.
“Text me if you’re bored,” she said without glancing in my direction. She slipped on her oversize sunglasses, and then descended the stairs, completely unaffected by my dismissal. Her indifference was exactly why Megan was one of my few frequent flyers. She didn’t cry about commitment, or throw a tantrum. She took our arrangement for what it was, and then went about her day.
My Harley glistened in the morning autumn sun. I waited for Megan to pull away from the parking lot of my apartment, and then jogged down the stairs, zipping up my jacket. Dr. Rueser’s humanities class was in half an hour, but he didn’t care if I was late. If it didn’t piss him off, I didn’t really see a point in killing myself to get there.
“Wait up!” a voice called from behind me.
Shepley stood at the front door of our apartment, shirtless and balancing on one foot while trying to pull a sock onto the other. “I meant to ask you last night. What did you say to Marek? You leaned into his ear and said something. He looked like he swallowed his tongue.”
“I thanked him for taking off out of town a few weekends before, because his mother was a wildcat.”
Shepley stared at me, dubious. “Dude. You didn’t.”
“No. I heard from Cami that he got a Minor In Possession in Jones County.”
He shook his head, and then nodded toward the couch. “Did you let Megan spend the night this time?”
“No, Shep. You know better than that.”
“She just came over to get some morning nookie before class, huh? That’s an interesting way to claim you for the day.”