FICTION January 13, 2012


Jake woke up the next morning in a bad mood. It started with the return of his headache. The pain pushed his forehead down over the tops of his eyes, giving the world a low-hanging ceiling that caused him to feel claustrophobic. He stood, trying to find an open, freeing space, only to discover as he walked that the joints in his knees ached. Jake stretched the stiff legs, but that only increased the hot shivers up his spine. Sweat slid down his temples and he gnashed his teeth when the first twinge of hunger returned. The urge to yell came upon him. Not an animal cry of pain. That would only send his suffering straight up, allowing it to float back down and settle on his shoulders. His screams needed to be directed at someone. His mouth aimed at another person so that he could shoot them with his pain, relinquishing his ownership of it. He turned to the bed to yell something at the Virgin Mary (he didn’t know what), but when he saw only the crease in the sheets where her body had lain, he paused, allowing loneliness to overtake his anger. This respite lasted only a moment – long enough for him to inhale and exhale. The seething rage flared up again, and, ignoring his aching knees, Jake marched down the hall, flung open his mother’s bedroom door and switched on the light.

The sudden brightness invading her cocoon frightened Mrs. Asher. Her yellow, pasty hands gripped the bed sheet, pulling it up for protection, and she scooted as close to the wall as she could. Both eyes were squeezed shut.

“Is it you?” she asked, gasping for breath. “Now you’ve come?”

“Yes, it’s me,” Jake shouted.

It wasn’t the response she was expecting. The wilted woman dropped the sheets and opened that one yellow and red eye.

“Jake?” she said, sounding both relieved and annoyed.

His nausea returned. He covered his mouth with his fist for a moment and then, once he suppressed the urge to throw up, he shouted, “You killed him, didn’t you? You never loved him and you blame him for what happened.”

As he yelled, Jake was aware his speech sounded unnatural, like a bad actor delivering dramatic lines. His mother, on the other hand, was a pro at playing her part, and he quickly succumbed to a state of awe at her ability.

“He wanted an abortion,” she said. “He wanted to kill you, but I stopped him, Jake. I saved you. No one else. He wanted you dead and I said no.”

She beat her chest with more strength than he thought was in those bony arms. The pain in his legs vanished. So did his sickness. The world’s low-hanging ceiling lifted, revealing a vast, cold and empty desert plain. Its desolation stretched for miles. The sight of it sent goose pimples across his arms and legs.

“But abortion is a sin,” he said. The sentence barely registered as a whisper.

“He wanted me to,” Mrs. Asher said. “He knew we were both doomed. We had to spare you. We were to finally end our two damned family lines. We were to be the end. The last.”

Her voice softened with the memories of her dead husband. Jake watched as her love for him inflated her frail body. Her scratching at the scabs on her hands turned into a gentle rubbing.

“He didn’t want you to be like us. When I held you for the first time, I got it. I understood.”

“That you loved me?”

“I almost drowned you in the bath several times. If you’d cried, I would have done it. But you never did. You were so well behaved. Even when I held your head underwater, you looked up at me. You trusted me. I do you love, but I should have done it. I’m so sorry I didn’t.”

For some reason he never understood, Jake told her it was okay. Then, exhausted, sick, aching, he shuffled along that desert plain back to his bedroom.

A warm, golden orb, like a miniature sun, rose from his chest into his throat. Its light forced his mouth to curve open, and it shone through his eyes, bathing everything before him in a bright, dreamy haze. He didn’t know where this joy came from, or why it suddenly chose to arise in him just after midnight, but he knew he must hold onto it. And to do that, he couldn’t grab it or cling to it. He had to let the orb float freely inside him.

“What are you grinning about?” the Virgin Mary asked. She was tucked against him in the fetal position, her head on his shoulder and her cold feet on his leg.

“Nothing,” he said.

“It doesn’t look like nothing. What is it?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, he ran his hands through her hair and then kissed her forehead.

“You’re strange,” she said. But she moved closer, wrapped her arm around his torso and held him tighter. The orb in his throat grew, and after a moment, he heard the Virgin gasp, “We’re flying.”

Jake looked down and saw they were both floating above his unmade bed. He tried to speak but only laughed. The sound propelled him through the air, which tickled his face with a coolness he hadn’t felt in weeks.

“Come on,” he said. His fingers interlocked with the Virgin’s, and they glided through the house, arms spread out like airplane wings. The rushing sensation tingled his heart and the two spun and flipped and moved freely through the rooms, touching nothing but each other. They moved by laughing, and occasionally they met, lips touching lips, hands grabbing flesh, only to break apart and twirl and dance unlike any dance ever before performed.

He knew he shouldn’t clutch at this moment, but the desire to prolong the power of that glowing orb overtook him. He could have laughed all night and into the day, but he didn’t want to chance it, to risk letting this happiness fade.

“Let’s go,” he said. He grabbed her hand tight and the two flew down the hall.

“Where are we going?” the Virgin Mary asked as they approached his mother’s door.

He felt her tug at his hand.

“Stop. I don’t want to see her, Jake.”

He overpowered the Virgin, pulling her into the bedroom with him.

“Who’s there?” a soft voice called out in the darkness. The bright light had gone out in his eyes.

“Jake, let me go,” the Virgin called. She struggled to free herself. She thrashed in the air, but he would not let her go.

“Who’s there?” the voice called again.

Mrs. Asher turned on the lamp next to her bed and with her yellow and red eye, gazed up at the two small bodies hovering above her. She opened her mouth to scream, but only air came out in a rushing, hollow sound.

“Look who it is,” Jake yelled. He held up the hand of the Virgin Mary. The girl floating next to him covered her eyes with her forearm. “Look who’s here? She’s been here the whole time, Mom. She didn’t want to see you! She wanted me!”

The air seeping out of his mother’s mouth gathered enough force to emit a low moan. It sounded like a cross between a “lo” and a “no,” but it lacked the structure of an actual word, settling more for a wild, age-old expression for fear and pain.

“Please let me go,” the Virgin Mary whispered. The sadness in her voice struck Jake, but he also realized that the golden orb had left his throat. He needed to laugh, or he would plummet to the ground.

“Look, Mom,” he said. He let go of the girl’s hand and flew to the dresser, where a porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary rested, bought from a peddler in Medjugorje. He picked up the small, white sculpture and laughed so loud it hurt his throat.

“She looks nothing like this,” he shouted.

He held up the statue and turned to compare it with the girl, but she was gone.

“Jake,” his mother yelled.

At the sound of his name, he lost his magic. He fell hard, crashing against her vanity, crushing her makeup, her hair spray, her fingernail polish. He moaned, still holding the statue, and stumbled from the wreckage to the door, looking for the Virgin Mary. She was gone.

“Jake,” his mother again yelled.

She sat up in bed in time to see him hurl the statue at her. The white porcelain souvenir struck Mrs. Asher in the forehead, cutting a deep gash above her eyebrow that sent a thin stream of blood down over her lashes and stinging into her iris.

Charles Booth earned his B.A. in creative writing from the University of Tennessee, and his M.A. in English from Austin Peay State University. He currently works as a staff writer and Adjunct English Instructor for that University. His short story, “The Last Blood Maple,” is forthcoming in SLAB (Sound and Literary Art Book) literary magazine.