Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Chapter 1 (Part 2): Hatchling

Every day at 5:30 am, the alarm clock function on Albert's cellphone burst into a little song that was more upbeat and perky than anything had the right to be at such an ungodly hour. He fumbled for it in the darkness, wanting nothing more than to smash it into bits of wire and circuitry but instead simply rolled out of bed with a yawn. Flipping the phone open allowed him to silence the annoying ditty and provided just enough light from the LCD for him to dig out his clothes for the day.

After dressing, he stumbled up the stairs and made his way toward the bathroom, taking care not to trip over the tubing that ran from the oxygen concentrator in the living room to his mother's bedroom. In the dim light, the tubing reminded him of a transparent serpent neatly camouflaged against the threadbare carpet; for a moment he clearly pictured it coiling around his legs, constricting tighter and tighter as it undulated up his body.

He had always been the type of man who allowed his imagination free reign, but lately it seemed as if the little movies that had once entertained his mind had taken on darker tones. There was a new director in town and gone were the days of screwball comedies and thirty second slapstick; no more did The Farce of Daily Life play to an audience of one in a sold out theater. Now the most mundane of objects seemed to don sinister masks and lurked in shadows with blades that gleamed in the moonlight; they clustered in darkness, breathing heavily as they peered through oval-shaped cutouts at the victim who glanced over his shoulder as if he sensed he were being watched, as if he could feel the contempt and hostility radiating against the back of his neck like the breath of some invisible fiend.

Albert shook his head as if he could somehow throw off these thoughts like drops of water from a wet dog. Things were just tight right now, that was all. Here in a couple months they would be on the other side of this financial mountain and everything would smooth out. The stress of the new house, of his mother's ailing health, and Melanie's depression . . . all of these things would just melt away and things would go back to the way they had been before. It was just a matter of time, that was all. Time and patience.

As if he had been moving through the hall on some sort of autopilot, Albert suddenly realized that he was standing in front of the bathroom sink and staring at his own reflection in the mirror. His face was still puffy and pale from sleep and the mop of strawberry blond hair looked as if birds had been making nests in it. He was only thirty-nine, but somehow the doppleganger staring back at him seemed so much older, as if the mirror were some sort of portal between dimensions that allowed him quick glances of things to come. The way the shadows fell across his face made it all to easy to picture the bags that would soon droop beneath his brown eyes and he could see creases at the corners of his mouth which would deepen into full blown wrinkles before long. No matter how hard his mind balked at the idea, it was irrefutable: he was getting old.

Reaching forward his fingers gripped the edge of the mirror and pulled, revealing the shelves of toothpaste, combs, Band Aids, and peroxide hidden within the wall. When the medicine cabinet was halfway open, he caught site of his mother's bedroom in the mirror's reflection. He could see her curled on her side in the bluish glow of the television, looking much smaller in the large bed than what she actually was; she was also as motionless as the porcelain dolls that cluttered her room and probably twice as fragile.

For a moment Albert was frozen in place as he studied her back, watching for the slight rise and fall that would indicate her lungs had lasted through another night. Was that a breath? Or had the ceiling fan simply rustled the thin sheet draped over her?

He listened to the lull of the infomercial that drifted from her television, to the steady hum of the oxygen concentrator in the living room . . . the steady plink, plink, plink of the tub's leaky faucet. And he listened the way a jungle predator would: body entirely motionless, head cocked slightly to the side, eyes peering into the shadows as he waited.

Did her foot just twitch? Or was it nothing more than a trick of light and shadow?

The Discovery Channel said a predator can sense the weak, can hone in on the sick and frail, and cut them away from the rest of the pack.

But that was ridiculous. Why was he thinking about nature documentaries when there was a good possibility that his mother was lying dead in the next room? And, if she truly had passed away during the night, what was the next thing to do? Should he call 911? It wouldn't really be an emergency though, so he couldn't imagine that would be an appropriate response. Who do you call when you wake up one morning to find you've slept through the night under the same roof as a corpse?

But then she yawned in her sleep, the sound a thin rattle from within a chest clogged with phlegm, and rolled over to face the opposite wall.

For a moment, Albert felt his as if his stomach were sinking and tears began to blur his vision as his shoulder's slumped.

“Son of a bitch . . .”

His hands immediately slapped over his mouth as if he could somehow push the words back down his throat and his eyes grew wide. His face felt hot and stomach acids churned in his belly, threatening to erupt through his esophagus like a volcano of guilt.

She was his mother, for God's sake. What kind of son wishes the woman who gave him life dead? She was another living being, a person with thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams. Not some stray animal that had dragged its carcass off the streets in search of a dark place to die. What kind of monster looks at another and thinks that they would be so much happier, that their life would be so much easier, if that other person simply was no longer among the living?

Albert slammed the medicine cabinet shut a little more forcefully than he meant to and he heard things topple over from within. He tried to look at himself in the mirror so that he could brush his hair, but his reflection's eyes seemed to be hard and accusing. His gaze dropped again and again to the toothpaste spattered spigot on the sink, to the tips of his toes, to the tile floor . . . anything but what he saw in his own eyes.

The hairbrush clattered to the floor as he placed both hands on the sink and leaned forward. The room swam in and out of focus and his breath escaped in quick pants. His legs felt weak, as if they could no longer support the weight of his own body, and every muscle in his body seemed to tremble.

His own mother . . . .

His teeth were clenched together so tightly that his jaw was beginning to throb in time with his racing pulse.

What kind of monster must he be?

Warm tears trickled down his face and he struggled to regain his composure, forcing himself to take long, slow breaths through a nose that was just beginning to clog with mucus.

Get a grip, Albert. Just pull yourself together, man.

After what seemed to be an eternity, he was able to slow his breathing and the world no longer felt as they it were spiraling into the vortex of a black hole. His neck and shoulders were so tight it felt as if the muscles may very well snap at any moment and pinpricks of pain shot through his temples, but - for the most part – Albert felt as if he were in control again. Opening his eyes, he found that he could hold his own bloodshot gaze without a moment's hesitation.

He looked at himself in the mirror for several minutes while the same thoughts continued to echo through his mind.

She's your mother.
But now the words didn't seem to carry the same power as they had before, as if the venom that had coursed through them had become diluted and impotent through his tears.

She gave you life . . . .

Albert slowly became aware that he was drumming his fingers subconsciously against the edge of the sink as he studied his own eyes. The rhythm, however, was far from random and seemed somehow strange and familiar all at the same time.

Three quick taps followed by three slow ones.

Three more quick ones.

What kind of monster are you?


  1. And then.... Can't wait for the next chapter.
    Great writing, you have me on the edge of my chair.

  2. Thanks! I have to be in just the right mood to work on this one, which is why the updates are so spaced out right now.