Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chapter Two

Alba Theodora Ross had awoken shortly after her son left for work. She sat up in bed and adjusted the nose piece that fed a constant stream of oxygen into either nostril and mentally cursed the infernal machine. When she had been in the hospital, the doctors had arranged for a humidifier to be placed between her personal line and the nozzle on the wall that tapped into the main supply. Her home setup, however, lacked this amenity and, as a result, the flow of air tended to dry out her sinuses to the point that flecks of blood dotted her Kleenex each time should blew her nose. It also made the back of her throat feel inflamed and itchy and she found herself swallowing more often in an attempt to moisturize the raw feeling patch of tissue.

She snatched the remote control from the beside table, toppling over the miniature cityscape of pill bottles in the process and sending them clattering to the floor. For a moment she felt anger blossom inside her like the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion: she wanted nothing more than to throw the remote with all the force she could muster, to shatter the perfect, expressionless face of one the dolls that watched the scene play out with unblinking eyes.

Instead, she kicked away the sheets with a flurry of her feet and gritted her teeth so tightly the grinding seemed to vibrate through her cheeks. Her eyes narrow as she scowled and she pressed the little rubber buttons on the remote so hard that she could feel them burrow into the pad of her thumb.

For what must have been the millionth time, she found herself thinking how unfair this all had been. She was only sixty, for God's sake. She should still be out in the garden, tending to the cucumber plants she had been renowned for back home; she should be able to cook her own meals without fear of the gas range bursting her oxygen line into a ball of flames. Not tethered to that damn contraption like a dog at the end of a leash.

Though she would never admit it, not to him at least, she knew this was all Albert's fault. He'd taken her away from everything she had ever known: he had thrown a lifetime's worth of possessions into the back of a rented truck (breaking God knows what in the process) and drug her to this little hick town in West Fucking Virginia of all places. If he wanted to live like an inbred redneck that was his business, but to subject her to the same thing? What kind of son would do that to his mother? Especially when he simply could have paid her house payment for her her and left her where she was.

But she knew what he was up to. He was being spiteful, just like always, and this was all some elaborate scheme so that he could control every little aspect of her life. He decided when they went to the store, he decided what type of milk they would buy . . . he knew damn well she only drank whole milk but insisted on buying two percent. He claimed it was because that watered down shit was fifty cents cheaper, but she could see the truth glimmer in his eyes when he said it: it was the same cold delight her brother had when he'd held her down as a child and twisted her nipples through her shirt until he'd tired of her screams and tears.

“Fifty cents my ass.”

Albert made good money. She knew because she had found one of his pay stubs lying on the entertainment center a few weeks back. She'd opened it and was surprised to see how well his company took care of him. Besides what she thought to be a rather generous salary, there were matched 401K contributions, health insurance, bonuses, paid sick leave and vacation time . . . he certainly had them fooled, didn't he? She didn't care if he pooped gold nuggets and pissed Dom Perignon: there was no way Albert was worth what they were paying out for him. But, since they obviously were, it wouldn't drive him to the poorhouse if he shelled out that extra half dollar so she could have her whole milk. She gave him life damn it . . . certainly that was worth, if nothing else, fifty cents.

But then again, he'd always been a difficult child. Always demanding attention, always wanting money for field trips at school, or crying because he wasn't allowed to play little league or basketball; he never stopped to think that maybe there was something she wanted to watch on television or that she needed to finish the quilt she'd been working on. It was always about what he wanted, the selfish little brat.

Alba had hoped when her son married Melanie that she would be able to make a man out of him. But look how that turned out. The woman spent all of her time in the basement, sleeping all day most likely, and only coming up to use the bathroom or get something from the refrigerator. Hell, most days she didn't even bother to shower, allowing her blond hair to become so stringy and dirty that there was more oil in it than all of the Saudi desert. And if she couldn't take the time to groom herself, do you think she ever left the house? No, was perfectly content to let Albert take care of all her needs like some sort of shameless, kept woman.

Of course, Albert made excuses for her since he didn't have the balls to do anything else. He claimed that she was depressed, that they just needed to give time for her pills and counseling to work, that it was something wholly out of her control. But, as far as Alba could tell, all the woman really needed was a swift kick in the seat of the pants . . . not mollycoddled like some spoiled child. Hell, Alba had been depressed plenty of times in her life; who hadn't? Everyone gets sad, but they just don't lie down and wallow in it. No more likely than not this whole depression thing was just an act, nothing more than way to get out of doing housework or going out and finding a job. Hell, maybe if she did get a job Albert would be able to find the kindness in his heart to start buying whole milk.

But, being at their mercy, she had no choice but to continue using the two percent in her morning cereal. She just wouldn't drink anything that was left over in the bowl, that was all. She would rather pour it down the drain than gave them the satisfaction of knowing she had given in to their tyranny and, as an act of defiance, she found herself pouring more milk into her bowl with every passing morning. Maybe if they had to start being two or three gallons a week they'd realize that whole milk would last a hell of a lot longer and, in the end, be ultimately cheaper after all.

Snapping out of her thoughts, Alba came to the realization that she had stopped thumbing through the channels and come to rest on one of her favorite shows. She could never remember the name of it, but it was on one of the true crime channels and was about women who finally had all they could take and ended up taking matters into their own hands. Most often, the program painted the portraits of these female killers in the worst possible light: ominous music played in the background and the narrator used words like heinous and cold-blooded to describe their acts. Even the photos they showed were probably the most unflattering ones they could find: it seemed their hair was always in disarray, their jaws set so tightly that their mouths were thin, hard lines . . . . The producers also did something that made the women's eyes look as unfeeling and dead as the men they had killed and Alba always suspected they were getting a bum rap. People just don't go around killing other people without a damn good reason. But would the program ever show that side of it? No. She had watched the credits roll countless times and had noticed the vast majority of the people working behind the scenes were male. So it stood to reason that they would do everything in their power to ensure that their fallen brothers were portrayed in the most sympathetic way possible and the evil that smoldered in the hearts of all men remained a closely guarded secret.

“Just like Albert.”

Her thoughts turned again to the various pieces of paperwork she had found lying around the house and, specifically, to the life insurance policy her son's employer had taken out on him. Fifty-thousand dollars. Such an exuberant amount for someone who had wet the bed until he was ten. So much money . . . hell, if she had that type of cash she would be able to go back to South Carolina, perhaps buy her old house back from the bank or simply set herself up in a little apartment where she could spend her remaining years in relative peace and comfort. Regardless of which option she chose there would be whole milk, you could bet your sweet ass on that. Maybe two or three gallons in the fridge all at the same time.

Fifty-thousand dollars.

Alba drifted away into her own thoughts like a balloon that had slipped from the hand of a small child. She imagined the type of life she would live with that type of money: how people who hadn't spoken to her for years would suddenly show up and tell her how good she was looking and ask if there was anything they could do for her; in her heart she would know that they were simply looking for a handout, so she would have no problem stringing them along with tiny little loans here and there. As long as they paid her back and continued performing these token acts of kindness, she would keep them in her good graces. She would have all the power for a change and no one would dare so anything bad about her.

She had closed her eyes to better imagine this alternate life and, at some point, her daydream had faded into the darkness of sleep. Still sitting up in bed with her head lolled to one side like a ragdoll, she was just as unaware of the remote control sliding out of her hand as she was of the narrator on the television who continued to prattle on.

“And from this dark seed, the vines of evil began to grow . . . .”