If you've run out of gas on a stretch of road where the telephone poles have turned to pillars of salt and you reach at last the intersection...read more where history meets the future, take off your shoes, wade into the ditch, pull aside the carrion and you'll find M.E. Parker's Hinterland Trilogy. M.E. Parker searches for beauty and love in rust and salt, for meaning and truth in the facades of wind-blasted ruins.
Her fears are many: being late for work, a late period, her car breaking down, her car breaking down at night when she is alone on a dark road, her husband leaving her, her husband leaving her for Marilyn, her husband not leaving her, serial rapists, serial killers, poisoned food, food poisoning, terrorists, dogs, her children running away, her children being kidnapped, her children, her husband, her mother, cleaning products, strange smells, the smell of cleaning products, chemicals, dirt, bugs, bugs that eat dirt, bugs that eat chemicals, chemicals that kill bugs, snakes, spiders, people who like snakes and spiders, motorcycles, motorcycle gangs, gangs of any kind, religious zealots, atheists, religion in general, God, Satan, any battles between God and Satan, the end of the world, judgment day, hell.
These are a mere selection from the myriad tomes of ‘things that frighten Sandra Bryce.’ Her mind functions as a card catalogue, an index of horrors, keeping handy immediate information on anything that might send a twinge up her spine or change the rhythm of her heart or her breathing pattern. Things almost no one in the world fears but her fills the front few sections of this mental rolodex, toward the back, things that most people are afraid of, things that it’s natural to fear, such as death and all that encompasses it, a passage to oblivion or rebirth into the shadows.
Sandra’s questions are the same questions that everyone asks at some point in life. Why are we here? What happens when we die? Why does God help some and leave others to fend for themselves? Do people who go on Jeopardy actually have a study guide, or do they just know all that stuff? How can what amounts to a chemical soup housed in a skull account for complex thought and awareness of self? Eternity? Infinity? How small is the smallest? How big is the biggest? Would it all come down to a singular moment of awareness, of breathlessness, of transmogrification, the intersection of the living with the dead when all questions are answered?
Through a building cloud underneath her head, Sandra swims through sounds, her children crying, laughing, her husband talking, yelling, Marilyn. Her husband’s voice wears a sports jacket and reeks of too much cologne. Marilyn’s is sporting a short skirt squeezed over a pair of finely hewn thighs. Everyone is talking at once.
What’s next, after this? It’s been too easy. Panic, certainly.
Where will she go in that instant, the moment of change? Will she wander, haunting her childhood home, tormenting an ex-lover? Does she even believe in ghosts? She knows of cars with personalities, houses with high-pitched roofs that make faces with their windows at the end, and castles where chains rattle at night. There are stories of men so in love with a woman that they cross the barrier between life and death for one last kiss, tales of women so bitter that they arise from the grave to seek their vengeance. Will she stand before a tribunal of archangels or at the foot of a god, the God, any god that might transcend the physical realm? Her eyes flutter in the moments before sleep, a slumber that will bring her closer to the dreamy membrane that separates ghosts from flesh. Sandra’s heart pounds, she breathes in short, wispy gasps, afraid to sleep, to dream, afraid not to sleep, to hallucinate.
Should she pray?
Who, or what, would listen to her?
Is it already too late? It’s never too late, right? Should she ask for forgiveness, or simply ask to not to be afraid anymore? But this same god, the one that governs the lines between heaven and hell wants her to be afraid, God fearing, fearful of hell, in awe of the very possibility of heaven versus hell.
She has heard it said, never mind “from who?” that in order to overcome a fear, one must join, must intermingle and discover wholly that which one fears. Slither as a snake on the ground, follow it to its hole, be the rat disappearing into the snake’s unhinged jaw and down its scaly tube. Sandra has done exactly that. In a moment of desperation, of bad judgment, she has invited the devil to dinner, setting a table for two with knives made of teeth and plates of bone.
Will he come?
After what Sandra has done, she has no doubt he will come. Isn’t she already there--in hell? Her life is hell, right? She doesn’t need an imp with horns and goat feet standing on the bank of Lake Fire to tell her that. But each second that passes adds details to the dark one’s portrait in her mind, the devil she never acknowledged--was too afraid to believe in--pays her a late-night visit for a teaser, prodding her toward the inevitable, the dread of what must certainly be her fate as a million pricks of heat stab her body, the hell of waiting for hell, hell on the horizon. Dinner is served. She’ll roast on a spit, a banquet piglet for demons with pointy ears and horns, flames licking her each time around, her skin dripping off the bone. The arbiter of perdition awaits his meal of roast Sandra and new potatoes with a grin, his fork at the ready, knife poised to carve her into sandwich-thin slices of succulent sinner marinated in pride as he raises his goblet, a toast to Sandra, the unforgivable, Sandra, the child abandoner, Sandra, the unsatisfying wife.
Her husband, normally asleep during her waking nightmares, will wake up and put his arm on her shoulder. “Everything’s all right.” He’ll pat the sweat off her forehead with the blanket.
She’ll wait for the look, the you were screaming in the middle of the night and you weren’t asleep look. Instead, Mike will turn away. She imagines him laughing or crying, questioning their marriage, or even thinking about someone else, Marilyn maybe. Marilyn probably doesn’t scream in the middle of the night. Sandra looks at the clock--at least not at four in the morning.
Or does she?
Does Marilyn scream in ecstasy? An orgasmic roar at 4:00 a.m., Mike on top of her, smiling. Sandra envisions her husband’s selfish love-making--probably not.
It’s only a matter of time. The shadows of her three daughters will fill the doorway. They’ll be upset, “Mom’s screaming again.” They’re beautiful girls, Laurel, Holly, and Ivy, ages six, eight, and ten, inquisitive kids with questionable names. They’re not bad names individually, only when considered as a group, a nature theme, three evergreens growing in the Bryce garden. Sandra had thought her idea of naming each of her girls after evergreen plants a novel idea ten years ago, two years post save the spotted owls, three years prior to preserve the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, but now, her three little potted plants remind her that she used to live a normal life, or at least a reasonable approximation of it. Not because her hippie sensitivities are anything close to normal, but because her sweet girls were only three years and an eternity of abject fear away from being named Wormwood, Hemlock, and Oleander.
“Mom’s okay, girls. Go back to bed,” Mike will reassure them, but they’ll hop in their parent’s bed anyway before he drags his pillow and the spare blanket to the couch, trying to get more than two hours sleep. These things will happen, won’t they? It always happens that way.
“There are medications for this sort of thing, you know?” Mike will say after the girls finally get back to sleep, medications for insomnia, depression, psychosis, hallucinations, or whatever it is that’s wrong with her. “You can see Dr. Forbes again. Or even see your therapist, that nutty guy that likes to give you herbs.” Anything to avoid a padded cell.
Sandra will tell him again, for the twentieth time, the hundredth time, “I’m okay, Mike, really. I don’t need to be medicated, and I’m done with therapy.” She’ll tell him this behind a veiled smiled, a laugh-cry, punch drunk from unending misery, but the truth will be that medications scare her as much as, or more, than anything else. If she were to create again a laundry list of fears, taking medications, ingesting chemicals that interact with the processes in her brain, rerouting synapses, increasing serotonin, melatonin, balancing chemical imbalances, altering that part of Sandra Bryce that separates her from Mike Bryce, from Marilyn, would fall near the bottom, which is actually the top of those things she likes least to think about, somewhere more scary than religious zealots but somewhat short of hell.
Sandra will cry. She’ll cry into her pillow, into Mike’s shoulder, the same shoulder that still smells like Marilyn’s perfume. She’ll try to go back to sleep, but she’ll watch Mike instead, memorizing his face, seeing his features in the pictures she has of her evergreen darlings piled in the bed.
If God, the Holy Ghost, or any ghost has heard her prayers, things will happen the way they always happen, but tonight, Sandra finds herself alone. Mike won’t put his arm around her. Her daughters won’t come to her bed. There won’t be any consolation, only terror. Terror and then sleep.
That same medicine, the pills that were supposed to make her live more and fear less, navigates her body on packed boats down rivers of blood. How many will do the trick? Five might have only put her down for a couple of days, ten maybe. She had to be sure. She hadn’t wanted things to wrong. Twenty little yellow pills before bed, almost a full bottle, pills she could never take until now.
Pills are so subdued, so civilized. Sandra the protester would never have settled for such a puff of smoke. She had much more life in her than to kill herself with so little drama. She would have attached a sign to her back and hanged herself from the ceiling fan. And Sandra the martyr would have scoffed at pills, choosing instead to slice open her wrists and spill out onto the bedroom floor. That would have made a statement. But Sandra the middle-aged, ex-hippie, mother of three who is more afraid of living than dying has chosen just to fade away.
She sees their shadows on the wall. Laurel, in her pink Easter dress, stands in the light. A halo surrounds her, encompassing her laughter. Holly peeks around the corner, smiling. Ivy runs behind her chasing her shadow. They make one last late-night visit to bid their mother farewell, but they aren’t really here. They’re camping with Mike, Mike the father, Mike the husband, Mike the adulterer, Mike the practical, fearless, man of stone standing behind his three girls judging their mother for her unforgivable sin. She sees them fishing by the bank of the lake, their lake. The one where they overextended themselves to buy a waterfront vacation home three years ago. The same lake where Ivy learned to swim and Holly learned to swear--and Mike learned to cheat.
Sandra watches them there, all smiles. “Breathe, Sandra,” she reminds herself as a cold wave washes into her chest, as the belt around her lungs tightens.
“I caught one,” Laurel screams. The fish flails on her hook, flopping through the mud, it’s mouth grasping, puckering, sucking the vapor out of the air for one last drop of water, until it settles into a rhythmic acceptance of death.
A faint whistle slips across Sandra’s tongue, through her pursed lips. Her jaw unhinges as it floats across her pillow, her mouth now a tidal cave for growing waves each more frigid than the last.
“It’s almost dead,” Ivy yells. She runs to the fish and reaches for it. “Throw it back in. It’s going to die.” The fish slides from Ivy’s fingers.
“That’s what happens, stupid.” Holly barks.
A smile grows on Marilyn’s face. “That’s what happens when you take a fish out of water, Dear.”
Why did they ever move back to the city? The city was a lifetime ago, young and childless, before their metamorphosis to a suburban cocoon. The second time around, the city had exposed Sandra’s vulnerabilities, stripped her down, and violated her. It filled with air the long submerged ballasts of fear that exploded to the surface after less than a month.
Sandra listens to her heart beat, once a bass drum of athletic prowess, now nothing more than a cricket trapped under a wet blanket. “Beat, damnit.”
“I don’t want it to die,” Ivy cries.
Mike’s arm envelops his youngest daughter. “It’s only a fish. In a few seconds, she won’t ever even know she was alive.” He shoots her a wink and reaches down to help Ivy bait her hook.
Sandra sees them throw the fish into a cooler filled with ice. She reaches for the blanket but her arms won’t budge.
“It isn’t too late, is it?” She’s still breathing, still thinking. Isn’t that right? “I think, therefore I am?”
Third grade—Sandra takes a stomach punch from Robbie Johns. Fourth Grade—Jimmy pulls her hair. Fifth grade—the whole room laughs as Sandra wets her pants, appendicitis, not bladder control issues. Sixth grade—“Slut,” Robbie Johns calls her from his perch in the back seat of the bus. “This must be what they mean. Life flashing before my eyes,” Sandra hears herself say from a cavern somewhere on the other side of the world. The sting from her mother’s hand whips across her face, tears trickle down her father’s face, hands on her shoulder, painful first sex with Robbie Johns in eleventh grade. Maybe she should have married Robbie and had a valid excuse to take her own life, one that someone would understand.
“If you would just listen to me. Touch me every now and then. I’m married to a freakin’ corpse,” Mike’s voice echoes through her brain.
“I’m not a home wrecker , I’m a home saver, for God’s sake. You need a real woman. Those girls need a mother that can leave the house without losing it,” Marilyn says to Mike, her face floating in a bowl of breakfast cereal as the school bus pulls up to Sandra’s house.
Someone, Mike, a neighbor, her mother, might still find her. They might rush her to the ER, pump her stomach and laugh about it over a cup of coffee.
“No, it’s better this way.” Mike and Marilyn, the girls, they could be happy, remember the good times.
She laughs, a silent chuckle that squeezes her lungs into a tingling ball. There were some good times, Mike falling into a cold stream in Colorado, Mike getting drunk in the hot tub and almost drowning, Mike in the ER after sliding under the RV on a sheet of ice.
Maybe this is how her own mother felt in the moments before her death, before everything changed for Sandra. This is the event she has truly feared since then, forever a child of ten looking into her mother’s casket, congregation in song. Those hymns from her childhood, songs she hasn’t sung for years, resurface. They aren’t CD’s or cassettes, they’re 45’s with scratches. She hears guitars now playing the same hymns, a punk rock version of Amazing Grace set to repeat.
“Am I still breathing?” Is her chest moving up and down? Or is her last breath one long exhale without sensation, lungs numb.
“It’s definitely too late, now? It would be like the friend who only calls when she needs a favor?” The child who only talks to her parents when she needed money? If she prays. If she asks this being, the one she never believed in, the god of mercy not vengeance, for forgiveness, clemency from the only unpardonable sin.
“Suicide is the only unforgivable sin,” Sandra’s mother, a woman for whom God had apparently revealed himself, reminds her.
“That’s not entirely true, Mom.” The voice in her head has the same dull thud as her experimental underwater screams in summer camp between fifth and sixth grades. “What if someone set their own death into motion, say, by taking a handful of pills? They would have a little while to ask forgiveness wouldn’t they--before they died. ” Would that mean that she believed in God, if she asked for forgiveness.
Her little evergreens are growing beside her, Laurel, Holly, and Ivy, bitter and confused. This omnipotent being who grants pardons might forgive her, but would her daughters be as merciful? Would they pass right through adolescence into adulthood with Marilyn at the helm, reminding them of their selfish mother? Would Holly blame her promiscuity on her mother’s suicide? Would Ivy tell her future school counselors that the reason she did drugs and shoplifted cough medicine was because “my selfish bitch of a mother killed herself?” Would Laurel withdraw into her own reality, obsessing over death, shrouded in depression? Or would they finally be happy? No more car accidents after harrowing near-misses cliffside on the other end on an anxiety attack. No more wondering what’s wrong with Mom. No more tears over a woman that didn’t seem to matter at all.
As the folkloric visions of this place called hell replace her daughters faces, Sandra begs, “Forgive me--not for ending my life.” Not for the mish-mash of religious ambiguity she calls a belief system, but “for abandoning my children. Forgive me.”
If there is a hell, could it might be worse than this? What can it hurt to ask? She has no intellectual objection to covering all her bases, no one left to impress or fight against, no more right-to-life or pro-choice arguments to make, no one left who had once heard her say “but it’s just a bunch of stories,” no more evolution cases to defend or death penalty opposition marches, only herself and her wraith staring back at her and the spirit Sandra hoped she glimpsed in the fleeting seconds before her death who might hear her prayer, who might exchange her brimstone pillow for one of lace.
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