I had that phrase going through my head, "Lunchbuddy," trying to figure out what it was, what it meant, where I'd heard it, when I looked up and saw that I was about to drive through someone's front door.
I slammed on the brakes, swerved, yelled, "Shit!" and skidded in the gravel.
When the dust settled and I was able to open my eyes again, the house was gone.
If that hadn't already happened a couple times before, I might have thought I was having an off day and tried to forget it. Too much stress, not enough fiber, whatever. And if it had only been a house over and over, I would have checked back into the hospital myself — not that I was certifiable or anything, I'd just lost it for a bit. A year earlier I came home one day and found my father hanging from the second story banister. That's enough to send somebody over the edge, isn't it? And it's not like I was slobbering on myself or talking to trees, I just closed off from everything. Who wouldn't have? And anyway, that was a long time ago. By the time stuff started jumping in front of me from nowhere, I'd already been out of there five months.
The first time was two weeks earlier. I was driving — it only happens when I'm driving — about to turn a corner and almost ran into a fence. I swerved in time and when I looked back, I didn't see any fence. No big deal. I was scared enough I might have just not seen it. It's not like I was thinking crystal clear at the time.
A couple days later, I saw Rosa Watson walking past with shorts and her tight legs and of course I looked away from the street. When I looked back, I nearly crashed through a row of bushes. I swerved out of the way and got myself back on the road. Then it hit me, there weren't any bushes; I'd been pulling out of a parking lot. Where did bushes come from?
The third time I'm not sure was really the third time, or if I almost did run into a lamppost. The street was lined with them, but I keep remembering it being shorter, like one of those yard lamps people have. But I don't know for sure.
And then I almost crashed into a house — I could see a startled face staring at me through the front window. You've got problems if you don't see a house in the middle of the road. And when there's a house in the middle of a road, something's even more wrong.
I got out and looked everywhere for this house, but I didn't see shit and I thought, "What the hell am I doing?" I tried to rationalize it with sun glare or something and stress and I was tired, and I got back into the car and went home.
I got in the door, up to my bedroom, then fell asleep and didn't get up again until the next day.
* * *
Fourteen hours of sleep does nothing but make you more tired. You'd think getting all that rest would charge you up. It doesn't.
My mother asked if I had anything to do and, since I did, she asked if I'd take her to work and I could keep the car. An hour later, I dropped her off then went to do the one thing I really needed to do that day. If not for this, I would have spent the day at home on the couch. In retrospect, I should have. Then again, if I hadn't, I might never have found out everything I did until much later. I would have eventually, I know that; they would have made sure of it. But if I hadn't had to go to a florist that day, it wouldn't have been so soon that I found out. And if it weren't Father's Day, I wouldn't have had to go to a florist.
I bought a small bouquet for my father's grave. Then I sat on the cool ground in front of his headstone for nearly an hour, trying to think of the fun things we did together when I was younger, and trying to force out the memory of his limp body dangling over the top banister. It almost worked. I had the park, I had cartoons with him, I had swinging in the backyard, and that gave me the image of his body swinging back and forth by the rope. At that, I had to go. I didn't want to sit there the entire day with that memory in my head. And I was exhausted and edgy anyway from the day before. That house looming out at me, the terrified face looking out the window... all these memories, I had to get out of there.
I got up, brushed damp ground from my pants, and took a last look at what was left of my father. Then I stooped down and brushed at the stone and thought, You stupid bastards!
When I got back into the car, I was too pissed to sit at home and do nothing. I decided maybe a drive would help, but I obviously wasn't paying attention to what I was doing because nearly every time I looked up to see where I was, I kept finding myself on Beck Street. After too long driving, apparently in circles, I went home and called my mother at work.
"Why is the date on Dad's headstone wrong?"
This wasn't a conversation she'd expected to have that day. It took her a second to process the question before she said, "The date's wrong?"
"Yes," I said. "He died last year and, instead of 1998, the stone says 1993. Why?"
"I don't know, Nicholas" she said. I guessed, by the way she was answering so slowly, that she was trying to think of a logical reason at the same time.
"Three and eight look almost the same, but, come on, you'd have to be a moron to put a date that's five years old on there. Wouldn't you?"
"I don't know," she repeated. "Look, I'm working, we'll talk about this later, all right?"
"Don't worry about it," I said. "I'm going to call them and see what their problem is. It was O'Brien's did it, right? I'm pretty sure they're the only headstone place in town."
"No, don't," she said. In the background, I heard someone being paged and I imagined how my mother must have looked the day they brought my father's body into the hospital while she was still on shift. "I'll take care of it, I don't want you to worry about it, really."
What she meant was she didn't want me having another breakdown and winding up in the bin again. Neither did I, but this wasn't one of those situations, this was just irritation at such a mind-numbing mistake. Still, it might have more impact coming from the bereaved widow. I agreed and she went back to work while I took the car for a wash.
* * *
She got the car, an '88 Supra, while I was... away, like people say in order to avoid mentioning insanity. Still, I wasn't insane. Anyway, she got the car while I was gone because the piece of shit my father left us with had finally crapped out altogether. She got it from a guy my father used to know and I used to have nightmares about coming home one day and this guy tells me he's going to be my father from now on. I'm twenty, I shouldn't have complexes like that, but, what the hell. I also shouldn't have a dead father and time spent in an asylum, but shit happens, right?
It was light blue, like a metallic spring sky. It was a little flashy for a widowed mother, but she deserved it and I liked it.
I took the car to the Ace Car Wash on McKeever because Hoon's on Milligan is usually busier. I vacuumed the dust and gravel out of the floor, threw away the food sacks and empty paper cups, then rolled her forward into the stall. After the wash, I dried her off in the sunshine, wiping her down and giving everything a once-over. That's when I noticed the difference.
If I'd never had the car in that light, at that angle, I never would have seen it. But I did, and that was probably the second step in remembering. I swept the rag over the rear end, just in front of the spoiler and saw in the sunlight that the colours were very slightly two different shades. I looked closer and sure enough there were two colours. Well, both were blue, but minutely different blues.
I set the towel on the spoiler and leaned in close, peering at the body to see if I could tell where the paints didn't match. The entire rear end, from the rear window back, was different. The driver's door was shaded different. And the roof, I thought, was also different.
"Interesting," I murmured.
Across the parking lot, I tossed the used towel in the trash, then turned back to the car. The barely-contrasting blues stood out now and I wished I'd never noticed. The sun glinted off the glass, blinding me, and I squinted away. When I looked back, I saw a woman, maybe my own age, in the passenger seat, staring at me. Her face was tired and her eyes looked wide and heavy, but I was still ten feet from her and seeing her through a pane of glass with the sun glaring off it.
I stood a second, wondering, frozen. Then she was gone in a blink and I found it just as impossible to move, maybe more so seeing her vanish like that. I had a vision of the fence, the lamp post, the things that kept appearing then vanishing and I wondered, for the first and only time, if I hadn't perhaps been released too soon.
Did I really belong on the outside? But my sickness had never included hallucinations. So why would it now?
I got in, shaking the vision of the girl away. Who was she? Did I make her up? She looked familiar. Perhaps it was Rosa Watson? No.
* * *
When I picked up my mother later in the day, I asked what O'Brien's had said.
"That's your way of asking how my day was, I take it?" she said.
I smiled a little, trying to give her the attention she wanted, but my mind was on O'Brien's and my father's misprinted headstone. "Fine," I said. "Hello, Mother. I hope you had a nice day at work, I trust everything went well?" I gave her a false look, feigning attentiveness, then said, "So what did O'Brien's say?"
"Yes," she said, ignoring me, "I had a fine day, if you don't count my son calling me in the middle of something to ask about something that could very well have waited."
Was she avoiding me, I wondered. Had she not got around to calling, or just not bothered? Did she not care?
She wasn't going to answer, so I didn't press. No reason to start an argument. I decided I'd call them myself tomorrow. We chatted about her day on the drive home. I wasn't really interested, but she felt the need to tell me about the ninety-five-year-old man with the cracked rib who'd been put in the hospital by his wife for arguing with her over who's turn it was to feed the dog. Just before we got home, I asked her where the car had come from.
"I already told you that," she said. "I got it from your father's friend Troy."
"Yeah," I said, "but where did it come from? I mean before you got it?"
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I'm curious," I said. "I'm not saying it was a drug car or anything, I just noticed while I was washing it that the paint is two different colours, is all. I just wondered."
"Oh," she said.
"I mean, it's not important, I'm just curious."
Before she could say any more, I'd pulled into the driveway and she was out of the car and headed for the door, keys at the ready.
"Busy day?" she asked full of sarcasm, staring at the rumpled blanket on the couch and the pillow that had fallen onto the floor. She tossed her keys onto the end table and set her purse on the floor next to the couch, then plopped down in the chair next to it. Her feet went to the coffee table and she sighed.
I wondered how hard it must have been for her, going those months with her husband just dead and me in the hospital. I had to admire her for what she'd done since then, which mostly added up to simply keeping her own sanity. It was obviously more than I could have done. It was suddenly no longer so important that she hadn't called O'Brien's. In fact, if she wanted to put it off, that was fine. After all, he wasn't only my father, he was her husband first.
* * *
Putting all this down, it's hard to decide what to tell and what isn't important. Looking back on it all, I can see the progression, but I don't want to include every minute detail. For instance, I don't consider it necessary to mention that my mother began losing sleep. I could hear her tossing in her bed at night. And I heard her because I was awake myself. And is it important that I stopped having frozen waffles for breakfast, and went back to cereal, something I hadn't eaten regularly in years? Not really. Also, I spent my days sitting silently on the couch in the living room, staring at a blank television screen.
The sound of birds chirping began to make me nauseous. I didn't know why. In fact, at the time, I didn't even realize it was the birds. All I knew was that I kept waking up with the urge to puke, which I never did, despite my attempts to force up whatever rumbled in my stomach.
One morning, sitting on the couch, staring at nothing, my mother asked if I had any plans. I told her no and she said she was keeping the car to go to the store when she got off work. I said fine and went back to my staring. As she pulled out of the driveway, I turned and looked out the front window and, as the car passed, I imagined the girl again, the one I'd seen at the car wash, sitting in the passenger seat next to my mother. But I knew it was my imagination because my mother never saw a thing.
I stood up then, before I'd even realized I intended to, grabbed my jacket, and stepped out the door. I walked, expecting any second for a tree or a truck to appear in front of me, but nothing happened. I walked in peace. The only thing nagging at me then was that damn phrase again, "Lunchbuddy." I still couldn't figure out where I'd heard it before. But I tried not to let it distract me too much; I had things to do today, no matter what I'd told my mother.
My first stop was a repair shop on Copley Main where the man worked who'd sold my mother her car, the friend of my father. I introduced myself and he seemed as if he'd no idea who I was, as if he hadn't heard my father's name in years. I asked if he knew where the car had come from, who'd owned it first, but he said he really didn't know.
"Truth is," he said, "it's not just one car."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Wait a second," he said. "You're her son? It was your mother I sold the car to, right?" I assured him she was my mother and he said, "I thought you were..."
"I was," I said. "I'm not any more. Now, what do you mean it's not just one car?"
"Nothing," he said. "Nothing important. You know, sometimes a car comes in and we have to scavenge parts from other cars to fix them up. I'm just saying it's hard to tell, you know, who owned which part of the car before. And anyway, once we get the whole thing all together and running, it shouldn't really matter, should it? As long as she runs good enough."
"Oh, the car runs great," I said. "We were just curious," I lied. "I mean, my mother was. She was curious."
He didn't buy it and I could tell. I wouldn't have either. I've always sucked at lying.
"Well," he said, rubbing his hands together, "like I said, it's hard telling. We have so many cars going through here in a week, it's almost impossible to keep track of what came from where."
I thought about asking about the paint job, but I already knew the parts with the off-blue weren't original. I thanked him anyway and left, telling him I'd tell my mother what he said. As I left, I glanced back and thought, "What a load of shit."
I turned left at the sidewalk and knew where I was going, even though I think that day I was working on automatic because none of the things I did that afternoon were planned, I just did them. I knew what I was doing as I did it, and not a minute before.
I ended up at O'Brien's where I told my mother I wouldn't go. I'd given my word, even though I didn't understand her insistence. I stood outside for a while, staring at the red-lettered glass reading "O'Brien's" before I turned back up the sidewalk and walked away. Consciously that is, I walked away. When I reached the corner, however, that automatic gear kicked in again and turned me around, taking me back to the door and inside O'Brien's.
I explained my problem to the man inside, how the date on my father's headstone said he'd died five years before he actually had. He was a nice man, and, I thought, perhaps a little too good for the job he held. Everything about him yelled "College education" and I wondered, as I watched him tapping at the computer and scanning the screen like a speed reader trying to finish The Fountainhead over lunch, what he was doing working here.
When he spoke next, I realized it was because, despite his vocabulary and the way he carried himself, he was an idiot. "I'm sorry," he said, turning the monitor toward me so I could see, "the computer says the order was entered as 1993. I've only been here six months, but whoever put it in here has it as '93."
I looked from the lying screen to the idiot man and wanted to argue with him, to yell at him and tell him he was a liar and full of shit and this wasn't just some anonymous stone, but my father's and I had little enough left of him as it was. Instead, I had a glimpse of the future and in it, I spent an hour arguing with him and still the date was wrong. My face sagged, I could feel it doing so, like in a cartoon, and I turned and walked out.
Eventually — I don't remember doing it — I made it back home. I think I spent the rest of the day on the couch staring at the blank television screen.
* * *
Around this time, I'd made up my mind that I wasn't crazy, that strange shit really was happening and, when it wasn't strange, it was just plain annoying. The problem was, my entire life I'd lived with this irritating inferiority complex. Not that I felt as if everyone in the world was better than me, but I had the idea that, if I didn't already understand it, it was probably beyond me. I'd never had a checkbook because I knew they had to be balanced and, although I understood the process, it just seemed more trouble doing it than paying for everything with cash. When the car needed the oil changed or it needed power steering fluid, my mother took care of it. I've seen it done, but I'd never done it. I know if I took the time and put forth the effort to figure it out, I could. I mean, if anyone in the world can do it, it can be learned, right? It was just the whole act of learning, of figuring it out and understanding it.
That's how all this seemed to me. I knew there was a point, a discernible pattern perhaps, something underneath everything that had happened so far, and if I just sat and sorted it out, I might even begin to understand it a little.
But the effort made my head hurt and my eyes burn, so I just sat there staring at the blank television screen.
* * *
Before I go into what my mother said when I told her about O'Brien's, I want to mention the dream I had that night. I've been debating whether to include it because, in every strange story there's some symbolic dream that reveals everything to the hero of the story in some secret way where, by the end, you realize the dream told everything, you just didn't know it yet. So, with that in mind, I didn't want to write down the dream. But, since it actually did get me a little further toward remembering, I guess I have to, don't I?
I lay on the couch in the dark. My room was too hot and the air conditioner roared in the window across from me, blowing its icy wind in my direction. I was only covered with a sheet, but still I was sweating. The clock on the VCR glowed a blue 1:15 throughout the room the last time I remembered glancing at it. I'd finally dozed off and the first thing I was aware of in the way you become aware in dreams, was that birds were chirping.
I sat on the front porch in the sun, waiting. I don't know what I was waiting for, not even in a dream sense where everything is somehow understood. All I knew was that I was waiting. I heard something getting closer, like a screaming baby, then a telephone, then I realized it was a siren and just then a police car rushed by. The sound faded and was replaced by the chirping of the birds in the yard.
The sun began to burn into my skin. Then my mother was leaning over me, whispering into my ear that "He's dead." I said, "I know." But she wasn't talking about my father, and I didn't understand. Then she said, "She's dead." I didn't know who they were, the he or the she, but apparently, in the dream, they were dead and that was the important thing. Suddenly the sound of the birds was drowned by the retches and groans of puking as I unloaded my frozen waffles into the grass.
Then the dream changed and I was in bed with Rosa Watson. When I reached for her, she wasn't Rosa any more and the girl I'd seen in my mother's car — the day at the car wash, then later when my mother was leaving for work — was leaning over me. Her body glistened and tensed. Her stomach fluttered as she rose and lowered on top of me. Her hair fell over one shoulder, collecting in my face and she swished it to the side and groaned, "I'm going to come," just before her face twisted and I guess she came.
Naturally, I woke up just then.
And that was my dream. Of little significance, I know, at least at this stage of my telling, but at least you might understand now why the sound of the birds had begun to make me nauseous. When I woke up the next morning and bits of it came back to me, I wished I'd had it sooner so I could have asked my mother about it; after the argument we'd had the previous night, when I told her about O'Brien's, I decided that, whatever was happening, was going to have to happen without her participation.
* * *
She'd been home almost two hours before I mentioned my walk to her. I didn't know how I should bring it up, so finally I just said, "I went to O'Brien's today."
I'd expected a reaction, but I didn't expect the one I got.
"Why in the f--- did you do that?" she yelled from the kitchen. I heard a bowl slam down. "I told you I'd take care of it."
I sat in the living room in silence. What was the big deal? So she said she'd take care of it, but that had been, what, at least a week ago.
She came into the living room, staring at me, and I could have sworn the look on her face was more worry than anger. "Are you so intent on proving yourself that you can't leave anything to me? Or do you just enjoy defying me?"
"What are you talking about? I'm sorry, okay? I just wanted to get it fixed."
"Which I'm capable of doing. I was taking care of things before you were born."
"I said I was sorry, all right? I thought maybe you'd forgotten and I didn't see the point in reminding you when I had the day free. I'm sorry for trying to save you a little more stress."
That was a lie; I hadn't planned on going to O'Brien's. I hadn't planned on doing anything that day, I just kind of did it. Like I said, my body was functioning without me that afternoon.
"Well, thanks," she said, "but I'm a big girl now, you can let me take care of things, all right?"
I didn't see it coming, but as soon as it was out, I wished I could take it back. I jumped up and screamed, "He was your husband for Christ's sake! Don't you give a shit? I mean, it's not much, but it's enough, you know? The only thing we've got left of him is that block out there and they can't even get the f---ing thing right. Or are you too busy mingling with his old 'friends' to notice something so unimportant as your dead husband's headstone?"
Mentally, I felt myself cringe, even though, outwardly, my face was set and my eyes bore into hers. And she wasn't backing down, either.
"Don't you ever talk to me like that again," she said between her clenched teeth. "How dare you question what I feel."
I wanted to say something back, something hurtful to make her do something about it, or at least show me she still missed him. It had only been a year.
"I loved your father," she started, then started over with, "I love your father more than you're ever going to fathom. Pardon me if I don't base my fondest memories on the headstone date. I do have a life to lead, a house to finish paying for, and a son to feed. Now, I said I would take care of it and you purposely went ahead on your own anyway."
What could I say to that? I could disagree. After all, I hadn't purposely done anything, I tried to stop myself in fact. But I knew that was bullshit. If I hadn't wanted to do it, I wouldn't have rationalized it with my mother's reluctance.
I sat back down, kept my silence, and stared at the blank screen. She went back into the kitchen and I heard the sounds of cooking. After a few minutes, she called, "So what did they say?" There was a waver in her voice, and I figured she'd been crying. Later, I realized it was nervousness.
"The guy down there looked in the computer and it had been entered wrong to begin with. But he said he hadn't been there that long, so he doesn't know who put it in like that. Anyway, it was never right."
"Oh," she said. Satisfaction, I decided later. Or relief.
"So you would have been wasting your time anyway, just like I did. Still, I bet if you talked to whoever's in charge, they might be decent and fix it for free."
"No," she said from the kitchen. She was stirring something; I heard the spoon tapping the side of the dish. "Maybe at first, but it's been too long now. They'd probably want us to pay again, and we don't have it."
"It's only been a year," I said, coming into the kitchen. "And anyway, it was their mistake. Make them fix it."
"Look," she said, setting down the bowl. She was making pancakes, of all things. "We know it's wrong, we know why it's wrong, can't we just let it go, please? And we'll try to get on with ourselves as best we can?"
I didn't want to agree. I'd never wondered before whether it had been my father killing himself, or the fact that I was the one to find him, that drove me to... what it did, but I figured if I had to undergo all that because of it, I wasn't going to just sweep all my memories under the rug and try to pretend he'd died five years earlier and I was fine with it. I wanted to tell her all this, but I didn't want the night to end like it had started. Instead, I asked, "Why are you making pancakes for supper?"
"Would you rather have bacon and eggs?"
* * *
Just because I'd decided not to involve my mother in whatever was happening, that was no reason to completely ignore her. Especially when I wanted to use the car.
The temperature hovered just over 90 degrees and the sky shone like crystal water. I didn't have anything to do (I didn't have a job and I hadn't been in school for a while), but it was too nice a day to waste staring at the television, especially since I hardly turned it on any more. I took her to work early, there was a meeting she had to go to, and I took off down the highway just north of Copley. The windows were down, the radio loud, and my thoughts free.
I'd been drifting unrestrained in a collage of images through my head, times with my father, bad times at the hospital, and the day my mother came to tell me she was dead (who was she?). The last thought startled me into a state of paranoia. I sat up straight in the seat and focused on the road, scared I was going to veer off into a ditch, or the back of an eighteen-wheeler. I realized I had a thick coating of sweat and the clock said I'd been driving for an hour.
Where was I?
I pulled over and looked ahead. I was in town. The street sign above said I was on Beck. How long had I been in town? And how fast was I going? Christ, I could have killed someone, myself included. I looked around, checking to see if I maybe had a squad of police cruisers behind me, ready to open fire on the crazy man behind the wheel who'd plowed down a dozen women and dogs already. I was alone on Beck.
I pulled in front of a pickup and turned off the engine. McKeever Avenue was in front of me, running at right angles to Beck. I looked a little further, looking around as I gathered myself, then I froze.
There was the house. That house, across the street on McKeever, where Beck would be if it continued past McKeever Avenue. The house I saw myself rushing toward on the gravel road. The house that turned out not to be there after all. And here it was again. But was it really here? It seemed real enough. I leaned out the open window to get a clearer look, and it was gone. In fact, once I was outside the car, McKeever Avenue was gone, Beck was gone, the pickup was gone. Where the hell was I?
I wasn't in town, but still on the highway somewhere. I ducked back into the car and tried to recite my birthday, my mother's birthday, my parents' names, my social security number, telephone number, and all the names of my teachers from kindergarten up. I needed something real, something that wasn't going to change on me in a blink and these were the only things I felt confident in counting on as facts of my life.
I looked up again and saw the image of the house and McKeever Avenue dissolve in the windshield. And all outside was once again what it should have been. I still didn't know where I was. The highway marker up ahead said 44. That didn't help, 109 was the only one I knew well enough. Maybe my mother had a map.
I opened the glove box and everything spilled out. I started shoving things back in, a small flashlight, the registration, my mother's wallet. I never understood why she left it in the car, even though she'd explained it to me a hundred times before; the only time she ever needed anything from it was when she left the house, and the only time she left the house was in the car, so she would always be sure to have it. But how did she buy her lunch at work, or anything else she might need money for during the day when I had the car?
I decided to look in it and see if she kept her money on her and didn't need to carry the wallet around. The wallet was empty of money, so she must carry it on her, but it was full of pictures. Her license was here, social security card, library card, pictures of my father and her, a picture of all of us, my school pictures, then a few taken elsewhere. I found a picture of me at a carnival I'd forgotten I'd even taken, but looking at it, I remembered everything about that day.
The last few pictures confused me. I was in them, but I wasn't alone and I didn't know the people in them. There was one of me and some guy I'd never met, fishing together at Copley Lake. Another one showed myself and... the girl from the car. Or from the dream, whichever pleases you most. Either way, it was her, and I didn't know her, but apparently I did because here we were together. I flipped through the rest of the pictures, three more of me and these people I didn't know, swimming in someone's pool, graduating from high school, one of myself and the other guy sitting back to back, both of us holding acoustic guitars on our laps.
I took this one out of the plastic and looked at it, making sure the person in the picture was me. It was. But I didn't have a guitar and I didn't know the other guy. I turned it over, as if I might find an answer printed on the back. The edges of the picture were crooked, like it had been cut down to fit in the wallet.
I felt nausea coming on and heard, dimly, birds chirping.
I stuffed the picture back into the wallet, closed it, and shoved everything back into the glove compartment. There was no map and my need to get home was more urgent than ever.
I drove until I found an overpass, then got myself headed the other direction and, actually, I wasn't quite as far from town as I thought I must have been. Where all that other time went, I don't know. But I got home and ran inside to my room.
I entered the room carefully, as if for the first time. Everything was still, and my own. I recognized everything in the room and could even tell you where I got it all, but I still looked at it as if the room belonged to someone else. The bed was made, unslept in for weeks I think. The pictures on the walls hung straight. The clothes lay folded or hung neatly.
I opened the closet and looked behind the boxes on the floor. I got on my stomach and looked under the bed. There were things missing, I knew it, but I couldn't say exactly what. And if I didn't know what was missing, I wouldn't have any idea where to look. Were they big things, or small, able to be hidden behind a pile of socks?
I went to my mother's room, and searched her dresser, but I found nothing. I'd just been in the basement a few days ago, and it was spotless and in order. But there was the attic. Why do people always think an attic is such a great hiding place? It's only the most obvious after a closet, under the bed, or a sock drawer, and I'd already checked those.
I found my life in two large boxes shoved behind the treadmill my mother once thought she would use. Leaning against the boxes was a cheap acoustic guitar I didn't remember ever playing. I pulled it out and saw someone had etched LUNCHBUDDY into the pickguard. Was that what it was, a band name, that whole time? Stupid. I set it aside, then pulled out the boxes.
By the time my mother came home four hours later, I'd found everything.
A newspaper clipping announced my father's death in '93. A photo album showed my best friend and myself at our most free over the years. Around the time, I'm guessing, I was sixteen, a girl entered the photos, the girl from the car (or the dream). She was beautiful and I must have been totally in love with her judging by the size of the bouquet she held on, the back of the picture read, "Valentine's Day, '97."
There were the three of us in graduation gowns, smiling, alive. I also found old birthday cards signed just, "love, me." There were stuffed things, a heart, a cat, things a guy would keep only because his girlfriend had given them to him and he'd damn well better like them. There was a handwritten and photocopied flier announcing "The first public appearance of LUNCHBUDDY, the acoustic duo!!!" August 1st, 1997, my birthday. I wondered how that had gone over.
Who were they? Who was I, for that matter, if I'd forgotten a whole chunk of my life? At the bottom of the box, I found the answer.
An article from the Copley Courier showed a smashed car, a red Supra, the article said. The car's driver, it went on, Tommy Nelson, had been speeding when he lost control of the car and ran the stop sign at the McKeever intersection on Beck and ran over a small upgrade, through a fence, a row of bushes, knocking over a lamp post, and crashing through the front window of the house belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Ted Contadas and their ten-year-old son Harrison, who'd been sitting in front of the window when the car came plowing through it.
The car had been going so fast, when it hit the upgrade, the speed took them into the air, through the window, sheering off the top of the car and decapitating the two occupants, Tommy Nelson and his passenger, the girlfriend of a close friend, Melissa Cleo.
"love, me." Love, Melissa? My Melissa?
A red Supra? And parts of my mother's car had been replaced. Was she driving the same car, or were parts of hers taken from the remains of it? Either way, I understood now. I understood the missing years, the visions from the car, I understood my breakdown, the birds, my mother's whispered message on the porch, I understood finally.
* * *
My mother was pissed. She'd had to walk home from work because I'd been so lost in the attic, I hadn't realized the time. I wasn't in the most joyous mood myself, so I disregarded her pissing and moaning. I heard her downstairs, banging pots onto the stove, slamming the refrigerator door, yelling at me the whole time. It had no effect on me.
I took a handful of things from the box downstairs, the newspaper article included. I kept it folded in my pocket to keep from looking at the picture of the shattered car. After being pulled from the house, before the bodies were freed (one leg shone pale from the sheet draped over the corpses, blood caked to the skin), the car was hardly recognizable as such. I went into the kitchen and sat at the table, holding my tongue until the right time.
"Now then," she said incredulously, "you just mosey into the room and plop down at the table like nothing, huh?"
I looked up at her innocently.
"Are you going to answer me?" I wondered the same; would she answer me when I started the questions? "Well?"
Another beat for dramatic effect before I shrugged off her question and asked, "What year did Dad die?" That was the last thing she'd expected me to say, I imagined. Flustered, she turned to the stove and turned on a burner, then went to the cabinet. "It was '93, wasn't it?" Still, she didn't answer. "The headstone was never wrong, that's why you never called."
"Why do you have to do this?" she asked, as if I was the one who'd done something wrong. I couldn't believe she would be like that. "Why do you have to bring this up now, huh?"
"Because I'm right. Aren't I? It was '93 and I was fourteen, not nineteen. Right?"
"Can't you just leave it alone?" she said from the stove. She sounded almost as if she were pleading. "You have to know it was for the best. We all thought so."
"'All'?" I yelled. "What the hell do you mean, 'all'? Who's all?" I stood up and wanted to hit something. Here I was thinking it was just my mother lying to me to cover up something, now I find out there's an all.
"Dr. Reiger and I — ."
"Dr. Reiger and you kept me in there for a year thinking my father had just killed himself."
"No," she whirled. "You thought that on your own, that was the story you created yourself. You couldn't handle Tom and Melissa's deaths, so you recreated your father's. You did that, not me, not Dr. Reiger, no one but you. We were trying to help you, to calm you, and keep you as well as we could."
"By lying to me?" I tossed the things I'd brought down onto the table and she finally saw them. She looked at the birthday cards, old guitar picks, the plush valentine heart.
"You lied to yourself first. We thought we were helping, and for a while it worked." Her tone changed then and gone was her anger. "I don't know how much you remember — ."
"None of it," I said. "I don't remember. I'm still missing how many years of my life?"
"All five. You met Tommy the summer after your father died. Melissa was two years later. But, look," she said, holding her hands out to me. I didn't take them. "I loved them, too. They were like my own kids, they practically lived here. I missed them, too. And when they were gone, and you were sick, it was just easier, since you'd blocked it all out anyway, to put them behind us and try to forget they'd ever been here."
"Then why keep all this stuff?" I asked. "And this?" I brought the article from my pocket, unfolded it, lay it flat on the table, spreading it with my palm. "Why did you keep this?"
She looked down and frowned. "What about it?" she asked.
I looked down, and my jaw dropped — I actually felt it drop, like all the muscles in it had vanished. The article on the table was an advertisement for an upcoming amateur talent contest that, apparently, LUNCHBUDDY had planned on trying out for. The smashed red Supra was gone. The bodies were gone. The story of my best friend and girlfriend was gone.
I stared down at the paper and said, "What? I thought... I had... I saw the car, the wreck. I had the article." My mother looked at me as if I'd lost my mind again, which I'm sure was her fear. "I must have left it upstairs," I said and left for the attic again.
"Please," she said right behind me, "can't you just let that go? We lost enough, we need to get on with our lives."
I ran up the attic stairs and dug through the boxes, finally dumping them onto the floor and rummaging through the contents. She stood over me, pleading with me to let it go, to come downstairs and calm down, to talk to her. I couldn't. I had to find the article, I don't even know why it was so important, maybe because it was the last I would see of them, even if I couldn't remember them completely.
"Nicholas," she said, "just come downstairs with me." She'd begun to cry and I wished I could do something for her, but I'd had too much that day and I couldn't take any more input, no more surprises, no more things that made my heart beat faster.
"It's here," I murmured. "I know it is." I shoved things around, looking under papers and picks, and stuffed animals, cards, pictures, to find it. She stood over me and begged me to stop and think, to calm down, to come downstairs and relax. When she took my arm and tried to pull me up, I yelled, "Stop it, and shut up!" and flung my arm out, knocking her in the chest.
I remember seeing something on the floor sticking out from beneath the guitar that looked like a large red blob that I knew had to be the picture of the mangled red Supra, I remember reaching for it just as she flailed, and I remember the horrible hollow THUNK of her head hitting the attic rail. I don't remember her falling down the stairs, but I do remember looking down from the top of the stairs and thinking, "I must have knocked her out." I don't remember cleaning up the mess, or going down the stairs, but I remember kneeling over her and realizing she had no pulse. I don't remember reacting, but surely I must have. Right?
I remember putting her in the car and I remember thinking I was glad it was dark out. I don't remember coming back inside, or sitting at the table. I don't remember writing half of this, but, going over it, I do remember most of it happening.
I just found the article in my pocket, where I'd put it in the first place. There must have been two, the contest ad I just hadn't seen before. But the article was there all along, and so was the red blob of the Supra, as well as the bit of pale leg peeking out from the sheet.
I remember the guy she bought the car from saying sometimes bits from one car were used to add to another. I remember the nearly matched paint, and Melissa's face at the car wash, staring at me from inside the car. I remember finding my father swinging from the second floor banister rail.
* * *
This last part is being written in the car. I'm parked at the intersection of Beck and McKeever. At least, through the front windshield, it's Beck and McKeever, but what I see out the windshield isn't always what's really there. The house is still there, although empty now. I don't blame them not wanting to live there any more.
These papers will be found in the glove compartment (with the pictures of my missing years). I'm going to go back about two blocks, then speed up Beck to McKeever, and hurl the car, my mother's corpse, and myself over the yard and — . I keep seeing the picture of the crushed car. Tommy's car. He'd called me that day and said he had a surprise for me, that he wanted to show me the birthday present his parents had bought him. I never did see his red Supra, until parts of it were blue and attached to my mother's car.
I keep seeing the wreck and wishing I could lose my nerve, but it's kind of like the day I visited O'Brien's and I'm working on automatic now, driven by my lost life, Tommy and Melissa, bringing me to them.
I'm putting it all down so whoever finds this will know the truth, that I wasn't crazy, that I didn't kill my mother, and that, no matter what's really outside the car, whether Beck and McKeever, or something else, it's a lie and I finally found the truth.
Copyright © 2003 by C. Dennis Moore