I knew how the rest of my day was gonna go the minute I seen Big Mama standing in the doorway looking at me. She had that look she gets, the one that carries all her years of hurt and worry like a heavy pack that might break her at any minute. I'd seen it enough times to know what it meant: Mama was missing again. Deep inside me the whatever-sized piece of little girl that was left sat down and cried. She had really tried this time, she really had, but it had been months now, and even though I'd seen the shadows growing darker around her eyes; had watched them get that lean and hungry look in the last few days, that little girl still held onto the tiniest bit of hope that somehow this time she'd be able to say no for good. Big Mama standing in the doorway was the end of all that.
I ate the last bite of Krispy Korn and tilted the bowl up to drink the milk. Big Mama walked on into the room and turned off the TV. Standing there in her old pink bathrobe, I realized suddenly that she'd lost a lot of weight in the last few months, and that, without warning, she had gotten old before my eyes. She sat down across from me on the big blue vinyl chair that used to be Papa's, pulling a pack of Marlboro 100's out of her pocket and lighting one.
"You're gonna have to go look for her," she said, taking a long drag. She looked tired, even though it was only nine o'clock in the morning.
I sat up, pulling my feet out from under me.
"I know," I said. "I can be ready to go in just a few minutes." It was up to me, had been up to me for a long time now, to go and get Mama when she took off.
Holding the cigarette between her lips she reached into her pocket again, pulling out a brown plastic bottle and passing it to me.
"Make sure she takes 'em, even if she won't come home," she said.
I rolled my eyes. "It ain't like I never done this before."
She smiled, her sad eyes full of love. "I know, baby," she said, "You've had to grow up before your time. You and me and Beau are all your Mama's got in this world, though, so we have to take care of her the best we can."
I felt the tears coming and I blinked hard, rubbing the heel of my hand against my eyes. "I'm sick of it, though, Big Mama. I'm sick of tracking her down to give her medicine when she don't even care if she lives or dies. She probably wouldn't even notice if we disappeared."
"Don't talk about your Mama like that," she said. She caught me with a look that I knew meant business. "No matter what happens, blood is blood, and we take care of our own."
I stood up and put my arms around her. She had a smell that was uniquely hers, a mixture of hand-rolled cigarettes, fried chicken, and Chantilly dusting powder. Some people might think that was awful, but to me it was home, and comfort, and love. It was the smell of a million afternoons spent sitting at her knee while she cooked, of a million nights spent falling asleep in her arms while she rocked me and sang to me. I loved her way more than I loved my mother, and the only reason I did this at all was because I knew it hurt Big Mama for her only child to be wandering the streets, and I would do anything to keep Big Mama from hurting.
It was chilly outside, the middle of November, so I dressed in my one pair of jeans and the red hoodie sweatshirt Big Mama had given me for Christmas last year. In the next room I could hear Beau crying while she changed his diaper. Beau is almost two, and already he is almost more than me and Big Mama can handle. Most days I watch him when I get home from school so she can work on the sewing she takes in to help pay the bills. When Mama is here she tries to help a little bit sometimes, but Beau doesn't really know her, so he cries and she just ends up giving him candy or whatever he wants so he'll shut up. Needless to say, it don't help a whole lot.
Before I left I stuck my head in Big Mama's room. Beau's crib is in there, and we change him on her bed. His face was red from crying.
"I'm goin'," I said.
"Ok, baby," said Big Mama. "Give her a couple of pills so she'll have one for tomorrow, you hear?"
"She'll just lose it."
"Maybe not. Put it in her pocket."
"She’ll lose it anyway."
She smiled another one of those sad smiles; the only kind she seemed to have left these days. "Your Mama's my baby, Emmie, same as you," she said. "You'll understand one day."
"I ain't having no babies. I already told you that."
"Yes, you did. Be home before dark, you hear?"
Outside the wind was blowing hard, trying its best to strip the trees of the last few leaves that were holding their ground like stubborn ticks on a dying dog. The sky overhead was gray and low, the leading edge of the next big cold front. Dark like it was, and with the wind and all, I thought it might storm, but I wasn't afraid. I like bad weather, always have. Big Mama says in another life I could have been one of those weather ladies on TV.
I started walking in the direction of town. We lived off of what everybody called the Back Roads, which sounds fancy but really was nothing but a series of old dirt tracks and pothole-ridden, long-neglected asphalt streets that used to be the way folks got between towns before U.S. Highway 165 sliced the countryside open from gullet to gut back in 1936. Now only the locals used them; we mostly left the big highway to the out-of-state people looking for swamp tours and casino buffets. You could still walk to town on the back roads, though mostly people drove. Big Mama had a car, a gold 1979 Ford LTD that Papa had bought new for her, but I wasn't old enough to drive it yet.
Within minutes my ears were numb with cold, so I pulled my red hood up over my ears and stuck my hands into the front pockets. I had no idea where to start looking for Mama, but I knew who would. It was the kind of association I normally avoided like the plague, but like Big Mama said, when it comes to blood, sometimes you don't have no choice. Sometimes you have to dance.
Sure enough, when I came to the place where the iron-red dirt farm track called PR133 crossed Gajan Road, he was there, standing square in the middle of the cross and looking awfully satisfied with himself. To a passerby who didn't know no better, he looked just like any other no-account farm hick, dressed as he was in frayed blue jeans, a red western shirt and a dusty, beat-up cowboy hat. Close up, though--that's when you'd really start to notice the differences. For one, he was a lot taller than might be considered normal, and for another, his hands hung down too low, looking for all the world like they were thumb-tacked onto those lanky, alien arms that moved in angles no regular arm would even consider.
He smiled as I got closer, the smile of somebody who just got served a big plate of barbecue ribs with all the fixins; the smile of somebody with his napkin already tucked into his shirt. It wasn't midnight, but he didn't give a damn.
Everybody called him Catfish, but that wasn't his real name, and we all knew it. He had been walking the back roads a long, long time. Maybe forever.
"Where's Mama?" I asked when I got close enough. The wind picked up as I approached, swirling the red dust around my feet.
"Well hello to you too, Miss Ruby Emmaline Ledoux. My word, that sure ain't no way to greet a body. Didn't Big Mama teach you no better manners than that?"
I didn't have time for this shit, but the rules being what they were, I had to play his game.
I sighed and rolled my eyes. "Hello, Catfish. I hope you're feeling good this morning. I was just wondering if you might point me in the direction of my Mama."
He smiled, big and wide, and his teeth shined in the darkened air. They were sharp and pointed, arranged in rows like some land-walking shark.
"Much better," he said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Now. Did I hear you say you'd misplaced something?"
"My Mama," I said again. "She's not at home and she needs her medicine."
"Oh I'm sure she has plenty o' medicine, wherever she is."
I closed my eyes. It didn't pay to get upset when dealing with Catfish.
"Not that kind of medicine. The kind the doctor gave her."
"Ah," he said. "The little blue pills. The ones that keep that pan-fried brain a' hers from goin' all hizzy-tizzy. I might believe I can point you in the right direction." He licked his lips, sliding those too-big hands into his back pockets. "Course, you could probably find her yourself, given time. Only so many mudholes in this one-horse town your Mama could get lost in."
Out in the distance a dust devil twirled across the plowed-under fields, wriggling and twisting for a few seconds before dissolving away. I took a deep breath and pulled up the sleeve on my left arm.
"I'm willing to pay," I said. I pulled off my jacket and rolled up the sleeve on my shirt. Catfish leaned down real close, sniffing at the scars and half-healed cuts. His eyes narrowed as he considered what was already there.
"Looks like you about to run out of currency," he said.
"I'm alive ain't I?"
He laughed. "Barely! How much longer you think you can go on doing this, searching out that woman time and again just 'cause she's the one that squatted down long enough to spit you out? You coming up on 15 years, girl, still young enough to take over the world if you took a mind to it. Your life ain't worth hers no matter what Big Mama done told you, and deep down you know that's true."
He was right. Every damn word he was saying was the truth. Still, I stuck out my arm.
"Do you want it or not?" I asked.
He smiled. "Of course I do," he said. He leaned over and whispered a name in my ear. I closed my eyes, felt him lick up and down my arm, taking his time with each prior wound, moving slow like he was greeting old friends.
When his teeth bit into the flesh it hurt, but it was the kind of pain that made you long for it; the kind that brought forgetting along like a gift. It wasn't a feeling of safety like the comfort of Big Mama's arms; this was the peacefulness that comes from knowing that oblivion is waiting for you somewhere, and I'd be lying if I said that a part of me didn’t crave it. I sank down into the red clay, and felt it gather me into its arms. The whole thing felt like it could have taken an hour, or a day, or maybe forever, but eventually I opened my eyes, and when I did, I saw that Catfish was gone.
The walk into town shouldn't have taken more than a half hour, but the bright spot behind the clouds marking the sun's position was well into the west by the time I finally got there. I was tired, and lightheaded, but I didn't stop to rest. I'd lost too much time already.
The place Catfish had whispered to me wasn't in town exactly; instead it was all the way on the other side, off Highway 26. It was a trailer park, the winter home of a bunch of ex-cons who spent their summers dragging a few game booths and a couple of worn-out carnival rides from town to town while they cooked meth and traded pills behind walls lined with ratty stuffed bears and rows of plastic American flags. These weren't the big, shiny house trailers like the kind in the TV commercials; these were old travel trailers, Scotsmans, Airstreams and such, held together mostly with duct tape and cardboard. As I walked down the muddy driveway, an old mangy dog came up and looked at me with big, mournful eyes, but I shooed him off. A gang of filthy, half-naked toddlers hid behind rusting cars and piles of garbage. I'd come to get Mama here before, more than once as a matter of fact, and it had never been easy. Once these motherfuckers had their claws in her, it was hard to get them back out again.
I counted the trailers as I walked. When I came to the 9th one I stopped, jumping over deep ruts filled with oily water to get to the door. I knocked but no one answered.
Nothing. I beat on the door some more, as hard as I could. The thing was so flimsy that my pounding caused the whole contraption to shake.
Finally I heard footsteps. The door opened a crack into darkness.
"Whatthefuckyouwant?" a voice growled.
I pulled the medicine bottle out of the pocket of my hoodie. "I’ve come to see my Mama," I said.
"There ain't nothin' for you here," said the voice. "You need to git goin'." The door started to shut. From the darkness a glint of metal caught my eye. It was probably a knife, but by this time I didn’t care. Without another word I put my shoulder to the door and shoved as hard as I could. It must have caught whoever was back there by surprise, because the door gave way easily, whipping all the way around and slapping against the paper-thin inside wall.
I stumbled in, carried by my own momentum, but managed to right myself before I fell. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but once they did, I knew I was in the right place. People, or what had once been people, were lying around everywhere. Most of them were covered in blood, jerking uncontrollably, gurgling red bubbles dribbling from their lips. Some were missing limbs, and others looked like they had been downright chewed. I felt the sick rising up in my stomach, but I bit my lip and swallowed it back down. Whoever had opened the door was gone.
"Mama?" I started crawling around and over bodies, slipping and sliding in the gore but still pausing to inspect each one, looking for her bright blond hair. Eventually I found her, still alive, lying on a tiny cot near the back. She looked so peaceful you might have thought she was sleeping if it wasn't for the hypodermic needle sticking out of her arm.
"Mama?" I shook her gently and her eyes fluttered open. "Emmie," she said, her voice hoarse and weak. Her eyes were dilated. Track marks and bruises ran up and down both arms.
I started pulling her up. "Come on," I said, putting my arm around her. "It's time to go home."
"Em," she said again. She grasped my neck, holding onto me like a child. I started to stand, and that's when I heard his voice behind me.
"Damn, girl," he said. "You stronger than I gave you credit for. Faster, too."
I laid Mama back down on the bed. Her breathing was shallow, a whisper in the darkness. I knew I was running out of time. I turned to face him, trembling inside when I saw how those unnaturally long arms now ended in claws.
"I'm not here to interfere in your business, Catfish," I said. "I just wanna take my Mama home."
He grinned, his lips thinning over the rows of teeth. "As do I," he said. He looked down at her on the bed. "She looks just about ready to head home, don't you think?" He took a step toward me.
"Please," I said. "I don't want no trouble. I paid you, fair and square."
He laughed, a barking sound that shook the walls and rattled my bones. "There ain't a goddamned thing in this life that's fair, girl. You of all people ought to know that." He stepped over another body, close enough now that I could feel his hot, stinking breath huffing on my cheek. Eyes the size of saucers grew even bigger as he approached, drinking in the darkness, wallowing in it. His jaws opened wide, wider than the world, wide enough to swallow me whole. I bent back down over Mama, whispering in her ear.
"Wake up, Mama. It's time to go."
He growled and leaped, and, as he did, I pulled the needle from Mama's arm and slammed it back over my shoulder, directly into his left eye. He screamed, the worst sound I'd ever heard or could have imagined, stumbling back, clawing at the thing with both hands. Among the blood and the bodies he fell, twisting as he went down to catch himself, hitting the floor and driving the syringe deep inside his skull. His body jerked a few times like a puppet on a kinked-up string, until finally he gasped and was still.
I sucked in a deep, shuddering breath, waiting for him to get back up, but he never did. Finally I found the courage to pull the pill bottle out of my pocket once again, opening it up and shaking out one of the pills into my hand. I managed to shake Mama awake enough to open her mouth, and I put it as far back on her tongue as I could, stroking her face and whispering to her to swallow, please swallow, just do this and we'd go home. Somewhere deep inside she must have heard me, because her eyes opened briefly and she choked it down.
I couldn't carry her and I knew it, so as the sun went down I pulled off my red hoodie and slipped it over her head, sliding her arms through the sleeves while she shivered and cried. When I'd gotten it on her I pulled her close, rocking and singing, waiting for her strength to return in the cold dark, there among the unassuming dead.
This story originally appeared in American Gothic Short Stories (Flame Tree Press, 2019).