(Click here for The Furies, Part 1: Spite.)
In silence, they drove down to Colma, a bright, high fog pouring over the freeway. Holding Ellie’s hand tightly, Alex tried to ignore the leering faces of the harpies, who kept pace with the Volkswagen, the tips of their wings ticking against the side of the car. Sometimes one would turn in the wind and rise out of sight.
As soon as he began to hope it had flown away, it would drop from the fog ahead of them, swooping for the windshield. Alex braced for impact, but the harpies would pull up at the last moment, their talons skittering across the rounded roof.
Whenever Ellie saw him flinch, she would look at him and squeeze his clammy hand, an action that annoyed him greatly. He tried to ignore her as well and pulled up the Green Day t-shirt Ellie had brought to the hospital. The bite marks from the snake were swelling, turning purplish. His breathing was getting tighter and more painful, and his stomach hurt. It wasn’t just the broken ribs. He felt like he’d been infected with rabies. Time was running out, but he felt giddy and lightheaded.
As they were exiting the freeway, he said jokingly, “Welcome to Colma, the City of the Silent, where the dead outnumber the living a thousand to one. I wonder what it is like to live in a town with so many cemeteries. I’ll bet it’s actually quite peaceful, much more so than S.F. My God, I love that funeral home, don’t you? It’s so Gothic with those arches and pointy tower. It looks Dracula’s Castle, especially in this fog. That’s why I chose Woodlawn Cemetery. It seemed appropriate for Mom, you know.”
Ellie scowled at him, as they drove under an arch and asked, “Alex, are you still playing the guitar?”
“What? Really, your sense of timing amazes me.”
“Maybe you should. Maybe it would be a good outlet for you, you know.”
“I don’t want to talk about the fucking guitar. Look, that’s where Henry Miller is buried. Wyatt Earp, that old west hero, is buried here somewhere, and so is Emperor Norton, you know that crazy guy who thought he was the emperor of the United States? Mom keeps good company.”
They drove up the slope to the back of the cemetery and parked. It wasn’t easy to get out of the car while holding hands. Alex bumped his broken ribs against the steering wheel and hit his bandaged head on the doorframe. At last they managed to get out of the car, the furies sweeping overhead.
Alex’s t-shirt hung diagonally across his bandaged chest since he could only get one arm into it. He felt like a black-eyed mummy as he limped across the lawn, gasping for breath, the fog shredding overhead in thick white streamers. An Asian man holding the hands of twin girls looked at them strangely, as if they didn’t belong, and pulled his daughters away.
The harpies flew ahead of them and settled on the grass around their mother’s flat gravestone, squatting with the points of their wings high in the air. As Ellie and Alex approached, they began chattering insanely, rolling their heads and coughing hoarsely, the way his mother had done in her last days. The nose of one began to bleed and another vomited on the grass. “Water!” the third one gasped. “I need water!” Ellie knelt in front of the stone, pulling Alex down with her.
They knelt quietly until Alex began to chuckle. “Isn’t this peaceful with the sounds of all that traffic? The freeway is over there, just behind those cypresses. Great place for hitchhiking if you’re a ghost.” He laughed again and had to grab his side. “And who the hell chose this poem? I guess I told those thieves at Bocci Monuments that they could put whatever they wanted on her headstone, I didn’t care, but really, who chose this?” He began to read the gravestone in a deep, warbling voice: “‘When you were born, an angel smiled. As you became a child, an angel sat on your shoulder. When you became an adult, an angel held your hand. As you grew old, an angel walked down the road with you. And, when you died, another angel got their wings.’ La di da di da! An angel! Jesus H. Christ, can you imagine that women with win–” He stopped abruptly.
The furies laughed crazily, rolling their heads. They had moved next to each other, and their bodies seemed to be fusing. “My medicine!” Megaera shouted. Tisiphone howled. Alecto said, “Water! Why won’t you give me a glass of water, you human garbage? I wish you’d never been born.”
“Bitch!” Alex said at last.
Ellie nodded. “But she was a victim too, you know. A victim of abuse, like you. Cut her some slack.”
“Medicine! I wish I had killed myself before you were born, you bastard! Water! Arhoooooo!”
“You can’t blame Mom or Dad or me, Alex. You can only answer for yourself.”
He rolled his eyes. “Spare me the pop psychology. It doesn’t do much good when there are monsters, real monsters, waiting to tear me apart.”
Their bodies had merged into a dragon’s body, their heads moving like snakes on long necks. “Water! What are you doing to me, you piece of shit? Why do you hate me so much? Medicine!”
“A chain of tragedy. A parade of victims. Who is to blame? Where did it start? Where will it end?”
“It will end when you get tired of holding my hand. You can’t hold it forever, you know. Then these bitches will get me and that will be that. You won’t miss me. You’ll be glad to get rid of me. I was never any good. Piece of shit, human garbage, just like Mom said. And I am just about ready. Yeah, I am just about ready to die.”
“Don’t say that, Alexandros. Don’t ever say that.”
“Yeah? Well, it’s true. And you? What are you going to do when you drive away from here? You know, I think you’ll make it. I hope you’ll make it. I want you to make it. Don’t get married though. And don’t have any children. Let it end here tonight.”
The furies said, “I took care of you, Alexie. Why won’t you help me? Why do you hate me, you human garbage? You are as bad as your father! Arhooooooo!”
“Alex, did you do it? Did you–?”
“Did I what? Kill her? Are you serious, Ellie?”
“Then why are they here?” she asked, motioning with her free hand. Eerily, she seemed to know exactly where the harpies were.
“I broke my promise.”
The harpies fell silent.
“I promised in three different ways.”
“What did you promise?”
“She was crazy, crazy at the end. One day I came home and she was naked on the front porch, howling like a wolf and throwing out our stuff–yours, mine, and Dad’s–just throwing it out onto the lawn. You should have seen Ms. de la Cruz, that nurse I hired when I was at work. She was frantic. She didn’t know what to do. She quit on the spot and told me it was time to take mother to a hospice.” He smiled. “Mom jumped on her back and bit her neck. There was blood. Serves her right.”
The smile faded. “No, I guess Ms. de la Cruz didn’t deserve that. She did her best. It was tough taking care of Mom, nobody knows that better than me. I finally calmed Mom down, made her human again, but she wouldn’t go back into the house unless I agreed to promise something. I had to promise in three times in three different ways, a total of nine times.
“The first, I had to put my hand on the bible and say ‘So help me, God’ and all that. I had to do it three times. I didn’t even know we had a bible. The second, she made me sign my name in blood. Can you believe it? She wrote out this–this document. You couldn’t even read it; it was complete gibberish, but she made me prick my finger and sign my name in blood. Three times! It’s not as easy as you might think to keep the blood flowing. The third was a pinky swear, you know, like little girls hooking their fingers together and swearing to be friends forever? I had to say, ‘Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.’ Again, three times.”
“What did you promise her?”
“I promised that I would forgive her.”
“But you did it. You promised her. That shows that you actually cared for her.”
He shook his head. “I just did it so she would shut up and go back to bed. It shows that I didn’t know what else to do. It shows that I was embarrassed. It shows that I was too tired to argue.”
“So that was it? A broken promise?”
He thought about it, rubbing his mouth hard. “Yes, the broken promise. I did kill her, but she knew what I was doing. She let me do it. She wanted to die. I gave her vitamins instead of the immunosuppressive medicine, which would have stopped her immune system from attacking her own body, destroying her skin, heart, lungs, kidney, and brain.
“The first day I did it, she lay there, looking perfectly lucid for once, staring at those vitamins in her hand. Her pills were different, multi-colored, bright, so it was pretty obvious. But then she looked up at me, put them in her mouth, and asked for water. I made her swallow them dry. After that, it was just a matter of time. She was so frail at the end, but it took forever! I had to change doctors three or four times, so they wouldn’t catch on. I took her back to the hospital only when I knew it was too late. I knew they could not save her. I did kill her, Ellie, but she let me do it. It was the oath, the broken oath. That’s why the angry ones are here.”
“You killed her?”
“Maybe she wanted to die. Her mother was gone, Dad was gone, you were gone, and I hated her. She could see it in my eyes. Who did she have to live for anymore? She may not have always shown it, but she was . . . a loving person, I guess, in her own way. She didn’t know what to do when there was no one left to love, no one at all. I think that’s why she let me do it.”
“You killed your own mother?”
“On the other hand, maybe she did not really want to die. I don’t know. She always had such a love for life, didn’t she? Such a passion for nature, for green things. Remember those camping trips? Remember when she would laugh so hard that she could hardly breath? Remember that time she wet herself from laughing so hard, and it was something so stupid. What was it? Oh, I know, Mom had forgotten to bring the utensils. All we had was a bag of plastic spoons. Remember everyone trying to eat the steak with plastic spoons? Dad was so upset, but she just laughed and laughed and laughed.”
“You killed Mom?”
He looked at his sister with her wild, frizzy hair and her shirt crisscrossed with yellow, orange, red, and black. She was leaning back, as far as she could get without letting go of his hand.
“You told me how to do it, remember Ellie? One day, you said, ‘All you have to do is withhold her medicine, and the disease will progress faster. No one will ever know.’ That’s exactly what I did.”
She tried to pull her hand away. He squeezed tighter.
“I didn’t mean it,” Ellie whispered. “There’s a big difference between saying something like that and actually doing it. Let go of me.”
“Let go, you bastard, you mother-killer! Let go!”
“No!” He raised his bandaged hand, and hit her hard on the side of the head.
Then a look of fear came over his face, like fog over the sun. He looked down. Her hand was white, he was gripping it so tightly.
“Oh God, Ellie. Will it never end?”
Slowly, he released her hand. She pulled away and fell backwards on the grass.
At once, they were on him, screaming, clawing, dragging him into the air, snapping his fingers, gouging his eyes, biting his genitals, screaming and shrieking and howling.
Ellie watched him silently rise, twisting and writhing, ten, twenty, thirty feet in the air, but he did not make a sound. There was nothing but a rush of wind until he vanished into the bright fog.
High above her, she heard a cry, not a cry of pain, but a sob, a deep and helpless sob, like that of a little boy: “Mama! Mama! I love you, Mama. I’m so sorry.”
Spread-eagle, limp as a rag doll, raining drops of blood, Alex floated out of the clouds and settled down onto his mother’s grave. Ellie grabbed her brother and kissed him on the bloody forehead. Somewhere, high above her, she heard the flutter of wings.