General Fiction posted January 28, 2017

This work has reached the exceptional level
A woman stumbles upon a long-buried secret.

Last Words

by pit viper

The author has placed a warning on this post for language.

                                                                              Last Words

"I'm too old for this," I muttered to the dancing dust motes, as I stood from a crouch and reached behind me to massage my aching lower back. It was true; but the only other person who could do it was even older than me, and wheelchair-bound to boot.

My father had died at age 92 the previous year, and- having no siblings or relatives of any kind- it had fallen on me to empty the house for the nice young couple who had bought it, before delivering my 83-year-old mother to her new and final home, the Westlake Manor Assisted Living Facility.

I didn't expect her to last long; she'd lived in this house, with my father, since he brought her here as a 20-year-old bride. It was a rambling Colonial structure, now fallen into a severe state of disrepair. The new owners admired its "quaintness", and were eagerly looking forward to beginning the restoration process; I didn't bother to disillusion them by mentioning how cold it got in the winter, how the ancient pipes made sounds like the moaning of anguished ghosts. I had escaped here for art school at age eighteen, and never looked back. But now, here I was: no longer the hotshot feminist painter mounting exhibitions in trendy Soho cafes. Merely an exhausted old woman in baggy jeans and a graying crew cut, husbandless and childless at a time when many of my peers were reveling in their grandchildren, the only offspring of a bloodless marriage, clearing out the flotsam and jetsam of a narrowly proscribed, claustrophobic life. 

The photo, browned with age, curled at the edges, was underneath the last box I dragged from the recessed corner of the attic. I was almost too exhausted to look at it, but somehow, curiosity got the better of me. Maybe it was of me. I'd found some evidence of my parents' early relationship here, including a complete set of Bing Crosby albums that I planned to try and sell on ebay, and a packet of rather stiff, formal letters that my father had written to my mother when he was stationed in Korea in 1952... but little to suggest they'd ever had a daughter. No wonder it had been so easy to slip away, I thought. I was a ghost to them, even when I was here.

I picked up the photo, wincing at the jabbing pain in my lower back. Then time stopped.

Because here was my mother, my young, beautiful mother, full-lipped and gypsy-eyed, her frank sexuality mocking the frumpy 1950s housedress that encased her. And in her arms was a little boy. 

I don't know how long I stood staring at this photo, willing it to make some kind of sense. The boy had her dark eyes, and the same fair hair I'd had as a child, before it turned first dark and then prematurely gray. The boy was scarcely more than a toddler; possibly three. He wore the high-waisted shorts of the era, with a collared button-down shirt. In the picture, my mother clung to him, in a way she never had to me. He stared stoically at the camera, but the longer I looked, the more it seemed he was straining ever so slightly away from her.

I knew this boy.

He was my imaginary friend, from childhood. His name was Pickle. I hadn't seen him since I was five years old. He used to visit me in my room when I'd been banished there for "making too much noise", build forts with me out of chairs and bedclothes, tear shirtless through the tangled wisteria in the backyard with me, playing Tarzan and Jane. He used to play hide and seek with me right here, in this dim dusty attic, on endless rainy afternoons. 

"Don't get in that chest;" he once told me. "The lid will close, and you'll be stuck."

"You could open it, Pickle, and rescue me. You're strong." I had replied, clearly light-years away from the lesbian feminist activist I would grow up to be.

"I can't. I'm not strong enough." he'd replied.

"Well, you could go tell my mother, then."

A fleeting expression of disgust had crossed his face, as if he'd smelled something foul.

"I'm not telling her anything."

So I knew she was somehow loathesome; it wasn't just me. Others sensed it too.

The photo fluttered to the floor as I stood, lost in my memories.

The perpetual gloom of the attic had deepened by the time I made my weary way downstairs, to face the shriveled old woman slumped in the wheelchair before the television.

"I had a brother." I said quietly to her hunched back, her patchy skull, in the flickering light of the old RCA 9-inch, with the screen like a goldfish bowl.

"You had no such thing." she snapped, sounding shockingly cogent for a woman with dementia. I had assumed she was asleep, or in the half-dreaming state she now occupied most of the time.

"Yes, Mother. I did." I was surprised to feel tears sting my eyes, though my voice remained level and calm. "I saw the picture, while I was upstairs cleaning. Pickle. My imaginary friend, from when I was little. He wasn't imaginary, was he? He was real. You used to paddle me with a wooden spoon and lock me in my room when I tried to tell you about him. But he was real all along. He was my brother. The ghost of my brother."

She said nothing, but I could tell from the tenseness of her posture that she was alert, she was listening. 

"How did he die, Mother? Did you drown him, the way you almost drowned me that day in the bathtub?"

I had a sudden vision of waking in my dark childhood bedroom to see my grim-faced mother looming over me, holding a pillow near my face. Her eyes an abyss.

 "Did you fucking smother him in his sleep, Mother? What did you do, what did you do to my brother?"

"You never had a brother." My mother slowly turned her wheelchair so that I could see her profile. There seemed to be something sly and mocking in her crumpled, toothless face.  She looked inhuman, some storybook creature who occupied a gingerbread cottage and enticed children into her oven.

"Pickle." she spat out, rolling her ancient, rheumy eye toward me. "That was your father's stupid nickname for you, when you were small."

"What? What are you talking about?" My father, when he was forced to address me at all, called me by my formal name, Andrea. To everyone else, I had always been and still was "Andi". I couldn't recall my mother ever calling me by any name.

A sudden, unaccountable wave of fury rolled slowly through me. I wanted to put my hands around her withered throat and squeeze until her fragile bird-bones popped.

"I saw the picture, Mother. I saw it. The picture of you and your son. Are you going to deny that Pickle was your son?"

A strange wheezing sound was coming from my mother; at first I thought she was sobbing. Then I realized she was laughing. 

"Mother!" I screamed. "Look at me! Are you going to deny that was your son in the picture with you?"

"No," she wheezed, as a tear trickled down the gully of her crevassed cheek.  "I'm not going to deny that he was my son."

"He died? What, you killed him?"

"No," she croaked, tears now sliding in rivulets down her ravaged face. "You did."

The faded floral-print rug swam beneath me, and the next thing I knew I was crumpled upon it, my knees having given out.

"What did you just say?" I managed. My legs were water. I could not stand. It didn't matter. I would crawl to her if I had to, I would crawl to her and choke the breath out of her lying throat.

"You killed him, Andrea. You killed my son." With remarkable speed she rolled her wheelchair across the room to where I hunched on the floor, unable to rise.

"Ambiguous genitalia." My mother pronounced, in the blunt cadence of an uneducated person who has committed an educated phrase to memory. "That's what they told us, when you were born. You had... both. They didn't know what to do about it back then, back in the fifties. There were only a few hospitals in the country that operated on such things. The doctor told me... just to raise you as a boy, and later, when you were older, we could fly to Minneapolis or to the big Children's Hospital in Toronto, and they could fix it. They could take the other things away. Your original birth certificate listed you as male. I named you Andrew."

I wanted to speak, but my throat seemed narrowed to a pinprick. Memories flooded me; memories of my mother. Not the grim-faced mother of my childhood, but a different one. The woman from the photograph. A lythe, laughing mother flashing me a smile over her shoulder as she hung laundry on the backyard line, then leaning over my bassinet to smother my face with kisses and nip gently at my belly with her sharp white teeth.

"But that wasn't good enough for you, was it, Andrea?" She spat my name from her lips as if it were some rotten bit of food. "Almost from the time you could walk and talk, you wouldn't wear the clothes I bought you. You wouldn't answer to the name I gave you. You kept going into my room and trying to put on my dresses, my makeup. You kept insisting you were a girl, slapping and pulling at your penis in the bathtub until I thought you were going to rip it off."

I looked up at her. As in childhood, she loomed over me, making me feel small, wretched. I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I couldn't catch my breath. My heart rattled hollowly in my chest.

"We had the surgery done at the Baltimore Children's Hospital, when you were five." she said, glaring down at me. Five, I thought. The age Pickle was, forever. "We had to go back two more times over the next year, but finally you got your wish. They made you a girl. It took another two years to get the state to issue an amended birth certificate."

Her dark, reptilian eyes flashed down at me from their pouches of wrinkles. Her withered mouth twisted into a smirk.

"Ha." she pronounced. "Some girl."

Those were the last words I ever heard from my mother.

By the time I managed to pull myself up from the floor- minutes or hours later- she was facing the television again, blank, gone away, lost in her dementia.

The next morning, I delivered her to her "assisted living facility" as planned ("That's a euphemism for Pre-dead Corpse Storage Facility," I joked to my friends, back in New York; I had a reputation for being scathing).

By the time she died, a month later, I had already been to a gynecologist, for the first time in my life- I might've gone much sooner if I hadn't been both a lifelong lesbian and a starving artist, who eschewed doctors in general and had never had health insurance- and learned that I did, in fact, possess both a set of ovaries and a set of small, internal testes. I was, officially, intersexed.

"Well, they did a damn good job," my girlfriend Nicola chuckled, sliding her hand down the front of my baggy overalls. "Especially for way back then. I never had any idea."

They did. They did a damn good job.

And sometimes at night, when I was haunted by the shirtless, mud-streaked ghost of my invisible childhood friend Pickle, his mouth open in an intrepid Tarzan howl as he swung on a wisteria vine, or the ghost of a laughing, dancing mother with adoring eyes, who leaned over my bassinet, blocking out the sun as she tickled me with her long dark hair, I would slide my hands between my legs and think, "They are gone. And I'm still here."



I wrote this yesterday, for a contest.
It was based upon the prompt "You're cleaning out your attic and stumble across an old photo of someone you don't recognize, hugging your mom. When you ask her about it she becomes very upset and runs out of the room."
It turned out that it did not meet the criteria for the contest (the person in the photo with the mother was not, technically, "unrecognized", and the mother, being wheelchair-bound, did not "run out of the room" when confronted); I was offered an extension to revise and re-enter the story, but I declined and withdrew it, because I like it the way it is.
Prompts can be very useful, but sometimes stories take on a life of their own, and you just have to go with it. This one turned out a little creepy, but I hope you enjoy it.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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