The snow made a crushing sound with every step. The steps came from Officer Dewey Wilburn. He liked the sound, it made him feel heavy with importance. Not heavy with a six-pack of beers, which he got for Christmas. From Andy. Dewey actually ordered the beer himself, but Andy was the delivery man. He'd drive from Firecrest to the small towns around and deliver the goods. Edgewood was at the very end of his circuit. Edgewood was isolated. Dewey was too.
Both hands on his belt, he walked through Main Street (which could also be called Only Street) and glanced at the decorations hanging on the front doors – cranberries, holly, mistletoe. Around the houses, Douglas firs gathered. Douglas firs and other kinds of firs – not all of them were called Douglas, Dewey figured. Some of them were called Catherine and Charlotte, he decided.
Across the Church, a white and green banner read: "God has given us two hands, one to receive with and the other to give with." The local priest had lost his hand ten years ago in a tractor incident. He liked jokes like that. A couple of yards after the Church, a long narrow tunnel swallowed the road. The wind whooshed out of it and Dewey had to back up two steps not to be knocked over. The city council wanted to put up better lights but any works on the tunnel meant more accidents. Nobody wanted to be in there longer than necessary. Yet, it was the only access out of town and it ran a little over two kilometres long. Even happy-drivers found it claustrophobic. One sudden move of the wheel and you were gone. Officer Dewey saw his mother approaching. Her house was the last house before the tunnel. He sighed. It's something I should handle with gloves, he thought. He put gloves on.
“Are you coming to dinner?” his mother asked.
Every Christmas, Elena Willburn appeared to have two giving hands. The rest of the year, she was doing most of the taking. Dewey ate more than he could handle and sat by the window to rest. Mist and condensation appeared on the glass, blurring everything. His mother asked him if he wanted some eggnog, Dewey said no thank you. His mother asked him why he was still in uniform. Dewey agreed to some eggnog after all.
Everybody was here: His step-father, his sister, his brother-in-law and his five-month-old niece. But him? He didn't feel like he was here, not really. He was playing Trivial Pursuit but he wasn't, really. Some part of him was still outside, looking out for headlights, looking for a sign of life glowing from the tunnel. Nothing, a trivial pursuit. He was answering a geography question, got it wrong. At the same time, he was calling out a name in the dark, with nobody to answer it. He was popping a salmon toast in his mouth and he was in Andy's truck, kissing him.
“Didn't you mean to introduce us to someone?” Elena asked to snap him out of his state. She always noticed when he was dissociating. Dewey shrugged and went back inside his own head. She knew he meant to bring someone. But she asked and he felt confined, in an oven. He stared at the rest of the turkey and he sensed his insides being cooked and turned into stuffing. Big puffs of hot air invaded his lungs and he had the distinct impression a knife sliced right through him. The skin and the fat and the muscle and right into his heart. And they were all going to feed right off him. Even the five-month-old niece. They would grow strong on his weakness. His mother would feel like a mother again and his sister like a sister again.
“So is nobody coming?”
“The dice, mom,” Dewey said.
Elena gave him the dice. “Nobody’s coming, then.”
“I'll take green, art.”
“Green is science.”
“Yeah, khaki then, art and literature.”
“That's brown. Is nobody coming because there's nobody? Or because they don't want to come?”
Dewey waited for his sister to say something, but she just gazed at her feet in fascination while her husband changed the baby's diaper on the commode – among the nativity scene. The small ball of flesh knocked around the santons, the little saints made of clay. How could he compete against the saint family?
“Ask the question, mom.”
“I just did.”
“Wasn't art and literature.”
His mother glared at him, her brows stressed together, her lips pressed as one. She picked a card, discarded it, picked another.
“What's wrong with this card?” asked Dewey.
“Didn't like the question.”
“What was it?”
“I just didn't like it. Are you ready now? Who is the Greek Goddess of love?”
“Is that art? I asked for art.”
The brother-in-law came back with the baby and a cocky smile.
“Oh, come on D. That's an easy one.”
Dewey straightened. He knew of her, he knew her name began with A or something. Like Apollo, but it wasn't him, was it?
“I want the other question.”
“What other question?” said Elena.
Dewey pointed to the discarded card. Mrs Willburn made a “tsk” sound between her tongue and upper lip, a sound reeking of disdain. She'd tell him she'd love him and then she'd make those sounds.
“Just because you don't know–”
“I know the answer,” he said, though he didn't, “but I was meant to have that other card.”
“We're all meant for other things. Doesn't mean we get them.”
“Just say the name,” his sister said, at last, speaking. Against him.
“Mom can't just decide which questions to ask, it's a game, there are rules.”
A laugh exploded from his mother's chest, a short one, a strong one. “Now, there are rules? Since when do you care about rules? There are rules too, when your mother asks you if you bring someone for Christmas and you say yes, and she buys a bigger turkey and makes extra food and add an extra place–”
“But there's no one. And I made all that extra effort–”
“So you could humiliate me more. So you could rub it in my face.”
“Here we go again, demonizing me. Just remember, next time–”
And her voice kept going on and on in his head and again he felt as if he were roasting, as if skewered on a spit and turning and turning. A sly little memory came up to him like puke up his throat – a whisper, a Tuesday night. He was 14 and he was sleeping. His mother had a little bit of wine and little bit more. She opened the door of his room and sat on his bed. She sat like she would when he was smaller, to read a story, to wish him good night, to tuck him in tight. That night she came, she lowered her aging face against his ear. Her breath woke him up but he stayed still, his eyes shut. She whispered against his ear. Then she got up and left. And for another fourteen years, he'd hold that whisper against her without knowing exactly what he was holding. He dismissed it as a dream. But now, deep in his heart, even lower than his heart, deep in his intestine, in his bowel, in the most repugnant part of himself, he knew he it wasn't a dream.
“You're repulsive and brainless and nobody is ever, ever, going to love you.”
Last summer, Dewey and Captain Bacall got called in to the abandoned ski station. A hiker had found a teenager with two broken legs at the bottom of the cliff. He wasn't suicidal – he was actually afraid of heights. But for a second, this kid had just thought, “What if I jumped?”
A psychiatrist came on board and explained it was l'appel du vide. The call of the void. It was imagining yourself falling. It was driving too fast and seeing your wheel turning ever so slightly toward the roaring traffic. It was standing up during a reunion with people you despised and telling them how horrible they were. But you did none of that. You backed up off that cliff and you slowed down and you stayed silent at that dinner. But Elena, she took the leap. She went into her son's room at night and she whispered what she always wanted him to know. It was a seed that grew and grew and took more and more space. It'd bloom, take air, take and take. He could never tell her what he’d heard. She'd reply: “It's your own fears, talking to you. Poor little boy. Poor baby.” Oh, maybe she was right.
“… so don't tell me I never do anything for you.” Elena finished her tirade. She glanced around at her daughter and her son-in-law, her lips twisted in an amused smile. All Dewey's sister could say was: “You were really bringing someone? Oh. I thought–”
“Oh well, thanks, Catherine,” spluttered Dewey bitterly.
He knew what they all thought. That he was too late, that he was too old. Listening to his sister, his cheek caught fire and he saw himself as she saw him. As they all saw him: Someone for whom love was just not meant. This was a nice thought. It meant that it was beyond his control. But everybody seemed to know what had been denied him. Like those party people who shame the sober guests, telling them they're missing out by not drinking. What if alcohol didn't make him feel what they felt? What if Andy's short nails against his skin was the only way for him to lose control? He'd bottle up the sound of his laugh (like a car engine) and the curve of his broken nose (a mountain ridge), but couldn't bring it to any party. He could not mix his bottle with theirs, so he hid them away, these full-bodied whispers and balanced touches, and laid them to rest under a thin layer of dust. He felt he missed out on another part of him. Somebody else, somewhere, someone who was him when he was not. Sometime he had sneaky glances at who he could be. He'd say something particularly funny. He'd open doors for others instead of stumbling through them. He'd open the bottle and he'd make the toast.
Catherine wasn't in the wrong, assuming nobody would show. Their mother would have asked, “Are you bringing someone, Dewey?” like she asked every year. And, too proud to say “no”, knowing Elena would enjoy every syllable of it (one), Dewey would say, “Maybe.” And knowing it meant no but wanting to turn the knife in the wound, Elena would put out an extra plate on the day and ask every ten minutes when Dewey's date would be here. And he would finally say, “Nobody's coming,” and endure his mother's I-knew-it smile and her “Of course.” But he hadn't said, “Nobody's coming” just yet. Not this year.
“So who is that, that you're bringing?” asked Elena.
“What do you mean, 'that'?”
“Well, I don't know.”
Well, she knew. The worst was how softly, how beautifully she'd utter those words. Like a lullaby, like the fluff of a cloud, like the fragile belly of a newborn animal. Every word so brittle, you wouldn't think they'd cut. Every word so small, you wouldn't think you'd choke on them. You couldn't say, “Mom, stop hurting me.” How could violence be so gentle? How could it sound like this, and from a creature so helpless too? Her lazy eyelid fell half-away across her eyes, like an old curtain, and she peered out at the world under heavy wrinkles. Her eyes were blue like the heavy veins that spread along her hands, taking root. Her mouth was completely independent and sometimes one wondered if she had any feeling on her lips. She'd go a full day with crumbs on it. Had she any nerves left there? Did she feel anything when she kissed?
“I can't believe I spend Christmas with you every year,” said Dewey with a sigh.
“I'm your mother.”
She liked to remind him of that. I made you. When she said I made you, it usually meant I own you. I own you, and you owe me. That one little letter changed what could be a give-and-take to a take-and-take. She owned Christmas. She owned Saturday nights. Dinner at his mother on Saturday nights was a bit like Mass: It was a bad look if you didn't go. Then the next morning he'd go to Mass.
Yesterday, the priest mumbled his way through the Gospel of Matthew. Sitting two pews ahead, Andy was chewing on a toothpick and picking his nails. Dewey had never seen him here before. Nobody had. Do you know him? asked Elena with her eyes. I don't know him, he replied, with his lips. These words all at once created another reality, in which Andy's hands on his thighs were denied, and his words on his collarbones betrayed.
He went to confession because Elena urged him to and he invented some little sins to make the whole thing believable. He included the sin of lying, omitting that he was perpetrating it this very second. Father said all was forgiven. So really, he wasn't doing anything wrong. All was forgiven. Later, Elena had tried to bribe Dewey's confession out of poor Father Robert. But he stayed silent. He forgot all of it anyway.
‘“Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.’ Matthew 26:75.
“Are you in love?” Elena Willburn had such clear eyes and Dewey didn't know if she was born that way or if it was a shine that came with age. Cold eyes, like a fish fighting for breath on the deck.
He heard the calling then, like shivers down his spine. First, his legs started to get restless, then his right hand was reaching for his glass. He would stand up right now and drink a toast – to himself, to who he was, to a new life. A couple of words, that simple, and everything would change. No sooner had he cleared his throat than a plate of gingerbread cookies entered his peripheral vision, as his sister held them out for him to pass. Those happy little men smiled at him, their contours so well defined, their texture perfect. If one of them came out different, his mother would have snapped it in two. Dewey sat back down and passed the plate, realizing suddenly that he had in fact stood up. He’d got that far. Is survival such a cowardly thing?
“If Saint Peter didn't deny, he would never have created the Roman Church,” said Dewey at confession. The priest was half asleep by then.
“Well?” asked Elena.
“Forget it,” said Dewey. His mother's knees knocked against one another. The bones made a clock, like one ball hitting another in a game of pool.
“I'm your mother, I have a right to know.”
His hand clasped his other hand and he wanted nothing else than to ignore that comment, to ignore her, to pretend she never existed. But she was his mother. And that fact, that sentence, he'd hear it again and again. From her and from everybody else. When he was a child, every time he complained, his classmates would remind him, “But she's your mom” – as if they thought Dewey had forgotten. But of course, it wasn't formulated as a reminder. They meant: You owe her. And that bubbled up now, like champagne. Elena stood up, ready to get hot water for the tea.
“I don't owe you anything,” began Dewey. “You gave me life, yeah. Sure, you gave me life. But it's mine now, you gave it to me. You understand? It wasn’t yours to rent out. You didn't let me borrow it. You can't claim back my life just because you're not happy with what I do with it. Remember when I gave you that sweater for your forty-fifth birthday? And you added some real ugly embroidery, some kind of flowers, to it. Did I say anything? No, that's your bloody sweater now, what you do with it is your problem. I have no right to it. All this “I'm your mother, I have the right to do that, to say that, to know that”, no, you don't! You don't have any rights whatsoever. You gave it and I can tell you now: Thanks for the gift, mom, real cool. Now, you back off.”
And his mother looked down at him, then went into the kitchen. Maybe she cried; he couldn't hear. But in a single second he understood what his classmates had been talking about. He understood how hard it must have been to make other humans from her own flesh and to know those humans would grow to hate her. It must have been hard to see her swollen belly turn into a grown man – a grown man who stared at her and told her she couldn't have him. She couldn't have anything from him.
She came back with a teapot. And in her tears and in the shaking movement of her dropping lip, he realised how she suffered. Her life was never truly, utterly hers. When she was younger, it was during those years and decades and centuries when a woman's life belonged to the father. After the father, they were supposed to marry and belong to a husband. The expectation was that your life always needed a man in it, to rule it. And she's got a boy, and he's shutting her out, and like her father and her husband before him, he's telling her she's got no right. She had to feed him, educate him, make him safe, she had duties – but she had no right. A tremor seized Elena's hands. Dewey took the teapot from her. Her glassy eyes looked around in search of some sense, in search of where she was and what she was. From the bully to the victim, in such a short time.
“I didn't know you hated me so.”
Art & Literature: In Greek mythology, what enchantress kills her own sons to hurt her husband?
One decision and everything you ever knew ceases to exist.
Dewey drives through the tunnel that night. He has an urge. An uncanny attraction toward the wall of the tunnels. Everything that’s worrying him could go away. A jerking movement with the steering wheel and it’s all over. It could be so easy. The easiness dizzies him. His hands shake on the wheel. Sweat pearls on his shoulder and flies down his spine. Had he even asked him, really, about Christmas dinner? Was it humiliation he felt when nobody came or was it relief?
Once, he was skiing on a perfect day. He felt an overwhelming pleasure slicing open the white powder, soft and full, like icing sugar. When the sun went down, the evening so beautiful, Dewey decided to do one last descent. And despite having no light, he went off-piste. He got lost. Dewey decided to continue on foot. But between the fir trees, the snow was like quicksand and swallowed him up to the knees. Every step he made, the ground would suck him down. Drowned in sweat, Dewey managed to climb up to a safe area, where the snow was hard, nearly icy. He was found six hours later, close to hypothermia. When asked why he went off-piste at night, Dewey shrugged and replied that everything was too perfect, something like that was meant to happen. So he made it happen.
In the tunnel, the urge infests his whole body: shoulders tense, his foot too heavy on the pedal, his teeth digging into his lower lips. His damp fingers begin to slide. He holds his breath. He is going too fast. The wheel shakes hard between his hands. His hammering heart climbs its way up his throat. Then, the light. Dewey drives out of the tunnel and immediately stops on the side of the road, brakes on, snow flying around. He rests his head on the seat, dizzy, exhausted, relieved. He breathes again, sharply, greedy for every mouthful of air.
Maria Giron is a French writer who trained in different fields such as film analysis, research and creative writing. Her short movie "Soulmates" premiered at the Whistler Film Festival. Maria now works for an animation studio in Paris. Editors' note: This is Maria Giron's first published short story.