My mother was crazy. She was crazy in love with my dad long after he started ‘working late hours.’ She loved him even after his broccoli casserole was too cold, and he hit her for the first time, two years into their marriage.
There were times the biscuits were overdone; the ice cubes had not fully set and the sweet tea wasn’t chilled when he came home at random hours drunk. He choked on a chicken bone, and she stared into his face, a little void, a few seconds before saving him. She could have let him die.
I came as an afterthought.
I stared at the oatmeal hanging onto my mother’s chin. Mom. I started to say, annoyed. A reflex inside my arm swept the oatmeal into a napkin and placed the wad next to a bottle of Zestril, prescribed for her high blood pressure.
Seeing the bottle, I couldn’t remember if I’d given her one. It was like all the times I’d driven the hectic stretch of road between my work and her house, unsure, after I arrived or once the streetlights disappeared into my rearview, if I’d stopped at any red lights, unable to remember any green ones.
I looked at the antidepressant, Celexa, sitting next to the Zestril, as dazed as my mother, the reason I’d stopped at the pharmacy on the way over.
“Your doctor,” I said it as if my mother was going deaf and paused, searching for recognition in the lines of her forehead, “He prescribed them for your mood.” I had the antidepressant’s cap in my hand and was shaking one out. Her jaw slid open, and her tongue was flat, white. I stuck it on and asked, “Did I already give you your blood pressure medicine?”
She closed her mouth and made a slight sucking motion. I glanced at the bottle again and watched the napkin full of oatmeal disappear under the table. Her Shih Tzu, Hannah, was there eating the entire thing. Oh, well. I thought. Just this one time. It had happened other times too.
Mom kept sucking but never replied. Her eyes were lost marbles. She carried on that way every day after my dad died.
On the way home from her house that night, tired and struggling to see through the patches of low fog settling around my Jeep like a sinister cloud, speeding up and slowing down in frustrated intervals, I clipped an animal or what I assumed to be an animal.
I started to cry as sudden as the impact, a well of black water that had been rising inside of me, so hard I had to pull over. Outside I recognized the turn off point my dad referred to as Goatman Road and the dying dagger-shaped tree illuminated in my headlights. In my mirror I saw a tall mass stumble and disappear into the cornfield.
A person? “No, I saw fur,” I said out loud. A fur coat. It was late winter and though the days were warming up, the nights were still cold enough for a coat.
I got out and yelled, “Hello?” and hoped for no answer. I heard stumbling. Hooves? Yes. Hooves. I wasn’t certain, but I wanted to believe it was an animal.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I ran back to the car and tried to cry more but couldn’t.
“I hit something by Goatman Road last night.” I told my mother as I spooned a dumpling into her mouth the following evening. The bite was small and her chewing even smaller. She swallowed and opened her mouth again.
A few years ago she would have spoken in whispers about the legend of Goatman Road, how it was rumored there was a man who bred with goats that used to live at the end of the road, that there was more than just one Goatman and possibly even a goat-girl or two running loose in the fields.
She would’ve said it’s a bad omen or a curse, the Goatman’s ghost or spawn that I’d hit. She would have gone out and danced around my car with a bundle of burning herbs. I wished she would, but she sat borderline comatose.
“How is it?” I asked and looked back at the thick soup, scooped up a carrot, had it spit back, a contrived confetti spray across my face to celebrate my incompetence, some in my hair and on the floor. No carrots. Okay. It made me forget about the thing I’d hit and my fantasy of Mom coming back to life.
Hannah licked at splatters. You’ll be all orange tomorrow—I thought looking down at her, fishing out the rest of the baby carrots, letting them plop down onto the linoleum like Oompa Loompa fingers.
In the kitchen I tore a bag of instant pudding open, happy to steal a moment away from my mother. Trying to push aside the creeping thoughts of last night, I thought of all the times Mom made pudding for me as a kid, as a different mother, one that became a distant memory, a person I must have imagined or dreamed up.
I stirred the pudding with a wooden spoon, letting some spill out. I started to say something towards the doorway of the living room where my mother sat, a sea cucumber, about throwing the spoon out because of the bacteria breeding in its porous skin but didn’t because it would’ve made me feel more alone.
Once the pudding was thick enough, I used the spoon one last time, licked it and threw it end over end at the trashcan. It didn’t make it. The kettle whined, and as I poured its contents into mugs next to identical bowls, I remembered another thing, something funny, for the first time in six months, since my father had died, and my mother refused to speak or eat unless I was the one feeding her.
“Nancy,” I said, referring to my dad’s widow, setting the tray down on the coffee table. My mother looked at me for the first time in a week. “You’re going to like this.” I placed a dollop of dessert onto her tongue. “Not the chocolate pudding, Nancy…I was in high school, and it was Dad’s weekend.” I motioned towards the tea, “And Nancy had a cup of Earl Grey steeping on the end table. She went out to have a smoke while it cooled. Her cat, Sammy, came over to see what it was, realized he didn’t want it and turned to jump down, but before he did I saw a tapeworm fall from his butt into the tea. I got closer and watched it sink. Sammy left the room as Nancy came back in. She must have seen the look on my face because she demanded—What? I was going to tell her, but I could tell she was disgusted.”
The corners of my mother’s lips crawled up higher than they’d sat in a month and her eyes twisted green and yellow in the light. “Mom,” my eyelids grew like a camera lens on zoom, “She drank the entire thing and never said a word.” I saw my mother’s teeth start to form a smile for a second and heard her almost break the silence.
Driving home, I was regretting my decision, worried I should’ve turned back even though the fog from the night before had lifted; the quiet inside my Jeep and warmth of the heater was making me drowsy. I rolled down my window and the rush of air was unexpected and jarring. I kept it down as I drove along more somber and sober, grateful for the biting wind keeping me awake.
I noticed the crooked tree that on this night looked less like a dagger and more like a finger pointing, followed by a sense of dread. I drove on, subconsciously backing off the gas pedal in search of something my morbid curiosity couldn’t stop picking at, afraid I’d not only injured an innocent animal but killed one, when I saw a lump on the shoulder of the road. At least now I’d know if it was a deer or stray dog or worse, someone’s pet. The Goatman.
Getting closer I could make out sleek brown fur and thought it must be a poor deer. I got closer and was at a crawl on the shoulder of the road when I saw the human hair splayed out, blowing. Surely not. Then I saw a hand crossing over the white line, its fingertips and bright red nails resting in the road. In shock, not sure of anything, but certain I could not have hit a girl the night before, I turned around to go back to Mom.
Back in her driveway, I sat staring into the house. It was all dark except for a soft glow, a touch lamp by her chair stuck on its dimmest setting, one with a tarnished silver base and stem, a shade made of frosted glass plates which over time had become so grease stained no one could see the flowers underneath.
Years ago we’d seen it on display downtown where everything was half-off. The same day I found gold lipstick in the basement of the store. It became my most prized piece of makeup. I took it to a slumber party when I was ten and never saw it again. It reminded me of all the things I loved the most that were stolen from me.
I didn’t know why I was there. I knew I couldn’t go home. I was supposed to be her best baby, most obedient, caring, not killing.
I called first, knowing I wouldn’t get an answer. I wanted the ringing to send a crack up the wall, make the roof cave on one side so we could survey the damage and fix it. I could hear the telephone from outside, shrill—screaming, screaming, screaming—me losing count.
I used my spare key to get in, hoping she might just shoot me dead. I stood at her bedroom door knocking, could hear Hannah’s muffled barking, my mother shuffling, the old knob making a racket in her hand. She looked at me tired. She had not heard until now.
“I was drifting. I can’t drive. I’m going to sleep in my room.” I lied.
Mom reached, her hand oblong and unexpected from the crack. I drew back. She squeezed, and it was cold intending to be comfort.
Her spare room, dusty and gray, had not been mine in years. It wasn’t long after I’d laid in my old bed, stiff, my doubts surfaced; the thing on the road ran across the ceiling. Dark vines spread like arthritic hands. I watched the familiar shape of the oak tree outside. It was bigger, all-consuming after years of summer storms, being spared by lightning and Dad’s bullets and everything that could’ve killed it.
I didn’t make it until morning. If Mom was awake, she heard me saying, “I need to report a hit and run,” over the phone outside her room. I imagined as if stuck in a story, her listening for something beating loose inside one chamber of my heart, an ear pressed into the door that in the story was a floorboard. I saw myself slump as I said it.
I needed someone to blame, but there was no one.
As the police investigated my call, the road where the deer had been a girl, the road where she was running confused before I hit her, she had somehow vanished.
At sunrise I searched the shoulder of the road. The police were gone and probably wouldn’t be back; they said they get pranks like this out by Goatman Road all the time. Probably just kids messing around.
I got out and walked long stretches inside the cornfield next to where I was sure I saw her body, half-expecting to find blood and fur, some confirmation that it was a deer and not a girl. Afraid I’d find a shoe or earring, purse and ID. There was nothing there, not even a dead deer. It seemed unlikely to hit a girl on a semi-desolate expanse of road. Unless it was a prank gone wrong. Unless it was a goat-girl.
I looked at the fur still stuck in the grill of my Jeep and grabbed some out; I folded it inside a napkin to send to the forensics lab to prove it was synthetic or mink or cow, whatever they make real fur coats out of these days, so I could say—see, see, I told you, I’m bad. I deserve whatever I get. I’m not crazy. It’s from the girl I hit. I hit her, and I ran.
I called into work first a few days then indefinitely. I insisted they keep searching for the girl. Maybe an animal had drug her body away.
Restless, I thought about the kids in my homeroom, how I’d disappeared without warning, but I was in no shape to be teaching. I didn’t know if I could go back, feeling as though I was without conscience, disposable. I wouldn’t allow myself to go back. If they found a body it wouldn’t be a choice. I was relieved at the thought.
After a week passed, exasperated from conducting my own strenuous searches and no body to show for it, I took my fur sample to the police department. They said they’d—humor me—and ran a test. It came back inconclusive. I think they lied about it and threw my sample away to shut me up and close the case.
They asked if I’d had my vision tested, if I was on any prescription meds. I shook my matted head—no. They told me no new missing person report had been filed. They made me black tea and suggested a psychologist; it was the most mothering I’d gotten my whole life.
“I try not to feel the exhaustion and emptiness, pretend it’s not there or that it’s normal, but I’m not okay. I’m tired, and I’ve been tired, and now I’m certain I killed that girl. No one believes me.” And what about the legend. What about the Goatman? I wouldn’t mention it. My psychologist was a great listener. In our sessions I realized that psychologists are just people you pay to care about you.
It all rose up over time as I continued on with my appointments, and I would do something unacceptable and feel confused by the setbacks. My lack of control scared me. Feelings were a foreign language; they came as nightmares climbing from the well of my esophagus like a cough, spilling into the air.
I’d lay long under the bent tree limbs floating over the ceiling like a projection and try to listen in my room where it all started, and soon I stopped looking for the phantom girl. She was lost and forgotten in the cornfield because nobody cared to find her, and I had failed. Nothing would be left of her but eventually bones. The Goatman carried his daughter away to rest, to bury the legend. Nothing would ever be the same.
In the daylight I did normal things; I cooked and cleaned. I fed Mom. I grew resentful and didn’t know what to call it or why, so I asked my psychologist; I witnessed deadly nightshade sprouting up like veins, violet-blue and violent, buds that never should have come at a time so cold, afterthoughts, swallowing the house.
I stared at the wooden spoon on the floor next to the trashcan covered in brown for days, angry that I’d be the one to clean up the mess and it’d be there waiting until I did. It all seemed juvenile and shameful. I didn’t know what to do with myself; I didn’t want to feel anything. I had to practice presence and sitting with myself. I organized the silverware and plates and cups. I watched shadows to feel less afraid and worthless. I let the sadness twist within me; I identified it coming up. I stopped caring if Mom ever spoke again. I knew it wasn’t my responsibility.
“When Dad’s liver failed, I was relieved, because I didn’t want him to override any more good memories.” I said, setting a plate of eggs and bacon before my mother. “I’m not feeding you today, not your medicine either.”
I looked back for signs of life before I walked towards the door and said, “I killed someone.” There was none, so I started to say—Nancy—to jolt her, but I knew it was mean like I knew the plate would be untouched except for what Hannah could curl her tongue around, and my mother wouldn’t stop her. The certainty of it all was reassuring.
The silence, deafening at times, became bearable. The shadows in the spare room told me what I needed, the same way a cobweb tells you it needs to be wiped. I never knew what I needed before because no one ever asked me. I didn’t know how I thought I was supposed to go on that way forever like people do, like ghosts.
3 thoughts on “VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Kaci Skiles Laws”
This is EXCELLENT work. Really very good. Emotional and dark and just hit the spot.
Thank you so much for reading and your sweet comment! I appreciate it.
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Totally pulled me in. I thought about it for quite some time later.
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