This story is by E.C. Haskell and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Call me …
Kind of a let down, huh? Maude versus Ishmael. No contest there. No way.
Doesn’t really matter though. Our stories have similarities enough. Besides, I like Melville.
But hush. Tiffany is coming. Her stilettos racket across the Italian marble of the hall. Clickity clack, clickity clack. Enough to drive you mad. Even worse is the perfume that proceeds her, arriving like a fart suffused with syrup.
Now she rounds the corner to my sitting room. Her smile oozes into place.
“Oh, Mother Maude! You really should have slept in on such a gloomy day.” She aims for my window, one manicured hand reaching for the open casement.
“Leave it.” My tone is sharp but I keep my eyes on my newspaper. (Yeah, really. The kind made of wood pulp. Remember that?) But Tiffany likes to get her own way.
“It’s freezing out there! Surely you can’t want an open window.”
“I like this weather,” I say. “And don’t call me Shirley.”
Another woman might have laughed at that hoary joke. Not Tiffany.
She turns, her almond-colored eyes assessing me. “Are you doing poorly? You look a bit … well … peaked.”
Don’t you wish.
I don’t say that, of course. Instead I raise my head. Slowly. Slowly. I am the great tortoise of all Mother Maudes. Arriving at my target, I focus my eyes – a golden green that men once swooned over, now ensnared in a web of wrinkles – on her.
She’s close to me. Her face bearing in with black eyeliner expertly applied and mascara thick as tar on her lashes. But she’s smiling, smiling, her incisors two jagged white tips at the edge of scarlet lips.
Odd I should notice all this. Of course I am looking right at her. But my attention – my longing, if you will – is on the ephemeral things around her. I’m waiting, waiting for that odd shift of light, a faint white shimmering amid the smell of approaching death. My smell.
“Well.” Tiffany seats herself in the chair next to me, her manner brisk. “Your lawyer will be here soon. As we discussed.”
Now that gets my attention.
“Lawyer? What lawyer?”
“You don’t remember?” She gives me that look. The pity mixed with revulsion that I’ve come to know so well. “You sat right next to him last Sunday at brunch. Tim Reardon. Dark hair, glasses. He’s very good looking.”
“I don’t care if he’s Adonis. Why is he coming here?”
“Well.” She smiles and conjures up a blush. Even I must admit, Tiffany does that blushing bit very well. “You know, your estate. We need to decide –”
“It’s my estate, Tiffany. No ‘we’ about it.” I raise one hand as she opens her mouth. “My will is settled. If I have anything more to talk about, it will be with Forrest Chambers.”
“But Forrest Chambers is in his mid-seventies!”
“Well … isn’t there, like, a mandatory retirement for lawyers past seventy?”
That makes me cackle. “Good heavens, Tiffany. When was the last time you looked at the Supreme Court? Or Congress, God help us all. Mid-seventy is a perfectly fine age.”
“My estate. My lawyer. I will not meet with Mr. Reardon. Today or any other time.”
Tiffany expels a long breath. She’s not happy about this. In fact, she’s angry. Angry enough to have forgotten her smile, her lips now pressed together in a hard, thin line. For a moment, I pity her. She’s really quite lovely but she’s not going to age well. Her disposition will see to that.
I wait for her next sally. That’s another thing about Tiffany. She doesn’t give up. I knew that the first time I saw her, a little Ragdoll cat of a thing finding excuses to sit or stand or even just breathe next to Ralph. Poor Ralph. My pitiful excuse for a stepson didn’t stand a chance. And now she’s focused on me. Or rather on my money.
Tiffany’s eyes narrow. A frisson of fear slithers up my spine. For a moment I fear I’ll pass out. No! I won’t have it. Instead, I force my thoughts back to the room and the things I wormed out of Henry. Very smart man, my Henry. He was a physicist with a side interest in neurology. Of course I didn’t understand a word of the physics except to know that Henry subscribed to something he called the multiverse theory of reality. But when Henry began to meld his physics with his neurology –
Well, that caught my attention.
I can still see him, so many years ago, on a snowy December morning. He’d worked all night and he was excited, elated really and, I think, a little bit scared. He sat across from me at the breakfast table, his eyes shining. Bread crumbs sprinkled his sweater vest and a touch of marmalade clung to his upper lip.
“I can do it, Maude!” he said. “I can shape reality.”
I must have looked skeptical because he swept his plate to one side and launched into a pure Henry-esque tirade.
“I’m not saying it’s easy, for God’s sake. It takes concentration, and belief, and determination. And practice, years and years of practice, I’m sure of that. I myself have been working on this for more than five months and it was only last night that I succeeded in affecting a very small thing. A fly, in fact. It was, um, a bit messy. Which reminds me. Keep the cleaners out of my lab for a few days.” He sighed. But then the fever caught again and he leaned across the table. “Given time and will power and practice, practice, practice, it’s possible to sense and even see the waves of reality. And then mold them to your own desire.”
I choked a bit on my tea and, trying to make sense of this, said, “You mean like gurus who convince people to believe in all kinds of weird things?”
“Crude, very crude, but on a superficial level you’re quite right. Politicians do it too, spinning their own reality, drawing folks into it. But what I’m talking about is so much more. It’s a way of seeing and understanding the construct of reality so that you can shape it into what you want. It takes enormous focus and knowledge of the underpinnings of our world but really Maude, with enough practice even you could do it.”
That “even you” pissed me off but I was interested. Interested enough to badger Henry about it every chance I got. Of course, all this was … oh, nearly a quarter of a century ago. Then Henry went and short-circuited some gizmo in his lab. Blew it right into a big black hole and himself along with it. But by then I’d learned enough to know what I needed. I waited until after his funeral, of course. Did my mourning and then packed my black veil and dress away and began to practice. Concentrating for hours at a time on this bending of reality, this understanding that would give me control over –
I look at her. She’s smart, this girl. And determined. Strong. While I …. Sick as I am, I’m not sure that this is battle I can win. But I certainly plan to try. I keep my eyes pointed in her direction while I study the air around her. The atmosphere, the whole of reality that flows through the room, my ancient loveseat and chairs, bright in their new chintz coverings, the mahogany breakfront bulging with orange pill bottles, the picture of Henry and –
There! Right there, the tiniest wisp of a wave, shimmering. I stare at it. I focus so hard I’m afraid my breath will stop. Still, I will it. With every fiber of my being until –
“Mo …,” Tiffany croaks.
I turn to her. Watch as her lips writhe. Scarlet snakes deforming her face. She slumps in her chair. The blood vessels in her eyes pop like tiny firecrackers. Bits of greenish bile streak her cheeks which are …. Oh, God, melting. I can smell it. She tries to push herself up from her chair but one of her arms is too weak, the other grotesquely swollen.
The cry I hear is my own. Surprise. And fear. For this …. This is not what I planned. Only that she be gone. Disappeared. Not turned into a living – or, more likely, dying – freak show.
“She said she needed a break.” That’s what I’d planned tell Ralph. But now –
The room grows dimmer. Colder. And oozing black. A black so deep that it devours everything in its wake. Still I hear her breath gurgling. A fountain of bile and blood. But I see nothing. Feel nothing. There is …