This story is by Brenda Thom and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The press had named her Nightshade. They had called her ruthless, bloodthirsty, the personification of evil. They called her the worst female serial killer in history.
John just called her Mom.
His mom lived her life on a personal crusade, killing 32 men over 30 years. Her first victim was her abusive father, who had killed her mother and laughed when his 15-year-old daughter walked in. She preferred to poison her victims, and wrote the letter “N” in neat script on their foreheads in memory of her mother, Nancy.
A decade into her killing spree, she had borne a son. She named him Johnny after his father, who was never a part of his life. “You got his name and his flat feet,” his mom told him once, “and that’s all you need from him.”
John sighed. The woman lying in the bed only vaguely resembled his mom. He had always been in awe of her, feeling fear and love in equal measure. Now he only felt sad.
He absently wiped away a trickle of drool running from the corner of her mouth, knowing she would hate to wake up and find it there. She railed at old age on her lucid days, and there was no way of knowing which today would be until she awakened.
The garage door opened and closed, soft footsteps coming down the hall to the bedroom. Shanna had been out doing the weekly grocery shopping, since she was the only one who could walk around town without attracting attention. John hadn’t been out in public in years. Not since an enterprising reporter had snapped a picture of him with his mom and made the family connection. Notoriety was a bitch.
“Hi babe, how’s Mama?” Shanna leaned against the windowsill next to his chair.
“Not awake yet. Letting me drink my coffee in peace.”
In the bed, the famous Nightshade snored softly, showing no signs of waking. After a few minutes, Shanna straightened and squeezed John’s shoulder before heading to the door.
“I’ll make us breakfast. Come out in ten minutes.”
Ten minutes later, as John was sitting down to a steaming bowl of scrambled eggs, he blurted, “I want a normal life! I want to go grocery shopping with you or visit a damn bookstore!”
Shanna regarded him across the table without comment. She spooned salsa onto her eggs, then onto his. Followed this up with some chopped cilantro, still not speaking.
Her silence unnerved him. Feeling on the verge of saying something else, something that might cause a rift between them, John pushed his chair back and went outside. He wanted fresh air, and to watch the birds. He wanted to be a bird, flying, free. Free as a bird! He sat down on the porch, letting his mind wander.
As a child, he hadn’t felt the distance between himself and everyone else. His mom homeschooled him and she was very attentive. He came to understand as an adult that this was her way of making up for the father he lacked.
They moved often, from one little pissant town in the middle of nowhere to another, never staying over six months in one place. Often they left when a news story broke about a man being poisoned in his home, his office, or on his boat. Mom loved men with boats. They often lived next to a lake.
By 18 years of age, John realized he was unbearably lonely. His mom provided parental affection and conversation when she wasn’t stalking a target, but he wanted friends, schoolmates, maybe a girlfriend. More and more he felt like a beloved pet in a cage. He started thinking of making his escape, going to a city where he could meet people, get a job.
John decided he would leave when he was 21. Then came the diagnosis, made by a small-town doc in a town that was not even a speck on most maps: early onset Alzheimer’s. It progressed quickly, and John became her caretaker. His mom could cook simple things on good days, but those were farther and farther apart. On the other days, the dark days, she would either cry all day or scream at him and throw things. Sometimes she didn’t recognize him.
He took her to the grocery store with him when she was having a good day. That ended when the reporter took their picture. One quick flash changed his world forever.
They packed and left quickly, heading west. After they settled in Colorado, John only left the house after dark, and had their groceries delivered. He took a job doing transcription online and worked ceaselessly to make enough money to make ends meet. His life was an endless cycle of typing and taking care of his mom. The Alzheimer’s stole John’s sole companion, and the loneliness gradually consumed him.
Shanna changed everything. She knocked on his door, fixed her deep blue eyes on him and told him he needed to donate money to fund dementia research. The connection was instantaneous and strong. She returned the next day, and the next, and on the fourth day John introduced her to his mom. His mom was having a lucid day, and the two women became fast friends over lunch. Before Shanna left, she kissed John on the cheek. Two days later, she kissed him on the mouth. After that, John felt confident enough to tell Shanna his secret. She didn’t even flinch. They became inseparable, and when John felt they should move on, Shanna went with them.
Having Shanna around made life better, but John still couldn’t go out in public as someone might recognize him. His world had shrunk to the size of the house they were living in.
The sound of a vehicle approaching the house brought John out of his reverie. He ducked back inside to find that Shanna had cleared away the remains of breakfast and his mom had gotten up. She was having a good day, and the two women were talking and laughing at the dining table. John joined them after pouring another cup of coffee and tried to make small talk, but his mind was still running in circles.
His mom tired easily, and by the time John finished his coffee she was ready to go lay down. Shanna took her back to her room, then joined John in the living room.
“Okay, what’s bothering you?” she said, sitting next to him on the couch.
“I think we need to turn Mama in,” John said. “They wouldn’t put her in prison, right? She’s out of her mind most of the time. They would put her in a facility and nurses would take care of her.”
“You want to turn your mother in to the police?”
“No, no, I don’t want to, but I love you and want a life with you.” John was looking at the floor, avoiding Shanna’s steady gaze. “If we didn’t need to hide her, you and I could move one last time, to a place where no one knows us. We could start a family, get a dog, have a life. Please. I need this.”
Shanna got up and left the room, returning a few minutes later with two folded newspapers tucked under her arm. She dropped one onto the coffee table and sat down. John couldn’t take his eyes off her face. Her eyes had changed. They were bluer and colder, mesmerizing him.
“Maybe it’s time to get something out in the open. I didn’t come by your house by accident, looking for donations. I did my research, I knew who you were, and who your mother was. You asked me once how I could stay with you, being on the run all the time, knowing what your mother had done. Truth is, I’m a big fan. She did what some women only dream of doing. She was evening the score, ya know?”
She tapped the newspaper. The feature on the front page boasted a photo of John and his mom outside the grocery store. The headline read “Nightshade’s Son?” The reporter’s name was Robert Sandoval.
“My brother,” Shanna said.
John stared. “We wondered how a reporter found us, we were so careful.”
Shanna dropped the second newspaper. This one had a headline that shouted “Has Nightshade Returned?”. The photo showed a business executive in downtown Denver, discovered dead in his office. He had been poisoned; a scripted “N” was on his forehead.
“Wait… what? You did this?”
Shanna smiled. “Guess we won’t be turning your mother in after all, my love. And you’ll never be free.”