I found my feet crossing the street, heading up the driveway, passing through the garage doorway, and I opened the door to the mudroom to the smells of straw and dust and bitter orange, the smells of home. I almost turned around, returned to the car, waited for day. I hadn't seen my mother in more than a year: I couldn't afford the trip home, and, for the first time since I'd left, she hadn't offered to pay. Instead, though, I came in as silently as I could, hoping to have a few good hours of sleep before awakening her. I placed my shoes beside her white nursing clogs, and went through the mudroom, then the kitchen.
But although I had expected Vi to be sleeping, she was sitting at the kitchen table with the Freeman's Journal spread before her, her profile reflected in the great plate glass door that looked out over the two-acre lawn, the lake, the hills. She must have had a night shift, because her feet were in an enamel bowl filled with hot water, her eyes closed, her face hanging above her tea as if she were trying to steam her features off. They were slipping that way, anyhow: at forty-six, my mother had the worn, pouchy skin of a woman who had done far too many drugs at far too young an age. Her shoulders were slumped, and the zipper in the back of her skirt was open, revealing a swatch of red cotton underwear and a muffin-top of flesh above it.
From my position in the kitchen door, my mother looked old. If I weren't already holding the pieces together with both squeezed hands, this sight would have broken my heart.
I must have moved or swallowed, because Vi turned her head and looked at me. Her eyes narrowed, she blinked and heaved a sigh, and passed a hand over her face. "Goddamn flashbacks," she muttered.
She looked at me again, her forehead creasing. "No. You're not a flashback, Willie. Are you?"
"Not this time. Apparently," I said, coming over to her and kissing her on the part in her hair. She smelled antiseptic from the hospital, but, deeper, there was her own smell, something birdlike, like warm and dusty wings. She squeezed my hand, flushing.
"You look horrible. What in the world are you doing home?" she said.
"Oh boy." I sighed, and had to look away, at the thinning curls of fog on the lake. When I looked back, the smile had fallen off her face.
"What. The heck. Are you. Doing home?" she said, again, still squeezing, but harder with each word until the bones in my hand were crushing one another.
"Jesus," I gasped.
"Well," she said, "if you're in trouble, you'd better be praying." It was only then that I saw the crude cross of raw iron that hung heavily between her breasts, as if my mother had gone to the Farmers' Museum up the road and blacksmithed her own crucifix out of two hobnails. I nudged the cross with my free hand and frowned.
"Vi?" I said. "Oh don't tell me you've become a Jesus freak. You're a hippie, for God's sake. Remember? Organized religion equals bad?"
She released my hand, and tugged the cross away. "That," she said, "is none of your business." For a long moment, though, Vi couldn't look at me.
"Vi," I said, "be serious. What's going on?"
My mother sighed and said, "People change, Willie."
"You don't," I said.
"You should be glad I do," she said. She dropped her eyes, not yet remembering that I was standing there in her house when I should have been under the twenty-four-hour dazzle of an Alaskan tundra. I should have been blowing lichen off definitive proof that human culture existed there over thirty-five thousand years ago, some incisor embedded deep in the ground, some tool still glistening with seal grease, intact from the deep freezer of the steppe. I should have been under the aegis of Dr. Primus Dwyer, PhD, Delano Professor in the Sciences at Stanford University, where in a few short months I was supposed to finish my PhD dissertation, and graduate, heading toward a life of impossible luminescence.
Excerpted from The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff. Copyright (c) 2008 Lauren Groff. All rights reserved. Published by Voice, an imprint of Hyperion.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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