“Did you know that early astronomers thought there were oceans on the moon?” I asked, looking up from my book.
My mom shifted in her bed, a tangle of IV tubes shifting with her. “Of course. The moon seems like the perfect place to find an ocean.”
“What a shame we never found water then,” I said. “Because those false seas, astronomers called them ‘maria.’”
Mom smiled. “How sweet of them to name the moon oceans after me.”
“Well, they didn’t find any oceans,” I reminded her.
“Maybe they just didn’t look hard enough,” she replied, a little laugh slipping from her lips.
For all of the pain she was in, all of the fear she must feel, my mother always had the kind of laugh that could light a candle. We were in her hospital room, the same one we’d been in and out of for the last year and a half. Sometimes we had a roommate, sometimes we were alone. Always she held steady enough for both of us, the rock I tied my hope to, the wall against the grief I knew was coming.
Cancer is such a mundane word for something so hungry and cruel. I’ve noticed medicine does that a lot, covers horror with tedious language like a bed sheet over a body.
Malignant. Inoperable. Metastasized. Terminal.
But when she laughed...when she laughed we weren’t in the hospital anymore, we were home. When she laughed, she wasn’t sick, she was young again, and I was a kid, and the world was a bright place begging to be explored. What a miracle my mother was. Cancer had taken so much from her, aged and hurt her, but it could never steal her laugh. That was hers to keep.
“How are we feeling today?” the doctor asked. He came in less and less often. We could all sense this was the final stay in this room.
“Just brilliant, doc,” my mom said, struggling to sit a little higher. “We can still go dancing later if you’d like. Though we’ll have to ask for my son’s blessing. Ever since his dad died, Brian’s been very protective of me.”
I put on a stern face. “I’ll need to know your intentions are pure, Dr. Bradshaw.”
“As the driven snow,” he played along. “But I might need a raincheck on the dance, Ms. Willen. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
He emphasized his age, running his fingers through grey-white hair. My mom tapped her bare scalp.
“Right there with you, tiger,” she said.
Dr. Bradshaw smiled but I could tell he was burdened. I saw him glance at the small idol I’d placed on my mother’s nightstand. The talisman was a miniature oak tree carved from gray soapstone. There were four faces etched into the tree, a sentry against ill health and bitter spirits. I could tell the stone tree made the doctor uncomfortable. In all honesty, I had a tough time looking at the idol for more than a few seconds. The faces were each whittled in vivid expression. The face closest to my mother’s bed was smiling kindly and the face pointed towards the door was snarling, meant to ward away harm.
The final two faces were both weeping. All four shapes were too human, too raw. There was a weirdness to the stone tree that put people on edge but I’d grown used to every shade of weird you can imagine. My mother’s side of the family was full of stories of unexplained luck and mysterious tragedy, whispered secrets and unexplained deaths. By all accounts, my maternal grandmother was either an honest-to-goodness witch or full-bore, high-caliber crazy, or both. Probably both.
The stone tree was from a box of my grandmother’s things I’d found in the attic earlier that month. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but my mom did seem to get a bit better when I’d brought in the talisman, at least for a little while.
I was daydreaming about family history and the odd box while Dr. Bradshaw checked his charts and mom’s vitals.
“Can I talk to you for a moment?” he asked, ripping me back to reality. Dr. Bradshaw tried to keep a light tone but I could tell he didn’t have good news.
The hospital hallway smelled like ammonia and birthday cake. Someone must have had a party, maybe a patient, maybe a nurse. Strange how you remember the insignificant details while your world is crashing down around you.
“I’m so sorry,” Dr. Bradshaw told me. “The results came in this morning. It’s spreading aggressively. We...we held it back as long as we could, Brian. Your mom is a fighter. But right now we just need to, well, to try to keep her as comfortable as we can. Brian?”
The wall was cracking, grief waiting on the other side, heavy and cold as an empty house. I’d known for months that this was the most likely outcome but it still hurt to hear. Hurt worse than I could stomach.
“There’s nothing left to try?” I asked, fighting down the urge to throw up. “Anything, experimental, untested, anything?”
Dr. Bradshaw shook his head. “I’m sorry. Sometimes we just run out of options. She fought a good fight.”
“How long does she have left?” I asked, looking back into her room. She’d fallen asleep.
“Not long. Maybe days. Have you considered hospice?”
The smell of ammonia and birthday cake. The steady beep of mom’s heart monitor. I tried to focus on the world around me. My hope wasn’t dead yet. If medicine couldn’t help my mom, maybe something older could. I thought of the box of my grandmother’s things waiting in the attic. There was a lot in there I hadn’t gone through yet, books and candles and secrets and lost things. Maybe there was a cure or at least a way to keep the fight going.
“No,” I said. “If all that’s left is to make her comfortable, I want to take her home.”
The doctor smiled. “I understand. We can give you some medication, ways to help her with the pain.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Your mom’s been in a lot of pain but she’ll have peace, soon. You’ve done all you can.”
“I know,” I lied. “Thank you.”
Mom lived in a small ranch house ten miles outside of town. There wasn’t much in the way of neighbors besides some woods and a creek slithering through her yard. It was a windy, warm March afternoon when I took my dying mother home. That night I began my work. I was going to turn the house into a bunker, a maze Death could never solve. I would keep my mother safe, I would find a way to keep her alive.
The little red book was full of ideas. Running water was an obvious place to start. The creek behind the house was barely a trickle but it should provide some coverage to the south side of the property. Salt was next, lining the doorways and window frames, then in an unbroken circle around the entire house. This step was to be repeated daily, the red book stressed, or even multiple times per day. Even a moderate breeze played holy havoc with any salt poured outside so it was always best to trace and retrace every few hours. Water and salt were common defenses against man’s oldest enemy and well known. The book offered other, less conventional, advice.
It took me nearly a week to finish carving the symbols and signs into the walls, the floors, even the trees on the property. Sometime around noon on the third day, on my back in the crawlspace etching strange marks onto the underside of the floor, it struck me how ridiculous I was acting. There was no proof that any of the information in the little red book was anything other than the delusional ramblings of a bizarre woman I’d only met once or twice as a child. For all I knew, the runes meant to ward off Death were actually a grocery list written in Cantonese. But I was desperate, and every time I saw my mother she looked frailer, more fragile. So I continued carving and praying and building layers upon layers of protections to keep Death far away.
Making my marks took me all over the property. It was a big yard, nearly three acres that blended gradually into the surrounding forest. I wasn’t able to pinpoint the exact boundary where cultivated met nature, the edges simply bled together, but I did my best to create a clean border with lines between the symbols. I’d always loved the wildness here, the way you could wander a few hundred yards away from home and feel like you’d traveled hundreds of years into the past to somewhere primal. This was the perfect playground for a kid, whether I was out exploring trails or trapping minnows or spending the summer building yet another treehouse, convinced this would be the final one. It never was, I was never satisfied.
The house itself, though small, was more than enough room for my mother and me. Dad died when I was seven. I don’t remember much about him, just how big he seemed, with a bonfire grin and arms that I thought could hold the whole world. My mom often said I took after my father. I could see it in the old pictures of him, we had the same eyes, green as moss in the summer, and the same fiery shock of red hair, enemy to every comb on the planet. The sicker mom got the more often she called me by my father’s name. I worried when she drifted away like that but a part of me was proud she’d mistake me for him.
After all of the symbols were carved there were a few steps left in the book to deter Death from visiting. There were dozens of charms and talismans in the bottom of the old box in the attic. I sat up there combing through everything my grandmother left behind, referencing the red book, pushing the tiny charms into tidy piles. None of the idols were larger than my thumb. Some were iron and others were wood, some were heavy, others light. All of them were uncomfortable to look at or touch.
The attic was drafty but not nearly enough to explain the cold that burrowed into me as I sorted the charms. I’m not particularly tall but the attic felt like it was designed for dolls, beams so low I couldn’t even walk bent over. I moved around on my knees, rough floorboards threatening splinters even through my jeans. I could have taken the box downstairs where I’d have more room but the idea filled me with a deep unease. It seemed better to leave the box up in the attic, only taking down objects as I needed them. Up here, at least, my grandmother’s items, her legacy was...quarantined.
The red book was very specific about the distribution of the totems around the house and property. I walked carefully through my mom’s backyard, boots plopping in and out of mud, compass in hand. It had rained nearly every day since I’d taken my mom home from the hospital. I knew it was almost certainly a coincidence but couldn’t help wonder if the soft curtains of rain falling to the ground were for her. I placed charms in a compass rose with the house in the middle. The most disturbing objects were given places of honor at each cardinal direction.
Water, salt, wards, charms, all placed carefully, intentionally. My grandmother’s book promised that these would offer some degree of protection against the inevitability of Death. The symbols would confuse it, the talismans distract it, and the water and salt make barriers to slow it down. But Death might still find a crack to slip through, so the red book recommended one final trick.
There was a small candle in the bottom of the box, dirty white as stained paper. When I took the candle from its case the smell made me gag. Have you ever walked past a portable toilet in the dog days of summer? When it’s so hot, the blue plastic has started to warp and bubble? Imagine that smell distilled into a finger’s worth of wax. I brought the candle downstairs, placed it on the dining room table and set it alight.
The wick caught immediately, the flame burning an unusual red-brown. No heat came off of the candle and it actually seemed cooler the closer I moved my hand to the fire. Once the wax began to melt the smell was ten times worse than it was back in the attic. I choked down a greasy sickness crawling up my throat and quickly left the room, shutting the French doors as I went. That helped trap the odor but I couldn’t shake the sense of nausea. I went to check on my mother.
“Do you remember the day you ran away?” my mom asked, sitting in her bed, lunch untouched on the nightstand beside her.
I didn’t think she had any weight left to lose before she was nothing but bone and memory. Her skin was rice paper over a frame that seemed smaller every day. Her eyes, though, no matter how fragile the rest of her became, remained two little lanterns against the dark, blue and bright and alive.
“I didn’t make it very far,” I answered. “And I wasn’t really running away, only...stretching my legs.”
Mom smiled. “You told me you were leaving for the circus. You wanted to be either a lion tamer or a strongman or maybe a fire-eater.”
“I think I wanted to be all of that combined. Young me was big on multitasking.”
My mother turned so she was looking out the window into the yard. “I was so scared when I found your note, the one saying you were leaving. My hands were shaking like you wouldn’t believe when I called the sheriff and then Mr. Jonas down the way. It felt like we were searching for you for half the night, even though it couldn’t have been more than an hour before we found you there, lost in the woods, wandering around and shivering. You hadn’t even brought a jacket.”
I sat next to my mom on the bed. “Yeah, I didn’t exactly plan ahead for my circus escape. I remember...I remember getting over the idea real quick but I couldn’t find my way back. I’m glad you found me.”
“I’m glad, too,” my mother said and I noticed her wipe away a tear. “I’m so glad. That hour you were gone, Brian, that was the most afraid I’ve ever been. Afraid we wouldn’t find you, afraid you might be hurt or worse. I couldn’t hardly breathe through the fear. Then, suddenly, you were there and the relief nearly knocked me over. I think we stayed up together the rest of the night watching the stars. I wanted to make sure you could find the North Star in case you ever got lost again.”
She turned back to me, reached out her thin hand and placed it over mine. There were still tears in her eyes but she smiled her lighthouse smile and, for a moment, I saw her just as she used to be, just as she was the night I ran away and my mom found me.
I squeezed her hand. “I was scared, too. I was afraid I’d be stuck out there. What made you think of it?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about dying lately and-”
“Don’t,” I interrupted. “Don’t talk like that. You’re not going anywhere, not for a long time.”
“It’s okay,” she said, squeezing my hand back. “It’s okay. I’ve known real fear and what I’m feeling now...it’s not like that. I’m scared, I guess, but I’m at peace with it. I had such a beautiful life. I’m so glad I got to meet you, to be your mom.”
“I’m glad, too,” I whispered, voice breaking on the last word.
But I won’t let you go without a fight, I added silently in my mind.
Something was trying to get to my mom. The strangeness began the day after I lit the candle. At first it was small blips, tiny wrongs that I chalked up to my imagination. Doors I knew I’d closed at night were open in the morning. Food began to rot and spoil within days of me bringing it into the house. Eventually, food would go bad almost immediately. Every few hours the television in the living room would either turn off if it was running, or on if it was off.
Clocks would stop overnight, always at 3:03 am. Shadows began sticking to the corners of rooms independent of any light sources. The shadows were stubborn and they would linger for as long as I would stare, then disappear when I blinked. I began hearing bumps and knocks at all hours and sometimes, when I’d enter an empty room, I had a sharp, fleeting certainty that it was only just occupied.
I avoided the dining room except to check in twice a day to see if the candle was still burning. The smell was vicious and would claw its way into your throat and nostrils the moment it was given a chance. I kept the door to the room shut and kept air fresheners running in the surrounding rooms 24/7. The funny thing was, the candle never went out, never even seemed to shrink. I could see the wax melting but day-in and day-out the candle refused to change.
Days marched into weeks and the wrongness only grew deeper. My mom and I both lost sleep to vivid nightmares that we couldn’t remember when we woke up. Only the echoes remained but those were enough to leave my pulse sprinting until morning. I started sleeping in a chair in my mother’s room. I did this to comfort her if she woke up confused during the night but also because, if I’m being honest, I was too scared to sleep alone. I felt like a child running into his parents’ room, convinced there was a monster under the bed. Thing is...maybe there was.
By the third week I couldn’t keep doors closed. They would slam open the moment I left the room. A terrible scratching began inside of the walls. I told my mom it might be squirrels or mice but the sound was so insistent, not like rodents milling about, more like a dog wanting in. I stopped leaving the house for supplies; instead, I had what little food we ate delivered. I kept the curtains drawn. There was tapping on the glass every night.
About a month after leaving the hospital we were living like zombies. The dining room couldn’t contain the smell of the candle anymore. The entire house was clogged with the scent. Tiny noises had graduated into full-on laughs and screams and whispers in the rooms around us. Something kicked the bathroom door so hard while I was taking a shower that the hinges warped. I covered every mirror in the house. I’d started to see things in the corners looking back at me, half-hidden faces, shapes that skittered away as soon as I turned around. Mom was drifting further and further away. She had long moments of confusion where she’d forget my name, forget where we were. Sometimes, she’d think I was my dad. Other times, she’d just stare at the wall for hours, growing fainter and fainter each day like a Polaroid left in the sun.
But she was alive.
It was clear that we were under siege by something. My world shrank to only one room and every trip to the bathroom or to answer the door for food felt like going over the trenches. The noises kept getting worse and worse, the shadows closer, the sense of movement around the house sharper. Every now and then I would feel hot breath on the back of my neck or walk through a cold patch hanging in the air. I stopped bothering redrawing the lines of salt around the house. I knew, deep in my bones, that as long as the sickly candle burned, Death could not take my mom away.
On the thirty-third day after leaving the hospital, I woke with a start from a nightmare, only to find my mom’s bed empty. She hadn’t been able to walk the past week at all, so my first feeling was hope that she might be improving, at least a little. Then I noticed the odor we’d been living with for weeks was gone.
“Mom!” I shouted, running in bare feet out of the room.
I found her in the dining room, the door wide open. She was standing at the table, frail as a neglected scarecrow, bobbing back and forth. Her hands were hovering over the candle. The flame was out.
“Why did you do that?” I whispered. “Mom? Mom...are you okay?”
I padded into the room, the wooden floor freezing cold. My mother didn’t react to my presence, she just continued rocking side-to-side. I realized she was still asleep.
“Mom?” I gently shook her shoulder. “Wake up.”
Her head snapped back and she nearly fell. I caught her on the way down. It felt like she weighed nothing at all.
“What’s going on?” she asked, looking around the dark room. “Where…”
“You’re okay,” I told her. “You were sleepwalking.”
“I was having the most unusual dream,” mom mumbled. “There were so many stars and...”
She began to shiver uncontrollably. The cold hit me a moment later. I let out a gasp. The house was chilly before but the dining room was near-arctic. My breath bloomed into a thin cloud in front of my face. I became acutely aware of the complete silence filling the house.
Then I heard scratching. It was coming all throughout the house, deep tearing sounds at the walls around the dining room. Footsteps came immediately after, heavy and fast. Somewhere in the house a window shattered.
“Brian,” my mother said, holding onto me.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “everything will be-”
My voice deserted me as a massive shadow unfolded in the corner of the room. It was shaped like a man but tall, so very tall. And it was fast. Before I could yell the shadow was on us, pouring over my mother. In the space of a heartbeat, she was simply gone.
“No,” I whispered, clawing at the dissolving shadow where my mom used to be. “No, no, no, no, NO.”
The shadow was disappearing like a puddle sinking into the floor. There was a texture to it, oily and too slick to hold.
I thought of my mother the night she found me lost in the woods, the night I’d run away. Her face filled my memory, her lighthouse smile. I remembered the relief I felt when she found me, the overwhelming love. I held onto that feeling, clutching it close.
“You can’t have her,” I whispered.
I closed my fist around the last threads of the shadow. There was a terrible sensation of pulling. It was like I’d caught a horse by the tail and it was trying to shake me. But I held on.
A sense of ripping and being dragged. It was a riptide with a mind of its own. But I held on. It could not shake me.
The temperature was dropping every second and I felt my vision growing dark. The last thought that ran through my head before I blacked out was a promise to myself that even if I died, my grip would hold. I wouldn’t let my mother’s life slip away. All sounds and light faded, narrowing to a pinprick and then going black.
I woke up under a field of stars. I was lying in soft grass, still wearing my pajama bottoms and an old t-shirt. It was cool, wherever I was, but comfortably so. I stood up. There were trees all around me, tall and close, stitched together with shadows. Immediately to my right, there was a road that ran straight as far as I could see, blurring into the horizon. But the stars, they were like nothing I’d ever seen before.
Bright ribbons of northern lights rippled above me in green and blue and purple. Stars lit the sky like millions of lanterns floating on a still ocean. The moon shone sharpest of all, a spotlight hanging above the treeline, so close I thought I could stretch up and brush its face.
“You are persistent,” said a voice from the forest behind me.
I whipped around but couldn’t see anyone. Then a dark spot began to clarify against the gloom. The silhouette separated itself and moved towards me. I recognized it instantly as the shadow from the dining room. As it moved closer, the thing grew and grew until it touched the sky and filled my vision. A deep dread sank into me but I stood my ground.
“Give me back my mom,” I shouted.
The silhouette pulled away from the sky and then it was standing in front of me, the shape and size of a tall man. But instead of a shadow, the thing had wrapped itself in stars. Miniature constellations drifted across its body, floating slowly like a timelapse of a clear night sky. Burning brightest was the North Star, blue and warm. The space between the stars was absolute black, not a shadow but a complete absence of light. It was the most beautiful, terrifying thing I’d ever seen.
“What are you?” I whispered.
“You know,” it replied.
“Give her back,” I begged. “Please, give her back.”
“I can’t. It’s her time. Past her time. You delayed me. Delayed her.”
I clenched my fists. “She didn’t get enough time. I didn’t get enough time. It’s not right, it’s not fair.”
“Of course it’s not fair,” the starry thing said, “but it is right. You each have your time, and at the end of it, there’s me, and there is a road, and we walk it together.”
“Where to?” I asked. “Where are you taking her?”
“I don’t know. It’s not for me to know, only to know how to get there.”
“Then I won’t let you take her.” I planted myself in the road. The world was still and solemn around us. The constellations drifted like clouds and a soft breeze stirred the branches.
The starry thing didn’t respond for a moment.
“Your mother was kind and caring. Wherever she goes, she’ll have peace,” it promised.
The creature raised its hand. “Did you ever stop to think that death isn’t an enemy? Death simply is. It is the natural partner to life. It knows no prejudice or malice, has no designs or ambitions. Your mother spent so long suffering, felt so much pain. Instead of letting her rest, you took it upon yourself to draw her life beyond its given course. You kept her alive but at the cost of stretching her thin, prolonging her sickness, diluting her. Did you keep her alive for her benefit or for yours?”
I couldn’t answer.
“Stretching a life is unnatural, dangerous,” it told me. “In the weeks you kept me away you drew the attention of old things, hungry things, forces that would like nothing better than to swallow even the memory of your mother, to tear and bite until there was nothing left but pain and fear and a perfect emptiness.”
I shuddered remembering the clawing sounds, the shattered window, and the laughter from empty rooms.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Are they...can they hurt her here? Is she safe?”
The stars in the shadow burned brighter for a moment. “Your mother won’t walk her road alone. None of you do. I walk with you, always, to the end.”
“Can I see her?” I asked. “Please? Just, I...let me say goodbye.”
It considered for several seconds. “You are persistent.”
And then the starry thing was gone. I was standing alone on an empty road.
I turned to find my mother behind me on the road. She looked younger, healthier than I’d seen her in years. The frailty was gone and my mother seemed exactly as I remembered her when she found me in the woods all those years ago.
“Isn’t this the most beautiful dream?” she asked, staring up at the night sky.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “A beautiful dream. I love you, mom. I love you so much, so very much.”
She smiled and touched my cheek. “I love you, too. Don’t cry, it’s okay. I’ll wake up any time now. I’ll see you then.”
I nodded, wiping at tears. “Sure, yeah, I’ll see you then.”
“What do you think is at the end of the road?” she asked. “Do you think I’ll have time to find out before I wake up?”
I looked out at the road, scanning the trees for any hungry shadows. “I don’t know, I don’t know where it goes but...promise me you’ll be careful.”
My mom smiled wider. “Of course I’ll be careful.”
“And she won’t walk alone,” said a familiar voice behind us both.
I turned, expecting the starry thing. But the man standing on the road was entirely normal. The light from the moon was enough that I could see he had moss green eyes and a bright shock of red hair.
“Such a beautiful dream,” my mother said.
The man came towards us and took my mother’s hand. He and I looked so alike, I could see why my mother confused us when she was sick.
“Take care of her,” I told the man. “I…just please take care of her, make sure she gets where she’s going. There are, well, there are things out there that want her, to hurt her, it’s, it’s my fault, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry-”
The man squeezed my shoulder. “She’ll be safe, watched over. If the Devil himself is waiting on the road ahead he’ll move. Or he’ll be moved.”
I believed him.
Thoughts raced through my head. There were so many things I wanted to say, questions, a million ways to say goodbye. I wanted to stretch out the moment for as long as I could but I realized I’d already delayed my mother enough.
“I love you,” I told them both. “Goodbye.”
I woke up back in my dining room sitting at the table, the unlit candle in front of me. The house was quiet and still. There was no more scratching, no sound or sense of life at all. I walked through every room. The house was empty. I was alone.
I’ve spent the past couple months working on the house, erasing the marks I’d made, fixing up the property. Some nights I take long walks out into the forest. I’m far enough out in the country that on clear nights it’s like looking up at a sea of stars. I think about my parents the most during those walks, I grieve and remember in my own way. And I wonder where their road went, if they’re still traveling or if they reached their destination.
I hope that their road takes them strange and beautiful places. When I walk at night, I look up for the North Star to keep from getting lost. Maybe they do the same.
When it’s full, I also look up towards the moon. I wonder if my parents had a chance to visit, to search for hidden oceans. I like to think they did, that the moon has at least one Maria, the one I love most.