Inspired by my late friend Roman.
♦ ♦ ♦
The northern lights blare like quiet warning signals overhead: translucent sheets of neon green and magenta glass, shifting and purling, sharp and glimmering. Beyond the northern lights: a dark sky humming low. Below it all: Alex, his sister, his two brothers, and his mother, driving. Alex and his siblings share the backseat of the truck, stifling giggles as their mother attempts to sing along with the radio. Her voice is awkward and trumpet-like, but in this rare and brief moment of humanity, nobody minds. As far as they’re concerned, her singing is an awful lot better than her screaming.
Finally, they reach their destination: an open, snow-covered field lined by pine forests. They climb out of the truck and balance precariously on the snow, careful not to disturb its delicate surface. Quite like how they moved lightly around their mother, careful not to disturb her, lest she unleash her boundless wrath against them. The last time Alex had upset his mother, she asked him to get something from the trunk, then backed up, knocking him to the ground. Nearly ran him right over.
Of course, as Alex had learned from many similar incidents, nothing he did or said could prevent her wrath — only trigger it. Even when he is on his best behavior, she might find a reason to strangle him, digging her long fingernails into the nape of his neck, pressing the insides of her thumbs against his larynx. Alex could never quite figure out how to stop making his mom become the predator. How to stop being her prey.
During his freshman year of high school, Alex will discover the word psychopath. He will happen upon a book about serial killers in his school library, flip open to a random page, and there he will find the passage. He will feel an unfortunate sense of familiarity in the definition. He will huddle over the book as if protecting a treasure. This book will be the only entity in the world to believe what his mother had done to them. It will be the closest thing to sane he will ever feel.
Right now, she is barking at his brother David for forgetting his gloves at home, swearing she will kill him if he ever does something that stupid again. Her prematurely grey hair sticks to her thin dry lips as the words exit her mouth. Even David, the tallest and oldest of the siblings, with a natural air of calmness about his deep-set eyes, fears his mother’s rage. David shoves his hands deep into the pockets of his coat, but not before his mother’s hand comes down on the side of his head. Jennifer, small and young and the most afraid of all, whimpers and steps backwards into the bulkiness of Sam’s coat, knowing this only provides her with the illusion of safety, but it is comforting nonetheless.
Alex does not want to be yelled at, so he tugs his red knit cap further down, until it nearly covers his eyes. Then as he readjusts, he sees something, something from the edge of the forest, barreling towards them.
— he screams before he knows why he is screaming, runs before he knows why he is running. The snow is uncooperative, creating suction around his boots. But a strength that he has never felt before propels him forward. A strength he will later wish he had when his mother is beating him.
Years from now, following his first encounter with the word psychopath, Alex will discover other synonyms for mother. Narcissist. Sociopath. Sadist. Borderline. Cult leader. Though none of them describe her completely, all of them hold a piece of the puzzle, all of them bring him closer to understanding who she is and why she cannot love them as a mother should. He will trek to the bookstore any time he has a free moment, desperate to understand how his mother had become the cruel, wayward thing that she is. He will empty his pockets just for the chance to feel validated; he will load piles of books into his arms — Toxic Parents, Take Back Your Life, A Child Called It; he would trudge home with this knowledge that had so long been kept just out of reach. This will be his nourishment.
His brothers, ever athletic, are quick to follow suit. Sam grabs Jennifer’s hand and pulls her along, knowing she is too small to keep up with them. Their mother is the last to react. The snow crunches and crackles under the weight of them. All five of them, colorful blobs of marshmallowy fabric and scarves and hats, clumsy and stumbling, all five of them run from the wolf.
Alex is the first to make it to the truck. The truck that his mother had once used to try to end his life. He hoists himself up into the open trunk, then turns to grab David’s forearms and pulls him up too. Moments later, Sam and Jennifer swing their heels onto the tailgate and come crashing down into David and Alex. They consider yelling run, faster, mom, hurry. Instead, they huddle into each other and watch the wolf hunt their mother. She is slight and old and her mouth is open in horror but no sound comes. Alex finds himself smiling, lips tight against the cold.
The wolf’s sturdy paws pummel the snow and ice with little effort. His eyes never waver, focused keenly on Alex’s mother, closing in fast, with a glow so forceful the northern lights cannot compete. He is ferocity embodied. He is obsidian, he is the slickness of an oil spill and the volatility of hardening lava, rage boiling beneath his coat, he is murder, he is starving. Alex cannot see it from where he is, but there is foam at the wolf’s snarling lips. Rabies: a neurotropic virus that attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms include confusion and unprovoked violence.
When Alex finally has his own place, a place that he will buy with his own money, no longer dependent on the toxic stream of his mother’s existence to survive, he will sit at his kitchen table one day, drinking sugar water in carefully calculated sips, afflicted with none other than viral gastroenteritis: a stomach virus. He will ponder the purpose of a virus. He will turn the thought over and over in his mind, thinking of his mother, he will always think of his mother, even when something has nothing to do with her, she will find her way back into his awareness, an infection encroaching on his territory. But this time, she will be relevant. Virus. Mother. Virus. Mother.
As his mother makes her final strides and hurls herself into the driver’s seat, slamming the gas pedal without closing the door, Alex bites back an expression of disappointment.
About six months after that revelation in the kitchen, viruses will still be on Alex’s mind. He will head to the local library to learn more about them. Something in him is getting closer, closer to an understanding of the relationship he and his siblings had with this humanoid woman they called “mom.” It will be then that Alex realizes: viruses simply are what they are. They exist to destroy. They know nothing else.
They speed away from the night, from the snow, from the wolf, who continues to chase them though he cannot keep up. Eventually, the mass of blackness and fury is nothing but a grunting speck on their horizon.
Once they reach their own driveway, their mother unleashes her rage once again. The predator is back, and she is not pleased. You almost let me die! she shouts, glaring at them in the rearview mirror. I should kill all of you!
Throughout his life, Alex will be told time and again, by well-meaning friends who had only ever seen the good side of his mother, the singing side, the smiling side, the almost-normal side, forgive her. But at the word “forgive,” the wolf will spring forth in his mind. No one asks wolves to apologize for killing, he will think, chewing his lips in frustration. They are only acting according to their nature. How, then, could they ask him to forgive a virus? Is it possible? Will that be the cure?
Speechless in the face of their mother’s wild rage, they file silently into the house. She barks orders at them: take off your clothes, get out the dry rice, pour it on the floor, kneel! As they undress, shivering and humiliated, gritting their teeth at the thought of the blisters they will have the next morning, they think the same thought: as they had watched their mother run from that wolf, so close to being ripped to shreds right in front of them, they had found themselves wishing she had stumbled and fallen. Something about the wolf had awakened their anger — the anger they suppress for the sake of surviving in this house. They had found themselves hoping that tonight would be the night the killer got killed.
Alex will eventually discover that this particular virus can not be cured, nor can it be forgiven.