Love And Death In The Time Of Monsters
We got Mom’s diagnosis the day the monster came ashore in New York.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. She’d been coughing for a while. The night before she’d spat up blood during dinner. She covered her mouth with a napkin, as if I wouldn’t notice. She kept saying she didn’t need a doctor, all the way to the hospital.
While they were examining her, I watched TV in the waiting room. New York, so many thousand miles away, was on fire. The whole city was aflame. They showed the same footage of the Museum of Modern Art smoking and collapsing, over and over. People were grabbing Picassos and de Chiricos off the walls and crashing through the glass into the streets, burnt flakes of Monet’s water lilies floating down around them.
Why did the monster have to pick that city? I grew up in Connecticut and I loved New York. It had all the best museums and restaurants. Had.
The creature was reptilian, though walking upright and dragging its tail, with three rows of plates along its back. Huge. Impossibly huge. A frantic commentator guessed it was eighty feet tall, but that seemed an underestimate.
As it toppled smokestacks and smashed through waste disposal plants, flames reflected in its unblinking, robot-like eyes. The eyes were fixed in its head, which swiveled like a turret, scanning for new targets. Flaming oils dribbled from the top of its head, cascading down the canyons ringing the jagged scales around its brow.
The reporter saw anger in the eyes, but to me the monster’s expression was methodical, almost mechanical and surgical, as if it were instinctively responding to stimuli, coldly dismantling the city which urinated and defecated into its personal ocean.
They took a lot of samples from my mom, but wouldn’t give us any final answers. They said they’d confirm or deny the preliminary results in a day or two and that we should go home. But the doctor’s eyes told us what his words would not.
When we were back at her house, I put my mom to bed.
“Am I going to die now?” she asked.
“No, no, you’re not,” I said.
“I know it’s the cancer, Bobby,” she said.
“You’re going to beat it.” I wanted to hold her the way she’d held me when I was little.
I called my wife Janie to tell her I’d be staying the night.
As mom slept, I watched the news. We shouldn’t have been surprised when the monster appeared, considering all the radionuclides and biochemicals that we’d been dumping in the water. Now they were blaming this thing for every ship that had disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle, and that lost squadron and the seaplane sent out to find it. The reporter said its fire breath was the cause of El Niño and global warming.
Next to the TV were Mom’s lighter and a pack of Marlboro Reds. Janie had been telling me for years I should make her quit. How could I do that? Some things you just can’t tell your mom. Like the fact that she can’t sing. Or that margarine isn’t really better for you than butter. Once I watched her finish one cigarette, but she didn’t have her lighter. So I was relieved when she was done. Then she took the dying cigarette and used it to light a fresh one. It was a clever use of fire, but I was horrified. I was six. I decided then I’d never smoke, years before my teachers lectured us on cancer. But the notebooks I brought to school smelled of tobacco.
The summer after college, I couldn’t find a job and had to move back home. One night she asked me to run to the store and get her cigarettes. I didn’t know what to do. They were poison, but she said she didn’t want to live alone, now that Dad was gone. She wanted to be with him. She smoked because of love.
Sometimes she’d yell at me — actually yell — for the stupidest things, like water spilled around the sink or hair left on the bathroom floor. But not when she was smoking. I’d be upstairs working on a project, and she’d call out my name in a singsong voice. I’d come down the stairs, and she’d take me out to the porch. We’d sit on the concrete and talk about life and dreams, all while she smoked and I tried not to gag. She was calm — not happy, but real, and we could talk about stuff that mattered. The best times we had were when she was smoking. So I bought her cigarettes to protect myself from her fits of rage when she was in withdrawal. Is that bad?
I took her smokes and her lighter and threw them in the dumpster that night.
I threw away a little plastic monster, too. He was green, with a plump yellow belly, a jolly Godzilla. A wind-up that shot sparks from his mouth as he walked. Mom had put him in my Christmas stocking years ago. He sat on the coffee table next to the magazines. Every week I’d find him moved, facing the wrong way after she’d cleaned up. She didn’t understand that he was a movie monster watching monster movies.
Fire-breathing lizards are cute when they’re a couple inches tall and made of plastic with badly-painted eyes. Not when they’re eighty feet tall and flattening your favorite city. I always thought the alveoli in your lungs were cool-looking. When they’re microscopic, not when the mass of cells is as big as a grapefruit.
They chop out pounds of my mom’s flesh.
She makes an unexpected joke about losing weight, but mostly she complains about the chemo. It’s worse than the disease. Throwing up, headaches, racing heartbeat. Did her hands used to shake like that?
The TV screen goes white for a moment as another missile explodes at the monster’s feet. He emerges unscathed from a cloud of smoke. Are the missiles leveling more buildings than the monster?
“Does the doctor have to kill me to get the tumor?” Mom asks.
“No, no, he doesn’t,” I say.
“Do I have a pained look on my face?” she asks, with a pained look on her face.
“No, no, you look fine,” I say. “You’re just going through a rough patch.”
“Do you believe in miracles?”
“Yes,” I say, but only for other people.
As I say this, the cancer’s already in her lymph system, using it like a highway to spread through her body.
They’re trying some new techniques, and the doctor’s hopeful. Combination therapy he calls it. I phone my mom every day from work to make sure she’s taken all her pills. She says she has, but sounds like she’s lying. I think she has trouble swallowing. She’s given up. The doctor says she has a chance at recovery if she makes it through chemo and takes all her pills, but he’s lying, too. Janie says we should move in with her. The hour and half drive from our house to hers is killing me, while I try to keep my job to pay her medical bills. Mom’s not sick enough to be in a hospital fulltime yet, but she shouldn’t be in that house alone. She says she can take care of herself, but that stubbornness is going to kill her.
They try everything. Cellular toxins. DNA replication inhibitors. Anti-sense nucleic acids. Artillery. Great bolts of lightning. Nothing stops him, it only makes the monster angrier. They try mutagens, teratogens, carcinogens, neurotoxins, hemotoxins, genotoxins — they think that toxins in the environment created the monster, and maybe toxins can kill it. Maybe two wrongs can make a right. They don’t, apparently. I worry about the residues left in the ground after the monster’s moved on.
He’s going up and down the eastern seaboard. Janie talks about flying out there to help, but she doesn’t want to get stomped on. Who would? A team of guys from work drive across the country to do whatever they can. They figure that patent annuities can still get paid in their absence. I want to go, but I have to stay to help my mom. That’s my fight.
Our co-workers save the Liberty Bell, but nobody tries to save the black neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Boston’s gone, too. Part burnt up, the rest contaminated. My grandparents used to live there, near Arlington. My grandma would give me Coke and cake, a dangerous cocktail for a hyperactive child. I used to sneak into my grandpa’s basement to look at his calligraphy and the books he’d written in Chinese, which I couldn’t read. That old house is gone now.
The monster’s in Jersey City now. Joke all you want about that state, but my god people are dying by the thousands.
Two hours after crawling out of the Hudson, the creature tilts his head, rivulets of water tumbling down his back. After two hours of walking among flames of his own making, the monster still carries in the nooks and crannies of his skin, pools of sea water, bigger than bathtubs.
I wonder if he can carry tuna or salmon with him on his rampages, then gently deposit them back in the ocean when he’s done.
Maybe if they can figure out a way to fill those water pockets with poison, so he can’t shake it off… but what do I know? I’m not a scientist.
Maybe those pools are the safest place to be, nestled in the hollows and pits in his own scaly skin where he can’t reach. I wonder what it would be like to be carried by the monster, swept away, giving myself over to destruction.
Over seven thousand have died in the last four months. The monster’s been ravaging the east coast for so long that people here in California don’t talk about it much anymore. Raleigh was wiped out a couple days ago, but nobody at work even mentioned it. I heard about it on the radio, but I didn’t believe it until I read it on the internet. It’s not real until it’s virtual.
Stanford’s in the Sweet Sixteen this year and Janie’s all excited about that. She says I need at least a little fun in my life or I will go insane, and that won’t help anybody. If we don’t go on with the rest of our lives, she says, then the monsters win. I guess.
My mom’s taken a turn for the worse. She hardly eats or sleeps anymore. I bought her some fresh veggies, but a couple days went by and she hadn’t eaten them and they started to smell bad.
She still won’t let us move in with her, but she doesn’t mind when we sleep on her sofa. We Rug Doctored the whole house, but it still smells like smoke and we can’t get out the yellow tinting everything. I gave her a new cell phone, but she never answers it and forgets to recharge it. Since she spends a lot of time in bed, Janie got her some new pillows, since hers are decades old, but she never took them out of the plastic.
“Am I going to die now?”
“No, no, you’re not.”
“Do I have a pained look on my face?”
“No, you look fine.”
“Do you believe in miracles?”
“Will you go and buy me cigarettes?”
“No.” But what does it really matter?
Between trying to save my mom and trying to save my job, I don’t have much time with Janie. Mostly we spend that time watching basketball. I never cared for it. It’s boring and stupid. Maybe people like watching tall muscular guys run back and forth and back and forth. Rhythmic like the tide. Maybe it’s soothing.
We watch the game together, but afterwards I can’t for the life of me tell you who won. Maybe it’s Stanford, because I remember Janie being all giddy. My world is happy when she smiles.
I am standing at my mom’s front door, and the wind brings horrid fumes. The air smells like burnt hair and pulverized concrete, and it sticks in my throat. Has the smoke and ash from the east coast actually circled the earth to reach us here in California?
Or is it just the normal pollution we breathe every day without noticing?
I push in the door, calling out, “I bought you some flowers!” and thinking, We’re all going to die.
“Why did you do that?” she screams. “This won’t make it all better!”
“They’re yellow roses,” I say. “Your favorite.”
“You’re just doing this to trick me into thinking you care. I can see right through you. You don’t really care about me. Nobody does! All you care about is your stupid job. That’s more important to you than I am.”
“No, it’s not,” I say, pulling moldy shriveled stems from a vase and putting in the roses. “Do you want some water? It’ll help clear out your system.”
“You never tell me I’m pretty.” Her face is twisted, wrung like a sponge of its tears. “I wish I’d never had you. I should have stuck with cats instead.”
“Would you like me to make you a sandwich?” I ask. “There’s some fresh roast beef.”
“Why do you bother coming here?” She pounds on the coffee table and a pile of magazines slide onto the floor. “You don’t love me! You’ve never loved me! You’re just pretending, trying to trick me! Get out! Get out! Go to your stupid job that you love more than me. No, I don’t want any water. The world is going to hell in a handbasket. What are you going to do about it?”
I sit down next to her and brush the back of her hand with my fingertips.
“Don’t you dare touch me!” She pushes me away. “Why did you bring me flowers? They’ll be dead in a couple days. But I’ll be dead before they will. Why do you bring me flowers that will die in a couple days?”
I don’t know why I exhaust myself driving one and a half hours to come here. Why I come here to listen to her cough for hours on end, first thing in the morning, late in the night. If I don’t come here, I don’t have to put up with her abuse. This is far worse than any nicotine-withdrawal tirade. Sigh. No good deed goes unpunished.
Janie asks why I put up with Mom’s abuse. I’m hoping that eventually I’ll do the right thing, or say the right thing, so she’ll finally say ‘Thank you.’ I don’t need fanfare, trumpets. All I really want is a small act of appreciation, some tiny tiny acknowledgment that I’ve done someone right once in my life.
I need to stop thinking about myself.
She is dying. My mother is dying. There is no more denying it. And this monstrous lashing out is only the first of the final death rattles.
“Honey, quick! Turn on the TV!” Janie’s voice calls over the cell phone.
“I’m at work,” I say. “I have a meeting in twenty, uh, fifteen minutes.”
“Oh,” she says, “I thought you were at your mom’s…. OK, then, click on Yahoo news!”
Through my glass door, I hear a cheer erupt down the hall.
“Here we see the science vessel Iverson Lord,” the reporter on my monitor says, “hauling up what appears to be a piece of the monster, possibly part of a scale.” Out of the choppy, greenish water, a shipboard crane is lifting a black mass sized like a Volkswagen. “Yes, that looks to me like one of the monster’s scales. And look! Another scale, bobbing in the water. Physical evidence, I think, that the monster’s been hit. But we have yet to confirm that it is dead.”
The crewmen on the ship are high-fiving each other through their white environmental suits.
How ironic that, on the day the monster dies, I hadn’t been thinking of it all day. Probably just staring into space.
“They nuked it!” Janie screams. “Fox News is declaring it dead! They had to wait until it was done with Atlanta and had moved back to sea. But it looks like they finally got it!”
Nukes? Was that necessary? Nobody else seems to be worried, but do we want to start down that path?
“Honey? Honey? Are you still there?” Janie asks.
I hear a rapping on the office door next to mine, followed by a brief, muffled conversation coming through the wall.
Misty, the excitable admin across the hall, raps twice on my door, then opens it and pokes her head in.
“Did you hear?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Why so glum? We’re breaking out champagne in the big conference room!”
“What about the meeting?”
“Oh, heck, I’m sure that’s cancelled.”
Her head disappears and I hear her rap on the next office.
“I’ll call your mom to let her know,” Janie says.
I put my head on my desk.
I’m glad innocent people won’t die anymore, but I can’t bring myself to celebrate. I didn’t fight, didn’t shoot any missiles or throw a Molotov cocktail between the monster’s toes. I am as responsible for the monster’s defeat as I am for Stanford’s victories. Which is to say, not at all. The war is over, and I missed it.
Then I think; if the monster and my mom’s cancer spring from the same well of evil, then caring for my mom was my part in the war against the monster. Maybe. Or am I just rationalizing my cowardice?
My phone rings again.
“Your mom didn’t answer!” Janie says.
“What?” I ask. “You tried her cell?”
“Of course I did,” Janie says. “No answer there, either.” She never leaves her house anymore, unless we take her.
“Maybe she’s in the yard, smoking,” I suggest.
“She can hear the phone from the yard.”
Holding the cell with my shoulder, I try calling Mom on my office line. No answer.
“OK, I’m coming to get you,” I say.
“All right,” Janie says. “I’ll call the police over there first.”
When we are still a few miles from Mom’s house, my cell rings. It’s the cops. They say that they’d found her sitting upright, in a chair next to the phone. It was ringing when they arrived. Her head was lolled to the side, but she was still breathing, still alive.
Once we get to the hospital, they make us sit in the waiting room. For hours. The TV is showing celebrations all around the world. Some people are looting, rioting. Others are firing guns into the air. I wonder how many will die when the bullets land. The monster is gone, but the death toll keeps rising.
The doctor finally comes in, with an undecipherable expression.
“Well… how is she?” Janie asks.
“We checked the levels of cancer proteins in her blood, did some preliminary scans, and I think we got it. I think we actually got it all.”
“You’re kidding!” Janie says. But the doctor doesn’t look happy.
“We’ve had to excise a lot of tissue over the last few months,” the doctor says. “There were also some adverse effects from the chemotherapy, permanent unfortunately, related to some of her other organs. Her stomach lining, her brain, her liver…”
“Her brain?” I ask.
“Yeah,” the doctor says. “She doesn’t seem to have any cranial nerve reflexes, or brain electrical activity. None at all, really. Some damage to normal tissue is an unfortunate but not uncommon side effect of whole-body irradiation. But her heart’s as strong as an ox. Should keep beating for a good long time.”
On the TV the President’s spokesman is gloating that the Administration has saved Texas, as yet untouched by either the monster or the weapons used against it. Meanwhile, most of Georgia and Florida will remain uninhabitable indefinitely.
The war is over. Did we win?
Minutes later, we are taken to see Mom. The nurse leads us in and then immediately walks out. My mom wears an oxygen mask and foam dribbles from her mouth. Why hadn’t anyone cleaned her up? I wave my hand in front of her face. No response. I move the mask and wipe her mouth. Still no response.
I can’t see her like this, not ever again.
I pull from my pants a crushed, sweat-coated box of Marlboro Reds. One end I have pounded against my palm, compacting them just as she liked. On the inside of the flip top I’d drawn a dozen hearts. I’d drawn on the flip tops before, elephants because she liked elephants. The lines were sometimes jiggly, because it was hard to reach in there, but she would tear off the tops and save them. I push the pack into her useless hand and close the fingers over it. Her fingers are still fat, though most of the rest of her is devastated and shriveled. As I cover her hand with a blanket so the nurse won’t see the cigarettes, Janie shoots me a disapproving look, but doesn’t say anything. Mom lies there, not moving, just a smudge, only a shadow of her remaining.
A flash of anger passes through me. She will never say thank you. I am disappointed in myself for wanting so much, but her abusive words will hurt for a very long time.
Still… If I had my life to live over, would I do it again? Without a doubt.
I kiss her on the forehead and whisper, “I love you, Mom. Goodbye.”
Then I turn to Janie and say, “Let’s go.”
“Are you sure?” she asks.
I have reached my limit. I have nothing left to give.
As we drive away, a special report comes on the radio that explosions are breaking out in coastal cities all around the world. Giant monsters are everywhere, huge jellyfish and octopi. What then, will we have to nuke those cities, too?
Janie turns off the radio.
Now I am crying again.
“Janie, we need to go back for Mom—” I start to say, when sour air drifts through the vents. I cough once, twice. As I go into spasms, Janie pulls the car over.
I can’t stop coughing, a shattering, deep cough that shakes the bone girders in my flesh and strips my throat.
“No,” Janie says. “Not for her.”
I sink into my seat, finally suppressing the hacking. My hands are speckled in blood.
“No, Bobby,” she says. “We need to go back for you.”
Before she makes an illegal U-turn, Janie unhooks her seatbelt and slides it away. She lunges over the gearshift and grabs me tight, cradling me in her arms as I had cradled my mother.
When Janie puts the car back into Drive, I slide forward, the seatbelt over my tummy. Like I did when Mom gave me rides. For the first time in months I can relax. It’s my turn now. I turn to Janie and say, “You’re welcome.”
“Nothing, never mind,” I say with a tearful smile, as she drives me through the night.
Frank Wu is an artist, animator and writer living near San Francisco. He has won three Hugo Awards for his art, which has appeared on various magazine and book covers. Last year, he unleashed upon an unsuspecting world his short animated film, ” The Tragical Historie of Guidolon the Giant Space Chicken.” His story in this issue of Abyss & Apex is his third piece of published fiction. He usually writes about really big things. Frank Wu.com
Story © 2007 Frank Wu. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish