After the first ring, Clint slams his fist against the clock radio. When the clatter persists, he groans and drags his pillow over his head. His tongue - swollen and heavy from the previous night's combination of Scotch and sex - sticks to the roof of his mouth making him gag. He throws the pillow and rolls over on his back. The phone continues to scream, causing the cracks in the ceiling to dance and skitter. He blinks and the lines become still.
Clint fumbles through a pile of empty fast food wrappers and condom boxes on his dresser until he finds his cell.
"What?" His throat burns like he's swallowed gravel.
"You awake?" His oldest brother: Abbot. His voice sounds distant, cross-country distant.
Abbot clears his throat, the way he always does before he tells a lie. "I forgot about the time difference."
Clint picks at a scab on his elbow.
Abbot sighs and the phone connection crackles. "Mom's in the hospital."
"So?" Clint yawns.
"So you're the closest. Go sit with her until Paul can get off work."
Clint throws the phone and closes his eyes. He can still hear Abbott shouting - a whining squeak, like a mouse in the wall. Compared to the pounding bass drum inside Clint's skull, his brother's voice is nothing.
April Winchester gave each of her six sons the name of a famous actor: Abbot, Jimmy, Paul, Milton, Marlon, Clint. Despite the painstaking time she took to pick each name and the obvious physical differences of each child - each egg fertilized with sperm from a different man - April could never keep her sons straight. When she wanted Milton in the kitchen to ask about the mud stains on the carpet she would call: "Abb ... Jim ... Pau ... !" before finally reaching the correct boy: "Milton!"
By the time Clint was born, April Winchester was just too old and too exhausted to run through an entire list of names. She started shouting "Boy!" whenever she needed something and whoever responded first was the son she'd been shouting for all along. Clint outran his brothers every time. Until the day she left him on the side of the road in the middle of the Redwood Forest. After that, Clint stopped showing up altogether.
April's boyfriend, Ray, planned the trip. Though not the biological father of any of the six boys, Ray seemed to think he could win their affections through long car rides and sixty-four ounce gas station Slurpees. Before they left San Bernardino, April gave each boy five dollars. Abbot called it the "be nice to Ray" bonus. Clint didn't think it was enough money.
The drive to the Redwoods took two days. When they reached the park, Clint felt a surge of possibility. The trees looked like infinity. If he climbed high enough he might find a giant living in the clouds waiting to grind his bones for bread. If he climbed even higher, he could disappear forever.
They stopped for a hike and played in a shallow stream. Clint and his brothers didn't fight. His mother smiled. Ray watched them all; his belt stayed snug and his hands stayed loose. The day had the potential for perfection, but even eight-year-old Clint knew good things never last. They were driving toward the campground when the porcelain of their China doll day splintered.
"Have you ever been inside a tree, boys?" Ray tipped his chin and stared into the rear view mirror.
All six boys shook their heads.
"Well, roll down the windows. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Ray pressed on the gas and the station wagon surged towards a goliath straddling the road. Between its legs someone had carved a hollow wound, a gap no bigger than a tour bus. Clint held his breath, certain they would crash, but the tree just yawned and swallowed them whole. Cold shadows cloaked their faces gray. No one spoke as they crawled through the tree's inner most secrets, following the dark path of the road out the other side.
As they moved back into the sun, Clint took a deep breath. His heart crashed against his chest and if his mother had been driving, he would have asked her to turn around and go through one more time. Instead, he just slouched down in his seat, trying not to touch his elbows against Marlon and Abbot, and closed his eyes. He imagined himself passing in and out of the tree over and over again. About the sixth time Clint had been through the tree, as Ray was nudging the station wagon up a steep hill, the engine stalled and shuddered to a stop. Ray cursed as he jerked the car into park. He turned the key. Silence. He struck his hand against the steering wheel and then turned the key a second time. Still nothing.
"Everybody out," he said.
The car filled with groans.
"Out now." Ray shoved his door open and stood scowling over his shoulder at the line of cars stacking up behind them.
One of the faceless drivers, also out to discover the perfect family road trip, pressed his horn, shredding the forest's holy silence. Ray flipped his middle finger and waved it over his head for several seconds before poking back into the car.
"Get the fuck out of this car," he said. "Before I drag your sorry asses out one by one."
Clint tried to keep his eyes closed, tried to remember the way the rings of the redwood circled and circled high above his head.
"You too, Clint." Ray yanked him out and placed him against the rear bumper between Abbot and Jimmy.
April sat in the driver's seat, nervously picking at the steering wheel cover.
"Ready?" Ray leaned his weight against the frame of the open door and hunched his shoulders to his ears. "One two three."
Clint squeezed his eyes shut and pushed with every muscle he knew how to control. His fingers pulsed. His legs quivered. Behind them, the honking grew louder and Clint thought they were cheering: "You're doing great!" "Push harder!" "You're almost there!" When the station wagon rolled forward, Clint fell to his hands and knees, left behind by the older and stronger. He lifted his head and watched his brothers push the car to the top of the hill toward a wide turn-out.
The cars behind him still honked. This time mocking.
He scrambled to his feet and jogged to the side of the road, brushing dirt and gravel from the small cuts in his knees and palms. The other cars sped past, kicking dust and bits of road into his face.
By the time Clint reached the station wagon, his mother was passing out baloney sandwiches. He stood next to her and sighed. When she looked down, she seemed surprised, unclear of who he was or where he'd come from.
"Oh, I'm sorry dear. I don't think we have enough sandwiches." She dipped back into the picnic basket. "No wait. Here we go."
She pieced together the heels of the bread loaf, a slimy wedge of meat and a wilted shred of lettuce. Clint took it and sat on a fallen log. He bit into the warm sandwich and tried not to cry.
After lunch, while Ray hovered and cursed over the engine, Clint followed a deer trail into the woods. He listened for the shouts of his brothers who were playing baseball with pinecones and sticks; as long as he could still hear them, he was close enough to run back when Ray was ready to leave.
The sun fell in patches. Clint picked up a small stick and slashed it through the air, warding off spiders and evil spirits alike. A brown lizard scuttled under a rock. As Clint knelt and reached his hand toward the creature, it zipped under a different rock and into a hole.
Clint leaned back against a tree and squinted into the canopy. This is how it must feel to be an only child. The peace. The quiet. No one calling you by the wrong name. Clint jerked up, frantic, and started to run. He strained to hear something, anything over the pounding of his feet and his jumping heart. Birds twittered. Leaves rustled. But he could no longer hear his brothers' shouts.
When he reached the road, he looked first right and then left. Nothing. He trotted up the hill hoping to see the station wagon just around the next corner, but the next corner came and went and the road stretched into oblivion. Clint stopped and bent with his hands against his knees. He gasped for breath and shivered. Forgotten.
Clint squints at the woman he calls "Mother," a woman whose body is nearly invisible under the crisp, white hospital sheets - a sack of bones and dust.
Her eyelids flicker and he can't tell if she's asleep or just ignoring him.
April groans and shifts, a deep frown creasing her already well-wrinkled skin. "Abbot is that you?" She lifts her hand and the IV stand teeters.
"It's Clint, Mom. Abbot's in New York."
She laughs and flutters her fingers near her mouth. "Of course he is. Silly me." She pats a space beside her. "Come sit next to me, Paul, dear. I haven't seen you in ages. How's your wife?"
Clint runs his fingers up the bridge of his nose and sighs. "I'm not married, Ma. And I'm not Paul."
She snorts and pulls the sheet closer to her chin. The stale echo of a soap opera drifts in through the open door. An old man rolls his walker by the room, a slow creep; he coughs and the air rattles.
"I'm dying." April sighs and her lips purse with a deep pain. "The doctors they haven't given me much time."
"The doctors say you have a bad case of gas." Clint picks at his fingernails.
April's eyes narrow and her cheeks flush. "Those quacks? They wouldn't know Death if he walked in and shook their hands."
"Mom " He is too hung over for an argument.
Clint slouches across the room and sinks into a chair. He only has to sit with her for a couple hours, until Paul drives in from Los Angeles. Maybe he'll get lucky. Maybe there'll be no traffic and Paul will show up on time. Clint glances at his watch. No chance. He lowers his head and closes his eyes. His mother clears her throat and then belches.
Above the frog and cricket songs, Clint heard Abbot calling his name. He stepped into the middle of the road and waved his hands, hoping Ray would see him in the headlights.
First, they crowded and covered him in kisses. Then the shouting started and his brothers slipped back into the car; Clint stayed beside April as Ray towered over her and screamed. Ray's hands crumpled to fists as April trembled. Clint looked toward the station wagon with longing, but then stepped forward between Ray and his mother. He lifted his chin and folded his trembling hands behind his back.
"She didn't do anything."
Ray stopped mid-shout and turned his fury toward Clint. "What do you know about it?"
"It was my fault. I wanted to see where the path went."
Ray looked at April and cocked his head, waiting for an explanation. Clint hung in the silence, hoping his mother would disagree - step in and say she was to blame - so he wouldn't have to feel the sting of Ray's belt.
She said nothing.
Ray cleared his throat and put his hand on Clint's shoulder. "Let's get to it, then. You know what happens to boys who disobey."
Clint turned his head toward April, but she was no longer behind him. The car door slammed as Ray loosened his belt.
With a grunt and a shuddering cough, April opens her eyes. "Oh good. You're here." She beckons to Clint. "Come closer. There isn't much time."
Unfolding himself from the chair, Clint goes to her. She clutches his hand and pulls him close. Her breath is hot and smells of anchovies. He wants to pull away, but she looks so frail and small.
She takes a long breath and closes her eyes. "Promise me something, Jim."
He starts to correct her, but then her eyes snap open and his words are choked by the intensity of her stare.
He nods and squeezes her hand. The bones pop; her skin feels like paper.
"Tell all the boys how much I love them." She gasps and turns away, clutching her free hand to her chest.
Clint should tell her again that she's fine. The doctors are going to release her this afternoon, but when she turns back he just nods in agreement. He wants to hear what she will say if she thinks it's the end.
"I've made so many mistakes. So many bad choices." She shakes her head. "But you boys were the best things I've ever done. And Jim...?" She coughs and turns her face to the window. "Tell Clint "
His heart jumps and he bends closer, not wanting to miss a breath.
"Tell Clint he's always been such a good boy. Such a very good boy." She pats his hand and sighs. "Tell him I never forgot that time he saved me. Remember? That time in the Redwoods? I would have stayed with Ray forever if little Clint hadn't been so brave." She closes her eyes and frowns. "A little boy should never have to be so brave." She winces and falls silent.
Clint hovers beside her, his hands trembling. He thinks she might be asleep but then her eyes snap open again, wide and panicked.
"Please, don't forget!"
"I won't, Ma. I'll tell him." He bends and kisses the top of her forehead.
"She really shouldn't live by herself anymore," the doctor is telling Clint when Paul arrives. "The older she gets, the more dangerous things will be for her. She needs help."
Paul shoulders his way into the doctor's sightline, offering his hand. "We'll make sure we find a good place. My brothers and I have already been looking into some nice homes in the area, but if you have any recommendations ..."
The doctor nods and makes some notes on April's chart.
"You can go now," Paul says under his breath to Clint.
"What homes?" Clint won't budge.
Paul rolls his eyes. "You wouldn't know them."
"What homes?" Clint asks again.
Paul sighs and, with an apologetic shrug, pulls Clint away from the doctor.
"If you must know, we're making arrangements with a very lovely retirement home in Westminster. They'll be able to care for her needs in a way none of us can." He squeezes Clint's arm. "Now go home. Sleep it off."
"No." Clint shakes off his brother's hand.
Paul raises his eyebrows and tugs his tie.
"You can't send her to one of those places."
"She can live with me." Clint steps back in surprise at his own words.
"Don't be ridiculous." Paul laughs, mocking and cruel. "What are you going to do? Put her on the couch? Let her clean up your puke? Lock her in the closet when you have girls over? No." He shakes his head, still laughing. "No. Definitely not."
"I'll rent a new apartment." Desperation burns in his throat. "I'll stop drinking. Get a job. I can take care of her. I promise."
Paul crosses his arms against his chest and squints hard at Clint. "Where's my brother?"
Clint stares at the white tile floor. He shrugs. Time clicks forward. Then Paul throws up his hands and sighs.
"Fine. You want to take care of the old beast? Fine. But first, clean yourself up." He brushes an invisible spec of dirt from Clint's shoulder.
Clint shoves Paul's arm and then straightens his t-shirt.
"But if you slip, even a little bit," Paul says. "If you so much as forget to buy toilet paper..." Paul squints at Clint, his eyes melting to slits of darkness.
"I get it." Clint steps around his brother and takes April's hand, wishing her skin was warmer.
Clint unlocks the door to his newly rented, two-bedroom apartment and guides April across the threshold.
"Well, it's certainly not what I'm used to, but it'll have to do. Now, go make us some tea." She grunts as she sinks into her rocking chair.
In the kitchen, Clint places the kettle on the stove. He is about to shout across the room to ask what tea she prefers, but April speaks first.
"Oh and Jim, dear? Do you have any cookies?"
Clint freezes, his hand hovering over the mug he was about to pull from the cupboard. He swallows and closes his eyes. Breathe deep. Try to keep from spinning into oblivion. He pictures the way she said his name: her lips pulled tight so her teeth showed, her cheeks pushed high as though she were smiling. When the room tilts back to level, he plucks the mug from the cupboard and sets it beside the stove.
"Chocolate or shortbread?" He shouts.
"Shortbread's fine, dear."
He places six cookies on the plate, three of each flavor, just in case, and carries them into the living room.
"You're a good boy, Jim," she says. "A good boy."
"I'm Clint, Ma. You're youngest son. Remember?"
Silence bulges between them. Then April shifts in her chair, reaching for her knitting bag.
"Of course, dear. I know that."
The kettle squeals. Clint yanks the pot from the stove, gripping the handle so tight the heat sears his palm. Above the sound of his own ragged breath, he hears the needles click together as April knots and knits, threads and ties - a constant ticking, like miniature tap dancers inside his skull. He understands then she will probably never say his name again; it is too late for her to remember much of anything anymore.
He pours the tea and calls to her: "Sugar, Ma? One spoon or two?"
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Valerie Geary. All rights reserved.