The old prodigal son story comes to mind as you drive back to your hometown, the buildings of your old complex rising up from the ground like stubborn weeds. You respect Jesus’ storytelling skills, but will have to rewrite a couple plot points for your story. Exchange the extravagant son for the one barely scraping by. The forgiving father for the estranged mother. The hypochondriac mother who finally got the terminal cancer she always wanted.
You’ll visit your old bully, the girl who got away, your mother. The trifecta of terrible. The bully shipped off to military school after his crew disbanded on drug charges, taking away your only shot at revenge. You find him on Facebook, American flag as profile picture, ask for a time and place. He replies within the hour: noon tomorrow, at his house. You clench your fist as you ring the doorbell. Tense up. The door opens and catches on his front wheel. You’re supposed to believe that this is the same person. His left leg ends at his shin. His left hand’s missing both ring finger and pinky, perpetually giving a peace sign. The place where his left ear once was is a whirl of scarred flesh. His nose is MIA, lips grafted from what you guess must be ass flesh. Gifts from Afghanistan. He looks up at you, expressionless, and it’s only when he passes his eyes over you that you realize his left eye doesn’t move. Will you have a beer? No you won’t. And he’s grabbing two, you’re about to protest, but then he guzzles them both, one after the other. And could you come in the kitchen? There’s a door that leads into the basement. He opens it. It could be an accident, he tells you. He looks you in the eye. Your knuckles whiten on the wheelchair’s handles. You exhale. You let go. Finish the rest of the six pack. Tell him it was nice to catch up. Leave.
Her door opens. No one’s there. You look down. The kid eyes you suspiciously, hides his trading card behind his back. You guess Pokémon. You tell him he doesn’t have to worry, that you’re not here to steal his card. Who are you? That’s a good question, but you don’t say that. You say nothing. And you look sad and happy and weird and how does he know you’re not a weirdo? And you are a weirdo, he’s correct, but so is his mom. That’s why you were friends. You’re a good weirdo. And when she comes to the door the kid says he doesn’t know who you are, but you’re an old friend. A good weirdo. He can go inside now, sweetie. The kid’s dad is at work, right? There won’t be any problems? The kid’s dad is out of the picture. Was out of the picture. For how long? Until now. You remember to breathe. From inside the house you hear the show’s theme song’s singer. He wants to be the very best, like no one ever was. And you didn’t think she’d keep it. Him. And why wouldn’t she? She’s been doing fine raising him on her own these past seven years. And that’s not what you meant. You would’ve stayed if you knew. And bullshit, you took your first chance and ran away. She didn’t get to run away. But you were accepted into your top pick. That’s not fair. You leaving wasn’t fair either. The wind blows. Fall leaves drop to the ground. Well, you might as well come in since you’re here. She’s making grilled cheese. When it’s done you tell her what you’ve done so far, what you still need to do. That you’ll come back, if that’s okay. And sure, that’s fine. See you later. Goodbye.
They keep little animal print paper cups next to the water cooler that only really shoots out half-melted ice chips. You fill two cups. Breathe like you’ve emerged from a great depth. Knock on her door, but she refuses to answer. You come in. She says she’s surprised you came, thought you’d just run away again. That you’ve gotten fat, even though you’ve lost weight. You hand her her ice chips, but she can’t lift her arm to feed herself. You shuffle some chips into her dry mouth, wait till she’s ready for more. You pass the time watching daytime TV, both of you silent, audible sighs answered by indifference. You tell her you naively thought it’d be different, that you’d both put aside your differences and reconcile in the end. She throws a phone at your head. She’s obstinate for as long as she can be, till she can tell she’s going away. She asks for ice chips. You give them to her. She tells you she… That she… She tolerates you. And you tolerate her too, Mom. You tolerate her too.
You make your way down to the water, you three, take off your shoes, dip your toes in. The water is cool and still. You take out the jar you brought with you. Open it and poke air holes in the lid. You hand it to your son, tell him to catch every lightning bug he can find. Both of you watch the way your son runs off, into the night, and you know that all of it, everything, is going to be all right.