The road buzzed beneath the sedan, creating a hypnotic hum that lulled them into a peaceful calm. A calm before the storm. Both were surprisingly cool and collected en route to the impending shit show. Maybe it would be something interesting this time. Maybe something more substantial than a split tea bag, or a vomiting cat. Maybe something more realistic than invasion of communists, aliens, or ghosts from the past. Old people troubles sucked, mostly for those tending to them.
Alec and Beth hadn’t said anything to each other so far on this tedious journey, knowing full well that there would be ample need for small talk once they arrived at their destination. No need to waste their breath and brain power before it was absolutely necessary. As much as they loved their mother, it was difficult to be an audience to her declining mental state. A woman who was once spry and sharp, was now mostly sullen and dim at best. Always seeming to be waiting for something. And angry. So angry. Who wouldn’t be, I suppose, with the end in sight?
As they turned onto the dusty farm road, Alec turned to Beth who was piloting the car. He looked at her and his chest swelled with adoration and pride. She sure had her shit together, he thought to himself. She was half a decade his junior, but years ahead of him. After a highly successful academic career, she now boasted the role of senior advisor to the senator of their state, a man who would more than likely be elected to run the country in a few years’ time. She had no interest in being in the political spotlight as a headliner, but reveled in dominating the puppet strings that made the monkey dance.
Alec hadn’t done too badly for himself, either, though not as high profile a success as his sister. He always had a penchant for numbers, and discovered his calling as an accountant for a large petroleum firm. Not a prestigious or powerful position, but it paid richly. Alec enjoyed the boom of the oil and gas industry, and the immense paycheck that went along with it. Working in crude, but keeping his hands clean was how he liked to fly. It afforded him a luxurious abode, a showy ride, and all the toys that wealth could buy. Most of all he could take pride in the fact that his family reaped the benefits of his financial prosperity. He set Beth up in a nice house of her own, leaving her free to play the game of politics without finances overshadowing her motivations.
As for his mother, she wasn’t in want of anything despite the fact she wouldn’t accept much from Alec or Beth. Ava had grown up with three siblings in a quaint bungalow set on sprawling farmland in Oklahoma. The family had been there for generations, growing crops and raising animals to keep the family going. Their parents died young, leaving Ava to tend to her younger three siblings. The four of them managed to keep the farm going, and lived and bred there until the younger generations had all moved on and joined the human race in more urbanized centers. Ava outlived all of her siblings and her spouse, and was determined to live out the remainder of her days at the old homestead, regardless of how isolated she was. Alec’s income made it possible for her to stay put and enjoy the comfort of her familiar lifestyle. He hired workers to take care of the farmland, and they got to enjoy most of the spoils of their labor. They sold the crops and animals for their own profit, less a few goods for Ava to live on. It gave her great joy to consume what had come from her land.
Unfortunately Ava’s mental acuity had been waning the last few years. Alec and Beth were quite often getting calls from the workers reporting troubling behavior that was impeding their work, the functionality of the farm, or endangering Ava’s health. Alec and Beth would have to drive out and speak with Ava, who consistently got defensive and angry, not acknowledging that she had engaged in the reported behaviors, or perhaps realized she had and was privately mortified. Alec and Beth often considered that Ava’s time at the farm may be limited, given that she would likely need a more intensive level of care to accommodate her deteriorating mental health. The thought of broaching this subject with her was enough to make them want to gouge out their own eyes. But one step at a time. Deal with the concern at hand.
“So what do you suppose caused it this time?” Beth said, breaching the stagnant silence that had hung like a stink in the car for most of the drive. “Chad said she wouldn’t let them near the barn to get their equipment. Big standoff with a pitchfork or some bullshit like that.”
“You know we can’t keep this up, Beth.”
“You want to put her in a home? Building a whole life being an independent and strong woman, only to relinquish full control to strangers. Breaks my heart.” Beth welled up, and shook her head. “Ain’t happening, bro. Not yet. I’d rather wait until her last marble is gone. At least she wouldn’t remember the life she was leaving behind.”
Silence enveloped the car again. Beth knew that Alec was right, she just didn’t want him to be. She wasn’t sure what was worse. Having things change and be worse, or having them stay the same and become disastrous. The wait and see attitude might result in an irreversible catastrophe that would make them wish they had acted sooner. No correct answers here. Damn the human condition. Damn aging.
Beth slowed the car and turned up the driveway to Ava’s farm. Everything looked neat and tidy despite the staff being blocked from their weekly yard maintenance. The fields were lush and full of tall wheat crops, and a small herd of cattle could be seen loitering off in the distance. The crunching of the tires on the loose gravel signaled their approach, triggering a frenzied clucking chorale from the chicken coop to the side of the house. All seemed right on the farm. All, that is, except the raving woman pacing to and fro in front of the barn doors, brandishing a pitchfork, clad in nothing more than a sheet wrapped up like a toga.
Beth rolled the sedan to a slow halt, and turned off the ignition. She and Alec stared out the windshield for a moment, hoping that the sight of their mother prancing around like a Greek warrior would disperse into the wind and simply blow away. It did not. She continued pacing back and forth, yelling towards the scattered workers who were milling about trying to work without the use of their tools. Alec sighed, and stepped out of the car. Beth closed her eyes for a moment, then followed suit. Here we go, she thought to herself.
“Mom, what are you doing?” Alec asked, walking towards Ava, who was still pacing in front of the barn. The sound of his voice startled her, and her head snapped in his direction. She looked angry and terrified, hands shaking and chest heaving as she felt the effects of her boisterous rage. Beth put her hand on Alec’s shoulder, a reminder to be more gentle and understanding. As much as this was frustrating for them, it must be devastating for their mom. At the mercy of a mind turned to a foreign enemy. Beth stepped forward.
“Mom, it’s Beth. We just came for a visit. How about we go sit and have some tea out back?”
“But those fuckers are trying to soil my things. The farm’s things! They belong here, I worked for them. They don’t belong in the hands of these useless swine. How will I keep the farm up and running if my damn equipment is spoiled by these low-lifes?”
“I know mom,” Beth said. “How about Alec takes a look around to make sure everything’s in its place, and we’ll go have a chat.”
Ava looked from Beth to Alec, and back to Beth. Reluctantly, she lowered the pitchfork and poked it into the ground, leaning into it like a crutch.
“Of course, dear. Alec can throw some money at it. That should take care of it.”
Beth fired Alec a look to tell him to keep any retorts to himself. Ava walked past the two of them, sheet toga flowing regally behind her, pitchfork bracing the ground like a scepter.
“Let me freshen up first. I am afraid my attire is unsuitable for afternoon tea on the porch, especially with all these offensive men lurking about.”
Once Ava had disappeared inside the farmhouse, Alec began the task of diffusing the angry mob of yard workers who were, once again, refusing to work in such hostile conditions. Beth went to the kitchen to prepare a tea for the three of them to sip on while they were discussing aging and lunacy. Beth marveled at the kitchen, which was as clean as a whistle, and thought to herself, “Hey, at least this woman can keep the place clean. She’s obviously eating, AND cleaning up after herself. Not so bad, right”?
Beth began searching through the cupboards for the tea. Not only was there no tea, there wasn’t much else either. A collection of condiment packages that were left over from take away Beth or Alec had brought for dinner last week, food that Ava wouldn’t touch. There were a few scattered canned goods, which Beth recognized as ones she had bought for her mother months ago. Opening the fridge she found a sealed gallon of spoiled milk, some moldy cheese, and a shriveled clamshell of berries, also of Beth’s purchasing. Not so bad turned to moderately troubling in a flash. Searching through cupboards full of spotless, barely used dishes, Beth dug out an old pitcher and filled it with water. There was no ice in the trays, so cool tap water would have to suffice. Placing the pitcher and three glasses on a tray, she shook her head at the empty kitchen and headed outdoors to the patio.
Placing the tray down on the patio table, Beth wandered over to the edge of the deck and stared out at the expansive farmland before her. Tall, wispy wheat crops blanketed the land, blowing rhythmically in the wind. The sun gently warmed her face, and she felt herself begin to sway in time with the crops. So peaceful. Despite what had been going on, she always felt so serene on the farm. The patio door slid open, jarring her from her brief solace. It was Alec, rubbing his head and furrowing his brow, a look that signaled he was at his wit’s end.
“How bad?” she asked.
“Not good. They’re threatening to quit. Again.”
“But they never do.”
“Okay, Beth, but when they do, we’re fucked. Small community like this? No one will ever take us on as customers again. This place will go to shit. Then what? You wanna do all the maintenance around here?”
Beth was about to launch her rebuttal when Ava floated out the door and took her place in the old rocker at the edge of the patio. Sitting down, she gazed out over the swaying fields and rocked in tempo just as Beth had swayed.
“You kids fighting again? Ungrateful bastards.”
Beth and Alec looked at each other, then pulled chairs up on either side of the rocker. The three of them sat facing out to the fields. Might make confrontation easier, only having to look the crops in the eye.
“Mom, we’re a little tense,” Beth began.
“Not with each other,” Alec said. “Well, with each other, yes. But not because of each other. We’re worried about you, ma.”
Ava kept rocking, staring out into the fields. A stray hair blew out of her loose bun, tickling her nose and lips, but she didn’t move a muscle. Both Beth and Alec could feel the tension radiating from her.
“I remember when you two were small. Very small, and very naïve. So sweet when you were young ones, stumbling through life with innocent smiles on your sticky faces. You are still naive, in every way, but it’s not so sweet and innocent now. You Beth, and your false sense of importance. And you, Alec, and your money. A waste. A complete and utter waste.”
“Mom, don’t turn this around-”Alec began.
“Mom, do you know why we are worried?” Beth interrupted, before Alec could launch into a tirade. “I saw your kitchen. Are you even eating? And the yard people. Mom, we will lose them if you keep fighting them. Everyone is just here to help you.”
“To help me?” Ava scoffed, now turning her head and looking at Beth with fire in her eyes. “Here to help me to my grave, you all are! Trying to expose me, to stop my work!”
“No one is doing anything to you, ma,” Alec said. “The yard needs maintenance. Those men come to do that. If you keep being combative with them, they will quit coming. Is that what you want? Who will keep the farm up?”
“I will,” Ava shot back. “My family and I. This is our land, our creation, and we will grow it forever. And it will span the world one day, no thanks to you assholes!”
Beth and Alec sat confused for a moment, then Alec looked over Ava, and straight at Beth. He didn’t need to speak to send his message across. It was time. Beth put her head in her hands, and released a wavering sigh.
“Mom,” Beth breathed into her hands. “What in God’s name are you talking about?”
“You, sir, are a pompous prick,” Ava growled, pointing a boney finger towards Alec. “Oil will be the ruin of this planet, and you are feeding the beast. Suckling at it’s teat to satiate all of your superficial, materialistic pleasures. That’s not how I raised you! That isn’t what our clan is about! I never had much hope for you, anyways. You were always the weaker one. That’s why we made Beth.”
Ava reached over and lifted Beth’s face in her hands. Beth looked into her mother’s deep green eyes, and saw a lifetime of experience glowing back at her. More than that, somehow. Ava held Beth’s face tenderly in one hand, stroking her hair with the other.
“You, my child. My sweet, strong girl. I saw amazing things in you. Strides and milestones for our kind, all seeded in the fruit of your labor and your loins. You’d make it to the top, and take a man between your legs who could hoist you above that ceiling. Bear a child born of our blood and man’s power!” Ava pushed Beth’s face away, and sat back in her rocker. “But no, you wouldn’t do that. Liked the taste of carpet too much. Carpet and failure. You’re a total fuck-up too.”
Beth glowered at her mother. “I know my lifestyle is difficult for you to accept, mom. But I love my wife. We have a child, your granddaughter. A beautiful little girl who should have a grandmother who cherishes and supports her.” Angry tears started flowing down Beth’s cheeks. One can only accept so much rejection and hate before growing their own breed.
“Not my blood!” Ava screeched. “Not my granddaughter! An abomination of a pointless union, one that retards our progress!”
“Our progress, mom?” Beth asked. “As a race? As a society? I rather think it’s a step towards evolution, really!”
“With so few of us? Their semen is gold, Beth!”
“Whose semen, mom? C’mon, this is old baggage,” Alec jumped in. “We aren’t here to fight about Amy’s marriage or my career. We’re here to talk about your inability to live on your own anymore.”
Ava looked like she had been slapped in the face. She stared at Alec, then looked pleadingly at Beth. As if Beth was going to come to her aid after she had been attacked for the umpteenth time.
“Now mom, hear me out,” Alec said. “You can stay here, but you need to be receptive to some live-in help. And medication. We need to take you to a doctor, mom. You have dementia of some form. It happens. We will always love you, we will always take care of you. But we have to help you, like it or not. For your own well-being.”
Ava stopped rocking, and looked at Beth. “I had such high hopes for you. The president. The president, child! Imagine the power we would have then. His seed spurted into your womb. The beginnings of our new race, fertilized by the most powerful of theirs.”
“Mom? What are you talking about?” Beth asked.
Ava leaned in closer. “We are not them, Elizabeth. We want to assimilate, but we are not them. This is our base, the creation of our clan. There were so many clans, but each has thus far been minimally successful. Only a few hundred clans remain, and I am all that’s left of our clan. Left to try and mix our blood with human blood, get a foothold on this planet strong enough for us to reach all corners, then stamp out the natives and stake our flag. You two were supposed to branch out, start the spread of our kind like a virus, then breed out the filth. Don’t you see? The world could be ours. We could claim this system like many others systems have been claimed.”
Beth’s hands started shaking, and Alec shook his head. He didn’t direct any more conversation towards Ava. Standing from his chair, he stood in front of Ava and Beth, extending a hand out to Beth. “This is so much worse than we imagined, Beth. It’s time to let go. I’ll send someone out for her and her things right away. The Landing has a bed they could give her right away. I checked.”
Beth looked into Ava’s eyes. Ava was squeezing Beth’s hand so hard her delicate fingers were turning blue. Tears had welled in Ava’s eyes, and her bottom lip began to tremble. Beth looked at this woman, the mentally frail matriarch in front of her, and saw her childhood dance through her mind. All the picnics at the farm, running through the fields with the wheat groping at her legs. Playing in the small pool, blowing bubbles in the warm sun. Her mother rocking her in that very chair, singing her lullabies and caressing her hair. Beth felt loved, she always had. This woman, the frightened woman in front of her now, was not her mother. Not anymore.
“Mom, I will stay with you. But it’s time to go,” Beth said.
Instantly, Ava’s tears dried as if they hadn’t been there in the first place. Her lower lip stopped trembling, and curved into a wicked smile. A creepy, smug expression that sent shivers through Beth’s bones.
“Yes, my child. It’s time to go.”
Ava stood, and in one staccato motion, drove the pitchfork up through Alec’s throat and jaw. She did so quickly and with such ease, it seemed like piecing softened butter with a hot knife. Alec’s expression remained the same as his body crumpled at Beth’s feet, unaware of his sudden expiration. Blood pooled under Beth’s soft pink sandals, warm and gritty, like wet, hot sand from the Florida beaches they vacationed at as children. Beth sat frozen, staring at Alec, not able to even take a breath.
“Now, child,” Ava cooed. “It’s up to you. Let us become extinct, or help us live on. Think about what I’ve told you. You know it to be true. It’s your move now.”
Ava leaned forward and kissed her daughter on the lips, then pulled the pitchfork from Alec’s face. Turning the end up to the sky and driving the handle into the ground just off the deck, Ava leaned forward and plunged her chest onto the pitchfork, feeding the prongs through her chest and leaving her suspended like a skewered scarecrow.
Beth looked at her brother’s face again, his mangled, vacant face. She had caused this. Her lack of action, her lack of acceptance of Ava’s decline, had caused this. Now his blood stained her delicate feet, curdling around her toes. Bright blood, hot and shiny, blood that glittered like gold in the sun. Even his blood was rich, she giggled maniacally in her own head.
In the midst of this moment, a lingering moment of seemingly halted time, Beth noticed how this gruesome scene was remarkably clean. Clean like the kitchen. Clean like a kitchen where no one ate. Ever. Blood from Alec, yes. Crunchy, grainy, gold-tinged blood. Blood that was wrong, unnatural. But no blood from her mother. Tines driven clear though her ribs and out her back, but not a single drop of blood. Beth stood slowly and lifted her mother off of the spikes, then carefully dropped her to the ground. Gaping wounds, but no blood. Beth looked into her mother’s green eyes one last time. Ava’s last expression was a combination of pleading and hopeful. Pleading for Beth to follow through, and hopeful that she would. Beth visually and mentally absorbed the scene for a full minute before she heard screaming. Her own screaming, seemingly distant and removed from her body, a body that had collapsed on the ground between her brother and mother. Screaming that pierced the air until the yard men came running.