Growing up I never really saw my mother. She worked the night shift, so Dad said. She’d pop in while I was eating cereal, give me a kiss from behind, and when I turned to see her she was gone.
Dad took good care of me. He woke me up, got me ready for school, and out to the bus stop. I assumed every kid had the same living situation.
One day I was playing and I cut my knee. I went to hollering and in a flash Mom was over my shoulder, putting a bandage on my bloody wound. I looked up at her to see her closed eyes as she kissed my forehead. When I turned to hug her she was gone.
Every birthday was the same. Dad made cake, I had friends over, and after they left I would find a big present on the table. Mom would pop up from behind, tell me to open it, and after I did I would turn to thank her and she was gone. Christmas was pretty much the same.
I never got why, when I was at other peoples’ houses, they had photographs in albums or frames placed on tables, or dressers, or fireplace mantles, with their parents together. I had never seen mine in the same place.
Any time I mentioned that, grown-ups would look away in silence. But not kids. They all said the same thing: “Your parents are getting a divorce.”
“My parents aren’t getting divorced,” I’d say.
“If they loved each other they would spend all the time together in the world.”
“Shut up!” I’d scream, but somehow, deep inside, I suspected they were right.
“Dad,” I asked one day. “Why don’t you and Mom ever spend time together?”
He laughed. “We spend a lot of time together. You never see us because your mother works nights.”
I’d heard that before, but I wasn’t satisfied with his answer. “Then why doesn’t she take off some time?”
He didn’t laugh. “Thing are a little more complicated than that,” he said, agitated.
Complicated. That’s the word people used when they were breaking up. Getting divorced.
But I was tired of hearing everybody else’s answers. I needed to talk to Mom.
I marched right up to her bedroom door and turned the knob. The door cracked open and I went to peek inside.
“Don’t–” Dad said and yanked me away from the door and pushed it shut. “–ever wake your mother after she’s worked all night.”
“I just wanted–”
“She needs her sleep,” he insisted and gave me a shove to walk away.
Halfway down the hall I turned back to see him step inside the room and pull the door shut, then I heard a lock turn.
One night I was awoken by whispers. They were sweet somethings spoken between lovers, something I had never heard before. I put my ear to the wall and listened, but my curiosity was aroused.
Everyone else had pictures of their parents. Was I only to have a few words? I quietly left my bed, then my room, and neared their door.
I touched the cold metal knob, half-expecting my father to yank me from the door and shove me down the hall like before, but nothing stopped me as I opened the door.
I saw them together: my father, his back turned to her. I never really saw my mother … but I did see something with her face, the face that had only dotted the i’s in birthdays and holidays.
It held him from behind, and leaned down and over to kiss him sweetly, then passionately. Its neck arched up from a gelatinous mass of spindly limbs and bulging knots that formed her body.
What I had always thought her fingers were ten segmented limbs. How they bent back and forth to caress his chest, every movement like the cracking of knuckles. They were the same things that had held my arms when she kissed my forehead, that had stroked my hair or brushed my cheek, even the things that bandaged skinned knees.
I swallowed a lump.
The thing–Mother–heard me. Eyes opened, but not on her face. All over her gnarled, quivering body eyelids parted to reveal silver ellipses of reflecting moonlight.
A crooked limb reached toward me, across the room, straightening the further it stretched. My heart pounded. The fleshish thing touched my lips, sending a chill through my body that shook me all over.
And though her mouth pressed against my father’s lips and insectoid limbs continued to stroke his naked body all over, I heard a “Hush,” and the fingery thing at my lips pulled away to push the door shut.
I faced the closed door, trembling. I heard the lock turn and ran to my room, pulling my own door shut and leaping into bed beneath my covers.
The next morning I sat at the table, unable to eat my cereal.
Dad lowered the newspaper and glanced at me. “What’s wrong? Not hungry?”
I stared at my bowl, not truly hearing him.
“Did you lose your appetite?” he asked.
I faced him.
When I remembered the thing I had seen the night before I trembled again, but it looked as if I was shaking my head.
“Then finish your breakfast before it gets soggy,” he said and raised his paper to take up where he left off.
I stared at the newspaper, as if the print and photographs on it should communicate something, but they were a crystal-clear blur: sharp and perfectly defined but completely meaningless.
“You heard your father,” a voice came from above.
I glanced up with wide eyes and breathless awe to see the face of my mother. She was beautiful. Curling auburn locks that matched her sealed, smiling lips draped down over me like party streamers.
“Finish your breakfast,” she said and kissed my forehead.
The bony things stroked my hair and brushed my cheek and held my arms and rubbed my back all at once. The snapping, crackling, popping sound reminded me my cereal was still edible.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said and took a bite and swallowed.
I noticed my father staring at me, his face bloodless white, his mouth agape.
“Something the matter, dear?” she asked.
My father’s eyes flashed at me, at her, and back. The open mouth closed, then smiled. “No, dear. Everything’s fine. It’s just nice to finally have breakfast together,” he said and faced her. “As a family.”
Still stroking my hair, cheek, arms and back, another limb reached over and tucked a lock of hair behind his ear. The long, arching neck reached over from above me and the human face of Mother kissed my father.
I gazed at them. Together. They faced me and smiled. Together.
My little chest welled with pride and I finished my cereal, anxious to tell my friends at school about my happy family.
This story previously appeared in No Sleep Podcast’s Suddenly Shocking, Volume 10.
Edited by Marie Ginga
A resident of North Carolina's Outer Banks, A.P. frequents an alternate universe not too different from your own, searching for that unique element that twists the everyday commonplace into the weird. When not writing fiction, he composes music, makes art, and strives to connect with his inner genius. He lives with his dog Kahlua and a nameless cat of unknown origins.