One day Mommy’s Child turned an early shade of teen. His bathroom exploded with creams and gels. Daddy bought him his first blade and showed him one night what to do. Toilet paper evaporated at an alarming rate. Worse, certain doors in the house seemed to lose all their permeability; the hallway would come to a dead end sometimes, without warning. Then, one dinner—fish sticks, green beans, Wheel of Fortune going—the Child killed the terms of their relationship:
Are you flying tomorrow, Dad? he asked and, Can I have more milk, Mom?
Mom and Dad landed blunt in her ears, like a couple of strangers. He’d polished the words in his mouth beforehand, like his father did sometimes. Getting up to find the carton, Mommy guessed the Child was a kind of stranger too, the Son now. What comes next, she wondered, pouring, listening to Pat Sajak.
It’s not that Mommy didn’t understand the rules. She’d been the Daughter until school was over with, and then the Miss a little while, a teller at First Interstate, where Dad would bend his day each week to cash his checks with only her, making deposits on her future, making the world wait and wait and the line behind him grow long. She’d been the Wife for all of a joyous minute, and then the Mother. The Son was the Baby then. Dad had been the Father once, the Husband before that, the Boyfriend too; if he mourned not being Daddy now, she couldn’t tell.
Mornings, Dad got up before dawn to go to the airport. When Mom woke, she’d flip on Today, turn Bryant Gumbel down, and listen while the Son would shower, asking herself when was the last time she’d seen him naked. Once he put on clothes, she’d make him jiggle the brush in his teeth for at least one minute, watching his mirrored face, wondering what’s next—until he’d remind her, Are you gonna drop me off in your robe again? and she’d say, Run, don’t forget your backpack, and he’d just make the stop in time. She really would hate to have to get dressed, let alone leave the house. They hadn’t kissed for awhile now, but she might be brave, she thought sometimes, put on something nice and drive him, if the Son would want to take the time still for those long goodbyes. When the coffee had gurgled enough, she would go get a mug; then she’d switch off Jane Pauley and sit with the dog and the ashtray and watch the light that got in past the blinds carve up the smoke. Today she’d make a new map—level nine, the final stage, Death Mountain.
At first the game had been a way to keep the Son close. He’d leave the cartridge lying on the carpet, ripe to fall into the dog’s grip, but each night she’d sleeve it and square it away on the shelf, like a treasure. Mom had paid for the thing, after all. Once the bus whined past she would load the console like a gun, putting the cartridge in the slot, pushing it down with a springy click. She’d unwind the controller, press Power, and wait for the screen to change.
Mom had seen the Son play it; she knew the underworld had many levels. The game’s instruction book had warned her that it would get harder to navigate the further along she went, but it would hold her hand a little ways, for the first few stages at least; after that, it suggested she ought to start making her own maps. This was meant to be part of the fun, it had said. But the book didn’t need to explain, of all things, the explorer’s male courage, that masculine capacity for flight she’d envied so long.
Dad’s job was making aerial surveys for Maricopa County. Mornings, he pointed his two-seater plane towards a big triangle of mountain. The peak seemed far, its foot concealed in the pale farming haze, but it was closer than it looked, and getting closer every day. When the house was new, the roads had still been dirt roads; now they spread south and grew paved. Sidewalks hardened along them. The grid of alfalfa or cotton or horses or nothing at all had begun to give way. Whole blocks of homes bloomed.
Before the Son was born, when Mom was still the Miss and Dad the Boyfriend, he had taken her up in that plane once—one seat behind the other, her up front, him working his control stick while her own stick jerked in tandem between her legs, tilted by his hidden hands, a magic trick. Through the headset over the propeller’s drone, he’d told her, Let’s flip it, let’s fly upside down, and she’d screamed and screamed.
Up in the air anything could go wrong. Someday the engine could cut—maybe fuel had been leaking, spraying the fields like pesticide rain. The propeller would grind to a stop but the plane would push forward awhile, gliding, silent. If the weather conspired, a monsoon burst could pick him up and toss him. Dad’s face would smush to the glass, his stick would spin and the plane would roll and tumble. He’d hear the wind whipping, the rain on the window. All his blood would pool in his brain, but before he could black out properly the glass would crack, the skull would shatter on the rock, the steel tubes would bend and snap, the painted fabric skin would spiral into ribbons in the fuel-drenched mountain mud. When the flood fell in his wake, it’d wash away all trace of what he’d been.
This game that Mom played, it used hearts to measure life. A heart would fall when something died, which made a kind of sense; it’d flash and flutter for a few seconds until finally, if you didn’t grab it fast enough, it disappeared. If you got hurt, you might lose half a heart, or even a whole one. If you lost all your life, if you didn’t pick up other hearts in time, then the little man with the magic sword would spin around, turn gray, blink out. The screen would turn black and a sad song would play. It would ask you if you wanted to continue.
Mom sighed. She shut off the box and smoked and stared at the dog, who stared back.
The map was incomplete but she’d return to it. The stove was foamy with the brine of last night’s overboil, so she put Lucy on and went at it with the Brillo. Scrubbing, bent over, she turned her head and saw the dog’s butt sticking out of the doggie door, the two back legs going nowhere, his tail limp; he’d decided to hang there, between things.
One night, with Dad and the dog snoring next to her, Mom heard the dog door’s swinging flap. She’d bent and gripped the baseball bat that lay beneath the bed, her magic sword. Without waking a soul, she had gotten up, crouched through the dark house alone, like the little man in the game. Out the patio window, in moonlight, something the size of the Son lumped itself up and over the cinderblock wall. When Mom woke Dad to tell him this, he’d seemed to shrug into his pillow, saying, Let the boy go. And when the Son appeared again at breakfast, unhurt, and Dad had given him an eye but not a word, Mom saw their male pact. She wondered what came next, after something like this.
When the Son was still the Child, Mom had guessed he’d drive a train someday—the railroad had fascinated him so much. The tracks cut through the dusty block behind their backyard. Every night it ran south past the mountain and down the horizon, to Tucson, to Mexico probably, blowing its horn the whole way. Sitting stopped at a crossing, the Child would stare as it rolled by, tell Mommy again all about the old movie he’d seen on TV: open boxcars and the hobos leaping into them, who lived in them, who watched life speed away.
In darkness anything could happen. Someday, when the train called, the Son might finally decide to hop that wall one last time, board its boxcars, just like the men in the movie had. He’d run alongside of it, sprinting, and leap for a handhold, not seeing it lay further than his skinny, growing arms could reach. Falling, he would catch the rail where the wheels rode instead—his feet first, ankles crushed and then his thighs, the thin waist squished clean through, the mangled spine. His scream would strangle while the train chugged, blowing hard, trailing parts of the boy all the way to the peak.
Eight levels ago, having made up her mind to start mapping, Mom knew she’d need supplies. She leaned against the Son’s impermeable door that day and put her hand to it, like testing for a fire on the other side: someplace, buried under mounds of unwashed clothes, he might still have that pad of graph paper she’d bought him for his math class one year, colored pencils for his art. But what comes next: a cache of Hustlers, Playboys in their plastic buried in the mattress. Maybe a dirty spiral diary, pages of gross anatomical sketches in scribbling ballpoint, the place marked with one of her cigarettes.
The instruction book had said this: If you reach a dead end, just keep pressing. Try every surface and a secret passage should eventually appear. If Mom wrote the book, there’d be different instructions: It’s okay, losing life. You will die a new way every day. Explore that place. Chart everything. Keep smoking. Roam the underworld until you know it all by heart, then throw the map away.Matt Rebholz grew up in Chandler, Arizona, but has lived in Portland, Oregon since 2006. His work has appeared in 1001 Journal.