Does Mom Have to Go?, by Walter Giersbach
Soon as school started my friends started jawing about their favorite holidays coming up. Yeah, Christmas and Thanksgiving and all that crap.
“Man, I’m gonna do Halloween. ‘Specially Hell Night,” Fat Matty said.
“Oh, so now you’re in sixth grade and your Ma’ll let you go out on Hell Night?” Jimmy shot right back.
“What about you, Josey? What’re you gonna do Halloween?”
“Nothin’ I hate that stupid stuff.”
Me, Josiah Lattimer. Halloween was when my mother always had to go on vacation or something. To see her people, she said. My mom was the most beautiful woman in the world, and you don’t even have to take my word for it. My teacher this year, Miss Messner, said Mom was prettier than a movie star. And when I got home from school she’d always have a sandwich and milk for me. Maybe cookies.
Call me mooshey, but I love my Mom. And my Dad too. He’s kinda quiet, but he’s a professor of something so I guess that’s why he’s teaches college students. Ma just works at the hospital doing stuff and helping people get well.
School was okay ‘cept that Miss Messner, who has pretty big knockers and a nice smile, started in on the Pilgrims and Puritans and Plymouth Rock and all that stuff. I learned it before so it was boring.
“They were deeply religious people,” Miss Messner said, “But there was a dark side of superstition too. They believed there were witches about and the devil might creep into town and make people dance like demons. Those who were accused were burned at the stake or put on the dunking stool.”
Couple of the girls in class got scared. Julie Barstow began to cry and Miss Messner had to stop.
“What’s a dunkin’ stool, Miss Messner? I wanna know,” Fat Matty shouted.
“Well,” she said slowly like she shouldn’t be talking about this stuff, “They’re put you under water and if you floated it meant you had the devil in you.”
“What if you sank?”
“Then you were innocent,” she said, and choked a little.
“But they’d drown. That’s a bunch of shit!”
“Matty, go to the Principal’s office immediately!”
* * *
September turned into October and I knew the time was coming for my mom to leave me and Dad. She’d be gone a few days, and then return without bringing back any photos or souvenirs. Once, Dad told me she had relatives in Ohio or Iowa or one of those places. I thought since she just took off each year she probably flew on an airplane, which sounded neat. A big jet, right? That meant she had to have a ticket, so when they were both watching one of their kiss-kiss romantic movies I went to their bedroom. I figured Mom had a plane ticket and it would say where she was going. I went through her bureau with all her lacey underwear and yucky stuff and then checked her night stand. It had to be somewhere.
Kids are always going to dig around. Parents should expect it. Once I found my folks’ stash of condoms so Mom wouldn’t have another kid. And Dad had some dope, from when he was a hippie probably, but I never saw him smoke it.
Inside Mom’s night table was a little wooden box that she once told me was private. Private meant, ‘Don’t touch this stuff, Josey, or I’ll hurt you so bad.’ Well, she never ever hurt me, but I got the picture. Hands off.
Funny, though. Inside was a little white button like from a baby shirt, and a necklace in the shape of those five-pointed stars that look Jewish. And another necklace – a locket – that had a picture inside. It looked really old. When I opened it I whispered, “Jesus Christ” ’cause Mom’s picture was painted inside and she was dressed all in black like somebody’s great-great-grandma.
I put everything back carefully. No plane ticket so I wasn’t any smarter.
* * *
“Dad,” I asked him, when we were doing marshmallows in the fire pit one night, “is Mom going away again?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Where? I mean, where does she go? Does she have to?”
“I’ll miss her too. But we men can take care of ourselves. Couple of bachelors.”
“Where,” I asked.
“When you’re older we can talk about it.”
“Now! I’m 12 years old. I need to stop being lied to!”
“Carl,” Mom said, coming out, “if you’ll make me a drink I’ll talk to Josey.”
This was adult code talk for, “We’re going to have a private chat,” and it kinda chilled me.
“Josey,” she said, putting her hands on my shoulders and looking into my eyes like I’d never seen her do before. “I’m going to tell you something personal and private and you are not to ever ever tell anyone.”
I nodded and suddenly felt like I had to go to the bathroom.
“I have to make a journey at this time every year…”
“When,” she said. “I have to return to my family, my other family. They live in a town outside of Boston and the year is 1692. Once upon a time I had a husband like your dad and we had a little boy and his name was Josiah too, just like you.”
Mom’s eyes glowed like fire as she spoke, but I knew she was thinking some far-off thoughts. “He got very sick with a fever and he died. I still treasure a little white satin button he’d found, and it was clutched in his tiny hand when he died. At that moment I told God I would do anything on earth to bring back my baby. I don’t know if God heard me, but when I woke up the next day I realized Josiah would always be with me.”
“But how could he if he was dead?”
“You are Josiah. Now, after all of these years, you are with me again. But every year I must go back.”
I began to cry and I still had to pee. “But why, Mom?”
“I gave my soul for you, but I didn’t give it to God. I was tried as a witch when my neighbors saw your eyes open. You were resurrected from the dead. I was the sacrifice to save your life. On All Hallow’s Eve. Halloween. So I must go back every year, and I’ve been reliving my execution for 322 years.”
“Mom!” I bawled like a baby and put my arms around her. “Don’t go!”
“I have to in order to save your life. I don’t know why or how I’ve lived this long, but finally we’re together.” And she crushed me to her chest, covering me in her mother’s scent of love and fear and hope.
* * *
I told her I was too sick to go to school the next day. An earache she couldn’t see or tell with a thermometer. And I thought, my mother was a witch and I’m a dead child re-born.
October 30. Fat Matty and the gang were going to raise hell and I was ordered to stay in my bedroom. I said all the curse words I could think of, and then even without hearing the front door close or a car in the street I knew Mom had gone back to that time of people in black clothes and crazy superstition. That she would be executed the next day.
And I cried so non-stop that Dad wanted to call the doctor.
“What did Mom tell you last night?” he asked, sitting down on my bed. God, I loved him so much at that moment and I felt so sorry he was married to a witch.
“About Salem? The baby?”
“Son, among all the gifts that we have – and the burdens we think we have to bear – be grateful we’re alive and healthy.”
He patted me on the head and left the room.
A minute later, I heard him scream and heard a thunk as he fell down the stairs.
I jumped off the bed and ran down to see him on the landing gasping for air. “My heart,” he gasped. “Call 9-1-1.”
I leaned over him, the man who had given me as much life and love as my mother had, and put my hands on his chest, gently. “Don’t die, Daddy! Please live. For me and for Mom.”
I felt something pass from me to him, perhaps a feeling like a warm breeze that I couldn’t put into words. And I saw the pain disappear from his face. He took several deep breaths of air, shook his head and rolled over onto his knees.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” he said softly. Then he looked at me in a way I’d never seen him look before. “You have the gift too,” and he stared at me kind of surprised..
Mom came back, but we didn’t talk about her leaving. Only later, much later, I wondered what the trade-off would be for me saving Dad. My execution as payment? Would I come back home on this day, forever and ever?
Walter Giersbach bounces between writing genres, from mystery to humor, spec fic to romance. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and a couple of Asian countries. He now hangs out near the Jersey shore sampling beers and boardwalks. His two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers.
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Tags: family, time travel, Walter Giersbach