The deer carcass on the side of the road was missing its head. There was a clean cut along the neck, which made the animal look unnatural. Some backwoods bumpkin driving down the street must have seen the prize 12-pointer staring lifelessly into the asphalt and carved himself a trophy. The Stag head was probably mounted on an oak plaque in the living area of a double-wide trailer. Ethel wasn’t shocked by the discovery; only slightly irritated animal control hadn’t come to load the remains into their truck or hurl the body into the woods for the vultures and coyotes. She had moved up north forty years ago to start her family in the comfort of a rural mountain town. Every day she would wake up and take the wooded path down into the state park and walk four miles. After her exercise, she would make a bowl of oatmeal and play the piano, preparing for choir practice later in the afternoon. She drank cheap red wine from noon till midnight. The years blurred together; her brain an alcohol soaked sponge feeding early onset dementia.
A few months back, Ethel wanted to drive to the post office and realized her car was missing; she called the police and discovered it had been sold by her son Thomas. The officer reminded her Tommy didn’t think she should drive alone anymore, winter was on its way. With no other options, she would walk everywhere she needed to go. Often while on her errands she would slip into a dreamlike state where she would watch the last of her memories pass by as if she could see them on a film projector, allowing her to relive lost happiness. Sometimes she would come out of her visions and realize she had walked all the way to the other side of town, disoriented and unaware of her surroundings. After Ethel stumbled upon the headless buck, she walked down a serpentine road, praying Tommy would find her and take her home for supper. Headlights spread across the pavement as a car rolled up next to her, lowering the passenger window. A man called through the dark space and offered her a ride; she was cold and took the invitation. At seventy-seven years old, she had no sense of danger; all that was left was an empty feeling like she needed a glass of wine.
The man adjusted the radio and grunted to make conversation, but Ethel sat in silence, watching as dusk approached them. The man was probably in his mid-forties, tall with a protruding prenatal stomach. The aroma wafting through the car reminded her of skunked beer and wet pennies. The man wore a distressed pair of denim coveralls stained with used motor oil which added to the pungent collection of smells surrounding him. The name patch on the breast pocket was unraveling at the seams, the name, Daryl, appeared faintly on the fabric in traditional cursive embroidery. Ethel felt a rumble in her stomach and couldn’t remember if she ate her oatmeal this morning; Daryl’s odor made her nauseous causing her to breathe through an open mouth. The whole car was filled with foul scent, she attempted to roll the hand crank window with no success.
At a stop light the red glow revealed a number of thin scars wrapping around the base of his neck, working up from the collarbone. He squinted into the windshield as rain began to form on the glass. Ethel could feel a chill seeping through the silent car vents, the cold night was seeping in. She thought about how Tommy would stop for his evening coffee during his shift, warming his hands on the thin Styrofoam cup. Daryl continued to drive through the center of town, past the shops and gas station.
“You can drop me at the Luncheonette,” she said.
“You need to go home,” he said plainly.
“It’s getting late…”
“Too late for you to be out all alone”
“Please, I’m ready to go.”
“I’m taking you home, Mother,” he hissed through clenched teeth gripping the steering wheel. The passenger door handled was snapped off and could only be opened from the outside. Her senses sharpened slightly as she realized the strangeness of the situation. She glanced into the rearview mirror as light danced into the car. With each flash of passing cars she caught a glimpse into the backseat; the antlers of a 12-point buck dug into the open panel of the back door. The neck stump was laid out on an old bed sheet; blood soaked into the fabric of the car seats. Her heart began to beat rapidly, a sudden dizziness taking over her. She couldn’t remember if she had taken her blood pressure medication that morning, but it wouldn’t matter if this strange man wanted to hurt her. She was so disoriented by the situation she didn’t quite register he called her Mother.
Tommy worked the graveyard shift for Cresthaven Police Department. Every evening he would stop in town for coffee and a buttered roll before he began his rounds. He would often find his mother waiting patiently for a ride home. Her dementia was affecting her short-term memory but she always knew how to get to the Luncheonette. She had always been a drinker, as far back as he could remember. She was never a violent drunk like his father, she said a little drink always softened his blows. Now that his father was dead he thought she would stop, get sober for her own health. As time went on all the drinking did was help her forget. Occasionally, she would ask if Paul was coming home for dinner; four years had passed since Paul jumped off the highway bridge onto the interstate. She had found his suicide note taped to the bathroom mirror, “Everything will be better now, he was never sorry.” She would ask about Paul, how come he never came around anymore, Tommy would end up telling her he was working late again, or he was studying in the library. Lying was easier than reminding her over and over again.
When Tommy ran in to grab his coffee and realized his mother wasn’t sitting at the counter, he felt a twinge of panic spiral through his navel. Jumping into the police cruiser he sped over to his mother’s house, hoping to find her in the living room sipping her sweet red. He pulled up to the house and was greeted by darkness; she hadn’t made it home. This wasn’t the first time his mother went missing. The problem was this happened all the time and everyone in his department was getting sick of looking for her. Protocol stated a person must be missing for twenty-four hours for it to be considered Missing Persons. He was always the boy who cried wolf.
Ethel woke with a jolt; her eyes slowly adjusting to her surroundings. She was no longer in the man’s car, she was laid out on an orange tweed sofa. The stuffing of the armrest stuck out like cauliflower, the determined work of a bored cat. The room was small yet packed with piles of newspapers and empty beer cans. She heard the microwave beep and a burly man walked in holding two TV dinners.
“You need to eat, Mother, need to keep up your strength” he said.
“I’m not hungry I want to go home now.”
“You are home, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
“Please, my Tommy is looking for me.”
“Haven’t I been looking for you, Mother?” He shouted in an exasperated tone.
“I could never forget my child.” she said beginning to shake.
She stared down at the frozen dinner steaming in front of her as the man stormed off into the basement, newspapers carpeted the floor. The headline of one paper read: October 23, 1977 “Cresthaven Woman Found Dead, Possible Foul Play.”
The summer of 1977 was when Ethel and her husband Ricky moved to Cresthaven. She was twenty-five and pregnant with their first son Paul; there was hope of living a quiet life in the mountains, surrounded by nature. She had always imagined herself staying a spinster but even at her age it was unreasonable to have a child out of wedlock which may have been the safer choice. She never loved Ricky; only married him to pacify her mother and the good family name. What was that saying? Hindsight is always clearer, or something like that. The only thing she loved about that man was the children he gave her, even though she never wanted to keep them. He beat her on their wedding night, didn’t matter she was with child. She thought about hurling herself off the second-floor balcony onto the cool pavement, save herself and the lost soul inside of her. Funny how things eventually come full circle. Instead, she drank every day, so the pain and guilt eventually melted into a thick layer of resentment. Seeing the tattered article on the floor of Daryl’s trailer gave her a vague thought; the memories she had left were scrambled but she remembered when that woman died. A battered woman knows a battered woman.
The sun-bleached newspaper article said the woman had been found in the woods, or what was left of her. Two hunters had stumbled upon her remains after a few days, the wildlife had started eating her. This made it hard for the town coroner to determine a definitive cause of death. The torso was covered in bruises and she had sustained four broken ribs. Many suspected she had fallen down the mountain and broken her neck. After the police identified the jane-doe as Lyla Unger the story never picked back up. Everyone in town knew Lyla, she was raising her bastard son in a trailer off of Snake Den Road in the backwoods. She often entertained local men and would smoke crack or whatever she could get her hands on; everyone knew what she did out there. Small towns operate on a don’t ask, don’t tell basis. With no relatives in the area the young boy was sent to a foster family, and that was all the papers mentioned. Half the women in town were grateful Lyla was dead, their husbands started coming home after work. Lyla’s body stayed in the morgue since no one claimed her and the town was not willing pay for a funeral. The church wouldn’t even hold a service for her. The pieces of that woman laid in the morgue collecting dust for god knows how long, sitting like an estranged specimen waiting to be rediscovered.
In Daryl’s mind, the only people to mourn his mother’s absence were the men she lured into her trailer with the prospect of something in return. They would stop by after a long day’s work and blow off some steam, pump out their frustrations before they went home to screaming wives and spoiled children. When Daryl was put into the foster system he felt as though someone would eventually come for him. As far as he knew, his mother had left without a trace. The police told him she was gone but they never explained the important details, or that she had died since there was no funeral service. There was no closure for young Daryl. He wasn’t the brightest kid and never went to school much. The little bit of understanding he had of the world was from watching television while his mother played with her friends. The day she disappeared Daryl saw his mother frantically racing around the trailer searching for something. She grabbed a handful of small plastic baggies out of the bedside table and stuffed them into her purse. She kissed Daryl on the forehead before leaving, she promised to bring him a treat when she got back.
After scoring some crack Lyla and a John drove to the edge of town where there was a trail leading into the woods. Deep in the trees was an abandoned slaughterhouse hunters used, and kids dared each other to go inside. In the shack, Lyla and the John smoked their score and drifted into a lucid state. The John wanted a piece of Lyla’s sweetness, but she was still drifting through her high. She tried to scratch invisible insects crawling under her skin while pushing his hands away from her. Her eyes felt like they were bleeding, her vision was blurry and all she could see was the John taking off his belt and wrapping her wrists together. The last thing she could sense was his moist body pressed up against her while she screamed at the dingy cement walls. He smacked her head against the concrete wall trying to stop the sound. Rasps of air escaped her gnarled teeth and the John removed the belt from her wrists and fashioned it around her neck.
Ethel stared into the haggard face of the man sitting in the recliner across from her. He had lost his mother all those years ago. She could not remember what had compelled her to get into the car with this man but now in a short moment of clarity she knew to get out of this situation she needed to provide him with a sense of security. “Sweetheart, why don’t you come relax next to Mommy” she said calmly. There was a change in the man’s demeanor, his shoulders relaxed into the cushions of the tweed chair. Sitting across from him she could finally see the scars coiled around his neck. As a mother, it was clear to Ethel, even in her deteriorated state, Daryl had suffered all his life. She wondered if Lyla had given the child LSD, or exhaled crack smoke in his face, or if those scars told the story of a little boy groomed into a tortured creature.
Ethel thought about Paul. She tried to put herself in harm’s way to save the kids from Ricky’s rage. There were very few times she would leave the children alone with him. She knew deep in her bones he was a disturbed man. A memory danced in the back of her mind only for a moment, she remembered walking into the bathroom to find Paul and Tommy naked showing each other their private parts. Tommy had to be about four years old and she thought it was normal for children to be curious. Paul wasn’t being curious. He had scratched himself all over; he was hurting himself. That is when she realized she was a coward. Ethel didn’t know how to help him, back then everything was seen as a phase; there was no real help. People just never talked about those types of things. If she reported him the state would take the kids away because of her drinking, or that was what she had told herself. She rolled the dice and Paul paid the price. When Ricky was dying of cirrhosis the hospice nurses asked Ethel if they should bump up his dose of morphine so he could drift away painlessly, she had cackled in the nurses’ face. When the nurses left, she unhooked his IV, she stood and watched him feel all the pain he had drank away.
Ethel could feel a voice deep inside her whispering for a drink. There was an unmeasurable block of time since she had any wine and her frail body was beginning to notice the absence. She couldn’t seem to remember why she was with this man in the first place; she knew Tommy would be worried. Her head began throbbing and her hands started shaking uncontrollably. She couldn’t help but drift off into a sleeplike state as her thin bones sunk into the soft cushions of the tweed sofa.
Tommy drove around a dozen times the evening his mother went missing again. The doctors had told him if she did not cut down on her drinking the cirrhosis would kill her before the dementia. He tried talking to her but the little information she retained was useless, she would never give up her routine. The doctors estimated she would probably make it another year or two if she stopped drinking. With her stubborn refusal to see any more doctors Tommy started to accept his mother would go on her own terms; no one would control her choices anymore, especially if she couldn’t remember them. She had always been a tiny woman but now she was barely pushing ninety pounds. He looked out the windshield at the empty night and imagined what it would be like when she was gone; he imagined a sense of calm not worrying about her anymore. This made him feel selfish, he loved her so much and yet, he was exhausted. His father had been a worse, he pushed Tommy to join the police academy. In reality, the benefit was that Tommy could get him out of DUI’s when they happened, and they happened often. After losing Paul he couldn’t help but think about when his mother would finally go, and he would be totally and utterly alone. He would be an orphan with nothing left but ghosts.
Ethel had dozed off on the tweed sofa and woke up as the birds started stirring with the dawn. The television was blaring infomercials about non-stick copper kitchenware and Daryl was passed out in the matching recliner, beer in hand. She felt stiff, like all her bones were fusing together. This could be her only opportunity to escape. Careful not to disturb the snoring beast, she crept into the kitchen looking for an exit. She began to feel her age as her vision swirled in front of her, grabbing the sticky counter to steady herself before she could move further. The kitchen was filled with beer cans and empty packages of frozen food. Dishes in the sink overflowed onto the counter where she saw a small, brown shadow run across a plate. The side door fashioned a deadbolt and the faint impression of where a handle used to be. Thoughts crept slowly, he could have cleaned up if he planned on inviting me over here, no?
Now, she thought she knew him, and this was a misunderstanding. Maybe he’s friends with Paul, I just can’t remember. A coughing-snort came from the living room as Daryl stirred in his sleep; Ethel held her breath and waited for him to start snoring again before she continued to explore the claustrophobic rooms of the double wide trailer. Moving through the pathways of garbage it was hard to step firmly with the debris littering the hallway. Without any of her medications she would not be able to function on her own much longer, her only option was to creep around the small trailer like a snail clinging to the walls. There was a door which led down to a man-made basement. She scaled the old wooden stairs into the basement and pulled the hanging string turning on a single light bulb. Much like the rest of the house, it was packed to the ceiling with junk, the far-right wall covered in taxidermy mounts.
There was a basement window leading to the driveway which she could climb through if she could muster the strength to lift herself through the opening without knocking down all the debris littering the room. She managed to dislodge a folding chair from the mess and set it below the window. She heaved the wooden frame of the window and propped it open with a rusty hammer she saw on the floor. This task took an incredible amount of her energy and she immediately felt weak and light headed; the fact she lived on booze and oatmeal left her with no upper body strength or stamina. Standing on the folding chair she did a little hop while her legs were only mildly shaking and tried to gain leverage to push herself through the window. Even in an emergency situation her body was destined to fail her. Pushing her foot against the top of the chair she tried again to hoist up her eighty-seven-pound skeleton; she felt her foot catch fabric and a rack of coats went tumbling over, ripping a fish mount off the wall. Before she even processed the mistake, she heard the creature’s heavy footfall above her. She was losing steam, the small amount of adrenaline her body exerted was wearing off and she could feel herself getting dizzy again. She dug her fingernails into the pavement and dragged herself out the window. The sun had begun to crest over the mountain, highlighting the frosted ground and blinding her. Shaking uncontrollably, Ethel crawled over to the station wagon and used both hands to maneuver the heavy door open. She hoped her hands would function as she pulled the keychain out of the cup holder and into the ignition. Through the rearview mirror the deer’s empty black stare held her gaze as it sat silently on the back seat in a puddle of frosted coagulation. The front door of the trailer burst open as Daryl thrusted himself into the morning air; a shotgun resting on his shoulder. She watched him lift to take aim; putting the car in drive she accelerated with as much weight she could press on the pedal as the bird-shot sputtered out of the end of his barrel.
Ethel hadn’t driven a car in over a year. The sun was lighting up the trees, a beautiful sight and for a peaceful moment, she forgot she was fleeing danger. She rolled up to a stop sign and decided to turn right down a vacant street. Time lost all meaning as she started creeping in and out of consciousness. Her foot became heavy on the gas while she gripped the wheel with panic as she felt herself slipping away. Her surroundings began to darken as her eyelids fell heavy. The station wagon veered off the road into a ditch pinning itself between a boulder and a gnarly oak tree. Ethel’s head hit the windshield with enough force to create a spider web across the glass, but she had already been unconscious. If God had been good to her, the blow would have been fatal.
Right before the end of his shift, Tommy was called to the scene of a possible hit and run. An old station wagon had driven off the road and crashed into a tree. There were signs that the driver was severely injured but no evidence of where they could have gone. Most people don’t put their head through a windshield and run away. The car hadn’t been registered in almost forty years. The original registration belonged to a Lyla Unger. The address would lead to a vacant patch of land in the middle of the woods. There was an itch tickling inside his stomach, he thought about his mother while he rubbed the hair standing static on the back of his neck.
Ethel woke up in a dark room. Her eyes felt like they had been ripped from their sockets and shoved back in upside-down. The pain she felt covered her entire body and all she could wonder is if she was finally dying. The light creeping in from the hallway cast strange shadows, she couldn’t remember where she was or what had happened before this moment. A man walked into the room holding a cup of lukewarm instant coffee in a Styrofoam cup. He held it to her lips and helped her drink. She tried to blink her swollen eyes open to see her savior, her son. He sat on the edge of the bed ready to care for her every need. The smell of rancid beer and wet pennies filled her nostrils.
“My sweet boy, Paul?” she asked hopefully to the figure standing in the dark.
Morgan Bonanno is a Professor of Literature and an avid true crime fan from Northern New Jersey who enjoys the eccentric and unusual. In addition to her research in feminist literature, she writes short stories and poetry that try to invoke surrealism and the unsettling truths that surround people in their every day lives. Growing up in a rural mountain town has inspired the dark imagery within her work.