“Reverie…” my mother said, struggling to make it to the last syllable. I rushed to her side, slowing down my footsteps to match hers, her arms over my shoulder. Together we made it to the kitchen. We were close enough to the sink that I could see the details on the wall, but she held on: the unwashed detergent, the sauce left from the spaghetti we had two days ago. My mother had protested that day. “Where did you get the money?” she had asked like she always does. I have never been specific about it, and I wasn’t then. “Look, all that matter are the bills I pay,” I had said. She never asked further. She couldn’t. Because what would I say to her? That I don’t actually have a job? That I steal for a living?
That I had never been honest to her? I was the only person she had. She had been sick since I was born. When my father cheated on her, he would leave the house on intervals each longer than the other until one day, he left and never came back. He took the money with him. When I accidentally set an imaginary set of snakes after Kara Dunne, who showered insults on my then friend, Rita, I thought that was it. I thought I could save my mother like I saved Rita. But what I thought was a gift turned out to be a curse as I went off the rails, lost the only friend I had, and resorted to the only thing I was capable of: tricking people. You know what they say about gifted kids that never reach their potential. I was one of them. When I graduated high school, I told my mother I got myself a job. I continued to pay for her medical bills. I have never been honest to her since.
It was only when my mother got hold of the refrigerator door that she finally pulled away from me, her body trembling with effort. She stumbled towards the remote corner of the kitchen counter that was so old I could count the cracks it formed over the years. I didn’t have to watch her for long to know what she was doing. Every now and then, she would get out of bed against everyone’s advice, including mine and her doctor’s. Then she would make her way to the kitchen, with or without my help, the latter being much safer. Her mission was to make me a toast or two before I headed out for my “job,” the way she used to every morning before she became too sick. I sat down in one of the two chairs and watched as she struggled to get her hand around the lid of strawberry jam. “Here,” I said. She reluctantly handed the bottle over and let me open it for her. I glanced at the clock. I turned my attention back to her as she pushed a plate towards me, toast with unevenly spread strawberry jam on top. Eating it would be the least I could do for her. But I had to go, or it would be too late. My heart ached as I delivered the next words: “Mom, I don’t think I will be able to eat this time. I would be late for work. I am so sorry.”
My mother slowly looked up. She nodded, feebly waving her knife towards the direction of the front door. I took one glance back, then pushed the door open.
I was greeted by a sea and rain of whiteness: on the stairs leading to our apartment, the lamps, the roads. My boots pushed into the snow one step at a time. I started walking, hugging myself as violent gusts of wind blew past. It was too late to go back. I passed several stores, most of which I had already looted. I knew it would be several blocks before I would reach a store I hadn’t.
A remote Walgreens seemed to be the answer. I stopped at the opposite side of the crosswalk. I scanned the windows and saw a single blonde woman in black. I was too late, I realized. That was not good for me. But she was in the very back of many stalls, and I convinced myself that it was worth it. Besides, I was running out of stores and out of options. I crossed the street. It was just after opening hours, and luckily enough, I saw no one else in sight except for a man behind the counter. I took a deep breath and headed straight towards him.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” he said. He sounded almost bored.
“Yes,” I said. My knees buckled, but I continued to smile. My eyes fixed on the man, I concentrated, expecting the air to shimmer immediately in response. Nothing happened. My head burned as I tried harder. I ignored the man staring at me, his hands reaching out as if to support me. After a second or two, I felt the air shift as it was replaced by a fake image, almost a wave as it reached stall after stall. I sighed in relief and turned my attention back to the man, whose eyes were now glazed over. He moved to his left and started talking to a nonexistent customer. My hands, shaking, moved towards the cash register. It popped open, and I snatched as much cash as I could without counting them.
I turned around.
“What are you doing?”
The illusion I created collapsed like the visual effects of a low-budget movie. I turned around, cash in hand, and found myself face to face with the woman.
I heard footsteps behind me. I spun around. A brick wall materialized in the air, and the man crumpled to the ground, followed by an ominous crack. I gasped, but I had no time to waste: I threw the cash onto the floor before either of them could react further. I ran as fast as I could, pushing the glass doors open. An image of a cell hovered in front of me, and I shook my head. I could not let that happen, not for my mother, or anyone I ever cared about. Before I knew it, I had reached the door to our apartment. I quickly turned the handle.
A head popped around the staircase. My mother.
She took each uncertain step with her walking stick clicking next to her. I watched, gasping for air, hands on my wet jeans. Somehow, I noticed, my mother did not look surprised at all, like she was expecting this to happen.
“What happened?” she asked calmly.
“I don’t know.” I paced the tiny living room back and forth. “I got fired, I guess.”
“Fired? From where? You never told me who you were working for.”
“Walgreens.” Lies. I deliberately avoided her eyes.
“So why were you fired?”
Her calmness was scaring me at that point.
“I don’t know,” I declared once again.
“That’s all you have to say?” She shuffled around the battered, brown couch and sat down with a slow grunt. I stood still as she glowered at me with her almost lifeless, tiny eyes. “How did you manage to get fired?” she asked, her voice rising with every question, with every accusation. “Did you steal from the owner? Is that how you got the money you bought the spaghetti with?”
She was not wrong. More questions spilled out of her mouth like they had been in there since the beginning of time. By then, I had already covered my ears with my hands. It was a one-sided escalation of anger, and I was not ready to answer any of them. She continued to talk. I could still hear her, but barely so.
“… and get those damn hands off your ears, your mother is talking to you.” Her frail voice only got louder and louder. “How am I supposed to pay my bills? What about your tuition? How could you be so irresponsible?”
“You don’t understand.” I started to raise my voice too. “It’s already hard to get a job in this city. It’s not my fault. You should be grateful that I got a job at all.” More lies.
She responded with nothing but silence. I wished then that I wasn’t so useless, that I could do more than manipulate images, fake change. My mother broke the silence with a single sniff. Then she started sobbing as hard as she could with her weak throat. I froze in place, my hands glued to either side of my body. I opened my mouth, but she raised her head first, her face shiny with tears.
“Leave,” she said.
I stared at her in shock, then anger rose in me, replacing everything else.
I turned around, walked over to the door and slammed it behind me. I stood outside, not believing what just happened. More snow landed on my eyelashes. I didn’t know how to feel, if anger was the right emotion, if I should have been sorry instead. But I didn’t get to choose before I heard a crash, a thud, then silence.
There was a body on the floor beside the coffee table. There was no one else it could belong to except for my mother, but it just couldn’t be, I thought as I ran to her side. It was her gray head that proved the worst. A pool of blood slowly gathered on the table and the floor next to it. I kneeled and took her head in my arms, waiting for her to open her eyes like she always did when this happened.
“Mom?” I whispered, a little louder.
“Mom,” I said again, knowing her mouth would stay closed. My voice started to shake violently as I spoke the next words too late. “I didn’t mean what I said. Please. I’m so sorry. Mom.” I placed my head against hers. It was cold, too cold, colder than mine. “Let me just say it now, okay? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Mom?”
A tap on my shoulder interrupted me. I turned around. It was her, but it wasn’t. I knew because she was not real. The real one was on the floor. I knew her death was my fault, and it was my sorry effort to bring her back when it was too late.
I pushed the woman. Hard.
“Reverie,” she said, struggling to regain her balance.
“Shut up,” I said without looking back. “You’re not real. You’re just one of them: an illusion, my imagination, nothing more. My mother’s dead. I want you to go.”
I held my mother’s head tighter, rocking back and forth.
“Reverie, look at me. I am real.”
I ignored her, my tears streaming down my face and down my mother’s death.
“I know what you are. I know what you’re capable of. I always did.”
I turned around and focused on her for the first time. “What?” I said, my mother’s head dropping to the floor once again. “Are you real? What are you?”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you.” She looked exactly like my mother. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I should’ve, when you were much younger… look at you now.”
She reached over and tried to wipe my tears with her sleeve. I flinched.
“Are you real, or are you fake?” I demanded.
I glanced back and forth between the body on the ground and the other on her feet. I wasn’t so sure anymore, who was my mother and who wasn’t.
“Are you real?”
“Yes. Yes, sweetie, I’m real.”
I shook my head. “No, I want to know. Are you real?”
A single tear dropped from her eye and onto the floor.
“Are you real?”