I grabbed her wrists and pulled her away. “I’ll close them for you, Mama. It’s okay. Ssshhh. It’s okay.”
She hesitated, peering at me. “Kyrie? Is that you?”
I felt my breath catch. “Yeah—yeah, Mama. It’s me.”
Her eyes narrowed. “How do I know it’s really you? They try to trick me sometimes, you know. They send agents. Lookalikes. Sometimes the nurses in this awful prison you’ve got me in pretend to be you. They dress up like you, and they talk like you. Tell me something only my daughter would know. Tell me!” she hissed, baring her teeth at me.
I tried to stay calm. “I fell off my bike when I was nine, Mama. Remember? I cut my knee open and had to walk four blocks back home. My sock was so full of blood I had to dump my shoe out. You gave me a Popsicle. Grape. Only, I was crying so hard, I dropped the Popsicle into the tub. You made me rinse it off and eat it anyway. Remember that?”
“Maybe it is you. What do you want? Here to cut my rations? Take my privileges?”
I felt my heart crack a little. “I’m just here to see you, Mama. You know this isn’t a prison. It’s a nursing home. They take care of you.”
“They beat me!” She pulled up her sleeve, showed me fingerprint bruises on her arms.
I’d freaked the f**k out the first time she’d showed me those. She did it to herself, the nurses said. I didn’t believe them at first, but then I’d seen Mom gouging her fingers into her own arm, had seen her hitting herself so hard she had to be sedated.
“Mama, I know you did that to yourself. They don’t you hurt you here. I promise.”
“You would promise, wouldn’t you? They make me hurt myself. Mind control. It’s in the medicine they give me. Mind control, to make me hurt myself. You’d say anything to get rid of me. You hate me. That’s why you’ve got me in prison. You hate me. You’ve always hated me.” Her lip curled, and her eyes took on a frantic gleam I knew all too well.
I braced myself for the inevitable.
I feel a tear prick my eye. “No, Mama. I love you. You know I love you.”
“You love me. My daughter would never say that. You’re an impostor! A fake! You’re their agent! Get out! Get away from me!” Mama rushed at me, and I had to back away quickly to avoid her flailing hand.
I jerked open the door and fell backward through it, felt myself caught by a nurse.
“We’ve got her, sweetie. She’ll be okay—she’s just having a hard day. She didn’t sleep well last night. She hasn’t had her meds yet, and we’ve got to give her a shower today.” The nurse patted me on the shoulder. “She knows you love her. She was asking for you the other day, you know. Asked if you’d come to visit her soon.”
“She—she did?” I heard my voice break.
“Well, if she asks again, tell her I love her. Tell her—tell her I’ll visit again soon.”
Inside the room, another nurse was talking Mom down. I watched for a moment and then turned away, waving at the nurse.
I cried on the way home, as I always did after visiting Mama. After Daddy’s murder, she’d gone from bad to worse, and then from worse to impossible. She’d always had mood swings and bouts of paranoia, but it had been manageable, especially as long as she stayed on her meds. But then Daddy was killed, and the schizophrenia had taken over, and no amount of medication could keep her level. Daddy’s life insurance policy had paid the bills for several years, but eventually it ran out, and that left me in a really bad place. I couldn’t bring myself to apply for welfare, and my applications for student loans and grants and scholarships were still processing. And, all the while, Mom got worse and worse.
My brother Cal had his head in the sand about it all. He went to school in Chicago, never came home, never visited Mama, never called me. He had his life, and as long as I helped him pay for his tuition, he’d be fine. He worked, too, paying for his own room and board, but I’d always promised myself I’d take care of him, no matter what. Growing up, I’d cooked and cleaned for him, gotten him to school, packed his lunches and helped him apply to Columbia College, helped him find an apartment and a job and taught him how to budget. So it wasn’t that he wasn’t thankful to me and for all I had done for him—he just couldn’t handle Mom. I didn’t blame him.
I sent him some extra money when I got home from visiting Mom, and then dashed off a quick email to him, asking how he was. He’d respond after a day or two, probably.
Meantime, the checks kept coming. One a month, ten grand every time. The notes ended, though, after that short, cryptic, and frightening message. I kept cashing them, kept tucking away as much as I could afford to save. I never stopped wondering who was sending them, but there was never any clue. I tried looking online again, but never made any headway.
Months turned into a year, and I was a semester away from finishing my bachelor’s in social work. I needed a master’s for what I wanted to do, so I still had a lot of school left.
And now I owed my mysterious benefactor $120,000.00.
And then, on the one-year anniversary of the first check arriving in the mail, there was a knock on my apartment door. I’d just gotten out of the shower, so I wrapped a towel around my torso and another around my hair, then slid the security chain in place and cracked open the door.
“Yes? Can I help you?” I asked.
There was a tall, slender man of indeterminate age standing on the other side. He was dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and a black tie. He was holding the kind of hat that limo drivers wore. He also had on a pair of black leather driving gloves, and, if I wasn’t mistaken, there was a bulge at his chest that indicated he was carrying a pistol.
His eyes were pale green, hard, cold, and scarily intelligent.
“Kyrie St. Claire.” It wasn’t a question. His voice was low, smooth, and as cold as wind-scoured steel.
“Get dressed, please. Wear your nicest clothes.”
“If you own any lingerie, put it on. An evening dress. The blue one.”
I stared at the man through the crack in the door. “What? What are you talking about?”
His face remained impassive. “My name is Harris. I’m here to collect you.”
“Collect me?” I spat the word. “What am I, a piece of jewelry?”
“Did you or did you not cash twelve checks, ten thousand dollars each, for a total amount of one hundred and twenty thousand dollars?”