Mother says grace isn’t given; you fight for it. Charley smiles in the mirror as she drives. Ah, Mother, grace takes many forms. Jimi, for instance, or Kristin. Definitely Blue. She’s otherworldly. You’d admit that. Then there’s Kat. What about Charley? Hmm. Definitely not Charlotte. That bitch is dead and won’t survive the second coming. Sorry, Mom. Grace is a heaven of my own.
Along I-75, the sun sinks into the sea redder than blood. Creation bleeding at the edges, and Jimi occupies her car speakers like a godly messenger from a lost world. He’s singing the way through. At 90 mph, she looks for that new sky and new earth that will come when the sea gives up its dead, and the copulators and murderers gather outside the new golden city to be damned. She’ll be among them if Mother doesn’t drag her through the gates to the golden city herself. Better turn up Jimi. Grace infected his guitar, and maybe it’s contagious.
Graduation was tomorrow; unless it’s today, everything is always happening again. If she were eighteen, she’d wear a tattoo. Mother says no. She thinks any day now is Judgment Day when the dead will bury the dead before grace everlasting. Don’t defile your flesh, she says. As for girls, be one, don’t kiss one. She says together we’ll fight the beast until it’s cast into the fiery lake. But what if I’m the beast? May as well wear that black lipstick Mother hates. She sighs again.
She quit her job today. She was going to try for the kingdom if she can. She wasn’t going to spend eternity cleaning comes. Fuck that asshole and his low rent peep show he calls a bookstore. And fuck his twenty bucks an hour and putting his hands on me, like Mother said he would. It’s happening now, Mother says. From Sarasota to Pensacola, people rehearsing the Rapture. Houses being built for the banks to fail, the insides stripped for materials, bathtubs stinking from shit. Shells corroding in the sun occupied by the warlords of the Apocalypse mixing medicine to sell to zombie children. The coastline beckons in skywriting like ancient prophecy.
BE ALL YOU CAN BE IN THE ARMY!
ESCORTS NEEDED NOW!
Jimi, what’s a girl to do? Soldier or whore? The fucking future. It’s been overtaking her every second since before she was born. Blue stopped time, but she’s not Blue. Mother thinks she’s my watch and I’m her minutes.
In the mirror, Mother supervises her driving. Her reflection turns up everywhere. Her purse was not to mention random windows; puddles generally worked, and sometimes free-floating in space in her room. No mirror in the world—she has checked them all—can distinguish her eyes from her eyes forever watching her, forever talking to her, inescapable, behind everything, forever eating her through her own eyes.
Jimi, there must be some way out of here, right? You found the exit ramp.
Jimi never answers; he just plays on repeat since he took over her playlist. Blue was the one who put him there that day in the bathroom.
And you were a soldier too, like my brother. Luke traded dealing drugs for the army. Didn’t listen to Mother. Why go to Afghanistan, she says, when Jesus needs warriors. No sign up needed for the Final Battle. The future’s here, Charlotte, and it’s murder.
But Mama, I don’t want to be a soldier; I don’t want to die. Her hands gripping the wheel are clenched fists.
You’re already a soldier, Mother says, in the army of the Lord.
Jimi, you hear that? Mother Dearest! She’d eat everybody living and dead to save me. Who’s eating Luke?
Hush, sweet Charlotte. Luke’s ok. He’ll live while others will die, and there’s always a lesson in that. Never forget we live in the Truth. Yes, it’s a burden to live among these billions of bodies waiting to be burned. And more being born each second! They multiply through vice so that Satan may lead them to the slaughter. Such a conflagration! I can smell it from here to Miami!
No point adjusting the mirror. Mother installed it inside her head before she could speak, and Charley can’t escape its reflection. Charlotte did. That’s because Charley killed Charlotte, so Mother wouldn’t. It was surprisingly simple. She let Kristin kiss her on the beach, surf licking their ears. Somehow, Mother knew. Mother’s the lover that’s hard to quit.
Before you were born, she says, I knew you. In the womb, I encircled you. Upon birth, the circle widened. Its circumference encompasses all of time and creation, arcing from the sizzling pits of hell to the misty azure of heaven. She’s been grounded half of the calendar weekends since she turned fourteen. In Mother, she’s safe—from drugs, from other girls’ mouths, from marking her body with the tattooed ink Zombie-Goats wear in Satan’s army of the dead.
“Mother’s eyes bore into Charley’s skull; they share them, they share everything, one way or another.”
She’s been to six classmates’ funerals— three by hanging, two by overdose, one by car. The future really is murder. Ask Blue. She graduated herself. Charley met her one day hanging in the school bathroom. Blue Angel. Her face looked almost pretty in the mirror hanging from the ceiling. Charley rubbed her bare feet, and they discussed what was to come. She knew their friendship was fate. Sometimes she sees the future in the present. It’s a gift from Mother. Blue knew Charley too—she spoke without saying hello. The afterlife is no different from this one. When the rent-a-cop came to cut her down, Charley clasped Blue’s knees and cried to keep her close. She wasn’t bothering anybody. They took her body but not her face in the mirror. Sometimes she can almost kiss it.
Since Blue found her bedroom mirror, things are better. Her friend Kat comes too. Blue must have shown her the way. Blue’s great. She says the craziest things, except they’re not crazy. Like, time can’t cease, and grace won’t come until male and female become a single being and male won’t be male and female won’t be female, so kiss whoever the fuck you want. It’s hard not to laugh when Blue talks like that, but she doesn’t want Mother to see. And Jimi in her ears with his forever song. Blue was broadcasting it when they met. She heard it from the stall calling her. She removed the buds from Blue’s ears so Jimi might bloom in hers. It’s almost as if Jimi brought them together, though Charley prefers to credit Blue’s generosity. Blue came to bring her Jimi’s good news, and that has made all the difference. The earphones, too, Mother is always tossing hers.
Hush, sweet Charlotte, Charley says, so Mother won’t. Keep your body clean. Patience now, or you’ll die forever. The day ending all days is near. Until then, live among these dead as best you can. Grace awaits.
Charley’s face pales like death. It’s her. But I killed her with that kiss. No, she lives in Mother’s eyes, looking straight at Charley, dating proper boys and keeping her body pure of graven images.
I’m Charley now, she says, barely moving her lips so Mother won’t see, like a ventriloquist she saw once. She was concentrating on Jimi in her ears, praying, save me, let Charlotte have Mother’s afterlife, and letting me have grace like that time with Kristin on the beach, away from her voice. A voice that was falling over her like lava on Pompeii those words were bubbling and gurgling, saying, graduation’s soon, sure, but time is short. The form of this world is passing away. Better stay home with Mother. It’s more dangerous than Afghanistan out there. The drones are within— schools breeding zombies. Masks won’t save them. I’m a nurse, I know, I see the wires attached to their heads streaming filth. Dead to the world, dead to everything, dead dead dead. And the junk they read! Game of Thrones gobbledygook. Harry Potter prattle. Goat books for goat people. The living dream of being dead, and well they should. Men were marrying men; women were marrying women. Fire fodder. But not you, baby girl, never you, not if you stay close to Mother.
She’d turn up Jimi, but Blue already has. He gets louder when Mother gets closer. Her arm tingles so wildly she believes may be her tat’s coming now. In dreams, she’s seen it, written in red letters she can’t remember. She wishes she could borrow the stars pressed on Blue’s eyelids. Charley had seen them in the morgue when she pretended to be her sister. Kristin wanted stars like that, but she spent all her money on heroin. Look, Mother. Aren’t they pretty? Blue says if the spirit comes into being because of the body, it’s a marvel of marvels. That’s me when I get my tattoo. You’ll see.
And if you’re worried about my life after graduation, Kat has ideas. She’s not a whore, Mother; it’s called sex work. Not like the bookstore. Kat copyrighted her fine little ass! She used to work in a bike shop, but the men were such assholes. It’s a little-acknowledged fact, Kat says, Charley says, men go into heat worse than women. Existence for them is a mechanism cruder than a bike. A gear that runs all the other gears is always running them. It’s like what you told that new mom at church, how baby girls are better than baby boys because changing their diapers, boys get tiny erections shoot pee in your face.
Never ends, Kat says.
Master, the penis, master the man, Mother says.
Better off with girls, Kat says. Like you and Kristin.
I was her nurse, Charley says. She’s messed up.
Girls are tricky, Mother says. You must watch them until they’re grown. And even then.
Mothers, Kat says. I wouldn’t unblock mine from my phone for a thousand bucks—the price of an ass fuck.
Charley giggles. She loves it when Kat talks like that, even if she has to move her lips to make it happen. Mother isn’t giggling, though.
Charley, I told you, Charley says, it’s not your job to clean Kristin’s bones in this life.
I know, we’re splitting up.
Kat looks confused, so Charley puts the side of her hand next to her mouth and whispers words only she can hear.
Mother says Kristin is a lesbian. My body is a temple, and L is Satan’s middle initial, and if Kristin pillages my temple, Jehovah will mark my forehead with Satan’s name. But that asshole’s not touching me. No way. If Mother doesn’t like it, she can suck my bones in the afterlife.
Charley laughs since Charlotte never says such things. In the mirror, Charley’s lips move like Kat’s.
Speaking of money, that job you had . . . second hand come is not terrible. At least you didn’t have to watch them jerk off and clean your face. I’m almost sorry you didn’t get real hands-on experience. Sex work isn’t terrible if you work hard and have goals. Show up. Maintain your appearance. And carry a gun. If a client asks for your number, call that day’s number and tell whoever answers what happened, so you never see him again. That’s the benefit of working for a corporation. Beats the army. The clients are disgusting, but it’s not about you, Kat says, Charley says, while Mother frowns over her shoulder. The worst part is they talk when they finish. I’d rather put their dick in my mouth again than listen to their bullshit.
Mother’s eyes bore into Charley’s skull; they share them, they share everything, one way or another, like roommates in the same cell. She closes her eyes and hears not Jimi but Mother calling from downstairs.
Knock knock. Charley? You there?
Sorry, she says, Mother wanted something.
I quit talking to mine after I put my dad in jail.
Charley’s mouth opens so wide she sees Blue peeking from behind her tonsils.
“Mother stares, waiting for an answer. The L on Kat’s head pulsates like a neon sign.”
He molested me. Aren’t words stupid? Dad RAPED me. I couldn’t count the times. When I was sixteen, I quit trying. I called 911. The funny thing is he had just given me that cell phone, the eternal asshole. The cops and the emergency techs found me bloody—it was my period—with evidence of his miserable need. I felt like I was the criminal turning him in. Crazy, right? I don’t know how I did it. Jesus, maybe, but I don’t believe in Jesus, so I don’t see why he would care about me.
Actually, Jesus—the words don’t come. The ferocity of Kat’s expression prevents Charley from mentioning that Mother says Armageddon is here and Jesus could be on her side.
He did my older sister too.
It brought you together, I guess.
Sure it did. Big Sis was my first pimp! She was blackmailing him with me. Mom knew. Mom taught her the business. Mom had been extorting him for doing Sis. They begged me to withdraw the charges—said they’d cut me in. They said if Dad went to jail, we’d have no income. Sis said she’d have to hook. Fuck me!
Charley gasped—not at Kat’s words, which she had repeated many times before, but at Mother’s absence. Usually, she drives Kat away now.
Mom won, though. I caved. The prosecutor read my statements to me in court, and I said they were lies. I lied about telling the truth. I testified against myself! How sick is that? Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. Kisses, Sis, you stupid cow-cunt!”
Charley reaches to stroke Kat’s face, but the mirror’s words push back her hand.
You’d never do that, would you?
Lie against yourself?
And there’s Mother, a little off cue, standing behind Kat like a deep focus shot from Citizen Kane. She moves toward Kat! That’s never happened before! She nears, arms open, whether to hug Kat or break through the glass; Charley doesn’t want to know. She closes her eyes and dreams of graduation; it’s tomorrow unless it was yesterday. She’s back in the second row, wearing her blue gown, tasselled cap on head, waiting with hands crossed to be called. Above loom shadowy figures in black robes reading names. Behind her, everyone else. The theatre so vastly exceeds the limits of human endurance, but for Jimi’s singing her war song like a lullaby. Her head bobs; she’s falling asleep again. Charley! The voice jerks her awake inside of her dream. Come forward and receive your reward. On the dais, she turns to face the others who have vanished like names erased. Among the countless empty seats, one rises. Mother, her sword tapping “All Along the Watchtower” on the metal chairs . . .
Yo, Charley! You there?
The bleary mirror blinks into focus. Mother, is that you?
I’m telling you, in court, everybody wanted to believe my lies. Who wants to think Dad the hot shit lawyer is a serial rapist growing his own victims? The judge ruled against my testimony. He must know lawyers are paid, liars. Dad went to the state prison, and I bolted the Mom-prison. Charley jumps back and sees Mother hiding behind Kat, a nearly perfect silhouette.
Charley looks as deep into those eyes as she dares. When I die, she thinks, you’ll bring me back, and everything will happen again.
In the Resurrection, everyone must come forward to receive their share of grace, Mother says over Kat’s shoulder. Fighting will be required.
Oh, the fight’s on, Charley says through her ventriloquist’s lips. Kat would be an excellent ally, especially if Blue doesn’t make it.
I moved out, Kat says, to a friend’s house. Her dad was nice. He treated me like a family member. I tried to do him once, just because he was so nice he’d never ask; his wife was a total bitch. He turned me away, which is weird. Maybe he knew I’m a lesbian.
In the mirror, Kat’s face freezes, arrested by Charley’s frightened face, which makes little sense since Kat can’t see what Charley sees, which is Mother’s L on Kat’s forehead, the one that caused Charlotte to use the word, Charley. In her panic, she wants to kiss Kat right now, to make that look disappear, but there’s Mother’s face, looking so much like her own, Adam’s apple bobbing because some words are as hard to swallow as they are to say.
You’re a lesbian?
Haven’t we been through this?
I’m like you— or are you bi?
Mother stares, waiting for an answer. The L on Kat’s head pulsates like a neon sign.
Mother says I am.
What do you say?
It’s just that we talk a lot, every day practically: about the future, and other things. When I don’t, she talks to me from my mirror.
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A laugh that sounds like a sob, and she wishes Jimi would play louder, but it’s that silent moment before it repeats, and she doesn’t see her lips move when she speaks. She’s afraid Mother is going to answer her.
Finding your mother in the mirror every day talking to you! I can’t think of anything more frightening. I’d have to break my mirrors and live like a vampire.
She wants me to see a therapist.
Kat’s eyes narrow, and her face becomes comically prim. You’re not skipping school to fuck your dad, are you? I wouldn’t want to call the attendance officer, young lady.
Charley’s face cracks—into a smile. It’s so spontaneous, beautiful, she doesn’t recognize it or her own teeth, which she imagines belong to Kat. She’s licking them. Mother’s image seems to dissolve in the glass.
School’s ok. It’s just that Mother thinks I shouldn’t date girls. She says L is Satan’s middle initial, and Jehovah will tattoo it on my forehead for all eternity, or until Jesus tosses me in the flames on Judgement Day.
Girl, I don’t see it.
Charley leans close to touch noses. She doesn’t see it either.
Well, I’m not one. The voice sounds strange in her own ears—it sounds so much like Charlotte, who sounds so much like Mother.
What about you and Kristin?
I saw you making out at the mall. Looked pretty hot.
She’s generally too stoned to get hot.
But you fuck?
I’m not—what Mother says.
So what’s the problem?
She didn’t know.
Dump Kristin. She’s not good enough for you.
Behind Kat, Mother nods her head.
Any other girls you want to try?
I tried—but she found grace. She left me behind.
Found Grace? Seriously? Do you believe in that shit? Well, you’re looking at grace, baby. No joke. Clients choose names for you. One called me Grace. The way he shouted that word when he came to my face, I almost believed I was it. The last time I saw him, though, was terrible. His daughter had just died. He couldn’t get it up. He cried so much he couldn’t function. Pushing around his limp dick, I could almost imagine what it was like to have a parent who truly loved you, who’d mourn your absence. I would’ve let him talk, but I had another client soon. So I whispered, Grace is here, Daddy, come unto me. His dick became lifelike enough to screw, though he kept crying and mumbling her name. As he got harder inside me, I had a terrible realization. Grace was his daughter’s name! I couldn’t help it; I puked in his face. Then he hit me and came. After he left, I called the number. Fucking grace.
Charley grimaces like a punch to the gut. Grace isn’t a name or even a name for a name, she wants to say, you’re grace, she wants to say but can’t because she can’t breathe with Charlotte now looking at her so triumphant and . . . and Jimi getting louder playing new notes in new combinations because Blue’s speaking through the guitar, saying never lie to yourself, Charley, don’t do what you hate, all things are disclosed before heaven, and she exhales because Kat’s there, not Charlotte.
You date dudes?
Some. I liked meth and ate bath salts and tried to eat his skin and another girl’s skin, but he was always nice to me. I was sorry he died.
“Oh, to exchange that face for the one she had before Mother encircled her.”
Men are dicey. Better to stay away.
How do you stand it?
Sleeping with them.
Learning I didn’t have to fuck them was the hard part. It’s a job. I’m getting my GED, saving for college. Then law school so I can sue assholes like Dad. They’re everywhere, like cash machines.
Talk of the future brings to mind graduation, which she almost remembers remembering, though, for the life of her, she can’t fathom Mother’s sword.
Watch out for therapists; the court assigned me mine. I call him The-Rapist. At first, he was my dream friend—the one that listens to whatever you say and understands you no matter how fucked up you are. And he was so typical—like my friend’s dad, I thought, except a fucking professional normal person. I started lingering after the sessions thinking some might rub off on me. It began with him making tea. And then he started telling me his problems. Who knew normal people have problems? It made me feel; I don’t know, smart or something. I didn’t get that he was telling me that he wasn’t who I thought he was. I thought maybe he was in love with me.
It happens, right? Charley asked hopefully.
You’re sweet, but who was I to him? I was pretty, and I was hurt, and I was fuckable. My parents fucked me! Therefore, I could be fucked by anybody. That’s what my life said— the facts on my résumé and The-Rapist knew that. When I realized he was using his impressive framed diplomas to get himself next to what made him hot, I dumped the asshole. Sex work is my therapy. I’m the one getting paid. The firm has me in training for their B & D division. Apparently, I’m a natural. I have that something extra.
In the mirror, Charley blinked her through her crying eyes like an actress receiving the Academy Award.
Thanks, everyone! Parental units? You watching? I owe everything to you! Hey Sis! Fuck yourself for once! Special shout-out to my therapist! Bruuuuuuce! Kisses, baby! Oh, you want a speech? I don’t have anything prepared, but . . . ok, here’s what every real-life actress knows. Once everything has already happened to you, anything goes! You can fake anything just to get through. I got there early. Just lucky, I guess.
The words, which Charley remembers perfectly, she was crying the first time Kat said them, leak from her lungs, her heart, her brain like she’s been punctured by someone else’s memories. Charlotte’s a bitch to play. Leaning across her childhood dresser, she wants to touch her hand, kiss her mouth, make her feel better somehow. She leans closer, lips ready to kiss. Kat turns aside as Charley talks out of the side of her mouth.
I already have a girlfriend, girlfriend.
The eyes in the mirror are vacant, from another world, one where Mother isn’t. Blue’s face replaces Kat’s like radio signals converging, and she doesn’t notice the earbuds fallen around her neck like a noose.
What if you walked out of this reflection and gave no forwarding address?
Mother will find you, a distant voice taunts.
Who said that? Charlotte, are you there?
If you know what’s in front of your face, Blue says, everything hidden from you will be disclosed.
Charley slaps her cheek twice, hard, to unshape its mouth and to unmake its eyes. Oh, to exchange that face for the one she had before Mother encircled her.
Through the mirror, Blue returns the pods to her ears. Listen, girl, listen this time, please. Blessed is she who came into being before coming into being. Her words soar like Jimi’s guitar.
Charley’s eyes flash, burning holes through the glass and penetrate the world behind the world. For a moment, just long enough, she can’t see anyone, not even herself, since the mirror is perfectly blank, but for the strange gravitational force pulling her forward into the black tunnels her eyes have made.
“In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.”In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.
A rolling roar, a buzzing in her brain. School counsellors’ words, Luke’s letters from Afghanistan, dead bodies in the bathrooms were reading newspapers aloud. It’s not strange to have gone through the mirror, not at all.
She expects light overwhelming but sees only her, broken glass embedded in that face like diamonds, eyes streaming red globs of blood like bleary mascara, motioning her forward with her sword. She looks for a place to run and recognizes the auditorium from her dream. Graduation night! This place is ginormous. Look at all these . . . at all these . . . people? A multitude whose number she couldn’t count, from every nation and tribe and tongue. Most look like they’re dead. She wonders if everything exists just for her.
Throughout the theatre, Jimi’s guitar reverberates. Still, only she hears it, his wah-wah whispering, this way, Charley, you can make it, but Mother is greeting her with the promised sacred kiss and putting that sword in her hand, except now it’s a pocket mirror, saying, nice work, honey, but look at yourself, on this day of all days, can’t you just fix your face? Her eyes are sockets black and bruised above strips of hanging flesh. N,o doubt about it, she looks beat-up, emptied out, but wearing that black lipstick Mother hates. It looks cute. Her lips pucker as the lights go out like they had never been a light from within allows her to see her robe is white, not blue, and smeared with blood. Mother’s robe is white like hers but sparkling as if freshly washed. You can change later, she whispers.
As she grows accustomed to the darkness, she discerns classmates naked but for the scars on their battered bodies. Her bloody eyes fix upon the robed figures on the stage. One sits upon a throne above the others. Around him are four animals teeming with eyes in front and back. A lion, a calf, an eagle, and a dog with a human face that Charley recognizes as Blue by the way it winks at her. He’s giving slips of paper to those whose names are called. Jesus, it’s going to take forever and a day to get through this thing. Her name rings out, but she hears only Jimi, while Blue seems to be barking and wagging her tail.
Mother pushes her forward, whispering, it’s ok, baby, the dead are not alive, and the living will not die. Charley can’t hear, and anyway, she’s watching her arm where a feather quill writes upon it from inkpots filled with blood. A glowing graven image was raising up like goosebumps. She can’t believe it. Mother said it would happen over her dead body. The letters emerging from her skin seem to be moving the quill until the pot disappears into the air. The quill, free-floating, drips blood on her bare feet and then goes where the pen went. The letters light up her eyes. G R A C E runs one direction and C H A R L E Y the other. They intersect at the A. It looks like a sideways cross.
In the second row among the chosen, Mother has returned with her diploma, cooing; you’ve earned it, baby. I will choose you as one from a thousand and as two from ten thousand, and you will stand as a single one. Before she can ask its meaning, the paper starts to burn. Fire shoots through her fingers and into every strand of her hair as the throne rises heavenward. Fight your ass off, the ascending one yells, but Jimi drowns him out. The doggy Blue dissipates into the smoke. Only then does the terrible smell infuse her, the auditorium turning into the ashes from the burning flesh of women and men and the world darkening at the edges as its light disappears through the gap where the throne ascended.
On the beach, two remain. One holds two swords, the other none above neither sun nor moon. Still, the view seems familiar despite I-75 being gone. That’s ok. She won’t be needing her car anymore. In the sand, she notices shards of stars fallen like unripe fruit from a tree. The sea had been a bottomless pit, and the wind sounds like a buzzing of locusts. Her ear pods are gone. Mother’s voice pierces through the noise.
You ready? They’re about to rise up. We’ll have to fight them again.
Here’s your sword.
Don’t make me fight you. I’ll cut your arm off to save you.
Through her arm’s muscle, the tattoo flexes like a taunt. Mother can’t help herself. The sword severs the arm at the A, and the A shatters the sword. Charley doesn’t blink. She has never seen Mother cry before.
It’s ok, Mom. You have another one.
In her armour of light, she kneels, not in supplication, but to issue a command.
Mother, Charlotte cleft your body to enter this world. She now cleft me so that Charley can return. She bows her head.
Jesus, in the name of Blue, she says, grace shall reign over me.
As the sword comes down, the music swells in place of the disappeared sea. By her two ears and her one arm, Jimi carries her to that world where she meets the face she wore before the world was made, and they were one.
Parrish is a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer and critic living somewhere in California and teaching. His debut chapbook, I Close My Eyes, and I Almost Remember, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.