by Anthony Kelly
Mind you, she did have a few ideas at first. Spectral ones for the most part—but still ideas. Unfortunately, they were the kinds of ideas that had that certain je ne sais quoi about them that could really rattle things up—particularly in a little town like ours. Everywhere you went you saw the posters, heard the rally cries, got the phone calls pestering you to vote. It was fine, there were smiles and cheers and polling booths, but there were also groans and fights and riots—though those weren’t until later.
When I first saw that my mother was running for mayor I was in the grocery store. It was the morning and I wasn’t doing too well and the check-out girl was wearing this big blue pin with my mother’s big white face on it:
JACKIE SHERWOOD—FOR A SAFER TOMORROW
I didn’t believe it was her—not initially, at least. The photographer had clearly stood far too close to her—the flash almost erasing her eyes entirely. Her hair was also strange to me. After her lifelong insistence on brushing mine three times a day, hers was oddly disheveled. Her ends were fraying and uneven around her shoulders—she’d dyed it some color I thought she hated. I would have thought it was a mugshot if it wasn’t for that big dumb smile stretching across her face, furrowing her brow.
I called my brother in the car to tell him, but he’d already heard. We were in hysterics, obviously. She was the only thing we really called each other about anymore—we’d discuss her phone calls, her letters, her weekly voicemails—all of which invariably revolved around the same things: how she’s been watching them play and how they’ve been drawing on the walls again and how we have to come down to say hello—saying how much she misses us. That we owed her a visit.
It’s fine, we do see her now and again—some years more than others, of course—things get busy. I have less of an excuse, living just on the other side of town and all. But, at the very least we’re there for Easter, that’s her favorite. That’s the hardest for her.
Later on, my brother emailed me her platform and we laughed, yet again. There wasn’t even much to laugh about really. It was all pretty standard. I think that we were just trying to fill the silence over the phone—gleefully listing off her campaign promises and sharing a bottle of wine from our own sides of the country.
It was all about the parks, really—more green space. More green space for the children to play in and wider bike lanes and less hauntings and fixing the streetlights that didn’t quite sync up with dawn and dusk. She’d do it all, of course. Easy peasy.
We scrolled through the numerous photographs of her and her new team which were predictably staged in the kinds of places she never would have set foot in otherwise. I remember the years that she couldn’t leave the living room. Now she was taking pictures at soup kitchens, banquet halls, construction sites—each one with that same overexposure painting her as white as could be. Who knows how much she was paying this photographer. They were truly terrible.
Each one was accompanied with some vapid quote:
“This community is strong. This community bands together and accepts all.”
“Every single person – living or dead – is the backbone of this town.”
“Investing in environment and education!”
She was posing with homeowners and the souls of teachers and outside of local businesses—anything she could do to swing the vote. She always had this sly smile on that I knew too well. One that cracked when you examined it too closely. I knew that my brother saw it too, but we’d never mention it. It would just send him off. Just some old dirt, no need to be dug up again. No point.
By the end of the phone call we weren’t laughing anymore. She seemed completely fine, to be honest. As fine as these people ever are. Completely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. My arm was getting sore from holding up the phone for so long and I finally told my brother that I had to go—I had to sleep. I was a little drunk too, but I didn’t mention that. I just said goodnight, and then I said goodnight to the old lady in the hallway and went to bed. I didn’t dream, really.
It came as a surprise that I woke the next morning to a call from my mother asking me if I had a camera she could borrow. She had some project she was working on, apparently—didn’t even mention the campaign. She sounded out of breath and jacked up on caffeine—I could hear this violent wind around her. I asked her where she was—she said it didn’t matter, she just needed the camera.
I did have a camera, and I told her that I could bring it in a few weeks at Christmas but she said she needed it as soon as possible.
I never really wanted to go over there—my childhood home. She’d make a whole evening out of it. She’d set the table and light candles for a séance and cook a completely obnoxious and elaborate meal without asking if I would be staying for dinner. She’d say come on, I’ve got a whole thing planned and would get on her knees again saying that I didn’t love her, but then eventually would stop and just judge me for drinking too much—claiming that I never used to drink, not when you were young.
I didn’t feel like lying. I didn’t have an excuse or anything so I took the camera over later that week.
When I arrived, she was throwing a party of all things—a rally, a fundraiser. She often threw parties when we were kids, but not like this. There were people with suits and buttons and noisemakers. There were people smoking and sampling wine. There were people asking questions about the children—asking how long she’d had them for—if they were rescues or if she’d gone private.
It was quite an awful house to throw a party in, really. My mother never knew how to decorate a home. Half of her furniture was mismatched and salvaged (stolen) from her previous office jobs. There were boxes of children’s toys in the corner of the living room from thirty years ago and there were these terrible paintings she’d done of my brother and me. They were from when we left for college—she made our eyes so wide and sharp on the edges—my hair was a thick, bright yellow like I had when I was a girl. They were scattered everywhere. Poorly framed alongside posters of stock photos she claimed she’d taken when she was young. They were wrinkled and held up by bright red thumbtacks, begging to be taken down.
When I walked in she kissed me and immediately started introducing me to everyone. There was the usual collection of old shoes by the door—size two, size five, size seven. Old ones of ours. I said I can’t stay but she said Oh, you must—there’s so many people you have to meet! Just come in and say hi to the team—completely forgetting that up to this point, she still had not formally announced to me that she was running for mayor.
The night was roughly standard from then on—she said the kinds of things she would usually say to me just directed at other people. We’d talk to one group and I’d have to repeat things like No, I’m actually quite happy at my job, despite my mother’s insistence that I needed a new one. She’d done that forever. Whether it was a job, a boyfriend, an apartment, anything. She needed her scrawny little fingers in it.
The children would appear to draw on the walls and laugh every once in a while. You’d see them just out of the corner of your eye. My mother was telling everyone that she’d rescued them last year but they were here when we moved in. Their faces haven’t changed. You aren’t supposed to keep them this long. She knows that. They get dark after a while.
I was finally able to get out after prying my mother’s cold hand off me and I drove home on the backroads—I wasn’t too bad but I got home and immediately fell into a heavy, heavy sleep. She was exhausting. The neighbors had left me a message telling me that the old lady in the hall had been screaming again, but I didn’t bother calling them back.
The next week at work everyone was buzzing about my mother. They seemed to like her platform and luckily, nobody knew that we were related—meaning that they’d say what they meant—which was entertaining. They’d all argue in the lunch room. They’d argue about the left turn lights on Macdonald not being long enough and building up traffic. They’d argue about the slaughterhouse making the whole east end smell rotten. They’d argue about jobs and unwanted spirits walking through their walls and going through their fridges. They’d argue about everything. And she was the one to solve it all, apparently—my mother. This is what I’d heard, at least. But, this was before everything else happened.
Every day I’d drive to work and pass the signs downtown—all up and down both sides of Main Street. There were some worse than others:
JANE KENNEY—THINKING OF YOUR SAFETY
ANDREA HOBART—MOVING FORWARD, CHERISHING BACKWARD
JEFF JONES—TAXES! LOWER FOR SOME! HIGHER FOR SOME!
They all had that same terrifying look on their faces—who was taking these photos? They were barely even smiling. Just looked surprised more than anything, caught off guard. Like those old photographs you see—people in suits and ties—horrified of the bright lights.
My mother had a new one, which I didn’t mind, but I knew she was lying:
JACKIE SHERWOOD—SMALL-TOWN SPIRIT!
She was always a liar, but never overtly. She would make you think up lies yourself—it began with you don’t need that, which was assuring and instilled some kind of independence in us, but it soon became you don’t want that—and eventually we didn’t want anything. You don’t want that candy bar—you don’t want to go outside—you don’t want to play with anyone else—you don’t want to bring them in for show-and-tell, they’re ours—you don’t want to go to the dance with that boy—you don’t want to go to college—what you want is to stay at home with me.
Sometimes you have to scream a little to punch a memory out of your head.
At work that day someone wore one of her pins and I had to leave to scream in the bathroom. Just for a second. This was still before everything else had happened.
Everyone asked me what was wrong when I got back to my desk. I said I was just having one of those days—which they bought, obviously. It wasn’t the first time.
Everything happened the day after I called my brother—and he still says that she got what she deserved. Not that it changed the result, she still won by quite a large majority. It was all very silly and horrible in the end—there were these leaks and photos and videos of her. All signing odd documents in backrooms and underworlds and her getting drunk and shaking hands with Civil War generals—nothing good. Everyone I knew turned against her to save themselves, but when the votes came in, it was the quiet who won—as they always do. And the others burned the downtown to the ground.
My brother called to ask if I was okay and I was—I was safe, but I was worried. My mother hadn’t called either of us in weeks. No one had even seen her after she’d won. Her disappearances always worried my brother—as they should have. He’d begun to hear her voice again and had to up his meds but it wasn’t helping. He said his apartment wasn’t the same, he wanted to move again. Third time this year.
The days after a riot are always so quiet. The destruction remains but the bodies all float away and return to their uneventful daily tasks. Their heartbeats decrease, their heads go on straight, their throats are soothed with honey and tea.
My mother did eventually call me, just as frantically as the last time. It was loud on the other end of the line with noxious winds and maniacal laughter blaring as she asked me if I could come and pick her up—I’m just at home.
When I got there, she’d been trying to hold them again and they’d gone dark on her. Too much living flesh makes them go stale, makes them scratch and crawl under the floorboards—make you think that the house is still settling, on fire, etc.
She didn’t say much on the way to the hospital. She was whiter than ever. The color in her eyes was gone. Her nails were long with grey grit built up underneath them. She was shaking. She was muttering things like You’ll never know how good you had it—nobody will ever love you—not like this. But it was just under her breath.
I called my brother and he said At least she’s alive. That made me pause for a moment.
She was released two weeks later and I’d had some people come and take care of the house which made it worse for her at first, but she calmed down eventually. After a few more breakdowns everything went back to normal. She’d call a couple times a week, leave us drunk voicemails late at night, say she was doing so, so well, and where the hell are you and I’m thinking of rescuing again. I guess that wasn’t illegal, but her doctor had told her it wouldn’t be the best option right now.
Otherwise, her time served as mayor was generally monotonous. Her supporters and opposition retreated into the woodwork once again as they started to rebuild the downtown. People questioned her time away, obviously, but she would just brush it off as unforeseen medical issues, and all that. People would pester her, and then ask her, and then eventually stopped caring entirely—that’s the way it goes. Nobody was pleased or displeased, the streetlights still didn’t change at the correct times, there were just as many hauntings, the bike lanes were as small as they ever were. Same old, same old. Easy peasy.
It wasn’t until four years later when her re-election posters began to pop up that my brother called me in a panic. The other end of the line sounded like a fire and I had to fly out to see him.
When I opened his door, he was on the ground—shirtless and white. He had the same eyes as her when she’d gone bad. He kept saying things like I know she’s here somewhere as he tore down every wall in his apartment—insisting that she’d burrowed herself in the cracks of a closet—somewhere behind a light fixture.
I chased after him. I grabbed him. I held him.
I wrapped him in blankets. I squeezed him.
I told him to breathe.
I wanted to crack his head open and dig until I found the thoughts that made him feel this way and put them in a locked box. Then I wanted to bury that box in a forgotten place where he’d never think about them again—but all I could do was squeeze. It wasn’t thoughts, unfortunately—it was memories—and memories change—take on darker shapes.
I remember I sat with him in the doctor’s office where he told them the story for the millionth time. They’d given him something so that he didn’t have to scream. He talked very quietly. Very slowly.
She was in his head and saying if he didn’t come back home she’d kill herself and haunt his walls and under his bed until he joined her forever. She’d slit her wrists and her blood would boil up through his floorboards for a thousand years—wherever he lived, she would find him. The doctor insisted that these were just voices, intrusive thoughts, as they say—but they weren’t. I knew that. My brother always had it so much worse than me.
I squeezed him again in his hospital bed and he was back home a few weeks later—feeling a little better. A little brighter—there was a little more color in his skin.
I helped him move, which was great for him. He lit up when we put the last piece of furniture down. He couldn’t hear footsteps in other rooms, he couldn’t hear the bathroom sink gargling up horrible profanities—it was all okay for now. I told him that if he really wanted to, he could change his number and I wouldn’t tell her. So, he did—he held me close at the airport and said Come back soon—I love you—and then I was gone.
When I got home it all rushed back, like nothing had ever happened. The signs. The faces. The slogans. All the same as the last time, just a little more hateful. My mother was advertising what she’d accomplished and the other candidates were advertising what she hadn’t. Same old, same old.
What she’d really done in the end was what she had ultimately set out to do—the parks, the green space. Spent millions on it, honestly. In every park, they’d planted a hundred thousand trees and built these ponds and rivers and structures for kids to play on. No one would have known, though. When she’d mention it during her campaign it was met with confusion, mostly. No one had ever seen these spaces. No one had seen them or heard the noise of the construction crews building them, let alone the sounds of children playing.
But that was all she had, so she went with it. Parks, parks, parks and she won, yet again. When I went back to the office everyone still brought up those leaked photos and everything, but nobody really cared. It was old news, she was what we had now, for a while. Until next time.
One morning when I was driving to work I realized they had finally finished rebuilding the downtown, which, unsurprisingly, had to be done for a second time after the re-election results came in. There were no broken windows anymore, no crumbling brick—no exposed spirits or burning trashcans. It was all new and everyone walked around smiling and shopping and laughing—it was like an old movie—everyone in colorful dresses and suit jackets, sun hats and glasses.
But there was this little reflection, a shimmer off a side street. It looked so different from everything else. Like the spark of a cigarette in a dark room. Like a magnifying glass searing an insect. I don’t even know what made me follow it—it just felt like something was calling me.
At the end of the street I hit a line of trees. I stopped, got out of the car and went down on my knees, still uncertain of what was possessing me—pulling me on a string. I began to crawl through a thick, thick brush with stinging nettles and the tallest, sharpest pines I’d ever seen. But there was this pond at the end of it all—it was a nice one too. And there was a playground, little lily pads—a sign telling you the history of the native flowers and wildlife. It was massive—it was beautiful—it was just completely enclosed in this circle of almost impenetrable trees.
Who knows what that could mean.