When I was eleven I fell out of a tree. This is why I can see into the future. My mother’s name is Samantha. She will die in one week. I have known about this for a long time. We all have. We’re throwing her a party. It’s my mother’s death party.

First are the invitations. We are sparing no expense, so everyone is invited. The invitations are made from handmade Italian cardstock and the type is written in gold thread. The words are chosen carefully. ‘Dinner’ appears twice, as does ‘prizes’ and ‘open bar’, while ‘last’ and ‘farewell’ appear only once. Invitations began appearing on doorsteps throughout the country one month ago and the response has been strong. Second are the decorations. My younger sister Violet is working on them. She has a pretty nice wildlife motif going on. My mother loves animals. We are having a painting made for her, in fact, of her surrounded by over twenty animals in a hickory grove. Eagles perch on her shoulders and spotted fawns paw at her skirts. It is to be unveiled at the party. My father is seeing to that. My job is transportation and I have a whole fleet of black taxis prepared for the occasion, whom I will be joining having just turned sixteen and passed my driver’s test. In my head we are ravens that will spread throughout the city to gather up my mother’s loved ones for their last goodbyes.

My mother dies by being shot, right at the culmination of the party. My father is the first to arrive on the scene and tears off his shirt and presses it to the blood flowing from her chest. He does this almost instantly, as if he were prepared all along for this eventuality, which of course he was. His eyes will be focused in concentration, his movements sure. At this point, despite everything, he still believes she can be saved. We have had many arguments over the specifics of the vision. Do I see her die or just get shot? Being shot is not necessarily fatal, he tells me, what with modern medicine being what it is these days.

The party will be held outdoors. There will be no rainout venue because there will be no rain. We have pleaded our case and gotten the OK from the mayor to use the local park. He is invited too. His wife will be wearing a strapless turquoise dress. My mother will be wearing a chinoiserie style dress of sea-foam silk. She will appear from the west as the sun sets. The guests’ breath will catch at her beauty as the golden light reflects off her shoulders and illuminates her dark hair.

Several dozen thunder sticks, sneakily distributed throughout the crowd by my sister and I, will be rattled to accompany her entrance. She will be standing on a platform one hundred feet in the air from which she will zipline straight to the bar, where my father will be waiting for her with an amaretto and vodka. He will say, hello darling, and she will blush and turn to her admirers, already queuing around her. Several minutes later the crowd will watch in surprise as my mother pauses to remove my father’s white jacket and dress shirt, revealing another article of clothing underneath which will be recognizable to anyone who has seen one before as a bulletproof vest. Not this time, she will say, taking it from him. No jumping in front of this one, my love.

A second theme will be rebirth, for obvious reasons. This will be encapsulated by an abundance of mirrors placed throughout the park. When you stand among the dining tables there will be two of you. When you stand along the forest line there will be three. When my mother stands at the bar after her zipline entrance, she will be infinite. The mirrors will be both striking and unobtrusive, hanging from tent poles, mounted onto trees, and free standing in the middle of fields.

Some will be so cleverly placed as to elude immediate notice. Acquaintances will wave at one another in a concealed mirror and then lose each other on the approach. Others will be gilded in gold, silver, emerald, agate or pearl. There will be fun mirrors for children and one-way mirrors for voyeurism. There will be a balloon wizard named Steve who will, among other things, create an entire dress of balloons for my sister. She will wear it for almost a full hour before passing it off to others, who will pass it off to others, who will pass it off to others. I will be offered a balloon sword but will not take it, being in a serious mood because of my mission. Meanwhile, my father will be prepping the fireworks in the back fields. He has peonies (a spherical break of colored stars), timed rain (slow-burning glittering stars), spiders (fast-burning charcoal stars) and Bengali fire (expanding ‘whiskers’ of blue light). He will run along the preset rows with a blowtorch and a welding mask over his face, lighting the fireworks one after the other in a constant display that, from a distance, for example near the bandstand where I will be standing, my arm around my mother’s waist as she chats with a few cousins, will look almost professional. The fireworks will not be announced nor will anyone be prepared for them. They will start, unbidden, just after twilight and continue for around fifteen minutes after which a bell will ring signaling the band to play and the dancers to take the floor. My father will appear some minutes later, sweating but still dashing in his white tuxedo, to take my mother’s hand for her last dance. Part way through I will cut in, as will Violet and a dozen or so others. A conga line will form.

After the shooting, my sister will arrive second to my mother’s side. My father will immediately pass off the blood-staunching duties to her and call into the crowd for the doctors, hired by my father, to come forward and begin plying their trade. They will appear on cue, shining flashlights into my mother’s eyes, massaging her heart, pouring potassium ferrate on the wound, all attempting to perform the same actions at the same time, getting in each other’s way and arguing. In the background a siren will be heard, sounding its response to a call for help that, if anyone ever looks at the timing, must have been made a full ten minutes before the shooting even took place.

The guest list will include a childhood friend that my mother has often spoken of but has not seen since she was ten. My father has put forth the idea that he is imaginary, but will be proven wrong when I track him down for the party. This is yet to happen, but I know it will. I have seen it. He will surprise her from the side, tapping her on the shoulder. Samantha, he will say, is it you? And she will say, Charles. Her left hand will touch his shoulder and my father will turn away. I will be standing close enough to hear them speak of their former adventures. Their goodbye will be long and sweet. At this point, Father, Violet and I will already have said our own goodbyes, allowing others almost exclusive access to my mother. The entire week leading up to the party will be filled with goodbyes. Violet and I will barely leave our mother’s arms and Father will never be more than ten feet away, usually looking out the window or listening closely for footsteps, always guarding, always listening. We will play games and jump on hotel beds. We will recount family stories and mysteries, and we will plan, maxing out all credit cards and emptying all bank accounts, for my mother’s send-off will be legendary. The time for pleading will be over, though we will still plead. The time for insisting will be over, though we will still insist. My mother will be implacable. You have bought me four years with your love, she says, and now I am ready for this to be over. My mother has chosen to be shot at the culmination of her own party. This suits her high sense of the dramatic. She is ready. I understand this. But what if I’m not? Sometimes I feel like my mother must blame me for her death, but at these times she runs her hands through my hair and calls me her special boy, her love.

The first time I saw my mother’s death she was drowning in our backyard pool, trapped underneath the cover. Until then my gift had been fun, a lark. I would predict the outcome of my sister’s soccer games or the migratory patterns of birds. Play rock, paper, scissors and never lose. But with that one vision everything changed. I told my father about it and he pulled off the cover. That night my mother came in from gardening, soaking wet, laughing, saying, I tripped, dripping water all over the carpet. I remember the look my father gave me then. Three days later I had another vision, my mother falling from a ladder, a wad of leaves freshly gathered from the drains in her hands. My father hired a groundskeeper. His name was Lenny. Soon there were new visions: my mother driving off a bridge in the rain, my mother bitten by a black widow, my mother struck by lightning in a storm. I’m not sure exactly when they turned violent. Lenny smashing her head in with our dining room telephone for refusing his advances, a cross-country serial killer making a stop at our house, a local gang having a firefight in a dining establishment while my mother is jogging by. We went on the run, using my visions to stay one step ahead. My father cornered Lenny, who continued to follow us, one night on a deserted road and buried him in the forest. It didn’t help, though. The visions kept coming.

The majority of the guests will arrive at the airport and my ravens and I will descend upon it en masse. The cabs will have wireless radios for synchronization. A smaller detachment will be sent to the bus and train stations, and a few will be sent around town for locals. I have over seventy itineraries scheduled and memorized. There is Jane Geisler, my mother’s best friend from high school, arriving on the 5.10 from Juno, with her professional wrestler husband (Jim ‘The Genius’ Johnson) and two kids. There will be Julia Atwood from Syracuse on the 4.45 who worked with my mother at a flower shop in college and has since moved into PR work, promoting a line of citrus-based pheromones. Julia once sent my mother a free sample of Lemon Desire which she then sprayed generously on Dad. For the rest of the day, whenever he came into the room she would turn her head, give an audible sniff, and throw herself into his arms. There will be Margaret Tippy, who went to the same gym as my mother when we lived in Lewiston and quickly became her workout partner. They started on ellipticals and stair-climbers, side-by-side, but soon my mother convinced Margaret to take up racquetball with her, saying with a smile that she much preferred exercise when she was chasing balls. Margaret has eleven children, all attending. There will be Arthur Doane of Roanoke, NY, who my mother worked with briefly one summer in college; they struck up a friendship through mutual self-interest, in which Arthur taught her to play the accordion and my mother taught him to drink whisky. She would wear large red boxing gloves on each hand and punch him in the chest if he made a face. There will be Mark J. Donaldson on the 3.55 from St. Louis, the owner of the corner store where my mother grew up. They would play a game in which she rolled dice for the price of her groceries, double sixes being free. One day she was surprised to see him allow a customer to pay without rolling and decided to confront him over this injustice when, just as she was gathering her breath to speak, he turned and gave her a wink. The wink was so well-executed that not only did she forget her objections, but the wink, in that instant, became the wink that all future winks would be judged by, even her own, which she practiced endlessly in the mirror, perfecting them for the future when such things were sure to come in handy. And lastly, there will be an entire circle of mothers my mother was part of during her pregnancy with me, coming in on the 2.15 from Richmond. They would meet up at each other’s houses to share their hopes and fears, drinking virgin martinis and speaking of folic acid and lactation, the secret knowledge they would need to keep their children alive. They will surround my mother with their arms, holding her there, whispering in her ears and, one-by-one, my mother will kiss them all.

Dinner will be served at eight o’clock by the employees of four local restaurants, especially hired for the night. It will consist of seven courses, representing the seven trials of my mother’s life. There will be endive boats of ricotta cheese and roasted fennel (birth), ravioli with guinea fowl and burrata cheese with a flaming rum mango sauce (her father’s death at the mill when a new employee lit a cigarette, or rather failed to, because the whole place went up like a firecracker; included in this is her mother’s descent into alcoholism), supreme of pigeon en croute stuffed inside roasted sunflowers and topped with ceps mushroom sauce (when she turned eighteen and realized that this world was actually the real world and she had to deal with the here and now, here being southern Illinois and now being the year her mother was arrested and incarcerated for arson, perpetrated in a failed attempt to fake her own death to avoid gambling debts), tarte-fine with truffle-infused northern beans on a bed of southern chive cornbread dressing (finding my father, the only man worthy of sharing her life, at a Civil War reenactment, picked out of a crowd of thousands), roasted steelhead trout with loaves of freshly baked bread topped with garlic and maple-glazed peach chutney (birth of her children, both c-sections, resulting in one vertical scar across her stomach and one horizontal, creating a cross), apple-pear crisps with macadamia crumb and seven-year Irish cheddar (when I came down with rare anaplastic large-cell lymphoma at age seven, during which my mother and I made fifty-seven trips to the hospital over the course of a year and a half, passing time by playing endless games of dice, the final score of which, I still remember: 2134 – 2126), and an imperial gingerbread pyramid with caramel and salted butter ice-cream (death). Also at the dinner will be Richard Levine of Suffolk, the violinist who once saved Violet and I from a tornado while at the local park, identifying it by smell alone (a sulfuric sharpness), for he had smelled it once before in North Dakota when his childhood home was destroyed as his family watched from across the street, still in their station wagon, having just come home from a vacation up north at Devil’s Lake.

For three years we fled from state to state, never staying in one place any longer than the time it took for me to have another vision. I would walk up to my parents and say, I’m sorry. Dad would immediately start tapping his fingers and Mom would pull me into her lap while I told them what I saw. We’d check out of one motel just to check into another. Dad paid cash. We flew under the radar. We exchanged cars every few thousand miles at used lots. My mother has been attacked by bears, wolves, and killer bees; she has woken up in cellars with strange men pouring gasoline over her head; she has walked through ghost-towns holding a pane of bullet-proof glass over her face. We would always find a way to change the course of the future, though often just barely. Dad and I crashing through the basement window. Violet cutting the rope at just the right moment to drop the cinder blocks. In Oklahoma, we stopped by the side of the road to look at the map when all of a sudden a rock hit the passenger-side window where my mother was sitting, shattering it, causing lines of blood to appear on her face and arms. A group of feral children chased after the car for almost a mile down the rutted dirt road while I directed us to safety, saying things like, if we go down that road there will be an avalanche, if we go down this road there is a drunk with a shotgun. By the exclusion principle I guided us: to the only places that didn’t result in my mother’s death. One day, in Tuscon, I had a vision that my mother would be killed by a falling tree branch. We decided the only safe place for her was in the basement of the motel. The first day we kept her company, playing board games, but on the second we needed to run errands before moving on. Violet and I flipped a coin for the front seat. Violet won. We were just getting out of the car at the grocery store when I had another vision, but it was already too late. Violet was lying on the pavement, blood forming a pool below her, a large oak branch covering her body. We lifted her into the car and rushed her to the hospital. I stayed with Violet in the examination room while Dad went to call Mom. Thirty minutes later she burst into the room where the surgeon was stitching Violet’s scalp back together, her eyes wide, her mouth tight, her hair dishevelled, and spoke one word: enough. It was several months before we fully understood what she meant.

Guests will enter the park through a tunnel formed by the foliage of overhead trees. Along the tunnel will be a variety of scenes from my mother’s life woven out of vines, branches and other elements of the living forest. There is one of my mother, just a baby, her eyes up in the sky, speaking her first word, moon, a white mushroom coming from her lips. There is one of her standing on the banks of a river of pine needles after running away from home at sixteen. There is another of her kissing a man in the middle of a crowd; he wears a lichen uniform and carries a twig musket. There is one of her holding two acorn babies to her two pinecone breasts. There is one of her helping a small boy to play the violin, holding his hands and guiding them upon the dried grass strings, her hair flowing over both their shoulders and blending into the horsehair of the bow. There is one of her holding a child’s hand as the two gaze from the peak of Mt. Equinox, both of them shading their eyes with the same gesture, the same eyes made of bark. And lastly, there is one of her and two children standing outside a stick forest; my mother is extending one of her arms towards the forest and the other towards a woven car with sunflower wheels, referencing when she would pick us up from school and ask us whether we wanted to go home the normal way or the adventurous way, a question to which there was only one answer.

The mayor will get to my mother’s side next in a state of confusion. His face will start in surprise, gone completely white. I thought it was all a joke, he says, a game. By this time everyone will be in motion. The ambulance will have just finished storming its way up the field and the EMT’s will be trying to call off the doctors and get my mother onto a stretcher. This will be further complicated by the crowd, which will have panicked, running in what will seem to be random directions. The man with the gun will have also started to run, starting a chase that, for a time, will make me quite well-known throughout the region. He will think that he was careful and wasn’t seen, but he will be wrong, for this is my mission and I will be in close pursuit. People will later assume that I used my power of foretelling to know where he was going and what he would do, but the truth is that these visions will not be given to me, and I will be fueled only by a feeling of revenge in its purest and most dangerous form, and if I do have a vision during the chase it will be only of myself, from above, watching with astonishment as I jump fences and repel down fire escapes. I finally corner him in a blind alley. We are both breathing hard but I am still calm, cool. He points his gun at me and I bring out my dad’s Walther .22, which I have hidden in my jacket pocket. This creates a situation known as a Mexican Standoff. There are two things that can happen in these circumstances. One, of course, is we shoot. The other is we talk. So I ask him, is he happy now? That was my mother, I say. He begins to explain himself, that it was just a job, nothing personal. I tell him that talk is cheap and we should finish this. He says a professional never kills more than he has to and shoots me in my right arm, running past my body toward the street. I reach for the gun as he closes in on the exit of the alley. I can see his form over the barrel, dark beneath the streetlamps above, my finger on the trigger.

At this same time, my mother will be in the back of the ambulance engaged in her own struggle. The bleeding will have stabilized but her heart flatlining, the attendants holding the defibrillator to her chest, trying to shock her back to life. My father will be gazing on, his hands covering his face. He has one great hope that he is holding onto, and that is: what if her heart stops, technically causing her death, and then is restarted? Would it all be over? I have not, as yet, been able to answer this question for him because I share the same hope, and any visions I have had of this moment are too clouded by what I wish to see: her heart, soft and silent inside her chest, surrounded by a heavy moment of stillness; then: motion, living motion, circular and red, ventricles and atria, drums pounding, trumpets blaring, the curse lifted at last, my mother back from the dead.

 

Image by Andy Baker

Ann Beattie | First Sentence
Laura Kasischke | First Sentence