Portland, Oregon, Spring 2012
Lover indeed they have covered with weeds
My body but my soul remains
So play louder, and faster, and stronger
And make this soil break
Make it break
These weeds these weeds tangled tangled
Oh these knots not so simple
Oh these trees hanging hanging
Oh their limbs casting
- ""The Graveyard Song, PigPen Theatre Company
Rhona Gilles slipped as she stepped into the main room of Union Station, lugging a duffel and looking every inch the tired, drowned rat she was. Usually graceful to the point of absurdity, that is how tired she was. Because the world hated her, it had been raining in Los Angeles when she had transfer from Greyhound bus to Coastal Starlight. Used to having Lance carry the heavy things, she had barely stumbled to her seat after the downpour and slept the sleep of coma patients, nearly stabbing the conductor on instinct when he woke her to ask for a ticket.
She scanned the room for a pay phone and ended up having to ask a tired looking man with a corks in his earlobes to point them out, hidden from the world in a corner of the cavelike room that most resembled the place a bear would leave its waste.
She left Shelley a self pitying voicemail. “Hi Shel, it’s your favorite fairy princess. Going to my doom to meet my double. I could be dead when you get this. If I don’t call in 18 hours tell Lance to murder / eat the entire city of Portland.” She hung up heavily, looked at the newspaper clipping Shelley had printed out for her.
“REMEMBERING THE DUST BOWL” it read in the Portland Tribune Online. “Local Rhona Huang remembers the Okie Legacy.” A picture accompanied the interview, a tiny woman with white, whispy hair and blue eyes. Her skin was a delta of wrinkles, nearly translucent with age.
“So there’s another you.” Shelley had said when Rhona told her how the whole thing works.
“She’s not another me. She’s a replacement me. A mockup of me. Me in quotes.”
Shelley sucked on a blood bag and looked horrified.
“I think you should kill it.” Lance said, crossing his arms.
“After finding out what it knows.” Poppy added absent mindedly. She was poring over crime reports.
“Point is I can’t do anything,” Rhona said. “I have no idea where it is. It, or my parents, or my nine siblings.”
“Nine?” Shelley said, pulling in air. “Wow.” She touched her stomach. “Ow. How did your mother survive?”
“Manners.” Poppy said, not looking up.
Eight months and many torpored cultish vampires later, Shelley nearly tripped as she ran up to Rhona. “I found her, Rho. I found her.”
Which brought her here, with borrowed money in her pockets and a bag full of weapons. (Ground travel was fun because no one asked you what you planned on using that machete for.) She examined the handwritten address Shelley had given her: “Rose Gardens.” It sounded nice. A growl nearly escaped her lips. She had been spending up way too much time around Lance.
Rose Gardens was a retirement home. Swanky and well lit. The staff still smiled and the intercoms played big band music through tinny speakers as dinner was served.
“Rhona Huang please.” Rhona said to the girl at the desk. She looked at her bag, adjusted it on her shoulder. “I came from a ways.”
The girl smiled. Pretty, gawky. In a different mood, Rhona would have been interested. “Oh, that’s sweet. The rest of the family is already here. You’ll have to sign in.” She pushed the clipboard towards Rhona.
A cascade of names: Jeremy Huang, Noah Huang, Dora Huang, Ruth Huang, Max Huang, Liam Huang, May Huang. All so unimaginative.
“We all love Rhona. Such a cut up, that one.” the girl said, taking the clipboard back. “Straight down two junctions, then left, two more junctions, make a right and you’re there. Follow the yellow line back if you’re lost.”
“Thanks.” Rhona said hollowly.
She walked down the florescent lit path, like Theseus in the maze. Except the minotaur had her face and a gaggle of irritatingly adorable children. She rehearsed the cool lines she had written for this moment in her head. “Tell Dad I say hi.” “I’ve always been given to self loathing.” “Die, me!” (What? They couldn’t all be winners.)
She turned left, noticed the wallpaper had changed to an ugly pink, like an inflamed organ. Perhaps the fetch would already be dead when she got there. If she had to stare at this wallpaper all day, she would certainly kill herself, and the fetch was her so……well there it was.
Two more junctions she went, humming to herself, hand on her knife concealed in her bag. The fluorescents made her wilt a bit. She wasn’t used to much light in the first place. It’s why she liked the vampires’ places in New Orleans so much.
A child ran by her, red hair and smiling eyes. She grabbed the kid’s head effortlessly, spun him around, got down with his level.
“What’s your name kid?”
“Where’s your grandma, Noah Huang?”
“Well that’s convenient Noah Huang.” She realized what she sounded like, added, still nonchalant, “This must be recent for you. I’m sorry.”
“No she died was I was this many.” He held up a chubby hand in a V.
“So who do you have in this hospital, Noah Huang?”
“Mee-Ma is here. She sleeps a lot.”
“Is she sleeping now?”
“Yup. I’m getting a brownie.”
Rhona let him go. “Proceed, tiny person.”
But just as he was about to go, a dark haired young man swept him up into his arms, tickling him so he squealed. “Were you bothering the pretty lady?”
“He’s a very unclear little boy.” Rhona said.
“Unclear? Unclear?” He blew raspberries on Noah’s stomach and settled him on his hip. “Whatcha need, cutie?” And he looked at her in a way that she was sure helped him a lot at the bars.
“Do you always hit on women in retirement homes while holding your children?”
He looked at Noah as if he had appeared from thin air. “This one? Oh, this one isn’t mine. He’s my sister’s. Right?”
The boy nodded dutifully.
“Blink if you’re under duress.” Rhona said, eyes narrowed.
“What’s duress?” Noah said, wiggling.
“I hope you never know, kid.” The man said. “No seriously, I’m too young for kids. I’m a freshman at the U.” He held out his hand to shake. “Will.”
Rhona took his hand and smiled at him. “That’s my father’s name.”
“It’s a family name from my maternal grandfather. Strong name. Only handsome men are named William.”
Oh honey, Rhona thought. If you only knew. “I should go,” she said, adjusting her bag.
“Take my card, okay?” He handed it to her, pressed it into her palm. “You’re good with kids. My sis might need a babysitter.”
“Sounds like you need one.” Rhona said, and walked on, trying not to think about her nephew looking at her ass. Her grip tightened on her concealed knife.
Down the hallway she went, by the pink vomit walls and past a purgatory like large room where twenty women knitted in silence. And then there she was: “432: R. Gilles – Huang.”
The lights were off and Rhona felt safe. There was a form in the bed, small, hunched, covered in a light blue blanket. Her long straight white hair lay behind her, earthy and beautiful.
Rhona tried to think of the lines she had practiced on the train, the lines she had written when Rumi explained how it all worked. Nothing came.
The old woman’s skin seemed to glow it was so white. Rhona couldn’t fathom how easily one ages into one’s mother. It was definitely Mrs. Gilles — the brows, the wrinkles, the soft worry lines as she slept.
She lifted the knife. Her father’s knife. Her safety and travel companion. The blood never stayed on it, but the heat always remained.
It will be easy, she thought. Just down and across. It will feel good once it’s over. I will kill the part of myself I do not know and therefore eliminate the mystery. I will feel content and whole and complete.
And yet looking at her now, looking at her family from her horny nephew to her smiling grandson, all Rhona felt was empty. Like nothing could fill her up. The emptiness she saw in Lance when he was quiet, the hurt in Shelley’s eyes whenever she said “Good morning” to mean “Goodnight.”
And for the first time, Rhona didn’t feel like murdering anybody. Not even the usual vague irritations we all contemplate: punching the telemarketer, watching a bad manager die of anaphylactic shock, tripping that guy who pushed you on the subway platform. Rhona looked at her fetch and felt nothing but regret.
Usually these moments resulted in a witch or an artsy boy having a very good night, but Rhona was sure, very sure, that she wasn’t going to be good company.
Just as she had turned to go Rhona…errr Other Rhona woke up.
“Ruth? Your hair looks beautiful. All golden in the light.” Her voice was small and soft, but it was dusty. It sounded like home. The drawled vowels and swallowed Ts.
“No, m’am. I’m in the wrong room. I’m sorry.”
Other Rhona clutched Rhona’s hand. “It’s alright Ruthie. I want my big sister here.”
“I’m not —” Rhona stopped herself. “Rhona… can I ask you something?”
“ ‘Course, Ruthie.”
“Where’d you get such a beautiful family?”
“Just lucky I guess. I borrowed them from a widower I loved very much. They’ve done well. Scattered to the winds we were, but they, Daniel’s children, my children, they always come home. They make a home for me wherever they are. Noah’s in the gifted program. And William’s going to design videos or games or something like that.”
Rhona swallowed. “Do you ever feel like they aren’t yours?”
Other Rhona smiled and laughed softly to herself, the way Rhona laughed when someone touched the small of her back. “Children don’t belong to us. They’re borrowed from the stars.”
“Did Mother ever feel like that?”
“Ma? Ma’s feet were on the ground Ruthie. She never liked those who could fly.”
“And Da?” Rhona said, heart in her throat. “Do you remember him loving you?”
“Da didn’t trust me after the move. Never knew why. You know all this, Ruthie. You were there.”
“I was.” Rhona said. “Wasn’t I?”
And the shadows grew. And there was a knock. And she was gone.