“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” is an original story by Maureen F. McHugh first featured in After the Apocalypse, the 2011 collection of McHugh’s fiction released by Small Beer Press, hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the “best books of 2011”.
In “The Effect of Centrifugal Forces,” a teenage girl trapped in American suburbia grimly watches one of her mothers succumb to a brain-destroying disease carried by processed chicken nuggets. Her other relatives are even worse off, creating a landscape of sorrow and self-abuse that makes normal societal functions seem completely alien.
When I was a kid, I had a book—I still have it, although it’s in a box. It was called Mary Anne’s Dragon, and the cover showed a girl, dressed for school, and in the air, coiling above her, an immense, Oriental-
looking dragon. The illustrations inside were all black and white, finely detailed drawings; full of texture and detail that filled the page. My favorite illustration showed Mary Anne’s father, the magician, in his study at his desk. He was young, maybe in his thirties. He had fine black hair and a drooping black mustache and black eyes and wore a black turtleneck, and he took Mary Anne quite seriously. You could tell by the way he was looking out of the page that he was not patronizing.
I loved his study even more than I loved the magician. Behind him were cabinets full of little drawers. They were all quite firmly and neatly shut, but the fact that there were so many of them meant that they had marvelous things in them. On top of the cabinets, near the ceiling, were a glass orb that reflected Mary Anne, some plants, a statue of a horse. The rug was an Oriental rug, and even though the illustration was black and white, you could just tell that it was full of colors, reds and yellows. On the magician’s desk were candles and an ink bottle and some books and a skull.
There was a brass orrery, a mechanical model of planets circling the sun.
It was all cozy and pure and safe. I swore I would have a room like that, but I never have. —Alice
Irene hated Alateen. For awhile, Alateen had been okay. Now, when Alice dropped Irene off for a meeting, Irene swore to herself that she would not talk during the meeting. She would remain detached.
The meeting was at a Lutheran church. The parking lot was recently resurfaced. Alice had mentioned it. “Black ice,” she had said. “Skateboarders used to call it that. I love how black it is, how clean.”
Classic Alice comment. It was a fucking parking lot. Talking to Alice was like talking to a four-year-old. She said stuff that didn’t quite make sense. She would appear to be listening to you, and then she’d interrupt you because she’d noticed something or remembered something she was afraid she’d forget to tell you. She was always cutting stuff out of newspapers or printing stuff off the internet to give to Irene. She’d given Irene an article about a study that showed that the children of gay parents were actually better adjusted than average. Which just proved to Irene that this was one more thing her family couldn’t get right because they were a fucking freak show.
The Alateen meeting was in a room that was used for Sunday school. There were coloring book pages of Noah’s ark in the windows. There were a couple where the kids had stayed in the lines and drawn the boat brown, the water blue, the giraffes yellow and brown. But a lot of them were just little kid scribbles. Orange orange orange in crayon tangles.
Naomi was there, squeezed into one of the little kid chairs. Naomi didn’t just have hips, she had haunches. She had long, straight black hair and glasses. She had chipped purple nail polish. She exemplified everything half-assed. She had her blue spiral-bound notebook and was writing, furious, which meant that she’d talk about her arguments with her mom again. Naomi had an unfair ratio of talking to listening. It wasn’t like she had more problems than anyone. Lots of kids had really scary stories—times in homeless shelters, in foster care, parents hauled off for involuntary detox, violence. One of the reasons that Irene had decided that she wasn’t going to talk was because really, those were the kind of problems that deserved Alateen. Irene’s mom had split up with her other mom, her momms, when things were just sort of crazy. Mom and Momms, together, and then Momms split and there was just Irene and Mom. It had been mostly like a normal divorce. Then Mom met Alice. Momms got, of all things, a boyfriend. That had been weird. The new boyfriend, Lonny, was strung out even when he wasn’t necessarily high; all Adam’s apple and skanky hipbones and funny nervous grin. But by then Irene had made it clear that she wasn’t spending any time at Lonny’s apartment, so they met at Denny’s, where Momms jittered and smoothed her hair over her ear again and again and didn’t eat and talked a mile a minute. Annoying, but not the same as your drunken dad punching you.
At the meeting, first they read the steps and the Serenity prayer. Then they all had to write an experience where they had gotten angry. Sandra, the meeting facilitator, gave them all little sheets of paper and pens. Naomi was the first to drop something in the bag. Something, Irene was sure, about another argument with her mother.
Irene thought about the things that had gotten her angry during the week, and then thought about which ones she would be willing to actually talk about. Nothing about Alice’s piles of stuff in the living and dining room of the condo. Nothing about her mother’s increasing lack of coordination. Nothing about her mother and APD. Momms was a safe thing to be angry at. Momms was the drug addict, and therefore her behavior was the thing that Irene was here to talk about. Irene couldn’t think of any specific thing that she’d done that had made Irene crazy, but she wrote “Momms at Denny’s” on her piece of paper and folded it up and dropped it in the paper lunch bag. She used to love these exercises. But now they were just such a pain in the ass.
Irene was the last one to drop her piece of paper in the bag.
When Sandra reached into the bag, she tensed. She had promised herself she’d be silent, but already she couldn’t help planning what she would say.
“Naomi,” the facilitator said. “Do you want to read what you wrote?”
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
Avian Prion Disease, or APD. APD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (or TSE) similar in effect to Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD), Kuru, and Fatal Familial Insomnia. Like Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease), an animal-based illness that crossed from cows to humans, APD is a disease that appears to have arisen spontaneously in a chicken that was breeding stock for a large chicken producer. The resulting infection leaped the species boundary from avian to human.
The disease was spread through the food supply in processed chicken products like “nuggets.” Commercial chickens are usually slaughtered within forty-two days of hatching, before they show symptoms of APD. Thus, though the disease was apparently never widespread, it was also unchecked.
In humans, APD has a latency period of about five years. No one knows how many people were exposed to the disease. The current rate of infection is about one per two hundred thousand people, but the number of cases is expected to rise over the next five or more years as APD expresses itself in people in whom it is still latent.
Initial symptoms include headaches, ataxia (loss of muscle coordination), trembling, and slurred speech. As the disease progresses, the victim becomes unable to walk without support, and the tremors become worse. The victim has wild emotional swings from despair to euphoria. In the final stages of the disease, the victim becomes incontinent and incapacitated. The victim cannot speak or swallow. The body wastes. Death occurs in six months to two years, often as a result of pneumonia or infection from pressure sores.
There is no test for the disease.
After the Alateen meeting, Irene was first into the parking lot. She really didn’t feel like conversation—either the “wasn’t that a great meeting” type or the “didn’t that meeting suck,” type. Both could come from the same person. She had engaged in both, about the same meeting, even. It pretty much summed up Alateen, except that the needle was swinging more and more into the “sucks” category and less and less into the “great.”
There was no sign of Alice.
Not long after Irene had started Alateen, they’d talked about cell phones in one of the meetings. It had been back when Alateen meetings were more likely to be “great.” It had been a pretty good meeting, as she remembered. Some girl who was no longer coming had said that she figured this was one hour out of her life she could really dedicate to getting herself straight, and she always turned her cell phone off. Irene had thought that was cool and had made it kind of a rule. She still did it, even though the hour didn’t feel nearly as dedicated. Alateen seemed like one of those things, like diets, where everything great happened at the beginning.
She dug out her phone. She had three texts from Alice.
Your mom fell, at ER.
Your mom is ok just hurt her wrist will pick u up asap
Had her mom tripped over something in the house? One of Alice’s goddamn piles of crap? Fuck a bucket but life sucked.
Because of the broken wrist they gave Natalie a prescription for hydrocodone.
Alice maneuvered her through the crowded living room, holding her elbow. Past the pile of clothes waiting to be folded on the couch, and the stacks of magazines, and the pile of empty plastic storage containers, and the box of teal dishes. The painting that Alice had brought home because the frame was good. Alice maneuvered her into the bedroom and sat her on the bed. Alice undressed her, so tenderly, so sweetly, saying over and over, “All right?”
She hurt, and the shock of the fall had further loosened her mind. Her brain was being turned to holes by prions, which she thought of as tiny wires bent like paperclips. They bumped along her neurons and made more and more paperclips, turning the cells to lace.
She could not seem to stop moaning, and sighing.
Alice put a nightgown on her. Natalie didn’t ever wear a nightgown, not since she was girl. Alice had bought her nightgowns of white cotton. Little House on the Prairie nightgowns that hung loose around her. Alice had hung them outside to dry, because the dryer was broken. They smelled of sunlight.
Wasn’t Alice here? Alice wasn’t here.
She sat on the edge of the bed smelling the sunstroked cotton and wondering if she should lie down.
Alice was here. Alice had a glass of water and a pill.
There was the risk that the painkillers would launch her deeper into dementia. Already, nouns fled her. She could not seem to hold them and found herself saying to Alice, “It’s started, there is water, from the sky.” Alice said “rain,” and the word was there. Why lose “rain” but not “sky”? Why nouns? Of course, she wasn’t thinking “nouns.” Just a wordless why. She had known about dementia once, had understood it from outside. Her grandmother had dementia, not Alzheimer’s but something they couldn’t give a name to, something that progressed differently, something that wasn’t Parkinson’s, or nutrition, or drug interaction, or even (they tested for it) syphilis. Something that took away her grandmother’s mind in dribs and drabs over many years but that was, in a strange way, kindly. It didn’t seem so to everyone else, of course. It was terrifying. And exhausting. The way the conversation looped around the same things. The way her grandmother explained over and over that something had happened to her sister, that her sister had fallen right down (gesturing with her hand) like that, and nobody would tell her what had happened. Nobody knew. The sister had been dead for almost forty years. Still, her grandmother didn’t get angry or agitated or wander. At the beginning she had been upset. She had hid the gaps in her memory. Her driving had gotten bad, and she clung to the shoulder of the road and had once taken out a mailbox. Then her grandmother went to an assisted living place and, in some strange way, relaxed. Except for the business about the long-dead sister.
Not so for Natalie. ADP was not kind that way. It jerked her muscles and made her twitch. Walking, her leg would suddenly rise high as if she were marching, knee coming up, foot kicking out. When she tried to sleep, the twitching woke her up, again and again. Sometimes it was that sensation of falling that comes on the edge of sleep. Feelings rose in her, like flights of birds, fluttering and flinging themselves against the bones of her ribcage. Anxiety made manifest. She said she wanted to be here as long as she could for Irene and Alice, but honestly, she got so tired of the knowledge that she was going to die, of never being able to put that burden down, that she craved oblivion. She took the hydrocodone for her wrist pain. There was a reason she knew that she shouldn’t take the hydrocodone, and she could see that Alice knew it, too.
Alice was giving her the pill. Was Alice trying to poison her? She could not hold on to what she saw in Alice’s face. This woman she knew who suddenly seemed strange. She knew her, and she did not. She was afraid, and she tried hanging that fear on Alice’s face and then on the bulky cast on her wrist, so very, very white, but the fear attached to everything and nothing.
She was lying down, and Alice was covering her with a flowered sheet. “Are you cold?” Alice asked.
She was thirsty. Her arm jerked, and her wrist throbbed. She heard herself moaning, but it didn’t seem like her. She certainly had no control over it. Irene stood in the doorway, watching. She looked at Irene.
It went on and on, and Irene wasn’t in the doorway anymore.
The pill tugged at her, finally, pulled her down. She closed her eyes.
It would be nice to say that she dreamed of Irene. Or that she remembered things. She had delirium dreams: the world was out there, and she could access it on a screen against her eyelids, like her smartphone, but every time she moved her eyes, she moved to a different screen. She had made something happen in the world every time she did that, like hitting enter on a computer, and she didn’t know what she was doing. She was causing trouble for everyone, but her eyes kept flicking.
This was not her. This was a remnant. A fossil.
A few weeks before, Natalie had gone out. She drove, not knowing it was the last time she would drive, but knowing that maybe she shouldn’t. She was hungry and nearby in a strip mall was a place that sold hamburgers. It wasn’t a chain, and she had thought it might be better because it wasn’t a place that had been made to be like other places. It was a placed that dreamed of becoming a chain. Its signature, for God’s sake, was a pastrami cheeseburger. It had six tables and white walls and somehow just failed being either retro or current, but at 11:30 it was half full of people. She lived a relentlessly white, liberal life just five or six blocks away, but here on Venice Boulevard, the kids eating their grilled cheese and chicken sandwiches and bacon cheeseburgers were all brown and black. (None of them had ordered the pastrami cheeseburger, and neither did she.) There were lots of places on Venice where liberal white people went. Thai restaurants, and Indian, and even Himalayan (they had yak chili on the menu), but this was not that kind of place. It turned out to be a place where the fries were made from frozen and the bun had sat in a dry steam tray long enough to get a little tough around the bottom. The kids were chattering and goofing for each other, and a sharp-faced girl was being cynical and unimpressed. They paid no attention to a lady with a cane. The guy who fried up her cheeseburger brought it out to her table instead of calling her to the counter. (He wore one of those paper hats that look like boats—retro short order.) He and Natalie were the only white people in the place and she doubted he was the kind of person who ate yak chili. Irene and her friends might “discover” this place, but they would be slumming, and that would be part of the charm. The kids here today were not slumming. They owned this place, it was in their territory, and she had passed through the semipermeable membrane of class. The burger was fresh and the fries, honestly, were better than those things they served at In-N-Out. She read her book and ate her burger carefully.
When she was finished with her burger, she sat a few minutes to finish her book. She was ignoring the beating anxiety in her chest. She was carefully not thinking about this being the last time, or about the kids with their lives in front of them, although she wanted to ask the kid who had ordered the chicken sandwich if he was crazy. But they said on the news that there was no danger from ADP in the current food supply, and anyway, all of these kids had eaten chicken nuggets in the last five years and for all any of them knew, paperclips were bumping along their neurons.
She finished her book and gathered her things, including her tray. On the TV in the corner there was a commercial for the army. This was the kind of person she had been before ADP made holes in her brain. A person who had not been made completely self-absorbed by disease, unable to think of anything but how frightened she was. A person who noticed moments like this—the joint, the commercial There’s strong. And then there’s Army strong. Which seemed perfectly to suit this restaurant, to be aimed like an arrow at these kids, who were ignoring it, and to have nothing to do with Irene and her friends, who would not dream of the army. And, of course, to have nothing to do with her, who was dying, dying, dying.
Lonny drove because Eva was tweaked and why wouldn’t she be since they were going to see her dying ex-girlfriend and her kid who she had no legal right to? Eva jittered and fidgeted in the passenger seat.
“Quit,” he said. She was picking at her skin. She was looking bad. She needed a haircut. Frankly, she couldn’t handle all the shit the world was handing her. Some people just couldn’t. And it was a lot of fucking shit. “We don’t have to stay long,” she said.
Natalie had a house, a little ranch that must have cost a fucking mint. Eva said her parents had money, and they had made a whopping down payment. Lonny hadn’t picked his parents quite so well. “Pull in the driveway,” Eva said. “You can’t park on the street. It’s residents only.”
“What the fuck?”
“You got to have a permit to park on the street,” Eva said. “You can only get one if you live here. See the tags hanging off the rearview mirrors?”
“That’s assholian,” Lonny said.
“Don’t give me a hard time!” she said. “I can’t take it right now.” She was all tense and rigid. She had done something with her hair a few weeks before, something that made it reddish, and it didn’t do her any favors. Eva was getting hard to take. But there wasn’t a whole lot he could say. What was the point? They were all going to die of APD anyway. Jesus, he’d eaten enough chicken from fast-food joints to start growing feathers. Eva was sure as shit that she had it. She was always worried she had the shakes, but that was just ’cause she was cranked half the time. He wanted to say it was okay, slow down, relax, but it wasn’t okay, and it sounded like a lie when he said it. They just did what everyone else was doing, which was to pretend everything was normal.
“I didn’t mean anything,” he said. “I don’t care. It’s just stupid, you know? No skin off my back, though.”
“We don’t have to stay long,” she said, again. Maybe she did have it. Maybe she was forgetting.
Maybe he was just freaking himself out.
Alice met them at the door. Alice was what, in her thirties, and not what he expected. She didn’t look dykey or anything. Eva wasn’t dyke-looking. Alice looked boring. She had blond hair out of a bottle and big hips and no makeup. Eva was so intense, so alive, he’d just assumed that Natalie would have picked someone more there. She looked normal, though. Irene talked about her like she was a freak, but mostly she looked like a bank teller or something.
The inside of the house was un-fucking-believable. Shit piled everywhere. Irene was right about that. The couch pulled out from the wall, and stuff and clothes piled behind it up halfway to the ceiling.
“Thanks for letting me come by,” Eva said. “We won’t stay long. I know it’s weird, having me here and stuff. Nat’s probably told you some crazy stuff. God, that birdcage is so cute, where did you find it? I’ve got to do something with our place; it’s all Lonny’s stuff, and it looks like a bachelor pad. Is Irene here?” Eva seemed unable to stop talking, and she was staring at everything. There were a ton of books. Eva had read magazines and stuff when they first met, but now she couldn’t even sit still for the TV. There were stacks of books beside the chair and the couch, and the couch was covered with more clothes and bags. There were bags from Target with stuff still in them—he could see running shoes with the tags still on them. Alice didn’t look like she was the kind of person who went running, and neither did Irene.
“I was going to straighten up,” Alice said. “It’s just hard. You know, with everything that’s going on.”
“Totally,” Eva said. “I mean, I understand completely.”
“The Home Health Aide was here earlier. She comes three times a week. But the rest of the time it’s just me.”
“And Irene,” Eva said. “But I know you’re doing the lion’s share and all that.”
Irene came out of her room. “Hi,” she said.
“Hi, baby,” Eva said.
Irene was Natalie’s biological daughter. There had been some thing about Eva’s brother being the sperm donor, but Eva said he had freaked out about it, and they had ended up using an anonymous donor. Irene looked a lot like Natalie. Not fat, but short-legged with thick ankles and wrists. She had longish light brown hair and brown eyes. She wasn’t pretty. Mostly, when Lonny saw her, she was like this. Monosyllabic. Eva said she was smart, and ever so often she said something sharp and sarcastic, and he’d see what she might be like with her friends. She didn’t like him, but that was okay; he’d never been too excited about the guy his mom lived with in Tennessee. He wondered if she was gay. Not that it was genetic or anything, but still, growing up with two moms and all that. Eva hadn’t turned out to be exactly gay. I was confused, Eva said once, but honestly, he suspected that she really was gay but that it didn’t really matter that much to her who she had sex with, exactly. Which sounded fucked up, but he didn’t know any other way to think about it.
Eva headed for the bedroom and he trailed along behind, not sure if he was supposed to wait in the living room or what. There wasn’t any place to sit down in the living room anyway, and the kitchen table and chairs were piled up, too.
The bedroom was crowded. One whole wall was stacked with those plastic storage containers with more piles of clothes on top of them. The other side was like a miniature hospital. He saw a package of adult diapers and averted his eyes. It smelled like a hospital, too. He wouldn’t have known Natalie. She was emaciated, dressed in an old-fashioned white nightgown. Her head looked too big for her neck. Her eyes were huge.
“Hey, look who’s here to see you,” Alice said.
Natalie’s eyes rolled toward them. She had a cast on one wrist. She tried to say something but her voice was a smear.
“She’s hard to understand,” Alice said. “Sometimes she’s better, but she’s had her antianxiety meds, and they make her slur more.”
Eva was stricken. Lonny didn’t blame her. This was it, the future. This was what they were all going to be. Holy fucking Christ. By the time he got it, with his luck, so many people would be sick, there wouldn’t be enough people to take care of them. He figured if he got sick he would go to the VA, but really, if he got like this, he was going to OD. Take so much stuff his heart shredded.
He went back out to the living room and then, since there was no place there, out the front door to sit on the front step.
Irene came out and sat down beside him.
“Sorry,” he said. The house across the street had bougainvillea blooming and a lemon tree in the side yard. California. It was unreal.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s fucked up.”
“It sure is,” he said.
At least he’d gotten to grow up in normal times. They’d been convinced that the US was going down, that China would run the world, and there’d been 9/11 and all that, but they hadn’t thought everyone was going to die except the vegetarians. Sometimes he still thought everything was going to be okay. Some people would get sick, like AIDS, but people would still go to work and stop and buy gas at $5.49 a gallon and whine about inflation, and it would be normal fucked-upedness.
“She can’t eat anymore without choking,” Irene said, matter-of-fact as a heart attack.
“Yeah?” he said, because what else do you say?
“They want to put a feeding tube in. But Alice and I talked about it. We don’t think they should.”
She sounded like a grown-up. Well, that’s probably what watching your mom die horribly did to you.
“Why not?” he asked. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to know, but she seemed to want to talk, and she never talked to him.
“What for?” she said. “We’re going to get hospice in.”
“Hospice,” he said. “That’s good. That’s really good.”
“I want to ask you something,” Irene said.
“Sure,” he said.
“You saw the house, right? I mean, that’s crazy.”
He wasn’t sure what they were talking about—the stuff, the hospital room? He nodded as noncommittally as he could.
“Can I come live with you and Momms when Mom dies?”
We moved a lot. I went to seven different schools in twelve years. I wasn’t an army brat. My dad went back to finish a college degree when I was five, and then he went to grad school for two years. Then they moved three times in two years because they lived with my mom’s parents, then dad found a job with a nonprofit that went bust and then got work through a grant. He was a chemist working with companies that did environmental studies. Analysis of water systems. He had trouble working for other people. Every move was the last one. Every job was the good one. The last three moves were without my dad—back to my mom’s parents, then to one job for my mom, and halfway through the school year, the last one. My mom is still in that house.
When my mom and dad split up, my mom made me get rid of most of my stuff. I wasn’t a hoarder then, but I always had a thing about my stuff. She said we could only take what would fit in the car. I had a collection of statues of horses and some stuffed animals and some shells from a vacation in Florida. Sanibel Island, which was boring, but I loved the shells. It was my museum. My history. I could tell you when I got each horse. Each one had a name and a story. I was fifteen. We had a huge fight. We were both upset because of the divorce. Her because it was a failure, I think—a failure of a marriage and a failure of judgment. Me, because it had taken so long for her to finally do it. She threw out the horses and the stuffed animals and the shells.
It was a big deal. I was devastated. It was like she had thrown out my entire past. I realize that she didn’t understand. I don’t hold it against her. But it was big. Really big.
Hoarding runs in my family. My granddad is a hoarder, only they say pack rat. I haven’t been there in years, but last time my mom and I were there after my grandmother died, there was this smell, like canned peas or something. Musty. I know things are too cluttered, but it’s not as bad as that. It’s gotten a little out of control now that Natalie is sick, I know. But I can’t do anything about it right now. I can only handle so much. After Natalie is gone, I’ll have to do something.
Nat’s parents want to take Irene, but she needs to stay in her own house, with her friends. High school is too important a time to take her away from everything.
I don’t want to. I want her to be somebody else’s problem. She hates me, and I don’t really like her, but when I committed to Natalie, I committed to everything that came with it. We would have gotten married if we could have. Natalie is my wife in every way that I can make it so. Irene is her child. It’s not Irene’s fault, she didn’t pick me or my problems. She’s already been abandoned by Eva. Eva chose drugs over her daughter. I owe Irene the best I can give her. I do. I want to work on that, see if we can find a way to love each other.
That’s not realistic, is it? I read in a book on stepparenting that you can never replace their biological parent, but you can become someone important in their lives. That you can become an adult they can tell things they couldn’t say to a parent. Like a beloved aunt or something. I don’t know that Irene and I can have that, but I feel like I have to try. She can’t live with Eva. She doesn’t want to go to Texas and live with her grandparents. That leaves me, right?
I know that my stuff is a problem. But it’s really not that bad, not as bad as Irene makes it sound. Irene is hurt and angry and lashing out.
When Natalie is gone, then I’ll concentrate on dealing with the stuff. I will. I’ll work with the professional organizer you talked about. I don’t want to stop seeing you and work with someone who has more experience with people like me. Will you continue therapy with me?
Those horses were worth some money. People collect them. Not that I would ever sell them if I had them again.
Everything goes away. You just try to hold on to what you can. —Alice
Irene went through the dark house to the kitchen and got a Coke. The only light in the whole house came from her room, because then she didn’t have to see anything, although the problem with that was sometimes the piles kind of slid, and something fell in the path through them, and it was easy to trip.
Alice was at the hospice with mom. Alice stayed at the hospice all the time now. She had come home Wednesday and done some laundry and taken Irene back with her. Alice slept there. Irene couldn’t do that. She couldn’t make herself do it. She had gone back on Thursday evening. She had said she didn’t want to go tonight. She thought Alice might give her a hard time. They were pretty sure her mom was going to die in the next couple of days.
Alice said, “Let me know if you need anything.”
“Can I have some money to order a pizza?”
Alice dug in her purse and handed Irene a wad of bills. It turned out to be over sixty dollars. “Call a friend if you want. Call me if you want to come to the hospice. I’ll call you if anything happens.”
“Happens?” Irene said, cruel. “Like she dies?”
Alice just looked at her for a moment. “I’ll call you if they tell me she’s going. You can come if you want.”
Irene said, “She’s not even really there.” Her mom was gone. Just this thing with half-open eyes and a gaping mouth, breathing really loud. They had an IV in her to keep her hydrated, but they didn’t even have to give her painkillers anymore because her brain had been replaced by cheese.
“I know,” Alice said. “I just have to be there. But it’s okay if you’re not.”
Alice was probably glad to get away from her.
So St. Alice was at the hospital, and Irene was drinking a Coke. Of course, Alice would have a life when Mom died. She’d be sad, Irene knew that. But Alice lived in Alice-world. Alice didn’t really see all the stuff. Alice talked about whether Irene would take some classes at college next year for advanced placement, like everything would be the same. Alice didn’t know that Irene had asked Lonny if she could live with him and Momms. (Lonny’s face had said everything, even though he’d sort of talked around and said, sure, it was fine with him but he’d have to talk to Eva and they really didn’t have much space in their place.)
Irene was pretty sure that if she moved to Momms’s, Alice would barely notice.
She really didn’t want to move to Momms’s. Momms was high when she came to see Mom, and Lonny was a waste of oxygen. The apartment had hardly any furniture, and she’d have to sleep on the couch. She had been stupid to think about it. It was just that Momms was supposed to be her mother, and she’d kind of thought maybe Momms might get her act together when she realized that Irene needed her, really needed her.
Irene sat on the bed, crying. If Alateen had taught her anything, it should have taught her that Momms wasn’t going to magically stop using and clean up her act for Irene. (Oh, God, Irene needed her to. Couldn’t Momms see how bad things were? How badly Irene needed her?)
She cried for a while. Then she opened her laptop and tried to find something to watch on Netflix.
She hated Houston. She didn’t know anyone there except her grandparents, who were okay but who never really accepted that Mom was gay and always did the “everything is so normal!” thing when they went to visit. She felt like a science experiment in Houston. Her grandmother took her shopping and watched what she picked, waiting to see if Irene was gay. They’d probably send her to one of those Bible places meant to cure you of being gay. Irene didn’t actually think she was gay, but if she went to Houston, she’d probably turn gay just because of her grandparents.
If only she could have her old life back. Before Alice. Even without Mom, if she could have what?
If she could just get rid of Alice’s stuff. She’d be eighteen in two and a half years. She could avoid Alice, if it wasn’t for Alice’s stuff.
Alice’s fucking stuff.
She thought about running away. She closed her laptop and packed a few things. But it was just going through the motions. Drama.
She turned the light on in the living room and looked. In the kitchen she got some garbage bags, and she started picking up clothes and putting them in the garbage bags to throw them out. She could just throw everything out.
But if she put stuff out for the trash, for one thing there would be so much of it she didn’t know if the trash people would take it. On TV when they cleaned out hoarder places, they brought big trucks to load stuff in. She could try calling one of those hoarding shows and see if she could get Alice on. “Hey, my mom is a lesbian who died of APD, and my stepmom is a hoarder!” Maybe the whole lesbian thing would get the TV people interested.
But Alice would probably have to agree, and Alice probably wouldn’t.
She got her backpack with her laptop and her phone. She packed a few things. She took it all outside to the front yard. It was a cool and breezy evening and from the front yard, the house looked nice and normal. Irene went to the garage, going in the side door and switching on the light. The garage didn’t have enough space for a car anymore. It had boxes of stuff that Alice had brought when she moved in “to just put in here until she could sort through it.” Alice did sometimes sort through stuff. She picked up stuff from a pile and looked at it and then put it on another pile.
Irene picked her away across the garage to the lawn mower. The can of gas for the mower sat next to it. She picked it up and sloshed it. It was only about half full, but she hoped that would be enough. All the newspapers and magazines and old mail would help.
She watched for neighbors, but no one saw her carrying the gas can back in the house.
She poured the gasoline on the stack of newspapers and on the clothes on the couch, and then she just tossed the can on a pile of stuff. The matches were in the kitchen drawer with the candles. The smell of gasoline was really strong. She hoped the neighbors didn’t smell it.
She turned on all the lights in the house. Was there anything else she wanted? You couldn’t even tell that her mom had lived here. Not really. The walls were still painted yellow, but it didn’t look anything like home. Alice had completely covered up all traces of her mom. What would Momms think? Would she finally get it? Probably not. But if it couldn’t be her and her mother’s house anymore, it wouldn’t be anyone’s.
Irene lit the match and dropped it. The fumes from the gas flashed, and she jerked her arms up in front of her face. The flash was so intense she smelled burning hair and she ran.
Outside she checked her hair. She wasn’t on fire or anything, but she had blisters on her arms and they hurt. God, she was stupid. She hadn’t known that was going to happen. She looked back at the house. Had it gone out? Part of her kind of wanted it to have gone out, like the grill did sometimes. But not really. She wanted to see fire. She wanted to see it burn.
There was smoke, and then inside she could see the glow of the flames. Burning all of it. Burning things clean.
She wished her arms didn’t hurt. If it weren’t for that, it would be perfect.
“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” copyright © 2011 Maureen F. McHugh