FICTION: THE MORNINGSIDE

The Morningside

Z.K. Leverton

Morningside Heights sits at the top of Scarborough Ontario. There, thick forest is pounded back by long fields of parking lots and six lane roads. tenements press up into gas stations, gas stations press up into strip malls, and stip malls press up into manicured suburban neighborhoods carved into the edges to an endless wilderness that slithers night by night into every aspect of this place as if to reclaim it for the forests and creeks that lie in wait beneath great overpasses and on the borders of unpopulated parkettes and bike trails. Cut like a slash through the heart of it is the highway, which roars day and night like a wound, frightening back the oldest things – the ghosts and coyotes too afraid to linger, and too stubborn to leave. 

On these margins are the kinds of shops one always wonders about. Small, ugly shops that stand in the back of tiny parking lots, with crowded windows and ugly sunbleached signs that make no sense in any of the four or five languages they’re in. 

When Lucy Mendoza signed a lease for the old building at the top of Morrish Road she saw her future, the future she had been chasing since the day Raymond was born. She spent every weekend of Raymond’s childhood at swap meets, where she would sell and trade jewelry and furniture, which she collected  from the garage sales that dapple the lawns of affluent neighborhoods she could never afford to live in. She would polish each piece of crystal, each ornate fork and dusty lamp and set them just so on the small red table she mounted in whatever swap meet she could find to vend at. She dreamed of leaving the group home she lived in with her son, of owning her own business and giving Raymond a better life.

Mendoza Antiques was a dream set neatly between a dental office and a drug store. It had been a travel agency before this, a book store before that, and would, it was assumed by everyone, be something else soon enough. That spot there on the corner had been many things over the years, but always — always–  a failure.

Raymond grew up being moved around by the whims of his mother. She would dress him in worn clothing that was always clean, and drag him along with her to the garage sales and swap meets that were their lives. When finally they moved into their new home above the antique shop, Raymond took quickly to the advantages of a stable household. He made friends at school, enjoyed sports and girls, and when he began to grow taller than his mother, would spend his nights at the college campus, accepted by boys many years his senior as one of their own.

Lucy could remember the first time thought that Raymond had stolen something from the shop. She kept very strict records of her acquisitions, her sales and her trades. The first time she noticed something was missing, it was an old wrist watch with an engraving worn down by time and mishandling. Its face was missing three jewels, and she felt like a terrible mother for even thinking that Raymond could be capable of such a thing. She never confronted him about it, and perhaps, she thought now, that was why it kept happening. Every once in a while, with no real regularity, something would disappear, a ring, a necklace. She would wait in their apartment for Raymond to come home, stewing in her resentment, repeating some speech she had drawn up under her breath, ruminating on the sleight of the theft, the audacity of it. Thinking of all the things she sacrificed for him to have a better life, all the time and toil, letting it ferment into a thick and righteous anger, which would dissolve into the deepest part of her the moment Raymond came home at whatever ungodly hour. She would try to keep her fingers tight around her anger, clutching it to her chest as it pulled deep down, but when she heard the back door of the shop open and latch, when she heard his heavy steps clamor up the stairs to the apartment, her anger would melt through her grip and sink in a black pool of fear. She couldn’t lose him. If she pushed too much, let her anger come too readily, rebuked him too hard, he would leave again and never come back. He would be another thief in the night, another ghost, like his father.

And so, all through the languid summer months, Lucy would run her shop, selling lamps and tables to the old white women who would wander into her shop after mass and haggle over prices, assuring her that they could find the same object at some other, nebulous shop somewhere –she was assured– close by, and at a better price.

Every once in a while, things would go missing, and Lucy would resign herself to its missing, cloaked in the assurance that Raymond would, at some point, come home. She would sit in the apartment in a worn, old recliner, and wait for him to arrive until she dozed off in the silence of her lonely apartment. When she woke up, sometimes – and only sometimes – Raymond would be home. She wouldn’t dare speak to him, out of fear that some resentment, some exhaust of her anger would creep up and speak the truth that she had convinced herself would drive her son away forever. That anger festered every day, malignant and roiling, always there, growing not just with each instance of his blatant theft, but with each passing day he didn’t come home, didn’t speak to her, existed as a passer-by in the morning traffic of their apartment and nothing more, just a pick-pocket, precious to her as any bauble he might steal, any memory she held of him as a child, as a beacon to all her love, the only thing that could possibly matter to her — this taciturn bandit living in her home.

One morning, as Raymond came home with the grey, rainy dawn, something in Lucy’s mind resolved. Instead of tensing when Raymond climbed the stairs, she relaxed, all her resentment seemed to float there within her, as if all her struggling had been what forced it away, and now, congealed in her exhaustion and resentment, it floated to the surface as a simple determination – a desire not for her son to be a better man, but to catch him in the act. She would do it tonight, she thought. She would wait in her room for him to sneak out, and she would follow him to wherever he was selling her things and make sure he couldn’t do it again even if he wanted to.

That day she left the shop closed. Raymond slept upstairs in his room, an unkempt pile of clothes and broken phone chargers. She paced around the apartment, sometimes looking down through the blinds in her living room at the empty parking lot, and the old women who never bought anything, their faces twisting with concern as they approached her front shop and tugged on the door, as if the shop would surely be open, what with the lights off, the gate shuttered and the printed sign taped to the door that said “closed today, open tomorrow.” in a thick, round, and happy font.

Lucy made a meal for herself as the sun went down. She had spent the entire day watching the window, considering the dying grass that separated the lot from the other lot beside it, the thin, shabby trees whose branches bent away from the power lines that drooped between each utility pole. She ate rice and scrambled eggs, a hearty meal to prepare her for the night’s hunt, and as she contemplated the confrontation to come, manifesting his feeble arguments and her thundering retorts. 

When Lucy woke up, it was because she heard the lock click loudly on the front door of the shop. She sprang to her feet, jamming them into cotton slippers and pulling an inside-out cardigan over her arms. She stumbled down the steps from her apartment, barely able to keep her feet from folding under her and sending her tumbling. She lept off the last step and planted herself hard on the tile floor of the shop. She listened for a moment to the antiques rattle their disapproval in the darkness before she jogged to the front door and peered through the half-opened security gate Raymond hadn’t even bothered to pull back down to see him crossing the lot towards the lights at the crosswalk. He had something under his left arm, and she turned her head over her shoulder to catalogue her inventory. She paused at a gap on the expedit by the door, where a little music box she could never get to work one sat with its lid open to reveal a ceramic dancer with a missing finger and a crack in her pink tutu. Lucy scrambled back up the steps to grab her keys, then skipped back down the steps and out the front door, latching the gate and clicking the big loud lock of the door. She pulled her cardigan tight when she noticed the clouds of frost spilling from her lips as she cursed in tagalog under her breath. 

She had seen Raymond make his way across the lights and west toward a sloping road that led to a heavily wooded gully riven with bike trails and barbeque pits. She walked hurriedly across the empty lot in the orange glow of the street lamps that loomed over the empty streets. They shone orange light down on her, casting the shadows of the barn spiders who constructed ugly, hasty nets on their bulbs against the crumbling sidewalk. She walked past the church, past the mosque next to it, and past the strange little houses which until recently were thickets full of chirping birds, toward the gully. The street lights grew more sparse as she walked, squinting to see if she noticed Raymond ahead of her. The trees were globules of pitch, shadows of themselves creeping up through the darkness they cast on their own trunks. The sidewalk shrank and gave way to a gravel swale that separated the languishing tarmac of the two lane road from the wild grass of the gully. She listened to the crickets ululate their chorus, deafening and surrounding, she stuffed her clenched fists into the pockets of her cardigan and hunched her head between her shoulders, sucking her lips into her mouth and picking up her pace, reciting a little prayer in her mind between each lamp light. She listened to the crickets closely, terrified that something  could be stalking her, a coyote or a bobcat maybe, a silent predator waiting in the marsh bramble for her to skip the lord’s prayer just once. She glanced at the overpass with the corner of her eye, a procession of highway overhead lamps floating high above and off to the south of her, a place of people and light and safety. She listened to the sound of the cars hissing along it in the distance, barely audible. She closed her eyes as she walked forward and concentrated on that sound of rubber gliding over tarmac, the way it rose behind her and fell ahead of her, like breathing. She didn’t notice that she had gone between two lights without reciting her prayer until the thumping of footfalls echoed over a knoll in the darkness. She froze and stood under the light, lifting her hands out of her pockets and using them to shade her eyes from the harsh light above her head. She could see it, a figure standing just a few dozen yards across the little road. She called Raymond’s name and the figure answered by trotting across the road. It was a deer, her angular features barely visible in the night but her round, wet, black eyes shimmering clearly. Lucy watched the deer bound over the tarmac and between her and the lamp ahead of her into the grass on the south side where Lucy had to go. The deer paused to consider Lucy, the blank expression on its face lingered for a moment, until its ears bent south and it scampered off down the road ahead. Something spooked it, Lucy thought. Perhaps the overpass. She turned to look at it as she stepped back into darkness, and froze. Her mouth was agape as she brought her trembling hands to it. She slid her fingers up over her eyes and then slid them through her greasy black hair. She made a sound, like a whimper that aspires to a scream. There, above the trees, above the overpass, above the lights, there in the darkness, silent and immense as a secret, it stood. It towered above the overpass on four long, slender legs, its body was an elongated tear-drop shape, like a whale, and it had several tails that swayed in every direction as it walked on its stilts. Molly’s throat betrayed a sob and she could feel the hot tears in her eyes slide down the edges of her cheeks. She whirled around and screamed Raymond’s name once more, but there was no reply, just the crickets, and the overpass, and her short, terrified breathing.

She scrambled up the other side of the gully, along the winding road, hoping that a car would pass her that she could stop, hoping that when she got to the top of the street on the other side that the thing would be gone, a product of her stress, she thought. As she rounded the last bend in the road at the top of the hill, she caught a glimpse of him walking along the side of the road. She screamed his name again, but there was no answer. He kept walking, and she curled over her knees to catch her heaving breath.

When she lifted herself up, Raymond was a speck in the distance, turning the corner of Morningside and Kingston Road to go north. She looked over her shoulder and gawped at the thing as it walked past. The base of its foot couldn’t have been more than a few inches wide, and its footfalls didn’t make a sound as it lumbered by. She craned her neck and could just barely make out the swirling mass of life clinging to its underbelly. Every inch of it was moving against itself, squirming and squishing way up in the air, at least a hundred feet above her. It passed her, striding hundreds of feet, gingerly stepping between strip malls and motels into the night ahead. Lucy kept watching it as she hurried along Kingston Road, past the two Chinese restaurants that stood side by side, past the two-storie motel always overrun with feral children, past the psychic’s gift shop and the bong shop and the carpet shop and the pizza place that was always dirty to the intersection. She peered across the road at the strip mall. She could see kids standing in front of the only car in the parking lot, illuminated by the glow of the grocery store. She could hear them laughing and chatting and wondered again if the great thing that walked the night wasn’t some figment of stress. 

Lucy turned onto Morningside and saw along the long downhill slope of the 6 lane road, Raymond, with the music box under his arm like a basketball. She didn’t bother to shout at him this time. She jogged the downhill portion of the road until she came to the level bridge that overpassed a wide creek that dried in the winter and stank in the summer. She looked ahead of Raymond and saw the university laboratory building. She wondered if that was some sort of pick up point, where her son would meet whoever made him the laconic thief he was now and took him off to fill his lungs with drugs and head with sins. She picked up the pace.

She kept her gaze on Raymond as he crossed the street lights at Ellesmere and kept going north toward the highway. As she approached the crosswalk the light turned red and she stopped. There were no cars on the street, nobody else but her and her son disappearing over the crest of the upward slope on the other end of the street. She bit her bottom lip and jerked her leg forward onto the road, hurrying across and watching for coming cars. She could see the thing, way off in the distance over the western horizon making its way north. A car swerved around her and the driver leaned on the horn as the car sped through the intersection and east. Jolted, Lucy ran across to the north side and kept on, following her son. At the top of the block, just past the laboratory building, the sidewalk ended and gave way to grassy ditches lining a highway overpass exit dotted with intentionally planted trees too puny to grow taller than her son. The wind was harsh and loud up there, moaning over the deafening hiss of the highway. She walked along the ditch, where birds took flight ahead of her and scattered. She saw raccoons cling to the small trees as if to hide behind them, watching her with taciturn suspicion as she crossed their paths, shuffling their babies along away from her. She realized she had lost raymond, and saw the parking lot for the campus swimming pool, which had been under some stage of construction in perpetuity. She stood in the empty lot, pausing to consider where Raymond could have gone. She noticed a black car parked in a random spot and made for it. As she approached she considered how she would confront Raymond. She’d knock on the window and he’d step out of the car, and she’d tell him everything she was feeling, she would tell him everything and he would either accept his fault and come home or leave forever, but she would never see that tall, walking thing again.

As she approached the car she noticed a fox scamper across the lot from one manicured bush to another, watching her all the time as it slinked around in the darkness, avoiding the lights. She watched it slither along until it reached the treeline north of the lot where the northern woods began to fight back against the pavement. It paused, considered her, and slid into the brush like a ghost through a wall. 

When she turned to look at the car she jumped back. There was a man standing in front of it now. He was white and scraggly looking. He had a wiry beard and a dirty beige club jacket whose patches had long fallen off in disrepair leaving long, exposed bits of string. His eyes were wild and alert and he seemed to be grinning at her like a fool with his hand perched on the open door of the car. She could see the blankets and old food wrappers spilling out into the lot, the interior light barely flickering. She stepped back and decided Raymond hadn’t come this way. 

“Hey!”

He shouted at her and she jumped in fright but kept on walking away, reciting her lamp post prayer under her breath.

“I said hey!”

She froze and turned around. He hadn’t moved from his spot but he was pointing at her with a knobby finger. 

“You can ignore me all you want lady, but when that thing’s done this whole city’ll be swallowed up and you’ll be just as fucked up and crazy as me!” 

He lifted his finger from her and pointed it in the air behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the thing looming over the highway. Her bottom lip trembled and she turned back to the man whose eyes widened even more as he shrieked.

“Ha! You can see it too can’t ya! Can’t ya! You’ll see more than that! You and everybody else’ll see!”

He wheezed between fits of laughter and she ran away, north across the lot and onto the dead grass that bordered the road, swinging her arms wildly as she sprinted north to the strip malls, reciting still her prayer.

The thing hovered over the highway near the overpass Lucy was standing on. The crickets sang out so loud Lucy could hear them over the highway. Cars rambled along up and down ten lanes. From here Lucy could see the city westward between the long spindly legs of the creature as it lumbered across the highway towards a strip mall tucked behind a Wal-Mart. 

Lucy could make out a figure walking up the little side road to the lot. She ran towards them, all the time watching the thing’s writhing form in the dwindling twilight of the pre-dawn. She jogged across Morningside to the western side, where the figure came up from the service road that led to the parking lot and into the lamplight of the Wal Mart. it was Raymond. He had the music box in his hands and was walking at a leisurely pace toward the western-most tip of the parking lot that faces the highway.

Lucy ran up the service road as fast as her aching legs would allow. Her lungs burned and her eyes watered as she ascended into the parking lot and felt her knees give out. She hit the pavement and let out a squeal. She looked up, laying on her shoulder on the pavement, and saw Raymond ahead of her. Above him the animal shambled across the highway. As she got up to her feet, the creature’s legs bent and its broad front slouched downward toward the parking lot. She scrambled to her feet and screamed Raymond’s name, but there was no reply. She forced her legs to move, her ankles quivering, her balance gone, she kept on screaming Raymond’s name between heaving breaths that became sobs as the light of the dawn began to creep across the lot behind her. She could see the creature now as the night relented. Its body was a million shapes she vaguely knew. Dog’s leg folded over octopus tentacle over insect face over lizard eye over muscle over bone over and over and over, its entire body a cacophony of components, a million pieces all swarming over one another and never whole, a collective of everything and nothing. Raymond had stopped walking. He squatted down on the ground, tucking his legs together and sitting on the dewy bitumen floor of the lot. 

Lucy stopped a few feet behind him and coughed as if her lungs were about to eject themselves through her throat. She crumpled to her knees and heaved, watching the thing get closer to them, slouching down toward the lot, its legs bending to bring itself below its knees like a spider.

“Raymond!”

Said Lucy.

“Raymond, I’m scared! I’m scared I’m going crazy! Don’t you see it? You have to see it! It’s right there Raymond! You leave me every night and you only come back when you want to! You don’t eat, you don’t go to school! Raymond, I love you! I brought you here because I love you! I know you hate it but please understand Raymond. I love you so much and I’m so scared. I don’t want to go mad wondering why you do the things you do, Raymond. I don’t want to be angry anymore. I don’t want to punish you. I just want you to be okay. I just want you to live and eat and go to school. I’ll do anything Raymond. I’m so tired. I love you so much… Please…”

Raymond turned his head over his shoulder to look at his mother for what Lucy was sure had been the first time in years. His eyes were sad and tired and something else, something secret he would keep despite everything. He turned away from Lucy and she crawled along the pavement on her hands and knees, crying still. The animal’s body spilled onto the pavement in squirming chaos. The crickets stopped chirping, the highway was silent, and from that silence came a sound that Lucy had never heard before, like a million memories all racing in her mind not one of them her own. She smacked the palms of her hands on her forehead and screamed hoarsely but no sound came out of her mouth. She looked up, stunned and saw the thing’s appendages slink across the pavement toward her son. She lept off her knees and grabbed Raymond by the shoulder but he didn’t budge and she was too weak to force him. She watched as from the mess of legs and tentacles emerged another familiar shape… an arm, a human arm which pushed its way between centipede fangs and shark teeth to reach out at Raymond. Lucy watched, frozen in terror, when suddenly, the hand turned its wrist, no longer reaching, but pleading. Lucy watched Raymond pull the music box from between his crossed legs and place it in the palm of the hand. Its fingers wrapped around the base of the music box and the entire mass lifted itself off the ground, warm swirls of air brushed Lucy’s wet face as she watched the arm disappear into the muck of itself with the music box.

“It has to be something someone would miss.”

Raymond’s voice was serene and low in his throat, almost a whisper.

“Something somebody loved.”

Lucy looked up as the thing turned itself around on its legs. Its body glimmered in the dawn sun and it began to fade away into the morning air. As it did, the silence was replaced by bird song and highway. 

“It’ll be back in a few days. It’s hungry.”

Lucy looked at her son who watched it disappear in the light soundlessly. She turned her son by the shoulders and he looked into her eyes, that secret still waiting there, still kept.

“Then we’ll feed it.”

END.

Published by Z.K. Leverton

Z.K Leverton is a writer based out of Toronto Ontario

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