The Backwards Path to the Limbus —by Betty Rocksteady

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If he kept slurping like that, Miranda would kill him. She’d have to. Between the dead fruit stench of the tea and his incessant old man noises, if she sat here one more fucking minute she’d scream. She wouldn’t be able to help it. Frustration bubbled in her throat but instead she bit down until she tasted blood.

Just one night. She’d sit here patiently until the old widow up front got things started, and then she’d wait and wait and wait and she would get a taxi and listen to the radio while rain pounded against the windows and then she would lay on her dead son’s bed and she would scream for as long as she fucking wanted.

Dr. Hopskin was right about a lot of things, but not this. She had never been a people person. Yeah, she had liked to read, but reading didn’t mean she liked being surrounded by a dozen people she had nothing in common with, listening to the noises they made, and waiting, endlessly waiting while they small-talked and sipped tea and it was already quarter after six and they hadn’t even started talking about the fucking book yet. The group leader, Carrie, had been standing there fucking around with her notebook since Miranda had walked in, underlining passages and adding post-its and highlighting sections with an agonizing precision. As if any of this could take her mind off Riley.

She would never come back. Fuck Dr. Hopskin —and fuck all these people.

The woman sitting beside her grabbed her knee and Miranda jumped, sloshing her third cup of tea over the rim. She gritted her teeth, managed not to snap at the woman, and smiled instead.

“What did you think of the story?” The sad-eyed woman smiled, her lips drawn thin. Miranda shrugged. “It was okay.”

No, it wasn’t. Literary fiction or something. Reading should be for pleasure. Beach books. She would never have picked this one up by choice. The Backwards Path to the Limbus. It was just endless meandering that put her to sleep. A protagonist —never named or gendered— walked a labyrinth. Overwrought description of the path, the sounds of the sky, the bones underfoot. She had forced herself to read it, to be prepared, but she fell asleep more often than not, with twisted dreams of pathways opening up to her and spiralling down, down, down. “You’ll appreciate it more the next time you read it,” the woman assured her.

“I doubt I’ll read it again.”

The man next to her butted in, a smear of chocolate on his face. “Oh, you will. We’ve all read it lots of times. You’d be surprised at what you see on a second and third reading.”

“Or a twenty-eighth.” That was Carrie. Everyone laughed. Miranda tried a smile but it felt wrong on her face. Jesus, who the hell read any book twenty-eight times? Not to mention one as boring as this. Maybe she just didn’t have the attention span anymore. But at least Carrie had tuned in to them and maybe now the meeting would start so it could end. Dr. Hopskin would just have to set her up with another activity. One without so much talking.

Something brushed against her leg and she flinched. Mercifully, it wasn’t Harold or any of the other weirdos here. A small calico cat wound through the crowd and darted beneath a chair. “Is there supposed to be a cat here?” It seemed unsanitary somehow, but it was a bookstore, not a restaurant. Still …

“Oh yes,” said Carrie. “Every bookstore has a cat. Or had a cat. Or will someday have a cat.” The group laughed as if she’d told a joke, and the animal darted off somewhere behind the shelves. What a weird fucking thing to say; it could hardly be true. But the group looked at her like they wanted a response, so Miranda smiled and pictured stabbing a knife straight through the woman’s chest.

Fuck this place.

Carrie smiled back and shuffled the books on her desk until she had The Backwards Path to the Limbus in front of her. Miranda noticed the ragged line of a scar snaking down the woman’s wrist as her sleeve shifted. Dr. Hopskin had mentioned that most of the members had been patients of his at one point. Did they all carry around the same sort of pain as hers? It was hard to believe, looking at them now, with their bland faces and casual conversation.

“Well, I guess we’re ready to get started,” Carrie said.

Instead of feeling relieved that things were finally getting underway, Miranda felt the next endless expanse of time stretching out in front of her. Every time she’d tried to read the book, a headache had pierced through a deep part of her brain, triggering endless dreams of trudging an eternal path, the walls getting tighter and tighter as she spiralled ever inwards. She had muddled through, but she certainly didn’t have anything to say about it, at least not anything they would want to hear.

“Miranda, would you like to start us off?”

“Uh… no, just do things however you usually do them.” All eyes were on her, all these other social rejects stuffing down their pain to come to a bookstore and make small talk about boring books as though this was a reason to be alive, to keep on going.

Carrie smiled at her. Her smile was too wide in a way that made her look a little crazy. “We’ve all read this book before, it’d be nice to hear a new take on it.” She waved the thin volume in front of her face, as if it would jog Miranda’s memory. “You read the whole first section, yes?”

“Yeah, I read it.” And she had felt every moment of it, too. The book had been divided into three sections, and the first concentrated on a man winding through a trail of tiny bones. Kinda morbid maybe, but not even in an interesting way. It took her forever to read, as though she had to experience every single step he took, forcing herself to read each word, one at a time.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t like it. Nothing happened.” The group kept their eyes on her, chewing their lips as they waited for more. “Maybe I didn’t really get it? I used to read a lot of thrillers and stuff, but this was kind of … literary?” She felt like she was rambling, but she had nothing to say that was of any substance. “It was written cool, I guess.” She didn’t really think that, but being stared at was driving her nuts. She had to keep talking so they could move on to the next person and stop fucking looking at her. “Like, the rhythm of it, if that makes sense? The words felt like they rhymed, even if they didn’t.”

It had agitated her, actually, and the words had echoed through her dreams, and then she had been walking the path, the bones crunching beneath her feet. “It was weird to have the author focus on the mundane for so long. I spent the whole section just … waiting for something to happen. The author described every detail of the footsteps but there was nothing to really anchor the story, to let me know where it was happening, or why.”

“You’d be surprised how much you’ll get out of it when you read it again. What did you make of it this time? What did it mean? We’ll talk about some of our own theories later.” Carrie leaned forward, as if Miranda’s opinion of this stupid book were the most fascinating thing in the world.

“I don’t really know … I even looked it up online, and I couldn’t find anything about it.” That was weird, too. She had checked Amazon for reviews, to give her a hint at what she was supposed to be getting out of it, but the book hadn’t been listed. “Not even anything about the author.”

“Oh, that’s a pen name. Not all authors want you knowing who they are.” Everyone laughed again, and the sound was grating.

“What did you think of the bones?” Harold asked eagerly. “Did you work out what kind of bones they were?”

The bones had reminded her of Riley, of course, but everything did. They were too small, far too small, but they reminded her of him still. The bones that showed through his thin skin and the bones that by now filled his grave.

To her absolute horror, her eyes began filling with tears. She didn’t want these people to see her cry, oh God, that would lead to sympathetic looks and soft voices and a whole event she just couldn’t take right now. And would her doctor hear about it? Somehow, she believed he would.

Miranda stood up. “Is there a bathroom here?”

“Yes, just down the back.” Carrie gestured to the rows of bookshelves criss-crossing behind her, in a way that made Miranda slightly dizzy. Still, better to wander lost among books than be stuck with these people for another five minutes.

The bookstore went back farther than she’d expected. She just needed to breathe, to get back to herself. She stumbled deeper in, her pulse pounding hot in her head. What had she been thinking coming here, among these strangers, trying to heal herself?

As if they could ever understand.

The place was old; it had been here since she was a kid. She had visited once or twice with her parents, but they had hurried her out quickly and she’d never had the opportunity to properly explore.

She had never brought Riley here. He hadn’t been much of a bookstore kid. He was busy, so busy, always wanting to be outside. She had become that sort of person for him. And after the disease struck, well, books were the last thing on her mind.

The tightly-packed bookshelves insulated the sounds of the others talking, as if they were farther away than they really were. She was grateful for this moment of quiet.

She strummed a finger against the spine of a hefty set of children’s dictionaries. Something was moving behind the shelves. Footsteps, Riley’s footsteps, as he stumbled from his bed to the bathroom to vomit blood into the toilet. No—probably the cat. Her throat felt thick and pasty. Had they mentioned the cat’s name? She couldn’t remember. “Kitty?”

She could still picture Riley, his beautiful eyes gone flat as he gazed up at her over the toilet seat, changed, as if he had vomited out some essential part of himself and she had no choice but to flush it away. It nagged at her. She needed to see the cat, to prove to herself she was crazy, to prove to herself Riley wasn’t hiding just around the corner. Her head spun with the kind of paranoia usually reserved for the darkest moments of the early morning. She took a left turn around the shelves, away from the bathroom and towards the noise.

The cat sprinted away, so light on its feet it could have been floating. Then it peered back around the shelf right at her and she stifled a scream.

Its eyes. The cat had Riley’s eyes. Not the dead eyes that haunted her every night, nor the eyes of the last few months when everything that had made him her son was drained out of him and he lay limp and unmoving in the hospital bed. No. These were the bright blue eyes of his childhood, when he had been his real self. And they had seen her. Known her.

A wave of nausea swept through her. Dr. Hopskin wouldn’t like this, she shouldn’t do this, she was imagining things, but her brain was chattering and the impulse could not be controlled. Besides, she wasn’t following the cat because it had Riley’s eyes, of course not, it was to prove that the cat didn’t look like him, that she was imagining it, to confirm just how ridiculous she was being. They aren’t even shaped like cat’s eyes.

She turned a corner and listened for the padding of paws, then turned again. A flicker of a white-tipped tail guided her further. Was it possible to get lost in a bookstore? To become lost among the shelves and never find your way out again? She didn’t see the cat anymore. All the shelves looked the same. They’re probably wondering where I am by now.

The bookshelves stretched to the ceiling, and when she looked back, she wasn’t sure which way she had come. Like the labyrinth, forming tighter and tighter spirals, the walls were closing in, the tiny bones crunching beneath her feet, but now Riley’s eyes peered out from the darkness and she was chasing him through the dimly-lit pathway and—

—this was ridiculous. Time to go back.

Miranda retraced her steps as well as she could remember and stumbled almost immediately upon a dead end. Not exactly a dead end, though, because a narrow door yawned open onto a dark stairwell. A basement? Something dripped, and she heard a strange yowling that could have been a child’s cry but must have been the cat.

The light switch was near the door and as Miranda fumbled for it, the dim light cast a shaky path down the stairs. As though in a dream, her body moving on its own, she found herself descending, each footstep slow and deliberate to avoid tumbling. She reached the dirt floor almost immediately; her neck cramped forward uncomfortably in order to clear the ceiling. The room was small and crammed full of crates spilling books. And in the furthest corner, Riley, his hands in his lap, sitting quietly on a box. Beautiful. Healthy. She couldn’t breathe.

Immense relief, overpowering relief, weak jelly-legs that could barely stumble across the floor. She was at his side, this wasn’t real, but it didn’t matter, she had to hold him, pull him as close as she could, feel his warm cheek against her own. She was sleep-talking, words pouring out of her mouth, smearing tears onto his clothes, pushing his hair away from his eyes. He was still and silent, but his breath puffed onto her cheek. His eyes were sharp blue, not the dull grey they had turned before he died.

He let her blubber over him for a moment longer, and then he was speaking, in a soft gravelly voice she had never heard before.

“I need to tell you something.” But she couldn’t stop touching him, his soft cheeks, the tiny hands that moved in hers, and the life that pulsed beneath his skin. He didn’t move, didn’t respond, and something about his frail coldness terrified her.

“Riley, what’s the matter with you?” Her voice was sharper than she intended. “You’re not acting right.”

“Please, stop talking. I need to tell you something and I don’t have long.”

“What do you mean? Why don’t you have long? Don’t leave. Don’t leave.” It wasn’t enough. She wanted to look at him forever, his cowlick sprig of hair, the sprinkle of freckles over his nose. She rained kisses and tears on his brow, but he didn’t move.

“Please …” that voice was so awful and so unlike him that she stopped. He wriggled from her arms and squirmed away, but he let her take his small, cold hand in hers.

“I need to tell you … that time I was really, really little and we went camping. Me and you and dad. We had the tent and we were in that campground near the ocean, but we had to walk that path in the woods to get to the beach and I liked the woods so much more than the beach so we went back there for lunch. There was a picnic table. I ate my sandwich really, really quick, and you guys kept eating, and you said I could go play but not go too far. I had my bucket and I peeled back the bark on some trees and looked at the bugs and put the bugs in the bucket and then I turned over a rock and there were salamanders. And most of them ran away but I grabbed one and put him in my bucket but he didn’t want to eat the bugs.

“I was gonna ask you if I could keep him. I loved him. He was shiny and his eyes were dark and he ran around in the bucket so funny. I’d name him Sal and put him in the old aquarium that my fishes died in and he could be my friend.

“I wanted to put him on my shoulder to show you me and him being friends, and I reached in and grabbed him and he flipped over in my hand and I tried to pet his belly but I pushed too hard and his guts came out, I pushed too hard and I killed him, he made a squishing sound and it all came out his mouth and he was dead and I couldn’t tell you and dad why I was crying because I was a murderer and I didn’t want anyone to know that I killed him, I killed my little friend.”

A thin, bitter fluid filled Miranda’s mouth. “Riley, that’s not true.”

“It kept coming to me forever. Until I died, every time I closed my eyes I saw his guts spurt out and his beady little eyes go dead.” Riley closed his eyes. He looked like he was carved from marble. He didn’t speak again.

Miranda opened her mouth. She didn’t know what she was going to say, but she had to say something. Instead, she gagged. Bitter fluid flooded her mouth and took her breath away. She started coughing and Riley gazed impassively at her, barely blinking. She swallowed and thought the worst was over, but her words dribbled over a thick swelling in her throat.

The stink of panic rose from her armpits when she couldn’t catch her breath, that familiar stink which had kept her awake so many nights. She couldn’t breathe, and her son was just looking at her with those eyes that had haunted her for far too long. She tried to cough and finally something loosened, and then something in her mouth was moving and it was slimy and bitter and she spat, and a salamander, squirming and dead-eyed, raced away. She screamed, and Riley didn’t even flinch.

“Miranda? Where are you?” Reluctantly, she tore her eyes away from her son. That old creep Harold was snooping around looking for her. She didn’t want to answer, not now, so she looked back toward her son, but he was gone. The cat sat on the box instead. She blinked normal green eyes at Miranda.

“Miranda?” A female voice now. The cat blinked again, slowly, and hopped off the box and padded up the stairs.

Everything got blurry after that. There was screaming, and there was crying, and there were boxes torn apart in Miranda’s hands. Eventually there were people all around her and she was clawing away from them, screaming his name, pounding her hands against the walls.

Then Carrie was there, stroking her back, intoning something about the labyrinth, her voice low and calm, and the adrenaline spike faded, and Miranda slumped into her arms.

They led her back to the seating area. Someone placed a hot mug in her hands and helped her sit down. It was hard to breathe. All their eyes were on her, their dull brown eyes and dark green eyes and pale blue eyes, but none like Riley’s. None even close.

“Can you tell us a little bit about what happened?” Carrie thumbed her book open, the one with all the post-its and the meeting notes. She had a pen in her hand, like there was going to be an accident report or something.

“No, it’s not … my son was down there.” Panic erupted in her chest again and she started to stand up. She had to find him. The group shifted and looked at each other. “You don’t understand. He’s dead. My son is dead.”

Carrie jotted something down in her book, then peered closer at Miranda. “What color were his eyes?”

That bitter taste rose in her mouth again. “Blue. They were his eyes. They were blue.”

“I knew it!” Harold said, “I had a feeling they would be, we haven’t had blue in a while.” Carrie was furiously flipping through the notebook, marking things with highlighter. Her brow was furrowed in concentration but her mouth hinted at a smile. “You’re right, it’s been nearly six months.”

“What are you talking about?” Murmured concentration went on around her. Carrie ignored her and flipped back to a new page. “Did he say anything?”

Miranda stood up, but her knees wouldn’t hold her. She slumped back into her chair. “What the fuck is going on here?” Tears streamed from her eyes, beyond her control. “I don’t feel right …” Shelves blurred and twisted in her peripheries and she had to close her eyes to control the dizziness.

“It’s fine. Please. What did he say?”

“He told me this story about a salamander. It wasn’t true. Riley never lied, but this wasn’t true.” She opened her eyes to more of those simpering smiles, but felt too tired to be mad. “He never met his father. We never went camping. Why would he say those things?”

“Oh no, honey, it’s not meant to be literal.” Harold patted her knee.

“Camping and a salamander,” Carrie was still writing. “Any other themes?”

“What do you mean, themes? He told me he killed a salamander and he couldn’t stop thinking about it.” Carrie flipped through the book. “I think we’ve had salamanders before, haven’t we?”

“What do you think it means?” Harold asked. He wasn’t talking to Miranda. He was looking at Carrie. A dribble of drool shone on his lips.

“What does it mean?” asked Miranda. “What does any of this mean?” Something deep inside her wanted to scream but everyone was so calm, and the tea was sweet and strange and instead she stifled a yawn. Idly, she wondered if she could retrace those steps through the shelves. She wondered about the book they had read and if she mapped out that path, and mapped out her own and sat one on the top of the other, how closely would they line up?

Everyone kept talking incessantly around her and she caught fragments of the conversation; cross-referencing, and codes and riddles and how things came together, piece-by-piece-by-piece.

She remembered her son’s face. The first one, the fresh one, the one full of promise. She remembered how it had fallen away, day by day, and morphed into his dying face, the one with hollow cheeks and holes for eyes. That dead face was the one she saw when she closed her eyes now, his eyes gone flat and dark. His new face, the one she saw today, was better, even if those blue eyes wouldn’t quite look at her.

“Miranda?” Her eyes shot open. They were all looking at her again. The book had new flags and notes. She wanted to read it, to see what secrets it could possibly hold. “Can we expect you back next week?”

“Oh, yes. Absolutely. Yes.”  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artwork by Coco

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