My mother was standing a few feet from me.
She took a small shuffled step toward me and I took one back, knocking over the chair behind me and almost falling with it. I couldn't catch my breath. My mind raced with possibilities, none of which made any sense.
I was in an alternate universe. One where people came back from the dead. It couldn't be real. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it was the whiskey. Disbelief, doubt, and utter confusion were all sitting like a knot in my gut, pushing upwards on my racing heart and making its way up to my tight throat. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't swallow.
I—I couldn't do much of anything except gape at the woman who looked and sounded exactly like my mother. Only—it couldn't have been.
"It's not possible," I said in a shocked whisper. "It's just not."
"It's possible. She's really here," Critter said. His deep voice was usually calming for me, but in that moment, there wasn't anything that could calm my shaking hands and sweaty palms. "This ain't no dream, Sawyer. She's alive. Just as much as you and me." I glanced up at him and he was watching me--gauging my reaction. "I told her she needed to hold off until she was stronger, but she wanted to see you and when she's all there, like she was this morning, there is no talking her out of it."
A tall, robust woman with broad square shoulders and short black hair appeared at my mother's side. The scowl on her face didn't match the bright pink scrubs with large, happy face print. "This is not good for her, Mr. Critter," the woman said. "I need to take her back to the house."
It was then I realized my mother hadn't moved since she'd first said my name. Her stare was blank and unfocused on the back wall.
"No, wait!" I called out. I ran up and threw my arms around her, needing to feel her, needing to know she was really there because words weren't enough.
My mother's arms stayed to her side, hanging limply against her body. "My girl," she whispered. I pulled back just in time to see the small smile on her lips fade into a straight line. Her lips hung partially open.
"What's wrong?" I asked on a strangled cry. She didn't answer. I turned to Critter. "What's wrong with her!" I demanded to know.
"Come on. It's time to go," the nurse said, scooping my mother up and cradling her in her arms like she weighed no more than a small child.
"What was I supposed to do, Maddy? Tie her to the goddamn bed?" Critter asked the nurse. "Never could say no to her." He grumbled, rubbing his temples.
"What's going on?" I demanded, glancing between the nurse and Critter. I took a step back while my mind raced. I held onto a table when I grew dizzy. "How is this possible?"
My mother moaned, and the nurse carried her out the back door. Critter and I both followed and I watched her place her into an awaiting van, expertly buckling her into the gurney in the back within seconds.
Critter walked up the ramp of the van and stroked his hand lovingly over my mother's face. "It's okay. We'll get you home now so you can rest." My mother didn't respond. "I'll come see you later, my love." He kissed her on the forehead, sighed, then turned back to Maddy. "Take her. I'll follow soon."
"Where are you taking her?" I asked, feeling panic coursing through me at the idea of not knowing where she'd be as they drove off.
"Home. My house," Critter answered. He scratched his head and looked at the van long after it disappeared down the road. "Where she was always meant to be." He turned to me and placed a hand on my shoulder but I stepped back as if he'd shocked me. He looked to the ground. "I know you have a lot of questions..."
"Questions?" I asked, and without realizing it I started to laugh. "Questions seems so small compared to what I have right now."
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you when you first got here," Critter continued, ignoring my outburst. "But your mother was in such rough shape that I didn't want you to have to grieve her twice. I never gave any thought to the condition she'd be in when I got her back. I was stupid enough to assume that she'd just be herself like she'd been before. I should have known better. You don't spend two decades with a man like Richard Dixon and come out whole on the other end." He looked at me and winced, realizing what he'd just said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."
"Don't be sorry. It's true. You don't spend two decades with a man like him and come out whole." I took in a long shaky breath. "I'm all too familiar. But please tell me, what's wrong with her?"
"It turns out she's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It's the same thing soldiers sometimes go through after they've come home from combat. And there's no doubt in my mind that what your mother went through was a goddamned war zone. She was quiet but all right at first. Once we told her you were here and all right it was like all the walls she'd put up came crumbling down, and the magnitude of everything hit her like a damned tidal wave."
"Will she get better?" I asked.
Critter's eyes grew teary and again. "Only time will tell. She's getting help. But she has her moments. Sometimes, when she's with it, she goes back and forth between the present and thinking it's twenty years ago."
"You lied to me," I said. The weight of reality wasn't just crushing my mother because I felt it sitting on my shoulders like an anvil.
"Yes. I did," Critter admitted. "But if it helps any, I know how you feel. I thought she was dead. I thought she'd left me and then he'd killed her." He clenched and unclenched his fists. "I know now that's what he led me to believe. Your mother thought the same. That I was dead. Wasn't until I had a dream about her that I felt like she was somehow alive. I sent a team to look for her again. At first, they didn't come up with a damn thing. And then they located the camper and truck in a storage unit in North Carolina. That's how I traced it back to her. That's how I knew where she was."
"So, she faked her death?"
Critter looked to the ground and shuffled his feet. "No, we did. We extracted her. The plan was to get both of you out but I was there that day. Watching her from a distance, waiting for you to meet her, but something was off. She wasn't just sad. There was something else there. A finality in the way she watched the traffic move back and forth on the road. I knew we had to get her out of there right that second, so we did. Got some not so up-and-up members of society to pretend to hit her and fake a mangled body for viewing. They bribed everyone seven ways ‘til Sunday until your mother was dead in every single way but in the breathing sense. We planned on coming back for you a few days later. I wouldn’t have left you there. You need to know that. But by then you'd already bolted. I damn near had a fucking heart attack when you showed up at the bar that day."