Just Short of Paradise
by Edward Lorn
“Mom,” Katlyn said, “I’m gay.”
She watched her mother’s hands on the steering wheel, at ten and two. The knuckles blanched, bloodless.
“Sorry,” Mom said, “what was that?”
Mercy Me played over the radio, “I Can Only Imagine,” set to repeat. Before Katlyn could repeat herself unnecessarily, Mom began humming along with the song.
Katlyn thought, You can’t spell ignorance with out I-G-N-O-R-E.
The interstate rolled out in front of them, dull and gray, the most exciting part of it the broken yellow line running toward them. The song faded and began once again, the tinkle of piano keys accompanied by the low melody of the singer’s soft tones. Katlyn laid her head against the warmth of the passenger side window. The sun, magnified by the glass, had turned her forearm a deep red. She reached over and rubbed at the ruddy skin, took a deep breath, and bent forward to turn off the radio.
Mercy Me fell mercifully silent.
Katlyn let it all hang out. “Becky’s not my friend. She’s my lover. We’ve been together for over a year now. We plan on getting married. I want you to acknowledge that fact, whether you like it or not.”
A shaking hand left the steering wheel to smooth perfectly coifed blonde hair. Her mother’s face remained stoic in the moment but Katlyn could almost smell Mom’s fear.
After a full minute of silence, Mom said, “I didn’t raise a homosexual.”
“No,” Katlyn said, “You gave birth to one. You didn’t do anything to make me this way. I just am this way.”
“Homosexuality is an abomination.”
“So are your social skills, but you don’t see me complaining.”
Mom shot her a quick, harsh look, then returned her eyes to the road. “You’re not funny.”
“Depends on who you ask.” Katlyn tried to smile but the hurt on her mother’s face aborted the grin.
Mom’s hand went for the radio. Katlyn smacked it away.
Mom barked, “Katlyn Marie Carlisle!”
“Janet Whatever Your Middle Name Is Carlisle!”
“I’m trying to drive.”
“I’m trying to talk.”
“I don’t want to talk about what you want to talk about.” Mom stared straight ahead, cords standing out on her neck from the sheer tension of trying to look in Katlyn’s direction.
“Then you’ll just have to listen, because I’m not shutting up. If you want to drop me at a bus stop and continue on to California without me, fine, but I’m gonna get this out.”
Mom went for the radio again. Katlyn beat her to it. She pressed the eject button, rolled her window down, and threw the CD out as if she were chucking a Frisbee.
Wide-eyed, with nostrils flaring, Mom fumed. She looked like she’d just got through snorting a line of cocaine laced with Tabasco sauce.
Mom said, “I’m calling your father when we get to Bakersfield.”
“What? Like I’m fifteen again? Like I just snuck out of the house for a night of drunken teenage abandon? I’m twenty-two years old, Mom.”
“Your poor grandmother. I’m glad she passed before she could see you like this.”
“Oh, that’s just low. Even for you. Here we are, on our way to the woman’s funeral, and all you can think about is how you’re glad she’s dead.”
“I am not—” Mom slammed the ball of her fist against the steering wheel, “—glad my mother’s dead. I’m glad that she went to her grave thinking you were a decent young lady and not… not… ”
“Gay! I’m gay! Say it. For once, say it.”
“You sicken me.”
That did it. Katlyn hated her mother for the tears welling in the corners of her eyes. She despised the fact that Mom still had that kind of control over her. But there was also love, an undying feeling for the woman who had brought her into this world. Conflicting emotions waged war in Katlyn’s head, ebbing and flowing like rogue waves on weather worn pilings. God damn her for making this so hard.
“I am who I am. I don’t harp on you for believing in some all-knowing all-seeing psychopath who hides in a galaxy far, far away. I don’t scream at you for believing that some three-day-old zombie shat out a bunch of multi-colored eggs. And I certainly—”
The backhand caught her directly across the lips. Blood exploded into Katlyn’s mouth, liquid pennies racing across her tongue. The tears leapt from her eyes and crashed upon her cheeks.
“Please, Lord, forgive my child.”
“You… bitch.” Katlyn’s hand found the door handle, and if it hadn’t been for the driverless car beside them, she might have pushed it open and jumped out.
“Huh?” The comment sounded stupid, even to her. She rubbed her eyes as the car, sans operator, drifted over toward her side. Katlyn noticed the rosary hanging from the rearview of the empty sedan just before the vehicle’s speed reduced dramatically. Mom pulled away from the car as it swerved into their lane, barely missing them. Katlyn dropped the visor down, lifted the cover of the vanity mirror, and watched as the car rolled into the concrete horses that segmented the east- and westbound lanes.
“There was nobody driving that car,” said Katlyn, more to herself than to her mother.
“Do not speak to me right now.”
“Mom… I’m serious. There was nobody in that car.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Though Mom’s face said she didn’t care to justify Katlyn’s words with any emotion, her mother’s eyes darted to the mirror and stayed there longer than a glance.
“I don’t see anything.”
Mom sighed. “No, I mean I don’t see anything out of the ordinary.”
Katlyn slapped the visor closed, twisted around in her seat, and tried to get a better look at the now still car, but it was too far away by that time for her to see inside.
She flopped back down straight in her seat and tried to make sense of what she’d seen. A car driving itself. Or a car whose driver had disappeared. Too many options, no good answers.
An arc of brilliant light etched its way across a clear blue sky, causing Katlyn to cover her eyes; so bright that Katlyn’s eyes instantly burned even behind her closed lids. When she dared open them again, her hand glowed red, as if someone were on the other side, shining a flashlight into her palm.
Katlyn wet herself.
“Oh… ” Mom said, “it’s so beautiful.”
The crimson outlining Katlyn’s arm dimmed and she was able to drop her hand. Out across the concrete expanse before her, cars were either stopped or slowing down. Her mother rolled past a silver Lexus with a MY OTHER RIDE IS YO MOMMA bumper sticker. The driver seemed to be in a fit of a seizure, bobbing around in his seat like a buoy in a storm, until pop! he exploded, painting the inside of the luxury coupe with what looked like ketchup-covered meatloaf.
“Holy shit!” Katlyn tried to crawl away from the sight. Though she was in no danger, she drew her legs up to her chest and pushed away.
“Look… ” Mom cooed. Her voice was melodic and almost sexual, as if post-orgasm. “He’s finally come.”
Katlyn fought with what to focus on. She could no longer form words. The man who’d turned into Sunday night supper before her eyes had stolen all semblance of rational thought away from her.
A tractor trailer jumped the median, but only the cab made it over. The rear compartment became snagged on the divider. The entire rig snapped to a halt, having lost the tug-of-war. Red goo ran down the inside of the window in gelatinous rivulets. Written across the top of the windshield, startling white against the maroon mess behind it, was the word SLAYER.
Mom pulled the car to the side of the road and killed the engine. Her door popped open. Katlyn watched in startled disbelief as her mother began walking down the breakdown lane, her arms out at her sides, head tossed back to the heavens, calling out, “Take me! Take me!”
Katlyn spilled out of her side, dropping to the gravel roadside. The horns continued to blow, their monotone trumpeting almost splitting Katlyn’s head in two.
“He’s finally come back!”
Katlyn pushed herself up off the ground, yelling over the droning trumpets, “Who’re you talking about?”
“It’s the second coming.”
Katlyn heard her mother, but for some reason the words didn’t click. She shook her head, as if trying to align the pieces of the puzzle bouncing around in her cranium. Mom couldn’t be talking about…
No way. Nuh-uh.
Mom squealed, “It’s… rapture!”
Katlyn made it to her mother. She grabbed the woman’s shoulders and spun her around to meet her eyes. Bright, glistening orbs twitched and stared. Mom had lost her mind.
You better hope so, Katlyn heard a voice in her head respond.
A black Mercury with a Romney/Ryan bumper sticker sat in the breakdown lane ahead of them. Inside, the passenger side was thick was fleshy matter and dripping blood, while the right side was significantly cleaner. Katlyn let her mother go and strode over to the driver’s side door.
Clear as day, like Bug’s Bunny running through a brick wall, Katlyn could trace the outline of a person in the clean section of glass. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, what had happened. The driver had disappeared, but not before the passenger had went the way of a pimple under pressure.
She backed away from the car, shaking her head, willing herself not to go completely mad.
Then, something occured to her. She began to laugh.
Mom no longer beamed. Her face drew down in a horse-faced frown. Katlyn found her mother’s sadness all too funny.
“Wha-what are you laughing at?” Mom shook a crooked finger at her. “You see what you’ve done? He’s come back, taken his children, and you… you’re still here. Your filthy, abhorrent lifestyle has damned you to an eternity upon this earth. You’re in purgatory, Katlyn. Purgatory!”
Still, Katlyn laughed.
“Stop it! You stop laughing right this instant! Don’t you see? Are you blind to see why you’re still here?”
“Nope,” Katlyn said, managing to control her laughter for a moment. “I know exactly why I’m here.”
“Repent, child! Repent!”
Katlyn let her grin go wide until her cheeks hurt. “You’re still here, too.”
Mom’s face turned ashen, as if someone had dumped a gallon of White-Out over her head. Katlyn could see the understanding in her mother’s eyes. She didn’t know whether to feel sorry for her bigot of a mother or just continue laughing.
“But,” Mom said, “I… I don’t understand.”
“I’m still here because I never believed,” Katlyn said. “What’s your excuse?”