Harbinger – Doug Chase

Couldn’t see too well. It was my mother’s living room, I knew it was, and I was sleeping on the couch, and I got up. Couldn’t see hardly at all. It was a fog, but it was in my eyes.

The walls didn’t have corners. Should have been a big arched opening to the dining room. Nothing, just the walls, a blue cast to them, fuzzed out where the angles should have met. That dining room, on the other side of it was the hallway that went to the stairs that went to my mother’s room, but I couldn’t see any of it. And my sound was fuzzed out, too, just the buzz that comes from the fridge, the fridge that should have been in the kitchen next to the dining room, the fridge that came second hand from the Vincent de Paul store downtown. That fridge now, whiter than the white of the walls around me, stood like a sentry across from the couch. Taller than me, wider than it should be, and someone took off the handle, just the lower handle to the fridge part, but the handle to the upper part, the freezer, still there, shiny silver against the ice white of the whole fridge.

I was staying with my mother the summer I moved to Oregon, sleeping on her couch. She was a professor at the U of O, Classics, Greek and Latin, all that. Got there the hard way, back to school after I was grown, didn’t get her parchment until she was 60. But she had a house in Eugene, a house practically in a forest, and Oregon was everything I had hoped, everything I lost after I got out of school myself. I mean, the laundromat had overgrown plants hung up in macrame pot holders. I mean, the manager of the laundromat was Jamaican, and he had long dreads, and he drove a chocolate brown Jag. I mean, this is where all the hippies ended up, my people, and I found them at last.

But that morning, up out of the couch, something wrong with my eyes, or with the living room, or the whole house. Those blue white walls fading into each other. That fridge, the buzz from it hitting the walls, hitting me, until it was like the buzz was in me.

That feeling when something is behind you, I got it. Chill on the back of my neck, chill on my forearms, hairs rising up in static attention. 

A weight on my bare shoulder.

A hand.

Fingers splayed on my skin.

I turned, but slow.

My mother. Her gray hair. Ruddy face, capillaries broken across her cheeks. Her nose, people thought she drank, it was so red, but she didn’t. It was her asthma, her life of coughing and fighting for breath. It was the cigarette habit from decades before that still held her.

Her eyes were the same bluish white as the walls of the room. All the way through. No color at all, just the whites of her eyes and the cloud-covered sky of her pupils. Blind. More than blind. Helpless. The color of her eyes was the color all the way through her, the color of her thoughts. There were no thoughts. There was just the buzz, which came from the fridge, and came from the walls, and came from her.

I’m taller than my mother. Almost a foot taller. I got the tall gene. I knew her by the top of her head, the shock of white which we joked and called gray. I knew her by the angle tall people know everyone, looking down the forehead and the nose, trying to see eyes from behind the shield of their eyelids.

But that morning, in that white world with no corners, I was eye to eye with her. And she was lost somewhere. Her mind was gone. Her most precious thing, her intelligence, lost somewhere in the white.

If it was a dream, it wasn’t. It was a vision. 

If it was a dream, then what I’m telling you is stupid. Who wants to hear someone else’s dream. And besides, I never remember my dreams. But it’s 25 years later, and I haven’t forgotten it. 

It was a vision.

Years later, and I lived in Portland, 110 miles up the road from my mother. She still taught Latin at the University. She still lived in her house in the woods. 

She called me. 

“I had a cough I couldn’t shake,” she said. 

Her lifetime of asthma, a cough she couldn’t shake wasn’t a surprise. Her voice was permanently husky.

“I have lung cancer,” she said. 

“Stage four,” she said.

I became one of her support people. I lived two hours away, but I got off work to take her to tests, to chemo, sat with her while the formula made just for her burned its way into her arm, through her blood. I ran errands, went to the store, got her the kind of food she wanted, which wasn’t much. Got her prunes because the chemo made her stopped up. She laughed when she told me how to find them.

“They call them dried plums,” she said. “Less of a connotation.”

The chemo didn’t help. One day her heart stopped, then started again with enough time for her housekeeper to call 911. Her body kept failing, but she was as smart as ever.

She faded fast. Three months after she first told me, I got a call from a doctor at McKenzie Hospital. His professionally serious phone voice.

“You should come down, but your mother might be gone before you get here.”

She wasn’t gone. But it felt like she was. She was in a bed in Oncology. Machines watching her and quietly buzzing. She was hopped up on so much morphine. Her eyes were open, but they were swimming. It’s the only way I can describe them. They were far away. They were in an ocean. There were no pupils that I can remember. Her eyes and her thoughts and her mind, they were lost in white with a blue cast.

She wasn’t gone that day, but it wasn’t long after. Her life, her vitality, her love, mostly her mind. Gone so fast.

Now I’m older. I was in my thirties when I stayed with my mother in Eugene. I was in my forties when she was taken by cancer. Now I’m sixty-one.

 I had that same vision this morning. Waking up in my mother’s house. Standing up from her couch. The room was white walls with a bluish tinge. A buzz from the enormous fridge against the wall. The fridge that was a sentinel. A chill through my chest. I’ve been here before. Déjà vu. The hair on my forearms rose up. A weight landed on my shoulder from behind. A hand. Fingers spread across my skin. 

I turn slow as I can.

Eye to eye. A pleading expression. 

Hair a shock of white.

The color all the way through, the color of my thoughts. 

It’s me.

My eyes lost, swimming, brimming, afraid. 

Mindless. Helpless.

The buzz within me and without me.

Now I see. 


Doug Chase lives and writes somewhere in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon. Doug has stories in the anthologies City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales and The Untold Gaze, and online at The Gravity of the Thing, Nailed Magazine, and one or two defunct sites. Doug is an Atheneum fellow at the Attic Institute and spent several dangerous years in Tom Spanbauer’s ongoing fiction workshop. Doug has worked at a very large bookstore for the last 27 years and is proud to have been on the Local 5 Executive Board during its initial four years. Doug has a lovely spouse and a cat-like dog, so things are pretty good right now.

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