Sonya had parked outside Happy Flowers Retirement Village with the air conditioning on full. The dimensions of the hire car had been designed to knock and bash her at every mile of the trip. Her knees and lower back throbbed with discomfort. In her head, she wrestled with the frustrations of duty, manifesting as a nervous, constant litany of tasks and accusations, all turned inwards.
Niamh had the kids. John-Paul had gone for a third stint in rehab. It was down to loyal, industrious Sonya to draw the short straw of the perpetually rigged game of ‘Who Sees Mom’. Their individual obligations did not deter their enthusiasm towards the last, pressing question left to their family.
Sonya checked that the paperwork was all there, notarized and prepared by Niamh’s brother-in-law. Through a series of emails, late night phone calls and listless conversations interrupted by children, they had agreed that this was a smart move, a matter of pragmatism and realism. A clear application of the values instilled into them by their parents.
Dad would understand, they all said. He was no longer around to confirm or deny it, but they appropriated his memory in ways that Sonya did not recognise as being authentic. They attributed homespun wisdom lifted wholesale from television and fiction. She would not correct either of them, but would nod and wait for them to ask when she was going to go see her.
She collected herself, took a deep breath of the chilled air and stepped out of the car into the brutal heat of Orlando. She had parked as close as possible and dashed inside to the reception area.
Happy Flowers was arranged in layers, the pristine reception area being the outermost. It was decorated in soft pastel colours and solemn minor key melodies piped in as soft as a whisper. Sonya had been here enough to know that it was all bullshit.
The Happy Flowers here were plastic and hollow, like the promises made in the brochure. Sonya was still constrained enough by a need to be liked to force a shallow smile at the receptionist and gave her mother’s name.
The receptionist, a plump, coiffured paragon of efficiency swallowed at the mention of her name. She picked up the phone without breaking eye contact with Sonya.
‘Mr Hayes? Mrs Stewart’s daughter is here to see her.’
No one here asked which one. Mom would have filled them all in on who we were and how ungrateful we were.
The receptionist put the phone down and slipped her a smile like she had brought it out from a drawer.
‘Please take a seat. Mr Hayes will be out.’
Sonya struggled to hold onto the rising, twisting panic that had flared into life, symptoms of an old disease. She slammed her palms against the desk.
‘Where the fuck is my mom?’
The receptionist scowled and pointed a finger at her.
‘Hey, I’ve got a can of pepper spray right here, lady.’
The door opened and Mr Hayes stepped through. Sonya believed that if it had been something serious, then they would have called her, but she lost service plenty of times along the drive and should she check her phone? Right now?
Sonya looked up and smiled.
‘Just tell me where my mom is. Please.’
He wore a white shirt, rolled up to the elbows. There was a small wet mark on his tie, presumably from the lunch that had been interrupted by her arrival. It rewarded her with a small twist of pleasure that she had been something of an imposition to this man.
They should have called her.
Normally, she would have engaged in the listless pillow fight that coming here always became, but she was hot, tired and she couldn’t find her mom.
He sighed and asked the receptionist to pass him the flyer.
‘What does this mean?’
He grimaced before he told her. She had left of her own free will. Sonya imagined her chained up in a basement somewhere, eating from a dog’s bowl whilst kneeling on packed dirt floors. She looked at the flier, the man featured on it.
‘Isn’t that -?’
Mr Hayes gave an embarrassed chuckle and nodded.
‘Yes. they have their address on the back. One of them was working here, and they got talking.’
Sonya chuckled and shook her head. Her relief broke like the sunset after a hard day.
‘Wow. No wonder she’s gone. She took me to see those last two movies he did.’
Sonya remembered her manners, thanked him and strode out to the car.
Everything runs in a circle, she thought. Here I am, going to retrieve my wayward mother, the same way she had. Except she hadn’t, not really.
She got back into the car and pulled out, programming the address into the satellite navigation system.
The abandoned truck sat atop bald, deflated tyres that had sunk into the ground. Its sheen had been transformed into the same consistency as the dirt. It sat there like a broken guard dog, looking out through cracked, rheumy eyes as she stood by the car.
She looked down at her heels and wished she had worn sneakers or something with better support. She took out her phone and dialled the number from the flier.
A soft, happy voice. It reminded her of her brother and she winced at the depth of it. He could barely look after himself but it would have been something.
‘I would like to speak to Donna Stewart please. This is her daughter.’
A soft chuckle.
‘Erm, yeah sure.’
Sonya looked down the path, to where the house stood.
‘In fact, I’m stood by the rusted truck at the front, if I could come up and see her.’
‘Cool, ain’t it? Came with the house.’
Sonya ran her tongue over her teeth and closed her eyes, trying to stay calm. She could call the police, but that would make things worse. Police. Cults. Her and Mom in the middle of it.
Sonya opened her eyes.
A long sigh and a smack of the lips.
‘Are you coming up or what?’
The call disconnected and Sonya saw the front door pushed open. She pulled her blouse from where it had stuck to her back and bristled for confrontation.
The most shocking thing about her mother was her expression.
She had combed out her white hair and wore a purple cotton dress that fell to her calves. Her feet were bare and as she came closer, Sonya saw the intricate patterns of henna snaking down her lean arms. Mom had always been beautiful to her, but she was seeing an entirely different woman here. She glowed with a vitality that Sonya envied.
Donna pulled her into a deep, enthusiastic embrace. She pulled back and planted a warm kiss on her cheek that made Sonya gasp with surprise.
‘It’s so good to see you.’
Sonya peered at her, trying to see if her pupils were dilated. She was effervescent to a degree that made her someone new to her own daughter.
‘Mom, Happy Flowers said you left.’
Donna laughed and nodded.
‘No, I got free, darling. You need to see this for yourself.’
Sonya had visions of a softer Jonestown, naked toddlers and root mash for every meal. Donna took her hands and Sonya remembered the paperwork she needed her to sign.
A surge of mischief arose in her, and she decided to follow where it was pulling her as much as her mother.
Everything inside was painted purple. It had faded to a pink blush where the sun hit the walls but Sonya laughed out loud at the ridiculous, glorious mess of it.
‘It’s so you know you’re entering into another reality.’
There were another three houses and a set of stables converted into beds and living spaces. It was all done in purple. The smell of pot and animal dung hung in the air, pleasant in a simple, primal way. Mom took her hand.
‘You have to meet him.’
Sonya looked around her, still coltish with concern.
‘Mom, this is like a cult or something. You can’t be in a cult.’
Donna shook her head, smiling with a benign forgiveness.
‘No, sweetie, I was in a cult. I spent decades training for something that I didn’t really want to be.’
Sonya let go of her hand.
‘You mean us?’
Donna came forward and put her hands on her shoulders.
‘You were the reason I stayed so long. But Sonya, I didn’t need to be put away after your father died, I needed to be set free.’
Sonya lowered her chin to her chest.
‘Mom – ‘
His voice was low and rich, it strolled across the air to her ears and made her look up from her pained recollection. He was bare chested, showing off his taut abdominals and broad shoulders, the curls of dark hair that collected on his pectoral muscles. His hair was long, thick and dark as a raven’s wing, held back from his face by a twist of rawhide. He wore faded blue jeans that slung low on his hips.
‘Hi.’ Sonya said.
‘I’m pleased to see you. Donna has told me a lot about you.’
His career had been, not as the leading man, but the vain, arrogant jock who would get his comeuppance through his own dumb masculinity and his inability to relate to women. It had been one role played across a number of films. She had heard that he had done theatre once, had driven all night to see him but her car had broken down.
This, though, was either his greatest role or how he had always been.
‘Oh god, should I apologise now?’ Sonya said.
He laughed and showed his teeth. He had a slight overbite but his lips were thick and full. She had imagined kissing them, and the memory returned to her with a force as insistent as gravity.
He shook his head and reached out, touched her upper arm and tilted his head to one side.
‘I will leave you two alone. Will you stay for dinner?’
Sonya thought about the root mash and the naked toddlers. She hadn’t seen any of the latter, but this would make for a good story and allow her a chance to figure out what was going on with her mom. With herself, too.
Sonya nodded with enthusiasm.
He walked on, reached out and grasped Donna’s hand before grinning at her and carried on.
Donna took in a deep breath and took hold of her daughter’s hands again.
‘So, let’s do this.’
They sat in front of a fire. Donna had sat with her at dinner. A massive salad, heaped bowls of fragrant rice and curries of vibrant colours and odours. Everyone helped themselves, and Sonya glanced around, looking at everyone with an increasing sense of yearning. Later after everything had been cleared away, he had built a fire and people had brought out musical instruments. The singing and playing were ragged at first, but with enthusiasm came courage and soon Sonya was sat there, swathed in joyful noise as she watched her mom dance in front of the fire.
Sonya had asked if she could throw some trash on it, and no one had objected. She had rushed back to the car and got everything, tossing it in ragged handfuls, watching it feed the fire until the tongues of flame were fat and hungry.
The hand on her shoulder did not make her flinch. She had been hoping for it.
He passed her a joint and she took it between her shaking fingers. She inhaled, managed not to cough and exhaled it slowly as he sat next to her.
He leaned forward and she moved to meet him.