By Matt Cantor
“Don’t take too long eating, dearie!” Bruce’s mother called. “You don’t want to be late for school!”
Bruce wasn’t going to be late for school. He’d never been late for school. He couldn’t’ve been late for school if he’d tried to be. But he scooped up a spoonful of cereal anyways, and he took a bite– or he would have taken a bite if his mother hadn’t suddenly plucked the spoon from his hands and replaced it with a healthy egg-white sandwich.
“Now you can’t keep eating Rocket Puffs every single day, dearie,” his mother scolded, waggling her finger. “Too much sugar. Dead from diabetes at fifty-seven.”
“Oh, good to know!” replied his mother to herself, from the kitchen.
“Skip the cookies in the lunchbox, too,” added his mother, who was standing in the foyer getting Bruce’s shoes and coat and backpack ready.
Bruce frowned– “Come on, mom, can’t I just–”
“Listen to your mother, Bruce,” said Bruce’s father over the top of his newspaper.
“Thank you!” said Bruce’s mother from the kitchen and also from the foyer and also from right next to him. She took his bowl of cereal, poured it out into the trash-can, wiped off her fingers on a napkin, told Bruce that she loved him– “I love you, dearie!”– and pressed the big blue button on the quite fashionable time-travel belt that she was wearing. She vanished in a cloud of harmless sparks back to the far future to double-check that the egg-white sandwich hadn’t caused some other thing to go wrong. “Hurry up with your sandwich, dearie!” his mother called from the kitchen. “But also don’t choke!”
She wasn’t really worried about him choking, of course. She could come back and fix it if he choked.
When he was still rather young, still in middle-school, Bruce had already learned that there were exactly two kinds of people. There were the people who wished that their great-grandfathers had also invented a quite fashionable time-travel belt, and there were the people smart enough to be thankful that theirs hadn’t.
The people who wished that their great-grandfathers had invented time-travel tended to be the ones who were bad at quizzes. The ones who were good at quizzes, they didn’t care so much because they were good at quizzes, but the ones who were bad at quizzes, they watched jealously, grinding their pencils, as Bruce’s mom– who’d just gotten the grade back a week later– popped out from the void again and again behind her son’s desk and bubbled in the right answers over his shoulder. “I love you, dearie!” she always told him before vanishing.
That’s how all the kids who were bad at quizzes made fun of him at recess– “I love you, dearie!” they sneered, in the same sort of voice his mom had used.
It didn’t get much better when his fourth-grade teacher Mr. Hitchens who had transferred in from another district and thus couldn’t possibly have known what he was up against called home to ask Bruce’s mother to stop interrupting class-time– she agreed of course, she said that it was an entirely reasonable thing to ask, and she promised to stop popping in like that during lessons– and she kept that promise, too. Instead, she just gave him the answers every morning before school; multiple-choice letters scrawled onto his eraser, fill-in-the-blanks as a song she made him memorize in the car. Open-response questions were trickier, but Bruce was pretty good at those anyways, so it wasn’t much of a problem.
The kids who were bad at quizzes stopped making fun of Bruce’s mother a little while after she’d stopped appearing, but they didn’t stop making fun of Bruce because his grades still hadn’t dropped, and they were still bad at quizzes.
When she was finally called in for the inevitable conference, Bruce’s mother made him wait in the car– with the window cracked, of course.
“You should really let Bruce do his own work,” said Mr. Hitchins. “I know it’s hard to let go, but it’s what you have to do. You’re not always going to be there to help him.”
Bruce’s mother quite calmly, quite cheerfully pointed out that quite actually yes, in fact, she was always going to be there to help her son, and then she showed off the quite fashionable time-travel belt on her waist, and there really wasn’t anything Mr. Hitchins could say in response to that.
Bruce graduated at the top of his fourth-grade class. And at the top of his fifth-grade class– and sixth-grade and seventh-grade and eighth-grade, straight “A”s the whole way through. Obviously, Bruce graduated at the top of his highschool class, too– a proper valedictorian, long-winded speech and all. His mother had written it for him, and as he stood behind the podium, delivering it, it was her face he found in the crowd.
In fairness, he couldn’t find any other faces. There weren’t any other faces– or, really, there were, here and there, but they were altogether lost in the sea of Bruce’s mother. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of time-copies, all across the great lawn in front of the school– she took up nearly every seat, took up nearly all of the standing-room behind the seats and next to the seats– on the sidewalk, in the street, down the street– everywhere in view– if there was somewhere that Bruce could be seen from as he gave the speech his mother had written for him, she was standing there, seeing him give it. They were all so proud, his mother, the young versions and the old versions, the ones in fancy clothes who’d dressed up for their little yearly trip down memory lane, the ones who’d gotten spontaneously misty-eyed for days gone by and had come zipping back here on the way home from the grocery store, or after the gym, or in their pajamas with bits of toothpaste still clinging to their lower lips.
Bruce felt distressingly like a political figure.
When he took his diploma from the headmaster, who was trying very hard to smile despite all of this, when he shook his hand, a dozen copies of his mother popped into existence on the stage and snapped pictures from every possible angle before vanishing again. “Love you, dearie!” the last one shouted before puffing away.
“Yes, dearie, we love you!” echoed the entire crowd, loud enough to hurt his ears– or it would have hurt his ears if yet another copy of his mother hadn’t shown up right then to cover them; she’d’ve hated for him to go deaf later– why let such an easily preventable thing happen?
“Bit of a helicopter, isn’t she?” the headmaster murmured to Bruce.
“Dual-rotor,” he replied.
College graduation was more of the same– more than more of the same, it was that much worse. But dating after college… that was where the real nightmare began.
The first person Bruce dated after college was a girl named Sheila whose roommate had been in his calculus class, and the first date he had with her was at a fancy restaurant called “Ratello’s”, and the first person to arrive was Sheila herself, two minutes early in a pretty blue dress and already sat down at her table when Bruce showed up two minutes later, precisely on time.
“Not really worth the effort, I’m afraid,” said Bruce’s mother, poofing into place beside him, straightening the collar of his shirt.
“Not worth the effort?”– Bruce flashed Sheila an apologetic smile across the dining-room. She smiled back. She’d already heard the stories about his mother from her roommates, but surely she couldn’t be that bad, could she?
“Not worth the effort,” Bruce’s mother repeated, giving him one last look-over before shrugging; what did it matter anyways? This wasn’t going anywhere– “Oh, don’t get me wrong, she’s a sweetheart, dearie– appreciates my cooking, keeps a good house– and the grandchildren are precious, but the great-great-great-grandchildren…”– she trailed off. “We can do better.”
When Bruce replied that he’d really like to get to know Sheila himself before making any sorts of decisions, his mother told him that of course, of course, he had every right to do that– he was a big boy, after all, he should be making all these choices for himself, shouldn’t he?– and then she vanished, reappearing an instant later next to the waiting Sheila in a shower of light and steam to tell her exactly what the grandkids would be like.
“Enjoy your date, you two!” she said as Bruce shuffled up to the table.
Bruce’s mother shook her head sadly, watching Sheila walk out to the taxi– “It is a shame,” she sighed. “She really would have been lovely… but I guess she saw that you’re out of her league, anyways, so all the more credit to her… I bet she’ll make someone real happy someday.”
She vanished, and then reappeared again.
“Yeah, she will. Great-great-great-grandkids are still ugly, though.”
It went more or less the same way with Cindy, and Ruby, and Jen.
Andrea, however, was different. Bruce’s mother didn’t show up in any of those dates. Andrea met her in the normal “meeting-the-parents” sort of way– and in fact, she seemed to be making a point of not popping in and out of reality when Andrea was present.
“You know, when you first told me that she was a lot to handle, I imagined she was this crazy helicopter-mom,” Andrea told Bruce over dinner, on their sixth date, “but no!– she’s perfectly lovely! I have no idea what you were so worried about!”
When Bruce explained it to her, she shrugged.
“Yeah, I did hear about someone inventing a quite fashionable time-travel belt a while back… always wondered if it was true.”– she took a forkful of linguini, twirled in thoughtfully– “Let me tell you, though, if I had a quite fashionable time-travel belt like that, I’d be using it way more than your mom does– I’d be zipping back and forth from the future like a dragonfly, checking on my own life, checking on all of my relatives…”– Andrea let the pasta fall back onto the plate– “I really admire her self-control.”
Three copies of Bruce’s mom waved to him through the window behind Andrea’s head.
Andrea and Bruce went on about fifteen more dates after that one, fifteen completely normal dates, and Bruce enjoyed himself very much on them. For all enjoying-himself, though, Bruce couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being allowed to do this.
“You did a great job choosing her,” his mother told him every time he came home from dinner or a movie or a long walk on the beach– or from a night when he hadn’t come home at all, and she always winked at him after those nights, which he hated. “I knew you were going to find yourself a perfect girl!”
The wedding was nearly as bad as the graduations had been. Only nearly, though– at least the wedding was indoors, at least there was a hard thermodynamic limit on the number of Bruce’s-Mothers who could be in attendance. Andrea’s nuclear family managed to fit, but as he stood with her at the altar, Bruce could see that none of them were particularly happy– and neither was she, for that matter. But it was too late to back out now; she loved him and he loved her and that was that.
After the wedding, however, Bruce’s mother dropped the act completely. She went right back to popping in and out, in and out of meals, in and out of car-trips, in and out of conversations whenever she pleased– and of course she knew that she wouldn’t cause Andrea to leave Bruce now that they were married; if she’d done anything to cause her to leave him, all she’d have to do was stop herself from doing it– and it was really quite a testament to Andrea’s patience how little Bruce’s mother ended up having to stop herself from doing.
She came to buy a house with them, and she made sure that the house they bought didn’t have a loose gutter on the side which Bruce would have to fix ten years later, up on a ladder which he would fall from and hurt his back. She demanded that the car-salesman Bruce went to see show him one with a radiator which would last more than just seven months and not leave him stranded on a narrow road high in the mountains next winter. She insisted that he leave with the baby-blue Ford Fierri rather than the red Honda Ekan– “The exclusive CruiseSafe driver warning-system and auto-braking front-camera simply speak for themselves– or rather, they will. You’ll see. Or rather, you won’t. But that’s what the auto-braking front-camera is for.”
She made him paint the Fierri yellow to improve its visibility to other drivers.
She took over everything Andrea ate and drank, too– “My grandson’s GPA goes up by a full point from you not downing that sherry just now,” she exclaimed. “It’s amazing! I mean, you aren’t even pregnant yet! That’s the butterfly effect for you, I guess.”
Andrea asked Bruce how his mother knew she wasn’t pregnant yet– and then, before he could answer she told him that actually, no, she didn’t want to know how she knew.
How she knew was by showing up in the bathroom every night while Bruce was brushing his teeth. “Tonight is a pull-out night,” she told him. “I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, dearie, the sperm that wins tonight is not the sperm we want.”
Bruce was exactly thirty-one years old when it finally occurred to him to kill himself– his birthday, first thing in the morning, he realized that that was what he ought to do.
It was the perfect time for it, really. Andrea was still not pregnant yet, there were no kids to be left behind– and Andrea herself loved him, she really did, but if he died right now, today, she’d never have to see his mother again. Andrea had another seventy good years in her, and after seventy years not having to see his mother, Bruce was pretty sure she’d get over the pain of losing him.
So he went down into the garage, climbed into his car, started the engine– that was how you did it, right?– he started the engine with the garage-door shut and he left it running and he sat there, waiting, waiting for the end, waiting for–
“Oh, goodness!”– there was his mother in the corner, clicking the button on the panel to start the automatic garage-door sliding upwards– “Mr. Daydream, over here!– that’s my Bruce-y! Head in the clouds!”
Bruce let out a groan, buried his face in his elbows. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid– had he really thought that this was going to work?
“This is dangerous, you know! How did you never learn this?– carbon-monoxide!” she scolded him. “The ‘silent killer’, they call it! In fact, it’s how a lot of people commit suicide, by doing exactly what you’re doing right now, you silly-billy! You wouldn’t want to accidentally kill yourself, would you?”
“No, mother, I wasn’t planning on accidentally killing myself.”– he wasn’t altogether sure how someone could plan on doing that.
“I should hope not! What would the neighbors think?”
“You know…” said Bruce, as the garage-door finished opening, “…you spend so much time taking care of me… what about you? Always jetting back and forth between now and the future, never taking any time for yourself? I’m worried about you, mom.”
“How sweet!”– his mother’s cheeks turned bright pink– “But it’s the mother’s job to take care of the son, not the other way around!– not until I’m old and gray, at least!”
“But what if you never get the chance to get old and gray?” he insisted. “What if you get so wrapped up in my life you lose track of yourself and you… you… what if you choke on a chicken-bone? You’ve gotta slow down!”
Bruce’s mother tilted her head, a little surprised– “Why on Earth would I choke on a chicken-bone? You know I’m a vegetarian! The only way I’d ever choke on a chicken-bone is if somebody shoved it down my throat!”
“That’s not the point!”
Actually, that was exactly the point. Bruce blinked, once, twice, a hundred ideas echoing in his head all at once, a hundred things that had never once crossed his mind before. A hundred things, a single answer– so simple.
“Maybe it’s a raw carrot you choke on…” he murmured, “…or maybe a hair-dryer falls into the bathtub… or maybe you forget to open the garage door…”– he could hardly believe himself– was he really thinking these things?– was he really saying these things?– “…you can’t come back from the future to prevent your own death…”
But his mother just smiled at him. At least it looked like a smile. “Oh, don’t you worry, dearie… your grandmama’s already taken care of all that!”
About the Author: My name is Matt Cantor, and I am a surrealist from Boston, Massachusetts. My writing has been featured in ‘Fleas on the Dog’, ‘Once Upon a Crocodile’, and ‘Thieving Magpie’. I’d be nowhere at all, though, without my partner and my dog. It all comes from them, and I hope someday it comes back to them.
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