It is the first cold night of winter. My mother and I sit side by side in her car. She is driving. We are on a winding upstate road and it’s dark, the only light is coming from sporadically placed street lights and their reflections on the damp pavement. The radio hums quietly and the same advertisement plays between each pop hit, an inquiry about a lawyer specializing in car accidents and divorce. My mom and I are in a good place right now. We chat about pleasantries in life and agree forcefully with one another to fortify an alliance. Whenever something comes up that we disagree on, we retreat and chain up our opposing thoughts to maintain peace and avoid the conflict of snideness and challenge. But now, on the dark and windy road, I’ve accidentally slipped into a topic that had not been documented in our treaty. I just mentioned a restaurant my therapist had recommended to me and, immediately, I knew I should have lied about the source.
My mother, who would rather pinch the inside of her arms than let a tear escape and run down her cheek, notably does not like therapy. She only accepts suffering if it’s external and I am unsure of what her mind does when she experiences depression or something related. I sometimes think that afflictions like anxiety and sadness affect only her outside, causing imperfections like blemishes or frequent stomach aches, unable to penetrate and fester in her thoughts.
“What do you talk to your therapist about?” she says. She is outside of the accord.
“What do you mean?” I respond, giving myself time to think of a better response.
“Well,” she clears her throat, “why do you go?”
She knows why I go. I’ve talked to her about this a handful of times and every time she disagrees with a curled lip or slight scoff.
“I’ve told you why before, Mom.”
“Don’t get snippy.” Her eyes are locked on the road. “I didn’t know if you were still going for the same reasons.”
“Yes. I still go for the same reasons.”
She inhales sharply. Audibly. I bring my hand to my forehead to rub my temple and wish for something to come about on this dark and twisty road and deter us from this topic to one that is safe. Of course, nothing comes and I watch as she brings both hands to the top of the steering wheel with a grip that keeps tightening. Light rain begins to patter on the windshield. We are about a half hour away from home.
“Isn’t it supposed to help?” she says, in a more amiable tone, but her knuckles grow whiter.
“I guess it does help,” I reply like she’s one of my students, my tone steady and friendly, “if you go consistently.”
My mother, who has once stuck her fists in potted plants to feel rejuvenated during dreary winters, nods like she’s learned something new. Teaching is the only job of mine that she has approved of.
“So then,” she says, still on the outlawed topic, “what do you tell her?”
“Yes, your therapist.”
I begin to open my mouth, unsure what I am willing to let escape and run into the hands of my close enemy, but something shifts on the dark and winding road. The ground shakes and our car rattles slightly. My mom slows down a bit and we both bring our attention to the dark, cold night. The shaking stops and the ad for the lawyer starts.
Looking for a divorce attorney? You need someone who is stout like–
Our car shakes again and the earth around us rattles loud enough to drown out the lawyer’s bolstering voice. My mom lets out a small shriek.
“What was that,” she yells with a forced, faux dominance.
–been in a car accident?
“I have no idea,” I mutter. “Maybe stop the car.”
To my disbelief, she listens and we halt in the middle of the deserted road. There are no other cars. Only a handful of houses sit in the hills and two streetlights stand stoically ahead. Before I opened the door to a conversation about my mental health, I had told my mom about my recent paintings showcased in the Foley Gallery. A gallery that we had visited years ago, one where she would pull up paintings of her own, and close one of her eyes as we imagined them hanging on the walls instead of the ones displayed. She congratulated me and when I looked over at her, her eyes teared up. The emotion was foreign to me and I was unsure if she was happy for me or upset for herself. A Randy Travis song starts playing, cutting the memory short, and my mom shuts off the radio with force.
“Your father loved that singer,” she says with disgust.
“Do you think it’s an earthquake?” I stick to the topic at hand.
She shrugs, rolls down the window, and sticks her head out. We have the same color hair, a muted gold, except hers is thicker and she often reminds me of that. When I was younger, she taught me how to paint with oils and then how to get it out of my thin, feeble hair.
The quaking begins again, louder and closer this time, seeming to be coming from behind the hill in front of us. My mom pulls her head back inside and shields herself as the receipts fall from the ceiling of her car. I look around and see nothing and chills run through and over my body. We are incapable of viewing much as the only light comes from the two street lamps on top of the hill and our headlights. Something is coming closer to us from beyond the hill.
“I’m pulling off,” she says as she starts the car. Another loud boom and I bite my lip to refrain from yelping. Something is there but what? A monster truck, a rogue rolling boulder, illicit factory explosions?
I left our town eight years ago and went to a fine arts school in the city. My mom refused to let me go but I could not fathom staying with her and my father. When it was time to move in, she didn’t speak to me for the entirety of the car ride. She said she wished she never taught me how to paint, that she couldn’t bear to watch me struggle. I told her not to call me as I walked into my building. Now, this town intrigues me more than ever.
The car tires screech as my mom pulls off the road and another roaring boom comes, almost flipping our car as we turn. There are no roads to pull off, only driveways of the few farmhouses around us.
“Maybe we should turn around,” I say, fearful now.
“I’m scared to drive,” she tells me.
Suddenly, another boom clapped, followed by the sound of trees snapping and falling before hitting the earth in a thunder. I had my first gallery opening a year and a half after I left our town. It was small and run by my school and my dad showed up toward the end. He said it was kind of me to dedicate a few pieces to mom. When he left, I desperately searched the canvases to see what he was talking about, and, finally, I saw it. When the gallery emptied, I sat on the concrete floor and cried inexorably.
“Mom, drive,” I say in a tone that I know would panic her. I get a pang of joy talking to her like this but quickly tuck the feeling away in my blue canvas bag. She is breathing heavily but nods and pulls the car forward to make a three-point turn. But right as she puts the car in reverse, our heads snap to the right and we see it. Two more booms reverberate from the top of the hill down to our car. We hold on to the side and top handles as we shake back and forth.
“What is it!” she yells.
I look out the passenger window and squint my eyes. The two street lamps are my only source of light now and, whatever it is, stands in between them. I blink three times before my brain can catch up to my vision. Every painting was her, her nose, her eye color, her hands. I spun around in the small gallery, examining each painting, each brush stroke, and each mixed color. How much had I stolen from her?
“I can only see its…” I am at a loss for words.
“Its?” she shrieks. “What is it!”
“Feet,” I say, squinting and leaning closer to the window. “Giant feet.”
I roll down my window and stick my head out slowly.
“Be careful,” she warns and I am transported, for a moment, back to my childhood home. I force myself to look up. On the top of the hill stands a Giant. An actual Giant. I almost laugh as my eyes trail up its massive legs covered in hair like moss. The rest of its body disappears into the darkness, my incredulous humor flees, and I am suddenly nauseous with fear. The thought of my third graders pretending to be Kronos, the Greek Mythology titan we discussed in our morning period, stomping on toy cars and pushing over building blocks pops into my head and pierces through my heart.
“We need to go,” I say as loudly as I can but it comes out as a whisper.
The giant crouches and I can barely make out its face through the dark. It’s hairy. Nose large and flat. His eyes look right at us.
“Drive now!” I turn and scream.
Her eyes widen in a horror I have never seen from her before and she whips the car in reverse, then forward and we fly down the winding road. Footsteps blast into the earth behind us.
“What is it!” she yells at me.
“A Giant,” I say as confidently as I can without becoming sick. “It is a literal Giant.”
My mother, who uses flavored chapstick to succumb her appetite, adjusts the rearview mirror and shrieks. I smell the chocolate peppermint that comes off her scream.
“He is chasing us, he is chasing us!” she says over and over.
“Go faster! Keep driving!”
Our car shakes with every footstep and we hear the road crackle behind us. I look around desperately for an exit, for an escape plan. But there is no obvious solution and he is getting closer with each bang.
The largest painting in my first gallery show was a self-portrait. After everyone had left I ripped it off the wall and surveyed its ridiculous scale. I brushed my hand over my lips and the varnish was still sticky. I took it outside and placed it on the curb. My mother texted me as I stood outside and I looked around, half expecting her to be watching me from her car a good distance away. But she was nowhere so I looked down at the message. It read: Your father sent me pictures of your paintings. They remind me of my own but much better. I tucked my phone in my pocket and walked back into the gallery and left the portrait for trash.
Now, I look at the rolling hills to our left and right, to the farmhouses, to the darkness before us, then to the monster behind.
“We need to hide,” I say, but my voice quivers. “Pull into that next house, the red one.” In about twenty seconds we will pass the house and I am unsure of what lies ahead of it.
“Okay,” she replies unsurely. “Then what?”
“Break through the fence,” I say. “Leave the car somewhere, we need a hiding place that is out of view.”
She groans in response.
“Focus,” I say sternly. “Now!”
My mom yanks the steering wheel to the right and we bounce up and down on the gravel driveway. I look back and the Giant begins to cut through the neighbor’s lawn three houses down. I remind myself to breathe.
“Through the fence!”
My mom shuts her eyes as we break through the metal fence and into a field. I watch her and something changes as I see the true fear in her face that runs deep to her bones. At this moment, we are equals, both experiencing something for the first time. We are on the same playing field. We do not compete, we hold nothing above one another. The sound of the metal fence on our windshield turns my stomach and everything goes dark.
“Focus,” she yells.
I open my eyes, not realizing they were shut, and look over at her; her hand grips my shoulder and she drives with one hand through the grass and mud, dodging the sparingly rooted trees. We grip onto each other to steady ourselves from the uneven landscape and the Giant’s footsteps. I search the land desperately.
“There!” I point to the left, to a large white barn that stands alone in the dark. She listens immediately, taking a sharp left. I turn back and the Giant’s knee plummets through a home two houses down. We drive further into the darkness and I begin to pray in my head. My mom begins to pray out loud.
We come up to the barn. I rethink our choices of leaving the vehicle but our monster is too quick, his strides too long. My mother and I grip each other’s shoulders and the car comes to a halt, close to crashing into the barn’s wooden frame.
“Go, go, go, go” she chants and we exit the car quickly. She screams as the Giant gets closer. His steps are slow but long. All we can see are his legs and torso but we both know his eyes watch us. I run inside the barn and she follows close behind. The inside is bigger than I thought, with two levels, about a dozen stacks of hay, and wooden beams that shake violently. I take my mom’s hand and we run to the back, underneath the second level, hidden from above. I am insecure about the place we are in. My mother, who would sit thoughtfully on a narrow step and paint scenes of the European countryside and breathe deeply and peacefully, now breathes shallowly and fast. The murals were her fantasies, her expeditions in another life. One where I wasn’t allowed to make my mark, to stamp my mini handprint in the center– these were hers only and I admired them completely. Now the beams shake above us and she pulls me into her arms. I think and I think and I think.
“Mom,” I say into her shoulder.
She doesn’t answer.
“We need to run,” I say. “There is a hole in the wall leading out the back about ten feet from us. We need to go now. Okay?”
She still says nothing. She tightens her hold on me and the barn shakes harder and harder with each footstep.
She pulls back, but our hands hold onto each other’s shoulders.
“You need to go without me,” she says calmly. “Only one of us will make it.”
“That is cliche and untrue,” I say. “We need to go right now.”
I grab her wrist and pull her toward the back exit. But she only holds her ground, unmoving and frighteningly certain.
“Listen to me for once,” my mom tells me.
I look at her. She grabs my face and kisses my forehead. At my second gallery show, she bought one of my paintings. It was a snowy landscape and our home sat in the middle of a field, from a far distance. The snow obstructed the view of the house and the blue tones made you close to solitude and distant from warmth. The house glowed in the luminescent blizzard and moonlight, a home you want to be in but, in the end, is completely out of reach. She lets go of my hand and shoves me toward the exit. Toward the outside, into the dark. My eyes search hers. I am her reflection and she is my passage of time. I am her fountain of youth and she is my religion. I am everything because of her and I am everything she could have been but never was. I turn away from her and I run far and I run fast.
ALEXANDRA FRANCESE is a Tampa-based writer of prose and poetry. Her work has been published in Bar Bar Literary Magazine, Quibble Literature, and more. She currently serves as the editor of Creation Magazine, an online literary journal.
The art published alongside this story is by Anna Buckley.