The smell told Grant that Alice had soiled her nappy again. He knew that wasn’t what it was called when the wearer was fifty, but somehow that was the word that stuck in his head. As Alice whimpered and squirmed in her seat, Grant looked in the rear-view mirror and caught sight of shame on his mother’s face.
“Oh God. I don’t believe it, not again,” Susan hissed as she rolled down the window. It was enough to turn any last vestiges of irritation into pity.
“It’s a long journey. It’s hardly her fault.”
“We stopped an hour ago. Why couldn’t she have gone then?”
Alice started to rock and moan in the back seat.
“You’ll have to wait,” her daughter snapped. “There’s nowhere to stop.”
Grant scanned the horizon. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. There’d also be a sign for a rest stop in a couple of miles. Maybe he wasn’t wishing hard enough. “We’ll find somewhere,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm and prevent round three from kicking off between his sister and his mother.
“This is a nightmare,” Susan said. “I can’t believe we’re doing this. It’s wrong.”
Grant’s heart sank. They’d had this conversation so many times, but she raised it again and again, trying to get a different answer. “It wasn’t our decision to make, it was hers, and she signed a living will. We’ve been over this.”
“She was probably mad by that point.”
Any answer Grant might have had was lost as Alice’s moans went up an octave and she started plucking at the flowered polyester dress the home had dressed her in. “Hold on, Alice,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m looking for somewhere to stop.”
“It’s not Alice, it’s Mother,” Susan muttered.
Alice didn’t acknowledge either of them, which didn’t surprise Grant. She hadn’t recognised either of them for most of the last two years. It was one of the triggers for the living will.
A sign at the side of the motorway showed a hotel at the next exit and he pulled into the inside lane with a sigh of relief. Within a couple of minutes they were in the car park. Susan got out and collected a new disposable pad from the boot while Grant helped Alice from the car. “Come on, Alice. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
She eyed him warily until she saw the cleaning wipes and pad in Susan’s hands; then she climbed out and let them take her into the hotel.
The receptionist greeted them with professional courtesy, but Grant thought he saw censure in her eyes as she booked them in over the sound of Alice’s moans. “Will you be wanting breakfast?’ she asked.
“No, we’re just taking a break on the journey to give our mother a rest,” he said, and watched her lip twitch in the beginning of a curl.
“Here’s your key.” She handed it to Grant but kept her eyes fixed on Alice as she spoke. “There’s someone here all the time if you need anything. All the time.”
Grant was sure she meant well. She thought Alice was being escorted to her death. In a way, she was.
“Thank you, we’ll be fine.” He took Alice’s elbow and shepherded her to the hotel room where they could clean her up and change her pad.
Once she was clean Alice calmed down again, and she slept for an hour before following them without protest back to the car. The receptionist didn’t say anything, but Grant felt her eyes follow them as they left. He hoped that she wouldn’t try to make trouble as they left; they’d signed an agreement to keep the facility a secret. Still, if the hotel saw enough people being taken there to get suspicious, presumably the facility knew how to handle them. He’d let them know when they got there.
The turning was another thirty miles after the hotel, and the roads got smaller and quieter with every turn. There were no signs to help. Grant followed the directions on a copy of a hand drawn sketch with tiny villages marked in an untidy scrawl, while Susan stared out of the window with a frozen face. Alice stared at the sheep grazing in the fields, pointing and grunting as if she’d never seen one before.
Even the villages disappeared eventually, leaving them to bounce up a farm track alone. Susan held onto the dashboard as the car lurched into a pothole.
Grant flicked a glance sideways at her; she was rigid with tension, her knuckles white on the dash. Grant braced himself for the outburst.
It wasn’t long in coming. “I won’t allow it,” she said as she stared at the track winding up the side of the mountain ahead of them. “Turn the car around. She’s mad. She has no rights.” She turned to face him. “Didn’t you hear me? Turn around!”
“No. I don’t care what you say. She’s not allowed. I’m going to stop her.”
“What do you mean, why?”
“She knows what she wants. She chose this.”
Susan sneered. “She doesn’t even know what year this is.”
“She did when she made the will, and she can hear you, you know.”
“I don’t care. I won’t let her do this to me. It’s not fair.”
“So what do you want to happen?”
“I want her to be normal, even if that means dying. I want a funeral, flowers, a gravestone.”
“She’ll be legally dead. You get your share of what’s left.”
Susan stared at him with contempt. “But I’ll know. I’ll know where she is. And if anyone finds out I’ll die of shame. How can she do this to me?”
Grant thought that was fairly obvious, that Susan and Alice hadn’t seen eye to eye for as long as he could remember. Susan had rejected her mother and everything about her lifestyle as soon as she could, married an accountant, had two children and tried to ignore Alice’s free-spirited ways. Growing up in the same house had been a nightmare.
Susan would go around and hide all the primitive art before her friends came round, pretend that she was adopted. In their worse fights she’d scream at Alice that she’d be better off dead like their father than living with a stupid hippy. Alice never acknowledged that that one hurt, but she’d disappear for hours afterwards and come back with puffy eyes. Grant had tried to step up and be the man of the house in his father’s absence but it was hard.
“It was her choice.” He drove the car at a deep rut, jouncing them all in their seats. It had the desired effect; Susan shut up.
After what seemed like an eternity of rutted tracks and wilder and wilder country, they pulled up to a slatted steel gate set in a high wire fence. Grant got out of the car and pushed a red call button at the side of the gate.
“Hello?’ The man’s voice that answered was tinny through the grille above the button. It sounded for all the world as though Grant should be ordering burgers, and he fought back a wave of inappropriate laughter. That would give Susan ammunition for the next ten years. “Alice LaStrange and family. We’re expected.”
“Come on in.” The invitation was accompanied by a click as the gate lock released, and he opened the gate before jumping in and driving through.
The track led them through a thin belt of trees before going through another gate, this one solid and impenetrable instead of something you’d find on a farm. The fence around it was eight feet tall and topped with sharp coils of barbed wire.
The gate slid sideways as they approached to let them through into a small gravelled car park. Two land rovers were parked to the left under some trees. A broad stretch of grass separated the car park from a forest to the right.
A tall, bearded man wearing a black t-shirt and forest camouflage pants was waiting for them at the door of the squat building in front of them. A field of bright yellow flowers stretched out behind the building into the distance. “Welcome,” he said, “I’m Simon Grey. Come in.”
Grant opened the back door to help Alice out of the car. She hung back, staring at him and he sighed. She’d forgotten him again. It hurt. It always did. He produced a packet of chocolate buttons from his pocket and she scrambled out to grab for them like a greedy toddler. “Come on, Alice,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“No.” Susan stepped round the car, ridiculously overdressed for the Welsh mountains in her pressed grey suit and court shoes. “Mother… Mum. You don’t have to do this, or go back to the home. You can come and live with Richard and me.” She took hold of Alice’s sleeve and tried to drag her back to the car.
Alice reacted, shrieking at the top of her voice and waving an uncoordinated hand in the direction of the field as Susan struggled to hold on.
“Mother, stop it. Stop screaming, for God’s sake.”
“Suse.” Grant put a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “She wants this. Let go.”
Alice was sobbing and babbling, pointing to the field. He wanted to cry too.
“Let her go.”
Susan let go and stalked away to stand on the other side of the car. “Fine. What else would I expect from you? You’re as bad as she is.”
Grant ignored her and turned to his mother. “It’s okay, Alice. You’re still going.”
She let him lead her into the building in Simon’s wake. Simon took them to a small room with a medical table set along one wall. A sealed window at the back of the room showed flowers as far as the eye could see.
“I have some forms for you to sign.” He handed over a consent form. It looked like the form Grant had signed when he’d had to put his old dog down three years ago. He tried hard not to think about that, stared at the writing that crawled across the page like ants instead. His eyes were stinging and the letters wouldn’t keep still.
“Take your time,” Simon said, his voice quiet.
“I’m sorry. I can’t follow it. Not at the moment.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what it says. You sign to say that you understand we can’t be responsible for her welfare once she’s out there. We can’t control them, all we do is protect them from the outside world. As soon as she leaves, she’s on her own. We study them as much as we can but nobody really knows how they think once the flowers take effect.”
“So she could die out there.”
“They take care of their own dead so we don’t know all the details, but I’ve never seen them attack their own. They keep away from the research facility as much as they can.”
“Will we know if she dies?”
“We implant a bio-tracker before we release anyone into the environment. If it goes quiet we’ll notify you, but it doesn’t mean much. We’ve found trackers on the ground before. We think they take them out if they can find them.”
“And she’ll never remember us?” That was the part that frightened him. What if one day her mind came back and she found herself living like a savage in the woods and wondered what happened to everyone she knew?
“It’s never happened that we know of. Everything we’ve seen from the programme so far indicates that it’s permanent. They recover their health, their motor skills, even some of their youth, but their minds are gone forever. If anyone ever came back to the facility we’d call their next of kin, but it’s never happened. Everything that makes her your mother is gone. We encourage families to think of them as dead.”
Grant looked over at Alice. She was standing at the window staring at the flowers, rapt.
“Do you ever think you’ll make the medicine?’ he asked.
“I don’t know. We’ve been running twenty years and we still haven’t isolated what creates the physical change. We know it’s the flowers, but as to how and why–” Simon shrugged. “It may never happen. As long as people like your mother leave us legacies to keep the programme running, we’ll keep trying.”
Grant scrubbed at his eyes and signed the consent before handing it back to Simon. “It’s what she wants.”
Simon nodded once and produced a hypodermic needle. “We’ll sedate her and then implant the tracker. You can stay if you think you can handle it. Otherwise you can sit in another office till it’s done.”
Grant’s stomach twisted. “I’ll stay. She’s still my mother, even if she doesn’t know it any more.”
Simon turned to Alice. “Time to lie down for a few minutes. Grant is going to keep you company. Ready?”
She lay down on the table without a murmur. Grant forced a smile and held her hand as Simon injected her with the sedative. “I know you always liked me to call you Alice,” he said as her eyes drooped, “but you’re still Mum. I love you, Mum. Be happy. If you ever remember, come home. I’ll be waiting for you, okay?”
“She’s out,” Simon murmured as he produced an implantation gun and loaded it with a tiny cylinder.
“I know.” It didn’t matter.
“Do you want to sit with her till she wakes up?”
After twenty minutes, Alice opened her eyes and looked round. Simon looked up from the desk and smiled at her. “Ready to go?”
Together, Grant and Simon helped her up and walked her to another door on the other side of the building. Simon took a face mask from a hook by the door and passed it to Grant, taking another one for himself.
As they walked out into the warm summer air, Grant could hear drums in the distance. Alice did too; she lifted her head and stared into the distance.
“They’re here,” Simon said. “They start to gather when they see a car that isn’t ours.”
He guided them to the edge of the field where a small footpath disappeared into the yellow flowers. They danced in the breeze, graceful yellow bells nodding on waist high stems. Simon let go of Alice and stepped back, indicating to Grant to do the same.
She took a tentative step forward, then another, then started walking away into the sea of blooms. Shadowy figures dressed in animal skins waited for her at the edge of the woods.
Grant watched as Alice dragged her polyester dress over her head and dumped it on the ground, followed by the humiliating adult nappy. Naked, she ran towards her new life without looking back.
Stephanie King is an environmental consultant who lurks in a corner of south east England. She has an eight year old son whom she feels is destined to be emperor of the universe and a husband who’s a lot more trouble than the son. She lives with two male dogs, and since catching the writing bug her house could politely be described as ‘Dog Hair Central’. She feels that cleaning has no purpose in life if you live with a bunch of men whose mission in life is to make more mess immediately. She has previously been published at 365 Tomorrows, Golden Visions and Static Movement. Her website is at https://sites.google.com/site/stephkingfiction/Home.