The smell was the worst. Tooks had gotten used to the damp, rattling wheeze of his mother’s breathing, the gloppy trails of gore she’d leave about the house, even the disturbing, lidless stare with which she met his every word before she replied. As much as Tooks appreciated all the cooking and cleaning — and really, the cleaning was the least she could do, considering most of the mess was bits of her scattered about the place — the lingering stench of decaying flesh put a bit of a damper on both endeavors. But his mother seemed so happy — or at least what he assumed passed for happy on the rotting remains of her face — that he didn’t have the heart to complain. He’d learned to hold his breath whenever he pulled a supposedly clean shirt over his head though.
If she had any inkling of her current deceased condition, she made no mention of it. She’d hum contentedly as she dusted or folded the wash. Well, the steady rasping sound coming from her resembled humming, at any rate. And it might have been considered contented compared to some of the other sounds that managed to escape her, usually in the dead of night while Tooks slept and his mother simply stood there, gently swaying back and forth. He’d never longed for a bedroom door so much in his life.
Having his mother be his mother again, though, that was the worst of it. In spite of her clear case of death and its resulting symptoms, she had resumed her maternal duties with the same cheerful smothering that had driven Tooks out the door at an early age.
“Take your feet off the table, there’s a good lad,” she’d say, with no indication she was aware of the gaping hole in her right cheek.
“Now luv, I’ve told you about keeping the windows open at night,” she’d chide, wagging a bony finger that sprayed gobbets of blood at him as she did.
“Be a dear and don’t chew with your mouth open,” she’d scold, ignorant of the chewed food gushing from her belly.
If he lingered around the house, she’d rattle off long lists of chores for him. If he stayed out all day, she’d harangue him over where he’d been and what he’d been doing. She’d ask why he hadn’t found a nice young bride yet. She’d inquire as to why he didn’t seem to have a job. She’d mention his hair looked too long, his pants too short, his fingernails too dirty, his house too small. More than once he’d found himself on the verge of pointing out that, despite his many shortcomings, he still had the virtue of not being a hideous smelly corpse.
But Tooks couldn’t bring himself to tell his mother the truth of her predicament, in no small part because he knew he’d caused it. He’d broken plenty of vows before, some he’d honestly meant to keep, some as empty as a beggar’s cup on Silk Street. But none of them had ever resulted in a corpse banging around his house. That the corpse was his very own mother added a special flavor to the guilt. But her shambling remains were a far better fate than whatever cold dark hole Banner Malkin would have shoved him in had he remained in Baycloak. So Tooks bore the grisly visage and the constant nagging and the occasional finger in the broth as the price he paid for his continued existence. Such as it was.
And so the days passed, slowly, with Tooks falling asleep each night hoping his mother would once again shuffle off her mortal coil, and waking only to find she had most inconsiderately chosen not to.
One morning, Tooks woke to his mother’s voice. “Tooks?” she gurgled with particularly urgency.
Tooks yawned and nearly gagged at how close she was. “Tombs! Mum, back off and let me get some bloody sleep!” He rolled over.
“Tooks!” she insisted, giving him a shake, the feel of her hand cold and clammy on his shoulder.
“Aw hells, what is it, woman?” he groused, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He opened them to find his mother standing before him holding her jaw in her hand.
“I think I might have come down with a spot of something.”