Yesterday she was my mother. Today she walks beside me down a two-lane highway through a scrawny stretch of forest. The forest is filled with garbage, but we are not surprised. This is how it has looked since before I was born, decorated with brightly-coloured plastics and decaying meat. I try to picture it lush and green, but they are just words.
"It wasn’t always like this," my not-mother murmurs, answering my curious stare. "But then it came to be too much, so we built a second forest on top of it to accommodate all of us and all of our things."
I nod, my usual response to this monologue. We walk in silence as the two-lane road turns into a street lined with barbed-wire fences. My not-mother’s face is serene, despite our destination.
We enter the three-story Victorian and stand at the wooden counter. A thick pane of bulletproof glass separates us from the innkeeper. My not-mother holds her palm up to the glass and the innkeeper scans the chip inside. He shows her down a long hallway, waving me off to the waiting room. Dust films the windows and fogs the carpet. A pad bolted to the wall plays clips of smiling goodbyes read by actors in age makeup.
I don’t wait very long.
"It is time," the innkeeper informs us matter-of-factly, and my not-mother nods with closed eyes. He slides us a pouch through the metal door in the counter that contains the room chip, the pad loaded with end-of-life documents, the packet of tea to be brewed. I know what I should say and do here. I ask it anyway.
"Isn't there anything we can do?"
"Of course," the innkeeper shrugs. "You instead of her."
I think of it. My not-mother puts her hand on my arm. I stare at her ragged nails and remember when she used to let me paint them. Her hand slips away as she heads upstairs.
Dully, I slink to the room after her. She yawns, so tired from our long walk, and curls up on the bed. The door locks; it will not open for a while. I drop the pouch on the nightstand, then take the kettle to the bathroom to fill it at the tap. In the mirror, I watch her drift off into dream as I tick off the inevitable list of nexts. The water will boil. The packet will be placed in the cup. The water will pour into the cup. The water will turn into tea. The tea will be consumed.
My throat closes, convulses as I turn the kettle on. I sit on the bed near my slumbering not-mother and press my palm to the space between her shoulder blades, warm through the woollen sweater. For a while, I try not to wake her, but then the kettle and I cry and cry.