At the onset, Elyse’s mother had no visible symptoms, but she was conscious enough to describe a “mild head-sickness” before retiring to bed for the month. Elyse had to deal with its malformation, which appeared around the same time her mother awoke in the night screaming Hail Marys.
Malforms were known to hang around parkway forests. Elyse first met her mother’s malform on I-55. She was on her way to the pharmacy for extra-strength aspirin, but pulled over to investigate what looked like an injured animal. She approached it with the same caution she used when she tip-toed around her mother’s bedside, changing the pan without a clang and sweeping the floor just as noiselessly. If the malform was anything like her mother, it would appreciate her cautiousness at least on a subconscious level. Instead it used the interstate dell as a stage of mockery. Lying in the pathetic pose from home. Dry heaves and fake vomit. A garbled sound from one of its holes which could only be classified as “motherly.”
Elyse had a photo essay due for class, so she took two rolls of “the malform in the dell” and titled it as such. In the dark room, it developed last and blurred out the rest of the picture, earning her an A-. In person, it portrayed a complex darkness, but on film it seemed made of pure light, even as Elyse stood next to it, dressed in black and white.
She showed the photo to her mother’s doctor during his weekly visit. He lowered his specs to study it. “That’s a schizoform,” he said, confident with this diagnosis as he was with her mother’s head-sickness. Elyse looked the terms up online but couldn’t find anything relevant to her mother’s condition, just blogs and bands called “Schizoform.”
Elyse approached it with less caution on 9W. Before it could resume its mockery, she posed a riddle to it, assuming malforms enjoy riddles. “If you are a sickness,” she said, “than where does your sister live?” The malform leaned down to better hear her. “The healthy one? Where is she, if sickness lives here?”
The malform provided a lengthy answer, but insufficient to Elyse’s ears, for she had yet to learn the language of disease and couldn’t translate its black coughs and phlegmatic moans. So Elyse wrote a creative non-fiction essay out of the encounter and handed it in, unedited, to her Writing Enrichment teacher, Mr. Steve, who found the material oddly sexual, and the “malform” of the story a thinly disguised “father-figure” with obvious resemblances to himself, as seen in “the polished obsidian rectangles surrounding its azure eyes,” and the outright “salt-and-pepper stubble of a young man seemingly older than his years let on.” Mr. Steve was aware that Elyse’s mother had been sick, so he scored her essay a one-hundred without mentioning the crush that could cost him his job, as it had the tech teacher.
Elyse pinned her essay to the fridge with the conviction that no one would read it there. Her mother hadn’t left the bed in weeks, while her father died in his sleep nearly a decade ago. No malform had appeared then as would be expected from a premature death.
“Was Dad ever sick?” Elyse asked during one of her mother’s lucid moments.
“He drank,”—she sat up—“The Devil’s Drink.” Her religiosity increased sevenfold during onsets.
“Gin?” Elyse thought that was what old people drank.
“He also had a poor sense of smell.” She shut her eyes in memory of the man.
“He died of alcohol poisoning?” Elyse corrected herself. “No, his prostate.”
She popped her eyes. “God-may-care,” she said, then shut them again.
“What does that mean?” But her mother had fallen into a holy fever.
Once she recovered, she was back to her old atheist self. Her personality effortlessly switched between yoga-mom and priestess-mom, the versatility of a single parent named “Jane.” She was well enough to go out to Parent-Teacher night and reported back to Elyse.
“I like that one teacher of yours.” Jane lapped at the name with her tongue. “The young one.”
“The Writing teacher?” Elyse felt sick herself.
“That Mr. Steve is too funny.”
Elyse stopped by all of the parkway forests along the interstate, but had to accept that the malform was gone. Gone as an ex-lover or the drunken dead. Conveniently at the same time her mother’s sickness had left. Elyse gave up her search and drove back home, where her mother had her hands on the essay. “Malform,” she read the title.
Elyse thought it sounded Frenchified.
“The Malform was hairy as a jungle rat but twice as big…” She skimmed with a smile. “Its long, thick tendrils reached out and caressed the girl’s hair…she believed it would attack her…and steal her innocence, although she secretly desired to be free of it.” This part made her laugh. “Pretty good, El.”
Elyse vowed revenge on her, something metaphysical.
“And that Mr. Steve gave you a one-hundred smiley.”
The end-of-the-year party was held in the forest behind the overpass known as Condom Park. A student invited Mr. Steve as a joke but he showed up anyway where he became just “Steve.” Elyse had already smoked two joints. She shared a third with Steve, then took him back to her car and blew him in the back seat.
Afterwards, she lit up another joint to clear the taste and he recited poetry, passing off a Shelly as a Steve.
“Elyse Ramsay,” he said like he was grading her performance. “What’s your middle?”
“Jane,” she said and added, “My mother’s name is Jane.”
“She’s a Jane Doe; you’re a Jane-of-all-Trades.” Elyse kissed him and to Steve that was worth losing his job over.
The morning after, Elyse felt head-sick. Her mother fed her aspirin to no avail. For a month, Elyse stayed in bed. She believed Steve had implanted the sickness malforming inside her. Jane provided the real reason.
“I almost hit an animal,” she said, “coming home from Kundalini.” She changed Elyse’s bedpan with a clang and stomped around the other side—no bedside manners. “It was on the parkway, it looked like an opossum, I guess.” She stretched her hands over Elyse’s head to show the supposed size. “It was kind of adorable actually, but big, like a Giant Opossum. I don’t know what it was, but it ran out in the road and I swerved out of the way. It was big.”
Elyse’s oral sex-act had spawned a cuter creature, mammalian and vulnerable. She dared not contemplate what depraved act her mother performed to spawn her malform. An act so sickening it would make a Dahmer kid lose his lunch, or a Bundy boy blush, and even the Báthory lady would bat a lash.
“El,” her mother said and leaned down to eye-level, “wouldn’t it be weird if I dated your teacher?”
This question and many others formed the rounds of a church fugue, sung in her head with many voices, while she entered a sort of “fugue state” and lived the same sick-day on repeat for a month, or several years, for the temporal loop had altered her sense of linear flow, and even after she recovered, her thoughts continued to spin feverishly, her core-self forgotten as in a fugue, while nothing about her actual head felt sick, except her false belief that these sick-thoughts emanated from the head-region, but this was only a comforting illusion, like the movie projector is to the cave-dwellers, or her mother projecting the subjective sickness outside of her and onto Elyse.
When Elyse regained consciousness, Jane was performing Reiki. In her fugue state, the past looped back to reveal the malform’s words. They could finally be translated now—its face formed in an acid bath, the half-swallow and spit.
Elyse sat up. Jane combed the negative energy between them.
“Pray for us sinners,” Elyse said in a voice possessed. “Tis the hour of death.”
Midnight on I-55. Nothing stirs. Not even a malform. One car on the road. It’s Steve. He drives home from the bar. School in the morning. He smokes out the car window and wonders what it was like in the days of smoking-lounges. There is an accident shrine on the side of the road, a parkway forest shrine. Poor girl. Killed in a head-on collision. Pretty girl. Reminds him of Elyse. Elyse the Grease. Elyse the Disease. And her mother: Jane the Pain. Double-team. Double-tap. Greek tragedy-style. Between the shrine and his mind, he loses track of the road. An animal crosses the lane. O’ possum. He swerves to avoid it. He believes he does, but he doesn’t see it in the mirror. A car lights up the dell. The boys in black pull him over. They double-team him at both windows. He mentions the possum and the high school but gets written up anyway. $100 ticket. No smiley face. He writes a short story about it and borrows some of his student’s prose. It becomes a novel, something to do between classes. He steals Elyse’s word for it and elevates the concept. Almost French-sounding. Le Malform dans le rues.