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©2019 by Prometheus Dreaming

Subsitutions

by Michele Lombardo

Irene believed she was the rational one. Her family was unusually prone to conspiracy theories and untruths, paranoid rants plucked straight from the news, or elaborate fantasies strung together from shards of information: half remembered conversations or sermons or anecdotes applied broadly and without discrimination. Justifications, comforts, and tales designed to smooth over whatever grief or sin or shame needed dulling.

Irene’s mother believed her husband, Irene’s stepfather, had inked a deal with the devil to outlive her. She feared he might live forever in spite of his skin cancers and heart attack and diabetes and emphysema, despite the Marlboro Lights and the Southern Comfort and all the red meat. Either that or he’d stick around just long enough to watch Irene’s mother go first, ruining her shot at a few good years. The details were unclear. Despite his shady dealings, his supernatural longevity pact or Satanic immortality, whatever the case may be, Irene’s mom was sure that he hadn’t bargained with his soul, like they do in the movies. “God won’t take him and the devil doesn’t want him,” she told Irene (repeatedly). Her mom also believed that God was a man, that immigrants didn’t pay taxes, and that the flu shot gave you the flu. She had the Serenity Prayer taped to her bathroom mirror and had a proclivity for hoarding.

Meanwhile, Irene’s stepfather believed that Irene’s mother was trying to kill him by habitually feeding him rotten food. In all fairness, there was some truth to this. But he also thought that the 37 guns lining the walls of an unlocked gunroom kept him safer. And that things like asthma and second-hand smoke weren’t real, but mere follies concocted to annoy him. In his old age, he’d taken to leaning out his office window and shooting at squirrels. Now, the side of his truck and his garage were riddled with holes for which he refused to take responsibility.

Irene’s birth dad believed that when he accidentally left the front door to Irene’s house gaping open all night because he was in an OxyContin haze, grinding it up with her mortar and pestle and snorting it, thereby causing her blind cat to escape, which they subsequently found hours later, shivering and hiding in a hole under the house, unwilling to come out, that the cat looked like it was “having fun.” Also, sometimes, when he was lying in bed at night, he’d hear footsteps coming up the stairs. He knew, instinctually, that he was the person approaching himself, and that if he didn’t jump out of bed before his spirit reached the top step, he would die. He also shot many things.

Irene’s brother believed that the government was behind AIDS, that women almost always lied about sexual assault, and that there was a greater than 80 percent chance we were living within someone else’s computer simulation.

And the list, unfortunate as it was, went on.

Irene, at least, was high functioning. She kept a job and a clean-ish home. She was an attentive mother, a non-murderous wife, a person competent enough to keep an indoor cat indoors. She believed in unbiased media, in vaccines, in empathy and in helping others. She believed in the simplicity of others’ beliefs, and the soundness of her own.  

*

When Irene turned 40, her father became a statistic: white male, suicide, opioid epidemic. They hadn’t been close for several years. Irene had sensed the impending doom and backed away. Now, she believed she should’ve done more. Her insides burned as if they’d been doused in acid.

Irene’s mother believed the death was an opportunity to appeal to Irene’s brother, who also had a taste for Oxy. When her mother called to check on Irene, she said, “I told your brother it was an overdose. Maybe it will be more hard-hitting that way. Cautionary tale and all.”

Irene believed her mother was maybe a bitch, but didn’t correct her. She didn’t correct her misinformed brother when he called, either. And when Irene spoke to her stepfather, and he referred to himself as her “dad” for the first time, as if a dead father meant that she could substitute the closest thing, like now she was baking a cake and switching out oil for butter, she said nothing then, either.

Irene’s friend recently visited a medium and believed Irene should do the same to “find some closure.” Irene’s beliefs had shriveled within the shell of her body, so she did. There were no tarot cards or crystal balls or speaking in tongues. The medium just looked at her and said,  “He wants you to know that he’s sorry. He just didn’t see another way out.” She told Irene that her father had experienced a spiritual death long ago, and was at peace. That he would likely reincarnate and enter Irene’s life in a different role, in a different place and time. That reincarnation worked this way, with people circling one another, shuffling and rearranging into different configurations. “We’re like a deck of cards,” she said. “Same cards, different game, different places.”

The medium believed that Sylvia Browne’s explanation of reincarnation was the best and encouraged Irene to buy a book and make a second appointment. Irene considered. Reincarnation did make sense. How else to explain all of those young kids who inexplicably knew things: 4-year-olds that could tell you how to repair an airplane or details of past wars, or scenes from previous deaths. The idea took shape in her mind and she believed it, because it really did help to believe things.

About the Author

Michele Lombardo is a fiction writer, Co-Founder of the monthly writing series Write Now Lancaster and a member of Philadelphia Stories’ Fiction Board. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Orphans, Cosmonauts Avenue, DASH Literary Journal, Philadelphia Stories, Crack the Spine, Permafrost Magazine, and others. She is a graduate of UCR Palm Desert’s MFA Program. Her story “Benched” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

From the Editor

Want more of Michele? Check out her website or follow her at @michele_lomb.