Monthly Archives: September 2012

Aunt Kathy

Now strictly speaking, Aunt Kathy wasn’t really anyone’s aunt. It just seemed the logical thing to call a woman her age who’d never had kids but always had someone else’s underfoot.

Aunt Kathy lived in a house she’d inherited from her ma, full of knickknacks that looked like a maid’s nightmare. She’d converted the basement into something a little more homey, though a few throw pillows and some paint on the cinderblocks didn’t do much in the way of disguising a place like that.

Kathy might’ve had what they call bipolar disorder now(though I doubt that was all she had) but back then they probably would’ve just classified her as an imbecile and ripped her ovaries out. I guess no one really looked at her long enough to notice how “off” she was. Everyone thought we were just doing the poor old girl a favor, giving her something to do. Turns out the thing she did best was give our kids nightmares.

When Aunt Kathy was irritated, which was pretty much constantly, she’d shout, throw things, even lock the kids in the little bare-brick space she’d boarded off for a closet. When she got mad, well… all we could gather was that once her face got stoplight red there was no placating her, and there was no stopping her.

My secondborn, Eugene, started having night terrors and screaming fits when he was seven or eight. We only figured out that something was really wrong the day I asked him to fetch me some twine and he knocked over my tackle box by accident. He clenched his jaw and went all rigid, like he was trying not to cry, and I heard a trickling sound. He had wet himself.

I asked my eldest, Marty, why they never told us anything.

He shrugged and said, “We thought you knew. We thought you hated us.”

Marty’s the only one that stills talks to us. Eugene dropped off the map the second he got his GED. The last we heard from Claire was a card with a picture on the front that turned out to be her girlfriend’s vulva and the words ‘wish you were her’ written inside in her copperplate handwriting.

Little Natalie Treacher’s mom was a waitress at that place on 9th&West, she’d never been married and had no relatives in town. Every morning she’d drop her daughter off with a Styrofoam box of diner leftovers, every evening she’d pick her up in her orange&brown waitress uniform. Between those two were six-and-a-half hours of hell, five days a week.

Things can’tve been easy for Kathy, the only Catholic in a Protestant neighborhood, but God as my witness we always tried to treat that woman right. That doesn’t necessarily mean she felt right, and God only knows what the inside of her head was like. Whatever the reason, she got after little Natalie in a bad way. In her eyes, Natalie being illegitimate left room for…something. It was one of those spaces we never could get the kids to fill in, they couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about it. What it meant was that every little thing that went wrong was miraculously her fault.

Kathy never hit the kids, but there’s things you can do, worse things, that don’t leave a bruise. And quiet little Natalie, well, she just got quieter.

The day everything came to a head was the day Maggie Barstow’s dad left work early to pick her up. He found all the doors and windows locked. Knocking did nothing, so he kicked in the front door. He said walking into that room, finding all those kids dead silent, was somehow worse than anything else he could’ve found. He asked them what was wrong a few times, no answer. A few of them went to the bathroom in their pants, a few more looked like they had hours ago. Finding all those kids sitting in their own filth, too scared to move, wasn’t the worst moment, though. The absolute worst, he said, was realizing that all those kids were staring at the same place. The closet.

Even now I can find a little pity in my heart for the woman. Here was someone completely unsuited to raising children, surrounded by people with their happy, normal lives, telling her she had to. Saw it as a kind of charity.

My great-aunt had charity too, gave us poor relations clothes that never fit no matter how much you grew up or slimmed down, ever. That was our goddamned charity.

Kathy Malone’s body had been scrunched in that closet for about three hours by the coroner’s count. Kind of amazing a woman of her bulk could cram her own body in a space that tiny, let alone carry a child in with her, but somehow the kids say she managed. What they didn’t say was why she was alone when we found her.

Oh yeah, Natalie wasn’t in there.

We got a positive on the first 95% of the afternoon. Kathy herded the kids down to the basement, put on the TV while they waited for the stragglers. They said she looked preoccupied.

Once she was sure of her captive audience, Kathy told the kids that day was a special day. She held Natalie tightly by the wrist. The poor girl’s face was scrunched and red from trying not to cry. She told them Natalie hadn’t been well at all lately. She said she was going to make Natalie all better, but they needed to cooperate. They needed to sit silent and still as possible, and no matter what they heard, no matter what they thought was happening, they must NOT open the closet door.

According the public record, Kathy checked out every book on exorcism in the tri-county area, which wasn’t a whole lot. She took notes like a goddamned law student, and hell if it wasn’t a little heartbreaking to see a woman in her forties spelling it ‘deth’. The only thing we couldn’t gather was what exactly she planned to do in that closet.

Kathy Malone died more of blood loss than anything else, though they said the blunt trauma helped. All told they found about 400 wounds on her body, including five on her wrist matching a child’s dentition that didn’t break the skin. Elmer Barstow said she looked like she’d been got at by a wild animal.

They couldn’t find hide nor hair of that girl anywhere, except for a few blonde strands caught on Kathy’s ring.  When Elmer asked the kids where Natalie went, they said she hadn’t left the closet. Not him, the cops, or any number of headshrinkers they deployed could wring more of an answer out of those staring faces.

They buried Kathy in the public cemetery after they gave up trying to find her folks. Most of the parents, my wife included, thought it was more than she deserved. I for one don’t think giving a woman a pauper’s grave will bring our kids back. That’s what it’s like now. They’ve all gone someplace just out of our reach, out of anyone’s reach. Even my eldest, when he feels like talking, treats us like some distant relatives or fellow churchgoers.

I still wonder about Natalie sometimes. What happened to her. Where she is. Because anyone strong enough to do that, well…

I’m not saying I bought into Kathy’s whole possession racket, but that girl is somewhere today and it sure as shit ain’t in the ground. I wish her the best of luck, wherever she is, but I hope to god she isn’t watching anyone’s kids.

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Lost & Found

I should’ve just left it on the seat.

The guy who forgot it didn’t seem too concerned, spent most of the bus ride shuffling through that greasy shoulder bag looking for god-knows-what. He was still doing it when he got off. I should’ve called after him, but instead I changed seats and put my arm around it casually enough that no one would notice. Old habit that still hasn’t died.

My stop was up next, so I tried to proceed as naturally as I could to the back doors. It jiggled as I walked, and it sloshed when it jiggled.

I looked for a private place to open my prize.

I found one.

I opened it.

I cried.

When I finally got home, Ally was frying up red snapper, the whole house stunk with it. My face felt cracked.

She said “hey” and then did a double-take. “The hell happened to you?”

I showed her.

Her face didn’t whiten, it sort of greyed out.

“That’s—” she started, then laughed. “Oh, fuck.” She made a funny burping noise and just barely made it to the trashcan in time. The fish blackened in the pan while she heaved. I was too numb to even hold her hair.

When she finished she wiped her mouth. “Get rid of it.”

I held my hands open, empty. “How?”

“Dump it, burn it, bury it. I don’t care, just get it the fuck out of my house.” On the last syllable of ‘house’ she made that burping noise again and put her head down.

I left her there on the kitchen floor.

I wandered. I had no set plan, no cash, no transportation. I just had that thing on my shoulder.  Wound up at the bridge, saw a guy in suit and tie looking over the rail with a determined look on his face.

“Hey,” I called, “hey mister.”

He turned and looked. I showed him.

I think he lost his nerve on the water. Dunno. Maybe he didn’t mean for the truck to hit him at all. Me? I just slid away.

Found myself at the old parish.  Father Harold was still there, so I guess Billy Farrell hadn’t gotten around to killing him after all. I saw him locking up and called to him, “hey, father!”

He turned and studied me. I don’t think he recognized me without the hair. I walked up to him and he smiled nervously like I would hit him up for change. Can’t blame him.

“Can I show you something?” I asked, and pulled it out without waiting for an answer.

He stared for a long minute. Then he whistled. He shook his head fast and heavy, like he was trying to shake something off. Then he laughed. Patted my arm.

“Cute,” he said, “but that couldn’t possibly be real.”

I left him there on the steps, holding his broken nose.

The longer I spent with it, the better I knew it. I noticed how little it smelled, like a clean muscle or an empty refrigerator. It was soft against my ribs, and warm. Perhaps even a little tacky, I hadn’t got up the courage to touch it yet.

Now I was in my old neighborhood. Maybe more cars up on cinderblocks, more dead lawns, but very little changed. Dad was in the front yard when I got there.

His hair had grown back, but you could still see a faint little scar, like a smile, on his forehead. He wasn’t so happy to see me.

“What did you do now?” he asked me. I stood still and said nothing. He stepped closer, but I knew he wouldn’t leave the fence.

“She called me, you know. What the fuck did you do now?” I didn’t answer. He grunted and started heaving his shoulders. I knew what was coming next.

“You’re lucky I didn’t kill you before, you little fuck,” he snarled, back and forth, back and forth, “you tell me what you did or I will lay into you like a fucking nightmare.”

I showed him. He stepped back, blinking. Tears rolled down his face, but he didn’t cry.

I hit him then.

He was older and stronger but I was determined. Too determined. By the time they pulled me off, the sirens were getting close and he wasn’t breathing. Someone handed me the bag and I ran and ran and ran.

I’m in an alley now. It smells like sweat and grease and things living. It smells like that man. I clutch it to my chest, afraid to let go. It’s all I have left now, and they would take it from me if they could.

Do I have any choice? Have I ever had a choice?

I open it. I take a bite.

 

love it tastes like love

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Fireworks

When Yeshua was five, he was going to go see the fireworks on Granite point. His older brother Enoch had packed them a lunch and a blanket when their Father put his foot down and said no. he could remember little of the argument that ensued, only his Father’s face, shining certain and smug as he quoted passages from various books reasons why his sons could not see the fireworks display set off by the highschool. At that age the words had flown over his head, but one image stayed with him: that of his older brother decking his Father, blood pattering onto the eggshell carpet and his Father’s old lacrosse jersey.

His brother had promptly left the house never to return, and eventually they had thrown out the jersey. Yeshua knew better than to ask where his brother had gone, because at five he already had an index of thing his Father did not approve of, and questions were right at the tippy top. His mother would look forlorn out the window sometimes; cradling the potholder he’d sewn her in kindergarten, until Father threw that out too. Mama did not have much time to mourn her eldest as they were soon blessed with another.

When Yeshua was eleven, the world was going to end.

He didn’t find it out all at once; it was little signs, little details here and there. Father had the carriage house torn down and paid several contractors cash to build another building underground. Yeshua could no longer attend school; neither could four-and-a-half Nebuchadnezzar. Father simply stood at the door and told them that there was no longer a school, and that they would do their learning at home. Neb squalled, having fallen deep in love with his teacher a month before. Yeshua accepted this decision, though he knew the truth. Father had never been comfortable with strangers, now that he had gathered a flock about him he set about isolating his family. Mama could no longer go to the store; her errands were done for her. That left her time, Father said, to catch up on her scripture. Mama spent more time staring out the window.

Yeshua began to get in trouble for things he had no hand in. If Neb threw a fit and pounded the floor with his fists, it was Yeshua who was setting a bad example for his brother. If the little boy fidgeted during sermon and kicked the chair in front of him, it was the older boy who got pinched on the back of the neck for bending to temptation. Yeshua spent more and more time in the yard, making forts in the mounds of dirt left by the workers after they had quit early. They had walked out without pay, calling Father a nutcase and threatening with legal action. Father assured their family over dinner that he was in the right, was always in the right, and that the lord would provide. The lord provided in the form of followers, who brought donations for the family and cheap labor. They raised a bunker while Yeshua sat inside, watching TV.

The cartoons were pushed aside and eventually stopped completely, to make room for news stories about places, cities, people Yeshua had never even heard of, of panic and fear and violence that only increased with the passage of time. Father found him watching the news one day, as Singapore drowned in a red tide that reached higher than any skyscraper, and called it an earthly distraction. He turned the TV off and threw the remote outside. The next day, Yeshua was back with the still barely working remote, and his Father unplugged the set and took the cord. Yeshua stole the cord from one of the power tools and used that, until finally his Father sat him down, and held his hands as he told his son of the false prophets, that his Father was the only voice he should listen to, and that those other places had never really existed. They were, he said, merely illusions to tempt the chosen out into the world, and the heathens dwelling within were better off dead. He took the Magnavox and threw it into the duck pond, so Yeshua stayed up in the loft and listened to the radio while he watched the flock work, building stairways and installing sinks according to Father’s divine plan.

Mama tried her best to be supportive of Father. Every night she took something from the deepfreeze and made the best meal she could for the flock. She handed out prayer books, typewritten from Father’s shaky writing, and founded a ladies’ group. Father found her primping for the gathering one day and laughed gently, taking her mirror compact and lipstick and holding them up at arm’s length. He talked of vanity to his flock, of the worthlessness of appearance, while Mama hid her reddening face in his hands.

Mama eventually withdrew from the flock and concentrated on Neb, who squirmed away more the harder she tried to hold him. Neb had taken to following Yeshua around, so Yeshua took precaution to disappear carefully, leaving his brother no notion of where he’d gone.

Sometimes Yeshua would slip off into the woods, sometimes to town. He mailed a letter to his brother, but no reply was forthcoming. He walked around the small town’s streets, watched more and more front windows being boarded, until the town was still and silent as a stone.

The flock began to chafe at his Father’s yoke. They met him at the door one day, and Father sent the boys up to their rooms. Yeshua did not hear what words they exchanged, but no work was done on their half-finished bunker, that day or the days after that. His Father spent his days on the phone, alternately shaming and cajoling his flock on their lack of fortitude.

Ben Toles, the greengrocer, came to the door one evening. Father forgot to send them upstairs, so Yeshua crouched beside the couch, silent as he could. Mama watched the two men, her face drawn and white behind the book she was reading to Neb. Neb squirmed uncomfortably, gnawing on the tie Father made them wear every day.

“Paul,” Mr. Toles said, “you know what I come for.”

Father made as if to push him out the door, but while Mr. Toles was pushing seventy, his work had made him strong and tougher to shift than a tree stump.

“It ain’t right, what you’re doing,” he said to Father in a hoarse whisper, “Amy and the kids, they don’t deserve this. What do you think, you’re just going to hide and wait it out? And then what?”

Father fixed him with a glare from behind the steel frames of his glasses. “I have no truck with the weak-of-faith, sir. You had the choice, you all had the choice,” he called out the doorway past Mr. Toles, as if the whole of his congregation had followed the grocer.

Mr. Toles shook his head. “It ain’t about that anymore, Paul. My sister in Tallahassee said they’ve been coming up all over the east coast, wiping out everything they could get a hold of. The folks that stayed were wiped out too, and they were military. Paul, what makes you think you’re going to stand up to it?”

Father’s voice rang clear and loud as he said, “Because I have never let my faith be shaken by the hand of man. You hear the stricken fall into the pit and you desert out of fear.” He laughed theatrically. “My family will survive, you’ll see. The lord has seen our purity and strength of cause, he shall see us through.”

The old man’s gaze was weary and sad. “Paul …what makes you think those things have anything to do with God? “

Father’s face pinched and he gathered himself for another shove, but Mr. Toles held up his hand.

“All right, all right,” he said, “I’ll go. But Nora’s ordered me to tell you there’s a hot meal waiting for your kids if you or Amy should change your minds.”

Father slammed the door in his face.

Things got harder after that. Father was trying to build the shelter by himself, and Yeshua was expected to help. Mama tried to look after Neb, but he had decided that at four and a half that he was too old for his mother and took to darting away at the first sign of weakness in her grip. Mama developed migraines and needed to lay down frequently during the day, which meant that responsibility for entertaining his baby brother once again fell on Yeshua. While his Father huffed and sweated a single sheet of corrugated steel into place, Yeshua made a mud puddle for Neb’s Tonka trucks.

One night, after a long day of backbreaking work, Yeshua lay awake and listened to his brother snore. His mother was having a sobbing fit with his Father downstairs, snatches of their conversation floated up to his ears.

“…so hard, why do we have to…”

“…just tired, Amy, you’re not thinking clearly…”

“…please, just this once, just to help…”

“…don’t need pity and neither do they…”

“….still your son, dammit…”

“…just cavorting with other men, without a thought for his family….”

Mama came upstairs for a while, crying. Anyone who tried to argue with Father usually ended up crying or walked away. Yeshua rolled over and thought of his older brother and made plans.

There came a day when Yeshua went to the radio and found only noise, chaos fading into the hiss of static. He rolled the tuner from one end to another so hard it made a dent in his finger, and heard them all disappear.  Even the local station, two towns away, had sunk into noisy oblivion. Very calmly, he shut off the radio, went to his room, and took off his suit. He pulled an old t-shirt on and snuck to the kitchen to make sandwiches. Mama lay drooling on the couch, a small bottle of pills on the floor beside her. Yeshua felt her cheek and covered her with a blanket. He found an old toolbox and dumped everything out in a clatter of metal, putting his precious cargo of sandwiches and a single pop bottle nestled in an old tablecloth.

The next part would take finesse.

He found Neb outside, making rough car noises with his mouth, while his Father shouted and sweated in the distance. His little brother popped up, curious.

“Whatcha doin’” he said, face grimy with days of dirt.

“We’re taking a trip. Here,” he said, handing the lunch to his brother. While Neb scrabbled at the lock, Yeshua snatched up two camping chairs and motioned for his brother to follow. It was a long walk into town, and Neb was fidgety after days without a nap. Yeshua feared he would give away their position, so he told Neb that what they were doing was something special, a big-boy expedition that little whiny babies weren’t invited along to. That clammed him up. Neb spent the rest of the journey with his mouth shut, eyes dancing with his first real secret.

The high school was deserted, the cyclone fence hanging limp in many place. Yeshua held a section up just enough so that Neb could crawl through, and then squirmed in after him, chain-link leaving pink scratches down his back. Neb crinkled his nose at the empty buildings, hugging the toolbox to his chest.

“What’re we doin’ here Yes?”

“Wait a bit. You’ll see.”

Yeshua got his bearing and headed off to the science building. Enoch had told him the route to the top long ago, when he thought Yeshua would end up in the same high school. It was a long climb; he had to haul a disagreeable Neb as well as their picnic things. Finally he threw back a trapdoor and there they were, at the top of the world. The school looked down over most of the town, Enoch and his friends had come up here to fire projectiles with a homemade catapult. He wondered if Enoch was thinking of him, wherever he was, whoever he was with.

Neb was delighted at this new wonderland, scampering from edge to edge as Yeshua spread the blanket and laid out the picnic. The radio he had brought with them hissed static as the boys ate their lunch. Yeshua took the last swallow of pop and set up the camp chairs, checking his watch. Neb lay on the blanket and kicked his legs, singing an off-key and hastily improvised song about clouds.

The radio gave a deafening squeal of feedback and the boys jumped. Neb scooted over to his older brother.

“What was that?”

“They’re coming.” Yeshua whispered back. He couldn’t say why he felt the need to whisper; it just felt important to stay as quiet as possible.

“Who?”

“You’ll see.”

It didn’t take long for it to it to reach them. Fifteen minutes—an hour, too fast for anything human.

Yeshua watched them come into town, the things that could only be traced by the swath of destruction they brought. The old automat went up, and the drugstore flattened as if blown out.

“They’re here.”

“Who?” Neb hopped impatiently, and Yeshua lifted him up to sit on his shoulder.

They were in the thick of the town now. The auto plant went up like a yellow-orange chrysanthemum, tires blazing red against the asphalt. Then the grocer’s exploded in a shower of glass, followed by the hair salon and the post office.

Neb’s mouth dropped into an ‘o’ of surprise. “Wow.

Street after street the buildings flew apart, raining bricks and timber. Display windows shattered, catching the light of the fires and throwing it back to the boys in a thousand diamond points. Neb’s school went next, jungle gym flattening as trees flew apart into clouds of splinters. The next street over, the fire department had been cut jaggedly in two, the immense weight of something unseen bowling right through it. All that was left of Yeshua’s old school was the utility shed where the janitor kept the riding mower. The old church they had attended before Neb was born lasted a full second under the onslaught before becoming powder.

Neb had grown quiet, snuggling back into the solid form of his older brother.

“Yes,” he whispered, “they’re comin’ this way. What’s gonna happen to us?”

Yeshua watched the trees splinter in half around their property, turning Neb so he wouldn’t witness the destruction of their home.

“Fireworks, Neb,” he breathed, “We’ll become fireworks.”

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