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.