It should be one of those fundamental rules of life: you should not be afraid of your family. I mean gut-churning, stagnant hate and fear like you’re a POW and they’re the fucking Vietcong clowns who put you in the cage.
One of my mom’s favorite things to do when I was a kid was threaten to take her love away. It was always for really trivial shit, too, like when I was cranky and didn’t agree with her, or just acting like a kid, I guess. I just have this vision of her towering over me, arms crossed, demanding I do whatever she’s ordering me to do. I don’t think she realized that if you do that too much it loses its effectiveness. When I was pushing ten, it started getting kind of funny. She would cross her arms and stamp her foot and tell me to apologize and I’d crack up because she reminded me of a four-year-old.
That’s really what they were, my parents. Just kids. They’d both grown up rich and sheltered, no one had ever made them do anything. My dad’s dad was the one who made the fortune, he’d been really old when my dad was born, and bedridden, and my dad got run of the house like little lord Fauntleroy. My mom was a pretty similar story, she was the younger of two sisters, and her older sister fell in a well or something when she was three. Sad. Or at least, you’d think so the way my mom tells it. That’s when her parents became concerned with making sure not a single moment of her life went unfulfilled. Imagine their surprise when they begged her to go to college and she said no. She was too used to getting her way and fucked off when they tried to make her. They cut her off, of course, and that’s when she met my dad.
But I guess you didn’t want to hear about this, you want to hear about the Jenning’s little boy. He was sweet, three years old at the time. He’d be twelve now. Every once in a while my parents would let the neighborhood kids play in our front yard, treating it like it was a charity. They made a big deal about it, winking at parents behind their backs. The kids didn’t care, a green lawn was a green lawn. Me, I was thrilled. Sometimes I wouldn’t play, I’d just sit on the step and watch the other children come and go, screaming, shouting. This little habit was why I saw the thing that snatched Ben Jennings away.
We rich folk didn’t have a basement. We had cellars, plural, that were all for different things. One was the wine cellar, for all grandad’s wine that we never drank. There was also a root cellar, a press room, a springhouse, and the ossuary. The ‘rents just went and banned me from all of them, but it was the ossuary they were really concerned about. I never knew why until that day when I saw that thing yank Benny off his perch and drag him back down towards the ossuary door.
It all happened in the blink of an eye. I was almost unsure that it even happened. Benny hadn’t cried out, or he had and the thing stopped him somehow. I still wonder about it. What followed was like a dream. I don’t mean that in a hokey, did-it-all-really-happen way, I mean those asshole dreams where your feet don’t work when you wanna run and you try to scream, yell out but nothing works. I felt limp as I went to my mom, to tell her what happened.
She ignored me.
That really should have been a red flag, right then and there, but I never know when to shut my mouth. When they noticed Benny was missing, I went and told dad, then mom again. Their reactions were… off.
Dad asked me if anyone else had seen it. Then he told me I’d been dreaming. Then when I insisted I’d seen it, he shouted me down and called me names. Then mom played good cop and told me to go to bed while she calmed my dad down. I woke up in a white room with cushions on the walls.
While the investigation scrambled in their front yard, my parents pulled some strings and had me committed in the space of a few hours. I didn’t see daylight again for three years.
In the interim, people had given up on Benny. In lieu of another explanation, the cops had told the Jennings their kid had probably been snatched by some passing kiddy fiddler, and our neighborhood gained a gate with a combo lock. On my first day back I got to watch my cab driver argue with the front gate guard that I really belonged there.
I was different coming back. That’s one thing people don’t tell you about mental institutions, sometimes you can get a really good look at yourself, you get these words for things that you’d never had words for, feelings get defined. And I wasn’t happy.
They wanted to pretend it was all good and nothing had ever happened, but then they kept pulling my commitment out at every possible excuse. They probably thought it would shame me into behaving. It had about the opposite effect.
My dad also tried to take me under his wing, teach me the family ways. Apparently, it didn’t have a whole lot to do with work. My dad’s dad and his dad before him had always been filthy, stinking rich, but unlike my dad they actually did things with it. True, it was mostly buying shit and going on safaris, but at least that was something. My parents just sat in a big old house full of other people’s thing, never using them because it’d devalue them. Like a pair of kids partying while their parents are away for the weekend.
Anyway, work didn’t really come into the picture much at all. It was deals. Making deals, or something like that. My dad was trying to be all mysterious, speaking in veiled metaphor and shit like that. I wasn’t really listening anyway. But I perked up when he talked about sacrifices. Sometimes, he said, sacrifices have to be made in order to ensure your happiness. Sometimes deals were more about take than give, and if that was the case it was probably best to have someone else nearby to give. I asked him if it had anything to do with the thing in the ossuary. He hit me.
I was souring on the whole thing by that point. To be honest, I really preferred the people in the institute. The ‘rents were acting weird, even their guests were starting to notice. They started including me in their lives again, so I got to watch as other filthy rich couples made awkward smalltalk while my parents made social faux pas after faux pas. They really never learned to act like real people, which I guess is a consequence of growing up with your head up your own ass.
Then, they invited the Jennings over.
I still have no idea what must’ve been running through their minds when they invited the couple over. Maybe they weren’t thinking at all. Maybe they completely forgot how they not-so-subtly implied Violet Jennings’s parenting skills were at fault to the police. I’m sure she didn’t, as she sat tight lipped through dinner.
I just sat there while they talked at Mr. Jennings. It was fascinating to watch. My parents still looked to be in their mid-to-late twenties, the Jennings’ had aged twenty years in the three I’d been away. Conversation just boiled around me, I was getting kind of bored until I felt a warm touch on my hand.
Violet Jennings was looking at me and it…was a look. Hard to describe. But I felt something in me, something that my own mother had never been able to bring out, and I’dve told her anything just then.
She asked me how I’d been getting on, since she had been so upset about her son disappearing she’d forgotten to ask about me.
I hear the silence fall on either side of me like a guillotine. I know they heard, they must’ve heard, but they couldn’t stop me, they couldn’t and wouldn’t stop me from doing anything ever again and I blurted out:
“He didn’t disappear. He’s in the ossuary.”
Immediately, my dad overreacted like I’d whipped my dick out at the table and set it on fire. He flailed his arms at me, simultaneously cussing me out and apologizing to the Jennings’. He shouldn’t have bothered. There was no taking it back.
My dad grabbed me by the scruff and manhandled me up to my room and locked the door behind me. Not a minute later there was a scuffle in the hallway and I heard my mother’s voice, begging, pleading, I was a liar and a mental case, don’t—
My door burst open. Violet Jennings dashed through and slammed it in my mom’s face, locking it again while my mom begged and scrabbled at the knob. She was gasping like she’d been running a long way, and immediately she gathered me up in a hug. I felt bad, like I didn’t deserve it.
She asked me, “sweetie, what was it you were saying? Where’s Benny?”
I told her. I told her everything. At first her face registered disbelief, then as I went on she got very very sad. My mom was still jiggling the knob, trying to pick it with a nail file. Mrs. Jennings got up and strode over and yanked it open. My mother half-fell into the doorway. Violet looked down on her.
“You bitch,” she hissed, “I played tennis with you. I saw you every week, and you never told me, you kept it from me…”
She stalked out without another word. I think even then my parents didn’t know what kind of trouble they were in. They grounded me in my room while they decided what to do. I bet they still thought this was something they could work out, maybe if they threw money at it, this would go away, too. They were still in the den when the cops knocked on the door.
They searched all through the ossuary but they never found the thing I saw that day. They did find Benny, though. And about four hundred other unlucky bastards. I had to look up what the word ossuary even means, but apparently it’s only supposed to contain your family’ bones. Out of all four hundred, there were only three that belonged to my family. One was my grandfather. One was my great-grandfather. The last was my great-great grandfather.
They took them right away. My dad kept arguing with the cop that they couldn’t arrest them, got a faceful of pepper spray. My mom was just wailing like she’d dropped an ice cream cone. After the sirens left it was very quiet. They told me to pack some things, I’d be staying with some relatives as soon as they could get a hold of someone. I doubt they will. Granpa and the others probably weren’t too keen on sharing. Our family tree looks like a sapling.
Ahh, look at you. You’ve been listening this whole time, haven’t you? You’ve got an intelligent face, if that is your face.
I’ve been sitting on my bed, my suitcase open and half-packed, for hours. Every once in a while I’ll stuff something else in there, but mostly I’ve been thinking.
Sacrifices. Sacrifices. How much is a house full of other people’s things worth to me? Not that much. Not enough.
I guess what I’ve been getting at is…my family’s been like spoiled little kids this entire time, right? But it’s time to grow up. I wanna grow up. And I guess part of growing up is being responsible.
Funny thing is, I’m not afraid anymore.
You must be pretty mad. You were sitting in the fabled catbird seat, and however incompetent my parents were, I guess they must’ve kept you well fed. Well, listen, just for a little while. I’m the one who screwed things up. I’m the one who wouldn’t listen. So…
How about a deal?