On a morning in January that was cold enough to hurt your lungs with each breath, I left my mother’s house and planned to never return. Despite the fact the I was only fifteen, I managed to cut her out of my life like a surgeon removing a cancerous growth.
As I sat in the judge’s chambers six months later and watched him sign my freedom onto a seemingly ordinary piece of paper, I was surprised. It had been a little too easy.
Unless you took into account the medical records and hundreds of abuses missing from them.
All she had done was glare at me that day. She hated me, which used to terrify me. But that day, I was glad of it. No one could mistake that rage, and no way would a judge let her argue her way back into my world.
The lawyer watched my mother leave, then stood and wrapped me in a hug that forced the judge’s gaze away.
“I don’t know how you brought yourself up out of that, child.”
Her voice was damp and heavy with emotion, which is what had drawn me to her in the beginning of it all. An advocate for women and children, I’d seen her speak at a school assembly when I was 11. And that day, Nancy lit a spark inside me. Every trip to the emergency room and night without dinner just fanned that flame.
I knew I would eventually be rid of that life. And this angel would be my salvation.
She pulled back but laid her palm against my cheek. “Now, are you sure you’re all set, baby? You don’t need any help with the apartment or getting to school and work?”
I smiled at her. If she knew how many times I’d wished she was my mother, she would’ve probably invited me right into her home, forcing her five boys share two rooms instead of three and telling her husband to get ready for a daughter.
But the goal had always been emancipation. Independence. Freedom. So I closed that book before it was opened.
I shook my head, pulling myself away and picking up the paper the judge had just stamped and signed.
“I’ve been doing it for months now, Nancy. I’ve got this, I promise.” I couldn’t help the teenage petulance in my voice, but it was gone before the promise, and so was the pity behind her eyes.
“Ok then. You’ll come have lunch with us again next Sunday, won’t you?”
We lost track of each other as the years folded over me, giving me a diploma, a different name, a bachelors degree, an amazing job in informational engineering that let me work from home and maintain a safe, steady new life.
It had made me sad, but she was part of the old life. A life I had to leave behind.
Her name flashed across my phone screen one Monday afternoon as I was prepping a code report for a client. It took me almost two minutes to stop shaking.
I hadn’t looked over my shoulder in years, but the association Nancy held within the cold, damp basement of my memory dragged everything right back up those steps.
CALL ME, TONIGHT, JENNA. I’VE GOT SOME NEWS.
I didn’t want any news but knowing there was news twisted in my stomach until I thought I was going to be sick.
I’d chosen to be Jenna Jacobs. I thought it was fun, the perfect, anonymous name for a freshman at the University of Illinois. I hadn’t really thought about how it would work for the rest of my life. But, just like your given name, you don’t think about it. It is simply an extension of you.
But imagining what news Nancy might have to share, I felt my given name burrowing up through my skin. Like something alive that had simply been sleeping for the past 13 years.
I could hear her growling it as she trailed the buckle of my dead father’s belt against the tiled floor. I could taste the blood where I would bite my tongue to keep from screaming. If I shouted or moaned from the pain, it was like pouring lighter fluid on dying embers. I could feel the change when the rage would break open and she would throw down the belt to beat with her fists. I could smell the sickness that would ooze from her when her body could not handle the adrenaline any longer.
Or maybe, that was my own.
Brian found me when he came home at 5:15. I’d cleaned up, but blacked out in the shower. The memories hadn’t come up in a long time, not like that. But the fear creasing his beautiful face helped me put them back away.
“I’m not her.”
He wrapped me in my pink terry cloth robe, a laundry accident when I was 16 that had become the only possession I could never let go of. And it was just the thing I needed. The perfect symbol of how far I had come.
“No, you’re you, Jenna. But who are we talking about here?”
I explained what had happened after I received the text. He knew more than anyone about my past, but no one would ever know just how much the woman who gave me life had also taken from me.
He pulled me into his lap as he sat on the commode, his lips pressed to my forehead and his arms offering me a kind of safety I didn’t allow myself to imagine was even possible for a very long time.
“I could call her, Jenna. You don’t have to talk to her.”
But I did. Or my old name was just going to creep out and swallow me up all over again.
He cooked macaroni with hot dogs while I stared at the screen in my hands. I loved him for knowing, without even asking, just what I needed in every moment. And after he served me a golden heap of comfort and sat next to me with a bowl of his own, I used it as fuel. Every bite and smile and touch making me a little bit stronger.
Until I dialed.
She was dead.
Maybe some part of me knew, but I think I’d always expected her to haunt me. I’d imagined it so many times as a girl that I’d actually prayed she would live forever.
Nancy sounded exactly the same. Her voice had lowered a tiny bit and she didn’t hover within the niceties as long as I’d expected. She just sighed and said it.
“She’s gone, now, Jenna.”
I didn’t feel anything except the odd awareness of her using my new name. I had her on speakerphone and stared at Brian as she repeated herself.
“She’s dead, your… mother. She died last week in hospice and the police contacted me because… Oh, child. She left you that God forsaken house.”
I laughed, and the sound startled all of us. But I couldn’t stop. I giggled again, a feeling I couldn’t describe with a poets tongue bubbled up from within me. “You’re joking.”
I shook my head trying to free myself of the hysteria, but it ballooned and my laughs turned into sobs and back into laughs. Brian tried to shush me, stroking my hair and eventually pulling me into his arms. His murmurs in my ear settled my voice, but not my heart.
Was it celebrating? I thought it might be leaping out of my chest. But at the same time, my throat was closing and my eyes were leaking.
My mother who never loved me was gone.
And now, she never could.
Nancy had given Brian the details. Who to call and what to do next. I could handle the sale completely from here without ever having to step foot in that house again. There was no funeral to arrange, no family or friends to contact. That had all already happened. And the judge only opened my records to my lawyer, so no one from Evanston would ever know.
But the house was worth a decent amount of money.
A lot more if it was empty.
I took the phone from him and listened as Nancy sighed again. “Baby, I would handle it all for you, you know I would. But I’ve got grandbabies now. I’m retired and I just don’t think I-”
“No, Nancy. I would never ask that of you. I just-” my voice left. My head throbbed with the weight of the day.
“You think on it, darlin’. Darnell could help you if you decide to clean it out. He runs a moving company, so he knows a couple auction houses. We could just have them come in and take it all.”
Brian’s arms came around me from behind, holding me together when I felt like I might literally fall apart. I didn’t answer for long enough that he took the phone from my fingers and ended the conversation for the night.
I heard her tell him to give me a squeeze from her, and watched him lay the phone on the island in front of me.
“There’s something there, isn’t there?” His voice was soft, full of longing to erase this for me. To solve it.
I turned to look up at him. My arms were too heavy to lift, but I wanted so desperately to be normal. For him.
But as I nodded, she leaked out again.
And as much as I didn’t want to set foot on that house ever again, Christina wanted to go home.
Brian brushed my forehead against his lips, his fingers wrapping sweetly around the back of my neck as he held me tightly to his chest.
“You don’t need to go in. Just tell me what it is that you want out of there.”
If I’d only known.
But I pulled my hands up between us, slipping my fingertips into the curly bristles of his beard and looking up to meet his misty gaze. I shook my head.
“I have to do this. I have to put it away for good.”
He didn’t know what I meant, he couldn’t have because I didn’t. Not really.
But the house seemed to know.
It wasn’t the place I’d left. She had changed almost everything and it was something of a relief. Until I saw the first photo. And, then, all of them.
School pictures, candid shots of us on Dad’s boat, sweet poses of him twirling me or tossing me into the air, angelic smiles and tiny, toddler kisses on his cheeks.
Every single one with a thick black mark over my eyes.
I don’t remember him like I should. I’m not even sure what happened, but I know he died.
And that she hated me the very next day.
I touched each photo and felt the anger build. Brian’s, not mine. But when he pulled one off the wall, I grabbed it from him before he could smash it.
“Don’t look at what she’s done. That’s not why we are here.” I hung it back on its nail and ran my finger over the glass, pointing to my father’s gorgeous smile. “Don’t you see it?”
Brian’s fury crumpled into confusion.
“No, Jenna. All I see is cruelty and devastation.”
I walked through the hatred and felt it fall away like cobwebs. I touched another photo of him and her, no daughters eyes to blacken. Just his broad, brilliant confidence, and my mother’s sweet, doting grin as she stared up at him.
He’d been fiddling with the boiler in the basement that day. The cold bit into my fingers and toes the night before. I remember how proud he’d been to have fixed it.
But he kept going back down there.
I turned to Brian and he raised his brows at my expression.
It was covered with a tarp. She’d written on it, “Do not touch! Never open!” And as we unwound the plastic cloth from around it, Brian thought out loud that perhaps we should heed the warning.
But she wouldn’t have let me walk away.
The box was far too old. Like it had been there for centuries. It was a wooden crate, nailed shut and left to disintegrate, but somehow remaining, year after year.
My father had obsessed over this. It was what had killed him, I was sure.
It was warm to the touch, and got hot when I laid both hands on it. It was magnetic and electric, and I sat down, pulling it into my lap.
“Jenna, I don’t think you should open-”
But it opened.
And he was gone.
She stood in front of me. A six year old with patents that loved each other and her. A child with a beautiful bright future, unmarked by the scars of death and abuse.
I saw what she could’ve been, should’ve been. I saw her grow into a stunning woman. The picture of feminine wealth. She was so beautiful, and I saw her celebrate and explore her beauty. I watched her become a lover then a mother. I saw her learning from her mother’s lessons, and it became too difficult to watch.
It could drive someone crazy. It probably had.
She made me watch, made me see wicked things and wonderful things. Some where so exciting I almost lost myself to them. The pleasure was sickening, and amazing, and excruciating, and delicious.
But it wasn’t mine.
I pushed the box away, and stood up fast as I stared at it.
It was still closed. “Didn’t I open it?”
Brian moved toward it, but I stopped him, putting my foot on top of it.
She appeared again.
“Don’t you want to know? There’s so much more. You could’ve been so much more!”
I shook my head. Slowly at first, then with something akin to confidence.
“No, Christina. You could’ve been so much more.”
I stepped back and took Brian’s hand.
“I’m exactly who I should be.”
There was a long wait before the auction. I went back a few weeks later to destroy the crate, but it wouldn’t break or burn. I couldn’t bury it or sink it.
I couldn’t let anyone else touch it, I was sure it would turn them as it did my parents.
I don’t know what my mother saw that made her hate me so much. I’m not sure I want to. But I know I don’t want another soul crushed by it’s prophacy.
So I moved it. I had to.
And there’s only one other person in the world who knows where it is.
Fortunately, she’s trapped under my skin.
And inside that awfully wonderful little box.