There are moments in life when your children stop being tiny extensions of you. They come in minutes at first. Then days. Weeks. Months.
Molly refused to let me hold her after her second birthday. Balling her little fists and bellowing in defiance, her hot, sour breath blasting me in the face whenever I attempted to pick her up.
“I do it. No grab me.”
Her independence was a double edge sword, driving her to develop maturity beyond her years. It made caring for her simple, but I longed for her affection. My best friend’s daughter would splay her fingers across her mommy’s cheeks and whisper. It made my heart ache.
I soaked up cuddles brought on by fevers and earaches, cherished moments instead of anxious interruptions. I may have wished for nightmares, relishing in her need for me during the lonely hours of the night after her father left us.
By the time she became a freshman in high school, however, our lives ran in parallel. I had swallowed the bitter pill of resentment because it was candy coated in the freedom to go out on weeknights or spend long weekends in the mountains without worrying. I trusted her in a way most parents wouldn’t.
She crawled into my bed that night, waking me from a sound sleep, my mind couldn’t process the adrenaline that pulsed through my system.
She smelled of leaves and the clean, electric scent of rain. Her skin was wet but warm where I lifted the backs of my fingers to feel her forehead. Instead of brushing me away, she buried her face in my chest.
“What’s wrong, Mol?”
A broken, breathy sob shook her whole body as she crumpled handfuls of my nightshirt and pulled herself further into me like she might hide beneath my flesh.
“Molly, you’re scaring me. What happened?”
I reached over the sliver of bed she occupied to click on my side lamp. She shrank further into the bedding and her sobs grew harder and faster.
As my eyes adjusted, I tried to push her back so I could see her face. She clung and fought, but the livid purple color of her cheekbone gave fury to my need to see.
“What the- Molly, look at me. Now.”
She turned into the pillow releasing a hiccuping groan but exhaled in surrender, turning red-rimmed, storm gray eyes toward me.
The left side of her face was one giant, swollen, mottled bruise. Her lip and brow were split and clotted. Clumps of mud matted her hair.
“How bad is it, mom?”
She choked on the words, a breathy whisper working against the parched rasp of her normal voice. She peered up at me, trembling, and I met her gaze with an instinct I’d thought disappeared long ago.
“Just bruises and cuts,” I lifted my fingertips to run over her damaged skin. “But no broken bones, I think. We’ll see the doctor tomorrow to be sure.”
I kept my voice steady and soft, despite the rage that boiled inside my veins.
“What happened, baby? Who did this?”
Fear flashed in her watery eyes before she buried herself in my breast again. I pushed down every urge in my being, knowing the best thing I could do was stay with her. But the need to say something was strong.
“You cannot let him get away with it.”
She sobbed for a long time, clinging like I was a life preserver. In the muted light, I stared at the picture on my night table behind her. A preschooler swinging her feet on either side of a massive branch, up high in a big oldtree in front of an orchard we’ve visited a dozen times.
Molly was holding a huge red apple, the size of a man’s fist, three perfect, round bites already missing from its flesh.
She climbed that tree by herself at four and a halfyearsold, ate that entire apple, plus half of another she picked for me, and wouldn’t even let me help her down.
When I looked back down at my little girl, now a brazen, vicious teenager, she stared back at me with wide eyes, blood in her teeth.
I pried her hands loose from their grip on my shirt and examined them. Three nails broken past the quick, knuckles cracked and bloodied, her right index finger broken.
She swallowed, gazing at the backs of her hands as she flexed her fingers.
The walls seemed to be breathing. Ugly, stained brocade peeling from the plaster shifted as the wind squealed through the broken glass of the old attic window. In the dark, he could barely see the figure. Like an absence of light in a room streaked with moonlight.
It moved toward him, somehow bending the light away. Repelling it by some unnatural means. He lifted his flashlight, but the bulb popped and hissed, leaving the space between them even darker than it had been.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
He took several gulps of stale air as the temperature dropped.
“Why are you-“
The room seemed to swallow the sound, choking off his voice until he lifted his fingers to his mouth, confirming it was still there.
The house shifted and swelled. Romeo’s brain hurt as though it were working without him. He brought his fingers to his temples, but the thing forced him to his knees.
He’d lived there as a child. The house was huge and dark, and the old musty wall tapestry had always felt alive. When he was young, however, it was the breath and laughter of all those women that brought it to life. Incense and perfume hung in clouds through every room. Its purpose had been to mask the bleachy, musky smells that would have otherwise permeated the air. But it had given birth to a sensory soaked existence, a daily lesson in manners and chivalry, the playful molding of a young boy’s identity in a place he simply didn’t belong.
Romeo had been named for his father, or so that was the story. But he never knew a father figure until Charles came to the house one evening to bleed the radiators.
There had been other men. The ladies called them suitors, but Romeo was not a dim kid. His mother’s room was directly below his, and he’d understood from a very young age that this was all business. He’d understood so well that, as Charles went from room to room, floor to floor, making repairs, Romeo was careful to follow him and watch his every move.
“How old are you, buddy?”
“Eight and a half.”
“You protectin’ these ladies?”
His chuckle bristled Romeo’s spine, drawing his face into a venomous scowl before he stepped toward the stranger, rivetting him with a stare that made his answer unnecessary.
“There ain’t no freebies here.”
Charles had lifted his hands, holding them palms out as he rocked back on his heels to rise from a low squat.
“Hey now, you’ll have no problems with me, kiddo. I’m just a handyman. I’m only here to fix the heat.”
There had been something in his tone that changed Romeo’s mind. It wasn’t instant, as he’d seen too many arrogant jokers in and out of these rooms, leaving behind bruises and twenty dollar bills that should’ve been hundreds. It was hard to believe there were any good guys out there. But what Charles taught him that night was far more important than how to repair the radiators and seal the windows with insulating tape.
It was almost 9 o’clock when he sat down at the kitchen table with him for a cup of milk and a slice of Molly’s spice cake.
“This your homework?”
With a mouthful, all Romeo could do was nod. But in the following twenty minutes, the repairman checked his work, showed him an easier way to do division, and managed to get himself an invitation to dinner the next night.
“As long as it’s ok with your momma.”
Romeo was so used to not talking to his mother, the statement surprised him. She was wiry, strung out and unfocused. She had a lot of suitors, in order to pay for the pills that kept her up and put her down, and if he had to tell the truth, he didn’t like her much.
But Molly, she had been his favorite. When he was small, he thought she must have been a fairy or at least part fairy. She moved like she was made of water or vapor, and she practically glimmered in the red robe cinched around her tiny waist with a satin bow.
When he was four, he asked if she wore it to hide her wings.
She’d giggled and scooped him into her arms, whispering in his ear.
“They are magical, my Romeo. They hide themselves.”
That night, in the kitchen with Charles, she wore a pair of black capris and a red sweater. But she still looked and moved as though she had wings.
She’d blushed and giggled, explaining that she wasn’t Romeo’s mother, but that she knew it would be fine.
The next night, she wore a crimson dress with black polka dots, and Romeo might have told her he wished he was older so he could ask her on a date.
Charles got the privilege instead.
In the year that followed, Romeo learned what it meant to be a man. He grew six inches that summer, and though he was only nine, he stood as tall as most thirteen-year-olds and was just as smart.
But Molly held him on her lap through the funeral, mopping his tears with her tissues and rubbing his back as though he were much younger than the sight of him announced.
Charles stood behind them, his hand resting on Romeo’s shoulder, letting his own tears slide down his cheeks.
Not for the corpse that was laid in a pine box in front of them, but the life of a boy who might be lost to the wind after this.
The state hadn’t wanted him to stay with Molly. Whether they could prove it or not, everyone knew what that house had been. What went on there. But Charles had a friend who knew a lawyer and scraped together enough money for a home of his own. And a ring.
They were married by a judge on a Friday, and they moved in with him on Saturday. It took months of legal battles, counseling sessions, and psychiatric evaluations, but when no one came forward to claim him, Romeo became eligible for adoption.
So, one completely anticlimactic afternoon, he became legally theirs.
But they had already been a family. Right from that first night.
The cold bit into his cheeks as his blood throbbed in his ears. He tried to look up, his lips pleading with no voice. But the roar of silence crushed him down further so that he lay crumpled, like a fetus, on the floor.
The visions spilled from his mind like water from an overflowing cup. Some incredible force surged through him, pinning him harder and tighter to the floorboards.
The oxygen in the room was depleted. The realization that he was suffocating made his mind swim with terror. But he couldn’t die. Not until he found her.
He focused on what had brought him here. The phone call from Molly, talking about the house, telling him how it was finally going to be bulldozed after seventeen years. Her voice had been so strange, so distant. Like she was in a trance.
She said she was there, giving it one last look. Trying to find the happy times where none were to be found.
But there had been. So many joyous moments were had in that place, only brought to a halt by a fire that managed to take only the life of the lost soul who caused it.
Memories of blanket forts, chess games, math quizzes, and dancing in their pajamas in the firelight scoured over him like sandpaper.
Her words had been clipped, muffled. Peppered against a static that sounded like alien breath.
And then she said the one thing he’d never, ever imagined she would say.
“Sometimes I wish I had never adopted you.”
The silence that had followed was as thick as oil. No static, no breath. But then, a scream that sent him running for the door as fast as his feet would carry him.
He realized now, it wasn’t her. And it sparked a recollection of something said with equal hatred when he was very small. A memory Molly never wanted him to have.
“I wish I had never had you.”
He had been vying for his mother’s attention as toddlers do, begging for something. What was it?
The word hung in the space around him, stopping time and wind and breath. He could smell the wax, feel it on his fingers. He remembered, after that day, he only ever drew Molly. That was the day he first wished he was hers.
A rage larger than the house threw him back, pinning him to the wall this time as the creaking, shrieking walls tried to expand to hold it.
It seared into him like the stings of a thousand scorpions, dumping poison into his bloodstream and making him wretch, and writhe. Hatred funneled into him from all directions before twisting, pulling back, threatening to rip him to pieces.
He clenched his fists and looked at the figure, glaring into the blackness until, finally, he could see.
The walls around them began to buckle with the building pressure, but he gazed deep into the vaccum and pushed himself free of the wall, he shouted.
“What did you do with her? Where is my momma?”
The figure before him shook with fury, black eyes burned into him, but still he moved toward it.
The thing released a feral roar causing the house to vibrate then flex inward before it drew in an airless breath and raised hands of reverse flames.
Fire without heat, blue and black tongues licked outward, stealing the light and oxygen once again. Bearing down on him, the dark mass grew and seethed. Its eyes were obsidian slivers set in flesh so black, he hadn’t been able to see the resemblance before.
He couldn’t speak to tell it. He couldn’t even cough or choke as the smoke from its flames siphoned the life from his body.
Instead, he closed his eyes. And prayed.
Not for himself, but for the life of another. Molly.
Please, let it have been fake. Please let Momma be alive.
He was chanting the prayer in his mind, his heart beating too loudly in his ears to hear the phantom’s whispers.
He prayed she’d never been there, that this was just like the other times he was drawn to this place by some need he could never quite meet. He’d called his parents home from the gas station, hoping Charles would answer groggily and tell him Molly was asleep. But it just rang and rang, seventeen times before Romeo climbed back into his dad’s old truck.
The fact that they hadn’t answered was the reason he was there, dying, right now.
And as he prayed that this thing had only somehow impersonated his momma, he heard her voice, calling his name from downstairs.
He was sure his brain had begun to falter from lack of oxygen. But when Charles’s voice boomed from below as well, he opened his eyes.
Romeo drew up whatever strength he had left and threw himself at the monster.
It was as simple as tackling smoke. Diminished by the presence of others or by his pure will to defeat it, he found nothing but air beneath him, and as he stood, gasping and clutching his chest, he stared down at the blackness seeping into and filling the cracks of the floorboards beneath his feet.
“Romeo, sweetheart? Are you up there?”
He turned and met her on the stairs, shimmering like a fairy in the moonlight. Then he looked back at the absence of light in his old room.
As impotent as a ghost as she had been in life.
He hadn’t thought of his birth mother in many years.
And as they took the steps back down to Charles, he promised himself he wouldn’t again.
I’d heard the rumors. Some of the guys on the force think it’s funny to try to scare the female officers. But, I would say, after seventeen years of experience, women police are far more difficult to rattle than male.
We probably have more fears than our male counterparts, but we simply cannot show them.
Dan was trying to bait me, no doubt. Our afternoon assignment was to clear out the squatters in the abandoned Ramada Plaza hotel. The property owners had security, but once a month, they’d ask for a sweep. And we drew the short straw that day.
“Patterson, code 4.”
The hotel was supposed to be on a low-use power setting, operating hallway lights, exit signs and the fire system 24/7. But even this seemed to be faulty, as I exited the 2nd floor and jogged down the steps in the dark, my feet spotlighted by my Maglite.
“Please answer me.”
My ears rang with the bang of the door behind me as I exited the stairwell and jogged over the matted, thick carpet between peeling wallpaper and doors marked with large, gold plated numbers in the one hundreds. My whispered pleas where only met by the squelching of the carpet beneath my shoes.
“Officer Patterson, please respond.”
The crackle from the two way echoed through the first floor hallway. No power on this floor either. I stopped and started to close my eyes. But the silence around me begged for my full attention.
He’d said we should stick together, but I wanted to get in and out and had felt the vile, moldy stench infecting my uniform before we were even inside. No one in their right mind would sleep here, breathing normally was impossible.
I thought we’d be out in fifteen, so I’d decided to split up.
But as I had kicked around crack pipes and used condoms in my twentieth empty room, there was a laugh through the two way, a gasp and a sigh. Then, complete silence.
Half an hour later, I wished I’d listened to his sorry, lazy ass.
“Dan, please. If this is a prank, it’s over. I’m calling for back up.”
I stood at the front of the damp, putrid lobby, praying for his laugh to bark through the speaker at my shoulder.
But the only sound I heard was my own breath. And the pop of electricity as the lobby, too, went black.
Reeling into the daylight felt like being born. The front door swung open so easily, I half expected to find Dan standing by the cruiser, eating one of those God awful protein bars his vegan wife makes for him.
But the car was empty.
I fought back tears as I sat in the drivers seat. Pressing insubstantial buttons on the laptop screen, stomach acid rising in my throat and my skin itching with some combination of the late summer heat and the layer of mold spores that must be invading every pore. I could not give myself the opportunity to second guess. It had been nearly an hour.
“Better not be fucking with me.”
I cleared my throat and took a deep breath, closing my eyes to the setting sun glaring across the windshield.
“Tango Echo, officer needs assistance at 4900 Sinclair.”
I waited, an odd light grabbing my attention from behind the glass inside. Green and hollow, like a hot air balloon, but as it grows brighter, I’m fascinated by it. I stand and move toward the door, the dispatcher’s voice chirping over the call, asking me to repeat. The sun seems to be setting too fast.
Stopped, halfway to the door, I felt the ground beneath my feet shudder. The vibration was electric in it’s intensity, invading my skin, penetrating my tissues right through to my veins and nerves.
My vision swam, the light changed, became all I could see.
It is twenty three steps to the door.
I know this because I fought my own feet for 22 of them.
I heard the sirens blaring up the highway that zoomed across the back of the hotel. My puppeteer maneuvered my body as though I truly was held up by strings. I couldn’t stop staring at the light. I wanted to be in it. Under it.
I needed to.
When I found him, in the center of the basement, the light pouring from his pores, I understood why.
The sky rumbles. Villainous chuckles of fate superceding dreams, as I waited, willing the sky to cooperate but grateful for the taught canvas above my head.
The tent had meant borrowing against my 401k, but I’d been unable, or more unwilling to deny her the dream her first husband and lack of parents had refused her. A wedding, after all, is the most important day in a woman’s life.
One of them, I hoped.
It was an impressive sight. Forty feet wide and twice as long. Stillwater was the tent style. Or manufacture. I hadn’t been privy to all the details, only the rental invoice. I remember my stomach lurching when the pretty, strawberry blond printed our final order in the glamorous two story rental showroom after an hour of picking our tent, lighting package, table shapes and sizes, chairs and dishes and fabrics and colors. My head was still swimming, seven months later.
But rain did mean the garden ceremony would be moved into the house.
Thunder might mean we shouldn’t be under the massive tent as well. The installers had provided some warnings.
I ignored the memory prickling in the back of my mind.
Nothing would stop this day.
My phone buzzed, and as I fished it from the inside pocket of my tux, a second message was coming through.
I have handled the disjointed frustration of my mother who had wanted a doctor, but had raised an accountant. I’d dealt with the sadness of my college sweetheart when I’d said I didn’t want to marry her. I’d even muscled through the violent hatred of my first fiance when I realized she was never going to be mother material.
But Jenna’s disappointment was something I knew would crush me.
Please save the peonies We could line the hearth, couldn’t we?
My smile made my eyes close. I loved this women with a fury that caused a simple text about flowers to give me a hard on.
The flowers had been the only thing she could pay for, and she’d made every penny count. I didn’t get the fuss, but the way her face had lit up when we walked into that florist made understanding a frivolous thing.
It took the wedding planner all of twenty seconds to come up with a plan for them, and as she took them from my sweaty hands, I glanced around for what catastrophe I might stave of next.
It’s truly amazing how dark the world can become with heavy cloud cover. A summer storm is not an odd thing in July. And even as the wind picked up, I refused to worry.
Jenna was the most beautiful bride I’d ever been privy to see. Even as she bent over my punctured chest, rain smudged and tear stained, the shimmery white fabric of her dress wicking blood from the wound like tissue paper absorbing watercolors. She was exquisite.
I stood and watched her, rain pelting in from the side of the splintered tent.
I didn’t feel the lightening strike. I didn’t hear the snap of the pole at my back. I didn’t understand what had made my knees buckle as I turned around and watched myself fall.
It took more force than I’d expected. The blade was sharp, but even with my full strength behind it, I barely got four inches in.
That was enough. As he fought against it, it sliced deeper, and vibrated with each sinewy centimeter. He scratched and clawed at my arms, my neck, but I clung to the wooden handle, slick with the warm, wet life oozing out of him.
The air was thick and acrid, so I held my breath.
There was very little life left within me anyway.
I had died a little every day for the last fourteen years.
My feet swung idly beneath the kitchen table as he made my favorite sandwich. His fingers separating the slices of seven grain bread she loved but never eats. He unscrewed the lid and pried off the inner cap of a giant jar of her homemade peanut butter, which she also never eats. The air filled with that unmistakable aroma, which made me sit up and sniff the air. My lecture about how peanuts aren’t really nuts made him chuckle before aiming his gentle, comforting gaze at me.
“Do you know what they are then, miss-know-it-all?”
He always pointed out that I didn’t know it all. But for a six year old, I knew an awful lot. I just couldn’t always remember everything I knew. He told me they are called ‘lay-gooms’ as he drizzled honey from Mr. Montgomery’s farm over both pieces of the bread. Then chuckled again when I asked if they were beans, then.
He continued the preparation, making one for me and one for her, which she wouldn’t eat and I’d have to go bury in the compost later. It didn’t matter how often she refused to eat, he always made a sandwich for her, too. Every few days, she’d surprise us by eating a lot. He said her body knew when it needed something, even if her mind didn’t.
She scrubbed at a spot on the counter that had been there forever. She was up, which was better than not. And she was calm, which was a lot better than not.
She never talked when I was around, but I knew she could, because I’d heard her through the register vent in my room. I slept on top of it some nights, when it was really cold. Or when I was full of wishes.
I heard her the night before. Crying. I heard Papa too. Begging her to let him hold her.
I once asked her why she didn’t act like a real mama, but she hit me. And he told me I was never to speak to her again unless she asked me a question. I didn’t tell him that I’d tried to hold her hand. That was the real reason she smacked me.
Watching her try to get rid of that silly orange spot on the Formica, I started to giggle because her skirt was tucked into her panties. Papa slid my plate in front of me with a glass of milk and three apple slices in the little red apple bowl he said Mama had made for me before I was born. Back when she was normal.
He pressed his finger to my lips and shook his head.
“It’s not nice to laugh at others, little pickle.”
I frowned, looking up into his giant brown eyes. He was gentle to a fault, only raising his voice as a last resort. He was only a bear when he needed to be.
My lips smirked without my intention, but I looked away, realizing he’d have to fix her. Which meant touching her.
I braced myself to hear the worst.
But it didn’t come. He whispered, but all I could here was pickle. As I looked back, his expression made my nose wrinkle. My little heart beat against my lungs.
He sat the plastic plate and cup beside her, same as me, with three apple slices in the little Winnie the Pooh bowl that used to be mine. I remember him feeding me corn out of it once, and her throwing her china plate at the ceiling above our heads, raining tiny, white shards all over me. And into my little bowl.
His face suddenly had a big red line from his forehead, down his cheek where a big piece had fallen and sliced right into his skin. I’d never seen blood before.
You can still see part of the scar, if you look really close.
It was an awful memory, I shook my head to dislodge it and focused on the shiny, red porcelain bowl that held my apples. On the bottom, there was a hand-painted message to me. Her Destiny. She’d had my name picked out for years, crocheted a blanket with flowers on it the week she’d found out she was pregnant.
She’d known. For years, she’d said she’d known.
I looked back up at Papa who sat down across from me and bit into his own sandwich. Biting into mine, I giggled when papa smiled at me with peanut butter in his teeth.
Mama glanced over, abandoned the stain, and carried her plate and cup to the end of the table. Dr Henry calls it ‘ingrained behavior’. I like Dr Henry because he teaches me big words and always sneaks me MaryJane’s from his suit pocket.
“It’s nice to all sit down and eat as a family.”
His eyes didn’t match his tone as he stared at Mama. I imagine he spent most of his life willing her to come back. Pleading with God to let her suddenly wake up normal. Negotiating his soul. If only something, anything could give him back the woman he loved.
They’d bought this giant farmhouse with plans for a brood of ten. From all recollections, she’d been the most amazing woman on earth. And no one had to tell me, I figured out on my own that I was the reason she was now simply a shell of her former self.
I had killed her without taking her life.
Dr Henry came that afternoon. We talked for half an hour about what Mama had been doing during the last week. No outbursts, no hitting, no breaking things. Then he squeezed a candy into my palm, and told me to go look up the word ‘gravity’ in the big purple dictionary.
It was the same, every week. He would come, bribe me from the room with sweets and a task, then he and Papa would tie Mama down so he could examine her and give her medicine.
Papa closed the door behind me.
I tried to occupy myself. Summer was easier because I could run around outside. But it was cold and raining, and I left my doll upstairs in my room. I pulled the huge book from the shelf and opened it on the floor, thumbing through the G’s and underlining the word with my Strawberry Shortcake pencil.
Gravity: a very serious quality or condition : the condition of being grave or serious
I didn’t get to read the rest.
Her screaming and cursing was muffled, but startled me just the same. There was a thud, and grunting. She screamed again and I heard a soft crack, like a thin tree branch breaking under the weight of a man. Papa bellowed words I’ve never heard him use before, choking and coughing.
I wasn’t supposed to know how to unlock that door, but I did.
I shouldn’t have been able to reach the knife drawer in the kitchen, but I could.
I couldn’t possibly have been strong enough to defend him, everyone said so for months to follow.
Papa didn’t wake up for hours. I laid there beside him, staring into her eyes, something I’d never been able to do before. My arm and collarbone were broken, but the pain started to feel just hot after a while. I thought maybe it had gone away, but he squeezed me hard enough to bring it back when he woke.
Dr Henry and Mama never did.
Six years, three months and twenty three days after I killed her, I finally finished the job.