The house was a hodgepodge of battered tin siding and stucco and homemade plaster from a Home Depot mix. Only the whole thing looked older than any Home Depot. Not in style. The style was timeless – a non-style. A pioneer’s cabin – bare, sparse, made from what was on hand – of any time of the twentieth century. Then left to rot out five decades longer than any time its style may have belonged to.
All this about the house hypnotized Peter. Everyday on the way home from school he sat there, lingered there on his feet just a few seconds longer than was natural to catch a glimpse of anything. Then hurried off, feeling he had done something deeply wrong. Until one day he stayed.
That day was in May. Though as far North as they were, the freezing and the thawing – it still hadn’t quite thawed out yet and the inkling of cold breezed through the air more like October. The wet sludge of past snow had receded, too, leaving brown leaves on the floor. Like the fall once more, only now they were decaying. Halloween came and dead. There he saw an old candy wrapper, dropped by a kid before the first snowfall who had gotten a little too hungry and a little too careless on Halloween Night: Tootsie Roll.
It was one of the last days of school. He didn’t know how close to the end he was, because recalling the memory Peter would’ve seen it through a haze, occurring on no day in particular. The house, there in that moment, had become its own time that stretched beyond days, sucked weeks into itself with its own gravity. It had a stronger gravity than he would have ever expected, the weak little decrepit thing. So curious…
And Peter bridged the barrier and strode in past that first cement-block step. Though there was no gate (Peter had never seen anyone living here, perhaps it was abandoned – and besides, if not, who would need to keep anyone out of this dump?) he suddenly felt like he had violated something. He felt wrong, the instinctual wrong that gnawed at the back of your head when you were a toddler and you knew your mom didn’t know but was about to. The feeling just before a rabbit or a doe snaps its head up to look (it had to feel it first).
But something kept pulling, pulling, pulling him in, up the cobbled and beaten cinder block steps and through the gravel yard. To the door that he now found was open, open like it was permanently pried open, a rusted-around hole where the lock must-have-been but he felt never was. It just swung open. A shadow moved the wallpaper peeling down like dripping water. He caught just a glimpse of it through the slats, which remained now that the drywall had been beaten out by one hundred different punches over who-knows-how-long. He heard a rustle. He knew it was a person.
* * *
Her thoughts lapped her up like a dog licking at the water bowl and they never seemed to be satisfied, always kept going. It was those thoughts that kept pulling her in whenever she walked, never letting her enjoy the cool breeze on the fall-like spring day. When so lost up in them, she didn’t know which; fall and spring were parallel and both smelled like the dog bowl in her mind when she wafted the rotting leaves.
When the dog licked at the bowl it made such an interesting sound. The cling of the water rocking against the stainless steel from the ripples from the tongue and the slurp slurp slurp of the tongue and the bloop of the drop of water that always missed and fell back down and started the ripple to the edge of the steel again. It was so peaceful and whole, a harmony, it kept going on forever. And it kept going on forever in her head since that day. But it was always interrupted.
THUD the thud of the boot against the dogs stomach and that distant, far-off leaf-crunch of the bones in the ribs that still echoed in her memory though she didn’t think she ever heard it in real life. The THUD wasn’t so bad though; it was the wince, the gentle wince of the dog that didn’t know what was coming and didn’t understand why after the fact. That wince would never leave her. And it winced again and again and again until it stopped, though she only ever remembered and heard – and felt in her bones – that first one. Wince.
“Damned mutt,” after the wince and the boot kick and the THUD, “Damned mutt you never take care of! Why do I always gotta take care of it?” He didn’t see the eight accidents before, the bile on the floor from the poor diet that she had all cleaned up without him noticing. He only saw the one but that was still too much for him. And though they were just accidents, he was angry – not about that but about his life – and he kicked the dog. Wince. Why be angry at the dog? And stay angry at it, stay at it, until she was dead.
That was the last time she had seen her dad. She didn’t remember much after the THUD and that first wince. The dog hurled across the room with the force of the boot-toe and hit the wall then, she seemed to know from thinking about it, and it had winced again. But she didn’t remember that, just the first wince. And the THUD. And the peaceful lap-lap-lapping that shouldn’t have had to stop.
Then, she thought through more then remembered, she ran out and away from him, who was then screaming at her down the street. “Jenny!” He must’ve screamed, “JENNY! Get back here!” Through the backyards, through the bushes and hiding and finally into some old woman’s house who had let her in. And she called and they took her away (after they found the husk of the dog and her dad’s bloodied boots, she though they must’ve) and now she was here. Here… where? Walking back from school on her way to the foster home. The ‘home’, no. The foster house.
Until she stopped dead in her tracks. She didn’t know why, until she looked up (though she didn’t know why she looked either). And then somewhere deep in her being she knew when she saw the house. The ramshackle house with the trailer parked out front that looked a bit too close to the one they had rented – squatted in – back in Memphis. It looked just like theirs, like it was as old as theirs now must be, rotting away down there in the heat that couldn’t reach it here. And the siding and the shitty plaster job, looked like it was her grandparents house fused together with the cabin – the shed – out back they had rented, her and her dad, once-upon-a-time. The beaten sheet metal roof that dripped in the morning whether it had rained or not… It was one place where all her worst places had been sucked up in to, a black hole right there.
And though she wanted to run, she stepped closer instead. Because she didn’t feel afraid anymore; those places had gutted out a pit where fear might once have resided. She was angry, angry at that pit they had made. And she was made all the angrier when the silhouette flashed across the frosted-by-grime window and moved, bulking, crushed under its own shoulders, like her father. She supposed that’s what made her step inside, though she wasn’t conscious of ever opening a door or moving past its frame.
* * *
He was sure it was a person but there was something about the springiness in the step when the leg flitted out between the two boards once more that made Peter jump, and made him afraid of his jump. It was rubbery, and for instant he was looking down at that mess on the pavement again.
“Peter, just do it.”
“Pussy,” and he grabbed the frog out of his hands. He dropped it on the floor, more like threw it, but the springy legs held themselves and landed and in that moment it seemed less slimy and warmer, like a cat. “Pussy,” Pussycat, Peter corrected the other boy in his head.
He heard a clang from over the slat-wall but from over the part that still had boards clinging to it, the part he couldn’t see. They hadn’t noticed him yet? Or they didn’t care? Perhaps they were trespassing just as him: crackheads, junkies, a boyfriend coming up for a breather from a love-in in the basement. Still, just to be safe…
There was a board in the corner and Peter, without knowing what he was doing, walked over to it, tried to pick it up delicately…
Why they’d caught him now, on his way home. He wished the frog – Kermit, he had named it on the way home through the weeds – would run away but it just sat there. It barely even puffed out its belly or looked around. Like it was just as frozen as him. The first kid grabbed Peter’s leg and there was a little tussle and he tried to shake the hand off but it just dragged on slow and weighty like a toddler clings to their dad’s leg. Like a ball and chain. He was so frozen he was limp, lifeless, and like a rag doll they could move him.
…but of course the board snagged on a piece of drying plaster and it cracked, it screeched out. He winced, he jumped himself. And so did the person on the other side of those boards, “Hello?” Peter heard him grab something.
And then his one cousin picked up a rock, he wasn’t sure for the frog or him, and the other yelled, sharply, timed, it must’ve been, “PETER!” and that jumpy little boy inside his frozen body reacted, reflexed, and without meaning to both his feet were down and he had pushed himself a foot back in fright to see on the ground a little red splatter where the frog had been. The closer he looked it was also purple. And black. And had little tubes and spheres and tatters of slimy skin emanating from it like a little star. He felt like throwing up. He felt like it was his own throw up, that he’d gotten rid of, in that instant, all of his insides.
He felt like throwing up then and every time he saw his cousins after that at the obligatory family gatherings. They’d laugh, Remember Peter when we were dumbass kids that time and… of course he did, but he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to have that image in his head, or the image of all the other animals he was sure they’d done it to over the while, and laughed. And they had made him do it too. Now sometimes even when his mom called him “PETER!” from downstairs he jumped and for a second his pupils were the red-purple-black mess on the pavement and he had to shake it out of his head “What mom?” and she wondered why he was so ‘snotty’ when he answered her. But she didn’t know.
The face turned around from out the boards, out where the kitchen used to be (or never was). There were no appliances or furniture left, but Peter knew it was the kitchen from how the house felt like he’d been in it before. The face was white and red and shocked him, but after an instant it recognized him, “PETER?” Too loud and shrilled and without thinking jumpy little Peter jumped again. He hadn’t thought about it. Only he hadn’t realized there was a nail in the end of the board. And now the kids face was even redder when his eyes slumped back in his head and he staggered, hit the slat and board wall, hit the slat and board floor. And didn’t get up… just a little red and black and purple spot on the pavement.
* * *
She didn’t hear the door open and close, but the rust built up on its holes where the locks should’ve been had accumulated on the hinges too, and it screeched to mark her way in, and without seeing it or hearing consciously the little movement, the turn of the head of that silhouette somewhere, now, in the house, was picked up by her mind and she knew she was about to meet again with those hunched heavy shoulders.
* * *
Peter heard his name without hearing it, like in an airy dream how you don’t see your bed or your room but you feel it, just there, just beyond the dream. He heard his name “PETER!” being called from down there in the basement, like his bed and pillow calling to wake him up before the evil alarm clock came and did it violently. “PETER!” And he followed it with urgency, like it was his own mother calling, down the rickety wood stairs he was sure would snap sooner or later under each step. He felt a bit of warmth on his face and realized it was blood… blood, maybe from the boy upstairs?
Or now from this girl down here: Down in the basement there was splattered – he couldn’t think of another word, splattered – a girl laying on the dirt floor. Her legs went out one way and her arms another in a curve. Her mouth was red, dark red – of blood not fresh but dried, but of blood not rotted away or decomposing yet. It looked like lipstick when you combined it with her blonde hair smoothed out, ready for a date. Her burgundy-creme cardigan was torn open and revealed her white, white naked body and the blackened gap between her thighs. He didn’t look at long enough to see if it was bruised or bloodied or gone altogether. It wasn’t that he couldn’t look, it’s that he was still in that haze; that he was feeling all of this far-off, outside of his own ‘real’, as if still in a dream. He was disinterested.
He leaned back against the wall and sank himself down to the dirt floor. He sat there. And waited. He waited for a long long time, past when he should’ve start to felt thirsty, when he should’ve start to felt hungry. He waited, looking at the girl get a little less white and a little more purple. Waiting for her to be just a splotch too, if nobody found them. Hoping for himself to be just a splotch. Thinking about that frog. And waiting for the upstairs to come down and hit him.
* * *
She didn’t feel her feet flutter this time, but instead freeze. Pulse, even. And the veins surged her hot blood even more when she saw that boy on the floor with the board sticking out of his head and the nail sticking out of the board. He was crumpled, like he had slouched, fallen over, curled up into the fetal position one last time because although it wasn’t slow it wasn’t fast either. And she didn’t see the boy there, but the crumpled up dog, still or wincing she couldn’t remember, the last time she saw it and the last time she saw the inside of their – of that – house.
Her feet weren’t frozen now but hot, guided along a fire-walk path of coals to the body, blood now a little dried and bubbly. She pried the board out of the kid and the nail came out of his bloodied eye-hole with a SLURP, and then a drip. A single crystal drip that she could hear so clearly as it was her dog’s last drink. Then nothing; the body just sat there, inanimate, not to bark again. But this time she had the board, bloodied though it may have been.
* * *
He didn’t really hear anything upstairs. He just heard something calling him again, begging him to move from down there far-off, outside his senses, outside his consciousness, but just now like that frog he was frozen. He breathed shallow. And he remembered how his cousin had grabbed onto his foot to lift it up, hauling it up, a ball and chain headed at the sky. It was like he wasn’t in the basement anymore at all – it was like he was in that small boy’s body once again. And once again, just watching. Helpless. Until he was back inside of himself and himself was at the top of the stairs. His hand reached for the doorknob without him, raising up into the sky and going limp, it’s job done, once it grabbed and twisted.
* * *
She heard the creaking up the stairs and the splinters under those heavy feet came out of the wood and bore into her ear canals. They bore along the grooves they had already treaded, drilled in each time her dad thudded down from his room when she got home from school. Always mad about something. “JENNY!” Or not. But that was nearly worse, because she still was waiting. Just not waiting for him to reach the bottom of the stairs, but waiting for she-didn’t-know-when. For the turn in his eyes. Oh dear how was School… Good I met a nice kid… What was her name?… John… SNAP and that vein on the left side of his eye went from red to almost purple, like a poison vile slipped and got knocked out and surged through his brain-juice. SNAP when she said the wrong thing. Without meaning to, she told herself, but she could feel the same flame flicker in her voice when it came out her mouth, and she always felt herself cringe beforehand. She knew it was coming, she just didn’t know what would trigger it.
She had the same flame-flicker now. It simmered outside her eyes, outside her mind’s eye, even; a felt dream. But it was smooth like wax. And constant. And warm. She knew it was building but she didn’t feel afraid, rather comforted. The blood in her hands warmed her palms to match.
The door opened and…
THUD. For a split second her Dad had been there, but not anymore. Now he was so far gone his face wasn’t even on his own body. It just looked like some random kid as soon as her Dad stopped moving – all the mannerisms gone. The head snapped back and the figure fell down the wooden stairs and landed in a red splotch on the dirt basement floor. Just there, and just one of anyone.
When the body hit the ground some of the dirt kicked up, flew in a gust imagined to land on Jenny’s eyes. She felt warm, finished, but not emboldened: just embers. She sat down, and didn’t feel like leaving.
* * *
If she would’ve looked out the window, which had changed, she’d have seen what was behind it changed too, though it looked all-to-the-same. That the shitty house of plaster and tin siding and trailer parts and slats and boards and rotting-through drywall – just enough of everything that it could be anything – was sitting in another theatre now, one it had always been in, just like it had always been in their town longer than any of them, or their parents, remembered.
She was only there for a second, to her, slouched there on the floor in the ember warmth. It had been longer; the splotch in the basement’s centre was more of an ooze now, brown and etched in circles and blisters and spewing a fervent ferment smell as it was slowly embraced and erased by the dirt and all the creatures, invisible, in it. The one at the bottom of the stairs was purple and red and black and nothing more than shapes, which the expert could have pieced together into a human skeleton. The body next to her, near the top of the stairs, had been unflinchingly in her peripheral vision for so long it was just a staple of furniture.
The kid walking outside, now in the Louisiana air (that was never foggy because it always was fog), stopped at the house on his way home from school and looked, for the ten thousandth time. But this time it caught him. He stepped onto the front lawn.