where the bad kids go
It’s been sixteen years since my mother tried to kill me.
Helen Lambert suffered from depression that began to shine in her teenage years. Her parents convinced her that they were just ‘teenage hormones,’ but it got worse as she became a mother at the age of twenty-three. Her depression had reached its peak when she had me, and shortly after, she began to drink.
It wasn’t heavy drinking. It started with wine because she liked that already. Soon she slipped into liquor (whiskey her favorite) and started to show the early signs of alcoholism.
Trent, her boyfriend at the time (whom I called Dad), never really wanted a kid, but he didn’t want to run off on her when she was expecting a son. He was left with most of the responsibilities once she decided to stop taking care of me and instead drink until she passed out. I cried nightly and Trent grew exhausted. He, too, began to drink, though not as heavily as my mother, and they began to argue more than they attempted to take care of me.
My mother had once told me that one night, when I was three, they became tangled in a heated argument while I cried underneath my bed with my ears covered. Trent attacked my mother and tried to strangle her to death before escaping through the window as the police arrived. He was found two days later and served in prison for ten years for second-degree attempted murder and slapped with a restraining order of 350 feet.
The attack only made her depression worse. Which made her alcoholism worse. Which ultimately made her behavior worse.
She kicked me when I was already down. Broken bones and purple-gray bruises. She scratched and shoved and slapped and punched. She called me names and said horrible things that no child should hear from their mother. She punished me for the smallest mistakes. When teachers at school asked about my injuries, I lied to avoid confrontation between them and my mother, and then later her and me. She became a monster.
Then one night, when I was eleven, she tried to kill me.
I had a vivid nightmare that preceded that terrible night. I was in my bedroom, and something else was in there with me, hidden deep within the dark corners. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it, and it made me feel heavy. I jumped out of my bed and immediately sank into the floor as if it were quicksand. I tried to grab anything I could to pull myself out, but everything was just out of reach. When I lost my balance and belly flopped onto the carpet, my skin stuck to it like a sticky trap and I was the unlucky mouse that took the bait. The house’s walls groaned in pleasure as my skin began to ooze off my body and onto the carpet where the tiny fibers absorbed my liquefied form like microvilli. As my body melted into the floor, I remembered believing that the house was digesting me. Consuming me.
When I woke up, I found my mother standing over me next to my bed, her frail figure silhouetted by the hallway light that spilled into the bedroom. Her body shivered in what was either psychosis or restraint, and incoherent mumbling barely escaped her lips as she had a conversation with herself. Groggy from sleepiness and confusion, I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but her last words to me before I’d never see her again were, “I’m sorry.” And then she stepped forward with a large kitchen knife.
A hiss escaped from her stained teeth as she watched me run down the hallway. I snatched the landline that sat on the half moon table and locked myself in the bathroom.
It took nine minutes for the police to arrive and find my mother outside of the door pleading profusely for me to come out. A strong scent of whiskey radiated from her mouth. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…
My mother never received jail time. The police found the knife on my bed, and there was no sign of a struggle nor did I have any injuries from said knife. However, my bruises, her behavior, and obvious alcoholism was enough evidence to have me taken away by Child Protective Services.
When asked why I didn’t call the police sooner, I told them what my mother had always told me if she ever found out I had: I’ll slit your fucking throat open the moment they arrive.
I was put in a private foster home that later ended up adopting me into their household. It was a lovely couple, Derrick and Martha Bowman, who were unable to conceive a child themselves. They were strong believers of God, and took it as a sign to adopt other children who were unable to live without parents of their own. Their relationship started to show signs of slow deterioration shortly after their new son had entered the family. I had frequent night terrors that affected their sleep schedules, and tensions rose between everyone. I began developing anxiety throughout middle and high school that I was only able to satiate with alcohol, an addiction I quickly acquired by the time I was sixteen. Derrick and Martha fought weekly, and my adopted sisters admitted that their parents had never done this until after I was introduced to the family. That it was my fault. A week after my twentieth birthday, I was forced out of the home because of a certain lifestyle that they didn’t agree with. Shortly after I had left, I heard that the family functioned as normal again.
My anxiety, which inevitably morphs into depression every time it sparks, prevented me from holding on to a position for longer than a few months, let alone a relationship. I lived paycheck to paycheck, and any extra cash I had went to whatever liquor I could afford. I soon started eating less so that I could buy more alcohol, and when I was twenty-three, I attempted suicide by deliberately totaling my car in a ditch while drinking and driving. I awoke in the hospital, and like most people who failed at their suicide attempts, my second chance at life was the moment that I had found the strength to quit drinking as a mean of temporarily numbing myself, and sought a way to turn my life around. I vowed sobriety, and ended up attending a university earning an education in teaching. I now see a therapist whom I visit once a month, a woman named Shirley who is great at her job and knows how to speak to someone without passing judgment.
It was the start of a new life. A new beginning.
Sixteen years had passed since that terrible night, and I lay in bed in my small, one-bedroom apartment that stunk of leftover Chinese food that I had accidentally left out overnight in the kitchen. I rubbed my scruffy face as I watched my ceiling fan rotate slowly in no attempt to keep the room cool, as summer had just begun. The bed sheets and covers had been kicked off in mid sleep, but messiness was never in my profile; dirty clothes were always in their hamper, the desk in the corner was never cluttered, and clothes were neatly stacked inside their drawers or hung wrinkle-free inside of the closet. Once I got out of bed, I’d make sure that that looked neat, too.
My phone buzzed with a ding! and alerted me of a new voicemail that arrived shortly after the missed call from the unknown number that initially woke me up from the same nightmare that I had on that terrible night. I ignored the voicemail alert and continued to lay in bed until my body tingled, and I imagined myself melting into my mattress and disappearing in darkness forever. I wished for once that my nightmare would come true. Nobody would care if I disappeared, my thoughts told me, voices that I heard frequently, especially when I was alone. They were the ones that encouraged me to drink, that convinced me that I would always be alone, that I would always be a nobody.
I gathered the energy to lift my arm up and look at my wristwatch. 7:37 A.M. would’ve nearly caused a panic attack since I would have to be at Dawson Elementary by 6:45 to greet my third graders, but since it was summer break, I could lay in bed for as far into the morning as I desired. For a moment I almost decided to go to class as if it were a normal school day. The thought of seeing those kids brought a certain sense of comfort, and I managed to pull myself upward and out of bed.
Not today, I thought. Instead, my therapy appointment was scheduled at 11:30. Just enough time to enjoy coffee and breakfast without having to rush through the morning.
After my second cup of coffee, I decided to open the voicemail and listened. It was from the police department.
My mother had committed suicide.
The small room that Shirley called her office smelled almost like the family practice that I used to work at as the office clerk—a position that required no customer interaction, something that I tried looking for in any job. It was a suffocating aroma of latex and plastic but in a way it was almost nostalgic. A fake tree sat in the corner and still looked as though it could’ve used some water, and Shirley’s red, stiff chair occupied the only window in the room. A couch sat opposite of her seat, covered by a cheesy floral cover that was soft to the touch but smelled like mothballs when a patient’s body heat warmed it up.
I usually sat with my ankles crossed and arms folded. Shirley would joke with the same icebreaker every time, “Is it cold in here or are you just anxious to see me?”
She had her office companion, Cat, sit on the couch during every session. He was a beautiful, long-haired cat, with fur that was a sandy color and dark orange stripes which wrapped around his slender body that, from all of the hair, made him look fatter. Though he wasn’t trained to sit in the laps of patients, Shirley knew that his calm demeanor helped with the stress and anxiety that her patients typically experienced.
“Being a human fucking sucks,” she had once said.
“Tell me about it,” I replied.
“Don’t you just wish you could be a cat sometimes?”
I looked down at Cat, who pretended to nap on my legs while he flicked the tip of his tail every time I ran my fingers down his soft, fluffy back.
“All you get to do is lay around and sleep, eat, and screw the hot neighbor cat next door. Wash, rinse, repeat.”
“Sometimes I do think I’m a cat,” I replied. “Not a house cat, though. A stray.”
“I prefer to be alone…I don’t want an owner to go to, but I don’t want to follow the rest of the pack…At the same time, I want to feel loved. I want something to go to whenever I feel afraid, but I can’t open up.” I paused. Shirley waited patiently. “Changes stress me out…Disturbances or clutter in my environment make me feel unbalanced.”
“Get a cat,” Shirley said almost immediately, and I chuckled and so did she, even though she was being serious.
“Cats don’t love,” I joked.
“Bullshit. What do you think that lump of hair is doing right now? Absorbing your soul while he sleeps?” Again, we laughed. “Look at you, Jesse. You have so much more to you. Not only can I see it, but I can feel it, too. You need to look and see what’s holding you back, because what you just described isn’t you, I just know it, even though you believe that’s how it is every day.”
I looked back down at Cat. He had slipped into a heavy doze, and his body trembled as he purred.
“Get a cat,” Shirley suggested again. Then she mentioned that a cat’s purr is the ‘purr-fect’ therapy for someone with anxiety, something about how the infrasound produced by a cat’s purr can relieve stress.
This time, however, I sat relaxed. My arms were comfortably rested at my sides, my legs were slightly spread apart, and for once I didn’t have the nervous tick where one of my legs, or sometimes both, restlessly bounced up and down.
Shirley typed a quick note into her iPad, then looked at me for a quick minute with her green eyes hidden behind black, thick-rimmed glasses. Her curly, brown hair was pulled back when she typically wore it down. She always dressed in loose clothing, which complemented her calm demeanor that was perfect for her profession.
“How are you?” She asked.
“I’m fine. How about you?”
“Oh, enough about me,” she replied. “How are you?” I wasn’t sure how I felt. Relieved? Sad? Apathetic? “Can I be honest with you?” She continued, “You look the best I’ve seen in a long time.”
“I feel the best I have in a long time,” I breathed out in relief, mostly because it was true, but partly because Shirley had started the conversation.
I hesitated as I contemplated the best way to phrase the words, but there was no other way to put it except bluntly. “My mom’s dead. They found her in the basement burned to death. They think it was a suicide.”
Shirley nodded as she thought to herself, probably because she wasn’t sure what exactly to say, probably because she knew that I had more to say.
“It’s been sixteen God damned years since I last saw my mother, when she tried to kill me. All of those years of drunken abuse, the broken bones and the lies that followed them in order to protect her. Being reminded everyday of how disgusted she was with who I am…happy birthdays, family Christmases, loving parents when I needed them most...all of that shit burned away in that…that bitch’s basement. The moment I heard the officer say that she was dead, I cannot tell you the weight that was lifted off my shoulders. It was as if she haunted me all of these years that she was still alive, and now it’s finally all gone.”
Cat scrambled off of my lap and I snapped out of the sudden warmth of built-up hatred that made my cheeks flushed. I looked at my hands that had morphed into fists. Shirley noticed too. I slowly released the tension and my knuckles returned to normal color, and then to a rosy, flushed red. “Coincidentally, I had the same exact dream that I had the night that she attacked me, where I melted into the floor at the house. When I woke up, that’s when I found out. I thought it was weird that I had that same nightmare for the second time in my life and then to receive the news right after. They said I needed to make arrangements, ya know? For the funeral. And that she left a lot of shit behind that they think I need to clear out or it’ll be thrown away or given to the city so the house can be put up for sale.”
“Right.” Shirley typed a few notes into her iPad before she set it aside and leaned forward toward me. “Can I suggest an idea?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“It’s summer break. Your kids are out of school so you have a lot of time to work on some things. How would you feel about going back to your mother’s house and making those funeral arrangements? Clean and box up all of her belongings? In fact, I think that it may be very therapeutic for you to go through her things and the things of yours that she’d kept. It’ll be a way to really get some closure.”
Do it, a voice in my head commanded.
“This is a great opportunity that will help you seek that life you’ve always been too held back to enjoy,” Shirley continued, “but you have to remember that this is only the beginning with a lot of work to come. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that you had that nightmare before you received the news, especially on the anniversary of the incident. Maybe this is a way of telling yourself that you need to revisit your past. To overcome it.”
My palms got clammy and I folded my arms at the idea. Shirley noticed but didn’t expand on the idea. We both knew that her argument wasn’t a bad one, but it was a difficult decision that I would have to follow through if I really wanted to get closure to the past once and for all.
For the rest of the session, I changed the conversation to lighter subject matter until it was a friendly talk between two people who knew each other well and could say anything to one another.
In the back of my mind, however, the voice continued to burrow deep into my thoughts and repeated the same command over and over again.
Go back to the house. Go back to the house. Go back to the house.