where the bad kids go
It was a six-hour drive to my mother’s one-story suburban house that was longer than it was wide; surrounded by fields and woods and located at the end of a street in an old neighborhood development where most of the houses looked similar to one another, but the quality was no Stepford Wives.
The house, built in the early 1900s, was made completely of wood, the paneling speckled with chipped yellow paint, faded by the sun, but the overgrowth around the house helped cover up the flaws. The front porch was an open mouth of white, wooden beams, and a large window for an eye was next to the door. The house seemed low, flat, and with an expression of almost painful sadness. The front lawn had begun to brown, either from negligence or the heat of summer. A few crows sat on the roof that was missing a few shingles, and they remained silent as I approached the cul-de-sac. The dark, dusty windows were a clear sign of an abandoned house, and made it seem more uninviting than it already was.
I cautiously pulled up to the front of the house and shut off the ignition. The silence was welcoming as I remained in the car and stared at my childhood. It wasn’t surprising to me that it looked as poorly maintained as it did, but I figured I could spend my time getting the place back into shape and make it at least decent when it was time to sell it. It would also give me something to do, a mental distraction.
I noticed the “Police – Caution” tape wrapped around the porch and across the front door, and a lump formed in my throat that stole my relaxed breathing. I had forgotten that I was going to see the area in the basement where I was told that my mother had dumped gasoline all over her body and lit herself on fire. She deserved it.
The basement. I wasn’t ready to go down there yet.
A police vehicle slowly rolled past my car and wrapped around the cul-de-sac before it pulled to a stop across the street from the house. I squinted in an attempt to see who was in the car, but the driver’s features remained a secret behind the tinted windows. I knew what the officer was here for: to unlock the front door and give me the key. Everything she owned, including the house, was now under my possession. She never wrote out a will, or anything of the sort, but I would bet that she mentioned somewhere on paper that she didn’t want my father to have any of her belongings. I didn’t want them either.
The driver side door opened and out stepped a man with tan skin not caused from the sun, which contrasted with the black uniform that fit rather snug around his body—in a good way. His short hair was slicked back, darker than the night but the hair product allowed it to shimmer beneath the sun. He walked toward my car, each step a low thud from his boots. He removed his shades to get a better look at me and revealed sharp, amber eyes that almost glowed when the sunlight hit them right.
It would’ve been a lie if I said that I recognized Marco instantly, but the truth was that he hadn’t grown out of his third-grade self that I distinctly remembered. The only difference was that his facial features were more defined, yet covered by the thin scruff that sprouted from what used to be a baby face and would probably land him a warning from the chief if he didn’t shave as soon as possible.
When he was seven, Marco Valencia attended karate lessons every Tuesday and Thursday evening, and the next day after school, he and I would hang out in the woods where he would teach me certain moves to help me defend myself. I never would’ve used them against anyone, but it was fun to learn from Marco, and I liked how he would stand behind me as he adjusted my stance like a puppeteer. He would later finish karate and move to actual self-defense classes as he grew older. He’d always aspired to be a cop and reminded me constantly of how he wanted to beat up bad guys like they did in the television shows. Before I was taken away, we would talk about how I would be his trusty sidekick who drove the patrol car (because I didn’t like physical violence) and I would save him from danger at the last minute.
I pulled myself out of the car. “Marco?”
“Polo,” he replied as he opened his arms with a welcoming smile, and hugged me tightly. I squeezed him back to match his strength. “I heard you were coming back into town.”
“I heard you left.”
“I grew up here. I realized I couldn’t leave. Something held me back.”
Both of the cars clinked and clanked as the engines cooled in the silent neighborhood.
I didn’t know what else to say. Hey! Nice to see you again after all this time, in front of my dead, abusive mother’s house. What have you been up to? I was sure that Marco didn’t know exactly what to say either, whether to feel sorry for the loss of my mother or not. I didn’t even know if he knew the entire story of my relationship with her, but now that he was a cop I was sure that he had snuck a peek in the police records at one point and got the full details.
“I hope you’re handling this well,” Marco said.
“I’m here. That’s a start.”
The two of us stood and looked at the house that held many stories and secrets that would eventually be boxed and buried away with the burnt, rotting corpse of Helen Lambert. Even though she had almost cremated herself, she always told me that she wanted to be buried due to religious circumstances, despite having never spoken of God. I never knew why she would constantly remind me of how she wanted her memorial. It was as if she knew that death was right around the corner, waiting for her. Or something was. A paranoid delusion.
I remembered that I had a lot of work to do, including funeral arrangements, and I felt it was time to get settled in. I walked to the back of my car and popped open the trunk. With a squeaky grunt, I pulled out a large suitcase and a backpack. I was never strong. I was never a fighter. I probably wouldn’t have even been a good sidekick who would have to carry everything. I am nothing. I shook the voice away.
“How long are you here for?” Marco asked.
“Depends on how long it takes to clean out the house and fix it up. I have the whole summer.” I shut the trunk and rolled the suitcase up to the weed-ridden, cracked walkway that led to the front porch. I looked at the yellow police tape with black lettering as if it were one last warning sign alerting me to stay away, to not enter the house and turn back while I still had the chance.
“Would it make you feel better if I went in with you?”
I hesitated, because it would’ve but I didn’t want to admit it.
“It’s been sixteen years, Jesse.”
“Yeah, I know.”
I knew that Marco was referring to how long it had been since the two of us had seen each other, but instead I was agreeing that it’s been over a decade and a half since I’d gone in this house. I turned around to take in another long look as it baked underneath the sun. I was ready to go inside.
Do it, the voice commanded, and the house pulled me toward it.
When the front door clicked open, the cool outside air, compared to the hot, stagnant air inside, rushed in as if the house inhaled a breath of life.
The front entrance greeted the guests to the living room, an open area cluttered with the life of a woman who was crippled with a behavior so severe that she couldn’t take care of her own house.
The negligence fostered a foul smell of mildew, the culprit being bath towels that were thrown in piles as a half-assed attempt to remind herself that the laundry needed to be done. The couch was stained dark with old alcohol spills and crusty vomit that was missed during a piss-poor cleanup. Clothes that probably hadn’t been washed in weeks, yet worn multiple times, were piled on one side of the couch. The few pictures hanging on the walls were crooked, undisturbed with the thinnest layer of dust. Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Sydney’s Opera House, The Empire State Building, Ireland’s green cliffs. Covered in a layer of a gray fog. No families though. Flies hovered around Marco and I as we walked through the living room. We did our best not to disturb the piles of old trash that piled around the legs of the coffee table like tumbleweeds caught by a road sign. The tabletop was littered with empty bottles of Jack Daniels, Smirnoff, and Crown Royal (for special nights, probably), which I assumed were the majority of her dinners. The carpet that was formerly white was now a grayish brown and hadn’t been cleaned or vacuumed in months, or maybe even years.
I remembered seeing a television show called Hoarders and how the houses of some of the people featured looked similar to what I walked through. These ‘victims’ suffered from different illnesses, usually depression, addiction, or alcoholism, that prevented them from leaving the house. They barricaded themselves inside with trash walls or useless junk that made it almost impossible to walk through, and their family would hold interventions to help get their loved ones back into their normal lives and ultimately clean the majority of the house. Even though my mother’s house wasn’t nearly as bad, I wished I had a TV crew come in and help me get this mess cleaned up.
I entered the kitchen, an extension of the living room separated by a countertop, and pulled the blinds of the glass sliding door open to let in more light. The kitchen was cluttered with more empty glasses and bottles. A stack of unopened mail sat on the table in the corner, each envelope stamped in red of PAST DUE and FINAL NOTICE. I would take care of that later. The sink was filled with plates caked in dry food, and sprouts of mold hair festered on them. The kitchen floor’s sticky stains snagged the bottom of our footwear with an unsanitary shlick, shlick, shlick as we walked. I could only assume that it was spilled liquor, coagulated by the hot air. The inside of the oven and microwave were stained with crusty splatters of sauces and juices. When I opened the fridge, a wave of stench from expired foods and drinks washed over me.
“This is going to be a bitch to clean up,” I said.
“No kidding. Christ, Jesse, I didn’t know that it was this bad.”
“I didn’t either.”
The house never got nearly as messy when I was a child, as I would sometimes clean up after my mother. She never noticed, and if she did she probably wouldn’t have cared, but the clutter would make me uncomfortable. Not this time, though. The way I saw it, the disarray of the household and the amount of trash scattered about it was a perfect metaphor for her life as it spiraled downward and out of control. The atmosphere of the house seemed unbalanced, and I’d intruded.
I stood in front of the sliding glass door and looked out at the thick woods that marked the end of my mother’s property. Marco and I would race each other to the tree line—I always won—and we’d explore the area in the likes of Calvin & Hobbes up until it got dark. The summertime allowed for countless hours of adventures as we let our imaginations run wild. One time, when we were older, we even stumbled upon a creek that became full after every spring and soon became a campground for when we wanted to get away from the neighborhood. Skinny dipping was prominent in that creek, and it allowed the both of us to discover our interest in the male body, which formed a bond between him and I that was probably a little too close for the average friendship between two boys, especially in Texas. We almost knew what we were doing. An experiment. It felt natural. We were ten.
We walked back around the countertop to the entrance of the dark hallway, located at the junction of the living room and kitchen. It stretched toward the front of the house like a gullet, and the pit of it ended at my bedroom where the stomach resided, ready to digest me like in my nightmare.
My mother’s room, the master bedroom, sat at the opposite end of the hallway. If we both slept with our doors open, I could see into her room. I would wake up in the middle of the night numerous times to find her sitting up in her bed with her bedside lamp on, staring at me. A shadow covered her like a sheet as the lamp created a golden glow around her thin figure. What are you looking at, you maggot? She’d say, drawn out and slurred in the voice of someone half asleep. There were times where I’d sworn I saw someone else in there with her on most nights, hidden in the corner of her room, within the shadows.
I gripped the doorknob to the master bedroom tightly and slowly twisted it. The door squeaked painfully as I pushed it open and walked into the stuffy room. It could’ve hardly been called a master bedroom since it was no larger than mine, but it had its own bathroom and a walk-in closet opposite of the bed where I was always afraid the monsters hid. The bed was stripped of its covers and fitted sheet, which were piled on the floor at the end of the bed. A thin, white sheet lay in a heap on top of the light blue mattress that was sprinkled with piss stains from the nights where she would be too drunk to wake up and use the bathroom, and what looked like dried blood from only God knows where. Apart from the disheveled bed, there was nothing else spectacular inside of the room. No photos or decorations hung on the walls, clothes were thrown carelessly in the partially opened closet, and the bathroom toward the back of the room smelled of vomit and mildew.
The dark hallway swallowed us as we made our way deeper into the house. We passed by the doorway that led to the basement, and although I kept walking, Marco stopped and wondered whether or not I’d turn around.
We passed the hallway bathroom, the one that I would always use. It was a tiny, white vessel with a built-in sink and a medicine cabinet above it, the mirror door of it smashed into pieces. Black blood smeared across the shattered pieces from what I assumed was from a punch thrown in a fit of drunken rage, and I saw myself a dozen times when I stared at it. The tub was stained a light yellow, as well as the old, frog shower curtain that was there when I had still lived in the house. Streaks of brown trickled down the inside of the toilet bowl from thousands of uses but not once a swift cleaning. Both the seat and rim were covered in dry urine and strands of hair.
When I was eight, I had woken up and needed to use the bathroom. I peeked out of my bedroom door and noticed the bathroom door shut, the light from within sprawled across the hallway floor. I opened the door and peeked in. She sat in the bathtub with a small knife in her hand. Her blonde hair was a tangled mess, achieved only by someone who had gotten a rough night’s sleep. Her face was pale, drained of energy, and dark bags hung beneath her distant eyes.
When she noticed me, she lowered her head with furrowed brows, her cheeks speckled with bloody fingerprints, and her pupils had dilated at twice their size. Don’t you look at me like that, pig, she had said in a voice that was hers but then again it wasn’t. I stood at the doorway with my legs crossed to hold in the urine. It took all of the courage that I had to squeak out my reply, “I have to go to the bathroom.”
I have to go to the bathroom, she had mocked. Shut the goddamn door before I shut your fucking head in with it.
She never took her eyes off me as I pulled the door shut. Once it was fully closed, I listened carefully from the other side to her conversation she had with herself. I didn’t know what she was saying. She didn’t sound the way she typically did when she was drunk. She was different. I didn’t know how to react, or what to think.
My bedroom door was locked when I tried the doorknob, and Marco suggested that I feel the top of the doorframe for a key. I ran my fingers along the thin edge, and dust spilled over and into my eyes, but there was nothing up there.
“Why would she keep my bedroom door locked?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You guys didn’t bother checking in here when you responded to her death?”
“I don’t know anything about this case, Jesse.”
“What are you doing here, then?”
Marco seemed almost offended. “I volunteered to be the designated officer in giving you the key to the house. I wanted to see you again.”
And your disgusting life, the voice chimed in my thoughts.
“Besides,” he continued, “she did it in the basement. There shouldn’t be a reason to look inside your bedroom.”
I looked past Marco at the closed door to the basement.
“You wanna go down there?” He asked.
“No,” I said sternly. I paused, then added, “I don’t think I’m ready yet.”
That was a lie. I did want to go down into the basement. I wanted to confront the truest horror that no child should ever have to go through. The thought of descending down into the dank depths of the cold basement made my stomach drop, and for a moment I thought I was going to pass out.
The basement was where the bad kids went.