WARNING! – this post contains graphic content.
Creak, creak, yeeeeeeeean, I had my ear to the floor and heard the boards of the basement stairs wheeze, directly under my bed. Mom was downstairs again, and this time, I was going to catch her.
I feigned illness to stay home from school the following day so I could keep a sharp eye on her; her behavior has been most unusual for the past few months. Skipping meals, forgetting to shower, short sassiness with my father, missing church regularly – all things completely unbecoming to the wife of a Baptist preacher. She even stopped assembling her puzzles, and that was her favorite pastime. We had all sorts of puzzles framed. Puzzles of Jesus, puzzles shaped in a crucifix, puzzles with a Bible verse and daisies in the background. They were all over our house, tacky-ing everything up.
It’d been months since I’d seen her put together a new one. The lack of her normal neurosis was frightening. My father handled her mood swings with strong ease, but I knew it was killing him inside. I knew he was curious, even more so than me, to know what was happening with my mother. He baffled me too though; it seemed as though he’d seen this kind of behavior from her before. He was never shocked, never loud with her when she would ferociously yell at him; he took it all in unsettling stride.
We came home from getting ice cream one Saturday afternoon to her peeling all of the wallpaper off of the walls. Her hands were bloody and her hand prints stained the walls…everywhere.
My dad had the house repainted the following week.
At age eleven, when things like this occur, you chalk it up to your family being extraordinarily weird, right? I was unable. I was plagued with fervent curiosity. Sometimes, I would wander the hall of the second floor of our house, waiting to catch her in the act – what it was, I didn’t know. Sometimes, I’d hide in the tiny pantry near the basement staircase, but I’d get really worried something was going to crawl on me and couldn’t last for more than a half-hour. Plus, mom found me asleep in there a few weeks ago and did not look pleased. She didn’t even say anything; she just grabbed me by my collar and dragged me upstairs.
I woke up later that night to her standing at the foot of my bed, sound asleep with an empty glass in her hand. I wasn’t sure of what to do, so I just lay awake, watching her stand there, lightly snoring. My father eventually awoke to an empty bed and I heard his feet touch the floor, obviously moving to search for her. When he made his way in to my room, I held a finger to my lips, signaling not to wake her. He nodded and gingerly turned her with a fingertip to the shoulder and guided her back down the hall to their room.
It wasn’t long until I heard her scream at the top of her lungs, bursting the glass she’d left at the foot of my bed. A tiny shard made its way in to my thumb, the pricking sensation sending me silently running all over my room in pain. I removed it with a pair of tweezers in my bathroom and sucked the blood from the tiny wound since I couldn’t find a Band-Aid, the taste of rust lingering on my lip. She frequently had nights like this. Sleep walking, screaming, sweats; my father told me it was menopause…as if I knew what that meant at eleven.
I woke to the smell of bacon wafting through the house, up to my room and filling my nostrils; it was heaven. I pounded down the stairs and was disappointed to find the bacon, pancakes and eggs burning on the stove, my mother nowhere to be found. The entire scene looked wrong. My parents usually make breakfast together; the sound of the dishes clanking is what wakes me up, my father cannot be quiet in the kitchen. Nervous hands.
I walked to the kitchen door and noticed my father’s car was not in the drive way. “Hmm. This is peculiar.” I’m sure I used the word peculiar; I had an excellent vocabulary at eleven. As I turned, I saw my mother peering at me out of the corner of my eye. She was stoic, motionless and said, “I burned breakfast.”
Ten seconds later, she passed out, her head hitting the floor…hard.
I immediately called 9-1-1, then my father, who met us at the hospital. The doctor said my mother was fatigued and needed sleep; “We are not to bother her,” my father said as he closed their bedroom door and ushered me down the hall.
I was sleepless for days. I hadn’t seen my mother. I wasn’t allowed to go in her room, ever. I paced the floor; I had to know what she’d been up to before the fall. I had the brilliant plan of hiding in the basement, as I knew she would eventually return.
I was faced with a problem: How was I going to do it? I knew my father would find some way to keep me out of there, as he always had. “Nothing good happens in the basement,” he would say. I thought he told me this because it was dark, smelly and maybe had bugs or rodents renting space. No matter, I’d contrived a brilliant plan. “I’m going to stay at Neil’s for the weekend; we have a scrimmage in the morning, and church on Sunday.”
“Great, see you then. Be safe,” my dad said and nodded in agreement, without hesitation, which was surprising considering we had church the next day. I could see the exhaustion in his eyes. He was so tired from taking care of my mother; mentally drained from trying to explain her antics to people…and himself. The attempts at rationalizing her actions were wearing on him, especially in his face. He was wrinkled badly, no longer worn from the examination of the Lord’s word, but from sleepless night, worrying with his troubled wife.
Months before her fall – before my fake sick day – mom returned home from “an outing,” completely covered in blood from head-to-toe and refused to explain where she’d been or what’d she done. “It’s just a scratch,” she’d said with the same emptiness in her voice as the day she burned breakfast. My father couldn’t explain it, and neither could the doctor. “There isn’t a scratch on her, and this isn’t her blood.”
This put my father in a very compromising position, as it was obvious that my mother had experienced another episode. This was remedied in no time, what with the powers of modern medicine – and negotiation – having come so far in the last few years and all. The doctor was able to provide my mother with a prescription that would “help her sleep” (the sleep of the dead) and provide peace of mind for my father, for a “very small fee.” I was disgusted.
My father was easily bought; peace was on the table, and sanity wasn’t free.
After my father closed the door, I made my way down the street to Neil’s house to make it look believable, just in case he saw me from the window. After the sun went down, I briskly walked back to my house, around the back fence and tossed my backpack over first to measure the fall, making sure I was silent the entire way. After I hopped the fence, I opened the small window to the basement – which was just big enough for me to fit through – and shimmied down the wall, on top of a stack of paint supplies. My backpack was tough to get through the window, but I finally pulled hard enough and yanked the bag free. I gasped at the smell. Something had died in here; several somethings. The pungency of the room is something I’ll never forget.
I was young when I found out that animals died; I thought they lived forever, I guess we all do when we’re five. We’d been on a family trip to Colorado and my mom had accidentally locked my cat, Mr. Fritzle, in the house the entire week we were gone. No food, no water. Poor Mr. Fritzle. I remembered the smell, multiplied it by eighty-seven, and that was the tip of the iceberg of how bad this basement smell.
I tucked myself just under the staircase, concealing my nose in my shirt so I could breathe, though it only aided slightly. I had enough snacks and water in my backpack to last me two days. I wasn’t risking anyone seeing me sneak back and forth since my father assumed I was going to be at Neil’s all weekend.
Night one, nothing. My mother lay silent in her chamber, no doubt from the another round of sleeping pills my father had insisted upon. I slept rolled up under the stairs, though not soundly. I was anxious.
The next morning I was hesitant to go to the bathroom downstairs, but between my nervousness and the water, there was no holding it. I don’t know why I expected to last two who days. I’d never used this bathroom as I wasn’t allowed in the basement. I knew my father would be leaving for church soon, so he wouldn’t hear the toilet when it flushed. Perfect.
I opened the door and wasn’t sure what I was feasting my eyes on. “Faith, Ruth, Sara, Hope.” My mother’s friends’ names were carved all over the walls in various shapes and sizes. It looked like someone had carved each name with their fingernails. Some of the spots were stained red. I tried not to look at anything as I pulled my pants down, purposefully ignoring my own reflection.
The moment I sat down, I heard my father pull out of the driveway, no doubt heading towards church, driving faster than usual. Next, the swing of the basement door had my hair standing on end. I knew if I moved I’d be caught, and there was no telling what kind of consequences I’d face. I lied to my father to be down here,in the basement, where I was forbidden.
Creak, creak, yeeeeeeean, familiar sounds from the steps oozed under the bathroom door. I crawled on to the floor to look through the keyhole, my heart pounding loud enough that it seemed audible. This was the only way I was going to see what my mother had been hiding.
She was sullen. Her once-recently jet-black hair had now gone completely grey, and in a matter of weeks. Her plump face was gaunt, hollow; it was hard to imagine how beautiful she was just a year ago. I couldn’t picture it, though my mother’s face was something I had trouble remembering often; sometimes, it was like I wasn’t seeing her at all, but someone or something else instead. I never knew exactly what, but I knew it frightened me.
I nervously listened to her breathe for over an hour. She stood there inhaling and exhaling, nearly lifeless, staring at the unfinished basement wall. It was thin, wet looking; poorly taken care of, the whole house was really. I’m sure it became that way when my mom took ill the first time; shame it never recovered afterwards. I don’t suppose she did either.
Her breathing turned in to something I didn’t recognized. It wasn’t a human sound. It sounded like…like growling. She sounded hungry. The room grew hot and the letters on the wall began to deepen. The paint – errr, the blood – began to run, thick. There was an energy in the house I’d never felt before. I’d heard my father speak of these things, about when the Devil comes and takes sinners as his own, but I never believed these things to be true. The blood was running thick, like molasses, and it pooled at my feet, threatening to rise to my now-crouched knees.
I peered harder through the keyhole, praying something would happen soon before this gore show drowned me. I couldn’t fathom what was happening. My mom was “breathing” harder than before and was standing with her nose pressed to the wall. I couldn’t figure out was she was doing, I couldn’t read her expression. With each breath she drew, I sensed a feeling of mourning; something she loved was behind that wall.
A drop of blood landed right in the center of my forehead and I exhaled a little too loudly, with a little too much animation. My mom’s head snapped towards the door, and when it did I heard every vertebra in her neck and back crack like a whip. She dropped to the floor and crawled towards the door – towards me – like an animal stalking its prey.
Some animals eat their young.
She rose, lifted her hand, and without so much as a flick of the wrist, the door was open and I was suspended in the air before my mother. I’d never felt such power surge through my body. I wanted to fight it but the energy my mother was giving off choked me and shook me still. The blood I’d been sitting in was dripping on to the floor, and my mother, without taking her eyes off of me, licked it up. I was horrified, bewildered.
“More,” she uttered, in a voice that didn’t belong to my mother. She whipped her hand and I slammed in to a beam on the opposite side of the basement, now facing the wall she’d been pressed against. With an unsettling grin that smeared across her whole face, my mother began to peel back the soft drywall of my father’s unfinished basement.
The stench, the sights, the scene as a whole, was more than I imagined. I imagined my mother sneaking down to the basement to play cards, write letters to her secret lover, sew…paint, anything besides what I was seeing. I saw pieces of heads, arms, and legs; disassembled bodies. So many of them, it was hard to tell how many there were. I couldn’t make out which part had belonged to whom and I didn’t know if I was next. I knew my father would be home soon, though this didn’t offer me any solace. I was still suspended in the air, watching my mother examine pieces of her most prized puzzle, a souvenir from the Mayan Riviera.
She climbed the pile with prowess, assessing each piece, attempting to assembled what parts belonged to who. My mother stood proud, like she’d just climbed Everest. Her head snapped back in another loud unzipping of her spine and she let out a deep, low laugh.
I heard my father drive up, a welcomed relief, though my mother immediately dropped me to the floor, cracking my head open so slightly, but not enough to keep me from beating her up the stairs. I was panicked and moving too fast for my own good, and tripped on the lip of the top stair, falling face first in to the kitchen as my dad walked in. “FATHER!” I screamed. It was as though he couldn’t hear me. My head was bleeding profusely now.
He walked past me, down the stairs and shut the door.
Air escaped my lungs. I don’t remember the rest.
Hours later, my father resurfaced, drenched in red and unable to speak. He picked me up from the flood, blood dripping from us both now, put me in the car, and drove me to the hospital.
“We’re moving,” he managed, holding my head as the nurse cleaned the staples in my freshly shaved head, before she dressed the wound.
“What about mom?” I said in a voice I didn’t recognize.
“She’s… not coming.” I never asked another question about my mother, though I knew.
A year ago, my mother went on a trip with ladies from her Sunday school – her best friends – to the Mayan Riviera. It seemed as though they had all experienced something earth shattering, life changing while they were there. Their friendship dispersed, she saw considerably less of her friends for one reason or another. My mother was never quite right after that trip, like the way you aren’t quite right after you learn that Santa isn’t real, when your first favorite band announces they’re done making music, when your heart breaks for the first time; you don’t believe it, but for a moment…your world stops. She was a woman, stripped of her beliefs and her faith; her world ceased to rotate.
My mother’s condition worsened when her friends began disappearing just weeks after the trip. One by one, every person that went on the trip vanished in to thin air, except my mother. I never put two-and-two together, but the news referred to these mysterious disappearances as “puzzles pieces. There seems to be a piece that we’re missing.”
My father told everyone she’d had an affair and that the guilt was killing her so she killed herself. When friends asked why we chose to have a closed-casket funeral, my dad lied more. He’d completely compromised his reputation to protect her. “She wouldn’t have wanted any of you to see her the way she’d become.” Father was a keen liar, for a preacher.
The truth of the matter? He walled her up; my mother, the missing, final piece of her favorite puzzle.