What's great about Kendra is that she doesn't want the details. She just wants the Cliff Notes version of the story. So I give her just that, and she throws her head back and laughs like a hyena chowing down on a baby zebra. Her laugh is infectious, and I find myself cackling along with her.
"You said that to him? Stick-in-the-mud Bennett?" says Kendra through her hysterics. "That's beautiful!"
"Why thank you," I say in response. "Where'd he get that nickname from?"
"Your mom actually gave it to him back in high school. The jackass called her a slut and he got what he deserved," Kendra says. "That became his nickname in every circle afterwards." Sounds familiar to me—Mark called me a slut just a few years ago. I was not happy with him after that. Especially since I'd just confessed that I loved him in a party of drunk high-schoolers, he had just crassly turned me down, and then…he called me a slut, just to finish it off.
"Yeah, he did deserve it," I say.
"Slut-shaming's a big no-no in the Mae line," says Kendra. "I'm glad you figured it out early on."
"It's nice to know I come from a line of feminists," I say. Kendra smiles.
"I'll bet it is."
"So, what were you like at my age?" I ask.
"Well," Kendra says with that coy lilt in her voice, "I was quieter…smarter…less guilty."
"Guilty? Whatever do you mean by that?" I ask.
"Well, I mean, your mom and I were pretty crazy, but we never had an involuntary manslaughter stint, if y'know what I mean," says Kendra. I look away. "Too soon?" I shrug, and she reciprocates the gesture. By the time we reach Mrs. Blake's usurped house, I'm waiting to launch myself from Kendra's car and straight through the locked room's window. Too bad the laws of cartoon physics don't apply to reality.
"Thanks for the ride," I say to Kendra, unbuckling my seatbelt.
"Anytime, Carnivore," Kendra grins at me.
"Howd'you know about that old nickname?" I ask, halting in my rush to escape for an instant.
"Common knowledge. The entire town knows that pretty much all you eat is meat. Reason number one they think you're a murderer right there," says Kendra.
"I see…" I mutter, knitting my eyebrows together. Kendra makes less sense to me the more I try to figure her out, I think as I leave her car. She drives off, away from my view. First she is so indifferent to local affairs, being all mysterious about her time in Europe. Now she's transitioning into a friendly member of this dumpy town. Ugh, then I really won't be able to stand her. The cryptic hints are enough, thank you very much. I don't need stupidity mixed in.
Whatever, I have a room to forcibly enter. This is my one shot. I can always puzzle over Kendra's inconsistencies later. I get up the stairs, pace deliberate and muffled by my socks. I want to be prepared for the contingency that Mrs. Blake might return early from church to holler at me. I push the key into the room's rusty lock, and it clicks open. As aware as I am of the dearth of time I have, I'm also a little…well…scared of what I'll find in this room. What if it's clean, no signs of a struggle, what if it's changed or empty or…or…what if I find nothing? Am I ready to face the truth—whether I'm completely crazed and feral?
Truth is, it doesn't matter. I have to see it with my own eyes. I have to know that I'm not in possession of a deranged theory about my mother's death and the current situation involving one Timothy Sanders, a boy on the verge of becoming a man through rape. I'm not going to be afraid, because fear has never been in my nature. I kick the door open, bracing myself for the worst—an emptied out room.
To my surprise, I find a room that looks almost…normal. Flowery wallpaper that looks kind of starchy, a queen bed covered in old-fashioned quilting, wooden floors like mine covered in a thin layer of dust, a full-length mirror next to a wardrobe. This room belongs in this house. I wander over to a picture sitting on the nightstand and pick it up, staring at the woman inside, smiling with sharp canines, mouth rimmed with red lipstick, eyes sharp and bright, hair the same color and texture as mine. Her face is sharper than my own, nose proud and narrowed. Our eyes are different, too. Hers are a brilliant green, where mine are the unique shade of shit brown. Yeah, genetics, thank you for playing.
I set the picture back down on the nightstand, sniffing. I wipe at my nose. I glance about the room again, and I feel warm inside, safe, and then my vision's swimming with tears. I cover my mouth, gasping for breath.
Blood clashes with the yellow wallpaper, there's a red handprint, no, six, I see the stains on the floor near the wall, stains that just wouldn't get scrubbed out by Mrs. Blake's relentless morality. Stains that I remember, stains that are still here. I fall to my knees, placing my trembling hand on one of the handprints. There's a hitch in my breath, and I'm sobbing. My hand fits perfectly into the print. This woman…this victim…she could've been me for all our resemblances. I wonder which position she was in while her hands were pressed against the wall. Was she on her knees? Did she get raped before she was killed? Was that what happened? Was she held against the wall, hands pressed into the wallpaper, clutching at it but finding nothing to hold onto there, nothing to save her?
What did it sound like when she screamed, when she was killed right in this room? How did my scream sound to Mrs. Blake when she told me Mommy killed herself, when the whole town played along, when they had the gall to attend her funeral, when they thought they were worthy to stand by her corpse? I wonder if she died the same way Timothy died. I wonder if she was eaten alive while I was here, under that bed, right there.
A guttural shriek escapes me as I pound my fists against the wall, teeth gritted so hard my jaw begins to ache, crying to my mother who sat where I sit now when she died, crying even harder because everything I knew about my mother was either omitted or a lie and I'd hated her so much before for leaving me, crying because I wanted to be crazy, I wanted to be wrong, I didn't want this to be real, I didn't want to be right, I didn't want to be the little girl who hid under a bed while her mother was killed.
I want to hurt someone, I need to hit someone so hard that there's blood. They lied to me, all of them, Mark, Gwen, everyone. Poor little Ollie's mother got killed, better her than us, oh, her memories are gone, let's invent a new past, let's lie because the truth is something none of us good people can face, the truth that there is a beast in the forest who hunts for human flesh at night, who eats little rapist boys and slut mothers and leaves the rest behind…like…like…
Like a human. I clutch at my head as I rock back and forth. An animal…would an animal really be so specific in its targets? Would an animal know rape from consensual sex? Would an animal so hungry that it would eat almost the entire human leave behind the defenseless girl? No. These are all reasoned decisions that are not necessarily conducive to the survival of the beast. Leaving the girl behind, though, was sloppy. A smart human would have taken the girl, no witnesses, no loose ends, no storytellers.
I run my hands through my hair, eyes darting from wall to wall with the possibilities that this creates. If it's a human…then it lives here in the village most likely. We'd all have heard of a human living in the forest, feeding from live creatures. Too conspicuous. It could be anyone, and the way this town works, everyone knows everyone. Chances are, I've seen this person before, eaten dinner during his daughter's birthday party, visited her house, seen the inside of his room.
It's a theory…but what if I'm right about this, too? The first possibility could've led to the epiphany that I'm absolutely bonkers. This one could lead to an epiphany of a far worse nature—that there's someone in this village that I once trusted eating people alive. It could be Mrs. Blake. It could be Mark. It could be Tabby.
I shake my head. I don't have much more time, if the sermon runs as long as it usually does. I have to find something, anything in this room, that could help me find the truth. Under the bed is usually the best place to start. I lift the quilt, reaching into the darkness. Nothing.
Next I check the wardrobe. Coats, jackets…check the drawer next. Jeans, bras, underwear, shirts. Another drawer. Endless piles of shoes. I check the nightstand. Books written by Anne Rice. Ah, the vampire series. No wonder Mrs. Blake got all nervous when I started reading Rice.
I throw my hands into the air, letting them fall to my sides. Wait…if I were this woman, where would I keep something I wouldn't want anyone, especially someone as lovely as Mrs. Blake, to find it, then where would I hide it?
I hide my stuff under a floorboard—booze, journals, photo albums. Where can I find a loose floorboard in this immaculate country bedroom? I find one under the nightstand. Perfect. I pull it from its place, and there is the stash, hidden in a lockbox.
That is, of course, the moment when I hear the screen door open. Fuck you, Mrs. Blake, I mean really, here I am with this dramatic discovery and you can't even let me have this, you have to barge in on everything. I race to pick up the lockbox before I replace the floorboard and lock the door behind me, scrambling into my room, treasure in hand.
"Ollie?" Mrs. Blake calls upstairs.
"Up in my room!" I shout, hurrying to stow the lockbox underneath my bed. She's coming up the stairs. Really? You can't make my life even a little easy, even when you're being all grandma-nice? I have a split-second to find a book to pretend to be reading before I sit down against my bed and commence "Operation Alibi."
Well, Mrs. Blake's retribution is certain to be lessened if I'm reading the Bible. So I grab it and start staring at a random page. At that precise moment, Mrs. Blake bursts through the door, completely overstepping all boundaries of etiquette.
"Is knocking on the door a thing anymore?" I sigh, looking up from this book with the most bored look I can muster.
"Not when you embarrassed me in front of the entire church!" hisses Mrs. Blake. "You knew I didn't want you to do it, and yet you did it anyway!"
"This house legally belongs to me," I say. "You're not my mother."
"Are you the one paying the property taxes, Ollie?" Mrs. Blake snarls at me. "Do you have a job, Ollie?"
"No, I don't, because in this economy, no one gets hired, especially not former prisoners," I deadpan.
"Exactly!" screeches Mrs. Blake. I try not to cringe too much. "You did this to yourself! And I might as well be your mother, because I raised you because your biological mother was a sinning whore who got herself killed! I raised you so that you wouldn't make the same mistakes, but y'know what they say, blood runs thicker than water!"
"You think that she brought her death on herself?" I repeat, standing. "And didn't you used to tell me that she killed herself, kind of like the priest who said it in front of the entire church, like the priest who called me a slut? Do you think I'm a slut, Mrs. Blake? Do you think I murdered Nora Randolph in cold blood?"
"I have no idea," says Mrs. Blake in a voice so calm that I want to strangle her for it. "And she…she did kill herself."
"I don't believe you anymore," I reply, "because you always tell the truth when you're angry. So she was murdered." A laugh escapes me. "She was killed, and you let me go on living my life wondering, what if it was because of me? That she killed herself? What if it was my fault? What if she hated me? What if I deserved it? You let me run myself into the ground, Mrs. Blake. You let me hate my mother, hate myself, hate everything about this town. You let me suffer not just the pain of having no parents, but believing that my mother killed herself. Where was I supposed to go? God? Why would he take my mother from me? I hate God, and he hates me. Was I supposed to go to you? You hated me. Every chance you got you'd beat me. Was I supposed to go Mark, the one that I told I loved him, the one who betrayed me in front of our entire high school class? Was I supposed to go to the priest, who called my mother a suicidal slut? Was I supposed to go to the grandpa who left after Mom died? Was I supposed to go to Kendra, who lived in Europe throughout this entire period of time? I had nowhere to run to, Mrs. Blake.
So where did I go? I went to alcohol. I went to parties. I went to Gwen and Tabby, and we raised hell because hell accepted me. Hell understood me. I wanted to die, Mrs. Blake, and I was getting there one visit to the principal's office for fighting at a time. I was going to be free. But God couldn't even let me have that. No, he sent Nora to hang with me while I was drunk one day. Nora said it was my fault Mom slit her own throat. I passed out, Mrs. Blake, and when I woke up Nora was gone. Who was I supposed to go to now? I chose your son, Mark Blake, stupidly, might I add. I told him about Nora, I asked him for help, I asked him to help me. He told me it was all going to be okay, and I believed him. He might not've loved me, but he at least cared a little, right? No, next thing I know, I'm in handcuffs. Then I'm behind bars, for three and a half years, and the only person who sent me letters or visited was Gwen. Gwen who has a double-major in college, the girl with the least time on her hands," I scream at Mrs. Blake.
I'm panting, the tears are back, I'm burning up, and I want to rip Mrs. Blake's shocked look right off her face, I want to hurl her little elderly body across the room, I want to rip her hair right out of her scalp by the fistful, I want to make her hurt like she made me hurt with her lies and her neglect and her beatings and her Christian morals and her damned superiority. I refuse to sit right now, to curl up in a ball like I'll probably do when Mrs. Blake leaves me alone, because that makes her the one standing tall above me, and I won't have that, I won't look up to her, I won't listen to her sniveling apologies for a past she can't scrub off like the blood in my mother's old room. She took my past from me, she let me forget everything important about my past, a past that's so important to figuring out my future and where I'm supposed to go from here.
"If you hate me so much, then why did you come back?" Mrs. Blake asks me finally.
"Because I have scores to settle before I can move on," I tell her. "If I don't have closure, then I won't be able to live my life the way I want to."
"And just what kind of life do you plan on living?" inquires Mrs. Blake.
"A life without any of you in it except for Gwen," I answer her. "A life far away from here, where I can work in a library without being called a murderer."
"Your past is going to follow you," Mrs. Blake replies. "It's called karma."
"There's no karma for what I didn't do," I retort.
"Lying is a sin," Mrs. Blake murmurs.
"Should've thought of that before you told me my mother killed herself," I counter. Mrs. Blake leaves the room. Once I hear her footsteps fade away, I curl into a ball on the floor and cry.