It took us two weeks to figure out where the smell was coming from. At first, it was a passing whiff we all thought we’d imagined, but over time it gained power and forced us to ask each other, “What the hell is that? It smelled like rotting berries, but we knew that could not be the cause because Mother had a berry allergy and didn’t allow any in the house.
We searched the house high and low in search of the source. Much to our surprise, we discovered the old house we had just moved into had a cellar. It was an outdated farmhouse that Mother had inherited from one of her great uncles when he passed away. It had three bedrooms and two bathrooms, which meant my sister got a room to herself, and my brother and I shared a room. This didn’t bother me because I thought my brother, Rodney, was the coolest person I knew. There was nothing but cornfields for miles around. No neighbors, no city traffic, just the freedom and privacy to do whatever you wanted. At least that’s the picture Mother painted when she convinced us to move out here. Mother wanted to move out of the city because she said it had too many memories, memories that made her rethink her life choices. She couldn’t stand those reminders any longer and wanted to get as far away from them as she could.
The cellar was located outside of the house; the doors had been overgrown with brush and decay from the lack of use. When the doors to the cellar were pried open, the stench assaulted our senses. Father’s first reaction was to close the doors as quickly as possible, but Mother whacked him on the shoulder, called him a coward, and pushed him forward.
Mother constantly pushed Father around. In fact, she could be considered a bully. Standing at 5’8, Mother’s, thin curvy body towered over Father’s frail 5’4 frame. They were oddly matched, and everyone seemed to know it except Father. Poor guy seemed clueless to the ways of the world, and this drove Mother mad.
“Probably a dead cat,” Mother shouted as Father reluctantly descended the cellar’s rotting steps. Mother’s great uncle hoarded cats towards the end of his life, and several cats had been found running around the property after his death.
“I knew we shouldn’t have taken this ratty old property from that crazy old loon,” Father grumbled under his breath.
Mother just rolled her eyes and bit her lip to restrain herself from saying more.
“Cool! Can we keep it?” My older brother, Rodney, asked excitedly. He had recently learned about taxidermy at career day and wanted to keep anything that was dead now. He has a collection of dead bugs that would make my sister, Caroline, scream anytime he brought them out. I thought they were pretty neat.
Caroline wasn’t as cool as Rodney. She always had her head in books and never wanted to go exploring with us. But she was an excellent baker and would make me cookies whenever I asked her to. Sometimes this would make Mother mad because she didn’t like for anyone besides her to dote on me. I was her favorite, and she made no pains to hide it. Mother said it was because I looked like her, but Father always joked it was because I wasn’t his. Mother never denied his joking, so I always wondered.
I enjoyed being Mother’s favorite because I got special privileges that my brother and sister did not get. For example, I didn’t have to eat my vegetables at dinner, and I got to stay up later than the others to watch the late show with Mother and Father before bed. Of course, this led to Rodney and Caroline calling me a “titty baby,” but I didn’t mind because I knew they were just jealous; Mother told me so.
“No,” Father shouted back at Rodney about keeping the cat. “It’s probably filled with infectious diseases. Joyce, take the kids back into the house. They don’t need to see this.”
Father fumbled around looking for a light switch. He hated that we had moved to this old house out of the city, but Mother had insisted, and he couldn’t resist the lure of not having to pay rent any longer. Mother’s constant need for change ever flustered Father. She was always in search of bigger and grander things, things that should not concern a wife and a mother. She was more focused on dreams and flights of fancy than raising her family. Mother hated that Father had no sense of adventure, and he was always holding her back from what she wanted in life. For the life of me, I could never figure out if they ever really loved each other. I suspected Father loved Mother, but it was most likely a one-way street.
“You heard your father. Back in the house,” Mother ordered, but neither my brother nor I made a move. Mother didn’t press us any further because she didn’t like the way Father babied us. I was eleven, Rodney was thirteen, and Caroline, who was away at church camp, would be 16 this summer. Admittedly, we were old enough to handle seeing a dead cat or two, Mother thought. But then again, Mother didn’t like a lot of things that Father did.
“You know, Jimmy,” she said to me one day, “your father worries too much.”
“Aww, shucks, Ma, I’m sure he just wants what’s best for us.” I wasn’t exactly sure how I was supposed to respond.
“No, Jimmy, you hear me. A man that worries too much can never make a woman happy.”
“Well, aren’t you happy, Ma?” I asked because my mother was always smiling and humming a tune.
“No, I’m not happy and have not been for a long time.” She paused and looked off into the distance; there was a longing and a wave of anger I’d never realized was there. “Jimmy, your mother was a pageant queen. I won crowns all up and down the tristate area. I even won an entry into the Mrs. United States pageant. This is like the Miss America pageant, except it was for married women.” She sat up, straighter full of pride and passion. Momentarily, the wave of anger in her eyes was replaced with the rush of excitement.
“Wow, Ma, I always knew you were the prettiest Ma I’d seen. Did you win?”
Mother rarely talked about her past, but when she did, I always learned something new and fascinating.
“No, I didn’t win. Your father was so worried about being left alone with Caroline; he wouldn’t even let me go. I had my song and dress already. Grandma said she’d keep the baby, but no, your father worried and whined until I promised I wouldn’t go.”
When I looked her in the eyes, she looked mad enough to cry. “Don’t cry, Ma. It can’t be all bad because you’re always smiling and singing.” I tried to offer what little help I could.
“I smile and sing because I’m thinking of the day that just you and I can run away.”
“But what about Rodney and Caroline? Can’t they come too?”
“Oh, no, sir. They look and act too much like your father for them to be any fun. Now you, Jimmy, you look like me, so I know you’ll be loads of fun. Just you wait. One day we will make our getaway,” she smiled and gave me a quick hug. I again thought back to my father’s jokes about me not being his son and wished I could ask him why he would joke about such a thing.
Her words meant nothing to me then but struck me suddenly when I heard my father scream.
“Holy mother of God!” my father hollered.
I raced down the stairs ahead of my mother and nearly vomited at the sight before me. I immediately turned back to warn my mother not to descend the steps to this rotting hell, but she had already made the trip while clutching my brother tightly. The scene before us was that of a bloated animal carcass with maggots scrambling in and out of its wounds. However, the horrifying thing was that the animal was no cat. It was my sister Caroline.
“Joyce, did you do this?” my father screamed, “Is this why Caroline hasn’t called from church camp? Answer ME!”
Mother was supposed to drop her off at church camp two weeks prior. It was shortly after she’d dropped my sister off that we started noticing the smell.
“I’m not responsible for what happens to dying cats, and Caroline was whining like a dying cat about going to church camp. It wasn’t my fault. I’m no longer going to be responsible for a family that can’t support me. A family that refuses to let my dreams come true. I’ve had enough.” Mother’s voice was strange and distant. I looked at her, frightened and searching for answers. She shocked me by wielding a razor-sharp blade against my brother’s neck.
“Ma, please don’t,” I begged, but it was too late. She sliced his neck open like a sword cutting through silk. She lunged for my father next. Blood gushed from my brother’s neck, soaking my clothes. I tried to help him, but I didn’t know what to do, so I just held him. Tears were rolling down my face as I listened to the gurgling noises Rodney made. They were the last sounds I would ever hear him make.
“Jimmy, run!” he screamed. Mother stalked over to him and stabbed him in the stomach. I ran as quickly as I could up the steps, taking them two at a time.
“Jimmy, come back. Now is our chance to get away. Just the two of us like we planned. Jimmy, don’t leave me. Not now when we are so close to having happiness.”
My mother wailed for me to come back to her, but I never turned around; I just kept running until the sheriff drove past me and turned around to pick me up. When they saw that I was covered in blood, they drove me back to the farmhouse. I showed them where to look. The coppery scent of blood filled the air. Mother was still stabbing Father when they arrested her and took us back to the station. The police were mortified by what they witnessed. Murders didn’t take place in towns like this, and now they had three to try to make sense of. Mother wouldn’t speak, so they turned to me for answers.
“Jimmy, what happened back there?” the officer asked.
“I don’t know, but please save my mother!” I cried.
“Son, it looks like your mother is the one who’s done this. We can’t save her.”
“Why not, officer? My mother is a good woman. She’s my best friend. She didn’t mean to.”
I still think back to that night and have nightmares. I picture my mother in her dress and apron covered in blood. Her ink-black hair plastered all over her face with sweat. I still pray that someone can save her from her insanity. I never dream of the bodies, though. In my dreams, they really are dead cats. I miss Mother. I miss her more than the others, and sometimes it makes me think there is something wrong with me. How can I consider a murderer my best friend? How can I still write letters to her but not visit my family’s graves? Maybe I am like my mother, but I don’t mind because my mother was a good woman.
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