SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH MOTHER
David J. Gibbs
“Then something went wrong with her. Something went wrong with mother. There wasn’t any stopping her. Those hands, those words, it was all too much. The frantic nature of her manners was exacerbated by what happened. And, she could talk in tongues so fast. She never recovered.”
“Dad left her. You remember that. There was no recovering from that,” Lily said, her frail form lost in the flower patterned dress, her mousy hair held at bay by a stained bow.
Carla shook her head, “It was a decision she made. You know that and I know that. She could’ve rejoined society and remarried someone. Mr. Harris was always helping around the house, I’m sure he was interested in her.”
The two elderly women sat in front of the long window looking out over their street and the impressive rail yard, serpent like fingers of track rooted in the riverside earth. The river had steam coming off of it, the frigid temperatures daring the water to freeze.
The wrinkled map of Carla’s forehead deepened for a moment when she asked, “How long do you think we’ll have to do this?”
When her sister didn’t answer, she asked, “Tea not to your liking?”
“It’s always so bitter. Something with the water here.”
“It’s always the water,” Carla said.
Hank hated referral jobs. They always ended up being such a waste. They were basically favors for either friends or family members that were trying to help him. It also meant he had to curb his normal methods and rein in his panache as his mother had called it growing up. He had plenty of panache. Hank had that in spades.
Reluctantly, he had taken the job. It had come from his Uncle Toby. He hadn’t seen or talked to the man in a decade, but he appreciated the work thrown his way. Besides, it was just a home check. Sitting out front in his beater of a pickup truck, ten years past its prime, he sighed heavily. It was a hand me down from his brother, just like most of the stuff he owned. Pulling the handle, the door wouldn’t open. Rolling his eyes, he put all of his weight against it to finally wedge it open. Metal creaked loudly as he pushed the door shut.
Walking across the street, he looked up at the house, the upstairs window a black eye with a stained board filling the space where glass once was. Looking up and down the street, he made sure he was alone as he moved up the steps to the worn, paint flecked front porch.
He knew the power was cut off along with the water, which meant it wasn’t occupied. Hank didn’t need the yellow warning tape and eviction notice to tell him that.
It smelled of rot and animal urine, the porch soft beneath his feet. After checking the windows, he made his way to the back door. Moving up the four steps, he opened the screen door and then picked the lock.
“I think she just gave up,” Lily said quietly, setting her tea cup down on the small table.
“Or gave in,” Carla said, nodding to her sister. “I think when that happened, it made daddy realize he had no hope of saving her. He packed up and left shortly after those terrible sounds started.”
Carla closed her eyes and shivered, finally shaking off the memories, she looked at Lily who said, “Those voices were so odd. And whatever those smells were just chilled me to the core. It wasn’t like anything I’d smelled before.”
“You’re right. I think the voices coming from momma were the worst for me though. But, you’re so right, the incense combined with those other smells made me not go into the basement anymore.”
“I never did like our basement. Daddy had me get a hammer for him, when he was fixing the gutters and I swear there was something down there watching me look through the drawers for his hammer. I thought I heard something scratching behind me. I just couldn’t look. I didn’t go back down, even when he asked me to get a few nails for him. He used his belt, but it didn’t change my mind.”
“Do you think she fed it?” Carla asked.
“Whatever those things were.”
Lily blinked a few times rapidly before asking, “You think there was more than one?”
Tucking his tools into his back pocket, he opened the door and walked into the kitchen. Large sections of the linoleum had come unglued from the floor, pieces curled along the edges. The outdated yellow tile had fallen away in sections from the walls too. A stained refrigerator beckoned to him with its door open, shelves missing, mold rampant around its gaping mouth.
Standing still, he listened to the house breathe around him, that dusty wheeze of the old house settling. He waited to hear any telltale sign that someone was there, someone listening, someone waiting, someone watching, but none came. He’d come across a few squatters in his time, but they were never real stealthy and pretty harmless. Not hearing anything, he realized that this might turn out to be the easiest three hundred he ever made.
Dust was thick everywhere he looked, cobwebs having taken the corner of the rooms, light fixtures like dying spider web laced sculptures watched forgotten. He felt the urge to sneeze but managed not to.
It was funny, when he had first applied for his P.I. license, he thought he would have exciting cases, solving crimes and helping people. The longer he did this job, the more he realized that was all Hollywood fluff. This gig was all about wallowing through the seedy waters of broken people’s emotional baggage. He hadn’t solved a single crime and hadn’t helped many people at all, at least not in the way he had hoped.
He hadn’t found a lost child that the police had given up on, or a forgotten will giving a destitute family a fortune, nothing so dramatic as that. No, instead, he managed to end more than two dozen marriages, caught one local politician with his car in the wrong garage so to speak, and managed to chalk up countless injuries along the way.
Walking through the first floor, peeling wall paper and piles of plaster dust were scattered over the floors. He didn’t think any of the damage was new. It all looked so completely covered with dust and grime, that there was no way that someone did any of this recently. Besides, if they were going to damage the house, they would’ve spray painted all over everything and knocked holes in the walls, not pulled up the linoleum from the floor or tiles from the walls.
None of it made any sense.
He noticed animal tracks, either raccoon or a possum he guessed, in the dust choked attic. It was obvious it hadn’t been opened in a long time. The door at the foot of the steps seemed swollen in the frame and it took him a bit to open it. The stairwell was blocked by another door that closed it off from the attic above. It was weighted by rope threaded carefully through a series of pulleys.
It opened easy enough, the stairwell suddenly awash with putrid smells that cascaded down from the sealed second floor. It was a single large open area, but unlike the lower floor it had no belongings in it. Hank had expected to find boxes and old furniture, but there was nothing.
The dusty floor however was something entirely different. Spreading out from where he stood was a dizzying canvas of tracks. Something about it struck him odd. Hank paused again, listening and waiting for some sound to come to him. He listened for the scurrying of rodent feet or the sound of teeth gnawing on something behind the walls, but nothing came.
He wondered where the smell was coming from. He remembered the broken out window when he approached the front of the house, and wondered if animals had managed to get inside. Hank walked around, trying to get his bearings and headed toward the front of the house in search of the window.
“I was surprised when Joey went missing that dad stayed. I thought he would leave when that happened.”
“But, I think that gave him the out he needed. It opened the door anyway.”
Carla refilled her tea cup before answering, “I’d have to agree. I don’t think he ever really found himself after that. How could he? What do you think he made of the smells and the sounds?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Certainly, he had to have heard them, right?”
Lily said quietly, “Carla, honestly, I don’t know.”
“What if he couldn’t hear them?”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“Lily, why on earth would the man stay, if he could hear the things or smell those things?”
Carla drew the blanket around her legs a little tighter and looked out the window again. The street below was empty of traffic and the rail yard remained relative devoid of activity as well. It seemed the world had less use for trains than they used to. She remembered as a little girl watching the bustle of it all, enjoying the way the rail cars moved like a synchronized symphony of motion.
“Why did we?”
He wasn’t spooked easily, but something about the way the animal tracks merged and parted across the floor made him a little uneasy. The board was fastened securely by the window and he didn’t see any other way they could be getting inside. Hank’s arms broke out in goose bumps for some reason when he turned from the window.
He didn’t like that feeling.
Walking back across the floor, he checked the other windows once again and even inspected the joists above him, trying figure out how the animals might have gotten inside. The tracks definitely seemed relatively fresh. He’d definitely have to make a note of that in his report.
Coming down the steps, he pulled the rope, so the weighted door sealed off the upstairs. As he came down into the first floor, he paused and listened again. This time, he thought he heard something coming from the basement.
“We didn’t have a choice. We were children Carla,” Lily said an edge in her voice.
“Now, now. Don’t get upset with me. I just asked a question.”
“A baited question.”
“Aren’t all questions baited?”
“Well, they are all baited in a way, because they all want a response, right?”
The older of the sisters smiled at that comment. It was the same one Lily had used when they were growing up and suddenly they were young again in her mind’s eye, playing in the front yard, innocent of the dark things they now understood.
“After dad was gone, it fell to us. Mother certainly wasn’t going to be able to help. It was lost on her.”
“Her spells started to get worse too. Remember how they seemed to stretch longer and longer, until you couldn’t really tell where one started and another ended?”
“I didn’t like that time much.”
“I almost had to repeat the sixth grade,” Carla said, fiddling with the blanket again.
Lil smoothed her thick gray hair a bit at the back and adjusted her glasses before saying, “Are you sure we did the right thing?”
“How is anyone sure they did the right thing? When it comes to hard decisions, one never really knows, do they?”
He stood quietly at the head of the basement stairs, looking down into the darkness. He had tried the light switch now four times, somehow hoping it would work. The longer he stayed in the house, the more certain he was something just wasn’t right. Not a superstitious man, he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was that made him feel that way, but in his gut, something told him to finish up quick and get the hell out.
Hank considered not going downstairs and just saying he did. He thought about the way the house looked and wondered how they would even know if he didn’t completely check it out. In the back of his mind though, he knew he couldn’t do that. It wasn’t in him to not do a job right.
As he put his foot down on the first step, he heard the sound again, or at least he thought he did. It sounded like something scratching across concrete. He didn’t think it sounded like an animal scurrying away from him, bumping into things either. It didn’t have the light metallic sound of a soup can or an empty beer can; no, it held some weight to the sound and he didn’t like it. That didn’t stop him from stepping down to the next step, nor the next. It did make him wish he had stopped back at his truck for his flashlight though.
His eyes slowly adjusted to the light with each step and the darkness didn’t seem as complete as it had at the top of the steps. He noticed that there were a few dirt encrusted windows offering a meager bit of light around the walls on either side. Looking around, his eyes tried to pick out shapes in dim light.
“Hello?” he asked, his voice coming back to him off the stacked block walls of the foundation.
He felt stupid for saying anything, his voice felt out of place. Something else struck him odd. He thought that for lack of a better word, the house felt too quiet. Like it was somehow holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen. Another thought followed quickly on the heels of that one and it was that he hoped he was out of the house when it let that breath go.
That’s when he heard the sound and this time he knew what it was immediately. It was the sound of cinder blocks scraping across a concrete floor. Hank thought he might’ve felt the vibrations in his feet from the sound, but couldn’t be sure. But, it wasn’t the sound itself that chilled Hank and made his stomach feel like it was dropping to his knees, no, it was the thought of what was dragging those blocks because it sure as hell wasn’t a raccoon or a possum.
Turning, he reached out for the handrail and launched himself up the steps. Just as his feet were finding the second step, he heard a squeak and looked up. He saw a bit of rope passing rapidly through a pulley and then watched as the rectangle of light making up the doorway shrunk, the basement door slamming shut with a powerful thud.
“Shit!” he yelled to the darkness.
This time, the cinder blocks sounded much closer.
“Well, I think it’s definitely better this way.”
Carla reached over and tried to reassure Lily by patting her arm, as she stood unsteadily. She looked out the window at the beat up looking pickup truck Hank had parked in front of their childhood home across the street.
“Think mother’s done yet?”
“Oh, I think so. I definitely think so. I’m going to call and get the pickup towed, so no one snoops too much.”
Lily sighed before asking, “How long will we have to do this?”
“As long as it takes.”
“Do you remember what daddy told us the night he left?” Lily asked.
“Yes. He looked right at me and said ‘There’s something wrong with mother’. His shotgun was on his shoulder and he looked more a little scared.
“Yes, he did,” Lily agreed.
“And, he was right,” Carla said, her eyes hardened shards of blue.
“Yes, he was.”