I could hear it ringing. Gradually crescendoing, becoming deafening. While I sat solemnly in the attic in a circle with the people who had become my family.
It was the alarm. Alex had finished, then. Had begun to lure them out from their sleep. The owners woke and we could hear them running around downstairs. Like mice.
It helped to dehumanize them.
I could see the excitement building in my comrades’ eyes. They’d done this before—not this exactly, they liked to keep their ideas fresh. But this—the whole crime thing. It was my first time.
I tried to follow suit, to be excited for what was to come. After all, they’d given me so much. The least I could do was look like I was enjoying myself.
We could hear the owners beginning to panic downstairs. Footsteps became more frantic, voices began to rise. We could hear them promising each other that yes, it would all be alright. It would be okay.
It would not all be right. Not for them, at least.
I tried to prepare myself for what I was about to do. For what we were about to do. It all seemed rather twisted. Robbery was one thing, but to lure the owners out, force them to give away all their personal information, then make them frame their own double-suicide? Malicious. Right?
But I resolved to stick to the plan. Not for myself, for my surrogate family.
Maybe for myself too—I wasn’t unaware of the participation reward.
Martin yelled at us to hurry up, and I woke from a stupor I hadn’t realized I’d fallen into. It was time. All the planning, all the time, all the practice was culminating. It felt so… surreal.
I followed them down the ladder and was immersed in the blue night. We leisurely strolled down the hallway. Not walked. Strolled. Down the stairs. Into the living room.
I knew this house so well but had never stepped foot inside. It was odd, having studied—idolized—this home for so long. Finally being here.
The sofa seemed larger than I’d imagined.
The sofa, where the owners sat desperately pleading with Alex, who was pressing them for what we wanted. The owners, who were trying to barter for their lives, unaware that their fate had already been decided for them.
The owners. Who we were here for.
Not who. What. I had to keep reminding myself.
I realized the alarm was still going. The tolling bell of death, accompanying us as we watched the desperate people cry for Alex’s pity. The people who had done no wrong.
They had, I reminded myself. Their sheer wealth, their materialistic delusions, simply demanded that someone deal with them as we were doing now. No sane person could ever be as selfish as they were. If I had their wealth I’d give it all away.
But the idea of being rich was a happy one.
I looked up and saw excitement in my family’s eyes. Saw them waiting for the right moment, waiting for when the owners had just cracked, had just given away what we wanted. Watching them. Watching their sheer desperation, hearing their Promises For What They’d Give If Only They Were Spared grow ever larger. Watching them panic.
This is what I’d lived for for the last six months. This moment.
But when I looked into their desperate eyes, when I saw the panic in them, when I saw their sheer desperation, their growing knowledge that they’d die here, I got deja vu. Convulsive shivers ran up and down my spine.
And I wanted out. I didn’t care about pleasing the only friends I’d ever had, I didn’t care about the money. I had to be done with this—this craziness, this insanity.
My heart raced. Like the owners’ hearts never would after this.
My head, my mind that could think and reason and love—love—began to feel light. My head, my mind, that would see so many things they’d never see again.
I began to sweat, to hyperventilate, to feel terribly weak.
Then collapsed on the floor. Unconscious.
And the things I saw, the things I remembered—I’d tried so hard to forget them. But there they were.
My mother. Whom I loved.
My mother, who was dying in her stuffed-up cave of a room.
Looking into her face was like looking into the face of Gollum. Gollum. It wasn’t his fault he was such a monster. It wasn’t his fault he had it rough—it was the ring. Nor was it my mother’s fault she treated me badly on occasion. It was the world’s—the world that had conspired against her, that seemed to be content only if she was unhappy. I wasn’t the victim here. She was.
That’s what she’d told me, so many times. I believed it.
She pulled me in. I felt her caress my head she had so often thrown things at, hug the back she had so often bruised. I looked into her eyes. The lines around them were far apart, her eyes wide. The eyes of a desperate woman.
I heard her say, Carl, I need you to know something. In a Gollum whisper. Saw her move her decrepit, useless hand to her nightstand, and stopped. Beckoned for me to open the drawer. So I did. Rummaged through the mess of old papers, unpaid bills, personal documents. Didn’t find anything.
Then she made a noise like an animal. A grunt, a shriek, a neigh, a bark, all in one. An inhuman sound.
I, in turn, shrieked. Her wild eyes stared into mine. She said, Carl, I need to tell you something. Carl, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Muttered something about being close to getting them, her twisted face showing she was mad about something. But that was normal. The madness, at least. The insanity.
The insanity that wasn’t her fault.
She frantically gestured to the drawer again, repeating her unspoken request. I looked in, beginning to panic. Still couldn’t find anything. I told her so.
She hit me. For the last time.
I apologized, fending off tears. Checked again. Through the blur of my watery eyes, saw a square paper with symbols crudely scrawled on the front. Her handwriting, but somehow worse. Just a number: 6209092412. She made the noise again; I started again.
But this time ducked.
Noises, unintelligible noises, started coming out of her mouth. Some form of muttering, but more garbled, almost impossible to understand. I made out only the word she repeated most frequently: call, call, call, call, call. Maybe it was Carl.
And then she was gone.
Gollum had met her destiny, her destiny she’d had no part in.
I felt nothing.
Started bawling. Weeping. Not for her, for myself. Telling myself I couldn’t even feel anything for my own mother, I was so selfish, I only cared about myself.
She’d been right.
She had always told me, frankly, how she felt about everything. How she hadn’t liked my face, how she didn’t think I should get a job because I didn’t look good and it’s only the attractive people who succeed in life, Carl, you know that. She told me how she hated me, how I was a mistake, how my father didn’t love her, I didn’t love her. She told me I was unlovable.
What she’d said about me stuck. I believed it. She was the only person I had after I graduated high school—the only social circle I had for a full year. Even in high school, she’d been the only person I interacted with, talked to. So nobody told me differently, nobody lied and told me they liked me.
She was the only person I truly loved. With all my soul. It wasn’t her fault she didn’t love me back; she couldn’t.
I was unlovable.
And because I loved her, because she meant so much to me, she was the only thing I thought about after her death. Maybe the paper could tell me something about her.
The day after she’d died, I built up enough resolve to go into her room, where she still lay. Where she would always lay.
Found the paper, picked up the phone, dialed the number, was immediately stricken. My chest constricted, my pulse quickened, I started sweating. Threw the paper in the overflowing wastebasket next to her still body, threw the phone onto the receiver, ran out, slammed the door behind me, sank to the ground. Cried. Resolved not to go back in again, ever.
I don’t know why I broke down. Maybe because I’m just not competent. Maybe I couldn’t handle knowing more about who she was.
But I couldn’t handle not knowing, either. Even in death, she dictated every thought I had. Pushed the curiosity to the back of my mind. Kept on with my monotonous life. But the monotony didn’t offer much of a shield, didn’t give me much to think about. And I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Couldn’t stop thinking about that paper. I wanted so badly to discover what knowledge it held, but I also wished it didn’t exist.
So I tried to forget it. I couldn’t. Everything reminded me of her, of it. Twenty days went by, twenty days of stench. The stench, even, reminded me of the paper. I wanted to run, to run far away from the paper, to destroy it, to be done with it. But there it sat. Next to the swarm of gnats that composed what was left of my poor mother’s aura.
At last, I cracked. I composed myself, opened the door, walked in. Calmly called the phone number listed on my mother’s cursed square. Like it was no big deal.
I began to feel proud of myself.
But there was nothing. Nobody picked up. I called again, and again. Nobody. I began to get desperate, to panic. This couldn’t be all there was. There had to be more.
So I kept calling. I can’t remember how many times. With each time, became more desperate, more worked up. Any pride I’d begun to feel vanished.
I’d finally resolved to destroy it, finally had worked myself up to get rid of the last piece of my mother’s legacy, when someone answered. I desperately explained my situation, practically screeching to the person on the other end. It was like one of the horror movies; the person on the other end had such a low, intimidating voice. Maybe it was distorted. They gave me an address and a time, and that was it. They hung up.
I panicked. Began to break down. Again. Sank to the floor. Hyperventilating, tears tracing rivers of grief, of anxiety, down my cheeks. I forgot about my mother; what if they knew where I was? What if this was something dangerous?
I spent the night awake, cowered in fear next to my mother’s dead body. I felt protected, somehow. Knowing she was close.
I showed up at the house the next day, on the time given to me by the stranger. These would be the first people I’d interacted with since—since high school. I was ready for the absolute worst. Death, even. Ready for them to pull me into that house and stab me a million times.
I was more alarmed by what they ended up giving me. They were nice to me. Not only that, but they—it seemed like they liked me. I was truly welcomed, truly cared about for what felt like the first time in my life.
Maybe I wasn’t unlovable.
They explained that my mother had shown up on their doorstep, pleading with them to help her. She didn’t have health insurance, didn’t have a doctor, she needed money. Or else she’d die. She knew what they did, how they got money, was willing to do anything to be cured.
I asked what it was, how they got money. They just laughed.
They asked me to join them. I realized why my mother had sent me to them. She wanted me to be okay without her.
I was still unclear on many things. I did know, however, that these people liked me.
And I was willing to do anything for them.
So I joined them, I became one of them. Spent six months, the best six months of my life, with them. Planning the perfect crime.
But they didn’t like to call it a crime. They preferred retribution.
Sometimes I still wish it didn’t exist. The paper, I mean.
I was thrust back into reality; I awoke. I saw my comrades, my surrogate family standing over me. Reaching an arm out, pulling me up. Brushing my back off. Saying how the first time’s always tough.
Their words reassured me. But I knew I couldn’t do this again.
And I was back. Standing over the owners.
Panting out of fear. Out of fear of what I, of what we were about to do.
I wanted out. So I got out.
I ran. I’d studied this house; I knew the exit points. It took the others a second to realize what was happening. I hadn’t considered what would happen if they caught me, hadn’t considered what would happen if they didn’t catch me. Hadn’t really given it any thought. Just ran.
It had begun to rain, but I pushed on. Turned corner after corner, constantly checking to see if they were behind me.
Thoughts about my family, the people I was running from, flooded my mind like the water flooded the sidewalk in front of me. If they were willing to kill the people, who had done no wrong, what would they do to me? Me, who’d betrayed them, who’d pulled out. After they’d given so much to me, I’d selfishly rejected it.
For twenty, thirty minutes I ran. Ran from the people I loved most.
Finally, I turned a corner. Sank onto my knees. Cried. My tears mixed with the rain as I felt it caress my face. Like my mother had done in her final hour. My heart throbbed for her; I missed her with all my being.
I began to reminisce on our times together, and realized that, for some reason, I’d never been happy with her. Ever. Never felt accepted, never felt wanted. Never felt at home. That wasn’t her fault though, it was the world’s. The world that hated her. She’d told me that enough that I knew it was true.
But then I started thinking about the people I’d run from; my surrogate family. I’d been happy around them. I’d been accepted by them. They wanted me. They loved me.
They loved me.
And I realized that my mother had been wrong. I was lovable. People loved me. People loved me. People loved me.
For the first time in my life, I began to hate my mother. My perfect, wonderful, abusive, controlling mother. Abusive. Controlling. For the first time in my life, I began to see who she truly was, who I truly was. She’d been wrong about everything. Everything she’d told me, everything she’d said about me, every time she’d hit me. She’d been wrong!
I felt vindicated, I felt freed. I began to spin in circles, to yell, to shout.
For the first time in my life, I was happy. Truly happy.
And I knew I could never go back. Back to my house, where my mother still lay, where her legacy, her legacy of hate, of abuse, of controlling, permeated the atmosphere.
I could never go back to my family, because, even though they loved me, I couldn’t steal from people, couldn’t kill people, couldn’t watch them be killed. I just couldn’t.
I needed to move, to get away, to start a new life. To be reborn.
So I did. Moved, that is. Not moved, traveled to—I didn’t take anything, I knew they were watching my house. Probably knew where I was now. But I was free from her, free from them, so it didn’t matter to me.
As I rebuilt my fractured life, I kept being reminded that they were watching me. Anything I did, any move I made, was being monitored. I’m still not quite sure why they didn’t just snatch me up when they had the chance. I knew they’d loved me, I’d felt love when I was with them. Maybe that’s what kept them from taking me back.
But I knew that if I made any move to report them, did anything to bring attention to their ring of retributive crime, they’d retaliate. And I feared their retribution.