The mailbox is still at the end of the lane, though there are only a few patches of green paint left on the rusted steel. It used to feature a bright yellow sun, hand-painted by my mom with the words ‘Sunshine Acres.’ An ironic name for the location of a murder.
I haven’t been here for more than forty years, but I open the box like I’d just come home from work and checking for mail. The hinges tell me ‘fuck off’ and won’t budge, but I use two hands and pry the bitch open. The metal grinds, but I prevail.
I don’t know what I expected to find inside. A signed confession? An apology?
The cold steel box is empty save for spider webs and desiccated bugs. I know it’s stupid, but I feel disappointed by the peeling paint, remnants of mom’s attempts to create a happy life chipped away by the years. Disillusioned by the emptiness that greets me after so long away from the place that molded the person I became.
I get back into the rental car and make my way up the rutted dirt lane, glad that I sprung for the SUV. The rocky dirt road would likely eat the muffler of a smaller, lower-to-the-ground car. The path climbs up a hill, then gradually descends, the house secluded in a hidden valley.
The privacy was precisely what my pa had wanted. In this small house in a hidden valley, he was free to do with his family as he pleased. Isolated in a sea of alfalfa and pasture, we lived in a prison with invisible walls.
At the top of the hill, I realize it wasn’t as steep as my child-self thought it was. The lane doesn’t seem as long either.
The old barn is gone, as well as most of the other outbuildings. The realtor’s black SUV is there, parked by the garage, the only old building left other than the house.
Her name is Helen and I’m glad she's here. I don't want to go through this alone, though Helen has no idea what this place really is—at least to me. She has no idea that my solar plexus is coiled in a tight knot.
I take a deep breath and force myself out of the car. She’s leaning against her car door, talking on her phone. My car door bangs closed, and she says a hasty good-bye.
Helen the Realtor plasters on a smile filled with perfectly straight, overly white teeth. “Ms. Ezel, glad you found your way. Have any trouble finding the place? A pretty drive, though, huh?”
I don’t tell her I didn’t need a GPS to make my way; that I could find it in the dark with no headlights. I also omit that I had to pull over twice just to gather myself enough to drive.
Instead, I simply nod. “Just beautiful,” I say. I feel like the scum that’s always stuck to the bottom of the drain stopper for yanking Helen out to this shit hole property so I can get some closure. Add it to the list of things I feel guilty about. But I play my part in this charade so Helen can play hers. “How many acres?”
She has to look at the listing sheet.
I stifle an eye roll. Any idiot can look up a listing online, and even if I hadn’t lived here, I’d know the acreage because I bothered to look up the property. I wonder if Helen actually makes any money at this real estate gig because she seems as useless as a Speedo in the arctic.
“One-hundred twenty-one acres.” Helen adds more facts I already know. “House is a two-bedroom, one bath, fourteen-hundred square feet.
Seven people lived in that house. They shared the sole bathroom.
“Natural gas heat,” she adds.
Does her listing reveal how the old, single-pane windows would get frost so thick you could carve your name in it? Do any of her papers say how the kids that used to live here would go to bed wearing mittens, coats, and even hats to keep from freezing?
I remain silent.
“Oh, this is interesting. The water source is a natural spring.” She looks up from her paperwork. “You’d need to get that tested as part of the inspection. Without proper filtration, old springs can have toxic levels of lead and arsenic.”
I’ve been fighting nausea, racing heart, and the sweats since the mailbox. I nearly lose my breakfast at the mention of arsenic. My scared inner eight-year-old is sure Helen has found out about what happened here. Has found me out. Found out that I was once poor, and the child of a wife abuser. And the daughter of a killer.
I must have gone paler than my natural shade of ghostly because Helen says, “Are you okay?”
I swallow the lump in my throat. Years of therapy and meditation practice kick in. I remind myself to breathe. “Yeah,” I lie. “I don’t travel well.” Another lie.
She coughs nervously. “Shall we trot down the hill and take a look inside?”
The terrified child inside wants to say, “No.” To get back in my rental car, drive to the nearest airport, fly away, and never return. To forget I lived here, and that I was their daughter.
But I’m determined to show the child inside the birthplace of her nightmares and neuroses. I settle for a nod, and Helen smiles.
She sets off down the hill. “I did some research on the property.”
I’m breaking out in a cold sweat as we walk. She couldn’t possibly have found out about what happened here, could she? I thought we’d covered our dysfunction reasonably well.
“The house has been vacant for over two years. The current owners are—get this—both in jail.”
I raise my eyebrows. “For what?”
“The mister is in for beating up the misses, and the wife is in jail for selling meth.” Helen chuckles. “Real nice family.” She sighs. “I’m sorry in advance for what we’re likely to see inside.”
I don’t tell Helen how before I got clean, I’d seen a few meth houses. I know what we’re likely to see, and I brace myself for it. “How long have the currently lovely family owned it?”
She consults notes on her phone. I reconsider my opinion of Helen’s realtor skills.
“Ten years.” She looks up from her notes. “A fairly long time.” Her brows crinkle. “There will be contamination clean up, and that’s reflected in the low price.” She goes back to her notes. “Before the lovely couple lived here, there was a sawmill.” She looks around at gently rolling green hills dotted with stumps no one bothered to grind down. “Wonder what it looked like before they removed all the trees?”
I want to tell her it was a far cry from the barren landscape she sees. I consider telling her how my industrious mother found out about a government program that gave away trees. Mom put her kids to work, and we planted hundreds of pines. If someone hadn’t hacked them all down, Helen and I would be looking at a pine forest instead of bare grass and hillsides with deep erosion crevices.
I settle for a pat response. “I’m guessing it’d be a lot more attractive with trees.”
Helen nods. She brightens as she says, “Hey, you could always plant some.”
I ignore that idea, and thankfully Helen lets it go. She’s got to know that even if I was a legit buyer, I’m showing little enthusiasm for this property. She’s probably hoping to be done with the tour quickly so she can show me other properties and hopefully salvage a sale.
The front porch is half is large as my memory recalled it. Helen struggles with the lock. Finally, she succeeds and has to give the door some shoulder to get it open.
An acrid odor reminiscent of urine precedes our entry. The stench nearly curls my nose hairs.
We enter directly into a room that could be a living room but was my parent’s bedroom. Their four-poster bed is gone. So too is my mother’s piano. She was raised with the idea of people being well-rounded, and just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you should be uneducated. The piano symbolized her family and creative roots. While living here, she didn’t have the opportunity to play as much as she would have liked.
The room is now filled with stacks of old magazines and newspapers, trash heaped on a large couch that sags in the middle. The windows, once allowing plentiful light, are covered with yellowed sheets, some stained rusty red. It’s dark inside, even though it’s mid-morning.
Helen’s nose wrinkles up. “It certainly needs a thorough cleaning.” She steps gingerly and wades into the morass.
The air is dank and foul, but that’s not what makes my chest feel as though it’s in a compression chamber. I avert my gaze and try not to look at the place where mom worked to perfect the challenging ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ while I played with my dolls on the floor at her side.
Helen’s talking, likely telling me more about the selling points of the home. Her voice becomes like the hum of a fan, fading into the background, ignored.
Memories flood me. Stockings hung from the banister in the next room. My pa’s lounger, harvest gold velvet (it was the ‘70’s after all). The T.V. with tin foil wrapped antenna. There were good times here as well as bad, and I allow myself to remember the good stuff as well as the bad. The pressure in my chest eases a bit.
Helen’s voice sounds farther away, and I realize she found her way to the kitchen. The clamps on my chest tighten back up, and my heart races. I’m standing nearly in the spot where I saw it happen. Not the killing, but the preamble to murder.
My legs freeze. Bile rises again, and I swallow hard to keep it down. Ghosts and shadows, Becca. It’s not real, I remind myself.
I turn toward the kitchen. There are grungy plastic coolers piled with boxes of off-brand coffee filters, aluminum foil, and tons of empty plastic milk jugs and glass bottles. It’s all stacked against the wall where he pinned her, squeezing her neck.
Darkness plays at the edges of my vision. My fisted palms are clammy. I see it in my mind’s eye as plainly as if it was happening now. I was sure he was going to kill her. My eight-year-old self was the sole, silent witness to the violence.
I can’t recall what precipitated it. All I remember is sitting on a footstool, doll in hand, staring and crying. I was unable to summon the courage to stop him. I sat in fear, certain that this time he was going to end her.
My older brother had been the hero that day. He’d come in the back door and pried my pa’s hands off of her. A gangly teenager and no match for my dad, but he may very well have saved her life.
Remembering my brother’s courage, I summon my own and make my way to the kitchen. Helen is quiet now, perhaps tired of talking without a response from me. I pull my T-shirt over my mouth and nose in an effort to keep out the stench. The aroma of garbage mixes with the chemical smell, and my head swims. Chipped glass pans caked with powdery residue are strewn across the stovetop.
There’s no sheet on the back window that looks from the kitchen out to what used to be a flower garden around an old cistern. The lilac bush is still there, albeit the branches gnarled and leaves sparse. It has only scattered flowers now, not the cloud of purple it once had. It had been there when we moved in nearly fifty years ago. I’m surprised it still lives.
Helen asks if I want to see the bathroom, and I shake my head. It’s all I can do to keep myself from puking or passing out. I need air.
“The basement is the only other thing to see on the lower floor.”
I really don’t want to go down there. I don’t need to see the dirt floor and dank stone walls. And if it had a tendency toward rats when my mother was on rat poison patrol, it’s highly likely they’ve moved in permanently and built condos in her absence.
I find my tongue and tell Helen, “I think I’d like to see the backyard.”
The horrific smell matches the violent crime that occurred here. Helen nods and quickly makes her way to the back door, apparently as eager as I am to be out of this malodorous house.
Helen breathes deeply of the fresh air and remarks on how surprisingly lovely the backyard is. Unlike the trees that were mowed down like a stand of weeds, no one has unearthed the hundreds of bulbs my mom planted in the back. The mid-Spring garden is bursting with the color of purple irises, orange tiger-lilies, and yellow jessamine.
And then there’s the lilac bush. Once the centerpiece of the garden, it now looks out of place. Its twisted trunk and scaly branches are a stark contrast to the verdant and showy garden happening around it.
Maybe it’s just old. Or perhaps its roots have been poisoned by the body buried beneath it.
My feet walk me over to it though I don’t recall telling them to. My eyeballs are hot, and my breaths shallow. Pa sat in his chair at the kitchen table, drinking his morning coffee. The next minute his face went pale, and he let out a gurgly gasp. Within seconds there was a loud thud as he fell out of the chair. He lay on the vinyl floor, drooling and gasping, his legs twitching.
My mom had screamed and dropped a cast-iron pan of bacon she’d been draining the grease from. She never complained about the burns on her legs from that.
My older brother had come running at the sound of her scream, and a few minutes later, the older sisters too. One of them gave him mouth-to-mouth, and another called in the emergency. There was crying and shouting and questions to my mom about what had happened.
Sobbing hysterically, my mom had been little help. No one bothered to ask me. I guess they figured an eight-year-old doesn’t know anything.
But I did know. I’d seen mom pour an odd powder into his coffee before he’d entered the room. She hummed a hymn as she stirred it, oblivious to the fact that I was there, as I usually was, playing quietly as her feet, ignored. Unseen, I soaked it all up like a thirsty sponge—a witness to too much.
I guess there was no need to question me. The arsenic was odorless, and Pa’s death was recorded as a heart attack. They handed his ashes to the grieving widow, and she buried them in the garden in which I stand.
We’d moved away not long after his death. I’d been joyous to be rid of the place. In many ways, my life began where and when his ended.
I stand beside the lilac bush where my greatest secret is buried. I heave out great sobs, no longer guarding myself or caring what Helen may think of me.
I’m not crying for him because, to this day, I’m sure that karma’s a bitch, and she served up exactly what he’d ordered. I don’t cry for mom either. In the end, the cancer of what she’d done ate her alive. She paid for her crime, just not in the way that society prefers a person to pay.
The slightly rotten smell of the lilacs matches my mood. I grieve the premature death of my childhood. I chose neither the dysfunction nor being witness to a murder.
But you did choose to stay silent, a voice within me reminds.
I take a deep breath and let my guilt over that go. He was dead. Her rotting in jail would have helped no one. My silence may have been selfish, but it came from a primordial survival instinct that resides within us all.
There’s a warm hand on my arm. I’d forgotten Helen was there.
“Are you okay?”
I nod and sniffle. Helen hands me a tissue.
“You lived here.”
It isn’t a question. I nod again.
She doesn’t ask me any more questions, and I’m grateful. Helen stands with me as I bury my guilt beneath the lilac bush beside the ashes of the father my mother killed.