I put on my hazmat suit before I left. Once I zipped up my suit, once I double checked the mask, once I smeared numbing cream in my nostrils, I drove to Mother’s house. She wouldn’t be there. No one lived there. No one could live there anymore. My brother Hank named the mansion Hell House when he was fourteen, and even Mother calls it that now.
After an hours drive, the giant brown building waited for me at the end of the street. My thrice gloved hand pressed a button and the gate creaked open. The “Condemned Building: Do Not Enter Premises Due to Serious Health Risk,” sign vanished along with the gate into a brick wall. A loud mobile alert startled me.
“Mother is calling,” the alert stated. I answered her.
“Good morning,” I said.
“Good morning, Will, have you met Dr. Dowers?” She asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“Sure? What kind of son addresses his mother in this manner?”
“Yes ma'am,” I said
“Are you still angry about yesterday? Dr. Dowers says it is unhealthy to hold onto resentment like that.”
“I do not resent you.”
“Will, Dr. Dowers asked to speak to you before you went into the house, and I told him to meet you out front of the SIB,” she said. “Is Henry with you, yet?”
“He is not coming,” I said.
“Oh my. Why not, William?”
“Hank is mad at me.”
“Whatever for?” she asked.
“The time capsule that dad made for us before he died. I defended you when he found out about it.”
“Your Father said some nasty things about me in those letters,” she said. Mother hadn’t mentioned that the capsule had letters. What did they say? A letter to me from my Father, and he probably wrote them days before he died. I passed Hell House, climbed the hill to Hill House (The house Hank and I built after mother filled Hell House with garbage). Dr. Dowers waited in front of the SIB (Shack In Back was a shack that Hank and I built after mother had filled Hill House with garbage).
Dr. Dowers wore a two buttoned, well tailored suit, and I was certain that he would be forced to throw it away. Why would he come here in person? The smell was so toxic that the city received complaints in every direction more than a mile away. I left the truck and climbed up to the SIB.
“Good morning, William. What a lovely day outside today,” he said.
“Good morning, Doctor.”
“I brought you some things for your journey.” He handed me a miner’s helmet, and a large brass key. I put the helmet on and turned on the flashlight. I placed the key in my glove. “Where is your brother?” he asked
“He’s not coming. Excuse my abruptness, but why are you here?” I asked.
“Your mother told me what happened last night, and she asked me if I could talk to the two of you about it. The tension between you and your brother is quite troubling.”
“Sure. Why did you come down here to do it though?”
“Your mother’s obsessive hording is the most extreme case in the hospitals history, and I wanted to see it for myself. This place is so interesting, did your father really die because your mother had stored hundreds of bowling balls high up somewhere?”
“Yeah, in the hall outside their bedroom,” I said.
“Cool. You should avoid that hallway when you go in there today.” So much for the wise man at the gate.
I climbed the steps to Hell’s porch. The brown house oozed as I approached the front door. The garbage and mold inside the house seeped out of the wooden door like the sap of a corrupted tree. I entered my childhood home, and I immediately felt lost. The foul stench overwhelmed me. The foyer had green strips that dripped from the ceiling, and with each drop they grew larger.
I had forgotten what it was actually like. Mother had filled the house completely, and she left no room for my memories. I stumbled over a wet box, everything was wet and pungent in this room. The box contained the black mush of a children's puzzle, and only one piece survived. The eye and cheek of the worlds most famous lasagna cat. Hank and I loved this puzzle.
My favorite of Hank’s many sayings was, “the trick to any puzzle is to remember that you are smarter than the man who made it.” He should have come with me. I cannot do this alone.
Where should I begin to look? My memories of the house returned, the tricks of the place, the pit falls, and all of it. This room had been a large formal dining room before Mother, but she filled the room with couches from the 1960s and stacked hundreds of boxes on top of them. A small opening straight down the middle led to a door. I knew what would be beyond it, my favorite room in the house: the Newsroom. Dense stacks of laminated newspapers, books, and bookshelves were piled in a wall in front of me. Each stack close to the other and each were stiffened by time. It looked like a nine-hundred square foot forest.
Unable to find a way through the wall and into the forest, I decided to climb. The stacks held my weight. Once I reached the top of a thirty foot stack, I looked down at the room and I saw a path near the middle. I jumped from one stack to another, but the stack didn’t move much when I leaped from it, much less than I thought it would. I wrapped my arms around the top of the next stack, but instead of being stopped I burst through the stack and fell.
My next mistake was to land on my feet. When I hit the ground my knees buckled in towards each other and then popped on the floor. My head thwacked against the ground. Three twenty foot stacks of paper crashed on top of me.
I woke up in darkness. I kicked at my paper grave. Good, my knees worked. The hazmat mask was undamaged; however, my head throbbed, my ears rang, and I heard a voice.
“There you are baby bro.” Hank’s hand appeared. He dragged me into a clearing.
“Thanks.” We stood in a cat graveyard. Dozens of dead cats surrounded us. “What the hell?” I said.
“They don’t call it Hell House for nothing. Dude, I think Ma’ threw the cats in here after they died,”
“This many died?” I asked.
“Man, just don’t look close at one,” I listened to his advice, and looked for an exit—is what I wish I could say—I ran for the nearest animal. Nothing was all that unusual, until a six inch rat exited a hole in the cats chest. I jumped away from it. “That is what happened to me except I got it twice. Mine had babies that followed it,” Hank said.
“Man that is messed up. How am I supposed to look at Slav again after that?” I asked
“Who is Slav?” He asked. Hank turned on the light in his helmet, he must have seen Dr. Dowers also, and motioned where he thought we should go.
“Slav is my cat. Do you really not know my cats name?”I asked.
“No,” Hank said
“Why not?” I asked.
“I think the dogs name is Fredrick.”
“Freddy, but Freddy died two years ago, and we got Molly a cat,” I said.
“Okay so you named your daughters cat Slav. I get it. I guess, I haven’t been to your house in a while.”
“Two years. What happened?” I asked
“I cannot stand the way you stick up for her. Look around, Willy, this is who she is, and the last time I was at your house you just went on and on. ‘She is not that bad’, and I just couldn’t take it.”
“She is doing better in the hospital,” I said.
“And you fought me on that one too. You told me not to send her there, and you are sticking up for her again.” We exited the forest and stopped walking. “Man, the Federal Government tried to demolish this place and build a—something I cannot remember what exactly—under eminent domain. She took them to court. Which made me think, where did she get the money for a lawyer, good enough to fight eminent domain? I mean, I only give her like 1,500 a month on top of my half of the hospital, and I entrusted her inheritance to Molly.”
“I am so grateful that you gave it to Molly. It will be the biggest sweet sixteen surprise of all time,” I said. Hanks eyes were wide, and he pointed behind me.
In front of the door, a gaunt coyote gnawed on the six-inch rats neck, and behind the door was the hallway where my father died. A smaller rat exited the ear of a cat carcass nearby. Several things happened in quick succession: the small rat squeaked, the coyote dropped the big rat from his mouth, the coyote leaped, it chomped the rat once, and the rat never squeaked again. Hank reached down and grabbed a metal rod that lay in an overturned bookcase, but I waved him off. I mouthed, “Don't move,” and I clapped three times.
The coyote looked at my brother and me, and he, yes assuredly a he, stood up. He danced up to me, and it was his Ali-esque approach that gave his plan away. He feigned to my left and bit to my right, but I spun behind him and grabbed him under his front legs. The coyote snapped at me, but he couldn’t move otherwise. I hummed in his ears, and after thirty seconds the coyote was on his back.
I scratched his tummy and said, “Who’s my Super Genius?” over and over.
“Can I move yet?” Hank whispered.
“I wouldn’t if I were you, but don’t you worry, he is going to show us a short cut. Isn’t that right Senior Super Genius,” I said. “He will eat you if you move right now, and he will munch—munch—munch my brother, won’t he?” Senior Super Genius and I stood up together, and we walked over to the wall. Senior Super Genius watched me as I pawed at the walls, and soon enough I plunked down next to Super Genius defeated. He sniffed at the wall, and ran into the newspaper forest.
“Come along, Hank, but please no fast movements anywhere near him.” We followed as Senior Super Genius twisted around the maze of books. The deeper in he took us the closer together the cat remains became; the room must have had hundreds of cats, and thousands of rats feasted upon them. The space between stacks tightened; eventually, the entire floor was carpeted with cats. Hank and I were forced to walk across on top of them.
Hank looked at me through his mask, and he gave me an annoyed look that said—are you going to cry? My eyes replied—I am trying hard not to. People who do not have a sibling who is similar age to them may doubt that we had this unspoken conversation. They would accuse me of being hyperbolic, and I do not blame them. How could they understand something like that? He would often ask me if I was going to cry, and when he did his face looked the same as it just had.
After five minutes of walking on top of the graveyard we exited the forest. Senior Super Genius chuffed in front of a hole in the wall. The hole, all twelve inches of it, had coyote bite and claw marks around the outside of it. Senior Super Genius jumped through the hole into the unkempt garden outside.
“Hey he found it,” Hank said.
“Yeah a way out, and I was thinking that we circle around the back of...”
“Why, I mean isn’t that moms room?” Hank pointed at a side door. “And this way we can avoid the hallway where dad died.”
“No way she put the balls back up there, but I am glad to avoid it anyways,” I said.
“She did put them back, Willy, and she made us help remember?” He asked. I nodded yes, and we opened the door.
The room was sparse compared to the rest of the house, but boxes littered the room. Starting near the fireplace each box rested on the one before it all the way to the other wall. I saw mothers fireplace was full of bedsheets and old paintings. The fireplace was always a hazard, but with all these boxes if the fireplace is turned on the house would go up into flames.
The forty-foot square room had eight trunks at the foot of the bed. Underneath the bed was the time capsule, Mother insisted she remembered that much. Hank walked over to the trunks and removed two child sized mattresses. Three coyotes howled outside the door we had just closed, and we jumped at the sound.
When Hank jumped, he hit a switch on the wall behind him with the mattress, and I heard the tell tale click of the fireplace starter. I ran to the bed, grabbed the time capsule, and shouted to Hank. He walked over calmly, handed me a cushion, and showed me how he had fashioned his to act like a shield. The fire was spreading already.
Mother owned everything except for a fire extinguisher. Hank laughed as he looked at me, and for good reason. We wore orange jumpsuits, hazmat masks, miner’s helmets, and we had mattresses strapped to our arms like shields. His laugh birthed my own, and we giggled like we were five years old playing in the backyard. A fire raged behind us. We will deal with the fire in a moment, but I have something to do first.
“Tag, you’re it,” I said. I broke the door down with my shoulder, and held my shield above me. The hall rained twelve pound bowling balls.
“Hell yes,” Hank said. He chased two paces behind me.
I switched the time capsule into my shield hand, removed the key from my glove, and I shrugged as I locked the hall door. Hank banged against the door a few times; eventually, I slipped the key under the door.
“Look down you big baby,” I yelled.
“Not funny the fire is getting close now.” He caught me a few feet into the Newsroom. “Gotcha, no tag backs,” he said. We looked at the forest in our way, and the graveyard of cats being eaten by rats that lay below.
“Any idea how to get out?” I asked.
“Yup,” Hank said. “But so do you.”
“What would make you say that?”
“Remember the trick to any puzzle?” he asked.
“Don’t condescend, Hank. We don’t have time. The house is on fire and this room is filled to the roof with kindling.” I said.
“Just answer the question,” he said.
“I am smarter than any puzzle maker.”
“That’s right, and this time it’s true because mom made the puzzle,” he said. Mother stacked the pages, and she only left a path that she—oh I got it.
“I’m going to try something.”
“Well, go ahead,” He said.
“I think if…”
“No. Just do it. I trust you.” He did trust me didn’t he? He punched my arm—gently. I walked up to a stack and pushed it over, and the stacks toppled like dominoes. The papers spiraled down. We walked across the top of them, and kept on out the door—together.