“How long do you think you’ll be?” Mikael surveyed me with a look of concern on his half-shaven face. In fact, he was still holding the razor, white foam plastered across the right side of his face, the left smooth and shiny. He stood in the doorway to the bathroom right at the top of the stairs, staring down where I was, by the front door, just pulling my coat off the stand and swinging it on. I’d just shouted up to let him know I was leaving and that he was to be in total responsibility of our toddler, Tate.
“I’m just looking through it to decide what I want to do with it,” I replied, trying to keep my voice steady and undisturbed. I’d had ten years of recovery. I wasn’t about to chicken out now. They were long dead now, being in their house couldn’t do me any harm. “I’ll be back in a couple hours, latest, and don’t give me that look, Mike. It’s just a building, really, can’t hurt me. You should really be worrying about Tate – she’ll be wanting to try out her new makeover kit, and what a pity, you’ll be the only one around.” A wink that I strongly hoped seemed convincing and I was out the door, confidently marching down the drive, only to realise I’d misplaced my keys and had to rush back in and practically search the whole house. Tate had stolen them and placed them in her doll house. I blame being a mother.
Soon enough I was trundling towards the home of my childhood trauma, teeth chattering due to the uneven gravel path leading up to the manor. I passed the first line of trees, forcing my eyes to stay fixed in front. Then the building itself began to make its towering appearance behind the thick of enormous oaks that stood still surprisingly proud some five hundred meters in front.
My weight on the accelerator seemed to die with my attempted serenity. I slumped back in my seat, eyes subconsciously rolling upwards to display the pure beauty of the mansion. It was hardly noticeable it had been uninhabited for a decade: polished white walls stretched three stories high ending in an impressive blue roof; a couple dozen windows dotted here and there, all seemingly new except for the vines that encumbered the glass and snaked off, twisting intriguing patterns up the walls and surrounding the two massive mahogany doors as if hauntingly begging for my being to pass through them. The beauty didn’t hit me at all, however. Only visions. I’d anticipated visions, but hadn’t thought they’d actually happen – that was the sort of movies, surely, only there to demonstrate the wonders or horrors of a character’s past.
I was in the courtyard that lay in front of the house. I’d just gone out there for a bit of fresh air and some exercise with my younger siblings. My parents had been out. They hadn’t told us where – “I don’t remember you having any right to know what we do outside of this property, young miss” – only made us swear that we didn’t go outside. I’d asked why, yet I’d only received a powerful slap to the cheek and a glaring of the very sharpest daggers from my mother. “Just stay inside,” she’s snarled so tiger-like I’d flinched. “Or is that above your capability?” I’d shook my head desperately, eyes watering. One last slap for good measure, my cheek stinging profoundly, and she and my father were swept away in their car. Just stay inside. How hard could that be?
When our parents went out, they’d usually be out for hours. Sometimes days, where a risky move of a fridge-raid for some food would end up in personal beatings or a week’s feedings of salt or perhaps even mold. It was always the same rules: just stay inside, don’t touch anything, not even each other. They never said why, we just all knew by now there were punishments for breaking those rules. They’d surely be out for a while, and there’d be no way they could find out if we popped out for a quick game of tag and a breather. No way.
I’d convinced my siblings to come out with me, being the eldest. “They don’t analyze the gravel,” I’d pointed out. “They won’t realise it’s ever-so-slightly been shifted, as long as we’re back inside when they get home.” Eight-year-old me didn’t know about security cameras, though. She didn’t know how my parents watched our every move, so now outside, chasing my little brother and gleefully exclaiming “It!” as my fingers met his shoulder, the screech of brakes met my ears, and all eleven of us froze and whirled around. My parents were back, and I’d never seen them angrier.
I was dragged into the bathroom by the ear. Eldest first – the eldest was always punished first, didn’t matter that I was only eight. Head pushed under the tap; water turned on until practically boiling-hot water was smashing into my face at full force. I was gasping and struggling to get free, but I was just pressed more into the sink, my head occasionally colliding with the tap or walls of the sink and knocking me useless. “If you’re not careful, it’ll be in the bathtub next. Right under until you pass out, mark my words. Just stay inside, you useless git.”
I watched them repeat the same process to each of my ten siblings. The wails and screams right down to the youngest, who was only one and a half and had barely even had consented to be taken outside, and yet my father still lifted her up and shoved her face under until her face was contorted so tightly in pain and her cries were so prevailing, I had to look away and choke back my own tears. Another minute under the water for that. Good children don’t cry, my mother had said, good children don’t cry…
The house. In front of me. Twenty-nine, now, I’m twenty-nine. Mother and Father died ten years ago. I wanted to do the fastest U-turn in history and speed back up the lane so fast gravel left my Volkswagen with scrapes. I knew I wouldn’t be able to face it. Mikael had offered to do it for me. The memories wouldn’t have hit him, he would have managed… but I had to, I had to face it… for all my siblings, who I know would still struggle the same… for my love, who acted like my therapy when recovering from the trauma… for Tate, who I would never ever wish to treat the same way I was treated for nineteen cruel years…
Back on the accelerator again. I parked right where I knew my parents would have screamed if I’d ever been able to get my license whilst they still lived here and parked there, right in the middle of the flowerbeds my mother had forced me and the second eldest to plant when we were only five and four. A fistful of dirt for a snack every time we did something wrong. I consumed about a kilogram of pure grit that day, only to spend the next retching until I only weakly regurgitated saliva. I feared I only managed to fight off a flashback of that because of how long ago it was, but if when I was eight managed to get to me, I knew that I’d be taking much longer than “a couple hours, at least”.
My hand shook wildly as I inserted the rusted key. At least Mikael and Tate wouldn’t have to see this. Tate would never have to know what her grandpa and grandma did to her mommy, she’d just think they’d died in that car crash seven years before she was born… The doors swung heavily open, and I took in the entrance.
Exactly the same except the layers of dust that had settled themselves across the grey wood floor. I took one step in, pulling the doors shut again behind me. The dust fluttered about my feet and then fell again. I’d probably hire someone to clear it all up sometime, but not now. That meant more time spent.
Nothing that distressing had ever really happened in the entrance. The worst thing was probably a common beating or when my sister had tripped down the stairs just a few meters from the front doors and my father had smashed a vase over her head so the glass rained down and cut her already battered and bruised skin. Again, I’d been there to see that, and couldn’t comfort her without risking my own meals for the next week. I stood there for a few moments, almost savoring the lack of trauma compared to what I knew the other rooms would cause me. A few moments felt like nothing when I chose turn into the kitchen.
The saucepans seemed to be the first thing that drew my attention practically as soon as I blinked. My head seemed to thump: I’d been hit with them far too many times, in all different areas of my body, and I knew the feeling far too well. I considered collapsing again, but the natural reflex the house brought back that if I did, I’d only earn myself more punishment from my deranged parents. My knees buckled slightly. I walked around, feeling the countertops. Knives… been cut by them… fridge… had my hand shut in, twelve-year-old-me thought she was going to be an amputee… pantry… severely claustrophobic little brother got locked in there for three hours once… microwave… where the “punishment meals” were always cooked…
My legs had moved me from the kitchen before I even had a moment to consider its condition or if there was anything I had to do out of renovation if I were to sell it and hire people to spruce it up a little. My brain was hardly computing in a business-like way; what I was to do with it when I’d checked everywhere hadn’t even crossed my mind: the memories of the place seemed to cause a blockage in my mind and prevent any other thoughts from flowing through. I stumbled absent-mindedly through the living room, head turning automatically to review the space. I’d never even touched those plush settees before – Mother had always threatened that if any of us were to, our hands would be scalded with a tray fresh out the oven. “Children have toxic touch, seem to mess everything up,” she had droned, clicking her tongue in a disapproving manor. After the incident in the courtyard, none of us had dared disobey her rules, even when we were left alone, which was regular.
A numb confidence warmed my bones. Mother and Father were long dead; they couldn’t do anything. I outstretched my hand and allowed my fingertips to graze the corner of the settee. Ten or more years ago, I would’ve been risking the privilege of having nerves in my hands, being able to feel, yet I knew if I were to ever get over the shadows of my past, facing them head-on was the best way. I forced a quivering grin upon my face. Father would have never let me grin. He found children annoying (nobody knows why he decided to have eleven) and believed they were little nuisances that thought they were on top of the world, that they didn’t deserve to be happy. “The world is too cruel for innocent midgets to be smiling, thinking they know everything,” he’d snap at us. Seven dinners of salt for smiling. Fourteen if we dared laugh, or make a joke.
I hated how I still felt nervous when I disobeyed my parents’ rules. When I’d first met Mikael, it had been three months after the car crash that had taken their lives. Our first date I’d barely spoken, the normality of “speaking too much is a crime, it’s selfish and irritating” still stuck with me, and Mikael had many attempts of trying to cheer me up thinking I was simply a little depressed. Eventually he got me to laugh, and when I did, I immediately slapped myself. I knew too well that Mother would beat me for that, and I couldn’t bear another fortnight of salt. Mikael had subconsciously been my therapist – without him, I would have never been stable enough to mother Tate – however being in the house, I felt obliged to respect my parents’ wishes. It was horrible, and I knew I had to get over it. Being here again also struck me with a fresh pang of guilt. Not guilt for anything I’d done, but for how I couldn’t understand how my parents could have treated their children that way. If I ever chose to put Tate through that, I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself. It is a natural human instinct to unconditionally love your child; however, I suppose that’s exactly why my parents did the complete opposite – they were inhumane, that went without a doubt.
On through all the different rooms. My room, on the first floor, as because I was eldest, I earnt the responsibility of being the one people were to find first if they broke into the house – the sacrifice. I’d once spent five days chained to the side of the bed: Mother had thought of me to have committed a crime, stealing from the pantry, when in reality that had been my younger sister, whom they had been starving for a reason unknown to me. I wouldn’t dare expose her, but I swore to Mother that it hadn’t been me, and I’d been forced to wash my mouth out with soap. Mother did that whenever she suspected someone to be lying, which was often. And five days it was: unable to shift and sleep on the expensive plush mattress, unable to move around and exercise my stiff muscles. Unable to even socialize with my siblings, my only company and the only positive thing about living with my parents, as they were forbidden to even look at someone if they were being punished, otherwise they’d get the same treatment. My dream had always been to break us out of there, call the police – something that would get us away from my parents and get them in legal trouble. Yet I’m afraid to admit if it wasn’t for the car crash, I would probably still have been struggling against their ways today. Tate wouldn’t have been born… Mikael would have likely married someone else…
I stumbled blindly through all my siblings’ rooms. I had no memories of ever being in them, as of course, that was seen as a crime too. I was especially shocked at the sheer size and beauty of my parents’ master bedroom and their gorgeous ensuite: I knew the mansion would sell effortlessly for a high price if I wished for it, but something about the idea of giving it away made me uneasy. I could earn a couple million from the house, and whilst that would be awesome, it almost felt like I would be crediting them in everything I bought with all the money, and I knew too well I probably wouldn’t even touch it for that reason. Too, the memories would continue to haunt me; no matter if the house had a new owner who knew nothing about the past, I’d always be aware of the fact the house was a quick twenty-minute drive away, and sat tall and proud, host to all of the trauma. The memories would live on. I wanted to do something that would get rid of the place for good, for both my siblings and I, but I couldn’t figure out what…
I came to a conclusion when I took a quick glance about the attic. I hadn’t meant to go up there, yet I was curious of what my parents could have ever hidden up there – more, what they’d need to hide from eleven kids who knew better than to question things in the household. There hadn’t been much, or at least not much that I’d cared to notice, but the fireworks stuffed lazily in a corner had struck me immediately. Fire. It would mean the world for all of us to see the horrors of our past go up in flames, reduced to ashes and gone for good. An ending just like my parents met, ten years ago.
I spoke with the idea with Mikael. He was wary at first, and insisted I just went ahead and sold it so I could forget about it all, but after I explained my reasoning, he reluctantly agreed with me. Exactly two weeks after I had taken that trip down memory lane, we stood gathered outside the mansion, all eleven of us in a line.
“Ready?” my grin this time was real. I saw the hesitance in all of their faces, and knew being back here had done the same to them as it had to me. I suppose I was lucky to have never been alone with it all, but at the same time, it killed me to know they had to go through all that too. They all managed to nod, nervous smiles appearing upon all their faces.
We walked back to a safe distance away from the house. And then we all looked up, I clicked the button, and we watched, mesmerized, as the home of all the trauma went up in roaring flames, just like Mother and Father had in that car crash. Gone, gone for good.