It was a bleak December day when I got the confirming call. It was Dolores, my grandmother’s hospice nurse, informing me that she had passed away in the night. I thanked her for calling me then hung up hastily, taking shuddering breaths. I had no more family. My grandfather had died 5 years prior, swept away by dementia, now my grandmother was gone. She had been alone in her house for 3 years except for my occasional visits since I left and, of course, Dolores. I had been alone, too, for the first 8 years of my life. My father was unknown and my mother was disturbed, she loved drugs more than she loved me. She often disappeared for days on end until one day, she didn’t come back. Police found me abandoned and starving in my house after hearing I hadn’t been to school in the past few days. I was sent to live with my grandparents, they were my world and the only somewhat stable facet I had in the storm called life.
Skip forward a few years, and I was visiting my grandparent‘s house a few days after Grandma had died. I had loved my grandparents and perhaps that was why I wasn’t planning on going to Grandma’s visitation. Seeing them one day, alive and happy, then the next, a dull and empty corpse, drained of all the memories we had made together, the good and the bad. It would hurt me too much, Grandpa’s funeral had wrought me to the bone. Although, he might as well have been gone, even before his last breath. In the year leading up to his death, his dementia had a pulse of its own and he remembered very little, yet, he never forgot the recipe for Grandma’s and his famous raspberry cookies.
They were the first thing I ate when I arrived at my grandparents house at the age of 8, thrown to the curb by my own mother, and they were the last thing I ate before leaving my grandparents 10 years later when I went off for college. Heck, the first memories I have with Grandma and Grandpa were eating those cookies in their small, Victorian styled home. Grandma and Grandpa made those cookies on the first Saturday of every month, yet somehow, I never got tired of them. Making the cookies back when I had first arrived was a pivotal bonding experience, as I was quiet and reserved, hard to reach through my built up walls of neglect.
Grandma and Grandpa kept the raspberry jam of those cookies in the cellar. I don’t remember much about that cellar anymore except for the wonderful, wonderful raspberry jam harvested from it. On the mornings that we would bake the cookies, they would take long trips down there just for the jam, coming up an hour later. It was always somehow fresh though, and the most delicious delicacy I had ever tasted.
I was broken out of my thoughts by a sudden banging at the door. I pulled myself off of the couch, wiped my stinging tears, and swung open the door. It was Dolores. We shared a quick hug, “What are you doing here?” I asked politely as possible. Dolores and I never talked much, unless it was about Grandma, but she was friendly. “Oh,” she sighed as she looked around tiredly, “I thought I would visit one last time, in remembrance. I did take care of Agnes for 3 years.” We shared a moment of silence together then parted ways to meander around the house. Dolores went to the bedroom while my curiosity pulled me towards the cellar. I stepped out into the well-trimmed backyard, now all muddy with rain.
I walked to the side of the house and lifted the rotting wood cellar doors, creaking with age and rust as I pulled them open. I descended down the rusty ladder into the damp, murky room and pulled out my phone. The small area lit up with my phone’s bright flashlight and as the piercing light filled the room, memories from here began coming back. They snuck back to me from the dark crevice of my mind I had pushed them into what seemed so long ago, but what was only a few years. Those painful memories swelled in my head, one after another, relentlessly, making it throb.
“Gramma, Gramma, PLEASE?” It was 11 years ago, over a decade, as I perfectly pictured my younger self, begging dramatically at my Grandma’s feet, bare legs against the icy cold kitchen tile. “PLEASE? It’s just a yucky old basement, I wanna get the raspberries with you guys!” Grandma looked pleadingly at my Grandpa, his wrinkly face tucked into a newspaper. He lifted his eyes and looked up, “C’mon, Agnes. The girl’s 10 now, she can go in the cellar.” “I just don’t want her to get scared - or tell anyone,” she said the last part in a hushed tone. “She’s a good girl, she won’t tell anyone,” Grandpa stood up, his almost 80-year-old joints cracking as he did so.
“How good are you at keeping secrets, girly?” He inquired, bending down so that his old wrinkly face was mere inches from mine. “The best!” I showed him a toothy grin to accompany my overeager statement that was somewhat obstructed by my previous lisp. “Perfect,” he smiled before he continued on with his brief interrogation, “Have you ever seen a dead person before?”
The dramatic shift of mood in the kitchen that morning, so many years ago, it never failed to scare me. Even though it was just a memory, chills crept through my present day body. There was nothing that could have prepared seemingly fearless 10-year-old me for what I was about to witness that day. I had lied to grandpa, saying that I had seen one before, as young me thought a dead person couldn’t possibly be that bad, my curiosity had got the best of me. And as they say, curiosity killed the cat. But it was my innocence that curiosity had killed that day.
I brought myself back into reality, unable to bear the rest of that horrifying memory. I realized something though. I was still in that cursed cellar, my phone flashlight was still illuminating that cursed place. The light fell upon the dingy, blood-stained hospital bed and the dirty needles and the ‘jam’ jars and the decaying corpses shoved into the back of the musty, cramped room. Grandma and Grandpa weren’t who I thought they were.
Grandma and Grandpa weren’t crime lords or mob bosses, however, what they were doing was just as horrifying, and they revealed it to me 11 years go in the small cellar underneath their unassuming Victorian home. If only my mother had known what fate she had condemned me too when she left me as a young child. They made a living extorting local businesses and whoever didn’t comply with their demands disappeared; disappeared to everyone but Grandma, Grandpa and me. Those people spent their last days in that disgusting basement before they were slaughtered and it began. The process was horrific and since the day that naïve young me had fought too hard and begged too much, I had to watch every second of it. Every second of the dismembering of corpses, the draining of blood from their cold, lifeless bodies, and the canning of that dark red liquid, which eventually served as the raspberry jam of those famous raspberry cookies.
We made pastries out of doctors, CEOs, dedicated employees, petrified masses, then choked them down our reluctant throats or passed them out to innocent church- goers, friends, even our victims’ own families.
I never actually went to college, I ran away, school was just an excuse so I could finally escape Grandma, who, despite the death of her husband and confidant, kept baking. I couldn’t gag down any more pastries, I only went along with their scheme and kept forcing cookie after cookie for so long, so I wouldn’t end up in the next batch. The pain of those memories bore down on me like the weight of the universe, it was too much. I fell to the cold, hard, cellar floor, sobbing violently. It was over.
It was done now, I didn’t have to carry the weight of my psychotic grandparents anymore. It was done, but it didn’t feel like it. I was still face to face with a wall that shelved vials full of deep crimson blood and a terrible secret; face to face with the fact that for years, I had witnessed the torturous death of tens of innocent people and hadn’t done a thing. I should’ve done something, anything, even if I did end up in a damned cookie. I was just as much of a monster as Grandma and Grandpa. I deserved no better than dying alone in this claustrophobic little house, surrounded by the remnants of all the sins I had committed and the unholy things I had witnessed, yet had never tried to stop.
I was jolted from my pity and regret by Dolores - for the second time that day - who was calling my name from outside. I took some shuddering breaths and collected my broken self as much as I humanly could. Pushing those painful memories out of my mind, I pulled myself up the rusty ladder and into the backyard. Dolores stood on the patio, her dark silver hair matted by the rain. “Are you okay?” She croons, obviously having noticed my red-rimmed eyes and puffy lips, a trait that had always emerged when I cried. Dolores’s voice is raspier than usual, it’s clear she’s been crying as well. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” I croak out, the weak attempt to hide the cracks in my voice failing terribly.
“I…” Dolores starts “I need to talk to you,” she says dryly, her face lacked emotion, or at least tried to. “Okay…lets - lets go inside,” I replied solemnly as I wiped hot, stinging tears from my face. I couldn’t stop my mind as it raced with thoughts, all pertaining to the question ‘why does Dolores need to talk to me?’ It was probably a formality since, after all, she was Grandma’s nurse and I was Grandma’s only living family member that we knew of. The question still clawed at my mind like the overgrown vines on the bricks of my grandparents’ house; something just seemed… off. Dolores’s face was motionless, an almost stone-like consistency and vastly different from her usual self. Understandably, she wouldn’t be quite so chipper when her patient - and most-likely friend - had passed away recently, however, the assumed emotion during this time would be sadness, but Dolores just looked blank, lacking any and every emotion.
We stepped inside and Dolores immediately sunk into the couch which swallowed her whole and she buried her head in her hands. I sat down timidly next to her, shaken by her strange behavior and not sure what to do. Her once impassive face lifted out of her veiny hands and revealed thin tears cascading down her worn face. I began to scoot closer to her, but she pushed me away. Dolores wasn’t strong, in fact, she was so weak I only let myself be pushed away because her deficiency of strength startled me; yet it didn’t startle me as much as what she said after that. “Don’t, Rebecca, just… oh God, I’m sorry, Rebecca.”
The desperation in her voice alone was disconcerting enough but it wasn’t just that that had shaken me. It was my name. I hadn’t gone by Rebecca since I was eight and the only people who knew my real name were my mother and my grandparents, the latter of which hadn’t spoken that word since I moved in with them. Unless Grandma had broken that vow I made her swear to when I was younger, Dolores shouldn’t have known my name. Grandma wouldn’t have done that though. Grandma had kept every secret she had ever sworn to. I knew this because if she hadn’t, she would’ve been in jail long before her elderly demise. My name had even been removed from every legal document concerning me since I changed it so many years ago to spare me from remembering the traumatizing first decade of my life. There was no way she could know my name. Unless….
“H-how do you know my name?” I sat stunned, my voice a mixture of disbelief, anger, and confusion as Dolores seemed to melt deeper into the couch. I never learned to handle conflict well, at my most impressionable age, I was neglected, betrayed, and lied to. I never developed a healthy outlet, I never talked about my feelings, I never had any friends, I never had anywhere to turn when life became unbearable. I was my only friend, my only safe space when the world was harsh and unforgiving and I would draw back into myself when I couldn't handle it.
Dolores never beat around the bush or hesitated when informing Grandma or I on even the most gut-wrenching news, and even though I was used to this after five long years, what she said next hit me like a freight train and left my flattened carcass plastered to the tracks of a sentence that nothing could have ever prepared me for.
“Because I was the one who gave it to you.”
Her words plunged me out of my silence and back to the cold, harsh world I found impossible to escape now. ‘It can’t be true’, I thought, ‘It can’t be true… but how does she know-?’. I was frozen in my spot, unable to move, so I just stared at her. I stared at Dolores as the realization crept through my veins. I stared at the woman who had no other way of knowing my name than if she was truly the one that had given it to me as she said. The woman who neglected and abandoned me. The woman who left me to live with psychopaths and be traumatized for the rest of my life.
She wasn’t done with her confession, though. She started up again, seemingly intent on further ruining my already in shambles life. “I did it, Rebecca. I killed her, I couldn’t take it anymore. Oh God, I killed her-” Dolores didn't have to say her name. I knew by her tone, her deflated position. I knew, from the second she said it, she had murdered my Grandma.
I suddenly began to understand. The story started fitting together the moment we sat down on the couch, all the unknowns that now came into the light, filling in the mysteries of my life I had contemplated and thought on for so long. Dolores, my mother, was aware of her parents’ secret, she had been haunted by it as well as I. She fled home at a young age, like me. To forget the pain of her past, she took drugs and slept around, a fact attested by needles and strange men, both which I witnessed littered around our house when I was still with her. I assume she couldn’t handle me, she was not fit to be a mother, so she left me, perhaps knowingly sending me to suffer the same childhood she had with my grandparents. What happened after that and before this moment was a mystery still to me, but Dolores’s solemn testimony of all the years that had passed since she departed from me - from my life - carried on into the evening of that bleak December day.
The grandfather clock that stands tall in the living room chimes 8:00. Dolores finishes talking, the mystery is no more. She never recovered from the trauma her parents instilled upon her, but she got her life together enough and became sober so she could forge her way into a job. Hospice. All with the intention of seeing her mother one last time. That she did.
We remain next to each other on the couch, soaking in the past few hours. Deep, writhing pain latches onto me and creeps throughout me, leaving no place untouched, no place for me to numb my feelings. Instead, they fester inside of me and bubble up to the brim, seizing control of me, and sending me into a blind rage like something you’d see in a movie. I stand up shakily, Dolores’s pale eyes following me, and my pale eyes locked on her. My vision turns to a blur, yet somehow clearer than it's ever been.
Grandma and Grandpa taught me to form feelings only when I knew all the facts of whatever it was I was forming feelings about, it's the only lesson of theirs I can recall now because I now know everything. Everything, especially how my life has been stripped away from me by people I thought I could trust. How my grandparents stole my innocence and how my mother stole my chance at a normal, happy life and - no matter how psychotic they were - the only people who ever truly loved me.
In one swift movement, driven by adrenaline and rage, I lunge on Dolores, my dear, dear mother, and smother her with a pillow that had been lying awkwardly on the couch. She fights as hard as she can but she’s weak, too terribly weak to delay her fate. She stops struggling a few minutes later, and her body goes limp and grows cold. I grab a knife in the kitchen, stopping only for a moment to catch a glimpse of my reflection in the blade. Long ebony hair, pale gray-blue eyes just like my mother, and my sullen, ghostly face, haunted by memories not even a saint could endure.
My hand drops from my face and my eyes focus on Dolores again as the knife glints in my peripheral vision. Maybe I’ll make some raspberry cookies.