March 20, 2020
“All I’ve got might not be that much, but I’m giving it all to you.” ~~~Graveyard
During these trying times with the pandemic and many people quarantined and out of work, I don’t have much to offer to help others out. I live paycheck to paycheck, so I have no money to donate; I’m a high risk person for Covid-19, since I have an autoimmune disorder and I’m scared to leave my house, so I can’t go out into the community to offer service. BUT…
I can share some free reads of my previously published works to help people pass a little time.
Note: Each new piece will be added to the bottom. Scan down for the newest post.
(Please overlook to lack of paragraph indents. The website auto-formats all my posts that way. I’m not sure how to fix it.)
First: Here’s a short, very short, dark fiction story that has been published in The Stonecoast Review, on The Other Stories Podcast, and on Siren’s Call eZine Issue #37. You can listen to me read the story, making it extra creepy, on the Other Stories Podcast here: http://www.theotherstories.org/unemployed-neighbor-renee-s-decamillis/ (which also has an interview with me after the story), or you can read it here:
The Unemployed Neighbor
by Renee S. DeCamillis
The unemployed neighbor never mows his lawn. He owns one of the most high-tech riding mowers in the neighborhood. The mower sits under the unemployed neighbor’s dilapidated back deck covered with a blue torn-up tarp with grease stains all over it. Behind the mower, hanging on a rack on the outside wall of the house, hangs a number of gardening tools: manual rototiller, rakes, shovels, pitchfork, hoes. But the large raised garden bed in the unemployed neighbor’s back yard is filled with dandelions and moss-carpeting. The wooden garden gate archway is cracked, splintered and crumbling, and the swinging gate-door hangs crooked from only one working hinge. The carved daisies on the upper curved border no longer look like flowers. Their painted purple petals have all broken and fallen to the ground.
The unemployed neighbor has a two-car garage, but he only drives a sidecar-motorcycle—his one running vehicle. His cycle, a relic of a Harley, is a hodge-podge of mismatched parts pieced together from junkyards and fellow local bikers. The only original part of the unemployed neighbor’s cycle is the seat; it’s a two-seater, original from the day he bought the Harley brand new. The passenger seat of the unemployed neighbor’s two-seater Harley is worn and faded, but I never see him with a passenger. A beat-up 1975 Camaro sits up on cement blocks in the unemployed neighbor’s side yard. The hood is always propped open, held up with a thick tree branch. There is no motor inside the unemployed neighbor’s old beat-up muscle car.
The unemployed neighbor walks with a limp. He’s a tall slim man, with monkey-like arms. The long, ringlet-filled salt-and-pepper ponytail and silvering-beard shows his age. He’s in his mid-fifties. The unemployed neighbor never wears shoes in the summer. In the winter he wears sandals with mismatched socks. Sometimes the unemployed neighbor wraps plastic shopping bags over his sandaled-feet. I see this happen on the slushiest winter days. In the spring and the fall the unemployed neighbor pedals around and around the cul-de-sac on an old, rusty women’s bicycle. It has a white wicker basket attached to the front of the handlebars that is covered with purple-petaled daisies. When I see the unemployed neighbor pedaling around in circles, he’s always wearing flip flops and fuzzy purple legwarmers. The unemployed neighbor always stops at some point in the middle of his pedaling-circles to pick up pebbles from the side of the road and place them in the basket. I always wonder what he does with all those pebbles.
The unemployed neighbor’s makeshift mailbox is made out of a bright yellow plastic kitty litter container duct taped to a purple-painted PVC pipe stuck into a mound of gravel and rocks. But the unemployed neighbor doesn’t own a cat. He owns a dog, an old black dog with only three legs. I’ve never heard the dog bark. Every day at dusk, rain or shine, the unemployed neighbor takes his dog for a walk. I see the two limping and hopping around and around and around that cul-de-sac a number of times. One evening I found myself on my front porch bored and alone and watching them circle that cul-de-sac over and over and over again. I decided to count the number of times they made. Sixteen times is what it had amounted to. Curious, I set out to count their circlings every time I noticed them out on their walk. Every time I count, the number is always the same. Sixteen over and over and over again. It never varies, not when I’ve observed.
Every night, after walking his dog, the unemployed neighbor drives to the nearest liquor store, sometimes on his Harley, sometimes on the rusty women’s bicycle with a little red wagon trailing behind. He always buys a case of O’Doul’s and sixteen fifths of vodka. When he arrives home, he turns on a bright floodlight. The floodlight is attached at the upper back corner of his sagging roof, and it illuminates a shooting range in his backyard. Then he stands with the case of O’Doul’s on the ground beside his feet, a .45 in his hand. He takes aim and shoots at the vodka bottles all lined up on wooden sawhorses along the tree-line at the back border of his yard. Often I notice over his left ear a purple-petaled daisy. The evenings that I see no daisy over his ear, there is a purple glass vase filled with purple-petaled daisies beside his case of O’Doul’s.
The unemployed neighbor keeps to himself. I never see him have company at his house, and I never see him go out to socialize. The town is small, but I never hear anyone mention him, except to complain about his unkempt lawn. This is what I overhear from the old women of the community gardening club in the local diner where I order my daily takeout. I like to watch the unemployed neighbor while I eat my daily diner meals. Unemployed-neighbor-watching takes the place of dinner conversation, since I dine and live alone. It provides me much satisfying entertainment.
Tonight while eating dinner I doze off. I awake with a start to the sound of shattering glass. I look out the picture window expecting to see the unemployed neighbor shooting at vodka. His floodlights are all off. I stand up from my recliner, the only seat in my living room, and feel sharp piercing pain once my left foot hits the cold creaky floor. I look down and see a spider-web-splintered picture frame on the rotting hardwood. I pick up the picture and brush it off and sit back down. My foot is dribbling blood, but I cannot feel the wound.
In the photo, which has a smudge at one corner, I see a middle-aged man, tall and slim with monkey-like arms. His hair hangs in a ringlet-filled salt-and-pepper ponytail over one shoulder. His beard is raven-black. Beside him is a sixteen year old girl in a purple sun dress. She is sitting on a purple bicycle with a white wicker basket attached to the handlebars. All over the basket are purple-petaled daisies. Around the girl’s head of long sable hair is a halo—a ring of woven together purple-petaled daisies fresh out of the lush garden behind father and daughter, and food-colored by the girl’s mother for a birthday present. In the girl’s dainty hands is a .45. Beside her bare feet upon the grassy ground rests a torn-open box and crumpled wrapping paper. Across her and her proud daddy’s faces—smiles brighter than his shooting range floodlights. Smiles that will never return.
In the foreground of the photo sits a rectangular picnic table covered with a purple Sweet Sixteen tablecloth and a freshly baked homemade birthday cake created by the girl’s mother. The cake is two-tiered with white frosting and a border of purple-petaled daisies.
Those smiles will never return, not since that day, that day drunk daddy cleaned sweet-sixteen-Sandra’s birthday-gift-gun and accidentally shot her dead.
That photo. Such a great photo, had I not smudged frosting across the corner of the lens.
The aroma of fresh baked homemade cake will never grace my kitchen again.
March 23, 2020
Here is another short dark fiction story to help you pass a little time. This piece was inspired by the mysterious death of rock legend Chris Cornell. It was published in Deadman’s Tome: The Conspiracy Issue, 2018.
by Renee S. DeCamillis
The day their father died there was a glorious sun shower.
The news of their father’s alleged suicide hit Seth and Traci’s ears at the same instance the sun speckled the back patio amidst a splattering of raindrops. Over the pool and the backyard gardens the arch of a rainbow flickered in and out of view.
Without saying a word, Seth stared off into the distance through the sliding glass door. His eyes stung. His vision blurred. A black hole appeared on the fiery disc in the sky.
A tear drop later, dark clouds choked out the sun.
Thunder shook the children down to their cores.
How could they ever make their world right again?
It’s almost Dad’s birthday. He’s been gone for only two months, though it feels like it’s been a lifetime since Seth and his Dad strummed their guitars together.
Traci is sitting outside Seth’s closed bedroom door. It’s almost noon. She’s been there all morning. This has been an everyday occurrence since Dad’s death. Seth knows she’s there, though Traci thinks her presence goes undetected.
Seth may only be fifteen, but he’s smarter than anyone realizes.
Traci hears her brother playing his guitar. Over and over, he plays the same two songs—the first song Dad ever taught him and the one they wrote together.
Traci, older by a year and a half, watches Seth’s every move. She has even figured out the password on his laptop. She’s been searching for his journal, with no success. With the long hours she hears him clickety-clacking away on those keys, she knows he’s writing something. With all the parental protections on their computers that Mom has put into place to keep them from reading all the conspiracy theories about Dad’s death, she knows Seth’s not typing on some online chat room or social media site. What’s he writing? Traci wants desperately to find his words, since he speaks very little.
Seth is numb. He no longer feels. He no longer cries. He barely says a word. He’s been locked inside his shell since Dad’s mysterious death.
Seth Simone—a rock legend with a voice unmatchable, a voice unmistakable, a father with a love unconditional, a dedication unfathomable.
His absence leaves a shadow on the son.
Seth cranks his amp louder. A down-tuned D-chord crunches through the ether. An off-time rhythm bounces off the walls.
That’s his signal. Traci gets the hint.
She retreats and descends down the spiral staircase at the end of the hall. It lands in the kitchen. Avoiding the wide-open foyer stairs leading to the center of their home, she wants to sneak down to see what Mom’s doing.
She has barely spoken of Dad’s death since the day she bluntly broke the news to them.
“You’re father’s dead. He hung himself. But it was an accident; you know he’d never leave you intentionally.” This was followed by rigid hugs and cold, clammy pats on their backs and dry kisses on their foreheads. Tears didn’t fall until she saw her children crumble.
An accident? Intentionally? What in the world is that suppose to mean? There’s nothing more intentional than suicide.
Traci and Seth still haven’t figured it out. Well, at least not Traci.
Seth can hear what’s unspoken.
He knows where his mother is without spying on her.
Hiding. Walling herself off.
Traci finds her in the breakfast nook, head buried in her phone, scrolling through entertainment news. Her fingers are pecking at the screen faster than a woodpecker pecking for grubs. Coffee and a gluten-free muffin sit untouched on the table beside her skeletal-thin arms.
Heading to the fridge, Traci doesn’t speak to her, only observes. Any time someone gets close enough to potentially see what she’s doing on her phone, a convenient stretch or cough occurs, and repositioning takes place.
The veil is pulled tighter.
Everyone deals with grief in their own way. This is what Traci has heard from her counselor, and Seth has heard it, too. They talk with the same psychiatrist. If only Mom would talk to her. Traci wishes she could console her, but Mom avoids the Dad-topic at all costs. Sometimes Traci hears her sniffling, but she hasn’t seen Mom shed a tear since the day of Dad’s death.
Seth knows their mother is dealing with something much darker than grief.
The doorbell rings.
Mom doesn’t flinch. Her eyes remain glommed on her phone.
“Don’t move. I’ll get it.”
Still nothing. No words. No movement—besides those pecking fingers against a screen so flat and unfeeling.
Traci slams the fridge door and scuffs her feet across the new marble floor toward the foyer. The new boots Mom bought her as a pick-me-up-gift have fat heals that click and clomp and scrape the whole way to the front door.
That does it.
“Traci, I’ve told you a million times—don’t scratch the damn floor. Pick up your feet and stop being fucking lazy!” Mom’s voice is scratchy from lack of use. But she hasn’t lost any of that brain-scraping volume. She clears her throat before adding, “Sorry, Hon. I didn’t sleep well.”
Peering through the peephole of the front door, Traci fills with frustration.
Another delivery truck.
Mom’s been shopping again.
Ever since Dad died she’s been buying Seth and Traci stuff. The boots Traci has on were the first pick-me-up gift she’d received from Mom, and the gifts haven’t stopped.
And the damn floor . . .
Two days after Dad’s funeral Mom was on the phone with interior decorators.
Filling the void—that’s what Traci calls Mom’s obsessive shopping and redecorating. Traci would much rather have heartfelt conversation and more of Mom’s time.
Traci opens the door as the delivery driver walks up the front porch with a large box.
From behind, Traci hears her mother. “Hi, Stan.”
Stan brings the box inside. After goodbyes are exchanged and Mom hugs Stan, she turns to Traci.
“Go tell Seth his new guitar is here.”
“Earth to Traci. Come in Traci.”
Mom yells, “Traci, wake the fuck up and go tell your brother! I want him to play this one at the dedication concert the band is putting on for your father this weekend.”
Traci already knows how this is going to go down.
Seth and Mom—oil and water.
When she gets to his bedroom the door is open. Hearing the shower running in the bathroom next to his room, Traci takes a chance and walks passed the “Stay Away” sign Seth has hung on the outside of his door. Rushing to his desk, she flips open his laptop. She’s now thinking that maybe his journal is masked under a different title. By the time the computer boots up and the documents tab is opened, she hears the shower shut off. Quicker than the moment between a blink and a tear, she powers everything down and hurries out of his room.
As she walks passed the closed bathroom door, Seth is still inside.
And he’s talking to someone.
Traci rushes back to Seth’s bedroom. When she looks in at his desk, she confirms that, yes, she did see his cell phone. It’s right there on top of his stack of music CDs.
She goes back to the bathroom door.
Who could he possibly be talking to?
Traci leans in close and puts her ear to the hardwood. At first, Seth’s voice is quiet, his words indiscernible.
But after he clicks off the exhaust fan, Traci hears what she never thought she’d ever hear again.
Seth’s talking to Dad?
Dinner is served.
Or more like, dinner has been ordered from some posh gourmet restaurant and is now placed in serving dishes on the dining room table as though Mom slaved over the stove for hours.
Traci and Seth and Mom are each sitting on different sides of the long rectangular rosewood table. Fine china place-settings are pristinely displayed in front of each of them. The dishware had been placed in these exact spots—on different sides of the table—before anyone sat down.
Traci didn’t get the chance to tell Mom that she hasn’t talked to Seth yet. Traci’s heart rate revs up every time she approaches Mom and starts to speak. This never happened before Dad died. In the past, Traci never had trouble talking with Mom.
“Seth, the band is excited to have you step in for your Dad at the tribute concert this weekend. And your new guitar—it’s designed in honor of him. Tomorrow we’ll go shopping for new outfits and I’ll call my stylist for trims. Got to be ready for all those cameras.” The clinking of serving utensils follows Mom’s words.
Traci’s heart jumps into her throat. She throws Mom a look, telling her to zip it. But Mom’s eyes remain riveted on the bird’s-size-portion of food she’s dishing into her own plate.
Seth and Traci’s dishes are still empty.
As Mom takes a long drink of her wine, Seth’s eyes shoot up from his lap and take aim at her forehead, as though they could bore holes through her skull.
“Another gift? A concert? Fuck that publicity bullshit!”
“Seth—language! I’ve told you a million times—watch your tongue!”
“Mom, I didn’t get a chance to tell him.”
“What the fuck, Traci? Why not?” Mom huffs. She downs the last of her wine, and, as she reaches for the wine bottle, she says to Seth, “It’s for your Dad. The band wants you to step in for him, in his memory. You do have his . . .”
As he jumps to his feet, jaw clenched and twitching, Seth’s chair flips backwards and crashes into the trestle table behind him.
He doesn’t say a word.
A display of framed family photos falls like dominos. Most of them end up shattered on the new marble floor.
Seth’s footfalls thunder out of the room and up the front hall stairs. An instant later, his bedroom door slams shut. Traci swears she feels the whole house shake.
Silence swallows the family.
It’s midnight. The chiming of the grandfather clock in the foyer tells the house that tomorrow has arrived. Traci’s been sitting outside her brother’s bedroom door for so long her joints are stiff and her butt aches. For the first chunk of time, Seth played his guitar as loud as he could crank his amp, until Mom cut the electrical circuit to his bedroom for a minute—her nonverbal message to Shut the fuck up. Ever since he powered down his music gear, he’s been typing with frantic speed on his laptop.
What’s he writing?
If he’s not going to open up to his sister, whom he’s been so close to that they refer to one another as best friend, then it’s her responsibility to find out what he’s keeping a secret. If Mom has locked them out of all social media sites, maybe he’s found a way around the parental blocks.
If that’s the case, Traci wants to find out how. Not just so she can find out who Seth might be chatting with, but also so she can get past the block, too. All her friends are on social media, and she feels like an outcast not being on there.
The key-tapping stops.
Seth’s laptop slams shut.
Traci jumps to her feet, ready to flee, until she hears her brother’s voice.
“I’m tired of typing. Dad, please, just talk to me. I need you.”
Traci’s jaw drops.
The rays of the setting sun beam through the large windows of the music room. The sharp angles of the glittering light create looming shadows that stretch oddly across the floor and walls. Traci sits on the floor amidst the shadow of Dad’s Marshall Stack. Leaning back against the side of the speaker tower, she wonders if Seth will ever come out of his room. Mom had forced them to go shopping that morning, and get trims from her hairstylist in preparation for the concert.
Seth never spoke. Not one word.
After they’d arrived home with take-out lunch, Seth took his meal and went straight to his bedroom. He hasn’t surfaced since.
Traci’s eyes are puffy and red. No tears fall. She doesn’t think she has any tears left to shed. All she wants is for Seth to talk to her, to open up, maybe play a couple songs together. Just hang out, like they had before . . .
Before Dad died.
All she wants is her brother back, her best friend. The line from Shakespeare and The Bible about the sins of the father befalling the children, she can’t get it out of her head. If she loses her brother, too, she doesn’t know what she’ll do.
That just. Can’t. Happen.
Her palm is sweaty. The iPod she’s holding slides around in her hand. She’d forgotten she was holding it. Lighting up the screen with the tip of her finger, she begins scrolling through, looking for . . . who knows.
With one final slide of her finger, she watches the list of songs fly by quicker than she can read the titles. It’s all a blur. She gives up.
She rests her head against the Marshall and squeezes her eyes shut. She recalls performing with Dad, singing with him on stage. The sting in her eyes intensifies. But still, no more tears.
She wants to sing again, like before. Music hasn’t touched her lips in the two months since Dad died. Every time she’s tried, that lump in her throat has held it all back, every note stifled by the threat of a breakdown, the threat of ending up a puddle on the floor.
Taking in a deep breath, she sits upright and shakes her head. Then she makes a decision.
If she has to drag Seth out of his room kicking and screaming, that’s just what she’ll do.
Ready to go get Seth, she looks down at the iPod screen before powering it down. What’s highlighted makes her heart skip.
If Seth doesn’t come down and join her when he hears this, he never will.
She stands tall. With the flip of the P.A. power switch, she clears her throat and grabs the mic with a strong grip. Opting to go acapella, she leaves Dad’s acoustic untouched.
The opening lyrics of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” roll and tumble gracefully from her as though she’d written the song herself. The warm notes of her powerful voice float through the house like ghosts. By the time she gets to the line about liberation from mental slavery Seth has emerged from upstairs, entered the music room, and is now strumming Dad’s acoustic, accompanying her.
The song ends. A tight-lipped half-smile is on Seth’s face. He says nothing.
Sitting Dad’s acoustic back in its guitar stand, Seth reaches over and grabs one of Dad’s electrics. Within minutes, the Marshall is cranked. Seth is rocking hard. And then he steps up to the mic. and opens up.
Every note. So powerful. So spot on. Loud love.
It reminds Traci of Dad so much it feels like her well of tears is filling back up and ready to overflow.
The feeling must be mutual.
Seth’s voice cracks in the middle of the second line of the chorus for “Show Me How to Live”.
That’s where it ends.
Feedback rings and reverberates off the walls, the windows, and off every cell of their bodies.
“Everyone says they see Dad every time they look at me, but holy crap—you sound just like him, Seth. You got Dad’s voice.” She wants to cry but she can’t. She just can’t.
“No one sings like Dad anymore.” He doesn’t look at her as he speaks. And that slight smile is gone.
Dad’s electric remains in Seth’s hands as he sits down on the Chaise lounge. A serious expression takes over his face. Brushing his long blond hair out of his eyes, he finally opens up.
“I’ve been talking to him—to Dad. He told me what really happened.”
Traci’s heartbeat speeds up. Her fingers start twitching. “What in the world are you talking about?”
“He wanted a divorce, and Mom had him killed.”
“Seth, that’s insane. How can you say that?”
“I’m not accusing her. It’s the truth. Dad told me.” Seth remains deadpan.
“How, Seth? How did Dad tell you anything? He’s dead, Seth. Dead! You have to accept it.”
Here come Traci’s tears.
Seth’s eyes don’t look away. His voice never wavers. “Remember when he came home for a week to visit, and we overheard them yelling in their bedroom that last day? It was about the divorce. Our mother even attacked him, and, when he tried to stop her, she ripped out a chunk of his hair.”
Traci recalls what she’d overheard. “Once this tour is over, a new chapter begins for all of us.”
“No, Seth. It was not about divorce. Dad was pissed at the band. He wanted to finish the last few shows of their tour and get back in the studio to work on their next album. But the band wanted to add more shows. He told us, Seth. Remember? And I never saw anything wrong with Dad’s hair. What are you even talking about? Mom attacked him? She may yell a lot, but attack Dad? Come on.”
“He didn’t want to upset us. He didn’t want us to worry. That’s why . . . Oh, and Dad wore his hair pulled back for the rest of that day. Remember?”
“No, Seth. No. You’re wrong. I don’t believe that for one minute.”
Dad did wear his hair pulled back; she does remember that. But . . . no, just, no.
Seth walks over to the empty guitar stand and places Dad’s instrument back in its safe resting place. With that same deadpan manner he seems to have perfected since Dad’s death, he turns to Traci and says, “I can prove it.”
Scuffing and squeaking his black and white Chuck Taylor’s across the new marble floor, his eyes remain riveted on Traci as he leaves the music room. On his way through the foyer, he kicks over the box containing his new guitar. Then he goes back upstairs and locks himself away in his bedroom.
“I can’t believe it either. He’s gone totally whacko. What am I suppose to do, Emily?” Traci’s moist palm clenches her cell with a white-knuckled death-grip.
Not knowing how to handle the delusions Seth is experiencing, and afraid of how Mom will react should she hear about it, their stepsister Emily, older by five years, is the only person Traci trusts enough to confide in.
“Did he say he saw Dad? Or did he just say he talked to him?”
“I don’t remember. I’m just so scared for him.”
“I wish you guys could come up here and live with us. Mom was just saying she wishes she could take you and Seth away from the evils of Hollywood—the way Dad had always wanted to raise his family, real and down to earth and close to his home.” A sniffle follows and an obvious hand over the phone. Then Traci hears Emily talking, but she isn’t talking to Traci. It must be Beth, Emily’s mom.
“I’m lucky I got him to say anything at all. Now what if he doesn’t talk to me anymore because I didn’t believe him? What if he . . .” She doesn’t want to finish that thought; saying it out loud could make it come true. Tears hang from the ledge of Traci’s lower lashes. Losing her brother would destroy her.
She has to keep it together. She has to stay strong. How else is she going to help Seth?
“How do you know for sure what Dad and your mom were fighting about when he was home?”
“Emily, he told us. Dad was about truth. Plus, while they were fighting I heard him say, ‘Once this tour’s over, a new chapter begins for all of us.’ I heard him say that. He wanted to write a new album—the ‘new chapter’ he was talking about.”
“Yeah, but why would you’re mom fight with him about that? That doesn’t make sense. She didn’t want him to write a new album with the band? Why?”
“Emily,” Traci hesitates. She tries to recall more from that day. Why would Mom fight with Dad about a new album? Traci has no idea. She’s unable to remember much from that fight, except how furious Mom looked, and how red her eyes were when they’d come out of the bedroom, Mom first, then Dad a while later—with his hair pulled back. Dad had seemed upset, too, but he’d also appeared like they’d come to some sort of agreement. But Mom—she didn’t seem over it.
“Traci, are you still there?”
“Yeah, sorry, I’m here. Just thinking, you know?” She pauses. “Emily, I gotta go. Thanks for listening.”
“Wait. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. I’m gonna go try to talk to Seth again. I can’t have him mad at me.”
“Please, call me if you need anything. And definitely call me if you find out more about Seth and Dad.” The phone gets muffled again. Traci hears Emily say, “Yes, yes, I will. Don’t worry.” But she isn’t talking to Traci. The line clears of all muffles and Emily says, “Mom sends her best. She says to tell you and Seth that she misses you both and wants you to come visit real soon.”
The sisters say their goodbyes.
Traci looks in the mirror above her bedroom vanity and wipes her eyes dry. That piercing blue. All she sees is Dad.
She looks away.
Outside Seth’s bedroom door again. The only thing different this time—Traci knocks.
No. That’s not accurate.
Traci pounds on the door.
Mom is downstairs on the treadmill, earbuds in her ears. She has to remain camera-ready.
Seth doesn’t answer.
Does he think she doesn’t know he’s in there? She just heard him playing his guitar five minutes ago. His door never opened after he stopped playing. Plus, she can hear the crackle and buzz of the amp still powered up.
Traci pounds harder. She keeps pounding until he finally answers.
Seth flings open the door, but he stands in the center of entry to block her. “What?! Will you stop already?”
She pushes past him into his room.
“Get out! I’m busy.” He stands with the door held open and waits for her to leave.
“Shut the door already,” she says as she goes to him and pushes the door closed. It slams shut.
“So, you want to piss Mom off and get her up here yelling and swearing?” Seth, eyebrows raised, is standing there with his hand still in mid-air where he’d been holding the door open. “I don’t want that monster in my room ever again!”
“Monster? That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?”
“Trace, it’s Dad’s birthday.”
“I know that. What’s your point?”
“Mom hasn’t done anything special today to remember him. Not that I’d do anything with her anyway, but still . . . nothing. That’s just wrong . . . and weird.”
“Remember—everyone grieves in their own way. Maybe it hurts her too much. And don’t forget the tribute concert.”
“Oh, shut up. You sound like that quack shrink she makes us see every week. You may think Mom’s lost, but I know she’s hiding. And that concert—what a joke.” Seth opens the door and peeks out into the hallway. He looks both ways.
“Stop, Seth.” Traci starts toward him as she adds, “Don’t worry. Mom’s working out. She can’t hear anything.” She grabs his hand that’s holding the door open and drags him over to sit next to her on his bed. The door shuts softly behind them. “Now, did you actually see Dad or did you just hear him?”
“Oh, now you believe me?” He turns away. A breath later, he turns back to face her. “No, wait, you think I’m crazy. Ha! See, you do sound just like that quack.”
“I’m serious, Seth. Tell me what happened. What did Dad tell you?”
Seth is over by his desk now. After he opens the top-center drawer, he pulls it completely out and reaches his hand up under the desk. He bends down to look at what he’s doing and starts moving more gingerly, as though not to make too much noise or not to cause damage to whatever he’s after. Then come the sounds of cellophane and tearing tape, followed by the sound of . . .
A medicine bottle?
A moment later Seth is standing there with a stapled manuscript in one hand. A screenplay maybe? (It is California, after all.) The edges of the cellophane bag it was in are lined with duct tape where it had been attached underneath the bottom of the desk.
In his other hand he’s holding a prescription medication bottle.
Seth holds up both items. “The proof.” He tosses them onto the bed next to his sister. “Now tell me I’m crazy.” He waves his hands in the air in mock-lunacy.
Analyzing everything he just tossed at her, Traci still can’t believe what she’s seeing. “Where did you get these? How did you get these?”
That’s no script. That’s a packet of divorce papers—with their parents’ names on it. Traci flips to the last page of the documents. Dad’s signature is there, and it’s dated the day he’d flown back to perform at what ended up as his last concert—the day of his death.
The space for Mom’s signature is empty.
Traci rolls the medicine bottle around in her hand so she can read the label. Butalbital, prescribed to Uncle Gabe—Mom’s brother.
Why would Mom have Uncle’s Gabe’s medication? And how did Seth get any of this stuff?
“The day he died, Dad came to me in a dream. He told me what Mom did and where to find this stuff. He said I had to get this away from her before she had a chance to get rid of it.” Seth comes back over and sits on the bed next to his sister. “When I woke from that dream I thought I was crazy. Dad, as far as I knew, was alive. But I went to where Dad said I could find this stuff and there it was, everything Dad told me I’d find.” His voice is cracking now. “Right after I hid it all under my desk, Mom called us downstairs and told us he was dead.” He wipes his eyes. “Traci, I knew Dad was dead before Mom told us.”
“But how? Why? I still don’t understand.” Though she’s trying to stay strong for her brother, Traci can’t hold back the tears any longer. As she covers her face with her hands and starts to sob, Seth edges closer and puts his arm around her shoulders.
He doesn’t say anything else for a couple minutes. He waits for Traci to calm down so she can hear him, really hear him. He wants her to understand. He needs her to believe him.
“So, Dad really came to you? You saw him? Talked to him?” She wipes the tears from her cheeks and looks him dead in the face. “Why wouldn’t he come to me, too? I miss him so much!” She covers her face and starts crying again. But, just as quickly as the tears begin to flow, Traci takes a deep stuttered breath and sits up tall. This time she doesn’t wipe away the pain.
“What else did Dad tell you?”
“Mom didn’t want a divorce. Dad did. He didn’t tell me why. He just said she wasn’t the person he’d thought she was. I guess she did something really bad that he just couldn’t forgive. He wanted to take us away from her. She was pissed. She told him she’d find a way to prove he’d been cheating on her and take him for all he’s worth. But he said with what he found out, she’d never get custody. The truth would ruin her.”
“But wait. Why would they make us think everything was fine? Why . . .”
“Do you even have to ask?”
Seth may be younger than Traci, but Traci’s emotions get in the way of her thinking clearly. She was Daddy’s little girl, babied and coddled. Seth was Dad’s buddy. They played rough, wrestled and went mountain biking together, and they talked about a whole bunch of things that Seth’s friends never talked to their dads about. Grownup stuff.
Seth sees where Dad went wrong with Traci. Now Seth has to be the one to tell his sister about the evils of the world. Toughen her up—so the world doesn’t chew you up and spit you out—as Dad used to say to him. And the hardest part—
Seth has to tell her about the evils of their own mother.
Shaking the medicine bottle, Traci says, “Well, what are these for? Why did Dad tell you to get these away from Mom? They’re not even hers.”
“Mom had someone drug Dad and then kill him. His killer made it look like Dad killed himself.” Seth goes to his laptop and starts clicking around. Then he pulls up documents and motions for Traci to come over.
“Dad told you all that?” Traci looks unconvinced.
“I had a hard time believing it, too. Even though I knew Dad was dead before Mom told us, I still had a hard time believing all the stuff about Mom. She’s . . . she’s . . . our Mom. I didn’t want to believe it. But,” He turns his laptop so Traci can see what he’s pulled up on the screen. “I had a friend get me a copy of Dad’s toxicology report. Mom told us he fell off the wagon. That was a lie. Dad says Mom does that a lot—‘too many doors, too many lies’—his words, not mine.”
As Traci’s reading the toxicology report, Seth says, “Dad had only taken is anxiety meds. That’s it. But butalbital was somehow in Dad’s system. If Dad had also taken butalbital that night, why wouldn’t he have told mom when she’d asked?” Seth clicks again and pulls up another document.
“Wait. I wasn’t done.”
“You can finish after. This right here tells you what that medicine does to you. And on top of Dad’s anxiety meds—Dad couldn’t fight back. He was drugged to make it easier to kill him.” He clicks again—crime scene photos. “You know Dad—he’s a fighter. I mean, was a fighter.”
Gasping, Traci cups her mouth. The rivers are rushing rapids again. Her next words come out in choppy stutters. “I know she’s been acting strange, but . . .” Unable to finish her sentence, she hides her whole face in her hands.
“Now me in Dad’s place on stage. . .” Seth punches his closet door. “Fuck!”
Traci jumps and uncovers her face. With eyes so red and puffy, she looks alien. “Calm down, Seth, please.”
He shakes his hand. Tiny drops of blood trail from his knuckles. “She’s pushing me into the spotlight. She hasn’t even asked me if I want that. It’s all about money and publicity and status with her. She always was a slave driver with Dad; the more commercial, the more money, the better. I’d give everything away to have Dad back.” He wipes his eyes with his injured hand. Blood drips like tears down his cheek.
In a strained voice Traci says, “I can’t even . . .”
Seth rubs her back. Then he walks over to his dresser, pulls open the top drawer. When he comes back to the desk, he flips the laptop shut and places a white candle beside it.
“If Mom’s not going to do anything for Dad on his birthday . . .” He lights the wick with a skull shaped lighter.
They both stare through blurry vision at the flickering flame.
The air in Mom’s bedroom is cold. Her door was locked, but Traci’s known how to unlock it since she was eight and Seth was seven. Their parents had always wondered how the kids would end up in bed with them in the morning when they’d sworn the door had been locked the night before.
The sound of running water in the bathtub leaks out from under the closed bathroom door of the master bedroom. Mom’s ritual bath time after her hour-long treadmill run.
Traci climbs up into the bed and lies down in Dad’s spot. This has been her ritual ever since that horrible day. No one knows but her. She can’t bear the thought of Mom or Seth finding out. It hurts too much.
Resting her head on Dad’s pillow, she wishes his scent was still there like it was the first few times. His smell has since faded and been washed away. She hides her face in his pillow and sobs.
The ding of a text message notification grabs her attention. She looks toward Mom’s nightstand. Her cell is there, face up, right next to an empty bottle of wine, but the screen isn’t lit up from the new text. Traci rolls to Mom’s side, grabs the cell and clicks it to light it up.
There’s no new text.
Traci hears the ding again.
It’s coming from under the bed.
Traci climbs out of the bed and looks under it.
She reaches under the mattress.
There it is.
Traci pulls out a cell she’s never seen before.
Mom has another phone? Why? And why’s it hidden?
The screen is lit up with a new text from G, whoever that is.
“What’s the word?”
That’s all it says.
Traci doesn’t know what to make of it. She tries to get into the messages from G, but, of course, there’s a pass code.
As she’s punching in various birthdates, Traci hears the tub faucet shut off. Her fingers freeze. A couple seconds later, music flows out of the bathroom. Some pop-country crap Dad never would’ve had in the house.
Traci starts hitting more numbers on the screen, more dates, numbers she assumes may have significance to Mom. After what feels like the hundredth try, Traci wants to give up. Then she huffs to herself and just types in 1-2-3-4-5-6.
She opens up the thread of texts from G. It’s short. Mom must’ve deleted everything. But there is something.
A couple texts from three days ago.
Mom: “They want to question me again.”
G: “stay calm—remember what we discussed”
Uncle Gabe maybe?
Traci closes that thread and looks for more texts.
She opens up the contact list. Only two contacts are listed: G and Assurance.
A hiccup later, Traci hears the tub draining.
She locks the phone, tucks it back where she’d found it. After straightening the bedspread and pillows, Traci scurries towards the door. It feels like she can’t get out quick enough. The room feels a thousand miles wide. Traci reaches the doorway just as she hears the bathroom doorknob turning.
Traci’s stocking-feet shush across the hardwood floor as fast as they can go. Time has slowed down. Nothing she does seems like it can get done fast enough.
Seth’s bedroom is all the way at the other end of the hall. His amp is cranked to the heavens.
The song he’d written with Dad.
Hearing Seth play is calming. Traci sits down, leans her back against his door.
Still unable to believe what he had told her, she promises herself that she won’t tell him what she found. It will only feed his delusion. If he knew, she fears what Seth would do. It might be all it takes to push him over the edge.
She can’t lose her brother, too.
Resting her head on the door, she waits for the song to end before knocking. She’s afraid to leave Seth alone.
After who knows how long, he’s still playing his guitar. It’s like “2112” on steroids.
Will it ever end?
She just wants to see him.
At least she knows—as long as she hears that guitar, Seth is all right.
That’s her last thought before . . .
She raises her aching head off her shoulder, neck all cramped up. Somehow she’d fallen asleep. Seth’s room is silent now.
Head full of rolling bowling balls.
It’s too quiet.
She jumps to her feet, ready to barge in to make sure he’s all right.
Reaching for the doorknob, she hesitates.
What if he’s sleeping?
Only a moment passes before she hears the warm sound of him strumming his acoustic.
She pulls out her iPod and checks the time. 1 AM.
Shuffling off to bed, Traci doesn’t know how she’s supposed to sleep.
Tossing and turning all night, she decides to talk to Mom about her concerns about Seth.
Out of nowhere, a thought comes to her, like a familiar voice whispering in her ear.
“Call Beth. You’re going to need her.”
Not even an eyeful of sleep takes place that night.
Standing well away from his window, with the curtain drawn tight and the latch locked, Seth plays his guitar.
The song he’d written with Dad.
But Seth’s not the one singing.
Dad is by his side singing like he’s never sung before.
Seth never wants this song to end.
And it never will.
On Seth’s bed: the divorce papers, the bottle of butalbital, an unopened bottle of wine, a glistening razorblade, and his mountain biking gloves.
Day breaks. The aroma of fresh brewed coffee does not fill the house as it has on every other morning.
Seth’s bedroom door is closed. Putting her ear to the door, Traci hears the crackle of his amp. Nothing more.
She turns the knob.
Jaw clenched, breaths stop.
He’s sleeping, she tells herself. But breathing doesn’t get any easier.
Their mother’s bedroom door is closed. Traci doesn’t knock. She knows that by this time of the morning their mother is downstairs in the kitchen with her coffee, her gluten-free muffin, and reading some entertainment magazine article on her phone.
Traci rushes down the spiral staircase. She doesn’t dare bust into Seth’s room alone.
The kitchen is empty.
The coffee maker is clean and turned off.
Maybe their mother went out for a latte and a fresh baked muffin.
Traci opens the door on the far side of the kitchen that leads into the garage. Their mother’s car is there.
Maybe she’s doing morning laps in the pool.
Traci looks out the back windows.
The backyard is empty.
The home gym is empty.
The living room and dining room are empty.
A sinking feeling hits Traci like an undertow.
She rushes upstairs to their mother’s bedroom door.
After knocking three different times without an answer, she takes a long deep breath, turns the handle, and walks in.
Their mother is still in bed.
Before Traci rushes toward her, she sees something odd on the nightstand.
The divorce papers.
On top of the packet of papers—the medicine bottle. Tipped over, open, and empty.
As she scurries to her mother’s side of the bed, Traci kicks an empty bottle of wine out of the way.
She tries shaking her mother awake.
She tries again.
No response, except . . .
Their mother’s blood-soaked slit-open arm slips out from under the covers and hangs limp over the edge of the bed.
A mind-melting scream erupts from Traci. The windows, the doors, the entire house shakes with the power of her voice.
She turns around, ready to run for Seth, and . . .
There he is.
Seth strolls in through the open door.
He stares at the scene through his long hair. The look in his eyes is clearer than ever before. He walks over to Traci and hugs her tighter than he’s ever hugged her.
As he rubs her back, he calmly says, “The snake, kiss her goodnight. We’re safe.”
Traci’s sobbing and shaking in her brother’s arms. “What? I don’t understand.”
A deep wonk-wonk sound comes from the open door of the balcony, followed by sprinkles of a light rain.
They both turn.
The long flowing white curtains blow open and a fresh morning breeze, filled with the scent of lavender, hits their noses.
Seth leads them to the open door.
Perched on the balcony railing—a Raven. It’s staring in through the window.
“Look. Recognize those blue eyes?” With a head nod, Seth motions toward the bird.
Traci wipes her eyes and looks more closely. “But how?”
A blink later the bird takes flight and flickers into an image of Dad smiling at them from the sky.
With his arm wrapped around his sister’s shoulders, Seth says, “It’s Dad. He’s smiling. See?” Seth points.
Another blink, the image vanishes.
Clouds part. The ball of fire in the sky blazes down, lighting up everything, turning raindrops to diamonds.