She looked up towards the window from her seated position on the floor to see the branches from the live oak tap tapping in a frenzied dance against the panes.
The house was silent now. On the first floor of the now almost empty cottage, all the possessions she had collected throughout her life lay in neatly sealed cardboard boxes.
She began to breathe again as she watched the clock turn from 11 to 12. The wind whispered and ticked and at times screamed beyond the window.
She reached for the small, squat glass on the floor beside her: vodka and water, carefully measured so that she could drink all day long. This had become necessary after her father’s illness.
She shuddered at the memory of the room downstairs, the room where she had brought him to die. It had seemed like such a right thing to do at the time, almost a quaint touch on death. Almost.
Low thunder rolled out beyond the house. The ocean was raging today. Late February was such a lonely time, and she loved it best when it was lonely.
She suddenly became alert when she heard a shifting downstairs, almost like foot steps—no almost, just footsteps.
She had dreaded the last night in this house for as long as she could remember. This was the house she had grown up in. She had lived here her entire life, save for the 4 years she had managed to pull away in college. Her heart swelled for a moment with brief, remembered joy: late nights at the student coffee shop, discussions about politics and philosophy and love—and love. She pushed the thought away, because the pain was too much to bear.
The empty house seemed to sigh heavily as the HVAC system labored against the breath of the nor’easter. The rain was flecked with snow and ice, and she briefly wondered if tomorrow’s move would be postponed. She quickly pushed that unspeakable thought away. Tomorrow she would walk out of the doors of this house and never look back. She was free; she had repeated this mantra over and over to herself during the days following the death and funeral of her father. She had repeated it during the many days she had spent combing through the hoarded masses of crap the man had gathered throughout the years. She had repeated it as she packed her own things and took his things—clothes, endless papers, junk purchased from the Shopping Network—out to the curb. She remembered the thrill she got from seeing it all go into the back of the smelly, lumbering truck that came to take trash twice a week. I am free.
The ice had melted in her vodka, but she paid no notice. This was the last afternoon she would ever spend in this house. Something akin to ecstasy broke loose momentarily in her chest, but it was quickly extinguished as her mind battled against itself. The rooms were empty save for the packed boxes and one last item: the wicker basket.
The basket was the only remaining item in the cottage that had not been packed. It was downstairs in the former sick room, the death room. It had sat at the foot of her father’s bed for as long as she could remember. It was unusually large, large enough that she has used it as a hiding place as a child. Many times, unbeknownst to her father, she had hidden in the basket and spied upon the man who who had watched over her every move since her birth. She shook the thought away. The wicker basket was unpacked because she intended to leave the loathsome thing; she would not even drag it to the curb. She remembered how the hospice nurse had casually and naturally used the top of the basket as a staging ground for the changing of the urine bag that was attached to her dying father by a long translucent tube.
Beyond the window, a siren blared in the distance. Briefly, the rain stopped and it looked as though the sun would peek through. Then thunder rolled in the distance. In a few minutes, the sky lowered again and water fell in torrents from the sky. Somewhere below, she heard a shift, as if someone was waiting there and wanted her to know she was not alone.
But I am free.
She whispered the words to herself and felt the urge to go now, to run from the cottage out into the deserted street yelling with joy! But she did not. Tomorrow she would go; it was planned and orderly and right.
After draining the watered down liquor, she stood up from her position on the floor and strode from the room into the emptiness of the kitchen beyond. The only stores in the house were alcohol. She reached for the Grey Goose and then decided instead to open the last remains bottle of red wine in the house. It was a bottle of Chianti she had given her father about five years before the cancer turned him into a living ball of pain. Her hand lingered on the basket bottom. He never opened it, of course, and she was not going to take it with her. With a nearly light heart, she reached for the corkscrew and plunged it into the somewhat brittle cork. It gave her no trouble coming out, however. She smelled the almost sickening bouquet of the Chianti and then poured a stiff glass into a paper cup. She took a swig. This is my blood shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. Indeed! She raised her glass in a salute to an imaginary savior and then drained the Chianti.
There was a shift and audible movement downstairs. No, she thought, no. I don’t have to go down there ever again. I can leave tomorrow through the upstairs entrance. I never have too see that room again where I heard my father crying out for his long dead mother on his last agonized day. I am free.
The wine was sickeningly sweet with a distinctly bitter edge. She abandoned the quaint bottle for the last of the vodka. She drank from the bottle.
The afternoon had grown darker. The wind in the maritime grove sounded like voices now all whispering and some with a tone of despair (or was it sorrow?).
Again, she heard the shift downstairs. Now, adrenaline had started to awaken her sense of danger. No! She would never go down there again; she did not have to. She had done her duty, hadn’t she? She had brought him home to die in his own bed with his hoard around him and the
TV blaring game shows beyond the IV tree and the smell of disease that lingered like obscene incense around his doomed flesh.
The Grey Goose was gone. Night comes early in February, but not early enough. She reached for the Chianti.
As the shadows lengthened, the old fear that she had labored for a lifetime to overcome emerged from beneath the carefully constructed waterfall of booze she had fed her mind. I am free. She whispered out loud to herself. It was then she heard the laughter. At first, it could have been the pitch of the wind in the Yaupon grove, but it soon reached a higher pitch. Unmistakable. Familiar. Endless. As if a joke was so funny that the hearer could not gain control of his senses again, so funny was the bit. It was coming from downstairs. It was louder now than the sound of the roaring surf and the wind and the tap tapping of the limbs against the pain. She took a pull directly from the bottle of Chianti. It tasted thick and horrible in her mouth. This blood is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins….. Then as if her heart was a surfer who finally caught the wave, she felt a sense of acceptance.
No! I am free! I am free! I am leaving tomorrow! There is still a chance for me to …..
The laughter stopped abruptly.
She turned to the stairs that lead to the first floor. This was the way down to her father’s death room. It was the way down into memories of morphine drips, of pain, of weeping, of angry words from a dying man, of nurses and of needles. This was the way down to all the wasted years she had spent in this house, all the wasted love on a man who did not really know her, for what was there to know, aside from the fact that she was his daughter? She knew that the wicker basket was the only thing in that room now, so why did she also know that someone was waiting for her down those darkened stairs.? The laughter had ended, but it had been replaced by the papery sound of crones crying, like some memory from the fall of Troy, or Berlin, or…..
“Cap.n, I ain’t never seen nothing like it. Mother Mary, Jesus and the saints!”
The crime tape had been set up all around the perimeter of the cottage. The detective had just arrived and was getting the scoop before going in to the first floor. The sun had come out today after a three day blow, and it was unusually hot for late February.
“So, what do we know?”
“The woman, a Ms. _______________, was found dead in the first floor suite. Looks like she swallowed a bottle of Zoloft along with her vodka and Chianti. Suicide.”
“She was getting ready to move”
“Apparently. Neighbor said they kept to themselves after the girl and a nerves breakdown in college.” She never left the house. Kept her father home when he had terrible cancer last year.”
“O.K.,” the detective paused, “but what’s got you so stirred up?”
The policeman shook his head. “Go see for yourself, sir. I can’t—it is just…”. He trailed off, and the detective, somewhat annoyed, moved to enter the door to the first floor of the cottage. It was empty of everything, ready for a move that would never happen. She just could not break free. He did not know why he thought this thought; he prided himself in his calculated distance from all human suffering—he needed to be clear-headed to do his job. The suite was on the first level just beyond the garage. He entered the room. There was nothing in it save for the woman and a very large wicker basket with a lid and decorative latch. The dead woman lay in the fetal position next to the chest. Her skin was a ghastly grey in the dappled sunlight tripping lightly, almost whimsically through the lace curtained window.
A young officer pointed to the wicker basket. “There, sir.”
Suddenly, the detective want to run. He wanted to leave this death room and the secret it held. He wanted to be young again and not a detective, not a father with two kids and a mortgage. He wanted to run out beyond the dunes to the beach. His mind caught him. Steady. Do what is right….
Without a word, he approached the wicker basket and the still, pitiful body of the dead woman. He touched the lid and hesitated for a fraction of a second before opening the basket. Within the gingham lined contraption were innumerable wrapped forms, some very old, crusted here and there with cloths that seemed saturated in blood, dried throughout the years. Some forms were small, and some as large as a loaf of bread. One form on top was very small and could have fit into the palm of a hand. The detective reached in his pocket for a glove and snapped it on before reaching for the form on the top of the ghastly heap. With a gingerly touch, he pulled back the old rag and saw the shrimp-like form of a desiccated fetus. The umbilical cord was still attached. In horror and revulsion, he stepped back from the wicker basket with a start. The young cop had blanched whiter still than he had been before. The detective’s mind went utterly blank for what seemed to be minute.
“Jesus, Mary, and the saints!” The almost cheery, repeated proclamation of the first cop he encountered wafted down the stairs.
He looked up and saw there was one other item in the room. It was a clock on the wall over where the bed had once been, if the fade patterns on the carpet were any indication.