Cherie flipped the wall switch, grateful beyond measure that the power was still on.
The small foyer was suddenly bathed in the meagre glow from a dusty, orange pendant light. To her left and to her right and all the way down the hallway were piled newspapers and journals waist high, tidily stacked, but like the light, the floor and the olive green shag carpeting, covered in dust. From their yellowed pages and the few dates she could see, Cherie guessed these stacks had been here for at least twenty years.
She glanced back over her shoulder and out the open door to the tidy yard beyond, now glowing unnaturally green in the yellowish cast of the oncoming storm. The contrast between Dale’s outer world and his inner could not have stood in sharper relief.
Entering the hallway, Cherie stopped and looked around. “Mom,” she breathed, turning a full circle in the corridor. “Mom…” For she was here.
Her skin prickled at the images, the thousand eyes so familiar and yet unfamiliar smiling back at her. The walls were papered with photos of her mother, some in frames, but most of them simply snapshots attached to the wall with shiny silver tacks, layer upon layer in tidy rows from the space where the stacks ended and nearly up to the ceiling. The photos, documenting a decade of married life, only ever showed a single subject: Marie Kessler. Her mother.
Cherie felt drawn to one in particular, the largest photo. It was of a smiling bride in a short white veil and mini dress reclining across the hood of a long brown Pontiac convertible. She held a small bouquet high above her head and looked set to toss it at the camera, a camera held by her father, Cherie guessed, if the expression in Marie’s eyes was anything to go by.
She had loved him once. That much was clear.
Yet, Cherie had great difficulty reconciling this image of her mother, slim, young, beautiful, yes, but clearly impulsive and full of joie de vive, with the mother she had grown up with, Dr. Marie Kessler, the very embodiment of self control. She felt a lump grow in her throat, and was overcome by unspeakable sadness for the loss of that smile, that joy. That image of her mother, happy.
“Mom,” she said again, softly, tracing her finger along the photo, drawing a line in the dust. “Mom…” she whispered brokenly. In the whole of her adult life, she had never longed for her mother’s presence so keenly or so absolutely.
The woman in the photo was utterly and absolutely foreign to her, and Cherie found herself wondering for the first time just which of her parents had broken first, which had collapsed and changed, for they both had. Her father had retreated behind the cloud of medically treated psychosis, and her mother had run away and immersed herself in her career.
But at what point had her mother broken? Because this smiling and happy woman with the laughing eyes, the one flirting with the camera, was not a woman she had ever known.
This Marie Kessler was as dead to her as her father was.
Cherie needed time to process it all… to grieve for both of her parents. But now was not the time.
Leaving the hallway with some reluctance, Cherie moved further into her father’s house. The hallway opened into a large, open plan living and dining room, stacked waist high as had the hallway been with journals and magazines and newspapers. A dining room table stood buried under a mountain of paper, stacks and stacks of typewritten pages several feet high. A couch and two chairs sat amid the stacks of magazines, unused and inaccessible. They faced an empty corner of the room where perhaps a TV had once stood.
It was not a large house, Cherie decided. There was the black pocket of a hallway leading off to her left, and a kitchen to her right. And though the curtains were firmly drawn everywhere, light filtered into the living room through fly specked sheers covering the patio doors at the rear of the house.
Cherie slid her hand along the wall for the light switch, and it was here she encountered the first indication of her father’s temper: A ragged hole punched into the sheetrock just to the left of the switch. Turning on the light, she found that there were more. Many, many more.
Where the TV had occupied a corner, she could now see the glint of glass shards laced through the carpet. It would seem her father’s TV had met an untimely end.
Her mind’s eye formed a vivid image of a man, a tall man with brown hair like her own, distraught, moving through the dusty confines of his home with a claw hammer and a voice in his head. Her mother… she could see her, clutching a baby and looking for a place to hide.
A wave of nausea swept over her then, unbearable, uncontrollable. She ran to the kitchen sink, retching into the waste disposal. She turned the faucet on, and a blessedly cold blast of water burst forth, washing away her breakfast and the sweat on her face. Cherie rinsed her face and scrubbed her eyes, willing the images away.
She caught sight of the microwave. The reason her father had a new one delivered. The reason he was discovered by the UPS man, three days dead of heatstroke, a bloated corpse baking in the back yard…
The handle of a hammer protruded from the blackened front of the microwave.
Shock sent Cherie backing away from the clear evidence of what she was fast coming to know, recoiling, sweating and feeling the panic rising once again to overwhelming proportion. She had to get out of this house. She was suffocating. She did not want to know more. Could not bear to see more, but her bowels had their own agenda. Her immediate need to empty them was a priority not to be ignored.
Hurrying down the hallway toward the bedrooms, Cherie blindly opened one door after another until she located the bathroom. Switching the light on, she scarcely noted the broken strip light hanging by one bracket, the mirror with its neat hammer hole in the center or the spiderweb of cracks.
She noticed the clean toilet. She noticed the clean tub, and was sick again in the wastebasket.
More water. More rinsing. More… she choked out a sob into her cupped hands and curled over the sink, letting the water course over her ear, her neck. The cold water ran down the sleeves of her blouse and pooled under her elbows. Still, she let it run, for how long, she didn’t know.
By the time she emerged from the bathroom, carefully avoiding the mirror and its split screen reflection of her anguish, Cherie noted it was getting dark. The first pellets of hail began falling then, striking the roof and the south facing windows with increasing strength, first two, three, then ten thousand all at once, spurred on by a fierce clap of thunder followed by another. Suddenly, the house was alive with the noise of the storm, the staccato tap of hail gradually giving way to a downpour.
Her car. Oh, God – her car!
She started to head back outside, but never made it that far. Through an open bedroom door, Cherie saw something she had not seen in 23 years and which she did not remember. Yet, here it was, draped in pink and littered with butterflies: Her bed. Her nursery.
Cherie’s legs gave out at that point, and she slid slowly down the doorframe and onto the floor. From this vantage point, she spied a lone baby bottle, dusty and long forgotten, half concealed by the bed skirt of the crib. It was as if she had never left.
She knew then. She knew. Still, her mind demanded proof.
Her eyes travelled slowly up the white legs and rails of her crib, up to the broken canopy top and the hammer marks smashed into the wall and she knew. She knew at last the answer to her question. To all of her questions.
She thought she heard her mother’s voice, but it was lost in the rain. Cherie closed her eyes and leaned into the doorframe, listening to the rain and the thunder.
“Cherie! … Oh, God, Cherie!”
She looked up, and in the dim light was her mother, drenched and wild eyed. “Cherie…,” she said brokenly,. “I got here as quickly as I could…”
“I thought you weren’t coming -”
“Sh, never mind that,” said her mother. Marie Kessler sank slowly to her knees and, for the first time in a very long time, wrapped her arms around the wet shoulders of her daughter. Looking over Cherie’s head, Marie caught sight of the bottle under the crib. Her face crumpled and she began to weep softly, burying her face in Cherie’s hair. “Baby,” she said, planting a kiss there. “My baby…” Marie rocked her daughter in the dark nursery as the storm raged on.
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