The little things never go away.
There is a relief in that, a cold, analgesic sensation that allows you to pretend that you can function.
But the universe breathes on it and it flares into life again.
Today I found one of his building block sets behind the couch. He had built a house for us we would someday live in. Sometimes it was in Florida, other times Baja or even the moon. He had built a garden for me out of green and blue bricks. There were grey, fat grubs of dust in the corners and I wiped them away with my fingers.
I wept for my baby boy.
My phone rang, but I ignored it, unable to do anything other than weep. When I got up and checked it, there was the envelope icon showing a voice mail.
I did not recognise the number.
I put it on speakerphone so I could pretend I wasn’t alone.
My son spoke.
‘Mommy. Please come home. It’s dark here. I’m cold.’
I put my hand over my mouth.
‘Baby, it’s Mommy.’ I said.
The message ended and I replayed it over and over. I could not imagine who would have done this. The cruelty of it, in how it used my grief to fuel a detached amusement at a well-executed prank.
It burned in my brain, a heated wire twisting through from one side to the other. I needed to know who had done this.
‘If it’s a prank call, go the police. You don’t need me to find out who did it.’
JJ worked in a Genius bar. In the evenings, he ran scams promising teenage girl panties to middle-aged men who gave him their credit card details. He had fitted the alarm system after Pete left, had a crush on me as large as Texas.
‘I need to know where it came from. I can’t go to the police.’
He sighed and took the number from me. I had the details in an hour.
The phone was a prepaid cell phone. The last call came in from a set of tract housing up in the hills, overspill from when the factories needed people more than machines. I put the address into my GPS. It fed the path back in a smooth, unhurried series of instructions that let my mind wander to where my grief was still raw and new.
Pete had hissed at me he would have his son whenever he wanted. Jimmy told me that all they did was sit there, whilst Pete made phone calls trying to cop or play games on his phone.
JJ had fitted the alarm system, but it did not make me feel any safer The gun had a comforting weight to it, eager to make good on its ugly, implicit promise. I used to sleep with it on the nights that the police would come to warn Pete off and I had to spend hours calming Jimmy down enough to sleep before school.
I had brought the gun with me.
The lights were out as I drove into the hills. The abandoned houses squatted like skeletal corpses with broken windows for eyes and doors kicked off their hinges. Scuffed, abandoned toys laid on the overgrown lawns, bleached from constant exposure to the sunlight. I stopped the car, slipped the gun into the pocket of my coat and got out.
My feelings had grown around the wounds, twisted and scarred into new forms. My pain, my joy could not tell one another apart anymore and I was here, with a gun but with no good reason other than to punish whoever had reached down my throat and yanked out my insides.
Someone would explain it or pay.
The house at the end. A weak light burned in the living room window. The door was ajar and from inside, I could smell something weak, sweet and warm, like the sweat of a diabetic.
The voice wavered, tight with pain and exhaustion.
My heart raced so fast that each beat rubbed up against the next. My lungs throbbed with each acid breath I took.
I held the gun and walked inside.
The air stank with a rotten sweetness that made me gag. In the living room, piles of yellowing phone books and newspapers. She sat in a high backed chair with a blanket wrapped around her. Her skin had the consistency of crepe paper doused with gasoline.
I looked at her with a mix of pity and revulsion.
‘How did you find me? How did you know?’
She got to her feet, hands gripping the arms of the chair with enough tension to force the bones and tendons into standing out against the skin. Her nails were yellowed and ragged, hung over the callused tips of her fingers. A woman who had worked with her hands and did so with pride. Now she was a ruin, living alone and reduced to insanity and amusement.
She was compressed, little more than five feet tall and when she looked up at me, her milky eyes wavered with discomfort.
‘Oh god, you can’t stay here. Please, you must go. I’m sorry.’
I gripped the gun in my hand, shaking my head as my teeth pressed together with my rage and my pain.
‘You’re sorry, you crazy fucking bitch. My son is dead, and you, what, think that’s funny?’
Tears brimmed in the corners of her eyes and she shook her head. She brought her right hand up to hold the blanket closed around her. I caught the faint whiff of dried body fluids, the dry musk of shit and urine mixed with stale sweat and another scent, thin and high like rotten vegetable matter.
She had her phone in her left hand and offered it to me.
‘No, I don’t have a choice. I was in the garden, and I found this pod in the roots of the lavender.’
She gave a wet cough and shook her head, like she was trying to dislodge something that had gotten stuck there. I looked at the phone and then back at her.
‘No, you don’t get to just be crazy. How did you know his voice? My number.’
Tears streamed down her cheeks.
‘It’s like a terminal disk, on the bombardier beetle. It knows what to set out and when you tread on it, it’s got you.’
She gagged from deep in her gut and turned her head from me. She did not see the gun in my hand, or she was too deep into her psychosis to see it.
Perhaps we were more alike than we cared to admit.
‘I’m sorry. If I don’t do what it say, it hurts me.’
I went to speak, but she raised her chin. Her throat bulged like a bubble in a glass of milk, making a crackling, wet sound like hearing someone tear a roast chicken apart with their bare hands.
The phone fell from her hand as she bucked and thrashed in the agony of some hideous birth.
I pointed the gun and fired, screaming until the hammer clicked on an empty chamber.
She slumped forward as a spray of black, foul oil squirted against the wall behind her and I saw her shoulders moving. Something was forcing itself upwards from inside her, like taking off a coat a size too small.
Tentacles whipped upwards, tasting the air ahead of it before collapsing down back into the safety of the meat.
‘You should never have called.’ I said.
I had gasoline in the trunk, there were matches in the kitchen. I covered everything and lit it up when I was a safe distance.
Pete had driven him and Jimmy into the river. Knowing he had died cold and wet was something that would never go away but as I sat there, watching the house collapse and fold in on itself, I told myself that he would not be cold or dark anymore.
I whispered it to the flames, over and over.