I am afraid of dying in my house. My fingertips don’t remember the sensation of curling under a window and lifting to feel the waft of fresh air. When I dare to feel sunlight beam on my skin, it’s only when my mother has gone (usually late) to her part time job. Even then, I’m jealous of agoraphobics. Don’t they understand the entire world is there for them, not hidden behind things and trash and rats?
But I understand it, the not leaving part. I couldn’t either. Not really.
Until today. Today will be different.
Exactly five years ago, I saw the floor of my house for the last time. I remember because it was my tenth birthday party, and I wondered why Mom bothered to throw away the cake crumbs and dirty paper plates, when our floor was covered in old newspapers, shopping bags, plastic bottles, and whatever else came in there.
At that point, there were no rats yet. We could still use the oven, and maybe people would simply think we were too lazy to clean. The only reason we invited people over was because of the sunshine. It was the first bright day of spring, and while our backyard still boasted a clean lawn, it seemed like the right thing to do.
My knife slid into the cake the way a scissor glides along paper when you’ve found the right groove. I was young, but I remember wondering if it were an eerie sign that knives didn’t scare me, but exhilarated me. So precise and clean. I dipped the knife into the cake to cut the third slice, but this time, my hand slipped and the piece was crumbled. Broken.
“Linda, I need to speak with you for a moment,” Aunt Katie said.
“What?” Mom sighed.
Sisters, but only by blood. Aunt Katie slices tomatoes and cucumbers for lunch and maybe feta cheese if she’s feeling gutsy, where Mom has tried every fad diet in the past decade. The empty boxes and bottles end up buried on our floor, like everything else. Just in case Mom needed it someday.
Aunt Katie pulled her into the house, the only one daring to break into our home.
I slipped behind a mountain of stacked records to listen.
“This house,” Aunt Katie said. “It isn’t good for Lily. Her asthma is already bad.”
I took a deep breath in, as if challenging her words. A small wheeze echoed in my throat.
“Don’t you want her to have a safe, nice home?” Aunt Katie asked.
“Lily’s fine,” Mom growled. I imagined her wiping whisps of gray hair away. “We’re fine. I’ve been too busy lately to clean. So what? I’m gonna do it this weekend.”
“You’ve been saying that for years, and nothing changes,” Aunt Katie said. “Let me help you. Me and Ron, we’ll get a few people together and clear all this junk out.”
“It’s NOT junk.”
Mom’s words reverberated on our too-thin walls.
“Get out,” she said. “Get. Out.”
No one was allowed in our house after that. Not Aunt Katie, not my cousins, not even the UPS guy. No more cake.
Then the hoarding got worse. I tried – I really did, but I’m only a gentle wave against my mothers tide. Me sneaking away one garbage bag a night does nothing to the loads she brings in each day. You don’t notice it. Not all at one time. But then you notice you can’t see the painting on the wall anymore, or you can’t shower because it’s full of clothes. The toilet still works but I don’t think it will for long.
And today would be different. I knew because I felt the damp in my bones that morning, when I rolled off the couch (my bed has been covered for three months). I knew because I gave Mom one last chance this morning.
“I can’t live like this.” I’d given the same plea for years, but this time, I’d held a bag of garbage, tied and ready to go.
“It’s fine.” Mom had slapped the bag from my hands. “This is just the way we are.”
We. There was no we. There never had been.
I didn’t have much stuff. The thought of bringing new things home felt like bleach in my insides. I tossed my few clothes and two books (A Raisin in the Sun, and Fahrenheit 451) into a plastic bag.
Mom had been at work for two hours by then. I slipped the plastic bag around my wrist and plucked a lighter from a dresser drawer. I’d stolen it exactly one month ago from a convenience store, when this idea spun in my head like fabric on a wheel. Tossing, creating, weaving each thread in the direction they were always meant to spin.
It took three minutes to weave through the trash piles in my bedroom, the Adirondacks of crap in the hallway, then through the kitchen. I stopped at the door and took in a sharp breath. This was it. Everything that had been my mother and I lay before me – No. No. It was never me. All this stuff is not me.
The lighter felt heavy in my hand, but only with possibility. I flicked the top of it like a professional smoker and tossed it directly into the rubbish. In three quick moves, I slammed the door behind me and raced down my backyard (also full of old car parts, broken statues, and general junk).
Safe enough away and behind hedges, I waited until I smelled thick black smoke charring the insides before dialing 911. There could be no chance. None at all.
Then I dialed Aunt Kate.
“I need you,” I said. “Something happened. Can you pick me up?”
“I’ll be there right away,” she said.
Isn’t it terrible? I imagined people would say. That whole home simply burst into flames with one random spark from the oven.
An awful accident.