“OK Sally, what do you want me to do with these?”
“Mark them ONE DOLLAR OR BEST OFFER.” I want everything out. Out, so we can leave this place and lock the door behind us. Between us, Mare and I have pushed or dragged most of the big stuff onto the grass in front of the house and now we are tagging the little stuff, everything the Praying Hands hasn’t already taken. It was hard getting it out the door, but we managed. It was hard getting out the door ourselves, but it won’t be hard much longer. We are on the road to freedom. The yard sale starts tomorrow, and with any luck scavengers come tonight and half of the stuff gets stolen. No! When we unload this first batch, we’ll start on the next. We will clean out Father’s things by the end of the week and when the last bit of our father is gone for good we will be free to go. I can walk away from this hateful house of his and never come back. But my sister is dawdling. “Get on it, Mare. What’s your problem?”
“These are Daddy’s stamps,” Mare says with this fool hurt look.
“My point. Daddy’s stamps.” I am trying to be patient. “It’s time to get rid of them. Put PRICED TO CLEAR.”
Trapped in this house with that awful man for all these years and my damn fool sister seems bent on hanging on to what’s left of him. Mare is paddling in the sunlight, clutching his stamp albums. “What would Daddy say?”
I want to shake her for being such a wuss. “He’s dead and buried, for Pete’s sake. What difference does it make?”
It’s my stamp collection, idiot. Are you too stupid to know it’s worth thousands?
I shoot a look at Mary. —Do you hear it too?
She looks so scared that I think she does. She says, “He’d kill us.”
“He is done killing us,” I say. I cover my ears and start humming to shut him out. We will sell our father’s junk and get rid of this big old ark of a house and that’ll be the end of him. I promised Mom.
It’s probably worth millions.
Shut up, asshole, I’m warning you. I brought your damn gold things home from the hospital because you insisted—your stupid Phi Beta Kappa key and your gold wireframes and your gold pivot tooth, that you were scared shit somebody would steal them. I have half a mind to . . .
Mary flashes her eyes at me.
. . . I only promised so you’d go ahead and die. You think I don’t know you would of hung on forever just to take care of them? Same as you saved every stick and splinter you ever collected and hung on to everybody, like our poor mother, you grasping old bastard. Your things, your things, she spent her life taking care of your things and by God I am here to see that it is over. Poor Mom’s moaning inside right now, wringing her hands and worrying. Listen. I’ll keep your creepy gold things, you made me swear, but by God that’s all I’m going to keep, and I am keeping them at a safe distance. In the basement behind the furnace in a shoebox, where they can’t hurt us. When I get a minute I’m going to cement them in back there so nobody will find them and . . .
—I don’t know. Mom got all weird when I shoved the shoebox with your gold tooth and your personal gold-framed glasses behind the furnace but I had to. We are getting rid of everything you used to own so she can have her freedom.
I could never get her to leave you but God knows I begged her to flee before it came to this. “I can’t go,” she told me, and she was crying, “I can’t go until I know Howard’s things are taken care of.”
Idiot bitch. Listen to your mother.
Your things, your things. I am good and sick of taking care of your precious things, forty years’ worth of rotting antiques and dusty books, massed Toby jugs and moth-eaten needlepoint doorstops, rusting Matchbox cars and filthy hobnail glass and LIFE magazines for Mother to tend and organize; forty years’ worth of obsessions that Mare and I had to sort and dust and clean and pile up neatly when we were only little girls because if we didn’t, they would roll in and smother us, we worked until our fingers bled while you kept amassing stuff! You hauled it in from every junk store and yard sale and flea market, and you wonder why we can’t wait to see the end of you? Forty years tending your stuff, and when Mom couldn’t do it any more it all fell on Mare and me: forget about life, girls, forget about meeting Mr. Right; come straight home from work and polish my silver, clean the glass on my daguerreotypes, it is your sacred duty.
Well, when it comes right down to it people are more important than things, old man, and don’t you forget it.
We’re going to empty this house of you, Father, we are going to get rid of your stuff and hose down the walls and scour all the corners and empty it of every vestige of you.
Not so fast.
Shut up! We’re doing it so Mother can walk free, understand? Poor Mom, poor old lady: bopping around in there fretting when she should be free and happy in the wild blue, and all because of your wretched collections. Well, we are moving you out of there with this yard sale, every chopstick and teacup you ever owned, we are removing every vestige of you and when we’re done, by God that will be the end of you. Then Mare and I, we can sell the damn place and buy a nice condo and start having boyfriends like normal girls.
These are my things!
Mare jogs my arm. “These stamps could be worth something, maybe we should hold onto them.”
Damn right they are.
I don’t know if I hear him or if I only think I hear him. “In your dreams, Mare, so chill. Everything goes!”
Damn Mare; I turn my back on her for five minutes and she starts pulling things out of the pile. “This could be worth something, Sally.”
It is a bicycle reflector. “Stop that.” I push her into a chair and give her a string of labels to mark.
My sister is mourning. “This cup is much too nice to sell.”
“Put prices on, nothing higher than ten dollars.”
Ten dollars, you bitch, ten dollars!
Who, me? I don’t hear anything.
So Mare sits by while I lug our father’s telescopes and his stereopticon out of the ark where we grew up; I used to think it was nice but it has become our prison. I am dragging the goddamn past out of that place and I can tell you now it’s goddamn good riddance. The carved furniture, the fat brass andirons, even Father’s Barcalounger look smaller out here in the sunshine. His brass-headed cane loses its power. Laid out on the grass like dead soldiers, his Hugo Boss suits look limp and shabby. So does he, now that everything’s exposed to the light. In life, Father ran Mare and me around like a pair of housemaids. I suppose I ought to be sad, seeing the old man reduced to a collection of used furniture and second-hand outfits, but you know what? I’m glad. And somewhere deep in the house where I can’t see her, Mother is too.
And Mare? Ever the dutiful daughter, she says, “But the Alcott family silver, Sally. Father would freak.”
“He isn’t exactly in a position to care.”
That’s what you think.
Mare grabs my wrist. “Did you hear anything just now?”
“No,” I say. “No I didn’t.”
“Sally, what if Daddy’s still . . .”
I shoot her a look that should kill her dead. “Mare, are you hearing voices?”
But it doesn’t. She sighs. “I was just remembering his last wishes.”
“He was blackmailing us! Touch nothing. Keep the house as it is, like this place is the sacred Howard Alcott house and we are the virgin keepers of the shrine. You are dead, Father. It’s over.”
“Daddy always gets what he wants.”
“Not this time.”
Don’t be so sure.
* * * *
Mother told me what to do. She came to me in the night. OK, I’ll be upfront about it. Mother is dead.
She has been for a year; she says she went accidentally, i.e., Father’s wingnut collection fell on her as she was cleaning the cluttered metal shelf at the head of the basement stairs, thirty badly stacked boxes crashing through the rust, but frankly, I think he wished her dead.
After all, she let his dieffenbachia die, and it served her right. At the funeral he got all holier than thou. “That’s what happens when you don’t take care of things.”
Listen, she wished herself dead. What happened was, Mom developed pneumonia while she was in the hospital after she fell down the basement stairs when the wingnut boxes hit her. She landed on one of Father’s garden statues and punctured a lung. The nurses loved her, they put plastic flowers in her hair and brought her a little plastic thing to breathe into, I would go in to visit and find them yelling at her: “Martha, BREATHE,” but I could tell she didn’t want to. Both lungs collapsed and she just let go one night and died. That last night she put her palm against my palm on the plastic tent and mouthed a single word: “Freedom.”
I was crying, we were all crying; even Father was crying, but Mom caught my eye and I could see the flicker that let me know that she was glad because she thought she was done with us.
OK, I thought. That makes one of us. When we got home I said, “Well, I guess we’ll need to move into a smaller place.”
Father wheeled on me like an iron man with an iron mallet. Thump. “Not while I have you two to take care of my house.”
* * * *
Mother came to me in the night. “Sally . . .”
“Mom! What are you doing here?”
“Sally, I’m stuck in this house!”
“I thought you were dead.”
“I am, but I have to talk to you.”
“But I thought you were . . .”
“Free?” Mom shook her head. “No more than you girls are.”
“But you’re dead, I saw them bury you.”
The sigh she let out was so spooky that all the air in the room shivered. “You might as well know, souls can’t leave until everything is satisfied.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant. I thought maybe it meant we had to hunt down her killer. “He killed you, didn’t he?”
“No,” she said, and through Mother’s eyes I saw our house and every object in it, every treasure he’d brought home and every single item in all his collections, our father’s massed belongings closing in on us, everything waiting to be dusted or polished or cleaned or sorted and labeled or catalogued or filed or all of the above; I felt the weight of every single object with which horrible Howard kept us securely in his grasp. “This did.”
“But Mom, you’re free now.”
“I can’t leave,” she said with a look so profoundly sad that it tore me wide open.
“My God, why?”
“You know what he says.”
I tried to make fun of his tone so she’d lighten up. “‘You have to take care of things.’”
She didn’t lighten up; she repeated him. “‘You know what happens when you don’t take care of things.’ Sally, do you see where this is going?”
I saw my whole life flashing before my eyes, and it was over.
“Come on. We’ll run away!” I tried to grab her hand, but the dead come without appendages—nothing you can grab onto but something fearsome that you come away with, the sense of unresolved problems and abiding grief. Listen, I’m only twenty-two, what do I know. I said, “Mother, please! We’ll get Mary and go.”
“I can’t,” she said.
“We’ll just sneak out.” I jumped up and grabbed my shoes.
She shook her head. “I can’t go. But that isn’t the bad part. The bad part is . . .”
“Of course we can, he’s sleeping, hurry,” I was trembling, I couldn’t stop gasping, “we don’t have much time . . .”
“The bad part is . . .” Her sigh shook the room. “Neither can you.”
She was right. That nagging feeling of things undone brought me straight home after work and put me to polishing, cleaning, sorting, filing when I should have been down at Fiasco’s hanging out with my friends and hooking up with cute guys. The dust layering in corners I’d just dusted, the objects out of place, the unfiled magazines that piled up in the mailbox every day, everything Father collected ensnared me. Father’s house is a neverending story, the unfinished symphony. You go nuts waiting for the credits to roll: The End. In this family, there isn’t one.
Then Mother had The Idea.
By the time she did, I’d met a man. This cute guy Randy asked me out for drinks after work. I wanted to go, but guilt tore through me in the parking lot. Everybody else went out to the Mafia fern bar, but I went home. It was the guilt. I couldn’t meet guys while Mare and I had work to do; things in the house were getting out of hand. That night she and I washed the Hummel collection and made his dinner and repaired the needlepoint while he watched TV; I filed the snapshots from the summer of ’84 and the whole time I knew Randy was going home with Lola Hanson instead of me.
Mare looked at me. “What’s up?”
Father said, “Sarah? Is there something on your mind?”
I tried. “I think we should sell this place.”
Mare gasped, “Where would we go?”
“Stupid girl.” Like the avenging angel, Father flattened me with a glare. “Sell this place? Never!”
“We have to get out of here.”
I was in tears but he didn’t care. He slapped me hard. “Do you know what happens when you don’t take care of things?”
That night Mom came. “It’s the things.”
“What?” I stopped crying.
“Don’t be scared Sally, it’s me.”
“I know who it is.”
“Then do what your mother tells you. The things are the trap. All those things, waiting to be taken care of.”
“His things,” I said.
“They’re certainly none of mine.” Forty years and he hadn’t quenched her spirit. Trapped in here with his things even in death, Mother was dying to go. She’d had enough. She let the thought drift into my head. “Get rid of his things and you’ll be free to go, sweetheart. We all will.” She rattled me with that sigh. “Especially me.”
I got where we were going. Fast. “He’d have to die.”
Don’t ask me how we did it. I am not going to incriminate myself here, never mind where I got the stuff or what it was or how I slipped it into his after-dinner cappuccino or what I told the paramedics when Mare weakened and dialed 911 even though he was only frothing a little bit, or how we managed all this without Father finding out, but even at the end he didn’t know what we’d done to him. He didn’t, I swear.
Otherwise, why would he have given me his gold-framed glasses and his Phi Beta Kappa key and his gold tooth to take care of instead of calling the cops?
* * * *
The first day of the yard sale is a sellout. Mare and I are sitting on the front lawn counting the money in the coffee can. I feel better already. “Four hundred dollars, this is great.”
“And a woman who collects Mission took the sideboard.”
“Why do you care who took the sideboard?”
She shows me the whites of her eyes. “If we don’t give this stuff a good home, who’s going to take care of it?”
“Like I care who takes care of it?”
You’d damn well better.
I don’t hear that. No way. I don’t hear anything.
Mare says, “I don’t see how you can look so happy.”
“You don’t get it? We’re getting out of jail.”
But my sister is fretting. “I don’t think the guy who took the Barcalounger is going to take good care of it.”
I give her a poke. “Get over yourself. This is our ticket to freedom. Ours and Mom’s.”
She whirls to look at me. “Whose?”
“You’ve been hearing from Mom?”
“Well, sort of.”
She looks worried. “This was her idea?”
“But Mom died because she wasn’t taking good enough care of . . .”
“The wingnut collection?”
Mare sobs, “She didn’t stack the boxes right.”
“You think the stupid wingnut collection killed her?”
She says in our father’s tone, “How many times do I have to tell you, you have to take care of things?” My sister is shaking.
You know what happens when you don’t take care of things.
“Well, we’re putting an end to all that, so you can quit worrying.”
Don’t think it’s going to be that easy.
“You shut up,” I say.
* * * *
Hard to explain what happens when we get back inside. It’s nice in a way, for the first time we can begin to see the walls. All his railroad and whaling prints are gone, along with the Alcott family portraits, which went to a dealer in Cambridge, and the Keane children pictures and the gazillion Grand Canyon photographs. There’s so little furniture left that we can cross entire rooms without bumping into anything and now that the centerpiece collection is gone, there’s enough space in here for us to eat at the dining room table. I think I hear a beginning echo in our rooms because a dealer from New Haven came and took away the Orientals for which, thank you, we are going to receive a bundle.
Not a patch on what they’re worth.
Mark my words, you’re going to be sorry.
I’m warning you.
No, I’m warning you.
Mare says, “Are you OK?”
“Who, me? I’m fine. I’ve never been better. I think I’ll just . . . I’m tired.”
“I think I’m going to bed now.”
“Me too,” Mare says.
Our footsteps echo on the stairs because the rug guy took the Bokhara runner. The old man keeps at it, but I imagine my father’s voice is getting fainter.
Mom comes in the night. “How’s it going?”
“Great,” I say. “Fantastic.”
“How’s it really going?”
“Half the stuff went today. The rest goes tomorrow and Thursday and what we can’t sell, the Praying Hands will come and take on Friday.”
Mom sighs. “I hope that will do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know how Howard is about having his things taken care of.”
“They aren’t his things anymore.”
“They aren’t the only things he owns,” she says with a sigh.
She’s a goddamn ghost, what does she have to lose? “Let’s hope.”
* * * *
By the end of the week the place is cleared out. We have sold everything. Well, almost everything. Some of it we sent off in the Praying Hands truck, and some we couldn’t give away. I stood on the curb and made the garbage men take it. Either way, the heap we grew up in is good and empty. Mare and I are spending our last night in the house. We called Domino’s at seven on our last day, and now we are sleeping in new sleeping bags in our old bedrooms, a kind of Goodbye to All That party, if that makes any sense.
Tomorrow Mare and I move to a motel and put this big old ark on the market. In fact, I have made a Saturday date with Randy.
Freedom soon: I can’t wait. I . . . “Mom?”
“Mom! You’re still here.”
Our mother sighs. “Afraid so.”
This makes me sigh. “His stuff is gone, Mom. You don’t have to hang around anymore, it’s almost over.”
“But I am. Still here, I mean.”
“You just stopped in to say goodbye, right?”
“Mom, we got rid of all his things. You know, all those things that you had to stay so they’d get taken care of?”
“Not quite,” she says.
“There’s that box behind the furnace.”
Oh God, I forgot. I have to think fast. “I’m cementing it in back there first thing in the morning.” I am getting this deep, uneasy feeling. “That’ll do it, right? Right Mom?”
“It’s worth a try,” she says.
I think I hear him scream, You bitch, you promised.
Promises are promises, you old fool, but this is ridiculous.
It comes to me: If I destroy what’s in the shoebox in the cellar, we can all go.
I hear him wailing in rage and pain. My gold, my gold!
Shut up, you old bastard. You sound like a broken pirate.
* * * *
This is what I did with my father’s last things. The shoebox, I burned. The Phi Beta Kappa key and the gold tooth, I flushed down the toilet. “Take that,” I said. When I put his gold-framed glasses into the Dispos-Al I thought I heard him scream. “Take that,” I yelled right before I turned it on.
Bitch, you promised.
Then—fantastic—I stopped hearing him and started hearing her.
Thaaank yoooouuuu. From somewhere overhead my mother’s voice comes back to me as she rises up, and up . . .
And my father’s voice rising after her. So much for youuuuu . . .
“Shut up,” I yell, “shut up, old man. That’s the end of you.”
If he answers, I don’t hear it. I am on the run now.
“Mare. Mare, wake up,” I say. There is nothing of my father left in this room, just the sleeping bag with my baby sister rubbing her eyes and snuggling down again. It’s Saturday, and I have a date. I nudge her with my toe. “Get up and get your things, we’re free.”
She rolls over and yawns. “What?”
“Hurry.” I start stuffing her clothes into her duffle bag. I’m not sure why it is so urgent, only that it is. “Get dressed. We have to get out of here.”
“You killed the glasses?”
“And the gold tooth. There’s nothing left of him here.”
That’s what you think.
“Mare, let’s go, let’s go!”
One look at my face and she is terrified. “Sally, what’s the matter?”
“Not sure,” I say, listening. I turn my head this way, that way, but if he’s around, Father isn’t manifesting, at least not right now.
We both get dressed and from that point we move fast: collecting last bits to take out of the house with us; we hit the stairs running, running, and we hit the front hall running and I hit the front door running and throw it wide and then we hit . . .
Whatever it is, it stops us cold.
I hear him laugh. Gotcha.
Desperate, I turn to Mare. She turns to me.
Did you really think it would be that simple?
We are transfixed by the fear dawning in our guts and bubbling up until it spills into our faces. “You son of a bitch,” I shout. “I drowned all your gold, even the Phi Beta Kappa key.”
“Shh, Sally, shhh!” Mare bows her head like the favorite daughter she is. “Daddy?”
Who else? Father’s laughter cracks the room. That isn’t all I own.
“I got rid of the goddamn glasses.”
His voice is huge as he comes down on me. DID YOU FORGET WHO OWNS THE HOUSE? The house is mine, along with everything in it. And the land is mine, so don’t think you can get away by torching it.
I try to run again, and even though the front door is wide open and I can see daylight I hit the wall. Outside Randy pulls up; when I don’t come out he honks. I feel so helpless, trapped in the doorway, but all I can do is wave. He is waiting for me in the car with the motor running.
Now, Father says reasonably, you can live here like swine or you can live here like good daughters.
“That’s not fair, Mother got away!”
The laugh that splits the air is evil and horrendous. Your mother doesn’t have as much to answer for.
“Let go,” I scream and by this time even pious Mare is screaming, “Oh, Daddy, please let go!”
But Father has us in his grip now, and he won’t let go no matter how we struggle. Now you might as well pick up the phone and get cracking. Nobody leaves, so you might as well get comfortable, and let this be a lesson to you. This is what happens to girls who don’t take good care of things.
© 2004 by Kit Reed.
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.