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Around me, the fire is raging. Around me the house is crumbling to ash as flames lick the peeling wrappers of broken walls and lungs begin to ache. Around me the room is filling with smoke and I’m not panicking. I’m not bothered. I’m calm. In a way, this fire began years ago when I was just a kid. It’s only fitting that this is how it ends. I know now that everything lead to this, I did this. I let her make me this. It’s my fault. Please don’t send help.

It must end here.

——-

When I was seven years old, I knew Aunt Alice was sick. Mother had told me. Even if nobody had, any child could see the mania creeping darkly behind her eyes in the pages of mother’s old photo albums. Aunt Alice and mother hadn’t spoken in nearly five years. When I was seven years old, Mother was killed by a drunk driver. His car threw her 200 yards from the crosswalk. She never made it to the bus stop. Or home. She didn’t even make it to the hospital. When I was seven years old, I went to live with Aunt Alice.

Alice was so much worse than I’d been told. She was an abusive monster. A vampire that sucked the life and happiness from the souls of everyone who knew her. A miserable borderline personality who fed on me until I became the miserable company she’d always longed for. Aunt Alice never had any children of her own—nor a husband—nor even love.

She referred to herself in the plural—the “royal we”—a ridiculous habit that I have always hated. Plagued by unpredictable mood swings and a myriad of imagined allergies and phobias, Aunt Alice suffered delusions of grandeur and a peculiar sort of covetous hypochondria.

Once she’d told me she was hemophobic: afraid of blood.

“August,” she began one morning. I was about eleven years old here. We sat at the table: I crunched mouthfuls of cereal as she ripped the pages of the morning paper into small, nickle size shreds, lining them in a semicircle on the table around her in a delicate fan. With an air of the dramatic, she touched the gauze wrapped densely around her forearms, “You’ll have to excuse our bandages this morning,” a Seagram’s-logged slur lurking in her words most mornings, “We were shaving our legs and slipped. Just a mistake.”

I glanced up at her for a bit too long and it was perceived an affront: “That’s right you little shit. We had a mistake. An accident. Like we had last time, that time though, that was your fault.”

My name was Aaron, but she called me whatever she felt like calling me any given day. I’d learned long ago to avoid correcting her. In order to avoid yet another beating, I shoveled mouthful of breakfast from the bowl. One did not simply correct Alice Hawthorne.

From her previous ‘mistake,’ as she’d called it. I’d received a terrible punishment for accidentally walking in on her. That time she sat, naked, straddling the open toilet seat. She was digging the scars–the ‘mistakes’–into her skin with a small, square blade. Seven slices, dotted haphazardly in a line along her ribs. They traced the grimace of a forced smile. It was still drooling blood even as she hit me with the plunger until the wooden handle splintered in half.

“How dare you walk in on us!” she’d shouted, “You made us slip!” She’d cut herself so many times below her naked breast all because I’d surprised her.

“You did this to us!”

——-

Most of her “allergies” were likewise, fabrications.

Once she’d spent a week trying to convince me that she was allergic to the color blue. Another time it was beans—the food.

“We can’t have them at all. We’ll die. Not boiled, baked, pinto, garbanzo…they’ll kill us.”

Aunt Alice ate hummus obsessively. Even years later, I can still hear the snap of the carrots and the sloppy, nauseating sound of her open-mouth chewing. I pointed out to her once, at the height of her fixation, that she couldn’t possibly be allergic to beans. She was easily consuming a dozen containers in the span of a week, and little else. This insolence was punished in my room behind a locked door for days. Here, I stifled my complaints and protests unwilling to satisfy her thirst to drink them in. When I was finally released, I hadn’t eaten for a week and was severely dehydrated.

——-

Once she’d beat me for watching too much HGtv. “You’re lazy good for nothing garbage!” she’d declared, then accusing me coveting the homes, which were so much unlike our own. “How dare you insult us like this! After all we’ve done for you, our home isn’t good enough?”

Where we lived was dilapidated and cramped. Outside was a large two story colonial cracking and crumbling with disrepair. Inside paths were traced like mazes from room to room through piles of discarded soup tins, broken toys and moldering stacks of periodicals. Here and there lie the spines and the shredded remains of paperback books. According to Alice, I was an “ungrateful, greedy leech,” though I had asked her for nothing, least of all to have befallen the misery of her guardianship. One day, the things I’d been watching had proven too much of a disrespect to her and in one swift motion, the television was swiped with casual grace, face forward where its shattered screen and broken plastic form added to the piles of errant stereo parts and emptied Chinese take-outs littering the floor. That day, she ripped the cord from the wall and pulled the other end, like taffy, from the broken television; a whip that she’d used to beat me with indiscretion until the world around me went dark.

——-

Aunt Alice’s moods were always unpredictable. At times she would be fun and spontaneous. More than once, I came home to a tunnel built from couch cushions or blankets, following the walking paths cut through our bio-hazardous space to some delightful surprise. A red velvet cake; my favorite flavor. Another time a pile of books by an author that I’d mentioned I had enjoyed; and yet another time, a puppy.

The puppy’s life was short-lived. I don’t know why she did it, but I buried him in the yard. It’s best not to describe the scene where I found him but I know now, in retrospect, that this was my breaking point. Feeling powerless to continue to survive her. Reviling her.

Every night I would dream of different ways to find myself where I now sit. Alice dead while a fire burned this pit of mold down around her.

——

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