I woke up to the sight of my wife’s bare back, The constellation of freckles that spanned both shoulder blades under a wavy nebula of red hair.
I reached over and tapped her shoulder.
“Honey, it’s time,” I said.
Her body stiffened and she heaved a sigh. “I don’t want to,” she mumbled. Something about the early morning grogginess made her sound like our teenage daughter.
“Come on baby, you agreed to this.”
A slight woman, she floated up into a sitting position, grumbling something about how this funeral was going to rob her of her Saturday.
I nodded with a smirk. “But it’s your uncle, Honey.”
“I didn’t like him.”
Nobody liked Uncle Ron for that matter. I could see it already. The family at the service, shaking hands with well-wishers, enduring endless waves of “I’m sorry for your loss,” doing their best to look like they actually felt any sort of loss.
I know that sounds cold, but Ron just had a way of leaving you feeling damp and slimy. He smiled and joked as much as any uncle stereotype. It was in the gaps between sentences, the leers between laughs, the ticks between seconds that you glimpsed something more real, much deeper, and much darker than this facade of a brown-eyed good ol’ boy he tried to sell you.
I met Ron the first time I attended my wife’s family reunion. That was before I was family. You think you learn so much at one of those big family events, right? Nah. You learn what the family is comfortable letting you learn. The real learning is five or six reunions deep when everyone stops dressing up for you, so to speak.
So I met this cousin and that cousin and that aunt and oh, by the way, this Uncle Ron. The large man with the trimmed beard that is practically steamrolling his way into my personal space, all loud and jolly. Gee if this is what Uncle Ron is like in one evening, he must be quite a character when you join the fam officially and see him on the regular.
First thing I notice is Ron’s habit of his eyes darting around like ping pong balls full of jumping beans. I didn’t know what was up. Maybe he had kids and he was dabbing in some of their Ritalin. After maybe two or three reunions, I notice that whenever Ron comes barreling over to me, my wife slips away just as quickly. Then I start noticing that his eyes don’t sling around at random. They rapid-tick in the direction of my wife, wherever she happened to be. Seeing this behavior hold up for many family shindigs to come, I started seeing what would happen if I put myself between my wife and Ron’s line of sight. Maybe he knew I was on to him. Maybe he was trying to hide his awareness of my knowing. Either way, cockblocking his eyes made the jovial mask drop. Those black eyes kindled with hateful embers.
So from that point on, whenever I knew Uncle Ron was going to be around, I stayed shackled at the ankle to my wife if you get me.
Over the years he started invading the personal space of other tender young female kinfolk. He never did anything. Not that I knew of. A few years ago he kinda vanished. People talked about him once in a while. Something about being really sick. I could have told you that. Something about being on extra strong medication that makes it difficult for him to come out and join us as his usual flannel-and-camo clad, beer-basket self.
Nobody missed him after that.
Again I don’t mean to be cold, but I’m sure that nobody misses him even now.
But this is the American Midwest and we say goodbye to the recently departed, be they creepy family members or famous serial killers that just got the chair.
My wife pressed her long fingers to her eyebrow and her sea-green eyes stared at something I couldn’t see.
I joined her in sitting up.
“I haven’t heard any movement from Lindsay’s room yet. She’s probably still out.”
“Well then go wake her up,” My wife snapped.
“Okay… since you asked so nicely.”
And I rapped my knuckles on my daughter’s door and made the announcement it was time to get up and at ‘em because Uncle Ron wasn’t going to see himself off.
“I don’t want to.”
I snorted. Like mother, like daughter.
Eventually we were all up, but everyone’s movements were slow and reluctant. To the point that I had to scrap my plans for making a hot expansive breakfast and switch to toasted English Muffins with butter. It was clear that nobody was thinking about Uncle Ron or the family. I won’t lie. I was thinking about myself too. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit with a cup of coffee in my hand and our fat orange striped cat Chester on my lap, providing the silence with the soundtrack of his purr. But I still had enough room in my heart to support my wife’s family.
A hunched Lindsay shuffled through the kitchen like an old woman. Strawberry blonde hair tangled and robbed of its luster by sleep.
I practically threw an english muffin at her and she gave me that indignant shrug that teenagers practice most of their waking hours.
“Move faster. We’ve got a uh… a DEADline.”
She rolled her eyes. Another finely-tuned teenage skill.
My wife passed the top of the stairs in a blink of pink bath robe.
“How many toasted muffins for my amazing wife that dodged the genes that made Uncle Ron?”
“Oh, three today? Okay then. Damn we’re hungry.”
She came downstairs transformed into someone fit for a funeral as I was buttering her last muffin. I handed her the halved breads on a plate and she froze.
“Why the hell did you make me three?”
“I know you wanted twelve, but I gotta eat too, ya know.”
She swatted my shoulder and turned before I could see her stifled smile.
I reloaded the toaster with more english muffin and bolted upstairs to get myself ready. Here’s the thing I’ve learned about formal and-or somber events. If you have a d**k, you’re ready in a fraction of the time it takes anyone else that doesn’t. Either that or I’m just sloppy.
I found my dressiest blue shirt and a tie. Dug out the last pair of slacks that fit and called it even. I nearly ran Lindsay over when I came out of the bedroom.
“You look like you’re ready. Here’s the keys to the car. Be a peach and start it for us, would you?”
She took the keys and stomped down the stairs towards the kitchen. Good girl. Just like her mom.
“Henry, can you come here for a second?” I heard my wife call from downstairs.
“Why can’t you come up here?”
“Okay, be right there.”
I made sure my tie didn’t make me look like a complete idiot before I answered my wife’s summons.
I tumbled down the stairs where she was waiting for me, holding out her palms. “I can’t find the car keys.”
I smiled really big, just in time for the sound of our big ugly green Sedan to turn over in the garage. “Found them!”
She gently slapped me.
“I’ll file domestic battery charges later. You’re pretty much ready, right?”
It was when we were moving towards the door and Kate grabbed the door handle that I heard her say:
“Henry, can you come here for a second?”
I raised my shoulders as though she could see me behind her.
“Hey, hello, I’m right here.”
My wife turned around and looked at me funny.
“You asked me if I could come here. Well here I am. See?”
Genuine confusion froze my wife’s expression and she slowly shook her head.
As my wife’s mouth hung slightly open, I heard her voice a second time.
From behind me. From somewhere upstairs.
“Are you still in the house? You better not be in the car without me! Come up here for a second! Please!”
I stared at her.
“You heard that right?”
She shook her head again. “Heard what?”
I tightened my arms around myself.
“Let’s just get in the car and go.”
She nodded, her look of puzzlement still not leaving her face. She looked at me like I might not quite be alright. I wasn’t sure if I was. She opened the garage door that led outside. I was bitten by the exhaust from the sedan. Teenagers. Why my daughter didn’t open the garage door first, I don’t know.
My wife stepped into the garage and as soon as I tried to step after her, the door snapped shut with a resolute SLAM.
“Henry, come on, I just need you for a few seconds,” came the voice again. It was indistinguishable from my wife’s. But… my wife was getting in the car. I heard the car door shut.
“Thanks for slamming the door in my face!” I shouted. I tried the door but it was locked. That meant it was locked from the outside. How? How could that be?
“I can hear you downstairs!” my wife called.
“I can see you in the garage!” I replied. But the voice didn’t answer.
I fumbled with both the latch to the deadbolt and the lock in the center of the doorknob. It made no difference. I peered through the glass of the door and that was the first time I noticed that I couldn’t see my wife anywhere. Just my daughter sitting in the driver’s seat of the car as the exhaust fumes began to haze my view. I fruitlessly rattled the door. My anger started to get the best of me and I pounded on the door as if it would get anyone’s attention. It shook one of the pictures off the wall and it fell face-first and shattered.
“Damn it!” I yelled and went for the mess of broken glass. I knew which picture it was before I picked it up. It had to have been the one my wife treasured the most. The photograph of all of us standing in front of the house when we finally got a loan for it. A photo that was snapped by Uncle Ron himself. Behind the jagged teeth of broken glass indeed was a photo of the house. But it was wrong.
It was a black and white printed photo. It looked like it had been clipped out from a paper. None of us were in it. I gingerly removed the picture from the frame just in case there might be another picture sharing its space. But there was nothing. Not in the frame. Not on the floor. I tried to tell myself that the picture I remembered must still be hanging up.
I looked up at the wall and my brain couldn’t process what I was seeing. There were supposed to be three other picture frames besides the one I held. A family photo at a reunion, one of my wife in her twenties and one of me as a teen. The high-quality Kodak of my wife had been swapped out for another newspaper photo. One of her that could have been taken in the last two years. The one of me looked like a mugshot, again, from a newspaper. The family reunion photo did have a group of people in it, but it wasn’t family. It was a group of policemen gathered on the lawn of our house. They were focused on a couple of men in trenchcoats wearing gloves and handling a few items in plastic bags. It looked every bit like a forensics team. I came closer to see if I could make out what they were handling.
“Henry! Come on! I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve called you!”
I finally looked in the direction of the stairs. The wall next to the steps was always where we kept most of our family photos. Something inside me told me that I didn’t want to look at those pictures. Why? I don’t know.
I began moving towards that first step. My eyes were locked on the closest picture on the wall and I couldn’t look away. I could finally see it. Another picture clipped from a newspaper. This one was of the house. Police tape was visible around the front door and in the yard.
I swallowed a dry nothing that prickled my throat.
“Honey, what happened to all the pictures?” I yelled up the stairs.
“Fun’s over, babe. We need to get going, okay? And you really need to teach me how you threw your voice like that.”
“I’m serious. Let’s get this day over with and behind us.”
“Daddy, I think Mom’s getting mad at you for real.”
This time it was my daughter’s voice that came from upstairs. Then I heard the horn of the car from the garage. A long and sustained blat of noise. A gear of realization clicked in my head and I went to the kitchen door to look out. The car was still running. My daughter was still in the car by herself. She was slumped against the steering wheel, clouds of exhaust bubbling all around her. I stopped thinking and I started moving. I kicked at the kitchen door as hard as I could. Have you ever heard someone say that they were so worked up that they saw red? I can tell you it’s not a metaphor. I assaulted that door and I waited for the crack of the wood around either the latch or the hinges, but there was neither. I kicked and I kicked as the adrenaline dumped into my system and my senses became vivid with pure panic. The door wouldn’t yield at all.
My last kick threw me off balance and I staggered backwards and sideways against a wall.
“Daddy?” I heard Lindsay’s voice again over the blast of the car horn.
From where I held myself up against the wall, I looked at my daughter through the glass of the door. I decided that I could stand a mutilated arm if I could shatter one of the nine small panes and reach down and unlock the garage door.
It was as if the angels were smiling on me that day because the door stop for the door to the garage was none other than an old brick. I snatched it with taut fingers and brought it to the pane closest to the door handle. I waited for the rain of glinting glass like razorblade snow but they never came. There was no raucous singing of shattering. The glass taunted me without so much as a scratch. I paused for only a moment, too overloaded to believe what I was seeing. I rained a torrent of blows on that lower left pane. Nothing. No purchase. Snarling, I tried the other panes and they were just as sturdy. Practically bullet-proof. I was starting to see sparks in my field of view with my escalating panic.
“Lindsay, G******N it, open this door! Open the garage door! Lindsay!”
“I’m up here, Daddy,” the words came from upstairs and they startled me somehow.
My daughter wasn’t upstairs. I could see her swallowed up in poisonous vapors in the garage.
I howled and sprinted to the front door. If I could just get outside, I’d find a way into the garage. And guess what. The front door was locked as well, just as supernaturally immovable as the garage door.
“This is beyond insane, this can’t actually be happening, no no no no…”
I began another kicking session against the front door.
“…NO NO NO NO!”
There was the sound of something cracking and it wasn’t the door frame. My ankle screamed at me and I suddenly couldn’t put my weight on it.
I nearly fell over as the door suffered another barrage of kicks. Except I wasn’t kicking it. Whatever was happening was taking place on the other side.
“Hello? Hello, I’m stuck inside my own house! My daughter is trapped in the garage! She’s going to die if nobody opens that damn door out there! Hello!”
There was no answer. I tried looking through the slivers of prismatic glass in the door. Something made them hard to see through. Then I was blinded by lights. Flashing red and blue lights. Was it the cops?
Part of me felt relief at the idea of the cops showing up. The other part of me didn’t feel anything that made sense. I brushed it off. I tried shouting even louder.
“Hello, my daughter is trapped in the garage, somebody please help….”
“WE KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE, SO COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP,” boomed an amplified voice.
“Daddy, I’m scared!”
“Henry you need to get up here and now! I’m not kidding around!”
I craned my neck to look at the top of the stairs. The bedroom door was shut. Those voices…
“LOOK BUDDY IT’LL GO SO MUCH BETTER FOR YOU IF YOU JUST COME OUT HERE.”
A high, tinny ringing began to swell in my skull that hurt my ears from the inside out, hurt the back of my eyes.
I twisted the front door again with the expected results. I looked back upstairs.
I finally began hobbling towards the stairs, my ankle blaring like the car horn from the garage.
“What the hell is all the noise, Henry? I can barely hear myself think up here.”
The photos on the wall beside the stairs weren’t just newsprint photos anymore. They were full newspaper pages. The pictures were all of the house. Of my wife. Of our daughter. Of me.
There were large and ominous headlines but I couldn’t read them. Either the letters were out of sequence or my brain wasn’t reading them right.
I saw a photo of Uncle Ron.
Actually I saw several photos of Uncle Ron. I tried to read the print surrounding them but it too was incomprehensible. I felt light-headed and the could feel the breath of the grinning, laughing hyenas of madness that were nipping at my ankles.
I continued my unsteady climbing of the stairs. At this point, all I wanted was that somehow, some way, my daughter was in fact upstairs. No matter how crazy the explanation for what I was seeing and hearing. If she could just be okay. If my wife could just be okay with her.
I crested the stairs. My wife and my daughter were both talking over each other, and their voices were coming from one door. Our bedroom door. I touched the doorknob and all fell silent at once. The car horn. The police outside. My family.
I pushed the door open.
Our bed was white as per the usual. But it looked like someone had spilled a bucket of the ugliest deep red paint all over it. My wife was in her eggshell blue nightie and she was in the final movement of pulling the blankets over something. She was spattered with the ugly red — a “chocolate” red — head to toe. Her hair was flattened with the weight of it. She looked at me with her electric eyes and press one finger to her lips.
“Sssssshhhhh… The baby is sleeping finally.”
She didn’t prevent me from coming over to the head of the bed and pulling the covers back. There lay Lindsay, drenched in blood to a degree that exceeded the imagination. She clutched her own entrails, twisting them the way a sleeping child might do to their blanket.
Kate, my wife lay beside her. Even though she was also standing beside me.
“Honey,” I wheezed, “I think I’m coming unglued, I think I’m…”
She put one hand on my shoulder and pointed to the far corner of the bed, beside her copy, that I hadn’t pulled back yet. I threw her a look, telling her I didn’t want any more of this. She merely nodded to the bed.
I tugged the full length of the sodden blanket, weighed down with blood, and there was a third body.
It was me. The way I had looked this morning before I showered and got dressed.
My stomach was cut wide open and I bled all over my side of the bed.
“HANDS UP!” yelled a policeman that I had not seen or heard enter the bedroom. His service pistol was aimed right at me. And my hands indeed went up. And somehow that still wasn’t quite what he wanted. The crack of the pistol sounded three times and I felt and heard three wet thumps in my body. I fell backwards as the ground left my feet.
Someone was slapping my face.
“Ronald? Ron? Ron, can you hear me?”
I opened my eyes and found myself inches from the face of a man with a white and closely cropped beard and very thick glasses. He looked irritated.
I was in a chair. I was at a table where there were several dolls. Most of them were Barbies that were in various stages of abuse and neglect. Missing limbs. Scribbled on with marker and pen. Three of them were crammed into a bed while two Barbies stood beside it. A disproportionately sized police officer action figure stood at the foot of the bed.
“You fell asleep, Ron,” the man said flatly. He then scribbled something onto a clipboard.
My mouth wagged and my voice fired off gently.
“Beg pardon?” the man said.
“My name is Henry.”
“Of course it is,” he grumbled. He walked over to a door with a narrow opening at his eye level and nodded to someone on the other side.
Two large men in white uniforms entered and lifted me out of my chair like an oversized and very stiff doll. They carried me out into a hallway that was whiter than white. The long tubular lights overhead hurt to look at. I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Then I was thrown onto the floor and there was the sound of a door shutting behind me.
The light in there was more bearable. It was small. Too small. It was a single lightbulb in what looked like a mason jar in a metal cage.
The walls were covered with newspapers. This detail made me shiver.
This must have been the point where my mind decided it couldn’t take anymore. I curled into a ball like a pillbug and fell into a sleep that was a perfect shutdown of all thought.
When I awoke, I lay motionless for as long as possible. Waiting for something to happen so I wouldn’t have to do anything. When I finally opened my eyes the very first thing I saw was the bold headline of one newspaper page on the wall:
The myriad pages surrounding it like mangy feathers had similar grim headlines. I didn’t have to look at the photos closely to recognize them as the newsprint pictures that had somehow replaced the pictures in my house like a cancer.
As I looked over the swell of information with glassy eyes, I finally saw it, next to the toilet in the saddest looking corner of the room. A sink with a mirror over it.
I hobbled over to it and gazed into the bottomless dark eyes of Uncle Ron.
Days passed. Then weeks.
I have done little more than lie in my moth-eaten bed and sleep, or sit on the edge of it for hours and stare at the floor. I stare at the floor because there aren’t any newspaper pages on the floor.
A few times. Only a few… I’ve looked in that mirror again. Each time I looked I expected to see Henry. Me.
But I see Uncle Ron.
That man from before comes to see me once or twice a week. He gives me pills and asks me how they make me feel. I can smell the B.S. on his breath and I cut to the chase each time.
“Look, what’s really going on here? Really? My name is Henry. My wife’s name is Kate. My daughter’s name is Lindsay. We live at 534 Riverloft Circle Drive in Silverkey Crossing, IL. I’ve been paying the mortgage on that house for well over sixteen years with blood sweat and tears. We were leaving for Uncle Ron’s funeral one Saturday and…”
I talk and talk and talk.
I tell the same story each time I see the same doctor.
He makes notes that scrape and click on his clipboard and then he leaves.
Then he comes back. We repeat this little social ritual.
I’ve started reading the newspaper pages cluttering the walls of my room. Excuse me. My cell.
I can only read them several paragraphs at a time. What they try to tell me is huge. And the connections I make to what I think I already know… Well… those things are bigger than huge. Bigger than my sanity.
Today I looked in that mirror again. Still Uncle Ron’s face.
I sat down on the bed. That’s still where I spend most of my time.
I reviewed everything I know about Ron.
I know I hate him. I know he gives me the creeps. I know I figured out he has the worst i****t-crush on my wife. There’s nothing about the man that I like. If there’s anything I understand about the man, I don’t want to admit it. Don’t want to think about it.
I can’t think of a single damn thing I have in common with Uncle Ron.
Except his face. I have Uncle Ron’s face.
The lab coat the visits me, the newspaper pages plastered all over my cell, the mirror next to my toilet, they all tell me the same thing. I don’t want to face it. I can’t.
What I can piece together is that Ron had a fixation on his niece Kate for a long time. Like, from when she was 11 or 12. Sick b*****d.
Over the years he kept every shred of anything connected to her. Photos. Scraps of hair. Even clothes. Pencils from her school supplies that she had gnawed on. Then she met Henry when she was seventeen. They dated past high school and their lives overlapped tightly. More than her life would ever tie up with Uncle Ron.
He continued to hawk her, live for the little thrill of being near her when he get close like at family reunions. Henry started to sniff out the stink of his perversion. Ron tried to befriend Henry to get him to relax a little bit, but no. Katie was a garden and Henry was the wall protecting it.
Ron tried to replicate the feeling with others, but it just… wasn’t the same. It wasn’t a cheap thrill of a sick crush on your own relatives… it was Kate.
She was special.
Ron continued to collect. He didn’t just go for things attached to Kate, but also things attached to Henry. He wanted to be Henry. This snake charmer of Kate’s love.
He wanted to be that man that had the key to Kate’s heart.
Ron collected pictures of the house. Of the family. Of Henry. As if it would all somehow, one day, allow him to switch bodies with the man.
In a way that happened when the medication began. After all, what would any good psychotherapist do, when your patient of well over a decade is steadily sinking into the mire of depression and insomnia and PTSD and anxiety and so forth and so on…
Under the fog of the psychotropics, Ron transmuted the dark artifacts of his scrapbooks into false memories, until he believed he was Henry.
Until I believed I was Henry.
When I’m not staring at the floor, I’m staring at my hands.
These have to be Henry’s hands.
I remember, vividly, clearly, seeing Henry’s hands both grasp Kate’s left hand as he proposed to her and slid a ring on her finger. It was Henry’s hands holding Kate’s during countless slow dances. It was Henry’s hands that massaged Kate’s back. Her shoulders. That wove magic on her skin during years of l********g.
They couldn’t be Ron’s hands.
Ron’s hands that took a sledgehammer to the front door of that house on 534 Riverloft Circle Drive. Ron’s hands that swung the hammer against Henry’s body until his ribcage was gravel and his insides began to bulge out of his ruptured flesh. Ron’s hands that turned the hammer on Kate when she wouldn’t stop throwing things and saying all those awful, hurtful things that stung Ron to his very soul and put a gun to the frail skull of the small part of him that loved her with all he had… and pulled the trigger without a second thought.
Ron’s hands that pull all three of them in bed together. Mangled limbs. Dislocated jaws. Bodies beaten past all sense of order.
Ron’s hands that were put in handcuffs. Surely they were arresting the wrong person. He wasn’t Ron. He was Henry. He was just trying to come home. He was trying to get the bad people out of his house. The people that didn’t belong there. The people that were trying to take away his wife. His Kate.
I stop staring at my hands and glance to a crooked wall clock. I guess I’ve been looking at my hands for a few hours. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron.
I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron. I can’t be Ron. I hate Ron.