Altruism brought on my mother’s cancer—worried so much about others, we couldn’t have an address or phone number listed in the city directory. For me, as a teenage girl, this was an embarrassing thing to be UNLISTED. My mother lost three students that year to gangs—mostly drive-bys and muggings. One found at home, where no one had noticed him dying. Bled out on a shag carpet floor.
My stepfather, Byron, became the replacement for another instructor who’d been beaten into a coma in the basement of the school. When he was late for dinner, mother paced. Tense and wrinkled across the forehead, twisting a terrycloth dish rag between her big hands like a washing maid.
We lived in the suburbs, had a two car garage, and I went to Catholic school because it kept me out of trouble. There shouldn’t have been anything to worry about, but still my mother looked over her shoulder every time she left the grounds of the school.
On windy nights, the branches of the wild cherry tree thrashed violently against our kitchen windows, and mother walked the hallways on edge. Helping disadvantaged youth hadn’t turned out the way she’d envisioned it—wanting to save the world, one poor child at a time.
And so, when the school year finally came to a close, we packed up and left. And moved to Vermont, where there was nothing like that we’d ever have to worry about.
The house on Hospital Hill had been once a group home for the mentally ill. The foundation had sunk a good few feet into the ground from the weight of all that history, and for four years the house sat morbidly empty with no one cutting the grass.
It smelled of cat urine, and finger prints of feces smeared the pastel colored walls. Animal or human? No one could tell. The water had been shut off for so long, the well needed to be pumped and refilled. And even when it got flowing again, the smell of sulfur and iron was prominent on the skin like burnt broccoli—all our hair eventually turning tinted rusted auburn.
Large conic ant hills protruded from the two acre plot like sand dunes, or land mines. And no one dared to go up the path to the front entrance, afraid of making any false steps. No one came around to welcome us to the neighborhood, by the time we’d settled in— after the movers had long gone. So, my mother went to them. Making the rounds. Introducing herself, her husband, and their brooding adolescent daughter.
Our new neighbors turned out to be a pedophile, a doctor, and a handful of other teachers, elated that a normal family just moved in. Had mother never stopped by to announce us, they wouldn’t have known. The residents of The Hill gossiped and speculated, but none of them would have ever just dropped in.
I spent most of my summer scraping paint off the side of the house, wearing the skimpiest of clothing I could scheme up. My scissors working their way to shorter hems and wider necklines.
This is…this is child labor, I complained to mother, as the flaking chips left a sharp stannic taste of lead behind my pouting lips.
Scrape! mother demanded with gusto, as she too whittled away another decade on a nearby banister.
In the evenings, when asked to take out the garbage, I would catch a possum or two eating the leftover pieces of scraped paint that had blown into the yard below. I suspected it was because the paint was sweet on the tongue. But then again, poisonous things were often deceptive like that.
There was no getting around the fact I was pissed at my parents for uprooting me again. I was sixteen, and knew nothing else but to be pissed. So, I did things to spite them, like wearing barely-there jean shorts and pushup tops, too much caked-on makeup and sometimes no bra. This drew attention from the men in town—the toothless ones with prominent chins, who stood outside Laundromats and bars with no signage, smoking unfiltered Camels and gawking at the young able ones who passed by.
What I didn’t want was any of that Vermont wholesomeness rubbing off on me, and whined every day that there was no shopping mall or skate park to spend my time. That the only other kids I saw in all my summer scraping, were a couple homely boys riding around on second-hand bicycles, trying to catch a glimpse of me bent over the porch railing like some jailed egret getting ready to lead a flying-V.
The first time I took LSD, I met a straight guy who danced for a gay men’s review. My friend’s hair went the color of purple Grape Crush right before my eyes. And a couple of townies convinced me to climb up on top of a mill building in the middle of a corn field, because they said the echo effects were: Out of sight.
And there standing on the cement flat with faded blue helicopter markings, from where I could hear every stem sway in the granular ocean, I developed a deep hatred for Vermont. For its smoke stack that puffed steam from processed paper. The conifer tree line. And the scent of manure ripening in my nose. For my parent’s choices, and what I wished to disown. And for what I didn’t know would become of me, in this backcountry I refused to call home.
The second time I did acid, me and my accomplices were banned from the movie theatre for tripping out during a military festival. Where someone announced in a room full of vets that, The sergeant has tits! And then proceeded to crawl across the soda pop-covered floor on forearms, as his legs trailed behind him, pretending to be wounded while under attack.
After we were asked to leave, I picked popcorn from the boy’s hair in the alleyway, and let him stick his brackish cow tongue inside my mouth. I was sure then that’s when I saw angels spying on me from the brick rooftops above us—round eyes and orbits. But this didn’t stop me from being anything but shameless and high.
The third time I transcended time and space, I was in an AP Bio class learning the lifecycle of larvae. The foil beneath my desk, fingering sticky jelly reds. The gurgle of the water bubbler, and the swimming yellow Sicklets behind slimy glass. And at home during dinner, the oranges my mother had sliced dandily spinning like pinwheels, reduced to a deep growl then laugh.
I’m worried about Macie. My mother’s voice was low, but fully audible through our shared wall at bedtime. Me, listening on the other side, staring down into alien streets, attempting to calm my mad pulse and heartbeat.
And within this thread of forced silence, there emerged from the gutters, two macabre figures with waving clipped hands. Sinister, as they danced like wind sockets, flailing spastically with full wicked heads.
It was a girl from class, who disappeared one weekend after partying in the woods. We’d all been on mushrooms, and had run strings of dyed ribbon through the pine and boscage to be certain that no one would get lost. Lots of Hansel’s and Gretel’s to account for, and this system had worked in the past.
Flashlights darting past tree trunks like a nature slide show transitioning in slots. The girl’s name unknown. Who’d she come with? All unknown.
And though, I had noticed that she was pretty, reserved, and moved like a fawn on new legs. Hello?! was all I could think to holler into the dense woods.
Monday came, and the girl was said to be missing. Tuesday, her parents called the school. The authorities wanted to know the details that no one bothered to observe.
We’d all been out of their heads.
Hadn’t they (our parents) ever had a night like that?
Of course not. Stupid kids. Things like this don’t ever happen in Vermont.
My mother’s cancer went into remission in year five. Perhaps due to the clean mountain air, perhaps she had nothing more to worry about. Still, I remained resentful of the move, and bought a one-way ticket back to the city the first chance I got.
When I heard about the pickle jar found buried by a Vermont woodsman, I was preparing to give birth to my first daughter.
I always hated that place, I told my husband. It gave me the creeps. What was it in particular?
Well, it was how the day could be nothing and everything at once. Mean nothing and everything. Then you’d find yourself lost. It would be dark, and you’d be all alone. That was Vermont—where you couldn’t trust the fog.
Then it’s a good thing you got out when you did.
I did. By the skin of my teeth, by the skin of my teeth.
Sarah E. Caouette holds an MFA in Creative Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University. Her work has recently appeared with The Citron Review, The Good Men Project, Cigale Literary, and has been recently selected for the literary event Word! Portland. For the time being, she currently resides in Maine, believing there’s something about the air.