Authors: K.H. Leigh
Tags: #dark comedy, #novella, #family relationships, #novella by female authors, #short adult fiction, #drama contemporany
by K.H. Leigh
Copyright © 2015 by K.H. Leigh
All rights reserved. This book or any portion
thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher except for
the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Printed in the United States of America
For Ms. G
& the Mayhem Within
My father is a son of a bitch.
Was a son of a bitch.
It’s weird. It should come naturally. He’s
always been a was, for practically as long as I can remember, but
now that he’s actually dead I keep thinking of him as an is. Funny
how our brains do that.
The house stinks. I opened all the windows
and doors when I arrived to try and air it out, but it doesn’t seem
to be helping. The stench is deep in the paneled walls, the worn
out furniture, the disgusting shag carpet that probably used to be
avocado green but now just reminds me of that mildew that grows on
Imagine that. Imagine being so immobile that
tiny little plants and shit actually starts growing on you.
I wonder when the others will get here. Gwen
will be late. She always is. Was. Always was. Maybe she’s grown out
of it. Jesus, how long has it been since I’ve seen her, anyway?
Eight years? Ten? I didn’t even have her phone number. When she
texted me last week I had no idea it was her.
I’m sorry, I think you have the
It’s your sister,
If it weren’t for the profanity I would have
had to ask which one, because I didn’t have Val’s number either.
But she never swears. At least in my mind she never swears. In my
mind she’s still bubbly and shiny and eleven, even though sporadic
emails and Christmas cards have proven otherwise. What’s her
husband’s name again? Some little boy’s name, like Jimmy or Timmy
or something. I wonder if he’s coming. Probably not. Probably
staying home with the kids. Their names I remember. Andrew, Jeremy,
Lilly. One of the boys does Little League and the other goes to art
class, though I couldn’t tell you which is which. The girl plays
soccer. I’ve never met any of them, but their tiny little lives
fill every one of those emails and cards. Val never talks about
Then there’s Jamie. She added me on Facebook
a while back, so I occasionally catch a glimpse of her life one
scrolling status update at a time. She either has a steady
boyfriend or a very specific type. I’ve never looked closely enough
at the pictures to be certain if they’re all the same guy.
Ben joked that I should make us all nametags
and hand them the wrong ones when I see them. I told him they
wouldn’t appreciate the humor. He said I should do it anyway, for
my own amusement, but of course I didn’t.
Even with all the windows and doors open and
the curtains drawn back the house is still dim. It’s those damn
overgrown trees in the yard. I doubt they’ve ever been pruned.
I go back out to the rental to get the boxes.
Now that I’ve seen the inside I realize I should have just got
garbage bags. Maybe one of the others would have thought of
I’m tossing the flatpacks of corrugated
cardboard into the yard when a dented Hyundai with Oklahoma plates
pulls up. Not a rental. She must have driven. Had to be at least
twelve hours. I can see her through the windshield and wave, but
she doesn’t wave back. She’s wearing some of those cheap oversized
sunglasses, so maybe she wasn’t looking at me, or maybe she just
didn’t feel like waving.
She gets out of the car and arches her back.
God, she got fat. No wonder she never put pictures of herself in
those emails and Christmas cards.
Am I supposed to hug her? Shake her hand? I
have no fucking idea. So I just stand here. “How’s the family?”
“Fine. Billy’s got his mind set on doing a
remodel of the downstairs bath.”
Billy. That was his name. I’ve never been to
her house - I’m not even sure what city it’s in, but I think it’s
near Tulsa - so I have no opinion on the downstairs bathroom.
“Sounds like quite an undertaking.”
She nods toward the house. “How bad is it in
I half expect her to gasp in surprise and
admonish me for using a bad-feeling-word, the way she used to when
she was little, but she just sighs. “Figured as much. You the only
“Yeah. I haven’t heard from them.”
“I’m sure Gwen will be late.” She pulls a
pack of Newports out of her jacket pocket and lights one without
offering me any. Just as well, I gave it up when I met Ben. She
doesn’t know that, though. “What’s with the boxes?” she asks. “You
planning to keep any of this shit?”
“No, just thought some of it might go to
Goodwill or something.” In fact I hadn’t even thought about it that
much. I just got boxes because that’s what you need to pack up a
house. Boxes. Not trash bags, not dumpsters. Boxes.
“I’m surprised you came, to be honest,” Val
said between drags.
“I’m surprised any of us did. We could have
hired someone. People do that.”
She shrugs. “We could have. But we didn’t.
How’s Ben?” I must look surprised, because she smiles a bit.
“You two married?”
“Next spring, maybe. Just something small. We
haven’t really talked about it much.”
My phone buzzes in my pocket.
What time did we say?
10 minutes ago.
Shitturds. Leaving now.
“Gwen’s on her way.”
Val drops what’s left of her cigarette on the
curb and smashes it with the toe of her sneaker. Like a flash of
lightning I see her in pigtails, stepping on an earthworm, studying
the pinkish brown streak left on the sidewalk with a look of smug
satisfaction as she scrapes it off her shoe. Strangely vivid for
such a meaningless memory.
I open the Swiss army knife on my keychain
and slice the plastic ties off one of the stacks of boxes. Val
watches me fold up two of them before taking one for herself.
Neither of us say anything.
A pickup truck towing a U-Haul trailer comes
around the corner and stops in the middle of the street in front of
the house. The window rolls down and James Taylor leaks out of the
stereo. How apropos.
“Mitchell,” Jamie calls from the driver’s
seat. Always Mitchell, never Mitch. She’s the only one I ever let
get away with that. Or maybe just the only one who ignored my
protestations. “Help me back it up the driveway.”
I walk backwards by the driver’s side edge of
the trailer and shout instructions to her as she eases up to the
house. “Left a bit. More. More. Straighten out. You’re good. Keep
Once she has it in park she kills the noisy
diesel engine and climbs out. I don’t have time to wonder how I
should greet her, because she pulls me in for a quick side hug,
just one arm each, hip to hip. It isn’t as awkward as I would
think, not like it would have been with Val. Maybe it’s residual
from spending so much time snuggled up against each other in the
“I have trash bags and gloves,” Jamie says,
reaching into the cargo box in the bed of the truck. She hands me a
pair of blue gardening gloves with the price tag still attached and
hefts an oversized box of those huge black bags people use for lawn
clippings onto her shoulder. “Jesus, has anyone ever trimmed these
She hugs Val, too, and for some reason it
makes me feel guilty.
Jamie marches up to the open doorway and we
both follow her. She stands with her hands on her hips, surveying
the room, then drops the box of garbage bags on a lumpy chair by
the door. A cloud of dust swirls up from the impact.
"You wanna do one room at a time? Start in
here and work our way back?"
"Works for me."
We each gravitate toward a different corner.
Mine has a bookcase with a broken shelf, covered in old magazines.
National Geographic, Reader's Digest, Time. All at least twenty
years old. I leaf through a couple, checking the covers for any
interesting history, then start dropping them by stacks into a
“Why aren’t there any lights on?” Jamie
"The power was shut off weeks ago," Val
answers, shoving a bent umbrella frame into a black trash bag.
"Apparently his bill hadn’t been paid in a long time."
His. It's the first time any of us have
mentioned him. Just a tiny personal pronoun that somehow makes
everything in the room look different.
Not just magazines. His magazines.
I fill two boxes, three, then cart them
outside. Jamie's on my heels with a bag in each hand.
"Recyclables here, donations on that side?" I
"What about garbage?"
"In the U-Haul. We're going to have to take a
couple trips to the dump before we're done."
She swings the bags into the trailer and
follows me back inside. "We've got a system going," she tells Val.
"Want me to show you?"
"I'll figure it out." She's already nearly
cleared her corner.
A few minutes later Jamie groans. "Fuck."
"What's the matter?"
"He had a cat." She's holding the inside of
her elbow up over her mouth and nose. I walk over and see an open
litter box, overflowing with feces blackened by age, under a desk
against the wall.
"I'm not picking that up."
"I think I saw a snow shovel in the
With her nose wrinkled, Jamie steps over
various bits of junk strewn over the floor and heads for the
garage. Once she’s gone the silence seems heavier. Thick enough to
Three years, I think. That’s when I last saw
Jamie. She’d emailed to tell me she was coming to town and wanted
to see me. I’d had a brief moment of panic, unsure if she was
asking in some vague, roundabout way if she could stay at my place
- and if she was, would she be offended if I had to ask if that’s
what she meant, and if she wasn’t, would asking make her think I
wanted her to? Ben would have laughed at me and told me to calm the
fuck down, but I didn’t know him yet. I was living with Paul then,
and Paul just got annoyed with me. Such a pussy, he said. Terrified
of my own fucking sister.
So I cleaned out the tiny room we used as an
office, just in case, and borrowed a futon from the neighbors, but
when Jamie showed up at the front door she didn’t have any bags
with her. I never did find out where she was staying, but I was
relieved it wasn’t with me and even more relieved that she never
We went out to eat at one of those trendy
places just off Santa Monica, small plates and a patio. Paul came
along, at our insistence, and it was fine. Not a life-altering
evening, not a disaster. Just fine.
She came back the next morning, from wherever
it was she was staying, and we went hiking up Runyon Canyon, just
the two of us. We didn’t talk as much, without Paul there, but that
was fine too.
“I said, when’s the last time you were here?”
Val has already moved on to another corner. Damn, she works fast.
She looks at me with raised eyebrows.
“Um. I dunno. 1992? ‘93, maybe?”
I laugh. I can’t help it.
“What?” Val pouts. I laugh harder.
Jamie comes back with a big aluminum shovel
in her hands, the grubby barcode sticker still wrapped around the
handle. “What’s so funny?”
I have tears in my eyes. Actual goddamn
fucking tears. I just manage to blurt the words out between gasps.
“Val said ‘bullshit’.”
It takes Jamie a minute to react, but when
she does she starts laughing, too. Val looks back and forth at the
two of us like we’re crazy. Not angry, just confused. Eventually
she just rolls her eyes and starts stuffing her trash bag
Jamie and I get control of ourselves after a
minute or two, when we both see the shovel and remember why she
went to get it in the first place. We look down at the pile of cat
“How do you want to do this?”
“I was thinking I’d stand way over there and
cheer you on.”
I open a new bag and use some old newspapers
to pin the edge of it to the floor, then lift the other side to
open the mouth wide. Jamie grimaces as she tries to slide the scoop
under the litterbox, and it just scoots along the floor for a few
“I don’t have any leverage.”
I grab a stool and wedge it under the desk,
pinning the litterbox between it and the wall, until she can get
the shovel under, then I open the bag again. With a low moan she
lifts the litterbox a few inches and swings it into the bag. I
fight my gag reflex when the stench hits me.