Mom loves the church more than she loves me or Charles. She loves Christians who writhe in the Holy Spirit, who speak in tongues, who anoint each other with oils until their foreheads are shiny and pimpled. She loves her fellow sheep of the flock even more than Dad—God rest his soul.
I try to do what I can to earn her love back. I'm very careful to keep myself pure, to keep my thoughts from straying, to be a good soldier of the Lord, so that God will send me His work. In every service I perform, He will help me earn my way back to salvation. God willing, His blood will make me whole.
I don't take it personally that strangers enjoy the comforts of my childhood home while I fend for myself and live in an efficiency apartment that stinks of onions and weed from the surrounding tenants. Mom is too trusting with her fellow believers. Her church is an asylum for narcissists and those unable to handle the adult world without God watching over them, powdering their asses and excusing their every transgression with His blood that makes us all white as snow.
I forgive with blood too, but nobody powders my ass anymore. Nobody watches over me but me.
Charles tells me that sharing her home with strangers is the only way our Mom can cope with her self-imposed empty nest syndrome. He doesn't understand the relationship that I have with our dear Mother. He doesn't know why she made me leave when I was only eighteen, so young and so helpless. With every monthly check in, he proves how little he knows me, how we are less brothers and more strangers that happened to grow up in the same house.
He had already moved out when Mom discovered my secret in the woods the summer of my junior year—the deserted tree house where I’d kept all the rotting, bleeding things that could not come home with me. My souvenirs would expose me if Mom decided to clean my bedroom or check my desk drawers for drugs or dirty magazines.
I tried to be careful, but I spent so much time out in the woods by myself. Sometimes I didn’t return until nightfall, despite Mom’s threats of grounding if I didn’t get in by dinner. When she asked what I was doing out there for so long, I would shrug and gave vague answers like “Just things. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Maybe I would,” she said, laying a plate of meatloaf in front of me. “If something is wrong, you’d tell me, right?”
She’d been worried for my soul for the prior year since I’d stopped attending church. I wanted to tell her how my thoughts had changed, how the woods were now my place of worship, but the thought of inviting her in had felt like impossibility—a door that if opened too quickly would be the death of our family.
A few weeks later, Mom grew impatient and curious and went into the woods and found the tree house. I caught her there, staring at a collection of small bones arranged by size and in various stages of decay. Her eyes were saucers; her mouth pursed shut. I waited for her to scream, to cry or crumple to the ground in anguish. She only shook her head, her brown hair swishing around her ears, and then she pushed herself past me without a glance back. We never talked about it.
I assume she let me stay at home as long as she could bear. Mom shut herself away in her room when I came home, leaving my dinner in the microwave and refusing my anguished pleas to talk to her. It was like living with a ghost. There were no more hugs, no more kisses on the forehead when she walked by as I was doing my homework.
I would slip notes underneath her door, telling her I needed permission slips signed or money for basketball uniforms. The next morning I'd wake up and the paper would be on the kitchen table, signed in Mom's flowing, elaborate handwriting, a small heart next to our shared last name like an afterthought. I would touch those hearts with the tips of my fingers and pray for Mom to love me again, to shower me with kisses and tell me I was cherished.
The summer after I graduated, I came home one sunny day to find my stuff out on the porch and the locks changed. There was no note, no signature with a heart to give me a beacon of hope.
I took my stuff and went to stay with my aunt, who helped me with the deposit on an apartment downtown and offered to pay the rent until I found gainful employment. I knew then that Mom hadn’t told a soul about what she’d found in the woods. If Aunt Connie didn’t know, then nobody did.
The only ones who knew my secret other than Mom were the Holy Trinity. I know she prayed for me every day since throwing me out. I could feel God’s hand on my shoulder, His fingers burning my flesh, making me pure for the work I was meant to do for Him. And for her.
Mom had to find something to take care of, and a dog or a cat would not do. None of the animals we had as a family lasted that long anyway, and after her summer discovery, Mom finally knew why. Instead, she took in souls. She needed human beings, vessels of God she could love and nurture to the correct path. In return, she received their wrath and agony, poured out on her like Christmas wine.
I think in the beginning, Mom felt like she deserved it. It’s my fault, because in a way I think she blames herself for how I am, like she's done something wrong or hasn't prayed hard enough for my soul.
However, the need for self-flagellation soon wears off, and that’s when she calls me. These are the times when I wonder if God is blind. If He could see how some of His children treated my Mom, He would shield her from these rotten apples, their cores worm-eaten and full of poison. He would not let my sweet Mom eat of that fruit because of me.
The first one was easy. Mom found out a young woman in her Bible study had been living with a baby in her car. Imagine—a new mother, completely homeless.
The child's father had visitation with the baby that lovely spring weekend when Mom's call roused me. It was still dark. Mom suffers from insomnia, and when she can’t sleep, she gets up and prays. Instead, she called me. No doubt, God led her to it.
"Bruce." Mom's voice was a whisper. She didn't want her houseguest to hear. "I've done a dreadful thing."
I expected her to say that she was sorry she threw me out and that she wanted me to come home. I mumbled something incoherent and then stopped, waiting for her to continue.
"This woman lets her baby cry at all hours of the night. I can't sleep. She hasn't helped out with the bills. And oh my, she can eat. She hasn't paid for a single thing since she moved in. Her boyfriend also comes over, and I think they're having sex. Can you even imagine the nerve of that girl? Having sex out of wedlock underneath my roof? He's not even her baby's father! And when I asked her about it, she had the audacity to tell me that it was none of my business. Can you even believe that? Now she spends every weekend at his house. What a great way for a Mom to act."
My heart sank. I hadn't heard from Mom in months. I didn’t even know how she got my phone number, and she was complaining about the girl that was probably sleeping in my bed and eating my Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
"No, that's just dreadful," I said, my mouth like sandpaper. My head pounded with a hangover that bloomed on my forehead like a rose. The night prior, I'd drank an entire bottle of cheap red wine to help me doze. I hadn't been able to afford a bed yet—I was sleeping on the floor. My bones ached as I got up and sat on a loveseat that smelled faintly of mildew and cigarettes when the cushions exhaled.
Mom continued, ignoring the obvious signs that she'd interrupted my sleep. "She leaves me alone with her son constantly. She tells me she's going to work, but if she worked all of these hours, wouldn't she be able to afford to pay me some rent money? All of the utility bills have gone up since she moved in, and the least she could do would be to pay for her food, right?"
My stomach rumbled, empty except for wine and a bucket of chicken-flavored ramen.
She continued. "It isn't right that she treats me like a food bank."
"Of course, Mom. That's just rude."
She sighed heavily. "I really wish something could be done about this."
I swear that my heart stopped just then. I couldn't breathe, much less speak. I rubbed my eyes and wondered if the entire conversation was a lucid dream.
"Yeah, me, too, Mom."
There was a long silence where I wondered if she'd disconnected.
"I love you, Bruce," she said in a breathy whisper and hung up.
My heart soared.
It was easy following the woman taking advantage of my Mom, since I knew all about her from Charles, the fountain of gossip.
Her name was Stephanie. She worked at a local Dunkin' Donuts third shift, and I'd seen her quite a few times when I couldn't sleep and would go out for a coffee. After work, she visited her boyfriend's house, which was where I waited for her.
The boyfriend was easy to take care of. He had already smoked a bowl that afternoon, and it made him slow. Just a quick bash on the head with tire iron, and he was out long enough for me to tie him up. I had Stephanie's entire shift to experiment with his body.
The boyfriend was thin, almost birdlike. He was so small that I found it to be quite a shame that I hadn’t given in to my impulse and killed a person before. In the end, I found that human bodies were similar to the animals of my youth. I enjoyed cutting off tiny pieces, watching to see what kind of pain it inflicted and relishing the emotional high for as long as it would last before moving on to the next cut.
With animals, there was never begging, no prayers to Jesus and God and whatever other deities for sweet release or mercy. I gagged the boyfriend so he would have the same silence. I wrapped his body in plastic bags after he'd surrendered his spirit. I saved his fingers. I saved all the blood, too, of course. Blood is sacred.
I washed everything with bleach, not wanting Stephanie's experience to be tainted. I aired out the smell of copper from the apartment as best I could, but it was so strong I could taste pennies in my mouth.
When she arrived home, I subdued her easily. I must have hit her too hard, because unlike her boyfriend, the blow killed her. I hovered over her body and sighed, wondering what cutting her would feel like, re-living the imagined moment in my mind over and over, but it wasn't the same. Such a waste.
Her blood went into the plastic container with her boyfriend's. I sighed at the beauty of it—they would be together in a way not many people ever experienced. I also took her finger bones and boiled both sets in a pot on the stove top while I cleaned. The meat peeled off, leaving the bones like soft brown pebbles. Stephanie's were so delicate and thin.
The bags were thrown into a swamp up near Southington, in a section of wood owned by an old codger who routinely shot at trespassers. The best thing about old codgers is that they go to bed early. The blood I took for my purification ceremony. The finger bones for the tree fort behind Mom's house.
The fort was still there, cleaned out shortly after Mom discovered my secret. I placed the fingers on the empty bench that once had held the tails of beloved pets and miscellaneous remains I’d found in the woods since I was a boy.
Laying the bones on the polished wood to dry, I prayed that Mom would allow me back home again, that she would plant kisses on my forehead while she lay a plate of meat and potatoes in front of me. That she would let me go to college and study biology. That she would give me the chance for a normal life.
I poured out the blood in a circle around the treehouse, offering it to God as my sacrifice. I felt His burning hand a little less, but it was still there: a constant weight on my heart and spirit, telling me that my sacrifice hadn’t been good enough.
It didn't take long for Mom to get herself back in hot water. She let this woman, Betsy, and her husband George move in with their own adult son, Ron.
Ron and I had gone to school together, and I remembered him as a creepy moocher with a mullet who was constantly being suspended. I don't think he made it to graduation.
Charles, who was still in Mom's good graces, had gone to Thanksgiving at the house and experienced her guests firsthand. He called to tell me about his night and described the conversations in excruciating detail.
"The bird is a bit dry," Ron had barked out to everyone at the table, his face scrunched up in disgust like he'd just heard a big, juicy fart. Half his teeth were either rotting or missing. "I could've done better if you hadn't taken over."
Mom had kept her eyes focused on her mashed potatoes and gravy. She’d spooned it slowly into her mouth, refusing to acknowledge the comment.
Ron had stuck out his tongue. “Potatoes are lumpy, too.”
"Well, this is my house.” Her tone had been firm and clipped. “And my sons prefer my cooking."
Betsy had snickered. "Your sons? Bruce couldn't even be bothered to come here. He's too good for us or somethin’?"
According to Charles, Betsy had cackled like it was the funniest thing anyone had ever said and had dominated the rest of the dinner conversation with lengthy, in-depth updates of her health ailments and medication dosages. Mom had kept her eyes on her potatoes and said nothing.
"I was so pissed, Bruce,” said Charles. “And Betsy's idiot husband sat there and didn't say a word while his wife and son insulted our Mom in her own home." I could feel his anger through the phone like a hot breath on my neck. "Why didn't you come this year, anyway?"
I think, deep down inside, Charles was afraid to ask what drove the wedge between me and Mom. He probably thought I'd come out of the closet or something and wasn't ready to talk about it yet.
"I don't know what she's thinking," Charles went on after I didn't answer. "Ron asked me to spot him a twenty before I left and if I knew where he could score some weed. Betsy asked me why I didn't go to church. George just sat there, not saying a word, eating with his mouth open. They were the rudest, most invasive people I've ever met in my life. They even had the nerve to ask why I didn't have a girlfriend."
I slurped a spoonful of ramen, wondering for the first time why Charles didn’t have a girlfriend. What I really wanted to know was how good the green bean casserole had tasted. The noodles were okay. I'd been able to get turkey flavor this year. I'd even added some corn and carrots, just to be festive.
Charles sighed. "I can't take another year of this. Next year, we'll do Thanksgiving together, okay?"
I belched into the phone, which stunned him into silence. "That’s all I really have to say about that. Let me leave you to your beers and home cooked meals. Talk to you later." I hung up and finished my soup, read a book and went to bed.
At two o'clock in the morning, the phone rang. I'd been waiting for it. It felt like Christmas.
"Bruce, these people here are so horrible. They abuse their grandson when he comes over. Betsy makes me clean the toilets twice because she said I don't do a good enough job. What have I gotten myself into? I just wish something could be done."
I waited, listening to the sound of her breathing.
"I love you, sweet baby boy."
This time, Mom left the house. She went to church for two hours every morning to lay herself on the altar and beg God to help her, to show her the way. Mom left the door unlocked for me when she left for prayer that morning, which was very sweet. It was easy to slip sleeping pills into the coffee, and Ron, George and Betsy drank from their cups deeply.
Ron was the most fun to kill. He smelled like cheap cologne and whiskey when I took his clothes off, but his skin sliced open like steak and bled freely. He must have been slightly hemophilic. All three of them woke up and screamed sweetly, although in vain since Mom had no close neighbors. Their fear sounded like the hymns of angels while I diced them up and poured their blood into a plastic container. I threw all three of their bodies into the back of their 80s-era Oldsmobile in the driveway and took it to the swamps, where it sank deep into the mud like good Detroit steel should.
Clean up was not easy. I used up a gallon of bleach, and when I was done, I aired out the house. I boiled Betsy, George and Ron's fingers on the stove until the meat sloughed off, then sifted out the bones. I made sure to wash the pan when I was done. I'm a considerate son, after all.
Before I left Mom’s house, I went into the woods, to the tree house. Betsy, George and Ron went next to Stephanie and her boyfriend on the bench.
The next morning, Mom had a tag sale. Many of the church ladies snapped up Betsy's Chinaware and cast iron pots and pans. After all, Betsy would want her friends to have them, even though she left town without even the courtesy of a goodbye. Mom looked mournful that yet more troubled souls had decided her home was not a fit place for them, that they'd be better off somewhere else.
I felt God's love and power flood through me after the offering. Yet that hand was still there, no longer burning but a weight that kept me aware that I had work to do. Mom’s love was so close—just at my fingertips.
The vacant rooms in my Mom's home were too much temptation to stay empty for long. My Mom really outdid herself this time. She let a seven-person family move in, complete with five screaming, dirty little children between the ages of twelve and nineteen.
The mother, Emily, was head of the women's ministries at the church. I'd met her quite a few times when I attended holiday services with Mom. I remembered her as a fluffy blonde with red lipstick who always made mention—her eyes giving me a long survey—of how handsome I was getting. Her five children were undisciplined, spoiled little demons that were known for their bad behavior around town.
Charles called me up shortly after a Fourth of July picnic. "Mom's house is completely trashed." He was practically breathless. "All that’s missing is another rusted-out car in the driveway. They already have one there. And the stuff that's hoarded in the basement is insane. And those kids—don’t even get me started."
When I didn't answer, he sighed and let the silence stretch out.
"Listen, I know there's something between you and Mom. I really wish you'd both get over it." Something stuck in Charles's throat and he coughed. His voice sounded thick. "I miss you, Bruce. I miss how things used to be when Dad was still alive."
I softened my voice. I hated hearing him sound so pathetic. "I know. It'll be fine."
"If you want it to be fine, you have to go to Mom. Try to talk some sense into her, because she doesn't listen to me. She needs to get these people out of the house."
"I'll see what I can do." I said goodbye, hung up, and waited for Mom's phone call.
It came a week later, late at night again. The Witching Hour is always the best time for the most powerful prayers. Mom believes that, although she would chastise me for the Pagan reference.
"This is so horrible, Bruce." She sobbed. "The children have destroyed the shed in the back, kicked it ’til it broke. The one son sits on the computer watching porn all day and told me to eff off when I asked him to stop. The two younger ones kick and fight and scream at each other at all hours at night. And Emily is so awful to me—she hates me."
"And the house is just wrecked, Bruce. Thousands of dollars’ worth of damage, and they haven't even given me a dime toward the rent. I let them come here out of the goodness of my heart. They would've been living out of their campsite if I hadn't let them come here, and in a few months it will be getting so cold. They're all going for a family camping trip in a few days. All seven of them up at Knobby Hill in this little camper the size of a towing trailer. Amazing, isn't it? I wish they would just stay there so I could fix the house back up. I'll never do this again."
There was a long pause where I held my breath. I could hear her exhale on the other end of the line. I waited for the words, my heart close to bursting.
"I love you, my sweetest boy."
I place seven new sets of finger bones on the bench and kneel down in front of it, whispering my silent prayer to God that the power of the blood will be enough, that Mom will embrace me as the prodigal son and I can come home to my childhood bed.
All seven of them, the cutting and then the boiling, was a lot of work, but it had to be done. I left the bodies at the campsite. It should be several weeks before any campers discover the family, and by that time the animals and the August heat will do most of the work for me. They'll decompose enough where most of the forensic evidence will be lost. The missing finger bones will be chalked up to hungry animals looking for an easy meal.
I touch all seven sets, marveling at how small some of them are. My bench is beginning to look full again, and that sight pleases me. I am made in the image of God, so I assume it pleases Him, too.
I no longer feel his hand on me after pouring the seven containers of blood around the treehouse. The ground drank my sacrifice like communion wine.
Before I leave, I pause at my homemade altar. A small heart is written in the dust next to my latest offerings, almost like an afterthought. I run my fingers on the lacquered wood, the heart smearing, and whisper a prayer of thanksgiving before finally heading back home.