by Elise Farotto
&&&“Tell me the truth,” Mom pleads. “Is Grandma still taking you to see Bob?”
&&&I have spent most of the day baking a cake with Mom’s roommate, Mike, for Grandma’s 61st birthday. Mom doesn’t bake, but her friends like to play at parenting and Mike has meticulously walked me through constructing a m oist Duncan Heins devil’s food cake with pink frosting. He also purchased a wax “61” candle cake topper in response to my suggestion of buying 61 individual birthday candles. When Grandma came over that evening, I had anxiously run to the fridge to slide the cake out, and watched in horror as the whole thing avalanched like a mudslide in my arms.
&&&She sat next to me on the kitchen floor and laughed saying, “The candle got turned around and now it looks like I’m 16! This is the best birthday cake ever,” and grabbed two forks so we could eat it together right off of the linoleum floor.
&&&I know Mom’s rule about not seeing Bob and no matter how I answer her, I will betray one of the women I love most in the world. “Sometimes,” I admit, spooning a bite of smashed devil’s food cake into my mouth.
&&&She curses under her breath, then looks me dead in the eye. “Listen to me. This is very important. You are never, under any circumstances, to be alone with Bob. Do you understand me?”
&&&I nod. She won’t say why, and I’m too young to guess with any specificity. All I know is that Bob is a Bad Man.
&&&“He’s your grandfather and he has a right to see you,” Grandma sputters whenever we have a clandestine rendezvous with Bob. “Your mother needs to let go of the past and forgive him.” Then Grandma looks at me like Bonnie probably looked at Clyde and says, “Just don’t mention this to her.”
&&&We usually meet Bob somewhere that’s supposed to feel fun. Sometimes a restaurant with an arcade or the movie theater. “If your mother asks, just tell her we ran into him here.” As if a chance meeting with Bob at the movies could be a plausible coincidence. But the meetings themselves are never fun. They’re stressful and tense. I hate being part of some family secret I don’t even understand.
&&&Bob always plays the part of the misunderstood hero, offering my brother and me Rolos and dollar bills while asking dumb questions about school. “I wish I could see you more,” he laments. “If only your mother would open her cold, cold heart.”
&&&But this is where Bob slips up because my Mom does not have a cold heart. I file this away as some evidence of his being a Bad Man.
&&&“Has she ever let him take you to the bathroom?”
&&&Mom’s panic rises. “He is never allowed to take your or your brother to the bathroom! That’s very important! Do you understand?”
&&&Again, I understand the urgency but not the nature of the warning, and am left with only some unnamed fear. Never be alone with Bob. Especially in the bathroom. Something unspeakably terrible could happen.
&&&As I grow older, the meet ups with Bob happen more at his home. Mom continues to forbid us to see him and Grandma continues to sneak us over for visits. He lives in odd places. A small boat in Oceanside Harbor. A Veteran’s apartment home. Then eventually a van parked outside Grandma’s bungalow, a suspicious presence in her otherwise neat little retirement community.
&&&“I can’t even go over there anymore,” Mom whispers to her cousin, Lisa. “You know I broke into his van? I wanted to see if he had my baby pictures. My mom says he took them all.”
&&&“Who knows if that’s even true,” Lisa says, sipping vodka through a sports bottle straw while slathering her skin with Crisco.
&&&“I didn’t find my baby pictures. But I did find…” She looks at us three kids in the apartment swimming pool: my brother, Lisa’s daughter, and me. Mom thinks we’re not listening but whispers the rest of the story into Lisa’s ear just in case.
&&&“I called the cops and they said it looked like he was selling it. But they couldn’t arrest him because he wasn’t on the premises. They just put out a warrant.”
&&&“Junkie,” Lisa slurs. I file the word away for later analysis.
&&&Grandma sleeps over while Mom goes out with Lisa. Mom doesn’t want us at Grandma’s anymore because of Bob’s van. Mom hasn’t asked us about going to the bathroom with him in a long time. Now the warnings are about never getting inside his van.
&&&Grandma wakes me up in the middle of the night. “Do you hear that?” she whispers like a woman possessed.
&&&I strain to hear, still rubbing the sleep from my eyes. And then Lisa’s muffled anger thunders through our ceiling from the apartment above ours. I can’t make out the words, only the danger, and then the terrified screams of my cousin. My blood runs cold. I’ve heard all this before.
&&&“Should we call the police?” I ask as usual.
&&&Grandma shushes me again, but the screams are easily heard.
&&&The screams eventually stop, but Grandma stays awake the rest of the night waiting for them to start again. They don’t. She doesn’t go upstairs to check on my cousin. She doesn’t call the police. No one ever calls. “Kids get abused in foster care,” they always explain.
&&&“I’m afraid Bob’s gonna kill me,” Mom confesses to Lisa, who’s drinking a cup full of Clamato juice. That’s clam juice and tomatoes – good for hangovers.
&&&“He knows I’m the one who turned him in. I’m afraid to even start my car. What if he hooked a bomb up to it?”
&&&“Psycho,” Lisa slurs, pouring vodka into her Clamato juice.
&&&That night Lisa is afraid. Her ex is angry and looking for her. We all huddle in the downstairs apartment kitchen in the dark. Her daughter’s dark skin hides most of her bruises and the shadows hide the rest. We hold our breath all night, listening for the bogeyman.
&&&My brother has a secret to tell. The unthinkable has happened. Someone has done Something Bad to him. But it’s not Bob. It’s Ben – another bogeyman right under our nose.
&&&We’ve been too busy watching Bob to notice Ben. But now Ben is a Bad Man and we have to move away. Far away. Now.
&&&Ben is Mom’s nephew, her sister’s son. This Awful Thing causes a fissure in the whole family. Mom can’t talk to her sister anymore. Can’t talk to anyone. Her sister cries and pleads. Don’t put her son away. Mom fights against dissolving into a complete nervous breakdown.
&&&While Mom plots our escape, I plot Ben’s murder. I am ten. They’ll never suspect me. Even if they do, I am only a kid and no one could possibly blame me. I don’t wonder if I’m capable of it. I already know that I am. I come from a long line of Bad People.
&&&I enjoy imagining the details. A letter of cut out magazines (another of Mom’s friends taught me about collage) mailed from some other city. Climbing the tree up to his window. Let him be scared of someone sneaking into his bedroom in the dark for a change. I don’t imagine how exactly, only that I will. Now I am the bogeyman and it’s Ben’s turn to be afraid.
&&&Mom and Grandma have lunch with Uncle Ernie before we move away. My brother and I go for a walk. “I’m going to kill Ben,” I say mildly.
&&&“Don’t,” my brother pleads. “I don’t want you to do that for me.” And just like that, the plot vanishes into thin air.
&&&I hear whispers about jail, a conviction, a suicide attempt. The court handles it. We silently vow never to speak of it again. We move away leaving everything behind. I force myself not to feel sad, not to feel loss. After all, no one hurt me.
&&&No one ever comes to see us in the new place. No one follows. Now I only see Grandma when we come back to visit. Bob and his van are long gone. There is a knock at Grandma’s door.
&&&It’s Ben. His long creepy hair has been cut short and he’s wearing a suit. He says Hello and I don’t murder him. Instead I say Hello back like a scared little girl because, I realize with shame, that is all that I am.
&&&Ben tells me he’s going on a mission for our church, to spread the Word and baptize people who need it. Imagine that. The bogeyman all dressed up to save souls and perform baptisms. I think about how he baptized my brother.
&&&Ben leaves and I tell Grandma he’s been here. He shouldn’t be allowed to come around here. I see the familiar set of her jaw, the anger at being forced to confront something she wants to neatly avoid. “Whatever happened was a long time ago and everyone needs to get over it. He deserves forgiveness.” I stare at her in disbelief. I will never get over it. I will never forgive.
&&&I grow up and Bob dies. Mom wants me to go to his funeral. I have no desire to do so. I hear Ben will be there. I don’t realize then that she’s afraid to face her family alone. She doesn’t realize then that she doesn’t owe Bob her grief.
&&&My Mom’s niece is going to prison. Turns out she’s a Bad Person, too. She’s going away for ten years. We are both in our mid-twenties. She won’t see her three-year-old daughter again until her daughter turns 13. I’m pregnant now. I vow she will never meet my son.
&&&I have my own children and avoid family gatherings. Too many bogeymen on the prowl. I don’t know who to trust. I still visit Grandma though. She still occasionally tries to bring up my cousins in an attempt to pretend that we’re one big happy family.
&&&I sit with Mom and my own two sons in the peace of my little condo. She’s told me stories about Bob’s drinking and drugging, his shady business deals, chasing Grandma around with a kitchen knife. She’s even told me about what he did to her sister.
&&&But what Mom hasn’t told me before, what she’s left out until now, is that Grandma knew about what he did to Mom’s sister. That she let him. “She left my sister alone with him on purpose when she was just a little girl so Bob could have his time with her.”
&&&I can hardly process what Mom’s saying. It’s a revelation that makes me feel physically ill. It threatens to undo my insides and scramble my mind. “How could she?” I rage.
&&&“Because it happened to her, too. And God knows what else.”
&&&The bogeyman’s got me now, some deep sickness reaching through my whole family line, all the way back to who-knows-when. It’s a demon that needs to be exorcised, a poison that needs to be expelled. I imagine myself puking, I want this ugly truth out of me, out of my psyche. But the bogeyman pulls me down deep, enmeshed with me like a tapeworm. A parasite passed off as the family pet.
&&&I cry, I rage, I accidentally nick myself with my razor in the shower floating off into the terror of my own knowing. It’s a big nick and the blood and the pain are deep. I know it will leave a scar. I am afraid the pain will kill me, that the bogeyman will squeeze the life out of me.
&&&So I wait for him to destroy me, for my mind to decide there’s no escape.
&&&But he doesn’t destroy me and the pain does not kill me. I go on living with only a scar from the nick.
&&&Something besides this awful tapeworm lives inside me, too. Something else spills forth from my mouth and runs hot through my fingertips. The bogeyman, I realize, can only live in shadow, the dark unspoken somewhere. But I don’t have to keep his secrets any longer. He’s the one who should fear me turning on the lights.
Elise Farotto is a regular non-fiction contributor to Witches Magazine and the author of three self-published novels. She is an active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and co-founder of The Coven Creative, a radical female artists’ collective based out of Los Angeles. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Cinematic Arts Film & TV Production from USC, her MBA from Pepperdine, and has participated in writing workshops with Dynasty Typewriter, Fine Arts Work Center, Iowa Summer Writing Festival, The Groundlings, and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.
Artist: Cody Klintworth