's 2018 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Nelke (email)

“We are just empty vessels for the evil in the world to fill”, she would say. She used to smoke menthol cigarettes and squash them in a glass ashtray that was always overflowing. She enjoyed tobacco, as well as the glass of wine she would allow herself to drink every evening.

But she was never drunk like the others said. She did not need to.

I would sit on a corner and study, making no noise, and listen to her when she would talk, even if I could not understand half of the words she was saying. I would think up silent games to distract myself, always spying on her with the corner of my eye, looking for any sign in her lovely face that announced that a storm was coming.

Sometimes she would put out the cigarettes on my skin. The burnt marks were always in the tender creases of the armpits or behind the knees, hidden away from the kindergarten teacher or other kids’s eyes. I learned very fast not to scream when it happened. I learned to stay still and only move or talk when asked to, a tiny eidolon which felt no pain nor weariness, which felt nothing at all.

My aunt and uncle, the CPS, the neighbors, they all thought they had pinned down my mother as a superficially charming but bad person, as a deeply troubled addict, as someone who did not hold her life together. Like blind men blindly groping an elephant, they failed to grasp anything but facets of a whole.

Only I knew her. Of all the people who crossed her life, only I knew what she was. Beyond the cruelty, beyond the incoherence, there was a fractal depth that was only revealed in fleeting moments in private, in the dark. Her tone would change, she would have arguments with an unseen presence, or with herself, or with me, or rather with an abstract concept of me as a being.

“There is nothing good in you. Do you understand? But it’s not your fault”, she said, with a sadness in her eyes like a wound. “There isn’t anything good in anybody. However, you will do good things at some point. You will show them all how useless everything is.”

I played with other kids as instructed, even deriving some solace from it sometimes, but I never got too involved. Her lessons were deeper, more important.

In front of my teachers, the neighbors, her work colleagues, she shone like a beacon of happiness. I remember once, when we were at a yard sale for an acquaintance, and she would gush over the trinkets on display on a little coffee table, she turned back to wink at me. She always had these little coded gestures to let me know that it was bullshit, that the whole world was bullshit, except for what we shared.

At home she would smash the tableware against the wall during dinner if I took too long to eat. She would cry in long-drawn, messy sobs. Those evenings I would go to bed hungry.

“Something went wrong, an eternity ago. Before you or I were born. An ancient mechanism broke down. Now the world is spinning out of control and nobody can see it, nobody wants to see.”

At school I was a good student, albeit reserved. I was not popular amongst my peers, but I was not overtly bullied. There were other kids, fat kids, or effeminate kids, or kids the wrong color, who would cry and get visibly upset when hurt. I would never give a reaction to anybody.

When I was ten the decay started. Her inner tensions started cracking her spotless surface, so carefully tended to. Her laugh became too loud, too brittle. The light inside her flickered even more violently than usual, and she would get in fights with the cashiers, or with my teachers. She would call her estranged sister to leave her cruel voicemails.

One evening, she disappeared into the dark. It was December and, like in all winter months, she would be sunken in a pool of her own sadness. However, from the corner of my eye I could see that something was different that time. She did not scold me for a crooked line of writing, nor for the unorderly strands of hair in my ponytail. She was sobbing as she put on a raincoat and left, leaving the kitchen door open as a square of nothingness and wet. She never came back.

I held on for a week, until I exhausted the last package of pasta in the kitchen cabinets. I had looked under every piece of furniture and in every corner for lost coins, but our home was always spotless. I would still go to school, and talk to no one. A neighbor found me looking through her trash and called the cops.

The rest is a story for inspirational movies or happy videos to share on your Facebook wall. The doctors examined me and they were horrified at how small I was for an eleven year old, at the fading bruises and burnt marks in the hidden spots of my body. I was taken in by my mother’s older sister and her husband, and they doted on me with all the love and care I had been deprived of as a child.

It was in my aunt’s arms when I cried for the first time and many of the other times to come. I did not understand tenderness, for I had never been given it. I tried my best not to be a difficult child, but the language of love and warmth was alien to me.

Only with time I could really appreciate the titanic task my aunt and uncle took upon themselves with me. They took in the odd, scrawny kid of her horrible sister and worked so hard to make her open up and grow. I barely reacted to their gestures. I was quietly terrified of my mother coming back. It was also my deepest desire.

They found her body in a ditch when I was twelve.

My aunt hugged me, but I did not fret. What they found in there, half-submerged in a pond, a brittle thing that had undergone all the stages through saponification, was just an empty shell. I knew she was still somewhere.

However, I understood what the corpse meant; it was a sign, a coded message like the ones she always shared with me in public. I could relax and pretend to fit in my new life, I would be forgiven. She would come back whenever she needed to.

So I started hugging back and laughing and giving more than one-word answers to their questions. I gave the child therapist heartfelt replies about how my mother’s abuse made me feel. I played the girl grateful for a second chance in life.

And I failed. What else could be? I was a child.

One day, six months after taking me in, my aunt raised her voice and I broke down in real fear. When I went to the emergency therapist, the words came out on their own and I told him about my mother’s cruelty, her manipulation, her ramblings about the dark forces of the universe. I started crying and I could not stop.

Slowly, I started really learning the language of love and warmth, although it was not easy. Every kindness was a trap. My aunt and uncle were not rich, but they tried to ease my suffering with moral support and the occasional gifts. They lived in a little sunny house with a little porch, where I had a room in the first floor. They had two cars that they kept in a garage. They held jobs and fed me three times per day.

Life in the suburbs is reviled for a reason, but for me it was a nurturing environment to heal. I was not beyond help, the therapist told my family behind a closed door. My worsening behavior was a very good sign.

It was in that little house where I unlearned the routines of scurrying away to clean the house after homework, where I stopped hiding food under my pillow, where I learned that every mistake did not deserve pain. I was transferred to a smaller school, where the teachers treated me with consideration and the other kids did not know me at all. I could start anew.

As I took in the new life of light and routine, my mother’s figure changed in my mind. She became an evil entity, an abuser. The deep talks she had with me became the drunken ramblings of an alcoholic, and her secret code, manipulation to keep me silent. In order to adapt, I had to take the victim that everyone was throwing upon me, and I was even more horrified when I found out it fit me. At fourteen, coming back from school on a summer afternoon, I understood that my mother was dead for real.

This was not a relief. All my childhood my mother had been a god, an unescapable presence. Every step I took towards healing and normality was a betrayal to her. I will spare you the nightmares, the drugs that peppered my teenage years, and the yelling rows I had with my aunt and uncle, who by that time had adopted me. The only thing I can say is that, thanks to therapy and love, I made it whole to my eighteenth birthday.

I finished high school with exactly two friends, Josh and Tammy, both stoners, like me, a family who tolerated me and decent grades. It was at that time when I started being aware of my own luck, but refused to do anything about it. I moved out to waste my talent, as my parents said, working at a pizza shop. I lived in a study on top of the restaurant I worked in and spent my money in weed.

In the following years, the present stretched endlessly. I drifted away from Josh, but Tammy used to come often, and we would smoke and watch old horror movies. My dealer also came sometimes, and the three of us would eat leftover pizza. Other people came and went into my life, some lovers, acquaintances, the mild kind of enemies you can gather in existences such as mine. It was a shiftless, shitty kind of happiness. It was almost enough.

It was when I was twenty-three when my mother started creeping back into my life. I had managed to almost bury the guilt of surviving her; only in the occasional dreams she would appear as she used to, towering over me or sitting on her couch, drinking wine and telling me how there was no future.

When she came back, it was not in a dream. She seeped through the cracks of reality in the form of a familiar perfume that left me petrified in the street, or in the hurried steps of a passerby before turning a corner.

I quit smoking for a couple of weeks to ease the paranoia, but fragments of my mother still came to me. I gathered the courage to talk to my parents, with whom I kept a strained relationship, and they agreed to help me pay for a therapist.

Tammy helped a lot. Her own past was worse than mine, and she was good at reading when someone was not OK. Despite my diet of pizza and soda, I was a scrawny youth with a face covered with acne. At twenty-three, I looked sixteen. She went shopping with me to find clothes besides sweatpants and second-hand T-shirts, cut my hair, and generally helped me act like an adult.

I wish I could say therapy helped as well, but the shrink was one more in an endless line of kind faces and voices, who talked to me about trauma and ways to overcome difficulties. Maybe I was not good enough to stick to the routines they prescribed me; maybe my problem was different, but no amounts of healthy sleep and vegetables and meditation could exorcise my mother’s presence.

Her memories should have faded with time. She should have become a figure ever more insubstantial, always a part of me, but her significance always shrinking. However, I understood that it was the opposite: I was a part of her, a burning particle drifting away from a sun, and without her I was not special.

She came back at three a.m. on July, when I was drifting into sleep over my sweat-drenched bedsheets. The insulation in my room was awful and my fan had broken down last year, so I tried to sleep with my window open and the occasional cars would jolt me awake from an uneasy sleep.

She was there when I opened my eyes, almost invisible in the dim light of my open laptop, standing next to my bed as she would do whenever she wanted to watch me sleep. I laid there, paralyzed with fear, but she was not a vengeful ghost. That first night, she just stood there, until the first light of dawn came through the half-open shutters and she vanished slowly, like a puff of smoke.

I told the story to Tammy that afternoon, disguising it as a dream, and she took me for drinks and dance. “You should get out more”, she said. In the last months, she had slowly got her shit together, namely she had dumped her on-and-off boyfriend, found a decent job at a hipster store downtown, and smoked and drunk way less than she used to. She had bailed on some of our usual evenings together, although I had barely noticed until then.

She looked wonderful. At the club, her heavy ponytail hit her shoulders while she danced and I shuffled awkwardly, underdressed in my sweatpants. She confided me that she had started dating a co-worker, Ronnie, and we both laughed at the name. For the first time in months, I had a good time.

I came back home after one too many drinks, exhausted but happy. The air of the night was cool, but heat came up from the pavement. My keys jingled as I opened the door of my apartment on top of the pizza store.

She was there again, sitting by the bed. My normal reaction would have been fleeing, but I was drunk, and joyful, and angry at her apparition after so many years. I lunged towards her with the keys in my hand, roaring some incoherent curse. She collapsed under my hands and I fell down with her. My knees and hands sunk into her.

She was soft, like pizza dough that has been left out for too long in a hot day, and she smelled also vaguely fermented. What I thought were clothes and hair were just folds in the formless matter that was her body.

She had no face. I put my hands into the blank mound of the head and unmade it with punches, scratches, pulling pieces of it, looking for a center, something I could hold in and grasp, but there was nothing. At the end, I was kneeling and panting in a puddle of white matter that liquefied and evaporated into the air with the sun.

She kept coming. I managed to move to a room in a slightly less shitty place, but, after waking up the first night with her faceless head looming over me, I gave up the little hope I had she would leave.

She never moved when I was awake, although sometimes I would wake up choking in dough, with her hugging me or pressing herself against my body. She would always evaporate at dawn.

I tried staying awake and outside all night, but she would always be there somewhere, peeking from a corner as a mannequin posed in a comically sneaky pose, or sitting down on a stool of a forgotten bar. I could not bear the thought of her following me around, so I decided to stay home in the evenings.

In a perverse way, her watching over me helped me get back on track. If I wanted to mock the world like she did, I had to be fit. I started going to bed at decent times, to exercise, to eat well. My appearance improved, although a part of it might just have been a change of attitude. I was special.

Meanwhile, Tammy and Ronnie had become an item. I met them sometimes. I think Tammy wanted to check on me out of pity, but, as they saw my apparent improvements, their texts started sounding less forced, and they invited me to their social gatherings.

Ronnie was a lively young man who always wore beanies to hide his receding hairline. He laughed often and liked to hold Tammy’s hand to his chest in a parody of a gentleman.

We slept together for the first time in a club’s bathroom, after Tammy had gone home. He looked troubled afterwards, but he was waiting for me after I finished my shift the following week.

He brought me cigarettes and a disgusting, mouthwash-tasting liquor he had brought from his trips through Europe. None of us felt bad about Tammy; me, because I did not care about anything that was not my mother; he, because for him cheating was his drug of choice.

When he was sleeping, his head on my chest, I could see the white oval of my mother’s face in the darkest corner of my room. He left in the morning. I did not invite him for breakfast.

While I was fucking my best friend’s boyfriend, I found my own lover. He had nothing remarkable except a certain softness around him. His name was Dave. I even moved in with him and introduced him to my family.

I left him after a while. I also left Ronnie. He found another fling almost immediately. I sent Tammy an anonymous text telling of his infidelities, and she dumped him. I moved in with her for the following months. My mother watched over me every night when I was sleeping on her couch.

I started talking to her in soft whispers in order not to wake up Tammy. I always racked my brain for insights that could impress her. She never gave me anything back, except for her faint yeasty smell. I held her stump of a hand and waited as it dissolved into mine.

I moved back with my aunt and uncle. By that time, I had stopped calling them parents again. I have to admit I showed them a certain coldness, but they were bland, colorless. They assisted me, and I gave them back niceness, but it was transactional. I had stopped caring about them.

After two months living with them I could understand why my mother became estranged from my aunt. She was a simple, red-faced woman with a job caring for kids and little conversation beyond gossip and the contents of her Facebook profile. I met Tammy occasionally and I would show her the memes my aunt would share on her feed. I remember laughing to tears at the Minions.

As for Tammy, she stopped doing well. Dumping Ron had hurt her more than it had hurt him, and it showed. She became manic and fragile, and she would call me every week to dance the night away. I followed her every time, and at the club I would always see a glimpse of the thing that looked like my mother peeking from a corner, or standing at the dance floor, untouched by the party-goers.

Besides from that, the thing left me mostly alone. I would wake up sometimes with the soft mass hugging my tightly, or choking on the dough, but it did not resist when I pushed her back, or punched her, or kicked her.

I found a slightly better job and I started saving. Not only from my own money; my aunt and uncle always used to keep their money in the same hideaways. After my aunt’s stroke, my uncle became too absorbed taking care of her almost full-time to notice when the money was gone. It was only small amounts, ten dollars, five, a twenty-dollar bill rolled and hidden behind the microwave. However, it added up. I kept it all in my bank account, and did not touch it.

Some men came and went. I always went to their places and stay awake after the deed, with the thing looming over me. Often I would steal their stuff, sometimes their cash, or their electronics. Sometimes pictures or notebooks. I would always throw my loot into the trash, except for the money.

In the time until my thirties, my uncle dried up, taking care of my aunt. He was always a small, kind man, and looking after his wife had sapped whatever sweet matter seemed to fill him up. I lived in my old room and handed him a bunch of bank notes every month as a rent. He would take them, not knowing that the money was his own. He died in the toilet.

That was my wake-up call. I had been putting off adulthood for a decade. That night, after I came from the lawyer’s, I beat the shit out of the thing that resembled my mother and I laughed while doing it. I did it because I could.

I ditched Tammy, who by then she was half-dating another loser, and started looking for friends. It worked, and very fast I was part of a small group of ex-students who just came back into town after finishing the Uni, all of them unemployed. I was five years older than the oldest of them and my shitty job as a bartender made me cool.

My mother kept me grounded. She would never talk, but in our conversations I would imagine her voice as she always sounded after she drank a glass of wine. She had been right, after all. People were stupid, the whole universe was pointless. I would repeat her words, or words that sounded like hers, to her stupid doughy face.

I started dating Chris out of a dare of other member of the friend group. He was neither attractive nor unattractive. He was soft and, in some aspects, formless. That made me more attracted to him.

It was to him that I revealed for the first time my story of abuse, and when I finished talking, there were tears in his eyes. He hugged me, and I wanted to slap him. He called me strong and survivor. How could he be so wrong? After that, I realized that I was truly alone in this world. My only real companion came to me every night, and she was a ghost, a bunch of nothing.

He moved in with me, into my aunt and uncle’s house, where I was still living. He sat by my side and held my hand when he told me that we needed to redecorate the house and empty the closets to remove the presence of my family and make it “our home”. He asked me what stuff I wanted keep as a keepsake, but I said nothing. In their last years, my family had been a sort of living ghosts as well. My uncle lived for my aunt, spoon-feeding her, putting her in front of the television so she could stare at it with dead eyes, walking her in her wheelchair so she could stare at the birds with dead eyes. I barely noticed then gone, how could I even care about their things?

Chris became the perfect house-husband. He cooked and cleaned, taking the place of my family. He had a part-time job as a designer which helped him earn a pittance, and the two-thirds of the salary I told him I earned were enough to keep us afloat, even in difficult times. We had my house in property, he had his run-down car, and with that we became the most affluent of the friend group. Not that this meant too much.

I made him laugh, it was so easy. He was charmed by my wit, he said. We watched movies together. He was happy with so little.

Soon after he moved in my mother started to change, or rather to decay. She moved in small, repetitive jerks, as if she was trying to wave hello or goodbye. The first time I saw her, twitching and quivering by the moonlight, I almost screamed, but it did not do anything besides her frantic gestures.

She appeared to me more formless every day, but with her deterioration came mobility. Soon she was little more than a shapeless mound of white matter that wobbled blindly around the room or in the corridor. It pushed itself against doors to open them. When I stayed awake at nights I would hear her rustling, and imagined her going up and down the stairs, leaving a slimy trail that would disappear in the morning.

He never heard it. That made me realize that he was the one to fulfill my mission, to achieve what my mother could not: to raise a child aware of the evil in the world, and not leave her until I was sure that she was worthy.

Hayley came as if on cue. Chris was over the moon with my pregnancy, not planned but also not avoided. He immediately started looking for a better job “to provide for us”. My belly swell with time and he caressed it and gave me massages. I quit my job at the bar, because I could not stand for so many hours. My mother became almost frantic, breathing heavily, growing like a soufflé in the oven. In her own way, she was more excited than I was.

A child is clay, a vessel, a hungry and all-consuming nothing. It cries for mysterious reasons, and cries and cries all through the night. I stood awake breastfeeding her, with my mother making soft cooing noises next to us, extending delicate tendrils to caress the baby’s cheeks. I gave it the care it needed to stay alive.

Hayley was a decent-looking baby. I was not ugly, not since my acne cleared up and I started dressing decently, well in my twenties. Chris was also average. She took after both of us, growing to become a perfectly forgettable toddler. I talked to her every day, telling her the truths my mother told me.

“You are worthless now.” I used to tell her. She replied with meaningless vocalizations. However, her eyes followed my every move, and she would listen intently, with the solemnity of a child.

“Food and shit are the same.” I said when feeding her.

Chris suspected nothing. He came back home everyday, wearing his slightly rumpled suit and tie. I saw him and his affection as if he was an exotic but cute animal.

When she needed punishment, I was swift and disciplined, but I was never as extreme as my mother was; that was her mistake. As if she was trying to fix it, she would follow Hayley and I around the house, even during the day, in order to be close to us.

Raising a child was exhausting, a full-time job. No wonder my mother went mad.

I will spare you the details. People are squeamish. By the time she was five, she was better behaved than every one of her peers. At home, she would not move from her corner until she was ordered to. She never cried or demanded anything. She just listened, and watched with her big dark eyes. In the night, she would sleep hugging the beating mass that my mother had become.

I do not know what tipped Chris off. I never took him for dumb, at least not for much dumber than everyone else. I knew he would disapprove of my child raising methods, so I kept them a secret. However, one day I woke up into an empty house. He had taken his belongings, and Hayley.

My mother was not there either. I looked for her, but during the day she never came often. However, this time the home felt different. Hollow. As if she had never been there.

I ran to a mirror and looked for my mother, but I could not find a single trace of her. In the contour of my lips, in the evil rictus of my mouth, in the odious shine of my eyes, there was no one but me.