We watched from across the field while the search team continued ploughing through piles of clothes, counters lined with dirty dishes, stacks of flimsy magazines and newspapers. They scraped mysterious substances off dry wall and wood floors, unmoved by the stickiness, the smells, the obvious desperation. From the outside the house still looked good, reasonably so, though time had left its mark, weakening vinyl siding, fading once vibrant paint, tarnishing brass knobs, light fixtures, hinges. It was the inside that appalled people, the horror of madness left unchecked, left to race head first into wickedness, its dark canyon.
Many wondered how we got here, how a family that prided itself on good values and morals wandered so effortlessly into the halls of corruption, mingling there like gold card members. I never would have known anything was amiss, if Clara hadn’t called. I still received weekly calls from my Nana who repeated stories that made her feel good, that made her laugh. My niece, Clara, was on course to graduate high school and wanted to move upstate with us to attend college. Bridget, my oldest sister, was in an out, bringing groceries and transporting Nana to her appointments. Raelynn, the second oldest, was in charge of finances, making sure all bills were paid, all repairs were made. Had she been receiving Nana’s mail, we would have known sooner that we needed to intervene.
Ryan, my older brother, had come back, bringing with him a host of misfits who made themselves at home, turning the house upside down in search of valuables they might be able to sell, pills they might be able to pop. They bought junk cars and parked them on the lawn, tinkered with them for a while and then put For Sale signs on them, though they had no intentions of them.
“Why didn’t you tell me all those people had moved into Nana’s house?” I asked Clara.
“They stayed in the basement mostly and left out the back door until…”
“Who was with Nana while you were at school?”
Her silence made me gasp.
The city sent three notifications regarding excess garbage, threatening fines to be accessed per diem. But no one knew, and the garbage piles grew, more junk cars arrived, leaving barely enough space to reach the front door, and fumes from the basement made their way into the rest of the house, lingering in the yard long enough for passing neighbors to observe and report.
Clara was at school during the raid, but the news traveled fast, all the way to second period geometry. When the mumbles became coherent, she collected her things and ran out of class, off campus to a nearby sandwich shop where she called me, insisting she wait for me there though I was an hour and a half away.
“There’s going to ask me questions,” she complained.
“You can only tell them what you know,” I comforted. “You didn’t know what they were doing, right?”
The line was so quiet I had to make sure she was still there.
“Uncle Ryan asked me to tell some kids at school about…”
“Stop talking,” I interrupted, squeezing the tension headache spreading across my forehead.
“You didn’t take any with you to school, did you?”
She was quiet again, this time the sound of workers calling out orders echoing.
I hung up with Clara and called my sisters, telling Bridget to go and check on Nana. As I drove, the sound of the engine muted my thoughts, and my brain slipped into autopilot. When I pulled up to Cecil’s Sandwich Shop, Clara exited with a soda cup and a half-eaten BLT.
“Thank you for coming to get me,” she said, leaning in for a hug. “I don’t know what to do…did you talk to Nana?”
“Bridget is checking on her,” I said.
“Are we going back to your house?”
“No, I’m going to the house,” I turned onto Interstate Road.
“Why?” she leaned forward in the seat, stretching the seatbelt until it clicked.
“I need to see what’s going on, that’s why.”
She tapped her nails on the door, cleared her throat a bunch of times, and fiddled with her hair, pulling it onto her shoulder and then off again. Then she began scratching at her arms like she was being attacked by mosquitoes. Instead of going straight to the house, I parked on the other side of the field so we could watch what was happening, so I could decide my next steps. Lights flashed, dogs sniffed, handcuffs restrained. Rows of parked junk cars were unloaded, all the ingredients for chaos labeled. And Clara was still fidgeting.
While we weren’t looking, poison had made its way into her veins, and her fate was now in my hands, as I started the car and headed to the house.